Monday, January 13, 2020

Camouflage by Ron Hartley

Soldier Ray has some terrible luck on his flight home after fighting in Afghanistan; by Ron Hartley.

His deployment was over, his biological arms and legs still attached and obedient to his brain. For twelve months he'd been alternatively homesick, sex deprived and haunted by a perverse desire to get hit just so he could get it over with. The odorous warrior dudes in his platoon were unhygienic refuse heaps of their former selves, but so juiced by steroids and firepower he couldn't help but think of them as superheroes of sorts, so he hung in there with them day after god awful day.

Helicopters would come sometime in the next hundred hours to fly the platoon out to the Bagram Air Base in Parvan Province, the first leg of their long journey home. Ray had permission to detach sooner and take the rest of his accumulated leave before hooking back up in the US. Cell phones weren't allowed in the field so photos would have to wait until they were together once more for separation processing. By then the faces in such photos wouldn't be so unhinged anymore. They'd be the born-again faces of reasonably happy beings, or if not happy then reasonably alive.

Ray hitched a ride on a mail and supplies helicopter to Bagram where the shifting boundaries of military circumstance were about to stick it to him. "You're kidding," the flight adjutant said when asked about transport flights to the States. Everything had been diverted for special operations in Kandahar, so Ray had no choice but to book his own flight with Emirates Airlines out of Kabul, a ticket he had to pay for out of his own savings.

He tried to think of anybody who might want to meet him at the other end, certainly none of his family, who couldn't get it together to meet each other in the kitchen if they had to. He kept drawing blanks until he thought of an old flame from high school he figured could still be turned on again. He emailed her and she got back saying "no way" to his taking a bus from New York to Scranton. She'd get her ass in gear and be there to pick him up. Maybe she'd show, maybe not, he remembered her to be a bit of a flake that way but just in case she actually kept her word he wanted to look like he was worth the wait. His fatigues were too stained and faded and his old civvies too weird so he went to the Base Exchange and tried on the latest army issued uniform.

"New Operational Camouflage Pattern," the sales ticket said. "Digitally designed to blend chameleon-like into indigenous trees and bush." High fashion camo was trending in the States, everything from hoodies and briefs to sport bras and panties. It followed that the image of a soldier wearing the real thing had catapulted from zero to super cool. Half the cost of the uniform, matching OCP hat and aviator sunglasses would come out of the last of his replacement allowance, the other half would again be debited to a savings account that was bleeding out.

That night Ray bunked in the enlisted men's quarters and the next morning boarded a 7am land shuttle bound for the Hamid Karzai International Airport. The shuttle came in the form of an armored personnel carrier with a 50mm machine gun that could fire ten rounds in the time it would take to say, "Fuck you," a grim reminder that the game wouldn't be over until he was safely airborne.



The girlfriend in question brushed her teeth, rinsed and put on some dark red lipstick. But wasn't that the color of blood, she wondered. She could hardly offer blood stained lips to a vet who'd seen enough carnage to be seriously challenged by crimson red, so she wiped it away in favor of a dusty pink mauve. She leaned in for a closer look and thought too much makeup had diminished her ingénue appeal, so she washed her face and started over with a lighter touch.

Mirror time was telling. The only misalignment in an otherwise perfect face was a lazy left eye that gave her a slightly stoned look, but the kind of look that might make a casting director think there was something special about her. She put on her dreamy face, profiled it to both sides and then mugged her way through concern, wonderment and wide-eyed expectation. If there was an emotion, a storyline, a come-on, or a deceit she might need, she could put a face to it.

Her name was Billie, an informal version of her dad's name, William. But it came with the German surname, Vogelmann, a nonstarter for stage and screen. She liked Ray's name, so she decided to combine it with her own. "Billie Ray," she said out loud, liking the way the liveliness of Billie blended into the smoothness of Ray. It would pay homage to her boyfriend's service in the war in Afghanistan and be a good name for her headshot portfolio.



He lucked out with a window seat and an empty seat next to him. When his flight took off and gained altitude he could see the jagged mountains along the Pakistan border where his outpost had been. He hadn't slept well the night before, dreaming of the monkeys native to the trees there. They infiltrated his camp and turned out to be Taliban intel robots disguised as monkeys and with microchip brains and teeth as sharp as knives. But even worse than the dream was the jackhammer sound of helicopters that kept blasting through the night from Bagram to God knows where.

