By Elliot Sanders
Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan
We flew missions. Six nights on, one off. On our off night, Chris booted up his vintage eighties Nintendo. Chris was my copilot, and even though I outranked him, we didn’t play the rank game. We played Zelda. And when we really wanted to geek out, we played Bubble Bobble in all its retro glory.
On mission nights we geared up: M9s, radios, first-aid kids, helmets, night vision goggles. We jingled as we walked to our Kiowa. We brought snacks on our missions too. Soda. Chips. Ninety percent of the time, all we did was listen to the rotor beat the air.
To stay awake and pass the time, Chris and I wore each other out with our stories. Stories about our girlfriends. Our dogs. Sometimes we'd be in the middle of a story and almost miss what was happening on the ground. Like the night we were doing a convoy follow for Bravo Company. Our job was to scan the road ahead. Look for threats. Choke points. Signs of digging. The lead MRAP bumped along a dirt road, green light leaking from its slotted windows. The desert shone silver under a wide moon. In the cockpit, Chris narrated this vacation story in which he and his girlfriend have just checked into their ocean-view in Fiji.
In Fiji, the phone rings. It's a woman from the dog kennel. Says their dog has escaped by digging a hole under the chain-link. "We're really sorry," she goes. Chris sets down the phone. He looks at the jet tub. Looks at the glittering bottle of Brut. An ocean breeze tugs at the curtains. His girlfriend says, "Baby, we'll find Bjorn when we get home."
"Who names a dog Bjorn?" I said.
"That dog is monk-like. He'll spend hours just staring out the window. Bjorn seemed to fit."
To the right of Chris was the door. And to the right of the door was the missile. Squeeze the trigger and a blue ember would arc downward, beautiful and strange.
"Don’t tell me you left Fiji,” I said.
"An hour later I'm booking a flight back to Chicago."
"Did your girl freak?"
"We argue the whole flight. Just before we touch down, she tells me we’re done."
"Bjorn's AWOL for three days. On the fourth day, a buddy calls and says Bjorn is running down the center lane on I-90." Chris looked out the window. “Oh shit.”
Now I saw it too: an orange blossom settling over the Bravo convoy. A thousand feet up, the scene was oddly peaceful. Like someone had thrown a dab of color into an otherwise boring landscape.
The radio came alive: "Archer one-six, where the fuck are you?"
We were Archer one-six. Normally we’d have two birds up, but tonight it was just us.
I finessed the collective and swung us around. The whole convoy had come to a stop. By the time we were overhead, the explosion was a flickering glow. After that our eyes were on the thermal display. Ten inches of pixilated gray in the center of the instrument cluster. For the last four months we'd watched the war through that screen: the sparkle of artillery, ruined cars, gutted buildings, packs of wild dogs. I’d seen goats asleep on rooftops. Drunk Afghan men sword fighting with their urine streams. And once, after a bombing attack outside Marjah, I'd watched a man stoop to pick up his own arm, then carry it toward his car like a briefcase.
Tonight, we were hoping to see the triggerman that had detonated the IED. Minutes later, he appeared on our screen, every inch of him shaded per the temperature of his skin. He was walking toward the convoy.
Chris nudged me. "Idiot's going the wrong direction."
“Or he’s got a bomb shoved down his pants," I said.
Chris was in the gunner’s seat so any shot was his. I radioed the Bravo convoy for clearance but all I got was static. In the meantime, the man was getting closer. I considered the risk of inaction vs. the risk of an unapproved strike.
"Press," I said to Chris.
Chris aligned the crosshairs. The controls were finicky. Steady push from the base of the wrist. Little nudge with the thumb, maybe. And don’t forget to breathe.
“Giblets,” Chris said, and squeezed.
Later, I would Google the word “giblets” and stare at turkey innards.
The missile hissed away, burning white, then fading to blue. A moment later, the desert bloomed a second time.
We flew a circle around our missile’s impact site: a bowl of sparks carved in the dirt. Standard procedure was a quick damage assessment. Round and round the bowl we flew. Then we noticed a pickup truck crouched in the desert. Looping circles of tire tracks stretched as far as we could see. The truck looked unoccupied.
“Let’s set down,” Chris said.
“I want to check out the truck.”
