"Hey, Barnes, go fuck yourself!"
Bucky waves distractedly as he passes the marines since it's just their way of saying hello. He'll probably swing by later and play some cards, but for now he's on a mission. He salutes the decaying Japanese head staked on a pike on the outskirts of the marine camp and heads down the muddy track towards the hill. It's seven o'clock at night, 95 degrees, and so humid it's like walking through a sauna. Like nearly every other guy on Guadalcanal, he's stripped to the waist, wearing nothing but boots, his helmet, and filthy dungarees.
He climbs the hill, keeping low, and as he nears the perimeter Haystack says, "What's the password?"
"You can see my fucking face, Haystack," Bucky tells him.
Haystack says, "Yeah, but you have to tell me the password."
"Your mom's a whore," says Bucky. Then he says, "Lakelike," with a sigh.
Haystack says, "Okay, you can pass."
Bucky rolls his eyes and continues up the hill. When he gets to his foxhole, he grins at Hutch and says, "Tell me you love me, you piece of shit."
Hutch groans and looks up at him. He's wrapped in a blanket and trembling with the chills. He says, "You gonna put me out of my misery?" Then he groans and struggles to his feet, struggles out of the foxhole and stumbles to a fallen log twenty feet away. He's naked except for the blanket since sometimes he doesn't have time to get his dungarees down.
"You keeping him hydrated?" Bucky asks Pershing and Foghorn as they play cards, unconcerned with Hutch's dysentery. He's had it for nearly a week, now, plus he's still got malaria, the poor bastard.
Foghorn says, "He's a grown man, he can keep himself hydrated."
Pershing says, "I'm keeping my eye on him, he'll be fine."
Bucky waits until the worst of it is over, then strolls over to where Hutch is sitting with his ass hanging over the far side of the fallen log. He holds out a small packet and says, "It's not much, but it's real ass wipe."
Hutch takes the toilet paper from him reverently. He says, "Jesus, it's so fucking soft. I love you, you piece of shit."
Bucky laughs and says, "Yeah, yeah, you just remember this when I've got fucking dysentery."
Bucky heads back to the foxhole and settles in with a smoke before taking his boots off and stripping out of his socks. Lieutenant Colonel Traynor's near fanatical when it comes to taking care of your feet, and it's rubbed off on his men. They're not slogging through trenches the way Traynor had in the Great War, but it's wet and it's muddy and Bucky does not want fucking gangrene.
As Bucky's feet air out as much as they can in the humidity, he pulls out his letters to reread. Supplies and mail can't get through, so he's only got two so far, one from Steve and one from his mother. He pulls out Steve's letter and smokes and lets his eyes trail over the words. He knows what it says already, but he reads it again like he does pretty much every day.
"You gonna share it?" Pershing asks.
"I already read it to you," Bucky says.
"So read it again."
"Dear Bucky," he reads. "I hope my last letter didn't make it sound like I was sore at you. I'm not, I'm just so mad sometimes that I'm stuck here with a 4F and you're already shipped out to God knows where."
"Why's he 4F?" Foghorn asks in a whisper.
"Heart condition," Pershing whispers back.
Bucky clears his throat. He says, "I got a map of the Pacific Ocean since everybody says that's where you're going to be fighting. There's hundreds of little islands between Japan and Australia and Hawaii, but I'm trying to learn all their names in case I ever find out where you are. I suppose you're not allowed to tell us, but I wish you could. I went over to your place for Sunday Dinner last week and everybody's doing well. Your mom made pot roast and Becky--"
"Becky and Bucky?"
"Shut up and let him read."
"Becky made her first apple pie, which wasn't as good as your mom's but was still really swell. It was a great night except for how we all wished that you were there. Okay, I have to leave for work now so I'll cut this short. Until next time, your friend, Steve."
"Is Becky cute?" Foghorn asks.
"Becky's twelve," Bucky tells him. "And I'll slit your fucking throat."
"What'd he do, now?" Hutch asks as he climbs back into the foxhole. He curls up on the dirt with his helmet as a pillow and closes his eyes. He's shaking less than he had been before.
"He asked if Bucky's little sister was cute," Pershing tells him.
Bucky says, "She's twelve, and I'll slit your throat, too."
Hutch says, "That's fair," and tries to sleep.
Bucky finishes his smoke and tucks his letters away. He puts his socks and boots back on eventually, but doesn't go back down to the marine camp. He just looks up at the sky as the sun sets. He's bored, but he knows better than to complain. Boredom's a hell of a lot better than getting shot at. Eventually, he lights another cigarette. He listens to Foghorn talk about every woman he's ever slept with. He makes Hutch drink half a canteen of water even though he says he doesn't want it. He's hungry, but all they've got are D-rations and he's not in the mood to work his jaw muscles half to death trying to chew them. There are the sounds of shells in the distance, but they're miles away. Pershing and Foghorn are still playing cards, so he slouches down and says, "Wake me up when it's my turn to stand watch."
When Foghorn wakes him up, it's full dark. Bucky hadn't even known a night could be as dark as it gets at night on Guadalcanal. It's so dark that the stars all shine like lanterns. It's so dark that when the moon's down, you quite literally can't see your hand in front of your face.
Bucky stretches and slips on his undershirt to keep the night's chill away as he climbs up to sit behind the machine gun and keep watch. All around him, the other guys in his division are keeping watch in their own foxholes. He can hear soft conversation from his left, and there's the scent of tobacco in the air. Bucky never smokes when he's on night watch, and not just because it's against regulations; he figures the light of his cigarette in the near-complete darkness would look just like a beacon to any Japanese sniper who wanted to take him out. He figures whoever's smoking's going to either get away with it, or be sorry for his mistake when he gets shot.
The night passes without incident, though near dawn, it starts to rain. It doesn't stop raining for three days.
"Ugly fucker," he mutters as he continues on his way. They're on patrol on the far side of the airstrip and the jungle's hot and muggy, the trees so close together it's impossible to walk a straight line.
Jackson pauses and they all pause. At his signal, they squat down. They wait, guns at the ready. There's a rustle of leaves off to the left, silence, and then they're under attack.
Like nearly every fight, it happens so fast that he doesn't have time to think. He barely sees the Japanese soldier running for him before he's shooting. He's on his back before he realizes he's been tackled. Someone else from his squad has shot the Japanese soldier in the head before Bucky realizes the man's knife had been just inches from his face. He rolls up to his knees and aims and fires and keeps fighting until Jackson shouts, "Cease fire, cease fire!"
