I smacked the side of the plugger in hopes of jarring a few more precious seconds out of its battery, but it was out of juice. So no GPS, and the map was no good. In the midst of the sandstorm, I had no idea where I was. We’d been walking in the storm trying to find shelter for the better part of an hour. Lee and I had our web gear tied together with a piece of 550 cord because we couldn’t see each other if we got more than a foot apart.
When a bad gust of wind drove him from his feet, he nearly pulled me down. I helped him up and kept pushing forward in whatever the hell direction we were going. We’d been aiming for the small listening post we’d called home for the past week, but this was the worst sandstorm I’d seen in the year I’d spent in Iraq, and I’d have settled for any rock or form of shelter that might get us out of the wind.
It didn’t help that the weather was playing tricks on me. My peripheral vision was bad enough with the goggles I was wearing, but I kept getting flashes of movement out of the corners of my eye. I was trying to write it off to lack of sleep, but the sixth sense that had helped me live through Fallujah wouldn’t stop tingling. Lee called it my Spidey-sense.
Over the sound of the wind I heard Lee laughing. When I turned around, he was shining a red-tinted flashlight on the screen of his handheld anemometer. “Hey Cooper! Forty-one miles per hour!”
Not exactly a hurricane, but when it carried a wall of sand directly into your face it felt like one. I shook my head, put a hand on his shoulder, and leaned in close to his ear. “Feels like a hundred. We have to find somewhere to hunker down until this wind quits.”
He nodded and waved me on. We slogged through the storm for another ten minutes. I walked into a mud-brick wall before realizing it was there. I stumbled backwards and knocked Lee down. I landed on top of him and the 550 cord got all tangled. We busted out laughing, but it was short-lived when my mouth filled with sand. I pulled the knife from my belt and cut the cord.
I leaned in again and said loudly into his ear: “I’m going to try to set up a shelter on the other side of this wall.”
He nodded and leaned in. “I’ll do a little recon.”
“Tie yourself to the wall so you can find your way in. One wrong turn and you’ll never find your way back here,” I said.
He patted my shoulder in acknowledgement and unslung his rucksack to get out his 550 cord. He tied himself off to a heavy stone that lay a few feet from the wall and unslung his weapon before walking off into the dark.
I grabbed his pack and set it on the other side of the wall where the wind was partially blocked, and dropped my own pack beside it. I pulled out our ponchos and using my own roll of 550 cord and a series of rocks, went about creating a pathetic lean-to. Still, it beat walking in the wind. I removed my map and spread it across the ground, using stray bits of brick and stone to hold it flat. I searched for a long time with my flashlight but couldn’t find the ruins anywhere.
I dug into the packs again and set out a couple of water bottles and some MREs for dinner. I looked at my watch. Lee had been gone almost an hour. Shit.
I picked up my M24 sniper rifle and slowly turned a full 360, trying to catch him in the scope, but I couldn’t see any further in the storm with the scope than I could without it. I rummaged through Lee’s pack for his night-vision goggles and tried the same tactic, hoping to catch a glimpse of his flashlight, but nothing. I tucked a canteen of water into each cargo pocket, slung my rifle, and headed for the cord he’d tied to the big rock.
I grabbed it and began to follow it. I made it about a hundred yards before reaching the end where it had broken. I shined my flashlight on the end. The odds that something applied enough pressure to snap it on its own were low. I guessed it had been cut, though whether by Lee or a third party, I couldn’t say. I stuffed the flashlight in my pocket and unslung my rifle, holding it at the ready. “Lee!”
As I yelled, the wind picked up, drowning me out. It died down and I yelled again. “Lee!” Again, the wind swept through and carried my voice away. As my eyes began to adjust to the darkness, I made out what appeared to be a set of glowing blue eyes. I raised my rifle but they disappeared.
“I’m fucking losing it,” I muttered. I yelled for Lee a few more times, then found the cord and made my way back to camp. I could only hope that he’d find me after the storm died down. Getting lost looking for him wouldn’t help anything.
But 550 cord doesn’t break.
It was going to be a long night.
I sat against the wall and lay my rifle across my lap. I ate a Beef Stew MRE slowly, trying my hardest to listen for any activity outside of my lean-to. The poncho was flapping so loudly in the wind that a platoon of insurgents marching and singing cadence could’ve walked up on me and I’d never have known.
The stew crunched against my teeth, infected by the dust from the storm. I ate half of it and gave up. I couldn’t spare the water to spit any out, but I rinsed my mouth of dust as best I could and swallowed it. I smoked a cigarette, and then another, willing myself to stay awake and stand guard until Lee came back or until I was somewhere more secure. I was afraid, and all of the hair on the back of my neck stood guard with me.
