By Justin Sloan
The house was silent. There hadn’t been much noise in Oliver’s life lately, not since little Josh’s third birthday. Oliver paused at the stairs leading to his son’s room, rubbing the back of his hand against his nose as he sniffled. A tiny green coat hung by the stairs, just above the doll-sized matching rain boots.
The same as every day for the past three years, Oliver turned to the cherry oak table and pulled a protein bar from his pocket. His bites seemed to echo through the house as he unwrapped the Vista Daily Gazette. The morning sunrise cast an orange hue over the room. The headline said something about a fire in California, nothing new. He turned to page eleven where the obituaries were, then tossed the rest of the paper into a large garbage bag behind him. It was way past being full and the paper slid from the pile to the floor.
Oliver used his thumb to scan the names, wondering if, no, hoping, he would see his own. Not today. He stood, hung his head, and allowed the page to fall with the rest. The complete silence filled his thoughts as he stumbled to the couch.
“Better get some sleep,” he mumbled to himself as his eyelids fell. His night shift on Camp Pendleton would begin again in twelve hours.
When Oliver awoke that evening he rolled to his right side and placed his hand between his left rib and arm, almost hoping to feel no pulse. He sighed, let down by the heavy thump of his heart.
He stood slowly, cracking his back and sniffling before heading to the kitchen to grab his Lucky Charms and skim milk. That sugary marshmallow smell lingered in his nostrils from days as a child, the only comfort on evenings lately. He half-smiled as the milk turned purplish from the sugar. He sat at the table, staring at the lines in the wood.
Julie walked into the dining room and stood behind him, leaning against the wall. Her long brown hair hadn’t changed a bit over the last three years. She wore the same old scarlet blouse.
“Oliver,” she said.
“I’m late.” He didn’t look up. He didn’t see or hear her.
“You’re putting yourself under too much stress.” She looked down at the overflowing papers. “Stop it okay, just stop.”
“I never wanted it this way.” He buried his face in his palms. After a moment he shouted in frustration and stood, looking for his cammie jacket.
“Is that all you’re going to eat?” she asked. She squatted and assessed one of the obituaries. “Keep eating like that and you may have your wish.”
He looked at his sticks for arms. His skin stretched tight over his knuckles, reminding him of a shrunken head exhibit he had once seen at the museums in Balboa Park. He had gone with Julie. They had walked off to a corner outside the historic theater and sneaked down the stairs of a side entrance, to kiss and fondle each other in broad daylight.
It had been so long since they last touched. That morning years ago when she had cornered him in the bathroom, the water running as she pulled him to bed. Later that night Josh had been conceived.
“I miss you,” he said, finding his jacket and tossing it on.
She stared at him with wide eyes, her lower lip trembling. After a moment of silence she turned and walked to the door to stare through the colored glass panes.
“Someday,” she muttered.
“Why can’t we be together now?” he said.
“You aren’t ready.” She turned back to him, arms crossed. “Three years of the night shift, yet you stay. We wanted you with us you know, I wanted you in my bed.”
“I want to quit.”
“Josh misses you, we both miss you.”
He brought the half-eaten bowl of cereal to the sink. She sighed.
“When are you going to learn to take better care of yourself?” she asked.
He was already heading for the door. He paused in the entryway. A salty breeze blew in from the ocean, chilling his face and hands, the only parts of his body not covered by fatigues. He lowered his head and turned to go.
He drove onto base, pausing to show his I.D. to a chipped tooth Marine who looked Indian. Once little Josh had saluted that same Marine and they had shared a moment of laughter. Josh, his little soldier. Now the Indian just nodded and waved him on, not noticing the unfastened seatbelt. Oliver pulled into the intersection without bothering to check his blind spot. The base was the same sandy brown it always was, speckled with palm trees and several Marines out for their evening run.
Staff Sergeant Casey was finishing the day shift when Oliver arrived at the classified workspace called a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, or SCIF. Casey set his pizza aside and rested his coke on his large belly, watching Oliver go through the changeover procedures.
Oliver had worked in SCIFs his whole military career, and this was the first that wasn’t just a metal box. Somehow the Camp Pendleton SCIF, on the southern side called Del Mar, had managed to obtain clearance to keep its windows. Still, the drab gray cubicles from wall-to-wall reminded him of the movie Office Space.
