“G-o-d-d-a-m-n s-a-n-d.” Will speaks slowly, forcing the letters through the fluttering black on white kufiya wrapped around his mouth, nose and neck.
“C-a-n-‘t s-e-e s-h-i-t,” Popeye yells back.
Popeye yells in Will’s ear, “Said can’t see shit.”
Will nods as the two soldiers brace against the orange wall, whipping dirty sand all around them.
“Should stay here,” Popeye shouts in Will’s face.
“What the fuck you say?”
“Stay here.” Popeye points to the desert floor.
“And what? Be fucking buried alive? No way.”
“Bet they’re already back there. Those mothafuckers,” Popeye mumbles, trying the radio that hangs around his neck one more time.
Will watches and waits. Popeye shakes his head.
“Told you to hold it,” Wills shouts.
“You took too long to piss. That’s why we got separated, you idiot.”
“You got some serious issues.”
“I’m looking at one of them.”
Another blast of wind-sand almost knocks them over.
“We got to get back,” Will shouts in Popeye’s ear.
“Walk. Asshole.” Will pulls a compass out of his pocket and turns to the left, to the right, to the left. He shakes the compass and stares at it.
“What?” Popeye yells.
“Piece of shit’s broke.” Will holds the compass in front of Popeye’s face.
“Give me that.” Popeye grabs the compass and holds its face close to his face and turns in a circle. The needle quivers in no direction.
Will snatches the compass and throws it. The wind whips it away. He stares at its disappearance and turns back to Popeye.
“No problemo.” Popeye smiles, and bracing against the wind reaches into his vest.
“Oh, no,” Will says to himself.
Popeye pulls a coin from an inner pocket. “C-a-l-l … i-t.”
“Yeah? So which way do we go?”
Popeye considers this question. “Heads we go left. Tails we go right.”
“You’re a dick-face, you know that? Of all the lower ranking jerk-offs in this waste of a shithole, I’m stuck out here with you.”
Popeye shrugs beneath the weight of his backpack.
Will turns away from Popeye, wishing he could light up a cigarette under the cool shade of a sycamore back home. He turns to Popeye. “I really don’t give a shit anymore. I just want to get the goddamn motherfuck out of here.”
“Come on Romeo.”
Will braces himself between the wind-sand and the coin. Popeye smiles and kisses each side of the nickel. He flips the coin in the air, his eyes staying on the Buffalo.
“Call it,” Popeye yells.
A belt of wind whips the coin away and Popeye misses the catch.
“Oh, shit,” Will whispers.
They look at each other. Where’d it go? Popeye asks with his body. How the fuck should I know? Will’s shrugging shoulders and uplifted arms answer him.
Popeye drops to his knees, searching for the coin. Will looks left and right and right and left, and tugging Popeye’s sleeve, thinks, It’s not a good idea we need to move on we need to get out of here. Popeye brushes Will’s hand aside as his face moves an inch above the desert’s floor. Will straightens up. Now what? Shuffling in a circle, the weight of equipment pushing him farther into the earth, he swivels his head, left and right, right and left, breathing and swallowing the desert, looking out into nothing but a wall of dirty-looking orange sand.
“Where’d you go? Where’d you go?” Popeye pleads, sifting and snaking.
Will bends down and shouts in his ear, “Come on, Popeye. Let’s go. It’s gone.”
“No it ain’t. It’s here,” Popeye shouts back. He waves his hand to join him in the search.
Will swivels his head one more time before he drops to his knees. He sifts through the desert searching more to get his buddy out of there than to find the nickel. Will sits back on his haunches and stares at Popeye. Crawling to him, he yells in Popeye’s ear. “Come on. Let’s go.”
“I ain’t going nowhere without my Buffalo.”
Will tugs on Popeye’s sleeve. “It’s gone I told you.”
“No way Romeo.” Popeye reaches deep inside the shifting sand.
“Come on, I got a bad feeling.”
“You always got a bad feeling.”
Will tugs on Popeye’s sleeve. “Hey, look—”
“Get your fucking hand off me,” Popeye yells and pulls away from Will’s grasp and goes back to the search.
“We’re getting the fuck out of here. That’s an order, Private.”
“Court martial me … Sir.”
