Brian Van Reet
Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 119 in August, 2009.
Sergeant Rooster hid his fear well.
Tall and handsome in the gunner’s hatch of the humvee, he wielded the two-forty machinegun like something out of a recruiting commercial. Whenever his truck passed a suspicious looking pile of garbage, broken chunks of concrete or a dead animal on the side of the road, he gritted his teeth and ducked a little lower in the hatch, anticipating the explosion to come.
It didn’t, not this time. One by one Apache trucks exited the highway, rolling through the gates and into the safety of the sprawling compound, fifty abandoned acres in northeastern Baghdad. Sleed parked the truck in the courtyard. Rooster took off his Kevlar and ran his hand across his scalp, flinging beads of sweat into the air. He liked how his palm felt across the stubble, clean.
It was hot as shit outside. He took in the familiar surroundings. They were at the UN again because Higher had inherited responsibility for the place, and as one of four companies in the battalion Apache drew guard duty there once a month for a week.
When the enlisted men weren’t rotting away in prison-style observation towers that rose behind cinderblock walls topped with razor wire, they lounged around a room of bunk beds that slept fifty. There were private quarters for the officers and senior non-coms and a non-functioning kitchen where they ate the food cooked on a nearby Army camp and trucked to them by Halliburton. There was a command post stocked with radios and satellite photographs; a glorified broom closet furnished with three computers—the internet terminal; and a breezeway with a few card tables, where regardless of the hour, soldiers pounded down energy drinks and played cutthroat games of spades or dominos.
They lived in the nucleus of the compound, in the half of the main building left standing after the truck bomb had gone off. The bombing had been al-Qaeda’s inaugural operation in Iraq. It had killed Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N.’s chief envoy, along with seventeen others. Afterwards, the surviving diplomats had pulled out of Iraq.Rooster thought of himself as a pretty smart guy, one of the few EM’s in the company with any college, and he was never sure why Higher had chosen to continue guarding an empty set of bombed-out buildings. Maybe to preserve what remained, expecting normalcy would someday return. Maybe because of the strategic location along a major highway. But Rooster suspected there was no grand logic to the decision. It was simple, knee-jerk defiance—taking the ground just so the enemy couldn’t.
Regardless of why they were there, there was no disputing the place was a mess. Higher had vetted and engaged an Iraqi caretaker to look after the grounds and do odd jobs, mostly electrical and janitorial work. As 2004 ticked away and the insurgency grew more violent by the week, the caretaker abandoned his apartment in a nearby tenement and moved his family onto the compound, into the first floor of a looted barracks out back.
By the time his family moved in, a makeshift machinegun emplacement of sandbags and plywood —Tower Six—had been constructed on his roof, which overlooked a courtyard and the entrance to Apache’s living area. At five stories tall, the roof commanded a wide field of fire, making it an ideal defensive position.
Rooster guessed the caretaker must have thought so too. If you’re going to flee to the protection of U.S. troops, why not have them right on top of you?
Looters had ripped the copper wiring from the walls, but within a few weeks of moving in the caretaker had scavenged enough of his own materials to rewire the first floor, splicing the system back into the rat’s nest of an electrical grid. When the juice cycled off, as it did every four hours, he threw a switch to activate a diesel generator. While he had been busy making these improvements, his wife had done her best to make the place a home: sweeping up the shards of broken glass littering the floor, hanging curtains over barred and sandbagged windows, whitewashing dingy walls stained with urine and covered in graffiti, painting the stucco exterior blue and white, searching the ruins of the compound for serviceable furniture.
The woman was stocky and had a creased, sun-worn face, the only part of her ever visible. Her chin had been tattooed with blue ink in intricate circles, ancient tribal talismans. Other than her face and overall build, it was hard for Rooster and the others to tell much about her; she was pious and kept herself veiled whenever she might be seen by unrelated men.
If she had lived in a typical Iraqi house, surrounded by a walled courtyard, she could have come outside to do the laundry or watch her kids play without bothering to cover herself. But as it was, she had no such protection from prying eyes. If that weren’t uncomfortable enough, every eight hours two more G.I.’s would come tramping into her building and up the stairwell to relieve the guards already on her roof.
