by J. B. Hogan
Specialist Karl Wagner moved slowly and carefully down the dusty gray street. Less than fifteen minutes before an insurgent IED had been detonated under the lead Humvee in his convoy and Karlís ears still rang from that explosion even though the vehicle in which he rode had been two back in the formation. Immediately after the bomb went off, the convoy had come under intense enemy small arms fire.
Now, as he and the rest of his unit, about a dozen men after the losses, scoured the area looking for the attackers, Karl was in an ultra-heightened state of awareness. With slow movements of his head, he took in the area around him. Run down houses made of crumbling concrete or some stucco-like material that Karl couldnít really identify; a wall mid-way up one side of the street with several of its concrete blocks broken and others hanging precariously out over the road, no doubt a relic from some previous explosion.
The road itself was buckled in several places, a mixture of asphalt and concrete sticking up jagged above the surface. An arc of bullet holes ran across the front of one ragged home. There were no plants or grass to be seen anywhere. The area gave the overall impression of a battered moonscape on earth. There were no civilians, ostensible non-combatants, to be seen anywhere.
For Karl, everything had occurred in a kind of slow motion since the IED explosion. He was a little surprised that he felt no fear. As he observed the troops behind him, the empty street ahead, his friend Victor Teuner across the way, it seemed to Karl that the world turned like it were an old 78 RPM record, such as the kind his great-uncle Josef used to have when Karl had been just a boy, played at 33-1/3 RPM. It was a result, Karl knew, of his training and of his extended tour experience in the war zone. He was experiencing, putting into practice, what his instructors called "relaxed focus."
Relaxed focus was what the great athletes strove for and it was what Sgt. Craft, Karlís platoon sergeant had stressed to the unit from their first day in-country. You had to be calm, relaxed, in order to fight efficiently. If you were scared or tense, you were apt to freeze up, endangering yourself and your whole unit. So, you had to not freak out when firing started. At the same time, you had to be completely in the moment, locked in on every task that the situation required. This was the focus. Together it was relaxed focus, the tried and true method for success. The great jocks had it, used it, won with it. So did the army.
Now, in that clear zone, Karl kept his M-4 Carbine at the ready, listened for any communications that Sgt. Craft might send over the helmet headsets -- assuming the headphones worked, assuming they hadnít been plugged up as usual by the fine, local dust that played havoc with all equipment: vehicles, rifles, headphones.
Across the street, Karl watched Vic, who had been super jumpy since the IED attack, jerking his head in every direction as he searched for the elusive attackers. Karl kept a close eye on Vic, knew he had an itchy trigger finger, that he loved to let loose with his .12 gauge, loved the way it fired so fast, loved the pattern it produced in the 30-40 foot range of absolute destruction.
Vic was as brave as they came, but he tended to be a little high-strung and a little too fast to act. Karl watched his partner almost as much as he watched the streets around him. Vic was not only good with the shotgun and courageous but he had a way of sniffing out trouble. Karl watched him and kept on the alert.
As the two GIs neared the end of a street, where it made a ninety degree left turn into another unseen but no doubt similar road, Vic gave a short wave with his right index finger, signaling for Karl to join him on his side of the street. With a look back at the rest of the platoon, now some distance behind them in the street, Karl slowly, cautiously crossed over.
When he was just a few feet away from his partner, Karl saw Vic wave his finger again, this time hooking it to indicate they should round the corner into the next street. Karl held up his left hand, palm out, to indicate a halt. He then sidled up close to Vic.
"Whatís up?" he whispered.
Vic answered by nodding his head to the left twice. Karl held his hand up, palm out again.
"You see somethiní?" he asked quietly.
"Cover my flank," Vic said softly.
"I was," Karl said. Vic pointed ahead with his finger again.
"Cover me," he repeated.
