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Monday, September 24, 2007

In Country

This is the next installment of a serialized novel, "In Country." The main characters are Chryssie Rutenberg and Mercury West, who are driving across the United States to sort their lives out. Chryssie is married to John Hampton, but is pregnant with Merc's child. Her husband is coming back from Iraq, and all three have spent time in country. The two spent some time in Las Vegas, before driving across Utah and Wyoming, reaching the western edge of Nebraska...

Book Three
The Plains


"This is what those granola gophers will never understand."

A flick of the wrist, a short throw of his hand, a move of the stick back, his palm on the ball. I felt pressed to the back of the leather seat. The wheels were tearing at the road like that talons of a raptor. A fast eagle over land, into the broadening night of indigo, leaving the since set sun behind us. But the past only sets for a few hours, only to rise and hit you in the face again. You can run from the past, but you will only die tired.

"This machine, puts the power in a man's hand. We'll never let go of it." He said that lika dry martini was in his veins rather than blood. There was no thrill there.

"Merc, I've pried steering wheels out of men's cold, dead, hands. It's already happening. We can't go on like this."

"That's why the only way out of Iraq is feet first."

"I thought you hated the war."

"I do. I will. But I know an alcoholic doesn't stop until he wakes up pissing into his own nostrils."

A Hummer, its high beams slamming through our wind shield and plastering light into my eyes, screeched by us in the other direction. We'd spent an hour and a half taking pictures at Castle Rock Utah, and then cross all of Wyoming on I-80 and entered Nebraska late in the day. Kimball was somewhere up ahead.

A flash of orange from an overhead cloud greeted me eyes as the flash blindness faded. But I was not seeing but remember that orange flash and another hummer on another twilight.

A twilight on the airport road. The air conditioning was finally off, having chilled the cab to temperature of a crisp autumn. The sun was kissing the sky good bye on our left. Behind us night was swallowing it.

I was in an SUV as we screamed along. There were three contractors from Blackwater in with me. One was driving, the other two were fingering their night sighted M-16s. The one in the back seat next to me was rhythmically banging his hand on the door and looking out at the slow moving traffic, a mixture of run down cars and animal drawn carts.

Welcome to the Danger Zone. On this stretch of road I'd picked pieces of people out of petroleum grease. On this road the IED was king, and the ambush was queen, and their executioner, Lord Fear, glares down at you every moment. Everyone in the SUV had their twitch. Whether the banging heel of the gunner in the front passenger side, the banging hand of my seat mate. Or my own. No one can see it, I tighten my hips hard and press my tongue hard against my top palate. There, now you can clean me out at poker any night we play. That is if you can get your eyes off my tits. I know you guys too well, and won a lot of money at poker in country. It's not the tell, it is what it is telling.

There was a face that turned to face the Hummer for far to long. He made eye contact for far too long. I had turned away to look back in the other direction, there was a snap of the window on the other side going down and a brap-pop of automatic fire. My eyes had spun faster than my neck, and it was out of peripheral vision in the bieging light that I felt as much saw fragments of blood spraying. Bodies tore like waves on a rip tide away from the flying bullets.

"He looked wrong." Another corpse where history won't care at all.

The sea of bodies closed around the front of the Hummer. The locals knew the drill, pin us down.

There was a crunch of the clutch. Then a crunch of bodies. I thought I saw a face set like the sun over the hood of the Hummer. It could still be guilt and imagination. But the memory of the bathump-bump of the tire going over something is hard as a brick real.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

We were on the clock. Time was now against us. If the bodies could close in we would be trapped until the next Hummer in the convoy could cut us out with bullets. My own tick eased. I was on the clock and professional Chryssie took over.

"10 o'clock!"

This was all I had time to say, because I saw the wood side of a cart drop down, and very uncharacteristic wires and tied bales visible behind the gaping hole. There were twists of metal tied to nice neat white bricks of plastic.




Tick. Tick. Tick.

The driver screamed out as he swerved, his words following as if lit by a match stick.



It was the last air that passed through his throat.

