October’s Daughter

by Brian Kerg

by Brian Kerg

From the Entry Control Point, I watched the sunset, a gush of evening’s blood over the horizon. The flash of the sun on the Afghan mountain, miles distant, blazed like the gold of my daughter’s hair. Both were just as unreachable.

I shook, more from reverie than from October’s evening chill. Nangarhar province gets cold fast, when the sun goes down.

Baddar, the Afghan soldier standing sentry at the ECP, looked at me. His dark eyes hid in an oak-brown face, lined with wrinkles as deep as bark. He was old enough to be my father. He said something to me in Pashtun, indecipherable. I threw back one of the few survival phrases I knew:

Sahr pikheyr,” I said. Good morning. I didn’t know ‘good evening,’ but it was the best I had.

He said something again, and nodded with his head down the road, toward Bama’hel village, and the adjoining graveyard.

“I watched a funeral there, months ago,” I said, pointing. “From our sentry tower. When your women wail in grief, it sounds like banshees. Spirits. Do you have ghosts, in Afghanistan?”

Baddar said something back to me in Pashtun, nodding again down the road. Perhaps beyond the graveyard and the village, all the way to the mountain side. Maybe he and I were reflecting on it at the same time.

“It reminded me of my little girl,” I said.  “The light on the mountainside. It’s beautiful.” She was beautiful, too.

Baddar nodded, grunting, as though agreeing. We watched the sunset, shivering together, able to say nothing to one another, saying all we needed to say.

My radio crackled with static. I grabbed it from my cargo pocket, responding. “Calling station, this is Captain Graham. Say again your last, over.”

“Sir, it’s Gunny. The patrol’s ready to brief. You still coming along tonight?” We were on our local net. Higher couldn’t hear us, so Gunnery Sergeant Rikers wasn’t going to waste time on radio protocol. I didn’t know why I still wasted mine.

“Yeah. I’m en route.” I took another look at the light on the mountain’s side, now crimson and purple. The blood of armies from every age had consecrated these valleys and hills, splashed across mountains just like that. I shook my head.

“Later, Baddar,” I said, nodding at the soldier. He grunted back at me, and I stalked back into our combat outpost.

 

 

The briefing room was a slipshod thing, just like the rest of our makeshift home we’d carved out of nothing in the middle of Nowhere, Afghanistan. Plywood and hope had kept the walls up during the thawing spring and the sweltering summer; with luck it might live through the fall. All we needed it to do was make it to our rotation date, when we’d redeploy home and this corner of the graveyard of empires would be somebody else’s problem.

A few sad Halloween decorations and hand-written letters were stapled to the wall; they’d been sent to us by some naïve classroom of second graders, whose teacher thought she might invigorate our spirits with what we were missing back home. The centerpiece was a card drawn by Bobby Rogers, 8 years old, who’d sketched a giant pistol and the message in all bubble letters: ‘HAVE A GOOD WAR’. A stool in the corner had a plastic jack-o-lantern, full of the candy that the guys wouldn’t eat, Mary Janes and Necco Wafers.

In the middle of the room was the sand table, a handmade topographical map depicting our battlespace, our own little slice of the Afghan pie for which we were responsible to secure along with our Afghan National Army counterparts. Half of our ANA brothers were ghost soldiers, existing only on paper so their commander could pocket their pay. I didn’t mind these kinds of ghosts, anymore; they didn’t haunt me.

In the center of the sand table was our combat outpost, our COP, surrounded by sloping valleys and hills, the Tora Bora Mountains to our east, a border police checkpoint, and a pair of roads and rivers.

One of the Marines had written ‘Trick or Treat!’ in the top-left corner of the map, and added a crudely drawn penis. This was the art only my tribe could produce. These were the sons of America, my brothers-in-arms, sent forward to enforce Pax Americana. I wouldn’t have had them any other way.

Everyone in the platoon was gathered around the sand table, whether they were going on the patrol or not; if they were remaining behind, they were, by default, the Quick Reaction Force that would roll out if we got into anything heavy.

I looked at Gunny Rikers, and he nodded back at me, letting me know without a word that everyone was here.

I felt broken inside, a collection of jagged clay shards. But leaders can’t be vulnerable, here if ever. Weakness is a deadly contagion. So I hid these pieces behind the mask of command, and aired the confidence my guys needed to see. It had been some time since I felt like the leader I could portray so well.

“Let’s get started,” I said, cutting through the idle chatter. The Marines quieted down and leaned forward.

“Tonight’s going to be short and sweet. We’re going to kick out along Road Blue, heading south to north from our COP up past Bama’hel village.” I pointed with my finger as I briefed, indicating the route. “I want us to do a deliberate drive-by of the district governor’s mansion, so he knows we’re still running around at night, and he can let Kaiser Soze and his henchmen know it. The intent is to send the message that we’re still being aggressive, even though they know we’re out of here in a month and they don’t try to get in one last hurrah before winter brings a halt to the fighting season.”

We were a little unique in these parts. The Taliban wasn’t the biggest threat we had to worry about. Our big fish was a local warlord we called Kaiser Soze, who ran a shadow government. His real name was Abdul Nafi, but as this underwhelming former schoolteacher was calling the shots in our backyard, the nickname we lifted from The Usual Suspects stuck. His men had launched a few harassing attacks against our COP. We’d been tasked to raid a few of his sites throughout our deployment, and had gotten ambushed once in turn. We’d added our own share of ghosts to this godforsaken corner of the world.

Some of the guys nodded, muttering agreeably. They knew this was something we needed to do. It was the next part I was worried about. I made eye contact again with Gunny, took a breath, and pressed on.

“After, we’re going to break off from the road, and take Buttonhook Trail over to the river, clear the cache shacks one more time, and then take the long way back to the COP and call it a night. Any questions?”

The guys were silent, and I knew they would be. We hadn’t taken a patrol out that way since Baker died.

I looked around the room, to Gunny, and back at the guys. I sighed, gritted my teeth, felt the wall between me and the topic. That familiar wall, pushing back. We don’t only wish to avoid speaking ill of the dead, we wish to avoid speaking of the dead at all.

“I’m going to talk right to it,” I said. “Yeah. We lost Baker out there. But if we let the other team keep that ground, then the platoon that replaces us will lose their own Baker somewhere else, because the Kaiser thought we got complacent and thought he owned that space. We haven’t kicked around in those huts for some time, and they might be using them for a weapons cache again. Tonight’s about sending a message – a short one – and then we’re back home. Can you give me a few hours to do this?”

A choppy chorus of “Yessir,” followed, along with reluctant nods.

“Okay,” I said. “Then put on your costumes, gentlemen. Let’s go trick or treating.”

 

 

Our boots crunched on the rocky soil, but that noise was dulled by the howl of the wind shearing down the mountain and across the valley. We walked in a tactical column, in the dark, dispersed ten to fifteen feet apart. I looked at the patrolling figures through my monocular NVG’s, and saw them in glowing shades of green, childhood ghosts from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. I closed that eye, and looked through the other, using only my naked eye, and saw black silhouettes, armored Greek shades walking over ancient battlefields.

We passed the governor’s house, the only two-story structure in the valley, and posted security there for some time, the men taking a knee, making themselves visible to anyone watching. We knew the fat man was governor in name only, yielding to the pressure of Kaiser Soze. The Kaiser would be getting a phone call from the governor soon: the Americans are on the prowl, so make yourself scarce.

The wind howled, and I shook my head. A common saying here is that the Americans have all the watches, while the Afghans have all the time. They’re right. They outlasted Alexander, the British, the Soviets. They’ll outlast us, too.

I waved the men up, and we carried on. Buttonhook Trail looped hard east, sloping down toward the river. I sensed the patrol slowing as we approached the spot, and the collection of mud huts that marked the firefight where we’d lost Baker.

I called another halt, and surveyed the area through my NVG’s. The scene played out in my mind, a collection of bursting staccato moments, splices from a film edited from a nightmare.

We’d cleared the huts that day, found the weapons cache, confirming the intel provided by a local source, and were subsequently tasked to follow up on the alleged location of some of the Kaiser’s men, across the river. We couldn’t just drive our vehicles through the water, as we didn’t know the depth. We’d have to ford it first, scouting for a route shallow enough where our vehicles could pass.

Baker was on point, taking careful steps in the river, the water nearly waist deep, gripping the rope he would have secured on the other end so the rest of us could make it with some ease. But water is relentlessly powerful, and always hungry, a devourer.

Shots started popping, like firecrackers, over Baker’s head. We train our immediate action drills too well; he dropped the rope, and raised his weapon to shoot back. The river was hungry and strong. It swept him away and ate him up, the weight of his body armor and full magazines keeping him below the water’s depths.

