1st Place Winner of Short Shots 7/09; published in Literary Foray anthology 2010
Murph squinted across the inky water, past the pier from where the fireworks would be launched, to the growing number of boats just off shore, dotting the water like dandelion seeds floating on a carefree breeze. The patch over the place where his right eye should have been distorted his field of vision and intensified the headache he’d had for three months now. The urge to tear it from his face was strong, but a trained, stoic expression masked the impulse as well as the internal reprimand for forgetting, for the hundredth time that day, that removing the patch wouldn’t solve the problem. He wondered if he’d ever get used to the newly acquired handicap, or adjust to civilian life. A gust of ocean air stirred the dog tags hanging around Murph’s neck as he turned and made his way toward the pier.
He thought about the sadness etched in his mama’s face when he’d told her earlier that he was opting out of the big neighborhood Fourth of July block party. He just wasn’t in the mood for friends who looked anywhere but at his eye patch, as if they would disrespect him by acknowledging it. Even his mother had spoken to his hands as she held them in her lap and said she hoped someday he’d be able to cope with his affliction. Affliction. His gut had twisted, but he’d leaned an impassive face closer as he gently disentangled his hands from hers and kissed her on the cheek. Without a word he’d strode out of the house, swung his body into the beat up Jeep Wrangler that he’d bought when he was sixteen, and drove up the coast to Mexico Beach.
The crowd on the beach was growing as the evening sky darkened. Murph’s bare feet slid back a little with each step in the powdery sand so different from the coarse grains of Iraq’s barren landscape. Iraqi sand stung the soles of bare feet like walking across hundreds of tiny horseflies. Just one more comfort of home, he thought dryly.
Murph’s hands had curled into tight fists as he’d stood at attention and learned his commanding officer had procured a medical discharge releasing him from the Army. Two years of duty had changed him, molded him from an eighteen-year-old boot with no life experiences under his belt to the STRAC he was today, totally squared-away in every aspect of military life. Sure, he’d been happy to see his parents and friends, but in the three months he’d been back to Panama City Beach, Florida he realized how different he’d become.
No one back here lived with the war. People went about their lives like ants in the big red mounds that rise out of the green grass this time of year, oblivious to the ease with which their world could come apart with the malicious swipe of a child’s stick or the ruthless path of a determined lawn mower. It didn’t help matters that he’d been sent home when Spring Break was in full swing, and the shore had swarmed with intoxicated vermin frolicking in the absence of any moral code at all. How was he supposed to re-acclimate with a culture that had become so foreign to him?
A sudden roar of voices lifted into the air a couple yards away. He adjusted his cowboy hat with the palm of his hand as he looked in the direction of the commotion, pushing the wide leather brim level with his eyebrows. Two drunken men had squared off in a circle of their bikini-clad friends; both swayed in the breeze like idle marionettes dangling from unseen strings. The bare-chested guy raised a blue can to his mouth and guzzled its contents before crushing it in his hand with macho bravado and casting it to the sand. Murph shook his head. Halfway around the world his brothers-in-arms were in harm’s way, fighting for noble ideals like freedom and democracy, while at home jokers like these guys couldn’t care less. Their idea of paying homage to our country’s freedom was reduced to grilling hotdogs and drinking beer.
He lifted his chin as he walked on, steadying his nerves with each lungful of balmy air. The salty odor of the sea that permeated the Emerald Coast was one of the few things he loved and found unchanged. Nearer the pier, the beach was more populated and Murph had to move onto the hard-packed sand at the water’s edge to make room for a man passing with a little girl by the hand. She was about four years old with long, chestnut hair that rippled behind her like a windsock. She locked eyes with Murph, and something about the solemn look on her face or that way the man tugged her along transported him back.
He’d been manning a checkpoint outside a Shi’ite village in the northern territory of Iraq, fifty kilometers east of the Divala River Valley. It was a routine day unfolding under a predictable cloudless sky. He’d been listening to Second Lieutenant Randall tell another joke when the little girl caught his eye. Her coffee-colored hair spilled around her shoulders as she grasped her mother’s hand. Flawless, tawny skin and charcoal eyes made her the most beautiful sight Murph had beheld in the country. The mother passed her daughter’s hand to the man next to her, who led the girl past and down the road. The girl saw Murph looking at her, and as her eyes held his gaze, he marveled at her pouty, forlorn expression more typical of a mature woman than that of a child.
Murph never heard the blast when the little girl’s mother blew up in front of him. She had detonated the explosive belt she was wearing packed with nails. He remembered lying stunned, paralyzed on the gritty earth as the unrelenting Iraqi sun scorched his face. When his head rolled to the side he came face to face with Randall who stared at him with vacant eyes. Randall lay motionless beside Murph; two three-inch nails were embedded in his temple at crooked angles that cast eerie shadows as a slow, viscous river seeped out of his hairline and pooled in his eye before flowing down his cheek. If Randall hadn’t been dead, he probably would have made a sideways comment about the nail skewering Murph’s right eye.
