Chapter SeventeenMature

Gwen Churchmen

My brother was pacing the room again, his arms folded across his chest and the lines on hi s face apparent.“Do you really need to leave?”

I looked up at Jon, scowling. We had been going at each other for the past two hours, and to say the least, my patience was waning. I had to leave, and soon.“What do you think I should do?” I grumbled. “Hold up here until I'm either assumed dead or be kicked out because of a negligence of duty?”

He scoffed. “Duty? That's what you call it?”

A little bit of rage bubbled inside of me, but I sighed and held back any careless words. The clothes I was packing away fell on to the make-shift bed Jon set up for me in his room at the hospital. The smell of the rubble and the blood and the sour medicine still unnerved me, bothering my nose at the worst of times, but being here for several weeks, I was almost used to it. Almost. I admit, if I had a choice between staying there or returning to war, I would have chosen going back. There was something about civilian life I couldn't quite grasp after so many months with Judd and Sullivan. While Jon and Rachel were my family, I trusted Judd and Sully with my life; it seemed wrong to simply walk away from that.

“No, Jon. Butduty doescall.” I said in defense. We've had similar conversations dozens of times.

Just two days, I had visited the outpost outside of the ruined city, after catching wind of some news from one delusional patient brought in by some scavengers. Jodi was less than pleased with what we learned. To be blunt: I was being called back, my little “vacation” coming to an abrupt end by chaos stirring in the country once again. I was not surprised; bliss doesn't last and unless I have forgotten, the world wasn't necessarily a peaceful place to allow such moments for very long.

Jodi laughed a little, her own playful mind unaffected by Jon's brooding.“We can start a protest, you know. Sign a petition and all that.” Jodi quipped. She sat on two beds pushed together that my brother used. Her hair was down and she lounged carelessly on the messy covers. It was a typical sight for her, really.

“Please shut up or I'll stab you with a scalpel.” Jon grumbled, and threw me another piece of clothing I left lying around, and I rolled my eyes. Jodi muttered something back, and he spat at her with a few more ill-meaning words. Him and Jodi weren't particularly on friendly terms, and I stopped wondering why years ago. Even so, I was completely happy with their bickering, now more than ever. It was better to have Jon fight with her than with me – saved me a headache and gnawing guilt. I laughed when Jodi flipped him off.

Jon's mouth fell shut when I zipped up the bag; it was my way of making it clear that the argument was over. “You can at least have the decency to say goodbye to Rachel before you leave.”

I frowned at my brother. He likes to use Rachel as leverage, sometimes. A perfect card to use, to be honest.“I have. But you really don't get it: this is urgent. I need to leave now, Jon. Look I don't like this either but – ”

“I get it: you'd leave the marines or whatever if you had another choice.” Jon replied. That quip stung, I admit, but I refused to start the argument again. Jon didn't hate the military – he just loved me and Rachel a lot more than keeping himself alive. I promised myself to remember that the next time someone tries to shoot my ear off. You know, to keep my head clear.

A little slice of bitter silence passed between us, as I stared at him and he stared back. Jodi, being the godsent icebreaker she was, her voice peaked through the quiet and she said, “Look, Gwen, it's nearly sundown. The next transport out of here is in...” she checked her wrist watch, “an hour. You and every other soldier out here is heading to LA. Either raise your hand and say your name during role call or...stay.”

I groaned. Eyes shifting between my scowling bother and the unusually timid Jodi, the packed bag and uniform spoke for itself. I was going again. Looking back at Jon, I said, “What do you think I should do with my life then?”

I didn't need to know, but he might have had something else to say. For old times' sake.

His shoulders fell, his eyes softening a little. “I don't know.” Jon said. “Settle down, get married like that teammate of yours. Have kids?”

I smiled – Cute.“None of that sounds like me.”

“I know...” He became quiet again, his voice falling. “Guess this is goodbye then?”

“Oh, Jon, don't get tear-eyed. This is Gwen we're talking about. If she found you way out here, I think she could find your ugly mug a second time.” Jodi said, and laughed at him.

I nodded at her. Smiling to Jon, I gave him a wink and shrugged the duffel bag over my shoulder. “See you soon?”

