Sargent Xavier Spenser was rarely a fan of nonsense. Burly, mustached, seldom without a something foul to smoke (an Italian cigar today), he looked like a gangster rather than an “enforcer of justice”, as he called himself, and he laid down the law like one. “Tough love” he said. “No nonsense.” He said. He liked little phrases like that. Standing with boots sinking into the dust of the dried desert lake, various options tumbled through his head like a slot machine of opportunity until it landed on:
“What the shit?”
“He just won’t come out!” Madison, the seedy, unassuming recruit from somewhere south (“land o heat and braids”) explained. “We’ve tried to talk to him but he’s off his damn rocker, gone completely nuts, screaming ‘bout us not bein’ his squadron -”
“Well that don’t make a lot-o sense.” Spenser argued around his cigar. “He saw you right? Sure ya heard him?”
“I’m surprised you haven’t. Loud as anythin’.”
Madison was his second in command- a reliable if not impressive recruit. Spenser believed him. He lifted his thin aviator shades to peer at the shack poised sinisterly at the end of the dried lake, wavering slightly in desert mirage. This certainly was under the category of ‘nonsense’ but what type, Spenser couldn’t say. Lewis was a level-headed recruit, not the top of his squad, but in the properly measured top ten. He just shouldn’t of gone off like this.
“Tell me what happened- from your side o things, Madison.” Spenser demanded. “I was at the front you know, I didn’t see anythin’.”
“Yessir. My side o things.” Madison thought, screwing up his ratty, sunburned face. “Well letmme think…We were in the middle of the Savanna’- the big sandy dunes you know. Hot as hell. I was all sweatin’, sheets rollin down my back and we were just tearing our clothes off cause we couldn’t stand it, Lewis was walking in his underpants eventually and we were all laughin at im, and he was laughin too- his usual self, cheery as anything. Havin’ a blast- as much as you can where in the heat ‘n all. I was out in front, I think you’d started to double back already but you were pretty far off you know- with the sniper right? Yeah. Well I got the top of this big sand dune- the boys were in the valley still gettin’ Lewis to put his clothes back on- but I got to the top and I saw this big brick fort on the other side and I was so shocked I just fell right down onto my ass in the sand and rolled down the dune back to everyone, screamin’ as quietly as I could manage. I dunno what sorry sonofabitch made our maps but I’d like to beat ’em round the head- I mean the fort was supposed to be two miles further and I don’t think they picked up the fort and moved! Bastards.”
Madison paused to ground his crooked teeth in a bravado normally absent.
“Anyway, I got the boys to be quiet pretty quick once they realized what was goin’ on. Got our guns ready and everything. Lewis was standing in the back tryna get his belt back on- ha, they got us with our pants down- ha! Anyway he was in the back and we were trynna get ready to storm the base anyway cause I mean, we might as well try, but sir I guess we were just too loud. I was trynna load my rifle and Whitestone pulled my sleeve and I saw this big ass plane with all those awful reds and oranges on the wings and-”
Spenser raised a calloused hand to stop the speech, but there was really no need. Madison’s voice sputtered and stopped like old broken car.
“The bomb.” Spenser finished.
“It was huge.” Madison said distractedly, like a daydream. “And so red. I thought for sure once all that damn smoke cleared I’d be lookin’ at the bodies of all my friends lying next to me. Maybe not even the bodies. Maybe just the bits.”
“I know.” Spenser clenched down on his cigar.
"I rounded everyone up and we seemed fine- I don’t really know how- I guess the bomb just blew us backwards into the sand rather than blow us up, you know.”
“Right.” Spenser agreed. He pictured himself at the moment- the impact had knocked him on his knees in the dune while a cascade of sand poured down on him from the skies- like a shower of glass. His ears rang for a moment- but the smoke cleared and Spenser found himself fine. Whole. It didn’t seem possible with such an explosion, with such dazzling, shattered light, and yet… he was whole. He’d seen the others start to rise from the sand- except for Lewis. He hadn’t seen Lewis.
