By that time every local knew that Kansas—the wide track of barren earth and upturned trunks surrounding the patrol base, where we’d bulldozed the trees and razed the bushes to deprive would-be waylayers of cover—was a no-man’s-land across which, absent permission, one did not proceed. Nonetheless, according to Dupree, the kid climbed right over the berm of logs, which the bulldozer had pushed to the edge of the clearing, and the locals, accustomed to burning dry cow patties in winter, had immediately ransacked, leaving smooth poles like driftwood heaped along a tide line. He climbed over the logs, said Private Dupree, set down the object, looked at the tower, and waved. Dupree raised his weapon and peered through the scope. The kid was skinny, barefoot.
“But the object,” I said. “The object.”
“Like . . . a lunch pail?” said Dupree.
We were in the box, a converted shipping container that served as our tactical-operations center, huddled over Murray, the contractor from Raytheon.
“Show me Kansas,” I said.
“Kansas, coming up,” said Murray, toggling the joystick that controlled the camera.
“Go get Sergeant Parker,” I told Dupree.
“Ain’t no lunch pail,” Murray said.
I leaned to the monitor. There, smack-dab in the middle of Kansas, equidistant between the logs and the entry-control point, sat a five-liter jerrican.
“Ain’t no lunch pail,” Murray said. He chuckled to himself, and I could tell it was going to become a thing with him. Next time we heard gunfire on the ridge—“Ain’t no lunch pail.” Next time a scorpion skittered across the tent—“Ain’t no lunch pail.” Next time someone pulled a six-inch hair from his instant eggs or the helicopters strafed or a mortar or a ZPU round whistled overhead—
“Fuck’s that?” Sergeant Parker said.
I preempted Murray. “Looks like someone brought a present for you, Bruce.” Like the mustaches, using their first names was something the bomb techs did to remind everybody else that they were special. I went along. They were special. “Dupree says a kid just set it down and walked away,” I said.
“And waved,” said Murray.
“And waved,” I said.
Bruce Parker scowled at the monitor.
“Empty, I bet.”
But after he’d suited up, ventured out to Kansas, packed some C-4 around the jerrican, and uncoiled a detonation cord back to the ECP, Bruce had his game face on.
“Not empty,” he said.
At first, when we arrived in the village and erected the patrol base, we traveled everywhere by vic. They were magnificent machines, a locomotive’s worth of steel on wheels, the awesome apogee of our desperate, decade-old pursuit of superhuman invincibility. And yet: if you sparked enough potassium chlorate under one of them, the effect was comparable to wrapping a stick of dynamite in tinfoil. Within a month, I had the platoon moving exclusively on foot. An engineer with a metal detector would walk point while the rest of the squad followed in a line, stepping in one another’s boot prints or tight-roping down a trail of baby powder. Tactically, single-file has to be the least desirable formation into which infantrymen can organize themselves. But we were getting blown up, not bushwhacked, so fuck tactical, was my thinking.
It didn’t matter. Soon they learned to employ components with a low enough metallic signature not to register on our equipment —clothespins and rubber bands, entire trigger devices whittled out of wood—while daisy-chaining them together with lamp cord and speaker wire. Early days, before we gave up going into town, we traveled via rooftop, humping ladders to lay across the alleys like a bridge. That worked until it didn’t—until they started mining ceilings.
We’d lost three men, all to bombs, before this business with the kid.
Corporal Kahananui had been killed just two weeks prior. Kahananui had signed up under the relaxed enlistment standards of the late-aughts, between surges, when the army was desperate for bodies and taking any man or woman who could fog a mirror. What I mean to say is he was fat. It wasn’t his fault. He hailed from fat people—fat was in his blood. His broad skeleton, good humor, and squat neck all seemed specially designed to accommodate the inheritance. How he’d made it through basic was the subject of much chow-hall speculation. No way could he have qualified in the push-up, let alone the sit-up, let alone the run. Rather, some drill with a quota must have fudged his score a point or ten. That drill, turned out, did us a favor: Kahananui was the greatest, most casualty-producingest machine gunner I’d ever commanded. He’d fallen for the SAW the first time he felt it chugging in his arms, spraying metal down the range at Benning. Call it an affinity, like the fat kid who chooses tuba. During a tiff, he could fix a jam, reload a belt, or jury-rig a broken drum with hardly a hiccup in his surgically directed devastation. He had achieved that intuitive communion with his weapon that every rifleman aspires to. It was humbling—it was truly a delicious treat—to watch him work.
