Flash Fiction Friday :This week’s story challenge is to explore a character’s defense mechanism at work in under 1500 words in any genre you want. Let’s see if we can top last week.
The rain is cool and refreshing as I walk, the morning dark and comforting as I carry my burdens both in my head and in the duffel bag on my back. Every step I make I feel my boots sink ankle deep into the mud of the waterlogged dirt road I am walking on. My feet are heavy with the weight of my wet socks and the splash of every step I take only soaks the legs of my old blue jeans. I do not care, the road I am on is taking me home bringing me closer to the one place I can find refuge.
Lightning flashes somewhere close answered a second later by thunder, the steady rain that has been my companion on this seemingly endless journey increases its tempo obscuring visibility but I know where I am going. On my right are the woods I hunted squirrels and rabbit during my childhood. Looking through the mist and rain toward those familiar trees, I wonder why no developer has not snapped up all that land and built the usual golf courses and condominiums. On my left begins the slow swampy slope to the marsh and the sea that my family has worked since before the Civil War. If the weather was clear, I would be able to smell the salty musk of the marsh, something everyone who makes their living by the life it protects and nurtures comes to love.
My solitude is total, as if I am the only inhabitant of my own personal world. But I know everyone is busy, dad and my younger brother Sam should already be on the boat weaving through the channels to the ocean where the long shrimp nets will be dropped and they will troll for days traveling south until the freezer is full. Mom will be pulling a double shift at the hospital and will find an empty room there to sleep when she takes a break before going back on duty for another sixteen hours. She hates being alone at the house with dad and Sam gone. All this is good; it will give me a few days to adjust to being home before mom finally returns to check on the place.
My steps are strong and continuous and before long the old house emerges from the mist. Nothings seems to have changed since I have been away, the tin roof looks new but granddad's old rocking chairs still line the porch looking like worn sentries who refuse to give up their posts. Further back, almost behind the house I see the work shop with one of dad's spare shrimp nets strung up for repair. Close by is granddad's old 1952 Chevy truck, still in the same place it was the day he surrendered his driver's license, the old man died a couple of days later and the family just never had the heart to move the thing.
Stepping on the porch and out of the rain, I throw down my duffel bag and collapse into one of the rocking chairs. I admit it now, I am beyond weary, my soul aches and all I want to do is sit, watch the rainfall, and wait for mama to come home. Despite the rain, which had long soaked every part of my body I can still feel the dirt and dust clinging to me from those dry and desolate places where my friends and I fought for so many years.
Stripping off my soaked boots and socks I sit in the rocking chair listening to the rain. If I concentrate, I find that the metallic drumming of the rain falling on the tin roof is able to drown out both the voices and the faces of the people I saw die over there. It is a small relief but I hold onto it as tightly as I fall into a priceless oblivion.
The rain ends late into the night and off in the distance I notice small lights approaching, the first thing that comes to mind is the enemy and that they have somehow penetrated the perimeter. My muscles tense and I actually reach for my rifle before I realize they are fireflies dancing in the darkness. Feeling stupid, I grab my duffel and retrieve the key hidden above the front door. Inside the house, the only sound is the ticking of the clock on the mantle above the fireplace.
Going up the stairs and down the hall I find my old room unchanged like everything else except for the stack of letters I sent home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Knowing my parents read them in my room to try and feel closer to me I feel ashamed at what I put them through, the torture of always expecting the next letter to be a notification of me having been killed in action. As I unpack my belongings, laying them on my bed the colorful ribbons and silver lieutenants bars on my dress uniform add to my shame as I realize they cost far more than they were worth.
After a shower and finding clean clothes still in my dresser, I move back down to the living room almost ghost-like in my silence. I lay my green beret on the small table next dad's recliner, a statement that I am home for good. I open the door and windows letting the cool night breeze blow through the house. It seems like days since I have eaten but outside the chirping of crickets and the buzz of cicadas sing songs of my return and I lay on the couch to listen. Sleep claims me and I drift away figuring I will call the hospital in the morning to tell mom I am home.
I awake in my VA hospital bed, the morning sun is shining through the dirty windows and I sit up trying to shake off the drugs that allow me to escape this reality. Outside my room, others like me slowly shuffle down the hall toward the cafeteria. We are a motley crew dressed in identical cheap blue robes and slippers. My head spins as I stand up and walk over to join the crowd, I see hulking orderlies standing close by, watching the psych ward inmates making sure they do not get out of hand.
Breakfast is the finest VA lowest bidder cuisine, runny eggs, under cooked sausage, and bland oatmeal. I wash it all down with seven cartons of the plentiful chocolate milk, the high point of my day. I look around at my fellow inmates sitting in the cafeteria, a see a few that I served with in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Good guys, but like me something happened to them that despite all the training they just could not handle. It doesn't matter what caused it, that bullshit about honor, courage, and duty goes out the door the second bullets start flying. When that happens, the only imperative is watching the backs of your buddies but good soldiers and innocent civilians still die for unknown reasons we wonder about in the psych ward dayroom while we play spades, and watch Spongebob on the old television.
The politicians know the real reasons why we fight but they don't tell us grunts. They just smile on television and occasionally visit as the next election approaches talking with the staff in the rehabilitation wards while jockeying for pictures with the amputees.
They never come to see us, the injuries here are more abstract and do not make for good photo ops. For once, I would like to have one ask me about the little girl I saw burned black after a Predator drone fired on the wedding party the operator took as a Taliban gathering. I would even tell him about a local village chieftain that tried to work with us in the hope of getting a new well dug for his village only to have the Taliban skin him alive one night.
Sitting at my table, I feel the rage build inside trying to take control. One of the nurses sees me begin to shake and comes over to check. She would be pretty if she did not look as haunted as I do. Watching close by are the orderlies ever ready to take me down if I become aggressive. I allow the nurse to guide me to my room, once we are back and I lay down on my bed and try to look outside the dirty window and see something of the world. Thankfully, the glass obscures everything but I still feel the desperate need to go home, to feel safe. I can’t though, while fighting America’s proclaimed enemies my parents’ house burned down one night killing my entire family. The mission was so important and I was so far from civilization I did not learn about it for nine months.
The nurse hands me a small paper cup with a couple of blue pills inside. I take them and after a swallow of warm water, the tired nurse offers me a sad smile and walks out of my room. I lay my head down and close my eyes; the warm feeling of safety starts to spread over me.
Soon it is raining again and I am walking the dirt road towards home.