“Royal Horse” by Chris Webb

Chris Webb graduated from the University of Houston in 2009 with a B.A in English-Creative Writing and Political Science. He is currently working on a vaccine for writer’s block.

I needed something more than walking alone to the p/x, listening to the sound of the rocks crunching beneath my feet. Something more than worried voices on the phone, missing me, kind words and distant silence. Alone in my room, I had lived a thousand different lives—a thousand paths leading away from Iraq and the war. Fear had escaped me, but nothing took its place.

Christmas had come and gone, according to the television in the chow hall. New Year’s Day brought good news for my roommate, Adam. His grandmother died. He got to leave a month early. All he ever talked about was getting the hell out of Iraq, how miserable he was, surrounded by idiots and stuck in a continuous loop of insanity. His misery amplified my own. He took the opportunity to leave, went to the funeral in New Jersey and didn’t come back. I was glad to see him go and have the room to myself.

By this point, I had taken to popping a couple of Valium at the end of every day, topping that off with Royal Horse whiskey. The Valium was a gift brought to me weekly by an interpreter from a local village. He could have been one of Saddam’s doppelgangers, but I trusted him enough to fill my prescription. The whiskey was from the Filipino maintenance workers. The label was always crooked, and the ink rubbed off on my hand, but I wasn’t picky about the bottle I crawled into.

It rained a lot in the winter there. Everything was dirty, and the rain made it muddy. After a while the filth didn’t matter anymore. It was part of the routine, like mortars, rockets and masturbation. Nothing could ever be clean.

With my roommate gone, I entertained company in my room. It was in a portable building, like a trailer home. One of my interpreter friends, a nineteen-year-old kid from a nearby village, would come by before his nightly shift. His name was Mustafa, and I will always remember him soaked in two days worth of sweat, locked in a holding cell. He had been consorting with known insurgents while working for us on the base, and was seen in a photograph standing next to a table full of AK-47’s and other weapons giving the thumbs up sign. Somehow he was forgiven and allowed to live on the base with us. None of my soldiers trusted him, but I found him entertaining and enjoyed his company, so I invited him over often.

“Sergeant Mick, what do you think about me going to America?” he asked me one evening over a cup of whiskey. “Do you think I should put in the paperwork and try to go?” He sat in a folding chair across from me as I stretched out on my bed.

“I don’t know. What do you want to do there? Start a terrorist network?” I asked with a grin, giving him a thumbs up.

“No, I’m fucking serious. I want to go, get the hell out of this place. It’s no good here anymore.” He was buzzed already. I poured him another cup of Royal Horse.

“Iraq needs smart people like you to stay here. You know, to rebuild the country.” Every Iraqi that spoke English wanted to go to America, and I always tried to convince them to stay. There was a “brain drain” happening in Iraq. Doctors and other educated professionals were flocking to Syria and Jordan to escape the seemingly unstoppable violence. It was hurting the country at a time when every day was worse than the last. Yes, there had been elections with high turnout, eighty percent, but it was just a brief flicker of hope.

“Well, I want to go to America,” he insisted.

“Okay. Then go. You have my email address. Let me know when you get there.” I finished my cup and lit a cigarette. Another perk to my roommate’s grandmother dying, I got to smoke in my room.

I thought about his involvement with the local insurgents. As far as I knew, he had been leading a double life as a secret agent for them, scoping out prime targets in the perimeter and reporting them back to the guys who were always attacking us. I looked at his face, boyish, always on the verge of smiling.

“I’ve gotta ask. What was up with you? You know, when you were arrested,” I figured I could get a more honest answer from him in this condition.

“It was stupid. My friend’s older brother, he was involved with those guys. I would go there and drink tea in the evening. That’s what we were doing when the Americans came in the house and took all the men.” Bored kids

“Yeah, but what’s up with that picture of you and the weapons?”

“I don’t know. They weren’t mine. They were at my friend’s house, and I thought it would be cool to do that.”

“You never told anyone about it?”

“No.”

“But didn’t you think that they were going to be used against Americans? What if one of those guns had killed me? Or someone else you knew?”

“That would have been a mistake.”

I thought about that. His people, his friends and possibly his family turned in to the Americans, treated like criminals. Could I have done that? I didn’t know and decided to leave it alone.

Mustafa lit a Gauloises. He downed the rest of his whiskey, face twisting, head shaking. “I’m done, man,” he said. “I gotta, gotta go to work in an hour.”

I felt good about getting him drunk, giving him a break from the worry that polluted the air around us and clogged our lungs. He was a good kid, and his burden was more than a kid should have to bear.

“I have a friend, someone I want you to meet,” he told me.

“Oh yeah, who?”

“This guy, a soldier from Hawaii, he’s cool. He always hangs out with us interpreters.” He inhaled slowly on his cigarette.

“Okay. Bring him over tomorrow. I’ll buy another bottle tonight,” I said.