He's shaking with adrenaline. He killed three Japanese inside of a minute. His ears are ringing with gunfire and the scent of gunpowder mixes with the scents of rotting vegetation and human waste. One of the Japanese had been hit several times in the gut and the stench of his insides is thick, making Bucky want to gag. He takes a step back, then another. He keeps watch on the jungle beyond them, waiting for another ambush.
"Jesus fuck," Pershing whispers from beside him.
"Anybody hit?" Jackson asks.
"My shorts just took a couple hard shots," Foghorn says. "I smell like Hutch, now."
Hutch says, "Fuck you."
Jackson says, "Let's move out."
Haystack gets sick right there, pukes right on his own boots.
Jackson sighs and says, "Fuck. Okay. Let's get them covered up until cleanup can get here."
Bucky looks down at the head lying on the ground by his feet. He never knew the guy, but he still hopes the guy got beheaded before the Japs cut his dick off and stuffed it in his mouth, and not after. He says, "Should we move the heads?"
Haystack stumbles away to get sick again in the jungle.
Jackson says, "No. Fuck. Just cover them up, too."
Pershing helps Bucky cover up the heads and he says, "That's gonna make my next few blowjobs uncomfortable, I won't lie."
Bucky glances up at him quickly, but of course Pershing's talking about getting blowjobs, not giving them. No guy on the island gives blowjobs, not even Bucky, even though he had before. There are a lot of things that are different from the way they'd been before, and Bucky swearing off men is just one of the smallest differences.
It's not like he could do anything anyway even if he wanted to; he's too busy not getting killed to think about sex, and even in the middle of a peaceful night he's too exhausted and too terrified to bother. Even Foghorn says if he had the choice of a night with Lana Turner or a night of eight hours uninterrupted sleep, he'd choose the sleep every time.
There's a layer of terror underneath everything and it never fades. Bucky expected it to fade. He expected to get used to it the same way he's used to bodies, the same way he's used to killing. He's not used to the fear. He feels like it's pulling him taut, scraping him thin. He doesn't feel like he's going to snap, not yet, but he feels like he might. He doesn't know how much it'll take. Another month of living in constant fear of agony and death might do it. Maybe he'll need another two. Maybe he'll never snap and he'll just live with a sick churning in his gut for the rest of his life, however the hell long that is.
The other guys are just as scared as he is, but nobody ever says it. Everybody just keeps on like they're not afraid because once you give in to the fear, you're done for. Once you give in to the fear, you might as well just lay down and die because giving in to the fear will get you killed. You'll hesitate or you'll curl up when you need to run, you'll run screaming at the Japanese because you can't bear it anymore or you'll turn on your own guys.
Bucky's terrified, so what he says is, "What the hell kind of stupid, skinny trees are these, anyway?"
"It's bamboo," Pershing tells him. Pershing went to college and knows everything about nature, even knows the names of all the different birds in the trees.
Bucky shakes his head and says, "Fucking bamboo. Can you eat it?"
"No, not unless you're a panda," says Pershing.
Bucky says, "Then what good is it? I thought trees were supposed to grow things you could eat."
From a couple yards away, Haystack says, "There's coconuts."
Bucky sighs. If he has to eat one more bite of coconut, he thinks he'll just sit down and cry.
It hasn't rained at all for three days, which might be a new record. We're dug in right now on the banks of a creek, and the creek is rising. Remember when we were kids and we thought we'd like to join the Boy Scouts and go camping? We were idiots. Sleeping outside is pretty much the pits, only with more mud, more centipedes, and more enemy soldiers sneaking up to slit your throat every night.
I'm glad as hell that you're not here and I don't care if you do get sore at me for saying so. I'm glad you're back home where it's safe, where you can sleep in a bed with a pillow, where you can stay dry. One round of malaria would knock you down and you might not be able to get up again, and then what would I do?
Don't mention the mud to Ma if she asks about letters from me. The ones I send to her are all about how pretty the ocean and the palm trees are, and that's all she needs to know. It is beautiful here, which is a funny thing because it's also the ugliest place I could ever imagine. But you forget that sometimes when the setting sun hits the water just right and the whole sky turns shades of pink and red and orange. If there wasn't a war on, these islands would be real nice. You're right I can't tell you where I'm at, and that's just as well since I can't imagine you could find it on a map even if you sat and looked at one for hours. We've got hot chow tonight and I'm off to get in line for it. It's probably just going to be dehydrated potatoes again, but I've got kind of a taste for them, now. Probably when I get home, I'll never want to eat a real potato again, just the kind you can pour from a sack.
Keep the home fires burning and tell Irene McTaggart hi from me,
It's a moonless night, and once it's dark, it's complete. He can't see to the edge of his foxhole. He couldn't see it if there was a Jap sitting there right next to him in the silence. He closes his eyes, which doesn't make it any better. He can hear the insects of the jungle buzzing and calling to one another. In his mind the sounds turn to whispers. He opens his eyes and listens, trying to make out the words. Is he hearing human voices or is his mind filling in blanks for him, turning the sounds of the jungle into something more familiar and more terrifying? Are there Japanese soldiers just on the other side of his foxhole waiting for him? Are they over the ridge and are the voices he hears their plans being carried by the wind?
The voices turn from whispers back to the sounds of insects and leaves, and he's consumed by the dark again. Maybe he's always been in the dark. Maybe the rest of his life has been a dream and this is reality, this is what he is, just consciousness in darkness. He closes his eyes tight and reaches up to touch his face, afraid it won't be there, afraid he doesn't have hands with with to touch his face. His fingers brush his cheeks and tears of relief drip down to wet them. He moves his feet just enough to feel their movement against the earth, not enough to make a sound.
He wonders how long he's been lying in his foxhole. Hours? Minutes? He wonders how long he has left until dawn. He wonders about the island itself, the way it's always growing, always dropping down onto itself and rotting and growing out of the rot. He wonders if it's safe to dig a foxhole into rich black loam, earth that could easily be alive. He wonders if the island's alive. He wonders if it's going to suck him into it, turn him into rot on which bamboo and coconut trees and fields of kunai grass grow. He wonders if that's why it's so quiet, if every other member of his squad has been reclaimed by the living earth and he's the last, the only one left alive. What if he's the only one left alive on the entire island? What if everyone's gone, Americans and Japanese alike? What if they're all dead and he's stuck here alone forever? Just him and the centipedes and the ever-growing, ever-rotting vegetation?