The attackers disappeared as quickly as Baker did, and the guys were denied the base satisfaction of a reciprocal killing. Our sister company, operating further down the river, were able to pull Baker’s wet, drowned corpse from the river so we could box him up and send him home. We didn’t see him again, though. The last we saw of him was when the river swallowed him whole.

My last sight of Baker, disappearing into the water, was eclipsed by the last sight of my daughter, slipping into the ocean deep.

A hand tapped on my shoulder, bringing me back to the present; Gunny Rikers. He gestured at his watch. I looked at my own. We’d been holding the security halt for ten minutes.

Kicking myself, I gave the order to clear the huts. My Marines went in, cool, quiet, professional, like another drill in combat town back on Camp Pendleton. There were no dramatics, and nothing to find. No weapons, no garbage, or other signs of life. I had the guys hole up there for a bit, munching on MRE snacks, and deliberately leave the trash and wrappers on the deck inside. If the Kaiser’s men came back through, I wanted them to know we’d been here, and that we’d be back again. We’d contest the ground, and bloody his nose if we could, even if he did have all the time.

We hiked back to the COP, our hot breath steaming like dragon’s fire in the night’s chill.

 

 

The dream came again, as it always did, when I felt so exhausted I fooled myself into believing I’d luck into a good night’s sleep.

My wife, my daughter, and I, on the beach in California. A military man with his buxom bride and beaming child, a regular Norman Rockwell painting, living the American dream.

We baked, joyfully, in the sun’s heat, building sand castles together. My little girl put sea shells on the castle’s top, crowning it with nature’s turrets.

“I’ll take her into the water for a minute,” my wife said, wiping the sand on her bare thighs. Ex-wife, now, our marriage another victim to water’s hunger.

I put my hand on my daughter’s head, and ran it down her golden locks, kissing her on her baby-fat cheek. “Have fun, monkey,” I said. She smiled at me. Her eyes were blue as the ocean.

I watched them wade into the water, my wife nearly waist deep, holding our daughter close. They started to swirl around in circles as the next tide rolled in, splashing. Both of them laughed, mad with joy, as wave after wave struck. I’ll never forget how happy they looked.

A high wave hit hard, burying them both. My wife emerged, empty handed, her eyes white with terror.

 

 

A pounding awoke me. My heart was beating like a machine-gun. I fell out of my cot and reached for my flak jacket and rifle, assuming we were getting hit by more harassing fire.

“Sir? We need you.” Gunny Rikers was knocking on my door.

“Yeah?” I said, clearing my voice, setting down my gear. Not an attack, then. He wouldn’t beat around the bush if someone was trying to kill us. I glanced at my watch. It was 0500. If I was lucky, I could brew some coffee in our mess tent before the sun rose.

I shuffled across my room and opened the door. Gunny stood in the hallway of our wooden hut. He was in his brown fleece, green skivvy drawers, and black flip-flops. He looked as bleary eyed as I felt, grizzled and unshaved.

“You’re never going to believe this,” he said. His voice was a rumble of sifting gravel.

“Try me,” I said, rubbing the sleep from my eyes with thumb and forefinger.

“Kaiser Soze’s at our front gate,” he said. “He wants to talk to you. He wants our help.”

 

 

Kaiser Soze had tear-streaked cheeks and was covered in blood. He was a broken man. I could tell. We can recognize our own.

I thought you’d have to be taller, to be a warlord. Abdul Nafi – Kaiser Soze – was every bit as short and unbecoming as his namesake. He couldn’t have been a buck ten soaking wet, and he was soaking wet, having swam across the river to get to us. I stood head and shoulders above him. He looked even smaller as he stood there, shaking and shouting across the ECP at me and the men at my side. Two of my Marines had their weapons at the alert, buttstocks in their shoulders, ready to lift the muzzles and put rounds in the man if anything went sour, probably hoping it would so they could kill the man who’d caused Baker’s death. Gunny Rikers made a point to stand midway between Abdul Nafi and the Marines, and remind them they weren’t going to shoot anyone until they were told to.

Enzi, our Afghan terp, stood between me and the warlord. Enzi had turned his Atlanta Braves hat backwards on his head, and wiped sweat from his brow as he furiously interpreted back and forth between us.

“He says,” Enzi began, his accent thin and sharp, “he and his men were overrun by Taliban. The new chief in this valley is Dava Jan, a young man, who says he is a warrior for God. They were not many but they came with surprise. Abdul tried to negotiate but they wouldn’t listen.”

Abdul Nafi went on, gesticulating wildly with his hands. Enzi went pale, and started tugging at his scarf, his nervous habit.

“His men put down their weapons. They offered to join Dava Jan, to join the Taliban, but they were lined up against the wall and shot.”

“Jesus,” I said.

“Looks like our job out here just got easier,” Gunny said.

The warlord muttered a few more lines, then collapsed to his knees, sobbing.

“He says,” Enzi said, swallowing a breath, taking his time, “they took his daughter. They will sell her off to be someone’s bride. To Taliban strangers outside the tribe.”

I took a long breath of my own. My hands on my hips, I surveyed the valley again, the looming mountain, glowering over us like a sentry, the village, and the graveyard, each marker just now visible in the pre-dawn gray. A light was on in the governor’s house. A wide shadow was silhouetted in the second-story window, looking out toward us.

I crouched down, bringing my eyes level with Abdul’s.

“How old is your daughter?” I asked.

Enzi translated. “Eight.”

I swallowed back the hot bile rising in my throat.

“My daughter would have been eight this year, Abul Nafi,” I said. “What is your daughter’s name?” Again, Enzi asked the question in Pashtun.

“Sandara,” he said.

“Sandara,” I repeated. “That’s a beautiful name. Tell him,” I said to Enzi, keeping my eyes on Abdul Nafi, “tell him my daughter’s name was Meadow.”

Enzi told him. Still crying, and through Enzi, he told me, “That is also a beautiful name.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”

I brokered a deal.

Kaiser Soze, our long-running nemesis, would stay in the custody of my Marines at our COP. He’d bide his time here until we turned him over to our battalion intelligence section, when they could lock on a helicopter to fly out to us. Abul Nafi would tell us where to find Dava Jan. We’d strike now, while the iron was hot, while Dava Jan and his men might still be recovering from their raid against Abdul Nafi. And we’d try to bring his daughter back.

Gunny didn’t like it, for many good reasons. The guys weren’t keen on bargaining with the man who’d been trying to kill us for the last six months, and who’d helped put Baker in the ground. It wasn’t directly in line with our mission on the ground either, to legitimize the local governor and build the people’s faith in the Afghan national government. And, most likely, we were wasting our time. Most of these guys hit, then melt away. They likely wouldn’t be there when we showed up. And Sandara, if she was still alive, was probably gone, too.

I could justify it, in a way. They always hit and run when they attack conventional forces like us, but don’t have the same need to disappear when they’re attacking other Afghans. An operational need was there, too – The Taliban would wrap themselves around the governor, just as Abdul Nafi did. They probably already had their hooks in him, and I suspected the governor helped Dava Jan find Abdul Nafi and take his men by surprise.

Can something be selfish and righteous at the same time? I want to believe that, because I also believe all the men we’d kill and get killed in these hills and valleys wouldn’t make a difference in the big picture. All the death and sacrifice would be lost to time’s march. But we could do this one small, selfish, good thing, and light one votive candle in defiance of the void.

 

 

We were around the sand table again, ready for another briefing. I felt an anxiety and verve that had been lost to me since before my first deployment, when I was still naïve enough to believe that a few good men, with good intentions, could move the world in the right direction, when I was young enough to believe that my generation of volunteers could save the world from terrorism. It wasn’t that long ago, but these few years of ruthless experience had aged me inside as though I’d been a lifelong smoker.

“Okay guys, this is the big show. No more trading pot shots with Kaiser Soze, because we’re holding him in a quad con out back and all his men are dead. Today we’re taking it directly to a Taliban leader, Dava Jan, and his crew of about ten men.”

As before, I oriented us to our location, gesturing at the sand table as I described the plan.

“We’re here at the COP. Here’s Bama’hel village. Across the river,” I said, placing a few rocks on the map as markers, “is Landa’hel village. Kaiser Soze was hiding there in plain sight, expecting that we’d be keeping to our side of the river.” Which we had. Under other circumstances I’d be flagellating myself for submitting to that cowardice, but there was no time. “Our new Taliban playmates are there now, as they just massacred the old tenants so they could move in before the lease was up.”

