by Phoebe Reeves-Murray
He lay deep in the grasshopper-green waves of timothy, his arms rigid in the air above him, his hands gripping the sun. He stared at the white-hot disc until its glare burned into multiple blue flaming stars. The molten blue white seared his eyes as the sun screamed and screamed so he kept choking it until its blue fire exploded. The burning wind went from a scream, to a whistle, to a whisper. He floated, slowed to a drift.
Blue light helps increase feelings of well-being. The witch said I need blue light. Blue light, please, make me a well being.
He turned his head sideways. Maybe this time, it's only a paper bag. As he did, the little Iraqi boy lying next to him in the grass blew dandelion seeds all over him. He shut his burning eyes and smiled as they floated towards him.
At that moment, the sun burst black.
The collision dragged him out of the drift, crushing him into the steering wheel. The impact went on forever as a cloud of angry insects stung him everywhere. Where'd the dandelion seeds go? He waved trembling hands through the reeking burn of the airbag's gunpowder dust. He tried to lift his head, but the telephone pole had snapped and crushed his truck roof onto his skull.
Ares first saw the woman at the bar while he was drinking with a Marine he'd met in the VA psychiatrist's waiting room. The two veterans were tossing back their favorite blotto drink, Adios Mother Fuckers, when Ares's eyes locked on the sparkling blue suns around the woman's neck. Stick on jewels or tattoos—I don't care—I gotta touch that beautiful blue light.
He found his drinking buddy dragging him back to their bar stools.
Watch out for the witch, Ares. She lives here, waiting to move in ... on guys like you.
The voice started out as his buddy's slurred mumble, but sped up into a little boy's careful, accented English. Ares stared at his fellow Marine. "No such thing as witches."
The other vet just dragged the back of his hand across his mouth. Blue alcohol had stained his lips purple in the bar's low light. He gulped another shot, shook his head, grimacing.
Ares's gaze returned to the shining blue suns, floating around the woman's throat. I want her light. She wants my darkness.
A vibrating silence muted the bar's noise. Anything that floats is a witch. The young voice returned.
Ares shook off the instinctive warning. But seeds're good, and they float. Unsure, his voice came out sounding like a kid needing reassurance. "Isn't blue light good for you?"
The vet frowned at Ares and stood up, his lips almost black now, as he gulped his last AMF. "I'm leavin'. That one's a hole—and not the kind your dick wants. She'll take your money, your land, your mind—and leave you holdin' the bag."
I want her light. She wants my darkness. Fair trade, Marine. Ares found himself thinking of his hayfield, lying in the summer grass with the dandelions.
She needs land, so you can't see her float, so she can plant the IEDs, came the little boy again.
"Over my dead body." Ares tried to stand up, but slid on tacky liquor.
The vet slapped him on the back. Ares jumped. The guy hauled him up. "Go home while you're still standing upright."
Ares grabbed another blue drink and pointed to the court papers he was using as a coaster. "Adios Mother Fucker."
His buddy shrugged, left.
"Who're you?" She was skinny, pretty. Around her neck danced the circle of blue suns.
Ares licked his lip hard. At each sun's center glowed a blue gem. He squinted at the intense beams shining from each jewel.
"Hey, soldier." She smiled. She didn't have all her teeth, but that was ok.
"Marine." He tried to sound alert, but he was really drunk now.
Is that who you really are, hated and humiliated one? Her smile didn't reach her eyes.
He tensed, angry, caught off guard by her lips not moving. "Ares." He gritted his teeth.
"Your name, not your astrological sign." She touched the suns, like she was going to leave.
The second her fingers covered the blue light, his heart raced. "No." He gulped a breath so the words came out in a shudder. He forced a laugh. "Not Aries. No 'I.' Just A-R-E-S."
She glanced at the legal papers where he'd circled the court's determination of 90% disabled and 10% responsible. Laughing, she grabbed his grease pencil and drew rays coming out of the black circle, making a sun.
Ares looked from the pencil sun to the suns on her neck. Women and children first. She's my blue light. For a moment, he lay bathed in summer sunshine, under floating dandelion seeds.
She waved the papers before his face. "You a war nut?"
Frowning, he grabbed for them. Women and children first.
You and me and IED makes three. She held them behind her back. This time, when she smiled, she had all her teeth.
Creepy variation on My Blue Heaven. Ares's frown deepened. He stayed silent.
She brought his fingers to the suns on her throat. "How about I make it up to you? Let you buy me a drink?"
The instant he touched it, she glided back. He bought her glass after glass of something clear. She wanted to know his favorite thing in the world. He wanted to tell her it was lying in his father's field in summer with the dandelion seeds. But it frightened him to near tears. "What's your name?" he answered instead.
"That's 'witch' in Arabic. Your parents named you Witch?"
