After Getting Your Penis and Testicles Blown Away in Iraq, Fishing Trips Just Aren’t the Same
A few weeks ago, Sleed and I loaded onto a sleek tour bus. We ﬁled behind a gaggle of other “wounded warriors”—the term the Army used to refer to us in official memoranda. I guess it’s what we were, but the phrase was too cute to do our ugliness justice.
It was a beautiful May day, and we were taking the bus to Maryland to do some trout ﬁshing. I had convinced Sleed to come along after seeing a sign-up sheet in the hallway outside my group’s meeting room. I normally wouldn’t participate in extracurriculars, but had ﬁshed the stream we’d be going to, years before. I grew up nearby in the city of Frederick and guess I took the trip because I wanted to revisit old stomping grounds—that, and I was going stir crazy in the barracks.
There were a bunch of guys like me at Walter Reed—severe burn cases, the faceless. You would think we would have hung out together, but we avoided it as much as possible. We all looked the same; being around one another was like looking in a mirror. None of us wanted that. We wanted to forget.
Sleed was not faceless. His was okay—a few scars—but mostly intact. Back at Camp War Eagle, he had been standing beside me in the awards ceremony, both of us receiving commendation medals from the Division Commander, when the suicide bomber ran up and exploded himself. Sleed lost his cock and balls and one of his legs above the knee. My privates survived the blast—my right leg shielded them—but I was never going to need them again, not with how I looked. I don’t know how it was Sleed took most of the shrapnel while I got the brunt of the ﬁreball. There’s no explaining these things.
Sleed was served divorce papers shortly after returning to the States from the army hospital in Germany. His wife came bearing them on her one trip to DC from Toad Lick, Georgia, to visit her wounded husband. Turned out she had been cheating on him for most of the time he had been overseas and cited the loss of his reproductive organs, among other reasons, as grounds for divorce. She wanted more kids.
The whole situation was nightmarishly helpless, but there it was, our bodies transformed in a ﬂash I could not remember. The only thing to do now was deal with it. Time was reckoned in two halves, before and after. I took a window seat on the bus. Sleed sat beside me. He was tall and ropey muscled, with freckled skin that tanned deeply in summer and paled to magnolia white in winter.
The air brakes released with a hiss, and we pulled out of the parking lot and onto Georgia Avenue. I thought it must be a painful reminder for Sleed to have to live on a street named after his home state, where his wife was probably hard at work trying to have more babies with her new boyfriend, a divorced ﬁrst sergeant with two kids of his own. Sleed had sworn to ﬁght his wife—“The Bitch,” as he unfailingly called her—for custody of their three-year-old daughter, but the judge in the case had ruled the proceedings delayed until Sleed’s medical retirement could be processed. In the meantime, Sleed had employed a private detective to gather dirt on his wife.
He had been raised in a foster home, surrounded by people he called his brothers and sisters, some black, some white. The way he talked about it, it had been rough, and he still hadn’t rid himself of the bad habit that had resurfaced way back in the ﬁrst week of our deployment: the liberal use of the n-word. The drill sergeants had broken him of this unfortunate tic in basic, but it had reared its ugly head again in Iraq and never gone away.
Sometimes, if we were in a public place, I would have to elbow him to silence his incessant rants about “that nigga that stole that fucking bitch and my kid.” The thing was, his wife’s new boyfriend wasn’t black. Sleed wasn’t a racist. He used the slur at random, sometimes affectionately, sometimes reproachfully, but never in reference to skin tone. Trouble was other people didn’t know that.
He was one of those larger-than-life personalities, able to pull you out of your troubles and into his. Christmas morning, 2004, the bombed-out UN compound in Baghdad. In the muddy ﬁeld on the other side of the wall, an Iraqi boy called up to my tower: “Mistah, Mistah, Merry Christmas! Chocalaté?”
Eight hours of soft and steady rain falling from a grey sky, soaking our body armor and black ﬂeece, sucking the heat from our core. Along with myself, Sleed and the other members of 3rd Platoon pulled guard in the towers and bunkers encircling the UN. We were cold and wet on Christmas; engaged in the pointless activity of guarding an abandoned complex of buildings. Morale was especially low.
