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The taillights faded, their reddened glow swimming into a pinkish hue before succumbing to the darkness.  The shrill pierce of the screams fading along with the color.

From the hill top, an open mouth gaped into the darkness, the pale of his eyes interrupted only by the blinking of his lids.  Humor had vanished, leaving only an empty churn deep in the gut.  Bitter bile flooded his throat, foreshadowing the rising tied, and he doubled over.  The contents of his dinner, a double bacon cheeseburger and a watery lite beer, the pride of Elton’s Diner on the edge of tiny Carleton Crest, soaked the gravel shoulder of the highway.  His stomach clenched once and then again, until only a coughing rasp escaped.  Still it heaved again.

“We’re so stupid,” the blonde had laughed when he had finally delivered them to the rust-colored Honda Fit, sitting in the darkened gravel parking lot.

He’d laughed, less out of amusement than awkwardness.  “Nah, people get lost out here all the time.  Y’all take care now and next time you think about hiking ol’ Yellowtail, bring a map along with ya!”

But people didn’t lose their way all the time.  In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d even seen a stranger hiking the trails that wound their way up the sides of the half-domed granite peak like the knot of a drunken sailor.  To be honest, he didn’t even know if there were trail maps available.  But one would hardly need a map, anyway.  There was but one side up the rocky incline, beyond which a sheer cliff cascaded straight into the surf below.  Oh sure, locals were occasionally found dashed along the rocks at the base of the cliff, particularly high schoolers, unable to hold their liquor and overflowing with adolescent invincibility and lust.  It was a potentially deadly combination to which Carleton Crest youth were too often not quite immune.  Why, just last year a couple of star-crossed high school lovers had disappeared over the cliff, although whether the tragedy had been accidental or a suicide pact had stoked the town’s gossip mill for months.

Strangers were a different matter, though.  Outsiders simply didn’t come to Carleton Crest, let alone get lost hiking the hills.  And yet, they had.  These three, all of them in their late twenties, he would have guessed.  The man, a quiet one without much to say at all.  Sort of non-descript, except for the scar that scrunched up his cheek, but that didn’t detract from his overall attractiveness.  The two others – women.  One blonde, with wavy bangs that just poked out from beneath the front of the blue bandana she wore like the Aunt Jemima character on the syrup bottles.  The other a brunette, her belly swollen considerably with expectancy.  Seven months, they’d told him.  Nope, no father in the picture.   He hadn’t pried further, and no explanation was given, only a raised eyebrow by their male companion.

It had been their yells that had piqued Roderick’s ears earlier. Not panicked cries, but more a sing-song yodeling that had wound its way amongst the scraggly evergreens and invasive kudzu that dotted the hills surrounding Yellowtail.   His hearing only revealed long enough to reset the playlist on his iPod, but long enough to hear the voices.

At first, it hadn’t registered that what he heard were even human and not the random howl of coyotes that could increasingly be heard in the area these days.  He’d never seen the coyotes himself, but he heard them aplenty.  And their scat littered nearly every trail in and around the checkerboard plots of state forest and private preserves that dotted the coastline.  He hadn’t heard them as a child, although he’d roamed these hills and woods daily, it seemed.  No, the coyotes had arrived more recently, slowly moving in as the urban push from the larger metropolises of Silver Springs and Gauntlet increasingly intruded into their natural domain.

Tires clawing at the loose gravel, followed by a slight popping sound.  That’s all he’d heard before the deep splash as the Honda’s front end hit the water.  He’d turned, and through the shadows, the taillights had move away from the shore, but only about six feet before settling into the still, deep water.  Screams.  Then nothing.

He’d taken two steps toward the boat ramp, an instinctual, heroic urge to sprint to the rescue.  But something in his mind held him back, a split second of self-preservation that swept over him and halted his movement.  In an instant, he crouched down into the kudzu.  And in the next, a slight breeze kicked up around him, and he felt slight movement.  He spun around, all senses on high alert, his eyes scanning left as the dark shadow drifted right.  By the time his eyes moved back in that direction, it was gone.  But the eerie cold remained high in his chest, where his heart beat a staccato rhythm.  The adrenalin surged through his body, and he felt his stomach clench once again.  But this time, he wrestled the retch back down.  And slowly, he raised back up to his feet.

The water was still once again, where the stubby little car had disappeared.  The night air was strangely silent.  Even the evening birds had gone quiet, as if no one wanted to admit to what they had seen.  Still, Roderick remain motionless, his ears straining to pick up even the slighted sound.  Little more than a flutter could be heard at all, as if a lone bird had taken flight from the frightful scene of the accident.  Within moments, even the fluttering was gone.  Then just a void.

Without another sound, Roderick slipped silently back up the trail, his smooth gait moving quicker and quicker with each passing minute, until he too had left the shoreline far behind the distant bluffs and he disappeared into the wood line of the forest preserve.

________________

High above, a solitary figure waited patiently for the man in the kudzu to depart.  In the green haze of the night vision goggles, he watch the man begin moving, slowly and deliberately at first, but building up speed as he went until finally, he disappeared into the dense forest.  That had been close.  Too close.  How had he missed seeing the man on the hilltop, until he had been nearly on top of him.  A quick tuck of his feet, and a bit of luck as the man turned left instead of right, and he’d swept just above and beyond.  Yes, far too close for comfort.

The figure let out a silent sigh, one that had been held inside for far too long.  His temples pounded, as he slowly turned counterclockwise and drifted down the coast line.  Reaching up to the lanyard that hung limp from his left shoulder, he slid a darkened bead down the nylon cord.  And with his fingers, he traced up from the bottom.  ThreeThree down and counting.  Fifteen to go.

The chirping of the alarm slowly roused Mike from his sleep.  Peeling his head from the down pillow, his sleepy eyes struggled to focus on the time.  It was five o’clock, but his body insisted groggily that it must be earlier.  He wasn’t ready to get up; the mental fog produced by months of poor sleep was growing thicker.  Groaning, he propped himself up on his elbows and shut off the alarm.  By getting up now, he knew he would enjoy the next hour of hot coffee and quiet reflection before having to wake the girls for school.  What had become a personal habit years earlier had taken on a new, vital role in his life since moving the girls back to Oregon.

He hadn’t initially recognized the importance of this morning meditation, focusing instead on simply trying to make it through the exhausting pace of trying to balance his newfound parental responsibilities with work obligations.  But Tanya’s comments about his downward spiral increased.  She had indeed borne part of the brunt of his quickly diminishing energy level and moods.  At first she had been content to allow him his space, but after a particularly tense evening, she had taken matters into her own hands, suggesting that Mike needed to make time for himself.  It was a diagnosis he had begrudgingly admitted was right on the mark.  He had promised to give it a shot.

The past two weeks had been much better, he sensed.  No, he knew things had changed for the better.  His patience level, although still not great, was improving.  His panicked reactions to parenting were subsiding, replaced or at least gradually overshadowed by a prevailing sense of calming acceptance in his new role with the girls.

His feet flopped to the icy floor and he shuffled toward the window seat.  The sky was a dark grey, no longer the pitch black of night.  Squinting toward the heavens, he spotted the fading twinkles of stars through fuzzily distinct clouds.  As predicted, the storm had broken and there was a chance the new day would bring sunshine for the first time since they had moved in.  He smiled.  It would be the girls’ first time waking to good weather in the new house.

Maybe that would help Sam’s attitude, he thought.  He hoped so, anyway, as he open the leather journal and clicked open his pen.  He began writing.

 

By the time he heard the soft pattering of feet behind him, Mike had written six pages in the worn notebook.  His thoughts had flowed as easily as the rivers of water through the reappearing carved channels in the pre-dawn light in front of the house.

“Good morning,” he said, without turning to see who was approaching.

“Hey, Dad.”

Turning around, Mike smiled at his twelve year-old daughter.  Her hair was tangled and knotted, and her eyes hung only half open.  She yawned widely as she crossed the living room.

“How are you this morning?” he asked.

“I’m good.”

“Sleep well?”

“Yeah, once I fell asleep I did,” she answered.  It was exactly the way he expected the conversation to go.  Every morning was the same thing, he had learned.

Climbing onto the window seat next to him, Sam cuddled up next to him, wrapping her arms around his waist and resting her head against the warmth of his t-shirt.  He hugged her back, relishing the childish intimacy that emerged most mornings, only to be drowned out by pubescent hormones by midday.  He missed the closeness the two of them once had, the giggling snuggles each weekend morning and her eager willingness to ask whatever popped into her head.  Middle school had changed her as the way it does most people, the developing need for independence and the struggle to fit into a social scene that welcomes few.  Not to mention the divorce.  He knew that even the difficulties of this phase would pass, but his little girl was growing up and the past dynamics of their relationship would also evolve.  For now, he was content with their morning cuddles, he thought as he kissed her forehead.

“Why did you get up early?  You could have slept another ten minutes,” he told her.

“I know.  I just woke up.”

“Cool,” he said, gesturing toward the window, “Well, you get to see your first actual sunrise in this house.”

“Um, Dad, actually we’re looking west.  The sun comes up in the east,” she commented, looking at him inquisitively.  Her eyes sparkled, and he knew she understood what he had meant.  She could definitely sense someone’s buttons and even in play, she enjoyed pushing them.  Like father, like daughter, he thought, chuckling.  He would not take the bait.

“Ready for your last week of summer?” he asked.

“Yeah, I guess.  I wish summer would never end.“

“Well, school here will be okay.  You make friends easily, and we know what a great student you are,” he assured her.  “It’ll all work out.  I promise.”

Transitioning to a new school was never easy, though.  He knew better, but really knew nothing else to say at the moment.  Sam did make friends easily.  But in middle school, easy is a relative term.  This was why they had moved into the house before it was finished.  The alternative was to start the school year in Portland, only to move again to Tillamook partway through the fall.  That made no sense at all.  Tanya had agreed.  Besides, she had pointed out, this way the girls could help to make choices about their rooms and other details that still needed to be decided.  It could be a bonding experience, and definitely something young girls would enjoy. Her assurances had helped.

“Seriously,” he continued, squeezing Sam’s shoulder, “it could be great, right?”

Sam shrugged.  “We’ll see, Dad.”  With that, she turned and shuffled back down the hallway.

