My phone vibrated in my shorts pocket.
I was honestly surprised I felt it at all, given how much my motorcycle was shaking beneath me. The dirt road that wound up the hill had gone washboard after the recent storms and the constant passage of tourists on trucks and dirt bikes. My old Yamaha was made for smooth pavement, and it punished me for taking it off-road by shaking my hands numb.
My phone buzzed twice again, and I knew it was Devin’s girlfriend, probably frantic or furious – or both. She would have to wait. Maybe all night. I smiled as I thought it – I never saw in her what Devin did, I suppose.
I crested the hill and started over the other side. Darkness surrounded me, and I had to hit my brakes as I was suddenly hemmed in by tall, black weeds. What gave me pause next, though, was the sky.
I killed my headlight.
Living on the coast of California, you get so used to light pollution and an eternal grey marine layer that you sometimes forget the earth is surrounded by stars. It was a rare clear night in May – cold with the wind coming off the beach below me – and the hill had blacked out the eternal lights of the town. I was surrounded by a billion pinpricks of light – most white and cold like the stiff ocean breeze, but one was bright orange.
It was Mars, I realized.
“Fitting,” I said aloud to nobody.
I spent a few more breaths looking around, just taking it all in atop my idling bike, then I turned my lights back on and started down the road to where I knew the public campsites were – where I was sure Devin would be.
I saw his dusty Harley leaning up against a twisted, dead-looking oak tree near the signpost for one of the campsites. The bike was placed conspicuously, as if he was expecting someone to be out looking for him. I slowed down and parked my motorcycle by his, pulled off my helmet, and finally retrieved my phone from my pocket.
I saw a few text messages, as expected, from Devin’s girlfriend. I shoved the phone back in my pocket and sauntered down the dirt path to the cleared campsite. Hoards of little dead branches gripped at my light shirt, scratching my salty skin and sending a chill down my spine.
I found Devin sitting by a low-burning campfire in the permanent concrete-lined hearth of the site. He was leaning against his padded guitar gig bag, which was folded over a log by the hearth. The guitar itself was beside him, stretched out and slightly dusty – just like the man who owned it. Silently, I dropped my helmet and sat down close to the warm fire, which flickered in the slight breeze that found its way into the little green hollow.
Without a word, Devin shifted his body and produced a beer can from a nearby insulated bag. He tossed it to me, and a smile split his bearded face. I glanced at the can (Bud Light, like always), opened it up, and drank deeply.
“Diana send you to retrieve me?” he said at length, nursing his own can.
“No, but she sent me a few text messages when I was on my way out here. I didn’t respond. I figured you’d be out here again, somewhere.”
Devin forced a laugh. “You know me too well, I guess.”
Silence settled between us as we drank.
“I hope I don’t,” I said after finishing my drink.
“Know you too well,” I said.
I shook my head. “I get this idea that you’re run off to do something.”
Devin laughed. “I am doing something.” He pulled out another beer and opened it up, then threw a few more branches on the campfire.
“You know what I mean.”
Devin looked at the fire for a few moments, then nodded. “Well, sir, I guess you don’t know me that well, then.”
“That’s good.” I caught another beer that Devin tossed my way, which I opened up and took a few sips from. “You know Diana worries about you.”
“She doesn’t know me that well, either.”
“She cares about you.”
Devin gave me a squinting glare. “You don’t like her.”
Devin laughed warmly. “Yeah, so what? She’s alright to me.”
“That’s why you’re disappearing and not telling her where you’re off to, right?”
“If she knew me, she wouldn’t wonder. You’re here.”
“Yeah, but why are you?”
“Ha! How about yourself?”
“I asked first.”
Devin looked away from me, then back, locking eyes with me in the dim, flickering orange of the campfire. “Sometimes I need to get away, that’s all. From…” He waved his hand to the east, “All that. It shouldn’t exist, man. It just… It makes no sense.”
I regarded him silently for a while. I understood, but maybe not as well I should.
“Someone’s checking out your bike,” I said.
