Another training day on the range was done, and Lieutenant Glandy stood before them. “As you know,” he said, “it is an offence to remove any ammunition or parts thereof from a Canadian Forces range or training area.”

The soldiers were lined up at attention, ready for dinner. “I have no live rounds, empty casings, or parts thereof in my possession, sir.” They spoke the declaration in unison, as if reciting a line of poetry, almost liturgically. Private Ono spoke the words with a clean heart. He had never stolen a thing in his life.

Truth was, many of the soldiers stole ammo. Some put the liberated bullets under their pillows like teeth, or drilled through the empty casings and hung them from the rearview mirrors of trucks, or even tucked them in their underwear for good luck. Others just liked to have the bullets—they couldn’t even explain why. One soldier from the regiment, who Ono hoped would not be among those chosen to go to Afghanistan, got off on licking bullets. Licking ammo was fucked up, yes, but the whole enterprise known as the army was fucked up. No need to say anything more than: Dude, that guy is really fucked up.

Ono had observed Corporal MacArthur stealing a handful of bullets earlier that very day. MacArthur saw Ono watching and gave a sly wink. MacArthur was relatively new to the regiment, a bit of a mystery. He put a finger to his lips. Ono quickly looked away. Stolen ammunition was infantry aphrodisiac, and the recent news about the regiment being chosen to go to Afghanistan had put some of the soldiers in a positively sexy mood. Stolen ammo was an acknowledged reality, but the amnesty box was the military version of a get-out-of-jail-free card for soldiers who felt guilty about breaking “the seventh commandment.” Anyone who had stolen ammo could drop it off at the amnesty box, and no one would ask any questions. Of course, very little ammo ended up in the amnesty box, but all kinds of other things did: spent casings stuffed with desiccated condoms, the tail of a mouse, Polaroids of ex-girlfriends. It got so bad one summer that they stationed a guard by the amnesty box. Orders came down from on high that any soldier messing around with the amnesty box would get charged with conduct unbecoming.

If the amnesty box was about grace, then conduct unbecoming was the catch-all for punishing soldiers who screwed up in one of a thousand ways. Any act, conduct, disorder, or neglect to the prejudice of good order and discipline is an offence, and every person convicted thereof is liable to dismissal with disgrace from Her Majesty’s service or to less punishment. Shitting in the shower and leaving it there was one example of conduct unbecoming. This exact scenario occurred during Ono’s basic training: a bewilderingly large human turd in the shower, right before inspection, still warm. Had the criminal ever been discovered, they would have felt the full weight of military law. In the words of their instructors: there is no place in the Queen’s army for someone who shits in the shower AND leaves it there. What function did the conjunction play in the equation, Ono thought. Could you crap in the shower and clean it up? Was that okay? No one ever answered the question because he never did ask it.

“Do you know what they used to say about the British Empire?” MacArthur asked one evening. Training for the day was done, and they were sitting in the Junior Ranks’ Mess, sipping beers and philosophically facing the portrait of the Queen on the wall.

“What did they say about the British Empire?” a private by the name of Shirp said, taking a large mouthful of beer.

“The sun is always setting on the British Empire,” MacArthur said.

“Is that what they really said?”

“Yep.”

“Who said it?”

“The soldiers who were fighting the Queen’s wars.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means we are going to fuck some shit up in Afghanistan.”

“I don’t think that’s why we’re going to Afghanistan,” Ono said, feeling a bit deflated.

“Think what you want,” MacArthur said. “There’s lots of reasons why the great nation of Canada is going to Afghanistan. But we are going ’cause we want to fuck shit up. Don’t even try to lie to me. I’m too smart. We’re natural-born warriors, me and old Shirpey here.”

Shirp smiled. He was missing a front tooth.

“And then there’s people like you,” MacArthur said, pointing at Ono. “Hearts bleeding all over the place. Like you’re always on your period.”

“That’s not true,” Ono said, blushing. “I’m a warrior too.”

“We’ll see about that. When the bullets start flying. You best think about how the Queen Mother would feel if she saw you tuck tail and run.” MacArthur pointed to the tattoo of the Queen on his forearm, then to the portrait of the Queen. “You better not upset her royalness, or there’ll be hell to pay.”