Watching her retreating figure, Mike’s smile slowly transformed as he sucked his lower lip between his teeth.  It wasn’t middle school that made him apprehensive at the moment.  After all, that was still a week off.  No, it was a much closer milestone that caused his face to slightly contort in a combination of bottled-up excitement and nervous energy.

In slightly more than two hours, Tanya would be there.  The daily phone calls over the past month had brought them closer, he felt, but that had been their only contact.  By her own insistence, they hadn’t even seen each other since Mike and the girls returned to Portland.  He needed to focus entirely on the girls, she had told him.  And while he agreed on an intellectual level, the comment had perplexed and worried him.  What if she had cooled on the idea of a relationship?  After all, he could no longer afford to be the carefree, easy-going bachelor that she had met in Tahoe.  As a “package,” he could no longer be separated from the girls.  What attractive, intelligent woman would be interested in taking on that commitment?  The thought gnawed at him.

“What’s wrong, Daddy?”

In an instant, a feigned smile erased the frown that had crept across his face with a quick rub of his hand across his day-old stubble.  Meg came crashing into his legs, hugging him tightly.

“Oh nothing, sweetie…I was just thinking about the things I have to get done today.” His smile softened into a more natural expression.  “Did you sleep well?”

“No, I had nightmares again.  These ones were about an ugly old man who sold us a boat that kept sinking every time we tried to go sailing.  Only I couldn’t swim, and you wouldn’t help me.”

“Oh my…that’s not good,” he said.  “Well, it’s not real, is it?  See, everything is better in the morning, huh?”  Lacking anything else to say, he merely stroked her long hair as she clung to his legs.

“Daddy, why do you have to work today?  Why can’t you just take the next week off and spend it just with us?”

“Oh, I’ll be here most of the day.  Remember, from now on, I get to work from home.  But I do have some things to get done today.  That’s why my friend, Tanya, is coming over.  She really wants to meet you guys.”

“Okay, if you say so,” she replied.

“Trust me, you’re gonna love her,” he said, hoping his voice was more convincing than it seemed to him.  The fluttering in his stomach was intensifying.  What if they didn’t like her?  It was a bridge of uncertainty he would cross only if necessary.  “Now, go get dressed.”

 

The crunching gravel under the approaching tires of a vehicle caused Mike’s pulse to flutter even faster than before.  A glance out the kitchen window confirmed the slow approach of a white Honda.  Okay, buddy.  This is it…God, let this go alright! 

“Girls,” he called down the hallway, “Tanya’s here.”  He cringed at the giddiness in his voice, and he instantly wished he could take it back.  He wanted their introduction to be as informal as possible.  After all, maybe then they wouldn’t realize that Tanya wasn’t just his friend.  “They don’t need to know anything else, right?” he whispered, trying to convince himself.

Stepping out the back door onto the unfinished pine stoop, he gave a quick wave and a brave smile toward the white car.  The rain from the passing storm had beaded nicely along the light colored pine boards of the porch, and looking at the rainbow glistening, Mike realized that not only would this be Tanya’s introduction to the girls.  She had also never been to the house.  Oh, she had seen photos on his laptop, but pictures could never do justice to the rugged backdrop of the Oregonian coast beyond the house.  And the house itself was impressive, even in its developing state.  He could see Tanya perched forward in the Accord’s driver’s seat as she took it all in, and an adolescent flutter surged over him.  She’s going to love it….right?  I mean, who wouldn’t?  He bit down on his lip both to quell the self-doubt and because he felt suddenly self-conscious of the excited grin that had ambushed his face.

Tanya pushed open the car door with her knee and smiled at Mike.  Wow! She mouthed in his direction, her smile expanding as their eyes met.

“Be careful of the mud,” he called out.  “I’d hate to have to hose you off!”

“No, you wouldn’t,” she called back, grinning devilishly.  “I think you’d thoroughly enjoy that!”

“Who me?” he exclaimed, his hands clutching his chest in mock innocence.  They both laughed, as she carefully made her way between the muddy puddles to the half-sunken two by fours that made an unsteady walkway to the porch.  Mike stepped down onto the last board and held out his hand for her.  When their fingers touched, he felt an electric excitement shoot through his body and his heart pounded against his ribcage.  Wow, it’s been a long time, he thought, as he gently pulled her onto the porch beside him.

When she was safely on the porch, Tanya turned toward him and gave him a warm hug.  He pulled her into his chest, and breathe in the faint smell of perfume that lingered behind her ear, the slightly sweet odor of lilacs.  Only when he felt her body tense a smidgen did his arms relax, freeing her from his grasp.

“It’s great to see you,” he whispered, afraid that if he spoke any louder the emotions that were welling up inside him would overflow completely.  It was silly, he knew, how much he had longed for such an embrace over the past month.  Although he certainly received his fair shares of hugs from the girls, the embrace of another adult, a woman, was much needed.

The door cracked open and a button nose and one beady eye peaked out.  From inside a whispered voice hissed, “Megan, close the door.”

Mike’s eyes met Tanya’s and they both stifled a laugh.  “It’s okay, girls,” Mike said, turning toward the door just in time to see it snap shut again.  He waved to the pair of small faces peering from the lowest glass panes of the windowed door.  “Come on out.”

The door opened slowly, and one by one, with Megan leading the way in her typically brazen and courageous manner, the girls stepped onto the porch.  Tanya smiled warmly toward them.

“Hi,” said Megan, returning the smile with a toothless grin.  Her missing front two upper teeth and her bottom left bicuspid created a jack-o-lantern appearance that, if not for the soft features and fly-away blonde hair, might have frightened some.  Instead, it usually served to melt even the most hardened stranger’s heart.  “I’m Megan.”

Tanya bent forward slightly and reached out her right hand.  “Nice to meet you, Megan.  I’m Tanya…a friend of your dad’s,” she quickly added with a sideways glance toward Mike.

Megan’s fingers curled and with her tightly clenched fist, she lightly tapped Tanya’s knuckles.  “That’s pounds,” she explained.

“Megan,” Mike began, a pinkish hue creeping up his neck and over his jawline.  “Can you shake her hand?”

“Oh, it’s cool,” Tanya interrupted, laughing loudly.  She too balled her hand and returned the gesture.  “That’s pretty awesome!”

Megan beamed, obviously pleased with the positive impression she had made.  Her mission clearly accomplished, she bounded down the porch steps and leapt from plank to plank across the mud in front of the house, like a little clothed monkey freed from its captive laboratory for the first time in ages.

With her departure, Tanya turned toward Samantha, who, although having exited the house remained within a short arm’s length of the open door.

“And you must be Sam,” Tanya stated matter-of-factly.

“It’s Samantha.” The tweener’s voice oozed with attitude, a sharp contrast to the giddy exuberance of her younger sister.

Again Mike felt himself flush, and he fought to keep the annoyance from rising in his voice. “Sam…”

And again Tanya interrupted with a wave of her hand, “It’s nice to meet you, Samantha.  I have a younger sister about your age.  How old are you?”

“My dad didn’t tell you how old I am?” The disgust in Sam’s voice hung thick as the coastal Oregonian morning humidity.  The corners of her lips curled ever so slightly into a sneer.

Tanya smiled politely.  “Of course he did,” she replied, “but that was several months ago and I can’t remember if he said that you were almost twelve or almost thirteen.”  Her own painful memories of those early middle school years, with the awkwardness spawned from puberty, bodily changes and hormonal onslaught, coupled with her own parents’ divorce and the dissolution of her nuclear family, made Tanya understand all too well Sam’s sassiness.  She was hurting, and in deference to her mother, it was uncomfortable to be meeting her father’s new female friend.  That Tanya was posed simply as a friend made little difference, and the therapist in her understood that.  Too often in her psychological residency program had she sat across the room from just such a tormented teen soul.  We’ll get past this, she thought, nodding to herself more than to anyone else.

With a shrug, all three of them disappeared into the house, the screen door easing shut behind them.

“What do you mean you’re not going back?”

“Mom, it’s no big deal.  I’ll be just fine without my bi-weekly bitch sessions with Dr. Reynolds,” Erin said, shaking her head.  She had known this would be the response and had put off the conversation as long as possible, three days to be exact.  Inevitably, when her weekly phone call home hadn’t come at precisely 10 o’clock Sunday morning, her mom had dialed immediately.

“No big deal?  Erin, I really don’t think it wise to simply quit going.  I hardly think you’ve dealt with all the issues with Kevin’s death,” her mother stated.  Her penchant for blunt practicality never failed to amaze Erin, who had long learned to only half listen to the inevitable passive aggressiveness aimed at her decision-making abilities.

“Oh please, it’s been fourteen months…”

“And you think that everything’s solved simply because of the passage of time?” her mother interrupted.

“No, Mom,” Erin raised her voice.  “I think that some things time will never heal and I understand that.  I think I am functioning well enough given everything I’ve been through.  And I definitely know that being guilt-tripped and second guessed by you isn’t helping!”

The last statement stung her mother, she knew, and Erin instantly felt bad for having said it.  But she didn’t apologize.  It’s the truth, she thought, as she listened to the shallow breathing on the other end of the phone.  She waited, expecting to hear the sniffle that would signal the extent of her mother’s hurt feelings.  She heard nothing.  Goddamn it, Mom! Don’t you dare try to guilt-trip me!

“So, how’s your research coming?” her mother broke the strained silence by abruptly changing the subject.  It was her way of avoiding confrontation, a relationship trait that she had perfected, and one that had been as effectively passed on to her daughter as any.  But for once, Erin welcomed the avoidance.

“Not bad,” she answered quickly, determined to not allow the conversation to return to her therapy decision. “I’ve made progress lately.”

While technically honest, it was a stretch to label it progress, and she knew it.  The enthusiasm with which she had attacked her schoolwork at the beginning of the semester had ground to the halt since the coffee incident.  She had always relied on the library to provide the discipline and focus she needed to work.  Attempts to study at home had never been fruitful.  As an undergrad, roommates had often referred to Erin as their absentee cohabitant.  With 24-hour access to the library, she had frequently studied until she collapsed in the early morning hours, drool staining the textbook pages where her head landed, a technique she had proudly dubbed a study halt.