Devin cupped his ear. “Couple of girls. Does it ever occur to you that normal people aren’t listening like we are?”
“Only when I’m with you.”
“I notice it,” Devin said. He stood up and said in a loud, over-serious tone, “Hey! Don’t mess with my bike!”
I could hear the girls laugh at each other.
“We got beer down here!” I shouted. “If you’re into bikes, come down, and we’ll tell you about them.”
Devin gave me an incredulous look. “I came out here to get away.”
“From all that. I’m determining that we could use a little company.”
“Maybe you do.”
“I know my boy,” I said. “Now, I’m ordering you to be nice.”
A few moments later, two young women, both blonde and slim, emerged into the clearing. One was wearing cutoff shorts and a bikini top, her nipples standing at attention, though she tried to hide it by crossing her arms over her breasts. The other one was wearing what I assumed to be a bikini beneath an over-large white button-up shirt.
“Let’s work up the fire,” I said to Devin. “These ladies look like they’ve been swimming.”
“We’re all dry,” said the first one. “But yeah, I didn’t realize it got so cold at the beach.”
“It can sneak up on you, especially when it’s clear like this,” I said. “My name is Sam, by the way. That’s Devin.”
Devin gave a casual salute to the girls.
“I’m Cindy,” said the one in the bikini top.
“I’m Dani,” said the other. I extended a hand, and they each shook it in turn, then stepped toward Devin. He shook each of their hands as well, looking away awkwardly.
“Beer?” I said.
“Oh yeah,” Devin said, and produced a pair of cans which he handed to the girls. Cindy sat down lightly on one of the logs and started drinking. She made a slight face with the first sip.
“Here,” I said, nodding to Dani. I grabbed the gig bag and put it on the log next to Cindy. “Now, you don’t have to decide between being the awkward standing girl and cutting your ass up on the log.”
She laughed and sat down next to her companion.
“Y’all camping around here?” I said as I added a few more dry sticks to the fire.
“Yeah, but our girlfriends aren’t back, I think,” Dani said. “They wanted to hit the town. I’m wondering if they found a couple of guys they like.”
“Well, maybe you’ve found a couple of guys you like,” I said.
Devin guffawed from the other side of the fire, where he had decided to plop down Indian-style. The girls looked at each other and chuckled.
“What?” I said. “Don’t tell me Devin’s not good-looking. No homo, but he’s a specimen. Hey Devin, take your shirt off!”
Devin laughed and shook his head.
“Dude’s got a good six-pack. Shredded year-round.”
“It’s not that,” Cindy said. “You’re just… a little old.”
I put on a shocked face for the girls. “Me? Us? Old?” I looked at Devin. “Am I old?”
Devin shook with laughter. “Compared to Saruman the White? Not really.”
“Yeah, see?” I said to Cindy.
Even in the firelight, I could see her blush a little.
“You gotta own it, man,” Devin said. He stood up and walked behind me, then dug his thumbs into my traps. I shrugged and writhed with the pain, trying not to let it show. “You gotta just say you’re experienced.” He pushed even harder, and I had to crush the beer can a bit to not wince. “Women like ‘em tough – a man with some grit.”
I saw both the girls were laughing now.
“Anyway, since you’re not used to the cool nights, I’m guessing you’re from somewhere else,” Devin said, releasing his iron grip on my pressure points and kneeling by the fire to throw on a few more sticks. He was careful to present only his side to them, where he could glance at them, but at the same time seem only partially interested. I smiled as I realized he was running a script we had both used a hundred times before, in countless bars all over the world.
“We’re from Bakersfield. Doesn’t really cool off like this at night over there,” Dani said. “Just hot all the time.”
“Unless it’s foggy,” I said.
“Yeah,” Cindy said with a chuckle.
“Where are you from?” Dani said to Devin.
He glanced at her and flashed a smile. “From? Lots of different places, just like Sam. But I live in Grover Beach right now.”
“Lots of different places, isn’t that from an old movie?” Cindy said.
“Highlander’s not old,” I said.
