The noise was horrible.
He was used to it of course. How many months had it been? He'd been here long enough to be used to everything this place could throw at him, but he still hated the noise. The clanking, grinding roar seemed always to totally envelop him, as if he was sitting right in the belly of the beast.
Which in a way he was, but then this whole place felt like a huge beast to him sometimes.
The smell of the diesel fumes and the dust from the road swirled around him and the others sitting in the cramped metallic space. The sweat on his neck and forearms mixed with the dust and grime, running in brown-black rivulets down his arms and back, and making large dark patches on his clothes.
The faces of the men opposite were streaked with black and shiny with sweat, and he knew he looked the same.
He also knew he had the same expression, the depthless gaze and clenched jaw that came hand in hand with a constant clench in the gut for those who had been here long enough.
His mind turned back to the night before. The girl - he had tried to learn her name but who was he kidding, he didn't care enough any more - couldn't have been more than fifteen. He hated himself for it, but since he got the letter from Jennifer, only a month after arriving in this godforsaken place, the loneliness had slowly gotten worse, gradually pushing out and replacing the initial fury and anguish he had first felt on reading her missive.
Now, like all the others, it was habitual to head first to one of the bars in the village and then to the small house at the end of the street where the madam would usher them into one of the rooms where a girl would be waiting.
He occasionally tried to remember how he himself would have felt about such behaviour before coming here, when he, and the world itself, were younger, but it was too much of a stretch. He couldn't make the conceptual leap back to innocence in order to examine his own actions now. He had already done too many unspeakable things since being here, and witnessed many more.
But the girls' faces still haunted him. He had seen there the same resigned blankness he now saw every time he looked in the mirror. They were all the same really.
The noise continued, although he was too deep in thought to notice any more. He looked down at himself. His rifle was dirty, and he hoped it would work when he needed it. He'd seen men die when theirs didn't, and he tried to take good care of his, but still he worried. His boots and clothes were filthy, and the fabric had many tears and stains, including a couple which had been red at first but turned brown over time.
The whole thing was pointless, they all knew it, but knowing it changed nothing. There were rumblings back home, he'd heard. Protests. Something about some college kids being shot. He had been almost shocked when he realised he didn't even care when he heard that, but he wasn't capable of being truly shocked any more. Too much had happened, and home was an entire world away. He knew they were losing. The kids and paroled convicts turning up as replacements were making things worse, not better, and the President was having trouble keeping the public on side.
But still, he didn't care. He'd forgotten what it was to care. All that mattered was surviving the day. Of the friends he'd made in training and in-country he was all that remained. He stayed distant from the people around him now, he was sick of seeing them die, and caring. It was so much easier not care in the first place. Then it just didn't matter.
Nothing mattered, not to him any longer.
He checked his watch, a gift from his father at his high school graduation. Coming up to midday. He glanced up at the bright sun, visible through the intermittent shade of the trees overhanging the road and judged that to be about right. The vehicle lumbered over a rut and his helmet clonked against the metal behind him.
He didn't care. Did he? But still the features of the girl from the night before troubled him. The numbness in her gaze, the dispassionate way she had done everything she did. Was what she went through worse than what he did? And why, for fuck's sake, couldn't he forget her face? He couldn't even remember her damn name. But her face...
Was this...caring? Did he want to do something for her? And what? What would he do? Where would it get him? He was short, less than a month to go, and then he'd be gone, away from this place. But he knew it would stay with him forever. He had had many horrendous memories burned into his mind over the last year, but he had grown inured to them, almost expecting more of them each day. He heard the screams, he woke up sweating, sometimes he trembled uncontrollably, and he didn't understand it, didn't talk about it, but he knew lots of the guys had the same sort of thing. And he had grown... accustomed to it. That was the only way to describe it.
But the girl... Why couldn't he remember her name? He had picked up phrases and pronunciation, he could order a beer (or a girl, for that matter), and he knew the names of some of the locals near the base.
What was her name?!
The knot in his stomach, always there, at least as long as he could remember, grew worse, but he didn't know why. He had to see her again. Had to do something. Maybe they could understand each other. That gaze, the emptiness behind her eyes, he recognized it. Maybe they were connected? Maybe she was what he'd been looking for this whole time?
He would do it. When they were back, he'd go to the house, and ask for the same girl. When they were alone he'd talk to her, make her understand. He knew he had to do it. Didn't know why, but that would come later. He just had to talk to her.
He realized he was smiling, and one of the guys on the opposite bench was looking at him oddly. What the hell was there to smile about here? But he had a reason, suddenly, to get back to the base, to survive this day. The other days had been by chance, but this day had a meaning. And that made him smile.
There was a shout from up ahead, from one of the other vehicles ahead of them on the single-track road. Then a whoosh and an explosion. Then cracks of gunfire erupted, and seemed to be coming from all around.
He stood up to see, his sharp instincts dulled by the confusing mess he suddenly found in his head, and a hammer hit him in the chest.
Then he could see the sky. He felt warmth in his throat, and saw the blurry outline of someone kneeling over him, saying something, and pressing down hard on his chest.
Everything felt heavy for some reason.
He stared up through the trees, oblivious to the chaos around him, the noise and the fear and the shouts.
He would talk to her. When he got back again.
Everything still felt heavy.
The last thing he noticed was that the sun was growing dimmer.
Strange, he thought. It was only midday.