Chapter 1 August 17, 2014 Junie:

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1 Prologue: Junie: I m not really sure why I did it. Nobody forced me or even tried to convince me. And I don t think I had a death wish. I was outside myself and compelled to do something. The loneliness made me restless. I was finally able to put a name to the ache in my chest that was a constant. It needed an outlet and the hole needed to be filled. There was something missing besides my family an uncontrollable desire to get away and even help others if I was able. Sometimes we have to leap and not look down to move forward, especially if we don t know why we have to. My blind leap led me to war... in Afghanistan. I m not stupid. I watch the news and I hear the stories. I totally understood I was not going to a luxury resort but even my wildest dreams or nightmares wouldn t have prepared me for what lay ahead. My father always said with good things come bad, and I had that filed away in my memory bank of important advice. I looked at it the other way: with the bad things, come good. It s the old glass half-full, glass half-empty scenario. But I wasn t thinking as deeply then as I am now. I was clouded with grief and I didn t know it. My family was gone.

2 Chapter 1 August 17, 2014 Junie: The heat coming off the tarmac was enough to melt the contact lenses on my eyeballs. I had to keep blinking to moisten them. My shoulder ached from the weight of my carry-on bag. The crowd I was standing in included people from all walks of life younger, older, thin, short, tall, brown hair, blond hair, no hair but I think we all had one very important thing in common: loneliness. I already have a bitter loneliness sitting like a cement slab in my stomach, why not be lonely somewhere I can help people. We are doers with nothing to do. We are people who misplaced something. Something is such a generic word. It could mean you lost a pack of gum, your heart to a lover, or your sense of being. To find what you are missing is another story. Maybe it s better to leave it lost. I shifted to stand under the shadow of the wing of the airplane for some relief against the blazing sun. Praying the soles of my Skechers don t stay permanently mounted to the asphalt from the heat. This is not my first airplane ride, but I ve never been on a plane like this. It reminds me of a fattened turkey painted army green, its belly thick and rounded. I am a far cry

3 from a physics major so my brain can only guess how this extremely large, bulbous plane is going to get off the ground. I am an ant in comparison. Orange-vested workers buzz around the belly as I ogle its immense size, checking its integrity, loading compartments with whatever important military equipment was coming with us. I let my bag slip off my shoulder and thud onto the concrete. How much longer are they gonna make us wait? My beads of sweat have beads of sweat multiplying. A drop falls down my forehead, past my nose and into my mouth, salty. Ick! Today is the type of day that would make my father muse, Whew! It s hot, Junie girl! I can hear my father in my mind and a pang of aloneness hits me. It s so hot you could fry an egg on the cement. This is probably the hottest August day I can ever remember in my twentyone years. I am the NCOIC, Sgt. Davis. For those of you who don t know, that stands for Noncommissioned-officer-in charge. His digital camo uniform has lots of patches, badges, and doohickeys and he motions with his arms authoritatively to move us along. He extends three fingers to point to the unmistakable mountainous metal steps that are pushed against

4 the fuselage. I need you all to line up facing the ladder! I come out from under the cover of the wing and sling my bag over my shoulder with a grunt to line up with the others. There are two rows of seats on the left side of the plane for you. This is a full flight. Do not leave any seats empty, the man-in-charge bellows. Does the army teach them how to be that way, automatic and efficient? The way his hands move and his stance is so... so... militant. I shrug absently at my own thoughts and play with my fingers by my side, mimicking his. Waiting, I tip myself to the side to glance at the person at the head of the line a man about thirty with a crew cut. Maybe he was in the military. He looks like it. I catch a glimpse of the cylinder-style bag on his back. It s a duffel bag that matches the color of the plane. Stupidly, I glance up at the sun, wishing it away. I need water. I pray that this flight has a crisp Diet Coke. I could use one right about now, fizzy and cold. I m edgy and my feet want to dance in place despite the heat. One three-finger point from the man-incharge and the line starts moving up the steep steps. I climb and with each tread I feel weaker. The sun is torturing me and draining my energy

5 which usually is unending. I hope the A/C is already on in the airplane. An older woman behind me bumps my butt with her bag. Sorry, she mumbles; clearly the heat is affecting her as well. At the top of the stairwell, I am blocked by the bodies of the others in front of me. Slowly, they filter away and I am assaulted by thick stale musty air. I cover my nose with my hand. Oh, no! It is even hotter in here, like an oven. The air is drier but definitely hotter. Shit! I follow to the left side of the plane. Holy hell! Where are the seats!? Um... excuse me. I watch people sit down and stow their bags but I m having trouble comprehending how this works. Excuse me! I call out louder, my eyes darting around searching for the guy. Where is army man-in-charge? I stand on my tiptoes to see around the others getting settled. Can I help you? I look down at the guy from the front of the line sitting patiently. Yeah. Where are the seats? I ask. These are the seats. He points to the empty one next to him. No, these are messed up hammock lawn chairs attached to the plane, I inform him. He laughs. I m not friggin laughing.

