by J. B. Hogan
"Nothin' like gettin' out on a day like today is there, Stephen?" Carl White said.
Stephen White and his Uncle Carl were walking across the stubble of a long-since-harvested cornfield out in the country about seven miles from their hometown of Nevada, Missouri. It was a beautiful mid-fall day, sunny, just warm enough to be comfortable, with a deep blue sky above that was only occasionally streaked with long wisps of high cirrus clouds. The two men had been out for maybe forty-five minutes, carrying shotguns loaded with birdshot in an ostensible search for quail. Mostly they were just walking and talking.
"It's really beautiful," Stephen answered after pausing to take in the world around them.
Carl was Stephen's father's older brother and he had made it an infrequent task of his to get his slightly pudgy nephew out of the younger man's claustrophobic apartment and out into the real world -- preferably doing something that would improve the boy's dubious outdoors skills.
Uncle Carl would take Stephen fishing at least once in the summer and try but usually fail to get him to go deer hunting in the winter. Sometimes in the early spring he could convince the boy to go on a day canoeing trip or a hike along the banks of the Marais des Cynges River north of Nevada. In the fall he had had some success in convincing Stephen to go bird hunting, mostly because they both liked to walk the country fields in the cooler weather -- even if they didn't get any birds, which they seldom did.
For today's putative hunt, Carl carried his own nearly new .410 gauge Remington 870 pump-action shotgun. The 870s, in whatever gauge, were the perfect inexpensive shotgun for the average hunter or casual blue rock shooter. Carl had brought a different .410 for Stephen. It was an old side-by-side, double-barrel .410, from some company down in South America. It was a fun little shotgun, if used properly.
Its only drawback was that it had a pretty sensitive left barrel trigger that had, in addition to a near hair trigger action, the added "feature" that sometimes when you pulled the quick left trigger both barrels fired at once. It could be disconcerting if you weren't ready for firing even one of the barrels. Uncle Carl thought maybe he should apprise his nephew of these facts.
"I ought to apprise you," Uncle Carl told Stephen, "that your little .410 there has a sensitive left trigger. You might want to be careful with it."
"You mean..." Stephen began, immediately discharging both barrels of his little bird gun into an upraised dirt heap in one of the rows of the field not six feet out in front of himself and his Uncle Carl.
"Holy cow!" Uncle Carl exclaimed, reeling backwards across a row directly behind the two men. "What are you trying to do, Stephen, pull a Dick Cheney on me?"
"I...I...I'm sorry, Uncle Carl," Stephen stuttered out an apology.
Carl White was a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and Stephen knew his uncle well enough to understand that the ex-soldier's reactions to things, particularly a gun going off right next to him, might trigger a strong response. Uncle Carl made no bones about suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD and had told Stephen once that he, Carl, got a check every month from the government because he had been rated as being thirty percent disabled as a result of the PTSD.
Stephen's father, David, who had never even been in the service, thought his older brother was just being overly sensitive, even a whiner. Mr. White used to tell Stephen that he thought Carl was at least twenty percent crazy before he even went to that overblown war in Indochina. Stephen knew his uncle well enough to know that Carl didn't really care what anybody, including his own brother David, thought of him.
"It's okay, Stephen," Uncle Carl said, surprising his nephew by the speed at which he regained his composure after the shotgun blast and by the gentleness of his tone. "You just gotta be more careful with that weapon. But I should've warned you earlier."
"Thanks, Uncle Carl," Stephen said gratefully, "I'm real sorry."
"I tell you what," Uncle Carl said, pulling a small flask of whiskey out of his back pocket, which Stephen knew he always carried with him, and taking a short pull on it, "why don't we head over to the creek and have a snack. If we scare up any quail, fine, if not we'll just grab a bite to eat and have something to drink. Want a hit?" Stephen declined the proffered flask.
"I don't think I would've made a very good soldier, Uncle Carl," Stephen said as the two men headed towards a creek that ran beyond the cornfields over which they walked. Carl gave his not exactly buff nephew a once over.
"Not everybody is," Uncle Carl said. "Heck, Stephen, for each combat troop in the field there used to be ten support personnel. Don't know what it is nowadays, over in the Middle East, probably higher I suspect. And that don't count the Navy and the Air Force people."
