Bottle Rockets and Air Raids

It was all so surreal; he was physically there, but not…truly…there. He stared up at the night sky as the jets made another pass over the oil-soaked desert. Several miles ahead, fire spewed from the tops of the oil rigs, burning with a seemingly unquenchable rage. Concussive booms shook the ground; even the air around him seemed to tremble, and his ears buzzed and hummed with each blast. He slipped off his helmet and held it loosely in his hands, gazing up at the sky, completely lost in his thoughts. The explosions lit up the desert in fitful bursts, and it took him back…

He was seventeen, the summer after senior year in high school, and six months before he walked into the recruiter’s office and signed his name on the dotted line. To be even more specifically, it was approximately ten minutes after the fireworks show on the Fourth of July; well, the official fireworks show, at least. He grew up in a little corn town in the middle of nowhere; even the people who didn’t have actual fireworks had enough gasoline and gunpowder to keep themselves entertained.

He was walking down the middle of the street, just having a good time. His friends and family were all there, and the entire town was having a giant party. Granted, there were only about three hundred people in town, and most of them were related in some way or another, but it was about as big of a bash as you would get out there.

He was laughing and looking around, and suddenly a bottle rocket zinged past his ear. He turned around and swore.

“Dammit, Jimmy; watch where you’re aimin’ those things!” he yelled at his little brother.

Jimmy simply grinned and lit another, launching it straight at him. He ducked out of the way and Jimmy tossed several his direction.

“C’mon, Ben; have a little fun for once. Fight back.”

Ben smiled and ran over to the cardboard box that sat in the neighbor’s yard.

“I’ll do you one better,” he said as he reached inside and pulled out a Roman candle. Jimmy’s eyes went the size of dinner plates, and he turned and ran the other way down the street as Ben laughed and aimed at his brother.

After a few minutes, the sound of a four-wheeler could be heard rolling their direction. Through the smoke and haze, Ben could make out Rick and Dani barreling his direction. They stopped a few feet from him.

“Ben, we’re all set for the show. Zack has everything set up out by the barn.”

Ben grinned and took off down the road towards the Stockton’s barn. He and his friends had saved every extra penny they had made all through the month of June and had bought some heavy-grade fireworks of their own, and the time had come to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

When everyone had gathered at the barn, a countdown was had, and the explosions began. The first fuse was lit, and the rocket took off into the sky. It burst into a giant ball of blue and green high above them, and the boom nearly knocked them all to the ground. They laughed and cheered, as the next few were fired in similar fashion.

The last fuse was lit, and Zack ran. He slipped in the mud, and accidentally kicked the prop that held up the final rocket.

“Oh, shit!” he cried, as it fell over. Everyone waited for a second, holding their breath. The fuse died out, and nothing happened; maybe they got lucky and this one was a dud…

BOOM!

The firework screamed across the field and slammed right into the side of the barn, blowing open a hole the size of a car. Red siding and two-by-fours flew everywhere, and the entire field was suddenly engulfed in a giant cloud of thick smoke. The smell of sulfur filled the air, and everyone coughed and sputtered as the haze dissipated. They all stared intently at the barn, waiting for the air to clear so they could see the damage. Farmer Stockton was not going to be happy about this.

Suddenly, Rick stood up from where he was sitting and belted out a victory cry.

“WOOO-EEEE, THAT SOMBITCH PACKED A WALLOP!”

The small crowd of teenagers laughed and cheered again. It was Independence Day, after all; maybe they would get away with this one…

Ben was brought back to the present by Sgt. Reyes slapping him on the back of the head.

“Put your bucket back on, Mills!” he shouted.

Ben slapped his helmet back on his head, and Sgt. Reyes continued.

“Don’t you be day dreamin’ on me now, jarhead; the day ain’t over for us yet. The fun has just begun.”

Ben nodded sharply. He could feel the ache of this tour in his bones. It had been almost a year since he had been stateside. It wasn’t that he disliked what he did; he was proud to be in the military. The people back home bickered back and forth about whether or not they should be fighting any of these battles, but the fact of the matter was, they were here, and he felt responsible for these men. They were his closest friends. They had stared death in the face together on more than one occasion; there were plenty of guys (good men, every one of them) who weren’t going to get the chance to go home. Ben just wanted it all to be over.

He was tired; they all were. There was nothing but sand everywhere they looked. They were always on high alert, even in their sleep. They were all ready for this tour to end, and for everyone to go home to their families. Well, everyone who was left.

Ben shook his head and silently laughed to himself as he ran forward to join his battle brothers. All he wanted right now was to go home, crack open a cold beer, and watch a football game with his brother. The ironic thing was he knew that as soon as his ass hit the recliner, all he’d be able to think about was coming back.

But he couldn’t think about that now. They were here, and their lives were on the line. The same thought was milling anxiously around each of their heads: get through today. Get through right now. Nobody goes down, everybody goes home. Oo-rah.

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