He thinks of people back in the world doing the things he used to do. He thinks of going to the movies, stopping at an automat for lunch, turning on a tap for water. There are people doing those things even now. The world is continuing on without him because he doesn't matter, not really. The lack of Bucky Barnes in the world won't stop plumbing from working, won't make movie screens dark, won't keep people from laughing and telling jokes and going on like they always have. Whether he's alive or dead makes no difference to them. Whether he ever existed in the first place makes no difference. He's starving and his flesh is rotting and he's sick with fear and with the memory of death, of the way his friends screamed when they died, of they way their bodies looked after. He's fighting in Hell and for what? For people who don't give a damn whether he lives or dies? Who'll never even know what he did to keep them safe?
He curls in on himself and bites his lips to keep from crying out. He wants to scream for reassurance, even if it's just another GI telling him to shut the fuck up. It would be the most beautiful thing in the world to hear the voice of another GI telling him to shut the fuck up. But what if he screams and nobody answers? What if he screams and brings the Japanese down on all of them? Bucky presses his hand over his mouth and squeezes his eyes shut and waits. The sun will come up soon, he's sure of it. It has to. He waits some more. The sick, urgent need in his chest to scream starts to fade. He drops his hand from his mouth once he's sure he can stay silent without it. The whispers are back but he ignores them, presses his back to his foxhole and shoulders his rifle and stares into the night dark as a void.
It seems a lifetime until the world turns from black to gray. He can see the end of his rifle. He can see the edge of his foxhole. He can see the valley below him and the shape of Foghorn sitting in his own foxhole ten yards away. He breathes and his overwhelming fear disappears as quickly as a nightmare and as difficult to remember. It had been a long night, but now, at last, it's dawn.
Captain Jackson says, "Come on, Buck," and helps him haul the crate to the hole. He's a good man for an officer.
All day long they dig holes and haul crates and at night they're rewarded with rice so full of bugs, they're told to think of it as a meat source. Bucky does. He eats the rice, bugs and maggots and all. He's still hungry, but the worst of the pain is soothed.
At sick call, he strips down to his shorts and winces as Hutch rubs a cotton swab soaked in gentian violet over the sores on his thighs. He does the same thing to the sores on Hutch's legs, and then they check each others' feet the way Traynor insists upon. They're lucky they've had Traynor on their tails about it the whole time; there are boys who've been walking around in wet socks and boots for so long that their feet are nothing but rot. Bucky hasn't seen it for himself, but Spud swears up and down one of the boys' feet were so bad that when his company commander finally got him to take his boots off, his toes stayed where they were inside his socks.
He hears movement. It's not his mind playing tricks on him, it's actual movement in the brush. Somebody whispers, "Japs, it's the Japs," and then a mortar round explodes in the air raining shrapnel down on them and the Japanese run at them screaming.
Pershing starts to fire. Bucky waits. He doesn't hesitate, but he doesn't have an automatic weapon and he has to make every shot count. He aims and fires. Aims and fires. The fire of the guns lights it up enough for him to see, even if he doesn't have time to think about what he's seeing. He aims and fires and when Pershing shouts, "Reload!" he concentrates on keeping Pershing safe until he's reloaded his weapon. Then Bucky reloads and lifts his rifle and aims and fires. Beside him, Hutch is doing the same thing. From behind them, Foghorn's launching grenades.
The assault continues on, though Bucky thinks it has to stop soon. Doesn't it? There can't be any more Japanese left, can there?
Bucky reloads and aims and fires. There are screams all around them, screams of terror and triumph and pain and rage. The Japanese are screaming and the Americans are screaming and the world is broken up into split-second shots and flashes of gunfire. For over an hour, the Japanese charge, and for over an hour, Bucky's world is reduced to his line of sight and his trigger finger.
Eventually the call comes down to the line to cease fire. Bucky stops shooting but he doesn't stop aiming. He keeps watch, heart pounding, blood singing in his ears. They stay alert until dawn, when they see the carnage they had wrought. Hundreds of Japanese lay dead or dying in the field ahead of them. Hundreds of them lay dead along the banks of the creek.
Beside him, Hutch is sobbing softly. He curls in on himself, ashamed, and Bucky reaches out to squeeze Hutch's shoulder while Foghorn and Pershing look away. Bucky lowers his weapon, trusting in Pershing's automatic to keep them safe as he pulls Hutch towards him. He wraps his arms around Hutch's shoulders and presses his face into Hutch's blond curls and whispers, "It's okay, you're okay," and after that the four of them watch the dawn in silence pretending that none of them have broken because they know perfectly well that at any time, any one of them could.
Hutch has pulled himself together and wiped his face by the time they're allowed to climb out of their holes. He smokes in silence as Captain Jackson comes by, looking weary. "They got Birdy and Keeler and Cyclone," he tells them. "Haystack got a mortar round to the face and Spud thinks he might be blind."
Bucky nods and looks sad even though he feels nothing. It's a sick feeling, that empty void in his chest where sorrow used to be. Guys he knows are dead and it's awful and he hates it but it doesn't hurt him somehow. He knows it's because it can't. He knows it's because his brain has turned the horror off so he can keep on living without losing his mind. He still wishes their loss caused him pain, though, because feeling nothing might just be worse.
He's got a Japanese flag stuffed in his pack, sure, but he didn't take that off a body or anything, he'd just picked it up off the ground. He's sure as hell not going to cut off an ear or pull out gold teeth, no matter how valuable they might be. Even the average stuff, just going through the enemy dead's packs is too much for him. That's where the guys kept letters and pictures of their wives and little dolls dressed in vibrant silk kimonos that Bucky's not sure were for them or if they were their daughters' dolls, given to their fathers as good luck charms. Either way, he doesn't have the stomach for it. He can't stop the other guys from doing it, so he just stands guard and thinks about home and thinks about waking up in Leo Henchel's arms.
He and Leo never really had anything, both knew they could never have anything, but they'd had enough. They never pretended that it could be anything but a secret comfort that couldn't last. They never pretended that they'd wind up together they way a guy could if he was with a dame. But he'd kissed Leo and gone to bed with him and loved him in a way. Maybe he could have really loved him if he let himself, but he didn't. Leo didn't let himself love Bucky, either. But some mornings, Bucky would wake up with Leo curled up behind him, holding Bucky close, and Bucky likes to remember that when he's stuck in Hell. He likes to remember that he was a person, once, and what it felt like to be touched. He likes to remember waking up feeling horny and warm and safe instead of sick with dread and wet and bone tired.
Hutch isn't one for taking souvenirs, either, so Bucky's surprised when he grins at Bucky and pats his pack after coming out of one of the huts. There are bodies in one of the huts and the drone of the flies is deafening and the stench is awful so Bucky's more than willing to go when they get the order to move out. As they walk away from the abandoned camp, he hears the sharp, ripping sound of flamethrowers, but he doesn't look back to watch it burn.
