Our convoy got back to COP Bowri Tana around 6 pm. The sun was falling and seemed to light the horizon on fire. As we marched from the flight line, I spotted six local nationals, Afghans, praying under the canopy next to the TOC. They were kneeling on rugs. Their palms reached for the sky.Dedrick said, “What if they was all praying while wearing suicide vests?” He made an exploding sound with his throat as we passed them. But I didn’t laugh. No one else in our squad laughed, either.
Nobody wanted to do anything when we got back to the base. Dedrick didn’t want to play video games; Kaleman didn’t want to crush non-alcoholic beers. Hardly anyone talked about Skyping their wife or girlfriend. Nothing. Everyone was in a bad fucking mood. We heard that Bahlul, our interpreter, had been murdered. The Taliban had targeted him with the help of some villagers. Killed him and his family outside of their home.
We all felt like shit. Felt like one of our own had fallen. We told Bahlul we would never let anything happen to him. He was one of us. And he really embraced that; he’d throw back cans of Monsters, pack globs of dip into his bottom lip. He kept saying how one day he wanted to move him and his family to America—for a better life.
Some of us were burning with revenge. We begged CPT Spykes, nearly falling to our knees, to call in a drone or drop hell on the villagers with mortars or start spraying rounds across the valley with the 240B perched in the guard tower. Or we’d head back out in the dead of night and perform something like an LA drive-by with the 50 Cal. Kaleman had a hard-on for that shit. He was from the posh LA, Calabasas or something, and wanted to fulfill some fantasy. A drive-by fetish. But CPT Spykes, who was hurting just as much as us, declined all options. “Those are fucking war crimes, gentlemen,” he said. “Hell no.”
I picked through my food at chow. I had lost my appetite when I’d heard what happened to Bahlul. Hardly any of us ate, so we tossed the chicken and rice to some stray dogs. They devoured it in seconds—they go days without eating, weeks sometimes.
After chow, SGT Sims, our TC, whipped out his acoustic guitar and made it cry. We were all sitting around him listening, notes singing from the strings. No one said a word. Bahlul loved to hear Sims play. He also, after a day of translating villager complaints and curses, loved to play Fifa—he was half-decent, actually. Me and Bahlul would gut MREs for the best-tasting packets of food and play one-on-one all night on my Xbox—until first light, most times. And before dawn, he’d stop and put down his controller to pray. I’d remain completely silent and still as I watched him kneel in front of the Xbox, his forehead kissing the floor. When he finished, we’d get back to the game.
Sims put away his guitar when some of the local Afghan kids, from the village below, called out to us from beyond the gate. They were like little salesmen, those kids. They usually sold cigarettes, DVDs, rebuilt electronics—from God-knows-where—and other random shit, depending on the day. They called out for us again, shouting, “Soldier! Soldier!” None of us wanted to deal with them. Not today. Nevertheless, me and a couple other guys walked down.
They had some old-ass DVDs, movies nobody wanted to see: Gone With the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, Bad News Bears, and some Russian film that none of us would’ve understood.
“Where’s the new shit?” I said.
“Soon, soon,” one of them said. Then the kids held out some pieces of Afghan candy that they charged for a dollar. It was a rip-off. That candy tasted like shit. They also offered hashish as a bundle deal, but no one dared to smoke it, fearing that it was laced with some chemical agent that would make us foam at the mouth and shut down our bodily organs, or else make us turn our weapons on ourselves.
I thought of Bahlul. Whether or not they knew anything about him being killed. Maybe they were plotting against us now. Maybe someone who was taping us at that moment had sent these kids up to our patrol base with a mission.
I didn’t want anything. I don’t think anyone else did either.
“No buy,” I said. “No buy.” Wagging my finger at them. “Go,” I said. Then one of them swung off their backpack.
Kaleman said, “Hey you little fucker. Hold it.”
The kid didn’t flinch. He ripped open his backpack. I had no fucking clue what that kid was going to snatch out of his bag, but I swear to God I thought my whole life had led up to that moment.
Before Kaleman reached out to stop the kid, he had dug out a flat soccer ball: tethered, worn, and coming apart, with two strings tied around it to keep the thing from going to pieces. He tossed it on the ground.
“No buy,” I said.
Dedrick said, “Bruh, I think they wanna play.”
The dusty-faced, green-eyed kid kicked the ball to me. I stopped it with my boot. I looked down at it. Rolled the ball under the sole of my boot. I hadn’t touched a soccer ball in years. Not since high school. I passed it back to the kid with the inside of my foot and watched it travel smoothly to his little sandal.
Then all the kids scattered and surrounded around us like an ambush. Before any of us knew it, we were all passing the ball to each other. We started a pick-up game. Shit, even some of the men who were worshipping ran over and joined in.
They set up a pair of sandals for one goal. We set up someone’s boots for the other. The teams were mixed. There was one kid on my team who had feet like Messi, performing step-overs and Cruyff turns. He was breaking ankles. I threaded a couple nice passes and blocked a few shots. Then Dedrick assisted some skinny Afghan man with a red beard for a goal. Dedrick showed him how to give dap, pound fists, then blow up the hand. They laughed together with their fingers splayed out from the blast.
Both teams were trading goals, going back and forth. But we were hardly keeping score. That shit didn’t matter, honestly. All of us just kept playing deep into the night. Even when we couldn’t see the ball.
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