“I won’t,” Ono said, feeling slightly confused.

“You better not,” MacArthur said. “So when are you going to pop your tattoo cherry?” he added.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, when are you going to get your first tattoo, dipshit.”

“I don’t want a tattoo.”

“Makes sense. Only real men get tattoos,” MacArthur said, raising his arm and kissing the inked Queen.

Ono didn’t know what to think. The importance of the Queen to soldiers of the Canadian military was one of the first realities impressed upon him when he joined the army. The Queen herself was an institution. None of the soldiers remembered a time when Her Majesty the Queen was not alive. Even the crustiest and oldest of corporals had served under Her Majesty when they were fresh-faced privates. None of them had met or even seen the Queen. Most of them hadn’t even left Canada—or Alberta, for that matter. The Queen was as distant to the soldiers as God, a figure some of them had been told to honour, believe in, or at least acknowledge. And some of them tried. But they couldn’t exactly discern the relevance of this royal Person to their life. And yet, they swore to defend Her and serve in good faith. Every mess hall and Legion in the country carried Her portrait. A few of them had Her tattoo.

The question of warrior status aside, all the soldiers were stoked about going to Afghanistan. The doubters and jokers and anyone who asked too many questions could stuff it down their proverbial pipes. Leadership had already noticed the change in morale since the official announcement. This was the new Canadian military. The decade of darkness was over. The government had money for soldiers again. Before the war, the regiment generally lived with a deficit of training ammunition. Soldiers like Private Ono barely fired live rounds because live rounds were expensive. Ono did not join the military to fire guns. In fact, he didn’t even really enjoy shooting that much. He had joined the army four years after 9/11 because a recruiter came to his high school in Westmount and said the pay was good. Ono also remembered thinking how cool the recruiter looked in uniform. And his parents would approve of the “good pay” part. His parents were indeed fine with his joining the army. They never said so directly, but he heard his mother talking about his service on the phone, and the voice she was using was the proud voice. And, as for his father, the fact that he didn’t speak out against the decision meant that he approved of it. This was the way his family dealt with certain things.

Being in the military itself wasn’t exactly as Ono had anticipated, different both from the movies as well as the low-budget Canadian television recruiting commercials. Reservists remained the lowest of funding priorities. They still trained, but playing war was difficult without real supplies. For the training to work, the soldiers had to be lively enough to possess an active imagination or dumb enough not to care. Life in the reserves taught them that training was generally a game of charades. You had to be an actor. But, with Canadian soldiers dying in Afghanistan, the military budget increased. Bullets started falling from the clouds. Real ammunition meant momentarily forgetting about the times they had to pretend and say, “Bang! Bang! ” The government believed in them. The people who had voted in the government believed in them too—or so Ono assumed.

Preparations for Afghanistan were going well. Targets were shot. Somebody had put a traditional Afghan head scarf, a shemagh, on one. Ono looked at the victim: full of holes. “The Taliban don’t stand a fucking chance,” MacArthur said, smirking. He took out his camera and snapped a photo, and Ono flinched.

He had no particular connection to the people of Afghanistan or their culture. His father was Japanese and his mother was Ukrainian. But he didn’t like it when the target was dressed up. A target was not human, and clothes were for humans. And his stomach turned when he realized he might one day be required to shoot a human, not a target.

At the end of the training day, after the range declaration, they loaded into the back of a truck. Five minutes down the road, the truck broke down. Now they were sitting in the back of the truck under a tarp roof, soaked from a sideways rain that got under everything, even the cover. Everyone was bored as shit and hungry. A corporal by the name of Canker started singing “Barrett’s Privateers”: Ohhhh, the year was 1778, how I wish I was in Sherbrooke now. He had a nice voice—deep, in tune, sincere. It had rained all day. The leaves were off the trees. Summer was undoubtedly over, and the air smelled of rot. They were all miserable and wet, and his voice was beautiful, rich as ale, and it made people stop and listen, either losing their own thoughts or freshly aware of the smell of dying grass and wet leaves and the people next to them. Some, like Ono, felt they had finally arrived at a quintessential military moment, the kind of deep bonding that would bring them together as a platoon and see them through the present wetness into Afghanistan and beyond, like a contemporary “Band of Brothers” who would fight together in a real war. Afghanistan would be free. They would free it. Like Alexander and the Gordian knot: chop. Free of the Taliban, and free of shitty infrastructure and no internet, and free of not having fast-food restaurants like the rest of the world. But no—in the hushed dark, MacArthur told Canker to shut the fuck up, and he abruptly stopped singing and told him to go eat a big dick, and MacArthur said, “Whatever, dickhead, your last name is Canker,” and Shirp said, “Good luck finding a big dick in this platoon.” And that was the end of the song and they remained miserable in silence. Some soldiers pulled out headphones and retreated into their own private playlists.

