They crashed into a pit, half mud, half sand, like a meteor falling from the sky, or rather, like remnants of a tumbling meteor—their plane disintegrated mid-nosedive as though it was wrapped in papier-mâché, as though it was wrapped in the old newspapers back home that shared the same haunting headline at every street corner, that an invasion had begun.
Their bomber’s tail was hit hard, and the ensuing spiral shot the two men downward into a wide deserted gulch, a thick pool of mud and sand and earth catching them.Their bomber’s tail was hit hard, and the ensuing spiral shot the two men downward into a wide deserted gulch, a thick pool of mud and sand and earth catching them. It didn’t take long for one of them to regain consciousness. James, the gunner, woke first. What he saw was half in darkness; the world was half visible to him from the view of the muddy hollow. The brown slop came right up under his right armpit, but just above his left elbow. It slowly sucked the twisted and mangled mass that crash-landed, down below its surface—the plane became the nourishment, the marrow that filled the mixture of sand and earth, the deserted belly James found himself trapped in. He had only one arm free. He used it to shade the one eye of his that wasn’t trapped in darkness. The other had a cut across the upper eyelid, cutting into the surface of the whitish yellowish ball surrounding his cornea. It was a partially dark world to him.
The late afternoon sun made the pit glisten. James shifted in his place, twisting his hips, attempting to step up through the slop, but each step sunk him lower than the previous. A sense of panic rose to the back of his throat at the sinking feeling, a sense of hysteria, like he was five again and could not keep himself afloat.
“Holy—” A voice several feet from him started up. The man was up to his collar in the thick ooze.
“Dre!” James shouted, but Andre was far too preoccupied with the thick slop for him to hear the call. James swung his free arm over the muck, like a swimmer changing positions, but felt the thick earth shift beneath him, dragging him under a little further with each step.
Then, like a deer struck by a driver, Andre jolted. He convulsed and squirmed, crying out, screaming a kind of bloodcurdling scream that made James sick again. The dark brown slop slowly moved up, covering the front of Andre’s throat, then inched its way up to the bottom of his chin, moving at a rate that seemed to know it was torturing the man. He cried across the desert, across the gulch to the ends of the earth and back, rattling James from the inside. Rattling. Their world was empty, and for James, only half lit. The thick slop stopped dragging Andre down right as it covered his chin and jaw.
James watched from afar as Andre’s breathing eventually slowed, as his eyes stopped giving way to streams. Andre’s temple and jawbone met at strong, smooth angles, but the way his skin and that dark muck blended, they did not match; the former’s complexion was far friendlier, far less murky. He was a handsome man, a tall man, and those not involved in their friendship often felt the two of them possessed a kind of rivalry. They had the two highest times for flight exercises, completed target training at identical paces, and both represented their respective units at national competitions as privates.
“Dre!” James tried again, like it was on a lifeline he flung across the gulch hoping to land directly on the ears of the listener. Andre turned his head as though it rested on a pillow of soggy earth.
“Jay…” Andre’s words landed heavy. His response was weighty—it signaled to James the state of things, the isolation of that desert gulch and the quiet distance between the two, like it leapt up and squeezed James by the throat, demanding his attention, demanding to be seen and known and recognized as a wildly confounding end for them. If only the crash had brought them closer together, perhaps they would have managed to push at least one of them to stable ground, perhaps the other could see to it that they would also be freed.
Andre rested his head, exhausted and frightened. He began motioning his mouth, but choked on words, on tears and panic.
“I don’t wanna die, Jay…,” Andre said.
James shuddered, but tried desperately to hide his chattering teeth. “I told you … I should have flown,” he responded anxiously, smiling.
“Hah, you look like shit,” Andre laughed back, resting only slightly now.
“At least I’m not up to my neck in it,” and at James’s words, they both laughed, and winced and looked around once more to be certain of their current situation.
