All I need is one star to guide me. Doesn’t matter where it swims in the sky. It’s enough if it pokes through the clouds and keeps me company.
I’ve been on this raft for days now. Lost count a while back, when I fell into a deep sleep, bobbing along in the middle of the sea like a sad little cork that forgot to stay in the bottle.
Getting shot down was like shoving your head up a Banshee’s ass. The sound and fury of hurtling towards earth wipes out any common sense a person might have, replacing it with screams for our mothers, our girlfriends, or God.
“Milo, get ready for impact,” shouted Captain Walker, pulling up on the joystick as though terror could change the course of gravity.
The other guys were screaming and tumbling about the plane. I sat there like a deer caught in the headlights, adding to the cries that painted the inside of the bomber, soon to be brushed again with splatters of blood, urine and body parts stuck to the fuselage. Barnacles of death on a silver bullet.
Was it luck that we hit the water instead of land? You might think so. Another fifteen miles and we would have buried ourselves in some tropical forest. Hitting the water gave those of us who survived the impact a fighting chance.
“Milo, over here!” someone shouted, and I saw Arnie kicking at the exit door with his feet. His face was laced with blood, the side of his head scraped away, leaving bone and sinew. The plane was filling up fast with. I crawled through three feet of water, tasted salt, shivering. We managed to loosen the door, and Arnie yanked at a lifeboat. Suddenly there was a great whoosh, and we were sucked out into the vast ocean.
Kicking and stroking upwards, I prayed that the meager light above wasn’t too far away. The raft thundered past me on its way to the surface and I grabbed at a rope and rode that son of a bitch all the way up until it burst through the waves and sent me flying. I swam for it and latched on like a baby to a nipple in the sudden sunshine that seemed oddly out of place in the middle of my darkest day.
Nobody else broke the surface. “Arnie! Captain!” I shouted, but the only sound was the hungry waves lapping at the raft. Paddling back to the point of impact, I slid out and into the ocean, holding the rope by one hand, sticking my face underwater, searching for the plane. It was gone. There was nothing but a deep green staring back.
Here’s the part that will take me straight to Hell when I die. I gave up. Just like that. A better man might have dived deep under the waves to find that plane, help somebody out. Instead, I climbed back into the raft. I drew my knees up to my chest and cried into my wet uniform like a sniveling coward. Then slammed the side of my head with a fist. “Get off this raft, you asshole, and look for the guys!” I screamed. Only I didn’t, paralyzed with indecision and basted in self-preservation.
After a few hours of paddling around, looking for a sign of anyone, a severed arm bobbed to the surface. Repelled, I drew back, afraid to bring it on board with me. What use would that be to the poor guy now? Once again, I drew heavy mojo from the Devil, because I let it drift away. Was it Arnie? Josh? Should I have cradled that arm in my lap and given it solace and comfort? I’ll never know because just like a switch was flipped, I passed out. When I woke, night had come, and I was gazing up at a moon so full, it looked like a search light.
When I was six, my father took me down to a bend in the river on the farm to teach me to swim. I was nervous that day. The water was warm and muddy near shore, but there was a current out in the middle. I clung close to the bank and Pops, my toes digging into the soft surface of the riverbed. My father held me under my arms as I spread my legs like a frog on the surface of the water, kicking frantically and getting nowhere.
“Milo, relax,” Pops said, pulling me a little farther out into the channel. The river was cooler, tugging at my legs and arms.
“Don’t let go,” I begged, and Pops clasped me to his chest. I remember the tickle of his hair, the heat from his body, the warmth of the sun. Slowly I kicked in cadence, dipping my face into the river, gaining confidence. After a time, he loosened his grip, and we slipped downstream in a dreamy state, watching the trees go by and the sky turn in lazy circles. The current picked up its pace, swirling into a green eddy, the clouds spinning above. Panicked, I reached out and grasped my father’s strong arm.
“I’m right here, Son. Let yourself go and enjoy it.”
His arm was my lifeline. His voice my savior. I thought of the arm I saw from the crash, wondered if whoever lost it was a father, and cried again.
I wanted Pops here now. He’d know what to do. Yeah, I’m a man, I guess. The Air Force thought so, even though at eighteen I’m pretty wet behind the ears. Signing up for the war was the easiest decision I ever made. After all, those bastards bombed Pearl Harbor. All the guys were marching down to the recruitment office and enlisting.
We would beat them, save America, and rescue the rest of the world. God was behind us. We flooded the airplanes, the U Boats, the hills and shorelines of far-away countries like hornets. Our uniforms were stiff and new, boots spit polished, guns shining. We took part in a great migration that tilted the world on its axis.
