Lawrence V

Short Story- A Prayers Cost

Posted in Uncategorized, Writings by Larry on June 2, 2008

A Prayers Cost

Part 1:

Arnett pulled the covers tighter around his head. He knew the knock would come soon. It always came and never late, well almost never. Once it never came. It didn’t matter though since Arnett had sat-up waiting for it like he did every morning. Arnett, of course, rose immediately to find out why it hadn’t come. It turned out to be alcohol related and he kicked his sergeant’s cot and dressed him like his mother. He let him sleep that entire patrol. The knock came; it rapped his door three times, which it always did.

Sergeant Darby pushed it open a foot “Hey, wake up” The door shut without another word. He would come back in fifteen minutes if no sign of them was spotted. That would piss Sergeant Darby off right from the start, and pissing his sergeant off before they even rolled out the wire was a sure way to get screamed at and double your work load. Sergeant Darby didn’t fuck around and everyone knew it. Being in his squad did have its perks. All Arnett would have to do is throw Darby’s name around and no one fucked with him for fear of pissing his Sergeant off. Juanes, across the small room shifted in his cot. Arnett rose from his sleeping bag and stretched. He crossed the room in three steps and hit the light switch, the room filled with a bright fluorescent light. His cot was covered in unwashed flannel sheets and an issued black sleeping bag. Parallel to his cot laid Juanes peering from his bag letting the artificial light seep in through his eye lids and adjust his pupils. At the foot of both cots stood two aluminum closets, Arnett reached in one and grabbed his hygiene bag heading out through the sandbox yard to the shower trailer.

Juanes was up and about by the time Arnett returned. Neither of them greeted each other nor said a word; they never did this early. They both had been through this too many times to fall into useless greetings of good mornings and hello’s. They both were there every morning, and that was that. This was just one of their unspoken understandings that they developed over the past six months. It was these unspoken agreements that made Arnett love having Juanes for a roommate and battle buddy. They were there for each other, and in a place where you could get lost in your thoughts it was a great thing to have.

“You haven’t packed yet?” Juanes said looking over Arnett’s side of the room, admiring the pile of dirty DCU tops crammed under the cot. Arnett glanced at him briefly surprised by the words and looked to see what he was looking at.

“Packed? What the hell would I bring home? I have myself, a clean uniform, and PT’s; what else would I bring?” Arnett said as he pulled a dirty DCU top over his head, not bothering to unbutton it.

“Oh sorry, I just thought you would want to bring Sara something nice, my bad!” Juanes responded turning towards his closet and pulling a clean unbuttoned top from a hanger. The two sides of the room couldn’t look more opposite; one side a dusty pile of t-shirts and pieces of worn fatigues, the other, a swept floor holding a wooden table with folded laundry resting on it. “You’re a real classy guy A, she’s a lucky girl.” Juanes managed out through two lips curving up into a smile. He had called Arnett by his last name for the first month or so like everyone else did, but as they developed that unspoken trust it turned into A.

“Yea, real funny” Arnett said. He could feel his mind fighting off a growing sense of guilt. “What am I suppose to get her a mess with the best die like the rest T-shirt from the PX?” before he even finished the question he knew he was full of shit. He could have gotten her a lot of things that had nothing to do with the Army. He was across the world and they had been to enough bazaars and shop-etts that it would have been easy for him to pick something up for her. It was too late now; he leaved for home tomorrow and doubted he would have time tonight to go shopping. “I… I didn’t think about it.” He finally admitted.

Juanes lifted the dusty M240 machine gun that was in the corner and rested it on his shoulder; he looked back and could see Arnett’s face drawn tight in frustration, as if he let the moment slip by. “Listen, don’t worry about it, you’ll be home in two days, who cares?” Juanes reached out with his left hand and pushed the door open stepping out into the sandbox yard. Stopping a step out the door he looked back, “We’ll hit the PX once we get back and see if they have anything, after all it’s the thought that counts right?” Juanes started off again.

Arnett’s face loosened upon hearing his last words. He was right, it was the thought that counted and Sara didn’t even expect anything. She just wanted him home safe for the little time he would be. Arnett could feel his excitement pulsing through him, today would be a long day if he couldn’t get it under control. He smiled to himself as he slung his M4 across his chest; it was his last day before leave and he couldn’t believe it was actually here.