He smiled back.“Of course, Gwenie.”

*

“Snipers, move back. I repeat, move –!” The sound of another bomber skimming overhead shattered and overcame the commanding officer's words. It didn't matter; I was already running. My head screamed as another bomb hit the ground, destroying everything in its blast radius. My eyesight was blurred, the impact of debris against my forehead doing wonders. And the blood – dripping lazily from my ear – was hot and wet, coursing down the length of my face.

I was positioned on a hill, watching over the coming forces. Only a few us were stationed amongst the wreckage and concrete, but we did so on orders. And when the order to open fire came, a haze of shots and screaming filled the deathly place, and I was lost in it. Then the bombers – I saw them coming, as did everyone else but when the first explosion rang out, a hellish ray of fire swept over everything I could see. I was running before the commander could even say the word.

Vision impaired from a close call with flying metal, I was following sounds that pierced through the ringing in my ear and the shadows moving through the smoke. My lungs were burning by the time I saw the jeeps scaling down the hill, shaking as the earth broke around me. Another bomber flashed past over head – I watched as thunder struck the ground. Like toys, the impact directly hit a few jeeps, metal and wheels flying into the sky. Through the smoke and the dust, others zoomed past, almost driving under the men encased in their own coffins, mid-air.

There were two men coming from behind me, jumping and sliding over wreckage as I had, and there were others racing behind them as well. If I had turned my head, maybe I could have seen how far they were from me, but I didn't dare; the jeeps were close enough to see me. I waved my hands in the air helplessly. Pain passed from the base of my spine to the back of my head, and I felt my head swoon and my eyes flicker from blackness to obscures shapes.

I heard the rumble and hum of a vehicle over the terror tearing around me. My sight cleared for a moment, but my legs nearly gave in as jeeps coursed passed me. But one came to a stop, and the door flung open.

“Judd!”

And Sully. I couldn't see his face, but I knew Nick was on the wheel.

Judd wasn't as happy to see me, though. “What the hell are you waiting for?! Get in!” He yelled and his arm stretched out, one hand on his rifle, the other meant for me.

My head snapped back, and another pang of dizziness past over.“The others..!” I could hear the blood pumping in my ears. I watch them – scared, but faces obscured by their helmets and the carnage of the debris – running to the vehicle. The jeeps were driving by, going as quickly as they could to escape the bombers.

Another bomber. I heard it before I saw it. Like a ghost, it's wings swept through the gray s,ple, bringing a bit of horror and a bit death. I screamed, again, but it was too late. The soldiers were flung into the air, some of their limbs and some of their body armor being the last things I saw of them as I was flung against the vehicle by the force, flesh and bone meeting metal for a moment. Falling to the ground, a single thought rang into my head:You idiot. The terror and sorrow ripped through my body, tearing at my sanity as my hands stretched out for them, but grabbed at nothing but dust and air. I think I was still screaming, but I couldn't hear anything. The bomber....the impact it was too close.

A harsh pull at my back, and another at my arm. Then an arm, around my waist, hardly gentle, but urgent and almost comforting. I refused its hold and grabbed at it, but my mind would not register with my body. The same seeping, blurring images clouded my sight and then the taunting darkness flickered over my eyes. Judd...I think it was Judd; his arms were tugging at my limp body, pulling me into the jeep. And somehow...silence.

It was odd. Not...peaceful or calming like I sometimes I imagine it would be. Nothing like those quiet spring nights in San Fran, or heated mid-afternoons at the book store in Santa Fe...I thought I would see or feel the rush of cool air against my skin or see home, green and flourishing like the days of summer, before I died. But I only saw the roof of the jeep, a blend of brown and gray, and metal. Then Judd's face.

His helmet was gone, and the speckles of facial hair were merging with dirt and grim – He looked almost terrified, wide eyed and breathless. I felt the pressure of his gloved hand against my face, and the sudden, but unfrightening jerk of the jeep. The blurriness was worsening, mixing with the shapes around Judd, as his mouth moved silently. His face was utterly clouded then, by the warping, confusing shapes.

Then blackness.

Just blackness.

The End

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