Discover more from Stanbrough Writes
Someone You Will Never Have to Be
Originally this was another short story from my strainge-fiction alter ego, Eric Stringer: A Natural Study of the Scream. But I realized I’d already posted that one, way back in February. So instead, here’s one from me, one I just finished. Enjoy.
The morning is actually chilly, the ground and the tall grass and the fallen, rotted, tree trunks soaked through to varying degrees. The humidity from the overnight storm huddles heavily beneath the canopy, gathers its forces and drips them from the leaves. The secondary rain. That’s how I came to think of it.
Pedro and I spent last night inside, meaning under the canopy, mostly because of the rain. There wasn’t much chance of the other side spotting us from the air at night. Only our guys had that capability. A lot of other capabilities were lopsided in our direction too, yet we were still losing.
Big surprise there. It’s their homeland. Duh. Most of us have no idea what we’re doing here. Of course we know how we got here. Some of us came and some of us were pressed into service and sent, and either way we’re a generation who still believes in taking responsibility for our own actions. Well, and often for what was done to us without our consent. But emotionally, mentally, it all seems a little surreal.
It’s as if roughly what, ten hours ago? I passed by the living room and muttered, “‘Night, Mom, ‘night, Dad, I’m pooped” then took the stairs three at a time with all the energy and vigor and innocence of youth.
I stripped down, slipped between the sheets, pulled up the covers and snuggled under them with my long hair and the beginning fuzz of a moustache plus a little extra on the point of the chin. I thought about stuff like school the next day and Mary Lou Pinger and how really cool it was that my buddy Kenneth was going to Woodstock and I really wished I could go too in public, but in private it seemed like an awful lot of bother just to hear some live music, and eventually my thoughts slowed and I dropped off to sleep in my dry, warm bed surrounded by the security of Home and had absolutely no idea what a rare treat that was.
And then I woke up and, for an instant, wondered where I was and what the hell was going on.
I was completely dressed for one thing, and I was dressed differently for another, and I felt the stiff stubble on my cheecks and chin and entertained a derogatory thought about it. And for a second or two I thought about Mom and Dad and maybe Mary Lou Pinger, but it would sure be good to get back to the rear and—
Wait! Is that today?
Oh. No. Not yet. Last night was Night Three. If we don’t get the sniper, we’ll still have today and tonight and part of tomorrow, and then whether we get him or not we’ll go back to the rear and we can finally—
Shave and wash our scalp with soap and hot water and get a haircut at last. That would feel good too even if Jimmy Chin was just another PFC and not a real barber at all. He didn’t charge much, only a dollar or a tin of C-Rat Ham and Eggs.
He didn’t want anything else though, and didn’t want some of it violently as Jamey Morrison found out when he kept his thumb over part of the stamp and tried to pass off a can of Ham and Limas to Jimmy Chin and Jimmy pulled Jim’s thumb aside and then set Jim on his backside for the attempt. Refused to cut his hair for him too. Well, that’s what you get. But where the Ham and Eggs is concerned, most of us would rather give him the dollar.
But other than being disoriented for a second or two I’m soaking wet and chilled and I can feel every thick seam in my clothing and I’m hugging a semi-automatic carbine under the blanket and doing my best to keep it dry and everything else is secondary.
This isn’t like the normal patrols we used to go on when we had mail and beer and a corpsman to think about and keep safe. When you break off by yourself and get assigned as a partner in a sniper team you do your own patrols, except really you don’t.
Really you get a ride in if you can and don’t if you can’t and you find a good, tight position with an excellent egress and you lay up and watch and wait until the target’s time runs out or the time to hunt the target runs out. Well, or until your time runs out, but we don’t talk about that.
As I sat up I saw Pedro Alvarez was already behind the rifle. He did come inside last night, didn’t he? But he must have. As I watched he seemed to balance sharply on his elbows and toes for a second to adjust his body a fragment of an inch to one side. Then he settled in and guided the stock into his shoulder.
A distant, muffled explosion passed by in the air.
I glanced over at Pedro again.
He was still, but then he would be. That one minuscule movement was to settle himself and the stock was in his shoulder and now he’ll be sighting just to get a feel for it and to make sure the scope is dry. And nothing about Pedro is sagging and lifeless anywhere. I’d be able to tell.
Sure. He’s good. I won’t call over though. Even quietly. I’ll be there soon enough.
I’m betting he feels good too because the sun will peek over the rim to see him already hunting. Feeling good out here is a bonus. An absolute bonus.
There are some negatives, though.
For example, there isn’t enough light yet to see anything at any distance. Not accurately enough to take a life and know it.
And staying inside last night didn’t block the rain or stop it from getting through and soaking our blankets, our clothes, those thick seams, our boots. The canopy only delayed it a little, collected it, amassed it, then guided it along branches and twigs and leaves to drop on a warm, bent neck at exactly the least opportune moment.
And I never think to slap the icy drop away.
Pedro probably does. Pedro’s more methodical than I am. He takes an extra second to think before he does anything.
I always jerk my head up, straighten my neck, and give the drip all the gravity it needs to trace an icy trail down along my spine. And probably three-fourths of the time I get another icy drop between my eyes for my trouble.
I think I already said this was our third night in the bush, hunting one who was undoubtedly hunting us. We and the lieutenant whose platoon the sniper had been plaguing for close to a week had decided Pedro and I could go as long as four nights and five days to get the guy.
Tease him into moving when we didn’t move, that’s all. Like maybe twitching from a bug bite, or maybe the near end of his scope catching the sun and reflecting it back to us. Something, anything that would give us the edge for the excruciating instant it takes to squeeze a trigger calmly.
I glanced at Pedro again, then over at his camp.
