by JM VanZuiden


JM VanZuiden


The wall shuddered from
the impact. Tiny bits of gravel and the gritty dust of central Iraq leapt from
the ground in a single, simultaneous bound. My brain hardly notices the tiny
projectiles penetrating the flesh of my right arm and leg. Instead, it reels
from the concussion and attempts in vain to calculate the placement of my body
in regards to the earth.

Crashing to the ground,
even the impact only mildly registers as I struggle desperately to regain my
wits and bearing. Through the ringing in my ears to the spinning world before
me, I nearly forget where I am and even who I am.

Time stands still as I
somehow struggle to my knees and begin crawling, almost blindly, toward the
remains of the wall I was huddled against. I am so dazed and disoriented from
the blast that my movements are more involuntary; some part of my mind has
taken control in an attempt to save itself.

Attempting to regain a
position in space and time, my brain replays the events of the morning…




The day began normally
enough. Being two years after the invasion that toppled Saddam, we are at the
height of the insurgency so normal is certainly subjective, but a reality for
all of us stuck in the blistering heat of Baghdad.

I had completed my
morning routine and joined my men for a mid-morning patrol through Al-Dora. Not
an enviable job for sure; this southern Bagdad neighborhood is a hotspot for
Mehdi Army activity, not to mention an epicenter for the Al-Qaeda and
Ansar-al-Islam turf war. All that said, it had been relatively peaceful for the
past few weeks with only intermittent gunfire throughout the day and the usual
chorus of mortars launching at night.

The air-conditioning
had broken the day before, and our armored truck was blistering in the heat of
summer. The radio declared that at half-passed ten; it was already ninety-eight
degrees. My mind was so wrapped-up in adjusting to the stuffy heat of the
truck, that I didn’t notice the abandoned market street as we rounded the

“Sir! Should we stop?”
a young voice breaks the thickness of the air in the cab.

“What?” I reply, only
now looking ahead. It takes only moments to recognize the danger.

“Shit! Turn right at
the next road!” I quickly ordered, adjusting my position in my seat for a
better look at the surround. “Anything up top?” I call up to the gunner.

“No, sir!” He replies,
his voice muddled by the wind passing by his head.

My mind begins to
rapidly deduce the situation; an abandoned marketplace on a mid-morning work
day was never a good sign. It was unquestionably an ambush and my only hope is
to break-out before they have time to react or hope it is meant for someone

An intense thunder
erupts behind us, shattering my thoughts and answering the questions in my
head. A ripple in the fabric of the air itself jars the truck sending a great
rattle through its occupants. It is not the first IED I’ve been a part of and
react accordingly.

“To the floor!” I
scream at my young driver. As our truck lurches forward, I glance at my side
mirror to see my comrades truck behind us in a roaring fire of twisted metal
and asphalt from the road beneath. I need not ask if anyone survived, instead,
my objective was to prevent the rest of us from suffering the same fate.

Gunfire rings out from
all directions. That first “pop” lingers in my mind a few seconds as my brain
attempts to discern the amount and direction of the various weapons firing upon
us. The clamor intensifies as the hard and rapid popping begins from the 7.62
machine gun above my head in the gunner’s turret.

We plunge hard around
the corner into the nearest street, tires squealing, desperate for escape. Our
truck leans hard into the turn, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I think
we might tip over. After what seems like an eternity, we clear the corner,
driving hard toward the next intersection.

For a fleeting moment,
escape seems possible, when I notice something off up ahead. A small box sits
amongst the clutter of the street, really not that out-of-place for the
disordered streets of Baghdad, except it is too neatly placed and almost too
inconspicuous to be accidental.

“Right!” I yell to my
driver. “Punch it!”

The engine roars and
sharp whine breaks through the road noise. My driver guides us as far to the
right as possible, but these tiny old streets leave little room for movement.

Only moments later, we
are passing the suspect box. Initially, it appears as though I had misjudged
the situation, but my experience is rewarded with a ground-shattering blast
behind us. Our vehicle shutters, causing the rear-end to lift-up a few inches.
Given our speed of eighty mile-per-hour, the effect is amplified. The rubber
screams as it reconnects with the pavement and fails to grab. Instead, we begin
a high-speed fishtail.

Even after all that had
happened, I retained my composure, but at this moment, a ball finally emerges
deep in the pit of my stomach.

