“Pete, you always were an asshole!” We all started laughing. “The only reason they put you in green was because they were out of shit-stain brown.” Brunt of the joke or not, Pete pretended to fuck his M-16 and laughed harder than the rest of us.
The canteen made another round; it didn’t quench my thirst, but it sure as shit eased my mind. This fucking place was a hell hole dug straight out of the devil’s ass itself. Me, Pete, the whole squad – we were tight. We’d hit the bush together and somehow managed to survive the last seven months. It pissed off some of the other guys but screw them, let them find someone else to cover their backs. We didn’t need some FNG making expectants out of us – fuck that.
It’d been days since we’d done anything but hang around our LZ and shoot the shit, but sand bags and make-shift bunkers weren’t the worst things out here; any grunt would testify to that.
We were making so much noise, we’d drawn the Sarge’s attention; I could see him making his way over. “So fellas, you having a good time?” The cheshire grin on his face was enough to tell us the shit was about to fly, and it was coming our way, but we were so piss-ass drunk no one gave a crap.
“Any of you jerk-offs wanna tell me why Pete here, who is supposed to be on the greenline, is laying on the ground humping his gun like his wife just traded up for a new and improved cooch?”
I swear Pete must’a pissed himself he was cracking-up so hard. He snatched the canteen from Rog and held it up to the Sarge, barely able to get his words out. “Here, this’ll tell ya. Come on, Sarge, have a nip. Besides, it’s been quiet for days. O’Boyle’s got it. The little bastard has this sixth sense or something, he can fucking smell Charlie coming.” We all started laughing again, a little more reserved this time.
The Sarge stared down at Pete for a moment, then his eyes flicked to me like it was my job to keep him in line. I was still snickering, but doing my best to hide it. The Sarge, he was one of us; I could see he was making up his mind between what he should do and what he wanted to do. Taking a long drag on my smoke, I decided to back Pete up. “Go on, Sarge, have a sip. Ain’t crap been happening around here since forever. No harm in Pete having a little break.” Squinting up at him, I blew out a stream of smoke and waited while he stared back.
Reaching out, he snatched the canteen Pete was barely holding steady and crouched down to join us. After a long hard pull, and sucking in some serious air to cool his lungs, he shoved the canteen back into Pete’s hands. “Good thing I didn’t see you assholes fucking around. Especially this one who’s supposed to be…”
“Incoming!” Someone screamed.
The first sound I heard was the whup-whup of its wings; I could feel the pressure of the air pressing down upon me as the beast beat a steady rhythm above. I was being dragged toward it, dragged through a field of claws that scraped at my skin, tore at my clothes, ripped apart my mind. Whatever was dragging me had a tight hold on my pack and was grunting while it ran in a lumbering lurch. Fleshed in red, with pieces of luminous crystal protruding from its bark-like skin, something about it seemed familiar, but I couldn’t imagine why.
“Pete! Pete, where the fuck are you?” I screamed. It hissed in a language I didn’t understand, waved its free arm while shaking its head. I shrieked for Pete again, but the whup-whup of thrashed air was my only answer.
As we drew closer, other creatures rushed from the dragon’s gaping maw, they hefted its green tongue, carried it aloft.
The thing dragging me halted. The others tried to grab me with their talons, lift me onto the dragon’s tongue. In my mind, I struggled, the entire time the whup-whup of the wings blinded me with coarse pellets carried on its breath. I was in the midst of an inferno. As I looked around, I saw flames licking the edges of this new hell. The dragon fought its foe with mighty plumes of spray. The others rolled my limp form onto its side. The familiar one spoke, a glistening madness in its eyes as I rolled backward by no choice of my own and landed on the wyvern’s tongue that had slithered beneath me.
Its rasping texture stung my flesh as it tasted my blood, molded to my form, began drawing me toward its maw. The beast’s minions trotted alongside, assisting the tongue as it serpentined its way back to its host. The closer we drew, the fouler the dragon’s breath became, until finally I was consumed through the yawning rift.
The beast took to the air. I could feel the rock and sway from within the cavern of its gullet. More creatures waited there; they began to pull me apart. They delved with their translucent hands into my gut, only to emerge covered in blood. I fought them with what will I had, but it was futile – one of their young smothered my face pulsing noxious fumes into my lungs. When eventually they finished, all but one sat in stony silence. The attending creature looked down at me and spoke through some odd contraption it wore on its glistening face. It grasped my hand, spoke with a force I couldn’t deny, but force or not, I didn’t understand its words. My head lulled to the side drawn by the ever present whup-whup of the air as the wings continued to beat. As I began to lose consciousness, I saw a slit in its scales; an opening. With all that was left in me, I flung myself toward the fissure. The creature lost its grip upon my hand.
As darkness stole over me, my final sensation was one of falling.
I woke splayed awkwardly on a thin membrane that stretched as far as my eye could see. Disoriented at first, I realized there was no sound in this new place. I screamed; nothing echoed back to me, nothing but the sound within my own head. I stood and realized I was tethered to something, but I couldn’t see what. A rope protruded from my midsection. When I grasped it, I felt an overwhelming pain; it was slick and streaked my hand with filth. Quickly, I released it.
