by Bárbara Mujica
Dan Lesko knew he would kill someone that morning.
He picked up his M40 and laid it gently on the table, along with a bore brush, a cleaning rod, and solvent. It’s a painstaking operation, cleaning a gun. This one, a bolt-action sniper rifle, was Dan Lesko’s sweetheart. It was more trustworthy, responsive, and predictable than any woman he had ever known. Sleek too. And beautiful. He stroked each part—the barrel, the stock. Then he massaged the scope with lens paper.
“Okay, honey,” he said to the inert piece of metal and fiberglass. “We’ve got a job to do. Let’s go do it.”
The orders had come down the day before. Insurgents held a remote village on the outskirts of Rutbah, where they planned operations against Americans. Dan and his men had to flush them out, starting with their leader, Karim.
“It’s like Fallujah,” the captain had said. “Only smaller. The whole place is booby-trapped.”
Except for a few old men, all the civilians had moved out, because even the locals couldn’t navigate through the neighborhoods. The roads were alive with mines, and only the insurgents knew where they were. The Marines called the town Volcano City—even though the terrain was perfectly flat—because it was always erupting. The Americans did manage to dismantle quite of few of the IEDs, but Karim kept putting in new ones. Every team of Marines that had gone in before Dan’s had suffered casualties. Deaths. Blown-up legs. One team started out with seventeen men and wound up with five. One of Dan’s best friends, a kid named Tony, had marched into the village a cocky twenty-year-old and returned home a double amputee.
Dan and his men would move out at 2:30 in the morning. Since they had thermal optics and the insurgents didn’t, the Marines could go in under cover of darkness and take their places before dawn. Sometime early in the morning, Karim would lay an IED in the only passable road in town—a sandy trail strewn with debris that Al-Qaida knew the Marines would have to travel. “Avenue of Death,” the guys called it. Dan went over the aerial photographs showing countless scorched and flattened dwellings. Finally he spotted a blown-out edifice that still had a roof. As staff sergeant, he would lead the squad of eleven men to the Avenue of Death and then to the abandoned building. Then they would wait for Karim.
Ironic, thought Dan. Karim meant “generous,” “noble,” “friendly,” but this guy was the deadliest motherfucker in the pack. An expert IED-maker. An excellent shot. And ruthless. Rumor had it that he routinely gunned down children in front of their parents in order to coerce the fathers into cooperating with the rebels. First the youngest, and then, if Papa didn’t go along with him, the next one…and so on. Dan couldn’t wait to put a bullet between this guy’s eyes.
He lit a cigarette and noticed with satisfaction that his hands weren’t shaking. Karim would have backup, of course, but the Americans were all first-rate snipers. Dan had been winning prizes in marksmanship since he was a kid, and the others on the team were almost as good.
“Karim and his guys have it coming,” Dan said to himself. “They’re scum. They kill children. They plant bombs in schools and marketplaces. They deserve what we’re gonna do to them.” He inhaled deeply on his cigarette and caressed his rifle one last time. “They have it coming, don’t they, sweetheart?” he said to his gun. “They really have it coming.”
Dan had seen Karim but he didn’t know what the guy looked like. The terrorists wore black stockings over their heads to hide their faces. Dan closed his eyes an instant and imagined his nemesis. Penetrating eyes, black mustache, stubbly chin. Dan took another puff on his cigarette and imagined Karim planting the IED—maybe something as simple as a can with explosives and nails in it rigged up to a power supply such as a battery and detonated by a trip wire. Or maybe something more sophisticated than that. It didn’t matter what it was, though, because Dan was going to bring him down before he laid his friggin’ bomb.
In his mind’s eye he could see the insurgent crouching in the street. He could feel his own blood pulsing, his muscles growing tense, his eyes focusing. He could smell his own sweat, slightly sweet, slightly acrid. He swallowed and steadied his breath. He felt himself pull the trigger. In his mind’s eye he could see Karim’s head explode like a king-sized jar of salsa. Blood like tomato juice running into the gravel. Bam. Another shot. Muscle and flesh far and wide. Human hamburger. A feast. A veritable fucking feast…for a vulture.
“He’s scum,” Dan told the rifle. “Don’t feel bad about it. We’re the good guys.”
