If he were to die, it seemed wrong he had to do so on the dirt. But he did. Nolan died on Iraq sand, leg blown off from a landmine. “My leg. My leg’s gone, John,” he said, eyes so wide they could have almost contained the desert. “Find my leg,” he said. “Find it and reattach it for me, John.”
Two years later I’m stateside restoring my boat, sitting in the cabin trying to put the engine back together. I held a screwdriver and leftover screw.
“Stupid screw came out easily but now it has no place to go back to,” I mumbled.
“Keep trying,” a small voice said from behind. I turned to see a boy of maybe eleven, standing on my boat and staring at me, tussled blonde hair they would never allow in the marines.
“You know about engines?” I said.
He smiled. “I know about boats. My uncle’s a fisherman.”
“For sure, kid.” I turned back to the engine. This screw has to belong somewhere. Has to.
“You a fisherman?” the boy asked.
I banged a pipe with the screwdriver, solved nothing but relieved a bit of pressure.
The boy pulled red and blue plastic blocks from his pockets. “Then why you working on a boat?”
An innocent enough question for a boy; but not an innocent answer.
“More complicated than finding a place for a lonely screw?”
Funny kid. I looked at the blocks in his hand. “What you got there?”
He held them up. “Lego. I like to put things back together.”
If only Nolan’s body could have been put back together. “Not all things can be rebuilt.”
The boy nodded as if in some peculiar way he understood my pain. Then he switched his attention to my vessel. “Is it your boat?”
Nolan had always dreamed of being a fisherman. Guess that moved me to buy the vessel. “It’s kind of my fisherman friend’s boat, too. Nolan.”
“Is he under deck?”
He’s six feet under dirt in a coffin draped in a flag. “He’s under something.”
The boy traced his fingers along the engine as if it were Lego he wanted to reassemble. “Nolan know how to fix boats?”
I rested the screwdriver down, took a breath. “He did.”
Boy screwed his face in confusion. “He forget?”
Boy looked down, rubbed his chin. “That’s too bad, mister. Dying ain’t good.”
Simple truth. “No, it ain’t.”
Boy looked up. “He die in a fishing accident?”
“A walking accident.”
The boy sat down, back straight like he was listening to his fifth-grade teacher. “How do you die walking?”
The boy seemed like a fine young lad. Not sure if he was ready for this conversation. I kept silent, only touched the tag around my neck. “Again, it’s complicated.”
“He die in a war?”
An attentive young man. “You see the dog tag?” I said.
He nodded enthusiastically. “Yep.”
Boy’s alright. “Yeah well, you guessed right. It’s Nolan’s.”
“Nolan your friend?”
Eyes so inquisitive. “The fisherman?”
I smiled. “Yeah, that’s him.”
My eyes drifted over the engine and saw a tiny hole that looked like a place for the screw; I tried to fit the silver piece but it wouldn’t go, didn’t belong.
The boy peered ever onward. “You liked Nolan cause he liked to fish?”
Those slimy, scaly, slippery things? “Nah, never get me near a line. The reason I liked Nolan has to do with me, big teeth, and two Dobermans in Iraq.”
“The dogs bit you?”
Returning to me in a vicious flash was their guttural snarls, ratty fur, foaming jaws. “One had my calf.” I pulled my pant leg up and revealed the teeth marks: all purple, scars from the stitching.
Boy’s face screwed like he ate a lemon. “Eeewww.”
I chuffed a laugh, then showed him the scars on my left forearm, deep, permanent. “The other dog had my arm. I punched it and punched it…” I took a breath. “Thought I was gonna be dog food.”
“Then Nolan came.”
I nodded. “Then Nolan came.”
Boy narrowed one eye like a detective, probing. “Nolan shoot the dogs?”
I shook my head. “No, Nolan wouldn’t do that. He kicked their snouts then threw his fruit bar right in their faces. Unbelievably they took off with it.”
Boy rubbed his nose. “Most men in war would shoot dogs.”
“Most would,” I said. “But Nolan was a medic, never shot anyone. Wouldn’t even shoot dogs unless he absolutely had to — That’s why I liked him.”
Boy scratched his head. “Cause he liked animals?”
I looked the boy right in the eye. “Cause he wasn’t a killer.”
We both fell into a brief silence where the waves gently slapped against the hull, a few seagulls squawked in the distance, and the boat squeaked against the rubber tire on the jetty. The boy was considering my words. Harsh for a boy to have to ponder such things, but hell, I saw boys his age holding rocket launchers.
Boy turned the back of my hands over until he revealed my palms, examined them, examined the many scars. “You a killer?”
I drew a breath of seafresh air into my lungs, a breath that some men I met would never take in. “Yeah.”
“How many you kill?”
“Too many.” I should really tell this boy something more than that, that it felt wrong, that it haunts me, that those men I killed cannot be put back together like Lego, but explaining it feels like shovelling dirt in a hole that can’t be filled. I looked at him and repeated, “Too many.”
I tried fitting the screw into another hole in a bracket on the engine, and the screw fit, but I dropped the screwdriver. I huffed, tricky little things.
The boy put down his Lego, smiled, then handed me the screwdriver.
Clint Lowe writes short stories while working on novels. Watch his latest vids on writing at Write Heroes.