He pulled down one of the blinds and stared at the glistening Pacific. Not long ago, for Fourth of July, he had sat on that sand with his son in his arms, Julie at his side. Two years in a row they had huddled together as fireworks exploded overhead. She was so loving, smiling at little Josh and caressing his short black hair, tightening his little green coat to protect him from the ocean breeze.
“Good to go?” Casey said, pulling Oliver from his thoughts.
“Yup,” Oliver took the changeover sheet and initialed at the bottom. “Looking forward to another eventful night.”
Casey smirked and raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, right. Hey, there’s some pizza left if you want… How you holding up Gunny?”
Oliver lifted the corner of the pizza box. He hated pepperoni, so he passed. “I’ll be all right.”
“You take care now, okay?” Casey patted him on the shoulder. He stood and walked toward the massive metal door of the SCIF, standing at the doorway. “Life’s not so bad, Gunny, look where we are, right?”
Oliver checked the cameras for movement. “Julie never forgave me… you know, for working night shifts. She wanted me to quit…”
“As if we have that choice.”
“Huh, yeah… Maybe we do? Maybe. Maybe I could get up and leave right now?” Oliver stood, looking at the door. “What if I gave all this up and went to Julie and Josh right now.”
“You want me to stay, Gunny?”
“There was this time, just outside our house… Josh was splashing around in a puddle in his little rain boots, smiling, laughing, his little hands reaching out to me. So I joined him, what the heck, right? Julie came out and saw us there, playing in the muddy water like sparrows in a birdbath. She yelled at us, asking how I could be so childish… I started to feel bad, I wanted to yell back, but then she smiled for a split second and I knew she was being a mom, the best mom.”
“No, I’ll stay, I have to. You go ahead. Have a good night Staff Sergeant.”
Staff Sergeant Casey would go home to spend the evening with his wife, at night curling up in bed with her. Probably more. But not Oliver. He sat down at his workstation, logged onto his computer, and stared at the screen. He used to be so happy. He looked back at the pizza and gritted his teeth as he grabbed a slice. It’s just pepperoni, he thought. Better than nothing.
At one point in the night his head started nodding and he dreamed of Julie yelling at him the on the eve of his first night shifts. “How long is this going to last?” she was saying, the smooth of her neck accentuated by the delicate silk nighty she wore. Oliver lectured her on duty in the Marines, and how he didn’t have a choice. He wished now he had never spoken to her that way, had instead taken her in his arms and listened, really listened.
A phone rang, pulling Oliver from the dream.
“Hello?” he said into the receiver, doing his best to mask his drowsiness.
An alarm had gone off and he had to provide the security guards the password to show he hadn’t been overrun. He checked the list, “pepperoni” was the password. How odd, he thought.
“I hate pepperoni pizza,” he said, using the word in a sentence like he was trained to do. “But I had two slices anyway.”
The guard laughed and gave the return word. “I always wake up happier on Easter, you know, Christmas just doesn’t do it for me anymore.”
“Have a good night Marine.”
Oliver hung up the phone, wondering how anyone could like Easter more than Christmas. He popped two Five-Hour Energy drinks and was up the rest of the uneventful watch.
At five in the morning the next shift arrived. It was Wednesday, so Lance Corporal Smoot was taking over.
“You sure you got this?” Oliver said, eyeing the kid fresh with pimples and covered in tattoos, like every other young Marine.
“Yeah,” the Lance Corporal said. “Don’t worry, Sergeant Plath is coming in at nine, until then I’ll survive.”
Oliver stared at him with narrow eyes. “How old are you anyway?”
“Don’t worry, Gunny. I got this. You on shift tonight?”
“Yup… see you then.”
Oliver departed the building, trudging through the dark, past several young Marines smoking. He reached his green ’97 Corolla, where he sat for a moment, watching a fly buzz around the corner of his windshield. He leaned back and turned the keys. The sun hadn’t reached the brown hills of Camp Pendleton yet. He waited, listening to the rumbling of the car, smelling the metallic exhaust. When the first streak of crimson hit the wisps of clouds, he turned on the lights and shifted his Toyota into drive before heading to the I-5 south. A thought struck him, like the flash of sunlight across his rearview mirror – no more suffering.
