One of Ours
by Dylan Krider
Click here for Author Biography
Click here to send comments
It was supposed to go like this: Daren saw a blip on the radar screen and Lance targeted it as Guy radioed in the coordinates. Once Headquarters confirmed it wasn't one of theirs, they fired shells until the blip disappeared. That was how it was supposed to go, but Guy was having trouble reaching HQ for confirmation.
"Got him right in my cross hairs." Lance said, peering through the scope.
"Let's take him out," Daren said, whooped and clapped once.
"Hold up, guys," Guy said, twisting knobs. This would be their fourth kill-there had been a tank, a jeep and a transport previous. Four would be something to brag about back at the base and odds were against it being UN. Still.
"Come on," Lance said. "I've got him right in my sights."
Guy tried a few other channels. Nothing.
"He's about to move behind that gorge." Lance said.
Guy frowned. "Just give me one more second."
Lance shook his head, showing teeth. "I'm losing him."
"Wait!" Guy said. "I've got someone."
"Hurry up, man!"
HQ was still confirming the location of the target. "Come on!" Guy said, knowing it wouldn't make things go any faster.
"Fuck it. I'm taking it out," Lance said, just as the operator came through on the radio.
Stand down, the operator said far too calmly.
"Hold up!" Guy yelled not needing to wait for the operator to say the rest. "It's one of ours."
That's a friendly you got there. I repeat, target is friendly.
Then it was like all the tension was suddenly sucked out of the cabin and replaced with a gentler, quieter version of its old self. It hung over them like a bad smell; it wasn't comfortable, but they couldn't keep from taking it in. Lance was the one who finally broke it. "Fuck."
And that was all that was said about it.
They continued to drive, searching for hostiles until they reached the position they were supposed to hold at for the night. Guy couldn't help thinking about it, though. Christ, he thought. Our own men. He didn't know if he could handle that if they had done it. He was that close to telling Lance to take them out. He could have been responsible for someone's death, someone in his own platoon, maybe someone he knew. That was too much responsibility for someone straight out of high school, to have control another person's fate. He found himself thankful for all the decisions the army made for him: where to go, when to fire, who to shoot. Then if he killed someone, he wouldn't feel as if it was really him who had pulled the trigger. Those few minutes without radio contact with HQ had been terrifying, more so than the sounds of the first bombs, or the first enemy target they destroyed.
Guy had the last guard duty until morning. He slipped outside before sunrise to heat some coffee for the others. The wind was quick and biting. How could the desert be so cold at night, he wondered, and so damn hot during the day? For the first part of his watch it was dark without even a moon to let him see more than a few feet in front of him, but he could see the stars, so clear and plentiful, he felt as though there was nothing at all between here and there but distance. He didn't know how far, exactly; it ceased to matter after a certain point. What did it matter if the miles were billions or trillions or a few dozen? They were abstractions, tiny pulses of light that told him nothing of systems they represented. Which stars were large? Which ones close; which ones old They had all been reduced to microscopic pricks in the glass-domed ceiling hardly doing justice to the infinite variations from our own sun.
The sky glowed red as it became heavy with sun and sand, and there was a weird smell in the air from something rancid. He woke the others, handing them each a cup of coffee, and they took out their rations, cutting into the packages with their knives. As they ate, there were the sounds of dogs around them, trotting, licking chops and harumphing, but from no specific place any of them could pinpoint. Guy had heard them through the night, too, sometimes howling in the distance, or panting as they sniffed around the transport, never daring to come too close.
"If you see one, let me know," Lance said. "I'm going to shoot one of them."
"Don't," Guy said, and felt weak for doing so.
They saw the dogs a few minutes later, a group huddled together off to their right, gathered around each other in a circle. Lance readied his M-16 and started walking toward them. One of the dogs looked back, perking its ears up as Lance aimed. Guy didn't object this time, having made as big a deal out of it as he was willing to. Just a dog. But something Lance saw made him lower his gun and lift his hand to his brow as if he decide to salute the dogs instead. Guy walked up a few yards behind him, and they could see then what it was the dogs were gathered around: an Iraqi soldier, face down in the sand. Lance fired, hitting one of the dogs which yelped as it leapt, trotting a few steps before falling over. The other dogs sat up, startled but only scattering when Lance fired the second time. They stopped about fifty yards back in a perimeter around the body, waiting for their first opportunity to return.
