Prayer at Rumayla Chapter One
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The explosion to our front throws me against the back of the hatch, pain shooting up my side. I gasp, dropping the belt of three-inch long bullets to the floor of the turret. They land with a loud clatter that can be overheard over the whining engines.
I stare ahead of me as I grab another belt of ammunition and load my machine gun, chambering the first round with a loud crack. Men are running from a burning truck, scattering in all directions. One screams. He is on fire, and I pull the trigger, cutting him down. I smell ammonia and gunpowder rising from the turret as I shift my fire to another man, also running, also on fire. Sergeant Arno, to my right, is firing the .50 cal, the machine gun chewing into the side of the truck on the left with a bass thud, thud, thud, thud.
Moments later the main gun on ‘33, our wing-man tank, fires, a white flash across the landscape followed by the concussion, and a running man is cut in half by the heavy tank round. Beyond, as they fall to their deaths, the horizon glows a dull red, a black moon-less sky washed away by the burning complex ahead of us. The sight of my machine gun is centered on a woman who stands, her hands clasped to her chest. Her hair flows with the slight breeze, untouched by the smoke surrounding her, and her eyes are focused straight at me. Against the backdrop of the flames, I can see her clearly, her supplicating expression, a prayer, perhaps, on her lips.
I grind my teeth and pull the trigger.
I jerk awake, heart thumping, surrounded by the bright cabin of an airplane. The engines sound so much like the turbines of a tank that for a moment I feel almost like I’m back in the desert.
“Jesus,” says Steve Hernandez, sitting next to me. “You all right, Chet?”
I shake my head. “Fine,” I say, responding to my friend. “Just a dream.”
“Dream, huh,” he replies with a grin. “I hope I’m not around when you have a nightmare. What were you dreaming about? Your fiancé?”
A moment after the punch line he hoots with laughter and punches me in the shoulder.
“Better not say that when I’m awake, Steve.”
“Absolutely no sense of humor,” he notes. “Speaking of future wives, did I show you the pictures Paula sent me?”
“Yeah. About ten times.”
“That’s not enough to memorize it, Chet, you know that. Now sit up and pay attention.”
I struggle to clear my head and wake up. He’s holding the photograph in front of me, a little too close.
“Anybody ever tells you familiarity breeds contempt?” I ask.
“No. And in this case it would do the opposite.”
I think I spoiled his fun. He puts the photograph away. An unused writing pad is sitting in front of him, pen beside it. As he turns back to the paper, rubbing his hands over the rough stubble on his chin in a gesture that tells me he is thinking hard, I see he is not in a good mood. Steve tends to joke a lot more when he’s pissed off or unhappy. I expect its because he won’t be able to get to California and see her for a few more weeks. I only have to drive a few hours to get to Atlanta to see Amy, but Steve’s got no such luck.
“Hey, guys!” shouts Sergeant Arno, approaching from the front of the cabin. “Why the long faces? We’re going home!” Our platoon Sergeant is smiling, his tanned, rounded face red from too much smoke and laughter.
I grunt, and Steve says, “Just tired, Sarge. That, and I’ve still got sixteen months and twelve days before I get out of the Army.”
“That’s you, always complaining about the Army. You guys got to cheer up. Check out the stewardesses, man! I’ve got a woman at home, but I don’t see no wedding rings on you.”
Steve, eyeing an exhausted flight attendant who is sitting, holding her head in her hands, says, “Sarge, I’m used to the ladies crying after I ask them out, not before.”
Arno chortles and slaps Steve on the back, then starts to turn away. “That’s just all the smoke in her eyes. Time for you guys to get laid, gentlemen. You need to put away the pens and paper and get to work on the ladies. After a year in hell I’d guess you’re nearly virgins again. You guys need to go out, get some drinks and get laid…. Oh, shit! I forgot, Brown, you’re not old enough to drink yet!”
He howls with laughter and walks away, and I feel blood rushing to my face.
