Priorities

Versions of this story came runner up a couple of years back in both the Ted Walters Short Story Contest based in Liverpool and in the Bill Naughton Short Story Competition. Bill Naughton wrote the screenplay for Alfie starring Michael Caine, among much else. The competition is held each year, and a slim tome of less than a dozen shortlisted entries is usually produced.

Any constructive criticisms on the piece are welcome.



Priorities




            The Afghan cops don’t wear their uniforms, I guess so they won’t be targeted by the militants. We all live in the station, in the middle of the town, but they get to go home at night. It’s a dumbassed place to set up defenses. Somewhere on the outskirts’d be better. That way, there’d be no cover for the Talibs on at least one flank. Here, they have



  • alleys to duck into
  • buildings to take cover behind
  • windows to shoot out of

from all four sides. They can feint, ambush, encircle, and outflank us, given our central location.

            We’re here as relief for the Brits. It took us three days to get here, just thirty kilometers from our camp. On the way, we were ambushed at least six times every night. We lost one armoured troop carrier and two guys were choppered out in the first ambush.
            “Priority MedEvac,” shouted our radio man, somehow keeping the panic from his voice, while Lautner – who has a little more First Aid than most – patched up one of the two wounded.
            He’s still critical. I knew the other one, Breen. I knew him well. They dunno yet if Breen’s lost all function in his left thumb. First guy, they don’t know if he’s lost all function. Selfish but I’m glad I didn’t get to know the first guy all that well.
            Breen and I grew up in the same California neighborhood, back in the day. Then we lost touch till we met again at training in Tennessee.
            The second night, some of the British came out from the village, leading us in the rest of the way. They arrived towards the end of the attack, during a lull. Then, when the Kalashnikovs started up again, the Brits were like something out of Macedonia.
            “Contact left!” their sarge shouted. They move and target their fire like a single living organism. A phalanx. No stone left unturned.
            Course, we were kind of beat, given our sleep deficit, but it was still impressive. They’re as well oiled as we are.
            The third night, we got the air support that we’d requested the first night. Whole fields of poppies just went whump! whump! whump! And bad men died.
            The Talibs have lost at least thirty men since we’ve settled in, and they may have lost twice that in the welcoming committees they’d sent. We’ve had one casualty so far. It was an unfortunate incident, before we realized two weeks in that they’d brought experts from Pakistan to handle their RPGs. Marty Chang, one of the engineers, got a piece of shrapnel at the base of the skull. Funny dude. He’s in a body bag in the freezer till the supply chopper comes in next week.
            Their fire is more accurate now. That boom! at night, it gets closer all the time. When we see em, they tend to aim their rifles too, rather than spraying indiscriminately like they used to. Somebody’s been giving them lessons in death.
            We happened upon the intell too late. We’ve made clear to the ANP since then that we need to know things. If there are knowledgeable wild men from the hills coming down from their hidey hole caves, we need to know. But they walk around, the cops, in a fug of cannabis smoke, half dazed.
            Two dozen US soldiers live in the station. Our native allies live in their homes elsewhere in the town, and turn up for work in the morning already stoned. As far as our own team is concerned,

            Engineers + Snipers + Gunners + Misc = Cramped Quarters

            Father Patterson was a curate in our parish back home. There were some rumors following Breen when Patterson upped sticks, that he’d been one of Patterson’s victims, and that he’d got a payout from the Church.
            When I wonder about Breen and whether he’ll regain his thumb, I also wonder how he’d feel about the Afghan cops and their predilections.
            I was on friendly terms with one Afghan National Policeman, Khalid. He’s the only one who’s not a pederast. Although he doesn’t have an official rank, Khalid was senior among the men coz of his age.
            There’s some in-your-face sex with children round these parts. Most of the Afghan cops do it. You can see it from the rooftop here.

Sample # 1:

One of the Afghan police officers sauntering down the street in a stoned stupor just yesterday, while he was on patrol. Next thing, he peels away with a child, taking the little boy behind a building. A few minutes later, the kid half runs back to his buddies, and the guy comes out from the alley, tying his belt. He may have raped the child or received oral sex. I dunno which is worse. And I had him in my crosshairs.

            There are other samples. I don’t want to discuss them.
            Do the Talibs do that? I’m sure they do. They need to be demonized.

