You drink the last of your water and follow it with a sand and salt air chaser. It goes down gritty, bloody.
The ocean stretches for miles to the west. Or maybe it’s kilometers here. Or some entirely different system of measurement. Perhaps a system with more inconsistencies than your own. Something half-realized — like this place — with some convoluted units like pflenchers or something.
You think the ocean is west. That’s where it always was at home, before you mobilized to the desert, before a rip appeared in the air and light and noise and flashing falling assailed you and you came here. That was two weeks ago, then it was today, and now it was a lifetime ago.
You sit on a lone log, washed up and half-embedded in the crystalline white sand. The wood squishes when you sit, and you feel the water creep its way through the seat of your uniform. It’s sticky, but you don’t want to move just yet. There’s somewhere you’re supposed to return to, but you can’t remember exactly where. You take a phantom drag off a cigarette you discarded miles (pflenchers?) down the beach. It tastes like sand.
You heft your M-16, smell the pungent tang of gun oil and burnt powder. The barrel is still warm. You bring it up to sight out over the ocean, but there’s nothing to shoot at. Not even a goddamned seagull.
Nothing at all.
And the magazine is empty anyway; you wonder why you still carry it at all. And you wonder why your ears still ring when you must have stopped firing before you came to this place.
There was no ocean there, in the desert. There was only the thwacking of rotors and the whine of turbo-diesels and the steady thud-thud-foom of artillery.
You finish your short rest and move on, heading up the beach to the north. To the east are low hills, and the sun hangs high above them. The heat presses down hard, baking the sand in your boots. You peel your tan camouflaged shirt off and let your dog tags jingle each other against your t-shirt. Sweat runs red down your chest. You walk on.
The hills are closer and the sun descends its arc west as you peel off your t-shirt, then finally your dog tags. You drop the empty canteen and look at the hills where they drop off, wondering what lies beyond. You walk on.
The ocean churns stronger as you continue. The hills dissipate to flat beach, with ocean to the east as well. A peninsula, then. It narrows as you walk, and the water froths and bubbles, black and deep and constant.
You stop and turn at the sound of wind, watching sand twirl in the air and blow toward you. The grit stings your eyes, your bare chest. It tinkles corrosively on the satin, sticky finish of your rifle.
A rip appears in the air. A tear. A window.
You walk to it, study it, stare at it. Just like the one before, where you came through in a flash. That’s where you are supposed to go back through. It is hardly more than a shifting of vision, a blurred image of what lies beyond. You focus, look hard, and there is sand here, sand there. But on the other side is dark sand covered with tank tracks, littered with spent cartridges, abandoned campsites. A gnarled piece of driftwood here, a burned out tank there.
Over there, a body, face in the sand, desert swallowing blood. His back is missing, as if he was a pencil sketch, the back removed with an eraser. He turns his head to the side, tries to speak to you, but the noise of the sand and ocean covers whatever wisdom he might have imparted. He may have said your mother’s name, but it’s gone swirling away. His back appears on your side of the rip, severed spine sticking through the meat. Blood pools white sand into brown clumps.
You poke your head through the rip and smoke punches your nose back, heavy, acrid, rotting machine oil and burnt flesh. Heavy machine guns echo in the distance. You could go back now.
You could go back.
You toss your M-16 through the rip, and it sticks barrel-first into the sand near the man’s twisted face, then fades into grains, swirling.
The sand on this side bleaches whiter, glistening, almost molten. It swirls and settles, swirls and settles. You turn away from the rip and the small-arms fire fades. The rip closes itself. You’re left with black water, white sand. An abyss of dark and light in constant battle.
You walk to the end of the peninsula, just a narrow jut of glistening sand at the meeting of both bodies of water. You pull off your combat boots and drop them into the abyss of the sea.
The abyss of the sand blows at your hair, taps you on the shoulder. You greet it openly and take off your pants and skivvies. You stand naked, eyes open, arms at your sides, sand in your mouth. Ocean bubbles. Sand swirls.
They pull at your skin and you feel your blood move toward the surface, toward your skin as if it wants to get out, away. And you anchor your toes in the sand. You know somehow you could break away, could still go back. Back to find the rips and tears into the world, where the feel of blood flowing out into the sand would connect you with the reality of suffering of war, of fury, of pain.
Or you could go forward, step off into oblivion, let the flow and ebb of something more powerful than you’ve ever felt before course through your veins. You could let go, let your blood become part of the pulse and stream of the abysses.
Of nothing. Of everything.
You let go.