Below the Triangle
by Joseph Hirsch
Camp Killeen, located in Southern Iraq about 150 miles north of the Kuwaiti border, was probably the least dangerous place in country. The Americans didn’t care much about it, and it didn’t seem to be on the insurgent agenda either. It had gone without a single attack since its inception as a fueling point some four years ago. It was jointly guarded by the Army and the Air Force, who didn’t seem to notice or care when local Iraqis placed wooden planks on the concertina and hopped over to have a look around. Base command said not to shoot, as it was clear that they were there for discarded scrap metal and not to scout for mortar positions.
The base was compact, protected from windstorms on all four sides by storage containers. There was one small helipad near the center of the camp, buttressed on one side by a volleyball pit and on the other side by a basketball court. There was a morale center, a motor pool, and two satellites; one tactical, one tropospheric. There wasn’t much else. The few soldiers visible during the daytime wandered casually and without purpose.
The only recent development that posed a threat to the peace which had reigned here since the beginning of the war was the circulating rumor that Syria had been funneling money to the local insurgents in order to challenge the coalition. The two reservists relaxing in PTs under the smoking camo shielded their eyes and tightened their lips against the dust that rose as the Chinook touched down. Usually it was a Black Hawk.
“That’s the first one of those I seen,” the one said, flicking the cherry from his Newport into the sand.
“Probably a general,” the other one said, standing up from the picnic table, just in case. Both men were old, outranked by active duty soldiers half their age.
The rotors whirred, slicing above and below each other, sonic whap-whapping that split the natural silence of the desert. Two men in desert camo stepped off first, in full battle-rattle and carrying a sizable tough box between them. They squinted against the kick-up of dust and did a straight line for the two smokers.
Both wore earplugs and one shouted. “Where is the VTC?”
The one reservist pointed a short-distance to where the basin of a satellite served as a landmark above the sand-battered corrugated tin. “Over there.” The other nodded his thanks, nodded to his compatriot, and they took off.
Shortly thereafter a slower, older man with a more determined bearing came out of the hatch, striding as if each step could serve as the eternal pose for the statue he one day aspired to become. They saw the star above the cat eyes on his Kevlar and their assholes puckered. Their first salute in six months, unless you counted the lazy half wave they gave their L-T.
“Sir,” both of them said.
They did their best not to look uncomfortable in his presence and he did his best to pretend it worked, secretly enjoying the way it put them ill-at-ease. He disliked the idea of being intimidated by men he outranked, but that had been the way it was with this damn private they’d had riding with them the whole time. And he got the feeling that it was only going to get worse when they got down to brass tacks. He wasn’t looking forward to it.
He dealt with the two fat shit bags before him, presenting his question, confident that he would get an answer if their girth was any indication. “Gentlemen, what time does the chow-hall open?”
“For lunch, sir?” The first one asked. He realized his idiocy too late and could only squirm while his friend rebounded for him and fought through his own jitters to say, “Eleven-thirty, sir.”
“Thank you.” He smiled, a tiny, intimidating man. He followed his bearers, and the last of the retinue came filtering out of the black innards of the Chinook, two…privates?
“What the fuck?” The bald reservist who smoked Newports said, voicing the thoughts of his friend. Two unkempt infantry men (neither one with weapons) marched out of the back. The lead one struck them as battle-shattered, the other one battle-hardened, but both came across as tested. They ignored the brass and headed over for the smokers.
The shattered one took a seat on the edge of the bench, facing away from everyone, not bothering to acknowledging them. The other one made up for his friend’s bad manners and went up to the two, shaking their hands one at a time. “Y’all got a couple cigarettes, man?” He took his Kevlar off and wiped his hair. He dropped down, sighing and sitting his helmet between his legs.
“Sure. Marlboro lights okay?”
“You got any menthols? My boy only smokes menthols.”
The other reservist thought it was strange that Crazy should consider himself too good to ask for his own cigarettes, but he volunteered, “I got Ports.”
“That’ll work.” The friendly newcomer said, much obliged and tapping his buddy on the shoulder, who reached over with a mud stained hand, accepted his square and puffed without a word, his back still to the group.
“So what are y’all here for?”
Jeffries (his name was stitched on his cat eyes) said, “He knows,” nodding his head toward his friend, “but he won’t tell me.”