6 This is a C-130. These are the seats. This type of aircraft is made to carry equipment or troops. He puts his hand on the olive green bar running through the mesh webbed strips that make up the chairs. These fold up. A bunch of uniformed soldiers with solemn expressions on their faces board the plane and they file to the right side of the plane. OMG... I mutter. I thought twenty hours on a regular plane and a regular seat was going to be tough. Twenty hours in a suspended freakin lawn chair is going to be torture. I drop my carryon and kick it under the cloth straps that make up my chair and sit down, with a long sigh leaving my lips of hot stale air I had just sucked in. My ass cheeks are squeezing through the spaces in the suspended webbing. Freakin great! My ass is going to be asleep before I am... Another sigh escapes. I m Richard, the guy next to me states. Junie, I grumble, which is uncharacteristically rude for me. Not what you expected? he wonders. Nope, I respond with a sarcastic pop on my P. Sounds like you got the wrong brochure. Richard chuckles while reaching under to his bag and pulling out a copy of USA Today from the

7 pocket. He snaps the newspaper open. Nice to meet you. We re neighbors for the next twentythree hours. I tilt my head back, making contact with the steel wall of the plane, and groan. A rumbling ticking whirs to life and a heaviness pulls at me as the plane takes off into the atmosphere a perpendicular line of ascent. Pressure tugs the weight of the sky-monster I m riding in and gravity has its own little war with physics. I am sitting sideways, against the grain, instead of forward blindly catching the horizon. The brash hum of the engines and wind are married together in a dance that at one time only birds knew. We bounce on wind shears that try to tear apart the unnatural fowl. An Army s bird of prey headed off to a country that is ungrounded in a philosophy we Americans hold dear. The plane is deafening and it s giving me a headache. I am finding it hard to even think. I let my head fall into my hands in anguish. What the hell did I do? Did I do it because I knew that had my parents been living they would never allow me to go? Am I trying to get back at them for leaving me in this loneliness? Ugh! Tyler:

8 Date: August 19, 2014 From: Kandahar Special Operations Support To: Tyler Alexander, Captain, Joint Special Operations Commander ODA Operational Detachment Alpha team 8: Convoy Civilian Escort Mission I. Situation: Friendlies in area. IED s in area. Three enemy groups have been identified in area, i.e. roadside, mountain range. High capture area. II. Mission: Peace Corps stateside volunteers are to be escorted to the Northern Afghanistan Orphanage, Kunar. Mobilize team to Kabul. Pick up civilians at Hangar 1a. III. Execution: Three vehicle escort convoy, full armament. Civilians/Non-governmental officials in vehicle two. Tight formation, gunners on all three vehicles. Vehicle one 50 cal machine gun. Vehicle two MK-19, 40mm grenade launcher. Vehicle three 7.62 machine gun. IV. Command and Signal: Capt. Tyler Alexander, MSG Castro Frequency: internal, team. Artillery: Howitzers, twenty klicks. Combat Air Support: MEDEVAC, thirty minutes out. V. Service: none Shit... I mumble and jab my finger on the keyboard, hitting the escape button. Why the fuck do we have to do bullshit details? It s glorified fuckin babysitting for deluded civilians.

9 More crazy-ass Peace Corps Flower-Power whackjobs wanting to save the world. Captain, what s up? Glitch asks me, as he smacks his hand on the cooling unit that works when it wants to. Damn thing! he curses at it. It s a fuckin a hundred and ten degrees outside! Ignoring his understandable outburst at the shoddy government-issued air conditioner that is not made for this kind of heat in a fucking tent, I let him in on our latest mission. Incoming Flower-Power for the orphanage. We ve got to go get them. He scowls and wipes the sweat from his brow. Well, shit... Sir, he adds, scratching his practically bald head. I guess I ll need to braid my hair. Tell the boys to get ready, I order. Convoy: three-vehicle spread. Full armament. Yes, Sir. I grab my tactical gear and my night vision goggles for the ride back. Traveling at night is the safest with civilians. The enemy prefers to engage in the daytime. They don t typically have our hi-tech night vision equipment. It will take us the rest of the day to move across the countryside to the base at Kandahar to retrieve our passengers. I walk out into the

