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Short Story

Casualties (based on a true story)
by Donna Conger
copyright 1999

Mark Armstrong breathed through his mouth as he walked toward the morgue. He had smelled formaldehyde many times before. But, he decided, it was an odor all humans loathed after one whiff. It was the smell of Death's partner.

He jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans, listening to each ring of his loafer heels against the hardwood floor.

A chunky redhead guarded the final corridor. Her black glasses flanked by clumps of rhinestones, and a loud flowery dress made him even more nauseous.

Mark pressed his lips together before he spoke. "I'm here to identify a body."

"Uh huh. Name?" she asked, snapping a piece of gum between pink lips.

"His? Or mine?"

"His," she replied with a note of irritation.

"Ken Armstrong."

"Relationship?"

"He is, I mean, he was my brother."

He watched her make an entry into the log: "Next of kin claimed specimen B, March 20, 1945."

"White male, six feet, brown hair and eyes?"

Mark nodded. They could have been twins, even though they were ten years apart.

"The medical examiner just signed in four Marine bodies. They came from the same shipment," she said with the same flat voice.

Like freight, a bunch of cargo, he thought. "Okay," Mark said.

"Need to see some I.D.," she ordered.

Mark slipped his wallet from his back pocket. She glanced at his driver's license with a nod, then produced a manila envelope. "His personal effects," she said. "Dog tags, stuff he had on him."

Mark would look at it later. "Which door is it?"

"Listen, kid." She blew a small bubble, then popped it with a raucous snap. "The mortician is on break because he's just preparing for the embalming. Fluid's draining from their bodies. You don't have to go down there."

"I don't care," Mark snapped.

"Suit yourself. Better take this." She thrust a plastic bag at him.

Mark refused the sick bag. He'd been strong for two days, ever since he heard that Ken's body had been found.

Dead. Ken is dead. And I am going to see his dead body. Killed, for doing the honorable thing. Dr. Mark Armstrong had been busy doing his own honorable thing for his fellow man. He was pushing thirty. Age, however, wasn't the reason he wasnt in the military. He'd wanted to do the right thing for his country, but he was 4F, ineligible because of weak knees and flat feet.

On the other hand, Kenneth Mitchell Armstrong was a surprise package for his parents--told they could never have more than one child nineteen years ago. Ken was perfection, physically, emotionally, and mentally. It was a foregone conclusion, when Pearl Harbor happened, that Ken would go to war. Why he picked the Marines, Mark didn't know. Why the Marines were sent to capture Iwo Jima, he didn't know. On February 19, Mark was making love, and, although he didn't know it at the time, his future child.

Ken arrived at the war torn island four months into his tour of duty. A skeleton crew manned the ship while the landing party was dispatched to fight. Ken had been assigned to stay on board as part of that crew. Without warning, a formation of enemy fighters fired at the ship before Ken could take cover.

Marine personnel concluded that the shrapnel killed Ken instantly. They estimated he was on deck anywhere from three to seven days before he was found. There had been one hundred percent casualties with his company.

Mark blinked away tears. More than twenty-three thousand Marine casualties by the time the island was captured, over four thousand of that number dead men, and his brother had to be one of the latter.

He would not dwell on the ruthlessness of statistical selectivity. Mark swung the morgue door open.

He'd fiddled with cadavers as part of his medical training. He thought he was ready. But the urge to retch was nearly compulsive. Mark halted in place, trying to compose himself, hating his lack of control. The answer came within seconds.

This time one of the dead men was someone he loved.

It was unusually hot in the room. Morgues were supposed to be freezing. Why wasn't this one cold? It made the odors worse. Mark shook his head and stared.

Four men lay on gurneys, pale statues covered with surreal flesh. White sheets draped their bodies from torso to ankle. Yellow tags hung from the big toes, a single capital letter their only identifying mark. Their arms were strapped to their sides, gluing their bodies to the narrow beds.

His eyes pinned to Ken's face, Mark soon forgot the smell of death fluids. He didn't look that different, except that his skin looked as if it were made of modeling clay. Death had robbed him of any manly definition. His hair was brittle and matted.

Mark clenched his jaw, blinking once. A bravura flooded into his feet, and he moved directly to his brother's side. Ken's eyes were tightly closed, his face permanently drawn. The mortician had not yet begun work on Ken's body. Mark smiled; he felt that Ken was still somehow on this side of mortality.

"You're my brother all right," Mark said past the boulder in his throat. He laid a hand on Kens shoulder. His skin was warm to the touch.

"Listen, I just want you to know you did the right thing." He leaned close to his ear. "In case you hadn't heard, buddy, we won."

Mark embraced Ken, holding him like a rag doll. A terrible smell, like the worst morning breath imaginable, drifted into Mark's nose. Simultaneously, he heard a horrible sound, much as a man whose vocal chords had been hollowed out with a knife. Nerves, grief, and exhaustion made Mark jump away from the body. He stared at it, unable to stop shaking.

The room was eerie and silent. Mark shook his head.

It was because it was time to say good-bye, he decided. He sniffled once, angrily brushing away the threat of tears. "Uh, bye, Kenny." He turned to the door.

