Chapter 9 - All He Can Be
Chuck was cold and uncomfortable as he muttered semi-consciously in the trash bin. "Rubby...where's Rubby? No...meat wagon took him...poor old guy...he's lucky he's dead...damn them all." An acidic anger burned in his guts; the anger at being deprived of his best friend.
Life on the street is a rugged freedom that rarely has any benefits other than the sweet amnesia of alcohol or drugs. It must have been a killer party, because Chuck's head throbbed like the bass line of a rap song.
He couldn't face the day yet, so he tried to get back to sleep. As he flipped between consciousness and sleep, he reran an unfulfilled life in his head. His aimless days after high school flickered against the back wall of his brain like a fuzzy home movie.
Things were great right after graduation. He had a job at McDonald's for some spending cash, with enough left for a car after he paid his mother room and board. His parents had kept him in high school with threats that they'd charge him room and board if he wasn't in school. As soon as he graduated, they made good on the threat. But to look back on it, that summer was the best part of his life...
...He was at the wheel of his Chevy Nova. It needed some engine and body work, but 200 bucks put his name on the pink slip. None of his friends had their own car yet, so wheels made him the leader of the gang. He liked the respect his new mobility brought.
It was a sultry summer night, so the guys grabbed a case of Stroh's and rolled over to Domino's. The little guy, Chris, worked in the kitchen and knew how to get a break on pizzas. He scored three large pizzas with everything for the price of three small cheese.
"Clever man, Chris," Chuck offered, "They don't let us steal anything over at McDonaldland." The rest of the guys cracked up at how cleverly they'd beaten the system.
Gary impatiently demanded, "Give me another beer you mothers, don't hog it all in the back seat."
Mike happily passed another cool brown long neck to the front as Chuck fiddled with the radio.
"OK, where we gonna eat these pizzas?" Chris demanded.
"Well, we've got plenty of beer...music on the radio. Let's just stay here for awhile and enjoy the scenery," Chuck offered. He curiously eyed the three cute girls inside Domino's who waited to pick up their order.
Gary suddenly hunched down in the front seat and whispered, "Be cool, men. Judy's in there and I can't let her see me with you guys."
"Whatsa' matter, asshole, doesn't she know you're a faggot yet?" Mike chided from the back seat.
"Get dead, dickhead. She thinks I joined the Marines and shipped out for 'Nam last week. I wanted to let her off the hook gentle, you know?"
"Bright move, bozo. Do you think you can hide in a town the size of Lansing for two years without her finding out?" Chuck had a good point. "Just lie there and eat your pizza while I find something on the radio."
Bzzz - pppft - "Boogie Check, Boogie Check, ooh ooh ahh. Larry, this is Debbie from Moline. How come my boy friend's such a pervert?" It was WLS in Chicago, Chuck's favorite station.
"Why the hell can't you listen to WVIC like normal people, Chuck. What's this weird thing you've got for any station that you can't hear." It was Gary, hitching from his huddled position in the seat next to Chuck. He was trying to swill down yet another beer as he wolfed an entire large pizza. He had to pig out carefully, to avoid being seen by Judy and company inside the pizza place. The twin pains that gnawed at his stomach and throbbed in his head made the job even tougher.
"It's a matter of quality, my man. These local guys are boring. People like Larry Lujack, Cousin Brucie and Ron Brittain make radio interesting. It's not just the music, man, it's the stuff that goes in between. That's what I want to do, be a DJ, make big bucks and get all the women I want."
Chuck's eyes had started to glaze over with a dreamy mist as the piano chords of "American Pie" started to swell from the radio speakers.
"Some day, you guys, I'm gonna be living in Chicago or California, and I'm gonna be famous. Important people like celebrities and politicians are gonna know my name and come up to shake my hand and want to talk to me."
His reverie was interrupted by a growling moan from the passenger side. Gary bounced out the door and onto his knees, prepared to make a sacrifice to Bacchus. The gagging was spiced up by splatting sounds as beer and pizza redecorated Gary's sweater, the pavement, and the cherry red Mustang parked a little too close to the action.
A click signalled that the Mustang's driver was about to get out, but Gary couldn't stop heaving long enough to pull his head from the path of the red car door.