AT the truck they loaded their weapons and began prepping for patrol. The armored truck was a dirty tan, not camouflaged, just one solid tan covering the entire vehicle. It had a rusty bundle of constantina wire strapped to the hood. The wire did a good job of scratching the hell out of it. The rest of the truck was slowly catching up to the hood as it became littered with bullet holes and shrapnel scraps every week.

Setting-up the trucks for combat patrols had become routine and easy over the last six months. The radio needed to be set to two different frequencies; one for the squad and one for battalion. This helped keep radio traffic to a minimum in case something serious happened and you needed it open. This was Arnett’s job and he did it without thought. At first it proved complicated but after six months a monkey could do it. Juanes stood through the gunner’s hole in the roof of the truck. He mounted the M240 and strapped two large ammo cans using bungee-cords wrapped around the swivel bar. Juanes never fussed about having to do it, he was the gunner after all and Arnett figured after six months it was a lot like the radio, second nature. Sergeant Darby booted up the GPS computer mounted in front of the passenger seat and made sure all personnel and vehicles were ready to roll. Private Rivera sat in the drivers seat with his eyes closed waiting for Darby’s order to roll. He was a good driver in the sense that he went where he was told, but that was about it. He was the driver because there was nothing else Sergeant Darby trusted to him. Corporal Maine, who sat quietly behind the driver’s seat, was the only medic in the convoy, and he always went out in the command truck. Since Darby was the OIC in the convoy when the lieutenant didn’t come out, which was always, he was in command. Arnett sat behind Darby and was the extra man, the foot soldier; every truck hand at least one extra foot soldier. When there was a need for a soldier to get out of the truck it was him. Juanes sat next to him in between all of them in a bucket seat. It kept him cradled low enough to keep his head below the Gunner’s armored box, but yet high enough for him to see out along the barrel of his M240.

The other two trucks preformed radio checks with Arnett, double checking their frequencies, “One-three this is one-four, over?” the radio barked

“One-four this is one-three, read you lima charlie, over and out” Arnett responded. Arnett made the check with one-five truck and all was good.

Upon Sergeant Darby’s command the three trucks left the staging area in a single file heading to the far gate. Darby’s truck, one-three, lead the convoy as Arnett rested his Kevlar helmet against the armored window and watched the palm trees flow by. Tomorrow he would be watching clouds flow by on his flight home. He was really having a hard time keeping his excitement down and he knew it would make today’s patrol very interesting.

Sergeant Darby controlled the I-pod selection for the good part of the morning. Medic Maine slept with his tongue out. Rivera drove forward in some type of zombie state; not asleep but certainly not awake.

Arnett scanned the side streets through two inch fogged stained windows, the knee high bushes outlining a dirt boarder three feet from the road, the empty road. They kept traffic back two hundred feet as the convoy crawled along at a blazing ten miles an hour. They learned quickly that going fast just meant you covered more ground on a patrol, and gave the enemy more opportunities to attack. Plus inching along made it easier to spot I.E.D.’s before it was too late. Arnett was eyeing the road looking for anything unusual, anything that hadn’t been there yesterday or even a half hour ago the last time they pasted that spot. All it took was a garbage bag, a log, or a broken down car on the side of the road. Today it was the latter.

“Come up, over here” Sergeant Darby informed Rivera pointing to a palm resting off the road. They stopped the convoy a good hundred yards from where a blue Opel sat; hood raised billowing dark gray smoke. An older man in white drab and a boy stood waving ten feet from the Opel. Darby unhitched his door and rose from the truck. Arnett followed without a word being said. This happened three or four times a day and it was a chance to get his moving his legs a little, he didn’t mind. The heat covered him like a thick wool blanket, and stung his eyes.

“Hey! Come on?” Sergeant Darby yelled out signaling for the man to come by waving a huge arch with his right arm. “We ain’t got all day buddy and we sure as hell aren’t coming to you.” Darby turned towards Arnett “I bet that’s what the stupid bastard is hoping for, get us close to the piece of shit so he can blow us to bits. Arnett be careful with this one, check it good.”

