“How can a place have blazing sun beating down on you and still be colder than a witch’s tit,” my partner, Jim, says from next to me.
The damn Texan makes me chuckle. He always has something to complain about. Yeah, Kabul isn’t the Caribbean or even the worst place we could be stationed. I’m currently nine months into my thirteen-month deployment here, and Jim has been with me for almost all of this tour. He got to go home when his wife delivered their little boy a couple of months ago. I haven’t been home in a while. It’s not that I don’t have family to go home to; I do. My sister is busy with work, and my mom hasn’t been the same since our dad died in the towers.
We make our way to the back gate we will be guarding. Some fucking punk newb got upset that I was on the front gate because I’m a woman. He’ll realize soon enough the front gate sucks for patrols, while this back gate is a cakewalk. Furthermore, give me a chance at him in the training gym and I’ll lay his ass out. My dad put both my sister and me in Tae Kwon Do as soon as we could walk. He had said if he was going to have girls, they were going to learn to protect themselves. I’m a black belt, and I have trained hard in other forms of martial arts and hand-to-hand combat. I’m the girl you want at your back if you have a choice.
The other team gives their report while I check over logs. I look down the narrow alley to the park where some kids are playing. There is a bigger crowd than normal back here. Some I don’t recognize. Most parents don’t let their children near the base, so it’s a bit shocking.
I make out a couple of kids I know and usually hang out with when I’m on the front gate and on break. There are also some new kids I don’t recognize. After the number of years I’ve been an MP with the Army, I know not everyone is as innocent as they look. So I’ll be keeping a closer eye on those ones.
“Hey, Marshall, get a care package lately?” one of the other MPs asks, and I turn to look at him.
“Nope. My sister has been in training the last few weeks. When she called yesterday, she said she’d have her teammate get some pastries from that bakery we all like.” Everyone loves when Morgan sends me goodies from New York. I miss her, but I don’t miss home. I hate that she works so hard, but I understand why she does it. Neither of us want to be around our mother.
Movement catches my eye, and I see one of the kids I usually talk to working his way toward the gate. Tarek is only ten and wants to be a soldier when he gets older. I want this war to be over with by then so he doesn’t have to fight, but in reality, Afghanistan has been at war for longer than I’ve been alive. He’ll have to fight eventually, and I hate that thought. Kids shouldn’t be in war.
“Ms. Madi,” he hollers my name in his accented voice. I tip my helmet up further on my head and smile at him. My chin strap pulls tight, and I wish I could take it off, but it’s regulations when we are working. I know it’s to save my life as much as it is a part of our uniform. My long blond hair is pulled back in a tight bun at the back of my neck. I used a bottle from the BX the other day to cover the darker roots. That is one thing I miss with being home, good haircare.
“Hey, Tarek, what are you doing back here?” Like I said, he usually is up at the front gate. His mom doesn’t like him being back here where she can’t see him. She’s watchful of him, and I like her. Some parents don’t care as much or watch the kids as closely as they should because they are working or avoiding us.
“My new friend Omad wanted to come back here.” He points over his shoulder at one of the kids I don’t recognize. He’s bigger than most of the kids and looks older. Something about him doesn’t sit right with me, and I watch as he adjusts the thick jacket he’s wearing. It’s cold but not cold enough for that big of a jacket. Plus, his eyes avoid mine and bounce everywhere. All signs that put my nerves on edge.
Omad moves closer and that’s when I see the wires hanging below his jacket. He finally makes eye contact and I see the hatred in his young eyes. He has to be in his late teens. All this goes through my mind as the reality hits me.
“Bomb,” I yell as I dive for Tarek, trying to use my body and gear to protect him. I twist so the brunt of the impending explosion is taken by me and not Tarek’s little body.
The blast hits me and I feel searing pain in my left arm and hand. I clutch on to Tarek, trying to keep him close as we are thrown back. The heat is so intense I close my eyes. I hear screaming all around me as I try to keep Tarek in my arms, but he ends up being ripped from me. The wall stops my body, and it feels as if every bone has been shattered from the force. I hear screams of agony. Maybe I’m screaming because that’s all I hear.
No soft whispers. No one asking if I’m okay.
Just searing pain and screams.
White static, like when I was growing up on late night television, greets my eyes as I open them. Most of my body burns, and my eyes tear up. I feel liquid dripping down my face.
I make out shapes but can’t see. I reach for my sidearm. My rifle is still strapped to my back, or at least that’s where it was before the explosion. Weight holds my body down, and this time I realize I am the one screaming in pain. Terror washes through me as I’m afraid of what all this could mean. My head is throbbing. I can’t move my arms and every breath is like fire in my throat. It’s like I ate something way too spicy. The pain throughout my body is almost too much.
Damn it, I’m going to leave Morgan to deal with our mother by herself. My last thought is of Tarek. I hope he’s okay. That at least I saved him. That this wasn’t all for nothing. Then blackness takes me under.