Still, though: fat. And so, between patrols, I ran him ragged. Suicide drills with a MOPP suit and gas mask; calisthenics in a rock-filled rucksack; mountain climbers, bear crawls, cherry pickers, duck walks. Kahananui welcomed the abuse—he genuinely wanted to lose. At some point he started calling me “Coach,” an impropriety I allowed. You made allowances for Kahananui.
Then one day I caught him skulking out of the supply trailer, his cargo pocket stuffed with Pop-Tarts. I marched him straight to the NCO tent, where we found McPherson, my platoon sergeant, reclining on his cot with a laptop balanced on his tattooed torso.
“Now on, Kahananui gets the radio,” I said.
McPherson tugged off his earbuds (which, from his pillow, continued to emit small sounds of screwing), that scar on his face like a continuation of his frown.
“He’s got the SAW.”
I shrugged. “Tough titty.”
The SAW, with a full ammo drum and all the extra rounds Kahananui liked to carry, weighed a good thirty pounds—-the radio, with spare batteries and antennae, at least twenty. On top of his flak jacket, hydration system, I-FAK, and Kevlar, it was a load. But Kahananui, in true Kahananui fashion, accepted his punishment without complaint, laughing with everyone else each time he geared up, piling that massive kit onto himself, heave-hoeing, and lurching like a warhorse out the gate.
According to McPherson, that’s what killed him: weight. The device had been buried under the doorway of a compound they were searching. Although three men had entered the compound ahead of Kahananui—the third man having been Private Dupree—it had been set too deep for any of them to compress its plates, close the circuit, and ignite the charge. Only Kahananui was heavy enough. Later, while debriefing me at the base, Sergeant McPherson said, “With the radio and everything . . .”
He didn’t finish. Didn’t need to. By the time the kid pulled his stunt in Kansas, I was sure I could sense it: a suppressed hostility disguised as the strict adherence to enlisted-officer etiquette, a respect that was the opposite of respect—no one calling me “Coach” anymore, that’s for sure. I’d begun interpreting any friction, any hesitation or hint of dissent, as having to do with Kahananui. I imagined knowing looks behind my back, privates whispering in the tents, a growing camaraderie, among the NCOs, built on shared contempt for me. They were all in this together, was the gist—all lumbering through the same goddamn minefield every day, struggling to survive the whims of the same goddamn lieutenant.
I felt betrayed. Didn’t they realize, big as he was, Kahananui might have triggered that mother walking buck-naked, hungry, through the door?
A few days after Dupree first spotted him, the kid appeared again, again put down a bomb in Kansas, waved, and disappeared into the trees. Bruce set the binos on the sandbags, pressed his finger against his right nostril, and ejected something from his left. “Why do I feel like there’s a spring-loaded bar behind that piece of cheese?” he said.
“Sometimes,” I offered, “maybe a piece of cheese is just a piece of cheese.”
Bruce looked at me. By then, I’d become adept at hearing what people were saying without saying. What Bruce was saying without saying was: “Then why don’t you go blow it up, asshole?”
Kahananui’s replacement, a Specialist Feldman, arrived with the next resupply. McPherson brought him to the box, said, “New guy,” and turned to leave.
“McPherson,” I said.
He stopped. I thought I saw him sigh.
“That’ll be all.”
