The holidays are always a stressful time; family getting together, food, shopping, parties to attend, end of the year work nonsense to deal with, (seriously, who ever thought that December would be a good time for life and health insurance paperwork, when money is already stretched thin enough to scream,) and about a thousand other things all shoved into thirty-one short days.
Sometimes during the holidays I understand why people off themselves during this month.
Dealing with a baby adds its own level of complexity to the arrangement, and dealing with a baby who has just started exhibiting signs of having inherited my awful gift has made my hair start to go gray.
It's been about a month now, and in that time I've made little headway in my efforts to learn to control my powers. The most I can muster is giving myself an extra-bad migraine by concentrating on what exactly is about to happen when the music starts spinning out between my ears. Not the least bit useful, unless you're the kind of person who likes the sensation of your eyes feeling like they're about to burst. I'm honestly afraid I might accidentally give myself an aneurysm before I figure out how this works, if I even can.
The baby herself has been fine enough, considering. We've kept the baby tylenol handy and told curious lookie-loos that it's teething pains. She's had about three major headaches in the last month, which worries me; I didn't start getting the flashes with that level of frequency until I was an adult. Suppose my hypothesis was correct, that I inherited this from my dad and that he killed himself because of it. Maybe his flashes only came once or twice a year, or even maybe only once or twice in his entire lifetime. My flashes were stronger and more frequent than his, if that was the case. The baby's flashes are coming close enough together that she might be having them constantly by the time she's a teenager.
I don't even want to think about what it might to do her kids, if she survives long enough to have any.
Now, that's not to say that the gift doesn't come without advantages. There's always a perk, even if said perk only manifests itself one out of a thousand times.
When I was a teenager, as I said before, I joined the military in the delayed entry program so that I could get the hell away from home. I foresaw the attacks of 9/11 in my own way minutes before they happened and decided that my pride was bigger than my will to live. I followed through on that enlistment, went away to boot camp, and came back thirteen weeks later, twenty pounds lighter and able to do six chin-ups.
When I graduated from boot, I did a three-week stint as recruitment assistance, which let me stay home and say goodbye properly to everyone before I went through combat training and then got my orders to ship out wherever the Corps needed me. I quickly realized that the tales the recruiters had spun about being a Marine was just so much bullshit to hook me in; wearing the uniform didn't do jack shit for my love life. I didn't attract one single glance from the girls in the mall where the recruiting station was (located right behind a Sam Goody's and across from an arcade that was slowly dying) and I had to admit, you take a kid who's a buck thirty soaking wet and then subtract twenty pounds off of him, he tends to look a little like an end-stage cancer patient. The spiffiest uniform in the world wasn't helping my emaciated look any at this juncture.
In any case, I did the three weeks, I went off to combat training (a glorified 'round two' of boot camp) and then I got my orders: I was going to ship out to 29 Palms, California, for basic field radio operator school. That's another thing I learned about recruiting personnel: they lie out their asses to fill their commissions. I had signed up for 'command and control electronics', where I was promised that I'd have a great job working with cutting-edge technology, everything from supercomputers to advanced cryptographic technology. The reality is, 'command and control electronics' translated to 'battery operated grunt', and that's what I was now.
Twentynine Palms (or The Stumps, as the locals call it,) is a fascinating shithole. Now, I don't say that to disparage the base in the least. As a base, it's actually pretty great, the fact that it's in the middle of the Mojave desert and 109º on a cool day notwithstanding. It's got one of the best chow halls I've ever eaten at in my time as a Marine, there's a great theater in easy walking distance that shows first-run movies for free, and there was a pretty sweet comic shop in the nearby 'town' of Twentynine Palms itself.
No, when I say that it's a shithole, I speak literally (or is it figuratively? Webster's changed the definition of one of them). Twentynine Palms was a desert base, so every drop of water was precious. There were giant, city block-sized water reclamation tanks directly across the main road from the base's front entrance. Four of 'em. On your average day, the 106º weather would heat that foul, murky brew up and the smell of baking shit and whatever else got flushed down the drain on a daily basis would permeate the entire base. While the base was nice, I always got the impression that it was so nice so that the Marines stationed there wouldn't hold some sort of shit stench-inspired mutiny and burn the place to the ground.
