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Soul Man

by Ray McPadden

A fly brigade orbited my poncho hooch, tickling my neck and hands. I slapped them away. They hovered and came again like dive-bombers, eager for my grimy skin. I watched a green fly land on my knuckle and rub his front legs together in anticipation. I hadn’t showered for weeks. Sweat beads glazed my brow and cheeks. The prickly-heat on my back was in full blossom.

I picked up my rifle and trudged to the perimeter machine gun on the north side of Patrol Base Miami. Corporal Givens was there, issuing oil into the feedtray. I dropped in next to him and eyed the landscape. We were deep in the Himalaya, or Hindu Kush in local parlance. A gallery of Himalayan summits rose in the distance, some gilded by shining white glaciers. The Blue River tumbled along below us. I was hankering for a swim in its snowmelt waters.

Corporal Givens looked up from the 240B and said, “I’d like to buy your soul.” At that moment, his birth control goggles glinted in the sun, as if the star itself had heard the offer.

Corporal Givens hadn’t been with us very long. He’d arrived at Patrol Base Miami just three weeks before to replace my old team leader, who’d been killed by an RPG. Givens was a strange bird. His monotone voice sounded deeply sad. He had no wife or girlfriend to speak of, no pictures of loved ones. The birth control goggles on his face held coke-bottle lenses so thick they could focus the sun and set fire to a barn. Here was the type of guy who wore his combat boots to the mall on Saturday. He was institutionalized, so to speak. Maybe even the Army institution itself.

I thought on his offer to buy my soul and asked, “What’s in it for me?”

“$50.”

“What do I have to do?”

“Just sign this bill-of-sale.” He reached into an ammo pouch and produced a slip of paper. It was the card stock used for wedding invitations and such, real classy.

I asked if he was serious.

He said, “Dead serious.”

I read the slip of paper:

I, {insert name}, hereby sell my soul to the great Bill Givens for all eternity and anything further. His power transcends all borders, continents, universes and physical dimensions. I shall seek no restitution for any events that may transpire as a result of this sale. All sales are final.

Signed,

So and so

The hand I used to hold the bill-of-sale suddenly felt hot and dirty. I set the paper down on the belt of 7.62 ammo laid out accordion-style beside the 240.

I asked, “Has anyone else done this?”

Givens said, “Yes. I now command the souls of fifteen men.”

I said, “So, I just sign this and you give me $50.”

Givens said, “Yes.”

I said, “I don’t take checks.”

“Right, cash only. I’ve got it on me now.”

I got to thinking I could buy a log of Copenhagen with that money and enough Cheese-its and pizza-flavored Combos to give myself a proper stomachache; well actually, I wouldn’t be buying shit until we left this back corner of the mountains for a real base.

“Okay,” I said.

Givens handed me a sharpie. He was smiling a murderous smile and nodding, encouraging me to, “Go on.”

I signed the note and gave it to him, all the while telling myself I was getting the better end of the deal.

“Welcome to my army,” said Givens, holding up the signed bill-of-sale like it was a precious scroll.

Suddenly, I was thinking I didn’t want to be in his army. Wretchedness washed over me. “Wait,” I said, “Never mind.”

“I’m afraid all sales are final.”

“This ain’t in stone yet. Let me have it back.”

He clicked his tongue for a bit and then said, “Sorry.”

With edge in my voice, I said, “So that’s how it is?”

He reminded me he was my team leader. But his Corporal chevrons didn’t amount to much this deep in the mountains. I clenched my fists, ready to sock him in the mouth and take my soul back through force, but I needed that $50. Who was he anyway to lay claim to my soul. I relaxed my fists and smirked at him.

Givens slipped the bill-of-sale in a plastic bag, unzipped his assault pack and produced a Nike shoebox. He opened the shoebox and placed the note inside. There were a dozen or so bills-of-sale in the box, for this was his vessel for purchased souls.

About then the platoon sergeant, 2-7, called for the squad leaders in the middle of the PB. The noncoms gathered in the shade of a boulder, looking sun-burnt and wilted. They talked about field hygiene, or lack thereof. 2-7 said the squads could wash off in a little cove on the Blue River. It was just out of sight, about 400 yards below our patrol base.

2-7 said my squad was going first and we wasted no time gathering for the river. To the man, we hollered and whooped about our swim. Taking the lead, I sped downhill at a trot, a little stiff in the knees from last night’s ambush. I weaved through a copse of cedars and veered left and traversed a slope cratered by Taliban mortars. The river unfolded beneath me, all blue in the calm runs and white at the cascades. Just downstream an Afghan boy with a bulging stomach threw his fishing net from the bank.

I had just worked up a good sweat when I came upon a bluff over the river. I toed the edge and looked down. Boulders sheltered the cove on two sides. A glittering fish circled in a dark hole where the water ran deep. The squad boys bunched up on the bluff, taking in the cool snake of wind that followed the water. Givens must have thought the peaceful scene an opportune time to bring another into his army, for he was working on a baby-faced new guy in bravo team, saying, “$50 for your soul and not a penny more. I could charge you less, you being an FNG and all. But I’m a nice guy, and fair is fair.”

The new guy scratched his close-cropped hair, looking skeptical. “Sounds like bad juju.”

Givens said, “It’s the opposite really, round here, they call me good juju.”

For the record, no one had ever called him good juju.

The new guy shook his head to say no.

Givens said, “You’ll be safe in this vessel, whatever fate befalls your flesh.” Givens partly unzipped his assault pack and drew out the Nike shoebox to let him know how cozy his soul would be forever and ever.

The new guy insisted that he needed his soul for earthly endeavors.

Givens promised to keep trying.

