FORWARD OPERATING BASE GHAZNI
The caravan kicked up dust along the perimeter rode on the outskirts of Ghazni. Three Humvee deep, it was a shallow show of power — a mechanical chode serpent slinking along the horizon — a reminder who had control. They were liberators, conquerors, invaders; they were in charge. Private First Class Andrew Barclay bounced from his seat inside the back of the truck pulling up the rear, squinting to keep the sand out of his eyes, M4 Carbine strapped to his chest. It didn’t matter how they dressed him up or made him look strong. He didn’t feel powerful. He was a cog in the war machine, a piece, decoration. Andy was a tool.
Children begged on the side of the road. Maybe they weren’t begging, maybe they had some other reason for being there, but Andy didn’t see them until the caravan was already driving on. There were a dozen of ‘em, maybe more. They shouted and waved at the trucks rolling by. Andy made eye contact with a little boy they passed. He couldn’t have been older than six or seven. Their eyes locked for a fleeting second that felt like an hour. He was a piece of the machine, too. They were just boys from opposite sides of the world playing a part in someone else’s game.
Then the caravan moved on and the boy stayed by the road. Andy did his best to not think of that boy again, but it was impossible to not take a piece of him with him.
“This whole god-damn sh*t hole only needs one thing. BLA-OW! BLA-OW! BLA-OW! Hahahahaha,”
There was no such thing as quiet chow time in the United States Army. It didn’t matter if Andy sat alone at the end of his table, or if the only company he kept while eating his evening meal was the book he liked to read when he was done patrol, the noise always seeped in. Most of the time, that noise came from one source. Gould was a first-class sonofabitch from some town in Missouri that Andy had never heard of. He was always the one going off on some tangent or another during chow, performing for his boys — Finch, Johnson, and Ramirez — standing and pacing around the head of his table while he ate, gesturing with wide, sweeping swipes of his hand under the big blue sky, and spouting his sh*t loud enough for the whole damn region to hear.
“Seriously, these f***ers should be thanking us,” Gould continued. “They living their lives backwards. They lucky we’re generous enough to come over here and fix it for ‘em.”
There was only so much bullsh*t that could be shared before Andy was forced to look up from his book to acknowledge the nonsense around him. He was surprised to see that Xanders was among Gould’s tribe, sitting there and nodding along with a half-smile on his face like the a**hole was speaking truth to power. Xanders was a good guy, about Andy’s age, nineteen or so — handsome with these sharp green eyes — but he was the sort of guy who would follow a bad crowd into badder times if it meant fitting in. He was as desperate for friends as Andy was desperate to avoid them. It was sad but understandable. Today it was Gould’s crew, tomorrow he’d be sucking up to the C.O.’s. Yeah, it was sad, but Andy didn’t blame him much. For most, it was hard to get through all this without friends — especially during down time — but maybe Xanders would get lucky. Maybe he’d catch on quick and learn that Gould was a no-good friend and he’d find someone else. If he needed someone, he deserved someone.
Things got cold when the sun went down. It didn’t stop some of the other off-duty officers from enjoying some of the festivities on the base. A new crop of local trainees had come in to help form what would, in theory, one day be the Afghan National Army, and in the spirit of solidarity some fun was being had, or, at least as much fun that could be had without alcohol. Andy chose to sit it out; the fun, the cold, all of it. He sat on his bunk in the barracks reading his book in the dim overhead light that shone down on him. The noise was muffled in the barracks, it made it easier to focus. But his focus was determined to not last long that night.
“Whatchya reading, Barclay?”
Looking up from his book, Andy saw Xanders standing in the threshold of the barracks, back-lit by the moonlight. Even in the dark, Andy could see that he wasn’t wearing his camo. Dog Tags dangled down over his sweat stained sleeveless undershirt. Andy wondered what pulled someone like Xanders away from a social event like tonight, something that you’d imagine he’d be pretty into given his proclivity to try and make friends.
“It’s uh… Childhood’s End,” he said, holding up the paperback. “Arthur C. Clarke. It’s about aliens and stuff.”
“Aliens and stuff, huh?” Xanders took a few steps into the room. In the light Andy could see the sunburn on his cheeks. “We talking like UFOs?”
“Sort of,” Andy shrugged. “At first, but, it’s more about the bigger questions. Our place in the universe, that sort of thing.” Andy scooted over when Xanders sat down on the bed beside him. His jaw tightened and his heartbeat quickened.
“So what’s our place in the universe?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Andy shrugged. “Haven’t gotten that far yet.”
“What about your place?”
“I’m not sure I have a place,” Andy said.
“That’s why we’re here, right?” Xanders said it like it was the most obvious f***ing thing. “Purpose. The army gives us purpose.”
Andy set his book down. “It gives us structure. I’m not so sure that’s the same thing as purpose.”
“You’ve seen the sh*t already, haven’t you?” Xanders eyes lit up a bit. “You got that look in you, Barclay.”
“I’ve had that look since I was six, Xanders,” he said. “I’m not sure if it has anything to do with this place.”
“But you have seen the sh*t, right?” Xanders pushed. “You were there for the ambush last month. That’s what the others said.”
“The others talk too much.”