She and her husband had two children: a little boy and a teenage daughter. The boy’s favorite game was to play soccer on the cement pad in the middle of the courtyard, which doubled as Apache’s motor pool. His father had rigged him a quarter-sized goal out of scrap pipe and camo-netting, and the boy would take off his sandals and drag the goal onto the concrete, playing barefoot. Flanked by five Humvees, two tanks, and a deuce-and-a-half parked neatly in two rows, he practiced his penalty kicks for hours on end. Off-duty soldiers would sometimes kick the ball around with him or try to teach him American football for a change of pace. The boy eventually became a decent quarterback.
The caretaker’s oldest daughter was too old for sports. Covered in black from head to toe, she would sit patiently in an old office chair just outside the door to her building, watching her brother play with the Americans.
They watched her too, some more surreptitiously than others, guessing at her appearance from her eyes. They gleamed with liquid intelligence and changed from green to brown to gold from one day to the next, depending on the light.
It was early summer before she first approached Rooster. He sat alone on the low-slung retaining wall of the courtyard, writing in his journal. His head was just starting to clear enough for him to be able to do this, the burning jitters, craving having faded to a steady state: dull want, a background noise he could deal with.
He was a few days back from leave in the States, a two week bender that had begun when the girl he’d thought was waiting for him back home told him at the last minute, in an email he received while waiting to change planes in Germany, that she wouldn’t be able to pick him up at the airport like they had planned, after all. She was sorry, but he couldn’t stay with her either. She had a boyfriend. They had been dating a month. She was sorry. She should have told him sooner.
Rooster had stayed with a fraternity brother instead and the two had gone out to bars every night, using Rooster’s patriotic sob story to get free drinks and willing women to drink with, women who wore clattering heels, dramatic makeup, and too much hairspray. One of them told Rooster he looked like that actor from The King and I. She was into musical theater. And bondage. Later that night she asked him to bind her hands behind her back with a sock—something he’d never tried before but found he enjoyed.
The two weeks had flown by in a haze of hangovers, greasy food and shots of whiskey to recover, and now Rooster was back in theater with nothing to show for his R&R but a sore liver and a light bank account.
He shifted position on the retaining wall, enjoying a rare moment of solitude as twilight filled the sky with maroon and lavender. Like always he was struck by the intensity of the colors: the byproduct of the smog blanketing the city. He turned the page in his journal and continued to write:
Sprawled out in the dust near the road.
Mannequin still, unnatural pose.
Her flower, bloody blossom,
A long guarded, secret treasure,
Revealed in death.
Her lover, lying beside her,
Cannot be jealous.
He reflected on his poem, furrowing his brow into a scowl. He had written several in Iraq and thought this one was the best, but it wasn’t that great, and he wanted to be great. He crossed out the lines and began again. A falcon circled high overhead, distracting him as it rode the swells of convection radiating off the city. The air smelled of diesel fumes and human feces. He hated this place. Sweat dampened his t-shirt and ran down the small of his back as he sat there on the hot brick, dabbling in self-pity, unaware that something was about to change.
Across the courtyard, her mother appeared behind her in the doorway, for once not wearing the burqua. Her daughter was likewise uncovered, and for a moment Rooster didn’t recognize her. Every time he’d seen her before she’d been all in black, no more than hands, eyes, and a sliver of face exposed. His stomach bubbled, heart beat quicker.
She wore an ankle-length dress cut like a nightgown. Wide sleeves opened beneath her elbows, the cotton fabric tapering gently around her waist, hugging her hips just enough for Rooster to see their curves. The dress was the color of asparagus, its pattern embroidered with threads of cobalt blue and carmine red; her skin a pale shade of brass; hair a mixture of blond and burnt orange unique to some Persian women.
She and Rooster had never spoken, but she came out of her building and walked his way, eyes on his. He had caught her looking at him a few times before as he’d played soccer with her little brother, but she’d always turned away after an instant. Not so today. He turned to look behind him. They were alone.
She stopped in front of him. Today her eyes were gold.
“Hello,” she said. “I am Ablaa. What is your name?” Only a slight accent, precisely articulating every word, extending her hand. Rooster was suddenly conscious of the dirt under his fingernails, nicked knuckles, palms callused from busting tank track and turning wrenches.
“Rooster—this is a bird?”
“It’s what everyone calls me.”
“Rooster, I like it. Pleasure to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too.” He let go of her hand.
“Rooster, the reason I am asking you is there are no good teachers now. My mother and I see you writing and we wonder if you would help me with my English.”
