Pir Rothenberg's work appears in Barrelhouse, The Collagist, Wig Leaf, River Styx, Harpur Palate, Zahir, Juked, Prick of the Spindle, Another Chicago Magazine, and the anthologies Richmond Noir and Best of Akashic Noir Series: USA Noir. He is currently pursuing his PhD at Georgia State University.

Dear Soldier's Rank and Full Name

posted Oct 13, 2015

On her bedroom's carpeted floor, her back against the bed, the bed made, the television off, the door closed, decorations on the wall stirring from the breeze of the opened window, stirring, settling, the sound of her mother speaking to her younger brother in the yard, the words unheard, the late-afternoon light deepening in color. A sheet of rose-colored stationary lay blank upon an old hardcover book in her lap. The nib of a favorite clickable Uni-Ball pen, by which she took purple-inked notes in class, drew near the paper, retreated, resumed clicking off the seconds. Other supplies: a freshly opened Diet Coke, the soda's fizz visible at the lip of the can, and a stuffed animal cat with grey matted fur named Bucky, who attended most mental or emotional labor she undertook in her bedroom. She looked at the paper. She shifted a Starlight Mint candy between her molars. Pins of nervous sweat formed at her hairline. She kept looking at the paper. The mint kept clunking against her teeth.

*

Jonathan Field brought the letter back to his room and climbed with it to his upper bunk. Some of his suitemates were already about, in the room or the common lounge, six or seven shaved skulls bent to the task of reading their own letter, courtesy of Operation Appreciation. Jonathan's was in a manila coin envelope that had been screened, probably because of its bulk, so opening it now was a matter of peeling off a strip of red tape security personnel had used to reseal it. Two Starlight Mints slipped from the envelope and fell upon his chest. He grinned, because he had not seen anyone else receive candy. Inside, another three, and a folded slip of reddish paper, which he began to prod out with a finger. Below, someone snorted, probably Rodney. There would be few more days like this, morning drills, afternoon ping-pong, opening mail in the comfort of the airbase in Bishkek. The paper came free, opened inside his hands, a letter from a high school girl he didn't know, written in purple ink, in large loops of cursive, the page a bubble bath of words. They'd be deployed soon to Kunar, to the Korangal Valley, to a mountaintop fort in a place called The Valley of Death.

*

Finally, in the purple-blue light of morning, along the bank of a wooded stream feeding the Pech River, Ahmed Matteen, some yards from the others, kneeling among mossy stones at the water's edge and obscured by a cluster of thin pines, realized his moment of privacy, and snaked his fingers into the breast pocket of his jacket. They'd spent the night wending behind his uncle across the mountain forests. When he felt his legs would buckle beneath the dead weight of his body, he'd flick open the pocket's flap and bring his nose to it, catching quick breaths of peppermint. Then he'd think of his cousin, Hadiah, and his joints would work with new vigor. He'd been unable to examine the candies since yesterday, fearing they'd be taken by the others, or that, despite having now earned his uncle's respect, he'd be forced to throw them away. They had rattled against his chest airily all night. Above the dark forest of the valley wall, brighter stars lingered. Hunkered at the water's edge he pretending to wash and drink; he withdrew the weightless cargo with a cupped hand, held it close, cautiously opened: white disks with dark red pinwheel suns, a clutch of them in his palm. He wondered if all American soldiers carried them.

*

In the gymnasium Mr. Stewmiller told them that "all the boys" had been "over there" since August, 2007. He was a veteran, and though he referred frequently to his "army days" in the course of his instruction, Liz could not remember if it was Korea or Vietnam. Three weeks had elapsed of her sophomore year. Summer was beginning to feel like a dream. Twenty-nine students formed the coed class, and the boys and girls had, for the most part, grouped themselves separately upon the glossy gymnasium floor in what was, for the most part, a circle. Mr. Stewmiller, domed balding head, in sweatpants and tank-top, a silver whistle lying within the pectoral groove of his wide chest, stood centerwise holding a deck of index cards. Liz was beside Melanie Bright, who'd spent the summer vacation learning how to apply makeup and blow smoke rings, and from whom Liz kept catching the scent of perfume. Liz had on red shorts and her dad's old Led Zeppelin shirt, threadbare, the image worn, pretty much hers now, and sneakers, not old, tied with wide colorful laces, and her hair tied back, too, her face clean. Mr. S urged for quiet. Liz pressed her thighs upon the floor where her skin stuck to the cool, highly lacquered surface, then peeled them off. The whistle flared.

The student/soldier letter-writing program, Operation Appreciation, was implemented by the district's superintendent, who learned of it at an educational conference in Albany and arranged for the principals under her jurisdiction to each elect a member of faculty or administration to carry out the project for their respective schools. "I could've used something like this when I was over there," Sam Stewmiller, in the Faculty Lounge, said with visibly wet eyes to Principal Cynthia Davis and several others present when asked if he would spearhead Operation Appreciation. Turning in a slow deliberate circle, Mr. Stewmiller explained to the class that the letters ought to be "nice." Hand-written—no typing. Share a little about yourself. Be upbeat, said Mr. S., be positive. Don't ask stupid questions about covert operations. He looked at some of the boys: Don't ask them about shooting anyone. Mr. S. then began calling students by name to the center of the circle, urging slower-moving children to "hustle," to receive their index card, upon which he explained they'd find the rank, name, age, division, and hometown of their "assigned soldier." The class's collective realization that they were not having any "real" gym today despite having been required to change into gym attire inspired a range of feelings, from rage to relief, depending on the student.