“Sergeant you think everyone of these guys is waiting to blow us up and I check them all good.” Arnett started out past where Sergeant Darby was talking and towards the broken down car.

He heard Darby mumble “that’s cause they’re all stupid bastards” as he pasted. Arnett pasted the Old man and the boy at the fifty yard mark and briefly stopped to check if they had weapons. He was quick about it because undoubtedly Darby would have them both searched at the trucks. He hated searching children it made him feel imperialistic. Arnett shook the thought from his head and pointed the man towards Darby. “GO!” he blurted out knowing full well he couldn’t understand a word of English. The boy looked at him with big brown eyes and smiled a little. Arnett looked over his shoulder to see what it was he looked at but soon realized it was him.

He thought as he came to it, that the blue Opel looked twice as old as the man who had been driving it. Under the hood fresh smoke sizzled out into the hot dry sky. The car must have run out of coolant he thought. The car seemed clear of bombs. It was clear of everything except a carton of Miami cigarettes and a fancy decorated tissue box on the dash. It took a minute to get the trunk to pop but looked clean when it did and he turned back towards Sergeant Darby. With a high thumbs up Darby shook his head and sent the man and his boy back his way. Arnett took two relaxed steps before pausing. Was that a gun shot? It came from a building to his left but also be a car back firing. Two more steps and he heard it again, a gun shot. Arnett dropped to a knee. Juanes ninety yards away started yelling to Sergeant Darby to get in the truck. Jeremy could hear it from where he was which was ninety yards further then he wanted to be. He didn’t know what to do. He had to take cover, yes, cover. He turned and leaped back to the Opel sliding down on the opposite side. The metal body of the car burned his elbow when he brushed up against it. This wasn’t Hollywood and a tin can of a car was horrible cover, but being in the middle of a freeway didn’t exactly provide the best of choices. Two more shots rang out and Arnett tightened his chin to his chest, making himself a small target. Sergeant Darby needed to hurry the fuck up and get the truck over to him. He was going to sit tight and not make a move until he heard that truck, but what he heard was not a truck, it was heavy foot steps. Arnett looked up and saw the old man carrying his son running towards him.

“Right here!” Arnett called out to the man sprinting “over here!” The man lifted his head and Arnett could have sworn he saw the man smile with relief as their eyes met. Arnett slid to his left leaving more room for the man and his boy behind the car. Another shot cracked loud and the older man let out a scream. Arnett lifted his head and peeked over the car. From ten yards off Arnett could see a gapping hole that burst out of the boys back. The child’s head fell loose as if his strings were cut and the man clenching him to his chest fell to his knees. Juanes in truck one-three opened up with his M240. Shots rang out following the pattern of a woodpecker beating against bark; Three than five, three than five, the shots played out loud over his ears, a lot louder than ninety yards. Arnett stared at the man caught in the horror that had just become his world. To lose a son like this, in a fight that didn’t involve him. Arnett swallowed hard and his tongue clung hard to the roof of his dry mouth. The man now on all fours bridged over his sons limp body. He was foraging in his pocket for something; pushing his arm in up to his forearm, almost through his pocket. Arnett wanted to get up, go to the man, help him carry his boy to safety. He thought the man was probably looking for a weapon he had stashed away, what else could he care so much about at a time like this but a weapon. The man pulled his hand free and had clenched something in his fist. The man was wording something over and over, but Arnett couldn’t hear and even if he could he didn’t understand. Another three than five rows of shots went off right on top of them. Arnett could see the man screaming out broken words over his dead boy. His fist was clenched tight and he was hitting his son in the chest. A bright green light came from the man and hit Arnett’s eyes like a tidal wave. Arnett turned his head to stop from being blinded. When he looked back one-three broke his sight. It bumped the back bumper of the blue car and jolted Arnett back on his ass.

“Let’s go hero,” Juanes said. “You think we’d just leave you here?” Arnett stood and ran over the truck. He pulled the latch and noticed two new silver bullet holes two inches above his hand before he climbed in and closed himself safe in the armored beast.