As the red sheet metal smashed into his skull, Gary quickly forgot the agony that seared through his guts. He was momentarily cheered by the thought that with any luck at all, the blow to his head might kill him instantly. He held that thought as his face flopped into a warm pool of beer and pizza chunks.
The boys watched as something large shoved itself out of the red pony car. It looked kind of like a large ape in a blue mechanic's uniform, only it seemed too ugly to be an ape. That's when it spoke.
"What the fuck are you little geeks tryin' to do to muh' car?"
The ape creature was apparently passing for human and had somehow learned rudimentary English.
"Looks like I gotta use your face to clean the puke off muh' new paint job."
He was looking down at the ravaged remains of Gary, who seemed dead, except for the moaning sounds he kept making. The apeman reached for Gary's collar as Chuck leaned over to intercede.
"Excuse me, sir. Before you hurt my friend there, would you give me just a minute to explain? Then if you're not satisfied, all four of us are at your mercy. Fair enough?"
The ape creature's muzzle contorted as it thought over the proposition. "An jus' whut makes yuh think yore not at muh' mercy anyway?"
"OK, you've got me there, but there's a good reason for this."
Chuck's brain raced to figure out what that good reason might be. Then he remembered Gary's story.
"Look, our pal here just joined the Marines. He's headed for 'Nam to kick some butt. He ships out for boot camp Monday and this is the last time we're gonna be together. Look at him down there, puking like a dog. Can you think of anybody the Marines can help more than this guy? Come on, cut him a little slack. You were a Marine once yourself, am I right?"
"All right. Now personally, I'm not so sure Gary here can cut it in the man's Marine Corps, but it's gotta be his best hope. But if you go and kill him first, the Marines aren't gonna get a chance with him are they? So what do you say you just let him go so he can catch that bus to boot camp?"
"Who cleans thuh puke off muh' car?"
"Uh, Gary's gonna do that right now, right Gary?" Gary let out a moan that almost sounded affirmative.
"Good man, Gary. I'll get some paper towels from the pizza parlor."
"Yo, dickweed. Nuthin' touches muh' paint job if it ain't a shammy. Looks like I gotta kill the twerp."
"No wait, I've got my own chamois." It broke Chuck's heart to pop the new sheepskin out of his trunk. "Here we go. A little water and we're in business."
Chris had the presence of mind and a strong enough survival instinct to hop into the pizza parlor for a bucket of water and some soap. He figured fetching the tools beat cleaning the barf off from the gorilla's car.
"Get at it," the apeman barked at Gary's semi-lifeless form.
Fear made Gary stop heaving long enough to drag himself upright and grab the soapy chamois. By the time he'd wiped up all the offending chunks on the Mustang, he'd given the little car a complete rubdown. He knew enough not to complain, despite his body's deep conviction that it was going to die soon, even if it wasn't killed by the ape-mechanic.
The creature carefully inspected Gary's work and grunted its apparent approval. Then it popped the door open and squeezed back into its 'Stang.
By the time the little red Mustang headed away, the pizza and the beers were both at room temperature. Chuck decided to take the gang home and call it a lost night. When the last guy was safely back with his parents, Chuck wheeled back to his house muttering.
"Perfectly good chamois shot to hell, expensive one too, damn it. Why do I bother with these guys anyway? They don't have the brains god gave snot. Oh hell, they're my friends that's why. They may not be much, but they're the best I've got."
Chuck again pictured himself at age 30, still hanging around with the same guys. They'd probably all have jobs at Oldsmobile or Fisher Body, hitting the same bar after work each night. Weekends they'd gather at somebody's house, with or without the wife and kids, then watch the game and drink beer. That vision had haunted Chuck since the first day he understood that someday he'd have to support himself to stay alive.
He didn't want to be like his father and his father's friends. He had bigger plans, although he didn't really know what they were. Maybe he really would get into radio and become a major disc jockey. Or maybe he'd become a cop; a good one, not like the goons that dogged him and his friends whenever they were having a good time.
