Volume 8 | Spring 2018
by Ryan Stovall
It was late afternoon. The day’s heat was easing. The sun dipped behind a high, rocky saddle on the ridge opposite the firebase, submerging the plywood hooches and the metal shipping containers in peaceful shadow. Higher up, the scattered pines still threw narrow shadows in the reddening light. A warm, gentle breeze brought forth a sighing from their boughs, as if the valley itself was breathing.
“Come on in!” Bill called out, hearing a knock on his door. He set his computer off to one side and sat up on the edge of his bed.
“You’re not rubbin’ one out, are ya?”
The voice sounded unconcerned by the prospect, and Bill chuckled. “No man, you’re good. Come on in.”
The door opened and threw a harsh gash of daylight across the floor of Bill’s windowless hooch. The man framed in the doorway was wearing a bushy beard, a wide grin, and very little else—just a pair of short black running shorts and shower shoes. A thick swath of curly black body-hair ran from his chin to his naked toes.
Still grinning, the man pretended to cover his eyes and peak between his fingers. “I want to believe you. It’s just, I’ve got to be one hundred percent certain these days; Rob gave me the green light to ‘come on in’ the other day, then got all embarrassed ‘cause he was still sportin’ wood.”
“Well—that’s just a total rookie move, man. When will that newbie learn?” Bill shook his head in mock disappointment.
The almost naked man—Rick Payne—pulled up a chair and sat down by the foot of Bill’s bed. He was still smiling behind the beard, but close up Bill noticed that while the smile looked the same as always, it no longer warmed Rick’s eyes the way it once had; they looked like hard sheets of ice. Or one-way glass, he thought. “What’re you up to?” he asked.
Rick shrugged. “Not much man. Wanted to see if you felt like going to chow in a bit.”
“You gonna go to the chow hall dressed like that?” Bill asked.
“Ha! No, I suppose not.” Rick paused; then, almost as if the words were being dragged out of him against his will, he added, “Mel would have been the guy for that one. You remember how he used to hang out in the office in nothing but shorts and flip flops?”
“You remember how he’d come in from the shower and go straight to team meetings still in just a towel?”
“Yep. He’d have walked straight into the chow hall, dressed just like this, weapon slung over his shoulder, no problem. And he wouldn’t have even understood what the fuss was about.”
Both of them grinned. But joking with Rick was no longer as fun or as funny as it had been before Mel got killed; now Bill could see a shadow of his own face reflected back at him every time he look at Rick—that tight smile, stretched hard and thin like a coffin lid. Both of them looked away.
Bill struggled, trying to pick up the conversation. “Yeah I’ll go with you here in a bit if you want. I’ve got to get some chow at some point but I’m not too hungry yet.” He was still looking away, not meeting Rick’s eyes.
“Whatcha watchin’ on the computer?” Rick was clearly grasping at threads as well.
“Just going through and answering a couple of emails. Taking it easy after that little walk we went on this morning.” Bill pointed with his chin. “How’d the leg do?”
Rick shrugged. “Fine. It started getting a little tired on the way back today, climbing that last steep rise before we hit the village, but no pain. It just feels tight, kinda tense, you know?”
“Well if that’s all, that’s good, man! You were pretty damn lucky.”
“I know; just think how ridiculous I’d look if I had to follow you guys around on crutches!”
Crutches my ass, Bill thought. A couple inches one way or the other with that RPG, and you’d have been in a body bag. “I heard that the Doc was trying to keep you home? Keep you from coming back down to join us?” He didn’t mention that Dan, their team sergeant, had been angling for the same thing.
“Yeah, it’s true. He wanted me to sit out the rest of the rotation and just link back up with the team when you all got home.” Rick cackled.
“So I cut a deal with him; I got him to agree to send me back if I could keep up with him on a ruck march. Then I whacked myself with a horse-size dose of Toradol an hour before we left, and walked his old ass into the ground! I couldn’t even feel this fucker!” He slapped his wounded leg.
