The Ambien Chronicles
You have to be able to trust the man standing on your left, on your right.
Don’t be the weak link in your fireteam.
You can go to your chain of command if you have a problem.
This stuff was preached to me since day one of boot camp, but the reality was the fact that you couldn’t go to your chain of command, nor would you be able to trust the guy standing to your left and right. Green, or peacetime, deployments often mean that someone in Alfa Company is going to get white girl wasted and do something stupid.
Let’s be serious here: Almost everyone in Alfa Company was a bunch of raging, functioning alcoholics who should never have been given a set of CAT keys. We’re highly trained professionals working for Uncle Sam, after all. I said almost everyone, because I don’t drink. I’m pretty much the Seabee unicorn, the permanent DD for everyone in my squad.
Because I don’t drink, I never went to any of the wild parties thrown by Alfa Company on days that end in Y. They party for no apparent reason, and they would drink until five in the morning, and still be drunk for PT at seven. My roommate wanted to be included, so she would go to the parties. I would stay in our room, and mind my own business. I had no friends in Main Body, so I would send messages to my friends who were on detachments to Guam, or Yokosuka. We had moved out of the run-down barracks building derisively known as The Hilton about two weeks before, and everyone was still getting settled in their rooms, with their roommates. I had gone to boot camp with my roommate, so I’d known her for nearly a year, and despised her. She was from Tennessee and had the absolute worst hillbilly drawl I’d ever heard. I wanted to rip her throat out.
“Hey, Williams!” My roommate is already drunk. It’s barely past sunset on Friday evening, and Alfa Company had been in full party-mode on the second floor for at least two hours. Heidler had already come to borrow a quarter so he could do his “pool table testicle” trick, Watson had already come into my common space and stolen my packet of Twinkies and a box of Finding Nemo bandaids. I had locked the door to my part of the room, for some privacy, and was watching Star Wars while messaging my friend in Guam.
“What?” I snapped, pausing my movie. God, I hated her so much.
“I’m leaving the door deadbolted! Don’t shut it! I don’t know where my key is!” Her key was on top of the small fridge in the common area, but it’s not my job to babysit a woman six years older than me. I heard her open the door to our room, and turn the deadbolt so the bolt was jutting out. I could hear the door slam, and the deadbolt rattling against the frame.
“Whatever, dude.” I mumbled. I got out of the chair in my room and moved to my bed, flicking the Spiderman quilt back to reveal the sapphire-blue satin sheets I had jacked from the CSes that morning. I sat down on my bed, shifting my laptop so that it was at the foot, swinging my legs into my bed. I had been up since five that morning, all I wanted to do was sleep. I threw my flip-flop across the room to hit the light switch, plunging myself into darkness. My only light was the bright white glow from my laptop, and yellowish-orange beams from the streetlights visible through my blinds. I closed my laptop, setting it on my nightstand, and laid back in my pillows, my hands folded over my stomach. I looked up at the ceiling, admiring the pattern the black mold was making when I heard the deadbolt rattle. Jackson was back, and stumbling around. I heard her door open, then close. Whatever.
But then my doorknob began to rattle. That made absolutely no sense, why in the hell would Jackson want to come into my room? I didn’t have any of her stuff in my room, I didn’t leave globs of hair in the shower drain . . .
The doorknob rattled again, and slowly, my door creaked open.
“Goddammit, Jackson—” I said, sitting up, about to finally assert myself and give my roommate the telling off she wouldn’t soon forget . . . but Jackson was a five foot five pudgy woman. The person in my doorway, shrouded in shadow, was six foot six and lanky.
I knew who it was. The specter of my nightmares was standing in my doorway, a can of beer in his hand. I could smell the cheap, sour stench coming off of him. I wanted to vomit. I knew what was going to happen before he had even advanced into the room.
“Hey, Williams,” he said. His voice was soft, reassuring. It set me even more on edge. He walked into the bedroom, crossing the small space in two steps. He set his beer can down on top of my laptop, and sat down on my bed. I pulled my Spiderman quilt up to my chin, as if the superhero could protect me.
