Never thought I’d be sorry to say goodbye to the Shiloh Valley Veteran’s Hospital. Spent most every day of my eighteen month residence daydreaming about the moment I’d bust out. Always imagined myself hauling ass out the front door and hollering ‘freebird’ until I didn’t have any voice left.
Didn’t quite turn out like that. Reason being the guys thought we should say our ‘goodbyes’ over turkey on rye. When I say ‘the guys’ I mean the Puerto Rican and nobody crosses the Puerto Rican.
So this morning, after I get my walking papers, I head to the cafeteria, hoping for a few moments alone to nut up and get myself in check. But Jimmy McNulty is already in the courtyard holding down a table in the shade. The shade is to protect the Puerto Rican’s healing skin. She arrives shortly after I do and in her wake, comes the final member of our crew, Leonard Kane, his eye bandages covered by sunglasses.
It’s straight up noon when a cafeteria server delivers our trays and per years of ingrained training, we make short work of the food. Takes ten minutes to polish off the sandwiches and fruit, thirty seconds to stack the empty trays and five to lob the trash in the container an arm’s length away.
“So, you’ll be back once a week, right,” McNulty says, his tatted knuckles tapping the stacked trays.
“Thursday afternoons, peaches,” the Puerto Rican says, putting a scarred hand on McNulty’s arm to calm his agitated energy.
Kane elbows me. “Man up, Hurley. Admit you chose that day based on Doc Laugero’s schedule.”
Before I can defend myself, Ja Chung, Shiloh Valley’s lead prosthetics technician, appears at our table with bottles of apple juice. “Okay, troublemakers. Farewell toasts and then I’m hauling Hurley off the premises.”
We’re three bottles into our ribald toasts when I realize I’m not ready to bug out. Yeah, I want the hell out of this hospital but I can’t imagine life without these people. We’re from different military branches and sustained different injuries but together, we’re a cohesive unit.
McNulty and the Puerto Rican, given name Ventura Cruz, are supposed to bail sometime next month but release dates are sketchy around here. And who knows when Kane will get cut loose. After his prognosis took a turn for the worse last week, looks like he’s in for another surgery or two.
So here I am, in no hurry at all to hit the road. But I’m supposed to go home with Chung, get settled into an apartment next to his, and have dinner with he and his aunt. “Hey, Chung? You think your aunt will be pissed if we put dinner off until tomorrow night?”
He polishes off a bottle of juice and grins. “Depends on what you have in mind.”
I wink. “I’m feeling lucky, you know? Like maybe today is the day I’m going to win back the cash Cruz swindled me out of at last week’s poker game.”
McNulty and Kane burst into guffaws.
Chung settles onto the bench beside Kane. The two play cards as a pair since Kane needs Chung’s eyes. “Only thing Aunt Hyo likes more than dinner company is a good game of five card stud.”
Cruz wipes her mouth with the back of her hand, pitches her empty bottle into the trash without bothering to glance at the can, and slaps the table with her palms. “How are you going to ante up, Marine? Last time we sat across from each other, I bled you dry.”
A honeyed voice behind me says, “I’ll cover his bets.”
Kane lets out a low whistle. “Luck is definitely a lady today.”
McNulty greets the newcomer with a polite nod. “Afternoon, Dr. Laugero.”
Cruz grins at the doctor and says, “I apologize in advance for lightening your wallet, Neve.”
I rise to offer Laugero my seat, but she stops me with a hand on my shoulder and slides onto the bench beside me. “I was hoping we’d get some time together before you left, Sargent Hurley. This is perfect.”
“You may not think so if Cruz gets on a roll,” I say, trying to ignore the firm warmth of her thigh pressed against mine but feeling grateful there’s enough left of my upper leg that I can enjoy the contact.
She smiles. “Cruz doesn’t scare me, Sargent. I’m tougher than you think.”
“I hope so, for your paycheck’s sake,” I say, chuckling.
Cruz produces a pack of cards.
Chung reads Kane in.
Laugero leans in to peer at my cards.
Me? I sit there trying not to grin like a nutcase. My hand is full of hearts. A royal flush, no less.
In that moment, I finally figure it out. Home isn’t a building. Home is where your people are. And right here, under this crooked oak tree, getting robbed by the Puerto Rican, trading one-liners with my closest friends, and sitting a little too close to the good doctor, my heart is home.
Turns out I’ve been a freebird all along.