Fiction: “Opticon” by J.A. Bernstein

His company had been stationed on the Lebanon Line for four months, and in that time, they’d only seen “action” twice. The first was an unreported skirmish, late one, night when a forward party, crawling through thickets of scrub oak and sage, was greeted with a volley of shots—low, whipping tracers, which hadn’t touched a thing. The second was an unanticipated mortar barrage that torched three posts and resulted in eleven wounded. Cpl. Evgeny Sokolov had been on leave when that happened, and he didn’t regret it much.

This afternoon, as he stood manning the northeastern lookout, which was basically a periscope hole dug in two meters below earth, his thoughts revolved less around the chances of his killing or being killed than his prospects of finding a wife. He had been told that most successful relationships started in the Israeli army, though he didn’t know how, since he hadn’t seen a girl in three weeks.

“Sokolov,” shouted his Captain, blaring through the radio set. “When you’re done in twenty, stop by Command.”

Evgeny did as told. After being replaced on guard, he emerged from his dugout and padded down the gravel-strewn trench, smoking his long-awaited cigarette, absorbing the sun’s final rays. It was early August, near-dusk. He only had twenty months left.

Inside the command hub, which was in another fortified bunker deep in bowels of the earth, Evgeny extinguished his smoke as required and studied his phone’s chipped screen. No messages from home, nor from his friends—not that he had many, he knew.

At the end of the sandbagged tunnel, which was lit by a caged, sooty bulb, he saw his Captain standing alongside an enormous bald man with a gun, what might have been a general, judging by his epaulettes’ marks—Evgeny was never too clear on what the higher insignia denoted.

“Sokolov, at attention,” snapped his Captain.

Evgeny gave a formal salute, which was quite rare in the Israeli Army and almost never done, apart from in the presence of generals.

“Soldier, where’s your beret?”

“I don’t have it on guard,” he explained. This was a valid defense.

“Very well,” said the dome-headed general. His gun was a Bullpup Tavor, which Evgeny had seen once in a magazine. “At ease.” Then he instructed Evgeny to follow him into the debriefing room, which was surprisingly empty this evening.

“I understand you’re a good shot,” said the General.

The Captain nodded.

“The best in the company, they tell me.”

Evgeny didn’t know what to say.

“My name is General Abutbul. I’m the leader of Northern Command. Perhaps you’ve seen me on the news.”

Evgeny hadn’t.

The General stopped beside a folding steel desk. “In any case, we’ve partnered with Grumman Northrop Aerospace Development, and we’ve designed a new optical device. It’s in trial mode now with Givati in Gaza, but we’d like to test it up here.” Bending, he unclasped a ridged green plastic container and revealed what looked like a vase: a gleaming glass tube encased in black foam and capped on both ends with brass rings. Above him, the ceiling bulb flickered, strobing the enormous white mound of his head.

“This is the Opticon,” said the General. “It’s the latest in optical technology. GNAD swears it’s the best. Personally, I’ve always been skeptical of gadgets. I said to Gabs down at Central, ‘You wanna win wars, you need better men. Our training’s gotten too soft.’ Tell me, how long was your final march in training? Fifty-five k?”

Evgeny grinned.

“Hell, in Beirut, we marched eighty to find a hooker one evening. Turned out she was a man.” He let out a harrowing laugh.

Evgeny was still transfixed by the tube, which sparkled inside its foam case.

“Anyways, this,” said the General, “will give you an unparalleled view. There’s one little catch, though. It’s mildly radioactive. Then again, so’s the scope on your M4. They both contain tritium. Do you know what tritium is?”

Evgeny shook his head.

“Isotope of hydrogen. That’s what the lab coats say. Causes something called radioluminescence. Anyways, this is much stronger, and as an incentive for your trying it out, we’re going to give you a little gift.” He smiled toothily. “As a reward for incurring a few risks, you’ll get released six months early, assuming all else goes as planned. Plus, you’ll get twenty-five grand. So, to cut to the chase, if you’ll just sign your name on this form, in view of our witness, of course”—he nodded to the Captain—“then we can proceed with the hook-up, and you’ll be ready to stand guard tonight.”

“What are the risks?” Evgeny said.

“Ho-ho-ho.” The General slapped his knee. “I’m not a scientist, but I guess you’re Russian, so you’re smart. You know, my grandmom was Russian. Galician, to be exact. She was a piece of work. The rest of me’s Moroccan. But there’s also some Swedish, I think.”

“Swedish?”

“Come, son. Just sign your name on the form.” He held out a bulging brown clipboard. “Can you write in Hebrew?”