Karl stepped back out into the middle of the road and the two men walked slowly towards the corner of the street. Because the road made that ninety degree turn to the left at the corner, neither GI could see anything beyond the intersection. Karl moved a few feet further to the right away from Vic and brought his weapon up ready to fire just in case they encountered a surprise -- which would be standard for this kind of situation. Karl had been in them before. They never got any easier or better to deal with.
When the two men reached the corner, Karl moved a few feet ahead so that they would make the turn together. Vic gave him a thumbs-up sign and Karl returned the gesture. They had each otherís backs, he felt, no matter what.
But then, at the very moment, the very second the GIs crossed into the next street everything suddenly, without warning, changed. Karl felt a strange tingling all over his body accompanied by a shift of ambient air temperature. It got a lot cooler, really fast. And it was much darker, almost impossible to see after having left the light of the semi-arid Middle East. It was cooler, darker, louder, and filled with people running in every direction. Karl stumbled slightly, realizing that somehow he no longer carried his heavy army pack on his shoulders.
The people around him were shouting back and forth and at first Karl couldnít understand what they were saying but he was surprised that in just moments their strange speech became clearer until he could completely understand them. It was all very odd, yet somehow familiar. Karl struggled to grasp this new situation because these were definitely not the people he had expected to see around that last corner.
Stepping beneath a streetlight, Karl could see in the weak illumination of the watery, yellow globe, both himself and his fellow point man Vic. The sight was unnerving. Vic still carried a pump shotgun, but it was of a manufacturing brand and style that Karl did not recognize. As for his own weapon, it too was different. Gone was the M-4, replaced by a thick, heavy rifle, a Mauser according to precise etchings on the barrel.
Karl saw as well that both he and Vic were dressed in all-black uniforms, of a style that could only be thought of as foreign and old-fashioned. They wore high, heavy boots that thumped and thudded as they walked. On their heads they wore V-shaped, cloth hats, also black with white stripes along the top creases. On their left shoulders were insignias. Insignias of the Third Reich.
"My God," Karl said out loud, amid the din of shouting people, all young men, who were racing up and down the street, Todstrasse, a sign on the side of a wall read.
These young men, the ones tearing up and down the street, were also dressed in black, but not in uniforms like Karl and Vic wore. They appeared to be gangs of civilians intent on destroying the doors and windows of every shop and residence they could find on the street. Karl wasnít sure what to do about the general chaos but he instinctively refrained from trying to control the mob.
"Victor," Karl heard himself call out, "whatís happening?"
"Come ahead," Victor yelled back, raising his shotgun into the air, "letís find out what these people have done."
"People," Karl cried, "what people?"
"Címon," Victor said authoritatively, "up here."
Karl looked across the road where Victor now pointed his shotgun. Next to several buildings whose every window and door had been broken, glass and wood debris strewn across the sidewalk and street in all directions, stood a small shop, a little grocery store with its front door and display windows untouched by the anarchic violence. Fires burned in several buildings nearby and berserkers seemed to be running all over. Yet nothing had, to this point, befallen the small grocery.
"Wait," Karl told Victor, "we donít have to go in anywhere. Thatís not our mission."
"What about the window?" Victor countered. "What about that?"
"What about it?" Karl asked.
"Star of David," Victor explained.
"Look at the wall. Look on the bricks."
Karl let his gaze drift from the obviously hastily drawn Star of David on the shopís front window to the dirty, once red brick wall of the building itself.
"Juden," he said out loud, not believing the sound of the words even as they left his mouth.
"Juden," Victor echoed. "Now, come on. Inside."
"Take it easy, Victor," Karl told his comrade. "These are civilians. Not fighters. We arenít here to harm Ö."
Karlís last words were lost on Victor, as the big man, shotgun at the ready, opened the shop door and entered the little grocery. Karl hurried after his friend.
A little bell attached to the top of the door tinkled gently as the two soldiers made their way inside the store. When Karl closed the door behind himself he was amazed at how muffled the sound of the rioting outside became. It was as if the interior of the grocery existed on yet another plane removed from the already surreal one outside.