“Huh,” was all the other one could say.
The first two off the Chinook, lighter a tough box, came back from the Video Teleconference Center, shouting and motioning for their cares to get a move-on. Jeffries debated putting out his cigarette, couldn’t bear it and puffed desperately to replenish his lungs in the few seconds it would take to get his partner moving, and said as he smoked, “ Come on, Gates. You dragged my ass out here, now be cooperative, homeboy.”
Staring off into the distance, the one with his back turned asked, “Are we going to do it now or what?”
“Nah, I think it’s chow time first, dawg.”
“I want to get it over with.”
“I’m fucking hungry, man.”
Gates sighed, stood up, stretched to emphasize the time he could take, the strange superiority he exuded in a rank-conscious world where he was supposed to be at the bottom but for some reason was on top, in intimate contact with the sun even, whom he stood and stretched before. Then he followed his friend, and his complaint to hurry the fuck up.
Curious and grateful for the relief from the unbroken boredom of eight months of deployment without violence, the two reservists followed them to the chow hall, and sat at a respectful enough distance to monitor the goings-on without undisguised eavesdropping.
A stray mongrel dog crossed their path at the hand washing station. Fur sprouted randomly from where it hadn’t been ripped or rotted away from the beast. It was thin, legs stilts and ribs skeletal fingers. Jeffries feigned to rush and strike and it flipped to its belly. Gates crouched down to the dog in that position and rubbed it.
It’s nice to see he doesn’t hate animals as much as people, the Reservist thought, squirting sanitizer into his hands and keeping an eye on them from where he stood. Less than six months ago there had been a standing order to shoot any dogs caught wandering around post. They were magnets for Lechemoniasis and a host of other health risks including rabies. He wished it was still like that. He was from the countryside, and though it would have been a poor substitute for hunting, it would have been something. He definitely wasn’t going to get a chance to shoot any Iraqis. If he wanted to see Iraq, he had to go back to his room and turn on Fox News.
There were five ceiling-mounted televisions in the dining facility. All blared some reality television with a news ticker scrolling across the bottom. The kitchen staff were Nepalese, brown men with starch white chef hats and plastic gloves. They served food, collected trash, and wiped tables with a smiling obeisance that bordered on slavery. Sometimes you could catch them staring at the soldiers with pure hatred, but the soldiers never seemed aware of it.
By this point the two Reservists were livid with Gates, though they couldn’t understand why. Their inability to understand only made them hate him more. It was the way he sat apart for one thing. There was the general with his two staff sergeants, who with their armor off could be visibly identified by their sashes as MPs, and the other private, all sitting together and eating in harmony.
And then there he was, all alone at the other end of the table, eating…what else would a childish, fucking child eat? Ice-cream! Ice-cream piled decadently with whipped cream and nuts and maraschino cherries, and he only appeared to pick at it. How the hell did a man not develop an appetite in a war zone?
Despite his small meal, he was the last to finish, and he took his time sauntering over to the VTC building, stopping to pet the dog, which apparently had approved of his tenderness sufficiently enough to warrant meeting him at the other end of the chow hall. Though they hadn’t seen him secrete it, the two angry Reservists saw him feed the dog a piece of lunch meat. Jeffries shouted for him to hurry up. He stopped to finished the second half of the Port he’d been forced to snub over at the picnic table. Then he disappeared into the building with the camo-mesh draped satellites on its roof…
Sergeants Hernandez and Beck finished setting up the machine, checking and double checking connections while Brigadier General Harvey paced back and forth. His blouse was hung over the backs of one of two chairs. The other chair was intended for Gates.
Jeffries set a half-frozen Gatorade on the table. “Can we smoke in here?”
“Get that off the table and away from the equipment.” Sergeant Beck said sternly. Jeffries yanked it up, uncapped it and guzzled. The AC roared in the small room. The floor was tiled and inlaid with intricate Arabic writing. There was only one small window that gave a view onto sandy rock bleaching a skeletal white, burning eyes even behind sunglasses. There was no wavy blurring of the horizon. Horizons didn’t exist. Neither did clouds.
“Are we ready?” The General asked. A huge sweat stain reached from his Spartan upper-body, hardened chest, to the gut bequeathed by time that not even a five mile jog four times a week could efface.
