The guy was just standing there, killing time. These were the words Clark used to describe the first guy he shot in the war—to Tibbs and Lyons and the other soldiers, to the lieutenants and the cheek-biting captain with his chest full of brass pins, but never to Ned. To get back on track, he’d take a deep breath, sniff hard, and spit the thick phlegm near his boot. Killing time, that’s how it all had started.
* * *
Clark and Lyons stood guard in the wide basement hallway they called the Dungeon, a place where weapons had been stored even in Hussein’s day. In the pitch black, Clark couldn’t see much of anything except for the blue glow of the light Tibbs kept on his key ring, which was dimming as he and Ned disappeared further down the hallway. They’d had a few beers, courtesy of a source that Ned refused to divulge, just as he’d refused to explain what it was he was looking for in the armory. It was a Tuesday, past curfew. This was one of the many stupid things the guys did to unwind and forget the gore of the day, one of the many things they did to kill time.
As Clark’s eyes adjusted he was able to make out the neckless outline of Lyons who was rocking back and forth like a boxer in the ring just before the bell went off. Clark didn’t like Lyons; the feeling was mutual. “You hear that?” Clark asked.
“I think one just ran across my boot.”
“I’ve been trying to stomp on their tails,” Lyons said.
“I can take about two more seconds of this.”
They stood in the dark a few more minutes until the armory door slammed shut and they could hear Ned punching in the alarm code. He and Tibbs hurried toward Clark and Lyons with four bulky contraptions in their uplifted hands: night vision goggles.
“Follow me, men,” Ned said, and once again Clark found himself following Ned without asking questions.
* * *
They lived in a section of the abandoned palace inside the Green Zone. By military standards, they had it cush—walls and a roof, doors, showers, marble floors and a swimming pool, fans, barricades, even a unit of girls living above them. In the first seven weeks, Clark didn’t see any serious action first hand. No car bombs exploding. No sniper fire whizzing by. No arrests. When he heard stories of unprotected outposts and soldiers going days without sleep, Clark felt guilt and a twinge of emasculation, but unlike the other guys, he never blamed the army for not putting him where he belonged. Anyone who thought that what his squad did was easy should try it for a day.
Trained as an EMT, he was part of the cleanup crew, a unit that came in after an IED hit to rescue who they could and bag the rest. What he saw was secondhand—the aftermath, the victims, the families of victims. Consoling was as much a part of his job as tying tourniquets and assembling body parts for identification. His sergeant told him he had a serious case of empathy, not exactly a compliment, and used him as a liaison in the neighborhoods. Clark was the guy who kicked the soccer ball around with the kids, the guy who was sent to the morgue with a batch of fingerprints, the guy who delivered checks when the dead bodies were the army’s fault.
Most breaks, Clark sat in front of the oscillating fan in the makeshift rec room, listening to the other guys as they played cards or rounds of dirty I Never or Quarters using out-of-circulation fils, all of this accompanied by deafening renditions of heavy metal songs, too many cigarettes, and insults that more often than not leaned toward the homophobic or incestuous. Clark rarely joined in. He didn’t smoke, he was terrible at telling jokes, he didn’t hate Ali Baba. Lyons once accused Clark of thinking he was better than them, but Clark felt the opposite—that he was inexperienced, a terrible liar, and dull by comparison. He didn’t even try to match the other soldiers’ overblown accounts of what they would do if they ever got sent out on combat. The longer it had been for the soldiers, the tougher their talk. They spoke the same way about women, cars, and drugs. Ned was always the instigator of these conversations.
Clark hadn’t liked Ned much at first. There was something sloppy and overdone about him, the way he said cheers, knocking knuckles over any little piece of news. Ned was thirty-three, the age of Christ as he liked to say, and as far back as Fort Lewis he’d acted like the ringleader, putting his hands on Clark’s shoulders to let him know if he had questions about anything—from protocol to pussy—he was the authority.
From SoCal, Ned liked to sunbathe in his boxers in the little square of dirt outside their dorm. He brushed the leather toes of his desert boots every night, roasted marshmallows with his lighter, and ate clam chowder, mailed to him by his mother, cold from the can. Ned shaved twice a day with an electric razor that he kept in a zipper bag along with a canister of lip balm, a rubber-banded bundle of Q-tips, and a long strip of lubricated condoms.