"I'm a pretty lousy hunter, too," Stephen said with a little laugh.
He was still a little unnerved by the accidental firing of his .410 and was fearful Uncle Carl would still chew him out for it like he knew his father would have. He could just hear what his father would've said had he discharged the shotgun near him. Oh, boy. That would've been bad.
"I feel like a fish out of water," Stephen went on nervously, unintentionally making a little joke, "even at fishing. I don't know why you put up with me."
"I put up with you, as you say," Uncle Carl replied with a smile, "because you're my nephew, my brother's son. I've known you your entire life. You're an okay guy, Stephen, not everyone is good at outdoor stuff either."
"Yeah," Stephen said, "but I really suck."
"I don't know about that," Uncle Carl laughed. Stephen laughed, too.
"Well, thanks anyway," he said, "for not getting all freaked out by my shooting right in front of us. Dad would've killed me."
"Ah," Uncle Carl said, "I've been in a lot worse situations than that. A lot closer calls."
"Yeah?" Stephen wondered as they reached a stand of trees, mostly Elm and Oak, near the creek beyond the cornfields.
"You bet your fanny," Uncle Carl related, "one time up in Phu Bai some son of a gun opened up a .50 caliber right by my darned ear. I still got tinnitus from it to this day."
"No kidding," Stephen said, "your own guy shot right by your ear."
"That's worse than what I did, maybe?" Stephen wondered.
"You gotta be careful with weapons, Stephen," Uncle Carl said soberly.
"I'm sorry," Stephen said, humbled again in recalling his recent, foolish act. "I feel awful about doin' that, Uncle Carl. I could've shot you."
"It's all right," Carl reassured his nephew. "It was an accident. It could've been bad but it wasn't. No one was hurt. Shake it off. Let it go."
"Thanks, Uncle Carl," Stephen sighed deeply.
"Forget it," Uncle Carl said.
For a couple of minutes the men let their talk drop as they looked for a good place to get down to the creek and have their lunch.
"Here, Stephen," Uncle Carl said, pointing to their right a few feet, "cut through these bushes, we're just above the creek now."
"Sure," Stephen agreed, glad his uncle seemed to have truly let the accident just drop.
"There you go," Uncle Carl said, pointing to a big, flat, white rock near the shore of the creek. "Perfect for having lunch on."
"Yeah," Stephen concurred, "great."
Sitting on the big rock, listening to the gurgling sound of the creek running by, Stephen and his Uncle Carl had a pleasant lunch of sandwiches -- ham and cheese for Carl, bologna and cheese for Stephen -- and a sweet desert of trail mix. Carl washed his food down with a couple of shots of whiskey; Stephen drank water from the plastic bottle he carried with him when hiking or caving.
"Do you mind?" Uncle Carl asked when they had finished their food and settled back for a brief rest before heading back across the cornfields. He produced a plastic baggie and some rolling papers.
"Uh, uh, no," Stephen stammered.
He knew Carl smoked but it always surprised him when his Uncle would just cavalierly display a bag of weed as if it were the most ordinary thing to do in the world. Having come of age in the 1960s, apparently smoking weed was as normal to Uncle Carl as having a beer was to men of earlier ages.
"You sure?" Uncle Carl asked when he had expertly rolled himself a thick joint.
"No problem," Stephen said. Being mildly asthmatic, Stephen never smoked, but as long as he was outdoors and not downwind, it was okay with him if others did.
"May 23, 1971," Uncle Carl said, after a few puffs on his smoke.
"What's that?" Stephen asked.
The wind had shifted and the smoke from Uncle Carl's weed was starting to engulf him. He could smell it and feel it working its way up into his nasal passages. He sniffed and lightly blew out.
"That's the last firefight I was in," Uncle Carl explained. "We were pinned down just after getting dropped in a hot LZ -- landing zone to you. Charlie was everywhere. We lost seven men in ten minutes. Three killed, four wounded. I got out of the clearing and ran behind a tree. Charlie knew I was there. I could hear the rounds hitting off the backside of that tree."
"Wow," Stephen said, shaking his head.
Uncle Carl's smoke was really affecting him now. He was having trouble breathing and he was getting lightheaded. He tried to shift around but the smoke seemed to follow him no matter what he did. It was really starting to get to him.
