As You Were Cover

Strays

by Jerad Alexander

The boys of Third Squad settled in a room that smelled of burnt rifle oil and stale cigarette smoke, and there they let the tension in their sinews diminish with the failing daylight. Baptiste and Clark, a couple of threadbare riflemen, sat side-by-side on a sofa that reeked of old incense and leaked body odor. Since long before sunrise they had battled from house-to-house through the first blocks of Husaybah, a dusty little nowhere town along the Euphrates River. They did not understand how tired they had become until they shed their rifles and helmets, then curled up on the sleeping mats and old furniture that littered the abandoned Iraqi house they had occupied.

Clark stretched his limbs. His knee popped. “Lemme get a cigarette,” he said.

Vete a la mierda,” Baptiste groaned elaborately.

Clark let his body go limp. “Come on, B. Don’t be like that,” he said.

Clark had a beggar’s whine that Baptiste had never really learned to hurdle, and Clark knew just how and when to parcel it out. But hearing Clark’s voice next to him he felt an odd pressure lift from inside himself and he felt comfortable. Baptiste was a south Florida Cubano who enlisted with a head swimming with the dream of free college. Clark’s motives were simpler. He had left his parents’ shotgun house in rural Ohio only to, quote: Blow Shit Up. Despite coming from two very different worlds, Baptiste and Clark were best friends, brothers, and so Baptiste slipped a hand into his pocket and pulled out a single cigarette. “We’ll split one,” he said.

Baptiste lit the cigarette and took a long drag. He held it out and felt Clark’s fingers as he took it from him. He watched the glowing ember drift away. A machinegun rattled outside, someplace distant. Clark took two drags and handed the cigarette back.

This was Baptiste’s first time overseas and the whole day had offered him a menu for his senses to sample from—the electric sight of red machinegun tracers ricocheting against concrete in perfect skyward angularity, a distant mortar explosion and the disorienting tardiness of its hollow report, and the greasy cordite perfume that drifted from spent cartridges as they littered the street like shimmering brass guano. Baptiste remained awed at the endless sensory overload, and if he learned nothing in his short time in combat he could certainly attest to the breadth and wonder of its terrifying magnitude. But now the room was dark and quiet and for a moment Baptiste felt slightly uneasy. He thought about the people he’d once read about who developed supernatural hearing after going blind in some desperate accident or rotten twist of genetic fate. He wondered how long before it started.

“Did you see that house outside?” he asked.

“What house?”

“The one right across the street. The one all blown to shit.”

“I guess.”

“I think that’s the house that captain had bombed this morning.”

“Oh yeah,” said Clark. He fell into a disinterested silence.

Measured against the day, it seemed like a single page in a flipbook of mildly controlled chaos. The bomb was dropped at sunrise after their whole battalion occupied the first line of homes in a violent flash of manpower and coughing war machinery. From a rooftop, a short, loudmouthed captain that Baptiste did not recognize looked through his Oakleys and pointed to a house far inside the dun town. I’m going to call an airstrike on that house, he announced, and so he spoke into a radio and asked that it be done. Baptiste did not know if the captain was informed by some higher power of divine military intelligence, if there could be such a thing. Maybe the captain was told that fanatical mujahedeen fighters were holed up in the house, bowing toward Mecca as they loaded ammunition to kill with. Maybe there was gold or some other treasure the captain had learned about and he wanted it hidden under the rubble to claim after things had settled. Perhaps the captain was just bored and pent up. Perhaps he just wanted to destroy something in a way no one else could.

Whatever the reason, the short captain had simply pointed a finger, made a call, and commanded the house destroyed. Moments later Baptiste listened to the sky rip apart and watched a 500-pound bomb strike the nondescript gray house and send chunks of concrete far into the sky. It seemed almost clinical, just a quick outpatient procedure, like having a tooth pulled, but done with all the precision of a hammer. It also seemed incredibly random. The others in Third Squad had whistled, hooted, and said “Fuck yeah” like touchdown spectators. Some had even taken the time to snap photos of the fast-rising gout of smoke and dust. He remembered Clark giggling when small pebbles and bits of charred concrete began to tock and bip onto the roof where they all stood as witnesses.

