When he heard the explosions as he drove into camp, First Lieutenant Leonard Klein naturally assumed, it being Friday, that there was a hoopball match on. Hoopball was a slightly misleading name, as it did not involve a hoop at all, and though it was in part a throwing game, it did not involve a ball either. It had been named in honour of its inventor and the league’s incumbent manager, Sergeant Hooper, who himself became visible as Klein neared the range. He waved cheerfully.
“Want to put some money on, Lenny?”
“Who’s ‘it’?” asked Klein.
“Purvis is in there,” said Hoop.
Klein peered at the sad ungainly armoured vehicle in the middle of the range that lumbered forlonly, pounded and dented by the series of small explosives lobbed by the attacking team attempting to overturn it, the object of the game. Purvis was evidently taking a battering inside the tank. She was trying her best to run down the clock, but to judge by the gallons of baked beans strewn across the battlefield, she was out of ammunition. Klein might have put a couple of bucks on her if she were still packing. Purvis was a crack shot. Whoever was ‘it’ had a rocket launcher and ten projectiles of Hoop’s ingenious design, which were filled with whatever the stores happened to have an excess of. The sport had been officially proscribed after a patrol, of which Klein had been a part, unwittingly went out armed with the match missiles. They were ambushed on their way back by band of insurgents. Though they were significantly outnumbered, the troop was confident in their superior firepower, at least until Purvis landed a direct hit on the front car. The shell passed straight through the windshield and exploded, coating all those inside with highly pressurized creamed corn. Fortunately, the insurgents presumed the beige slop was a chemical agent and the whole crew fled.
“Can’t. I’m wanted in the Major’s office.” said Klein.
Though Klein outranked Hooper, he did not consider it his place to shut down the illicit match. Major Buss had delegated responsibility for enforcing the hoopball ban to the highest ranking unenlisted man, who happened to be Sergeant Hooper.
“You’re gonna ask him about it, aren’t you, Lenny?” said Hooper. “We can’t go on like this.”
“I don’t know what good it will do, but I’ll try. You’d better keep on with the repainting in the meantime, anyway.”
Hooper nodded glumly and turned his attention back to the iron behemoth that had tipped on its side just as the siren sounded. Purvis opened the hatch and poured herself out onto the sand, much bruised, appealing to the judges for a decision. Hooper shook his head and gave the thumbs down.
The Major’s office stood at a sufficiently remote distance for the epic disruptions caused by the hoopball fixtures to pass unnoticed. Klein pulled up at the aluminium barn that housed the company’s administrative centre where two of Hooper’s men were slowly setting up paint cans, ladders, drop sheets, and other sundry pieces of equipment in such a way calculated to give the convincing appearance of an intention to paint the structure, without requiring them actually to begin the work at any foreseeable juncture.
Inside, he was admitted to Major Buss’s office by a young adjutant.
“You new?” Klein asked him.
“Yes, sir. First week here.”
“What happened to the last one?”
“I never asked, sir.”
“That’s usually for the best.”
The state of Buss’s moustache was always a good measure of the state of the war effort from command’s perspective. When things were going well, it was a well-defined, neatly trimmed chevron. At the moment, however, it was running to seed. The way it squirmed whenever he spoke reminded Klein of video magnifications of burred paramecia he had seen in biology class.
“I’ve had the General on the phone this morning, Klein,” Buss bellowed as soon as Klein had entered the room. His moustache twitched irritably. “Our scores are the lowest in the whole region. The very lowest.”
“What score is this again, sir?”
“Pay attention, soldier, dammit. Our satisfaction survey scores. Look at them,” he waved a paper far beyond Klein’s eye’s reach. “We didn’t get a single response above a two on Question 18.”
“What’s Question 18 again, sir?”
Buss thrust the paper in Klein’s face. He looked at it. Question 18 was scaled from one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree) and read, “I feel I have been adequately brought peace and democracy by the US Armed Forces.”
“Maybe it’s the wrong question to be asking, sir.”
“I’m not asking you for a critique, Klein. The questions are the questions. HR asks them, we just need to make sure they get better answers. How are you going to get them?”
“I don’t know, sir. It’s difficult to get much enthusiasm for us from a lot of the people we come across out there.”
“Most of them are dead, sir.”
Buss pounded a fist on the desk and reared his facial hair at Klein.
“Yes – that’s an automatic zero! You’re going to have to start getting much higher scores from the live ones.”
Klein scanned the list of questions. To his mind, someone who has survived a drone strike on their village would hardly be likely to give a better score on Question 27 (“On a scale of one to five, five being extremely likely and one being extremely unlikely, how likely would you be to recommend the US Armed Forces to a friend?”) than someone who hadn’t.
“I suppose you like having body armour and bullets and tanks and things, don’t you?” barked Buss. “Well, how do you think we get our budget for that, eh? It’s all from the ad revenue, and if we don’t start getting some more, you’ll be facing down terrorists with BB guns and slingshots.”
Better than creamed corn, Klein thought.
“Speaking of advertising, sir, I wanted to ask you something about the new sponsors.”
