Amanda Jo Slone lives in Draffin, Kentucky with her two children, Corey and Adrianna. She is a graduate of Pikeville College, where she now works as the Assistant Dean for Admissions.
The jungle slept, lying still beneath a blanket of twisted leaves. The faint scuff of footsteps and the occasional dry snap of boots on twig were the only sounds that disturbed the dark. Even the stream they followed was calm, its water reflecting a peaceful sliver of moonlight onto thick, black mud. They walked with unsure feet, hoping they remembered the way they came, willing the round shadows of their sleeping company to form in their sight.
“Put that thing out,” PFC David Hylton hissed at the soldier in front of him.
“It keeps the bugs off me, man,” PFC Ryan Mullins spat back as he sucked on the cigarette that hung from his mouth. The tobacco crackled as the flame briefly lit up the shape of his lips.
“You want someone to smell that shit?” David snatched the cigarette from his buddy’s mouth and tossed it into the stream. He tried to watch as it floated out of sight, thinking of how it would feel to float with it, eyes closed, away from the jungle and mosquitoes, away from the eerie silence that clung to the trees like cobwebs.
“We can’t be too far away from camp,” Ryan whispered. He waved his arms in front of him, knocking branches and invisible bugs from his face. “We never should’ve left.”
David watched Ryan’s helmet bob as he tried to duck in and out of the dense patch of trees. “It was your idea to take this little walk,” he reminded him.
“I thought I heard something. I just wanted to check it out,” Ryan snapped.
They were awake all night, Ryan on watch and David unable to sleep despite the tiredness and sweat that burned in his eyes. David sat quiet beside a mountain of red ants, watching for the biting bugs to crawl into his resting spot while Ryan whispered in the dark about a girl named Tanya with gorgeous green eyes. Though he knew they shouldn’t go, David followed Ryan when he said he thought he heard footsteps.
David knew that Ryan wanted to be a hero. He longed to be decorated, to go home to the crowds of protestors and stand in front of them, his metals reflecting the safe sunlight of home into their faces. David figured the soldier wasn’t much older than him, twenty at the most. He was tall and wiry, with a slight shake to his hands. His mouth moved quicker than his skinny legs as they walked down the path.
“Man, I’d better get a paragraph in the books for this shit,” Ryan said. “I promised my mom when I was drafted. My number’s up, I told her. I’m gonna go kick some ass and get famous. You should’ve seen her. She cried so hard you’d think they was bringing her ass over here. She mooned all over me right up till I got on the bus. What’d your folks say when you told them?”
David thought about the day he told his mother he enlisted. She did not cry. She did not throw her chubby arms around him and beg him not to go. She sat in her rocking chair, looking him hard in the face. Deep wrinkles snaked around the corners of her eyes. Her knee twitched, bouncing the toddler on her lap close under her chin.
“Be careful, Junior,” she said in a voice that sounded too old to belong to his mother.
David thought of his father’s face. He pictured the way he looked the last time he saw him, stony eyes and the unwashable stain of coal black on his cheek.
“I wasn’t drafted,” he said to Ryan.
“You signed up for this shit? What the hell was you runnin from? Ain’t nothing worse than this, man. I can’t wait to get back home.”
David tried to shake the thoughts of home from his head. He could see his sisters running in the yard, their bare feet stomping on tiny apples that fell from the tree above their heads. He could hear his father singing, the rocking chair he sat in keeping time on the rotting planks of the front porch. I am a poor wayfaring stranger, while travelling through this world of woe. As he sang he would drag the blade of a pocket knife under each fingernail, pulling thick black layers of coal dust from under his skin. I’m going there to see my father. I’m going there no more to roam. I’m only going over Jordan. I’m only going over home.
David looked at his own hands now as he grasped at a limb for support. He searched for a resemblance to his father in the skin around his fingers.
“You’re the spittin image of your daddy,” his mother would say when David would come home from work, his face dry and black. Even in the darkness of the jungle David thought he could see the faint trace of dust under his nails.
Neither of them heard the shot. David saw the dark stain spread across Ryan’s vest before he saw his feet slip and the shallow water pull his body into the mud. David jumped across the bank, falling to his knees beside his friend. The stream licked at Ryan’s stomach, swirling his blood with muddy water and carrying it deeper into the jungle.
David tangled his fingers behind Ryan’s neck and pulled his head above the water. Thin lines of red curled from the corners of his lips, twisting along the grooves of his skin and settling in the folds of his neck. He spat blood with a cough.
“Shit. Hold on,” David said, more to himself than to Ryan. All of his training flashed in his head. Pressure. Bandages. Elevate. He squeezed his eyes together. The words blurred on the back of his lids.
The jungle sprang to life. David started at the sound of bursting ammunition, nearly dropping Ryan’s head back into the water surrounding them. He could hear the sound of his company stirring awake – screams and swears of men aroused from sleep by bullets and fire. They were so close.
