Hard Sell

October 29, 2011. Somewhere along Kabul’s infamous Darulaman Road, a Taliban suicide bomber rams a vehicle packed with explosives into the side of an American military armoured bus. Seventeen people are killed, including a Canadian soldier working in an advisory role to the Afghan National Army. He is the 158th Canadian soldier to be killed in Afghanistan and the first to be killed in the army’s new, post-combat role.

Somebody could walk into this room and say that your life is on fire.
—Paul Simon

Mcpl. Byron Greff
Kabul, Afghanistan

Riding the rhino. Again.

He shifts in his seat, sweaty against the vinyl despite the air-con unit blasting away on the ceiling. His rifle, unclipped from its combat sling rests muzzle down between his legs. The molly pouches on his tac-vest and his body armour keep him from relaxing, forced to sit a few inches forward like a kid on a school bus refusing to take off his pack.

The driver, a sergeant, turns in his seat. He double checks his manifest by surname and rank. Cabrera, lieutenant colonel. Newman, staff sergeant. Darrough, sergeant. Greff, master corporal. He runs through the civilians by name only.

There’s the requisite safety briefing where the security officer fancies himself a comedian. Stay seated. If you’re getting shot at, stay inside the Rhino. If we hit an IED and the Rhino catches fire, get out. If the Rhino is on fire and we’re being shot at, stay inside the Rhino. But if you do have to get out of the Rhino, remember that when the Rhino gets blown onto its side, the top escape hatch then becomes the side escape hatch. Remember that, people. Ha ha.

The civilians in the back, spindly things in just their Kevlar vests, tend to laugh nervously and look at each other. The troops and private security contractors in full battle rattle don’t. They’ve heard variations on the same theme dozens of times. They always take the front seats, unless ordered back for an officer or VIP. Closest to the door. Fight or flight positions.

The Rhino’s been idling in the marshalling yard for a while, waiting for its escort. No one gives the driver a hard time about it. Even the troops feel safer when they can’t predict the timing of the runs from Camp Julien back to Camp Phoenix. Eventually a few MRAP vehicles rumble into position, and the convoy departs to a crackling soundtrack of radio code. The Rhino’s armour is light enough to float on water yet it stops all but the biggest bullets. Stops the sound, too, so Byron can’t know if there’s top cover, Blackhawks or Apaches shanked with guns, chattering overhead like hungry locusts.

Outside the wire. The moment he tenses up when leaving the fortified NATO bases to drive the routes through Kabul’s frenetic core. Especially in the mornings, leaving his living quarters and wireless internet behind, closing his laptop, the program he uses to speak with his wife and weeks-old daughter sleeping peacefully until his return. It was just four days ago that a photographer was in their living room taking portraits of the new-born – he gave the photographer a hard time for asking him to remove his ball cap. Shit. The guy just wanted to capture something before the husband went away again to war. It was just a few photos, for God’s sake.

The city roars past, oblivious to the guns tracking its every cough, every step. It’s good to be back into it. He’s been to the sandbox before, but this tour is about training the ANA rather than combat. He knows his shit. Tested, they say. It’s an important mission, advising and training, although a soldier always feels most at home in the mud – commuting, even in an armoured Rhino, even along Darulaman Road, one you’d never mistake for a four-lane back home, is numbing.

The sky is dim through the one-way glass – in an ambush, you can shoot at the enemy from inside even though their bullets won’t pass through the other way – like it’s being filmed with an old day-for-night filter. But Byron knows the sky will be a light, colourless grey, as it so often is, the air a mask of the finest dust smothering the blue.

One of his grieving friends will have the honour of the first post on his obituary webpage. She’ll write about God letting soldiers die so they can become his angels, and paste a poem that wishes for him to be warmed by an eternal sun. Here, though, the city’s elevation is deceptively cool, and the hot, watchful eyes of the Taliban are cunning. Here, the sun always burns.

*

Jason Archer
Hamilton, Ontario

Just tell them you’ve always been good with numbers. Make it a positive.

That’s the kind of thing a lawyer would tell him to say. So he did, and his probation officer had to write it down because that’s what they’re paid to do. Jason’s lawyer is using it in the sentencing hearing, hopefully to reduce, but the Crown has a copy, too.

He said he wants to pursue a career in accounting because he’s good at counting drug money, the Crown guy says. That’s not going to happen overnight, Your Worship.

Jason can tell that it’s not going so well. It’s hard to stay in the little bulletproof box, the shackles heavy on his ankles, and let everyone else do the talking. Feels like he’s not even there. He tries to follow the arguments but the lawyers in their suits and the serious judge in her robe speak a kind of code. So he looks around – he has a good view of the whole courtroom – to give his eyes something to do. The gallery. Tables and benches. Cameras. Court reporter. Microphones. The oddly cheerful and colourful coat of arms above the judge.

His lawyer gave him the things to say and how to say them, but they didn’t work at trial and Jason’s thinking they won’t do much better here.

I want to get help, because I realise I need it, he says at the appropriate time.

