A Hot Day in Iraq
…in which a white light confounds Elmore.
The Big Boom.
Lights flickered. Lights went off. Lights came on.
Elmore sensed something new.
No rules existed in this new place.
The moment he realized, something inside him sat up and streaked away through golden fields, heedless and happy.
Who better than he himself, lately a creature of salutes and polished boots and long dusty journeys at the wheel of transport vehicles and the tension of night patrols, to know instinctively when duty hours stopped ticking, when codes and regulations blew away over barren sands?
He was free here.
Pain blew away, too. That damned thigh wound – see? His leg moved like normal now. He rubbed soft skin where his jagged femur had previously jutted through, sharp as an ivory knife blade. He felt baby skin already growing over the wound.
Only minutes ago, the Big Boom.
Elmore’s collapsed left lung hung in his chest like a dead party balloon. Now Elmore felt it inflate again, sweet oxygen filling emptiness.
His liver, where that burning steel fragment suddenly nested, had gone anonymous, sans pain, sans terrifying black blood.
He felt peace in the middle of war.
Then a desert wind moaned somewhere.
Abruptly, it was hellish hot again, and rain spattered his sweating face.
No. Not rain.
Falling dirt spattered his face. Another roadside device had gone boom.
Elmore saw no light now, but he heard radios, men screaming. He smelled gasoline. Where was his Mississippi buddy? Dan Neeley had been riding shotgun in the transport...
What happened to Neeley?
Elmore felt a helicopter chopping the air close by… or else his thunderous heartbeat.
He managed to shuffle his boots in the floor of the overturned transport. Broken glass crunched under the soles.
He looked down. The nightmare returned, in broad daylight. The thigh bone showed again through skin and fatigues, shocking white. And, oh yes, his wrist hanging. His screaming liver, lungs, everything inside. When Elmore breathed, blood bubbled from his nose. Sweat. Snot. Blood.
He felt a rush of… what?
Pain? Grace? Fear? It surged up his back and through his bowels, convulsed his screaming nerves.
Out the shattered window, Elmore saw figures move and feeble headlights scan the darkness-at-noon that surrounded him. Mouths clamored, male, rough, and another voice burst from a crackly radio. A little cold seeped into his bones even in this blast furnace of a transport truck in this blast-furnace desert. Elmore breathed out loudly into the air, a short little bubbling snort that made him feel inhuman, a dragon, some kind of monster.
He closed his eyes.
Elmore wanted the new place again. He wanted the place with no rules.
In the distance, Elmore saw a glow. It flickered and flared, beckoned and beaconed.
Given the sudden bone chill and the ominous gloom, what man wouldn’t spirit himself through the ripped open metal of the driver-side door, rise to his feet, rise into the very air, and slough off anything he carried that felt heavy and painful and strange? Who wouldn’t drift off in a new direction to see such light warm brightness?
As suddenly as before, Elmore felt bathed in great benevolence. A white floodlight had always been searching the world.
Now it found him. Shone on him.
He could hear music. It damned sure wasn’t country music, Alabama music. Something thrummed to a low drumbeat, steady as a heart. And Elmore listened in wonder to massed voices. A chant. A choir. Words he either couldn’t understand or else had never heard before.
Words, though. Words sung, words spoken. Some crowd out in that blazing place sang for him.
Elmore headed for the light.
Suddenly, a hand grabbed his arm. It dragged him roughly through coarse sand. Someone put a piece of plastic onto his face, and strange cool air rushed up his nose and down his throat.
Elmore hurt again instantly. He didn’t want to hurt. He wanted the rules of hurt to go away.
So he turned and still made his way, clumsily, toward the pyre… or whatever created the light… ahead of him. No matter how tiny the steps, his feet, his thigh, ached so bad.
That broken wrist. He could hear the soft moist noise his dangling hand made as it swung. His organs inside made noises he had never heard before.
He felt a great pain. He tasted copper in his mouth… and something else without a taste in this world.
But now something wonderful overcame Elmore a third time.
All at once he floated off the ground entirely, free of pain again, the wrist a miracle, no thigh bone visible, the thousand other terrible aches absolutely quiet. His feet – one of his boots had been torn completely off, he now noticed – never touched the ground.
He glided out of the desert and suddenly into a forest of fragrant pines and flowering dogwood trees just like the ones back home in Alabama. He passed through the green wet thickets with no hindrance from branch or root. Lightning bugs seltzered a twilight. Cicadas rattled and droned.
