“Whoa! How faraway do ya think that was?”
“Zero point eight kilometers.”
“What’s that in American?”
“Half a mile, you’re the worst spotter ever.”
The two sat far above the crash site. The jeep had swerved off the road and now was glittering in its own halo of broken glass and splintered metal. It sparkled with light, some of the light was filtered through the dust on vehicle, some from the glass still settling down around it.
The light brown-haired soldier was busy breaking down his equipment. His uniform identified him as “Counter”.
“Did you hit them both?” the darker-haired soldier asked looking through a pair of chipped binoculars. His name was “Noizi”.
“You can’t tell?” Counter asked. He finished packing a large backpack and put it in perilous balance on his back.
Naw, the car’s glass is all cracked.”
“I got them both.”
“We’d better confirm that,” Noizi said. He stored the binoculars in one of his uniform’s many pockets and brought out a pair of sunglasses to replace them on his face. The sniper didn’t have sunglasses and instead resorted to rubbing grease under his eyes to cut down the glare from the Afghan sun.
“No need,” Counter said. “They’re both dead.”
“Yeah, but we need to confirm the kills,” Noizi said. He too was breaking down his equipment. A radio, some camo netting, and water jugs. He put it all in his backpack.
“I’m more concerned with all that smoke,” the sniper said, pointing down to where the jeep was beginning to vent greasy black smoke into the air. “When that stuff gets above the hills, somebody is gonna noticed it and I don’t want to be here when they do.”
“It doesn’t take that long,” Noizi said. “I just have to see the bodies.”
“We don’t have time. That shit’s rising quickly,” Counter said, shouldering his rifle. “Let’s set up a couple of hills over.”
“Okay,” Noizi said. “Should I radio Overlook?”
“No need,” Counter said. “Last thing we want is to give them an excuse to dick us around.”
“True that,” Noizi said. “Last time I radioed them I got stuck out here with you.”
Counter looked at him.
“It’s not so bad,” Noizi continued. “I just don’t like the heat.”
“It’s not so hot. Where are you from?” Counter asked, sweeping the site once more to make sure everything was packed.
“Seattle,” Noizi said. “My grandfather moved there after World War II, from, uh, Ko-something Japan, I think. He said ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’ Something like that.”
“Ah,” Counter said, motioning Noizi to follow him.
They began to walk down the hill from the side parallel to the jeep. The terrain was dirt and broken rock fragments and the occasional boulder. They made impressive progress despite the backpacks.
“Where are you from?” Noizi asked.
“Las Vegas,” and after a pause: “New Mexico, not Nevada.”
“So you’re used to this heat?”
“It’s hot,” Counter said, “but not like this.”
“So, New Mexico,” Noizi said, dragging out the last word Mex-e-coooh. Counter might have stared at him again if he hadn’t been concentrating on going down the slope. “You know any Spanish?”
“Y por eso los grandes amores de muchos colores me gustan a mi,” Counter said in a dead monotone.
“What does that mean?” Noizi asked.
“I was asking if you spoke any Japanese.”
“No, not at all,” Noizi said.
Counter nodded and they descended in silence for a few minutes. The hills were steep, verging on mini-mountains at some points, russet-colored and marvelous. The two soldiers shouldered their packs and walked sideways to keep their feet from slipping in the loose debris.
“So,” Noizi said again.
“So,” Counter repeated.
“I’m surprised you didn’t want to have me confirm those kills. I thought that was pretty important to a sniper,” Noizi said.
Counter let himself slide a few feet down.
“Whatever gave you that idea?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Noizi said, sliding himself. “Something I read, maybe.”
More silence. They descended at a pretty good rate. The hillside was loose enough to slide all the way down if they had wanted to. Dangerous to go down that fast, but there was an incentive to hurry. The hills blocked the jeep entirely, but the smoke could be clearly seen, rising in a column and marking the wind as northerly.
They had to go around a very jagged rock patch surrounded by nasty spiny plants. Noizi said he thought they might be needle-burs and Counter said he thought that needle-burs probably only existed in Noizi’s head. Sensing irritation from the sniper, Noizi shut up for a little while.
When they reached the bottom of the first hill, Counter made to start up the second, but Noizi grabbed him and shook his head. “Wait a second.”
This was an odd point where one hill met the other and the whole area made a small two foot wide channel.
“What?” Counter asked.
“I just want some water.”
Counter shrugged and began scanning the hills around them. The hills stood against a sky where the blue was mostly washed out by the sun. The smoke rising from behind the hill made it look like a volcano outgassing. Counter squinted at the rising plume.
“How many blonde women are in Afghanistan?” he asked.
Noizi, surprised by this, nearly dropped his water.
“How many blonde women are in Afghanistan?” Counter repeated.
“I don’t know,” Noizi said. “Sergeant Borland is blonde, isn’t she?”
“She dyes her hair, and I don’t mean Americans. I mean Afghan women.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Counter continued, “I haven’t seen one since arriving. Not in Kabul anyway.”
“Well, they keep their hair covered, don’t they,” Noizi said.
Counter glanced up at the hilltops again, “I suppose they do.”
“You nervous or something?” Noizi asked. “You’re sweating.”
“I’m sweating because it’s motherfucking hot,” Counter said.