Over time, he’d grown on Clark. His hedonism and self-promotion created an unattainable bravado Clark admired. As improbable as Ned’s stories had to be, Clark found himself drawn in by the accounts of thirty-foot swells and weeklong drunken orgies. They reminded Clark of his uncle Frederick and the conversations he’d overheard as a boy. All talk. Occasionally through Ned’s frantic eagerness, Clark could glimpse what he suspected was the real Ned: the Ned who Skyped his mother most Sundays, the Ned who was the first to include the new guy, the depressed guy, the ousted guy.
Late at night, after the others had fallen asleep, Ned would turn off his act briefly, admitting to Clark how much he missed “his girls”—his wife’s long legs and the babysitter’s cinnamon-flavored tongue, the way his oldest daughter, a first grader, stroked his eyebrows and his youngest, barely three years old, put her arms in the air saying, “Carry you.” Then Ned might say something profound. “What is love, anyway?” he once mused, “but the desire to let someone know you.”
In exchange, Clark told Ned about his uncle’s bad heart and his mother coming out when he was young and how angry she was with him for going to war and how once, on a particularly maudlin night, he thought he’d lost her forever. Through all of this, Ned never judged. In the dark with Ned, Clark even dared to admit that he too was beginning to need more, to want things he knew he shouldn’t—to witness firsthand how the messes they cleaned up got there, to see the enemy eye-to-eye—anything to drain the ache of adrenaline that had built up inside of him like a serious case of blue balls. With Ned, he found himself talking about anything and everyone, everyone except Sylvie.
* * *
Entering the hallway of the women’s quarters, Clark could smell the difference immediately. It was the intoxicating scent of shopping malls and dozens of different deodorants, soaps, and lotions—floral and citrus, Jergens and Ivory—that suggested soft, smooth skin and reminded him of Sylvie. He thought of the way her clean, straight hair slipped from her ponytail. He thought of her skinny, childlike arms and the talcum powder she patted under them. For months, he’d kept quiet about Sylvie, protecting her from this place and his horny bunkmates. Now, he discovered that the same femininity he’d simultaneously yearned for and shielded from the others had been here all along, just one flight of stairs above his own bed.
The four men left their boots in the stairwell, slipped on the goggles, and cautiously explored the central lounge area that funneled into a narrow hall containing three dorm rooms and a shower room. Tibbs whispered, “This is nice,” and Ned nodded as if he already knew. Lyons lifted a stuffed frog, sniffed at it, and then tossed it back onto the chair. Clark felt wrong being here, yet what would happen if he left? Ned led them down the hall toward the room where Joelle slept. She was another of Ned’s protégés, a plain girl from Lansing who more or less hated the other women and had been hanging out with Ned since before he and Clark became friends. Ned acted protective of Joelle although she didn’t seem to need it.
They huddled just inside the bedroom door to get their bearings. Seen through the night vision goggles, the room was a murky-green, as if submerged in lake water, reminding Clark of his mother’s experimental films. A bunk bed lined each of the three walls forming a U with trunks and gear pressed between them. Tucked into each of the bunks, the women’s warm bodies glowed like plastic figurines in a snow globe. Maria, a woman from a city near San Francisco made up mostly of graves, occupied the nearest bottom bunk. She slept on her side, her straight, black hair strewn over her face, her arms and legs sprawled widely under her thin sheet. One of her feet dangled off the mattress. Clark had once heard her speaking on the phone in a language he’d never heard before, but when he’d stopped to listen, she’d turned her back to him. Now her delicate snore drew him deeper into the room.
