The Girl Who Cried War
Author: coritherien

Chapter 4
Swarm

November 8th, 2007

Dear Nate,                               

            Days just seem to be getting longer.  Do you get that feeling?  Time slows; amiable conversation becomes fruitless and tiresome.  I’ve realized how mundane I’ve let my life become, and how mundane the lives around me are. 

            Two hundred and fifty seven days.  That’s approximately how long you’ve got left in that hell-hole you call service.  I’ve set aside a calendar. I’m marking the days just like the next pathetic, dependent girl wearing her heart on her sleeve.  Look what you’ve done to me.  You have no one to blame but yourself for my onslaught of clinginess. 

            I’m sorry, love, I’m kidding.  I’m just bitter.  There isn’t anyone else I can really talk to.  Aimee has been wonderful, but I’m starting to feel uncomfortable sharing thoughts with others, let alone these letters. 

            On a happier note, do you remember that clearing in the woods behind my lake house?  Where we spent the majority of spring, and even some of the summer?  I visited yesterday.  It was the first time I went since I had gone with you.  It was…harder than I had anticipated. You know I’m simply not that sentimental—things like that normally wouldn’t bother me.  But it did, yesterday.  I don’t know what I expected it to look like.  Perhaps I expected the earth to be churning, the soil to blacken.  Maybe I thought it was an area the sun would avoid altogether, because it held too many wonderful, terrible memories of an endless goodbye.  I don’t know.  I didn’t imagine the land would be thriving.

            But it was.  Flowers grew, wild dandelions—the kind you make wishes on, blowing the petals into the sky, carrying your hope up, up, up…  I sat for over an hour wishing for your safe return.  I wished until I’d exhausted my supply of miracle flowers.  In a tree towards the edge of the clearing, I caught sight of a birds nest.  More amazingly, three little birds chirped cheerfully inside. 

            And it was eye-opening.  I realized that lives for other people would go on as if nothing had changed.  But for me, everything changed.  My whole world.  I was selfish enough to expect a place as sacred to us as the clearing behind the lake to experience the torment you and I are feeling. 

            I’m rambling now, and I’m running out of space.  Take care, Nate.  I hope you’re healthy and happy. 

 

I love you,

 

Erin

           

            I felt a smile tugging at the corners of my mouth.  Her letter was sardonic (with a touch of bitterness) which, admittedly, she was always like.  I’m positive; I’m upbeat—sometimes to the point of annoyance.  We balanced each other quite well.

            And unlike her, I was happy that the clearing was thriving.  I hoped it would show her that life went on without me.  I don’t mean to sound as if I think the sun rises and sets with me; I don’t.  I mean she has literally told me before that she cannot stand my absence.  I sincerely hoped she was exaggerating her despair. 

            Everyday, I pondered further and further into my initial desire to join the army. 

            Still, a smile adorned my face as I clamored out of my top bunker.  Fournier, having already risen, was polishing his shoes, a habit I never fully understood.  We would be out roaming dirt-caked streets for God knows how many hours.  I’ve asked him why before, and I’ve never really gotten an answer.  But every morning when I wake, there he is.  Polishing. 

            I heard his deep, guttural laughter and glanced at him inquisitively. 

            “You look happy,” he said, lacing up those freshly polished black boots. 

            “Maybe I am,” I said with mock defiance.  My smile betrayed me. 

            “Yeah, yeah, tough guy,” he laughed.  He nodded towards the letter clutched in my hand.  “Erin?” 

            I nodded.

            His face sobered slightly.  “How’s she doing?”

            “She’s…bitter.  She’s probably still a little mad at me for leaving.” 

            He looked at me as if I was insane.  In all honesty, I probably looked insane.  Who smiles after receiving bitter letters from loved ones? 

            Me. 

            I shrugged.  “I don’t want her to be upset, but it shows me how little things have changed…you know?  No matter how much horror and tragedy I witness, she is still the same sarcastic, opinionated, but sweet girl that I left in Rhode Island.”

            Fournier smiled and shook his head.  “I’ll take your word for it,” he said skeptically, but I had a sneaking suspicion he understood. 

