Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I Have Seen Things In Shadow...

Light came first, followed by darkness. He never heard the blast. Waking slowly, wishing he could drink something, Pvt. Richard Malloy opened his eyes. He looked around, not moving, not able to feel anything below his waist. The memory came back in a jittery rush, the jeep bumping toward Hamadi Fayadh, then the whiteness.

“Take it easy here,” Buddy said before the hit.

“We just came through,” said Richard.

A group of children on the side of the road waved to him, then as they passed, the greeting changed to shoes turned soles up, the ultimate insult. Buddy laughed, a mirthful rumbling.

“Take it easy here. We just want to get home, you know?”

Richard pulled himself into the present. Shouldn’t there be pain? He tried moving his legs, hoping to push himself into a standing position, but nothing.

“You’re dying,” a voice said. He couldn’t move his head far enough around to see the speaker. “We’re dying.

“IED?” Improvised Explosive Device. Maybe the children had set it up, but he doubted it.

“Yes. Blew you to hell. I was standing too close.” The man swore to himself in Iraqi.

“Someone will be by soon,” said Richard.

“Someone already drove by; they turned their heads. I think they were private contractors. They never see anything they don’t get paid to see. And even then.”

“When we don’t show up at the checkpoint, they’ll send someone.”

Richard knew he sounded frightened. He closed his eyes, not wanting to doze, but not being able to remain conscious. He might have dreamed. Children whispered to him, some tugging at his hands, others washing him with sweet water. He moaned, remembering something that happened to him as a child.

His father had parked the old Ford by the side of the road, hood up, emergency lights blinking. The heat seemed to ripple in front of them. The sun, directly above, cast little shadow. His father wiped at his forehead with a sleeve, then turned toward the town, some thirty miles away.. They had called emergency service over an hour ago. Except for the road, there was no sign of civilization. No car had come this way since they broke down. Seeing his father’s face, Richard was stunned to see a bit of worry there.

“Are we gonna be okay?” he asked.

His father took some time before answering. “We’ll be fine. We came the wrong way. We shouldn’t have come out here. Something must have happened. I’ll call again in a few minutes and see what’s wrong.”

“What if they don’t come?”

That’s when they heard the vehicle approach. It came along at a fast clip, a pick up truck with faded green skin. It had a crane attached to the back and lettering painted on the side in white. As it approached, the driver slowed, leaning forward over the steering wheel to better see them. Richard remembered the man’s squint, a stupid expression which could be either puzzlement or disapproval. His father waved to the driver, then pushed Richard out of the way when the truck veered. Metal ramming bone and muscle into metal made an unimpressive sound.

“A preacher used to scare us when we were children,” his father once said. “He’d look down and say: ‘I’ve seen things in darkness that no one should see by light of day.’”

His father laughed at his son’s confusion.

“Yeah, that’s how I felt when I first heard it. I took it to mean that no matter how horrible things are, there’s always worse. That there’s no peace. Ever. Pretty cheerful. I guess that’s why we fell away from the church.

After seeing his father’s eyes when he died, Richard searched the sun until blindness burned away the image.

“You should pray,” said the Iraqi.

“I’m not a believer.”

The Iraqi laughed. “Infidel even to your own.”

Richard couldn’t disagree. He wriggled around until he found his sidearm. He figured he didn’t have much time to shoot the Iraqi before blacking out. It didn’t make sense, but reason was an idiotic prerequisite for action.

“What are you doing?” asked the Iraqi. The man sounded amused. “Stop. It’s over. What’s the point?”

Richard struggled to drag himself around. No one. He turned the other way. No one. The other man was obviously moving with him, staying out of sight and out of range. Richard lay back down, crying in frustration.

The game over, the Iraqi laughed. “What a waste,” he said. “When you’re dead, you’ll look back and remember this moment. Then, you’ll turn and see things in darkness…”

“That no one should see by light of day,” said Richard, completing the sentence.