But nothing could protect me. No one could help me.
Harden reached out and gently began stroking my arm. I tried to pull away, but he grabbed my wrist, pulling me towards him.
“I just want to talk,” he said, his grip tightening.
“No,” I said. While I had hoped I sounded strong, I knew my voice was a thin whisper. I had begun shaking. “I don’t want to talk.” My voice was stuck in my throat, I was nearly paralyzed by fear. I’m small, the smallest person in Alfa company, clocking in at a solid five foot three inches, and ninety-five pounds soaking wet. Harden had a good hundred and thirty pounds on me. I wasn’t going to win this fight, even if I screamed at the top of my lungs . . . not that I could at this point.
He maintained his grip on my wrist as his other hand began exploring, touching crevices he already knew well from past, unwanted, encounters. He knew my response was to freeze, he knew I wasn’t going to talk. He knew he could get away with it. He knew he would get away with it tonight, as he had several times in the past three months. I prayed to God to just let it end. Kill me. Kill him. Something. But God wasn’t listening that evening.
Swiftly, expertly, Harden had pulled down my lounge pants, and my underwear, leaving them hooked onto my left leg as he forced my legs apart. He was on me, crushing me, before I could even react, his hand covering my mouth. There was always the threat of physical injury whenever Harden came for his little ‘visits.’ He was bigger than me, much bigger. The cool, smooth feeling of the satin sheet made the situation all that more awful—satin sheets were supposed to be a luxury, but I would forever associate them with torture.
What took less than four minutes seemed like a lifetime to me. My entire body protested against the intrusion, my mind blank. Tears were running down my face. By the time he had finished, my pillow was drenched. He pulled away and got dressed again. I laid still, unable to move. I was gulping for air, feeling like a dying fish. I wanted to die. I tried to rack my brains for where I had left the knife I had found in a chair just that morning. I wanted to cut him, I wanted to cut myself.
“Just remember,” Harden said as he picked up his beer can. The threat didn’t need to be said. I would remember. He walked out of the room as if everything was just fine. I was left to pick up the pieces of myself. My hands were shaky as I pulled my clothing back on. I darted to the bathroom and immediately threw up in the toilet. I was so disgusted with myself. I got into the shower, and turned the water to a temperature just short of scalding. I tried to scrub my skin off, tried to scrub away the sin, the shame. I scrubbed until my flesh bled, but I couldn’t get rid of the feeling. My wrist was turning red from where he had squeezed it. I would have bruises there tomorrow.
I began shutting down after the Incident. I isolated myself from my friends, I steeled myself against making any other friends. I barely called home, speaking only to my mother. I couldn’t talk to my father, or any of my siblings. My drive to succeed came to a crashing halt and I was viewed as a problem. That’s the kind of situation that you find your real friends, the people who truly love you. How you stand back up after falling down defines you as a person. I struggled to stand back up. My legs were wobbly, but I tried to stand again.
Field exercises were the worst. You got to go camping with six hundred of your best friends, WOO HOO! I love my battalion . . .
My first FEX was unbearable—not because of the military training, but because my detachment was full of absolute morons. Here in NMCB 133 Det Whocares, we dug from the bottom of the barrel. Clearly. I was in it. But that’s neither here nor there. We derisively called FEX us playing ‘war games.’ It was a training evolution that followed Vietnam tactics—a fantastic use of our time, seeing as we were supposed to be training for Operation Iraqi/Enduring Freedom.
First, let me discuss the location. Seabees do their field exercises in Camp Shelby or Fort Hunter-Liggett; Shelby for an East Coast Seabee, and Hunter-Liggett for the Hollywood Seabees. We were at Camp Shelby, about sixty miles from the Gulf Coast, in August. If you don’t know what this means, it means that you are sweating balls. It’s hotter than Satan’s taint outside.
