Engagement – No. 61

Charlie woke with a pounding headache. The squawk of sea gulls and the ocean’s surge thumped in time with each throb against his skull. Dragging his bared arm from across his face, he squinted at the brightening predawn and silhouette of palm tree fronds. A breeze coursed off the water, weighty with plumerias and the expectations of another Monday.

“Not yet,” he whispered.

Sitting up, Charlie draped his arms over his bent knees and hung his head while his stomach lurched. After warding off a nausea, he dusted bleached grains from his calloused hands. His elbow knocked over the empty bottle of rum, the clear sides crushing the single red rose at its side.

Petals fell away, dotting the sand like drops of blood before dancing in another onshore breeze. They swept past the adjoining dent in the sand, the one Liza had made.

A sea gull’s call seemed to mock him with a rendition of her laughter. Raking a hand through his sandy hair, however, couldn’t quash the memory.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

The bird squawked in agreement and Charlie cast it a sullen glare while his hangover jack hammered his temples. With a tilt of its head and final call, the gull took to the air, soaring up and over the water. He watched it glide effortlessly toward the horizon until it became a speck among the expanse.

“Good riddance.”

Tearing his gaze from the envious flight, Charlie heaved to his feet. He dug his toes into the cool sands and caught his balance before shambling toward his bike lying in the sun-crisped grass. Uprighting the ten speed, he straddled the leather seat and stared down the single dirt lane leading south.

Beneath his pulse, horns and shouts seemed to wail. With a scrub at his ears, Charlie resigned himself to his hangover’s din, leaned into the handles, and shoved the bike into motion. The pedals’ metal grates pressed into his soles and with each push the wind fluttered his hibiscus print shirt, drying the sweat earned from his ride along the coast, up though the cane fields, and along the roadways leading home. When he crested the last ridge, however, he pulled to a stop, the brakes screeching their protest.

“What in the world….”

Blackened plumes of smoke drifted from the harbor while oily smears coated the pristine water. The horns and shouts he’d mislabeled as his brains’ wail, bombarded him from the armada, and additional sirens punctured the early morning.

Charlie cringed when an airplane swooped overhead, rotators rattling as the pilot angled into the devastation. The plane met up with a swarm of its brethren and in formation they soared through the explosions and out of sight.

Secondary bombs boomed in their wake and Charlie’s gaze locked onto the base.

“Liza….”

He spied officers and staff in white and khaki along with civilians in jeweled tones rushing between bullet-peppered buildings. Jeeps with olive canvas stormed along narrow passageways toward the harbor, and the spray of hoses doused the first flames licking from the decks of the anchored battleships.

Pushing off the road, Charlie swooped down the hillside. He leaned into the sloping curves and didn’t bother with the brakes again until he pulled up to the warehouse’s back door. Tossing the bike aside, he charged into the straw musk and weaved between the pallets stacked with seam straining fifty pound burlap sacks stamped RICE and FLOUR.

A clatter of one rolling door beckoned and he drew up before slamming into Arnold. Donned in shorts still rumpled from sleep, Arnie heaved another panel up, revealing the trucks’ empty parking spots while the radio on his nearby desk sputtered static.

“What’s going on, Arnie?”

Locking the door into place, Arnold yanked off his ball cap and mopped his cue-ball head with the ratty bandana perpetually in his back pocket.

“I don’t know, kid.”

Arnold turned his back on the lot and the ambient horns, wails, and shouts filling the loading dock like their distributor’s trucks. After a sniff through hairy nostrils, he frowned.

“Where have you been?”

Charlie licked his lips, the flavor of rum blending with lipstick. “At the beach.”

“With Liza?”

Diverting his gaze, Charlie headed for the last door and snapped the clasps.

“I told you she was a long shot.”

“I know.” Gritting his teeth, Charlie shoved the doorway open. He held onto the bottom edge and stretched his arms, savoring the pain raking across his chest. “But I had to try.”

“She let you down easy?”

The gulls’ squawks and Liza’s surprise ratcheted his hangover’s pound. “She laughed in my face.”

Arnold gimped over, his flip flips slapping in a staggered rhythm, and Charlie cringed when he planted a massive paw on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry, kid.”

Shrugging off the sympathetic hand, Charlie fought with the dials on the radio. A frantic announcer finally broke through the static with reports of the aerial assault and the destruction the surprise attack had wrought. His view from the ridge clouded Charlie’s mind, each detail on the radio making the smoke, the shrieks, and the detonations more vivid.

“Sounds like the war’s on now,” whispered Arnold.

While the announcer promised a forthcoming speech from the President, Charlie buttoned up his shirt. He sensed Arnold’s scowl when he rummaged a pair of boaters from beneath the desk.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To enlist,” said Charlie, wigging his reluctant toes into the shoes.

“What?!”

“It’s the right thing to do.” He pointed at the radio where sinking ships rolled off the announcer’s tongue. “Listen to that. How many people are dead? Dying?”

He turned to leave but Arnold snatched him by the shoulder again and wheeled him about.

“Is this because of the girl?”

“No,” said Charlie. “Liza turned me down, sure, but this is bigger than that. She’s doing her part already and it’s about time I did mine instead of hanging around here.”

Charlie held his ground despite Arnold’s wince. A moment passed and the slight’s strike faded beneath Arnold’s level stare.

“You’re underage, Charlie.”

“You know that and Liza knows that, but the Navy doesn’t. And after today, I’m sure they’re not going to care.”

Arnold’s grip tightened. “You’d be safer here.”

“Maybe, but, hell Arnie if I don’t go this’ll happen again. They’ll get to you. They’ll get to Liza. If I go, then I have a chance to stop them before anyone else can get hurt.”

Arnold’s firm lips warped into a smirk. “You’re going to take on the enemy all on your own?”

Charlie balled both hands into fists. “If I have to.”

With a barked laugh, Arnold reset his ball cap and shoved Charlie toward the loading dock. “Give ’em hell, kid.”

“I will,” said Charlie, his cheeks burning with his sudden grin.

He hopped off the platform but halted when a single face filled his mind. With one hand on the docks’ cement ledge, he drowned her chocolate eyes and milky face in a puddle of engine grease.

“If Liza…if she asks…don’t…don’t tell her.”

“Sure, Charlie, sure.”

Lifting his chin, he gave Arnold a solemn salute. “See you later then.”

“I hope so, kid.”

Before Arnold’s concern could nip at his resolve, Charlie trotted toward downtown, the route through the string of bars by the base forming in his thoughts. Behind him, Arnold turned up the radio, the crackling voice from across the country spurring Charlie’s stride.