One night, before they left the training area, MacArthur approached the picnic table where Ono was sitting by himself and smoking a cigarillo.

“Come with me,” he said.

“Where are we going?” Ono asked.

“You’ll see.”

They walked until all the tents were behind them and they couldn’t hear any voices. There was frost on the grass. Ono’s feet were wet with it. MacArthur took a large fork out of his pocket and started digging a hole.

“What are you doing?” Ono said.

MacArthur didn’t reply. Ono was mesmerized, confused. The hole was at least a foot deep when MacArthur stopped digging. He fished around in his pockets and took out a couple of the stolen bullets. In his hand, they looked golden, almost fake, the colour of chocolate-coin wrappers. MacArthur dropped the bullets in the dirt, spat in the hole, then covered it. “I’m leaving little parts of me wherever I go,” he said.

The shooting part of the training was over. They packed up and drove back to Edmonton. Daylight savings had come and gone. Each day was one closer to Afghanistan. The war was waiting for them, brooding in the darkness like a forgotten god. They were leaving in January, and it was now almost Christmas. The sky was various shades of pink and pastel by four in the afternoon. The light was gone before dinner.

The Men’s Christmas Dinner, the final official army event before combined holidays and predeployment leave, was scheduled for mid-December. They had not worn their dress uniforms since Remembrance Day. Some of the uniforms still carried the musk of old alcohol. The troops walked into the dress hall and oooooohed at the scene. Festive tables—white tablecloths, metal cutlery, glass cups, not plastic—were set up length-wise. Where bottles of real beer should have been, however, someone had set bottles of ginger beer.

“What the fuck is this?” MacArthur said, picking up a bottle and examining the label.

“What the hell,” Shirp said. Lieutenant Glandy stood up and addressed the regiment.

“This year,” he said, “because of what happened last year, the Men’s Christmas Dinner will, unfortunately, be dry.”

Boooo,” MacArthur wailed. “Boooooooo.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Shirp said.

“This isn’t right,” MacArthur said, turning to Shirp. “This is immoral. We’re soldiers. The government owes us Christmas beer. What the hell happened last year?”

“Someone got a DUI,” Ono said. “He drove his truck through the fence and onto the soccer field. One of the new privates broke his arm.”

“Broke his arm during the dinner?” MacArthur said.

“On the bleachers, after the dinner, when the wrestling began.”

MacArthur shook his head. “It’s not right. Our last Christmas before Afghanistan and no beer. It’s not right at all.”

Ono said nothing. He didn’t even like beer. But Ono knew that you didn’t advertise things like preferring pop to beer in the infantry, so sometimes he sipped along with everyone else.

A sullen silence descended over what was supposed to be holiday joy. The troops sat down at the table like children whose Christmas gifts had been tossed into the wood stove. Not a single dinner roll was thrown across the tables at anyone. The roast beef was dry, as were the gravy, the water, the ginger beer. The tradition of having the youngest private trade uniform jackets with the commanding officer was a dry disappointment. The private was diminutive and shy, and the battalion commander was bitter and corpulent, and they sat together at the head table in the cramped silence of an unhappy marriage. The uniform switch had always been funny in the past, when everyone was drunk. Sober, nothing was funny.

Regimental leadership had brought in the brass band and some elderly World War II and Korean War vets, who resembled raisins more than soldiers. The tubas started wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. The old veterans were installed at different tables like festive centrepieces. The veterans were supposed to be inspiring. One of them, in a motorized wheelchair, got placed next to MacArthur. Ono watched as MacArthur peered at the substantial rack of medals on his chest. When dinner was being served, MacArthur tipped his bottle of ginger beer over the table. He smiled at the crash. “Whoops,” he said.