“Did you move around a lot as a kid, or what?” Dani said.
“Depends what you mean by ‘kid,’” Devin said. “When I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty… yeah. As an adult, too.”
“He’s calling you a kid,” Cindy said, nudging her friend with her elbow.
“Shit, are we contributing to the delinquency of a minor?” I said.
“I’m nineteen,” Dani said.
“Don’t tell anyone about the beer, then,” I said, taking a sip of my own. Cindy laughed, but Dani, I noticed, was focused on Devin.
“What were you doing at nineteen that you moved around a lot?” she said.
Devin smiled at me, then leaned back on his haunches, so he was sitting close to Dani, and said, “I was in the army. They move you around a lot. More so after 9/11.”
“You still in the army?” Dani said.
Devin shook his head. “Just a beach bum, now.”
“What about you?” Cindy said, looking in my direction.
“I’m retired,” I said.
“So, you are old,” she laughed.
“He was like me, went in at eighteen,” Devin said.
“I was actually seventeen,” I said. “Fall baby, remember? I actually had to get special permission from my parents to join early. Not so hard to hit 20 years and still not be old. Came down here to live because my boy said it was nice. It is, so here I am.”
“Did you retire, too?” Dani said to Devin.
“Me? Naw,” Devin said. He looked up to the sky. “Medical discharge and disability, actually.”
Dani was leaning over with her elbows on her bare knees, her blond hair lit by the fire falling around her shoulders, her eyes on Devin. “Did you get… I mean, are you okay?”
Devin smiled, then relaxed his face. “I’m okay. Was I injured? Yeah, but…” He downed his beer. “Eh, it’s not worth talking about.”
“Sorry,” Dani said. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
“You didn’t make me uncomfortable. It’s just something I don’t talk about a lot, so I don’t really know what to say, you know?”
I chewed my lip for a minute. It was like the old Devin, using a pickup script in a bar, but it didn’t seem like manipulation. It seemed like he really wanted to open up to this strange girl.
“War stories always seem a little stupid,” Devin said. “The kind of war stories that you tell to pretty girls to impress them, I mean. This tight situation or that… Some firefight, or how you got the better of a bad situation…” He looked at the girl, then the fire, and smiled. “The truth is, shit just happens, and you end up on the other side of it, somehow. You don’t even have time to shit your pants, you know? Then you just spin it as something funny because it sort of is. It’s random. None of it makes sense. None of this makes sense.” He held his arms out and looked to the sky.
The crackle of the fire settled into the silence between us, the girls staring at the flames, not at Devin.
“I always liked my grandpa’s stories,” I said. “He was in World War Two. Every story is something funny. You know he went grave robbing in Okinawa at one point?”
“No shit?” Devin said. “I must have missed that one. He had a bunch like that, though, didn’t he?”
“Oh yeah. You wouldn’t think he spent any time shooting.”
Devin turned back toward the girls, sliding his body around to face them more directly. “This one time Captain and me-” At this, he nodded to me, “But he was a sergeant at the time. We were up around some village on patrol. I can never remember the names at this point, and we pull over for a bit of a break. I got out of the truck to take a piss. I’m kind of bladder shy.”
“Bladder shy?” Cindy said.
“It’s a thing with guys,” I said. “Some dudes can’t pee with people watching them, though the army should cure you. Always someone around when you need to relieve yourself.”
“I’m stubborn,” Devin said. “So, I walked off a little way and started peeing. As I’m looking down, the dirt’s turning a weird color. It’s getting darker, but not in the right way. Getting kind of grey and red. The dust is washing off, and I realize I’m pissing on something.”
“What was it?” Dani said.
Devin smiled and shook his head. “I shout for Sam as I realize what I’m seeing-”
“I hear this shout,” I interrupted. “‘Sarge, I’m pissing on a fucking landmine!’ I then run around the rocks, which was stupid, mind you. You don’t run toward a land mine, but my boy might have been about to get his dick blown off.”
Devin laughed. “Sarge comes up. ‘Well, stop pissing on it, damnit!’”