After McPherson was gone, I glanced from Feldman to Murray, who seemed as puzzled as I was. We were both trying to figure Feldman out. The shadow of a fully receded hairline encircled his pale scalp, and his face looked like something thrown against a wall, sliding down. He appeared to have had the wind permanently knocked out of him, an unsoldierly absence of any pectoral definition whatsoever. His nose was honeycombed with capillaries; impressed lines from spectacle frames linked his temples to his ears. I’d seen generals who looked sprightlier.
“How long have you been in the army, Feldman?” I asked.
“Six months, sir.”
Murray let out a kind of disbelieving whoop, turned it into a cough. Feldman, who evidently was already used to having to explain himself, said, “I was a teacher, sir. High school mathematics, eleven years. If you want to know the truth, sir, the truth is I hated every second of it. Then my wife left me, took the kids. I’d always wanted to serve. It’s always been a dream of mine. I thought I’d missed my chance—but when they raised the age limit . . .”
“Right,” I said. “What’s it now?”
“Forty-two,” I said.
“Good God,” said Murray.
“I’m not that old, sir.”
“No, no,” I said, even though he could’ve been, even though forty-two would not have surprised me in the least.
“Anyway, here I am,” Feldman said. He seemed as surprised as Murray and I.
“Here you are,” I said.
In the dark, even with the goggles, you couldn’t see the baby powder. Night ops, what we’d do was we’d break open light sticks and pour the viscous fluid over cotton swabs. The swabs, in the green world of the goggles, would smolder brightly, like radioactive mice. Not long after Feldman joined us, we followed one of the engineers, Corporal Sanchez, as he led us into the green, one hand working the detector and the other, like a wizard’s, sprinkling a trail of emerald luminescence for the rest of us to walk on.
Sanchez had come to America on giant tractor tires lashed together with rope and cable. Once, at Fort Knox, while we were waiting in the bleachers for our turn at the range, he’d told us how, after four days drifting at sea, as his raft approached the beaches of Florida, a Coast Guard skiff attempted to intercept him. Sanchez and his raft mates dove into the water. Sanchez could see the sand, the resort guests outstretched under colorful umbrellas—then he heard the high gunning of the outboard and looked up at a silver hull, a man in a life vest reaching to grab him. At this point in the story, in the bleachers at Knox, Sanchez held out his own hand, fingers splayed, and, after a brief pause, closed it in a tight fist. Just as the Coastie was about to seize him, Sanchez said, shaking his fist, a wave peaked between them, pushing the skiff back to sea and lifting Sanchez aloft, conveying him as if on wing to shore.
That wave had left Sanchez with a pretty fatalistic worldview, which was why he remained unbothered by the fact that after two combat tours he still had not been naturalized, and why he didn’t mind walking point at night.
We worked our way through the woods, down the valley, and to the river, where a large compound, identified by surveillance drones as the site of frequent comings and goings, was suspected of caching ordnance. We were just about to breach when the new guy, the old man, Specialist Feldman, dropped his rifle. The clatter roused a pack of dogs, whose barking roused the cats, whose caterwauling roused the jackals—none of which was as jarring as what Feldman did next. What he did was whisper, loud enough for all to hear, “I’m sorry.”
Back at the base, after we found nothing and no one in the compound, Sergeant McPherson took Feldman aside and spoke to him. Light was breaking. On my way to the box, I saw Feldman standing beside the entrance to one of the tents. He held his carbine high above his head, as if fording a river. To every soldier who ducked through the flaps, Feldman said, “I’m sorry.” Around noon, I stepped out for chow. Feldman was behind the serving table, holding up the carbine. As the platoon filed by, heaping food onto their trays, he again told each of them, “I’m sorry.” Feldman’s arms were shaking violently; his face was an alarming shade of purple. A couple of privates ahead of me were laughing. They must have been twenty years younger than Feldman, at least.
“I’m sorry,” Feldman told them. “I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry . . .”
Eight hours later, he was back out there for dinner. It was an unfortunate way to have to introduce yourself.
