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Only Wish

by op_oleg 

Posted: 22 October 2006
Word Count: 2874

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Content Warning
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

I was on patrol again today. Being on patrol means that you get to drive around the whole day, and make sure everything was fine in the city of Baghdad. It wasn’t as bad here as, let’s say, Fallujah, but you still get all sorts of shit happen to you throughout the day. You could get bottles of flaming liquid thrown at you, or you could get attacked by rebels. Or you could get a bouquet of flowers from a little girl. You never know.
Anyway, today started out pretty nice. As we drove through the city, there were no obvious signs of hostility toward us. In fact most people were smiling and waving as they went about their business. You could really see the difference between now and 6 months ago – when there was no plumbing in most houses, and people were starving to death or couldn’t properly maintain hygiene. A lot of disease spread, but thanks to our medical corps, and a lot of cooperation from the local doctors, it was under control pretty fast. But even as good as things were now, it was still hell. The temperature was getting to me. Driving around every day in the goddamn metal box, that the Army calls “the Humvee”, without air-conditioning, in full armor, and very small rations of water made me always tired and less alert. The rashes on my skin from where the body armor presses against the uniform were getting to be chronic, and I don’t remember the last time I could sleep through the whole night without waking up from pain in my neck or shoulders. The never-ending heat was drying me out, making me look not lean, but almost dead, and I could see that most of the guys in my detachment were the same. The fact that we were in war didn’t help much either. Every day you would read through the names of those who died, and sometimes the names were familiar. Someone you went through boot-camp with, or someone you served with, or maybe someone you signed up with. Some days you thanked God that you could still read that list, and some days you hated God for still keeping you here. In fact, I heard more and more of this lately. The other guys in barracks talking about “fuck it all, one more day and I’ll run into a shootout without my armor, or maybe I’ll blow my own brains out”. Yeah, it was damn tough out here, and every night I laid in bed dreaming of when I was thirteen. Now that was the golden age. No worries, no problems, no decisions, no responsibilities. Shit, I was in eigth grade, the top cat at the Junior High School. Everybody else was either younger or my age, and I was definitely not the weakest one there. I minded my own business, and nobody touched me. Hell, I even got a girlfriend that year, and I was starting to experience the sex life.
These thoughts were still on my mind as the humvee turned the corner. The narrow street of old Baghdad was filled with people, going to and from the little stands that lined the sides of the street, making it even narrower. We slowly inched our way through the crowd of beggars, shoppers, store-owners and thieves, when I saw something shining on the rooftop of the building we were passing. I looked closer, and saw it was a riflescope reflecting the sun. Behind it was a mojahed. The air froze in my lungs, and before I could say anything, shots were fired. The driver was killed right away and apparently his foot got stuck on the accelerator, and he twisted the wheel to the left as he fell beck. The car was now speeding diagonally across the street, and just seconds before it hit the wall, I rolled out of the car, and immediately fell into some sort of a basement entrance. The door was open, and I crawled in through the wool curtains that hung over the entrance. It was cool inside here, and you could hear no sound of the outside panic. There were cushions laid out across the floor, customary to this part of the world. A number of candles were lighting the room with the uneven flickering light of the open fire, and shadows were dancing on the walls and the ceiling. There was a very expensive-looking carpet hung over the back wall, and that completed the furnishings of this basement room. It felt like time had stopped here a couple hundred, or maybe even thousand, years ago, before the white Christian invaders ever troubled the Middle East. Suddenly a whooshing sound filled the room, and a man appeared on a cushion in the center of the room. It was a funny looking man, short and round, with a long thin beard that hung down to the floor as he was sitting with his legs crossed in the “lotus” position. The turban on his head was a dark blue color of the midnight sky, and the stars on it were aligned in constellations as I remembered them. I could even name a few that were directly over his thin gray eyebrows. He was looking at me, his eyes coyly squinted, and a weird smile played over his pursed lips. He motioned me to sit down on a cushion in front of him, and I did. After a moment of silence, he said “Well?” His voice startled me, creaking like an old door, and I must have jumped about a foot, releasing the tension of the shootout that just happened moment ago. “Well what?” I replied. I was surprised to hear my own voice speaking a language that I didn’t understand, but I knew what I meant.
“You are the one that found me, so you need to tell me what you want”
A million questions squirmed around in my head, but somehow I felt they were all useless. It didn’t matter who this guy was, and I somehow knew that if I asked him any of these stupid questions, he will shake his head and disappear with the same whoosh as he appeared. So I tried to clear my mind and think “What did I want? Did I want to be returned to barracks? Hell no. I’ve had enough of Army life. Did I want to be sent back to the U.S? To what? To work as a gas station attendant for the rest of my life? Maybe I should ask for millions of dollars. No, that wouldn’t do me any good in the middle of Baghdad, with 3 more years in the service. I could die before I could ever use that money. So what did I want?” And than I got it. I was sure that this was answer the guy was waiting for, and I said it without hesitating “I want to be 13 years old again, back in the States. I want to start over again” He nodded, and then replied. “Regulations require me to tell you this. Your body will be that of a thirteen year old, with the hormones, acne, and such. You may not wish for anything again in this lifetime. You may revert this wish within twenty-four hours, but that does not grant you any more wishes. If you revert, you lose the only wish of your life, you understand?”
“And how do I reverse?”
“It’s all in the manual, young man. Don’t rush things, OK?” He said, sounding very annoyed.
This felt more like an army procedural meeting, then a fairy tale, and I was surprised at how organized everything was. Although I had nothing to compare this too, so I kept quiet.
