She suspects she might have taken one too many. The crew has been passing around its communal bottle of diet pills, dosing themselves in the four hours since Haider left the truck. No more falling asleep on watch. The kid’s warning, heeded.
Hydroxycut is the thing for staying awake, but she wishes she would’ve stopped while she was ahead, about two pills ago. She works her jaw muscles and scrapes her tongue over a palate gone dry with tacky cotton mouth, head aching, blood vessels constricted by stimulant, her focus inexplicably stuck on a few lines of jogging cadence sung during early-morning physical training sessions at Fort Hood before they deployed.
Line a hundred Iraqis up against a wall.
Bet a hundred dollars I couldn’t kill ’em all.
Shot ninety-eight till my barrel turned blue.
Then I pulled out my knife and stabbed the other two.
Stupid stuff, she knows. Nothing more than brutal background noise, but she hasn’t gotten more than a few hours’ sleep at any one time in the past three days, and her mind is doing strange things. No matter how much she wants to, she can’t close her eyes, and even if she did, no sleep would come. Her heart feels like it’s working too hard, straining itself like a leaky pump with more air than blood rushing through fleshy valves. Time stretches thinner and thinner, shedding its one elemental quality, forward progression, like a strand of gold spun so fine, it loses its atomic color and becomes clear.
McGinnis flexes his knees to keep limber. From her vantage point inside the truck, he’s a pair of disembodied legs, the rest of him extending out the hatch, pulling a shift behind the fifty, her relief. This time, when he offered to take her place up there, she didn’t object, not even to joke.
Couple hours after dark, the rain stops. The wind hasn’t. The latest chatter on the radio is about a sandstorm that Brigade is tracking. A shamal — as some show-off staff officer keeps calling it—blowing in on the back edge of the cold front that brought rain to central Iraq as a dry western wind rushed across the country, hitting the moist salt air coming off the gulf.
Crump listens to the traffic about the storm and sneers at the blinking radio console when he hears something he doesn’t like. He squirms incessantly behind the wheel as if sitting on a tack. His right foot pumps the brake, the pedal on an imagined kick drum, and with his thumbs he taps an angry beat on the dash.
“They’s fucking fools,” he declares in response to nothing, his abrasive tenor wavering under the effect of jangly stimulants and wrath. Boys that age, she thinks. The absolute worst.
He waits for her to take the bait, to ask why they — whoever they are — are fools. She expects he will soon embark on one of his asinine political tangents. His views on modern life are uncomplicated, to put it kindly. Against her better judgment, however, she decides to indulge him. Bullshitting to kill the time, besides the killing itself, is the one great and necessary art form practiced in the army. In these circumstances, to deny conversation to a willing participant is just plain mean.
“Who’s a fool?” she asks, making sure he can tell she’s not particularly interested.
“Who you think?” He readjusts himself in the front seat, picking at his groin, and pulls a knee up so he can face her, his long chin like a starving Appalachian’s. “Higher, duh. We could be out getting some. Or, back at the Row, where it’s safe, before this sandstorm hits. I get the feeling they forgot about us.”
“No kidding.” Leave it to Crump to state the obvious.
He turns in his seat to face forward again. He worries a flap of torn rubber on the steering wheel. “All I know is, none of this is like I thought it would be. This ain’t no way to fight a war. But I’ll tell you what they need to do. You ready for this — it’s real fucking simple. One word. Nukes.”
“Hear me out. I’m serious. Forget camping by this trash heap all fucking night in the wind and rain. Forget Humvees and dirt kids and moo-juh-huh-deens and all the rest of this shit. We got to start showing these hajjis who’s boss. ‘Oh, you wanna blow up the World Trade?’ Errrr — wrong — nuke your ass. Tell you what. There’s one thing that wins a fight. Punching harder than the other guy.”
There is humor in his tirade but not a splinter of irony. He is actually advocating preemptive nuclear war. She rolls her eyes at him, even though he can’t currently see her in the backseat. What is it like to be inside his head? The Crump brain, gray matter calcified, frontal lobes shrunken like dried beans to shiver and rattle inside the skull’s brittle gourd. The army has distilled and eventually dissolved his every sense of nuance and tact, although she doubts he had much of either to begin with. For a person like him, military life eats away like acid at those softer, finer qualities, reducing everything to the toughest, starkest of truths. War is about utterly destroying the enemy. Yes, sometimes. But we’re not doing that, not even trying to. We’re just sitting here, targets ourselves. Therefore, this isn’t a real war. This must be some other kind of mess.