“You ok?” Sergeant Darby asked “Maine check him out.” Darby continued without waiting for a response. Arnett turned his head trying to see out the window at the man holding his dead boy. It was quiet for what seemed to be minutes before one-four broke through on the radio

“One-three this is one-four, we got the fucker, over” Sergeant Darby quickly asked for a repeat and one-four confirmed.

Sergeant Darby stepped out from the truck and called medic Maine to get out. The old man that lost his son now laid faced down motionless to the rear of the truck about ten feet. His back was covered in blood and Arnett could see the boy’s legs sticking out from under him. He was the first to reach them, standing over the two bodies. He had seen the boy get hit but not the man, now looking at the gapping hole in the man’s back he doubted either of them survived. Arnett bent to a knee and pondered on when the man was shot. He saw the man rummaging through his pockets and he looked fine then, and there were no other shots.

Without warning the legs sticking out from under the man’s large torso began fluttering and kicking. They caught Arnett in the shin and knee, knocking him back from his kneeling position and landing him hard on his ass. Maine sprinted up and reached out rolling the man off the boy. The boy’s shirt covered in blood made it look as if he had taken multiple wounds to the chest but the child screamed out in broken sobs loud and strong. Maine reached down and lifted his shirt. The boy’s torso looked intact. Maine cradled him in both arms like a baby and picked him from the dead father. Sergeant Darby directed them to the passenger side door wear they sat him down and began checking him over.

Arnett stood shocked by the scene. He saw the boy go limp; he saw the man’s face frozen in horror. All had been pretty confusing but he knew what he saw. The boy had died and the man’s face filled with pain and anguish. Arnett lean over the dead man and prodded his stomach with his boot. The man was dead. Arnett noticed his hand was still clutched to his chest, still holding his fist tight as if he were still mumbling the words over the boy. Arnett shook his head. He had seen some shit in his day, but everything he gathered was real; this was the first time he could remember seeing things that he was so sure about but seemed not to have happened. He pulled on the man’s arm straightening it out along his side. It was stiff but rigor mortis had yet to set in. Between his fingers and white knuckles was a spot of black. Arnett looked over his shoulder and could see the back of Sergeant Darby leaning past the boy to the radio. Maine was still messing with the checking his eyes with a hand held flash light. Arnett reached out and peeled the man’s dead fingers one by one off the black rock. He grabbed it and held it in his palm, a thin rounded ring with a small acorn shaped jewel blacker than anything he had ever seen. He stared into the jewel, he couldn’t tell if it was shinny or not, or if it was a bluish black, or at times as if he could reach his finger into it as if it were a black hole itself.

“Hey! Leave him, were leaving.” Sergeant Darby said from behind Arnett.

“Hey Sergeant what was that light?” Arnett asked.

“What light? Come on lets get out of here.”

“You can’t think I would’ve just sat back and let you die all by your lonesome the day before leave, did you?” Juanes said with a half smile once they were at the medical cash site to drop the boy off. “Shit, Sara would hunt me down even if I did make it back in one piece.” Arnett didn’t respond but knew he didn’t have too; it was one of their unspoken understandings. He kept one hand on his weapon and the other clenched to the black ring that filled his cargo pocket for the rest of the day.

Part 2:

Staring into deep dark brown eyes, Arnett could feel a connection to the older man. A knot tightening in his stomach rose to his chest. Horror, guilt, and anguish flooded over his emotions until tears stream down his checks. He fought back the sensation to spit his insides out. He swallowed hard, and than harder; he swallowed a third time so hard that his head caved in on itself and he was left standing looking through the man’s eyes. He was staring down at a boy clenched in his arms. The boy soaked in bright blood and felt like a sack of potatoes in his arms. He screamed out, “why? Oh god!” and stumbled forward a step falling to his knees hitting hard on the hot pavement. He didn’t know why or how, but in his arms was the dead body of his son.

Arnett never got past the realization it was his son, he never did. He had experienced the same dream since every night since it happened and it always ended the same. He knew he was the old man; that was the point of the dream. He had watched hard that day to know it was him. He never got to lay the boy down and fumble through his pockets for the black ring, but he it was what was coming next, just like it had that hot day.