There’s no A/C anywhere on FEX. You just have to hope you can feel a nice, cool breeze through your FLAK vest with the KEVLAR plates inside, or pray that a breeze somehow comes up into your KEVLAR helmet.
Oh. And there’s no showers. And we were out there for a month. A month of scrubbing our butts with baby wipes.
We’re roused at the ass-crack of dawn to muster for our ‘deployment.’ Ensign Kaulitz was calling muster. She bore a passing resemblance to me, but I don’t see it. But I kept getting sniper-checked, and I wasn’t diggin’ this.
“Constructionman Williams!” Ensign Kaulitz called out. “Where is Constructionman Smith?” Aw hell. Shitty Smitty.
“I don’t know, ma’am. I was in Alfa berthing. I think she’s in Charlie?” I replied. You can’t reply with ‘not my monkey, not my circus,’ because we’re supposed to look out for each other in the military… And, normally, I’d look after my people. My Alfa Company people. Ensign looked over at the two females who were in Charlie Company, the look on her face saying, “Go get her!” They hobbled away as their alice packs were thrown onto an MTVR, followed by their rollie bags. All of our bags were piled into the MTVR, whose wooden sides were up in order to keep our things from falling off the bed of the truck. We were told to board a bus. Counting off from the back is the hardest thing you can ask a Seabee to do. Someone always fucks it up, and we have to restart it.
We trundled down gravel roads, jolting along, our heads rattling in our KEVLAR helmets. My helmet slid down my head and slammed into the bridge of my glasses. It hurt. Eventually, after we take enough twists and turns to wind up back in Gulfport, we get to our destination. The road goes through a clearing that is littered with shipping containers. The containers have windows and doors cut out of them. Jimmerson and Harolds climbed into the back of the MTVR and started throwing people’s stuff out of the bed onto the ground. Like buzzards to carrion, we converged on the MTVR, looking for our stuff. I saw pink duct tape and grabbed the bag attached. We were told to pick a box and threw our shit in it. Master Chief Simpson announced that all of the females are going to be in this box.
“Williams!” Chief Richelieu shouted. “Get the fucking 420!”
I was the only person with the backhoe license—that was the only reason I was on this det. I handed my bag off to Lopez, who said she would stick my stuff in the corner of the box. Thompson is working on unchaining the backhoe from the low-bed of the trailer. I walked up and he gave me a shove to be able to get onto the trailer. The tractor pulled away from the trailer, the gooseneck still attached to the fifth wheel. I gun-decked my operational checks, hopping into the cab of the backhoe. The seat was swiveled towards the backhoe bucket. I pulled the lever, swinging the seat to face the front of the backhoe. Seated in the operator’s seat, my feet don’t reach the floor—they swung limply as I moved the seat.
“Williams, quit dicking around!” Thompson admonished, but he was laughing at me. I started the backhoe. My right hand took the lever and raised the bucket. Slowly, carefully, I drove off the trailer.
“Go faster!” Thompson shouted. “You’re not going to break it!”
“I’m not worried about it, I’m worried about me!” I retorted through the open window. Thompson laughed at me. Chief Richelieu directed me to a place in the middle of the field, telling me where to start digging our foxholes, our homes for the next two or three weeks.
A few nights later, I had watch with Collingsworth. Our foxhole was the prettiest on the FOB. With our e-tools, we had dug up every flower we could find and plopped them on top of the wooden roof of our foxhole. The setup inside was Gucci as hell—we had little seats we had carved into the side of the Mississippi clay, footrests on the opposite side. Collingsworth had carved out another hole so he wouldn’t have to hold his Monster. He had carved a second hole on my side for my Diet Coke.
“There’s sand in my asscrack,” I told Collingsworth. He laughed.
“You smell like Bigfoot’s dick,” he told me.
“Like you smell any better!” I retorted, laughing. We haven’t showered in two weeks. If I took the hair ties out of my hair, it would stay shaped like a bun. Collingsworth’s laughter was cut short. He tilted his head, listening.
