JP is dreaming and Carlos is in the dream.
They’re back in the desert, walking toward a road. In the last two weeks, three Humvees have been blown up on the road. It is night and the stars seem brighter in the cold. JP carries a map and a GPS. He always guides but Carlos always walks in front. Carlos carries the pair’s sniper rifle and his rucksack weighs more, so he sets the pace. The rifle has a long barrel, heavy enough for precision. The two climb an easy rise. They step over small bits of sagebrush. On top of the rise, JP reaches forward and taps Carlos on the shoulder. Carlos says nothing, lowering his ruck- sack to the earth. He gathers a circle of sagebrush around them and drapes some camouflage netting across its top, making their hide. JP turns off his GPS. Soon they are lying side by side beneath the netting, their stomachs to the earth. Hours of night pass silently between them. Then, from the direction of dawn, a car drives out and stops in the road in the place they’d been told it might. A tall man steps from the car. He is dressed in a long shalwar kameez, which blows about his knees.
“Come four left,” whispers JP. Carlos notches the clicks on his scope, correcting for wind. He gets back behind the long rifle. The man, having taken a shovel and a sack from the trunk of his car, digs on the road’s shoulder. He looks up and down the road, his eyes sweeping past JP and Carlos, who lie on the far rise. The wind holds steady. The shot is lined up for Carlos. JP tells him such, slowly whispering the words that mean everything is in balance: “Fire. Fire. Fire.” With their bodies pressed together, JP can feel the slow flexing in Carlos’s bicep as he takes the slack from the trigger.Then there is the loud collision of wood striking wood. JP jolts awake.
Steve is playing a bowling game on his phone, flicking his finger at the screen, the volume turned all the way up as the electronic ball knocks over pins. As Steve concentrates on the next frame, his mouth hangs open, showing teeth so stained by dip that they seem lost in the hollow of his mouth. In the belly of the wood stove, quartered logs burn, giving off low-caliber pops, like the pin strikes, but quieter and less frequent. The light from the fire falls against Steve’s face, the reflection of the flames mixing with flashes from his video game.
It’s a little before midnight and JP doesn’t say anything about being woken up. He’s a guest, after all: it is Steve’s lodge. The trip brochure said the pine boards of the lodge had been hammered together by Steve’s grandfather and the boards look that old, the nails lost in the wood, the wood varnished with age. JP has come to hunt and Steve is his guide, and for JP, with all his training, being guided by someone like Steve is in and of itself a small humiliation. But the trip was a gift from Carlos, something he and JP had planned to do together after deployment. Even with Carlos gone, JP thought taking the trip was the right thing to do. This wasn’t an easy decision for JP to make and Steve, bowling unending frames with his finger, isn’t making him feel any more certain.
JP looks away from Steve. Behind the stove, the wall is hung with taxidermy busts, animals common to the high desert. JP has seen many of them before in other deserts but some, like the red fox and javelina (or as Texans call it, the skunk pig), are particular to this part of the state, the part that rises up west of the Pecos River. The wall also has mountain lions, white tail, and even a Rio Grande turkey, its fleshy gullet painted a lipstick red and its purplish blue tail feathers laid out neat as an oriental fan, lacquered and stapled to the oak trophy panel. All in all it’s an impressive display, artistic even. JP wonders how many of the animals were Steve’s own work.