by Michael Farwig
A bomb goes off and I think of monsters and ice cream. This is what it’s like to be insane. I’ve heard of men – and I suppose women too – snapping. Of one event so terrible and horrific, or terrifically horrible, that their mind was shattered and broken into a thousand glittering shards that no number of doctors or drugs could ever put back together.
But my psychosis wasn’t like that. It started the day the bullet hit the armored windshield of the vehicle I was driving. It was harmless really, the round bouncing off and out to be lost in the sand somewhere. Sarge didn’t even see who had taken the shot, and Sarge saw everything. When we got back to Outpost we saw the small chip that had formed in the glass and everyone in the squad but me laughed at how close I had been. Had this been any other war, we wouldn’t have had bulletproof windows and I would be dead. I didn’t laugh. I just stared at this small plated glass window that had once been whole and perfect, but now there was a piece of it that was forever broken.
It wasn’t worth driving it to Big Base to be fixed. The vehicle’s manual said that it wouldn’t be deadlined until that chip splintered and a crack formed from one end of the glass to the other. The glass had to be clearly separated by the crack and even then, it was at Commander’s discretion if the vehicle was usable or not.
I watched this chip every day. Noticed it the first time the cold caused a millimeter splinter to form. Saw the spiraling shape of it and watched it as it spider webbed and grew with each small rock that would hit it. Eventually, I thought, there would be no glass left at all. That this crack would become so deeply ingrained that it would shear the glass in two. Watching this happen every day and waiting as it grew is when I realized that I was no longer completely sane.
No one else has noticed my slipping. The trick is being able to act like everything is normal. When we’re playing cards, and everyone laughs at a rare and quiet one-liner of a joke Sarge says, I chuckle right along with them. When everyone looks worried about the upcoming mission, I make sure to furrow my brow. And when everyone else says they can’t tell if the chip on the windshield is getting bigger or not, I nod along and pretend that I don’t notice that new spiral that wasn’t there before.
Right now, everyone is alert from the explosion, so I perk up and scan the surrounding sector, ignoring the overwhelming dreadful thoughts of vanilla scoops that are running through my head. I see the dust plume beginning to form behind the emerald dome of a mosque over a kilometer to the north and call it out.
“Unknown contact, thousand-plus meters,” I say. I have become so accustomed at pretending and acting the part that I even impress myself.
“Roger Specialist, eyes on. Probably a blow in place by EOD, I’ll call it up and check,” Sarge walks slowly and deliberately to me and pats my shoulder while pulling out his radio to make his call in. As I watch him walk, his tall gangly legs carrying him with a swift assuredness that shouldn’t be possible under the burden of all the equipment we carry, I wonder for just a minute if he is faking it too. If we are all just out here playing some weird game of acting to try and fool one another. But no… Sarge isn’t faking. No one can be that good.
Specialist Killian comes over and lays down next to me, pointing his rifle in the direction of the smoke and dust billowing from the explosion. He grins wildly, a white toothy smile that gleams out behind a face covered in sweat and dirt. His bushy eyebrows raise upwards almost touching his helmet, which he has ironically, or not, marked with an upside-down peace symbol. His grin somehow seems predatory and I am afraid of him because this is his second deployment to Kandahar and he isn’t good at pretending anymore. I smile back.
“You know what this means right?” His greyish-blue eyes are wide, and he speaks in a short quick burst, much like the automatic weapon that he carries. I nod at him slowly, wanting to back away, but forcing myself to be very still in position.
“Ice cream,” he says in a long drawn out hiss of breath. I look into those eyes that are so wide that I can feel myself physically being dragged into them and I’m afraid that I will be lost forever in these whites of Killian’s eyes. I stare into them for so long that I think I begin to see small tiny cracks at the edges.
Sarge speaks and I’m thankfully able to look away.
“Keep it down. Waiting to hear back if it was even anything,” Sarge says. The ringing in my ears and the smoke and dust over the city skyline indicates that it was definitely something, but I don’t say anything because Sarge is always right.
