Guard Shift

by Mike Kubista

The tower is twenty feet tall, placed on top of a ten-foot-high dirt berm. Its walls are tan, waist high steel plates, front wall fortified with sandbags on which an M240G mid-sized machine gun sits with four hundred rounds of ammunition pointing out toward a serpentine of concrete barriers on the dirt road below.

Orlovsky drops a brown pack of MRE garbage off the side of the tower and starts down the steel rebar ladder in full battle gear—desert camo covered kevlar helmet with issued green dust goggles; flak jacket with three pouches, each holding two rifle magazines of 30 rounds; two olive drab one-quart canteens; twelve-inch Ka-bar knife; first aid kit with tourniquet, bandages, adhesive tape, airway nasopharyngeal, clotting agent, and combat gauze; 1.5 liter CamelBak hydration system; assault pack with beef jerky, pack of cigarettes, tin of chew, M&Ms rat-fucked from a box of MRE’s, two bottles of water, porno mag or Maxim for “reading”; M16A2 service rifle slung over his shoulder; and two pouches for M67 fragmentation grenades, empty because we’re not in Iraq anymore, but guarding an abandoned desert camp in Kuwait, and rarely see anyone but camel herders on the horizon.

“It’s fucking gross up there man,” Orlovsky says, when he gets to the ground. “Good luck.”

It’s midday, Summer, around 125 degrees. The metal guard tower in direct sun radiates heat, but the ladder rungs, shaded by the tower platform, are lukewarm in my closed fingers. When I reach the top of the ladder, the stink of MRE wafts into my face. A pack of half-eaten spaghetti sits on the floor in a pool of sticky clear liquid leaking from a pouch of pears. The metallic sweet and rank smell—like off-brand canned spaghetti rings, orchids, and boxed red wine—tells me the food has been there awhile, maybe since the night shift. Before I even pull myself onto the tower landing, I’m peppered by the little feet of a metric shit ton of flies.

Mother Fucker! Which fucking pig left their trash? They know this shit attracts flies.

I kick the garbage out of the tower then peel off my assault pack and flak jacket. Flies throng the sweat outline left on my uniform from my combat gear.

I check the M240G, make sure it’s clean and ready to fire. I open the feed tray cover, lift the feed tray, check the bolt and rails for grit and lubrication, drop the feed tray, and slap on a belt of rounds. Flies blanket my face and the backs of my hands. I flick my hands through the air and whip my head from side to side, but there are so many, I can’t keep them off me, so I try to ignore them, slam the 240 shut and sit on an unopened MRE box in the center of the five-foot by five-foot tower floor.

It’s two hours until I rotate out of this tower. Five minutes into my shift, I go ape-shit. Flies crawl on my cheeks, lips, and earlobes, down my neck, around my throat, under my chin, up my nostrils. I snort, spit, slap, and swear. The more the flies touch me, the angrier I get. I slap my body and face so hard my fingers bruise, but the flies are too fast.

A fly lodges itself in my ear canal. It squirms inside my head, garbage and shit covered feet rubbing against my ear canal walls, wings buzzing against my eardrum. I jump up off my seat and claw at my ear. It’s laying fucking eggs in my head! I claw because I don’t know what to do. I can’t jam my finger in my ear and smash the fly. Who knows what kind of problems insect guts smooshed deep in my ear hole would cause, but clawing is worthless, so I open-palm slap the shit out of my ear hoping if I hit hard enough the fly will get rattled and leave. After a few clubs, my brain goes fuzzy, and my ear rings like a TV end-of-broadcast signal, but the fly leaves.

The fly in the ear is too much. These flies need to die.

“Alright you little mother fuckers. Let’s go!” I snatch the floppy-brimmed desert boonie cover off my head and swing wildly. My boonie snaps against the wall, the sand bags, the sticky floor, my arms, thighs, calves, and boots, but no flies die, and now that my head is uncovered, dozens burrow in my hair.

“Fucking cock slut!” I shout, tearing at my hair, sure that the guys on the ground can hear me and are laughing their asses off.

I fold my boonie in half, doubling over the brim and creasing the top to decrease wind resistance, then swing some more.

Thwaap! Miss. “Donkey cunt!” Thwaap! Miss. “Sweaty fucktard!” Thwaap! Miss. “Cock waddle anal bead shit nugget!” The boonie cuts through the air better folded up, but these flies aren’t fat slow American flies hanging out on fast food windows, these mother fuckers are survival of the fittest flies fighting for limited resources in a god-forsaken shithole, and it’s like they know they’re better than me. The faster I swing, the faster they get. Little diseased fly legs crawl over every patch of open skin and hair on my body, and there’s nothing I can do to stop them.

“FUUUCKK!” I yell, flailing like a monkey in a trap. Once I thrash away all my fight, I sit on the MRE box in the center of the floor, defeated, flies roaming my body like a corpse.

Slingshot. That’s what I need.

A picture flashes in my brain, surgical tube stretched behind a U frame, pebble releasing with enough velocity to knock a crow out of the air.

I need to be like a slingshot.

I grab one edge of my folded boonie in my right hand, keeping tension in my arm. With my left hand, I pull back the other edge. The fabric doesn’t stretch like surgical tubing, but as the elbow on my arm cocks, I feel increasing tension. On a section of the metal wall, four flies stand close together, idle. They’ll do. I release my left hand while snapping forward my cocked arm. THWAAP!!! Four little carcasses fall to the tower floor, and four blood specks stain the camo of my boonie.

Game on bitches.

For the next hour, I slingshot my boonie this way and bodies rain to the floor. I pause between swings only to wipe off clumps of yellow guts from particularly vicious hits. At around twenty minutes, I count blood specks on my boonie—157, and the air hasn’t begun thinning out.

In another twenty minutes, enough bodies tumble across the tower floor that they flow like waves in the breeze.

After an hour, no flies remain alive. My boonie is covered with blood and guts, more specks and smears than I can count. For several minutes, I watch fly bodies swirl around the steel floor, eventually collecting in black mounds in the tower corners. This must be what victory feels like, sitting on your throne in your tower, staring down at the bodies of your enemies swirling at your feet. I look out at sand and clean blue horizon, hot breeze blowing in my face, king of nothing.

When my replacement calls up the ladder, I throw on my flak jacket and assault pack, slap my boonie against my thigh to clear it of clinging guts and put it back on my head.

When I get to the bottom of the ladder, my replacement says, “Orlovsky told me it’s fucking gross up there.”

“Nah,” I say, “It ain’t that bad.”

MIKE KUBISTA is currently an MFA candidate at Minnesota State University, Mankato. In 2003 and 2004, he was a Marine Corps machine gunner and prison guard in Iraq. His experiences range from the initial invasion to brushes with Abu Ghraib prison to gunfights, IED explosions, and mortar attacks in Al Anbar province when the whole world seemed like it was on fire. “Guard Shift” is part of an upcoming memoir.