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War Machines and Chicken Farms - Flash Fiction by Michael Duda

There’s always been rumors about it. You’ll read them in any newspaper or you could listen to about a million plus one channels about it. But now, this happens. Who shot first? The pictures just show smoking grey metal and a sunny roundel bobbing up and down on salty foam waves in the South China Sea like smiling grandparents not aware that they’re about to take a drop on a county fair rapid rivers thrill ride.

The Boy reads an internet article that’s popped up out of the digital vacuum: Volunteers Expected, Draft Recruitment to Follow Soon. Who wrote this? It’s probably some kind of electronic mortar that glues popular conspiracies together. The text claims that those who don’t volunteer will have worse assignments. Much worse. This is the kind of thing someone wearing tin-foil party hats sings while do-si-doing himself on a D.C. sidewalk. Allemande left. Wrong way thar. Circle to a line. Now shoot the star. The Boy thinks that someone’s making the wrong calls.

He shows up at an air force recruiting office the next day, just in case. He doesn’t reveal his secret dream: the Boy wants to own a chicken farm. His secret fear: dying. Can’t raise chickens when you’re dead. “Will there be war?” he says and the recruiter smiles and says, “War? Our jobs are like flying a desk.”

At an entrance processing test site, the administrator seems casual about the whole multiple choice business. After all, only three of the four answers are wrong. It’s a game with pretty good odds. At first, the Boy thinks the questions are a funny joke. This test must be: There are no questions about chickens! The administrator keeps straightening a black necktie and smoothing a pressed shirt. He clears his throat and reminds the Boy that only fifteen minutes remain. Then ten, then five, then one—a teapot about to whistle. Then, the administrator studies the results and looks over the Boy. “Physical and mental screening. The processing station next door.”

The processing examiner tells the Boy to look into a tonometer. It all feels so clinical! Where’s the brass band? The Call of Duty theme music that swells and makes you feel good? What about the chicken farm? The Boy’s eyes ping-pong over the drab blue and gray walls and avoid the Frankenstein metal waiting for his face. A nearby counselor frowns.

“Do I have to enlist?” the Boy asks. In high school, he’d go along with anything, agreeing to graffiti the cafeteria wall with Melody is a butt slut! in red paint because Tony said he’d be popular, except he almost got expelled and Tony acted like he didn’t know him anymore. It’s these pressure tactics: Dangle hope like a carrot and then jerk it away with a beating. “Can I choose my job?”

“Ever want to fly an F-15?” says the counselor.

“I don’t want to be shot at.”

“Who told you that?”

“I made bad decisions in high school.”

“Look this way, please,” says the examiner.

The machine spits air. The Boy’s head jerks back, just enough for him to feel foolish. “Sorry,” he says and now feels stupid.

The counselor smiles. “Jets. I’ve heard they’re a thrill ride. Pilots must be real popular.” The counselor says that an entry program card with a job assignment will be mailed shortly and then winks. “Sign here.”

Still, no one’s answered the question: Will there be war? The Boy wants to ask his instructor during airfield management training. His mind jumps to Ma.

In basic, the Boy doesn’t get to make too many calls. How’s the well pump? The pressure control switch might be going bad. Did the doctor say anything about the cough? He wants to tell her about the chicken farm, that they’ll be okay. Each time she cuts him off, babbling about an empty, dark house. She screams about devil women stealing men’s souls. She calls him Pa. Let me live! is all the Boy can say. He bites his bottom lip until blood flows down his chin. He cannot breathe and hangs up before she blubbers.

“Any questions?” the trainer says.

All the Boy can think of are large hens. His brain is scrambled.

“Do C-130s land like chickens?” the Boy says.

The other shaved heads in the classroom roar. They slap the Boy on the back. What a great joke! Instant popularity! The Boy grins and forgets about the chickens.

It all flies by faster than any jet: basic to airman to first class to senior—whoosh! Each time, a pay raise. A small check mailed to Ma. How can this be so easy? Easier than chickens. But war? Where is it? When is it? Almost four years and nothing but NOTAMs about runaway kites and air shows.

The Boy remembers last night’s shots of tequila and the club’s deep bass that throbbed louder than any heartbeat. The hooker that charged only half for the second trick. Ma seems okay, but he forgot to ask about the cough.

He feels bad. He consults the chaplain.

“Will there be war?” the Boy says.

The chaplain smiles. “We are always at war. Even the lowly rooster must defend the hens from the fox.” Finally! The chickens! The chaplain pats the Boy’s shoulder. “What could be greater than serving?”

The Boy thinks of Nicole, the hooker, thinks of how she can wrap her legs behind her head just like a pretzel. Now, it’s the Boy that smiles.

“I can think of nothing else,” he says.

“Remember, we’re not machines. It’s human to be afraid.”

The Boy’s mind is at peace. He forgets a nowhere dirt road that leads to weathered roosts and lumpy corn feed sacks.

Two weeks later, he reenlists.

Michael's an ill-tempered writer who’s learning the craft the hard way: Hammering away at the keyboard and occasionally admitting when he's wrong. He writes because his cat hates him. You can find out more about the cat by visiting his blog curmudgeon.

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