“That was pretty fuggin badass. Huh, B?” Clark had said with electric eyes and the same broad grin as all the rest.

In the room, someone began to snore in one of the corners. A rifle shot cracked outside, but far, far away. Hints of radio static and mild chatter breathed in from another room. Muffled voices and a burst of tired laughter followed.

“Quit hogging the smoke,” Clark said.

Baptiste held up the cigarette and yawned contagiously. When Clark took a drag Baptiste heard the paper and tobacco sizzle.

“So how long do you think it’ll take us to get to the other end of town?” he asked softly.

Clark yawned. “I dunno. A few more days at least. We can’t even see the end of it.”

“So you think maybe a week?” Baptiste asked.

“I dunno,” Clark said. “Who cares?”

Outside, a soft and ghostly howl began to drift to them in deep echoes. It filled up the dark room and then stopped. Then it began again, flowing to the limits of breath.

“What is that?” Baptiste asked. He looked toward the blacked-out window, but he could not see it. The darkness pressed around him.

“Prob’ly a cat,” said Clark.

“It sounds like a perro. There are lots of strays around.”

Clark took another drag and handed the cigarette back to Baptiste. Baptiste sought it out with his fingers and took a drag. When he exhaled his mouth tasted like ash and he wished he’d had a chance to brush his teeth. Outside, the howling continued.

Clark cleared his throat. “So back home my mom and stepdad kind of take care of the stray cats around our street. The last time I was there they had these two that came around all the time; I guess they were like tabbies or some shit. Anyway, they were pretty chill. The lady cat was a badass hunter. She’d go out at night and bring back mice and just leave it on the porch like some kind of offering. My mom said one time it even brought back a big-ass crow or some shit.

“Anyway, my mom emails me last week that they had some new folks move in next door. She said they got this kid that lives over there that hangs out in his backyard shooting a BB gun all over the place. They had to tell him a few times to watch out. They said one time he almost shot out a window with a…” Clark snapped his finger, searching. “What do they call it when it bounces off?”

“A ricochet?” asked Baptiste.

“Yeah, that. Well so anyway, my mom tells me one night my stepdad heard a bunch of loud meowing out in the backyard. He goes looking around with a flashlight and finds the lady cat under a bunch of bushes near the fence between our yard and the neighbor’s yard. My mom said he found her shot with a BB right above the eye.”

Baptiste’s eyes jerked closed. “Eso es jodido,” he groaned in horror. He rubbed his eyelids with a pair of dirty fingers. A kaleidoscope of wet fireworks sparkled in the darkness behind them. “How old?” he asked.

“What, the cat?”

“Yeah.”

“Who gives a shit? I’m gonna kick his little goddamn ass when I get back. His mom said he didn’t do it, but I know he did. How else did it get shot? How does someone just go around shooting cats?” Clark asked.

“I don’t know, man. Maybe he didn’t do it on purpose,” said Baptiste. He wanted it to be an accident, something done without malice, but he didn’t trust himself.

Clark snorted. “Right,” he said.

Baptiste pictured some truant mouth-breather sighting in with a lever-action Red Ryder from between the unkempt bushes of a dingy backwater house in rural Ohio. He pictured the sneer, the crooked and cavity-shot yellow teeth, the wild-eyed petulance as the boy looked down the cheap sights. Baptiste had known boys like that around his family’s cramped home in North Miami Beach—middle school kids who carried self-nurtured mean streaks. They always seemed to come from rich homes. Sometimes he’d hang out with them just to feel what it was like to have everything, but never for very long.

Outside, the howling continued to broadcast unanswered pain. It seemed to come from some other world, some black place where the weight of darkness and pain was enough to press the body and soul equally flat. “Are you sure that’s not a dog?” Baptiste asked.

