ON THE EUPHRATES
Halfway through our tour Elliott Hildebrandt, our field medic, was killed on IED Alley. I remember a sharp popping sound. A man who smiled at me as our Humvee passed him by. Ten children, lined up and perfectly spaced out, their hands raised and waving at us.
That morning we woke to James Darbee’s screams, his legs kicking at the air in a panicked rage. His cot rocked from side to side so furiously that his pillow fell to the floor. We all circled him. We’d only been asleep for an hour when the screaming started. Someone grabbed a pillow and made like they were going to hold it over Darbee’s face.
“Do it,” someone whispered.
None of us slept after that, and then, beneath anemic clouds that wore the sad smiles of circus clowns, we sped towards our mission with great disdain. We babysat Army engineers while they filled pot holes left by IED explosions, and that day we greeted them with the kind of hatred one usually reserves for their worst enemies. When we stepped from our vehicles any hope we had of standing on our own feet had melted away. Darbee and I stood back to back, propping one another up, our weapons trained on the stretch of road before us. Darbee went on and on about his dream.
“It was real, I mean, I saw it like that. We were on this road and there was an explosion, and then I was dead. You guys were all standing around laughing because there was shit oozing out of me, puddles of it oozing out my asshole.”
My dream was nearly identical, but I didn’t tell him that.
“I could smell it, the shit,” he said. “It smelled like the Euphrates.”
He walked off to find a cigarette after that and I went off to find someone else to lean against.
We left an hour before sunset. Then, a few kliks from base, we gave up on the war, sat back in our seats, stuffing our mouths with haji energy drinks and cigarettes just to stay awake. I stared directly at the setting sun so that I couldn’t close my eyes to sleep without seeing volcanic flashes of light.
We lurched down a road that followed the Euphrates. It looked like a fresh wound cut into virgin flesh. We’d been taking that same route for a week by then, driving out at sunrise and returning at sunset so the road could be completed on time for a news story about progress in Iraq’s struggle for freedom and decreased violence in the region. We were so sun burned, sleep deprived, starved that we didn’t even raise our weapons to watch our perimeters. The engine hummed a frantic song. I’d been eating No-Doz by the fistful so that my eyes were lacquered open. Darbee kept going on about how his number was up, about that dream, about how it was so real he could taste it. As I mentioned, I’d had the same dream, knew, as we approached the tiny village along the banks of the river, that one of us was going to die.
I was too exhausted to care which one of us it was.
When we reached the village we moved slowly down the road, maneuvering around craters left by recent blasts.
“Wouldn’t it have made more sense,” Bodi said, as he guided us towards home, “for them to start at our camp and work towards the FOB?”
“That’s it,” Darbee said. “It’s our own stupidity that’s going to kill us.”
I sat in the backseat while our convoy wound its way along the Euphrates and into the village. I saw the smiling man, just then, and felt a great dumb grin forming on my face. The moon hovered off in the distance, a bruised piece of fruit waiting to be thrown away. Darbee sat next to me mumbling, “Any second now, any second.”
In those days children were used as timers, spaced out so that bombers could count the seconds between each vehicle, could detonate their devices with greater accuracy. When we passed the last child there was a roaring explosion, something you might expect to hear as you watched a giant building brought to its knees. Our vehicle shuttered to a halt and Darbee let out a girlish wail, as if we’d been the ones, as if we’d been flipped over and tossed in a ditch.
We’d both known, or thought we knew, what was going to happen. But Darbee wasn’t ready to admit that it hadn’t happened to us.
“Jesus,” he said, “fuck.”
I ran my fingers over my face. “We’re fine,” I said, even though I didn’t believe it myself.
The children took off running. I leaned out the window and saw that the lead vehicle had been hit. A smell, which I knew was human flesh, spat into the air and snaked its way into my mouth. After a few seconds I opened my door and stepped out into the street, raising my weapon against imagined enemies. I looked towards the bombed Humvee. Smoke was rising from it. I couldn’t see anything else. It was possible that everyone in it was dead. But then there was sound coming from it, men calling out to one another, checking to see if everyone was alright. They sounded peaceful, dazed and sleepy.
Darbee had yet to realize that he was alive and started to panic, thinking he’d died and was now doomed to spend eternity with us. I turned to see his bloodshot eyes. I thought he’d lost his mind because when he spoke, his voice was filled with a kind of sickened anger.
“I can’t be trapped here with you fuckers,” he said.
“James,” I said.
Suddenly I cared about being alive, about convincing him of it.
“We’re okay,” I said, although I couldn’t speak for the men ahead of us.
He looked out his window. “We’re dead. We’ve died and this is some kind of sick punishment, isn’t it?”
“I’m going to help the others,” I said.
He turned to look at me. “No one can help us now.”
“You’re alive,” I said, and playfully slapped him in the face a few times.
Bodi sat very still in the driver’s seat while Styza reached back and grabbed Darbee’s rifle. It seemed like the right thing to do.
