I Saw the Fire — A Novel — Excerpt №3
The following is the third in a series of three excerpts from Sebastian Wolfe’s upcoming novel I Saw the Fire, due for release on Kindle and paperback in early July, 2017. The first and second excerpts can be found here and here, respectively.
Set in a distant, war-torn, third world country, I Saw the Fire is a story told by three young men — Battle 2–6, Immortal 1, and the Foreigner — navigating the moral ambiguity of warfare during a single morning of battle between a modern occupying force and a fierce tribal resistance. Throughout, their narratives intertwine, illustrating how the interconnectivity of humankind transcends the fog of war. Ultimately, despite the clashing causes for which they fight, each is finally able to come to terms with his role in life as a result of the others’ influence.
CHAPTER THREE — Immortal 1
The persistent air conditioner hums its dreadful high-pitched sound. A sliver of light sneaks past our tent’s plywood door, bouncing off the reflective plastic ceiling. I am awake. And despite the AC’s efforts, the place smells like feet. You need to do laundry again, I begrudgingly acknowledge. My hands flail about as they search for the light bulb’s chain. I find it, then swing my legs out of my cot and onto the ground. My eyes itch. My hair is oily and flattened against my head. I look down and realize I never changed out of my MultiCam trousers. Yet again, I fell asleep watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother. I know it all by heart at this point.
I check for my weapon. It’s still there, lying on the table. A magazine is in the well, and the weapon is on safe. I’m not going to Negligently Discharge. I’m not going to ND, I think repeatedly. Though I have always been careful with my arms, I can’t shake the foreboding feeling that I will someday haphazardly let a round off in the tent. Just what I need. A final fuck-up to put an end to my career. I take a swig of the grapefruit juice I’ve stored underneath my bed. Here we go. Another day. Hopefully we get shot at this time.
I look around my living area. A buxom brunette stares down lustfully at me from her fixture on the wall, scantily clad in only a towel. Oh what I would give… Kilimanjaro towers above the African Serengeti, tempting me. ‘Climb me,’ it beckons. ‘I dare you.’ Oh, I will, I reply. Just wait. My space resembles a prison cell replete with a cot, a table, and cheap plywood walls. Plywood our engineers bring to this country to help build a ‘long-lasting democracy.’ Plywood emblematic of the ‘pillars of freedom upholding a republic cherished by the liberal peoples of the land.’ What a farce. This plywood is as reliable as the likelihood that one of the locals can tell you his age.
It’s 0800. We’ll be moving out in ninety minutes so I should probably get ready. I debate changing into a new pair of trousers and then mutter something along the lines of “What’s the point?” With that debate settled I lace up my boots and grab my weapon and toiletry bag. I stumble out of my living area and reach the door. Squinting in the sunlight I make it over to the metal shipping container that houses the showers. I avoid eye contact with a man brushing his teeth. He wears a unit patch I’m not familiar with. Probably an asshole, I presume. I reach the sink. The water is off. Again.
“Yeah the water’s cut off,” states the alleged asshole. “Gotta use the bottles.”
“Oh, really? Well shit, that’s just fuckin’ great…” I look around for unopened water bottles.
“Yeah. What the hell do we pay these contractors for, right?”
“Ha. Yeah, right.” I’m not interested in having a conversation this morning.
I suddenly regret the perch from which I proclaim my entitled frustration. Go ahead, complain about the plumbing, sneers my conscience. Your old soldiers are probably burning shit right now. It pains me to think of them. They struggle. They fight. I watch How I Met Your Mother episodes in an air-conditioned tent. Oh, the disparity between deployment experiences. Oh, how I long to be in the suck alongside them. Enough, I think. You lost that privilege. Get back to the task at hand. I clean myself up and get back to my tent.
No time for breakfast. We leave the wire in a little over an hour and I have a patrol brief to attend. I search for something to eat in a cannibalized care package I received a few days before. Evelyn…. Another stroke of pain hits my heart. She’d been my final attempt at love before I ventured overseas. Ugh. Why would she even send me anything after what we went through? I wonder once more if I could have done anything differently. She said she wasn’t attracted to you anymore. What were you supposed to do? Get on your knees and beg? What a sad resumé I have. It seems like everyone has someone back home but me. Fuck it. Regardless of my relationship status, I’m still hungry.
