Here’s where I say, “Are you scared, man?” I say it the same way every time, and in one minute we will be pushing to the door of the aircraft, our weapon bags partially unzipped, with a magazine slapped tightly and carefully into the ammunition chamber. Before we stand, I will look down the line of soldiers and I will think how awful it all is. I will think how unfair it is that we should be the ones, my friends and I, droning over Latin American forests in full combat gear, over wondrous places we will most likely never visit again. Ready to die on foreign, fabulous, soil. We have already written letters home, exchanged them, so that if someone makes it, our final words will exist at least, as apologies. I look over at Mark, his body bathed in the blood red light of the interior lights, his face shaded red and black like a skull, and I shift forward, meaning to ask him if he would personally talk to my parents if I didn’t make it back. Instead, I hear those same words come from my mouth and, as always, I feel like it is too soon—I just need one more moment, maybe I can tell Mark not to stand up, tell him that if he stands he will surely die, but there is no time left. We stand and hook our yellow nylon static lines to the long cable running down the aircraft, and we turn toward the rear of the plane, toward the opening door. The sound envelopes us, in the real sense of envelopment—it is tangible, it is mocking, it is terrifying, and against any sanity, our feet yearn for the space, for the emptiness that is flying and falling both. I count to three, and the first anti-aircraft rounds hit our airplane, and despite my urge to move, a piece of flack buries itself in my cheek the exact same way it always has, and I count to five and we are hit again, and we are moving forward like giggling men, holding on to each other’s shoulders as if in mirth, shuffling one, two, one, two, one, two, toward the door, and we are hit again, hard, and I can see gaping holes in the aluminum shell of the aircraft, and I hear the man behind me take a round. I do not turn around—I know who he is, the one I would not talk to on the flight over because he was an officer—just an officer who wanted a medal, who pursued glory and advancement over sanity—a man who had replaced himself for our squad’s SAW rifleman, Antarrios Winters. All for a fucking Combat Infantryman Badge. I knew he would be a danger to my squad, and I resented him, and I resented him his CIB. I hear him gurgle through his awful injuries, and I am wet on the back of my pants, and I know it is blood, and it makes me glad that Winters was not there because I liked him, and I know that I will not look back for anything. It is so fast. Everything is so fast, and so dull. I stumble once, and put my hand out to steady myself, and then I am close, only a few steps from the door. This is it. I count one, two, and Mark is hit, OH GOD, Mark is hit, he is turning for help, his body stumbling backwards clumsily, grabbing for anything, and I move up to hold him, unconsciously thinking that I had given him one of my letters, and I see that he is empty. He is dead already, but doesn’t know it yet, then one, two, he does and his face contorts like I don’t know what, and he is falling, and I hold him, but he slips out of my arms, and I grab again, and he is light, oh he is light, empty, and his stuff is on the wall and on the jumpmaster, he is spread like peanut butter over it all, he is just a flack jacket with nothing left to protect, and then I know he is dead, and he does too, finally. I lay him on the floor, but he is blocking the doorway, and I am slipping in the dark—the green light for go is blinking and it goes red, red, red, and we push him, we push him out the door, poor dead Mark, out the door, and I follow, maybe anxious to find redemption, or death, or both.
This is how it always happens, how I have become accustomed to that night, but this time I count one, two, and no bullets bang on the walls, and the officer behind me just bumps into me, whispers “Sorry.” We are moving slowly, I can hear my breath in my chest, can feel the air moving like water past my lips. For this one time Mark exits, and things are moving again, and there is no time to count the rounds beating against the shell of the plane because someone is tapping on my back hard, and I am off balance, and cold in my torso like I have never been before, and the world is spinning, and I look back for someone to help me breathe again. I know what this is all about. I know not to look down, but I can feel my throat constricting, and the veins bulging in panic in my neck, and I know that there will be no me down there, just an empty, whistling vest filled with the darkest, darkest blood ever, and none of it going where it is supposed to go, and I hope then that this were the truth, and all the others just bad dreams. I am on my back, and I can feel how my vest is sinking down in the chest because there is nothing there to hold it up, and I don’t want to die here, my last view of this world boots clumping past, stained with my blood. This is all there ever is. Somebody please, let me out into that rush of air, into that pretty abyss.