The night was clear, the air dry, the temperature hot. Except for the distant cries of monkeys, and a rustle of wings that suggested bats nearby, it was quiet. Ryan Fitzpatrick and I were lying in dirt behind a hesco barrier inside concertina wire, stargazing, feeling as peaceful as you ever can here in the Korengal. Fitz was talking about Ronnie Miller.
"He was delivering pizza and gave this hot chick a free one and stayed to eat it with her. So then he gets fired and his old man kicks him out of the house and he moves in with the girl. But in a couple weeks she upgrades to a guy working at Pep Boys and he's out on his ass."
"Then a recruiter gets hold of him?"
"Jesus. And only six weeks to stateside."
That was as close as we could come to talking about how disturbing it had been to see Miller's head get blown off, helmet and all, not five feet away but a few hours earlier. I could not tell Fitz that the odd taste in my mouth and splatter on my face had been Miller's blood. Fitz, who had traded positions with Miller minutes before the blast, had his own share of things about Ronnie's death not to ever say.
Without warning, mortars split the air above us, seconds before the sound of their firing broke the calm. Simultaneous explosions peppered the compound as everyone scrambled for radios and grenades and found positions for returning fire. In minutes the howitzer platoon had moved their large weapon to the best site for homing in on long-range, reverse-slope targets, in this case, ones no one could see, as the air was thick with dirt. Add to that the echoes bouncing between canyon walls, and there was no identifying enemy whereabouts by sound either.
Nearby, sudden movement startled us and we jerked around, ready to shoot. Several insurgents had breached the wire from above and more were dropping like gymnasts from the shale cliffs. We shouted for help and picked off the invaders as they hit the ground. They were so close we could have whacked them over their heads just as easily. Abbot and Cortez began firing grenades up onto the cliffs and several bodies and exploding rock rained down. We were surrounded, and shooting at every angle in every direction, pointlessly, it seemed. Several times we could hear Christopherson on the radio calling for air support. That meant that in minutes we could not only be killed by enemy fire, but by our own. Except for that glitch, the sound of a gunship a few minutes later, shrieking in the night, was oddly comforting.
A few bombs dropping around the east perimeter of Hellraiser brought things to a close. The remaining insurgents retreated into the night with their dead, all except the ones inside the wire. The next hour we moved those bodies to a site where they would be checked against the haj Who's-Who list before burying, despite the unlikelihood that any real players had led from the front.
The rest of the night I thought about Ronnie Miller--how, because of an impulsive decision to ditch his pizza delivery gig and get laid, he'd ended up signing on for his own death.
Everyone had an enlistment story. Fitz had wanted to serve his country, he told me once. In my case, I hit a kid on a bike while drunk and kept on going. I gunned it, missed a sharp turn in the road and spun out in a muddy field. That sobered me enough that I ran back to the scene on foot, thinking I've done it now--made my father's prediction that I will come to no good real.
Luckily, the kid had only cuts and scrapes from sliding across gravel and was more worried about a missing dog than himself or his bike, which was totaled. I let the kid believe I was a passing jogger, and when I got home, hid my pickup among other beaters in a field out back of the house. My plates had expired, I had no insurance and any number of people knew I'd had plenty to drink earlier--not that they would snitch. They were all underage or contributors. In any case, I decided not to drive the pickup again.
But a few days later the old man came in from the junkyard all pissed off.
"For Christ sake! Join the army before you get into trouble you can't get out of."
"You mean jail?" He would know. He'd been on a certain bail bondsman's Christmas list for years.
My mother stood in the doorway, listening. "Ma, what do you think?"
She took a drag on her cigarette before answering. "Maybe trouble has more purpose to it there than it does here."
I don't think it occurred to them that in the army trouble could be fatal. I didn't really get that myself until I met this woman at the bus station on my way to Fort Benning. By the time we'd gotten across country to Columbus where she lived, one of us had talked the other into going to her place. After the usual, we had a beer.
"Why the army?" she'd asked.
"They say it beats jail."
"Sweetie, they are wrong. You can always get out of jail--and over it."
"What the fuck are you saying?"
"Nothing. Hand me another beer, will ya?"
What did some old whore know anyway? I wondered for weeks after.
