by Jake Walker

Humming and rumbling engines are the best at lulling to sleep. When you're hot and sweaty, unshowered, and equipped from head-to-toe with things you will never use, the consistent whirr of motor gears is music to the ears, and food for the soul. When that is all you hear for a time, and all of your compatriots in the back of the truck are as silent as you, the sounds creates a rhythm whether real or imagined, and it becomes better than any lullaby. You drift to sleep.

At least, that is what Vance did while riding in a 7-ton on a convoy from Habbaniyah Outpost to Habbaniyah proper. He was a part of the detention facility detachment and they were en route to the IP Station for the official release of detainees. With his gloved hands resting on the butt of his rifle, and his helmeted head on his hands, Vance was as cozy as an infant in a bassinet, snoring.

Sgt Apocrypha scolded him, "Hey! LCpl Bastian! Wake up! Complacency kills! Vigilance saves!"

Vance flitted his colorless eyes and smacked his chapped lips, turning towards Sgt Apocrypha's direction. He was going to say something but a yawn from within choked the words and spilled out off a sloping tongue. The Sgt took this as disrespect and, enraged, grabbed the nape of Vance's neck, "Hey, punk! I know you hear me!"

Suddenly, everybody heard a loud, tremendous roar. The 7-ton shook and shuddered and the rumble of the engine was drowned out by blasts of noise and the spray and tinkle of shrapnel. Immediately, instinct took over in every Marine. In each one, his training manifested in muscle memory as everybody leaped out the back of the truck and took their assigned positions setting up a perimeter around the blast zone. Everyone that is, except for our dear LCpl Vance Bastian.

Everyone thought it was an IED. An improvised explosive device. The main weapon utilized by the terrorists in the area. Instead, it was the second most common weapon they used, a suicide bomber, that wreaked havoc on that skyless afterdawn. The bomber detonated himself in front of the convoy, and his head and hands flew up and out to become the peak and pinnacle of the explosion. Every other part of him became pulp, lost in the fiery blast.

The thundering noise caused something to snap in Vance's brain, and all became a fog. He could see through it, but not too clearly, and so he stepped out of the truck slowly and cautiously so as not to bump his head on anyone or anything. What he saw came as no surprise, for he had seen it before. The arid landscape drifted in and out of heat waves, and mirages all around performed dances for him.

Everyone was quiet, too. No one seemed to notice him. All the other Marines lay prone around the convoy, like wax figures unmoving, and Vance walked to each one, inspecting them all in turn. Vance was thankful for the silence, for that was the first time in four months in this desert that his ears picked up nothing, and the sound of nothing was beautiful.

Then, something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. It wasn't murky like everything else in the fog, but clear and distinct in detail. The thing was laughing but Vance was still unsure of what it was, for he was too far off. Approaching with slow, deliberate steps, Vance saw that it was the head of the suicide bomber. He stood over it, and it was still laughing. The head then looked Vance in the eye, stopping his laugh abruptly, and stuck his tongue out.

"Neener neener neener!" the head teased.

"How...?" Vance was befuddled. "How did you do that?"

"Oh, that's simple," the head said, "it was as easy as a push of a button." Again, the head began his wheezing cackle.

"Don't joke," Vance said, "this is serious."

They exchanged brief words, Vance and the head, and each became lost in the world of speech they had created. So much so, in fact, that neither noticed that a clown had approached them from behind, and stood imposing against the uncaring sun. The clown then coughed, clearing his throat, but still neither of them noticed. He cleared his throat again, louder and more forceful, but still, neither Vance or the head gave a clue that they were aware of his presence. Finally, the clown took out a rainbow hanky — several, actually, for they were all tied together — and then blew his red clown nose like a trumpet. The noise was a squealing and deep reverberation, and thus, both the head and Vance looked in his direction. Satisfied that he had finally gotten their attention, the clown, in formal fashion, cleared his throat once more, did away with his multicolored kerchief, pulled out a scroll and read from it in a booming voice:

"Dated the fifth of December, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Eight. On this day, it is ordered that one Lance Corporal Vance Q. Bastian is to report to Logarithmic Absolution & Paradoxical Priorities Command (or LAPPCo), headquartered in the parietal and occipital lobes found in the brain for immediate posting as the Biological and Psychological Systems Advocate, or the BPSA. As such, Lance Corporal Bastian is to direct his person and his mental faculties due directly north, where, upon arriving at headquarters, his duties and responsibilities will be further specified. In the meantime, he is to bring with him the severed head that lay at his feet for biometrics screening and testing. Signed on this date, Pertinax Galba VII, United Districts Marine Corps Commander."

The Clown rolled up the scroll and stuffed it back into his poofy-buttoned coat, cleared his throat yet again, executed a perfect about face, and marched away.

