Summer, 2006
24-Hour Short Story Contest
1st Place Winner!

The group of four tipsy teenagers were playing yet another loud game of Mixin' Fixion in the back of the commuter bus. After her contribution, the youngest girl turned her face toward the breeze coming through the window, enjoying the canopy of trees along the country road. Up ahead, she noticed a man flagging down the bus while slinging a large black bag over his shoulder. As he stepped onto the bus, he turned his head toward the bag, slapped it, and yelled, "...

by Eric E. Wallace, Boise, ID

Nothing is what it seems.

In Iraq you learn that quickly or you could be very very dead very very fast.

It's all mirages.

In the desert, heat and dust and sweat make blurry illusions out of upended trucks, a crumbled wall, a waving kid. Any trust you might have had turns tail and flees the first time that kid morphs into a ragged, raging imam erupting with fire which rips your buddies into wet confetti.

One misstep, you lose a leg, your pecker, for sure your sanity if not your life. One going close to a toothy smile wrapped in a bomb and at last you learn for sure if there's a heaven or a hell. Or a nothing.

The barometric pressure and the pulsing fear pound your eyeballs and your skull with a thumping you can't lose even in your dreams. You're drenched with terror. It never washes off.

I guess some of us are lucky. So now I'm going home. The first time in 16 months, three days, two hours and 25 minutes. Every tension-filled second marked off in my journal. Yeah, I keep a journal as a way to talk to my sweetheart, my family, my once-normal self. I wear it beneath my combat gear, close to my heart. Last resort against shrapnel. Against craziness.

Now this lumbering bus, bizarrely ordinary on a tree-speckled North Carolina road.

Old ladies in broadbrim hats, wicker shopping baskets perched primly above. In Tikrit those baskets would have been shredded by precautionary fire at 50 meters.

Bunch of teens giggling through some talky word game. Lord, they tattoo early these days, but nothing like the tattoos you see over there. 24/7 on the edge brings out the grim imagination, the ghoulish art.

Fat couple squeezed sloppily into their seats. They make Americans big these days, up a size or more from when I left. At least they look happy, murmuring together. And those drips on the back of his neck are pure southern summer sweat, not anxiety, not horror, not blood.

Dozing guy in rumpled overalls and dusty boots, string-tied package in his lapóin Basra we'd have our eyes tight on him from the getgo.

Up there, the driver, balding head bobbing a bit to an inner song, shortsleeved arms coaxing the big wheel into a curve, uniform jacket swinging in time on the back of his seat. No steel pot, no vest, no goggles, no armor plate, no reading the advancing terrain with high adrenalin. Just a good old boy rolling his one-horse convoy down a country lane.

And me. I wonder if they've got me pegged even in this faded tee and jeans. I've got the look, but then again maybe there's still innocence abroad. Maybe reality doesn't leach down to these back towns and hills. Maybe I'm just a guy out for a bus ride.

One of the teens claps his hands. The prettiest girl laughs. That's a sound you miss over there, girlish laughter, though it would be buried, chopped to nothing under the small arms clatter, the shells whoomping, the yelling, the screaming, the wailing. And always that thumping.

I used to know true laughter, not just the nervous, wet-your-pants kind that follows, knowing you're still alive when hell has raged past. I used to know silence. The reassuring song of bees. The insolence of crickets. The lazy plop of mountain ash berries kissing the undergrowth. I used to know silence and gentleness and the day turning slowly toward evening, the twinkling fireflies and stars in peaceful competition. God, am I coming back to that or dragging the whole nightmare with me to taint, distort, obliterate?

Does this bumping bus ride home feel good? I guess it should. Too bad relief never hits you as fast as shock, contentment never latches on with the speed of dread.

A small lurch, a grinding of gears. I reach for my M-4 but find only my floppy backpack sprawled on the seat beside me. My hands clasp urgently at it anyway, wanting.

The bus is slowing, and ahead we can see a figure by the side of the road, one arm held out like a signpost, a sort of salute.

We're on one of those rare, old-fashioned, whistlestop, flag-it-down routes. Some guy, a farmhand, a motorist with a breakdown, a tired hiker, wants a ride. So why is my heart racing? Why do my eyes ache? Breathe, I tell myself. Breathe slowly. Slower. Watch.

The bus whines to a stop, brakes hissing softly. The driver scratches his head with one hand and reaches out with the other to lever open the door.

Warm, sweet huckleberry air swirls in. Someone clumps up the steps. A tall, wiry man, early 60's, roughshaven, baggy dark shirt, fatigue pants. Nervously, he drags up an old, stained army duffel bag and leans it heavily under the windshield.

All eyes are on this diversion, this unexpected pause in the journey. Even the teens stop their game to see what novelty might be coming aboard. My heart roars, my eyes have narrowed, my hearing is on full alert, my nose strains, sniffing for cordite or blood or death.

A mumbled exchange, money fumbled for and handed over. The driver, now official, insists on tearing and punching a ticket from his pad.

Suddenly the newcomer curses at his duffel, reaches into it, yelling something like 'no, no no!' which to me is 'go, go go' and I'm sprinting down the aisle with an ancient scream of attack, stumbling over an outstretched leg, falling forward, knowing I have only seconds to neutralize this sick bastard who, wide-eyed and twitching, has pulled something round from the duffel as I hit him low and hard and we smash sideways down the steps and tumble out onto the roadside weeds.

I'm on top and have trapped his arms behind him with my knees and I'm ready to break his neck when the battered army canteen rolls off the bus and thunks wetly down beside us, dripping apple juice. I turn the guy over and peer into his panting wildness, stare deep into a mirror of my own darkness.

"Viet Nam," he whimpers.

What Eric won:

$300 Cash Prize
Publication of winning story on the WritersWeekly.com website
1 - Freelance Income Kit Includes:
-- 1-year subscription to the Write Markets Report
-- How to Write, Publish and $ell Ebooks
-- How to Publish a Profitable Emag
-- How to Be a Syndicated Newspaper Columnist Special (includes the book; database of 6000+ newspapers; and database of 100+ syndicates)

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