Smiling like his patron saint Sisyphus, Squirrel guided the purple Mustang from the amber glow of sunset at Santa Monica Pier to a ridge in the San Gabriel mountains. Into the darkness. Always uphill. Squirrel had been there and done that. Shrapnel biting his shoulder, pins grinding in his ankle, and that hammer pounding his temples attested to that. At forty-two, Tom Brady put on his fifth Super Bowl ring. At twenty-six, Squirrel’s body was already out of the game. Been there. Done that. Into the darkness. Always uphill. Squirrel’s saintly smile dissipated under the weight of memory. He had seen things for which he doubted forgiveness was even possible.

Squirrel lifted his foot to within reach of his hand, loosened the laces on his Mojave RAT combat boots, and scratched the skin over the hardware keeping his ankle together. He gingerly placed the foot on the floorboard. His lips curled in a valiant attempt at a smile. Sisyphus would have died for a sturdy pair of boots like these.

Squirrel glanced to his right. Why was he driving Cal, a fire-balling high school prospect from Redding to Wrigley Field? What was this prospect thinking punching a wall with his pitching hand a week before the Northern California State Championships? Out of the game with scouts all over the place?

The play-by-play team announced that the Giants failed to score again. Squirrel lamented letting Cal choose what to listen to when they left Los Angeles. He would be deep into Coltrane’s Giant Steps if a swarm of bees hadn’t delayed the game in Cincinnati for over an hour.

Squirrel nodded to St. Christopher suctioned to the dash and wondered why he agreed to let his other passenger Angel, her guitar, and her Ms. Frizzle lectures hitch a ride. Angel. Tiny and nimble, soft blue-green eyes embedded in creamy coffee complexion, and a voice truly from the heavens. Her name suited her. How could he turn down an Angel playing for tips on Santa Monica Pier and way too comfortable living in Charlie Manson’s old apartment?

Squirrel shook his head and smiled as if these whys were not important questions, as if he was built for this journey as much as Sisyphus was built to push a boulder uphill. The Mustang almost smiled with Squirrel. It was built for this ride, too.

By the time the trio of accidental allies neared Barstow, around ten Monday night, the San Francisco Giants had added another loss to their dismal early season record. Angel and her lemony fresh fragrance leaned forward and lectured in the Ms. Frizzle tone Cal found irritating.

“Einstein speculated that if bees disappear, people will be gone in four years.”

The trio stopped at the Flying J just west of Barstow, gassed up, loaded up with In-and-Out burgers and negotiated the next phase of the pilgrimage. Cal voted for a Motel 6. Squirrel suggested they drive on. Angel voted with Squirrel, but only if Squirrel let her drive the Mustang as he had promised at Santa Monica Pier.

Squirrel kept the promises he could keep and agreed to let Angel take the wheel. He provided her with detailed instructions and GPS guidance to stay on Rte. 66 where its remnants could still be found and on I-40 where modernity buried the old road. Angel slid behind the wheel, reset the mirrors to suit her frame. The dash cam beeped on. “What can that camera see at night?”

Squirrel curled in the back seat. “If I dropped that camera to the bottom of the ocean, it could see the color of Jonah’s underwear and hear him singing the blues in the belly of the beast. And don’t fuck with it. It’s set to record thirty seconds every thirty minutes for the duration.”

Cal, the eighteen-year-old, hard-throwing, hardheaded lefty, slammed the passenger door and plopped down. “Why?”

Squirrel leaned up, smacked Cal in the back of the head, having warned him to respect the Mustang. He popped a Percocet, took a swig of Angel’s tequila, settled deep in the back seat, and answered, “Why not?”

Cal grabbed his wrapped broken left hand. “My hand’s killing me. Slide me a few of those pain pills?”

Squirrel reached in his bag, pulled out a stick of Wrigley’s spearmint gum and leaned forward.

“That’s just gum,” Cal squirmed and shook Squirrel off like a hard-headed rookie pitcher shaking off the sign of a wiser catcher.

“It’s government gum,” Squirrel elaborated. “Same shit as in my pills. Chew it for sixty seconds. Breath through one nostril at a time.”

