An American Dream
Michael Allan Scott
This short story contains potentially disturbing content.
If the violence of war upsets you, please don’t read it.
Behind the wind’s sigh I hear her calling, faint but clear through the chilled night air. I scramble out of the ditch at a glimpse of headlights piercing the dark highway. Dusting myself off, I squirm to the edge of the road. I plaster a harmless smile on my face as I stick out my thumb, hoping this will be the one. I’m comin’, baby.
Blinding high-beams, engine’s roar, acrid stench of exhaust, turbulence whipping my clothes as a big truck fails to slow, missing me by inches. Taillights dim as hard rubber and grimy steel rumbles down the road. I stand alone in the dark.
Looking back at the ditch, I wonder, how long? That truck is the only vehicle tonight, and maybe last night and the night before. Dark and dirty, hard as nails, that damn ditch. Can’t take it, but what else? Can’t walk, it’s too far. Can’t think. Don’t know anymore. I slide down the dusty shoulder into the ditch.
She thumbs the remote as her eyes well. The TV goes dark and quiet. Staring at the black screen, the silent room closes in. Tears flow down puffy cheeks. She knew it was coming. She tried her best, but he’s gone—the man she loves. Why? It’s so unfair.
She tries to tell herself it’s for the best, but can’t stop sobbing. To leave like that…he’d just come home. She knew it couldn’t be like before, nothing’s ever perfect. Tough, but they could’ve made it work, she’s sure—maybe not.
Curled on the hardpan, powdery dust coats my hair, my skin, ground deep into my pores. I stare at the night sky, sparkling stars suspended in a velvet mantle. How they creep across the universe in a swirling stream of time, night after night. How many nights? Not sure how I got here. Makes my head hurt to think about it, making more stars, bright little pinpoints of pain. All I know is I’ve got to get back to her.
She’s sleeping, covers half off, splayed diagonally across the bed in her bra and panties, something clutched in her arms. I hear her breathe, smell her sweet scent. I touch her shoulder and she stirs. Auburn locks fall across her face as she rolls. I sit next to the bed watching, wishing, careful not to wake her. Like all those other nights, I’ll wait until just before she wakes. It’s all I can do.
I feel her as a dust devil twists through a barbed wire fence to torment the dusky sage. Remembering the moment I first saw her. Didn’t know she’d be the one. Hard to believe how much I need her. If she only knew… I’m tryin’, baby.
Half empty wine bottle on the nightstand. She sleeps fitfully, half dressed, tangled in the covers, hugging the photo album tightly to her chest. Another night alone. Another night without him.
In her dream, he’s there, they’re together, the way it used to be, the way she always knew it could be. They’re so in love, the future stretching out before them like a yellow brick road.
Waking rough, she rubs her throbbing head. Too much reality, not enough wine to face another empty day. How could he do this? He didn’t have to go.
Seeing stars once more, I rub my eyes, unsure if they’re open or closed. My stupid brain likes to play tricks. Did I sleep through the day, or just another long night? All too familiar, yet not. If home is where the heart is, where am I? Been asking that question a lot, yet it should be obvious by now. As the wind moans, I sit up and look around, just to be sure. Here I am, in a ditch at the side of the road, a highway that leads to…where? What am I doing here? She must be wondering. Does she miss me? If I could get back…
Crawling by, time spins webs of deceit. Out here there are no clockworks by which to gage the swirling stars, no morning kiss, no sweet smile to brighten my day, only infinite blackness plagued with throbbing stars. Time is mindless, empty, stretching out in all directions, going on forever, vanishing into the darkness from whence it came. I’ve lost track.
Easing into the windswept street, she braces herself for the long drive. She’s been dreading this for some time, knowing she’d have to, eventually. She finally had to pick a date and stick to it, forcing herself to say goodbye. Sad when your best moments are long past—memories of a life that had just begun.
Tattered yellow leaves twist in the wind as she accelerates up the interstate’s on-ramp. Glancing at the cardboard box in the passenger seat, she wonders, Did I bring everything? She runs through the list as she stares through the car ahead: the picture, his medal, the cross. Yes, but it doesn’t really matter.
In the center lane, she settles into the flow as the city slips by on either side. Thoughts stream with the landscape, a slideshow blurring a dismal present with a painfully tender past. It all started when he joined the service, knowing full well he’d be shipped off to Iraq. He’d told her it was about serving his country, about duty and honor, but she’d seen the gleam in his eyes. She couldn’t believe it then, even harder to believe now. An adventurous spirit, he’d wanted to test his mettle, secretly hungering for the thrill.
