Private Sam Greene tried to slow his breathing while he hugged the side of his squad’s tan Humvee. He unstrapped his helmet and leaned his head back against the window, staring up into the pearly blue afternoon sky. Streams of beady sweat trickled down his dirt and sand covered face, sliding along his chin. He tightened his grip on his assault rifle and plopped his helmet back on.
“You alright, Private?” a voice called out from the other side of the Humvee.
A burly lieutenant, Mackey was his name, rounded the front of the vehicle, holding his rifle with both hands while his backpack bobbed back and forth with each step. “Greene, you okay?” he asked again while he adjusted his bowl-shaped helmet, sounding less formal.
Greene stared out into the swirling desert, sprawling forever in all directions. He wasn’t sure if the lieutenant could see him shaking, if he could tell he was scared shitless. His blood ran cold and he had that constant feeling like he was at the apex of a roller coaster, staring at a drop while the cart waits to soar its way down, anticipating the release.
You know shits gonna’ happen, it’s just a matter of when, he thought to himself.
“This your first time off base, Greene?” Mackey asked with a chuckle while he inspected his rifle. He slid it around his shoulder by its strap then unholstered his pistol, checking that out too.
“Yeah,” Greene said, a lump getting caught in his throat. “First time.”
“First time’s always the shit-kicker,” Mackey said, patting Greene’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Private. You’re in good hands,” he said with a grin through his sand crusted face.
Mackey lifted a tiny flap on his equipment belt and pulled out a piece of folded paper with his thumb and pointer finger. When it was out, he unfolded it and spread it across the hood of the Humvee.
“’Mere a sec’, Greene,” he said, waving Greene over.
Greene took in a deep breath, held it in for a minute, letting his muscles relax, then sighed. He bounced his rifle in his hand, testing the weight of his gun, like he’d forgotten how much it weighed. He walked over to Mackey and stopped right beside him, staring down at the paper, which was a map of the area, five-square miles worth of sand and rock.
Mackey circled an area near the upper right hand corner with his pointer finger.
“Couple a’ brownies were spotted here a few days ago,” Mackey said. “Haulin’ supplies and weapons, munitions; the good stuff, ya’ know. Radio chatter went dead around two-thirty this morning. Just like that,” he said, snapping his finger.
“So,” Greene said, his voice quivering. “What are we supposed to do?”
“Well, our boys seem pretty sure the sand storm that’s been building up there spooked ‘em away. We’re talkin’ hundred mile an hour winds.”
Greene squinted his eyes and cocked his mouth, confused.
“And they want us to go up there?” Greene asked, getting pissed.
“They just want us to see if they left anything behind. Supply requisitions are backlogged so far I doubt we’ll ever get toilet paper again,” Mackey said, slapping Greene’s chest to get him riled up. “I’ve done a dozen of these bag and tag ops. Trust me, if there’s a safe time to go sneekin’ around, it’s during a fuckin’ sandstorm.”
“You said they were gone! Why would we need to be sneaking?” Greene shouted, leaning over the hood and shaking his head, his brain trying to talk him out of this.
“Relax, Private,” Mackey said, picking up the map. “Our boys said they are, so they are!”
Greene stood up and stared at Mackey for a second, wanting to believe him, wanting to believe they were fed the right information.
Mackey reached out and grabbed Greene by his shoulders, looking to his eyes.
“You’ll be okay. I promise, I won’t let anything happen to you,” Mackey said, searching Greene’s eyes for a shred of trust.
Greene nodded his head, agreeing, and quickly looked away in disbelief of what he was about to do.
Mackey tapped Greene’s shoulder a few times for reassurance then pulled a compass out of another pouch. He got his bearings, studying the compass then shielded his eyes from the sun while he spun around, comparing the surrounding desert and rock formations to the map in his hand, flapping in the hot humid wind.
“The terrain is too rocky to drive, so,” he said, continuing to study, “we’ll have to walk.”
Greene stared at the mix of rock and sand beneath his boots, listened to it crunch as he stepped in place, waiting. His mind was at home, in Ashland, Louisiana, standing at the creek behind his parent’s one-story house with the corny lawn decorations, watching the ducks bob their heads below water while bugs and birds chirped.
“Okay,” Mackey said after a moment.
