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Published: Thu Jul 14 2022
Art by Jin Suk
Laurel and Patina

For seventeen convoys, in the helpless passenger seat behind layered glass and the streaming world, he said nothing when things went antic. He said nothing when their truck fell behind and out of radio range. He said nothing when the turret gunner’s faulty headspace caused the fifty to jam during small arms fire. He said nothing when the driver nodded out over and over and he had to catch the wheel again and again to keep them from diving into the Euphrates. But he could no longer wrench his lips when they ran out of fuel and the driver let off the accelerator with a sigh while the rest of their convoy faded down the highway and the gunner, instead of signaling to the distancing trucks, dropped into the cab with a pointed thumb—looks like our assistant driver forgot to fuel up before we left Al Asad.

Abandoning the quiet, he carried his voice over the seatback and into the turret, where he straddled the mounted gun and threw a scream to the sky. Their truck slowed, tires growling at the pavement. He jumped and flailed and sent his scream down the road, then crossed his arms and panted through his nose. The rest of the convoy continued to shrink over the turret’s cowl, while their truck—the last in the lineup—hummed to a halt. He arched his back and primed his throat and brought all his air into another scream, pushing until he was out of lung. The others went on, swallowed by desert. He raised his arms once more, swelling his sternum, pulling in breath until his ribs threatened to break. A sliver of cloud sailed overhead. A shadow sliced the throat of the highway.

Then the trucks stopped, a line of dots and dashes at the horizon. Someone reached up from the cab, tugging his pantleg, saying something about a radio miracle—they’re coming back for us! He held his breath for one more pulse before bursting into scream again, the howl erupting from his chest like a long-suppressed cough. He bent at the waist, bracing his knees, and aimed down through the turret—an angry, satisfied, emptying blow.

I did that, he told them as one of their trucks grew larger and larger in the frame of their windshield. I did, he said. So everyone knows. His voice cracked and worsened with each vowel. The three of them watched their rescue’s approach. You see what I did? The driver nodded, and the gunner closed his eyes, saying something about security checks, then the two of them shuffled out on the driver’s side as the maintenance truck pulled up. What’s this, he rasped. Security checks? Out here—fading—in the middle of the desert? Since when do we care about security—but his vocal cords froze, and that was the end of his voice for three days.

During the next convoy, he will apologize for his outlandish behavior, freaking out and jumping into the turret and screaming down at them like he did, and the others will smile and take up his hand and clap him on the shoulder and tell him not to mention it.

The engine cranked and cranked but would not start. He held the ignition until the mechanic caught sight of the problem, laughing as the fuel water separator grew cloudy, algal, sour-candied, then comically toxic. The driver had pulled the wrong jerrycan from the bed of the maintenance truck and filled their fuel tank with nearly five gallons of antifreeze. They fed the wrong fluid through the right system. The mechanic told them to take the remainder of the drive to figure out which of them would siphon the tank when they got back to base—your mistake, your deadlined vehicle, your mess to clean. They rigged the truck for a tow.

The tow bar rattled between bumpers like a worn coupling between railcars. He had little to say, but he might have weighed in if he could have summoned his voice. Another truck took the rear security position, and the maintenance truck dragged them, clanging and clunking, to somewhere near the center of the convoy. He nursed his throat in the passenger seat while the driver held the wheel and made small talk with the gunner, who sat in the middle listening to the communications radio. The mechanic, because of their proximity to his truck, was pumping in music from covertly installed speakers. What’s he got on? Something metal—double bass with lots of screaming. They abandoned the radio at the gates and reached a silent agreement about which of them would siphon the antifreeze. They counted on fast fingers—one, two, three, not it! He turned from the passenger window, helmet low across his brow. Guess that means you’re it, they told him. He tucked his hands into the pits of his flak. Any objection?

He slid the end of a rubber tube into the fuel tank and sat on a mound of sand alongside a tire track. He took hold of the free end of the tube, wiped it clear, and brought it to his lips. Having never started a siphon, he inhaled as if preparing to spend maximum time underwater. Diesel fumes flooded his lungs before any fluid reached the crest of the tube, and he retched, cringing, coughing the taste as antifreeze slid back down the tube with a gasp. His nausea brought on a chorus of laughs from the others, who watched from a distance. Pull with your cheeks, the mechanic coached. Like a fine cigar, said the driver. Suck out that slime already, the gunner told him, let’s go, on with the show! A white-spirit burn on his tongue, he repositioned himself before the end of the tube, emptied his chest, and pulled again, this time with less breath. Antifreeze climbed from the tank, crested the rise of the tube, and caught the flow of gravity as it raced through his fist, crashing into his face like a fount of sickness.

A rush of antifreeze flooded the sand. The others kicked in fits of laughter, falling, holding their chests, curling in on themselves as the soft ground beneath the truck clumped and softened in neon rivulets and sinking pools of lime. He wiped his eyes and started toward a pallet of water bottles, then quickly turned back, rushing them, his boots stamping the sickly mud, wet hands aside his wet face, fingers wide and wriggling at either cheek, lips tinged and dripping green, almost aglow at the gumline. The others unwound themselves or feigned bravado or told him he was crazy, but they paid attention and stopped up their laughs. He took a staggered breath through the nose and exhaled hard through his teeth, where a film of antifreeze wavered at the gaps. I drive next time, he told them without a word, spitting laurel and patina, pantomiming the wheel, pointing to their truck. A small bubble broke from his smile, caught the glow of the sun, and took flight as he signaled his terms.

Christopher Notarnicola is a United States Marine Corps veteran whose work has appeared in American Short FictionBellevue Literary ReviewAGNIChicago Quarterly Review, and other publications. He lives in Pompano Beach, Florida. More at christophernotarnicola.com. (updated 7/2022)

 

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