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An excerpt from: Alone In The Light

Friday, May 24, 2019

An excerpt from: Alone In The Light


November 27, 2003 - South Of Baghdad, Iraq

     I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not always easy to be thankful. I’m trying very hard to find something to be thankful for right now, but nothing comes to mind. It’s Thanksgiving morning and I’m watching the beige landscape of Iraq pass me by. The “truck” I’m in is the beige painted Humvee we use for these missions. It is cramped, uncomfortable, and makes me claustrophobic. The dashboard is murder on my knees, the radio equipment takes up most of the free space, and the seat is like a brick. It doesn’t help that I’m 6’3” and 243 pounds of mostly muscle. And I’m wearing another fifty pounds of body armor, ammo, a grenade, and a bunch of other shit. This space was not made for me. If anything, the people who made this vehicle had my dad in mind – not me. He was only 5’9” and 190 pounds.
     The scenery speeding by outside is bland, just like the coffee I’m still trying to force down my throat. The coffee is not helping. It’s tepid at best. It’s just bland, lukewarm, brown water with a hint of caffeine to help wake me up. It does not work as advertised. I light another cigarette and scan the area outside the tiny portal that is my window. The truck doesn’t even have armor on it. I am, once again, reminded that my unit was not meant to be here. We’ve purchased some steel plates from a local guy, had them cut to size and bolted them on the doors, but they don’t do much in the way of reassuring me of my safety. I am having trouble giving much of a shit about it right now anyway. I can’t seem to stop thinking about home today, and it’s killing me.
     The wind is cold through my window. The air, more than the coffee, is keeping me alert. It does, however, elicit grumblings from the backseat from PFC Todd Allen. I smile at his complaining and watch patches of muddy, damp fields roll by. It’s all this brown that bothers me the most. Everything is brown. My uniform is various shades of brown, the truck is brown, the land is brown with spots of green, and the coffee is brown… I miss home today. I miss the cool, autumn morning I should be enjoying right now at home in Indiana. I’d like to think the trees at home are still red, yellow, and orange with bits of green still hanging on. Here, it’s just brown, brown, more brown, and the occasional splattering of green or white from one of the houses. I miss my house. I miss my family.
      I am just having a really shitty morning.
     As I inhale the cold, damp air I’m also reminded of how much this doesn’t smell like home. I can smell diesel, the road, the rain that’s been plaguing us for three days now, and the mud. The smells pour over me and I drown in the assault on my senses. It’s too much and I flip my cigarette out onto the littered highway and continue to be underwhelmed by the scenery of Iraq. I long for the smells of home. I long for it even more today with memories of my mom’s noodles and Bill’s pecan pie lurking in the fringes of my thoughts. The smell of the entire holiday as a whole… the memory of Mary’s perfume comes unbidden to my mind and I feel a small stab of loneliness in my heart.
     I sigh as the memories stir up far too many emotions for me this morning. I try to tamp them down, but I can’t. Nobody can on a day like this. It’s Thanksgiving for fuck’s sake and here we are, driving around on a patrol. In theory we’re keeping the roadway safe for the convoys coming up to Baghdad with other troops and supplies, but it feels like we’re just fucking around. Nothing has happened on this stretch in the month we’ve been at the F.O.B. and nothing will probably happen for the remainder of our time here.
     The boredom and monotony of this eats at me. I could be warm and comfortable in my tent, playing Xbox with Tim and Bob, but no. We are out here. I don’t want to whine, but let’s face it, I’m not the world’s best soldier. I, in no way, envision myself as Captain America out here fighting the injustices of the world. I am a college student, stuck in a Humvee, driving north on the Main Supply Route about 29 miles south of Baghdad and all I want to do is go home. All I want is to be back in Indiana.
