There would be some nights where the rain would drum on the roof and roll down in streams onto the dirt. The sound would echo through the walls with such acuity that each drop seemed to be cracking into steam from a phantom heat. Cold rain; cooking them where they slept.
Or rather, they would lie awake with a keen sense of location. Of their bodies, of each focused spit in the storm, of the bullet that was marked with their name, of God at that very moment. This overwhelming flood, this implacable stream of thoughts and worries was the catalyst of the anxiousness that shook them awake when their minds would wander from their bodies. Every night, unfailingly, they would listen with closed eyes while an internal clock ticked off another moment they stayed awake in their quiet stasis. Staring through the fog of windows they would dream of touching the rain, but it was what drove them indoors at the start, what separated them from a living experience. And every night, too, they would gradually lose grip on their consciousness, retiring into sleep to the rhythm of rain just over their heads.
And in the morning, though the dry sun pushed the rain further into the hills and the wind settled to nest in another corner of the world, much remained unchanged. They would awake—sometimes in order, sometimes in pairs, and sometimes together—with their lives in their hands as a privilege and their hearts in their gut as a meal. Stiffened by the floor on which they slept, they would wake in fits of unrest and discomfort before struggling with their weight on tired limbs. They would trudge in a rut around each other, checking this, securing that in their worn, mechanical ways. As night was born again behind the sun, they would return to their territory to dispose their rest so as to begin anew the dreary routine of the following mornings. Yet soon the rain would again rob them of cognition: if it came, it seeped through their burning eyes and into their heads, and if it did not, they would wish it did.
But this night was new. Of the four in the room, one had been plotting for hours upon days to relieve all of their reticence. In the moment, though, all laid plans were thrown to waste and a hot, raspy grunt diffused into the air instead, startling all those in earshot. He cleared his throat and began again,
“Anyone awake?” It was received with a mixed variety of affirmatives, to which the kid sat up. “So I've been thinking about something lately,” he started.
“Go back to sleep,” a voice in the dark retorted.
“Screw you, you weren't sleeping either.” The quiet one in the corner could not sleep above, below, or anywhere around the noise so he too sat up to listen. “Now I've been thinking. How long have we been here, seriously.” No response. He pressured for one. “Anyone?”
“Four days,” offered the quiet one in the corner.
“Four goddam days. So why haven't we tried to leave? Ya know, not sit around with our thumbs in our asses?”
The kid in the corner opposite the quiet one roughly tipped his cover from over his nose.
“Sergeant Vic told us to wait. So we wait. The fuck's so hard to understand about that?” He wretched in the back of his throat and spat onto the floor next to him.
“Sergeant Vic hasn't been conscious in days.” He fussed with his shoe and hurled it at the man laying face-up in the corner opposite him. It soared for his ear and struck him so, tumbling into the shadows in fear of evoking the wrath of the ever-slumbering beast, but its effects were none so spectacular. The man groaned in reflex, but not much else. The kid in the cover jumped up onto and over his feet towards the pitcher on his mound. He wrestled two sweaty paws into the assailant's fatigues and shook him violently a small deal of times.
“Is that funny? Is that funny? Answer me. Fuck you Dante White.” The kid snickered while shrinking away and attacking the fingers at his breast.
“Sullivan, Sully, Sully-boy! I'm being serious,” he assured. “Sam, where's my support?” The quiet one in the corner shuffled over to the lurching attacker and placed two hands around his arm, leading but not pulling him back to his original corner.
“I'm fine Sam, get off me,” he spoke with a stern tone.
“Thanks Sam. Oh, and fuck you too Private Sullivan.” The two combatants exchanged a violent glare. “Now, I believe I was saying that we should consider leaving. We're just haji fodder if we sit here.”
“Where would we go?” questioned Pvt Samuel.
“Anywhere but here.”
“And you're gonna lead us there?” Pvt Sullivan inquired. LCpl White stared back with no response. “Yeah I'll take my chances here.”
“Would you like a bullet now or later, Private Sullivan?”
“Around the same time I need a smoke.” Pvt Sullivan patted his fatigues finding nothing but he remembered the cigarette behind his ear. He tipped it to the others, said “Thank God for school drives,” and made his exit. LCpl White looked across at Pvt Samuel, studying the goofy, black, thick-rimmed glasses that sat poised on the bridge of his nose. His pale skin was flushed with sweat and dirt and his glasses fogged. The roundness of his shaved head reminded LCpl White of a stout chicken egg that connected lazily to his slight build by a thin, swiveling neck. Pvt Samuel was a caricature of himself, with a weak chin, strong arms and sticks for legs. The sight of him hunched in the midnight moon made LCpl White question how he had survived basic training with such a pathetic, uninspiring frame. Yet Pvt Samuel had made his way to the same rifle platoon as LCpl White himself, so he had to trust that there was an inner war-hulk that was brooding within his sunken chest and waiting to escape and beat some insurgent ass.