“We’re going to roll out heavy, in MRAPs, up to the river. Gunners are going to provide overwatch, orienting guns north, drivers will stay on their wheels, while everyone else dismount to post security. I’ll ford the river, making sure to find a spot that is shallow enough where our MRAPs won’t get stuck.”

Again, the room went deathly quiet. The guys were too professional to outright tell me they thought this part of my plan wasn’t wholesome. Too many parallels with Baker.

“When I get to the other side, I’ll secure my end of the rope in case anyone else needs to ford it on foot, but we should be able to mount back up and take the MRAPs over, one at a time. Then we drive to Landa’hel village. Two vics will post up on this hillside as overwatch, and the rest of the vics will push into the village to support the search. We cordon and knock, house by house, until we get our man.”

I threw a photo down on the sand table, a tall man with wiry, red-brown hair, a close-cropped beard, and hollow cheeks. “And this is our boy. He was already registered in the BATS database, with biometric data, photo, the whole shebang. He’d tried to volunteer with the Afghan Army a while back but got canned for preaching jihad during basic training. Take a good look.”

I clapped my hands together for emphasis. “This is direct action, gentlemen. Kill or capture, with the hope of a rescue mission for added flair. It’s the same Call of Duty bullshit that fooled us into signing up for this job in the first place. It’s what we all really want to do.”

A few nods, smirks, slaps on shoulders. “Okay guys. One last time outside the wire, Insha’Allah. Let’s go wish our new friends a Happy Halloween.”

 

 

We’d made it to the river. The MRAP’s were posted just as I’d briefed, their hulking, metal frames providing a wall of shielding steel, their machine guns pointed, hunting, eager. The Marines had dismounted, formed a perimeter that was supposed to be focused on external threats, though half the guys were glancing, unsure, at me, as I stood at the bank of the river with one end of the rope in my hands, and the other tied to one of our vehicles.

I stared at the rolling water of the river. I saw Baker slipping beneath the surface, as though swallowed into a sinkhole. I saw Meadow snatched up in the grip of a wave and stolen away in a riptide. Saw the horrified mask of my ex-wife’s face as she realized what she’d lost, and the agonized grief of Abdul Nafi as he wrestled over what he was going to lose.

I took off my Kevlar helmet and flak jacket, and dumped them on the ground. I handed my rifle to Gunny Rikers, then slipped off my desert combat shirt and stood there, bare-chest open to the sun and the breeze. I ran the rope through the loops on my belt, then again a couple of times around my stomach, and held the slack in one hand.

I started at the same place Baker did, five months ago, not for some redemptive purpose but because I knew he’d made it at least halfway across and stayed waist deep. Abdul Nafi couldn’t recall where he’d crossed the river, only that he’d done it out of desperation and need.

I put one foot in the water. Immediately I felt the biting, wet cold. My teeth chattered as I took step after step, slowly sinking in until the water was at my belt.

I used my booted foot as a probe, feeling for the ground ahead of me before I committed to each step. My ankle nearly rolled on heavy rocks, and slipped on patches of pebbles and mud.

The sun, shining in the pale autumn sky, crisping my pale shoulders, was a burning contrast to the brown, murky, freezing water. A bird flew above me, eclipsing the sun, casting a shadow across my eyes like a shot as I stepped.

My foot found no purchase. I slipped, and felt the hand of the water grab and pull, greedy as a fairy tale monster, and take me under.

The water crashed around me, biting, and I felt my muscles contract, trying to flee the paralyzing cold. The current pulled me downriver as my body tumbled deeper. I felt my bare shoulder scrape against rocks jutting out of the muddy bottom, slicing like knives. My bare head struck another rock.

Dazed, I opened my eyes in the water, tried to see through the dark and the mud. I felt the pull of the water, of cold limbs wrapped around my body, and saw in a flash the corpse-white arms and empty eye sockets of Baker, a vengeful ghost bringing me down to the river bottom to drown with him. I tumbled in the water, and my head struck bottom again. No, the arms were my daughter’s, Meadow’s. Not corpse-white but pink and lovely as the day she disappeared in the riptide, her eyes ocean blue. My lungs burned for air, my diaphragm pressed inside my chest like a squeezing fist.

As though another hand was wrapped around my waist, I felt myself being tugged in another direction. The rope around my waist; I was being pulled back and up. Two hands were on me, taking me opposite ways, like some beast trying to tear me asunder. I grabbed the rope, pulled, flailed my slow, heavy boots against any surface they could find to help bring me up. My right boot kicked a sloping wall. I lifted my foot, found purchase, stepped, felt a muscle strain as I pushed up.

I surfaced, gulping air, and tumbled to the left with momentum, almost falling over again. Shivering, I looked back, saw Gunny Rikers and two other Marines pulling on the taught rope. I was only a foot forward of where I’d gone under. Erosion and time had carved the sudden dip into which I’d fallen. Perhaps Baker was just stepping into it when he went under too. But one foot forward of this trap, the ground was solid, and without the weight of full kit, I wasn’t doomed to drown in four feet of water.

Gunny shook his head at me and I could hear him swearing. Shivering, I took the rope again, and proceeded forward as before.

I made it to the distant end, collapsed to my knees, and bent my head to the ground, breathing, shivering, born again.

 

 

The MRAP’s followed the path I’d set, tearing across the river with ease. Marines hammered green engineer stakes into that point to mark it for our way back, so we wouldn’t drive over another unseen drop that would consign a vehicle and its passengers to the deep.

Toweled off, suited back up, I got back in my vehicle, and took the convoy into Landa’hel village. Its motley collection of huts was almost indistinguishable from Bama’hel village. As soon as we broke the cusp of the hill, villagers scrambled inside their huts, like townsfolk in a Western right before the big shootout. I was half-expecting a tumble weed to blow across the road. Instead, we had only the lonely howl of the wind.

The guys executed just as we’d briefed. Two MRAP’s posted on the hill overlooking the village. The rest of the MRAP’s rolled down the only road and circled the wagons, surrounding the village. Marines dismounted. Half cordoned the first set of huts, weapons pointed inboard and outboard. The guys designated for the assault team followed me. I was making my way to the one house in the village with a blue door – Abdul Nafi’s old house, the largest, the most grandiose with its meager status symbol of faded blue paint on a rotting wooden door.

The wall of the house opposite was clearly where Abdul’s men had been executed. It was caked in splashes of red blood, flung across the door and the windows, like sacrificed Passover lambs used to ward off the angel of death. Did that make us emissaries of an avenging god? I hoped the blood couldn’t bar us from our task, if we were.

I’d feared a long slough of a clearing drill, going house to house in the hunt for our man, who might have already slipped away like so many of the shadows we’d chased after before. We’d come up with nothing, having fallen into the insurgent’s trap of terrorizing innocent families caught up in the latest instance of the war-torn history they’d inherited by the poor luck of being born to it.

But Dava Jan made it easy for us.

A burst of rifle fire exploded from the window of the house. We hit the deck as 7.62 rounds tore over our heads. The blue door burst open and three robed men ran out, bringing AK-47’s up and firing wildly.

Lying in the prone, from stable positions, surrounding them, we had them outclassed and outgunned. The aggressors were cut down, almost ripped to pieces as the platoon shot back.

Gunny Rikers was already getting his squad up and stacked against one side of the house. Another fighter shoved his AK-47 outside the window inches from the squad and pulled the trigger, spraying and praying, hoping to hit a target. Gunny grabbed the shooter’s wrists, wrestled him for a moment, then pulled violently in a wrestler’s throw, yanking the man out of the window and slamming him to the ground.

He couldn’t have been more than fifteen years old.

The squad riddled the boy with fire and he stopped moving.

I tore my eyes away. I stood, and hurried my squad against the house. “Watch the windows!” I yelled.

Screams and shouting came from inside. A few men’s voices. I thought I heard a child’s cry, a girl’s or a boy’s, I couldn’t tell.

Christ, I thought. We’re going to kill her. If she’s in there, we’re going to kill her.

“Aim high!” I shouted. “Aim high, aim high!”

I lifted my weapon, and gave the signal for a man from my stack to breach.

He nodded, rushed across the doorway, faced outboard from the blue door, donkey kicked backward and lunged forward, clearing himself from the fatal funnel and the rounds that could follow after him.

Weapon up, I stalked forward, and my stack of Marines followed.

As I turned into the plane of the door, I felt a dull, heavy thud against my flak jacket, as though I’d just been punched in the chest. I stopped my breach, felt the Marines behind press against me, stalled but heavy with momentum, still pushing forward.

I saw a tall, hollow-cheeked man, his hair in wild disarray, with murder in his eyes. Dava Jan.

