The other day, my explosives ripped out a couple more culvert pipes. Brown washouts fanned the road. I should’ve been happy, but in the back of my mind, I kept wondering whether blowing up the road would stop Stilwell or if his stubbornness would just push the men harder.
As I leave my temporary barracks—a leaking bamboo hut holier than a Bible—I notice the leaves overhead in the towering jungle act like funnels, channeling rain in but blocking out the sun. Forget about having clean, dry clothes. Like a thirsty straw, the hems of my pant legs stay soaking wet from the ponds of water in the rutted road. It seems senseless to change clothes every day since washing off the mud is about as effective as scraping tar off a fender.
A growing rumble shakes the ground. But when I look up, I am surprised to see a bleached-blue break in the clouds and no lightning. Then, like a stampeding herd of cattle, the construction crew runs towards me from the gully around the bend. They pass me without a word, sprinting toward the barracks. Chinese soldiers carrying logs drop them in place, not looking back. Trees on the hillside sway as pebbles and dirt sift out from cracks in the earth. Another mud slide.
The supply hut is just on the other side of the ravine. I want to get there before my shift starts to see if my order for ammo was discovered in the night. If anyone thought I was smuggling ammo to the road site I’d just deny it, anyway. “Get out of my way,” I shout as men rush towards me from all directions. “You’re afraid of a little washout?”
Everyone’s seen slides before. Most of the erosion stops up in the narrows of the canyon.
But sometimes new valleys are gouged into the hillside, laying to waste work that takes hours upon days to rebuild.
“You Goddamn fool,” one man screams at me. “The whole hill’s washing away.” Hesitating to take a second look, I shrug my shoulders as though everyone is overreacting but me.
As I continue to move forward, he looks at me incredulously, then starts running in the opposite direction.
Within less than five steps, the sound of tree trunks snapping cuts through the air.
Vegetation is ripped from its roots by an invisible giant. The earth splits open. Out of the mouth of the gorge, a gurgling waterfall explodes. Fragments of fractured stone fly in every direction while a cascade of rocks tumble. Ten-foot-tall boulders, Neanderthal giants, soar like freed birds, demolishing the road bed as they bounce down the eroding hillside. A runaway boulder, dead ahead, bounces towards me, smashing trees, shaking the earth, and throwing up lifeless chunks of dirt. I turn, but it’s too late. The ground crumbles under my feet.
A terrified face, drenched in muck, screams soundlessly nearby as the rock kicks him off his feet and flings him into the mud flow with the rest of the debris in the quagmire. A shower of rocks and mud sprays over me. I wait for the thumping, ripping, and rattling to stop, but more weight piles on top of me.
I cup an opening around my mouth, creating an air pocket so I can breathe. Rocks pound all around me on their way down the hill. I strain every sense, listening to tree roots as they’re sucked from the earth. Every neuron in my fingertips is charged, wanting to connect to something solid. But, blind with claustrophobia, I do nothing.
The ground around me finally stills, but I can still hear the muffled static of shifting earth nearby. Viscous fluid has filled every opening around me. I force my muscles to move, but nothing budges. How deep am I buried? If I live—no, no, no; I will live. I will…I will. But my mind races forward, and I see the worst. I slide in and out of panicked unconsciousness.
In front of the stove, my mother looks over a steaming pot. I’m standing in the doorway. “Ah, sure, lad. Truth be known, you’ve not been dealt a royal flush. But seeing as you’ve got what you got, you’re to be smart when playing those cards.” Then she walks away. Wait, I need help, I think. Can’t you see how hard it is to be strong all the time?
Then Bob tosses me the football. He says, “Harry, there are two kinds of people in life.” I run deep, then curl in on a hook pattern.
I catch the ball, then sprint back. “Yeah: those who want to win, and those who want you to win for them.”
Bob gives the field a hard eye, then says, “No—those who make promises, and those who keep them.” He throws a long pass.
I want to ask Bob, Aren’t I keeping my promise now? Aren’t I saving lives? But he looks away, disappointed. I’m crushed.
