Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category
By: Richard W. Aites
Camp Pendleton, California- March 1993
The heavy pounding from the rotors of the arm-laden gunships created a whirlwind of waves upon the Ocean’s surface, while several Amphibious Assault Vehicles rumbled ashore. Another platoon of Marines stormed the beach, maneuvering around obstacles of stone, wood, and simulated concertina wire. Moments later, four CH-46 helicopters, traveling in a diamond formation, thundered overhead. Their destination was a small LZ two klicks north of the battalion staging area. Sand and dust enveloped our weary frames as the Corpsman finished dressing my lacerated upper-arm. Then the young Petty-Officer gathered his medical pack and moved on to render aid to the rest of the platoon.
While sipping water from a gritty canteen, the Company Commander approached my freshly dug fighting position. Captain Michael Allen Bennett was exactly what one would envision as a man in charge of a rifle company. He was all U.S. Marine, all of the time. Built like a brick shit-house, he had the regimental record for pull-ups (68) in a single attempt. The fifteen year veteran was also the most highly regarded and respected Company Commander in the 5th Marine Regiment. And being a former enlisted man, he had great empathy for his troops. The Captain focused onto the blood soaked pressure bandage wrapped around my bicep. “How’d it happen Lance Corporal?” he asked before spitting a ball of tobacco juice onto the ground at his boots. “Well, Sir. During the beach landing, I got snagged up in some old wire. I fought my way out, but left a piece of my arm behind,” I replied grimacing in pain. “Make sure you get that looked at once we return to base,” he ordered, “you’re to damned short to end up in the hospital with an infection.”
“By the way, Operation Valiant Blitz was a complete success. The Colonel is very pleased,” Bennett announced before adjusting the wad of chaw in his jaw and pushing on towards the landing zone. I peered out over the coast and onto the flotilla of ships, military and commercial alike, that were tiny buoys amongst the vastness of the Pacific. My mind wandered aimlessly for several minutes before I gathered myself and focused on the issue at hand. My enlistment was coming to an end and though the Company First Sergeant was hounding me like a dog to re-up, I’d already made up my mind that my military career was over. The Corps had certainly been good to me, and I had made many friends, but four years had been enough and it was time to move on.
Being stationed in Southern California had opened my eyes to the world outside the doldrums of small town living. The scrawny, buck-toothed kid, from a small, mid-western town had grown; now I had a tan, some muscle, and the look of a matinee idol. In fact; my nickname within the platoon was ‘James Dean’. Confident and arrogant, I enjoyed the nightlife of San Diego and LA and was convinced that California was the place for me. Yep! At 23, I was going to make lots of money, and sleep with lots of women.
After spending another four days in the field during another rugged training exercise, the Battalion was granted a 72 hour weekend liberty. Everyone that wasn’t restricted to the barracks or scheduled for guard duty left the base for more recreational activities; namely- drinking and women.
Three young Jarheads climbed into a sporty little convertible and cruised down into San Diego. On the following Sunday morning, after a weekend of intense partying, Dwayne Hodson, Mark Stillman and I were standing in the parking lot just outside our hotel room. While leaning up against Hodson’s fire-engine red, Mazda Miata, we were discussing plans for the day before having to return to Camp Pendleton. While Hodson tossed a shit-load of ideas our way with Stillman reminding him on more than one occasion that our cash resources were nearly exhausted, I peered down the busy four lane avenue on which the hotel sat. I watched as early morning motorists and pedestrians made their way to the beach.
Then seemingly out of nowhere, a man appeared. As he carelessly approached us from the middle of the street, cars swerved to avoid hitting him and the drivers cursed him loudly. Caucasian and of a modest build, his brown, shoulder length hair was matted and filthy. His pale, slender face was blotted with what appeared to be motor oil and his heavy flannel shirt and blue jeans were torn and tattered. The disheveled man eventually reached us before halting a few feet away. Despair owned his face and he reeked of body odor and musty clothing. Hodson made some derogatory gestures in regards to the stench. Ignoring my friend, the stranger looked me directly in the eyes and extended his bloodied and scathed hand out to me. In a soft voice, he informed us that he’d been involved in an accident on Beachside Blvd. He was homeless and broke and requested a few dollars to get by on. “I beg of you ,” he pleaded.
