THE SANDBOX A NOVEL
By ZIMMERMAN DAVID
Soho Press, Inc. Copyright © 2010 David Zimmerman
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-56947-628-4
Chapter One The body of
the naked child lies in the center of the highway. Except at first I don't know it's a child, or even a body. The whole convoy stops. From our position in the trail vehicle at the rear, Rankin and I see only a small white mound, like a fallen bird. To Rankin the kid looks more like a lump of shortening melting on an iron skillet. If we hadn't heard what it was over the radio, I'm not sure I would have noticed it until we passed, and maybe not even then. This road is strewn with trash. Some of it deadly, most not. Empty plastic sacks, crumpled paper, flattened packs of Miami cigarettes-the harsh national brand-broken car parts, dead mules, and now unwanted children. Heat distorts the air above the blacktop, bending the horizon. The thermometer on the dashboard reads 118 degrees. The body of the child seems to quiver in the sunlight.
I squint and try to see what might have killed the kid. Car accident? Shrapnel? I have yet to see a natural death in this place. No one dies peacefully in his bed any more, unless it's because he got hit in the head by a stray while he was sleeping. From here, the child looks like it simply got tired and lay down in the middle of the road. We sit in the third Humvee in a convoy of three and wait. Rankin asks me to roll him a cigarette and sets his pouch of Bugle Boy on top of the steering wheel. He's missing the last joint of his pinkie finger: an accident on the firing range at Basic. A fuckwit from suburban Atlanta forgot he had a round in the chamber and Rankin had the bad luck to be beside him. The pink stub shines as though he's polished it.
Someone, it looks like Gerling, gets out of the first Humvee to take a look. After a moment, he walks back to the second vehicle and knocks on the window. They parley. Earlier this week, one of the guys shaved Gerling a Mohawk. It flops around each time he moves his head, like the comb of a giant rooster. Rankin groans and adjusts the air vent. Every once in a while I glance up and watch Gerling wave his hands around and move his mouth like he's trying to chew his way into the Humvee. Then I stop paying him any mind. Instead I focus on the sticky flakes of tobacco. After two months in Transarabia's Six Zone, a body on the road, even the body of a child, no longer holds my attention. When I think about this, it makes me unhappy, so I try not to. There will be plenty of time to think about it when I get home, I tell myself. Right now it is too dangerous to obsess about such things. It will only make life harder, and life is hard enough as it is. So I put this child in the small cigar box I keep hidden in the back of my head, close its cardboard lid, and snap a couple of rubber bands around it to keep it tightly shut. Just like I've done with the rest.
Rankin and the radio talk, but I focus all of my attention on the pinch of tobacco and the rolling paper. I try as hard as I can not to think about anything else. This is how I will get through my war. Work on one thing at a time and only think of that. Then go on to the next thing. But Rankin shouts something, and I'm forced to stop doing my one thing.
"Huh?" I ask, irritated that he's interrupting me.
"Jesus," the radio squawks. It sounds like Lieutenant Saunders, the Military Intelligence guy everybody hates. "Just send another gobstopper to look at it. Why the hell do you want me to go? Send Hazel or Greer, he's the Goddamned medic. It's too fucking hot out there. Either that or tell one of the villagers to go check it out when we come back."
I hate it when he calls us gobstoppers.
"What?" I say finally, because Rankin keeps giving me this look of disbelief.
"I said, holy shit," Rankin says.
Rankin is tall and thin with a short uneven afro and an Adam's apple the size of a golf ball. We enlisted on the same day at the same recruiting office, a dinky little place in a strip mall on the south side of Savannah. Two desks, a computer, and a few tattered posters of heroic soldiers hoisting flags. When the recruiter asked why we wanted to sign up, neither of us had much to say for ourselves. "I'm bored," Rankin told him, and I nodded in agreement. It was the truth, but even then it didn't seem like enough. The recruiter thought it was plenty. They always do. Just one more box to be ticked off. We shared a bunk bed in Basic, and although we don't have a lot in common besides timing and geography, we get along fine.