“Speaking of which, I really ought to be going.  I want to finish a few more articles this afternoon.  Thanks for the call, Mom.”  A few niceties later, Erin hung up the phone.  Instead of heading for the library, though, she sat and pondered her last visit there.

*************

For the past two weeks, Erin had done her best to avoid the library, sneaking in and out of SPEA by a side door on the second floor.  Eventually, though, she would have to go back there.  She knew that.  After all, her research depended on it.  The university’s main library, which stood directly across the street from her office, had proved unfruitful.  For one thing, while architecturally impressive as a tribute to the skilled sandstone cutters and numerous quarries that dotted the southern Indiana landscape, the main library was both uncomfortable and impersonal.  With study cubicles scattered haphazardly amongst the dark and institutional rows of bookshelves, the building accentuated the solitary and oftentimes miserable life of a grad student.  She had lasted four hours there before the walls of this windowless tomb of academe began closing in around her and she fled for the sunlight.  Reluctantly she’d accepted the idea of again visiting the SPEA library.

So far, so good, she thought as she huddled at a corner table, her heart pounding wildly against her ribcage.  Every minute or so, she would exhale loudly, evidence that she was, in fact, holding her breath slightly in apprehension of whatever it was that she feared might happen.  She wasn’t entirely sure what was causing her anxiety, but she was prepared nonetheless.  Like a timid mouse, she had willingly ventured out of her burrow, on guard against the dangers that waited in the open field, but without fully understanding even what that danger looked like. 

From her vantage point, she could easily observe both entrances.  In the past half-hour she had counted twenty-six people approach the library.  Two had only been interested in the trash can just outside the doors.  The others had nonchalantly wandered through those doors to find their own study nook at the pods of cubicles or expansive tables.  No sign of the Polo guy, though.  Her satisfaction with this emboldened her, although her diligent scouting of the doors detracted significantly from her ability to get anything done.  As far as she was concerned, that was alright, though.

One step at a time, she reassured herself.  Eventually, her glances toward the articles fanned out across the table became longer as her breathing and heart rate slowed.  She shrugged her shoulders and managed a small smile.  See, you can do it.  It’s not that hard

Pulling her iPod from her bag, she inserted the ear buds and pressed play.  Claire de Lune gently flooded her ears and the subtle sensation of tension flowing from her neck and upper back warmed her.  Ninety minutes later, having made good progress on her latest paper, she packed up her books and articles.  She had made it.

As she pushed back from the table, though, the metallic click of a door latch sounded behind her.  Her back was bathed in light and her shadow cast a dark shadow across the table.  Turning slightly, she froze.  From a small study room in the back corner of the library, nearly hidden by the shelves that lined the far wall, stepped the man who had caused her panic two weeks ago.  Two other young men emerged with him and strolled toward her table, their arms weighted down with identical brown leather briefcases and IBM laptops.  Like the mouse an instant before the hawk strikes, Erin felt the panic sweep over her, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.  She couldn’t move, and even thoughts seemed slurred.  Oh god, what…

Their eyes met for just a second, and her breath caught in her throat.  His head tilted back slightly, as if to simultaneously acknowledge her presence and reassure her, the way frat boys and jocks greet each other with a silent “what up, bro.”  Another second and the group had passed.  Erin was alone again.  Her hand gripped the edge of the table, and had it not been made of such hard wood, she surely would have left an indentation of her bony fingers on its surface.  When she realized this, she relaxed slightly, releasing her grip that suddenly dripped with sweat.  She sank slowly back into her chair, staring at the retreating backsides of the three men until they disappeared into the hallway that separated SPEA from the Business School.  She was trembling, and it was some time before her legs felt strong enough to support her weight.  Quickly, she fled the library, choosing to exit directly to the outside and into the fresh air.  As fast as her legs could take her, she crossed the campus and blended in with the surrounding neighborhoods and toward Starbucks.

He hadn’t spoken to her.  He hadn’t tried to approach her.  There had been no attempt to gain understanding of her earlier reaction.  No pressured or awkward questions.  No nothing.  Just a nod as if to say “No worries, it’s cool.”

  Erin’s head was spinning as she approached the chain coffee shop, its familiar green and white sign warming her innards before she even stepped inside.  She desperately wanted to sit down, to calm down.  She needed to think things through.  A vanilla latte always helped with that.

She was still confused.  He hadn’t pursued her.  He hadn’t even stopped for an explanation.  It was almost as if he was intentionally giving her the space that she needed.  That certainly wasn’t something she was used to, either from her parents in the past year or from Kevin before his death.  Kevin had rarely allowed her to take time for herself.  Early in their relationship, he had stated that he believed the strongest couples were those who spent all their time together, sharing their every thought and feeling with the other, not holding anything back from their partner.  It was a philosophy that had made limited sense to her, but at the same time gnawed at her constantly.  In fact, she wanted and often needed her own space, her own time to process both the exhilarations and the maladies that life provided.  Horse rubbish,” came the response time and again.  She just needed to learn to trust him more, he felt.  And to help her, he would double the time spent together.

In time, she supposed that her trust in his kind of relationship did grow.  She slowly discarded her own interests, making every effort to embrace those hobbies, activities and interests that they both shared.  It seemed to work.  She did enjoy their time together.  And they genuinely had grown closer.  And yet, her yearning for independence continued, abated but never absent.  She learned to ignore the longings, though.  They only led to disagreements and arguments.  In fact, thinking back on the three years before his deployment, she could remember only a handful of arguments that had been spawned from issues other than her desire for greater independence.  Inevitably, each disagreement ended with her apologizing for having broached the subject.  He accepted her apologies and they moved on.  That was just their dynamic, she had countered the exasperated reactions of friends and families.

All couples have arguments.  Erin had understood that.  And perhaps that understanding is what allowed her to be swayed into thinking that theirs was a normal relationship.  After all, who is to really say what is normal and what is not?  There’s no such thing as a perfect relationship, she used to tell herself, while wiping away the tears after a long fight.  Rather than create discord by insisting on what Kevin had convinced her were selfish insecurities, she had opted in the last several years to bury her desires for good, content in the knowledge that she was being a good partner.  The fights diminished, and they were on their way toward the happy, smiling relationship and life which had graced the pages of her romance novels as a teen.

Enough with the reminiscing, she reminded herself.  You need to get to work.  Shut up…It can wait.  No, it can’t…Your dissertation’s not going to write itself. 

With a tired sigh, Erin peeled herself from the canvas covered couch from Ikea, a gift to herself intended to ease the pain of the one-year anniversary of Kevin’s death.  Yes, she would make another attempt at the library.  The panic surrounding the strange young man was still there, but it was slowly dissipating. 

She grunted and strained with the sliding glass door that led from her bedroom to the large wooden deck at the back of her apartment.  The metal door runners were beginning to stick, either for lack of lubricant or due to the frost that had swept across Bloomington overnight.  Autumn here was a fleeting season, a brief respite from the stickiness of July and August before the iciness of the winter months descended upon the region.  Fall had arrived early, but had seemed to be stretching out longer than usual, allowing residents the luxury of weeks on end with temperatures in the mid-60s.  The changing foliage, whose ocular magnetism pulled thousands of visitors each year to nearby Brown County, had been exceptionally vivid this season.  The deciduous hillsides were breath-taking in their radiance, flaming crimsons and oranges speckled with patches of almost incandescent cardinal autumnal beacons.  These too were contrasted sharply with the brilliant amber, burnt umber, and copper visual flavors that blanketing the rolling hills and artisan communities that dotted the southern Indiana countryside.

When the door gradually succumbed to her brute force, Erin poked her nose out into the wind that wind snaked its way up her nostrils.  She could almost feel the warmth of the fires that filled the air with a smoky sweetness, hundreds of individual fireplaces that stimulated the collective senses of the entire city.  It was a long-sleeved day, she quickly decided, withdrawing her proboscis and throwing her weight against the door handle.  Inexplicably, this time there was no sticking, and the wall shook violently with the metallic crash of the lock plate against its frame, perilously close to crushing the fingers of her right hand that had been jolted from the handle by the lack of resistance. 

Wow, that could have been bad, she thought as her eyes darted around the room, her expression one of surprised embarrassment, an early teen caught surreptitiously masturbating by one’s mother.  She half expected to hear Kevin’s snicker, lightly mocking her clumsiness as he so often had.  But there was no one now to laugh at her now.  Instead, she felt the build-up of nervous energy bubble up from her diaphragm and heard her own laughter fill the room, a muffled chuckle that quickly morphed into a deep chortle.  It had been months since she had spontaneously laughed, and the experience left her flustered and fumbling as she twisted her arms into her black leather coat and matching gloves, a running commentary playing out in her mind. 

What the hell, girl?  It’s okay to laugh.  But there’s nothing funny.  Oh relax, silly!  I am relaxed.  Oh yeah, that’s clearly evident!  Shut the fuck up!  She ground her teeth together, slammed the front door behind her and wrestled the deadbolt into place, lucky to not bend the key in the process.  It was definitely time to get back to work. 

“To hell with you!” she whispered into the gusting wind that whipped her face.  The autumnal leaves, whose grips had already failed and that now skipped and waltzed with the wind, mocked her approach to the bus stop.  Yes, her research would be her escape once again.  As she stood motionless, though, her thoughts drifted toward the young man from the library, whose presence weighed on her mind, but whose face, she realized, she could not even picture.  And to hell with you, too!

The gritty, green haze revealed nothing out of the ordinary.  Everything was exactly as it ought to be.  The soldier glanced down at the on the ground in front of him.  Lifting the topographical map out of the dusty sand, he carefully folded it in half three times until only a one-tenth mile surface area remained visible.  He slipped it into the cargo pouch of his pixilated army fatigues and rose to his feet, careful to remain crouched behind the front passenger-side wheel of the Hummer.  Again, he scanned the silhouetted buildings along the horizon, ramshackle homes that by day revealed the scars and pockmarks of modern warfare.  Beyond the damaged buildings, the outline of the village’s mosque was visible, its prayer tower silent in the early morning dark, but still standing vigilant against the ideals of the western religions.  Turning slightly, the infantry soldier glanced toward the shadows of a nearby grove of palm trees.  Even with the bright moonlight, one would have easily missed seeing the professional soldiers with the naked eye.  Through his AN/PVS-7D night vision goggles, however, he made out the outlines of the four prone figures, fanned out in a circle that corresponded to the four points of a compass.