The desert was silent once more. Frozen. The fog still remained but now only in small licks and trails that flirted by the ankles. Vance looked around the bland landscape. The waxen warriors still held their prone stance, buttstocks against their shoulders , holding their security perimeter. Vance picked the head up, and inspected his compatriots further. The fingers on the forward hands appeared locked in a vice grip on the rifle barrel. Upon closer inspection, Vance noticed that the fingers were straining red and trembling. The way the wrists were flexed, it had first looked like they were frozen in position, but now Vance could discern that they were shaky and wobbling. He looked into the eyes of one of the Marines, and saw them rimmed with tears. Vance realized that they weren't frozen. They were just staying there.

Why? He couldn't tell.

He approached Sgt Apocrypha, squatted down, and asked, "Sgt, why don't you move?" The Sgt didn't move, "Sgt, you're my immediate NCO. Tell me what to do. What's going on? Move."

The Sgt's eyes jutted towards Vance, glazed and dripping tears. "Go," Sgt Apocrypha whispered in a weak voice through clenched teeth. It didn't register with Vance, and the Sgt saw it. He whispered more forcefully, "Go!"

"Why can't you move?" Vance asked.

"We move, we die." Sgt Apocrypha's eyes darted back to their original position.

Vance stood up, panicked at the situation. He glanced left, then right, wondering what direction north was. Then as if it had just materialized, he noticed the puddle of blood in front of the 7-ton, the one that used to be the suicide bomber's body. It seemed to be growing; spreading in all directions. Vance blew it off as yet another of what must be many illusions. "Don't know which way north is. Guess we'll just pick a direction and walk."

"This is weird," the head said.

The sky was overcast with apocalyptic clouds, so it was impossible to know the way. All around our unfortunate pair was sand. Not even dunes, just flat, compacted sand. After a couple of quiet minutes walking, Vance grew despondent, "We're never gonna find this place, head. Guess I'm gonna be UA."

"Wait! Look!" the head hollered from underneath Vance's armpit, "Look at that!"

Vance turned to see that the blood puddle he had left behind indeed was spreading. But what struck him the most was that the puddle had reached a little groove in the ground that he hadn't noticed before. The blood that fell in the groove spread alarmingly fast and because of it, Vance was able to see that the groove made a straight line just a little way to his right. "Follow the blood!" the head screamed, "Follow the blood!"

Vance shook himself out of his confusion upon witnessing such a scene, "right." With that, Vance ran, the head in the crook of his arm like a football, following the blood.

Vance ran for a long time. Not like he could necessarily tell. There was nothing around him that was moving. Even the clouds were still. Nothing even hinted at the passage of time. For all he knew, his thundering heart, rhythmic breath, and stream of sweat were the only measures of time anymore. The blood ran along the groove at a constant, appearing to Vance to be the same distance away, so it appeared that it too had not moved.

It became too much. He had to slow to a walk. The burn in his side made him limp, and it seemed like he made no progress. The blood slowed to fit the pace of Vance, so it still seemed to be the same distance.

After a time, the head grew bored and spoke, "My name is Mohammed Mohammed Mohammed, by the way."

"I heard you the first time," said Vance, eyes fixed ahead at the nothingness.

"Yours again?" the head inquired.

"LCpl Bastian," Vance answered.

"Why are you here?"

"What?" Vance asked looking down, "well, I guess it's to stop people like you ruining other people's lives."

"Why do you think we do what we do?"

"What do you mean?"

"I sacrificed myself for the sake of martyrdom so that I might drive out the infidels that infest and plague us."

"So you mean people like me?"

"Right," acknowledged the head.

"What wrong have we done?"

"Are you serious?" the head asked.

Vance dismissed him and just concentrated on walking. It was hopeless. He was now completely lost in the desert away from his fellow marines with only the head for company. The blood groove seemed to go on towards infinity, and there was no distinguishable landmark in sight. Vance stopped and sat down, setting the head before him.

"Mohammed," Vance said, "we're never gonna find a way outta here. There is no LAPPCo and I'm never gonna be BPSA. We've been duped by the clown."

"That may be true," said Mohammed, "but I think you've forgotten something."

"What's that?"

"The brain," he replied, "the clown said it's headquartered in the brain."

It clicked to Vance just then. The fabled 'Aha' moment. He reached for his gerber and drew it, ready to slice Mohammed open. "Wait," he hesitated, "do you mind?"

The head shook. Had he shoulders they would've shrugged, "Got nothing else to do," he said.

With that Vance went to work, carving and stabbing and slicing. Immediately, Vance felt the damage in his own head, but he endured. It was like bee stings. Buzzing and churning. A thousand bee stings. A million. He laughed menacingly, carving the head and provoking the worsening pain. And it went on until his thoughts became blood-soaked rags that his fellow Marines came out and wiped themselves with.

"This Marine served his country well," said Sgt Apocrypha.

Jake Walker has published a chronicle of poems and essays entitled The Basket Case through and has two poems published in Litterbox Magazine. He also maintains a blog.