It was almost the New Millennium and he couldn’t sleep. The hospital room wasn’t dark, and the soft blips of the various monitors were punctuated irregularly by voices, doors closing, objects dropping. Considering the places in which he’d slept, he found this amusing.
Out of long practice, he passed the time identifying hallway noises and falling objects by sound, as he had been trained. How many footsteps, how fast, how frightened or angry, how far had they traveled. For objects: Focus on that which was not obvious. Metal or plastic was easy enough. Size, shape; density, a little harder. Full or empty. One or more. He could tell a lot from a single crash.
He was a soldier—with a battlefield commission, as his mother had bragged so many years ago. He didn’t tell her that such things meant he was not quite as good as the other kind.
War justifies the existence of the military, but wars (on the whole) do not last long enough to justify military careers. Especially for true soldiers, not uniformed civilians who typed or filed or drew blood or drove trucks.
With effort, true soldiers could survive even in peacetime: he had found his place eventually. He had excelled through perseverance, not inclination or aptitude, his superiors said, implying a lesser accomplishment than surviving a military academy. Without war, official or otherwise, there would have been no advancement at all, so he volunteered for every clandestine skirmish, removing his rank insignia and dog tags so often that he joked he might be a general by now and not even realize.
He had spent years (broken into months and weeks) in places that never made the news. Geography was a matter of mud and sand, mountain or ravine, exposure or cover. Politics reduced to orders. Friend or foe were concepts without emotional content or complications, which suited him fine. He liked his life, when he thought about it, and it, too, suited him. Though no longer a kid, he swung a full pack as easily at forty-nine as at twenty.
Compared to the new hard bodies, his was aging, though not badly. Before this Thing, anyway. In a sense, the Thing was an unjust surprise. For almost thirty years he had been primed to eat a bullet, lose a ’chute, take a knife through the spinal cord, to join many companions and a few friends as a broken corpse. He would live—immortal until his time came, just as they had been.
It was the civilian side of life that set his teeth on edge. Feeling pressured to wear something other than olive drab and khaki. Rent checks and bills. Shopping for food. Cars.
Cars. Accustomed to making his way on foot, his car gathered more dust than miles. His wife had driven it, and he’d never seen the need for anything newer, fancier, bigger. She had complained lightly about the hard manual shift, stiff ride and steering, but never asked for another. After the divorce, she had bought a Lexus or Infinity or some such Jap box, in unspoken rebuke.
Maybe if he had told her that he needed a car he could understand and fix, she would have understood. It was too late now. The New Millennium and already too late.
The blips of the machine quickened, drawing his heart rate with it. The toxins dripped into his bloodstream.
Once, a slant interrogator had rammed a pitted needle into his arm, a mixture of sodium pentothal and poison, designed to sicken the target, terrify it into revealing—what? He could no longer remember. Maybe he had never known. When they had released him (a surprise as big as the antidote), he had laughed. They threatened him with the one thing that did not scare him—a painless death. What did they expect to get for that?
Down the hall, a woman laughed. He wasn’t good with that sound: was she young, thin, fat, old? There had been a Pashtun boy who could tell almost everything about a person from a few syllables or sounds. The language did not matter. An amazing gift; the boy had been killed by a Russian bomb with no appreciation of his skill.
Shrapnel from that same explosion had carved a fist-size chunk from his right thigh. The wound healed, leaving the leg ugly but functional, strong as before.
Of twelve on his team, only he had survived. He never knew who had risked carrying him on the long trip to the UN hospital. When he finally came to, he lay in a curtained section of the ward, feeling oddly important.
The doctors were Swedes, the nurses German, and they wanted to save his leg and his life, even knowing that such efforts were a poor allocation of resources. An American soldier (his fluent German and lack of identification fooled no one) with so grievous a wound should not take the antibiotics, plasma, bedsheets that by rights belonged to children or their mothers. His injury challenged them, however. As professionals, the staff craved what he represented: an achievement rendered monumental by the steady diet of failure in such places. They kept him alive to be airlifted to Germany.
Idly, he ran his fingers along the crater in his thigh. The skin grafts had been a disaster, both at the source and the wound, the American doctor in Stuttgart later declared. Patient would have been better off with Saran Wrap and duct tape, the white coat had sniffed to a tape recorder as if the patient were profoundly deaf or catatonic.
Saran Wrap and duct tape were harder to forage than a few snips off a soldier’s ass, he had thought, though that yahoo medic wouldn’t have known that. The doc’s idea of hardship was a time delay on TV baseball.
