THURSDAY: Roger That!

BY CHRIS GW NEILL

Copyright is held by the author.

ROGER WAS the kind of guy who always had a big smile for everyone. People I didn’t really like at all, he would see something good in them.

“She’s had a difficult time of it,” he would sympathize and laugh kindly.

“You better get your head down, buddy,” I heard him say.

I squatted down immediately at the sound of his voice.

Why?

I don’t know.

Roger always had that effect on me.

A spray of bullets smashed the glass casing overhead. Bits of sharp glass fell everywhere.

“It’s okay. You’ve got your battle gear on. It’ll protect you. Now move!”

So I moved.

Good thing too. The next round of bullets filled the cubicle that I had just ducked into.

He was a funny guy — Roger; made me laugh at the silliest things, the strangest times.

I remember the first time I met him. It was at a barbecue. My place, lots of friends over. He plopped a big, juicy T-bone down in front of me — best of the lot. Snow peas and asparagus set on the side. I like snow peas and asparagus.

“That way. Quickly. Stay low!”

I felt the urgency in his voice. Not scared. Not like me; just urgent.

I bolted through the broken corridor. Bombs had torn the flat roof open in one corner — right down the side; five storeys deep — open to daylight.

“Not that way!” Roger cautioned. “Too bright. Stay in the dark; down and left.”

I obeyed him like a recruit listening to a drill sergeant yelling orders. Roger didn’t yell. He just talked. He liked to talk.

He had talked me into applying for a corporate job at a firm that managed paper. Huge paper rolls for novels and newsprint. All kinds of paper — art paper, crafts, envelopes, office supplies, notebooks. Paper!

It would never have occurred to me. I was a history major. I had a doctorate degree.

“It’s not worth the paper it’s written on,” Roger had laughed.

“Hard right, then back left; head for the shaft.”

I followed his lead with my eyes in a dead focus: dim glow of daylight through broken office windows: doors hanging from twisted hinges; the smell of burnt carpet and paint everywhere.

“Stop!”

I stopped.

Back against the wall; hand gun up and ready. My breathing was too loud. Slow, slow, get control — one deep breath.

There.

Now, listen.

Roger smiled at me brightly, proud of me. He had shiny, white teeth.

He had smiled at me like that at the barbecue.

“Just the way you like it,” he had said, looking at the T-bone. Shiny, white teeth all aglow and friendly.

“Why not?” I had answered, noting everyone around me at the barbecue enjoying themselves, taking a break from lousy jobs, office politics, labour for bad pay.

“Don’t be so glum.” Roger popped open a beer and laid it down before me.

“Thanks,” I lightened up a bit.

“Thank yourself.” He smiled.

“My favourite beer,” I replied, the hint of a smile wanting to break free.

“Go now,” he whispered with a nod.

I slipped around the corner to my left, handgun held tight and firm, half crouch, on my toes in those combat boots. I could feel Roger right there with me — not scared. Just urgent.

“There’s the shaft. It has a maintenance ladder up to the roof. You light the blue flare on the helipad. A rescue team will come.”

I think he repeated that to me about six times before I actually made the dash toward the busted elevator shaft. Maybe I wasn’t convinced. It was like the paper thing. It seemed like such a crazy thing to do.

“You need this,” Roger had said. “You’ll make it.” He had answered to my griping that, no one’s going to hire a history prof to manage paper distribution.

“Yes, they are!” He had said. “It’s a good job. It pays well. You can read all the history you like at home.” Then he smiled; like he was laughing at himself. He knew it was crazy too, but I was laid-off every summer with a PhD on sessional appointment. I was more indebted to the bank each year; and each year, more miserable.

“Quit being so hard on yourself,” Roger had said; then that big, bright smile. Like he knew it was cliché, but so what!

I tripped over the first steel beam sticking sideways out of the elevator flooring. I got up right away and grabbed the ladder. I needed both hands to climb so I stuck the gun back in its holster.

“What if I need it?” I asked Roger.

“Then you’ll use it,” he said, matter-of-fact.

Of course!

It was a long way up. The shaft was cracked and loose cables dangled like strangled worms on a baiting hook. It smelled like old grease, dusty grease; a little scorched.

I stopped halfway up to catch my breath and listen. My hands were strong but the old ladder was scratched and rusty. I’d kept in shape — and good thing too.

