The dog was sprawled under the rear bumper of an abandoned Opel sedan, its left leg bent at an impossible angle. There was no gore to suggest that it had been run down by the car that now concealed its forequarters, so Sergeant John Houck moved in for a closer look. Then he heard the slap of bare feet hitting pavement and looked up to see someone strangely familiar running toward him down the sidewalk. His younger brother looked just as he had when he was sixteen years old, back when he and John still lived under the same roof bright freckles and narrow blue eyes crowding the bridge of his button nose, a thick cap of nappy red hair that moved like cake icing under even the toughest hairbrush. Dean Houck ran past the other men in John's recon team, past Captain Mike Bowers, who was scanning the empty doorways on the other side of the street.
Only later would John come to realize that the true definition of a ghost was a hallucination so powerful it could distract you from a task of monumental importance.
Within seconds, John became oblivious to the flies swarming the dog's carcass several yards away. He also forgot about the M-4 he held in a two-handed grip, and he no longer felt the biting snakes of sweat that slithered down his body, tracing the edges of his Kevlar vest and looking for tender spots in his groin to sink their tiny fangs into. His brother wore one of those sack dresses the boys in Iraq always wore. There was an Arabic term for them, but it was Lance Corporal Dickinson who called them "'raqi sacks." The men in his unit called him Panama Dick because he informed any Marine who would listen that his hometown of Panama City had the "prettiest goddamn motherfuckin' beaches in the whole U.S. of A." Panama Dick was walking point, as their team proceeded on foot toward a location at the town's northern border, where they had been ordered to establish a guard station, a station that the Army wusses who controlled this area were too damn lazy and disorganized to set up themselves.
Panama Dick and Lightning Mike Bowers both seemed miles away suddenly as John Houck watched his younger brother turn into a break between buildings that held an abandoned well. His brother turned his back to him, reached up, and unwound the length of rope that held the cracked bucket to the singed metal frame that arched over the well's mouth. Whip-fast, he let out the bucket's rope between both hands, bending forward to watch the bucket's progress, rising up onto the balls of his feet, which John could now see were dark brown, not the freckled, milk white shade of his dead brother's skin.
A deep clang echoed up from the well, followed by another. The boy was swinging the bucket deliberately, playing it like a bell inside the well's shaft. John felt a presence behind him suddenly; then he heard the familiar voice of Lightning Mike Bowers say his last name in a terse whisper. Bowers went silent for a few seconds as he assessed the scene in front of them.
"Shit!" Bowers hissed. Bowers realized how badly John had fucked up before John did.
The dog's impossibly bent carcass positioned conspicuously with its lower half exposed...
The boy's dark skin and tight cap of ink black hair, nothing like his younger brother's...
The expectant look in the boy's pale eyes when he looked back at them over one shoulder, his arms splayed over the opening of the well, rope clasped in his hands as the bell rang out its death knell...
And then the dog's carcass vanished in a blinding flash.
The back end of the Opel sedan rose into the air on a bed of jagged white flame. At the precise second when he expected the shrapnel to tear into him, John ate dust and felt the weight of Mike Bowers come down onto him. The blast deafened him, but he could feel Bowers's breath against his right ear, could even feel the guy's lips moving. Mike was trying to tell him something, but it had been lost to the initial explosion. Then the weight pressing down on John got heavier.
Once Bowers was pulled off him, John still found himself unable to move and deafened by the blast. Thick black smoke blinded him. In a vague way, he knew that he had no sense of time, that he was fading in and out without losing consciousness.
Something hot flowed down the back of both of his legs. Blood? Still flowing with too much force to have come off Bowers, and Bowers had been lifted off him...who knew how long ago? He could feel a deep pounding in his chest and suddenly the smoke around him started to clear. The medevac. Another sidestep into the darkness that hovers at the edges of every reality, and then he was back, pushing himself up onto his knees, struggling to his feet.
Convinced blood was pouring down his back, he grabbed furiously at his pack, pulled it down his right arm, and hurled it to the dirt at his feet. Not blood. Water! Leaking all over the place. He tore open his pack, which had searing holes all through its skin. The torn remnants of what had once been eight water bottles tumbled to the dirt, shredded by shrapnel.
Jesus, he screamed silently. Jesus Christ. Bowers was lying on my pack, for fuck's sake. If that's what happened to my pack, then what the hell happened to Bowers?
Something hot and wet filled his left eye and his vision was all but blocked. A field medic raced toward him, bandage already out. The medic pressed the bandage to the left side of John's face with one hand and forced him back down into a seated position with the other. Unable to hear his own pleas for Bowers or whatever the medic said to stave him off, he felt helpless and childlike as the medic swabbed the blood from his left eye and dressed the wound.
Then he saw the stretcher, the stretcher that carried Bowers toward the Black Hawk helicopter twenty yards away. When he rose to his feet and followed Bowers, the medic followed right beside him. John knew his own injuries weren't serious enough to merit a trip to Balad, but the medic didn't stop him, and that was good, because it meant no other injured needed the space. Inside the Black Hawk, it was just John, his medic, and the two medics cutting away the front of Bowers's blood-soaked uniform, wrapping Bowers's bloodied head in bandages.
