By James Ross
Strange. 120 degrees in the Arabian Desert and Sergeant Rack Grohl shuddered like a freezing sourdough on the Chilcoot Pass.
Rack shook his head.
Accurate…but really weird.
Rack twisted skyward at the passing jet scream then over at that yahoo, Grimes, gawking on his feet like a tourist. Rack’s boots bit into the sand as he scrambled toward Grimes.
Rack barreled into Grimes, drove his face into the dune, and got confused, “what the hell?” scowl for his effort.
Whump! The concussion lifted the expanding dune and Rack and Grimes—and deposited them in a living heap—“living”. Thank God!
Sand stuck to Grimes’ sweat-streaked face and Rack shuddered again. Grimes shoved his glasses up only to outline even more desert and human gunk.
Freezing at noon in the desert with a man that couldn’t figure out how to…how to…stay alive.
Rack jabbed a finger at Grimes. “You’re dead!”
“No I’m not. Not till you get your medal at Jasha.”
A whirlwind of sand whipped into Rack’s eyes and suddenly the Company Commander, a fussy Captain, formed the company behind Rack to decorate him. Crunch, crunch.
This ain’t right!
The scowling commander fussed and grumbled at Rack’s grizzled six-inch beard, tried desperately to find an opening to his shirt.
“Aach!” The Captain pinned the Silver Star to Rack’s beard, then fanned the air in disgust as he departed.
What beard? And what the hell’s that noise?
A stomach cramp gripped Rack and he moaned before he could stop himself. His eyes flashed open.
The night, a blind man’s study in pitch, issued a frigid April wind that whistled through the pines and oaks that surrounded Rack’s tiny camp. The oak leaf encrusted beard Rack hadn’t had in the Army blew in fits over the cardboard coverlet of his sleeping pit. He fingered it.
It’s shorter than the dream. Okay. Answers. That’s something.
Twigs snap. Crunch, crunch.
That’s the noise!
A panicked voice yelled in the underbrush: “Get going!”
Rack shoved the cardboard off him and bolted into the manzanita—too slow.
Too freaking slow! My stash!
Rack skidded to a stop and rummaged in the brush. He came away with an empty yellow wrapper from a fast food sandwich. His hands dove back and rifled the bush hopefully. Nada. Rack’s jaw set.
Damn bums! He pitched the wrapper into the blackness. Scavenge in the morning.
The thought nagged him more than usual. He was fifty miles from home, a mere fifty miles from Marcie Fram—if she would have him back. Please, please, please…
He trudged back to the sleeping pit, lowered and covered himself, and prayed the cramps would leave him alone.
As he passed out, the faint sounds of a familiar party reached his ears—tinkling glasses, music, laughter. The lights magically came up on his bachelor party in full swing. Definitely better than the desert nightmare; the beard was gone and well-wishers clapped him on the back.
Boomer Williams piped: “I don’t know how you keep her, dude.”
“It’s called love.”
“And now marriage.”
“Life’s all choices doncha know.”
An Army recruiter nudged his way into the conversation.
“An’ I can help you with that.”
“Who invited him?”
“I did. You need help.”
If I make the decision I think I’m gonna…
Rack couldn’t remember transformers on the lights at his parent’s home, but their intensity mounted until Rack had to turn away and squint.
How can you attend a party with your eyes closed?
He forced his eyes open to attend it properly. Morning sun had risen full above the trees as if to grill him. The rays rooted around in his matted beard. Then he remembered the food situation and struggled from the pit.
Choices. Another bad one.
Rack shifted in his stained and greasy pants, finally cinched its ratty belt and stitched it through one of the intact loops. It was long past the time he could clasp it over the holes.
What do you think? 20/30 pounds? Doesn’t matter, get home, get better.
On that note, Rack headed for the nearby strip mall and its row of fast food restaurants. Fortunately, the dumpsters were contained in fenced-in areas, and locked. All he had to do was cross the railroad tracks, climb the back of the fence, and dine.
Better to wait till dark…
But he sensed his body wouldn’t cooperate.
Inside the dumpster, Rack lowered the lid and began to probe. He found a large cup and filled it drop by drop from other cups; orange juice, cola, coffee, mochas and lattes, milk shakes, anything but water. Fountains were plentiful and always cleaner. Soon he had a brimming libation just ready for the main course—which hadn’t presented itself yet.