“Should be, Sir. Just let us confirm.”
Sergeant Hernandez took the cue and opened the manila file, standing in the center of the table. Sergeant Beck gestured for Private First Class Gates to take a seat. He sat across from him. The Sergeant took out a felt-tipped pen, uncapped it and placed it around his subject’s arm. This seemed to clear it up for Jeffries. Gates had probably raped some girl and now they were flying him out of Baghdad because they didn’t need this affecting the morale of the company. That would explain why he was so down the last few weeks. He had ruined his life and the life of some girl. But who? Diaz? She was a candidate. Gates didn’t seem like a rapist, though.
“Is your name John Crawford Gates?”
“Are you a soldier in the US army?”
“Is your social security number Two-Niner-One?”
“Don’t read his full fucking social.” The General said, cupping his sweat-marinated face with withering patience.
“Sorry, sir.” Sergeant Hernandez choked. Sergeant Beck had a full mustache of sweat now, though he didn’t notice it until the beads dropped onto the results ticking out of the mouth of the polygraph. He quickly wiped at his face.
“Just read the last four.” The General said.
“Yes, sir.” Sergeant Hernandez said, continuing. “Are the last four of your social security number ‘Eight-Five-Niner-Three?’”
“Yes.” PFC Gates said.
“Right, then. Moving on.” Sergeant Hernandez rifled to the back of the file, to the prearranged, scripted question handed all the way down from Lieutenant General Cleary’s office, a boss to the brigadier general, impossible to fathom. The question on this post-it carried the weight of the world.
“Did you have a hand in coordinating the attack on the South Gate at Camp Zulu, Baghdad?”
The room tensed. “No.”
“Do you know anyone involved in coordinating the attack?”
“Is it true that you went to your company’s staff duty desk at around oh-twelve hundred hours on the night of September Eighth to report that the South Gate at Camp Zulu, Baghdad would be attacked on September Ninth at 0845 am with a vehicle born IED?” Sergeant Hernandez exhaled.
“Do you know how you came to acquire this information?”
The proctor looked to the General. This is why he had been shepherded away three hundred miles south in the dead of night with only a nominal explanation given to his chain of command. This was a war, and wars were concrete. Anything intangible brought in the ether, which brought in a fog that not even the night vision goggles could cut through. The next question scared the shit out of all of them and no one wanted to ask it. Gates looked happy to answer it, sitting there placid as a camel.
“Are you re-affirming your initial statement, that the exact time, nature, and location of the attack came to you in a dream?”
The General reddened, turned away and looked out of the tiny window, his arms folded. “Have you told the truth during this session to the best of your ability?”
“Okay, man. Your done.” Hernandez tucked the manila folder under his armpit, Sergeant Beck continued annotating, and Jeffries asked, “Sir, you mind if I go to the shoppette and get some cigarettes?”
“Sure, son.” He said. “Take this soldier with you.”
“Can I take this off, sir?” Gates asked, pointing to his arm. The General nodded to his staff sergeants. “Yeah, man.” One said, helping him with the Velcro. He shrugged to the silent trio and went outside to join his friend.
“Fuck, man.” Jeffries said, “I need some cigarettes.”
“Me, too, homey.” Gates said, feeling refreshed now that he had escaped from the dubious and high-ranking inquisition. If they had asked him if he was psychic he would have said ‘No’ and probably would have passed with flying colors. Weird shit happened. That didn’t make you psychic. Sometimes you thought of a song and then someone next to you started singing it. So what?
It took them less than two minutes to traverse the entire post. As it turned out, there was no shoppette, only a small Hajji shop that sold bootleg DVD’s (pornos if you could communicate to the vendor, through a mixture of body language, air humping and pidgin dirty talk, ‘flick-flicky’), souvenir prayer rugs, and custom-stitch combat patches. They had cigarettes, but they only sold them stale and by the carton. Gates hung out outside while Jeffries went inside and haggled with the fat Shi’a man.
