The scuttle of a tiny creature startled me back into the land of the living. Before I could stop it a gasp had left my lips. The creature stopped and rose up on its hind legs to try and stare me down with its beady eyes. When I reached my foot out to shoo it on I think it realised that it was no bigger than my boot. It took off up the wall in front of me and disappeared into a small hole in the rock face. I glanced around letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. The dugout trench I was sitting in appeared undisturbed. I looked to either end and could see the other members of my group just within my sight. We were spread out along the trench that ran for about 1km around the edge of the open desert.
To my left Washington was shaking his head, he noticed everything. I was unsure if he was disapproving the fact I’d dozed off or that a mouse like creature had made me gasp. It was now going to take me something big to convince him that I belonged out here with the rest of them. At five foot five and weighing in at 55 kilos soaking wet I was no comparison to Washington who was a missive six foot six and had to be in triple digits with his weight. Washington had been in service a few decades longer than me. He was African-American and bald with a huge scar that ran from his temple to the top of his lip. Thankfully I was on his side of this war. I pulled my rifle closer to me it’s hard to explain to my friends back home how a cold piece of metal that is used to kill people is so comforting. Although Washington made me feel pretty safe the weapon I called my own made me feel safer. There was no chance of human error with my rifle. The last few months we had been out in the field made me very reliant on carrying it around. It was practically an extension of me.
“Tap-Tap Tap-Tap-Tap,” that was our signal. I opened my eyes wider trying to break up the crusts of sleep that had formed. A decent amount of time would have passed for that to happen, no wonder Washington was mad. I looked to my right and Manning a wiry red head not much taller than myself was already eagerly on his feet with his face pressed into the wall ready to climb over and take charge of the base we were about to infiltrate. To my left Washington was on his as well and I followed suit. Their eyes both bore into the side of my skull the two of them both thought I didn’t belong. I stared straight ahead refusing to let either of them see that I knew that they were looking. The rock in front of me shifted a little. A small portion smoothed out and a painting appeared. The paintings were always very abstract but I never ignored them. Sometimes I didn’t understand them until after the event they were warning me about but I always tried to figure it out. A few yellow lines appeared followed by a few red lines over the top. They started on the bottom left and arched up to the top right. A black cloud formed above it and then the whole painting vanished.
I could feel movement around me and I zoned in for the final “Tap-Tap” of our signal to climb the wall. Without looking I knew that Manning and Washington were already gone. I scrambled to catch up and like an idiot let my left foot slip out from underneath me. My chin hit the rock face with an almighty thud. Thankfully my hands found the wall before I slid all the way to the bottom I pushed my way over the wall. My feet found a solid spot and I could feel my mouth fill with the salty liquid that I knew was blood. It dribbled out the corner of my mouth and I had to spit it out. Which part of my mouth had been pierced by my teeth I wasn’t sure of but there was a decent amount of blood. I had to hasten my speed to catch up to the rest of them.
I tried to spit out my next mouthful of blood on the run and failed miserably the reddish-brown liquid dribbled down the front of my shirt. My eyes scanned the landscape for anyone else from my team and I realised how far behind I really was. They were all nearly at the complex and I was a good few hundred metres behind them all. I doubled my speed and then the ground shook violently beneath me. It took me a moment to realise that I was face first on the ground. I pushed up with my hands and saw the complex I was heading towards no longer existed. Red and yellow flames reached up to the sky like fingers the wind blowing them up and to the right. I looked to the sky to see the black cloud that was forming above the fire. I closed my eyes and saw the painting and when I opened them I saw what the painting had been trying to warn me about. My ears were ringing from what must have been some sort of explosion. There were no planes so the bomb must have come from inside. A few figures ran from the area some on fire themselves. Most didn’t make it far before they dropped to the ground. Some rolled to put out the flames and others that dropped would never be getting up again.
I gathered my legs beneath myself and picked up my rifle. My face flushed with the heat from the flames and the night got darker. The black cloud spread across the sky blotting out the stars. What had the enemy been hiding? A man in the same uniform as mine ran towards me. His mouth moved but the sound of his words didn’t reach me all I could hear was ringing. He got closer to me and took hold of my shoulders. I stared back at him and he tried to drag me back to the trenches. So many questions were thundering through my head. We took a few steps towards the trench and I saw an all too familiar sight starting to form on the ground. My feet stopped moving and the man who had my arm kept trying to pull me away. When the painting finally formed it was easy for me to read. In the past they had been very cryptic. The red and yellow lines and a black cloud had meant nothing to me until after the explosion. But right now on the ground before me was an obvious instruction a bright red arrow pointed diagonally behind me to the left.