As she mentioned her mother she broke eye contact, glancing back to the woman with the tattooed chin still standing in the doorway. Ablaa tried to maintain an air of nonchalance as she asked for his help, but Rooster could see nervous anticipation in the way she held her dress near her thighs, rubbing the material between thumb and forefinger. He wanted to say yes, but hesitated. Time and again, Higher had forbidden them from fraternizing with the local women.
A moment passed. He bit his lip and squinted into the sun.
He surprised himself with his readiness to defy orders. He was self-aware enough to know his nature was to obey, to fly beneath the radar and wait for someone else to screw up, but when confronted by her request, he obeyed another urge. He didn’t want to disappoint her.
“I’m not supposed to be talking to you,” he said. “But I want to. We have to keep it a secret.”
Her eyes lit up as she thanked him, glancing back as she followed her mother inside. When she had gone he looked up from her door to the roof of her building, but because of the setting sun he could see nothing but a silhouette of Tower Six, a squat black rectangle bristling with the hint of a machinegun barrel.
The guards up there would be dosing off, basking in the heat radiating from sun-warmed sandbags. Or maybe they would be deep in thought, inspired by the colors in the sky, imagining the things they would do, places they would go and chicks they would screw when they got back home, staring over the walls, between the tenement buildings in the distance, past the minaret on the horizon, trying with sheer willpower to flatten a curved earth.
It was windy and drizzling when the humvee carrying their relief arrived at the base of Tower Eight. Rooster had spent the final hour of the shift smoking cigarettes and debating the merits of various mass-building routines with Sergeant Mongo. Mongo swore by low reps and big weight; Rooster argued for supersets of moderate weight. At six-three, two-twenty, Mongo had Rooster beat by an inch and ten pounds. Rooster consoled himself with the fact that Mongo was stupid and his breath smelled like shit.
Wind-driven rain blew into the tower, beading on black fleece jackets worn under tactical vests and over desert BDUs. Winter in Baghdad was surprisingly cold and wet. The damp added to their sixty-pound load of Kevlar, clothing, guns, ammo. Their backs ached, feet rotting, cigs soaked and unsmokable—all in all a miserable eight hours.
Relieved by the oncoming shift, they climbed down the steel ladder to muddy clay, took the truck and picked up the guards at the gate before driving back through the compound to park online in the courtyard. Once Rooster had dropped his battle rattle at his bunk, he grabbed his journal and a copy of Godfather II. Sleed watched him do this from across the room.
“Uh-huh,” Sleed said.
“What?” Mongo, from the next bunk over.
“Don’t worry about it Sarge. Just a joke I remembered. Did I ever tell you the one about the little boy and his grandpa the goat-fucker?”
Sleed knew. But Rooster didn’t know he knew because Sleed hadn’t told anyone. And he was only just catching on; Rooster had done a good job averting suspicion by keeping the tutoring sessions short, thirty minutes at most. If pressed to explain his absence he could always say he was out pinching a loaf in one of the Port-a-Johns by the burn pit.
But nobody ever asked questions, so lies were never necessary. Movies (pornographic or otherwise), cards, dating websites, music—whatever one’s distraction of choice, and there were many, no one wanted to think about the present or future, and so no one asked Rooster where he went when he would slip outside and walk to the back of her building, taking the long way so he wouldn’t be seen by the guards in Tower Six.
When he rotated back to Camp War Eagle, he looked forward to the next time he would see her, the week at the UN that was the high point of his month. She stuck with him; her pouty, girlish confidence masking a need for approval. He loved how seriously she took him, listening carefully when he spoke, and he loved the momentary lag in conversation as she translated his answers into Arabic and hers into English. The pauses gave their exchanges a sense of weight and importance, but weren’t long enough to become awkward. Her English was so good that Rooster had begun to suspect ulterior motives in her request for tutoring. He wondered if the idea had originated with Ablaa or her mother.
He didn’t know, but once he had discovered Ablaa didn’t need much help speaking or writing English, he used their time together to show her his favorite movies, those she hadn’t already seen. She hadn’t seen The Godfather trilogy, but she had watched many American films, game shows and sitcoms, especially now that satellite television was no longer forbidden as it had been under Saddam. The caretaker had installed a satellite dish in the opposite corner of the roof from Tower Six.
