|^^ Nova is watching Master Chief get jumped by an Elite vv|
The dog has been dead for so long the face is stretched taut across the skull in a permanent snarl. I can count its ribs from ten meters out. The eyes are gone. But it picks its head up and looks at me. A split second later the world goes red.
A thing happened.
They tell me I'm a hero now. I don't feel like any hero.
They tell me I was the first one to realize what had happened and call it in. For those first few minutes I was the one making decisions, calling the Navy corpsman forward, and the first one organizing return fire. I don't remember anything.
Sophie is asking me a question. I look her right in the eye, I hear the question, but my mind doesn't grasp it. My mind is ten thousand klicks away, on a shitty desert street, and there is a dead dog looking at me with no eyes.
A sensation of heat, sand and smoke in my face. A sound of soft rain-
A rush and shock, like surfacing from underwater. "What?"
"I asked you a question."
"Well?" She's expectant, a little annoyed, and I know I'll just make it worse. Sweet Sophie, I owe her so much better.
Can I bluff it? Fuck no, I don't even know if it's a yes/no question. "I'm sorry, Soph. Ask me again."
Almost every night. Sometimes twice in one night.
One time I even make it out to the yard, with the pistol. Thank fuck it isn't loaded, I might have done myself right there on the steps. Sophie comes after me. She's so brave. She takes the pistol. She doesn't like that I have it; she hates to look at it, let alone touch it. But she takes it from my hand and slides it away to the far end of the porch. She sits down next to me on the steps.
"Rye. I'm scared."
"Fuck, Soph. If you're scared..." I feel like I'm choking on fear.
"You scare me."
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm fucking sorry. I hate myself for scaring her. "There was a dog in the street. It was dead." It's not what I want to say.
"Nevermind. It's not important."
We sit there a long time without talking. "You're not supposed to sleep in the prosthetic."
"Yeah. I know." I want her to hold me. Just wrap her arms around me and hold me until the fear stops. But when she touches my shoulder I flinch and she pulls back.
After a while she goes back inside.
My leg aches. The whole knee, calf and foot pulse with sour pain. Except I don't have a foot on that side anymore. Just this shitty prosthetic. I tug it off and throw it down onto the grass. It doesn't help the pain.
I lie back on the porch. I feel like there's a Humvee parked on my chest. I lie there minus half a leg, in a haze of fear and pain and the absence of memory.
A thing happened. People died. I didn't.
He's not really my brother. Not in the regular way. In a deeper, meaner way.
He's my best friend. He pulled me back from the edge three years ago. He showed me how to be something better.
I would be the one six feet down, if it wasn't for him. I would trade places in a heartbeat.
"Sarge." I don't trust myself to say his name. I will break if I have to say it. "It's shit. That's all. It's just fucked up."
I was there. But I don't remember how he died.
There is a dead dog lying in the street. The skin is stretched over its skull in a frozen snarl. I can count its ribs from here. It doesn't have any eyes.
The dog picks its head up and looks at me.
A wave of hot sand and smoke smacks me in the face. There is a sound like rain.
The world goes red.
I am breathless and furious. Terrified. I try to fight it down. "Soph? Sophie..."
"What the fuck, Ryan?!"
"You scared the shit out of me." I feel like my heart is going to explode it's beating so hard.
"I scared you?!" Tense quiet for a minute. She laughs, nervous. "Jesus, Ryan."
I lie there trying to catch my breath. The anger goes. The fear stays. But Sophie's laugh helps. "Soph... Come here. I'm sorry."
Slowly, she comes and sits on the bed. She lets me take her hand and gently pull her down beside me. "I'm sorry." It's still dark out, very early morning, zero-two, maybe zero-three. Sophie lays her head on my shoulder and we both try to relax again. "Is it Saturday?" I ask.
Sometimes I lose track. "Sunrise at the park? Breakfast after?" It's something we did a lot before.
"Kind of like a date?" she plays along, and I can hear her smile.
"Kind of, but not really," whisper my line into her hair.
We lie there for a while longer, but neither one of us is going back to sleep.