 

Evgeny didn’t sign. At least not initially. He wanted to talk with his dad. The problem is there was little reception in the bunker, and even less inside the basement of the Hadera Mall, where his dad was at work inspecting bags. Finally, he reached him.

“Zhenya, what the hell do you think?”

“Well, I’m not sure.”

“Sign the fucking form,” said his dad.

In retrospect, his family had always been trusting of Israelis. They had to be. When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was nowhere else they could go. He had a couple cousins who’d ended up in Brooklyn. They were both unmarried. And sad.

Evgeny stormed down the sandbagged hall. He slicked back his wet bristly hair—he’d showered to think it over and burned through the last of his Camels.

“I’ll do it,” he told his Captain, who was slumped in a chair in the Ops Room, his head in his hand, facing the radio dials. He didn’t seem to have heard amidst the bleeps of the set.

Then he noticed his Captain was secretly playing a backgammon game on his phone.

“Sokolov, fuck.” He stood. “Don’t ever sneak up on me again.” Two men in their company had been sentenced last month for playing phone games while on guard. “Why aren’t you up at the mess?”

“I’ve made up my mind. I’ll sign.”

“It’s too late,” said the Captain, discretely palming his phone. “Rothschild has decided to sign.”

“Rothschild? Rothschild? He couldn’t shoot off his own dick.”

“That’s probably true,” said the Captain. “I’ll phone up the General now.” Then he flipped up the lid of his Nokia and studied it purposively, as if that’s what he’d been doing all along.

 

Outside, at the armory, which encompassed a corrugated tin shed enveloped by T-walls and wire, three smiths went to work on Evgeny’s M4. The tube was mounted on his tactical rail through a series of complex joints, some of which screwed, others fastened or snapped. By the time they were done, his rifle weighed fifty-some kilograms. He couldn’t lift it.

“Yes, the General said that that could be a problem, so we’ll carry it down to your post.”

“How will I maneuver it?” Evgeny asked.

“Your bipod will handle the weight.”

Sure enough, the three of them, all beefy jobniks who spent half their days lifting weights (the other half eating), lugged his gun through the trenches, beneath the moth-eaten bags of the parapets, beneath the grey, twinkling stars.

When they arrived at his position, Casa, an Ethiopian-born corporal, said, “What the hell is that?”

“It’s a scope.”

“Casa,” said their Captain, who’d joined them, “you can run off to eat.”

Casa still gazed at the scope.

Then the Captain unsnapped the gun’s under-barrel legs, set them down on a ledge, and pulled back the sliding steel slot of the lookout’s front portal. “You won’t need the periscope tonight,” said the Captain, pushing the barred mirror away. The portal looked out on some jagged marl cliffs, two skeletal junipers, then the spread of the Lebanon fields, most of which were vacant, but for some tiny red lights. “That’s Ayta al-Sha’b,” he explained. “Hezbollah stronghold. But you won’t need to do any sighting. This scope should do all the work.”

Evgeny retucked the beret on his shoulder, which he’d thought to bring with.

“Just try not to make any light.”

The lookout was utterly dark, per regulations. Even their watches were taped, as were their dogtags, the clips of their guns, even the snaps of their vests. Evgeny knew that snipers had picked off men using less here, though not since he’d been deployed.

Nervously, he shouldered the stock beside the bright portal, feeling the night’s drafty air. A cool mist drifted over the mountains, smelling of diesel and sage.

“Copy,” said the Captain, seizing the radio’s mic. “Two-twenty’s finally up.” Then he barreled off, and the jobniks explained the device.

“Basically, it’s like your old Trijicon,” one said. “You keep your eye in the view, watch for any movement. There’s no need to focus or toggle. Everything’s digitized now.”

“You’re a lucky bastard,” said another. Then he pulled out a pack of Wisams. “Come on,” he told the others. “Real Madrid’s almost on.”

 

When the others had left, Evgeny slid back the portal, made sure his cellphone was off, and sidled up next to the gun. Oddly, the rear eyepiece was casting a faint, hazy, purplish glow.

Oh well, he thought. Six months is a long time to serve.

Inside, he saw nothing but black. Then he remembered to open his eye. This time he saw a glittering assortment of grains, all multicolored, swarming together until they formed a dense ball. The ball started swirling, like some molten red orb, or a flame.

The fuck? Evgeny thought.

He felt a bump on his chest. The gunstock had punched him, it seemed. He gripped his magazine and with his trigger-hand checked that the safety was latched and the ejection port cover was closed.

Sure enough, his gun started rattling, like some angry snake in his hands.

He studied the glowing red orb. Fuck. The light burned his eye. He blinked rapidly, rubbing it.

“Two-twenty,” grumbled his radio speaker. “Make sure your attention is fixed.”

