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.