By 2:30 a.m. they were in their trucks and pulling out. The men—all eleven of them—were wide awake, high on adrenaline. No one felt like talking. Dan stared at the moon hanging in the sky, white as a ghoul.
Dan thought about his mother. Iraq was seven hours ahead of the East Coast. Back home in Westlake Corner, it would be a bit after 7:30 in the evening. Mom would be washing up the dinner dishes, listening to the news on the radio, flinching every time the announcer mentioned Ramadi, or Mosul, or Baghdad. He had made sure that she never knew exactly where he was. He sent periodic e-mails:
“Everything is fine, Mom. Don’t worry about a thing.”
“But I just read that a car bomb went off in Ramadi! Were you there? Were you hurt?”
“No, Mom. It didn’t go off anywhere near me! I’m actually nowhere near Ramadi.” Dan hated lying to his mother. “Everything’s pretty calm here where I am. No need to worry.”
“Where are you?”
“Classified information, Mom. I can’t tell you.”
He called her right after they shipped Tony off to the medical center in Landstuhl to have his legs amputated. He kept his voice steady, but he could hear the strain in hers.
“Are you okay, Dan? I worry.”
“I’m fine. Hey, the cookies you sent were delicious. Me and the guys loved them. You’re the greatest, Mom!”
“But I just read…”
“Don’t believe the newspapers, Mom. Those journalists don’t have a rat’s ass of an idea what’s going on.”
Sometimes he chatted with his sister, Kayla, by Internet.
“U no,” wrote Kayla, “Mom’s a mess. Doctor forbade her to read papers or watch the news.”
“Sounds like she’s doing it anyway.”
“Westlake C News has nothing about I’q anyhow, but she watches TV and checks the Net all the time. She’s obsessed. CNN, ABC, Fox. And every news web site you can imagine. All the time. It sucks.”
“Hey, pig-face, you got a boyfriend yet?”
“Don’t change the subject, Dan. How’s your friend Tony?”
“He’s fine. Listen, pig-face, gotta go. Watch over Mom. How’s Dad, by the way?”
“He’s killing himself w/ work. Puts in about fifteen hours a day at the hardware store. Probably so he doesn’t have to think too hard about what’s going on with u. Doctor says his bl’d pressure is off the charts.”
“Don’t tell Mom.”
“Of course not. But I’m trying to get him to lose weight. Hey, Dan, u miss Virginia? It’s beautiful here in April. The forsythias r in bloom.”
“Ain’t nothing here in bloom, pig-face. Just sand and more sand, everywhere you look.”
“Stay safe, Dan.”
“Gotta go, Kayla.”
“Bye, sweetheart. Take care of Mom.”
Dan imagined his mother hanging up the dishtowel and sitting down at the kitchen table to grade homework papers. Her fourth-grade class would be just be starting long division now—26 into 832, 43 into 961. It’s what kept her going—teaching arithmetic and spelling to twenty boisterous brats every year.
The moon’s macabre pallor cast a muted beam on the metal of the truck. “Good a time as any to kill somebody,” muttered Dan under his breath. He lit a cigarette and wondered if his mother had any idea that, at that very moment, he was on his way to take a man’s life.
“My son’s a Marine sniper in Iraq!” she told her friends proudly. Did she have any idea what that meant? Dan wondered.
And then another thought came to him: Karim had a mother too. What would she do when she found out her son was dead? Would she sob? Would she rend her clothes and tear her hair in the privacy of her home? Would she throw herself over his body at the public funeral? “Serves her right for raising a murderer,” Dan said aloud to nobody.
They left the trucks about a mile from the town, well hidden behind some burned-out sheds, and walked the rest of the way.
“They’ve got it coming,” muttered Bobby as he trudged along beside Dan. Bobby was a black-haired kid from South Dakota—part American Indian, maybe, or maybe something else. “They certainly do,” said Dan. “They’ve got it coming.”
“The way they murder children right in front of their parents.”
Twenty-three, stocky, fierce in battle, Bobby was, in Dan’s opinion, a Marine’s Marine. “Bravest kid I know,” was what Dan said about him.
