Bump in the Night

Years ago, I met Clive Barker, the horror film director, in a New York hotel room. He was in town to promote a video game he had helped edit. One of the first changes he made, Barker told me, was to change the monster at the end of the adventure. It was enormous, ugly and not in the least bit frightening. Make something smaller, something hidden, he suggested. The scariest things are the ones we cant see.Its a conversation Ive been thinking about, ever since last nights patrol. The unit Im embedded with was called out for the umpteenth time to Route Michigan, a big, trash-packed road near the Baghdad Airport. The routes commercial stretch, busy even in a sandstorm, was nearly empty. It was maybe eight-thirty, twilight time here in Iraq. A ribbon of bruised orange rung the sky. The moon had just risen; it was a slickly red, like blood gone bad. This place is a whole lot creepier in the dark, I whispered to a Lieutenant, as he peered through a night-vision scope.Man-sized shadows crept in the background, past the scalloped balconies in the shops second stories. A three-legged dog scampered in front of the Humvees. I tried to stare into the dark, to see any potential attackers. If any were out there, I couldnt see them. For one of the few times on this war zone trip, my heart started thumping, hard, against my chest.Hey! the Lieutenant shouted, shining a green laser pointer at a group of men, walking into the road from an alleyway 50-75 yards away. They scattered.Five minutes ticked by. Nothing happened. Then, without warning, a bright white flashed where the man had been. There was a cacophonous, almost electric, crack the sound of a rocket-propelled grenade exploding. Get cover! the Lieutenant yelled.Now, this is the point when I should have been the most scared when my fears suddenly, deafeningly came true. But thats not what happened at all. As I crouched behind a Humvee, all of the fright drained out of me. I could see what I was supposed to scare me. And it didn't any more.Now, this is all easy to say, because the fighting ended after that single round. Who knows what would have happened in a real firefight. But yesterday, there were no more RPGs, or even a single shot fired on either side. Our unit retreated a bit; soldiers swept the area; the threat passed.When we got back to the base, around 1:30 pm, we watched the last few minutes of Starship Troopers. And then I went to bed, sleeping with a baby's calm.

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