Way back when at the dawn of time
in the valley of death where the sun don't shine,
the roughest toughest fighter ever known was made
from a M-16 and a live grenade.
He was a mean, green, lean fightin' machine
who proudly bore the title of Recon Marine.
~ USMC Cadence March
Nothing like standing around watching Sergeant Colbert try not to blow himself to shit.
"Brad," Ray calls, "don't you think you should let somebody else do that? Like someone who knows what the fuck they're doing?"
"Shut up Ray," Brad calls in a tone that indicates he's not really listening. Sometimes Ray thinks Brad's shut up Ray is just a Pavlovian response to Ray opening his mouth. And that? Is some hurtful shit, homes.
Ray gets why Brad's bent out of shape over the undetonated ordnance. Yeah, an artillery shell could go off at any time, while Ma and Pa Haji are sleeping, while the kids are playing soccer in what's left of the yard. But it's fucking dangerous and Christ, they've already come this far. Brad already detonated one bomb, he should quit while he still can. This shit isn't his job. If Brad gets himself killed now, Ray is going to be mighty fucking pissed.
And from the looks of it, Poke and Ray aren't the only ones who think Brad's Mission Impossible shit is 110% retarded. Here come Fick and Wynn.
Ray walks up to the edge of the pit Brad's working in. "Dude, you know this has got to be some dangerous shit when I think it's a bad idea, right?"
Brad doesn't even look up. He just clenches his jaw and says, "Ray" in way that makes his name sounds exactly like fuck off.
Ray puts up his hands, backs off. "Okay, fine, but you've got company at six o'clock."
Person joins Poke near the Humvee while Fick bitches Brad out. Actually, Fick hardly ever raises his voice, so it probably doesn't count as bitching. Fick's got seniority, and more importantly, he's got something fucking rare in these parts: common sense.
"Get out of there, Brad."
Colbert doesn't want to. "Sir, we've another Mark-82."
"That's an order," Fick says.
"Sir, I strongly request--"
Fick shakes his head. "I will not let you blow yourself up trying to maintain property values in Greater Baghdad. That's a no-go."
Wynn adds his two cents. "Up and out, Sergeant."
Fick's losing patience. Usually he looks like a kid playing dress-up in his cammies. But when he glares he switches into stone-cold badass. It's a little disconcerting.
"Get out of the hole." Fick's voice is dangerously calm.
Brad climbs out. So he's not retarded after all. Ray was starting to wonder if retardese was catching.
Fick's face softens. "We're done here, Brad."
The Lieutenant and Gunny walk away. Colbert looks at the shell, starts toward the Humvee. Thank fucking God. Ray can't wait to get out of this shit hole.
By the time Brad hands the det kit back to Poke, Walt and Trombley are already in the Victor. Reporter's sitting in the feeble shade of a palm tree writing in his notebook. Probably some shit like Dear Diary, Rudy is so goddamn pretty I stopped caring about my fucking girlfriend's picture. Colbert opens the passenger side door, stares at Ray.
Ray stares back.
"Get in, Ray." Brad says.
Ray pats at his pockets. Shit. Where the fuck are his pimp shades? He looks like a cross between a rock star and Raoul Duke in those things. No reason hot Haji chicks can't have something nice to look at now and then. Plus, it's really fucking bright out here.
"Just a sec. I dropped my shades."
He shields his eyes, looks toward the shell hole. There's a glint in the grass. Thank Christ.
Ray jogs back over dirt, grass and rocks. Poke said something about Chaffin and Jacks finding some bootleg booze and Ray is wondering exactly how drunk he should get tonight when he's blasted backwards.
He can see the Humvee and it's upside down.
No, he's upside down.
Jesus fucking Christ, the motherfucking shell exploded and Ray's--
* * *
Ray rubs at his face, blinking hard, when he realizes he's seeing stars just like in a fucking cartoon.
There's an explosion to his left and he realizes the stars are actually tracers and flares. Anti-aircraft fire. Machine gun fire. He hasn't lost his vision; it's night.
And he's still falling.
Ray looks down. His heart thunders. His stomach clenches. "What the fucking fuck ?" he screams, but the words are carried away on the wind.
He looks up, stares stupidly at the parachute floating above him, pale and round as the moon. He can make out the distant outlines of airplanes through the smoke and clouds; they're big motherfuckers, but not like the ones he jumped out of at Basic Airborne School. Ray's brain struggles to make sense of what the hell is going on, fails.