We wait there, pulling security on an empty and deserted patch of road. I try to relax the muscles in my forearms, but they refuse, gripping my rifle so hard that the little grooves on the handle are making indents on my palms through my gloves. The air is heavy and thick, and I think that if I stick my tongue out it will be jolted by the electricity that is charging through it. The urge to do just that comes over me almost every time something like this happens and right now it is so great, like an itch in your foot after you’ve put your boots on, that I look around to see if anyone is looking at me. All the squad is laying down and eyeing their sectors. Just as I’m about to open my mouth and reach my tongue out to let the millions of volts of energy that I know are currently surging around me zap me into oblivion, Sarge’s radio crackles to life causing me to jerk just slightly.
“Roger, EOD blow in place.” An unknown voice reaches through it. What this means is that someone found a bomb in some road or ditch or trash somewhere and had called it in to Explosive Ordnance Disposal to be disarmed and removed. Instead, EOD showed up, dropped some more explosive on the bomb, and detonated it where it was. This happens at least twice a week. I once asked Sarge if we could just do it ourselves, we had grenades and gunpowder, we could just blow it up and walk on without waiting for hours for someone in a bomb suit to do the same thing. He laughed a big hearty laugh and slapped my back, one of his many reassuring gestures, and I knew then that I should smile and laugh too but I wasn’t sure what the joke was.
“Alright, it was nothing.” Sarge says, and we all get up from our security positions, relaxing a little. The sand and dirt that was blasted into a fine powder swirled overhead and blurs everything in front of us into a light grey haze pierced only by the fierce Afghan sun. We resume our patrol.
I wasn’t sure where we were headed. Sarge had given us a mission brief back at Outpost but I stopped listening to those a long time ago. In my current state of crazy, I couldn’t keep up with all the names that were thrown around and when you mixed in all of the jargon and acronyms it came out sounding like a different language. Afghan maybe.
“We’re going to take Route Bills, which is amber, to Route Candy Cane, which is green. BOLO for any VBIED’s or HVT’s. Any IED strike or TIC, give POC and direction.” I understood all of this at one point, but now it was easier to just sing a song in my head and nod along with the rest of the squad. It was much easier to just follow the person in front of you.
So now, I stare at the back of Specialist Killian’s helmet, watching it bounce lazily. He had a way of skipping when he walked that caused his whole body to jump and roll around. I think of how it’s odd for a man in body armor to skip. I don’t look at the ground, which means even if there were wires leading to a bomb, I won’t have to see them. Sarge is always looking at the ground for bombs and in the windows for pointed rifles, and he’s always finding them. So is Killian. They each do it for different reasons I suspect.
We take a left, then a right, a right, then a left. I’ve started thinking that Kandahar is like a maze that we are all lost in. We’re really just walking around and around every day trying to find our way out. The dilapidated and crumbling white and gray buildings on our sides seem to close in everyday and I become more and more claustrophobic as we walk. I try to count the cracks in the walls to try to keep calm. Sometimes Sarge finds a place he had in mind, he’s the only one that could possibly know where we’re going. He’s the only one who could know the exit. Other times we just walk around and pull security at random stops. It doesn’t really matter. I lose track of how far we’ve gone or what turns we’ve taken. We could be walking in a circle or in a straight line and I wouldn’t know the difference.
My thoughts return to ice cream. Sarge used to tell us we could only have ice cream on days that we saw “the Monster.” At first, we all laughed, thinking this was another of his jokes, but it was one of his few hard and strict rules. He said there wasn’t any need for ice cream on days where we sat around and played cards. Or the day that we went on patrol and Private Harris fell into a sewage ditch. There was enough laughter and good things to go around those days that ice cream just wasn’t required.
And none of us knew what “the Monster” was supposed to be. A bomb went off a mile or so away in the city in our first week or two there and we all told Sarge that it was time to break out the orange sherbet. Or someone would get dysentery from eating too much goat the Afghans cooked for us and we asked him for cookie dough. He shook his head solemnly and said, “That wasn’t the Monster. You’ll know it when you see it.” And we did.