"Holy shit, what?" I ask.
"Didn't you hear what he just said? Shit, man, you're always off in la-la land." Rankin punches a button on the FBCB2, the Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade and Below, which is a fancy name for the ugly green in-board computer bolted to the dash. It contains a GPS locator and shows us a map of the general area and our grid coordinates within it. In the old days, before HQ stripped down the base and took all the good stuff away, an operator back at the Communications Trailer used it to track movements of friendly and unfriendly troops and send us info about them both. The screen would show a little red triangle wherever they thought the enemy was located, and a sexy female voice would say, "Warning! Enemy in the Area!" Rankin and I called this voice Miss Hilton.
"Man," Rankin says, flicking the FBCB2 with his finger, "this thing's practically useless. Where's Paris when you need her?"
Lieutenant Saunders steps out of the lead Humvee and walks across the asphalt with his head ducked down. The heat distortion makes his body seem to sway. Gerling and Kellen follow him. Kellen is the smallest man on base, possibly the smallest soldier I've ever seen. That he managed to get around infantry height requirements is baffling. Rankin, as always, has a few theories. One includes a famous general and a beautiful female pygmy. Kellen's a cheerful guy with a shock of hair the color of mayonnaise and a face stained brown with hundreds of tiny freckles. Even from here, I can see that he's grinning. What the hell about? Maybe he can't turn it off. Gerling continues to wave his arms around like he's trying to signal a passing helicopter. After some discussion, Lieutenant Saunders kneels down beside the child's body. I wonder where this child came from. If maybe someone threw it out of a passing car, like a cigarette butt. We're traveling along a section of the Turkish highway, so named because the Turks used this route to invade several centuries ago. Not much else happened here until we arrived. My Army map calls it Highway 6A. Judging from the grid map, we're almost exactly thirty klicks south of Kurkbil, the only settlement in a fifty-klick radius. We've stopped in a landscape of jagged brown boulders and pus-colored dust. No water, no plants, no people. Even the goat herders, who go everywhere, don't come out here. Someone, I think, had to have brought the child to this place on purpose. The idea makes me very uncomfortable. Into the cigar box it goes.
"Can you fucking believe this shit?" Rankin gives me that goggle-eyed look again. He seems frantic. I look around but don't see much reason to get upset.
"What?" I ask him.
"It's a white girl. Somebody shot her in the head and dumped her."
"What?" I repeat, not sure whether he's feeding me a line of bullshit.
"You heard me."
"Goddamn, that is fucking weird." I sit up and peer through the dust-coated windshield. Now that I know what it is, the little white lump in the road looks completely different. The girl's body is as white as a milk tooth, bright against the crumbling asphalt. This doesn't make any sense. Why would- "Are you sure he said a white girl? Maybe he made a mistake. These women are covered from head to foot their whole lives. I don't expect they ever get a tan."
"That's what the man said. You better believe this will stir some shit up. A white girl? Damn. Remember what I'm telling you, man, when-"
Before Rankin can finish telling me what to remember, there is a flash. Then the Humvee rocks with the shock waves. The windshield cracks. Sand and dust blow over us. The explosion is so loud that it becomes something felt rather than heard. It pushes against my chest and makes my ears pop. One moment Lieutenant Saunders is leaning over the child, the next moment he's gone. Gobbets of flesh and gravel rain down on our vehicle. Oily smoke drifts between the cars. One of the other soldiers from the first Humvee-it looks like Gerling-stumbles backward, holding his stomach with both hands. His face is painted with gore. I can't see the other man who got out of the car with them. Kellen. I don't know either of them very well. They've only been on base for about a week and a half. Nobody talks to the FNGs-fucking new guys-for at least two weeks, sometimes even longer.
