This story is dedicated to the victims of Islamic and American terror alike.
Cicadas chirp and click somewhere in the foliage whilst the light leaves us. The fire's still roaring, Fallujah's still burning, and as the cold desert night pulls in around us I'm more and more grateful for it.
"You got a light?"
I nod, and hand my lighter to the air to my left. My partner takes it, holds it to his face, a little away from the brittle ends of his considerable beard. The tiny flame flickers in his glasses a couple of times, then holds and soon dies. He blows out a long, thin cloud slowly, and tilts his head back.
"Do you ever get sick of this?" He offers conversation, but I'm not in the mood; I shrug and take a long drag on my own cigarette. When it dies, I drop it amongst the gathering butts in the dirt. One by one they pool around my feet, like so many drained corpses, curled and bent in on themselves. I let the haze of smoke singe my throat for a second, then breathe it sharply out.
"Well I know I do. I just wanna get home. I really do." He sighs, his voice rife with melancholy and self-pity, but not the selfish kind. He's looking for sympathy, but he's looking to give it too. He wants a friend. I can't be that, though.
He chuckles - a strange sound to hear out here even as distant gunfire tears up some far-flung corner of sand nigger central.
"Shame we're so damn good at our jobs then, I guess. They'll never let us go so long as we keep doing all their work for them." I nod half-heartedly and offer a smile. Barnes and Daniels have turned in for the night. One mass grave of civilians and soldiers is like any other, as far as I'm concerned.
"I know it bothers you. Killing people. It bothers me too, but..." He pauses, as if deciding whether or not he should share whatever wisdom he has in store. "But you don't have to think of it like that. It's like..."
He scowls. For some reason, this seems very difficult for him to say.
I continue smoking.
"Like a game. Right? All of these muzzies, is just a handful of points to earn. And you just think about it like that. It sounds... I don't know, it sounds stupid now that I've said it out loud. That's the way of things, isn't it? Better off in your head. But it's true. It's just a game, and we're just playing it."
I consider this all the way through my next cigarette. And the one after. Could he be right? This hard-boiled Lieutenant with the heart of gold sat next to me has more notches on his gun than the rest of us – possibly more than all of us combined, for all I know. If there's any sense to his words, I can't afford to ignore them.
I offer no reaction, though. Just long drags, and sharp breaths.
"Maybe I'm speaking out of turn, though. Just stop me if I am. It works for me, but I guess you could have your own thing. Or maybe you like it." He pauses. I guess stoicism has communicated the impression that I'm a psychopath, because he seems genuinely nervous in the light of this possibility. "Is that it? Do you like hurting people?"
These words stick in my mind. They will for a long time, but I don't know that yet. I can't explain what I feel when I kill someone. I can't describe the feeling of blood on my skin, a knife in my hand, the knowledge that someone else is dead and I'm not. Killing people, maybe... maybe he's right about that. But hurting people?
I don't know that either.
I realize I've said nothing. I shake my head, two quick jerks, a firm no. I don't know if that's true or not.
"Hmm. Well. Like I said, it's just a game to me. So I guess it doesn't matter. And you're meant to enjoy games, but I, uh... I can't enjoy this one. Maybe it's not healthy to get so detached, I don't know..." He trails off. I think he realizes I'm not going to talk anytime soon, cause he stands up and takes his beer with him. He hovers there for a moment. I can feel his eyes looking at me as he steals glances between me and the concrete jungle.
He starts to walk away, and his voice takes a sullen tone.
"That's just my advice anyway. Take it or leave it, buddy. It's on the house."
You're done. And that's okay.
You've done what you were meant to do, after all. And didn't you perform wonderfully? We're all very impressed. Very pleased. I know I am.
But I'm afraid this is where we part.
It looks like you've decided to accept what you have coming. Most don't, you know. Most insist on rampant, illogical blazes of glory. They think they deserve a last stand, a swan song. But you have. I'm pleased. Proud, I'd say, if such a thing made any sense. I can't take any responsibility. This is all on you! And how well you've done!
Looks like the police are here. Long way down, isn't it? Maybe you'll jump. That's what the rest do. The ones that don't accept what they've got coming, they either fight it or choose death on their own terms. I don't think you will, though. I think you're better than that.
That's the door. I think it's for you.
You've done well.