He spotted a likely plastic bag and yanked on it, but it refused to budge. The shadow of the open top beckoned and he thrust his hand inside.
Pain shot up his arm; he sucked in his breath and wrenched his arm up—but his hand shot another pain up the arm. His leg shot out and spilled his hard-won drink. He watched the spillage course its way through the garbage.
He stuck the empty cup between the lid and lip of the dumpster, allowing a smattering of light to show the problem. Three tines of a rusted pitchfork stared up at him. He was impaled on the middle one. Something black and furry was impaled beneath his hand over all three tines. His eyes focused on it. A cat.
“Furry” was dead, of course, eyes glazed, coat matted, it’s tongue lolled and coated with thick, dirty saliva. Rack aligned his hand and started working himself off the tine. The going was slow thanks to rusty metal scraping bone, but he was finally free.
Now, he thought, if I can catch my breath and grab a snack, I’ll get outta here.
Thoughts of how poor “Furry” met his end tried to form but Rack willed them away. His problems were only more important because he was still alive and felt the pangs of hope, but that was enough for now.
He wrapped the hand in some discarded paper towels, found some beef, chicken, and fish parts to eat, ate them, and left enough in a bag for a later snack.
Just a quick nap…
Much later, he was awakened by the deep rumbling of a garbage truck, and someone fumbling with the chained and locked fence. He popped the dumpster lid, vaulted the fence with his stash, and skedaddled like a ghost across the tracks—albeit a hand-throbbed ghost.
Rack dropped his bag in the sleeping pit—fool me twice—and glanced around the clearing. It didn’t look like the bums had dropped by, but they would. They were bums.
At the base of a bull pine, Rack spotted what he needed to deal with them; Two golf ball-sized chunks of rose quartz. He wrested them from the roots, rolled them in his good palm, felt their rugged contours and comforting heft, then lovingly tossed them beside the bag of food.
Can’t have enough ammo!
Rocks as “ammo” touched him as ludicrous but he knew the precedents—and the accuracy of his arm. Bums were born to raid and it was only that throwing arm that held them in check.
I’m no bum. Rack snorted. I don’t raid their camps, steal their stuff. I’ve just made some questionable choices…
It seemed an eternity for the sun to arc through the sky and drop into the Pacific, its rightful cooling place, but it finally did, and Rack used its inspiration to find his place in oblivion too.
The bums came before dawn, two moving shadows against the ragged purple line etched between trees and sky.
Snap. the broken twig might has well have been a gunshot. Rack grabbed one of the rocks and waited.
The bums knew they were busted, and stopped. The larger one smacked the smaller shoulder, then cooed into the darkness.
“Sorry ‘bout the noise, lad. We’s a bit hungry this morning. Couldn’ wait.”
Rack angled his rock-laden hand across his mouth, and deflected his voice. “Know the feeling. Sorry, boys, nothing here.”
The bums both inched toward the sound.
Rack slid the cardboard aside with his bad hand and barely kept from crying out.
Great. Two bums, two rocks, one hand.
“Hold up, boys!”
The bums froze, but they caught Rack’s ruse and turned to face him.
“That weren’t friendly.”
“Tell you what. Find something tasty and I’ll cook it up for us.”
The punched bum opines, “Clever. Real clever.” He received another shove from the big man for the effort.
“Easy Mort.” To Rack, “Sure, lad. Sure.”
“Bull pucky. You just a sack’a—” Mort charged and the large man clotheslined his throat and swung a leg behind his knee. The gunny sack called Mort fell harmless in the dust, finally silent.
“Treat all your friends like that?”
“Pssh. He ain’t got no manners. He’ll learn.”
“Well. Thanks. I appreciate the help like you’ll never know. But it doesn’t change anything. I can’t cook what I don’t have.”
“Lemme over an’ we’ll work up a plan.”
The big bum’s hand inched into his pocket.
The hand stopped and the big bum shrugged. “It’s just a cigarette. Want one?”
“Just drag Mort out of my jungle and—”
The bum’s arm jerked from his pocket, a knife clear in his hand. It arced past Rack’s face and stabbed the cardboard in the pit.
Rack cocked his arm, patient and visible. “Heard a ‘stone cold’?”
