This story originally appeared in 2016 in the Green Hills Literary Lantern.
By Chris Evans
My son’s eyes vanished the moment that Call of Duty introduced zombie mode. I’d walk in the door a little past sunset, and there he’d be. Glued.
The undead will finally die if you fill them with enough lead, but Brandon doesn’t count a kill as a kill unless he takes off their heads, pokes them in the cranium, double-taps like they do in Zombieland or Walking Dead, which he’s watched since he was nine, though of course he shouldn’t. Hreaaaah, and then Pop pop.
Whenever zombies get the upper hand and for example rip off Brandon’s head, which happens not infrequently, my son respawns in ghost form and spooks them all away. He loves ghosting more than anything else, flying around, untouchable. Though he tells me, “They don’t call it that, Dad. Ghosting is something completely different.” I feel his eyes roll even though I can’t see them. Without visual confirmation, I allow myself to assume that he still has eyes and still rolls them when he thinks I’ve said something fatherly ridiculous. How can I get him to look at me for more than a dismissive second? That’s the thing I have yet to sort out in this post-apocalyptic era. Ghosting, I’ve learned, is ephemeral. My son soon enough returns to corporeal form, tethered to earth, and his shoulders fall into a histrionic slump. I rub his neck and straighten his posture. He shakes me off.
“Don’t worry, kiddo. You know you get to die again soon.” I laugh, but lately he’s taken laughter as an insult.
“You saying I suck at this game?”
“You’re fine,” I say.
He sits with his back to me but says, “Wipe that smirk off your face.” A phrase that he’s picked up from his mother.
“You know, my RPA’s respawn like that. Kinda. We call it respawning.”
Brandon pushes the menu button to pause the game and turns. “Arpeeyay?
“R. P. A. The planes I fly.”
“Drones.” He squints, suspicious. “You said they were RPV’s.”
“The military’s term this week is RPA. Remotely Piloted Aircraft. Or UAV’s. Unmanned aerial—”
“They respawn. The hell they do.”
“I shit you not.”
Brandon’s fingers keep working at the controls even though he’s pressed pause. “They blow up and come back? They do that?”
I put my beer on the coffee table and scoot forward, both of us sitting Indian style, and look into his eyes, hazel with golden flecks. The fact that I would compare my government-mandated vocation to Call of Duty indicates a desperation of which I’ve previously been unaware.
But stakes are high.
Less than a month ago, one of Brandon’s older friends went streaking across the field at a middle school football game. Should have been hilarious. Brandon called this friend a legend on Facebook. Then the local paper quoted one school board member saying that the boy—Andrew—could be charged with a misdemeanor or two. Lewd and lascivious. Another board member said he could be placed on the sex offender registry for the rest of his life and spend a decade in prison. They spoke of guarding the community against moral degradation, as though publicly threatening an eighth grader with improbable punishments ranks higher in terms of morality. One of these interviews went into so much inappropriate detail and condemned young Andrew on so many levels that an editor removed the interview transcript from the newspaper’s website. Tossed it down the memory hole. After three weeks of abuse, the felon-to-be decided that he’d had enough, took his grandfather’s hunting rifle into the woods behind the family barn and did what he needed to do. As though anyone would have sent a thirteen-year-old to prison for showing the world his ass.
“Well, no, Brandon. No. They don’t come back if they blow up. But sometimes you get a lost data link if the plane loses its coordinates. You know, if it loses the location of where it’s supposed to go. Right?”
“I know what coordinates are.”
“Or maybe I lose sight of it. Sometimes we lose RPAs entirely. Just like: Poof. Gone. Then, before you know it, son of a bitch comes scooting onto the runway where it’s based. Preprogrammed coordinates. Which of course you understand. Son of a bitch finds a way home. We have no idea where it is till it shows up. Could be anywhere. Could be shot down. We don’t know. The plane just returns from the dead.”
A good deal of what I say isn’t strictly true. Proximity sensors let us know when we’ve been hit: an event that is beyond rare. But depending on the source and direction of the strike in relation to our eyes, pilots don’t always see the missile coming.
“So it’s not the same as the game then.” Brandon’s squint returns as he sizes me up. “Obviously.”
