MAY, 2011– THE EXPLOSION came just after three o’clock in the morning – I’d say it woke me out of a dead sleep but only the dead sleep in Afghanistan. For the living, some part of the subconscious is always awake, always standing guard while the body tries to recharge from the traumas it has endured, without pause, for hours that have strung into days, then months. The initial blast pulled me from a place somewhere between rest and restlessness and caused my body to react. It sat up. It raised its arms and pressed its hands over its ears in an attempt to protect them from impact. Somewhere deep within, I was conscious of (and thankful for) the gears which turned on their own until I could gather my wits.
I looked down at my hands as I sat, stunned, in the shadows of the bunker. Soft light spilled from the emergency bulb in half-second bursts and poured over the crisscrossed pattern of red lines on my fingers and palms. As the light blinked, the flashing image pulled some memory from deep within me – and with it, a feeling of comfort and safety so strong that it permeated the fear I sat huddled in and muted the noise of the sirens screaming all around me. I closed my eyes and pressed my shredded hands against my thighs, embracing the memory.
“Bookshelves cost money, Bree,” my Poppa said when I asked him why we couldn’t have shelves like normal people while eyeing a rapidly-growing mountain of books stacked in the corner of my bedroom. “And money doesn’t grow on trees.”
I spent the rest of the day rearranging the book-mountain, pausing only long enough to make sure my door was locked as I heard the hiss and snap of my mom cracking open beer after beer from somewhere on the other side. It was safer in my room, where I found comfort in the strength of the hard, glossy bindings of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys as I stacked them against the door, yellow and blue spines out.
I’m not sure how many hours I sat there constructing my book-wall before the exhausting combination of labor and fear lulled me to sleep. Some hours later, I woke in the dark to a soft knock and the sudden absence of the familiar chirp-and-click song of crickets, which had always guarded my slumber. After a few moments of terrifying, deafening silence, the knock came again, a little louder. Poppa, then – mom would be way too many beers in to knock that softly.
“Why is your door locked?” came the muffled question from the hallway. I had no answer that he didn’t already know, so instead I flipped on my lamp, unlocked the door, and dragged it open, book-wall toppling as Poppa poked his head through and took a look around.
“You’ll have to move those.” He whispered, pointing to the books scattered all around my feet. “I have something for you and it won’t fit through this crack.” I knelt down and pulled books out from behind the stuck door until it was open all the way. The silhouette of my Poppa carrying something large and rectangular slowly took form as it moved out of the shadows of the hallway and into the light of my room. He closed the door behind him, walked across the room and sat on my bed, setting what looked like a wooden crate down on the floor in front of him.
“It’s a bookshelf!” he insisted. I wasn’t so sure. “Well, it will be. With a few tweaks.”
Before I could take a closer look, he picked the crate back up and walked over to the corner of my room, where he sat it down again, this time placing the bottom of the crate against my wall, its opening facing the two of us. Grabbing a few of the scattered books off my floor, he stacked them vertically in the crate, bindings facing outward so we could read the titles. “There,” he said, “you see? We’ll add a couple of shelves in the morning so we don’t waste any space.” With that, he clapped his hands together and nodded before grinning at me and exiting the room, quietly closing the door behind him.
“Oh, Poppa,” I breathed into the silence, moving to turn the lamp up so I could inspect the makeshift bookshelf. I removed the books he had stacked inside and turned the crate over for a closer look. Constructed entirely of wood, it had two solid pieces anchoring each end, with the sides consisting of two long slats each, separated by a one-inch gap. Burnt into the wooden slats of one side, were the words “Sunkist Oranges.” I grinned at that, having seen many of these crates near the trash containers out behind the newspaper building where Poppa worked. The slats on the other side didn’t contain any words. Instead, a barely visible crisscrossed pattern stretched down the length of the wood, like someone had set the heavily-ladled crate against a metal grate of some sort, then decided to rub dirt into the marks to keep the pattern visible. I traced the design with my fingertips, deciding that I would make it permanent as soon as I could find a reliable marker. “This will do,” I thought. “This is perfect.”
More than perfect, I thought as the sirens continued to scream and the light continued to flash across the cuts on my hand, reminding me of the crisscrossing pattern I had traced with a brown Sharpie (repurposed from my middle-school arts class) onto the wooden Sunkist Oranges crate more than twenty years prior. I laughed as I thought of the advertisement I had discovered on the solid bottom of the crate the morning after – a giant orange globe with the words “Good Advice” painted in the Old English font on its center. I pointed it out to Poppa when he came to build a shelf into the crate. Looking at it thoughtfully, brow furled and lips pursed, he stared at it a good long while before speaking.
“Whatcha possibly got to laugh about right now, Pye?” a disembodied voice demanded from a dark corner.
Tucking my injured hands into the cool, still-damp seam of my t-shirt, I closed my eyes and whispered, too softly for anyone to hear, “good advice,” before slumping back against the concrete wall to wait out the chaos.
Three weeks after arriving at Camp Nathan Smith, Afghanistan to serve a year-long combat deployment with the United States Army, I found myself crawling into a foul-smelling dumpster behind the chow-tent. As far as I was concerned, the two plastic milk crates I discovered there, covered in egg shells and burnt gravy-drippings from the morning’s breakfast, were worth their weight in gold. I finally managed to dislodge the crates from the baking cakes of gravy in which they were stuck. Forty-five minutes and several gagging fits later, I had the crates cleaned off and resting on the floor of my tent, where I used zip-ties to fuse them together into a makeshift bookshelf. Always one for sentiment, I turned the crate over and wrote the familiar words on the bottom in silver sharpie: “good advice.”
How could I not laugh, with the sting of my hands against the cool dampness of my shirt to remind me of the anchor I created in a moment of carefree sentiment nearly eight months before – an anchor which grounded me even when the whole world outside of my tent threatened to tear me apart? I chuckled again, in earnest this time, the sound bouncing off concrete and landing in the mouths of the Soldiers I shared the bunker with. Their laughter weaved through my own and pushed the screaming sirens out of the bunker. We followed the laughter out, eyes squinting as the sun crept over the HESCO Bastion Concertainer wall. As the sharp, gleaming rays cut through the smoke and fog of the explosion, I lifted my bleeding hands up to catch them – grateful, anchored – Sunkist.
BREE PYE is a former U.S. Army photojournalist who is currently working on completing her MFA in creative writing at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she teaches creative nonfiction and serves as the Nonfiction Editor for TIMBER: A Journal of New Writing. Her Army photos and articles can be found in various news outlets, both online and in print.