Saturday, May 12, 2012

A tentative return

Four years since my last post. What can I say, except that life happened. Still, I guess this blog has been in the back of my mind the whole time, or I wouldn't be writing right now. I remember when the words just poured out of my brain and splashed onto the page. Now, maybe more like pushing that old door back and forth, hoping that the squeaky hinges will shed their rust and operate in silence once more.

I don't have any more time than I did before. In fact, probably less, which has led me to the realization that I will never have "time" to write. So I'm going to squeeze it in here, in whatever way I can. At the very least, this blog can be a chronicle of a creative writing student turned Marine turned public accountant turned father of two turned creative writer.

I guess it turns out that if you can't push something into your schedule, you just have to push harder.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Habby Birfday

(This was a writing exercise I did for a short story class. I still like it.)

First, tell your father to stop barking. You don’t have to explain why because he won’t remember. When he starts to mumble, you should start laughing, because he will laugh too.
Your father will go outside for a cigarette. That’s when you get out the ingredients for the cake. When your little sister wanders in to ask what you are making, tell her that it’s definitely not for her birthday tomorrow. She will clap her hands and run away. You mix the batter and boil some water. The water is for dinner: macaroni and cheese.
The heart-stopping reek of cigarettes tells you that your father is back. Ask if he would like to lick the whisks. He will mumble, laugh, and lick the metal. He says something about cheese. You realize that you poured cheese mix into the batter while you were thinking about your mom. You remember how embarrassed you were the time your friends walked you home to find your father digging through the neighbor’s trash. You wonder if it was embarrassment that caused your mom to leave.
Start on a new, cheese-free batter. He will lick the whisks after another cigarette. It is a good time to give him his meds because he is happy, and they irritate his stomach if he has not eaten something. The new formula is working well. Your father hasn’t been found in the crawl space under anyone’s house in quite some time. Hope it works during the birthday party tomorrow, and pour the batter into a cake pan. Let it bake.
Your father will get on his knees and give your little sister a full-armed, rocking hug. Habby Birfday, he will say. Your little sister will giggle and pull away at the feel of his five ‘o’ clock shadow. Your father will hug you next. Habby Birfday, he will say. You hug him back until he peels away for another cigarette.
The cake comes out lopsided, and you stare at it as it cools on the counter. At this point, you can cover it with thick icing until it looks normal on the outside. Or, you can stick the candles in at funny angles, and make it look like you meant to do it.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

LRRPS

(Sorry for the delay, folks, it's been an interesting few weeks. Here's an old story of mine included in that bizarre genre I like to call military horror. It's not the next great American short story, but still fun.)


Six men moved through the jungle steam without a word as it lubricated every crevice and dripped from every protrusion. Fat sweat beads clung to their faces and oozed through camouflage paint. The men no longer noticed their rotting feet or wrinkled hands or their own wet stench. They had been out here too long, and those were the least of their worries.

The jungle had eventually contracted about them, working them through like intestines, slowly drawing out their humanity in languid peristalses. All the orders they received before the patrol slowly expired in the depths of their quicksand minds. The only mission now was survival, except for the one man who held on to his focus like a wet bar of soap.

Staff Sergeant Rommel raised a flattened hand and the team stopped. The stooped, pack-laden figures looked to their leader. Rommel circled his hand in the air and the men came together. Only when all six of them were in a tight cluster did he dare to whisper, and his voice came like a breeze through leaves. “Stodghill, any contact?”

“No.”

“When was the last time we heard from the rear?”

“Three weeks ago.”

“Try again next comm window.”

Stodghill grunted in acknowledgement and squeezed the handset. No shit.

“Hey, Map Bitch,” said Rommel, “where are we right now?”

The hollow cheeks and bony forehead gathered together in response to the nickname. Nevertheless, the man pulled out a worn map and a compass. “Well,” he said, gesturing to the map, “we’re just this side of shit creek and headed straight up your ass.” His eyes blazed with challenge.

Rommel knew the man’s volatility, and expertly doused it with a splash of nonchalance. “Does that mean we’ve crossed into Cambodia?”

“Sure, why not.”

Rommel nodded. “I’ll take that as a yes. Gents, as you know, command won’t even acknowledge our presence from here on out. Let’s keep it cool and we’ll be at our objective in no time. Good to go?”

X-ray stares were the only response.

“Great,” agreed Rommel with himself. “Let’s move.”

The men moved on their earthen treadmill, haunted by the ghosts that flitted in the shade. But even the specters of their deepest fear couldn’t stop them. Nothing could anymore because all they knew was to keep moving. All they knew was to walk, and with each footstep their brains pulsed with decaying thoughts.

Garza was tired of being tail end Charlie. He didn’t like turning around and walking backwards. He didn’t like that he always had to flip-flop between Ellis’ ass and the voracious, everlasting jungle. The turning spun his mind, and his mind spun his thoughts. “I don’t mind the hiking so much,” he thought, “it’s just all this walking around.”

Ellis’ thoughts could not be heard. He kept them tuned to a whisper, even in his own head. He was second to last in their patrol. He was second to last, and that was all he did besides watch Rommel who was in front of him.

“The mission,” thought Rommel. “What was it again? Observation? Raid? Doesn’t matter. Have to stick to it.” Then, Rommel thought about the mission some more.

Rommel’s constant reminders annoyed Stodghill. It was not difficult: radio checks went in one-hour windows twice a day. He would glance back at Rommel with irritation now and then, but really, deep down inside, he didn’t care. He much preferred to reminisce about the old days on the farm.

“Mom used to make some good fried chicken,” he thought. “Crispy skin, with some collard greens, mashed potatoes. Yams. Boy, I can almost smell it.” Then he’d look up and imagine that the Map Bitch was a giant fried chicken, walking on severed legs and steaming.

Meanwhile the Map Bitch steamed. “My name is fucking Roberts. Roberto. Big fucking Bob. And you’re all my bitches. That’s right because I have the map. Gee, I hope I’m going the right way. Hope I don’t get lost. Whoops! Too late!” He grinded his teeth and leered at Zeppo who was on point.

Zeppo was a hawk. He walked lighter than everyone else, eyes wide and darting from crevice to crevice. His walk was fueled by fear, and the fear made him strong. He didn’t care about anything but his own ass, and this gave him a superhuman boost to his perception. “Don’t get shot, don’t set off a trap. I am a ninja. I am one with my kung fu.” He led the team on through the bush.

The sun streaked across the sky many times leaving daylong trails in the men’s eyes. The leaves flew by, the plants ran, and the bugs darted faster than the blink of an eye. They should have found their objective long ago. They should have found anything long ago. Instead, the sky grew light and dark in a wicked strobe. Then one day Rommel’s fist shot into the air and the sun stopped overhead. The team took cover, sneaking curious glances towards their patrol leader.

Stodghill crouched low with a finger in one ear and the handset to the other. He was grimacing with the effort to hear. He motioned to Rommel who approached eagerly. Stodghill whispered when they were side by side.

“I think I’m getting someone but I can’t quite make it out. It’s too faint.”

“Lemme hear it,” said Rommel. He snatched the handset and pressed it close. It sounded like a mixture of white noise and a record playing backwards. He keyed the handset. “Any station, any station, this is Hawkeye One, over.”

The eerie molasses voice was the only reply.

“Any station, any station, this is Hawkeye One, over.”

The radio squelched and went completely silent. Rommel tried to start up the noise again by glaring at the handset. When that didn’t work, he smacked it against his palm.