Next, it’s Ruthie’s sweet face searching mine with a puzzled look. I say, “You know, you can tell a lot about a person when you first meet them…maybe more than what you know about someone you’ve known for years.” We’re dancing a slow, close number. She smells like Palmolive soap. “You’re curious about a stranger, so you study them. Then, voila, you get what you see.”
I find her plucky disregard for hoity-toity airs a breath of fresh air. “On the other hand, you think you know your buddies as well as you know your own social security number. Like, what kind of dame turns their head. So when they do something screwy, you do a gut check and ask: Do I really know that guy?” I don’t know why I’m telling her all this, but it’s bothering me that my buddies think I’m a daredevil with nine lives and expect me to go to the front when I’ll only be sharpening pencils. She waits for an explanation.
Maybe the truth is, I’m not the guy I think I am. “The mistake is, you see what you want,” I finish.
Ruthie wraps her hand around my neck. “That’s only a problem if you don’t like what you see. Now, what can you tell about me?” she asks.
“First, I know you’re a hard worker.” I open her hands to look at her calloused palms. “You don’t get these by sitting on your duff all day.” She tries to pull her hand back, but I hold firm. “And you only spend your money on necessities.”
Her face flushes. “You mean I don’t buy hand cream,” she says, unable to hide the hurt in her voice.
“No cream, no make-up, no perfume. Because you don’t need it.” We stop dancing, and I grasp her hands with both of mine. Her high cheekbones tighten as anger swells in her eyes, but what I say next softens her again. “I’m dancing with the sweetest girl in the ballroom, who’s as pretty as a sunny morning at Fenway Park on opening day.”
I feel Ruthie slide the back of her hand along my cheek. At first, it calms me. I had forgotten how she made me feel confident. But I slowly come to, alone and scared.
Muddy grit seeps into my eyes, so I clench them shut until flashes of white streak behind my eyelids. I feel each molecule of my body being flattened, slowly, pore by pore. I want to open my mouth to inhale big gulps of air, but the force on my body is crushing me.
In this lightless tomb, I remember my father cupping my face between his palms. “My spitting image. Like father, like son.” Flattery was his good luck charm. But goddamn it, it’s not mine. My anger explodes. I’m not like you, and never will be, I yell at him in my mind.
I start churning like a washing machine. Within seconds, the taste of gravelly mud in my nose and mouth intensifies. It takes all my energy, and I lose my air pocket. I twist and rock, twist and rock, pull my knees towards my chest, hunch my shoulders and thrust out like an exploding volcano. But I sink deeper. There’s no air in my lungs. I’m swallowing mud, drowning in mud. No, I silently scream. I won’t give up. I’ll never give up.
Then, layers of mud seem to slide away. A breeze tickles the hairs on my arm. My thoughts waver between blackness and nothing. Calm yourself; easy now, easy now. It feels like someone is grabbing my ankles and crushing my bones, but my heel is probably just wedged between two rocks. Then there’s the sensation that my body is being sucked out, feet first.
Instinctively, I try to say something, but muddy gravel totally fills my mouth. I’m suffocating and going crazy with the loss of oxygen. My eyelids feel like sandpaper. “Damn it; now’s not the time to lie down and die,” I tell myself. So I start twisting back and forth again like a rotary blender. My closed eyes see light, electric signals from my brain. Or, maybe…
Daylight! Air! My body is dragged up, slow at first, then faster. I spit out mud. I’m trembling and my eyes are blinded. Tears of relief well up, but the mud jams my ducts. I blink and blink. Then shades of light break through the blackness.
“Nasty time to be taking a break.” I hear Lester’s deep, familiar voice. A blurry Earl and Lester drop my legs. Their biceps, slicked with sweat, are bulging with exertion. “You ain’t settin’ a good example as an officer.” Lester stretches out an arm and pulls me to my shaky feet.
“I thought being buried alive and walking away would be one hell of an act to follow,” I say before I stagger and drop back to the ground. A visceral hatred of Stilwell and his damn road penetrates every nerve in my body. I vow that this road is not going to kill me. Then I vomit.
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