Liz listened for her name, Mr. S would call her "Elizabeth Carr," and kept peeling her thighs from the floor, which felt like a thousand tickling pins. She thought of asking Melanie about makeup. She thought of asking Melanie if she'd hold off reading her card till Liz got hers so they could read them at the same time, an idea that immediately seemed to her childish. Melanie was already prancing back with hers, reading aloud, "Private Lance Wright!," grinning wide and showing Liz and several other girls the card as if it were a photograph. The way she had walked from the circumference to the center and back, snatching and carrying eyes, her body jingled and gleamed, and Liz knew that something had happened to Melanie this summer-past that hadn't happened to her.

An image of her soldier swam up, rugged, weary, sprawled without caution among rubble at the close of battle. A cigarette dangled from chapped lips, a hot blackened weapon lay across his legs. She gave him a face scorched with blood and grease, and staring eyes so blue and bright they did not seem part of the face. She saw him in the shells of buildings canopied with smoke, heard commotion, men calling to men, the wounded crying out, the terrible whoop of helicopters, the tableau a mix of images from movies, news reports, magazine covers seen and half-remembered, and because Mr. Stewmiller's descriptions echoed in her head—"The boys over there away from their families," "The boys all alone over there"—she added to her soldier a deep sense of loneliness—a knot in the eyebrows, a pair of slouching shoulders—and for a moment put herself there in the rubble before him so that she might take it away, but not knowing how, she blinked and it was over.

Her name was called. She went to the center of the circle wondering which eyes followed and which did not. She took the card from Mr. S's hand, the whole time keeping her sight on the silver whistle where something about the steeliness of the man's posture emanated or converged, vowed not to read the card, not to learn her soldier's name and rank until seated, and returned to her place on the floor, eyes lowered, card at her side, knowing she had not managed to avoid blushing.

*

Sergeant Jonathan Field of the 10th Mountain Division, born in Canton, Ohio, aged twenty-one, was moved from barracks in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on December 3rd, to a fort in the Korangal Valley in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunar. The geography of the region, the forests of Himalayan cedar, hazel and yew, jagged yellow hills strewn with wormwood and gooseberry, wild ziziphus strung in red fruit, the green valleys, the pine forests awash over hills, the smoky white spines of the Hindu Kush, the land is like nothing he'd seen before—expected, accounted for in his training, but incongruent with his fear. He is thinking, now, of moments in a day some weeks ago when his platoon helped vaccinate hundreds of goats and sheep below the mosque in Shamir Kowt. The scene had returned unbidden, the smell of dung, the soft, thick feel of the wool, the farmers' roughened hands in his, the children reaching up to touch him with shy curiosity. There is still pain but it's becoming harder to locate. He's been shot in the leg and the shoulder, has pitched himself down some hundred foot of the mountainside, has sheltered himself among roots and boulders, and with bloody hands and gauze is applying pressure, applying pressure, forgetting where the pressure should be applied, then remembering, hearing sometimes the poppy gunfire above, hearing other times a sheep's bleat, a donkey's bray at the needle. Down the jagged grade, beyond a craggy cheek of exposed mountain-earth, a figure cutting through the junipers registers upon his eyes before they close.

*

Melanie leaned into Liz to get a view of her card and said Jonathan Field sounded "cute," but Liz could tell Melanie thought her soldier, "Lance," had the better name. Liz thought she liked the name Lance better, too, or whether she liked it or not, it was the better name, if only because Lance belonged to Melanie, and Melanie painted her nails and smoked, and made friends with ease, and had boys trying to talk to her between every class. Liz held Jonathan Field in her lap, a name and some numbers, she lost sight of him, couldn't find him in the loud company around her. Dawn Gentry plucked up Liz's card and read aloud: "Sergeant Jonathan Field!" and said, "Wanna trade?" Melanie took Dawn's card and read aloud: "Private Tyrell Williams," and said, "Why, because he's black?" Dawn snatched back Private Tyrell Williams and protested loudly, saying it was racist to assume he was black, and DeShawn Hamilton laughed and said, "Man, let me write the brother if you can't." Will Boyer exclaimed loudly that he had gotten what the class would later confirm was the only female soldier in their class's batch; he was shouting her name, "Private Janet Hernandez!," drawing a crowd of boys. Dawn Gentry said, "No, it's because he's a sergeant, that's a higher rank, that's why." Melanie's face brightened, she clutched Liz's arm and said, "Sergeants probably make more money!" Liz said she didn't care about rank and salary, but maybe she did care, she wasn't sure, there were so many things to care about, so many unexamined cares, but seeing her soldier in Dawn's grubby fingers made her want him back.