Hutch doesn't show off his souvenirs until sunset. It's lamps and lights out, but there's a moon so the night won't be pitch black, at least. Hutch digs into the floor of the foxhole and shows where he's buried four bottles of Japanese beer. He'd buried them deep enough and they're close enough to the shore that the ground is cool and the beer's nearly cold and Hutch hands each of them a bottle and Bucky's never tasted anything as good in his life.
He figures the Japanese can't be all bad if they can make beer that tastes so good.
Clean salt air blows in from the sea and that's all Bucky can smell, fresh and light and even better than the beer.
They don't talk, which is rare. At least one of them is usually running their mouth, talking about weapons or ammo, about girls from home, about food, about everything that's wrong with the war and the Army and everything they'd do to make it better. They don't talk, though, they just sit in their foxhole and enjoy the fact that the night is, if not cool, at least no longer hot. They drink their stolen Japanese beer. Hutch, who was a teetotaler before the war, sprawls drunkenly along Bucky's side after half his beer, making all of them smile at him and at each other.
Bucky tips his head up in silence to look at the blazing stars, feeling a little bit fuzzy. He hasn't had anything alcoholic to drink in months, after all, and his weight's down at least fifteen pounds, so even he's a little buzzed off one beer the way he would have been back when he was fourteen years old and a kid.
Pershing says, "You guys know the names of the constellations?"
Foghorn says, "Yeah, that one over there's called your mother's cooch."
Bucky smiles as Pershing points out a constellation called, "Foghorn's tiny pecker." Hutch laughs against him and his body's warm and strong and Bucky thinks it's the finest night he's spent in his entire life.
Foghorn says, "Let 'em die out there if they're too stupid to run."
Bucky says, "Fuck," and takes a deep breath and scrambles up over the side. There are men screaming. The earth is shaking beneath his feet and flying up to pelt him. He holds his arms up over his face to block the worst of it and stumbles to the closest foxhole, reaches in and screams, "Get your asses up out of there and get to the fucking pit!" and once he's hauled up the first soldier, the rest follow in a terrified scramble. It's pitch black and blazing light by turns and his ears are ringing and a crater ten feet across opens up in front of him and he's thrown backwards by the force of the explosion. The ringing turns to a dull hum and he can't hear anything else at all, though he can still see mortar rounds hitting the earth, can still see the faces of men screaming. He's pelted with blood and when he turns he sees that half a private is missing, blown away to nothing, his limbs landing around Bucky like the most gruesome kind of shrapnel.
He runs the hundred yards between the pits and the holes over and over again, herding all the dumbfuck reinforcements who've never seen combat away from certain death and into only possible death. Captain Jackson's doing the same thing, only with more cursing and more threats of court martial.
When they finally dive into a pit along with the men, Captain Jackson gives himself just a moment to shout, "Shit! Fuck!" and kick the dirt wall before composing himself and taking control of the situation.
Bucky hunkers down next to a green reinforcement who's actually praying. Bucky leans his head against the wall and holds his breath as the earth shakes over and over again. The logs above them creak. They'll never withstand a direct hit, but they're safer than they were out in the open. The earth shakes and dirt falls onto them and the green private next to Bucky recites the 23rd Psalm over and over again to himself and Captain Jackson speaks in a low, calm voice that doesn't remove the fear of death, but somehow makes it bearable.
The shelling stops an hour before dawn. They wait until first light to crawl out of the pit and they're standing in the middle of Hell. Trees and grasses smolder around them. The foxholes are either gone or covered up with dirt sprayed over them by the explosions in the earth. There are shell craters larger than any foxhole. There are bodies and parts of bodies and Bucky sighs and reaches his hand down for Spud, the medic, who's going to have to be the one to identify them.
Hutch and Foghorn and Pershing climb out of the pit on the other side of the encampment and when Foghorn sees him, he rushes across the rugged ground and punches Bucky in the face, saying, "Jesus Christ, you fucking idiot, we thought you were fucking dead." Then he pulls Bucky to his feet and hugs him and Pershing slaps him on the back and Hutch says, "That was pretty stupid of you," but he looks proud of what Bucky'd done.
They only lose eight guys all told, and Bucky ends up with another stripe on his sleeve.
"Tell us again about what a hero you are, Corporal Barnes," Hutch says as they scrub out oil barrels for that day's work detail.
"I'm such a fucking hero," Bucky says, "that oil barrels quake when they hear my name."
"Bucky Barnes!" Foghorn shouts into his barrel. "Yup. This one's quaking for sure."
Bucky goes back to scrubbing. It's hot, dirty work, but at least dirty oil barrels smell better than rot, and at least being hot and dirty and hating every second of it is better than sitting around, waiting to die.
He takes one silent step forward, then a second, then he grabs the Japanese soldier with one hand over his mouth, yanking him back hard so he's got leverage to slice his throat. He slices hard since when you slit a throat, you're not just cutting skin, you have to cut through their windpipe, too, if you really want them to die fast and soundless. There's a soft gurgle and the man trembles in Bucky's arms as he dies. Once he's dead, Bucky kneels down slowly to leave the body on the jungle floor. He gives Captain Jackson the thumbs up. They stay motionless for another moment, then move as silently as they can away from the soldier Bucky'd just killed.
Back at camp, Captain Jackson slaps him on the shoulder, but that's all the thanks he gets since it's not like he went above and beyond. Killing's just what they do.
"Are you kidding me?" Pershing asks, looking up at the exposed coral ridge looming above them.
"The other side's not so bad," says Jackson. "It's this side that's so steep. We'll move around it, then up so we've got the high ground if they come this way to retake the airfield. Grab your gear and ready to move out by oh-nine-hundred."
They grumble, but there's nothing they can do. Besides, the encampment's becoming a graveyard and they're all anxious to move on. They grumble mostly because they can, because it's something to do.
"We get home," says Jimbo, "and I'm going to college. I'm taking chemistry classes. I'm learning how to make poisons and I'm going to make a poison that kills every goddamn fly on the entire goddamn earth."
Bucky shakes a cloud of flies off the sore on the back of his right hand and hopes Jimbo's dream comes true.
They're on the ridge by late afternoon. It's nearly impossible to dig in the hard, brittle coral. If it yields at all, it just collapses in on itself. Still, they dig pits. They spend a night wide awake, watching the trail that leads from the jungle, past the ridge, towards the airstrip, which is what the Japanese want back and the American refuse to give up.
