Last Days to Nowhere by Jason Duke

The road winds and passes through the mountains of the High Mohave Desert. I see white wooden crosses along the side, etched or painted with names of car accident fatalities. Multi-hued flower wreaths and ribbons adorn the crosses, colorful and bright, signed by loved ones and strangers alike. Hundreds of people died along this road. There are only a handful of crosses.

After winding through the mountains, the road straightens and opens on a valley the remainder of the way, surrounded by the wide bumps of the desert mountains, brown and black and tan and ugly, like warts covering the desert floor. A rockpile monument of boulders and rocks painted with military insignias parades on the side of the road.

The road winds through the mountains, opens onto the valley, and I gun my 2009 Ford Mustang GT to 120mph, racing across the straight-away. I gun it for maybe ten to fifteen seconds, then slow down.

I’m afraid to go any faster.

I reach the front gate and the gate guard asks me for identification. He looks inside my car, into the back seat. The gate guards are civilian police and it’s standard procedure to check the back seat. If the window is tinted, they ask you to roll it down. Sometimes they check the trunk. He checks my decal sticker on my windshield; runs an ID scanner over my card. He gives my ID card back and says Train the Force.

*

I remember my Sergeant telling me how he had to paint rocks when he was a Specialist. He didn’t hear the question his Sergeant Major asked him and made the mistake of saying ‘what’ to the Sergeant Major.

“I had to fucking paint rocks just for saying what,” he said.

He told me perception was everything in the army, and to watch what I say, what I do, how I act.

None of his soldiers respected him. I deployed to Iraq with him and I lost count of the number of times his soldiers joked about fragging him.

I flipped the safety selector on my rifle to semi. I thought about all the times his soldiers joked about fragging him. It’s standard procedure to keep the safety selector on your weapon on safe unless you’re under fire. His back was to me and I thought about the jokes; maybe they weren’t joking anymore.

None of his soldiers respected him.

I didn’t owe him shit.

I pointed my rifle at his back, then pointed the muzzle to the ground, and switched the selector back to safe.

*

I tell the gate guard thanks; take my ID card. I look around and I’m in the middle of nowhere – a wasteland.

Sometimes I just need to get out of here, get away. I drive the road to the end where it connects with the freeway. The road is long and lonely, 31 miles, but there is freedom in its solitude. I turn around and drive back. Midnight Rider plays on the radio. The desert is ugly, the mountains are ugly, like Iraq. Bohemian Rhapsody plays on the radio.

*

In basic combat training, they break you down and build you up. I was ten years older than most recruits. Sleep is a crutch. Food is a crutch. Feeling is a crutch. Breathing is a crutch. They don’t call you boys or girls, men or women – there are only males and females. They break you down and build you up mentally and physically. Males and females train together. The females get the males in trouble and the males think it’s because the females are weak. The males grow resentful and don’t want to train with females anymore – they just want to fuck them. We all go in soft, come out changed, but most of us stay soft. It’s a new army, is what I hear the old guard say.

*

The first day I returned home from Iraq, I drank and drank, I was happy to be alive. I kept drinking and my buddies kept buying me shots. We were all happy to be back, happy to still be alive, but not all of us made it home.

We raised our glasses in cheer.

We drank to forget and it made us remember the dead ones more. We raised our glasses to the dead soldiers, to our buddies who didn’t make it back.

We heard the stories of how they died when it happened over there. Washed out the blood and skin caked inside the Humvees and Strykers gutted by IEDs. Pieced together the tattered flesh on legs and arms hit by shrapnel.

One time I saw my buddy’s eye staring up at me from the dirt, and I picked it up because I saw him blow apart, and nothing seemed real like in a movie, so I picked it up because I thought maybe the medics could put it back in and everything would be okay.

We drank and we drank, we were so happy to be alive, and we were sad for those who didn’t make it back and we missed them, but we were happy.

*

I pass through the front gate, to the main post and the family housing. I park at a soccer field. A chubby blonde female spouse sits on the metal bleachers, under the blue tarps. She has big tits and watches her seven year old daughter play out on the rubberized track that encircles the field.

When I park, she looks in my direction.