It was probably a good thing that he'd already been accepted at Lansing Community College. At least he knew his mediocre grades would still get him into good old "Last Chance College." And the deferment would keep him from being drafted for a year or two. He figured college would give him lots of time to figure out exactly what he wanted to do with his life, but years later he still hadn't...
...The playoff bored Sgt. Chuck Jackson. Didn't the '49ers ever lose? Besides, it was a tape from the night before, and he already knew the score. Chuck's beer was too warm to finish, so he was relieved when his digital watch started to beep. Time to go to work.
He pulled his shirt on over a nearly clean t-shirt, then did up his tie in front of the mirror. He carefully groomed the thatch of brown hair that had recently started to thin.
"You've still got that old devil charm, Jackson," he lied.
It's not that Chuck wasn't still attractive, but sixteen years with the Military Police had dimmed the boyish spark that carried him through his youth. The years had brought a seriousness that he would never admit during questioning.
Besides, it was no time to mug to the mirror. He had to get to the briefing hall. Today's round was designed to give Chuck and his comrades the minimum amount of information they needed for the upcoming secret mission.
A sleazy looking captain who nobody recognized droned from the front of the room. "Men, President Bush himself is in charge of this one. We've got some bad apples down here, and it's going to be up to us to clean out the barrel. As all of you know, we're sitting in one of the world's largest centers of drug distribution. We've played footsie with the kingpin long enough, and now it's time to clean his clock." There was a slight shuffling sound throughout the room, but nobody said a word.
"Tomorrow night at this time, we will be in the midst of a major undertaking that the president calls 'Operation Just Cause.' Our goal is to arrest Manuel Noriega and return him to the United States for trial on major drug charges. To that purpose, we will also destroy his top level PDF troops.
Chuck couldn't stand the somber tone anymore, so he leaned over to his buddy Nightstick Brown and whispered, "Why do you suppose he called it 'Just Cause'?"
Sgt. Brown whispered back, "Probably just 'cause he felt like doin' it."
Both men grinned until the captain's pointer smacked the lectern sharply to punctuate his displeasure with the two inattentive personalities in a room full of robots.
"As I was saying, our job will be to keep order as thousands of new troops are lifted into the country in the span of a few hours. This is a major undertaking that requires the very best of you, our Military Police. For a large number of these men, it will be their first time outside the United States. Since they'll be here as part of a major action, you can bet many of them are going to be quite excitable."
He droned on further, but Chuck had already heard enough to figure it out. Chuck and company would get more work, no more help, and some new brass tossed in just to make everything a little harder than necessary. Chuck followed Nightstick back to the MP office when the meeting broke up.
"Do you really think this thing's going to be as big a deal as they've painted it. Stick?"
"Bigger, if I can believe some of the stuff I hear around. They're trying to keep it all hushed up, but this time it's too much to stay secret. In fact, I'd be surprised if Noriega doesn't already know more about it than you and I do. He's got agents all over this base."
"That's a fact. Sometimes I wonder if I'm not stupid for turning down all those chances to do some part time work for him myself. Lotsa' moneys changing hands down here for just a little cooperation."
"Shit, Jackson, you're too straight to take the man's money and you know it. Now me, on the other hand, I can see me sitting on my yacht off the coast, just sippin' Pina Coladas and counting my cash."
"Give me a break, Stick. The only money either of us is ever gonna to see comes from busting our asses for an honest paycheck. Or did you join the Army to get rich?"
"You got me there, my man. Let's stop BSing and get some new schedules worked out. You find out if we can borrow some auxiliary guards from anybody. I hope these new troops are good little boys and girls while they're here, because there aren't enough MPs in all of Panama to keep an entire invasion force on its best behavior if it doesn't want to behave."
"Let's hope they're too busy with Noriega's boys to get bored and cause us trouble. I just want to get all this paper shuffled and get out of here. I've got better places to be."
"Hey, Jackson, still sniffing after that little taco you've been seein'?"
"Show a little respect. She's the widow of one of the last honest cops in this town. Benita's a nice lady who's had it tough since the PDF hauled Hennano off and tortured him to death. Besides, it's not her I'm going to see this time. It's her oldest kid's birthday, and I want to take him something special."