"Everybody out here," Victor barked at the people inside the store. Apparently the oddness of their strange new world had little affected the big soldier. He seemed intent on rousting out whoever was in the building. "Out here where we can see you."
Karl started to say something to Victor, to calm his friend down, but he thought better of it and just kept a wary eye on the situation. In a moment, there were three people standing, terrified, before the two soldiers.
The shopkeeper, a short, thin man in a dark suit made shiny by much wear and little cleaning was bareheaded and his dark eyes, set deep in his hollowed-out face, flitted back and forth nervously between Victor and Karl. A woman near the shopkeeperís age, maybe mid-thirties Karl guessed, stood to one side with her arms around a girl of about ten. A husband, wife, and daughter -- a small, hard working family; what could they possibly have done? There was no reason to roust them out.
"I donít think thereís any reasonÖ." Karl started to say, but Victor cut him off.
"What is your crime?" Victor asked the shopkeeper, holding a hand up to silence Karlís objection.
"Crime?" the man asked back. "I am only a small grocer, IÖ."
"Do you know why the people are outside?" Victor demanded.
"No," the shopkeeper answered. "I do not understand it."
"Do you know why we are here?" Victor continued.
"No, sir," the man said, daring a glance at the woman and girl. They looked back at him, fear palpable in their eyes.
"Victor," Karl said, edging forward and giving the woman and child a brief smile, which they seemed too afraid to reciprocate, "this is just a little grocery. Letís go. Thereís nothing here for us to do."
"Maybe," Victor said, "maybe not. Any where can be used as a hiding place."
"A hiding place?" Karl wondered. "For what, who?"
"For contraband," Victor said, "weapons, our enemy."
"But we are not the enemy," the grocer dared interject.
"Weíll decide that," Victor told him.
"Iím sure theyíre law abiding citizens," Karl said, essaying another smile for the family. The family tried to return the smile. It wasnít working for any of them.
"Whatís behind that curtain there?" Victor asked, causing the grocer to flinch. Victor saw it. "Is there somebody back there?" He raised his shotgun towards the curtain. "Does that go into another room?"
"NÖno, sir," the grocer stuttered.
"Youíre hiding somebody," Victor told the grocer. The man jerked uncomfortably away from Victor. The wife and child began to whimper.
"No," the grocer insisted timorously. "No one is there. No one."
"Really?" Victor sniffed. "Then you wonít care if I shoot into the room then."
"Victor," Karl intervened again, "donít do that. Thereís no reason to do that."
"Please, sir," the grocer begged Victor, "donít shoot. We have nothing. Weíre hiding nothing. Itís onlyÖ."
The shopkeeperís words trailed off with the onset of a low rattling sound from the back of the room. The curtains, hanging motionless before, began to move. Victor thrust his shotgun forward, aiming it directly at the curtains.
"No, no," the grocer cried out. "Donít."
"Please," the grocerís wife wailed, breaking her long silence. "No."
Victor clicked off the safety on his shotgun. Sweat beads formed on his forehead and Karl could see that his comradeís hands shook ever so slightly from the tension. Without hesitation, Karl stepped between Victor and the curtain.
"Donít shoot," Karl said breathlessly. "Wait."
"What?" Victor said, seemingly lost in the moment. He kept his shotgun trained at the curtain.
"Just wait," Karl told him. "Steady."
For another few seconds the soldiers remained still, at a high state of alert. Ready for anything. Then the curtain was pushed aside.
"Oh," Karl sighed, letting out his breath loudly.
"I told you they were hiding somebody," Victor said, brandishing his shotgun.
"Not hiding," the grocer said. "Sheís my wifeís mother. She was working in back."
"Grandmama," the little girl cried out, holding her arms out for the old lady who had stepped from behind the curtain. The old woman looked at the soldiers, couldnít seem to understand their presence in the store.
"Who are these young boys?" she asked.
"We were just leaving, maíam," Karl told the woman, then turned to the grocer, his wife and child. "Weíre going now. Weíre sorry to bother you."
