The body of Lieutenant Ortiz spun over the rear quarter panel of the flaming Humvee in a tight circle ringed with flailing arms and legs. His skull and torso remained intact thanks to his Kevlar, but the brain and organs inside the armor were bruised into mush by the concussive shockwave propelling his body, almost gracefully, through the air and beyond the licking flames. He landed on the dusty street just past the exploded Humvee, and then the dismembered quarter panel hopped onto his stomach, pinning him under its tire.
Soldiers spilled out of the three other Humvees in the convoy, cursing and yelling, scanning and aiming, crouching and pivoting. Their ears rang in the aftermath, their eyes itched and watered in the newly acrid air, their noses burned from the stench of wiring and leather and bodies charring.
“Incoming!” the sergeant shouted.
No one saw any muzzle flashes or dents in the Humvees or dirt kicked up in the road, but all of them heard small pops, shots muted by their ringing ears, and felt the presence of rounds in the air somewhere, in the same miraculous way people feel stares.
The sergeant ordered them to gather on the opposite side of their Humvees, against the wall of the nearest building. Once there, they saw Ortiz’s body trapped under the still-burning wreck of his vehicle and a billowing column of oil-black smoke. They blinked the sting out of their eyes. Already, the smells of the carnage were imperceptible and with them forever.
Ortiz’s eyes were vacant. In life he had been infectiously happy, always smiling, constantly joking. He’d watched out for his soldiers and risked his life for them. Most trapped their sorrow inside a mental box they would willfully neglect until some undetermined time — or when all of it would erupt of its own accord, whichever came first. A few wept openly, their faces crinkled and wet.
A corporal ran forward in a crouch and took Ortiz’s pulse. He looked back and shook his head side-to-side.
When he returned, one of the crying soldiers asked, “How?”
The corporal shrugged. “IED.”
“But there’s no blood.”
Their fear became palpable. If a supercharged rush of air could crush an armored man’s life, if their invisible enemies were no longer as precise as bullets, if someone as obviously good as Ortiz could fall victim to the war, then who had any hope?
“It’s coming from there,” the sergeant yelled, pointing to an apartment building across the street and one building down from their position. It was two stories with four curtained windows on each level. “Let’s smoke some motherfuckers.”
Orders were distributed. Faces hardened. Fear became anger, anger became purpose, and that purpose was vengeance. Half the soldiers fired at the windows and roofline and doorway of the building. The other half ran across the street. In five seconds, they were arrayed in front of the door and covering the windows with their rifles. The remaining soldiers sprinted over.
The sergeant kicked in the door and charged inside. The rest streamed after him. There were multiple doors on either side of the foyer, and the soldiers assembled into clearing teams as though sharing the same mind. The youngest soldier was the last inside, and he watched as the point-man for one team kicked in the door and was greeted with small arms fire in the chest and mouth. His teammates sprayed the room on full automatic and chucked grenades inside.
To the left, another team waited for the youngest soldier to join them — to be their point-man, to kick in the door. Fear of shame forced him forward. But then he heard the grenades detonate across the foyer and both male and female voices screaming, briefly, and he replayed a mental tape of the other point-man swallowing bullets, then spitting out a dark stream of blood as he fell backward.
Leveling his rifle at the door handle with one hand, the soldier retrieved a grenade and raised its pin halfway to his mouth before realizing he had no idea what waited behind the door. Private Corey Patterson then grasped that his wasn’t the only life at stake. He might kick in the door and see civilians in one corner and insurgents in another. Or a scared-stupid haji with a pistol protecting his family. Or only frightened women and children. Or a dark stream of his own blood arcing through the air.
Patterson’s training said to kick in the door and kill anything hostile while avoiding noncombatant deaths, but it hadn’t taught him anything about calculating the odds of what might be behind Door Number Two and how said odds should inform his methods of killing only those in need of killing without himself being killed in the process.
“Good idea,” an older private said. “But take a shit already.”
He grabbed the grenade, pulled the pin with his teeth, shot out the door handle with a three-round burst, and tossed the grenade inside the room.
Patterson simultaneously slouched his shoulders, laughed out loud, and lowered his rifle. He turned and meandered to the building’s exit, still chuckling, as carefree and happy as he’d ever been.
About the author:
Eric Sentell teaches college composition at Southeast Missouri State University. His short fiction has been published online or in print by ‘The Rivendell Gazette’; ‘Long Story Short’; ‘Moon City Review’; ‘Unlikely Stories 2.0′; ‘Blink Ink Online’; ‘Short, Fast, and Deadly’; and ‘Six Minute Magazine’. In September 2010, ‘Long Story Short’ selected “Stolen Thunder” as its Story of the Month. He has also written many essays on gender, culture, masculinity, and marriage for ‘Role Reboot’ and ‘The Good Men Project’. Follow him on Twitter @EricSentell.
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