It's one of those sickly September days, either chilling hot or broiling cold. I'm not sure which. The old lieutenant hobbles in about a half-hour after I've finished puking, and in his aged splendor looks like heaven's cavalry. Golden light heralds his entrance— otherworldly— as if the hand of God has come to smite them. I smile, though I must look awful. My head lolls dumbly. White foam bubbles over my dry lips, and the sting of acid burns my throat. One of the soldiers has his hand clamped around my neck, about to yank away my camera because he knows the film inside is as good as bloody fingerprints.
The lieutenant's steel-toed boots hit the ground abruptly-- black, shining and forbidding. The soldier releases my collar, and I tumble into a pool of my own vomit. I don't mind, because at this moment, I'm giddy-mad, trying to decipher whether or not I'm about to laugh or cry. I don't even hear what the lieutenant shouts. All I know is the raucous.
Soldiers dash across sleek floors like squirrels through traffic. There's a cacophony of squeaks and shuffles as they get in line. Now, the lieutenant sees what they had hidden. He raises his swagger stick and yells to the top of his lungs, "Just get the hell out of here! Just get the hell out of sight, you bastards!"
They abandon their line to scamper out of the way of the light. A hideous scent rises. It's the scent of gangrene skin, coagulated blood, urine, and feces all smeared across the floor. I gag, but there's nothing left to vomit: no food, no words. There's only one thing left and that's "sorry," which is as good as nothing because it's not enough.
I hear the old doctrine in my head and cringe: "Kill everything that doesn't kill you first. If one shoots, kill them all." My aspirations had been so laughably simple then: eat, pay bills, pay taxes. Repeat. If things went well, I'd be defending my country, mostly by dumb luck. I'd been so damn lucky. I think the neighbor back home who'd lost his daughter; and, here, where you can't find a single person who hadn't lost somebody.
"Twenty-one photographs," the lieutenant says. There's disdain in his voice, as if he wants to spit in someone's face. "You got twenty-one photographs of this fucking nightmare and they won't release them."
The senator insists it's suicidal.
I think of the senator's words—the way he paused in between, the way he said them. The whole while the lieutenant and I are listening, I'm thinking, "Yeah, but, what about them?" But, now, I only laugh. It's not an amused laugh. It's a dark, tired, pity laugh because if I show the extent my anger, I'll explode. I laugh because I hear an overwhelming chorus of, "Yeah. What about them?"
I can't walk around this place without thinking about how much they hate me. They want me to die, and hell!, if I were them, I'd want me to die too. Here's the best part of all: my real enemy is nowhere in sight, and each passing day is more civilian blood on my hands. But, the lieutenant and I keep pushing for newspapers to out with my photographs, and during the wait, my mind fills with poetic thoughts: that hope is alive and not just in us; that my country is anyone who shares its dream. Then, I realize how obnoxious I sound, or beautiful, or maybe both obnoxious and beautiful.
Yeah. You are one gorgeous pig, Eric.
I think of that young couple—natives of this country, intelligence specialists. I'd been in touch with them for the past four months. I see her smoldering eyes implore me and shiver, feeling an unseen hand rip open my chest and twist my arteries. I gasp, trying not to asphyxiate. Her warm fingertips ghost along my neck. I'm one strand of sanity away from whisking her into my arms and kissing her with all the hot, reckless gratitude I feel. Bloody heads, gouged corpses, and burning flesh flood my consciousness and mix with the sweet memory of her amiable smile. It's sick how I can mix the two. Her warm tan skin reappears, pressed to my own. I turn, and her husband is there with us, so I dare twist my fingertips through his black hair, displacing clods of dirt and picking out leaves.
I think of the phone call he'd gotten earlier this week.
"We know where you are and we're coming to kill you," they said, in a tone ever-so-cordial.
The rebels had gotten his phone number off a fallen soldier, and viewed them as little more than traitorous ants. Day and night, my nerves are on edge because of it.
"I'll take you home," I say. "You'll be safe there."
I don't know that for sure, of course, but I have this romantic image of us all in my apartment back home, so clear my own mind teases me. You're in love, it says.
You're in love, Eric.
I answer my brain, as though it's another person. "I'm not." But, the more I fight, the more excited it becomes. It "ohs!" and "oohs!" like a schoolyard tattletale. "Oh, Eric, you bad little boy. What have you done? You're suppose to fight them. Instead, you've gone and fallen in love with them. For shame, for shame."
"I haven't fallen in love," I plead. "They're allies. I'm not a coward. Any guy in his right mind has nightmares about the kind of stuff I've seen. Lots of guys can't sleep. Lots of guys are taking SSRIs all the time, and crying at night, and wishing they could just forget for five minutes. Lots of guys can't fucking stand this. . . ."