The next day they start stripping away any cover that could hide the enemy from them. Their work detail is no longer scrubbing barrels or burying ammo, but instead planting booby traps of hand grenades in the jungle. They set up cans of gasoline they can hit with bullets to make them explode. They run barbed wire over every level surface and then pepper those level surfaces with artillery shells. They turn the ridge into a honeycomb of fortifications, pits and trenches and rifle holes all connected to one another in a twisting maze.
It's even hotter up on the ridge than it had been in the jungle. There's no shade, no water, no relief from the sun. Bucky's skin turns dark brown. His hair lightens. They sweat so much that even his belt winds up damp. He has to pull it tighter than he used to. He thinks he's lost another ten pounds at least. He doesn't remember ever being able to hook his fingers up beneath his ribs the way he can now. When they bathe in the stream nearest their lines, he laughs at how different the skin on his arms looks compared to the pale skin of his thighs, like he's one sort of creature from the waist up and made of entirely different stuff from the waist down.
Then it starts to rain and it doesn't stop. It's not like the rain from before. Three days is nothing. Now it starts raining and it doesn't stop for weeks. Bucky keeps his cigarettes dry in his helmet and his ammo dry stacked on high ledges in the pits that slowly fill with water. Everything else gets wet and stays wet. His socks and boots, his dungarees, his blankets. Nothing is safe from the water that just keeps coming down. The earth turns to mud, to a terrifying kind of mud that will pull in anything it wants to keep. Guys lose boots most often, but they've lost cots and rifles and Bucky hears that near the airstrip, they lost a Jeep that didn't just get stuck in the mud, no, it actually sunk beneath the surface never to be found again.
There are attacks in the jungle. There are attacks on the banks of the creek. There are attacks in the fields of kunai grass. Nothing happens on the ridge. They hear the battles, hear mortar and gunfire, hear stories the next day, but night after night they lay awake for an attack that never comes.
It's a rare clear night, no rain, not even clouds. They're sitting in the dark outside their pits because it's cool and dry above ground and they'll crawl into their pits to sleep eventually, but not yet. Then the world explodes with sudden fire and though Bucky knows what they're watching is miles away at sea, he flinches and ducks from the thousand star shells that explode at once, painting the world red.
"Holy shit," Hutch whispers, leaning forward. "That's the Navy. Which ones are ours and which are theirs?"
Bucky shakes his head. He doesn't know and he doesn't think there's any way to tell, not from where they are. All they can see is the flash of orange tracers through the sky, then explosions so huge, their force presses Bucky's undershirt flat to his chest and ruffles his hair.
All night they watch the naval battle rage. It's unnerving in a way that hand to hand isn't because they have no control over it. They're helpless watching the Americans and the Japanese ships slug it out, helpless to do anything but wait. If they lose, that means thousands more of their guys will be dead, exploded or drowned or sunk to the bottom of the bay along with the infantry's supplies and any hope of getting off the island any time soon. If they win, maybe the Japs will pull out. Maybe they'll be able to stop fighting. Maybe they'll be able to go home.
There's a tiny burst of light that grows and grows, flooding over them and illuminating them like the light of day before being followed by a terrible continuous boom that rocks them back and shakes the very foundations of the island beneath them. Bucky's heart is beating in his throat and he clings to the hillside in terror for a long time before he realizes that it's not the end of the world, not for him. He realizes that they'd just watched a ship explode, all her fuel and ammo and artillery going off at once.
"Was that ours or theirs?" Hutch demands.
Bucky shrugs helplessly.
Foghorn says, "Theirs. Had to be."
They watch the battle until dawn, then they climb into their damp pits and curl up and don't sleep for anticipation of finding out who'd won the night before. When the American planes roar overhead and chase what's left of the decimated Japanese armada away from the island, Bucky tips his head down and wants to cry in relief as all around him, his friends howl in victory.
They've got air support now to protect them from bombing raids. They've got supplies, real food, not just stolen Japanese rice and tins of fish heads. They get measured for new uniforms and they can transport their wounded onto the ships for real medical care and Captain Jackson somehow manages to make sure every guy in his unit gets fresh razors and a brand new bar of soap. And now that supplies can arrive, they start getting mail.
"I don't have any girl," Bucky says, which is the truth. "I just have friends who are girls."
Pershing looks at him like he has two heads.
Bucky says, "Look, I've never found the right girl for me, but that doesn't mean I have to be a jerk to the girls it hasn't worked out with. I had a swell time and they had a swell time, so why not stay friends if neither of us wants more?"
Pershing says, "How many girls you made it with Buck? Seriously. Not like Foghorn's lies. Seriously, how many girls you been with?"
Bucky's slept with two women and three men and he says, "What I get up to with girls is none of your business, thank you very much."
"That means a lot," says Hutch from Bucky's other side. "That means he's been with a lot of women in a lot of ways."
Pershing says, "What do you mean a lot of ways? How many ways are there?"
Hutch has a list, apparently, and Bucky's surprised to find Hutch describing things that Bucky's never even heard of. He keeps the surprise off his face, of course, since he's the worldly one from New York City, but he thinks if Hutch has a list like that in his head, they must have a lot of time on their hands in Alabama.
Bucky's letters make him feel so strange. His mother's familiar handwriting shakes him at his core, reminds him that the world exists and that there are people in it. There are places beyond the horizon. Steve writes about the turning leaves and the things he's drawing for work. He draws a little sketch of Bucky brandishing his rifle in the margin.
"He's really good," says Hutch, passing the letter to Foghorn.
Foghorn nods approvingly and passes the letter to Pershing.
Bucky takes the letter back and folds it up and tucks it away with the rest in a waterproof wrapper. It won't keep them dry for long if it starts raining again like it had before, but it's better than nothing.
Then reinforcements start to arrive, and not just a handful of green boys sent to cower and die. They come streaming off the ships by the hundreds, slogging up onto the beach in their clean uniforms, in their clean skin covering fat cheeks and round bellies. Bucky sees the alarm in their eyes when they look at the men they've come to relieve. Bucky's hollow eyed and so thin his ribs jut out. He's dirty and covered in rot and his lips crack and bleed sometimes when he smiles. He smiles when he sees the look on their faces. He smiles and laughs and lights a cigarette as the other guys start to catcall the green men, start to mock them for their inexperience.
Across the way, the marines are doing the same to their reinforcements, howling with laughter and shouts of, "You'll be sorry!"
When the order comes to grab their gear and march down to the beach to climb into the boats waiting to take them to the ships in the harbor, not a single one of them looks back.
