The Arctic Lizard
By Etgar Keret
Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
I changed my will today. That’s something I never thought I’d do. I joined Unit 14+ a day after President Trump’s famous “21st century Alamo” speech, but with all due respect to my flag and country I did it for Summer. She was always there for me: friend, big sister, bodyguard, mother. And it was clear to both of us that if something bad happened to me on the front, everything I’d managed to get hold of and save up during my service would be hers. But this morning, on my way back to base from the hospital, I changed my will.
And now if I hit an IED in a Kiev alley tomorrow, or find myself in the crosshairs of a sniper on the outskirts of Minsk, it’ll all go to Sergeant Baker instead. Summer won’t understand, I know that. After all, I enlisted for her, for us. And that Baker, he’s a real schmuck. The guy did things to me in basic training that should get him beat up. Maybe even thrown in prison. But after that night on the raft in the Baltic Sea, I can’t just go on like nothing happened. The new will is the only way I could come up with to let that bastard know how much I appreciate what he did for me. I can picture him sitting in his motorized wheelchair at his parents’ house in Cleveland, watching internet porn, when he gets the email:
“Sergeant Baker, we have good news and we have bad news. To tell you the truth, the bad news isn’t so bad—just that another lance corporal schmo who served under you (remember those days? When you could still use your feet to kick the ass of anyone who got on your nerves?) turned his gear in at the great quartermaster in the sky… But the good news — brace yourself, my friend, because it really is good—is that you were named in his will and are now the proud owner of 29 rare master characters and 48 lucky eggs. Twenty-nine masters! Including an Armored Arctic Lizard from a limited edition Marines series. Only someone who was in Bangkok on the day of the Silent Revolution could capture that one. There are six of them in the whole fucking universe. And now one of those six belongs to you!”
I can see him moonwalking his wheelchair in reverse, yelling like a madman. I know soldiers who gave 10 years in the most dangerous assholes of the world, who would happily trade their phenomenal collections for that goddamn lizard. I’ve used it in 142 head-to-head battles since I earned it, and I won every single one of them. If Baker knew I’d changed my will he’d crawl over to my sleeping bag tonight and slit my throat, I swear he would. I can practically hear that shit’s roars of joy. But he deserves it. The guy shattered his spine for me. He could have hesitated, like any other soldier would have, just pussyfooted for one second and then he’d have been around to fire the salute at my funeral. But he didn’t.
A few minutes after I send the new will in to HQ, my phone lights up with a new message from Summer. My first response is panic: She must have found out. Someone from JAG informed her. I mean, her details are on the will too. All the money and the benefits are still going to her. Maybe when a soldier changes his will the beneficiaries are automatically notified? I stare at the screen, petrified. I’ve been through some scary shit this past year: when our jeep lit up like a shooting star in Lima, or on the snipers’ beach in Phuket when Timmy Tight-Ass spurted his brains all over my flak jacket, and in that village near Ankara when the rebels booby-trapped the candy and Jemma and Damian blew up like a bonfire. But all that is nothing compared to how scared I am to open Summer’s email. Because if she’s found out about the will, then I have no reason to go back to San Diego. I have nowhere in the world to go home to. It was a mistake to send that new will in. I could have changed it by hand, given it to a guy in the unit and asked him to deliver it to HQ only if something happened to me, instead of uploading it to their server and risking it being sent all over the world.
I open the email the way you turn over the body of a terrorist who might be strapped with explosives: slowly and carefully. My hands are so sweaty that the touch screen doesn’t respond, but after I wipe them off on my pants I finally manage to open the message. Summer says she hasn’t heard from me in a few days and she’s worried. So I start writing back about the injury, about how my sergeant saved my life, how I feel I owe him, I have to pay him back. And about how even though he’s old, almost 20, he’s probably more obsessed with Destromon Go than we are. But in the middle of writing I stop, delete everything, and send a different message instead, a shorter one: “Everything’s fine. I was a little busy.” I sign off with three emojis of beating red hearts and one with a finger held up to a pair of lips, like it’s a big secret. Then I add, “I’ll tell you when I get back.” But she’ll never understand. She wasn’t there.
