The Last Christmas
He sat on the balcony, a fingerling red potato in his hand, feeling the weight and shape of the hard tuber.
In the previous weeks, after he had completed training for his next level of 3rd Dan black-belt in his martial art and began to feel peaked.
He had tinkered on the potato gun for weeks, the competition leading up to the finals showed a very intense group of people who dedicated their lives and teamwork to launch a tuber the farthest.
One potato, like the one in his hand, flew for nearly two-kilometers, until the controversy erupted that the team had rifled the inside of the PVC tubing that gave a spin to the torpedo-shaped tuber and stabilized it in flight.
He softly laughed at the thought, the most you could get out of him these days, the contest also included contests on how far a pumpkin could be thrown with mechanical means.
Teams built such things as trebuchet, mega-sized elastic slingshots with hundreds of bungee cords attached to the sling, drawn back with an electric winch. One creative team came up with a crossbow monstrosity with a complex, compound shape that exploded when drawn back to full cock.
Investigation into the incident showed the structure was basically sound, but three bolts put in place team members forgot to tighten before drawing tension on the frame of the giant crossbow. The oversight worked for one launch, the next time they cranked the infernal contraption back, the limbs of the bow snapped forward in a dry fire, sending spring powered shrapnel flying for hundreds of feet, hitting people not even watching the giant bow being used.
The following year, the administration added new inspector teams to check everyone’s submission for the contest.
Such was the “Tater Gun and Punkin’ Chuckin’” contests. Two days of laughter, friends, shade-tree engineers and NASA types that got involved.
Including those of his own teams from the local company.
Those were good days, he mused. Since then, two of those friends had killed themselves. One stepped in front of an oncoming truck during a call. There was no proof of intent, other than she spoke of it with one person a year before.
Another, suntanned, handsome, he was out on the ocean beach one summer’s night and went for a swim, never to return.
The Employee Assistance Program, designed to prevent such events, but it was an uphill struggle. Those that sought help for the depression, the chronic pain from sitting in positions that they constantly found themselves in, for depression and insomnia, often were quietly categorised by other EMS teams as lesser value resources.
“Weak mind.” Some whispered.
For this reason, few if any that activated the EAP or even spoke of it. When they did, it was a deep secret.
He scratched his nose, a medic of decades, the thing he missed most, was laughing.
Sleeping was difficult, too. The paramedic rarely remembered his dreams. But, those dreams he did remember, he wished he forgot before he awoke. As it was, he would wake with the feeling of dread, of darkness and sadness that cast a pall over everything.
So he increased his caffeine intake and stayed up until the last moment he could. Where things such as turning off a light switch was an effort in decision-making, and then collapse into bed to go straight to sleep.
It was telling on his ability for critical-judgement calls. He began to feel afraid to leave the house and even got to a point of misanthropic frame of mind.
He disliked walking through crowds, a thousand faces he could look into in a single “Arts-&-Crafts” show, knowing that a certain percentage would be on medication for one ailment or another. Many were diabetic, under control and lived lives that no one would be aware that they had any trouble with their blood-glucose levels.
Other people, did not follow their schedule properly and would have a crisis building.
He could see those.
The perspiration, pallor. A lack of focus as they tried to keep up their composure, but failing.
He could see that, to him, it was obvious.
Once, German physicians had ridden with him and his junior partner on the Mobile Intensive Care Paramedic unit, in Germany, doctors rode on the rescue units to do the treatments needed. After witnessing the American version, they declared them slightly insane, in a humorous German way, and went back to their country to change how their system ran.
It mattered not, these days.
His last shift he had the privilege to have a twenty-one-day-old patient that an adult shook to death, a month after a fellow paramedic shot himself.
A darkness grew inside his soul in the weeks afterward until the infanticide call.
The days had come where he would think that his dark side was in control.
A paramedic that wept in the quiet hours when no one was around, driving his massive four-wheel-drive Ford F-450 that was his toy, he often pulled into a farmer’s field that lay fallow for the last four years, and wept. Unstoppably, deeply, until he could not breathe.
A bottle of Polish Rectified spirits sat in the armored lunch box behind the seat, its seal intact. He knew that the one-liter bottle of the fluid that had many uses.
Cleaner, fuel, sanitizer (in a pinch), antifreeze and even drink.
However, a dangerous drink. Ethanol is a poison at those concentrations of more than ninety-five percent pure.
Technically, for sale only in New York, but with connections he had long made, a six-pack of the ethanol laden bottles arrived at his door in a hard-sided case.
Five bottles sat in his house for people to gaze at. One he had opened. The sixth, sat in the truck in the fishing gear.
Not that he ever went fishing anymore, since his wife of a decade left and filed for divorce, saying that he was not home when she needed him. A curse of Fire, Police and EMS. Divorce rates seven-times the rate of civilians, locally.
He shot archery more often, it was less of a problem to get bait and being sure that the fishing license was in reach.
And it was quieter. He also did not trust himself anymore with a firearm in the empty house, it was a dark and empty place.
Still and all, he took steps. He ceased all drinking when on his own, which was frequent of late, focusing with a bow on a small target, he found more peace as he watched the shaft go on target more often than not.
Small targets he found, paper-plates held in place with toothpicks, colored in with sharpies he had around the house, they were the cheapest target he could find.
Today, he finished the potato gun. He wondered about the quarter-pound spud moving at more than two-football fields per second speed that might be a new distance champion shooter.
The other thought that he kept at bay, usually, with his archery and driving in the back-country, if he stood in front of the gun by accident while testing it, if it would hurt.
Shaking his head, he stood up and walked back in the house to get ready for the next shift.
Maybe he might have a traffic accident to help at, then grab at the opportunity to step in front of a semi-truck on the highway like the cute and flirty medic that got waffled by a semi.
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
No. He would not do that. The driver would be an innocent in the on-duty suicide and totally unfair.
First rule: Above all, do no harm. It would harm the trucker in countless ways.
Pulling on the jumpsuit with all the patches that indicated his level of training and position as a paramedic team leader.
No, not tonight, he said to himself, finding once again the reason to choose to see it through to the end of the twenty-four hour shift.
A tenuous choice, but it was be another day. Regardless of how it worked out.
This was his last year.