“Well, no. It’s not a game. Teabag and I hate it when people call it—”
“Okay.” Brandon shrugs and turns back toward the TV. He presses the menu button. Zombies lurch forward.
Rebooting isn’t respawning. But we do call it that, Teabag and I. We’re death from above, vanquished but then blissfully returned. Brandon would love sitting in as a pilot. With the new tech, we can just about make out the number of holes in the buttons on a target’s shirt. We’ve got no audio, so nothing goes pop. Hreah aaaahhhhh, pop pop. And Brandon hates silence. Sometimes I mute the game, just to mess with him. When I do, he’ll get up, walk over and punch me in the arm. I punch him back, he reels, brushes off the punch and laughs a mean, tinny laugh. My son, a tough little fucker. In the middle of his mom’s scowl, his mom’s whole head, he’s got my eyes. Maybe that’s why I’m bothered when he won’t look at me for more than five seconds at a time. Without seeing myself in those gold flecks, I’d feel less certain that he’s mine.
The next morning, he sits hunched over his controller. Again or still, who knows? His mom works a 24 every three days, and honestly I can’t stay awake late enough to get Brandon to bed. I tried to pull him away from the machine one time. Ugly scene. If Katie’s EMT hours make me a single parent a couple times a week, I’m doing okay. The kid hasn’t killed anyone for real.
“Don’t you have school today?”
After a minute, I repeat the question. He says “What?”—his voice gravelly.
“Aren’t you late for school?”
“No school.” He clears his throat. “Teacher work day.”
I open the freezer and pull out the coffee. “You get any sleep last night?”
He’s playing a game I don’t recognize now, another first-person shooter but with cities floating in the clouds. Dreamlike except for the monsters throwing shit at him. I stand and watch for a bit. “No Call of Duty today?”
“Finished it. I’m downloading an expansion pack.”
I nudge him with my foot. “You going to show me sometime how to play?”
“I’d toast you. Wouldn’t be a fair fight.”
The coffee bag feels light. Cold aluminum in my hands. “You’d be surprised.”
He leaps from an airship, into the clouds, falls and respawns.
That afternoon at 1600, just like every afternoon at 1600, give or take, Harith Sajadi hobbles on a cane twenty-eight meters from his house to a sheep shed, a structure that’s more than a lean-to but not quite a proper building. By Afghani standards he lives well, on a huge tract of land outside of town. Apparently he had adventures in middle age, when he rose in the ranks of the freedom fighters, a venture that proved profitable for some. For a while I called him Harry, but imposing an American name seemed disrespectful after a while, considering that he’d been one of the good guys, Mujahideen fighting the Rooskies. I made the mistake of expressing this sentiment one single time to Teabag, who ever since has called him Harith, too, but with a prolonged lisp at the end of the word. Other times he refers to Harith as my boyfriend.
Every few days, Harith’s granddaughter visits. We don’t know her name but call her Flower. Flower in the desert. She holds Harith’s elbow on the way to the sheep shelter. Flower walks with a shuffling limp, favoring her right foot. I imagine them talking about something more intimate than zombies. Flower’s mom and dad, maybe, whoever or wherever they are. Harith’s years as a freedom fighter. The sheep have hugely fat butts, like camel humps on their hindquarters. When we started, the flock numbered thirty-eight, but visits from a local butcher have dropped the number to twenty-two. Harith and Flower sometimes stand unmoving by the pasture for a half-hour or more.
Flower has been showing up less often. A van picks her up, and she won’t return for close to a week. Teabag has bet me a beer that she gets bused to an off-radar brothel in order to pleasure her cousin’s terrorist friends. But she’s just a girl. We have no intel other than that she’s the granddaughter, a civilian in a hijab. I like to think that she goes away to the school in Day Chopan, fifty klicks to the east, though how likely is that? Her cousin Ghulam Rasool built the bomb that took out twenty-one recruits last February in Tirin Kot. Intel says he stores explosives in the sheep shed. We expect him to show up sometime to restock, at which time he is boo-koo fucked. Three months we’ve been waiting, with Harith walking to that shed and back again. I don’t know how he stands it, the constant back and forth, the repetition. Though I suppose someone watching me drive from Yuma every day might wonder the same thing. I get paid an obscene amount, at least.
