Chapter 39

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EDGE OF SURVIVAL

Jommy dug his feet into the ground, pushing his back against the cord tree as hard as he could. His back ached from the bark biting into his skin, but he would have pushed himself into the tree and wrapped it around himself if he could have. He had lost the radio during the night and had no idea where he was. He pulled a ragged bit of root plant from his pocket. His hand trembled as he squeezed a few drops of its juice onto his swollen tongue. He worked his mouth, trying to reinvigorate it with moisture, but the inside of his cheek just scraped against his gums. A knot of aching hunger sat in his stomach like a rock.

The sound warbled again in the distance. Without thinking, he tried to push himself away from the sound and into the tree, digging up a fresh pile of dirt with his boot. The sound ebbed up and then fell back to a whisper before surging again, growing closer as it moved down the slope behind him. He knew it came from an electric motor, but he didn’t know if he should be scared or hide or run or just sit there.

When he heard the snap of dried twigs and crunch of rocks being pressed into the ground, everything fluttered away and left a question to fend for itself: What was that?  The whir of the motor was a steady gyrating whine now and he could hear the thump of tires rolling over rocks. Something metallic clattered as the driver shifted gears. It almost sounded like one of the tractors that had worked the bigger plots on Dirt Hill when he was younger, but it was different. His heart started to ache as something inside reminded him to be scared. Too tired to endure the sensation, he tried to dispel it by huffing out a breath through his cracked lips.

The engine surged as the vehicle crested the hill behind him and started rolling towards his patch of cord trees. He pulled his knees into his chest, closed his eyes and started rocking to dispel his aching fear. He was so weak he didn’t even know if he would be able to stand up. He was so thirsty his throat felt like it was made of dirt. Yet, the surging ache in his chest didn’t seem to know these things or care as it consumed the last of his will.

The vehicle rolled out from the bottom of the hill. Something squealed as the sound veered to the side and started to traverse the space along the edge of the cord trees behind him. As the sound swam away from him, he eased his head around to peek out from behind his tree. Through the thicket of cord trees, he caught a glimpse of green resin smeared with grooves, as if a wire brush had dug into its surface. The block letters were faded and broken, but he could see the letter M, a patch of smeared black and then the rest of the stencil: 1-B.

A faint image tickled the back of his mind. The tank that had torn away his home glistened in the moonlight. Bullets rang against the side of the troop carriers that climbed Dirt Hill. The Terran Guard made their vehicles from metal and steel. The vehicles the Marines had were more like toys.

Jommy strained to stand up, grimacing as fire shot through his legs. He grunted and tried to form a fist to pound his leg, but couldn’t curl his fingers in tight enough. “Not now,” he said. He pressed the palm of his hand against the tree as hard as he could and let the bark gouge into his palm as he forced himself to his feet. He couldn’t pick his foot up, so he scooted his boot forward. Still leaning against the tree, he scooted his other foot forward and then let go. Unable to balance his weight on his own feet, he fell face first into the dirt.

The sound from the vehicle’s engine was starting to fade. He thought of trying to stand up again, but without the tree to help, he knew he didn’t have the strength. He reached forward with his good hand and kicked his leg, scooting himself forward. He winced when he tried to use his other hand, blood oozing from its palm, so he used his elbow instead, keeping his hand off the ground. He kicked again and slid forward some more. Eyeing the vehicle as it started to fade behind the cloud of dust kicked up from its tires, he kept kicking and crawling until he was clear of the trees.

Rolling over on his back, he stared at the vehicle and held up his hand. He tried to yell, but only felt a grating pain, as if a sheet of sandpaper was stuck in the back of his throat. He wanted to cry, but there were no more tears. All he could do was breathe and bleed and hold his hand in the air until somebody saw him or he fell unconscious.

The sound changed. The whir of the motor wound down to a purr. Something squealed. The dust clouds boiled away as the troop carrier stopped. A clatter clicked through the air and the whir started up again as the vehicle backed towards him.

Jommy felt his chest heave with laughter, but the sound bunched up at the back of his throat and his abdomen ached as it strained to draw more air into his lungs. Nothing came out, not even a croak. His arm creaked back and forth like a rusted pendulum as he waved.

The vehicle stopped and the rear hatch swung open. A Marine hopped out and turned around to drag something out of the carrier. Another hopped out and picked up the other end of the litter board; then they ran towards him. When he heard the thump of their boots, he let his hand down and felt a river of air ease from his chest. He felt the inside of his lips stuck to his teeth when he tried to smile as he became intoxicated by the giddiness welling up inside him and wrapping around him like a blanket.

The Marines dropped the litter and crouched down next to him. One of them grabbed his feet while the other hooked his hands under Jommy’s shoulders. The one holding his shoulders puffed out a short count: “One, two, three.” They hoisted him onto the litter board, picked it back up and ran back to the carrier.

He felt the world fall away as he allowed the feeling of being cradled consume him. As they trotted along, he felt the anxiety evaporate and surrendered entirely to the comfort of being taken care of by gownups who stood between him and everything the outside world had done to him – or ever would. For that moment, there was nothing that could find him in the bastion of his litter board guarded by his Marines.

When they reached the carrier, his Marines lay the litter board down head first and shoved him backwards along the floor until he was all the way inside. They climbed into the vehicle and swung the hatch closed. Red light infused the air as the whir of the carrier’s motor spooled back up and Jommy felt the terrain beneath them thumping through the frame and into his back.

Somebody put a hand behind his head and pulled it up as the lip of a plastic water bottle appeared in front of his face. Water trickled out of the bottle and between his lips. When it reached the back of his throat, he clutched at the bottle like an animal. He wanted to feel it wash over his face. He wanted to feel it fill his mouth and peel away his cheeks from his gums. He wanted to breathe it in and drown on the stuff and cough it back out, choking on it.

“Easy, tiger,” a man’s voice said. Something tugged at the bottle, keeping it out of his control. He felt like growling, but could only manage a croak. “Not so much at first,” the voice said. Barely a splash had found its way to the back of his throat when the bottle disappeared.

His eyes were starting to adjust to the light and he could see the forms of the others riding with him. Many of them had the bearing and bulk that told him they were Marines, but some weren’t dressed right or their hair was too long. One of them wore a sling. Scanning the compartment, he realized one of them was a woman from Dirt Hill. His heart quickened as the thought of his father sitting there with him scampered through his mind.

He scanned the faces. There was the woman, two sturdy boys on the verge of manhood, and the old man wearing the sling slumped over and staring at the floor. Jommy looked to the spot he was staring at and saw a spatter of blood forming the outline of a body. “Was there somebody else?” he asked, pointing at the steel plating inside the outline of blood. He felt a sting in his arm and a hand on his forehead. “You need to rest, Tiger,” somebody said.

The world grew soft around him and the light faded so that he couldn’t see it anymore; he could only feel it shimmering around him. He heard his own heartbeat and his arm burned as the IV fed his blood with something that he wanted to ask about. But the words wouldn’t come. Instead, something soft rolled over his entire being and he fell asleep.

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©2016 Michael J Lawrence