The unit was set up for another hard hit, second already in the patrol and the sun only now spilling beams over the compound’s concrete walls. Rise and shine. It was easier when they were still asleep, although morning prayers were variable. Easier to bust the outer gates, slam the entrance hall, clear the rooms one by one—all in a barrage of noise and motion calculated to get maximum compliance from the startled Fallujah residents within. And I used to hate when Ellen made me get up for school. What a dick he’d been, Chips thought, what a baby. (“Chips” from when he’d struggled to pop open a Pringles can his guardian—Ellen—had mailed in a care package. One time, six weeks ago, and now forever tagged.) You had to laugh at what they looked like, the people inside, when twelve Marines stormed in before dawn—even the tough guys, the wanna-be bad-asses, were scrambled and making no sense, bumping into walls and shit. Beards matted, eyes puffy and wild. Back at the FOB, Davis did imitations that killed.
Chips shifted to take weight off the front part of his knee. On the handset audio, Sgt. McGill was getting info on layout from the guys right inside the gate. Underneath that, in his head, Chips listened idly to a snatch of Blink 182: she’s a dove, she’s a fucking nightmare. He didn’t even like this song that much, but brain-shuffle had its own plan. Unpredictable, it was my choice to stay here. Hurry up, hurry up. The street was quiet but curfew was over; morning traffic could start up any minute. On the other side of the gate crouched Davis in a mirror image of Chips: dust-covered digital cammies, weapon out and angled down, eyes on the door.
Finally, McGill gave the signal and they were in. Four MAMs, secured first: a good catch. Several older men, separated out with a little less force. Davis and Chips did clean-up, just inside the entry hall: one guy half-stepped out of his line (he was going for his sandals, Chips saw the neat row beside the door) and Davis got up on him so fast: Qif wa-il-la sa-et-leg qw-naar! Qif wa-il-la sa-et-leg qw-naar! And that brought the other guys in, who took up shouting just in case, and even got Sgt McGill to look in, although the man in question was already hands-on-head, face-to-wall, and never a threat to begin with. Still, it took several minutes for the entry-hall flurry to die down. When it did, Chips saw Davis, who loved to yell in Arabic, grin to himself. Davis. Little dude, but loud as fuck.
Meanwhile, the women were coming down the stairs in a flurry of fabric, led by Johnson and followed by Garth (i.e. Brooks, for the shit-country he inflicted on everyone 24/7). How anyone could listen to it, Chips didn’t know. Men shouldn’t sing like that, so emotional and stuff. In response, brain-shuffle squirted out a bit of Blink 182, but Chips cut it off in time.
“Gurry. You and Davis take women and kids in a back room. Kitchen, something.” Chips snapped a nod before McGill had even finished. On seeing the men lined up in the entrance hall some of the women had started to wail, and it would only get noisier from there. Davis nudged the men around until he found the most feeble, the oldest guy, and pulled him out of line.
“Please ask your family to go in the back,” Chips said. And then the rush of memorized nonsense-syllables, all that back-of-the-throat gargling with Ks and Js and Ls. The more embarrassed you felt, the better you were doing. No sunglasses, keep steady eye contact, refer to “your family.” Not “women,” “your women,” anything like that. (Never look directly at the women; avoid interaction; above all don’t touch them.) It all seemed like a charade, if you asked him. Here he and Davis were, in boots and combat gear, weapons in hand, asking pretty please, pretty please.
“Yeah, all right, let’s go. In the back. Now.” Interrupted the old man’s stream of Arabic, his careful protests or requests or alternative suggestions to the men who had stormed his home before sun-up. Chips was relieved to see no kids among the black folds of the women’s dresses, no wide eyes peering out at him. A baby or two, but that was all right. The old man barked a few phrases at the women and they did as he said, filing through a doorway past Davis. Only one, a squat crone his exact height, dared challenge him. She ignored Chips and hissed at the old man, who stared into space just above her head. Before Chips had to intervene, she spun on one heel and followed the other women. And now the old man switched his act and inclined his head to the Marines: please, come in, he gestured. This way, please. You are welcome.
“Michael, can you come down here for a minute?” He was bent over, halfway into the fridge, when Ellen’s voice came up from the basement: calm, distinct, that use of his full name—not good. Mike put down his Coke can and took the stairs fast, every other one, until he remembered how she hated that, and slowed. Ellen the Guardian—the only way to think that word was to super-size it, say it in the movie-ad guy’s deep voice, or like a character from Middle Earth. It was a word that only came to mind at times like these, when he was thrown back on how it wasn’t his real home, this house. It was stupid; Mike could take care of himself, and had for years, while his dad split and his mom died and his aunt’s boyfriend went postal…crashing at his friend Wes’s nice house was just a part of that. But for nine more months he was a minor, and someone had to sign the papers at school. Someone had to come get him when he messed up: drinking, fighting. Wes prided himself on having a juvie friend, but Mike happened to know lots of guys in the same boat, kicked out or couch surfing or whatever. His little sad story wasn’t unique.