"You're just a big softy, Jackson. Come on, most of these people don't even like us. How do you know she isn't just using you as her meal ticket. You might just be her big, rich American sugar daddy."
"It's not like that. Besides, I like being a big, rich American sugar daddy, even if it's just for a couple hours. It makes me feel good, and they like it. What's wrong with that? Some of us don't have an old lady back in Georgia to feel guilty about, you know."
"Yeah sure," Nightstick grinned." Well, it's your life, have a good time. But first, we've got to finish this paperwork."
The afternoon dragged, but Chuck managed to get the new schedules and reinforcement requisitions into the mill by quitting time. He was off duty, off the base and up the road at record speed.
His steady pace eventually led to the heart of the poorest part of town and to the Derecho homestead. The bag of leftovers was still warm under his arm. Actually the leftovers were mostly food he'd bought especially for his adopted family. They seemed to believe that Americans had lots of food to throw away, so his little extravagances weren't questioned. The fact was, his budget was severely cramped by the cost of the food gifts, but he never let on to Benita or her family.
A pot of something acrid bubbled over an open fire in the street as his fingernails scratched loudly on the cardboard door of the familiar tarpaper shack. He grimly noticed how permanent the structure looked, compared to the surrounding homes that huddled crazily together in any direction along the hillside. It might have been considered a luxury home, since it was more permanent than the neighboring cardboard dwellings, and it was at the very peak of a low hill. This gave it a breathquenchingly panoramic view of the abject squalor that surrounded it.
"Chuck, I am so glad you are here," Benita nervously greeted him. "Something very strange is going on and I am worried."
"Well, what's the problem? Maybe I can help."
"The American businessman I work for in the city told me not to come to work anymore. He said it would not be safe there until after the American troops go back home. What did he mean? I cannot afford to lose my job, especially since they took my Hermano."
"Well, as far as I can tell, the Americans are ready to start their attack on General Noriega and his boys. They really want him as a trophy to take back to the states. They'll probably search the rich parts of town to find the big drug dealers too."
"Do you think they will come up here to look for these men?" The concern filled her womanchild face with lines far beyond her thirty years.
"Don't worry about it Benita, I can't imagine the U.S. Army messing around with a bunch of poor civilians. The guys they want live on the other side of town in big houses with expensive cars in the driveway. If this whole neighborhood chipped in, they couldn't afford a driveway, let alone a car to park on it."
"But what will I do for a job now? I have cleaned this man's home for many years to make money. It was almost enough when Hermano was alive. But now, I can barely keep all the children fed. And that is only because you have helped us so much. How will I earn a living with a war going on? Do you think the American army might have food for us until they are through fighting?"
"No, I'm pretty sure there's nothing set up for civilians, or I'd hear about security for it. I guess they don't expect things to be disrupted too much by all this. I'm sure your businessman will want you back to straighten up his place in a few days when all this blows over. Now let's talk about more pleasant things, like a big boy's birthday."
The sergeant dug through his pockets and pulled out something shiny. "Feliz Navidad, Ernesto."
The little boy looked puzzled, then all the kids started to laugh.
"What'd I do this time? Don't tell me I screwed up again?"
"Chuck, I think you mean feliz complianos. Ernesto is a special boy, but Christmas isn't until next week."
"Ooops, yeah, feliz complianos Ernesto, here's something for you." He popped a stainless steel whistle into the youngster's hand. Two little brown eyes suddenly became round with delight.
"Muchas gracias, Tio Chuck," popped out of the little mouth, a mouth which quickly filled with the new whistle.
The rest of the youngsters unsuccessfully tried to hide their jealousy. Chuck caught on quickly and offered cheerful news.
"Hasta, presentes por Navidad, muchachos." The youngsters didn't dare to get excited until they looked to their mother for the translation.
"Chuck, this is very generous, but you do not have to give them gifts for Christmas."
"But I want to. Tell them there will be something for each of them from good old Santa Chuck."
Benita obliged, tears trying to form in her pure, dark eyes. The kids jumped up and down excitedly, in pretty much the way kids do that sort of thing.
Benita quietly said, "Thank you, Chuck. It has been difficult, but you must have been sent by God himself to help us through this trial."
