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I found that even after that tour ended, I didn’t mind still existing.

I’d been working a desk job for so long, about a year at that point, that I had been lulled into a kind of sleep.  I had a girlfriend of sorts, a pretty Flip named Cassidy, who I’d met in the Commissary.  She apparently played maid for the base commander.  She had a little boy named Carl who she toted around—sometimes I thought that the kid was who made me stick with her.  He was so cute; you could tell his daddy was an American because of his light brown hair and almond-shaped eyes, less slanted than his mother’s.  

He called me “Dada,” even after Cassidy slapped him for it and apologized to me, as if just that simple, innocent word would make me leave—or worse, based on the fear in her trapped-feline eyes.

I took both her wrists in my balled-up fists and squeezed them, allowing my lip to curl.  “Now, I don’t mind Carl callin’ me his daddy, ‘cause I don’t doubt this kid’s been wantin’ someone else to love for a while now, ‘specially if you’ve been hittin’ him.”   I was having to yell over Carl’s unyielding wails.  “What do ya want, Cassie?  Money?  Will that make ya stop hittin’ him?”  Cassidy was crying as well, struggling to get away from me—I hadn’t noticed, and let go hurriedly.  “I’m sorry, Cassie, I didn’t realize—”  But she was scooping up Carl and leaving the CBQ, sobbing, a home-manicured hand splayed across her face.

I didn’t care much about Cassidy leaving—some of the guys at the Enlisted Club reckoned they’d seen her dancing for money at a club down the street just a few nights ago—but seeing Carl’s chubby, tear-streaked cheeks bounce as his mother tore across the deserted street, flitting in and out of the harsh, artificial streetlights, his thumb tucked safely against his plump lower lip, made something important in my chest feel off-kilter.

In that moment, I wanted to feel something small and warm in my arms—something I could protect and love, and that would love me back…unconditionally.  Something that only me and one other person could share.

In that moment, I wanted to be a father.

by Jennifer

Whenever I tell this story, people always wonder why Lewis didn’t come visit me whenever he did finally get his R and R, or Rest and Relaxation time.  Well, I tell them, it isn’t as if we knew each other off paper; I don’t think Lewis ever felt any obligation to come see me, no matter how many times I tactfully tried to tack it in my letters in a joking-but-not-really sort of way.  He did call me once; he got my number from his mama.  ‘Course, I’ve never been sure if that first phone call was self-initiated or instigated by a fry-pan threat, but either way, my fifteen-year-old self was ecstatic.

“Hello, this is the Vigneault residence, may I ask who’s calling?”

“This is Lewis Bridges, callin’ for Jennifer?”

I screamed.  I honestly did.  “LEWIS!  Oh, my god, Lewis, it’s actually you!  You’re calling and you’re here on the phone!”

I imagine, now, that he held the phone away from his ear, wincing, as he said, “Yeah, it’s me all right.”

“Your voice isn’t as deep as I remember.”

“As I remember, back then I thought you were an annoyin’ little chit and I wanted to scare ya off with my big-bad-manliness,” Lewis replied, laughing.  I felt my knees buckle.

“Merry Christmas,” I told him.  “Does Missouri get snow?”

“Maybe up in the Ozarks.  Not here, though.”

“Where’s here?”

“Byrnes Mill.”

“Is it rainy?  It’s rainy in Norfolk.”

“Wow, ya really are just a well of questions, aren’t ya?”  I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not, but decided not to let it bother me.  He’s a bitter soldier, I reminded myself.  He’s facing lots of hardships and you’ve got to let him cry them out the best he can. That’s what his mama, Denise, told me, anyway.

“I’m sorry, I’m just so excited!  You’re calling!  We’re talking!”

“Well, that’s what friends do, don’t they?  Talk on telephones and such.”

“But we were pen pals.  You’re not supposed to call your pen pal.”  I rolled my eyes—something left over from my days with Guy.  Guy had graduated recently and moved to Richmond for school, so I finally felt like the sword that’d been hanging over my head had been sheathed—I didn’t have to check around corners that he was coming down the hallway, or keep my head low when I passed open classroom doors.  “Where are you shipping off to next?”

