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The sun is a monster, hovering over a bu

Death on Rotation

By Brandon Nadeau

This story first appeared in NōD Magazine - Issue 29, Spring 2024

He took a swing at me. I braced for impact as it battered my jaw.

Big mistake, I thought, as I got low, latched on, picked him up. Buddy laughed; guy was having fun with me. Fine. I spun around and took him down. 

He snatched my beard, mashed his face into mine. I tore free, pinned his arms, prepared to strike. His feral eyes widened; he knew his fate. 

I put my lips on his bare belly and blew. My son squealed and flailed, then stiffened and vibrated. Electrocuted by elation.

Anna entered the nursery bearing a tower of blankets and toys. She bypassed a pillow fort, jumped a wooden barnyard, strode over the boy and me and said, “Don’t rile him up.”

“Yeah, don’t rile me up,” I warned Emerson.

Anna rolled her eyes.

I tickle-attacked the boy’s toes. He launched across the alphabet rug and ducked behind a wicker basket, hiding all but his butt. Anna stifled a laugh as I paused to build tension, then yanked away the basket. Emerson’s mouth fell open as he jerked his head back and gawked at me.

I struck a fighting pose. “Prepare to—”

“Stop,” Anna said. “Please. Nights are hard for me, Alex. I’m alone while you sleep like the dead. It’s not….” 

I chased her gaze into falling snow that sauntered beyond the bedroom window, some gathered on the sill. The waning moon encased each flake in a blue-grey aura. 

“It’s not fair,” I said.

Anna picked an encrusted spot of puréed carrots off her blouse. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” I said. “You’re right.” 

We met at a poetry slam that infiltrated my favourite pizza shop. Anna snapped her fingers after each performance, so I did too. Emerson arrived soon after, born four years premature. 

We sat on the floor and finagled our son into his PJs.

Anna leaned into me. “You’d help at night…if you could. I know that.” 

“I’ll get off the meds.” 

“When you’re ready.”

My sleep meds murdered me nightly. Fed me to feverish dreams; in turn, a circular story arose: I dash across a desolate landscape, pursued by a burning beast. Sluggishness sets in. I fall, face down, paralyzed. The air grows torrid as the monster approaches. Hot claws caress my neck, pierce, cauterize. I’m carried off. Yet a part of me remains. Disembodied, so I witness my departure, lose myself in the horizon. 

Anna handed me a cloth bag. “Put him in this.”

“What is it?”

“A sleep sack.”

“Sleep sack?”

“It’s like a wearable sleeping bag. Your mom sent it. I like it. There’s no way out.”

My chest tightened; I passed it back. “He’ll get too hot.” 

She examined the bag, shook her head, undid the zipper.

I shielded Emerson with my arms. “It’s too much.”

“What are you—”

“Don’t even think of it.” Sweat dampened my neck, chilling my otherwise burning body. Suddenly breathless, I said, “Please…don’t…put him…in a…bag.”

Anna leaned back and studied my face.

“Okay,” she said, then dropped the bag and pressed her forehead to mine. “Okay.” 

Emerson held my thumb as I placed him into his crib. He recited a series of consonant sounds punctuated by a sigh, then his eyelids relented. 

Anna held up a baby blanket. “Is this better?”  

I nodded. 


It was August in Afghanistan.

Another body bag arrived, placed in formation with the others.

I smoked a sweat-soaked cigarette in the driver’s compartment of my Leopard. Around me: ammunition, beef jerky, mice droppings, unread novels, weathered porn mags.

I was stationed in the hull of the tank, separate from my crew; they worked in the turret, above and behind me. I listened to their chatter. Sarge, our commander, invited the men to his weekly bible study. Blake, our loader, muttered a maybe. Tremblay, our gunner, said he’d rather fuck a beehive.

Sarge was an army anomaly. Didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t curse. Didn’t even draw dicks on other people’s stuff. And yet, he was likeable. 

I climbed out of my compartment and recoiled from daylight’s judgement. The Afghan sun was a dungeon master—a torture virtuoso. Day after day, it wrung me out, discarded my flaccid body like a used towel. 

I slammed a bottle of warm water, scanned the terrain. Our vehicle was one of a dozen, parked in a circle, facing outward—a defensive position. To our right: mud huts divided by meandering pathways, bordered by a thirsty riverbed. To our left: acres of weed and poppy fields.

I climbed to the top of the tank. Sarge greeted me with an eyebrow flick, causing his dust-encrusted face to crack like the desert floor. He stirred a silver sack of macaroni and said, “Black body bags were a bad choice. It’s forty degrees.” He pointed his fork at the row of cadaver pouches by the road. “Fifty plus in one of those.”

I rummaged through a box of rations. “Don’t think the occupants care.”

“They’re made of non-porous vinyl. Keeps the corpse leakage in.”

I cringed as I held up an oil-stained ration pack. “Hungarian-goddamned-goulash again.”

Sarge eyed it like a captured rodent. “I wonder how many body bags the medics pack for a mission like this.”

“I wonder how you’re eating mac ‘n cheese when we’ve had nothing but goulash for days.”

Sarge glanced at his lunch. “Nowadays, they’re called human remains pouches, or HRPs for short.”

Blake’s head popped up from his loader’s hole. “Lard Tunderin’ Jesus, Sarge, you sure know your body bags.” He was eating beef ravioli.

Four soldiers struggled to heave an HRP onto the tank beside us.

“Fuck are they doing?” I said.

“No room anywhere else,” Blake replied.

