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Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
Michael opened his eyes. He was somewhere dark and cold. He was standing but he didn’t know where he was or how he had come to be there. From out of that darkness, a single sharp clap cracked out that made Michael instantly tense. Stooping and with shoulders set low, he blinked rapidly.It seemed as if he must have imagined the single hand-clap and so he began to relax but then, from some still further corner of the dark, came a second clap. Like the first, the hands struck just the once. Michael shifted then froze. A third pair of hands threw out a clap. Then a fourth, a fifth and a sixth. Whoever was out there they were spread out. They were signaling to each other perhaps? A seventh clap came, then an eighth and a ninth. The claps seemed random and uncoordinated and yet there was something deliberate about them. Michael became aware of something heavy in his right hand. It felt hard, like a handrail, but it wasn’t supporting his weight. Rather, he was holding it.
He needed to know just how little he could see so he raised up his left hand, bringing it up through the darkness towards his face, as though he were freeing it from under the weight of water. More and more claps rang out, each from a different direction. There were a dozen or more of them out there in the dark. Michael strained to see his own left hand and was finally, just, able to make out the edges of its silhouette from the blackness that engulfed him. More claps rang out and it was then that Michael realized he was inside some kind of large building, a sports hall or a museum or … . He became aware of the outline of a great sheet of charcoal gray coming into view. It was a movie theater. He was in a movie theater.
The dark was cold because he was breathing manufactured air. If he was to turn round now, he would no doubt be able to make out the waxy floors and the rows and rows of plump, cushioned seats. And yet he didn’t turn to face the ever growing hail of hand-claps. He was afraid of the sound of that most sarcastic of audiences.
Michael tried to remember how he had come to be standing at the front of the theater that night. He briefly saw himself at 13 with Josh, Pete and Oscar, hurrying down dimly lit corridors, snorting back laughter between fistfuls of popcorn. But that had been many years ago. More claps beat down all around him. Then he saw himself with Kath. They were holding hands and he was texting while half-listening to her softly chattering about this or that. And then there was another girl. A youthful soft-faced girl whose name he couldn’t remember. She had on an orange dress and she looked up into his eyes with an adoration so pure and so intense that for a moment he was lost in the memory of it. A clap broke just a few feet from his back, startled, he flinched. He tried again to figure out how he had got here but he could only remember trips to the movies from years before; from his childhood in Kansas, from Kismet and then Wichita before he …
Michael stiffened. With sudden clarity, he knew where he was and how he had come to be there. Ever so slowly, he began to turn to face the raucous handclaps that cascaded down out of the darkness.
“I’m in Baghdad.”
It had become lighter now and he could see better. He looked down. He was in his ACU but he had on neither his body armour nor his helmet. He could not feel the weight of his M4 or the drag of his M9 on his belt. But in his right hand he found not a handrail, or an iron bar as he had first thought, but the gleam from a long, metal broadsword. He would be able to see them now, the audience, whoever they were, if only he would turn. The constellation of handclaps was all about him now. Michael looked up.
A shattered eye socket wrenched at the puffy face of a middle-aged Iraqi. Michael recoiled. A row of white teeth fused onto a gashed and carbonized cheek. Again he turned and again. He saw a male's eyes, nose and mouth clogged with thick yellow clay. He saw the through-the-letterbox gaze of a boy's face whose jaw had been completely ripped away. He could see more of them now. There were hundreds of them out there behind the rows of seats. Faces that had been burned or torn or punctured or slashed; bodies that had been drowned, or crushed or blasted. There were eyes that had been gouged by sticks or fingers, mouths that had been ripped by stones or shrapnel, faces that had been stretched backwards over skulls by speeding bullets. There were women and there were men there. They were old and young, and there were even a few children. And, slowly, terribly, persistently they were applauding, clap upon clap. They applauded with shattered wrists, broken hands, fingers charred as black as tree roots. Michael leapt back toward the stage, hefting the sword in both hands and holding it out full length before him to ward off any attack. Feverish with fear, he swung the sword out straight as he would his M9. Still they clapped.
“This is a dream. This - Is - A – Dream!! I am not here, I’m, I’m …” he stopped to swallow hard, “this is Camp Griffin. No, or, this is, Fort Hood. Fort Hood, dammit. I am, I’m … this is a dream! A DREAM!!”.
