High on Haight (part five)

Henry and Matson had been in Germany and on the same MP team for a year before they deployed to Kosovo. She was tall as him with blond hair cut above her collar and bright blue eyes and small breasts. She was the driver and Henry was her gunner. She was tough. Ran faster than him, shot straighter than him, land navigated better than him. She got into a bar fight once in Wurzburg and handed some guy from First Infantry his ass. Henry liked her immensely and for some reason she liked him too. They spent a lot of time together in the truck driving to ranges and field exercises, sleeping in the same tents in the training areas. In Kosovo they spent twelve-hours a day, seven days a week, in the truck and on the road and it was here Henry fell in love with her. On the night he was about to kiss her, after watching a movie in the big white tent next to task force headquarters, she told him about Specialist Martin.

“Who?” Henry asked.

“Martin,” Matson said. “A guy from that Airborne unit attached to us. And you know how I love Airborne.”

“Yeah,” Henry said. “You love those idiots jumping out of planes. Where’d you meet him?”

“Down at the PX,” she said. “He was getting some Burger King.”

“You hate Burger King.”

“I know,” she said. “But I love Airborne.”

Matson and Martin started seeing each other more, going to movies and walking to the PX at night and Henry spent more and more time alone with the guys in his hooch watching football and looking at nudie magazines.

One warm day in April the squad drove out to Vitina, a bombed out town about twenty-klicks from Camp Bondsteel and home to a UN police station and a company of Airborne Infantry. The locals wore colorful clothes and drank strong coffee and sat together smoking cigarettes and watching the Americans play their games. The streets strewn with paper and animal bones and stray dogs.

Matson and the rest of the squad went off on a walking patrol, leaving Henry behind to guard the trucks. They had a small CD player strung to the ceiling and Henry listened to “Ride the Lightning” and scanned the buildings for snipers that would never appear. Every once in a while a group of girls walked by, giggling and waving, and he’d smile at them, tip his helmet to them. He imagined he was the marshal in one of those old Westerns, sitting high on his horse waiting for ruffians, ready to defend the defenseless.

“Hey,” a voice, an American voice, said. “You’re an MP right?”

Henry looked down. A young PFC crouched in the shadow of the Humvee. “That’s what the truck says,” Henry said, pointing to the black letters spelling MILITARY POLICE across the side.

“Oh,” the PFC said. “Okay.”

“What are you doing out here in your soft cap?” Henry asked. “And where’s your squad?”

Soldiers weren’t allowed to leave cantonment alone and had to be dressed up in full battle-rattle. The generals in Washington hoped Kosovo was a dangerous place. But it had been relatively quiet. Except for the Mitrovica incident.

“Um,” the PFC said, looking around. “I snuck away.”

“So you’re AWOL then,” Henry said. “Brave man. Way out here. How do you plan on getting back?”

“I need to report a murder,” the PFC said.

“Oh,” Henry said. This was new. Maybe interesting. “Did you murder someone?” Henry didn’t know if Miranda applied in the Balkans but as they taught at school, better safe than sorry. “Because if you did I have to advise you of your rights and I don’t have any of that paperwork in the truck.”

“No, I didn’t murder anyone. It was my squad leader.”

“Your squad leader? Where’s he at?”

“Oh, God. They’re going to kill me.”

“Get in the truck,” Henry said, and crouched down through the turret. “Who did your squad leader kill?”

“A little girl. A little Albanian girl. Raped her and murdered her and made me hide her in the basement of that building.” The PFC pointed to the Soviet-style apartment building across the street and started to sob.

“Wait,” Henry said. “He did what?”

“It’s so fucked,” the PFC said, punching his legs over and over again. “So fucked.”

“Okay,” Henry said. “Calm down.” He stood in the turret and spoke into the squad radio—cheap two-ways from Radio Shack with a range of about a mile. “Hey, Sergeant Woods, it’s Henry.”

“Yeah,” Sergeant Woods said. “What’s up, Henry?”

“I need you guys back here ASAP,” Henry said. “We’ve got a situation.”