“Yes,” said the Iraqi, sounding surprised. “It makes me weep that you won’t be buried at home.. Do you know what will happen if the children come and find you? They’ll tie you with ropes and drag your body through the streets, singing. They’ll dismember you and set you on fire for a warning. But then what does that matter to you? Infidels never care about the darkness.”

Richard again began moving, trying to find the man behind the voice. Pain now engulfed him, agony like he had never known. Something strong, with horrible teeth, tore at him, devouring large chunks at a time. Screaming, he fired the sidearm, aiming indiscriminately until the clip emptied.

When his last bullet was spent, he lay back and stared at the sun, waiting for the blindness.


The following words were removed

Blast for explosion

Searched for looked into

Weep for cry

Skin for paint

Sweet for cool

Expression for look

Ramming for crushing


SQT said...

This is well done but hard to read for me. I have met soldiers who have been injured in combat and can't imagine what it must be like waiting to see if you're going to live or die.

Travis said...

I like the parallel you drew between the death of Richard and his father...both senseless and tragic and eerily similar.

HopScotch said...

Ah, I bow to the master, I have a lot to learn. Great story, so sad.

DonkeyBlog said...

I see that this fiasco in Iraq has now gone on long enough that it's no longer taboo to write about it in fiction - that makes me very sad!

... as does your story, Mr Sternberg, but I enjoy that. It was a very human piece of work, and the word replacement does seem to make a real impact.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Thanks SQT, as with most assignments, they are exercises that can be developed into something else. I don't think I'll be developing this into a story to send out.

Trav, I wanted to extend that parallel between the Iraqi and the soldier but I decided to leave the Iraqi as something invisible, leave it to the reader to decide if the voice belonged to an actual person or to something metaphysical, or if it was a manifestation of the soldier's wounded psyche.

Hop, thanks. That means a lot. Donkey, I don't know that war should ever be a taboo subject. It is too important to ever allow the forces that be to get away with waging it without some dissenting comment.

DonkeyBlog said...

Ofourse I agree, but it so often is ... especially when the war is still going ... and especially one like this.

Jon said...

Very good with the flashback. I'm a little unclear about the father's death; did the truck driver aim at him or was it an accident, and if he aimed, why? The parellel is very good and would be even better in a longer piece.

I especially liked the Iraqi being invisible, a Greek chorus, out of sight but heard.

As to replaced for paint? Your first thought was better. They usualy are.

Jon the Intergalactic Gladiator said...

Good story. I too liked the useage of the invisible Iraqi.

I do agree with Jon that the father's death was a bit confusing. I did read it twice to be sure of what happened but I think it worked as quick and senseless.

miller580 said...

Ok, I was a little confused as wrote: "“Yes. Blew you to hell. I was standing too close.” The man swore to himself in Iraqi."

Does this mean the Iraqi was hit? Was he invisible? Or was the soldier simply blind?

One thing I specifically enjoyed, whether intentional, or simply my interpretation was the question of Friend or Foe. this theme is here twice that I saw...with the children waving then showing of the feet...The "invisible" man's motives seemed at first friedly or supportive...but is revealed to be hostile.

"viewed as liberators...but really occupiers"

Nice work Stewart.

The parallel was really good.

DesLily said...

I hope you don't think that "I" am going to leave any constructive feedback! duh..I don't think so! lol

Jon the Intergalactic Gladiator said...

And a slight nit to pick, if I may.

The US phased out the Jeep a while ago. They have the HMMWV's now.

gugon said...

I thought this was a really effective little story. I love how the memories come flashing in - memories that don't seem (on the surface) to have anything to do with the story. It just felt real.

And you don't take sides here either - both characters are treated without bias, equals in death.

I loved the way they turned in circles, one still trying, pointlessly, to shoot the other.

Susan Miller said...

"That there’s no peace. Ever."

The story is chilling and real. Your ability to step out and put us there always amazes me. Thank you for sharing your talent.