Note: I'm not sure about the title. I like it because it clashes with the story itself--you expect one thing and get another with the very first sentence--but it also seems kind of bland. Problem is, I can't think of a better one; I use theme for titles, mostly, and theme is hard to pull out of CNF because you're slapping a veneer of meaning on the experience to give what happened some sort of reason, even if there isn't one.
Also, I know the thread tag should be Writing, but I couldn't pass up the explosive gently caress.
The platoon is forming up for chow when our sergeant tells us the war started last night.
Theyíre raining fuckin death and destruction up north, he says. Shock and awe, he says. Thatís some moto poo poo right there, he says. Fuckin ooh-rah. Also, which one of you shitbirds got come on my Penthouse?
So thatís what we talk about while we eat. The war, I mean. We talk about it because we donít know how to think about it. Some of us laugh about it. Some of us are plenty pissed that weíre not up in Iraq. What the gently caress are we doing in Kuwait, someone asks. What the gently caress are we doing eating chow when thereís a war to fight? Weíre the fuckin infantry.
Itís a good question. Fifty miles northwest, people are dying, screaming, bleeding out across stone and sand, and us, weíre sitting in the chow hall, enjoying eggs and croissants and little cans of Pepsi served by Hajis who wear black ball caps that say Chi-Chiís Restaurants. They sing Youth of the Nation in broken English.
Whatever the answer is, I donít care. Iím not stupid enough to complain about this. Iím pretty happy with how things are, actually. poo poo could be a whole lot worse. Compared to whatís going on over the border, this is spring break 2003.
But I canít help joking about it. I tear apart a glazed cinnamon roll and say, This is the worst war ever. Bryant, whoís sitting across from me, he laughs around a mouthful of eggs and almost chokes. We went to high school together, him and me. He enlisted a year before I did. He outranks me, which is kind of bullshit, but itís also pretty nice. He keeps me off the worst of the working parties and when weíre alone the rank doesnít matter. When weíre alone, itís just Jon and Jamie, not Corporal and Lance Corporal.
He washes his eggs down with a Mountain Dew. Youíre an rear end in a top hat, he says, and I laugh and say, Aye, Corporal.
Someone turns on the television in the front of the hooch and finds Fox News. Thereís a reporter on the screen wearing a flak jacket and a kevlar helmet. He has one hand on his head. The other hand holds a microphone and heís bellowing into it. Behind him thereís a flurry of explosions. As we watch the shockwave hits him and he takes a stumbling step forward. The camera shakes. When it snaps back into focus again thereís smoke billowing up in the background.
Did you get that? he asks the cameraman, and someone at our table says, Yeah, we got it.
Lookit that fuckin rear end in a top hat. Heís got better gear than we do.
Thatís no poo poo, someone else says. Fuckin unbelievable.
That dickheadís closer to the war than we are.
Yeah but who gives a gently caress, I say. We got fuckin cinnamon rolls. This is some ooh-rah poo poo right here.
Bryant laughs again. Itís easy to laugh. It shouldnít be, but it is.
Our sergeant comes over to the table. You got two minutes, he says. Fill your fuckin sucks and form up outside. We got some classes.
Aye, Sergeant, we say. We take a few more bites and squirrel some food away for later. Little boxes of Cheerios and Lucky Charms and Wheaties disappear into our cargo pockets. Me, I grab handfuls of napkins from the dispenser thatís sitting in the middle of the table. Itís a trick I learned in recruit training. The drill instructors had a habit of taking away the toilet paper.
We gather up our daypacks and rifles and gas masks and take our trays up to the counter and flip open the flap and duck outside. Out here itís the desert. No other way to put it. Just the desert. Sand the color of light maple, a sky the color of old faded jeans, a stink in the air like sunburned skin. Not one thing is dark. There are white trucks that turn fluorescent in the sun and bright grey bunkers and yellow hooches. Maybe thatís what makes it seem so big. Itís a perfectly flat plain cutting away in all directions. It feels loving Biblical. Like you half-expect to see pillars of light and manna falling from the sky.
