excerpted from No Plan Survives a novel in progress

Ric sat in the back seat of the Humvee reading an American news magazine. Henry and Matson sat in the front slapping cards down between them on the gunner’s platform. Ric had tried to grasp the basics of the game, but Matson spoke quickly and Henry didn’t seem to understand the game himself so Ric had picked up a Newsweek and started thumbing through it. Ric understood English well enough to be an interpreter for the Americans, but he found it hard to read the language. The sounds of the words hardly matched their spelling. But he liked Newsweek, liked the cartoons in the front and the pages of shiny pictures. He stared at one of these pictures, a man and woman in green camouflage holding black Kalashnikovs smiled at the camera. Strung up behind them was the flag of the KLA, blood red with double black eagles. Ric’s chest surged with pride and he turned the pages to find the beginning of the article. It started, “Tensions are high after terrorists from the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army operating on the Kosovo-Serbian border launched attacks on Serbian police barracks. Slobodan Milosevic, leader of the Serbs, blasted the attacks saying they threaten the tenuous cease-fire that has held since the end of the NATO bombing campaign last summer.” Above the article was a picture of a border village, a village much like Ric’s. He thought of his mother and sisters back in that village, his murdered father buried in the village cemetery along side so many other murdered fathers.

Terrorists? Ric thought. They call us terrorists?

Henry slapped down a card and laughed and then picked up the pile of cards. He was apparently getting a handle on the game.

Why were the KLA terrorists? What about the Serbian thugs who had come into his father’s house that night, drunk and yelling, calling for all the Muslim dogs to “come out, come out where ever you are”? Ric climbed a tree and watched the Serbs kick in door after door. Women screamed and clawed at Serbian faces with their nails, but the men just punched them to the ground. The Serbs were bigger and drunker and had weapons and they dragged the Albanian men and boys down the road and into a field just outside the village. The Serbians made them dig a long trench and then they shot them. One by one by one. It took nearly all night. Ric thought he would lose his grip, fall to the ground, be shot too, but the Serbians, drunk on plum brandy and Muslim blood, carried each other home and he was able to slip into the dark mountains of Gnjilane.

“You suck, Henry,” Matson said. “You didn’t just win that last trick. Show me your cards.”

And while the Serbs were killing all his friends and his father, American planes circled overhead like impotent buzzards.

“Henry?” Ric said.

“Yeah, Ric,” Henry said. “What’s up?”

“What are we doing here? Sergeant Jackson said I could have the day off.”

“He told us the same thing,” Matson said. “But this is the army and you can’t believe anything they tell you.”

“Rodman wanted to come here to buy porn,” Henry said.

“Porn?” Ric said.

“He did not,” Matson said.

“Yes he did,” Henry said. “He’s always asking me to pick up Playboy for him.”

“That’s not really porn,” Matson said.

“What is this word porn?” Ric asked.

“Magazines with pictures of naked women,” Henry said.

“Or men,” Matson said. “And porn isn’t Playboy. Porn is fucking, pussy lips, hard dicks.”

“Oh,” Ric said.

“Well,” Henry said, “hard-core.”

“What?” Matson said.

“That’s all hard-core porn,” Henry said. “Porn is a broad nomenclature.”

“Nomenclature? Well aren’t you romantic?”

“Fuck off, Matson,” Henry said. “You know what I mean.”

“Nobody ever knows what you mean,” Matson said. “You gonna deal those cards or what?”

The sun dropped below the Sar Mountains turning all the clouds in the sky purple and plunging the land into darkness. Albanians froze to death while Americans played cards and looked at naked women. Meanwhile, the KLA prowled the border killing Serbians.

“What kind of magazine is this?” Ric held up the Newsweek.

“It’s a boring magazine,” Henry said. “Sergeant Rivera buys it. Says he likes to keep informed.”

“It’s a news magazine,” Matson said, picking up her cards for the next round. “You guys don’t have those?”

“No,” Ric said. “Not like this. Why do they call Albanians terrorists?” he asked, and pointed to the article.

Matson looked at it and shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Ric scowled. “We are not terrorists,” he said. “We are protecting our families. Revenging our families.”

Henry slapped down a card and laughed but Matson stared at Ric. “We?” she said.

Her face looked like the soldier’s who stopped his car just outside Urosevac before the Americans came—eyes slit like a snake’s, her mouth turned up in a slight smile, her straight white teeth glistening in the hard light of the electric lantern. “Albanians,” Ric said quickly. “We Albanians.”

Matson continued to stare at him.

“What?” Ric said.

“Nothing,” she said, and turned her attention back to the pile of cards in front of her. “Jesus, Henry,” she said. “You fucking suck at this game.”

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