All in all, the sheep get more square footage of living space than Harith does. Lucky sheep. Sometimes I imagine that he’s moving his shit into their shack and their shit into his. Literal shit. My mind wanders. Once he’s fed the sheep and given them their exercise or whatever, he’ll sit in a chair at the front of the house regardless of whether Flower sits with him. He sits and he sits.
On 3 September, Harith hasn’t emerged by 1700 hours. I circle and return. Past the shed and out into the field, along the river and then back again. Days when I’m sleepy, I enter an imaginary cockpit, float above the desert and fantasize that I could pick up Flower and take her with me. Put her in school. Give Brandon a sister to balance him out. Teabag and I sit alone in the Quonset. Our commanding officer, off in the main building, checks in maybe once a day. If that. This kind of environment invites reverie.
Teabag makes revving noises when he flies, so usually at the beginning of a shift I’ll shove an earbud into my right ear and blast the same shit that we used to listen to in the desert. Megadeath makes me homesick for nannerland, truly, but melancholy beats boredom ten to one, seeing as I enter dangerous territory when I let my mind wander. Last year, I built an Ashley Madison profile and learned quickly enough that moms love them some military men. Hooah. As the Army boys say. Like a retard I put my actual face on AM, and turns out that one of Katie’s sisterhood trolls the site looking to catch her cheating husband, who has a history. This friend, who went by Tawny on the site but in reality happens to be a pig-faced girl named Dottie Blanchard, flirted with me for a couple of days before telling me who she was. Then she threatened to out me to Katie if I didn’t take down the account. Honestly, I got a little hard a couple of times, there in the cockpit, before she took off her mask, a picture of a blond eighteen-year-old with delinquent eyes. The boredom gets to you. Pilots don’t fly RPAs. We babysit them. The best-goddamn-paid babysitters in history. Fine. The Global Hawk guys have it worse. At least we’ve got a two-stick setup, our joystick plus an automatic-shift looking lever like I had in my Corolla back in high school. Pussy car. Toyo-shift. Those fucking Hawk pilots, they get regular mice. Right-click, dead beekeeper. Left-click, fried locust eater. Air Force needs computer programmers more than it needs pilots. But we do deliver victory. Verified fact. It’s good we work in teams. Boredom plus solitude equals itchy trigger fingers. So I’ve heard.
I take out the earbud and press pause on my phone. “Flower is M.I.A.”
“She’s been gone a long time, right? Out giving head on a constant basis, most like.”
She’s been gone eight days, twenty-two hours. “Gone. Sure. Doing whatever.”
Teabag turns in his chair and squares his shoulders. “Giving. Mouthwatering. Head.”
His face sits in the center of my vision. I visualize crosshairs. Pop pop pop.
“Shut the fuck up.”
Flower looks to be twelve, same age as Brandon. In three months, she’s never been gone for more than six days at a time.
He turns back toward his monitor. I reinsert the earbud. Symphony of Destruction. Holy Wars. The Punishment Due. I’d probably play Call of Duty if Megadeath did the soundtrack. Software company would make major coin.
Teabag shifts in his seat like he’s whipping around the racerack. I remove the earbud.
“Yo, T. You think my kid would like sitting here?”
“Your kid?” He won’t take his eyes off whatever track he sees in front of him.
“Brandon. My son. He plays shooter games all day long. Some levels aren’t unlike what we do here, y’know.”
Teabag’s look is what you might describe as indecipherable. “I thought we agreed not to call what we do gaming.”
“Sure. Bet he’d be thrilled. You should bring him in sometime.”
“Maybe I’ll bring him in.”
Katie sits on the couch when I walk in that night, her arms crossed, Brandon absent from his regular spot, Xbox shoved against the wall, wires askew. I toss my backpack onto the chair next to the door and stay standing. Katie stares at the TV and doesn’t say a thing, glowering at Alex Trebek.
She glances my way for a half-second and then focuses forward again. “You let Bran stay home today?”
When I’m not sure what words might escalate the situation, I find it wise to stay silent.
“Well?” She waits and I wait.
“He said he had a teacher workday.”
“And you believed him.” She expels air from her mouth with an audible poff.
“I did.” I walk toward the kitchen and fold my jacket across the thinning blue fabric on the dining room chair at the head of the table. “He didn’t?”
“He got into a fight under the Berry overpass. Came home with a black eye.”
