Sci-Fi: One of the One Hundred Million

 

This story is about the hell that results from resisting fear.

He pulled back the rippling canvas door like a man many years older. In this moment he thought about how absurd it is to see through a pair of eyes in the first person. He thought about how peculiar it is to live inside of a body you never see as the rest of the world sees it. For a few seconds he lost himself.

When he stepped into the tent, the existential dilemma evaporated. The room was dark and littered with such a plethora of random objects that his mind couldn’t consume it all; he could only sense the abundance. But the intensity of certain objects made themselves known. There were at least six guns. Two pistols sat on the low table in front of the sergeant. Leaning against the cot, upon which the sergeant was sitting, was a worn M-16. Unused rounds were scattered on the floor around it. A lit cigarette was resting on the edge of a bullet sitting on the table, which he now realized was a piece of tatty plywood resting on two supply crates. Another cigarette hung from the sergeant’s lips, so loosely it looked like it could fall at any time. The winding plumes rising from each cigarette joined somewhere above the sergeant’s head and spread to coat the tent’s ceiling. Besides the bullet and cigarette, the table was covered in maps and random documents. The sergeant was pouring over them.

“You may want to ask to come in next time, private.”

“Sorry, sir. I’m not right.”

The sergeant did not break his attention from his task. As he spoke his eyes scanned the maps in front of him.

“You’re here to tell me about the dreams aren’t you?”

The private felt a familiar wave of panic in his chest.

“I am, sir.” Then a pause. “How did you know?”

“Do you think you’re the first to come to me about the dreams?”

“Not sure, sir. They don’t talk much about that stuff here.”

The sergeant’s feet shifted in the sand. The private thought about how it seemed louder than it should have, the scraping of the inside of something hollow and wooden.

“These guys are warriors. Of course they don’t talk about the dreams with each other. But they can’t resist talking to me. That’s the first thing you need to know about this place. We all dream here.”

His words were gruff and obvious and the private hated this.

“Sir, what do they dream about?”

“You can’t compare dreams.”

“I just want to know if they dream what I dream.”

“No two soldiers dream the same.”


The private wanted to ask another question, but he felt sick to his stomach, so he lingered with his thoughts for a moment to see if the nausea would pass.

“Do you dream, sir?”

“I used to.”

“How did you get them to stop?”

“First, let me ask you a question. Can I do that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why do you think you dream?”

The private’s head dipped and his eyes fell to the ground as he considered the sergeant’s question.

“How could we not have dreams in this place?”

Another pause.

The private continued: “We lost Anderson, then Peligrini.”

“And do you dream of Anderson and Peligrini?”

The private again waited to respond. He noticed that he was rubbing the skin on his wrist intently and it was becoming raw.

“No, sir. They’re not in my dreams.”

“Of course they’re not. Anderson and Peligini never meant a thing. You have no idea why you dream then, do you?”

“Maybe not. But I know in my gut it’s ‘cause I’m here. Isn’t that why we all dream? It seems obvious.”

“Why are you here in this tent speaking with me? Why are you really here, private? That’s what I’m getting at.”

“I told you, sir. I need relief. I don’t know if I can take this much longer.”

The sergeant sputtered a few laughs, but his gaze never shifted from his work. He continued to take notes on the maps and documents in front of him.

“So, what do you dream, private?”

“Every time I think about them I want to throw up.”

“If you’re not going to tell me you might as well leave.”

The private looked around the room. A crow had found it’s way into the tent. It tiptoed across some cabinets, before stopping to observe the conversation.

“Can I get a sip from your canteen, sir?”

“I suppose.”

The private stood and walked over to the canteen next to the sergeant’s cot. He noticed that he wasn’t thirsty, but he was trying to get comfortable with the idea of talking about the dreams. He unscrewed the cap and took a few sips, slowly and deliberately.

“Sometimes I’m in the middle of the desert. I can’t see anything but sand for miles.”

He stopped for a few seconds, then took another sip, a bit more anxiously.

“Sometimes it’s an old mansion. Sometimes an abandoned road.”

“Keep going.”

“There’s never anyone else around. I feel a gun pressing into my back. I’m scared to death. My heart pounds. I’m always holding a book. A big old book. With thousands of pages. I don’t know exactly what to do with it. But in my mind I assume that if I find the right page, and read the right sentence, then it all goes away.”