“You can have it,” Darbee said, “I won’t be needing it.”
Styza pulled the weapon from him.
“It’s okay,” I said, as I turned and ran towards the wounded men.
“You can’t save them,” I heard him call after me.
I ran, so desperate to see who’d died, that I ignored all protocol. It was freezing. I remember my breath pushing out in frozen bursts, my lungs burning. I could see a man, lying next to the lead vehicle, his body charred and giving off smoke. His flesh had turned to slush.
As I approached the passenger side, nearest the dead man, I could hear a faint sucking sound. Hilde sat there, his neck sliced in half, so that his head tilted to the left and the wound looked like a gapping mouth filled with blood. The rest of the vehicle appeared to be fine, no damage to speak of, not even a dent. I stood, staring.
The others, the men in the vehicle, began to rush towards Hilde’s side. They pushed me out of the way so that they could move him, try to save his life before he died.
But he was already dead.
I sat on the ground next to the charred corpse. Styza and Bodi stood next to me as the others screamed into Hilde’s face.
“He’s gone,” I said.
“What about this guy?” Styza said.
The dead man had a welding suit strapped around him. I could see that it had contained the blast, though later we’d find out that a buckle had popped off, that that was what had killed Hilde.
“Is he dead?” Styza asked.
I began laughing uncontrollably. Everyone turned to look at me, because none of them knew what I was laughing about, none of them found this funny. But that only made me laugh harder.
Once I gained control of myself, I asked, “Where’s Darbee?”
“What’s wrong with you?” Bodi said.
Nothing. I was only relieved that it hadn’t been me, but couldn’t say that. How could I let them know that I was filled with joy now that I was certain that I was not the one?
When Darbee finally wandered over I took him off to the side and confessed.
“Remember that dream?” I asked him.
“I was sure it was real,” he said. “Have you ever had a dream like that?”
“I have,” I said. “I have.”
As we walked back to meet the others I could see that the bomber was still alive, taking pathetic little breaths that would surely be his last, because his body was a smoking hunk of stewed meat. There was a sound, like water slowly flowing down a drain. But there was no blood, or at least none that I could see. I knew I was supposed to hate him, was supposed to see him as nothing more than a crazed animal. But I felt sorry for him, thinking he might be alive enough to suffer. Not sorry because I pitied his circumstance but because I’d been convinced by my dreams that I would end up just like him.
There was a short-lived debate about searching the village to find out who else was involved, talk of roughing up civilians. Someone even suggested dropping ordinance. A few of the guys were pretty angry.
I was ready to crawl into my cot and dream, so that I might find out which one of us would be next.
After a while Bodi said, “Odds are good they’re gone anyway.”
Shortly after that, we strapped Hilde’s body to the hood of a Humvee. There was no interrogation, no retribution, not this time anyway. Instead, we sped off into the night. No one talked during the ride.
Another vehicle dragged the corpse of the bomber behind it. There was nothing left when we arrived back at camp. Our CO said that the body parts, splayed across the road, might show our enemies the cost of bombing us.
“Or make them do it more,” I whispered.
“Fitzsimmons,” the CO said, “do you have something to offer?”
I had plenty to offer but nothing I intended to say out loud.
Someone draped an American flag over Hilde’s body. A few guys carried him. The rest of us stood in silence as they moved past.
“Lucky bastard,” Styza mumbled, once they were gone. “At least he doesn’t have to go and do it again tomorrow.”
Shortly after they flew Hilde away, each of us met individually with a combat stress counselor.
“How do you feel about what happened today?” he asked me.
Pretty good, I thought, I’m alive.
“Fine,” I said.
“Fine,” he repeated. “Can you be more specific?”
It struck me that this guy sat in an air conditioned office all day waiting for moments like this. What is war really like, he wanted to know. How does it make you feel to be a warrior? He was probably going to study psychology at Harvard when he got home, write a paper about post-traumatic stress.
“It’s okay,” I said, “stuff like this happens all the time.”
He rolled his eyes, sighed.
He decided on a new course of action. “Have you been having dreams?”
I saw myself lying on the side of the road, shit spilling out of me.
“Nothing special,” I said.
“Why don’t you tell me about them anyway?”
“I’d rather not,” I said.
Everyone stood about laughing at me, holding their sides, fell to the ground. There were explosions all around them, but they kept on laughing.
“Have you ever seen the crater an IED makes?” I asked.
“I’d rather hear about your dreams,” he said, and reached across the space between us.
Each night it’s different. Each night it’s the same. At sunset we rise. The sky stands empty above us. The road goes on for miles. The smiling man. The waving child. Sometimes I’m the one who stands there laughing. Sometimes I’m the one who’s died.
Jon Chopan teaches in the creative writing program at Eckerd College. His first book, Pulled from the River, was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2012. His stories and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train, Hotel Amerika, Epiphany, and Post Road.