“Maybe you don’t talk enough,” Xanders shrugged. “Talking is important. My uncle, he went through ‘Nam, he said talking about the sh*t to people who have lived through the sh*t, it’s the only thing that kept his mind from eating itself. He said, if you’re not careful you come home with that look in your eye, the one you already got.” He waved a finger in his face.
“I didn’t see the sh*t,” Andy swatted Xanders’ hand down. “I heard it, though. I… experienced it. We were in town, I was clearing a house with Finch when we heard gunfire. I’m not really sure what happened but we got separated. The insurgents they, they were everywhere or it felt like they were everywhere but I never saw them, not one, they were like ghosts.”
“I got pinned down in the back bedroom of the house I was clearing,” Andy went on. “Some debris fell in front of the door, so I couldn’t get out that way and the windowsills, they were being peppered with blind fire every now and then so I didn’t have a choice but to keep my head low, radio in my position, and wait to either fight my way through whatever was coming, wait to die, or wait to be rescued. It all ended up being just a lot of waiting. The gunfire was still there but eventually it was sort of easy to drown it out, to disassociate, you know. I was low, on the ground, there for hours.
“It’s weird, like… I almost forgot where I was. I almost forgot that this was a war. The noise and radio chatter and gun fire, it was all there but it was like I wasn’t. I looked around that room and it was like it was mine. It belonged to some kid, some girl, probably our age, I don’t know. The whole thing was very dissociative. It’s like it wasn’t me. It was like I wasn’t a soldier but just some kid caught up in this, like it was my room, like I was hiding in my own room.
“There was this dress hanging from the door. It wasn’t like anything I had seen over here, you know, it was like western. It wasn’t flashy or showy or anything like that, but it came down to the ankle and had this pretty little flower pattern. It wasn’t something that could be worn outside, not something the Taliban would’ve approved but this girl — whoever lived in that room — she held onto this dress like a dream, like it was something she had for hope, a ‘one day this’ll be mine’ sort of thing. It was hanging from the door but in the chaos it fell down. I’m not sure why I grabbed it but I did and I held it tight. It was my room, my dress, I wasn’t me, remember. The dress felt like a second skin and I just held it close until the bullets stopped. I protected it, I saved it, that precious ‘one day’ sort of thing.”
Andy forgot that he was talking. He stared at the canvas wall of the barracks and blinked for the first time in he wasn’t sure how long. He hadn’t planned on opening up. That was a story he never told anyone. In his report from the ambush he left it simple, explained that he had just been pinned down, nothing else.
“You kept the dress, didn’t you?” Xanders was staring at him with this look in his eyes like he finally found a friend that made sense to him out there.
“I—” Andy turned toward him just in time for Xanders to lean in and press his sun chapped lips up against his. It was a rough and crooked kiss, one that lasted for a little over ten seconds before Andy’s hand pushed lightly on Xanders’ shoulder, nudging him away softly. “I… I don’t…”
The thought didn’t have to be completed. Xanders stood up, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and left the barracks like he had never even been there. Andy sighed, exhaling a breath he forgot he was holding, and leaned back against his bunk, staring up at the light.
Andy and a few other members of his company were out fixing the perimeter fence before dawn. It was cold out there that early but the soldier still managed to work up a sweat doing the hard work. He hit the showers mid-morning and was coming back to the barracks to change before getting into his standard duties for the day when he heard some laughing and rough housing going on in there. He stepped inside to find Gould, Finch, Johnson, Ramirez, and Xanders all standing in front of his bunk, red faced and laughing. The trunk at the foot of his cot was crooked and opened, and Gould held a floral print dress up to his shoulders.
Bones turned to ice. Andy’s heart slipped into his gut.
“Well look who’s here,” Gould pointed. “The lady of the house.”
Andy’s jaw tightened.
“What’s the matter, Barclay? A man’s talking to ya, be a proper lady and show some respect.”
Xanders was smiling with the others, but he avoided looking at Andy. The gang moved closer. Andy was a statue.
“Cat got your tongue, fag?” Gould’s face was purple with vicious hate. Andy could see it boiling behind his eyes. “Wanna say it ain’t yours?”
Fist balling up, body tensing with righteous anger. Andy didn’t remember throwing the first punch, or knocking Gould to the ground. He didn’t remember the second punch either, or the third, or the fourth, or the flurry to follow. He only remembered the hatred coming from his fellow soldier, the pain and sadness that it stirred in himself, and the relief that came when they finally pulled him off.
A single car drove him back through the desert road. It wasn’t a caravan, or even an armored Humvee, it was just a car. He had no power before — no real power anyway — so how was this different. He sat in the back of that empty sedan, C.O. driving him to the airfield, having nothing of value to say so choosing to drive in silence, and he just stared at his bruised purple knuckles. He must’ve hit Gould so hard that he knocked the hate right off his face. Andy never had power, he was just a piece of the machine and like any piece he was replaceable; plucked from the machine and tossed aside for another.
They said his discharge papers would be there waiting for him at the airfield before he even saw the plane, said the rest would be done when he got back to the States. Children stood by the edge of the road as the car drove by. They weren’t begging or working, they were just children. Andy’s eyes met a boy as they passed. The boy looked away first.