“Fuckin’…” He smacked it some more and put it to his ear. “Piece of sh-“

Rommel was cut off by the voice from the handset. It was loud enough for the both of them to hear. It was cool, clean, and confident like a car salesman.

“Hello? Hello? Can you guys hear me?” asked the Handset.

“Please use proper radio etiquette,” demanded Rommel. “What is your call sign, over?”

“Call sign? Are you losing it Ray? This is Satan, of course.”

“Satan?” Rommel looked up at Stodghill who shrugged. “We are not familiar with that call sign, over.”

Sharp, deep laughter came from the handset. “No, no, no. This is the Devil. The Prince of Darkness. You know, the big red guy with horns and a pitchfork?”

“You mean to tell me that you are the Devil.”

“Yes.”

“Who lives in hell?”

“Most of the time.”

“I don’t know how you know my name, but you need to quit polluting our fuckin’ airwaves, bozo.”

The handset sighed. “Ok, look, I’ll prove it. There’s a large detachment of baddies moving your way right now. I’m just not very good with secrets, you understand, and I sort of gave them your coordinates. But anyhow, they’re pissed off and plan to kill you all. Go ahead. Look West.”

Rommel looked west, and in the distance, through the trees, he could see a large flock of birds bursting from beneath the canopy.

“Oh yes,” said the handset, “they don’t just fly like that for their health, do they?”

“No. They don’t.”

“So, let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we? Gather up your men, and we’ll see if we can’t get you out of here alive.”

Rommel circled his finger in the air, and moments later the remainder of his squad was circled tightly about him. “Listen up men. A shitload of Charlies are headed this way. Also, Satan is on the radio and he wants to talk to you.”

Someone snickered. Someone cussed. The others just stared. The Handset spoke once more. “Gentlemen, so good to meet you in person. I’ve been watching you for some time. Anyhow, your buddy Ray here is right. Most of you will die before nightfall. The rest of you will be horribly tortured. As you can see this is a truly crappy situation. Now, I feel that you are finally in a position where you can fully appreciate the generosity behind my offer, so I’m willing to work with you today. If you act now, you can have your lives back. In fact, if you act within the next hour, I’ll throw in free passage back to base, transportation back to the states, and a lifetime of fame and fortune. And all of this after you’ve completely decimated the approaching enemy force. Now you’re probably thinking, ‘sounds good, but what will it cost me?’ My friends, it will cost you nary a dime. In fact, all I ask for is a tiny and seldom used thing you like to refer to as your soul. Now hold on a second, these are friend prices here because I like you guys so much. Don’t let this offer pass you by. I’ll give you some time to think it over.”

Silence.

“This can’t be serious. Good fucking joke Rommel, but nobody’s laughing,” said Roberts with a sneer.

“It’s not a joke,” replied Rommel.

“Bullshit. Stodghill, I know you don’t believe this crap.”

Stodghill shrugged and looked into the trees.

Roberts glared at the remaining members in hope of some support.

Zeppo was still on the alert and had heard hardly a word.

Garza piped up. “I don’t know, Roberts. I think he’s full of shit but he might be telling the truth.”

Ellis coughed into his fist and was otherwise silent.

The handset came to life again. “So! Gentlemen, have we decided yet?”

“Hey, uh, Satan?” asked Rommel.

“Yes?”

“I hate to burst your bubble, but we really have to get ready, so we’re gonna have to go ahead and cut you off.”

“But I already told you, I’ll make it so you don’t have to worry about anything.”

“We really appreciate the offer and all, but that’s a big negative. Take ‘er easy Satan.”

“But-”

“No.”

“Very well. I know your hearts. Just think it and it shall be done. But for those of you who refuse I shall reserve the greatest torments of Hell, daily flaying the flesh from your screaming, writhing bodies until-”

“Ok thanks, bye.” Rommel yanked the cord from the radio and it fell silent. “Well gents, we’re fucked. We’ve been compromised and those bastards are tracking us. This is probably going to be our last stand, so make it a good one. Let’s fortify the area.”

And that’s what they did. In two hours they had dug a series of skirmish holes and laid out a matrix of claymores. They hid their packs and lay in the long shallow holes. The sun glued itself to the blue poster board behind it. The sweat on their faces discontinued to drip, and the flies hung stationary in the air. They waited.

Time passed, and finally, Zeppo saw the barrel of an AK-47 slide through the leaves. It was connected to a pair of hands, then arms, then a black pajama clad body. Soon they could all see the enemy soldier creeping directly towards them. He was alone.

Rommel took aim. The front sight post settled into a locked

position and aligned perfectly with the man’s chest. Rommel’s

finger slid over the trigger and curled backwards almost of its own

volition. He exhaled slowly, allowing his breath to rush forever

in his ears. The breath stopped, coating him and his rifle in a

blanket of silence. The jungle froze.

BANG!

The enemy soldier crumpled like a soda can. Zeppo whispered over to Rommel, “Nice.”

Rommel smirked and nodded.

The shouting and gunfire started all at once. From somewhere behind the dead man came an engulfing barrage of lead. Everywhere around the team, bushes and trees began to splinter, crack, and explode. Somewhere amidst all the noise a wave of frenzied voices screamed. Garza nearly soiled his pants.

“Holy Christ it was Satan!” cried Roberts. “That asshole!”

The men gritted their teeth as the enemy finally appeared, trickles of them running through the trees. The squad opened fire. Soon the trickle became a flow, and the flow became a tide, so they hit the claymores. One clack and a string of explosives vaporized the nearest enemy, three-hole punched the near, and wounded the far. Confused and bewildered, the enemy scattered into self-proclaimed seek and destroy teams.

“Fall back,” ordered Rommel, “we’ll let them come at us.”

“Fuck that!” challenged Roberts. “Attack them now while they’re confused! Come on you bastards, let’s do it!”

No one moved. Garza thought it might be a good idea, but said nothing.

“Fine then pussies!” screamed Roberts. “I’ll do this by myself. All you ever did was drag me down anyways! Now who’s the Map Bitch?”

Roberts sprung through the trees and hurtled the bushes before Rommel could say anything. The men watched him run screaming towards the enemy. He killed one. He killed another. He was on top of a group of three when he suddenly jerked backwards and down, leaving the tree behind him coated in glistening red.

“Let’s go,” growled Rommel. The men followed this time and fell back to a secondary position, readying their rifles once more.

“Staff Sergeant,” said Garza, “maybe we oughtta think about that deal.”

“No need, Garza. There’s nothing that a few well trained men can’t accomplish with well coordinated tactics.”

“W-what do you think Stodghill?”

“Huh? Shit, whatever. This is hell. Dyin’ seems like a good way out to me.”

“I think I’m gonna do it,” said Garza, “I’m gonna take the deal.”

Ellis looked over at him for a moment then returned his gaze toward the enemy.

Zeppo began to shout, “Well, either way, I have my ass covered. I just prayed to every God in the book. I ain’t goin’ to hell, it’s just a question of which heaven.” He garnished the statement with a grin before ripping off a few shots. Another group of enemy was charging their way, but Ellis showed them how to fly with a well-placed shot from his grenade launcher. Like ants, the enemy came back with replacements, each time a little more coordinated. It wasn’t long before murderous machine gun fire had them pinned. Rommel observed a tertiary position that they could fall back to, and calculated the movement it would require.