“Sir!” Surprised, he saluted in reflex.
“At ease, marine. There's no one here keeping tabs of the rules. Salute me when I die, or when you finally get laid, whichever happens first.” He ambled over to his partner and poked a finger in his chest. “Do you believe in God, Private?”
“Are you deaf and blind? I asked if you believed in God, Private Keller.” Pvt Samuel choked on his tongue. He furiously twisted his head about his neck and found a chair nearby. There was little weight to drop into it, and he landed silently in its lap.
“I do, sir,” he finally replied, looking up.
“You do? Oh, you do. Well why do you believe in God, Private?” LCpl White watched the confusion well up in his eyes.
“Sir, because I do, sir.”
“That doesn't sound like a reason to me.” Pvt Samuel looked down and bit his lip. “Can you talk to God, Private?”
His head snapped up. “Always, sir.”
“Can you talk to him now?”
“If I need to, sir.”
“Is he listening?”
“I like to believe so, sir.”
“But you're not sure.”
“It's called faith, sir.” LCpl White folded his arms and turned away. He stepped over to the only open window in the small room and looked up at the moon. “Do you have faith, sir?” floated across the room on the elusive voice of Pvt Samuel.
“I have faith. Yeah, I have faith alright. I have faith the moon will be here tomorrow. I have faith the sun will come before it. I have faith that my wife's getting nailed by our neighbor right about now.” He whipped back around to glare at Pvt Samuel. “But these are all things I can prove to be true. Things I can prove will be coming.”
“I don't believe that's what faith is, sir. I believe that's certainty, sir.” LCpl White cocked his head. “Faith implies that you don't know for certain, sir, but you believe in it in honesty.” There was a moment of silence in the room, but it grew stale. A bellowing laugh tore through the open window into the night. Sergeant Vic winced in his stupor. Wiping at his eye, LCpl White moved over to Pvt Samuel and slugged him hard in the shoulder.
“You got me, kid. But by your standards, I suppose I really do have faith.”
“In God, sir?”
“I've killed more men than women you've slept with, Private, which might not be saying much but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt.” He put his weight on Pvt Samuel. “No, my hands are too bloody to pray.”
Welling with confusion, “then where is your faith, sir?”
“My faith,” he pressed a hand to his chest, “my faith is in our government, Private. I have faith that they will never steer us wrong, that they always have our best interest at heart. I have faith that they are looking for us right now even though we are presumed to be dead. I have faith that our fellow jarheads will kick in our door, guns blazing like a knock-off Rambo, screeching 'OOH RAH!' into the air like Streetcar Stanley for Stella.” Pvt Samuel chuckled. “See, you think it's funny I might believe such an event is likely to occur. But is it so different?”
“Different from what, sir?”
“I have proof.” LCpl White wrinkled his nose in offense at the word. While he has carefully planning his next few phrases to counter Pvt Samuel's remark, the door swung wide with a thud against the wall. Pvt Sullivan stepped through the threshold and flicked a filter gracefully over his shoulder. He reached for the door with his toes and in an awkward, jerking motion managed to slam the door on the way in as well. His meaty fingers constricted the back frame of a nearby chair and whipped it around to slide under his legs. The chair itself was much shorter than Pvt Sullivan who stood around 6 foot and over 200 muscle pounds, so his elbow rested on the top edge like a bartender at his counter. The light from the moon began to recede towards the walls as it danced higher into the sky.
“So what are we talking about?” Pvt Samuel looked to LCpl White.
“Not much of anything,” White replied.
“Then allow me to share some stories with you.” He didn't wait for permission. “I think this was about a year back into the war. Me and a couple of other guys were holed up in this one alley, taking fire from at least 3 hajis if not 5. So my buddy starts getting pissed because he was all hopped up on some drug or another and he hates being in corners so all of a sudden he goes apeshit and grabs one of the trash cans nearby, dropping his gun of course, and runs straight out into the plaza. He screams at the top of his lungs and hurls the thing through a window into one of the buildings the hajis were camping out in. Then...BOOM! Fire and brimstone out of the windows, like a damn Die Hard movie. Apparently there was some kind of IED in it and my buddy just so happened to have picked up the right trash can to toss into the right building, all the while shouting the piss out of his lungs like Tarzan on speed.” Pvt Sullivan laughed uncontrollably to himself for several minutes, and then for one more minute to make up for the other two who had spent more time counting passing dust particles than listening. When he returned to earth and his seat legs returned to the floor, he coughed once and then once again before anyone began talking again.
“Does anyone else question why we do this?” Pvt Samuel stuttered nervously as he put the question forward, unsure if others shared his loss.
“Do what?” shot Pvt Sullivan.
“This. The marines. The life of a soldier. Do you guys think its worth it?” The room reached a new level of silence, and the three looked down at their boots.
“What else would we do?” reasoned LCpl White.
“I don't know. But not this. The killing, the terror.”
“You going soft on us Private Samuel?” interrogated Pvt Sullivan.