We left the bluff. I followed a slant of gray rock down to the river and began dropping my gear on the bank. A minute later, my fire team had stripped down to skivvies. We piled our cammies on the rocks and set our guns on our cammies. Bravo team took positions along the bank to pull security.

I scrambled onto one of the boulders that sheltered the cove. It was maybe 15 foot high. From there I scanned the river, looking for a landing for my jump. I spied the dark hole again, where the glittering fish still circled. That would be my target. I’d need a good head of speed to make it, or I’d break an ankle in the shallows. A couple practice runs helped me work out the physics. Happy with the distance, I stepped back and took in the valley. Just downstream, the Afghan boy threw his net in the water again. He pulled it in hand over hand, oblivious to our patrol.

I took a sprinter’s stance, burst from the crouch and sprinted for the edge of the boulder. Calling all the strength in my legs, I leapt off and cleared the shelf along the bank. I tucked to a cannonball and hit the river with a thump. The others erupted in cheers as the water closed over his head. The cold was glorious.

I surfaced and went for the shallows. Over on the bank, Givens was in a heated exchange with the bravo team grenadier, Morris. From what I could tell, Morris had sold his soul to Givens and now wanted it back. Regret seemed to be going around.

Morris held up a wad of dollar bills, saying, “Here’s your money, now come on.”

Givens said, “Sorry, I’ve got a no return policy.”

“Deal’s off, Givens. I’m serious.”

Givens said, “Didn’t you read the contract?”

“You’re a dick.”

“My army is almost complete. I will not dismantle it over your superstitions.”

Morris lunged for Givens’ assault pack, trying to seize the Nike shoebox. Givens dove onto him and elbowed him in the back then rolled him over using a guillotine choke. Morris thrashed like a hooked fish, his face cherry-colored from the choke job. After a few rolls, Morris went slack, rasping, “Okay, okay, it’s yours.”

Givens got up and dusted off his fighting vest and said, “Let this be a lesson to you. All sales are final.”

About 1300, we got dressed and went back up the hill, traversing the cratered slope once more. The stand of cedars just below camp came into view. I could feel the cool river in my bones. I knew it wouldn’t last long. For now though, I basked in relief from the tyrant prickly-heat. Up ahead, Morris was cussing Givens for his no-return policy on souls.

I didn’t hear the mortar come plunging in. You never could when the shells were right on. The explosion and concussion and deafening boom all happened at once. It had landed somewhere in front of me, or maybe on me judging by the force of the shockwave. There was dust so thick I choked. In the dust was the taste of high-explosive. I was on my ass, I saw that much, my gun still spinning on a rock slab five feet distant. My ears rang so I hard I reckoned they must be bleeding. There were gouts of blood on my fighting vest. I patted myself down. Shards of rock or iron or both had sliced into my uniform, mostly around the thighs. I was bleeding but the wounds were not serious. Boosted on fear and adrenaline, I realized nothing really hurt, not yet at least.

The wind cast away the dust from the first explosion. A few more enemy shells came in, going Crump Crump Crump on the lee side of the hill and riverbank. Squad boys ran to and fro while a patrol streamed downslope from Miami with collapsible litters and IV bags in hand. Within five minutes our 155 shells came in from Asadabad like so many iron meteors and landed on a nearby peak thought to be the enemy point of origin.

Just across the slope, I saw Givens lying still. I rose and teetered on my heels and steadied. At a stoop, I jogged toward him and knelt when I came to his body. His neck was cocked funny. The lenses in his birth control goggles were cracked a dozen different ways. The broken lens over his right eye captured the sun in a blinding glare. Shrapnel had hit him in the neck. Shiny blood stained his shirt collar and body armor. He was dead. He still wore his assault pack, though another piece of shrapnel had ripped it open and spilled its contents. “Givens is down,” I yelled. “Givens is down.”

There in the rocks and blood I saw his Nike shoebox with a gaping hole in the lid. The black fringes of the hole told me a searing piece of iron had pierced the shoebox, probably the same piece that had killed him. The bills-of-sale for a dozen souls were scattered in the explosion. They now flipped and fluttered in the river wind, burned around the edges, some torn in half. I crawled about and snatched them up and returned to his body, where I sat cross-legged.

I could hear the footfall of the others as they crunched over scree and talus heading toward me and Givens. I flipped through the bills-of-sale and found my own. White hot metal had charred the corner of my bill. A few drops of blood stained my signature. I sat there with my damaged bill-of-sale hugging my knees. Givens was dead beside me, his blood pooling on the rocks, his neck cocked funny. I turned to him and straightened his neck. I don’t know why I did that. It just seemed less gruesome, I suppose.

I looked up. My comrades had formed a loose circle around me, maybe two squads worth of dusty men. But they were not squads per se, rather, they were the men who’d sold their souls to Givens. They looked at him and me and the burnt bills-of-sale in my hands. No one said a thing. They moved in closer, tightening the circle around me and the dead body. Their eyes said it all. They wanted their souls back, whatever the condition. So did I.

“Boyd,” I called, holding up his charred bill-of-sale. The machine gunner came forward and grabbed it and pouched it.

“Walters,” I called, raising his bloody bill-of-sale. The rifleman stepped forward grinning and tucked the bill in his cargo pocket. He looked supremely relieved.

“James, Kowalski, Martinez.” I kept on calling names. One by one, they stepped forward and reclaimed their souls and dispersed. Everyone kept the money. Doc finally found us and pronounced Givens KIA. Doc and I hefted Givens onto a litter. First Squad took him up the hill for the incoming medevac bird. Doc checked my wounds and patched me up and told me I could get on the bird if I wanted. Thinking on that, I looked down at the river. The Afghan boy with the net had caught two fish. He was now sitting on his haunches and cutting off their heads.

I said I’d like to stay. My soul was ruined anyway.