On that day that we first saw it, I think Sarge could feel it coming. Maybe Specialist Killian felt it too. We were on patrol in the city and Sarge kept calling security halts, scanning windows and doors. The air was heavy and dead still, but you could feel it charged with that electricity I felt today but I didn’t yet have the itch to be zapped by it. The noise of our footfalls on the soft sand and rocks echoed along the street. Each step sent up a little cloud of fine powdered sand that clung to our clothes and gear that we had begun to call moondust.
The Monster came fast and hard, springing out of an alley. Three men with AKs shot wildly at us, the gunfire erupting in long loud bursts. My weapon seemed to fire of its own volition, exploding in fire and lead in the direction of where I heard the first shots. Seconds passed, shooting coming from both sides of the dirty street, the clouds of moondust being kicked up now by bullets rather than feet. And then silence. Just as quickly as the Monster came, he retreated, leaving three Taliban soldiers dead. Their bodies stuck out at odd angles, one hunched over and folded into itself that no alive person could ever manage. But the Monster didn’t die, he just went back into hibernation, waiting again for the best time to strike. We went to check them for explosives, and Sarge delivered a hard kick to the head of one lying on the ground. I remember being afraid of him then, seeing his smile that came so easily at any other time replaced with pure and unadulterated anger. When I got back to Outpost and walked by the vehicles that the crack on the windshield had grown by an inch at least. That was our first day of ice cream.
Specialist Killian loved ice cream days. No matter how long the patrol had been, how dog tired we all were, how dirty or bloody our gear, he would run to the dining facility afterwards and stare into the white fluorescence of the freezer, studying all of the rainbow of flavors. His eyes were always wide with joy, his irises contracting so small and his mouth stretching until it cracked into that pointed tooth grin, the same way they did when the shooting or explosions happened on mission. He loved ice cream days.
Every time I watched him skip giddily over to that refrigerator my nose would crinkle and my lips turned down in disdain. The way he reveled in it, the way he loved it – both the combat and the ice cream – I hated him and only vaguely knew why.
I loathed ice cream days. Every time I took a bite my head would ache from the sharpest brain freeze that wasn’t brought on by the cold. Ice cream days were days of AK fire and grenade blasts. They were IED explosions. They were friends screaming in pain. They were nightmares. Ice cream days were bad. Fucking. Days.
But that’s why Sarge did it, I think. Because otherwise you’d just have those bad memories with no good attached and tat could drive you insane if you weren’t already like I was. Ice cream was an emergency bandage reserved for days of blood, pain, death, and screams; all the things the Monster was made of. Our ritual after days where the Monster came out was to head straight to the dining facility, grab a cup each, and sit in a circle and talk, or not talk, enjoying a taste of home and forgetting the war for a while. The small white bowl of frozen but melting sugar was a salve for the Monster’s bites. It was a way to repair the cracks.
My mind is snapped out of this spiraling reverie by another explosion, this one further away. I again run to the side of the road and laid down in the soft dry sand. Killian lays down next to me and looks over at me with another toothy grin, and I stare into the points of those teeth, not daring to look into the eyes that may or may not have cracked.
“Two in one day. Maybe we’ll get lucky and go for three!” And I could tell he sincerely meant that.
Sarge comes over after calling in this new explosion.
“Monster’s out in force today, let’s stay sharp so we don’t see him,” he says as he pats me on my shoulder the same way he had before. He gives a sharp tug on my water source and tells me I should be drinking more. I look into his soft green eyes and feel like I always did when he was near me – sane. He gives me a small smile and a wink before walking to PFC Traver and patting him the same way he had me.
This halt takes even less time, another blow in place, and as we get up to continue our patrol I fall back in line, so I can stand behind Sarge dusting the moondust off my vest. He asks me if I am tired, but I just shake my head. I can’t tell him the real reason I want to walk back here.
I watch him walk, the same way I had watched Killian, but Sarge doesn’t skip. He is tall and a bit gangly, but his legs move so fluidly and confident. Each step is purposeful and deliberate. I watch each step and feel safe for a minute. I don’t feel like nothing bad can happen, but I feel that it would be okay if it did because Sarge would always know what to do. He had told us as much the first time he met us. “It’s your job to look after yourselves. I’m just there for the double check on that. I look after you,” he had said. For the few minutes that I am close to him I can think of home or of Outpost or of puppies and rainbows and it doesn’t matter because Sarge will be there to make sure that everything is okay.