Cassandra can sympathize with his point of view. On the one hand, in the lead-up to the invasion, they were told, over and over, to the point of indoctrination, that one half of their mission was to free this country, that they would go down in history as the great liberators of the Iraqi people. On the other hand, they trained to liberate them by doing things like jogging in cadence to cute little ditties about slaughter.
Shot ninety-eight till my barrel turned blue.
Then I pulled out my knife and democratized the other two.
The army’s mixed messages troubled guys like Crump in the same way that sanitizing a needle before sliding it into the forearm of a death row inmate would trouble any thoughtful executioner. Guys like Crump hate fakeness more than anything, she thinks, the way the politicians cloak something basic as war in grand ideas. Funny how, despite their misgivings, guys like him never seem to arrive at the right explanation for the big lie, for the gap between what is said and what is meant, the difference between what they know to be the army’s true purpose, to kill people and destroy property, and its advertised purpose, Operation Iraqi Freedom, or, as he has taken to calling it, Operation Iraqi Fuckdown. Crump craves something rawer, “realer”—another of his favorite words—and never quite grasps the true reason for sanitizing the poison needle.
Then again, she wonders if she could be guilty of the same flaw she has assumed in him. The sin of underestimation. She believes he has underestimated the depth of logic behind the army’s scheme, and likewise, possibly, she may have misjudged his reaction to army life. It could be that he only plays the role of provocative jester, taking on the part as a protest, a way to pass the time, to hide the depths of himself, or simply as a familiar mask worn by a class clown, C+ high school student whose primary social outlet was World of Warcraft.
“I don’t think you believe half the shit coming out your own mouth,” she says.
“Whatever. Hey. Who got the stash, anyway. Hook a brother up.”
“Your call, Sarn’t.” She peers up at McGinnis, still at his station in the hatch.
“Go ahead and give him another one,” he says. “Maybe it’ll make his brain explode.”
“We can hope.”
Cassandra passes the bottle of Hydroxycut to Crump, considers the possibility of pseudoamphetamine psychosis, and grasps her leg with fingers clawlike behind the knee, pinching herself to induce pain as a reality check.
Crump taps a horse pill into his palm. “Wigheard. Lemme get your canteen real quick. I’m dry.”
“You would be.” She starts to pass it to him when there comes to them a pinging sound like a sledgehammer striking a railway spike far away. The wind and the dark fields of trash and rubble flatten the sharp sound, and then another and another like it, which arrive in quick, steady succession — ping, ping, ping.
“Christ,” McGinnis says. “What now?”
They’ve been in country five weeks and never under fire, or they would’ve known already. There is enough time for him to wonder and ask that question, hanging as the mortars complete their high invisible parabola to fall a hundred meters behind them, the rounds lighting up the black skyline like sulfur flash-bulbs, cracking explosions changing the air pressure.
McGinnis drops inside the truck and swings himself into the commander’s seat, fumbling for the hand mic.
“Fuck those radios!” Cassandra explodes on her sergeant in a way she never has before and moves toward the gunner’s hatch to replace him—someone has to be up there on the fifty — but he reaches back to block her way.
“Stay under cover!”
“You call this cover?” She punches the flimsy fiberglass roof and looks at him in disbelief.
He concedes the point and allows her to climb up to the gun. She fights to stay loose. Every muscle in her body wants to clinch up like she’s on a plane about to make a crash landing. The next barrage of mortars is already on its way, hurtling Doppler-shifted directly overhead; whoever is doing the shooting has readjusted their tube. The salvo misses the roundabout again, but not by as much, blowing geysers of earth on the far side of the concertina. Pebbles thrown by the blast skitter across asphalt. A burst of machine gun fire from Specialist Worthy, the gunner on Treanor’s truck, who starts shooting—at what, Cassandra can’t tell. Maybe he has spotted the mortar team or more likely is firing at an ominous-looking shadow, an unlucky farm animal mistaken for the enemy, or at nothing at all. But once the shooting starts, the other gunners follow suit, flinging tracer rounds like rays of solid red light.
