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Dawn Patrol: Solitaire

Mosul. Early Patrol. The first light of a jaundiced desert dawn streaks the cracked minaret of the neighborhood mosque. Tom hawks, spits on the ground and rubs it into the grit with the toe of his boot, then he stands motionless. He sees no one on the narrow cobbled street but he knows they are there. A hundred sets of soulless black eyes watching from the windows and through the warped wood of the doors and fences.

Tom takes a cautious step, then one more. At the curb a crumpled piece of paper rustles,
instinctively he cocks his head and moves his hand on his rifle. It’s only a rat taking refuge
beneath a flyer calling for men to join the militia. Tom spits again, directly on the rumpled paper
and looks up at the spire of the mosque tower.

A few more wary steps, then he sidles up to the wall of a shuttered street-corner shop. He
had been trained to know that if he tries to cross the street without checking every direction, he’ll be a dead man. A creaking noise to his left makes him freeze, and he wills himself not to breathe until he hears the sound of liquid splashing to the ground. Slop bucket. This sure wasn’t home . . .

Strange how one thing seemed to lead to another. He’d been disappointed that Tuesday
in September because football practice had been cancelled. He was first string quarterback, the
Badgers were gonna kick some ass this year. New York, Washington and Pennsylvania were far
away from Millville, and seeing it all on television made it seem like it was just another Hollywood
drama.

Turned out that Ed Roberts’ sister was a secretary at Marsh Company in the World Trade
Center, where the first airliner hit. She’d done good for a girl from Millville. Other than her, to
Tom the victims of September 11 were all just actors in that Hollywood story. It wasn’t that he
didn’t care, but he was eighteen, he had a fine car, a pretty girlfriend, and a football team that
could go all the way to state.

Tom hears another creak and jerks his head to the right. A few yards across the street a gate shivers on its hinges. Tom aims his rifle then lowers it when a scrawny, matted brown and white
dog shinnies through and trots toward him. “I got nothin’ for ya, pup, now git–” The words came out in a dry, tense whisper.

“Git!” Tom commands again when the dog looks up at him with hungry eyes. The dog is used to taking no for an answer and lopes away, tail between its legs.

Ed Roberts had been Milville’s first to sign up when Americans were called to a war on terrorism. He wanted to go to Afghanistan, find Bin Laden, and strangle the bastard who had killed his sister. Ed’s picture had been in the newspaper, in his Army beret as he was set to ship out, in his desert camo as he stood near an armored vehicle in Helmond. He’d bought beers all around when he’d came back on leave, and he told gut-chilling tales of combing mud-huts and caves for a villain who always seemed one step ahead.

The Badgers had gone to state but lost in the finals, and Tom – no longer a star quarterback –
took a few classes at the junior college and went to work at the hardware store.

When Ed returned to Millville on an extended leave after being wounded in the leg by sniper fire,
he called Tom to come over to his mom’s house. “The brass is saying that some dude in Iraq
named Saddam is tight with Bin Laden, and they’re planning to fight him too. We’re gonna need
a whole lot more soldiers to wipe ‘em all out. Why don’t you think about joining up?”

Tom slings his rifle then zig-zags across the street. No gunfire, but he hears the muffled
sound of a baby wailing in one of the garrets down the street. The sun is climbing in the
unclouded sky and he can now clearly see each door, window and passageway. Across the
street a thin curtain moves within a window frame, and Tom can see the unveiled face of a
woman staring at him. He quickly looks away. His buddy Mark had the crap beaten out of him
for unintentionally looking at a female. Hell of a place.

Twenty feet ahead a door opens and Tom stands still once again. A man in western dress,
slacks, open collar shirt, and sandals guides a bicycle out the door, straps a briefcase on and
rides unsteadily away. Going to work. Another day in the war zone. Tom shifts his helmet and
scratches his head.

Ol’ Ed Roberts should have been a recruiter. Even with an ugly hole in his thigh he praised
the Army, couldn’t wait to get back. Paycheck in the bank every month, three squares a day,
better movies on base than the Millville picture show ever had, and when Osama and Saddam
are gone, college—four years!—on Uncle Sam. Better than working in a hardware store.

Tom enlisted, Ed returned to active duty as soon as he was declared fit. They had met in
Baghdad the day Saddam’s statue had been toppled from its pedestal.

Another door opens, a woman in full burqa strolls out followed by two small boys.

“Tomeeee!” One of the boys sees him, for the rest of his rounds he will no longer be a shadow
on the street.

Tom reaches in his pocket, brings out a handful of wrapped candies and tosses a piece to
each boy. The kids’ grins are wide, showing teeth that probably didn’t need any more sweets to
contribute to the rot. Goodwill Ambassador. He supposed it was better than selling two-penny
nails to grumpy weekend carpenters. Tom walks with the boys allowing their mother to follow a
few footfalls behind. In this neighborhood, at least, the insurgents had been maintaing an odd
code of honor, they hadn’t been killing their own, at least not women and children.