It would be a minute on those cigarettes. He could tell from the haggling tone that Jeffries was in the process of buying jewelry for his on-again off-again fiancée. When he got paranoid about her fucking other men he would attempt to re-sell it to another Hajji shop down the line. That had been the cycle so far, en route here. They had stopped at Foxtrot, a joint-multinational range, where he had bought her a faux Cameo with a very real price, called her on the morale line, detected something in her voice that made him think she was fucking one of her coworkers, and attempted to resell the jewelry to another vendor at Camp Jericho, a little bit north of Basra when they had stopped to refuel.
Gates wasn’t a sadist, but he derived some comic relief from the back and forth. But that wasn’t the only reason he wanted Jeffries around. He was alright peoples, in general. They hadn’t been close friends. Gates had no close friends in the unit and had been standoffish even before he turned into Nostradamus, but Jeffries had been the only one in the unit who hadn’t pissed him off at some point, so when they brought him into the Multinational conference room in the palace and told him he needed someone to come along and be a third-party witness, Jeffries’ name popped into his head, and now here he was.
He didn’t know this, as he leaned against the side of the shop, posted and itching for nicotine, but he had saved Jeffries from a detail that had been killing him for the past six months. He was on Perimeter Lights, which entailed walking alongside an aging Bobcat manned by an old Iraqi man, dressed in Kevlar, ballistic vest and gloves, plus full combat load, eight to twelve hours a day in the sun, watching the old man replace lights on the inside of the wall. The job was a farce.
The old man had no interest in anything but his five dollars a day, and here he sat, eighty pounds of gear in one-hundred and forty degree weather, four-thousand rounds a minute devoted solely to a geriatric who had probably known the Prophet Mohammed when he was a teenager.
When Jeffries heard he was packing up and heading down south, minus most of his gear, Gates could do no wrong in his eyes from that point onward.
He came out of the shop with two bags, pulling a carton of Newports from one and splitting it open for his partner. “There you go ‘bro.” Gates was afraid to ask what was in the other bag. Jeffries was shitty with money in realms beyond jewelry: magazines, computer accessories, I-pods, Amazon.com, he manages to remain as broke in Iraq as he was in the states. Most men and women in uniform ensured Iraq wasn’t a total loss by at least getting out of debt. Jeffries would have nothing to show for it, except for his life, which was a lot, now that Gates thought about it.
“No problem, cuz.”
They tore the cellophane from the packs and walked slowly, temporarily free from the brass. They were supposed to rendezvous back with the bigwig at Chow. After they broke bread together, it was back to the VTC to evaluate the results of the polygraph. So they had from now ‘til 1700 to kill, and not a lot to do.
Jeffries took a square from the pack and tamped one out for his friend. They crowded his OIF Zippo and blew out smoke. Jeffries scratched his right eyebrow with his cigarette hand and mumbled as smoothly as he could, “Holy shit.”
Both of the female airmen turned their heads, one down, and one away, revealing the chocolate chips of their boonies. Their earrings stood out, majestic femininity like perfume after a deluge of sewage.
“Yo, you take the black one, I’ll take the white one.” Jeffries said.
“Dude, you’re black. The black girl’s not going to be feeling me.”
“How do you know until you’ve tried, white chocolate?”
“Yeah…” He laughed for the first time in awhile, waving smoke away and happy for the futile diversion of women he knew had no interest in fucking him. The Army (or the Armed Forces since they were in the Air Force) was like society, in that women generally fucked up and men down; Air Force fucking Army was down. But maybe they wanted to slum it…
“Bitches.” Jeffries said. “They’re here for four months, six months tops, if they get extended.” Both of them had already been in Iraq for six months. Six more to go. Unless they got extended. Then twelve more months. A year. Jeffries stared after them, torn between lust and jealousy. Gates tapped him on his shoulder, a gesture that told him to let it go.
They came over to the sandpit, where a half-assed volleyball game was in progress. A few airmen in PTs were scrimmaging with Army on the basketball court. Since their PTs were packed, Jeffries and Gates took up spots on the bench. Gates let his feet dangle between the slats, kicking the underside of the rail.
He listened to the basketball bounce, and the volleyball thud, and thought about the dream that had gotten him here. He had been upside-down in an up-armored Humvee and Specialist Rose was already dead from the impact of the rocket, in two halves. Sergeant Merrick wasn’t dead yet, but he was on his way. He had somehow instinctively yanked Gates down from the turret as they reached critical mass in the rollover, just barely missing the ravine where he would have most certainly drowned.