Overhead, the distant whomp whomp of a circling helicopter gunship could be heard.  It was a familiar and comforting sound that the soldiers had come to alternatively rely on and ignore in the past fifteen months, a deadly guardian poised to strike at any threat facing the men while outside the wire and an airborne security blanket covering their restless sleep between missions.  Whereas others prayed to a God for protection, he prayed to the Apache.  For nearly than a year, his prayers had been largely answered.  One more night, he silently pleaded, and then it’ll be all over.

Crossing the dusty road at a trot, he approached the silent and still soldiers.  Toggling the talk switch on his compact squad radio, Specialist Kevin Strickland whispered into the headset microphone, “All clear, Sarge…good to go.”

“Okay, Delta,” the team leader’s voice crackled through the headsets, his arm outstretched for the nightvision goggles Kevin held in his hand.  Taking them, he quickly clipped them to the front of his Kevlar helmet.  He toggled the microphone again. “This is Rally Point Lima.  If we get hit, we fall back to this point and regroup.  Let’s do this and go home, okay?”

“Roger that,” all four soldiers on the ground responded in hushed unison, as they noiselessly got to their feet.  It was a routine they had followed on each mission.  Kevin often wondered if he would miss it.  He doubted it, he quickly decided.

“Santori, take point,” the sergeant ordered, nodding through the darkness toward the shortest soldier.  At five foot five, Specialist Paul Santori was dwarfed by the other infantry scouts.  For what he lacked in height, though, he more than made up in brawn.  No one doubted his ability to keep up with the others.  He pulled his weight and then some.  And tonight, only he and the sergeant wore night vision goggles.  The others relied on their natural eyesight and the ambient night sky, unblemished by the unnatural light of the high-tech devices.  In the darkness, no one could see Kevin blinking madly, in a vain attempt to regain some semblance of night vision, the green haze of the NOD still spotting when he closed his eyes.

“Hooah, Sarge,” Santori whispered and stepped forward.  It was a role he was used to, one he actually relished, Kevin knew as his tent mate.   Through the shadows, Santori would physically lead the patrol along its assigned route, setting the pace and maintaining constant vigil ahead of the group.  If any dangers presented themselves to their front, it was his responsibility to halt the group, pass the warning and to await directions from the sergeant.  Through two hundred and four missions, he hadn’t let them down, and he had no intention of breaking that streak now.

Santori moved ahead, and Kevin waited for the group to spread out.  They were careful to maintain a separation of roughly thirty yards from the trailing soldiers.  The bright moonlight tonight allowed them to spread out farther than normal, reducing the risk of multiple casualties in the case of a rocket propelled grenade or improvised explosive device explosion.  And the squad radios that they each wore eliminated what in previous conflicts would have made for tough communications.  Still, the squad relied less on technology than on an array of hand signals to pass information back and forth amongst themselves as they moved.  Silence was their ally and an art-form they had mastered as a team.  Only the crunching of small stones under boots sounded as the patrol moved in a wedge formation that roughly mimicked the shape of Canadian geese migrating south for the winter.

Pivoting to check on the slowly deploying fan of soldiers, Kevin watched Santori turn forward and cautiously proceed away from the parked hummers.  Alpha squad would remain with the vehicles, poised to provide back-up if needed, as Delta crept away toward the maze of alleyways and boarded up shops that ringed an village’s marketplace.  The night’s mission was a simple reconnaissance patrol on two suspected Al-Queda safe houses in the village.  It was the type operation they knew well, and Kevin breathed easier with this reassurance.

On this night, Corporal Mitch Evans walked closest behind and to the left of Santori.  Whereas the point man carried a standard issue M-4 combat assault rifle, Evans traversed his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon toward the outline of buildings barely visible on the horizon.  With a rate of fire of 750 rounds per minute, in the event of a firefight, the squad’s safety lay heavily on Evans’s broad shoulders.  The mini-me, as the scouts referred to the SAW, was a formidable weapon indeed, particularly for keeping the heads of one’s enemies down.

Mirroring Evan on the right side of the formation creapt Specialist Tony Gabrielski, the unlikely offspring of a Bronx prizefighter and a Russian émigré Jew.  Like Santori, his weapon of choice was the M-4, which he slung across his body with the barrel angled toward the ground to his left.  Although this position of the rifle put Evan in the potential crosshairs, Gabrielski bucked the sage advice of older veterans to carry it to the right.  He maintained that what was gained in safety paled in comparison to the speed and accuracy needed in an ambush.  When they first arrived in country, he had tried for several weeks to operate with his rifle cradled against his left shoulder, but never overcame the awkward discomfort of trying to twist and sight with his weaker side.  No, he argued, he was right-handed and would operate this weapon with his dominant and unusually accurate dominant side.  Left side or right side of the formation made no difference.  He’d do his job and do it right, a fact he had proved time and again in the past fifteen months.

Trailing behind Gabrielski , Kevin was the oldest member of Delta, aside from the sergeant.  At 25, he was only average looking as a soldier.  In fact, none of the squad looked the part of hardened warriors, certainly not as portrayed in blockbuster Hollywood pictures.  None were overly muscular, John Wayne wannabees, eager to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima or Guadalcanal, least of all Kevin.  His lean, almost skinny body looked to be more suited for accounting than soldiering, a deceptive appearance that he had found advantageous on more than one occasion when encountering others who might have reacted more aggressively toward a more menacing foe.  Faced with a diminutive and almost mousy figure, it was natural to underestimate the tenacity and controlled rage that he had learned to unleash at a moment’s notice.  This natural ability that had served him well in sports, developed and honed on the high school gridiron and hockey rinks.  And when the playing fields had been traded for the killing fields, the results were remarkably similar.

Tonight, his was the job of providing indirect fire for the squad, should they run into anyone unsavory.  An M203A1 grenade launcher, mounted underneath the barrel of his M-4 rifle, provided Kevin with the ability to drop 40mm high-explosive rounds onto the enemy from a distance of nearly to one and a half football fields.  In open terrain this was a formidable weapon, but he had quickly realized that in the dense urban city streets and in room-to-room searches, the launcher was little more than added weight.  In addition to the standard thirteen magazines of 5.56 mm ammunition for his M-4, he carried 36 grenade rounds spread evenly across his chest in a specially made ammunition vest.  But when he thought of the extra bulk, he found himself thankful for the warmth it provided on these cool nighttime missions.  The temperature difference between the desert day and night still amazed him after more than a year.

From the rear of the wedge formation, Sergeant Gassner quietly but effectively led the squad of scouts.  A fourteen-year veteran of the first Gulf War and a brilliant operational leader perfectly suited for balancing the rigors and demands of modern warfare with the personal touch of a supervisor who genuinely cared for his subordinates, he had suffered much during this his third deployment.  His first combat experience, Kevin knew, had been the easiest.  As a machine gunner assigned to the Army’s 3rd Armored Division throughout Operation Desert Storm, sporadic firefights during the 100-hour ground war provided all the glory any soldier had dreamt of as a teenager without any real danger.  And while Sergeant Gassner hadn’t envisioned ever returning to The Sandbox, the shock and awe of the initial push into Iraq in 2003 had also been accomplished with minimal personal angst.  A newly promoted sergeant with the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, Gassner had felt both relieved and proud to return home with no casualties, aside from an unfortunate private who tore his ACL during an impromptu football game a month after the invasion.

This deployment, however, had been the worst for the most experienced soldier with Headquarters (HHC) Company, 1st Battalion of the 151st Infantry Brigade.  The IED that had torn through the squad’s hummer, metal shrapnel shredding Private First Class Anthony Spitello’s body and wounding Gabrielski and Evans in their third month in Baghdad, had shattered Sergeant Gassner’s illusion of invincibility as a leader.  Spitello had died almost instantly, and although both of the wounded soldiers had rejoined the squad within a month, the seasoned leader realized that this war would be different from the others.  Gone were the easy distinctions of good and evil, friend and foe.  To his Cold Warrior mindset, the hidden insurgency, relying more on booby traps and random sniper fire than frontal assaults and direct engagement, dripped of cowardice and dishonor.  It seemed that every week someone from the Brigade had been killed by the cleverly disguised devices which were most often detonated remotely just the American convoys passed, a statistic that exponentially increased the frustration, rage and eventual hopelessness of his soldiers.

As the five soldiers slowly made their way along the dusty road toward the village that still stood a kilometer away, Kevin could sense that the team was not fully focused on the mission at hand, and no amount of reminding would change that.  No, even his own thoughts flitted back and forth from the mission to their upcoming redeployment home, reunions with families and spouses, nights of premeditated partying and carousing design less for the fun and more for forgetting everything they had faced in Iraq, and back to the mission.  He struggled with his own thoughts of Erin, as he marched forward through the darkness.  He imagined the homecoming party she had promised to throw, and the private celebration afterward with only her.  He shook his head in disgust.  The spiraling thoughts and emotions made it impossible to stay fully alert, he realized, saying a quick prayer to the Apache in the sky for luck to be on their side tonight.

In silence, the squad pressed forward in the dark.  In the distance, a dog barked.  Santori’s left hand shot up, signaling a halt to their advance.  All five soldiers froze in place before slowly sinking into the dust, most resting their weight on one knee. Quick glances by all of them to their wrist watches showed that they had been walking nearly thirty minutes.  Kevin did the math in his head, concluding that they had likely covered slightly more than a kilometer.  A few seconds later, another bark shattered the night air, but this time seemed muffled, cut short with a sound like a muted grunt.

“Whatcha got, Santori?” Sergeant Gassner’s voice whispered into their headsets.  A solitary drop of sweat trickled down his forehead and across the bridge of his nose.  He hoped his subordinates couldn’t hear the nervousness in his voice.

“Nada, Sarge,” from the darkness ahead, Santori answered. “Just a dog barking, but nothing visible.  And we’re downwind, so it couldn’t have smelled us.  And that last bark sounded like his owner shut him up.”  His head slowly moved back and forth, scanning the huts that showed up as dark green silhouettes through the night vision goggles.  Nothing moved.

