Another short for you. This one features Alex and Susan, two characters in my novel ‘Water’, and shows how Alex was introduced to the Seven
Somehow when I thought of Afghanistan, I imagined desert, men in turbans, and camels. I was so wrong. Instead, there were treacherous, ice-covered mountains. The men who shot at me didn’t wear turbans; they mostly wore their knitted pokal hats. And the only camel I saw was dead, bones picked clean by a starving village.
It was a horrible place, made more so by constant war. I shrugged off the misery of Afghanistan; it was better than going to foster parents. My mom signed the parental release forms for the military on her death bed; we had no surviving kin.
“Henson! Do you have them yet?”
“Working on it.” I grunted back. I was supposed to be behind the lines in a warm tent, playing with high-tech, cryptologic receivers trying to intercept enemy communications. But our small detachment got attacked, and the commander decided to integrate the radio guys with infantry. Apparently, in Afghanistan, there was no such thing as ‘behind the lines’.
“Hurry up, Marine! We need some intel.” The platoon sergeant kept pressuring me. He had no idea how difficult it was to operate a receiver with bullets flying so close I could feel the wind off of them.
“I swear to – ” The sergeant was cut off by a bullet to the throat. I watched, his body falling in slow motion while the rest of the world continued at a normal speed. Dust billowed up around him as he hit the ground. I crawled over to him, putting pressure on his throat. He started to gurgle so I let go immediately, afraid I was choking him. I didn’t know what the hell to do. I looked around helplessly, just in time to see the first truck in our convoy out of there get blown up. By the time I looked back down at the sergeant, he was gone – eyes wide open and lifeless.
I stared in shock, from my bloody hands to the whites of his eyes, and back again. His body jumped slightly as a bullet zipped into his side; like kicking him while he was down.
“Fuck a whole lot of this.” I immediately backed away; that bullet was probably meant for me. Another deafening blast; the convoy was not done getting ripped apart either. Where the hell were the reinforcements? I had called for them myself over three hours ago. These shooters weren’t exactly accurate, but they were coming out of the woodworks. Word of our position spread faster than disease out here, except to our allies.
I grabbed my rifle and radio and slithered over to a ravine. Two grunts took position on either side of me; keeping enemy bullets at bay. I switched channels back and forth on HF, trying to remember the frequency for the battalion. I didn’t bother going secure; there was no time for it.
Finally, something came in. It wasn’t the battalion intercepting my distress call. It was a woman. “Say again, I do not read you. I repeat…say again.”
“This is Corporal Henson, 3rd Platoon located three clicks northwest of Korengal Valley. We are under fire; we need air support and evacuation of casualties. Transportation is out.”
“Where is your battalion, Corporal? I will relay the message.”
I gave the woman my battalion’s information and our grid coordinates, praying this wasn’t some sort of trap. Five minutes later the radio crackled back to life, “Helo went down in route to evac you. They are doing recovery efforts there. Will be some time before they can get to you.”
I exchanged a despaired look with one of the Marines beside me. I put the handset up to my mouth when her voice came back on, “We are coming in from the south. Look for two vehicles with the number seven on the side. And do not effin’ shoot us.”
“Who are you?”
There was a short pause before she answered, “A friend.”
“Seals?” One of the Marines offered.
“What, they’re sending GI Jane to save us?” I rolled my eyes at him. Maybe CIA? Whatever – if she had vehicles that weren’t currently on fire, it’ll do.
No less than ten minutes later, the sound of idling vehicles reached us. They stayed well back from the battlefield, hidden to the enemy in the shadows. We had all taken up positions behind our rifles, but couldn’t let up. A break in fire could mean an enemy through our lines; another Marine dead.
A slight tap at the shoulder and my reaction was to immediately let my elbow fly back. Thankfully, she was expecting that, and ducked.
“I suppose I should’ve made it clear. No elbows, either.” The woman was almost as tall as me, an unusual trait. She was in tennis shoes and what looked like a running outfit. It wasn’t camouflage but at least it was dark. She had her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail at the nape of her neck. In rural America, she could have passed for a jogger.
“Who are you; why are you here?”
“I am Susan. We are going to get you out of here – alive.” She peeked around me at the raging battle; we weren’t even in the thick of it. We were on the outskirts. She put up a hand-held walkie-talkie to her mouth and began issuing instructions.
“But why are you in the area?” I asked.
“We’re here to help the environment.”
I laughed – as did several others. Susan glowered at me.