*

The writing looked like bubbles. "Dear Sergeant Jonathan Field. My name is Elizabeth Leah Carr, but my friends call me Liz. I am 16 and a sophomore at Malbut High in Clarenceville, NY, and I want to personally thank you for your courageous service to our country." He saw a woman lounging in a bubble bath, felt a brief gonadic hum. She had appeared with electric clarity, then vanished, undoubtedly a woman fashioned of his own tastes—tastes his ex-girlfriend Roxanna Grier had called "typical," "predictably sexist," and "clich," to which Jonathan would counter, saying his tastes were merely an appreciation of natural beauty. He suspected her criticisms were rooted in insecurity about her own appearance, a near constant source of anxiety he could neither dispel by suggesting she looked like a Hollywood actress, nor by suggesting she did not. The combination of a beautiful woman and a bubble bath was not a unique creation but a stock image Jonathan's mind had supplied from the many depictions of bathing women he'd seen in movies and magazines: the hair piled upon the reclined head, the steam softening the edges of candle-flames. One shoulder is visible over the lip of the tub, perhaps also a knee, these dappled in a souffl of bubbles, while breasts, commonly, are not visible but suggested by a larger concentration of froth about the chest. Among the magazine images adorning the walls of the suite's common area, several depicted women in baths, or showering, or in foamy surf. He had defended such magazine-girls against Roxanna's disdain, arguing that such displays were celebrations of beauty, and what was wrong with that?—though "beautiful" wasn't a popular adjective among the men in his company. The joke among his suitemates was that every woman was either "fuckable" or "highly fuckable." They marked every woman they encountered on base, in town or city, women seen from a distance, women on the television, women in photographs, as one or the other, "ef-able" of "highly so," effable or ineffable. Old farmer women, robed in black, pulling carts, carrying children, leading goats, were effable. Almost all female soldiers and on-base journalists were highly so. A suitemate had described his fantasy job as one of judging the "effability" of women: the job's locale was a delicatessen of sorts; he'd have a lab coat and name badge, and a clipboard upon which he'd rank a wide set of qualities as he tested for them, and upon completion he'd select a toothpick with a triangular flag denoting the woman's score, and prick the flag into the rump, and leave it like a pink ham hock behind a grocer's display case.

*

Ahmed Matteen's uncle beckons him to follow. The battle is above them now, though bullets still spray through trees and rain needles, ricochet off rocks, plug the soft ground. They are cutting down and across the rugged slope, his uncle hunched over his rifle and moving swiftly twenty feet ahead of Ahmed, in pursuit, though the boy doesn't see of what. He can feel when bullets cut the air near him, something, not quite a noise, deep in his ears. He hears above the shouts of men calling in a language he heard for the first time only three months prior. Nothing distracts Uncle. The man's hand signals to stop, to crouch; Ahmed sees now—the sprawled legs of a soldier, motionless, behind stones and trees. Uncle beckons him to slip down and beneath the soldier; Uncle prowls across at a higher angle, approaches the American slowly, his rifle snug and steady in the crook of his shoulder. Ahmed sees Uncle jab the man's chest three times with his barrel. The soldier doesn't move. Uncle waves for the boy, Ahmed scrambles up the hill. Uncle grins, only for a moment, then takes the soldier's weapons and instructs his nephew to strip the body of anything else of value.

*

Elizabeth Carr was the first and only. Apart from his mother, some maternal aunts and a cousin, no other female had written him since being overseas. He'd received Roxanna's last words while at basic training, a string of letters with Dear John undertones that grew clearer as her resolve grew more firm; she refused to see him during his pre-deployment furlough, and now, with his deployment stretching into its fifth month, and not ending for another ten, that was a long time with no female contact. The break-up was a combination of Roxanna's growing loneliness during Jonathan's time away in training, his unwillingness or inability to write her frequently enough, and to write anything substantial about his feelings when he did, her inability or unwillingness to spend even more time alone after Jonathan was deployed, her unwillingness, and it was pretty obvious, his, to be married, and her wish to avoid the natural worries commonly suffered by significant others of active servicemen and women. Jonathan suspected it was pressure from her friends, the sort of friends who never liked anyone's boyfriend. He avoided suspecting another man, because it sickened him with helpless anger.

Finally then a female touch, these red sheets of paper, these loopy purple words. But was this "Elizabeth LeCarr" the least bit effable? he wondered, as effable as her name suggested? Did she look anything like the pinup girl he imagined in the bubble bath? Was it too late to avoid imagining her lounging in soap froth, looking up at him with that expression every photographed woman wore to convey desire? "I have a younger brother who wants to join the military but he's only 8. Guess he'll have to wait. Here's a little bit about myself I like classic rock like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Are you allowed to listen to music over there? I can make you a mixed CD that will cheer you up if your sad! Or one with slow songs to help you fall asleep. I have straight blond hair and hazel eyes, and I'm 5'4" tall." Jonathan pinched the twisted cellophane of a mint, brought the candy to his mouth and excised it from its wrapper with his teeth. He asked himself if it was too much to ask that he get through a high school girl's letter without an erection. The mint grew slippery and clunked puck-like between his teeth; the flavor expanded through his airways. What did it matter what she looked like, a girl in high school, in a town far from his own, who like thousands of other students wrote a generic letter to a solder she didn't know, would never meet, touch, love?

