In 2004 The Gazette newspaper had put out a call to write stories for their Christmas short story contest. They required certain themes in the stories, like trains and Colorado and snow. This was the first and only time I remember “writing to spec”; it’s not something I like doing. But I did. I submitted. It didn’t place.
But where did the story idea itself come from? There was definitely the train imagery from the Twilight Zone’s “A Stop at Willoughby“…but there had also been some media coverage about Fallujah at the time that also had something to do with it. In any event, I love these kinds of stories, whether it’s Willoughby, “The 7th is Made up of Phantoms,” or my own: “Tail Gunner” and “Etched in Stone” (which will post Feb 26, 2016). They reach into me and just grab me. Make me, well, tear up….
When I wrote “Dark Was The Hour,” I’d contacted a nearby Marine Corps recruiting station and talked to a handful of marines…even got a couple of them to read it. I wanted to use the right terminology, the right descriptions, get the right “feel” to the story. Those marines were: Sergeant Sharp, Corporal Hughes, Private First Class Fox. That’s all the information I have left on them. Again that was in 2004. I often wonder about them…how they’re doing. I remember one of them was actually chomping at the bit to get “over there”; I think it was PFC Fox. I hope they’re all still alive and well.
This story was published in the December 2007 issue of Apollo’s Lyre.
Dark Was The Hour
© F. P. Dorchak, 2004
A slight chill radiated inward from the window as Frank Bishop stared out through his accusatory reflection into the snowy night. He rocked back and forth as the train gently cradled him through the high Colorado mountain passages with its comforting ratcheting sounds and motion. He inhaled the scent of leather and polished wood—nostalgia.
Fallujah sucked was the nicest way he could put it and the fact that he’d left parts of himself back there didn’t help matters.
“Ticket, please?” the Conductor asked.
Frank jumped, shooting a hand to his side.
Of course he no longer carried his Beretta nine mil and of course this man wasn’t a threat.
He gave the conductor his ticket.
“Thank you, sir,” the Conductor said. “Next stop, Idaho Springs!” The Conductor smiled an odd little smile Frank found unnerving and left. Frank closed his eyes, allowing the lulling metallic Ta-tun–Ta-tun, Ta-tun–Ta-tun of the train to
A name he hoped he’d never—ever—have to speak or hear again.
But he still heard the
Explosions. All around him. His ears rung, his eyes swam, and his head pounded from the slight concussion. Lieutenant Bishop popped his head back up over the battered cinder block wall. Small-arms fire came quick and well-directed. He ducked back down.
“Sir! We really need to—”
“I know!” Bishop shouted back to the platoon sergeant. He wiped sweat from his eyes with bruised and battered hands caked in dried blood and powder burns. The cacophony and smell of rocket-propelled grenades, spent mortar rounds, and death filled the air. The Fog of War.
“I’ll head off to the left—there,” the lieutenant said, pointing, “and you guys nail ‘em with everything we—”
“Sir, you know you’re—”
“What do you want me to do? Leave him there? You can see him as well as I can! I’m not leaving him behind.”
The Marine sergeant passed on the word to the rest of the platoon.
Bishop took a deep breath, looked to his men, then
ran his hands through his hair. It’d been a while since he’d been on this train. The last time had been when he’d been nine—was that right? His folks had taken them all on a Christmas ride between home—Idaho Springs—and Denver. Just before the car crash that had claimed them.
Had he made that up—or was that the concussion talking? His head still felt fuzzy. All that shelling…all that….
God, it felt so good to do nothing. To just sit back and relax. Look out at the dark snow-covered landscape like some Hitchcockian movie. His dad had really loved Hitch.
A reflection in the window passed quickly behind him, and
Bishop spun around, his still smoking and spent M-16A4 useless at his feet. Nine mil already in hand, he pulled his KA-BAR combat knife up before him and in one swiftly efficient movement took out the hostile who’d lunged for him. Another was close behind, but Bishop dispatched him just as efficiently. Breathing heavily, he quickly secured the room, sheathed the knife, and grabbed the dying marine’s wrist. He looked to the wrist.
