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* 2nd Place Creative Writer’s Notebook Short Fiction Writing Contest 2006
* Honorable Mention JA Konrath Mystery Online Writing Contest

DEPTH OF A SOLDIER’S SOUL

By

Kathy Kulig

Grenada: October, 1983

Sean Bailey huddled in the rear of the helicopter, adrenaline pumping his muscles into blocks of concrete. His uniform was soaked with sweat and plastered against his skin. Peering out the open door, he watched as two other choppers veered off and sped toward St. George University School of Medicine where the heaviest fighting against the Cuban military plagued the university and threatened the lives of American students.

The gale from his helicopter’s rotors thrashed against the tops of palm trees and stirred up the tropical beach into a man-made sand storm. Along the water’s edge, rhythmic blue-green waves skimmed the shoreline, leaving foamy arcs in the wet sand.

Sean gripped his rifle in order to keep his hands from shaking. Bile churned in his stomach as he watched the two aircraft disappear over the mountains. The pilot of Sean’s unit raced to Grande Anse Beach for their evacuation mission.

Trying to calm himself, Sean drew in several slow, deep breaths, but the air made him nauseous; the cabin reeked of fuel and body odor. In the distance, mortar blasts and bright flashes of firearms splattered the hillside. Smoke and flames threatened to engulf the Easter-egg-colored houses. In just a few hours, the horrors of war had desecrated the serenity of this sleepy, tropical island.

“Keep an eye out,” Stinger, the door gunner shouted.

Sean’s mouth went dry, while he frantically scanned the ground below searching for the wounded soldiers. “Come on! Where are they?”

“We got two!” the pilot shouted over his shoulder. “Get ready!”

Bullets tore through the skin of the helicopter. Stinger returned fire; shell casings bounced across the cabin floor. Sean pulled his rifle closer. His finger nervously tapped just above the trigger.

I don’t want to be here.

The helicopter descended to the beach. Black smoke obliterated the landing zone as the pilot struggled to find a spot to touch down. Stinger hung outside the chopper in his monkey strap, spraying a barrage of bullets across the beach in a sweeping motion. In Sean’s three years of experience, the door gunner’s life expectancy in the hot zone was thirty seconds, so there was no time for miscalculation.

Sean jumped from the chopper before it even touched the ground. “Move! Move!” he shouted to himself and also to the two soldiers, bloody and battered, who limped toward the black steel angel that had dropped from heaven.

One soldier, struggling to walk, nearly collapsed. Sean slung his arm around the wounded man for support. Then a flicker of movement caught Sean’s attention. He looked up and felt the blood drain from his face. He was staring into the sights of an enemy soldier’s AK47. Only a few yards away, the enemy was positioned behind a shack, hidden from the door gunner.

Sean had no cover.

I’m dead.

“Let’s go!” Stinger screamed at Sean.

Sean stared wide-eyed as the enemy slowly lowered his gun and nodded his head, acknowledging Sean’s release.

“Let’s go!” Stinger screamed again.

Sean turned and staggered to the chopper, half dragging the injured man. He jumped inside with the wounded soldiers and wondered why his enemy hadn’t pulled the trigger. The chopper lifted off, banked hard to the right, and rose out of harm’s way. Sean was oblivious to the ranting cries of the wounded soldiers who lay bleeding on the floor of the cabin.

 

Grenada: October, Present Day

A fierce wind transformed the usually calm ocean into turbulent white caps. Sean hung onto the stairway railing leading to the upper deck of the dive boat as it plowed through the heavy seas. His wife, Colleen, gripped the railing and closed her eyes. Sean secured her between his arms, creating a muscular barricade.

Using his knees like shock absorbers, he synchronized his movements as they rode each wave.  Turning his face into the wind, he inhaled the humid sea air as it whipped through his dark hair. Then the boat scaled a steep wave and plunged down the opposite side. A wall of water crashed over the bow, soaking them with salty spray. Sean laughed as his wife wiped her eyes and spat out the briny water.

“That’s it. I’m going inside the cabin,” she said.

“You’ll be getting wet soon, anyway,” he teased.

“Not without my scuba gear on.”

Sean noticed Captain Mako’s eyes skim Colleen’s slim figure as she stepped inside the cabin. Her soaked blond hair dripped down her neck, and her wet tee-shirt revealed her bikini. The captain glanced at Sean, and then turned to study the gauges on the instrument panel..

“It be calmer once we get past the reef,” Captain Mako said in his Spanish accent. With his bare feet planted on the deck, he leaned and swayed effortlessly to the rhythm of the boat. One hand rested on the wheel, while he sipped coffee from a plastic travel mug.

Large windows encircled the cabin and a row of bench seats lined opposite walls. Colleen dropped onto a bench seat and held on as the boat climbed then plummeted over the next wave, splashing foamy water against the windows. She wiped her face with a towel and threw it at Sean. He snatched it from the air and winked at her.

“What’s the first dive today?” Sean asked the captain.

“The Bianca C wreck. It also called the Titanic of the Caribbean. In 1961, it caught fire and sank. The wreck now in 165 feet of water.”

“165 feet!” Colleen said.

“Don’t worry. Most of the super structure is in ninety feet,” Captain Mako replied. “Just watch your depth and bottom time. Alfonso, our divemaster, will brief you when we reach the dive site.”

Sean and Colleen tugged wetsuits out of their dive bags and strained to wriggle into the stiff neoprene.

“So is Mako a nickname, captain?” Sean stood next to the captain and observed his boating technique.

“Yeah, I had run-in with a Mako shark once.”

The captain turned the wheel and worked the throttle, expertly maneuvering over the rough seas. “I was finishing a dive and using the anchor line to pull myself up to the surface. The current was strong. Felt like a flag on a flagpole. Then I spy the Mako shark circling me.”

“Not a good sign,” Sean said.

The captain shrugged. “He got closer with each pass, but I was still forty feet down.” The captain turned the boat and pointed toward a cluster of floating orange markers in the distance. “We almost at our dive site.”

“What about the shark?” Sean asked. “What happened?”

“Well, when the shark brushed me, I knew I was in trouble. On his next pass, I bopped him on the nose with my dive light. He got spooked, swam off.” He made the motion of a fish swimming with his hand.

“Lucky you didn’t make him mad.” Colleen shook her head in disbelief.

Mako laughed. “Have you two been to Grenada before?”

“I have,” Sean said. “During the U. S. invasion in ’83, I was a Marine.”  
“I fought in that conflict too. It still gives me nightmares.”

Sean averted his eyes and stared out over the ocean. “Nightmares. Kind of why I returned. When a man loses his soul during the horrors of war, sometimes he needs to return to the battlefield to be whole again.”

Mako nodded, then tugged the throttle and slowed the boat. “Alfonso, get the anchor ready.” He shouted to the divemaster. “There is one thing about that war that I never forget,” Mako said. “I watch a helicopter land on Grande Anse Beach. An enemy soldier jump out to rescue two wounded men. I had my rifle aimed right at him. I had clear shot, but I could not do it.

He stared at Mako as a chill slowly crawled up his back. “Why didn’t you shoot?” 

Mako stared back at him for a long time. “Long day, that was.” He gave Sean a sly smirk and shrugged. “I wanted to take my damn boots off.”

Sean gulped in air with an open mouth, but couldn’t speak. The terror of that day echoed through his memories.

"You okay, man?”

Sean nodded slowly. His words came out in a stuttered whisper. “I remember that day, Mako….I remember you.” He studied the self-satisfied glint in the captain’s eyes. “Sometimes a soldier finds his soul within the heart of his enemy.”

©2005 Kathy Kulig. All right reserved.

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