This short story is part of our Global Dystopias project.

Martinez said nothing in-country was as hard as El Paso. He came up around the gangs plaguing both ends of the city. But his uncle was some sort of sheriff, and this was why he’d enlisted—to escape the anxiety of influence, and rent, and child support, and also for the GI Bill.

I told him he was full of shit.

You grew up in San Antonio, I said.

You only fucking know that because I told you, said Martinez.

Offering the country our unearned patriotism, we’d be the best of both worlds. The best of all worlds. A reminder of our home nation’s limitless short-term memory.

We were medics. The deployment was winding down. The unit had shipped us from one corner of this dusty little country to the other. Our home nation had obliterated it, we’d pillaged and plowed and pissed on it, for decade after unproductive decade, through drought and famine and fallout. We’d elected their leaders and torn them down and choked them with democracy. Then we’d resuscitated their anarchy. Then we’d taken that from them too.

The vids from five years ago figured we’d be here for fifty more. I’d watched them in the group home, and now here I was.

Seven months passed downrange. We had four more to go. Besides the IEDs, and some midnight mortars, and the NCOs we caught fucking over easels at Sick Call, all of our excitement came from Martinez and Sergeant Dawson. They were always arguing. Always over nothing.

Martinez hadn’t given her the sitrep. Martinez left transpo off of the 9-Line. One time he hadn’t clipped his ammo to his LBV, and when Dawson called him out on it, Martinez shrugged, like what the fuck.

I’m no Rambo, said Martinez.

You’re whoever the fuck I tell you to be, said Dawson.

Roger. Whatever.

I give you makeup, you’re Bette fucking Davis, said Dawson.

Our unit’s leadership had stuck us with the region’s Special Forces platoon. Their support team needed support. It made no fucking sense. But we’d heard stories about those guys, from way back on the FOB—they burnt down villages, took selfies with corpses. They’d just spent twelve weeks dropping fire from the sky.

Now their outpost looked like a postcard. Kids played soccer barefoot. Women bared their ankles. If you cropped us out, no one would know, you’d think you had the wrong war.

Dawson was one of those middle-aged black women trapped in a teenager’s body. It’s still one of the great mysteries. She kept her sons’ faces under her helmet. In the photo, they stood stoic, with Dawson cheesing in some chair. One was gap-toothed. The other was taller. Dawson thumbed them to stay awake.

Once, on a nothing day, I asked her if they’d thought of enlisting. Dawson looked away for a long time, long enough for me to lose interest.

The oldest one’s Martin, she said. His brother’s Malcolm.

I looked at her.

Oh, I said.

You got kids, she said.

I told her I didn’t.

Good, she said. Don’t ask me that again.

• • •

We patrolled the village twice a day, every other day. It was always hot as shit. The Special Forces guys cobbled a makeshift perimeter. Their demeanors were practiced. They fingered their triggers. Everyone wore the goggles, and the shades, and the gloves, but it didn’t change the fact that they were always fucking around. Eventually, it became obvious that we didn’t have a mission. Or our mission, for what it’s worth, was the lack thereof.

So Special Forces smoked with the villagers. They lounged against Humvees. They tapped each other in the nuts, spitting tobacco all over the place. Excepting the terps—a pair of stocky Afghani nationals—their ranks exclusively consisted of white boys straight from the posters of every recruiting office in America.

I’d convinced myself, some time ago, that if there were ever an all-black operator unit, I’d join. This didn’t exist, and that allowed me to dream, knowing whatever was in my head would never come to fruition. So: I saw myself dragging a 240 up hills; I saw myself feeding the belt, making the shot two clicks away; I saw myself sifting an infrared through the sand, nodding at my teammates, all of us giving a thumbs-up, all of us highly proficient. Offering the country our unearned patriotism, we’d be the best of both worlds. The best of all worlds. A reminder of our home nation’s limitless short-term memory. I’d thought the same thing, to varying degrees, about an all-gay unit, but I couldn’t come up with a name. The possibilities were too daunting.

Eventually, I brought my plan to Martinez.

Everyone in Afghanistan wants an Icy Hot, he said.

But you’re half Indian, he said.

You can’t call us that anymore, I said.

Spokane, said Martinez.

Wait, said Martinez, fuck. Cherokee.

Two totally different brands, I said.