“Think you can reach behind you?” Andre asked, catching sight of a dislodged pilot seat half sticking out of the deep, dark muck. James turned, slowly, but again slipped, like the underbelly of the gulch deformed at will. The slop was just above his chest now, and Andre’s eyes glossed over once more. They sat in silence a moment, maybe two, maybe a lifetime, James thought. Maybe long enough for the gulch to crystallize, for the gulch to set in place so that they could break the earth and walk out, but the moment gave to Andre’s soft murmur. He was sinking again.
“Dre, keep still, man!” James said, in a voice he hadn’t heard before, and suddenly the sinking stopped, “Just, chill…”
James could see Andre’s lips tremble, then after a few minutes slowly turn to a smile.
“Wh—you all right?” he asked, stupefied, yet relieved at the same time.
“I was just thinking of what Pastor Franklin said about bottom feeders, how one should abstain from them to meet their lord heartily,” Andre said, and began chuckling, keeping his head high enough to stop the muck from flooding his laughter.
“What?” James found it unexpected, but slightly contagious.
The two could be heard from across the desert, and in the backs of their minds they thought about how no one interrupted, how no one cut in like they were hoping someone would.“I would tear the hell up out of some crab legs right about now,” Andre said, breaking the quiet of the desert with high-pitched cackles; his eyes streamed, but not as they did before. James shook his head and broke into laughter. The two could be heard from across the desert, and in the backs of their minds they thought about how no one interrupted, how no one cut in like they were hoping someone would.
“Hmph,” Andre paused. “The sky really does look nice from down here, almost welcoming.”
James hadn’t any idea how to reply. He wanted to stare upward, but thought it would only send him the opposite direction.
“We’ve seen a lot up there, but from down here… it’s really beautiful when you take the chance,” Andre said.
“Yea, it sure is,” James added.
The ground began slowly swallowing Andre again as he spoke, and it was like reality suddenly came crashing from the sky like they crashed earlier, coming down all on top of them and over them. Andre began wailing, began calling out to the great vastness above them.
“Oh God, please!” he exclaimed.
“Dre!” James cried over him, over the bloodcurdling that started again.
“Jay…God, please!” Andre gagged on his words. The dark slop went up and over his eyes and into his mouth, and he spat out what he could for the slightest gasp, the slightest chance at air. His friend’s face was still only half lit, half exposed one last time for him to see across the gulch that was consuming them. James heard his choked cries, heard Andre’s appeals once more before words and phrases became muffled heaves and broken consonants. And without further warning the muck swallowed Andre and left bubbles of his violent sobs behind.
“Dre!… DRE!” James exclaimed amidst massive hysteria and regret and horror and nausea, his one good eye bulging now. He tried to swim, tried to paddle with his free hand, but the earth began swallowing him again. He could feel it tugging hard on the breast pockets of his vest. He could feel the warm mud bearing down upon his broad shoulders now, forcing him under, wanting to drown him. Then, like the butcher it had been that day, it stopped.
The dark mud rested right below his nostrils as tiny ripples appeared across the surface from his quick exhalations. He could barely see up and over the bowl they were caught in, and every now and again the spot where Andre cried bubbled. James floated in that thick mass, no longer aware, no longer feeling—numb to the partly lit world he lived in for a minute longer. He thought back to his training, to the accolades and exercises. He thought about their mission, and regretted being a gunner, in that moment. In that moment, he wished desperately to be of use before he went. The thought of his mother pruning their garden when he’d been a child created a lump in his throat large enough to be felt through the muck. He looked up one last time.
Dusk was approaching, and a blanket of blueish grey streaked with slivers of red covered the sky. It was beautiful, he thought. Bright bits of white light peppered the wild blackish blue, mimicking the hole-filled shoebox James had used to spot stars at night as a boy. He thought about taking his life back, taking it back to the point where he knew he could have been of use, before the crash landing, all the way back to the pruning. He felt gravity, felt his weight going down now. He could envision a bed of tulips where he rested, and a broken piece of fuselage serving as a makeshift headstone. As long as it said I was useful, he thought. The world was becoming completely dark now. He was no longer partially blind to it as the mud slid up his cheeks and over his eyes completely. The ground did not rumble this time, nor did he fight it or roar. And without objection, the earth opened up and quietly consumed him.