At zero-four I roll out and go in to shower. Sophie joins me a little bit later. I missed this so bad. Just being close to her. Being touched.
The sunrise is pale and flat. "That was a bust," Sophie laughs and kisses me, the terrors of a few hours ago forgotten.
"Well, I hope breakfast works out better."
"What do you want?"
"Waffles. And steak and eggs."
"What are you, a lumberjack?!"
"I'll share," I promise.
I don't remember until the plate hits the table in front of me. This is what we ate that morning, before patrol. The day Bran died. Not a lumberjack's breakfast at all; an exhausted, terrified Marine's breakfast. Waffles, steak, and eggs. The steak was left over from dinner the night before. We didn't care.
"You're watching your steak like it's gonna gallop off your plate!" Sophie laughs, drenching her own plate in syrup.
"Hey, save some for me."
Snapping awake with my fight-or-flight squarely in the 'fight' end of the scale, my heart galloping in my chest. Tight breathing. Soaked in sweat. Crushing terror. Pain in a leg I don't have.
I don't answer her. Just lie there staring into the darkness, trying to breathe past the rage and fear.
"What is it, Ryan? Are you okay?"
"I'm okay," I lie.
She lays her hand on my arm. "What was it?"
I let out a tight, shaky breath. "I don't remember."
"At the VA. You could talk about your leg," she stops and rephrases. "I think it would be good for you to talk about it."
"What's to talk about?" I couldn't give a shit about the leg.
"Rye, you lost a leg. That's kind of a big deal."
"For me? Or for you?" I get mean. I get around just fine on the prosthetic a newer, better one. Docs say I'm an inspiration. "Fuck it. I'm doin' this. I get good enough they might let me go back."
She gets this stunned, angry look on her face like I just slapped her. "Don't -"
"I don't want you to be one of those Marines who racks up combat tours like trophies." She can be just as mean as me. "You've done two."
"Third time's the fucking charm."
We shoot the shit for a while, and then just sit there, not talking, drinking beer in a cemetery in the dark. Maybe it seems crazy. Two crazy, drunken vets, that's all you see. We don't care.
"If you ever want to talk about it, Rye," Travis says, real quiet.
"Talk about what?"
"The shit. What we did. Bran," he pats the earth we sit on, "Stevens..." He shrugs, leaving out the rest of the names.
"You want to talk about that shit?"
He shrugs again.
Quiet for a long time. I swallow the rest of my beer. "Nothing to talk about." Truth, but not the way it sounds. Can't talk about what I don't remember.
"All right." Travis finishes his own and slots the empty bottle back into the cardboard holder. "If you do, ever, you let me know."
Travis falls asleep a while later. I might join him in a minute. Sophie expects me to be out all night. Probably, she figures I'll stay at Travis' house. If she could see us now, sleeping it off on our sergeant's grave; pretty fucking ridiculous.
Stevens was always chewing gum. Any kind, any flavor, just to keep his jaw busy. We gave him shit about it. Most of us were chewing Copenhagen. Stevens soaked up the hazing and stuck with gum. "Chewing that shit gives you cancer," he told us.
"And chewing bullets gives you death!" I told him. "I'll worry about cancer when I get back to the world."
After Stevens was killed, I quit cold.
Tonight, Travis is trying to get me to leave the bar.
"Rye, I'm serious. No more."
"No. You are drunk. We are drunk. And if you don't quit now, I'm calling Sophie to come pick you up."
"Man, that is low."
"Come on." He gets me up out of the chair and headed toward the door. 'We' may be drunk, but I've still had more than him.
"One more, Trav."
I push him away. I don't know what I'm doing. I'm stupid and angry. "I just want a fucking drink."
"And I just said no."
"Well fuck you, I'll just go somewhere else."
He grabs my shoulder and I throw him off. I won't last two minutes in a fight right now. But I can't stop it. I advertize that first punch all over the place, and he avoids it easily. It's the last punch too; he catches my arm and locks it.
"You really wanna fight me, Babykiller?"
From anyone else that name would just feed the rage. He can call me that, he's entitled. He's a brother. No one else. But it's like a safe word. It wakes me up a little bit. "No."