A snake is a snake is a snake, said Martinez, and then he spat in the sand.

Then he said, Fuck’s wrong with you?

He’d asked the same question a year ago. It was my first day in the unit. The base sat square in the center of Texas, and I’d driven there alone, and I hadn’t packed a bag. I shook the commander’s hand, a graying man I’d never see again, and he’d introduced me to everyone on down the chain. I met Captain Wu. I met Sergeant Thompson. I met Major Jack. I met Specialist Lee. I met Private Bates and Lieutenant Johnson and Master Sergeant Knowles and Mr. Hampson and Private Kahn and some other lieutenant and then I met Dawson filing paperwork at her desk.

She grunted when she shook my hand. She took me to Martinez. He was short and solid, cleaning rifles in the armory.

He asked if I had a girl.

So you’re a faggot, said Martinez.

I’d been in the barracks for all of twenty minutes. I thought about leaving forever. I may not have had enough gas.

Sure, I said.

Martinez frowned. He locked the rifle’s bolt.

My brother was a faggot, he said. Now he’s a bitch.

Tits and everything, said Martinez. Left his wife, but she was a puta. Now he’s got some pocho by the border and I’ve got two sisters and our parents are freaked and you’d never fucking know.

I stared at Martinez. I said that would make his sister trans.

That’s what the fuck I said, said Martinez.

• • •

The village was quiet. Our battles were fought elsewhere. Across holo-screens in Oregon, on the tablets of Congress in Virginia. Here, kids played soccer with Rangers, miming bicycle kicks in the road. Our leadership shadowed the terps. The terps shadowed village elders. Martinez, Dawson, and I passed out Band-Aids, but we mostly did nothing, wishing ourselves anywhere else.

Eventually, it became obvious that we didn’t have a mission. Or our mission, for what it’s worth, was the lack thereof.

Some mornings, apropos of nothing, Dawson made us drop and give fifty. If Martinez opened his mouth about it, she’d add another hundred. Dawson would push the first set with us, then she’d roll over for a cigarette. She’d quiz us on our sitreps, and all of our TLPs, the indispensable principles we’d learned in Basic and immediately forgotten forever.

Once, Martinez told her one of the Army Values was abstinence. Dawson threw her cap at him.

If you were my baby, she said, I’d run the shit out of you.

She just called you baby, I said.

You just called me your baby, said Martinez.

You’d be blessed, said Dawson. You wouldn’t be so goddamn illegal.

They’d go on like that for hours. Mostly, nothing came of it. But these catfights shortened the days, and their tempers had a ceiling. They tap-danced around their breaking points, because we wouldn’t have made it otherwise, and Martinez would shrug and Dawson would snort and that would be the end of it.

Other days, the terps dragged Dawson into town meetings. They’d taken a liking to the three of us. We were the only ones who acknowledged them. The other soldiers nodded their way, or they’d frown, or they’d shrug, but mostly they treated their translators like time bombs, necessary evils for the cause.

It left Martinez and me popping from tent to tent, handing out medicine around the village’s perimeter. Bearded men led us into their homes. Sometimes they’d offer us chai. Their wives mostly scowled. No one knew what to do with us.

One time, a man waved us down from the road, shimmying his hands like a backup dancer.

The fuck, said Martinez.

The kids cheered, pointing at us, the humble invaders, their camouflaged saviors.

The man pointed into a building.

We found a kid huddled under a table. He screamed, rolling over the concrete. He clawed up and down his face, and then his hands, and then his junk, and he looked tiny, with a scrunched up nose, and these ears like fucking saucers, and a woman stood beside him, cooing and rubbing his shoulders, but when she looked up and saw us she stopped all that. She scowled.

The kid hit his head on the table. He had spots all over his arms.

Oh, said Martinez. Duh. Chickenpox.

The parents looked at each other. The man shimmied his hands.

Your child, said Martinez. The boy.

Martinez scratched himself and looked at me. I scratched myself, too. Over the shoulder patches, behind my helmet. Martinez scratched my back. I scratched his. The man looked at the two of us, a little in awe, if not horror, and his wife just kept grimacing, and their kid rolled on the floor.

• • •

Dawson told us we were stuck until they’d scouted the village out. They were looking for informants. Remnants from the last surge. Someone was relaying intel to the insurgents tucked in the mountains. Every now and then, we saw flares pop in the distance.

