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Friday, November 5, 2010

Chapter 3 - Scene on the Ground

Yes, a bit delayed, and possibly far more detailed than expected, but here's Chapter 3.

So do our characters become heroic?  Have the evildoers shown up on the scene yet?  Eh, I'm not so sure...but hey, it's NaNoWriMo - the fun's just beginning.

3 – Scene on the Ground
                It was a simple street, flanked on either side by wide sidewalks and two-story buildings.  The storefront in the building behind them and to the left continued to billow smoke as they widened their perimeter to cover the remains of the LMTV and two scorched humvees.  The convoy commander – Captain Hirsh – ordered Torres to pull the truck around to the other side of the wreckage.  “Grimes,” he called up to the gunner, “you keep an eye out, you hear?”
                “You know it, sir.”
                That left Jonathan and Hakim standing in the empty space left by the humvee.  Captain Hirsh was brusque with him.  “Don’t just stand there, Private.  Take your terp here and find out what the fuck’s going on.”
                Hirsh pointed to the row of buildings across from the explosion.  Moments ago, they’d been crowded with people – now they looked completely deserted.  It was like the open storefronts had soaked up the sea of people like a sponge.  A charcoal grill with a line of roasted chickens strung up over it added faint wafting of scorched bark to the acrid odors of boiled paint and burning meat.  Everything smelled of a barbecue gone wrong – like racks of ribs had been doused in lighter fluid and just left to burn.  But it wasn’t until he glanced back toward the wreckage that Jonathan realized the acrid burnt-meat smell wasn’t from pork or beef – it was human flesh seasoned with the thick black plumes of burning diesel.  And he felt tipsy with the thought of that kind of flame, as if it was his own arms and face being burned to the marrow.
                “Is there a problem, Private?  I told you to move.”
                Jonathan swallowed.  “Yessir,” he said.  He turned to run toward the empty, silent buildings, then remembered that Hakim couldn’t run.  But he was nearly halfway across the street when the captain was yelling at him to take some fucking backup, and Hakim was already rubbing his knee, as if the simple act of standing had been too much for him today.
                It was Sergeant Higgins who came over to question the villagers.  “You keep that gun up,” he said.  “I don’t care if it’s heavy – you better make these people know you’re ready to use it.”
                Jonathan nodded, and the three of them started out across the street.  He was amazed out how slowly the world seemed to turn now.  He still felt queasy from the thick pall of burning fuel – coming closer to the grilled rack of chicken didn’t help.
                Higgins moved with the stock of his shotgun tucked into the pocket of his shoulder, jammed in close against his body armor him.  He spoke without turning his head.  “You stay on me,” he said.  “Hakim, you keep up.  You got me?”
                “Nahm, ya raqeeb,” the Iraqi muttered, still limping along.  Yeah, sergeant, he had said, but Higgins wouldn’t have known that.  The sergeant grunted something and started forward.  Jonathan followed, glancing back every few steps to check on Hakim.  The terp was already dripping sweat, whether from the heat or from knee pain Jonathan couldn’t tell.  But then the interpreter had always complained about knee pain.  “The only reason that fucker’s still here,” Torres liked to say, “is for that damn paycheck.  I bet he even lied on his physical.”
                Jonathan did his best to keep the midway point between Higgins and Hakim, but Higgins had a second sense for just how far back Jonathan fell.  “On me, Mitchell,” he said, peering into the first of the shop.  He looked back only long enough to tell Jonathan where to point his weapon.
                “You watch our six,” he said, slicing the air toward the burning building across the way.  “Anything moves in there, you shoot it.”
                “But what if –” Jonathan began, thinking of survivors and people who may have been burnt nearly to death.
                “If they’re smart enough to be alive,” the sergeant said, “then they’re probably the fuckers to set this mess.”
                Jonathan swallowed.  He doubted that.  Why, after all, would someone blow up a building if he was still inside?  But he couldn’t say that.  Higgins had already seen a deployment.  He already knew what it was like fighting against men who would blow themselves up in the name of terror.  Or whatever it was they really fought for.
                Meanwhile, Higgins led the way forward, sidestepping up the row of stores, pointing his shotgun into each doorway before stepping past.
                “Get the fuck out here, you people,” he muttered.  But no one appeared.  Jonathan followed him past first a shoe shop and then a women’s dress shop.  The sidewalk in front of the first was cluttered with a toppled workbench and a scattered pile of tacks.  Jonathan could hear them scraping under his boots as he put his feet down.  He eased his feet down gently, doing his best not to get any of the shiny tacks stuck in the soles of his boots.  Hakim did an awkward dance around the sharp glittering piles, and he nearly knocked Jonathan down when he tripped over his own feet.
                Higgins didn’t seem to notice.  “Hakim,” he said, “tell these people to come out.”
                They waited then, the three of them, as Hakim shouted something reassuring into the dress shop.  Shiny silken gowns hung stiff in the hot dry air as Jonathan tried to ignore the burning strain that came with holding up twenty-four pounds of machine gun.  His breath felt heavy, and he kept hoping someone would say something so he could go inside and at least drop down to one knee or – better still – find a good windowsill for the gun’s bipod.