"They really opened up on us after that..." Uncle Carl continued his story, but Stephen interrupted.
"I'm not feeling so good," he said very softly, but his uncle heard.
"Stephen," Uncle Carl said, sounding worried. "You okay?"
"I don't feel so good," Stephen managed to get out in a whisper. "My nose..."
"Here, here," Uncle Carl told him, "lean back, rest a second. I'll put this out."
Carl stubbed out his smoke on the rock and helped Stephen lay back on the rock. Stephen could still smell the pungent odor of the weed as it coursed its way up through his nose and into his sinuses. Things started to spin slightly then, causing Stephen to feel dizzy and a little nauseous.
"I'll just lie down here," he said, barely audibly and already lying down. "I'll just lie...."
Uncle Carl leaned forward to hear what his nephew was saying but there was only the sound of the younger man's breathing. He was out cold.
When Stephen opened his eyes, very slowly, taking several moments to make sure the world had stopped spinning and that he no longer felt dizzy or nauseous, he found that he was lying on a cot in what looked like a small military barracks. There were a few rows of neatly made up and ordered cots facing each other in front and to the right of where he sat. On the wall directly before him hung a couple of banners proclaiming unit names and missions -- at least that was Stephen's guess as to what they were. There were a lot of numbers and names linked together anyway.
Careful not to move too quickly, he eased up into a sitting position on the cot. At the moment there seemed to be only one guy in the barracks; he sat on a bunk in front and to the right of the one on which Stephen now sat. The barracks building, Stephen noticed, looked like it was one-half of a large tin can cut vertically and then laid on its side. A Quonset hut, that's what this was, a Quonset hut barracks.
The guy on the other bunk, wearing a light green camouflage uniform, was reading a Playboy. Stephen squinted to see but couldn't read the date on the magazine. The cover had a sort of old-fashioned look to it and Stephen figured it was an old one, though why he thought that was not so clear. The other guy was definitely military, Stephen told himself, noticing stripes on the arms of the soldier's fatigue shirt and a patch with an eagle or something on it up closer to the shoulder.
Just as Stephen was getting his bearings in his new environment, feeling a little relaxed perhaps, hoping nothing unsettling was going to happen, the door of the barracks was pushed open roughly, making a loud, creaking noise -- Stephen saw that the hinge for the door was actually an old, dirty jock strap, the source of the peculiar sound -- and another young man came bursting in. This fellow seemed to be the polar opposite of the quiet young man sitting on his cot reading the Playboy. The new arrival was jumpy, jittery, and ready to explode verbally.
"Can you believe this bull, Travis?" the new guy blurted out, as he practically hopped up to the other soldier's cot.
"Take it easy, Cantrell," Travis, the calm soldier told the high strung one.
"We gotta go out again today," Cantrell exclaimed as if the order were a crime not just against him and Travis but against the very essence of humanity itself. "That's four straight days. That ain't right. What about Jones and Watson. When they gotta do the door? Huh, tell me that, Billy. When?"
"Jones and Watson are door for somebody else," Travis said.
"I don't see why it's us, again," Cantrell said, flapping his hands around and not even hearing what Travis had said.
"Damn it, Dave," Travis told Cantrell, lowering his magazine, "you do this every time when you know we're going up. Why? Couldn't you try something a little different for a change?" Cantrell reached over and bent the Playboy towards himself.
"Look at those boobs," he moaned, grabbing his crotch. "Oh, man, I'd crawl on my hands and knees over forty miles of broken glass to hear her fart over a pay phone."
"Funny," Travis snorted, pulling the magazine away, "never heard that before."
"They're nuts," Cantrell abruptly resumed what Stephen assumed was some kind of ritual complaint. Mostly Stephen was just glad neither man seemed to notice he was there. This might be interesting if no one would pay him any mind. "They're messin' with us," Cantrell ranted on. "They're trying to hurt us, Billy. They are seriously interfering with our safety."
"Relax," Travis said, trying to hide behind the Playboy.
"I'm not kidding," Cantrell kept on, "I had a dream last night."
"Terrific," Travis said, "I don't suppose I'm going to hear about it." He turned the Playboy sideways to get a better look at a picture.