We both stayed inside the same six-foot square but his camp was his camp and my camp was my camp. His blankets were still flat, his pack for a pillow, one box of C-Rats a little to the side. The box itself was melted into a grey paste by the rain and some black letters were too mushed up and skewed to read but the two little cans and the celophane-wrapped little 4-pack of Lucky Strikes were fine.
Too back Pedro didn’t smoke.
I slipped the Lucky Strikes into my shirt pocket, rolled his blankets, kept out the larger can and slipped the smaller can and the cardboard paste into one pocket of his pack. I shoved in some grass and rotted leaves too to help silence everything and then tied it all shut. Then I set the pack and the blanket roll at the base of the massive date-palm tree. He’d have done the same for me if he’d awakened to find me already on the gun.
Before I rolled and closed my own camp I silently John Wayned the can I’d kept out. That’s a skill in itself. It was a can of spaghetti and mouse balls or something. It wasn’t mine so I thanked Pedro silently for humping it into the field for me.
I still had one meal left in my own pack plus a couple tins of crackers and a shit disk or two, so it was okay.
I didn’t bother with the little spoon. I tipped back the tin, teased the mess out with a silent tap or two, chewed two or three times, and swallowed. It isn’t really food. Just sustenance, that’s all. If you think those are the same, you’ve never been hungry.
I pressed the can flat with my thumbs, slipped it into my pack with a little grass and rotted leaves, then rolled my blankets, tied-up my pack, and set everything next to Pedro’s.
On my belly, my carbine strapped over my shoulder and lying on my back, I low-crawled—low-crept, really—up alongside Pedro. Busy behind the scope, he took no notice. I adjusted myself, settled, picked up the binocs.
On cue, the sun peeked over the horizon to our right rear, about 4:30.
I, through the glasses, seeking a khaki anything, a smooth black anything, rounded, swelled, or flattened, angular. Anything not natural. Anything that was part of something else. Pedro, through the scope, seeking the same.
Find something that might be the edge of an ear, then watch to see whether it moves. Not a torso, but what might be the bend of an elbow or the curve of a shoulder. Not a swath of skin but what light looks like as it reflects off skin. Not a waist or hip but the repeated pattern of a web belt. Well, or the big bonus, the glow of a brass anything in the sun’s sharp early rays where the Other failed to cover it.
The breeze, a light breeze, moved past us, over us, head to toe, from the valley below, the ridge opposite, nothing hanging off its movement.
Nothing. No sights. No sounds.
And then the slightest scent of dust. A dry scent. Off dry dirt. You don’t get the smell of dry dust from damp earth, or damp anything.
Without discussion, I through the glasses and Pedro through the scope shifted. We began seeking a void, a cave, an overhang, deep enough to keep the dirt inside it or beneath it dry through the night, but also shallow enough to allow that scent to be picked up and carried away on a light, passing breeze. A khaki anything against that void, a smooth black anything, rounded, swelled, or flattened, angular. Anything against that void, anything moving, and how long ago?
I mean how long ago did the scuff or scrape happen? We didn’t even hope to see actual movement. Motion is the cardinal sin of a hunter. Any motion might be his last, other than the involuntary spasm when the bullet strikes. But even a motion that goes unnoticed can dislodge a scent or a sound from what had been a static hide and release it to your enemy.
The breeze, if its speed, its pressure, were constant or if they at least averaged-out, came all the way here from the opposite ridge in a quarter-minute, maybe a half-minute, and I searched my mind. Had I heard even the slightest sound that might have released that scent? The slightest scrape or scuff? Anything that might help direct the glasses or the scope?
No. No, nothing.
Unless it did and we missed it.
We lay still. We waited. We watched.
We hoped to catch the target actually moving, or stopping moving or settling from moving. That wouldn’t happen but we always hoped it would.
A scrape. I heard it. Looked to the right. Did you hear that, Pedro?
No response, of course, but also no movement of the tip of the barrel. So no sign he’d heard anything at all.
But it was there. It was a scrape. Something on a twig or branch or a small trunk. Something light and short, like the toe of a boot catching and releasing a branch.
No scent to accompany it or follow it, but the sound might be enough.
I released my carbine, edged to my right, keeping low, remaining one with the earth.
I looked at Pedro, my friend. He’d have done the same for me.
I put my right hand against his shoulder. As I expected, it was firm and ice-cold even through the wet fabric. I pushed respectfully, but steadily, until from the belt up he was lying to the right of the gun. He lay on his right shoulder, his legs crossed casually just below the knees, one boot dragging along a little behind the other.
Later for all of that.
I edged into position behind the gun. Settled in. Traced the memory of the sound. The toe of a boot releasing a twig.
There. That’s the boot. Isn’t it?
Yes, it was a boot. The boot.
I squeezed the trigger, the rifle bucked, the burlap cloth beneath the end of the barrel absorbed the ejected gasses, kept the wet grass and leaves from blowing up.
I shifted slightly to the right, elevating the barrel a smidgeon up and to the left. Sometimes you feel it.
Across the valley, the boot jerked away. To the target’s credit, he didn’t scream, but he did release a muffled curse as he got to his feet.
Yes. Up and to his feet. Up and to his right.
Up and to my left.
The next shot squeezed more easily, more certainly, and I smiled as it left and the rifle stock shoved against my shoulder.
The target clawed at his—Oh! Her chest!—then slumped, and tumbled forward off a narrow ledge in front of a deep overhang.
An overhang, no doubt, with dust on the floor.
I like to think Pedro saw that shot, but he didn’t say anything. He stopped any unnecessary chatter when he took her bullet in the top of his forehead.
Two packs and a travois. It will be a long walk out.