We carried walkabout radios, and Sleed came over the net thirty minutes into the miserable shift. He proceeded to tell jokes about our mothers for the better part of an hour, one after the other, a ceaseless string of insult: “Hey, Tower Seven, yo’ momma so fat, she have to put on lipstick with a paint roller”; “Front Gate, yo’ momma so stupid, when yo’ daddy said it was chilly outside, she ran out with a spoon”; “ . . . so poor, she hangs the toilet paper up to dry”; “ . . . so greasy, she sweats Crisco”; “ . . . head so small, she got her ear pierced and died”; “ . . . so nasty, she have to creep up on bathwater.” And once he had insulted all our mothers and exhausted his extensive repertoire, someone else came over the net and took up the banner. Triﬂing, moronic, and juvenile, yes, but in this way 3rd Platoon passed Christmas 2004.
Never at a loss for words, he was now unusually quiet as we traveled due north for a few miles before merging onto the Beltway. We passed out of DC proper and into Maryland,taking I-270. The scenery changed from urban to suburban. Million-dollar McMansions, quarter-million-dollar condos, strip malls, golf courses, and commercial parks lined the highway. Traffic lightened up—the cars all headed the other way, into Washington. Compared to Baghdad, everything looked so green. The vividness of it was like being on a mild dose of psychedelics, all the time.
Readjusting my sensibilities was a slow process, and I was also just getting used to not having my weapon with me. Call it “phantom gun syndrome.” Like an amputee who still feels his limb tickle, I would ﬁnd myself reaching down my right side, searching for the M4 carbine that should have been slung on my shoulder. I missed its reassuring heft, the way the charging handle dug into my hipbone.
We traveled for an hour. When we hit the clustered spires of Frederick, my old hometown, we switched onto US-15. Francis Scott Key’s Frederick. John Whittier’s. Lee’s, Grant’s.Located on the cusp of a pass through the Appalachians, the town had changed hands several times during the Civil War. Each time, the citizenry had ﬁlled the streets to cheer whichever conquering army happened to be marching through. This fact had always struck me as telling. Even during our most brutal, existential war, most Americans didn’t care enough to stick their necks out for the cause.
We drove through the north side of town. I watched familiar scenes through the glare of my window seat: the ice rink where I had taken my ﬁrst date and played countless games of hockey in high school, my favorite used bookshop, the liquor store owned by the Pakistanis who never carded. I caught a glimpse of myself reﬂected in a passing SUV. From a distance, I didn’t look half-bad. The only thing off was the size of my head: swollen, as if it had been stung by a thousand bees.
On the horizon was a familiar set of industrial-looking buildings. I got Sleed’s attention and pointed them out. “Fort Detrick,” I said. “They do testing on monkeys there.”
“What kinda testing?” he asked.
“Chemical and biological weapons. They have a big incinerator where they burn the dead monkeys.”
“How you know that?” “My dad works there.”
“You never told me he was Army.”
“He’s not, anymore. Civilian contractor.”
The ﬁrst time my parents had come to visit after I’d arrived at Walter Reed, my father had given me a check for twenty thousand dollars. “Starting out money,” he’d called it.
I lay on a hospital bed in a paper gown, recovering from the latest skin graft. Before entering my room, my parents had to scrub down like surgeons, donning hospital coveralls, masks, hair caps. My father placed the check on the nightstand beside the bed. He said it was the least they could do. He could hardly bear to look at me. My mom wept quietly. Nobody talked much. They visited often in the beginning, dutifully, every weekend. My mom went so far as to stay the ﬁrst two weeks in a nearby hotel.
Five months later, the grafts had hardened nicely. I was a fast healer, and the risk for infection had returned to near baseline. Physiologically, I was out of the woods, off morphine and onto muscle relaxers for the pain. I had completed the initial course of therapy, and the Army had started the paperwork for a medical retirement. My parents were in town on yet another visit.
“So what are your plans?” my father asked.
“Live off the government,” I said. “Get wasted.” I was a little high on pills, or I wouldn’t have been so bold. In Valium veritas. “You don’t mean that,” he said, looking agitated. “You’re just upset because of what happened.”