“Then what happens?”

“I frantically flip through the pages. I hardly recognize anything I see. The writing is foreign. I hear the trigger being squeezed. I can’t find the right page. The gun goes off, and I see the blood pouring from stomach. I’m too shocked to feel the pain. But I know I’m dying.”

“And you never see who pulled the trigger.”

“That is correct, sir.”

By now both cigarettes had gone out. The sergeant reached into his pocket and pulled out a new pack. He took a fresh cigarette, placed it between his lips, lit it, and leaned back. For the first time he made eye contact with the private. His face balanced between amused and smug.

“How do you feel when you wake up?”

“I feel every bit like I died in the dream. Something dies, sir.”

“And how long now?”

“About three weeks. It’s at the point where I can’t sleep. I’m too scared to close my eyes.”

The sergeant crossed his legs and shifted his body slightly. He took a long, slow pull from his cigarette.

“And you want the fastest way out of this, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What have you heard? What have you heard about the others and their dreams?”

The private noticed his mouth was now actually dry. He reached for the canteen and took another sip. He thought about how it tasted metallic. He felt disgusted by the thought of swallowing the water but he did it anyway, and as he did his mind followed the water through his esophagus.

“I heard from the others that Peligrino had dreams before he died. And that you helped him.”

“And do you know why I was able to help Peligrino?”

“No, sir.”

“Because he had given up, he surrendered, he had nothing left to lose. Have you suffered enough, private?”

“Either the dreams go away or this ends some other way, some way that can’t be good for me, or the squad.” Another pause, before he continued: “Or my family.”

“And could you ever go back to your family and keep dreaming?”

“No, sir. I couldn’t. They would know.”

“So you know the hell it would be then? For everyone.”

“I do.”

The sergeant took another drag and looked up at the soldier.

“There’s a way to make this all go away.”

“Then tell me.”

The sergeant stood and walked over to a metal crate on the other side of the tent. He reached inside and pulled out a small pine cigar box. He lifted the lid and walked the box back to the soldier.  The private looked inside and saw that it was empty besides a crumpled, white piece of paper.

The sergeant said: “Take it.”

On it were written two words in Arabic.

“This is it?”

“Mills can drive you out to the city. When you get there find a taxi. Show the driver the paper and he’ll know where to go.”

The private looked the small paper over for a few seconds and tucked it into the right pocket of his fatigues. His eyes slowly moved throughout the room and settled on the floor just to the left of the sergeant’s table.

“Is there something else, private?”

“What should I expect to find there?”

“You feel sick in your gut, don’t you? Right there.”

The sergeant pointed to the private’s stomach.

“You know what you might find. And your insides are grinding because somehow you know. But you don’t need me to tell you that.”

The private could think of nothing to say to this.

The sergeant continued: “The only way out is through. It’s as simple as that.”

He sat calmly and looked at the private’s face. “Now, I’ve got work to do.”

The private’s body swayed gently. Then he turned around and left the tent through the same canvas flap.

 

II

            “Mills, Sarge needs you to take me into the city.”

“Now? What the fuck for?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“You’d better if you expect me to drive two hours both ways on these roads at 10-o-fuck-a-clock. We’re a half bottle deep.”

Mills jerked his thumb at a bottle of Tequila on the table.

“You don’t have a choice. Sarge’s orders.”

Mills took a few seconds to look over the private..

“You’re sick ain’t ya, bud? You look like shit.”

“Yeah. I’ve been sleeping like shit. I’m heading into town for meds.”

“Fuck, man. Alright, alright.”

Mills stood up. He stumbled to a table and picked up some keys, inspecting them to make sure they were the right set. He stretched his arms up and back, and when he finished he appeared like he had sobered up. The two men walked out of the barracks and got into a jeep parked at the edge of the encampment.

“Why can’t you drive anyway?” Mills asked.

“Sarge told me I should have you drive me. I guess I could. Not really sure where I’m going though. You’re the one always driving into the city.”

Mills turned the key and pressed the accelerator before the engine finished turning over. The car sped off leaving a plume of dust and exhaust behind it. It was pure night, and once the jeep left the vicinity of the encampment, except for ten feet of headlights, everything was pure black. The private wondered how it was possible to find anything in this darkness. He scanned the canopy of stars for a moon, but couldn’t find one.

