Short Story: The Proverbial Hand-Grenade

Private First Class, Benjamin Harrison; named for America’s 23rd president that Ben’s father found an inexplicably queer fascination with. Why, no-one by the elder Harrison was sure. Even then, it was doubtful a sufficient explanation could be gleaned from the man’s meticulous, daily research and record-keeping of the long forgotten president. What is a matter of public-record however, is the intense sense of duty and honor in the young Private.

All through his life he was teased; from his rigid-postured, vegetable-eating youth, to his JROTC, fatigue-clad teenage years. Life wasn’t a living hell for Ben, at least not between the off-school hours. Otherwise, for his first decade of schooling he suffered the curious ire of his classmates that somehow formed insults from the half-historically honored words of “President-boy,” “Chief Harry-son,” and even “Army-man.”

Such is the crude humor and reckless abandon of youth that these insults, formed of prestigious titles, turned to weapons of psychological warfare. In their way, they were harmless to all, but Ben wasn’t everyone. He was a person; living, feeling, and with a sense of duty and honor that only made him feel worse when he’d decided to devote his life to protecting and serving his country. Unfortunately, grade-school and junior-high were made all the more intolerable by the occasional history course or class that focused on US presidents.

Each year, Ben’s father would dutifully speak to classes about former-president Harrison. As part of a locally-famed historic society, and due to his knowledge of the aforementioned, he was called in without fail to give small lectures each year. Generally occurring just after the winter break, it made Ben loathe the month of January even more than the normal boys whom were simply peeved at the return of scheduled classes.

Thankfully, most of that subsided in high-school. Joining JROTC gave Ben a sounding board of peers with whom he could sympathize. Having been groomed to follow in his father’s boots and join the service, finding others with a similar goal made life all the more bearable. But again the fickle nature of humans eroded much of his enthusiasm. Contrary to intuition, a boy clad in camouflage fatigues was easier to see in the halls of an American High-School than a sore thumb.

Ben and his JROTC-mates were often the targets of the vile underbelly of the school. Being six-foot tall, crew-cut, and peach-fuzzed didn’t help. He was already gangly, lean, and looked weak; perfect prey for the undesirables that even the ‘heads and jocks disliked. Fortunately for Ben, most of the bullying was done on a psychological level– that curious battle-field seemingly isolated to schools, distant war-zones, and clearance shoe-sales.

The only, minor incident that turned physical could not have come at a better time for Ben, nor ended more favorably. The bully, clearly insecure about his vertically-challenged stature, taunted and tormented for a week before he got physical. He’d cornered Ben and a pair of JROTC girls against a locker. The girls were the usual JROTC types; slightly more butch than the others, average-looking, and one more pudgy than the off-brand, preppy-girls that roamed the halls like packs of parental-wallet succubi. As a result, their confidence was less than stellar, their protests shot down with quick, monosyllabic insults masked as swears.

The aggression was met with a firm tongue, and more rigid posture than Ben had ever manifested. He made himself a target, threw himself on the proverbial hand-grenade to shield his friends from the explosion about to be unleashed.

Indeed, Ben’s quick quip back drew the bully’s attention. He spat a swear with a shove at Ben’s chest. Ben was more limber than he appeared, like a cobra raised up and ready to lunge. The second shove only connected to give Ben his opening. In a flurry of arms and the thrust of a fist, the boy flipped through the air. He landed on the ground, hands clutched at his throat, to gasp for air. Ben’s first girlfriend was the pudgier girl present that day. They lasted all through high-school, her hero and his love.

That proverbial self-sacrifice was repeated years later in a middle-eastern desert. On sweep-and-clear orders, PFC Ben Harrison and his unit came under heavy fire. Cornered inside a bombed-out brick building, laid out like a series of low-hurtles and half-walls around them, they exchanged fire with native insurgents. That day was hardly Ben’s first taste of war, but unfortunately, it would be his last in-country.

They spent over a thousand rounds, pinned down by surplus-Soviet AK fire. The irony that these bullets had been stockpiled to kill Americans during the Cold War was not lost on Ben so long as he thought about it. That day, he did. In fact, he thought about a lot of things; home, his first love, sex with her, beers, smokes…. Everything good and bad seemed to trickle on a steady IV drip through his body while Russian weapons sang songs of middle-eastern pride.

Even so, nothing could have prepared him for what came next. Biggs, the guy with the 249-SAW, was encamped just below a rise of destroyed brick and mortar. He had just enough room to roll to his right, sit upright, and slap the SAW around to reload its box-mag. By the time it finished screaming “Die Motherfucker Die!” Biggs was already sitting up to reload.