Will knows it’s no use pulling rank on Popeye when it means leaving the Buffalo Nickel there or anywhere. He understands how it’s Popeye’s link home. His link to anything sane. Will is tired of the desert beating him like a sandblaster. He’s thirsty and wants a shower and to forget about the war for an hour. Might as well just keep looking, not for the Buffalo, that’s gone, but for a way out of this god-forsaken desert. He keeps his head on a swivel, protecting his buddy, looking out at the wall of sharp sand cutting into his body, his mind—looking left, looking right—the habit deeply ingrained in his psyche now. I hate sand, I do, I hate it. Don’t think I’ll ever go to the beach again. Goddamn sand—Swivel right, swivel left, you idiot—I’m okay really I am. I got it—Don’t think you do, asshole—Yeah, really, I got it… really… orange and sand and this goddamn forsaken bloody red shithole get up get up Popeye we got to go orange sand red hell swivel head left and right and right and left swivel head. Will stands and protects his buddy, suffocating inside the whirlwind of this sidewinder’s hell.
Struggling under the weight of equipment and blasting sand-wind, Popeye pushes off the desert floor to standing. Clutching his hand tight, he walks up to Will. He smiles and opens his hand. “Heads. You lose.”
Will looks at the Indian’s profile and three feathers lying on Popeye’s palm. “Fuck you.”
“Yeah? Well fuckyoutoo. You lose Romeo.” Popeye digs the fact in deeper. “Again.”
“You changed it.”
“When you found it. You changed it.”
“Ouch. That hurts.” Popeye tries to hide the fact that Will’s accusation really did hurt his feelings but Will sees through the smile and downcast eyes. Popeye kisses the Buffalo nickel and puts it in the special pocket inside his vest. “No. No man. I don’t do that. This is sacred.” He pats his chest where the coin is safe. “I don’t do that. You lost man. Again. That’s what pisses you off. You lost.”
Wind whips Will’s kufiya away from his face. Sand blows into his mouth. He chokes. Will tries to spit the sand out. Popeye watches his buddy. He opens his mouth to say something but sand blows into Popeye’s mouth, too. They spit out the ancient desert, coughing and covering their faces, fighting to keep balance on the shifting desert floor.
“Mothafuckers are already back there all cozy and warm, I know it,” Popeye yells.
“Don’t blame me.”
A sandblaster wind knocks Will over. Popeye reaches down to Will. Another blast pushes Popeye on top of Will. They struggle to unlink Daisy Rifles, limbs, backpacks and boots.
Finally they sit up, coughing and spitting. They look at the opaque-orange whipping across the desert.
“It’s like limbo out here,” Will shouts.
“No man. This ain’t limbo,” Popeye shouts back. “There’s no limbo in war.”
Grunting and sweating and swearing and using each other for leverage, they help each other up. After they readjust their rifles and 9mm’s, kufiyas and goggles, equipment and backpacks, they turn and push into the wall of sand, hoping to find their way back to the tailor shop.
A flashlight propped up in the corner diffuses a triangle of light on the wall inside the closet-now-turned-bedroom. Will lies on top of a sleeping bag spread on the concrete floor and draws long on a Camel, his M4-Carbine within easy reach. Even though sand and grime is embedded on his face, he still looks like the Homecoming Queen’s date. “It must be nice,” Will says to the poster nailed to the wall. Studying the Eiffel Tower and its million lights, he blows smoke rings toward the beacon of love. Nighttime is different in Paris, he thinks, touching the scotch-taped tower, knowing it isn’t going to hold the torn dreams together much longer.
He reaches under the folded towel he uses for a pillow and pulls out a photograph of a woman leaning into him on a beach. Large waves break in the distance. They wear woolen hats and winter coats and are smiling. “Daisy,” he whispers and kisses the woman’s face, trying to reach across the incalculable distance and pull her towards him, trying to keep some part of her with him. He takes another drag, puts the photograph back underneath the folded towel and pulls out a red grease pencil. Leaning across the backpack, he crosses a diagonal line through four vertical lines marked on the fading wallpaper and counts the clusters of five. “One, two, three, four … sixteen, seventeen … twenty-nine … forty-two … fifty-four … sixty-six.”
Spitting on the end of the cigarette, he watches the glow die out. He puts the butt inside an empty red, white and blue soda can and studies the elongated curls and swirls of Arabic. Wondering how Pepsi wheedled its way into the Cradle of Civilization, he wedges the can between a stack of magazines and his backpack. He lays his head on the pillow, sliding the grease pencil underneath.
A sound like a heavy metal door sliding shut in a meatpacking factory vibrates through the tailor shop. Will grabs his M4 and standing ready in the doorway, scans the soldiers crashed out in their makeshift homes between stacks of discarded sewing equipment.
