Ricco ran. Fear pushed him forward. Fear of what hunted him in the dark, of what he knew would happen if they caught him again. Fear kept him on his feet long after his body had given up. He put one foot in front of the other, the word, move, repeating in his head like a mantra.
Sweat dripped down his face. His left arm hung useless and limp at his side. Blood oozed from the bullet wound in his shoulder, soaking his fatigues, pasting them, warm and sticky, to his side. His right hand clamped over the injury in an attempt to slow the bleeding, but he had already lost a great deal of blood. Every breath tore at his lungs like broken glass. Muscles cramped and begged for rest, but he ignored the demand. He hurt, not only from the bullet that had ripped through his flesh, but from the dozens of scrapes and cuts inflicted as he stumbled and fell through the Nevada desert night. One thought kept him moving--to get away, to escape or die in the attempt--move.
Ricco's military training controlled him. Even now, injured and confused, that training made survival second nature. Through blurred vision, he risked looking up at the star-filled sky, but finding the North Star amid the millions that gazed down upon him proved more daunting a task than he had hoped. He was relatively sure he still moved in the right direction. That would be any direction away from the base where they had kept him. Where they would kill him, eventually.
Sometimes in his dreams, he would remember sitting on the back porch with his father, gazing up at the stars. In reality, he couldn't remember the last time he saw the night sky, or felt the breeze on his face. He couldn't remember when his life had been his own. Memories were strange things. They warped and twisted over time, becoming what he wanted them to be, instead of what they were. Memories could not be trusted. Ricco had learned that long ago.
Mesmerized by the sight above him, he didn't see the small rock that tripped him, and went down hard, shredding the flesh of his hands and forearms on the sandstone and shale of the desert floor. The sand, cool and gritty against his sweaty face, felt soothing. Ricco needed to rest, just for a moment, to catch his breath. He rolled from his side onto his back to take weight off his injured shoulder, and closed his eyes.
The mantra played its one word symphony inside his head; he tried to ignore it and failed. It took everything he had to listen to the voice, then the Marine took over, and he obeyed. He rolled to one side and pushed himself to his knees, ignoring the pain the movement cost him. He stood on watery legs, blinked sweat out of eyes that were no longer trustworthy, and he moved.
The incline he had just struggled up, gave him a view of the small valley below. He stopped and stared as he tried to catch his breath. The boulders beneath his hands grounded him. The coarse, gritty texture of the rock he gripped kept him in the present. Ricco stayed on his feet, fighting the insistent demands of gravity.
He narrowed his eyes at the sight. The image confused him, until he realized it was not a part of his imagination. A small, orange glow penetrated the darkness and reminded him of swamp fires back home. It took a moment for the realization to make it through to his scrambled brain. He was looking at a fire. Out here that could mean only one thing--people--and people could bring him something he had refused to dream of for years--freedom.
He needed ten steps, that was all, and then he could stop fighting. Ricco pushed past the pain and fatigue, and moved forward, falling after the first two steps and crawling the last eight. Then he collapsed in the comforting glow of the campfire. His body began to shut down as blood loss, shock, and exhaustion overcame the adrenaline that had fueled him to this point, but he kept his eyes open long enough to see a man edge toward him, his every step more hesitant than the last.
Ricco could tell the man was scared from the way the he held himself. His quick, unguarded movements marked him as a civilian.
"Jesus, buddy, you okay?"
He couldn't answer, but he wanted to laugh. Do I look okay to you, buddy?
He closed his eyes and let fate claim him at last, pretending he had some choice in the matter. Death was the one thing Ricco did not fear. He welcomed it. There had been times he even begged for it. All that mattered now was that he had gotten out. He would take his last breath on his own terms, and maybe, just maybe, the man in the light would see to it he finally made it home. After all this time, his father might finally have a body to bury.
With his last conscious thought, he reached for the dog tags around his neck and gripped them tight. He hoped the man understood the silent message.
This is who I am. This is me. Take me home.