by Benjamin Kowalsky
After that violent spring, where everyday seemed like it didn't begin or end without a firefight, the Norwegian came to the canyon outpost. He said his name and no one else could say it so we started calling him Austin at first because that's what his name sounded like to us, and he didn't mind it. Or if he did mind it he didn't say anything about it.
But when we talked about him, not to him, he was always "the Norwegian."
It was the first sign that the international coalition was doing anything other than standing back and letting us do all the work. We even had a foreign contact for the mission: a Brit Colonel named Humphrey. Brits are excitable about this real war shit. He was going on about how "bang on" the Norwegian was. He talked about a tour the guy pulled in the north, which is a place I'd heard about only in stories from people interviewed on the radio, usually ending in "it was Hell on Earth."
The Brit said "Where everyone lost their wits, this Norwegian, mate, he was cold. He was clean. Just Bang Bang Pow Pow, right clean single shot straight through the head." And he told me to just wait and see. Told me we'd be real impressed.
I remember he arrived early. I had only just made coffee when I heard the "whup whup" of distant helicopter blades. Then Goimes shouting, "What is it? What is it?" By the time I had a chance to get my shit on to look somewhat like I was a guy in charge of something, he was already standing at the door to the outpost. Guy didn't knock. He didn't try the handle. He didn't shout for us. He stood there and waited for me to open the door.
He presented his orders to me, and was polite. This is what I tell everyone who asks whether or not I knew immediately then what he was capable of. I swear to God I didn't. He was polite. Hell, I might have liked him if he hadn't already caused so much trouble before he came.
I was told beforehand he wants to have his own quarters in the outpost. Ryback had to clear out the spare room and set up a bunk for him, and he had no room so I told him to put the shit in Heems' room. Heems gave me a look like "really?" but I gave him a look that said "can it, you can put up with it for a little while." Heems didn't relish the thought of Ryback walking into his room at all hours looking for a can opener or who knows what else. We all had to make little sacrifices. Anyway, this caused my men to get a little diaper rash, and when they got cranky from spaces being crossed, I got cranky from hearing about it.
The men didn't like him, and they didn't need to say anything because I didn't care for him either. But I wouldn't use the word 'disturbed' by anything in particular about him. His face was honest enough, or blank enough. He had high cheekbones and a sharp jaw of people from that area, so I've been told. His hair was a fine strawberry blonde—straight—damn straight. Maybe it was his eyes? A sort of blank blue-grey; eyes that said nothing about anything in particular?
What disturbed me, come to think of it, was his scar. Heems said the guy had no scars. That he was flawless, and that upset him. That wasn't totally true, but he hadn't spent time studying his face like I had. There was a small scar near his left eye. Small, almost mistakable for an acne scar except for if you looked closely enough you could make out the crescent shape of a tiny fingernail.
He would wake up before sunrise, the metal of the outpost would creak and clank and wake everyone up. Then he'd walk the dusty mile up to the barren walls of the canyon, before the summer sun beat down on the rocks and made them too hot to climb. The canyon walls were at least a fifty-foot climb, but he wanted the high ground so he could look down into the deep cut crevice. Then he'd sit up there till it got dark, and an hour and a half after dark he'd come back to post, eat some chow, then sleep in his quarters.
But no one saw the Norwegian work. We heard him up there in the canyon popping off a shot, cold barrel, maybe just bored, at God knows what. He'd come back at dusk, turn on his laptop and radio, and he'd be talking with his Command or whatever it was that he had about who knows what. I don't pretend to speak Norwegian. I'd stick my head in to ask him if he needed anything and he'd always tell me no, thank you. And while it never seemed that he much minded me sticking my head in to check on him, he made damn sure I was out of earshot before he started up talking again.
I read through his orders: to observe, assist, and consult on the security of the canyon pass—to figure out, if we had to put snipers on the canyon walls, how best to defend different sorts of engagements from a few armed nuts to a massive organized insurgency. And yes, I called Command about it. I don't like not knowing what's going on any more than the next guy. Colonel Humphrey said that he was doing test shots, if anything, and to let the Norwegian do his work, and continue to report.
Occasionally we'd be out looking up toward the top of the cliffs and one of the guys would say he saw a glint of something. Maybe a mirror. Maybe the sun on some polished rocks. But he'd swear up and down that it was the Norwegian.
I turned in my reports every day: when he left, how many shots were heard (never more than one or two,) when he came back. When I requested to investigate, or engage the Norwegian, I got no updated protocols. I got nothing. What was I supposed to do? So I told the men to leave him alone, but that made them want to not leave him alone all the more. It's how they were.