                He looked back toward the humvees.  Captain Hirsh was nowhere in sight, but he could see most of his buddies had taken up positions alongside the buildings while the trucks had moved into a loose circle around the wreckage, gun turrets outward.  He could just catch sight of Grimes’s head over the edge of the fifty-cal’s forward shield.  Under the shadow of the helmet, his expression seemed intent on something in the distance.  But then he was also chewing hard on some pink bubble gum, blowing quick – nervous? – bubbles had he kept his thumbs poised over the machine gun’s butterfly trigger.
                Hakim was still calling out into the women’s dress shop.  “Andoona aswal!” he said.  “Sa-naduka!”  We have questions!  We will help you!
                Hearing the Arabic words made Jonathan feel still more useless.  If he’d only passed the course, it could have been him calling out to the people, assuring them that he was here to help.  Never mind that he couldn’t understand the hissed reply that finally came, or that he had no idea what Hakim was saying as he and Higgins lead the way inside – he imagined that another few months of Arabic would have at least helped.  If he’d only made it as far as the Iraqi dialect module – then he could have done some good.  Instead he was pointing an M-249 at a smoldering building, not at all certain he’d know when and when not to shoot.
                “Aw, fuck,” Higgins said.  He grabbed Jonathan by the shoulder loop of his body armor.  “Go get the medics,” he said.
                “Roger that,” Jonathan said.  He nodded and started moving back toward the trucks.
                “Run, damnit!  Get the fucking medics!”
                Right.  With the weight of the two-four-nine in his hands, the twenty-five (or was it thirty?) pounds of armor sitting over his shoulders like the tan shell of some desert tortoise, he took off, his boots clopping in the ground with every step.
                The Americans pulled from the trucks were mostly dead.  Mostly, the lieutenant said, because even the survivors were, for to put it kindly, mostly dead.
                Jonathan felt stiff, helping the lieutenant and the two medics at work.  One of the medics drafted him to clamp an artery while she twisted a cloth dressing into a tourniquet.  She wasn’t even done tying down the loose ends before the lieutenant was kneeling down to get in Jonathan’s face.  “Private, what the fuck are you holding?”
                Clamps?  No, that wasn’t the word – the medics had some special term for the locking pliers.  But he couldn’t think what it was.  Not with the thought of the bare arm bones protruding down past where the deltoid pads had covered the arm.  The medic had told him to look away if it made him sick.  “Just hold that clamp,” she said.  “I don’t need that coming loose.”
                “Um, sir –”
                “You have a fucking machine gun, Private!  Get back on the fucking line!”
                And so Jonathan was back up on his feet again, hurrying back over to Higgins and Hakim.   He had barely a glance back at the medic, who offered one of those sucks to be you, buddy looks before pulling the tourniquet knot tight.
                The lieutenant had not allowed either medic to help the Iraqis.  Not while they were busy with soldiers.  And so it was Captain Hirsh and Hakim who were comforting a man whose leg had been twisted nearly all the way around.
                “You’re gonna be all right, we’ll take good care of you,” the captain was saying.  His words were nearly drowned out by the sobbing woman and the cries of the injured man himself.  Hakim, meanwhile, was trying to straighten the leg.  And who could know if it helped?  The wife screamed and then pounded against Hakim’s chest as the injured man passed out.
                “A fucking nuthouse in here,” Higgins said.  He seemed relaxed, though.  Almost as if the screams of someone dying from blood loss were reassuring.
                Jonathan nodded, not sure what to say.  He knew what to do, so he dropped down on one knee and aimed the two-four-nine outward, toward the still-smoldering building.  Given how long the relative quiet had stretched, he wondered what, exactly, they were waiting for.  Had Torres already called in a medevac?  Would a helicopter be flying in to take away the wounded and the dying?  He figured that had to be the case.  He glanced back down at his watch.  They’d been here twenty minutes, and nothing new had happened.  No more explosions, no gunfire, nothing.  Trying to be as quiet as possible, he reached forward and unclipped the bipod legs from under the SAW.  He didn’t want to make enough noise to distract Higgins or attract the captain’s notice.  Not that the captain would notice anything – he had moved on comforting the sobbing woman while Hakim went on wrapping long black dresses around the dying man’s leg.  He had already wrapped the leg in so much fabric that it was impossible to tell where the bones had been twisted and broken.
                Higgins shook his head.  “They won’t get us till we’re leaving,” he said.
                Higgins turned those bitter eyes on Jonathan.  Jonathan tried to the man’s gaze but couldn’t.
                Higgins stared back out the window.  He had switched out the shotgun for his M-4.  Keeping his body in the shadows of a rack of clothes, he had the carbine balanced on a hard block of wood lettered with numerals scratched out with a knife and then darkened with permanent marker.  They were Hindi numerals – the numerals the Arabs had adopted sometime after the West had adopted their Arabic numerals.  Did the numbers represent prices?  Or were they the sizes for the assorted sets of shoes scattered across the low table?  Jonathan didn’t know.
                “We’re too spread out,” Higgins said.  “They’d never get all of us.  Or even half of us.  So they’ll wait till we’re going back to the trucks, trying to get us then.”