"I hate them."
"I'd love to be able to hate my parents."
She laughed. "You're crazy, Ares."
He decided crazy wasn't the worst thing he could be. Besides, she was growing more and more beautiful. "My mother died while—when I was born," he stammered.
Her eyes bright, she let him touch her suns again. He did, and the secrets tumbled out of him. "When the doctors told my father it was gonna to be his wife or his baby, he thought he had a choice and picked his wife. But he got me."
And he took you because he had to.
Ares shook his head, jerked his hand back, but she pressed it to her neck. No, women AND children first. Protect the women AND children. He protected me. He named me Ares.
And you thought it was an honor to be named for a god of war by your military father until your teacher pronounced it "Rz," and the other kids called you Arse, and you googled Ares, and found it meant a violent disaster of a god whom everyone hated and blamed, the thing in war that always went wrong—the human IED—
"No!!" He ripped his hand away. Other patrons paid no attention. Sahera shushed him, stroking his hair.
"You need blue light." Sahera picked a sun gem off her neck, dropped it in his drink. The liquid sizzled. The light glittered at the bottom of the glass. Drink it.
Does it come out? He concentrated on keeping his hands from shaking. "What the fuck is it, Plutonium?"
"You aren't afraid, are you, Mr. Women And Children First?" Coy, she touched the necklace of suns before leaning in and gently kissing the top of his head.
He closed his eyes, felt her breath floating on his hair.
It's what you've lost.
How do you know what I've lost?
I don't have to, because you do. You want me. I want you. Fair trade, Marine.
He blinked. The drink was gone. He'd drunk it. Am I going to pass it?
No. It remains in you.
Shivering, he excused himself, assuring her he'd return. In the stall, he crammed his fingers down his throat, vomiting blue AMF, Happy Hour nickel chicken wings, froth. No jewel.
He blushed at his cowardice, suddenly feeling ... good. I feel fuckin' good! He returned to their table. They drank more drinks. "You still wanna know my favorite thing?"
She nodded, her smile like a jack o' lantern.
"We lived on an old farm with ... woods, ponds, and I ... " he paused, his stomach flipflopping with nerves, " ... loved watching the deer ... and the dragonflies."
Don't tell her about the field and the dandelion seeds, Marine, because then, you'll have to tell her about the paper bag.
The boy's voice made Ares feel like a traitor. He coughed, pushing away the voice, the field, the seeds into a paper bag he suddenly saw. Ares soothed himself rationalizing that after all, she'd only given him one blue light. "I'd lie ... there ... summer or winter, blazing sun or driving rain, and I could see everything—not something, not anything—everything! I took Quantum Physics—everything bounces, jitters—everything—
Floats. Did you not tell me about everything, Ares?
Now he grinned like a Halloween pumpkin. She doesn't know about my paper bag of ... me. His buddy'd been wrong. She wasn't gonna get everything. He kept talking. "My father thought he taught me hunting, looking, listening. But I already knew all that—because I am all that. You see?" He took her hand and touched it to the side of his head.
A little boy with light brown skin and raven-black hair sat next to Sahera. Ares flung himself out of his stool onto the sticky floor. The Iraqi boy held a finger to his own lips and slid under the counter. Ares crawled under the bar stools. Nothing.
Sahera pulled him up, smirking and frowning. Light for darkness, Ares.
Ares closed his eyes, breathed deep. He could hear his father with the women he brought home. They'd drink somewhere, he'd bring them back, and fuck them and choke them, or choke them and fuck them, while Ares listened from his bed to their whistling gasps.
Don't fuck with me, Ares!
His eyes opened. Sahera picked at her neck. "You need to surround yourself with blue light."
He thought of the police cars he'd ridden in following his last two tours. "Been there. Done that."
"Let's go to your field."
But I didn't tell you about my field. How did you know? Ares thought about what his fellow vet had said. "I know about you wanting land."
She laughed. "I'll take your land, whether we go to your place or mine—but I think you'd agree that your precious field sounds more comfortable than lying on a broomstick."
Marine, I gotta bargain for you. The little boy was back. This time, he wore a California Angels baseball cap. Dried blood smeared the A's gold halo.
That was my hat. Ares shook. Sahera put another jewel to his lips. The boy disappeared in the sudden blaze. Sahera smiled. Now some of her teeth were missing again. I must be having a fugue—that's what the shrink called it, a black spot. PTSD. Sun spot.
Ares managed to pay the bill. They went out to his truck. She patted his arm. "Let's talk about ... whatever you like. We'll get some beer, go back to your place."