Cal chewed, put his hand on one nostril and breathed. “Feels better, right?”

“Yeah! What is that shit?”

Squirrel stretched his legs across the backseat. “Placebus maximus.”

Angel smiled, pushed the start button. The Mustang engine roared to life.

Cal kicked back in the passenger seat chomping the gum as contently as a pup after catching a treat. He instructed Angel, “Stay in your lane. I don’t want to get lost.”

“If you never get lost,” Angel tossed her head back, “it means you’ve never really gone anywhere.”

Squirrel grunted admiration. He plugged his phone in to the backseat power jack and streamed an episode of Rick and Morty.

“No second-hand thoughts from Redding to Wrigley, right?” Cal played Squirrel’s own words back him. “Unplugged, you said.”

Squirrel let his head roll back to the seat. “But it’s the “Rest and Ricklaxation” episode.”

“Detox,” Cal said coolly. “You said detox all the way from Redding to Wrigley.”

Squirrel unplugged and closed his eyes, but he didn’t expect sleep. Helmland was bad, but he hadn’t slept since Bamiyan. Sometimes his closed eyes see Luzinski step off a pressure plate and pink mist in front of the empty sockets of stone-faced broken Bamiyan Buddhas. Sometimes they see Toad’s bloody boot six feet from the shreds of his left leg, or his own fibula poking out from his own shrapnel shredded Mojave. Sometimes, as he and Toad are waiting for medevac, his eyes see Captain Paul’s angry smile and hear him say to the uninjured members of the unlucky platoon, “When you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Same goes for everyone else you meet today.”

Sometimes his closed eyes see the narrow winding path up the ridge in Ashland’s Lithia Park. Crisp, piney, earthy, Oregon aromas. His breath, easy and strong leading the high school cross-country team up, up, always uphill. Legs churning, lungs burning, head not yet full of gravel and glass.

The seat dropped under a thunderclap. Squirrel bolted out of the Mustang, rolled to the ground, looked to the moonless sky, then over a ridge to a desert vast desert filling with shooting stars, Humvees, tanks, and tracers. Tracers? He crawled forward as if trying to bury himself in the rock, lifted his head, and looked over the ridge to reconnoiter. “Toad! Where are you? What the fuck? Where’s contact?”

Another earthquake rocked the area. The thump-thump-thump of helicopters pounded overhead. Military aircraft descended and sent streamers of red and green toward rock piles. At least two platoons of parachutes unfolded above. The sky quieted. Squirrel scanned again and noted a kid on the ground and a woman kneeling over him.

The kid gasped big guppy breaths. “I can’t breathe! I have anxiety.”

The woman spoke soft, slow, singsongy Yoga-teacher style. “Inhale. Keep your eyes open and on me. Drop your jaw, now your shoulders, now your belly.”

Mesquite and the woman’s singsongy voice flew Squirrel back to the present, to California, to Cal, to Angel, and the Mustang. He surveyed the situation. Parked on a ridge overlooking a vast moonless desert nightscape, shadows of vehicles maneuvering under flares and tracers. He reached for his phone. No signal. He went back to the car, pulled a tactical compass and small flashlight out of the glove compartment. Another blast of ordnance interrupted his orienteering. He shouted over a burst of machine gun fire and Cal’s panting, “Why are we at Twentynine Palms?”

Angel lifted Cal to a sitting position and sat in front of him. “Exhale,” she instructed. She ignored Squirrel’s question, pulled out a vial of essential oils from her bag, put a drop on her thumb, returned to Cal. Cal backed away. “It’s lavender with a hint of almond. It helps anxiety.” Angel gently pressed her thumb to Cal’s cheek, beside his right nostril.

Squirrel crouched beside the pair on the rocky ground, staring at Angel. How she turned south on Rt. 247 instead of heading east on Rte. 66 baffled Squirrel. She seemed to have an answer for everything. Never fall asleep. Never trust anyone else to drive. “So why the fuck are we at Twentynine Palms?”

