At the end of Day 2 of NaNoWriMo I had clocked in 6,143 words – unedited. Using my “Hemingway Rule of Thumb” I will be dropping an average of 1 word for every 10 there before it is all said and done.
The project is titled “The Shifting Sands” (temporary title) and it is a fictional story based on my first Iraq tour. Much of what happens in the tale either happened to me or my friends, but all of the characters are fictional or amalgamations of friends and family.
With that in mind here is an except: WARNING: Language and situations are adult:
Stratfield’s eyes burned into me those last seconds. His stare was dead – empty of any of the light that made us human – and his voice was so weak. His face was ashen and gaunt, a contrast to the person he had been just minutes before. It was as if that one bullet had drained his very soul. I knew he was close – I knew it.
“I’m cold, Mike.” Flecks of pink foam spit from his lips when he mumbled this. It was the last thing he would mumble. There was nothing heroic. It was quiet. He shuddered and then he wasn’t there any more – one minute there was life, the next it was a husk in my arms.
“I’m cold, Mike.”
I stared at the body – it had glazed eyes. It wasn’t breathing. But yet it said it again.
“Death is cold, Mike.”
I felt a creeping terror slink up my arms – starting where my hands touched the body. It scratched and twitched and was slimy and cold. There was a liquid warmth that followed behind it – his blood, I realized, when I saw it devouring my arm with the deliberate pace of an oil slick. The blood wouldn’t stop, it was slow and calculated, it was at my shoulders. The cold tingle had reached my heart and I could feel fingers, icy and full of the promise of death, squeeze on my fluttering life.
“I’m cold, Mike.”
I awoke to someone shaking me and yelling. I was naked, covered in a cold sweat, and lost in a panic. I swung a wild punch and connected with something soft that cried out in a soft voice. The blurred image of Captain Stratfield faded – but not quick enough – and then I was in the hotel room. The fat girl from the night before was curled in the fetal position at the foot of the bed and staring at me with wide, frightened, doe eyes. She was also naked and covering her body – in shame? Or fear of me?
“What the hell were you doing?” I screamed at her.
“You were yelling in your sleep,” tears were running down her marshmallow cheeks.
“Fuck, fuck.” I had to clear my head. I hadn’t had a nightmare that real before – at least not that I could remember. I had woken up shaking and sweaty before, often when I was still in country, but I never recalled why. It wasn’t helping that the Desiree chick had started to openly weep – with gasps and squeaks coming from the foot of the bed. She also, I noticed with some measure of guilt, was developing a bright red welt on the side of her head where my fist must have connected. Damn it.
“Look,” I said, trying to get control of the situation, “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I just – I was dreaming. Nightmare and stuff. You scared me when you woke me up. I’m sorry but I need time – I need to think. I’m going to go take a shower, k?” She stared at me with dead eyes, tears flowing. They were the same dead eyes that the Captain had looked at me with. I snapped my gaze away from her.
The bathroom door locked behind me and the room filled with steam. I just stood underneath it – hoping that it would wash the memory away. And it seemed to work.
When I came out, still naked but now clean, she was gone.
Throwing back the curtains was a mistake. The light was quite bright for Washington State in December and the room had been very dark. After I winced through the sudden flood of light I started to laugh.
“Snow? Fucking snow?” Two days before – or maybe it was three – I had left the desert – where, at eighty degrees it had felt damned cold compared to what the summer had offered us, and now I was staring at a white palette covering all of Olympia. A sight that the residents of Washington would only see a few times in their lives.
I put on the civilian clothes I had purchased in SeaTac airport the night I arrived back in Washington. Underneath them went my “ninja suit” – black long underwear issued by the Army that we thought we’d never need in The Sandbox – and I hoped I would be at least somewhat warm. I didn’t have a civilian jacket so I threw on my uniform top. The only regular shoes I had were my running shoes – not the kind of thing you wore in a snowstorm – so it was the tan, filthy, and somewhat rotted combat boots. I made a mental note that I had to buy a pair or two of new boots before I flew back Over There. I had been unable to get replacement boots – and we had only deployed with two pairs a piece. My first pair had rotted away and split in half right above my toes in July. The second pair I managed to make last a little longer with some creative use of duct tape but they were not long for the world.
My rucksack went over my shoulders, my boonie cap on my head – the first time I had been able to wear the damn thing in months ever since my asshole First Sergeant had banned them because they didn’t look “professional” – and out the door into the ball-shrinking cold I went. I lit up a cigarette as soon as the door closed behind me with shaking hands. The snow had started to fall again. It was going to be a bitch of a drive to my folks’ place in a rental car I knew nothing about on roads that were freshly frozen and covered in snow.
The disagreeable man in the hotel lobby didn’t even make eye contact when I tossed the key card to him and signed the credit card bill. Fucker could have shown a little respect – it was obvious I was just back from the war. Everyone else treated me like a goddamned living hero and I hated it – but that greasy fucker’s lack of even a nod of respect pissed me off even more. And I was already in a pretty bad mood after that fucked up nightmare.
My folks lived about twenty miles south of where I had slept for the first two nights of my leave – twenty miles that normally required thirty minutes of relaxed driving. Instead it was two hours of heart-pounding terror as idiots zipped past me in the twelve inches of snow, secure in the knowledge that their SUV protected them from the weather. One such moron spun out and found herself stuck against the jersey barrier in the middle of the freeway. I flipped her off when I cruised by at my sedate twenty mile-a-hour speed.
Truth be told I discovered that I liked the rush of adrenaline from the drive. Losing traction, sliding, having a sudden blast of snow from another vehicle blind me – all of those things sent my blood pumping and my heart racing in a way I hadn’t felt in several weeks. I had already gone into withdrawals and was glad for the rush.
When I pulled into my parents’ driveway in Centralia it was late afternoon and the sun was starting to set. Nobody was outside to greet me. I knocked on the door and there wasn’t an answer. I knocked louder.
“What the hell?” I could hear my dad’s voice on the other side of the door.
“Open up, it’s freezing out here.”
The door flew open and there stood my mother and father – both of them with their mouths dropped open. My dad recovered first and grunted.
“I suppose you think you’re clever by not telling us you were coming home?”
My answer was cut off by my mother flying into my arms with a wail.
“Merry Christmas,” I choked out, sobs of my own starting to form.
Two months before I had thought I was going to die for sure. Now it was Christmas Eve in Washington State, complete with snow, and I was home and safe.