“Jesus-son-of-a-bitch, what the fuck was that?” Hopper’s voice calls from a corner.
“Don’t know,” Bargo says and lies back on a couple of camouflage parachutes, putting the earbuds from his iPod in his ears.
“Ali Baba’s come to save our sorry ass,” another voice grumbles.
“Scared the shit out of me.” Hopper white-knuckles his rifle against his skinny-ass chest.
“Hopper,” Field First Sergeant barks as he walks through the doorway of a store-room-turned-command-post into the main room of the tailor shop.
“Yes, Sarge?” Hopper walks toward the seasoned soldier who feels closer to his men than to his wife back home.
“Go take a look. Take Bargo with you.”
“Sure, Sarge.” Hopper walks over to Bargo, kicks his sand-caked boot. “Come on, Hendrix. Time to rock and roll.”
“Shit.” Bargo removes his earbuds, grabs his rifle and follows Hopper through the maze of soldiers. They hurry towards the front of the tailor shop, their footsteps hollow against the concrete floor. The door creaks open then shuts.
Everyone listens to silence.
Will grips his rifle across his chest. Ready. Always ready no matter how deep the exhaustion penetrates his bones, no matter how many times he kicks down doors or searches cars or an old widow’s home, no matter how many senseless patrols beat him down, Will aims his M4 at whatever needs aiming.
After a few moments Hopper comes back, heads to Sarge. “Didn’t find nothin’ but a bunch of punk Hajis hanging around. Left Bargo out there with Meyers and Poodle.”
“You green-piece-of-dumb-shit. Get your lazy white-ass back out there and don’t let Bargo out of your goddamn sight,” Sarge barks.
“Yes, Sarge.” Hopper runs back to the front of the tailor shop.
Sarge walks back into the storeroom while the soldiers settle down for another long night. Propping his carbine against his backpack, a little closer than usual, Will crawls onto the sleeping bag and hears other footsteps approach his closet.
“Hey you busy?” Popeye asks.
“What do you think?” Will answers.
“Can I come in?”
Pushing open the green material that curtains off Will’s temporary barracks, Popeye stands in the closet doorway, chewing a piece of black licorice. Will sits up, puts out his hand. Popeye gives him a piece and leans against the splintered wooden frame, his lanky body filling the space. He bites off another piece of licorice and looking like a schoolboy, chews and counts the markings on the wall. “Gettin’ short.”
“It’ll be good to go home.”
“You know I don’t cheat.”
“That’s what you keep saying.”
“You know it got us back here, Romeo.”
“No, I don’t know that, Popeye.”
Popeye studies the red markings on the wall—the way the flashlight casts a strange glow against the peelings of faded wallpaper, the poster of the Eiffel Tower. He lowers his voice to a whisper. “I want you to take the Buffalo back to my father.”
“Do it yourself.”
“I don’t want it staying here.”
“Take it back yourself.”
They chew, listening to a soldier’s snores in the main room.
“It’s a sacred act flippin’ the Buffalo,” Popeye says.
“Get the fuck out of here.”
“No man. Listen. You flip this coin in the air and it comes up heads or tails. Every time. It don’t come up nothin’ else. Only heads or tails. You think I just flip a coin for no reason?”
“It’s pretty fuckin’ amazin’ when you think about it. An’ the odds are always the same.”
Popeye pulls another piece of licorice from his pocket and hands half to Will.
Will takes it. “What are the odds?”
Popeye smiles. “That’s not the point.”
“You’re so full of shit.”
“I flip the Buffalo in the air and it comes up heads or tails.”
Will waits for more.
“Yeah that’s it. There’s nothin’ else in life man. Heads or tails.”
“That’s deep, Popeye. Real deep.”
Their eyes meet as they chew the last bits of licorice.
Will lies back and rolls away from Popeye, facing the wall. “Thanks for the licorice.”
Popeye looks at Will’s back, and then the red markings on the wall.
“Are you gone yet?” Will whispers.
Will’s body shudders. He’s never heard Popeye’s voice sound so cryptic, so leaden. Will tries to push away the bolt that just went through his body but it jolts him anyway.
“Promise me you’ll take it back to my father.”
“You’re losing your beauty sleep.”
“Spencer, the buffalo has to go back from where it came.”
Will turns to Popeye. “Go away. Leave me alone.”
They look at each other. The flashlight dims and goes out.
“There’s your cue.” Will rolls on his side, facing the wall.