Bill didn’t know what to say. “You’ve had one hell of a trip this deployment.”
“Yeah . . . Hey. Dan just told me; did you know we’ve got two more of these little jaunts planned in the next three days?”
“What? Whose bright idea was that?”
“Who can say, man? Those nit-wit intel guys who spend all their time fucking off in the command building, I guess. Makes no sense to me though; why just go out and walk around until somebody decides to start shooting at us?” Spotting a chocolate muffin from the chow hall that was sitting still wrapped on the edge of Bill’s desk, Rick grabbed it. “May I?”
“Help yourself. So you mean to tell me we’re gonna go do two more pointless walks like we did today, with no real destination or plan, just because of some vague whim that the intel guys have dreamt up?”
“Pretty much. I don’t really mind myself. It’s just . . .” Rick paused, swirling the muffin in the air as he searched for words. “I tried to explain this to them . . . we all feel bad enough already after what happened with Mel. And that was on an actual mission, with actual targets. We killed those targets, all of ‘em, and it didn’t end up meaning a damn thing. So, how is everybody gonna feel if we’re out doing one of these pointless patrols and somebody . . . something happens again?” Rick bit into the muffin.
That’s the question, alright, Bill thought. We killed every single one of the Taliban leaders in that valley on that mission, and really not a damned thing changed. Mel died doing it, and Rick almost got his leg blown trying to save Mel. So what was the fucking point of any of it?
He started to speak, but before could voice any of his thoughts, a muffled, heavy ka-rump broke the air like an abbreviated peal of not-too-distant thunder. “Is that outgoing or incoming?” he asked, a little tensely.
Rick got up and shuffled insouciantly toward the door. “Outgoing, I think,” he mumbled through his mouthful of muffin. He pushed open the door and stood framed once more against the outside light. The sun had slipped further, leaving only the tops of the highest mountains still glowing soft red.
A second ka-rump, and Rick’s head swiveled around. “Incoming! Definitely incoming!” he said over his shoulder.
“Are you sure?” Bill jumped up and ran across to stand beside Rick in the doorway, his bare feet pattering on the floor.
Another ka-rump sounded, and Bill saw an angry fist of black smoke kick up on the hillside less than thirty yards away, between them and the base’s mortar pit.
Rick nodded. “Pretty sure!”
Bill whirled away and began quickly pulling on his boots, his body armor, his gloves. His fingers were shaking, fumbling from the adrenaline. Excited shouts sounded, and running footsteps scrunched in the gravel outside the hooch; the mortar crew was running to man the pit. Another round came in, this one a little further away, a little less menacing. He clapped his helmet down on his head and ran out the door, grabbing his rifle on the way out.
He paused on his front step and looked up the hill. Two of the mortar men were still sprinting up the path, both dressed as he was in boots, helmet, shorts, and body armor.
A nonchalant voice right behind him made him jump. “I think they got the pits bracketed with that last round. I sure hope those two boys make it in there before the scunion comes down on ‘em.”
Bill spun around. He’d thought Rick had run back to his own hooch to get his body armor on, but there he was, leaning in near-naked repose against the wall of Bill’s hut, chewing Bill’s chocolate muffin and watching the two men sprint toward the mortar pits with the disinterested air of a casual observer.
“What’re you doing!?” Bill’s voice rose almost to a shriek. “Go get your kit on!”
Rick remained where he was. Only his eyebrows moved, lifting so far up his forehead that they almost met his hairline. “Steady brother. It’s ok. Nothing to worry about.” He waved his hand dismissively up the hill. “Those things aren’t gonna hit us. It’s them down there we’ve got to worry about.” He jerked his thumb down the hill at the command building.
Gaping, Bill turned to look in the direction Rick was pointing. “Are they landing down there too?”
“Are what landing?”
“The fucking mortars!”