There was a rip, not a sound, my ears were on "off." The world started moving slowly again. I saw the metal plates leap forth from the IED. The ripped through the front of the Hummer. There was a freeze frame of the right side of the driver's skull cone exploding from the exit of a chunk of shrapnel. His eyeball hit the far end of the windshield.

The cascade of blood spattered over the passenger, who had turned just far enough to see the slab of steel that would penetrate his mouth and slash away the top of his spine. Another chunk had already blossomed open his rib cage, with is ripe red petals like claws spread wide and pretty.

A spurt of blood showered over my face and hair from the headless driver in the front. There was a glittering field of reflected light off of glass particles so find that they seemed to hang in the air for a moment.

I had already snapped my goggles in place and rapidly wiped them clear with my sleeve. I was surveying the scene and realizing that it was not quite time to unstrap, the Hummer was still lurching forward from the driver's last attempt to get us forward.

Good going, asshole: make the passengers die if you can.

My passenger mate had popped out through the roof and was using the heavy weaponry mounted at the top. It's against the rules of war to use it on personnel. He was obviously shooting at their turbans.

I saw a white shrouded body slam into the window next to me. Collateral civilian damage from the IED. His face, eyes rolled backwards in his skull, slide down the window as the SUV lurched to a stop.

I unstrapped. I pressed myself into the front, undid the belt around the driver's corpse and prayed that no one reached in through the shattered hole where his window had been. Fast fast before things went from worse to worst.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Waving hands… could be reaching in at any moment. My pulse was dead even calm.

It was a clumsy reach over him to open the door, which, since it had not even been deformed by the explosion, worked remarkably well. It was not difficult to tip the body, with its high male center of gravity, over and out. The bulk of his armored jacket provided a slapping noise as threw my weight against it. The top tipped and the rest followed and spilled on to the ground. I'd heard one driver joke that dumping a body from a wounded vehicle was "burial at sea."

Sure. What ever gets the job done. I looked right rapidly in time to see an eyeball roll off the dashboard and fall down to the floor. The passenger was reclined against the door, it was at that moment that I realized his torso was sliding at an angle, only half connected to his pelvis and legs. I snapped back left, where there might be some breathing room to push this cow out.

Without even thinking about it, I was in the front, and not even settled down. The imperative was to get moving, and get off the center line of the road. Help was behind us and ahead of us, if they could get to us.

I slapped my foot on the gas, and down shifted to get us moving. At the same time I swerved the half of the steering wheel still attached to the column hard to the left. People fled and scattered. One was standing there with a cell-phone. His fingers were starting to dial in a second bomb.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

The never moved, a blade of bullets cut him in two from above me. We were off the road and through the side veil of traffic. There was open space between the side of the road and an I could swerve us straight and get serious acceleration going. I thought if our driver had been less brainless while alive than he was dead, he'd have turned us away from the IED, and let the armored back of the Hummer perform it's intended function, and stop the metal shards.

Well at least he can shoot. That's all you can ask from a guy sometimes, that they shoot straight and don't misfire.

Wind was pouring through the gaping hole, but the engine was reading and we were loose. I picked myself up brushed my short skirt flat, and then methodically reached around and strapped myself in. I lusted to get my foot to push the accelerator to the floor.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Like bursting out of night time fog we flushed through the dust, the comet streaks of blood reflecting a patch of headlights and lanterns. But suddenly there was nothing but open in front of me.

The Hummer began to tip, I'd gone too far up the berm. I steered into the tip and felt the wounded whale flop down on to all four wheels. My hand jerked us up a gear. I wasn't the smooth driver that, at that moment, I'd have traded my whole arsenal of nursing skills to be. The whole chunk of metal lurched.

"Watch it lady, or I will be in two pieces."

"No one down here but us body parts. Still think I'm just a pussy?" He and his buddies had joked when they thought I was just out of range about how they were going to drive into "every hole she has." The recently departed driver had said that he liked driving "ice cold cunts" recklessly, so they would grab on to him and get all pulsed up, and thus want some affection. Good god I hate men like that.