“This way,” I yelled to the soldier. He put his finger to his lips to let me know how loud I had yelled. All I heard was ringing. Finally I’d managed to pull my arm out of his grasp. Without too much thought my legs were off towards the direction that the arrow had shown me. When I looked back over my shoulder to see if he was coming with me he had not moved as though his feet were concreted to the ground.
“Come on,” I called out. His eyes widened once again letting me know that I’d once again been too loud. I held my arm up in the air and waved it indicating him to come with me. He repeated the signal back indicating that he thought I should follow him. We both stood our ground for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually I gave up trying to get him to join me and I decided to go at it alone. My pace quickened to a jog I could sense that he went down into the trenches. Thankfully all my other senses were on high alert and hopefully my hearing would recover quickly. I glanced over my shoulder when I was a safe distance away. The unmistakable muzzle flash of an automatic rifle lit up the trench. I took a moment to wish my fellow soldier a quick and painless passage to whatever afterlife he believed he was going to.
Knowing I couldn’t spare another second my body took over and started to run. Most of the raging flames had extinguished themselves causing the smoke covered night to become even darker. A strong westerly wind picked up and blew the smoke across my path. When I pulled my hand down after coughing into it I felt the blood that had sprayed into it. With a quick wipe on my pants I continued on. My eyes began to water as the smoke got into them and started to sting. Thankfully my legs kept pumping even though the rest of my body screamed at me to slow down. One foot after the other I raced through the thick blinding smoke hoping that I would find wherever it was the arrow had been telling me to go before someone else found me. An oomph escaped my lips as I once again found myself face first in the dirt. Something had caught around my ankle made me fall over. When I looked down I saw a hand had encircled my ankle. I kicked at it with my free foot to try and force the fingers to release their grip. Instead the grip tightened. I squinted, my stinging eyes and tried to focus on the arm and the person attached to it.
“Washington?” I whispered. I struggled to my knees and looked over my fellow soldier to see if I could see why he was lying on the ground. His lips were forming words but I had to shake my head to let him know I couldn’t hear what he was saying. After a quick examination of him I could see that his leg was wounded. I helped him to his feet and draped on of his enormous arms over my shoulder. The wound in his mid-thigh sat level with my waist I noted to myself that his thigh was almost the same size as my waist as well. But somehow I managed to help a man that was twice my size walk.
Washington tapped me on the arm and pointed towards some large boulders. I nodded and helped him towards them. His blood was soaking through my shirt. As soon as I lowered him to the ground I set to work on the wound on his leg. There was a piece of what could have once been part of a car or even a building. There was nothing that I could do about it except wrap his leg with the sleeve I tore off my shirt. A large red arrow appeared on the rocks behind him and I knew it was time for us to make a move. I felt him groan as I pulled him back to his feet. His pace slowed with every step that we took. The further we moved the more I was struggling to hold him up I hoped that wherever the arrows wanted me to find wasn’t too far away. My small frame screamed at me to stop putting it through so much physical torture but my heart knew that there was nothing that could make me leave Washington behind.
The further we walked the more arrows started appearing I hastened my pace hoping that it meant we were close. My heart sank when the next arrow was facing the direction we had just come from. After taking a step back I stood and stared at it and hoped that it would pop up and tell me exactly what it meant. I turned in a circle and saw the last arrow I had stepped over was still there pointing the opposite direction to the arrow I had turned from. I turned again to the side hoping to find some other clue. There I was faced with another arrow pointing towards me. I took my chance and turned the other way only to see a forth arrow pointing right at me. By this time Washington was shaking his head at me. There was nothing else that I could do so I pulled Washington close to me making sure that the two of us were in the middle of the four arrows. Washington’s left eyebrow was raised I held tight and looked down at our feet on the ground between us appeared an X. For the thousandth time in my life I wished that I knew more about the paintings and how to read them but presently all I could do was wait for whatever was about to happen.
Washington rolled his eyes at me and tried to pull us away when I gripped him firmly he appeared to decide that he needed to trust my decision. A split second later I could tell he was regretting it the ground beneath us opened up. I’m sure a squeal escaped my lips I tried to cover my mouth and prayed that Washington had not heard it. I tried to console myself by thinking that he probably squealed as well I just didn’t hear it. The rocks and dirt fell down with us as we tumbled through the Earth. It felt like we were falling forever I searched for Washington and tried to reach out to where I thought he would be but my hands closed around air. Finally the bottom of whatever we were falling into rushed up to meet me. My back hit the ground hard with a thud. All the air escaped my lungs and I gasped trying to fill them up again. Every attempt hurt more than the last and before I had even managed to get any air into them I was being pulled to my feet. Roles had reversed quickly and now it was Washington holding me up.
“A.. ay,” I heard him say. My heart skipped a beat.
“What?” I asked.