I began to walk on unsteady legs; the tether seemed endless and I walked for hours. The membrane beneath my naked feet bounced in concert with each step I took. There was a strange tangerine light here, one that shone brighter on the horizon. I traveled toward it, but it seemed the further I walked, the further away it continually became. My foot hooked on something and I stumbled. Looking down, I saw an arm. Startled, I fell backwards and landed with a soft pwoof on the surface – the first sound I’d heard since I’d arrived here. Looking around me, I could see the membrane was littered with debris, most of it human offal and limbs. How did I not see any of this before? How had I wandered unhindered for so long without stumbling until now?
I kneeled, wobbling as I did so, on the taut surface. I inspected the arm that had initially tripped me. Reaching out, I grasped it. There was a wedding ring on its third finger; it was clad in blood drenched fatigues. I ripped at the fabric like a madman until I finally uncovered the forearm. And there, where I had seen it so many times before, was the name of Pete’s son tattooed on the baby rattle he’d had inked on him the day his wife had given birth to their first and only child back in the real world. I began searching through the remainder of the wreckage. Bits and pieces identifiable; a magazine, shell casings, glasses, boots – photographs. More things than I cared to recognize. Still holding Pete’s arm, I crouched forward and wailed in despair and rage. This time the sound split the air as it slammed its way through this world, shattering the silence.
I reached down with my free hand and yanked on my tether – no not my tether, my umbilical, and pulled as hard as I could.
A harsh bright light blinded me as my hearing rushed back in a nauseating wave. I found myself in a field tent on an operating table.
“What the fuck?” I barely managed.
“Stay calm, you’re gonna be okay,” I began to fight. “No! Just try to stay calm. Goddamn it, don’t struggle. Where’s the fucking dope guy! Get him under, get him under now – we’re gonna fucking lose this one!”
Blackness again. Cradling Pete’s arm in my own, I sat, I cried. I screamed my rage. I tried to rip the umbilical from my gut. I lay down and gave up.
I didn’t want to wake up; I wanted to sleep – like Pete. Sleep and never wake again. Opening my eyes, I lifted my head to look around. I realized I wasn’t on the OR table this time, I was in a quiet, sedate ICU ward. Most of the other soldiers were either sleeping or staring blankly off into space. I tried to call for help – a doctor, nurse, anybody, but barely made a sound. What little strength I had ebbed away and my head fell back to the pillow. Luckily an orderly was walking by and noticed the movement.
He smiled and came around the side of the bed to lean on the rail. “Hey man, good to see you up! You was out for a long time, wasn’t sure you was gonna wake – no matter what the doc said. Here, lemme get you some ice…”
“Wait,” I managed to rasp as my hand wrapped around his forearm. He looked down at it, then back to my face.
“Nah, man – don’t try to talk or move,” he said as he pried my grip loose.
After returning with the cup of ice chips, he pulled up a chair and sat down next to me. My eyes never left him.
“You been out for what seems like forever, man. They did a shit load of surgery putting your insides back together, both in the field and here. It was touch and go for a while. You know where you at? Shit, you at Ben Hoa Airbase, man.” He slid the first ice chip into my mouth.
“My insides?” I croaked hoarsely.
“Yeah, man. You big talk ‘round here. They didn’t think you was gonna make it. You was ripped up so bad, but here you are; breathin, talkin, eatin ice. Goddamn if modern medicine ain’t something else. You know what I’m sayin.” Another sliver of ice slipped between my lips.
“What about Pete?” I forced myself to ask.
“Pete? I don’t know nothin ‘bout Pete. Was he in your squad? If he was, he didn’t make it – sorry man. You the only one that came out of that mess alive. They say some Sergeant died haulin you to that Huey. There’s somethin I don’t get, why’d you guys abandon the line knowing your LZ was hot?” Another sliver of ice.
“What do you mean hot?” I choked on spittle. When the racking cough stopped and I could breath past the pain, I pressed, “What do you mean hot? Our LZ was dead quiet, nothing for days in the boonies around us.”
More fucking ice. If I could have moved my arm, I would have ripped his throat out.
“Look man, I got no idea what you guys was told. The official word is there was some major crap goin down ’round you,” he inched closer. “But look, I’m gonna tell you somethin you not supposed to know. And maybe I’m not supposed to know it neither, but ’round here, ya hear things. Maybe it’ll help you come to terms with all this shit, maybe not, what the fuck do I know, right?” He cupped his free hand around my ear and whispered, then pulled back flicking what I thought was a green tongue across his lips before smiling again. As my eyes shot back to his, flame reflected in them.
“Rumors, man. I hear rumors. But listen, I’ll come back later; check on you. You hang in there, a’right. I’m countin on you.” And with that he stood, tightened the leather strap around my wrist and walked away whistling softly to himself.
It took a moment for what he’d said to sink in, and when it did, I began to thrash against the restraints. I stared wide eyed and half crazed with the knowledge he’d given me. I kicked the phantom legs I could still feel, but were no longer there. My mind tried to escape to the silence of the realm I’d just left, but his words pinned me down as effectively as the straps across my torso.
My screams echoed through the ward.
~ Nina D’Arcangela
© Copyright 2014 Nina D’Arcangela. All Rights Reserved.