So what had he done now? Was it still the F in Spanish? Oh. The other night, with the fake IDs and the bouncer who turned out to be an off-duty cop, and stupid Dietz running his mouth as usual. They got let out of the station after a few hours, warning no charge, but somehow she found out.
“Look, it was totally not my—holy shit, Ellen.” Mike reared back when he caught sight of the screen: tits and ass—a girl bent over—blinking pop-ups against a red-and-black background: ALL NUDE ALWAYS! $4.99 a minute, all credit cards! “What are you doing? What is that?”
Ellen swiveled to face him. “You tell me.”
“Come on. Why would I—”
“It’s not the first time, either. And believe me, I’m not searching for it. All I did was try to go to hotmail, and as soon as I type h-o-t—”
“I get it. But I—”
“You know you’re welcome here,” Ellen said, and took a deep breath. The saggy convertible couch where he slept most nights was to her right. He wished he had put back the bed this morning; blankets and sheets were everywhere, clothes on the floor.
Mike opened his mouth; she raised a hand. “But you need to respect our home. My home. Let me finish! I’m not a prude, all right? I know it’s normal for guys your age to… But I can’t have this kind of stuff brought into my house. It’s—” The screen changed, startling her. Now they were both looking at two girls together; tongues out, hands on each other’s big breasts. The image was reflected in miniature on Ellen’s glasses. Mike couldn’t stand it—he leaned forward toward the mouse but she pushed his hand away.
“I have kids, Michael! What would they think if they came down here and saw this on the computer?”
Figures. Her “kids” were just a year or two younger than he was. Of course her son Wesley would never look at porn. Cross-country practicing, speech-team debating Wes. Of course it was Mike who’d been looking at porn, case closed. (Which it had been, but that wasn’t the point.)
“I don’t understand,” Ellen said. Her voice was different, and she had turned back to the screen. To Mike’s dismay, she was clicking open other pictures on the site. “There’s such a disparity. You might as well watch animals mating, or plumbing.”
He hated the sad wondering tone of her voice, her bird-boned small figure, the silky scarf wrapped around her neck against the basement’s chill. I just wanted to see some boobs, all right? It’s not some big moral thing. And then that sensation sludged through him, the bad one—he wasn’t like them; he wasn’t one of them. He was big and dumb and oily, unwashed and uncontained. He ate more of their food than they did.
They spoke suddenly, at the same time: “You know it’s not like this, right?” “Okay, sorry. It won’t happen again.”
Ellen looked up, surprised. “Sex, I mean. Making love. I don’t want details or anything, Mike, but you must have figured it out by now. That women are more, more…”
They both waited for her to find the right words. And Mike, watching her smile at him and at herself, at this moment were in together, felt loved. Felt love.
“Complicated? More rich. You know?”
Now he did lean over and gently took her hand off the mouse. “I know,” he whispered, close to her head and shut down the site. She kissed his temple and then flicked it, hard, with a knuckle.
“No more,” she said. “Or you’re out on your ass.”
Half an hour later he and Davis were still guarding the women and the one older man. The rest of the squad questioned the younger men, collecting names and occupations and connections, all the tiny bits of maybe-true, possibly-useful info that could result in netting a bad guy or a weapons cache, later on. The women sat together on low benches and chaises, murmuring to themselves, especially when voices carried down the hall from where the men were. Chips strolled the perimeter of the long room, painted a flaking white, checking windows. By now, the word was out: people hurried past the courtyard without a glance; they knew the Marines were in this house. A few boys, though, skittered a half-flat soccerball in a nearby alley, shouting approximations of “Fuck!” with joy and daring, before an elder shooed them away. Chips stopped in front of a painting on the wall: a nature scene, some pool or lake, trees, shade. Where’s this place, and why can’t we be there?
“No talking,” Davis warned. The old man was arguing, in rising tones, with that witchy woman who had given the squint eyes to him in the hall.
“Tea?” he said, directing this at Chips. The woman tugged his shirt sleeve. “Tea, tea.”
Chips shook his head. In a softer scenario, he would drink some tea with them, a hot drink being just what you wanted in 115 degrees. He might even smoke if offered, something he’d never once done until he got to this desert, maybe one of the thin cigars the men here liked. Hosting was their thing; it was painful to refuse, as now, when the old man carefully tried to hide his disappointment.
The old woman let out a stream of Arabic, to him, to Davis, to the room at large.
“She say must go,” the man said, staring at the ground.
“No talking!” Davis snapped.
“Go?” Chips asked.
The old man sighed, unhappy to discuss this further. He gestured vaguely toward the window, the back corner of the courtyard. “She…go.”
“I think they mean the bathroom,” Chips said to Davis. The older woman was glaring at him.
“First of all, that ain’t no bathroom. It’s a Haji hole in the ground. Second of all, she can fucking hold it.”