“Listen up,” said the patrol leader, “we’re going to fall back to those dirt mounds to our left. Garza, Zeppo, and Stodghill, you three will rush to the position while we provide cover. Move on my command. Ready? Fire!” All five of them popped up, firing furiously into the bushes. For a moment, the enemy fire died down, and Rommel gave the command. As Zeppo, Garza, and Stodghill sprinted to the next position, Rommel and Ellis continued to fire. Once set, the first three opened fire, and Rommel made the dash with Ellis.

They were not fast enough.

After the first rush, a machine gun position had trained itself on the open ground, and pounded the area just as the two men entered it. Rommel was shredded instantly, and Ellis went down with a cry just as he reached cover.

“Ellis! You hit?” shouted Garza.

After patting himself down, Ellis replied, “No. I’m fine.”

The four remaining men held fast. They fired endlessly into that jungle. Stodghill took a round through the shoulder and one through the ear. Garza thought about running away, but didn’t. Zeppo conserved his ammo with well-aimed shots, picking men off with well-honed reflexes. All the while, the enemy closed. They were many and unstoppable. They kept coming with greater desperation. Stodghill unfolded his entrenching tool. The men braced themselves like children at the beach, shivering before a monstrous, foaming wave. When it hit, they fought hand to hand.

#

Outside the jungle, the battle was like listening to popcorn. The

kernels popped slowly at first but grew quickly into a deafening

staccato rush. Over time, the noise died down. The last few

kernels exploded and gave way to only a murmur of voices sliced by

screams. The shooting stopped because the killing was face to

face, all cutting edges and blunt objects, smashed skulls and open

sternums. It was personal, animalistic, and merciless. But even

this slowed and the screams became fewer. At last there was

nothing, and the jungle swallowed the noise whole. The birds came,

attracted by a new source of nutrition. They squawked and circled

and dove. The wind blew and the leaves rustled. But not all in

the jungle was still.

Somewhere, a ghostly noise pierced the sounds of nature’s digestion. It rose and echoed until one could recognize it as whistling. The happy, cheerful noise grew, and the birds cocked their heads to listen.

Through the bushes a figure pushed by, leisurely and unafraid. A severed head swung with up-rolled eyes, its black hair clenched in a bloody fist. A sleek black rifle was slung comfortably over a shoulder.

Ellis took a moment to laugh before resuming his song, and walked comfortably through the jungle. The leaves swallowed him and he was gone.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Night Ride

(I'm posting this one as a request. It's based on an actual event. Might want to keep the tissues nearby, unless you hate your parents...)

Things are never as they are when you’re a child. The world becomes imagination and symbiotic emotion. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t scared when we were stranded on the side of the road that night. The tire had blown and the old green Ford hobbled to the curb seeking respite from its wound. The dashboard blocked my view. I puzzled over the sudden slowing of the buildings outside which were no longer running by but walking, and then at last pausing for a breath. The great engine quieted and my Father made sounds of dissatisfaction and slid out into the night. Without a word I reached over and pulled the handle, the massive door swinging outward with a groan. I made sure I was positioned just right before making the distant leap onto the pavement. My Father was nearby now, legs like trees, muscular and imposing. His knees were right at eye-level so I reached out and poked one. I giggled. My Father made the journey down to the ground and surveyed the damage done to the tire. He shook his head. That was not good so I started to frown. He looked at me and ruffled my hair. I smiled again. I looked at him as he rose again to his full height. I thought he might bump his head into the moon.

The area was a kaleidoscope of zooming cars and streetlamps. Headlights came brighter and then flashed by into dull red eyes. It was a long road. I looked both ways and saw it stretch on into secret pirate lairs and other dimensions.

My Father had his bicycle in the back of the truck. I saw his arms like a forklift as he lifted the shimmering vehicle from the truck bed and set it on the ground. The red Diamondback, I remembered, would eventually be stolen, but tonight it would propel us into dreams.

Within moments he bent to take hold of me and shot me into the sky. I was a rocket man flying on giants’ hands. My trip ended with a soft landing on broad shoulders. My eager paws shot around the wide forehead, clinging like a koala. Before I knew it we were off, sailing on the night wind.

How alive the night breeze is when you’re a speeding bullet. The wind whipped tears from my eyes, or maybe somehow in my youth I was able to comprehend the beauty of the moment. My father was a machine, cranking and turning, puffing and pushing. He was solid and unwavering. The spokes underneath were a mesh of sparks in the yellow light, set ablaze by a mad welder. Cars came by, much slower now. They were not so fast, not compared us. I cried out in delight.

We went on forever down that road, Father and son, until at last the bicycle slowed and came to a halt at an auto shop. My heart sank as the journey came to an end. I was lowered to the ground. The bright auto shop was an island in the darkness. My Father stormed the stronghold, slipping into the thick fluorescent light. We had finally reached our goal, but it was the journey that I longed for. It was the journey that whistled through my mind and teased my imagination. He returned, rolling a brand new tire as I stood quietly next to the bicycle. I couldn’t have lifted it if I tried.

It was then that I found myself atop his shoulders again. My face lit up and my jaw dropped. Tire in one hand and handlebar in the other, my Father steamed down the road into the night once more. Superman didn’t hold a candle to this giant below, all pistons and cranks pushing swiftly forward, unaffected by the staggering load. I sailed on up high where I could see everything. He was invincible, I was sure. We slipped away like ghosts at home in the darkness.

Now I am much older. I have traveled much and seen many things. I think somewhere inside my father still rides, much like that night. That figure will never die, that invulnerable machine chugging on into forever. He churns in the back of my mind through adversity and struggle and it gives me strength. I hope that one day I can be the same man to my children as he has been to me. I hope to be a steadfast colossus to them, unhindered and ever supportive. I have traveled much and seen many things, but rare is anything as pure as a child’s love for his Dad.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Separation Anxiety

(I wrote this tale for a short story class. It's based on some ideas thrown about while I was in the Marines and tooling around Japan, though I guarantee that the gentleman in this piece had a much more adventurous time than I. It's also more intense than my previous posts, so if you're easily offended you might want to wait until next week...)

Somewhere in Tokyo, I lost myself. My body throbbed as I sprinted down the sidewalk, drunk but sobering fast. I passed Club 911, Club True, Gaspanic, and The Basement, all ablaze with neon and regurgitating party goers they couldn’t hold. I pushed someone hard and saw them whiplash in the corner of my eye, heard a string of curses fade behind. Maybe if I had gotten to the cab stand, things would have been different. Maybe if I had turned left or right, I could have stuffed the memory away and let it dissolve my insides. Instead, someone’s forearm flew at my throat. I felt a crunch and saw a flash of light, and I floated to the concrete. The sidewalk felt like shag carpeting.

Inside my head, it was like someone was spinning the radio knob. Voices smashed together and ran circles through my brain, and all I could see was the fuzzy outline of my feet bouncing as they dragged me. They took me to a massage parlor and sat me at a table in back.

Half intoxicated and half concussed, I watched as they pinned my hand to the table and shouted in Japanese. A meat cleaver appeared out of nowhere and jerked around in the air like a butterfly. One of the men, the smallest, spoke some English. His voice was gentle, almost timid.

“You see what happen?”

I watched the hand on the table. It wasn’t mine. “See what?”

“Ahh.” He cleared his throat. “You tell, or finger, no more.”

I wondered if the hand on the table would feel the chop, miss its finger and wonder what it was doing these days. The blade fluttered by.

“Yeah. I saw something.”

“Ahh.” The man nodded, or bowed. “You tell.”

“I saw some guy shoot some people.”

The man turned to his colleagues. Their conversation sounded like five men having a seizure.

