Doc the Fifth
By Brandon Jennings
The night we demo’d the school we joked that maybe we should call this fifth doc “Nurse” or “Medic” or “Doc the fifth” that way once the Iraq War started slipping into the cracks between our misfiring neurons there’d be something unique about him to help us remember this doc was different from the rest. The joke wasn’t funny, just spent clock ticks to help us wind the day up as it ran on.
Dead children littered the scratched tiles, congealed red-black blood crusted on foreheads and caked into open eyes. “Dead Haji kids all over the place,” Doc had said. And, “No shit,” swelled up around him from all angles. “No target gets a pass because there are dead bodies inside,” someone told him. Doc mumbled that he wished he’d joined the Air Force and then checked each kid for vitals.
We smacked C4 putty on support beams, onto three strategically positioned drums of diesel. We stabbed primers into the putty and ran wires from the building out into the desert where sand and wind smacked us hard, wave after wave, and shoved us off course. When we all made it to the Hum-V, Doc wasn’t with us. So we went back out to find him.
He was in the school knelt beside a corpse, had his hand cupped over its mouth. “This kid’s breathing,” Doc said. But the kid wasn't breathing. There was no reason for any of the dusty corpses with holes in their heads to suck in anything other than the fire and shrapnel that would soon consume the building.
Doc sorted through his pack while we re-velcroed our kevlars, tapped full magazines against our helmets, or wiped the dust from our goggle lenses. There had been hope that we’d make it back to base before the storm became too thick to navigate, but because Doc hadn’t moved his ass, we’d have to hole up in the Hum-V while sand smoothed over the tracks we'd left behind. Doc wiped filth from the boy’s forehead with an alcohol pad and the tip of his thumb slipped into the hole in the boy’s skull. Someone said, “That ain’t helping,” and sand bursts rapped at the building’s metal walls while Doc shook the dead boy and then dropped him onto the tiles and said, “Fuck it.”
We vanished into the rushing sand and followed the wires to the shelter of the Hum-V. Once inside we passed the det-box from soldier to soldier, clipped the metal from our spools and twisted the severed wire-ends onto the prong. When it was rigged up, we handed it to Doc. Let him press it, we said. He stared at the box, tapped the metal with his index finger a couple times and then someone said, “Kill it, Doc. The hard part's over.”
Doc mashed the button with his grimy thumb. The ground thrummed and the Hum-V's shocks faintly creaked. We couldn’t see anything, but there was fire and the splintered remains of corpses. Those things are always there.
“That's it?” he asked.
“Yeah,” we said. “The storm swallowed the worst of it.”
Wind howled at us for the rest of the night, and Doc used the knife on his Leatherman to scrape filth from beneath his fingernails. Black ball after black ball curled and tumbled to the Hum-V floor as he worked the dirt free. He blew out the loose gunk and eyeballed the whiteness with his Maglite. A push too far pierced the quick of his thumb and blood trickled out from beneath the nail, spread from the center and flowed onto the pad. He smeared the blood on his pant leg and leaned back into his seat. Somebody tossed a gauze pad that landed on his lap, and Doc flicked it to the floor. He told us if the thumb didn’t stop bleeding on its own by the time the storm had passed, he’d cut the damn thing off. We all laughed and then bullshitted about wives and girlfriends, about how we couldn’t understand why people would fight for such an ugly country, about the sand that buried itself deep inside the webbing of our toes.
The next night while the rest of us made morale calls, Doc lopped his thumb off with a hatchet. Maybe he thought he’d never get it clean, or saw blood that wasn't there, or didn’t want to live connected to a thumb that had touched a dead kid’s brain. All, some, or none of those might be true.
What is fact is that Doc never rode with us again, and we never named another doc. We just finished our time together—us and doc after doc after doc. Then we all went home, wherever that was, and waited in silence, hoping to die before we'd ever have to see each other again.
Doc the Fifth was awarded 1st place in Curbside Splendor's 2010 Winter Writing Award Opportunity for Short Stories
About Brandon Jennings