“Brace! Brace! Bra- “My
words are cut-short as I swallow hard, my body impulsively tensing for impact.

Despite my young
driver’s hard-braking and attempts to regain control, the effort is futile
which is all too apparent when we slam diagonally into a parked Isuzu pickup.

Reactively grabbing
anything nearby, that ball in my stomach plummets as gravity hits me head-on.
My mind is just able to grasp that we are in the air… then up-side-down… over
and over again.





Through my haze, I
immediately notice a deep ache in my lower back and a throbbing in my head.
However, I get little time to think of my pain when I feel hands grabbing my
arms, dragging me from the wreckage. With great effort, I focus my eyes, trying
to gain some understanding of my situation. A scream nearby draws my eyes,
locating my driver, blood-soaked, being yanked from the metal carcass.

Panic takes hold as I
comprehend who our would-be rescuers are… Mehdi Militia. The blue-checkered
scarves and sashes give them away, not to mention their’ heavy armaments.

Shit, I’m as good as

In my disheveled state,
I muster the strength and begin a feeble effort at escape, jerking my arms and
weakly flailing my body. I know what fate is in store for me if they take me
alive, and fight though I have enough wit about me to know this attempt is in

My effort is brief, and
one of my captors strikes me in the cheek with the butt of his AK. Already,
weak and in a daze, I collapse and surrender myself to my fate.





I have no idea how long
I was out, but I awaken to the screams of my driver. Groggily, but a sense of
urgency, I struggle to regain my sense. Cracking paint exposes the typical
sandstone walls of an Iraqi home. I must be in a gathering room as I note the
broad, low table in the center, surrounded by a mix of two couches and several
chairs. I am laying against the wall and peer through the legs of a chair
before me. To the left of the chair, a tattered blue couch is draped with a
colorful knit blanket in a bad attempt to enhance its appearance.

“Tell me!” Comes a
gruff, angry voice.

The dull thudding of
fists against a body follows his demand.

“How many fingers will
get my answer?”

“I don’t know… I don’t
know… I’m telling— “

A shrill scream breaks
the conversation, and I abruptly become fully aware, realizing the man being
tortured is my driver.

Fear fuels my
adrenaline, pushing through the pain. More arguing and pleading racks my mind
from just beyond the couch, but from this position on the floor, I thankfully
am blind to the transaction.

Shifting my body, I
become conscious of the duct tape wrapped tightly around my wrists. Peering
down, I note the hastiness of the cuffs, and think I might be able to work out
of them.

“He is worthless to
us.” The same gruff voice announces. “We don’t need him.”

“NO, NO, PLEA— “As my
driver begins pleading for mercy, two upper bodies emerge into view just beyond
the couch. They wear the typical white Thawb of the region, with the common
red-checkered Keffiyeh. However, the green straps of their LBEs stand in clear
contrast, marking them as combatants.

“Kill him.” The harsh
voice announces with an almost casual tone.

My driver’s plea
quickly turns to the sounds of a man in pain as the two men begin kicking him
without mercy. At first, I try to move into view of what is transpiring, but
swiftly stop, realizing that I don’t want to see this, anyway. Instead, plans
begin to hastily fire through my mind. To the right, I see a wood door leading
further into the house. Across the room, I can discern the top half of a second
door, but it looks to be a closet. Finally, to the left, in the direction of my
feet, are two open windows.

Glancing up one last
time, I observe the men lean down and out of view. Taking this as my only
chance, I roll to my belly and lift onto my knees. Without hesitation, I crawl
the short distance to the back of the couch and turn left, my eyes set on the

A final scream turns to
gargling from just beyond the couch, heralding an all too normal beheading in
progress. Pushing the grizzly act from my mind, the windows become fixed in my

“See if the Lieutenant
is awake.” The man commands his subordinate.

Panic shoots like lightning
through my body and I immediately break into a sweat. Freezing at the end of
the couch, my mind races for answers as the sound of footsteps begins towards
my pitiful hide. Panic turns to terror as my brain offers no solution to the

The seconds seemingly
turn to hours as every sound becomes amplified. The intense heat of the muggy
Baghdad summer feels more oppressive than ever, and my mind locks momentarily
on a single drop of sweat rolling down my brow. Run. Is all my mind can

Then, as if by God
Himself, the rhythmic thumping of an American two-forty machine gun shatters
the intensity of the moment. Ready to launch into a run, I freeze as the
two men begin frantically yelling and run to the windows just before me, AKs at
the ready. They instantly begin firing and are joined by more automatic gunfire
coming from adjoining rooms.