"I didn't think so."
Dodger was always going on about the fucking Navy SEALs.
"For real. Put ten SEALs in there, get 'em in there, and they will find that son-of-a-bitch Bin Laden and they will fuck him up!"
"Dodge, they did that!" Bran was laughing, but he knew this shit. "Fucking Redwing! Don't you read?"
"The fuck, man?"
"Lone Survivor. Operation Redwing. This SEAL team gets surrounded up in the mountains and have this running firefight with Taliban. Three of the guys are killed, and the last guy gets captured. Fuckin' death by rules of engagement." He actually dug the book out from under his rack and tossed it over to Dodge. "Read it! You can read, right, Dodge?" The paper-back was dog-eared and filthy
"Fuck that, Sarge. That was one team!" Dodge was all wound up. "One team! I'm talking about flooding those fucking mountains with fucking SEALs!"
"You said 'ten' SEALs!"
"Fuck it! I'm tellin' you, you give the SEALs free reign in those fucking caves, they will bring us Bin Laden's head on a fucking plate."
"I agree with you, Dodge," Bran was still laughing. We all were. Dodge was just so enthused. "Right on, fuck rules of engagement, and just cut loose some SEAL's up there. Done deal."
"'Let slip the dogs of war,'" I said.
"The sage speaks!" Bran turned his grin on me.
"Did you read this thing, Rye?" Dodge pitched the book in my lap.
"Yeah, I read it. I think the guy has a whacked out sense of history. But I gotta respect the shit he went through, and watching his teammates die like that."
"Yeah? What would you do?" Bran's grin died and he got real serious. "You're up in those mountains with your team, and some goat herds find you. Some fucking kids. They know where you are. They are gonna rat you out to Taliban if you let 'em go. If you kill 'em, liberal media has a fucking field day and you're a war criminal. In that spot, what would you do, Corporal?"
"Kill 'em all, and let God sort 'em out." I would rather rot in prison than watch Bran die like that. Or Dodge, or Stevens, or the rest. I would rather die.
Bran looked me dead in the eye, didn't say anything, but I knew he was thinking the same thing.
"You would do that? That ain't right." All the energy went out of Dodge. He looked confused and maybe a little scared, looking back and forth between me and Bran. "Sarge? Rye, that's not right."
"I never said it was right," I told him. Bran caught the book as I threw it back to him. "I said it's what I would do."
Bran sighed. "Rye, I hope I never put you in a place to make that decision."
"Me neither, Sarge," Dodge said. "Jesus. Fucking babykiller, Ryan."
There is no right. Everything about it is wrong. Every damn thing. And all I can do is hope that what I did was a little bit less wrong than if I'd done it some other way.
Must have done okay, because they used the word hero. But if I was a real hero, those guys would still be here.
Stevens anyway. He was just nineteen.
Trade a blooded sergeant like Bran for a rookie kid. Not a good trade, but fair, I'd say. But it doesn't work like that. Can't make deals like that with the universe. The universe takes both. Plus a few more. And half your leg in change.
I am standing on a dusty street. Stevens is next to me. His face is gone.
The dead dog picks its head up and looks at me. Its leather face is snarling. It has no eyes.
Stevens is telling me something. I can't understand him, because his face is gone. But I know what he's saying.
"Let God sort 'em out."
The world goes red.
I stop what I'm doing and look at her. Sophie hates firearms. She hates just knowing that I keep them in the house. The pistol which I am cleaning on the kitchen table right now and a pair of rifles in the locker downstairs. "You want me to teach you to shoot?"
She hesitates. That says a lot. But she keeps going. "I know the guns represent a big part of your life. I think I should understand that a little better."
I don't know. I don't think learning her way around a firearm is going to help Sophie know what I am. I don't think I want her to know what I am.
"Are you sure?" I can respect her aversion to firearms. I have balanced that so far, with only a few ugly moments like that night on the porch. But now she is asking to step into my territory. I don't know if I want that.
"No." She admits it. "I'm not sure. But I want to help you. And for me to help you, I need to know more about –" she aborts whateer she was going to say and changes it to "what happened to you."
