WE WERE RIDING ON A HIGHWAY IN THE NORTHEAST and I was sitting up front beside the driver. As I stared out of the dirty windshield of our Humvee, I thought about a recent hospital stint and my wounds. I turned and asked the driver if he'd ever been so dehydrated he'd pissed sand. The soldier laughed and barked back, “I drink desert, don't I?”
A few minutes later, there was an explosion and a vehicle at the front of the convoy was shrouded by fire. Our driver slammed on the brakes and my head rocked forward and back. The motion sent a shock wave around my skull. The brain injury that had taken me out of combat months before had turned my cerebral cortex into something like a contused oyster—sloshing around upstairs.
The Humvee accelerated and at the explosion site we jumped out. We ran toward an IED-created gash and drug the bodies out. All the soldiers looked like broken glass. Then, as we blasphemed over their exposed bones and torn flesh, someone yelled, “It's gonna blow!”
On the side of my head where there were scars—my temple pulsed and I shivered. There was a rush of adrenaline and my dopamine receptors stood ready. I wanted the blast. I salivated and foamed at the mouth; the Humvee blew and I was thrown to the ground.
In the beginning, I thought soldiers were built of the Earth's hardest materials and that our bones were granite. I would have said our bodies were like cement if it wasn't for how they bled. I've never seen crimson pour from stone like it would an injured worm. We spent so much time in the dirt that that's what I called us. Worms. We dug, shit, and created gaping holes in the earth. We weren't responsible for the IEDs, but they opened the desert floor because we were there.
After enough time in the theater, experiencing blasts, I began to think that the right explosion could take us all the way to the center of the earth. After every IED, I watched us dig further down that foreign landscape. When I touched sand, I'd think I was pushing my hand into the planet's core. It made me understand why I was sweating enough to wring my fatigues.
I wanted one IED that would end the war.
One blistering afternoon when the sun was straight up in the sky, I wiped my forehead with the back of my arm as an officer approached. His eyes narrowed as if he were about to speak; his brow was thick. A worm digging behind me called out, “We're getting into her now, Sarge.”
The officer stared for a moment, but only shook his head. In a long, slow drawl, he responded, “We've just begun, soldier.” I thought he was saying that the war never ends, but he meant the dig. The dig never ceases, and you never reach the core. Worse yet, you die long before you feel its heat.
The soldier behind me didn't believe him. He lusted for the earth's center. He and the other soldiers dreamed about her and talked as if she was the one they'd left behind. I know foam dripped from my lips whenever I thought about the center of the earth. On days like this, I dug like it was the Apocalypse and wished my mind was gone.
Around dusk, I was sitting at a bonfire. The desert air was beginning to cool when I noticed a worm straying beyond the orange glow. He was meandering toward the highway. Other worms staggered in different directions, but that one took a fatal step and was devoured by the flames of an improvised explosive. The heat burned so intensely that it transformed his body; he glowed—blue and white—and then turned from granite to glass.
All the soldiers were jolted by the explosion.
One laying beside me cried, “Holy fuck!”
The ringing in my ear—I could trace it back to that blast. In fact, my head ached for days and pounded in throbs. Someone vomited as we ran toward the fallen soldier. The puke was vibrant green and yellow with bile.
I knelt beside the wounded worm and rubbed the black and gray ash from the glass body. You could hear someone a short distance away yelling, “What the hell happened?” There were short bursts on radios, scratchy and garbled.
A soldier said, “Sarge's coming.”
The episode had to be put in writing. Already a worm was kneeling in the sand, scribbling fiendishly. The glass worm attempted to explain what had happened, but it was impossible for him to do so. His lips were motionless as he mumbled and sputtered blood. I watched him bleed out and all the while I could see through him. His entrails were baked. When he saw me staring at his stomach, he moved his head and his chest fractured.
The Sergeant read the words in the sand. Then, when he finished, he walked forward and broke the glass worm's midsection with a boot. Baked entrails spilled out onto the ground like wriggling snakes. We feasted. Then, after a moment, the Sarge looked up and it was as if he'd heard something. With entrails dangling from his lips, he stepped away shouting invectives.