“No shit I’m upset,” I said. “Look, maybe you two should just leave. To tell the truth, I want you to stop coming here. This place depresses me enough without having to deal with this.”
A month had passed since then, and they hadn’t been back. Now, to the west of the interstate, the bus ferrying me and Sleed along at a steady seventy miles per hour, I sighted the building where, for the good of the nation, my father infected rhesus macaques with smallpox, his lab only miles from the antiseptic home where my mother spent her days watching cable news and talking to the cat. I tried to imagine how it must feel to be a parent to a son in pain who doesn’t want your help. I felt awful for them, but that didn’t change the fact that I felt better apart. They were not rotten people—don’t get me wrong—statistically speaking, they had been the best I could have hoped for: upper middle class, free thinking, well educated. I had been taken to art museums as a child, read to, enrolled in the ﬁnest preschool, kindergarten, et cetera. I hadnot entirely failed as a son, either. About the worst trouble I had ever gotten into was partying too hard and ﬂunking out of school, and I remedied that dishonor by joining the Army a month after September 11. None of us had been bad people; we had simply made the wrong choices. How could they have known their values would lead me to this? That all that safety would push me into the ﬁre?
I asked myself these and other unanswerable questions as we passed the borders of my old home, into acres of corn broken by the occasional exurban neighborhood, the new houses, trimmed in plastic, out of place in cul-de-sacs carved from cow pastures.
We turned off US-15 near the little town of Thurmont, onto a state road climbing into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The winding, two-lane road tunneled through a forest of oak, poplar, and hickory. The trees grew from a mat of ferns and decaying leaves atop a thin but rich soil broken by crags of limestone. A sign said we had entered Catoctin Mountain National Park. We drove a ways farther and then pulled into a gravel lot, where we ﬁled off the bus. Sleed struggled down the narrow steps with his cane and prosthesis, which he was still getting used to. This had been a sticking point in his coming.
“How the hell am I going to ﬁsh?” he had asked. “I can’t even hold a damn rod and stand at the same time. Let alone wade.”
“You don’t have to ﬁsh,” I said. “You’ll like it up there. Just sit down and relax by the river. It’s beautiful country.”
In the end, I had convinced him to come with the promise I would owe him, and as Sleed stepped off the bus and into Mother Nature, he said, “Well, Rooster, you weren’t kidding. This is nice.”
A short ways down the hillside, a creek gurgled through a rock-strewn channel. The rounded stones of the riverbed gave the water an amber tint. Manicured bluegrass ran down to moss-covered outcroppings lining the bank. My mammalian brain translated the white noise of running water into feelings of rejuvenation, nourishment, safety—a comfortable place to stay. I could feel it working on me. My shoulders sagged as a knot of tension buried in my upper back began to unravel. High overhead, songbirds built nests and called vigorously to rivals. Beams of sunlight streamed through leaves rustling in a gentle wind. The left side of my face was numb, but I felt the draft on the hairs of my forearms, the back of my neck. On the ground below, the breeze was no more than a stranger’s breath. Any stronger and the air would have been too cool—but it was a perfect day. The ﬁshing guidechartered by the Army had brought along the equipment we would need, and under his direction we unloaded the luggage bins beneath the bus. Once that was done, the guide gathered us around.
“Name’s Grossnickle,” he said. “This here’s Big Hunting Creek. Y’all ready to do some ﬁshing?”
A few of us answered with half-hearted yeahs, about as much affect as we could muster. Some joker said Big Hunting Creek didn’t look so big. Unfazed, Grossnickle told us the stream became deeper and wider the closer it got to the Chesapeake Bay. Up here we were near the source. The Parks Service had designated this stretch as ﬂy-ﬁshing only, catch-and-release. Strictly for the purists.
He showed us how to set up a rod and gave us a quick clinic in fly-casting. I already knew how to do it and didn’t pay close attention, absorbed instead by all the greenery, and the way the sunbeams reflected off bits of road dust floating in the air. After the lesson had finished and we were turned loose, I took my rod and hobbled off on my own, but not before asking Grossnickle to tie a fly onto my tippet. I was getting better at using my bad hand, but I’d never again have the dexterity to manipulate fishing line.