“Roger that.  Just keep a look-out as we move forward.  Just take your time, though….there’s no rush tonight, okay?”

“Hooah,” whispered the point soldier.  Hunkering down in the groove made by some sort of farm vehicle that had probably swerved off the road during the rainy season, Santori waited and watched.  He wasn’t about to take any risks, not so close to the end of their tour.  Since taking over point position after Spitello’s death, he had a 100% success rate for the squad, by which he meant that he hadn’t lost a single soldier on 204 consecutive patrols.  It was a peculiar statistic that he had invented to stay motivated and alert while outside the wire.  It was also a figure that he kept to himself.  He wasn’t about to jinx the squad.   Only Kevin knew of the streak, the result of an open notepad left on his cot two days earlier while sprinting to the latrine with diarrhea.  When Santori returned, Kevin had been leaning over the notepad. He had asked the point man what the hash marks meant.  Santori had explained, but only after forcing the grenadier to promise not to reveal his secret to the others.  Thoughts of the streak buzzed in his mind as he crouched in the dust.

After five minutes, Santori was convinced that all was indeed quiet in the village ahead.  Only then did he hoist himself up, half-turning toward Evans and slowly wind-milling his arm to the others.  Forward, Infantry, he gestured, mimicking the statue that guarded the Sand Hill infantry training area of Ft. Benning, Georgia.  He watched as the group carefully rose to their feet, slightly crouching in the dark night air.  There was little cover out here in the open, a fact about which they were all acutely aware.

Turning back toward the village, the squad moved out in unison, careful to avoid scuffing their boots against the sandy soil.  On the off-chance that the dog had heard them, the scouts needed to be extra careful to avoid drawing attention to themselves.

Santori’s back was turned when, out of the corner of his eye, Sergeant Gassner saw Kevin’s body jerk.  After a millisecond of pondering this strange spasmodic movement, the unmistakable sound reached the soldiers.

Crack!  A single shot rang out, the echo dissipating almost as quickly as it arrived.  As if in slow motion, the soldiers instinctively dropped to the dirt, faces pressed against the dusty earth, as if willing themselves to ooze into the rocks and rubble that littered the edge of the hard road.  Without hesitation, they began wildly returning fire, spraying the night air in panicked response.  Confusion about the location of the shooter was evident in the numerous arching tracers that blanketed a 180-degree arc in front of the scouts, angry glowing red lasers that bounced off rocks and momentarily lit the night sky.  Despite the deafening roar of the gunfire, a wet gurgling was heard over the scouts’ squad radio.  Kevin Strickland, his legs twisted awkwardly beneath his torso, lay still in the dry weeds that sprouted from the sides of the road.  Around his limp body, the sandy dirt slowly grew dark and sticky in an ever-widening circle.


The Shagris

The repetitious thumps pounded his temples like a nasty hangover.  A week earlier, he’d have assumed the throbbing was just that.  The resilience of one’s college days quickly disappears when real responsibilities roll over one’s life like the never-ending crashing of the salty, Caribbean surf.  Not so much as a sip of alcohol in a week.  Not bad, he thought and his lips twitched in more of a grimace than a smile.  Nor would there be an adult beverage anytime in the near future.  Nope. Now he was all business.

The helicopter blades rhythmically beat a war dance against the sticky humidity of the jungle air, and he cringed.  Then again, his cranium always throbbed when forced into consciousness before the first rays of light peeked over the hidden eastern horizon.  The only light this morning emanated from the two red bulbs within the vibrating aircraft, one positioned midway along the chopper’s olive green metallic inner derma and the other on the front wall, beyond which the pilot silently urged the two-bladed, lumbering beast toward its objective.  Obscured by a thick, black Velcro strap to mask any unnatural luminescence or inadvertent reflections, his wristwatch, had he cared to check it, would have read 0330 hours.  He kept it on twenty-four hour time, which actually made more sense from a timekeeping standpoint than the civilian 12-hour mode.  The time was irrelevant, though.  Only the darkness mattered.

The airframe of the old bird creaked audiblely over the thwop, thwop, thwop of the dual rotors.  Looking at the Spartan overhead, crisscrossed with yellow and red wires, cables and hydraulic lines, Sergeant Tucker’s thoughts remained darker than the pitch black sky beyond the few portal windows.  He’d never liked choppers, and the cylindrical body of the Chinook was even worse than most.  The pilot’s sarcastic, pre-flight reminder of a helicopter’s refusal to follow the laws of physics hadn’t helped any.  Who really wanted to hear that just before boarding a whirlybird?  Certainly not him.

Asshole, he thought as the aircraft banked slowly to the west.  The jungle coastline lay somewhere down and to their left, and somewhere amidst the tangled web of mangroves flowed the warm waters of the Shagris River – Shagris was Spanish for shark, he’d been told.  It fit, for where the wide river emptied into the southern Caribbean, its muddy fresh water swirled with the salty brine of the oceanic currents with just enough motion to attract tremendous numbers of hammerhead sharks.  None of that mattered, though.  If the soldiers ended up that far down river, the sharks would be the least of their problems.

All was silent, aside from the non-stop pounding of the aircraft’s engines.  With their bulky night vision goggles, Sergeant Tucker hoped the pilots would quickly spot the river ahead.  If not, it just prolonged the flight.  They would find it.  That wasn’t the issue.  And the quicker the better, as far as he was concerned.

“One minute!” the muted voice of the helmeted crew chief barely carried over the engine noise.  In fact, had Tucker not been jostled by the camouflaged figured next to him, he might not have heard the warning.  The pilots had spotted the river and, nosing the bulky chopper into a forty-degree dive, sped toward the slick blackness of the Shagris.  Tucker glanced at other warriors seated in pairs along the bulkhead, facing toward each other but separated from him by a stack of rucksacks.  He nodded, and in silent unison, the group rose from the cargo net seats and stretched their legs.  Usually only four of them operated together, but as of yesterday, the group had grown by one.

Shortly after noon the previous day, Corporal Jimenez, USMC, had sauntered onto the second floor of the barracks.  He was short, but made up for any lack of physical stature with an ego the size of Manhattan.  Without even asking, he had flung his duffel bag onto nearest top bunk at the end of the open squad bay, nonchalantly leaned his rifle against the iron frame of the bed and plopped down onto the musty mattress.  He said not a word to anyone, but the arrogance oozed through his attitude.  No words were needed.

Damn Jarhead, Tucker had thought even before seeing the reaction of his men to this intrusion.  He had intended to break the news to them earlier, and he wished he had.  Their faces said what went unspoken; their thoughts mirrored his as they glanced at each other.

Tucker had known better than to inquire about language barriers during the operations order that morning.  A legitimate concern, he felt, given that they were operating in the Panamanian jungle with little more Spanish ability between them than was necessary to order una mas cervezas. But to assign a jarhead?  Had he known that would be the solution, he would have kept his mouth shut.  Too late now.  He shook his head slowly before slumping against the barrack’s concrete support column and sighing.

For Tucker, when he allowed himself beneath the superficial interservice rivalry that existed between Marines and the Army, it all came down to tactics.  Both services were competent killers.  He knew that.  He’d even admit it after a couple cold ones.  But each branch accomplished their objectives in their own ways, following their own Standard Operating Procedures.  And that was the crux of the problem.

He had served with Marines before, but never without several weeks of alignment exercises.  Tactics needed to be discussed and reconciled.  Otherwise, you ran the risk of disaster.  If ambushed, the Marines would hunker down on the spot and open fire toward the enemy, while the soldiers would scream and go charging directly through the line of ambushing forces.  Without coordination, the reacting Marines would accomplish little more than wiping out the entire scout squad.  Yes, they needed time to ensure everyone was on the page, definitely longer than just a few hours, anyway.

Tucker watched as the Chinook’s rear ramp begin to lower and the spray of the unseen river misted the air inside the chopper’s belly.  It was, of course, a moot point now, as he shook his head slightly.  Adapt, improvise and overcome, he thought, stepping toward the gaping darkness and peering into the blackness below.  He saw nothing.  Not the canopy of the dense jungle.  Not the flowing water of the Shagris.  Just a noticeably oily wetness that prickled his skin and clung to the greasy paint on his face.  He shielded his eyes, and squinted into the darkness.  Still nothing.

By the time he turned around and stepped back from the edge of the wobbling aircraft, he saw the others had congregated behind him.  Their arms holding tight to their olive green rucksacks, rifles strapped tightly to the bulging packs.  One by one, he quickly inspected their gear, his trained eyes searching for loose items, anything that could either fall out as they exited the helo or that might rattle and announce their presence once in the jungle below.

Step. Check. Step. Check.  He made his way past each of the soldiers, until only Corporal Jimenez was left.  Even in the reddish glow, his face had turned a sickly green color, and he hesitantly stood several feet behind the others.  Tuck felt his jaw tighten, and he motioned the Marine forward.

“Let’s go, Corporal!” His yell was barely audible, but his meaning unquestionable.  Jimenez inched forward, prompting another angry gesture from the sergeant.

The light at the edge of the ramp began blinking. Thirty seconds until the chopper reached the insertion point, which was likely already in view for the pilots up front.  Four tiny chemlights, tightly secured twenty minutes earlier to the outstretched Mangrove tentacles along the riverside by Navy Seals, marked the drop zone.  At least that was the plan, Tuck knew, but he was nervous.  The Seals had never let him down before.  He hoped this wouldn’t be their first time.

Taking his place at the rear of the group, Tucker’s eyes fixed on the flashing red lamp, until it froze, casting a solid greenish hue.  It was time.  One by one, the camouflaged soldiers stepped to the edge of the Chinook’s back ramp, tossed their rucksack into the darkness, paused momentarily and then stepped.  Five warriors in all.  In eight seconds, only the Sergeant remained on the chopper.  Tuck followed suit.  First, the rucksack disappeared into the black night.  Wait, one thousand, his trained mind recited.  A momentary dread coursed through his body, and then he too stepped into the nothingness….