Two electrical snaps in the old air-circulation system sent Tibbs and Lyons out the door. Clark held his breath, wishing he, too, were gone. Maria let out a deep, satisfied sigh. Using the wall to steady himself, he followed Ned to the bunk furthest from the door. There, on the bottom, slept Joelle. A stomach sleeper, her legs were pressed together, her knees slightly bent beneath her, pushing her ass into the air. Her face was turned outward on her pillow. She wore a wife beater and a pair of workout shorts that said Spartans across the butt. Her sheets lay scrunched at her feet. Ned knelt down and peered into her sleeping face and then, like the father that he was, rearranged the sheets and carefully pulled them up over her shoulders. Clark watched, stunned. What if she opened her eyes?
Later, after returning the gear, the four of them sat around and shared the last beer, saying nothing. Clark remained lost in the mossy glow of the women’s slow breathing and the floral-scented room. He kept hearing Maria’s sigh, not from the safe distance where he’d been standing, but as if her mouth were pressed against his ear. Lyons wrecked the moment by pulling a tube of mascara from his pocket and announcing that he thought it was Claudia’s. And then he pulled out Maria’s tortoise shell barrette and a postcard from Florida. Mementos, he called them, lining them up on the table like a museum display. The way he handled them proved to Clark that the guy was depraved.
That had been the first night, the magical night.
* * *
Over the next couple of weeks, the four of them returned to the women’s dorm numerous times. Standing in the green haze, Clark felt as if he were entering the women’s dreams. Each time, he hoped to recapture that surprised, aroused feeling he’d had the first night thinking of Maria’s sigh, all the while worried that at any moment the spell would be broken. Every visit, Lyons took something with him: Maleeya’s four-month old People magazine, a jar of black nail polish, a key chain. During their visits, the women slept deeply and in the morning, simply accused each other. Then one night, Lyons had the audacity to snap a photograph of Maria.
A photograph was the sort of thing that got a person in trouble.
“It would serve you right if you got caught,” Clark said to Lyons afterward.
“What? Are you a mystic?” Lyons asked. “Think I’m stealing their souls?”
“No, just stealing,” Clark said.
Clark looked to Ned for some backup.
Ned shrugged. “No one’s making you go.”
He was right. Clark had never said no, never hesitated or questioned out loud what they were doing, although he sometimes felt an acidic emptiness in his stomach that reminded him of the night of his uncle’s bachelor party a few years ago. His father had complained about going, but there they were: father and son along with a half dozen middle-aged men huddled in a sleazy motel room on Division Street with a keg in the tub and a stripper who called herself Lana. The problem was that Clark knew her name was Lynn. He’d seen her community college identification clipped to the outside of her purse. After that, he’d had a hard time looking at her. What had been the invasion, he wondered now: seeing the plain name her parents had given her or how all of the men, including Clark, had started whooping it up when she pushed play on her boom box and asked, “Well, who’s the lucky fella?” Clark had vowed then to never get himself in that position again.
Later, after the soldiers finally slipped into their beds, Clark whispered to Ned, “You know that person inside of you who you tell everything to—the one who is you, but not you?”
“Yeah?” Ned said.
“I think I’ve lost him.”
Ned was quiet for a minute. Then he whispered tentatively, “Maybe I could be that person.”
* * *
Without warning, the war got closer. One night when staffing was short, Clark’s unit was given a search detail for insurgents in what was supposed to be an evacuated neighborhood on the south side of Baghdad. Clark and Ned were assigned a long rubble-strewn street and given a map, a two-way radio, and night vision goggles. The clear dark sky reminded Clark of the pre-dawn mornings during cross-country season when he pulled himself out of bed for a six-mile run. Once he was out, the frozen air filling his lungs, he felt in sync with everything—the tiny yellow light in the kitchen window of the Stanfords’ house, the dachshund with the mangled foot who nipped at his ankles, the lone drivers who passed by with the lyrics of golden oldies spilling out of their rolled-down windows.
But this street had no lit windows. The pets had deserted. It was hot inside the bulletproofing. The only car was a single stripped-down chassis. The air held the pungent odor of burnt rubber. It was more of the same—the aftermath—made slightly more exotic by night vision. Clark and Ned quickly developed a rhythm as they secured each walled compound. Clark would take one side of the entrance and Ned the other. When necessary, they took turns kicking the doors open, the two of them shouting “United States Army” in unison.
