"The Line" from Hunter Killer: The War with China--The Battle for the Central Pacific

From Hunter Killer: The War with China – The Battle for the Central Pacific by David Poyer. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted with permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, South Carolina

The Booger squad had been marching all night. Up and down the rolling hills, through dead, crackling marshgrass. Under icy clouds, buffeted by gusts of bitter rain. Breaking into a staggering, lurching double-time onto the beach, to the crash of Atlantic waves.

The shortest man staggered, then caught himself before he fell. Another dropped back, shouting into his ear, “Keep going, Ramos! You gotta keep up, man. Let us drag you.”

Hector Ramos shook himself back into consciousness. Tried to remember where he was. What he was. But he kept sliding off into sleep.

Back to the Line.


The building’s set back from the highway behind chain link topped by concertina. Bay-mist softens the angles of blue and white-painted concrete block, cooling towers, the boiler smokestacks in the byproducts plant. Morning light plays in gold, rose, and lavender through plumes of smoke and steam, rising toward a blue sky where seagulls wheel.

A stench of burnt feathers, manure, and ammonia breathes through the old Kia’s heater as seventeen-year-old Hector nears the plant. A whine begins under the hood. When he turns the wheel to swing into the lot, a vicious knocking throbs. The guard peers in, then waves him on. A sparkly rosary and a laminated picture of a dark-haired girl sway from Hector’s rear view. He doesn’t have money to fix the car, or credit to buy another, so he just parks and hoists the rusty door back into place so it can latch.

He follows the other shift employees through the guard shack. He stalks tensely up the ramp into the rear loading area, past the idling line of trucks, nodding to Sazi and Fernando. Checking out of the corners of his eyes for Mahmou’, but the Arab isn’t in yet. Hector sighs and punches in. The Line starts here, though this early it isn’t moving yet. Dozens of trucks wait grille to tailgate, engines rumbling, diesel-smoke drifting up. Drivers slouch by the ramp, jeans sagging, smoking and talking. They’re Peruvian, Salvadorean, Mexican. There were Haitians when Hector hired on, but they made trouble over wages and one day were all gone. Desparecido, though probably not in the way the Salvadoreans mean. Yellow plastic modules flocked with down are stacked on the trailers, twenty to twenty-five birds to a cell. A forklift will slide them off onto the conveyor. Hector walks past the door to his own cage, past José. His foreman’s studying a seagull with a broken wing which is watching him hopefully from the loading dock.

But Hector doesn’t go in yet. Instead he heads to the break room and puts the bag lunch his mother packed in the fridge. He fidgets at the drink machine, studying the buttons. He can add, but it takes time. If someone interrupts, he has to start over. The tv’s on. A fat white man with a comb-over is talking about Mexicans. They sneak over the border and anchor themselves with babies. They draw relief and don’t work. They sell drugs, rape, and kill. The camera pans to his audience. They’re chanting and shaking placards, faces twisted with hate. The screen shows a wall in a desert. Hector recalls that desert, but doesn’t remember a wall.

The news changes to the war, explosions, aircraft. He pushes sleeves up on thin arms. Dark, raised scars, like poison ivy vines on a tree, run from his hands to above the elbows.<