In the week following the night‑op, the kid returned twice more. The second time, I saw him for myself. Private Dupree was on duty again. He radioed me as soon as he spied him scaling the logs. I sprinted for the tower. The kid was smaller than I’d expected. He had to sort of hug the jerrican rather than hold it by the handle. After he set it down, he wiped his nose with his sleeve. I focused the binos. His kameez featured an intricate pattern stitched across its chest in white and gold. He wore a brown prayer cap. He waved.
According to Bruce Parker, the outsides of the cans had all been marked with soil. This would have seemed to indicate that the kid was digging them up. Bruce went on to argue, however, that it would be easy enough for a person to rub on some dirt precisely for the purpose of giving that impression.
“Mousetrap,” Bruce declared.
I admit I was inclined to disagree. The kid, after all, was the only good thing that had happened to us since we’d arrived in that fucking village. Within the platoon, he’d come to be viewed as a kind of a win. Moreover, since Dupree had been the first one to spot him, and the only one who’d seen him twice, a degree of the kid’s juju extended to the private. In our minds, Dupree was connected to the kid, and this connection was in turn connected to Dupree also having been the last person to walk through the last door Kahananui walked through. Via Dupree, in other words, the kid was connected to Kahananui.
It was partly for this reason that I asked Bruce to keep his theories to himself. Another reason, I confess, was that ever since the kid I’d personally sensed less resentment from the men.
Specialist Feldman might also have had something to do with that. It was as if, with so much enmity focused on the math teacher, none remained for me. Every day his difficulties seemed to increase. For starters, after the night‑op, nobody called him Feldman; he was known by everyone as “Sorry.” McPherson’s relentless hard‑on for the specialist further estranged him from the platoon. Once, during chow, I heard McPherson say, “Who let this fucktard into my army?” and watched him march across the yard to where Feldman sat alone with a book.
“What is that?” McPherson demanded.
Feldman pushed his glasses up his nose and smiled. Somehow under the impression that the sergeant’s interest was genuine, he began talking with enthusiasm about the book, a history of Afghanistan, saying things like, “It’s actually quite interesting . . .” and “Says here the mistake the British made when they installed the shah was . . .”
A few hours later, when McPherson had finished with him, I summoned Feldman to the box. He was sweating so heavily that the salt stained his uniform in thick white bands. I tossed him a water bottle and he turned it upside down, bobbing his Adam’s apple until it was empty.
“I guess it’s not for everyone,” I said.
“Sir?” Feldman said.
I waved in a general way. “Why didn’t you go officer? You have the degree. Army needs officers. How is it your recruiter let you enlist?”
“I insisted, sir.”
Over at the monitor, Murray shook his head. I tossed Feldman another water. “You were expecting something a little different?”
Feldman shrugged. He was reluctant to acknowledge how poorly things were developing for him. When I suggested that McPherson would back off in time, it was nothing personal, he laughed and said, “Beats teaching!” He gulped at the bottle, wheezing through his nose. “Beats my empty condo! Beats having to see Brad Drexler every day. Drexler in the break room, Drexler in the halls, Drexler in the—”
Again Feldman laughed. “Nobody, sir. A social studies teacher. My wife . . .”
He was smiling in an ugly, crooked way, lips curled against his teeth, eyes wrenched wide. It took me a minute to realize he was trying not to cry. When I did I understood why Feldman so disgusted McPherson. Quickly, to avoid saying something cruel, I pointed at his rifle. “Just show them you know how to use that thing. That’s all that matters.”
Feldman’s mouth remained twisted in its mocking rictus. When he replied, “Yes, sir, I’ll show them,” it was plain that we were talking about different people, he and I.
A few days later, while we were alone in the box, Murray said, “When I was in Iraq there was this squad leader. Sergeant Walsh. Not my squad leader. Not even my platoon. But everybody in the unit knew him. Walsh was the darling. High speed, Ranger-qualified, born for the uniform. Imagine Kahananui not fat. That was Walsh. So one day Walsh and his squad are kicking down doors. They’re in this building where every time we pass it, somebody fucks us from the roof. They come around a corner —standing in the hall, minding his business, there’s this kid. Young kid, like yours.”