The ground is coming fast.
There are other guys falling around him, hundreds, maybe thousands of parachutes floating through the night. While he watches, a stream of bullets punches through some poor bastard's chest. Another guy's chute doesn't even open, he plummets straight to the ground, screaming. Jesus Christ, he's got to get out of here.
Ray's heading right for a tree. There's more machine gun fire. In the distance, a plane crashes into the ground, erupts into a massive ball of fire.
"What. The. Fuck. Is happening?" Ray shrieks, and yanks one of the lines. The parachute is nothing like the ones he trained with, it's some kind of fucking throwback to 1902. What is this bullshit? He veers away from the tree, braces for the ground. He hits hard.
The chute drags him another five feet while he struggles to stay upright, finally lands on his hands and knees, rolls onto his shoulder. There doesn't seem to be anyone in the immediate area, but that doesn't mean he has time to lie here like a fucking target. He yanks at the harness; the lock mechanism is jammed. Of course it is. Ray feels for his kabar but it's not in his leg sheath. Most likely because the sheath is no longer on his leg. Ray stares at his leg, disgusted. His annoyance downshifts into confusion. He's not wearing his fucking cammies. His uniform is gone, replaced with some olive green bullshit. At least it looks olive green. It's hard to tell in the dark.
Okay. That's it . Ray clenches his fists, seething. Motherfucking cocksucker asshole bastard sonofabitch twat humping fuck . He can't think of anything worse to say. No, wait, he's a pretty creative guy. Fuckballs. Cuntrocks. Shitfuck. He can invent curse words from now until next week, but that's not going to fix the fact he seems to be pretty well fucked.
He has to calm down. Ray takes a deep breath, then another. He glances around for any of his mysterious fellow airborne. He's still alone. Okay. Time to take fucking stock. This Marine has some fucking recon to do. He doesn't have a kabar, but there's a knife tucked inside his boot. Two seconds ago he was wearing his brown suede boots. Now he's wearing shitty leather boots laced up to his fucking chin.
Ray uses the knife to cut himself out of the parachute, pushes himself to his feet, staggers. His ankle feels like it's full of ground glass, but he can walk on it. He grimaces, hisses, "Dicksuck cockfuck, fuckstick" like a sort of mantra. He can feel the bruises forming down his shoulder all the way to his wrist. Ray limps straight for the tree he nearly crashed into, crouches with his back against it, surveys his surroundings.
Plenty of trees and hedges. He automatically reaches for his M-16 only to realize that's gone too. So much for being one with his rifle. Jesus Christ, he might as well be naked. How the fuck can this day get any worse?
He touches his head gingerly. He hadn't been wearing his kevlar when the shell exploded, but he's wearing a helmet now. Ray yanks at the strap, pulls it off, stares at it. It's cheapass green metal, stenciled with a white spade. Three chevrons on the back indicate the rank of sergeant. That's all super interesting, but what really gets Ray's attention is the fact there's no light, no comms, no NVGs attached.
He shifts the weight off his bad ankle and his boot knocks against something on the ground. An apple. Ray stares at it for a long moment. Then he looks up, checks the tree. It's an apple tree. Half a dozen other trees are off to the right. He's in an orchard. There's lush grass beneath his feet. Ray turns his head. In the distance he can see the dark wall of a hedge. Okay, there's no way this is Iraq. Unless there's some kind of secret fucking oasis in the middle of Baghdad.
Fucking grass. Fucking apples. Fucking retarded parachute. Fucking Brad and his James Bond stupid-ass Look at me, I'm a good American ordnance bullshit. Ray exhales slowly. Calmly. Okay, there's an explanation for this. A perfectly reasonable explanation. Just because Ray doesn't have a vehicle, headset, or his rifle, it's not the end of the world. He's a Marine. Marines make do.
Ray finishes inventory of his pockets. Aside from the knife, he's got two grenades that look like they're left over from Korea, a dented canteen and an old mess kit clipped to his belt, a pack of Wrigley's chewing gum, a silver lighter engraved with an "R," and a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. He stares at the cigarettes. Ray's bought a lot of cancer sticks over the years, but he can't recall ever seeing this particular brand at the Gas-n-Go.