Popeye steps back, the green material falling between them. He turns away and navigates through soldiers sleeping and breathing and dreaming then enters his own private claustrophobic fuck, another closet in the abandoned tailor shop of a dead tailor.
Will sits up, panting. Grabs the flashlight and turns it on and off. Fucking piece of shit. Nothing works around this dump. He fumbles through his backpack, trying to calm his breathing. He can’t. He grabs the pack of Camels and lighter, rolls out of the sleeping bag to vertical and pushes through the curtains. He weaves through piles of discarded sewing equipment and soldiers crashed in their makeshift homes. He reaches Popeye’s closet.
“You in there?” he whispers. No answer. He reaches through the doorway, hoping to touch Popeye. Nothing. Why the fuck isn’t he around when I need him? Will thinks, walking around soldiers sleeping inside other nightmares.
Stepping into the courtyard, he waits for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. He lights a cigarette and smokes. Within a few seconds, he sees a familiar shape leaning against the only wall still standing. He walks through rubble of stones and broken bricks, around small craters to the crumbling wall, leans against the wall next to Popeye.
“What are you doing up so early?” Will asks.
Popeye points to the faint trace of moon.
Will draws long on the cigarette, and blowing a series of perfect smoke rings, watches them float upward and disappear.
Popeye opens a pouch of pork ribs and a pouch of grape jelly. He spreads the jelly on the pork ribs, takes a bite and chews. “New flavor. Aren’t we lucky?”
“Yeah, real lucky.” Will sucks on the cigarette then blows out the smoke, slow and steady. “You really think dreams mean something, huh?”
“Why wouldn’t they?”
“I don’t know.”
Popeye finishes the pork ribs. He tosses the bone and empty pouch onto the pile of cigarette butts and MRE pouches and smashed soda pop cans and god-only-knows-what’s-in-this-pile-of-shit for trash standing in the middle of the courtyard. He licks his fingers, opens another pouch and pulls out a pound cake. He sprinkles cherry powdered Gatorade on what’s supposed to be cake but tastes like anti-freeze and his grandmother’s socks and eats. He looks at the moon.
Will leans further against the wall, trying to disappear into it but knows he can’t. Something’s calling him to a place he doesn’t want to go. He throws the cigarette onto the ground and grinds it under his boot, mixing the sand and dust and death and images of burning buildings and burning flesh—trying to separate them—trying to pigeonhole each one into a nice neat compartment but failing miserably because now as the day begins to break it also begins to break into Will’s mind—breaking the nightmare into fragments Will is trying to hold on to—grasping at pieces falling apart.
Popeye’s voice jolts him back. Will glances at the peanut Popeye holds out to him. He shakes his head, lights another cigarette, trying to push the dream away but it won’t go away as he blows smoke rings inside this slum in Baghdad.
“I don’t fucking know what this is about anymore.”
“Had another one, huh?” Popeye says.
Will shakes his head.
“Fuck it, Romeo. Tell me the dream.”
Will looks at the rubble of stones and bombed out walls, the piles of broken bricks and burned furniture. He blows another series of perfect smoke rings. They watch them drift toward the moon. “There’s this silver light that reflects off a stream that’s running through the middle of a street. It blinds me. Lucky’s gone. You’re standing in the middle of the stream looking at me. Then you’re standing in front of me. Chewing on a stick of licorice. I’m sitting in the gutter and you kick my boot and say, ‘Time to get up Romeo.’ I raise my right arm to touch you but it’s like lead and falls on my lap. ‘I can’t hear the screaming children,’ I tell you. You smile and say, ‘It’s just as well.’ Then you turn and walk down the street the way you came. You pass by this tree protruding out of a house. A sycamore. Daisy lies on the top branches. They’re bare and well worn. She looks dead. Some people put her up there and left.”
Will stops, smokes.
Popeye tosses the MRE pouch across the courtyard and watches it land with a thump on top of a soda can. He unwraps a piece of Bazooka bubble gum, sticks it in his mouth and chews.
“The buildings become huge … you look small … inconsequential.”
Will stops again.
Popeye blows a big pink bubble, studying his childhood friend. He sucks the gum back in his mouth. “Then what?”
“Come on man. Don’t fuckin’ bullshit me. Then what?”
Will stares at an indiscriminate spot a few feet away. Should I lie? But he’ll know. He reads me like a fucking book. Always has.
Popeye chews and Will blows another series of perfect circles of smoke. They watch them float into the first faint light of dawn.
“You walk away and the buildings go up in flames.”