     “With Mary,” my mind adds without my consent. And I think this is my problem today. Mary is about to go home. She is leaving Kuwait and headed stateside so she can begin the process of becoming a civilian again. I am jealous and I miss her. I am jealous she’s going to be going home. I thought I was going home a month ago. I was supposed to be home before her, but no. I am back in Iraq. Again.
     I inhale sharply as I return my focus to the job at hand. Jones can see I’m in a funk and I realize he’s saying something to me from his seat to my left. But I don’t hear him over the sound of the engine.
     “Eh?” I grunt at him.
     “I said, what kind of food do you think they’re going to be serving today?” His voice is just under a yell and I balk at his volume.
     “Who cares, Bob?” I smile at him, and I honestly don’t care. “But I’m sure there will be turkey and pie.” I smack Tim’s leg. He’s in the turret behind the 240B machine gun and he looks at me through his goggles. Along with the goggles, a neck-gaiter covers his round face. The goofy image it presents makes me smile. “Are you awake up there?” I shout so he can hear me.
     “Yeah,” his muffled voice intones. “I’m also freezing my nuts off.”
     “You love it!” I remind him with a smile, and he responds with a rather obscene gesture. Mason and Allen both laugh from their seats in back.
     “Shit,” Mason adds from the back seat. “The only thing Timmy loves is Twinkies.”
     “Timmy’s not fat, he’s just big boned,” I say as I return my focus to the vast, empty stretch of road before me.
     “Thank you, Sergeant Carpenter,” Timmy shouts to me and I smile.
     It’s so desolate and empty out here I almost lose myself in the flatness of it all. My watch beeps and I look at it. It reads 0800. I reach over and grab the little black headset of the radio to check in with Specialist Mitchell at the FOB.
     “Bulldog Six, this is Bulldog Three-Four, over,” I say in a rehearsed, yet bored voice.
     “Bulldog Six, this is Three-Four, over.”
     “Three-Four, this is Bulldog Six-Romeo, go ahead.” The radio beeps and crackles with Specialist Mitchell’s voice through the small, broken speaker.
     “Roger, we’re approaching Five-Two-Alpha, over.”
     “Roger, Three-Four. Anything for the log?”
     “Yeah, my ass is numb.”
     “Roger, Three-Four.” the specialist on the radio responds without the slightest hint of humor in his voice. “Drive safe.”
     “Will do. Three-Four, out.” I clip the handset back onto the dash and our little occupation of Iraq inches forward with one more check in the box.
     I pull another cigarette out of my pack, seat it firmly between my lips, and light it. The smell of the smoke is calming for some reason. I’ve been a smoker for more than three years now. But here and now, in this place, I find solace in the act of taking out a cigarette, lighting it, and inhaling the smoke. It’s one of the few activities I can truly say is mine. At least here I don’t have to sneak away to a designated smoking area.
     As I smoke, I think about Mary. Her memories weigh heavily on me today, and my hand absentmindedly rubs the flap on my body armor. Mary’s letter is between the twelve pounds of ceramic plating and my heart. My hand, or my homesick brain, seems to think rubbing this spot will somehow magically let her know I’m thinking about her. But I’m always thinking about her, and I hope she knows.
     “What a crappy Thanksgiving,” Jones remarks to me, interrupting the silence and the quiet moment I’m having. “Why couldn’t first squad do this today?”
     “Well, we drew the short straw, Bob. Sergeant Beckner had to go get his tooth fixed, leaving his squad without a squad leader.” I smile, showing all of my teeth. “Which means we get taken off of our down-cycle and bumped up to fill in.”
     “And Sergeant Hall hates you.”
     “There is also that,” I admit. And it’s true. Our platoon sergeant and I are not best friends by any stretch of the word. “Besides,” I continue, “If you were home for Thanksgiving instead of here with me, you’d just eat too much and get fat.” I tap Tim’s leg. “Just like Timmy.”
     “I’m not fat!” He smiles from the turret. “I’m just big boned.”
     “At least here you get to get out, meet new people… see the world.” I wink at Jones with all the mirth I can muster.
     “God. Are you going to be a recruiter when we get home?” Allen asks from the back. Jones and I grin at one another and the two in the rear seats chuckle to themselves.
     The radio beeps and crackles with static, ending our talk.
     “Three-Four, this is Three-Four-Alpha, over.” Wilson’s voice is rushed, and I remind myself he is young and excitable.
