Because at night the only real sounds are the shifting of restless sleepers and perhaps tiny music from distant headphones, I've grown accustomed to and even fond of reading by flashlight. In a room or tent full of Marines, night is the only time without distraction, no stray conversations to catch my attention, no violence or boisterous shenanigans, no impending working parties to worry about. Just simple quiet and indefinite duration to absorb the text in front of me.
And the tiny diode makes my surroundings disappear, so that all that exist are the pages floating in darkness.
That feeling has lately been kind of following me into daylight, though: this sensation that everything around me is somehow unreal or insubstantial.
Being here in Kuwait is a weird state of limbo, it doesn't feel like deployment, and so close to home, but not. It's one of those weird in-between places like airports.
The people here, almost all Army and Navy and a few Marine POGs, are so different from the Marines I have lived and worked with for the past seven months, they strike me as almost civilians, with just a hint of military about them. I often forget that they are even there, until I have to interact with one directly.
Paying an Egyptian contract worker Kuwaiti dinar for Kentucky Fried Chicken is an intensely bizarre feeling.
Everyone but the few I came here with, and even some of them, have sort of faded into the background, into scenery. I mostly ignore them and they me. It's not exactly uncomfortable, and only really strange when I notice it, which isn't that often.
I felt it today in the smoke-pit when I realized everyone else there was engaged in conversation with each other except me, and I didn't even know what it (the conversation) was about. It was like they were ghosts, or I was.
Which was fine, really. I continued to ignore them, smoked my cigarette, and looked for stars. I guess we're too near civilization here to see the night sky I've grown used to, but a few hung high, peeking through modernity's electromagnetic haze.
If I stared North hard enough, I could just barely make out the two Dippers, and Draco between them, or at least conjure them in my imagination.
With the mighty dragon's constellation in this weakened state and surrounded only by ghost-people, I grew bold and decided to engage him in conversation.
"INSIGNIFICANT SPECK. YOUR INSOLENCE IS AMUSING, YET YOUR TINY INSECT VOICE VEXES MY EARS. I SHALL ALLOW YOU THREE QUESTIONS BEFORE I DECIDE WHETHER OR NOT TO TO CRUSH YOU."
I didn't suppose I'd get this chance again any time soon, so I gave it some thought before asking:
"Does it hurt, the fire in your belly?"
"ONLY WHEN I BREATHE."
"If you could put it out, would you?"
I took three drags before he answered, slowly:
"I HAVE ACHED AND BURNED WITH THESE FLAMES SINCE BEFORE YOUR KIND STOOD UPRIGHT. IT BEGAN TO KILL ME BEFORE YOU GREW TONGUES AND KILLS ME A LITTLE MORE EACH TIME I REVOLVE YOUR PUNY WORLD. BUT A DRAGON'S SELF-DESTRUCTIVENESS IS PART OF WHAT HE IS, AND TO LOSE THAT WOULD MERELY BE TO DIE A SMALLER, UGLIER DEATH."
By then I was finished with my cigarette and the air was growing colder while the phantoms around me grew louder, and I didn't particularly feel like being crushed just then, so I slipped away, trudged back to our tent, thinking about dragons and fire and smoke and life and death.