Now, I had said before that my flashes started flashing when I was fourteen. They started accelerating after boot camp, from once or twice a year to once or twice every six months. Not much, but enough that I noticed it. It could have been that the physical stress of boot camp itself accelerated whatever dark thing was growing in my brain; nothing has ever showed up on the MRIs I've had, so I'll probably never have a direct physical explanation for why I can do the things I do.
In radio school, I had myself three flashes in the two months I was stationed there. One was when my recruiter suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack back in South Carolina (accompanied by my head radio blasting 'We'll Meet again' at me, which caused me to chuckle even as I slapped my hands on the side of my head to make the pain subside a bit).
The next was a strange one, where I got the premonition itself a full twelve or so hours before the involved incident happened.
It had been a long day and we'd been working in the hot sun, trying to get an antenna up so that we could make a call out to Camp Pendleton to the southwest. Around breakfast, I had gotten a burst of static in my head. This wasn't especially weird; sometimes there was nothing on the radio or the TV for my head to relay and it just squawked white noise at me. I waited for the pain to kick in and wondered who was going to trip and drop their breakfast tray. I figured something like that was the only reason my radio would be blatting at me right now. Instead, I got the image behind my eyelids of swirling grains of sand, as mindless and contextless as the static that had blasted out between my ears a few seconds prior. I had no idea what to make of that; my visions were always precise, showing some part of what was going to happen. This was nothing. This was worse than nothing, it was visual white noise, like when you tune an old TV to a channel with nothing on it.
It gave me a downright uneasy feeling. I finished eating my eggs and got the hell out of there.
I headed over to the PX to grab some M&Ms and a gatorade for the day (pogey bait, as the grunts colloquially called it,) and then hurried up the hill to the classroom where we'd check out our gear and get our assignment.
After seven hours, we finally got Pendleton on the horn. We all cheered and started tearing down the antenna so we could go home for the evening and study for whatever we'd be doing the next day.
Our sergeant seemed particularly pleased that we had done our task without breaking the antenna (which I later learned through first-hand experience happens A FUCKING LOT) and suggested that maybe we all wanted to play a game of capture the flag before we headed back down. We all thought that sounded just grand, and so we split up into two teams. Just as we were heading to opposite ends of the barren plateau, my head radio buzzed at me again. There was no vision accompanying it, but I got the sensation of grit in my teeth for a moment. I turned to look all around me in the deepening twilight and then I saw it: a wall of brown nothing about a mile high rolling in off of the mojave behind us.
I waved my hands in the air and shouted for everyone to look, and the sergeant swore and told us to haul ass down the hill to the classroom before the sandstorm caught us.
I'd heard about sandstorms before; big, rolling blankets of sand that could bury you alive if you were unfortunate enough to be lost out in one for too long. I never thought I'd seriously see one.
We grabbed the gear and ran. And I mean ran.
It was no good; that thing caught us before we were halfway to the hill.
Being inside a sandstorm is the closest thing to Hell I can imagine. Shrieking wind, sand hitting you from every possible angle like tiny shards of broken glass, scratching your exposed skin, trickling down your blouse to coat you from head to toe, blinding you, deafening you.
We were only out in it for a few minutes, really, but it felt like it was much longer. We all collapsed inside the school building, sweat making rivers through our sandy carapace. The sergeant told us to pile the gear in the classroom and that we'd have a good first-hand lesson in cleaning it in the morning. After the storm finally died down thirty minutes later, we all exited and walked back to our barracks building.
Well, most of us did.
I walked the other way, back up the hill. My eyes burned from the sand blowing into them during the storm and my ears felt like they were positively jammed with the stuff (I later found out in the shower that that was exactly the case) but for some reason I just felt that the plateau we had scrambled down off of held some sort of answer for me. What the answer was, I had no clue. Hell, I didn't even know what the question was, or that there even had been one.
One of the great things about The Stumps was the quiet that settled over it at night. Oh, the base itself was lit up most of the day and night, and there were always some Marines somewhere playing rock music or carousing, but if you ever took the time to climb up over the thin mountain range that separates the main side of the base from the endless desert beyond, you'd be in for a surreal experience.