The old woman shook her head furiously and marched back to the group of women. She gripped one of the younger ones by the upper arm and pulled her, unwillingly, to her feet. “Go, go,” she said, guttural but clear. The girl looked like a teenager, wearing loose pants and a headscarf; she sagged at the knees and backed away, but you could tell she had to go, bad. Shit.
Davis shrugged and turned away, back to the entrance hall.
“Any place back here?” he asked the old man, pointing to the rooms further in. But it was futile; those sloppy latrine stalls were always outside the main building. The old man pretended not to understand; Chips knew it was immensely beneath him to know anything related to women and their bathroom needs. The old woman shook the teenager’s arm at Chips like he was retarded and Davis kept his back to them and the whole thing sucked, all of it. This wasn’t why he was here. It’s not my fault, he said to the girl, in his head. She squirmed, mortified.
“You think I could just run her out there and back, real quick?”
Davis spat on the stone floor. “Sure. Then the rest of them want to go next. Then the old guy. Then McGill sees all of you wandering around outside. I’m sure that’s fine.”
Chips said nothing.
“So, she’ll pee in her pants, no big deal.”
“What if she’s got to shit?”
“Not our problem.”
Chips knew he was right, and he was wrong. Problem was, it was his problem. More women had stood, were clustering around the girl and the old woman, either comforting or chiding her. Voices grew higher. The old man edged himself further away.
“Shut ‘em up, Chips,” Davis warned.
“Sit down, please,” Chips begged. “It shouldn’t be much longer. Just— ” Any scrap of Arabic that might have helped went missing, blank. Woozy from the heat and lack of sleep, he pointed to the low benches; a few of the women hurried to obey. The teenager bent over and moaned; she gripped her low belly. At her side, the old woman stared openly at Chips. He averted his gaze but caught her disbelief. It reached him, it probably matched his own.
You know where we are, he tried to argue with her. What this is. Why I can’t. Maybe the girl doesn’t understand, but you do, I know you do.
Chips turned his back to them, shaking. Frosty, he ordered himself, and drank some water. Noises behind him, muffled animal anguish. I’ve been there too, Chips thought. The squad joked about it, and they all did it, pissing themselves dry during a close call. Didn’t that count? Would it matter to the women behind him, if they ever knew? Sweat stung his eyes and he tried to focus on Davis, on the flaking paint, on the tiled floor. Thing is, he might never be back in this place, but the girl, it was her home. She would come through here a dozen times a day and it would always be the room where she shit herself, crying, in front of her family and two strange men with guns.
The air changed. “Good god. Smell that? Perfect.” Davis sighed up at the ceiling.
Horror seeped through Chips. Get a grip, get a grip. There was silence now behind him, but it was worse somehow. What had he done? Nothing, he told himself. Nothing near as bad as what might happen to him—or to any of them!
He spun around and the old woman was right there, up in his face.
“Sit down. Sit back down.”
She faced him squarely but Chips didn’t look away. He’d never been this close to an Iraqi woman, close enough that he could smell her spicy breath, see the sparse curly white hairs of her eyebrows. The other women, in their huddle, were quiet; no sign of the girl. The old man sent a stream of bewilderment and warnings her way. But the old woman didn’t budge.
“Ma’am, if you don’t—”
She took one light step closer and reached up to slap Chips across the face. And again, while he was stunned. She landed both, too, straight-armed and open-handed, despite his chin strap.
In that moment and the next, Chips didn’t know what to think. Be close enough to the blast of an IED and you went deaf—either from the concussion or eardrum rupture—but chaos wouldn’t slow down and wait for you to tune in, so you better get orders and haul ass no matter how much internal brain slosh. They’d been told this; they’d been trained. And it was like that, though Chips didn’t so much as flinch as the woman hit him. It all went on around him—the old man’s shout of dismay, the old woman yanked back by her horrified tribe, and Davis laughing his guts up—while Chips spun uselessly inside his own head. Where was Blink-182 now? Cheap squealy guitars and nasal vocals, to cover over the confusion in this Iraqi living room? Nothing; brain-shuffle was stuck, skipping. What came to mind instead: Ellen. It was like Ellen was in the room with them, like she’d seen everything that just happened.
There she was, sitting by herself on a low polished wood bench that ran the length of the wall. Wearing a sweater in the desert heat, her short grey hair neatly tucked behind her ears. She too ignored the wailing women, the humiliated old man, Davis stifling his whooping as the rest of their squad returned to the front hall. Ellen kept a level gaze on Mike only; she saw his weapon and his cammies and his Kevlar. She saw the blooming red mark on his face, and he held still for her inspection, even as Sgt. McGill gave new orders. Unit squad platoon; company brigade division; God Country Corps. In those slowed-down milliseconds, within this muffled fraction of time, it was Ellen at the center of it all: the room, this house, center city, Our Fortress Fallujah (33 25’ 11” N by 43 18’ 45” E by you’re fucked), in’shallah in’shallah, the desert the country the war, his war. From this vantage point, only she could see what he’s done. What he hasn’t done yet.