PART I: AN EARLY SPRING
Arwood Hobbes was bored. Not regular bored. Not your casual, rainy-day, Cat in the Hat–style bored that arrives with the wet, leaving you with nothing to do. It wasn’t post-fun or pre-excitement bored, either. It was, somehow, different. It felt rare and deliberate, entire and complete, industrial and inescapable. It was the kind of bored that had you backstroking in the green mist of eternity wondering about the big questions without searching for answers. And it wasn’t in short supply, either, because it was being dispensed like candy on Halloween to Arwood and others like him at Checkpoint Zulu at the rim of the Euphrates Valley, in the heart of Iraq, by the world’s largest contractor of boredom: the United States Army.
How long had he been bored? How long was he destined to be bored? Arwood couldn’t even muster the motivation to care as he melted over his machine gun under the hot, hot sun that was pressing down on the sandy sand around him without a raindrop in sight and no one offering to cheer him up.
The M60 machine gun was the perfect height for leaning on. It was probably the perfect height for firing, too, but Arwood had no proof of that because he hadn’t fired the gun since qualifying on it, and there was nothing to aim at because everything was far away, apart from a camel; and while he did point the gun at the camel for a while, it ultimately seemed a mean thing to do, so he stopped. That was eons ago. Nothing fun like that had happened since. Even the camel had gone away.
It wasn’t that Arwood was unfamiliar with being bored and that his resistance was low. After all, Operation Desert Storm ?— ?now over ?— ?had really been just a month-long air campaign on exposed Iraqi troops followed by a four-day ground war, which meant there wasn’t a lot of ground war for him or his buddies, or much for people on the ground to actually do. For Arwood, the Gulf War primarily involved him doing a lot of nothing for three months in the sand, jogging expectantly beside an APC with his gun for a few days, only to be told it was “over.” But at least back then there had been a sense that something might happen. There was a sense of possibility.
Possibility was but a popped balloon for Arwood.
And at the very moment they were all expected to go home, his company drew the shortest of short straws and they’d been deployed here to Checkpoint Zulu, 240 kilometers from the Kuwaiti border. He had no idea why. This time there was nothing to look forward to but peace. Endless, tedious, nondescript, fluffy-white peace.
You could eat a grenade, you really could.
It was into this stagnant vortex of quietude and forenothingness that a form approached Arwood from across the desert.
Like everything else in Iraq, it came at him sideways.
Arwood didn’t look. He sort of liked not knowing. Perhaps it was a guy wearing sandals who had a beard like Jesus. Or maybe it wasn’t a man at all. Maybe it was the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come who was doing his rounds and was there to let Arwood know that ?— ?on account of global warming, acid rain, and El Niño, not to mention the global shortage of decent people and the high price of coal ?— ?Christmas was going to be canceled.
Whatever it was was getting bigger, which probably meant it was getting closer. It probably wasn’t something dangerous, though; it was approaching from this side of the ceasefire line. But it wasn’t going to be anything good, either. It wasn’t going to be one of Charlie’s Angels. It wasn’t going to be Daisy Duke. It wasn’t going to be Kelly LeBrock in her blue-and-white panties appearing out of red mist from a doorway. No, it was probably going to be orders.
A different mind, a different person, might have welcomed orders because it would have ushered in “change.” Not Arwood. The only thing worse than boredom was labor, and he didn’t want to wash anything, dig anything, move anything, stack anything, fill anything, load anything, unload anything, peel anything, or ?— ?and this was critical ?— ?smell anything awful. Given that he was twenty-two and a private, rather than, say, fifty and a nuclear physicist, all these things were on the shortlist of the possible.
No, he wasn’t going to look up. He would cherish the uncertainty for as long as he could.
Which fate had decided would end right .?.?. about .?.?. now.
“Want a cigarette?” asked a man who was now man-sized and to his right.
The man stood next to Arwood’s sandbags. Arwood considered them his sandbags, not so much because he was manning a machine gun behind them as because he was the one who had filled them.
Arwood accepted the cigarette by opening his mouth. The man placed it in and lit it. Arwood inhaled, grateful only that it gave him a pretext to keep breathing.
“I’m Thomas Benton,” the man said.
“What’s your name?”
“Hobbes. Interesting name to take into a war zone.”
“No reason. Where are you from?”
“Yes, I figured, given the uniform. Any place special?”
“Never felt like it.”
“I’m from a village in Cornwall,” Benton offered.
“I don’t know where that is.”
“Cornwall is in England.”
“That’s overseas, right?”
Thomas Benton squatted down behind Arwood’s sandbags because it was cool and shady there. Benton looked across the desert to the still town a kilometer and a half away.
“You’re a journalist?”
“Yes. The Times.”
Arwood did ...