"Hey little trooper, take it easy. Hermano was a friend of mine...a good friend. I'm just happy than I can help his family, even if it's only a little bit."
"Please believe me when I say that your help is more than a little bit. You give us hope that the world is a good place, even when our faith is shaken by the evil that one man does to other men. I am worried about many things, but I know that somehow, everything will turn out well. God takes care of us always, in his own way."
A little voice cried out. It was Paco, Ernesto's next youngest brother. Apparently when he got his hands on the new whistle, he wouldn't give it back. So Ernesto, using one of his most advanced persuasion techniques, had grabbed the little fellow's hair and was pulling it hard.
Benita broke up the fuss quickly, and the combatants grumpily returned to neutral corners. Chuck jumped into the center of the youthful playstorm and cavorted with them all until his limited adult energy ran out.
"I think it is time to feed my little monsters and put them to sleep."
"Then I'd better be getting back to the base. It's a pretty long walk."
Benita hesitated for a second, then agreed. "Yes, I suppose you will be busy with all these troops coming in from America."
For an instant, Chuck wondered if her hesitation was some kind of subtle invitation. He was afraid to find out, so he played it straight. "Good night Benita, and be brave. This thing will be over soon, I'm sure. I'll help you and the kids get through it if it gets tough."
"You are a good man, Chuck. My husband chose well when he chose you as a friend." She looked down at the tiny gold wedding band on her slender hand as a reminder of Hermano's unending love.
"Yeah, I miss him too. A good cop," Chuck murmured. "Anyway, good night, and thanks for the chance to play with these great kids of yours." He turned and headed down the road to the base. It was dark, but his night vision was acute. With the glow of the remaining few cookfires, he hardly needed to use his flashlight.
Chuck got up a little early the next morning so he could hit the PX on the way to his office. He had to get another whistle for Paco's Christmas present.
"Sorry Sergeant, you bought the last one like it yesterday," the clerk apologized.
"So do you have anything close? There's a little boy who really wants one."
"Nothing in stock right now, and I don't think we'll get any more toys in until after Christmas. This operation's got most of the transportation tied up for cargo with a higher priority than toys. But look around, maybe you'll find something just as good."
Chuck thanked the man and started to eyeball every small item on the shelves. Nothing struck a note, so he turned to leave.
"Hey, thanks anyway, but you just don't have what I need." That's when he spotted it with the impulse items next to the cash register. "Hey, what's this?"
"Well, it's one of those mugger warning key rings," the clerk responded. "You put your keys on it, then if you're unlocking your car and somebody attacks you, you blow the whistle."
"Yeah, this is close enough to make him happy, but different enough too. I'll take it." Chuck tossed two bucks onto the counter and trotted to his office.
The U.S. Army had already decided to make it a big day for Sgt. Charles Jackson. Nightstick Brown was waiting when Chuck got to his desk. "Hey, Jackson, we got a visitor and he wants to see us."
"Gimme a break Stick, I haven't even had my coffee yet. What kind of lowlife bugs a man before he's got some coffee in him?"
"Captain Dickweed from yesterday, that's who. I tell you he's not regular army. I think he's from CID if he's army at all. Now move your lazy butt or we're gonna be late, and I don't think this guy's the forgiving type."
"Okay, let's pay the officer a visit then," Chuck griped as he followed Nightstick down the hall. "The guy doesn't look right to me either. I'd say he looks more like a hit man than a career army officer." But the fact that he didn't like the guy's looks soon became secondary to the fact that Chuck didn't like what he said either.
"Sergeant Jackson, I'm Captain Morton Kindertoten, and I'm in charge of a special project the government's running in conjunction with Operation Just Cause. While most of the details are classified, I can tell you that I'm in charge of a security unit that will coordinate the interface between the local civilians and special troops who will be training during this operation."
"Excuse me sir, did you say they'll be training during a major invasion? Isn't that a little unusual?
"That's exactly my point, Jackson. It's very unusual, and your country's going to benefit from it. That requires your total cooperation. From time to time, my men may need to interface with your men, and there could be unusual requests. What I need is for you to make it clear to your men that they must help us in every way possible. If they have questions, they should cooperate first, then check with you for clarification. I trust you understand what I'm saying here, men."