The first time Martinez asked who it was, Dawson just ignored him. The next time, she looked at him.

That’s why we’re fucking here, she said.

Doesn’t look like they’re investigating shit, said Martinez.

To you, said Dawson. You don’t even know what looking looks like.

So we’re just gonna beat off and wait for eight weeks.

I’m asking you to cool out, said Dawson, and then she flashed us the look.

They’d ask for Percocet, or Viagra, or some other thing we didn’t have. We’ve got Band-Aids, Martinez would tell them, and then they’d smile as if he was joking.

Hija de fucking puta, said Martinez, later on. Fucking dyke bitch.

They went on like that for hours. Dawson rode us hard, and I’d seen soldiers on deployment flip over nothing, but Martinez was inconsolable. He actually shook in his boots. Some days, Martinez felt like my brother, the one person I knew who’d probably take a bullet for me. Some days, I thought he just didn’t like black people.

When I finally asked him what was wrong, he spat.

It’s not that, he said. My fiancé’s black.



We were playing soccer with some kids. They kicked the ball around us. We’d investigated new ways of wasting time, searching for the most reliable, the least likely to get us noticed. The boy with chickenpox watched from the window. Whenever he poked his head out, I’d wave. Most of the children were indiscernible, a grimy mass, but his fucking spots gave him away. He’d wiggle his fingers until his mother pushed him down, and she’d look out the window and scowl. But, a few minutes later, the boy would reappear, wiggling those fingers again.

A kid headed the ball at Martinez. Martinez kneed it toward me. I blunted the ball with my heel and it soared over our heads, into an open window. When a man stepped out of that home, hidden under years of beard, the kids cheered, pointing at us, the humble invaders, their camouflaged saviors, and the man looked at us too, and for a moment I thought he’d wave, or smile, but what he did was pop the ball with his fingers.

He went back inside. The kids kept cheering.

• • •

The Special Forces captain never looked at us when he spoke. His gaze was always elsewhere. Always millions of miles away. His face, it’s worth saying, was structurally beautiful, one of those architectural mishaps whose only fuckup is the lack thereof. Whenever Dawson briefed him on the neighborhood, he’d blink until we’d turned to go, and then he’d call us back. He’d tell us to brief him again.

Everyone else on his team dealt with us. They’d ask for Percocet, or Viagra, or some other thing we didn’t have. We’ve got Band-Aids, Martinez would tell them, and then they’d smile as if he was joking, and then they’d figure out he wasn’t joking, and then they’d ask why the hell we were there.

They told us stories about their last medic. She’d been transferred to Honduras. The one before that had volunteered for a mission in the Netherlands. The one before that had gotten his legs blown off on a night raid in the village. They’d found the man who’d done it, and they’d shot him in the knees, and then they’d shot him in the stomach, and then they’d shot him in the face.

Martinez said, We’re in the Netherlands?

When the Afghanis weren’t shooting back, they were kind.

Amigo, said a specialist, we’ve probably got a squad in your ma’s backyard.

The specialist was a muddy brown. I still don’t know how I missed him. He had curly hair, the sort of guy I’d have taken to following back home. He didn’t shave, like the rest of his unit, and he carried a .50 cal and he told us to call him Hop. He asked what we were there for.

Support, I said.

Support, said Hop.

Support, I said.

That doesn’t make sense, said Hop.

But it’s cool, said Hop. That’s A-OK. We’ll take all the support we can get.

Hop told me this was his second deployment, his first since he’d been a Ranger. He’d grown up in Oklahoma, on one of those farms. His parents raised cows and sunflowers.

No shit, I said. A cowboy.

Everyone says that, said Hop.

My father left my mother for her cousin, he said. My brother got piss-faced about it. So he went and popped them both.

He shot them, I said.

Accidentally, said Hop.

He accidentally shot them, I said.

The cows too, said Hop.

Hop didn’t care for Afghanistan, but he didn’t mind the people. They were nothing like the Iraqis, he said, nothing. When the Afghanis weren’t shooting back, they were kind.

Don’t know how they fucking do it, he said. Hot as it is. No wonder they’re so fucking mad. I’ve got this theory that it’s not even religion, I don’t even think it’s Islam, it’s gotta be the goddamn heat. That’s what’s got them blowing shit up.

