by Robert Cameron
The convoy advanced slowly and in close formation. Jack’s Humvee rode point, leading a snaking line of more Humvees, armored personnel carriers and trucks. As he scanned the road ahead, Jack fought to keep his eyes open and focused — weeks of little sleep and unceasing stress were taking their toll, and fatigue tugged at the backs of his eyeballs.
Waves of heat rose off the road and the buildings all around, sending blobs of scenery spinning and cavorting and melting into absurd shapes: truncated trees; puddles of silvery liquid; shiny figures standing and evaporating; fluttering black wings that took form and were gone. Jack peered around him, struggling to distinguish between material reality and the shimmery kind.
“I don’t like this place, Sarge,” said Carson from his post at the turret gun.
“You don’t like anything,” Jack said.
“It looks dangerous here,” Carson tried again.
“No shit. Whole stupid sandbox is dangerous,” said Jack.
“This is a bad place. Something’s gonna happen, I just know it.”
“How the hell would you know?”
“Hey, I happen to know shit, Sarge.”
They continued awhile in silence. Harrison, who was driving, swerved to avoid a pothole and the Humvee crunched into a low wall.
Jack braced himself. “Jesus, Harrison.”
“Sorry, Sarge,” Harrison said.
“Now I’m really frightened, Sarge,” Carson said. Jack ignored him. “Hey Sarge?”
“Hold me?” The men erupted in laughter, and Jack joined them, the hoots and guffaws taking on a shrill edge from the stress and fatigue. Samson howled, banging his forehead against the seat in front, sending the men into more gales of laughter. Carson shrieked at the top of his lungs, making coyote yips that echoed off the dirty houses around them. Harrison made cawing noises. Jack threw his head back and gasped helplessly.
The explosion caught him in mid-breath. It lifted the Humvee off the ground and deposited it on its side. Jack found himself on the low side, crammed under Carson’s sweaty back, jammed against the ground.
“Everybody out!” he ordered.
Harrison and Samson were already scrambling up, fighting for footing on the now vertical seats. Jack pushed Carson off him and shoved him up toward the square of light blazing above, where the door had been torn off. Carson was dazed but moving, and obediently hefted himself up and out. Bullets clanked against the Humvee as gunmen came out of hiding and opened fire. Harrison and Samson followed Carson through the door and jumped to the ground, but Jack, scrabbling for a foothold, slipped and tumbled back inside.
He reached up again and caught the rim of the opening, pulled himself up and peered around. Carson, Harrison and Samson had run for cover. Jack hoisted himself onto the side of the vehicle, ready to follow them. His sleeve snagged on a piece of jagged metal and he took a moment to extricate himself, then looked behind him and saw a bad guy pointing a rocket-propelled grenade launcher his way. He pulled at the doorway, scrambling to get out before the grenade struck, but he was too late. The blast folded him over like a book snapping shut, and he tumbled to the ground.
Jack awoke on his back, a cloud of dust drifting around him, and tried to gather his wits. The Humvee had turned upside down and was now burning briskly. The firefight was still raging — bullets whined, pinging and pocking and clanking against the vehicles . Another RPG whistled over Jack and exploded. Wreckage and bodies lay scattered about — all bad guys, as far as Jack could see. Carson was sheltering by an overturned truck, fiddling with his rifle and cursing. Samson was crouched behind a low wall. There was no sign of Harrison.
For the moment, Jack was out of harm’s way, sheltered by the bulk of the Humvee. A medical corpsman ran over in a crouch and looked him over. He gingerly lifted Jack’s shirt, then swallowed hard and jabbed a syringe into his shoulder.
“Easy, buddy,” he said.
The captain ran over too; his eyes widened when he saw Jack. “Whoa,” he said. “Think he’ll be ok?”
“Funny, sir,” the corpsman replied , and hurried off. After another look the captain followed him.
Jack decided this meant he was screwed. He assumed he was severely injured; he couldn’t move, so he wasn’t quite sure how bad, but it must be pretty dire. The realization dawned that this was the end; this was it. His life was over. It was time to die.
On a positive note, however, he was also now thoroughly smashed on morphine, so all that other stuff didn’t seem to matter so much. Hey, he mused, life gives you lemons? You make lemonade. Life gives you massive injuries and hours — minutes, maybe — to live? And a snootful of heavy opiates? You play Tetris with passing clouds. Jack spent a pleasant few moments pondering this truth and pushing clouds around with his mind.
A crow landed on his chest. It looked closely into his face. “Jack,” it said.