“They’re just over there, Mullins,” he whispered. He wasn’t sure if Ryan could hear him. He lay still. His breaths were shallow with thick spurts of blood spewing from the hole in his fragmentation vest with each rise of his chest.
Streaks of red and orange flashed above their heads. The blanket of leaves that shielded them as they walked seemed to part now, leaving them exposed on the edge of the stream and vulnerable to the awakened jungle.
He heard Sgt. Thatcher’s scratchy voice before he saw his husky frame slip through the leaves. “Hylton, what the hell are you doing out there?”
“It’s Mullins. He’s down. Shot. God.” David’s words came out in gasps.
“Listen to me, Private,” The sergeant’s voice was low. He did not come close to David and the wounded soldier. They slumped together in the stream, barely more than a single shadow to the sergeant. “You have to get out of there. We’ve got four down. We need to move.”
David didn’t recognize his own voice as he spoke to his commanding officer. “We can’t just leave him. He might make it.”
“Damn it, hillbilly. Either you get out of there or I’ll leave you both.” The Sergeant still did not raise his voice, but the urgency came through loud and clear.
“We can’t leave him,” he said again.
Sergeant Thatcher turned to face the bursting fire behind them. The harsh sounds of war bled through the foliage and slapped David’s ears.
“We’ll get you home, Mullins,” he whispered. He knew the one thing he feared the most was the only thing the wounded boy wanted. Home. David shut his eyes and pressed his fingers deep into the flesh of Ryan’s neck. He tried to focus his attention on the soldier, on the sharp gurgling that rose from his chest and the water that held them, but the memories of home flooded his mind and drowned out the jungle.
Redbuds were in full bloom, sprinkling the mountainside with brilliant shades of crimson. David kicked gravel beneath the toe of his boots as he walked. He was less than a mile from the drift mouth. He sucked at the dry air, trying to trap some of the freshness in his lungs, to store it away for when his chest ached against the harshness of coal dust. His bit box bounced against his thigh as he walked, keeping time with the whistling of the birds. He could hear the faint rustle of his lunch inside, the soft rub of the aluminum foil that was wrapped around last night’s salmon patty and triangle of cornbread. He would only eat half of the oatmeal cream pie that rustled inside a plastic bag. He would leave the rest for the curious hands of his little sisters to find when he got home. They would empty the box once David was inside, wrestling each other for the last bit of goodies.
The gravel road was quiet. He was close to the mine but didn’t hear the familiar chatter of the first shift crew as they prepared themselves for home. He listened hard for the voice of his father. He knew they wouldn’t be working a double. It was Friday. Payday. On Fridays his father came bouncing down the gravel road, more than ready for the hot bath that would be waiting when he got home. After he washed the dust away he walked with the girls down to Junior Johnson’s store for an ice cream and an orange pop. He always met David here on the gravel road and patted him once on the back.
“Be careful tonight,” his father would say.
“I’ll see you later, Daddy,” David would answer back.
As he reached the end of the road he could see the top of Tommy Thompson’s head, where he sat at the long stretch of belt. He started to throw his hand up at the boy when rocks began to jump under his boot and the shrill sound of voices rose out of the mine.
“Outside! Outside!” they yelled.
David dropped his bit box to the ground and ran toward the entrance of the mine. The oatmeal cream pie rolled into the dust that was rising at his feet. The faint flicker of lights came toward him as two men ran out, their caps bouncing their lamps in all directions.
“What’s goin on boys?” David called against the dust.
“Turn around, Junior. Top’s down,” a voice called back. It was Bobby Johnson, the foreman. His voice was shaky and quiet.
David tried to push passed him. “Where’s daddy?”
“I said turn around,” Bobby yelled now.
David could hear the sharp echo of hammers beating against rock in the distance. Bobby raised a cool hand and let it rest on David’s shoulder.
“Let’s go, Junior,” he said. “They’ll bring him out.”
David yelled into the cold rocks that trapped his father. His voice was swallowed by the piercing cry of the whistle from outside. Its scream rose up the mountains and bounced off the cliffs.
“We have to get him out!” David yelled. “We can’t just leave him here.
He opened his eyes and returned to the jungle. Ryan’s body jerked below him. David shook his head against the horrible sounds that beat against his ears. The deafening echo of his own heart beat mingling with the slow murmur of Ryan’s last breaths. The sickening burst of M16s above them. The cry of the whistle. The insistent voices that were inseparable in his head.
“Let’s move, hillbilly!”
“What the hell was you runnin from?”
“I’m only going over home.”
“We have to get him out!”
David laid Ryan’s head into the water, giving him to the angry jungle. He screamed at the voices, at the memory of the cold black rocks he hoped to escape. He screamed at the gunfire above him, and the cries that filtered through the jungle leaves. He pulled Ryan’s ammo belt from around his limp waist and rose into the battle.