14 – Rachael Garcia

Written by Rachael Garcia during the PCVI Summer Writing Seminar ’20

The air is tight as I walk out of the trailer. The sun directly impacts my ability to see anything. I close my eyes and let the air fill my lungs. It burns. I circle the earth’s grain in my mouth. I feel clean. 

Taking the first step, I find my vision and look to the right. Rows of canvas align perfectly with the walkway parting the gravel. My bag bangs against the outside of my knee as I make my way forward. My hair wet, tightly wrapped above my collar. The cool streams of water sliding down my neck.  The reflection of ripples in the distance pulls me forward. Memories of my past telling me to pick my feet up. Moving with a type of purpose that I can make up if confronted; I know that people are always watching. 

Walking past the tents that I used to count. A number is assigned to the place that I call home for the next 8 months, but no number is shown. I have grown to know the land marks to get to 14. 

14 was never a lucky number of mine but only 3 tents were available for me out of hundreds that sit in perfect rows of what people call “Tent City”. The choice to choose which tent is never an option. 

I step forward quickly into what is the entrance and the exit of the canvas structure that begins and moves with the color of the earth. The air is much cooler and the sound of buzzing enters my ears. No one is ever in here when I enter. I pull back the sheet that allows for privacy and place my bag onto the mattress. Pulling each item out of the bag and placing them into the wooden cupboard blocking part of the hall entrance. A tiny mirror on the inside of the cupboard door showed my tan skin. I have never been tan before. I grab the pack of cigarettes that were in my left side cargo pocket of my pants from this morning and the night before. 

I pull the sheet to the side and step out into the main entrance of the tent. I walk toward the back checking to see if anyone is here. Beds are empty. The only sound is from the AC. I love this AC. 

I grab water from the tiny fridge that I have been told isn’t mine to use. I walk past the 5 other curtains hanging to protect privacy. Exiting through the wooden door that slams as the bungee cord holding the thinly made piece of wood, closes. The air strikes my body but doesn’t sweat. I immediately feel a sense of thirst as my mouth dries and it becomes hard to swallow. 

I don’t even have to look up to know where I want to go. It’s a covered structure, built before I got here. It reminds me of something I would have wanted in my backyard before I came here. One single entrance and two steps leads to the center. The cover embracing the heat, sending moveable waves toward the sky. There are no benches, so I sit on the top stair. I pull the packet of cigarettes from my pocket, hitting the top of the package several times in my palm to force the tobacco forward. I then unwrap the package, pull onto the foil that embraces each tobacco filled tip that covers 20 cigarettes and place the foil and plastic into my pocket. Pulling one cigarette out, touching the filter to my tongue ensuring I have the right side to light. I light the end and fill my lungs with smoke. A sense of calm sits as I blow the smoke out of my lungs. I stare at our flag in the distance, sitting high as a reminder of a claimed territory. 

Taking another deep drag off my cigarette, I squint as I look to the right where piles of water bottles look like the Ziggurat without the same destruction. I should grab a few of those and put them in the fridge, I thought. Trash litters the roads we travel. My body tenses and I take another drag. 

I like the night better than the day. The day feels exposed and uncertain. 

I force the cigarette to my lips and take in another drag. My mind wonders as the images around me move into the past. 

Only 8 years ago I played hide and seek outside in the dark with my brother. I would play for hours, hiding in the bushes, dodging him so I didn’t have to be “It.” When he got closer to my favorite spot under the porch, I would step out with my hands over my face and scream. He would jump back and yell, “Don’t scare me!” I would laugh and run as he tried to catch me. My legs were almost always faster than his. He was observably angry that I forced his body to tense for a moment and mostly angry because I always found him early in HIS game. 

I kept running toward the field adjacent to my house, prepared to hide again. Ducking down in the tall grain, shallowing my breath, and turning to find him. I watched as he kicked the stairs leading into the house, clenched his fists, and entered into the light.

I stayed still for a moment. Waiting for him to exit the door to come find me. Pulling the grain from the top of the fine blades surrounding me. I sat down, feeling the cool air while the sweat settled on the back of my neck. My body shivered with the wind.  I stood and started toward the edge of the yard, I tried to swallow all of the air around me. Watching the stars fall toward the line that defined the earth and the sky. 

I looked up slightly as stars shot in all directions. I reached out to cover the bigger ones and to trace the belts with my finger, finding the patterns. 

My vision comes and the air is again still. I make eye contact with her as she darts toward me. 

I wonder if this is another excuse to make the rank known. I look at my socks, “I am in regs” I thought.  I take another long drag of my cigarette, my body tenses and I prepare for impact. 

I force my feet to press into the step as I rise to stand. My body moves at a pace similar to movement through water. The gravity is heavy and the air is much too thick. 

“What are you doing?!” she asks angrily. 

“Smoking a cigarette,” I say.

She gritted her teeth, her eyes piercing into mine. “Why aren’t you in your tent?” She asks. Her uniform tight against her thighs and waist. I take a moment to think about my pants that hang over the bed inside of 14. I am running out of room to tighten my belt, I have to remember to order new pants, I thought. 

“Why aren’t you in your tent?” She asks again, this time moving closer to the step where my feet, hip width apart dug deeper into the wood. 

I glance over at 14 and witness sand running out of the burlap bags. They line the bottom of the tent, I measure about 3 feet high with my eye. I look to the right of 14, where the concrete walkway leads to the armory. I walk this path every night at 1600 and every day at 1100. My holster clipped around my right thigh without weight. A vest, unzipped around my chest with open magazine pockets waiting to be filled. The right side of the vest pockets stretched and puffy desiring to be filled with 203 rounds. A large green bag hangs to the left side of my body, banging against my knees. My helmet is clipped to the outside of this bag, contrasted by the tan and brown markings.  

My eyes gaze further forward and I watch as people run with green and black vests and helmets that don’t fit. M-16’s are held with both hands, some on areas of the weapon we are taught not to hold. 

I glance back at 14 again. 

“Are you an idiot! We are under attack and the flightline was just hit.” She yells this at me as my body tenses to the sound of her voice. I can hear her pitch elevated the same way my brother screamed when he was scared. 

I look toward the flag located on the flightline that I sometimes protect, sitting higher than anything else in the sky and can’t see any smoke. I take one last deep drag of my cigarette, throw it in the can and shuffle my feet down the steps, walking toward 14. 

Opening the door with force, I enter my space and lay on the mattress. I take another deep breath, staring at the tan canvas above and close my eyes. 

6 hours until I meet the night again. 

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