“The Storekeeper.” Originally Published:

The Missouri Review, v. 21:2 , University of Missouri, Columbia 1998

Anthologized: 
Best New American Voices 2003, Joyce Carol Oates Ed., Harcourt Brace: New York 2003


The Storekeeper

In January of 1991, four days before the UN Security Council resolution will turn Desert Shield into Desert Storm, the team waits for the scouts on the south side of a dust covered washout deep in the Iraqi desert. Stacey, the storekeeper, a thin man with pinched, worried shoulders, slumps against a rock. It is 70 degrees. In BDUs and thermals, wearing a helmet and tactical vest, and carrying web gear, he’s hot. Across from him, the shade reaches out, but because the team’s pale desert camouflage best matches the sun-bright rocks, they sit in the sun.

The radioman tells him the temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, as he does every hour whether Stacey needs the information or not. Humidity can slow a bullet down, but this afternoon the air is dry. He knows that because his face is dry. Under his uniform, he drips sweat. The wind speed is 9 miles per hour—light for the desert.

The rifle lies across his thighs. A beige cloth sticks out the muzzle as protection against the grit and dust. Sand-fleas move through the hairs on his wrists and under the collar of his shirt. He reaches in his pack for more insect repellent, dabs some on his neck. The lens-hoods on the scope are down, and Stacey closes his eyelids, too.

The scouts return. They located an Iraqi observation post a little over a kilometer away. The CO tightens his lips. “Stacey,” he says. “Splash the target.”

Stacey opens his eyes. For the first time, he is ordered to kill a man.

~

I got my first rifle when I was eight. It was a .22—a gift from my dad.

He was the kind of man who could just look at a gun and tell what’s wrong. He’d glance over, say, “Son, the bolt’s not locked down.” I’d think it was, but when I checked, sure enough, it wasn’t all the way locked down. Or, he’d say, “The shot’s low right—you’re pulling.”

My father was in charge of auto parts distribution in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, and he was often gone. I knew when he was home he didn’t want to waste time teaching me how to shoot. He wanted to get out in the woods. So, I practiced.

One thing I did was take a toothpick and tape it to a garbage can. I’d start walking backward until I couldn’t see it anymore. Then I’d take one step forward and shoot it.

We hunted all over the wild country near our home in Sebastian County, Arkansas. My dad always seemed to know where the birds and squirrels were, though in truth he didn’t care much for squirrel hunting. He didn’t find it challenging. He preferred quail hunting. I thought squirrel hunting was sporting because the squirrels could hide in the trees.

One day, my dad showed me that deer hunting wasn’t so sporting. Some snow remained on the ground, just in patches in the shade. He held up his hand and motioned for me to turn around. I did, and there was a six point buck about fifty yards away. I stood there for a second. The deer stood there for a second looking at us. Then it ran off into the brush.

I said, “Wow, that’s pretty.”

He said, “See why I don’t hunt deer?”

I didn’t, so I said, “No.”

“Could you have hit that deer?”

“Sure, Dad. It’s as big as a barn.”

He said, “I rest my case.”

~

The bolt-action single-shot .50 caliber M88 that Stacey carries was designed in 1988 by a master gunsmith at G. McMillan and Co. of Phoenix, Arizona to meet specific Navy requirements. It was titled “a special application sniper rifle.”

The weapon has an effective range of 2000 meters (1.2 miles). With tactical optics, it weighs in excess of 30 pounds. According to G. McMillan’s technical manual, the M88’s purpose is to “provide the user with a system capable of a high probability of a destructive first round hit on identified point targets.”

Stacey rests the weapon against his shoulder and takes a small plastic case out of his shirt pocket. He removes earplugs and screws them into his ears, muffling exterior sound. He flips the switches on the scope that release the lens-covers and scoots over to a low rock that has an unobstructed view to the northeast. He folds out the gun’s bipod and places its feet on the rock. According to the scouts, the target is about a kilometer away. He levels the weapon. Crouching, he moves his right eye to its sighting distance. Because the scout’s directions are good, he finds the man almost immediately.