A small fire within the cab had ignited a pin flare which ricocheted around inside. He thought it was an accidental discharge from one of the dead men’s dislodged M-16s but no evidence of rounds had been found in the aftermath. The lead and third truck had formed a textbook box around them, Dustoff was alerted, and spotted a daisy chain of IEDs off to their right.
They were given the order to cordon the area, all remaining gunners would secure the area from their vantage (the Singars inside the truck hadn’t been disabled, and Gates had heard the whole thing lucidly, thinking I’m not remaining. I’m the gunner that’s not remaining. They think I’m dead.) For some reason them thinking he was dead was more unendurable than being dead. The only thing worse, and this he was sure now and forever was the worst thing, was burning flesh.
It penetrated you, if you had any sympathy, the way your drunken friend puking next to you made you want to puke. Burning flesh invaded you, against all reason, it felt like a sin to breathe it in; the horror of realizing that it was the same as eating someone. He thought of Eucharist in grade school, sitting upside-down and feeling like he would be cut in half if someone didn’t bring in the Jaws of Life soon, thought about how he could never eat fast food again, no meat, no celebration meal with his family when he got back. How could he tell them? I breathed flesh. I breathed Sergeant Merrick and Rose. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t forget what burning flesh smelled like. He wouldn’t forget what it tasted like.
Either Dust-OFF or Recovery called in EOD and fed them the nine line. Gates hadn’t recognized the voice so it had probably been Dust-Off. The chain was determined to be at a great enough distance, though he still should have been recovered first, if they were going off the SOP. Whatever the case, someone triggered the chain, but they hadn’t anticipated how close the chain crept to him. There was no way they could have known that the rest of it was submerged underground.
The Terrorists were usually as lazy as the Americans. This had been a bang-up burial, no tell-tale Bugs Bunny mound of dirt, wrong turn at Albuquerque. It went off twenty feet from his upside-down head where the blood was rushing, not close enough to kill him, or even really hurt him, just close enough to give him a concussion that knocked him into a dream that told him Camp Zulu, Baghdad would be attacked on September Ninth at 0845 am with a vehicle born IED. He remembered a phrase his father had ingrained in him since about age five: smack some sense into you. That’s what the concussion had done. He wasn’t psychic. It had smacked some sense into him.
Besides, potentially being psychic didn’t bother him. He laughed. He could become a superhero. Locate Bin Laden through Afghani caverns with his X-ray eyes.
“What you laughing at, man?”
He shook his head. “Nothing.”
He hit the Port hard, knowing there was a whole carton there if he needed it. “Hey, look who’s here.” Jeffries spun around. Gates spun too. The dog was following them, a nomad who knew life outside the wire better than either of them, yet still managed to wag its tail.
Gates bent down to pet it, him. “Don’t ever touch me again.” Jeffries said, smoking and disapproving. Gates ignored him, patted the dog’s stomach, and spotted a pink knot in the middle of the dog’s belly.
“This dog’s got a hernia.”
“What are you, a fucking vet? Come on, man. He probably got it lifting weights, which is what I feel like doing. Let’s go.”
The dog seemed to mistrust the change from affection to investigation, and limped away from Gates, who turned back to his friend. “Let’s go.” Jeffries was already peeling off his blouse, revealing heavy muscles, bowed and corded with veins like tree roots. He was a gym rat, spent what money he didn’t waste elsewhere on supplements (both legal and iffy) and he came in third on the Camp Zulu Strongest Man competition and actually managed to take the Humvee Lift event in the male category.
Gates, on the other hand, did the minimum to pass the PT tests. “You go ‘head, man. I’m gonna check out what passes for a library on this shit heap.” They passed the clearing barrels where two flyboys charged their sidearms into the bins before heading inside.
A Hindi man who seemed transcendentally beyond the everyday woes of Iraq stood at the counter where he signed out ping pong paddles. Behind him were board games like Risk and Monopoly that no one ever played. The main room was set up with couches divided between Play Station and X-Box loyalists, crouched like zombies temporarily galvanized by a brain thrown their way. They played mostly sports and World War Two simulators, with one or two committed Role-Playing devotees finding quiet solace in an epic adventure off in a corner.
