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Excerpt: 'Last One In'

Cover of 'Last One In'

"Did we invade or just move forward?" Martinez asked.

"Can't tell," Harper said. There were two radios in the front, and they both crackled with orders, voices overlapping.

"Well, are we in Iraq or not?" Jimmy said.

"I said, I can't tell. The GPS is on the fritz. But I don't think so."

"Wasn't that the berm back there?" Like Jimmy, Ramos had an obscured view in the back.

"Might've been a hill. I didn't see any barbed wire."

"Headline: 'Marines Think They Entered Iraq,' " Jimmy said.

"F--- you."

"The greatest high-tech fighting force on the planet was fairly certain that it attacked a member of the Axis of Evil yesterday," Jimmy said as if composing a story out loud. "Marine sources reported that the glorious invasion had begun, unless they should have made a left at the gas station right past the church, in which case it hadn't."

"Fog of war," Harper said. "Get used to it." The sergeant reached back and handed a bag of instant coffee crystals to Jimmy. He grabbed a pinch and passed it on to Ramos. It helped them stay awake after a sleepless night.

At first the ride had been miserable and tense. In his gas mask, Jimmy had concentrated on not puking. Thinking about not puking made him think about puking, which made him feel like puking all the more. He had a morbid curiosity about what would happen if he puked in the mask, with its tight seal. The rubbing of the drinking tube against his lower lip didn't help, encouraging him to imagine models shoving fingers down their throats in restaurant bathrooms. He knew he would fill the mouth cup, but wondered if it would get up to the lenses and blind him. The mask might clog and become useless, and he didn't have a spare. They would be merciless if he puked. It seemed unfair to blame someone for something they couldn't control, like a gag reflex, but he knew from experience that they would anyway.

He was supposed to be thankful even to have a seat. Martinez had told him he could have been stuck in the rear of one of the covered pickup truck Humvees. Then he would be sitting on sandbags, getting sores on his butt made worse with every rut in the road. He was supposed to be glad that he had his own door in the event of an emergency. But it was soft, flexible, decidedly unbulletproof, and never closed right, a sieve for sand and wind and anything else smaller than a quarter that wanted to knock into Jimmy's head. Under his feet were empty soda cans, rucksacks, bullets, and grenades, making him nervous in reverse order. In the end he was just a civilian, crammed into the backseat of a Humvee, with a heavy machine gun lying across his lap making him feel very uncomfortable.

They were on a road in a long line of Humvees and amphibious assault vehicles designed for storming beaches. Right then, they were bumping along over fifty miles from the Persian Gulf, a few car lengths behind the vehicle in front of them. The gap stretched and narrowed with Martinez's concentration behind the wheel. It was morning on their watches, but the sandstorm lengthened the night. Martinez took his NVGs on and off, unsure if a little more light or a little better depth perception would stave off the accident he was expecting.

The tension had been broken when Dabrowski's Humvee tapped their bumper, rocking them all forward and causing the Marines to clutch at their rifles. It wasn't funny per se, but everyone burst out laughing. They were laughing at themselves, at their tension. They took off their masks to gulp air and rub their eyes. No decision was reached or order given, but the three of them didn't put their masks back on. Martinez hadn't been wearing his all night anyway so he could use his NVGs. The combination of sand blown by the wind and kicked up by the tires and exhaust mixed with oil smoke from the burning wells made it hard to see beyond the vehicle in front of them.

Harper leaned his head out the window to try to get a better view than the dirty windshield afforded him. Everyone but Jimmy had big goggles like skiers wore. Jimmy's were blue-tinted swimming goggles. He had bought them himself but didn't feel at fault.

Becky's list hadn't been specific enough: "Goggles." He'd felt too silly to put them on, but Harper warned him that it wasn't just discomfort from the sand that he was fighting but serious eye infections. They also brightened the mood in the Humvee as the Marines took turns making fun of them.

From Last One In by Nicholas Kulish. Copyright 2007 by Nicholas Kulish. By permission of HarperCollins Publishers.

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Nicholas Kulish