The man has his observational post in the sharp mountains. He holds a military crest, a ridgeline below the actual crest of a hill. He has an excellent view of the low valley spread before him, but he is not silhouetted against the sky. Though a low row of sandbags lie in front of him, his head and chest are well within the reticle of Stacey’s scope. He is armed with what looks to Stacey to be an American made M16. Above his head, he has fashioned a sun-screen by draping a beige cloth over two prongs stuck into the hill behind him. The sunset casts the red sandstone into a deeper red.

Stacey adjusts the split image focus, which is the range finder. Green numbers in the lower center of the sight compute the distance as Stacey turns the dial mid-scope. The man’s M16 leans against his shoulder. Because the image shimmers with the heat waves, Stacey uses the sharp lines of the gun-barrel to join the upper section—the man with a concave wrap on his head—with the lower, his shoulders and the hands that rest on his weapon. When the two halves meet, Stacey sees the range is 1219 meters.

The man turns his head in Stacey’s direction. For an instant, they look at each other. Stacey does not move. The man’s eyes remain unenlightened. On his ledge, from that distance, he cannot see Stacey. The man puts his head down left and away, lights a cigarette. Then, he returns his gaze to the eastern horizon.

~

We met in high school. I’d been playing football, been injured, and I decided to take the band bus. I saw her sitting in the back, and I said, Goddamn, that is a good-looking woman. She was a majorette. So, I got up and went back to where she was sitting. I sat down and more or less just told her, By God, we’re going together.

Everything was going according to plan. She was a perfect wife and mother. For fun, we’d go dancing. She loved dancing. On a Friday night, we were out, and I noticed a twinge in my left knee.

The morning after we’d been out, my knee quit. I fell on my face. I couldn’t stand.

The doctor said, “We’ll scope it. Two hours you’ll be back.”

An in-out patient deal. So, we schedule the operation for a Thursday. She was caring for me, perfectly wonderful. They took me in and six hours later I came out of surgery.

I’m in the recovery room. She’s standing next to the bed, but she is dressed differently. I made a mental check to see when she could have done that. I didn’t know that it had been six hours.

“Well, there was a problem,” she said.

I said, “Hi, Honey. You look awfully nice. What do you mean ‘a problem?’”

“The doctor says you’ll be unable to walk for a while.”

I thought, two or three days. “Well, that’s no big deal,” I said.

“Here he is. He’ll tell you.”

The doctor explained that I had a condition, osteochondritis dissecans, where somehow, somewhere, something got in the knee joint and ground the cartilage up. He said I wouldn’t be walking for six months to a year.

When he was done talking, my wife leaned over, gave me a kiss, and said, “By the way, I’m going out.”

That’s why she was dressed up.

What I think is, something happened when that doctor said I was going to be gone, unable to do anything. She snapped right then and there. She blew a fuse.

What I didn’t realize, at the time, was during those months she was taking care of me, she did it, but she held it against me. That’s what I figured out, anyway. I was supposed to take care of her. That was the bargain. I’m the one who failed her. That must have been her thinking.

It wasn’t a full year after that she said she was gone for good.

I was completely devoted to her and our kids. I always built everything around that premise. That was the way I was raised. That was the way my parents were raised. And, then, out of nowhere, this curve hit me.

~

The team carries three types of ammunition for the M88: “whitey petes,” armor piercing DUs, and exploding ballistic tipped bullets. Because Stacey shoots accurately and at a great distance, he does not need much ammo. They carry a felt bag of each type, twelve rounds.

The white phosphorous round, “whitey pete,” is primarily used for munitions and fuel. Phosphorous is packed around a titanium spike, and then the entire bullet is covered in a protective skin. As the projectile travels through the barrel, its protective material wears off, and air friction ignites the phosphorous.

The second type is called a DU, for Depleted Uranium.  Because naturally occurring uranium contains only 0.7% of the fissionable U-235 isotope, the process of extracting fissionable U-235 for commercial and military applications creates the nuclear waste, depleted uranium (DU). This is the principal component of the DU armor piercing round. DU is two and a half times more dense than steel and one and a half times more dense than lead. Considered a nuclear waste, the density of DU makes it possible to have a smaller bullet, with less air drag, but the same mass as a larger round. The DU concentrates phenomenal weight onto a single point—more initial shock, more destruction. For example, the DU liquefies steel on contact and forces the molten steel out in its wake.