“Oh I saw him.” Madison nodded as he spoke, but it was not an amicable nod, no, this was a nod of grim knowledge. “He was screamin’. Screamin’ like hell. The explosion didn’t hurt me, but it must’ve hit him- he was so bloody I couldn’t tell where he got hurt.”
The shack seemed to loom from the end of the lake as if it was getting closer.
“I tried to talk to ‘im, but he wouldn’t take his hands off his ears and his eyes were screwed shut. He kept tryin’ to wipe them off but there was too much on his hands you know and I just couldn’t get his attention. He was covered in sand and blood and-”
“And he ran to the shack.” Spenser guessed.
The two men paused, each occupied by his own thoughts. Madison pulled his stringy hair back behind his shoulders but he didn’t feel the boiling heat of the desert like he normally did. When he touched his face, there wasn’t even sweat beading his lips. Spenser pulled his cigar out of his mouth and coughed in the smoke.
“The bomb fried his damn brain.” He decided.
“What was that cadet?”
Madison couldn’t meet his superior’s sunken, disapproving eyes. He had known Lewis longer than Spenser had. If Madison didn’t think it was shell-shock/bomb blast craziness, then it wasn’t, and that was that. And Madison simply didn’t think Lewis would shut down. When you’ve had a beer with a man and laughed with a man and gawked at women with a man and fed stray dogs with a man and shot enemies from the other side of a dried lake in the middle of a boiling desert with a man- it was hard to imagine them sucked of personality and meaning, just a screaming shell holed up in a shack. Spenser was a commander. He knew of Lewis, but he wasn’t among him. He was always behind the pack where he couldn’t see their unsaved faces or smell their sweat. He would never understand- not truly. But it was him that mattered, not Madison.
“Damn right you are.” Spenser snapped, but the usual bite of his tone was somewhat lacking. “Let’s go.”
“Wha-what?” Madison stammered. “You think we can talk to him?”
“Private, if you have any better ideas this would be the time.”
He didn’t of course.
As they approached the shack, Madison noticed two main things. One, the screaming had stopped, and two, the soldiers around the shack had their rifles held carefully across their chests. Spenser stopped a couple feet from the splintered wood of the shack, their former storage shed, and snapped his heels as smartly as if he were in a tilted hall.
“Arnold Lewis!” He called to the inside. “Stop this nonsense right now. By direct order of your superior officer- step ’utside of the shack and come to attention!”
The soldiers boarding the walls leaned in a bit- which turned out to be helpful, as the voice that responded was just a touch louder than a whisper.
“Soldier!” Spenser barked again. “You understand that you’re disobeyin’ a direct order?”
Lewis was mumbling some constant stream of words but it was impossible to hear what they were from the other side of the shack walls.
“You’ll be discharged from the army, boy!” Spenser warned. “But if you come out right now, maybe we can work this out!”
Once Spenser went quiet, Madison realized with a start what the mumbling was.
“Holy Lord- he’s prayin’!”
Lewis’s prayers stopped in favor of the name. One word of sense- Madison’s name.
“Lewis!” Madison stepped to the door but for some reason didn’t want to touch it. It was like approaching a wild animal- you wanted to get closer, but you had to do it carefully, thoughtfully. It was like that- but there was something else too, something more unconscious. The door felt too strange, too odd. Lewis’s very essence felt shifted from the man Madison knew before.
Lewis’s voice was closer to the door.
“Let me in Lewis! What’s wrong with ya?” Madison responded, glancing nervously back to a disgruntled Spenser.
“This can’t be happening. It can’t be.” Lewis’s presence vanished from the door and Madison felt colder, like stepping out into a winter’s day from a warm house.
“What you talkin’ bout, you douchebag!” Madison dropped to the ground to peer under the door, but there was only shifting light. “Let me in!”
Spenser motioned to the squadron. Slowly, they backed away from the shack in a silent ring, moving across the desert like a ripple. Madison stood alone, hand outstretched towards the door.