The wrinkled veteran looked at him. “You’re a goddamn shit,” he said.

“Yeah, well, you’re old as shit,” MacArthur said.

“Old as shit I may be,” the wrinkled veteran said, brandishing his cane, “but I could teach that smart mouth of yours a goddamn lesson.”

“Easy now, old-timer,” MacArthur said.

A sergeant walked up behind MacArthur and whacked him in the back of the head. Ono tried not to laugh.

“Show a little respect,” the sergeant said, giving MacArthur a serious look. The wrinkled veteran grabbed his bottle of ginger beer and motored to a different table. On the way past MacArthur, he whacked him with his cane.

The dinner stayed dry for less than thirty minutes. Shirp texted his cousin, who immediately went to Superstore and bought a three-litre bottle of vodka, which he brought to the armoury in a black shopping bag. Shirp slipped out of the dinner, met him at the front door, and brought the bottle to the men’s bathroom, where he took three or four quick pulls and placed it under the sink. When most of the young soldiers and some of the older ones had made a trip or three to the bathroom, the Men’s Christmas Dinner was bumping again, and dinner rolls were flying. Ono got caught up in the excitement and threw a dinner roll at a soldier named Abdi, who was sitting three tables down. It missed and struck a fragile-looking vet in the middle of the chest. Ono ran over. “I’m so sorry,” he said. The vet chortled and threw the disintegrating dinner roll right back into Ono’s face.

The servers brought out the Yule log. Soldier to soldier, it was passed down the table. Each person took a tremendous bite. Bits of cake flaked into moustaches and mashed into the tablecloth. The wrinkled old vets didn’t look wrinkled anymore. The bottle in the bathroom was empty. A few soldiers went down to the equipment room and brought back hockey sticks and started playing shinny in their clunky dress boots, slashing the sticks at one another like swords. “RU-FI-O!” MacArthur shouted, brandishing the hockey stick like a shotgun. “Ru-fi-o! Ruuuu-fiiiii-oooo!”

Shirp and a small cluster of hard-core evangelicals started singing bastardized versions of church songs from childhood. They were pounding the table with their fists. Bang, bang, bang. I am gonna march in the infantry, they sang. Ride in the cavalry. Shoot! The artillery. I am gonna shoot all the enemy ’cause I’m in the Lord’s! Army! Yessir. ’Cause I’m in the Lord’s Army, wahoo, yes, I’m in the Lord’s Army, yessir. I am gonna shoot all the Taliban ’cause I’m in the Lord’s Army. WA-HOO!  With the final exclamation, buns were tossed high into the air, and a few slices of roast beef were frisbeed from one corner of the table to the other. They struck none of the people they intended and hit a few they didn’t.

A few nights later, Ono, MacArthur, and Shirp sat in the barracks, listening to Blink-182 and packing their gear in tidy piles. The year was almost over. The sixth year of the new millennium had passed in a blur of training exercises and alcohol, but what they were doing now made the war seem real. Going to Afghanistan felt irrevocable, like a proclamation from the Bible: “Proclaim ye this among the Gentiles; Prepare war, wake up the mighty men, let all the men of war draw near; let them come up!” As they packed, they sipped from little mugs of whisky. Ono pursed his lips on the rim but did not drink, hoping the others would not notice.

“A clean rifle is like a clean dick,” MacArthur said, stuffing his underwear into a duffel.

“How?” Shirp said.

“It’s ready to use.”

“I’m pretty sure your dick is dirty.”

“Only ’cause I slept with your girlfriend.”

“Let’s remember to buy dry lube before we go to Afghanistan,” Shirp said, changing the subject. “With dry lube, the sand won’t stick. Our rifles will be clean as a goddamn whistle.”

“What are we actually going to be doing in Afghanistan?” he asked, suddenly serious.

“We’re gonna shoot people, you dipshit,” MacArthur said, standing up and putting his helmet on. “We’re soldiers. You shoot the bad people, then you build the schools.”

“Who are the schools for?” Shirp asked.