She knew deep down it was a mistake, but he wouldn’t listen. All she could do was wait.
Staring out into the hollow night, I think of her. Can’t think of anything else. I should be with her. I should be home. How could I ever leave her?
When we first met, I was too busy trying to impress her. It took time to realize there was something about her. A glance, a touch, tender moments collect into a pulse, a thread—that instant when it all comes clear. Two hearts soaring as one. I thought it would always be that way. What a fool.
Have I missed another day? No headlights on the empty highway. Stranded. No way to get back. How could I be so stupid? Darkness films over as my vision blurs with tears. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. I’m sorry, baby.
Straining to keep the memories at bay, she shakes her head as tears cloud her sight. She wipes her eyes with the heel of her hand, slowing, trying to focus on traffic. She hears the lieutenant’s voice clearly, as though she had the phone to her ear, his matter-of-fact tone, as though he was reporting a supply shortage, or a change in the weather. He had news…bad news.
What had the lieutenant called it? An IED, improvised explosive device, a roadside bomb. He had droned on about how her soldier had been brave, a true hero, and would be decorated by the military for extraordinary service to his country. They’d classified him as VSI, very seriously injured, but he was alive. Thank God! He was in surgery. And soon as he was stable, he’d be shipped home.
It took weeks. Then months in the VA hospital, stateside. She was hopeful, but when she saw him she knew he’d never be the same. Both legs amputated above the knees. One of the doctors tried to explain the extent of his injuries, something about PTSD. Had she really been listening? All she could think about was when she could take him home.
Every now and then I sense she’s coming for me. A pair of headlights will appear and it will be her. I strain to see, piercing the darkness until my eyes hurt, until I can’t take it and pass out. Is my stupid brain playing tricks on me?
So tired, but I’ve got to hold on. She’ll be here, I know it, but I can’t hear her calling me anymore, and I’m getting worried. What if I can’t find my way home?
Stars and more stars, flickering points of light, scattered across the night sky, straining against empty blackness. Gusting wind howls across the plain. Wind and darkness, they’re the only constants. Where’s the Sun? Been here too long. However long that is. Can’t tell anymore. Not sure I ever could. Must be losing it. I miss you, baby.
Late afternoon. The sun’s glare makes her squint. She reaches for the visor as the interstate sweeps down through the hills. Per the navigation system, the exit is coming up. Her heart pushes up in her throat. It won’t be long now.
Easing into the right lane, she slows, consumed with him. That look on his face still haunts her, twisted in anguish. Breaks her heart. How could I know?
She crests a low ridge, memories flying like daggers. Empty highway stretches across the barren plain, a cracked asphalt gash. She tried to get past the amputations, figuring it would take time for him too. He was still her husband and she wanted to be his wife, but he wouldn’t let her near him. She’d made the mistake of bringing it up in counselling. He’d never told her the roadside bomb had emasculated him. The dream for children shattered.
Looking for the mile marker, her fingers tremble. They’d made a horrible mistake. The counselling and the meds didn’t help. He deteriorated a little more every day, more sullen, more withdrawn. Is this how we care for our heroes?
She spots the marker and slows, pulling off the highway. A dirt shoulder, graded smooth. A shallow ditch this side of a barbed wire fence. You’d never know to look at it. As she slips the car into park, she breaks down.
Shimmering stars, swirling sky, it’s all different somehow, changed…the air, the light. Thick, wavering as if under water, translucent rays ripple in the ditch.
Inching toward the light, I focus, trying to hold it still. I reach into the shifting light, one hand, then the other. Thrusting forward, I push my face through the shining membrane into…twilight, the last glimmer of a setting sun. The sky shifts to golden rose, scraps of purpled clouds floating overhead.
The small white cross sticks out of the ditch, listing to one side. Taped to its arm, a photograph flaps in the wind. A thick ribbon with a heart-shaped medallion dangles from the other arm. A shiver runs up my spine. She’s been here… Where are you, baby?
I pull the photo loose from the cross to gaze at a vaguely familiar face—the gung ho soldier boy on his way to war. If I could grab him, shake some sense into him, tell him it’s all propaganda. Their agenda, pump you full of duty, honor, glory. Soldiers, shoved into a meat grinder by imperialists, fanatics, the power hungry in a bloody grab for domination—murder legitimized. The horrors of war, long stretches of boredom interrupted by terror, killing to survive. The duty to my brothers in arms, laying down our lives for each other, the only reason left. The only thing worse than death, surviving. So gullible, so stupid… Will it ever end?
