The Arabian night was cool and blue. I circled our outpost, navigating the razor wire and blast walls that surrounded it in layers. Pale, blinking lights in the distance helped guide me to the back patio, beacons courtesy of the few locals wealthy enough to purchase generators. Squatty two-story buildings across the dirt road were about a hundred feet and a world away; the entire block was dark and abandoned and had been since America made this place an edge of empire.
At the base of the patio, I cleared my rifle and stuck the muzzle into a tin barrel, jerking the trigger with a quick squeeze. Click. No negligent discharge for me. I walked up a flight of stairs. Each squad had been assigned a wood table, forty men in sweat-starched uniforms ready to eat. I saw Chambers at a far table, so I took a seat at the nearest one.
“Welcome to family dinner, sir,” Alphabet said. “Smell that meat? I heard it’s ‘cause one of the cooks is old friends with Sergeant Chambers. Celebrating his promotion.”
I nodded stupidly and turned to watch the goat rotate over the burn pit. It was plump, moving in slow revolutions, like a clock without a minute hand. Two joes stood at each end of the goat, turning it with a steel rod held up by stakes. Burn pits were used for all sorts of refuse, from classified documents to used batteries, but it seemed to be suitable for roasting local cuisine, too. Cotton candy smoke billowed from the pit, drifting west.
Like a good lieutenant, I waited for the soldiers to cycle through the food line. Then I grabbed a plastic tray and heaped mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese and deviled eggs onto it, skipping the salad bowl. One of the cooks put chunks of tender, pink goat meat on the plate. It smelled of heavy pepper. In theory, I detested the military industrial complex that made things like fresh deviled eggs in the desert possible. It was wasteful. It was excessive. It further separated us from the townspeople we’d been charged with protecting. That was all true. In practice, indulgence filled stomachs, and included ice cream for dessert.
The goat proved too chewy. Most of the soldiers around me ate with abandon, though, like some unseen, angry parent would emerge to punish them if they didn’t clean their plates. I ate slower, stopping when I got full, pushing around what remained on the plate so it looked like I’d eaten more than I had. My stomach had always been a bit of a princess. I washed the meal down with a cold can of Rip It, flat fruit punch with a special electric jolt that’d keep me awake for the night patrol.
As I ate, I listened to the soldiers argue about whom they’d rather have sex with, Jessica Alba circa 2006 or Shakira circa 2008. I declared myself team Alba. Doc Cork said both of them were too skinny, he needed a woman with some meat on her, a thick ass too, which sent the table into hysterics. Each of the four tables hummed with similar banter; we rarely got together as an entire platoon anymore, and never at the outpost. Once dinner ended, I stood up on the bench and clapped my hands.
“Hotspur!” I said. “Settle down. Want to say it’s great to be together in the same place since … well, Kuwait. Two more things: third and fourth squad, we still have that engineer escort tonight. Also, join me in recognizing our new platoon sergeant. Congratulations, Staff Sergeant Chambers. We’re all looking forward to working with you in your new position.”
After the applause faded out, the men began chanting “Speech! Speech!” Chambers grinned, tucking his overbite behind his lower teeth, and waited them out. A dim sky now hung over us, with only red lens flashlights and the blaze from the pit illuminating the area. Someone tended to the fire with lighter fluid, swelling the flames wide and red. Chambers moved in front of the pit to speak. Because of the slight incline of the hill, and the way the flames danced shadows up and down his silhouette, he seemed a pastor delivering a dark sermon. The pealing cadence in his voice reinforced it. Wayward souls, these soldiers were, but not beyond his redemption. Not yet.
“I want to tell you all a story. A war story,” he said. “Listen to it. Learn from it. The best soldier, the best man I ever knew, was a noncom named Elijah Rios. We deployed here together, a couple years ago. He was bona fide, a real warrior. I owe everything to him. He saved my life.”
His eyes moved from man to man in slow consideration.
“Before we left, we thought we were steel. But even those of us who’d deployed before didn’t know what hard was. Not yet. Our platoon sergeant, he had an idea. Kept saying it wouldn’t be like the Invasion, or Afghanistan. That the war had changed, evolved. Kept calling us youngbloods, to try and get us focused. We thought it was a big joke. Ha fucking ha.
“He was right, though. Things were raw. Got hit every day. Daisy-chain IEDs. Snipers. Even a female suicide bomber once. This was before the generals bought off the insurgency. Before the sheiks turned on al-Qaeda. It was everyone against everyone, and everyone against us.
“Got intel one night that an al-Qaeda group had moved into a Shi’a neighborhood, going around and executing people. Trying to get everyone to vacate so Sunnis could move in. Didn’t think much of it, was happening all over Iraq, on both sides. Just another mission, we thought.
“Didn’t know the exact house they were in, just the block. So we sent the whole company. Set an inner cordon, an outer cordon, whole nine yards. But anyone worth a fuck wanted to be kicking down doors, going house to house. That’s where I was. That’s where Elijah was.