I finish a Slim Jim and throw the greasy wrapper back in the box. Trying not to think of Evelyn anymore, I put on my MultiCam shirt. It’s tight around my torso. Do I look like a badass? No. No need for a mirror to confirm that. I need to start lifting weights. I’ll start tomorrow. Yeah, my ego scoffs. Likely. Verifying I have all the equipment I need, I walk back out of the tent toward our office.
As I stroll down the dirt pathway alongside a wall of protective barriers, I pass several officers who are obviously not going out on a mission. Sporting clean uniforms that are tight in all the wrong places, they waddle forth carrying ‘to go’ containers full of breakfast cooked by East African contractors. Their pistols are holstered on their hips. I wonder if they’ve even cleaned them in the last month. Despite their protective sunglasses I can feel the envy in their eyes. I’m wearing a combat shirt, indicating that I am bound to throw on armor plates at some point and head out on another mission. They’re headed to their computer screens and will probably never leave the wire. The one source of pride I still have left.
After a five minute-walk from my tent, dodging military vehicles and contractors erratically driving Hyundai vans, I finally reach the dilapidated building my advisory team likes to call ‘the office.’ It is a one-story cube made of cheap metal and plastic, protected by a few cement walls, and covered in a camouflage net, from which protrudes an assortment of antennae. The office sits adjacent to the local indigenous army’s compound, where soldiers routinely discharge their weapons, mostly into their own feet when they fall asleep on guard duty. Thank god for the cement walls. I punch the code into the door lock and walk in.
I dread every minute I have to sit in the same room as my fellow advisory teammates. One stupid, pointless discussion about sex follows the other, ad nauseam. It is usually led by a non-commissioned officer, or NCO, in love with the sound of his own voice: Sergeant First Class Mayson. Mayson is tall, bald and has a forehead the size of which would be the envy of Frankenstein’s monster. He claims to work out heavily though his beer gut tends to argue to the contrary. Mayson’s one claim to fame is his relationship with our team commander, a special forces colonel whom he treats like a god. In return, he believes he is granted autonomy to say whatever to whomever he wants. Including me.
Day after day, we all sit there in a circle, awaiting the mission brief, drinking off-brand Red Bull and devouring the high-caloric contents of the latest care package. The only respite we receive from Mayson’s innumerable retellings of his ‘sexcapades’ is when he decides to discuss the latest horror flick he finds delectable. A few of the soldiers join in to dissect every detail. Others sit mute and inspect their weapons, or play with their iPods until they are called on to give their perspective on some gory scene or decadent sexual act. They resist at first, and then begrudgingly relent under the taunting authority of their superior Non-Commissioned Officer. The colonel typically sits in his corner behind yet another plywood wall, accomplishing some type of task, I assume, and lending little attention to what he most assuredly can hear. Some of the soldiers often shoot me a knowing glance as if to say: We’re not enjoying this, either. Every attempt I make to diverge toward more intellectual, or perhaps less graphic, topics of conversation is immediately blocked. This is NCO land, sir, and my college ramblings can find another refuge. Oh well, I try.
Today is no different. Surprise! The team’s NCO-in-charge, Master Sergeant Gray, has overslept yet again. 8:05. We were supposed to leave five minutes ago. As a senior NCO, Gray should be mentoring his subordinates and advising the colonel on potential operations. But lately he has seemed disaffected, content to play checkers with his contractor friends or sleep unendingly in his living area. Mayson is the first to realize Gray is missing. He looks around embarrassedly and rises out of his foldout chair to go wake him, interrupting an in-depth conversation about The Human Centipede 2 and Private Hall’s love life.
Ten minutes later, Gray, who is short, stout, and of much darker complexion than his name, stumbles into the office. His knee pads hang off his ankles by a few strands of velcro. His face exudes an epic battle between his cognitive functions and the six sleeping pills that he likely popped last night. No telling which side is winning at this point. I’ve seen this man sleep thirty-six hours without waking. Let’s hope he doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel. Again. The colonel stands in the corner, stonefaced, a pair of sunglasses hiding any hint of emotion in his eyes. I look over at my gunner, Sutter. He is a stocky, humble, kind mid-western man. His eyes glide from Gray to me. He smirks. I shake my head slightly and do the same.