“That’s a cat, B.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I’m telling you—”

Someone shuffled in a black corner of the room. A flashlight suddenly blinded both of them. The light spoke in the tired voice of their sergeant.

“It’s not an animal, dumbasses. That’s human. There’s someone crushed up under that rubble,” the voice said. Baptiste shielded his eyes with his hand.

The flashlight clicked off. The voice softened. “Y’all just shut up and go to sleep.”

For a long moment the two friends sat in admonished silence. Nothing moved. The imprinted sprite of the flashlight bulb hovered in the center of their eyesight, but began to slowly fade away. The howling stopped to catch its breath. The room was at its darkest. Snores rumbled at various points in the room. The howling resumed.

Clark touched his arm. “Lemme get the short,” he whispered.

“What?” said Baptiste. He had forgotten about the cigarette between his fingers. He shook his head no. “De ninguna manera,” he said.

“Come on, man,” whined Clark. He never understood the words, but he always grasped their meaning.

The howl trailed off. Baptiste took a quick drag and held up the last of the cigarette. “Kill it,” he said.

Clark took it. Baptiste could hear Clark’s fingers drumming against the couch cushion. The howled breathed to life again, but transformed into a shrill wailing. It carried on for a long stretch, then stopped again. “But yeah,” said Clark, as if inconveniently derailed. “Why would someone even do that to a cat, B?”

Baptiste thought of the captain and chose to remain silent. He folded his hands across his chest and shut his eyes. He prayed for a moment, but he felt strangely corrupt, and so he listened and felt pity shape the corners of his mouth and dry whimsical sadness pull at his eyes. Because he was here and had heard the person under the rubble he now felt connected to them, a proprietor of their misery. He imagined the house—gray and warming as it absorbs the first soft light at sunrise. The metal front door is painted a light blue and rusts on the bottom where it meets the cheap doormat. It is silent inside the halls and rooms. Maybe only one person is home, lying in bed feeling the soft light through the window slowly wedge the sleep away. Maybe it’s a family, a husband and wife asleep, facing each other, eyes closed and their breathing synced in a harmony built with loving time and the patient pressure of commitment. Perhaps children sleep in a nearby room. Or perhaps they lay awake in their beds, staring at the ceiling, the very same ceiling the bomb will soon pierce. Perhaps they lay awake dreaming with all the toys of their imaginations wondrously scattered across the floor of their open minds. Did they hear it? Did they feel it coming? What can be done? And so Baptiste watches as it falls from 10,000 feet; his whole body feels drained of impetus to do otherwise. The bomb glides down in its terrible freefall, and then it strikes. He watches the detonator ignite the charge. He replays the black geyser of smoke and concrete. He hears the roar that surrounds them all in their beds until their eardrums burst and reduce sound to prehistory. He feels the heat and the dense rubble fall in stone dead heaps of concrete and hot rebar and the shattered porcelain tub from the upstairs bathroom. He feels it crush them; their bones snap and flesh rip away. Baptiste hears their grunts of shock and split-second panic before nothingness. He sees them trapped under the smoking black weight of their once-peaceful lives, completely unable to understand the reasons that put them there. He breathes in their need for some final justification, some answer, only to be left crushed in their abandoned agony. And just as he can be right there with them in the darkness, he can certainly see with greasy shame that moment right on the roof in the golden morning as he listens to the captain order the house destroyed, as he watches the bomb hit, that moment as the detritus of the home lazily arc’s skyward in a great wide plume and he feels the concussion pass through him seconds later, the briefest of moments when he looks at Clark, and in that moment he sees himself grin the same sick grin as all the rest too.

The wailing outside continued, but it could not keep him from falling asleep. Not yet. After pulling every bit he could out of it before burning his lips, Clark dropped the cigarette to the concrete floor and mashed it out with his boot. He fell asleep soon after. When they both awoke the next morning with the rest of Third Squad to odd laughter and the electric clatter of machinegun fire, neither of them bothered to notice the wailing was gone.