*

Liz had purchased the pale-rose stock with money her mom hade given her for the task; she already owned several of the purple-inked pens, recently her favorite. Bucky stood with his old worn head at an inattentive slump, and she wondered if she ought to put Bucky back upon her bed, or perhaps Bucky ought to live atop her dresser from now on. Mr. Stewmiller had provided a sample letter to give them an idea about what to write, and about what was appropriate. "Dear Soldier's rank and full name, skip line, indent, I am first and last name, a Grade-level, e.g. freshmen, sophomore, etc. at Malbut High School in Clarenceville, N.Y. I am writing you to show my appreciation (or offer my gratitude) for your courageous service to our country. Without people like you, Americans would not have the freedoms we have today. Everyone here in Clarenceville honors your bravery, and prays for your safe completion of the difficult work of fighting tyranny (or upholding justice). We know you will get the job done! New paragraph: write a little about yourself—not too long, e.g., Clarenceville is close to Niagara Falls, or My favorite subject in school is math or science (do not write gym is your favorite subject but do say what sports you like.) The last good book I read was (book title). New paragraph: ask one or two question, e.g., I hear it's hot over there, is that true? How's the food? How heavy is your gear? New paragraph: Thank you, first name only of your soldier. We Appreciate You! Skip line. Sincerely, first and last name. Optional: skip line. P.S. I know you're very busy, but if you'd like to write me back sometime when it's convenient, here is my address: skip line, write address."

*

If only the letter had come from Roxanna. His bunkmates received letters from girlfriends and wives. A letter from Roxanna, a letter from any girl who was his girlfriend, that would temper the loneliness, or just a photo, a sexy snapshot, as girlfriends and wives of his bunkmates seemed to supply them with, nothing on the back but "XO," or a lipstick impression of a kiss, code for a memory, a promise—that would ease the tension. A girlfriend who looked like the calendar pages of beach-strewn women, it didn't matter which, sandy skin and damp hair, whose entire attitude signified desire. If she had written the letter, had included the candies, a photograph of herself in a bubble bath—and a new jolt of anxious blood stirred in him, sly anticipatory ripples that would only build if he didn't snuff them out with a game of ping pong, or another trip to the exercise facility, reps in the mirror. The mint had dried and stuck to the roof of his mouth; he dislodged it with his tongue, tossed it around; his mouth moistened. He looked at the letter. The girly handwriting, the silly purple ink. A sophomore, 16 years-old, a child. He read the name again—"Elizabeth Leah Carr, but my friends call me Liz"—and in the breeze of overhead fansdetected the scent of perfume as he read, "straight blond hair, hazel eyes, 5'4" tall," odd information for a girl to include in a letter to a stranger, unless she was either so nave that such information was to her no more suggestive than which bands she liked or in what city she lived, or in conjuring her image she was attempting to flirt, to arouse herself in him. He remembered the local classifieds he and Roxanna would read in the Tim Horton's before he joined the Army, before he was beat to a pulp at Fort Drum and shipped off heartbroken to Saudi Arabia, and then the weeks of playing cards and ping-pong waiting in this palatial Kyrgyzstani airbase, and now soon to the real action, to of all places a place called the goddamned Valley of fucking Death—and where he wished he was again now, where some part of his life had begun, in a donut shop back home with hot brown coffee, a year after high school, sitting close to Roxanna, his hand on her leg, laughing at the sad self-descriptions of lonely people in the personals.

*

Ahmed Matteen has never seen an American up close. Since he began fighting three months ago, he'd seen them from distances, some great, some less so, but more often he didn't see them, and did only what he was ordered, or what he saw his friends and cousins doing, which seemed to be firing wildly into forests, or up hillsides. His uncle alone seems to fire only when he sees something, to fire and to strike. Ahmed has seen dead women and men, people who look like him, like Uncle, his own people, members of his own family; he's seen dead children, he's helped carry them to graves, helped bury them, but never a dead American. He's seen photographs, heard men in his group describe them, but he's never seen one with his own eyes. He's certainly never touched one.

*

She wrote: "Dear Sergeant Jonathan Field, My name is Elizabeth Leah Carr, but my friends call me Liz," then wondered if she ought not include her middle name, sensitive as she was to it. Mr. Stewmiller had said he expected all the letters to be done in a week. "I am a freshman at Malbut High in Clarenceville, NY, which is near Niagara Falls," wrote Liz. But she'd gone off-script discussing her town at the beginning and not the end, and to compensate, copied verbatim the next two sentences from Mr. Stewmiller's example letter, then crossed them out, then started again, because more than anything she didn't want to copy. All week, returning to and restarting the letter, she would think of the heavy responsibility laid upon her by Operation Appreciation, this obligation for the bravery needed to give thanks. She was one stranger's anonymous love in the oceanic gratitude of strangers. And these gifts she would be happy to give because these gifts—"recognition, acknowledgement, praise"—she, Elizabeth, would also give to herself. Mr. Stewmiller said the letters from every student in the school would be boxed and sent to a facility in Florida, whereupon they'd be shipped to Saudi Arabia, and finally to wherever it was their soldiers were stationed, which Mr. S said he had no way of knowing, so don't ask. The mint's dissolve had glazed her tongue in sugar, and Liz unwrapped another, imagining the part of the world where her letter would go as one enormous desert with burned buildings sticking from the sand. But where was Afghanistan. What was the war about. What was Sergeant Jonathan Field doing there. She was sure other people were sure. Her and her schoolmates' part Mr. Stewmiller had called their duty as citizens. She had duties at home—empty dishwasher, set or clear table, homework before TV—but this was national duty, something Mr. S guessed no one had ever asked them to stop for even one second and think about. They'd all been sitting on their thumbs, playing video games and talking on their cellular telephones; now they were playing their part in the defense of freedom—they were, in a meaningful way, entering the war. She looked at Bucky, who was not looking back. That she was writing a man, that a man would read her words, that was all she was sure of.

