The following is an excerpt from River City One: A Novel (Knox Press; November 7, 2023).
I’m laughing now because I can still see him. He’s got his helmet on, the chinstrap dangling and tobacco spit coming off his lip. I tell you the right side of his face was blown up like a puffer fish. He kept himself grungy, so unclean that you’d think not even the bad guys would touch him. Maybe that’s why I liked him being nearby, because I thought it would keep me safe or something.
I was walking fourth in line that day and one place ahead of West, who was smack in the middle. “You’re in my world today, Sir – you know the drill.” He was the guy everybody wanted in charge of the patrol, so I did as he said.
We set off single file, like a group of schoolchildren walking across the playground, one right after another. It had rained the night before so the ground was thick with mud. It felt like I was walking through peanut butter, every step sucking at the bottoms of my boots. The point man had the metal detector stuck out in front of him, waving it back and forth like a flashlight in the dark. We only walked where the metal detector allowed us, each man planting his foot into the footprint of the man in front of him and that was how it worked: one footprint at a time, hoping the ground wouldn’t give out from underneath.
I can’t remember what I was thinking about before it happened. The weight of my pack, maybe, how it felt like carrying a limp body on my shoulders, that’s how heavy the gear felt. I wasn’t thinking about fighting. I was uncomfortable but not afraid. “Keep up, Sir. Speed is the name of this game,” was the last thing West said.
We crested the hill and were approaching the plateau. Halfway to the center, there was a flash of white light, then heat, a wave of fire that burned the hair off the back of my neck. I felt something kick the side of my head and then, all of a sudden, I’m sitting on the ground. I feel the force of the blast on every part of my body, like a punch to the head and ribs at the same time. One second passes. My first thought is, “I’m dead.” Another second passes. I hear rocks and debris, clumps of mud splattering onto the ground around me. The air is reddish brown, a fog, like I’m inside a filthy cloud, picking wet mud out of the inside of my nose and spitting it from my mouth. More seconds pass. My conscious self slams back inside my head and I realize for the first time that I’m alive. I have memory. I remember I was walking, that I’m with my team and we’re near the end but we’ve been hit by something. More time passes. My ears are ringing and I notice that my head hurts, like I haven’t had a cup of coffee for the first time in months, and the ache is enough to make me stretch my forehead and close my eyes. A doctor told me later that the blast from twenty pounds of explosives shattered my eardrum, but for now, I’m just drifting in and out of focus. I hear voices, the sounds coming from a tunnel, inside a shaft. They’re getting louder as the sound expands, but still I’m staring into the fog and seeing nothing until I turn to see what’s going on behind me.
“I’m good!” I scream at the outline of a figure, sweeping my hands over my legs and in front of my face, then my chest. “I’m okay,” I whisper to myself. I made it. I look behind me and finally see the image of someone emerging through the fog. “Hey, buddy. I made it,” I call out. He’s quiet, just sitting there. His back is stiff and perfectly upright, like he’s just chilling, and I think to myself, “Hell of a time to sit around, isn’t it?” He’s holding something in his hands—a helmet turned upside down like a bowl with a bootlace hanging out of it, and it’s odd. I push myself to my feet so that I can stand above him and then I understand. West isn’t sitting. His upper body is planted in the mud, like he’s sprouting up out of the dirt, right up from his ass, and there’s something black and red tucked inside the boot he’s cradling in his helmet. I keep staring at the boot in his hands.
“My mind flips back to something I heard. “Sir, my orthotics don’t fit these issue boots, so I’m gonna need to buy a special pair. Check out this sweet-ass pair of boots.” The only dude in the platoon with boots that looked like Air Jordans. It’s his left foot he’s holding in that helmet, the tan leather is a dark red color, but otherwise in perfect condition. The toe box and throat of the boot are plump. The laces are tied.
He couldn’t have been more than five feet away. I dream about it sometimes at night, reaching for his tourniquet off the front right shoulder of his plate carrier, fingers dancing across the stub of his right thigh before I rip my own tourniquet off my plate carrier, fastening it across what little is left of his left leg, doing what I can to stop the bleeding. I do it right every time in my dream, but it didn’t happen like that. Seconds passed and I didn’t move. More seconds passed and I couldn’t move. Eventually, the lead man in the column is there in front of me, giving the aid I’d plotted out in my head but hadn’t been able to deliver.
Have you ever had that dream where you’re playing a basketball game and you steal the ball? There’s nothing but open court between me and the basket. Not a single defender stands in my way. Sometimes my legs are rubber, other nights they’re wood. He bled out on the helicopter, arteries sliced just as clean as cut grass is what the medic told us, said it was a “victim-operated IED.” Victim-operated, like West had decided to kill himself when he stepped on the pressure plate, when he stepped into my footprints. We both stepped on the plate. Only West was able to operate the bomb that killed him.
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