“But even back then,” she’d told Rooster, “before satellite, people watched VHS cassettes smuggled across the border from Jordan or Kuwait, traded among like-minded friends and families.” Her mother had always told her how important it was that she receive an education, learn English, and she had raised her daughter on Sesame Street like Rooster’s mom had raised him. He thought it was ironic, really, how little cultural divide separated them. Sure, she dressed differently, celebrated different holidays, prayed to a different god—he did not pray at all—but if anything, her desires were the more conventionally Western. She wanted to go to university in America and become an investment banker, drive a Mercedes and live in Manhattan.
The night before the boy was killed, Rooster dreamed he was back in Texas with de Beauvais, Mongo and Sleed, watching from the second floor balcony of Apache’s barracks as Corporal Snietz smoked Bewell in the scorched grass in front of the company area.
A long day in the motor pool finally behind them, they drank bottles of cold beer on the balcony and shouted encouragement to Bewell, who sweated through front-back-goes below. He could not pass his physical training test nor make the Army’s height and weight requirement, and Snietz preferred shame as a corrective measure, calling out the cadence but not performing the exercises himself. He enjoyed disciplining his soldiers basic-training style, relying on the power of shame, Bewell rolling around in the dirt for all to see, one-two-three-four, front-back-go, faster mother-fucker, faster…
Everything in the dream was as it had been in life, except Bewell and Snietz were naked. The sight was absurd, a consummate odd coupling, Snietz playing howler monkey to Bewell’s gorilla.
Bewell scrambled to his feet and ran in place, already puffing hard. Testicles flopped between tree-trunk thighs. Sweat poured off his round and extremely large head, shaved bald, a vein in his forehead popping with effort. More sweat than there should have been—rivulets of perspiration running down his chest, between man-boobs. There was a look of pain on his face which said this was nothing less than torture, a criminal act.
Rooster grew tired of watching Bewell sweat, emptied his beer and left the balcony, descending the stairs to the company parking lot. He crossed Battalion Road, headed to the old parade field overgrown with tall grass and dense patches of scrub oak.
In the distance he saw an unfamiliar row of trees on the far side of the field and began walking towards it, curiosity beating out worries of chiggers and rattlesnakes. As he got closer, he noticed the trees were encircled by cones of rotting fruit, the piles nearly as tall as a man.
The fruits remaining on the branch appeared to twitch, and he watched them ripen before his eyes. He hadn’t been standing there a minute and a few fruits had already fallen, rolling down the oblique cones surrounding each tree. He bent to pick one up; like a grey potato without eyes. He brought it to his face. It smelled of earth and vinegar.
He took it with him back to the barracks, eager to show everyone what he had found, but when he made it there it was dark and everyone had gone.
The sound of an electric saw came intermittently from a room down the hall. Ablaa’s father was building a table from scrap lumber in his workshop. It hadn’t taken Rooster long to notice the caretaker avoiding him whenever possible, retreating to pound away at something or other whenever he arrived to tutor his daughter. If circumstances forced the two to share a room or pass one another in the hallway, they would exchange a polite nod and hello, but no more. Ablaa’s mother, on the other hand, was usually in the living room with Rooster and her daughter, although she had begun to leave them alone for minutes at a time, five or ten, moving back and forth from the kitchen to serve tea, prepare dinner, clean up after dinner, or accomplish some other domestic duty.
The credits rolled. Rooster hit stop on his portable DVD player. Ablaa sat beside him on the natty couch, old but clean. An icon on the wall depicted the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s highest-ranking Shia cleric. In contrast to some of the younger upstarts like Muqtada al-Sadr, Sistani advocated prudence in dealing with the Americans. Both men controlled militias.
Ablaa’s little brother ran whooping into the room, firing a toy rifle at the couple on the sofa. Rooster laughed, impressed by the boy’s fearlessness. Ablaa’s mother shooed her son away with a good-natured scolding, taking him with her to the kitchen.
“It’s depressing,” Ablaa said. “What happened to Vito when he was a boy. No one had a choice.”
“It’s a sad movie.” Rooster looked at his watch. “It’s been forty-five minutes already. I better go. We can talk more about it tomorrow.”
“Leave your journal with me tonight.”
“You know how I feel about that. You can read things when they’re done.”
He had begun sharing his poetry with her, but when she had started reading (she had absolutely insisted), he had begun keeping another, secret journal, poems about her.
He hadn’t finished a single one. The night before he had tried again and failed again:
The call of prayer sounds out
For the fifth time from the minaret in
The fetid Persian night.
Twilight streams into the tower.