“Aa-a-ah!” Evidently, the bum was through with niceties. He lunged at Rack.
The quartz cracked into his forehead and he rag-dolled in a larger puff of dust than Mort.
“Guess not.” Rack sighed. He had already acknowledged that life on the road held no appeal, but this, being skewered earlier, had catalyzed his desire to re-enter his life.
The admitting clerk at the hospital scanned Rack with undisguised disgust as he sat in the chair before her.
“Can I help you?”
“I sure hope so.” Rack held up his damaged hand, now wrapped in a greasy rag. “Accident.”
“They’re in the valley.”
“I need help here, ma’am.”
“Of course. I.D.?”
Rack shook his head. “Sorry. Stolen.”
“Have you ever been treated here?”
“Just passing through.”
After a thoughtful moment she said, “Let me see what I can do.”
The clerk left her station and disappeared into the hall. She returned momentarily with a local policeman by her side, took up her seat behind the desk as the officer loomed over Rack.
“Perhaps Officer Marquez can help you with your I.D., Mr. Grohl.”
“Perhaps. But I need my hand seen to first.”
Rack rolled his swollen, rag-wrapped hand around for effect.
“Yes. The hand?”
“You’re not from around here?”
“No. The hand?”
“Sir. Can I see you over here?” Marquez pointed to an alcove nearby. “We’ll get this straightened out.”
“I’m sure of it. But I do need some help. Now.”
“Please.” Marquez continued pointing. “It’s the quickest way.”
After four hours filled by a trip to the jail, critical questions asked and answered, phone calls completed and otherwise, finger prints inked and CLETS verified, Richard “Rack” Grohl, former Army sergeant and recipient of a Silver Star, had been positively identified and blessed to go where his heart desired.
“So. You can take me to the hospital?”
“Sorry. Got another call. You know the way?”
“Hmm. Can I get a sandwich?”
“Inmates only. Sorry.”
“I get it Officer Marquez, but how about a quid pro quo?”
From the look on Marquez’ face, Rack wasn’t sure he understood that one.
“Face it sarge. You look—and smell like a bum.”
“Looks are deceiving—but I am broke. A razor?”
“Inmates only. Sorry.”
Rack had been told that once you’ve heard the clank of steel doors behind you, a coldness creeps into your bones that stays with you forever. Maybe so, but he couldn’t buy it from this experience. He just listened to them both ways and felt the anger of injustice. He sensed that some of the heat was in fact a fever that hit him about midpoint in his stay. Regardless, it didn’t improve his disposition. He kept his own counsel however, his college education advising him not to make things worse.
Two choices greeted his release. He could head back to the hospital armed with the legal tender of proper—if stinky—citizen, or he could find a new place to jungle up for the night.
Rack chose geography and fever over medical attention, but not before glancing at the hand—which was swollen and blotchy—his fingers thick and yellow like Vienna Sausages. He’d definitely return to the hospital in the morning.
Rack had no dreams that night, only pains he mostly couldn’t find reasons for. One was obvious. A rat nibbled on the grease-soaked rag; he smashed it and tossed the carcass into the bushes. For a moment he wished he were back at his old camp, that the rat was rabid, and that the bums would devour it, saliva and all.
How could he get back to Marcie?
Trudging back to the hospital he had fleeting glimmers that supplied ways to do it, ways he might try. But then he saw Taliban soldiers lurking in various places.
He laughed. The thought of Taliban soldiers lurking behind lush trees in the Sierra gold country was too much, even in his fevered state. But he couldn’t concentrate. One of the soldiers, a man in blue homespun clothes, leaning against a column, grinned at him as he entered the cool confines of the hospital.
The same clerk was on duty. She spotted Rack and flushed with embarrassment.
Can’t be helped. She’ll learn. Rack took up the same chair as before. “Not to worry. There’s bums and then there’s bums.”
A wave of dizziness hit him and he laid his head on her desk. “Sorry. It’ll pass.”
A hand gripped Rack’s shoulder.
It is the blue Taliban from outside. Rack leapt on him and wrestled him to the ground.
“Grimes! Where the hell are you? Move your ass. Taliban!”
“Grohl. It’s Marquez.”
Rack loosed a fist into Marquez’ face, but Marquez saw it coming and dodged it. He flipped Rack on his stomach and cuffed him.
