Each year, C-VILLE Weekly and WriterHouse team up for a fiction contest. Some years have centered around themes, while others have been completely left up to the writers’ imaginations. This year, the only caveat was that the piece had to be a work of “flash fiction”—500 words or fewer. David Ronka’s “The One I Think I Shot” was crowned the winner by judge and fellow writer Bret Anthony Johnston, who said, “The author uses language and syntax in unusual and interesting ways, and has an impressive knowledge of the terminology and process of war.”
The winning story depicts the emotional complexity of combat—fear, guilt, love—that will be forever etched in the memory and dreams of a Vietnam War veteran, Ronka says. It’s adapted from a scene in a longer fictional work.
“I find flash fiction extremely demanding,” Ronka says. “The challenge of attempting to weave a complete fictional dream in no more than 500 words is formidable.”
Ronka wins $500 and a one-year membership to WriterHouse; runner-up John Ruemmler wins $250 and a one-year membership to WriterHouse.
The One I Think I Shot
By David Ronka
We wanted the beach bunker that night, Eddie and me. Would have had it too if First Sergeant Shaeffer’s not on emergency leave burying his father back in Omaha. Best duty there was, pulling guard in the beach bunker. Nice salt breeze all night long. Watch the surf roll in, smoke some reefer, shoot the shit. Keep an eye peeled for the VC Navy in case they built one since last you heard. Pussy duty, Eddie called it.
The shaved-head beanpole lifer who was filling in for Shaeffer put us on the perimeter wire. Perimeter duty wasn’t like the beach. Even when things were quiet, you couldn’t help imagining some VC sniper in the village steadying your forehead in his night scope.
I took first watch. It was pretty outside the bunker, all silver and shadowy from the moon. Rice grass swaying slow in the paddy water. Real quiet. Then some sounds floated over from the village. Click, click, like city traffic lights changing color late at night. A baby crying, or maybe a cat wailing at something. I thought of nights at home sitting on the porch swing when it was too hot to sleep.
Then I’m hearing the mortar tubes cough. Hollow-like, steel inside steel. And for a half second I’m back at Fort Polk, sitting in the bleachers with retired lifers from Leesville, watching the Saturday morning fire power demonstration. Hearing the mortar shells rattle in their tubes. Covering my ears until the Louisiana dust clears downrange and there’s nothing left of the squad of cardboard Viet Cong but little bits of paper floating down like snow.
The shells fall short into the paddy muck—thwoop, thwoop, thwoop-thwoop, like gas burners sucking the pilot light—before they hit hard ground. Then Eddie’s balled up on the plywood floor screaming oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck! I’m thinking we’re in a goddamned shrapnel storm. When it goes quiet someone up the line is hollering load and fire, load and fire! I haven’t shot an M16 since Fort Polk, but next thing I know I’m on my knees, half-blind with sand, emptying the magazine at whatever’s out there.
There were six of them, but the one I remember is the one I think I shot. When I see him now in my dreams, he’s bent in half, falling away. Black pajamas shredded in a wind of hot steel. Canvas satchel charge swinging from his neck like a little girl’s school bag. Then I see his knees poking out of the moonlit paddy water. As still as smooth dark stones.
I crawled to Eddie and cradled his head in my arms. He hugged me like a baby. We sat like that, trembling and not saying a word, until the Jeep siren came wailing down the bunker line. And I remember finally letting go of Eddie and feeling the cool night air seep into the place where his wet cheek had been.
By John Ruemmler
They hadn’t spoken in the two hours since leaving home. Her face was covered by the grey hoodie she had worn for what seemed weeks, since the attack. “Should be close,” he said, unnecessarily. The GPS device was silent, the screen a blank green rectangle. They were “off the map,” in the heart of old growth forest, away and alone, almost lost.
The twisting gravel road ran through a dark grove of hemlocks and spruce before delivering them into a stark highland landscape. Around one hairpin turn, Neal had to swerve to maneuver around a rock slide. It was after four o’clock. This high up, the sun would be setting soon.
Beyond the plunging landscape to the west, he glimpsed the sparrow-colored Shenandoah Valley and 20 miles further, the familiar blue haze of mountains and low clouds.
The cabin was theirs for the weekend, the gift of a well-meaning friend. You two have been through enough, he said, your boy is in a safe space. Go be yourselves for a while, okay?
He spotted the three-foot high stone pyramid they’d been told to watch for and turned sharply off the road and onto a rutted drive. Their first view of the log cabin, its stone chimney and front porch cast deep in shade-the darksome setting—was hardly welcoming.
Inside, he found newspaper and kindling in a wooden box on the floor beside the hearth. He cautiously lit a rolled up paper and checked the draw. The flue was clear, a flame briefly licked upward before dying. “Good. We’ll have a fire.”
While she opened the bottle of wine, he laid the table with sardines, tomatoes and a baguette. In the cupboard she found drinking glasses. The fire he’d laid shed a comforting glow, softening the room’s frontier austerity.
‘Well, it’s not the Greenbrier,” Karen said, and he laughed, relieved. This is going to be okay, he thought, she’s talking. She pushed back the hood; the scar that ran from her ear to her lip caught the light from the fire. He wanted to say something reassuring or clever, like: You must be the courtesan who mocked the pirate king and paid the price in flesh. But in truth, he didn’t know if her face would ever heal, if they would stay together, if their tortured brilliant violent son would ever come home or go to college or get a job. Or say Sorry. Or outlive them.
The sap in the wood popped, a gunshot. She jumped and he took her hand. “You’re cold.” He held her close. She was bones and sinew and anxiety in his arms.
She checked the bolt on the door, the windows too. As they lay in bed, he said: “He’s in good hands. He’s alive.”
“Is he?” Neither slept.
Later, he doused the fire as she packed the car. The drive home was harrowing in the dark.
But the stars shone and a lopsided waxing moon rose to light their way.