As he drove, he babbled, afraid the little boy's voice would return. "I made this cedar plaque in shop, and carved this saying that ... I thought my mother had said ... " He caught Sahera staring, and he stopped, wondering how he could've ever heard his mother say anything. Darkness for light—it's only fair. " ... And I painted each letter a different color. When I took it home, my father said, 'What the fuck'd you make a piece of garbage like that for?'" It was so strange ... my father actually speaking to me ...
Sahera shook his shoulder. Startled, Ares swerved. Sahera didn't seem worried. "Adios, Asshole to that motherfucking detonator, right? Pull over, Ares. I'm gonna stop in this bodega, get us some beer."
Ares watched her pick out the cheapest beer. Women and children, first. He kept watching her and continued his story out loud as if she could hear him. "And I told him the truth. That I made it for my mother."
Women and children, first, Sahera answered.
"My head exploded—I never felt the wall even though my ear took the full impact. My father's voice was calm. 'The only thing you made your mother was dead.'"
She got back in the truck. "And you signed up for the Marines the next day, through the government to make sure you were still representing the nation, and not the mercenaries."
You take me as I am.
I wouldn't want you any other way, Marine. He looked at her, relieved by her gentle tone.
Watch out for the paperbags!
Ares yelped and ducked. Nothing happened except that Sahera scootched him over with her bottom which, when he leaned back up, looked a little fat now. "I'll drive, sold—Marine." When they got to his house, she took him inside, took off his clothes, lay him down.
She took off her own clothes and went out to the kitchen. "Remember when you were a kid ... " She floated back in, holding a blown up paper bag. Exploding paper bags?! She fell on him, bursting the bag in his face.
I warned the mercies taking the women soldiers back to the Green Zone the same road every day was dangerous ... "Today Is Wrong," I told the Command ... they asked what was my intel ... "I am my intel!" ... They laughed ... the women Marines were angry, saying I thought they were weak when they were Marines just like me ... I saw the paper bag buried just enough in the road dirt to look like trash. The little boy was walking barefoot ... I ran to him first cuz his left arm and right leg were stumps pumping blood into the dust, making a dirty purple-yellow dust blister ... I grabbed his stumps and tourniqueted them, staring into the boy's eyes, I gave him my Angels cap to distract him from reaching for his no longer leg and arm ... "Kid bomb!" The mercies pumped the boy full of bullets ... But the paper bag was already under the Humvee—long before the boy...women and children first—he didn't do it! "Fuck that fucking baby bomber! Save your fucking team, Arse!"
I ran to save the women as they lay screaming, the flames shining off their blood, cooking their skin a bright red glaze, topped with black crisp ... they stared ... eyes cooked open and teeth that grinned with no lips.
I am women and children first.
Half naked, Ares stumbled out of the wreck and shuffled down the road. He didn't think he was too far from his farm. He tried to get into his house, but Sahera's voice screamed from behind the scarred wooden door. "I told you, get the fuck away from here, you crazy bastard!"
The door swung open, and a baseball bat cracked his ribs. He fell on his back. Why's she calling me a bastard? I fight to protect women and children first.
Instantly, Sahera returned with a cellphone, standing over him, kicking him as she snapped selfies of her neck. Black handprints appeared in the camera's explosions of purple-white light. "Already uploaded, with your fingerprints signing the deal!"
Light for dark. Dark for light. How much more or longer? He attempted getting up, but his bruised chest and broken ribs made the cold dark air around him ripple with pain. He lay back, trying to breathe without passing out, and pointed to his heart. "Please ... can you help me?"
The purple-black bruise of the wheel made her laugh which she quickly transformed into tears. "You choked me! You fucking choked me! You deserve to be killed!"
She doesn't know about the field and the dandelion seeds at least. But if she found the paper bag, will she find them? He passed out.
My mother stands by a checkpoint road holding what looks like a spear. I'm in a jeep. The spear is actually a trash picker. She's gonna stick it in a paper bag on the road. I try to stop, but my body hurts too much to hit the brake. As I pass her, she says, "You've got to put something good in the paper bag," and reaches for the bag with her hand instead—
He bolted up and barked in pain. Sahera sat on his front door step, wearing a turtleneck sweater. He still lay near the front step. Grey, misty daylight. She tossed him a blanket. "Did you think you could fool me with that stupid shop plaque?"
He stared at her through pain haze. "Plaque?" he whispered. He shook his head vigorously and managed not to throw up. "No. I would never hurt you."
"You tried to kill me."
He struggled to remember the night before. The light was blinding him, hurting him—he was trying to stop it. Women and children first. Women and children first. Women and children first. They met at the bar, stopped to get something to drink at the corner store, they went to his place, she came out of the kitchen with a paper bag, and after he saw that paper bag, he didn't remember anything else until the crash. You can't have what's mine!
Women and children first, isn't that what you ALWAYS say? Besides, you already gave your stuff to me—including that little secret you think is so precious. She dramatically rubbed her neck. "Like this? Or like this?" The bruises faded, darkened. She grinned. "How dark is your darkness, Marine?" She drove off.