Angel stood, leaned against the Mustang’s hood, folded her arms, nodded over her right shoulder toward St. Christopher, suctioned and stoic on the dash.

“Don’t put this clusterfuck on St. Christopher!” Squirrel said, shaking his head deliberately.

Angel stood unperturbed, face glowing under the light of a flare. “What kind of Marine is named Squirrel?”

“The kind the buries his nuts in the ground when the bombs go off.” Squirrel glared then flipped the tactical compass open.

Angel tapped her foot: silent, unrepentant. Her face still glowed though the flare had faded.

Cal breathed easier, settled, and pointed to the brass compass. “What’s that thing?”

“A compass. Old school.”

“You can use that to figure out where we are?”

Squirrel scrutinized Cal, still on the ground, recovering from the panic but not the shame. He clicked the compass shut, smiled to Angel, still standing with arms crossed at the front of the Mustang. He softened his tone, “I’m Lakota. I don’t even need a compass.”

“What’s Twentynine Palms, anyway?”

Squirrel opened his right hand and swept it across the distant horizon. “Twentynine Palms. Home of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. The Thundering Third. Also known as The Darkside.”

Cal repositioned himself on the ground. “I thought Star Wars owned The Darkside, like a copyright.”

“Nobody owns the Darkside.”

Squirrel surveyed the area again to determine the kind of war games they had wandered into. He reacquainted himself with a body that now carried fifty pounds more weight than he carried up the Lithia Park trails. He struggled to loosen his crushed lower back, to restore the range of motion in his shoulder, to say thank you to his cracked scapula, to acknowledge the jiggling of the loosening pins in his left ankle. He surveyed the stars, fireworks, tracers, fireballs issuing from artillery and tanks lighting the desert landscape, listened to the varieties of ordnance explode. He grabbed his best camera and blankets from the car. “A friend on base says they’re training hard for some big joint operation here in October. Armageddon Prep. We might as well stay and watch the Darkside bring the world to an end.”

“I thought Marines were the good guys.”

Squirrel nearly said, “So did I,” but held his tongue. Before his first deployment there seemed to be good guys and bad guys. By the time his second and last deployment ended in a Naval Hospital at San Diego, saints and sinners were harder to find, harder still to tell apart.

Angel scanned the shimmering desert. “How do you turn an exquisite nightscape like this into a wasteland?”

“Add Marines,” Squirrel answered with no hint of humor.

Angel and Cal got blankets, tequila, the guitar, and snacks from the car. The trio washed down leftover In-N-Out burgers and cold fries with warm Gatorade and tequila.

Cal stood tentatively and swigged a Gatorade tequila blend. “Except for letting her bring her guitar and not letting me bring mine, you’re not a total asshole. And you don’t even play “Tour of Duty.” Why did you even join the Army?”

Squirrel cocked his head sideways and stayed silent. The kid was really getting his nerves. Squirrel mentally listed reasons not to lay him out. Cal was an orphan. Raised by Uncle Tony. Hard-throwing, hard-luck lefty. Bad temper. Broken hand. Received a mysterious card on his eighteenth birthday with tickets to Sunday’s Cubs game at Wrigley Field. And Squirrel promised Uncle Tony he wouldn’t lay Cal out, no matter how irritating he became. A promise to another jarhead was a promise meant to be kept. That made two promises he had to keep on Route 66, one to Tony and one to Toad. Squirrel raised his eyes skyward and inhaled the crisp night air. “An eagle,” he exhaled, “is not a turkey.”