The third type, the ballistic tipped round, explodes on contact. The lead compresses a core of high explosive. This compression creates the heat, which is the catalyst for the explosion. The ballistic requires less accuracy. Even in a close hit, the shrapnel will kill or wound the target. For this reason, the Geneva convention outlaws this round—more potential suffering. No one discusses the illegality of the round with Stacey.

The armor piercing round is the most accurate of the three rounds the SEALs carry. After this first shot, Stacey will take every other shot with a DU. For this shot though, because he is nervous, he uses a ballistic-tipped round.

~

My father called me about a plumbing problem, and I went over. He met me outside. He took the grate from the side of the house and climbed into the crawl space. I handed through the toolbox and followed. We crawled along, ducking the girders and the joists. He led with the flashlight. I brought along the tools. I noticed we were passing the bathroom. I only got suspicious when we passed the kitchen at the north end of the house. Finally he gets down into the far corner and rolls onto one elbow.

I said, “Dad, we’re not here to fix the plumbing are we?”

“Son, what are you going to do?”

“About what?” I asked. I really didn’t know what he was talking about.

He said, “About your life.”

He laid the flashlight down. Its light shone into a dark corner of the house.

He said, “I’ve already talked to your mother. We would be willing to take on the kids.”

He’d been in the Navy and recommended ships.

~

Stacey supports the rifle butt with his left hand. Even in the dry air, his hands perspire a little. He knows he can make the shot, but he is nervous. All the man has to do is pick up the radio. Stacey wants to make sure that if he misses, or the bullet just goes through a lung, it will take the lookout. He gestures toward the ballistic rounds.

A gunner’s mate hands him one. Stacey puts the ballistic in his left hand and places his right hand, palm up, on the bolt handle. He rotates the bolt out of lock-down and slides it back.

He rolls the ballistic round to the tips of his fingers. The round is nearly seven inches long and weighs one pound. He brings it up close to look at it, one last check for imperfections, and then, without thinking, he blows on it—ritual.

The chambering mechanism for the M88 is unusual. The entire bolt slides out from the breach, and the rim of the bullet slots into a cupped semicircle at the end of the bolt. Then the mechanism, bolt and bullet, are fed into the chamber and locked down. While this design provides several advantages, it also has a major flaw. The firing pin can be triggered while the bolt and bullet are not in the rifle. The bullet can then explode in the hand of the operator. For this reason, the M88 only sees service for a brief time. Stacey doesn’t know this. He slots the ballistic tipped round into the cup and feds the bolt, firing pin, and bullet into the chamber.

Stacey levers the bolt handle and locks it down. The bolt handle screws into the bolt, and when Stacey turns down the handle, he twists it to make sure the handle is screwed tightly in place.

Stacey has his left leg folded underneath him. His right leg is stretched out. He lifts his weight off the left. His movement is imperceptible. He rises. The rifle barrel comes down.

~

Since I’d completed two years of college and had a degree, I went to APG school. About the second week, Chief Petty Officer Pate calls me into her office. Pate was a hawk-nosed warhorse, a grade-A ball buster. And a wonderful woman.

She said, “So, what do you want to be?”

Well, that was a good question. I mean, if I could be anything. And that’s how it felt to me, being in the Navy at that time. So, I gave it a little thought. I said, “I want to be God.” Pate looked at me, so I said, “I want to be the guy they call.”

She nodded. “You want to be a storekeeper.”

~

Stacey’s scope does not have mechanical adjustments for Minutes of Angle and windage that would allow him to shoot dead-on in the cross-hairs because, should the scope go out of whack in the field, it could not be accurately reset, and the weapon’s accuracy is Mission Critical for the SEALs. If the weapon cannot be counted on, then Stacey will not be Mission Critical either—which means he can get sent into dangerous situations because he is expendable.

Also, the scope does not have traditional “crosshairs.” Instead the reticle has calibrations that are conical, shaped like a Christmas tree with horizontal branches that are narrow at the top and widen as they go down. The highest branches are used at shorter distances. The critical element in long distance shooting is time and the bullet’s exposure to elemental forces, such as wind, spin drift, and even coriolis effect. As the distance and flight time increase, the wider branches take into account a greater need for windage hold-offs. The branches are calibrated. Still, so-called “doping” for wind is considered an art.

