The Girl Who Cried War
Author: coritherien

Chapter 6
Depart

January 8th, 2008

Dear Nate,

            Happy New Year, my love!  I can’t say I went to any raging party to celebrate or anything, and I’m rather sure that you didn’t, either.  So it’s a little like we spent it together, right?

            Aimee and Tawny have grown tired of my moping.  We aren’t speaking to one another because apparently I’m miserable to be around.  I mean, I know I’m not fun like this—it isn’t like I choose to miss you.  But I’m trying!  I try to be upbeat, and peppy, and all that but I was never one for acting. 

            Anyway, if you could, please send your future letters to my house.  Knocking at Aimee’s door to retrieve this one was both awkward and upsetting.  I would rather risk my parents finding our about you.  I suppose it’s time they know, anyway.

            I’m not going to tell you that I miss you, because I have so many times before and I think it goes without saying now.  Instead, I’ll tell you of how Carla and I completely gutted and organized your room this past Saturday.  She said she was sick of having to walk by that mess every day on her way to the foyer.  And what a mess it was.  I found clothing strewn across the floor that I’ve never even seen.  We both know that I’m not the cleanliest girl in the world, but that would drive even me crazy. 

            I find myself wondering what you’re doing while I’m writing this.  Are you eating or sleeping or patrolling the streets, maybe?  Sharing stories around the fire again?

            I hope you feel like you’re a part of the “greater good” you used to harp on.  I love you.  All I can hope for is your safety and that the months until your return race to finish.

 

All my love,

 

Erin

 

            I folded up the letter, tucking it carefully away from prying eyes in my trunk.  That was the fifth time I read it, and I couldn’t help but grin each time.  She had the remarkable ability to light up even my grim surroundings. 

            A clap on my shoulder pulled my head out of the clouds.  Fournier laughed.

            “Just marry her, already!” he exclaimed, giving me a friendly shove. 

            I laughed.  “I’m not sure she’d appreciate a written proposal.”

            Fournier shrugged.  “Tell her to stop being so picky.”  Ducking to avoid the subsequent pillow I chucked at him, he laughed, “Anyways, you better get dressed, kiddo.  It was to be nearing 7 A.M.  Flanny is bound to come storming in any minute.”

            I leapt up from my bunk.  I had no idea it was that late but, looking around, I probably should have.  Most everyone was already dressed.  I pulled on my uniform hastily.  I was lacing my boots when Flannigan threw the front door to the bunker open. 

            “We’re pairing off today, gentlemen,” he barked, sounding perpetually angry.  “Swanson, you and O’Toole take the northbound strip.  There was a robbery last night and tensions are high over there.”  They nodded, snatched their helmets and rifles, and left.

            “McCormick, Lombardi, you’ll take the main street market.”  They, too, gathered their equipment and headed out.

            “Romano, Fournier, Richards and Sweeney: the four of you take the development complex just beyond the main strip.  It’s a big area, too big for just a pair of you.”

            So, following suit, we strapped our helmets beneath our chins and slung our rifles over our shoulders and headed around back, past our withering patch of grass, and down the hill into the main strip.  Business was blooming at 7 A.M., and by the looks of things, no one had closed up shop for a good night’s sleep.

            Fish hung from the ceilings of some booths, flies swarming around them.  Other booths, with similar infestations, contained anything from chickens to raw cow hides.  And yet people were buying up these obviously rotting meats faster than it could be restocked.

            Some booths were dedicated to clothing; children roamed through them, playing tag while their families earned the day’s keep. 

            The other booths a bit further down were much darker.  Shadier.  Cigar smoke nearly blocked the faces of all the “business men” sitting behind card tables.  Behind them, the booth’s shelves were all empty; it was obvious that what they were selling was much more valuable, and illegal, than the booths before them.  When we drew near them, they cleared the card tables of their merchandise but made no other move to hide their dealings. 

            They knew that drug trafficking didn’t exactly top our list of concerns. 

            We trudged further, Fournier by my side, Romano and Sweeney behind us.  Mud from the night’s rain was already caking out boots, and Fournier’s were freshly polished. 

            As we neared the complex, the mob of people began to thicken.  The playful children running along with their friends shied back to their mothers as we passed.  Their parents kept their stony faces forward; the only indication that they saw us was the firm grips they claimed on their children’s shoulders. 

            Finally, we approached the development complex.  The change in the atmosphere was like crossing from Canal street into SoHo in NYC: drastic.  Unlike the main strip, the complex was the beginning of one of the wealthier neighborhoods in Fadhil.  The complex looked like a very small-scale shopping center.  Architects worked on what looked like a super market in the making; there were lifts and cranes and bulldozers every way we looked.  Beside the market, similar architectural skeletons were constructed but were far less progressed.

            “What is it we’re supposed to patrol?” Sweeney asked, his brow furrowed and his mouth agape.  “It’s just a bunch of construction workers on site.  We’d get more done with the drug dealers back there.”