“Just look at me. Please?” Madison said.
There was a pause.
Then the door creaked open.
Lewis was still covered in blood. His blue eyes shone like stickers taped to a red, dripping doll.
“Dear god!” Madison reached out for Lewis’s shoulder, ready to draw him in close, to tell him that it was all okay. That they were all fine.
Madison’s hand passed through Lewis as if he were cigar smoke, disappearing into the blue sky.
Madison started to scream, but only managed a strangled gasp. Lewis simply stared, those blue eyes that Madison had always envied stared into nothing, looking past him at something far away from the desert. It was a look Madison knew. He’d seen it on corpses.
“Arnie?” Madison reached for him, but he knew he could never touch him again. “You didn’t survive the bomb, did you?”
Lewis whispered a response, drowned out by a new noise, a raising rush of wind picking up the sand in a whirlpool of reds and yellows.
“The hell…” Spenser looked up to see a helicopter from his own army descending on the flat bed of the lake, sending the men beneath it scattering. Spenser’s cigar fell from his hand- but when he went to get it again, it had vanished- rolled away, he supposed, in the strong wind. The helicopter’s beetle-like form settled onto the ground carefully, and the blades died in metallic whirls. A man, tall and built like movie superheroes, stepped out of the helicopter, cradling a US Army helmet in one hand. Spenser recognized him as one of the distress pilots, but the man didn’t seem to recognize him. His attention went straight to Madison, standing in the doorway still.
“Dear God…” the pilot said. Madison started to explain, or at least, started to try, when the pilot dodged past him. Into the house. He grasped Lewis’s arm. At the pilot’s touch, the soldier seemed to collapse in on himself, until the pilot was the only thing keeping him upright. He pulled him out into the desert, the laboring confirming that Lewis had weight. Confirming that Lewis was solid.
“There. Was. A. MISTAKE!”
Lewis burst into bizarre, spasming sobs, smearing the blood on his cheeks. The pilot pulled him to the side so his back rested against the helicopter’s smooth black metal.
“I don’t understand.” He said. “Where’s the rest of your squadron?”
Spenser and Madison shot each other looks. They were both getting an itchy uncomfortable feeling, as if they were just on the verge of some unknown word and just couldn’t seem to recall its entirety.
“What is this nonsense?” Spenser asked, but it was almost like begging now.
“My squadron…” Lewis choked through his tears, and made piercing eye contact with Madison. There was an apology now in those eyes. “There’s nothing left of my squadron.”
“What…” The pilot asked- but Lewis’s face grew as settled as the desert dust.
Madison squeezed his eyes shut, but it was too late. Memories came back to him like a flood, so vivid and graphic it was almost like getting blown up all over again. He called Lewis’s name, but he was on the helicopter now, disappearing up into the clouds. It didn’t seem fair, Madison’s silent words screamed, that Lewis should be raised into the sky while they were left splattered across the hot, unforgiving desert. It just wasn't fair.
#army #horror #mystery #longprose
Love Hasn’t Changed Me.
I still despise winter.
The cold that seems to creep through even your third layer of clothes
Although now I find myself with you
Pressing our faces against the icy glass
waiting for the snow.
I long for those days where the sky seems higher than usual
and the wind whips mercilessly over the road
and your cheeks and nose turn pink
like a porcelain doll.
I have yet to enjoy the outdoors,
Noxious bugspray and hard-packed dirt,
and yet I stand on a summit
and feel the tons of rock beneath me,
the world stretched below in miniscule glory,
Feeling at peace and a bit sweaty, with you.
The soap operas I hate become comedies
You twist the words into jokes
Glancing over to see me laugh.
We cook instead of takeout,
dancing barefoot to the hum of the oven
Waiting for the timer to cry
and announce the arrival of dinner.
Love hasn't changed me
but again and again,
I find myself different.
#romance #love #poetry
Mine was a childhood of teeth.
Hands curled into fists,
nails into soft flesh.
Later they called it a friendly scrap
the kind siblings ought to have.