"It was Reynolds," Cantrell pushed on, "Lt. Reynolds. He was jockeying a Cobra, not a regular Huey, you know what I mean?" Travis grunted. "I don't know why, man," Cantrell went on, "but dig, you know what he had for a face? You know what he looked like?" Travis pitched the Playboy aside.
"You doin' speed again, Cantrell?" he sighed. "You know how that messes you up. Why don't you ever just smoke a joint and calm down a little?"
"Never mind that," Cantrell rattled on, "it was Reynolds, you know. And he was sort of in a mist and his face was like . . . like a skull and bones. Like on a pirate flag, you dig?"
"You talk trash, Dave," Travis grimaced, "you gotta knock it off. It's bad karma, man. You been droppin' acid or mesc, ain't you? You are such a screw-up."
"I don't want to go with Reynolds and Blaid today, Billy."
"Shut up, Dave."
"I don't wanna go."
"Who in the hell does."
"I only got 187 days left. I gotta be aware of stuff."
"And how many do I have, Dave?" Travis asked. Cantrell shrugged. "Seventy-three, bird brain. So stop coming in here every day with your freaked out, doped up BS. You're goin' to jinx us. Now cool it."
Cantrell shut up, but Stephen watched as the uptight door gunner milled around the Quonset hut like a worm in a bait box. He rifled through Travis' magazines and cheesecake clippings, sat down on another cot for a minute but kept tapping his foot on the floor until Travis threatened to throttle him if he didn't stop. He got up again then and paced back and forth. Finally, the exasperated Travis apparently had all he could stand.
"C'mon, Cantrell," he said, picking up his gear, "let's get ready to go."
"All right," Cantrell cheered, "let's go, let's get out of here. Let's get some chow and then go kick some Charlie butt." Travis shook his head and led the way out of the barracks.
Stephen hurried to follow after the men. This was a new kind of experience for him and he observed the soldiers and their world with considerable interest. He felt mostly comfortable for a change. He was like a fly on the wall with Travis and Cantrell. They didn't seem to be aware of his presence at all. I like this Stephen told himself. This isn't bad at all. Ahead of him, the two young men finished their apparently daily pre-flight conversational routine.
"You're crazier than a damn loon, you know that, don't you, Cantrell," the calm soldier, Billy Travis, said.
"Sure," Cantrell laughed, slapping the sides of his legs repeatedly, "sure, sure, you bet."
Lt. Reynolds, Stephen learned by following Travis and Cantrell right onto the craft, was the pilot of a troop-filled Huey helicopter that would soon be soaring above the lush, green Vietnamese countryside. Reynolds and his co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Two, Artie "Razor" Blaid, were hauling seven soldiers packed into the chopper like camouflaged sardines to what the crew had been assured was a cool, if not cold, LZ.
When the chopper lifted off, Stephen felt his stomach drop as if he were on a ride at Three Flags or the county fair. He let out a little whoop into the thumping, roaring sound of the elevating helicopter but immediately cut off his cry when Cantrell turned in his direction. The edgy soldier cocked his head to one side as if he might have seen something and Stephen froze. When Cantrell finally looked away, Stephen let out a deep breath and settled back down in the corner of the helicopter where he'd found a helmet with what looked like an intercom hookup to it. Carefully, Stephen slipped the helmet on. No one seemed to notice.
Up front and to the right was Travis, the crew chief, and he manned a side door machine gun, an M-60 Stephen heard it called. Cantrell, keyed up like a marionette on dexadrine, was at the gun on the other side of the ship. Even though nothing was happening, he swung the M-60 back and forth, mumbling and acting like he was firing it. A couple of the riflemen watched him with raised eyebrows. Behind the ship, Stephen could see from the position he had taken up facing backward towards the open doors of the helicopter, came five more Hueys in something resembling a formation.
"It's a beautiful country, ain't it, Artie," Stephen heard Lt. Reynolds say through the intercom, "look out across there. Those hills are beautiful, and see how the river winds along. You'd never know there was a war going on from up here, huh?"
"Yeah," Blaid, his co-pilot, answered, "real beautiful. And in about two seconds' time it'll just get itself altogether and blow your ass to kingdom come, that's all. Those pretty hills are full of Charlie and every sampan you see on the river's probably full of sappers heading for the nearest fire base. It's a regular paradise, a Garden of Eden."
"Oh, Razor, man," Reynolds laughed, "what a bad attitude you have. It would behoove you to lighten up, troop."