But the sad truth is God doesn’t hand out medals or guarantee a soft landing. War is messy. It’s brimming with tears and battle cries, cannons and the rat-a-tat of machine guns. It’s filled with body parts that fly through the air like fledglings, landing in thuds on sandy beaches. Shock dealt a harsh hand as we realized this wasn’t some romantic endeavor, designed to don our armor and return triumphant. This was a death card. The Ace of Spades with a bullet through the heart. And there’s nothing to do, nothing to do at all, but keep moving forward because stopping isn’t an option and living is a luxury.
The raft floats aimlessly. At first my instinct was to paddle towards something. But what? Where? As far as I could see, there was water. The sky arcs into it with nothing in between. Not even a lost seagull. I know enough about animals to know if no birds are flying overhead, I’m a long way from land. Animals don’t do foolish things, like sign up for a war and find themselves so far from home they can’t find their way back.
We heard terrible stories about sharks getting the poor guys who ended up in the drink. The first day or so, I was petrified. Every time I saw the sun glint off a wave, I thought it was a fin coming up to buzz me. Once I pissed off the side of the raft, and a fish bubbled up to the surface to investigate. I nearly shit my pants. I kept my arms and legs inside the raft, scanned the water over and over, until I was exhausted. In the end, will it matter? I’m going to starve out here, be eaten by a shark, or get shot by a Jap plane as I bob around like a big yellow target on a cloth of blue.
There’s nothing to keep me company but the sky. In the day, the sun thrashes over me like an avenging knight, peeling the skin off my body and lashing at the raft until I’m baking in an oven of rubber. Watching it set each night is a celebration. I blow it a kiss, then give it the finger. “Up yours, Sun,” I shout. “Send some rain, would ya?”
Nestling into the darkness, I turn my face to the sky and recite the names of the constellations. I know there’s a hunter up there, Orion, and I’m hoping those stars come for me, not leave me like I left my fellow fly-boys behind, sucking down sea water in a deathly thirst.
Sometimes I think about diving overboard and swimming until I can’t swim anymore. Let my body join my buddies at the bottom of the ocean. But there’s always that flicker of hope. Maybe the Japs won’t get me. Maybe my guys will. A friendly ship cutting through the water might find me. They’ll pull me on board, give me a shower and a meal. Paper to write back home and tell them I’m alive. Then I’m hit again with the terrible guilt of living when the others didn’t. I rub up against the shame of grasping for safety instead of morality, like some wild thing.
I have a girl back home. Jane. We met at a barn dance three years ago. Jane’s a farm gal, with blond hair like corn silk and big green eyes. Every Saturday night, I slicked down my hair, put on a fresh shirt, and drove the truck over to her place. We sat on the porch swing and talked and laughed until the fireflies came out. Her mother poked her head out the door like a little wren popping out of a cuckoo clock. She’d bring us cookies and milk, remark on the night air, and flutter her apron over the railing like she was beating a rug. Later, when her parents went to bed, Jane and I necked on the porch until we’d break away in a fever. Then I’d kiss her goodnight and go home to my lonely bed.
Jane cried when I enlisted. She stood on the railroad platform with Pops and Mom, all of them waving until they were nothing but specks in the distance. We wrote to each other a few times, but once I entered the war zone, letters were scarce. I dream of her silky skin, her wide smile, the way strands of hair caught against her lips after we kissed, me brushing them away with a shaky finger. I close my eyes and knead the raft, dreaming that I’m touching Jane’s breasts or the curve of her hip. Thinking of Jane, Mom and Pops, I squint one eye at the raft, wondering if the gold star in the window back home will be the same color.
Tonight the sky is black. It’s full of thunderclouds, sending down droplets of rain that pelt my face, feed my tongue, and shake up the ocean until the raft is riding it like a winged horse. It hit me hard just how much the stars mean to me now that they hide behind the darkness. They’re a beacon of light. They look like thousands of eyes peering down from the depths of the Universe, watching me float until dawn.
Just one star. That’s all I need to guide me. The star can tell me what to do. “Come back!” I shout at the sky, and there’s not even an echo. Just the slow dirge of my heart and the groaning of the raft. My hand slides up and down on the rope, wondering if it’s enough to hang myself. I rub it across my cheek, pretending it’s Jane’s hair, and beg it to unravel and form a ladder straight up to heaven and deliver me home.
Or send just one star.
Award winning author Sharon Frame Gay has been published in such literary magazines and anthologies as Lowestoft Chronicle, Chicken Soup For The Soul, Thrice Fiction, Saddlebag Dispatches, and others. She was awarded the Will Rogers Medallion for excellence in Western writing as well as several Pushcart Prize nominations and other awards.