[ K A T E ]
IT'S THE BIGGEST frigging spider I’ve ever seen in my
life. From one hairy leg to the other, the whole thing’s as long
as my forearm. So I make sure it’s dead first. Nudge it with
the butt of my rifle till it flips over, limp and sandy. Then I
pick it up by a leg, haul it into the tent like a shopping bag
and nail it to the pole beside the head of my cot, right under
my crucifix. That should keep Macktruck quiet, at least for
the time being. He’s terrified of spiders. Asshole.
The whistling is loud outside the tent today; a creepy,
skin-prickling sound I can never get used to. The desert
whistles all day and night out here. The hissing whistle of
the wind cutting past your helmet. The moaning whistle of
it winnowing through the razor wire. I stand under the hot
canvas a moment, just listening. And then it hits me again,
that deep-down ache that makes me want to curl up and cry.
“What the fuck are you doing, Brady?” It’s Will Rickman,
this bony young specialist in my squad with zitty skin
and an Adam’s apple twice the size of his brain.
I wipe my hands on my pants. “Nothing.”
Rickman steps closer and squints at my spider. “Look at
that thing. It’s disgusting. It’s fuckin’ bleeding black ooze.”
“Don’t talk like that about Fuzzy.”
Rickman raises his eyebrows. But all he says is, “Let’s go,
I pick up my rifle and follow him, sunglasses over my
eyes, scarf over my mouth. Ducking against the wind, the
sand whipping into my cheeks, I run to the Humvee and
cram into the back behind the other guy in my team, DJ,
and our squad leader, Staff Sergeant Kormick.
“We got better things to do than wait while you powder
your nose, Brady,” Kormick shouts to me over the wind,
shoving the Humvee into gear with a grinding wrench.
“Don’t keep us waiting again. Got it?”
“Got it, Sar’nt.”
While we drive along the dirt road to the checkpoint,
the guys shooting their usual bull, I gaze out the slit of a
back window into the early morning light. Dirty gray sand
stretches as far as I can see, blending so exactly with the
dust-filled sky it obliterates the horizon. On either side of
the road are rows of rectangular olive-drab tents, their roofs
droopy and covered in dust. The ones on the left are for us,
the ones on the right behind the loops of razor wire are for
the prisoners. But other than that, there’s nothing out there
but an endless gray blur. And a tree.
I like that tree, standing outside the wire all by itself in
the middle of the desert. I call it Marvin. I spend so many
hours staring at Marvin that I know every twist of his wiry
little branches, every pinpoint of his needle leaves. I talk to
him sometimes, compare notes on how we’re doing.
We rattle along for twenty minutes or so, while I sit in
a daze, too tired to line up my thoughts in any kind of an
order. We work twelve-to-fifteen-hour shifts, and even so
I can never sleep. It’s too damn hot and I’m sharing a tent
with thirty-three snoring, farting members of the male sex,
not to mention the prisoners only a few meters away, chanting
and screaming all night long.
As we near the checkpoint, the deep-down ache starts up
again. I hate this.
Sure enough, there they are. Fifty or so civilians waiting
outside the wire, baggy clothes flapping in the wind.
They’ve been coming every day for weeks now, arriving at
dawn to stand in the sun for hours without moving, like
shrubs. Most of them are women. Mothers and sisters, wives
and daughters looking for their men.
Kormick pulls the Humvee up to the checkpoint and we
climb out. Hitching my rifle strap over my shoulder, I head
for the wire with my team, the sand blowing up my nose
and down my throat, making me cough. God, what I would
give for a breath of clear air, one that isn’t filled with dust
and the stink of burning shit and diesel. Air like the air at
home: clean, cool, mountain air.
“Brady!” Kormick yells after me, beckoning me back
with a jerk of his head. “When you get over there tell the
hajjis we’ll mail them a list soon. And make ’em fuck off.”
“And Brady? Get a move on this time.”
I’m not any slower than anybody else, but I do what he
says. What list he’s talking about, though, I have no idea.
There isn’t any list. And even if we did have one, how in
Christ’s name am I supposed to tell these people, “We’ll mail
you a list of the prisoners” when we just bombed all their
houses and mailboxes, too—if they even have mailboxes in
When we drove through Basra on the way here from
Kuwait in March, right after Shock and Awe and the start
of the war, it was flattened. Nothing but smoldering rubble.
People living in lean-tos made of cardboard and scrap.
Garbage piled so high you couldn’t see over it, making the
worst goddamn stink I’ve ever smelled in my life. Corpses
lying in the streets, smashed and gory, like those run-down
deer on the highways at home, only with human faces. But
Kormick always gives me the job of talking to these people.
He’s got the idea that the sight of a female soldier will win
their hearts and minds. We’ve just pulverized their towns,
locked up their men and killed their kids, and one GI Jane
with sand up her ass is supposed to make it okay?
The minute I step in front of the checkpoint wire, the
same old havoc begins: civilians shouldering each other to
get near me, waving photographs and screeching. A checkpoint
is supposed to be secure, but ours is nothing but a plywood
shack no bigger than a garden shed, a rickety wooden
tower, a razor-wire fence and a handful of badly trained
reservists with guns. And sand, of course. Lots and lots of
“Imagine being on an empty beach looking out at the
ocean,” I wrote to Tyler once. “Now take away the ocean
and replace it with sand all the way to the end of the frigging
world. That’s where I am.”
I miss Tyler so bad. The soapy smell of his hair, the
warmth of his big body up against mine. And his eyes—
he has the prettiest brown eyes you ever saw. Cinnamon
eyes. We’ve been dating since eleventh grade, which is
funny ’cause when I first met him I didn’t like him at all.