*

Jonathan's bunkmates were reading their Operation Appreciation letters aloud—"We want you to know you're appreciated!" and "I pray for you and all the soldiers that," and "We know you'll get the job done," and "Thank you for defending our"—and the room filled with raucous cheer. Those whose appreciative pen-pals were female began emphasizing with sensuous undertones words and phrases approaching double-entendres, "How heavy is your gear?" being a favorite, and sometimes, with more theatricality, making masturbatory motions with their free hand as they read, or pressing the letters to their faces as though they were their sweethearts' odorous undergarments. Someone read aloud a poem his student had written—"Maybe someday we'll meet, like strangers drawn near"—and Jonathan read a single line aloud from Elizabeth Carr's letter, partly to join in the fray and partly to try dissipating the uncomfortable possibility that he was imagining a 16 year-old high school girl naked in a bathtub, and afterward Lance said, "Fuck your eye color, honey, what's your cup size?" They hurled crass jokes, called each other kid-doinkers, queers; they laughed, agreed, denied, returned the barbs, the one-upmanship heightening the delight and extending the single brutal joke they had learned to play together, a wicked banter that bonded them through the evocation of certain emotions and the obfuscation of others, crucial for what lay ahead, and relieved the dull sickish combination of boredom and fear as they awaited the order that would send them to the battles they'd trained for and that would, they sensed in the quietest shroud of privacy that accompanied the moments before sleep, kill them, or culminate in the experiences that would shape the rest of their lives.

*

The soldier had tried bandaging himself. His weapons, helmet, backpack and ammunition were taken up by his uncle and now Ahmed could see the bandages sopped with blood and wound too loose. The firefight above has dwindled, perhaps ended, though which side has lost and which won he doesn't usually know. Watching Uncle descend into the valley and disappear into trees, he realizes he is alone, exposed for as long as this new task takes him. Settled on his knees by the man, Ahmed, his face half-turned, strips from the soldier a flashlight, a water canteen, binoculars, a multi-purpose tool, a weapon-cleaning kit, and a half-dozen other items he cannot identify, or does not bother trying to identify in his haste, shoving the items into a sack, losing hold of them, grabbing after them as they skitter down the mountainside, catching some, letting others go, groping around belts and buttoned compartments, all the while his muscles like jelly and his hands numb, hardly able to grip a thing for how much they tremble.

*

After listing the bands she liked (Led Zeppelin, ACDC, The Kinks, etc.) she wrote of her hometown ("boring"), its proximity to Niagara Falls ("Have you ever seen it?"), and then about her favorite subject in school ("probably science"). On the second side she mentioned some hobbies and interests ("Volley ball," and "help my dad with fixing the car"), and then her letter grew more descriptive of her home ("two-story") and her bedroom ("my own room with purple walls" and "one window" and "some posters of" particular bands she liked, and "a new bed with a new purple comforter"), until she paused and reflected on how dull the letter was, how horribly boring, perhaps like herself, perhaps she was dull and boring. She turned the second sheet of paper over, wondered what could fill the space, what more exciting, more meaningful, who could she become on this final side. Her fingers were groping at the corners of the book beneath the stationary, a drawing book she had found on a bookshelf in the attic, a fundamentals-of-sketching type of book that belonged to she didn't know which of her parents. In it toward the end were the authors' sketches of naked bodies, of men and women nude, standing, sitting, lounging, entwined. She had brought the book downstairs with misplaced excitement—she thought she wanted to learn to draw. To these pages she turned, knowing the sketches well by now, the rough, quick pencil lines that formed such vivid shapes of new excitement. What would she look like sketched naked? What would Jonathan Field? She had wondered the day she got her solder's card if Mr. Stewmiller paired them with some purpose. But what did Mr. S know about her except she could climb rope as quickly as boys: was this the reason he'd given her a sergeant? Or had he hunkered over his kitchen table all night consulting astrological signs, in which Liz half-believed? No, she thought, it was like shuffling two decks of cards together, pure luck, fate, in which Liz also half-believed. She had found Mr. Stewmiller at his car in the parking lot after school. His regular clothes made him look older, or his true age, and he seemed surprised or annoyed at her waving him down, jogging over and catching her breath by his car just to ask him something—But the question was a good one, and Mr. S proceeded to confirm that sergeants were indeed above privates, and that the differences were X, Y, and Z, Liz forgot to listen, and that a certain sergeant of his was such a loony that once, well, never mind, said Mr. Stewmiller, opening his car's door. She stopped him, asked why sergeant or no she'd gotten Jonathan Field, why Jonathan Field and her, she and him, what did it mean, and Mr. S said he didn't know, his wife had paired them, he was no good at paperwork.

