Discover more from Stanbrough Writes
Keep Calm & Carry On
This is the second post in a brief series showcasing my personas. This one is by Nick Porter. Click the link to read Nick’s bio and a bonus short story he wrote.
Three days we’d been in sweaty jungle, lying low. The pleasant scent of decomposing vegetation clung to every molecule of air. Every sound was dragged to earth, broadened and muted.
Just me, Jim Barnes, and time. For the solitude, we might have been fishing up along the Moss River back home. I smiled at the gentle thought. There it would be just the two of us, or just me.
Here there was a third, out there somewhere.
He was hunting us as we were hunting him.
And he was close.
It was Jimmy’s turn behind the rifle. I watched for parts. Part of a shadow. Part of a human. Anything that didn’t fit. Then a shadow warped opposite the rest.
I shifted imperceptibly. Without moving air beyond Jimmy’s ear I whispered, “Shadow. Eleven o’clock.”
Jim settled a scant fraction of an inch, resettled himself, the barrel along a new heading. His right forearm barely flexed beneath the skin as he tensed his trigger finger.
Watch the shadow. Advise and consent, that’s all I have to—
The distant sound of glass breaking made me frown at a memory of a lamp I’d knocked over in my mom’s house.
Jim made a sound like a soft balloon popping, his body slumped, his rifle rolled left.
And I got it. He didn’t fire. And his right eye was oozing across his arm and blood shot out of his ear and slapped my chin and cheek and neck. A peripheral flash of brain matter spewed down along his back and the world spun over over over over as I and my rifle rolled to scrunch up tight behind a tree.
The rifle landed to my right in the leaves. The rotting leaves and bark smelled sweet. There had been a bead of sweat just above Jimmy’s right eye.
He might have died for the delay caused by a bead of sweat.
That brought me back and I looked for the shadow but it wasn’t there.
My neck was tight from holding my head a half-inch off the ground as I searched. Wasn’t quite the same tension as I got wading downstream the Moss.
You have to hold your legs and shoulders and neck tight against the current. Otherwise it’s almost impossible to cast with any accuracy. Last time I slapped a grasshopper near the end of a half-submerged log with only two tries. Two flicks of the wrist.
This wasn’t quite the same tension, but almost.
I watched for a shadow, part of a shadow. A knuckle or elbow, a cowlick, an ear.
There was a notch in the part of that log that wasn’t submerged. The bark was long since gone, so the notch was in the wood, just a couple inches long. Just enough to make me wonder what had caused it while I was sitting up there eating a sandwich and having a smoke. It wasn’t big or sharp or deep enough to be an axe and nobody’d been shooting that far up along the river probably since guns had been invented. Probably a mark from some kind of boring insect, I thought, or maybe a cross-eyed woodpecker.
That led to the thought of bark turning to dust and live wood splintering next to my head but just as quick I realized that won’t happen. This guy don’t miss.
I watched for a knot in a bandanna, maybe the bend of a jawline. I crabbed sideways a bit and thought about how low I could stay while peering around the other side of the tree. Sweetgum? Sweetbark? Gotta be sweet something.
And then an ant reminded me I wasn’t alone behind his tree. They always pick the best time and I wondered whether that was his friend creeping down along my cheek just beneath my eyebrow. Being stung in the eye would be no good. But Jim’s sweat bead glistened in my head for a second and reminded me that’s all it was. Probably.
How many ants would it take to knock me off anyway? How many years to cut me up and drag me down a hole somewhere? I wouldn’t be here that long, that’s for sure. There’s the silver lining.
At least where I was I could pull my head a couple inches left behind the tree and rest my neck if I needed to. I’d be safe there for a few seconds if he was anywhere close to where he was when he popped Jim.
But he wasn’t still there and I didn’t need to anyway.
Part of me wants to say right now that it took everything I had not to turn around quick at every sound, real or imagined, just a quick glimpse to see what something was, but I was trained to know there wasn’t anything back there.
After that class had let out and that instructor had left but while we were still gathering our stuff another instructor had said quietly, “But if there is something back there, you’ll never know it.” He said it like the thought was attached to a memory and maybe it was just another kind of blessing. That made it easier not to look.
If you trust there’s nothing under your bed you never have to come face to face with it.
But then you have to overcome that other thing, like when you’re riding on the back of an old Cushman Eagle motor scooter for the first time. You get so scared you just want to jump off and it’s really hard to hold on because something’s tugging at your grip and letting go would be so easy.
Or when you’re really close to the edge of something like the Rio Grande Gorge and something wants you to let go and just fall. Same thing.
If you just take a quick look and he’s watching, you’ll jerk a quick target up into the scope and it’ll all be over. And like the guy said, you’ll never know it. Definitely not like dropping into Rio Grande Gorge off that bridge.
So nothing was behind me or I wouldn’t still be thinking about all this stuff.
Where the hell is the guy?
My eyes and ears had almost become entities in their own right. Even while I was entertaining myself with trivia, my eyes seemed to continue the search on their own, looking for a drab green that wasn’t quite the right color or was larger than the other green colors or a tuft of hair or a brown and green combo, like a forearm coming out of a shirt.