The next day, we returned to our labor. Down the spiraling path of a gash, digging deeper to the earth's core. We climbed in and out of an ever-widening crater. By then I no longer believed in the effort itself but inched along in order to avoid a tumble to the base. We dug on days like these because they were no different than the others: the sun rose, the sand blew, and men fell. We scanned the desert, squinting, and shielding our eyes with our hand.
After a chopper lifted near the camp, I overheard a worm working behind me say to another, “It's hot as shit out here.” The other nodded and looked toward the sun. That one removed his helmet and replied, “This is nothing like the core. When we get there it's gonna burn like hell.”
We all feared becoming glass. We didn't talk about it. But, I didn't want to shatter. I whispered prayers and worried. A worm in front of me chanted, “They say that in the Army the hours are just right. Start early in the morning and work all through the night. Oh Lord I want to go, but they won’t let me go... home–”
I could taste intestines on my lips and tongue long after someone died. At the edge of a gash, I reached a few fingers in my mouth. My teeth were chipped and a molar was in pieces. I would never forget chewing on that fallen soldiers' glass; I spat blood and shards of enamel.
THE SUN ROLLED OVER THE MOUNTAINS and began its ascent into the sky and our toil renewed. When the sun leapt from the horizon and was directly overhead we heard the drumming. It was what we waited for. Soldiers froze. Sirens blared. Worms were confronted by the enemy combatants. They fell from the sky like a pestilence and engaged us hand-to-hand. I can still see them in my mind; I can't forget the swarm.
Our enemy had giant wings and boney, skull-like faces. We ripped their wings from their backs and stomped on their heads and bodies. Limbs tore from joints revealing tendrils of flesh. Appendages flew overhead, flipped in the air, and landed in the sand.
We dissected our enemy on the battlefield, and I knew that men in the labs back home had opened them as well. They laid exoskeletons on cold, steel tables and lanced them from their heads to their toes. I heard that their bodies are hollow like a gash. I know that, but I have seen something entirely different in conflict. The enemy bleeds, and they have souls that are cold.
After the engagement, we dug soldiers out of the ash pits. Their arms and legs were burned, severed, and transformed to glass. One worm attempted to stand. His legs splintered, and he collapsed in a heap. Another man roared and slammed a glass fist on a rock pile. Pieces of him spread before his feet. I watched soldiers devouring entrails, and there was more writing in the sand. I wondered why it was all happening if the words blow away.
There was another attack before we'd finished the body count. When an enemy combatant landed in front of me, I fired. Bullets riddled his neck and chest. He fell spurting and choking on his own blood. Then when he was dead, I swore I saw an apparition leave his body. That being passed through me, and, in that sweltering desert, I quivered from the chill.
The spirit joined a group of men I'd already killed. They stood together in the sand before dispersing and planting IEDs. They moved like phantoms through the desert. I screamed, “No!,” but the enemy dug into the earth with their bare hands. There were explosions and I stared in one gash after another feeling my mind tear away from the lining of my skull.
IT WAS AT THE RIM of a particularly large IED crater when I stopped. I looked over. The hole was 3 or 4 feet deep. I told myself we would never reach the Earth's center this way. I lifted a nearby stone and broke it over my head. I fell on the roadside and looked up into the sky. Nearly knocked out, I witnessed more soldiers picking up stones and breaking them over their own heads. We were breaking our skulls; they were crumbling in pieces.
We worked down to the stump of our necks and some soldiers stumbled away. They charged. Their heads were all in pieces on the ground behind them as they pursued a retreating enemy. It was hypnotic and forced me to drift even further away.
When I was finally able to stand, I staggered back toward the dig. Everything had turned black. I'd heard the explosion and understood that dirt, smoke, and fire had erupted around me, but I hadn't seen it. Instead, I saw a stray appendage on the ground. I refused to dig—to dig another grave. There was no core and there was nothing to lust for. We were being buried. It was the only thing so many gashes could be used for.
A soldier standing nearby said, “Hey man, you're bleeding! You know that?”
Another one looked at me and grabbed my shoulder. “Looks like you took shrapnel to the head and there to the hand. Look.” He pointed.
I raised up my arm and looked through it. It was bloody glass. I wiped my hand on my fatigues, and saw bone. Then I remembered that moving my neck would shatter my face. I knelt down—careful not to break the glass—and I lay on my back. Motionless, I stared upward expecting the explosion that would take us home.
