The night came, over the hills; sun fell down, a ball of red fire, retreating, like a flame slowly. Humidity stayed. We got to Lawrence, Kansas. I stood outside and listened to Josh Ritter. The moon bright, still trees, people smoking cigarettes. Guy asks me for a light. Told him I had none. He got one off the ticket guy. We got talking. He was tall. Blonde. Baby-faced. Agile. Where ya goin, what ya doin, where ya from, nice train, quiet night.
‘I’m Mike, it’s really Mikhail cos I have Russian origins.’
‘I’m really Michéal cos it’s Irish for Michael.’
‘Cool. Vegas, huh?’
‘I gotta report for duty in the morning.’
‘I’m in The Marines.’
‘Yeah. I got a five man squadron and we’re getting deployed next week.’
‘I heard it’s getting messy over there.’
Drag, smoke in the night, hovers in the streetlight. ‘It was never any other way, man.’
‘And what do you do?’
‘Kind of….I got my crew and we watch out for the guys on the ground.’
‘Making sure they know what they’re getting into?’
‘Yeah, I’m a sniper.’
‘How does that feel?’
‘It’s my first mission.’
‘I got a job to do, that’s it.’
‘Did you always want to be….’
‘I was recruited cos I can speak Russian and I’m trained in multiple marital arts.’
The whistle goes and we get back inside.
He went one way.
I went the other.
The windows were black with night. Ocean blue seats and folks asleep. Passed some time watching laptop films and thinking about Vegas and war. Drank red wine and the Amish guy in the seat ahead looked over occasionally and smiled. Him and his red cheeks and his side-burns. Wasn’t sure what a conversation might involve. Religion, maybe. Love thy neighbour. That kinda thing. Sure what do I know?
Train rhythms beat on quiet tracks, like wheels on an office chair going over a plush carpet.
We got to another small town, can’t remember the name. There was a platform with a lonely family standing in the smoky light.
Mikhail came back out for another smoke and we picked up where we left off.
‘So, I report at 7. Hope my guys are all there and then we ship out in a few days. When we’re in action, we’re trained to never move. Go to the toilet. Nothing. We have to sit still for hours. Even days.’
‘You can’t give your position away. Even the slightest move and you’re gone.’
‘How long you out there for?’
‘Depends. Some tours are six months. Others twelve and eighteen.’
‘And you have a choice?’
‘I don’t care. I’m staying out there as long as I can. I want to protect my country, man. Someone has to. And if I don’t, those motherfuckers are gonna come and shoot me, and my family, and whoever else they can kill.’
‘What are the civilian casualties like?’
‘I’ll put it like this. The other week, right, a good friend of mine, good guy, fuckin good soldier. He’s out there, and he’s doing his job, and he’s trying to help the villagers fight these Taliban assholes, cos those guys are bad, right?’
‘So a seven year old girl comes up to him saying: ‘…hey mister, hey mister…’ Something like that. And she’s sweet and she’s holding a doll and he wants to be kind cos she’s a kid and these are things she’s gonna remember when she gets older, right? Hearts and minds.’
‘So she hands him the doll and he takes it and the fuckin thing explodes and kills the two of them.’
He takes in some smoke. ‘Crazy, right?’
‘So that’s what we’re up against. Some of these guys don’t give a fuck, at least we have standards. I love my country. I’ll die to protect it, but I won’t kill an eight year girl in the process. That’s the difference between us and them. That’s what people don’t understand.’
‘What age are you, Mikhail?’
Stubs out his cigarette. ‘I’m just gone twenty-five.’
‘Yeah, it’s hard on my girlfriend, but she said she’ll wait. Whatever it takes. Ya know?’
Whistle. Back on board please.
The night went by and there was a queue as the train slowed and the doors opened on the final stop and I saw Mikhail there with his bags packed, ready to go. He looked around, spotted me and said: ‘Hey, Mick, good luck in Vegas.’
And he was gone.