The private turned his head, saw the sergeant standing there, and quickly minimized the solitaire screen. "Hello, Public Affairs," he said. "What can Casualty do for you this fine afternoon?"
"Same old, same old, Semple. Need to know if you have doctor's confirmation of the latest onethe guy from Second Brigade. The press release is done and ready to send out to the media. I'm just waiting on you guys to give me the go-ahead."
"Sorry, Sar'nt." Semple shook his head.
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Server's down," Andersen said, riffling the pages of People a couple of inches from her throat. As if that would cool her skin. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on ice cubes, Antarctica, a guy from Alaska she once dated.
"You've gotta be kidding me," Gooding said.
"Wish we was," Semple said.
"It was fine when I left my cubicle on the other side of the palace."
"Don't know what to tell you, Sar'nt. Sandstorm must have come along in the time it took you to walk from there to here. Maybe a mortar hit. Whatever. We're dead in the water right now."
Gooding gritted his teeth. Dead. Dying. Done for. By now, death was a way of life for him, a prescribed job skill he performed with automatic finger taps and wrist lifts across his keyboard. Death was just one of the commodities he traded on a daily basis.
It hadn't always been this way. He could still remember a time, at the start of this deployment, when he'd been a death virgin, cherry unpopped by all the casualty reports and photos of roadside bombings. Long before the Butcher Shop of Baghdad had dulled him to cynicism.
Once, when he was still down in Kuwait, waiting to deploy north to Iraq and join the rest of the division, which had already been in-country for three weeks, a captain from the G-2 Intelligence Section walked up to him in the makeshift Tactical Operations Center and asked, "You PAO?"
Gooding had looked up from the Dickens novel he was reading, then quickly got to his feet, heart pounding. "Yes, ma'am."
"Thought you should know we just got word from up north. Division took some fatalities earlier this afternoon. A vehicle out on patrol rolled over into a canal in south Baghdad. Two dead on impact. Another one trapped in the wreckage. Two other soldiers jumped in to rescue the vehicle crew but they got swept away. Monsoon season up there is a bitch, apparently. Anyway, last I heard, we've got three dead and two missing."
Gooding had dog-eared a page of A Tale of Two Cities with trembling fingers and said in a hoarse voice, "Thanks, ma'am. I appreciate you letting me know."
Back then, he'd slumped against the wall, reeling from his first deaths as a public affairs soldier serving in his first war. He pictured the Humvee tipping, tumbling into the water, the two soldiers on the bank shouting, acting on instinct, jumping into the water, misjudging the current, and getting sucked down into the muddy swirl of the Euphrates (in his mind, the canal had become the mighty Euphrates), their mouths trying to snatch air but filling instead with dirty water. He pictured those two soldiers flailing against the pull of the water, soon losing all strength as their lungs filled with the Euphrates, and their limp bodies floating downstream. He had thought about their personnel files quickly being pulled from the division's records and labeled "Killed In Action," their ghosts quietly falling out of company formations, their names laser-etched on a memorial plaque back in Georgia.
Not many days and three U.S. KIAs later, Gooding had written in his diary:
February 13: This is how a death is announced. In the midst of the hum and buzz of idle boredom in the Division Tactical Operations Center, you hear one officer, bent over the back pages of The Stars and Stripes, ask another, "What did you get for 17 Across?" Two people are arguing about which Matrix movie was the best. Another soldier in his early twenties is surfing the Internet looking at engagement rings and wondering aloud what difference a half carat made in the quality and price andmost importantlya chick's response to the bling.
Excerpted from Fobbit by David Abrams. Copyright © 2012 by David Abrams. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press. 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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