combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2004

Two Worlds

          Some might think that being blown into the air by high explosives would be a life-altering event. But young Corporal James Callahan already knew what a complete life change means. It's a line in the time-line of life on either side of which lay two different worlds. Not even the air is the same. For some this change never happens. Maybe it's because the truth is in them from birth. And then for others, the change happens so gradually that they look back on their lives and come to realize that all those old memories are like pictures in somebody else's photo collection. They are unrecognizable to themselves.

          For James, the line happened in a tangible instant, as this happens for some people, like those in car accidents or wars or those who win lotteries. Sadly, his instant came along at the same moment that his entire country changed. In some ways, his moment was highlighted because of it, his story appearing as three sentences in a national magazine. But in the same way, James' moment of transformation came to look small, somewhat trivial, with all of his history condensed into one anecdotal notation.

          James carried that feeling of smallness into his new, dark self, all the way to this bleak desert, half way around the world, where the whipping sand mixed with the floating plumes of concrete dust and gun smoke. The destruction around him was always foggy, dreamlike, and the sound of combat always took him back to that moment.

          James had been running through the streets through a white haze and the clanging of sirens. He was talking to Theresa on his cell phone.

          "It's okay," she had said. "They say we're just suppose to wait here. Help is on the way."

          "Help is what?!" James had shouted over the sirens.

          "I said it's going to be okay! I love ...."

          Then James looked up when his wife broke into screams of terror as the North Tower was coming down, taking Theresa down with it. There was all of that smoke and dust, just like here. And the sounds of whistling shells incoming and outgoing, was so much like the dying screams he heard on the cell phone as the floor gave out from under his lover's feet.

          Now all the foggy, shifting clouds of dust swirled into James' fictitious picture of Theresa curling into a foetal ball, suspended in the darkness between two falling masses of building. Her cell phone captured the terror coming from her wide-open mouth and it made her look like horror personified. She is there always with James, her death mask laying over every image he sees. So nothing is really the way others see it.

          Waking up was always horrible. It was the only moment of the day when he felt something. He felt the loss, the aloneness, that sleep always allowed him to forget. Then followed a day that was relentlessly meaningless. The stocks he sold before were always either triumphs of business prowess or pitfalls of tragedy. Now they were just blips of electricity, flinging themselves around a world that was cold and uncaring.

          James' powerful blue-blood heritage had blessed him with a family that could always put on a great Christmas show. His father raised him strong and stiff, while his mother sensitized him to art, culture, and the importance of etiquette. James' older sister had baffled him with her rebelliousness. But not anymore. None of them knew him. Dad's pats on the back, his mother's silent understanding hugs and even his sister's hysterics were all so vacuous as to be almost funny. Nobody knew anything. And on this side of the line, nothing meant anything.

          So James found himself sitting in his condo twenty-four seven, not answering the phone, watching TV, sometimes eating a cracker or going to the bathroom. And then, finally one day James woke up in a hospital room with no memory of how he got there. They told him he was suffering from severe malnutrition and that it was a good thing that his family finally had checked up on him when they did. James lay in his bed, looking up at the nurses and doctors as they talked about him in hushed tones. They didn't know anything either, no matter what kind of horrors they'd seen. James considered getting up in his hospital gown and walking right off the planet, exposing his bare ass to the world, until late one night when a cleaning lady came by his room, pushing a cart full of supplies.

          James had noticed the shadow of her passing a few times before. But now there was nobody around and she stopped in the hall. As she came toward him, James closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep. Yet that didn't stop the woman from coming to his side and saying, in a thick accent, with breath that smelled of fresh coffee, "Mister, you got to do something."

          He snapped his eyes open, planning to shut her down with his biting tongue, only to see that she knew. She'd been there. It was in her eyes. All James could do was accept the absolute righteousness of her prescription, swallow the pill, and move on.

          Now, two years later, he's moving fast, flying through the air after having been blown off of his armored vehicle by a funny looking rocket that had come whooshing out of nowhere. He curses everything he has done in these last years as he careens toward his certain death. The dusty pavement of the street in this small, flat, desert oasis, is rushing toward his head and James is screaming at his basic training, his attraction to the idea of shooting a gun because it was a serious, life-or-death thing, and the whole stupid notion that he "got to do something".

          Crunch! Blackness. Death. Then an instant later a watery image of the world comes back, accompanied by songbirds singing. No, ringing; ringing his ear drums like a million air raid sirens in harmony. For a moment James thinks that he's in some nether world of hallucinogenic perception. His body must be like a fallen cartoon character's, folded up like an accordion. And what is this sickly odor? Why is his face so itchy? Is this all that death amounts to? Just some itchy, smelly, ringing, disembodiment?