The mysterious siren song seemed to come from a clearing now a few yards ahead. It wafted him onward, and he drew closer and closer in the brightening air.
Elmore Rogers glanced surreptitiously over his shoulder. He had a certain, sharp idea that each time he looked back, his body would hurt so bad again.
What in the world was happening to him?
To one side, Elmore witnessed a brown vehicle of some sort, steaming and torn apart like tinfoil, lying on one side under a blazing, merciless sun. Three of the tires blazed and roiled black smoke. Ant-men labored at the vehicle doors, and a host of delayed troop transports and military vehicles stretched into the distance behind the ant-men. Burning headlights at midday illuminated the scene in dense acrid clouds.
Overhead, a gigantic machine appeared out of nowhere, out of heaven itself, shuddering down, bringing its own mighty wind. It rocked side to side in the black cloud as it settled down onto a clear place in the desert.
The machine flung sand and sun-blasted stones. A red cross blazed on its black side.
Elmore turned his back on it. He walked forward, eyes ahead.
He entered a splendid field. Goldenrod and Indian sumac waved their yellow and crimson tips in dreamy light.
He heard the choral voices again.
They were singing his name! The name Elmore Rogers!
This was a good place. He would stay.
But Elmore glanced back one final time.
Rays of sharp pain shot down his back and legs, and he once again saw the signal bone in his strangely bent wrist. He didn’t need to look at his leg this time to know the white femur jutted mockingly, wagging when he moved. Or look at his side to see what black fluid leaked from his liver onto the sands.
Elmore hurt so badly for a few blinding moments that he nearly forgot the brighter light in the clearing ahead.
He would later describe it as a sort of enormous bonfire in the woods, so tall the top had no top at all – the firelight just went up and up all the way into the bottom of dazzling clouds. But now he saw those were not clouds at all, but stars – stars so brilliant and densely packed that they looked like star clouds, a cloud heaven. As he stared into the tower of flames, Elmore imagined frozen lightning.
It mesmerized him.
Around the warm brilliance of the bonfire stood a host of beautiful, shining animals. Some looked vaguely like people, and some looked like deer, and some looked like wildcats and foxes and quail and opossums, and some looked like snakes. All of them, every one, stared at the fire without blinking. One tiny deer opened its mouth, and it startled Elmore to see clearly that its tongue was a miniature flame. The deer closed its mouth, the flame went out. The strange animal continued to stare into the fire, its lovely soft face motionless.
Elmore wondered if the beasts saw something he couldn’t see.
He wandered quietly among these creatures, floating wherever he willed himself, careful not to touch a single one. They gently sang, and the melody sounded so wonderful that Elmore didn’t want to interrupt. Interrupting would be a sin, if you believed in sin.
Now, Elmore too could see into the flames of the bonfire, the place where all the animals seemed to focus their energies, and he marveled just as they did.
He saw what they saw.
Motionless in the deepest, hottest part of the fire, a human figure beckoned to Elmore, come on, come on. Tall. Masculine. It looked vaguely like someone Elmore once knew. The slightly bowed legs. The ruddy face and red hair. The square, solid shoulders of an athlete.
It looked a lot like his buddy, Dan Neeley.
His old friend and platoon mate… his high-school football buddy… his long-forgiven rival for Kelly’s love… led two small children by the hand.
Elmore recognized them, too.
The sight of them in that brilliant bonfire startled Elmore to a standstill.
Will? And his Mary?
The twins walked hand-in-hand with his friend Neeley among white sprouting flames and flowers of light.
Holy Jesus, what was happening here? Where was this place? Why didn’t someone explain?
Magically, Neeley and the twins approached Elmore. The great wonderful light beckoned, and it bleached pale the deep black forest dirt around the trio.
Will and Mary looked up at Elmore with the same shining eyes as the animals around them. They held tight to Neeley’s hand, like they might fly away if he let go.
The twins called it out in the same voice at the same time, and they reached to touch Elmore’s hand as they called.
A throbbing pain shot through Elmore’s wrist. His thigh screamed, and the right side of his crushed chest screamed too.
Elmore opened his eyes, furious to live.
His first sight was Dan Neeley.
Neeley sweated over him, tying bandages, pressing wounds, working with all his might to save Elmore’s waning life.
“God damn it!” Neeley cursed. “God damn it, Elmore! Live, goddamnit!”