The third salvo is a concussion that sucks the air out of her lungs and sprays shrapnel ringing like bird shot against the Humvee’s engine block, the truck listing down and to the left as two of its tires blow. The blast raises a white cloud, mist of atomized chalk, and she too starts to shoot, firing the fifty blindly into the dark field where she thinks the mortar team might be set, based on the sound of the pings, the buzzing flight of the rounds. Maybe a thousand meters away—they would be at least that far, but then again one of them has to be much closer, spotting, using a radio to call in the targets. There’s no way they could’ve adjusted fire so quickly and accurately without help from a forward spotter. So, spray the whole goddamn field.
The gun bucks and clatters in its mount like a centrifugal machine spinning out of control, the truck’s roof juddering under the recoil. A weird feeling replaces the tension she experienced just as the attack started. This new sensation is the unnatural calm that comes after a disaster has begun. She has known a few disasters in nineteen years but none more alarming to her youthful invulnerability than this. Someone is actually trying to kill me, she has to tell herself, repeating it like a mantra to make it seem real. Which it soon does. But the strangest thing is how little hate there is in it. She doesn’t hate them at all for trying. It seems only right, even essential, that it should happen this way, killing and being killed, the enemy dispassionately working a mechanical device, plotting the azimuth and elevation, aligning the tube, dropping in the shell that might flatten her skull on the asphalt. Without ever having seen her. Or she them. Sending rounds blindly downrange through the white cloud of dust and gun smoke, squeezing the trigger paddle on the fty and holding on with all she has, forcing the barrel to the correct elevation—with each round expended it continually wants to ride up—and she gets a glimpse of her tracers and thinks they’re probably too high to be effective but who can tell; she doesn’t have a target to shoot at. Everything breaks down to chance. There is no getting out of this.
One minute has passed since the first mortar fell. Crump and McGinnis are still sheltering down below in the truck. Neither has let off a round. McGinnis is on the radio. Not much else they can do down there, with no heavy weapons, only their rifles at hand, no clue where to shoot, but still, they shouldn’t be in the truck. Seek cover. First rule in a fire fight. They’re effectively on a road in the middle of a field, the nearest structure hundreds of meters away. McGinnis barks something over the net that sounds like Drive! but her ears are almost worthless. The only thing she can control is whether or not to keep shooting bursts, hunkering down behind the gun and not letting off the trigger as another salvo falls, a death from above as impersonal as lightning. Down below, the driver’s door opens, and Crump stumbles into the street, clutching his face, yelling: black blood falls from his hands, stringy flesh draped on his cheek. The other door opens, and McGinnis looks up at her helplessly before ducking around to the back side, out of her line of fire, going for Crump, who has stumbled farther away and tripped over a roll of concertina, thus entangling himself in razor wire. Everything going to shit too fast to believe. In her periphery Sergeant Gonzales’s truck billows thick smoke from its engine compartment, threatening a greater fire, its crew frantically off-loading ammo. Gonzales grabs a can in each hand and moves out full tilt for the irrigation canal across the road. He clears the concertina obstacle with a leap that would’ve been comical if not for the fact he’s running for his life. He dashes across the last piece of open ground and goes for it again and lands like a long jumper in the canal, the lowest point around, best cover from shrapnel, and suddenly the rest of the platoon realizes this, and other soldiers abandon their trucks and the heavy weapons mounted atop for the safety of stagnant water.
McGinnis cuts Crump out of the wire with his multi-tool and begins to drag him, also making for the canal, turning back a few times to wave and yell at Cassandra to follow, ordering her to, but she is too focused on firing the fifty, which she does until she runs out of ammo. She stoops inside the truck and grabs another can, heaving the steel box of rounds onto the roof. She clips the can in place and starts to feed the belt into the gun’s action when more mortars come in and gouge craters in the asphalt with white-hot blasts pressing heat and pressure on her from all sides, sending sharp jags of metal whirring past her face. She quails a moment but regains her footing in the hatch and is just thinking how crazy it is that she is still alive when she sees specks of blood darkening her sleeve below the elbow, stinging, pain, and knowing it, shrapnel, it’s inside me; something about this thought absolutely horrifies her and makes her want to puke, not the pain, it’s not bad, still obscured by adrenaline, but the thought of her body’s integrity being breached, and it has happened, and there is no taking it back.