But Michael was not dreaming and he knew it. He knew it was real like he knew the tangy, copper scent of blood was unmistakeably real. A thought came to him with sudden force. The trip they’d had, scoring off that Korean guy with the glass eye from one of Kileen's pawn shops.
“ABC? It’s an ABC attack! Anyone can hear me, anyone can see me, put on your ABC gear! Now, now! Come on! Sound off! Who’s with me?! Who’s with me!?”
No one called back. Only the claps continued, rolling up and down in flocks of sound. Michael’s strength was beginning to fail him, he began to struggle against the weight of the blade and he had to work hard to keep it steady. All at once, the screen sprang to life in a blaze of blue-white and the claps ceased. Michael felt the last of his will pour out of him like water from a cup. He let the sword go and it fell heavily to the floor and he slid down onto his knees, awe-struck. Then the speakers thundered out, shaking the walls and floor with an urgent, insistent pounding. The screen had filled with the image of a living, beating human heart.
“Oh sweet Jesus!”
Despite the boom of the thrashing heart, Michael took fright at another, quite different noise. It was the sound of the sprung theater seats and it could only mean one thing. The audience was getting up.
“Bu-but, the movie! It’s beginning! The movie’s beginning” he pleaded inaudibly, almost drunkenly, as if he were speaking to a child or a dog.
But the audience came on. They were filing along the rows and shuffling down the aisles. They were descending the stairs, one step at a time. Dizzy with panic, Michael scrambled to his feet and sprinted left. There was no exit. His fingers scoured the felt walls but there was no crack, no window, nothing. The exit must be on the right of the stage. He’d had one chance to get away and he’d made the wrong choice. Already, the first of the audience were down to the floor of the theater. He could see them, their wounds bathed in the orange hue bouncing back off the vast heart battering against the screen. Michael fell sobbing to the floor, pressing the heels of his hands over his eyes. He bellowed piteously struggling to make himself smaller and smaller.
“Mom! Please! Please! Mo-o-om! Ple-e-e-ease! Mo-o-o-o (m), … ! … !”
His heart beat faster and wilder. The dead Iraqis must surely be on him by now. His whole body convulsed in disgust – this was his own heart he was hearing, his own heart that was on the screen he now realized. This must be what the audience wanted? They could see and hear his life splashed large on the screen and surely they wanted it. What else could the dead want but more life? Their feet crept nearer and as they did so all Michael’s thoughts flew from him and he found himself falling down among the raw stuff of life: the chambers and the airways, the bones and the sinews, the blood and the spittle. The end was so close now.
And yet it didn’t come. Not that day. Michael’s chest heaved violently still but he had started to become aware that the screen had been blank for some time and that the only sound that came from the speakers was a low magnetic rumble. Almost daring not to look up, Michael squinted along the line of the floor. Some of the audience were there still, but they were completely indifferent to him.
“Oh, God! Oh, Lord! Oh, Praise, praise Jesus!”
Michael uncoiled his body and dry-retched. His thoughts fluttered back down to him, re-entering his exhausted body. He caught sight of Kath again. This time he saw her through the windshield of his car. It was a warm spring day and her face was soft and almost luminous. She was bringing over fresh coffee in gleaming white cardboard cups from the Watermark book store. He could see her and he knew her name but he couldn’t yet feel that he loved her and the fact of that made Kath seem strange and distant to him, as if she was not Kath at all but some enigmatic stranger seen momentarily on a down escalator as he drifted on by on the up side.
Kath vanished in a blink. Michael froze. Eyes open now, he stared directly down onto the carpeted floor just inches from his face. Perhaps if he just stayed still they would not see him.
“Yu. H-Am-merrican boy.”
Michael twisted his head as far as he dare. Before him were a pair of leather shoes and gray pants. Both were soaked in blood.
“Yu. We h-arre not fo yu. We h-arre not fo yu. We h-arre fo rran-otherr one.”
The shoes slid away, squelching through the trail of filth and blood. Michael lay for a long time, the fallen sword by his side, sobbing in the dark.
The story is vivid,and with a scary atmosphere.
micheledutcher - This story was particularly good at exploring the mental state of a man becoming aware again, inside a battlefield environment. I liked his being disoriented, slowly pulling back from the edge of insanity. Scary, real.
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