Chuck knew exactly what the greasy captain was saying. "So I take it that the normal military procedures that my men live and die by are temporarily lifted for the duration of this operation, sir?"
"Sergeant, I'm not sure I'd word that way, but I think you understand me. So, if you gentlemen just go that extra mile to get along for the duration, I'm sure things will be just fine." Kindertoten saluted them smartly and dismissed them with a simple, "That's all."
Sergeants Brown and Jackson returned the courtesy and got away from the captain double time.
"Who the hell does that son of a bitch think he is?" Chuck crabbed.
"He's Captain Chickenshit of Washington, D.C. and he's here to teach us homeboys how to be good little military policemen. And I'll tell you one thing; I'd rather cross a freeway on my knees than cross this boy. He's not army, Jackson. If he's not CIA, I'm George Wallace."
"Then what the hell's he up to? What kind of training do you do in secret in the middle of an invasion?"
"It's got to be something that's too illegal even for the army to get away with. And if it is, I sure as Hell don't want to know any more about it. I've got a wife and kids to take care of. Besides, I'm not the curious type. Anybody with half a brain is just gonna keep his eyes straight ahead and his mouth shut."
"Well, I've got half a brain, and I'm gonna ask my men to keep their eyes open."
"Jackson, if you had the other half, you'd know better. I'm telling you, you're asking for trouble for yourself and anybody that you get involved in this. The army doesn't want you to know, so you don't know. Get it?"
"Listen Stick, we're both MPs. That makes us soldiers, but it also makes us the law. I don't like the idea of some candy ass hit man comin' down here and tellin' us his men are going to break regulations and that we're supposed to look the other way."
"Yeah, okay, so maybe they break procedures or something, what does it matter. You know as well as I know that nobody's going to do anything, except maybe string your ass up from a flagpole somewhere. What's your problem?"
"Hey, maybe I've got a conscience. Maybe I'm a little worried about what happens to some kids I care about who live off the base. Maybe I just don't like the look of this Captain Kindertoten, okay?"
"Come on, lighten up. Let's go get some of that delicious army coffee and get back to work. What do you say?"
Chuck hesitantly agreed. "Well, maybe it's nothing anyway. Maybe I'm just overreacting to the tight assed little bastard."
"That's my man. In a few days, this will be over, and life in Panama will be back to its normal, boring pace. Here, take a cup."
It had been a long, impatient day of duty. The muted roar behind him told Chuck the bombers were on their way, bound for the secret hideouts of General Noriega and his personal protection forces. Everything was going just as planned. Before long, the general would be in American hands and life would be back to normal for the people of Panama. Even though he still had only the crudest grasp of Spanish, Chuck had begun to think of himself as one of those people.
Chuck had decided that Panama was the place he could be himself without too many restrictions or expectations. Of course he had to keep his nose clean in more ways than one. The cocaine trade was brisk, and lord help the drug dealer who snorts up his best stock. But Chuck had always managed to stay away from those intrigues.
For a moment, he even flirted with a fantasy of pleasant years spent with Benita and the kids. But he soon pushed that out of his mind.
"I'm just not the fatherly type," he mumbled to himself as he walked up the road. "Big brotherly type, maybe, but definitely not fatherly. Not qualified for that kind of work...too much responsibility."
He pulled out the little whistle key ring and fondled it as he walked, trying to imagine the delight on Paco's face when he handed it over to the little guy. Chuck didn't know if the trinkets and toys for the other kids would meet with approval, but it was a lead-pipe cinch that Paco was going to love that whistle.
"You! Stop right there and identify yourself," yapped a cracking voice from the dark.
"Wait a minute, that's my line," Chuck joked, pocketing the whistle.
"Listen smart guy, I want some pretty damned good ID from you and I want it now."
"Okay, okay," Chuck agreed. "I'm Sergeant Charles Jackson, Military Police, U.S. Army. And I should recognize you, but I don't." Chuck flipped open his ID case and let the young soldier study it by flashlight.
"It seems in order Sergeant, but I have no orders to allow you into this restricted zone. Are you here on business of some kind?"