After the leg, there had been fewer, minor physical trauma, as if some checklist had been ticked. Disease, injury, torture, PTSD—now only death remained. The body, after all, could take so much and no more. The head generally failed sooner.
When they had first diagnosed this Thing, he was sure they were wrong. He felt well enough, had just completed a mission, garnered another small commendation, the large promotion.
It’s a mistake, he had thought: wasn’t he now—finally—receiving the recognition he had earned? In his world, timing was more than key, it defined the mission. This timing was beyond bad.
The discovery had been an accident. A high-clearance, silent pair of hands, presumably a doctor’s, with no face or name examined him after every mission. Other strangers probed his head with questions. It was the drill and he had no expectation of privacy. He assumed every wart report went up the chain of command, though he doubted any of it interested the brass.
He had been wrong. Within a few days of his last debrief, he had been summoned to receive the news. His CO delivered it. Another star silently twinkled.
At first, he hardly understood what they were saying. Unexpected disease was a hazard of the duty: he’d been given casual news of malaria, dysentery, even a skull fracture at the end of debriefs. This time, they barely mentioned the mission. They talked about the Thing.
What did these things have to do with pallets of supplies delivered in a jungle? With sudden storms and firefights and getting out in one piece? Packets of paper, computer disks, maps, and money pressed into the right hands, observations made and recorded, could be worth a man’s life. These things mattered. The Thing did not.
They did not order him to treatment. They arranged it on the correct assumption that he would report. The VA facility was enormous, and he waited endlessly for admission, amused by the bluster of stars and clusters trying to get better treatment based on rank. Did they wear rank insignia on their hospital gowns, asses exposed but brass polished? Would the scalpel be sharper or cleaner, the pain less intense, because that second star had come through?
In their fear, they wanted Obedience. In the field, he gave orders with a look, a gesture, a nudge, and his men obeyed. He owned their obedience and their lives. He spent them carefully. Those he could not trust to obey were left with the paper pushers. Like him, his best men wanted the mission to define them. Focus on the mission quelled the incoherent panic and pounding fear that defeats discipline and training. Fear did not earn Obedience.
Sudden nausea overwhelmed him. Leaning over the bed rail, he barely grabbed the basin before vomiting acid. Ruefully, he imagined his lungs in a corrosive puddle, eating through the plastic basin as the Thing ate through his body.
The night after the first treatment, all the short gray hair on his head had fallen out. His eyebrows thinned to invisibility. He had been prepared for hair loss, though finding a matted clump in his shorts had startled him. No one had mentioned that the toxins would not distinguish among follicles.
Lying back, he thought of his wife, lying in bed next to him. She slept soundly—more so than he did, though he remained as motionless as she did not.
When it was time for her to stop sleeping, but while she was still reluctant to be awake, she would move closer to him, backing into his still body, her nightgown pushed aside. He would reach for her or remain as he had been, and she would take her cue from that, sensing when to move, pressing her silky butt against his thigh or stomach. She would unfold, unwind, bloom like a flower in time-lapse photography, moving from sleep to sex seamlessly.
When he responded, she adapted to him, his motion, his lust, sensing his passion, his aggression, even his exhausted fear locked in places he never mentioned.
It was strange, he thought, there in the hospital, that they never spoke of those moments, not even when the moments stopped.
He knew he should not think of his wife. To think of things gave them power. But some things did not relinquish their power, even if you pushed them out of your mind.
The Pashtun boy.
The chain of command.
The Thing as it grew.
The softness of his wife against his cratered thigh.
He decided that the Thing was all he could fight.
Reluctantly, he thought about the Thing. The doctors did not say it, but they believed that the Thing would kill him. That is, if the treatment did not kill him first.
He had researched It carefully, delving into its minutiae as he had reviewed the science of armaments, iconography of maps, the saving power of machines. He evaluated the lines of engagement, Thing and poison at once covert and fully engaged.
And had come away no wiser. According to his intelligence, the therapy worked or didn’t on an almost random basis. To achieve full effectiveness against the Thing necessitated a level of collateral damage that would almost certainly kill the patient.
So they skirmished inconclusively—poison, doctors, healthy cells, and the Thing.
Like Phoenix, he snorted silently. Or Fire Brew—missions where the enemy was vague and politics worked against objectives. Success was measured in increments so tiny that only his superiors could discern it at all.