A doctor bolted through the Emergency Room door, a syringe in hand.
Marquez pinned Rack so the doctor could administer the shot.
Rack emerged from this hole in his life with all the bile he entered into it. But his hands were cuffed to the rails, and his feet to the uprights, so his thrashing quickly subsided. He focused on Marquez who stood by the bed.
“You get me like this?”
“The one and only.”
“Not many can say that.”
“I had an advantage.”
Rack smelled antiseptic, observed his clean bed clothes and covers, the gauzed boxing glove of a hand that hung in front of the cuffs.
“Well. I got some help. Thanks.”
“So why am I trussed up?”
“You gotta be kidding. Thanks for the shiner.”
“Why would I do that?”
“You tell me.”
Rack, beardless, reflected on his answers after he pushed the call button by the cell door.
Let’s see…that was yesterday…before I got fed…before I tried to get Marquez to drop the charges. Before the judge gave me thirty days of work release—nights to be spent in jail—for slugging Marquez.
A hollow, scratchy female voice warped into the day room.
“Grohl for work release.”
The mike stayed open as papers shuffled.
Rack seized the moment and glanced at his reflection in the glass door. The cast-off clothes weren’t half bad. The pants were a little short, but what the hey. And the face…hmm.
I reminded Marquez I was an inmate and entitled to shave. Marquez laughed and gave me a half dozen toy-sized cutters.
“You’ll need ‘em.”
The door buzzed and Rack pulled it open. The sally port was a short way down the cinder block hall.
I’d think this was all a blessing if this blasted headache would go away.
Rack waited at the sally port while the muted vision of the booking clerk behind opaque windows found the button on her control panel to let him out into a sparkling day.
By noon, the Thrift Shop actually let him make a phone call.
“You’re all right,” they said, “for someone with one working paw,” and showed him a privacy phone to use.
There was only one person he wanted to talk to.
“How’s the Bachelor Party coming?”
Rack laughed. The “bachelor party” had lasted over two years now.
Sucked in air. Silence.
“I can be there in twenty-nine days if you’d like.”
“Get your ass home, soldier.”
Boomer’s voice from the party rippled through the two year interval. “I don’t know how you keep her, dude.”
I know, Rack thought. I know.
The boss stuck his head through the door.
He thumbed in the direction of a customer and disappeared.
“Marce…I love you. Gotta go.”
“I just set my timer, buddy boy. No hiccups.”
“Not of my choosing.”
The headache escalated that afternoon and Rack fought it back with the intense joy of Marcie’s voice. The fever returned making it a one-two blow that was hard to fight, and he misread the bosses instructions several times as a result. He apologized but he could see the concern on the bosses face all too clearly.
Nothing was going to keep him from making the most important date of his life—not even the Taliban soldier he saw lurking in the Thrift Shop doorway.
A muscle spasm pitched Rack into a stand of clothes; clothes and man writhed on the floor. He saw the boss grab the phone and then all became fabric shrouded. His right leg refused to let him up, refused to move at all. He stilled and waited for the Taliban to finish him off.
Some things just can’t be fought.
It didn’t happen, but then he didn’t know about the ambulance ride to the hospital, either.
Rack lay drained, completely spent, in the hospital bed. Again he found himself restrained and Marquez nearby.
This can’t be a dream…it can’t.
Rack tried to speak but his jaw weighed a ton and felt wet.
“No, sarge. You’re just sick.”
“Blood poisoning? Lock-jaw?”
Marquez shook his head. “Not that.”
A cough erupted and sent spittle flying.
“Been bitten by any animals lately?”
“Guide me, sarge.”
Rack began to laugh and choke.
“Who’d a thought?” Between gasps Rack managed, “Talk about a bachelor party gone wrong!”
The nurse came and pressed the medication button. Rack watched through an enveloping haze as she and Marquez left the room. His confusion grew.
Marcie. Grimes. Boomer. The bums. Marquez. Taliban all over the place.
Parking lot lamps snapped on outside Rack’s window but he didn’t know it. His lungs just expelled their last air and he died.
About James Ross
James Ross loves to write and always has. Finding words to rouse heartbeats with the passion of a tale is his pride and promise—wherever it leads. His published work can be seen on Goodreads.