Marcus Green has just been discharged after a tour of duty in Iraq. Wounded and disfigured, Marcus returns to a life he barely recognizes... and that barely recognizes him. Stricken by guilt and self-doubt, and spurred on by deep-rooted restlessness, Marcus decides he must embark on a journey to reclaim that part of himself which he has lost. As he explores his past he reconnects with a forgotten half-brother in Mexico and a former hometown love, but he must also come to grips with his accidental family-other wounded veterans and the Iraqis he was supposed to protect.
Marcus’s platoon of thirty-nine guarded a gas station in the Al-Salaam district of Baghdad. It was 109 degrees. A wall in front of him fenced off city blocks, and the ground beyond spread level, so only smoke plumes or palm crowns peeked through coils of razor wire. Behind Marcus rippled waves of sand over acres of arid earth.
Exhaust burned his nostrils and numbed his tongue. The automobiles snaked back in a line for more than a mile and blared their horns. When the cars, trucks, and vans neared the gas station bay (engines quaking the ground he guarded), the line split into four prongs, each approaching a pump thruway. Shoving matches or brawls broke out where vying drivers branched or walls funneled trafﬁc onto the service road.
Marcus gripped his M-16 in a two-handed ready carry and chomped a saltine. Hot sugary air wafted off automobile radiators. He watched the back of his buddy Leroy, who proﬁled drivers. Leroy had the slow, stocky frame of a fullback, and his M-16’s muzzle bore a bayonet. With it, he stabbed black-market jerry cans hidden in trunks. Vendors lugged uncut cans along the line of automobiles and cried, charging ﬁve times gas station price. A visor shaded Leroy’s eyes, so the sun scorched only his cheeks and chin to a coppery black.
Leroy rapped on the driver’s side window of a van. At the same time, Marcus inhaled a jagged corner of the saltine. He gripped his throat. He was choking but didn’t want Leroy to see. He was supposed to have Leroy’s back. That’s how ni***s get ran up on, Leroy would holler. Marcus’s vision blurred as he bent forward to hack it out. The M-16 dangled at his knees. He went blind and lurched to the ground and at last coughed the saltine loose. Crouching, he caught his breath. I know, I know, he thought. He stood up, and the earth and sky wobbled.
That morning in the platoon’s makeshift weightroom, in front of Leroy, Marcus had almost shown he was no longer a committed marine. Honor, courage, commitment, Marcus had thought, recalling the tripartite Warrior Code drill sergeants had lectured about in bootcamp, and suddenly his arms had buckled under the weight of the bar. He relinquished the two-hundred pounds to Leroy and sat up. “What you groaning for?” Leroy said, and Marcus stood, blood pulsing through his head. “Wasn’t groaning,” Marcus said. His vision blurred, and he found himself grinding his teeth. Leroy, then, must’ve known Marcus was remembering the woman. Leroy muttered and plopped down on the weight bench. Dead skin dusted his sable body so that, in spite of his bullish frame, Leroy looked ghostly. The sun burned Marcus’s scalp through the barred window, and Leroy, looking up into Marcus’s eyes, only half-ironically rapped out the three core values they’d sworn to during recruit training. Marcus clasped his mouth, scowled profoundly, then leapt forward to smack his ﬁst into Leroy’s shoulder. Leroy recoiled and mumbled about how critically he could hurt Marcus, but ﬁnally he spit in the sand, and after Marcus added ninety pounds to the bar, Leroy leaned back to ﬁnish his morning reps. He groaned pushing the weight, and Marcus watched his spit evaporate.
Now it was noon, and Leroy, the lone sentry, demanded the driver of the van get out. The driver clutched the steering wheel. Finally Leroy yanked the van door open and argued with the driver in Arabic. He wanted the man to unlock the back doors. Marcus trotted towards them. The man wrenched around in the driver’s seat and snatched something from beside him. He cradled a bundle to his chest and slid out, and Leroy stumbled back, his mouth shaped into an O.
Marcus ran forward, knowing Leroy would’ve pulled off a headshot if the man had been a bomb risk, while people all around the van shufﬂed away. The man was wasp-waisted and wore a vanilla gown stained around the knees. His face burnt violet, and a bird’s-nest beard brushed over the bundle in his arms. He was trying to show something to Leroy, presented the bundle as though it were a book too stout to hold in his outstretched arms. Leroy shufﬂed backwards and aimed the bayonet-tipped riﬂe. As Marcus closed in, he realized what the man was holding. It was an infant, and something was wrong with its eyes.