Jack blinked. The Tetris game evaporated.
“Jaaack!” said the crow. “Jaaaaack! Jaaaack!”
“What!” said Jack.
“Raaawk!” said the crow.
“I’m more in a mood for something chill right now. Some chill music. Chill … for chillinn’…”
The crow sighed. “What are you, high?” it said.
“Well,” Jack replied, “I guess I must be. I’m lying here talking to a stupid crow.”
“Good point,” said the crow. It hopped onto the ground and strode back and forth.
“So,” Jack said eventually. “Your English is excellent.”
“Thanks,” said the crow. “Actually, I’m multilingual.” It cleared its throat. “Ahem, ‘Hoohokekyoo!’”
“Wow,” Jack said. “What is that, French?”
“No, it’s nightingale, geez,” said the crow. “Don’t you know anything?”
“Well your funky accent must’ve threw me off.” Jack sniffed. The crow resumed its pacing. After a while, Jack said, “So. What brings you here?”
“Business,” said the crow. “Plus, I’ve never been here before, so it was a good opportunity. And you know something? This is a real dump.” A bullet clanked against the Humvee.
“Well, gosh, if I’d known a crow was coming I would’ve tidied up.”
“But now I’m just hanging with the murder, so to speak.” The crow gestured with its beak at the flock of black shadows fluttering at the edge of Jack’s field of vision. One came into view with an eyeball in its beak, a glistening strand dangling from it.
“Why do you guys always eat the eyes first?” said Jack. “Some spiritual thing?”
“No, no, they’re the best part. They’re delicious, and the mouthfeel is sublime. They pop like grapes in your beak — if you can get any. There’s only two per dead guy, and everybody wants them, so they go fast.”
“Like licking the beaters when your mother’s making cookies,” suggested Jack.
“Exactly,” said the crow. “Oh, I brought you a present.” It flung a mass of fetid meat and hair next to Jack’s head.
“Ew,” said Jack. “What is it?”
“It’s a poodle.”
“Oh,” said Jack. “Road kill?”
“No, I picked it up at duty free.”
“Really? They sell dead poodles at duty free?”
“Well no, I just took it. There was an old lady attached to it by a rope, but it was easy to free it up. Nice thing about poodles: the heads just pop right off.”
“Thank you,” said Jack. “You’re very considerate.”
“I would have brought more, but the airline only allowed one carrion per passenger.”
“Huh,” said Jack.
“That was a joke,” said the crow.
“Yeah, I know.” Jack was having a hard time focusing; he cast about for something to say. “It’s nice of you to visit. What business are you in?”
“Actually, I came for you,” said the crow.
“Came for me what? I was dying in peace until you showed up.”
“Dying in pieces, more like it,” said the crow, glancing around. “Anyway, I’ve come so that you can enter the next phase of your existence, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m what is known as a Valkyrie, a handmaid of Odin. We accompany fallen warriors to their rightful place in the halls of Valhalla.”
“Never heard of it,” Jack said, looking around, trying to check on his squad. Where the hell was Harrison?
“Ok, listen,” said the crow. “RACK RACKA RACK RACK, racka CAW CAW, AAACK ACKACK AWK, AWKA CAW! CAW!”
“Hey, I know that song,” said Jack. “It’s from that movie, right? With the helicopters. What was it …”
“Actually, it’s from a symphonic work, Der Ring des Niebelungen, by Richard Wag—“
“‘Apocalypse Now’!” said Jack. “They blew the shit out of this village, then this dude surfed through a firefight, and this like … fat bald dude dropped this dude’s head in this other dude’s lap! And, uh … so yeah. What about it?”
The crow sighed again. “Look, I’m here to take you to Valhalla, a place of honor and infinite pleasure.”
“I got stuff to do,” said Jack.
“Oh, for Odin’s sake,” said the crow. “I hate this job. Back in the day, warriors were noble. They looked like warriors. They acted like warriors — fierce, with clashing swords and shields and whatnot. There was none of this ‘I got stuff to do’ nonsense. When a Valkyrie came for you, you bloody well went! Nobody believes anything anymore. Everybody’s a stupid comedian.”
“Yeah, well, you don’t look like no handmade oden, neither,” said Jack.
“It’s handmaid. Of Odin.”
“Actually, I know what Valkyries are. They’re these big, bodacious bitches on flying horses …” He glanced at the crow and its dusty feathers. “Which you’re not, exactly. So what, this is better?”