The lonesome highway blurs as she moans, her eyes welling. She knew the moment she heard, it was no accident. At first she couldn’t stand the thought of him throwing his life away, ruining what was left of their life together, but once she took a hard look, she couldn’t blame him. Wiping away the tears, she steels herself for her new life…without him. Sorry my love.
I loosen my grip, letting the wind steal the picture, watching as it flutters away. Glancing back, I cringe at the Purple Heart, a badge of military merit, small consolation for a ruined life. Hypocrites. They’ll have to have their wars without me.
A roadside cross, what an odd ritual? Had I died on the battlefield instead of this ditch, would I have been a true hero? It was all a mistake. I’ve lost her. She’s gone. There’s nothing left. Sorry, baby.
I sink back into darkness, letting stars infiltrate the dusky sky as it fades to night. Here, there is no past, no future, only now. Now is such a lonely place. At least before, I could see her, hear her, smell her, feel her touch every now and then. If only I could be near her. What have I done?
How many months has it been? Still, she catches herself staring at the door, knowing he’ll never again walk through. Sometimes it’s as though he just left for Iraq. She’s weary of widowhood, tired of trying to tear herself from their dream of a life together. She can’t go on like this, wasting away.
She takes refuge in sleep, avoiding the quiet rooms of their empty house, the military death stipend not quite enough to keep the wolf from the door.
He knows what he must do. He goes to her in that magical state between sleep and wakefulness before first light, whispering words of reassurance and release. We’ll be together again, someday.
A wife of one of his Army buddies suggested it. At first, it was just a way to force herself out of the house, something to break the wicked spell of endless mourning. Volunteering to help disabled veterans was the least she could do, a modest way to honor his memory.
Seeing all those boys and girls, their bodies ruined, fans the smoldering embers of her loss into a bonfire of outrage. Atrocities of war. She doesn’t have all the answers, but the military machine’s senseless sacrifice of the country’s young men and women has to end. If she can prevent just one heartbreak, save just one life, it will be worth it. I love you, baby.
Copyright © by Michael Allan Scott, 2015
I first read Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun in the late 1960’s. It was a time of conscription—the draft—and all American males 18 years and older were fresh flesh for the U.S. military’s meat grinder. I knew my turn was coming. I also knew I didn’t want to kill anyone over U.S. imperialistic policies thinly disguised as political ideology. Fortunately, my assigned draft lottery number was never called.
Country Joe and the Fish’s little ditty, “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” rag comes to mind:
“And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam”
Regardless, this was long before I became aware of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee blacklist and Trumbo’s place on it as one of the Hollywood Ten. I’ve always instinctively shunned the practice of Communism as it: 1. Appears to be exceedingly oppressive to human rights and the human spirit; and 2. Fails miserably as a social order. Communism aside, I was and am most certainly anti-war.
Trumbo’s novel taught me a profound lesson, the power of ideas presented through fiction—ideas precede words, words precede action. This lesson hit home like a Bouncing Betty exploding just below my waist. After reading Johnny Got His Gun, I enthusiastically recommended it to my mother. The next day she came to me, horrified. I’d never seen her so upset. She told me she had to stop reading, that the book reminded her of World War II and the nightmares that haunted her throughout those years. I was devastated, I had no idea, and I certainly never meant to upset her. I thereafter adopted a firm policy when it comes to my own work, to always warn potential readers of content they may find disturbing and/or offensive.
Born in 1950, I’ve watched as the U.S. has and continues to engage in covert and overt military actions around the globe, resulting in the violent death and injury to nearly a half million of our young people. As far as the rationale for our warlike behavior, you’ll have to decide for yourselves. Personally, I find it highly questionable and simply outrageous. Killing for democracy is a concept I can’t quite get my wits around.
Some may classify this short story as paranormal. Some may call it horror. My only intent is to lay bare a reality that is all too prevalent in the U.S.
Your input is always appreciated.
My mystery books Dark Side of Sunset Pointe, Flight of the Tarantula Hawk, and Grey Daze are available on Amazon. Cut-Throat Syndrome, the newest Lance Underphal Mystery is in progress and will be released later this year.
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I was 16 when I read Johnny Got His Gun and it made a huge impact on me. My uncle was in the Air Force and in Vietnam serving as a nurse. I still remember that song and have my P.O.W. bracelet honoring a man who still hasn’t come home. I don’t think we’ll ever learn that war only brings about pain, death, and more war. It doesn’t solve problems.
Thanks, Michelle. I had hoped we would learn our lesson from Vietnam, but no. Unfortunately, it only takes a few in positions of power to wage war. Unless/until we, as citizens, refuse to go along with the warmongers, we will continue to suffer the consequences.