Greene’s head was pulled back, halfway around the world, back into the Iraqi Desert, back where the fear was real and the sun seemed to beam down on you twenty-four seven. He felt sweat slipping down his neck, down his shirt, and into his underwear. His undershirt clung to his pits and his back. He wiped his forehead then faced Mackey.
“It’s this way,” Mackey said, starting to walk down the hill beside the Humvee.
Greene watched Mackey side-step his way down the hill then began to follow, reluctantly, with his rifle in hand. Rocks rustled at his feet as he planned his steps, balancing himself while he walked behind.
After twenty minutes, Mackey reached the bottom, first, then Greene. Mackey popped out the compass again then headed off toward an enormous bluff rising from the sand, stretching hundreds of feet into the air.
Greene wiped a gritty film of sweat from his brow with his sleeve and followed closely behind.
The wind picked up, brushing waves of sand over the rocks and into the air in misty swirls. It whooshed by Greene’s face, pricking his cheeks.
Green pictured himself again, standing in front of the creek. As he walked behind Mackey, he imagined fishing for catfish, his Iron Man tackle box by his feet, filled with live bait. But there was something else there with him this time, something out of focus. A person? It gestured to him, with furry claws, and he could see it was smiling, and was it waving?
“What’s Ashland?” Mackey asked, trying to be heard over the growing winds.
“What’s that?” Greene hollared, pulled from his day dreaming.
“Ashland,” Mackey repeated. “You just said it.”
“I did?” Greene said, staring at Mackey, confused, as they walked. He wondered what else might have slipped. The fact he was about as scared as a lost kid in a department store, looking for his mommy.
“What is it?” Mackey asked, pulling out his compass and verifying their direction.
“Ashland, Louisiana,” Greene said, watching the mosquitoes dance just above the surface of the creek in his mind. A gust of sand blew into his mouth, drying his tongue and his throat. He coughed then spit up the sand. “It’s where I’m from,” he said, spitting up another wad.
Mackey reached the foot of the bluff and turned to face Greene who caught up a second later. He motioned his head up the bluff.
“We’re headin’ up there,” he turned and followed the rocky embankments up with his eyes. “The slope ain’t that bad.” He shielded his eyes from the sun then took a step back and looked to Greene at his side. “Think you’ll be okay?”
Greene took a deep breath as he sized up the sand-covered, stony bluff. He strapped his assault rifle around his shoulder.
“You first,” Greene said, looking worried.
Mackey smiled, nervous, then walked up the slight incline to the first set of rocks jutting from the waves of sand. He lifted his foot atop a tiny outcrop and reached for a rocky ledge above his head. He lifted his body with a grunt, got his footing, then looked over his shoulder, down at Greene.
“You comin’, or you gonna’ wait for the brownies to give ya’ a lift?” he laughed.
Greene took another deep breath and let it out in a rough sigh. He shook his head to himself as he followed Mackey up the bluff. Sweat trickled into his eyes and burned as he climbed. The grainy sand blew into his nose and mouth and smelled of dirt and age.
“You got a wife back in Ashland, Louisiana?” Mackey shouted from above while he tested his footing on a rocky hump.
Dirt and small rocks fell from underneath Mackey’s boot.
Greene looked away until the debris had passed, then reached up and grabbed an apple-sized rock. He gave it a good tug and it held tight.
“I got an ex-wife,” Greene said with a strain while he pulled his body up higher and stabilized his footing.
Mackey chuckled while he looked for a rock above to grab hold on.
“How old are you?” Mackey asked, shuffling a couple inches to his right. His boot ground more sand down onto Greene. “Sorry.”
This bit caught Greene in the eye. He looked down, blinking rapidly, and shook out what he could before the tears came. He blinked away the tears in his eyes, now dirt-free again, then put his foot up onto a rocky ledge.
“Twenty-two!” Greene shouted.
“Iddn’t that a little young to be divorced?” Mackey hollered.
Greene stiffened his jaw. Anger welled in his gut, thinking about the separation, the god-awful divorce.
“Not if she’s got a drug habit she can’t kick, and especially not when she runs off with five-thousand bucks that belongs to you,” Greene said, clearly still pissed about it. “It’s actually why I’m here. Army or the sidewalk.”
“You made the right choice!” Mackey laughed.
Greene shook his head.