As the dark room came into focus, the moonlight streaming through the open blinds and illuminating all but the minutest details of the décor, Erin realized she was sitting upright in bed.  The down comforter and flannel sheets lay twisted and spilling off the side of the bed.  The recurring nightmare had left her panting and drenched in sweat, her t-shirt sticking uncomfortably to her breasts.  It was one of three dreams that tiptoed eerily into her conscience each night, lying dormant until exhaustion overcame the dread of the upcoming night and she drifted off to sleep.  In reality, it was the least disturbing of the three, but it was the most frequent, invading her psyche until she could recall it in excruciating detail.  This one wasn’t hard to interpret, a sense of guilt over something she could neither control at the time nor redo now more than a year later.  It was, Dr. Reynolds had explained, not uncommon to imagine traumatic events, even if one hadn’t been present for the actual tragedy.  Such professional confirmation seemed both idiotically simple and overwhelmingly comforting.  Yet the despite his reassurances, the dreams continued unabated.  And as always, as she sat in the darkness, her thoughts returned to last year.

The ringing of the phone had prodded her out of a deep sleep that night in June.  Exhausted from a week of wrestling with last-minute wedding details, Erin had retired at nine o’clock and was deep in the midst of a satisfying REM cycle when it rang.  Instinctively, her first glance was at the ceiling, where the time glowed from her projected alarm clock.  It was 1:43 a.m.  Her head collapse back into her thick down pillow, muffling a groan as she blindly groped for her cell phone on the cluttered bedside table.  The ringing stopped before her fingers found the phone.  Flipping it open, she read the display.  Private Number.  No message.  Still gripping the phone, she lay there.  Who would be calling at this time of night?

With only two weeks left before the nuptials, hers was a stereotypically frantic schedule of final dress fittings, meetings with caterers, florists and disc jockeys.  And as the future bride to a devout Catholic, Erin, who had been raised vaguely Methodist, attended countless meetings with the priest and various lay leaders of Kevin’s church.  She had confided in friends that these sessions felt closer to the Spanish Inquisitions than spiritual counseling, lectures ranging from the Sacraments to birth control.  But rather than protest the dogmatic brainwashing, she had elected, with prompting from the groom-to-be, to quietly acquiesce.  She sat quietly through the classes, collecting piles of religious propaganda in the form of brochures, videos and Vatican-approved books, successfully hiding her doubts and skepticism.  She could discuss them with Kevin after his homecoming.

In the early morning darkness, numerous thoughts had raced through Erin’s foggy mind.  Rhonda, her first cousin and matron of honor, surely she would have left a message if she had called.  It had been a Friday night, though, which left the possibility of drunk dials from a number of friends blowing off steam from the week.  Perhaps the call had been from her younger brother, Mark, a camp counselor at a YMCA day camp in northern Wisconsin.  He too, would likely have been out drinking and carousing on a Friday night.  And he never left messages, preferring to simply call back later.  With every possibility considered and eliminated, her mind had sprung back to one question.  Why had it been a private number?  No one she new had unlisted phone numbers.  Maybe it had simply been a wrong number, the caller realizing the mistake when the voicemail picked up.  That must be it, she’d thought, setting the phone down and rolling back onto her side, snuggling under the down comforter that Kevin insisted was too hot for summertime use.

The ceiling display showed 4:48 a.m. when the phone woke her a second time.  Private Number was again visible on the display panel.

“Hello?” Erin had answered before the ringing ended, a feeling of dread building in her gut.  The call earlier may have been a prank, but no one called with good news or just to chat this early.

Instead of a voice, however, an abrupt sequence of shrill beeps, chirps and whistles announced the attempted transmission of a fax machine on the other end of the line.  Confused and still dazed from sleep, she’d hung up the phone, staring at the device in her hand.  What the hell? Again it had rung, with the same result.  Only this time, instead of simply hanging up, she’d pressed the power key until the phone chimed, shutting down completely.

She’d been annoyed and for the next two hours had tossed and turned, wishing desperately to sleep.  Her thoughts, however, had not of the phone calls.  Instead, they had instead fixated on the wedding day nightmare that had been interrupted right as she walked down the aisle.  In the dream, the ringing of a guest’s cell phone had prompted polite giggles from others in attendance.  She had glanced nervously toward her waiting groom at the front of the church, trepidacious about his reaction.  But at the end of the aisle was not her handsome groom, dressed in the all-white tuxedo they had chosen, Instead she recognized the silhouette of a soldier, his face turned away and crimson blood dripping slowly from hands that hung limply at his side.  Her wide eyes sought answers, as a deep red stain spread across the brilliant white runner that stretched the entire length of the church.  The ringing of the second call interrupted the nightmare.

Erin couldn’t remember a time in her life when she hadn’t known Kevin.  They had met in Mrs. Thompson’s kindergarten class, sharing the playground with twenty-five other five year-olds.  Over the next twelve years, their paths had intersected continuously, the way the individual strands of a girl’s braid cross each other over and over again.  When she was seven, Kevin’s parents had moved them into house just down the street, five houses away until a sixth house was built on the vacant lot in the middle of the block.  She could recount every Halloween costume he had worn, from the clown that first year to the football player to the soldier in the final years of trick-or-treating.

To say that she’d had a crush on him from a young age wouldn’t have been true.  In fact, her earliest memories of Kevin were of a skinny, little boy.  His ears stuck straight out from under an always present baseball cap that created a permanent ring of “hat hair” in his shaggy brown hair.  Her memories were validated by many childhood photos.  Kevin had been a pretty average, if not slightly goofy-looking kid.  His jeans, Tough Skins purchased at a local thrift store, quickly adopted a greenish-brown tinge around the knees, grass stains sustained from endless games of baseball, football or some sort of violent melding of the two.

Erin, on the other hand, had favored Barbie and Cabbage Patch Kids far later into childhood than most of her peers.  Her vast collection of dolls and other gender-specific toys provided her and Rebecca Starks, her first “best friend,” with hours of impassioned role-playing as they created the lives as married wives and mothers that they foresaw in their futures.  For the two of them, the throngs of pre-adolescent boys that roamed the neighborhood in search of mischief were little more than an annoyance.  “Eww, boys” they had typically exclaimed with awkwardly vivid sound effects of gagging and retching for emphasis when asked if they had boyfriends by even more annoying grown ups.

All that changed in middle school.  With pubescent hormones coursing through their bodies, an uncontrolled sprint toward years of acne and growth spurts, their interests changed as most do – toward boys.  Ewws changed to ohhs as quickly as summer gives way to the changing leaves of autumn and a whole new world blossomed before them.  Instead of dolls and tea parties, conversations turned, hesitatingly at first, but spurred on by both teenage curiosity and peer pressure, to crushes, love and sex.  Looking back, Erin was shocked and slightly embarrassed to think of the language she and her friends had used back then.  Shit and fuck exuberantly highlighted every sentence spoken amongst peers, skillfully thrown in as nouns, verbs and adjectives alike, often with little care for grammatical correctness.  And together at age thirteen, Rebecca and Erin had discovered the hidden, yet intriguing world of fantasy teen sex, little more than whispered tales of lust and masturbatory admissions.  And for both girls, it was Kevin who fulfilled those solitary fantasy moments.  His growth spurt in seventh grade, coupled with the early appearance of facial hair, a deeper voice and newfound muscles had attracted the attention of many a seventh grade girl.  And when confidence caught up to physical maturity in tenth grade, he had asked Erin out, producing more than the typical teen heart flutter.  Without hesitation, she had accepted.  Her response had been equally enthusiastic six years later, when as a college sophomore, Kevin had proposed.  Life was exactly as she had imagined it would be, high school sweethearts devoted to each other through college.  Years later she would admit the devotion related more to physical lust than actual commonalities in feelings, life direction or intellectual equality, but at the time all seemed perfect.

In actuality, she merely adopted that lifestyle that she had observed in her mother, without consideration that this was a far different time and place then the Brady Bunch world in which her parents had courted.  As such, any disappointment or disillusionment within the relationship was quickly swept under the rug.  A wife’s role was to play the supportive partner to a dominant, and in her case often domineering, husband.  Doubts never entered her mind, perpetually wrestled from conscious corners of her existence, even when domineering bordered on abuse.

She had been surprised by her emotional response on the day Kevin had announced his enlistment in the Army National Guard.  He had been similarly surprised by the ambivalence she showed to what he considered a rather momentous decision.  His surprise manifest itself as rage, leaving her bruised and battered, injuries she hid well from her friends and family, ashamed and confused.  While she had been surprised that he would arrive at such a decision without consenting her, the subdued relief she felt at the prospect of his impending three-month separation at boot camp betrayed her true feelings.  Even word that his unit was to deploy to Iraq hardly fazed Erin.  By that point, her focus was more on fulfilling her vision of a future as a trophy wife than anything else.  And if that meant passively accepting his decisions and their consequences, she seemed resigned to that.

It was on the eve of Kevin’s deployment, however, that her emotional world began its slow spiral out of control.  Jostled amongst dozens of devoted military wives, she first experienced the painful emotions of the upcoming separation.  It was a feeling common for the others, even though she wouldn’t officially join their ranks until after the 15-month deployment, the bond formed was strong, the way she imagined hostage victims forever connected with their fellow compatriots.  It was a mixture of panic, sadness, fear and apprehension, although she couldn’t for the life of her figure out why she felt that way.  In fact, she had always prided herself on being completely objective toward the hurdles and obstacles life threw her direction.

For the first couple months, she felt isolated, afraid for Kevin’s safety and obsessed with news reports from Iraq.  Days would go by without word from him, sending Erin into a tizzy.  It was the unknown that got to her the more than anything, ignorance about what he was doing, what he was experiencing, speculations of atrocities and the horrors of war to which he as being exposed.  Most of all, her worries stemmed from the rumors and fears of other wives and girlfriends about the increased likelihood of birth defects for children of soldiers serving in the combat zone.  That was her biggest worry, the threat to a vision that she held so dear, a future picture-perfect life as a working wife and mother, two kids, a dog, and a comfortable house in the suburbs with a white picket fence.  If her picture perfect future was at risk, what else mattered, she figured?

“What types of things would he tell you during those calls?” Dr. Reynolds prodded.