He sits and thinks about her.
That’s as far as he’d got before scribbling through the words, making them unreadable with the ballpoint. Every time he tried to write about her, he wound up writing words like mysterious, alluring, beautiful. The similies were shallow, cliché; the symbolic structure was commonplace. He had this idea of Ablaa and what she represented, but couldn’t write it. It came out trite.
He was naïve in the way idealistic and self-centered young men are. Twenty-two years and he had been around, but only one real relationship, in high school, with the girl who later stood him up via email in the airport in Germany. They had broken up shortly after they graduated and went off to separate colleges, but kept in touch and started talking regularly again once Rooster was deployed.
From the internet closet at the UN he had confessed his love in an email. She had replied and said she loved him too. He thought she knew what this meant, the commitment, but he was wrong. Who knew what she had meant? I have a boyfriend, but I’m fantasizing about you? I hope you’re safe and I think what you’re doing is kind of sexy? Who knows.
Rooster didn’t think she was malicious; even she probably didn’t know what she meant, and the more he thought about her not knowing, the more he didn’t know about Ablaa, either. He knew what he wanted to write, kept coming back to the image of her mother standing in the doorway without the burqua. She didn’t have to do that, even if she was prostituting her daughter for a green card. Tell her to take it off, but why had she done it herself?
Appearing without the burqua was a deliberate act. Rooster couldn’t interpret it, couldn’t decide whether it was a suggestion of promiscuity or a loosening of boundaries. He couldn’t stop thinking about it, and he couldn’t very well write a poem about Ablaa and have it be about her mother. That’s why he was blocked.
Now, pointing to the other journal—as far as she knew the only journal—Ablaa made a whining noise, pouting. Rooster knew she would demand her way and be upset if she didn’t get it. She had the willpower to keep it up for days. “You left it with me last time…”
He sighed. When she got like this, he didn’t even bother putting up a fight anymore. “Fine.” He handed her the half-filled notebook. She leafed through the pages, looking for one.
“I still like this best,” she said. “Tell me what it’s about.”
“What do you think it’s about?” He was not picking a fight; his tone was calm, inquisitive.
She closed the book and set it in her lap. “This is what you always say.”
“And you never say what you’re thinking. You’re scared.”
She took a moment to consider this. “Fine,” she said. “I will say it. You killed those people, a husband and wife, isn’t that it?” She paused, afraid to ask: “Why?”
He was relieved she’d finally asked after skirting it before. He wanted to tell someone—why he had let her read the poem in the first place. He told about being ambushed with RPGs on his third night in country. As one of the four gunners in the convoy, he’d snapped awake from a catnap on his feet and sprayed a hundred rounds with the machinegun towards the right side of the road where the volley of rockets had come from. One had just missed his truck.
The couple’s horse, still attached to their cart, had fallen on them and had to be dragged off with a chain attached to a humvee. A Captain from Barracuda Company arrived on the scene, realized the horse was still alive and shot it in the head with his 9mm. It took several shots before it stopped moving.
“It was awful,” Rooster said, “But it was an accident, and I’m not even sure I did it. I don’t think so. I never saw them until afterwards. A few of us fired back. I think I was shooting in a different direction.”
“How did you feel, killing them? Cold, like Michael?”
“No. It made me sick to my stomach.”
They snapped their heads, listening to a raised voice outside the door: “No ma’am, you don’t understand. I know he’s here—but I’m not here to bust him, or you. I’m his friend. I’m tryin’ to warn him. They lookin’ for him. Let me go.”
Rooster put the DVD player on the coffee table and he and Ablaa walked into the hallway. The whine of the circular saw stopped.
“Yo Sarn’t, tell her I’m cool.”
Ablaa spoke sharply in Arabic to her mother, who relented and let Sleed pass, but not before grabbing her protesting daughter by the elbow, ushering her back into the living room and shutting the door behind her. At the other end of the hall, the caretaker stood halfway in the doorway to his workshop, muttering something before returning to his table.
“They lookin’ for you,” Sleed said.
“Sergeant C. Platoon formation. I told ‘em I thought you was takin’ a shit. They switchin’ the roster ‘round and everyone has to look and say they know they new shift. We gotta go man. I thought you would be smart and take your normal half-hour, but here I am, savin’ your dumb ass.”
“How did you—”
“Dude, I seen the way she been lookin’ at you, and when I seen that I started watchin’ you closer. You not that slick. Come on, we gotta go.”