“I’m not so sure,” he said. “What about you?”
“Chicago!” Mackey grunted, pulling himself up onto another set of rocks. He stopped to catch his breath. “Good ‘ole Chicago,” he said to himself.
“Wife? Girlfriend?” Greene asked, looking over his shoulder at the ground now far below. His heart skipped a beat. Damn, that’s a long way down. The wind built, gushing faster over the top of the bluff, filling the air with sand before dying back down.
Mackey leaned back, trying to see the top of the bluff now that the wind had subsided. He laughed.
“My partner, Mike,” he said with a grin, picturing him on the balcony of their third-floor apartment.
“Huh?” Greene said, confused.
“I’m gay, dude,” Mackey said, looking down at Greene. This wasn’t the first time he’d surprised anybody.
“Oh,” Greene said, completely caught off guard. His eyes widened. “You make sure to tell them I didn’t ask that!”
“Don’t worry, Private, that was repealed!” Mackey said, trying to reassure Greene’s discomfort.
“That’s cool,” Greene said, unsure of what else to say. His voice sounded uneasy.
“Greene?” Mackey asked, getting Greene’s attention.
“I mean, I’ve just never met a,” Greene said, interrupted.
“It’s alright, dude. You can relax,” Mackey said with a smile. “No worries.”
Mackey pulled himself up onto the summit of the bluff then lay down over the edge, reaching down to help Greene up the rest of the way.
Greene grabbed hold of Mackey’s arm and felt him yank, lifting him up onto the ledge. He crawled to his feet while Mackey stood and looked out over the desert. Greene brushed the sand from his pants then followed Mackey’s stare. Oh shit!!
About a mile away, a wall of sand pushed its way forward, pluming toward the bluff, brushing up and along the canyon that stretched before them.
“Their camp is right there,” Mackey said, pointing into the sand storm, near the end of the canyon rock walls. “Just at the base. It’s not much further.”
Greene stared at the whirling wall of sand, anxious and worried. Mackey didn’t show a shred of fear, a bit of unease. Why?
“It’s better not to think about it,” Mackey said, as though he could hear Greene’s thoughts. “We just…do what we have to.”
Mackey looked over the edge of bluff, the side they’d have to climb down.
“We’ll rest for a few, then head down. Shouldn’t be as bad,” he said, looking back at Greene who took a swig out of his canteen.
So, they rested a bit, talking about school, their homes. Greene talked about his parents and of the creek behind his house, how the fishing was great during the summers. Mackey talked about what it was like coming out to his family, how he’d met his partner, how he hoped they could marry legally one day.
When Mackey called time, they gathered their gear together then began climbing down the bluff, Mackey first.
After about an hour, Greene actually reached the desert floor before Mackey. He watched Mackey climb down while he thought to himself about how gay people weren’t as bad as his dad had told him.
Mackey dropped from the bluff and ran down the slope of sand, slowing to a stop beside Greene.
“Told ya’ it wouldn’t be that bad,” Mackey said, slapping Greene’s shoulder.
“Yeah,” Greene said, following Mackey as he headed onward through the rocky canyon.
“It’s just a straight shot now,” Mackey said, heading toward the sandstorm looming in the distance.
The wind had begun to pick up again, but this time it didn’t stop.
It kicked up dirt, tiny rocks, and waves upon waves of sand. It whirled around them like a never-ending smoke and only got worse the closer they got.
Greene had begun to walk with his eyes shielded by his hand, leaning into the wind. Mackey pulled down a pair of goggles over his eyes.
“Where’s your goggles, Private?” Mackey shouted over the wind.
“I left them in the truck,” Greene yelled back.
Mackey watched the sandstorm, stared at it through his goggles as they walked. For a second, just a second, he thought he saw something, a familiar something, flicker in the swirling sands.
He walked quietly with his thoughts and pulled his rifle from off its shoulder strap to make himself feel better, safer.
“Did you see that?” Mackey asked on a whim.
Greene moved his head from side to side, trying to hear Mackey over the wind.
“I can’t see shit, man!” he yelled, still shielding his eyes from the sand.
The sky and their surroundings began to disappear around them as the sand began to envelop them, creating a vale of golden dust.
The wind pushed against them as they trudged forward, fighting for every step. Green could only smell the musty sand, could only hear the whooshing and thrashing of the wind. The sand whipped against his cheeks, stinging any exposed skin.