I fell asleep.
I wanted to go home.
That’s what I was thinking as I watched the angry crowd. I’d been in the Army seven years, but never seen combat. I’d trained for it. Even trained others for it. But now that I was here, I realized my heart wasn’t in it. This wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.
They wanted us out of Fallujah. We’d been told that a lot of the population here used to work for the Ba’ath regime in military intelligence and other government jobs, so it was probably safe to say they wanted us out of Iraq altogether, even though their newly elected town council claimed to be pro-American.
I scanned a mob of people through my scope—safely concealed in my position on the roof of al-Qa’id primary school—looking for weapons, or worse, a suicide bomber. Those crazy bastards liked to hit big crowds.
The protesters wanted the school back open. That’s what one of the interpreters had told me an hour before. We told them we were using the school as a headquarters for our operations in the city, so starting classes the following morning wasn’t really an option. Actually, we’d found a bunker underneath the school full of chemical weapons and one old Russian nuclear warhead. We were waiting for things to calm down so we could get that stuff out of the area for safe disposal. Sometimes it’s better to lie to people. They can’t always handle the truth.
The troops on the ground had already thrown tear gas canisters into the crowd, but it just made them angrier. I could tell that this wasn’t going to end until someone was dead. A shot rang out. I had my eye in the scope so I didn’t see which side it came from. “Who fired?”
“I don’t know,” Lee said.
The troops on the ground opened fire into the crowd. “Fuck!” I took aim at the front of the crowd, firing at anyone who came close to the infantrymen on the ground. At first I was aiming for limbs, but I think I killed at least three people. The whole thing was over in a few minutes. When the crowd scattered, there were nearly a hundred people on the ground, fifteen or twenty of them dead.
I woke up and the storm was gone. It was quiet and sunny and too hot. Back to usual for this hellhole, especially this far into the desert. I was sweating. My legs were buried in sand where they stuck out from under the lean-to. I slid out to pack up the camp and look for Lee.
They had the jump on me. I thought about pulling my rifle up to fire but despite all of my training I didn’t think I’d be fast enough. There were three guys in white thawbs and red-and-white checkered keffiyehs holding various small arms. The one in the middle was bigger than the other two. He had a bushy black beard, and pearly white teeth.
“Did you take my friend during the storm?” I asked. I didn’t expect any of them to speak English, but one of them surprised me.
“Yes,” he said.
“Is he okay?”
“He was when I left him.”
“Are you here to help me or hurt me?”
“That is not up to me.”
“Then who is it up to?”
“What boss? Is there a Sheik out here or something?”
“Something like that,” he said with a smile. He was holding something back. I was caught off guard, and I didn’t like it.
I suspected they were Bedouins from their manner of dress. Lee and I had been sent out here to gather Intel on them, to see if they were supporting the insurgency by moving supplies through their trade routes, so I knew they were in the area. Besides, nobody else would be in this godforsaken part of the desert. But I didn’t expect them to have any real spiritual leader way out here. Or truth be told, any involvement in the war one way or the other.
“Can I keep my weapons?”
His expression remained neutral. “You are tired and slept fitfully. Let my companions carry your belongings for you.”
“Uh huh.” I unloaded my M24 and handed it to one of his men. I unloaded my sidearm and handed it to the other. There was a combat knife and a grenade on my LCE. I didn’t hand them over and they didn’t ask for them, which made me feel a little more at ease. The two men picked up the rucksacks and put them on.
I was in a set of ruins that looked to be thousands of years old, somewhere in the desert, maybe a few miles from my listening post. A listening post that could be in any direction at this point. I didn’t have much choice but to follow them. “Lead the way.”
We walked through the ruins, the baggage handlers up front and the other guy next to me, and as we went we picked up an escort. Dogs crawled out from every nook and flanked us on either side. There must’ve been twenty of them. Wild dogs weren’t unusual in Iraq, but they weren’t always friendly.
“Ignore them,” said my escort. “They are pets of our master.”
“I see. Do you have a name? What do I call you?”
“You may call me Blue,” said the man. “And you are Staff Sergeant Kevin Cooper, U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne, yes?”
I raised an eyebrow at him. “How did you—oh, Lee told you.”
“Sure,” he said. “That would be the only explanation, wouldn’t it?”
I made a mental note to talk to Private Lee about spilling intel to weird strangers in the desert. As part of a sniper team he was trained far better than that. I hoped they hadn’t tortured any information out of him. It was unlike him to just give them my name.