“Which man did you see?”

I looked up at the faces around the table, crammed together and leaning. One of them had blood splattered down his neck. It wasn’t difficult to guess. “I don’t know. It was too dark to tell.”

He nodded. “You tell police?”

“No. No way.”

Another conversation.

“My companions say you lie.”

Somehow the blade steadied and rose over the plastic thing on the table. I looked from my fingers to the knife and back again. I felt the grips on my shoulders tighten, felt my wrist squeezed so that my hand turned purple. My first instinct was to blame Miko, and maybe even Seth, but as I stared at the hovering metal I caught a glimpse of my reflection, and I knew that it was all my fault.

Sun sparked off of the windows like a welder’s flame, and the train’s vibrations made me feel fuzzy. But then again, so did the twelve pack of Kirin that Seth brought along.

“To Daddy’s bank account.” Seth raised his can, smirking.

I scratched my eyebrow with my middle finger and inhaled. “How about to finally being on our own, you turd.”

“Good enough.”

The aluminum clinked together, and Seth sucked on his beer like he wanted it inside out. His face turned up and became all can, Greek nose, and curly hair. He was out of breath when he finished. “Oh yeah, and to the roommate that kept me from friggin failing out of college.” Seth poked at me with an extended finger and punctuated the remark with a belch.

“All I did was let you copy my homework.”

“Which I never would have done on my own.”

Outside, the landscape changed from forest to river to city and then started over.

“So, what’re we doing in Tokyo?” I asked.

Seth yanked the glossy map from his jeans. “I don’t know. After we get off at Shinjuku we could take the orange line to see the Tokyo tower.”

“Okay. And after those fifteen minutes, then what?”

“Um, look at Tokyo?” Seth scratched his chin.

“I mean tonight. What are we doing tonight?”

“Oh, dude, Roppongi. You remember Todd, from Renaissance? He says it’s insane. He says they love Americans there, in every sense of the word.”

“We’ll have to thank Todd when we get back.”

Seth’s can crunched between his palms, and he picked up another. “Eff yeah. Can’t wait.”

“I’ll bet you can’t, you alcoholic.”

“Beer is good for you, they proved it.”

“Guess I’d better have another then.”

When I first saw Miko at Gaspanic, I was staring through the flames over my drink. As lights flashed and noise drowned out sound, I saw her dancing between the flickering blue wisps, swaying and whipping herself to the music. I swallowed the fiery concoction and traced mental lines over her boots and fishnet stockings, her laced top and slick waterfall hair. When the alcohol finally crushed my inhibition, I made my way to the dance floor.

Her English was bad, but I couldn’t hear her over the music anyways, so I cut the crap and pulled her in. I think there was something in her skin, maybe a hallucinogenic or military-grade pheromone secreted through her pores, or maybe that last drink just hit me in the face like a flying brick, but when I touched her, our surroundings melted together and I could feel the sound. The beat was pounded out by my heart and sent rushing through arteries as we slid over each other in perfect sync. The crowd was a dark, fleshy bubble around us. We drew close and kissed, all lips and hands, pressed together by writhing bodies and overwhelming impulse. I lost all sense of time, and might have let the sun rise there if it weren’t for Miko. At some point she grabbed my hand and cocked her head towards the door. It was still night when she pulled me outside, and our breath crystallized in the fluorescent air.

She introduced herself. I told her that she had me at making out, but she didn’t get the joke. I took a moment to feel awkward before she spoke again. It was getting late, she said, and we should go to a better club. The best one around. I just nodded, so she smiled and led me down the street.

I forked another mouthful of potato salad and leaned back in the lawn chair. Uncle Ray cannonballed into the pool. An enormous banner congratulating me clung to the side of our house, flapping in the wind and loosening its already tenuous grip. It was one of those lazy days, where the breeze was warm and the buzz of insects floated through the sunlight.

“So, what are you planning to do with your Art History degree?” My dad asked this from the lawn chair beside, staring straight forward through dark sunglasses and sipping on fancy imported beer.

It reminded me of the time I was a freshman in high school and tried out for the football team. When I came home, I told him I’d made third string. “Well, I hope you’re not planning to make a career out of it,” he said. I’d been getting that kind of shit as long as I could remember. I concentrated on my paper plate and shrugged.

“Because, you know, we always have a place at the firm. If you ever wanted to get your CPA-”

“I know Dad.” My teeth grit through potato chunks.

I watched as Uncle Ray pulled himself from the pool, tugging at his vacuumed trunks. He wobbled back to the barbecue to check the meat, flame rising, blades flashing in his hands.

“I’m just saying.” He sipped his beer. “Oh yeah, I almost forgot.” He handed me an envelope.

“What’s this?”

He shrugged.

Two plane tickets slid into my palm. “Japan?”

“Might do you some good. See the world.”

In other words, take some time, relax, and when you’ve finally got your head on straight and a real life in mind, come back and we’ll talk.

I looked across the pool and saw my mother talking to Dan, the bachelor from across the street. She was smiling too much and constantly touching his forearm. I hadn’t seen her like that with Dad in years, but now, I didn’t care. I’d take their money and run like a fucking bank robber. They didn’t own me anymore. I was no longer part of their family.

Seth gaped as the cab pulled to a stop. It was like Times Square with all the letters rendered in splatter paint. I handed the driver some Yen and stepped onto the curb, cranking my neck to soak in the buildings, lights, and monstrous screens displaying Kodak cameras. Welcome to Roppongi, the High Touch Town. I was eyeing the exterior of a gentlemen’s club when two soft arms wrapped around one of mine.

“You want massagi?”

I looked down at the small Japanese woman on my arm. She was young and cute. “Excuse me?”

“I say massagi. You want massagi?” She freed a hand and made a yanking motion. It wasn’t hard to guess what she was offering.

“Come on, she love you long time!” Seth laughed and clapped his hands.

“No. Thanks. I’m fine,” I said.

“No, you like. I like you.” She began to pull me to a dark green doorway. I had to pry her off and reassert myself.

“I appreciate the thought, but no thanks. Okay?”

She stormed off. I looked over and saw another young woman on Seth’s arm. “You want massagi?”

He wasn’t as polite.

We started off down the sidewalk, overwhelmed by the cultural car wreck. Here, it wasn’t just Japanese, it was Russians and Brazilians, Brits and Americans. It wasn’t just Asian cuisine, it was French pastries, Hard Rock CafĂ© and Freshness Burger. And the flow of cars in the street was nearly as dense as the flow of people. I turned to Seth.

“What do we do if we get split up?”

He grinned. “I’ll meet you at the hotel in the morning.”

“Sounds good. I’ll look for you in the bushes out front.”

“Shut your trap. Let’s do this.”

We walked the strip, noting the locations of the nicer looking clubs. Only when we passed an alley did I see the flames. I tapped Seth’s shoulder and pointed.

We slipped down the dark walkway and found ourselves staring at Club Quest. The red and yellow marquee was on fire. A series of gas lines had been rigged around the words, and flames spurted out to curl up into the night. The stainless steel doors glowed orange in response, and the combined effect made the club look like a walk-in barbecue. We rushed inside.

When the doors swung open, Seth just shook his head and pretended to wipe a tear. The club was packed, mostly with women, and apparently they had forgotten much of their clothing. One of them was getting frisky on the bar counter, and I had to tilt my head to follow her motion.

Suddenly, I was staring into a fat palm. The bouncer had oozed from his dark corner to intercept us. “No Americans,” he said. He had metal teeth, and part of his ear was missing.