She doesn’t quit. Still fumbling to reload the new belt, she spins each way in the hatch and surveys the roundabout and gets for the first time that she is the only gunner remaining. Everyone else has broken for cover. Fifty meters away, McGinnis crouches on the canal bank, silhouetted against the black torpid water, waving her on.
The dark speckling has become a wetness, and her hand feels numb, like she has fallen asleep on her arm, dripping blood from the crook, she smears it over the belted machine gun rounds, slickening the brass casings as she struggles to seat them correctly in the extractor lever, but the fucking piece of shit won’t seat right, or maybe she’s what’s really broken. Woozy, knowing it’s now or never, she releases her hold on the fifty, the long barrel seesaws up, and she boosts herself out of the hatch and clambers down the hood, stumbling through the roundabout, through the gap in the wire, McGinnis meeting her halfway to the canal. On the banks her knees buckle and she drops. He’s been supporting her and grabs the collar of her tactical vest, dragging her the rest of the way in. Her body breaks the dirty froth on the water. It feels warm against her skin, warmer than the air, reviving her some, and she’s able to shrug him off and stand unsupported. She takes a step deeper into the canal, away from the bank, affording Aguirre, the medic, some room to work on Crump. Aguirre is bandaging his face with gauze, and with the blood soaking through, it looks like a botched plastic surgery.
She takes another step away, hip-deep now, boots filling with water, sinking to the ankles in the silty layer of detritus on the canal’s bottom, which is steeply sloped in a V shape. The mud takes her feet until she’s afraid she won’t be able to free herself, that she’ll be sucked in deeper and will drown with her feet stuck to the bottom like a mouse in a glue trap. With a great effort she draws her boots out and sloshes against McGinnis, where she falls again and stops resisting his attempts to render aid.
She lies against the matted cane roots growing out of the bank. She loses consciousness, seconds, minutes. When she awakes she’s on her back. The clouds are moving fast as dawn nears, and they are tinged a deep slate green that reminds her of something she can’t put her finger on. Something important from home had that same color, she can’t think of what it is, but is lucid enough to know it doesn’t matter. There are strange sounds, like popcorn in a pressure cooker, a crescendo of popping getting closer, louder, a man screams; she thinks it might be Gonzales. A rush of motion as someone else splashes clumsily out of the water, making a run for it. Popping and splashing. A fire fight. Blood in the water invisible for all the black.
“Fuck this!” McGinnis shouts. “Fuck it so fucking much!”
He’s not shooting back. She realizes he’s not going to. Some of the platoon are, but everyone needs to. It’s hard to say exactly what is what; Aguirre and McGinnis huddle over her and block most of her view. Aguirre is cutting off her uniform sleeve with first-aid shears, telling her she’s okay, to keep still, keep quiet. He is focused entirely on saving her, not on the mayhem around him, and at some level she feels grateful for that, tries to obey, to keep still, keep quiet, but her legs tense involuntarily and her boot heels gouge underwater channels. She has to fight. They all do. The medic cinches an Israeli-made battle tourniquet around her upper arm. The black nylon bites into her flesh, folding veins and arteries into themselves with a warm pain that hurts more than the shrapnel. He manages to get the tourniquet secure. Then is shot and collapses on top of her with all the ceremony of a snipped flower, warm dead weight stifling her cries.
McGinnis yanks her free from underneath and drags her into the canal, over which streams of glowing red and green tracers hurtle gracefully like a hail of burning arrows launched over the walls of a medieval fortress. She drifts away from the bank into water too deep to touch bottom and goes under, managing with one arm to unbuckle her vest that is trying to drown her, and shrugs it off, sinking deeper into the dark tangle of fluid reeking of pungent, musty life.
From Spoils, a novel by Brian Van Reet (Little, Brown, 2017).