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?”

It was the end of that question that he regretted. Those weren’t his words. They belonged in the dusty compounds and training barracks and out of the mouths of others. He knew that Margaret didn’t deserve to be talked to that way. When he said those words, though, her face didn’t fall like he’d expected. It grew steely. He was the one who started crying. After some time, she stood up and sat on his lap and held him while he wept until her shirt was soaked like she’d been shot.

In the article, Margaret barely referred to their meeting. She’d used only two quotes. Confirmation quotes. He felt okay about that.

***

Wyoming glowed in the early spring sunset. The snow was gone except in clusters. It looked every bit the moonscape that the Afghan lowlands had when he’d first arrived and sometimes when they had patrolled and he let his mind slip.

He knew of men who’d done it, and when others had called them cowards or traitors, he’d played along but didn’t feel the same. He’d come to think that there was a kind of bravery in it, considering all you lost in the process and all you had to change in your mind to get you to the place where you could pack your bags, say your goodbyes knowing you’re never coming back. That was a deployment with no prospect of return and there was no cowardice in that. Some did it better than others, though, and he did judge that. The ones who got caught couldn’t commit to being lost. They’d called a girl they knew or stayed with a cousin in a faraway state. He wouldn’t do that. He would dissolve into the air like ash and smoke.

With her feet on the dash, Catherine read her book. Samuel had been silent for some time now. They were still hours from Rock Springs. Though it wasn’t yet dark, he pulled on his headlights. He wanted to camp instead of get a room, but it would be too late to set up camp now, at least in a way that would make Catherine feel safe and comfortable. Those were the words her mother had left him with. Not in that phrasing though. She’d said that someone needed to get her little girl away from the reporters and the eyes of the town and she knew that Samuel was a good man who knew how to get lost. Her voice was wrecked as she pounded her tight fists against his chest and sobbed into his collar.

“What’s so good about that book that you can’t take your eyes off it?” he asked.

She looked over at him. “It’s for school.”

“What is it?”

She turned the cover towards him.

“Shakespeare? Really? People still make you read that?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t mind it.”

“What’s that one about?”

“I’m just starting so I don’t know. It’s about two brothers and a storm and a daughter.”

“Sounds fascinating.”

She eyed him. “You don’t read books?”

He scratched his cheek peppered with a day’s stubble. “You think I’m just a mindless grunt, don’t you?”

Catherine pulled her feet down from the dash and turned towards him. “I don’t think that at all.”

He raised his eyebrows doubtfully.

“I think if my dad trusted you then you’re a good man,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong — he protected all his men, but he only liked some of them. He used to tell me never to kiss a soldier. He told me not to get messed up with someone who would choose to kill or be killed. He said something was inside a man like that. But he liked you. You know that. That’s the only reason my mom trusted you.”

Samuel heard all of this and then felt stupid again for reacting defensively about the reading. He didn’t read books anymore, and he didn’t know why he felt shame for that in front of this girl. He nodded at her and lifted his hand off the steering wheel and waved as apology and thanks.

She shifted in her seat. “I’m not a virgin,” she said and then added, more quietly, “I just thought I should tell you that.”

The car filled with unease.

“I don’t need to know that,” Samuel said, a mumble.

“I wanted to tell you I’m not as young as I look.”

“Catherine, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but — “

Her eyes flooded, and she darted a few nods. He felt nauseous.

“Are you gonna tell me more about what happened?” Her voice was squeezed with tears. “My mom won’t tell me anything, but then she put me in a car with you and I know you know things. I do. I know you know. And if it takes that, then I’m okay with it.” She reached over and touched his thigh. He could feel the tips of her fingers graze the keloid, the rising puff of his scar.

He shook his head. “It’s up to your mother to tell you.”

“I’m asking you to do it.” She slid her hand up.

There’d been a woman in Baghdad. This was before the IED exploded, before the hospital and the rehabilitation center. She worked in the Green Zone in the mess hall. She and the others like her with head scarves and angular noses. They stood in the kitchen making omelets, hamburgers, roast turkeys, barbecue ribs, and crab legs, salads, tacos, pies, and cakes. Sometimes she scooped Baskin Robbins ice cream for soldiers in their fatigues. Samuel noticed her immediately. With her angry eyes, she reminded him of his mother and the girls back in Houston who hated him after sleeping with him and giving him their still beating hearts. He spoke to her after weeks of watching her, just words of thanks and welcome, and he then approached her one evening in the deep freezer where she worked alone, stacking boxes of rib eyes. The shelves reached the ceiling of the frozen room as he stepped towards her. She didn’t look up at him until he was inches from her. He didn’t mean to scare her, but he did want to see her. She turned and gazed up, then shook her head. But then she surprised him and reached for him, cupped his crotch and said, “Not unless you free me from this place.”