Though I might sound like a traitor, I have to tell you something that may shock you. Melbourne's the most beautiful city in the world. I know, I know, it's Brooklyn do or die, and I haven't turned my back on her, I swear, but for all my love for home, she's not Melbourne. The food here, you wouldn't believe it. You can have steak and eggs for chump change anywhere you go, and the steaks are as big as your head. The girls are the most beautiful girls I've ever seen, and so full of pep that they work all day long for the war effort, then come out dancing every night and they're never tired or complain that their feet hurt, they just laugh and dance and make all of us guys feel like kings. After everything, it's sure nice to be someplace where everybody's happy to see you and eager to treat you nice. In fact, my buddies and I are heading out to go dancing with some girls we met on the streetcar this afternoon, so I'll cut this short. Here's hoping you go out and flirt with the first pretty girl you see after reading this, it'll do you good.
Your friend always,
"You're drunk!" she shouts back amid the giggles of her friends.
"I am drunk," he says. "I am drunk, and tomorrow I'll be sober, and you'll still be beautiful."
Hutch takes a hold of Bucky's arm and drags him away, shaking his head. Bucky laughs and follows willingly, bottle of sparkling hock dangling from his fingers. He takes a swig and stumbles towards the hotel. Everything's beautiful. The women are beautiful and the night is beautiful and the music was beautiful and the dancing was beautiful and the sparkling wine is so, so beautiful. He takes another swig and lets Hutch haul him into the hotel and up the stairs without making too much fuss. They've got three days leave, three days when they don't have to report in to anyone about anything, and Bucky's determined to make the most of it. They've got a hotel room and they're near the beach and they're all flush with cash since it's not like they've had anything to spend their money on for the past seven months. They hadn't even seen a single woman, not in seven months. They're lucky they showed up in Melbourne for R and R, where the women are so goddamn pretty.
"You're goddamn drunk," Hutch says.
Bucky waves a hand at him, but it feels nice to lie down and he doesn't argue when Hutch takes the bottle away and pulls a blanket up over his shoulders.
"You going to be fine here if I go back?" Hutch asks him.
Bucky says, "Fine as feathers, Hutch," and snuggles up to his pillow and sighs, happily drunk.
Hutch sets a wastebasket on the floor next to Bucky's bed and turns off the lights before leaving to head back out.
Bucky hadn't meant to get so drunk so fast, but he hasn't gotten his tolerance up, yet, even though he's gained back half his lost weight. He still drinks the way he would have before and that knocks him for a loop. Hutch is a great guy for getting him back safe to the hotel.
He sleeps for a while, then wakes up feeling sober and starving. He sits up and turns on a light and it's not even ten o'clock, yet, so he straightens up his uniform and brushes his hair and heads down to search for something to eat. He ends up a couple blocks away from the hotel at a late night Chinese place. They're crowded with servicemen, but he manages to snag a table and get a delicious plate of chow mein along with an ice-cold bottle of Coke.
Since Bucky's on his own and the place is packed, the owner sits another guy down across from him without asking, but Bucky doesn't mind. The guy's still got the hollow-eyed look of combat that's fading too slow from Bucky's own expression and he seems startled at the noise of the restaurant.
Bucky says, "I'm Bucky Barnes, 27th Infantry. You?"
The guy says, "Cal, 126th." The 126th just got back from Buna, and from everything Bucky's heard, it was a bloodbath fuck up from beginning to end. Cal takes a sip of his Coke and his hands are shaking. His eyes dart around the room, assessing threats, finding exits. His left hand is shaking hard enough to rattle the table and he sits on it to keep it still.
Bucky says, "Damn, it's busy as hell in here. You wanna get your food to go? Let's get our food to go."
Cal says, "Am I that sorry of a case?"
Bucky says, "Nah. I just know how damn out of sorts it feels getting thrown back into the world." He calls to the waiter and not five minutes after that he and Cal are walking along with their food in waxed paper boxes tucked neatly into the thick paper bag beneath Bucky's arm. Bucky tips his head towards an empty park bench up ahead. The street's dim, but he's been in darker conditions and he guesses Cal has, too. When Cal hesitates, Bucky looks at the park and says, "You can dig a foxhole if you really want to, but I'm taking full advantage of furniture while I've got it."
Cal laughs and sits on the other side of the bench, the food between them.
"Know how to use these?" Bucky asks as he pulls out a set of wooden chopsticks.
Cal shakes his head, but he's got a soup spoon in his top pocket and he scoops up his chop suey just fine. He grew up on a farm in Michigan and he's never had Chinese food before. He got married just out of high school to a girl named Evelyn and she just had their first child, a little girl named Alice, in December.
"Didn't get the letter until three days ago," Cal tells him with a nervous laugh. "That's got me shook more than anything else, tell the truth."
Bucky nods even though he knows Cal's lying. It's hard to find your spot back in the world. You keep thinking you're going to wake up and Melbourne will have just been a dream and you're back in some muddy hole in the ground being swarmed by mosquitoes and shot at by Japanese. Bucky's been back in the world for nearly a month and he still wonders sometimes if it's just a dream.
They toss the food containers and drink their Cokes as they walk along and Cal tells him all about working on a diary farm in Michigan, which is a lot more involved than Bucky would have ever thought it could be.
"Jeez," Cal says after a while, laughing at himself. "Listen to me yakking your ear off. Didn't know you signed up for the full story when you got me out of that Chinese place before I tore out screaming, did you?"
Bucky says, "I like hearing people talk about themselves," which is true. He's always been more a listener than a talker, the dreamer to Steve's planner.
"Yeah, but me? Jeez. You could have any girl you wanted, looking the way you do." Cal looks away from him suddenly and stuffs his hands in his pockets. He says, "My hotels just up that way, so you don't have to babysit me anymore."
It's not that Cal called him handsome that makes the star shell explode deep in Bucky's belly, it's the way he had to turn away after saying it so that Bucky couldn't see the truth of it on his face. So that's what we're doing, Bucky thinks, wondering if he knew somehow before he became aware of it in that moment. He says, "They got a lounge in your hotel? Let's get a drink. Let me buy you a drink and we can toast to baby Alice."
Once they're inside where it's bright enough to see, Cal takes a picture out of his inside pocket and hands it to Bucky. It's of a pretty girl holding a pretty baby. Their fingers touch for just a moment too long when Bucky takes the photograph. He pronounces the woman beautiful and the baby fat and happy the way a baby should be. He hands back the picture of Cal's wife and infant daughter and thinks that he shouldn't. For a million reasons, he shouldn't.
He could be reading it wrong, but he knows he's not. He could get court martialed, but only if someone found out. Cal's a married man, but he's halfway around the world and they're in the Army, they're at war, and both of them are lucky to be alive and who knows where they're going to be sent next? They won't get to stay in Melbourne for much longer, that's for sure. They'll both be sent back into Hell and who knows if their luck'll hold? Who knows if either of them will ever make it back home?