So the next evening I met John. He was with the infantry guys that Mustafa worked for. Not a typical infantry grunt, he was soft spoken and smiled often. He was from Kauai, one of the smaller Hawaiian islands, where most of the people were laid-back and friendly. Honestly, I’ve never been there but assume as much from those I’ve met.

The three of us, Mustafa, John and I, drank whisky and talked for a while. I offered them both Valium, they refused and I took two. We talked about the other interpreters and made fun of their different idiosyncrasies. Mahmood was a poet and always looked like he was about to cry. Kareem was a hustler and acted like everyone’s best friend and kept hundreds of bootleg DVDs in his footlocker. Hussein was the worst, according to Mustafa. He stunk and was unbearable to live with. He also showered in his boxer shorts. After running through some spot-on impressions of the three, Mustafa threw back a big gulp of the whisky and held out his empty cup. I obliged.

John started in on how beautiful Kauai was. Images of waterfalls and perfect beaches were too much for me. I lit a cigarette and peeked out the door, then started to take my M-16 apart to clean it.

We drank and talked a little while longer, then they both left. I passed out shortly thereafter.

I was awakened by a loud thump. Then another, even louder. A mortar attack at midnight. The third was too close, spraying rocks and dirt onto the roof. I was wide awake then, and put on my headphones and turned up Stan Getz. He never sounded so good.

John returned the next evening, alone. We drank and talked a bit about our families. Then he asked, “Do you know Private Gibbons? She’s my friend from Kauai, in Alpha Company.”

“No, I don’t think so. What about her?”

“Can I invite her over tomorrow? I think she might like to hang out.”

I twisted my wedding ring around my finger. “Sure, that’s cool.”

“You’ll like her. She’s haole like you.”

“Okay,” I chuckled. The thought of her excited me. What was John planning? A blind date? Was he trying to hook me up with her? A threesome? The innocent options escaped me. I didn’t need those.

After work the next day, I showered thoroughly and put on a clean t-shirt and running shorts. I picked up my room and swept the floor. I sat on my bed in silence. I knew where I wanted to end up and thought about how I was going to get there. I took out a new bottle of Royal Horse and sat it on the plywood table. After the first shot, my mind settled a bit.

An hour had passed when I heard a knock on my door. It was John.

“Hey, man. How’s it going?” he asked. There was a hint of a grin on his face.

“I’m all right. You?” I poured him a drink.

“Pretty good.” He put his weapon down by the door. It was a SAW, a squad automatic weapon. Pretty big and intimidating. He sat on the extra bed and took a drink. “Gibbons is on her way.”

“So what should I do?” I asked him.

“This is a good start,” he said as he raised his cup. I put my laptop on the table and turned on some Getz.

There was another knock on the door. I looked at John, and he grinned. I felt ashamed, nervous. I opened the door. It was a girl with an M-16 hanging on her shoulder. She was plain-looking, round face, short dirty blond hair. All vanilla and Styrofoam-looking.

I let her in and took her rifle and leaned it on the wall at the foot of my bed. I smiled, or smirked, and John introduced us. My face was getting warm, warmer. I knew what was going to happen and I wanted to let it. But my skin wasn’t cooperating. I felt prickly on my neck and palms. I took another swig of whiskey.

“Have a seat,” I said. She sat at the table and started looking through my music files.

“I like these guys,” she said and played a hip-hop track.

“Yeah,” I said. I glanced at John and he wasn’t looking at either of us. He was observing the whole scene and looked entertained. He grinned and lied down on his side, still watching.

I was feeling uneasy. We all knew what was going on. She and I were the actors, he the audience. I had to step outside and get some air.

It was cool and damp. I paced in front of my door, turning my wedding ring around and around. I had never been in this position before. I wasn’t an exhibitionist, and I’d never been watched in the act. I looked around, no one was around. “Fuck it,” I said aloud and walked back in.

Gibbons was standing when I entered. She walked out the door, avoiding eye contact.

“Well?” I said to John.

“She’s worried about this,” and he pointed to his left ring finger.

“Oh.” I quickly took it off and didn’t feel a thing. John smiled.

Gibbons came back in and took her seat.

She continued to go through my music, interrupting one song with another, then another, ten seconds later. No one talked much. We just drank for about two hours, and John fell asleep, still facing us. My skin was no longer rebelling, and I stood behind Gibbons and massaged her shoulders.

“You like this?” I whispered in her ear. She looked at the head of my bed and stood up. I watched her walk over to the nightstand and pick up my pistol holster. She pulled out the gun, loaded a clip and held it limply in her hand.

“Sooo, Staff Sergeant Mick. Nice pistol.” She poked the barrel into my chest, then slid it up to my face. The steel was cold against my cheek. Her dim eyes looked into mine as she reached into my shorts, still holding the gun against my face. We kissed. She set the gun on the nightstand and lied down, never making a sound the entire time.

It wasn’t love, it wasn’t beautiful, but it was exactly what I needed.