John looked out the window, saw the other men in his team returning to the street. Some of them had fanned out in search of the triggerman, but others had stayed behind. He watched them watch the chopper take off, and he could feel the accusations in their stares.
Fifty miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. Air Force Theater Hospital occupied three dozen tents and three trailers set up on the sands of a former Iraqi Air Force base in Balad. As soon as they set down, Bowers was rushed to surgery, and the flight medic ushered John through a controlled chaos of doctors and nurses that seemed to have the professionalism and urgency of an ER at a top-flight hospital back in the States.
The doctor found two pieces of shrapnel in John's side and dug them out in no time. Unlike the medic who allowed him on the Black Hawk, he wasn't happy to be spending time on the kind of minor injuries that could have easily been dealt with at an aid station closer to the scene of the blast. John's hearing was back by then, so he asked a lot of questions about Bowers, but no one saw fit to answer any of them. Then he realized that no one at Balad knew Bowers by his last name, only by the last four digits of his Social Security number, which one of the flight medics had written in Sharpie marker on the flesh of Bowers's right arm after reading them off his dog tags.
A hefty blond nurse, probably Army by the look of her, told him patient 9260 was in surgery and would stay there for some time. A neurosurgeon had been called in and an ophthalmologist. "An eye doctor," she said when she saw the dazed expression on his face. Then she moved on, past the spot where a doctor and several nurses were trying in vain to resuscitate a young Iraqi boy who barely had any flesh left on his legs. Only blood hid the bones.
Not the kid who had alerted the triggerman for the IED that had almost taken them both out, but it could have been. Here in Balad, Americans and Iraqis were treated side by side; soldiers and insurgents alike received the same care. A day earlier, this lack of a division would have infuriated him. But given how badly he had fucked up that day, given that they were now trying to save Mike Bowers's eyes because of it, harsh judgments eluded him.
Outside, he wandered the perimeter and watched Black Hawks rise into the fading light of dusk, tried to fend off some attempts at conversation from a battered PFC in a wheelchair. The kid couldn't hide his excitement over the fact that he was leaving Iraq that night in one of the C-17 transport planes that routinely ferried the hopelessly wounded to Germany and beyond. And he had smokes, so John bummed one and pretended to listen to him talk, trying to keep his mind off the e-mail that started it all, the e-mail he read before leaving on patrol, the e-mail that had placed his little brother in the middle of Ramadi.
Mike, he thought. Make Mike the priority here. Make Mike the focus. And, of course, it was Lightning Mike Bowers's voice he heard as he thought these words. Lightning Mike, who had reached out to John, had seen a guy hanging on the periphery, doubting their mission, and had brought him into the fold. It was Lightning Mike who had explained to him, "We fight the wars presidents tell us to fight because to do otherwise would be to turn America into a Third-World nation in which rulers are casually unseated by militaries without any genuine loyalty to the countries they are formed to protect." It was Lightning Mike who had given John his dog-eared, underlined copy of Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield, the novel about the Spartans' last stand at Thermopylae. Every man in their unit had read the book at least twice. Bowers had memorized it.
In six short months John and Mike had become something close to brothers: two Marines who had gone for the elite Force Recon Company because it had once offered the toughest-of-the-tough a kind of independence, trained them to slip behind enemy lines far from the overbearing presence of a commanding officer. All that had changed with the invasion, when Rumsfeld had decided to surprise the Marine Corps by placing their most elite units at the very tip of the spear. Recon Marines who had been trained to be invisible found themselves manning lumbering convoys, placed at the wheel of vehicles they had never been trained to drive. Bowers had responded to this change by reaching out to the guys who had become alienated and moved to the fringes, guys like John.
After hours of pacing, John parked himself on a bench a stone's throw from the outdoor toilets, where he was lulled to sleep by the occasional hum of an armed reconnaissance drone and the footfalls of overly caffeinated doctors on break making their frequent pit stops. When he awoke there was a bright glow in the eastern sky, the kind of clear first light of dawn that reminded him of his teenage years in Southern California. He was staring up into the pale face of the blond nurse who had finally given him news of Bowers the night before. Dark circles around her eyes and flyaway hairs suggested she had worked through the night.
"Your buddy's awake," she said. She spoke to him in a ragged voice as he followed her inside. "Took a couple hours, but they removed four pieces of shrapnel from the left side of his face."
"The optha " His dry mouth was still sticky from sleep.
"The eye surgeon, you mean?"
"Yeah," she said. "His left one" for a second he thought she was mocking him, then he realized she was genuinely hesitating, considering how to deliver the blow "he lost it."
He paused where he stood but the nurse didn't notice and took a few steps before she realized he wasn't following her. She stopped and did a bad job of hiding her impatience. "Worse things have been lost here," she said. When he didn't respond, she softened. "This guy your captain?"