“You can’t tell anyone.”
“Okay man, I won’t—just go.”
They left, Rooster apologizing to the living room door as he backtracked, following Sleed out the back door. Afterwards, he would think it to Sleed’s credit that he kept his word and never told. Things with Ablaa would end another way.
When he woke it was past chow time and he was forced to eat leftovers. He had slept too long and it was almost time to go back on guard. He double-checked the roster: graveyard shift, Tower Six with Bewell.
He gathered his gear and assembled in the courtyard with the others as Staff Sergeant Tozark conducted guard mount.
“All-right,” Tozark drawled. He was a sharp man from West Texas with a thin mustache and fast-moving eyes. “Y’all know the drill. Radio checks every hour on the hour. Oh, and it come down from Higher to be ‘specially vigilant tonight. Some Haji cleric’s out raisin’ hell.”
There were murmurs from the assembled soldiers. “Vigilant,” Sleed said. “How many times we heard that noise? Every day there’s some new shit to be vigilant about. Shit gets old, Sergeant.”
“Thanks for that wisdom, Specialist. That’s fuckin’ outstanding! Guard force, attention! Fall out to your posts.”
Bewell and Rooster entered the caretaker’s building and climbed the stairwell to the fifth floor, then headed down the hallway towards the hatch leading to the roof. Something skittered across the ground. Rooster shined his light in the direction of the noise and caught the gleaming eyes of a large rat gnawing on a discarded MRE. Someone had written Kinks lyrics on the wall in magic marker. Probably the Marines.
The shock wave from the truck bomb had shattered all the windows, and there was the satisfying crunch of broken glass under their combat boots. No one lived on the upper floors, and Ablaa’s mother had not bothered to clean them. Paper scattered all over—the detritus of a fallen bureaucracy—pages torn from training manuals, personnel files, promotion orders, administrative records dumped on the floor, the emptied contents of long-looted filing cabinets. A layer of fine white dust covered it all.
“This place is haunted,” Bewell said, holding his flashlight with one hand as he opened the hatch. They climbed up and crossed the roof to Tower Six, relieving the previous shift. They threw empty water bottles and other trash out of the bunker and into the stagnant water that filled the ditch surrounding the outer wall of the compound. They settled into their seats—nothing to pass the time but cigarettes, moonlit scenery, and conversation.
That night Rooster and Bewell discussed Bewell’s wife’s legal problems. She had recently been busted for possession as she drove onto post, coming back from a party in Austin. The MPs at the gate had smelled the dope and searched her car. She’d been drunk too, and in addition to the possession charge lost her license for DWI. It all combined to give Bewell a lot of grief, but there was nothing he could do about it from Iraq except earn the money that paid for the weed, the fine, the car, the court costs… His wife was unemployed.
As Bewell went on about her, Rooster couldn’t help but feel thankful to have Ablaa, who’d never tasted a drop of booze, let alone ripped bong hits. She had her faults—her pouty temper, unabashed materialism—but at least she had been sheltered from the most poisonous things and had a somewhat reasonable head on her shoulders. She would never drive drunk onto an Army post with drugs in the car, for example.
They hadn’t done anything yet but kiss and grope in the anxious minutes when her mother wasn’t in the room—and as long as Ablaa wasn’t in a bad mood—but Rooster was ok with masturbation in the Port-a-Potties on his own time and didn’t press her for more. He found the anticipation thrilling and wanted to build something not based on carnality for a change. Not to say he didn’t lust for her or fantasize about it: Ablaa crawling across the bed, breasts pressed against the sheets as she took him in her mouth. On all fours, orange-blond hair draped over her shoulder as she spread her legs a little wider and gave him a knowing look. He imagined loving her, fucking her, teaching her everything about sex. “Hold them like this,” he would say. “Gently.”
He was getting hard thinking about it and debated whether or not to excuse himself, descend the hatch and rub one out in an empty room on the fifth floor, haunted or not. He looked over at Bewell—he wouldn’t mind. He sighed and flicked a cig out of the tower. It trailed sparks as it flew end over end.
The first thing they heard was automatic rifle fire. Tracers ricocheting into the night sky until the phosphorus burned out and they were lost from sight, but you knew they would come down somewhere.