Ray pulls a smoke from the pack, lights up. He inhales until he feels light-headed, until he can feel the smoke in his lungs. He exhales, closes his eyes, listens. There's gunfire, not too far off. There's yelling. The voices are foreign, but not Haji. Familiar, but he can't place the language, most of the fragmented words are buried beneath the roar of artillery. Ray concentrates, exhaling more smoke, careful to keep the glowing tip of his cigarette toward the tree or grass. These don't sound like American or Iraqi weapons. The machine guns sound slower...heavier. All the artillery sounds off, like something out of an old war movie.
There's a deafening shriek nearby, not the sound of an RPG. Some kind of mortar? A plume of fire and smoke erupts less than a klick away. Fuck. Ray stubs out the cigarette, calculates the distance to the hedge.
He grips the knife, grits his teeth through the pain, and runs balls out to the towering hedge. Now he's parallel to a dirt two-lane road. If he wants to get away from the gunfire, he's going to have to see what's on the other side of the hedge.
Ray checks the sky. It's clearer now, but not clear enough to find the Big Dipper or North Star, so he's not sure which direction he's heading. He reaches back with one hand, touches the foliage behind him. It's real. He's next to a gigantic goddamn hedge in the middle of someone else's war in someone else's uniform.
NAMBLA, lack of good pussy, and overzealous Starbucks franchising might--or might not--have gotten Ray to Iraq, but they sure as fuck didn't get him here. So what did? And who's doing the shooting if it's not Hajis? And what the fuck was the parachute all about?
He can't make sense of it. Either Ashton Kutcher's hiding under the fucking hedge with a camera, or he's been tossed into some massive SERE training exercise. And yeah, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Training was a fucking drag, but Ray's pretty sure they wouldn't stoop to throwing an unconscious Marine from an airplane. Would they?
Or , maybe he's dreaming. He's still unconscious after getting knocked on his ass, and this is all one crazy dream. Unless he's dead. Which would fucking suck. Because Ray doesn't believe in heaven or hell, and if this is one of those, well. God has some work to do because: lamest afterlife ever.
"I am so fucking sick of this shit," Ray announces to the world at large. If this is some kind of epic practical joke Ray is seriously gonna kill someone. Seriously.
A loud whisper comes from the other side of the hedge. "Ray? Shut the hell up. What the fuck are you doing?"
Oh, thank Christ.
Ray can't place the voice, not Brad or Poke. But maybe Walt. He nods his head from side to side, works the kinks out of his neck. Time to get to the fucking bottom of this. He counts to three, rounds the corner, and comes out on the other side of the hedge.
Walt's not there. But two strangers are.
"Who the fuck are you?" Ray growls in his best I'ma fuck you up voice. Both guys are white, wearing the same uniform as Ray. They both have Screaming Eagle patches on their left shoulders. Ray wants to check his own shoulder, but there's no way he's taking his eyes off these two. He holds the knife loosely, ready to cut if necessary. He hates close combat, but it's not like he has a choice.
They're both staring at Ray like he's lost his mind. The shorter one's got a mortar tube and plate balanced over his shoulder. The taller guy's got a pistol pointed at the ground.
The short one rolls his eyes. "Quit fucking around, Pers," he hisses. "We gotta go."
The tall one advances, smiling. "Jeez, am I glad we found you. I feel like we've been walking forever and I haven't seen nobody but a bunch of fucking Krauts."
As in Germans. As in World War Two. As in France. And D-Day. As in the 101st Airborne Division of the United States fucking Army.
Ray points the knife at Tall. "Are you seriously trying to tell me this is fucking Operation Overlord? D-Day? All that Saving Private Ryan bullshit?"
Tall glances at Shorty. "Who's Private Ryan?"
Ray throws his helmet on the ground. "This is fucking bullshit!" he shouts. "I call bullshit on this whole fucking day!"
"Jesus Ray, put a lid on it," Shorty says. "You tryin' to bring every goddamn Kraut in the area down on us?" Shorty studies Ray's face. "What's wrong? You hurt?"
What's wrong ? Ray doesn't even have the words. He takes a step back, puts distance between himself and Shorty. "I don't fucking know you."
Shorty and Tall exchange glances.
"Maybe he hit his head," Shorty says.
Tall frowns. "I don't know. Maybe those friggin' pills made him loopy."
Ray looks from Tall to Shorty. He doesn't know these guys, so why do they act like they know him?