I get a beer from the fridge. “The other kid was out of school, too?”
“You asshole. Both of them were truant. He broke the other kid’s nose. Some kid named Danny Zbruski. You know him?”
I open the beer and drink. Her arms are crossed tight enough that she’s likely to give herself back spasms again. Our counselor told her she should meditate. “Want me to talk to him?”
“Find him first.” She worries at a loose thread on her sleeve. “He ran out when I grounded him. Three weeks.” She holds up three fingers and leaves them there for me to count.
“Did you look for him?”
“I’m not going to look for him.”
“You should have called. I could’ve looked on the way home.”
Under her breath, she says, “You’ve done enough.”
Clothes cover the floor of Brandon’s room. Old shirts, jeans, some paper. In the middle of it, he’s grouped half a dozen of his souvenir keychains. Niagara Falls. Crazy Horse. Philly. The rest hang on nails along the wooden runner at the top of the wall, starting at his door and continuing more than halfway around. His first one, from the Alamo, holds its place of honor at the start of the procession, a square-inch photo of Katie, him and me dressed like cowboys. Katie kept insisting that we needed to find the basement, a joke Brandon didn’t get. He got pissed. The whole thing devolved into the two of us teasing him more than we should have.
The next chain over is a vial of floating glitter etched with the words Enchanted Rock, where we broke in Brandon’s first pair of hiking boots, then a diamond with the logo of Six Flags Over Texas, where he refused to go on even a single roller coaster. After that, I don’t know any of them, thirteen more hung along the wall at uneven intervals. We went to Palo Duro when I got back, but he didn’t pick up a keychain then.
Brandon has left his backpack on the bed amid brown Reese’s wrappers, socks and more lined paper, these sheets with pencil-sketched zombies and exploding heads.=
I open his backpack, unsure of what I expect to find but hoping for something to let me know where he is. We’ve refused Brandon’s demands for a phone, so he hasn’t collected numbers from anyone. We don’t have friends’ parents to call or GPS to track.
I pull out an untouched chemistry textbook and a half-finished bottle of Mountain Dew. And then a braided rope ending in a noose.
The noose has been meticulously knotted, with at least ten feet of rope beyond the loop itself. I dump out the bag but find nothing else but pencils, pens and more Reese’s wrappers.
I bang my shoulder pretty hard against the doorjamb heading into the living room, where Katie sits watching Dr. Phil.
“Look at this,” I say. I hold up the noose. “From Brandon’s backpack.”
Her eyes flit to me for a second and then back to the TV. Her head doesn’t actually move. “He says it calms him down.”
“He says what?”
“It calms him down.”
“You knew about it? You know about him having a noose—a noose—in his backpack?”
“Calms him down.”
I step in front of the TV, but she keeps her eyes level, as though I’m not in the room. I reach down and unplug the television rather than just turning it off. I hold the noose in the air like a heart ripped from a zombie’s chest, the rope trailing down like an artery or pulmonary vein.
“Yes.” She exhales. “Sure. He’s had it for a while.”
“But he doesn’t hunt. Not that anyone hunts with a noose. We’re not in the fucking sticks.”
My wife, her hair thinning and blond, leans forward to pick up her coffee. “He says it makes him feel in control. Of his life.”
“Jesus, Katie. What the fuck does that mean?”
“Don’t you accuse me. You left him alone today. You didn’t even question it.” She leans forward and sets her mug on the coffee table, her forehead scrunched. “He smokes pot. Did you know that?”
“All the time. Probably every day for all I know.”
Probably my son. I toss the noose onto the carpet between us.
“So don’t come in here and start shouting at me. You have no idea of what he goes through.”
I take a breath. In and then consciously out. Our counselor calls it relaxation response.
Katie picks up her coffee and blows on it. “Damn right.”
In through the nose, out through the mouth. “Can you just tell me about the noose?” The clock on the wall behind Katie ticks.
“That noose comforts him. It’s like the baby blanket. He didn’t give that up till he was four.”
“This isn’t the same thing.”
A second clock, cheap from Walmart and ungodly loud, ticks in the kitchen, a half-second off the clock in this room. Katie stares into her coffee. I breathe. When she looks up, there’s a ghost of a tear below her right eye.