He’s to think of this hearing as damage control, where his lawyer and the Crown haggle towards a mutually agreeable sentence. Sounds very civilised and orderly. The Crown’s pushing hard for a three-spot in the Pen, though.

I seriously question how realistic that is, he says. The pre-sentence report discloses that Mr Archer is a drug dealer with a history of violence.

And Jason’s Oxy addiction at twenty pills a day gets put out there again, like it was at trial. The Oxy, weed, and coke they found during the raid. The shotgun that was kicked off the balcony but still recovered.

The Barton Jail is hard time, max security for everyone, no one there longer than two bits. You carry your reputation in with you, fight for it when it gets called out, and hope to carry it out as well. That way you have options streetside. But here, in this sterile chamber with the orange wood under the flickering fluorescents, it’s no help at all. The Crown knows this, too.

The accused has taken no steps to improve himself during his pre-trial custody – although it’s not my intent to crush the accused’s goals.

Goals like accounting and the other nice things Jason says he’ll do if they’d just lean on him a little less hard. Well, the judge gets the final say about those too, doesn’t she? Everything moves along at a clip – in code, efficient – and she soon passes sentence.

Jail time is required, but you’re a young enough candidate for rehabilitation. Two years less a day for trafficking in narcotics and the weapons convictions, she says. Plus two years’ probation.

So, not the Pen, then – he’ll stay at home in The Hammer, closer to his family and friends and girlfriend. They’re here today for victim and witness impact statements and support. They backed him up, of course, that the trafficking was just to support the habit. The accounting dream might have been news to all of them, but that’s what you say. Two years will be hard for them, especially her.

But the judge isn’t done – from the report, she knows that the girlfriend is a user, too.

You need to think carefully whether that relationship is good for your rehabilitation – you need to think about yourself, she says.

Telling him to do the numbers again.

*

Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair
Halifax, Nova Scotia

Truth. Reconciliation. Noble, impossible goals.

He has to sit up straight, choose a posture that honours the speeches, the words of tribute and thanks that close this national event, the third of seven. It allows him to endure, too, so he can pay attention. So much contained in how a person carries himself, isn’t there?

It’s best to be a leader and believe in a cause. It’s best to guide a nation through a process that is at once as wondrous and impossible as the circling flames on the logo that graces every page, every envelope, every sign, every dedicated electron. Fires and circles. Flames and light. Seven flames, seven truths. Love. Respect. Courage. Honesty. Wisdom. Humility. Truth.

In a circle. Dancing.

You can’t unmake the past – all you can do is help each other come together and share. He’s told whoever will listen that the goal of the commission is purely to establish and record a national memory. Some think this initiative, these events, can heal. No. They can only help survivors find a place to start.

Survivors carried more than the Inuvik event’s sacred ashes to Halifax – they carried themselves and their memories. Miracles, all. A collective, heartbreaking story of being torn from those you love and burned to the ground, yet trying to live, rebuild, by reassembling the ashes and charred tinder they left you with.

As his spot in the program draws near, he understands why he was chosen. He is a symbol, after all, of what could be. Shared ancestry, blood, passion, success. And yet he shares nothing, too, a product of privilege and a clearly lined path that avoided the worst of the burning. Still, they look to him as a reminder of how far a people can go, if only.

Yet not so far by comparison. Some Inuit came down all the way from northern Labrador. They speak of the old expression becoming even more hateful. Kill the Indian in the child becomes Kill the Eskimo in the savage. And he, along with everyone else, has been moved by the group from Cold Lake who walked to Halifax. They arrived today to warm themselves by the sacred fire that has burned since the event began. Today, I’m going to touch the ocean, one said.

Murray looks over the assembled guests, the visitors, the honorary witnesses. What can he say, really, in the few minutes set aside in the hour-long ceremony, that can begin to reach his people? That can try to harness even a fraction of the emotions and scars and memories each person bears?

The RCMP gave its report earlier today – no one expected much, but in their cold way they admitted they acted as instruments of the state, often brutally, like truant officers and mercenaries concerned only with an end result. The Anglicans simply thanked the people for the chance to speak and apologised for the pain they inflicted, the terrible memories they created. He wonders if the church’s listening area, set aside all week for personal reconciliation, would have remained as empty as it had if the apology had been issued on day one.

Sometimes all you can do is sit up straight so people can see you. The words are secondary, aren’t they? First must come the sacred fires, bentwood boxes, embraces from other bearers of scars, cupcakes for birthdays never celebrated, unhindered smiles from long-missed friends, tear-soaked tissues collected in paper bags and burned in the sacred fire, dancing with others who still want to dance, and the meeting and weeping and deciding whether or not to forgive.

The emcee steps away from the podium. Murray stands and steps forward, humbled by the hundreds of faces – hard, open, closed, tearful, bright, young, old – who aren’t there for him at all.

*

Bill Earle
St John’s, Newfoundland

Cuffs or no cuffs, Bill knows the boy had to run. A father knows. That’s what he’ll tell them when they ask. And they will ask – the media in St John’s love a story like this. They’ll ask stupid questions. Did you know he was going to escape, Bill? How does it feel? Has he called?

