By Andrew L. Porter
The sniper’s round finds you. It plows a path through your shoulder and out through your chest, only to be returned once it strikes your ceramic protective plate. The plate is designed to resist even a projectile this size––a good thing indeed if struck from without, but in this case, the round comes from the underside, within your little shell. The plate returns the round nonetheless, sensing no difference between external and internal threat, the round traveling back through you again—a straight shot this time—to strike the opposing, mirroring plate positioned to protect your spine, your kidneys. Again the round travels straight through your simple flesh and you shudder with little, rapid convulsions as the plates return the round across and through you again, back and forth, like a pinball in a bonus round.
This happens so fast that it confuses those around you. One of your men mistakes your spasms for regret, he suspects that you’ve AD’d. His reaction betrays his impression of your combat readiness—asks you, sir, what the fuck?––all while the round ricochets inside of you, trapped by the plates. Its energy redirected, again and again, as it cuts a carefree path through you until it finds an exit somewhere soft outside of you and you drop to the dirt.
When Doc gets to you he finds an awful lot of blood pooling beneath you, turning the dust where you rest into clay-colored mud. Doc tears open your vest and cuts away your shirt to find your chest riddled with holes, like you’ve absorbed a machine gun burst point blank. Stunned, Doc pauses to count the holes. Then curses to right himself and begins, methodically, to plug you with tampons from his improvised kit. Doc calls for others to pillage their own, there being more holes in you than even a medic’s tricked-out bag can fill. Keeps plugging but you bleed out right here, your self a sea of blood and water opened to the earth.
When you sleep deep enough to dream, you dream of the sniper. Sometimes you jolt as he hits his mark and you feel your spine snap and you lie in the dust, struggling to both breathe and move as your soldiers circle around you overhead, silhouetted by the harsh sun, their sweat dripping into your eyes. You try to scream but find you have no voice, it having been taken by the round’s flight through your neck. You are deaf now, also, and silence envelops you as your soldiers hold vigil for you to bleed out. No one moves to touch you.
You die in the dirt, with everyone watching, if you’re lucky. Or, in those dreams where the air isn’t black, you die on a bird, almost alone. Floating above a dust cloud, strapped to a gurney below strangers bent over you with eyes you can’t see no matter how much you strain, their faces obscured by flight masks, your final vision clouded by morphine.
Often it is when your breath slows that you find yourself trapped inside yourself. Suffocating, you try to scratch, claw, and scream your way out. You can hear the ceiling fan swirling overhead, yet you cannot pry open your eyelids or make even a peep, as much as you try.
Finally, you break through with a howl the perfect pitch of terror, tearing away the bedding in your struggle to free yourself. You jolt up, howling and gasping for air, your swampy sheets smacking the floor at the foot of your bed. You’ve awoken your wife—you’ve scared the shit out of her—and she sits up with a start. She knows to say no words, but rubs your back, coolly, to remind you of where you are, now. Ostensibly, you are not alone.
Recoil from her, pile the sheets back onto the bed. Go to the bathroom and fill a glass with cold water from the tap. Here, it is the same. You seek no comfort, but only space—more space than a house might hold—as you hunch at the sink, massaging your throbbing shoulder, where the round passed through you.
During the day, your dreams follow you. You cross a street and sense crosshairs bisecting your neck, wait for the sting that signals the shot, followed by a crack that only others hear. This feeling, it comes and goes––reminding you to blink coolly as you stand on the lip of the curb like the others, waiting for the light to change, you feign nonchalance as you scan rooftops, looking for a rat hole or a darkened open window––but it is not something to fear. It stays with you and you are certain you will die this way and since there is no question, there is no reason to resist. You know it makes no difference and you are only passing time as the round makes its way to you.
While these are neither the only nor the worst ways you could have gone, each could have happened—and has or will—to others you know or knew. And so, what if it wasn’t you who caught a sniper’s round? What if it was only your friend? And you had heard his story more than once and touched the scar at the thick of his neck. Could you still have these dreams?
Could you dream that you are the bullet, twisting down the rifle’s barrel, across the room and out the window, swimming through the air to slice through your best friend’s throat, seeing the red of his tissue and the white of his bone and the blue of his blood before it piles out before you as you punch through him to pack deep into the clay of a filthy desert wall?
Or would you dream that you are the sniper?
Or could you be all three—the sniper, the round, and the living dead?
– Andrew L. Porter left a philosophy graduate program in order to deploy to Iraq as an Infantry officer in the U.S. Army. He divides his time between New York and London. This is his first published story, which is taken from his first novel. Read more here: theroadtokarbala.wordpress.com.