“Good news – they’re on board. I want the whole place painted in their colours by the time their marketing team arrives.”
“Some of the men are worried about that, sir. And they don’t like the new uniforms, either.”
“What’s wrong with the uniforms?”
“They’re bright orange, sir.”
“It’s a bit… visible, sir. You must see how that would be a concern for some of them. The special ops team, for example. They feel it makes it harder to use the element of surprise when they’re dressed in day-glo.”
“Can’t be helped,” said Buss. “Orange is the colour of Fanta. Do you expect them to suddenly start colouring their fine beverage khaki, just because it suits you?”
“No, sir, of course not, sir.”
The adjutant outside was squeezing the pus out of a burst pimple on the back of his neck. On the wall behind him was the recruitment poster Klein had seen all over his town when he was thinking about signing up. The stern mutton-chopped face, the finger that jabbed beyond the picture plane. Klein could almost hear the jingle from the TV commercial they used to run all the time. He realised he was singing as he walked.
“General Electric, he wants you…”
Damn, he thought. That tune really gets stuck in your head.
“Eggs over easy, bacon, hold the tomato,” came the shrill bray from the front counter to the kitchen. George hocked a loogie onto the grill. It leapt and hissed in a second of outrage before it commingled with the grease and disappeared. George slung two slick rainbow shining rashers on after it and lit up a cigarette. The radio perched on a stack of tins above his head played a country love song. The final chorus flailed against a viscous quagmire of steel guitars dragging it down to a fade out until it was finally replaced by an earnest resonant mid-Atlantic voice.
“America is under attack. Islamic extremists could be anywhere; they could be anyone. Do you think someone you know may have been radicalized? A friend? A family member? Don’t risk the lives of the millions of hardworking God-fearing citizens just like you, call the hotline today. All calls are guaranteed one hundred per cent anonymous.”
Reaching above the pickle cans with his tongs, George twisted the volume dial down while he waited for the ads to finish. He could hear Pearl talking to the customers out front.
“Well, you know, sugar, my gramma was part Cherokee, so sometimes I see things other people don’t.”
George rolled his eyes. Pearl unspooled the substantial-as-gossamer thread of her part Cherokee grandma whenever a good looking young man had become ensnared in her conversational web, believing it made her seem mysterious and exotic. She bent down low with the coffee pot, emanating intoxicating vapours of nicotine and potpourri perfume. Never had one, in all George’s long experience watching this performance, appeared even slightly desirous of doing anything other than a standing high jump out of whatever booth she had him cornered in with her bosomy bulk. Nevertheless, it bothered him.
The holler made George turn his head to see who was making the racket. It was waffles at tables five, a wiry old man in a lumberjacket. He was reading a newspaper.
“Says here we took out a big terrorist training camp in Eye-ran yesterday.”
“My ass,” said eggs over easy, the pomaded preppy boy Pearl had hostage at the counter. “I don’t know how you buy a word of that. It’s nothing but crap.”
“Five thousand of them terrorists dead,” said waffles, waving the front page like a holiday flag. “You call that nothing?”
“You know what that means?” the boy said. “It means the army dropped a bomb on some farmer whose second cousin’s husband might have shook hands with a terrorist once, and they wiped out his wife, his kids, and all his chickens along with him.”
“Hey, honey. You better watch what you say, you know,” said Pearl.
“Yeah,” sneered waffles with narrowed eyes. “What are you, a Muslim?”
“Leave him alone,” Pearl said, a matronly bastion against waffles’ sally against her precious boy. “He ain’t no Muslim. You oughta be ashamed. My god, those poor people! The couple used to live next door, they didn’t deserve that. And he ought to be ashamed, too.”
With a ringing bark to silence Pearl, George charged from the kitchen.
“Can it, all of you,” he ordered. “I won’t have none of that talk in my place. I say the President is a good guy, okay. He’s doing a trumptastic job and if anyone says otherwise, they can get the hell out right now.”
As broad as he was tall, only a singlet beneath his apron, bare meaty arms brandishing greasy utensils, George was an imposing man. He cast his wrathful glare upon the preppy boy, who returned it insolently. The boy was about to retort, Pearl about to jump in to defend him, George was ready to lose his temper, and waffles wanted to ask for more syrup, when the clatter of coins on formica silenced everybody. They turned their attention to a discreet corner of the diner where a man in a black overcoat had arisen from a table. He let the small change fall from a gloved hand and walked very slowly towards the exit. He opened the door but did not go through it.
“Have a good day, sir,” George said, a slight crack in his voice.
The man gazed at George impassively for a moment. Then he shifted his stare towards the boy. George could almost feel the boy’s blood freezing as the look ran through him. The boy gazed up with a horror-struck face, moist lower lip atremble. He tried to gabble something but made no sound, intelligible or otherwise. The man in the doorway did not react.
George gently pushed the boy’s full cup towards him. He gave him a kindly nod. The boy, desperately, obeyed his silent instruction and raised it steaming to his lips. His hands were shaking so badly that he poured a good quarter of the contents onto his crotch. George smiled. Through tears, the boy smiled too. He gulped a scalding sip down and smiled again.