The vertical range line and the horizontal windage “branches” of the scope’s reticle are further calibrated with green marks for the DU round, white marks for “whitey pete,” and red for ballistic. Stacey eyeballs his adjustment with the red marks.

~

The ship I was on, the USS Saint Louis, a 557 foot LKA, was in Sasebo, Japan. They were decommissioning the ship and parceling out the people. And me being the rate I was, an SK, I could pick anywhere in the world. I thought, I’ll go to the supply center in San Diego. So that’s what I did.

A week or two later my captain called me over. I took my note pad.

“Yes, Sir. What can I do for you?” I figured he wanted cigars. You see I could get anything.

He said, “Stacey, how would you like to be attached to a SEAL team?”

I said, “What do you mean attached to a SEAL team?”

“They need a storekeeper.”

“Where is it?” I asked. “Not Little Creek is it?”

“Coronado,” he said. “2-3 months max. They’re short a storekeeper.”

I said, “Great, I’ll do it.”

I packed my bags a week later and I was on Coronado. I found out that the previous storekeeper would sometimes take two or three days to fill an order. That’s particularly a problem with the SEALs because they’re used to getting what they want when they want it. Twenty-four hours is the rule.

So when I got there, I knew that the first thing to do was teach the team that I can do anything. If they get confidence in me right off the bat, I have the battle won. They’ll all come to me and say, We need this.

Maybe my third day, the captain of the base called over and said he wanted Stinger missiles.

I said, “Sure. I can get you anything you want.” I thought, Jesus, Stingers.

I’d be damned, though, if I wasn’t going to get them. Now, I’d been to Stinger school. I knew they had them at Pendleton.

I called them, said, “I’ll send a helicopter.” Whatever it takes to get that captain what he wants, I’ll do. I’ll send a plane.

There were restrictions on flying Stingers it turned out. They said, “You’ll have to come yourself.”

“All right, I’ll be there.”

I got a 6by to take me up to Pendleton. Pendleton is an amazing piece of real estate, hills and ruts, some places scorched to hell from Marine training exercises.

At the armory, I had to sign all this shit. I couldn’t believe how carefully they controlled those things. We’re back late in the afternoon, and we drove right over to the captain’s office.

He figured I was going to make some excuses. “Where did you want them delivered?” I asked.

He looked out and saw the truck. I could tell he was amazed.

That was my job. They ask for it. I get it. That’s the way to be a storekeeper.

One time I didn’t get something in twenty-four hours. A SEAL comes in. He’s enormous. He asks for boots.

“Sure,” I said. “Right away. What size?”

He put his foot up on the counter. Size fifteen. That was the only time I didn’t get something in twenty-four hours. Goddamn it, that pissed me off. I don’t like to let someone down.

~

The ballistic tipped bullet needs contact with a sturdy bone structure to explode. In humans, bone ossification is completed around the age of 25. The last bone to ossify is the breastbone, the sternum. The target looks about twenty. Stacey would like to take a sternum to spine shot, but the man faces due east. The bullet will be coming from the southwest at approximately a thirty-degree angle. He decides his trajectory should meet the target just below the man’s right pectoral muscle. In sniper school, he learned that any torso shot with the .50 would neutralize a soft target from the shock alone. Still, he has never seen that, and he knows a good shot requires an exact target, not an approximation. Stacey believes he can make out a shirt pocket. This is where he wants the bullet.

Bullets, like all objects, are affected by gravity, and drop, their fall accelerating at a rate of 9.8 meters per second until reaching terminal velocity or hitting the ground, whichever comes first. For this reason, a bullet’s trajectory is always an arc. Stacey’s scope has been calibrated for distances from 500 meters to 3000 meters, and bore-sighted at 1000 meters, which would be considered his zero distance. Given neutral elemental issues, the M88 is pitched to nail tacks at 1000 meters. Everything else is considered a negative or positive adjustment.

From Stacey’s zero distance he elevates the rifle, adjusting his Minutes of Angle for the additional 219 meters. Stacey knows that a bullet’s curved path is dependent on the angle of opposition between the bullet’s velocity and earth’s gravity. He therefore compensates further for the man’s elevation by sighting low. The man inhales cigarette smoke. It is late afternoon and the shade stretched out to meet him.