Let it hit a hundred and thirteen in Brooklyn, said Hop. See if we’re not planting car bombs, too.

Let it hit a hundred and thirteen in Brooklyn, said Hop. See if we’re not planting car bombs, too.

When I’m out, said Hop, I’m moving to Seoul. Got a buddy there in cyber. He’s gonna get me set up.

Then the beautiful captain called him over. Hop trotted off, saluting.

I watched him go, and I thought of his brother. I imagined him piss-faced in a bar. I saw him grieving, holding his head.

• • •

A few days later, the beautiful captain told Dawson they’d found intel.

The dank stuff, he said. The shit that’ll fuck you up.

Dawson told us that afternoon.

How, said Martinez.

The terps, said Dawson, and we nodded. That made sense.

So they found their guy, said Martinez.

They found the keys to finding him, said Dawson.

You ask what they were, said Martinez.

Who the fuck are you talking to, said Dawson.

Fine, said Martinez. Don’t tell me. I’ll have the queer ask his crush.

Dawson rolled her eyes but she didn’t say a word. I told Martinez he was garbage, a piece of shit, and he socked me in the ear.

The mood in the village had changed. Everyone’s faces turned dour. The terps told us it was cyclical, since the seasons were changing, but that was hard to believe because the only season was Hot, and Kabul grew nothing to speak of, and it didn’t even sound like they accepted what they were telling us.

I fucking hate war stories, said Martinez, and he stood up and left.

That afternoon, I asked Hop about the informant.

Source is here, he said. Just like I thought. In the goddamn village.

We think it’s one of the parents, he said. Probably pissed about the raids.

I’d be pissed too, he said. Pissing pissed. Still gotta find them though.

I told Martinez later on. He was throwing water on some kids in the road. They’d made a game out of it, and the kids jumped around, flinging themselves away from the hose. Our boy with chickenpox had joined in the circle, looking a little worse for the wear, and when Martinez saw me walk up he held out his hand and I went to high-five him and he ducked out of the way.

Bitch, I said.

Hey, said Martinez. Give the fucker a break.

Then he glanced back at Hop.

That douchebag’s out of your league, he said.

You’re out of line, I said.

Y tu estas un puto, said Martinez.

Not in front of the children, I said.

This whole country is fucking children, said Martinez.

• • •

One day, Hop asked if I had anyone waiting for me back home.

Like pussy, he said.

Double negative, I said.

I thought he’d laugh but he didn’t. He stood, grunting. He clapped me on the back.

You will, he said.

His team had gone door to door that morning, questioning residents with the terps. Mostly everyone cooperated, but there’d been a few men they’d dragged from their doorways. Nothing had come from it, and everyone felt foul, and the air stank of imminence. One of the terps called it a shit show, but the words came out funny.

I sat there for a while. I didn’t move my shoulder.

Martinez joined me.

Everyone in Afghanistan wants an Icy Hot, he said.

• • •

One day, the chickenpox kid’s mother hit us up for more meds. I couldn’t understand her. We asked a terp to help us out. They stumbled through their conversation; she’d shout something, pointing my way, and he’d frown, rubbing his hands. His responses were shorter than hers.

Hop wandered over. He stared at the mother. She didn’t even acknowledge him, she kept her eyes on the terp. A few hours earlier, two Special Forces teams had started kicking down doors. It had been their first major operation in weeks. They dragged family after family out of their homes.

They called it humanitarian work but that’s not really what it was.

After she’d walked away, Hop said, Pretty sure we got that kid’s uncle killed.

Dawson was elsewhere. The terp lit a cigarette. Martinez drew circles in the sand. We were lying on a tarp, with our feet up, and the sun chewed at our skin, and everything felt raw. At some point the night before, Hop had slipped onto my cot in a dream and the usual thing had happened, only warmer, faster, and I grabbed him by the thighs, and I took him into my mouth, and I woke up to a mess. Martinez snored beside me, whispering something about stilettos.

Now, I blinked at Hop.

His uncle, I said.

Or his brother, said Hop. You can never tell.

This is a war story, said Martinez.

So, said Hop.

I fucking hate war stories, said Martinez, and he stood up and left.

