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Gulf One

By J.A. Pollard
Published in ART TIMES December 2014

Clement Lucius Clay huddled on the sand dune starting a vision. He held his semi-automatic loosely, keeping it pointed toward the ridge in front, wondering where they'd got to, how close they were to enemy lines, to the oil field, wishing the goddamned ‘dozers would hurry up-- the tanks with big blades welded to the front-- come on up and bury those ragheads in their trenches. Run right over them and bury them alive before they had a chance to set off another rocket. "Go git the goddamned SCUD!" Where the hell were the air boys? Goddam scent all around -- like when you gut-shot a deer. Big stink of burning oil downwind. Fuckin’ scorpions scuttling everywhere.

Charlie'd been babbling about leeches. Right out there in the desert babbling about his sister and how she'd died in childbirth, and how the leeches had gotten all over them that summer they'd swum in the brook when they were little kids-- talking about leeches in the middle of the goddamned desert, Clement couldn't believe it. "Charlie!"

Someone, somewhere, was crying. Making a bubbling sound. And all he could picture was the desert like a pocked, grey pancake, riddled by wadis, dried up riverbeds, crumbling cliffs, and gypsum shining in the sun. Nothing there to bubble. But the vision included the pond, about the size of a dime with all those buildings around it, so tall they cut out the sun mostly, and the water gleaming like a little, sad eye, looking up at clouds. Once it had been a marsh, they told him. A major ‘mother marsh’. With a lake to the east. All filled in now. Nothing but buildings and roads and houses and people and cars. Reeking of oil and gasoline. Cement. Made of sand. Like the desert. 'Home,' by god! At least 'over there.' Back there. Back where he wanted to be.

Only now he couldn't get out of this position they had him in. Had to lie here-- Gawd! the smell was awful! He'd been driving the jeep with the photographer in it, and the journalist, crazy guys who wanted to "see the real thing." "Get us in close, Clemmy baby, get us real close." And they were dead now. At least he thought they were. Along with Charlie. Back where they'd been ambushed.

Was someone crying? Charlie? Damned awful bubbling! Maybe one of THEM! The bastards. Dirty bastards! Killed his best friend! He'd--

Vision jiggled. Swamp where the pond had been. Was now. Because he seemed to be in it.

"Clem!" said Charlie. "Clem, ole buddy. Oh, my buddy!" And Charlie's face was there above him, Charlie's goofy, gorgeous, dark brown face, teeth all white in the darkness.

"Jesus, Clem, you-all hurt bad, buddy?"

But he couldn't answer.

"Dozers comin'. Hol' on tight, buddy. Hol' on tight, ole pal. Bury the sons-a-bitches."

And the world appeared to rumble. And it was very confusing because Charlie was dead, and HE was hunkered--

He felt the semi slip from his fingers, pondered. ‘The bog is gone-- along with part of the pond which is salt, now, open to the sea--‘

And the journalist kept poking his head up, croaking, "Jesus! Jesus!" And the photographer was getting his camera ready, fumbling with the film, his fingers shaking so he couldn't wind it right.

‘Jesus,’ thought Clement Lucius. ‘Quite a guy. Nobody wanted to do what the Big Man told them to. Everybody wanted to fight instead. Jesus: quite a guy!’

Wind seemed to be picking up. It had been overcast, like being in a hot, brass bowl, the world one color, the scent of-- something dry and dead and moonlike in the air. Dry bones. Sand came sprinkling on his face like fingers walking, everything on tiptoe. Charlie muttered. Then came a sound like the groan of monstrous animals off to the south, something ominous and complaining. And the wind picked up a little more. Sand spattered harder.

Clement Lucius said, "You're dead, baby. You are dead."

"What the fuck?" Charlie began.

To which the journalist replied, "Jesus, he's hit bad."

And he could hear the photographer taking pictures, just a faint clicking. Like an insect.

"Home."