He produced a rolled up piece of papyrus with a click of his fingers, and handed it over to me. A feather appeared in my hand, and the wizard said “sign by the X”. I looked at the paper, and it was all written in Arabic. “What does it say?” I asked, not even expecting an answer. The old man looked more annoyed then ever, but he still told me “The same shit I just went over. Just sign the damn thing, will ya.” I put down the feather, and started writing my name. As I moved the feather through the letters of my name, the surroundings began to fade. As I crossed the last T in my last name I realized I was laying in bed in my old apartment. The alarm clock that was sitting on the chair next to t next to the bed read 6:15 AM. Right next to the alarm clock was a thick book that I didn’t remember having. I leaned over and picked it up. It was a hard cover book with weird graphics on the cover, and the title read “Wishing for Dummies. The manual to your wish” Wow. There about 900 pages in this book, and as I glanced through it I found no pictures, and everything was written in small font. Did that magician think I was going to read all of it? Hell NO! I never read anything in my life that was longer then 5 pages at a time. I thought to myself “How am I going to find out how to revert this wish? Oh, screw it. Why in the hell would I want to revert my wish?” I tossed the book back on the chair and stretched out on the bed. This was going to be great. I laid there in bed for a little bit, saying goodbye to the world that I hated by now, and dreaming of what was about to happen. Then I wondered what day and month it was. I looked outside of the window and it seemed like it was the beginning of the spring. There were no leafs yet, but the grass was already green and there was no snow. Perfect1 My favorite time of the year. Plus only a couple months of school left before summer vacation. So This must be the year 2000 just starting. Who did I hang out with that year? Oh I’ll figure it out. At that thought the time on the clock changed to 7:00, and the alarm rang. I turned it off, got a clean pair of underwear and went to the shower. As I walked out in the hallway, I saw a strange figure laying on the floor. What the hell? Oh, this is my step-dad, the drunk. I kicked him out of the house when I was 17, and actually I completely forgot about him. I stood there and looked at him, and the more I looked at him, the more I realized I hated him. I hated him with every inch of my body. Finally I decided “I will kick him out of the damn house today” I started walking towards him with the every intention of carrying through, but every step I took made my self-confidence sink. When I was just a step away, my knees were shaking, I was sweating, and I was sure that the words “Get the fuck up, get your shit, and leave” would sound more like a joke then like a serious threat. I stood there, and looked him over again, and this time I hated myself more than I hated him. The damn thirteen year old body would not let me handle my business the way a man would. Oh well. I guess I’ll just have to deal with him for a couple of years. I turned back towards the showers, and as I was walking away I heard the drunk scream out “What the fuck were you looking at, you pervert? Didn’t your stupid mother teach you not to look at people when they were sleeping?” To my shame, I actually ran to the bathroom, and slammed the door shut behind. Me.
After I took the shower I quickly got dressed and sneaked out through the back door without eating breakfast. I figured I’d eat some free breakfast at school, as I was still receiving food-stamps. I walked the 15-miunte walk to my Junior High with great pleasure. Spring air was filling my lungs, and birds were chirping, and I quickly forgot about my “dad”, as he wanted me to call him, and all the problems he was bringing to me. I decided to take a short-cut, and walked through an alley that dead-ended in front of the school wall. At the end of the alley was a group of my class mates hanging out before school would start. The best thing for me to do was to walk past them without saying anything, but I did that in my last life, and look at where it got me. So I decided I am going to say something funny to them. I have gotten good at that in the last years, and won a lot of girls’ hearts like that. As I got nearer to them, I even thought of a clever comment about a teacher that we all had together, and opened my mouth to say it, but just like in the shoot-out air froze in my lungs. I stood there with my mouth open looking at them, and they were looking at me. Finally I managed a weak “ho”, which was an accidental mix between “hi” and “hello”. The crowd laughed, and my face got even redder, and I could feel my ears burning up. One of the girls said in a very loud voice “Look at how red he is!”. They started laughing even harder. I could feel myself starting to cry, so I turned and ran towards the school, before they would be able to notice it. Great! I was starting to think that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Maybe I couldn’t change anything? Maybe life takes a certain course for a reason, and that reason is not only a result of your actions?
I sat through homebase feeling very lonely, because I had no one to speak to. I forgot how lonely this second year in America actually was. As the bell rand I got up and walked out of class towards my next class. Thank god my body remembered where to go next, or I would have been lost. Walking down the hall, I noticed the puffy hair of my girlfriend. Excited I ran to her, hugged her, and was about to kiss her, when she slapped me. “What the hell are you doing, pervert!” she screamed and ran away. “Oh No! She is probably not my girlfriend yet” I though to myself, as I stood there, embarrassed for the third time today within three hours. I heard giggles, but was to ashamed to look up to see who was laughing at me. That was it. It would be better to die in Iraq than to continue living in this time. I ran downstairs, outside, and through the alley. I ran the whole way home, non-stop, faster than I ever ran before in my life.
When I got to my room, I picked up the book and flipped towards the back to where I saw a contents page before. Actually it was more than a page, and I glanced through it until I finally found the title “Reverting the wish” I found the correct page, and read the paragraph. Basically you had to stand on a chair, jump off backwards and clap three times. I sat on the bed thinking for a while. “Should I really do it? I am not going to have another chance to change my life. But on the other hand, it didn’t seem like I could change anything, and I would just have to live through all of the failures and embarrassments that I did before, and end up in Iraq again. And serve another 6 months there. If I would go back now I only had 2 left before my term was done, and I was sent back to the States.” I got up, stood on my chair, jumped backwards and clapped my hands three times………..
Somebody was shaking me. I opened my eyes – I was lying on a bed in what seemed like an Army hospital. A doctor was shaking my shoulder and saying “Private, private, wake up.” I looked him in the eyes, and he finally noticed that I am up. “Oh good private, you were screaming in your dream, and I thought it would be better to wake you up. Do you know where you are?” I shook my head, because I in fact did not know where I was.
“Your patrol detachment was attacked by a group of rebels on the streets of Baghdad. Your driver was killed, and apparently you tried to escape, but you hit your head as you were rolling out of the car, and fell down the stairs to an abandoned house. Reinforcements came within minutes and drove the rebels away, and that’s where they found you. You are comp…..” His voice trailed off, as one happy thought ran through my head. I AM BACK.