They both signed the clipboard, and Jeffries took a towel. “Alright, man.”
They walked in separate directions down the corridors painted with symbols representing all of the units that had come before them. The names of casualties were written to the sides of the various symbols. All of the KIA belonged to units that were passing through. This post had never known violence.
Gates walked into the library, the only other habitué a middle-aged woman in PTs who had to be an officer, probably in the medical field. He tried random books from the shelf, knowing that he wouldn’t find anything good. He took a book and went to lie down on one of the couches, letting his feet hang off the edge. He stared at the ceiling, fixing his eyes on an overhead fluorescent transom. He had a headache. He fell asleep.
Later, he didn’t know how much later, he felt someone tapping his foot. Gates sat up, propped on his elbows. It was Jeff. “How was the gym?”
“Fucking sucked man. They got all their equipment from English soldiers, so it’s all in kilos. I don’t know the metric system,” Gates reached up his hand, and Jeffries helped him up, “Except when I was stationed in Germany. Someone taught me how to convert kilometers into miles and back. I forget how. It’s helpful on the autobahn, though. How was your nap?”
Jeffries only stopped talking because he realized that he’d asked a question and was therefore compelled to wait for a response. He would have kept going, amped as he was on a heady mix of endorphins and testosterone, having lifted after the long hiatus imposed by their trip down here.
“It was bad.” Gates said, referring to the nap.
“Oh, yeah. Why’s that?”
They walked back out the front. Jeffries waved goodbye to the Hindi. “I had a bad dream.”
Suddenly Jeffries stopped and Gates walked on, toward the dining facility and their 1700 meeting with the general. “Oh, yeah, about what?” Jeffries waited, as if for a life-or-death prognosis on his own health.
“Let’s get this fucking thing out of the way.” Gates said.
Dinner was a grim standoff, a silent affair. The Televisions all blared the same news, two talking heads with opposing viewpoints on Iraq, the chattering argument cast a few feet above the heads of those enduring it and ignoring those who talked about it. The general and his non-commissioned officers sat on one side of the table, Jeffries on the other, staring at Gates expectantly, tortured and hating his friend almost as much as the General. They all watched him pick at his Sundae, run the plastic spoon along the top, coating it with Hershey’s syrup. He finally ate the maraschino cherry.
Gates was the first one out, pitching his mostly-intact dessert into the trashcan held by a smiling Nepalese man. The General was next, followed by the NCOs, then Jeffries.
Back in the VTC room the general laid it out for him simply, conceding a defeat of kinds, and the process pained him, thus his medium. “Hernandez.” He said.
Hernandez, who was apparently in charge of all paperwork, unfurled the results which dropped well to the floor like some kind of medieval decree. The pages were littered with pen marks and post-session footnotes in a shorthand of waves it would have been impossible for anyone not trained in the art to interpret.
The general spoke. “These results indicate that you are telling the truth. Or at the very least you believe you are telling the truth. I don’t know everything there is to know about the polygraph machine, but Sergeants Hernandez and Beck do, and according to what they tell me, no one knows everything there is to know about the polygraph. It’s not infallible. Am I right, sergeants?”
“Yes sir.” They conceded.
“So…” Gates asked, “what are you telling me?”
The general flinched at the omission of ‘sir’, but continued all the same. “Either you are a very good liar, in which case you did have prior knowledge that an attack was to take place at Camp Zulu, in which case you are a traitor and will be punished to the maximum extent under UCMJ, probably sentenced to death…”
For some reason, even though it wasn’t his life at stake, Sergeant Beck gulped audibly. “And, in addition, you are a sociopath…Or.”
“You’re psychic.” Sergeant Hernandez spoke, hope for this contingency forcing him to speak out of turn.
“Or,” The general said, choosing to ignore him rather than get angry. “You’re psychic.”
There was silence. Then Private Gates said. “So what you’re telling me is…” He looked to Jeffries. They exchanged mutual looks of confusion. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Look, son.” The general’s double-chin, more a result of gravity than fat, trembled. “ We can either rule out or confirm your psychic abilities, right here, right now.”
