The conclusion to The Old Tired Veteran…unedited…

For a time, we won’t have to. Even though Charlie will keep yearning for another war. “It’s all we’re good for,” Charlie says. “We do the unthinkable for the ungrateful. They rest easy at night because we war against the demons they create. It’s a circle see. There are no demons until they come along and think up the boogie man. Then, they need someone to hunt and kill ‘em. They sent us to do it. One hand wash another, and soon we’re all covered with blood.”

I’d never say this to Charlie, but he could use some therapy. ‘The herb’s my therapist,’ he’d say. His hazel eyes would fog over and for a while he’d remember who he used to be, prior to the blood and the screams of the damned.

I was a milk man, worked at a dairy, spent one hundred hours a week stacking product in a cooler and never made enough money to keep the bills paid and food on the table. War came calling, and I answered the phone. The government threw money at me then. ‘Here’s some hazard pay to go with your housing allowance. Oh, you live overseas now, eh? Here’s some more money, just because. You’re heading to the sand? Here’s a little extra to justify the missed birthdays, forgotten friendships, and ruined marriage.”

It’s funny how fast I went from perpetually broke to fully flushed with extra cash. Who knew killing people and destroying your soul paid so well? Charlie says we’re uniformed mercenaries. I don’t know what that means, he speaks gibberish sometimes, but I think what he means is we’re no better than common mercs who only war to get paid.

He might have a point. Most of us over there came from poor families, and war provided us with more money than most of us held at any one time prior to joining. I met few who joined to ‘serve their country’ or because ‘they believed in the cause.’ My first deployment, I considered myself a true believer, but it didn’t last long. Every deployment after that was in pursuit of money and ‘benefits.’

“Benefits,” Charlie scoffs. “Like them blown out knees you got. Or that bad back of yours. Are you referring to that incessant ringing in your ears, or the cancerous smoke you inhaled from the burn pits? It could have something to do with those achy shoulders of yours. What benefits do you speak of, Freeman?”

I stay quiet when Charlie gets like this. He’s entitled to his opinion, after all, he went over there and fought too. From the porch he packs his pipe and inhales his therapy and slowly blows the smoke out over my flowerbeds.

“You ever ask yourself, in those moments when you’re alone looking at yourself in the mirror, was it worth it?”

“Yeah,” I said, waiting for the drug to calm my friend down and lead him into a sublime state of melancholy. He sighed and closed his eyes. “It wasn’t worth it. Look around, Freeman. The land we ‘defended’ has gone the way of the dodo birds.”

I say nothing to my friend. There’s nothing to say. We rock in our rockers, Charlie taking a hit off his drug of choice every now and then, and we watch as the sun rises in the east. “I’ve got cancer,” Charlie says to me, as he looks out over the field at nothing in particular. “The doctor at the prison says it’s bad. I told him not to worry about it, I’ve got the herb on my side. He said I might want to get things in order before I meet the Lord.”

“I’m sorry, Charlie. That’s rotten luck. You going to the VA for treatment?”

“What’s the point? Washington will convene a ‘hearing’, wasting taxpayer money is more like, and the Republicans will blame the Democrats, and the Democrats will blame the Republicans, and slavery, and climate change, and nothing will get done. Nah, I’ll stay home and die.”

“At least you won’t have to fight the next war, “I say to him. Charlie laughs and says, “Look at you out here finding the silver lining in all this crap.”

We share a laugh and talk about better days. Silence falls over us, like it’s wont to do when two souls are comfortable with each other, and we continue to rock. My thoughts drift back to friends we never got to say goodbye to. Charlie quits rocking, his eyes fixed on a barren tree that stands alone out in the middle of the field.

“How long did the doc give you, bud?”

Charlie doesn’t answer. My heart aches as I reach over and check his pulse. Hot tears burn down my cheeks. Charlie is gone. I lean back in my rocker and shove myself back and forth in the cool morning air. The call of crows sounds down in the holler in front of my cabin, and I smile. It’s probably Charlie letting me know he’s okay, and that life is better on the other side.

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