He was looking down. I followed his gaze to the ground, and saw what had hit me.

The grenade rolled slightly in the dirt with what momentum remained. I thought it looked like a hatching egg.

There wasn’t any time to backpedal. Instinct and training hijacked my body.

“Grenade!” I screamed as I started to stumble forward. I kicked it inside the house, caught myself on the door and slammed it shut as I was sandwiched between it and the Marines behind me, had a split-second to note the contrast of the dull, faded blue paint on the door with the brown of the mud walls.

For one agonizing second I realized what I’d done.

I held the door shut. I had to hold the door shut.

I felt, rather than heard, the concussive blast.

 

 

Disorientation, deafness, a high pitched ringing. Mostly darkness, with shades of light. I thought I was floating in an ether, mindless, without agency.

I remembered being a boy, after Sunday mass, lying under a tree in the garden beside St. Mary’s church, watching the spring-bloomed limbs of a tree crisscross the path of the sun in a steady breeze, over and over, a beatific vision. I stayed there so long my back fell asleep, and I thought I was part of the ground. I thought that this is what death was like, or heaven, maybe. An endless moment of disassociated peace.

Then more sensation, a weight on my lungs, a dull pressure on my left side. A flash of light, exploding across my vision. Gunny Rikers ripping the exploded door off of my limp body. Another Marine slapping his hands across me, checking for wounds.

Coughing, I propped myself up, looked back through the doorway.

The rest of the Marines from my stack entered the house, finishing the assault, their shouts indecipherable through my tinnitus.  A few dull pops as they put final rounds into the bodies of the men inside, ensuring they were dead.

I tried to get up, fell back down, face forward. I stared into the doorway, waiting to see a little girl walk out, a golden-haired, ocean-eyed seraphim, a beatific vision.

I held my breath in an endless moment, but felt no peace.

 

 

From the Entry Control Point, I watched the sunrise, a burst of morning life over the horizon.

Baddar stood next to me. We were both looking down the road, toward the village and the graveyard, watching the funeral. From this distance, the bereaved women, covered in blue hijabs, looked like phantoms. The men lowered the small corpse, covered in a white shroud, into a hole in the ground.

A light was on in the governor’s house. A wide shadow was silhouetted in the second-story window, still looking out toward us, probably watching the funeral too.

Baddar said something, maybe to himself, maybe to me. It didn’t matter.

I nodded back at him.

“Yeah, Baddar,” I said. “I know.”

Under armed guard and with zip-tied wrists, I’d let the Kaiser watch from the sentry tower at the other end of the COP. I didn’t hear him crying. I wasn’t going to turn and look. I didn’t want to have to watch him break again. Not after what I’d done. Not when I was about to hand him off to battalion, where he’d disappear into some prison, somewhere, to be milked for intelligence and then forgotten about. I’d seen enough people get swallowed whole. I was tired of it.

I’d tried to light a votive candle, and burned my hand instead. At least the Kaiser got to see his daughter go in the ground. At least he’d know where to find her bones.

I lit two cigarettes, inhaling deeply from both, then handed one to Baddar. He took it without a word. We stood there, together, smoking, able to say nothing to one another, saying all we needed to say.

****

Brian Kerg is an active duty Marine and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. His fiction has previously appeared in O-Dark-Thirty and Line of Advance, and will be appearing in The Deadly Writer’s Patrol. His non-fiction has appeared in The Marine Corps Gazette and Fortitudine. He is currently stationed in Okinawa, Japan.

Maneuvering

by Colin Sargent

by Colin Sargent

History remembers

The 1946 diplomatic mission President Truman

Took to South America aboard the USS Missouri,

Steaming out of Washington at midnight

Into the stars

 

But might easily forget

The young man out here,

 

Slack, bony, and lank,

With red hair, maybe,

From Texas, maybe,

A young Navy lieutenant from the Piney Woods, then!

Maneuvering his destroyer

down the bulrushes of the Potomac

Softly as you’d tiptoe into your

Daughter’s bedroom

To kiss her good night.

 

          God, it’s dark out here

 

Dark as a ouija board

Thrown down a mine shaft

 

And because the Missouri is as big

As Landover Mall and displaces

Most of the river, because

 

The president must be protected

Against all enemies, foreign and domestic,

 

Her destroyers must screen her

Far on the Maryland side,

Far on the Virginia side,

A bit dangerous, this screening,

 

Rushing into the blackness

With the bottom coming up quickly:

 

   Like braille the unseen shores

sweep by, close enough

    to hear a Northern Spy

 

Apple drop.

It was this dark

 

The night he came back

late from hunting, and having shot nothing,

shot mistletoe from the tops of trees

for his little girls,

 

This dark the first time his captain,

old riverboat captain

who never would trust sonar,

whispered to him

near the shores of Leyte,

 

Take off your shoes,

   feel for the bottom

   with your stocking feet.

 

And so at his command the entire watch section

aboard the USS Dyess

begins to take off their shoes,

calloused men

fresh from the Pacific Island War

strong enough to kick

your ass off the pier,

well these inexcoriable toughs

are now shoeless and geisha sensitive

 

The mud quivering below

erogenous as custard,

dreaming of being touched.

 

How dark it is

 

Out here in the cattails

out here in the real world

where Washington’s dollar probably splashed

 

And now these men are

 

Princess sensitive, vertiginous

waiting

waiting

geisha sensitive, opera appreciating

 

The quartermaster sighing

and lighting a cigarette.

 

“Many dark doorways

should only be entered

one man at a time,” they say,

 

But here in the night

with all the stars in the jar

 

There is the kind of beauty

that simply embarrasses men

 

Night pouring in

and the bridge lit by heaven

 

Then a single tree in white

out in front of the rest

steps out on stage,

 

The universe inside out

laughing, like the abyss…

 

Years later I ask him

Did you go aground?

 

And he smiles,

lights a pipe

beside the swimming pool

that a few months later

will be filling with leaves.

 

He’s gone now

and I think of him,

one foot

in the darkness,

one foot

 

here

more ready than anyone

to sense this side

and the other side

 

And brave enough to go there before me.

 

I can’t feel him beneath my feet.

I feel him … everywhere.

 

****

Colin W. Sargent teaches writing at The College of William and Mary. A former Ch-46D pilot and editor of the Navy’s Approach magazine, he started Portland Monthly magazine in his home town in 1986, where he continues as editor & publisher. A Maine Individual Artist Fellow in poetry, he has a PhD in creative writing from Lancaster University. Museum of Human Beings was his first novel. His second, The Boston Castrato, was published in 2016 by Barbican Press of London. He lives with his wife, Nancy, a former Naval Officer, in Virginia and Maine. www.colinwsargent.com.

No Rolling, Shrink

by Ryan Stoval

by Ryan Stovall

I like you. You seem friendly enough, and

I’ve tried my damnedest to relate to you

 

the truth. For example, it’s true I came

to you. But I came for pharmacy

 

and lethe, not because I want help rolling.

I can roll my own, thank you very much.

 

But some rocks never should be pushed aside,

no matter how long the cavern’s fetid

 

contents have been left to lie and fester.

Some dark miracles are best left unseen.

 

Beyond my stone smolder unborn nightmares,

gravid memories, cold imaginings

 

—brothers buried, grave with my guilt and fear,

neurotic worries about my children,

 

cowardice, shame, and that nameless male lack

(call it unsatisfied animal lust)

 

that underlies a plethora of

human tragedies—all ultimately

 

reinforced by my complete and utter

decaying existential hopelessness . . .

 

Such are my antichristic afflictions,

and so are they so unsafely tombed. But

 

my weary, ribby, cart horse sense of self

preservation implores this pestilence

 

stay sealed up in darkness. No risk to you

if we should choose to press on with breathing

 

life into my dead, exposing them to

unkind light by my naming of their names.

****

Ryan Stovall is a former adventurer, world traveler, and Green Beret. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rosebud, Geometry, The Cape Rock, Here Comes Everyone, The Deadly Writers Patrol, and As You Were: The Military Review. Currently finishing his English degree, Ryan lives with his family near Bangor, Maine.

Some Kind of Storm

by Travis Klempan

by Travis Klempan

John Mackenzie’s eyes snapped open. He stared into the fuzzy purpling sky and decided not to move until he figured out what the hell had happened.

Met four hippies at Dallas-Fort Worth and agreed to tag along on their poorly detailed road trip. Gone one hundred miles in a custom camper van before he even thought to ask where they were going. The closest man–Tom? Thom?–handed Mack a flyer, calligraphied names listed alongside images of birds and cowboys. They’d crossed the Texas state line as he read Abel Body…Bloodspeak…10Penny Nails…Crows W/White Bodies…Three-Minute Hurricanes…Mack looked up.