“I can’t do that,” he told her in a hushed voice.

When she closed her eyelids, her tearing eyes quivered. She let her head fall against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, and they stood in that dance until the freezer’s cold became too much.

With Catherine in the cab, he pulled her hand away and clenched it. “I want you to hear me when I tell you this,” he said. “Okay?”

She gazed at him confused. “Okay,” she repeated.

“You don’t ever have to do that. There’s not a man on this planet who deserves you selling yourself short like that. You’re more than your body. That much I’ve learned.”

Her crying became apoplectic. “I don’t know what to do. Tell me why he did it.”

Samuel shook his head. He was here in the Wyoming lowlands and out on patrol, here with his Captain’s daughter and out in that mud-hutted village outside of Kandahar with those poor-as-fuck Afghan farmers living with no electricity or running water, all those bearded men with battered teeth and shredded robes.

“God damn it,” he said out loud and then eased over to the side of the road, the dusty edge spitting gravel until the truck lurched forward one last time and then settled. He left the engine and the blowing heater on.

Catherine didn’t look up, her face shrouded by her cupped palms.

“Alright. I’ll tell you. For all I know, your mother wants me to.” He looked outside his window where a jackrabbit skirted across the dirt and disappeared behind two boulders. “Your father knew about the kill team, but he was in one of those impossible situations. He could have reported it. He could have. But we all could have. We didn’t though because — it’s hard to explain.”

Catherine huffed into her hands as she tried to calm herself. “Explain it,” she managed.

He turned and looked at her. He reached over and touched her hair. It was soft. “There’s no wrong when it’s all wrong. That’s all I can say. You get into that kind of situation with kids blowing themselves up and old men planting bombs in every patch of dirt, and it can confuse you. So it confused him, and so when people started asking, reporters and then Washington, he did what he was trained to do.” He reached for her chin because he knew what he would say next would be a kind of betrayal to her. It was a window into her father’s priorities, the way that war and the preparation for war can scramble a man’s biological impulses to protect self and children first. “He looked after his men. That’s why he lied. He didn’t do any of the staging or the killing. He just lied and said it was him. And when it all came apart, he did what he thought would protect you and your mother best. That’s why he put that gun in his mouth.”

He could tell that she wasn’t hearing him anymore, the way her body rocked under an assault of tears. He opened his door and stepped out onto the dusty ground. The sun had slipped past the warming spot and now was barely lighting the cooling earth before it disappeared entirely. The road was empty. Samuel stared out at the sagebrush and the patches of snow hiding beneath the bushes. He had the Captain in his head now and then the pictures of the kill team on Phillip the Mexican’s computer screen. He had his own bloody pictures too, the mess that the dead made of themselves, littered like graying garbage sacks on the road. All of that was in his head and Catherine was still in the truck sobbing. He could understand pulling the trigger when the metallic taste filled your mouth and you took the hard bite on the barrel. He could understand it. It was all in the calculations that you make when you’re in that kind of moment.

He walked around the truck and opened the passenger side door. Catherine was bent over herself crying. He placed his hand on her shoulder, which made her shake harder. He stood there for a long time until the night was as dark and chilled as any he’d had to bear on the earth’s other side.

***

When Samuel paid for the room, the thin, bald clerk at the front desk glared over his glasses at Catherine whose eyes were swollen beneath her bangs. He didn’t say anything though, which relieved Samuel because he was ready to reach across the desk and throttle the man for thinking he knew anything about anything.

Once in the room, they ate the sandwiches that Catherine’s mother had forced him to take, and they watched the television, but they did not speak more than a dozen words. While Catherine watched, Samuel moved onto the floor with one pillow and a mildew-smelling blanket that he’d found folded in the closet. He fell asleep instantly and slept soundly with the river in his mind. The light from the television was enough.

Early the next morning, he woke and moved to the truck where he readied the rods and lures that he’d set in the truck’s back bed. The morning was cool, and he heard and then saw a pair of American Avocets with their long beaks and their high-pitched kleeking sounds. He got lost in his work and then looked up and saw Catherine watching him from their room’s doorway. She was wearing jeans and her father’s coat.

They would let the river speak today, and they would drive further west after that. They would keep going until her mother told them that the reporters had moved on, and then they would return to her home. He would give her mother what she longed for, the going away and coming back feeling.

The Captain was right. More right than the ones who disappeared into the woods or across a border. You stay alive as long as you can, but you do it there, and that was what he would do. He would leave the Captain’s daughter with her mother and he would drive west as the earth warmed its way into summer and then he would find his way to fill the space before he was called back into the belly of the plane that would float and float until the other world was again beneath him.

He walked towards Catherine. “You ready?” he asked

She nodded slightly but didn’t move, and then, minutes later, they were off.

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