“I have something to tell you”, said Dana quietly, barely audible.
We were all laughing uncontrollably at the melted marshmallow and chocolate plastered to Maggie’s face. It was amazing that she’d not gotten any of the sticky mess in her hair. That would have been hell to get out.
It was Saturday night and it had been a full day on the river. We’d only just made it to the spot we’d picked out on the map to crash as night fell with an unexpected suddenness.
Dana and June pitched the tent and stowed the gear, while Maggie and I gathered some dry forest litter blown down by last month’s storm. The wood was brittle and easy to break.
I holstered my hatchet. It wouldn’t be needed.
The fire was hot and quick burning. It wasn’t long before we had a glowing bed of embers to cook up our foil-wrapped dinners and crack open the marshmallows.
I surprised my friends with a quart of sweet amber rum. It was when we were all warmed by the fire, spirits and good friendship, we took to giggling. It made it really hard to assemble s’mores without making a god-awful mess. It was good to get away.
“Prim, stop”, June said. Good cheer evaporated from our faces when we looked at Dana’s face. She was red in the face and her eyes reflected the firelight with a glassy wetness. Despite being liquored up, it was easy to tell she was upset, on the verge of tears. There was something else there too.
“I have something to tell you.”
There’s always an unspoken ordering in any group of friends. June and Maggie were the leaders, the outgoing ones. Dana and I were the quieter pair. There was always a fair bit of competition between us. We traded clothes and argued about boys all through school. After graduation, we went our separate ways. Maggie and I went to college. Dana signed up for five years with the Forces. June stayed in town and married a local boy.
This trip was the first time we’d gotten together since Dana came home. We caught each other up on our lives as we paddled. The river wasn’t all that difficult, so we chatted about the trials and tribulations of college life and what was to come. We lamented about June’s lousy marriage, offering equally lousy relationship advice.
Dana didn’t offer much to the conversation – she rarely did. She just paddled deliberately. My God, she’d become strong! I wondered what she did “in-country” and why she was back a year early. Honourable discharge was all we got out of her.
It stayed that way, all of us falling into familiar patterns with June and Maggie leading the conversation. But once Dana started talking, we sobered. She kept drinking straight from the bottle, her story tumbling out with the lubrication.
“My patrol was in pieces and I was all by myself, trying to hold my friends insides together”, she sobbed.
Then her tone darkened abruptly. She was suddenly angry. It didn’t even sound like the same Dana.
“Your lives as so… so perfect. You have no idea what’s out there. No idea.”
“The monsters are real. I am the monster.”
This last she screamed as she rose. Dana violently kicked the embers, shooting them high in to the air, raining fire on all of us. June’s hair caught ablaze but her screams were cut short as the hatchet, my hatchet, made a sickly thud to her skull.
I didn’t know much about the world or its horrors. I didn’t know what set Dana off.
I did know that we were alone in the wild. June was dead. Maggie was missing. I heard her scream a while ago. Christ only knows how long. I was running fast, a painful stitch forming in my side. I could feel my sweat sting the lashes to my face as the dry brush whipped by.
I stopped to lean against a large spruce, the bark sticking to my shirt. I had no idea where I was.
I heard a branch break.
I wait in the shadow of the dumpster for the gas jockey to be distracted by a full serve customer. “Where’s the bathroom?” I yell at him. He grunts and glances over his shoulder at me. “Key’s on the hook by the door. Can’s around back.” He turns back to his charge. Good. I have to slow things down a bit. I have to think things through. The next step. I am being called back in. I don’t want to go.
Safe behind the locked door, I study my face in the broken mirror. The weak yellow glow of the overhead light casts a dark pall. It gives my face a ghastly appearance. I don’t recognize the stranger before me. She is cut and bloodied. I feel her pain as I rinse the dirt, twigs and sap from the open scrapes. I peel off my t-shirt and wince. My shoulders hurt. I pull another few sheets of brown paper from the dispenser and soak them. I’m not sure which is better, getting clean or cooling off. It gives me time.
