“John and I had been pulled from our usual team and assigned temporarily to another squad. We were a team of five, but I didn’t really know the other guys that well. We’d only been teamed up for maybe a week. They seemed like good soldiers, but we had not been on any missions or patrols together.
“We were in this town in Iraq. Me, John, he was our sergeant, and these three other guys from the other unit. It was early in the morning, maybe just after o’three hundred. We had a target we were to bring in for questioning. He’d been elusive, kept weird hours, moved around a lot, but we had confirmed he was in the house.
“We entered the structure – John first – then the other guys, and I cleared the street one last time before entering last. By the time I turned around, the suspect – he was in the back room – had already begun shooting and wounded John. At least two of the other men, maybe all of them returned fire and shot the guy – the suspect.
“I don’t even remember why we were picking him up, what they suspected he had done, but suddenly our sergeant, suddenly John was bleeding out and this Iraqi guy was also bleeding, probably even closer to death than John, and his wife was there yelling at us. I don’t even know what she was saying, but she seemed more angry than sad about her husband.”
“Maybe it wasn’t her husband. Maybe it was just an operative, a co-conspirator.” My insight offered nothing, other than reminding him I was listening.
“No, she was his wife. She was yelling at us, and the other guys with me were yelling back at her, and then one of them hit her, knocked her down. Her husband couldn’t do anything, but his face, god, the look on his face. She was definitely his wife.
“I carried John to a short couch of sorts in the main room, trying to apply enough pressure to stop the bleeding. Shot in the side of his gut. I’m sure it hit some organs or something, but I kept trying to get it controlled enough to apply some sort of dressing and get him back to our camp.
“It all happened so fast, what happened in those few moments, and what happened next. As I carried him, I saw the guy that hit her was down on the ground, too, where she had fallen, and he was…” He stopped talking, not his usual long pause, but to describe the image in his mind. Censoring himself, or perhaps a vision of a word he could not speak, I attempted to guide his words.
“Is it what I think?”
“He was raping her?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t sure at the time, but based on what I heard, what I think I remember…”
“Is that why you asked me if you had…”
“No, I mean not exactly. I didn’t…”
I touched the back of his hand as I did in the office, so gently I’m not sure he even noticed.
“I don’t know if I did it, if that’s what you’re thinking. The other two guys stayed with him, too, holding her down, covering her mouth. I couldn’t see what they were doing, shit, I couldn’t hardly see what I was doing you know in the dark of night with a single lamp, even in the small house but I could tell by what I heard, and what I didn’t hear, by the sounds of her muffled, struggling…”
“And this was in front of her husband?”
“In front of her dying husband.”
“And you didn’t stop it?”
He breathed deeply and swallowed hard. Guilt covered him and he’d never been able to wash it away. “It’s okay. You were taking care of your sergeant. You were trying to save John’s life.”
He started to cry, not that the tone of his voice changed, but I noticed the fluid in his eyes as I fixed on the emotion trapped in them. All those times they stared through me or into me, I failed to see this, even though it was probably there all along.
“I picked up John and carried him outside to the vehicle.” Alive or dead, he didn’t tell me. I wondered if Grace knew.
“Did you go back inside?”
“To stop it?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. I don’t know for sure when I went back inside.”
“Do you not remember, or do you not want to remember?”
“I don’t know. Those are the same thing to me. I want to believe I went back in to save her, but I don’t remember. What I did see was her in pain, and her husband laid there dying, unable to help her.”
“But you remember seeing her? Was that what you saw when you went back in?”
“No, that’s what I saw while I was carrying out our sergeant. John.” He whispered his name. “I remember that sight. I could have done something. I should have done something. I just let them do this thing to her.” His recollections didn’t flow in order; I needed to just accept the information and piece it together later.
“Them? Was it all of them?”
He nodded. Clearly he recalled that one of them started it, and the others also followed suit. I wanted to believe his involvement made the situation better not worse, but if he didn’t remember, how would I ever know? I understood now why not remembering last night scared him. Not remembering kept the guilt alive.
“What happened when they finished with her? Did they leave her there?” Perhaps he intervened, went back inside the house. If they all went back to the base, did anyone mention what they’d done to her?
When I told him about Jason, he never asked me any questions, yet I didn’t want him to stop and pause and think and analyze what he could or couldn’t tell me, what he shouldn’t reveal and what he excluded. I wanted to help him, to jog his memory. With the exception of how I found myself handcuffed to the stairs, I knew what Jason did to me, I chose not to tell him the worst of it. He did not know what he did to or for this woman.
I adjusted my hand or fingers frequently in order for him to feel both of my hands clinging to him.
Considering what he told me, I was scared for him that he made a decision he now regretted, but whatever happened couldn’t be changed now, and he was living with his choice. At the time, it never occurred to me that I was describing my own anguish over Amelia.