“Nearly, my ass,” Steve mutters as Arno walks away.
Seat belt sign just came on. The pitch of the turbine engines changes to a scream. I grind out my cigarette. I’m awake now, but still a little shaken up by the dream—the dream I’ve had every night for a month, ever since that night.
Craning my neck to look out the window, I see the ground rushing toward me, mottled yellow grass and concrete. A moment later, the plane touches the ground with a thud and a screech of tires.
The soldiers in the cabin erupt in applause, screaming, waving their arms in the air. Sergeant Arno grins and lights a cigar as a stewardess scolds him. He grins and ignores her.
My stomach is twisting as the plane descends, and not all of it is from the descent of the jet. Coming home will change everything. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is seeing Amy.
Arno, still standing near the front of the cabin, notices me looking in his direction and gives a jaunty wave, then shouts “Ufa!”
Near Arno stands another stewardess, looking at the crowd. Bone thin, possibly anorexic, her eyes are bright with tears of joy, watching the troops return home safe. The soldiers are cheering, some screaming rebel yells. More than a few of the soldiers on the flight have tears in their eyes after landing on American soil after all this time.
I don’t know why she’s crying, been a pretty short trip for her. Must be all the smoke.
Steve Hernandez’ eyes are red as he stuffs his crumbling paperback into his olive CVC bag. As usual, he looks as if he needs a shave.
I reach under my seat to grab my rifle and protective mask, and then take out my forty-five. I pull back the slide and look in the chamber to make sure it’s not loaded, check the serial number, then strap it into the holster on my right side. They made us put the weapons under the seats. Made the cabin crew nervous, having a planeload of armed passengers.
Not as nervous as it made me, and I know these guys. A soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division nearly shot another guy in the market at Khobar this week. Forgot to clear his weapon.
Outside the tiny oval window, there are several large hangars, and a fence keeping out a huge crowd of civilians who are waving American flags. Children, parents, wives, wearing bright clothes and looking happy; all jumping up and down and screaming and crying. I doubt any of my family is here. Like my fiancé, my mother did not approve of my decision to enlist in the Army. Unlike Amy, she had damn good reason to disapprove. She had to raise me alone. My father never came home from Vietnam.
Next to him is the chemical sergeant, doing the same with the protective masks. I turn in my M16 rifle, then hesitate a moment before giving up my forty-five pistol and gas mask. Feels funny turning them in. The smells are all different here, and getting on the bus without my mask and weapons takes an act of courage.
Two hours later I am in a rented car on my way to Atlanta.
The highway from Savannah to Macon is a desolate, 150 mile stretch of Georgia road with only half a dozen exits spread far apart from each other. I drive, the trees racing by on either side of the highway, still a long way from home.
She wasn’t there. Maybe she just didn’t know—it can’t be that easy to get information from the Army.
On the other hand, all those other people knew, and Amy is listed as the beneficiary of my life insurance, so the Army sure as hell knows her address and phone number. It doesn’t matter—I’ll see her tonight when I get in. I tried to call from Fort Stewart, but I got her answering machine. Didn’t bother to leave a message—I hate those machines, and besides, it’ll be a surprise when I get there.
The last letter Amy sent me came only two days ago while we were staying in Khobar Towers in Dhahran, a complex of high-rise apartments the Saudis built years ago but never occupied. They were a damn sight better than the dirt we slept on at the cement plant when we first arrived. That was a hell of a note. When our plane first arrived in Saudi Arabia, it was 110 degrees outside, just past midnight. We were moved in buses to the cement plant, where we had to put up tents before we could go to sleep. The next week seemed like hell. We trained at night and tried to sleep in the daytime heat, bathing in strange-smelling oily water that came from rusted factory faucets and drinking gallons of water every day just to keep from dehydrating.
On the contrary, Khobar Towers in Dhahran was a completely different experience. Though the apartments were unfurnished, it was the first time in many months we had slept with a roof over our heads, or had a shower, or a real bathroom. After the letter came I sat locked in the latrine for an hour, reading it over several times, until the banging on the door got too loud and I let someone else in.
