INCOMING. INCOMING. INCOMING, said Giant Voice.
PFC Tullis made himself small in the low-slung concrete bunker alongside the 105mm howitzer position on the eastern edge of the FOB and prayed Lord Jesus please get me out of this country alive.
Shrapnel pocked the outside of the bunker. Dust settled on the back of his neck, turning to salty mud.
Lord let me be with my Selena again and my mom and dad and little sister oh please I’ll serve you for the rest of my life and tell everybody how you saved me today when there’s no other way I’d get out of—
The rockets stopped falling.
There must have been 20 of them this time. Giant Voice called ALL CLEAR, and Tullis duck-walked out of the bunker. He wasn’t sure if he’d been praying out loud. His ears rang. He’d pissed himself.
The thought of telling Selena that Jesus saved his ass in Afghanistan made a giggle escape his throat. She’d pull him right down on the floor and make him forget about all of it. On R&R six months ago, she’d called him a hero. Kneeling in the sand, he closed his eyes and saw Selena, straddling him, silhouetted in the blue neon of the motel sign across her street. Moonlight and cool Mojave night air entered through the open window, revealing a landscape of goose bumps on her skin.
“Fuck you, hadji!” A stocky artilleryman shouted, leaping to his feet with the kind of energy Tullis hadn’t felt for months.
Firefinder radar beamed the rockets’ point of origin to the battery. The one-o-five crew’s radio near the bunker crackled, and some officer transmitted from the air-conditioned command post, Fire for effect. Tullis jammed fingers in his ears. The howitzer recoiled violently, raising a layer of dust in an expanding ring around gun and crew. Tullis’ eyeballs quivered with the concussion. The gun on the other side of the FOB fired a split second later. Tullis planted his rifle stock in the gravel and pushed to his feet. The closer he got to a ride home, the more gravity tried to pull his body armor and ammo and water and all the other shit attached to his body into the ground.
She didn’t mean what she wrote in her last letter. When he’d asked her to marry him in Vegas, before he went back downrange, she wanted to say yes. His enlistment was almost up, and was he ever done with this shit. They’d get a doublewide in Barstow and save for a real house.
He squinted toward Pakistan. Smoke mushroomed on the side of the distant ridge, followed a second later by the heavy crunch of impact. A pair of attack helicopters passed overhead to take aerial selfies with scattered remains of hard men who had spent days humping Chinese rockets to the top of that ridge on their backs, propped them on rocks, and lit them off with a motorcycle battery.
Tullis checked the black plastic Casio strapped to his wrist. He’d have to hustle now to make it to guard shift on time. His pants would be dry by the time he climbed into the tower.
What Selena needed was Giant Voice outside her bedroom window saying NO WAY IS TULLIS GONNA RE-ENLIST. NO WAY. NO WAY. After eleven months in country, he was finally allowing himself to believe the deployment would end. They’d still be flying over water when the squad leader started riding him to re-up. Fuck that shit. TULLIS IS COMING HOME.
He’d get his old job back at the car wash. Pull some GI Bill and go to school. He checked his watch again and counted back the 12-hour, 30-minute time difference. Almost 3am in California.
Selena sighed in her sleep. She had a mole behind her left ear. Brown skin against white sheets.
SHE DIDN’T MEAN IT. SHE DIDN’T MEAN IT. SHE DIDN’T MEAN IT.
Steven Thomas Howell is a retired Army officer whose work has appeared in Bridge Eight Literary Journal, Empty Mirror Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. He is a Virginia Center for the Creative Arts fellow and holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Tampa. He lives with his family in Valrico, Florida.