That’s what Arnie Higgins called him. In the Army, in a past life, he was Sgt. Jim Pride, but on the outside, running collections for Arnie, he was soldier boy, something less.
Pride grimaced whenever Arnie called him that. A private joke between them that reminded Pride of how he got to where he was at. Arnie never meant any disrespect by it. If he had, Pride would have flexed his brawn on Arnie’s legs like he did so many others who made the mistake of not paying up, and Arnie knew that.
“Matheson owes three grand,” Arnie said and Pride snatched the piece of paper from Arnie with Matheson’s address. An hour later, Pride was at Matheson’s townhouse, sitting in his Chevy Blazer. He pulled out his .45 Glock and chambered it, not that it ever came to that. Matheson was just some low-life attorney that got way in over his head snorting all his money up his nose, but the Army taught Pride to never take chances.
The doorbell was one of those faggoty novelty ringers that played ABBA’s “Money, Money, Money” and made Pride want to brush up his combatives on Matheson with a rear choke followed by an arm bar. When Matheson answered the door, 220 pounds of Pride with fresh military-cut hair looming in the threshold, the shock registered across Matheson’s face said he knew what came next.
Life ended for Pride in Iraq. The place was a shithole, a desert wasteland – ghettoes of cement houses packed tight and stacked on top of each other strung with clothes lines, pockmarked from small arms fire and shrapnel from RPG rockets; dirt roads scarred with impact craters from mortars and IEDs, piled with mounds of trash; fields of date palm groves where insurgents plied their deadly trade; the sickly green waters of the Tigris and Euphrates more contaminated than toxic waste.
Third world countries rated better, but Pride didn’t care. It helped him make sense of his world. Over there, he had direction, purpose. Over there, he was respected, a leader of soldiers. It didn’t matter that his life consisted of the same routine of patrols along Route Cobra in the Hellhound AO, in convoys of four to five Strykers, under constant threat of IED attack. It didn’t matter that a shower and 4-6 hours of downtime were his only luxuries; maybe a day or two of downtime if he was lucky for every 10-12 days outside the wire, a chance to go to the Post Exchange, get a haircut, watch a couple movies in his CHU, lift weights at the gym.
“If we get hit, and you see that mother fucker run,” he would tell his soldiers. “You light him up.”
On a couple patrols, Pride’s squad had been hit by IEDs, and managed to spot the trigger man running from the date palm groves. There were usually two or more – one to trigger the IED, and a spotter to signal the trigger man. In the past, they triggered the IEDs with a cell phone or radio device, but the coalition got wise and implemented radio frequency jamming devices on all the vehicles. Then they started running about 100-300 meters of command wire and manually triggered the IEDs, which meant they had to be closer in the vicinity of the IED. Sometimes, when the moon and the planets and the stars were in alignment, there would be an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in the air that caught them in the act; and for Pride there was no better day than this, because that meant the fuckers were toast.
Pride hated insurgents. But he hated the people more. Always with their hands out, greedy, dirty, interested only in what they could get, how much money in bogus, bullshit claims damages and CERP funds they could cheat the coalition out of, the American people out of. Or all the money that went into forming groups like SOI, Sons of Iraq, something started after the 2007 troop surge and Reconciliation. The same fuckers killing U.S. soldiers a year before. Payoff money that mostly went into the pockets of the Sheiks contracted to run the SOI. Fucking crooks and cowards. Pride hated them all, every last one.
Matheson was half the size of Pride – a forty-something, balding fat-man with flushed cheeks and beet red nose. Half the size, figuratively speaking. He was in a cotton robe two sizes too small that barely kept his crotch covered, his porky feet wedged into flip flops equally small. Seeing Pride put the fear of God in him, and after that initial shock, he managed to back peddle a few feet across his imported Mexican floor tile before stumbling and crashing to the floor on his ass. His robe flipped up over his huge, sagging gut, exposing a tiny pecker and one nut.
“Jesus Christ Matheson!” Pride yelled like a Drill Sergeant. “That is fucking pathetic!”
Pride stomped inside, scuffing the immaculate floor with the same combat boots he had worn in Iraq. He slammed the door shut and stomped up to Matheson, who started back peddling on his hands and ass, sliding his jiggling bulk across the floor. Pride raised and pulled back his right leg, paused dramatically, Matheson frozen in terror, and launched a combat boot into Matheson’s exposed crotch.
Matheson squealed in pain, a high pitched squeal that would have shoved bayonets into their eardrums and made them cringe had anyone been listening, and made any man grab for his balls. Matheson clutched his crotch and Pride kicked him again, and kept kicking.