We walked in silence further into the ruins. They were huge. I couldn’t believe they weren’t on any map. In my briefing I’d been shown a dozen different detailed maps and satellite photos of the area, as well as suspected camp locations, trade points, and herd grazing spots, and I didn’t remember there being any ruins anywhere. As a sniper, I have a good eye for cover and ambush points, and this was a great one. It wasn’t on the map or I’d have seen it.
“Where are we?”
“The foothills of the Kaf mountains,” Blue said.
“Foothills?” I turned around and there was a mountain range looming up a dozen miles or so behind us that hadn’t been there before. The peaks were an emerald color.
There are no mountains in any of the desert regions of Iraq.
I stopped walking. “What the fuck is going on? Am I dreaming?”
“Please watch your language,” Blue said. “This is a holy place.” He started walking again. “And you are not dreaming.”
I stared at the mountains, my mouth hanging open.
“Are you coming?”
I looked at Blue, back at the mountains, then back at him again. The two men carrying my bags went into a cave in the side of a hill. Blue started walking after them, and I had no choice but to follow, even if I wanted to run back the way we’d come. Where was I supposed to go, up the emerald mountains?
“This can’t be real. I’m dead. I choked to death on dust in that storm,” I said, trying to rationalize this situation. “Right?”
“Not dreaming. Not dead. Not hallucinating.” We passed into the cave. Some sort of light in the cave gave his skin a bluish tint. A path wide enough for three men to walk abreast took us deeper into the earth. Torches lit the way every few feet.
One of the dogs padded by. It looked me right in the eye. “The truth is what you want it to be,” it said.
I opened my mouth to respond, but no words came out. The dog walked on.
We stopped at a door in the side of the cave wall. “You should sleep. This is your room for the duration of your stay.” He opened the door. My rucksack sat at the foot of a large bed. Lee’s wasn’t there. A large spread of assorted fruits rested on a tray.
“Sleep. When you wake up, you can meet the Master of this place,” said Blue.
I took a few steps into the room, then turned to look at him over my shoulder. “I don’t know what’s happening. Am I safe here?”
He smiled and shut the door.
I ate a grape. It tasted like heaven. I hoped it wasn’t poison. It went against all of my training, but I ate everything on the tray. I crawled into the bed and I slept.
I was out of sight on top of some building in Fallujah again. This time more than half a year later. I’d been concealed here for hours, and there was a boy on the ground in my crosshairs waving an AK-47 in the air. The kid couldn’t have been more than twelve. I whispered: “Don’t do it, kid.” I knew he was going to. This wasn’t a movie. Nobody ever talked them down. They were always too stupid or too brainwashed or too patriotic or all three, and we always ended up shooting them.
“He’s gonna do it,” Lee said from my right where he was spotting me. We already had the target dialed in. I was waiting for him to make his move.
The kid stopped yelling and brought the rifle down and pointed it toward a building where a squad of Marines were under cover, and I shot him in the head. A man ran out of a building behind the boy’s falling corpse, screaming. He bent over, possibly to grab the boy’s body or maybe to grab his weapon. I erred on the side of caution and shot him in the head too. Lee and I repositioned since we’d blown our cover and didn’t want to eat an RPG for dinner. We waited.
An hour later we heard a boom and small arms fire off to the north. We couldn’t see where it was coming from, but eventually an American soldier came hauling ass between two buildings from that direction. The chinstrap on his kevlar wasn’t buttoned properly and the helmet flew off. He left it on the street without looking back and kept running. I waited to cover him, but it turned out nobody was chasing him. Sometimes a soldier’s mind just breaks. It happens.
When I woke up again, I was in the big comfy bed in the cave under the ruins that shouldn’t exist next to the mountains that couldn’t exist. There was a bowl of steaming water and a towel. I’m a sniper. I sleep light. How the hell someone placed this here without me hearing them do it unnerved me.
I used the water to clean up and stepped back into the passageway. I had expected a guard to be outside my door, but there wasn’t one. I walked slowly down the passageway, further into the cave. There were half a dozen rooms full of money and gold, others full of guns and swords and spears and shields. I felt like there were eyes on me, so I stayed out of the rooms and kept moving forward.
I came into a large cavern. On the far side of the room was a dais, and on the dais sat a large red cushion with gold tassles hanging off of each corner. It looked like a pasha’s throne from a bad movie. Blue stood at the foot of the throne. Twenty or more dogs sat around him in a circle. He was conjuring bits of meat out of what appeared to be thin air, and tossing them to each dog in succession. Each time a dog snatched the treat out of the air, Blue laughed and clapped his hands in delight.