I sit down at the bleachers and she says her name is Rhonda. The daughter runs up and Rhonda tells her to go away and let mommy talk to the nice man. I tell Rhonda I’m stationed here and she says Did you ask to get stationed here? and I tell her it’s just like Iraq. Rhonda says her husband is getting ready to deploy to Iraq for the third time.

“If he’s not deployed to Iraq, then he’s off training,” she says.

She hardly sees him anymore; she’s tired of being alone. She puts her hand on my thigh and says, “Do you want to come over for a drink?” The daughter runs up again and Rhonda tells her to go play at Stacy’s house for a while.

*

Rhonda misses her husband, but really she misses having a man. I sit on her couch and she sits next to me, facing me, both feet on the couch, and we drink Jack Daniel’s out of plastic cups.

I tell her these are the last days.

She gives a little snort because she’s drunk and she thinks it’s funny. She thinks I’m trying to be cute.

I stare at her, into her beautiful blue eyes, clear and blue and artificial, like ordinary blue eyes photo shopped into something vibrant and special. I stare into her eyes and I want to know her secret. I want to tell her my life is ordinary the way her eyes used to be.

*

My life is routine.

The giant black crows circle in the sky over my barracks. Sometimes they perch outside my window. They caw at me when I go by.

My life is routine and it has been since my birth and it will be until my death: our lives are routine and they have been since our births and they will be until our deaths.

Life is routine that we fit comfortably into, and we think we are happy; we search for and want to find joy in life, and fit it comfortably in, but what we find most is misery.

*

I stare into Rhonda’s beautiful blue eyes and tell her these are the last days and they are leading us to nowhere.

She stops smiling and she’s not laughing anymore. She doesn’t think it’s funny anymore.
“Why would you say that?” she says.

I ask her if she’s heard of Dead Hand. She says no and I tell her: Dead Hand is a doomsday device the Russians created during the cold-war era. If the Russians were wiped out in a nuclear attack, Dead Hand was programmed to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike. An article in the September 2009 issue of Wired Magazine states that Dead Hand is still in operation and still receives periodic system upgrades.

Rhonda doesn’t know what to say. She stares at me with a blank expression. I think maybe I said too much; maybe I scared her. I smile and her face lights up in relief. She smiles and laughs and thinks it’s funny again.

*

Nothing matters.

I smile on the outside, but on the inside I don’t care.

Nothing matters to me.

I spend my free time watching t.v., drinking, jerking off to internet porn, buying more shit that I want, but don’t really need. I make trips to the commissary every other week, buy the groceries, haul the groceries, 17 bags total, nine in one hand and eight in the other, up three flights of stairs to my barracks room.

The room is hot in the summer and cold in the winter because the heating and air conditioning don’t work properly. The walls are stucco and scrape your skin whenever you accidentally brush past. The floors are hard cheap dormitory tile. The furniture is basic, from a dormitory wholesaler like Dehler or DCI, full of cheap steel and wood. Next to the stiff bed, riveted to the wall, is a blank corkscrew board to pin posters and things of that nature, the illusory freedom of being different. The room is either hot in the summer or cold in the winter, but always lonely.

*

I find the courage to tell Rhonda my life is ordinary. She says I’m not ordinary, I’m special. I made sacrifices that most people wouldn’t, and that makes me special.

Rhonda has beautiful blue eyes and big tits. She catches me staring too long at her tits and she smiles. She leans forward and kisses me on the lips. I tell her she has beautiful eyes and she says they’re contacts. I run my fingers through her blonde hair, wondering if that’s her natural color.

I tell her that if I’m special, then her husband is too.

She leans back, away from me. She doesn’t know what to say. She stares at me with another blank expression and she’s speechless again.

I tip my cup, it’s empty, and I ask her for a refill. She goes into the kitchen, and I get up and leave. The giant black crows circle in the sky above Rhonda’s house. I look around at identical houses. I get in my car as a Ford F-150 pulls into the driveway and a male soldier gets out. He sees me and just stands there, watching me drive away.

*

The crows circle in the sky above my barracks and perch outside my window. They caw at me, trying to tell me something, I think I know what.

