Authors: John Renehan
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright Â© 2015 by John Renehan
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Renehan, John, author.
The Valley / John Renehan.
1. United States. ArmyâFiction. 2. AmericansâAfghanistanâFiction. 3. War stories. I. Title.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Susan, with all the rest of it
n the dream he climbed a narrow foot-trail alone in the sun, on a bare mountainside littered with metal corpses.
At the summit above him the stone building sat framed in light. She stood shadowed in the window, as she always did. He saw no face.
The path ran straight to the door. He pressed higher, pebbles and gravel skittering away beneath his bare feet.
He passed one hulk. The twisted remains of a car. Another was unrecognizable. Strips and shards of metal lay strewn across the trail. He felt one enter the underside of his foot.
A concrete bunker built into the hillside was full of soldiers. They reached their arms through the opening and called wordlessly to him as he pushed on higher.
The path grew steep, his feet slipping with every step now. The shards went into his soles, straight through to the bone, and opened the soft flesh between his toes.
He leaned forward and scrabbled at the ground with his fingers, trying to pull himself higher. He saw metal come through the back of one hand and cleave the fingers of another.
The mountain heaved beneath him. The figure in the window turned away and receded into the little building as one of its walls slid away in a cascade of stone blocks. A voice from below called without words for him to come back down.
His footing gave way as the mountain buckled. He fell forward and met the trail with his face. A shard went through his cheek and into his tongue. The bombs fell in earnest, all around him. He clawed the ground but it disintegrated beneath him as he slid backward into the craterâ
He jolted awake, honking the horn with the palms of both hands. The meager little toot cried
4-cylinder economy rental,
but to him it was deafening in the dark and quiet of the sleeping neighborhood.
The center console of the car had some napkins wadded into it, which he pulled out and used to dry his face. He sat with his hands on his legs, eyeing the little house and waiting for his breathing to return to normal.
The second-story windows remained dark. He sat back against the seat and stole a look in the vehicle's mirror. The eyes that met his in the silvered rectangle looked coal-dark and hard, the gray half-circles smudged beneath them hollow and soft. He sighed.
A backpack sat on the passenger seat. From its overstuffed depths he produced a miniature leatherbound book, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. A taut leather band inside it held a tiny pen.
He drew this out as he flipped through to the inside of the back cover. On the last page of the book he scratched a little hash mark, next to a collection of other hash marks.
Stuffing the book away he reached for the ignition, where the key sat in the OFF position. He turned it to ON and threw an arm over the passenger seat.
Casting a final glance at the house, he craned over his shoulder and rolled the car in neutral down a gravel drive. He waited until it was on the street and pointed downhill before starting the engine and putting it in gear.
Bungalow homes slept on either side. At the end of the block, pulling the wheel to the right, he switched on the lights.
The dim road cut across the broad foothills of a low coastal mountain range. Above and to his right, the forested ridges. Below and to his left, moonlit rooftops spilled down four miles to a black bay spanned by great bridges.
Receding behind him, beyond the houses and above the trees, a soaring gothic building rose like a cathedral against the night. In its shadowed buttresses the hosts and legions, gargoyles and cherubim, crouched and dancing, wept and stood watch. He turned onto the main descending road and made his way down to the edge of the water.
Out over the bridges, across the glassine bay and into the hills. Another hour south to where the highway met the ocean. Then the long moonlit ride along the mountainous California coast.
There were more direct routes to Los Angeles. He took the long way, winding beneath the crags with the waves crashing far below. He rolled the windows down and played no music. The hours turned small.
South of Big Sur he passed beneath a castle built on a mountaintop by a long-dead man who'd made his fortune in newspapers. When the highway turned in from the coast he stopped in a one-street tourist village hidden in a tiny valley.
He remembered its late-night liquor store. Squinting under banks of fluorescents, he purchased a tall can of “energy drink,” which tasted like bubble gum dissolved in cleaning fluid.
The road from there skirted the ocean again, past a great rock that loomed invisibly from the dark sea, then continued inland and began to hint at civilization. He rolled up the windows and put on the radio, wincing as he slurped at the can.
The sun was rising when he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. He dropped his car at a frenzied off-site rental facility crowded with exhausted vacationers, slung his backpack over his shoulder, and went through the motions at the security checkpoint with as little human interaction as he could manage. On the airplane he turned down the flight attendant's offer of a free drink and promptly passed out.
The plane flew east, through the day and the night and into the next day. He woke after a couple of hours and couldn't sleep any longer. They made many stops.
In Ireland, he bought a pint in an airport pub that was inexplicably open in the middle of the night. In the Netherlands he changed his undershirt and socks in the bathroom, pulling fresh ones from his straining pack and tossing the old into a garbage can.
He switched to a private charter and flew on. In Kuwait City he and his fellow passengers milled in a private terminal for an hour or so before climbing back on board and heading east again. He thought:
Wouldn't it have been faster going the other way?
At its final destination, in the hollow of the night, the plane disgorged its passengers into quietly orchestrated chaos.
A cavernous “terminal” of wood and canvas hummed with the sounds of transitâparties seeking other parties, terse announcements issued on lo-fi speaker boxes, the zip of tightening backpack straps, and the soft thump of duffels released to the floor. There were civiliansâreporters, private contractors, people whose occupations he could not identifyâand many military.