"No ma'am."

"Just remember that."

"Yes. Ma'm." His voice shook. It was sinking in that we had come precious inches from being pink mist. Yes, hun, I've seen tougher boys than you turned into a good little girls by a few days in the Ghraib. We do things there that they don't have names for out country.

And if I were as cold as ice, I'd have melted along time ago in the hot Iraqi sun.

We were on open road, leaving the carnage behind to be cleaned up by god knows who. I was pretty sure that the remains of the driver would show up on Al-Jazeera sometime soon. I wasn't wrong.

My hand shifted us into overdrive and we hit 65 MPH. The engine was the only thing that was racing. I flipped on the high beams and saw the outlines of the international airport start to emerge along the ground clutter. My eyes were sharp, looking for follow up to the previous IED. But we were home free. And I hadn't broken a sweat.

I did get a wicked smile once when I had a SNE.


Private joke from my nursing graduating class. I was giddy, light, alive. Grinning.

"Somebody slap me," I thought "I like this far too much."

I never drove again in country.

The dark present road snapped back to my vision. Behind us there were a rip of blue lights from a police car coming up fast. We were slowing. I turned back around and looked out the back.

"Looks like we are being stopped."

"Sorry, I was…"

"…Not here. No we weren't speeding any more than anyone else."


"Who knows. He could think we look like we are moving meth. Or just be bored."

"People get bored a lot out here. That's what we export. Corn, and bored blonds looking to make it Hollywood."

"Cornfodder and pornfodder?" He raised an eyebrow and a weak smirk.

"You'll have to judge for yourself which I am."

"I already know."

We had ground to a stop.

Merc was sitting his hands resting on the wheel. His body was relaxed. What was the worst that could happen? A ticket. He'd pay it.

The officer shown the light through the window.

"Out of the car."

No formalities. No asking for ID. Something was very, very, very wrong here.

Merc took two fingers and undid the seat belt, allowing the spring to carry away. He opened the door slowly. And hands in the air and clearly visible swung one leg and then the other, out.

Another officer was now tapping his flashlight against my window.

"You too."

No miss or ma'am. This, was bad. I studied the hollows of his young face. He didn't have a trace of the fat men acquire as they age. He was still a hard young man, driven and riven by hormones. His cheeks were still soft from not having been shaving that long, his neck was pencil thin. His eyes gave that blank stare that betrayed nothing about intentions, but the slight twist of his grin said that he surely had them. I know a man with malice aforethought.

I follow Merc's careful slipping out of the car without doing anything to raise any ire.

"Hands against the roof of the car. Both of you."

I got stone cold calm. I knew what was coming, in idea, if not detail.

My hand rested firmly on the roof of the car, hot from the long drive in the sun. I felt his stick bang back and forth on my inner thighs, urging me to spread my legs further. I could feel the fabric of my skirt tighten. I had dark thigh highs on to hide the festivities of the previous evening.

He lightly tapped the outside of my legs and my hips with the stick.

He rapped my waist, and pushed up under my arms.

He ran the tip down the base of my spine.

He poked me in the cleft between my hips.

He slide the length of the stick between my legs, and then pulled it along the surface of my thong, until I could feel my pubic hair grind into my skin.

I didn't move. And I was as calm as on that day on the airport road. Just get it over with creep, I'm not going to melt in your mouth or in your hands.

He sawed the stick back and forth a few times, hoping for some jerk or reaction from me. I didn't even clench, because I knew he would use that as an excuse at some point for a full cavity search.

He repeated the whole drill. There was the obligatory groping disguised as a pat down. If he was looking for moisture, he wasn't going to find any on any part of my body.

At this point a second state police car arrived.

"I've called it in. This the car. These two are going in."

Merc's voice cut through.

"Are you at least going to tell us what we are under arrest for."

"The owner of this car was found dead this morning. We are taking you in on suspicion of his murder."

I looked across the car to see Merc's face wince in pain.

It was his friend's car. His best friend from in country.

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