“The good people,” MacArthur said. “And the women.”

“That doesn’t make any sense at all.”

“You don’t know shit about war. Never did and never will.”

“I know just as much as you.”

“Have you ever even met anyone from Afghanistan?”

“No. Have you?”

“I know all about that shithole of a country,” MacArthur said, ignoring Shirp’s question. “It’s been a big old mess since pretty much forever, even before the Russians sucked balls and ran away. Our job is to sort their shit out.”

Ono frowned and added his gas mask to his pile of gear. He did not like the way that sounded.

After the whisky was gone, MacArthur pulled out a bottle of Smirnoff and passed it around. They all took gulps. Shirp got sad when he was drinking. Even the tiny mouthfuls made Ono sad. Not MacArthur. All this drama had put him in a celebratory mood. He was putting everyone else on notice about his intention of finding a new girlfriend before going to war—that very weekend. He pressed his thumbs together and stretched out both hands. “The girl’s ass can’t be bigger than that,” he said. Once found, she would be taken to West Edmonton Mall. They would share a nautical-themed room at the Fantasyland Hotel and prance together in the wave pool at the water park. He would buy her lingerie and perfume or whatever she wanted. He would stand above her like a Greek god descended from the clouds and droop grapes into her mouth, and she would, for the whole weekend, suck his brains out through his dick in a state of blissed-out gratitude. This scenario was unlikely, Shirp explained drunkenly. A girl who would agree to spend a weekend with MacArthur would realize sucking his brains out was impossible because he didn’t have any. She might agree to suck a kidney out or maybe a liver. Ono laughed. MacArthur said: “Fuck you, Ono, you prick. If you survive Afghanistan, it’ll be ’cause you look like the local population. Not one other fucking reason.”

The vodka bottle was almost empty. Later that evening, they drove through the city with the windows down. Ono was the least drunk. He was driving. They stopped at a red light on Whyte Avenue. MacArthur was standing in the middle of the vehicle, sticking his head up through the sunroof. “WE ARE GOING TO AF-GHAN-ISTAN!”

A group of women next to a bar cheered and waved.

“Show us your tits!” MacArthur shouted.

“Fuck you,” one of the women said.

“AFGHANISTAAAAAN,” MacArthur shouted. “Shirpey, read that one poem again.”

“Which one?” Shirp asked.

“The one about Afghanistan. The old one. Loud enough so those bitches outside can hear.”

“‘When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains!’” Shirp recited his version of the Kipling poem, his voice rising. “‘And the women come out to cut up what remains!’”

“That’s the one,” MacArthur shouted. “That’s it. That’s the fucking one!”

They drove all over the city. MacArthur traded the regimental beret for a helmet. His ears were nipped from the cold.

“Drive past my grandparents’ house,” he said.

“Where is it?” Ono asked.

“In Beverly. I’ll show you.”

The neighbourhood was quiet. Hardly anyone was on the streets. A young mother ushering kids from a van into a house and the glow from windows where people were probably watching the hockey game were all they could see. They pulled up next to a house and stopped. The wind pulled snow up from the ground and into the air. The domed glow of the refinery on the other side of the river pushed up against the grey sky like a tongue against the roof of a mouth. A few pale flakes were falling from the sky.

MacArthur got out of the car and walked right up to the house. No lights were on inside. He stepped off the walkway and peered right into the living room window.

“I can’t see shit,” he said, walking back to the car, still wearing the helmet.

“Ono, grab a flashlight and come with me. Shirpey—you wait with the car.”

“Is it the right house?” Ono said.

“Of course it is,” MacArthur said.

Ono grabbed the big Maglite from the glovebox and followed MacArthur onto the property. MacArthur opened the gate and walked around to the back of the house. Ono followed. MacArthur went to the back window, peered inside, and knocked. The house was still silent, still no lights. Ono was feeling queasy.

MacArthur moved to the back door: bang, bang, bang.

“They must be sleeping,” he said.

“I think we should go,” Ono said.

“I want to show you the inside. Give me the flashlight.”