          He pulls his hand forward to rub his eyebrows, not really expecting to have a hand at all. But he does have a hand. It's his eyebrows that are missing. Suddenly he blinks back to reality as the ringing is replaced by distinct sounds men shouting, small arms fire cracking. And the smell? That's what burned hair smells like when it flash-burns off your face. James gasps like a fish out of water to reclaim the wind that's been knocked out of him. Air inflates his lungs, rushes to mix with blood in brains and Corporal Callahan returns.

          James' training takes over. He scans the war stage, picking friend and foe out of the mix of smoke, palm trees, and mud houses. His APC is fifty yards to his left, on fire on the far side. Yet the main 25 millimeter is still firing, meaning Joe is still alive inside and still able to fight back, even though Private Jamal, who was riding on top alongside James, talking about some girl back home, is just a smear of bloody dust coating the desert beige armor plating. James himself is lying in the middle of an intersection in the town's main street. To the enemy soldiers, nestled behind some foliage in the park about a hundred yards ahead, he must look like crumpled road kill since nobody is firing at him. This is good because he has no cover. If he gets up, he's dead. For real this time.

          So James stays prone, letting his bloody cheek soak the pavement, as he watches the battle unfold from a sideways angle. He looks at the house across the street that borders the park where Joe has the enemy pinned down in the trees. Wondering when Joe is going to take another hit from an RPG, James also wonders what life is like in that house. It's very nice. The term "mud house" is so misleading. This one has an English garden in front and a clean white Mercedes parked on the elegant stone driveway. Please, don't let that house get hit, James hopes and prays. He'd like to live there. Of course, James isn't thinking clearly because he has to concentrate on strategic planning.

          There's not much thinking to be done though, as all he can do is lie and wait for something beyond his control to happen. Either the bad guys will storm the vehicle, destroy it and discover James alive, then capture or kill him; or something unpredictable will happen. Maybe ....

          An artillery round whistles in from miles away and erupts on the far side of the street, blowing James up on his feet and pelting him with asphalt all at the same time. This time though, James doesn't assume that he's dead. He thinks of that old saying, "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me". Just beneath the discipline of his training, a little voice is screaming "Okay! That's it! Somebody's gonna' die!" But luckily that voice remains subterranean, allowing James to quickly assess the new scenario and then act accordingly. First, he lunges for his M-16 which lies a few feet away from him. The smoke from the artillery blast is clearing and James is going to have to find cover fast before his smokescreen is gone. Run for the APC? Maybe he and Joe can back the vehicle out of there. But no. Sparks are flying all over the armor, showing James that the bad guys are still intent on getting a tasty symbol of Infidel power. James will surely be cut down if he goes that way. But there, in the clearing fog, the house across the street is beckoning. A hole is blown out of the front wall, offering easy access. Maybe he can even get in the fight by finding a side window from which to fire on the enemy's flank. For James, the house is a fortress, about to be formally requisitioned by this man's army. It is not someone's home.

          And so he dashes across the street, slams against the remains of the front wall, puts on his meanest war face, then swings around to the opening, ready to kill anything that moves inside the dark abode. James' vision narrows to a few degrees in front of the muzzle of his gun and sees things as two specific items: threats and non-threats. Mostly there is rubble, scattered remnants of the front wall. The floor is reddish tile. There in the middle of the tile is a pair of feet. James almost fires, then realizes that the feet are no longer attached to a person. Sigh of relief there. A finely polished table catches sunlight streaming in from a side window. Good firing position there. Against the back wall, near the remains of the footless person, is a statue of a woman. Beside the statue is a floor lamp. All clear.

          James enters the house and makes for the side window when he feels eyes on him. He turns and sees that his assessment was flawed. The statue is really a living person. He'd been tricked by his childhood and the woman's flowing beige and white garb that made her look just like the statue of the Virgin Mary that used to stand in the classroom of his Sunday School. And the fact that this woman is virtually stone still only adds to the illusion.

          So now what? This is one of those messy combat situations that he's been trained to be prepared for. He must adapt to this complexity. Since the woman is obviously a non-combatant, James can't shoot her. He can't chase her out of the house either because that will put her in harm's way. But if he is going to use the window as a firing position he will have to turn his back on her. And any person in a combat zone can be dangerous if you have your back turned. So he raises his gun and points to the doorway behind her which leads to a back room. Either she doesn't understand James' wish for her to move or she doesn't care. She remains frozen.

          Her eyes knock him back. Yes, her whole face is so much like Theresa's, with piercing green eyes oddly staring out from behind a pale, unassuming, round face. Theresa used to look up at him like that when she looked over the top of the morning paper. He used to hate knowing that she was reading the comics. Never the news. Not even the fashion section. Does this woman read comics? Does she speak English?

