New Baghdad, Holy Republic of Persia
The bullets were coming from everywhere. From rooftops. From around corners. From down streets. They left holes in walls. Holes in roads. Holes in the few cars.
PFC Dwayne Rogers’s pals were all gone. Smithers had got it quick, shot in the head. Gilkerson had taken two in the chest. Even Sergeant Watts was gone, a grenade having blown up in his face.
Everyone was dead. Everyone but Rogers. And he was hunkered down behind a rusted, dented, shot-up truck that rested on flat tires. He tried to return fire when he could. But that wasn’t often. The bullets were coming from everywhere.
Her hair was what Dwayne remembered best. How the sun spread like entwined gold across her hair. Usually she wore it long, down her back. That was how he liked it best. So that was how she wore it.
They had met in a café mere months before his basic training. They were in line waiting to order. They started talking. They ate together. They spent the next months together.
He saw her last the day he shipped out.
“I want to feel your breath upon my skin,” she had said.
“You will, Anna,” he’d promised.
An RPG exploded overhead, showering brick and mortar and dust. The grit and debris kicked up was too much for his eyes. Dwayne could not see.
He could only lie in the dirt street behind the ruins of a car. Screaming, screaming, screaming.
“You don’t have to go,” Anna had said.
“I have to.”
“No, you don’t.”
Dwayne had chuckled. “If I don’t go, I’ll face strict disciplinary measures.”
“What is the worst they could do?”
“Prison,” he’d said.
Her bottom lip stuck out. She was pouting.
“Besides, I need to,” he had tried to explain. “I owe it my country. I owe it to my buddies.”
“The guys in my platoon.”
“What about me? Do you owe me?”
The explosion was gigantic. It tossed the car through the air to land on its side.
Flames were everywhere.
There was a blow to the head. Shrapnel. It struck hard enough to take off Dwayne’s helmet, nearly his head. A cut ran along his right temple, the blood flowing freely.
He nearly blacked out.
What brought him around was someone yelling.
Dwayne opened his eyes.
There was a corporal standing over him. The man’s lips moved in big, wide strokes.
There was a pop in his ears, and suddenly Dwayne could hear.
“How bad are you hit?” Corporal Dean asked over the din of gunfire.
There were other soldiers now. They were running past and bringing fire of their own to the fight.
In the distance were the screams of the dying enemy.
“Are you okay?” the corporal asked.
Dwayne blinked at the man.
Their last conversation. Over the phone.
“I love you.”
“I love you.”
Dwayne was being dragged through the sandy street by the corporal yelling for a medic.
They were just entering a safe zone, out of combat and not quite back to base, when Dwayne lost it.
He couldn’t take it any more. He fought at the hand gripping him by the back of his armored vest. He rolled. He kicked. He pushed away.
The corporal finally let him go. “What’s wrong with you?”
Dwayne jumped to his feet. “Where’s Anna?”
“What are you talking about?”
Personal communications devices were not allowed on base. The only link to the outside world was the mail.
As soon as the mail officer entered the hangar where the soldiers were billeted, Dwayne ran up to him. “Anything for me?”
The officer shook his head.
They’d been here a month. Not one letter from Anna. Dwayne had written her at least twice a week, but each of his envelopes had been returned with a marking that read “Address Unknown”.
“We’ve got an unwired one here!” the corporal yelled with gunfire still in the distance.
Suddenly a medic was on the scene. He rushed up to Dwayne and pulled a syringe from one of the hundreds of pockets lining his combat suit.
Dwayne jumped back.
The doc raised the needle. “It’s all right, son. I’m just going to give you something to calm you down.”
Then the man stuck the needle in Dwayne’s arm.
Dwayne lay unblinking on a cot. The beepings of a monitor to one side said he lived. A cloth bandage was wrapped around his head. Around him were surgeons and nurses running to and fro and wounded soldiers limping along, spilling blood.
The corporal led a doctor to the end of Dwayne’s cot.
The doc glanced at Dwayne’s medical chart. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Something happened with the Magus Insert,” the corporal said. “As soon as he entered combat, he froze up. Barely engaged the enemy. Started yelling some woman’s name.”
The doctor pointed at the chart. “Girlfriend. Anna Johnson.”
“Is he salvageable?”
“I think so.” The doctor leaned over Dwayne, looking into the unmoving eyes. “I’ll have to make some adjustments, but he should come around in a day or two.”
The corporal nodded and moved as if to walk away. Then he turned back. “I still don’t understand why we’re using the Magus Inserts. It seems unseemly.”
The doctor peeled away a small flesh-colored strip from the side of Dwayne’s neck to reveal an embedded microchip. He glanced back at the corporal. “It gives them something worth fighting for.”
The corporal stared into the still eyes of PFC Dwayne Rogers. He moved as if to turn away again, then stopped.
“Too bad he doesn’t know this woman doesn’t exist, is just an image we’ve created in his mind,” he said. “At least he won’t realize it until the war’s over.”
Ty Johnston has been writing short fiction for more than twenty years. When not busy writing or reading, he enjoys spending time with his wife, their beagle and three house rabbits. Find out more at tyjohnston.blogspot.com.