Arnett reached down cupping clear cold water within his hands. He splashed it hard to his face and brought his gaze back towards the mirror. Dark bags hung low from his eyes like he had been on the losing end of a fight. He still felt tired inside even though he had been home almost two weeks. It had all gone by too fast. All but that first night with Sara had seemed to be in hyper-speed. He had finally made it home and now god was rushing him back. That first night they held each other until the next morning and than fell asleep well into the afternoon. He had a list of things running through his mind then, things that he wanted, no, needed to do, to keep his sanity. But the first night with Sara erased all that. He just wanted to hold her now, and for the most part that is exactly what he did.

He leaned back looking through the archway into the hotel Cabana’s bedroom. Sara was still asleep, lying there motionless. Her pale skin mixed with the white sheets told him how innocent and pure this place was. The sun shinning through the two bay doors leading to the beach fell on her like feathers drifting down from a tree. He stood watching. He knew it hadn’t been the same since that first night. It wasn’t Sara; it was the realization of returning, leaving again. As wonderful as coming home had been, the cost of leaving might drive him to the brink of insanity.

Sara rolled to her side and let out a low deep exhale. Arnett swallowed back a tear, her sighs, squeaks, and even deep breaths seemed to pierce his heart. The Army hadn’t sent him home to New York, they sent him home to her, and she was the grandest home he had ever known. She lifted her head looking around for a brief second before her eyes rested on him. He gave a small wave.

“Hey, how long you been up mister?” Her lips broke into a half smile before she even finished the question. Arnett, of course, smiled back, how could he not. She could be killing him and as long as she smiled he would smile back, that is how it always went.

“I couldn’t sleep.” Arnett said.

“Dreaming?” Sara asked. Arnett turned his head away and his smile faded. He didn’t want to smile when he thought of the old man and his dead son, well alive son as it turned out. Sara knew the answer so didn’t press for an answer. She sifted her body so her legs swung over the edge of the king bed and she sat up. She had been great since he was home. She hadn’t pressed anything; there were no questions about the war or questions about plans for the future. All she seemed to care about was that he was with her now. He smiled again at the thought.

“Why are you so damn perfect?” Arnett asked in no more than a whisper. Her smile broadened wide and she shrugged her shoulders.

“Perfect huh?” She reached out a hand for him to take. He took it. “I guess your right, I am perfect.” She giggled a little and he followed suite and sat next to her on the bed, again his smile faded behind thoughts of war and of being home sick.

“I can’t… I can’t bare the thought of leaving today. Everything is the way I want” he said. A lone isolated droplet began building on his eye lid. She took his hand between both of hers and squeezed. She had not shown any weakness since he had seen her again and now more than ever he wondered how long she could keep it up. He knew it was for him, it all was for him, so it wasn’t harder than it had to be when the time came. She leaned forward to kiss him but he leaned back. “No let me finish.” He pulled his hand from hers and stood walking over to his suitcase at the edge of the room. She sat watching him, not sure what he was doing. He opened the front pouch and pulled something from it. Arnett turned “I couldn’t get away; we have been together non-stop since I’ve been home.” He was looking down at the floor now, and yet Sara, still patient as ever, didn’t push the situation. He was grateful for that. “I… Remember when we said we shouldn’t get married because if anything happened to either one of us while we were apart, our lives would be forever lost. Well I think were past the point of no return.” He looked into her eyes and knelt down before the bed. “I don’t have an engagement ring but I have this, it’s a promise to get you one. Sara, will you marry me?”

She sat staring into his eyes. A smile shot across her face and she shook her head yes. Two tears fell down both cheeks and it made him happy to see she wasn’t invincible. He took her hand and slid the black-stoned ring onto her finger. “I got this over there. I’m not sure what it means, but I know it is important, it is…, I saw…, well you’re just going to have to trust me” He said as she looked over what he had given her. He wondered if he should tell her why it was important, but he thought about it and realized he didn’t really know why. “I saw it do something amazing, I think. Just wear that ring until I get back, ok.”

“It’s beautiful” Sara said sealing it with a kiss and then a longer one. “I will never take it off.” Tears began to flow with more consistency now. “I pray that you will get home in one piece, I can’t imagine what I would do if anything happened to you.”