“These sound like death metal bands,” he’d shouted over the grumble of the overtaxed engine.

Thom laughed. “We prefer the term life metal!” He looked like a blond Adam Sandler.

Tent City miles from anywhere, middle of nowhere, Oklahoma. Stages and microphones, amplifiers and Ferris wheels, porta-johns and cotton candy machines, an entire carnival in the least hospitable place in America. Not as hot as Iraq, but dustier.

“The rancher lets us use his land for free. He was a big time California dope grower in the Sixties,” Thom said. “He found Jesus and now he’s the friendliest guy in Oklahoma.” Mack followed the four men through the gates and into the bedlam.

He lost track of the hippies in less than an hour. Hundreds of bodies, sharing the sun and the sweat as Christian rock and Christian heavy metal and Christian rap rang out from competing speakers, mixing and muddling in the air and in his ears and in his stomach. Beautiful and ugly humans, bodies of shapes and sizes he hadn’t seen in months. What kind of history or explanation could he offer these people who had no clue where he’d been three days prior or would be three weeks hence, people he hadn’t known existed until this moment? What kind of world was this?

Mack ate and listened to music and drank what was handed to him and nodded along politely as people talked of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, which bands were fortifying spirits and which weren’t up to the task, who was touring where and what states had been skipped over on the festival’s ramble across North America. He watched the bands sweat into the microphones, drowning themselves out with their appeals for love and each other and can’t a man just love his fellow man without a lot of judgment amen?

As the sun set low against endless hills Mack wandered in front of a stage decorated with images of seagulls and cardinals. He split his attention between the band called HandShake and the people who clearly loved the band called HandShake, had perhaps traveled for days to see the band called HandShake. There were dozens, maybe less than a hundred, but they were so intense and intent a crowd of meat pressed tight together and expanding with the set, thumping bass and meticulous guitar contracting and inflating the mass of human beings in rhythmic synchronization. He felt the epicenter of a giant lung, or a fish newly returned to the sea, sucking down oxygen for life.

And there, standing in front of him, Mack saw the Painted Man for the first time. A giant near seven feet tall, bare-skinned to the waist, brute musculature shadowed and inked under the line of a thousand needles and flood lights swarming with moths. His clean-shaven head sported a wreath of thorns, railroad tracks crisscrossing his skull, and an all-seeing eye keeping watch behind him. His neck told the story of David and Goliath, his back the epic of Noah and his Ark, tales of tiger stripes and jungled canopies dripping down his flanks. Mack looked closer and he could see half the Zodiac encircling the man’s shoulders.

His torso angled into a trim waist and the tattoos followed–lizards and scorpions picking apart images of skeletal waste seeping through his flesh. Mack moved through the crowd so he could see the backs of the man’s calves and they were as tree trunks, plunging into root structures and secrets beneath the earth and his ankles.

He wanted to spin the man around, though the metaphor towered over the rest of the crowd. Mackenzie wanted to knock him down and examine his body, rip off his clothing and see how deep and far the tattoos extended. Was he drawn on the inside? Were his palms tapestries, his groin illuminated with the story of Adam and Eve?

Mack was tired, and drunk, and high, and had no clue how many miles it was to Baghdad or Dillinger or home if he had one or anywhere but here. He knew here was Oklahoma but only because the fifth hippie–had there been five? Four? Any?–said so and the Welcome to Oklahoma sign confirmed. The red earth tasted of iron and sun and he knew he was sick. Sun sick even as it set behind burnt hills.

Mackenzie stumbled out of the crowd and found refuge in the lee of a tent. The two-degree difference in the weak haze felt like a new world to him. Someone offered him water and he took what he could, throwing most of it up. He had vague memories of bodies lifting him, an IV, a needle in his arm and a cool compress against his forehead. He smiled himself stupid under the gaze of volunteer medics. To survive Diyala Province and Operation Blacksmith and the donkey whisperer and the Mickey Mouse IED and two tours before and how many to come and to die of heat stroke in Oklahoma–who would tell that story? Someone should, he laughed.

The next morning he felt better. His head clear, fluids replenished, he could now walk under his own power. Mack politely shrugged off the offers of evacuation to the nearest town–two hours away over torn county roads and not much of a town on the other end–and promised to drink more water and nothing else, eat something bland if he could hold it down, un-fried if he could find it. He stumbled away from the medical tent, at once grateful and embarrassed that they’d refused payment.

Mack resumed his search for the Painted Man. With his head on straight he could talk to the man, ask for the meaning behind the tattoos, and see their full extent. He wouldn’t need to dissect the Painted Man to unravel his mysteries and interpret the stories and sing them out loud in the voice of his people and shit was he still sick again?

Mackenzie saw the Painted Man loom large as a pillar. Whether he was ill or not he would confront him this time, and if he collapsed at the tattooed soles–bird’s claws? Feet of a shark?–he would at least have come closer to learning

…I had to break to save the pain…

                                                                                                          Mack stopped short when the Painted Man turned. A series of images burned into the soldier’s memory–the summer half of the Zodiac encircling the Man’s collarbones–an epic battle between frigates unfolding across the Man’s chest–his stomach displaying Joshua and the trumpet blasts at Jericho–his sides giving life to leopards and birds, leaping across his ribs in vivid patterns of light and dark.

His face.

Cheeks streaked with black tears, forehead bore witness to chapter and verse, nose covered in skeletal relief

…This back weren’t made for breaking…

                                              and then the Painted Man stepped aside, never seeing the soldier who hunted him, and John saw a woman.

The woman.

Later he would know her as Sera Quarron. Before he knew her name all he wanted was to hear her reveal it to him and that would have been enough in this life.

She stood alone, half-turned away from Mack, and he wanted to know her. He wanted her to let him know her. Black hair, the color of the distance between galaxies, straight and short and blowing, slender limbs and strong and full of life. Her shoulders visible beneath a white tank top, heralding the dawn through the boughs of a sycamore, branches reaching to her arms, in full leaf, a mighty tree brushed across the back of this woman. The trunk extended down, towards her waist, and he wondered at the roots.

Wings covered her arms–the feathered wing of an angel on her left, the leathered wing of a bat on her right. Symbols descended past her elbows, cryptic logos and characters spilling stories of mystery.

She turned and John saw her face and she looked at him and they stopped, or at least he hoped she stopped and looked at him. She smiled and he hoped forever that in the moment he smiled back. She was beautiful, and strong, and her eyes looked right into his and not to the side or above or beyond. She saw him and he saw her.

She was the first person in months to see him without looking past.

He walked forward, hoping she wouldn’t dissolve into fugged air or slip into his subconscious.

The music changed. He had no idea who played–Crows W/White Bodies? Bloodspeak?–and the thrumming of the guitars replaced by the expansive keening of a cello, he thought it was a cello, had to be a cello, anything but a cello would be insufficient to the moment and he knew it. He didn’t look at the stage but at her.

She turned her back on him in an invitation, stepped back towards him, and she crossed her arms. The white tank top, stark against her body

…Tomorrow’s already a promise broken…

                                               he could see the red straps of her bra and she was warm under the power of the sun and wind and soft under his fingers as they brushed years off her shoulders. She turned her head, looked up at him, and he pulled back.

Her eyes were not warnings but questions, curiosity meeting hesitation. He paused and let his arms fall to the side. She turned back and they both moved in time to the music and each other.

Her arms and chest showed birds and vegetation, an entire forest of life bounding across her body. Her bare legs held entire oceans of sea creatures, and his head swam.

Somehow they spoke–Sera with an e, she explained, Quarron with a q. She answered his questions quickly, easily, asking her own and waiting for his answers, leaning close to listen and speak over the music. She must have pegged him as a soldier instantly but gave no voice to those thoughts. He sensed an immediate wall and her conscious tearing down of that wall, and the last thing she told him as the last song started was “Find me again.” The crowd rose like the birth of an ocean and they parted.

He scanned the human current for her black hair or white shirt, the blood flash of lipstick or bra, searching stupidly for the peculiar cross she wore on a leather strap tight around her neck

…Don’t let me go…

                                                                                            Find me again, she’d said. Words echoed over the thrum of music and humanity.

Find me.

Again.

Hours later–he searched, his head and stomach clearing after the sickness of that morning, his heart beating against his chest slow but burdened–Mack saw giant black clouds piling up on the horizon. A storm of any size would soak the dusty fields, make rivers of mud erupt and weave out of dance floors and carnival midways. The weakest breeze would surely topple the speakers and the scaffolding, one bolt of lightning would toss the Ferris wheel down, and this was no storm of just any size.

