This is the second in a two-part story.
We pass through the village where I had played soccer three days before. I wave at the kids as we go.
The ascent to the caves begins on a mule path, easy-going on foot, but impassable for anything bigger. After a few switchbacks, we’re clinging to the side of a mountain.
“Put your foot six inches to your right, Donnelly,” Kline tells me.
I find the foothold. Shift my weight and plant my left foot where my right used to be. Five others wait to climb the rock face. Ortiz made it look easy.
“Eight inches.” Kline is crouching now, watching my feet one moment, the valley the next.
My boot settles on the rock he points out. I grip the closest handhold. I shift my weight. The rock I rely on to steady me falls away, pebbles bounce off my boots. My right hand drops to my side. That bitch called gravity grabs me around the waist and I fight to keep myself from following the loose rock down five-hundred-feet to the desert floor. If the fall doesn’t kill me, surely the Taliban will before my platoon can retrieve me.
Kline leans over the shelf and presses his hand to my back, pushing me back to the side of the mountain. I grab his arm and he pulls me to the shelf. “Careful there.”
Kline pats my back and helps the other five across.
The thought of my mother finding out I fell to my death, not a single bomb detonated, is just embarrassing. Never mind Dad.
The shelf broadens a few inches and leads us to another switchback. At the corner, the first of the caves we need to search then destroy.
Movement above presses all of us to the rocky surface. Please, God, let the camo work. A small rock bounces five inches from my helmet, hits my shoulder, and continues down. Dust powders my helmet. I don’t dare breathe.
Martin risks his weapon. The scope is just enough to let him see past the ledge. He lowers it, shakes his head.
It’s possible the rocks moved from a sheep, or a native. Or we’re walking right into a trap. Ortiz motions us forward. We move on.
Another switchback. Nothing to account for the rock slide. They wouldn’t fall for no reason. A chill climbs up my spine.
Ortiz drops to a knee against the mountain wall at the opening of the first cave. He points to me and Nowicky. We’re up.
Gentle and quiet steps into the entrance. A few mats lie on the floor. Further in, more rugs, a wooden box with a half-burned candle in a can sitting on it. Magazines litter the floor. The stench of human waste haunts the back.
Nowicky and I set charges at the mouth. The platoon retreats as far away as they can go on the rock ledge. Orange ear plugs stuffed into every ear.
The mountain rumbles, dust billows forth over the desert so far below, rocks and boulders skip down into the scant grasses.
When the dust settles, we continue to the next cave. This one is empty, but we still destroy it. Don’t want it used against the villagers later on.
Third cave. Nowicky lets me lead this time. Pillows form a circle around a low table. Trash stuffed in a far crevice. We work our way in. Another room with sleeping mats, piles of magazines rest between the mats. A third room, swelling with the stink of feces and urine. Camp toilets individualized by curtains. Each makeshift stall has its own reading material.
Reading material? “Nowicky? What’s with all the magazines?”
Nowicky shrugs. “Fight the boredom when tormenting villagers gets stale?”
A curvy blonde stares up at me. Wind has blown her hair back from her bare shoulders and her bejeweled bra. Must be the Christmas Victoria’s Secret. I lift a catalog.
My platoon waits outside the mess hall for orders. Ortiz, stern-faced and gruff strides before us. We come to attention.
“At ease. We’ve been reassigned.” His lips quiver. “We’re going stateside. We’re escorting comrades home.”
I don’t get it. I just got here. I did my job. No one got killed. I can’t be going home already. “Sergeant?”
“What is it, Donnelly?”
“I know I’m new to the unit, but I trained for EOD–”
“We stay as a team, marine. No one is left behind.”
I nod. I’m not ready to go home yet.
Ortiz dismisses us so we can pack our things. Nothing to pack. Everything is in my trunk. I don’t remember putting everything away, but since the caves, I feel like I’m stumbling through a fog. Mom would say I should get less sleep if it means a cleaner room.
Mom. I’m not ready to go back home. I didn’t get to write even one letter.
The C130 welcomes a procession of caskets into its belly. We each find our assigned box and walk it up the platform as it moves on a conveyor belt. Other marines lift the coffins and stow them so they don’t slide around during the flight. My unit finds their seats and strap in.
No announcement. The back gate closes. Engines start up, increasing to a roar. We’re moving. Still nothing from the pilot or crew. The g-force adheres me to the side of my seat as the C130 accelerates and lifts off.
Kline grins. “Might as well get some sleep. It’s gonna be a long ride.” He turns to Ortiz. “Will the Marine escort greet our quiet friends when we touch down, Sarge?”
Nowicky nudges me awake. The plane is circling Dover. The descent of the huge bird is enough to give my stomach butterflies. I wonder where my boxed-up buddy is going. I guess I’ll find out when we land. All I do know is that I’m putting in for another tour. This one was too short.
I escort the flag-covered casket down the ramp, feeling connected to it like a dog on a leash. I don’t want to let it out of my sight. Two rows of three marines each take it off the rollers and, with a solemn funeral march, carry their fallen brother to one of the awaiting hearses. The box is fed into the back. The back gate closed.
My feet carry me toward the vehicle when Ortiz stops me with a hand on my shoulder. He shakes his head.
“I thought I was taking him all the way, Sergeant Ortiz.”
“You are relieved of duty, marine.”
My mind races. What did I do to be relieved of duty? “Sir?”
“It is time to go home, son. To rest. For all of us.”
Kline, his grin relaxed and genuine. “Let’s go, Donnelly.”
Nowicky nods, gives a two-fingered salute and steps around me.
“With all due respect Sergeant Ortiz, I’m not ready to go home.”
Martin smiles. He drops his gun and runs past my C.O. And myself.
A light ignites in Ortiz’s black eyes. “Wow! That is worth everything!” He struts past me.
Peace floods my soul as my gaze follows Ortiz. My unit fades into the light, or the light enfolds around them. I’m not sure which but I want to be with them.
Memories flood my mind. The cave search. The living quarters of Taliban soldiers who terrorize and manipulate the villages we try so hard to befriend and get information from. The magazines. Stacks and stacks of magazines. I know now each stack was rigged with a bomb. All were in close proximity to each other. When I picked up the Victoria Secret catalog everything went white and silent.
A voice, quiet and deep, calls to me. “Christopher. Come to me. Your actions are not to blame. There is no forgiveness except what you give to yourself for mine was purchased for you already.”
As I step into the warmth, the light envelopes me. I am home.
Jennifer Harrelson writes a variety of genres, from children’s books to horror. She resides in her native Lakewood, Colorado with her husband and fellow native, and two daughters.