"What happened to me?"
"You changed, Ryan." She sits down across from me. "You changed a lot. And that's totally understandable. But it's hard for me to figure out just how you changed. I don't know what happened to you over there."
I don't know what happened to me over there. "And you think this will help?"
"I don't know. I think it's worth trying."
I sit back, staring at the disassembled pistol on the table. So much of my life is this. Can I taint Sophie that way?
This time I shoot the dog. The sun-leathered dead skin pops with the impact of the bullets, like paper. Dust rises. There is nothing warm and damp left inside, only dust and bones and hide and filthy, falling-out hair.
Stevens tells me to let God sort 'em out. His face is gone.
The dog picks its head up. Its missing eyes stare at me.
The world goes red.
She nods, looking fearful. I think she is having second thoughts, but she's so brave. She keeps going.
"Never point the weapon at anything you are not prepared to shoot." There is something comforting about this. Going over the rules again. It's like a charm. A prayer almost.
"Do not place your finger on the trigger until your weapon is aimed at the target." My own fingers twitch. My right hand is itching for a trigger. My mind is itching for a clear target. Something solid I can fight against, instead of this slow confusion.
"Know your target, and what is behind it."
"In case I miss." She makes this little twisted smile, trying for humor, but still not over her anxiety.
"You're not going to miss. Take up your weapon."
Sophie leans back against my chest as I coach her, guide her hands. When I let go she sways a little bit, but corrects. "When you're ready."
She hesitates so long I start to think she's finally going to back out, beg off. Then the pistol barks. The recoil surprises her. The ejected casing brushes her arm, and she flinches from the heat.
The sound and the smell of it feel so right. Familiar.
She lays the weapon down again remembering the safety, smart girl and backs off.
"You're a natural." I feel the smile grow across my face. Maybe this is all right after all.
She makes that nervous smile again.
Jones lost his legs in 'The Nam.' He calls me 'Knee-deep.' I don't like it, but I don't tell Jones. It's better than 'Babykiller.'
"Knee-deep, how far you gonna run today?"
"Sixteen k, maybe twenty."
"Oorah!" He laughs. He is not a Marine, and likes to make fun of us.
I want to let it roll off. More than anything I want to stand there silent and let it roll off. But I can't. "Fuck you, Jones." He hears that ugly rage in my voice and looks surprised.
"Hey, man, I don't mean nothing."
"Yeah, I know." I swallow down the sour pain and the stupid rage. "Fuck it. Forget it."
"That's the pain talking," he allows.
There is a dead dog lying in the street. It raises its desiccated head and stares at me with no eyes.
Stevens tells me something through his ruined face.
I realize he isn't saying what I thought.
It isn't "Let God sort 'em out." Never has been.
I almost understand it.
Hot sand and smoke smack me across the face. The world goes red.
Sometimes I sleep on the rug.
Doesn't matter. I still hurt. I still snap wide awake out of a deep sleep in a split second, clutching that weapon like my lover.
I started this because of the crying fits. I will wake up in the middle of the night shaking, sobbing. I can't stop it. I just want Sophie to hold me until I can't cry anymore. But I don't want her to see me cry like this at all. So I remove myself from our bedroom.
I wake up with the taste of the desert in my throat. A hot-metal taste, a dusty, choking flavor. I shake and cry. It is all anger and fear.
My brain remembers having two feet. My nerves remember pins-and-needles into a limb that is not there.
My back aches. My throat aches. My chest aches. I'm crying. I'm hugging this weapon like my best friend. I'm choking on the baked-dust and blood-metal taste of war.
"Was getting shaggy."
"Right... if it grows out past an inch you look like a hippie peacenik," sarcastic. She laughs at me.
"I just don't like how it looks!" I don't mean for it to come out so nasty.
She pulls back. "You don't have to be so defensive."
"Just leave it alone."
"Rye, I was joking!"
"Forget it." I pull a t-shirt on over my head. The slogan reads 'I support world peace. One carefully placed round at a time.' "I'm going to the range." And then, even though it sticks in my throat and feeds the rage, "Like to come?"
