Iraq’s winter chill bit especially hard at night on post. I stared across the few palms that dotted the north side of Saqlawiyah’s fields of poorly irrigated crops. Rose, a tall man of twenty-three years with a good-humored laugh and a friendly face, stood on a cooler in the back of the post so he could get his face level with the heater. This rotation of guard duty we found ourselves, once again, on top of Forward Operating Base Riviera in Post Four, overlooking most of the northeastern part of the ville we occupied. The last few nights there had been firefights near the market about three kilometers from our position in Shadyville, a borough filled with refugees from the violence in Fallujah. Tonight it started with just a few tracers ripping across the streets. One gun, then another in return.
“Hey Rose, come check this out,” I said, my voice muffled as I breathed into my hands.
“I’m not moving. It’s cold,” Rose said.
For a few minutes I didn’t press the issue, because it wasn’t uncommon in Iraq for people to shoot guns. Each house was allowed a fully automatic AK-47 assault rifle and two magazines, which held thirty rounds. And even though the RPKs firing now were illegal for civilians to own or operate because they were light machine guns, I couldn’t call it in yet. In the past we’d been admonished by the Higher Ups in the Command and Control room for calling in just a handful of rounds fired. If the round expenditure wasn’t in the hundreds, or if it wasn’t clearly a firefight, then the COC didn’t want to know.
After a few minutes passed two machine guns opened up, spitting tracers like roman candles. For every tracer there were five rounds, but I wasn’t counting them as they appeared in the inky blackness of Shadyville. Machine Gunners were often times asked to shoot a certain amount of rounds each burst; I’d learned early in my career how to count them accurately as I heard each individual report. Both guns opened up with no breaks in their cyclic rate of fire for a few seconds, the staccato sound of rifles set on single shot in the peripheries. Red dots of light flashed down the streets and through parking lots, making the offshoot of Saqlawiyah glimmer in the dark. Sometimes one of the machine guns’ lines of fire would stray into a building or rock and tracers would flare up brilliantly, spinning off into the night. It looked like a light show and sounded like an endless roll of Black Cats exploding in the distance.
“Echo COC, Echo COC, this is Post Four, come in Echo COC, over,” I said into the radio.
“Post Four this is Echo COC, send your traffic, over.”
“Echo COC, there are shots fired in Shadyville, over,” I said, my words coming out clipped between teeth holding a cigarette.
“How many shots fired, over?”
“At this point probably 800, maybe 1200. It’s coming from two different machine guns, over.”
“Monitor the situation and keep us updated Post Four. COC out.”
“What the fuck do they mean monitor the situation?” Rose said. “We’re three klicks away on top of a six story building freezing our asses off.”
We felt safe behind our sandbags, ballistic glass, and M-2 .50 Caliber heavy machine gun.
“Who do you think they’re killing over there?”
Rose walked away from the window and sat down at the back of the post. My question hung in the air with our breath.
“It has to be the Iraqi Police,” Rose said. “Well, at least some of the shooting. They could be slaying civilians over there. Maybe they are fighting off some attack, but I doubt it. Who the fuck knows, man.”
I tried the optic on my rifle, but darkness made the magnification worthless. I waited for a tracer to suddenly disappear midair, signifying a hit. I saw it happen a couple times, then watched a stream of tracers chase something down and hold to a spot on the ground for a second before moving on. Suddenly it intensified. The machine guns started to put out short frenzied bursts Blatatatatatatatatat, Blatatatatata, followed by a few long ones. Blatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatatat.
“I think this is the finale!” I said. “I should get on the hook with the COC and tell them to blast classical over the comm, Wagner or some shit. That would be fucking unreal!”
Rose didn’t give me a response. He was racked out at the back of the post. This happened almost every night. One of us, or both of us, would fall asleep. Usually I was out first, but Rose had spent the day as part of a working party moving boxes of chow around for the company cook.
I pulled out a book and checked to see the how the firefight was going. It had died down to a few pops from small arms, the machine guns seemingly displaced to wherever they had come from. Leaning against the sandbag wall, I started to read.
After a few hours, I noticed the feral dogs that plagued the country had grouped en mass by the small Iraqi Police station, a stone’s throw south of the FOB. As if guided by some beacon, they formed a large pack of thirty to fifty animals. For a while they were content with going through the garbage the Iraqi Police had left out for the flies. Something changed though, and the group turned into a disjointed knot of shadows, which swirled angrily in on itself. Every few seconds, a sleek shadow would glide closely behind or abreast of another shadow and a yelp would crease the night.
I dreamt of nothingness so saturated it had weight. Echoes of the waking world seeped in and I heard the feral pack in my dream. Their cries cut me deeply, sounding alien, conjuring scenes of hogs being slaughtered. They carried an urgency that made my teeth grind. They lived in wretchedness, crying out for something to listen. My chinstrap dug into my neck. I woke to the last seconds of shrieking, yelping cacophony.
“What the fuck is going on?” I said.
My voice sounded strange in its familiarity after the sounds of the pack. Rose squinted against one of the FOB lights’ orange glare as he leaned against the wall across from me.
“You fell asleep,” Rose said. “The dogs woke me up. I watched for a while. A big dog and some of its friends were terrorizing the pack, and then a smaller dog stood up to it. While they faced off another dog ran out and snapped one of its back legs. I wanted to shoot it.”
I remembered hearing Rose’s voice yelling at the dogs. Suddenly I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Rose was freaked out.
“I’m sick of watching that shit show out there,” Rose said, spitting chew on the floor. “I’m not going to sleep or anything, I’m just taking a break from watching the feral dog version of West Side Story.”
He smiled at me weakly, his eyes finally meeting mine instead of looking through them to the blackness beyond us.
I didn’t smile back.
Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He’s earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Lunch Ticket, Chautauqua, Hippocampus, The Burrow Press Review (Push Cart nomination), Dirty Chai, Phoebe, and War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities; anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Volume 2 & 4; and is forthcoming in The Florida Review and Brevity. Jason lives in Denver, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.