Before I had even opened my eyes, I registered two things; the pistol under my pillow had shifted, meaning I had played with it at some point during the night, and that Chris was making coffee.
I opened my eyes to the world, looking up at the concrete ceiling, painted white, or maybe that’s the color it naturally was. Maybe it wasn’t even concrete. The wall next to my cot had a long blotch of beige spray paint, and in it in black was written “McGrueber,” accompanied by a drawings of a bloody nose and the Native American featured on the side of my American Spirits; the only cigarettes I would smoke, until I ran out that is. The three other cots in the room featured similar terms of degradation and graffiti; all inside jokes.
David was the Team Leader; Panda. His name came from the movie Kung Fu Panda. He was heavyset, a Mormon from Idaho and one of the few people I trust completely. Chris, the assistant TL, was Romeo. Chris is half white, half Filipino from the panhandle of Florida. He has a handsome face and what girls would call pretty eyes. My best friend and the youngest, both in years and rank, was Alex, or Pookie. This name originated from his family before us, but it stuck. I called him Al. I was the only one to do so, and still am to this day. Al was our radio operator, a farmer from Pennsylvania. I’d kill the world for that boy.
None of that mattered out there though. We had to get along, no matter where we were from, our race or religion. I had taken a phrase from an old Staff Sergeant I worked beside and made it our team’s creed. “You can shovel shit happy, or you can shovel shit mad, but either way, you still have to shovel shit.” So we chose to shovel our shit happy. That can be difficult when you put four grown men together, in a room smaller than most suburban bedrooms. But we made do.
I looked over to Al’s cot. He was still asleep. I looked towards my feet, at David’s cot that was along the same wall as mine. He had a mosquito net hung around his and we called him a princess for it. His was empty as well. I could hear the sounds of a computer mouse clicking behind me though and I knew he was playing on Chris’s laptop. We had a WWII strategy game that we liked to play in our down time. I used to beat him nine games out of ten, but damned if he didn’t try his hardest every time. Chris’s cot, also sporting a fairy princess mosquito net, was also empty in the far opposite corner. It was November and Chris was up, so I knew coffee was being made.
The day was November the 26th to be exact. I will remember this forever, because the 25th was Black Friday; the day after Thanksgiving. Black Friday was the day I was engaged in my first and only firefight of my deployment to Afghanistan. Yesterday, another man had attempted to take my life. I, in turn, had attempted to take his. Neither of us, to my knowledge, succeeded.
Smelling of the cigars we had smoked last night in honor of our last mission, which, being that nobody was killed, we deemed a wild success, and stale sweat, I sat up in my sleeping bag and reached instantly for the puffy coat we had dubbed “marshmallow suits” and swung my legs over the edge. David looked back, wearing his ridiculous oversized prescription Oakley’s and massive headphones, and said loudly “I’m going to beat the computer on Hard, Carpenter!” I smiled and shook my head, pulling on a pair of dirty sweatpants.
Despite popular belief, Afghanistan was not always hot. Had it not been for two space-heaters we “acquired,” the room would have been much colder, but I stood up and went outside immediately, ducking through the four foot, holey metal door that didn’t quite fit right. I found Chris outside on our balcony (we lived on the second floor of what I’m told was a hotel) making coffee, the salvaged pot running via an extension cord that ran back into the room.
“Morning Man-Slayer,” Chris said energetically. Of the four of us, I was the most inclined to be homicidal in the morning, and Chris liked to test just how well I could control my urge to murder somebody in the first half hour of consciousness.
“Fuck you,” I said, picking up my cigarettes off the bench. The door behind me, a staircase led down immediately to my right with a ledge going around to another staircase that went to the third floor. We had a wood bench and a computer chair, as well as some folding stools for seating and it did us just fine.
I lit a cigarette, and ran my hand through my wild hair. Chris managed to remove himself from today’s hit list by handing me a cup of coffee; black, no fixings, the way everyone knew I liked it. Chris took his with heavy sugar, Al with anything he could throw in it to make it weird and David didn’t drink coffee; something to do with being a Mormon.
We looked out through the camouflage netting that hung in front of our balcony, over the double-wall of Hesco Barriers, filled with many feet of solid earth, topped with razor wire, into the city of Musa Qa’la, blowing on our coffee. The air was damp and cold, the city covered in thick fog. Despite our constant insistence that we couldn’t wait to get home, we had all in our own way, fallen in love with our circumstances. I loved it out there. I sat on the stairs that led to the third story and Chris sat in the chair and we shared an easy silence as we smoked and drank coffee. The city was quiet. It usually was on days like today.
There had only been a few explosions in the city itself when we were there, most of the action taking place on the northern and southern borders of the district. We hopped around the district, giving our support as needed. It had mostly consisted of cleaning up the mess the team before us left, recovering our specialized gear that they had left out and setting the gear up for the next team so they could get straight to work instead of having to hunt down missing inventory items. We also arrived near the end of the fighting season and because of the team before us, had to spend the first month and a half rearranging, recounting and generally unfucking our situation.
That Saturday, only a month away from beginning the journey home, I didn’t care anymore. My mettle had been tested and I had responded well. I knew that if I were called upon again to fight, I would fight. I would take position and return fire on the enemy. I make no claims of heroism or even bravery. I stood my ground and I shot back. But that was half the battle. And I had done it without fear, without hesitation, without excitement or hate. What did scare me though was that I wanted more.
Chris and I didn’t speak again about the firefight. It was the second he had been in. He had made it clear he was in no hurry to do it again. Neither was David. David I understood; he had a wife and two children. Al was on my side. I looked out at the fog and the mud-brick and the sheet-metal garages and the slab concrete roads and shoddy metal railings and the Afghans that were slowly coming awake and beginning their day, dark-skinned and heavily clothed against the winter cold, through cigarette smoke and camouflage netting, with a small armory of weapons, loaded and ready, feet away. I thought of the pistol under my pillow. Loaded. Safety off. My hands twitched. I wanted more.