The plane was at twenty thousand feet and climbing. Ray tilted his seat back and tried to relax while turning his thoughts homeward. Seeing Billie again after such a long time was something to think about. Cornball crazy would be the way to loosen things up, he thought, like a mortally wounded soldier with an expression of agony on his face staggering toward his lady in waiting, one hand clenching an imagined bullet hole in his side while the other would keep dragging his duffle bag behind like it was a 300-pound barbell. Her stomach would be tied in knots trying not to laugh at such irreverence in a public space and he would continue to stagger forward until he was close enough to reach out and touch her.

But the lady's face he pictured wasn't just Billie anymore. It was at once the face of his girlfriend and his young mother as remembered from a photo of her at about the same age. It dawned on him that somewhere along the climb to forty thousand he had fallen into a sleep accompanied by a softer dream than on the night before. He could feel the wetness of a woman's lips against his, the kind of kiss that brought with it the hope that maybe everything could be like it had once been.



Billie Ray was driving to the Kennedy International Airport in New York City, only 120 miles from Scranton but a moon shot away in a Scrantonian view of the world. Demos by another former boyfriend on how to burn out of beer distributor parking lots, along with a two mile spurt of expressway to work each morning had only been an intimation of what an interstate highway would be like at seventy miles an hour with its merges and changing of lanes and tractor trailers tailgating on the downhills. It was her first solo drive of any significant distance or purpose, one in a confluence of firsts in her life: her first efficiency apartment, her first job at a Savings and Loan, her first old boyfriend coming back into her world again.

The white lane dividers rolling under her were like endless broken lifelines. Why, she wondered, did she get tangled up with Ray again? She'd been a high school junior and Ray a senior when they ran with the same gang and did a little pot together. They got it on in the back seat of his Mustang once and that was about it - so why? Maybe it was because of the same 'Support the Scranton Police Department' signs she passed every morning on her way to a job where she answered the same kinds of phone calls each day and helped process the same kinds of impenetrable financial disclosure forms with the same kinds of fast food lunch breaks in between.



When Ray woke up there was an older man standing in the aisle staring at his uniform. The man's pockmarked face and fleshy jowls wore a familiarity that Ray thought might be his old boot camp sergeant from Fort Benning, Georgia, one of those knee in the groin NCOs whose dark psychic wavelength recruits had been well advised to decipher quickly and climb on board with if they wanted to get through basic in one piece. The issue in that regard between Ray and the same man who might be standing there had never quite resolved itself. The man picked up Ray's cap from the empty seat and leaned in with the reverence of a priest as he placed it like a sacred offering on Ray's lap. Without being invited he sat down, finally looking Ray in the eye.

"Well if it isn't private Ray, bringing home the dead, isn't that right, private?" he said.

His civilian clothes and capless bald head were the things that had thrown Ray for a moment along with a modicum of self denial, but when the man spoke his mock friendliness with its undertone of malice were ever so familiar.

"No sir, not bringing home the dead sir," Ray answered, staring straight ahead.

"So what the hell are you doing in that uniform?" said the Sergeant, in a loud burst that made heads turn.

Ray's blood pressure rose to flush his face as the sergeant launched into a lengthy reprimand. Except for accompanying a dead body of a fallen soldier, flying alone in uniform on a commercial airline was against military dress code. An American army uniform in such circumstances could be a target for some budding jihad nutcase who might be on the same plane.

"Fuck me, sir. Didn't think of that, sir."

"Then where did you think you're going in that uniform?"

"Leave, then discharge and home, sir. Did my time, sir."

"Did your time, my ass. You're still a shit for brains PFC on active duty and I'm gonna put you on report for wearing that uniform on this plane."

"I got just three weeks left, sir, and a lady friend waiting at Kennedy, sir," Ray blurted out, immediately hating himself for referencing his "lady friend," something the sergeant could have a field day with in earshot of the whole main cabin. But more disturbing was the uniform thing. Jihadists sympathizers could blow up half the Middle East along with every man, woman and child in collateral range, while he was a bad boy for wearing a uniform that might bruise the feelings of any extremist somebody who may or may not be on board, the same kind of somebody he was ordered to fire thousands of high caliber rounds at in the mountains.