My first instinct is to put us into gear and drive through the kill zone, like they taught us in Basic. But Rankin hops out and heads toward the blast site. Without a word, I jump onto the road and follow. Nevada and Hazel get there first. Hazel turns and vomits on the gravel shoulder. He seems to be saying something, but I can't hear him. My ears are humming like a broken refrigerator. "You're still alive." I chant this to myself. "You're still alive." Kellen wobbles out of the black smoke and stops in front of me, swaying back and forth. His tiny hands are pressed together, as though he's praying. He holds a severed hand between his palms. Even though it's nearly twice the size of his own, there's so much blood on his face and his uniform that it takes me a moment to see that this isn't his. I look from his hands to the blast site. I don't see Lieutenant Saunders anywhere. Kellen holds the largest piece of Lieutenant Saunders left. I can't quite absorb this information. Kellen blinks and leans forward. I reach him just before he drops.
"I caught it," he tells me as he falls.
"Medic!" I shout.
I lean Kellen against the tire of the lead Humvee and search his body for shrapnel wounds. Blood soaks his shirt and drips purple onto the asphalt. Something must be seriously wrong. A bullet pings off the bumper of the Humvee to my left. I look up, confused for a moment. A second round pops off the pavement beside me and ricochets into the windshield. A star of powdered glass appears between the cracks caused by the blast. My first impulse is to turn and run away as fast as I can. I blink and swallow hard. The feeling doesn't go away, but I push it aside as best I can. There is a rattling sound just beneath me. It's my foot, jittering in the gravel.
The man at the wheel of the Humvee beside me yells, "Where are the shooters?"
I scan the horizon, but they could be in any of a hundred different crevices beside the road. Piles of broken rock and scree litter the landscape for miles. Some of the boulders are as large as tanks. I try to breathe slowly, but I can't.
Kellen squeezes my fingers.
"Stay with me, Kellen," I tell him. "Don't you dare pass out."
Without quite meaning to, I glance down at the severed hand lying beside his leg. A gold band on the second finger shines in the sunlight. Lying on the pavement this way, separate from its body, it looks more terrifying and human than the face of a corpse.
Kellen lets out a groan and tries to say something, but only manages to cough. Flecks of blood spray my arm. They are the same size and shape as the freckles that cover his cheeks. When he speaks, his voice is ragged and wet. "It's a remote detonator. Look for the wire." His face is white beneath the blood. There are bits of flesh caked in his thick blond moustache. I wonder how he knows this about the detonator.
Our combat medic, Doc Greer, sprints over, and I scan the gravel shoulder for the remote wire. Rankin squeezes off several three-shot bursts from between the Humvees. He looks exactly like the illustration for "Firing from a Kneeling Position" from our rifle manual in Basic. He chews his lip and fires again. I have no idea what he's aiming at. A bullet hits the door of the Humvee just beside him with a loud clink.
"I've got to get another triage kit," Doc Greer says. His face is twisted, angry. "Goddammit. We're running out of fucking everything."
Lieutenant Blankenship shouts at us from behind the middle Humvee. "Look to the muzzle flashes. Don't fire willy-nilly." He leans over the hood of the vehicle with his sidearm drawn, although it's almost useless from this distance. When I turn back to Kellen, Doc Greer is gone. I have no idea where I put my rifle. An infantry soldier's worst nightmare. Panic makes my mouth go dry. Then I see it lying just beneath Kellen's arm. I nearly cry with relief. I can't remember taking it off my shoulder.
"I got a line on you now, hajji motherfucker," Rankin shouts, clicking his rifle onto automatic with his thumb. He rakes the hillside in a slow zigzag pattern, emptying his entire clip. "Goddamn chickpeas."
"Controlled bursts," the lieutenant shouts, "controlled bursts."
"Fuck that," Rankin mumbles, slamming another magazine into his M16.
Excerpted from THE SANDBOX by ZIMMERMAN DAVID Copyright © 2010 by David Zimmerman. Excerpted by permission.
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