I was into class clowns those days, show-offy bad boys, not
quiet, nerdy types like Tyler McAllister, who mumbled and
blushed whenever we talked. But then he invited me to see
him play guitar and sing at a place called The Orange Dog,
and I was so surprised that a geek like him even played guitar
I said yes.
The Orange Dog’s in Catskill and the closest thing to
a music club we have in our corner of upstate New York,
although it doesn’t serve alcohol, which is the only reason
my parents allowed me to go there at seventeen. I asked
my best friend Robin to come with me because we made a
good boy-hunting team: Robin tall and dark, with creamy
skin and big brown eyes; me small and freckled, with frizzy
red hair and eyes so light they’re almost no color at all. She
picked me up in her rusty, third-hand Saturn and drove us
the forty minutes south it takes to get to Catskill from Willowglen,
our hometown. That was a big-deal expedition for
us back then.
Soon as we walked into the club, I felt happy. It smelled
of wood and beer (it had once been a bar), just like a music
club should. On one side was a counter, where you could
buy hippie things like carrot cake and iced mocha. Scattered
around were ratty old couches and chairs that the owners
probably rescued from the town dump. Colored lampshades
hung low from the ceiling, making pools of soft light over
the mismatched coffee tables—the place looked like a living
room after it’s been trashed at a party, which I thought was
perfect. Robin bought us each a root beer, and we sank into
a couple of stained red armchairs and stretched out our legs
to admire our tight jeans and high-heel boots.
The club filled up pretty quick. Farm boys and local teenagers
on the lookout for girls. A few boozy old men who’d
probably stumbled in by mistake. Me and Robin smirked at
each other. We were much more sophisticated than any of
those folks. They were hicks. We, of course, weren’t.
I had no idea what to expect from Tyler that night, if this
was a date or if he was just collecting an audience. I didn’t
know a lot about boys yet, since I’ve got no brothers and I’d
never had a regular boyfriend. Every boy I’d tried dating had
turned out to be either a two-timing dipshit or stunningly
So we sat there, Robin tall and graceful, me short and
gingery, until they finally turned off the music and lights
and shone a wobbly spotlight on a single high stool on the
stage. Then Tyler walked on, looking way cooler than I ever
imagined he could, with an acoustic guitar slung over his
shoulder, a tight black T-shirt and long hair swinging into
his eyes. He perched on the stool, like a million other singers
have, I guess, his guitar on one knee, and I don’t know
why, but suddenly I was ridiculously nervous. I felt like I’d
known him for years. Like the two of us had been waiting
for this performance all our lives, working for it, building
up to it. Like this was going to make him or break him and
I really cared.
Later that night I found out that Tyler wasn’t a geek at
all. He was just in love with me.
That was two years ago, and a whole lot of shit’s happened
since then. Tyler’s in college now, back at home,
studying music and playing gigs. And I’m stuck in the middle
of this frigging desert, like I’ve been for almost three
months, surrounded by jabbering civilians and wondering
what the fuck I’m doing here.
Soon this old couple pushes through the crowd and hustles
up to me, the woman clutching her husband’s arm. They
both look unbelievably ancient and withered. The woman
is draped from head to toe in black, her cheeks lined with a
million tiny cracks, her dark eyes watering under her wrinkly
brow. The man is white-haired and knotty, with a tiny
brown face like a walnut. Holding each other tight, they
hobble up close, and that’s when they realize I’m a female.
The usual snort of surprise, like I’m some clown the U.S.
military shipped out for their entertainment. Then they try
to press the advantage.
“Lady, look,” the old man says in a garble that sounds
vaguely like English, and his wife pushes a photo at me with
a trembling hand. “My son. He here? Does he live?”
I look at it, not because I’m interested but because that’s
my job. A wide-eyed Arab with a Saddam mustache, same
as a million others. I nod like I know him and the old couple
gets real excited. The woman even smiles, five teeth missing.
Her whole wrinkly face is so full of hope that I have to
turn away. We have seven thousand prisoners in this place
and more coming in every day. How the hell am I supposed
to know anything from some crappy old snapshot?
“If he’s here, I’m sure he’s safe,” I say.
“Thank you, thank you lady soldier!” the old man answers,
his voice quavering. That makes me feel bad.
“Go home now,” I tell him and the crowd. “When we
have a list of the detainees we’ll let you know. But you gotta
go now.” I wave my arms in a shooing motion.
Nothing changes. The civilians just keep pressing around
me, hollering and shoving their goddamn photos into my
face. I shouldn’t even be here by myself in the middle of a
bunch of locals like this—one of them could shoot my head
off any second. I glance over my shoulder. Where the hell
is zit-face Rickman? He’s supposed to be my battle buddy,
out here with me, watching my back. But no, he’s over
behind the wire, nice and safe, chewing the fat with PFC
Bonaparte, popularly known as Boner. I’m alone. As usual.
“Girl, why you balled-up in the bedclothes there? Come on
out now, or I’ll pull you out myself, like I did yesterday. You
didn’t like that, did you?”
Yesterday? The soldier can’t remember yesterday.
A wave of cold as the nurse pulls off the sheet. Wet gown
bunched and piss-stinky. Back throbbing.
“Oh, honey. You had a rough night, huh? Come on, up
you get and we’ll wash you nice and clean.”The nurse wraps her big arms around the soldier and drags
her out of the hospital bed, wet and reeking.
The nurse and the soldier dancing the waltz of shame.
Excerpted from Sand Queen by Helen Benedict. Copyright © 2011 by Helen Benedict. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.