Itís the desert. But it isnít all that hot yet. Actually, itís kind of pleasant, seventy degrees and cloudless with a soft breeze that makes the sand skitter in waves and patter against the hooches. While weíre forming up some of us comment on that. And most of us throw in pinches of Kodiak and Skoal and Copenhagen. We canít smoke around live ammo and so most of us got into the habit of dipping. I started back in School of Infantry and I meant to quit but then the war started. When we got activated the first thing I did was buy three logs of Kodiak Ice. In the desert that poo pooís worth its weight in blowjobs.
Our sergeant forms us up and tells us to get in a school circle. We sit down around him in a crescent with our packs in our laps and our rifles leaning against our shoulders. A staff sergeant from the camp comes over and introduces himself as Staff Sergeant Nagel. He has a shotgun he calls Frank. He starts lecturing us on enemy POW handling. Search them, he says. Keep them separated, he says. Donít let them ever know what time it is, he says. Give them the bootcamp experience.
We laugh at that. We know what thatís like.
Nagel starts explaining exactly how to search the Hajis when a humvee comes barreling our way. The driverís honking the horn in patterns of three. I turn to ask what thatís about when a siren goes off, an old air-raid siren, like something out of London in World War Two. We look at each other in the short second before someone starts shouting Gas! Gas! Gas!
We shout the word. All of us. Itís what we were taught to do. And while weíre shouting weíre reaching for the gas masks strapped to our hips. Thereís the ripping sound of Velcro flaps being torn open. Thereís the jingle of straps. And when I get the mask donned and cleared and tight against my skull thereís the heaving hissing sound of my breath and my heart in my ears. It sounds like someoneís knocking hard and fast inside my head. And the smell, inside the mask, itís like sticking your face inside the glove you wash greasy dishes with.
My lenses fog up and now Iím looking through a cloud. The guys around me are grabbing their rifles and scrambling for the bunkers and I snatch my daypack and sprint with them. It feels like Iím running on the moon, like every step takes me farther off the ground than it should. When I duck inside the bunker Iím sunblind in the shade.
And although Iím pretty loving frightened, Iím not terrified. Part of me thinks itís a drill. Some shithead officer pressing a button and laughing while he watches us dive like cowards. They want to keep us combat ready. Keep us alert. People higher in rank than you, they love that justification.
Iím sitting in the bunker with my rifle and my pack between my legs, my back against the concrete. Even through my shirt and blouse it feels cool. More of the platoon squeezes in and we press against each other, sitting knee to knee to knee. Our staff sergeantís sitting at the end of the bunkeróI canít see his face but I know the back of his head since heís one of two black people in the platoonóand heís leaning outside. Heís squatting and he has one hand against the concrete and the other against the sand. When he turns around to shout at us he almost loses his balance. His voice is muffled but what he hollers we all hear perfectly well. I still hear it.
The guys on post are getting into their suits, he screams. MOPP Four! MOPP Four! Get your loving suits on!
That fright Iím feeling, it takes a sudden cancerous lurch into terror. Now weíre jumping out of the bunkers, ripping open our daypacks, pulling out our MOPP suits. Theyíre in these sealed white bags that should be easy to open, but they arenít. My hands are shaking too badly. But Iím not the only one having problems. I look up and see one of the guys reach into his pocket, pull out a butterfly knife, flip the blade open, cut the bag apart, flip the knife closed, and put it back into his pocket like heís holstering a loving six shooter. Itís amazing. loving beautiful, is what it is. Like something out of a movie.
Back in my own world I discover Iíve gotten the loving bag torn open. Except now thereís a new innovation. These suits arenít like the ones we practiced with back home. The blouse goes on differently. The trousers have suspenders. The boots are these weird trapezoids of rubber and string and they look like clocks in one of those Dali paintings where everythingís melting, and I have no idea how to use them.
And while Iím struggling through all this, trying to field these new and interesting problems, all I can think of is the gas. Iím thinking thereís VX above us, that poo poo that melts faces like in that movie The Rock, VX settling down right now in a fine sightless layer over everything here in Camp Fox. Something like that, itís lethally easy to imagine.
But thereís something else Iím thinking about, something that doesnít belong. Iím looking at the scar on my right wrist, the little knot of flesh I got from playing in the woods when I was a kid. Iíd cut myself on a piece of metal. And looking at that scar, at that puckered skin thatís shaped a little like an X with a fat middle, Iím thinking Iím going to die and itís the last thing Iíll ever know. Iím going to die while my skin blisters and my lungs sear and Iím not thinking of home or friends or family or my girl back in Ohio. All Iím thinking about is that scar.
