Be Polite but Have a Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet
Wintric Ellis, newly arrived, pushes his size 8 boot into the spongy ground and feels the subtle give of the earth run through the ball of his foot, up his leg, and settle in his camouflaged hip. Green grass in Afghanistan, he thinks, water somewhere. He smells damp soil and grass, unexpected but familiar — Little League center field, Kristen in a California meadow — and attempts to make this thick-bladed greenery stick alongside the everywhere, suck-you-dry desert he had imagined.
“Eyes open, everyone,” Big Dax says.
Although Wintric knows today is a low-risk humanitarian mission, the words slide him back into his default, visceral nervousness: Bombs, somewhere, everywhere. Already he has been told that roadside means nothing in this country. Big Dax and Torres have shared stories with him — everything from far-afield livestock to massive diesel trucks igniting the barely buried hell, not to mention the bombs strapped to men, women, children, dogs. Bombs the size of tennis balls, soccer balls, tackling dummies. Under the rising sun Wintric replays the refrain repeated among his platoon for each of his eight days in country: Don’t go looking for a fair fight.
Wintric watches the relaxed movements of the most experienced soldiers and he feels his body breathe. He pulls out his knife and crouches in the valley amid a mist of gnats. He plunges the blade into the soil and levers up a clump of grass. Silently he rises and collects his first sample of war in a plastic bag that he fists into a cargo pocket.
Nearby a group of mangy goats bleat in a grove of white-blossomed almond trees, their shepherd talking with the interpreter. For the first time since Wintric arrived the wind doesn’t howl, and he wonders if any kind of omen awaits in the warming air, but he pushes the thought from his mind when he can’t think of a single positive forecast. The size of tennis balls, soccer balls. He breathes and rubs his eyes. The shepherd laughs and nods and moves his hand to the interpreter’s shoulder, then hugs him.
“Ten minutes till the party starts,” Big Dax says. “Going to be hot. Hydrate now.”
Wintric observes the men start toward the small mountain of bottled water. Torres passes by and slaps his shoulder.
Wintric isn’t thirsty, but he keeps his mouth shut — when they say drink, he drinks. He straightens up, pats his cargo pocket, and steps and stops. He looks back at the straightening grass and watches the indentation of his boot print disappear.
Ten-thirty and the children and limbless adults are starting to arrive, and Wintric scans the group heading his way, wondering if he’ll be the one ordered to pat them down before the inoculation and prosthetic limb giveaway. He pushes his index fingers into his temples, then removes his camouflage blouse and tosses it on the hood of the dusty Humvee. Big Dax and Torres have been decent enough to keep him out of trouble for his first week, but they outrank him, and each has only a few months left, so he knows he’ll soon be the one palm-to-body with these incoming strangers.
Wintric studies his two superiors as they watch the arriving crowd. Big Dax towering and thick-shouldered, brick of a chin, dark, random freckles, scarred forearms, hands on his hips; Torres slim and handsome, black hair, sideburns, flat nose, outline of a mini-Bible in his pocket, hands interlocked on the top of his head.
“Ellis,” Torres says, “check them. Old ones first.”
Wintric nods and slowly walks over to the now settling group. The interpreter has his arms up, directing traffic, shouting at the dirty and quiet kids to stay in a single-file line along an outcropping of beige rocks. The adults are told to wait behind. On his short march over Wintric focuses on the adults, most missing a foot, a leg, or a portion of an arm. Light layers of clothing shield their bodies from the late-morning sun; various pant legs and shirtsleeves hang limp. He will have to touch all of these people.
Before Wintric begins the pat-downs, the interpreter says, “Don’t touch ass, crotch. Easy with kids. No problems here. Medicine here.”
“You know these people?” Wintric says.
“So you don’t know shit.”
Seventeen pat-downs later Wintric comes to a man who seems whole, tiny sweat streams around his eyes.
“Thank you,” the man says before Wintric has touched him. Wintric glances back at the interpreter, who nods, then shakes his head.
“No problems here,” he says.
“What’s he doing here? He’s not missing anything.”
“Thank you,” the man says.
As with the others Wintric starts with the man’s shoulders, pats down his arms to his wrists, up his sides, down from his clavicle, chest, to his belly, where Wintric feels something bulging, soft, ball-shaped. He pauses for a moment, and when the bomb vision arrives, he whirls around, head down, and sprints. In the slow-motion frenzy he hears the man yell something, sees his own arms reach out in front of him, and he knows he will die, right now, that the searing blast will take him from behind, open up his back and skull, liquefy his body. He is all heartbeat as he screams “Bomb!” takes two more strides, and dives to the ground.
Behind him the man has lifted his shirt up to his neck, baring his torso, pointing at a fleshy protrusion.
“Na!” the man yells. “Na!”
“No!” the interpreter says. “No. Please. Nothing. No. Only.” He pauses. “Skin. How do you say it?”
Wintric lies face-down in the grass, eyes closed, body flexed. He hears skin and pushes himself up onto his elbows. Big Dax and Torres run toward him.
“Crazy cells,” says the interpreter.
Wintric still hears his heart in his ears, and he squeezes his hands, then opens them. He cut his left hand during the dive and wipes the fine line of blood off on his pants. He stands, still dizzy, and peers back at the man, who cups the ball of flesh below his ribs. Wintric shakes his head and glances down at his palm, where fine dirt is mixed with coagulating blood.
“Goddamn,” says Big Dax. “Deep breath, Ellis. Breathe.”
Big Dax touches Wintric’s arm and Wintric shakes him off.