“It depended.” Staring at the wood paneling as she always did, she picked at the swollen cuticles of the fingers on her left hand.  It was the worst of her many nervous habits.  “If it was a good day, he wouldn’t really talk about the missions.  But if it had been a rough day, it was almost like he needed to talk about it.  He would spend the whole phone call talking about the mission.”

In reality, the details of the missions, when Kevin did talk about them, were largely unintelligible to Erin.  It annoyed her that he seemed unaware of the acronyms that he threw about in conversation the way an American in Europe might assume that everyone spoke English.  It was an annoyance that she rarely revealed, though, instead just answering in “uh-huhs” and “really.”

“How did that make you feel?” his predictable questions made her wince.

“Just like a fucking therapist,” she interjected instead of answering.

“I’m being serious,” her therapist continued, “Was there anything that you felt when he would vent about those experiences?”
Erin paused before responding, “Of course, it was pretty shitty to hear about all the crap they went through, without having any way to make it better for them.  I mean, wouldn’t you feel bad in that kind of situation?”

Dr. Reynolds smiled, “Yes, I guess I would feel somewhat powerless in that kind of circumstance.  Is that what you felt?”

“Doc, I don’t know what I felt, to be honest,” Erin answered, surprising herself with how calm she felt.  “You’re asking me to remember exact feelings that I had at a time when I wasn’t being too aware of my feelings.  Doesn’t that seem to you to be a pretty difficult task?”

“Erin, it may be a difficult task, but I wouldn’t ask it if I didn’t think it was something that we ought to explore.  And I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think it was something you could answer.”

“Fine,” she said, her tone a mixture of surrender and exhaustion.  It annoyed her that he could possibly understand what he was asking of her.  “So, you want to know if I felt powerless?  Of course I felt powerless.  Here was my fiancé crying about the horrible things he was seeing and probably doing.  How could I feel anything but powerless?  It wasn’t like I could relate to anything he was feeling.  I wasn’t in the Army.  I wasn’t in Iraq.  And I wasn’t seeing death on a daily basis.  So, how does anyone possibly respond to such things?”  Like a trash compactor, her fist mashed the ball of tissue into an even smaller sphere of soaked pulp.

“I don’t think there is any particular response that’s expected at those times,” Dr. Reynolds tried to explain.  “It’s natural to feel overwhelmed when one is expected to show empathy, but without really understanding the entirety of the experience.  How could you possible know what it’s like to be in combat?”

However, Erin did know more than she let on.  Kevin had told her enough to help her understand.  What he couldn’t explain, he showed to her on video, nearly daily clips uploaded and emailed to her.  It was a horror that she had resisted at first.  But eventually, she had watched in morbid curiosity.  And from that moment, the digital horrors haunted her dreams, images she couldn’t forget, no matter how hard she tried.

In therapy, however, silence was her ally and her answer.  But it was not the only answer.  Once again her eyes were tightly shut and her head shook slowly from side to side.  No, she wasn’t ready to relive those dreams, not prepared to share what she knew of the atrocities Kevin had revealed to her in those videos.

Dr. Reynolds cleared his throat, the silence rebounding before rushing back across the room the way saltwater churns to reclaim its sandy clutches with each breaking wave.  Through the slightest slits, Erin could see him watching her, and it made her uncomfortable.

Why does he do that?  Why doesn’t he say anything?  He just sits there in silence, knowing it drives me crazy!  Fucking bastard! She sighed, but this was not a sound of resignation.  No, she was testing his reaction, seeing if she could prompt some sort of response.

His gaze that had held her so steady had dropped to his notepad when she sighed, as if the air escaping her lips had forced his eyes to release their discomforting spell on her.  She had seen it and a flutter of exhilaration leapt silently from her gut into the upper reaches of her throat.  A slight smile appeared on her lips, just a quiver of the moist corners of her pursed scowl, but a smile nonetheless.  It was a small victory on the battlefield that she strode each and every day like a soldier in her own right, loyally facing wave after wave of mental machine gun fire with the mindlessness required for survival.  After all, the soldier who questions the logic behind repeated frontal attacks on a fortified enemy quickly loses grasp on his very identity.  So, too, for Erin to contemplate the emotional turmoil would be to dissolve her identity as an independent, free-thinking woman.  The little battles, no matter the source, were her foci and her primary joy these days.  And while just the hint of contentment slowly spread across her lips, inside she felt the comfortable warmth of full-fledged happiness.  It was short-lived.

“Erin,” Dr. Reynolds’s voice interrupted her satisfaction, “how long do you want to keep this up?  We’ve been meeting for almost a year, but I’m not sure from a professional standpoint, that we’re making a lot of progress.”

Silence again descended on the pair.

“I realize that you started therapy to appease your mother’s concerns,” he continued, “ but I really do want to help you.  And despite your courageous front, I do believe that deep down you are hurting.  Unfortunately, unless you are able to acknowledge a desire to address issues, to grow beyond those things in your past and move forward, I’m not sure there’s much point in continuing these sessions.”  With that, he was silent again.

A gentle and yet vile heat spread from the backs of her hands up her arms and across Erin’s face.  The exultation that had danced its way up her esophagus moments earlier pirouetted and twisted its way back down into her bowels, transforming as it slithered through her core, shock that quickly continued its path into defensive anger and ultimate rage.  It simultaneously choked and nauseated her in wave after wave of paranoia.

What the fuck?  WHAT the fuck? You’re giving up on me, Doc? Her jaw methodically snapped open and shut, but no sound was uttered.  Her vision clouded and she blinked rapidly, willing the tears back to their cistern.

“You know something, Dr. Reynolds?” she whispered toward the shimmering figure across the room.

“What, Erin?”

The bitterness of bile slowly inched its way from her back of her throat onto her tongue, and her mouth suddenly felt sticky and sickeningly dry.  A forced swallow scratched at her throat and for a moment she panicked at the thought of vomiting.  Again, her mouth flapped in silence, spasmodically at first, but slowly with more control until movement ceased entirely, her lips hovering half open.  Her vision cleared slowly and the tears that had perched on the precipice receded, replaced with an icy stare.  It was Dr. Reynolds’s turn to be uncomfortable, and it pleased her to watch his growing discomfort.  The corner of his eye twitched.  Is he scared of me? She smiled.  Staring directly into his eyes, she saw him look away the way a submissive cur silently acknowledges his place in a pack.

“Fuck you!” she exclaimed in a quiet, controlled voice.  Rising to her feet, she snapped up her backpack and stormed across the small room past the middle-aged therapist, who seemed to cringe as she strode by.  Pausing at the doorway only long enough to drop the crumpled tissue to the floor, she never looked back.

I don’t need this shit.  Fuck this.  Fuck him. And fuck you, Mom.  This time, she didn’t stop at the receptionist’s desk.  She didn’t schedule another session.  What’s the point, she thought.

The gritty, green haze revealed nothing out of the ordinary.  Everything was exactly as it ought to be.  The soldier glanced to the ground in front of him.  Lifting the topographical map out of the dusty sand, he carefully folded it until only a one-tenth mile area remained visible.  He slipped it into the cargo pouch of his pixilated fatigues and rose to his feet, careful to remain crouched behind the front passenger-side wheel of the Hummer.  Again, he scanned the silhouetted buildings along the horizon, ramshackle homes that by day revealed the scars and pockmarks of modern warfare.  Beyond the damaged buildings, the outline of the village’s mosque was visible, its prayer tower silent in the early morning dark, but still standing vigilant against the ideals of the western religions. 

Turning slightly, he glanced toward the shadows of a nearby grove of palm trees.  Even with the bright moonlight, one would have easily missed seeing the prone soldiers with the naked eye.  Through his AN/PVS-7D night vision goggles, however, he made out the outlines of the four prone figures, fanned out in a circle that corresponded to the four points of a compass. 

Overhead, the distant whomp whomp of a circling helicopter gunship could be heard.  It was a familiar and comforting sound that the soldiers had come to alternatively rely on and ignore in the past fifteen months, a deadly guardian poised to strike at any threat outside the wire and an airborne security blanket covering their restless sleep between missions.  Whereas others prayed to a God for protection, he prayed to the Apache.  For nearly than a year, his prayers had been largely answered.  One more night, he silently pleaded, and then it’ll be all over.

Crossing the dusty road at a trot, he approached the silent and still soldiers.  Toggling the talk switch on his compact squad radio, Specialist Kevin Strickland whispered into the headset microphone, “All clear, Sarge…good to go.”

“Okay, Delta,” the team leader’s voice crackled through the headsets, his arm outstretched for the nightvision goggles Kevin held in his hand.  Taking them, he quickly clipped them to the front of his Kevlar helmet.  He toggled the microphone again. “This is Rally Point Lima, men.  If we get hit, we fall back to this point and regroup.  Let’s do this and go home, okay?”

“Roger that,” all four soldiers on the ground responded in hushed unison, as they noiselessly got to their feet.  It was a routine they had followed often.  Kevin wondered if he would miss it.  He doubted it, he quickly decided.

“Santori, take point,” the sergeant ordered, nodding through the darkness toward the shortest soldier.  At five foot five, Specialist Paul Santori was dwarfed by the other infantry scouts.  For what he lacked in height, though, he more than made up in bravado.  No one doubted his ability to keep up with the others.  He pulled his weight and then some.  And tonight, only he and the sergeant wore night vision goggles.  The others relied on their natural eyesight and the ambient night sky, unblemished by the unnatural light of the high-tech devices.  In the darkness, no one could see Kevin blinking madly, in a vain attempt to regain some semblance of night vision, the green haze of the NODs still spotting when he closed his eyes.

“Hooah, Sarge,” Santori whispered and stepped forward.  It was a role he was used to, one he actually relished.  Through the shadows, Santori would physically lead the patrol along its assigned route, setting the pace and maintaining constant vigil ahead of the group.  If any dangers presented themselves to their front, he would instantly halt the group, pass the warning and to await directions from the sergeant.  Through two hundred and four straight missions, he hadn’t let them down.  He had no intention of breaking that streak now.

