Everything I enjoy here is an -ine. Caffeine. Nicotine. Nitroglycerine. Adrenaline.
Adenosine and acetylcholine receptors vibrating with the rhythm of a short carbine. Brain boiling over, so hot my eyes are lit from behind like a jack 'o lantern, filthy animal grimace completing the picture of a mask of tragedy.
Fragment of a memory: Close your mouth, son, you're going to chip a tooth. Bearded face. Jovial. A gas station in the middle of rural Michigan. I am 8 years old.
My grandpa wore a beard just like the old man at the gas station with the bear in a cage. The man waving a rifle at me might be someone's grandpa, too. I just blew that man's jaw completely off his head. He had a beard bigger than my grandpa's. I wonder if he was jovial. I wonder if he liked to relax on the roof. I wonder what he thought he was going to accomplish, running out of his house with an AK-47.
Fragment of a memory: Don't hit your sister. Even if she hits you, it's not acceptable. So she hears this and takes it to heart that she can clobber me without risking more than a scolding.
A burqa is darting away, now, instead of huddling with the others. It is headed towards us, in fact, and the area has not been secured. I will absolutely kill that burqa if it takes one more step towards us.
The rest of the burqas are huddled around a crude well, probably enjoying as much fresh air as they can. I wonder what they're having for dinner. I wonder if the burqa realizes I am going to have to kill it if it keeps moving. It's incredible what you don't have time to think about while you're in a firefight. Time dilation is a son of a bitch.
This is all a son of a bitch.
Fragment of a memory: You will return fire accurately and with skill, or you will die. Your time here is a freebie. Next time, the targets will be shooting back. Hollow eyes and a campaign hat. Basic training. Firing range. Kid next to me is terrified of guns and looks sick. I have been shooting since I was six.
My earpiece screams. "SIX, FOUR. SIX, FOUR. TWO DOWN. TWO MORE IN THE GRAPE HUT. WATCH THE EASTERN RIDGE."
More than two in the hut. RPG in the hut. Everybody down.
This dirt smells like shit. It's probably got shit all over in it. I wonder what the turd content of this dust is, by volume. I wonder how much of it is goat shit and how much is human shit. I should remember to tell the story about the dude I heard about who got a bizarre lung infection from aspirating finely powdered goat shit from helo rotor wash. The doctors back home had never seen the disease before. Okay, time to poke my head up and see if I can figure out a way to blow up that grape hut.
The farmer is going to be pissed about his raisins when I blow them up. I wonder if that was the farmer I just killed. Who will harvest his grapes next year?
Fragment of a memory: Let's go over a few basics. Has everyone here used a walkie-talkie when they were kids? OK, look, this is basically just a really expensive walkie-talkie, but if you make the same mistakes you did as a kid, you'll probably die. Laughter. A barrage of technical information.
The grape hut is long gone and the bodies have been searched as thoroughly as the survivors. Males and females segregated. Houses tossed. They were having qabli palau for dinner - my favorite. I find the dish turned over in the guest house. Some of the children are gathering up the scattered dishes and trying to salvage the food.
Fragment of a memory: Never speak to women or children. It is best if you simply ignore them, like servants. Speaking below your station will be seen as a kind of weakness, and it will damage your social standing among those who see it. Even people who may understand you come from a different culture will think poorly of you.
I stop to talk to the kids for a minute, knowing that I will never understand what their lives will be after I disappear back into the night. The children don't want to talk at first, don't really understand what's going on, but in the fashion of children everywhere will tell you things that the adults won't. They're awed by a foreigner, the first they've ever met, and awed by the novelty of being addressed as adults. They ask me to sit down to dinner, aping the customs of their ancestors, and so I sit and pick sparingly but convincingly at the disappointing palau. I talk to the children about the uncles that have been visiting, and they tell me everything they were not supposed to have known.
They know these uncles aren't really related. They know these uncles had a long trip from the border. They know these uncles have Pakistani accents and don't pray the same as everyone else in the family. They know these uncles have a stack of rifles and spare batteries for handheld radios wrapped up in blankets and hidden behind the cabinet atop which the household Quran sits.
The youngest asks if it's true that we are here to steal Afghan women and burn Afghan crops. The oldest calls him a fool. The oldest is ten. Does he think the youngest is a fool for thinking it might be true or a fool for provoking me? I do not know.
The women, tending now to the smallest children, are being interviewed and searched separately from the men. They can all vouch for each other except for one - the same burqa I almost blasted, who is trying to sneak away now. The burqa is hustling like a man hustles. The burqa doesn't want to get shot in the eye slits so now it is holding its hands out from underneath the light blue fabric that looks grey under the moon, and green under the NODs. Someone is already snatching the burqa up and putting zip ties on the person wearing it. There is indignant screaming from the women who fall silent when the burqa falls away and a man is found underneath. In fact, the man's fingerprints tell us that he is the one we came for.
They are a match to fragments recovered from a series of bombs. They are bombs that have been killing people all over the ring road in this part of the province, and it never seemed to be foreigners no matter how hard they tried. Nobody will care that taking this man away is for dead Afghans more than for us. We don't even care.
The man goes away to prison until the next time the Afghan government releases a dozen or a score of IED makers and child smugglers as a personal favor to the Taliban.
The children pick at palau that the men are now too busy or frightened to eat, and I wonder as I leave what their stories will be when they tell them later in life.