They started playing some pranks on the Norwegian. Putting some of my hot sauce in his chow. My hot sauce, the real bayou Louisiana type shit. The stuff that kills most people. But the Norwegian wouldn't respond. According to Ryback, Norwegians don't like that sort of thing. All I knew was that I was losing my homemade hot sauce on account.
Goimes was happy as shit that he wasn't bottom of the pecking order anymore. Heems kept telling me that we ought to cut the shit out because it made us look bad as a military and heck even as a country. I shrugged my shoulders and said I agreed with him but asked him what he wanted me to do about it if I couldn't tell who it was doing it? Heems said I knew damn well who it was, but he didn't say, just let the name hang like a ghost between us for a bit before he said, "Shit." And then left.
Couldn't complain about it being quiet though. No more bands coming up through the canyon with guns blazing every damn day and still no new orders for any kind of reconnaissance or orders to dig a new well or help build a school or bring medicine or whatever the hell else the villages hadn't asked for, but it was quiet.
One afternoon, the sixth day of the month, I asked Heems if a Caravan had been by. He said he hadn't seen anything all day. I asked Ryback, he said the same. Nothing. I didn't bother asking Goimes; he was useless for anything that didn't need stitching or a few antibiotics. I checked my calendar. It was the sixth, for sure. Something was wrong.
I called Command and got Humphrey. I told him I hadn't seen the usual trading caravans come through. I told him I knew this place ran like clockwork, every sixth and eighteenth day a caravan would come out, usually it was the same people bringing some goods to sell or barter way the hell down in the nearest big town. They told Heems they even had orders to fill—tapestries mostly and clay earth ware, but some dry goods as well, and little pots of water. Hell, sometimes I would only know what day it was on account that they would come to the outpost to chat with Heems. Or if they had a kids with them, one of them would want to see Ryback do a fuck ton of pushups. He was big and amusing as shit with kids. He couldn't admit it, but he had a soft spot for them. He even gave one of them his Washington Generals jersey. Heems liked to bug him about it and Ryback told him to shut up or he'd be eating his own teeth.
Humphrey told me to just hang tight. He said if it was a real problem, he could always bring it to a higher authority. When he asked me if that's what I wanted him to do, it sounded more like a threat than an offer. I told him, no, that's all right. He said that in that case we ought to stay out of the Norwegian's way and wait for further instructions. All of our missions with the canyon villages had been suspended during the operation. In the meantime, see to any base maintenance or, in absence of that, read a book.
Ryback came in one day and told me he was damn sure the Norwegian was talking about us at the end of his shifts. I asked him how he could know that and he said it's because he started learning a little of the language. He said the Norwegian wasn't here to shoot anything; he was just here to report on us to Command. Maybe he wasn't even really Norwegian after all, and when was the last time any of us saw him do anything but dick around with his radio and eat our food. It was the kind of ridiculous thing that you almost believe. So I almost believed it. I was tired of waiting to get the OK from Command, so I resolved myself to confront the Norwegian man-to-man.
I woke up before he did and waited for him, and I ordered the Norwegian to tell me where he went everyday, and he said that he was sorry but he couldn't show me that. He cited several regulations and his orders, always his goddamn orders and if I really wanted to take it up with someone I should take it up with Command. Command. Always fucking Command. I ordered him to allow me to follow along and supervise his mission in the canyon. He again apologized and said he could not allow that for safety reasons. He then looked me up and down and said it would be dangerous for someone unfit as myself to attempt a fifty-foot climb.
I couldn't take that as the end of it, my pride wouldn't have it. So I brought climbing gear with me to scale the walls after him that morning, but I was too late. The stone was too damn hot to climb after the sun had beat down on it for a good hour or so. It seemed like a good idea up until I had to touch the rocks. Sweat was coming down my face till I was spitting it against the unforgiving grey stone. It was a good five minutes before I said fuck it and walked back to the Outpost. Goimes, Heems and Ryback were trying to stifle a laugh.
Ryback said, "I told you so."
Heems said, "Motherfucker's a ghost."
Goimes said, "So, we call this one in to Command, right?"
I said, "fuck off" at all of them, but meant it at Goimes.
The pranks started getting worse. And after that, God help me, I let them. One night, someone took some scoops out from down in the outhouse and smeared something nasty into the Norwegian's bunk. I smelled it caked on the sides of his bunks. Crusted clumps of God knows what smeared everywhere. When I went to the mess to ask who did it, Goimes was already seasoning the Norwegian's chow. Heems and Ryback were playing Battleship. I said "who did it?" and neither Heems nor Ryback bothered to look up. Goimes jumped like I'd just said "Grenade".
