The right side of Jake’s scalp had been scorched away, leaving a fiery red spot on his head that would certainly become scar tissue. But it did not matter. Nothing mattered anymore. At his feet lay the smoldering remains of his comrade, the brave heart who had jumped on the grenade and had thus taken the brunt of its force, saving Jake’s life. His last words had been ‘RUN JAKE, FOR FUCK’S SAKE, RUN!’, but it was no use. Nails were smashed into his boots, forcing him to watch as the shell exploded with deafening noise, lifting his comrade to eye-height, engulfed by flames. It was like watching a slow motion clip focusing on the man’s eyes. The terror in there seemed to be endless, creeping deep into Jake’s soul, scarring it more than the burns on his head could ever do. Then the light went out and time made up for lost seconds, releasing the blast at an uncanny speed, blowing Jake right off his feet. Half-conscious on the ground he remained, barely aware of the sets of arms that took hold of him, dragged him away, screaming comforting words at him that did not register at all. His body would be fine, but the damage had been done.
Waking up to a nightmare was new to Jake. Most of his life up until this point had been carefree, apart from the death of his grandpa. The man had a great life, died of old age with a smile on his face. That was nothing to be sad about. No, Jake realized that this was the first time in his life that he had experienced actual pain, actual excruciating pain that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Joining the army had been grand! He and his buddies would march right into Iraq and bring freedom to the people, peace to the world! The sun would shine on their faces as they were welcomed back to great applause and happy cheers in their little town of Pleasantville, USA. Quite the opposite was true. Jake had been dismissed from the armed forces, the only memories of it a large bandage around his head and a fresh doctor’s report in his pocket, diagnosing him with something called shell shock. It was a fancy name alright, one worthy of the condition he found himself in. After all, hadn’t it been a shell that brought all this misery upon him? And didn’t it feel like he was in constant shock these days, not even able to perform the simplest of tasks without shaky hands, not capable of holding on to a single thought long enough to properly finish his sentences?
The welcome back parade hadn’t taken place in Pleasantville. There had been no applause and the sun did not shine. The only cheering he had heard was from the teenagers on the corner, delighted by the loud bangs of firecrackers. Jake hadn’t been able to stand the sound and collapsed on the spot, his poor dad forced to heave him on his sore shoulder and carry him to the car as his son screamed in agony. It was humiliation in its purest form. ‘Excuse me, John.’, sounded after Jake had been put safely in the car. John, dad, turned around to see an elderly woman with a kind face emerge from the encircling crowd. ‘Jake dropped this.’ Her wrinkled left hand opened to show a small military medal, the Purple Heart Jake had been awarded for achieving nothing more than, in his view, getting hurt. It was supposed to be a great honor. Supposed to be. John nodded solemnly, trying to keep a straight face, took the medal out of her hand and got in the car. On the way home he sobbed like a little child, his damaged son mostly unconscious in the back seat.
Mom and dad had been great since his return. They took care of Jake to the best of their ability, hiding their own grief behind cheerful smiles. Jake knew this. He had heard his mother cry, his dad on the phone with his boss, explaining in an increasingly agitated manner that the report would be finished soon, but that he had more pressing matters on his mind at the moment. The truth was that no single word had been typed yet. Mom and dad were suffering, perhaps even more than Jake himself, but they would receive no comfort from their son who, in their eyes, had been dragged out of the pits of hell. Every muttered word of comfort was dismissed with a wave and a smile, a ‘Don’t worry about us, we’re fine!’. Jake’s brother had not been able to shoulder the situation like his parents. This was odd. His older brother, the person he had always looked up to the most, who dragged him in and out of fights, always having his back. The person who invited him to join the Treehouse Club, the most exclusive gathering of youngsters, the cool kids. And, of course, the fearless talker who taught Jake the fine workings of picking up girls.