"Getcha outa this, Clemmy boy," Charlie was crooning.

"Naw--" and the vision took over: A big, incredible explosion and flash of light. Blinding. Buildings crumbling, horrific scent of burning rubber, metal, glass, stone, skin, bones, eyeballs, fingernails, steaming sewers. And he screamed, watching the pond erupt in the park, evaporate in an instant. Watching the ocean boil.

"Clem!" said Charlie.

"Gawd!" the photographer whined.

"He’s dead," pronounced the journalist. "And, Jesus, look at the expression on his face! What'd he say to you, Charlie? What was he tellin' you just then?" While the sand came harder, a sound like insects rubbing wings together, a quick, metallic buzzing.

But the dark-skinned man just sat there, holding the hand of his friend. "Heah come the 'dozers. Gonna bury them sonsa bitches out there."

"Yeah," the journalist replied. "I can hear 'em screamin'."

"Move yo butts!"

And they went scrambling away, taking Clement's semi with them, running along the hip of the dune, sliding down into gravel, plunging away from the trenches where the enemy had dug, feeling the sandstorm quicken, begin to come roiling over in a thick, red blast.

"Where the hell are they, Charlie? Where's that guy that yelled?"

The photographer was stumbling ahead, white hair full of grit turning it red, the journalist coughing and crouching, looking anguished.

"Straight ahaid," yelled Charlie, thinking, BETTER be straight ahaid, knowing he could get turned around real easy. "Cover ya fuckin' nose an' mouth!" coughing into his collar, pulling his shirt up high. "Where the hell ARE they?" hearing what sounded like the rumble of engines, hearing the wind.

It rose over them, then, and circled around like a hound on a scent, rose thick and howling; and they scuttled, crouching, keeping close together, Charlie handing Clement's rifle to the journalist, the photographer hanging onto his camera for dear life.

They ran along the dune base, blinded by the sand, which was like a reddish, choking snowstorm, thinking of Clement's body back there, trying not to think of Clement's body. And together they stopped. Because out of the howl came a voice quite near and clearly calling-- and it didn't say, "Move yo butts!" Instead it spoke a language none of them understood but all of them recognized, and it rose from underneath their feet. Almost. With a horrible sense of disaster they knew that a lookout was challenging.

"Peace in the name of god!" the photographer whimpered. "Hum delillah." They stopped stock still.

No reply. There was only the wind and the stinging, obliterating sand, and the memory of Clement's body being buried back there, somewhere back there, wherever "back" was.

Charlie turned around and scurried off in the opposite direction, the journalist and photographer following. He was thinking, ‘Shit! Shit! Shit!’

The journalist was thinking, ‘What a story! What a story! If only I can get it out!’

While the photographer imagined, ‘Jesus Christ! Nearly fell down on toppa them!’

And, slithering, falling, choking, gagging, they came against a towering hulk of burnt-out vehicle blocking the way, and Charlie said, "Know 'xactly where we are!"

#

Back in the tent, showered and fed, the photographer sidled up to him. "What'd he say, Chuck? What'd Clement say at the last of it?"

"Buried out there! Pushed right in with the bastards. Dozer driver told me so. Buried out there-- along with THEM!"

"But what'd he say, Charlie?"

And they both lit cigarettes. "Had a vision," Charlie said. "Home-- ya know?-- big city with the park in the middle of it? Said he saw it goin' up in radiation like a mushroom cloud." His mouth was grinning while his eyes looked blank. "Like a mushroom cloud, man, like a great, big, fiery furnace."

The photographer stood there, staring at his feet. Then his legs gave way. He sat. Trembled. Couldn't seem to stop.

"What the--?"

"S'true, Charlie. Journalist told me. All we got left is sand, and bulldozed bodies out there. Someone nuked ol Boston yesterday."

(J. A. Pollard, artist and past fiction contributor to ART TIMES, lives in Winslow, Maine.)