It was a quiet morning, and after his dawn guard duty Blake had time to play handball in the officers’ gym. Though only a corporal, Blake was Major Pembly’s aide, and use of the gym was a perk.
The new base had been built several years into the American occupation, to cement the army’s foothold in the Middle East. More than a desert outpost, the base brought the men some amenities they missed from home. Blake enjoyed the handball courts. It felt good to pound the ball against the wall again and again, good to have a small visible enemy. Blake let the sweat blind his eyes and soak through his T-shirt, and imagined he was back home in gym class with his old friends. The soldier missed those high school days that had ended less than a year ago.
He was drying himself in the locker room after his shower when he got a directive, text-messaged on his cell phone. It was Pembly. The computers were down, and Blake had to run over to the hospital and pick up the medical supply requisitions. He didn’t bother to towel-dry his hair, the hot sun dried it instantly in the minutes it took him to steer the Jeep across the base.
In the hospital’s administrative offices Blake looked for Brian, the medic who also acted as supply clerk; he found him brewing a pot of coffee for the chief of staff. “I’ll get those forms ready,” Brian said. “Sorry, it’s been a little hectic around here. Late last night they brought in a local woman who managed to get herself set on fire.”
“What happened there?”
“Some men did it to her.”
“Why’d they do that?”
“Punishment. For her brother screwing a married woman. That’s taboo for them.”
Blake had heard about things like this before, but somehow it always astonished him. “So they set his sister on fire?”
“Yeah,” Brian sighed heavily, in a way that made Blake notice how exhausted he looked, with dark circles under his eyes. “It’s a shame how some of this stuff plays out. They believe a woman who’s been disgraced has no soul.”
Blake froze. No soul. Those words pricked him like a pin, reminding him of something. But what? Brian gathered up a sheaf of papers and tamped them on the desktop to make an even stack, then placed them in the folder and handed it over to Blake. Minutes later, Blake stood at attention in Pembly’s office. “Medical requisition forms, sir.”
“At ease, Corporal.” Pembly played with his fountain pen, poking the pointed end against his fingertip. “What does the rest of your day look like?”
Blake shrugged slightly. “Free, sir.”
“Good. I want you to do something for me. Go online and find a good set of golf clubs. The best you can get, titanium, steel head, you know? Charge them to the regular account here, and have them shipped A.S.A.P.”
Pembly smiled. “In case you are wondering, the General is putting in a little driving range behind the officers’ quarters, and I want to get…” Blake hadn’t been wondering, and while the Major went on, he found himself thinking of the hospital again, trying to picture the burned woman.
Blake realized that Pembly had stopped talking and expected him to say something. Immediately, he stood more stiffly. “Anything else, sir?”
“We still need to do something about this food situation. Have the sectioned plates been ordered?”
“Yes, sir. But they haven’t arrived.”
“Well, talk to the cooks again, will you? The food on my plate needs to be separated so it doesn’t all run together. I can’t stand that. It turns my stomach. Make sure when they plate my meals that all the different foods are well separated by at least two inches on the plate. The meat, the taters, the veggies—it’s all got to be kept separate. Do you understand?”
That night, trying to get some sleep before dawn again—with those words in his head, No soul, no soul—Blake remembered where he had heard them before. He had said those same words to Lisa Stevens in junior year, hurled them deliberately to hurt her. He’d watched her face go from its usual anxious, freckled grin to a terrified stare, as if he’d hit her.
He had tried to forget that dark spot on junior year. He’d been happy, then, for the most part, living from weekend to weekend, when his buddies and their girlfriends loaded up the trunks of their cars with cases of beer (bought for them by older friends, or in some cases stolen from the porches of neighborhood fathers who—Blake and his buddies reckoned—drank too much anyway) and headed for the woods. There was nothing like getting drunk in the beautiful stillness of the woods with only other kids around.
It was during one of those parties that Blake stared up into the swirling top of an oak tree, at whose roots he had collapsed after bonging two 40-ounce bottles. Lisa Stevens came and crouched by his leg. He could just make out her friendly grin through his double vision. They had been exchanging their looks all night, and now that he had come to rest after all the wrestling with the other guys, all the running around, she found him, found her way to his fly. It wasn’t the first time a girl had done that for Blake, but his palm fit the soft back of Lisa’s head so perfectly, and when he woke up with her arms around him, he felt happier than he had ever remembered. He thought this must be how men felt, older men, and he thought one day he would marry this girl.
They went out for a couple of weeks. Lisa was a sophomore, and as far as Blake knew she had never been with any other guys. She was eager to satisfy him, holding her breath like a swimmer as she dove again and again for his pleasure.
He took a week’s pay from his landscaping job and bought a necklace. He liked to feel the small gold locket brush against his bare thigh while it dangled from her neck. That friendly shiver reassured him. He had paid for it, and when he looked at her wearing it, he felt the pride of a married man looking at the ring on his wife’s finger.