He marched over to the paper, snatched it from Sergeant Hernandez, who sought to protect it like a baby and cringed as the general tore at it. “To hell with all this. What I want from you right now, is to tell me something else. Tell me something that’s going to happen tomorrow. And if it happens, hell, I’ll go to the chapel and kick the cross off the alter, you can get your happy ass up there and I’ll start praying.” The general looked around. Catching his breath, and gauging the effect of his words, he continued again, albeit this time more carefully. “Look, none of you were even in the Army as long ago as the Bosnian conflict. Maybe Sergeant Beck.”
Sergeant Beck shook his head, though it seemed to be a rhetorical question, the way the general carried on. “My point is this. The Cold War wasn’t so long ago that I’m not willing to entirely rule out psychic phenomenon. If what you’ve got can save American lives, I’m all for it, son.”
Gates, opened his mouth, looked to the others for help, which wasn’t forthcoming, and spoke timidly. “…So?”
“SO GIVE ME SOME GODDAMN PROOF, YOU LITTLE SHIT!!!”
“That’s easy.” The private said, the placid camel again. “I’ll be dead tomorrow by noon.”
Sergeant Beck interjected, his training kicking in. “Are you saying you intend to hurt yourself. Because if you are, I’m required to inform your chaplain and place you on suicide watch.”
“Jesus.” Gates massaged his temples, and headed for the door.
“Private!” The General shouted. “You give me something to go on now, if you want this project to continue. Otherwise, we’re on the next thing flying back to Baghdad. I’ve wasted enough time, money, and resources on your ass. Now if you don’t want a court martial for colluding with the enemy, you give me something.”
Private First Class Gates said, “I’ll have something for you tomorrow at 1300, sir.”
He left, not slamming the door behind him, but closing it gently. Jeffries stood outside with him, pulling a cigarette from his pocket. He handed one to Gates. “Here you go, dawg.”
They leaned against the wall, hearing the continued tirade of the general rain down on his remaining men. “Hey, man.” Jeffries said.
“Thanks for getting me out of Baghdad. This is some pretty funny shit. I like watching that guy blow his top.”
“Me too. Hey.” Gates tapped Jeffries.
“What up, man?”
The sun was relaxing its hold, throwing a more endurable gold and casting back its white, the phosphorus replaced by a chilly sepia. “Give me a couple packs to take back to the tent. Where the fuck do they got us staying anyway?”
“I don’t know. Let’s go talk to Billeting.”
They headed off in a random direction, looking for someone who might have the key to a room where they could lay down. “Hey, Gates.” Gates was preoccupied. Jeffries toyed with his name in the interim it took for him to come back. It was the interplay. No one else called him Jeff. “Gates of heaven, Gates of hell, the gayness of Gates.”
“What up, Jeff?”
“If you’re thinking of suicide…” Jeffries grew somber, centered himself in front of his friend. “Can I have your DVD player?”
Gates laughed, the second time in eight months. “Sure Dawg.”
Night came, without mortars or helos, the pulse of silence, the mild twittering of insects in the stagnant reeds, somewhere outside the rusting concertina and the ease of Iraq’s secret, this place where nothing happened. That was the subject in the General’s tent, where he lay with his two aides. They were using the polygraph tough box as a makeshift table for a game of spades. They threw down their cards and bullshitted, engrossed enough to give up on the psychic, at least for the time being.
“This post goes four years without an attack, and then the day after he shows up, you expect me to believe…” He stopped, his words were falling on deaf ears. He lay with his head in the direction of his mini-fan. A goddamn General without air-conditioning.
With Jeffries asleep, Gates was the lone soul taking advantage of the 24 hour internet café. He had sent an e-mail to his father, something about a football game he’d caught part of in the dining facility and for his father to please comfort his mother if something happened to Gates; he’d sent one to his sister, wishing her luck in law-school, good luck with the bar, and with all her life, and if something happened to him, to keep on going; one to his brother, saying that he knew how bad it sucked to be living at home with mom and working a shitty job, but it could be worse. You could be in Iraq.
Then he sent one to his mother. But he didn’t know what to say. Opting for laziness and brevity he sent, I Love You. He stood up, rubbed the sides of his head, and said ‘Goodnight’ to the female airman running the Internet Center. She looked up from her game of Solitaire and wished him a good night. He headed back to the tent where Jeffries was snoring loudly with his stinky-ass feet exposed. He dug all of the Newports out of his pocket except for one cigarette and left the packs on Jeffries’ gently heaving chest. They jingled slightly when they touched the dog tags hanging outside of his shirt.