I place my hands on either side of the porcelain sink and press my head against the mirror. I peer down the drain mindlessly looking for answers. There are none to be found. A breeze blows through the high outside vent causing my back and neck to tingle with goosebumps. I put on the clean (well, clean-er) plaid shirt I swiped from the cab of an idling rig in the lot. I immediately feel a lot more human. But the monster stares back at me. Why are you here?
The call from Control earlier that evening was strange. “Time to Foxtrot” was all the voice said before hanging up. I was by myself addressing nature’s call when my cell buzzed. Why the hell did I take that with me, anyway? My mind felt fuzzy and loose. I thought at the time it was the booze. We were having a lot of fun. I remember getting back to the camp site to rejoin the girls. They were droning on about their small lives and laughing about marshmallows.
It is absurd. Don’t they get it? Don’t they understand? My unit is dead. It is my fault. I couldn’t take it. I had to get out, but I couldn’t. I don’t even know how to dance, let alone Foxtrot. I am out of time. Time. Time. Time. I don’t have much control. Pardon the pun. This isn’t me any more. Which me? The me who went to high school with my best friends or the me that learned to fight? To kill. I am too good at my job. Control knows that. Control knew I was weak. I am waking up. The monster is awake. The monster is disgusted by these weak women. These. Little. Girls.
Mom always said she could see my monster when I roamed the hallways at night. She said I’d just stare at her from the foot of the bed. The truth is, I love the monster. The monster makes the nightmares of my youth go away. Discipline makes me strong. Makes me powerful. Control used my monster and when I was done, Control put my monster to sleep. Told me to go back to being normal.
Camping with my posse was supposed to be fun. Oh God, what did I do? June! The fire! Maggie! Poor Maggie. Where’s Prim? I still have flecks of blood on my arms. Whose is it? Mine or theirs? Does it even matter any more?
Primrose was my grandmother’s name. She always called me Prim even though she’d be mortified if anyone addressed her as such. The nickname was mine and everyone knew me as that.
“Miss Primrose Allen,” the desk sergeant read from his BlackBerry. When did cops become chained to those? I hesitated when he spoke my full name. He handed me back my ID. I tucked into the back pocket of my jeans. My back ached.
“Prim. Just call me Prim.” I was still shaking and out of breath from running. Or maybe I was just cold. My heart still pounded in my ears. Sweat stung scrapes everywhere. I was cut up in places I hardly thought possible.
“You’re bleeding, Miss Allen.” His name was Crawford. At least that’s what his name tag said. “It’s 3 am. The medical clinic is closed. Let me see if I have a first aid kit handy.” He rummaged through shelving across the small room.
“Please. It’s Prim. I’m fine. It’s just scratches.”
“The hell it is… Prim. You’re bleeding badly from the back of the neck.” He nodded towards a mirror as he produced the kit. I took it from him and waved him off when he tried to help.
I turned and took a look at myself. My white tank top was awash in a slurry of grey mixed with the brown rust of dried blood. My hand instinctively reached behind to feel my neck and came back wet and sticky with blood. I was definitely cut back there. I held some gauze in place to try and stem the flow. I peeled it back and winced as the fine hairs on the back of my neck tugged with the congealing blood. Wordlessly, Crawford handed me a fresh bandage and tape as I tended to my ministrations. He knew from looking up my license that I was a nurse. It was best to just let me do it. So, he waited.
“Thank you,” I said. I felt somewhat safe in the station-house, even though it was just the two of us. I was in shock, numb from what had just happened. Dana was still out there. My friends were dead. I started crying, sobbing really, as I sank in to the chair that Crawford had at the ready. Nice guy.
“Prim, we have a search team on the way to your camp site now. They’ll help your friends if they can.” He went to touch my shoulder. I flinched and he withdrew. “There’s a BOLO for Dana Myers. We’ll find her and figure out what’s going on. How long have you known her?”
I hadn’t noticed the Jeep pull up and a large man in military fatigues had entered. Two more soldiers remained in the vehicle. I knew Dana had been in a combined arms unit, Army not Navy. This man wore the same midnight blue beret that I’d seen in her pictures. We’d been going through her scrapbook as we lamented her sudden discharge over a bottle of wine. I never did get the full story. Dana wanted to tell us something earlier. Then things went bad.
