In the time that it has taken you to read this sentence, Hector has died. You look at him in disbelief. One second in the sand-blasted madness. One flash and now Hector is dead. He has a stupid expression on his face. There is a large piece of misshapen shrapnel sticking out of his chest: really big, like a rusted, shot-gunned yield sign. The heat makes your senses malfunction. The dusty furnace throws everything out of whack. For instance, you feel the jolt and you hit the ground and you take stock. This all takes several seconds. You realize that Hector is dead. Only then do you notice that the world around you is reverberating.
You feel all over your body again, fingers probing frantically. You realize that the sweat is thicker on one side of your face. You touch and see red on your fingers. It takes a minute to register. You feel for the hole in your head and find only a bad cut. You exhale fully for the first time. This is when you realize that someone is screaming on the other side of the truck. You stay crouched and look around, knowing that whoever did this is long gone. You run around the mangled truck and see your friend Sammy grabbing at the air where his leg used to be. The blood and sand have mixed and formed an orange paste around him. Oh shit. You radio in. Help. Please help.
You crouch next to Sammy, telling him that everything is going to be OK. That the sound will stop sometime. That you are going to take care of him. Sammy keeps saying: Where’s my leg? I lost my fucking leg. He is laughing. In shock. You tell him you will be right back and walk toward the driver’s door to find Lewis. His face is completely gone. You vomit into the dust and slam the broken door. You grab the fucking radio. We need help, you scream. The help is coming, but it will take a lifetime.
This is one of the things that exists in your mind now. It is spliced in there with the t-ball game where you were playing second base and caught seventeen pop-fly’s and the coach signed the ball for you and you thought it was Christmas. It’s in there with all the crushes you’ve ever had. The stupid things you did in high school. The people you were nice to and the people you were mean to.
You are ten years old. You are playing hide and go seek. The summer air is rich with flower scent and magic. It is thick air. It fills the lungs and makes you feel warm from the inside. All around you, kids are getting caught or running for base. Your hiding spot is perfect. You feel a happiness that is near hysteria. You could shout, scream, giggle for hours, but you don’t. You sit silently and know that you are going to do great things.
There is a certain logic in the slow motion following an explosion. It is as if everything has been instantaneously destroyed and then re-created. From balance to chaos to balance in one swift hammer-blow. You think clearly. It is easy to think because everything is so goddamn slow. You sit next to Sammy and he’s crying now. His fists are balled up in your uniform, and he is crying with the tight, red face of a child. You tie a piece of rope, trying to get it high enough above the artery. You have to stop the blood. You never realized how much blood there is in a person and surely Sammy’s tank is near empty. For a brief second, Sammy becomes still. It is instantaneous, like a flash of lightning. He looks into your eyes and he is utterly calm. He looks at you with a certain gleeful disbelief. You know he is about to die and you squeeze his slippery hand. Then he’s gone. You are alone.
It is only at this point that you remember your rifle. You stand and fire, sweeping side to side…at nothing. There is nothing but sand and sun. You shoot at the sun and, when you look down again, all you see are floating, swimming dots. You shoot at the dots. Then you slump against the side of the truck.
Thirteen. You live in a quiet neighborhood. Not quite country, but the kind of place where you can have a BB gun. You shoot Q-tips at your sister. You shoot at the targets in the back yard. You become quite good at it, but there is nothing new to shoot after a while. You shoot a cat in the ass from your bedroom window. Just one pump, not enough to kill it. But man does that fucker take off.
You start shooting at the birds outside your room. Small and black, they roost high in the branches of the old pine trees. You shoot the same swabs you shoot at your sister and watch the birds fly away, indignant. Sometimes you smoke one of the cigarettes your friends steal from the 7-11. Most of the time you smoke one of the cigarettes. Finally, it’s too much. You load one BB into the gun. You pump it ten times. You aim and watch the bird spiral out of the tree. Oh shit. You run down to the yard and you see the bird gasping for breath. There is a hole through one of its eyes and it is bleeding. Shit. You run inside and grab a plastic bag. Put the bird in the bag. Watch the beak open and close against the blood-smeared Ziploc plastic. Coward. The bird is still breathing when you bury it alive. You hate yourself.
You are getting angry now. You have been getting angry for a long time and there was nothing to do about it, but now you are fucking angry. You have been in the desert too long. You have seen too many body bags. You have seen very few good things. You have done very little good. Sometimes you help families, children. Sometimes you don’t. You realize that you are in a very fucked up situation and that there is nothing you can do about it. You also realize that you have been permanently changed.
He was young. Sixteen or so. Your brother’s age. He was holding a Kalashnikov rifle and wearing the head thing and you remember thinking how he looked just like he should. It was like a movie. He saw you, but your gun was already raised, your bullets already perforating his chest. It happens quickly. One minute he is standing. The next he is on the ground, a red mist hanging in the air. This is what you feared the most because now you will never be the same. You will never be able to laugh again. You will never make love without self-conscious shame. You won’t be able to talk to children. You know this and it terrifies you. But then there are more men and you shoot your gun and shoot your gun. When it is all over, you are shaking and sweating. You know it will never be the same. After that it’s easier because you are not you anymore.
You are still hidden. You are beneath their canopy, but you can feel the sun through the sturdy branches. You squint and you feel your leg muscles cramping. Ever so slowly, you stretch one leg and then the other. The pain is exquisite. You've earned it. You savor it and slowly it ebbs. You can hear birds and shouting and the unmistakable sounds of summer freedom. For a moment you feel confined by your self-imposed imprisonment.
You are distracted by a motion near the toe of your old Chuck Taylors. A fire ant has wandered too close to an ant lion's hole. You watch its legs scrambling in the orange sand and you see pinchers start to come out from the bottom. You can feel the ant's terror. You are torn. Part of you wants to see it ripped to pieces. Instead, you take a twig and reach it into the hole. The scrambling legs try to find purchase in the scree of sand. The ant is terrified and can’t get a grip in the avalanche. Dropping the twig, you let the ant run onto your hand. Its bite is like a match head pressed into your skin. You feel like laughing, but you know you must stay quiet.
The pain is shocking and pleasurable. You feel the burn like the small cuts you tap into your knee with your Boy Scout knife. You breathe deeply and feel the vibrancy of life and freedom pounding in your chest. You are awake and alert. You will never be captured. Nothing can touch you, not even pain.
You are still beside Sammy and the flies are all over him. His bloody stump is covered in them. You are sick again. You wave your gun to scatter the flies but they re-settle instantly. You do this three or four times before you give up. You are struck by the indecency of the whole picture. You hate the flies. You hate the fucking desert. You hate breathing sand and waiting for things to explode. You feel an emotion that is new to you. It is made of hatred and sadness and you know that it will never leave.
Sammy’s face is fucking ridiculous. You cover it with his arm. You pick up the radio again, but get nothing. Goddamnit. How could this have happened? You signed some papers and you had some idea of how the thing would be. Some noble calling. You were a knight of the round table. But then you got to Iraq and everything was crazy and everything was bullshit. And there were a lot of people dying who shouldn’t have been.
You stay hidden in your spot because that is how the game is played. The other kids are yelling and running. You become frightened and don’t know why. You know it’s ridiculous, but in that moment you are afraid that you are going to disappear. That time will snatch you away. That you will rise into the velvet summer air, never to be heard from again. Then the feeling is gone, but you are suddenly tired of playing. You go inside the house and in the air-conditioned calm you realize that you’ve pissed yourself. You wish you had stayed hidden, but it is too late.