That’s when it happened. Even then Ben saw it in a play-by-play. He was holed up a few paces down from Biggs, in a piece of wall still tall enough to stand behind. He peered out, saw one of those assholes across the way had detached to rush along side a fuel truck in front of them. It was a stupid place to take cover in a fire-fight, even Ben knew that. One stray round, a spark; that was all it would take to ignite the fucker, blow it and everything in a few hundred feet sky-high– assholes included.

But this particular “insurgent” wasn’t thinking about that. Instead, he lobbed an old-war pineapple grenade through the air. Ben was already in motion when it landed beside his left foot. He dove through a hail of gun-fire, tackled Biggs further sideways. It wasn’t enough for the would-be savior.

To say he walked away from the war would be a misnomer. In truth, he was wheeled away. While the majority of his unit had survived largely unscathed– Biggs the victim of minor shrapnel and facial burns– Ben lost his legs. Both of them. His lower limbs had been torn, shredded to bloody-wet, fleshy nibs by the pineapple. Then, whatever was left had been char-broiled by the heat, the left-over bones pulverized by the shock-wave.

He left for war over six-foot tall, returned two shins and feet shorter. There was a purple heart that came by mail, a lot of doctor’s visits and surgeries, and eventually, some nimble prosthetics that– with therapy– allowed Ben to walk again. There was no welcome home ceremony, no parade, no politicians commending him for his service or sacrifice. Just his parents and extended family; the only ones to notice he’d left, returned, or the pain he’d endured.

One night, he walked into a gas station to buy a pack of cigarettes. He waited patiently in line, posture rigid as ever, behind a man that fidgeted and scratched like a meth-head. In his little town, this particular disease was becoming rampant. There were too many two-bit meth-makers living in trailers on rural land, brewing up cat-piss and chemicals. It had been hard enough to return home half a man, but returning home to this was worse.

It was no secret to any casual observer that this particular man was ready to crack. He needed a fix, would get it however he could. So, of course, he decided to hold up the gas station. And being the man he was, of course Ben dutifully kept his cool, waited for the man to turn away with an arm full of money. Ben stuck out a single arm that clothes-lined the man as he made to sprint. Then, he was on the ground from a hit to the throat, unable to breathe, money fluttering to the ground all around him.

Ben retrieved the gun and held it on him while the clerk called the police. His metal leg pinned the man to the ground as their eyes met.

“Ben?” The junkie asked through his balsam wood teeth, and pale, scabbed skin.

Ben stared at the man for a long moment. It took time, and a firm, prosthetic foot to stir the images in Ben’s mind. Before long he realized this wasn’t the first time he’d bested the man before him. Ricky was the same punk-kid he’d laid out all those years ago.

“You’re going to Jail, Ricky,” Ben finally said.

Clearly Ricky wasn’t right in his mind, too focused on the prosthetic that held him in place, “What happened to ‘yer legs, man?”

“War happened, Ricky,” Ben replied.

Ricky descended into a mental fit that concluded the conversation with incessant rambles, a mental state akin to psychosis. The police finally arrived to thank Ben for his quick thinking and service. A moment later, Ricky was escorted out to a cruiser as he wailed back at Ben.

“I’m sorry, Ben. Sorry for everything. Shouldn’t’ve…. shouldn’t’ve picked on you.” His head was shoved down, his body forced into the cruiser, “You’re the better man, Ben.” The door shut and he screamed through it, “You’re the better man!”

Ben watched the car roll away, Ricky still screaming that tell-all phrase. Ben had heard it all his life, been told it by everyone he knew; be the better man. When faced with bullies; be the better man. When angry or fuming; be the better man. When called to war; be the better man. When life shits on you; be. The. Better. man.

All his life he’d been the better man, lost friendships, love, even his legs ’cause of it. But something about watching his old bully, now turned to a fiend and junkie, being hauled away gave him perspective. If that mentally disturbed man could, in a moment of clarity, find peace in Ben’s betterness, the man himself had no excuse.

In a decisive moment, Ben turned away from the gas station to climb into his car. He didn’t care about smoking, killing himself slowly by the hit. Instead, he was ready to be finished proving himself– both to himself and the world– and start living. He’d thrown himself on the proverbial hand-grenade for the better of others, but was not ready to do it for himself. That needed to change.

He put his car in gear, and drove for home, chasing a setting sun and a better life.

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