10 painful sunlight that stings even with sunglasses on. There are three colors here, brown, gray, and white, and I can t get used to it. I had never given much thought to color until living here in Afghanistan. Without the vivid shades of green the States offer, it is fucking depressing to look at. Maybe it wouldn t be so dismal if we weren t so frigging isolated. The boys are doing what they do best, readying themselves for a mission. Glitch is loading water and food into the back of the armored vehicles. Master Sergeant is going over his checklist in his mind. I can tell because of the face he makes while staring at the sand that makes up most of the ground here. Living in tight quarters with these guys you learn everything about each other, the good and the bad. You have to trust your team with your life. There is no time for belly-aching or pissy-shit, they re your brothers. They are closer to you than blood ever could be. When you fight beside someone you form a bond that is close to unbreakable and unforgettable. Any news? he asks. Master Sergeant catches me watching him. No. No from Angie. I guess no baby yet.

11 Maybe you can try to call from Kandahar. I shrug. There won t be any time. We need to get in and get out to make it to Kunar before sunrise. Yes, Sir. Master Sergeant pauses. We ll try getting the satellite phone to work. I ll put Glitch on it tomorrow. I nod; we ve tried before. Our outpost is in a really bad location for phone, and the Internet continually cuts in and out. is the only form of communication we have right now with our families and friends in the States. When the mission requires, we have to go dark and turn off that too. It s frustrating but sometimes it s a good thing to keep our head in the game no distractions. I give Master Sergeant the signal to go ahead and move out. He calls out for everyone to load up. I sit in the middle seat of the middle vehicle and strap on my helmet as everyone takes their positions, including the gunners. Our trucks are state of the art, they re new. They have every new type of equipment necessary for this environment... desert warfare. The engines roar to life, filling the empty sounds of this open, seemingly endless abyss of sand and mountains. Forming a well-rehearsed line, the trucks move succinctly through the gate and out into the Afghanistan sandy wilderness

12 with white-crusted mountains as a backdrop. Vehicle one in front of us kicks up the dirt-packed road, enshrouding us in a brown cloud. Sgt. Jones is driving my vehicle and Gunny is at the turret with an MK-19. It s become a tradition on every mission that Gunny sings Happy Trails as we leave the gated outpost. I laugh, as I do every time at his fuckin ridiculous voice, and we are not even a minute out when the ping of gunshots rings off the metal of the truck. Stupid fuckers! Danger is everywhere, but leaving the outpost is the most dangerous. The enemy can be very elusive or like these fuckers that will camp out for days in the harsh conditions of Afghanistan with limited food and water just to shoot at us. Gunny swings the barrel and fires, blasting the sand dunes to smithereens as the convoy continues on its way... My team: mission ready, mission focused. Junie: It s getting dark and we are waiting again. There isn t much to see yet. So far the base has been large hangars for aircraft and small easy-up buildings that probably came in a box from IKEA. I m not alone waiting for a ride to the orphanage. I have become acquainted with the other Peace

13 Corps cohorts, Tess and Star. Tess is very nice, a young grandmotherly type, sweet and softspoken. If I had ever met either one of my grandmothers, Tess would be what I pictured. Someone able to do it all. Bake kick-ass cookies and then go in the back yard to throw a ball with you, and then take you to the mall to get you new cute jeans with tiny rhinestones for when school starts. I never had any of that and it bites, but I can imagine what it would be like. She d be full of wisdom about life and love. A storyteller able to bridge the gap between generations to send her point home in a way you would never forget and maybe pass on to your own children. The crinkling of a candy wrapper forces my attention to Star wait no, not a candy wrapper, she s eating some weird granola thing I ve never seen before. Star is a little more difficult to swallow. The word that comes to mind when I look at her is snippy. She may be carrying a chip on that bony shoulder, geez eat a friggin hamburger. Would you like some, Junie? she asks in a hoity-toity voice that I think may be reserved only for me. Her demeanor is way different when speaking to Tess. No, thank you, I respond sourly sweet.