Desk jockeys knew that success was a matter of how the report was written. A mission blown to hell by bad intelligence transformed itself into victory through fingers on a keyboard. Through a process as erratic as sandstorms, a fucked-up extraction in Somalia became Hollywood heroics.
The opposite was true as well. “All as planned”—his measure of success—might sour into disaster. He had read newspaper accounts of engagements in which he himself had figured (though namelessly) and found no common ground with his own experience.
He was spared this for the most part, as little of what he did warranted public disclosure. He accepted that his view from a rice paddy was not the same as from an office in Washington or a breakfast table in Des Moines.
Paper victory, though, would not be enough against the Thing. Incremental damage to its position needed cumulative impact. He tried to imagine It munching through his liver, targeting his bones. Unlike a strategic force, It did not weaken by acquiring multiple objectives. Instead, It grew stronger.
He and the poison could not mount a frontal assault. Still, he had witnessed rebels, little more than kids and old men, eliminate superior forces, fueled by ideas like “Freedom” or “God” or “Family.” At the time, he had found their deaths pathetic: bodies of children thrown down as bridges so that other children could cross to their deaths.
Now he thought he might understand. His life once more had been reduced down to mission objectives. Go there. Achieve X. Return with as many men as he could. From his first mission, everything was finite. Today he squatted over a hole to take a dump. Next week, he’d be drinking beer, evaluating his chances of screwing the blond waitress.
He had learned slowly that invaders were never victorious. The rebels were in for the long haul. There was no end, no escape. Their entire life was defined by the mission; it would not end with extraction. In complete contradiction of sound tactics, they rushed from positions of relative safety into firefights. They held nothing back.
He imagined the Pashtun kid, howling with primeval rage at Russian tanks. Costa Rican peasants, Tutsi farmers, Cambodians, Montagnards, serene or terrified, willing themselves to rush headlong toward a massive black Thing of incomprehensible power and brutality. Exploding bits of bone and brain matter, torrents of blood, talent, skill, love, anger reduced to body parts: efforts grotesquely beautiful in their futility.
Could his body launch such an insurgency against the Thing?
He could not catch his breath. The machine blipped impatiently. A predawn gray chill improbably spread from the sealed windows. Voices in the hall signaled shift change. Nurses and orderlies would go home to their beds and beers, extracted to safety.
How much longer? Usually, he estimated the amount in the bag, noted how long each drip took, determined the length of time he had to wait. But he had lost count.
His mind was quick with figures, with the calculus of war and deployment. Not just the easy ones, miles to klicks, ounces to liters, but the harder, more attenuated—piles of equipment to backs and backpacks, bullets to avenues of escape.
Yet he had been stymied by simple arithmetic: a boy of eighteen signs up plus his years in uniform equals a life gone by.
The resident appeared and noticed he was awake. With a tight smile, she compared his chart to the readout on the machine, writing in medical hieroglyphics. She hesitated and despite himself, he felt his heart leap.
Did she notice something? Had the Thing retreated? He knew the machines were calibrated only to measure heartbeats, blood pressure, toxicity levels, the rate of poison dripping into his blood, yet perhaps she sensed—no, she knew that the battle had taken a different tack.
Good soldier that she was, the resident betrayed nothing. A tight smile accompanied her soft words. They would keep him for observation, she said. Twenty-four hours at least. Too bad about New Year’s Eve.
A few more tasks, then she was gone.
As in the field, dawn energized him, releasing cramped muscles and sending new blood into his wits. A nurse arrived, removed the IV, chattered with detachment, left.
As his head cleared, he planned his mission.
D Ferrara has been an active writer and ghost writer for more years than she cares to admit. Articles, essays and short stories are her continuing obsession – several publications, including The Main Street Anthology – Crossing Lines, East Meets West American Writers Review: 2014 Holiday Edition, The Broadkill Review, MacGuffin Press, Crack the Spine, Green Prints, Amarillo Bay, The Penmen Review, The Law Studies Forum, and RIMS Magazine have fed this mania by including them. Her short story, “Then and Now” was long listed in the Able Muse Write Prize for Fiction. “Arvin Lindemeyer Takes Canarsie” was a Top Finalist in the ASU Screenwriting Contest. Her play “Favor” won the New Jersey ACT award for Outstanding Production of an Original Play, while “Sister Edith’s Mission” and “Business Class” were produced at the Malibu Repertory Company’s One Act Play Festival. Three of her full-length film scripts have been optioned. She recently received her M.A. in Creative Writing, where it joined her J.D., L.l.M. and B.A, amid the clutter of her office.
Read an interview with D Ferrara here.