“Um…maybe San Diego, California.”

“Wow, I’ve never been there!”

“Ya haven’t been anywhere.  Have ya even been out of Virginia?” Lewis asked.

I huffed, pretending to be indignant—I wanted Lewis to think I was sophisticated and worldly.  “I went to Memphis, Tennessee!  My daddy brought me to see Dr. Martin Luther King!”  Oh, my god.  I said “daddy” to Lewis!  “You know, you should just get out of the military and come live with me.”

“Oh, really?  How will that work out?”  I could hear the good-natured smirk in his voice.

“Well, see, you could live in my garage!  I had a puppy once, a golden retriever, and I kept him in my garage for three months before my dad found him and gave him to the pound.”

“I doubt your dad would put me in the pound if he found me camping out in his garage.  More like the penitentiary.

I giggled, embarrassed.  “You’re right.  My dad won’t even let boys come into my house, let alone live there.”

“I…I’m gonna be honest with ya,” Lewis began hesitantly, “I won’t be going to San Diego.  I’m taking another tour.  I’m getting stir-crazy; I can’t stand all this deskwork.  I still get up at five every morning, you know that?  And work doesn’t start until eight.  I don’t know what to do with myself.”

And I didn’t know what to say.  I cleared my throat.  “Well…Lewis, I know you well enough to know that I can’t stop you if you want to go.  And I also know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t go if you didn’t need to.  Write me every day, okay?  And make sure…and make sure you come back.”  My voice cracked; I couldn’t help it.

“I’ll sure try, Jenny,” was all he said, denying me the relief I needed and prayed for every night.  “Goodbye.”

by Lewis

I jumped out of the chopper too soon because of the shouting going on.  The yelling pumped so much adrenaline into my system that my legs had to release themselves from that crouched position or the kinetic energy threatened to swallow me.  I drop-rolled in the swampy peat before hitting my leg on a tree—“Motherfucker!” I yelled as I felt my knee come out of its socket.

“Bridges!  Shut up!” Baker hissed, cocking his gun—I wished he hadn’t; he was looking frantic and desperate, like that pheasant that just couldn’t stay low despite the hunter’s trained eye and the pleads of her friends in the Disney movie Bambi.

“You all right?”  Riley helped me to my feet, then got on his knees in the swampy mush, feeling my leg.  “Okay, Lewis, ready?”  I gritted my teeth and he pressed on my leg—“Gah!” I gasped as I felt my knee pop back into place.  Riley clapped me on the back after dragging me to my feet.  “You’re all right, man.  You’re all right,” he soothed.

Riley made to turn around, but I put a hand on his heavily-padded shoulder.  He hardly felt human.  “Hey, Riley,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“How’re the kids?”

He only looked taken aback for a second.  You ask now, once we’ve got some action? he asks with his skeptical eyes.  “They’re great.  Hannah just turned six.  Missing two teeth.  Robbie just learned what a paleontologist is at school—now he wants to study dinosaurs.”  Riley gave me a full-toothed grin before cocking his gun and smoothing his expression into a determined, pale mask—all in one fluid message across synapses.  I tried to do the same, but ended up giggling like a little kid while I was standing with a M16A1 in my arms, dressed in camouflage, ready to invade Charlie’s camp—dinosaurs.  When was the last time I’d heard of dinosaurs?

We trooped—or in my case, limped—towards the potentially malignant Vietnamese village, carefully stepping only where the grass looked firmly rooted, lest there be landmines underneath the recently turned mud.

--

The thatched roofs became more than blurs of dirty yellow as we stalked closer, eighteen of us in all.  I sensed Billy to my right and behind—it was as if I could feel him cowering inside his too big uniform (he’d lost weight since we’d been here) and hear his soul rattling inside his ever-hollowing shell.  I slipped on a patch of dewy grass and nearly yelled out—damn knee!  It was the same one I’d damaged five years before, back when my dreams were so big.  Now, when my dreams were little more than having some of my mama’s fried chicken and maybe calling Jennifer again, I…Well, goddamn it, it just wasn’t fair!

