The fire crackled in the center of the tent, projecting grotesque, enlarged versions of the two figures crouched around it. Lying beside them were their guns; and the ammunition wrapped around them like loose belts. Neither moved nor talked; they might have prayed, the might have been remembering. They also might have been listening to the rapid gunfire and explosions outside.
"Do you remember a blue sky?" asked the one on the left. His voice was hoarse, for he had recently trodden some of the worst nightmares of thought. Surprised at the sudden animation of his friend, the other, Peter, didn't respond for a while.
"How do you mean," he said finally, still staring at the fire as it stole the air.
"Do you remember the grass being green? Do you remember pleasure and relaxation? A mind free from worries? A clear summer day, Pete?"
Peter almost laughed, even though a smile didn't touch his lips. "My mother made the best lemonade. The ale for depressed children; the summer's sidekick. Yeah, I sort of remember pleasure. Relaxation, happiness."
"I had a girlfriend, Helen . Green eyes. Red hair. I remember one time at the fair, she beat me at shooting the target at one of those booths."
"You let her win, Lee."
Lee looked up. "So? She was happy. I was happy."
"You know, five years ago, I would never have thought that this is where I would be. I would think, 'Why the hell would I do that?'" This time, Peter did laugh. A loud scream from outside interrupted it, though.
"It's not your fault you're here," Lee whispered. "You didn't ruin your life."
"It still is ruined." Awkward silence ensued.
"So, what did you want to be? You know, when you grew up?"
Peter looked at Lee. "I wanted to be an architect."
Lee raised his eyebrows, interested.
"I'd been taking technical drawing classes at the institute for a few years. It's in the blood, you know. My dad and his dad were both into this stuff. And you know what? I liked it."
"How did I end up here? Well, it states pretty clearly that if you get accepted to a college, then you don't have to go. I wasn't," Peter said glumly. He nervously tapped his gun with his index finger. "What did you want to be?"
There was silence inside the tent. There was a particularly loud explosion outside and the tent 's fabric rippled. "I wanted to—" Lee started, "I wanted to become a poet."
"A poet! Blimey! My sister wants to be a poet. She's got one published already."
"Is that so?"
"She was fully supported by my parents. Your parents support you too?"
"No, just my little brother," Lee said. "He read everything I gave to him. Eight years old. And my folks are in their forties. " He dropped his head into his hands and his voice to a whisper. "I just wish . . . I wish I just. . ."
There was a loud whistling noise near Peter's ear. A small silver object appeared near Lee's foot. Their eyes did not even meet as they scrambled to get their guns and to get out of the tent. Outside, smoking stars flew across the horizon and scattered soldiers from their wake. The battle scene, staged in a muddy clearing spotted with islands of weedy grass and moss, was surrounded by dense forestry and grotesque trees. Lee and Peter both ran into the forest and crouched behind a thick one. Once they sat down, Lee watched their tent explode. Patches of burnt fabric drifted through the air and into the smoke.
Peter took out his radio. "Base, Unit 66 to Base. Unit 66 to Base."
The radio crackled and the reply could barely be heard over all of the racket. "Base to Unit 66. We copy. Was that your tent?"
"Affirmative," Peter said. He nervously ran his hand across the belt of bullets on his gun. Lee, not five feet away, watched the continuing battle, cringing. When Lee saw that Peter was watching him intently, he put up a confident façade.
"What's your 20, Unit 66."
Peter anxiously looked around for some indicator as to where they were. "Ah . . . ah . . ." he gave up, looking back at the fiery wreckage of their tent, at the edge of the forest. "About thirty feet due south into the forest. No injuries."
"Do you still have your weapons, Unit 66?"
"Affirmative," Peter replied, looking at them.
"Unit 67 is on its way. The war is on its way too." The radio made no further noise.
"Not war," Lee said quietly. "Just battle. Just battle after battle."
"What?" Pete asked, standing up and eyeing the clearing.
Lee almost answered him, but twigs crunching signified the approaching backup troops. He tried to appear to be harder skinned and dignified and less thoughtful. Peter and Lee both turned to face Unit 67 in a half-hearted salute.
"Unit 66?" one of the newcomers said, and Peter nodded.
"Let's go," Lee said. Peter watched a tear slip down his cheek. They all followed Lee, into battle. Lee thought that the shadow of this battle would be seen again in just another clearing a mile or two away, because battles just leave more battles in their wake. Why have I gone to war? Why?
The dinner had been uncomfortably quiet, aside from the sudden, unexpected spasms of staccato chatter when somebody needed food passed to them. The room, which used to be lively, energetic and happy, was now dark and uncomfortable. It had a foreboding atmosphere; it was as if the walls were closing in, growing black vines and seeping black blood . . . wasted blood. Tendrils of smoke from fresh explosions would be wafted in through the open window. The centerpiece, which had been a lush amalgam of the mother's gardening efforts all summer, was now wilting; it was crying. Weeping.
The letter from the military had come yesterday. It said, in the most deliberate and indifferent voice that the son's camp had been attacked and he was dead. When Jason read it, he almost expected it to have a PS at the end reading, "Have a nice day!" But, of course, the letter had already been read a few hundred times, so the house had already become a cemetery.
Jason moved his food across his plate slowly. His large glass of milk sat untouched next to his unmoving right hand. On any other occasion, one of the parents probably would have jumped on him to stop playing with his food, and eat it. And drink some milk, honey, that'll give you strong bones! Maybe the reason that Jason's parents didn't bother was because they were too busy moving their own food from side to side on their own plates.
Finally, he brought his leftover chicken to his face. Eyeing it, he reluctantly placed it into his mouth and forced himself to swallow. His mother watched him, her face white. She held one hand in her lap and the other in the area between her heart and her neck. Her hair seemed to have gotten grayer overnight, her wrinkles plainer. Knowing that she was watching, Jason brought more to his mouth and continued to eat. He made a great effort not to show signs that he did not like it. His mother was on the verge.
His father was no different. His hair was noticeably thinner and he kept his eyes on his plate. Never eye contact. His eyes were flanked by big red bags and wrinkles of thought. Jason thought that if he said one little thing wrong, then his father would start shouting and his mother would start crying. The card house we have become.
He chose his words carefully, wishing for a quiet evening. "Do you think that Lee's going to heaven?"
There was quiet. No one moved, except for his mother, who started to shake. His father's face got red and forced out a monosyllabic reply. "Yes."
He watched the sun go down mesmerized by the moonlight in his bedroom window. He was sitting up in bed watching the undisturbed streets below and an occasional car pass by, its headlights displaying weird yellow patterns across his bedroom. The superhero action figures situated in important patterns on his dresser were just staring into the darkness. They were no superheroes. Apathetic and uncaring. What kind of hero just sits around and stares while villains fight? While our friends, our relatives fight?
As Jason grew more acquainted with the darkness of his bedroom, Jason realized that darkness just helps itself swell. Fattening tendrils of darkness . . .