                Jonathan swallowed.  That didn’t sound good.  He still remembered JETStakes out in Monterey, back when the combat veterans – themselves tired of all the hours spent in language training – would take the trainees out to practice combat tactics.  “Two of you guys together, you got each other’s back.  Three of you together, and you’re a grenade magnet.”
                “A couple RPG’s is all it would take,” Higgins was saying.  “As we’re getting to the trucks, right as we’re opening the doors, they could hit us all at once.  Or maybe even the helo.  Be just like fucking Mogadishu, just dropping Blackhawks out of the sky like pigeons.”
                RPG’s: rocket propelled grenades.  Jonathan looked up-and-down the street, not sure, now, how safe he could feel.  Were there insurgents just sitting up by the second- and third-story windows, waiting to poke out the tips of their rockets to blow up the humvees?  Were they seriously just waiting for the Americans to make a wrong move?
                Then Higgins leaned in close to Jonathan.  He nodded over toward Captain Hirsh, who had given the sobbing woman over to her children in favor of interviewing some young man who had appeared from the back of the store with a meat cleaver held tight.
                “It’s shit like that gets a man killed,” the sergeant said.  As if on cue, the young man began spitting out words, speaking such a thick mush of words that Jonathan barely even noticed the knife fluttering every which way.  It was like the man had forgotten he even had it.
                Hakim, of course, was trying to translate.  But he was still on the ground with the injured man.  He was absently massaging the man’s broken leg.  Jonathan was thinking they – he and Higgins – should pull the terp away from his patient before he did even more damage.  But he was afraid to say anything.  And he didn’t want to move unless Higgins said to.
                Hakim’s voice was insistent.  “Taneen, the man says.  It is like dragon.”
                “Dragon?” the captain spat.  “What’s the fuck that mean?”
                “Dragon,” repeated Hakim.  “Maybe like your rockets?  You know, the dragon weapon.”
                Higgins just shook his head.  “Hakim doesn’t know much Arabic, does he?”
                Jonathan shook his head.  Hakim knew more Arabic than he ever would.  And Higgins had never even touched the language, let alone studied it.  Not so far as Jonathan knew.
                Jonathan wanted to be helpful.  But he didn’t want to offend.  “We have dragon missiles, right?”  He was thinking of something he’d seen on the History Channel, a Modern Weapons episode that featured humvees with wire-guided missiles.  At least, he thought they were Dragon missiles.  It could have been some documentary on TOW missiles from the Gulf War.  He wasn’t sure he would have known the difference.
                “Do you really think insurgents are going to get their hands on a Dragon?”  He reached across to his shoulder pocket, pulled out a can of Copenhagen, and pinched free a wad to stick inside his cheek.  He looked thoughtful as he recapped the can, all the while keeping his attention fixed on the situation on the road.  Jonathan didn’t know how it was possible, but Higgins didn’t seem to notice the ongoing crying and sobbing and the that one sickening crackle when Hakim and another man really tried to straighten out the broken leg.
                “You’ve gotta look at it this way,” Higgins said.  “A man grows up here, runs away when Saddam comes to power, and spends the next twenty, thirty years just sitting around, never really talking to anyone.  How good do you think his Arabic’s gonna be?  You ask me, he pulled that ‘dragon’ comment out of his ass.”  He smirked.  “I mean, just look at that mess,” he said, pointing over to the smoking remains of the first convoy.  And here he spoke as if he knew what he was talking about – and Jonathan assumed that he did.  “You ask me,” he said, “those poor guys got hit by an anti-tank mine.  Or a stack of ’em.  It’d take a lot more than a Dragon to cause that.  I betcha our Hakim just gave the name of the biggest rocket he could think of, and our CO’s gonna just fall for it.  Like he always does.”
                Jonathan wondered.  He glanced back.  There was the captain, nodding seriously as, one-by-one, more and more people found the courage to come out and talk with the Americans.  Jonathan watched as a small hatch opened up from the floor back by the cash register.  A bleary-eyed man with an enormous gut lumbered up with the kind of stamina he’d expect from someone dying of heart disease.  But then the man bent down on one knee and helped younger people climb up one-by-one from down below.
                “Shit – where are they all coming from?”  Higgins asked.  “Did we find a fuckin’ Arab plant or something?  They fuckin’ growing on trees now?”
                “Looks like they’re coming up from the basement.”  And even as Jonathan spoke, the people from the basement began moving in a cautious line to the back of the shop.  None of them spoke, and none of them looked over at the yammering crowd that had gathered around the captain.
                “You think they’re a different tribe or something?” Jonathan asked.  “Seems like they’re kinda quiet.”
                That drew a look from Higgins.  He turned to fix his gaze on the man with the enormous gut, who gave one nervous glance back before starting toward the rear of the store.
                Higgins spit a stream of tobacco juice on the floor and stood.
                “You’ve got some good eyes,” he said, bringing up his carbine.  Jonathan froze as sergeant pointed the weapon at the retreating Iraqis and flipped off the safety.
                “Hakim!” the sergeant shouted.  “You tell those people to stay put.”

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