"Are you serious? The people up here are so poor the only business we have is trips up for next of kin to identify corpse we've found on military property. I'm just going in to see friends who live up on the hill. What are you doing out here? You're not local MP. Who are you anyway?"
"Special detachment with special orders, Sergeant. We have sealed off this area to prevent the escape of Panamanian National Guard troops we believe to be hiding here."
"PDF my ass, Junior. You're on the wrong side of town. The only time the guard comes up here, they shake these poor people down for their last few Balboas. Any guard members hidden up here were hidden by the peasants who killed 'em and buried 'em. What's really going on? Did your whole detachment climb off a plane with their heads up their asses and wander up here by mistake?"
The young soldier bristled. "We know exactly where we are and why we're here. What we don't know is why you're here. Nobody is allowed in or out without written permission from my Captain."
"That wouldn't be Captain Kindertoten, by any chance, would it?"
The guard eyed him suspiciously, then rattled on. "You're not on my list, and if you don't have any other documents, you must leave immediately."
"Look soldier, you don't understand. There's a bunch of kids up there expecting me to bring them some presents. I know it's a couple days early, but you know how kids are at Christmas."
"I'm telling you Sarge, it doesn't matter of you're Jolly Old Saint Nick himself. In a few minutes, it's gonna look more like the Fourth of July than Christmas up there. I'm under orders to shoot anyone who tries to move past here in either direction. If you try to go up there, I'll be doing you a big favor if I shoot you first. My first shot would disable you and the medics could probably patch you up afterward. That's a lot better chance than you'll get on the other side in a few minutes. Now I'm done talking, so you start moving."
The young soldier's sidearm had already found its way into his hand.
His rage and fear made Chuck tremble, but he turned back down the road. He could only speculate on what plans the army might have for the restricted zone, but he didn't like any of the possibilities that came to mind. He knew that he had to get to Benita to help her evacuate the family. He also knew just as surely that he couldn't draw his weapon fast enough to get the drop on the mysterious young guard.
As soon as he was out of the guard's sight, he slipped off the road and headed back toward Benita's shanty. He didn't really know the route without the crude road to guide him, but he kept moving in a direction that he thought might parallel the road. The unrelenting rush of jets grew louder behind him.
Within a few steps, the roar was nearly unbearable in Chuck's pounding eardrums. He unconsciously ran toward Benita and her children as fast as his human frame would allow. He didn't stumble in the darkness and he didn't trip. There wasn't time for that.
As he ran, he recited an agnostic's prayer.
"Dear God, I know I said unfaithful things about you, but if you're real, please help me just this one time and I'll never ask you again. Those children and their mother are special. Please get them out of there in time. God, help me now if you ever wanted to. Please, sir. Amen."
His fears seemed to lift slightly, somehow. Maybe God was going to help. A tight grimace pulled across his face as the running strained his lung capacity. Lightning brought the dead sky to life for an instant.
"Yes," Chuck thought, "The bad weather will get them to call off the mission."
The expected thunder clap came in a heartbeat and knocked him backwards. But it wasn't thunder. Chuck knew thunder by smell. No, this was a bomb. Actually, it was a line of bombs that touched each horizon and all the spots between.
He started to fall, but harnessed the momentum and rolled sideways onto his feet. Each wave of explosions in the ocean of annihilation pushed him back. The sky ahead lit with row upon row of light from intense carpet bombing over the shanty village.
Broken field running in the dark exhausted him. Chuck soon started to stumble into fresh craters that reared up from the wounded ground ahead. He still wasn't close to the Derecho shanty when he tripped over something bulky. He fell down heavily in the inky blackness and couldn't get up again for hours.
He lay slumped at the edge of a fresh crater, too wasted to get up, despite his desperate mission. His body wanted to sleep, but his brain screamed in terror every time a dream started. The dusty, cheerless night tortured Chuck. It refused to let him get up and leave.
The cumulative pains that chewed at every joint and crevice of his body eventually booted him awake. The annoying persistence of daybreak stabbed through his closed eyelids.