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Comments by other Members

kat at 08:05 on 24 October 2006  Report this post
This is a great idea for a story. Saw the word count and thought it was a lot to read in one hit. It didn't matter because I was hooked from the beginning. Good twist on a fairytale theme. Only unconvincing part was the ending which I thought was too abrupt. Also disappointing because the energy of this piece could lead into something longer.
Picky bits, check your use of really,actually, pretty and still. Do they add anything or can you lose them?
no leafs
actually I completely forgot about him.
I'd completely forgotten.
Loved the transformation,and how he could'nt change anything or perhaps he has yet to find out how?
Good start.

op_oleg at 19:11 on 24 October 2006  Report this post
That was the best comment I have gotten so far. Not the nicest, but the most helpful one. I do have a couple questions though.
When you say the ending was too abrupt, do you mean that it came to soon, or that the whole part of him back in the army is too short?
Thanks for the great response

JenDom at 00:30 on 25 October 2006  Report this post
I am in two minds about this story.

This is an extremely effective, very modern contemporary take on the theme of 'starting over' again. What if I could have one wish what would it be? To return back to that point in my life when I was happiest. But as your main character realises, maybe that one memory you choose has been viewed through rose tinted glasses due to the horrendous reality of the here and now and that the life choices already made may never be undone.

The pace of this short story is excellent and I never once paused for breath reading it through. I also got a fantastic sense of the main character. He is very believable and is drawn sympathetically. His incarnation as a 13 year old awkward, lonely boy is handled with humour and pathos and I cringed on his behalf when he tried to assert his manliness trapped in his boyhood.

What bothers me is the setting of the story. Maybe it's just me, maybe it's because the setting is too contemporary. Baghdad is still suffering, civilians and soldiers continue to die in their thousands - and he wakes up after his team are attacked/wounded/killed and he is happy. Yes I know he is happy to be back as the man he so wanted to leave, but what I got was "hey war ain't so bad afterall; I'd rather be here than be 13".