“First eight or nine houses were all dry holes. Tenth house, everything went to shit. First room, we found a guy loading an RPG, behind a couch. We shot him in the face, but then all his buddies knew we were there.
“That fatal funnel in doorways you hear about when you learn how to clear rooms? No fucking joke. Took three squads for that one house. Eight enemy spread across five rooms. Eight.
“Killed them all.
“Three wounded, one dead on our side.
“Should’ve just blown the house up with a tank round, but higher wouldn’t clear it. Collateral damage, they said. So it was up to us. The grunts. The trigger pullers. The goddamn infantrymen. That’s why we’re here, gentlemen. To do what no else can. What no one else will.
“Somehow, someway, we pushed our way upstairs. Couldn’t make sense of anything, everything was too dark or too bright in the night vision. A grenade went off, couldn’t hear neither.
“Three of us stacked outside one of the last rooms and reloaded. There was no door and we could hear a voice on the other side, fucking with us. Say what you will about al-Qaeda, but they weren’t cowards. Not the real ones.
“I went in first and saw a flash of light, of movement, in a corner. So I turned that way. I shot twice and glass exploded everywhere, falling to the ground. Shots came from behind at the same time. All I could think was, Fuck. I’d been had.
“Bastard had set up a mirror so I’d go that way, chasing his reflection. He had a clean shot at the back of my skull. If the guy behind me hadn’t recognized that, I’d be dead. If the guy behind me hadn’t pulled his trigger faster than haj pulled his, I’d be dead.
“That guy was Elijah.
“I didn’t know what to say. I think I sputtered out thanks or some shit. He just looked at me and nodded. ‘I got you, youngblood,’ he said. ‘I got you.’”
If anything else was making noise I couldn’t hear it. My right leg twitched and twitched and I swallowed loud, looking around to see if anyone noticed. Chambers continued.
“Elijah had a philosophy he lived by. De Oppresso Liber. Anyone hear that before?”
Even if someone had, no one spoke.
“Means ‘Liberate the Oppressed.’ It’s the motto of the Green Berets. Elijah planned on joining them after our tour. He didn’t just say it, either. Had it tattooed on his chest. He fucking meant it. He fucking lived it.”
Someone in the shadows shouted “Preach,” which was echoed a few times. Chambers pressed on.
“Some of the squad leaders here know what I’m talking about. They saw it, too. Humvees swallowed in fire, bodies liquefied by metal and heat, all because of a wrong turn or a gunner not spotting a wire.”
The sound of helicopters, attack birds, moving from Camp Independence sliced through the night. Rather than let them interrupt his benediction, Chambers raised his hands, palms up, and absorbed them into it, the rotors his very own monk chants. It all seemed quite natural, somehow. It really did.
“Hear that,” he shouted over the WHOOSH WHOOSH WHOOSH of the blades. “Savage. That’s what this is all about. Staying alert. Staying ready. Staying vigilant. They’re gonna get some before they get got.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes as the birds flew south, toward Baghdad. His head drooped down. Seconds passed in a shrouded hush. Then one of the joes up front quietly asked what’d happened to Rios.
Chambers opened his eyes and smiled. His voice lowered, and I couldn’t tell if he was betraying the quiet sort of rage that lingers within men after something vital, something matchless, breaks inside, or just faking the same.
“Dead,” Chambers said. “Because he didn’t stay vigilant. Even he – I’m telling this story to show how it can happen to anyone if you let down your guard, even for a moment. Don’t think that because the war seems over that it is. Right now, out there, men are plotting to kill you. To kill your friends. And like those birds, the only way we make sure that don’t happen is to get some before they do. You hear me, Hotspur?”
“Hooah!” The platoon grunted in unison.
“I said, ‘You fucking hear me?’”
“Hooah!” They were louder this time. Fiercer, too. I wasn’t sure if he was done. Part of me hoped so.
Part of me didn’t.
Something blossomed out of the dark near the pit. It crawled under the firelight, then down the hill, capturing Chambers’ attention. He raised his boot and then thought otherwise.
“Get me a cup,” he said. “One of the large ones.”
It was a camel spider. I’d seen them before, at a distance, though, not like this. Yellow with brown fur, it was thick like a cigarette pack. It kept poking its front pincers and gaping angry jaws at us as we passed around the cup. Some sort of insect blood, probably beetle, was splattered across its mouth like a child’s art project.
“Men,” Chambers said from the other side of the fire. “Heard some of you caught a scorpion today at the front gate. True?”
A voice beside me spoke. “Roger, sergeant. Mean little fucker.” It was Alphabet.
“Bring him down,” Chambers continued. “What better way to end the night than a prizefight?”
They set up a ring next to the bonfire, a cardboard box with its bottom pushed open. They dumped the camel spider in first, and it poked the walls of its new prison, all four corners and two square feet of it. Testosterone bogged the air and red flashlights flitted over the ring like police sirens. I looked around and didn’t see jaded boredom anymore. I saw something else.