“No Americans?” asked Seth. “Are you serious?”

“No Americans!”

We looked at each other for a moment, and decided that this would not be a wise confrontation. There was nothing left to do but nod, and find another club.

I grew excited when I saw the burning marquee once more. Miko pulled me through the steel doors, and the bouncer stepped aside when she spoke in Japanese. I winked at the big man and strutted by. I couldn’t wait to rub it in Seth’s face in the morning, especially after ditching me for an unattractive American girl. It was like going to a sushi restaurant and ordering a hamburger. Still, I couldn’t blame him. At least he knew what he was getting.

We waded into the swarm of dancers and emerged at the bar. Miko ordered drinks and excused herself to the bathroom, so I made myself comfortable. The walls were covered in green tapestries, the bar all oak and brass. The VIP area was in back, and men sat at low, circular tables, wearing sunglasses and smoking. A fog machine spat roiling balls that exploded into mist, and turned the dancers into silhouettes against flashing rainbow beams. The drinks came, and I took a sip of mine. I was sure Miko had ordered paint thinner.

When she didn’t show up again, I searched the crowd for her, holding the small umbrella to the side as I finished off her drink. I thought I saw Miko standing near one of the rear tables, bending down to kiss a man on the cheek. When I stood it felt like the club had been set adrift on the Pacific Ocean, and I had to focus on the horizon to keep from getting sick. The music pushed in on my head with every beat, and as I stepped through the dancers I was nudged and elbowed. I spun about, looking for an adversary, but all I found were more shadows.

Then the strobe started. Intense flashes lit up the partygoers, and I realized that something was wrong. They jerked about me, oblivious, heads lax and rolling on bouncing bodies, their arms raised into the fog. One guy slipped something into his mouth, and a girl ripped open his buttons and licked up his chest before he fed her a pill. I thought I saw another girl bleeding from her nose before she spun out of sight. I tried to keep moving, but was stopped by a firm grip on my genitalia. A young woman slid into view and wedged in close. She had rhinestones glued to her face, heavy eyeliner and pig tails.

“Let’s party,” she shouted, demanding more than asking. During the brief flashes, I could see her pin-point pupils and orange contacts. I looked over and could no longer see Miko, so I slipped behind some people, and shrank away from my aggressor. Twenty feet from the tables, I stopped. The scene was clear now and Miko was not there, but the men were and they were not happy. Through the waving arms, between flashes, the men screamed, acting out a silent film accompanied by harsh techno. They stood, pointing, mouths wide. One man swiped the table and it flipped, spraying white dots into the air. The other man reached into his coat.

I had never seen a real Mac-10 before. I had seen them in movies and toy stores, and knew that the guns were both automatic, and severely inaccurate. At that range, the latter was unimportant.

The flashing light slowed time, and with every pulse, the image changed. The gun pointed. The man raised his arms. The muzzle flashed, and the expended shells hovered above the weapon hot and waiting. A spray of blood jutted from the man’s chest like a frozen fountain, his face clenched. Then the man was gone, and the gun turned towards the crowd. I remember the grimace on this man’s face, the speckles of blood that stretched across his neck and down his suit, the dark glasses that covered his eyes, and that moment when the weapon was pointed at me. The man had spotted in me in the crowd. I was the only one not dancing, the only gaijin gawking at the spectacle. I wondered if the bullets were real, if this distant show could affect a neutral observer. Still the music pounded on; no one else had missed a beat. My legs carried me backwards. My shoulder smacked into the heavy swinging door and I breathed the chilly night air. My feet hurled me around the corner and down the street, never stopping, never stopping for anything.

My eyes focused on the cleaver, poised like a guillotine’s blade. I felt like it hung there all night, just looking beautiful in the lamp light, glinting at its corners and almost glowing along the edge. My face reflected back in the polished metal, a dripping hourglass. I watched the men watch me, and wondered if they wondered why I wasn’t scared. Or maybe they thought that I just didn’t get what was about to happen, which was the correct answer. Because they waited for my eyes to go wide. They waited because they knew it was the exact moment when I realized that this wasn’t a movie, wasn’t a TV show or dumb story, and it was that moment that the big, beautiful blade disappeared. I heard the impact of metal on wood, and my head dropped to see what had happened. The man yanked the blade from the table top, and my pinky flopped to the side. There was little blood, and there was no pain.

“You see what happen?” the small man asked.

But the truth was, I hadn’t. All I could do was stare at my pinky, and wonder how it had gotten there, alone and dying. And I hated my pinky for betraying me, but hoped more than anything that the doctors would be able to sew it back on if I ever got out of there. I wondered what my mom would think of the scar. I wondered if my dad would be ashamed. For some reason, I remembered the time I tried out for the football team, and realized that it was I who quit.

The small man said something, but it might as well have been a muted trombone. I felt my face cool and my tongue swell, and I watched as the yellow grins began to sway and stretch, and dissolve into black and white. The table top rushed up to meet my face, and my thoughts spun away.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Casualty Report

(This is one of my first attempts at...horror, maybe? I think I was aiming for creepiness rather than horror, but either way, this classic has two elements I love to write about - zombies, and the military. It was only a matter of time before I combined them.)

I didn’t know if it was the smell of old rubber and damp earth, but I felt queasy that night. Everyone was swimming in a pool of sickly blue light oozing from the fluorescent bulbs overhead. It seemed surreal to me that in such a haze lay the brain center of our battalion. The men in command buzzed like bees, exchanging ideas, marking their maps, receiving and sending messages. I sat there and watched, and when another message had gone through the machine of officers and radio operators, I took it, logged it, and stored it in my journal. I was glad I was in here. A GP tent beat sleeping on the ground, especially on a soggy night like this.

The rain fluctuated, sometimes a soft tickle on the roof, sometimes a slapping torrent. This was where chaos became order, and order back into chaos. The sounds could tell you that when the squawking radios, murmuring officers, and beating rain experimented with all combinations of each other and sometimes, eerily, slipped into mutual silence.

I couldn’t tell you how I ended up at this table. It seemed only weeks ago I was in Alpha Company, hiking with the rest of them, sharing the dirt and pain, sharing the everlasting trudges through mountains and valleys, accosted by the elements and my own run-down gear prodding the softer spots of my body. Maybe it was luck or someone senior decided I had what it took, but I found myself here drinking coffee in the Combat Operations Center. Sometimes I felt bad knowing what my friends were going through out there tonight, but then I realized that it could have been me and I’d reach for a hot cup of Joe instead. The Operations Chief handed me another message.

“Position report: Alpha Company moved to Grid 881 763.”

I logged it in and looked up front towards the map boards. Whole companies were closing in on the enemy, and all they were to us were colored pins marking their position. It was easy to detach yourself from the bloodshed when all you did was move pins on a board. From what I could see from my rickety field table, the red pin was now about a half inch nearer to it’s second objective. I took a sip from my Styrofoam cup, feeling the warmth spread through my chest.

The radio broke the hum with shouting. “Snowstorm, snowstorm, snowstorm! Alpha Company receiving incoming mortar fire, request Artillery on Grid 886 764.”

The hum spiked into excited shouting and movement increased. In the distance I could hear the rumble of thunder; or maybe my old company was closer than I thought. Either way, the commotion eventually died down and another message was passed to me.

“Situation Report: Alpha Company sustained zero casualties, suppressed enemy fire with artillery. Closing in on Battalion Objective Two.”