Inside, the abandoned rooms felt surprisingly inviting. There might be pillows on the floor, a low table with an empty brass teapot sitting in the middle. In the kitchens, the white plastic chairs looked just like the ones in their backyards at home. The clocks on the kitchen walls kept the correct time. Clark and Ned were careful walking in—as if they didn’t want to intrude. They walked into rooms where sky stood-in for roof. They walked into rooms with no fourth wall. In the distance, cats let out hungry yowls, but nothing glowed in the murk. While it felt to Clark as if he and Ned were the only two men in the world, somewhere behind these tumbling walls, the enemy was planning revenge.
The ninth or tenth house instantly felt different. A bag of pomegranate candies sat open on the table. Raking through the oven ash, they found an ember still glowing red. Out in the courtyard behind the structure, they could hear water running. Clark and Ned stiffened; it was difficult to read each other’s eyes through the goggles. Clark gripped his assault rifle, preparing himself as he’d been taught. Knowing that something caught off-guard was often more dangerous than something warned, he considered yelling out again, but then they heard what might have been a whimper or a stifled sneeze or a gun being cocked behind the draped door. Ned, whose turn it was to be the lead, was closest to the door. Clark waited for him to make a move, but Ned stood frozen. On the crotch of his fatigues, a circular glow expanded.
More frightened than before, Clark waved the nose of his gun at Ned, gesturing for him to move away from the door. Then Clark jumped through the door, pointing his gun in the general direction of where he’d heard the sound. His target: a woman sitting on a bed, stifling a squirming bundle tucked inside her black robe, a man holding the two of them, his eyes filled with fear and hatred. Through the crosshairs of the uplifted gun, the family was halved and quartered. The man on the bed spoke, “No, no. Do not shoot.” Clark let his gun drop.
At that moment Ned stepped in. His rifle now drawn, he charged the family.
* * *
That night, in the yard behind the barracks, Clark and Ned lay on their backs, watching a distant refinery fire light up the sky with sudden bursts of red sparks.
“Like the Fourth of July,” Ned said.
Clark didn’t want to be alone, but he didn’t want to talk either. He breathed in the cigar smoke from the rooftop where the officers and doctors enjoyed a nightly smoke. Someone let out a loud belch and they all laughed. Clark was thinking of the woman with the baby and the way Ned, ripe with the smell of his own piss, had approached them. When the man refused to stand, Ned lifted the blanket off the baby with the barrel of his gun and stared as it suckled loudly from the woman’s breast and the woman struggled to cover herself. The husband offered up his hands for cuffs as his wife pleaded with him in Arabic and the baby began to cry. On the way to the military van, the guy spit on Ned’s boot. In response, Ned shoved him to the ground. Clark tried to calm his wife. After they’d loaded the man into the back of the van, Ned held up his fist to butt knuckles, but Clark couldn’t bring himself to return the gesture.
“Do you think they’ve released that guy yet?” Clark asked Ned now.
Clark could feel Ned studying him—his eyes going over his profile like Sylvie’s finger tracing the furrow on his brow, the bridge of his nose. “We’ve got to get used to it.”
“He wasn’t one of them,” Clark insisted.
“It’s not our job to figure out if we’ve got the right guy.”
“They looked so scared. Maybe someone had been there before us. What if Ali Baba was in the next room? We didn’t even look. We just grabbed the first guy we found and got the hell out of there.”
“What were they doing in there? Ask yourself that.”
Hiding, Clark thought. He remembered his fear, the ridiculous leap he’d made through the door, and the target he’d made himself at that moment. “We both sort of choked out there, didn’t we?” he said. “If it weren’t for the goggles, they would have seen the same scared shitless look in my eyes.”
“Fuck you,” Ned said quietly.
* * *
A few nights later, Ned convinced Clark to sneak back into the women’s dorms, no Lyons or Tibbs this time, just the two of them. Clark hesitated, but he thought that Ned was on the verge of saying whatever he had to say to clear the air between them. More than once, he’d stopped Clark in the hallway when no one was around, grabbing his arm or shoulder in a way that said slow up. But every time, he’d shrugged and turned away. Clark looked forward to Ned finally admitting that he’d overreacted. He had kids and a wife. He knew firsthand how angry and helpless a father and husband would feel in that situation.