Happened a few months ago, said Hop. Before y’all made it over. Two weeks in-country, and one of our guys gets popped in an ambush. Super messy. Amputation and everything. And our thing’s always been, they get one, we’ll go for a hundred. So we say, shit. Peaches. OK. You got us. But for the next while we lit up anything out after curfew.

So, said Hop. This kid’s uncle’s pretty high up in the village. Not an elder or some shit. But people respect him. They know. And he’s cooperative, one of the handful who is. Knows a little English. And no frills. Just wants us to make his situation better. Every other day, we sit in his little shanty, and drink tea, and talk shop, and does he know what’s happening, and who’s saying what, and every time he shakes his head like you know I can’t tell you. Then he’d write shit down on these little slips of paper. He’d pass them to the captain.

Intel, I said.

Charlie Mike, said Hop. Names. Descriptions. The first one checks out, so we’ve got ourselves a guy. Things go on like that for a month, maybe two, until one day we show up and it’s not the kid’s uncle who answers. Some other guy. His brother, I think. We’ve already met him once, and the motherfucker didn’t really care for us, and when we asked him for our boy he shakes his head like fuck you. He tells the terp our guy is out. We’re like, out out? Or just out? And the dude just says, Out.

Few weeks later, said Hop, a body’s strung up on a pole. Sans arms. Sans toes. Eyes taped up in his mouth. Sign’s nailed to his chest, but the handwriting’s sloppy and we can’t get a read on it. Terps can’t either.

Hop kicked a spider off his boot.

It was the uncle, I said.

Everyone says that, said Hop. And no. Or maybe. Could’ve been, but maybe not. No one knew and we didn’t find out.

Dude’s brother is pissed, though. His little wife, too. And their kid stays inside for a few days, the motherfucker is incognito. So we bring him some new balls, and he ignores them for a minute, but a few days later he’s out kicking that shit again. Next day, he’s got his friends with him. No harm, no foul. But he doesn’t even look at us until a few weeks later.

I asked if they did anything else for the kid. Hop turned to look at me.

It’s not about the fucking kid, he said.

• • •

One day, Dawson and Martinez had another fight. It was the worst one yet. She’d asked him to do some nothing thing, and he’d flipped out, stood up, and pushed her. Then he stared, open-mouthed, at her, and then me.

Dawson looked no less surprised. They’d never put their hands on each other. It was an entirely new beast. For all of their animosity, that was the line they’d never crossed.

So she socked him in the nose. He landed on his ass. He hadn’t expected it, and she probably didn’t either. But Dawson adjusted, she straddled his chest, and started dishing blow after blow after blow.

A handful of soldiers crowded around us. I looked for Hop, and he was there, in the corner. But he wasn’t watching or anything, he had his eyes on a house down the way, and I’d just turned my head to look when the first few shots flew over us.

If there were ever an all-black operator unit, I’d join. This didn’t exist, and that allowed me to dream, knowing whatever was in my head would never come to fruition.

Those bullets may as well have sliced through time itself. The beautiful captain, grinning at Dawson, was smiling and then he was falling. I’d seen movies where that happened. There’s a sense of inevitability.

The captain hit the ground with a thud. Hop was hit in the shoulder. He spun so fast I thought he was dead, and I ran toward him, angling over his body. I bunched my rifle against my shoulder, because this was, I figured, what I was supposed to do, and Hop jimmied his AR from under his elbows, turning across from me.

We stayed like that, me on top of him, and, I have to say it—it felt very right. And then I felt dread, a familiar shame.

I shifted a little. I thought he wouldn’t notice.

Another clip of shots passed over us. Hop actually looked away from the firefight to stare at me.

I rolled onto my hip. Hop looked at me again before he crawled to Dawson’s corner, stretching out for more cover.

As far as I know, Dawson returned fire immediately. She’d blown through two mags before I even found a target. She’d gotten into the prone position behind a car, and I thought she’d shout, or cry out, or tell us to take action, but she didn’t do any of that shit. She just kept firing.

Hop settled beside her. He looked back and caught me gawking. He asked what the fuck I was doing, and I still don’t know what I told him. It occurred to me, vaguely, to call out for Martinez. I heard someone calling my name, and I wondered why that was. But I didn’t look up, or move, or piss myself, or cry—I stayed right there on the ground. Dawson and Hop had already moved forward.