I cleared my throat. “Neat trick,” I said.
“Can you teach me?” I asked.
“I can try,” he said. He tossed a piece of meat at my mouth. It bounced off my face.
I wiped the smear from the bloody meat away. “Not what I meant.”
“Don’t worry. Not all the dogs could catch at first either.” He waved a hand at the dogs and they broke the circle and lay down in various places around the room.
“I…forget it,” I said. “I’ve eaten. I’ve slept. I’ve washed up. Can you please tell me what’s happening? Where is Lee?”
Blue turned toward me. I realized that it wasn’t some weird light tinting his skin. My mind stopped trying to rationalize what I was looking at. His skin was actually blue.
“What are you?”
He turned, walked up the steps to the dais, and sat in the middle of the big red pillow. “You don’t believe the mountains before your eyes. You don’t believe the ruins of the once-great kingdom outside. Why would you believe me if I told you?”
I looked around the room, then back to him. “You’d be surprised what some people will believe. Let’s start slow, then.”
He shrugged. “As you wish.”
“Where is Private Lee?”
“May I see him?”
“You will see him soon.”
I paused, trying to figure out what to ask next. “Where are we?”
“So you’ve said. Where is Kaf?”
He folded his hands in his lap and stared down for a moment. “I’m not sure how to put it in terms you would understand. Another dimension?”
“I guess that explains the appearance of a big green mountain range in the middle of the desert,” I said. “That storm?”
“Is how I brought you here.”
“I see.” I sat on the steps in front of his cushion.
“You said I would meet the Master when I woke up?”
“I lied,” he said. “I am the Master here, and we’ve already met.”
“What are you?”
He paused. “I am a Jinn. A genie, I believe they say in America.”
I’d seen Disney’s Aladdin in high school, and that was about the extent of my knowledge on genies. “This can’t be true.”
“The truth is what you want it to be,” said the genie.
“So your dog said.”
I sat on the stone steps picking at a hangnail, trying to process my situation. I can put a bullet into a target from a mile off—maybe even on a windy day if you give me a couple tries. I can lie still in one spot without moving for twenty-four straight hours. I can build a ghillie suit from just about anything. I can kill a man with two fingers on my right hand. I can call in an airstrike accurate within 10 yards. Hell, I can even gut and cook any animal over a fire. But I had no training or skills that prepared me to deal with this.
“Am I a prisoner?” I asked.
“No,” Blue said. “You are my guest.”
“I get lonely,” he said. “I have a very long life, and very few new people to talk to. The dogs only want to talk about food and playing.”
“I imagine that must be frustrating,” I said.
“You have no idea. But I find ways to entertain myself.”
“Yes,” he said. “Would you like to know how?”
“I have a feeling I’ll find out eventually, so you may as well tell me.”
“So true.” He laughed again. A big laugh. He let out a loud whistle.
Lee was led in by the two men who had carried our bags.
“Lee!” I jumped up off the step. “Are you okay?”
“I think so,” Lee said. “What’s happening? Where are we?”
“It’s kind of hard to explain,” I said. “I’m not even sure I believe it myself.”
“Private Lee, please tell me what you know about genies,” Blue said.
“Genies? Like the ones that come out of a lamp?”
“Uh…” Lee looked confused. Groggy. I thought maybe he was drugged. “They grant wishes.” He swayed to his left and one of the men steadied him.
“Yes!” Blue snapped his fingers and pointed at Lee. “Someone give that man more opium.”
“Hey!” I ran over to Lee and yanked him free of his guards. “I think we want to leave,” I said to Blue.
“Not quite yet,” Blue said. “Soon. I have a proposition for you first.”
He leapt up from the pillow. “How would you like a wish?”
“What, I don’t get three?”
He laughed again. “Don’t believe everything you see in the cartoons. But you never will have a friend like me, rest assured.”
“I bet.” I thought about it. New car? No, bigger. A million dollars? A billion? I ran a hand over the stubble that had sprouted on my face over the past couple of days. “Anything?”
“Anything,” he said.
I turned and faced him. “Could you end the war?”
“Probably,” he said nonchalantly. “You’ll need to be more specific.”
I wasn’t sure what to do. “Can I have some time to think about this?”
“No,” he said. “Now or never.”
“Shit.” I looked at Lee, but he had wandered over and sat down on a smaller pillow next to one of the sleeping dogs, where he stared at the ceiling. He was stoned out of his mind.
I had to think. What would end the war?