Four uneasy days passed without insurgents attacking the compound. On the fifth day, intelligence had it that haj were moving a Dishka machine gun and mortar towards Outback--another small base down the valley. Our captain told us we were going to check it out and to be ready by noon. We spent the morning cleaning our guns and packing gear for several days out, anxious to get started. Before leaving the wire, our squad leader radioed us simultaneously from the main base on what's called the discrete channel that only we can hear--standard procedure to activate electronic jammers to disrupt signals that set off IEDs.
"All Hellraiser elements," he said, "First to fight for the right--go!"
"Hellraiser 3, roger that," I said.
"Hellraiser 7, got it," Fitz said.
We donned our gear and headed through woods to a deer trail above and parallel to a route used by insurgents--a cliff-hugging road, barely wide enough for moving heavy equipment. Even in the woods, it was hot and I was wet with sweat. Fitz was in front of me.
Shortly, we heard an Apache overhead, then explosions as it fired at the enemy convoy on the road below. Insurgents heard the noise too and appeared out of nowhere on the hill above us. We ran for cover. Soon bullets were bouncing off trees and rocks. I shouted into my radio but couldn't hear the response for gunfire. Patterson, right beside me, pointed. Fitz and several others were heading up the hill after the insurgents. I signaled Patterson to cover us and I followed, shooting as I went. I reached a boulder and ducked behind it. Through my gun site, I could make out haj disappearing into a cave. I ran after them, grabbed a grenade from my belt and lobbed it in.
After some time returning fire, all remaining insurgents retreated as silently as they had come, heading toward Yaka Chine with their wounded. It was eerily quiet except for the rattle of a medevac chopper in the distance. Briefly, that is. Not a minute later, gunfire behind me sent me scrambling behind a tree. Stragglers.
I took aim and hit the sniper dead on. To my left, in a stand of cedar, I saw Fitz collide with a haj. Both soldiers were knocked to the ground. Under other circumstances it would have been funny. I went toward them, but before the man could move, Fitz was up and on top of him, his gun in the insurgent's face, hesitating. Was he going to play with him? I wondered, watching. The haj got up and sort of slithered backwards, unsure of what Fitz was up to. Fitz pointed toward the guy's gun and the haj edged toward it without taking his eyes off Fitz. He picked it up slowly, but, Fitz, instead of shooting him, motioned for him to go.
Stunned, I ran towards them. The guy, gun in hand, backed up, his eyes still locked on Fitz. When he heard me coming, he turned and darted into the trees.
"You sons of bitches!" I hollered, firing at the guy as I ran. Fitz merely stood there, watching him go. He lit up a smoke.
"What the fuck?" I asked him, out of breath. "Trying to commit suicide?"
He took a drag.
"You hear me? It's one thing to play around, but that guy could have blown your face off!"
"I wasn't playing,"
"What! You went soft on the fucking enemy?"
"I don't know . . . he was a kid. Scared to death."
I was so pissed I threw off my pack, knocked the cigarette out of his hand and started beating on him. "I'm calling this in you mother fucker," I yelled.
He didn't answer and I kept pounding him until I had him on the ground. I kicked him again and again like I had gone crazy too. Then it struck me--the son of a bitch wasn't fighting back. I gave him a last kick, stepped backwards and leaned against a tree. Suddenly the heat, the craziness, the exhaustion was overwhelming. "I don't get it," I said, sliding down the tree trunk to the ground.
Fitz struggled to get up and hobbled to a nearby rock and sat down. "Remember when we first got here--those guys waiting to go home?"
Who could forget? They were hyper vigilant, ready to snap. Several already had. A few were all doped up on anti-depressants or painkillers. When their PL ordered them down to the main base to shower, eyes that still could focus merely glared, as in Go to hell. The PL must have read the eyes the same way because he suddenly had something he had to go do. It had been a chilling welcome.
"Yeah, so what?"
"We're becoming those guys."
"Jesus, Fitz, those dudes were stop-lossed four or five times. They weren't risking their lives that close to going home."
"There is no going home. How can drugged-up killers go back?"
"What the hell's wrong with you, Fitz?"
"I can't do this anymore."
His jaw was clenched and his voice almost a whisper. I sensed that he was on the verge of bawling or throwing up or passing out or maybe shooting himself. "Hang in there, buddy, we'll be out of here in a few weeks. Once stateside, we'll head for Mexico. How's that sound?"