A metal gate swings open on the opposite side of the street, a preteen boy trudges out and
empties the bucket he’s carrying into the gutter. Tom can see a man just inside the gate, a man
he does not recognize. For a moment their eyes meet, a split-second assessment. Maybe a
visiting uncle. Maybe a man with a gun or a grenade or an explosive vest. He makes a mental
note of the house number so the afternoon patrol can pay the man a visit.

Ed Roberts had returned to Millville in a flag-draped casket after meeting with just such a
man in Baghdad. He had been on evening recon in a neighborhood like this at the edge of the
Tigris. The morning patrol had seen a man on a moped wandering the streets aimlessly, the
afternoon watch had seen him loitering with some older boys who had been walking the line
between joining the insurgents or cooperating with the police and the Army. Ed had decided to
tell the man to take it across the river. When Ed approached the man took a cell phone from his
pocket. In an instant the moped was a ball of flame and shrapnel. Except for a pair of boots and
some bone the man had been vaporized, the boys were tangles of bleeding, burned flesh, and Ed
lay dying, his face shredded, his chest crushed from the explosion.

Tom walks another block with the boys, heading toward the open-air market where the
peddlers are already setting up their wares. The air is scented with smoke and spice. Tom had
learned that goat-meat really didn’t taste all that bad, and that leathery dry apricots and almonds
could be almost as tasty as a Hershey bar. Tom’s steps are not as guarded as they had been
before dawn, but he knows he is in no less danger. The eyes are still watching him, most benign,
a few malevolent. More kids. They call him “Tomeee” too. He gives out the candy until his
pocket is empty. “Tomorrow.” He tells them. “More tomorrow.”

The market stalls are filling, crap fabric, comic-books, pirated CDs and videos, expired canned
goods, some limp, local vegetables, a few baskets of picked over fruit.

Tom had written a letter of sympathy to Ed Roberts’ mother, and in return she had sent
him a gift, the last “care” package she’d intended to send to her son. The chocolate-chip cookies
had been crushed, the candy-bars mangled, but the bags of beef jerky were good, the tins of
Skoal intact, and only a few pages of the magazines had been torn out by the Iraqi censors.

She’d even thought to fill the box in with popped popcorn instead of those plastic peanuts. It
was stale and unsalted, but it sure as hell had tasted like home.

At the far end of the marketplace Tom sees another American uniform. Randy Jenkins, new
to Iraq, only on patrol for a few weeks, a red-head from Milwaukee, his nose peeling from
sunburn. “You really oughtta keep that helmet on, pal.” Tom tells him. “Seen anything
interesting out there?”

Randy plops the helmet on his head, doesn’t fasten the strap. “Same ol’.”

Tom laughs. Sometimes the same ol’ is alright. “I saw a creep this morning, gonna ask the
afternoon boys to check him out.”

Randy adjusts the rifle strap on his shoulder. “That’s one o’the goddamn things that bothers
me most about this place. How the fuck d’you know?”

Tom remembers the brief exchange of glances he’d had with the man at the gate. It was in
those ruthless black eyes, a bloodthirsty deviousness that couldn’t be described. “You’ll know,
pal, believe me.”

Randy picks up a crude comic book and gazes quizzically at the Arabic script. “Can you read
this shit?” He laughs.

“No.” Tom stops suddenly. At the edge of his vision he sees a man with a pistol raised. The
man from the gate. “Get down!” Tom lunges to push him to the ground but Randy swivels
awkwardly toward him first, those questioning eyes joined by a third one, gaping and blood red,
right between the two. Tom readies his rifle and reels toward the man. “Sonofabitch.”

The man calmly tucks the pistol under his belt beneath a cheap rayon shirt. He walks casually
toward Tom, grinning. He’s pushing a cart, a metal box on wheels, like a snow-cone vendor, or
the guy that sells peanuts at the Millville little league park. Then Tom sees it. A little jerry-rigged
button connected to some wires that wrapped along the handle of the cart. “Sonofabitch.” Tom
screams at the man with the cart. He won’t let this scum get him. “You can’t kill me, you
bastard . . .”

The man with the lunch cart shakes his head, backs off and leaves the cart near the hospital room door. Tom had been brought in more dead than alive after he’d confronted that
suicide bomber. Both arms and his left leg gone, face like ground beef, but he had survived.

Paul, the nurses’ aide, had been bringing the lunch cart to Tom’s room every day since he’d
been come to the Veteran’s Hospital, and each day Tom greeted him with the same screams of
defiance. Paul didn’t mind. He’d seen the boxes on the metal table beside the bed, the Silver
Star, the Purple Heart. Tom had come home a hero, but he didn’t know it. He was still in Mosul…

Click the link to visit Solitaire’s weblog.

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