“It’s unfathomable,” muttered Brian, a stocky, tough-looking, brown-haired guy from Alabama. Brian’s job was to dismantle IEDs, and he was damn good at it. Dan thought he was lucky to have such good men on his team.
“When God passes judgment on us all,” whispered Bobby, “he’s going to send Karim and all his ilk right to hell. I don’t know what He’ll do with me, but I’m sure He’ll shove Karim into the express elevator down.”
“Amen,” whispered Brian.
When they got to the Avenue of Death, the men moved into single file, and Bobby took his place at the head of the line. It was his job to test the road for explosives each step of the way so that the others could follow. Metal detector in hand, he checked a tiny swath, then stepped forward. The Marines followed. Then they repeated the procedure over and over again. Everyone knew that one missed spot could mean that Bobby or someone else would step on an explosive and be blown to smithereens. Finally, Dan spotted the roofed building he had seen in the aerial photo. Half the men advanced gingerly into the structure and took their places. The other half took positions on the other side of the road.
As soon as the first group set foot inside the house, the metal detector went nuts.
“The whole place is booby-trapped,” whispered Bobby.
“We’ve got to get to the roof,” said Dan, “but without stepping on anything.”
“We’ll have to move slowly—but quickly,” said Bobby. “I’ll take each one up separately. It’s the only way.”
One by one, each Marine followed Bobby. Inch by inch, pace by pace, Bobby verified that the next step would be safe, standing on the spot in question himself, then signaling his buddies to advance. Dan told the radio operator to check in with the guys across the road and looked at his watch. It was 0515 a.m.
“He’ll be by at any time,” said Dan, his eyes fixed on the band of rubble and garbage that passed for a street in this godforsaken town.
By 10 a.m., there was still no sign of Karim.
“Y’all know what I want?” exclaimed Brian. “I want a large rib-eye steak, medium rare, three eggs, and some grits.”
Dan chuckled. “Here,” he said, throwing him an MRE, “eat this! Meal Ready to Eat. Between twelve hundred and five thousand calories. Official issue of the U.S. Military.”
“Shit,” mumbled Brian. “You know what MRE really stands for, don’t ya? Meal Rejected by Everyone. I can’t stand this crap anymore.” He opened his package of spaghetti and meatballs, fished out the plastic spoon, and began to slurp.
“You know what I want?” chimed in Bobby. “I wanna get laid!”
“Fat chance!” teased Brian. “There ain’t even a nanny goat around here. If there were, I’d fuck her myself!”
Dan wasn’t hungry and he wasn’t horny. He wasn’t even tired. Every muscle in his body was tensed and ready for action. “Won’t be long now, sweetheart,” he whispered to his rifle.
He peered up and down the road. It was almost noon and the scorching sun was bearing down on the roof.
“Where the fuck is this guy?” muttered Bobby.
“Why? You got a date or something? Or maybe a board meeting? He’ll be here any minute.”
But of course there was no telling when he’d be there.
By mid-afternoon he still hadn’t appeared. Dan put down his rifle and crawled to a corner to urinate. “Don’t blink,” he whispered to the others. “Not even for a second.”
At 1938—7:38 p.m.—one of the guys on the other side of the road hissed through the radio: “Where is this fucking bastard? It’s dark already!”
“He’ll be here.”
“He probably won’t come at night.”
“Probably not. But you never know.”
This is the worst part, thought Dan. The waiting. The tedium. Time seemed to travel at the pace of a drunken caterpillar. “He’s playing mind games with us,” said Dan to himself. “Usually he works in the morning, but today he’s going to delay in order to throw us off. He’s smart, this guy Karim. A real smart son-of-a-bitch. But we’re smarter. Whenever he gets here, we’re going to send him right off to Jannah, that so-called Qu’ranic paradise where Allah will give him seventy-two virgins, white-skinned and bald beneath the eyebrows, and he can fuck all day long. Or maybe not. More likely he’ll go to Jahannam, the hell reserved for sons-of-bitches like him, baby-killers and torturers.
“Allah has no use for guys like you, I’m sure of it,” Dan said to the absent Karim under his breath. “Allah doesn’t want his followers mowing down innocents. Your Day of Judgment is coming, Karim, and Allah is going to send you directly to the deepest circle of hell.”