“You’re pale too.”
“We need to get up this hill,” Counter said.
“You’d better drink something first,” Noizi said offering Counter the water.
They stared at each other. Far, faraway there was the sound of an aircraft, but where they were was quiet. Noizi was now frowning, but because of his sunglasses his eyes were unreadable.
“Up the hill,” Noizi said.
“We need to get up it,” Counter said, glancing at the smoke plume.
“Right,” Noizi said, not moving.
The aircraft sounded like it was moving away.
“Counting Americans,” Noizi said, breaking the natural stillness, “how many blonde women have you seen?”
“I don’t know,” Counter said.
Counter didn’t answer and Noizi turned to look up at the smoke plume, still rising, now very high.
“Look, there’s still time to check the bodies,” Noizi said. “These hills slow folks down so we don’t really have to be worried about somebody coming up on us.”
“I’m not letting you anywhere near that jeep,” Counter said.
There was a longer silence this time that Counter broke with a slight cough. He kicked the dirt causing a miniature plume to rise. It drifted in the same direction as the smoke from the jeep.
“I mean,” he said to Noizi, “I’m not risking it. How would it look if I got you captured or something?”
“Or something,” Noizi said. The sun reflected off his sunglasses. “Wouldn’t a real spotter check the kills? I know I’m not the kind of guy you generally get for a spotter, but that doesn’t mean I can’t at least try to do my job.”
“Not the kind of guy?” Counter said, taking a step forward. His voice was low, but getting louder. “Usually on a sniper team the older sniper is the spotter. I think somebody is having a joke on me. You don’t send some dick-ass private to spot. You didn’t tell me anything about wind or distance or anything. I did all that myself.”
“Calm down,” Noizi said. “It’s not like I have any training for any of that. The least I can do is the bare minimum.”
He started to turn to where the smoke was, but the sniper grabbed him by the shoulder.
“No,” Counter said.
“Is that an order?” Noizi shook off his hand.
“I’m not letting you near that jeep.”
“Why?” Noizi asked. “Why exactly?”
“I told you why,” Counter said. His voice was taking on a strained tone. Both his and his partner’s volume were increasing. “Anybody can see that smoke. We don’t know who is going to show up.”
“Fine,” Noizi said. “I’ll just use the binoculars then. I’ll get a better view and check.”
Counter reached for him again, but Noizi slapped his hand away.
“I’m going to check,” Noizi said.
“No, you’re not.”
“Keep your voice down,” Noizi said, looking around at the surrounding hills. The little channel was overexposed to the sun and the hills were washed out enough that objects became blurs.
“You’re telling me to keep my voice down!” Counter said. “You’re the one who’s shouting.”
“This is bullshit,” Noizi said. “I’ll be right back.”
He went for the smoke plume. Counter pulled him back. Noizi slipped on the loose rocks and nearly fell but Counter held him firmly by the arm. Noizi shook him off. The two stood staring each other down. The sun set each of them in wreaths of golden fire.
Noizi made to go toward the smoke. It was a slight jerk. Counter leapt forward, but left unprepared for Noizi’s lack of moment, he was the one to nearly fall this time.
Noizi laughed. “I’m going to go check the jeep.”
“No,” Counter’s face was as flushed as his tone.
“Or what? You’ll shoot me?”
Noizi gritted his teeth. In the vast brightness of the hills his dark hair showed like a stain from under his helmet. Every inch of him quivered from his boots to his sunglasses. He raised a finger, opened his mouth, closed his mouth and then turned to go again.
“Last warning,” Counter said.
“Oh,” Noizi said, livid. “I suppose that wouldn’t bother you. You’ve probably shot tons of people. It’s kind of like your job right? Every single morning; eat, sleep, kill some people. Wait on some God-fucked road in some God-fucked country and just kill whoever comes down the road. Right? That is your job, right?”
“That’s your job too,” Counter said. He unbuttoned the strap on his shoulder holster. “Maybe you didn’t notice that there’s a war going on here?”
“Let me confirm the kills,” Noizi said. He was reaching behind his back slowly. “We can then go back to base and look at Sergeant Borland’s ass or something.”
“I don’t want to hear about Sergeant Borland!” Counter said. “And I’ve never shot anybody before.”
“Ever?” Noizi asked. His hand stopped moving. “Jesus.” Then: “Jesus.”
Counter let out a gasp and sank to his knees.
“You did hit both of them, right?” Noizi asked, stepping forward to help the other up.
“I said I did,” Counter’s flush fled to pale. He swayed slightly even though Noizi was now holding him up.
Noizi nodded, “Good. How many Afghans own a jeep, you suppose?”
Counter shook slightly, “A lot?”
“Old style jeep like that? Probably a lot,” Noize said, voice almost steady. “It’s hard to tell with the sun,” he pointed up. “Changes the color of things. That jeep could have been any make or model, but you can’t be sure because of the light.”
“Yeah,” Counter said, nodding, his color returning. “The light changes things.”
“So,” Noizi said, “up the hill?”
“Up the hill.”
And they went up the hill. Counter going faster than Noizi, because the darker-haired soldier couldn’t stop himself from glancing over his shoulder at the rising smoke that kept going up into the sky like a needle.