“Just give it to Lance and get out of the way.”
– Dave Joerger, Coach of the Memphis Grizzlies
I’m writing this entry from inside a bunker in the hills of Tennessee. Someone has to record the events that brought us here.
Here to this tiny metal room, where Barnes peers through the thin slit of a window, just wide enough for a pair of rifles to lay down suppressing fire, while the rest of us squeeze like sardines. We were never supposed to be here. We had an encampment, defenses, tents, food. We were meant to hold the position. The orders were simple give no ground, and for a while we didn’t. Captain Joerger sleeps in the shadows. He tosses and turns running from the guilt that fills his dreams.
He should forgive himself. He never claimed this war was about gaining new territory. We knew that. It was about reminding the world that we remained, that we mattered. We fought for that cause. Then Zach fell, then Marc, then Mike. Jeff simply deserted. We’d lost our leaders, our heart and soul. Our enemies were smiling in the dark. In our tents we could hear bayonets sharpening, and cartridges loading. We dug our trenches and waited for the inevitable.
I should be thanking God that I’m even alive to write this. Stephenson’s arrival was a miracle, there’s no other word for it. We were outnumbered, outmanned, and without our heroes, outgunned. We needed something, anything, and we got a wild card. He rolled into camp on a hoverboard, bullets strapped across his chest. Pistols hung from his belt. He fingered the rifle slung across his back. “Heard you boys were having a hard time. Thought you might need some help.”
Captain Joerger was most of himself then, only just beginning to fall apart. He stepped right to Stephenson’s face.
“I know who you are, Lance. You’ve got a reputation. Done some good, done some bad. Unpredictable. That ain’t us. We ain’t pretty, but we’re consistent. We’re the 37th infantry. We’re the god-damned Grizzlies, and we don’t need a hot head like you blowing this regimen apart.” The newcomer stared the captain in the face. His hand wandered to the pistol at his hip. I put down the beans I’d been preparing and hopped to my feet:
“Captain we need all the help we can get. Me and the boys, we’ll keep him in line. He steps out, he’ll answer to us. I promise you that. Could just be he keeps us afloat in the storms. Jazz and King have had their men on the move. Morey’s got his rocket brigade on the high ground, and there’s the damn German and his cavalry. More than enough to worry about, what’s the risk in one more body, sir?”
The captain stepped back.
Tension hung in the air.
Captain Joerger turned to me, his face chiseled out of granite. “Shit, can’t get any worse. This goes FUBAR, Carter, it’s all on you.” He laughed then. I remember, because it was the last time I heard that sound. “I guess if it goes FUBAR there won’t be anyone left to report you to, or any you left to report.” The captain slid back to his tent. Stephenson turned to me. There was something in his eyes. Something hard to pin down, something wild, something dangerous, like a gun fight behind his iris. It shook me, but I was – and I still am — the senior officer, and I’d give no ground.
Our eyes met. We stood tall. He smiled and offered his hand. “Carter, was it? Stephenson. You can call me Lance.”
“Then you ought to call me Vince. Captain said you got yourself a reputation. Look awful young for that.”
“Been in the field since I was a kid. Seen some things. I was born ready.”
“Heard of you too. Used to be a legend, folks who pay attention think you still are. What you did in Oakland, in Sydney; extraordinary.” I gave him a small smile, but waved it off. No time to think about the past. Tonight we focus on making sure we see the sunrise. I walked him through the tent. Past the young men shaking with anticipation. JaMychal Green was checking his supplies when we walked by and offered a crisp salute. Allen didn’t look up as we passed. He was busy sharpening his knife. I coulda sworn he was whispering to it.
Stephenson set down his weapons and crawled into his tent. He nodded a good night. Real soldiers know that actions speak louder than words. I tucked myself in and got cozy. Across the path I’m not sure Stephenson ever closed his eyes.
In the days that followed, the pressure eased up. Battles were won, celebrations earned. Stephenson’s energy brought out the best in all of us. Allen and Barnes were there best selves. The young guns took the opportunity to make a name for themselves. I hung with them all, brought that crafty know how. We fended off the Kings and the Jazz. Then came the calvary from Cleveland. At the head of their unit rode three soldiers guns firing into the sky. They kept yelling at each other, but those rare moments they found peace were among the scariest of my life. They kept coming and they threatened to overwhelm us. Then came Stephenson. From the trench he leapt up cutting the tendons out of the thundering legs that threatened to ride us down. The three great riders tumbled from their horses. The rest of the unit fled. That night we celebrated till the sun rose. The captain awarded Stephenson a medal for his bravery. It was made from a crumpled can of soda.
Soon after he topped even that feat. We’d heard word that Davis and his paratroopers; The Pelicans, were coming our way. Captain Joerger told us to hold the camp, to build defenses. Stephenson wouldn’t hear it. They fought, and our new hero disappeared into the woodland. We waited, hopeless. The captain grumbled. “Stephenson, the fool. He’ll get himself killed. He’ll get us all killed.” The Pelicans could come at any moment, but they never did. In the morning Stephenson stumbled into camp. Exhausted, beaten, and bruised he collapsed before us. Barely breathing, he forced out his words:
“Took down the balloons. Couldn’t get off the ground. They went to repair them, slid some poison berries in their rations. They found me and chased me a few miles, but the berries kicked in and they’ve fallen back. We’re safe, captain.” He passed out and we brought him to his tent. We set him on a litter in case we’d have to move.”
It had to happen eventually; the numbers being what they were. We were overwhelmed by a squad of-hang gliding gunners, The Hawks. Stephenson was hurt. We lost a lot of ground. Smelling blood, Morey unloaded the Rockets on us and the camp was destroyed. We fled toward the high ground. Explosions behind us, earth tossed into the sky and raining down in smoldering clumps. In the distance Green saw the bunker. He pointed. We ran. Stephenson was the last to arrive. Most of the boys said his limp held him up. I’m not so sure he wasn’t watching my back.
Now here we are. Barnes is still scanning the outside. Allen sharpens his knife. Stephenson massages his wounds, waiting for his next chance to be a hero. We can hear wolves howling; big ones. A trader came by the bunker recently. Sold us some beans and dry fish. He said on the outside they assumed we were dead, or if we weren’t yet we would be soon. They say we don’t have one leg to stand on.
Captain Joerger says this is Stephenson’s show now. He’s the reason we’ve made it this far; the reason I’ve got the time to write this diary entry. I don’t know how long we’ll hold out. How could I? If you’d asked me, I wouldn’t have guessed we’d have find a bunker in the woods. I’d have pegged us in a ditch miles back. These days, though, I’m starting to believe in miracles.
I’m starting to believe in Lance.