“Shit, Dave. He says he likes the idea that he could kill himself whenever he wants. That he wants to be in control of his own fate. He said this to me.”
For a moment, all I hear are the second hands clicking in stereo, my own heart out of sync, another tapping in the mix. I’m holding my breath.
The brown-haired airman at the front gate eyes me like he’s Jack Bauer, never mind that he sees me every day and knows what I do on a molecular level, still he clicks through the whole goddamn visitor checklist and studies Brandon as though he just might be Taliban, unconsciously, I suspect, touching his face after taking in Brandon’s yellowing shiner. After this guard, though, nobody so much as glances at my son, who sits slumped in the passenger’s seat all the way to the Quonset. Inside, Teabag high-fives him and says, “How’s it hanging, little man?” To which Brandon shrugs.
I pull up the desk chair that I’ve swiped from storage. Brandon drags it back, chair legs scraping the floor. He moves it behind my seat and off to the left and sits, arms folded, and settles into a glum silence. I spend the next hour jabbering alone, with only occasional commentary from Teabag, who seems to be trying to let me work my son solo. I go through our checklist, show Brandon the logs, explain the toyo, the radar, the screen. Throughout, my son says nothing. Teabag keeps his eyes forward, avoiding me as much as a person can when he’s only a few feet away. Quite possibly he’s embarrassed for me. I tell Brandon about Harith Sajadi, about Flower, about Ghulam Rasool and Tirin Kot. I get nothing. My son says nothing.
After little more than an hour, I feel myself growing desperate, ruminating more than speaking, fixating on my son’s silence, thinking about Danny Zbruski and rehab shows with kids younger than Brandon overdosing in abandoned buildings. I envision that damned noose, about which Katie has sworn me to silence, settling around Brandon’s neck and pulling taut. Probably it’s the desperation that brings me to the point that I’m ready to break protocol. I steer the plane out and toward the mountains, which are blurry but unmistakable in the distance.
“All right,” I say to him. “I think it’s time we switch places. You ready?”
Teabag looks over but doesn’t say anything. The chair behind me squeaks as Brandon stirs. He says, “You’re being serious right now?”
“For a couple minutes. Sure.”
I turn the vehicle back toward the house, stand and let Brandon move in. “Straight and steady,” I say. “As long as you don’t jerk it around, you’ll be fine.”
By rights Teabag should stop me. I stand close to block the view from the room’s entrance and keep my hand on Brandon’s shoulder, ready to pull him out in case someone decides to pay us a visit. We’re under lock and key, so it’s not as though anyone would barge in. But, still, there I stand.
Brandon glides nice and smooth. All those months on first-person shooters might have been better practice for this work than actually flying over the desert. He lets me keep my hand on him the whole time he’s sitting there, the longest period of time we’ve touched since his infancy. He has a bony shoulder, my son. Tense. After a few minutes, I can tell that he’s in the zone.
I ask him about Danny Zbruski.
Without so much as a pause, Brandon tells me that the kid is a transfer student. Heavier into the drug scene that Brandon had realized.
“Do the two of you smoke together?”
My boy doesn’t flinch. “Weed? A few times.” As though he expected the question. “We did. He’s not around anymore.”
The RPA comes up on the shed. I squeeze Brandon’s shoulder. “Pull wide there. Bank it and circle around.” My palm itches. I should take the controls. “Did you try anything harder?”
“Cocaine. Or pills.”
“Chill a bit. I don’t even smoke now. Like I said, just a few times.”
I realize that I’m still squeezing. I stretch my fingers but then let them settle back onto his shoulder. Brandon sweeps back toward the house. I get that gliding feeling, the first time I’ve felt it when I’m not in the chair. Brandon puts the unit into a nice arc and return as Harith emerges from the house.
I tap my son on the shoulder.
“Buddy, you’ve got to get up.”
My son keeps his hand on the toyo. Behind Harith come two other men. Judging by their gait, both are younger. Possibly they have beards. I tap Brandon harder. He has his fingers clenched about the joystick. I shake his shoulder and enunciate when I say, “Now, Brandon.”
“Shit. Yes, sir,” he says, and salutes. He slides out and away from me, oozing attitude.
Teabag spits out his gum. “Who’re those guys?”
I sit and take the toyo, my stomach hollow. I zoom in. Both of them sport face armor. “They’re not armed.”