It took me awhile, but eventually I could ﬂick the wooly bugger into the creek with some degree of accuracy. I cast, then gathered in the line with my claw-like left hand, jerking it erratically to simulate the movement of a wounded minnow. I wasn’t even trying to hook a ﬁsh—just liked the look of the ﬂy moving freely in the whiskey-colored water, its black feathers undulating like real ﬁns. Cast and retrieve, cast and retrieve. There was something comforting in the rhythm of it.
After practicing for a while, I reeled in the ﬂy, set down the rod, pried off my shoes, peeled off my socks, rolled up my jeans, took the rod, and waded into the creek to ﬁsh for real. The shallow water was ice cold. It rushed up my shins and around my calves with surprising force. My balls tightened and my toes numbed, but I kept my resolve and headed upstream in search of a pool suitable for big ﬁsh. Every so often I stood on a rock until my feet warmed and the feeling returned with pins and needles.
I had been wading about a half hour, casting into a few deep pools where falling water had eroded the earth between boulders, but still no luck. The farther upstream I went, thetrees grew closer together and the canopy tightened, admitting less and less light.
I passed through a deep cut with steep and muddy banks. On the other side, the terrain ﬂattened out, and the creek took a sharp bend, becoming much wider. A massive white oak had fallen and created a natural dam. Radiating from the main trunks like the brittle ﬁngers of dead men, a tangle of limbs dipped under the foamy water, snagging ﬂoating branches, leaves, and plastic bags.
The bank around the oak was covered with a heavy growth of ferns and giant cattails. The downed tree had caused a web of rivulets to overﬂow the main stream and ﬂood the low-lying surroundings. My feet sank to the ankles in cold muck as I hacked my way through the tangle of fronds. When I had bypassed the oak, which must have been nearly a hundred feet tall, I cut back toward the water. I emerged from the undergrowth to ﬁnd a deep pool on the upstream side of the dam. The leaves lining the bottom of the pool leached tannins. The bed of decay colored the sluggish water dark, almost black.
I waded into the shallows at the head of the pool and cast my ﬂy as near to the oak as I could without risking the line. Then, slowly, I retrieved it. I could not see my lure in the water but imagined how my movements would translate. When I jerked the line, the wooly bugger shot upward, top-lit at the surface, presented to any waiting predator—hopefully a trout, though I had inadvertently caught turtles in this creek. I paused, letting the ﬂy fall through the water toward the bottom.
On my third try, the rod came alive in my hand. For the ﬁrst time in a long time I felt a welcome burst of adrenaline, a better my breath quickened. As it fought against a shadow much larger than itself, the ﬁsh’s every burst of life was transmitted to me through the ﬂy line via the tippet, a thread of nylon, microns thick, the whole process a kind of naturalistic Morse code. For such a small creature it was surprisingly strong, bending the rod in half.
I took my time and let the ﬁsh run, careful not to give it too much line for fear it would entangle itself on the submerged tree. When the ﬁsh tired, I headed to the bank and reeled it in, lifting it from the water. It ﬂopped wildly and fell off the hook onto the mud, where it continued to thrash, opening and closing its gills, gasping. I pounced on it, picked up a rock the size of my ﬁst, and thumped its head until it went rigid.
It was a big one—not the biggest I’d ever caught—maybe ﬁfteen inches long, a couple pounds of lean muscle. It was a rainbow, a species once foreign to this water, introduced in the 1940s when the government stocked the river to satisfy the increasing demand of sportsmen. The native brook trout, more sensitive to environment than their larger, hardier cousins, had lost out.
It had been years since I had eaten trout of any kind, but suddenly found I really wanted to. I couldn’t bring my catch back on the bus—the park service’s rules and all—but I had my lighter and pocketknife. I decided the thing to do was to clean the ﬁsh, build a small ﬁre, and cook it on the spot.
First, to cut off its head. I walked up the bank and ﬂattened a patch of ferns to form a work area. I experimented with holding the knife in my good hand, but the ﬁsh was too slimy and kept sliding out from under the other. So I switched hands, now holding the trout in place with my right, pinching the knife in what remained of my left. I plunged in the blade just anterior to the pectoral ﬁn near the gill cover. Clear ﬂuid tinged with blood ran into the ferns.