Shorty rubs his nose. His face is camouflaged with grease paint and now he's got a big white stripe across his nose like a reverse Indian.
Ray stares at him.
He looks all friendly and smiley and shit. With a hint of unease around the edges, so at least he's not stupid.
"Pers, it's me."
Tall shakes his head. "This is a joke, right?" He looks to Shorty for confirmation. "He's fucking with us," he says and holsters his pistol. "Again."
"Skip," Shorty says patiently. "It's Skip." He nods at Tall. "And Duke."
Ray cautiously returns the knife to his boot. "I've never seen either of you assholes before in my life."
Skip laughs. It's a warm laugh, amused, easy-going. Exactly the opposite of everything Ray is feeling.
"You actually had me going there for a minute. Quit kidding around, you big moron. We gotta haul ass, try to find the rest of Easy Company."
"I'm Bravo Company," Ray protests.
"And I'm fuckin' Mickey Mouse," Skip says, and gives Ray a little push forward. "Move it."
"What the hell is Bravo Company?" Duke wants to know.
Skip shrugs, casts Ray a sideways look. "How in the hell does Arlene put up with you?"
Ray's brain has stopped functioning properly. The sounds Skip and Duke are making sound like English, but Ray can't seem to make sense of anything they say. Also, how come these dickweeds both have dog names? Who's in the rest of the company? Spot and Rex? Fucking Marmaduke?
Gunfire cracks closer. Ray takes a hesitant step after Skip, stops.
His girlfriend Arlene ?
Ray snatches his dog tags, squints at them in the dark. The rubber spacers are gone, all he has are two pieces of metal. Both tags list the name RAY H PERSON. His next of kin is listed as June Person of Topeka, Kansas. Well, Ray thinks, I'm not in fucking Kansas anymore . He claps a hand over his mouth to keep from laughing. Maybe's gone insane. He saw too many Iraqi kids die and now he's all fucked up just like that time Hawkeye saw the mom smother her baby on M*A*S*H. Ray bends forward, plants his hands on his thighs, tries desperately to think.
So. His dog tags say his name is Ray H. Person. He has a girlfriend named Arlene. He's wearing a Paratrooper uniform. Apparently, it's D-Day. Ray shakes his head. No, this isn't happening. This isn't real.
He thinks of Grandma Arlene, whom he still misses. Arlene was married to his grandpa Ray, who died when he was five. His grandpa Ray, whom he's named after. His grandpa Ray, who was a paratrooper in World War Two. His grandpa Ray, whose mother's name was June.
"Ray, come on, " Skip whispers.
Ray sighs and walks as fast as his ankle will let him, to catch up with the other troopers. "Are you telling me this is June 6, 1944?" Ray demands.
"Christ, Ray. Knock it off, willya? It ain't funny anymore." Duke says, sounding pissed.
Skip slows, puts a hand on Ray's shoulder. "Maybe you gotta concussion or something. I heard they can mess your memory up. Eugene better check you out."
"Sure," Duke snorts, "if we ever find the fucking rally point."
Okay. End of the line. This? Is fucking whacked .
Ray knocks Skip's hand off his shoulder. "Listen homes, I am not my fucking grandpa." Ray thumps his chest. "I am a motherfucking warrior, a United States Marine. I'm supposed to be in Iraq right now, fucking up the infidels." He points a finger, first at Skip, then Duke. "I don't know what the fuck is going on here, but I do know none of this shit is real."
Huh. That sounded real.
"Fuck," Skip says. "I fucking wish I had some goddamn mortars for this thing."
"How many troops?" Ray asks.
"Either of you geniuses know how many Germans, Krauts, whatever are on our ass?"
Duke laughs. "A fucking lot, Pers. And I don't think the three of us are much of a match, you know. What, you think maybe Skip can smack 'em with an empty mortar tube, I can shoot until I run out of ammo, and maybe you can bore them into a fucking stupor by talking a lot of nonsense about your grandpa and the Marines? No thanks."
There's another fucking hedgerow less than 200 yards away. What the fuck is up with the French and their fucking shrubbery? "Behind there," Skip says, and he and Duke start running.
Ray follows. There's probably a hundred Germans camped out behind that fucking thing, just waiting to heil Hitler them to death. They're a few feet away from the edge when somebody whispers: "Flash."
"Thunder," Duke calls.
"Thank Christ," Skip says, and drops the mortar equipment as he slides behind the greenery. "That shit is fucking heavy."