14 After that long line of people boarding the turkey-shaped plane, there are only three of us with the Peace Corps. The other people on the plane are contractors here to do jobs for the government. And the soldiers, well, are soldiers. I shift on my luggage and ponder the past two days and determine they feel like four. I am in desperate need of a hot shower. The refueling was no picnic either. Wait and wait and wait some more. At least they let us stretch and disembark the plane. I bought some bizarre lemon lime soda at the terminal, which was one attendant with a vending machine. The soda had a soapy aftertaste, yuck, I dumped most of it in the trash. I changed from shorts into my comfy yoga pants that make my ass look awesome. Now, I am sitting on my luggage observing the mechanics in flight suits that are milling about fixing and maintaining helicopters and all different kinds of planes, some I have never seen before. During the hours we have been sitting here the workers become fewer and farther between. Lights are being turned off and the area is becoming quiet and more deserted by the second. It s really creepy. So how long have you been at Kunar? I ask Tess, diverting my thoughts from the eerie foreign country horror movie that I am making up

15 in my head. She has been telling Star and me that she went home for a few weeks for a break and is on her way back. Six months, she shares. It has been a wonderful experience working with the children. Challenging, but wonderful. I am looking forward to getting back. As she is talking, I have to give her credit. It must not be easy for an older woman to do this. My initial impression of her settles in to a correct assumption, but then reality sets in and I think, what do I have to offer these kids? Most of them are happy to see us, but the others... I must have tuned out as I watch more spotlights turn off and the darkness slinks in. Wait, others? What others? I question, puzzled. You know. No, I don t. I wouldn t be askin, Tess. I didn t want to sound flippant but it totally came out that way. The Taliban, she whispers. Yeah. They don t want anyone here, Tess. I get that. They want the children. Boys especially. They want to take them to train. Whoa, what?

16 Have you been living under a rock, Junie? Star chimes in. The Taliban trains kids from like seven years old. No way. They give kids guns? That s insane! I exclaim. No, Star adds sarcastically. That is life here. The revelation is alarming because apparently in my grief and wallowing over the loss of my last and only living parent, I hadn t been paying attention to the media as I thought I had. But my current circumstance is fueling the nervous bubble erupting in my stomach as the last large dome-shaped building for housing the planes and helicopters shuts its lights off. Um. Are they going to just leave us here? Where is our ride? I ask aloud, anxiety-ridden that we re going to be sleeping out here on the tarmac. Star is worried too. Yeah, what s going on? We both look to Tess, the seasoned Peace Corpser. Tyler will be here, Tess comments matterof-factly and adds a knowing smile. Tyler? One guy is going to get us across the country to the north? The sun is completely gone and with it everything in the distance.

17 Ticks of silence pass between us with uncertainty. Star opens her mouth to speak but stops when we all shift our awareness to the roar of engines, coming from the left and getting closer. Headlights come straight for Tess, Star, and me, blinding us. I raise my hand to protect my eyes as my heart thumps wildly. Three vehicles pull up in front of us, parking adjacent to each other perfectly and in sync, stopping just feet from us. I have the urge to run but curiosity and non-panic from Tess make me keep my ass rooted to my suitcase. I can make out the outline of trucks with a person on top of one of the roofs, a blackened silhouette. A disembodied voice calls out, Hey! Tess! You re back. Hello, Gunny! Tess yells and begins gathering her things. Confused and going with the flow, Star and I follow Tess s lead and pick up our bags. Men swoop out of the darkness, agile and lithe, with full uniforms and rifles strapped across their fronts. Helmets on their heads have some weird contraption fastened to it. Are they mad scientist soldiers? One of them takes my bags like they weigh next to nothing. Stalking out from the darkness, a man appears, illuminated by the headlights. He s not zipping around like the others. He s tall and confident with an unlearned charisma. In the

18 small beam of light I see his brown boots, his camo pants and I admire his lean, fit legs. I scan up his chest that is broad and wide. There is something about this guy. His face is concealed by the night, but his aura emits authority. I am in charge, period, so don t mess with me. He doesn t have to give me the list of letters in front of his name designating his rank. This guy is the officer-in-charge. He takes deliberate steps forward. His face is in shadow but I can tell it is in a hard line a mask. His posture is ramrod straight and he takes a moment to size us up before he greets us. My immediate thought... gorgeous asshole. Good evening, ladies, he says authoritatively, and his voice gives me the chills the good kind. We are Army ground team eight and we have been assigned to escort you to the Kunar orphanage. Travel time is approximately six point five hours. We should make it just before dawn. Follow me please. His deep, sexy voice can lead me anywhere, but Star and I let Tess go first and we file behind her, like kittens following their mother. I have a nasty taste in my mouth, as if I haven t been given instructions but scolded. A young soldier is holding the door of the jeep open for us.