I can tell she wants to say no. But she says "Okay."
Why does it make me angry?
Slowly, methodically, I work my way through three magazines and a handful of targets. The stink of gun smoke is delicious. The ringing of spent brass hitting the concrete, like music. Even the burn of hot casings landing on my bare arm is a comfort.
At some point I realize Sophie is watching me, instead of doing her own shooting.
"Soph?" The anger is gone. I feel relaxed and... oddly, safe is the word that comes to mind.
"You're really good at this, aren't you?"
"Well, I did go to the best school."
She laughs. A real laugh this time, and not that sickly smile.
"I know you don't like it."
"I don't have to like it, Rye. I like you. I love you. I love your courage and your dedication. And if this is what you need to do with your life, I can try to make it work."
"Sophie." It surprises me, and I don't know what to say. She's talking about my proposed third tour. We both know it.
"If they'll let you do it."
"Right." It will be a lot of work, and a lot of red tape, I'm sure. I know it will be worth it, if I decide to go for it. I know other amputees have gone back into combat. I only have to prove I can do the job just the same as before. "Soph. I love you."
"I love you more," she tells me fiercely. "Don't you ever forget it."
I could never forget that.
The dog has been dead for a very long time. Days? Weeks? In the back of my mind is the idea that it has always been dead.
The dead dog lifts its head and looks at me.
The eyes are gone.
Stevens tells me something through the crater where his face used to be.
I understand him this time. Finally.
"Let slip the dogs of war."
A wave of grit and warm smoke washes my face. I hear soft rain.
Everything disappears into red.
I shouldn't watch the news, it just makes me angry, or sad, or both. Travis feels the same. But we watch it. Scrolling tickers at the bottom, and too-brief feature reports. They never tell us what we want to know... what we need to know.
"IED's, fuck." Travis gestures at the television, pissed off, insulted. "'Improvised explosive devices' - call it what the fuck it is, it's a fucking bomb! Improvised exploding dogs more fucking like it."
"The dog Rye. You remember the fucking dog." Travis looks wound and mad.
"The dog... I remember the dog..." I feel stunned, like someone just kicked me in the face. I can't breathe. My mouth is dry. I panic.
The dusty, sun-baked street, a dog a dead dog by the side of the road. The white-hot warning that went off in my mind like a siren.
I had reached for the radio. A moment too slow, a heartbeat too late. In that moment I saw a dog that had been dead so long its skin was dried up like leather, stretching the face across the skull in a snarl. It picked its head up and looked at me, with empty holes where its eyes used to be.
That's what it looked like, for a split second before the world went red.
IED. A home-made bomb stuffed into the carcass of a dead dog.
The window on my door was rolled down. It had been stuck that way for weeks. When the IED went off it threw a blast of sand and heat into my face. I smelled dry earth and smoke and a hot-metal machine smell. The concussion rocked our Humvee. The vehicle ahead of us Bran's Humvee disappeared. There was a sound like rain... shrapnel and debris falling out of the air.
I finished reaching for the radio and made the call, too fucking late. "I-E-D! I-E-D!!"
Stevens started yelling at the same time. I tried to stay calm and get it right. Location, possible casualties... we needed the corpsman to come forward.
All the time I was fighting confusion, adrenaline, anger and fear. The knowledge that shit had hit the fan and it was only going to get worse. "Shut up, Stevens! Shut up!"
A hostile round smacked the ballistic windshield right in front of my face and spread a spiderweb fracture. That just made Stevens yell harder. No. The sound like rain was still happening. We'd been taking small-arms fire ever since the blast. And Stevens was yelling about that, instead of putting rounds down range.
"Stevens, shut up and get that fucking thing live!" In the turret, Stevens was in charge of our heavy firepower. I called in our contact. Same time I tried to get Travis, who was driving, to turn us around, get us out of there.
He tried, but we were wedged in between what was left of Bran's vehicle and another Humvee behind us. No room to maneuver. And long minutes at least before we got the vehicles to reverse and clear out behind us.
"Stevens!" I leaned over and smacked his leg. "I told you, you have to charge it!"