“Mine?” I said.
“Only no man jammies. No week’s worth of moon dust on his face. This is Baghdad. Oh, and he’s not carrying an improvised explosive device; he’s got that going for him.
“So Walsh halts the squad. The kid, he points at one of the apartment doors. He points at the door, says something to Walsh, and then he runs away. Interesting. Thing is, we’re talking early days—Walsh doesn’t have no terp with him. But he thinks, Walsh does, There must be some baddies in there. Sure. Why else point it out? Why else run away?
“You know what happens next. It happens the instant they hit the door. Blast nearly brings the building down. Dude from the QRF told me a flying TV almost killed some bitch five blocks away. Walsh’s guys? Our guys? Two of them are dead.
“Two guys in the first month of our deployment. Meaning guess what? That platoon had an entire year to get theirs. I mean these yahoos were notorious. Sure, maybe the lieutenant was a fucking psychopath. But still: it all started with that kid. Kid’s what set it all in motion.”
Murray raised his eyebrows.
“You’re saying you’re with Bruce on this,” I said.
“Hold on,” said Murray. “The story’s not about the kid. It’s about Walsh. Walsh had a problem. His problem was: he thought about things. That way, he was kind of like you.”
That way, I thought. Not the born-for-the-uniform way. Not the darling-of-the-unit way.
“One thing Walsh thought about,” Murray continued, “one thing he couldn’t stop thinking about, was what if the kid hadn’t set them up? What if what the kid had done was warn them?
“Good question. A few days after the attack, Walsh visits the terps. He finds their hooch, knocks on the door, is like, ‘How do you say, “Don’t go in there”? How do you say, “Go in there”?’ He says every line he can think of, every possible thing the kid might have said either to set them up or warn them. But of course none of it is ringing any bells. It all sounds the same. It all sounds like fucking gibberish.
“OK. Night after night, Walsh lies awake, he replays the scene. The kid appears in the hall, he points at the door, he speaks to Walsh. Everything is clear—too clear—everything except when the kid opens his mouth, what comes out? Fucking gibberish. So Walsh, what does he do? He starts hanging with the terps. He starts taking lessons. He starts trying to learn the fucking lingo. Now he’s got to know, right? It’s like this kid’s words, whatever the fuck they were, are the key to the whole shitty mess. Like if Walsh can’t understand them, he won’t ever understand anything. He figures, Walsh does, if he can learn some of the lingo, maybe then the words will come.
“Well, what do you think? We’re getting contact almost every day, losing guys, and our star NCO, our main dude, is spending all his downtime with the terps? Nope. By the end of the deployment, nobody wanted anything to do with fucking Sergeant Walsh.”
Murray turned back to the monitor and began fiddling with the joystick.
“That’s the end of the story?” I said.
He shrugged. “I got out after that tour and started working for Raytheon.”
“Jesus, Murray,” I said. “You’re telling me you don’t know what happened? You don’t know if Walsh ever figured out what the kid said?”
Murray looked at me and grinned. What he was saying without saying was: “You dumb son of a bitch, of course he never figured it out.”
The drones had spotted more comings and goings, and we had orders to return to the compound by the river. It was daytime. Sanchez was working the detector. He was midway across a wide, dry creek bed when he got a hit. I pulled the squad back onto the bank, and then farther back, into a small grove where a spring fed moss and trees. While we waited for Bruce to join us with the robot, there came the scream of a shell and its breathtaking thunderclap near enough to wash debris across our backs as we pressed into the earth wishing she would open up. Almost immediately a second shell impacted on the opposite side of the grove, and the panic, the awareness that the mortar team was adjusting in, arrived at the same time as a barrage of small arms from our six, the bullets so close we could hear them whining shrilly, vibrating the air.