Perhaps I'm reading far too much into this and am being over sensitive and I apologise now if I am [it is nearly 1.30am and I need to stop now!] But you have juxtoposed two extremes, a choice of being in the middle of a war or in the middle of being not quite a teenager but not quite a child either. In my mind, and being a wet liberal [so feel free to ignore me], I'd like to think that after the suffering and death he witnesses, the wish he could have asked for, is peace.

kat at 10:56 on 25 October 2006  Report this post
Perhaps if you drop the part where he is woken up by the doctor. Have him wake up and slowly take in the details of where he is. Remembering piece by piece how he came to be there. He tells the reader, so much better than the Doctor's casual description. The dream speech could be from another patient.
The last line is odd considering where he is. I know his stint is nearly over, but he could be killed tomorrow.
I think you went for an unnusual twist ending, however it needs a little more work. The problem is why is he so happy? We don't know.
It would be better to die in Iraq than to continue living in this time.
I would drop this due to the sensitivity of the setting(Jendom is right about this) and use the girlfriend/fallen comrades as the turning point for his return.
Don't think this means it isn't a good story, it is. Best of luck with it.

MF at 16:54 on 25 October 2006  Report this post
Interesting stuff, Oleg. The writing flows nicely, and the parallel worlds feel fresh and convincing.

"Homebase" - might you mean homeroom? (Sorry for the nitpick - I know it's silly to zero in on just one, but I figure that most errors/typos etc get smoothed out in rewrites, anyway!)

I agree that the waking up bit could be developed further; the emotions up to this point are great, but they fall flat at the end. With a little finessing, this could be a very powerful conclusion.

op_oleg at 23:47 on 25 October 2006  Report this post
I agree with everybody here -- the ending needs some work. I do still think though that he needs to be happy about returning. The reason I mage him happy was because he is back in a world to which he is used, and he knows how to handle it. I had a lot of ex-military people in my family. All of them always talked about how horrible war was, but they always felt out of place back at home. A lot of them voluntarily went back two or three more times to the Balkans and Chechnya. Maybe I didnt put it right, and I wil definitly work on that.

Thanks a lot for the responses, they were very helpful. They made me think more about the reasons why I chose to write what I did.

I would like to know, though, what you guys think about the level of the actual writing -- the way the words are put together. I have a feeling that it sounds a bit unprofessional (not that I am proffesional, but I strive to be as everyone here)


op_oleg at 23:48 on 25 October 2006  Report this post
In my Junior High they called homeroom "homebase". I have no idea why

kat at 07:51 on 27 October 2006  Report this post
I'm not too hot on the technical writing side, so I can't pick out grammatical errors etc. Critting other people's work is the best way of learning how to look at your own with a fresh eye.

JenDom at 09:02 on 27 October 2006  Report this post
I think your words as seen through the eyes of a soldier sound authentic. Your words capture the character and the moment and the setting and scenery and when I read them, they did not jar.

But, I too am not well versed when it comes to the technical side of grammar. I read a sentence and just know it sounds right. Sometimes, I am wrong of course. When someone says "your sentence is passive": I really haven't a clue what they mean!

All the best

JenDom at 12:20 on 27 October 2006  Report this post
p.s. There's an interesting thread in the writewords forum 'welcome' forum I think titled: Passive and Active and it looks like a discussion on Orwell's 'how to write'guide.
Mind you I was completely daunted by the end of the thread.


op_oleg at 15:17 on 30 October 2006  Report this post
Thanks for the thread info Jen. That and an article on the BBC website that I was pointed to in a different forum are everything that I needed. I am reqorking the story, and should upload the new version in a couple of days


MF at 17:18 on 02 November 2006  Report this post
Hi again, Oleg

I think that Jen makes a good point about the authentic voice - your writing is good if it is convincing and the style conforms to the voice and subject matter at hand. In this case, I reckon you've done pretty well. Becoming a great 'writer' involves (I think!) an ability to be flexible, adapting a convincing style and flow to each piece. No doubt, it requires practice and guts - to push yourself beyond the voice that comes naturally to you, and to experiment with different styles. Worth trying :)

Becca at 08:39 on 04 November 2006  Report this post
Hi Oleg,
On the way the words are put together, I'd agree with Jen and MF, - for a soldier the 'voice' does happen to sound authentic. The only way to develop your writing is to keep on writing, to become dedicated to the art, {or craft}, of writing. Watching, listening and reading are the three constant activities for any writer. I'm not sure that any writer reaches a point in writing when they can't do it better, that's the brilliant thing about it, the thing that keeps you hooked.
There are a few typos in the story, I'd just go through it and find them, - a good tip is to read your work out loud to yourself, that way you can pick up typos, and find sentences that you think you can make clearer, or better, or more dramatic maybe.
This was an interesting and original idea, and beyond all technicalities about writing, a writer needs original ideas.

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