     “Go ahead,” I reply in my best ‘why are you so anxious’ voice.
     “We have an… aggressive driver on our six.”
     “Aggressive how?” I turn to try to get a look, but there is no back window and I’m left staring at Mason.
     “He’s approached,” static, “times and dropped back.”
     “Say again?” I hate these radios.
     “Aggressive isn’t the right word, Three-Four.”
     “What is the right word?” I use my ‘big boy’ voice trying to get Wilson to get his head out of his ass, but before Wilson can respond, a white car accelerates from behind the second truck and comes alongside. Tim immediately swings the turret in the car’s direction because Tim is good at his job. He tracks it as it increases its speed, pulling away from Wilson’s truck, then mine. I tap the handset on the dash as I watch this all unfold. Somewhere in the back of my brain, I hear myself reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but I tell that part of my brain to shut the hell up and I turn to look again.
     “How about sketchy?” Wilson finally responds through the radio. The whole ordeal has taken maybe ten seconds.
     “He drives like he’s from Ohio hanging out in the left lane like that. He didn’t use his turn signal at all.” I smile at Jones, but he’s concentrating on the road.
     My stomach is suddenly a twisted knot of anxiety. My hope is this is nothing more than a bad driver and my default setting is to, of course, make jokes about everything. Adrenaline surges in my body and I am on edge. My brain races through different scenarios when Jones snaps me back to a more sober mindset.
     “What do you want to do?” he shouts. I feel the engine begin to whine as he presses on the accelerator.
     “Tim,” I yell at the big man as I turn and smack Tim’s leg, “I want you to…”
     My words are lost.
     The world and all its beigeness is suddenly gone.
     I am pressed into Tim’s legs and I feel like I’ve been hit by a train. Everything is dark and light at the same time. My eyes and ears play tricks on me and I’m disoriented. The vast, empty road before me is now on its side and the smell of diesel is suddenly stronger, more acrid and biting. I am unable to focus. I am cold and I think I’ve pissed myself.
     My vision comes and goes and I am confused.
     I see smoke and fire and I lose consciousness for a moment.
     My eyes open and I see Jonesy yelling at me, but his words are inaudible. He looks like he’s in slow motion. He looks bad. Is that blood on him?
     Mason is above me. He’s upside down and my body is moving towards him. Why is he upside down?
     My leg aches but it won’t move when I tell it to. I want to stand up.
     I can’t breathe.
     Why are my hands red? Is Tim hurt? I can’t focus on anything.
     Where’s Tim? My thoughts are racing and my vision is narrowing. Where’s Allen? Who is screaming? Is that my voice?
     “Mary!” The word gets stuck in my throat.
     Everything is wrong. Something has gone terribly wrong and I am drowning. I am dying and I can’t scream. My voice is stuck in my throat and I feel a burning sensation in the back of my mouth and along the side of my face. I can taste blood. I can smell it. It overwhelms me and replaces the scent of diesel and fire. Blood is everywhere and it feels like hot, black, tar is being poured into my mouth and I can’t catch my breath. I can’t speak. I can’t scream. I can’t do anything, and I am so scared.
     “Josh?” I think I hear someone calling my name. “Joshua Carpenter!” I think it’s my mom’s voice.
     I am so scared.
     I am in darkness. I am alone.
     I feel warmth running up my arm. It feels amazing and the world slips away from me and I am falling. I see flashes of light punctuated with inky blackness and pain. I hear voices and there is more pain. It is so intense I can’t stand it.
     Light and the sense of motion. It is abruptly cut off and I am again in darkness.
     Mary’s voice? A warm hand against my face.
     I am falling into depths I’ve never known. It’s black everywhere around me. Above me, there is a pinprick of light and I am swimming in a vast, black sea darker than any night. I want to reach for the light and shout for someone to come get me, but nothing happens. I open my mouth and it is filled with the saltwater tang of the blackness flooding me.
     I feel like I am drowning.
     I fear I am dead.
     There is a light.
     It is everywhere.
     It is all around me.
     I am alone.

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