It could easily end this way, right here, right now, I realized as we all stumbled down the slope.  You could still hear the now-distant helicopter—how was this covert?  How was this surprise?  If Charlie were really down there, the only reason they would be so quiet is if they were planning their own surprise attack—or if there were some sort of landmine wall one of us—most likely Billy—would inadvertently step into.  So death was imminent, was it?  Just how I expected, right?

I don’t want to die.

The revelation struck me like a kick in the gut.  A slap to the face.  A knee to the groin.  Pain.

“Billy,” I whimpered, but he didn’t hear me over his own quiet, hysterical sobs.

We were all losing it, and the enemy was down there sleeping soundly.  Laughing at us.

I wondered how it would be.  Would it be a bomb?  Quick—not painless, but quick.

Maybe a shot to the head.  To the stomach.  To the leg.  Any way it happened, I would bleed to death slowly.  I didn’t think any of these men, my friends, my comrades, would be brave or stupid enough to try and save me, even if it were only a flesh wound.  Well, perhaps maybe Riley.  No, he has his kids.

God knows I wouldn’t save myself.

“Hey, Lewis,” hissed Billy somewhere around my left ear.  I wished, suddenly, that the chopper had landed closer to what I was now positive was a Vietcong base.  This horrible anticipation was really ruining my last few minutes.

“Yeah?” I whispered back, through my teeth.  We tried to maneuver our steps so we didn’t hinder each other, but my limp and his stubby legs made the attempt futile.  We instead concentrated on just plain not tumbling down the hill.

“What do we do if…if they come out, man?  If they come out running?”  I once heard that Chihuahuas’ eyes can actually pop out of their heads if they bug out too far.  I was beginning to suspect that the same was possible for terrified young men.

“We shoot ‘em, Billy.  Before they get the chance to shoot us.”  I scrambled for something, anything, remotely consoling.  “We’ve got the higher ground, though, so we’ve got a chance.”  Billy and I were now paused on the hill, clasping forearms.  Our comrades gave us sometimes dirty, sometimes curious looks as they passed.

Billy muttered something inaudible.  “What, man?” I asked.

“Maybe I don’t want to shoot anyone, you know?”

“Haven’t you…?”  I suddenly had another flashback obscure my vision—something I hadn’t encountered since the beginning of last tour.   Two doe, slanted eyes looking up at me from underneath a Vietnamese man I had just shot—his blood was slowly eating up the little boy’s ragged blue shirt.  As soon as I had the man rolled off of the boy, the kid stood up and grabbed the fallen man’s gun—I held both my arms in the air and tried to plead with him to put the gun down, just put the fucking gun down, before I heard a shot.  The little boy’s mouth formed an “o” as he fell face-forward, perfectly symmetrical to the body I had a horrible suspicion was the boy’s father.

“No, never.  I never killed nobody, man.”

I examined the little boy’s wound—a quarter-sized dot on the right side of his back, slowly expanding; it wouldn’t kill him if he had help right away.  I shouted out for help—and help came in the form of a sergeant I hadn’t spoken to before.  He was head of another regiment.  “Sergeant, sir, this boy is hurt—”

“I know,” sniffed the sergeant.  “I shot him.”

“Well,” I said, the urgency of the situation making it impossible to keep impatience out of my voice.  “You didn’t do a very good job of it.  He’ll live if we just—”

“He’s nothing, Specialist.  Do yourself a favor and grow a pair, would you?  Jesus Christ…”  The sergeant—a short man with little neck—hacked and spat on the little boy as he trudged away.


“Don’t start now,” I told Billy now, my vision slowly clearing in a field of multi-colored dots.  “Just stay behind me and don’t—don’t shoot anyone, all right?”

I might’ve killed before, but goddamn it, if making sure Billy didn’t have to go through that didn’t redeem my soul, then there was no God.