19 You ready for more? he asks Tess goodnaturedly. The lights of the truck light up his face, which is mostly covered by his helmet. I can tell right away, cool guy, nice. Yes, Glitch, Tess responds. Cool name too. Well, let s do it then. He smiles. This contraption is messed up like the plane. Instead of army green, everything is beige, and not a pretty beige, a puke one. The seats go back in a row instead of across. There is a big space in the middle and a seat in the center behind the driver and shotgun. Tess gets in the back and sits in the first seat. I sit in the middle seat up front closest to the driver. The guy at the wheel looks back at me and snorts a laugh. From the doorway, someone clears his throat. Excuse me, ma am... that is my seat. The interior lights of the vehicle accentuate his face and it is striking... and annoyed. Dark-tanned flawless skin, chiseled features, and deep brown eyes with lashes thick and long. He seems much younger in the light than he did outside. Maybe it s his commanding presence that makes him seem older. I get car sick if I can t see out the windshield, I say, sounding more sarcastic than stating a fact. His nostrils flare.

20 Sorry, ma am, this is a convoy, he says, attempting to maintain decorum but coming off as a bossy asshole. We have procedures. Civilians sit in the back. There it is again, the three-finger point. But now it s telling me to get the hell out of his friggin chair and move to the back, not climb a bazillion metal steps to the doorway of a ginormous fat plane. But, uh, I fumble. Ma am! His voice is raised when he cuts me off. I pause and swallow back my protest. Okay... I get up feeling stupid and chastised. The scuffle is over as I sit behind Tess and Star sits behind me. The vehicle is odd. Mr. Mean guy-in-charge does a whirly signal with his hands. He has definitely got it all together. The driver talks into the radio as the engine roars to life. The radio pops, Captain X...convoy... ready. Guy-in-charge is apparently a freakin Marvel Comics character. Captain X? Really? He takes his seat in the middle, and I strap on my seatbelt and click it into its holster, irritated. Gunny stands in the center directly in front of us, blocking out with his legs whatever I could try to do to see out. His head is out of the top of the vehicle s crazy sunroof with a gun. Gunny s

21 singing, I believe. I m straining to hear him over the truck. It sounds like Happy Trails. Star leans forward to me. It s dark out, there is nothing to see, she hisses in a loud whisper. It doesn t matter, I tell her through the corner of my mouth, not wanting to get in trouble again with Captain-sit-your-ass-in-the-back. I get sick anyway. I need to be shotgun or in the middle of a back seat. Well, you better toughen up, Junie. This isn t summer camp. My mouth drops open. How could I see this coming? I whisper angrily. There wasn t a clause when I signed my life away that said, There will be no sitting in view of the windshield. Didn t you bring Dramamine with you? she bristles. It doesn t work, Nurse Star. My doctor gave me something stronger, but I don t like to take it, I tell her with force. Why? It makes me loopy. Don t be stupid. Take it so you don t throw up all over us. This is a six-hour ride across a desert! Oh, all right, I huff. I pull out a bottled water from my bag and my prescription bottle. I stare at the label. Here it goes...

22 Tyler: I rub my fingers over my temples; civilians give me a fuckin headache. Is this girl serious? The other Flower-Powers are idealistic but at least have a clue. This girl, holy shit! I strap on my helmet and give the order to move out. Until we meet again... Gunny s singing, and I sit back secure into my seat, anticipating the rough road off the base. It s a superstitious thing, but we all do it. Teams come up with ways of coping. Gunny s mom always told him to never say good-bye. You have to say things like see you soon, or until tomorrow. Good-bye is a permanent sentiment terminal. Living in harm s way all the time, terminal is death. We ve been lucky, six months and we haven t lost anyone on our team; we ve been in fire fights and in the line of explosions but haven t lost anyone. Every time we go out on a mission Gunny sings Happy Trails to ward off negative vibes and he says it helps him to keep his head in the game. I say, whatever my guys have to do to stay focused, do it. The chatter over the radio starts about our civilian passengers whether they are hot or deployment hot. Defined as not so attractive on

23 American soil, but here, with limited females, deployment hot. No way, she s legit hot, I hear in my helmet. You ve been here too fuckin long, she s totally D.H. I could spend some time in those yoga pants. I don t think they ll fit you. I shake my head, laughing internally at the conversation, but don t stop it. MSG Castro intervenes, Enough. I can hear him in my helmet from vehicle one. Sorry. It blocks out Gunny s horrible singing. Sir? Glitch asks, addressing me. I thought you said you d find someone to give him singing lessons. A rumble of laughter boils in my chest. The road is coarse and we travel unhurriedly along with my guys navigating and watching the rocks on the side of the road that identify potential IEDs. These fuckers plant improvised explosive devices all over the place trying to blow up our vehicles and people. IED blasts turn everything in their wake into projectiles. The enemy even packs the explosives with anything sharp they can find to cause the most damage. I turn to check on our passengers. Tess is reading a book, Flower-Power number two has