            As he went around back to water our sacred patch of grass, I threw my uniform on over my undershirt and boxers.  Twenty-three of us men were crowded in the fort, each of us trying to dress for the day whilst occupying as minimal a space as possible.

            Anthony Romano, one of the few friends I’ve made in these barracks, rounded the corner of my bunk, where I had just slung my jacket on.  Not only was he fully dressed, he had also already assembled his rifle and hooked his dog tags around his neck. 

            Romano was a dark skinned man who, like me, had joined the army fresh out of high school.  Always the optimist, Romano never had a harsh word to say.  However, the normally jubilant man now looked on edge. 

            “Hey,” I muttered, but it sounded more like a question.

            “Flannigan is comin’, and he’s in a fightin’ mood,” Romano explained in his casual Southern drawl.  This kid would never shed his Louisiana roots. 

            “Goddamn,” I answered.  A visit from the General never boded well so early in the morning—the sun had barely peeked over the horizon. 

            General Thomas Flannigan was one of the biggest hard-asses I had ever met in my life.  A true Texan, born and raised, he always had one of two things by his side: a loaded rifle or a canteen of whisky.  The General was a hard drinker.  Fournier told me it’s the reason his wife took their only child back to her North Eastern hometown.  Fournier, who had known him the longest, said the General deployed only two months after the separation, meaner, colder and boozier than ever. 

            But the man was born for the front line.  He was meant to mold us kids into the soldiers we wanted to be and to give us the tools we needed to survive.  Certainly, his message was heavy handed but there was no coddling in the infantry.  Do or die, it was a code we lived by.  Do or die. 

            As I fumbled with the buttons on my jacket, Fournier came scurrying back in the bunkhouse as if chased by a pit-bull.  His warning glance told me to skip the last few buttons, snatch my rifle and stand to attention.  The other men followed suit; Dwayne McCormick, another one of my few friends, and Romano flanked my sides. 

General Flannigan burst into the room, his face as red as a tomato.  I was tempted offer him a seat, he looked so overworked.  Flannigan was no small man.  He was shaped like a box; his shoulders squared off into a big barrel of a chest, leading to shuffling, size 14 feet.  He even had a square chin.  His dark eyes bulged out of their sockets like he was ready to blow.  He had a too-small cap jammed on his big block head.  The man was enormous and he knew the art of intimidation like the back of his hand.

            The door clattered against the stone wall of the base.  Each man stood to attention carefully—guts sucked in, rifles by our sides. 

            Flannigan paced up and down the pathway we had inadvertently formed as we lined up on both sides of the bunkhouse.  Sweat poured down his face, rolling onto his thick neck.  Finally, he stood in the center and glared us each down. 

            “In all my years as General,” he boomed, “I have never seen such stupidity in action.  Never have I been so misrepresented by one of my recruits.”

            His voice echoed as if amplified by a microphone.  Each of us men stood, shrouded with bewilderment but unwilling to inquire as to the source of his anger.  

            Flannigan started up his pacing again, stopping right beside McCormick. 

            “Private Gallagher!” he bellowed. 

            I heard Gallagher gulp audibly before replying with the mandatory, “Sir, yes, sir!”

            And immediately, every recruit in the bunker mentally face-palmed.  We knew the proverbial shit was about to hit the fan—excuse my French. 

            Private Simon Gallagher was a world-class klutz.  He was nice as can be, but the man could barely walk twenty feet before tripping, or otherwise defacing himself/others.  His skin was as porcelain-white as that of a baby who has never seen the sun.  But he blushed extremely easily which, contrasted with his overly fair complexion, made it look as if he was running a never-ending fever.  I dared not chance a glance, but I’d bet my week’s dinner rations that he was red as ever when the General bellowed at him.

            “Private Gallagher,” he repeated, “were you or were you not the last one into the supply bunker yesterday at approximately 22 hundred hours?”

            “Sir, I was, sir!” Gallagher shouted back, sounding more confident than he undoubtedly felt. 

            Flannigan spit and grounded it into the floor with his steel-toed boot.  “And were you or were you not instructed to lock up the supply bunker when you were through, Private Gallagher?” 

            “Sir, I was, sir!” Gallagher said, sounding more confused than confident now. 

            “And did you or did you not do as you were told?” Flannigan barked. 