Sergeant Tozark’s nasal voice came over the handheld. Their sister battalion had been ambushed in Sadr City, two miles to the northwest. Bewell and Rooster listened to the sound of M16s, explosions, machine guns of multiple calibers, from the whack-a-whack of a 7.62 to the heavier dot-dot-dot of a fifty-cal. Bottle rocket swooshes: Hellfire missiles and RPGs. The thudding of a 25mm cannon, and something that sounded like a giant ripsaw chewing through the night sky—the chain gun on an A-10 Warthog. Their attention was focused on the sounds of battle to the northwest, exactly opposite of where they should have been watching: their sector to the southeast.
Then there was the supersonic zing of the round cutting air, the thwack as it impacted sandbags, the cue ball crack of the rifle.
Rooster sat there for a second, dumbstruck, head and upper body exposed, looking out into the black. Muzzle flashes.
“Someone just took— ” he started to say, before three more rounds arced over the bunker.
Now he remembered to take cover.
He and Bewell dropped behind the sandbags as the trickle became a flood and gunmen emptied their magazines on top of them. Rounds punched through the plywood shell of the bunker, sending wood chips flying everywhere. Rooster closed his eyes and screamed. This was the closest yet. It could happen at any second. Exposing himself to shoot back never crossed his mind—would have been close to suicide. One of the rounds clipped the barrel of the machine gun, showering sparks on them, knocking the weapon off its bipod on the sandbags and onto Rooster’s back. He screamed again.
It ended without warning and he could hear: Bewell’s heavy breathing, the handheld broadcasting Sergeant Tozark’s frantic plea for a status report.
Rooster grabbed the radio. “Standby.” He remained on the floor of the tower for a moment before taking off his Kevlar and holding it up, silhouetting the helmet over the lip of the sandbags. No one took a shot, and he rose to a crouch, grabbed the night vision goggles and scanned the dirt field on the other side of the compound wall. Empty.
A wailing arose from below.
He ran across the roof and vaulted down the hatch and stairs to emerge in the first floor hallway. He was met there by the caretaker, who carried in his arms a small, bloody body.
The sun was just up in a clear sky. Rooster had been awake all night and finally managed to sneak away after giving the LT a signed copy of his sworn statement, his third narrating the death of a non-combatant. Paraphrasing: he and Bewell had not fired any rounds; the small arms fire had been too intense, pinning them down, peppering the bunker and the entire west face of the building. The boy had been struck by a ricochet, killed instantly in his sleep.
Rooster found her in her father’s workshop. She was alone; her parents had gone into the city to arrange for a burial plot. On his newly finished table, the caretaker had laid the washed body of his son, wrapped in white cloth, clean and ready for the grave. Ablaa sat beside her brother, stroking his hair. At the sight of the small corpse, Rooster was struck by the same thing as always: the stillness of the dead. Flesh like a wax figure’s, dead flesh, flesh lacking any momentum. Like a miniature black hole had settled in the boy’s dead stomach and wanted to sink through the table, through the tile floor, down to the core of the earth, turn it inside out.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
A fly settled on her brother’s forehead. She waved her hand and it flew away.
“Your poem,” she said. “It happened again. You are cursed. This place is cursed.”
“You don’t understand,” he said. “It’s not like that. We couldn’t have—we didn’t fire any rounds.”
She thought about this. The truth had the opposite effect of what he’d intended. “If you did not shoot back, that’s worse. My brother wasn’t worth your life? I wasn’t?”
“I was afraid. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to die—”
”Yes, you are alive. And this is better than this?”
Her eyes had turned sad, cold and green. They were framed by puffy skin like she had just woken up, lines of worry in her face. She looked years older. She had grown up and out of it in one night. He was not what she had thought.
“I wish I had never met you. It was her idea in the first place.”
Rooster walked out before she could say anymore. He couldn’t stand the way she had looked at him, like he was the ghost of a great man discovered to be a big fraud, an utter hypocrite, the worst kind of disgrace. Why argue with the truth? He was cursed, a coward, and her brother was dead because of him.
That was the last time they spoke. He never got his journal back. He remembered it later but did not return to ask for it. Probably she would have given it to him, maybe thrown it at him. It wasn’t worth it.
The next day, Apache packed up and rolled out for Camp War Eagle. No other company relieved them at the UN. After all that time, the better part of a year, one hundred-thousand man-hours spent defending something already dead, the mission was now abandoned, the caretaker and his family left to fend for themselves. Orders had come down from Higher, and they had new priorities.