My ears were busy checking sounds off a list. The sequence seemed to be hear, scrutinize for a threat, dismiss. Once a sound was dismissed, they wouldn’t pay attention to it again unless it occurred with anything resembling a regular cycle. Then it would go back through the wringer but with a lot more scrutiny, and afterwards it would be consigned to a listen list.
Now and then my ears would hear something and alert my eyes. It all seemed to happen without my permission—without my advice or consent—and I was glad. If I could train them to do this stuff on their own, maybe I could get a nap and—
What was that?
Something like a finger being moved across a couple days’ stubble. I searched for a finger, for a mottled pattern that was too regular, like on a guy’s cheek when he needed a shave or above his ear when his barber got too friendly with the clippers.
I wasn’t really worried. This could end only one way. I was sure of that, because I would have to get Jimmy out of here and send him home and I definitely couldn’t do that with the guy over there watching.
It wasn’t fair that Jimmy had become bait, but sometimes that’s the way it goes.
Back on the Moss it wasn’t quite the same thing—I get that—but it wasn’t fair for the hoppers I caught up there in the meadow on my way to the river either. For one thing, I caught them in the early morning when the cold dew was on the grass and they were still stiff from the night. For another, dumb as it probably sounds, a couple of them struck me as family men.
Maybe it is the same thing, at least to grasshoppers. I remember it surprised me they were just like Hemingway said in one of his stories. They were real troopers. They threaded on the hook pretty easy, but one or two glanced at me and spit tobacco juice on the hook. It was a last act of defiance before I flipped them out to entice a trout. Another—I assumed it was probably a hopper with a proud Brit ancestry—grasped the hook almost calmly where it protruded out of his belly and looked me in the eye, damning me to my own conscience. I almost wanted to salute the damned thing. Or apologize.
I could’ve been bait as easily as Jimmy or as easily as any of those hoppers. Guess it was just their turn.
My right shoulder tensed to shrug away that thought at the same time another shoulder tensed in shadow through the brush. I peered, trying not to squint, hoping my eyes weren’t playing tricks. Look near, not at.
No more than fifty meters, maybe a little less. Jesus… guy even shed his shadow. Nothing but green and brown, but patterned. Woodland camo. Used to be ours.
I kept my gaze riveted to that shoulder as I let the fingertips of my right hand locate my rifle. It lay to my right, the flash suppressor at my waist. The front sight was toward me, so the trigger guard and magazine were facing away from me. Perfect.
Once I visualized it, I wasn’t moving so much as nudging stillness aside for the next few minutes, inching my rifle up along my right side, pinching the flash suppressor, flexing my wrist, pinching the barrel, flexing my wrist, lower on the barrel, flexing, over and over and over. My gaze was locked the whole time on the shoulder.
It didn’t move. I thought maybe it was a rock, mottled with lichen.
I watched it.
It didn’t move.
The rifle seemed to move of its own accord, the motion of my fingers and wrist so repetitive they became part of the land.
My rifle crept up under my wrist, up under my forearm, up under my elbow. When the flash suppressor finally slipped under my right shoulder, I stretched my hand for a moment, then felt for the trigger guard.
I continued to watch the shoulder—maybe it was the shoulder of a branch—as I eased the rifle up along my side, up under my shoulder. I stopped, rotated it ninety degrees to the right. Took a long time moving it into my shoulder, still watching. Probably it was the shoulder of a branch. The thought calmed my nerves.
Guy’s probably long gone. Probably sitting two hills away, having a smoke and laughing at me.
Odd how the most basic instruction never leaves a guy. I settled my eye to the scope. Align the post in the scope. Settle the cross hair. Be sure of the target.
The brown and green mottled shape came into focus.
It was a shoulder, not a branch.
A familiar tingle ran up my arm. He was looking to the right of where we were when he nailed Jimmy.
I frowned. Settled my eye to the scope. Frowned again. How can he sit that still? Part of me said “He can’t” and part of me said “Training.” You can’t afford to let training fool you.
A faint sound came from my left, like a leaf stem snapping.
My instructor flashed through my mind. If there’s something back there you’ll never know it.
Still, that sound was different somehow. Focus on the sure thing. Take care of this one first. I sighted just above the shoulder, tightened my finger on the trigger and—
The boonie hat that had formed the shape of his head fell off the limb and a metallic click came from my left and my heart slammed against my ribs.
I jerked my head away from the scope.
Something screamed fire along the top of my left shoulder, tore through my throat.
I slumped, tried to shake my head. I blinked hard, something gurgling under me. Something hot, sticky.
Who is that?
I blinked again, trying to stretch. Straining to make the notch in my shoulder be the notch in that log in the Moss River.
I reached right to gather my neck muscle, put it back.
Damned log. Damned Brit hopper. Calm. Keep calm. Keep calm and carry on.
In my mind I smiled grimly, stoically.
I tried to bring up my hands, tried to grab the hook, tried to—
* * * * * * *