There are people in the way, and they wont fucking move! came the reply.
Slowing is okay. Stopping is not.
I turned in my seat, faced out. I checked my rifle mag, pistol, stretched in my body armor and readjusted it. Right hand went to the rifle, left hand to the truck door handle. We slowed further.
I searched the crowd. Booths and stalls, selling fruit and electronics, lined the sidewalks. The crowds walked and pushed closer and closer the slower our Humvees went. Kids pointed at us through our armored glass windows, yelling then scurrying back down alleyways that emerged every half block. I scanned for threats, but the tent covers of the shop booths, stretched taut to shade the harsh summer sun, blocked my view of rooftops. Shots from higher ground? An RKG-3 antitank grenade, tossed from the opening crowd? The Iraqi Army and local police were nowhere to be seen. I readjusted my rifle again, and popped open the dust covers on my optical sight.
But we had not stopped. Not yet.
Men with flat faces of unreadable sternness, walking alongside, began to look into the Humvee windows. Kids moved up, tapped on the door, and then ran off, disappearing into the rabbit warrens. If the attack comes, it will be quick. The crowd, like a school of fish, will suddenly all turn and move away. The sea parts, the attacker rushes in, grenade already in the air. A detonation, a lance through the flimsy armor, a flash through arm, leg, chest, and then the flock closes again, attacker absorbed, and scatters.
We stopped. Ackeret repeatedly hit the steering wheel in frustration.
I looked out, and the enraged beast was now pressed against the side of the Humvee, banging and yelling.
We need to get moving! But we didnt. We had ground to a halt in the center of the market.
I gripped the door handle tighter. If we started to get overrun, we needed to disperse the crowd. There was a small gap, less than eighteen inches, between my door and the edge of the mob. I placed my foot on the bottom of the door, and prepared to push. With no top gunner on our Humvee, wed have to exit and shoot to get a rioting crowd to move back. In one motion, I would throw the two-hundred-pound door open into the throng as hard as I could and rush out. My rifle would come up and forward, barrel end a battering ram directly into the chest of the man closest to me, pulling the trigger as I moved the rifle back to my shoulder. The man in the red-and-white shirt would die first, bullet into chest with no gap between barrel and skin. The next three, teenager in a Nike shirt, older man in a tan man-dress, and another with a bike, would die from my shots two feet away, probably as they fell back in reaction to Red-and-White going down. With the crowd knocked back from the force of the opening door and the shock of the first four dead, I would have time to remount. And if not, if I was swarmed and my rifle grabbed, the pistol in the cross-draw holster on my chest was in easy reach of one hand. It could come out, and need not move far for me to fire and earn me a second or two.
The crowd had to break. The convoy had to move. I would get back to the FOB. I would get home.
I chose who would die in what order. Red-and-White, Nike Shirt, Man-Dress, then Bike. I looked in their eyes, flipped the safety on my rifle to Single, and waited.
I waited for the shot to come. It didnt.
I waited for the grenade to be thrown. It wasnt.
I waited for the mob to riot. They didnt.
With a crawl, we started to move again, and drove off.
The Crazy didnt start right away. It stalked me for years.
Your first sign something may be amiss comes quickly, the moment you get off the plane at the airport in Baltimore. After months of deprivation, American excess is overwhelming. Crowds of self-important bustling businessmen. Shrill and impatient advertising that saturates your eyes and ears. Five choices of restaurant, with a hundred menu items each, only a half-minute walk away at all times. In the land you just left, dinners are uniformly brown and served on trays when served at all. I was disoriented by the choice, the lights, the infinite variety of gummy candy that filled an entire wall of the convenience store, a gluttonous buffet repeated every four gates. The simple pleasure of a cup of coffee after a good nights sleep, sleep you havent had since you received your deployment orders, seems overly simple when reunited with such a vast volume of overindulgent options.
Excerpted from The Long Walk by Brian Castner. Copyright © 2012 by Brian Castner. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. 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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