It became harder and harder to walk against the wind and Greene found himself being pushed back a few steps every couple of minutes. He caught glimpses, through the blinding sand, of Mackey having the same trouble.
The wind took Greene’s helmet off his head, whirling it out of sight in seconds.
“Fuck!” Greene shouted, patting his head, feeling for the helmet that wasn’t there.
He turned around to see if he could spot it and the wind shoved him, forcing him with it. He spun around again, giving up on the helmet. Mackey was a ways ahead of him now.
“Mackey!” Greene shouted, trying to get his attention. The wind stole any sound, making it impossible for him to be heard.
Mackey disappeared ahead, swallowed by the sand, and Greene had never felt more alone. He pushed himself harder, fought against the wind. His legs were on fire, his muscles strained to the point of exhaustion. His shoulders burned and ached from carrying the weight of his pack.
He gritted his teeth, struggling to pick up his pace. The veins in his neck bulged while he screamed inside his head, GO!
We’ve gotta’ be close to their camp, he thought to himself, worried, alone.
“Mackey!” Greene shouted again. This time he screamed loud enough it burned his throat. “Mack-“ he said, cut off by the sand blowing into his mouth. He stopped and hunched over, coughing up sand. The wind whipped around him while he fell to his knees, coughing up more and more sand.
He covered his eyes with one hand and his mouth with the other. He peeked through the spaces between his fingers, looking for Mackey. All he could see was the swirling sand before it started to get into his eyes.
Greene leapt to his feet and ran as hard as he could. His legs screamed, burning and growing stiff. His pack bounced against his back as he ran, fighting against the wind, his fatigued body.
He had been running for a minute before he realized the wind and sand had stopped. He uncovered his eyes and saw a stone hut in front of him, fifty or so yards ahead. Almost right beside him, the canyon wall stretched up into a haze of clouds and whirling sand. But, where is Mackey?
Parked in front of the stone hut was a rusty pickup with a mounted machine gun in the bed. A fresh belt of bullets had been loaded. Greene could see a pile of spent shells covering the floor of the truck bed and the ground beneath the truck. The gun was titled back, aiming into the sky. They were shooting from that spot. What were they shooting at?
Greene pulled his rifle off his shoulder and readied it in his hands. He looked down the scope as he crept forward, listening to the quiet sandstorm swirling and surrounding the camp, as though he was in the eye of the storm itself.
He saw movement in the hut through the square, empty window. Mackey poked his head up, eyes wide with terror.
“Run!” Mackey shouted, standing up and waving Greene over to the hut. “Run, run, run!”
Greene looked around. His blood ran cold and he began to run even harder than he’d run in the storm. He closed his eyes, concentrated on his legs. He slammed into the wooden door of the hut and Mackey leaned into it, closing it tight.
Greene collapsed against the wall and slid down, leaning against it, onto his butt, panting and trying to catch his breath.
“What the hell, Mackey!” Greene said between labored breaths.
“Shutup!” Mackey said, hushing Greene. He looked out the window, into the sky, rifle in hand. “There’s something out there,” he whispered.
“What are you talking about?” Greene asked.
“Shutup, God-damnit!” Mackey whispered violently. He followed something in the sky with his eyes, watching it overhead. Greene watched him cower away from the window, back into a corner, and begin to pray with his eyes shut tight.
A rotten, summery roadkill smell wafted into Greene’s nose and made his eyes water.
Greene looked around the tiny stone hut while his breathing found a good, calm rhythm. It was dark and the air was heavy, filled with dust and that god-awful smell.
His heart skipped a beat when he saw the dried puddle of blood in the corner. He pushed himself back up along the wall to his feet and backed into the corner when he saw the other thing.
A hand, severed, the source of the dried blood and the foul stench of decomposed flesh, sat in the corner, its fingers gnarled and contorted. Flies buzzed around it, crawling over the torn flesh and stringy pieces of meat around the wrist. Next to it, an overturned wooden table with a broken lantern beneath it was surrounded by shards of glass.
“Mackey!” Greene screamed, pointing at the hand in the corner. He hugged the wall, sliding until he ran into Mackey and pulled at his shoulder.
Mackey shoved Greene away and continued to pray.