He hadn’t driven half a mile from the base when a truck swerved in front of him, then overcompensated and slammed into a red Chevy. Oliver rolled the steering wheel hard to the right. The Corolla hit the guardrail. Screeching tore at his ears as he slammed on the brakes. His head spun and the smell of burnt rubber filled his nostrils.
Someone was screaming. Oliver looked in the rearview mirror and saw the Chevy upside down, the truck on its side perpendicular to it. The sunrise cast an eerie red glow on it all.
He cursed, jumping from the car. He dashed across the I-5 amid an onslaught of honking and swerving cars.
“Hey,” he yelled as he drew close. “Is anyone hurt?”
A teenage girl was crying and when Oliver rounded the truck he saw blood and smelled gasoline. The girl was in the passenger seat. She looked safe, but her boyfriend in the driver seat had banged his head pretty bad. Oliver opened the passenger door first, helping the girl out. He turned and saw an old man with sandy blonde hair pulling himself from the truck.
“Help me you bastard!” Oliver yelled at the old man before turning to help the boyfriend. The driver-side door to the car didn’t budge. He ran to the other side and climbed through the back passenger side door, maneuvering the upside down vehicle and baby-seat now on the ceiling. No child had been in the car.
“Hang in there,” Oliver said when the boyfriend’s eyes flickered towards him. A large gash in the man’s forehead was dripping blood down his face. Oliver wrapped his arms around the boy and undid the seat belt, catching him as he fell. When he reached the back doors the blonde man and the girl took the boyfriend to carry him from the wreckage. Oliver caught his breath and sunk to his knees, watching them hobble to safety. In the purplish morning light he saw headlights swerving as oncoming cars pulled aside, palm trees swaying as the wind came in from the ocean, and nearby at the truck, a shattered bottle of booze pouring its contents on the road. He shook his head sadly; drunk driving was something he could never forgive.
A flame flickered from behind and Oliver remembered the smell of gasoline.
He pulled himself up and ran. The air seemed to tighten. With a thud everything went red and Oliver was blasted from the wreck. The heat from the explosion surrounded him. His ears rang and his face stung as the cement scraped along his left cheek. His eyes burned, but he looked up to see the old man and the couple, shaking, but safe.
Slowly his eyes closed, and he felt himself floating.
The event had brought a new feeling of joy. He felt lighter when he grabbed the paper from his front porch that morning, smiling as if somehow the accident had healed him of his depression. He felt himself walking into his home. A brilliant light shone through the walls and ceiling, as if the sun were somehow shining right through the roof and the second floor. Speckled dust glimmered like gold as it caught the light.
“Welcome home,” Julie said.
Oliver tossed the rest of the paper aside and sat at the table. He thumbed the obituary, until half way down her realized he had heard his wife. Her beautiful, sweet voice, unheard for the past three years. He looked up at her, knowing at that moment he never had to check the obituary again. His name would be on it the next morning.
“Julie?” he said. “Is that really you?”
“What happened?” She smiled, her eyes happy but full of tears.
He stood, dropping the obituary. He had missed the warmth of her body against his. Holding her tight, he kissed her cheeks, her forehead, and then her lips. He pulled her back, holding her face and staring into her loving chestnut brown eyes. “There was an accident.”
Julie nodded in understanding. She stood before him with her comforting smile and outstretched hand. She smiled. Her sleek brown hair and smooth skin emanated their own radiance.
“It’s too early for you my love,” she said.
“It was too early for you and little Josh,” Oliver said. “Is he…”
“Yes,” she glanced toward the stairs. “He’s up there, are you ready?”
Oliver smiled and took her hands in his. “I have been for some time.”
She led him up the stairs, for the first time in three years. He hadn’t been able to go to his son’s room since the accident, when the drunk driver had taken the lives of his wife and child. She opened the door, and the heavenly light shone through their skin, warm and welcoming.
“Let’s go say hello,” she said. “He has missed you, my love. We have both really missed you.”
Justin Sloan served in the U.S. Marines for five years doing signals intelligence and martial arts instruction. His time in the military continues to influence his fiction and screenplays. Justin lives with his beautiful wife in El Cerrito, CA, and works for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco as an Asia financial analyst.