This was way against protocol, but then again, everything seemed a little off that night. So fuck it. We landed in a swirling dust cloud. When the skids touched the ground, Chris hopped out the side. I left the rotor turning. Through my helmet-mounted NVGs I watched Chris’s green shadow. He drew his M9. Seconds ticked by. Chris opened the truck door. Closed the door. Looked in the bed. Then he jogged to the impact site, bent over, and picked something up. He came prancing back to the helicopter, breathless and excited. “Dude,” he said. “You’re never going to believe this.”
As we lifted up, I saw Bravo Company gathered beside the fallen MRAP. On the thermal screen were the fuzzy outlines of soldiers and the brilliant dots of their cigarettes. They stood in a circle. It looked like a séance. I imagined them closing their eyes and holding hands, exhaling smoke into the night.
“A finger,” Chris said, shouting for my attention.
“It was the only thing left. A finger with a gold wedding band.”
I could think of zero Afghans that wore gold weddings bands.
The second indication that something was wrong came in debrief. Instead of the usual perky lieutenant, a grim lieutenant colonel entered the room. Quietly he informed us that there was a problem. His voice was like fine grit sandpaper. The Bravo commander had just radioed. It appeared our strike had killed a contractor.
I said, “WHY THE FUCK WAS A CONTRACTOR ALONE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT?”
Chris said, “How does Bravo even know who it was?”
“Because Bravo was out looking for him,” the lieutenant colonel said.
In his scratchy voice, the lieutenant colonel explained that Bob Harrington had gotten lost on his way to forward operating base War Eagle. What Bob was doing out there alone with no sat phone or radio was anyone’s guess. When he didn't show for a meeting at the F.O.B. was when the questions started.
So the other thing I would Google that night was “Bob Harrington.” He was listed under the “Get to Know Us” tab for Haltech Defense Industries. I would click on a picture of Bob. Rosy cheeks. Military haircut but an unassuming, goofy expression. The kind of guy who would sidle up at a BBQ and hand you a brat hot off the grill.
The lieutenant colonel said the investigation could be expected to take forty-eight hours. I had no idea what that meant. Or what the consequences might be.
Leaving debrief, Bob Harrington followed us to our truck. He wedged himself between us in the cab. At midnight chow, Bob Harrington was first in line. Chris and I ate beside a silent Bob Harrington. After chow, Bob Harrington paced behind us. When I checked my inbox, all my emails were from Bob Harrington. And when I reached into our mini-fridge, Bob Harrington’s finger was next to the jug of milk.
"What was I supposed to do?" Chris insisted. "It felt weird to leave the finger lying there."
In my most controlled voice, I asked Chris why it felt weird to leave the finger in the desert. But not weird to put the finger in his pocket, carry it back to our room, and put it in our fridge.
Chris sighed and stood up and paced the room. Our room was ten by twenty with steel bunk beds and unfamiliar stains on the walls. A thick wool blanket covered the window. We'd been on night shift for most of our deployment. In the mornings, blades of sun under the blanket made us wince. I'd heard that, over time, the owl shift chemically alters the human brain.
"You know what?" Chris said. "I didn't even think about the fucking cockpit recorder. You heard what I said right? And I don't even know why I said that. Now like a million people are going to hear me say giblets."
“I don’t care that you said giblets.” I wondered if I should find someone to give the finger to, someone higher up than a warrant officer like myself. But in my head was this image of Chris in a padded room with an IV drip. It seemed like the safest option, for now, was to leave the finger in the fridge.
Chris crouched on his bed, rocking on the balls of his feet. Then he turned on the Nintendo and its electric breath filled the room. For two hours Link traversed a granular forest toward a distant castle.
The next day, we wandered the bright cafeteria like bewildered ghosts. Behind us, the shuffling of a hundred boots. We stuffed our pockets with pop tarts and apples. It was seven o'clock at night. Normally we'd be driving to the flight line by now. Instead, we ate on metal bleachers by the basketball court. Muted sunlight filtered through the dust.
"What's his company do?" Chris said. "Haltech or whatever."
In our room I searched the dusty corners of the Internet for more information on Haltech: Cutting edge technology for today’s warfighter. One page showed the anatomy of a bomb in cartoon font. Another displayed a shiny drone the size of a toy helicopter. I gazed at Bob Harrington's rosy cheeks. Apparently he lived in Pennsylvania. His wife's name was Anne. I was incredibly angry with Bob for having gotten us into this mess.