Squirrel pointed and clicked at the light show above his head, reflecting on and not regretting his decision to enlist in the Corps. He wanted to tell Cal the whole truth. That his parents met at a hippie commune in Antelope, middle of nowhere Oregon. Their heaven on earth turned out to be a cult that went to hell when the cult leader or his crew poisoned some of the town. That his parents quit that utopia, moved to Ashland, smoked up enlightenment by the pound. They raised him and his sister on shit jobs, selling weed, and unemployment, and never paid for shit that didn’t get them high. Squirrel wanted to tell Cal that in his year at Oregon State he met combat photographer, An-My Le. Her Small Wars collection inspired him. An-My Le was no fan of war, but Americans fighting in Vietnam allowed her family to escape the brutality of Cambodia. An-My Le helped teach Squirrel to appreciate the complexities of life’s battles, the perils of judging others, and the necessity of forgiveness. He wanted to shout to Cal that his mother’s people, the Lakota are warriors. Eagles. Not turkeys. His uncle, Billy Mills was a Marine lieutenant when he won the Olympic ten thousand meters. Semper Fi. Warrior to the core. When Squirrel lost his partial running scholarship for lack of academic effort, of course he enlisted in the Marines.

Squirrel lowered his head, noticed the laces to his left boot had unraveled again, and sighed. “I’d seen so many people drowning in debt after the crash. Credit cards, underwater mortgages, student loans. I joined the Marines because I was determined to never be in debt.”

“Neither borrower nor lender be.” Angel went community theater big quoting the bard.

“I’m from Ashland. We know Shakespeare,” Squirrel said. “You sound like my father. My parents were all about bootstrapping. Learn by living.”

Angel lifted her eyes to the moonless star-filled canopy. “Is there any other way?”

Squirrel kicked a stone, clasped his hands in the front pocket of his Baja hoodie, and dropped his eyes to his feet. “I put on these boots because I wanted to bear witness, to see and somehow not be a part of the darkness. I figured I’d take ‘em off, stay out of debt, and complete my degree.” He knelt, bowed his head, re-laced his boots. “These boots are part of me now. It’s all part of me now.” He stood up, pins in his ankle pinging reminding him of the mission. “Charlie Mike. Continue Mission. I will eventually keep my promises and pay my debts.”

Squirrel set the camera, clicked, and listened to Angel sing part of a set she sang at the Santa Monica Pier. “That’s the song by the singer you look like, right?”

“‘At the Purchaser’s Option,’ by Rhiannon Giddens. You think I resemble her?”

Squirrel scanned the horizon, watched a couple of Humvees bounce toward a rock pile, then examined Angel’s face more closely. “The same resolute look, but you have firmer jaw, and much softer eyes,” he said matter-of-factly. “That tune is definitely not Pop Princess material.”

Cal sat up, swigged another Gatorade tequila concoction. “What’s wrong with being a pop princess? After I make it to Cooperstown, I’m gonna make people forget Elvis.”

“You should have told me that when we left Redding,” Squirrel teased. “I’d have let you take your guitar and planned a stop at Graceland on the way to Wrigley Field.”

Angel brought a smile to Squirrel’s face when she strummed her guitar and whispered softly, “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar.” After she finished Paul Simon’s Graceland, Angel tried to help Cal on his way to post-baseball musical glory by teaching him, “The General.” Angel strummed and sang the first verses of Boston-based indie rock band Dispatch’s tune. Cal eventually figured out the progression and joined in the harmony, but only after questioning what kind of loser general would give his troops a choice not to fight and wondering why the songwriter or any pop star would stop playing music to help save children in Zimbabwe.

Squirrel kept a tight smile and kept clicking his camera. The chorus of “The General” echoed across the desert battlefield as Cal and Angel nodded off to sleep.

Squirrel kept watch over his fellow travelers, kept clicking as the Darkside and its mock enemies continued to their fight on desert plains below. A lone Marine Blackhawk straggler buzzed low overhead, disappearing toward the receding battle. Squirrel sighed into the night. Pins in his ankle throbbed. Shrapnel in his shoulder pinged. He made the sign of the cross in the air behind the helicopter, opened both his palms skyward, spread his arms wide as if he himself were suspended on the cross. A gentle stream of tears found its way from his hazel eye to the hallowed ground beneath his boots as he whispered the refrain of “The General”: Go now, you are forgiven. Go now, you are forgiven. Go, go, go!

Mark Basquill

Mark is a clinical psychologist in Wilmington, NC. For the past dozen years he has helped veterans recover from the many invisible wounds of war. Prior to the pandemic he helped pilot a creative writing group to help Vietnam era veterans heal through telling their story.

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