When Guy got closer, he couldn't make himself feel bad for this corpse, this body, this thing because this was not a human being lying on the ground in front of him. It was swollen and odd, made from plastic or rubber or latex, much faker than anything he'd seen in low budget horror movies, and black, far blacker than he would have been if he were ever alive, as if the sun cooked him to charcoal. In the spots where the dogs had broken him open, he spilled a pastel of colors to the ground, primary colors like blue and red and yellow, not the colors that would have come from inside a real person. He became acutely aware of how terrible it would be to see this body, if he had access to some proof, a photo from his wallet, anything that showed unequivocally that he was once walking and breathing rather than sculpted and placed here. This was the sort of thing that was supposed to traumatize him, he knew, that would return in his nightmares, but it just didn't seem that bad.
"Enemy!" Daren shouted from his position by the Bradley, and Guy and Lance hit the ground. Daren was pointing off in the direction the tank was facing, to something waving not a hundred yards away. Something white. It was rising out of some sort of trench. "La! La!" they yelled. "Min Fadlak!"
They saw the hands next as an Iraqi soldier stood, muttering in Arabic. He climbed out, unarmed.
Two others followed when the first wasn't fired upon, hands raised, jabbering incoherently amongst themselves. Guy had heard of the Iraqis burying their tanks to hide them from the surveillance satellites. It didn't make sense to leave them manned, if that was the case, but he spotted what looked like a hatch.
"Al-hamdu Lelah! Al-hamdu Lelah!" they kept saying, bowing down in front of them.
"Shukran! Shukran!" One kneeled over and kissed Lance's boot, but Lance kicked him away, but the Iraqi didn't miss a beat. He kept chanting, leaning back holding both palms face out then clasping his hands together in front of him and touching them to his lips.
The second Iraqi went to do the same to Guy, but Guy backed away. "Cut that shit out." Lance looked back at Guy, chuckling as he shook his head, obviously amused. Guy realized that his Iraqi was mumbling in English. It sounded like "thank you", sometimes "please". "I said cut that shit out!" Guy said, stepping out of his reach.
When Guy radioed HQ, they told them to take the prisoners back to the nearest camp to drop them off. A truck would come and take them from there. "Okay, lets move! Let's move!" Guy said as the Iraqis climbed in, stumbling but afraid to lower their hands to brace themselves. When Guy shouted orders, he said them with real presence, showing he meant business. The way you were supposed to handle prisoners. He even gave his a shove like Lance was doing, to let him know who was in charge. They set the three in back, facing each other, and Guy was supposed to stand guard. He wasn't sure he had the strength to keep them in line, show he wouldn't be pushed around. Best to let them know it from the start. He held his gun on them as they drove, glaring at them if they gave any looks. It was quiet for a long time. One of them--the one who kissed Guy's boot earlier--snuck a look.
"What the fuck you looking at?!" Guy yelled, and the Iraqi snapped back into position, staring down into his own lap. Guy faced the wall, wanting this to be over soon. He hated this never knowing if one of them would try to jump him, always having to be ready. According to the army, Hussein told his men that the Americans would kill and rape their families if they ever allowed themselves to be captured so that they would be afraid to give themselves up. Something compelled the Iraqi to look up again. He was up to something. Could the Iraqi see through him? Guy pointed the gun. "Did you hear what I said, fuck-face?"
But he didn't look away this time, but just sat looking, as if trying to interpret what had just been said to him. "Guy?" he asked without a trace of accent. "Guy Peterson?"
Guy did his best not to break character. "What the fuck are you saying?"
"Sorry," the Iraqi said, looking down again. "You looked familiar..."
Guy didn't like it. This was too surreal. "How the fuck do you know my
The Iraqi looked up again. "You went to Katy high school, right?"
It was true. Guy tried not to show it.
"I used to watch you play," he said, miming a free-throw.
Guy studied him, looking for some hint of insincerity. "I don't remember you."
"I'm not surprised. Jocks didn't associate much with us computer geeks...," the man said. Boy. Guy wasn't sure when the transition was made, exactly. "We were lab partners once in physical science."
Guy vaguely remembered something like that. It was hard to tell, the Iraqi's face was so dirty, and he had a beard which he never would have been allowed to grow in high school, but there was something familiar about the man's eyes, you couldn't help but notice them. Guy had come to class late, and was assigned to someone vaguely similar who helped him put together a closed circuit during the chapter on electricity, but he had thought he was from India. Maybe Mexico, though his name was strange for a Hispanic--Farrell? Freddy?: "Farid?"