Pvt Samuel slunk in his chair. “Life's a big race to death I suppose. Just one long marathon with the word 'inevitable' painted on the finish tape. And we're just...running faster.” The three slid their boot treads around the dirt on the floor, designing chaotic patterns beneath their toes.
“Hah, leave it to a devil dog to die better than everyone else,” joked Pvt Sullivan. A nervous chuckle was exchanged, but a warm smile chased it away.
LCpl White looked at Pvt Samuel. “Just gotta have faith, right?”
Pvt Sullivan started again modestly. “You know, one time my wrestling coach in high school told me that there is no degree of truth. It either it is, or it isn't. A full truth with a fiber of lie in its weave is still not completely true.”
“Wait, you wrestled?” asked Pvt Samuel.
“I did...but I quit. They wanted me to cut too much weight.”
“Isn't that your responsibility though?” Pvt Sullivan remained quiet. “Okay,” echoed Pvt Samuel.
Both the moon and the quiet rose. By now, the three had inched themselves closer together in a huddle. Sergeant Vic lay motionless in his cold corner still, but he withheld a calm repose in his coma. The room's silence was approaching divine, but there was a thickness in the air that kept it from reaching such a state.
“So are we lying to ourselves?” one of them asked finally. It seemed for a fleeting moment that none had an answer, but Pvt Sullivan rose sharply from his relaxed position. With a swipe of his bearish arm, he sent his chair careening into the wall just under the open window, propelled by nothing but fury. Sergeant Vic turned. Pvt Sullivan's voice was gritty and hoarse.
“No. No we aren't lying to anybody. Everybody lies to us. And they lie to themselves, too. What we do? Natural. It's fucking natural. We can kill, and we can fight like every early man did. Yeah there's a side to everyone they don't wanna see or even think about. But when you become a marine, you stare that part in the eye. You smash your head against its head and grab it by the balls and yell OOH RAH like you've been forced to be quiet your whole life.”
“The duality of man...the inherent evil...the heart of darkness...you're right Sully,” capitulated LCpl White.
“Damn right I'm right.” He tossed his cover to the ground in emphasis where it skipped and landed limp near the toppled chair. “And we've got the red hands to prove it.”
Among the soldiers in the room, there was no disagreement. They all looked to one another, exchanging glances of anger and pain, trying to take weight and share it without saying a word. Pvt Sullivan's breathing slowed, and he was the first to slump into a corner. LCpl White threw his cover at his feet and he placed it over his nose. Pvt Samuel and LCpl White stood eye-to-eye, just a foot apart. Pvt Samuel looked down and extended his hand to LCpl White who arrested it in a firm grip.
“God bless you Dante.”
“And you, Private.” They reached an arm around the other's back and passed each other to crumple down in their corners of the room.
“God bless you Sergeant Vic.”
His peaceful, shallow breathing was the only reply.
* * *
The moon continued to inch across its predestined course while the four laid uncomfortably in their corners, feigning sleep and listening for something. Anything. A thin layer of clouds seduced the moon, tickling its stars and sliding its reach over the surface and blanketing its light.
Then they heard it.
At first they mistook it for rain. The barreling pitter-patter against the dirt was a sound they had grown substantially familiar with. But the sound began to change, morph, mutate, distort. A tapping became a slapping against the soft ground. It droned on for what seemed to be whole minutes, but in reality it flashed in seconds. The slapping grew to be recognized as footsteps—hurried ones at that—but the soldiers did not move. They stopped just short of the reinforced door, and an eerie sensation crawled into the room. A first bang. A second. A third. The door popped and bubbled with each successive strike. A fourth. A fifth. A sixth. A seventh. It opened. A team of five insurgents stormed into the room with tattered rifles pressed to their shoulders. And none of the men moved still. One of the insurgents brought his heel down on Pvt Samuel's groin, and he keeled over to his knees. A tear wet the ground near his face, but he didn't know if it was his because he couldn't feel it.
“Our Father, who art ” he began, but a shot was fired and tore through the back of his neck. The crack of the muzzle stirred the other two of the three remaining men. One of the invaders bent down to grab hold of LCpl White, but was knocked back by a projected palm to his nose. He drew a small sidearm from his hip and fired three shots into LCpl White's chest, from which he collapsed and slid down the wall. Two surrounded Pvt Sullivan, who at this point was reduced to messy sobs, exploding tears and frantic pleas.
“I don't wanna cut weight coach! Please coach I don't wanna cut w--” A bullet lodged itself in his forehead.
The insurgent team made one last quick sweep of the room, surveying for motion but found none; they took off in file out the door and down the street into the dark. Back in the dying calamity of the room, only the slight sounds of a beating heart could be heard. After a few moments, there was a shuffling on the floor as Sergeant Victor began to regain the feeling in his feet.
A heavy rain fell. It came into the room through the open window and washed the blood off their hands and out into the street.
© Copyright 2016 Kean Flynn. All rights reserved.