When she returned, it was in his damaged truck stuffed with cleaning supplies, electrical parts, nails, chemicals, electronics components, and lots of paper bags.
Sahera rousted Ares from where he'd collapsed, and made him carry everything into the house.
He lost all track of time as he went from unloading the vehicle to filling the house to digging up the back yard, passing out when Sahera disappeared.
At some point, she came out with food and beer. He reached for the food. The pain drove him to his knees.
She squatted in front of him. "Do you like my blue light?" Showed you the little boy isn't dead after all, right?
Right. He couldn't have died because I just saw him. Women and children first. And Sahera was alive in front of him so he hadn't killed her either. "Yes."
What does a soldier need with a house? He kept falling in all the holes around the house as Sahera brought him in. The kitchen and living room were cluttered with devices that looked like IEDs. But I didn't make those.
Sahera waved a UV wand over the objects. They glowed under the purple-white spatters of blood, spit, sweat, semen. It's your match, Ares.
He shook his head, but she squeezed his mouth open and swabbed his cheek, showed him the result. If you wanna stop a bomb, you gotta know how to make a bomb.
He tried to block her, but stopped, shocked by the needle marks tracking the inside of his elbows. But I didn't do this!
She pushed him onto the sofa while she turned on the computer. Which part of this didn't you do? Its soft blue glow shone black on the bruises around her neck as she picked another blue light off her neck and dropped it in a glass of liquid and made him drink it. She typed something.
The blue glow was radiant. He could feel the little boy's smile already, knew he was standing behind the woman. Sahera looked beautiful again. She printed something and left the house.
The little boy appeared as soon as she was gone. His clothes glowed blood smear. He sat at the computer and poked at the keys. Ares heard spurting sounds. We know the witch is Kazaby. Liar.
Ares looked at the screen. The boy pulled up scans Sahera had made of his court papers, his medical records. The boy's one remaining hand opened psychiatry notes of things Ares had thought the night before, the tours before, had never told anyone—not even the shrink.
Now the boy showed Ares screenshots of explosives made with the same household cleaning products and other items Sahera had brought to the house.
The images always ended with a paper bag.
Why's she doing this to me?
The little boy's blood leaked from his tourniquets, glistening in the computer's light. Because women and children first. She uses what us.
Is that what the boy said? What Us? Or did you say what Is?
The boy turned to Ares. Why're you doing this to you?
When Sahera came back, the suns around her neck shone more blue rays mixed with purple-black bruises. "You have this thing about paperbags." She boxed his ears. "So you're gonna put all your own bombs in paperbags and I'll blow them up for you."
"What do you mean?" Tears of exhaustion trickled down Ares's face as he watched the boy watching him watch Sahera. How're you alive again?
The boy shrugged. I am always alive for you.
"You know what an IED is. Improvise." And she pointed to the field. Ares went out to the field and found the bag that she'd put the alcohol in that night he'd first taken the blue light.
It's only a bag. The little boy blew a dandelion. Its seeds floated, tiny parachutes. Ares suddenly gathered all dandelion seeds he could find and filled the bag. He took it back to the house, hiding it from Sahera.
The police escorted him, handcuffed, from the house. Sahera stood in the doorway and watched.
Sahera sat in the courtroom when he was sentenced. "90% of you is legally disabled. 10% of you should be the soldier who served three tours for his country," the judge said.
Ares started to ask what that meant, to say that he was 100% the soldier who had served three tours for his country, but he couldn't talk and hold the dying little boy in his arms. Can you see him? Ares wanted to shout, but he couldn't make a sound. The little boy stared into his eyes as he held up the paper bag of dandelion seeds. Show them it's only a paper bag.
"Drop the bag!" the bailiff shouted.
His arms trembling with the effort of not dropping the bleeding slippery body of the Iraqi boy, Ares staggered, but managed to throw the paper bag full of dandelion seeds into the air. At the same moment, Sahera stood up and screamed, "He's got an IED!"
No, look, it's just a paper bag of seeds. As Ares dropped the boy and popped the bag, he never heard the bang of the bailiff's shots and the spectators' screams. He just fell backwards to the floor, the stark glare of the fluorescents burning his eyes with molten blue light as he watched the dandelion seeds float down, down into the spreading purple-black pool of his blood.
Phoebe Reeves-Murray's creative inspirations include the parent/child relationship, Jungian symbols, magic realism, fairy tales, and the fate of animals. Her fiction has appeared or will appear in Dali's Love Child, Pantheon Magazine, Devilfish Review, DAZ, and Prima; and her plays have been performed on NPR, San Francisco's Next Stage, and at the Maine Playwright's Festival.