We spread out, returning fire every which way, bracing for the next mortar round to land. Sergeant McPherson yelled at the men to identify targets, locate muzzle flashes, movement, kill holes in the compound walls. I took a quick inventory and noticed, among the frazzled grunts, one soldier lying comfortably in the prone, rifle propped on a log. He was scanning a distant stand of pines while squeezing off precise, methodical bursts. The unhurried way the soldier was shooting and reloading—-the way, at one point, he expertly cleared a jam without removing his eyes from those pines—-stood in stark contrast to the existential alarm taking hold of the men around him.
McPherson saw it too, low-crawled over, and shouted, “What do you got?”
To which Specialist Feldman, ejecting an expended magazine and inserting a fresh one, responded, “Two o’clock. Tree line.”
Today, no matter how hard I try to transport myself back to that grove, I can’t say for how long Feldman’s little moment lasted. Half a minute? Half an hour? I suppose it doesn’t matter. For a short while, anyway, the old man was doing what he’d come there to do. He was showing them.
I was so distracted that I didn’t notice Private Dupree until he hollered in my ear.
“He’s here, sir.”
Dupree pointed at a patch of chaparral midway between our position and the pines. I raised my rifle. The kid was squatting in the bushes, eyes clinched, covering his ears. Clearly, he didn’t want to be there. The little bastard must have been following us, I realized, ever since we’d left the base.
Before I had a chance to consider what it might mean, or to alert Sergeant McPherson, the kid did a jerky half spin, as if an invisible assailant had whipped him around from behind. I saw, through the scope, the spray. He landed face-flat in the dirt.
I looked up. The only soldier aiming his weapon that way was Feldman. He had no scope—-I hadn’t issued him one yet—-and he was squinting down the iron sights, trying to see his man.
The first thought that occurred to me was what a remarkable shot he was.
It took us until sundown, availing ourselves of close air support, to exfil home. There was no hope of recovering the kid, who in any case had been a goner before he’d hit the ground. As soon as we got back inside the wire, Private Dupree jumped Feldman. He got in several vicious punches before anyone tried to pull him off. I sent Feldman to the aid station, where he stayed for the rest of the evening. Later, I brought him some food. He was sitting on the floor, holding a cold pack to his swollen brow. After muttering some bromides about collateral damage, the nature of combat, I said, “Don’t worry about the report.”
For a moment I thought Feldman was going to object; to insist on suffering some consequences for his actions; to say, “I killed that child, and I need to pay.” I could see the noble temptation flickering like a loose bulb behind his eyes.
Then it went out.
I didn’t really talk to Feldman for several weeks after that. None of us did. If before he’d been a minor nuisance, unfortunate but innocuous enough, now the old man was a bona fide pariah. McPherson no longer put forth the effort to find excuses to rebuke or punish him, and the rest of the platoon, understanding this to be a still harsher form of rebuke and punishment, followed suit. Feldman was considerate. He made avoiding him as easy as he could.
A month or so after the ambush at the creek, I received word that the chaplain was making the rounds and would be at the patrol base in the morning. That night I waited until Murray hit the shower, and then I called Feldman into the box.
His appearance disturbed me. What little hair he had was way too long—-far exceeding regulation. It made him look even older, more incongruous in that place, and less like a soldier. I could only imagine what McPherson, in the past, would have done to him. Now, it seemed, no one had noticed.
I said, “I was thinking it might be a good idea for you to talk to someone, Feldman.”
There was evident relief in his eyes. Evident gratitude. “I appreciate that, sir,” he said.
“Good. So you agree.”
Feldman vigorously nodded. “If you want to know the truth, sir, the truth is that if it weren’t for my kids, I might just go ahead and . . .” He laughed. “But then, I can’t even think about my kids without thinking about . . .”
I cleared my throat. “What I was going to say is the chaplain will be here tomorrow, and he’d probably be a good person to talk to.”
“Better than me, probably,” I added.
He had the same stupid, befuddled look on his face as when he’d thought that McPherson really wanted to hear about the book he was reading.
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“They’re trained in this stuff,” I said. I picked up a stack of papers from the table and began flipping through them, stopping occasionally to set one face-down on a different stack.