“Down there? No, they’re all landing up there; I think they’re aiming for the mortar pit.”
A sense of unreality washed over Bill. For a moment, he almost grasp what Rick was saying, but his mind seemed to rebel and push back from the very thought. Apparently either he or Rick was crazy.
Rick was still talking. “After what we’ve been through, do you really think a mortar could get us? A mortar? After all the times we’ve been lined up in Hajji’s sights, crosshairs on our backs, or heads, or whatever—you think they’re gonna get us with a fucking mortar? I don’t know about you man, but that’s not how I’m gonna go, not after all the shit I’ve been through in the last few months. They had their chances. Fuck ‘em.” He crammed the rest of the muffin into his mouth and chewed slowly, obviously savoring the taste.
Bill opened his mouth to reply, to insist that there was a very real danger and that Rick needed to go put his body armor on. But at that moment, the enemy mortars, which had indeed managed to bracket and zero in on the mortar pit up on the hill, let loose a steady barrage. Every couple of seconds another round slammed into the hillside above them, ka-rumpka-rumpka-rumpka-rump, each with an accompanying billow of black smoke and kicked-up dust.
“Move! Go!” he screamed in Rick’s face.
Rick shook his head and pointed apologetically to his ear. “Can’t hear, you know,” he bellowed back, spewing flecks of chocolate goo. He nodded in the direction of the mortar pit. “Hope they don’t land one on the ammo bunker!” Even bellowing into Bill’s face as he was, Rick’s voice sounded conversational.
Bill’s nerve broke. He sprinted for the nearest shelter, leaving Rick still leaning against the wall of his hooch. Just as he came spilling into the concrete bunker, Bill heard the three eighty-one millimeter mortars in the pit above open up. The incoming fire stopped immediately—he could picture the Taliban mortar men sprinting for shelter—and a few seconds later, the rumble of the outgoing rounds impacting on a distant ridge reached his ears.
“What took you so long to get here, Bill?” Rob’s pale, moon-round face and wide eyes loomed at him out of the shadows.
“Rick’s standing out there in his goddamn Ranger Panties and flip flops, watching the rounds come in like he’s watching TV. I couldn’t get him to come with me.”
“Dude’s off his shit, man! Standing there almost naked, telling me that’s not how he’s gonna go, from a mortar round. Said they already had their chances to get him.”
Rob’s eyes bulged. “Is he fucking nuts?”
Bill shrugged, and turned away, suddenly weary. Discussing Rick, who had stood shoulder to shoulder with him through the hottest firefights imaginable over the last few months, with Rob, who was nothing more than a pasty-faced newbie, was the last thing he wanted to do right now. He waited anxiously at the bunker door. When the outgoing fire ceased, he slipped out immediately.
He hurried back to his hooch. Rob trailed along behind him.
Rick was okay; he was standing with his hands on his hips with his hairy back toward them as they approached. In front of him were the shredded remains of the hooch that had stood four down the line from Bill’s. A round had hit the front wall and shredded it like a massive shotgun blast; the huts on either side were peppered with irregular holes both large and small.
Rick turned and gave Bill a tight smile as he came up. “Fuckers got lucky. Of course, they were aiming for our mortars,” he added dismissively.
“Fuck! Whose hooch is that?” Rob’s eyes bulged from his round face.
“Mine, man, mine. Welcome to Afghanistan, newbie!” Rick chuckled. Then his words started spilling out fast, one on top of the next. “They’ve sure given it to me, haven’t they? Dinged me up, twice. Took my buddy. Now they thrash my hooch and punch holes in my bed and my computer and everything else. What else is there?” Giggling maniacally, barely breathing from laughing so hard, he reached down and grabbed between his legs. “I’ve still got my nuts, you sons of bitches!” he screamed at the surrounding hills.
Tears streaked the dust on Rick’s face; there was no sign of genuine humor. His eyes glared. Bill thought again of brittle, one-way glass.