            “Sir, I believe so, sir!”

            “You believe so,” Flannigan murmured.  He was almost shaking with anger.  “Well, I have news for you, Gallagher!  You did not lock up after yourself in the supply bunker and goddamn it, Private, I am not your coddling mommy!” 

            I didn’t have to look to know that Gallagher had jumped backward in reaction to the General’s increasingly harsh tone. 

            “Tell me, Private, what time is it now?”

            Gallagher glanced out the open door in an attempt to determine the time based on the sun’s position in the sky, as we were trained to do.  But with the sun in such close proximity to the horizon, it was nearly impossible to discern the exact hour. 

            “Sir, it’s about zero six hundred, sir!”

            “It’s about zero six hundred,” Flannigan mocked in a tone much higher than Gallagher’s.  “That leaves our entire supply of food, water and ammo unguarded and open to tampering for eight goddamn hours, doesn’t it, Private?” 

            Gallagher looked as though he just might cry.  “S-sir, I guess it does, sir!”

            “And can you imagine what kind of poison might be in that food and water if someone from the opposing side realized your foolishness and accessed our stores?  Do you realize that your blunder means our entire supply is now garbage?!”  He didn’t wait for an answer this time.  “The dumbasses they let in the infantry these days!  One more screw up, Private, and a dishonorable discharge will sound like a goddamn blessing!” 

            The General stormed towards the door but at the last second, he spun around to face us again. 

            “Tonight, you will all double your workouts,” he barked, “and there will be no food or water until another shipment can be sent, unless you trust the local produce.”

            Of course, none of us could trust the local produce. 

            “You can all thank Private Gallagher.” 

With that, he slammed the door on our bruised egos, and our soon-to-be exhausted bodies.  Every single one of us groaned inwardly.  And every single one of us wanted to kill Gallagher. 

            He knew it.  He backed away until his back made contact with the stone wall. 

            I’m going to be honest here.  In the infantry, it’s customary for an entire battalion to be punished for one recruit’s mistake.  Depending upon the severity of the castigation, the soldier to blame might receive a beating from his fellow army men.  It would never be brutal enough to seriously injure the accused—it would simply be a lesson to, in the future, think before he/she acts.  It is more common than any of us would perhaps admit. 

            And even though I like to think of myself as an inherently good person, I have taken part in very basic retributions on those who deserve it the most.  It’s simply the way of the land.  As primitive as it may sound, a soldier is mainly taught by being held accountable for his/her screw ups.  Every Private who makes a mistake that affects the rest of the battalion has to face the music like a man. 

            It was with this mindset that men circled around him—I would not want to be the one to bear the brunt of their anger. 

            Alec Ricardo and Rocco Swanson, the two men in our regiment who respected nobody (the two I’d written Erin about), were leading this angry mob.  I think that was what prompted me to slide in front of Gallagher, separating the potential abusers from the would-be victim. 

            Had anyone else been initiating the punishment, I’m ashamed to say I would’ve let it slide.  It’s routine, it’s perfunctory.  However, a chance to reveal Ricardo and Swanson as the trash they were was too sweet to pass up. 

            I felt Gallagher’s breath on the back of my neck—despite the warm weather, it kind of gave me the chills. 

            It didn’t stop Ricardo.  He advanced so much that I had to physically push him away from me. 

            “Ricardo!” I shouted, probably too confrontationally, into his face.

            His furious gray eyes suddenly fixed themselves on me.  Another bout of chills racked my spine. 

            Alec Ricardo was, for lack of a better term, a complete muscle-head.  A self-proclaimed guido, he was the source of conflict from day one.  When he acquired the mandatory buzz cut inflicted upon every recruit, we all thought he was going to succumb to tears.  Rocco Swanson was something like a sidekick to Ricardo; just as much bark but we suspected his bite was lacking.

            I can’t say I respected either of them very much.  I’m being polite when I say that.

            But while it’s true that these men had little to no brains in their thick heads, I had to admit that their body masses more than surpassed my own.  So it’s safe to say I was more than a little intimidated. 

            Like I said, Ricardo turned his menacing glare on me. 

            “You got somethin’ to say, pretty boy?” he spat. 

