This is another Blog Battle entry, a military fiction or general fiction short story for the word, “Legumes.”
I almost let this one slip, because Mad Max came out yesterday and I just had to smash up some War Boys’ cars…
But lunch is a good time to catch up. Here goes, with “Hungry” (996 words).
A cool breeze across the hilltop in Syria blunted summer’s heat and played through the green leaves blanketing the ground. Afternoon sunlight beat on two sentries patrolling the perimeter in full desert battle-rattle, carbines in hand.
The husky Airman Jackson squatted and ran his fingers over some violet-streaked white flowers. “Great place to set up a FOB,” he said. “Check this out, Sarge. You hungry?”
Young, with a deep brown complexion after a month of constant sun, Staff Sergeant Ramirez kicked his combat boot into the dirt, spraying dust into the air. “This is bull.”
Jackson ignored the outburst. “These look a lot like the kind we grew back home. Wild chickpeas, maybe. You know, garbanzos.” He said it with a heaping dose of hick, like it was an instrument in country music.
“Please, you think I don’t know what chickpeas are? Why you gotta use the Spanish-sounding word for it?” He took on a mock accusatory tone. “You a racist, Jackson.”
Jackson never took his eyes off the plants. “Screw you, Sarge. Just sayin’ I could pick some of these, soak ’em a while, make us a treat.”
Ramirez waved him off. “Man, I don’t believe in beans.”
“What? What does that even mean?”
A weak, choppy voice squawked over the radio, requesting status of all patrols. Ramirez acknowledged the call. “We’re on the southeast side of Hilltop Lima Seven-Two-Six. My squad established a position, and we’re watching for refugees.”
“Roger—advised, ISIL fighters have been spotted—five miles of your—hold Hilltop Lima Seven-Two-Six overnigh—air cav bringing reinforcements with the supply drop, how copy?”
“You’re coming in broken and stupid,” Ramirez muttered. Then he hit the transmit button twice, acknowledging the message.
“Heh,” Jackson chuckled. “Hey Sarge, it just hit me. Hilltop Lima has beans growing on it.”
“They’re not pronounced the same way, moron.”
Jackson’s cheeks flushed red. “I know.”
“Then you know your joke isn’t very funny.”
“Shut up, Sarge.”
“Aww, you go ahead and cry into your gar-ban-zos,” Ramirez said, mimicking Jackson’s pronunciation. “A little salt will help the flavor.”
A few hours later, as the sun melted into the horizon, Jackson reclined against a stone and popped chickpeas into his mouth from his canteen cup.
“Amazed you can cook anything in that,” Ramirez said. “Figured it might melt. You know, lowest bidder and all.”
Jackson smiled. “I remember an afternoon like this in Survival School. My partner an’ I found a patch-a wild strawberries during the field portion. Climbing up an’ down the hillsides of Spokane, picking our way through the woods, trying to evade the instructors, sweating our butts off in the heat…”
Ramirez glared at Jackson, but the man paid no heed.
“We settle down for a breather in a little patch of tall grass,” Jackson continued. “And my
partner says, ‘Wouldya look at that? Strawberries!’ Sure enough, there’s a bunch of ’em all around us. Tiny, sad things you wouldn’t pay money for in the market.” He held up two fingers pinched together.
“But after a couple days with nothing but MREs, we ate them berries like a Thanksgiving feast. Sat there an hour, I bet, evading view, just munchin’ and enjoyin’ the day–”
“Evasion?” Ramirez scoffed. “Not from infrared sensors on a drone or helo. Givin’ off all that heat, they’d spot you in seconds, day or night.”
Jackson sat upright and tugged at his camo blouse. “No, man, these uniforms have a special treatment that reduces IR visibility.”
“You believe that crap? ”
“That’s what they told us at Basic during Warrior Week.”
Ramirez rolled his eyes. “After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese handed out white cloth sheets blessed by the emperor. They promised it would protect citizens from nukes. I’m sure those had a special treatment too… of bull.”
Jackson’s eyes narrowed and he pursed his lips. “You’re a real downer, you know that?”
“Yeah? So’s life. Come on, we should get back soon.”
The attack came ten minutes later, when darkness swallowed up the last glimmer of twilight on the horizon. Mortar shells scattered clods of dirt, cutting Ramirez and Jackson off from their team. Radio calls flooded the net with enemy sightings on all sides. Gunfire echoed across the hilltop, sporadic at first then more frequent, like a bag of popcorn in the microwave.
“I got visual!” Jackson declared. “My one o’clock. Three—no, four adult males carrying AKs.”
“Engage,” Ramirez shouted as he took aim and squeezed off a burst of bullets.
Another mortar shell exploded to their left, and Jackson screamed.
Ramirez shook off disorientation from the blast and opened fire once more. “I need you focused, Jackson! Guys coming up our right flank, I’m on them. But you cover our front.”
Jackson crouched and snapped off a few shots. “We need to regroup with the others, Sarge!”
Ramirez hustled backward up the hill, shooting whenever enemy fire revealed a position. “Let’s work our way back, nice and easy—“
He froze at the sharp whistle of an incoming shell. Then with strength beyond his thin frame, Ramirez shoved Jackson away.
A fuzzy silence and sudden numbness swept over Ramirez. He blinked at the stars in the sky. Then Jackson appeared over him, the young man’s white face speckled with blood. He pumped the sergeant’s chest in between bursts of return fire, and shouted something that looked like, “Hang on, Sarge.”
But the way his wide eyes took in the scene told Ramirez all he needed to know. Ramirez coughed up blood and gripped Jackson’s sleeve. “Just… please don’t tell my wife I died for nothin’ but a hill o’ beans.”
Seven years later, Technical Sergeant Jackson traced the white petals of a chickpea flower and planted a white wooden cross into the dirt. Behind him, a young woman watched the green slope below FOB Ramirez, her trigger finger ready.
Jackson called her over. “I told you they’d be here.” He offered her a wistful smile. “You hungry?”