“Where the fuck did they come from?”
“Did the RPA link go down last night?”
He taps at his controls, not touching anything really, a nervous habit he’s developed recently. “No vehicle by the house. I don’t see any weapons.”
Brandon, behind me, says, “Dad, you gonna fire at them? Warning shots?”
Teabag coughs. “Sure, Brando. Warning shots. You want the controls back?”
The two unknowns make a beeline for the shed with Harith trailing by several yards. I feel Brandon take a step toward Teabag’s chair. “You serious?”
I look around. Brandon has his eyes on my screen, but he’s angled toward Teabag. I put a hand on his arm and he jumps.
“Brandon. Hey, Brandon.” He continues to fixate on the screen. “I need you to step back.”
He doesn’t move. Harith’s friends disappear into the shed.
“Son. Kiddo. I need you to stand down. Take a seat back there.” I point to the chair. When he fails to comply, I say, “Right. Now.”
Brandon pulls from my grip, sits and pushes back with his feet, hard. Weeks of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and my son has to be in the room now.
“Partner,” says Teabag, “we need to inform the colonel.”
“I’m sure he knows.” A thousand Defense Department personnel know, all of them sitting in front of an IMAX screen in Dubai, watching dozens of video feeds. I imagine them smoking, like NASA mission control in the 60s, but more likely they’re chewing gum and drinking coffee, just like us.
Brandon taps his feet.
“Yeah, but colonel’s not checked in. Yo. Partner. He’s got to be away from the monitor. We need to let him know.”
The bearded men emerge from the shed. One of them looks into the sky. From 15,000 feet below, he can’t see anything, but somehow he’s looking right at us.
“Still unarmed. Could be civilians.” Behind me, my son drums his feet. I’m breaking half-a-dozen regulations with Brandon in here. A couple dozen more for letting him touch the controls.
Teabag taps his console. “Car approaching from the east. Sedan.”
“I’m calling the colonel.”
“Right.” I take my eyes off the screen to rotate my head a quarter-turn. “Buddy, I need you to step out.”
Brandon clicks his tongue but doesn’t move.
“Now. Head to the canteen.”
“Dad, I can just sit here. See. Sitting.”
I turn and see him sitting, his eyes defiant. Stubborn. Teabag gets the colonel on the headset. Floaters enter my vision. I squeeze my eyes shut and open them again, but the floaters remain.
Colonel Janssen’s voice digs into my ear, where I’d rather be hearing Megadeath. “Gentlemen, we have a situation. Let’s stay alert.” Two other vehicles approach from the north, trailing dust. A van and then a covered jeep, neither of which we’ve seen before. The sedan stops at the outbuilding. Two men exit the back seat: one in a western suit and the other in t-shirt and jeans. Harith shambles forward and shakes hands with the man in the suit. One of his original visitors puts an arm around Harith’s shoulders and shakes him roughly.
“Teabag, who we have here?”
Janssen clears his throat, maybe thinking that I’d been talking to him. “Men, we have confirmation. Ghulam Rasool is on the ground.”
Teabag covers his mic. “The guy in the jeans or the guy in the suit?”
The colonel says, “Hold position. Wait for vehicle two and three.”
I feel a wavering in my stomach as the jeep and van approach. The man in the suit stands close to Harith, a hand on his shoulder, leaning in, the two of them so close that they’re nearly a single, blurred entity, a double ghost, two shades of an Afghani man. The jeep speeds toward Harith while the van eases to a stop on the front side of the house. The passenger in the van leans an arm out the window and into the late-afternoon sunshine.
“Men,” says the colonel, ”we are in luck today. Rasool seems to have brought friends to play. An unusual opportunity. Stay frosty.”
I rub my fingers against my thumb, small ovals, and turn them toward the toyo. I settle in. The man in the suit steps backward and pivots toward his car. He opens the trunk. Harith stands ten feet away, still well within the blast radius. He’s eighty-six years old, longer than most Afghanis live. Brandon pulls his seat closer.
The jeep parks behind the sedan to form a tidy collective, a tight enough target for a grenade. We have Hellfire missiles. The van idles in front of the house. The passenger in the jeep hops out, walks to Harith and gives him a long embrace. Harith pats the man on the back. The driver exits the jeep as well. He puts a pair of field glasses to his eyes and scans the sky, looking nowhere near us.