"Horse hockey," Blaid laughed, "smell the napalm, you mean. Smell the burnt out ground, smell the water buffalo chips." Reynolds laughed heartily. Stephen was amazed at the sardonic attitude the men took in the face of potential deathly combat. It was amazing.
"Say, Cap'n," Stephen heard Travis say into his helmet mike minutes later, adopting a familiar tone and using the nickname the lieutenant apparently allowed him, "how much longer to the LZ? We gettin' there?"
"What's up," Reynold's voice came back crisply, "you got a hot date back in Bin Tranh?"
"No, sir," Travis said, "Cantrell's back here doing his silent war movie thing again. Some of our OD natives are getting a little restless." Cantrell's voice came on, sharp and whining.
"Squealer," he complained, "turncoat."
"You boys cool it back there," Reynolds chuckled, "we'll have to leave you out there at the LZ."
"No way, sir," Cantrell said, "this baby bird is my home, this ‘60 is my broom to clean up the VC cockroaches."
"Just keep a sharp eye, troops," Reynolds said, "we got about another fifteen minutes. Cantrell, why don't you do something like listen to Radio Hanoi, maybe it'll get you keyed up for the LZ." He laughed into his mike. "Travis, you tell those restless groundpounders back there to look out the other door if they don't find Mr. Cantrell appealing. Where they're going, he'll be the last normal thing they see for days."
"Yes, sir, Cap'n," Travis replied.
Stephen watched as Travis turned and tapped the shoulders of the two GIs who had been so interested in Cantrell. They looked around at the crew chief.
"Over there, boys," he yelled into the roar of the chopper, pointing out his door, "look at that." The two GIs leaned over to look out. Stephen craned his neck to see as well.
"See that river?" Travis said. The GIs nodded their heads. "That way, south, the river runs all the way past Saigon. No combat, no sappers, no incoming -- bars, women, booze -- paradise. Ain't it a beautiful sight?"
The GIs shook their heads and laughed. Travis gave them the thumbs up sign. Stephen was filled with admiration and even affection for these brave young men. They were definitely cool.
Over on the other side of the chopper, Cantrell kept jumping around, swinging the M-60 from side to side. He was cursing Reynolds and Blaid as loud as he could. His words were lost in the rushing wind and the whump-whump-whumping of the chopper rotary blades.
The Huey was about two-thirds of the way into their descent, Stephen understood from Lt. Reynold's dialogue with his crew, when the radio squawked with the excited warnings of a radio man somewhere in the tall grass below the chopper. For the first time, Stephen began to feel the excitement, the adrenalin rush of the situation.
"Blackhawk 1-6-5, this is Charlie Sierra Tango, we got fire down here," the voice crackled in the intercom, "you got a hot LZ. Charlie's firing from everywhere. We're releasing smoke now."
"Blackhawk 1-6-5 to Charlie Sierra Tango," Lt. Reynolds called back, "I see yellow smoke west of the river. Confirm."
"Blackhawk," the radio man responded, "this is Charlie Sierra Tango. Affirmative, sir, on the yellow smoke."
"We're comin' in, Charlie Sierra," Lt. Reynolds said, "give us a fix on Charlie."
"He's all over the place, Blackhawk," the excited voice answered.
"Take it easy, Charlie Sierra," Lt. Reynolds said calmly, "tell us where they're at, soldier. We got five birds here. That's ten ‘60s laying down support fire."
"Yes, sir," the radio man said, "they're out in front of us, sir, about a click and a half to the south and east towards the river, and a click to the north along the tree line."
"Atta boy, Charlie Sierra," Lt. Reynolds told the radio man, "we're comin' in, now." Then to his crew: "Cantrell, Travis, lay it down straight across to the river and up to the left at the trees, I'll swing around as we descend."
"Yes, sir," Travis called back, breathless.
Suddenly, as the chopper dropped down below the trees, giving all on board that roller coaster feeling again, the air was filled with metallic whishes. Stephen curled himself up in a cocoon of his own arms and legs. This was getting to be a little too real now. It was not so much fun. He no longer felt like a fly on the wall. Those are real bullets flying all around us, Stephen told himself. Throughout the rest of the chopper, the reaction of the soldiers was a general, loud cursing.