“How do you known Dana Myers?” the stranger repeated. No introductions, right to business. What the hell was going on here?
I looked at Crawford who seemed just as puzzled as me. “I’ve known her all my life. We’d grown up together. Like sisters. She spent a lot of time at my house. Things weren’t right with her mom.” And then the fire, I almost added. Something was off. ”What do you want with Dana? Why did she go off like this? Why the hell are you here?” I don’t know when I stood or when I started yelling. I was so confused and angry. June! Maggie! Dana, why are you doing this?
“Ma’am.” The giant removed his headdress and combed his fingers through his greying brush-cut. He put his beret back on and adjusted it. It was a clearly a practised ritual. It looked like he was measuring his thoughts. Guarding secrets. Dana did this too. I didn’t like it. I hate her for it now. “Myers has to come back in to active duty. We need her brand of expertise. I can’t tell you more.”
“Can’t or won’t?” piped up Crawford. I had almost forgotten the good sergeant was there. The soldier ignored him.
“Will you help her?” I asked. I don’t know why. My friends, our friends, were dead. She did this. All I wanted was my Dana back, whole not broken.
“That’s what we do, ma’am.”
The radio scanner suddenly crackled to life. “Station, codes 10-10 and 10-13. Shots fired at Henry’s Truck Stop. Officer needs assistance. BOLO suspect located. Dana My-“ The last was cut off abruptly as the radio squelched with static. It sounded like an explosion. Something’s happened. Oh God.
I whipped around to catch a glimpse of the soldier’s backside as he hurriedly left and sped away in the Jeep. Crawford grabbed his keys and set the alarm. He grabbed my arm. “Let’s go.”
The fire is strong enough to give off a hot wind. I feel its breath on my neck. We are kindred. It caresses and wraps me in its warm embrace. We are lovers in chaos. Control wants me to fix the world. I set the world to burn instead. That’s what good little monsters do.
I step over the body of the gas jockey. He shouldn’t have tried to stop me. I have my orders. Control wants to control me again. The heat finally ignites the second island of pumps closest to the building. The blast’s concussion shatters what remains of the glass in a violent display. I am knocked to the ground again. Glass and debris rain on me as I rise. I think of June. Her hair was beautiful.
I see the bubble-gum lights approaching. I tuck the gun in my back pocket. It’s bulky and awkward. It won’t have to stay there long. The officer approaches, weapon holstered. His mistake. He calls me by name. Damn you, Prim. He’s talking into his radio and begins to draw. I’m faster. Control is coming. I can feel it.
My hands loosen and tighten on the grip of the jockey’s handgun. He shouldn’t have done that. My response is automatic, mind and limb in harmony. Another explosion. A fireball this time. I smell propane. It smells like home. Cheap vodka and hand-rolled cigarettes. Mother should not have been sleeping. The monster wants to know what happens when it burns.
I crouch on my haunches and wait, two weapons now at the ready. This is my show. I think of two campfires, separated in time. The mission was done. Insurgents eliminated. Behind the lines. No one knew but Control. It was our job. Do what others didn’t have the stomach to do. Mission accomplished. Time to Foxtrot. No extraction. Take out the team. No witnesses. No evidence. Results matter. All other priorities rescinded. They were my friends. Why do they have to die? Control. Set it to burn. Time to Foxtrot. Dance, dance, dance. Control the monster? Yes, please.
The fire-wind continues to strengthen. I draw from it my power. I feed my monster. We are mighty.
Two vehicles approach. Another cruiser. Another more familiar. The Jeep stops first. Welcome to the show, Control. Go ahead and try to tame your servant. Good luck with that.
“Myers.” The chief monster-trainer speaks! “It’s time to come home. There is more work to do.”
His sidekicks are mere children. I see the tremble of their trigger-fingers and smell the sweat on their brows. Two shots and he didn’t flinch. Control expected this. Who is the bigger monster? We face each other alone. Both fingers twitch and deliver our response to Control. Fuck you. We are our own master.
I hear Prim scream my name. “Dana!” I glimpse the faint smoke from the pistol barrel behind her as I feel the hot slug tear through my upper abdomen. Kill shot. The monster is slain. We are at peace.
Photo by Aaron Wagner