Around two in the morning, the base siren wailed and we lay on our stomachs under our beds. This was the standard procedure for a rocket attack. The rocket canisters were filled with glass, bolts, nails, whatever the enemy had on hand. Sometimes they rigged a timer and wandered back to their villages. When the timer expired, off went the rockets. Usually the rockets landed harmlessly. Outside the wire or in the reservoir at the edge of the base. Tonight, under our beds, we waited. I tried not to inhale the lint and dust, years and years of it collecting in miniature dunes on the linoleum. Soon we heard two dull thuds. Someone shut off the siren, and it cooled to a whine, and then the whine became an echo in our ears. We crawled out.
On day two, we hardly ate. But we went to chow anyway because the routine was lodged in us. We hunched over empty trays as soldiers filed sleepily through the line. There was never a shortage of food. Ham and eggs. Bacon and pancakes. Vats of syrup with cranium-sized ladles. Past midnight and still they served breakfast. A spare table had been decorated with cantaloupe sculptures: a camel with grapes for eyes. Something that looked like a porcupine, bristling with toothpicks.
After chow, our pickup wouldn't start. The engine rattled to life and then died. So we walked. The concrete walkway was spotty with security lights. Beyond their glow, the desert was a dark void. Approaching a row of port-o-johns, we saw the results of yesterday's rockets. One john had taken a direct hit. Inside a perimeter of construction tape lay shards of blue plastic. It looked like a recycling center had exploded. We cupped our noses as we passed.
Ahead, there was commotion in the motor pool. The night shift had a boom box going and the air was thick with diesel and clamoring engines. One of the privates walked up to us, looking like he’d just crawled out of a chimney.
“You guys with the one-oh-fourth?" he said, following us as we walked. "I hear you roll with hellfires now. How sweet is that. How many can you carry?"
"One," Chris said.
"Wicked. What’s that like? You don't have to tell me, but damn, I bet it's a rush! Hey, you think I could get a ride sometime? How many seats you got?"
"Two," Chris said.
I stopped walking. In the distance, generators chugged. The lights buzzed. I looked at the private. "You got any extra pickups?" I said.
The private rubbed the grease on his chin. "Well, we got this one. Bravo dropped it off this morning."
We followed him into the lot, past a towering minesweeper to a maroon HiLux. The private said, "You guys hear about that contractor?"
Chris and I looked at each other. "Nope," I said.
"Well, this is his truck," the private said. "Had a broken axle but we fixed it."
The truck was freshly washed, its hood deep and glossy. I didn't recognize the truck, but then again, the last time I saw it was through NVGs. I opened the door to vanilla air freshener. The private jogged to a shed.
"Smells like the truck," Chris said.
The private returned with keys and eagerly offered them. In his eyes we were steely warriors. In his eyes we did not kill Bob Harringtons. And yet, we drove Bob Harrington's truck to our barracks. My elbow slid into the impression Bob's elbow had left in the armrest. After parking we passed down the dim hallway to our plywood door. Forty-eight hours were nearly up. In the corner of the room sat the beige phone. Chris turned on the TV and clicked through all five channels of the Armed Forces Network. A staff sergeant was demonstrating the right way and the wrong way to wear a reflective vest. Chris began to construct a pyramid out of his cereal box stash. When he’d finished, he toppled the pyramid and lay down on his bunk. I hadn’t spoken more than a dozen words to him since finding the finger. But it seemed the finger might be the least of our worries.
“You still got that dog?” I said.
“Yeah. He’s at my sister’s house.”
“What breed is he again?”
“He like to swim?”
I’d always liked weimaraners. My parents had one with a velvet-gray coat. He was like a deer. All legs. When he was young, I’d thrown a ball and he got tangled up in those legs and fell over. Thinking about that dog got me thinking about my parents. And all the stuff back home. Like waking up to actual sunlight. The smell of grass clippings. Back yard BBQs and college football. I could almost taste home, but it was so far away. I remembered flying in on the rotator. It was four months ago but felt like a year. From altitude Kandahar looked like a refugee camp. Orange lights and hundreds of tents. And it was completely surreal, dropping into a war zone with our diet cokes and bags of peanuts and seven hours of free HBO.