AFTER A MONTH OF THE ICE BATHS IN THE HOSPITAL, I was fully aware and my eyes were open. At times, I saw men in body suits documenting my condition or administering intravenous drugs. I did not speak to them. It's possible that I was completely beneath glass and had not had the power of speech. I was uncertain of the severity of my wounds, but I recalled more after I was taken to another room. The walls were concrete, and there was no window except for a slit overhead which emitted a single shaft of light.
As I healed, I attempted to focus my eyes on the beam of light on the far wall. My vision blurred, so I attempted to focus closer, on my hand. When I pulled that hand further toward my face, I realized I was in restraints. I presume it was to prevent fracturing. I pushed up on my elbows and felt compelled to cry for help. There was no toilet in the room. No sink or mirror hanging over it. Inching my hospital gown over my groin, I saw that I had been catheterized.
I let go. And, when I did, I jerked on the restraints. It was as if razorblades shot down my urethra. I drained sand and gasped as saliva dripped from my mouth. I saw a trickle of blood and desert flow through a tube, over the edge of the bed.
My head fell back on the mattress and I clenched my teeth. I then felt the missing molar and began to consider how long I'd been in the desert. I was rock and stone, and I was worm. It all returned to me there in the hospital bed. Everything I'd thought and seen. It didn't matter where I was, I was beginning to understand the dull ache and eternal hum in my head. My time in the field had broken my mind, leaving battle scars.
I slipped in and out of sleep and sometime later the door to my room opened and four men entered. They grabbed a corner of my bed and rolled me out. I wanted to struggle, but I was too weak. As the men wheeled me down a long corridor, I stared at the flickering fluorescent lights passing by over my head.
Soon after I was in a chair and bound again and a needle went into my neck. A strap tightened and a scalpel neared my head. I received a swift incision above the temple. My granite skull was then opened with a drill. My cerebrum was exposed and a vacuum was applied to the copious amounts of blood and puss. The surgeons suctioned the waste and attempted to alleviate the pressure on my brain. The doctors took photographs of my hemispheres and sutured me.
AFTER THE PROCEDURE, there was still noise in my ear. The roadside bomb on the northeastern highway made it worse. And, later, when I was further east on reconnaissance my brain began to bleed. A few soldiers and I had exited the Humvee and we were hiking up a combatant path. Searching inside a cave, one of the soldiers said, “You know, in the labs, they make missiles that paint the walls of these caves with exos. They make their wings into cave art.”
A short time later, the lead worm rounded an outcropping and froze. I heard them as well. It was faint because of the ring already in my ear, but there was a swarm of exoskeletons over the ridge. The lead worm looked back at the rest of us and said, “There's shit tons of them.”
The noise in my head had increased, and I felt an obstruction. When I pounded on the side of my skull. I leaned over and saw drops of blood fall into the dust. Then there were explosions. A drone screamed overhead as flashing light painted the nearby mountain range. We rounded the bend and entered its wake. Near a dried stream bed several exoskeletons walked around dazed with broken wings. There were shouts and groans of misery. Exos crawled toward their own severed body parts.
One of the worms behind me said, “We just lit them up.” Moments later, the lead worm had bashed the skull of a flailing exoskeleton. Another rushed past me and engaged a different enemy. I followed and helped rip the wings off his body. The combatant was thorax when we were finished.
I stared into the enemy's black eyes. “I can see your skull and bones,” I said. “Don't you know we have to turn to glass for that?” The exoskeleton didn't answer, but he heard me. He was still alive. I rolled him over and dug my hands into a narrow split in his scalp. I tore his skull open like a melon.
In the center, I saw it. It was bright and shining like I'd imagined the center of the earth. It contained an irrational heat and nearly burned my hands. I stood and backed away, shielding my eyes as the scalp ignited. I turned and walked away, scanning the area for survivors. Then, at some point, the burning combatant detonated. The blast pressed my back. I fell forward and turned just in time to see a shaft of earth falling back to the ground.
Another gash. It made my body quake. I felt primal and lethargic, and it was as if a heavy weight had fallen from my shoulders. I wiped the corners of my mouth, foaming and victimized by lust. I was a soldier, and I was burning for the core.
Justin Meckes writes and lives in Chapel Hill, NC. He also creates illustrations and was recently published online at Punchnel’s and Rascal Magazine. You can see some of his work at www.jmeckes.com.