“Helloooooo,” says Teabag. He flutters his fingers under his chin in an effeminate way. I expect the colonel to tell him to stop the chatter, but Janssen has gone silent. We have seven men in our cluster, plus at least two in the van at the front of the house.
The driver of the jeep hands his binoculars to the target in the t-shirt. Harith looks up and puts a hand to his eyes to block the sun. They stand still for a while: six men in the open, a seventh leaning into the trunk. After a moment, the driver of the van opens his door and trots around from the front of the house. When I look back to the cluster, one of the men—the jeep’s driver—has pulled out a pistol, which he’s waving in Harith’s direction.
“Dad,” says Brandon, now at my shoulder, his voice urgent. “He’s aiming at that guy. At Harith.” He hasn’t spoken Harith’s name before. I hadn’t realized that the name had registered.
The man with the gun waves it erratically and then points it at the ground. He looks to be aiming at the spot between Harith’s feet.
“Dad? You’ve got to stop that guy. The guy there.” Brandon points.
The floaters make it hard to see, as though I’ve been staring into the sun for days. Dead center in a swelling splash of blindness, I see the van’s driver come around the back corner of the house. He’s fifteen feet away when the man in the suit steps around from the trunk holding an RPG. Teabag guffaws.
“Dad,” says Brandon, “he’s got a missile.” The floaters continue to coalesce. Tunnel vision creeps in.
“Dude,” says Teabag, “that ain’t shit.” He reaches over as though to swat me on the arm, but we’re too far apart. “Are they serious?”
I’m sweating at the spot where my shirt touches my neck, anticipating the command.
“Gentlemen,” says the colonel. “Warlord directs slam.”
Code. The military’s Imax-adjacent lawyers have signed off. Top brass have given the command. The general has ordered the strike.
The colonel says, “Fire one.”
My trigger finger twitches. Precisely one-point-two seconds later the men on the ground hear the sonic boom, which arrives well before the missile. The driver of the jeep makes a move toward his vehicle as Harith staggers backward. The man in the suit drops his RPG.
In the front of the house, the passenger door of the van opens. A girl hops out. She breaks into a run, her burqa fluttering around her feet, slowing her. She favors her right foot.
If she trips, she could stay clear of the blast radius. If she lets her leg slow her down, she should be safe. But this girl is tenacious. She’s determined. She runs faster than I ever guessed she could. On their walks, Harith must have been the one to slow her down, feigning disability to prolong their conversations.
Flower makes it halfway to the back of the house, to where she’s nearly but not quite in view of her grandfather, when the missile makes impact.
Teabag shifts in his seat. “Hit confirmed,” he says.
After another pause, what feels like weeks of silence, the colonel says, “Good work,” with what sounds to me like relief.
Brandon puts a hand on my shoulder. “Dad?”
The impact kicks up a cloud of pulverized debris greater in circumference than the blast area itself. By the time the colonel enters our Quonset with his men, the dust has just started to clear. He looks from Brandon to me but says nothing, his jaw set. He and Teabag discuss the hit. The crater is slightly smaller than projected and littered with limbs. One torso remains intact. With the smoke, it’s hard to tell whether some of the body parts belong to men or livestock. The shed has been demolished, but there’s no evidence of a secondary explosion, which means probably that the shed didn’t contain the explosives that we’d been hoping to destroy.
The little wind there is pushes the smoke northwest, hiding the space where we last saw Flower.
A minute passes while Teabag confers with Janssen. Flower lies twenty yards from where we’d seen her, away from the blast zone and away from the house, which remains mostly undamaged. The girl has lost a good deal of her right leg, her good leg, below the knee. Her burqa lies pooled about her waist. Brandon waits somewhere behind me, a phalanx of airmen and NCOs between us. In ordinary circumstances, I’d walk over to explain what’s happened, to comfort him if needed. I’m almost certain that I would.
For the longest time, Flower doesn’t move. But then she begins crawling toward her grandfather’s house. In the space of two minutes, she pulls herself five, maybe six feet. Her blood stains the sand. She leaves a trail. Then she stops.