The draft notice came right after we had bought a new house. My wife cried and didn’t sleep or eat. She cried some more the day I got on the army bus: drab olive green with 40 seats for young men and one middle-aged ex-history prof, turned paper goods distributor.

“There’s nothing you can do about that,” Roger had said.

“I could run away.”

Roger smiled down on me like a grandfather.

“With a wife and children? A new home?”

I looked blank.

“Well,” Roger pulled up a belt he wasn’t wearing. “We’ll just have to get you through this.”

I heard the clatter on the roof before I reached the upper maintenance door.

“Shit, shit, shit.”

“Easy there,” Roger said. “You knew they’d be on the roof. You have to get to the chopper pad. Light the blue flare. Defend yourself.”

I listened — there were three different voices; somewhere to the right. Close enough to hear. Not close enough to understand.

The vent cover was like a big venetian blind. Slats of light whistled into the maintenance room, the hot tar roof was visible through the narrow, down-bent strips of metal.

“Lift it off as gently as you can,” Roger instructed me.

I did.

Carefully.

It required some force.

There was a snap!

The voices stopped.

I held my breath. Roger smiling, deep inside.

Roger had smiled brightly when I got on the army bus. My wife stood still, clutching our two children like a life line; tears streaming down her face.

I had waved — grim acceptance.

“Don’t go, daddy,” stray words held fast to mommy’s grasp as if the army bus would suck them in.

“Be back before you know it,” Roger had said — a bright steady grin, full of confidence.

I was terrified.

I could hear feet scuffing across the tarred gravel roof. Away from where I was. A voice drifted incoherent on the breeze.

“You’re good to go,” Roger said.

I crawled out the open vent, hand gun first. Crouched down, knees digging into hard pea gravel on a hot tar roof.

“Helicopter pad,” Roger reminded me.
Right, I thought. Which way?

There was moment of silence.

At least there was no sound of nearby enemy soldiers. I had a little time to think; get my bearings.

“Left,” Roger abruptly said. “On an angle — drop down after the AC vents.”

I looked left.

It was a scramble of split concrete and square utility boxes sticking up in odd places all over the roof. There was some twisted metal framing from a huge billboard that got blown to pieces long ago. The cratered corner of the building was to the far right.

“Go now!” Roger barked.

I scurried across the gravelled tar; a crouching run, hand gun bouncing up and down awkwardly in my right hand. I was aiming for the twisted metal billboard frame.

“Dive, dive, dive!” Roger wasn’t calm, a touch of panic.

I dove under some bent metal tube that must have held the base of the billboard at one time. My elbows scraped hard on the gravel, my right cheek was stabbed by a loose metal bar. Not bad, though. More of a bruise that a cut.

The tinkling sound I could hear got louder for a second then stopped. Bullets had sparked off the metal frame right above me. I could hear yelling and heavy feet running wildly toward me.

“Use your left hand — Over your right arm; angle up to waist level.” Roger’s instructions came out clear and punctuated. “Shoot!” He commanded.

I shot. Hand gun in my left. Raised up and over the metal tube on my right. Just enough to see three shots change the running pattern of a man. I heard his scream. A muffled choke and then he dropped.

“Crawl!” Roger ordered. “Forward. On your belly. Get to the other side. Get ready.”

I crawled.

The gravel and tar and loose bits of metal scratched the hell out of my fatigues; cut into my knees. Not as bad as getting shot.

“Stop!”

I stopped.

“Right side. Roll over. Shoot now!”

I did.

I saw another man.

He saw me.

I shot first.

There was no time to think about what I was doing or why I was here. No time to contemplate a man I shot who I would not have shot if I had just met him somewhere else; a man like me — with a wife and children, a new home, a simple job that paid well and gave him time to read or take a stroll or to invite friends over for dinner; all those things that people do when they’re not shooting at each other.

We never even said hello.

“Just jump and roll,” Roger brought me back.

It wasn’t safe yet.

“Go, go, go!” Roger urged me on.

I jumped over the knee-high ledge. The next roof below was only two metres down. I hit the roof and let my legs curl into a somersault.

“Get behind the fan box,” Roger was right with me.

I tore across the first 10 metres heading for the solid metal corner of a large air conditioning box.

“Down!” Roger yelled at me for the second time — uncommon panic in his tone.