Though most of our money was spent, I was aware that both Hodson and Stillman had more than me. Yet I also knew that Stillman was somewhat tight with his cash and Hodson was downright stingy. Knowing what cash we did have left was meant for one last party in the afternoon, I expected a harsh response to the stranger’s request from my fellow jarheads. “Get the hell out of here! You’re not getting any money out of us you friggin beggar!” Hodson shouted. “Go get a job like the rest of us,” Stillman chimed in. But the musty fellow didn’t flinch at the harsh sentiments. “I said get the hell out of here!” Hodson yelled before raising a clenched fist in an attempt to strike the meager man. I immediately intercepted Hodson’s thrusting arm, clutching him by the right wrist, mere inches from the man’s temple. The angry, young Jarhead wrestled his arm free from my grip and stormed off towards the opposite side of the car.
For whatever reason, there was this overwhelming urge to help this guy out, therefore I reached into the front pocket of my stone-washed levi’s and removed a small bundle of crumpled cash. I unraveled the bills and discovered that I had a five and seven ones. Without hesitation I handed him the wrinkled five dollar bill. “Mitch! Don’t give him any money. You’ve barely got enough to buy yourself some beers at the beach!”
Hodson hollered from behind the car. I ignored him. “You will be blessed my friend,” the grateful man said before oddly bowing his head. “Don’t you think you need an ambulance?” I asked, suddenly concerned about his well-being. “Your kindness was enough,” he quietly declared before crumpling the bill in his bloodied hand. He slowly lifted his head and a subtle grin came over his face, “Mitchell…join your family in Missouri, and many blessings will be bestowed upon you.” Then the man turned and hobbled back towards the street. “I can’t believe you fell for that bullshit,” Hodson said, “he’s on his way to the liquor store to get himself another pint of whiskey.”
“How in the hell did he know your family lives in the Missouri?” Stillman asked. “I don’t know…And what is this blessing nonsense?” I replied, puzzled by the stranger’s suggestion. Then Stillman abruptly backhanded me in the chest, drawing my attention to the Cardinals tee-shirt I was sporting. “Friggin’ Cardinals…Who roots for the Cardinals anymore?” he chided me. “Okay smartass…When was the last time your Redsox won anything?” I asked with a smirk. “You got me there,” Stillman remarked as we watched the smelly beggar fade into the pedestrian traffic along the boulevard.
A couple of weeks following our weekend liberty in San Diego, I received a phone call from my Mother. She was aware that my four year stint was nearly over and was curious about future plans. I informed her that I had saved some money and made many friends in Southern California. One of these friends was an attractive, middle-aged woman from Burbank who wrote spec-scripts for a popular sit-com. She even talked the producer into giving me an audition for a tiny role. Though my Mother seemed a bit wary of this so-called friendship, she said that she missed me and wished me the best of luck.
In May of 1993 I received my honorable discharge from the Marine Corps. After four years of spit and polish, pounding the dirt and working every shit-detail pushed off on me, I was ready for civilian life. Yet I was humbled to learn that Hollywood and the City of Angels were not for me. A handsome face was a dime-a-dozen and my acting ability was zero-to-none. Therefore it wasn’t long after my discharge that I boarded a plane and flew to St. Louis to give the Gateway City a try.
It also wasn’t long before I began to miss the sense of duty that had drawn me into the military in the first place. Instead of returning to the Marines however, I put my G.I. Bill to good use by signing up at the local Police Academy to attend classes the following fall.