“Should I go now?” Feldman asked.
I glanced up as if surprised to find him still standing there. “Sure, Feldman,” I said. “And do me a favor, will you? Cut your fucking hair.”
The next morning Corporal Sanchez was the only soldier at mass, and Feldman steered clear of the chaplain for the rest of the day. It was only much later that I learned that Feldman was a Jewish name—although, by then, I knew that no priest, rabbi, or other person could have helped him anyway.
Ours was a war that offered few opportunities, aside from getting killed or wounded, to distinguish yourself. There were no hills to charge, peninsulas to hold, bridges to seize. There was only the patrol: a year’s worth of mine-littered walks ending where they started. Maybe this is why it was with a kind of horny impatience that we kept waiting for the big one, some mad battle in retribution for Feldman’s crime.
As usual, when it came it was a letdown.
We were finally returning to the compound by the river, which we’d postponed doing since the ambush. We’d made it past the grove and the creek bed, the chaparral where the kid had died. We were almost there, about a dozen meters from the property, when a slot in the metal gate slid open, a muzzle poked out, and someone from inside opened fire.
It lasted maybe five seconds. Neither of the two shots came anywhere near us. The gate was flimsy tin, and before the gunman could get off a third round we’d riddled it with holes. We fanned out and readied for the others. Incredibly, there were none.
“The hell?” McPherson said.
Bruce and Sanchez opened the gate. As they swung it wide, we all braced in anticipation, weapons raised. What they revealed was a shot‑up corpse slumped in a wheelchair. The man had taken several bullets in the face; it was difficult to judge his age. Both of his feet were missing. Not his legs—-just his feet. A Kalashnikov lay across his lap.
Sanchez patted him down. He shrugged.
“The hell?” McPherson said.
Once again, we found nothing suspicious in the compound. There were only a few mud rooms, cell-like, each with a narrow entrance obstructed by a tacked‑up sheet. The sheets were floral-patterned.
I peeked into each of the rooms after they’d been cleared. All but one held farm equipment, engine parts, hay, and chickens. The sole space dedicated to human living was crammed with bedding and pillows. Colorful tapestries hung from the walls. A wooden chest stood in a corner. The soldiers had yanked out all the drawers: clothes lay in messy piles atop the cushions and blankets. I noticed that some were the clothes of a child. I sifted through them with my boot. Did I know what I was looking for? Was I surprised when I found the brown prayer cap, the kameez with the familiar pattern stitched across its chest in white and gold?
Sanchez was calling me on the radio: “You better come and see this, sir.”
I joined him behind the compound, where we’d neglected to search during the night‑op, under the shade of a pomegranate tree. He stood at the lip of a yawning hole in the ground. The hole looked like the mouth of a small volcano, sloping gently, and then vertically, into a pit of uncertain depth. It was a karez: part of a labyrinth of subterranean passageways built millennia ago to transport water from desert aquifers. The system had long since dried up, leaving beneath the village a complex network of tunnels, some big enough to drive a truck through. These tunnels obsessed the CO, who was convinced that the enemy used them to travel from village to village, stash matériel, and convene shuras undetected by the drones. He’d once confided in me that he wouldn’t be surprised if there was a whole “Taliban city” down there, complete with power and roads. Of course, the implied image was the CO descending with a flamethrower, hordes of screaming gooks running out on fire. Like I say, though, ours was a lackluster war: rarely did it yield such lurid satisfactions. We’d searched dozens of these caverns, and not once had we ever found anything.
Sanchez turned on his flashlight.
“Merry Christmas,” he said.
What we discovered, after Bruce rappelled to the bottom, was a burlap sack containing almost two hundred pounds of ammonium nitrate, some blasting caps, and a couple dozen carbon rods. No Taliban city, exactly, but a haul.
I found Specialist Feldman pulling security near the gate, brought him to the wheelchair, and made him look.