One day outside the cafeteria, while Lisa was in study hall cramming for a test, Blake was stopped by Marcy. Marcy had liked him in tenth grade, but she was going out with Bill Rafferty. This made her off-limits to Blake, who held to a rule about other guys’ girls. Plus, she had always struck him as a little too malicious, the way she dug into juicy chunks of gossip. He found himself tensing up as Marcy sashayed toward him and pressed her hand against his chest, flattening him against the white-tiled wall that was covered with graffiti, scribbled names and phone numbers. “What do you want? You know I’m going out with Lisa.”
“Going out with Lisa,” Marcy repeated slowly, thoughtfully, as though blowing out her words like bright pink bubblegum. “I guess you could call it that.”
Fear spiked into his gut right away. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Marcy laughed, a high, light laugh that made Blake even more afraid. And angry. He hated to hear a pretty girl laugh, she always seemed to be laughing at him. “I’m surprised you’re with her,” she said. “I didn’t think she was girlfriend material… or your type for that matter.”
“I like her.”
“Yeah,” Marcy grinned. “So did Hogan.”
“Connor Hogan? That’s a lie. She never messed around with him or anyone else.”
“That’s not what he says. But if you say he’s lying…” She shrugged her shoulders with the exaggeration of a street mime, hunching her whole upper body, turning up her palms at the level of her chin, and rolling her eyes.
He knew he didn’t have to believe Marcy, and ran down a short list of her possible reasons for lying. Her feelings for him, back in tenth grade. Making trouble to kill boredom. The power of seeing what she could get away with. Still, random images of Lisa smiling her awkward grin through various porn-star poses writhed in his mind like tiny snakes. If Marcy—if Connor Hogan or the whole school—believed that Lisa had a reputation, then it might as well have been true. And it made sense to Blake’s body, down below his belt, that part of him Lisa had made so happy in the past couple of weeks. The more he thought about it, the more certain Blake became that he was enjoying the fruits of her training at another guy’s hands. This was more than his pride could stand.
A rumor zipped quickly through the school that he was going to fight Connor Hogan at the end of the day, but when the last bell rang it was Lisa whom Blake cornered on the playground. She hadn’t seen him since that morning, and she wanted to tell him about her test. When she spoke, he narrowed his eyes and scowled.
“What’s wrong with you? Don’t you want to hear how Bio went?”
“I don’t give a shit.” The words felt like too much spit in his mouth.
She put her hand on his arm. “Blake, what’s wrong?”
Why were pretty eyes so confusing? He wanted to believe her, but eyes were always pretty for a reason, and it couldn’t have been him.
“Go to hell,” he said. “I knew I shouldn’t have believed you.” He suddenly raised his fist, and she staggered backwards against the brick wall, but he did not punch her, he let his arm fall by his side. He said, “You have no soul,” and left her standing there. He could hear her sobbing as he walked away, and spit loudly on the ground to cover the sound.
How could I have been so stupid? he asked himself. A few days later, a friend of his told him that three guys had sex with Lisa in the park. Blake felt angry and ashamed. Whenever he caught sight of her, down the crowded hall, her eyes looked sad and puffy, dead sleepless circles. She transferred out to a different school. Blake tried not to think about her anymore, but while he was getting drunk one night the idea came into his head: My first love got screwed up, the rest of my life is going to be shit now. He tried to talk to his buddies but they told him he was better off. He got in a fight and broke the other kid’s nose, blood juiced all over Blake’s white T-shirt. He walked down the highway, touching the bruise under his eye and counting the headlights of passing cars.
* * *
Blake sat up in his bunk. No use tossing and turning, he couldn’t sleep. He wished he still smoked, a habit he’d given up in Basic. It would have relaxed him.
He got up and plugged in his laptop. He e-mailed his friends, asking what they were up to, if they had seen any good shows at the arena lately. He filled them in on what he was doing, trying to make his duties sound less boring, more important. He didn’t tell them that all he did each day was try not to get killed, while his CO’s worried about golf clubs and how to stop their peas from rolling into their mashed potatoes. And he ended each letter by asking if they knew what had happened to Lisa Stevens.
Some wrote back within a day or two, describing parties they had gone to over the weekend and who was dating whom. Most of these stories were about people Blake had never heard of. His friends tried to be supportive, encouraging him to take care and come home alive. Some called him a hero. But no one mentioned Lisa.
Blake ran into Brian in mess hall, and they talked about the hospital. “That local,” Brian said, “she didn’t make it.”
“She died from her burns?” Blake asked quickly.
“No. She was going to be all right, she needed grafts but she would have made it. She killed herself first chance she got. Threw herself out the window.”
Blake walked back across the base alone. The afternoon heat made shimmering mirages. If he squinted, he could almost imagine it was main street back home. Passing Jeeps were convertibles filled with his friends. Flak-jacketed soldiers jogging with guns were a hockey team taking the ice, skating in figure-eights with their sticks out. The signs on the walls were graffiti, the names of guys who had nothing better to do and wanted to be remembered. It was a game Blake played from time to time, but the illusion never lasted more than a second or two. He knew where he was.