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The improvised explosive popped off to the convoy’s left. The armored black Suburban Neil drove muffled the sound to a dull thud. The blast seemed smaller than normal.

“Anyone hurt?” the medic, Luiz, called across the radio.

The team members, in four matching Suburbans, all responded that they were good.

“Why is my windshield covered in rotten meat? Was that fucking bomb hidden in a dead camel?” the medic asked.

“Nope, it was a God-Dammed mule carcass,” was the radioed response.

“We dismounting and checking it out?” Neil asked the team leader, Joe, who was seated in the front passenger’s seat.

“Fuck that.  Those small ones are bait. I’m not leaving my air-conditioning, we’re not takin the bait,” Joe responded in his thick Cajun accent.

The team was all ex-military; 7 Americans, 4 Brits, 2 Aussies, and a Kiwi. They transported aid workers, provided security for doctors, and trained non-profits in the basics of staying alive in Iraq.

“Where are we going again? Been running so hard I’ve lost track,” Neil asked.

“East, cuttin across this bombed-out shithole on Qadisaya towards Al-Zawra park. Got to give these pills to the do-gooders over at that pop-up clinic ran by Médecins Sans Frontières. We’ll be home for dinner.” Joe responded.

“Why the hell are we leaving so damn early? It’s the ass-crack of dawn.”

“None of these terrorists get up at 0600, we’re out-smartin em. I’m one of this generation’s great tactical minds!”

From the driver’s seat Neil turned his green eyes to Joe. Neil had been with the unit for about a month. Joe was on his second year as commander. The two of them were still feeling each other out. Joe always rode in the passenger seat of Neil’s truck.

“What ya think about that little bomb?” Neil asked.

“Like I said, bait. Luckily for the team I’m a master-baiter. I think those assholes are trying to see how we react, draw us out, and attack. Fuck that and fuck them, keep driving,” Joe responded.

“And fuck Baghdad,” Neil said.

“And fuck Baghdad. But shit, it’s more fun than some desk job. All I ever wanted was a gig that got my heart going and a faithful woman. Getting half of what you want is pretty good,” Joe responded, laughing and spitting Copenhagen into an empty water bottle.

“Fuckin’ A. I’d rather suck-start my pistol than work a desk job, or get re-married. You said you were Marine Recon before, right?” Neil asked, after two months he figured he should know more about Joe.

“Damn straight, Semper Fi!” Joe said while flashing a toothy grin. Neil realized Joe must have come from money, his orthodontic work was too perfect, “Someone say you were SF?”

Neil thought back to his time in the Army’s Special Forces. He had gone to war in Columbia, the Philippines, Bosnia, Nigeria, and all over the Middle-East.

“24 years. Uncle Sam took care of me.”

“Well that was thick. That how your arm got jacked up?”

Neil loved that about a war zone. No one had time to beat around the bush. They said what was on their mind, fuck your feelings.

“Moro fire bomb in the Philippines. Most of my right side got hit. Third degree burns.”

Looking down at the scar tissue on his forearm Neil thought back on all those years. In basic training he had stood 6 feet tall. Now he was 5’10. His non-scarred skin was tan and leathery. The worry lines around his mouth were deep. A stray bullet had hit his right leg in Bosnia and gave him a slight limp. His hair turned grey a few years back. He still kept it short and had grown a matching beard.

“Married?”     

“Divorced, she cheated on me after a while. Some women just don’t deserve all this sexiness,” Joe responded. His brown eyes radiating warmth. It made Neil realize how miserable he was, and how charming Joe was. He wanted what Joe had.

“They should issue divorce papers in basic. I’m lucky I only have one. Some of these boys are on number 4. That’s an expensive hobby,”

“The kiwi has it figured out. He’s got one of those open relationships. Maybe I need to get me a different woman. I can be very progressive. You got anyone back home?”

“Divorced. She was a good woman. But she needed a husband and my daughter needed a father, not some guy playing Army around the world.”

Those years had been tough. After the divorce the wife and daughter moved back to Savannah. He got a one bedroom apartment in Fayetteville, North Carolina and focused on work. He didn’t leave the Army until he was 54 years old and they kicked him out.

When he first enlisted his platoon sergeant told him the Army is like an abusive husband: no matter how much you loved Big-Green she would never love you back. Back then it seemed silly, now it seemed prophetic.

“I hear that brother. Your ex needed support. Now my ex was a bit different, she needed dick. So, when my dick was half way around the world she found a replacement,” Joe said.

“Well, I guess you can’t fault a woman for knowing what she needs.”

“It’s like oxygen, or food. Some people just need certain things to survive. My ex-wife needed cock. I came home from an 8 month deployment to a 6 month pregnant wife. Plus, I was a shitty husband, so there’s that,” Joe’s smile got even bigger.

“You ever have any kids?” Neil asked as he scanned the road for any hidden dangers.

“Not that I know of, which is weird since the ex-wife kept getting pregnant.”

“Fuckin A.”

Through Baghdad’s dusty brown haze he saw traffic was slowing.

“Looks like an overpass collapsed,” the lead driver called.

“Go around on the shoulder.”

The caravan moved on. The lead truck was careful to avoid the likely hiding places for bombs, trash piles and such. Arriving at the collapse the team observed chaos. A car bomb had gone off.

Snap, Snap, Snap

Rounds started hitting the Suburbans.

