We’re all in a straight line staring at the ground walking like monkeys searching for explosive devices. There’s five of us. Me and then: a girl who uses the f-word so much that it has become her nickname, a tan guy from Kentucky who gets offended if you say Alabama is racist, a Cape Codder whose hair looks like it survived the Greek Civil War, and some Wisconsin dude who used to be an OCD pastor.
A part of me hopes I step on the UXO. If you volunteer for bomb squad, you’re basically suicidal. Especially considering who we are. We’re not EOD techs. We’re morons who volunteered. We’re admin and security. We’re Seabees and worse.
The ground, I’ve noticed, is owned by ants. They walk in line, furious, searching. As old as the dinosaurs. Supposedly ten quadrillion of them currently on the earth. There have only been 108 billion people in the history of the world. Seven billion people currently on Earth, minus an astronaut or two. 101 billion dead people in the history of the world. Which means there are 101 billion ghosts currently roaming.
I imagine a line of ghosts looking for bombs.
When I was an EMT, we’d do something similar. Except there’d be no line. There’d be just me. When we got to multiple-vehicle accidents, there would sometimes be hands amputated, arms, fingers. The glass of windshields would sever. Impact would cut things off. If a foot was missing, a head, an ear, I would have to look for it. They made the low-ranked EMT do something so mundane. Find the toe. Find the teeth. Get the tongue. I rarely did. It’s amazing how well a hand can hide. The head in the river. The forest swallows the foot.
I joined the military so that I could go to college, where I would learn organization, the ability to find things, obscure quotes, the fact you remember from earlier in the semester.
The Library of Congress has about 32 million books. About 64,000 words in the typical book. So two trillion words in those books. More ants in the world than words in that library.
My girlfriend is French. Her father was a farmer. He would worry about finding artillery shells when plowing the fields, the “iron harvest,” la récolte de fer.
If he lived, he would have food.
If I live, survive this war, I will have school. Free school.
And I will have PTSD counseling at the university, for free. My counselor will be a grad student, would say he would never have joined the military, would confuse me with a schizophrenic sophomore English major.
Later, there, during exams, it was like I could hear the books speaking to me. The words appearing as neon signs in the darkness of my head. I would get A+s. I would get Fs. It depended on the day. I would get intrusions. Intrusions are different than flashbacks. With flashbacks, you think you’re back in Afghanistan, Korea, Vietnam. My grad school student-counselor would explain to me, reading from notes he’d taken. With flashbacks, you see, smell, feel the environment of then, time moving. Intrusions are merely photos, static images, interruptive, persistent—a helicopter on fire, the people inside melting. The ground, the bomb.
The twenty-three year old counselor would tell me to replace the helicopter with a flower. Turn the bomb into a rose.
I would try. The flower would catch fire. The rose would explode.
The student-counselor would tell me to put it out. Imagine water. Imagine going backwards, the rose reattaching. Control the mind.
I think of ten quadrillion roses. The shrapnel. A girl from my base who had her body spread across the earth in a quintillion pieces. Pink mist.
I insist on roses.
I insist on finding what’s not there.
We walk like the reading of words.
As an EMT, it would be difficult sometimes to find where the bleeding was coming from. We’d search the body, full rapid trauma assessments. The blood everywhere, so that there seemed to be no holes, only platelets, only plasma. With one patient in particular, my paramedic trainer had me keep looking. It was for an ice pick stabbing. A man stabbed by another man. My trainer said he knew it was a man who did the stabbing because he only did it once. Women, he said, stab twenty, thirty times. Men stab once and get out. Women, he said, stab downwards. Men stab upwards. Always? I asked. No, he said. I asked how he knew it was an ice pick. He said because the patient told him. That’s a good way to know they were stabbed by an ice pick. If they tell you or if you see it. Otherwise, the holes are so small you’d almost never know. I found it. The cutest little hole. That’s how my trainer described it. I remember the awe of it. Ooooh, there it is.
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