Bucky swore off men the same day he joined the Army, but for the life of him he can't remember why. He says, "How many guys you got bunked in your room? There's four in mine, and it's a mess."
Cal says, "Just me. None of the guys wanted to come out this way, but I did, so I got a room to myself."
Bucky says, "Is it nice?"
Cal downs the rest of his whiskey in one go, then says, "You could come up and see it if you'd like."
Bucky says, "I think I'd like that just fine."
There's a narrow single bed in Cal's room, and Cal sits on it and looks down at his hands while Bucky takes off his hat and unbuttons his jacket. He sits next to Cal, close enough that their thighs touch. He whispers, "Hey," and touches the side of Cal's face, tips it up for a kiss. When their mouths touch, Cal reaches up and clings tight to Bucky's shoulder like he's afraid to let go. Bucky kisses him over and over again. Cal's trembling beneath his hands. It's his first time with a man, Bucky knows. He remembers his first time and how scared he was. He strokes Cal's hair and murmurs soft reassurances to him and kisses him until he's dizzy with it.
Cal's body is thin from hunger and disease and the sores on his ankles have just begun to heal. Bucky kisses him from head to toe, stops to suck on his fingers and nuzzle the back of his knees and lap at his nipples. Cal's panting and trembling beneath him, but it's from desire now, not fear. Bucky grins down at him and grinds his cock against Cal's hip. "Feel how hard you make me?" he asks.
Cal grips Bucky's hair tight in his fist and yanks him down for another kiss. He rolls them over and holds Bucky down and ruts against him, mouthing his way up Bucky's neck and biting at his jaw. It's Bucky's turn to shudder. He likes it like this, likes being the one to give up control. He starts to press up and Cal shoves him back down and he moans and wraps his legs tight around Cal's waist.
He comes from nothing more than Cal rutting against him and Cal whispers, "Yeah," and slides his cock through the slick on Bucky's belly before following close behind.
Cal collapses on top of him, but he's not heavy. Bucky strokes his back and feels the knobs of his spine. He doesn't ask about Buna and Cal doesn't ask about Guadalcanal.
Cal pushes away from him and turns off the light. He curls in on himself, crying. Bucky sits up and kisses Cal's shoulder. He rests his cheek against Cal's back and lets him get it out of his system. Eventually, Cal turns back towards him and they embrace and he strokes Cal's hair gently.
"You must think I'm one hell of a piece of work," Cal whispers against the skin of Bucky's throat.
Bucky says, "Nah."
Cal shoves him away and says, "This is just old hat to you then, huh? You've seen it all before, done it all before, hell, you probably seduce a different guy every night."
Bucky says, "I swore off men over a year ago, so no, I don't. But I did have to swear off them, so yes, I've done this before."
"Seemed like you needed a friend. I didn't realize how you were looking at me until we were a block away from the hotel and then, well, I realized I wanted to. I thought you did, too."
Cal's silent, but he turns back into Bucky's embrace. Eventually they curl up together in the narrow bed and Bucky thinks he won't be able to sleep, but he does. When he wakes up, Cal's draped across him, head on his shoulder, arm dangling over the side. He strokes Cal's shoulders lazily and smiles when Cal turns his head to press a kiss to Bucky's throat.
"I want to do everything," Cal tells him.
They do everything. He takes Cal's dick into his mouth and sucks him slow and wet, rubs Cal's hole with spit-slick fingers and listens to him moan. He lets Cal suck him for a while, then gets on his hands and knees and arches his ass up and Cal whispers, "Oh, Jesus," and fucks into him a little too desperate, too hard and fast. Bucky doesn't mind.
When they both finish a second time, they stretch out on the bed lazily, sheets sweaty and spunk stained, their bodies the same way. Bucky dozes and when he opens his eyes, Cal's lying next to him, looking at the picture of his wife and infant daughter.
"I love her," Cal tells him.
Bucky says, "All right."
"I know it doesn't make sense that I'd want this and want her, too, but I do. I'm crazy about her. Been crazy about her since the day we met."
Bucky sits up and reaches for his cigarettes. "You smoke?"
Cal shakes his head. "No, but I don't mind if you do."
Bucky lights his cigarette and sits upright with his back against the wall. Cal rests in the vee of his legs and leans back against his chest. Bucky trails his fingers along Cal's ribs and Cal's hand rests on Bucky's arm but doesn't try to stop its movement.
"You ever been in love?" Cal asks.
Bucky watches the smoke rise towards the ceiling, then says, "His name's Steve." He's never said it to anyone before.
Cal says, "And you guys...?" He silent for a long moment. Then he asks, "How does that work?"
"It doesn't," Bucky says. "He's normal. My best friend since we were kids. He doesn't know."
"I'm sorry," Cal says.
"What are you gonna do?" Bucky ashes his cigarette in the glass tray on the nightstand, then takes a drag. After he exhales, he says, "You're lucky, you know, being in love with her. I've tried. Feels like I've spent half my life looking for a woman to fall for, but I never do, and I've known some doozies. Smart, funny, great women, women I want to spend days just talking to or dancing with, but I never want more. You're lucky that you do."
"And yet here I am," Cal says, sliding his hand over Bucky's arm.
Bucky smiles and kisses his temple. "Nah. This isn't anything. This is just comfort. Extenuating circumstances."
Cal takes the cigarette from him and takes a drag. He leans his head back against Bucky's chest and they sit there in silence for a long time. Bucky smokes two cigarettes in succession and still they sit there not talking, Bucky stroking Cal's chest, Cal leaning comfortably back against him.
It's closer to morning than to night when Cal says, "Will you do it to me? Put it in?"
Bucky says, "Yeah," and rolls Cal over onto his stomach. He works him open with his fingers and his tongue and Cal's shaking again by the time Bucky presses inside.
They keep it up until morning, dozing and then waking, kissing feverishly and touching each other with desperate hands. Bucky lies naked on top of the covers as he watches Cal get dressed.
"I have to check out before ten," Cal tells him. "I don't want anyone to. I mean I can't." He sighs.
Bucky says, "That's all right. I don't really feel like getting caught, either. You go down and check out. I'll come down after and nobody'll even know we were together."
Cal lets out a shaky breath and nods.
Bucky dresses and thinks about heading down the hall to wash up, then thinks better of it. Somebody might get curious if they know he doesn't have a room in the hotel. They might get curious about how he doesn't have a change of clothes or a towel or even a razor.
He looks rumpled when he leaves the room, but not indecent. The street's quieter than the one where Bucky's hotel is and he waits off to the side, like maybe he's just reading the headlines on the newstand's papers.