          If this was years ago, before he'd crossed the line, James would have fallen to pieces at this moment. His body would have convulsed, heaved out at the horror of what was before him. Here was a woman, standing in front of the scattered remains of somebody that she obviously loved. Whether the feet belonged to a husband, father, mother, or lover was impossible to know. She was probably standing right next to the person when he (or she) disintegrated. Moments ago they might have been turning on the TV to see what was happening in the war. Or maybe they were making love. What if they were fighting with each other about something like who's turn it was to do some chore? James imagines angry words spoken, suddenly being cut off by sudden, violent death.

          Then a bullet knocks his helmet off his head, shoots across the room and buries itself in the wall beside the woman. James' ears ring again. He's dizzy with fear and shock. But now, even that has become routine.

          His training takes over. To secure his foxhole, he has to pacify his fellow occupant.

          "I'm sorry." he says, not knowing if his war partner speaks his language. With a burst of military creativity, he points to the bloody, sandaled feet that lay a few feet in front of his own and says "I didn't do this." Then he turns to the window and fires a few rounds at the flashes of gunfire coming from the foliage in the park. He looks back at the woman to make sure that he isn't under attack from her. Still she hasn't moved. Obviously still in shock. Good. Now he can concentrate on survival. He turns his gaze back to the park and waits for something to move so that he can shoot it.

          So far nothing is moving. Whoever has just shot at James is keeping his head down. Maybe the guy is dead. James scolds himself for not being more aware. Precious seconds have passed because he wasted them on this helpless woman. If he'd been smart, he would have controlled her and taken out the enemy in one smooth firing line. But now they know he is there. Turn back. Fire at the trees. There! Movement! Shoot at it. Good. Movement ends. That means he probably just killed someone. Maybe James has killed the same guy that just fired a bullet that flew by two inches away from his own brain. Part of his objective is achieved.

          The woman is still there, still behind him. She's probably in her late twenties. A young professional of some sort. Maybe a scientist or a teacher. James can tell by the smoothness of her skin that she is well kept. And ravishingly alive. Beautifully innocent. If his parents didn't know that she was from that strange place, he knew they'd approve. Maybe someday they'll read the comics together. Maybe ....

          Another bullet flies by James' nose, snapping him back to his senses. He's been so stupid. He won't be caught again. It's time to be a soldier. James swings around and points his weapon out in front of his sightline just in time to see a head poking out of the trees. It's a foreign face, one that wants to see James' corpse, even though, moments ago, James had been riding through this town accepting flowers from young girls and handshakes from old men who were welcoming James into their hometown. He fires at that face and takes out that life.

          Then he takes out another. There are no questions now, just angles, sightlines, and calculations of survival. Except that every few seconds, James sees the face of that woman in his mind's eye. Theresa is sitting at her desk, sipping her coffee while a stranger is plotting her fate. This woman is opening her fridge to get milk while Joe is desperately calling for artillery to cover his desperate position. A shell is fired toward this park, except that it hits this house. An airliner is flying towards Theresa. What the hell? It's all the same. Love is destroyed in an instant. Nobody cares about people. It's all about revenge, or survival against it. That's life. James fires and misses. He ducks instinctively just before the window frame splinters and blasts wood shards into his good cheek. Damn searing pain! James is about to let rage get the better of him before his training takes over and makes him remember to duck for a few seconds until Joe can distract the bad guys and get them to resume firing on the big metal beast that's so much juicier a target than he is. And in those few seconds, James loses to his rediscovered desire. Suddenly, after so much time, he wants to watch a sunset again.

          Maybe he'll get her out of this. Perhaps there can be life again. Maybe he can explain things to her. Hold her and let her know that she is loved. That he loves her, just like he loved Theresa before she died. If only he could have heard Theresa finish her last sentence. "I love ...."

          If fate had only given them another second or two. Then he could have told her how much he'd loved her as well, and loved how she read the comics instead of the news. How he loved the way she closed her eyes when she couldn't keep them open during a boring movie. How he remembers the way she did that, and how she looked and smelled, and spoke, and thought ....

          And the room explodes from a concentrated burst of machinegun fire. James doesn't take the bait. He wipes the collateral thoughts from his mind and waits until he hears his buddy firing back from the still burning APC. He and Joe are a team. Joe's life depends on him, and his depends on Joe. Together, they'll conquer. That's how they're trained.

          James looks back and sees that the woman has disappeared. She must have ducked for cover in the other room. He turns back to the window and looks for a target. But then he hears a voice screaming in clear English ....

          "This is my house!"

          This isn't the woman he has just fallen in love with. This isn't his hope for redemption. There will be no candlelight spiritual oneness.

          This is a threat.

          James turns to see a knife rising up in her white-knuckled hand. And because he's been there, he knows that she has nothing to live for.

          They are worlds apart. James' training takes over. As it always will.

          Because there is no color on this side of the line ... not even shades of gray.

by Ernie Kosanyi
... who is a student of modern warfare, author of half a dozen screenplays, a novel entitled Visions of Icarus, and numerous short stories in all genres.