“Do you hear that?” he asked me. I fell silent, listening. Someone was running past us.
“What’s going on?” Collingsworth asked. Jimmerson, the runner, peered into the foxhole, looking at us. The right side of his lower lip was fat with chewing tobacco. Gross.
“Hey, Melly-bean,” he said. I grinned. “Apparently, the SRG planted a ‘bomb’ on a light plant.” As he said ‘bomb,’ he did the finger quotes.
“Oh dang!” I said, my interest piqued. It’d been deader than my hopes and dreams lately. I had been using the night vision goggles we had to watch shooting stars the last few nights. The night before, I had seen a doe picking her way through the field before us, her slender head rising as someone in another hole sneezed. She had bounded away, as if she had springs in her skinny little stick-legs. Three more people walk up—two are the White Hats, one is Chief Richelieu. The White Hats are from the SRG, grading us on our field exercise. Jimmerson straightens up.
“What’s goin’ on, Jimmerson?” The taller of the two White Hats spoke.
“What do you mean, what’s going on?” Jimmerson spat on the ground. I wrinkled my nose. “Y’all planted a bomb on the light plant over yonder!” I snickered. Jimmerson was such a damn redneck.
“ . . . No, we didn’t . . .” the shorter, female White Hat said, frowning. They followed Jimmerson over to the light plant, plucking something from within the running engine. It was a small package, about the size of my hand. It looked like they were unwrapping something from around it. As they were examining the package, Thompson hauled himself out of his own fox hole and ran over to them.
“Hey! That’s my phone!” Thompson exclaimed. His phone? That thing we were distinctly told not to bring with us? “I had it charging in the light plant!” Jimmerson stared at him as if he were stupid. “My wife is pregnant, and she’s due any day now!” Thompson continued. That was a load of horse crap if I’d ever heard any—Thompson wasn’t married. Thompson couldn’t have gotten himself a girl if he tried. It was a bald-faced lie, and we all knew it.
The White Hats handed the package over to Thompson. Chief Richelieu started shouting at Thompson in what can only be described as straight-up Cajun—it was hard to decipher what Chief said on a regular day, but when he got worked up, like he was now . . . I got nothin’. I heard ‘fucker’ at least three times, though.
“Collin’sworth! Williams!” Chief shouted. Collingsworth looked at me. I shrugged, pulling myself up out of my foxhole. Jimmerson leaned down and grabbed me by the back of my FLAK vest, pulling me out as if I didn’t weigh any more than a sack of potatoes.
“Yes, Chief?” Collingsworth asked, slapping his hands on his pants to try to get rid of the red Mississippi clay that coated them. I didn’t even bother. I was dirty, and there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it.
“Y’all’s watch is over! Git to yer berthin’!” Chief said. Don’t gotta tell me twice! Collingsworth and I parted. The sun was slowly peeking over the pine trees, the sky turning from black to grey. Dew glistened on the grass, looking like a million, million diamonds scattered over the field. People were coming out of their conex boxes as the roving watch roused them. As I passed Lopez, she shook her head.
“You’re gonna be mad, Williams,” she told me.
“I’m never mad,” I told her, grinning. Her eyebrows rose, quietly contradicting me.
“You’ll see,” she said. I saw Shitty Smitty emerge from a porta-john, fumbling with the buttons on her pants. Why was she here? I thought we ditched her with Main Body… I stepped into the conex box the females were berthed in. Lopez followed after me, wrinkling her nose. While we didn’t exactly smell like sunshine and daisies, something in the can smelled like someone microwaved a tuna sandwich in the box.
Everyone’s things had been neatly piled in different areas . . . except for Shitty Smitty’s. She had just thrown all of her things on top of mine. Oh hell no. I lifted the belly flap of my vest, unvelcroing the left side plate. Lopez reached over and unbuckled the left shoulder strap, ripping it up from the Velcro that secured it. I leaned to the right, dumping my vest unceremoniously onto the wooden floor with a thump.
