A Paradise Within

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Again, I give you another short story. It’s not really that short. It has approximately 2600 words. Enjoy.

 

As the sun slowly crept towards the top of the sky, the sun slowly covered the sky in an iridescent blanket of clouds. Trees stood at attention allowing the sun’s refulgence to pierce through to the jungle floor. The start of a new day.  Morning humidity loomed in the air, thick and unwanted like fish head soup from a street vendor. Dew on broad green leaves glistened under the rich rays as the earth warmed itself from a cool summer night. Large and small birds, broad-winged and short-winged alike hopped across branches to get a quick sip.

At the jungle’s center stood a grey colossal tree which sat atop a small hill able to survey its dominion. This tree had been fortified by the vegetation which encapsulated it much like Secret Service agents would surround the president of the United States. Stout, broad shrubs surrounding the patron tree were as coffins, it was all that remained of animals long forgotten. A small group of four brick buildings steadily sank into the earth about a mile north of the tree. The jungle regarded these man-made structures as enemies that were in dire need of proper lesson in manners: it is rude to presume that one is welcome in another’s jungle. With each passing day the jungle stealthily grew solutions to cope with the unwelcome guests. No matter how well the buildings were reinforced, over time it was subjugated by small groups of vines that crawled up the buildings like ants slowly creeping up a foe ready to deliver a vicious bite. The vines had gently started penetrating the mortar creating cracks and weakness in the building. In some places, bricks seemed to collapse in on themselves as if they had already surrendered.

Jack laid still on moist soil underneath the patron tree drawing large breaths of air. To Jack, the moist air tasted sweet and almost made his mouth water as his thoughts wandered past times of his mother’s culinary days. Jack scratched his face, gently grazing the stubble that had grown in since he entered the jungle four days prior. His hand conducted a search and his hand rediscovered a scar given to him recently, a scar that started to the right of the chin ending slightly past the cheekbone. Jack’s brain twitched, quick to flash images of how an enraged aborigine wanted to intimately acquaint Jack with the ritual blade used for skinning animals. Jack’s hand crept toward his forehead to examine his black bandana, glancing to his left as he nodded to his partner, Bruce. The two men had been friends since they first met at boot camp.

“I like the music. What do you think, Bruce?” Jack said softly. The music he referred to was none other than the orchestra conducted by the jungle. The jungle, like all mornings, bustled with life. In the brush the crickets chirped, faint pounding of feet made by scurrying monkeys, the occasional breeze that made the leaves hush, the creaking of branches hanging on for dear life, and a cacophony of squawks that loomed overhead. The peaceful symphony had Jack wishing he were capable of asking the conductor for an encore.

“Do you hear that,” Bruce said with a sly grin. Jack’s head reared back, to get a better view of the branches above. His eyes gently swept across the canopy above until he spotted it, a plump macaw perched on a limber branch. Jack noticed that the macaw had been scanning the ground below. The jungle had guided his eyes to the macaw and its eyes to him. He could not look away, their eyes had locked. The macaw’s head pivoted on its little green body, peering and leering into Jack’s soul perhaps. Maybe the macaw pondered to itself: “why are these strange creatures here and why in our jungle?” The macaw’s gaze vexed Jack. It was frightening, but he couldn’t pull himself from its clutches. He blinked but his eyelids were heavy and compelled to disobey.

“It’s the chestnut-fronted macaw. I wonder… Do you think it’s nested nearby?” Jack sighed. Oddly being overwhelmed with a sense of sadness, Jack imagined the macaw once had a caretaker, one it could call mother. Jack’s mind wandered, developing a biography about this macaw, how tragic it was that its mother was slain in combat protecting its family. The phantasmagoria continued with him visualizing the titanic battle between two macaws. Jack felt the pain. He could see the macaws screech in terror and rage. Claws lunged themselves at feathers, beaks fervently snapped at wings. Jack saw the hatchling macaws as they were forced to watch its mother become overwhelmed by the voracious attackers. Slowly, Jack’s eyes began to water and his breathing became shallower. Just as suddenly as his trance began, he had been shaken out of his trance by the pounding of his heart, pounding so hard it threatened to escape its bony prison in an effort to save the hatchlings.

“I wonder what its mother would think of it being out here. Do you think she would be angry?” Jack said as he tried to clutch a few breaths.