~

When I was on the USS St. Louis, I was traveling around, winning marksmanship competitions. I had a specially built stainless steel Colt .45 Mark IV and I used an M16 rifle, too. To improve, I ordered the classified manuals on sniping—I could order whatever I wanted as storekeeper. I read them. Mostly they confirmed what I already knew. They did give me more information on mirage.

When I was transferred to the SEAL team, I went where they went. One day, they drove from Coronado to a restricted area at Pendleton, and I was with them. They went out to take turns with a type of rifle that I’d never seen before, and they were shooting at something I couldn’t even see. Anyway, I ribbed them a bit. I said, “You need a scope to hit that?”

The CO said I could take a shot. “Go ahead. You’ve been waiting here all day to try it.”

I didn’t realize I’d been waiting to try it, but I guess I had been. I asked what the zero was and he told me. So, I get down on my stomach and sight. It was a 1000 meter target with rings. And I saw that the problem that they had was the mirage.

Aside from the manuals, the other way I learned about mirage was just at sea. Aboard the St. Louis, I saw the phenomena of a ship that seems to float above the water. That’s an optical illusion called looming, observed light curves through the cool ocean air making the ship appear to be higher than it actually is. Looming is the opposite of mirage. Hot air makes the object look lower than it actually is, like the illusion of an oasis in the desert or water on a highway—that’s actually the blue sky. Also, down on the ground, I felt the ground radiating heat. So, looking out at that target, I know that I’m not quite looking at where the target is, but where the mirage is telling me it is.

Then, add to that, that the target seems to move, to skate away. That’s not the target moving but the image moving, the mirage. Watching it skate away to the side tells me something real important. Anyone knows what the wind is doing at the rifle, but by reading mirage I know what the wind is doing at the target, where the bullet is going its slowest and the wind affects it most.

I read the mirage and fired. The CO said it was a hit.

I didn’t say anything about the pain from the recoil. I said, “You want to see me do it again?”

They were there that day to find a guy for sniper school. I didn’t know that. I was only there on cross-assignment. They were supposed to cut me loose. And I was too old. And I didn’t have the right psychological make-up. I was too logical.

Those guys, they were type A—Type AA if there is such a thing, whatever the most A there is. Their motto is second place is the first loser. Other people don’t rate. They don’t count at all. That day at Pendleton, that was a wonderful day.

There’s not much that humbles a SEAL. It’s great to shut those guys up.

~

Rising heat waves cause mirage. Late afternoon mirage is worse because the sun’s heat, absorbed all day long by the desert, is released. While mirage can sometimes make a target appear to be where it is not, read correctly, it can tell the sniper where the target is, and what the weather is doing at the target.

Because the man is isolated, he is an easy read. His image shakes with the rising waves—he is “scared.” The left side of the mirage flickers in and out, vanishes. From this, Stacey sees that the wind comes from the left side, moving from south to north. The man’s image skates left, too. He sits in a crosswind. From the angled ascent of the mirage, Stacey estimates a ten knot wind. The bullet’s thirty-degree approach diminishes Stacey’s ten knot adjustment in half. He brings his sight right, into the wind, just to the side of the man’s shoulder.

The man has not finished his cigarette, and Stacey does not want him to. When he finishes the cigarette, he may do something sudden. Stacey knows; he used to smoke.

~

Twelve people were on the team. Of course, no one was allowed to wear insignia. A radioman—RM, Second Class Petty Officer. He was in charge of talking to the people in Scotland, the guys looking at the satellite pictures. That was his job.

We had at least four or five gunner’s mates, and they ranged in rate from Third Class Petty Officer to First Class Petty Officer. They carried AR15s or M60 machine guns. They were in control of all the weapons except my rifle.

Two guys from operations. They were big guys. On a ship, Operations specialists are primarily concerned with radar. They’re the guys who write on those acrylic boards backward. Here, one of them was a painter. But actually, in the end, everyone got to paint.

Two CHT guys. On the ship, they would be plumbers and take care of the CHT tanks. Why see them out there as warriors? Well, again, they had the build, the mentality.

We had a boiler technician. On the ship, his job was to take care of the boiler, obviously. On the SEAL team his job was to kill people. That was his job.

The rest of the team was comprised of boatswain’s mates. In the Navy, the boatswain’s mates are full time drunk and disorderly. And these guys could shoot. Not as good as me, unfortunately.