24 her ear buds in, and in the middle, Flower-Power number one pain-in-the-ass s head is slumped forward, bobbing around with the movement of the vehicle. Is she sleeping? Damn, not a very graceful sleeper, she looks like a fuckin drunk sleeping it off. Incoming! Small arms, Tabby says into my helmet from vehicle one. I turn back around and survey in the darkness. Switch to night vision, I order. Glitch and Jones flip their scopes down. I press my communicator and instruct the gunners in the convoy to concentrate fire northeast. Rounds of ammo fly in a deafening echo, lighting up the enemy s location. Three-sixty the surrounding area, 1-2. Roger, Master Sergeant answers. He is 1-1. He s the commander of vehicle one. Then the unmistakable ping of bullets hits our armor from the west. Concentrate fire, 3-3, on sector sector 3 to 9 suppress, I order through my mic using the team codes. Everyone knows their number, and the sector north, south, east, west is designated by the hands on a clock. Copy. What have we got? I ask Glitch, who is in my vehicle.

25 Possible ambush, at ten. Load grenade launcher, 2-3. I inform Gunny in the turret of my truck. Assume target has RPG weapons. I pause. Suppress, I command, which is a sugar-coated word for annihilate the enemy. Copy. Yellowish explosions ring out successively on the east and west corners, illuminating the black sky in front of us. Bangs and flashes coincide with the attack in a macabre fireworks display. Dull cracks boom in the distance, and then quiet seeps in except for the hum of the engine. Who s shootin off f-f-fireworks? is slurred off-cue and in an awkward drunken yell from the passengers. I spin in my seat and Flower-Power number one is waving her arms and yelling for more fireworks. What the fuck? Tess, who is wide-eyed along with Flower- Power number two, turns in her seat to shush Flower-Power number one, who is still carrying on. Break contact... Forward, I command, telling them to put distance between us and the enemy. Roger.

26 My guys know their shit. Everyone has a job to do and they do it well. But Flower-Power number one is loud and distracting, singing Happy Trails at the top of her lungs. 3-2, report! No sign of the enemy. Continue to scan for three...nine through six sectors. Roger. Without warning, Flower-Power number one unbuckles, stands as tall as possible in the vehicle, and launches into Shiny Happy People. Shiny happy people holding hands... She is off-balance with the terrain we re traveling on and she bounces off the sides of the metal that makes up the truck s shell. Shiny happy people holding hands... Shiny happy people laughing. Tess pulls on this chick s body-hugging T-shirt to stop her from trying to climb into the turret with Gunny. Sit down, hun, Tess entreats. Shiny happy people holding hands... Giggle, giggle... Shiny happy people holding hands... She is clawing at Gunny s pant leg. What the fuck!? Gunny yells into the mic. Get her off me! I unbuckle and grab her legs, then hold her up around her butt; shit it s tight. Come on, sit

27 down, I say with restraint. I really want to throw her back in her seat. She s fuckin with my guy s concentration. She concedes and lets me hold her. Damn, she feels good! Gently, I nudge her and settle her back in her seat. Stay right there, I order her. She mocks me with a salute and giggles, You re cute. What s wrong with her? I ask Tess. Has she been drinking? I don t think so. I reach for her seatbelt... Captain X! Glitch shouts at me. We ve got incoming! The unmistakable whistle of an RPG sails over our heads. Brace for impact! I holler and throw my body against Flower-Power to hold her down. I m crushing her small frame as the missile detonates behind us, showering the sky with light and sand in the dead of the night. 3-3! Report! I yell into my headset as we swerve on the rocky road. Heavy armor damage, minor injuries, over, the gunner reports from vehicle three. 1-1! Report! Master Sergeant. No injuries, no damage. RPG! At twelve o clock! Tabby shouts into my headset.

28 Jones veers us out of the way, and we spin in the sand as the road behind us bursts. The force of the blast flips us over. Popping explosions repeat in a massacre and the noise leaves a disorienting ringing in my ear like one gong of a church bell that goes on and on without end. Confused, I realize I have been thrown from the vehicle. I lift my dazed head in the blackness. My team! I need to get to my guys!

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