He wanted to tell her that Mike was more than that, much more, probably the greatest Marine John had ever met, but he could already see that she would roll her eyes, dismiss it as just some battlefield sentiment that would be forgotten as soon as they were home again, just another example of the Marine brotherhood bullshit the Army boys and girls seemed so sick of here at Balad. John started walking again, without saying anything, and she led him into a patient ward where ten occupied hospital beds ran the length of the tent. Generators hummed on the other side of the flaps, and the pull curtain had been drawn around the bed for patient 9260. John drew it back, and the nurse left him.
Bandages wrapped Mike's entire head and covered the left side of his face. A mound of what John assumed was gauze lifted the area underneath the bandages where Mike's left eye should have been. More bandage strips covered the traces of stitches along his right cheek, forehead, and jaw.
The nurse had left out that both of his legs had been broken.
There was so much attached to Bowers that was not Bowers that John almost forgot he was staring at a human being until he saw his buddy's right eye roll toward him. John prepared himself for rage, but instead Bowers did his best attempt at a smile and in a drowsy voice slurred, "They tell me I'm not a candidate for transplant surgery. Maybe if I was into collecting coins or something I'd be moved up the list. Guess it's 'cause I like to live life on the edge, you know? Kind of takes me out of the game."
In the silence that followed, John felt like shit for not having rehearsed what he needed to say. The least he could have done was laugh at this joke because that would have been polite, and given that he was to blame for the scene before him, polite would have been a nice fucking change of pace. Polite was the way Bowers effected a mild Southern accent with John so he wouldn't feel like white trash sitting next to a superior officer with a degree in classics from the University of Arizona.
Finally Mike said, "They're taking me to Germany soon, Houck. You want me to get you something? Piece of the wall, maybe?"
"Something I need to say," John whispered.
"Germany, Houck. Lots of fine gift opportunities. Speak now or forever "
"You're not getting me a fucking gift!" Humiliation flooded him when he realized he had snapped at Bowers as if he were a bad dog. But Lightning Mike just stared at the ceiling with his good eye while he tongued his chapped blood-blistered lips.
"There's something I need to say," John tried again, enunciating this time.
"No, there isn't," Bowers said. If he hadn't been bandaged and restrained, he'd probably be leaning toward John, tapping the side of his left hand into his right palm for emphasis, cleft appearing in his chin. Bowers continued, "No after-action report's going to come out of this. It was just the two of us and that boy, and if anybody asks, you just tell 'em there was still some part of you that didn't want to think they'd use kids for spotters. Maybe you knew different, but you wanted to believe different. Sound good?"
John said nothing. He felt a kind of childish anger, as if by letting him off the hook, Mike was preventing him from experiencing some crucial rite of passage, like a parent who wants his child to stay a virgin forever. But his anger wasn't enough to force him to give voice to what had truly gone down out there. There had been an e-mail, but if Mike didn't want to know about it, why should John say a word?
So he didn't tell him that barely an hour before they had left on their mission, John had read an e-mail informing him that his younger brother had committed suicide, an e-mail written by an older sister he had not spoken to in ten years. John didn't apologize for not telling Bowers this before they had geared up, before John had seen a ghost in the middle of a city already so crowded with ghosts it barely had any room to accommodate his.
But after only a few seconds the silence between them grew unbearable and John heard himself say, "Something happened back home.... I should have told you before we left on patrol. We were going through a hostile area. I should have told you I wasn't...I wasn't going to be at my best." No reaction. "My brother...he killed himself." He looked up and saw that Bowers's right eye had drifted shut. His lips were slightly parted. His chest was rising and falling with deep breaths.
His confession spoiled, John had no choice but to see the words of his sister's e-mail as they had appeared on the cracked, fingerprinted computer screen.
John, I wish there was a better way for me to do this but there doesn't seem to be. Our brother Dean took his own life on the third of this month. Is there any way for you to come home for the funeral? I will wait for as long as I can to hear back from you before I bury him.... I love you, Patsy.
John Houck wondered how long these words would have to roll back and forth in his head before they would collect enough grit and blood to seem as significant as the loss all around him.
John was asleep in the chair when they came to start preparing Bowers for his flight, and he felt a kind of dread when their motions finally forced him from the small halo of space between the curtain and the bed.
Once they were in motion, John followed close behind the flight medics, trying to see if Bowers was conscious enough to hear him, trying to see if Bowers was searching for John with his one good eye. Then they were being crowded by other traveling gurneys being pushed by other teams of flight medics, all of them filing toward the entrance to the airfield and the dull roar of jet engines. Outside, the medics pushed the gurneys past the chain-link fence at the edge of the tarmac, and one of the medics turned and held John back with an open palm.
John had hoped for a better good-bye than this.
Panic seized him, and because he could think of nothing better to say, he shouted, "Don't get me a damn thing, Mike! No gifts! Soon as we're back home, I'm going to have something for you! All right, buddy? Deal?"
Suddenly Bowers gave him a thumbs-up. John gave him a thumbs-up right back. Even though there was no way for Mike to turn around and see it, John kept his hand high as Bowers and the other patients were rolled in single file up the ramp and into the massive belly of the C-17 transport plane, its wings extending 170 feet on either side, the four jet engines attached to them powering to life.
It was the last time John Houck saw Mike Bowers alive. Copyright © 2007 by Christopher Rice