He did it, the weapon finally went live.
An RPG struck the road just ahead of us, and slammed the front of our vehicle over to the right. "Get out, Travis. We're a fucking sitting target. Get out. Stevens!" I hated to leave that machine gun, I wanted that fire power. But I was not going to sit there and catch RPGs in my teeth just to have that weapon. "Stevens! Get out." I radioed that we were leaving the vehicle.
If I could get out and get a line on exactly where we were taking fire from, I could do something about it. That's the thought I held in my mind. That I would put some serious hurt on the assholes that had just attacked us. Soon as I figured out where to shoot.
We all got out my side, to keep the vehicle between us and incoming. Travis got out behind me, then Stevens. Stevens stopped next to me. "I'm sorry, I forgot-"
"Fuck it. It's okay." I grabbed his shoulder, awkward in all our gear. "Sometimes you learn it better if you learn the hard way, right?"
"Right." He looked spooked and pale. I grinned at him, and he smiled a little. He was trying.
We could see glimpses of hostile muzzle flash and I shot at that. And for a minute it seemed to make a difference. I thought the shooting died down a little.
I was going to help Bran. I knew his team was in bad shape. You don't take an IED up the ass like that and walk away. I still hadn't gotten a proper look at the vehicle that was hit. I didn't know any figures on casualties. I just knew it was bad. I had to get up there and find out how bad.
I told Travis what I wanted. He said; "You're fucking nuts, Rye. I'm right behind you." Stevens just stared at us like we'd gone mad.
The vehicles behind us were firing now, machine guns and 40mm grenade launchers. That was a very comforting sound. I used that chance to move up toward Bran's vehicle.
Bran was lying in the road. He'd been thrown from the vehicle. His legs were gone. His right arm was gone. He was alive, but only barely. I fell on my knees next to him. The body of the wrecked Humvee protected us from hostile fire.
"Bran. Hold on. Doc's coming." I realized hardly any time had gone by since I first called in the incident. Maybe a couple of minutes, no more. Our Navy medic hadn't gotten to us yet. Bran was looking at his weapon, I could see how bad he wanted it, but he couldn't reach for it, and couldn't have fired it even if I gave it to him. "Bran?"
He turned his head and blinked at me. I don't think he could hear me. I wasn't sure he even knew who I was. Then he said two things. First, he looked back at his smashed Humvee and said; "Help them." Then he laid his head back on the deck, he relaxed a little bit. The next thing he said the last thing he ever said was "Let slip, Rye. Kill 'em all."
Let slip the dogs of war.
I'm crying. In the blue backwash of TV light I am crying my heart out.
It takes Travis a minute to notice, but when he does, he is by my side a heartbeat later. "Hey, Rye," he whispers. "It's okay. Let it out." He hugs me.
It takes a long time. Travis never pulls back. He doesn't say a word, he doesn't have to.
I hardly make any sound, but my whole body shakes.
The dream is different this time. I am standing in the street with an eyeless, dead, leather-face dog, and Stevens, who has no face. I am watching my best friend bleed out through the shattered stumps of his arm and legs.
I can remember the rest now. I dragged Dodger out of the wrecked Humvee. He was burned and ripped up and bleeding fucking rivers. But he was alive when I got him into cover, and the Navy medic was with us moments later.
Travis pulled Michaels free and followed me.
It was when we went back for Keller that Stevens took a sniper's bullet in the back of the head. That's what ruined his face.
I dragged him back. But there was no saving him. And then it was too late to go back for Keller. It was too hot. I started for him, I was determined not to leave any of them. Even if they were all dead.
The second RPG is what took my leg off. Travis dragged me into cover and the Doc patched me up.
The whole engagement lasted no more than ten minutes.
I have ten minutes of my life back.
In those ten minutes, a thing happened. People died.
Five people. Five brothers. Dodger, Stevens, Keller, Michaels, and Brandon.
Sergeant Brandon Miller, United States Marine Corps. My best friend. My brother.
|DD 28 Jan. 2011|
|"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again… if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat." ~ Theodore Roosevelt|