            His insolence reaffirmed my aggression.  “Leave the guy alone,” I said, matching his obnoxious tone. 

            “It’s because of this faggot we’ll barely be able to move tomorrow from all those extra reps!”

            I think we all bristled at his disgusting language. 

            “It’s ‘cause of him we won’t get to eat tonight!” he continued. 

            “Yes, but our battalion is so disorganized because of people like you!” I shouted back.  “What are you actually going to do if you get your hands on Gallagher?  Beat him up?  Tell me, Private, isn’t that counter productive?” 

            Ricardo, his anger halted for the time being, cocked his eyebrows in confusion.  Clearly, “counter productive” was too advanced a word for this meat-head.

            “Our hobs are to look after each other, aren’t they?  To ensure, to the best of out abilities, that each and every one of us returns safely?”

            Ricardo shrugged.  He wasn’t buying it.

            I continued anyway.  “How can we ever trust you in the field if we can’t trust you in the barracks?”

            He grinned.  Obviously, gaining our trust was very low on his to-do list. 

            “Alright,” I murmured, changing my game plan,” I’ll rephrase it.  How can you trust any of us in the field if you torment us in here?” 

            This hit him a little harder. 

            “There will be a time when you need our help; when your life is in one of our hands.  You best pray we feel merciful that day.”

            Ricardo was at a loss.  He understood what I was saying but it was obvious he wasn’t used to relinquishing his anger.  Frustration still burned in his eyes and I thought we still might have a fight on our hands when the door banged open again. 

            “Ladies!” Flannigan boomed.  “Do you really think it wise to test my patience today?”

He eyed Gallagher’s predicament with something akin to disinterest before continuing. 

“If you don’t get your asses out of this bunker and onto those streets in 60 seconds, I’ll triple that workout!”  He stormed back out, muttering something about the pitiful corruption of our youth.

Ricardo gave us a look that made it clear that this wasn’t over before he finally retreated.  Most of the other recruits followed.

As I, too, joined the mob of soldiers clamoring out of the bunk house, I felt a clap on my soldier. 

“Erm…thanks,” Gallagher murmured awkwardly, running a hand over his buzz cut.  I don’t think he was used to people acting amiably towards him. 

I shook his gratitude off, saying, “If they  really had intended to hurt you just now, I don’t think I would’ve been much of a help.  They would’ve pummeled right through me, too.” 

Gallagher shrugged.  “You’re the only one who took that chance.”

            I shrugged and he smiled at my apparent inability to accept praise. 

            “Well, anyways, thanks,” he said before heading out the door. 

            I smiled.  It wasn’t exactly a heroic feat but I helped somebody, all the same. 

 

            12:04 PM

            The heat was searing even in the middle of autumn.  A true New Englander, I was used to chilly autumns, surrounded by fiery descending foliage.  Now, as sweat broke out on my hairline, I longed for even a slight breeze. 

            Already noontime, it had been a fairly unexciting day.  Though, without having eaten, none of us were feeling particularly perky. 

            In such downtime, I found my thoughts wandering to Erin.  I hated not knowing what she did every day.  Before I left, she dreamed of attending Suffolk University in Boston to participate in their Law Program—was that still her dream?  It killed me not to be able to speak with her everyday. 

            A cloud of dirt suffocated my boots with every step I took.  I walked with Romano by my side.  Gallagher and McCormick led us, while Fournier and Carl Lombardi brought up the rear.  Lombardi was like Fournier, a seasoned soldier, although he was far more cynical.

            We were met with a vast range of reactions from the native Iraqis.  From the benevolent, we received small, sometimes fearful smiles.  A few gracious women offered us fruit, to which we politely declined.  Others (mostly the proud-looking men) grimaced at our approach.  One man, rotund with a dirtied turban upon his head, even spat at out feet.  I saw McCormick grit his teeth and step around the insulting saliva. 

            A lot of soldiers took the ingratitude shown toward us by some of the natives really personally.  I understood the view-points of those soldiers, but I couldn’t say that I, too, believed in them.  I tried to understand the natives and see life from their points of view.  Without access to accurate and reliable sources of information, they could only believe the lies that Al Qaeda fed them: that America sought to conquer them or other such nonsense.  Some had seen the truth—that generous woman that bore fruit, for instance.  