Something was wrong.
No time to think about it, he turned to leave when there was a tremendous flash of heat and noise and something ungodly kicked him in the very seat of his soul and launched him bodily into a wall. The next thing Bishop knew, he was
crying. Something wasn’t right. Why was he crying? He was going home, home for good. He was no use to the Corps any more. Had served his country. Had his decorations, which he couldn’t look at without considering the lives lost—and saved. He was going home to his parents and girl. Their black lab, Boomer. Going to make a new life, if that was at all possible these days.
But what about those left behind?
Who was gonna keep an eye on them? Keep them safe? His buddies. Hector—how was Hector? Had he made it? Hector Gonzalez
laid down a searing blast of cover fire around the lieutenant’s position. The lieutenant was still in there. Gonzalez had no choice. He couldn’t leave him. Additional hostiles were quickly overrunning their position.
Gonzalez hand-signaled the platoon to cover him.
Gear rattling, Gonzalez tucked in around the wall then made his way through the rubble. Once he got to the open twenty yards through which he had to sprint, he glanced back to his platoon. They kept up his cover fire. Gonzalez sprinted across the space and slammed his body against a wall. Just up ahead was Bishop. He wasn’t leaving him, not after all he’d done at his own expense. No way. He’d stayed behind to allow the rest of them exit…when the blast had come. Gonzalez cursed himself for allowing the lieutenant to order them off like that. All he could think of was
“I’m not supposed to be here, am I?” Bishop asked the Conductor.
“Of course you are, Son,” the Conductor reassured. “You’re going home. For Christmas. The best one ever.”
The Conductor smiled.
Gonzalez had made it to the lieutenant. He was a mess. All he could tell for certain was that he was missing…parts. It’d hadn’t yet registered just what, in all the still-settling smoke and rubble, but he wasn’t…whole….
“Christmas…,” the lieutenant whispered, “Jea-nna….” His face was thrashed and bloodied.
“Lieutenant?” Gonzalez asked, but there was no more.
Gonzalez grabbed the lieutenant’s wrist and quickly pulled him from the rubble as more fire opened up on their position. He turned to leave, but lost his hold. He tried to regrip the lieutenant’s wrist, but only grabbed
The lieutenant was
Gonzalez spun around.
No body, no lieutenant. Only acrid ordnance stink and rubble.
“But he was—he was just—where’d”
he stood in the well of the exit stoop as the train came to its screeching halt.
“Have a great Christmas, Lieutenant!” the Conductor encouraged, smiling. He saluted Bishop.
Bishop turned and looked up to the conductor. Bishop was bloodied and covered in soot and grime and war in his desert cammies and gear. He still held his nine mil in one hand, KA-BAR in the other. He looked to the nine mil. Outside.
It snowed heavily.
He cast a momentary, dour smile back up to the Conductor, then carefully placed his weapons up at the Conductor’s feet. He stared at the instruments of personal destruction one last time…rubbed a wrist and worked his jaw…when a larger smile crossed his face. He uttered a single chuckle.
He looked back out into the dark, snowy Colorado winter before him.
It was always darkest before the light.
Bishop inhaled deeply of the cold, sweet, aromatic pine of the evergreen forest mixed in with train exhaust. Saw Christmas lights through the heavy snowfall he swore he could now actually hear—heard Christmas music?—when a hand reached in to him from outside the train.
“Welcome home, Son,” his father greeted.
Bishop again inhaled deeply, smiled…and stepped off the train.
- The Coming of Light (fpdorchak.wordpress.com)
- The World’s Greatest Writer (fpdorchak.wordpress.com)
- The Death of Me (fpdorchak.wordpress.com)
- Tail Gunner (fpdorchak.wordpress.com)
- Do The Dead Dream? (fpdorchak.wordpress.com)
- Short Stories (fpdorchak.wordpress.com)
- Voice (amazon.com)
- Psychic (amazon.com)
- ERO (amazon.com)
- The Uninvited (amazon.com)
- Sleepwalkers (bookstore.authorhouse.com)