Two guys are crouched together, wearing the same uniforms as Ray. But the patch on their shoulders is the Double A insignia of the 82nd Airborne, instead of a Screaming Eagle. One of them holds a rifle. An M-1 from the looks of it. At least it's not a fucking musket. Ray experiences an almost physical yearning for his M-16. Maybe Trombley was right to treat his like trim after all.
"Hey, you guys 101st?" the first 82nd asks.
82nd takes a drink from his canteen, wipes his mouth. "Do you happen to know where the fuck we are?"
"I saw a sign for St. Come du Mont about four miles back," Skip says. "We've got a good twenty miles to go. At least."
"Shit, we're supposed to get to Vierville."
More gunfire. And German. This time Ray can make out the words.
"Christ, where are those fuckers?" Duke asks softly. He sinks to the ground, rests his hands on one knee, pistol at the ready.
"I don't suppose either of you guys got mortars?" Skip asks the 82nd guys hopefully.
"Nah. Sorry. We lost all our shit in the drop. That prop blast was so fucking strong I'm lucky I still got my boots on."
Ray watches as the armed 82nd guy takes up a defensive position next to Duke. Ray counts three muzzle flashes. Bullets snap much too close, twigs and leaves fill the air like confetti. How can this be real? Is Ray really supposed to believe he's in the middle of World War Two and fucking Nazis are shooting at him? Really ? Jesus, nobody ever told him Ripped Fuel makes you fucking delusional. Somebody needs to update the fucking label on that shit.
And then one of the 82nd guys drops and Ray's face is hot and wet. Ray puts a hand to his cheek, it comes away red. The trooper's head is gone. Duke's firing back, Skip's swearing, the 82nd guy who's still alive is freaking out, trying to drag his dead friend under the hedge. Fuck fucking fuck.
Ray doesn't even think about what he's doing. He grabs Dead Guy's M-1, aims at a muzzle flash, fires.
Next to Ray, a bullet tinks off Skip's helmet. "Shit!" Skip yelps.
Ray pulls out one of his antique grenades, hands it to Skip. "How's your aim?"
"Better than yours," Skip says, straightening his helmet.
Ray fires again. He's not used to the rifle, but one of the Germans goes down. Skip tosses the grenade and the explosion sends two or three more Krauts flying, screaming through the air like broken dolls. Duke drops another one, and the last remaining Kraut runs for the hills. Or plains. Or whatever the applicable geography is in this fucking place.
Ray wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, looks at the blood on his fingers. It's real blood. He can smell the sharp tang of it, the smoke, the cordite. He can feel the adrenaline pumping through him, the sweat soaking this skin.
"Those fuckers ," the 82nd guy says hoarsely, "they killed Hank." He bows his head, presses a hand to his eyes. He sighs, pulls Hank's tags off, slips them into his pocket. "Okay." He stares dully at the small group. "Who's the highest rank? I'm a Corporal." He pauses. "Corporal Jim DeLacey."
"Corporal Skip Muck," Skip says. "Nice to meet ya."
Muck? What kind of a last name is Muck ?
"Private First Class William Dukeman," Duke says.
Three heads swivel to look at Ray.
Ray sighs. Fuck it. "Corporal Ray Person of the US Marines."
"Ignore him," Skip says wearily. "He's a sergeant and he's with the 101st. He's just a little out of it."
Ray looks at Muck, startled. That's right, his helmet has three chevrons. "I'm a sergeant?"
Half a dozen emotions flit over Skip's face. Ray can pick out annoyance--he's seen that plenty of times--along with pity, worry, and something bordering on affection. "Yeah," Muck says finally. "We'll see what happens when we reach the rally point." Skip shrugs. "But for now, you hold the highest rank, Pers."
Fine. Ray, who knows the least about what's going on, who's stuck in some kind of retarded dream, is in charge. Ray's finally promoted to Sergeant and it's not even real. Figures.
* * *
Theoretically, a night drop on German-occupied France was a damn good idea. In practicality though, not so much.
As they make their way toward St. Come du Mont, more paratroopers join Ray's little band in ones and twos. They swap stories of missed drop zones and lost weapons. Musette bags, weapons, ammo, all kinds of shit blew off during the jump. Dukeman is especially pissed about losing something called a "leg bag" which sounds super fucking retarded, in Ray's opinion.