He was shook out of his gaze by the jagged turns of the jeep. The road into the city brought them up and over spontaneous mountain terrain, through miles of twisting roads, hardly wider than the jeep. Having taken this trip many times in the daylight, the private was comforted by the night, and how it protected him from seeing how things really looked.

Mills reached for a conversation, but the private responded with one-word answers, fighting hard to fend off interaction. He was preoccupied by the unease in his gut. He knew the place his head was at, and he knew it was impossible for him fake banter. He spit out the window, closed his eyes, and let the seat back. Mills went on talking, as if he didn’t need a response.

“…you ever notice how no one asks why we’re here? I’ll admit I’m as guilty as the next one. Last time I went home, all my old friends, and I’m talking stupid ass fuckers who shit themselves right out of high school, they knew more about this war than any one of us do. Ever wonder why? You think they make us that way? We just do this, do that, do whatever the fuck they say. We’re just a piece of a machine, buddy. A piece of a bullshit machine…”

The private didn’t hear a word, except maybe ‘home’, because he noticed himself wishing for a spark of nostalgia, or something to connect him to the time before he was here. No matter how hard he tried to think about home, the nostalgia wouldn’t come. The private noticed that he had separated completely from his old life. It was now a memory that someone else lived.

“…I know you ain’t feelin good. And I know why. I ain’t feelin good either, man. We all feel it. Can I admit something? Peligrino hit me harder than I let on man. I mean…the night before he died…we had this talk. Ya know the kind I mean. Where we talk about all the shit we’re plannin’ on doing when this is all over. He showed me the ring man. He bought it before he left. He was gonna give it to his girl. And ya know the shit I never told anyone? You wanna know this shit? When he died I reached into his pocket on a whim. It was in there. I took it, man. I did. You think that’s fucked up? Who else…”

The private stayed quiet and kept his eyes closed. He thought about how Mills did not have the dreams like he had them.

“…ain’t built for this man. I mean I know we’re from the jungles and caves and all. I know we’re made to hunt and protect our women, but what the fuck, that shit’s supposed to be reserved for bars and hockey games, right? We weren’t made to be this goddam afraid all the time.”

The private noticed that Mills’ hands were shaking, and sweat was building on his temple. Mills continued: “Sorry, man. Sorry. I know you don’t need any of this. It’s just I know you’re feeling it to. You told me as much. I needed to get this shit off the dome, you know?”

“I know. Not sure talking helps.”

“What else are we gonna do? Sit here with the shit all bottled up? Sit here and smile and pretend we’re not all getting chewed up? To be honest, I’m about goddam sick of all the fuckin’ acting, all the drinking and laughing this shit away like it’s not really happening.”

The private didn’t respond.

“You ever wonder what happens if we can’t forget? What the fuck happens if we can’t forget?”

“I can’t do this, Mills. I can’t. Just get me the fuck to the city.”

 

III

An hour later the lights of the city broke through the rocky silhouettes and a subtle breath of light broke through his eyelids. The private opened his eyes. Typically he was comforted by the city because it meant connection, and the comforts of buying things, and every variety of distraction. But in this moment he noticed that every muscle in his body, his legs especially, were contracted. He tried to let go and relax them, but in a moment he returned to thinking, and found all his muscles locked again a few seconds later. He thought the lights were beautiful, but noticed he couldn’t enjoy them. So he simply watched them get closer and closer, until they enveloped the vehicle and they were inside of the city.

“Where am I supposed to take you?”

“Anywhere I think. I need to get a taxi from here.”

“You’re not going to tell me where this taxi is going to take you, are you?”

“I don’t even know, Mills. You can stop here. It’s as good a place as any.”

Mills pulled the jeep over. The streets were lined with vendors and lit up with burning trash. The private thought about how many people were out. He stared out the window for a few seconds, taking in the scene. He opened the door, and stepped out of the jeep.

“So, do I pick you up?” Mills asked.

“I’ll find a way back. Thanks for the ride.”

“So that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“Good luck.”

The private nodded and walked off. Mills drove away.

For the first time ever the private could not immediately find a taxi in the city. So he walked slowly along the road and waited for the familiar patterns of yellow and black. The city was buzzing with life. Off to his right there was a shabby wooden stage, filled with costumed dancers, and surrounded by musicians playing instruments the private had never seen, who were surrounded still by a crowd that seemed too big for the quality of the performance. Both sides of the road were lined with carts selling street food, manned by men and their sons, and releasing invisible fumes of foreign spices. Two of every three faces were smiling, laughing even. The rest were gruff and serious and chewing slowly. The private couldn’t remember the last time he ate.