The hurricane came, as foreseen and foretold and worse. Mackenzie sought shelter with other human refugees under a giant canopy until it ripped, laden with rainwater and slashed by hail. They scattered and he wandered across the belly of his nation, red mud painting his body as the sun died forever behind menacing clouds. He remembered Tent City to the west, higher ground at the campsite, so he followed what remained of his internal compass and collapsed at the same time as the storm came again, howling wind giving a last shrieking challenge to the land.

He dreamed of being buried under centuries of mud, entombed in the barrows of the planet, all the animals from the Painted Man’s Ark laughing at him.

And then–as now–he was awake and fully remembered where and what he was. He was on the ground, on his back, staring into the warming blue of an eggshell sky. He assumed he was still in Oklahoma but would not have been surprised to find himself back in Mesopotamia, or Oz, or Hell.

A rock jabbed Mackenzie in the small of his back. He decided to let it, for now, as he finished assembling his memories and considered the day. If he tilted his head back he saw hints of red and orange. If it were morning that meant his feet pointed west; if evening then east. The dome above was wet and crystalline, soft as a blanket but completely unbroken by clouds. Probably morning, though he couldn’t pick why.

A small brown cross circled high above. Bird, he thought. Vulture? His lips curled–was it here to eat him? Had he died? He tried to hear the scavenger, listen to its gut and learn its story, especially if it was the last thing he’d hear.

Not a vulture, he realized. A hawk of common breed. Not hunger but curiosity, even caution, especially this early. Maybe he weren’t dead yet.

Mack’s hand slid beneath his body and clutched the rock when he heard the growl. A low and primal warning bloomed from the direction of his feet, freezing him in place. West, some small part of his brain reminded him.

His arm wedged beneath him, Mackenzie lifted his head and focused on a coyote no farther than a few feet from his naked toes. He’d never been this close to a wild animal, so the fear took a moment to register.

“What’re you supposed to be,” he said, voice cracking dry, “my spirit animal?”

The creature was lean, powerful, nothing wasted on its spare frame. The coyote didn’t speak. The eyes were smart and keen, looking right at—

Not looking at him. She was looking at a spot on the ground between his feet.

      He lowered his eyes to the same spot.

           He saw the viper.

                He heard the rattle.

John flinched. The snake struck, mouth open and fangs extended, aiming for his bare foot. The coyote was faster, grabbing the snake just behind its head and thrashing it to death in a second. The rattler hung limp from the coyote’s jaws. She turned from Mackenzie, trotted away, and stopped. She swung her feral head back and he swore the coyote winked at him.

The animal departed–loping easily and efficiently across the muddy plains, away from the campsite and towards the wild brush to enjoy her breakfast–and he heard laughter behind him. He spun, as surprised as when the snake attacked, and saw Sera.

She sat with her legs folded underneath her, denim shorts and black bra and no other threads on her body, the small wooden cross topped with a circle resting in the notch between her collarbones, burning cigarette dangling from slender fingers. She stopped laughing and smiled.

“More like a guardian angel, I’d wager.” She sucked on the cigarette and exhaled a spiral of bluish grey. “That was pretty fucking holy.”

He smiled, repositioning himself to face her. “How long you been watching?” She passed him a cigarette and offered her lighter. Her body was as clean as his was muddy.

“If I say Long Enough it’s gonna sound cliché,” she said, scratching behind her ear. “But long enough.”

“Did you see the snake?” He glanced west. She shook her head. “The coyote?” She nodded. “How did we—”

“I told you to find me.” She shrugged. “So I guess you did.”

John looked around as he lit up. Her tent lay in a pile behind her, battered by the storm, and tents and sleeping bags and camper trailers close aboard showed signs of the prairie hurricane. “Some storm last night,” he said.

She laughed, sprinkling glass and bell music. “That was no mere storm. Never been a storm like that, not here, likely won’t be again. That was a chapter closing, John Mackenzie, a book opening up, the heavens sending us a signal to rejoice and be fearful and wake the fuck up.” She smiled brightly. “But yeah, hell of a storm.”

She spoke without accent, at least none he could detect. The sun had burned her shoulders, forearms, the parts of her chest not covered by cloth. She was once again beautiful but he had no clue what to say next.

She spoke first. “You heading there? Coming back?” She exhaled another plume. “Or something else?”

He propped himself up more comfortably. “In between. I’ve got to head back in…twelve days?” He counted in his head. “Eleven.”

“You a big fan of contemporary religious music, John Mackenzie? Getting your fix of spirituality before you go back?”

    He shook his head and laughed. “Not really. You?”

“I’m a fan of life, and only a temporary believer of any sort.” She stubbed the cigarette out in the dirt beneath her legs and lit another one. “Why limit ourselves?”

John looked at Sera and an image of her body curled against his flashed into his mind. He didn’t know if it was memory or fantasy. He took a gamble. “Did we…”

She laughed and shook her head, her black bangs hanging over her eyebrows and her short ponytail swinging freely. “No, we did not. You found my tent near midnight, mumbled something about donkeys and stomach flu, and collapsed. Slept a few hours inside, then insisted on counting stars after the second storm passed.” She squinted at him. “I think you been sick, John.” She held the smoke in her lungs for a long heartbeat. “Can I say something, hope you don’t take offense?” She smirked. “Sorry, guess I answered my own question. You cry out in your sleep. Who’re Cisneros and Ledbetter?”

Mackenzie felt his heart blast, one insane surge against his chest wall, and he felt like he might throw up. “I gotta go.” He stood, dizzy and weak, and Sera stood with him.

“You don’t want to talk about them or anything else you don’t have to.” She was short, atomic in the presence of his body, but stood her ground fierce. “You never want to speak their story, that’s okay, too.”

She didn’t ask him to stay or come. She didn’t offer excuses. She didn’t say anything beyond her apology but the way she stood in front of him left no choice but to lower his defenses. He relaxed his fists, which he hadn’t realized were clenched. His shoulders slumped. She was a molecule but big as a mountain. He might not be recovered from the flu or the storm or the coyote or the war but he sensed something in her stance that prevented him from leaving, made him want to stay.

“What are you?” he asked for the first time again, smiling.

She smiled back. “You said you had eleven days?” He nodded. “Where you going?”

****

Travis Klempan joined the Navy to see the world. Most of it turned out to be water so he came home to Colorado where he lives and works. He has degrees in English and Creative Writing and is pursuing a degree in Ethics and Compliance. His work has appeared in Proud to Be, Line of Advance, and Ash & Bones.

Green

By Brian Braden

By Brian Braden

This is the edge of the world, where all light ends, she thought.

There are many shades of darkness, and now she faced the deepest, blackest shade of all. Not a single flicker of light penetrated the abyss – not a car, a house, not even a camp fire. Starved for light, the ghostly green image in her night vision goggles sparkled and flickered.

The copilot still wasn’t comfortable wearing the aviator’s night vision goggles. Suspended from her helmet, they looked like two toilet paper rolls duct taped together. They transformed the blackness beyond their lenses into a fuzzy fluorescent green universe, denying night her ancient cloak of secrecy.

At over a hundred and thirty miles per hour, the helicopter skated over calm, frozen air. She felt as if floating motionless in a green ping pong ball.  The lack of vibration and apparent motion denied her brain the sensations it craved. Through the goggles, only a blurry line separating two different shades of dark green betrayed the faint horizon. It, and an occasional glance at the softly-glowing instruments, provided her only clues to the universe beyond the cockpit. With this trickle of sensory input a 120-pound woman kept the ten-ton helicopter right side up and pointed toward its destiny. The copilot’s universe consisted of the image the goggles fed her hungry eyes, the cockpit gauges’ soft glow, and voices filling her head.

She shared the helicopter strapped to her back with three other crewmen. Before the mission they had real names, but were now only known by their roles: pilot, right gunner, and left gunner. They had ‘compartmentalized’, existing only for this moment, this mission.

The Team sat on the cold metal floor against the aft bulkhead, knees pulled up against their chest in casual misery. Not a part of the crew, these men were tonight’s customers and cargo. Cradling their weapons, they kept their night vision goggles flipped up.  This part of the mission did not belong to them. Powerless to affect its outcome, they preferred not to watch, satisfied in the dark, each alone with his thoughts until their moment for action arrived.

“Altitude and airspeed are good. Heading is good,” the pilot announced over the intercom as he spat chewing tobacco into a styrofoam cup. The faint, tobacco sweet odor permeated the cockpit, but no one ever complained about his minor infraction of regulations.