As I drive, I think of the letter, and of Amy. I re-read the letter about fifty times on the plane coming home; savoring it, learning every phrase, every note, trying to imagine her voice behind the words. I know it by heart now. It was written almost a month ago, just after we invaded Iraq.
Dear Chet, it read. The news told us last night that the ground war has begun, that you have begun your attack into Kuwait.
Paul called me and told me yesterday evening, then he came over and we sat and watched CNN together, much as we have done most nights since this started. It seems as if it has been an eternity since you left for Saudi Arabia, and now, it appears that the final stage has begun. I pray that it will be over soon.
I sat up all night staring at the engagement ring you gave me a year and a half ago, expecting that we would be married by now, sharing our lives by now. It is terrifying to me to think of how quickly things change, how quickly our lives have been turned upside down. I hope you know how much I love you, how much you mean to me. All the time we were together, through high school and our first year of college, there were so many times I don’t think I could have survived had you not been there for me. And no matter what happens, Chet, I will never forget that. Every time I see the news now, every time I think of your father not coming home from Vietnam, I am terrified for you. Sometimes I cry hysterically for no reason, at school and the other day at my job.
I shouldn’t be writing about this right now. You have far too much to worry about now without worrying about me, and my problems must seem minor by comparison. Just know that when you come home, we will have much to talk about. And you will come home. There is no doubt in my mind about that, you still have far too much life ahead of you to end it now. Please be careful and come home.
Paul says hi, and he apologizes for not writing. You know how he is about that. Please take care of yourself, Chet, and we will see you home soon. I love you. Amy.
Thinking about her makes me want to cry. God, I miss her. I haven’t heard her laugh in a year, I haven’t seen her eyes in a year.
I guess a little longer than that, really. I hurt her, badly, when I decided to leave for the Army, and our last few weeks together were punctuated with anger and uncomfortable silences, a gap that I am praying we can cross now. I only hope I can make her understand why I had to do it, why I had to join the Army.
If only I could understand myself.
We had the argument again and again, and though she seemed to understand after a while, I never fully had her support. Not for joining the Army, of all things. I was alone among my friends in my belief in my country and what it stands for. And none of them, except maybe Julie, understood what my missing father meant to me. I always thought I could make Amy understand—she lost her father when she was only ten. But she never did understand.
Paul and I would argue about it, too. He kept telling me, over and over again, that to him the Army was the opposite of everything we believed. But that wasn’t true for me. I did believe. I believed in the principles my country was founded for, and one of those principles meant standing up to defend it.
But do I still believe? After I’ve seen what war is? After what I saw and did in Iraq?
I don’t know what I believe.
There. The skyline of Atlanta grows visible ahead of me in the darkness, slender towers rising high above the surrounding landscape. The faint glow in the sky from the city below seems alien now.
I am still wearing my desert uniform—by the time I made it to the bank, withdrew enough money for a deposit on a rental car, and finished dealing with the idiots in the rental agency in Hinesville, all of the stores in town had closed. That won’t last—I bet before long, with all the soldiers coming back to Fort Stewart, even the pawnshops will be open all night. Unfortunately, none of the clothes I owned before I joined the Army fit me anymore—I gained forty pounds in basic training last year.
The traffic’s getting to be a bitch as I drive deeper into the city. Strange driving this tiny little car, I keep overreacting, jerking all over the road. My heart pounds as I see small cars weaving through traffic going ninety miles an hour. It’d be just my luck to make it through the war okay only to get killed on the interstate in my home town.
I breath a sigh of relief when I get off the highway in Buckhead. I wonder if I should have called first. I know my mother didn’t expect me home this early—we only left Iraq to return to Saudi Arabia two weeks ago. Not really in the mood to deal with her yet, anyway. Maybe she won’t be home.