It's completely and utterly silent. There's no weeds or grass for the crickets to have any interest in, and the mountains break all the other sound from the base. The mountains cut down the light pollution from the base so that every star in the sky shines brightly overhead, completely unimpeded.
I climbed up, over, and down the mountain range and sat in the cool sand, looking up at the stars. Now that the sandstorm had passed and it was true night, I could see the Milky Way wheeling overhead, trailing a tail of stars thirty-five thousand light-years wide and ten thousand light-years long. I could hear nothing. No, strike that, I could hear my own heartbeat between my ears. After a few minutes, I thought I could even faintly hear my own blood rushing through my veins.
I don't know how long I sat out there in the dark; by the time the adventure was over, the stars had shifted considerably in the sky.
By dim degrees I became aware of something humming in my ears. A tune that I was unfamiliar with. It sounded like someone humming, low in their throat, imitating a cello or something. The music was almost a lullaby. Dimly, I heard voices speaking underneath the music. I caught a few words here and there, but the music itself was what interested me.
The longer I heard it, the more it sounded like I was the one humming it. The stars started to blur in my vision, and the north star started to grow in brightness until it took up the whole of my sight in its bright white light.
The light resolved itself into a daytime desert not unlike the one I sat in now, but flat, flat, flat all around to the horizon in all directions. I saw that I was sitting underneath camouflage netting and I saw two men sitting, looking at a map spread on a low table, talking to each other. I saw a field radio at the mens' feet, next to a HMMWV. I saw, beyond them, what looked like ten to fifteen antennas sticking out of the hard-packed desert sand, ringed around with a few more HMMWVs and some gas cans.
One of the men, a bald black man with a proud face and a lieutenant's bars on his collar, looked up from the conversation, directly at me.
"Lance Corporal. Stop humming."
I heard my own voice say, "Yes sir. Sorry, sir."
Just like that, the vision was over. I was back in the desert of The Stumps; it was night, and a chill had blown in over the desert sands. I shivered and stood.
No headache. Nothing.
I looked around, a little disoriented. I shook my head and whispered out loud to myself, "what the hell was that?"
I didn't have another premonition for the next four months.
The rest of my time in The Stumps went by quickly enough. I was haunted by the strange vision; I had never had one like that before in my life. They never presented themselves like that; they always came with noise and fury, and usually signified nothing. I couldn't help but think that this one somehow meant something.
Halloween rolled by, then Thanksgiving. I couldn't afford a plane ticket home to South Carolina, so I stayed behind on the base while almost every other soul there went elsewhere for the holiday. I went to the chow hall and had a slice of turkey, some cranberries from a can, and some lumpy mashed potatoes with cold gravy. I sat in an empty booth in the empty chow hall while Bing Crosby sang that he'd be home for Christmas, and I figured that this was probably going to be my lowest point in life for quite a while to come.
I got my orders to Camp Pendleton in mid-December and headed down there, just to arrive right after everyone else there had taken off for Christmas leave. Once again, I was one of the only people on the entire base, thousands of miles away from my family and anyone that I knew, while a huge family holiday passed me by.
I celebrated by taking the bus out to town and having dinner at Denny's, then catching a double feature at the Oceanside theater: It's a Wonderful Life and Die Hard.
After that, I walked down to the ocean and took off my shoes. I walked out up to my calves in the water and stared out at the endless expanse before me. Unlike the desert at night, Oceanside at night is a noisy, bright place. The boardwalk, even on Christmas night, was bustling with couples walking hand in hand, and the ocean murmured away endlessly, like sleepy thunder rumbling in its sleep.
I had never felt so alone and isolated in my life. Here I was, thousands of miles from everyone and everything I had ever known, working a job I had been conned into accepting, and with the very real possibility that I was going to be shipping out to Iraq in the next couple of months.
On Christmas night.
Even my gift had seemingly abandoned me. After the premonition in the desert, I hadn't had so much as a peep from the radio. I wondered if that final vision had broken it somehow; I wondered if I would ever hear or see anything again.
I wondered if I was just a normal nobody now.
Like I said, the holidays are stressful.