At first I thought it was a rock, the specialty of street urchinsa harmless shot against an armored Humvee. But the clanking sound that interrupted my thoughts couldnt be ignored. Nothing in Baghdad was what it appeared to be. You survived by sensing danger in little unordinary things: overcoats on a hot day, shadows flitting across a rooftop. For me it was the sound of a projectile landing louder than any stone should have.
It bounced off the steel blast wall behind me. I gazed down, then to the right, and spotted an object on the wooden bench two feet away. The dark oval was as shiny and smooth as a tortoiseshell, roughly six inches long and four inches wide. None of my fellow passengers seemed to notice. Private Jenks, who sat closest to it, was facing the other way. I confronted the intruder alone, a journalist caught in a military moment. Something told me there was no time to consult the soldiers.
I rose halfway, leaned to the right, and cupped the object. I might as well have plucked volcanic lava from a crater. I could feel the flesh of my palm liquefying. Pain bolted up my arm like an electric current. In one fluid motion, I raised my right arm and started to throw the mass over the side of the vehicle, a short backhand toss. Then everything went dark.
The Humvee bed was cold and hard, an inhospitable place to awaken. I struggled to sit up and fell back. Over my left shoulder, I could see sparks and a bluish flame rising in smoke. I took stock in the flickering light. My right leg burned from knee to hip, as if pricked by hundreds of hot needles. Blood was oozing from it and forming a cold, wet layer over my pant leg; my right arm felt heavy and numb. Was I having a nightmare? The hollow, faraway sound of voices was dreamlike. So was the sepia hue of the winter sky. I shook my right arm, trying to wake it up. Still no response. I elevated it to see why.
My wrist looked like the neck of a decapitated chicken. The wound was jagged, the blood glistening in the light. My mouth was dry, my brow soaked in sweat; my heart beat quickly and weakly, little dings in my chest.
All sound and sight dimmed, as my thoughts turned inward. This is not how I pictured my life ending: futilely and unglamorously, on the frigid floor of a truck, thousands of miles away from anyone I loved.
Noises muffled just a few moments earlier suddenly became distinct: Are there casualties? I recognized Buxtons voice.
Yes, we need to go now, Beverly answered tersely.
How serious? Are you wounded?
We dont have time to answer these questions right now, Sergeant. We need to get back to the base. We need to go now.
Were hit, we need help, screamed Nachtwey. Get us out of here. Move it. I tried to join in but could barely muster a whisper. Jenks was no better. He was glassy-eyed and slumped in the corner, his automatic weapon dangling at his feet. He looked dead.
Buxton ordered the driver to move. He didnt see Specialist Billie Grimes, who had jumped out of the vehicle behind us and was sprinting toward us in a hail of enemy fire. Stop. Stop, she yelled. We did so long enough for the slight, twenty-six-year-old medic from rural Indiana to leap in. She landed on a floor that was so slick from blood she slid over me, barely able to stay on her feet. The driver gunned it again, all but pulling her legs out from under her. She straddled my hips to maintain her balance and quickly took inventory. Jenks was stunned, but breathing. Beverly, bleeding from his knees and mouth, was strong enough to hold up his weapon and guard the rear. Nachtwey was wounded in his knees and abdomen. Instinctively, he reached for his camera to document the scene. He leaned forward and focused the camera on me. The flash startled Grimes.
Put down the camera, Jim, she yelled and flipped him a roll of gauze battle dressing to press on his wounds. Nachtwey ignored her and shakily snapped another frame. Then he passed out, camera in hand.
Excerpted from Blood Brothers by Michael Weisskopf. Copyright © 2006 by Michael Weisskopf. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holts and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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