But I get the suit on anyway. Blouse trousers boots gloves. But it isnít perfect. I forget to adjust the suspenders so I have to do a loping, hunch-backed dive into the bunker. Weíre sitting knee to knee again. Iím cold but in the suit Iím sweating badly. It feels like I just walked into a sauna after a day out in December.
Outside, out in the sun, the siren keeps sounding. The white suit bags blow by like brilliant tumbleweeds. Someoneís doing a headcount, calling names. Inside the hood of my suit everything sounds like itís coming from underwater. And inside the body of the suit, my skinís itching. Just a little. Just enough to make me wonder if itís the suit or if itís the start of a chemical blister.
Iíve convinced myself itís just an itch, nothing serious, nothing to worry about, when the guy across from me starts coughing. I donít know who it is. I canít tell behind the fogged lenses. But whoever it is, this motherfucker, he starts coughing. Badly. And something starts running down his neck, leaking from the seal on the bottom of his mask. Itís like a black bead of sweat.
Terror becomes dread when I see that. I think he got gassed. I think he was too slow and he was faster than me. I think this isnít a drill. I think weíre all going to loving die.
Someone next to him holds up two syringes. One is atropine. The other is pam-two-chloride. The atropine, itís supposed to stop gas from killing you. The chloride, itís supposed to stop the atropine from doing the same. The guy coughing, heís waving his hands back and forth and shaking his head wildly. Iím fine, he shouts. Donít fuckin stab me, he shouts. But heís coughing while he says it.
I close my eyes and hug my rifle to my chest. I can feel its angles even through the suit and for some reason itís comforting, so I hug it harder. It feels like the only real thing here. Itís like an anchor. The guy across from me, heís probably dying, and that doesnít feel real. Neither does the suit against my skin or the concrete against my back or the sand under my rear end. It all has this hallucinatory feeling to it, this nightmare faÁade. Like if I drilled my fingers into the desert it would start to bleed. Or if I took a bite of the concrete it would melt in my mouth. It feels like a bad trip, is what Iím saying. Itís the adrenaline, I know itís the adrenaline, but that doesnít make it the unreality feel any less real at all.
The siren, thatís a lie, too. So when it winds down on the low note and doesnít start up again, I think Iím hallucinating the silence. But then the all clear sounds. Some disembodied voice announces it through the sirenís speakers. Someone else shouts it on a bullhorn.
We crawl out of the bunkers, surprised and confused and alive, and we grab our gas masks by the cartridges and peel them up and away from our faces. The first breath I take is like standing out in a January night and pulling the winter into my lungs. It burns my nose and floods down my throat and seems like it fills my whole body. It makes me think of whitecapped mountains knifing into a cobalt sky. Itís the bite of the air when the trees are a firework orange. Itís sweet sharp water coming from a snowmelt.
Itís the desert and itís a breath Iíll never stop tasting.
I glance back at the guy who was coughing and watch as he pulls his mask off. Thereís a brown ring of poo poo around his mouth and his lower jaw is covered in a beard of slime. Thatís when it comes to me.
Itís his dip. He forgot to spit his loving dip out.
I want to punch him in the face and hug him. I want to kick his rear end from here back to the States and yell at him for scaring the poo poo out of me. But what I do is laugh. And laugh hard. I canít loving stop laughing. Iím alive and thereís no loving gas and this war loving sucks.
I find Jon and ask him if heís okay. He runs a hand over his shaved head and gives a shaky smile and says yes. Worst war ever, I say, and he laughs and replies, Donít ever loving say that again.
3Romeo fucked around with this message at Feb 7, 2013 around 17:50
|# ? Feb 7, 2013 16:41|
|# ? May 25, 2013 06:46|
This is goddam tight. Very nice work. Rides the tension up like a clockwork spring.
I'd give you some crits, but I don't have any.
|# ? Feb 8, 2013 07:03|
There's some stuff in here I'm thinking of taking out (the bit about Fox News; the line about the toilet paper) because it doesn't really add much to the story itself, but it does add a bit of verisimilitude. Otherwise, I'm pretty happy with how this turned out, which is something I can't too often say about my short stories.
|# ? Feb 8, 2013 22:16|