Ono passed it to him. MacArthur took off his jacket, wrapped it around the light, then punched in one of the door’s glass panes. He carefully reached inside and unlocked the door, then handed the flashlight back to Ono. “Follow me,” MacArthur said. Ono followed. The house was completely dark. The time on the stove read 11:02. They walked through the kitchen and into the living room. MacArthur paused to look at a frame on the wall. “Shine the flashlight here,” he said. It was a picture of a young woman and a dog. “Hmph,” MacArthur said. He walked into a bedroom. “Shine the flashlight on the bed,” he said. Ono’s head was beginning to swim. He pointed the flashlight at the bed. MacArthur fished around in his pockets.

“What are you doing?” Ono said.

“Looking for these,” MacArthur said. He held his hand under the beam of the flashlight. More of the stolen bullets glowed golden. He placed them under the mattress, then set everything back together carefully. “Let’s go,” he said. They walked outside. The stars were pinpricks of light. The air was cold. Ono took a deep breath.

The vehicle was quiet on the drive back to the base.

“What happened to your grandparents?” Ono said.

“Dipshit,” MacArthur said. “My grandparents never lived in Edmonton. That was my ex’s house.”

In early January, when the snow-heavy roofs were the colour of the sky—colder than a witch’s tit, as Lieutenant Glandy put it—they left for Afghanistan. The send-off was sleepy and uninspiring. The sky had dumped a week’s worth of snow. Many of the people who promised to come were late or didn’t make it. Ono stood in line, feeling nervous. MacArthur and Shirp were ahead of him. After the night of the break-in, Ono had avoided MacArthur. They didn’t even look at each other. It was almost like MacArthur had finished with him, he realized.

The platoon was mostly young soldiers. The largest percentage of attendees were parents and girlfriends. Ono’s parents stood in front of him, arm in arm. Among friends and family, they spoke loudly and laughed and teased, but under the fluorescent lighting of the drill hall, they looked wan and withdrawn. Their silence embarrassed him. They hugged him but did not speak. His father smelled of car oil and peppermint gum. His mother smelled of cigarettes and sweat. As they released him, he turned and swore he would not look back. A moment later, when he looked back, they were staring at the ground.

The time to depart finally came. “Troops,” Lieutenant Glandy said, “let’s get a move-on. Form up.” Most of the soldiers had been standing around and feeling awkward and were grateful for direction. A colonel with a pert moustache whom none of them knew said some hardly discernible words, and the farewell was over.

The wheels of the plane touched down. The passengers jerked forward in their seats, then slowed to a halt. The light was bright when they stepped outside. They clutched their rifles apprehensively. Under their feet, the asphalt of the runway felt surprisingly normal. The mountains surrounding the airfield didn’t even look that special: dusty and brown and boring. Ono looked down at his hands and suddenly wanted to go home. “That’s it?” MacArthur said. “It feels exactly like Canada. It’s not even that hot.”

The base was larger than they had anticipated. Kandahar Airfield, KAF, or TLC, Taliban’s Last Stand. It went by all these names. The base served over 10,000 coalition soldiers and contractors. Western-style cafeterias were scattered throughout. There was a shopping area called the boardwalk, with coffee shops and a Burger King and a Tim Hortons. There was a huge gym and an outdoor shinny arena. The soldiers nodded in approval.

That afternoon, they were all assigned tents from among those lined up next to one another in a giant field of gravel, on large, rectangular concrete pads. Fifteen or so soldiers, each with a partitioned, semiprivate cubicle of his own, per tent. Ono was assigned the cubicle next to MacArthur. The proximity to MacArthur gave him a stomach ache. He thought about asking someone to switch with him but didn’t. He put his headphones on and tried to pretend that the cubicle next to him was empty.

That night, after their first meal of chicken wings and fries in the cafeteria, after everyone had withdrawn to their cubicles, Ono heard MacArthur lift the flap and pad outside. Ono lifted the flap on his window. Through the cross-hatch weaving of the mosquito netting, he could see MacArthur digging a hole under a tree with almond-shaped leaves. Ono saw him kneel down and drop something in, and he knew what was going in the hole.

The next evening, after a boring day spent waiting for the rest of the soldiers from the platoon to arrive, some of the more energetic soldiers gathered in the long midsection of the tent and started practising quick draws with their pistols. “Bang! Bang! ” they shouted. They were still a little loopy from the time change. Ono was unpacking his gear.