“Pathetic! Pathetic! PATHETIC!”
Pride finally stopped neutering Matheson. He had started to work up a sweat, like the start of a good workout. Tears poured out of Matheson’s eyes and his face looked ready to explode. Pride produced a syringe and a tiny pharmaceutical bottle with rubber stopper.
“Now let’s talk about that money you owe.”
Serving in Iraq was like doing time. The minutes bled into hours, the hours into days, the days into weeks. Pride had retired to his CHU after ten days outside the wire. Dirty, exhausted, all he cared about was sleep. He swung open the door to the CHU – a large metal container similar to a freight container used on cargo ships, but fitted with a door and small a/c unit. Home sweet home.
Inside, Pride flipped a switch next to the door and two long halogen lights flickered on, glaring down on him in blinding white light, buzzing like a drove of angry flies. The CHU was a two-man room – beds fitted with stiff mattresses against each side; wall lockers at the foot of each bed to each side of the door; nightstands next to each bed – cheap, utilitarian, the bare necessities.
His CHU mate, Sgt. Thoman, was busy pecking away at his laptop, instant messaging or emailing his girlfriend. It drove Pride nuts. The prick would be on there typing until 1:30am in the morning, then get up at 7:00am and start typing again. Click, click, click, incessant, not soft, but loud and nerve wracking, banging away.
Pride didn’t bother getting undressed. He thudded into the mattress and pulled the covers over his head. His side of the room was bare, Spartan; Thoman’s side cluttered with photos of his girlfriend, or him and his girlfriend together, or his girlfriend and her friends, with cute little pussy-whipped frames painted in faggoty flowers and hearts. Click, click, click, Thoman pecked away, and Pride finally huffed, rolled over, grunted, pulling down the covers like a troll emerging from its cave.
“What the fuck man! I’m trying to fucking sleep!”
The room was cast in the twilight of early morning. Thoman was typing. A digital clock Pride had on his nightstand registered 7:03am. Thoman kept typing.
“Sorry man.” Thoman said.
Thoman kept typing and Pride slid out of bed. Pride was exhausted. Another day down, but a brand new day ahead. Thoman kept typing, click, click, click, the fucking prick. Thoman had kept Pride up, again. Serving in Iraq was like doing time, minutes into hours, hours into days, days into weeks, and Pride needed something to reenergize and keep him going.
Pride found solace in the gym. Whenever he had downtime, he spent most of it at the gym. When he first came to Iraq, he wasn’t that big, but 15 months of lifting changed a man. From a slender medium build, to a ripped incredible hulk, 15 months got results. At first, he could only bench 200 on a good day, squat maybe 100, curl 35-45, 3 sets of 10 reps, sometimes 5 sets if he really pushed himself. That was then. Now he was benching 350, 60-75 pound dumbbell curls, leg press 400-450. He was a behemoth. He could bench a fat man if he wanted. But he didn’t get there on his own.
He threw open the door to the large warehouse that had been renovated to a gym. He stormed past the treadmills and headed full steam for the weights; cardio was for pussies, though he still forced himself to run 60 minutes at least three times a week. He looked around for SSG Burke. He couldn’t start without a boost, and Burke had what he needed.
Pride used to be medium build, back then, his soft and weak days. He started with supplements and saw some improvement, then he met Burke, and bam, within a couple months, he was huge and lifting some serious weight. He had found his outlet, his way to reenergize. He spotted Burke at one of the incline benches racking 45’s onto the bar. Burke was just as massive.
“Hey, I didn’t know you were back from patrol,” Burke had said. “You ready to hit it hard today?”
Pride scoffed, “Always. You holding?”
Burke nodded and they slipped outside to the back of the gym. A syringe, a slight poke, and they were back at the weights, lifting hellbent like there was no tomorrow, every muscle pumped and swollen. That’s all it took. For Pride, there was nothing better. Fuck alcohol, fuck sex, fuck other drugs. Even the rush from going out on patrol. They paled in comparison.
Pride was on a routine patrol along Route Cobra in the Hellhound AO, in the lead vehicle of a convoy of five Strykers. Day 13 of being outside the wire, the longest he had ever been. He couldn’t get the songs out of his head. For the past month, the songs had played in his head, a different song each time, or sometimes several songs blurred together. Slipknot, Drowning Pool, Disturbed. Maybe it was the lack of sleep. Slayer, Metallica, Brotha Lynch, NWA. Maybe he was losing his mind. Ministry, Dr Dre. Maybe he had lost it already. The Killers. He had heard the song “All These Things That I’ve Done” one time, but one time was all it took. He didn’t even like the group. The song always came to the forefront, no matter how hard he tried to send it to the back of the playlist.