I dropped like a block, smacking the wind out of my lungs as a high-powered round struck the AC box and ripped a hole through it bigger than my head.

“Roll right. Fire back. Go!”

I rolled and rolled again and clicked off two rounds back at the ledge every time I came face up.

The man with the rifle took off to his left. I could see the telescoping sight on the rifle housing. I shot again. He stumbled and dropped.

I rolled into a brick wall, which was the outer access to a rooftop exit door.

“Get up! Go around the access. Light the flare.”

I was in pain; aching from cuts and scrapes, bruised all over, small pieces of shrapnel in my back. I got up as told and scurried fast around the brick cube that framed an exit door onto the roof.

“Blue flare,” Roger said, cracking a grin.

I hoped that it was still there. My fatigues were torn and bloody. Yes! Several compact flares in the left leg pocket.

“The blue one,” Roger, repeated and managed one of his bright smiles.

They were conveniently colour coded: yellow, green, red and blue.

I held the blue one up for Roger to see.

He smiled at me like the sun.

I pulled the top igniter cord and threw the flare out toward the chopper pad.

“Walk slowly around the back of the exit.” Roger began to say. “Get your gun ready, quietly.”

His voice was quiet and calm. It scared me more than when he yelled.

I made a point of picking my feet up and putting them carefully back down on the gravel rooftop. There was blue smoke blowing across the roof in a light breeze. I took a peek around the back wall of the exit block.

No one there.

Blue smoke drifted no more than 30 metres in front of the exit door.

I peeked around the short corner from the back of the brick wall.

I could hear the rescue helicopter in the distance. They were fast. They had to be. But there were 20 marines waiting under cover of my blue smoke; waiting to destroy the chopper and its crew when they landed.

I have to stop them. The thought came to me. I’ll have to sacrifice myself to save them.

“Oh, don’t be such a martyr,” Roger chastised me, smiling.

I just looked at him.

My head hurt. I had bits of metal shrapnel in my back. My hands and knees and elbows were scratched to hell. But I wasn’t shot. It looked really bad. But it was all on the surface.

The helicopter cleared the roof lip and banked into a hover to make the drop onto the pad.

“Here’s what you do,” Roger smiled with a happy gleam.

Not very heroic, I thought. But if will get me home, why not?

Twenty rifles were poised to fire the moment the chopper touched down.

“They’ll wait until the rescue team jumps out,” Roger explained as I prepared, reloading. “That way the chopper can’t take off as fast.”

All ready.

“Just on time,” Roger nodded toward the helicopter pad. It was down. The door was opening.

I cracked a red flare — extreme danger — and threw it as hard as I could over the exit door at the 20 men. Then I cracked a yellow flare — injured crew — and dropped it right where I was standing.

The chopper slammed shut.

A few rifle shots were fired — some at the chopper, most of them in the direction of where the red flare had come from.

The belly guns on the chopper opened up with a terrible din.

I cracked the green flare — good-to-go — and threw it hard onto the helipad.

“Fire around the corner,” Roger said calmly.

That calm sounding tone scared me again. It scared me more than the insane noise of rifles and pump shot and belly guns and screaming men.

I immediately obeyed.

I bent my hand around the corner and fired off three shots. Every thud of the pistol added another pounding notch to my headache.

A rifle shot sprayed brick bits off the side wall. Someone groaned in final despair.

“To the chopper. Now!”

I couldn’t see. Blue and green before me, a yellow mist clouding off my shredded clothes, red on red blood spraying into thick red fog; the incessant noise. I couldn’t hear, except for Roger.

“Put your gun away. Wave your arms over your head.”

I stuffed the pistol into my shirt; running like a yellow cloud, out of the yellow haze into the green and blue — arms flapping like a flagman in a hurry; the whip-whip-whip of chopper blades and the quick rush of being lifted suddenly from the Earth, like weightless astronauts into the bright, clear air.

Barbecue smoke and smells of grilled steaks, baked potatoes, roasted corn  filled my nostrils. Friends and family and balloons and cheers of “Welcome back” drowned out the deafening noise of the rooftop rush.

***

“I couldn’t have done it without you.”

“What?” My wife looked up, still crying. Had she been crying all the time I was away?

Two little children clinging to my legs,  not crying, not old enough to understand if they should cry, just glad to have their daddy back.

“You did it!” Roger said, smiling brightly, deep within.