Standing outside the squat concrete hut with the blistering afternoon sun beating down on my shaved head, sweat rolling into my eyes, I watched the group in front of me hustle in while the drill instructor at the door—looking like some zombie apocalypse survivor in full MOPP gear—shoved them. Muffled shouts began almost immediately.
“If you know what’s good for you when you go through that door,” my DI nonchalantly tightened the straps on his mask and double-checked the seal, “you go in, you stand with your back to the wall, and don’t you dare come off it.”
He grinned, “We had a recruit try to bust out earlier. He actually got out the door before they caught him. They sent him back through seven times. In a row. So, get in, do what your told, and get out. Believe me, you don’t wanna go more than once.”
He was right. I didn’t want to go more than once. I didn’t want to go at all, but this was Parris Island, and there were only three ways off this little island of paradise—graduate, refuse to train and get yourself bundled off for exit processing that would leave a mark on your record for your entire adult life, or kill yourself. The second week of training, a recruit in another platoon tried cutting his wrists. I had to help stand suicide watch for him until they could process him out. A few months before that, some poor soul took a header from the third floor stairwell onto the asphalt. Game over. I felt like graduating was my best decision; unfortunately, graduating also meant that I had to go through this introductory party with a riot control agent. The training is designed with two purposes in mind: to make sure we knew how to properly use our gas masks in the unfortunate event we actually encountered life-threatening nerve agents, and also to expose us to the effects of the gas so we’d know how to respond and adapt.
“Alright, ladies, don’t be idiots in there.” He donned his mask, not because he was going in with us, but because the clouds of gas escaping the door each time it opened were enough to start our eyes watering from thirty yards away.
“Put ’em on!”
My fingers slipped on the elastic bands as I ripped the mask over my face. I yanked the straps, slapped the heal of my hand over the filter, and sucked in a deep breath to seat it tightly.
The door opened and the ten of us were moving. My DI gave each of us a shove through the door before slamming it behind us. The room was barely bigger than a small bedroom, in the middle a burner pulsed, splashing everything in an eerie glow; the temperature hovered somewhere just south of Hades. A drill instructor in full gear dropped CS tablets into the burner and a white cloud bloomed upward sweeping around us. He hunched over the burner, a demon from the abyss come to claim the souls of the damned.
“YOU WILL STAY AGAINST THE WALL! YOU WILL NOT MOVE UNLESS I TELL YOU. WHEN I TELL YOU TO TAKE OFF YOUR MASKS, YOU’D BETTER DO IT. AND I SWEAR TO GOD IF ONE OF YOU TAKES A STEP TOWARD THAT DOOR YOU’LL WISH YOUR MOTHER HAD ABORTED YOU!”
You couldn’t have paid me to come off that wall. Already my sunburned skin around my jaw and sides of my head was on fire as the agent worked into the skin like rubbing alcohol in paper cuts. I slowed my breathing as much as possible. The fun was about to start.
“TAKE OFF YOUR MASKS!”
I sucked in a huge breath, closed my eyes, and pulled of my mask. Beside me I sensed my recruit buddies all stripping off their masks along with me.
“HOLD ‘EM STRAIGHT OUT IN FRONT OF YOU!”
My mask went straight out away from my body. My eyes were already burning. The gas was a living thing, leaching into me, sulfur fingers ramming up my nose, setting my mucous membranes on fire.
“COUNT OFF TO 10!”
Bastards. It didn’t matter how long you could hold your breath, they had their games.
“1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7—“ I stopped to take a tiny, puffing breath through clenched lips.
“—8, 9, 10!” My saliva glands exploded in a waterfall of lava as the gas mixed in my mouth. I swallowed involuntarily and sent the the toxins straight down my esophagus. A racking cough exploded out of me. I could no more have controlled it than I could have parted the Red Sea. But the worst part was the following inhale. There was nothing I could do. My lungs sucked in a full dose of gas, and my body went into full melt down.
There’s something about pain that both clarifies and muddles time. I was somewhere in the middle—somewhere where disorientation meets burgeoning panic. My lungs were exploding, on fire, my eyeballs liquefying in their sockets while I whooped racking coughs, forcing myself back against the wall, willing back the spasms shuddering from my legs all the way up my spine. Around me, the others retched deep wet coughs into the darkness. Panic spiraled through me. It had to almost be over. It had to. I was nearing my limit as my oxygen levels dropped. Make it stop. Make it—
“DON AND CLEAR!”
I slammed my mask into my face, clearing it with one explosive exhale and dragging in a wondrous lungful of clean air. The inhale kicked off another round of coughing, and I retched and snotted into my mask, sucking in breath after breath of filtered oxygen.
“GET OUT OF MY CHAMBER!”
The pack of us, barking like chainsmoking seals, tumbled out the door.
“Get the masks off, ladies! Get ’em off. Arms straight out. Keep your grubby fingers outta your freakin’ mugs if you know what’s good for you—you’ll only make it worse.” My DI stood by the wash barrel as we stumbled toward him. My mask dangled from my hand, and I lurched toward the barrel while the snot dripped off my chin. It felt like someone had poured liquid fiberglass down my throat. Behind me one of my buddies retched and vomited into the grass.
“Let’s go! Let’s go, ladies, I don’t have all day!”
I tottered toward the barrel. One more tick in the requisite box. Almost there . . . only thirteen more sleeps and a wake up.
Just get through today . . . just get through today.