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Chapter 1

1.

Technically it was not a sand storm, not yet, anyway. The wind had kicked up enough across the dunes to send up plumes of sand, granules ticking off their standard issue goggles and causing them to scurry to cover their rifles as they hunkered behind Kevlar bags of defensive sand to avoid the offensive type now airborne. The world was brown. Mugg cursed and hurried to zip his trousers and grab up the snapshot of his fine Alabama wife that he had been admiring. With each passing month, he had taken to unwinding himself more and more frequently at check-points and in his cot when nobody was around, or nobody who would care. Pfc. Coleman happened to be one of those who did not grumble about Mugg’s overactive libido, as long as he had the courtesy to turn away to be intimate with Polaroid Cheryl. Actually, Mugg seemed to be a classic southern gentleman, in most respects, full of courtesy and fidelity. For the entire tour, it had been Polaroid Cheryl and only Polaroid Cheryl. Mugg had never once caroused with any of the lurid pornography chips that were passed about the base. Further, considering he still showed the clean photograph of the tiny redhead in her green prom gown to anyone who would stop to look, Coleman was sure he had too much respect for ladies to smudge Cheryl’s honor.

Now, with the sand biting into their cheeks, Coleman squinted through a spotting scope down the hill and across the blacktop highway to the small village a few hundred yards away. Through the sand, one could still make out squat, brown plaster buildings grouped together unevenly in a clump that almost blended into the desert. The rambled streets looked much like the tunnels boring through a child’s ant farm. If this became a real storm, they would not even be able to see to the highway. Yet he could see the ants themselves now, black silhouettes scurrying between the buildings in a panic. To his left, Mugg fired off round after round toward the village with short, flatulent bursts of the fifty caliber. Coleman, plugging his left ear with his finger, would occasionally see bullets chink plaster off of the buildings. Mugg hollered through his face mask, spitting the grit out of his teeth in a brown drool that formed on his chin.

“Any hits?”

“You’re hitting the village, anyway.” Coleman lightly wiped sand out of the end of the scope. “I didn’t hear anybody shooting at us.”

“Hell, I did.” He fired again for a second. “You should pop off a few, man! It’s good for the soul.”

Coleman repositioned on the scope to view the drama, perhaps remember it. He always had the feeling he was in the middle of something he should remember, if he lived long enough to tell it to someone else. If it were clear now and if they were battling the demonic sun instead of the goliath sand, he would have been able to see a white platte-like vision of Riyadh just a few miles away, between the dunes, its minarets sparkling and heat phantasmically hovering over it like gasoline fumes.

Sergeant Hernandez came running up from the tanks parked behind them. He wore a handkerchief around his mouth that flapped up over his chin, doing little to protect him from the sand. “What the hell are you men firing at? You did not radio for permission to fire!”

“We’re returning fire from the village, sir!” Mugg shouted.

Hernandez pulled digital enhancement binoculars from his vest and looked toward the village. He sputtered aggressively, trying to clear sand from his lips. He swept across the horizon with his field glasses, adjusting the light spectrum to see through the sand better, but unable to see much of anything aside from the ant farm. Behind him, one of the tank drivers popped his head out and hollered. Hernandez turned slightly, “What?”

“Priority from zone home, sir! They need a response!”

The sergeant put his binoculars down and looked briefly at Mugg and Coleman, then turned, shaking his head disapprovingly, and ran back to the tanks without a word.

Mugg gave a thumbs-up to Coleman. “Sounded like ‘A-OK’ to me!” He returned the machine gun to the village and let go another burst. Then, an old pickup truck rounded the dune down the hill, careening toward them. Mugg must have seen it too, because he stopped shooting. He wheeled the fifty caliber to the right.

“Shit, man, here we go. Get ready!”

Coleman saw him lower his goggles and hunch over the gun. He ducked down behind the spotting scope to make out the target.

“Three in the front, two in the back!” Mugg hollered.

The truck screeched to a halt fifty yards in front of them. The back end of the fire engine red, all American Ford F150 truck fishtailed sideways, and the front doors flapped open awkwardly. Coleman saw the ants pile out, and he let go of the scope to scramble for his rifle. The tattered cloth he had wrapped around his gun to keep the sand out became caught on the front sight as he tried to tug it free. Above him, Mugg released a salvo from the fifty caliber, and this time Coleman was not prepared. The concussion from the machine gun blasted the side of his head and muffled all sound from the left. He was in a fishbowl, looking down at his AR-17, trying to tear the cloth from the sight. He got it free just as the world blew up. In a sacred and anachronistic moment, he confused the biblical, ground-shattering “whump,” with an attack from the truck. He envisioned an RPG shell flying at the sand bags as he scrambled for the rifle. It was then that God looked down upon them in terrible judgment. The flash of light was so blinding and so penetrating that he squinted behind his goggles and waited for death to wrap him in its final comfort. I’ve been hit. Why am I not exploded? Is this what the shock feels like?