            My country, it had its faults.  Our justice system was sometimes flawed.  Our outlooks on education weren’t as focused as other countries.  However, we were certainly as free a country as possible.  Send some of the more arrogant and self-worthy teens I knew to a country like Iraq or Africa, they wouldn’t last a day.  We were privileged, even if we didn’t think so.  Sure, we had our sob-stories and our poverty stricken but we lived in the lap of luxury compared to the devastation I saw every day. 

            It reminds me of a television show I saw a while back.  Whilst channel surfing, I stumbled upon a television show celebrating a girl’s 16th birthday.  The girl, who only had her learner’s permit at the time, demanded not one but two Lamborghinis for her party.  Demanded them.  And her parents acquiesced, obeying their selfish daughter’s orders. 

            Now, really, who in the world needs two Lamborghinis?  I saw people without fresh drinking water every single day. 

            And that made me think of Erin.  I remembered her ranting about how selfish some people can be.  It made me remember why I love her.  She couldn’t care less about Lamborghinis or Porsches or any of those extravagant cars.  Her very first car, an old, beat up Toyota Camry whose bumper needed a swift kick every time she drove it to keep from falling off, was certainly no prize, let me tell you.  Paid for entirely with her sparse minimum wage paychecks, she had to work for a year and a half to afford even that death-trap.  But she was proud of that car—her sweat and blood went into those payments.  Sure, it needed a lot of work, but it had character, she always claimed.  It built character.  And it meant more to her than any brand-new lavish Porsche ever could. 

            I shook my head.  There certainly weren’t any Porsches around here.  These pitiful dirt streets were lined with army tanks and old, beat up cars.  A place like this put anything in perspective. 

 

 

            8:25 P.M.

 

            After a long, uneventful day on the Iraqi streets, as well as ten runs through a grueling obstacle course in the torrential downpour that seemed to be under the General’s command just as much as we were, every man in my platoon collapsed in exhaustion.  Not quite roused into sleep (which would have been a violation of the rules), we drowsily sat around in the bunkhouse.  Some men, Romano included, read, while others played video games on blessed hand-helds that’d been sent.  I partook in none of it—I began my response letter to Erin

            Despite how much I longed to speak with her, I always debated what to tell her in writing.  Or, rather, how much to tell her.  She told be before my departure (and several times since) that she wanted me to share everything with her; she told me not to spare her of any details.  But how could I not spare her?  There were times when I wish someone would spare me. 

            My first month here, things had been surprisingly…dull.  Well, contrasted to my expectations, at least.  We met danger every day—hold-ups, market robberies, physical threats, what have you.  But they all seemed to be petty crimes compared to the horror stories we’d been prepped for.  But on the first day of my second month, the Iraqi populations exceeded my aforementioned expectations.  I was walking the streets beside McCormick.  Our guns hung lazily by our sides.  I remember him chattering about his last good meal, or something as trivial.  One second, we were conversing casually, walking amongst the natives hovering near side markets.  The next minute, a blast sounded and chaos broke out.  Women and children booked it into huts—men gathered in the streets to defend their territories. 

            It was a car-bomb.  An amateur explosive made of nails, it either killed or injured those within close range.  No soldiers were harmed, but at least three children had to be treated for wounds.  Another child—a little girl—was in the bomb’s direct path.  She didn’t make it. 

            These were the types of ordeals I just couldn’t share with Erin.  How could I break to a girl, who believes the world to be inherently good, that children were dying everyday where I was stationed? 

            I couldn’t, so I didn’t.  Instead, I told her that I was happy to hear our little clearing was abundant with life.  I reassured her that her acrimony was never irritating; that it made me feel connected to her again. 

            Corny?  Probably.  True?  Absolutely. 

            As I began to branch off into this morning’s chaos due to Gallagher’s carelessness, smoke wafted into the bunk house.  Alarmed, I and a few other men snatched our rifles and followed the smoky trails to investigate—but not before I tucked both letters into my inside pocket. 

            As it turns out, the smoke trailed from a small but blazing fire that a few of the men built in trash can.  As the slight chill of night seeped through our uniforms, the fire began to warm our bones. 