"Yeah," He said--Farid did.
"I can't fucking believe it!" Lance and Daren exchanged looks, as the two other Iraqis did, shrugging with their eyes. One of the Iraqis interrupted and said something to Farid in Arabic. Farid said something back which quieted them some.
Guy gave Farid a friendly nudge in the leg with the butt of his rifle. "What the hell are you doing in the Iraqi army?"
Farid shrugged, chuckling a little himself. "Aw, man. It was stupid. I came out to visit my grandmother in Baghdad on my spring break, and when I went to pick up some things for her at the market, these soldiers threw me on the back of a truck and sent me off to Kuwait."
"Bullshit! What for?"
He smiled. His teeth were white and straight, making such a sharp contrast with his scraggly black beard that they seemed to pop out of his face. "No bullshit about it. I was fighting age, that was all that mattered. Probably never even told my family."
Guy shook his head. He couldn't imagine what it would be like to be whisked away like that. The only person he could blame for being here was himself. "That's some crazy shit."
Farid nodded, and they were silent for a while. "You still play?"
"What--basketball?" Guy shook his head. "No. Maybe with some friends." The Iraqis were staring back down at the ground, apparently acclimated to the situation.
"You were good," Farid said.
"Not that good, or I wouldn't be here." It was all starting to come back to him. Farid was about as smart as anybody at Katy. Straight A's, that sort of thing. Got some huge scholarship from what he remembered. Guy thought about how he pushed him not too long ago, before he knew who he was, and started feeling a little embarrassed about it. He thought back to when he first saw this guy kneeling below him, when he was still just another Iraqi soldier. He laughed. "Never thought you'd be kissing my boots way out here in the desert, did you?"
But Farid didn't laugh like Guy thought he would. It was as if the words pained him. He shook his head mournfully, and Guy felt bad for broaching the subject. "Ah, man, you have no idea what it was like. We were just happy to see anybody."
Guy nodded as if he understood. It suddenly made sense why they had given up so easily-Farid knew that there was no truth to what Hussein told them about the Americans. Otherwise, they would have fought to the death. These were the people of Jihad after all, the ones who drove trucks of explosives onto military bases.
"We were clustered in that thing for over a week, man. We baked all day, then froze all night. They wanted to keep the engines running to keep warm, but I knew they'd use heat seekers to get us if we did." Farid was talking to the floor then. "Man," he said as if he was reliving the experience in his mind. "Hey, Guy," he said, snapping out of his trance. "We haven't eaten for days--you think you could spare something?"
"Sure," Guy said, going for the rations.
"What the fuck are you doing?" Lance said as he twisted around.
The speed of Lance's reaction startled him. He continued sorting through the rations. "Look, he's a friend of mine, okay?"
"He's a prisoner of war, Guy!"
Guy passed out three MRE's, and they all started tearing at them with their teeth, which was probably for the best. Lance wouldn't stand for letting them use knives. Guy was pushing it as it was. "I'll take it out of my share, okay?" Guy handed them a canteen. Farid thanked him and started to eat. Guy leaned back, not wanting to disturb their meal and lit himself a cigarette. Lance lifted his hand to his mouth and waited for Guy to lean closer. "Let's not get too cozy with these guys. That's all I'm saying."
Guy nodded. Lance was right to be suspicious. He didn't know them. The three were too busy eating to care what Lance and Guy were saying about them.
"When we get to camp, he's going to be treated like any other prisoner, no matter who he went to high school with."
Guy knew this, but it bothered him to hear it. Not that he thought Farid would be mistreated-in fact, he knew he wouldn't-but he felt he deserved better than that. He watched as Farid conversed with his friends in Arabic, and they both chuckled softly between bites. Farid was an Iraqi, after all. He wondered if they'd send him back to Iraq after the war was over, or whether he'd ever be allowed to return to the States. It didn't seem likely that either country would allow it.
"So what have you been up to?" Guy asked when Farid had finished. "I mean, before this."
Farid shrugged. "You know. School. I'm enrolled at Rice..." His eyebrows seeped into the little nook at the bridge of his nose until they connected. "Fuck, I hope they didn't fail me."
Guy snorted a short little puff of a laugh. "I think you have an excuse..."
Farid looked worried. "You don't understand-if you don't withdraw... there are rules, procedures..." he trailed off, finally swatting air.
"What about the rest of your family?"