About fifteen minutes passed before the private could see he was walking unnoticed. None of the faces adjusted their gaze as he passed. Down the road he saw two girls dressed in pink and other colors. He approached them. When he got close the two girls sensed his presence and turned towards him. Both of their mouths were opened slightly and their lips twisted. Their faces were painted, not by make-up, but by rich, fierce colors that put them on the cusp of beautiful and exotic. One of the girls—the one with the darker skin, the private noticed—reached between his legs and sucked on his lower lip, massaging it with her tongue before pulling and releasing it. The girl said something in Arabic, something with the inflection of a question, and turned to the other girl, whose skin was lighter. They laughed a high-pitched laugh and turned back to the private. He ignored them, removed the hand still applying pressure between his legs, and walked away. Behind him they said something else and laughed again. The private thought about how they sounded like birds.

He woke up from his thoughts to realize that he’d walked out of the life of a city. He found himself in a part of the street that was dimly lit and lined with beautiful, but weathered dwellings with rusted, corrugated roofs. He didn’t think he would be able to find a taxi here, but he didn’t want to go back to the strip he came from either. He decided to keep walking, and see where he found himself. Walking further, there were no signs of life, accept for a few emaciated dogs rummaging through occasional piles of trash. He knelt down next to one to pet it. Fur sloughed off its skin, leaving a layer of oily hair on his hands. He looked at the dog’s face and knew that it had lost its mind. There was something familiar about it’s eyes. They were blue; he didn’t know if he’d ever seen a dog with blue eyes before. He thought he might have seen them before in his dreams, but he couldn’t attach them to a specific scene. He held the dog’s head and tried to kiss its nose, but the dog erupted in fit of barking that cut through the stillness of the night. The private jumped back and started to run. As he did, he squinted his eyes down every alley, looking for the comforting yellow. Eventually, the worn corrugated roofs stopped, and there was nothing. No lights, just a dirt road. He gradually slowed until his run became a walk, and from walking he stopped still. He turned around 360 degrees. Beyond the small circle around his feet there was perfect darkness. Not even starlight. He couldn’t see the city or the streets he had just come out of. The private noticed how much space there is in blackness.

Underneath his feet he saw tire tracks pressed into the dirt, so he knew he was still on a road. He could make out its boundaries because there were desiccated desert shrubs lining its boundaries. Using these as his guide he started running again, though he didn’t know why he ran instead of walked. The private felt something inside, something like loneliness, but much deeper, as if he were the only piece of life left in the universe. He noticed something inside of him surge, like a machine, with a rhythm and a beat—cogs churning and twisting and grinding and leaving him dissolved. After awhile it wasn’t even him choosing to run, to lift each foot after the other—it was his machine. He let go and his body ran itself. He was there to observe, to watch it all happen. But the machine only lasted a few seconds, because he saw some headlights in the distance. The lights exploded through the blackness, but then eased to shards, and then to soft lamps. That’s when the private saw the yellow. He jumped in front of it, waving his arms, and the car stopped.

The private approached the driver’s window. The glass glided down, revealing the face of the driver, which was dark and expressionless. The private reached into his pocket and handed the driver the paper that the sergeant had given him, which was now crushed and wrinkled. The driver nodded and motioned his head towards the back seat. He opened the door and got into the car.

IV

            At no point did the private hear the driver utter a word. The car was silent, except for the drone of the engine, which emitted a strange pattern inside of its hum. A thought from his youth appeared in his head. In it he was a young boy, in the back seat of a car, his sister to his left, and his parents in the front. He loved his sister, who was a few years younger, and in the thought he looked at her, reading her face. She was alone, like him. Then it evolved, though he didn’t notice it, into thoughts of the family at home, the one he created. The private noticed that they were lost to him. He wanted to explain this to himself, but he thought better of it.

The thoughts ended when he felt his head plummet, before he caught it and lifted it again. He was somehow sleepy, exhausted even, for the first time in weeks. He thought that it must have been the darkness. The encampment was never this dark. The exhaustion was seductive. It felt blissful in a way he had forgotten how to feel. But he knew it was like a temptress leading him back to his dreams, which stabbed him in his sleep. He slapped his cheeks, and massaged his eyes.