Instead of sighing with relief I shook my pen for ink when I logged in the message. I crammed it on top of all the other messages. I closed the journal and rubbed my forehead. I rested my face on my palm and allowed my eyelids to press for an eagerly desired moment of unconsciousness. Everything began to melt away and I existed for a moment only in supposition. The radio jolted me back to reality.

“Titan One, this is Alpha, we have contact!”

The radio blurted out fire requests, the sounds of combat flickering in the background as it came to life. A few moments later the little yellow messages came, flowing like water through a pipeline of hands. They dropped onto my desk one after the other. I stacked them neatly and began logging them in.

“Name: PFC Hodges, L.G. SS#: 543245768. Wound(s): Gunshot right arm, concussion. Status: Standing by for medevac.”

“Name: LCpl Reynold, H.R. SS#: 443672323. Wound(s): Shrapnel, chest, abdomen, upper thighs. Status: Standing by for medevac.”

And then one that caught my attention.

“Name: LCpl Steward, J.M. SS# 656448987. Wound(s): Gunshot, head. Status: Deceased.

I remembered the time when Steward and I fought just for kicks when we were drunk. We sat down icing our wounds with cold beer bottles afterwards, laughing about the pain we had dealt each other. And the time in Okinawa when we stole some hats from a couple of wanna-be cowboys and galloped through the streets to the bewilderment of the locals.

Now he was just another leaflet in my logbook. I stamped the message, filed it, and started on the next. I took a sip of coffee.

My journal began to bulge with the little yellow papers and they were still coming strong, but despite the heavy casualties it still sounded as if we were gaining ground. I never had any doubt that my boys would overcome. They were a tough bunch of bastards.

The situation reports were encouraging: “Enemy suppressed, advancing on their position.”

Or, “Enemy position destroyed, estimated twenty casualties.”

Inside I smiled. Somehow I felt part of this, maybe like a father feels when his son scores the winning goal in a soccer match. I felt sorry for Alpha Company, but even sorrier for the enemy. But then a message left prickles up my neck as the radio spit it out like rancid milk.

“Flash, Flash, Flash, unknown gas attack on Alpha’s position! I say again, unknown gas attack on Alpha’s position!”

Everyone in the tent went scrambling, donning and clearing their gas masks in a frightened fumble. Before long those with me gave a muffled shout, “Gas, Gas, Gas!” Everything warped through the lenses of my mask. Their voices became softer and robotic through their voicemitters, and the sound of my own breath rushed loudly with each inhalation. I rubbed at the irritating elastic now pressing into the back of my skull, but finding that it provided no relief, I re-donned my Kevlar helmet.

The officers mumbled phrases of dismay as the radio operator tried to reestablish contact with Alpha Company.

“Alpha, Alpha this is Titan 1, how do you copy, over.”

Only the rain could be heard between the radio operator’s repetitions. We could only wait. The moments slithered by like cold spaghetti. Finally we received an enigmatic message from our scout snipers.

“Titan One, this is Hawkeye, over.”

“Hawkeye, this is Titan One.”

“We’ve spotted Alpha Company, break. They have received extensive casualties, break. The remnants are heading your direction, over.

“Roger that.”

“Hawkeye out.”

The officers shook their heads and swore, looking like deep-sea creatures stuck in an eddy. I tried readjusting my mask without breaking the seal but it provided no relief as the edges dug into my face. The radio operator continued his search for contact with Alpha to no avail. We received another report from the snipers.

“Titan One this is Hawkeye, over.”

“Hawkeye this is Titan One, send it.”

“Alpha company not responding, break. They are scattered and approaching your perimeter, over.”

“Roger that.”

“Hawkeye out.” The officers rested their hands on their tables, hunched over and staring.

The rain stopped. The officers became quiet. The radios beeped. My breath was harsh in my ears.

Somewhere far outside, one of our men shouted a challenge. He repeated himself. He repeated himself again. There was no reply.

The sharp reports of M16’s accentuated by the occasional grenade penetrated the walls of the tent and reverberated in my mask. Everyone scrambled for their weapons. Most of the officers had pistols. I was glad to have my rifle.

“They’re not going down!” Cried someone in the distance.

“Holy Christ!” Shouted someone else.

I knocked over my coffee as I carried my weapon outside. The yellow leaflets eagerly soaked it up.

I pushed my way through the entry flaps and found myself in a kaleidoscope of

darkness. Weak moonlight snuck through the spaces in between the camouflage netting that covered our tent, covering me in ghostly speckles. The rain had turned into an irritating mist, which came from all directions. I wiped my lenses, only helping to distort my vision further. I chambered a round as I cautiously crept through one of the holes in the netting. The sounds of combat were in full throttle now, overpowering my senses. I made my way to one of our secondary positions. Should our attackers make it through our primary defense, we would be the last thing between them and our Combat Operations Center.

My cover consisted only of a muddy dirt mound, which I sunk into as I lay just behind it, my rifle pointing into the blackness just over the top. I wiped my lenses again, streaking a tiny bit of sludge across them. I cursed to myself and waited as my uniform began to soak through with icy water. I began to shiver.

Slowly, the violence began to subside. The shots came fewer and farther between until at last there were no more. The queasiness grew in the pit of my stomach and worked itself up to my throat where it lodged in a hard lump. It was quiet again. On my left and right I could see the silhouettes of one or two of the officers watching intently. They only moved to wipe their masks.

I thought it was the condensation on my lenses warping the shadows before me, but something told me different. There was movement between the trees. I could hear the footsteps squishing in the mud before I could actually make anything out. The Kevlar helmet was the first thing to emerge from the darkness. A beam of moonlight highlighted the top in a downward silver crescent. It was one of ours. The figured approached awkwardly, dragging itself through the swampy area as it approached. The entrenching tool in its hand rattled metallically as it slapped against its side with each step. Then others like it began to emerge on its flanks. I desperately looked to my sides for some sort of command from the officers, but they were just as dumbfounded as I. I wiped my lenses again.

The figure before me slowly took form as it drew near. It wore our uniform, it had our gear, but it only gurgled and limped forward. Its face was a black hole beneath the helmet. In a fit of frustration and fear I ripped off my mask and squinted at the shadow.

The air was very crisp, and my face chilled quickly after being in the sweaty confines of the rubber mask. The moon caught the nametape of the thing for a brief moment. All remaining warmth left my body as I read it aloud.

“Steward.”

No. This was wrong. We were fighting our own.

“Steward, that you?” I cried desperately.

My voice was swallowed whole by the night, suffocated by grotesque silence.

The thing only gurgled.

“Reply or I’m going to open fire!” I challenged, anger overcoming the fear.

It rattled nearer.

I took aim at center mass and squeezed the trigger. The report left my ears fuzzy and squealing. Even my own breath sounded distant.

The thing lurched backwards but continued on. I scrunched my face and took another shot. It stumbled. I fired again. The officers snapped out of their daze and joined in. I fired rapidly now, finally putting the thing on it’s back. I looked to my sides. The enemy was almost on top of some of the officers’ positions. I turned back to the front. The thing was on its feet again, closer now. I recoiled in horror. Suddenly, I heard a shriek to my left. One of the things stood on one of the mounds and awkwardly hacked at the shadows. There was a faint crunch and a gurgle. I stood, taking a few steps back.