Then again, everything sounds super fucking retarded to Ray at the moment. His ankle hurts. It turns out Skip really likes to chat. Normally Ray wouldn't mind, as he's been known to be slightly verbose himself, but he doesn't give a fuck about why you should always carry an extra undershirt. And who even says undershirt ?
The sky gradually brightens into morning, revealing the extent of the night's chaos. And carnage. Jesus, there are bodies everywhere. Dead paratroopers hang from trees, gutted by German bayonets. They lie in fields and roads. There are plenty of dead Germans too.
Dukeman walks up to a Kraut corpse, rolls it over with his foot. It's been scalped. Several fingers have been cut off.
"Shit," Duke says, "somebody already got all the good stuff."
Ray stares at him in disgust. The good stuff? What, is Dukeman Captain America's grandpa? Who the fuck wants souvenirs of dead people? It's fucking sick. Ray's the polar opposite of prudish, but when it comes to mutilating dead bodies, he tends to draw the line.
They meet up with a little guy named Perconte who's got a wrist full of pilfered watches, and a guy named Hoobler who has a serious hard-on for a Luger. The way Hoobler goes on about it, you'd think a fucking Luger cures cancer. And, of course, most of these guys know Ray. They yack at him like they've all been BFFs since junior high. Fuckers.
Morning turns into afternoon. Hoobler has a compass. Ray checks it periodically to make sure they're on course. Or what he thinks the course should be. Ray doesn't say much. There's nothing to say. If Ray's in charge, he'll keep his eyes peeled, watch for signs of movement, for snipers. There's nothing. So far, so good. Eventually, Ray pauses to duck behind a tree and take a leak. The last time he pissed he wrote USA into the sand. When was that? Yesterday morning? An hour ago? A lifetime? Ray zips back up, starts moving again.
Skip's finally taken the hint. He's gone silent himself. He looks at Ray from time to time, forehead creased, one hand playing with a rosary hanging from his pocket. Great. Ray's stuck with a bunch of Virgin worshippers.
Ray's half listening to Dukeman and Perconte discuss the whereabouts of a Lieutenant Meehan when he spots movement. There, in a copse of trees about a hundred yards away. Ray holds up a hand in warning. Everyone stops, waits for orders. From the corner of his eye, Ray can see Dukeman bring up his pistol, Perconte lifts his rifle.
Ray's got his M-1 up, he squints along the sight. He can feel every bead of sweat on his body. There's a mosquito on his arm. He ignores it.
More movement. Ray stares, lowers his rifle. It's a fucking cow.
"Jesus Christ," Ray mutters, irritated. Good thing Trombley's not here; he'd have killed it twice by now.
"Let's shoot it," DeLacey says. "I'm hungry."
Well look at that. Apparently Trombley is here.
"No," Ray snaps. "We continue to our objective."
"I was only kidding," Jim mutters.
Ray's watch is gone like everything else. He has to keep asking Perconte what time it is. Frank grins, throws Ray a watch with a blood-stained wristband. "Don't say I never gave ya nothin,' pal."
Okay, first of all, Frank's not his "pal." And secondly, Ray hadn't planned on ever saying something that retarded. But he straps the watch on anyway. What the fuck. It's all a goddamn dream. What does it matter if he wears a dead guy's watch?
It's easy to tell when they near St. Come du Mont. There are bodies everywhere. Ray's never seen anything like it. In movies maybe, but this? This is horrific. He's been through two wars, seen a lot of death. But never anything on this scale.
"Fuck me," Skip breathes. "Do you believe this?" He pulls a tightly-rolled t-shirt from one of his trouser pockets, holds it over his nose. "See? What did I tell you?"
There must be hundreds of dead soldiers strewn across the road. Germans and Americans alike lie bloating in the afternoon heat. The smell is overwhelming. Atrocious. It crawls into Ray's nose, his mouth, his throat.
Perconte whistles. "Jesus Christ."
"How the fuck are we supposed to get through this?" Duke demands. He looks pale, sweaty. Ray guesses William won't be checking for souvenirs here.
Hoobler shrugs. "We walk over them."
"Fuck that," Delacey says. "We go around."
"I been walkin' for eighteen fuckin' hours," Frank complains. "I'm hot, I'm thirsty, and I am not goin' around. I say we take the shortest route, not easiest one." He looks to Ray. "What do ya say, Sarge?"