"When I was a kid," he said, "my dad used to beat on us and visit my sister's room at night, but my mom always looked the other way. And pretty soon we all did; we thought we'd be okay, if we just fuckin' looked the other way."
"Jesus, dude. Sorry about that, but that's done. Over." What more could I say? Fitz was way outside the wire on this one, and I could only guess the trouble he'd be in. But, despite what I'd said, I was no snitch.
"I'm not telling anyone," I told him.
Fitz stared at me and I realized that he was going to tell on himself. Suddenly I knew I couldn't let that happen.
"And you better not either, for Christ sake. Besides the official crap, there's guys here who'll shoot you in the back. I'm serious, don't tell anyone!"
He stood and struggled with his pack.
"I mean it, Fitz, don't go doing anything stupid!" But he limped towards the woods, ignoring me.
Things were quiet for three days, indicating that the insurgents were otherwise engaged and that Fitz hadn't confessed his screw-up. And he was avoiding me. In some ways, it was a relief.
Early the fourth morning, Ortiz and I were in the shade cleaning our rifles when mortar fire struck a tree near us. We ran for cover as the tree burst into flame.
Suddenly, haj were everywhere. Much of their fire zinged high over our heads, so heavy that tree limbs began dropping like hailstones. When the mortars started hitting closer to the ground, we scattered in every direction. I could hear Abbot on the radio and men shouting up ahead. I ran for an outcropping of rock and an explosion threw me. As if it were happening in slow motion, I thought damn, I'm going to hit that tree. And hit I did, then slammed against a nearby boulder.
My helmet was smashed on one side and I could feel the stickiness of coagulating blood on my cheek. My head hurt like hell. What is it about heads? I wondered, thinking about Ronnie Miller losing his. Besides the pain, there was this buzzing sound, and a rush of regret--that I hadn't made it to Dodger Field, that I hadn't seen the Grand Canyon, that I hadn't called my mother in weeks. That's what came to mind!
When I saw insurgents coming out of the woods, I tried reaching for my gun but I couldn't move. They were all over me, stripping me of weapons, my pack and everything on my belt. I felt out of it and that I was being dragged across gravel. Then, suddenly, Fitz was there--not so much as soldier, but as though a force, a primeval rage, had entered the field. The next thing I knew, he was carrying me over his shoulder and I wanted to cry.
I woke up in the med tent in a neck brace. Underlying the noise of people rushing around, shouting orders, or screaming in pain, was that same buzzing, only louder. Then, whether hallucinating, dreaming or having a drug reaction, I was tripping. First I saw Fitz as the kid I hit on the bike. Then that scene changed and the kid turned into the haj Fitz let go.
Next, the whole nightmare of that night with the kid--a memory that had always been fuzzy--replayed clearly: The downpour that breaks up the kegger, the drizzle driving home, the mist rising off the river. Boy and bike, screech of brakes, metal on metal, sharp curve, muddy field. Adrenalin, guilt, running.
When I get to the kid, he's stumbling around by the ditch and I say, "What the hell are you doing out here? I'm pissed because if he were home in bed where he belongs, this wouldn't be happening to me.
He's looking for his dog, he says.
"Your dog was here?" I'm thinking I'd hit it too.
No, he says, the dog was hurt earlier and ran off, so after his old man went to bed he sneaked out to look for her. His dad will kill him if he finds out, he says. He's rattled, maybe in shock.
"For Christ sake, I'll find the damn dog and bring it over tomorrow," I tell him.
He limps toward the mangled bike.
"What the hell you doing?"
"I have to hide it."
I yank the bike from him and carry it towards bushes growing in the ditch, planning to put it in my truck once he's gone. I don't want anyone finding it either--or him limping around out here.
"Kid, you need to get home! I'll walk you."
He doesn't object and is silent as we head down the road. I ask him what his folks will think.
"My dad leaves before I get up. Tomorrow night I'll tell him kids beat me up after school and stole my bike.
"And your mom?"
He shakes his head. "The dog's name's Gretel. She'll be hungry." He pulls a smashed Big Mac from his jacket pocket, probably his own dinner. "She'll be whimpering . . . she cries when she hurts."
I don't bother asking how the hurting happens. I guess that beatings are routine in this kid's world.
We turn in at a mailbox and go down a long, muddy lane. The house, a run down clapboard surrounded by tall weeds, is dark. A late model Dodge half-ton is in the drive. I wait at the back of the house while the kid climbs through a window. Then I go get the bike out of the ditch, carry it to my pickup, and start looking for the dog.