Greene fell back into the wall of the hut and caught himself before he fell then stared Mackey, pissed. His anger left the moment he saw Mackey’s eyes.
Mackey stared at the ceiling, his eyes glossed over, tears flowing down his cheeks. His mouth ran a mile a minute, mumbling to himself while he clutched his gun tight. His face was drenched with sweat and his undershirt was soaked through.
Greene inched closer, trying to hear what Mackey was mumbling. As he approached, he looked at the hand in the corner through his peripheral vision. He leaned in close to Mackey, staring at his lips.
“It’s not real…it’s not real…it’s not real…it’s not real…” he said, over and over again. “It was just a toy,” he said to himself. “It wasn’t alive…it wasn’t alive…”
In a flash, Mackey stopped and perked up, as if someone had called his name. He looked around the hut, looked beyond Greene like he was the only one in the hut, like he was alone.
“Mackey, what the hell is going on with you?” Greene whispered, raising his hands to ensure Mackey that everything was okay. “You’re okay. Everything is okay!”
Finally, Mackey’s eyes rested on Greene. He nodded his head ‘no’ then licked his dried lips, backing away from Greene.
A thud slammed down onto the roof, shaking the hut, raining dust down onto both Mackey and Greene.
They both looked up as more thuds shook, going from one end of the roof to the other.
“What is that?” Greene whispered, ducking low.
The thuds stopped above the doorway.
“Those are footsteps,” Mackey said, frozen in place. He was shaking, uncontrollably, skin pale and cold.
The wooden door blew inward, shattering into pieces and splinters. The force behind it flung Greene against the wall and crashing to the cold stone floor. His eyes blurred for moment and in the daze he saw something reach down through the doorway and yank Mackey out while he screamed. It was gut-wrenching and guttural, the scream.
Greene launched himself to his feet, his vision still blurry. Mackey’s scream travelled up, fading as it flew into the sky, up into the swirling sandstorm above the camp.
Greene stood just outside of the hut, staring up into the storm, looking for Mackey, no longer hearing his scream.
“Mackey!” he shouted into the sky. “Mackey!” he shouted again.
He waited, watching the shifting sands overhead.
Then he saw it, for just a brief second. At first, he wasn’t even entirely sure he’d seen anything at all. He almost laughed, in fact. He thought he’d just seen…no…it couldn’t have been. It’s not possible.
Back home, in Ashland, when Greene was just ten and walking home alone from tee ball one afternoon, tossing the ball up into the air and catching it. He caught it, tossed it, caught it again, and tossed it, all the way up the schoolyard. He crossed the street and continued, passing Cliff’s Theater a few blocks ahead. Outside, an usher hung a movie poster and in between tosses, Greene saw the poster. Werewolves From Space II. He saw the furry werewolf wearing a space suit, and it scared him down to the bone. He had nightmares for months after seeing that poster of the werewolf with a jetpack, descending down onto some helpless couple making out in a 50’s style Cadillac.
He thought he’d just seen that werewolf, wearing the space suit, carrying Mackey’s dead body. But there was more, something…something behind the werewolf, wearing its skin…and just when he was sure what he’d seen, it changed into something else. He didn’t stick around to see what.
A chuckle broke from within the sandy mist over Greene. It was vicious, deep, and powerful, and there was something else about it too. Later, when he’d get state-side, still unable to talk about what had happened, he’d been able to put his finger on it. There was hunger in that laugh, an old, never-ending hunger.
Greene retracted into the hut while a tear slipped down his cheek, a tear of sheer awe while the thing’s laughter rattled his bones. He wondered what Mackey had seen it as, before it took him, before it killed him. A toy?
He backed into the stony wall, hard. His head bounced off the cold rock, but he wasn’t phased. He wasn’t in the here and now. He was elsewhere. He was back in Ashland, fishing on the creek.
He sat in the corner of the hut, hugging himself. Images of the werewolf flashed in his head and a voice pierced his mind.
...you’re next, Greene-boy, a throaty voice said, whispering into Greene’s head. It laughed again and Greene covered his ears to make it stop. Remember the nightmares?
After a few hours, the storm waned and the sands settled. The sun set and Green stayed, huddled in the corner of the hut. He wished someone would come, he didn’t want to be alone anymore.----------------------------
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