I ordered someone to clean it up. Each of them pointed at the other one. I looked square at Goimes. I said again, someone. Someone needs to clean that shit up. Who? I don't know, just someone. But no one did, and when I saw that bunk, still smeared with shit, on my way back to my own quarters, I didn't say a word. Some of me wanted to see the Norwegian break as much as the rest of the men.
The Norwegian came in after we'd already gone lights out. A late night for him, but we heard him walking to his cot along the metal corridors. Clank. Clank. Clank. Clank. Then a stop. A sniff of the air. Then Clank. Clank. Another pause. Another sniff. Clank. Clank. I heard the door to his bunk creak open. Then his slow steps on the rug. Then nothing. All night, we heard nothing, and I knew all of us were listening.
The next morning, the men came around after he'd left for the canyon with their eyes red and swollen like mine, and all they found was his room, clean, with new sheets on the cot. We all sat in the lookout and listened for the faint "pop-pop" echoing from somewhere deep off in the canyon. They started around early afternoon, and we counted them. Usually the Norwegian fired off one or two a day. Sometimes one, and then another later on in the day. Sometimes none at all.
But yes, I do remember that day being odd.
The shots were quick. Pop-pop-pop-pop. Then a pause, a long wait, then another final POP.
"Sounds like we finally got to him," Heems said.
That night, I woke up to the Norwegian screaming over the radio. I marched up to his door and it stopped. He'd heard me coming and he had the door thrown open before I could get a chance to put my ear up to it. He stared at me for a few seconds before he put his fingers to my temple, cocked back his thumb and said, "Sir, I... have caught you. You... are dead, sir." He smiled and asked if there was anything else I needed. I said no and went back to my own quarters to piss myself back to sleep.
The next morning he was waiting for me outside the outpost. Standing there with all of his gear packed, his uniform in perfect condition. He was even wearing some of his medals. I walked out with my coffee. All he said was, "Please excuse the mess," which I didn't understand at the time so I said "It's OK. It's OK." The way you say it to someone when you don't understand what they're saying but don't want to get into it. I didn't quite understand it all, but he got a helicopter to come for him. Someone got out of the helicopter. He didn't introduce himself even when I saluted him. He just jammed some papers into my chest. The Norwegian walked, flanked by two MP's back into the helicopter. He never set another foot in the outpost.
I looked through the papers and it looked like he was being discharged, or being court-martialed. I didn't understand it so I called up command and asked for our contact. A young woman, identifying herself as MP, told me that Colonel Humphrey had been relieved of his command with immediate effect, and that we were to resume our military operations and render diplomatic assistance to the Canyon villages immediately. I was to file reports as usual, except where it regarded the Norwegian, where I was told I had to file all incident reports to a special branch—as they were of interest to an ongoing investigation. I started to sweat. Had he told them about the pranks? The hot sauce? The shit on the walls? Was that what he had been screaming about?
I paced all morning. Heems went on his first patrol in weeks and said it was good to finally get to stretch out his legs before he left. Ryback and Goimes kept asking what was wrong and I kept not telling them. It didn't have to do with the shit, did it? That was just a prank. That was all in good fun. They wouldn't court-martial us for that, would they?
A few hours later Heems come running into the Outpost, his uniform soaked dark with sweat. He'd thrown up all over himself and kept saying "Oh God Oh God Oh God" and I asked him how bad it was and he said real bad so I took Ryback and Goimes with me out into the canyon.
We smelled it before we saw it. A hot sort of hollow rotten. Old meat. When we turned a corner in the canyon, and it opened up a little, we saw bodies. Some of them were hunched up against the canyon walls. Some of them were laying face down. A spread out group of men. Some shot in mid-stride tangled up in their own limbs. Others looked like they were crawling along the walls when they got hit. Couple of animals with frayed ropes around their necks. I looked for a while more and in a crevice there was a cluster of kids, huddled together, about three or four of them. A man collapsed with his arms around them. All of them dead. All of them killed with single shot straight through the head. Behind a rock, with his hands covering his face, one of them had a bright red Washington Generals jersey on—Ryback's. A blue "13" on his back, a shirt that was too big for him to wear, and one that he'd never grow into.
Ryback asked me if I saw anything. I said, "No, let's just go back." And so we did. I came back later to clean up, fill out the incident reports, and get the bodies ready for transport.
[© Fiction Depot 2014]