Our mission was to paint. We got into a position about a mile away, depending on the size of the target. The laser was a box about a foot long, two inches wide, with a scope. The aircraft flew at thirty thousand feet, above the clouds. They dropped their missiles and bombs—the laser guided ones. The aircraft would be past the target before the things even hit.

We were on the ground. We were putting down very specific radar information, just for those bombs.

It takes two men. One lights up the target. Usually he’s lying down with the bipod set up. The other guy has an infrared reader. The guy with the IR sees what the radar’s on and then he says, Stay right there. Even though the painter can’t see the laser, he stays right on what’s in his crosshairs. The bombs go only to the reflected signal, and we make it big with a spreading device, an aperture in the box.

We radio that we’re set up and in position. They acknowledge the transmission. We wait. Then, we get a call that the missile’s launched, or the bird’s in the air, how long it will take, and what direction it’s coming from. Then we paint the target. After a little while, it blows up. And it was amazing because we would be painting a target, pretty close by, and the thing would just blow up. You wouldn’t hear anything.  It would just fucking blow up.

~

Removing the M88’s bolt automatically flips the safety back. Stacey also acts automatically. With a swivel of his thumb, he arches the safety forward.

~

I knew it was illegal, but I justified it because our mission was to paint specific critical targets. Really important targets. Not scud missile sites, or something. Germ warfare, chemical warfare plants, beginnings of things like nuclear power plants that can be used to make plutonium. Really critical shit that they wanted destroyed first strike. If they went in and carpet-bombed the targets, they were going to kill hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t need to die. By painting, we were certain of hitting what we wanted to hit.

But as I lined up the shot, the thought that it’s illegal didn’t cross my mind. The thought that I shouldn’t be there didn’t cross my mind. The thought that this guy was going to die didn’t cross my mind. The only thought that went through my mind was, I can’t let this SEAL team down. I would be devastated to let them down.

~

Stacey’s index finger touches the trigger at the center of the pad where his whorls peak. He exhales. He inhales. He is not concerned with remaining still. He concentrates on his projected trajectory. He concentrates on reaching out to his target. Because anticipation might cause him to flinch, he empties his mind of the future, of the inevitable, retinal-jarring recoil. He exhales half his breath and holds—just for a moment. The trigger has a single step, smooth-as-glass pull. Twenty-two milliseconds pass before the firing pin falls upon the primer.

At the blast, he is surprised. The bullet spirals out the barrel as he takes the recoil into his shoulder and chest. Involuntarily, he crunches his eyes against the impact and high-pressure blowback.

The bullet leaves the muzzle of the M88 at over twice the speed of sound—a penetrating sound, in this case, which kicks up dust in a ten-foot radius around Stacey. The others hold their hands over their ears except the spotter who has plugs in his ears and watches the target through binoculars. Some of the team, those who stand in the sound wave’s expanding path, feel the vibration in their gut. The sound spreads out and echoes off rock and the opposite bank and the surrounding hills. It echoes in their ears.

Meanwhile, the bullet’s boat-tail is reducing air drag and allowing the bullet to retain optimum velocity.

Stacey opens his eyes as quickly as he can. Information is vitally important, and he needs to see. Above the target, there is a warble as the bullet enters the focal plane. Then the bullet meets the target. One and six-tenths of a second have passed since Stacey fired.

The major destructive force of a small caliber bullet is the result of the permanent wound channel—the circular path the bullet makes as it passes through a body. Because the sniper wants one shot to achieve his objective, he might choose to induce unconsciousness and eventual death with a hit to the vascular organs such as the heart or liver, or by cutting major blood vessels, such as the groin’s femoral artery or the carotid arteries in the neck; however, a target might retain consciousness and muscular control for up to ten seconds. Therefore, a sniper prefers a hit on the spine—the higher the better—and best yet, a brain stem shot, which requires hitting something about the size of a golf ball that sits at the base of the cranium.

Yet, for Stacey, it is not the permanent wound channel that causes his target to splash.

All mass reacts to impact based upon its structural elements, destiny and elasticity. Impact is a reflection of energy, the result of mass and speed. A bullet moves effortlessly in a vacuum, easily through air, less easily through water, and less easily still through a body or other solid object. In all cases, however, the bullet creates a shock wave, effectively a wake, as the mass with less structural integrity gives way.