When I spot rodent activity in a gulley, I know I've found Gretel. She's definitely been kicked around. At my approach, rats scurry from the remains. Burying her is out of the question; I have nothing in the pickup but an oil funnel and windshield scraper.
I wrap her in my jacket, carry her to the truck, and drive to the dump. I make two trips through the stinking, slippery landfill and fall several times. I leave the dog and jacket in one place, the bike in another.
The next day I ride my own bike down the road to the kid's house. There's no missing the skid marks I'd made across the roadway and field. When the school bus lets him off, I tell him I found his dog and know of a place for her out in the country where she'll be safe. Reluctantly, the kid agrees.
On the way home it occurs to me that though I know the dog's name, I didn't think to ask the kid his.
When I woke next, I learned that I had whiplash, a concussion, and some brain swelling from fragments of helmet and tree bark embedded in my skull, since removed. At some point, Fitz showed up.
"You saved my life, buddy. I owe you."
He grinned. "Oh yeah," he said, placing a manila envelope on my chest. "My personals."
"Are you saying you're--?"
"I'm saying I won't always be around to haul your sorry ass to the medics."
"Fitz, please don't--"
"Put these in a safe place," he said, turning to leave.
"You're coming back?"
Once he was gone, I opened the envelope. Both letters inside were sealed. One was addressed to his parents. The other had my name on it. "To be read at my service," he'd scrawled on mine. And in large print he'd added, "I mean it!"
Oh Fitz, what are you up to? I wondered.
But Fitz did not come back. A week or so later I was up and around, though confined pretty much to a fifty-foot walk to the latrine. Early one morning coming from there, I saw medics up ahead with a couple of stretchers. I barely got a glimpse of them but my stomach felt like I'd swallowed gravel. I followed them back to the med tent and the lieutenant spotted me.
"Hey, Carnes, back to sickbay," he said, his hand out to prevent me from going any further.
"I don't know yet. Go!"
The next morning I asked the Lieutenant checking my vitals.
"All I know is that we got a few more last night and the ones doing okay will be moved in here this afternoon."
That night Michelotti was brought in, heavily sedated, and an hour or so later, Fitz. I got up and went over to him. "Hey, what happened?"
"Recon. A couple of us took hits. I don't think Sullivan will make it."
"But you're doing okay?"
"Yeah, only a chest wound. You don't look so good though."
"I just need a shave."
"That might help some." He chuckled, then started coughing.
At that moment the platoon medic entered. "Carnes," he said, handing me the usual three pills, "Happy hour is over."
"In the morning," I told Fitz.
But the next morning, Fitz's bed was empty. I looked everywhere inside the wire and asked everyone around. Patterson pointed towards wounded soldiers waiting to be airlifted home. I walked over, puzzled. Then I saw the body bags.
Later that day the battalion surgeon told me that Fitz had started hemorrhaging in the night and bled out before they could stop it.
"While I was sleeping ten feet away?"
The surgeon shrugged.
Around noon the day before Fitz's funeral stateside, I jump-started the battery on my pickup and drove over to the junior high. When I saw the kid coming out, I honked.
When he got closer, I waved. "Remember me?"
He came over to the passenger side and leaned into the truck. "Yeah. How's my dog?"
I got out of the truck and stood near him. "She was dead when I found her."
"You buried her?"
"Kid, get over it."
"You dropped her at the dump." It was not a question.
He looked at the hood of my truck, then back at me. "That skull ornament. You're the one who hit me." Again, not a question.
I nodded. "Almost didn't come back to check on you either."
"I can be an asshole."
"So what are you doing here?"
"I wanted to tell you the truth."
"You just decided?"
"I've been gone. Army."
The kid hesitated, studying me. "Because of the accident."
"My old man wants me to go when I'm old enough. Infantry."
"I had a friend who'd tell you straight out--don't do it."
"Yeah. Speaking of that, I got a funeral to go to."
"That same friend?"
"That's the one." I got back into the truck and the kid crossed the street in front of me. "I'll be back Thursday," I hollered from the open window. "You want to go get a pizza, maybe play some video games?"
He turned. "Maybe."
"I'll pick you up."