Missouri River Levee- July 1993
Like a giant constrictor slowly devouring its prey, the swollen river was pressing further up the highway. I peered out over the murky waters and watched as a massive tree and the roof of a large shed or shanty swirled and buckled in the turbulence. The mid-day sun was scorching me and the other hundred volunteers that were filling and stacking sandbags in an effort to reinforce the massive, earthen wall. ‘This is worse than digging foxholes in the desert,’ I thought. Then, for whatever reason, I recalled the incident back in San Diego, with the homeless man and his subtle remark about my returning to
Missouri. “Some friggin’ blessing!” I said to myself with the realization that my Parent’s home was in jeopardy of being swallowed up by the rising waters.
“You need to stay hydrated,” a concerned voice shouted from below. After wiping the sweat from my brow, I turned to observe the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life. A Red-Cross Volunteer; her long, blonde-hair twirled in the hot summer breeze and her bright, green eyes highlighted a flawless, lightly-tanned, complexion. She climbed up onto the levee and reached into her back-pack where she recovered a bottle of water. When she handed me the H2O and introduced herself, I thanked her for the hospitality and offered to buy her a more recreational drink later that evening. Amanda graciously declined my offer. In subtle disappointment, I watched as she moved on. My luck would change however, for throughout the following week her visits to the levee became more frequent. We began walking and talking into the evening hours while watching the floodwaters gradually subside. I learned that Amanda was as spunky as she was pretty and when our work was finally done, she agreed to have a drink with me. This sparked a wonderful romance in which we saw one another nearly everyday over the next year. By the following summer, upon the completion of my Police Academy Training; Amanda Rucker became my wife.
North St. Louis- December 1995
“Adam Units, assault with a knife just occurred at 8405 Alderaan Drive. Be advised, the suspect is still on the scene!” The squelch from the radio nearly ruptured my eardrums as I acknowledged the call. I quickly engaged the lights and siren of the Ford Police Interceptor and accelerated through the congested, early morning traffic. Three minutes later I arrived on scene. A tall, scrawny African-American woman was standing in front of the apartment building. She was screaming hysterically and her white nightgown was covered in blood. “That son-of-a-bitch tried to kill me! He nearly cut off my goddamned hand!” she screamed while clutching her bloodied forearm. “Please help me Officer,” she pleaded as I gathered a first aid kit from the trunk of my patrol car. When I reached her, I examined the bleeding wound on the palm of her hand and reassured her that an ambulance was on the way. I quickly wrapped some gauze tightly around her hand to slow the bleeding.
“Is the person that cut you still in the area?” I asked her. “Yes! He’s in apartment number four. His name is Jeffrey, and he’s a goddamned lunatic. He’s high on drugs and gots a big knife. He says he’s gonna kill someone today!” the victim cried. A moment later the Patrol Supervisor arrived. I filled the Corporal in on the situation and he agreed that we needed to take the suspect into custody as soon as possible. Unfortunately the rest of our squad was working a shooting on the opposite end of town therefore any further back-up was out of the question.
The paramedics finally arrived and the Victim was secured in the back of the ambulance. I drew my weapon and proceeded to the front door of the building with the Corporal in tow. I pushed through the big wooden doors and entered a stairwell that reeked of freshly smoked marijuana. With Corporal Reed covering my rear, we
cautiously made our way up onto the second floor landing. I found the apartment door with a big, red ‘4’ painted on it. I loudly announced our presence before rapping on the door several times. With no response, I grabbed the door knob and found that the door was unlocked. I slowly pushed it open. The sunlight filtering in from the big windows at the top of the stairwell brightened the darkened front room and with pistols at the ready, we stepped inside. The overturned furniture and scattered clothing revealed signs of a struggle. The far wall was blotted with bloodied hand prints and black scuff marks. We carefully maneuvered through the front room and into a narrow corridor when we were startled by a commotion from the back bedroom. While we took cover from behind the doorway, I ordered whoever was causing the ruckus to step out into the hallway. My demands were ignored.