He took a deep breath, exhaling loudly. "They're still in Texas for all I know. My brother was with me, last time I saw him. In Baghdad."
"How old is he?" Guy asked before he could catch himself.
"Fighting age," Farid said matter-of-factly. Guy concentrated on the rurr of the motor, the rattle of metal, the sway and vibration of the cabin. Guy wondered if Farid's brother was in a tank, too, and whether he would have been smart enough not to leave the engine running. Farid was looking straight ahead, like he was thinking the same thing. The Bradley rolled over some scarring in the desert which interrupted the relatively smooth stretch Guy had been enjoying, then it was smooth again.
"Fuck," Daren said then. "Will you look at this."
"What is it?" Guy asked. Guy could see that they were approaching the camp.
"Will you look at that?"
Guy stood to open the hatch.
"Hey," Lance said. "You're supposed to be standing guard."
The hatch fell back with the clank of a manhole cover. The air was hot against Guy's face, like a hair dryer, making it so he had to squint out the heat. Up ahead, there was a line of prisoners, walking on a cloud of dust stretching toward the horizon where the camp stood just visible, lined up like groupies waiting in line for Rolling Stones Tickets. UN soldiers marched along side them, one for every forty Iraqis or so, backed by a smattering of trucks and jeeps. If the Iraqis had any will at all, they could overpower their captors easily, but the UN soldiers walked without fear, not even bothering to force the prisoner's to keep their hands locked behind their heads. It wasn't until they got closer that Guy could make out the details that distinguished each of the prisoners from the whole. They were a tattered bunch, all dirty with their clothes torn, some without shirts at all, moving in slow motion. Some still thanked the soldiers, and clasped their hands at their lips as Farid did not so long ago. Others stumbled with their heads bowed low, hands thrust in their pockets, and shirts wrapped around their heads and waists. Their skin gleamed as if greased, some the color of charcoal, others as light as the sand, with mustaches, full beards, or so covered with dust that it was impossible to tell the difference. As Guy drove by, one of the Iraqis looked up from his boots, head following Guy as he passed, perhaps searching for some hint as the Bradley headed toward the soldier's future.
One of the UN soldiers motioned for them to pull over. Guy sank back down into the Bradley as it came to a stop. Farid and the two Iraqis watched, waiting for orders. Guy found himself readying his rifle on instinct.
"This is where you get off," he said.
Farid translated. Guy motioned to the hatch with his rifle, and they climbed out, clasping their hands at the napes of their necks, his prisoners once more. Guy followed, taking a seat on the roof as the UN soldier helped them off and motioned them to the line. Farid nodded, taking one last look over his shoulder. Guy felt he should say something, something profound but settled for "see you around."
"See you around," Farid said, leading his men away until the line absorbed them without even slowing, instantly making them part of it. Guy was amazed at how like the others Farid looked then. So truly Arab, much the way he had appeared to him that morning. When Farid disappeared from view in the dust, Guy climbed down into the cabin and radioed for new orders. They were to head back to where they were that morning, and go from there.
As they drove, Guy thought again of the day before, the tank he almost ordered destroyed and his own men with it. He thought of Farid's brother, and about how Farid might have cousins, too, who had never even been to the States. And he thought of others whom he'd never met, and how he'd always have to wonder about who it was who had been reduced to a collection of ones and zeros on his computer monitor. As he leaned back, he realized he left the hatch open and looked up into the sun. Something buzzed in his vision, translucent little strings and images of water bugs. He tried to swat them away until he realized they were part of him, in his own eyes. He leaned back, staring through the hole to the sky, trying to take as much light in as possible. They were thousands of tiny cells carried in the current of his blood stream and reflected on the surface of his cornea, tiny blips on his radar screen. When he had asked his eye doctor about the phenomenon as a boy, his doctor told him that the cells broke away like that when they had died, but it wasn't true. Some were still squirming with life in them. So many. Were they always there, dutifully moving along in their caravans until the light hit them just right to make them visible? Guy couldn't fathom it.
"Close that hatch, will ya?" Daren shouted, not bothering to look back.
But Guy didn't move. He didn't want to lose them. Clusters and clusters rolled through his vision--how many in a given hour? How many sighted, how many unseen?
I am Calendar Editor for the Houston Press (www.houstonpress.com), and have been published in several publications, including Kenyon Review and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds vol. I.
Visit my webpage at www.dylanottokrider.com.
Click here to send comments