MacArthur and Shirp stood on either side of the long tent. “Bang! Bang! ” They dropped the magazines from the pistols, and the magazines clattered onto the concrete floor. The two were both in their underwear, pistol holsters slung over their boxers. “Draw your weapon,” MacArthur commanded. He was speaking in the voice of a cowboy: “I said draw!” Shirp pulled his pistol, MacArthur pulled his. Shirp’s pistol: click. MacArthur’s pistol: BANG.

The tent was silent.

The sharpness of cordite.

Ono had heard the gunshot through his headphones. He ran out of his cubicle and saw Shirp lying on the floor, holding his stomach. Shirp’s hands were red.

“Get a medic,” Ono screamed.

MacArthur had not yet opened his mouth. He hadn’t exactly closed it either. He was staring at the pistol in his hand. “I thought,” he said. “I thought . . . ”

The front door swung open. “What the fuck is going on?” Lieutenant Glandy yelled. He saw Shirp lying on the floor, convulsing. Ono was pressing his hands against Shirp’s stomach. Blood was seeping through.

“Get some towels,” Lieutenant Glandy said. “Someone, get some towels. We need to get him to the hospital.”

MacArthur was still standing, staring at his pistol. “I thought the bullets were out,” he said. “The magazine is on the floor. It’s right here. Where did the bullet come from? I thought the bullets were out. Oh shit, oh fuck.”

Lieutenant Glandy looked over at MacArthur. “You’re done,” he said. “You’re gone. Next flight. You’re going the fuck home. The war’s over, you fucking idiot.”

Ono could feel the pulse through Shirp’s stomach. He looked at his face: Shirp’s eyes were half open, his cheeks pale and clammy. Someone was shouting. Honking from one of the vehicles.

Months later, when the summer was hot and more soldiers were dying, Ono sat on his bunk, covering his eyes with his hands. The soldier in the cubicle next to him was plinking on his guitar. All Ono wanted was silence. An empty field with tall, wet grass. No one was in the field, not one single human. Not the sergeants or Lieutenant Glandy or even the Queen. He was also not there. No one was.

Ono had once liked the guitar-playing soldier who replaced MacArthur. Now he couldn’t find it in himself to like anyone. And lately, he found himself wondering what the Queen was doing. Asleep, clean, likely in one of her castles, he thought, not bleeding. A rumour was going around that Prince Harry was serving in Afghanistan. Was the Queen worrying about her grandson? Did she worry at all? Probably, he thought. They just didn’t have to worry about who would pay the rent. Was the Queen worried about Canadian soldiers like him? Probably not. There was only so much worry a single person could carry around or spread across the ocean. In two months, if he was still alive, he would return to Canada, and the Queen would neither know nor care, nor would anyone else. What was he returning to? Waving flags and Red Fridays and whatever money he had earned in Afghanistan? His parents?

The letters from his parents had been irregular at first, but now they were coming every week, sometimes more often. One of the sergeants dropped the mail right on his bed. He didn’t even open the letters anymore. He threw them under the cot and let them be.

He sprang from his bed and ran outside. The light was fading, slender ribbons falling from the heavens and resting at the feet of the mountains. He found the tree with the almond-shaped leaves and knelt in the gravel beneath it where MacArthur had knelt. With his hands, Ono started digging. A British soldier stared as he motored past in a golf cart. Ono didn’t care. If he could find the bullets and remove them from the soil, maybe things would turn around. Maybe a spell would be broken. He kept digging, yelping when a fingernail caught a rock. He could not find the bullets. Maybe it was the wrong spot. Maybe the bullets had never been there. Maybe he had imagined the whole thing, seeing MacArthur working in the moonlight. A few tears slid from the end of his nose into the empty, meaningless holes. His tears were as meaningless as the holes.

Not far away, helicopters were winging across the hot asphalt of the runway, landing and taking off. A C-130 was flying high in the sky, waiting to land. 

Benjamin Hertwig
Benjamin Hertwig is a painter, ceramicist, and National Magazine Award–winning writer.
Mike Feehan
Mike Feehan is an illustrator, storyboard artist, and comic book artist from Newfoundland.

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