*

Ahmed Matteen feels inside one of the soldier's breast pockets he hasn't yet searched, or if he has, has already forgotten in the terror of the chore, which he accomplishes by randomly patting and groping through the soldier's layers with cold shaking hands, and, crucially, by not looking at the soldier's face, wherein he discovers a clutch of small, round items that crinkle in his fingers when he grasps them and have no weight as he pulls them out.

*

"Do you like peppermints? They are my favorite. I could only stuff six in here! Sorry! When your bored you can see if you can suck on one without biting it. I like to eat my candy real slow. Do they have different kinds of candy over there? I know you're very busy, but if you have time maybe you could send me some." This was the post script. Jonathan counted: three in the envelope, one on his chest, one in his mouth. It was possible Elizabeth had miscounted—Jonathan pictured her "stuffing" the candies into the envelope, heard the words "suck on one"—but he knew things went missing from care-packages, it happened, and he felt a pang of irritation at the likelihood that security personnel had pocketed one. His suitemates settled, some dispersed, others flopped on their bunks, or gathered round the table for cards. Some letters had been dropped and left about, others sealed away. The poem was torn out, tacked aside a picture of a woman spreading her labia, but he saw Lewis put his letter in his locker, and Rodney stuck his in a bible, to mark a page or read again later. Jonathan gathered the four remaining candies and put them in his pocket with a selfish foreboding that other men would see, would want. Lance was leaning into the room, seeing if Jonathan wanted in on cards, and asked after any "hot pre-pubescent pictures," to which Jonathan, grinning, raised the two-page letter to show there were none. He said nothing, though, so as not to reveal the peppermint lodged between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. Alone again, he inspected the envelope, dinged in one corner and dented by the candies, and the sheets of reddish paper, folded carefully by Elizabeth's own hands, which touched him in some hard-to-describe way, the fact that she had held the paper, pressed the pen to its surface and written words she had had to select and think about, words for him, then folded the paper and slid it into the envelope along with the candies, all the while thinking of him, Sergeant Jonathan Field, and that despite her being perhaps forced or obliged to do it as part of Operation Appreciation, she must have wondered who this soldier is, what he looks like, what she could say that he might enjoy reading, that would put her in his high esteem, and she'd given her time and care to pursue these things, a half-hour maybe, or an hour, devoted to thinking of him, feeling curious, trying to please, thinking to add the candy peppermints when other students, other girls, had not, perhaps even feeling something like empathy or understanding or gratitude, maybe a small, harmless crush on him, her idea of him, and finally, after securing the letter inside the envelope, bringing it to her tongue, wet upon her bottom lip, to moisten the two strips of glue along the flap and seal the letter tight.

*

At the sight of the candies, Ahmed thinks of Hadiah, an infamous lover of sweets, all the village knew. At the sight of the candies, what Ahmed sees is her cupped hands, her brown smiling eyes. For the first time in three months he feels delight, joy—delight and joy at the thought of hers. Then he is aware of the solider again. He does not want to look at the soldier's face. Was he, Ahmed, the one who struck him? He had been firing blindly in the direction the others were firing, it was possible, but much more likely it was his uncle, who is said in earlier excursions to have killed four of the enemy, three for certain, likely more. Ahmed does not know if any of the bullets he's fired have ever struck the enemy. He is afraid to know. So far he has glanced at the dead man's face only one time, as he knelt down to his side, knelt as though to administer relief to a sick man, and has not been stupid enough to do it again, not while robbing him. But now four gleaming suns burst red and white inside his palm, and his greater, more personal urge for the objects makes his hesitation of taking them greater, taking candy from a dead man, this was really picking the bones, punishable perhaps, and a sickening suspicion fills him that the soldier somehow knows, has somehow awoken at precisely this offence, to administer precisely the punishment he, Ahmed, has summoned onto himself. But he thinks of her, the cupped hands, the candy moving cautiously behind the tight, secret smile, and while he nestles them into his jacket pocket he begins to bring his eyes to the dead man's face, as though to see, though terrified, by looking directly into what terrifies him most, whether death would defy his love, and slowly his narrow vision climbs wobbly up the body, from right hand, limp upon the needles and stones, bloodied, to the left elbow, still, to the unmoving chest, neck, chin, and to the soldier's eyes, which are blue, blue and full of water, not open as some corpses' eyes remained, but on him, watching him as the dead never did, and at just this moment the solder's chest heaves and all his wet life rattles.

*

After dinner, after clearing the table (Toby had set it), and helping her father wash the dishes (Mom had cooked), after homework, after emails, face-washing, zit-cream, teeth, pajamas, Liz sat on the floor against a pillow, Bucky on her lap, in the place she'd written, restarted, and completed the letter, the room cool, the window still open, the moon on its way, and reread it. No impulse to make changes, she was too tired, her mind already half-dreaming of the day, of days to come, feeling too something of the past surface, the slow recovery of a forgotten childhood habit, that of pressing her stuffed animals against herself, which she found she was doing now, was not stopping, holding Bucky between her legs, crushing him against her, making him try to get free. She slid off her pillow, rolled upon her shoulder on the floor, curled her legs and kept Bucky there, kept her eyes on the letter held crookedly in her free hand, not exactly reading but thinking of days and nights to come, and then thinking no longer.