Teabag and I remain long after Colonel Janssen and his men have escorted Brandon from the Quonset. My hands feel unnaturally cold, but otherwise I’m more tranquil that seems right. When the sun sets in Afghanistan, darkness comes on quick. We switch to infrared and continue to log our observations. Other than her right leg, Flower’s good leg, the girl remains whole. Over time, her body dims until she’s indistinguishable from the earth beneath her.
I find Katie at the kitchen table, silent, her face sagging.
I’d asked her to wait for me before talking to Brandon, but it looks as though she didn’t listen. Fine with me. After an hour of getting reamed by Janssen, with the promise of more pain tomorrow a.m. when we meet with the whole damn team, I don’t have the energy for more talk. What I plan to do doesn’t involve her, anyway.
My son lies curled on his bed and facing away, nothing noticeably different in the chaos of his room except for a pile of used tissues on the floor next to the nightstand. He ignores me when I enter, which is probably best. I take Brandon’s backpack from against the wall and turn. I walk past Katie, open the utensils drawer, and lay the backpack at my feet.
Behind me, my wife asks, “You all right?” She sounds more forgiving than I have any right to expect.
The drawer holds all of the clutter that we think we need close at hand but don’t. I pull out a whisk, a pair of spatulas, measuring cups big enough that they keep the drawer from opening easily; batteries, one-cent stamps, a letter opener, travel flashlight, camping matches in a waterproof box, a light switch from Home Depot and two uncapped highlighters. Junk we’ve accumulated. From the table, Katie sighs. The kitchen clock ticks, a single metronome. From here I can’t hear the clock in the front room.
“What are you looking for?” Her voice, soft, sounds as though she’s been crying or smoking.
“Where’s the butane lighter?”
I turn and flick my thumb against my middle finger. “Butane lighter. For the grill.”
“Should be in the drawer.” She gestures as though she’s holding a cigarette toward the mismatched set of debris on the counter.
“It’s not in the drawer.”
“This particular butane lighter is bright red and nearly as long as my forearm. I’d notice if it were in the drawer.”
Katie puts her hands on her knees and pushes herself up, looking elderly. She walks to me, pulls a collapsed metal colander from the drawer, then a ladle and then the lighter, which is yellow and no bigger than my hand.
“What are you doing with the backpack?” she asks. Softly, softly.
I can’t quite look at her. Conversation will come later. If we talk now, she might stop me. I just know that she’d stop me.
I take the lighter, pick up the backpack, push open the screen door and walk onto the patio, where our Weber grill sits, rusting and full of ashes. I unzip the bag, pull out the noose and toss it onto the grill. The lighter fluid sits on a metal shelf bolted to the brick exterior of the house. I douse the rope with ethanol, squeezing until the bottle empties. Flammable mist coats my hand and stains my shirt.
Katie appears at the edge of my vision and leans against the doorframe, the damaged screen door hanging open. She watches me click the lighter, which produces a spark but no fire. I click a second time. Third. Fourth. Fifth. The back of my neck feels waxy. I hold the lighter up, turn toward the porch light and squint through yellow plastic that reveals at least two ounces of butane in the handle, waiting for ignition. Katie retreats into the house and I turn back to the grill. Six. Seven. I hold the tip of the lighter against the noose, hoping a spark might be enough to set it alight. Eight. I lean in. Nine. Tears threaten the inner corners of my eyes. Ten.
I slam the lighter against the rim of the grill. Again. Again.
Behind me, Brandon guffaws, sending a jolt through my neck and shoulders. I turn to see him standing at the kitchen door, sweeping aside his hair, freckles on his right cheek, pimples on his jaw, a bruise in an eye socket that needs healing. He blinks at half-speed and takes on an expression I don’t recognize: a subtle tightening at the corners of his eyes that could mean—anything. Then he turns and disappears into the house, his mother nowhere to be seen.
Alone, I close my eyes and imagine floating at my son’s right shoulder, through the kitchen, down the hallway and into his room, where Brandon shoves his bed, kicks the wall, and upends a nightstand, pitching a reading lamp toward the worn gray carpet. Light shifts from his face to illuminate teenage chaos under his desk, a jumbled silhouette of translucent green plastic bottles and crumpled graphite zombies.
I angle toward my son’s face, which in darkness reveals no mouth, no cheeks, eyes obscured. I ghost into this hazy half-light, flying blind.