“I know, but trust me everything will be alright” Arnett forced himself to believe it as he said it. “Just pray on the ring.” He said. She looked through watery eyes at the black hole that was the jewel on her finger.

Clutching it tight in her right hand she said “let him come home to me please, I love him so much, take anyone but him, I need him.” As if the words activated some unforeseen mechanism streams of greenish light squeezed through her clenched fingers. She gasped and pulled her hand away uncovering the ring and firing light all throughout the room. Arnett at first turned his head from the magnificent brightness before forcing a look at what he now knew was what had been blocked from his view in Iraq. He reached out and took her hand in his. The ring was cool to the touch; much cooler than it was in the room. The light pulsed sending small waves of light across the room. Each wave became a little dimmer and soon faded from view making the ring look like it had before Sara spoke.

“Are you ok? He asked seeing that Sara was astonished.

“Yea” she responded in a whisper. “What is it? She finally asked after a brief moment of silence.

“I don’t know, but I think it does wonderful things.” He smiled at her and still holding her hand gave it a squeeze to let her know it was okay. Sara hesitated and then eventually smiled back at him.

“This ring is amazing, I’ll never take it off” she said. She leaned forward and wrapped her thin arms around his neck.

He made love to her for the last time that afternoon before he finished packing and she dropped him off at the airport. He hadn’t planned on giving her the ring nor proposing until the moment he did, it just felt right. Now that it was over, he was happy he did. He knew more than ever that he could die. He found himself wondering about the lights from the ring, and how it worked. He wondered if it could have explained what he had thought he saw when the boy died and than came back to life. He pushed it from his mind as he boarded a C130 in Kuwait. Arnett prayed he would get a life with Sara. He couldn’t explain the ring but that was the least of his worries now that he was entering Iraq, for the second time.

Part 3:

Nothing had been so difficult in his life; Arnett recovered but slowly. It took a good month to get the idea of him being home out of his memory and now it seemed like a distant dream. Sure he knew it had happened, but far, far away, and was now irrelevant; most things were here. He picked up his patrol shift like he never left. Sergeant Darby was easier on him that first week back, as if he knew that Arnett was easier to break that week. That too, of course, fazed out like the memory of his trip home.

Months went by slowly, but they passed. Two guys died in June, and no one died in July, but it was the most action packed month he had experienced since being in country. A surge began in early August that put a curfew on Baghdad citizens and extended their patrol time by three hours. Instead of twelve hour patrols they were doing fifteen, and it left no time for anything other than eating, sleeping, and patrolling. Soldiers weren’t allowed to call home during a surge, and that would undoubtedly upset Sara to no end. She acted strong in front of him sure, but he knew better than that; he had seen a little that last day. It would eat her up inside not knowing if he was alright, waiting for his call, or worse, someone else’s.

Juanes picked up on this by the end of the first week in August. “Relax, she watches the news” He would say. “I’m telling you she’s a smart girl, she knows worrying about shit she has no control over doesn’t do any good. She will wait for your call and be happy when she gets it; she’s a tough chick.” He always had a knack for stating opinions with casual assertiveness; he could convince a dog it was a cat if he tried long enough. Arnett knew Juanes was just saying those things to cheer him up and it worked. It got to the point that prep talks like that happened daily. Juanes had never actually met Sara outside of listening to Arnett’s stories, but yet Arnett knew he understood her; they would have been good friends in another life when war wasn’t around.

In truth it wasn’t just the surge that got under Arnett’s skin these days, he was still having those dreams, about twice a week. He obviously thought he saw something he didn’t. The blood coming through the boys shirt had to of been the man’s. Every morning he awoke from the dream he told himself; I obviously had it wrong. And what about that pulsing light the ring gave off with Sara; he couldn’t make sense of any of it and it frustrated the hell out of him.

His thoughts raced laps in his mind that day like it had all month. Patrol was hot, boring, and usual. Rivera drove, Sergeant Darby sat quietly looking over the G.P.S. computer, Juanes was in the gun, and Medic Main slept in the back. Arnett tried to focus on his job, tried to scan the roadside for anything usual but couldn’t keep his head straight; his thoughts were everywhere.