Cal stops when he sees Bucky, then hoists his pack up onto his shoulder with a tight smile.
"Going back to the barracks?" Bucky asks as they walk along the sidewalk.
"Yeah," Cal says softly.
"Me, too," Bucky says. "We're in the cricket stadium, up in the stands where there's shade and everything. You could come by if you get a chance. Meet the guys. Come out with us."
Cal shakes his head and Bucky feels a pang in his chest, a delicate hurt he thought he'd lost the ability to feel.
Bucky says, "Well maybe we could--"
"Bucky," Cal says softly. He looks sad.
Bucky says, "Yeah, okay," and stuffs his hands in his pockets. "We'll always have Melbourne, right?"
Cal says, "It's not you, Bucky, you know that. It's just..."
"I got unrealistic expectations, I know," Bucky says. "Had 'em my entire life." He thinks about telling Cal to give Evelyn a kiss for him, but he doesn't. He snaps Cal a salute, then says, "See you around, maybe," before turning and strolling away. He doesn't look back. He makes himself walk with a casual, easy step. Anybody looking at him would think he didn't have a care in the world.
He doesn't get back to his hotel until past checkout and Hutch and Pershing and Foghorn have already come and gone, so he figures he'll just head back and find them somewhere along the way. He spots the guys three blocks from the cricket grounds. He wraps his arm around Pershing's neck and yanks him close saying, "Come 'ere, you."
Pershing laughs and wrestles out of his hold. "Damn, Buck, we thought for sure you'd gone over the wall."
Foghorn says, "I didn't. I thought Hutch had killed you and dumped your body somewhere."
"Where'd you get off to?" Hutch asks, tossing Bucky his pack.
Bucky shoulders the pack and says, "Just made a new friend is all."
Pershing laughs and Foghorn says, "Hubba hubba," and Hutch says, "What's her name?"
Bucky says, "That is between me and my new friend, thank you very much."
They've just made it to their cots in the cricket stands when a runner he vaguely recognizes calls, "Barnes, report to CP!"
Bucky looks over at Hutch, who shrugs. He tries to remain calm. If he were getting court martialed for conduct unbecoming, the MPs would have picked him up instead of just asking him to come to the command post. He's pretty sure. It's not like he can ask.
Captain Jackson takes one look at him and laughs. "At ease," he says. "Whatever you did, I haven't heard about it, yet, so relax. When I was writing up the reports about Guadalcanal, I recommended you for promotion and they fell for it. You got room for another chevron on that sleeve?"
Bucky says, "Yes, Sir." When he leaves the command tent, he's a sergeant, a squad leader, and he's making six dollars more a month. Pershing says that means he has to buy the next six rounds.
"Jesus," Bucky says, gazing up at the blackened, twisted metal of what had once been the barrel of a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun. "We're going back into combat like this?"
A sailor on deck hears him and says, "Oh, hell no, we barely made it through the last fight. We're heading back to Honolulu to get her fixed up."
It's the first any of them have heard of going to Hawaii. They'd all assumed they'd be storming another island beach and fighting the Japanese tooth and nail for another piece of land. They dock in Honolulu, though, and two days later they're on another ship bound for San Diego.
They get to San Diego the first week of June and they're free until the 14th, when they have to report to New York Harbor. Rumor is, they'll be shipping out to England. Seems like the war in Europe is finally heating up and they want experienced soldiers who've seen combat to show the inexperienced troops how it's done.
Bucky remembers being too excited to do anything as boring as look out the window when'd he boarded the train from New York to San Diego over a year earlier. He and the other guys had been too busy talking big and itching for combat back then, but this time, he looks. He props his feet up on the seat across from his and slouches down and watches the country roll by. He sees the mountains of Colorado, the soft green plains of Iowa. They take up a collection for Haystack and give it to Pershing, who lives closest to Haystack's rural Illinois home. He's still got a little sight in one eye, Captain Jackson told them. The scars look bad, but he's not completely blind. Pershing pockets the money and tells Bucky if Haystack's too proud to take it, he'll pretend to agree and then leave it with Haystack's mother. Bucky thinks that's a pretty good idea.
Bucky and Spud sit in silence as they watch the sun glint bright off Lake Michigan, so different from the way it reflects off the ocean. They play cards for pennies and Spud wins every hand. Finally, after days and days, Bucky sees the lights of Manhattan.
It's four o'clock in the morning when they pull in to Grand Central. Bucky hefts his bag over his shoulder and starts walking. He's got enough coin to hire a cab, but he wants to walk. Spud jumps on the back of a delivery truck that's heading up to Gashouse. The driver says he'll be hitting Maspeth by late morning if Bucky wants to ride with him. Bucky shakes his head and waves Spud on.
Bucky likes the sound of the city in the early morning, hushed but never silent. There are car horns and doors slamming, the diesel rumble of trucks, the coo of pigeons and dogs barking down the alley. It smells like wet garbage and coal soot and the mouth-watering yeasty scent of the bagels strung up by the five dozen in the delivery truck ahead of him.
It's strange how foreign and familiar everything is. It's like he's in another world but still, he knows it in his bones. He'd forgotten the smell of bagels. He'd forgotten the cadence of hushed, early morning New York speech. He'd forgotten the salt-fish-rot smell of the East River. He'd forgotten the feel of the boards beneath his feet as he walked across the bridge, forgotten the steel twist of its cables.
He remembers, now. He reaches out to let his fingers brush against one of the thick metal cables as he passes it. He takes deep breaths. He leans in to his steps just to see if he can make the wood creak. He lifts his chin and takes long, confident strides. He's got less than a mile to go, now, until his feet touch Brooklyn, and across the bridge his little sister's asleep in bed, her hair in frizzy braids. Across the bridge, Steve's probably starting to stir because he's never been able to sleep with the sun coming through his windows. Across the bridge is home, where he can sleep in a bed and not in the earth, where rats might run over the toe of your boots but centipedes never will, where he can turn on the tap and water will flow out of it like magic.
When he steps off the bridge into Brooklyn, he smiles and looks around to see if it's light enough to smoke a celebratory cigarette or if it's still dark enough that the flame will alert snipers. Then he shakes that off and laughs at himself and lights a smoke and turns towards home. He's going to have to apologize to Steve since he was wrong, Melbourne's got nothing on home. He can see it already two blocks down, the fire escape on the third floor just outside his kitchen window. He wonders if the window's open, yet, if his mother's awake, if she's cooking breakfast, if she'll cry when she sees him. He smiles huge and happy and bounces on his feet, then drops his smoke and shouts with joy and gives in to the urge to run.