“No,” said the crow. “It’s not better.” It looked into the distance for a moment. “We had a, shall we say, restructuring. Odin hired a consultant, who suggested various changes to quote-unquote ‘modernize’ our operation. He said the spectral horses and bosomy women et cetera were freaking out the newly dead, who tend to be confused already, so we switched to a more low-key approach — tell some jokes, bring a gift.” It nodded at the dead poodle. “It’s easier on the PTSD and so on. Not to mention the potential liability issues — even dead guys are lawyered up, now.”
“I would’ve preferred the big bitches,” said Jack.
“Yeah, well you got me!” snapped the crow. “I mean, Odin’s beard. Pff.”
“How you keep making that sound with no lips?” said Jack.
“I am a Cosmic Being!” said the crow. “I can make any sound I want! … Oh, what would you know, you dumb hayseed.”
“Hey, don’t talk to me like that. I’m a fallen warrior, yo!”
The crow looked around at the wreckage of the convoy, then back at Jack. “That’s right,” it said. “You are. My bad.” It ruffled its feathers again. “Anyway, time’s a-wasting.” It stretched out its wings and tested the air with a few flaps, raising a cloud of dust around it. “We should go.”
“What do you mean, go? I can’t go, I’m all messed up here.”
The crow cocked its head. “Yes, well, that doesn’t really matter anymore.” It lifted a wing. “Hop aboard.”
Jack kept blinking, trying to peer through the glare. The world was growing pale, the colors washed out and fading to yellowy white. The noise of the firefight was also fading, melting into an indistinct hum.
The crow stood patiently. “Let’s go,” it said. A machine gun rattled; bullets whizzed by and hit the road, kicking up a line of little dust geysers.
Jack sat up, then stood, feeling creaky but light. At his feet was a squashed figure that looked like a bloody sack of meat encased in government-issue camo. He blinked as he looked at its battered but familiar face.
“Looks like me,” he said weakly, his head swimming. Around them, detritus from the attack lay scattered, some of it still burning. The scene kept losing definition in the midday glare. He could see Carson, still crouched behind the wrecked truck, and Samson, who had moved to a new position by another wall. There was still no sign of Harrison.
“Let’s go,” said the crow.
“I can’t go — I got responsibilities here. What about my squad?”
“They’ll be ok,” said the crow.
Jack stumbled toward the burning Humvee. “Carson! Samson! Where’s Harrison?” They didn’t respond; they didn’t even seem to notice him. Jack called again, and again there was no response.
“They can’t hear you,” said the crow.
“They’re gonna get killed!”
“No,” said the crow. “Not today.”
Jack felt the world draining away like sand through his fingers. He tried to catch some grains before they drifted away: Carson’s uncanny knack for making filthy comments about virtually anything; Samson’s boots and the eye-watering stink they emitted; Harrison’s incredibly incompetent driving and his dumb-ass apologies. Jack’s mother, his father … they were all losing resolution, shifting in and out of pale focus. Jack cast about for some remaining shreds of memory, but came up empty. They were there, in that world; he was here, in this one.
The crow shuffled its feet in the dust. “Let’s go,” it said, raising its wing again.
“How am I supposed to get under a crow’s wing?”
The crow didn’t answer; it just stood waiting patiently. Jack looked around one last time, then turned and walked closer to the crow until he was looking up at it. He climbed up under the wing, using the shafts of feathers to pull himself up. He stood on one; it came out, and the crow flinched. “Hey, I need those,” it said.
“Sorry.” Jack settled in, bracing his feet against a tuft of feathers. “You ok to fly with all this extra weight?”
“Don’t worry about it. Ready?”
The crow spread its wings, bent its legs, and leapt into the air.
They circled the ambush site, gaining altitude on rising thermals, which brought up the smell of cordite and oily smoke and the distant pops and rattles and shouts of battle. The glare from the desert sun blinded Jack, so he closed his eyes until the advancing shadow of the crow’s wing crossed his field of vision and the scene below again resolved itself. He could see the firefight, still in progress, his squad taking and returning fire. They seemed to be holding their own, but Jack couldn’t tell who was winning. He finally spotted Harrison, crouched low and moving, rifle in hand. A few grains of memory lingered, and he grasped them.
“Hey!” he shouted, as the wind under the wing stung his eyes. “Hey, I loved them!”
The crow craned its neck around and looked at Jack; he thought he saw sympathy there, but he couldn’t be sure. And then the crow, with three mighty flaps of its wings — once, twice, thrice! — pulled them heavenward.