An ungodly groan clawed its way into the air. Mark spun around.

"Kenny?" he questioned, trying not to shriek.

The same dense silence filled the room.

His heart thundered in his chest.

Mark blinked several times, clearing the water from his eyes. He looked at each man before studying Ken. Almost imperceptibly, Kens sunken chest rose and fell, just once.

Mark bounded to his brother's side, ignoring the odious smell coming from the body. He touched Ken again on one shoulder. Then he gripped the other shoulder and squeezed hard.

A sound of agonizing pain emanated from deep in Ken's chest. The nasty morning breath smell wafted into Mark's nose as Ken's putty-like lips moved. "A-live," he croaked.

Mark ran to the door and shouted as loud as he could for an ambulance.

* * *

Twenty-four hours and one surgery later, Mark stood over Ken in his private room at Massachusetts General Hospital, ironically, where Mark was on staff. Ken's closed eyes were now relaxed, a man in much less pain. An intravenous dripped life saving fluids back into Ken's body. The color had not come back into his skin; in fact, he still looked dead, but a heart monitor presented the undeniable evidence by pulsing sounds of life into the room.

The aged doctor assigned to Ken's case was a brilliant but callous physician Mark had avoided since last year.

"How could the personnel who brought him to the morgue not notice he was still alive?" Mark dared to ask the famous physician.

"There were practically no vitals," Doctor Martinson replied, holding Ken's chart. "He'd been lying there for days, exposed. There is no reason to think he'd survived."

"Doctor, I don't care that it appeared he was dead," Mark challenged. "It doesn't make sense that any doctor could miss all signs of life, however slight."

Martinsons tone didn't change. "Most of the men brought back are dead, Doctor Armstrong."

"So what youre saying is that no one ever really checks because weve been at war, and we might as well assume they're all dead when they come back?"

The sharpness of Mark's question sliced through the tense atmosphere. Doctor Martinson replaced Ken's chart with a taut expression.

"Dr. Armstrong," Dr. Martinson began, "you too will make mistakes during your career. Don't make a habit of condemning the whole medical profession every time someone blunders or you'll be eating humble pie one day when it's you who's made the mistake."

Mark shook his head against a range of emotions, all volcanic. "Uh huh. What now?"

Doctor Martinson spoke amid a haughty exhale. "He's paralyzed on one side where the shrapnel hit him. We've removed what we can. He's severely dehydrated. He's suffered massive brain damage. He won't be able to talk, to think, to do much for himself."

Mark felt himself turn red. "You're writing him off, aren't you?"

"It would have been better if he had died," Doctor Martinson said.

Mark's guffaw was full of indignation. "I cannot believe you just said that in front of a patient."

A nurse glanced at Mark. A sliver of agreement registered in her eyes. "He can't hear us," the old doctor said in a patronizing tone.

"But I can," Mark returned.

The nurse turned away.

"Dr. Armstrong, your brother is going to be a man who requires full time care for the rest of his life." His tone switched to calm, flat. "My recommendation is to enroll him in a facility which specializes in caring for invalids."

Mark spun away. He looked down at his brother. Ken's eyes were tightly shut. "Come on, Ken, you stayed alive so far. What do you think?"

Nothing happened. The three medical personnel waited, the pulsing of Ken's heart magnified by the silence. The elder doctor opened his mouth, but Mark held up his hand, a stern expression clearly etched on his face.

"Ken! Do you want to walk? To talk? To live?" Mark shouted.

"There are other patients on this floor who need quiet--"

"This is more important," Mark cut in.

Doctor Martinson sighed loudly and rolled his eyes.

The gentle pulsing continued; steady, small beats with life barely in them.

"Ken," Mark whispered.

The pulsing increased and the lines turned mountainous.

Mark snapped his head around with a triumphant expression. "There," he said. "Ken's made the decision."

Doctor Martinson tightened his lips. "This so-called response isn't enough for me to go on. I will be making my recommendation today, effective as soon as he's able to be moved to a private institution." The old man glared at Mark. "My diagnoses carry a lot of weight both in this hospital and in this state. Trust me, Dr. Armstrong. I have seen this before, and it will only bring a lifetime of heartache for you and him before your brother dies from complications."

"Yes, but the patient's will is the most important factor in healing, isn't it, Doctor?" Mark gestured at the heart monitor.

Martinson rammed a pen into the pocket of his white coat, his gray eyes icy. "I have other patients to see. Excuse me." He left the room after barking at the nurse to follow him.

Mark instantly made his own diagnosis, one that carried a weight greater than any reputation or degree could confer. He turned to the monitor with a smile, watching the lines slide back into a steady, soft beat.

"You know, Kenny, I got married just after you enlisted," he said, rubbing Ken's arm. "Guess what? I'm going to be a daddy before Christmas. You're going to be a great uncle."

Mark glanced up at the monitor. The heart line bounced wildly, up and down, almost with glee. Mark smiled as he leaned backward. He talked the afternoon away, and it was not about the past, but the future.

The End

Military cemetery