Between my three ﬁngers to keep the knife from slipping as I tried to sever bone and the sinewy spine. It probably would have been wiser just to gut the thing and leave the head on, but my father had taught me how to cut ﬁllets, and I had done it that way countless times before. Force of habit dies hard.
I gripped the knife in the palm of my bad hand and nicked the tip of the blade into the spine, balancing the knife perpendicular to the ground. I rammed downward with the heel of my palm. The knife shot sideways and sliced through the index ﬁnger of my good hand. I cursed and tried to bend it; it would go only halfway, exposing white bone as ﬂaps of skin separated to reveal layers of red and yellow tissue. Then the bleeding started. Great. Now I only had ﬁve good ﬁngers.
I let out a primal yell, grabbed the ﬁsh, brought it to my mouth, and wrenched its head the rest of the way off with one powerful chomp. As I pulled its tail away, stomach, liver, swim bladder, and intestines were stripped from its carcass and fell, a chain of organs, onto my chin. I spit them and the attached head into the water. Black wisps of blood eddied and curled in the shallows of the dark pool. Another trout shot to the surface to strike at the remains.
My anger was gone as soon as it had arrived. I laughed, tasting bleeding gums pricked by scale and bone, and threw the carcass as far as I could into the woods.
“Rooster! You okay? Where are you?” Sleed’s voice called to me from somewhere within the ferns on the north bank. I answered and listened to his noisy approach, picturing him whacking away at the fronds with his cane. He punched through the bank too near the oak, nearly plunging through a marshy false-ground before catching his step. Seeing me, he skirted the pool and came around to the shallows.
“What the hell?” I asked. “You following me?”
“There’s a trail and a bench over there. I was taking a break and heard you.”
“I cut my hand trying to clean a ﬁsh.” I wiped blood, guts, and ﬁsh shit off my face.
“Damn, nigga, that’s bleeding bad. Here, take this.” He stripped off his T-shirt, literally offering me the shirt off his back. What a great guy—I wish I could peel his face off and take it for my own.
“Keep it,” I said. “I’ll use mine.”
I got him to tear a strip off my shirt and wrap it around my ﬁnger. I applied pressure and elevated my hand above my heart. I sat down. Sleed lit a cigarette.
“You know you not supposed to keep ’em, right?” “I know,” I said. “But I wanted to eat it.”
“How were you gonna do that?”
I bared my bloody teeth and felt a few rainbow scales still clinging to my gums. They must have glistened like mother-of-pearl in the half-light. Fish and human blood commingled, tasting salty on my tongue. Sleed whistled and said, “Rooster, you one crazy son of a bitch.”
* * *
Following the graded path that paralleled Big Hunting Creek, Sleed and I returned to the parking area. There, Grossnickle dressed my wound with his ﬁrst aid kit. Before returning to his nap on the bus, he said my ﬁnger would need stitches. Nothing new there—over the past seven months I had become a veritable expert in plastic surgery, obsessed with the latest advances in facial nerve damage, tear duct injuries, ear avulsions. Able to extemporize on the differences between split and full-thickness skin grafts, tissue expansions,random-pattern ﬂaps, pedicled ﬂaps, free-form ﬂaps, my dream was to someday receive a face transplant, a procedure yet to be performed in the States. A few stitched in my hand were small potatoes in light of the larger project of reconstruction.
It was almost noon, we were the ﬁrst to make it back from ﬁshing, and the clear blue of the morning had given way to an overcast sky, rusty-grey clouds moving quickly overhead. Looking straight up, I could almost trick myself into thinking it was the trees in the foreground that were moving, and not the sky behind.
A cold front had stalled in the valley to the east and ﬁnally spilled over the mountains. A ﬁne mist formed in the forest, muted rainbows and halos sparking in the gaps between foliage, blurring distant objects. Two soldier ﬁshers, identiﬁable only by silhouette, emerged like specters from the wood line before passing again out of sight. Sleed and I sat on a squared log coated with creosote, the border of the parking lot. We took turns pitching bits of gravel, aiming for an empty soda can ten feet away. To make the game interesting, we had a few bucks riding on it. Sleed hit the target ﬁrst.