“I am being serious.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, woman.” The crazy episodes of Whale Wars came to mind. “My hands are stained with the blood of my sergeant, and you’re here to keep them from cutting down trees?!” I shot off my last couple of rounds and changed out magazines. “There are no trees out here!”
She shrugged, “Not anymore.”
I looked at her, mouth open, “You are serious.”
“They cut down most of their trees for war. Plus, the land is depleted and not conducive for agriculture. Help the land, help the economy. A stable economy makes for a stable country. See – it’s this whole domino effect that I don’t have time to explain, because your Marines are dying.”
Another explosion, closer this time, sent us all flying. We picked ourselves up. One of the Marines beside me went running into the thick of it, relaying orders for a retreat. He never came back. 13 others did.
“We can all fit, I think – let’s get going before they realize what’s up.” Susan said.
“No,” I stopped her, grabbing her at the wrist. “We have to get the fallen.”
Her mouth pressed into a tight line, “I’m sorry, we just don’t have enough room.” There must have been twice as many Marines dead than those that still stood. I shook my head, “Non-negotiable.”
Susan stopped, turned to face our group, and scanned their faces slowly. They were tired, dirty, bloody, hurt, and scared. But they were as resolute as I was. We all go, or no one goes.
She dropped her head in consent, “Fine. But we’ll need at least one other vehicle.”
There was one other, sitting untouched amongst the smoldering scraps of its brothers. I could see face of the enemy just beyond it. They hadn’t approached yet, but it wouldn’t be long now. “We’ll need a diversion.”
“Done,” Susan said, “When the storm hits, get someone to back that vehicle out of there, and get everyone on board – quick.” Susan held the walkie-talkie up to her mouth again, “I need you here.”
Placing the walkie-talkie in her back pocket, she closed her eyes, and began slowly raising her arms into the sky.
“What are you doing?”
“Please don’t distract me.”
A large, native-American man, with dark, black hair in a thick braid that went down to the middle of his back, walked up to join Susan. Despite the cold, he was in a sleeveless shirt. His thick arms were adorned with tattoos of the planet Earth, various trees and of course eagles.
“You people are crazy.”
“About as crazy as you, Marine.”
Great, compatible by insanity. Susan’s arms were all the way above her head now, and the wind had begun to pick up. How had she known a storm was coming?
I looked back at her face. Her eyes were striking, glowing a bright green against the dark sky. Her hair was coming loose; wild strands whipped around her face. The man next to her was now kneeling, with one hand on the ground, chanting.
The Marine standing next to me suddenly lurched forward, then fell to the ground. Blood gushed out from under his not-so-bulletproof helmet. That was the last Sergeant; meaning now I was in charge.
Susan yelled at me over the increasing wind, now infused with dirt and sand, “The storm will temporarily disorient them and slow them down. But it won’t stop bullets.”
Got it. I barked out orders to the nearest Marine, “As soon as the storm moves into that group there, run for the vehicle. We’ll lay down cover fire.” Then turned to the rest of the group, “The rest of you – get your brothers. We’re bringing them home.”
I had to cover my mouth. Where had all the sand come from? I had seen nothing but ice and rock on the ground for almost a month. The sky cracked open with a bolt of lightning, and rain like I had never even seen stateside poured down. It was literally raining mud. The storm’s intensity moved from directly overhead toward the enemy line. We were still getting rain and wind, but now they were bearing the brunt of it. My platoon stood stock still, staring at the freak storm with nervous glances at Susan and the Native American. “Move it!”
My bark shocked them into action. The whirlwind of rain and mud tightened in on itself, sounding almost like a freight train. Susan’s vehicles pulled forward, and two more men got out to help load the wounded and the dead.
Our vehicle came up beside them. A quick head count – everyone was accounted for and loaded up. “We’re good!” I shouted to Susan.
Her arms began to sink back down to her sides, and she lay a hand on her companions shoulder. He broke out of his trance and stood up. The storm had already started to diminish.
“We have about five minutes before they come charging through what’s left of the sandstorm.” Susan said as she hopped into the passenger side of one car. “You coming?”
“Yeah.” I narrowed my eyes at the storm, then her. It couldn’t be. But then again, I did just see it for myself.
I was the last one to the vehicles. I glanced at the large number seven painted on the side of the vehicle, then crowded Susan over as there were no more seats.
“I want to join.”
Susan looked at me with a half-smile, she exchanged glances with the Native American, then handed me a clean rag from the glove box. “Haven’t you done enough joining for one lifetime?”
I used it to wipe the blood from my hands, “Apparently not.”
I leaned back in my seat, and put my arm around Susan. This was one lady who offered adventure I could not pass up.