We cautiously made our way down the hallway and to the bedroom. When I kicked open the door, I was startled by a sudden movement at the far end of the room. The glowing night-sights of my pistol came to rest, center-mass, on the shadowy figure of a man. He was standing on the opposite side of the bed. I could barely make out his face, but I could see into his cold, distant eyes. And though he wasn’t a big man, the large butcher knife that he clutched in his hands certainly made him a dangerous adversary. “Drop the knife and raise your hands above your head!” I demanded. The suspect appeared to ignore my order and continued to stare right through me. “Drop the damned knife!” Corporal Reed hollered. When it was apparent that we were going to either have to shoot or go hands-on, I tried one last thing. “Jeffrey, in about two seconds, a forty-caliber, jacketed hollow-point is going to rip through your sternum, penetrating your chest cavity and exploding your friggin’ heart. No bullshit. You’ll drop where you stand. Do you really want to die today?” Jeffrey then focused onto my gun and a moment later, the knife fell to the floor. The suspect surrendered.
Within the hour the suspect was in the interrogation room with Detective Donald Webber. Once advised of his rights, the suspect requested a cigarette. After taking several hits from the cancer stick, Jeffrey waived his rights and wished to tell his side of the story. “The voices told me to kill her. We was smokin’ some weed and crack together when the voices came back. They told me to cut her up, and kill her,” he paused to take another puff from the cigarette. Jeffrey then gazed into the dingy, white, ceiling above our heads. “She fought hard. That’s one lucky bitch…She should be dead because them voices usually make me strong.” Jeffrey was riding an emotional roller-coaster all afternoon. One moment he’d be relatively pleasant and then the next, he’d be cursing up a storm. Even though he denied any mental health issues, we figured him schizophrenic or bi-polar or something.
Later that day I transported Jeffrey to the City Jail where he’d be held pending warrant application. Shortly thereafter, the Prosecuting Attorney signed off on the freshly printed warrant that I was to serve the suspect with. When I entered the cell block, Jeffrey was clutching onto the cold steel bars of the door so tightly that his knuckles were turning white. Upon being informed of the hundred thousand dollar bond amount, a blank, cold stare came over Jeffrey. I recognized it from the apartment.
When I turned to leave, Jeffrey screamed, “We’re coming to get you motherfucker!
And then the bastard child that is soon to come!” This startled me because his voice was hauntingly different. It reminded me of something out of a damned horror flick. When I spun around to face Jeffrey, he was still clutching the steel door. His eyes were inflamed with rage and the mere sight of them brought a chill to my spine. “How did you know my wife was with child?” I demanded. A subtle grin came over his quivering face. “The voices told me you fool. They tell me everything- you fucking jarhead!” he declared in hostility. “Go to hell!” I replied before turning and making my way back to the cell block door. “We’ll see you and your infant son there, Officer Ames!” he shouted as I exited the cell block.
That night I tossed and turned and had trouble sleeping. I was still shaken by the comments made by the deranged man. How could he have known about the pregnancy, and that I was a former Marine? My wife could sense my restlessness and tried to pry me for information, but I didn’t give in. I finally convinced myself that Jeffrey overheard some of the other Officers talking about the pregnancy and all. And even though this conclusion didn’t add up, I decided to let it rest and eventually fell asleep.
It was around 5am when I was awakened by my wife’s screaming. I jumped up from bed and flipped on the light. Sheer panic and perspiration covered Amanda’s pretty face. She was fighting to calm her breathing. Shortly she recovered and began to relax. When I asked her what was wrong, she recalled a terrifying dream she’d just had. Amanda found herself lost and alone, inside the chilling darkness of a closet or small room. Claustrophobic and disorientated, she stumbled along a frigid, stone floor, desperately trying to find her way out. Then she was startled by a presence; a frightening presence, that was closing in on her. She screamed when a pair of glowing red eyes pierced through the darkness, focusing on her now trembling form. Moments later the snarling and growling of a vicious animal filled the room. She screamed again before a haunting voice called her by name. It warned her that the baby was doomed, and its flesh would be devoured by dogs. She turned and ran and could feel the gnashing of teeth and claws at her calves and thighs, before she tripped and fell hard to the floor. Amanda remembered wrapping her arms around her extended abdomen desperately trying to protect the unborn child from a vicious attack. She remembered screaming one last time and was freed from the terrifying dream. I took Amanda into my arms and reassured her that it was merely a nightmare. “Oh my god!” she cried when she pulled up her nightgown. There were several small lacerations on her left calf and thigh. “Those are claw marks!” Amanda frantically declared. I quickly reassured her that the scratches were self-inflicted; caused by the panic of awakening from the horrible dream. Once she relaxed, I went into the bathroom and recovered a bottle of witch-hazel and some bandages and dressed the little wounds.
