They’d just returned from another cleanup mission, an IED, the explosion tossing a 7-ton Humvee off a convoy bridge. Tossed it, Maria Ramirez thought, as if it were nothing but a toy.
The wreckage was bad — twisted metal, chewed-up rubber, glass shards scattered in all directions, a splattered, mind-numbing portrait. The smell of scorched plastic and diesel was worse. And then the unmistakable odor of seared flesh.
Ramirez and Butler, both Marines, quickly suited up. They stepped into white plastic gear, the sort Hazmat workers wear. They adjusted their facemasks and pulled on black rubber gloves then waddled onto the site. Surveying the wreckage briefly, they did their jobs in silence. Retrieving the dead, they identified what they could, often scooping partial remains into body bags, sometimes no more than fleshy chunks. The work was neither pleasant nor heroic. Necessary, Ramirez knew. She tried not to think about the deceased, who the soldiers once were, what their lives may have meant. They were fallen comrades. They had done their duty as she was doing hers. That was the job. That was enough.
On this occasion, she recovered a class ring in the smoldering debris. Sooty and mangled, the ring’s red stone was crushed, but the year inscribed along the lip was still legible: 1998. Crouched down, she turned the ring over in her gloved hand. Her baby brother Robert, the youngest of four, had graduated high school that year, then gone to college, thank God, and settled into life. But this life, this soldier…
Butler tapped her shoulder. “Tag and bag it. Let’s wind this down and get the hell out of here.”
Once finished, she and Butler trucked back to base with a second convoy. Stripped of protective gear now, Maria smoothed back her hair, tendrils sweaty against her cheek. It was then she noticed the red-brown smudges around her wrists, bracelets of memory, seepage that had somehow worked its way inside her gloves. She jostled Butler with her knee then thrust her hands out as if begging to be cuffed.
Butler smiled, wearily. “Showers are a-coming, darlin’. Though the smell never washes off. Ever notice?”
She barely had time to nod when the truck lurched to a stop. The gunner on the vehicle ahead motioned with two fingers, Wild West style — keep your eyes open. Traffic jams were bad. Baghdad traffic jams could be deadly.
She swung her head to the right. That’s when she saw it — a four-foot drawing of Martin Luther King displayed in the most unlikely place, the sidewall of an Iraqi market. There was no mistaking the image, the brown face, soulful eyes and a banner reading: I Have A Dream.
“Yeah,” muttered Maria. “I have a dream… to finish this deployment.”
She squinted, put her hand up to block the sun, trying to make out the details — a clock set a few minutes after twelve o’clock, a broken padlock with U.S. scrawled across the front, and flowers, big red, floppy petals, the kind you’d see at a prom.
Her eyes welled up. Her mouth quivered and a stinging knot rose in her throat. Cursing the blinding sun, she looked away.
All she wanted was a shower. All she wanted was a God damn shower.
Margaret A. Frey writes from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in a variety of print and online journals including Notre Dame Magazine, Cezanne’s Carrot, Kaleidoscope and Camroc Press Review. Forthcoming work will appear in Thunder Sandwich and Flash Fiction Online. During the summer, you’re likely to find Margaret in the garden, coaxing the flowerbeds to bloom. She lives with her husband and the ghost of her canine literary critic Ruffian who, paws down, preferred walking to writing.