“Warrior 3 says this area has been a hotbed for IED activity, so keep your eyes peeled,” he had told his soldiers. There was PFC Rodrigues from Albuquerque, manning the left rear gunners hatch. There was SPC Williams from Portland, manning the gunners seat for the remote .50 cal. There was PV2 Clarke from Richmond, manning the front gunners hatch. There was PFC Kelman from Chicago, manning the right rear gunner’s hatch. There was SPC Young from Jacksonville and PV2 Frost from Phoenix, sitting along the benches, one across from the other. SPC Mulgrew from Columbus in the driver’s seat and SGT Pride the TC. They were all geared up in IBA body armor, MITCH helmets, M4A1 assault rifles locked and loaded, ready for action. He looked to each one, his soldiers, their leader, his brothers-in-arms.
The Stryker lifted off the ground under 600 pounds of explosives and crashed back down in a heap of fiery twisted metal. It flipped over in mid-air and landed on its side like a thunderous comet impacting the earth. An EFP tore through the armor like hot butter, the copper-shaped charge annihilating everything in its path. Young and Frost disintegrated in front of Pride, their bodies splattering through the Stryker interior. Flames engulfed Kelman, lit him up into a fireball, and he threw himself from the wreckage screaming and rolling around in the unforgiving sand. Clarke and Rodrigues launched from the gunners hatches, Clarke thrown clear but the wreckage came crashing down on Rodrigues, what remained of his body squishing out from underneath.
Every fiber of Pride rattled from the concussion, even as the flames shot toward him. His body reacted where his mind shut down, and he threw open the drivers hatch. “Out! Get the fuck out!” He had yelled at Mulgrew, and the next thing he knew, they had both scrambled out as the flames blasted from the hatch like a flamethrower, launching them into the sand. Williams screamed, still trapped inside the Stryker, cooked alive. Pride threw himself on top of Kelman and smothered the fire, his body still on auto-pilot. The songs played on, broken records, the only thing his mind capable of, no thought, just songs, it was all his body had to keep going. Small arms fire erupted around him, ricocheting off the metal of the dead Stryker.
The other Strykers raced by to get out of the kill zone, the remote .50 cals unloading on the date palm groves at their attackers, shredding through trees and flesh alike. An RPG rocket sizzled through the air and struck the third Stryker, but it weathered the blast and kept going. Another RPG exploded into the ground near Pride and threw him like a ragdoll thudding into the base of a tree. The songs roared together, all he could hear were the songs, even as he looked down at his mangled left leg. His body joined his mind, but the songs still played. His life ended that day, but he didn’t die. To lose his soldiers was worse than death, and they took their leader with them to the grave.
Pride came home from Iraq to a hero’s welcome. Normal was what he pretended to be, but inside the war still raged on. The sergeant in him was gone. They had managed to save his leg, but with a bum leg, the Army said he had to get out, they couldn’t use him anymore, he had served his country honorably. Bronze Star, Purple Heart. He threw them away. The leader in him was gone. When he was in uniform, people came up to him, congratulated him, thanked him for his service, for what he was doing for his country. Out of uniform, no one cared.
“You need to shut that bitch up or I’ll shut her up for you!”
The night Arnie found Pride at the Iron Horse bar, ready to murder the little prick and his buddies talking shit about the war and why it happened for all the wrong reasons, he saw in Pride someone who needed an outlet to vent. Pride was watching them play pool and struck up a conversation, letting it slip that he had just got out of the Army after serving his time in Iraq, and the prick’s girlfriend started running her mouth. He went to walk away before it got serious, out of hand, and that’s when the others chimed in their drunken political outlook on things.
“But we really appreciate what you soldier boys are doing over there,” the prick had said to try and calm Pride down. It only pissed him off even more.
“You need to learn when to shut the fuck up,” Pride had turned around, storming toward the prick and his buddies. Deer caught in the headlights. That’s when Arnie stepped in.
“Whoa buddy, they’re not worth it.”
Pride sized Arnie up – a husky guy who wore wire-rimmed glasses and had a military haircut, maybe 15 years older than Pride. “Who the fuck are you?” Pride had asked. Arnie had served in the first Gulf War, but the years out of the service had caught up with him. There was a camaraderie among soldiers who served that never died – a mutual respect that never died – and Pride heeded Arnie’s advice and walked away. Only after they sobered up would the pricks realize how lucky they were that Arnie stepped in.