The world comes
instantaneously to life, and sounds of war fill the air from all directions.
Somewhere, outside, the distinctive sound of an RPG tearing the fabric of the
air is followed by a concussion and even more gunfire.

Like a gun at a
footrace, I launch at the sound of the explosion and slam into the militiaman
before me. The adrenaline does its job, and I strike him with such force that
he flips headfirst out the window. His companion jumps back and turns his
weapon toward me. I expect to feel the burn of lead striking my body, but
instead, watch as his body begins to shake violently. Red mist materializes
around him, and he crumples to the floor.

In shock, but a veteran
of this war, I instinctively dive for cover, landing with my face an arm-length
from the fallen assailant. Thinking fast, I crawl to the man who breathes
heavily, randomly jerking about in the throes of death. Grabbing his
still-bloody hunting knife, I fumble with it until managing to get it between
my tied wrists. After a brief effort, the sharp blade makes quick work of my
haphazard bindings.

Pausing to note the
face of the monster who beheaded my driver, he is not what I expected, but they
never are after all. He is young, perhaps mid-twenties. He is an attractive man
and has a thin, neatly groomed beard. He reminds me of a friend from many years
ago, and I can’t help but shudder at just how much he looks like everyone else.
Hell, I might have passed him on the street without taking the smallest of

Another explosion
nearby brings my mind back into the game. Grabbing the now dead man’s AK-47, I
scramble to my feet, keeping my head low, and bolt for the door across the

Emerging through the
door, a startled insurgent stands guard at yet another door. He is at the
ready, prepared to fire, but is facing to the right of me, anticipating and
intruder from outside… not inside. This gives me the critical advantage and I
make good of it. One quick squeeze of the trigger is followed by three
thump-thump-thumps. The man spins toward me but only manages one poorly aimed
shot before his body jerks violently from the impacts of my heavy lead rounds.
A mirror on the wall behind him shatters, exaggerating the effect of the
engagement, and the young fighter crumbles into the broken glass, likely
already dead from my well-aimed shots.

So close to salvation,
I continue toward the door he was guarding, intent on making it to the American
patrol, just outside… and to salvation.

Slamming against the
door with my shoulder, it jars open, and I stumble into the intense Iraqi sun.
It takes several moments for my eyes to adjust under the scrutiny of the light,
but my feet continue, none-the-less. By time I reach the corner of the
building, I have fully regained my vision.

At the edge, I
reflexively pause and form into the building. Peeking around the corner,
multiple US Army Humvees are in clear view. Soldiers are actively engaging my
very assailants in an intense firefight. Afraid of meeting the fate of my
driver, I step part way from the edge of the sandstone house and begin waving
my left arm and shouting for help.




Shit, they are shooting
at me!
The obvious thought enters my mind as I fight through
the intense ringing from the near miss of an American AT4 shoulder-fired

Reeling from the
concussion, I am still able to recognize an insurgent emerging from the door I
left shortly before. He seems as though he will run right by, but suddenly stops
and turns toward me, cursing obscenities. He raises his rifle and I
automatically lurch forward, running toward the US Patrol.

Like a hot poker pulled
from a fire, the searing pain of lead passing through my body, causes me to
falter at last. The weapon falls from my hands, and it seems as though all my
energy is suddenly gone. I barely notice that I have fallen to my knees, so
focused on the intense burning, screaming at me from multiple places in my
body. Then, as sudden as the pain had come, the throbbing is replaced by total
numbness. My vision begins to distort, my head to swim.

Finally, through all
the clamor around, it as if one weapon catches my ear. The crack of the rifle
is intense, it overpowers every other sound around me… the finality of it is





Washington, D.C. Press
Conference later that evening…


“Mr. Secretary, is it
true that Iraqi Police were involved in the ambush?”

“Unfortunately, yes. We
have confirmed reports that an Army Patrol even killed an Iraqi Police
Lieutenant who was apparently leading the attack against them.”






from JM VanZuiden

– A Dark-Fantasy Fiction Short

it free at:


of Illyria
– An epic dark fantasy fiction trilogy that takes a
traditional fantasy world and adds gritty realism to it.





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