Ray doesn't want to say anything. He wants to wake up now, thanks. He wants to make fun of Trombley and annoy Brad and talk about stupid shit with Reporter. He wants his shitty Humvee. He wants to spend fifteen minutes with his paper girlfriend Jasmine. He wants a fucking can of Beefaroni and a strawberry shake.
Instead, he's got a bunch of random guys looking to him for guidance. Brad should be here telling them what to do, not Ray. Deciding to walk over a bunch of dead guys like goddamn stepping stones, or taking the long way around is fucking retarded, homes.
But Ray figures the fastest way is best. Get to the motherfucking rally point. Maybe then Ray can finally wake up, go home, level up, whatever the fuck is next.
"Let's go," Ray says, and he starts walking. Black clouds of flies buzz around his head, angry at the disturbance. Ray doesn't think about what he's doing. He keeps his eyes on the far side of the road, on the trees, the little houses. They're close, so this is no big deal. Ray silently recites his new mantra as he steps carefully from body to body. Dicksuck cockfuck, fuckstick.
When he steps onto solid ground, Ray is relieved. He did it. He turns, checks on the guys. Everybody's here. Nobody fell face-first into a pile of maggots, nobody hacked up last night's dinner. Screwby. In less than five minutes they're in the city proper.
St. Come du Mont is full of paratroops and bombed buildings. It's filled with old French women and little boys who watch the soldiers with the same dead expression Ray's seen in Afghanistan and Iraq a thousand times. It's filled with the dead and dying. Soldiers with red crosses on their arms carry stretchers, oblivious to tanks, to the thud of distant shelling, to the able-bodied men around them. Ray stares at them, throat dry. These are medics, not corpsmen. His boot squelches in something, he looks down. The dirt roads have turned to red mud. Ray steps over a puddle of blood. Christ. This is unbelievable.
DeLacey joins up with a group of 82nd Airborne on their way to Vierville. While the 82nd heads out, more Easy Company guys trickle in. There's a sign next to a makeshift aid station that reads 101st / 506th PIR / Easy Compay. The paratroops greet Ray like a long lost pal. Ray doles out a few half-assed nods and pretends he knows who the fuck they are.
The only guy Ray's interested in is the dark haired smiley one with the fifty pound radio strapped to his back. The sight of the radio makes Ray's gut twist with loss. He's not homesick exactly, just Marine-sick. He never thought there'd be a day he'd actually miss working on fucked up comms.
The radio guy's name is George Luz. It's easy to learn his name since everyone yells Hey Luz or George every ten seconds. Skip and Hoobler bug him constantly to mimic this or that officer. Luz plays along gamely, and he's fucking good. Not that Ray has any idea if the imitations are accurate, but the guy can definitely change his voice. He's quick too. Sarcastic. Funny. A little impatient. He smokes like a fucking chimney. In other words, he's Ray's kind of guy.
Luz is sitting on an upside down ammo crate, laughing it up with Perconte. The two of them seem to be pretty close. Ray flips a crate over, sits behind Luz so he can get a closer look at the radio.
George glances over his shoulder, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. "Ray, how many times I gotta tell you? Stop checking out my goddamn ass."
"I keep trying, but it's fucking hard to resist," Ray says. He doesn't intend to play along, but it's hard not to be a smartass. It's Ray's default setting.
Perconte and Luz burst into laughter. Luz offers Ray a cigarette.
"Thanks," Ray says. He turns away to light it, unable to meet Luz's gaze. He has to tell jokes. It's either that, or cry.
There's a water pump and everybody refills their canteens. Some guy named Bull sticks his head under the water, drinks right from the pump.
Ray sits on the sidewalk outside the aid station, watching. He keeps searching for signs of Brad or Poke. Or hell, J-Lo. Random people are always popping up in dreams, right?
Although if Ray wants to be honest, this stopped feeling like a dream quite some time ago. This is a fucking nightmare.
He pushes up the sleeve of his jacket, pinches his arm. Yup, that hurts. But he's still sitting here on a cracked sidewalk while somebody shrieks inside the aid station and the Easy Company guys show off their creepy-ass souvenirs like it's Christmas morning.
Ray slaps himself. Hard. Like the time his mom's ex caught Ray using his weights.
He's getting pissed now. Only the anger feels suspiciously like panic.
Ray smacks his head against the stone building behind him. Tears spring to his eyes. Fuck , that hurt. He puts his hand to the back of his throbbing head. There's no blood.