"Damn it," Razor Blaid spit into his mike, "Travis, Cantrell, get your butts on those 60s. Fry the bastards, get'em off our tail."
As the chopper wobbled and whipped around under Lt. Reynolds' control, Travis and Cantrell strafed the target areas with a barrage of fire. Sweat poured from their faces and the M-60 barrels smoked from overwork. Reynolds brought the Huey down with a solid thump and the grunts began leaping out into the grass, screaming and firing. Stephen stayed where he was, curled up like a ball. There was no way he could have gone out that door himself. These guys were unbelievable.
Within seconds, the enemy zeroed in on the LZ. A row of holes exploded across the side of the chopper nearest Travis. On Cantrell's side, closer to Stephen's position, a tracer round hammered into an empty metal ammo box. The round stuck there, its blazing phosphorus eating into the box. Cantrell kicked at it, managed to get some of it out the door, but was too busy firing to worry it further. Then another row of holes appeared on the side of the chopper, this time right by Cantrell's door.
Stephen dared a quick look and saw the paint and metal fly from the side of the chopper, heard the whizzing of other rounds near his own head. Then there was a powerful lurch, nearly knocking the door gunners down and the chopper began to lift back off.
"Atta way, Reynolds," Cantrell cried out, "get this baby out of here."
Of a sudden, Cantrell spun around and Stephen saw with him a GI huddled on the floor, not willing to budge.
"Damn you," Cantrell screamed, letting go his M-60, which bounced crazily up and down on the cable securing it above the door of the chopper. "Get out."
He grabbed at the soldier and kicked him towards the door. The chopper had risen better than six feet off the ground by the time Cantrell's prodding got the reluctant troop out the door. The soldier crashed into the tall grass below and disappeared. Stephen felt profoundly sorry for the young grunt.
Cantrell, the incident already apparently forgotten, grabbed his M-60 and began firing again. He cursed and howled as he fired. Empty casings flew all over the craft. Some of them landing by Stephen.
In his wild firing, Cantrell didn't seem to hear or notice as another burst of enemy fire banged against the side of the Huey behind him. He just kept shooting out into the Vietnamese countryside below. Stephen thought this young man must be the maddest human he had ever seen.
At last free of its load, the chopper rose, spinning, twisting away from the LZ, towards the protective sky. Reynolds pushed the Huey as hard as he dared. They swung out, climbed, climbed, out of reach of ground fire, flew away, back towards the relative safety of the base camp. Cantrell kept spraying bursts at the receding forest until he heard Reynolds calling over the intercom.
"Travis, Cantrell, everybody cool, everything okay?"
Cantrell pushed the M-60 away and held both hands on his helmet.
"Oh, my God," he groaned, "oh, my, God, we're alive. L-T, we're alive." Reynolds laughed into his mike.
"That was a little fierce, eh, boys? A little intense."
"Hot damn," Cantrell celebrated, "we kicked some VC butt, dudes. Hey, Billy. Hey, man, whad'ya say?"
"Hey, Travis," Blaid came on, "what's up back there?" There was no reply.
"Cantrell," Reynold's worried voice sounded in the intercom, "what's up back there? Check on Travis." Cantrell was already at Travis' side.
"Billy," he said, "Billy, what the ...."
Stephen dared rise. He took off the intercom helmet, crawled carefully forward to a position just to Cantrell's right, off his shoulder. Below them, Travis lay on his back, one leg bent at the knee, the other sticking out the door beneath his free hanging M-60. The barrel of the weapon -- now still and checked by its cable restraint -- pointed uselessly out at the bright sky.
Travis' jump suit was torn in a half-moon running from his upper left thigh into his groin and across his lower abdomen; the cloth mingled with pumping blood. Cantrell gulped down a small cry. He held Travis against his side, blood staining his flight suit. The chopper rotaries thump-thump-thumped into the humid Vietnamese air.
Stephen leaned over, foolishly reached down towards the fallen door gunner. Cantrell let Travis' body fall onto the floor of the chopper and turned towards Stephen.
"You can see me?" Stephen said to the grieving soldier. "Now?"
"God almighty," Cantrell yelled, jumping up. Stephen began to back away.
Cantrell looked around for something to defend himself with, found a heavy crescent wrench wedged into a cubby hole, ran at Stephen. Stephen hurried backwards, clumsily. Cantrell stormed at him wildly, wrench raised like a war axe.