He wanted to ask the driver how far it was to the address on the paper, but he noticed that it didn’t matter. They could have landed at the address in moments and he would have been content. Or the night could stretch off into years, and he would not have minded. He also sensed that it was very likely the driver would not have answered. His head shifted to a nursery rhyme bleeding into his head from the background. It was one his mother had sung to him on most nights, especially those when he cried. He decided to whisper it. The driver didn’t react to this either. The private stopped noticing anything as he fell asleep. In the rear view mirror, the driver could see him twitch, occasionally.

 

V

The private woke up violently.

Fuck

He looked at the rear-view, and could see the driver’s steady eyes.

He was sweating. He had, of course, dreamt.

It was still night. Maybe it wasn’t. He couldn’t tell if his desire for the darkness to end was toying with his head but he thought he saw the night relenting at the eastern horizon. After a few minutes, he knew that it wasn’t his imagination—A dimly lit blue, mixed with subtle reds like blush, began to fill the sky.

How long was I asleep?

The driver didn’t respond. The private struggled to assemble the words in Arabic.

كم من الوقت كنت نائما

The driver was silent.

The private wanted to sleep again, but dug his nails deep into his arm.

 

VI

            The wind burned the private’s skin. It was infused with something noxious. He looked at his hands. They were healthy, though they felt like he could have found pieces of skin hanging off them. By now it was fully morning. The sun, orange and ripe, hung a few degrees above the horizon. The sky was cloudless. The private noticed patterns of black birds gliding through the sky. The car window was now cracked open, maybe an inch or so. Through the crack, he could hear the chirping, and the whispers of the toxic air. The private took his attention off the sky and found something that should have surprised him. The desert was gone. The desolate rocky wasteland was gone. The dry air was gone. He saw rolling hills coated with short green grass. A few dandelions spotted the landscape like gold pixels, giving the overall scene a surreal painted look. In the distance there was a family of wild horses. He thought about how he hadn’t seen a break in the landscape in months, and how this should have made him happy. He felt hollow, like all the material inside of him had been sucked out. Still, and he couldn’t explain this to himself, though he didn’t try very hard, he felt a tickle on his cheek and when he went to itch it, his finger was moist and he realized it was a tear.

 

VII

The private found himself driving.

He didn’t think about where to go; he just drove. The road was paved now, but the pastures of green grass and hills remained. For the first time there was something to break up the monotony of the scenery. It was a silhouette. The private imagined that it was the outline of a house. After a few moments he could see that he wasn’t imagining. He could make out the wooden stairs leading up to a porch. Then the shingles lining the roof. The decrepit red walls. A rickety brown fence holding the perimeter. A single tree grew up from the backyard. A dog, quiet and regal, was chained to its trunk. There was no driveway, but the house sat a few hundred feet from the road. The private pulled off and drove to the edge of the fence. He sat for a moment, taking in every detail. He thought about how he had expected to recognize it, like he’d seen it in a dream, or a memory, but it was completely new, without a hint of recognition. He didn’t want to leave the car, and this surprised him. But he opened the car door and stepped onto the grass. The wind was still noxious. He heard music in his head. It was soft, with lots of strings—cellos and violas. It was bathed in reverb, like it was being played in a canyon. He noticed his body was hollow, because his insides had been drawn up into his head.

He took a step. Then another. Then the momentum took over and his legs walked themselves. He noticed how familiar, almost nostalgic, it felt for the grass to compress beneath his boots. He knelt down, pulled a handful out of the ground, and smelled it. He let the blades trickle through his fingers, as the wind carried it off. Memories from his youth lit up his head until the sick feeling in his stomach pulled him back out. He stood up and continued walking. As he got closer, he began to understand just how old the house was. It was crumbling, completely untended. He thought that it must have been abandoned long ago, because it was nearly unlivable.

Lost in his evaluations, he found himself at the porch’s steps. They were once brown, but were now sun-bleached to a crusty beige. Much of the wood was splintered off. Termites weaved in and out of the remaining cracks. He climbed the stairs one at a time, fully aware of the vivid creaking that came after every step.