The violence was lost on them.
I, eight, and him, ten
were never friends.
We fought on the battlefield of the living room rug
The stairs of mountains and rivers of hallways.
Violence of a feral kind,
not for cause
not for hate
but for freedom.
In the short hours between school and dinner,
we fought for glory.
I was always dragged away first
Even eight, I was the lady
Not allowed to be a visceral creature,
made of hard sharp bones to dig into ribs and stomachs.
He, teenager, found new wars and
Came home with scabs the size of medals.
I braided hair and doodled across notebooks.
on a darkened street
in a heated exchange
with a flash of angry eyes
I feel the heat in my face--
I bare my teeth
And I am eight again.
#poetry #childhood #fight
Sitting on the couch.
The television blaring.
a joke or a moment,
that I don’t have to guess if you remember.
I look over at you.
The television carries on.
Well I mean...
Never, and I mean NEVER give people advice! Especially when they don't ask for it!
I live in a house by the highway
someone mistakenly painted white.
After years of tires and grit,
the sides of my house match an overcast sky.
as dull and dead as roadside piles of snow.
The highway goers look past my house
lost in thoughts of destinations and travels beyond.
They have their windows all rolled up
and their doors always closed.
They don't hear like I do
the never ending thunder
that paints my house gray.
The Long Way Around
Summer’s graveyard came in dazzling color
And the thin fingers of the past snatched it up like a broach to be pinned on Nostalgia’s lapels.
This summer was the Summer of You
The summer of empty white stretches of time
Of possibilities too numerous to name
So, when faced with such a baffling selection we’d sit instead
On the baked stone stairs in front of my house
Where the mosquitos buzzed in my ears,
Suitable static to these summer days when no programs were playing
Or maybe we’d follow long staccato yellow lines to nowhere and nothing
With the windows down
With the radio playing cheesy pop songs and you’d mock them
And I’d laugh but I’d look away.
You never knew I took the long way to your house
Or perhaps you did, and instead of admitting it,
watched the stars through my open sunroof,
Letting me bide my time as the summer ran slowly out,
Seen as the light died around us and I caught myself on the back roads,
Loudly disbelieving that I had gotten us lost again.
And there were other tricks,
Other ways of making you stay—
You’d call for me, chasing me barefoot through the grass in pursuit of some small item
Your keys, your phone, your wallet.
I was a thief of both time and trinkets that summer.
Yes, barefoot in the grass, no catholic school knee socks yet—
But they lay in waiting, stuffed in the back of my drawer and my mind
Waiting for those encroaching colder days where I lived in fear of someone knowing
Where every glance might be too long, might give us away,
Where every conversation was drained and tense and nervous,
Friend and girl, separate words, never compounded into anything else.
But for the summer, we were truly alone
We shined like Christmas trees before an inevitable January where we’d be left on the curb,
Brittle and dry like the lights and tinsel never happened.
And sure enough, despite my careful grasp, time slipped free.
And I was left alone in the autumn dimension of overcast skies
Where the air smelled like rain,
And I drove straight to school thinking of back roads and the long way around.
#LGBT #romance #poetry
You’re beside me.
Whenever you’re gone I wish
It could be like it is now.
I always dread that
You’ll leave and
But only in my mind now.
Your footsteps echo down my halls.
Your laughter rings in my windows.
See this last so long
I hope I never
Find you gone,
I memorized the weight of your tread on the stairs
The click of your footsteps down the hall
And now I hear you still,
although my halls are empty,
and my staircases bare.
Find me sixteen again,
In the waning days of August.
The summer comes to a close with a strawberry sunset
And I swat at the hot-weather static
But the gnats only sound louder
As I think of tomorrow,
The end of long empty asphalts and staccato yellow lines
Whisper grasses and velvet evenings,
Not lonely, but empty, white stretches of time
Giving birth to wild fantasies,
Singing softly in childhood ears,
But over, tomorrow.
Tonight, my sleep is overcast,
For summer dreams fade away.