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 such a deep sleep that I may have been unconscious for hours, 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 toward earth wipes out any common sense a person might have, replacing it with screams for our mothers, our girlfriends, our God.
“Milo, get ready for impact,” shouted Captain Walker, our pilot, 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 our bomber, soon to be brushed again with splatters of blood and urine and body parts that 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 might have buried ourselves in some tropical forest. Hitting the water gave the few 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. I crawled through three feet of water, tasting the 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.
Instinctively kicking 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, pulling myself up in the sudden sunshine that seemed oddly out of place in the middle of my darkest day.
Nobody else broke the surface. “Arnie! Josh! Ronnie!” I shouted, but the only sound was the hungry waves lapping at the raft. Paddling back to the point of impact, I gingerly slid out and into the ocean, holding the rope by one hand, sticking my face underwater, looking for the plane. It was gone.
I swam frantically in circles, thinking it had to still be close to the surface. There was nothing when I peered into the water 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 person might have dived under the waves to find that plane, help somebody else out. Instead, I slid back on the raft and started bawling like a baby. I drew my knees up to my chest and cried into my wet uniform like the sniveling coward that I am. Took my fist and slammed the side of my head. “Get off this raft, you asshole, and look for the guys.”
Only, I didn’t, because I was scared, wounded, and so damned glad to still be breathing, that I was paralyzed with indecision and basted in self-preservation.
After a few hours of paddling around, half-heartedly looking for signs of anybody, 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 somebody flipped a switch, I passed out. When I woke, night had come, and I was gazing up at a moon that was so full, it looked like a searchlight.
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 while holding my breath, getting nowhere.
“Milo, relax,” Pops said, gently pulling me a little farther out into the channel. The water was cooler, tugging a bit at my legs, my arms.
“Don’t let go,” I begged, and Pops clasped me firmly to his chest. I remember the tickle of his hair, the heat from his body, the warmth of the sun. Slowly, I began to kick in cadence, dipping my face into the river, gaining some confidence. After a time, he loosened his grip a little and we slipped downstream in a dreamy state, watching the trees go by, the sky turn a bit. The current picked up its pace, swirling into a green eddy, the leaves and clouds circling above. Panicked, I reached out and grasped my father’s strong arm.
“I’m right here, Milo. Let yourself go and enjoy the water.” His arm was my lifeline. His voice my savior. I thought of the arm I saw from the crash, wondering if whoever lost it was a father, and began to cry.
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 was 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 were going to beat them down, save America, rescue the rest of the world. God and Might was behind us. We flooded the airplanes, the U Boats, the sandy beaches, and faraway countries like hornets, our uniforms stiff and new, boots spit polished, guns shining in a great migration that tilted the world on its axis.
But the sad truth is that God doesn’t hand out medals, or fluff our pillows at night, nor 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 is 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 like a bowl with nothing in between. Not even some lost seagull.
I don’t know about ocean navigation. Nor constellations. Shit, I could hardly find North back on the farm. But I learned enough about animals to know that if no birds are flying overhead, I’m pretty far from land. Animals don’t do foolish things, like sign up for a war and find themselves so far from home that they can’t find their way back. They conserve energy. Use their instincts.
We heard terrible stories about sharks getting the poor guys who ended up here 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 again, until exhausted. In the end, will it matter? I’m either going to starve out here, be eaten by a shark, or get shot by a Jap plane, bobbing 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 am 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?” I nestle into the darkness, turning my face to the sky, and try to remember the names of the constellations. I am at a loss after the Milky Way. I know there’s a warrior up there, Orion, and I’m hoping those stars see me and 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 little flicker of hope. Maybe the Japs won’t find me. Maybe my guys will. A friendly ship cutting through the water. A rope thrown to me. A shower. 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. 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 a couple of years ago. Jane’s a farm girl, 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, where 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, bringing us cookies and milk, remarking on the night air, fluttering her apron over the railing like she was beating a rug.
Jane cried when I enlisted. She stood on the railroad platform with Pops and Mom, 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 shaking finger. I close my eyes and knead the raft, dreaming that I am touching Jane’s breasts, the curve of her hip.
I think of Jane and Mom and Pops, and 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. Full of thunder clouds that are sending down droplets of rain that pelt my face, feed my tongue, and shake up the ocean until I am riding it like a winged horse. It hit me hard just how much the stars mean to me now that they hide behind the night. They’re a beacon of light. Thousands of eyes that peer down from the depths of the Universe.
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 its Jane’s hair, and beg it to unravel and form a ladder straight up to heaven, deliver me home. Or send just one star.