What did he mean? Evgeny wondered.

“It means keep looking into your scope. We’re monitoring you closely.”

Evgeny looked back in the view. The orb still sizzled, causing him to tear. It was way too bright to look in.

“Keep going,” said his Captain.

“You’re doing great,” said his friends.

Soon the orb faded to a dark violet hue. That, or his eye was adjusting. Finally, it dimmed and went black. He blinked. Then he saw a blurry, round figure. It morphed into a person. His dad? He was breathing—heavily, it seemed. He was making love to his wife.

Evgeny coughed.

The scope’s view realigned into a keyhole, and he was peering in on his parents making love. His mom looked to be convulsing as his dad rode her from behind. Then the lights flashed off, and she screamed. When they came on again, she was giving birth to a child, her legs propped sharply before her. Out came a screaming mess. Soon, his dad was rushing through the streets of St. Petersburg, carrying a steaming blanket. He stopped atop a snow-covered bridge, what must have been the Palace Bridge, Evgeny thought. Beyond it, a gold moon lighted the waves of the Neva and the Rostral Columns and the pier. Then he saw a coin skipping. It went slicing through the current, made a sharp U-turn, and returned to an outstretched hand. This hand put the coin in a shabby wool dress suit and pulled out a silver card, a train ticket to Moscow, it seemed, then a boarding pass for a flight.

The pass showed no name, but above it, he could see an old split-flap display, like an airport marquee, whose letters were hard to make out. Then a bearded man was haranguing him in Hebrew and hustling him into a van. The van rumbled off beneath date palms and figs and out along the coast to a bay. It disappeared through a warren of poured cement tenements and arrived at a prison-like structure—an “absorption center,” said the man. Peering out from a window, above a stained wall, was a gap-toothed, dark, grinning girl. Soon, she was herding him into a tall linen closet, teaching him to smoke, and sliding down the strap of her dress. He couldn’t breathe, and he was rubbing her nipple, smelling her musky scent. Then she was facing him across a sleek Burger Ranch table with her arm around somebody else. She gave him that gap-toothed grin. Evgeny looked out of the scope.

“Two-twenty, report,” said his radio.

“All’s good.” He looked back in the eyepiece. Now it was his Drill Sergeant grinning. He handed him a tester screwdriver, and soon Evgeny was scraping the grime off a tile, working diligently at it, while a toilet overflowed by his boots. He wiped his face and he was running. Then he tripped and fell on his chin. He woke in a pool of grey vomit, which had splattered his Drill Sergeant’s leg. “For that, I want you to run this course again, and if you’re over ten minutes, you’ll do it again! And again!” The words “again and again” echoed loudly in the scope until he blinked and saw himself riding on an armored coach bus through the south, beside the cracked plains of the Negev, the gold floodlamps that dotted the hills, and up into the mountains, past the gates of Shtula, and down into the jaws of the earth, where he was manning a lookout, holding a gun like this. He turned to look back at himself and he smiled.

“Great job,” said his Captain, speaking over the radio set.

Then Evgeny heard a deafening bang. He looked in his scope, where the night opened up into a shimmering array of pink phosphorous darts, which hissed and whistled and boomed. Men were taking cover behind cement guardblocks; the gun barrel shook in his hands. Outside his lookout, along the steps to the barracks, Casa was rubbing his ear, from which liquid shiningly dripped. He turned, and his cheekbone was missing. In its place was a gummy red maw. Then he fell down, convulsed a bit, and died. A PRC radio squawked, and a column of Merkavim was splashing mud waves, roaring down a path to Qaouzah. They were met with a thunderous bang. Then the sky turned black, then smoky, then black, and Evgeny watched a helicopter tilt and silently burst into flames.

Next thing he knew, he was crouched beside a dark boulder, brushing his teeth with his hand. Another man was pissing beyond him, then the night sky bloomed with a flare, and his Captain was yelling, “Here we go, boys, this is it,” and they were marching along in formation, two rows through a hilled town, squatting beside the shattered stone buildings and the neon-green stripe of a mosque. Soon, Evgeny was marching through bracken, alongside five more. He was clutching two rifles and the tape-covered handle of a stretcher above him, from which his Platoon Sergeant dripped—sweat, blood, or urine, he didn’t know. All of it tasted the same. Now he was coughing, treading on gravel, while a bearded man mumbled some prayers. Tall pine trees loomed at his side. This time, Evgeny was gripping a flag-covered casket while his mom looked on from the crowd. He did his best to avoid her glance, and everyone else’s, and he kept hearing this soft, tapping knock. It was coming from inside the oak casket, where his Platoon Sergeant whispered, “You should have watched the south.”