Packing up my gear, I considered the letters Fitz had entrusted to me. Commissioned to me. Burdened me with. Whatever you want to call it. I had a pretty clear idea what mine said.
It was addressed to friends and family:
"If you're hearing this, know that it was my intention to tell you in person. I don't want to live with secrets or take them to the grave.
"Recently, I ran into an insurgent in the field. I had advantage, my gun to his head. I can't really explain it, but I knew there was no way in hell I could shoot the guy. I let him go, didn't report it and returned to my squad.
"Since then, I've given a lot of thought to the soldiers I've killed and seen killed. For the first time I'm seeing life as a shared right, something we're all gifted with, like sun and air. And I keep wondering things, feeling a little nutts about it.
"Why are we here? I ask myself. Can't be for freedom, we got that. Can't be for theirs, they can get that themselves. Democracy? How freaked would we be if the Swiss or the Chinese or the Africans moved in on us with what they think we need? Can't be here for oil or resources. We already have enough of those. Besides, Americans would never stand for letting their young people risk their lives for stuff like cheap gas, would they? Not if they knew what it's like here. Or do they? All those dudes back from the front lines, on the streets, missing body parts, soul dead, wondering what the hell happened.
"But people don't see that. I know. I've spent years thinking that if I just play down the dead elephant rotting in the corner everything will be okay. No more. I've decided to lay down my weapons and refuse my orders. You may not get it, but if there's a god, I think he might. That's supposed to be a god thing, isn't it--do not kill?"
The church was fairly full, with a heavy showing of military among the civilians. I saw an older couple in the front row talking to the pastor. When the pastor moved on down the aisle, I approached them. "Mr. and Mrs. Fitzpatrick?"
"Yes," the man said.
I introduced myself and gave them Fitz's letter, wondering if it was similar to mine. Mrs. Fitzpatrick squeezed my hand. "Private Carnes, you must have been very close."
"He's going to get a medal, you know," she added. "For saving someone's life. Oh, my heavens. Not yours, was it?"
Organ music interrupted and I took a seat at the end of the aisle. As the pastor neared the podium, Mr. Fitzpatrick stood and whispered something and both looked my way. The pastor smiled and nodded.
The service led off with a prayer and short bio of Fitz's life. Then the pastor paused and unfolded a paper, "Private Fitzpatrick's company commander, Captain Daniel M. Porter faxed this memo to the family." He adjusted his glasses, then read: "An Infantry soldier is a special breed; he has to shoot better, perform better under extreme duress, and fit brother-like into his squad. He must be disciplined, self-confident and understand the core values that make the army great. He must have heart and never quit. We do not let men join our ranks who are weak or faint of heart. Private Ryan Allen Fitzpatrick not only met our criteria, he exceeded it."
The pastor took off his glasses and looked directly at me. "Private Carnes, the family asks that you say a few words about Private Fitzgerald."
Startled, I stood.
"Please, come up to the podium," the pastor said.
"Ryan," I began, "Fitz, as we called him, was my friend. He saved my life. Without any help, he pulled me from a group of insurgents hauling my body towards enemy lines. I was too out of it to know exactly what went on, but the next thing I knew, I was in the med tent."
I paused, trying to think. "He was troubled that his own life was spared a few weeks earlier by chance when a friend of ours, Private Ronnie Miller, switched positions with him right before a firefight. Fitz thought he should have been the one to be killed in that skirmish instead of Miller. He was a compassionate guy, that's all I can say."
There was not a sound in the room except for Fitz's mother's muffled sobs, those kind that break pitifully into gasps in the lungs. I looked toward Fitz's parents, wondering how to end this. I took a deep breath. "In the field, each time we leave the wire, our unit uses a code to activate electronic jammers that disrupt signals that set off IEDs. You'll recognize part of our code from the army song. It goes: Hellraiser elements, first to fight for the right - go. So, Fitz, if you're close by, about to leave the wire for the last time, hear this: Hellraiser -7, Go. Go free. Go knowing . . . go knowing how grateful I am that you saved my life."
I hesitated, thinking again about his letter, then said, "Hellraiser -3 here, signing off." I saluted toward the casket and stepped down from the podium. A sudden organ chord struck, mercifully, putting an end to the terrible combination of silence and pain. I had to get the hell out of there.
I took one last look back at the casket still draped with the flag that would be folded and given to his mother, thinking about the old whore--about the things you can and can't get over.