In our room I studied the phone and its unlit red dot. At some point that phone would ring and questions would be asked. I preferred not to have Bob's finger in our fridge when that happened.
“We're burying the finger,” I said.
Chris sat up. “Okay.”
We put the finger and accompanying napkin in a shoebox. After two days in the fridge, the finger smelled fine. The flesh was charred but the exposed bone was smooth and clean, like ivory. I removed the ring. It was the least I could do. The spot we chose was out in the desert, past all the lights. The sky opened up to a field of low stars. A warm wind pushed sand into our eyes. Chris scooped a hole with his hands. We placed the shoebox in the hole and covered it with dirt.
Within the hour the phone rang. It was the soft-spoken lieutenant colonel. “Come to the T.O.C.,” he said, and hung up.
Bob's pickup sailed over dark roads, the center stripes keeping time with my heartbeat. We arrived at the low slung building and parked. Kicking sand from our boots, we walked up the steps. Inside, the lieutenant colonel was staring into a computer and looked tired. When he saw us, his face dropped further. He stood and ushered us to a conference room. He closed the door. In the quiet, my stomach gurgled. Chris sat beside me. The lieutenant colonel sat across from us and folded his hands on the varnished table.
“Sir,” I said.
The lieutenant colonel put his hand up. This was to be a one-way conversation. I noticed his nametag said Brandt. He opened a manila folder and shuffled through some pictures. A dirt road. A blood smeared rock.
“Bravo took these,” he said. “After the second IED detonated.”
“Second?” I said.
“That’s right,” Brandt said. “The second IED. The IED that Harrington stepped on."
Brandt rearranged the pictures. “Harrington made some bad choices that day. But it was a real unfortunate thing that happened. And I mean that. Unfortunate for everybody.”
“It was unfortunate,” Chris said.
I nudged Chris to shut up.
“The way I see it,” Brandt said, “Bob owns half the blame on this. But only half.”
Brandt continued to shuffle the pictures. “The road should look familiar.”
It did not look familiar. It looked like every dirt road in Afghanistan. Bob’s truck was not in any of the pictures.
“It looks familiar,” I said.
“Good,” Brandt said. He returned the pictures to the folder. His expression suggested there were things he wanted to say, but couldn’t. When Brandt stood up, we stood too. I felt the weight of Bob’s ring in my pocket.
In the night air, I leaned against the pickup. Chris climbed inside and shut the door. As we drove the winding road to the barracks, I considered the other half of Bob’s blame, and what the colonel expected me to do with it.
Within twenty-four hours, we had another mission. The good folks at the T.O.C. had developed a best guess for the trajectory of the rocket that hit the port-o-john. From the trajectory they had calculated an origin point. And at that origin point we hoped to find the mortar team. But the chance of this was slim to none. Still, it was what we had.
At seven o’clock we drove Bob's truck toward the flight line. Through the windshield I watched the orange lights wash by. We passed the basketball court. We passed the chow hall and our broken truck. At some point an exchange was in order but I hadn’t worked out the details. Just like I hadn't worked out what to do with Bob's ring.
In a small locker room off the operations center, we suited up. We walked across the tarmac, past drooping Chinooks and strings of taxi lights. A maintenance crew uncoupled a fuel hose and gave me thumbs up. The fuel truck slowly pulled away. We climbed in and closed the doors and strapped checklists to our knees. With the rotor at speed, I called for takeoff clearance. We left the pad and pivoted toward the mountains. On the transit out, I noticed two Apaches vertically stacked, their rotor lights forming concentric halos.
Beside me Chris was quiet. I knew what he was thinking about, so before we reached our search grids, I asked him to tell me the vacation story again.
“Why? I already told that one.”
“Not the part about the dog,” I said. “Tell me something else. Tell me what Fiji was like.”
“I was only there for a few hours.”
“But you had to see something,” I said.
“I saw the beach.”
“So tell me about the beach.”
For the next few minutes, we were back in Fiji.
Elliot Sanders lives in Syracuse. His short fiction can be found at Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, Sonora Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Briar Cliff Review, Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. He is at work on a novel about the fire service.