            Spirits lifted considerably when someone produced the makings for S’mores that his mother had sent.  My stomach had been growling all day; going that long without food was a great deal harder than I anticipated. 

            Soon, all of us were gathered around the fire.  We quickly exhausted our supplies of graham crackers and chocolate bars, but we still had a profusion of marshmallows.  Once we’d all satiated our hunger, some of the men took turns sharing tales.  War stories, their home lives, you name it.  I learned that Romano had married his high school sweetheart  the week after graduation and that he had yet to enjoy his honeymoon; he’d been shipped out the day after his wedding. 

            We learned that McCormick was actually a physics major before he joined the service.  And I learned that, at the ripe old age of 52, Lombardi was already a grandfather of six young boys.  Can you imagine holidays with a rowdy bunch like that?

            As the stories died down and Gallagher stoked the fire, I took the letters out of my pocket once more.  I read Erin’s letter through yet again; I could hear her voice, bitter but kind, in the back of my head.

            I stood to go lock the letter in the old jewelry box at the bottom of my trunk where I kept the others.  As I turned, though, I felt a strong hand grip my elbow.  Its partner reached around and snatched the letter from my hand. 

            My heart stopped for a moment.  I glanced down, praying it was the letter I had written, not the one from Erin; the only thing still clutched in my hand, however, was my own dreadful chicken scratch.

            ‘No’, my mind screamed.  That was private—that was mine

            As I spun around to face my assailant, his voice boomed, piercing the previous stillness that saturated the air.

            “And what do we have here?” Ricardo barked.  The smile on his lips actually darkened his face rather than brightening it.

            “What are you doing?” I shouted, gripping his shirt threateningly.  Though, considering that I was a good 3 inches shorter than him, it didn’t have much of an affect. 

            “All right, calm down,” Ricardo laughed.  Behind him, Swanson was doubled over in exaggerated mirth.  He pushed his hand against my chest and successfully kept me at arm’s length.

            Anger pulsed through my brain, making it fuzzy.  He had no business reading that letter.  I would’ve punched him if I could have reached. 

My mouth went dry when he began to speak.  “Dear Nate,” he mocked in a voice like a drag queen’s.  “Days just seem to be getting longer.  Do you get that feeling?  Time slows; amiable conversation becomes—.”

I snapped.  “Give it back,” I said, my voice dangerously low.  I sounded like a whiny little boy but I couldn’t care less.  My fists were involuntarily clenched so hard that my knuckles were white. 

“Oh, well when you put it that way,” Ricardo said sarcastically.  He started to hand the letter back.  At the last second, however, the hand seemed to divert its path—he flicked his hand up and away.  He released the letter; I watched with rapidly increasing dread as Erin’s letter flew. 

Right into the roaring fire.

“No!” I whispered, shoving Ricardo in the gut. 

I ran to the fiery can and could do nothing but watch as the flames licked at Erin’s dainty, curving words until they were but a smoldering pile of ash.

Something akin to bile mixed with churning anger rose in my throat when I heard Ricardo’s voice from behind me. 

“That’ll teach you to talk back to me again, won’t it?  Gallagher had it comin’, and you’ll be wise to learn your place,” he advised.

I spun around to face him incredulously.  Seriously?  How old was I, six?  He began to laugh hysterically.

He was the only one.  Even Swanson clamped his mouth shut when he saw the rage on my face.

I wanted nothing more than to sock my fist right into Ricardo’s mocking mouth.  So, that’s exactly what I did.  And I have to say, hearing his teeth crash together was extremely satisfying. 

Immediately, he crumpled from a looming meat-head into a sniveling child.  He gripped his jaw like his life depended on it, grunting and squealing more out of shock, I think, than actual pain. 

“You can be sure,” he spat once he’d regained control of himself, “that the General is gonna hear about this, Richards.  I’ve got the entire bunkhouse to back me up.”

At the moment, I didn’t care; I was glad I socked him.  But later, I knew, I’d regret it big time. 

That was, until Fournier spoke up.  “Hear about what?  Did something happen?  I didn’t see a thing.”  A smirk played on his lips and he was instantly in charge of the situation.  Ricardo gaped at him incredulously.

“I think maybe you should get that head checked, boy.  That’s what too much hair gel will do to ya,” Lombardi chuckled. 