My mind refused to acknowledge when a sudden strobe of lightening caught their faces, melted and rotten. I dry heaved. I flicked my weapon to burst, spraying into the enemy as I backed away. It was only seconds before my weapon gagged on an empty magazine. The useless rifle hit the mud with a splat and I stumbled back into the tent. It was empty in here now, radios still beeping. The occasional scream or burst of fire rent the silence outside. I moved numbly to the radios, bumping into field tables along the way. I picked up a handset. My voice quivered as I struggled to stand in the liquid blue light.

“Longbow, Longbow, this is Titan One, over.”

“Titan 1 this is Longbow, send it.”

“Fire for effect on my position, over.”

“Say again your last?”

“Fire for effect my position!”

“By whose authorization?”

“Mine.”

“Who’re you?”

“The last one.”

“Roger that. Eight guns firing HE for effect on your position.” The radio went silent for a moment. “Shot, over.”

“Shot, out.”

I shakily lowered myself and sat cross-legged on the dirty rubber floor. I took off my helmet and laid it beside me. There were no more shots being fired outside. The screams had lost their way into the night. Many dry hands began to rake against the sides of the tent. I could hear their gurgling and rasping. The tent began to warp and sway from the prodding. They were all around. It was then that the flaps of the doorway began to rustle. Again the radio crackled to life.

“Splash, over.”

“Splash, out.” I dropped the handset and stared as the flaps began to part.

A distant whistle began to manifest itself overhead. It grew to a deafening shriek and then cut into instant silence.

“Try to get up from this,” I thought.

A smile passed over my lips.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Eight Millimeter Angel

(This story is probably the closest I've been to appearing in a paper publication. Of course, in the end, it didn't fit because of the fantastical elements. It involves a young man after his separation from the military, and the revelation of his dead-war-hero-grandfather's secrets...)

The weather was like flat soda on the day that Robert came home. He hoisted the green bag from the truck bed and wrestled it onto his shoulder, leaning against the massive weight. He waved and the truck growled off.

San Diego: not quite as he remembered it.

It wasn't so much that the place had changed, it was that he had, and looking up at his porch he realized for the first time that it wasn't his home any longer. It was the place where his mother and father lived.

His parents didn't notice he was home until they heard the heavy thud and found him standing in the living room. Robert, they said, Robert, you're home. He acknowledged the statement and hugs followed. We kept your room exactly as you left it, they said, not a single thing has changed.

His father nudged him and winked, said he was proud and did he kill anyone.

No. Didn't kill anyone. Probably the only unit in the Marine Corps that didn't kill a single person.

Robert's room was exactly as he remembered it, and his parents gave him some time to settle in. So he stared. Music posters on the wall; honor, courage, commitment stickers on the dresser. The T-shirt on the bed read “Extreme Marines”. It made him sick. He had worked too hard to become who he was to be mocked by his dead youth. He could see the naive high school student, shaved head with “USMC” scribbled into his binder. Embarrassing. The posters came down easy, but the old stickers left clingy goo to accumulate dirt and memories. Soon the trashcan bristled with disillusion. It was time to move on.

The door cracked open and his mother's face peeked in. We're having a party for you at your great grandma's house tonight, she said, if you'd like to go.

As if he had a choice.

But it was strange, that night, having the small crowd cheering for him. We're so glad you're home safe, they said, we're proud of you and did you kill anyone.

It's best that you didn't, they would say.

At some point, Robert wandered through his relatives, doled out handshakes and hugs. Yes, I liked it, most of it, said Robert, it's good to see you too. He meant it, but now was a time to ask questions, not a time to answer them. Then he caught the old woman in the recliner, her jaw quivering slightly. She caught him back.

"Come 'ere, Robert, I ain't gonna bite ya." Her watery eyes boiled in their sockets, and her thin skin merely draped over her bones, but somewhere inside the spark of life pulsed hot. This was great grandma, the woman who blew herself up smoking a cigarette while on oxygen at the hospital. This was the woman who raised five children by herself in the forties and fifties. And this was the only person besides his parents to send him a birthday card when he was on high alert in Okinawa.

"Hi Gramma," he said, and leaned in for a peck on the cheek.

"You look skinny," her voice warbled.

"What? I gained fifteen pounds while I was in."

"Sure don't look like it."

Robert shook his head and smiled. Eighty-seven, and she could still probably kick his ass. "Why're you sitting in the corner by yourself, Gramma?"

"Wouldn't be the corner if everyone was over here talkin' to me."

"Guess you're right."

Gramma rocked back and forth a few times. "I’m glad you’re back, Robert. Your great grandfather didn't get that chance. I almost thought he’d make it, but those Okinawans were some very stubborn individuals."

"Yeah, I always thought about that when we deployed there. I mean, how peaceful it is now compared to then."

"Mmhm. Mmhm." She nodded her head, rocking slightly back and forth. "You ever see his old war stuff?"

He shook his head. "No."

"I suppose you've earned it. Don't usually show 'em off but I think he'd want me to. Now anyways."

"Okay."

"Well, come on then." The old woman levered herself out of the chair, swatted away Robert's helping hand. "Get that away from me, I don’t need no help. Been on my own for fifty nine years."

She led him through the side door and the noise immediately abated. As they walked down the hall, silence took over, sending out its reverential radar from the door ahead, the odd door that Robert had never walked through in all his years. He remembered why when, upon approaching it, his great grandmother slipped a skeleton key from her pocket and into the lock. When the door swung and banged against the wall, there was nothing extraordinary but a set of stairs descending into the basement.

"Go on down and get the light, Robert."

In the darkness, Robert flinched at the metallic tendril that slid across his face. He felt through the air and pulled on it. The single light bulb illuminated the room and revealed everything coated neatly in dust. The woman jerked a sheet from a chair and eased herself down into the swirling cloud.

"I forget exactly what we got down here. Most of your Grampa's stuff is in that chest there, anyhow."

The chest opened with a creak, throwing free an avalanche of dirt and bug shells, but the objects inside glinted in the orange light, reflecting polished edges in new flame. The shadow box came first, and behind the glass, dual rows of medals clung to dark velvet. His great grandfather's name was engraved at the bottom. Robert named the medals off in his head. He had seen them many times throughout his tour.

"Bet you know what that big one in the middle is."

Robert did. "The medal of honor."

"That's right. Got it posthumously, like most those kids."

He stared and licked his lips. "What'd he get it for?"

"Breaking a promise to a young woman."

Robert didn't turn to look at her. It was none of his business, so he just nodded and placed it to the side. The folded American flag came next, but Robert knew better than to ask about that. To the side it went.

In his fingers, the black and whites took on ghostly shades underneath the failing bulb. Men from another time stared back, muddled by poor image quality and age. Blotchy eyes and half-mouths became representations of souls rather than duplicates of physical features. Robert wondered if that ancient camera had caught something more of these men, something that remained after they passed away, embedded in the flimsy piece of material in his hand.

"This one Grampa?" asked Robert, holding up a photo.

The old woman leaned in and squinted. "Bring that here."

Robert shuffled.

"Yeah, that's him. Handsome bastard, wasn't he? Flip it over."

The back read, "To my dearest love, from the heart of Honolulu."

"I thought I recognized the place," said Robert. "He was stationed at K-Bay too?"

"Sure was. Ain't never been there myself, though."

Robert looked at the picture again. "Why is he in uniform at the beach?"

"Well, they had to wear that when they were off duty," said Gramma with a nod.

"Oh no. That's not good at all." He shook his head. Robert flipped through the rest of the photos, more sand-washed images of uniformed men on the beach. He placed them on the shadow box.

The uniform itself came next. Robert recognized it from the picture, the Khaki short-sleeved number with ribbons. He held it up and flipped it around. "Same as mine. Pants are different, though."