The porch was archetypal. It held an old rocking chair, a few rusted buckets, and a tattered pair of shoes. Something urged him to turn around. When he did he noticed he couldn’t see the road anymore. Returning to the porch, he opened the screen, but found the inner door boarded up with rotten wood, which was also devoured by insects. He reached for the nailed slabs, and easily pulled them off. Shards of wood sprayed over the porch. The newly exposed insects scurried back into dark crevices. He dropped the wood and opened the door.

He found himself in a living room. The décor reminded him of the 1930’s or 40’s. A torn couch and several wicker chairs surrounded the room. Dust hung in the air, so thick it could be seen dangling in the streams of light breaking through the cracks in the curtains. There was no television, but there was a small coffee table in the middle of the room. A few teacups sat on tiny saucers. He picked one up, found a foul, molded liquid, and set it back down. The walls were lined with black-and-white framed photos. The same faces recurred throughout the pictures. He tried hard, but recognized none of them. The private thought that the faces in the photos looked empty, and lifeless. He was lost in them for a second, but eventually felt called again by the sick presence in his stomach to move on.

He left the living room for the kitchen. The first thing he noticed was a small piece of paper, folded and resting on the kitchen table. He noticed it because he thought that it didn’t fit with the rest of the room. It felt recent. He walked over to the table, picked it up, and unfolded it.

 

Josie,

For two years I missed you so. I missed your face. I missed your swollen stomach. I missed the way you touched my face. You were all I thought about every second of each of the six hundred and eight days. Your face lit up my mind every time I closed my eyes. I never told you, but every time I killed a man you were there. Sometimes you held me. Sometimes you shamed me. It was all a means to an end. It was my way to beat the moment, each moment, the millions and millions of moments that kept me away from you and Joseph. How is he? What does he look like? I wish I could imagine his face. But you’ve made that impossible. I have to find myself another purpose. Sadly, there are so few.

I could kill you, if only I could stomach killing again. 

Nathan

 

The private refolded the paper and put it into his pocket. The rest of the kitchen was clean and ordered. There were no dishes in the sink. The sun reflected vibrantly from the counters. There was a refrigerator in the corner. The private opened the door. A cloud of cold air fell out, but besides that it was clean and  empty. He noticed its mechanical whine. He thought about how it was strange that it was still on. He closed the door and walked over to the sink. Above it were two windows through which he could see the endless landscape of green hills, speckled with yellow dandelions. Far away there were a few more wild horses. One of them was a baby. It rubbed its head against the side of one of the bigger horses. The private watched for a few moments before they trotted off, out of the vantage of the windows. The sun hung just a bit above the horizon. He noticed that the sky was beginning to paint itself and that it was dusk again, or that the sun had reversed.

The private turned away from the window and walked to the next room. It was an office or study. The walls were lined with books, but the shelves were old and worn and partially eaten like the rest of the house. There was a desk with a rotary phone. It was black and shiny. The private thought about how strange it was that there was no dust on any of the objects. There was another window in this room, but it was larger. The private thought the view offered him nothing new, so he continued to explore the room. On the floor, there was a small white piece of paper. He knelt to pick it up.  He thought it had the same words in Arabic as the paper the sergeant had given him. He reached into his pocket to take out his own paper so that he could compare the two, but he remembered he’d given it to the driver. Some wind coursed through the open window and the paper flitted about. He let it go.

The floor creaked beneath the private’s feet. He noticed it was covered with a maroon throw rug with an ornate gold design. Unlike the rest of the room it wasn’t discolored with dirt. Somewhere near the center, there was a circular depression. Without thinking, he pulled back the rug, and realized it was concealing a manhole-sized cutout in the floor. He knelt down and carefully put his head inside. He waited a moment for his eyes to adjust but found no light. His mouth opened and he yelled hoping to hear an echo, but no sound returned. He grabbed a book from the shelf and threw it in, and still there was no sound. The private wondered if there were places where sound could not subsist. A piece of spit accumulated in his mouth, and dripped from his lips, but he lost sight of it as soon as it fell. The private thought about how the blackness was impenetrable. He sat down on the edge of the cutout as his feet dangle into the hole. His hands grabbed the edge in front of him, and he jumped in so that his body hung with his fingers pinching the wooden edge. Now that his body was inside, he could hear the sounds of the desert. Somewhere beneath him, wind was blowing through sand. He felt the heat on his feet. And yet there was no sun, the private thought. And none of the light from the office above seeped down, as he would have expected.  He let go of the wood with one of his hands, and began to feel the surface under the floor. It was cold and moist. His wandering hands stumbled onto a rough cast-iron pipe. He pulled on it, decided it felt secure enough, and let his body hang from it completely. For the first time his entire body was in the darkness. He followed the pipe, reaching one hand over the other. He did so until he lost track of how far he had moved. He noticed his arms beginning to shake. He thought that he must have moved much longer than the length of the house. Eventually he encountered a wall and noticed that the pipe curved 90 degrees and continued down. There was just enough space between the pipe and the wall for him to shimmy. He let himself down, bit by bit.