“What?” Dani said.
“He was still taking a piss all over this old landmine,” I said. “He shouted, but he just kept on going.”
“Once you start, you can’t just stop,” Devin said. “But I realized what was what, so I turned around real fast-”
“And he pissed all over my boots,” I said, laughing. “You know, it’s a very good thing you didn’t need to go number two, my friend.”
Devin laughed. “Yup.” He looked at the two girls, who were red-faced laughing. “You see what I mean? Just random shit, and here we are.”
“Sounds scary,” Dani said.
“We had a good laugh about it, like now, but only after we got back,” I said. “Reminds me of that time we found what we thought was an IED. Turned out to be the inside of a dishwasher somebody tossed on the side of the road.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Devin said. “Just random stuff. At least it seems that way. You go through all that, then you come back, and things here just don’t seem to make sense. You don’t see how we could have… all this.”
“You’ve said that a few times,” Dani said.
Devin nodded. “It’s how it is.” He was silent for a second. “Sam knows how I ended up getting out, but…” He narrowed his eyes as he looked at me. “We were getting ready to go somewhere. Funny, I don’t remember where again, and I was arguing over who got to ride shotgun with this PFC. Greg.”
“Good soldier,” I said. I added seriously, “Don’t tell this story, Devin.”
Devin ignored me. I could see his eyes staring into the fire, intense. “I thought it was my turn, but our CO didn’t care. We ended up flipping a coin, and I lost.”
Devin was silent for a few seconds.
“He died, and you didn’t, huh?” Dani said.
Devin nodded. “IED. Freak thing. Somehow got through the armor on that passenger side. Greg died instantly. I hope. I caught a little piece of metal in my hip. Enough to send me home. You know they gave me a medal for that shit?” Devin shook his head. “It’s random.” He reached in his pocket and took something out. “I still have the coin I flipped.” He held up a shiny coin.
“No shit,” I said.
“20 fils. Random-ass Kuwaiti coin I found.”
“Why do you think everything is so random?” Cindy said.
“Because it is,” Devin said.
“I don’t think everything is random,” Dani said. “I mean, you have free will, right?”
“Do I?” Devin said. He turned the coin over in his fingers. “There’s a little ship on this coin. Reminds me of a bible story.”
“Noah?” I said.
“Johah,” Devin replied. “He refused to do what God wanted him to do, which was go convert this city, and he runs away. He gets on a ship, and a storm hits. He thinks it’s God mad at him for running away from his mission, so he has the crew throw him overboard, and he gets eaten by a fish. Or a whale.”
“So, you don’t really think it’s random at all,” Dani said.
“I guess I wish it wasn’t,” Devin said. “Does God have a purpose for me? What am I supposed to do in this world? I’ve been waiting ten years for a fish to eat me. What was Greg’s purpose? He died randomly, in a place that meant nothing to him. I don’t know what we were doing or why it mattered. There’s no sense to it. You ever think about it, Sam?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Now that I’m retired, I have plenty of time to think.” I smiled, hoping the mood would lighten, but it was still like the curtain of night was a blanket over the four of us. “Truthfully, I try not to dwell on it. I don’t have the answers. Maybe you’re just supposed to live, you know?”
“I don’t know how to do that.”
“Aren’t you doing that now?” Dani said. “Going camping?”
“Hanging out with pretty girls,” I said. I was glad to see a slight smile on Cindy’s face, but Dani remained dour. “When you’re in the army, everything is kind of decided for you. I keep up on a lot of my guys – men I had under my command over the years. It seems like a lot of us don’t quite know what to do when we’re just out in the world. You’re used to everything being the team and the mission, and when you go out into civilian life and your team is a bunch of people who have nothing in common with you, maybe even who really dislike you, and the mission is to not get fired in the next eight hours, well, it tends to leave you a bit…”
“Depressed?” Cindy said.
I shook my head while I smiled at her. “Not quite. I don’t know. It’s hard to feel intense and energized about pouring coffee at Starbucks.”
“I work at Starbucks,” Cindy said with a half-smile.