“Soldier boy,” Arnie had scoffed, “that’s funny. They just don’t get it, how could they unless they’ve served, been where we’ve been and seen what we’ve seen.”
Arnie was right and Pride agreed. Pride started looking for jobs. The songs played in his head. The Army had taught him not to sit on his ass, to be proactive. Most of his time, he spent at the gym. A syringe, a slight poke, and he was at the weights, lifting, a soldier on a mission. The weights were his enemy. Sleep was a crutch. Food was a crutch. Feeling was a crutch. Breathing was a crutch.
“You need a job? I can line something up for you, easy money. You’d be working for me, helping me collect,” Arnie had said a week later while they were drinking at the VFW. “We’d be partners.” Arnie smiled. “So what do you think soldier boy?”
Arnie was a loan shark who was having trouble getting his clients to pay. A small fish in the grand scheme of things, not that Pride ranked anywhere above that. He downed a shot of Jack Daniels, lost in contemplation.
Pride had come home to a hero’s welcome, congratulated, thanked for his service, for what he had done for his country, but Pride knew they didn’t really care. Supporting the troops had become something people felt obligated to do. Other things were more important – the economy, gas prices, the next president, how that would affect how much money they made. That’s what he saw – people with their hands out, interested in only what they could get. They could give two shits about the war. A soldier needed an enemy to help him make sense of things, and Pride had found his.
“So where’s the money Matheson?”
Pride stabbed the syringe through the rubber stopper, pulling back on the plunger. Matheson was still teary eyed, whimpering now, as Pride poked himself in the side of the thigh near his ass. He lifted up a darkwood three door storage ottoman next to the door and started curling it, 10 reps, then threw it down. The ottoman crashed against the floor, spilling out a stack of newspapers and music CDs that scattered across the floor. Pride pulled a roll of duct tape out of his pocket.
“Where’s the money Matheson?”
“Please, for the love of god, no more,” Matheson bawled. Pride stormed toward him and Matheson clutched his crotch tighter, curling into a fetal position. Pride stretched out a piece of the tape and knelt over Matheson, wrapping the tape around his body like a cocoon. Matheson screamed and thrashed around, and Pride punched him in the face. Matheson’s nose split open with a sickening crunch and blood sprayed out. He went limp, dazed by the blow, his eyes fluttering.
Pride finished wrapping Matheson up in tape, hoisted Matheson up into his arms like a groom carrying his bride over the threshold, extended out his left leg for balance, squatted down a little, and with a heavy grunt, heaved Matheson up above his head. One, two, three. Pride shoulder pressed Matheson three times, and on the third, chucked him to the floor. Matheson belly flopped onto the floor with an earth shattering thud. Pride stomped toward Matheson to shoulder press him again.
“It’s in the dresser! In the living room!” Matheson screamed.
Pride grinned. He went into the living room and found the money – all rolled up, nice and neat, waiting for him. He grabbed up Matheson’s 51” flat-panel plasma screen TV and started dead-lifting it, 10 reps, and hurled it at the floor. He stormed into the kitchen and snatched a chair, using it to do front lateral shoulder raises, 3 sets of 10 reps, and threw it into the wall. In the dining room, he grabbed a three door three drawer sideboard and pumped out some shoulder shrugs, 3 sets of 10 reps. He dropped to the floor on his hands and leveraged his feet on the darkwood double extended dining table and knocked out incline push-ups, 3 sets of 10 reps. He continued through the townhouse, lifting more furniture and discarding it to the floor in smashed, broken heaps.
When Pride finished, he looked around. Matheson was still bawling, blubbering how sorry he was. Pride patted the wad of money in his pocket. Another successful collection – mission accomplished. He huffed and grunted, wiping the sweat from his brow, his muscles pumped and swollen. He stared at the trashed townhouse – a thousand yard stare. On the floor mixed with the scattered newspapers was a CD – The Killers – and he bent down to snatch it up. The crumpled front page of a newspaper lay next to the CD, staring back at him. A headline tucked into the bottom right corner read Iraq: Five years later: Where do we go from here? He kicked at the newspapers and they sailed through the air as he stomped out of the townhouse to his Chevy Blazer. The front page floated back down and landed face up on the floor. He hopped into his Blazer and played the CD, listening to “All These Things That I’ve Done” as he drove to the gym.