Gramma just nodded. Robert dove back into the trunk. There were letters scattered about, so he grabbed one at random. He held it below the rim so that he could not be observed reading it.

"Dearest, I am going to Okinawa and I am going to fight. I could think of no other way to put it, and I am sorry for that. Of all things, I want you to know these: I love you, and I promise to return. Do not be saddened, and trust me. I will find a way. I do not know exactly when-"

"What's that you got there, Robert?"

His eyes tore away from the page. "Nothing Gramma, just thinking." He reached back into the chest, felt along the darkest corner and found metal. He pulled out the ancient film reel.

"Wow." Robert held a few cells up to the light. "Can we watch this?"

"'Fraid not. Don't have that type of movie projector."

It appeared that each cell had been split in two. On the left side, a beach landscape with a far-off mountain. On the right, a young man. "What is this?"

"I don't really know. Came after your Grampa died."

"No, I mean, why are there two sides to the film?"

"Oh. Well in the old days, eight film started out as sixteen. When you were done recording one side of the sixteen, you take out the reel, flip it around, and record again, see. That way, you get two movies on the two sides. After you were done, you'd cut that film down the middle then tape the two ends together, so it'd be one long movie. But what you got there, I don't know what that is, because when you flip a reel and record, the other image is upside down next to it. But that one ain't."

Robert looked again. She was right. Both images were right side up. But something else caught his eye. "It's backwards."

"Backwards?"

"Yeah. See, look."

Gramma's eyes became slits as they searched a tiny single cell.

"See, that mountain back there is Diamondhead crater. That looks normal. But this guy, he's in uniform and his ribbons are on the wrong side. It's backwards. And..." Robert looked at the cell again. "it doesn't look like he has a background. It's just clear."

"Well ain't that a pickle. What kind of fool goes and makes a crazy reel like that?"

"I don't know." Robert turned away, lost in thought. Then he folded the film gently down the middle and watched as the young man appeared to stand on that beautiful beach. "Gramma, look at this." He turned around, and the woman clutched at her chest.

"Good lord! Quit foldin' my film, Robert!"

"No, look at this."

She did, and sat quiet.

"Half of sixteen is eight right?"

She nodded.

"Do you have an eight projector?"

She pointed to a cabinet. “Maybe there, I don’t know.”

Dust poofed from the doors and the ancient projector was called from the darkness. In moments the contraption sat on a covered table, plugged into a hanging socket. The two of them worked slowly, as Gramma held the large reel, and Robert folded the film in half and wound it onto a thinner one.

"I sure as hell hope you didn't just ruin that movie," said Gramma, placing the completed reel onto the machine.

"We ruined it," said Robert.

Gramma fed the beginning strip into the empty reel on the projector and pointed it towards a clear patch of wall. "Okay. I suppose that does it," she said.

"Let 'er rip."

She flicked the switch, Robert turned off the light, and the room filled with a flickering glow. A young man strolled casually down the beach, a massive volcanic crater in the distance. But the man seemed strangely dislodged from the picture, and he slid subtly up and down as he walked, detached from the landscape behind, floating, almost, towards the camera. As his image grew, Robert could clearly see who it was. The young vibrant man etched in black and white sidled towards them, smiling and watching the waves, in no hurry to reach his destination. But as he grew, Robert's eyes began to hurt. The odd movement was causing him to see colors, strange fits of color feeling down Grampa's arms and legs, and whisping away. When Robert looked up again, he knew it wasn't his eyes. The young man stared straight at them, moving forward, filling with life as he slowly discarded his monochrome shackles. He appeared more and more lifelike with every step, and soon Robert could nearly feel the salty tropical breeze playing through the room, and hear the echoes of crashing waves die about him. When Grampa finally filled the entire projection, he smiled, and paused for a moment.

Then he stepped from the wall.

Robert backed up as far as he could, flattening against concrete. Gramma clutched at the table, jaw quivering, staring like a caught rabbit. But Grampa approached her nevertheless, eased up a hand, and began playing it through her white hair.

"Hello, dearest." His voice was warm and deep, like a cozy fire.

Gramma, who cried her last tear over forty years ago, wept as hard as her frame would allow. Her intense sobs broke all hope of composure, and she threatened to disintegrate where she stood. But the young man swept around her, holding her together as her body shook.

"Oh I love you. I love you so much. I missed you so much," she said.

He kissed the top of her head, and looked at the figure plastered to the back wall. "Hello, Robert," he said.

"Hi." His voice came out a little less strong than he had hoped.

"I'm sorry we never had a chance to talk. But if it makes any difference, I'm proud of you."

"Proud of me?" Robert started to move away from the wall.

"For your service."

"For my... I didn't do anything. I didn't even see combat."

Grampa smiled and shook his head. "Your country called and you answered. It's not your fault they decided not to put you in harm's way."

Robbed nodded.

The young man stroked Gramma's back and kissed her again. She looked up with a wet smile and wiped at her eyes. Through the darkness, Robert wondered if she looked a little younger.

“Robert?”

“Yes Gramma?” He had never heard her voice that smooth, that untouched.

“Would you mind giving us a minute to catch up?”

“Yeah. Sure.” He turned to the steps.

“Before you go,” said Grampa. “One more thing.”

Robert turned.

“Those people upstairs, your family. They love you.”

“I know.”

“Yes, but you have to let them.”

“What do you mean?”

“No one can ever know what it was like for you. No one can ever relate or know how you feel. But that’s not their fault. They just love you Robert, and unless you let them, you will have missed out on the greatest part of life.”

Robert crinkled his eyebrows and looked down, nodding. He glanced up at the couple, and saw their eyes alive and happy. Then he walked up the stairs.

At the top, he paused, unsure what to do. Then he smelled the smoke. Acrid, pungent, it wafted in rolling clouds from below. He was back downstairs in a flash. The projector was engulfed in flame, and he reacted, snuffing the fire with a dusty sheet. When at last he pulled away the singed cloth, there was only more smoke and warped metal, and crispy pieces of acetate slapping against a spinning reel. The bulb in the machine was still on, and punched a bright hole through the swirling darkness.

“Gramma? Grampa?” shouted Robert. He squinted, and swathed a path of clean air with a flattened hand. No response.

Robert took a quick look around the room and found no one. As he stood, he wondered what he had missed. His great-grandparents were gone, but it was almost as if he had already known what had happened when his eyes found the clip of film lying next to the projector. He padded over and picked up the five or six cells that had survived the blaze, and held it up to the bright wall. On the left side was the beach landscape, bright and beautiful, with the immense crater punching skyward. And on the right, a couple walking away, hand in hand in empty space. Robert’s cheeks tightened, and his eyes watered. He smiled and slipped the tiny strip into his pocket. There was nothing else to do, so he turned off the machine and went back to the party.

A warm hand found Robert’s shoulder and he turned, looking straight into his father’s eyes.

“Hey buddy.”

“Hey Dad.”

“Having fun?”

Robert shrugged, allowed a smile.

“Come on, even war heroes aren’t too cool for their folks.”

They grinned.

“Where’d Gramma disappear to?”

“I don’t know, probably halfway down the beach by now.” Robert paused and looked at his dad. The mist in his father’s eyes surprised him. “What?”

“Nothing. You just crack me up. I missed having you around, man.”

“I missed you too, dad.”

The father patted his son on the back and winked, and moved away to brag about Robert to someone else. Robert took a breath, got his hugging arms ready, and moved into the fray.

 

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