Lit/South Awards 2022
Nonfiction Competition – Third Place

Matt Cheek


It’s a freezing January in Afghanistan and I’m not yet old enough to drink. I’m sitting on an MRE box telling a joke about sucking a dog’s dick. The Marines around me laugh as I pretend to suck the dick of the little puppy I’m holding. Sgt. Frasier chokes a bit as he laughs, a sign he’s been smoking for longer than the rest of us. The puppy is nestled in the crook of my arm, shedding its fur on what I now refer to as my bad-guy suit. It’s the uniform I wear to do bad-guy things. Tonight is a bad-guy night. Every night was a bad-guy night. Out of the corner of my eye I see Lt. Smith staring at me. He already ordered me to get rid of the puppy, an order which I willfully ignored. He’d kill the puppy if I let him. I briefly wonder if he’s this big of an asshole to animals back in America and then I get back to asking Cpl. Black if he would suck a dog’s dick on the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl for a million dollars. We haggle about the dollar amount he would have to receive. Before this deployment is over the puppy will be dead and Lucas, my roommate and friend, will be dead too.

Later that day on patrol, I wonder to myself what makes us “us.” Barbosa lost his legs on our last deployment and we still consider him to be human. But what if he lost his head? What if I could only save his head and keep that alive, is that still Barbosa? I convince myself that the answer is yes and then tell myself that the hand that I’m holding isn’t Lucas anymore. I am not sure where Lucas is, but I heard the explosion from the other side of the wadi. I can hear a Marine crying on the other side. I try to picture the explosion—what it looked like and what it may have felt like as hot metal and fire ripped Lucas’ body apart. I look down at the bit of torso that remains of his body, it’s connected to an arm which is connected to the hand that I’m holding. I shake the hand as if meeting him for the first time and mutter under my breath, “Nice to meet you.” I look back at Cpl. Black and say, “This is pretty fucked up, huh?” Black doesn’t say anything, just nods and lights a cigarette. I turn the arm over to see what used to be Lucas’ tattoo on what was once his forearm. The tattoo is a skull with a Latin phrase written on a ribbon wrapped under the jaw. The ribbon reads “mors omnibus.” Death to all.

I drag the body to the other side of the berm. I wonder if anyone thinks I’m an asshole for dragging this body, but nobody says anything. I drag the body to a black bag. I see the Marine crying and realize it’s Hutch. He’s a good friend of Lucas’ and used to play some nerdy card game with him in the barracks. Hutch and I look at each other and just stare dumbly. I don’t cry and I feel fucked up for not crying. I mumble something to Hutch about being sad. I don’t know if I am sad.

I start to wonder if there’s a scale for fucked up things. On a scale of one to ten? One is being dumped by your girlfriend, ten is picking up the body parts of your friends. I think about what a five might feel like. I can’t think about it too hard; I don’t remember the last time I slept, and I’ve consumed nothing but Rip Its and beef jerky for the past few days.

Two hours later I’m holding the puppy and smoking a cigarette. It’s terrified or maybe I’m terrified. Death is all around us and seems inevitable. My heart breaks as I hold the puppy. The puppy is only cold, only hungry. I don’t want to exist, but the puppy needs someone to feed him and keep him warm. I convince myself the puppy loves me. An explosion can be heard in the distance. Time to go do bad-guy things.

After the firefight following the explosion there isn’t much noise, or at least I can’t hear anything, but everyone can hear the puppy softly bark from inside of my drop pouch. Lt. Smith yells at me to get rid of the fucking dog, but I just stare at him coldly as I peel a piece of meaty string that I think is a tendon off of a wall and put it into a thick, black bag. The explosion was an improvised explosive device that killed Hutch. “Remember, Marines, don’t let these fuckers find any trophies,” screams Lt. Adam. He’s such a fucking dick. I picture the Talibs making a video in which they parade around with this piece of tendon while chanting with their faces covered. That video would be a three on the scale of fucked-up things. Then I grab some pieces of meat to help clean up more of my dead friend. At first, I grab them one by one to be respectful, but it’s taking forever so I start to grab large fistfuls and dump them in the bag. I wonder how much of Hutch’s flesh I’m holding. Why doesn’t the Taliban just go through these bags to find their trophies?

The next morning, I hold the puppy in my arms and accept that I can’t keep him. I can’t save him. Even if I weren’t a shitty owner, I’m on patrols all the time; who would keep him quiet? I just know that Lt. Adam would stomp on him if I weren’t around to protect him. The other Marines are stirring and getting in their trucks. We’ll soon have to go pick up the body parts of our friends. It’s a new day. Today we’ll be bad guys again and make the Talibs collect the corpses of their friends. This is my bad-guy life, with my bad-guy rifle in my fucking bad-guy suit. I’m holding the puppy and it reminds me that I’ll never feel normal again. For a second, I hate America, I hate all my friends and family for thanking me when I get home, but most of all I hate myself.

I take a knee and scoop the puppy out of the crook of my arm. My bad-guy rifle, slung over my shoulder, digs out a small bit of dirt with the muzzle when I kneel. The puppy seems irritated I’ve disturbed his nap. He’s hungry, he’s cold. I hear Lt. Adam bitch about the puppy in the distance. I cry silently as I kill the puppy with a quick twist of his neck.

Nonfiction judge Stephanie Elizondo Griest writes: This essay really blew my mind. It is completely recreating a world and a time and a place. It all happens in the very first sentence. “It’s a freezing January in Afghanistan, and I’m not yet old enough to drink.” And it just descends from there into a world of a young narrator attempting to find humanity in a world largely bereft of it through very short staccato sentences. Each one lands like a bullet, creating a gaping wound within the reader who then mourns for the writer, and all the writer is experiencing.