Billie's eyes darted back and forth between the road and her cell phone. On screen was an Instagram photo of her best friend's new rotator cuff tattoo, a big double winged dragonfly extending from her front shoulder to the beginning swell of her breast. The tiny seahorse on Billie's hip paled in comparison and her car was drifting into the adjacent left lane, within inches of a black SUV coming alongside to pass. An angry horn blast made her slam the brake and jerk the steering wheel too hard. Her car swerved onto the rumble strip, causing a screaming vibration that scared the hell out of her as she sideswiped the guardrail and came to a complete stop on the narrow shoulder.

She sat still, eyes shut and heart slamming, waiting for the tremor coursing through her body to give way to the wide-eyed thrill of still being alive. Without thinking, she did what her beer loving ex called, "preloading the transmission," revving the engine in neutral to 200 rpms. When a space came in the oncoming traffic she shifted to drive and eased off the break. The car bolted forward with an extenuated screech until the spinning tires gripped the pavement. She was back up to seventy with one long held breath and exhalation, hardly believing what she just did.

She made a pit stop at a diner in Jersey to check out the damage. Her car had been an ill-advised new purchase instead of something pre-owned and on the cheap. It was a sporty coupe of electric blue, but now with a heartbreaking scrape along most of the passengers' side that along with car payments up the wazoo would make her go to bed crying that night.



"I eat guys like you," the sergeant said in an ongoing verbal hemorrhage that was getting more grating and removed, like a third generation copy of something pre-recorded. Ray had the feeling that if he ducked out of the way the sergeant would keep talking to the empty seat. The only way to turn him off would be to reach down into his infectious throat and rip out the voice box.

Ray turned his head away. It made no difference if he responded or not; either way he was going on report, so he looked out the window. The expansiveness of bright sky had a calming effect until the plane's wing began cutting through a layer of misty clouds. He was reminded of the fog in the higher elevations of the mountains, further obscuring an already treacherous landscape of hidden snipers. Each crest of a hill or turn in a pathway was like a bullet chamber in a game of Afghan roulette, but even so, there was something perversely thrilling in all that. The sergeant radiated zero thrill factor and his psychosis was creeping further out of the box.

"Maybe lady friend ain't waiting for you, private," he said. "Maybe she's waiting for that uniform. Maybe she thinks she'll be a more high class piece of ass with a pimp like you in a uniform like that."

Ray rose from his seat without any conscious realization that he was rising or that his fists were clenched or that the whole muscular system of his left arm and torso were wound up tight, ready to unleash. The ego of the sergeant shrunk in a millisecond to that of a scarred kid. He struggled to get up and out of the way, but Ray caught him with hard punch that snapped his head back and sent him reeling into the aisle and down to the floor. He was stretched out on his back and dazed, with uncomprehending eyes looking up at the ceiling and blood flowing backwards from the trauma of fractured cartilage in his nose. His face had begun to turn purplish blue under both eyes as flight attendants rushed to his aide while keeping a wary eye on Ray, but Ray had already gone limp with regret.



The traffic thickened and the roadways convergent onto the Interstate multiplied into what felt like the central nervous system of Northern Jersey. Billie was getting the hang of it: a softer touch on the brake, smoother moves of her hands on the wheel, intuitive checks in the side and rearview mirrors. She hadn't thought of her cell phone in half an hour, caught up as she was with the big suck of the metropolitan area on everything eastbound. She stayed in the fast lane, blew by the rest of the state and eased through the big merge onto the scenic upper level of the George Washington Bridge. When she began driving through the Bronx GPS gave her an alternate route because of heavy traffic and she missed a turn that came up too fast. She followed Siri through a circuitous string of scary back streets that weighed on her small towner's expectations of street gangs and bullet holes everywhere. With each turn of a corner she lived to see another block and was soon back in sync with the preferred route.

It was clear sailing through Queens to Kennedy on the Atlantic seaboard. She followed the signs through one of the planet's most congested public facilities and ended up in the correct lane to the parking lot. She got out of the car, slammed the door shut and hadn't felt so full of herself since bowling four straight late night strikes in her backless maxi prom dress.



When the language-challenged pilot from Dubai radioed New York about an attack on board Emirates flight 541, his misuse of the word "attack" instead of "punch" was an immediate cause for concern. A chain of communications ensued wherein the phrase "an assailant wearing the uniform of a US soldier" was misinterpreted by an agent who was an avid reader of fiction as "an assailant disguised in the uniform of a US soldier," which sounded to another agent with a history of neurotic paranoia as an intricately designed strategy that might be planned with co-conspirators.

