Everybody loved chow time. What’s not to love? They got to drop their rifles, sit down in the shade and eat, even if they did joke about the food – Meat of Rotting Ewes; Meals Requiring Enemas; Mashed Rhinoceros Excretion, and worse. They tore into the heavy plastic bags and started trading around, bargaining oatmeal cookies and chewing gum for cocoa powder and snack crackers, sometimes trading the whole meal bag – Cynthia drew the veggie burger and traded it to Jada for the meatloaf surprise. Everybody knew to pass on the chili and macaroni if they didn’t want the runs as well as having to run through the toilet paper ration. While they snacked and waited for the heating bags to warm up the food they talked about their families. It was Laura who pulled out a small tape recorder and a cassette from her husband. She liked to get them instead of paper mail, and he loved to make them for her. When he finished catching her up on things back home, he would pick up his guitar and sing her a song near the end of the tape.
While Laura went through her pockets looking for fresh batteries, Jada read a letter from her boyfriend and showed off photos of their twins; they were planning to get married after she finished this tour, her second hitch as a rifleman. Cynthia squeezed peanut butter onto a cracker and listened to the other two talk, but she mostly stayed silent. She had a lover but never spoke about her. It was just nobody’s business, and she was not sure if she was ready for what she would have to endure if she said anything, despite her good service record, so she just said nothing. Laura popped fresh batteries into the cassette recorder. She pushed ‘play’ and heard that whistle you hear at that last second when everybody registers incoming but it is there before anybody has time to react. The round hit her square in the chest and knocked her back against the tree they were sitting under. Her vest took the round but she was knocked unconscious. The tree and the ground around them popped and exploded. They moved quickly. Cynthia grabbed Laura and pulled her behind the tree as Jada grabbed her rifle and sprayed shots in the direction of the fire. She dropped some smoke and they moved behind it, quickly, getting out of the kill zone.
Cynthia got on the radio and called for a strike in the hills just above them; she figured at least six shooters, she couldn’t be sure, but they were pinned down. Jada listened as the pops got closer to them; maybe they were advancing or there were others closer to them. She threw some more smoke and walked directly into it. A figure moved to her left and she popped three rounds there and hit the ground as bullets whizzed above her head. She put the gun on automatic and emptied her clip into the smoke around her, then hiked out quickly; in two steps she tripped over a body, the figure she had shot a second ago. He looked up at her with dead eyes as she gave him a quick pat down that turned up nothing. She took the AK off him and moved around the perimeter of the smoke screen. She drew some fire and scurried back to where Cynthia was working on Laura, who was coming around but still dazed; the glazed look in her eyes meant she did not know where she was. You’re good, Jada told her. We’re getting out of here.
When the firing started again it was steady and ferocious. Cynthia and Jada popped off rounds in the direction of the gunfire. The smoke was the only thing keeping them alive for now; she felt them getting closer, maybe trying to flank them and attack from the perimeter. They loaded fresh clips and got low. Laura’s eyes began to clear and she pulled out her side arm, cocking a round in the chamber. They waited, listening to the voice of her husband talking from somewhere inside the thick cloud of smoke. He said: OK, want to hear a song? Here’s one for you. He strummed the guitar and started to sing a song they both liked; he had played it for her before she left, and he sang – If you ever, change your mind, about leaving, leaving me behind…