"A man in a white dress shirt ran up to Mateo. It was his father, desperately trying to shout something to him over the roar of the engines and the prop wash."
Mateo was hot and very tired. The light was fading as though someone were throwing layer after layer of gauze over his face. The ceiling faded from white, to gray, to dark gray.
There was a roar. A shadow swept across his vision and was gone. “The sun’s blinking,” he thought. The big, twin-engined cargo plane touched down two-hundred yards away, its tires raising blue puffs that were distorted by the heat waves rising from the asphalt runway.
He was in a crystal room. Mose was there, standing on a raised platform in the room’s center, explaining something. The sun crossed one of the crystal’s panes and the moon traversed another. “Check it out,” said Mose. “This is where everything should be on departure. Be sure you know the LZ coordinates on your maps.” Mose looked at him. “Everyone got register points Alpha, Romeo, Quebec and Zebra?”
Mateo unfolded his map. Someone had marked the checkpoints on the clear, plastic map cover in grease pencil. He wanted Mose to stop, to explain what the hell was going on. But the sun and moon were moving faster now and he knew that there wasn’t time for that.
He looked up and asked, “When do we jump off?”
“What’s the ETA?”
“How many choppers?”
“Three slicks and two gunships. It’s a Mike Force operation, but they’ll need somebody from our team who knows the ground. How short are you?”
“Thirteen days and a wakeup. Back in the world,” Mose said. Then he sighed and said, “Real close. You going or not shortimer?”
“I’m in,” Mateo replied, instantly regretting it.
Mateo could hear the whine of the turbines and whoosh of main rotor blades. The air was thick with aviation fuel exhaust as he struggled into his web gear and followed his squad toward the chopper door. He ignored the usual urge to urinate as he climbed in and settled himself in the opening by the door gunner. He watched Mose heave himself into the next chopper, sit with his legs dangling out of the slick’s door, and rest his M-16 across his thighs.
All five ships’ engines rose to take off pitch. A man in a white dress shirt ran up to Mateo. It was his father, desperately trying to shout something to him over the roar of the engines and the prop wash. The ship lurched up and forward, leaving the old man standing on the flattened grass, his upturned face still working, his arms outstretched, as though he were trying to embrace his son.
Mateo was racing forward, gaining altitude in the rhythmically vibrating ship. He looked back into the chopper to check on his squad. His thesis advisor, Dr. Kay, was sitting next to Fi, the Nung Chinese rifleman. The wind was making a mess of her perm and threatening to undo the buttons of her white, silk blouse. She was using her hands as a megaphone as she yelled at Mateo. “It’s those last three chapters on Chiang Kai-shek.”
“Say again,” Mateo shouted back.
“Dr. Michaels thinks you’ve got some unattributed sources!” she shrieked.
Mateo grabbed for the door as the ship suddenly banked right and went into a steep, turning dive.
“You have to do some re-writes,” Dr. Kay yelled, as the edge of a clearing flashed into view. The pilot cut the power and brought the slick’s nose up. There was an explosion by the left side of Mateo’s head as the door gunner opened up with his machine gun. Hot brass casings bounced off his booney hat and onto his bare neck, burning him, making him flinch and curse. He looked up and saw Mose was smiling at him from the door of his chopper.
The meadow was coming up fast. Dr. Kay was yelling. “We have to discuss this now!” Mateo planted his boot on the landing skid, waited for the door gunner to stop firing, and jumped.
He stumbled, recovered, and ran straight away from the helicopter, glancing back to be sure his squad was following him. The empty ships lifted off and scattered over the trees, leaving them in silence as they formed a skirmish line and headed for the trees. Mateo clicked his weapon off of safety. He froze.
Something was moving in the trees. People. They were dressed in bright reds, blues, purples, and yellows. Two of them were dancing. Step, step, step-together. Step, step.... “The fucking Tango,” he thought. It was Jenny and Roberto. Two-year old Sammy stepped shyly from behind a tree and waved. Michelle and Adrian were sitting on a blanket, laughing at something. They glanced at him and smiled.
Mateo’s radio came to life. “Avenger, this is Burnoff–over.” It was the air cover. He yanked the radio around to his face, hit the transmit button, and said, “This is Avenger, over.”
“I have movement to your front. I’m coming in, over.”
“What the hell is going on,” he thought. “Where the fuck is Mose when I need to talk to him?” He could hear the Phantom beginning its run as he hit the transmit button. “Burnoff, Burnoff, this is Avenger. Negative on the air strike. I say again, negative ....”
The Phantom roared over and banked left. Mateo let go of the radio and dove for the ground. The explosion punched in his eardrums. The shock wave lifted him off of the ground and slammed back down so hard that he couldn’t breath. Dust filled his mouth and throat.
He gasped, opened his eyes, and raised his head. Dust specks hung suspended in the afternoon light that slanted through his apartment window. The white curtains hung still in the summer air. A textbook and a yellow tablet lay on the desk beside his typewriter. He could smell the aroma of coffee coming from the kitchen.
Mateo lay back, took a deep breath, and remembered that Mose was dead. KIA. Killed In Action. He had been shot to death by his own nervous squad on a moonless night, a month after Mateo’s tour was up.
Outside, somewhere high in the pepper tree, he could hear the sound of a woodpecker making that characteristic, thock-thock, thock-thock-thock, sound. “Back in the world,” he said.
Geronimo Tagatac has published short fiction in the Writer’s Forum, The Northwest Review, The River Oak Review, MoonRabbit Review, and Orion. He lives and writes in Salem, Oregon.