“How’s that coffee, son?” George prompted him.
“It’s trumpalicious,” said the boy.
“Shit,” said Aguilar, peering into the darkness.
“That was a buzzard,” said Torres. Torres had not actually seen anything, except Aguilar taking aim, but Torres liked to keep Aguilar on the back foot. He sometimes got ideas and needed taking down a peg.
“Yo’ mama’s a buzzard.”
“Whatever it was, you didn’t get nowhere near it.”
Aguilar had to acknowledge the truth of that. He reloaded his rifle, fumbling inexpertly while Torres smirked unseen.
“How many are you on?” Aguilar asked him.
“I’m one up on you.”
That wiped the smile off Torres’s face.
“Since last night. Got the goddamn trifecta.”
Torres hated losing at anything, ever since he was a boy. The border force, having acquired a little more glamour in recent years, attracted a certain type of applicant, typified by Torres. Guys who had been around longer, like Aguilar, suddenly found themselves surrounded by men who hated losing. Though not overly competitive by nature, Aguilar had, in this testosterone charged environment, developed a taste for one-upmanship because of the reaction it tended to provoke. Torres was instantly on his feet, scanning the desert with his binoculars, following the swathes the enormous lights cut into the black.
Meatheads aside, Aguilar enjoyed the Nogales posting. He started out in Ciudad Juarez and found it too much like a warzone. Nogales was more his speed, somewhere he could make friends, meet women, enjoy time off when he had it, rather than having his life revolve around patrols and search parties that tended to happened at any hour of the day or night. Torres, on the other hand would have given his right nut for a transfer to Juarez.
“Mine, mine,” Torres shouted, reaching for his gun.
Aguilar picked up the binoculars and followed the direction of Torres’s squint through the rifle scope.
“I don’t see nothing, man.”
Then a black shape, unmistakably human, caught his eye as it darted from behind a brittlebush and made its way up to the chain link fence. The figure crouched awhile, making the hole it slipped through to find cover amid the rocks in no-man’s land.
“I could nail that mother right now,” said Torres, locking the bolt.
“You know the rules,” said Aguilar. “Not till the jump.”
The jumper was being cautious and crouched perfectly still. Torres lowered the rifle and took back the binoculars.
“He’s got to move sometime.”
“I had a pen pal over there once,” said Aguilar, bored waiting in silence. “This was before, ’course. Met her when I was fourteen, maybe. She was from Baltimore. Her family was on holiday in Cabo and I had a summer job in this hotel. First girl I ever fingered. We wrote each other emails for a long time after.”
“That’s a mighty sweet story, Aguilar,” said Torres. “Excuse me while I empty my bowels.”
Torres let out a thunderous fart. Aguilar half expected the jumper – a good five hundred yards in the distance – to hear the report and come out with his hands up.
“Fuck your mother, you asshole.” He scowled at Torres, still sniggering. Torres cradled the rifle again and checked his target.
“I was just thinking, was all,” said Aguilar. “I wonder what happened to her.”
“You don’t need to worry,” Torres said, centring the cowering shape in his crosshairs. “This ain’t your girlfriend. They don’t send us their best people, you know. Here we go.”
The figure had dashed from the rocks and soon disappeared behind the blindingly spotlighted concrete immensity of the wall.
“Come on now,” cooed Torres. His finger stroked the trigger guard. A piece of carpet flopped over the barbed wire and a hand followed to grip the ledge. Then another hand, then a foot.
“Ready?” said Aguilar, picking up the bullhorn from their kit.
“When you are.”
“For the equalizer,” Aguilar taunted.
“Shut the hell up and call it.”
The bullhorn crackled into life and Aguilar’s distorted voice rang across the no man’s land.
“Mexican Border Authority, stop right now!”
The figure on the ledge looked up in a panic. Torres’s first shot was low and buried itself in concrete with a little thud.
“Son of a bitch, what’s the matter with me tonight,” Torres cursed and lined up the shot again.
The jumper had pulled himself back and looked about to dive backwards when Torres took his second shot. There was a little plume of viscera and the shape dropped out of sight on the northern side.
“Doesn’t count,” shouted Aguilar, triumphant. “You’ve got to drop them on our side. Looks like you still got some catching up to do this month, buddy.”
As they walked back to the truck, Aguilar looked over his shoulder at the vast and pristine mass that wound through the dark sands, a great illuminated snake through the desert, towering and seemingly endless, glowing in the far distances of the east and west horizons.
“You know,” said Aguilar, “It’s kind of beautiful at night. I reckon that’s the most beautiful wall I’ve ever seen.”
“Yep,” agreed Torres. “Best damn money we ever spent.”
Gareth Sinclair Dickson’s work has been published in The Australian and The White Review (shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Award 2013), and anthologised in The Best Australian Science Writing 2014. His manuscript, A Minor Fifth, was shortlisted for The Australian/Vogel Literary Awards in 2016. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing and has taught at the University of Queensland and Worcester College, Oxford.
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