“What about Daisy?”
“There’s only the smell of burning flesh.”
Popeye blows a big bubble. It pops. Will’s body jerks away from the wall. He looks left-right, right-left.
Popeye chuckles. “Sorry man. Didn’t mean to scare the shit out of you.”
Watching Popeye pull the bubble gum off his face, Will leans back against the wall and steadies his breath. “Fuck you, asshole.”
“No big deal. So somebody had themselves a nice barbecue. Happens everyday.”
Will flicks the cigarette butt across the courtyard. The glowing red tip looks strangely alive against the rubble. Popeye blows another bubble. That one pops, too. Will’s body jerks but he manages not to leap away from the crumbling wall.
“Fuck you, Popeye.”
“Fuck you, Will.”
Popeye watches the morning star rising over the bombed-out wall of the shop that used to be next to the tailor shop and asks, not to Will, not to himself, but to the morning star, “How come you only get to wish on the first star you see at night and not the last one?”
Will follows where Popeye is looking. “Go ahead, Popeye. Make a wish.”
“What for? Already did.” Popeye pushes off the wall, walks across the courtyard and through what-used-to-be-a-door.
Will lights another Camel and listens to the familiar voice filtered through the distant loudspeaker droning. “La ilaha illa Allah wa-Muhammad rasul Allah….”
At the end of a block where some houses stand and others don’t, the soldiers—weighted down in full military gear, with M4’s and 9mm’s extending from their bodies—pull checkpoint.
A couple of blocks away a black car is parked in front of a graffitied brick wall and palm trees. Its engine is running.
Sweat pours off Popeye and Bargo’s foreheads. Beads of sweat drip down Will’s nose. It used to bother him, but now he ignores the dust and sweat, the heat and suffocation.
“Fuckin’ heat. How the fuck do they stand it? Drives me nuts. Fuckin’ Hajis. Jesus it stinks.” Popeye looks at the garbage in the gutter. He kicks crumbled newspaper filled with bits of brown down the street. “Fuckin’ stinkin’ piece of shit. Get the fuck out of here.”
“Stop bellyaching,” Will says.
“Fuck you asshole.”
“That’s an order, Private.” Will hates that he has to keep pulling rank with his childhood friend. But it’s the only way to draw the line. Popeye knows too much about him already.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah … Sir,” Popeye grumbles.
A car drives towards them. Popeye and Bargo step in front of the car’s path. The car slows to a crawl then coasts to a stop. Will walks to the driver’s side and motions for the driver to get out.
“Hello, Joe,” the man says and opens the door and steps out. He wears a white polo shirt, black corduroy pants, sunglasses and a five-day old beard.
Will escorts the man a few feet away from the blue Fiat. They have done this before.
“Wait here,” Will says in Arabic.
“No problem, Joe. No problem.”
Popeye walks to the rear, opens the trunk, searches under a blanket, pokes around some empty jugs. Nothing. Bargo scans the underbelly of the old beat-up car with a search mirror. Nothing. Poodle opens each door, guiding his dog under the seats, inside the glove compartment. Nothing.
“Clean,” they tell Will.
“You can go,” Will says in Arabic to the man. Then in English, “Have a nice day.”
The man looks at the dog, then at Will as if he’s not quite sure what to believe.
“Go,” Will says in Arabic, motioning the man to get inside the car and drive.
“Thank you, Joe, thank you.” The man raises his hand in a friendly salute and says as he climbs in the driver’s seat, “Thank you. Joe, thank you.”
Popeye slaps the top of the car and it pulls away. “Be sure to come back an’ see us you fucker. Bring those ice-cold brewskis you keep promisin’. I’ll be waitin’ right here. Same place same time mothafucka.”
“Shut up,” Will says.
“You shut up.”
Popeye smiles. “I know, I know, Sir. That’s an order, Sir.”
Will’s about ready to ring Popeye a new asshole, when a pack of street children run around the corner. Kicking up more dust, the children rush toward Popeye and yell, “Popeye, Popeye!” Popeye turns to Will, triumphantly. “See somebody loves me,” he says and reaches into an outer pocket.
“Popeye, Popeye,” the children call out as they swarm around him. He laughs and pulls out pencils decorated with Mickey Mouse, The Little Mermaid, galaxies far away with silver holograms and magenta swirls.
“Pencil, me. Me, me,” the children call out, reaching for the treasures.
Will turns back to the street, his watch intensifies—left and right, right and left—swivel head moves in a constant motion, watching the neighborhood, the backs of Bargo and Hopper.