He followed a group of these outside into the dark. They trudged over gravel paths between tents and temporary buildings, to a large and well-lit shack at the edge of a black airfield. There they checked a dry-erase board that passed for a departures list, and sat down to wait. He watched a slightly built young journalist with quiffed hair and rectangular glasses fiddle with his backpack and press badge.
Throughout the night, in twos and threes, they disappeared. The airfield serviced a steady stream of helicopters and cargo planes, coming and going in the dark. One would arrive, barely audible as it crested the hills, its sound building until the whole shack vibrated.
People would file out into the dark and rush of noise, the plywood door snapping shut behind them. Off they would go to their destinations. Then silence, until the next.
It was a small crew that was scheduled to ride on his flight. Him plus two reporters and ten military. He had some time. He stood outside the shack for a while, watching the flights come and go.
He enjoyed hearing the first comforting sounds of the helicopters beyond the hills, trying to spot them as they approached. With all their lights turned out this was a trick. They could be right above you, deafening pale ghosts in the night, before you spotted them.
And he enjoyed standing in the silence after they left. Watching the blue tarmac lights wink at the empty sky.
Deep in the night his turn grew close. A great cargo plane was to come and take him and a few others to their final stop. A helicopter wouldn't cut it. Their destination was too distantâone of the farthest locales serviced by this particular airfield, and one of the least desired.
the young soldier was thinking,
from the floor up.
He was used to seeing disorganized civilians, sloppy contractors, even people who were in the Air Force. You got 'em all when you came to this place.
Not everybody can be as squared away as us,
his sergeant would say if he were there.
It's a grab bag in this place.
He understood. Still, the kid sort of felt obligated. How old was this guy? Twenty-five? Older? Old enough to know. Besides, he really wanted to wash his hands and get moving before he got yelled at.
He approached and reached out to tap the guy's shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir.”
He turned, startled. A soldier, nineteen years old, tops. Standing there waiting for who knows how long.
He came back to himself, noticing for the first time the sound of a large propeller-driven airplane taxiing outside. His flight was here. The soldier was probably desperate to wash his hands and get his bag and get outside before he got chewed out for cutting things close with the plane.
When the time had neared, he'd gone to the modest restroom to wash his face. He'd lingered over the only sink staring into the only mirror, surveying the damage of the last thirty-six hours of travel.
He figured he had slept for about four of those hours. His dark eyes still bore their dark circles, which he'd been pondering when the soldier startled him.
“Sorry,” he said.
He stepped aside and turned to go as the soldier started washing.
“No problem, sir.”
The kid was clean-scrubbed, eager.
“Um, excuse meâsir?”
He turned back.
“I'm sorry, sir, but yourÂ .Â .Â .”
By way of explanation the soldier reached up to his right shoulder, pinched his fingers together, and tugged. He came away with a long, green clump of tangled thread, which he held up for inspection.
“I figured you hadn't seen it there, sir,” the kid said, suddenly flustered.
He reddened and thanked the young soldier, who gave an embarrassed “No problem, sir,” and disappeared.
He turned back to the mirror, regarding himself. A young man eyed him back warily from beneath a dark brow that angled toward a scowl, as though he were always squinting just a bit against a strong light. His hair, the color of deep forest soil, was cropped to an inch or less all round. His eyes, though yet unlined, managed at all times to seem burdened, leaving people with the disconcerting impression that they'd met a much older person who'd been manhandled into a much younger body and then left there to just lump it.
Those eyes traveled down his own person.
The laces of one tan boot loose and dangling. One pant leg partly untucked from the other boot. Coat appallingly rumpled, even for a camouflage coat. Turning to inspect his shoulder, he saw that the thread had been hanging loose from just behind where a Velcro American flag patch sat. The patch was crooked.
Which is to say, he was in the Army. He hated the Army.
He tore off the flag and replaced it, carefully. He bent and fixed his laces and pants, straightening to inspect the rest of him.
In black thread on the center of his chest, on a square of Velcro-backed material, was sewn the vertical bar of a first lieutenant. An officer. A low-ranking one.
To one side of the bar was a Velcro strip that read U.S. ARMY. To the other side was a name tape that read BLACK.
He had a first name, though Lieutenant Black knew to a near certainty that for the next six months not a soul he encountered would use it. Few of those people could really be counted as friends. Few, he was fairly sure, even knew what that name was.
He rooted around and found a pair of nail clippers, using them to snip off several other loose threads. When he was done, he extracted a small razor from his backpack.
He turned on the water in the sink, which ran only cold, and proceeded to scrape the wet razor across his face. When he finished he packed it away and gave a last look at the slightly less haggard young man in the mirror.
He shouldered his pack and left.
At the door of the shack he swiped his ID card through a reader mounted in the door frame, presided over by a sleepy soldier reading a book, and went out onto the windy tarmac with the others. Waited to be given the signal. Trudged up the ramp into the darkened cargo hold. Strapped himself in to a seat made of netting, watched the ramp close, listened to the roar of the engines filling the black compartment. Closed his eyes and slept at last as the aircraft went up into the night, up there with the ghosts.