--

It became pretty clear as we skirted the perimeter of the village that there weren’t going to be any surprise attacks.  There was no shooting, no exploding—just a big hunka silence, and a lot of mosquitoes.

Abandoned?”  Baker was so annoyed he threw his helmet into the stagnate, rancid mud with a plop.  “Come on!”

“You should be relieved, Seth,” Riley chastised him softly.  Riley was the oldest out of all of us—in his thirties—and was the only one who called Baker “Seth.”  I suppose it was a maturity thing; frankly, Baker got on my nerves too much for me to be so familiar with him.

“Shh!” hissed Edgars, our sergeant.  “I hear something!”

All eighteen of us stiffened, peering around to scan the hillside we’d just marched down.  Ivan spotted them first.

“There!” he shouted, too loud.  “By the creek!”

They were—why, they were children!  The relief was audible as the men sighed and put the safety gauges up on their guns.

“Dollars?” said a little girl, tugging on my cargo pants.  “Dollars?  Dollars?”

“No dollars,” I grunted, trying to shake her off.  Billy headed over to where I stood.  I saw that almost every one of us had been approached by at least one kid, all tugging on our clothing, begging for money.  Three of them had crowded around Riley and Baker, who were laughing, pulling out crumpled dollar bills.

“I’ve got a few dollars, here…” Billy said, rummaging around inside his jacket.  The girl grinned, showcasing gaps where her front teeth should be—just like Riley’s kid, I thought—and that’s when I saw it.  Strapped to the kid’s chest, the bastards

I started to bellow, “They’ve got bombs on their—”

The three children around Riley and Baker exploded, almost simultaneously, and the seconds echoed around in my head, replaying themselves without warrant, as the still-smiling Riley and Baker were blasted apart.

And then—

Noise.  Heat.  Flame.  Open air.  Rocks behind me—hit my head.  I wondered if Riley felt the baby guts on his face before he caught on fire and thought of Hannah.

When one of the kids’ outstretched hands hit me in the face, far beyond what it would have reached were it still attached to the little girl’s body, I thought of Robbie and his dinosaurs.

I burst backwards, deafened, perhaps blinded—all I could see was the girl smiling at me without front teeth.

Other explosions, all over the village—eight of them, total.

Eight little kids? was all I could think, never mind my comrades—

Billy.

“Billy?” I groaned, feeling around for his pudgy body.

Someone started sobbing.

“Billy!” I called more urgently.

“L-L-Lewis,” Billy cried, gasping for breath between hysterical hiccups.  “I don’ wanna die!”

“You’re not gonna die, Billy, hold on, now.”  My vision was slowly
returning around the edges, though everything still had a strangely muffled sound, like someone was suffocating the scenery with a pillow.  

“LEWIS!” Billy screamed—I could hear him flailing around in the tall grasses.

“Calm down, Billy!  There might be more of them!”

“I don’ wanna die!”

“You’re not gonna die!  Shut up!”

“I don’ wanna die, Lewis, I don’ wanna die, I don’ wanna DIEEEEEEOWCH!  What’d you do that for?”

“You were being stupid,” I said, shaking out my smarting hand.  I looked around—within ten feet of us were roaring flames, inching towards an abandoned bus which may or may not have had diesel; we needed to move.  “Come on, buddy.”

“What about the others?”

“If they made it, they’ll make it,” was all I said.  Billy and I scrambled to our feet—I was careful not to straighten my aching back—and barreled into the woods, leaving the injured to fight the flames on their own.

This was my first move in a lifelong campaign of cowardice.

A real soldier would have tried to salvage the charred remains of his barely-breathing comrades.   I ran harder than I had ever run in my life—harder than in any of my lacrosse games, even with an undamaged knee—away from the carnage that was once my friends.

--

My first day as a coward, I began composing letters to Jennifer in my head—Billy and I were able to navigate through the jungle back up to the top of the hill we’d come down in time to catch a Jolly Green Giant out.  Ten of us had survived, most of us badly burned.  Riley.  Baker.  Dead.  Ivan, dying, half his face missing in this gruesome, dark red I’d never witnessed before.  He wouldn’t make it.  