The copilot relaxed her vise-like grip on the control stick, called a cyclic, and flexed her right hand. With a deep breath, she lightly placed two fingers back on the cyclic.

“Okay, crew, what’s next?” the pilot said.

The moment upon which the rest of the mission depended rapidly approached.

“Gotta finish the checklist, sir,” the right gunner chimed in.

The copilot couldn’t see the right or left gunner. They sat sideways, immediately behind each pilot, gripping heavy machine guns and scanning the darkness out each side. To the copilot, they were disembodied voices crackling in her helmet, blending with the helicopter’s roar.

“Alright, let’s finish the checklist,” the pilot said.

“Probe…extend,” the right gunner read mechanically from his checklist. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the right gunner’s arm, dimly reflected in the instrument lights, reach forward over the console for a switch.

A clunk reverberated under the floor, and the refueling probe slowly extended from the right side of the helicopter’s nose. The tip jutted into the copilot’s peripheral vision like a lance, until it halted with a thunk a meter beyond the whirling rotor disc.

“Extended and locked,” the pilot replied as he adjusted a dial. In response, a feeble ray of light brightened the probe, revealing how uncomfortably close the rotor disk and probe tip were to each other. Beyond the probe, a shape caught the copilot’s eye.

Mountain.

A gauntlet of snow-capped granite slowly materialized to either side. Her brain feasted on the visual references, providing a jolting awareness of how high and fast she flew. As if on cue, turbulent eddies of air rolled off the peaks and jostled the helicopter.

“A little chop, crew.” Her voice cracked slightly, betraying rising anxiety. The turbulence, while expected, made her job even more demanding.

“Checklist completed,” the right gunner said. “We’re ready.”

“Roger,” the pilot replied. “I’m visual with the tanker. He’s at our 10 O’clock, 2 miles, high, and closing.”

The copilot glanced left in time to catch a dark blur zoom by in the opposite direction.  Over a mile away, the giant tanker airplane appeared to scrape the canyon walls as it banked hard to swing in behind the helicopter.

“Tanker is 8 O’clock, three miles, and in a tight turn,” the left gunner informed the crew. The copilot knew the gunner poked his head out the window by the sound of the wind roaring across his boom microphone.

Okay, the pilot is going to take the controls anytime, she thought. There’s no way he’ll let me fly this.

The pilot remained silent.

“Tanker is at our six. Left gunner’s lost visual. Right gunner, you should see him now.” The roar momentarily stopped as the left gunner withdrew his head into the helicopter, but quickly resumed as the right gunner stuck his head out the helicopter’s opposite side.

“Got’em. He’s at our five thirty, two miles and closing fast,” the right gunner called.

She tried to breathe, struggling not to tense up. The long years of training were over, and now real consequences lay before her. This mission would last several hours, but its success pivoted on this one moment.

The helicopter needed gas, and only this tanker could deliver it.

“Tanker is half mile and bringing it in tight, almost on top of us.” The roar over the intercom ceased as the right gunner withdrew into the cabin and closed his window.

The pilot remained quiet, and off the controls.

He’s actually going to let me fly the refueling, she thought in amazement.

“Tanker is abeam, damn tight. Start your climb now. Co, call visual,” the right gunner called.

Her moment had arrived. The copilot pulled up on the collective, the power lever in her left hand.  Her right hand nudged the cyclic, and the helicopter obeyed with a sluggish climb.

She briefly scanned across the cockpit, expecting the tanker to emerge a few dozen meters outside the pilot’s side window.

It didn’t. In the faint light, she saw the pilot grin around the tobacco bulging in his cheek. He pointed up. She followed his finger.

In the overhead window, an enormous shadow swallowed the stars as it passed directly overhead. Deep bass concussions, sensed more than heard, pounded through the rotor blades.

“Shit, he’s on top of us!” she blurted, but quickly regained her composure. “Copilot is visual with the tanker.”

“Gooood tanker pilot,” the pilot chuckled and spit in his cup again. “He did you a favor. Now you won’t have to work so hard to get into position. Okay, Co, get in there and get some gas.”

The copilot guided her flying machine to a position just outside the airplane’s left wing. A cargo plane converted to a flying gas station, the tanker’s four giant propellers clawed the thin air, wallowing a razor’s edge above stall speed. Five miles an hour slower, and it would spin out of control, any faster and the helicopter couldn’t keep up.

Through her goggles, she watched smooth jets of green flame dance from the tanker’s exhaust nozzles, each brightening or dimming as the tanker pilot adjusted his throttles. Allowing herself a brief moment to admire the scene’s beauty, she took another cleansing breath.

I can do this.

“Ground fire, 2 O’clock, five miles!” the left gunner barked.

She snapped her goggles left in time to see twinkling flashes arc into sky on the other side of the valley.

Training and instinct instantly kicked in, along with a burst of adrenaline. The copilot keyed the microphone to tell the tanker to break away due to the enemy fire. Before she could act, the pilot spoke up.

“It’s not aimed,” he spoke with slow, deliberate calmness before spitting again. “It’s random fire. They can’t see us, just shooting at echoes. If the tanker ain’t worried, neither am I. Press on.”

The tracers, and her adrenaline, burned out and vanished into the cold night.

A drogue parachute, about a meter across, popped out from a pod near the left wingtip. It blossomed in the slipstream, revealing a metal receptacle the size of a tea saucer at its center. The drogue slowly pulled a hose from the pod until it extended 30 meters behind the wing, where it danced a wicked figure-eight pattern abeam the tanker’s tail.

Beyond the drogue, a lone sentinel stood on the tanker’s open cargo ramp, only inches from the edge. The loadmaster, this moment’s gatekeeper, would signal the helicopter when they were cleared to refuel.

He must be freezing, she thought. Motionless behind his night vision goggles, the loadmaster betrayed nothing.

The cockpit heater switch remained off because it robbed the helicopter’s engines of precious power. The cold soaked through the helicopter’s thin skin, and into the copilot’s fingers.

Darkness their only shield, the odd formation hung suspended above the valley floor. Built to fly high and fast, the tanker usually sought refuge among the clouds. The helicopter found safety hiding behind hills, and skimming over the trees. Like soldiers from another war, they found themselves in a ‘no man’s land’, exposed and vulnerable between trenches.  Here, a few lucky bullets could doom them both. The safety of both aircraft depended on finishing the refueling quickly, so each could return to where it belonged.

The loadmaster flashed a light so dim she almost missed it.

“Green light,” the right gunner said. “Cleared down and right. Understand pilot has the controls?” The last words burned in her ears.

“Negative,” the pilot responded. “This is the copilot’s plug.”

“Uh….roger,” the right gunner responded.

Determined, excited, resigned, terrified…she tried to tamp down the conflicting emotions and focus on her first combat aerial refueling.

With the slightest pressure on the controls, she slid the helicopter right until it settled immediately behind the tanker’s wing, and only a couple feet behind the drogue. From this perspective the copilot could better see the turbulence jostling the tanker, its wingtips rocking up and down, whiplashing the refueling drogue. The rotor blades whirled only a few feet from the tanker’s thin aluminum skin.  Unconcerned, the sentinel on the cargo ramp continued his vigil.

“Pre-contact position,” the copilot announced, trying to sound cool and confident.

Just like training, she reassured herself and tried concentrating on the tanker’s wing as she’d been trained.  Counter to what she knew she should do, her eyes followed the drogue’s maddening dance and not the relatively stable wing. Her hands followed her eyes, and the helicopter shook and shimmied as she struggled to align the probe with the erratic target.

“Rising terrain, left side,” the left gunner called as the valley floor slowly rose to meet them. In her goggles the ground came into focus, reminding her how little time remained. The peaks closed in with every mile. The helicopter couldn’t climb higher, and soon the valley would be too narrow for the tanker to turn around.

She continued to chase the drogue. Lights across the instrument panel flashed yellow warnings, as the engines strained to deliver more power.

“Hey, Co, do you hear that whistling sound?” the pilot asked.

Over the screaming engines she barely detected the new sound.

“Yeah,” she said tensely, the task threatening to overwhelm her.

“It’s the wind whistling through the right gun. It means you’re out of trim and over-controlling the aircraft.”

She bit her lip at the realization she’d allowed the helicopter to cock slightly sideways, dragging the big tail rotor through the slipstream, costing precious power and airspeed.

“It’s always best to keep your scan on the wing, just glance at the drogue every once in a while and relax. You’re doing great.” Without a hint of impatience or concern, he sounded more like a coach than a combat-seasoned aircraft commander.