"What are you doing?" Victor demanded of Karl.
"Getting us out of here," Karl answered. "Come on. These are just shopkeepers."
"We donít know that," Victor countered.
"Outside," Karl said, motioning towards the door. The grocer and his family watched the soldiers every move.
"What if they have somebody or something else back there?" Victor said, pointing his shotgun back at the curtained off area. The old grandmother instinctively ducked.
"Thereís nothing back there," Karl insisted, putting a hand on Victorís shoulder and turning his fellow soldier around. "Letís get out of here."
While the little grocerís family stood wide-eyed, watching the soldiers, Karl hustled Victor to the front door of the shop and then outside. On the street again, people still ran in every direction and the noise was a shock to the young soldiersí ears after the unexpected quiet of the grocery.
"They couldíve been hiding someone," Victor said petulantly, as the two men stood side by side on the sidewalk. "We could get in real trouble if they were. We have a mission here."
"Youíre right," Karl agreed. "Iíll go back in. Iíll take care of it."
"Iím going with you," Victor said.
"No," Karl told his friend, "Iíll do it. Stay here and keep an eye on this crowd."
"You better do it," Victor said, but he stayed where he was, on guard, his shotgun at the ready.
Karl went back into the store. The little family had all gathered in the middle of the grocery and looked up in terror when Karl reentered the building.
"Not to worry," Karl told them. "Iím not going to hurt you."
"What do you want?" the grocer dared to ask.
"Get behind the counter," Karl ordered them, "and stay down."
As soon as the family complied, the young soldier gave the store a fast once over. Stepping up to one wall, he swiped his free arm through a row of canned goods and knocked them to the floor. He repeated the swiping on another row and then knocked a few things off the main counter. He saw the family hovering behind the counter in fear. Then, to make it good with Victor outside, Karl stepped back and fired a round from his rifle into the ceiling. Dust and small pieces of wood and plaster dropped down onto the floor. Someone let out a brief cry, the old grandmother perhaps, but then was silent.
"Let that be a lesson to you," Karl said loudly, backing out of the store. He nodded politely at the grocer who stared back in utter amazement. "Never forget it."
Outside again, he closed the front door behind him, blocking Victorís attempt to peer into the store.
"Well?" Victor said. "You really gave it to them?"
"I gave it to them," Karl said.
"Yeah," Victor cheered, then impulsively slammed the butt of his shotgun through the grocery front window. The glass made a tinkling sound as it fell onto the sidewalk and road.
Moments later, the soldiers heard another noise, one more grating to the ear than the softly falling glass. It was a loudspeaker. The voice on it sounded authoritarian, crisp, disciplined. The voice called to the rioting berserkers, exhorted them to further action, to more destruction.
"Letís go," Victor said excitedly, bolting in the direction of the loudspeaker.
"Damn it, Victor," Karl called after him. "Wait up."
But before Karl could reach the next street corner, Victor had made a sharp right turn and disappeared. Karl chased after him as fast he could run. Without looking, Karl reached the corner and made that same sharp right turn. There was a sudden increase in light, almost a flash it became bright so rapidly, and Karl found himself back on the hot, dusty street where he and Vic had been only moments, or was it years, before. Stumbling off a curb and letting out a little cry, Karl caught himself before falling under the weight of his heavy pack.
"What the hell?" he muttered to himself, shaking his head from side to side as if to get rid of mental cobwebs. "What was that?"
"What was what?" Vic called back from a few feet up ahead on the street.
"Vic?" Karl asked, happy to see his buddy back in his GI uniform.
"Yeah," Vic said, cocking his head and giving Karl a quizzical look. "Who the heck else would it be?"
"I thought," Karl began, adjusting the loose strap that kept letting his backpack get out of balance on him. Vic gave him another version of that questioning look. "Ah, just forget it."
"You goiní weird on me or something?" Vic asked with a crooked smile.
"Just walk on, soldier," Karl tried to joke.