Santori moved ahead, and Kevin waited for the group to spread out.  They were careful to maintain a separation of roughly thirty yards from the trailing soldiers.  The bright moonlight tonight allowed them to spread out farther than normal, reducing the risk of multiple casualties in the case of a rocket propelled grenade or improvised explosive device explosion.  And the squad radios that they each wore eliminated what in previous wars would have made for tough communications.  Still, the squad relied less on technology than on an array of hand signals to pass information back and forth amongst themselves as they moved.  Silence was their ally and an art-form they had mastered as a team.  Only the crunching of small stones under boots sounded as the patrol moved in a wedge formation that roughly mimicked the shape of Canadian geese migrating south for the winter. 

Pivoting to check on the slowly deploying fan of soldiers, Kevin watched Santori turn forward and cautiously proceed away from the parked hummers.  Alpha squad would remain with the vehicles, poised to provide back-up if needed, as Delta crept away toward the maze of alleyways and boarded up shops that ringed an village’s marketplace.  The night’s mission was a simple reconnaissance patrol on two suspected Al-Queda safe houses in the village.  It was the type operation they knew well, and Kevin breathed easier with this reassurance.

On this night, Corporal Mitch Evans walked closest behind and to the left of Santori.  Whereas the point man carried a standard issue M-4 combat assault rifle, Evans traversed his M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon toward the outline of buildings barely visible on the horizon.  With a rate of fire of 750 rounds per minute, in the event of a firefight, the squad’s safety lay heavily on Evans’s broad shoulders.  The mini-me, as the scouts referred to the SAW, was a formidable weapon indeed, particularly for keeping the heads of one’s enemies down. 

Mirroring Evan on the right side of the formation creapt Specialist Tony Gabrielski, the unlikely offspring of a Bronx prizefighter and a Russian émigré Jew.  Like Santori, his weapon of choice was the M-4, which he slung across his body with the barrel angled toward the ground to his left.  Although this position of the rifle put Evan in the potential crosshairs, Gabrielski bucked the sage advice of older veterans to carry it to the right.  He maintained that what was gained in safety paled in comparison to the speed and accuracy needed in an ambush.  When they first arrived in country, he had tried for several weeks to operate with his rifle cradled against his left shoulder, but never overcame the awkward discomfort of trying to twist and sight with his weaker side.  No, he argued, he was right-handed and would operate this weapon with his dominant and unusually accurate dominant side.  Left side or right side of the formation made no difference.  He’d do his job and do it right, a fact he had proved time and again in the past fifteen months.

Trailing behind Gabrielski , Kevin was the oldest member of Delta, aside from the sergeant.  At 25, he was only average looking as a soldier.  In fact, none of the squad looked the part of hardened warriors, certainly not as portrayed in blockbuster Hollywood pictures.  None were overly muscular, John Wayne wannabees, eager to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima or Guadalcanal, least of all Kevin.  His lean, almost skinny body looked to be more suited for accounting than soldiering, a deceptive appearance that he had found advantageous on more than one occasion when encountering others who might have reacted more aggressively toward a more menacing foe.  Faced with a diminutive and almost mousy figure, it was natural to underestimate the tenacity and controlled rage that he had learned to unleash at a moment’s notice.  This natural ability that had served him well in sports, developed and honed on the high school gridiron and hockey rinks.  And when the playing fields had been traded for the killing fields, the results were remarkably similar.

Tonight, his was the job of providing indirect fire for the squad, should they run into anyone unsavory.  An M203A1 grenade launcher, mounted underneath the barrel of his M-4 rifle, provided Kevin with the ability to drop 40mm high-explosive rounds onto the enemy from a distance of nearly to one and a half football fields.  In open terrain this was a formidable weapon, but he had quickly realized that in the dense urban city streets and in room-to-room searches, the launcher was little more than added weight.  In addition to the standard thirteen magazines of 5.56 mm ammunition for his M-4, he carried 36 grenade rounds spread evenly across his chest in a specially made ammunition vest.  But when he thought of the extra bulk, he found himself thankful for the warmth it provided on these cool nighttime missions.  The temperature difference between the desert day and night still amazed him after more than a year.

From the rear of the wedge formation, Sergeant Gassner quietly but effectively led the squad of scouts.  A fourteen-year veteran of the first Gulf War and a brilliant operational leader perfectly suited for balancing the rigors and demands of modern warfare with the personal touch of a supervisor who genuinely cared for his subordinates, he had suffered much during this his third deployment.  His first combat experience, Kevin knew, had been the easiest.  As a machine gunner assigned to the Army’s 3rd Armored Division throughout Operation Desert Storm, sporadic firefights during the 100-hour ground war provided all the glory any soldier had dreamt of as a teenager without any real danger.  And while Sergeant Gassner hadn’t envisioned ever returning to The Sandbox, the shock and awe of the initial push into Iraq in 2003 had also been accomplished with minimal personal angst.  A newly promoted sergeant with the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, Gassner had felt both relieved and proud to return home with no casualties, aside from an unfortunate private who tore his ACL during an impromptu football game a month after the invasion.

This deployment, however, had been the worst for the most experienced soldier with Headquarters (HHC) Company, 1st Battalion of the 151st Infantry Brigade.  The IED that had torn through the squad’s hummer, metal shrapnel shredding Private First Class Anthony Spitello’s body and wounding Gabrielski and Evans in their third month in Baghdad, had shattered Sergeant Gassner’s illusion of invincibility as a leader.  Spitello had died almost instantly, and although both of the wounded soldiers had rejoined the squad within a month, the seasoned leader realized that this war would be different from the others.  Gone were the easy distinctions of good and evil, friend and foe.  To his Cold Warrior mindset, the hidden insurgency, relying more on booby traps and random sniper fire than frontal assaults and direct engagement, dripped of cowardice and dishonor.  It seemed that every week someone from the Brigade had been killed by the cleverly disguised devices which were most often detonated remotely just the American convoys passed, a statistic that exponentially increased the frustration, rage and eventual hopelessness of his soldiers. 

As the five soldiers slowly made their way along the dusty road toward the village that still stood a kilometer away, Kevin could sense that the team was not fully focused on the mission at hand, and no amount of reminding would change that.  No, even his own thoughts flitted back and forth from the mission to their upcoming redeployment home, reunions with families and spouses, nights of premeditated partying and carousing design less for the fun and more for forgetting everything they had faced in Iraq, and back to the mission.  He struggled with his own thoughts of Erin, as he marched forward through the darkness.  He imagined the homecoming party she had promised to throw, and the private celebration afterward with only her.  He shook his head in disgust.  The spiraling thoughts and emotions made it impossible to stay fully alert, he realized, saying a quick prayer to the Apache in the sky for luck to be on their side tonight.

In silence, the squad pressed forward in the dark.  In the distance, a dog barked.  Santori’s left hand shot up, signaling a halt to their advance.  All five soldiers froze in place before slowly sinking into the dust, most resting their weight on one knee. Quick glances by all of them to their wrist watches showed that they had been walking nearly thirty minutes.  Kevin did the math in his head, concluding that they had likely covered slightly more than a kilometer.  A few seconds later, another bark shattered the night air, but this time seemed muffled, cut short with a sound like a muted grunt.

“Whatcha got, Santori?” Sergeant Gassner’s voice whispered into their headsets.  A solitary drop of sweat trickled down his forehead and across the bridge of his nose.  He hoped his subordinates couldn’t hear the nervousness in his voice.

“Nada, Sarge,” from the darkness ahead, Santori answered. “Just a dog barking, but nothing visible.  And we’re downwind, so it couldn’t have smelled us.  And that last bark sounded like his owner shut him up.”  His head slowly moved back and forth, scanning the huts that showed up as dark green silhouettes through the night vision goggles.  Nothing moved.

“Roger that.  Just keep a look-out as we move forward.  Just take your time, though….there’s no rush tonight, okay?”

“Hooah,” whispered the point soldier.  Hunkering down in the groove made by some sort of farm vehicle that had probably swerved off the road during the rainy season, Santori waited and watched.  He wasn’t about to take any risks, not so close to the end of their tour.  Since taking over point position after Spitello’s death, he had a 100% success rate for the squad, by which he meant that he hadn’t lost a single soldier on 204 consecutive patrols.  It was a peculiar statistic that he had invented to stay motivated and alert while outside the wire.  It was also a figure that he kept to himself.  He wasn’t about to jinx the squad.   Only Kevin knew of the streak, the result of an open notepad left on his cot two days earlier while sprinting to the latrine with diarrhea.  When Santori returned, Kevin had been leaning over the notepad. He had asked the point man what the hash marks meant.  Santori had explained, but only after forcing the grenadier to promise not to reveal his secret to the others.  Thoughts of the streak buzzed in his mind as he crouched in the dust.

After five minutes, Santori was convinced that all was indeed quiet in the village ahead.  Only then did he hoist himself up, half-turning toward Evans and slowly wind-milling his arm to the others.  Forward, Infantry, he gestured, mimicking the statue that guarded the Sand Hill infantry training area of Ft. Benning, Georgia.  He watched as the group carefully rose to their feet, slightly crouching in the dark night air.  There was little cover out here in the open, a fact about which they were all acutely aware.

Turning back toward the village, the squad moved out in unison, careful to avoid scuffing their boots against the sandy soil.  On the off-chance that the dog had heard them, the scouts needed to be extra careful to avoid drawing attention to themselves. 

 Santori’s back was turned when, out of the corner of his eye, Sergeant Gassner saw Kevin’s body jerk.  After a millisecond of pondering this strange spasmodic movement, the unmistakable sound reached the soldiers. 

Crack!  A single shot rang out, the echo dissipating almost as quickly as it arrived.  As if in slow motion, the soldiers instinctively dropped to the dirt, faces pressed against the dusty earth, as if willing themselves to ooze into the rocks and rubble that littered the edge of the hard road.  Without hesitation, they began wildly returning fire, spraying the night air in panicked response.  Confusion about the location of the shooter was evident in the numerous arching tracers that blanketed a 180-degree arc in front of the scouts, angry glowing red lasers that bounced off rocks and momentarily lit the night sky.  Despite the deafening roar of the gunfire, a wet gurgling was heard over the scouts’ squad radio.  Kevin Strickland, his legs twisted awkwardly beneath his torso, lay still in the dry weeds that sprouted from the sides of the road.  Around his limp body, the sandy dirt slowly grew dark and sticky in an ever-widening circle.