“I wish…” I hesitated, then thought of it. “Okay, I’ve got it.” I turned to face him. “No WMDs would’ve meant no war. I wish Iraq never had weapons of mass destruction.”
“Easily done,” he said. “But you’ll have to pay the price.”
There it was. “Price?” Suddenly one of Blue’s servants was standing next to me holding my rifle out to me in both of his hands. I took it, glad to have it back.
“You have killed innocents before, haven’t you? You’ve fired into crowds. You’ve killed indiscriminately. Doing so again wouldn’t be a big deal for you.” Blue’s eyes drifted to where Lee sat on the pillow petting the dog. The genie’s eyes went back to me, back to Lee, to me again.
“No.” I slung the rifle over my shoulder. “He’s my spotter. My battle buddy. He’s like my little brother. Not happening.”
“Think of all those guys who died in Fallujah,” Blue said. He walked around behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. “All of the American soldiers who have died in this war. All of the Iraqi civilians who have died as collateral damage. So much death and destruction. So much of it your fault. You can fix it all. I can snap my fingers and Iraq will never have had access to WMDs. That’s what you want, right?”
I looked at Lee long and hard. I’d spent every day with him for more than a year. “I can’t.”
“You can,” Blue whispered. “Think of all the lives you can save. You have to.”
I held the weapon with both hands. I didn’t remember taking it off of my shoulder. I couldn’t believe I was considering it. “Lee.”
“If you could give your life to bring back everyone who died in this war…would you?”
Lee’s eyes met mine and seemed to clear for a moment. “Wouldn’t anyone?” He looked sad. He was my spotter. My kills were his kills. My friends were his friends. We had lost too many friends. His eyes glossed over again and he stared into the flame of the nearest torch.
“You look like you’re feeling pretty good over there, buddy,” I said as I tucked the rifle into my shoulder.
He bounced up and down on the pillow. “Haha, yeah. This pillow is awesome.”
I lifted the rifle and aimed it at his head, then lowered it again. “I can’t.”
“You can save them all,” Blue whispered in my ear.
If I stopped the war from happening, we’d never be here in the first place. I raised the rifle and pulled the trigger before I could think any more about it. Lee looked at the hole in his chest, then slumped into the pillow as the light left his eyes.
“Well done,” Blue said, clapping his hands and bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Well done, Sergeant Cooper.”
I turned the rifle and aimed it at his head. “Your turn. Hold up your end or we’ll see how immortal you really are.”
He gave me a big toothy smile. “Your wish is my command.”
He snapped his fingers and I blacked out.
I woke up at the listening post. Lee’s body was there, the hole in his chest staring at me like a bloody eye. I couldn’t figure out why we were still in the desert. We should’ve been home. Lee should still be alive if there was no war. Something was wrong.
I radioed for an evac, and it came an hour later. The chopper that picked us up took us to Tallil Air Base outside of An Nasiriyah. I lied about how Lee died, but my CO clearly didn’t believe me because I’m writing this from the stockade. That’s why I have to tell the truth now about Blue and everything that really happened before it’s too late.
The Jinn only tricked me to a point. He made me shoot my friend for his own amusement, but there are no longer WMDs in Iraq. He granted my wish. The WMD we found in Fallujah? Never happened. There’d been other discoveries during my time in Iraq as well. As far as I can tell, all undone. I have two sets of co-existing memories now. It’s hard to explain.
I feel gullible. I feel like a fool.
The Jinn tricked me, but my government tricked me first. If we aren’t here for the weapons of mass destruction, then why are we really here? Removing the WMDs didn’t stop the war, so clearly that wasn’t the reason we were here in the first place. The Jinn tricked me. The Army tricked me. My only real talent is killing, and I guess now I know that I can be tricked into doing it by anyone who needs it done.
You may think I’m crazy, but I’m on to you all. Now I know the truth. We’re here for a foothold in the Middle East. We’re here for oil. We’re here to settle a score for our Commander-in-Chief. We’re here for a bunch of reasons, none of which have anything to do with the pitch that was made to Congress and the public.
I’m going to do my time. I shot Lee in cold blood. You’ll investigate. You’ll match the ballistics to my rifle and call it evidence. You’ll find out that Lee slept with my wife a month before we deployed. You’ll call that motive. You’ll believe what you want. I know the truth.
Only I know what really happened.
Jason McDowell is a fiction author, freelance writer, OIF combat veteran, and MFA candidate in Creative Writing (Fiction) at The New School in New York, NY. His work has been seen previously in The Nemadji Review at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, and O-Dark-Thirty at the Veterans Writing Project.