He could not understand why Mugg was not lighting up the landscape with machinegun fire. He must have been hit as well. Suddenly, the southern gentleman screamed. “I’m blind! I’m blind!” Coleman lifted his head and was pummeled by the top row of sandbags as they came floundering down on him. For only a splinter in time, he saw the mushroom cloud rise in the distance over what was Riyadh. He had few somber seconds to process what had happened to the city before the whirling, obsidian tempest rolled over the dunes like a hundred thousand Visigoths coming down on Rome. The sandstorm that never became a sandstorm was pushed aside by a man-made rage meant to challenge the heavens. The world was black. Coleman found himself shrouded in abysmal darkness as the cloud of atomized earth and city and people pushed him through the air, a death fairy in flight, simple, displaced soldier in zero gravity, shot back against his own will, and knowing not where he would come to rest. He faced the sky, gasping, as odd vision overtook him. There was sound too, thunderous whirring over the atomic shock wave’s wail. Something immense passed over head, darker than the darkness surrounding him, round like a small planet. From an anonymous corner of the brain, he was involuntarily reminded of a flying saucer. After ten feet of flight his tail bone ended the odyssey by striking solid earth and cracking, sending a lightning bolt of pain from his ass to the base of his skull.

Pfc. Paul James Coleman of Yardley, Pennsylvania, curled himself into a panicked fetal position and cried out as he tried to suck back the wind that had been knocked from his feeble ribs. His inhalations brought uninvited gasps of silicone grains. The breath of the Middle East arrived in his lungs as he turned over to regain composure. Coughing and covering his face against the continued onslaught, he angrily howled at the sky as a whimper from Mugg only a few yards away confirmed he was indeed still blind. God intended nothing. God allowed the procedure of what was. To Pfc. Coleman, God was now standing on the welcome mat and demanding to be let in. Coleman rolled in the dust and tried to comfort his wounded back with his wind torn hands. Behind him, he only heard yelling, Hernandez, or the tank crews, or who knew who. In front of him, he heard yelling as well. Mugg rolled around just yards from him. He could be heard tearing at himself and cursing. Through his pain, the world was white.

Coleman strained to his knees and felt pain in every shift, from prone, to kneeling, to raising his head and finally mustering a haunched standing, like some invalid searching for his cane. With every bending of every joint, pain jolted through his spine and washed over his extremities. The wind subsided some, and the bleak, brown chaos returned to the world. Coleman raised his head up toward the sandbags, toward Mugg, and saw a figure coming toward him, perhaps one of the ants. This ant was larger than the specimens he observed through the scope. This ant was like the giant, radioactive ants of science fiction. It neared him, staggering, and Coleman found himself staring into the wild eyes of a ragged Arab man from the pickup truck. He looked ancient, but the desert aged men more than other places. Like the mummies of Egypt, it dried them out, petrified them. He could have been forty and windblown. He was tanned like a deer hide and wild as the Nile in his eyes. His lips were caked with the sand and dust and darkened in spots by spittle. He came toward Coleman and brandished a large combat knife, muttering some sacred mantra. Coleman fell backward again into the lightning storm from his buttocks, slapping several times at his thigh to pull his ten millimeter pistol from its holster, finally catching on the grip, and aimed frantically at the man. He was surprised to learn that the index finger muscles are somehow connected to the anus muscles, for, as he flexed to pull the trigger, the volcano erupted in his tailbone once again and he grunted as he absorbed the recoil from the shots he fired. The Arab staggered backward and went to his knees. His eyes sparkled like uncut diamonds as he crouched and spat at Coleman. Something square and white-edged fluttered from within the tempest and attached itself to the Arab’s cheek-a small picture, instant digital Polaroid, black-and-white backing. Polaroid Cheryl kissed the Arab on the cheek. He swatted her away like an irritating fly.

He choked through his sand caked lips, now curled into a snarl. Coleman saw him reach inside his vest, which fluttered open, revealing red sticks of dynamite ricked up like cord wood around his belly. The Arab tugged out a wire wrapped around a small stick, like he was starting a lawnmower, smiling all the time, and he exploded gloriously. Coleman did not have time to think of the ones he loved, as is customary. It was too late to make peace with the world. The world was gone.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferey M. Anderson