I wondered if I should stop the fight. I was the lieutenant. I decided not to. I wondered if I should leave the fight. I didn’t.
“No need to be queasy.” Chambers spoke to me from across the ring. A red light shone up from a wristless fist onto his face. “Your man Lawrence of Arabia did this. It’s a proud tradition.”
“It’s all good.” I grinned. “Who you got?”
“Scorpion,” he said. He must’ve smelled the stink of easy money on me. “You thinking spider?”
“Everyone knows the scorpion always wins. I’m not that green.”
He winked. “Guess not. How long you think the spider will last, then? I’m in a betting mood.”
The soldiers crowded around us, shouting suggestions, picking sides. I studied the two combatants. The camel spider was at least twice as big as the scorpion. Besides, I reasoned, it’d take time for the scorpion’s venom to seep into the spider’s bloodstream, or whatever circulatory system spiders had.
“Two minutes,” I said.
“I’ll take the under,” Chambers replied. “How’s a hundred bones sound?”
I nodded. I had faith in the big ugly.
Most of the soldiers did not. I looked around, and intentional or not, nearly all of them had slid over to Chambers’ side of the ring – and the scorpion’s. Through the firelight, I spotted a friendly face.
“Et tu, medicine man?” I said.
“Sorry,” Doc Cork said. “Like you said. Everyone knows the scorpion wins.”
I nodded again and felt a hand on my shoulder. “With you, sir.” I turned around and found Alphabet standing behind me, heavy Slavic gaze holding steady. “What’s two minutes?”
Then he burped loud and proud, reeking of digested goat. I’d never loved another man more.
Dropped from its jar, the scorpion landed on its feet, and the camel spider went straight at it, jaws wide, fangs bared. Under a spotlight of red incandescence, the camel spider tried to pierce the scorpion’s exoskeleton with its pincers, while the scorpion bobbed and weaved to keep clear of the spider’s bloody furnace of a mouth. The smaller creature was soon boxed into a corner, maintaining leverage due to a jagged pebble. I needed the spider to stop being so aggressive, but asking an arachnid to go guerrilla and outlast its opponent rather than murder it as soon as possible seemed pointless, so I just shook my fist and howled. Similar sounds emanated from around the ring. The camel spider sank its front pincers into the top of the scorpion’s shell and began pulling it into its jaws, a long, slow death march. I howled again, something resembling the word yes rising from the wilds of my chest. The camel spider began gnawing on the scorpion’s head. The arthropod held off ingestion by ramming its claws against the bulk of the spider and shoving, a sort of dark arts horizontal push-up. Then it raised its trident. My eyes snapped wide as the tail moved back and forth, to and fro. The spider stopped chewing, hypnotized. Like a black lightning bolt, the scorpion plunged its stinger down into the camel spider, straight through a bulbous eye. A horrifying rattle followed, something like a leaking balloon, and the camel spider collapsed on its belly, pincers out.
“Time?” someone asked.
“Eighty seconds,” Doc Cork said, reading from the digital green of his wristwatch. “Team Scorpion wins.”
I bellowed bitterly as Chambers and most of the platoon cheered and crowed.
“See, men,” Chambers said. “That’s what happens when you hesitate. A motherfucking stinger comes for your brain. Don’t be that camel spider. Be the scorpion.”
The scorpion freed itself from the dead spider’s jaws and took a victory lap around the dirt ring, claws raised. I accepted Alphabet’s offer of a cigarette, even though I didn’t smoke. Chambers asked if I could pay him next time we made a run to Camp Independence, and I said yes. Then he used two cups to collect the scorpion and started walking to the perimeter gate. The soldiers protested, saying they wanted their prizefighter for future bouts.
“Keep a scorpion as a pet?” Chambers yelled behind him. “Do I look crazy to you?”
He tossed the scorpion, cup and all, over the gate and into the desert. Some of the men kept grumbling, but it’d been done. There was nothing left to do but search for a new contender, if they cared to.
I lingered at the burn pit for an hour. Soldiers drifted back into the outpost two or three at a time, calling each other youngbloods, telling one another to “Be the scorpion.” Only Alphabet remained. Perhaps sensing my mood, he stayed quiet. I coughed my way through the first cigarette and then asked for another. As I watched the fire smolder into loose petals of ash, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d just lost something important, something that mattered, even if it was just a pretense of that something.
I pulled an assault glove from a cargo pocket and picked up the spider from the ring, holding it in front of me. A thick, green jelly oozed from the hole in its eye.
“Thought it was tougher than it was,” Alphabet said, walking close to study the carcass himself. “Tricked us into thinking that, too.”
I tossed the camel spider into the burn pit.
The desert seemed still, placid. I spat onto the ground and tried to sound ironic.
“Insha’Allah,” I said.
“Yeah,” Alphabet said. “Something like that.”
From YOUNGBLOOD. Used with permission of Atria Books. Copyright © 2016 by Matt Gallagher.