A constant line of communication was maintained with the pilot, but no one thought to corroborate the assumption that the uniform was a disguise. The high command of the NYPD Counterterrorism Unit got involved and a transport helicopter was airborne in minutes, carrying a cadre of hand-selected police officers trained to respond swiftly to the most highly organized terrorist threats. Their directive was to haul ass to Kennedy before the story leaked to the press, board the plane when it landed and before it docked and get everybody out, first the assailant and his victim and then the passengers.



Billie was inside the international terminal, an endless complexity of corridors, escalators and throngs of travelers from other countries. The new experience of it all had a shrinking effect on time so she wasn't as aware of waiting in the Emirates arrival area as she was of observing the different kinds of clothing, hairstyles and intonations of language of the people around her.

When Ray's flight came in there was an unaccountable delay after it landed. Something about a police action was mentioned in an announcement she could hardly hear because of a crying child nearby. She asked the gate attendant what was going on and he said the plane had taxied to a stop and was still far out on the runway with a helicopter standing by for some kind of assistance. Billie vowed to sleep on the floor if that's what it would take to wait out the delay and be there for Ray, but soon another announcement came that she heard more clearly. The passengers on board the flight from Kabul had disembarked and were being bussed to the terminal where they would be going through customs in a matter of minutes.



When Ray was taken into custody he was contrite and overwhelmed by the amount of law enforcement that had descended on him. He and the sergeant were taken to a holding area in a sub-level of the airport for questioning. The sergeant was attended to with ice on his nose and Tylenol for the pain while Ray was made to strip down naked and subjected to painful anal and endoscopic probes for things shoved up or swallowed down. It all followed a search protocol devised to deflect any semblance of abuse in court-martial proceedings. Ray's answers to questions were incoherent, marred by resurgent childhood stuttering. The sergeant's summary was articulate and concise, detailing a punch suffered in reprisal for disciplinary action taken against one of the worst recruits he ever had to make into a soldier at Fort Benning.

Meanwhile the army ID cards of both men were checked out and verified and after an exchange of communiqués with Ray's platoon lieutenant in Afghanistan the incident was downgraded to a punch pursuant to a disagreement. The operation had been good practice for the swat team, but Ray was still in serious trouble for striking an NCO and causing significant injury. He could be looking at a year in the Army correctional barracks at Leavenworth and a dishonorable discharge. When the sergeant was asked if he was willing to press charges for assault and battery he faked a moment of thoughtful contemplation while the question hovered over Ray's head like a loaded drone. "Yes." the sergeant said and from then on Ray's fate was under the jurisdiction of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.



"Look for the dude in digital camo," he had said in his last email from Bagram. Billie didn't quite catch the meaning but would always remember that it sounded so Ray. As friends and family members of the arriving passengers coalesced around the exit gate she stood apart from the welcoming crowd to enhance the dramatic possibilities, like waving from afar or calling out his name in a buoyant voice or running to him and him to her like actors in the climactic scene of a coming home from the war movie. She was eighteen years old. Ray was about to turn twenty.

6 comments:

  1. Excellently written and plotted story. The descriptions and the characters draw me right in. The parallel narrative works well. Great ending.

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  2. I really enjoyed the word use and imagery; really set a fitting tone. Left me feeling quite sad. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Interesting near-future SF (my favorite sort). Nice POV toggling. Odd plot with abrupt ending. Feels truncated, like there should be more.

    Thoughts while reading:

    "crimson red" isn't "dark red"

    "rotator cup tattoo"
    rotator cuff?

    200 RPM isn't even an idle

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  4. Very thoughtful and well-written. I enjoyed how Billie's hope and determination gently increased throughout the tale while Ray's situation unraveled. Tough ending for them both.

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  5. Mr. Hartley, without much dialogue, crafts a story with vivid characterization and emotional intensity. His use of setting and action artfully contributes to the personalities and feelings of Billie, Ray, and the obnoxious sergeant. The emotional arc of the narrative moves from relief and happiness to somberness and humility with skillful execution of rising conflict and an almost "black humor" denouement, yet the end is poignant. Juxtaposition of multiple points of view is always a challenging task, yet Hartley does it with ease, contrasting the innocence of Billie with the anxiousness of Ray, and of course, the psychopathy of the sergeant, who revels in his sadistic nature. I enjoyed the deft rendering of character, the clever plot, and the masterly descriptions. Mostly, I appreciated the intimate look into the mind of a soldier--the humility, the pride, and the respect whatever situation arises. The story is a testament to the art of writing, but it is a tribute to all those who serve. Thank you.

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