As usual, Ned led the way to the women’s dorm. Once they were inside the sleeping quarters, he walked directly to Joelle’s bunk. Clark stood at the foot of her bed, watching as Ned hovered over Joelle. Clark remembered that first night Ned had pulled up her covers. In the gesture, Clark could fully see Ned as the father he was—the father of daughters. Tonight, Joelle was sleeping on her back, her blanket pulled up. The room was cool and her face was a waxy glow through the goggles. Ned reached down and stroked her short hair. When Joelle opened her eyes, Ned put his hand over her mouth. She kicked a few times, looking from Ned to Clark, both of whom must have appeared frighteningly alien in their masks. Clark tapped Ned’s shoulder and mouthed, “Abort mission.”
Instead, Ned sat down on Joelle’s mattress, his hand still over her mouth as he continued to stroke her short hair. Joelle did not fight back. Clark tugged at Ned’s shoulder, but Ned shook his head: he wasn’t going anywhere. Clark looked at Joelle, trying to figure out what she wanted him to do. The look on her face seemed to mirror his: not fear exactly but pleading, the desire to get the moment over with and, at the same time, the duty to protect Ned. Clark backed away and let himself out the door.
Safe in the stairwell, he pulled the goggles up onto the top of his head and tried to slow his heart rate, waiting for Ned. He held up his hand and watched it shake, swearing at himself. The longer he waited, the less sure he felt. What had he been a part of? What exactly was Ned trying to prove? Why was he willing to risk so much?
When it seemed clear that Ned was not coming, Clark went out to the courtyard for air. He settled into the lounge chair that Ned used for sunbathing to wait some more.
* * *
Clark woke disoriented. He must have been dreaming of Sylvie, because he was hard. He didn’t think of her as often anymore—and certainly not in the old way. When they’d been together, he’d enjoyed the simple stuff—the hand holding, watching PG-rated movies in her parents’ family room—almost as much as the groping that sometimes, but not always, followed. Then, just their bodies’ rubbing against each other through denim and cotton was enough. Lately, though, his desire had grown explicit, ravenous. He imagined pulling her hair, biting her nipples. More. If before the soundtrack to his fantasies of her had been acoustic folk, now it was speedcore. As the other guys, including Ned, bragged about their girlfriends back home—the amazing head they gave, the skimpy panties they wore—Clark felt himself annoyed by the tentative way Sylvie touched his dick. From here she seemed exactly what she was, a sweet high school girl. Naïve, inexperienced. What the others would call a prick tease.
Sitting in the yard waiting for Ned, Clark pictured what it would be like to really fuck Sylvie, to slam his body into hers, to hear her sigh in that way Maria had sighed. He would push her onto her knees, pull her ass toward him, slide inside of her, hitting his hips against her buttocks again and again. What he pictured was something he’d spent months protecting her from. He gathered phlegm in his mouth and spat, and then pulled down the goggles to look at the puddle, the steam rising from it like a blue ghost.
* * *
Clark was brushing his teeth when Ned finally showed up at the sink next to him with his black case, not saying anything. His forehead was sweaty. His goggles hung down his back. It looked to Clark as if Ned had the beginnings of a black eye, a scratch on his upper lip. Maybe the women had ganged up on him. Maybe he’d hurt himself on the way out. Ned squeezed toothpaste onto his brush.
“Well?” Clark finally asked. “What happened in there?”
Ned was brushing tiny circles on his perfect teeth, watching Clark in the mirror. “You deserted me, coward.”
“I thought you were right behind me.”
“No you didn’t.”
“You were pushing it.”
“Why is it you always side with the enemy?”
“The enemy? What do you mean by that?”
“You’re always so worried about the Iraqis, but when we’re cleaning up one of our guys, you hardly seem to care.”
“I get it: that could be one of us. What’s the point of saying it?”
“It’s more than that. You don’t get angry.”
Clark looked into the mirror at Ned, who was accusing Clark of something serious: betrayal. “What’s that got to do with Joelle?”