It is this shock wave, produced by all bullets, that will cause a full beer can to explode, because of the rigidity of the closed can, but leave an open and empty can sitting peacefully. In the first case, the wake of the liquid is forced outward by the impact and bursts through the tin. Because much human tissue is elastic, the shock wave causes only a momentary inflation and cannot be counted on for destruction. In sniping, this effect is called “temporary cavitation.”

However, the shock wave is proportional to the kinetic energy of the projectile. The shock wave that accompanies Stacey’s .50 caliber ballistic does not allow human tissue to retain its elasticity. Instead, the tissue expresses the energy of the .50 through velocity. It is forced outward and does not come back.

The splash is the result of the .50 caliber slug moving at over the speed of sound. Stacey’s bullet is specifically ballistic tipped, and while splashing the chest it also compresses its high explosive core. The heat from the compression acts as a catalyst. The solid turns to gas. The bullet, now within the man’s body, also explodes.

The sound wave follows across the wash, passes up into the hills, and over the sandbags and perch to be lost into the distance. Stacey snaps the lens covers down on his scope. He twists his ear plugs out and places them in their case.

Stacey does not cross the washout with the SEALs. The SEALs go up the hill first. Then they make a hand motion for Stacey to come up. He goes up and stands on the edge of the site. Not a sound. He can tell they are amazed. Stacey thinks, these guys are bad asses—for-real bad asses, and not a word crosses their lips. He knows the assumption is, you have done this, you are proud. The man looks like an animal came in and destroyed him—taken his spine and laid it off to the side. And there is a smell. He knows it is the smell of death.

There is no way to clean, up, so they leave him.

They move away from the washout, meander north. The red glow in the west sinks. Because observation posts are never manned by only one person, another man is killed, probably at the dug latrine. Everything is “need to know,” and Stacey doesn’t need to know. He thinks he’s the only one who has killed that day, and he believes they’ve tested him. The stars appear more brilliant with the passing moments, moving with the darkness from east to west. The cold comes. They walk many kilometers.

~

Seven years later the navy calls him. They ask if he would like to come back and teach marksmanship. He won’t do it. At thirty-nine, he’s back in college completing a psychology degree—not on the GI bill. He doesn’t want any of that. His oldest daughter will attend university in the fall. His son has begun at military school. His youngest daughter is competing in cheerleading competitions. But that is not why he won’t take the navy’s offer.

Mirage is real. The light from an image bends as it passes through different air densities. Stacey’s dreams are real. Neither is the thing it reflects, but both indicate where that thing is. Many people will dream of moments of fanatical concentration. Stacey dreams of the man smoking his cigarette, the man inhaling, perhaps because Stacey is smoking again, too. Then he looks for the lack of surprise in the man’s eyes. For some reason that is important to Stacey, that the man didn’t know it was coming. But as he watches, the image starts to skate away. That is when Stacey realizes that he is viewing the man through a scope, that its reticle superimposes the image—cross-hairs that for years were made from a Black Widow’s silk webbing. In this, engineers followed nature. Stacey followed those who believe that through the intellect we might become sublime.

Stacey had no killer instinct. From over a kilometer away, there was no need. Instead, Stacey calculated the distance, elevation, wind velocity and direction. He applied intellect. And that is what he does in his dream. The man shimmers in the heat. Stacey notes the angle of the skating heat waves and dopes for wind.

~

It was when I was flying home that I decided to give up all my guns. My father wouldn’t have understood my reasons. He’d say the gun is just a tool. And he’d be right. Still, I got home, I took my son to the gun cabinet and said, “All these are yours now. You take care of them.” The Mark IV, the over-under, all of them.

He said, “I’ll take care of them, sir.”

I never told my son what my job was over there. A storekeeper, I tell him. He knows what that is.

The thing is sometimes I feel if I had not taken that shot at Pendleton, I think that right there was a turning point in my life. Or at least that’s the way I’ve chosen to think about it, that I had no choice in the matter.

Let me put it this way, I’m not going to go to any reunions. I want to start over with square one. Because if what I’d thought before was true—that my entire life had led up to and completed with the Storm, if the first shot I took was the climax of my life—then the rest of my life is an anti-climax, and I don’t want to look at it like that.