Dawn is about to break, the sky turning from lavender to apricot. A few clouds drift overhead, stretched into thin gauzy lines. If I were home, I'd be thinking about all the things I could do with the new day. Stupid stuff like hanging with friends, meeting up for a burger, or maybe load up my dirt bike and check out a new trail or race the old favorite. I'd probably call my girlfriend later, because that's what boyfriends do, and see if she wants to come over to my place, maybe rent a movie we'll halfway watch while we stretch out on my sofa and engage in serious lip lock. Maybe she'd spend the night and we'd have mind-blowing sex before falling into a deep sleep, wrapped in each others' arms…satisfied and in love. Or so we'd both want to believe.
But I'm not home. I haven't fallen into a deep sleep for over a year, had a decent cheeseburger, or dared believe in the word "love," let alone feel it. The dust I'd taste from a hard motorcycle ride is the only thing that seems to be global, but here, it doesn't have the earthy flavor of the forest or a sunflower field covered in fresh dew. No, here, dust is laced with unmentionable, unforgettable horrors that settle at days end, waiting to be resurrected by a footstep, a gust of wind, or a simple gasp of air when stumbling upon a sight to be forever scored in your memory.
The letters from home, a steady flow at the beginning, are sporadic. Mom writes, tells me what Dad says and keeps me abreast of family things. The girlfriend? Her words sounded different in the last letter. There's someone else, I sense it, and I'm sure the next letter, if there is one, will be the grand kiss off…"you're a really great guy…what we had was special…I've found someone…take care of yourself…be safe…" all the shit that says "goodbye forever."
"Forever" isn't something I can afford to believe in anymore, just as I can't hold onto a fantasy life where the girl waits, her heart and body solely yours, and nothing changes. Yeah, some things will be etched in stone, if… —the look of worry always constant in my mother's eyes; my older sister's meddling in my life; the pressure to be a good example for my younger brother; and Dad's expression, words, undecided—neither accepting nor condemning. Maybe after this hell is over, if "ever," there'll be a tone of approval, even pride in the son who vacated the house in a huff at eighteen, slamming the front door hard enough to rattle the windows. A bad night…sad memory—one that haunts my half-awake nights. If I could change anything, it would be that moment. Too bad life doesn't give us "do-overs," only tomorrows filled with regret and the hope for something better.
"Hope." Another feeling locked in a heart chamber. A dangerous emotion if freed, along with "faith." Empty promises.
A spider crawls across my leg and I flip it with my fingers, gauging how many feet I propelled the injured arachnid. Six feet is my furthest target. Depends on size and if I've got time to even care. Sometimes a mere brush off works, but most of the time, it's a slam—instant death
"Death." The stench of it reeks in the air. At first, the metallic smell of blood crashed into me like a freight train, bile constantly licking the back of my throat. But now, it's a familiar scent, along with sweat, decay, and other acrid aromas blending into the air filling my lungs, day in…day out. My clothes and skin are stained with the remnants of other lives that no longer exist.
"Exhausted." I'm always on high alert, every muscle tensed to the point of hot pain by days end, teeth ground down and sensitive from always being clenched, dirt crusted in my ears and around the edges of my nose, the corners of my eyes, and rimming my lips. I learned quickly not to lick my lips. After a day of pushing the nervous system to extreme limits, sometimes, breathing, but most the time not, your mouth is dry, lips cracked and caked with the world around you. Nothing savory, trust me.
The sun pops over the hills in the distance, a beacon—announcement that the day has begun, the game in play. All things making noise are in motion, the smell of fuel mixing with the faint aroma of weak coffee. Dust curls around me as bodies move through the dirt, shuffling to the required destinations. My back aches from sleeping at odd angles, my elbow raw from leaning on small rocks while I write this—a necessary discomfort.
Something in my gut tells me I need written proof of my existence today—that I woke, urinated, and consumed my morning rations before swinging my armor clad body into the seat I'll occupy for today's tour. Someone else sat here yesterday. I didn't see them at breakfast.
The tank starts its slow crawl, the power oozing through each metal screw, rivet, and around the bullet dents, proof the design of the iron shield worked at the moment. Beneath me, I feel the rumble of the enormous treads mashing the ground and the remains of yesterday into the pasty pallid earth. I have to hurry and finish these last words. I can already hear the ear piercing whistles of missiles in the distant, the burnt scent of innocent, and not-so-innocent, lives terminated wafting up my nostrils.
To my lost girlfriend…be happy. That's all I ever want for you.
To my sister…love your kids unconditionally. Hug and kiss them everyday, once for me, and tell them how terrific they are, even if you feel like strangling them.
To my little brother…I don't know if you won the state championship in basketball, but know that the victory isn't what matters. It's the journey in getting there where you'll learn about yourself—what you're made of. Don't let anything anyone says to you ever define you, got that? Praise swells your head, criticism drains your self worth. Be true to yourself and whatever the hell you become, give it your all. I'll kick your ass, otherwise. And be nice to Mom and Dad. They're saints and love you…all of us.
Mom, you're my first and only true love. You hold my heart and because of you, I have the strength to face today. Thanks for loving me, despite my efforts to change your mind.
Lastly, Dad…sorry for being such a screw-up those last weeks. I was scared—still am. I've crapped my pants and cried more than when I was an infant. I want to make you proud. I want to be everything you've hung your hopes on…I want to be like you.
A plume of black smoke blinds me, turning daylight to the darkest night in an instant. My cue to fold this paper into a tiny square and tuck it in the pocket over my heart. Hopefully, tonight I can burn it in the "Dear John" can we ceremoniously turn all the bad shit to ash.
Take a moment during your day, the one filled with all the things you get a choice in doing, and remember those who, while fighting for our freedom, don't have the luxury of choosing how their day may end. Granted, none of us do, but those overseas...far from home, family, and all the things we enjoy at this moment are more likely to find a grim reaper around the corner than you or me. Say a prayer, wish on a star, send a message of hope into the universe that those who lost the battles of old, will stand watch over those fighting the new ones. And to those who have lost loved ones, know that this author is grateful for the sacrifice and will never take for granted the freedoms I have in my life through the loss of theirs.
Blessed Veteran's Day to all deserving of the title and those who love them.