A soldier cried out as the bag slipped from their grip. It hit the pavement, folded in half, then snapped straight. We all winced. Did it land headfirst or feet-first? I wondered. Did it fold nose to toes? Back of head to heels? I bit into a stale cracker.

After a prolonged debacle, the bag was secured atop the tank’s engine compartment.

“Hottest part of the tank,” I said.

“Yup,” Sarge said. “Stovetop.”

“We should say something,” Blake said.

“Let ’em burn.” Tremblay’s voice reverberated from the turret. He crawled out, grimy as a goblin. Evidence of vegetable stew flanked the corners of his mouth. “Taliban, tabarnak, who cares?”

“His parents,” Sarge said. We glanced at the tattered picture of his daughter taped to his episcope.

Tremblay scoffed, “his parents can—”

“Shut up.” Sarge placed a hand on his radio headset; a sombre voice crackled across the comms. His face melted, contorted.

“What?” I said.

He pulled off his headset, rubbed the bridge of his nose. “A kid…”


“One of the buildings we hit….” Sarge told the sky. “Kid might’ve been inside.”

Kandahar turned away from the day, toward an indigo twilight. A row of mountains devoured the sun, washed it down with a darkening cosmos. We sat on top of our tank, awaiting orders.

“Taliban’ll be happy,” I said. 

Blake nodded. “Big propaganda win.”

Trembly read a magazine with Bob Dylan on the cover, chuckled at something. I played solitaire with an incomplete deck. Our commander’s mind had been AWOL for hours; his abandoned body haunted my periphery.

“We don’t shoot unless shot at,” Blake said through clenched teeth as if responding to a crass question.

“Exactly,” I said. “They attacked us from a building with a kid in it, so it’s on them.”

“Their fault,” Blake said. “Still…shit breaks my heart, man.”

I shrugged, nonchalant. “I won’t lose any sleep.”


I awoke with a gasp. Scoured my surroundings. Anna cuddled a paperback beside me, asleep. Auburn light outlined our bedroom blinds, urban birds repeated morning mantras. 

I stood, let myself unfurl—jaw, neck, shoulders.


I crept across our bungalow. Shadows of commuters and dog walkers wandered the walls. I adored our boy from the nursery doorway, watched for signs of life. My peace of mind rose and fell with his chest. 

I thought about Afghanistan; the day I got the good news, and ran to tell Sarge. He was alone, sitting on an ammo can, watching the morning light crest a school-for-girls-turned-command-post.

“Hey,” I said to his back, “kid wasn’t killed. It’s confirmed.”

His posture straightened as he drew a slow breath, then imploded with an audible exhale. 

“Just Taliban bullshit, Sarge. We’re good.”

He picked up a stone, brushed it off. “This time,” he said.

“Come on, man. We do everything to avoid collateral. And at greater risk to ourselves.” 

He shook his head.

“Look,” I said, “there’s always a chance something shitty could happen. It sucks, but that’s the job, we knew that coming here. We just gotta get on with it. Do our best to reduce the possibility.”

“Possibility.” He tossed the stone. “Used to be just a word. Now it’s a feeling. And it’s killing me.”


“You’re a good guy, Alex. Deep down.” 

“Deep down?”

“You’re capable of compassion.”

“That’s a relief. Now I can—”

“Ever been forced to care for someone that’s completely helpless?”

“What do you think I’m doing now?”

“Funny guy,” he said. “One day, if you’re lucky, someone’ll depend on you for everything. Some defenceless creature will claim your devotion as a birthright. And it’ll be inconvenient, not to mention exhausting and frustrating and utterly nerve-racking.”

“What a blessing.”

“It’s a beautiful burden. Changes a person.” 

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. You’ll feel different about things. People. You’ll catch yourself caring about others. Strangers, even.”

“Now you’ve gone too far. I’m not ready.”

“I wasn’t ready, wasn’t even interested. Didn’t matter. My daughter captured my heart from day one. Better yet, she became my heart. Life without her...just the thought…” He rubbed his throat. “Feels like I’m being crushed, slowly.”  

“So don’t think about it.”

He ignored my insolence. “I did. I put on armour, blocked it out.”


“We all wear armour. Protection from unwanted emotions. I got obsessive cleaning and bible reading. You got beer and inappropriate jokes.”

“Well done.” 

“When I heard about the kid…here.” His voice quavered. “Same pain, same…suffocation. But now it won’t leave.”

“But a kid wasn’t killed, so—”

“Jesus Christ, Alex, don’t you fucking listen?” He stood, turned toward me.

I shuddered, took a step back despite myself. His face: a condemned chapel with shattered windows. 

“Sarge…” I tried to swallow, but my throat wouldn’t budge. His agonized eyes left me breathless, knocked me off balance; sparkling darkness filled the edges of my vision. I looked away, clenched my jaw to collect myself.

“It’s the possibility,” he said. “I can’t bare it. It’s too much.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m leaving, Alex. Going home early.” He looked away. “Guess I’m a coward. I’m sorry. Tell the guys I’m sorry.”

He left that evening. Chopper took him across the open desert: chacka-chacka-chacka like an infant’s heart.

Emerson shivered; I swooped in to adjust his blanket. His eyes fluttered open and found mine. He reached out, so I scooped him up. He rubbed his face into my chest and then settled. I let my chin rest on his head; guy was a vital part of me, like an organ worn outside the body. 

I looked out the nursery window: a cloak of immaculate snow covered the neighbourhood. I couldn’t wait to show Emerson. 

Funny, I thought, without him, snow is nothing but a nuisance. 

Something erupted, rushed upward, flooded my eyes.

Without him. 

I let myself feel it.

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