            Sweeney was a gruff, daunting brute who was a good 5” taller than me and was at least twice, if not three times, my width.  He looked like he spend every free second he had lifting weights but I found out recently that he was a devoted husband and father of two.  His twin girls were his world, and they had learned to say, “Daddy,” while he was in the service.  It broke his heart that he wasn’t there to see it.

            “I’d call it an easy day in the field, boys.”  Fournier grinned.  He removed his rifle and helmet and wiped the sweat off his head.  Technically, we were supposed to remain fully geared until we were back in the barracks but we could sense no immediate danger and, hell, it was hot out. 

            It wouldn’t have mattered if we had sensed the danger or not because, at that point, nothing we could have done would have made a bit of difference. 

            I’ve always heard that an explosion takes you completely by surprise, like it does in the movies.  You’ll be walking down the street calmly and then all of a sudden you’re blown into the air without a moment’s notice.  I didn’t find that to be the case.  Something changed, something in the air, a split second before we were blasted backwards.  The smell, perhaps—I remember smelling something like gunpowder and smoke.  And then, I saw it before I felt it, and I was the only one.

            Two things happened almost at once and I saw them both.  I watched as Fournier stretched luxuriously, reveling at the thought of a nice, relaxing day.  Then, I watched as the market place behind him exploded, sending wood work, stone and workmen showering down like fiery rain. 

            In that moment, everything happened in a horrid slow-motion.  My mouth opened and a terrible, strangled scream escaped as Fournier was swept up by the explosion’s gust of fire and debris.  In a split second, I too was in the air and I was held there for a good 20 seconds before being spat back out onto the gravel.  I knew, instantly, that my injuries weren’t fatal as I lay sprawled on my back, striving to get my limbs to work.  I felt the sting of burn and glass on the skin not covered by my uniform, but it was nothing that would kill me.

            Finally, the blood rushed back into my legs and I was able to push myself into a low crouch.  Debris still rained down, and a fire still roared where the market was not a moment ago. 

            Suddenly, my ears were bombarded by the cries of chaos and sorrow.  I whipped my head around at the sound of a piercing shriek only to see a young mother clutching the body of a boy that couldn’t have been more than five.  Softly, she began to sing something that could have been Muslim prayer, rocking her bloodied son as though putting him to sleep. 

            I forced my eyes away only to come upon an equally horrific sight.

            Christopher Fournier was lying some twenty feet away from me.  Shrapnel stuck him everywhere.  Burns covered his battered body.  He had landed on his unprotected head, and the left side was a bloody mess.  I ran as quickly as I could, but my legs felt like Jello—I couldn’t make them move properly.  When I reached him, I realized he looked even worse up close.  His eyes were crossed and it was obvious he could no longer see.  Blood trickled from his left ear.  His nose was crushed and his jaw was out of place. 

            I clutched one of his cut-up hands and ran it over my face, trying to convey to him who I was, to give him a small sense of comfort.  I’ll never know if he realized it was me, but I like to think he did.  His fingers tightened briefly around mine before his shallow breathing stopped all together.  His eyes drifted shut, laugh lines prominent.  I don’t care what anyone says, the dead do not look like they’re sleeping.  His body was breathless, lifeless, motionless.  There was something so terribly irrefutable about it. 

            Tears poured down my burned face, blinding me momentarily.  This man would never know a woman’s touch, or the loving embrace of a family.  He had no one but me to miss him. 

            Seven or so yards behind us, Romano, grubby but otherwise unscathed, dragged a partially dismembered Sweeney away from further damage, so that his family would hopefully be able to at least bury a body. 

            This time, with smoke already filling the air, I had no warning.  A second explosion sounded, seemingly smaller than the first but I was a good 20 yards closer now.  When I landed, I wasn’t as sure as to the gravity of my injuries.  I couldn’t feel anything below my chest and if I had been told that my upper half was on fire, I would’ve readily believed it.  My head felt like it had split open.  I opened my eyes widely but could see scarcely more than shadows.  

            Romano was by my side, I realized when my hearing returned.  “Nate!” he screeched.  Tears made his voice thick.  “Nate not you, too, buddy.  Wake up.  Look at me, look at me!”

            And I tried like my life depended on it, because it did.  I swung my eyes in the direction of his voice.

            “Anthony,” I whispered, surprised by how gruff my voice sounded.  “Tell her…tell her that I love her.”

            There was a pause in which I’m sure he began to not until he remembered I couldn’t see.  “I will, Nate,” he whispered back, gripping the front of my uniform.  “I will.”

            I tried my hardest to cling to the small aspects of reality—sounds, smells, feelings—but my mind edged farther and farther away and I began to accept my fate.  As my vision got darker, memories from my childhood flitted to the surface.  I saw myself, age 10, on Christmas morning.  ‘Santa’ had sent me the exact water gun I wanted.  I was beside myself.

            I saw myself on my first day of high school, a bundle of nerves.  I saw my first kiss.

            I saw my parents’ faces, and Carla’s.  But, as my eyes closed, the face that lingered was Erin’s.  Her smile stayed with me until it could no longer, and then everything was black. 

 

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