He hurt so much that his efforts to roll over and face west caused a seizing cramp that made him sit upright instantly. He was flopped over the edge of a crater, almost ready to open his eyes a slit for a reality check. If he saw Neil Armstrong next to him in a silver spacesuit, Chuck knew he was okay, since he was either dreaming or insane. But his eyes sucked in a sight that gripped him more than anything he'd ever seen, heard or imagined.
Neil Armstrong wasn't next to Chuck. Instead, it was the headless, limbless corpse he'd blindly tripped on in the dark. It might have been a child, but dismemberment made it difficult for the stunned MP to judge its scale.
He figured it out quickly when he spotted a small, matching arm. Although no longer attached, it still tenderly held a tiny, ragged doll in a protective pose.
Did the child die alone or not? Chuck couldn't tell. The rubble hid too many secrets. The insects and rodents would soon know the answers, but they never break their pledge of silence with the dead.
Chuck scanned the area in each direction to get his bearings. While the ground looked like a gray, dusty scene from a lunar landing, the sky was a blue mist, and the mountains behind him were unmistakably familiar. Instead of a shanty town up the hill, he saw only craters and charred rubble. Ragged people milled about as they sifted through the dust-covered, pulverized remains.
"Jesus Christ, what happened to Benita and her babies?"
Chuck hoped that the hilltop would look different as he got closer, so he struggled to his feet and limped toward the summit. There were no landmarks except the higher ground and an ever increasing mass of human body parts mixed with the shattered remains of their miserable shacks and smashed possessions.
"It probably just looks worse from here because I'm so far away," he announced to nobody. "It'll be okay when I get there. The kids will probably still be scared, but they'll all be okay. They're going to be a lot happier when I show up and give them their Christmas presents."
As Chuck muttered to himself, the mind-numbing pain of each footstep brought him closer to a new vision of human tragedy. The scene made a lie of platitudes about death. The Grim Reaper is a discriminating chauffeur. He seems to prefer to take the innocent first. There could be no other explanation for why every ragged woman Chuck stumbled past wailed for her lost children.
A guilty euphoria filled the soldier's heart. How sad that these women wept for their dead, while up on the hilltop, Benita and her family quietly waited for Chuck to bring them some Christmas presents. He carefully drew them on a mental easel, then hurriedly erased and redrew them as he stumbled up the hill. They would be happy to see Tio Chuck.
As the sun became more accustomed to the morning sky, birds began to flock to the hillside. Most appeared to be seagulls. It brought hope to his soul, like a book he'd read years ago about a seagull who rose above his limitations and achieved greatness beyond mundane dreams. Somehow, Chuck knew the power of faith could overcome even his blackest dread.
As silver seagulls danced overhead, the lone soldier trudged heavily toward the hilltop. The sobs of survivors and the cries of abandoned children dropped behind him as he moved up the hill. In awhile, there was no noise at all. There was only the sound of the wind against his clothes, the faint crackle of anonymous burning piles, and the banter of the birds above.
Then, his patience was rewarded. He could just make out motion at the top of the hill. As he strained his eyes, he recognized Benita's shape, her hair, her way of moving. Several little ones frolicked at her feet.
"Thank you, God," Chuck shouted as both injured feet began to run. "Benita, muchachos, I'm here for you."
He didn't know how they had survived the bombing. Maybe they'd been in town during the attack. But it didn't matter. His abused, swollen eyes filled with tears until he could barely see to run. But he could tell Benita was waving at him. The kids were there too, all waving. Standing on the hilltop and waving.
He dashed through ever smaller pieces of rubble as he ran toward Benita's welcoming arms. Dashing around almost impossible craters, he followed her waving hands. He pulled Pace's tiny new whistle keychain from a pocket and waved it over his head.
He was only a few yards from Benita now, and she kept waving, silently. He wanted to touch her, to greet the children as they all waved. They all kept waving, waving at him. His heart soared higher each time one of them waved. He reached out to touch them and they waved faster.
Each bird's wings waved furiously and flapped in every different direction as a dozen startled seagulls abandoned their hilltop feast. The slowest gull greedily flew off with a slender brown finger that still wore a tiny gold wedding ring. The flock flopped into the sky and left Chuck alone atop the charred hill.
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