"Don't," Stephen cried out, "don't hit me."
"Yeeaaa!" Cantrell shrieked unintelligibly, swinging the wrench right at Stephen's head.
Stephen held his arms up defensively. The last thing he saw was the wrench coming right at his face. He turned away at the last second. Then all went black.
As Stephen climbed up through the layers of darkness towards consciousness, he became aware of someone calling his name and that he was being lightly tapped on the cheeks. Finally he opened his eyes. It was his Uncle Carl, the concern obvious in the older man's face.
"Stephen," he was saying, "Stephen. Are you okay?"
"I'll be all right," Stephen rasped, "let me get my breath."
"Sure," Uncle Carl said.
After a few moments Stephen began to feel better, to collect himself, shake the cobwebs from his mind. He realized he was lying flat on the big white rock by the creek, right where he'd been when they had had their lunch. He reached an arm up to Carl who helped his nephew get to a sitting position.
"You gonna be all right?" Uncle Carl asked again.
"Yeah," Stephen said, taking several long, deep breaths. "I'm feeling better now."
"Don't rush it," Uncle Carl advised.
"No," Stephen agreed.
A few more minutes passed and Stephen thought he might feel well enough to try and stand. Again Carl helped him up.
"What happened to you, Stephen?" Uncle Carl asked. "One minute we were talking and the next you were out."
"How long was I out?" Stephen wondered in return.
"Just a couple of minutes."
"Where did you go?" Carl queried his nephew. "That was a very strange thing."
Stephen formed an attempt at an explanation but stopped before speaking. He had had other "episodes" like these in the past couple of months but no one had ever questioned him about them. At least not in the way Uncle Carl seemed to be doing. He felt he might owe his uncle an explanation, maybe. But then he thought better of it.
"Nowhere," he heard himself tell perhaps the only person who might understand what he had been going through, "I didn't go anywhere. I just kind of fainted, blacked out, you know?"
"Hmm," Uncle Carl made a doubtful noise.
Stephen felt kind of bad about not being honest with Uncle Carl about what had really happened. Maybe he would another time. But not today.
"You ready to go back?" he asked.
"If you feel up to it," Uncle Carl said, "we could go on then."
"Lead on, MacDuff."
Stephen smiled at Uncle Carl and then began collecting the few things he'd brought along. He picked up the little prematurely-fired .410 and turned to go. As he did, however, he saw something dark coppery in color down by where he'd lain. Looking carefully at the object, Stephen felt a slight surge of panic. It was a casing from a large shell round. Something the size of, he imagined, a big army machine gun, the kind used by Huey helicopter door gunners in Viet Nam.
Turning to block his movements from Uncle Carl, Stephen popped open his little .410 and slipped the two spent shells out, letting them drop onto the rock at his feet. Bending over to pick up the two shotgun shell casings, he nimbly snagged the machine gun casing as well and giving it a quick once-over, deposited the shell into his left pants pocket.
"What you doing there?" Uncle Carl wondered.
"Just making sure I'm unloaded for the walk back," Stephen dissembled.
"All right," Uncle Carl said, "shall we head on home then?"
"Sure," Stephen answered, feeling the large caliber casing against his leg, "let's go home."
© 2008 J. B. Hogan
Bio: J. B. Hogan is a fiction writer and poet living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He has a Ph.D. in English (Literature) from Arizona State University (1979) and worked for many years as a technical writer. His writing credits include the four-story fiction chapbook Near Love Stories online at Cervena Barva Press (forthcoming) and short stories, poems, and creative or academic non-fiction in: Istanbul Literary Review, Aphelion, Rumble, The Swallow’s Tail, Poesia, Bewildering Stories, Avatar Review, Copperfield Review, Ascent Aspirations, Megaera, The Pedestal Magazine, Dogwood Journal, Mastodon Dentist, Poets Against War, The Square Table, Raving Dove, Mid-America Folklore Journal, Mobius, Viet Nam Generation, Flashback, The Mark Twain Journal, Arizona Quarterly, and San Francisco Review of Books. Mr. Hogan's most recent Aphelion appearance was From The Very Face of the Earth..., August 2008.
E-mail: J. B. Hogan
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