From the Photos: Shifting Sands

By Lindsay Miga

His life was over before it started. He was always destined to die before he grew old, got married, or walked a daughter down the aisle. In his youth, he’d pictured his life like an hourglass running out of sand. As their little boat floated towards the shore he wondered if this was where it ran out.

There was a certain stillness to the air. Mist danced across the water’s surface in intricate spirals and swirls. The water lapped up at the edge of the boat. Despite the circumstance the scene appeared calm and orderly. The little boat was crowded and silent. The silence was not any sort of serenity or peace, but instead the preparation of war. Their fear was palpable, even if invisible to an onlooker. They all stared ahead, rigid and unable to move. 

It was in that moment of suffocating fear that Thomas began to think. Or rather second guess. The odd thing was that he never doubted that he was meant to be on that boat approaching a near impossible mission. He questioned all the little things he’d done. All the things he hadn’t done. If he’d done enough. 

The moment snuck up on him unexpectedly. He’d heard of your life flashing before your eyes, but right now he wasn’t in immediate danger. Heading towards it? Certainly. So why was his life already flashing in front of him?

Thomas reached up and felt for the little wooden tile tucked away in his uniform. It was a scrabble tile that he’d been carrying with him since he left home. It was once a great source of frustration, he could hear his mom inside his memory, “If you can play that blasted tile you can do anything.” 

“Then I must be able to achieve the impossible.” He smugly responded by playing the tile to spell out ZYGOTE on a triple word space. It was one of his prouder moments. The memory now seemed so far away. Originally some of his fellow soldiers had laughed at the little Z tile, but soon enough they were all longing for home and hung onto every word as Thomas told the story. They were much more sympathetic to the photographs he had tucked in his waistband, but when things got too serious they would call him cheesy and push him around a bit.

Their comments had never bothered Thomas. Any sort of lightness -even at his expense- made everything a bit easier, and he was glad to have something that tied him to home. He didn’t explain to them that it belonged to his mother. He didn’t tell them much of anything. They bonded over the hardships of the war, and he was more content to spend the quieter hours thinking of her and grandfather. Their life had never been easy, but the bond between the three of them was deep and irremovable. He longed for their Sunday morning breakfasts, and long walks through the interconnecting streets. He missed his mother flattening his hair and shaking her head at him. His missed grandfather’s wise smile and endless oceans of advice. He should have hugged his mother tighter, told her he loved her more often. He should have asked grandfather so many more questions, and never skipped any of their beloved scrabble games. 

The cliffs of Omaha beach came into view. Even after such a storm it was a beautiful place. He vaguely remembered promising Jenny they would walk the cliffs of Normandy one day. Jenny. Would he ever see her again? Operation Overlord was the impossible mission. It was more likely than not that lovely Jenny would never see the mariage her engagement ring had promised. He remembered her face when he had given it to her. The crinkle by her eyes, the excited skip she did, the smile that wouldn’t leave her or Thoams’ faces. It may have been the best moment of his life. He should’ve done something special for her before he left. There was no guarentree he’d be going back to her. He closed his eyes for a moment remembering her green ones. Remembering the silken, straight blonde hair she twirled around her pointer finger when she got focused. Remembering the way she bit the inside of her cheek when she was finishing a particularly difficult assignment. She was beautiful, smart, perfect. She was the subject of two of the three photos tucked in his waistband. 

The first photo was of Grandfather and Mother laughing at a joke only they heard. Mom’s face was almost entirely devoid of its normal wrinkles, and she leaned forward mouth opened wide in a loud laugh. Grandfather looked at her from the side, also grinning. The photo warmed his heart and made it ache at the same time. 

The second photo was a picture of Jenny in his living room. She was twirling to whatever song was playing, her hair filled with motion, splayed around like a halo. She clutched a shoe like some kind of microphone and pointed her other hand at the camera. She was wild and exciting. She was Jenny. 

The last picture was taken just moments after the second. Her shoe-microphone lay forgotten on the floor, her arms now wrapped around Thomas neck as they slowly danced. Her eyes smiled brightly, and he looked at her like she was the only thing he ever wanted to see. 

He wished he could be back in that moment. Intoxicated by her jasmine perfume, thinking of nothing but them. No hourglass, no war, nothing but her hand in his. But that was never in the cards for him. He was never going to grow old with the woman he loved. The bullet just seemed to confirm this.

It seemed to float. Suspended in motion. Waiting. Watching. Centered and balanced amidst the chaos. It was the only thing that didn’t seem overwhelmed by the flurry of motion that had overtaken everything else. It would likely reach him within seconds. Maybe just one. 

Yet perhaps Thomas was too early in assuming the bullet was destined for him. As he closed his eyes and searched for something to believe in, the bullet nicked his ear and kept moving. Behind him, a body fell back. It didn’t drop to the floor, they were packed far too tightly for that. Instead, the man collapsed onto the soldier who stood behind. The sand shifted inside the hourglass. The soldier said nothing.

It was the saying nothing that scared Thomas most. The way his mouth opened but nothing was said. The way none of them felt anything. There they sat, like a new box of matches waiting for the flame. 

Then the fire came. 

The bullets began to fly around them like hail in a blizzard. Would he ever see a blizzard again? His eyes searched ahead. Omaha beach looked like a German fortress. The walls much too high, the troops far too many. Had they fallen for the rumor of Calais? Would this be another Dieppe failure? Would he get the chance to see it through?

The boat reached the shore. For a moment the men were still, silent. The man on Thomas’ left fell, a gaping hole in his cheek. Someone yelled out indignantly, and they woke from their stupor. They charged out of the boat and desperately swam towards the land. The cool water was welcome in the summer heat, but he hardly had time to gloat, everything was happening too fast now.

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Bodies sunk into the water and fell on the sand. Thomas found his feet. He pushed away any other thought. He didn’t pause to remember Jenny’s giggle, the warmth of his mother’s arms, or the proud grin of his grandfather. He didn’t stop to think about friends, or family, or life as it was. He just ran, chanting the only thing he knew now. I want to live.

The cliffs were tall and still slick with rainwater from the day before. It occurred to Thomas that the storm hadn’t really ended. The Allied soldiers fell the same way the rain did. The echoes of gunfire reverberated the way thunder shook. Their fear was a blaze sparked by lightning.

More men joined them on the beach, many of them falling before they had the chance to fight. His nerves took control of his body. He felt like a live wire. The sands shifted beneath his uncertain steps. Thomas patted his jacket. The corner of the wooden Z tile poked into his chest, still safely secured. He would live for them. 

Or at least try to. 

It was a lot easier said than done, but dammit he was going to try. He continued to sprint up the beach. By some miracle nothing had hit him yet.

As he dodged another bullet and pulled the trigger on his own gun he thought only of the thin and fragile line between life and death. He had walked beside it many times. He often toed the crossing point. But never had he seen it so clearly. Today death welcomed them with open arms and the twisted smile of the devil. The beach seemed an open doorway both plucking men from life and freeing ghosts to haunt the living. Whether they won or lost June sixth would be marked in history. The greatest tragedy or the greatest victory. It occurred to Thomas that even if victorious it would still be a day marred by blood and tragedy. There was no escaping the horrors that crashed with the waves. If the world was an hourglass its pale sands were now streaked with the red of Omaha Beach.