Several days before my wife discovered that she was pregnant in the latter part of March ‘95, I mentioned to her that it would be nice to have a baby by Christmas. Before the pregnancy was confirmed, Amanda had become discouraged because we’d been trying for several months and it appeared childbearing was eluding us. Two days later,
the O.B. figured the baby’s due date was December 24th. An early ultra-sound confirmed the Doctor’s belief.
Amanda was never a smoker and seldom partook in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. During the pregnancy she avoided alcohol completely and concentrated on a healthy diet. While I jogged around the track, Amanda walked, often covering four miles.
In the fourth month of her pregnancy the ultra-sound revealed a healthy fetus. Deciding to be old-fashioned we refused to learn the gender of our child. Regular visits to the OBGYN and attending child birth preparation classes built our confidence. At 28 weeks and at the Doctor’s direction, my wife began to monitor the fetal movements. The fetus was very active and she would usually feel the ten required movements within the first half-hour of the required 2 hour time limit. That was however, until the evening of December 9th.
I had just arrived home from the afternoon shift to find Amanda in a serious state of concern. She informed me that she hadn’t felt the baby move all day. My wife was certain that something was wrong. I tried to convince her that she was just overreacting, but she wouldn’t accept it. As tears welled in her eyes, I called the Doctor.
Within an hour of our arrival at the hospital, Amanda was given an epidural and prepped for an emergency C-section. An ultra-sound revealed that the baby was under severe distress. Concerned about the baby’s deteriorating condition, the Obstetrician and a couple of Nurses rushed her into the operating room to perform the operation.
On December 10th at 12:42 am, my Son was born. Twelve hours later, he stopped breathing and was rushed to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in downtown St. Louis where he was stabilized. The baby was diagnosed with a rare and deadly blood disorder. While my wife was recovering from the surgery, our family Doctor arrived to check in on her condition. We questioned her about our Son’s prognosis and why the newborn’s condition deteriorated so quickly. She assured us that our Son was in the best possible care because Cardinal Glennon had some of the finest Pediatricians in the World. The only medical explanation was that the placenta had stopped developing during the latter stage of the pregnancy which created a great amount of stress for the fetus. When not receiving the oxygen it needed to survive, the baby’s body compensated by producing an overabundance of red blood cells. Once born, the blood was so thick with these red cells that it created a congested and sluggish circulatory system, which in turn, caused respiratory distress- nearly costing the baby his life.
Our Doctor shifted her focus onto Amanda, and then to me, “You are fortunate to have a wife with such wonderful instinct. Had you waited until morning to bring her in, your Son would have been still-born. At least now, with a partial transfusion, he has a chance…A real good chance!” We were somewhat comforted by Dr. Meyers words.
Unfortunately after the transfusion, our Son’s condition didn’t improve. On several occasions the NICU staff had to revive him. No one had any answers as to why he wasn’t getting better. The Resident Pediatricians and Nurses were puzzled. One afternoon, after
falling into a deep depression, I entered the NICU ward. An LPN led me past several clear, plastic bassinets and incubator type contraptions that housed sickly infants, like my own. The room was noisy with fussing babies, and the electronic chimes and blips of machines and monitors. I followed the Nurse to the far end of the ward where Mitchell Jr. was sleeping in an open bassinet. My heart sank into my gut when I observed the oxygen tube hooked up to his tiny nostrils. A half of dozen sensors were taped to his tiny chest and abdomen to monitor his vital signs.