*

There was a possibility that Elizabeth was flirting with him, and this would, Jonathan thought, excuse or explain the feelings of attraction and arousal, indirect and convoluted at they were, that he was experiencing toward the girl, or young woman, or inexact woman, or toward her gesture of having written him a letter, because then this arousal and attraction, if these were even appropriate terms, could be understood as something she, Elizabeth, instigated, that his feelings had developed in direct response to her, Elizabeth's, flirtation with him, if she were flirting. Besides the description of her physical appearance, sparse as it was, there were on the last page of the letter statements and questions of a more intimate nature, her relationship status, for example—"I don't have a boyfriend"—and inquiries into his—"Do you have a wife or girlfriend?"—into his mental state—"Are you lonely over there?"—her attempt at empathy—"It must be lonely" — and sympathy—"I hope you're not, though. Sometimes I am." And the candy. A child gives candy. It means a great deal, probably, to a child to give candy. But a child does not spritz perfume on a letter, and neither could Jonathan, after the fourth or fifth time through, read some of the lines as completely innocent, specifically, "I like to eat my candy real slow." The more he moved his eyes over this line the more he heard the voice of a woman saying it in his ear, a low purr of a voice, and the image arose of a woman, face hidden behind hair, blond hair, crawling up his body, tugging at his clothes, brandishing her teeth [He had been dreaming, the roar of gunfire and the roar of pain having ceased, of a woman crawling over him, tugging at his clothes, her fingers feeling there and here, leaving him undressed where they passed, but has awoken to find instead a boy of golden-brown skin and black hair upon him, a boy wrapped in woolen clothes, in scarves, with no turban, with hardly more than a few whiskers on his face, who doesn't yet see him, who then looks up, and when their eyes connect he, this boy, this inexact man, springs back so violently he topples over.] and dabbing her lips upon his neck, saying those exact words to him in a growl, saying, "I like to eat my candy real slow." With a surge of shame and self-pity he realized it was the most wildly erotic thing anyone had ever said or written to him, beating out Roxanna's pleas of "Fuck me, yes, fuck me" hissed into his ear when they screwed, which after all was a line anyone could pick up from a pornographic movie and repeat in bed without much commitment or danger, whereas, "I like to eat my candy real slow" had some mystery, required some imagination.

*

As he springs back, away, one hand snags inside his coat's pocket, snags because he has not let go his coveted deposit, and in the force of it ripping free the hand shuttles the suns through the air back at the one who is now watching him, who has awoken from death with the alertness of an animal, a quick, terrible clarity in his eyes. Ahmed lands on his back, sees the forest upside down, looks underside the mountains' skirts, sees the man's body rising and falling toward him, his face a boulder. The scuffle is brief, Ahmed, now with two hands, kicks free of the soldier's arms, scrambles backwards upon his forearms over root and earth, unable to look away. The soldier pushes, piles himself upon his knees, his hands are groping crablike about his sides and legs, for what but a weapon, and Ahmed shouts, "No please!," in his own tongue, a hot white unstoppable flash from his throat, and snaps his mouth closed in shame, for there are no weapons near the soldier, Uncle has taken all the weapons but his, still slung to his shoulder, beneath him, snug against his shoulder blade, and shame because the dead man's spirit was short-lived, it is easy to see that now. The soldier slumps back upon the boulder, the first one he had died on, but his hands still search. Now upon his trembling legs Ahmed feels the weight of the rifle on its strap biting into that worn groove upon his shoulder, eases it off, takes the warm metal and wood of the machine into his hands. The soldier's hand has found something, a little pinwheel sun.

*

What did it mean that a sophomore in high school could write such a line, could provoke him so, did it imply Elizabeth was, if nothing else, "sexually advanced" for her age?, and if so, why?, how?, at the result of some sexual trauma she experienced at a younger age?, or was still experiencing?, some groping uncle?, some satanic step-father?, and was this trauma manifesting itself in sexual activity with boys at school?, even older boys from the neighborhood?, or men she met at malls and movie theaters,? degenerates and pedophiles living out their fantasies, the rough plot of every pornographic film he'd ever seen. She, Elizabeth, was scripting the very scene herself, those charged though subtle lines—"straight blond hair and hazel eyes," "I don't have a boyfriend," "a new bed"—marked the plot points, marked the acts, all the rest of it was a sweet nothing, an open space in which the fantasy's potential could build and unfold. Same for that bubbly, girlish handwriting, emphasizing her youth, her innocence, her powerlessness, playing directly into his own, every man's own, inherently aggressive urge to take, to overpower, to dominate, inviting him to do so, at least to imagine doing, which was all he could do from here, and why not do it, he could not help but do it now.

*

The soldier, no longer paying Ahmed any mind, lifts the candy to his eyes, then to his mouth, biting away the wrapper. Ahmed watches not knowing what is right, to kill the soldier, his enemy, or to leave, knowing the solider is alive but helpless, and will probably die soon on his own, and whether he does or not is God's decision, not his own—but he thinks of Hadiah, and of the three scattered candies remaining near the soldier's boots. Hadiah, who he will marry, it was possible, some in the family had spoken of it, and the candies by the soldier whose death has already fooled him once, who keeps closing his eyes pretending to be dead again, then opening them to show he is not.