“I doubt it,” Bruce whispered. The macaw squawked several times loudly, gave Jack a last menacing look, and just as fast as lightning flew away. Jack entertained the thought that the macaw left because it was going to inform the other denizens of the jungle that intruders were afoot. He chuckled. Macaws don’t have to worry about what humans worry about, Jack thought. Macaws get to fly, experience the open air and draw true breath. They get to experience what life truly is; greatness. Overcome with a mild sense of jealousy, Jack turned to watch the buildings off in the haze. Jack’s mind toiled with his recent encounter with the macaw but the sight of the buildings sent a shiver down Jack’s spine.

“Why are we here?” asked Jack almost quizzically.

“You were at the briefing Jack. And I assume that you read the dossier.” Bruce caught Jack’s eyes and they stayed their locked for a moment. Jack scoffed.

“Assumption is the mother of all ––”

“Fuck ups, yes I know. I saw the movie too.” Bruce interrupted. “But your face was buried in the dossier so it WAS a safe assumption.” Jack paused for a moment as if to gather his thoughts and then sighed.

“Macaws don’t kill macaws, you know? They are gentle creatures… creatures that don’t get ordered to kill other parrots.”

“So, then join the birds. I hear they are in dire need of a ground force,” Bruce exclaimed sarcastically.

“I’ve thought about it. Be damn sure of that!”

Jack pressed himself on the moist soil and crawled towards the edge of the hill, Bruce following close behind. Both men were especially careful not to make more noise than was absolutely necessary, for the jungle hid many dangers. Their minds were mildly put at ease by the fact that their camouflage would serve them well. The sun was well into the sky and started to warm the earth which made breathing a sensational experience, air molecules coating themselves with the various smells of blooming flowers.

“It’s hard to believe that in such a nice place, people can still find reasons to spoil hallowed ground,” Jack spoke. “There is no fighting here, no covert operations, no blood to be cleaned up, Bruce. It doesn’t haunt you at night… that we befoul such hallowed places?”

Bruce ignored the question, reached into a small satchel strapped securely to his side, slowly pulling out binoculars and firmly stated, “It’s about that time Jack. The target cannot escape.”

Jack rubbed his chin, reexamining all the stubble and then quickly passed his hand by his forehead to reexamine the bandana. He made sure it was fastened tight. The time had come to do once again what he was trained to do; kill. His throat grew drier with each passing moment and his stomach sank deeper into his abdomen. Jack closed his eyes and exhaled. Jack’s brain twitched as he fell into another vision, this one of the time he had returned from combat training to visit his mother. She was a short, stout woman with calloused hands with tan, bronzed skin. She had thick, bushy brown hair which was always in a bun no matter the occasion. Jack remembered that his mother was wearing her favorite dark green sweater that she had received from her mother.

“Jack, I hope they feed you right in them damned Marines.” She walked up to Jack and hugged him. “Don’t you go killing people, you hear? Each one of them people out there a mother has. If you die, I don’t know what I’d do. But all them people that want you dying, just ‘member that their mothers would feel the same way I would: broken. Worse than a hunter losing his eyes, I tell you.” she said shaking him.

“Don’t worry, Mom. Everything is gonna be alright.” Jack took a hold of his mother’s hands and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek.

Jack reclaimed his thoughts and stowed them away for the moment. The sniper rifle was strapped to his back and he slowly took it off, placing it gently on the soil. He opened the bipod and propped the gun into a position facing the buildings. Moss colored camouflage seemed to crawl all over the rifle preventing it from reflecting too much sunlight. The sniper rifle was a single shot bolt-action weapon and required manual loading for each bullet into the chamber. In advanced training, Jack was told that he should learn to carry the exact number of bullets on all his missions; he was told it make him more accurate and precise. Jack looked through the scope and he tweaked with the knobs adjusting his view. With his free eye, he looked at Bruce with a sense of trepidation. Bruce, as if he knew Jack was looking, spoke.

“It was your own choice to enlist in the Marines, Jack. You knew what you were getting into yet you persisted. After the first target, I asked you if you were fine. You said, ‘sure, why wouldn’t I be?’”

“I don’t want to do this anymore. My mother doesn’t want to speak to me. My dad tells me that she cries every day.” A ringing filled Jack’s ears as his mind wandered to past battlefields; a single shot from his rifle always rang out, an imperceptible echo, and then the cold thud of body. Vodka stopped helping along ago; his brain would retaliate with images more vivid, and feelings more visceral.

