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 Afghanistan. Miles of gray sand and rock and the occasional burned out hulk from the latest ad- vance or retreat. The sky was gray and the icy wind tore at the Humvee like a rasp. No roads in this des- ert—the vehicle rattled and slammed down endless dry creekbeds, taking point for a squad of rangers and a handful of Afghan nationals trailing in a pickup. On both sides, high and dangerous ground looked down on them. Everyone was tired and silent.
Ryan’s bones ached from the hours of pounding, his mind numb from the tension of watching and waiting. A hundred thousand square miles of worthless rock, populated by a handful of goats.
The fierce wind pelted him with sandy grit, grinding him down a molecule at a time. It crackled in his teeth, tunneled into his ears, wormed its way into the folds of skin beneath his underwear.
A flattening of the terrain and a few larger piles of rubble suggested they were nearing a village. Or the remains of one. Question: when was a village not a vil- lage? When it no longer appeared on the tactical maps? When it was flat as the rest of the barren desert? When the residents were all buried in a shallow mass grave?
Through his hard seat he felt the tiny change in vibra- tion which signaled a shift in speed. His mind stirred and his finger kissed the trigger of his automatic rifle. Something ahead. He sat up, now completely alert.
A kid, running toward them, waving. Maybe ten years old, wrapped in the same gray rags they all wore. Another, smaller kid lying off to the side. So many of them. Hitching a ride? Begging a handout? His free hand rummaged a cargo pocket for a chocolate bar. Fucking lot of good we’re doing here. Did it really make any difference who leveled his village? Us or the Tali- ban, it was all the same to him.
The Humvee slowed. Such big, dark eyes. What had they seen? Was he really even a kid any more? The boy’s eyes flicked furtively to the side, toward a rocky embankment on their right. Uh-oh. Ryan snapped his head around. He threw back the window and brought his AR to bear on the rise to their right.
A terrific thud, and suddenly the Humvee twisted and lurched into the air. Ryan felt a blast of heat and a clap of pressure in his ears. A second shock followed as the vehicle landed, throwing him into the windshield.
He could smell gasoline, engine fluids, cordite. We’re hit—IED. Through the ringing in his ears came a volley of shots, then the clatter of the machine gun and the boy oh, God exploded in a gout of blood. Rifle fire now filled the air, tracers marking the rise to the right.
Ryan looked down, found his left side soaked with blood. Mine? He could move his hands, his fingers.
He was still alive. Groaning amid the wreckage, somebody chattering on the radio for Medevac. Get out now before it blows. He worked his way through the twisted interior to the window. Dirt between his fingers—the Humvee was upside down. He threw his rifle out, then pulled himself through the opening into the cold air. Choking on sand, he rolled toward
a slight depression at the far side of the gulley. The concussion of grenades pounded the air, shouting and screaming erupting from the other vehicles. He spun around on his stomach and fired blindly toward the top of the rise, keeping his finger on the trigger until his magazine was empty.
Suddenly two bodies fell on him from behind, wres- tling away his weapon. Fuck, was this the way it was going to end? A knife in the back? He sent a vicious elbow flying backward. He heard a grunt and one body rolled off, but another grabbed him from the side. Now they were all running for him, the pound- ing of feet, garbled shouting. Pashtun? Farsi? He tried to tear free, but there were too many hands.
“Ryan! It’s okay! You’re home! It’s okay! Ryan, it’s T-Bone!”
T-Bone? What the hell was he doing here? Ryan blinked and looked up. A cluster of strange faces hov- ered over him, slowly swimming into focus. Anglos— civvies. Beyond them, a brilliant blue sky.
“Chill, man. You’re home.”
Ryan looked toward the voice. T-Bone straddled his chest, half-buried in a row of hedges.
“You’re home, man. You’re in Seattle, you’re okay.” “What the hell?” asked Ryan.
“One of your fits, man. Started shoutin’ and hit the concrete and kept rollin’ ‘til you was in the bushes.”
BoB Beach

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