Dear Jennifer, I thought. They blew up so only smithereens are left.  I don’t even know what those are, but don’t they sound small?  Little smithereens of Riley and Baker spread all over… I’m probably stepping on them right now.  Or maybe they’ll blow across the ocean, and in a few days, when you wake up, stretch, and yawn, you’ll breathe in their ashes.  You’ll breathe in Riley and Baker’s smithereens.

Maybe you could give Riley’s kids kisses, and claim you’re giving them a little piece of him.  Give Robbie a toy dinosaur, and claim his father wanted him to have it.  Teach Hannah the “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth” song and assure her it was straight from Riley’s mouth.  I don’t know if Baker had any kids, and frankly, I don’t care—I never even called him by his first name.  But Riley was a good guy.   Riley called Baker “Seth.”

I shoulda died instead of him, but whenever I try to tell God, take me, just bring him back, I…I can’t do it.  I can’t say it and mean it with all my heart.  I’m such a coward, and I don’t want to live any more, but I can’t bring myself to die.

I miss you, Jennifer.  I miss our phone calls and I miss how aggravating you can get and how enthusiastic you are and your beautiful hair and your beautiful everything else.  I think you’re beautiful.  I promise that wouldn’t sound so…so cheesy if I said it out loud; Southern guys know how to call a girl beautiful, you know.  You’re getting old, now—you must be around eighteen.  A woman.  Jesus, Jenny.  Why’d you have to go and grow up, huh?  Now I have all of these thoughts, because I’m so lonely, and I’d never bother you with them, but—I think about all these women I’ve been with, and my feelings for them don’t amount to anything compared to how I feel about you.

I don’t know if it’s love or maybe just gratitude, but whatever it is, I feel so much that makes me ache at night, when I roll around in my cot, trying to find a comfortable position and accepting that while you’re not next to me, I’ll never sleep.

I don’t even want to sleep with you, Jenny.  I really, really don’t.  I just want to hold you against me and feel your little heart beating, not as quick as a hummingbird’s, but pretty damn close.


Then one day, I like to think of it as the next day, though it was probably four, five days after we got back to camp, Billy goes crazy.  Completely psycho.  He fuckin’ pissed in my bed and was sitting there laughing about it when I got back in from running.

“Dude,” I said to him, honestly not caring what was so funny.  “Why weren’t you there for PT?  You’re gonna get your ass kicked for this.”

He just sat there laughing so I said, “Whatever, man,” and lay down on my cot, my hands behind my head.  Billy laughed harder, started guffawing so hard and loud that veins stuck outta his neck and his spittle was flyin’ at me.

“What’re you doing, man?  That’s just gross—SHUT YOUR MOTHERFUCKING MOUTH OR GO SIT SOMEWHERE ELSE, ASSHOLE!” I screamed at him.  I didn’t get what was wrong—why’d he have to be such a freak, anyway, huh?  What gave him the right to fuckin’ crack?  What did Billy do?  Nothing!  He just sat on his ass all day and didn’t know how to shoot a gun right and never killed anybody and avoided PT and, yeah, sure, he saw Riley and Baker die, but so did I!  “What the fuck—why is my bed wet?  Answer me Billy, what the fuck did you do to my bed?”

“I pissed on your bed, Lewis!”  Billy’s laugh got caught in his throat and as he coughed, snot dripped out of his nose—this disgusting yellow snot I’d never seen before.

“Wipe your nose, Billy, you’re disgusting,” I said, just before what he said registered.  “YOU PISSED IN MY BED, BILLY?  ARE YA FUCKIN’ OUT OF YOUR MIND?  No, you know what, get off your bed.”  Billy’d been sitting in his cot, right next to mine.  “GET OUT OF BED, BILLY!”  He didn’t move.  “BILLY!” I screamed, “GET OUT OF BED OR I’M GONNA KILL YA!   I’M GONNA KILL YA, BILLY!”  I kicked at his cot and the metal bounced back, hitting me in the shin.  “Ow!  Shit!  Motherfucker!”  I put an arm behind me for balance and collapsed onto the floor, holding my shin and leaning against the still-vibrating cot.  “I’m sorry Billy,” I told him shakily because my teeth were chattering for some unknown reason.  “I’m not gonna kill ya… I’d never hurt ya…”  But he was still laughing like nothing had happened at all.