With a sudden loud thumping bang his head cleared. Arnett felt the rear of the truck lift and shift to the right. Immediately the truck fish tailed and Rivera cried out as he fought for control. They hadn’t been going fast but the roadside bomb caught them under the back left side of the truck; it threw the heavy ass to the side with ease.

“Go! Go!” Darby said. Rivera straightened the truck and hit the gas.

“One-three this one-seven stop your truck! Stop! One-four is hit, over” the radio transmission blurted out over their shocked faces. Arnett looked at Darby who glanced back at him and then towards Juanes in the gun.

“Fuck! They’re not lying Sergeant one-four has rolled over.” Juanes said looking out over the rear of the gunner’s box.

“Stop the truck” Darby ordered. “Juanes what’s going on?”

“The truck is on fire, I… I think they hit another I.E.D.” As the truck slide to a halt Arnett turned and could see flames licking up around the back half of one-four truck lying on its side.

“One-seven this is one-three, set up cordon and watch our ass. Call QRF and report our position, we have a truck hit and possible wounded, over” Darby said holding the handset up to his mouth.

“Right, one-seven out”

If I need the truck I will signal Juanes, listen to what he tells you.” Darby said.

Arnett stepped from the shielded truck and entered a world of bright staggering heat. It must have been a hundred and thirty degrees out and distorted waves of heat rose up from the pavement. His eyes could see the one-four truck on its side with a missing back right tire and what seemed to be part of the trunk. It was twenty yards to their rear in the middle of the road. Darby came billowing around the truck.

“Stay on my ass.” He told to Arnett. Together they crouched at their waste and bounded for the flipped vehicle. Arnett could feel the heat increase as they came to the flames eating the back of what remained of the trunk. Darby crossed to the front of the truck and began climbing the front bumper and up onto the side of the truck facing the sky. He soon stood atop the vehicle and pulled open the heavy armored door. Maine and Arnett stood looking up at Darby waiting for instructions. Three shots rang out to the rear and Arnett fell forwards smacking his chin on the hot pavement. He rolled to his back and could see Juanes firing off a short burst into the neighborhood just beyond a small gathering on shrubbery.

“Pay attention, up here… Up here!” Sergeant Darby said screaming down at Arnett and Maine laying the ground. Arnett jumped up and could see what Darby wanted. He was helping one-four truck leader out of the door and needed Arnett to help him down. Arnett grabbed the soldiers left arm at the elbow and eased him to the pavement. They both kneeled and waited for Sergeant Darby who had dived back in open door up to his waist. Arnett could see the soldier was dazed and not fully aware when Maine held a small flash light to his eyes. More shots rang out from the neighborhood to their backs, chunks of hot pavement torn free around them. It only lasted a second and then Juanes let loose another burst into the neighborhood. Arnett looked down at his legs checking himself making sure he didn’t get hit when Darby called back.

“Pay attention.” Darby said. He looked up again and could see Darby was helping another soldier out of the door. The soldier looked like he had a broken arm but was still moving on his own accord. Arnett reached out and took the soldier’s good hand, helping him get between Maine and himself. Arnett noticed that the one-four truck leader had not been as lucky as he was. The soldier sat on his ass grasping for air as blood soaked his chest. Arnett took a knee again and began scanning the neighborhood where more shot rang out. Maine ripped open his hip bag and took out scissors. He began cutting off the soldiers vest and DCU top revealing a hole in his right chest under his armpit. Arnett wished Darby would hurry up; it was only matter of time before…

“Pay attention you shit head.” Darby said peering down at him kneeling next to the two wounded soldiers. Darby had propped over his shoulder a soldier’s body. Arnett couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive, but he didn’t exactly have a lot of time to ponder the thought. He helped Darby carrying the soldier jump down off the truck.

“Move the truck! Hey?” Darby yelled out to Juanes. Juanes was too busy firing bursts off into the neighborhood making Darby’s shouts useless. Darby turned taking in the two wounded soldiers and then looked back across towards safety, one-three tuck. Sergeant Darby pointed at the soldier with the bleeding chest, “Maine can you move him?”

“Can I move him? I need to move him and now” Maine said.