On the wall inside the door to my barracks is a mural of an upright rabid-looking dark grey dog, ripped muscles, sharp fangs and foamy mouth. Exploded bullet holes outline the dog like a silhouette, and its paws squeeze around a Colt AR-15 M4 assault rifle. In the center of the mural is a poem: pain is in the mind; fight through the pain; the mind is weak; don’t give up; life is pain; fight through the pain; keep on fighting; never give up; pain is only temporary; it doesn’t last forever; life is pain but someday it will end.

I go back outside. I see the Ford F-150 parked across the lot. The soldier stands next to the truck, waiting for me. He says he wants to talk to me. I pretend I don’t hear him and he hurries toward me. “Hey, I want to talk to you,” he says. I do an about-face and go back inside my barracks, to my room, shut and lock the door.

*

These are the last days. Life is routine from beginning to end. We try to break up the monotony with joy but end with mostly misery. Each time we fuck and reproduce we perpetuate the cycle. Our children are not little copies of ourselves, though we want them to be. God has abandoned us, is disinterested, doesn’t care. God watches the game from the sidelines. God leaves the final winning play for us to choose.

*

I find the courage to unlock my door. I open the door, slowly, look around. The rabid dark grey dog stares back at me, angry. I go outside, into the lot, and the Ford F-150 is gone.
I look up at the crows, big and black, circling in the sky overhead. They caw down at me. I get back in my car and drive toward the freeway. The road is long, 31 miles, and lonely.

*

The apocalypse is here, now, and it has been for a long time. We are the zombies, milling about, stuck in a routine passing for life, desperate to satisfy a hunger for joy, desperate and miserable. We are stuck in routine, waiting for the end.

*

I pass the rockpile monument. Gun it through the open valley, across the straight-away. Wind through the mountains, reach the freeway, turn around.

*

I wind back through the mountains, gun it again across the straight-away. I push the pedal into the floor and hold it there. I see the rockpile monument ahead. The Ford F-150 is parked off to the side.

There are no white wooden crosses here.

Sunlight reflects off the lens of a rifle scope near the top of the monument. I get closer to the monument, and I see the soldier prone on top of a boulder, aiming a M4 assault rifle at me.

The speedometer climbs to 120mph. I see the muzzle flash. I hold the pedal to the floor, and the speedometer keeps climbing.

*

“I’m a Sergeant in the U.S. Army and served 15 months in Iraq as part of OIF 07-09. Before joining the Army I went to Arizona State University and earned a BA in Public Relations. My work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crimewav.com, Thuglit, Plots With Guns, Spinetingler Magazine, Crimefactory, Pulp Pusher, Flash Fiction Offensive, A Twist of Noir, Darkest Before Dawn, The Hiss Quarterly, 3am Magazine, and Shred of Evidence, among others.

9 thoughts on “Last Days to Nowhere by Jason Duke”

  1. Now there’s a story with real power. I love the way it’s written, the little circles you create by repetition of phrases and subtle changes in those repetitions. The circles seem ever decreasing, a bit like water going down a plug-hole. Smaller and smaller until they’re gone. Brilliant. Thanks.

  2. Your story was rock hard. I felt the hardness and pain and sadness. Your strength came through your words. I feel like you let us into your world. Thank you.

  3. I could see the thousand yard stare in the guy’s eyes. Anybody who has looked at a 90 mile an hour freeway overpass abutment coming fast and didn’t have a thought about moving the wheel or backing off the gas knows what you’re talking about. Some stories hit hard. Others get in your head and stay. This is one of the latter type.

  4. Nigel, that’s damn cool of you to say that it has real power, this was one of those stories that I invested a lot into emotionally.

  5. Michelle, indeed I did let you guys into my world. I was just hoping it’d make sense, though I’d say about 80 percent is true and the rest fiction.

  6. AJ, you’re spot on about the archetype. One of my goals was to write something that would resonate with the reader afterwards, so I’m glad you felt that way about this story. Hey, and still definitely looking forward to meeting up with you soon in San Diego.

  7. Paul, what the heck are you waiting for man, get over to crimewav and get you some Phoenix Nightlife! I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

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