Before the two-month stints in Djibouti. Before the machine guns, the all-hours shifts. The flies blacking out the sky and the blackouts. Go back before the defense contract salary paid for your houses, your nightmares, your long list of deathdays. Forget the muscly Trump flag over your temporary bed. The sandstorms. The beheadings. The suicide bombs. Al-Shabaab. Go back before Poland, and spying on Russian spies. The code names. Your intel. The checkpoints. The scans. The close calls have not occurred.
You’re back before the drinking on leave becomes your best life. Before hangover headaches. Raw throats and toilet bowls. No mimosas for breakfast. No cocktails at lunch. Go back and remember orange soda. Hot dogs grilled juicy and slathered with ketchup, before ketchup resembled spilled blood. Replace the bodies with buns. Before that time the sergeant made you impersonate an Iraqi woman to get a terrorist to talk during an interrogation. Before tracking dots on 3-D maps, and alerting higher ups when they crossed wrong lines. Go back before the higher-ups alerted the ground troops, and the ground troops killed the dots.
Remember how I hated mayonnaise on burgers? Remember the orange soda we never got to have, except on days like this? Mown lawn and butter and sun-warmed tar. When the Fourth of July meant sprinklers and pools. Remember fireworks and fireflies. Forget explosives and fires. Before detached limbs and scorched skin, there were ribs and fingers and wings.
Your fellow Marines’ limbs never scattered like litter across the dirt.
Remember leaping from swings. Forget diving from planes. Forget the casualty reports you composed: your first MOS. Before a Humvee drill at Camp Pendleton flattened your friend. Forget the gas chamber burning your lungs at Parris Island. The sexism in the barracks and mess hall. Those horny, barely legal, male Marines who clutched at your flesh, called you slut. Who laughed.
Forget at eighteen, that Marine recruiter who rolled his eyes, and scoffed. “Why would you want to join those Air Force pussies?” he asked. “Marines are the toughest there is.”
Forget all those acronyms. WMD. IED. MOS. MRE. The surgeries that fixed your legs once combat training broke them. The time you told me you were shipping out again because they need more “bodies” in Iraq. Before the flashbacks there were watermelon slices. Pink dripping down your chin. Before the anger there were the summers we gorged on macaroni salad. Drank so much orange soda our tongues stayed stained.
Go back to the time the only game we played was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You, the Blue Ninja every damned time. The toughest fighter, the leader of the pack. Me: April O’Neil, ready to report. The only thing you killed were the nemeses of our imaginations. The only things marching were the armies of ants, and all they wanted was sugar in the sun.
Winner in the CNF competition of A SmokeLong Summer