They set up the 14+ exactly one year after Trump was elected to his third term. America was still licking its wounds from the war in Mexico. Honestly? No one thought it would be that rough. Our drones pummeled them from the air on the frontlines, but there was much less we could do about the terrorist attacks in the malls. The whole country turned into a battlefield. The Jihadis and those stinking Russians hooked up against us and started channeling weapons to the Mexicans like there was no tomorrow. The Federal government declared martial law. At first there was a draft, and then, when things got really hairy, they announced a new unit and named it 14+. In theory you had to have parental permission to volunteer for it, but after the big Christmas attack on San Diego, Summer and I were left on our own. I mean, we had a state-appointed guardian and all, but the decision was totally up to us. At first Summer wouldn’t hear of it, but there were online ads running constantly. Unit 14+ soldiers were paid real salaries, five times what Summer made at McDonald’s, but that’s not what tipped the scales. No, what drove me to the induction center was the special collectors’ series they showed in the ads. Limited edition Destromon Go’s, master characters with mega CP’s that only appeared in war zones. The US military put them up for 48 hours, and the only way to get one was to be someone out in the field, which meant either a Marine or a Russian commando or whoever the fuck else was fighting us over there. I told Summer: I’ll sign up for one year, I’ll send money home every month, and when I get back we’ll have the best collection in town, maybe even in the whole fucking state. And I was right — I was so right. Six rare masters from three continents. Six! Before I enlisted, the only place I saw mega-CP masters was on YouTube. And now, if I can get through another 10 weeks alive, I’ll take them back to Summer and I’m king. But if I die, it’s all Baker’s. Son of a bitch deserves it, though.
Back on base, the guys in the unit seem happy to see me. Marine Cub hugs me and sobs. His ID says “Robby Ramirez” but everyone calls him Marine Cub. His ID also says he’s 14 and a half, but I’ll be damned if he isn’t 12 and a bit. That little squirt barely reaches my chest, and when we shower you can tell he doesn’t have a hair on his body, not even on his armpits or balls. Smooth as a baby’s butt. The Cub was there the night Baker jumped between me and the Chechnyans, and he helped me carry what was left of the Sarge back to the ship afterward. The doctors evacuated me, too, but in the field hospital they realized it wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. Just some shrapnel in my gut. “Happy to see you on your feet, dawg!” the Cub says, trying to hide his tears.
After dinner he and I have a little Destromon Go battle, and that’s victory number 143 for my Arctic Lizard. “Have you heard anything from the Sarge?” he asks later, while we freeze our brains up with red slushies from the commissary. “HQ updated us about your condition, but we haven’t heard a word about Baker.” I tell him everything that happened in the hospital. About how the doctors almost couldn’t save him, how he’ll never be able to walk again. This is all too much for Cub, and he pulls out his cell and starts showing me his collection. “See that one?” he points to a Destromon Go that looks like a giant mallet: “I found it on the raft the night you and Baker got hit. It may not be a master but it has a special whack-attack mode. Next time we fight I’m sending him in and he’ll pound your fucking lizard into a chicken-fried steak.” An announcement over the loudspeakers orders us to gear up and report for roll-call with our weapons. On the way, I try to find out from the new Platoon Sergeant where they’re taking us this time, but he’s as mute as a corpse. We have so many enemies in this fucking world that it could be anywhere.
Fourteen hours later we’re flattening an al-Qaeda base in Sinai. We wipe out Jamil “Nine Lives” al-Mabhouh, al-Qaeda’s legendary second-in-command, and his elimination is chalked up to me. At debriefing afterward, the Company Commander falls all over me like some girl, telling everyone how I came back from an injury straight into the inferno, and how when I found myself inches away from Nine Lives with a weapon-jam, I didn’t lose my cool and smashed his skull in with my rifle butt. He salutes me in front of the whole platoon and says he’ll make sure I get a Congressional medal. They all stand tensely at attention, the commander tells everyone to cheer for me, and they scream like a gang of lunatics.
But the minute he leaves, everyone rushes at Snotty Sammy. Of all the fighters in the unit, he was the one who found a fire camel in Sinai yesterday. Which is an epic character—maybe the strongest in the history of the game. With its famous inferno attack and hump-defense, Sammy’s camel could fry my Arctic Lizard in two seconds. We pour buckets of ice-water and sand on Sammy like we always do in the 14+ when a guy racks up a rare character, and Sammy, covered with mud, starts blubbering and thanking us. Six months ago he was writing book reports on Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in some crappy high school in Tuscaloosa. If someone had told him back then that he’d ever have a fire camel in his collection, he’d have cracked up laughing.
At night in my tent, I get an Instagram from Summer. The picture shows a giant number 10 made out of M&Ms laid out all over her belly. Every Sunday she sends me the number of weeks I have left till discharge, written in something I like: Star Wars figures, gummy bears, those little packets of ketchup. Instead of sleeping, I think about her and about Baker. I try to picture the way each of them would smile if they won, instead of seeing the other one’s face, the one who gets screwed. Ten weeks till I make one person happy. Ten weeks tops, maybe even less.
First published online at Buzzfeed.com, 2016