“Got a call from the PI when you was ﬁshing,” he said. He picked up another pebble and shook it in his closed ﬁst. “They’re doing it in public.”
“The Bitch is banging that nigga in public!” “Oh, shit.”
“Yeah. Looks like he’s got a thing for it. Restrooms, parked cars—my man said he got footage of them in the car outside my baby’s daycare. He’s sending me the video.” Sleed ﬂung the stone at the can, nailing it again.
“Why would you want to watch that?”
“You know,” he said, ignoring me. “Krystal would never even suck me off. I mean, once in a blue moon—my birthday, right before we left for Iraq, shit like that. But I could tell she hated it. And then I’m gone for a year, and this nigga has her screwing in public. Unreal.”
What could I possibly say to console this man? Really more of a boy, only twenty-one, and he had already been denied in so many ways—cuckolded, mutilated. What could I possibly say to dignify the situation? Nothing. I hung my head and picked at the gravel, embarrassed for him.
We pitched rocks, traded stories and small bills, until a red sports coupe with tinted windows pulled into the parking area, empty except for our bus. A decal on the coupe’s rear window read “Princess.” The doors opened and two girls got out. The driver looked no older than sixteen or seventeen, her passenger, a year or so younger. They were both dressed in flip-flops, brightly colored halter tops, and shorts cut so high, the bottom crease of their ass flesh was clearly visible. The girls gathered their book bags and locked the doors. Clearly, they were not here to fish.
Acknowledging our gaze, the younger one smiled and waved shyly. She had a kind face, and I waved back. Her friend refused eye contact; her face sharp, disdainful, ears pierced up and down with studs and dangling baubles. She looked like a stone-cold fox, like she didn’t give a shit about anything. They both looked ﬁne. I hadn’t been with a woman in almost two years. Sleed never would again, not like that. When they reached the trailhead at the opposite end of the parking lot, the girls took the path to the left, hiking out of sight.
Sleed returned his focus to the can, tossing stone after stone. He lit a cigarette and smoked it down to the butt in a half-dozen drags. He stubbed it out. He cleared his throat, sighed deeply, took up his cane, and clambered to his feet.
“I’m gonna go take a walk to warm up,” he said. “It’s cold as hell out here.”
“What about the game? It’s my throw.”
“I forfeit. Take the money.” He stretched his long arms overhead and started off.
“Hold up, I’m coming with you.” “Just wait here.”
“Fine. Suit yourself.”
We had been together through some shit, and even though I had a bad feeling about what he was up to—or maybe because I had a bad feeling—I couldn’t abandon him now.
At the trailhead, Sleed took the right-hand fork, easing my suspicions some. The birds that had called so noisily that morning were now quiet. Empty tree limbs swayed in a moderate wind. It was the type of weather you see before a big storm, a lot of rotation in the sky, the barometric pressure going haywire.
We had been walking for a few minutes when Sleed made an abrupt left off the trail. “It’s a damn school day,” he said, apropos of nothing.
“I said those girls should be in school.” “What are you now, a truant officer?”
He smirked. He had this wild look in his eyes. “No. A messenger.”
“Have you lost it or what? Wait. Wait a minute. I said stop! This is—”“Look, Sergeant.” He stopped. “Why don’t you go back and wait.”
Still I could not desert him. I thought about picking up a tree branch and clubbing him from behind, but then again, he hadn’t done anything yet.
We hiked awhile longer before cresting the top of a gentle rise. Fifty meters down the other side was the left-hand path, the one the two girls had taken. Sleed began to parallel it on the far side of the rise, observing what was ahead without silhouetting himself on the ridgeline.
“What are you gonna do when you ﬁnd them?”
He would not answer or even acknowledge me following him. I reasoned hopefully that perhaps his intentions were not wholly malicious; maybe he only wanted to give them a good talking to, scare them a little, tell them playing hooky all alone in the woods wasn’t smart. Maybe, I thought—my imagination ranging to the sexually fantastic—maybe he’ll use that legendary charm to sweet talk them into laying me for the ﬁrst time in years, conjuring up, with sheer charisma, a sympathy fuck au naturel, a therapeutic ménage à trois for the national good. Maybe this is not what it seems.
