Bouncing Bettys – J. Fitzpatrick Mauldin

A quick note about this story. I don’t usually write in a voice like this. It almost started as poetry, and ended up in some strange form of prose. This was an experiment to stretch my abilities and do something that wasn’t science fiction or fantasy. As a whole, it has been well received by those who have read it. I suppose that makes it a success, even though I’m not totally sure myself. But good or bad, these sorts of ventures make us better. I share this with you knowing it is certainly not my crowning achievement. But then again, art, as well as parenting, are messy subjects.

Enjoy.

Bouncing Bettys – J. Fitzpatrick Mauldin

Nearly two years had passed and his life had changed forever. For taking on this eighteen year tour of duty he’d be a better man, and he was, yet at times he felt a shell of a man, a husk on the breeze of uncertainty and total collapse. The place he’d found himself was often terrifying, as it should be. He was afraid of death and injury on a near constant level, worry unraveling every solid nerve he ever had. He’d been covered in feces one day, tears the next. He’d seen blood and sweat and raw madness and loved every minute.

From early morning till late into the evenings he was under constant barrage, loud noises, chaos and concern, but after washing was complete the conflict calmed down. This was a critical time for him to collect himself and prepare for battle tomorrow. He had the whole world to tangle with, not just one monster, and so he needed his strength.

It had been two days without any sleep, and about now, his bladder felt as if it were going to explode. Someone must have put a hand grenade in its place. He slipped free of his pallet, leaving his wife alone at their camp. She’d been his greatest ally during this mission, his squadmate and wingman. It had been the wildest adventure of their lives, but terrifying beyond measure. It was the kind of mission you didn’t choose, but one that chose you. It was their job to keep the monster at bay. Their job to keep it from hurting anyone. So far, they’d been successful with strict discipline in spite of entropy. Hell, they deserved a medal for this, but awards weren’t given out for missions so private.

There were times he and his wife fought through the night without end. There were times they fought through the day without food. And there were times that they laughed in the face of their monster, and the monster laughed back. This made them profoundly happy. On the best and worst of days, his wife would kiss him and tell me how wonderful he was, and he would do the same in kind. But the mission had changed things between them, driven a wedge into place that wasn’t there before. It made life a little less careless. He wasn’t sad because of this, it was just how things went for anyone in their position. The mission was everything.

It was pitch black, o two hundred. He crept from their dwelling and into the gauntlet, a space three feet wide filled with landmines. He wished he’d brought a torch, perhaps one of those slips of glass they used to speak with others on similar missions. He peered up the length of the gauntlet and could just see the dangers ahead in the green glow bathing the lane.

A striped object the shape of an animal was inches from right foot. He stepped carefully around it, chuckling under his breath as he moved ahead. He had to remain quiet, had to be careful where he placed his feet. If he triggered any of these landmines he’d be a dead man. One wrong step and a wailing alarm would sound, signaling the monster’s return to the land of consciousness. It had happened before.

Another step, this time around a set of multi-colored keys and shapes that looked like letters. Oh how the evil empire had crafted so many trinkets of destruction for which could be his unraveling. He scratched his head and began to sweat, he’d just made a mistake.

Under his right foot was a hand. He heard a click and kept his heel in place, worried that stepping away might just trigger this bomb. He looked to his left and could see the monster’s cage only a few feet away. He readjusted his weight and tried to free himself, putting something heavy in place of his foot. He lost his balance and tumbled to the floor, cracking his head first against something hard and flat. The wall.

Terror filled him as the body connected to the trigger hand began to sing. It’s shrill voice became louder and louder until it was a communal dirge to his very death. He was finished, he just knew it. Then a voice came from down the hall behind him, clear as an angel who’d smoked six packs of cigarettes a day for a millennia, or maybe not slept well for a day or two. He cringed.

“Turn off her silly bear. I think you stepped on it again.”

“Shhh. The damage is already done.” He knew his words words true but prayed they weren’t so. “She’ll wake for sure.”

“Wake? Are you kidding me? You’re exhausted, honey. Did you forget again that she’s at her grandmother’s for the night. Now go pee and come back to bed, it’s cold in here.”