I want to hear you say it.
I've got my cold hand clamped around my own collar, just like that soldier trying to get the camera. 'I'm losing my mind.' Say it, Eric. Tell me you're crazy.
"I'm not crazy, and you're going to shut up now."
You're in love.
I'm a translator, but more of their words slip into my vocabulary every day. After a while, the languages blend, and I realize now that I can't tell them apart anymore. So, when I start to whisper out loud, "I'm losing my mind. I'm losing my mind. I'm losing my mind," I don't realize that I'm not speaking my language anymore.
The lieutenant looks at me. The furious black of smoking ember is in his eyes. At first, I think he disdains me; but, then, he says, "You know, if you were to make a run for it to get them over the border, I might turn my back."
I say nothing. He goes on.
"And while my back is turned, you might be able to sneak back into camp."
My lips part incredulously, but no sound comes out.
"And since my back was turned, I can always say I never saw you do it. You know, I might just be inclined to say something about that in court if it ever came up."
There's a long break. I'm stunned. It doesn't look like much on the outside, but inside, I'm weighing consequences: first, matters of duty, then matters of loyalty, then matters of the heart. The three merge, and in some great epiphany, I think that maybe I can satisfy them all: What can I do that I won't wake up tomorrow, look in the mirror, and think, "You scumbag"?
The lieutenant shrugs.
Sergeant Eric Schatz has disappeared. That's the official story, anyway. We all know he's gone AWOL. I'd just as soon let him go, but they send me out looking for him.
The piercing roar of helicopter blades slashes through thick air, drowning out my thoughts. There's a dull crackle in my ear. The communicator speaker sits idle, and its receiver brushes against my mouth. No messages come through, so I sit back and toy with controls until I'm up in the air. An unnerving creak precedes the copter's sway. I shift my weight, steering against the wind until the copter straightens out, and spiral slowly up above the smoke and ruins. I'm exhausted and my back aches, but I try to ignore both and think like a predator. My stomach growls, and all I want to do is catch that damned mouse scampering somewhere below!
I don't know why I hate him so much. Maybe it's because I don't agree with what he's done, but I tend to think it's because I want to go home. Maybe I'm jealous, or just plain disgusted that someone wimped out and got their way when all the rest of us are gritting our teeth and bearing it. I clench my jaw and tighten my hands around the steering grip, managing to scare myself with the unadulterated determination I feel. I would have burned down the city to find him. I would have smoked half the ports to ash if I thought it would expose the traitor.
A dusty haze picks up over the plains and rubble. I squint. Who knows how many unidentifiable bodies lay mangled down there. The living ones look like beetles crawling around the dirt. But, I insist against all reason I'll know him when I see him.
A deep, nauseating flutter starts in my stomach and travels up to my throat. My hands quake in anticipation. I realize I've spotted the missing soldier. He's running along the ashen barracks, dodging into ditches. I fumble to turn the communicator on, and then say through the speaker, "Stand by. I think we've got him."
I follow him for a couple of blocks. He doesn't look up. He dashes behind a crumbled apartment building and crawls through a ditch. I tense my hand over the machine gun trigger in the cockpit, but don't fire, even though I felt close to riddling him with every bullet in stock. I didn't care about the consequences. I'd just say the rebels did it and go home.
But he's not alone.
There's a man and a woman with Schatz. They're all wrapped in shrouds with masks across their face. Schatz ducks into an alleyway and draws the woman close to him. He makes a shield of himself like she's the most precious thing in the world, and his purpose in being is to protect her. The man kneels beside them and flexes his hand on Schatz's shoulder. They look like a bunch of church mice in the rain, all huddled in the drains for shelter, praying some rabid dog won't come and rip them to bits.
Schatz sees the helicopter. I don't know if he really sees me, but for a moment, our eyes appear to lock. It's like a haze of smoke and gunfire is clearing away and I can see him. His eyes glint alive, and the power of that stare threatens to incinerate me.
The woman looks at the helicopter too. Her eyes flash. She winces, and buries her face into Schatz's jacket. Schatz has his hand over the man's and he's clutching tight as if to say, "If we go down now, we go down together," and I know the man agrees, because he's looking up at the sky with that same resolve.
Tanner, do you copy?
The sound of my commander's voice jolts me out of a daze. I'm silent for a split-second, and in that split-second make a decision that astounds even me. With one last look at Schatz—that haunting, iconic image of them all crouched in the filth—I understand, and steer the copter away.
"False alarm, Sir," I say. "It was nothing."