"I donít know about you," Vic sniffed, but he turned around and resumed his slow, cautious walk up the dusty street. "Hey," he almost immediately yelled.
"What? What?" Karl asked, already on the alert.
"I just saw a civilian run into that house up there," Vic said, pointing up the street.
"Where? Which one?"
"On the right. Second house. With the funny writing on the side."
"Was he armed?"
"Couldnít tell, he was moving too fast. We better check on it."
"Alright," Karl agreed, "but take it easy. Follow procedure."
"Relaxed focus," Vic recited.
"Thatís exactly right," Karl said.
As Vic made his way towards the house, the men could hear a helicopter somewhere nearby. Probably a med evac chopper, Karl told himself. Beneath the sound of the chopper, there was another sound, sharper, sporadic, cracking. There was a firefight going on no more than a block or two away.
"Hurry up, Vic," Karl said, the sound and the house to house search combining to trigger in him a strange sense of dťjŗ vu.
"Iím goiní into this place," Vic called back to Karl, just as Karl was picking up a squawky voice on his headsets. It was Sgt. Craft.
"Repeat," Karl said into his helmet mike. The response was lost in static. The sound of gunfire outside the muffled world of Karlís helmet increased in intensity and rapidity.
"Vic," Karl yelled to his comrade, "let this one be. Forget this house."
"What?" Vic frowned. "Why?"
"Weíve got to get back to the unit," Karl explained. "Theyíre under fire."
"But we canít forget this civilian," Vic countered. "He could come back and kill us."
"We canít do both," Karl said. "Weíve got to help the platoon. This place ainít right."
"You got a feeling about this place or somethiní?" Vic wondered.
"Come on," Karl said, "enough of this house. Stay on mission. Hurry."
"Okay," Vic acquiesced. "If you feel it, Iím with you."
Hustling down the road, the two soldiers had gone only about thirty yards when the house they had been standing in front of blew. The explosion knocked the door off its hinges and flung it out into the street. Seconds later, a cloud of dust and smoke roiled out of the opening left by the bomb. Vic and Karl stopped to look back.
"Jesus Christ, Karl," Vic exclaimed, "weíd a been blown to hell back there."
"Didnít happen," Karl said, emotionless. "Never mind that. Hustle up. Theyíre still firing over here."
"How did you know?" Vic asked, as the two men hurried along again. "How did you know not to go after that civilian?"
"I donít know," Karl said, puffing from their double-time pace, "I had this sense weíd done something like that before already, you know. Didnít you feel it?"
"I didnít feel anything," Vic panted back. "You mustíve had some kind of weird deal happen to you or something."
Karl began to form an answer but there were no specific words for what he could only vaguely, and very incompletely, understand himself. It was enough that they had avoided the bomb at the house. That was then, this was now. He let the subject drop without answering.
They had a new mission to fulfill: help their buddies survive a firefight with hostile insurgents. There was only one thing to concentrate on, the battle up ahead; and there was only one way to fight it: with relaxed focus. It was a simple thing, really. It was what a soldier could always rely on. It was what kept you alive.
© 2007 J. B. Hogan
Bio: J. B. Hogan is a fiction writer and poet living in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He has a Ph.D. in English (Literature) from Arizona State University (1979) and worked for many years as a technical writer in Tucson, Arizona and Boulder, Colorado. His writing credits include short stories, poems, and creative or academic non-fiction in: The Swallowís Tail, Poesia, Bewildering Stories, Avatar Review, Copperfield Review, Ascent Aspirations, Megaera, The Pedestal Magazine, Dogwood Journal, Mastodon Dentist, Poets Against War, The Square Table, Writers Against War (now Raving Dove), Mid-America Folklore Journal, Mobius, Viet Nam Generation, Flashback, The Mark Twain Journal, Arizona Quarterly, Bulletin of Bibliography, Encyclopedia of Arkansas, The Technical Writing Teacher, and San Francisco Review of Books..
E-mail: J. B. Hogan
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