I laughed. “You feel energized to pour coffee? Do you feel like the other baristas are relying on you to do your job? Trusting you with their lives? I got nothing against Starbucks, don’t mistake me. I do enjoy a cup every now and then, but you have to think like a soldier.”
“This world,” Devin said. “I wish God would just tell me why – why I’m still here.” He took a deep breath. “Maybe I should just find something to do and… just do it. Get married, have kids, get a job and make some money.”
“Maybe I should, too,” I said. “Easier said than done. But in the meantime, I do enjoy a cold beer by a warm fire.” I held up my can, and Devin tapped his against mine. We both took a deep draught.
“You know,” Dani said, sipping her beer, “My mom would be pretty offended that you just casually say having kids is just ‘something to do.’ She took being a mom really seriously. I’m one of ten.”
I saw Devin laugh then – a real, earnest laugh. “That’s damn straight. Ten kids. I’m impressed.”
“I know why I’m here,” I said.
“Yeah? Why?” Devin said.
“For you,” I said. “My boy. My men. I’m responsible for the team, and as far as I’m concerned, you’re still part of my team.”
“He says this about a man who pissed on his shoes,” Devin said, pointing at me with his thumb.
“I think it’s sweet,” Cindy said.
“See,” I said, nodding to Devin. “She understands that quality increases with age.”
“Sure thing, cap,” Devin said. “You keep right on telling yourself that.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket and turned it on. “I should probably call my girlfriend.”
“You have a girlfriend?” Dani said. She had a strange look on her face. I couldn’t read it, but it might have been disappointment. Devin had abandoned his old script, but I think it worked anyway, and the girl was interested in him.
“Yeah,” Devin said. “She doesn’t get me, but she cares about me, so I should really let her know I’m okay.” He started punching up a text.
I pushed myself up. “It’s getting pretty late. I should walk y’all back to your campsite.”
“I’ll come, too,” Devin said. “You know, Sam, I didn’t even get to the part where I sing a song.” He glanced at his forgotten guitar, lying against an old green bag.
“Save it for another time,” I said. As we walked up the path to where our bikes were, I turned to Cindy and said, “You should give me your number.”
“I think your game is a little off,” she said with a chuckle.
“I got a man – a friend – up in Tehachapi I want to go see soon. I could stop by your Starbucks on the way and give you a reason to really care about making a good cup of coffee.”
She laughed. “I don’t actually work at Starbucks. I was just messing with you.”
“You’ll have to make me one at home, then. I can’t get out of bed without a cup of joe.”
She laughed even more. “Fine! But just stop with the bad pickups, please.”
I laughed and caught Devin’s eye. “I’ll show you a great seafood place for lunch.”
When we reached their campsite, their friends still weren’t there. We said our goodbyes, then Devin and I left. When we got back to our bikes, he said to me, “You know me better than I’d admit. Thanks for coming out tonight.”
“It’s my job.”
“You ain’t getting paid for it.”
“Yeah, I am.” Devin gave me a big hug, then we snuffed out the campfire and packed up his things. We rode together out of the little midnight hollow of campgrounds, stopping once to look at the stars and the rising moon; Mars had set. Then it was back to civilization – a pleasantly unaware sea of lights.
This one was banging around in my head for a little while. I’ve known a lot of combat vets and the story in this one – one man dies, another lives, seemingly at random – is a rather common one. Even my father has a variant of it, where one of his best friends got drafted during Vietnam and died. It seemed wrong to him, that he should have had everything – a house, a car, a wife – while his friend ended up dead, so he sold his house and his business and enlisted as a married man in his 20s.
That being said, one of the character’s stories here is very similar (unintentionally so, if you’ll believe me) to one expressed by Alexandru Constantin, so please head over to his blog and check out his work.
If you are wondering if these characters are based on anyone, the answer is, yes and no, because most characters that writers created are based on abstractions of people we encounter in the real world, more so for these “Gen Y” type stories. So they don’t represent any person in particular if they remind you of someone.
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