It was almost dawn.
What if things turn out differently than anticipated? Dan thought suddenly. What if Karim and his men somehow popped out of nowhere and took them all down? “What if I shoot and miss, and then Karim turns my brains into guacamole? God, I don’t want to check out in this godforsaken hole in the ground. Mom would die of grief. Dad might have a heart attack.” Dan took a deep breath and hardened his jaw. “Stop it!” he said to himself. “You’re falling right into Karim’s trap. This is just what he wants. To debilitate us.”
It wasn’t until about 1045 the next morning that Bobby detected movement on the road. Dan squinted into the glare. He had been on watch for some thirty hours with just an occasional catnap, but he was alert and his senses were sharp.
Three figures came into view.
“Shit!” whispered Bobby.
“Hold your fire!” ordered Dan. He turned to the radio operator. “Tell the guys across the street to hold their fire.”
“But Sergeant Lesko!” countered Bobby. “We have our orders!”
“Don’t shoot!” commanded Dan.
The three figures were more visible now—a man, a woman, and a little boy of about six or seven. Just like Karim to pay some desperate, starving family to do his dirty work, thought Dan.
“They’re putting in an IED,” said Bobby. “We have to take them out. That bomb could kill Americans.”
Dan knew he had exactly three seconds to make a decision. He was a good enough shot to pick off the father and leave the woman and child unharmed.
“No. Hold your fire.”
The family went to work putting in the bomb—a container, a plate—right in the middle of the narrow corridor. Inevitably, anyone using the road would step on it. They were remarkably efficient. Now they were covering it with dirt. In a moment, they would be fleeing.
“I’m not bringing down that guy in front of his kid, Bobby. I couldn’t live with myself.”
“If we shoot that man, we’ll have made an enemy for life. That little boy will never stop hating the Americans who killed his father and in ten years, I guarantee he’ll be a terrorist. How’d you feel if someone mowed down your dad right in front of you?”
“Okay, you’re right, Sergeant Lesko. But Al-Qaida isn’t so generous.”
“That’s the difference between them and us.”
“Okay. I guess it’s a judgment call.”
“I want to be able to sleep with a clear conscience.”
“What about Karim?”
“He’s around here somewhere. He expected us to take out the family and then run outside to pick apart the bomb so he could blast us.”
“Well,” said Brian. “I have to dismantle the motherfucker before it blows somebody up.”
Dan sighed. “No, I’ll go. I made the call. It’s up to me to dismantle it.”
“But Sergeant Lesko, it’s my job…”
“I have to do it,” Dan interrupted him.
Dan crawled down to the ground floor. He approached the opening that had once been a door, and then gingerly stepped outside.
Suddenly, a call came from across the street: “Move back, Sergeant Lesko! Get back inside!”
Dan took a step backward.
A barrage of fire. The piercing tac-tac of four or five weapons discharging at once. Dan thought it sounded like an avalanche of stones falling from a spectacular height.
“They got him!” screamed Bobby. He’d scrambled downstairs and was standing next to Dan. “The guys from the other side of the road shot him! He was waiting for us to come out. He was going to detonate the thing himself with a cell phone. The guys caught sight of him lurking behind a pile of rubble.”
“Anybody with him?”
“Doesn’t look like it, but the guys from the other side are searching.”
“I’m gonna go take apart the bomb,” said Brian.
Bobby grinned. “Wish I could have brought the bastard down myself,” he said.
“Yeah, me too. But it doesn’t matter,” said Dan. “It really doesn’t matter at all.”
Bárbara Mujica is the mother of a U.S. Marine, Captain Mauro Mujica-Parodi, who served two tours in Iraq. She is Faculty Adviser to the Student Veterans Association and co-facilitator of the Veterans Support Team at Georgetown University, where she is a professor of Spanish Literature. In February 2015 she received the Presidential Medal from the University for her work on behalf of student veterans. In May 2015, she won First Prize in the Maryland Writers’ Association fiction competition for her story “Jason’s Cap.” Her novels are Frida (Overlook 2001), Sister Teresa (Overlook 2007), and I Am Venus (Overlook 2013).