Joe looked up and saw a group at the top of the embankment near the overpass.

“Someone wants to make new friends,” Joe said.

“You think it’s about 400 meters to our new amigos?”

“Bout’ right.”

“Radio the Army and let them know what’s going on. Ask not what your country can do for you, ask who you can shoot in the face for your country.”

The brrrp, brrrp, brrrp of the team’s machine guns started. The air-pressure shifted as the bullets went out.           

            “Somethins stirrin 50 yards out, by the broken concrete,” squawked the radio.

Neil saw a little girl, about 5 years old. She was sitting in between two chunks of concrete. Her face was blank and dusty. There was a blue bow in her brown hair and her dark eyes were puffy. She was rocking back and forth. A woman in a burqa was next to her. The burqa was dark and covered in blood. The woman was probably mom and looked dead.

Bullets cracked past. His ears started to get that muffled full-of-cotton sensation. The edges of his vision blurred. The hair on his one good arm stood up.

“It’s a God-Damned little girl,” Joe said.

“How about you call for some suppressive fire?” Neil asked.

“We’re hitting the road in about 2 minutes. Already told Uncle Sugar bout this goat-rope.”

“Hold off, maybe I can save a kid, seems like a good way to spend the morning.”

“Cut out this white-savior bullshit. This isn’t the Peace Corps and you aren’t a rich girl on Instagram. We got no one to impress, and haji’s aimed in.”

“Squirt a few rounds up there, get’em to drop their heads. I got this.”

“Fuck it, cowboy up.” Joe replied, looking at the debris strewn 40 yard distance to the child.

“Hold my rifle, faster with just the pistol.”

Joe called across the radio, “When I start sending rounds let’s help some assholes meet some virgins. Neil is going to extract that kid. We’re providing suppressive fire.”

Neil focused on the child and then turned to watch Joe. Joe’s right thumb moved his weapon’s selector from safe to semi, he took aim, the pad of his right index finger pressed the trigger, the trigger released the hammer, striking the pin, exploding the primer, igniting the powder, and launching the 90 grain bullet at 3000 feet per second.

Recoil pulsed into Joe’s shoulder. On the embankment was a quick flash of red. The round had impacted his right cheek to the side of the nostril.

“Fuck that guy extra.”

The team started firing machine guns in controlled 5 round bursts.

Neil ran. Inbound AK-47 rounds sounded like hollow pops. The return fire sounded sharper, more crisp.

Half-century-old knees slowed him. He focused three feet ahead, a fall and the enemy would put a round in his neck.

Sliding behind the larger of the chunks he stopped next to the girl.

Next to the kid lay the woman in a pool of blood. To the other side was a boy wearing a red “Atlanta Falcons 1998 Super Bowl Champions” t-shirt. His right leg was gone. He had bled out. He crawled over, grabbed the girl, and put her over his shoulder. She didn’t resist.

The gun-smoke was thick.

He thought about all the good men that died. He knew he didn’t deserve to live.

“Cover me while I move!”

The sprint back was brutal. His legs were heavy, lungs on fire.

10 yards out lightning shot up his right leg. He fell, sliding face first in the dirt, stopping 4 yards from his team. A small mound of dirt protecting him and the girl from in-coming bullets.

“You ok?” Joe called.

“I’m good.” Neil looked down, a bullet had hit is Achilles tendon. His right foot was useless. Why the hell was it always his right side?

“Haji’s tracking you.”

“No shit. I need you to kill them.”

The tendon made it impossible to carry the girl and run. He saw the medic’s outstretched arms.

“Catch the kid.”

“Throw the kid and haji will know what’s what. You’ll catch a round as soon as you move. You need to go at the same time,” Joe said over the roar of the fire-fight.

“Together is too slow. She flies, I run. Get ready to catch.”

“You sure?”

“Yup.”

“Fuckin-A.”

Neil grabbed the girl and launched her across the gap. The medic caught the child. The enemy saw her fly and focused on the gap.

“She good?”

            “Golden.”

“Ramp up that suppressive fire, I’m coming.”

Fresh adrenaline exploded in his veins. He gritted his teeth and accepted the pain. He jumped to his feet, pushed off his good left foot, and ran towards the team.

His right side erupted. White hot pain overtook his mind, then left. He felt peace. In some distant place he remembered that the protective vest didn’t cover his sides. But that was ok. He felt calm.

The darkness came. It was peaceful and still and it was all finally over.

            Slowly he became aware. He could hear, but not see. It was muffled, calm.

“Where am I?”

“You died in an honorable way, you are in heaven, Valhalla.”

“It was real?”

“All of it, my son, welcome to paradise. Your reward.”

“What do I do now?”

“First you accept your lord and savior.”

Neil tried to open his eyes.

“It is ok child, you do not need to see. Now when you are ready… cowboy-up and stop being a little bitch.”

“What?”

            “We got you to the smart-kids fast. Stitched you up good. Quit playin hurt!” Joe said. He punched Neal in the non-shot arm.

Neal drifted back to the dark, the last thing he heard was Joe inviting a nurse for a drink in the green zone.

 

 

Bio:

The Author lives in the southeastern United States with his wife and daughter.

He has been accepted for publication by Mystery Tribune, Story and Grit, The Deadly Writers Patrol, As You Were, and The Report: O-Dark-Thirty.

 

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