A few moments later I pull up to her apartment, and my hope is realized: the windows are all dark, empty looking. All the same, I pull the car into a parking place and shut it off, then turn off the lights. She moved here only a few weeks after I graduated high school, forced out of the midtown apartment by rising rents. This apartment was only half home to me—I spent far more time in Amy’s cramped apartment than I ever did here.
I stifle a yawn. It’s been a long drive getting here. Stepping out of the car, I stretch, then light a cigarette. I walk toward the front door and knock. No answer.
One more try. Still no answer. If she’s drinking again she might be passed out. I slam my fist into the door a few times. Nothing.
I get back in the car and drive away. Pulling up to the corner, I slam on the brakes as a car runs through a red light in the intersection in front of me. Jesus Christ. If I’d been through there twenty seconds earlier the bastard would have killed me.
Double checking, I pull out into the intersection and cross the street to the gas station. There’s a pay phone at the corner of the parking lot next to the street.
Pulling up to the phone, I jump out of the car, drop a quarter in and dial Amy’s number from memory.
I let it ring five times, then the answering machine picks up. “Hi, you’ve reached Amy Harris. I can’t come to the phone right now….”
I start shaking when I hear her voice, then hang up the phone and turn away. I’ll drive to her place and wait until she gets home.
Driving south on Peachtree Street into Midtown, I stare around with distaste at the familiar sights of my life, some of them oddly changed, as if this isn’t quite the place I grew up, but a near twin. Two new buildings stand in the skyline of Midtown, higher than any of the old ones. The breakfast place we used to go in the middle of the night has burned down, only a blackened husk remaining. A new twenty-story building stands on the vacant lot where Paul and I fixed his car one afternoon, years ago. They’ve added peaches to the license plates, but it looks like the maniacs behind the wheel haven’t changed any.
After a few minutes I turn down Fourteenth Street, take a quick left onto Crescent and I am in front of Amy’s building. She lives in a tiny studio apartment here, which she has managed to make look cheerful despite its size and location. Halfway down the block is Rafael’s, the cafe and bar where we used to spend much of our time. As I park the car, I see hers in the customary spot.
Relief floods through me when I see the car. After turning mine off, I sit behind the wheel for a moment to catch my breath. Thank God she’s here. I don’t think I realized until just this moment just how much I need to see her. I can almost feel her now, feel what her skin will be like to touch, almost see her eyes staring back at me.
I get out of the car and lock the door behind me, then walk down the cracked sidewalk to the open front door of her building. Smells like urine and spilled beer in here, and the light is burned out. I never did understand how she made the place seem so beautiful inside, with the rest of the building looking like a crack house.
Up the stairs, two doors down on the right. As I approach the door, I can see blue light from a television dimly shining through the crack under the door. She’s home. Thank God she’s home. Across the hall, a television is turned up loud, the noise clear in the hallway.
My heart beating a thousand times a minute, breathing heavily, I knock on the door.
I knock again, louder this time, and my heart rate doubles when I hear the floorboards creak as she walks to the door and opens it.
But it is Paul standing there, his black hair loose around his shoulders, hanging over a white terry bathrobe with the words “Destin Beach Motel” embroidered on the right side.
My eyes narrow, and I look past him. She is approaching the door, shock evident in her eyes. A sheet is wrapped around her. Her face is flushed, flushed red in the cheeks, just as I remember it always was after making love.
No. No fucking way.
“Chet?” she asks, pathetically, her eyes suddenly watering. My eyes automatically dart to her left hand, looking for the ring.
She’s not wearing it.
My breath escapes in a rush. I start shaking my head, back and forth, and clench my fists, then open my mouth to speak. For a moment it is all here at once – falling in love, saying goodbye, the burning, killing those people in Iraq. It’s all right here smothering my mind and my heart, ready to snuff me out, ready to explode, and I am too paralyzed to even speak.
When nothing comes out, I turn around and run.
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This material is copyright 2001 by Charles Sheehan-Miles. All rights reserved, please do not reproduce it without permission.