“Just that you don’t seem to understand that you’re one of us. A soldier.”
“What are you saying?
“If the girls are going to be here, don’t you think they should contribute to the war effort?”
“You know what I mean.” With this, Ned thrust his hips.
“What the fuck did you do to her?” Clark demanded, pushing Ned hard against the wall and tightening the goggle straps against his neck.
“Go ahead, hit me, fuck me. I know that’s what you’ve wanted to do since day one. Like mother, like son.”
“Tell me you didn’t,” Clark pleaded.
“Didn’t what?” Ned tugged at the strap, gasping for breath.
“She wanted it.”
Clark tightened the strap, insisting that Ned deny what he’d said until Lyons walked in and pulled Clark off Ned.
* * *
A few weeks after their fight, Clark and Ned headed down a narrow street that opened onto a small market plaza. Their friendship had cooled, but they were professional on their missions, a good team. Now when they patrolled, Ned insisted on being the lead every time. “Age before beauty,” he said sarcastically as he opened doors with his gun. Whenever Clark saw Joelle, he avoided eye contact. He wanted more than anything to believe Ned—to believe that she wanted it.
Patrolling that night, Clark had the feeling that they shouldn’t be there. He’d come to understand that whatever hid in the dark should remain hidden: rats, packs of ravenous dogs, lovers wrestling in the barracks. He hated the false security provided by the night vision goggles. They made it too easy to confuse oneself—to forget that while the goggles revealed what was out there, they did not conceal the man wearing them. The counter intuitiveness of hiding in full view along with the required methodical, slow movements made Clark anxious and the urge to run—not to desert, but rather to get out into the open, confess, be caught—constantly tugged at him.
There was someone up ahead. Clark gestured for Ned to stop. A man stood at the far end of the plaza, leaning on a crutch. He seemed to be alone, an ordinary guy breaking curfew to meet up with someone, a girlfriend maybe or a friend. The guy wasn’t looking in Clark’s direction, but Clark knew better than to pretend he wasn’t there. All it would take to get his attention would be the accidental kick of a stone, a tickle in the throat. When the guy pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket, Clark saw that the thing he was leaning on wasn’t a crutch, but a rifle. Adrenaline surged through Clark’s body. There was no safe way to find out if Ned saw him too. Clark carefully brought up his M16 and watched through the sites as the guy lit a match, simultaneously cupping the flame and checking the time on his watch in the meager light. Who was he waiting for? How long until they arrived?
How arrogant this stranger seemed, the way he leaned on his gun and inhaled deeply, just killing time. Clark placed his finger on the trigger. The fear, the unknowing, made it difficult for him to breath. Or was it the hatred he felt at that moment—the natural urge to obliterate danger? He pulled the trigger and the guy dropped. Clark felt the same exhilaration he felt after crossing a finish line in a race.
He was turning to Ned when a second shot sounded. Clark dropped to the ground. Breathing hard, he flipped onto his back and looked up at the sky, taking a mental inventory of his body. An arm length away, Ned lay on his back too. Clark poked him with the barrel of his gun and whispered, “You still with me?” Nothing. Clark shoved Ned with his foot and then slid toward him, whispering “Stop joking around, Fuckface.” Ned’s body was limp and sticky, but he was breathing.
Clark dragged him to cover and then lifted Ned’s eyelids and felt his pulse. Once he’d radioed for help, he began CPR. As Clark pumped Ned’s chest, he told him to hang on for his wife and daughters and girlfriend. He needed to love them enough to live through this.
Ned made no response. Clark pumped and pumped, silently begging Ned not to leave him alone out here in the dark. Ned’s body released and Clark was overcome with the smell of shit, a mess someone else would have to clean up. Not far off, Clark heard what he thought must be the shooter running into the dark, his footsteps light as a child’s.
Glori Simmons’s books include Graft: poems (Truman State University Press, 2002) and Suffering Fools: stories (Spokane Prize, Willow Springs Books, 2017). “Night Vision” is from the award-winning story collection, Carry You, to be published in March by Autumn House Press. She lives in Oakland and directs the Thacher Gallery at the University of San Francisco.