Minutes passed, then hours, before he noticed a piece of light. The private felt it burn his eyes, which had completely adjusted to the darkness. He continued letting himself down, one segment at a time. He noticed his hands were bleeding and blistered. As he descended, the mist of light turned into shards, and then into an ambient glow, barely illuminating the space around him. He couldn’t tell where the light was coming from, but the private thought about how he was unconcerned.

There was a point at which the private’s hands and arms were ready to surrender, but it was at this moment when he reached his leg down to catch the next bracket tying the pipe to the wall, but found dirt instead. The private put both feet on the ground and turned around. He was in a corridor, lit by the soft light that he had seen before. It was endless, continuing on as far as he could see. But the private noticed that it wasn’t long in distance, but long in time. He started to walk. He noticed the walls were full of writing, but it was aged and faint, making it impossible to read. He ignored it and kept walking. He felt like the walls were repeating themselves and that he wasn’t getting farther. Then he remembered that the corridor was measured in time so he just let time pass. When he did the walls began to evolve and change. The private thought they were telling a story, but he was unconcerned by this too. As he let time pass he came to a body. It was resting, seconds off in the distance. He recognized the face first, as his own. And when he was right above it he noticed it wasn’t his body, but only his torso. Each of his arms and legs were severed at different lengths. His face was gaunt, and tortured, but his eyes were ecstatic. His mouth held the subtlest smile, of mischief and freedom, as if he’d just solved a riddle. The face was peaceful, unwavering, and whole. The private thought he was looking at God. He knelt down and put his hands on either side of his face. He stayed like this for more seconds, pouring over his own eyes. He kissed his forehead, then stood up and continued to walk.

 

VIII

            The private walked for what felt like days. The walls and the words melted and shifted continuously and he never knew exactly where he was. He listened and somehow knew he should stop and sit. He put his back to one of the walls and slid down it. On the opposite side his eyes fell on a single spot. He thought about how time was over. And as soon as he was aware of this thought, the walls of the corridor dissolved. He was in an enormous room that held the same glow he’d seen all along. A second later he noticed that the room held the desert inside of it. He felt the familiar sun burning his face. Sand coated the floor, and tiny clouds of it would blow and swirl in unpredictable funnels. In the center of the room the glow peaked. There was a table. The private stood up. He took his shoes off. He thought about how he enjoyed the feeling of the hot sand under his feet. He walked over to the table. On top of it was a book. He thought about how it looked like the book from his dreams. It was bound in a wooden cover. The pages were old and thick. There were thousands of them. He felt something behind him. The private closed his eyes and waited for what he knew came next. He felt the hard, caustic metal press deep into his back. Everything the private knew of fear flooded his body. He opened the book. The pages were old and faded, much like the writing in the corridor. It was in Arabic. He could make out a few words but never a whole sentence. He began to turn the pages feverishly. He noticed tears streaming down his face. The private thought about how he needed just one sentence, and all this would go away. He thought about how his senses were perfect. He could hear the creaking of the trigger. He could hear the breath of what was behind him. He could feel its warmth and moisture. The private thought about how he recognized the smell. He stopped turning the pages. His eyes closed. He felt the paper under his palms. He began to slide his hands in circles as he caressed the thick pages. He tasted the saliva in his mouth. He thought about how didn’t mind the fear any more.

“I know you,” the private said to silence.

He could hear the metallic creak of the trigger squeezing, and the barrel of the gun pressing deeper into his back. The private smiled and closed the book. Then he turned around.

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About Scott Stambach

Scott teaches physics and mathematics at a charter school in San Diego by day and writes fiction by night. His stories often explore characters living at the fringes of society. His narratives are reminiscent of zen koans in that they feature surreal elements that aim to push the mind into unfamiliar territory. You can find him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/sstambach