03 February 2010

"Lord, let me not be dying"

A world away the sun stands high in the sky, beating down on a young man in camouflage. He is crouching with his back against a battered bullet-pocked wall, assault rifle held against his chest, its hot barrel next to his ear. For a brief moment all is quiet. In this fraction of silence he breathes deeply of the dusty smoke-filled air, glances up to the sky and watches a bird wheeling on a wingtip so innocent and ignorant of the tumult beneath. He thinks of home and wonders what his mother is doing if she is sleeping, or thinking of him. Say a prayer for me, Mom, he thinks. Something within is screaming at him to run away to flee to let cowardice reign and leave this place. This fear is new, strange; it’s not the fear that comes with combat, he’s used to that now, or as much as he’ll ever get. This is a different beast entirely. This is a knowledge, a premonition. He’s heard of this feeling, this knowing you won’t make it through the day. It’s terrible heavy unbearable crushing his chest like a hundredweight of bricks, digging into his soul like claws. He wants to dart into the open doorway a dozen feet away and hide in a corner, bury himself in the shadows, wait until the gunfire subsides until the sun has slipped down beneath the sand and he is alone so he can run across the dunes and burrow under them and whimper for a silent eon. He wants to, but he won’t. Riley is next to him, shoulder still oozing blood but here and real and solid. He slams a fresh clip home. He meets Riley’s eyes, sees in them the same fear. They are vastly outnumbered here. An ambush. A routine march through a road-side village became in one breathless second a crimson-spattered killing ground. Ragged-curtain windows suddenly brightened and fluttered with starbursts, the crack-crack crack of Kalashnikovs. A rocket-propelled grenade streaked down from a rooftop and three buddies were thrown apart like rag dolls, their limp bodies slumped in the grit missing limbs leaking blood and hell was upon them hungering for their American bones, death rushing at them wearing kaffiyehs and screaming in Arabic.

He crouched there against the crumbled wall for another heartbeat, heard the order, leapt into a roll, found his feet and ran into the inferno of lead and blood, firing three-round bursts, evening the odds by one, two, three bodies crumpling to the dust.

The soldier feels sharp bites in his shoulder and thigh as he runs pell-mell at their stronghold, he stumbles and tips forward and as he falls the ground erupts beneath him in a flash of white-yellow and he’s flying buildings are spinning in a kaleidoscope of sky ground sky windows and crumbled brick and quick glimpses of buddies and enemies and he slams to the ground, new agony spreading throughout him and his shoulder is pulsing piercing pain. The sky above him is still spinning even though he isn‘t, he‘s lying on ground, and the sky is darkening darkening fading, it is cracked and blood is streaming in stinging runnels through the cloud-spotted blue but no, that’s blood in his eyes…he thinks, Lord, let me not be dying. I’ll pray every day and go to church, I swear I’ll be better, just let me not be dying. The sounds around him are diffuse and distant but the pain is loud, impossible to ignore. He tries to get up, pushes as hard as he can, groaning and straining, trying to help his buddies, he can make out their shouts and gunfire and the Shi’ite ululations. Time then seems to distort. He’s trying to get up, he has to get up, has to…he isn’t a coward he isn’t he isn’t …then suddenly it’s all different, it’s quieter, the gunfire is sporadic, a stand-off. He must have passed out. He tries to get up again, he can still hear Lt. Evan’s deep hoarse voice shouting orders. Then suddenly his wrists are wrapped in an iron grip and Riley is above him pulling him to the lee of the wall, away from the storm of the crossfire where he’d fallen.

“You’re ok, buddy, you’re fine. You’re banged up a bit, I ain’t gonna lie to you, you’re hit, you’re hurt…but we’ve got the cavalry comin’ buddy, just you hang on, ok?” Riley did something to his shoulder, poked him, must’ve given him morphine for the pain because suddenly it wasn’t as bad and he could breathe a bit…and darkness rushed over him, sound faded.

He was being lifted, carried, set down, felt the vibrations of a rotor…must be on a chopper. Time kept distorting, he caught snatches of conversation, moments of pain, glimpses of faces, he knew he was in a hospital. Then he saw a face he knew: Riley lay next to him. Riley was bandaged up and sleeping, but looked okay. I wonder what’s gonna happen now, he thinks. Maybe I can go home. I signed up, but I’m tired of it. I just want to go home. I wonder if they’ll let me call Mom. Then a dour-faced Army doctor came by and changed bandages and poked him in the arm…darkness again.

The next time the world swam into focus his first sight was his mother’s face, her blue eyes watery, bloodshot, mascara smudged and running. She saw his eyes open and she was next to him holding him tears dripping on him.

“Oh my son,” his mother said, “I’m here, I’m here, baby, Momma’s here.” He couldn’t speak, something was caught in his throat, a tube probably, he stared up at his mom and tried to say it all with his eyes, he couldn’t help letting a tear trickle out, even though army men don’t cry, and she heard the unspoken words, gripped his hand and kissed his forehead. “You’re home, my baby is home.”

Home…he made it home. He sighs deeply.

Thank you Lord…

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