“Are you ok?” I heard him say. He sounded like he was on the other side of a pillow but I heard him all the same.
“Yes,” I breathed. I looked to his leg that I could see a little better down here. Wherever we were was brighter than the surface. A small part of me panicked thinking that we had been captured by the enemy but a look around confirmed that the area was all created by nature. It was a cave and the light was coming from some form of glowing rock.
“How do we get out?” Washington asked.
“I’m sure we will find a way,” I told him. I located the small torch in my pocket and shone it on the walls to try and figure a way out. My eye was caught by a painting and I stopped. Washington stood behind me and looked at where the light was hovering. I looked to the ground and couldn’t think of a way to explain to him what I was seeing.
“That’s an interesting cave painting,” he murmured. I looked over my shoulder slightly shocked no-one had ever seen them before. The painting before me was not a new painting I’d seen this one before. It was a long time ago as well. The picture was a green car. My heart ached when I remembered that painting appearing the first time. It had tried to warn me that my parents were about to die in a car accident. I scanned the torch along the wall and every segment of the wall was covered in all the paintings that I have seen in my life. Each had warned me about one thing or another and every time I had not known what from. My chest tightened as I passed over each one. There was the pill bottle that had warned of my foster mother’s suicide, the bike that told of my brother’s accident that had left him in a vegetative state. I stopped at yellow ring and could hardly bring myself to move on. I blinked back the tears that welled in my eyes as I remembered the day I committed my life to my partner. Washington’s hand tightened on my shoulder as he felt me start to well up.
“It’s your life isn’t it?” he asked. His deep brown eyes stared back into my own and I knew that I didn’t even need to form the words. Part of me was dying to know how he knew. His enormous hand closed over mine and raised the torchlight a foot up the wall. Above the yellow circle were a couple of blue squiggly lines.
“That’s what I saw the day my son drowned,” he explained to me. My own heart ached at the mention of the word son. Would I ever get home to hold mine again? I travelled my torch along to a picture of a blue teddy that had appeared the day that Kaiden had entered the world. Followed by the picture of a heart that reminded me how quickly Kaiden was almost taken away again. Many heart operations later my little man was fighting fit and all I wanted to do right now was hold him in my arms.
“Perhaps we should see what is in store for us,” Washington suggested. We made our way along the wall and we came to the picture of the flames and the arrows. Then there was nothing. I drew in a sharp breath. I raised the torch to Washington’s line and again there was nothing.
“This is the end,” I sighed.
“No it can’t be,” he growled. He took the torch off me and started scanning the walls. Before I knew what was happening my legs had taken me backwards to the other side of the cave. My back hit the wall and I slid to the floor. Washington took the torch all over the cave and then returned to my side looking defeated. He gingerly lowered himself to the ground and rested his head against the wall. We both sighed. How could this possibly be the end? I closed my eyes and before I knew it the comfort of sleep had engulfed me.
When I peeked through the slit of one eyelid many hours later I was greeted by the sound of Washington snoring like a jackhammer. There was a small figure on the other side of the room. I’d always felt like I was extremely short but the other figure couldn’t have been more than three feet tall. I forced my eyes open the entire way and noticed that the tiny person was painting. She felt me looking at her and turned to look at me. She was the most exquisite looking being I had ever seen. She smiled at me and returned to her painting. Then she rounded the corner and disappeared. I got to my feet and looked at what she had painted. It was a helicopter. My heart stopped did this mean we were about to be bombed? Attacked? Crashed on?
“Shirley I’m sorry,” Washington mumbled. There was a helicopter overhead and it was getting closer every second. “I turned away from Sean for a second.” The pain in his voice was evident I couldn’t imagine losing Kaiden and I knew it must have been hell for him. Watching a man that had always been so strong and such and inspiration to everyone in the team huddled up in the corner made me think about how quickly life can change. I heard the helicopter hover above us. There were the distinctive clinks of canisters hitting the ground and rolling across the floor. The cave was filled with an odourless gas and that’s the last thing I remember about the cave.
“Chelsea,” whispered my husband’s voice in the darkness. I opened my eyes and saw him standing by my bedside with Kaiden in his arms. I held my arms out for my son and without a word Jackson handed him over as he bent down I lifted my head to kiss him.
“I love you mummy,” Kaiden said as he grabbed my hand.
“I love you too sweetie,” I told him. Jackson ruffled Kaidens hair and smiled at me.
“I’m glad you made it home,” Jackson added.
“How’s Washington?” I asked. His blank stare in reply told me that he hadn’t made it. “Did he suffer?” I asked.
“You’ve been calling his name all week and I looked him up. You never served with a Washington.”
Personal Challenge- Leaving it until the last minute because I didn't understand the genre. Was definately a struggle for me. But thanks to some very motivating friends I got through it.