“Alright, Immortal,” Gray begins the patrol brief. “Today for patrol number five-nine we’re SP’ing to Qezel Qala Checkpoint 2 and Chahar AUP Check — ”
“Bactra,” interrupts the colonel, his face showing zero emotion. Does this guy feel anything? I wonder how his wife likes having him around. “We’ve got a quick stop at Bactra and then we’re meeting with Ali Sherzai at Sandawan. Battalion is air assaulting a couple platoons from Battle Company into the area for a clearing mission today, so we won’t be at Bactra for too long.”
Gray hesitates. “Uhhh, roger, as I was. SP to Bactra and Sandawan,” he manages to choke out. He looks around uneasily, unsure of what to say next.
What a mess. If one of the military policemen on our team administered a field sobriety test to Gray, would he even be able to pass it?
“Maybe we gonna see a little action at Bactra?” asks Private Francisco eagerly. I respect him immensely. Thirty-two years old with a successful career in management, he dropped everything to join the army and get into the fight before it was over. He couldn’t die knowing he’d had a chance to see the elephant and missed it. His northeastern accent is music to my ears. After two years of being based in the muggy, slow-moving south, I would almost rather listen to nails on a chalkboard than another southern drawl behind a mouthful of smokeless tobacco, a.k.a. “dip.”
“Damn, I hope so,” sympathizes Brewster. He is older, like Francisco, but more frenetic and less sure of himself. He seems too apprehensive to have thoroughly enjoyed life yet. Better get on that, big guy. You’re thirty-six years old. “I can’t go back to battalion without seeing combat. I’ll never get promoted!”
“Alright, shut the hell up for a minute,” Gray commands, regaining his composure. “Lemme finish my brief.”
He coughs, then points his finger at a map of the Area of Operations. “Comin’ out of the main gate, we’ll proceed down Route Chrystal to Bactra. After that we’ll get on back to Highway 1, turn right on Route Tundarreh after three clicks, then turn into Sandawan. Heads on a swivel. Three-sixty-degree security at all times. Ain’t got no room for bullshit. Today, especially. And it’s gonna be hot as fuck, so, Sergeant ‘Ski,’ make sure everyone fills up on water and ice before we head out.”
Ice… Ha! My conscience mocks me. I bet your old platoon doesn’t have ice in their CamelBaks right now. Woe is me with my unwanted amenities.
Romanovski, a wiry man who always looks like he’s hiding something, nods to Gray in acknowledgement. He then looks over at his subordinate, Cole, who will ensure the soldiers comply. Cole’s acne-laden expression conveys understanding.
“Dismounts are gonna be the LT, myself, the colonel, Sergeant Mayson, Francisco, and Brewster.” Those of us who will dismount exchange glances. “And no change to radio ‘freak.’ Same commo plan as last time.”
“Alright,” He turns to the colonel. “Sir, you got anything?”
The colonel spits into his Coke Zero, his lower lip bulging with a fat wad of dip. What a disgusting habit. One that most of my peers have. Another reason why I don’t fit in the fucking infantry. I look over at my left shoulder. The Ranger tab is still there. The mark of this army’s best foot soldier. How the fuck did I ever get one of these?
“Look, guys,” the colonel begins. Funny, I had expected him to shake his head and say nothing. “Battle Company is air assaulting into Wado Ila in order to conduct a clearing mission. They’re not expecting much enemy contact. But make sure — ”
My mind drifts to the thought of my best friend, the vaunted leader of Battle Company’s 2nd Platoon. I miss him. Tremendously. He’s been my best friend for a quite a while now. My only friend in this battalion. A true brother-in-arms. I am glad he has succeeded; I wish I had alongside him.
“ — has potential to stir up more enemy movement across the AO,” continues the colonel. “Sandawan is generally pretty quiet. But stay vigilant.”
Francisco slaps Brewster on the shoulder. “Hell yeah! Finally gonna be able to put one down range with the EBR!” he exclaims, referencing the scoped rifles they both wield. The fellow soldiers grin in anticipation. I commiserate with them in silence. Though it is for a deeper, darker, more selfish reason.
Nothing awaits me at home. No purpose drives me here any longer. Only an albatross hangs around my neck. What I want is simple. Honorable, even.
I hope I get hit.