“Arnet, stay here with him and cover me, when I get to the truck we’ll cover you.” Darby said pointing to the soldier with the broken arm. He didn’t wait for a response; he hoisted the limp soldier higher on his shoulders and waited for Maine to get the truck leader’s arm up over his shoulders. Gun slung in front of his body he began moving towards the truck. Arnett kneeling stayed focused on the neighborhood. Shots were only coming from the two gunners in the two remaining trucks now and not from the shanty buildings. In what seemed like minutes to Arnett, he finally saw Sergeant Darby and Maine reach one-three truck. He slung his weapon and reached out taking the soldier’s good arm.

“Hold on!” he said, and then saw a flash. All went black. Arnett shot forward from some unforeseen force throwing him hard on his face. He hit the pavement with such force he thought it would crack the road but felt it crack his face open. A sudden rush of burning hot stabbing tore up his back. His skin boiled and slid off his face. Arnett had died, or would die he was sure of it. The pain had been so intense that it hardly actually hurt; it was more of a fear that he knew what was happening rather then pain. Arnett felt his body break and skin boil, his life had ended.

He made Sara a promise to return and marry her. He wanted to return and marry her, but now after he died on that asphalt road he realized he wouldn’t. He would never see Sara again. Arnett waited.

Arnett waited for a white light, or nothingness, but neither came. The pain had left so abruptly that he figured he had already passed or would soon; when he blinked open his eyes. Sergeant Darby didn’t look scared anymore and he didn’t run. The fight must have ended, and just a little too late to save him Arnett thought. Darby walked right up to Arnett’s crumpled body and stopped.

“Are you all right?” Darby said reaching a hand down and lifting Arnett by the arm like a little boy. Jeremy lowered his head looking down at his body, at his blackened body armor.

“I’m… I’m dead.” Arnett said looking into Sergeant Darby’s sweet covered face.

“Shit, you wouldn’t be talking if you were dead. You’re a fucking walking miracle.” Darby said as he began to walk past Arnett standing in the road. He turned and could see Sergeant Darby kneeling next to what use to be a soldier with a broken arm. The soldier was dead, and Arnett was pretty sure he should be dead as well. He felt his skin boil off his face; he felt it stab into his back. Arnett ran his hand across his face and up his back. Other U.S. soldiers started walking in the road. QRF support must have gotten there but he couldn’t remember when. Darby came back to Arnett and poked him with two fingers.

“Hey, go get checked out by Maine.”

Arnett looked out towards one-three truck, to where Maine would be working on the wounded. There was a gathering of soldiers looking in the truck.

“Maine? Medic Maine?” Jeremy said looking through the gathered soldiers trying to get back to his truck. “I need a medic”

“He’s busy.” One soldier responded. Arnett pushed forward, pushing the soldiers to the side.

“Let me get through” Arnett called out. He pushed the last soldier who had stood in front of the door blocking the truck. Medic Maine sat peeling off Juanes’s under shirt throwing it on top of Juanes’s cut vest and DCU jacket. Juanes was slouched in the bucket seat, skin melted off his body blackened to a crisp. There were three large shrapnel pieces sticking from his back pooling blood into the center of the truck. Arnett’s eyes took it all in at first and then rested on Juanes’s head where crack opened it like he had been slammed into something with great force.

Arnett pushed back hard against the truck and through the gather soldiers. The world began to spin. He walked back into the road and fell to his ass. It all came too fast. It had been him. He was the one who had burnt up and cracked open. He swallowed hard with a disgusting realization. Just like that man holding his dead son, now Arnett sat in the street with the terrifying image of his friend’s blackened corpse. The ring had reversed their fates. He had been the one to die in a fiery blaze not Pedro. Guilt coursed through his being with such staggering force he thought he would vomit some up. He didn’t know how but he knew he was responsibly for Juanes’s death; the ring had done it. He had prayed; he had heard Sara pray on that ring for his safe return. It granted that prayer with the cost of his friend’s life.

He sat in that road for what seemed to be years, tears stinging his face. He wondered if the ring would work twice, if it would take another’s life again as it tried to save his. He un-slung his M16 and rotated the selector switch from safe to semi. “Sorry Sara…, no, sorry Juanes.”

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