            The elders called for a shura with my CO. The violence was getting too violent, they reported. Too many buildings were being blown up. A family had died in one incident, leaving an orphan. Our medic had been treating the kid – a toddler – with shots of antibiotics, vitamins and pain relief, so we were more than familiar with the child’s circumstances. He came every day, brought by an uncle, for a checkup and some candy.
            We had been told that that family home had been abandoned. The Talib sniper on the roof of the house had been seen through our night sights, and the data from Jensen’s fancy heat sensitive goggles told us there were at least a dozen armed beardies in there, prepping their heavy artillery. No sign of any family. We called air support. The building was flattened. End of, or so we thought. It became The Incident.
            So the tribal elders want to meet today. They want to know if they should evacuate, given the innocent blood being spilled.
            They feel the urge to assert themselves, to ask us to fight gentle. They’re on our side, they say. We won’t go back to the old ways, they insist. The Taliban are brutal, they agree. We just don’t want a repeat of The Incident, they tell us. And they want to meet us on their terms, under the yew tree in the village square, where they usually meet each other.
            Khalid the policeman describes the rape of children as against the will of Allah, and I can hear the rage in the man’s voice when he speaks.
            Breen’s father was the same, in the Oakland church in say 1998, or ’99, when he stood up to address the parish priest Father Luciano after he’d made his “a few rotten-to-the-core apples” excuses in a homily or a sermon or whatever you want to call it. Father Patterson had fled, to where we never learned. This angered people too. Breen’s father let rip, he really gave it to Father Luke. He was a plain spoken guy, and it took him all of everything to keep the air clean. Then he just left the church to this huge ovation and you could see from the pulpit that Father Luciano was blown away, blinking in shock.
            So we abandoned the Church soon after. Dozens of families never returned to the House of God. My Mom still goes, but I’ve only been in the same church once since, for my brother’s wedding.
            Four of us are accompanying the CO, plus some Afghan cops shadowing along the streets on either side. Lautner is in the lead, but ahead of him there’s Khalid, walking beneath the multicolored sheeting above the boarded-up store windows. He stops before a group of children playing in the golden dirt. He looks around and then he hunkers down and talks to the kids.
            We have our body armor, and we’re armed to the teeth. It’s hot. I want to take off my helmet. The village square is a couple of hundred meters away, but it feels like an eternity before we’re even halfway there. I’m at the rear in the diamond, and I’m passing Khalid who’s still talking with the kids. I watch as a beat up old pickup emerges from the sidestreet behind us. The back of the pickup is covered with a tarpaulin. The truck’s so near that I hear a crackle of static from the CB radio in the cabin. There’s one driver, one passenger, and the cover on the back, which could have anything under it. My stomach goes tight.
            Then I hear Khalid’s radio crackle with static from across the street. I look at him, and I see that he’s still talking to the children, but he’s turned away so that I can’t confirm whether he’s using his walkie talkie.
            Then he takes one of the children by the hand – the orphan toddler who’d been injured – and he leads him into the alley. He glances back once. He sees me watching. His look at me as his head disappears lingers a little too long.
            “Ambush!” I roar. I spin to face the truck. There are already three men emerging from the back of the pickup, all wielding rifles. Lautner reports a bazooka on a rooftop, there’s a sudden blast that rocks the earth beneath us and we’re all stumbling and running for cover. I drop one of the guys getting out of the truck and the others duck behind the vehicle. I spray the windshield, but I don’t know if I hit a second, or even a third. There’s dust in my mouth. I only notice the dust once before I run for cover, following the group of kids who’d been playing near Khalid into the alleyway.
            I hear the truck explode, and I assume it’s thanks to some fire from the roof of our police station. The chatter in my earpiece tells me that Lautner is down. I come face to face with Khalid in the alleyway. The child he took with him – completely unperturbed by the gunfire, completely untouched by Khalid – is eating a bar of our candy, and the other kids have already disappeared.
            Khalid releases the kid’s hand and the child scurries off, away from the noise of the chattering guns. I watch Khalid’s now free hand reach for the rifle hanging from its strap on his shoulder, and at the same time I hear in my earpiece that Lautner is dead.
            I should be providing cover but I’m frozen as Khalid stands before me. His chin is moving up and down slightly, like he’s breathless, although he hasn’t been running. He grabs his rifle’s handle but my own weapon is already pointing at him. His chest is torn open as he’s blown further into the alley to fall first against the wall, where he pauses, blinking, and then in a heap on the dirt. Blood streaks the wall. For the first time since the first day of weapons training, I’m shocked at the power of the gun in my hands.
            I look up and I see the little boy now at the far end of the alley. He catches my eye, glancing back once. He sees me watching, and he sucks into the melted candy bar. He freezes for a moment, an expression of utter contentment on his face as the candy fills his mouth. As his head disappears he’s still watching me, his eyes lingering a little too long, and then he’s gone.
            It’s only then that I feel the dust in my teeth again, the crunch of the grit.
            We get back to police headquarters two hours later. Lautner joins Chang in the freezer. The translator got a bullet in the Kevlar, but other than that, everyone’s okay. The Taliban lost at least a dozen. None of the Afghan National Policemen show up for their afternoon shift. If we ever see them again, it’ll be on opposite sides. Later, basking in the afternoon heat as I spy through my crosshairs from the rooftop, the CO comes up to tell me that Breen has lost his thumb and has decided to ship out. He’s lucky.
            War’s hell.