Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash
Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt “So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.” This is a famous quote from “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Use it to inspire your own story or poem.
“So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.”
By Greta Lane
“So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.” That line from The Great Gatsby would come to me sometimes, back in Mosul in 2007; that one sweltering summer when death was in the air and covering the ground like the dust that would coat our cheeks and gum up the action in our rifles. It was the summer when the surge of American soldiers deployed to Baghdad sent the insurgents up to our area, like squeezing a jelly donut. Or maybe a terrorist- and bomb-filled donut, but the analogy holds. The squeeze has to go somewhere, and Mosul was that somewhere.
“So we drove on toward death.” It didn’t come to me as often as the Moby song, “South Side;” or Britney Spears, or the Folgers coffee jingle. And nothing ran through my head as often as the Act of Contrition. That one was on auto repeat, especially on patrol through the left side of Mosul, where every pile of rocks and every brooding eyed teenager could signal the end of the day. It was something from my old catechism classes, something I hadn’t said for years. But the deployment brought up some crazy shit in me and I can tell you the Act of Contrition played in my mind like a loop while we rolled through those unendingly tan streets, punctuated only by the curses from the top gunner.
But sometimes, as I bounced around inside the Humvee, my uniform soaking wet and caked with my body salt, my boots stinking of whatever I’d walked through on our shitty dismounted patrols; sometimes, on our way back to the base along the roads that hadn’t been cleared of bombs since the morning time, when the sun had weakened and the world raced for safety against the curfew and away from the angry, IED wielding shadows that owned the night; sometimes that line would come to me. “Toward death through the cooling twilight.” The nights it did, I kept it to myself and hoped it wasn’t an omen, hoped death wasn’t appreciably closer than it had been the day before. But sometimes it was.
The evening I met Jamal was one of those times. I’d seen him before; he was a slick-haired little kid who spoke enough English to charm the passing soldiers. He always wore a red-checked collared shirt; that’s what made him stand out from the others, that shirt. Most of the kids wore threadbare t-shirts; he wore a threadbare button down. That, and he spoke to us. He liked to challenge the soldiers; would shout things like, “Hey! Where’s my candy today?” He knew we weren’t allowed to throw candy. There had been incidents. It’s never a good combination: a pack of little kids, desperate for candy, swarming vehicles that are large and hard to maneuver, vehicles that didn’t have good mirrors and were driven by 18-year olds.
Anyway, this kid, everyone called him Johnny, he’d hang out on the same street-corner about three blocks from the turn into FOB Marez. That was the Forward Operating Base where I was posted. I hated the turn into the base; we all did. The convoys had to slow to make the turn onto the dirt road that led onto Marez, which always amped us up, because slowing down there made you a target. “So we drove on toward death.” But if we didn’t slow down in the turn, we’d tip over, and most times, as we slowed down for that turn, there was Johnny.
This one evening, we were coming back later than we should. By the time we saw that turn to our base, the sun had sunk far enough to dust half the street in gray shadows from the remaining buildings. A few blocks before the turn, Johnny was crouched on the ruined curb, his back to a boarded-up door. I heard the gunner call to him, “Hey, Johnny, man, where you been?” and had a moment to wonder why Johnny wasn’t on his normal corner, before the driver swerved and shouted.
The explosion followed the swerve and missed us completely. It shocked the Humvee behind us but didn’t do any real damage. Maybe the IED was too small or didn’t go off the way it was supposed to; I didn’t know. Didn’t care – I was too busy saying another Act of Contrition. The gunner in that vehicle looked like he’d hit his face on the hatch, the whole front of him was bloody, but everyone was able to walk out on their own legs.
That summer in Mosul had been so terrible that this attack was nothing, in comparison. One vehicle out of commission, one gunner’s nosed bloodied. It didn’t even tear up the street; at least, not that you’d notice, things were already torn up. The only damage was a few loose bricks from the compound wall that had hit the kid, Johnny. They were big bricks, big enough to knock down a kid, but not big enough to break him. Johnny was laying on the sidewalk, covered in dust and sort of shaking his head as he sat up.
Everyone started to do the things we did after an attack – our TC radioed for help and the Humvee crews took up position, eyes up and out for a second attack. Everyone except for the driver from the vehicle behind us, Thompson; he was kind of an asshole, just got transferred into our unit. Anyway, he was pushing on his door and shouting, trying to get out but the door was bent. The gunner, Ramirez, he unstrapped and climbed down the front of the Humvee, pulled the door open from the outside and Thompson jumped out. He brushed past Ramirez, shouting and swinging his arms and pulling out his sidearm as he moved.
“It was him! That little shit!”
Ramirez put his hands up to stop Thompson, but Thompson pushed him out of the way, his sleeve turning brown and red from where it brushed Ramirez’s bloodied face.
“It was that little shit!” Thompson had his sidearm out now and was bringing it up, stomping towards the kid on the corner. Johnny was still on the ground, trying to get up, but could only crabwalk backwards until he hit the high tan wall that ran the length of the street.
Everyone was shouting at Thompson and Johnny was frozen against the wall, his eyes darting back and forth and the front of his pants darkening, as this crazed American soldier pointed his gun at him.
I left my spot and ran over to Johnny. I crouched down beside the kid. Not in front of him, I guess I’m not as brave as I thought I was. Thompson’s face kind of fell apart when he saw me and he lowered his gun, just as the TC from my Humvee got there and got in his face.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing, man? Pulling a gun on a kid? That was uncalled for!” And on and on, normal Lieutenant tirade. I looked over at the kid, who was stock still beside me.
“What’s your name?” I asked Johnny. I knew that wasn’t really his name.
“Jamal,” he whispered.
“You got a mom, Jamal?” I asked.
A convoy of quick reaction force soldiers sped up to us – not bad, it had only been four or five minutes since it was called in – and attached a tow cable to the disabled Humvee.
I leaned over a bit and patted Jamal’s shoulder. I don’t know, he reminded me of my little cousin. “Better get home, Jamal,” I said. “And try to stay out of trouble.”
The kid staggered to his feet. He took a few steps and dropped something he had been holding in his hand. Then he ran like Thompson was still pointing that gun at him, turned a corner and disappeared into the evening. Through the cooling twilight.
My heart hurt as I bent down to pick up the cheap Nokia cell phone Jamal had thrown to the ground.
Thompson had been right. Johnny was a little shit.
I gave the phone to the explosives team and they did what they do, testing and swiping, and proved that Jamal had triggered the blast.
I didn’t see Jamal again after that; I guess he found a different street corner, or at least a different shirt. Maybe doesn’t seem like it should be, but that was the worst day of my deployment. Other things happened over those sixteen months, objectively worse things, but finding out that there was a ten-year-old out there who wanted to kill me – it got to me. Not sure it’s ever quite left.
“So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.” I didn’t think of that line anymore, not for the rest of the deployment. I didn’t have to think about it because we were already there, already surrounded by it, by the twilight and the dust and the castoff pressure cookers detonated by $12 phones and hate. The only question that remained – whether that drive toward death would be sixty more days or sixty years – was too terrible to think, so we drove on without thinking, and let the Act of Contrition and Britney Spears and the Folgers coffee jingle fill the space that remained.
Sunday Writers' Club member
“Greta Lane is an American writer who has spent three years enjoying the finer things of Viennese life: amazing coffee, wine, hiking; and Vienna’s Sunday Writers Club community.”
A fantastic story, Greta. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks, Greta. This is a wonderful story.