I explained how this fucking hajji—who’d attacked us, who’d been hiding enough shit to blow up half the village, who’d lost his own feet during some mishap in the workshop, and who, for all we knew, had been responsible for Kahananui and the others—this fucking hajji was the father of the kid. “Or grandfather,” I said. “Or brother. Point is, the kid lived here. They lived here together.”
Before I’d even finished I regretted it. Feldman gazed down at that brutalized corpse, and I could see him working it out. He was smart, after all, in his way. Too smart for the infantry, anyhow—although, fatally, not smart enough to have seen that in the first place. Just as I’d told Feldman one story, another was telling itself. I mean the story in which the kid was exactly who we’d wanted him to be; the story in which he’d tried to help us with the bombs because it had been a bomb that maimed his father, grandfather, brother, or whoever; the story in which the kid had followed us not just that day of the ambush at the creek but every day, ever since we’d arrived in the village and erected the patrol base; the story in which he saw for himself what happened to Kahananui, and he pitied us; the story in which this footless, faceless person had volunteered the use of his karez and launched his pathetic little kamikaze raid only after we had killed the kid; and the story in which Specialist Feldman, far from forestalling a catastrophe, as I’d suggested, was in a sense responsible for two deaths now, not one.
This story was as plausible as mine, mine as plausible as this one, and who could say how many other variations there might be, or which of them, precisely, Feldman was contemplating then.
It didn’t matter. He had the rest of his shitty life to attend to all of them. The rest of his shitty life: and still he’d get no closer to knowing. No closer than Sergeant Walsh will get to knowing whether that boy in Baghdad set him up or warned him. No closer than I will get to knowing whether the weight of that radio was the weight that killed Kahananui.
One day, toward the end of our deployment, Murray told me he had something he wanted to show me. He reached into the gym bag he kept under the monitor and brought out an unopened can of Dr. Pepper. It was the first Dr. Pepper I’d seen since my leave, nine months ago. He’d been squirrelling it all this time.
“It’s going in my first machine,” Murray said. Then he went on to explain how he intended to use the money he’d earned in Afghanistan to invest in the “pop-vending racket.” “There’s only one word you need to know to make your fortune,” said Murray, “and I’m about to tell you what it is.” He tossed me the Dr. Pepper can, and I held it in my palm, feeling its heft, its promise. “Location,” Murray said.
Back at Knox, I pinned the new ribbons on my dress blues, spoke at the memorials, completed my contract, and took the discharge. I saw the old platoon once more, about six months later, at a bar in Louisville. McPherson had organized a party to celebrate Sanchez getting his citizenship. When I arrived, Sanchez was parading around in a cardboard Uncle Sam hat. I’d been apprehensive about seeing McPherson, but as soon as I walked in, he threw his arm on me, yelled for everyone’s attention, and proposed a toast. He called me the best lieutenant he’d ever had the privilege to serve under, and all of the men duly agreed.
I sat in a booth with Rob Dupree. He was a corporal now, a budding McPherson. You could see the sergeant’s influence on him. He told me they’d already been put on alert again, and he seemed pleased. A few minutes later, he said, “Look who it is.”
I turned to find Feldman stepping through the door. He wore a plaid shirt tucked into pleated slacks. He still looked like a math teacher.
“How’s he been doing?” I said.
Dupree shrugged. Then he told me something strange. He told me that Feldman had re-upped, extending his contract for another four years.
“He’s not so bad,” said Dupree.
I watched Feldman navigate the crowd. I could see that things had improved for him. No one turned his back or snubbed him; no one called him “Sorry.” Still, after a few polite greetings, silent nods, Feldman was at the bar, on a stool, by himself.
Eventually, I headed that way. Just before I reached him, I glimpsed Feldman’s face in the mirror above the taps. It stopped me cold. I was standing there, a foot or two behind Feldman, when someone yelled “Sir!” and I seized the chance to turn around, away from him, into the middle of a war story. It was a familiar one, a story we’d all heard and told a dozen times but that we still laughed and shook our heads at, even though it wasn’t true.