I heard more yelling behind me. Martinez leaned through a doorway. He was posted with his rifle jutting out of the corner, and I nearly yelped when I saw the chickenpox kid’s father beside him. He leaned from the window with his own rifle. He didn’t say a word when I stumbled in. His wife and their kid sprawled flat on the floor, and she scowled at me, but she made space anyway.

The kid stared me down. I winced back at him. Then, incredibly, inconceivably, he wiggled his fingers.

The whole thing could’ve lasted two minutes or two hours. I don’t know, and frankly, I’m not sure that it matters. It could’ve been one guy firing, or thirteen, or one hundred, but eventually we heard an MRAP in the distance behind us. We heard yelling behind some buildings, and then there weren’t any buildings anymore. And then there weren’t any voices. Or much of anything at all.

• • •

We spent another week in the village before we took off. Our beautiful captain flew home in a box. Dawson walked us through the streets, and there were no bare ankles, no soccer in the road. When Martinez asked a terp where everyone had gone, he told us we’d reached that time of year.

We had no Band-Aids to deliver. No more goodwill. Martinez took some first-aid packs from storage and set them in the middle of the road.

It’s not about the fucking kid, he said.

Hop tried talking to me. I didn’t want it. If he hadn’t witnessed outright cowardice, he’d been privy to something else. He didn’t say shit about it, there was nothing to hold against me, but there’d been a shift in his tone, imperceptible unless you were looking for it, and it really wouldn’t have mattered except for the fact that I was.

He tried once, and then once again.

Then he stopped, because that’s what people do.

We were released as a detachment a few days later. One of the LTs in their unit asked Dawson to stay. They said they could use her, they told her she was Big Time, and she told them she wasn’t leaving us, and thank you, but go fuck yourselves.

On the convoy back to the FOB, Martinez sat with Dawson. Neither of them said shit. They just looked at their toes.

Then Dawson grabbed Martinez’s hand. For a minute, it hung slack between them.

Eventually, he squeezed back. We never talked about it.

• • •

A few months later, higher-up needed a volunteer for the village. They called it humanitarian work but that’s not really what it was.

A lot had happened in the meantime. I asked Dawson to go. She didn’t tell me no, so I checked for the next outgoing convoy. Martinez found out I was leaving, he’d heard it in a meeting, and he asked why I hadn’t invited him. I told him it hadn’t occurred to me, and for the first time in a long time he actually looked disappointed.

Then I’m not doing you a favor if I go, he said.

Those bullets may as well have sliced through time itself.

It’ll be a field trip, he said. I think you could use a chaperone.

The convoy took a few hours. It’d seemed longer the first time. Once we’d stepped off, into the village, Martinez started unpacking his aid kits, and I scanned the ranks. I’d told myself not to hope, and I’d just given up when one of the terps clapped my back.

He smiled. Shook our hands. He asked how I’d been. And then my heart sank because I didn’t know his name. I had never once asked. And here he was, welcoming me back. He wasn’t who I’d been looking for, he had to have seen it on my face, but it hadn’t mattered, he’d shrugged it off—I was here and he was, too.

I told him things were fine. Everything was fine. I told him that I was OK.

When Martinez asked about the Special Forces platoon, I muted the shock. The terp avoided our eyes. He spat in the dirt. I’d wanted to know where they’d gone, it was the reason I’d come to begin with, but I’d frozen up, again, I hadn’t said a fucking word.

The terp smiled between us. He said they’d left a few months after us, on a parallel mission to Bosnia.

Bosnia, I said.

For support, he said.

For support, I said.

We smoked in the village. Its air shrank our pores. It’s hard to find anyone, anywhere, doing the same thing for too long. The terp blew smoke in the air, and Martinez grimaced, and I swallowed some of it, and a handful of kids played in the road, and I watched until one of them looked back.

Martinez flinched too. The kids were short. They all ran with limps. Their hair sat bunched, and bristly, floating just across their scalps, and any of them could’ve been our kid, but we were far, and we couldn’t know.

But then Martinez reached for my arm. He just sort of pointed it toward a boy on the edge.

The kid was dark. Frowning. He had the biggest fucking ears.

A feeling bloomed in my gut. It creep into my toes.

We watched that kid.

I thought about calling him over.

I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t.

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