The soldier who’d given them their linen had claimed that the tent had been treated with a highly flammable material in order to ward off mosquitoes, but when he lit the cigarette, he did not meet the pre-noon doom. So he smoked, killing himself and time. Then he slept.
Morning woke him with a tongue on his hand, gently along the knuckles, then tickling the palm into consciousness. As animal friendly as he was, he was startled by the dog. He jumped up and woke Jeffries in the process.
“We’re under attack, dawg.”
They got their towels, sandals, and hygiene kits and headed for the latrine. Jeffries smoked a cigarette with the hand not holding his loofah and Gates chewed his toothbrush.
“So you made it through the night.”
“I’m not supposed to die until today.”
“You’re crazy, dude.”
“I hope so.”
“If you die,” Jeffries said, “Then I’m gonna die, too. ‘Cause I’m gonna be shadowing you all day.”
“If you try to follow me when I tell you not to, I’ll beat your ass.”
“Ha.” Jeffries busted up, his face toward the sky. Then, when that position got to be too much, he leaned over. “It’s going to be hard, considering I’m an ex-golden gloves contender who can bench twice what you weigh. I bet you can’t bench half what I weigh.”
They stopped short, noticing that their three friends were coming from the other direction.
“Great,” Gates said. But it was unavoidable on a small post. They all continued into the latrine, as civil as possible under the circumstances. Any awkwardness was compounded by them being forced to strip naked in front of each other. Minus his star and plus a stretch-mark ridden paunch, the General seemed less commanding. They all took their stalls.
“Oh, yeah.” Jeffries said, continuing their earlier conversation. “I know Akido, too. I bet you don’t even know what Akido is.” His voice echoed, the only one at ease enough to talk. It reverberated through the silence imposed by the others. They stepped out, toweled and dried off, all five of them occupying the mirrors simultaneously. Someone else came in to shave and had to wait. Gates wondered if he might have to take on all four of them.
The groups parted and went back to their respective tents. They began changing into their duty uniforms. Jeffries had on his DCU top and his boxers, and was in the process of putting on his socks. “You going to chow, Ice Cream Man?”
“Yeah, man.” Gates said, reaching down to one of the adjacent folding cots and extracting one of the metal bars from the cross-hatch teepee it formed. “Just give me a minute.” He waited until Jeffries was faced away, bent over and tying his shoe.
He heard the sound as he was bringing the metal bar down, his friend about to form a question, cut into a plaintive whine that garbled as he caught the bar flush on the protruding bone at the rear of his head. Gates cracked him one more time, bringing it down like a club and stabilizing the sledgehammer force by going down on one knee. The bar fell from his hands and dropped to the floor, where it rattled. His heart beat fast. He crouched down to feel his friend’s pulse. It beat steadily, but he was out.
Gates walked out of the tent, into the day. The dog was on his doorstep. He bit his lip and kicked it with his steel toe on its snout; it snarled, betrayed. The contortion from love to the bared hatred of its teeth was not the note he wanted to go out on. He stared up at the sky, hoping for something, but there were no clouds and the sun hurt his eyes. He walked the post, searching for a spot away from people, but it was hard when it was this small. He settled for a small mound near two storage containers, with two guard towers equidistant from each other, some fifty feet away. He put his head in his hands and breathed. He should have kept a cigarette.
As of Monday, at least 2,112 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an associated press count. The figure includes two military civilians. At least 1,870 died as a result of hostile actions according to the military’s numbers.
The AP count is 4 higher that the Defense Department’s Tally, last updated Monday.
The latest deaths reported by the military:
- Marine Corporal Thomas D. Jones Jasper River, Oregon, died in a helicopter crash in Anbar; assigned to the Marine Medium Helicopter squadron 354, Marine aircraft group 35, 1st Marine Aircraft wing, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.
- Army PFC Jason R. Gates Cincinnati, Ohio, died from direct mortar hit near Talil; assigned to Rough Riders, 35 Inf BN, 12 Inf Bgd. Camp Gradier, Colorado