“Would you like to hold him?” the Nurse asked. “Yes I would,” I quietly but anxiously replied. Tears welled in my eyes as this would be the first time I’d get to hold my child. She removed him from under a tiny blanket and gently placed him into my cradling arms. While I looked down upon his precious face, a tear rolled down over my cheek and landed on his tiny forehead. “Well look at that,” the Nurse jovially declared as the baby awoke and slowly opened his eyes. It was the first time I made eye contact with my beautiful Son, and the first time I smiled in nearly three days. I held the baby for several more minutes before the Nurse had to return him to the bassinet. When I reluctantly started to exit the ward, I peered back at the bassinet one last time. His eyes were still partially open, and focusing directly upon me. It was then when I realized how much I loved and adored this child. Though I barely knew him, it was something I hadn’t experienced since being a child myself. This is the same type of love (unconditional) that God extends to us; or so I’d been told. It was then, when I realized in my heart, what I needed to do.
I made my way down a long corridor that led past dozens of recovery rooms and to an elevator that I rode too the ground floor. I then proceeded down another hallway past the empty cafeteria before I found the sign marked ‘chapel’. I walked into the semi-darkened room that contained several wooden pews. A large golden cross, gleaming with candlelight, was mounted on the wall above and beyond the Layman’s podium. The beautiful ornament seemed to call out to me. Therefore I made my way down the center aisle until I was standing below the cross of gold. I recollected that it had been some time since I spoke to God in sincerity so I dropped to my knees and cupped my hands in front of my face. Tears filled my bloodshot eyes as I recited a half-recollected version of The Lord’s Prayer. I then begged God to save my son’s life. I asked that he allow my son to drink from the cup of life, and that his tainted blood be made pure and he be cleansed as we were cleansed, from the blood of his own Son.
As the prayer came to an end, I was startled by a presence from behind. “Believe, and all will be well. His grace is upon your child, because he knows what’s in your heart,” a soft, comforting voice declared. When I turned my head, expecting to see the Chaplain, I was shocked to find that no one was there. I quickly recovered my feet and proceeded up the aisle, to see if someone was hiding between the pews, but the chapel was empty. I then made a bee-line for the doorway where I poked my head out and looked down both sides of the long hospital corridor. There wasn’t a soul around.
Over the course of the next few weeks, my Son’s condition steadily improved. Three days after Christmas, the Doctor determined that he was healthy enough to go
home. It was the happiest day of my life. While my Wife filled out the discharge forms at the counter just outside the ward, I stood by in the waiting room with our sleeping infant cradled in my arms. When I peered out the big windows that sat several stories above the intersection of Grand Boulevard and Highway Forty, something unusual caught my eye. It was a man clad in a dingy tee-shirt and faded blue-jeans, standing near the overpass at the stoplight. He was holding up a big, cardboard sign. ‘That guy must be freezing’ I thought, as the temperature was only twelve degrees above zero. I couldn’t make out what the sign said until he directed his attention towards the hospital. It read ‘Homeless- Please Spare A Little Money’. Then the man tossed the sign onto the curb and peered up at me, through the window. A chill raced down my spine and goose bumps mustered on my arms when I recognized his face. It was the homeless man from San Diego. At that very moment the baby awoke, gagged, and spit up a little formula before peacefully falling back asleep. When I peered back out the window, the Beggar was gone…
Mitchell Jr. is now a happy and healthy teenager. Both intelligent and gifted, he suffers no ill affects from his infancy. And though the miracle of modern medicine saves thousands of prematurely born babies every year, I can’t help but believe that my family was blessed because of my tiny cash contribution all those years ago. I remind myself often that no matter how gifted or talented we are, or may presume ourselves to be; we are all beggars in the eyes of the Lord…
I have read the writings of many Scholars of my time whom take away from your words, your actions, even that of your miracles. It appears as though their gained wisdom, which brings them wealth here, is the destroyer of their faith. Know ye Lord, that your divine inspiration and beauty is instilled upon the hearts of a great multitude. For without you,we are nothing…