“I c…c…can’t. I can’t.,” Jack’s voice began to crack as his eyes welled up.

“And yet… here we are.”

Jack frantically wiped his eyes and cleared his throat, careful to ensure he hadn’t made to much noise.

“What would you do if you left the Corps, anyway? Stay home and watch the tube all day? We don’t have any skills besides this.” Bruce paused. “This is what we do, for our country! We are here to neutralize our enemies, the ones that might try to hurt our mothers!”

Bruce glanced quickly into his binoculars. He paused for a moment and said, “1600 meters out. This one is a far one. I’d say it will take about two seconds from this distance. What do you say?”

Jack turned his head to the side and spit loudly. He wiped his tears and tried with all his might to put his “sniper face” on; that’s what Jack and Bruce called it when they didn’t agree with the shot. One last time, Jack thought. He then placed one eye on the scope and gently wrapped his finger around the trigger. In the haze beyond, he saw a procession of men coming out of one of the buildings. The first two to exit were in clean-shaven men in coal black suits, eyes concealed by onyx mirrors. The third man walked out behind them maintaining a couple of feet between the first two. Clad in a green military outfit, medals on his left breast, a trimmed goatee with polished shoes. A man of character, Jack thought. He was probably a nicer person than Jack’s superiors made him out to be. Jack felt that this person had a loving mother, one who would cry at the loss of her son.

Jack couldn’t hide the shivers that crawled up and down his spine. Jack’s muscles almost cramped as he came the realization that should have been apparent to him before: none of the people he killed had received an open casket. Hysterical mothers were forced to hug and stare into a dull wooden box unable even to kiss their sons goodbye. A goodbye that no parent should ever be forced to say.

“How could I? It’s not right.”

“Green light, Jack, take the shot,” Bruce said sternly

“No.”

“You are clear, take the shot,” Bruce said louder.

“I can’t!”

“This is not the time, Jack! Take the damn shot!”

“How,” Jack screamed.

“Pull the trigger, that’s how!”

“No!”

“We only have one chance. Take the shot!”

Beads of sweat started to drip down Jack’s face as his hands became clammy. He felt his heart with each beat as if it was lodged in his throat. Nausea slowly crept into Jack’s being, grabbing hold of him and attempting to strangle his stomach. It was at that moment he knew. He cleared his throat and took aim for the man’s head.

“Forgive me, Mom,” Jack exhaled.

At the squeeze of the trigger, an explosion sent the bullet rippling through the air. Jack’s body froze as he was still peering into the scope. He found that his lungs were incapable of drawing breath but this did not frighten him. He began the dreadful count to two but Jack felt as his brain seized. His grip on the trigger tightened as his mind plunged into thought; thoughts of his mother pulsated before him, quickly followed by a kaleidoscope of battling macaws in fierce combat.

The visions carried him to a palatial house made with elaborate stone carvings. He looked around at the cavernous space spotting massive bituminous columns flowing in two lines along the sides of the room. The air was laden in a miasma of charred wood, a fireplace that had been poorly maintained. Jack was in the dining room. Surrounded by columns, a great oak dining table sat in the center of room accompanied with twelve chairs. Jack’s ears were assaulted by dissonant music as he scanned the rest of the room for its source. Instead, Jack found his mother seated at the head of the table with her head resting on her hands as she sobbed loudly. To her left sat a brown-haired man whom didn’t seem bothered by the excessive sobbing. A man of disinterest. Across from the man sat a red-haired woman whom wore cheap costume jewelry who let out an unsettling cackle. There were magnificent plates of food in front of everyone but no one seemed to have an appetite. Next to the red-hair woman sat an empty plate coupled with an empty chair. Jack wondered why the table had been set for four but the fourth plate held no food. Jack cranked his head to locate the fireplace and on the mantle he caught a glance at a picture which had the two strange people in it. He came to notice a third person; the enemy, clad in his green military outfit with his medals on the left breast chest, a trimmed goatee coupled with polished shoes, a man of character. Jack was violently torn from his thoughts as he realized he had already said ‘one’. And by the time he would utter ‘two’, the enemy would be no more. He wanted to scream, to scream as loud as his voice would permit and warn the enemy about the impending doom but his lungs refused. And in that instant, Jack found himself unable to bear it anymore. He wanted to fly like the macaws, to have the freedom of the air around him, drawing true breath.

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