For a minute, I thought Ricardo was going to kill them.  He turned to the other men milling about the fire. 

“Will any of you tell the truth?” he asked. 

“You mean, tell the General that you threw a man’s personal mail into the fire?  But, Alec, mail theft is a federal offense!  If you’re willing to own up to a crime, I’m sure we’d all be happy to alert Flannigan for you,” McCormick smirked. 

It made me proud, and a little guilty, to see them all facing Ricardo defiantly, even though it was I who had grown violent. 

Ricardo promptly pouted and, spinning on his booted heels, stormed into the bunkhouse.  Swanson trotted right after him.

It was like dealing with belligerent high school girls sometimes.  Honestly.

Shortly after, Flannigan shouted for lights out.  I followed Fournier into the bunkhouse, wanting to thank him but not knowing how to broach it. 

I didn’t have to; Fournier saved me the trouble when he glanced at me and smiled.  “Don’t mention it,” he muttered.  “I’m sorry about your letter, Nate.  Was it an important one?”

I sat on my bunk and grounded the dirt from my eyes.  “Not particularly,” I responded.  “I mean, she didn’t say anything extremely significant, but every letter is important to me.”

He nodded, but I don’t think he fully understood.  How could he?  He’d never had anyone to correspond with.  A part of me pitied him. 

I think he could sense I had more to say.  He lingered in front of me before finally taking a seat beside me.

“It’s just…what if these letters are the last forms of communication I’ll ever get from her?”  Tears formed in my eyes and I swiped at them before they made any progress down my cheeks.  The minute I joined the army, I became a sissy.  How ironic. 

“We all know there’s a good chance that we may never make it back home,” I whispered.  My throat constricted and made my voice thick.  “Who knows when the next time I see my family will be, or, hell; who knows if I will ever see them again?  And Erin?  What if I never see her facehear her voice again?  That…that scares me more than the prospect of death.”

And for the first time, I could tell that I actually taught Fournier something.  Not the fear of dying here; he knew that emotion better than any other.  What I taught him was that there was a fear greater than that accompanied by death.  The occurrence itself—dying—wasn’t particularly frightening.  What kept me up nights was the prospect of never again seeing my friends, my family…or Erin.  The very thought made my blood run cold.

            “You’re right,” Fournier whispered.  For a minute, I thought I saw tears in the corners of his eyes—or perhaps that was the light playing tricks. 

            “You’re right,” he repeated.  “I guess…well, I guess that never occurred to me.  I mean, I haven’t exactly got a lot of friends or family back in the states, now have I?  I’ve got no one to miss…and no one to miss me.”

            At that moment, I could’ve slapped myself, and did so, mentally.  My intention wasn’t to make him question himself.

            “Oh, hey, no…Chris, that’s not what I meant.  Your brother and his family would be out of their minds with grief—”

            “I think they’d get by just fine,” he said with a touch of sadness.  A melancholy smile graced his face and he swiped at his eyes.  Brushing away dust, I’d presume. 

            “Chris, I’m sorry.  I swear, I didn’t mean that offensively.”

            He looked up, stymied by my words.  He furrowed his brow in slight confusion before shaking his head vehemently.  “No, no—of course you didn’t.  It’s not your fault!  In all honesty, I probably should’ve realized all this when I first registered.  No, Nate, don’t five it another thought.”

            At first, I thought he was trying to placate me.  I searched his eyes for hints of dishonesty but found none.  I nodded in understanding, though a part of my brain told me I should learn to think before I speak.

            Fournier clapped my shoulder good-naturedly.  “I’m sorry, again, about that letter.”  He climbed over to his bunk and started untying his habitually shined black boots.

            I scrubbed the remnants of the day from my face, eager to give way to the unawareness of sleep.  But a few seconds before the lights were cut, I happened to glance diagonally across the aisle from my bunk.

            I was met with burning black eyes.

            Ricardo sat straight up, rigid in his four-poster bed.  His face was still slightly red where I punched him.

            I stared straight back at him, too, until we were all submerged in darkness.

            Looks like I’ve made an enemy right within the barracks.  And I thought I only had to worry about the natives.  Go figure. 

 

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