by Paolo Dihn
1. A Drink of Water

This is me, rising like a scuba diver's bubbles, shimmering and expanding, bursting back to the surface of life. I'm behind a bush. I don't know how I got here. Blood is coming out of my nose and ears but I'm lucky. I could be the guy next to me. He's dead. He looks vaguely familiar. Did I know him? We're wearing the same uniform. I stand up.

Black smoke rises like bad news. A dead cow, stretching its seams like a balloon with legs, sprawls over there. Everything is unfamiliar so I know I'm behind enemy lines. I don't know which way is home but I decide I don't want to be around when the cow pops. I pick a direction and walk.

An hour later I know I've blown it. Nothing is ringing a bell. I stop at a hole that straddles my path and look down at rusty-colored water. Something tells me I'd shit nasty for three days in crampy agony if I drank it but it reminds me just how thirsty I am. My mouth is aflame. My tongue is a welcome mat outside a soldier's brothel. I gotta get something to drink or I'll die. That's when I see the town.

It sprawls between a couple of hills like a lover has tried to play craps in his girlie's cleavage while she lays there waiting for him to get serious. I stumble toward it thinking of ice-cubes and waterfalls.

What a lovely little town. It must be at the junction of Heaven Avenue and Perfection Lane. The streets are swept, the houses smile, even the birds in the well-trained trees are polite. And this is me, dirty and bloody, dragging my clodhoppers down the scrubbed cobblestones. I look for war-damage. There isn't any. They must have made a deal with the bomber pilots.

There are people. They stop in their tracks and peer out of doorways and watch me go by like I'm the first horse-less carriage to come to town. The starch salesman must be the richest guy in town: all their clothes are clean and wrinkle free. I stare back. They're the weird ones. Don't they know there's a war on?

Ahead of me is the town square and it's just what you'd expect. There's a fountain throwing diamonds of water into the air. I'd forgotten my thirst but now I remember with a vengeance. When I reach the fountain I snap at the water like a dog going for flies. It's the best stuff I've ever tasted. It's honeysuckle juice and distilled childhood and essence of great sex all rolled into one. I sense someone next to me.

It's a town guy. He's offering me a glass to drink with. The rest of the town has drifted after me and is standing around watching with big eyes. I take the glass from the guy and he gives me a big sincere friendly smile. I hate him.

I gulp about three glasses of the good water down, then stick my head in. It's like wrapping a Magic Fingers Bed around your head. It tingles and fizzes and sticks microscopic scrub brushes into all my pores. I pull my head out feeling alert and refreshed and just plain swell. The town guy is offering me a big fluffy towel.

He looks about my size so I tell him to take off his clothes. He doesn't blink. You'd think he's requested to strip every day of the week. His compliance makes me feel haughty.

We face each other off in our skivvies. His skin is like fresh carved ivory. There's not a hair in sight, there isn't a mole on him. His creator gave a lot of thought to his nipples. They're perfect twins, drawn with an architect's compass, cherry-red.

I look down at my own scarred torso. There's where that bullet went in and there's where it came out. Here's where the field surgeon did his hurried stitching. That's the thickening caused by that leftover piece of shrapnel that's slowing burrowing through my body like a metal mole.

I looked like the guy next to me once, when mama dropped me into the world. What right does he have to be untouched by the bad stuff? I decide to give him something to remember me by. I smash the glass against the stone of the fountain and slash at him with the remaining shards.

He doesn't cry out, just takes a step back in surprise and looks down at the slit I've opened in him. It's quivering like a thin-lipped mouth and I wait for the blood to flow. When it does, it's not red or thick; it's clear and thin and flows like a tap has been turned. He looks from me to it and it to me like we're sharing a phenomenon like the collision of a couple of jetliners in mid-air. I don't think the guy could get any paler, but he does and his eyes go all fuzzy and I realize these people are so stupid they don't know how to coagulate. Then he collapses, just folds up on the cobblestones and his impossibly thin blood snakes a trail away from him like somebody unseen up the street has been hosing off their driveway.

I figure it's time to split before this group wakes up to the fact that they've got mob potential. The guy on the cobblestones is dead or close enough to it. I tuck his clothes under my arm and turn to the crowd, ready to slash my way through but I needn't worry. They're too busy back peddling from the river of water-blood that's making its way through their midst. That's my exit. I pad my way downstream in my bare feet and the touch of the silly blood fizzes my tootsies like it's carbonated.

On a hill overlooking the town, I climb into the guy's clothes. They're a perfect fit. As I'm tying the shoes, the bombers come. They don't miss this time. The people don't run for cover. They stand like buffalo, too stupid to equate the dropping of their companions with the strange two-legged creatures pointing fire-sticks at them.

The bombs blast the perfect little town to pieces. I jump up and down and yell things like, "Go, fly boys, go!", and "this one's for Big Mike!" When the inhabitants are hit they burst into what looks like showers of glass, but I know it's water. The streets become shiny and wet. When it's all over, I walk away, deeper into enemy territory. I've decided I'm not going home anymore.

To be continued.