“Are you in danger?” Woods asked, a little too hopefully for Henry’s tastes.

“No,” Henry said, looking around. A woman was hanging clothes from a window in the building. She smiled and waved at Henry.

“Then what?” Sergeant Woods said.

“I don’t want to say over the radio,” Henry said. “But we need to search a building.”

Ten minutes later the squad came huffing up to the two trucks. “This better be good, Henry,” Sergeant Woods said. “I was having tea with the mayor and I know you’ve seen his daughter.”

Matson rolled her eyes. “Shit, Sergeant, you know she’s sixteen, right?” she said. “And Muslim? I forget sometimes how deviant you can be.”

“Oh please,” Sergeant Woods said. “She’s at least eighteen. And she ain’t a strict Muslim. Why do you think she’s always got her titties hanging out?”

Matson walked away and Henry told Sergeant Woods the PFC’s story and Woods’s face stopped smiling. He looked in the truck at the still sobbing PFC and curled his lips in disgust. “Fuck,” he said. “Where’s his helmet?”

“Back at the barracks, I guess,” Henry said.

“Alright, second squad,” Sergeant Woods said. “Let’s go.”

The squad went into the building one by one. The woman hanging laundry was gone. Vitina seemed very quiet. Even the dogs were hiding. Henry held his breath.

Presently Matson emerged and trotted to the Humvee. She was very white and she opened the heavy door with ease. “Jesus,” she said, picking up the long-range radio hand mic. “Jesusfuckingjesus.”

Everybody came out to look. The company commander, the battalion commander, the task force commander looking for a place to land his helicopter, and the German general who was running the whole show for NATO came all the way from Pristina, forcing the task force commander to move his helicopter and catch a ride back to Camp Bondsteel in a Military Police Humvee.

Later that night Henry and Matson drove out to the fence line of Camp Bondsteel. They watched the clouds cover Mt. Ljuboten under a full moon and drank whiskey from the small airplane bottles Henry’s friends sent through the mail every week.

“That girl’s got me fucked up, Henry,” Matson said, draining a bottle of Jameson and throwing it out the window and into Kosovo. “It looked like she was sleeping, like I only had to shake her and she’d wake up. But she was so cold. So fucking cold. I’ve never felt anything so cold.”

Henry handed her another bottle, didn’t say anything. The generators hummed and sent light into the night. Kosovo was never silent, never all the way dark.

“It’s fucked me up worse than those Serbians up in Mitrovica,” she said, opening the new bottle and drinking it half down.

“Really?” Henry said, drinking a Jim Beam. He would’ve preferred the Jameson, but she seemed to need it more than him. “But they almost killed you.”

A month ago they were caught in a mob of Serbians in Mitrovica, up in the French sector. The Serbians were not fans of the Americans—American warplanes had bombed them only at night and the Serbians thought this was cowardly—and they surrounded their truck and grabbed at her door and started pulling her out of the truck. She hit one of them in the throat and he fell back. Then the rest of them started grabbing her and she was no match for thirty Serbians. She clung to the steering wheel and Henry pointed the machine gun at them, yanked the bolt back, and yelled, “Stop.” The Serbians didn’t understand the word Stop, but they spoke machine gun and dropped her and ran off to whatever holes they had come from.

“I guess I’m okay with that,” she said. “I mean, not really. You know what I mean. But a little girl?” she said. “Murdered by one of our own guys. I mean, what the fuck? What the fuck are we doing here?”

“We’re here to bring peace and prosperity to the people of Kosovo,” Henry said.

She looked at him. “Don’t give me that shit, Henry. You know better than that. Why are we really here?”

“I don’t know,” Henry said.

The whiskey was all gone and the clouds had moved in and blocked the moon and it started snowing. She wiped her face.

“Fuck it,” she said. “Let’s go see if we can find Martin.”

Henry sighed and looked away. “Okay,” he said.

She smiled and started the truck and drove back to the motor pool and they staggered down the gravel path to the Airborne MP barracks looking for Martin.

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