“You wanna play bitch games,” I told Lopez, grabbing the shoulder strap of Smitty’s Alice pack. “You win bitch prizes.” I swung Smitty’s Alice pack out of the conex box. It landed about five feet from the doorway. Her things reeked. This bitch literally had access to a shower for the last few days and hadn’t elected to take one, from the smell of it. And now, my shit, which already didn’t smell all that great in the first place, was going to smell like her unwashed unmentionables. Not today, motherfucker. I grabbed Smitty’s vest and tossed that out as well. It took only two minutes for me to throw all of her stuff out of the box. The sheer stench that had accompanied her things slowly wafted out of the box.
Smith came running up when she saw her things being tossed out of the box. She began shouting. She came from the backwoods of West Virginia, and sounded like an extra from Deliverance.
“I’m gonna tell Chief on you, Williams!” she howled. What’re you going to make me do? Squeal like a piggy? “This is hazin’!”
“Hazing is the assault you are doing to my nose hairs right now,” I retorted. “Go ahead and tell Chief. Hell, tell Ensign, I don’t give a shit!”
“Williams, that’s enough,” The calm voice of Master Chief Simpson came from the back of the can. She slowly emerged from behind a partition, her long black hair over her shoulder. “Smith, when you came, we told you to find an empty place for your things. An empty place. Judging from Williams’s reaction, you just threw your things on top of hers. She has been on watch all night. You haven’t. Find somewhere to put your thi—” As Master Chief spoke, I dug through my own Alice pack for the can of Febreze I had brought as a joke. I began spraying my things with it. Smitty might be okay with her things smelling like she had never washed her junk a day in her life, but I wasn’t. Not by a long shot. At least now my things would smell like Hawaiian springtime and Bigfoot’s dick! Master Chief broke off from her sentence and just looked at me. She wanted to disapprove, I could see it in her eyes, but the dead-pan way at which I had begun spraying the rest of the box was crumbling her resolve.
“Williams,” she groaned, after Smith had walked off. “Do you have to be such an insufferable asshole all the time?”
“Yes, Master Chief, I do,” I replied. Lopez laughed. “I’m not getting stuck on shower watch with Smitty when we get back to Main Body. I don’t get paid enough for that.”
Two years had passed since my rape, and I was deployed to Afghanistan. Things seemed to be looking up. I had blocked everything from my first deployment out, I had friends. I had a boyfriend who loved me. My chain of command had figured out that something was wrong, and were marveling at the fact that I was finally opening up. I was friendlier. I was caring. I was the troop who would drop everything to help out when another body was needed. If I were the sole member of the yard crew, I would get the entire week’s cycling of equipment done in a day and a half. I helped Sammy out in Dispatch. I laughed more. Who would have thought that being in a combat zone, in the middle of a war, would have been the thing that brought me back to life? That April was the first time I confessed to anyone what had happened.
“I was raped,” I said offhandedly to another girl on my det. She stretched the measuring tape across the piece of lumber in front of us, pointing to where I should mark it. I scraped the pencil along, creating a line that stretched across the two-by-eight. I drew a smiley face on the piece that was supposed to be scrap. We had drawn smiley faces all over the lumber that was being used to build up the camp at Balanday, and CE1 Briggs had told us to stop. Naturally, we ignored him and continued drawing the smiley faces. Leah picked up the circular saw and began to cut the wood.
“Did you tell anyone?” she asked as I kicked the last bit of wood, splintering it.
“No.” I said. “Who would have believed me?” She shrugged, as if to say ‘fair enough.’ We lived in a man’s world in the Seabees. Ten percent of our battalion was female. It would be a man’s word against my own.
“Does Jon know?” she asked. I nodded. Yes, my boyfriend knew. He had known since we had started dating. ”Mel, you have to report it.”
“What’s the point?” I asked. “When we got back from Oki, he disappeared into thin air.”
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