She remembered to breathe and forced her eyes back on the tanker’s wing.  The tail resumed its proper place directly behind the helicopter, and the right gun ceased whistling. Some of the bumpiness went away, but not all.

“Okay, good. Now, go for the plug.”

“Roger, going for the plug.” She nudged the helicopter forward and picked up speed. The probe inched toward the drogue, and, for a moment, appeared as if she would score a bulls-eye. The basket snapped to the right at the last second, and the probe missed by a few agonizing inches.

“A miss.” She lowered the collective to avoid crashing into the wing only ten meters ahead, and settled the helicopter behind the drogue again.

“Going for another plug.” She advanced toward the refueling drogue again, and missed.

Another miss, then another, and then another.

“Terrain is getting close on the left side, sir,” the left gunner reminded the pilot. The copilot knew what he really meant. Please take the controls and get this shit over with.

Frustrated, she dove at the drogue. Instead of the metal spokes leading to the inner receptacle, the probe caught the parachute material’s edge. The drogue chute collapsed around the probe tip, and the metal spokes slammed against the tip in a shower of green sparks. A momentary puff of fuel sprayed the helicopter’s right side. A brief whiff of kerosene mixed with the tobacco aroma, and she wondered if she’d damaged the probe.

She knew if the drogue didn’t re-inflate, it would shred against the probe or, worse, entangle them. The tanker and helicopter would then be stuck together, unable to turn or climb out of the valley.

“Come straight back, nice and slow,” the pilot warned.

She eased the helicopter backwards until the hose extended and flattened. With a slight jerk, the drogue released and re-inflated. Filled with relief, she let her concentration slip for only a moment.

The helicopter drifted insidiously to the right…toward the tanker.

“Stop right! STOP RIGHT!” The right gunner screamed.

She felt the pilot snatch the controls and jam the cyclic left. Sucked in the twisting vortices generated by the plane’s giant propellers, the helicopter shimmied violently and tried to roll into the tanker.

The sentinel on the cargo ramp took one step backwards.

“Pilot’s controls,” the pilot firmly commanded. “Pilot’s controls.” The copilot confirmed the pilot had the controls and released her hands.

She mentally kicked herself, realizing she’d blown an opportunity to prove herself.

Engines screamed and rotors slowed, as the pilot demanded every ounce of power to escape the tanker’s monstrous wake turbulence. Only his skill and a few seconds stood between the helicopter smashing into the tanker, or flipping upside down and disintegrating. He dove down to the left and found clean air, but not before the helicopter fell far behind the tanker.

She could almost sense the right and left gunners covering their microphones and sighing in relief.

It costs precious minutes for the helicopter catch up. The sentinel on the cargo ramp once again sent the signal, clearing them to refuel.

The copilot caught a whiff of another smell mixing with the stink of the jet fuel and tobacco. Someone on the Team had vomited.

Crisply and smoothly, the pilot placed the helicopter immediately behind the drogue, ready to attempt another plug. The right and left gunners craned forward for a better view of the probe, now just inches away from the drogue. She knew they desperately wanted the master aviator to complete the connection and finish the job.

Part of her wanted him to finish the job, too.

“Copilot’s controls,” he directed.

Over the intercom, someone stifled a groan.

“Copilot’s controls.” Once more, she took the machine’s reins.

“Listen,” the pilot said, “You’ve got one more chance then I’m going to have to do this, understand?”

“Yes sir.” He knows what he’s doing. He thinks I can do this, so I can do this.

“Just relax and remember your training.” His tone soothed her nerves.

Despite the low light, snow, boulders, and other details on the mountains gelled into disturbing crispness in her goggles. She tried not to think about how close they looked, instead, focusing on the rocking wing and trying not to stare at the dancing drogue.

“Okay crew, going for the plug.” She pushed her machine forward once again.

Wing, wing, wing, drogue…wing, wing, wing, drogue…, she repeated the mantra in her mind, …wing, wing, wing, drogue…wing, wing, wing, drogue…wing, wing….

Plunk!

Looking down, she saw the probe neatly lodged in the drogue’s center.

“Good contact!” the right gunner exclaimed.

“Son-of-a-bitch! Cleared up and left!” the left gunner responded.

The copilot flew the helicopter up and away from the tanker, to a station just above and outside the wing tip. Like an umbilical cord, the hose fed the helicopter precious fuel.

The right gunner ticked off the fuel status every few seconds, “20%….30%….50%…”

Relief flooded over her. She only needed to hold this formation position for a few minutes and it would all be over.

The fuel tanks filled and the helicopter grew steadily heavier, requiring more power to keep aloft. To compensate, the copilot made subtle, unconscious control corrections. Her corrections, however, weren’t quite fast enough.

She didn’t notice the growing whistle, this time coming from the left gun.

“80%….90%…,” the right gunner continued the countdown.

“You’re out of trim again. Give me a little left pedal,” the pilot said.

She pressed her boot against the left pedal, but with too much pressure.

“Gently,” he warned, but it was too late.

The nose jerked left. The snap, coupled with the damaged receptacle, caused the probe to disconnect without sealing.

POOF!

A cloud of jet fuel completely enveloped the helicopter. The windscreen transformed into a milky blur, blinding the crew to the world outside, including the tanker only meters away.

“Come straight back…slowly….slowly,” the pilot coached. The copilot complied.

The right gunner must have opened his window to see, because wind’s roar of the wind increased, and the reek kerosene of became overpowering.  “You’re good on the right,” he said.

“Clear left,” replied the left gunner as the helicopter slowly backed away from the tanker. The pilot reached up for the windshield wiper control and hesitated. If the windshield wiper motors so much as sparked, they would find themselves bathed in a fireball. He turned the dial and the milky veil parted, revealing towering peaks only a few miles ahead.

“We’ve got enough fuel,” the right gunner said.

“Roger,” the pilot responded. “Retract the probe, run the checklists, and let’s get out of here. Pilot’s controls, take a break.”

The copilot relinquished the controls and shook her aching hands.

“Good job, Co,” he added.

“Yeah, good job, ma’am,” the right gunner added.

“You didn’t suck too bad,” the left gunner said. “I’ve seen worse. Hey, how about a little heat back here? I think the vomit is freezing on the floor. I’d hate to see someone slip and bust their ass.”

As she reached up and turned on the heater, something warm trickled down her chin. She wiped it away and saw a dark smear on her glove.

The copilot tasted blood and realized she’d chewed the inside of her lip raw.

The sentinel on the tanker’s ramp had vanished inside the behemoth’s belly, the cargo door now closed.  The drogue retracted back into the pod as green flames brightened and lengthened from the tanker’s engines. The airplane powered skyward, cleared the peaks and vanished into the starry heavens.

The pilot banked the helicopter hard right, and sliced down into the darkness. Skimming above the desert floor, the flying machine returned to its element.

The moment passed, but the mission had just begun.

****

Brian L. Braden is a retired Air Force pilot and intelligence officer.   His articles have been featured in a variety of print and online publications and journals to include the Military TimesAir Power Journal and Oxford University Press. Brian has published several books, to include the epic fantasy novel BLACK SEA GODS. He is a co-founder of Underground Book Reviews (www.UndergroundBookReviews.org), an online publication dedicated to promoting independently published fiction.

Inshallah Mañana

by Randy Brown

Señor Higareda taught us “Ojalá”

in seventh-grade Español, along with

our hasta luegos and our hasta mañanas,

some twenty-one years before the

Twin Towers fell, and still more before the day

that Saber2th slipped a well-intended “Inshallah”

into the end of an operations brief

7,000 miles from home.

 

Something clicked in that moment. Went off like a land mine.

 

“No! No ‘Inshallah!’” the Afghan officers lit up and

sputtered like fuzes at their men. “You! Will! Be! There! On! Time!”

 

Ojalá … Inshallah … Doesn’t even matter

when we try to talk the same babble. Some things don’t translate.

 

One man’s wish

turns out to be another man’s oath,

 

and yet another’s promise

likely to be broken.

 

The best we can say is that each requires

a willing divinity, and a belief in tomorrow.

 

So help us, God.

Repita, por favor.

****

Randy Brown embedded with his former Iowa Army National Guard unit as a civilian journalist in Afghanistan, May-June 2011. A 20-year veteran with a previous overseas deployment, he subsequently authored the poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire (Middle West Press, 2015). His poetry and non-fiction have appeared widely in literary print and on-line publications, including Stone Canoe, Drunken Boat, F(r)iction, and So It Goes: The Literary Journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. As ‘Charlie Sherpa,’ he blogs about military culture at www.redbullrising.com, and about military-themed writing at www.aimingcircle.com.

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