And so I walk and I feel safe and I don’t look down the alleys for rifles, and don’t look down for wires because Sarge is there to look for them for me. I don’t think about the crack in the windshield that only I can see and the cracks in Killian’s eyes and I don’t think about the crack in the world itself that is growing and can never be repaired. And with one step that crack was about to get so, so much bigger.
I step down and all of the electricity that had hung so delicately in the air burst to the singular point of my foot, draining the atmosphere of oxygen to breathe. I hear it, even if no one else does, as that energy whooshes down to my left big toe with a loud and audible click. Sarge must have heard it too because he turned around to stare at me and our eyes meet there on a small metal plate that hadn’t been there a second ago. If it had Sarge would have seen it. He sees everything.
“Don’t mo-,” he starts but his warning is lost in the roar of the Monster. I see it then for real. It formed out of the sand with dust and fangs, swelling so fast out of the ground it swallows Sarge whole. One second, he is there shouting for me to not move, the next he is lost in smoke. A rushing blast hits my ears and the Monster knocks me to the ground, and I can’t move, can’t breathe. Something large hits my back and pins me to the earth.
Seconds pass. Minutes are lost in that swirling cloud of dust and debris and smoke. I can hear coughing and think that everything is okay, that Sarge had made it out after all. I might even cheer. Sarge beats the Monster again, boys! But I realized that whatever it was that was restraining me was making the sputtering noises. I twist and turn straining my neck around and see Killian’s face smeared with more dirt than before. He is holding me to the ground, protecting me from the blast, and staring at the spot the Monster had come from. I can’t tell if the cracks in his eyes were gone or if maybe they had just broken completely, but that sharp-tooth smirk was gone.
I follow his gaze and I see Sarge’s long gangly leg twisting out of the earth. An arm hangs to the edge and I can’t tell which end the shoulder is and which is the hand. His vest lay twenty feet away. There is nothing left of his torso or head. The other remnants of him had turned the dust in the air into a pink mist. I try to hold my breath so I wouldn’t breathe it in but there was no way to stop from wheezing in raw and ragged gasps of smoke and dust and Sarge.
I scream. Or at least I try. I’m not sure if any sound came out, the ringing in my ears is so loud I can’t hear anything. Killian grabs me by my body armor and pulls me to my feet and throws me into a spot to pull security. I can’t hear him, but he points my weapon out, and points to his eyes then out into the fields beyond the road and gave me a thumbs up. He patted my shoulder before walking off.
I don’t know how long I lie there with that ash falling like snow. I stare out at my sector without seeing anything. The world has seemed to completely kaleidoscope and I can’t piece any of it together. Eventually Specialist Killian comes back and pulls me to my feet again and we keep walking. Another squad would come and secure the area and pick up whatever was left of Sarge.
It didn’t take long to make it back to Outpost. I follow behind Specialist Killian the whole way, his head no longer bobbing but his feet still skipping. When we walk through the gates I don’t know where to go. Sarge would’ve let us straight to the dining facility, but Sarge wasn’t there and so no one knows what to do. Killian skips in that direction, not stopping to even look at us. I noticed then that his skip was deliberate in its own way. I recognized his gait but couldn’t place it. The rest of the squad follows behind.
Before I went that way, I walk over to the parking area for the vehicles. I climb in and sit in what had always been, but was no longer, Sarge’s seat, and look blankly out his window. Only when I look over at my own seat and the windshield do I see that the crack that had started as a chip had finally spread all the way across. I wonder, briefly, if the Commander would deadline the vehicle now. I also wonder if anyone else would see it.
I finally gather myself together and walk to the dining tent. Everyone was seated in their usual spots and nobody says a word. I try not to look – I didn’t want to see it – but my eyes are drawn to the place where Sarge should have sat, and I can feel the sharp piercing pain of a migraine. It feels like glass breaking, or maybe just cracking. Specialist Killian goes to the freezer and scoops out a bowl of ice cream for each of us and I can’t be sure, but it looked like he put an extra scoop in mine.