“Okay okay.” Laughing, Popeye hands each child a pencil. Some write words or draw pictures in the air, others hold their pencil close.
“More, more,” the children cry out.
“Don’t know if I got anymore,” he teases and bending over, looks inside his boot. He straightens and raising his eyebrows and smiling wide and goofy-looking, shows his empty hands. The children laugh, even the little girl without an arm hanging back from the others, laughs. He motions to her. She slowly walks through the pack and stands in front of him. He reaches into an outer pocket and pulls out another pencil. Her eyes light up when Popeye hands her the treasure. Popeye breaks into a big smile and the others clamor around, jumping up, reaching out, begging for one more.
Will looks left to right and right to left, his M4 molded to his body. Even though he’s tired and sleep deprived from the never-ending responsibilities and homesickness, he extends what little he has left, trying to protect his buddy and these children who really aren’t children anymore, but shadows of children inhabited by too many ghosts of loss and death and fear.
Popeye holds a green plastic pencil sharpener in front of the little girl’s face. “For you. But share with them okay?” Yes, yes, the child understands that she is to share this special gift with her friends. Popeye hands the girl-child the pencil sharpener.
“Me, sharpening, me,” the others clamor.
Popeye shows his empty hands, declaring all is gone. “That’s it. No more. Look. No more.”
A sound like a heavy metal door slamming shut shoots from around the corner behind them. Will and Bargo and Hopper whip around, their M4s aimed straight towards the source. “GO!” Popeye yells to the children as his hands go to his M4. The pack of street children runs back the way they came, clutching the pencils and sharpener in their small soiled hands.
A young Sunni insurgent dressed in black sits in the black car parked along the curb. He’s been waiting and watching. Patiently. He holds a high-powered rifle in his hands, pointed down the street. He looks through the scope, tracking his prey. The crosshatch marks the spot. “Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar.” The young Sunni pulls the trigger. Bam! The high-powered rifle kicks up, knocking him into the driver’s seat.
And just as the finger pulls the trigger a feeling pulls at Will. He turns his head back to Popeye Come On the need to pull his buddy to the side, the need to run away pulling his buddy behind him Will looks at Popeye Come On to push him out of the way to pull him away from here Popeye looks at Will Come On but any sense of time no longer exists inside this chaos where now his friend is falling to the ground.
“Popeye!” Will moves like lightening to his buddy.
Popeye leans, as if suspended between two places. The look in his eyes begins to fade as the force drags him down into a place no one else can go and nothing—nothing—can stop this downward spiral. The pulling is too great. The barrier is too strong.
He sees the mark in the center of Popeye’s helmet.
Popeye looks at nothing—or is it everything he sees?
The black car pulls away from the curb. The young insurgent looks straight ahead and drives down the street past a soldier falling to the ground.
Will catches Popeye and swings him over his shoulder and carries him to the side of a building. “Stay with me, buddy, stay with me, you can’t leave me you can’t go I won’t let you leave me. Popeye, Popeye,” Will cries out to his buddy limp across his shoulders. He lays Popeye on pebbles and dirt. His back against the building, Will slides down next to the body. Hears Hopper calling on the radio. “This is London Bridge. We’ve got incoming two blocks north of the market, east side. Popeye’s down. Fucking sniper got him. Send the 9-line pronto.” Will cradles Popeye in his arms. Takes off Popeye’s helmet. A small round hole sits in the middle of his forehead. Brushes his finger across the hole, trying to rub it away. Trying to rub its meaning away. Rocks Popeye back and forth. Looking right, left. Rocking. Looking.
A thin red line of blood forms on Popeye’s face. Will wipes it off with his kufiya. “You look so peaceful, Popeye. What are you dreaming about? Pencils?”
He looks out across the body to the street where just minutes ago Popeye stood with pencils in his hand, the children swarming around him. There’s nothing now but heat and dust and stench and fragments and Humvees rumbling through the streets and a .50 caliber machine gun and M4s firing and a sniper hiding.
“Where the fuck are they? What’s taking so fucking long? He’s got to go back … I’ve got to get him back … I’ve got to get him back.”
Will stops. Unbuttons Popeye’s vest and reaches in to where he saw Popeye reach in so many times before. Finds the coin and pulls it out. Looks at it. Heads. Turns it over. Tails.
He molds his fingers around the Buffalo and as he lays his head on Popeye’s stillness, he whispers, “You win, Popeye. You win.”