Here’s where I say, “Are you scared, man?” I say it the same way every time, and in one minute we’ll be exiting the door of the aircraft, our weapon bags partially unzipped, with a magazine slapped tightly and carefully into the chamber. Before we stand, I’ll look down the line of soldiers and think how awful it all is. I’ll think how unfair it is that we should be the ones, my friends and I, droning over Latin American forests in full combat gear, over wondrous places we’ll most likely never visit again. Ready to die on foreign, fabulous soil. We have already written letters home, exchanged them, so that if someone makes it our final words will exist at least as apologies. I look over at Mark, his body bathed in the blood red light of the interior lights, his face shaded red and black like a skull, and I shift forward, meaning to ask him if he would personally talk to my parents if I don’t make it back. Instead, I say those same words, and, as always, I feel like it’s too soon – I just need one more moment. Maybe I can tell Mark not to stand up, tell him that if he stands he’ll die, but there’s no time left. We stand and hook our yellow nylon static lines to the long cable running down the aircraft, and we turn toward the rear of the plane, toward the opening door. The sound envelopes us, in the real sense of envelopmentâ€“it’s tangible, it’s mocking, it’s terrifying, and against any sanity, our feet yearn for the space, for the emptiness that’s both flying and falling. I count to three, and the first anti-aircraft rounds hit our airplane, and despite my urge to move, a piece of flack buries itself in my cheek the exact same way it always does. I count to five, and we’re hit again. We’re moving forward like giggling men, holding on to each other’s shoulders as if in mirth, shuffling one, two, one, two toward the door. We’re hit again, hard, and I can see gaping holes in the aluminum wall. I hear the man behind me, the one I would not talk to on the flight over because he was an officer – just an officer who wanted a medal. He bumped our squad’s SAW rifleman, Antarrios Winters, off the plane. The officer’s a danger to my squad, and I resent him. I hear him gurgle, I’m wet on the back of my pants, and I know it’s blood. I’m glad that Winters isn’t there because I like him, and I’ll not look back for anything. It’s so fast. Everything is so fast, and so dull. I stumble once and put my hand out to steady myself, and then I’m close, only a few steps from the door. This is it. I count one, two, and Mark is hit. OH GOD, Mark is hit, he’s turning for help, his body stumbling backwards clumsily, grabbing for anything, and I move up to hold him, thinking that I’d given him one of my letters, and see he’s empty. He’s dead, but doesn’t know it yet, then he does, and his face contorts like I don’t know what. He’s falling, and I hold him. But he slips out of my arms. I grab him again, and he’s light, oh he’s light. Empty, his stuff’s on the wall and on the jumpmaster. He’s just a flack jacket with nothing left to protect, and then I know he’s dead. I lay him on the floor, but he’s blocking the doorway. I slip in the dark – the green light for Go is blinking. It turns red, and we push him, we push him out the door, poor dead Mark, out the door. I follow, maybe to find redemption, or death, or both.
This is how it always happens, but this time I count one, two, and no bullets bang on the walls. The officer just bumps into me, whispers “Sorry.” We’re moving slowly, I can hear the breath in my chest, can feel the air moving like water past my lips. For this one time Mark exits, and things are moving. There’s no time to count the rounds beating against the shell of the plane because someone taps on my back hard, and I’m off balance and cold in the torso like I’ve never been before. The world’s spinning, and I look back for someone to help me breathe again. I know what this is all about. I know not to look down, my throat constricting, the veins bulging in panic in my neck, there will be no me down there, just an empty, whistling vest filled with the darkest, darkest blood ever, none of it going where it’s supposed to go. I hope then that this is the truth, and all the others were just bad dreams. I’m on my back and can feel how my vest sinks down in the chest because there’s nothing there to hold it up. I don’t want to die here with my last view of the world being boots clumping past, stained with my blood. This is all there ever was. Somebody please, let me out into that rush of air, into that pretty abyss.