To know what it feels like, he’ll say, you’ll have to walk in my shoes.

Kid’s been off his meds for who knows how long, stuck in holding cells with who knows who. Always had issues, that one did. Doctors, pills – it’s been an education. Fathers shouldn’t know the names of the drugs shackling their children. Seroquels. Accutanes. From one side of their mouths they say they’re just hopped-up vitamins and routine therapy – from the other they whisper about birth defects, psychiatric episodes, suicide attempts, all the threads you can’t tie back together.

Eighteen and off-balance. How would you respond when you’re ass-all-over and sick in the mind and they threaten you with more charges for writing on the cell walls? How’s an eighteen-year-old beanpole get something to write with in jail, anyhow? Couldn’t they tell from court when he turned the colour of an apple and needed extra water that he’d need some extra vigilance?

They said he was gone like a jackrabbit. Just turned and bolted and that was it, Bill says.

Well, it must have been arranged somehow. Kid must’ve known roughly when they’d free up the cuffs during that transfer and told one of the girls he calls his friends to be waiting somewhere up Cookstown Road. Those teardrops branded beneath his right eye – God, he wears them things proud – have to be good for a favour or two. A ride. A place to stay. Out west in Topsail or Paradise, maybe.

He’s gone now, though, sure. Bill started looking straight away, grabbing a friend’s car so Jason Daniel wouldn’t know it was him. He’ll have to do that a few times if they don’t catch his son quick. It’s exhausting, but a father on his toes can’t sleep anyhow.

Phone just me and let me know where you’re to, boy. I’ll deal with what I got to deal with.

He’ll have to admit about the phone calls at some point. About the cell phone they can’t trace. About Jason Daniel sounding so hollow when he talks about staying out until Christmas, that he’ll turn himself in after the holidays.

*

Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Perth, Australia

He reminds himself that symbolic gestures are still important. All of the heads of government are starting to look tired after days of agonisingly slow progress – it never moves as quickly as we’d like, he’s fond of saying – so Canada’s protest might not have its full intended impact. But human rights are human rights, and the Tamils honoured so few of them.

Yes, we’re still going ahead with the walkout tomorrow, he tells his staff. He zeroes in on the communications people, charged with wrangling the press crawling all over King’s Park looking for news. Tells them to make sure the walkout hits the news. He’ll be damned if India’s boycott over uranium or Britain’s LGBT stance are the only things that get taken away from the Perth CHOGM.

And now this.

Walt and Peter will have to make the trip to Trenton for Greff’s return. Stephen’s glad he’ll probably miss the requisite Parliament Hill protest – for some reason seeing UNCLE STEVE on the placards bothers him more than the uninspired chanting or the arrogance of the familiar, scruffy crew protesting Canada’s presence in Afghanistan.

He’ll get Angelo, his new director of communications, on a release right away, focus on the training and rebuilding rather than the danger. They’d been selling the transition away from combat and into advising as the safer alternative. Greff is the first non-combat death. There would always be risk—

Wait, write that down. Downplay but don’t diminish. Make a personal connection – tell the press that his own trips to Afghanistan were fraught with risk. Yes, he was choppered around from post to post, but he can sell the danger, right? All it takes is one starving bullet, even for a VIP with his own security detail. Still, on those roads – those seething, chaotic roads – it isn’t the bullets at all, is it?

They targeted the Rhino, the softest of the hard targets in the convoy, and took gleeful responsibility soon afterwards. A Toyota Land Cruiser. Seven hundred kilograms of explosive. The blast blew the armoured bus ten metres to the side and broke windows five hundred metres away. There were blast casualties, of course, blunt trauma from the shock wave and the sudden displacement. A horrific fire. Seventeen dead. The Taliban claimed twenty-five, but they always exaggerate. They even published the name of the bomber, granting that coward a glimpse of immortality.

Stephen looks over the communiqué again. Greff had been in country only a few days, a decorated ISAF vet on his second tour. Damn it, this will be a hard sell.

There will be questions to answer from the press about the attack, and the dissection of this new mission. About its goals. The risk. The cost. At some point, there will be a phone call to the family, too. Lindsay Raphael, the widow. Kellar, the son. Brielle, the new-born daughter.

Damn it.

Brent van Staalduinen

About Brent van Staalduinen

Brent van Staalduinen is an award-winning short story writer and novelist who lives, works, and finds his voice in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He is the author of SAINTS, UNEXPECTED, a novel of magical realism, and the recipient of the Bristol Short Story Prize, The Writer Magazine’s “Our Darkest Hours” Prize, and the Fiddlehead Best Short Story Award. His work appears in such notable publications as The Writer, The Sycamore Review, The New Quarterly, Riddle Fence, The Fiddlehead, Prairie Fire, EVENT, The Dalhousie Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Humber School for Writers and UBC’s prestigious MFA program in Creative Writing, Brent teaches writing at Redeemer University College.

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