Huh. That's something. Ray can't remember ever bleeding in a dream. Sure, other people have, take DeLacey's friend for instance. But not him. And he can't remember feeling pain while dreaming until today. He's been in pain ever since he fucked his ankle while landing. And now, thanks to his retarded experiment, his head hurts.
Ray regulates his breathing, tries to box the panic up, store it in some dusty corner of his brain. He can find a way out of this. He pulls the knife out of his boot. Duke called it a jump knife. Skip called it trench knife. Ray doesn't care what kind of knife it is as long as it's fucking sharp.
He grits his teeth and drags the knife along the top of his left hand. His skin springs apart, an instant ribbon of blood forms, so dark it's almost black. A fat red drop rolls off his hand, lands on his boot. His hand burns. It bleeds.
He's still here.
The stink of the dead, of his own sweat-soaked body makes Ray feel dizzy. He closes his eyes, bows his head. His stomach growls. Can you feel hungry in a dream?
There's a soft voice to his right, an accent he can't place.
"Sergeant Person? What're you doing?"
Ray lifts his head. One of the medics is looking down at him, arms folded, one eyebrow raised. The medic has blue-black hair, and dark eyes that pin Ray in place like fucking laser beams.
Ray's answer is automatic. "Nothing,"
"Is that right? Looks to me like you just cut yourself."
Ray has no idea who this guy is, and frankly, he doesn't care. He's past caring. He got to the rendezvous point and he's still Ray Henry Person. He wonders what would happen if he brought his rifle up and shot this medic in the face. If he managed to shoot himself in the face. Would he finally wake up? Don't they say you can't die in your own dreams?
Ray shrugs, shakes the blood off his hand. "I was trying to wake up. I don't belong here."
The doc's face softens. "A lot of guys think they don't belong here."
Ray pushes himself to his feet, leans the M-1 against the wall. "No," he says. "I literally don't belong here. In this century. I'm supposed to be in 2003. I'm a fucking Marine, yo. I'm in a completely different war. World War Two? This shit is over, dude. Everybody knows the allies kick ass. Hitler's a fucking psycho and kills himself." Ray throws his hands up. Blood drips down his wrist. "Spoiler alert, Doc: we win. So what the fuck am I doing here?"
Doc pulls a pen light from his pocket, checks Ray's pupils. "Ray, did you hit your head when you landed? You have any blackouts?"
en"No, I hit my head in Baghdad when a fucking bomb blew up." Ray says bitterly. He sighs. "But I did twist my ankle when I landed."
"Uh huh. How about blurry vision? You feel disoriented?"
"Fuck yeah, I'm disoriented," Ray snaps. "I'm not supposed to be here. How many times do I have to fucking tell you? I'm with Bravo Company, First Recon Marines. All I want is Brad or Walt, or fuck, I'd take Reporter. Hell, I'm so fucking desperate I'd be happy to see that asshole Trombley."
Doc motions Ray into the aid station. "Come here."
He guides Ray to an empty cot, sits him down.
"Hey Eugene!" somebody calls from the other side of the room.
"Gimme a second," Eugene calls back.
The medic lifts off Ray's helmet and Ray has a perfect view of Gene's dog tags. EUGENE G ROE . So. This is Skip's Doc. Roe plucks a picture out of the helmet lining. He holds it up to Ray. It shows a young man and woman, both smiling, holding hands. The girl is obviously younger, still in high school maybe. Instead of looking at the camera, she's smiling up at her boyfriend.
It's a picture Ray's seen a thousand times before. It sat on his grandmother's china cabinet for years.
"Your name is Ray Person." Roe points to a chipped mirror beside the cot. " You are Ray Person."
Ray studies himself in the mirror. He stares, stunned. He's looking at himself, but not. He has the same dark hair, the same eyes, the same mouth. But the nose is a little different, there's a small scar on his chin. He opens his mouth, discovers his teeth have never been introduced to orthodontia.
Ray shakes his head. "No." He turns the mirror face down. "This isn't real."
Doc Roe rubs his neck, regards Ray with sympathy. "Look. Why don't you lie down a while, get a few hours of rest. Stay off your ankle. We'll see how you feel when you wake up."
Ray looks at a cot. Fucking-A. That is an excellent idea. He'll go to sleep and when he wakes up, he'll be back where he belongs.