*

He flipped over in his bunk, rolled upon his own hopeless rigidity. Someone below, probably Rodney, was listening to music on headphones; out in the common area someone was singing a country song; Lance and Carlos were deep in poker, only sometimes calling out the name of a card, a winning one or a loser. [What would Uncle do? Slit the man's neck so as not to make any noise. The gunfire above is sparse but they're calling for one another, calling out names. He's got to go, has got to catch up with Uncle in the spot Uncle told him. The soldier's jaw shifts, his eyes closed as though a great thirst is being quenched.] Jonathan lay face down upon his cot with his weight upon himself, the taste of mint lingering in the thick saliva along the sides of his tongue, slowly and imperceptibly pressing his hips, contracting himself and releasing, the letter crushed beneath his chest and his hands limp and useless and unneeded at his sides. [The mint opening in his mouth, the flavor the only feeling. The boy still standing there, downhill, a few feet from him, there every time he opens his eyes, watching him, then nearer, nearer still, his face a thin mask of bravery, but holding, not crumbling. It's the candy he wants, the candy he's inching toward, snatching them up, dropping them one by one into his pocket, the last three, eyes never leaving Jonathan's own, which open, close.] He took her rapidly through the scenes and scenarios, embodying her with the appropriate attitudes and demeanors, her words his words, her body compliant, a plaything, a toy that was an extension of his desire and that begged for more. He was in it and outside, watching it, his eyes closed to the universe and turned inward to witness his own expanding, unstoppable virility. Then, the ecstatic throb of ejaculation, the urgency of release hot along his thighs. The world came back, his breath returned, and he discovered his teeth had mashed the small disc of peppermint candy into a sticky wad [When the eyes of the soldier open again Ahmed pulls the trigger with no more thinking, the surge of the rounds through the weapon's chamber sending three pulses through both their bodies and blood], and remembering Elizabeth's game of trying not to bite, regretted.

*

In the gymnasium Melanie and Dawn read each other's completed letters, wanted to read Liz's but she'd sealed hers already, had done it before school, not thinking of sharing it first, and she felt a moment of regret, then a moment of nothing, and finally relief that she did not have to share, not for embarrassment, but because the letter now felt to her private, importantly private, a private affair between her and another, no one from around here. She was buoyed too by the fact that her having included the Starlight Mints with her letter inspired admiration and jealousy from a few of the others. Mr. Stewmiller had reluctantly agreed to let the letter go with the mints inside, but when Dawn went to buy a package of M&M's from the machine Mr. S said M&M's would melt. Melanie had composed a poem, which she read aloud to the girls nearby—"But you are there and I am here / An ocean apart, a sea of tears"—and some of the others cooed, and she pressed the letter to her chest in contrived embarrassment while Liz, looking away, caught the wary eyes of a girl named April, who'd overheard, and Liz rolled her eyes, and April's body shook with a stifled laugh. Then, just as Mr. S was coming around with a box to collect the letters, Melanie took Liz's arm and said, "Hurry, before he gets here," and spritzed Liz's envelope with perfume before she could pull it away.

*

Jonathan awoke in the night from a dream wherein he was an old man with an old wife, with sons and daughters, with grandsons and granddaughters, an old farmer in these green and golden foothills, with many sheep, with goats and chickens. [There is a deafening sound, a white flash, a roar of gathering darkness though which Jonathan can barely see. There are the juniper trees and the yew below. A figure, once near him, further now, leaving him.] The men in the barracks were silent, asleep, unmoving. Elizabeth came to him, he heard her name as Liz, saw her face without imagining it, took it from the dream, the face of his wife with a silken shawl, a long simple dress. She was aging, the face growing lean, the hair darkening, the breasts taking weight, the hips widening, the hazel eyes tempered by all they'd seen. His fantasy, his lover, his wife. The dream was like a life lived. They had memories, like the letter she wrote him while holding to the roof of her mouth, so as not to bite it, [as Jonathan holds to the roof of his own mouth] her favorite candy, a peppermint [which feels to him somehow to be the body of Elizabeth, dissolving], and the taste of her candied breath as they kissed before he left for war, or would kiss when he returned [while the figure wends through the trees and vanishes, while the trees vanish into the valley, the valley into the mountains, the mountains into the sky] allowed Jonathan to rest his eyes once more, and his lids were much darker than the night, itself the color of fog.

*

"Dear Liz," read Elizabeth. She stood in the kitchen, her back pack at her feet, the pages pressed in her hands. "Thank you for your letter. It sure did cheer me up. I saw Niagara Falls when I was little, so maybe we drove through Clarenceville. I'll have to ask my folks and let you know." She sat at the kitchen table. There was no one home, so there was no need to go to her bedroom and close the door. She read about the weather, about their exercise drills, about the cities and villages he'd seen, and the animals, and the deserts and mountains. The candy he included was called "halva." He told her how he'd gotten it from a shepherd, on a day he and his platoon vaccinated sheep and goats at the mosque in Shamir Kowt. It was wrapped in clear plastic, a beige thing with flecks of green nuts, and while it did not look good, it smelled sweet, and she wanted to try it, but not quite yet. It felt good to Elizabeth, sitting alone in the house reading his letter, not having to share it or hide it, sitting in the empty house with the letter a young man far away had written her.