But soon I returned to reality: the shale outcropping beneath my feet, a mat of leaves, the root of a tree, exposed and gnarled. Sleed tottered along in front, herky-jerky, hunched over, pursuing his prey like a man in a trance, Jake Barnes and Captain Ahab rolled into one, his focus both monomaniacal and directionless. I followed on.
A quarter mile down the trail, we spotted them sitting on a bench just off the path, taking turns dragging on a one-hitter. Big Hunting Creek ran behind them, masking the sound of our approach. They had not seen us. Sleed ducked behind a tree. He motioned for me to do the same. It felt wrong, but I took cover. Part of me wanted to see what he would do.
They passed the pipe. It must have been the younger girl’s ﬁrst time, because she handled it awkwardly. Her older friend drew an exaggerated breath, demonstrating what she should do, and held the lighter. The younger girl took a big hit, kept it in her lungs for a few seconds, then coughed, doubling over, hacking up a rope of spit that hung from her mouth. The one with all the piercings laughed and patted her back until she recovered. Their mouths moved but I heard no words.
Sleed stepped out like a sleepwalker from behind the tree. “What are you doing?” I asked.
He did not answer.
He made it to within thirty feet before they saw him and sprang to their feet. The older one fumbled with the pipe, a small bag of dope, and her book bag.
“Don’t worry,” he said, waving an arm in a gesture of beneﬁcence, approaching closer. “We’re not gonna hurt you. I want to show you something.”
The older girl glanced down the path like she was thinking about making a break for it.
“No,” he said, his expression oddly serene. He moved his right hand behind his back. “Don’t do that. I have a gun.”
Standing behind him, I could see very well he didn’t. I stepped forward.
The younger girl started to cry. “Please don’t kill us,” she said. “I told you I wouldn’t. But don’t run.” He dropped his cane and began to unzip his ﬂy. “I need to show you something. You should see what they did to me.”
He started to pull down his jeans, slowly, as if this were a striptease. The younger girl stepped back, her mouth half-open. Like diseased, molten ﬂesh, scar tissue covered Sleed’s left hip, now exposed. This was not right. This had gone too far. Before it could go any further, I rushed him and shoved him to the ground.
“Run,” I said. “Get as far away as you can.”
The girls took off. Sleed struggled to get up. I tackled him. We wrestled around on the ground, tussling, ending up with me on my back, him on top facing away, my legs wrapped around him, feet in his crotch, his neck in the crook of my forearm—a rear naked choke, a move taught to every private in basic. I cranked down. Sleed struggled valiantly, tensing his neck, clawing at my arm, and rocking back and forth, but I had him in a superior position, and without a solid base he didn’t have the leverage to shake me from his back. His face turned red and then purple as blood drained of oxygen. His thrashing stopped and I felt him go limp. I released the choke and shoved him off. Scooting up, I grabbed his cane to use as a weapon, just in case he had any ﬁght left in him. It seemed doubtful. He looked downright pitiful, out cold, his jeans still unzipped around his thighs. He was a mess, down there, like a chewed-up Ken doll.
His limbs jerked involuntarily as his brain came back online. He took a deep, whooping lungful of air, then, wracked by coughing, rolled over on his side and pulled up his pants. He remained there in the fetal position until he caught his breath, at which point he began to drag himself toward a hickory growing near the bench where the girls had been sitting. His prosthesis had come loose in the struggle and lay disembodied in the center of the path. I placed his cane beside it. He made it to the tree and sat with his back against it, holding onto himself carefully and delicately.
I turned and started to walk away, back to the trailhead and whatever waited.
Sleed called out after me. “Hey, Rooster. It’s funny. I can feel my heart beat through the leaves.”
It didn’t sound like something he would say. I left him there, lying against the hardwood. Hailstones began to fall. They hit Big Hunting Creek like bullets ricocheting off depleted-uranium armor.
Published with permission from Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War by Da Capo Press — All Rights Reserved — 2013
Brian Van Reet
© 2013, agentleman.
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