Then he was accompanying a squadmate named Oren, a guy he never liked, to dinner one evening on the Tel HaShomer base. It was the night before their release. Oren said he had to stop and take a shit and that he would meet him in line up ahead. Evgeny heard the bang from inside the mess hall as the steaming bourekas were being served.

“I ate his share,” said one of the jobniks, speaking over the radio’s mic.

When Evgeny reopened his eyes, he was wading through a tropical river, beside a glimmering waterfall and a girl with velvety hair. Her name was Shulamite, she said, and she would be his bride to hold. Soon, they were waiting in line at the El Al desk at the New Delhi Airport. He was clutching a padded drum, and she was wearing a sarong and jasper beads and a strand of white lilies in her hair. Then he was sprinting to a building atop Tel Aviv U, where he was late for his Finance exam.

 

Question 29. On a mean return-beta graph, the line that connects the risk-free rate and the optimal risky portfolio, P, is called the:

 

  1. Opticon
  2. Depleted uranium round
  3. Iodized phosphorous
  4. Your life in a nutshell, schmuck

 

“Pick D, Pick D,” shouted the General, speaking over the radio mic.

Then Evgeny woke in his bed—what might have been his bed—to find Shulamite giving birth, heaving and panting with the same exasperated sigh as his mom.

“You’re late once again,” said his boss, or somebody wearing an over-starched polo with a badge that said Pfizer. “Sit down.”

Evgeny sat down at a padded-white cubicle and picked up a headset device. “Good evening, I don’t mean to disturb you at home or ask about a personal matter, but I was just wondering if you’ve been satisfied with your partner’s recent sexual performance.” He did his best to speak without an accent, reciting the words on his screen. Then someone started cursing him in Hebrew. Or Russian. In fact, it sounded like his mom.

When he blinked again, she was dying, sprawled out on a hospital bed, clutching his wrist, her nervous eyes huger than fists. “I’m glad we came to this country,” she groaned.

“Me too.” Evgeny held up his youngest child. She looked just like him, but for a gap in her teeth.

Then his wife was pulling his arm. She was leading him through a long hall. Evgeny was wearing a suit. His tie wasn’t tied, and she was explaining that he’d get the house and their kids.

She explained that there was someone else. She was holding his Captain’s hand.

“Sorry,” said a voice on the radio.

Then Evgeny spun round once again and found himself floating on waves. He was water-skiing, it seemed, which he’d never done but found quite intuitive, since he’d cross-country skied as a child. Then he was parachuting briskly, whipping through air, landing and crunching his arm. He was in the hospital meeting a nurse named Allel. She was Moroccan and dark and quite beautiful to him and wore a sizable ring on her hand and made love to him gently late one afternoon on a terrace overlooking the bay.

Then he was back at work again, supervising a mid-morning shift, when he stumbled on a caller whose laminated tag bore the same last name as Allel. Evgeny tried to smile warmly, then he removed the caller’s I.D. The man started crying.

“I know it hurts,” Evgeny said.

“It does,” said the General, speaking over the radio mic.

Evgeny pulled back from the scope and rubbed its glass tube. It was much brighter and filled with red tendrils, like some crackling plasma globe.

Looking back into the eyepiece, Evgeny saw himself smoking, trying to reach for a pack. But Allel kept pushing it away. Soon, she clicked off his television, where Russian Idol was blaring. “No more stress for you,” she said. Then he saw himself coughing and madly convulsing and floating up high into space. There was no parachute above him, however—just darkness and glimmering stars. He was soaring past planets, past a hot molten sun, then a lava-like orb, which burned out.

“They forgot to pay the electric,” said someone, a jobnik on-air. “That, or the fucking generator’s down.”

Evgeny looked up from his scope. Beyond the walls of his lookout, he heard a low whistle, a roaring whoosh, then a dull thud and a boom.

“It’s not the generator,” his radio shouted. “The base is under attack. Enemy Fajr’s. They must have hit the power grid. Run.”

Evgeny rubbed his face. He was sweating deeply. The sandbags shook at his boots. It was completely dark in his lookout, minus the glow of his tube.

“Two-twenty, two-twenty, come in,” blared his radio. “What’s the report?”

“Everything’s clear,” he said.


J. A. Bernstein is the author of Rachel’s Tomb, which won the 2015 Hackney Novel Prize and the 2016 Novel Prize from Knut House Press, where it was awarded publication. His stories and essays have appeared in several-dozen journals, including Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, and Tampa Review, and garnered the Gunyon Prize in Creative Nonfiction from Crab Orchard Review. A Chicago-native, he is an assistant professor of English at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the fiction editor of Tikkun.

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