Continued in Part Four...
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Part One - [link]
Part Two - [link]
Part Four - [link]
Part Five - [link]
:iconthornyenglishrose:
Obviously most of this section is very shocking, and I think it's effectively done. Again, I'm going to give you a couple of suggestions to improve the writing of it.

First I'm afraid I must object to your subheadings, 'Lewis' point of view' and 'Jennifer's point of view'. If you read any published novel with more than one narrator, you will see that this technique is never used in quality fiction. Melvin Burgess, for example, just likes to head his chapters with the character's name, and nothing else. If that isn't explicit enough for you, then perhaps 'By Lewis' and 'By Jennifer'?

I stumbled over this phrase: 'sometimes I thought that the kid was who made me stick with her.' I think changing 'who' to 'what' would make a world of difference.

Then there was this: 'like that pheasant that just couldn’t stay low despite the hunter’s trained eye and the pleads of her friends in the Disney movie Bambi.' I have a couple of suggestions for this one. First of all, your phrasing is confusing; you say 'despite' and then two things - one of which hinders the pheasant, it seems, and one of which helps it. I don't think they really belong together. Also, you over-explain the movie. If you just say Bambi, we'll all know what you mean. It might be a good idea to re-order the words: 'like that Pheasant in Bambi, that just...' - and then end on 'the pleas from her friends'. I've just noticed - you have ' pleads', and I think you want ' pleas'. I'm sorry to get at that sentence so much, but it's only because I think it could go from a bit of a stumbling block to being really powerful if you just clean up those few things. It's a great image. I don't remember the scene - I've only ever been able to watch Bambi once - but it still works. (I am sure you know the movie's release date, but I looked it up too - I'm amazed it's as old as that!)

A few more little things. You have a bit of tense confusion here: 'the only reason they would be so quiet is if they were planning their own surprise attack...' Past tense - the only reason was. You also have a mention of 'stagnate' mud, where you want the adjective 'stagnant' rather than the verb.

At this point I wish to stress that this is a great, really effective piece. I did pick up on a lot of little things, but they are only little and need a tweak. You are doing brilliantly with this.

Lewis refers to 'Edgars, our sergeant'. The explanation breaks up the flow a little, and isn't necessary, as we've met Edgars before. I can't remember whether you introduced him as their sergeant then, but if you didn't, that is the time to do it.

The little girl with the missing teeth - that's brilliantly done, and only makes what happens next more shocking. I suggest that you take out the direct comparison to Riley's little girl. I got it all on my own, and most readers will, I think. If you want to give us a few more clues, you could get Riley into the paragraph with her, or perhaps make reference to her being maybe six, like Hannah.

And one other thing - the bed-wetting scene. That's great - stirs up all kinds of emotions. You had me. I would like to suggest that you don't reveal what Billy has done straightaway. It would be better if Lewis comes in and finds him laughing - and this is the time to say that he's on his own bed now, rather than a few paragraphs later when Lewis seems to realise we don't know this and points it out. Then Lewis approaches the bed, discovers it's wet and the scene goes on from there. You know - you've already written that part.

I must say it again. This is great. I realise that I've hardly mentioned Jennifer in this critique - one is apt to forget her, until Lewis brings her up again. But I think that works. We're caught up in the terrible happenings of the scene - Jennifer can wait.
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:iconposhlost:
poshlost Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2009  Hobbyist Writer
Somehow I've gotten stuck in this story ('stuck' isn't the right word, but whatever). I think it has fantastic flow--definitely better than any stories I've written, and this part especially was a really powerful turning point. Beyond the flow, though, character development is fantastic. I'm quite impressed.

Thanks for writing
J
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