Route 230 cut through southern Wyoming as gray and straight as a blood-drained scar. On each side of the two-lane highway were flat slats of brush and dirt. Samuel pressed into the road hard. In his mind he had the river and nothing else. Catherine had fallen back to sleep. He didn’t let himself look at her.
It wasn’t like that, and yet he knew that, to others, it would look enough like a grown man taking a child from her home for people to conclude that to be the case, or near enough. He regretted that part. The impression part. But there were forgeries in the world that looked real enough to be considered real and that didn’t make them so, and so he tried not to focus on what things looked like. He was doing what he thought was right and what her mother had begged him to do. To hell with what people said.
Samuel was in his own kind of fix that had nothing to do with the girl. Home on leave, he’d decided he wanted to stay home for good. He’d had enough with the fraudulence and the baseness of war. His Captain’s funeral had made that point to him cleanly enough. Once he was done with the girl, he was going to find a patch of wilderness and disappear into it. He understood the costs of that, or at least he sensed an approximation of the costs, and he was trying to grow comfortable with them.
The road was flat, and he never tired of staring at it, but it was best when it was flanked by the alien piles of rock and sediment, orange and sunburnt and rising like sores from the ground. They were still a hundred miles from Rock Springs South, and so he slid down in his seat and inhaled deeply. Within a few moments, he fell asleep and soon after his hand slipped to the right. The truck veered off the highway in a series of catastrophic jolts, which woke them both. Catherine screamed in a child’s pitch — high, practiced and unashamed — while Samuel came to with only a grunt and then struggled to regain control, standing on the brakes and steadying the wheel. When the truck finally settled, they were a good distance from the highway and in a sea of beige scrub brush and rock. His seatbelt carved into his side. He looked over at Catherine, whose face was flushed and contorted. Her seatbelt seemed about to pop against her thin shoulder blade.
“What happened?” she cried.
Samuel squeezed his eyes together with his thumb and index finger. “Damn,” he said and looked out his side window. The tar smell of the brakes overwhelmed the cab. He felt stupid and undisciplined. After some breathing, he pressed down on the accelerator and eased the truck back on the highway and started back again. He’d need to sleep soon, he knew, but for now he kept one hand on the wheel and the other on his thigh so he could pinch his scar whenever the drowsiness returned.
“Do you want me to talk to you?” Catherine asked after some time. “To keep you awake, I mean.”
Samuel gazed over at her as an oncoming family sedan sped past in the other lane. The late afternoon sun was warming the spring day. “Sure.” He didn’t want to talk though. He didn’t want to be a part of what Catherine was creating in her mind. He hardly knew her, but he also knew that he was now part of her story. She was the daughter of his dead Captain. They’d met only once before when he was last on leave and invited for dinner and then, again, earlier that day at the funeral. She was eighteen according to her mother. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken to an eighteen year old anymore than he could remember being one. Other than soldiers. Those he talked to plenty, but they were so unlike this girl that they didn’t count in his mind.
“How well did you know him?” Her dark bangs bounced along her forehead as the truck sped down the highway.
He cleared his throat and shifted his position in the seat. “Pretty well.”
“I knew that,” she said softly. “I don’t know why I asked that.”
“Maybe you were asking whether I knew what he was like.” Her eyes glistened, and he felt himself slipping into confession. “Well,” he said, “I suppose I knew that pretty well, too. You can get a sense of what a man is like after some time.”
“You were there with him in Kandahar when it happened?”
“Yes, I was.”
“How much of the story is true?”
He stared at her face. It was serious now, creased along her forehead. He sniffed in. “I don’t talk about that to anyone. I told your mother that. She was supposed to tell you that. That was part of the agreement.” By the time he was done speaking, his voice had gone angry.
“You told that reporter,” she said. He heard Catherine’s words like a question, but she wasn’t asking one. There was no doubt that he had spoken to that woman. She’d been older than Catherine, and so he wasn’t ashamed that he had gotten drunk with her, gone back to the hotel room that the magazine had paid for, fallen asleep beneath her small breasts. It was the talking that he hated himself for now.
“Move on,” he told Catherine.
Something in her face told him that he’d wounded her, and he knew that that was unfair. She was a child. That was one of his principles. He tried not to hurt children, though he had done that before, and he’d had good reasons, defendable ones. But inside the truck, he couldn’t identify his principles for wounding a girl who’d already been shot clear through. And yet he also couldn’t reconcile all those principles with his own hurt, which he was honest enough to name as hurt though he knew he didn’t have what it would take to move beyond the naming.
They drove on with the afternoon sun sliding on its arc above them. It would be in their eyes soon and then it would be down, and they would have to find a motel. He felt nauseous about that. He didn’t want to her to know that he slept with the lights on.
It had been almost three months since the reporter had found his name from Phillip the Mexican. Otherwise, Samuel would have been unaccounted for partially because he was not, in his own mind and in the ledgers of the investigation, a part of the squad that housed the kill team. He was part of Bravo Company though, and those two hundred odd men and women knew every bit as much as the forty members of the platoon, or if not every bit as much, enough. They knew enough.
The reporter was named Margaret, the same name as his mother, and she fell easily, much more easily than he thought she should have, given her professional duties. She’d been worn down by the story too, and so when he touched her wrist at last call, it was just a stumble and a taxi ride away from the kind of fuck that the boys used to talk about late at night in the Afghan heat, all sweat and pent up cum.
The next morning is when he talked. And when she was gone, he decided that she had let him in just so he’d speak. That didn’t bother him. He knew that kind of heart.
He told her about the stories that circulated throughout the Company. Long before he saw the pictures on Phillip the Mexican’s laptop, he heard about the staged raids and the dropped weapons. He heard about the one time Gibbs and the others blew that Afghani boy up with a grenade and then finished him with a double shot while his parents screamed nearby. He heard about how Gibbs posed with the body and clipped the corpse’s pinky with his medical scissors, how he slipped the pinky into a plastic baggy to keep as a memento. Samuel heard about all of that.
More than fear or loyalty, it was the heat and unending boredom that kept Samuel from telling the Captain. The minutes baked in the windless, abandoned landscape. The stones, the skeletal trees, the ringwormed dogs, they all made judging another man impossible. Some stayed in their bunks and smoked hash every second they weren’t on patrol. Some just stared cow-like at computer screens that showed version after version of every perversion he’d ever contemplated and some that had never occurred to him. One soldier read the Bible first page to last and then started again. How do you judge another in a circumstance like this when you know damn well that you are there because of other men’s ideas and convictions, all these other men hiding in distant cities and caves?
Margaret the reporter didn’t buy it. She was wearing only his undershirt, and they were at the wobbly table in her hotel room. She had her notebook in front of her and her pen held her hair up in a bun like an impaler. He was in his boxers, his head thick with blood and bourbon. He was staring at the lines in the faux walnut table top.
“You had to know that blowing up little boys was wrong.” She was young, twenty-four maybe.
He looked up. He didn’t know what to say. “There’s no wrong in the desert, Margaret.” He said it with meanness and didn’t regret it.
“Okay,” she said. “What about cruel?”
“It’s all cruel. You don’t think it’s cruel to send a hundred thousand of us out into the desert to go searching for evil like it’s some, some mineral you can mine? You don’t think the mind games are cruel, telling us that we have to become friends with the same kids who’ll plant a bomb in a tin can right after you throw them candy or money or cigarettes or dirty magazines?” He was spitting now. “Cruel. Did you have to go to school to learn how to say shit like that, you stupid bitch?”