Murph flinched as an explosion shattered his reverie and rocked the air around him. The crowd on the beach cheered the first firework of the night. He wove his way through the congestion of low beach chairs, glancing up as the next fire flower illuminated the sky. He passed near a policeman in an animated conversation with a woman. His trained hearing tuned out the crowd’s noise and he heard the woman shout, “She has long dark brown hair, and…oh God! She was just here! Please do something!”
The pair flashed before Murph’s mind’s eye, and he analyzed the details: the girl’s forsaken expression; the way the man walked slightly ahead of the girl, pulling her along. Murph spun around. “Ma’am,” he said, “you missing a little girl with long hair? Is she just a little bit, like so tall?” He indicated the height of the girl he saw.
The woman’s eyes grew wide and she nodded frantically. “Yes, yes! Have you seen Nadia?”
Murph peered down the beach. He spied in the distant gloom the receding shape of the man and the little girl. Over his shoulder he yelled “Come on!” to the cop and broke into a run.
He danced with lightening speed between the people seated on the beach, his movements so precise that he didn’t spray any spectators with sand. When he’d cleared the most congested area, he sprinted. The drunken men who were sparring earlier looked up as he raced by. The wind gusted, lifting the hat off his head as he picked up more speed. The policeman and the girl’s mother trailed behind Murph, whose tactical toes dug down and found the traction he needed. Within thirty seconds the gap between him and the man had narrowed.
The man glanced nervously over his shoulder. At the sight of Murph pounding toward him, his arms and legs the pistons of a fine-tuned machine, the man’s mouth fell open and his shoulders hunched. He let go of the little girl’s hand and took off down the beach. Murph halted when he reached the girl. Her little chest heaved as silent tears streamed down her face. She flinched when he placed gentle hands on her shoulders and said, “It’s okay, Nadia. I’m here to help you. Don’t worry, you’re safe.”
Her features crinkled and she lowered her head. He lifted her chin.
“Your mama is right behind me.” He shot a look past the girl and saw the cop and woman getting nearer. He lowered his eye to the girl, “I want you to sit right here, honey. Don’t move, okay?”
She nodded and he flashed a reassuring smile at her. Then he tore after the man.
The guy had gained a little distance by running on the hard-packed sand; a good strategy, Murph thought, until he abandoned it and attempted to cut across the dry sand. His arms flailed trying to steady his unwieldy body that rocked back and forth with each stride. His sloppy flight was no match for Murph’s adroit progression. With only a few feet between them, Murph lunged at the man, who collapsed into a heap beneath him.
Murph grabbed hold of the man’s shirt. His lethargic struggle was pathetic as Murph turned him over. Sand stuck to half of his pasty face and he gazed up with sleepy aqua eyes that sent a chill down Murph’s spine. He had an odor about him that stunk of bad intentions. Murph squeezed his grip tighter on the man’s shirt front and spat on the sand next to the man’s head.
“Get up,” Murph growled as he heaved him to his feet. He cranked the man’s right arm behind him, twisting it up and holding it tightly against his back, and marched him up the beach until they reached the policeman. As the cop handcuffed him and read him his Miranda rights, another who had joined them took Murph’s name and phone number. A third led the woman and girl off the beach to a waiting ambulance. All the while the fireworks shed sporadic light on the scene.
The cop said, “Nice work, boy. I’m gonna need you to come by the station tomorrow to make a statement.”
“Yes, sir,” Murph replied.
Murph watched them walk away. When he turned back to the ocean, the drunks who’d been fighting were among the crowd who’d gathered to watch the action. The bare-chested one stepped forward, holding out Murph’s cowboy hat.
“Here’s your hat, man.”
Murph took it, thanking him.
The guy eyed Murph’s dog tags, then his gaze moved up and lingered on his eye patch. “You been over there?” he asked.
Murph nodded stiffly.
“You come home with that badge of courage?” the guy pressed.
“Yeah, I did,” Murph said, looking away.
The man he’d been fighting with nudged the bare-chested one and passed him a can of beer. Taking it, he offered it to Murph. “You want a drink, dude?”
The man nodded, then cracked open the beer sending foam down its side. Lifting it into the air, he said, “Well, here’s to you, man. Thanks for all you did over there, for all your sacrifices.”
The others raised their beers. Those without drinks lifted their fists in the air. Murph’s eyebrows knit together and gratitude illuminated his face. As he thanked them, the sky filled with earsplitting explosions. The group looked up and together they watched the fireworks finale as rockets burst one on top of the next, forming overhead a vibrant canopy of twinkling color.
(WC according to Word, not including title = 1995)
Definitions of Army terms used:
Boot – newbie soldier fresh out of boot camp
STRAC – acronym for a soldier who is Skilled, Tough, Ready-Around-the-Clock
FIRST PLACE WINNER of the July, 2009 round of:
Author's Note: I want to thank everyone who read this piece and then shared with me their incredible stories of what it was like being in the military and the challenges of coming home, or of military battles bravely fought by their loved ones. In particular, I want to thank Shannon for her incredible support of this story and for the beautiful ribbon that graces it. Also, a warm thank you to Jace who sent me this wonderful merit badge. Shannon and Jace, you guys are the best!