As I first set foot on Parris Island, and followed the yellow footprints to my first day of marine training, I didn’t know just how true those words would be.
I was as taut as the American flag that snapped in the brisk breeze, primed and ready to prove my metal on this hunk of rock. Lined up with my cohort on the tarmac, I can still remember thinking that I would be the one to walk off the island in my Dress Blues in three months’ time.
Every day Drill Instructor Jones goaded us in our exercises. I crawled through so much dirt, sweat blood and my muscles ached every day and every night. Through driving rain, in stifling heat, in bone-crunching jumps, I endured. Not everyone made it … we lost Stephens to a psych assessment, Parker to an automatic “misfire” and Turner to a desertion.
I was a dedicated, motivated, lean, mean, fighting machine, hungry for action with an Expert Rifle status. OORAH!
But right now, just like then, I was hungry for something else. The smoky scent of burgers being cooked on the outdoor grill wafted on the breeze, down the parade square and to my quarters. It was like hitting the jackpot at the rez casino – we had Leave day and Independence Day all rolled into one. I wished that mom was here, making me Indian tacos on her award-winning frybread. Best in Montana, they said. But she was on the rez, and my military family was all busy with family of their own. Laughing, talking and eating together.
I piled my plate with a few burgers, potato salad, some more potato salad and apple pie, and went back to barracks. As the families left, the platoon returned, smiling and happy. But the second that Drill Instructor Jones stepped in the room, we all snapped to attention and stood at the end of our bunks.
“I know you pansies had your family reunion today, but it’s come to my attention that Platoon 3 thinks that they can whoop your ass.” He whipped around and singled out Harris, as always . “The enemy takes no holidays, when you’re weak, they will strike. Move out!”
I scrambled into my gear, grabbed my helmet and my M-16 A-2, and hit the tarmac running, with Harris right behind me. We climbed into the cattle car. It took off, and we bounced in the back of the transport shoulder to shoulder, holding our rifles .On the way, DI Jones explained our mission.
“When we arrive, fan out and scan the perimeter. The enemy is over the ridge. In order to succeed at your mission, you’ll need to take out the tower and signal with a flare. “
The transport came to a stop, we tumbled out like tumbleweeds, and took cover. DI Jones was right behind me and Harris, signaling commands. We started out, crawling through the mud, under barbed wire, holding our rifles clear of the muck. Making it through, we came to a tree line. Using the shelter of the trees, the DI quickly issued new commands.
“Okay Chief,” he pointed to me, “show us what you can do. Track these bastards and take them out. Harris, you’re on point. Move!”
Harris sat, silently, hugging his rifle.
“I said move, Harris!” Jones barked.
“You pansy-ass mother fucking idiot. Move your fucking ass!”
For the first time I could remember, Harris moved. The next thing I saw was his rifle, pointed directly at the DI.
Fireworks start going off in the direction of the camp. The bright explosions lit up the sky, red, white and blue, and strains of the Star Spangled Banner filtered through the trees.
“Take that you black fucker! ”
I dove in front of Jones. I felt bullets whiz by my ear, through my hair and heard them hit a solid target. It didn’t sound like wood. Something punched my chest . I put my free hand to my chest – and pulled it away – stained with someone’s blood. Behind me, blood spurted from the DI’s shoulder.
“You bastard!” I yelled, staggering and falling. The world went black as the last fireworks faded in the sky.
They found our bodies in the morning, bloody and broken. They called it a training accident. My mom got flown in for the funeral ceremony. I watched as they folded the flag and gave it to her to carry home. I tried to leave with her, but I can’t. I’m stuck here.
It’s the 4th of July again. The outdoor grills line the sides of the parade square as families and recruits celebrate Independence together. The recruits are enjoying a day of celebration, not knowing that, come nightfall, Drill Instructor Jackson will be waking them up for night maneuvers, just like the ones that cost me my life.
“The only way off this island is as a Marine.” That’s what Drill Instructor Jones said when we landed here at Parris Island. He had no idea how right he was. The dead outnumber the living here, our ghosts walking side by side, going through maneuvers with the other failed recruits for the rest of time. We march every day with our living brothers in arms.
Oh look, they’re lining up for dinner. Chow time. I sure am hungry… for home.
This story was entered in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge in August 2014. It placed seventh in our group (and I'm proud of that).