Though We are Lonely,
Though we are Scared,
and Even When We Stumble,
Our Mission is to Continue,
Means Answering the Call

(Part B)

by Heather M.

ATF Universe

No infringement of any legal ownership rights, be they individual or corporation, is intended.

A very big thank-you to Phyllis and Mari for the beta work. I feel it is much better for their efforts.

This is the second part of the fourth in the series Christmas for Some, Means Answering the Call. J.D. Dunne is an Army reservist who has been called to active duty and sent to Iraq. I have built this story around real events but to keep this a work of fiction these events are not one hundred percent accurate. No disrespect of any kind is intended.

Warning: Swearing


  1. "3/2 celebrates Easter in Al Qa'im" Marine Corps News March 30, 2005, Submitted by 2nd Marine Division, Story by: Lance Cpl. Lucian Friel
  2. Sunday Report CBC Newsworld, "Deadline: Iraq, November, 2003.
  3. OT e-mail "Plot of Grass" from Jan - aka colttanner, May 16, 2005
  4. E-mail "Pics the news never shows" from my cousin whose name is also Heather

"Alright, alright!" growled Josiah under his breath. He'd been roused out of a very pleasant night's rest by the insistent chiming of his doorbell.

Josiah yanked opened the front door ready to blast his four a.m. visitor. Josiah's caller was squatting in the inch of heavy, wet snow on the front step. His back to the house his dark head resting against the doorbell.


It obviously took great effort on Buck's part but he managed to struggle to an upright stance.

"Juzzziah! Yur home," slurred Buck as he put his hand on the doorframe to steady himself.

"Buck, what is God's name-," Now fully awake Josiah took a quick inventory, a disheveled tux, an inebriated Buck, and no Casey or Jag in sight.

"Get in here," ordered Josiah as a gust of March wind reminded him he was standing in the open doorway with only his housecoat on.

At the invitation, instead of taking a step, Buck started to fall forward. Josiah stepped quickly out into the wet snow to catch his friend. Josiah gasped at the sudden cold and wet under his bare feet and grunted as he took the brunt of Buck's weight.

"C'mon, help me out here will you?" pleaded Josiah swinging Buck's arm across his shoulders and circling an arm around Buck's waist. Buck was a dead weight and more of a hindrance than a help as Josiah heaved him over the threshold and into the house.

Josiah was going to lay him out on the couch in the living room and then thought the better of it. He steered Buck past the living room into the kitchen. There was coffee in there and it would be easier to clean up linoleum than carpeting should the need arise.

Josiah leaned Buck up against the wall in the kitchen. Holding out ready hands, Josiah watched him for a moment. Buck started to pitch forward again. Deciding on a different course of action, Josiah put his hands on Buck's shoulders and pushed him back against the wall and then guided him as he sank to a squat. Awkwardly, Buck extended one long leg and then the other until he was seated on the floor.

Satisfied that Buck was safe for the moment Josiah went about setting up a pot of coffee. He tried to remember the last time Buck had tied one on this badly, he couldn't recall one.

As the coffee dripped into the pot, Josiah leaned back against the counter and set about trying to get some answers.

"Buck, where's Casey?

"Cassseeey?" Buck's head bobbed and jerked then he frowned up at Josiah. "Caseeeey's at hommme."

Josiah hadn't expected any other answer but he wanted to be sure.

"Where's the Jag?" Now that he knew Casey was okay, maybe there was still time to save Buck's life if something had happened to the Jag.

"Oregon," the reply was punctuated with a hiccup.


"Tarbender took th'keesss."

It took a second for Josiah to decipher the answer. To be sure he recited his corrected version slowly back to Buck. "The bartender took the keys?"

"Thasss what I sssaid," replied Buck, nodding again.

Josiah couldn't help a little sigh of relief, the "tarbender," whoever he or she might be, had probably prevented a homicide.

"Buck, what happened?"

Buck's reaction to the question surprised Josiah. Buck's chin began to quiver. He raised one hand to cover his eyes.

Josiah was a little shocked. Buck wasn't normally a weepy drunk.

Buck took a long sniff before his hand fell away. "I'm a basssard, ya know?" The tears had overflowed making two shiny tracks down Buck's cheeks.

Josiah wasn't quite sure what Buck meant. They all knew Buck's parents had never married but Buck had never once seemed troubled by that fact. Katie Wilmington had done a fine job of raising a remarkably well-balanced son in that regard.

Josiah unhooked the roll of paper towel from its dispenser on the wall and sat down beside Buck. Tearing off two sheets, he handed them to Buck.

He waited while Buck wiped his eyes and blew his nose loudly before slipping a little lower to the floor. Josiah was now looking down at the top of Buck's head from his place beside him. The way things were going Josiah didn't think they were going to need the pot of coffee.

"Chrisss is gonna have m'balls," mumbled Buck, " 'n maybe ifem lucky, he won't kill me, juss throw me off the team."

"It can't be that bad," said Josiah.

Buck's head wobbled unevenly left and right as he shook his head. "Some things can never be forgiven." Buck slid further down so now he sat on the back of his neck, his head at an unnatural angle against the wall. The evenness to Buck's breathing indicated to Josiah that Buck had fallen asleep.

"Just as well," mused Josiah to himself, "better to deal with whatever this is in the morning when he is sober, hangover or not."

Josiah's fifty years plus joints complained as he levered himself stiffly off the floor. Dressed only in his housecoat, the floor was cold. He stepped over Buck and made a short trip to the linen closet to retrieve a blanket and pillow. Then Josiah rolled Buck gently away from the wall so that he was lying on his side. A pillow under his head, a blanket draped over him, Josiah left Buck to sleep it off.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

J.D. sat back and thought for a moment. Casey's e-mail sounded like she had had a good time at the formal. Somehow he wasn't convinced. Buck had taken her because Ezra was down with the flu. The decorations sounded great, a real waterfall, and a working volcano. The food was good, the DJ was good, Darla and Chad had gotten engaged. That was no surprise. It sounded more like Casey was rhyming off a check-list than telling him about a fun evening. Taking time change into account between Denver and Iraq, she had sent the e-mail shortly after 1 a.m. She must not have stayed very late and obviously hadn't gone to any of the after-party house parties. Maybe he was seeing something that wasn't there but it felt like she hadn't had a great evening. He'd ask Buck. Maybe something had happened and she didn't want to tell him. Everything seemed so much more complicated this far from home.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The porcelain felt wonderfully cool under his cheek.

Buck hung on tightly to the bowl. Resting his cheek against the rim, Buck waited as another giant sweat passed. His back muscles were sore from heaving and his insides felt raw as he remembered why he had stopped doing this years ago.

Buck had awoken a couple of hours after falling asleep when the sudden urge to vomit overtook him. Instinct had led him to the toilet. When the first bout of sickness was over, he'd lain back down and had drifted back into a fitful sleep on the bathroom floor.

Now as sunlight streamed through the bathroom window he waited for his breathing to even out. He felt that maybe the worst was over and slowly he became aware of life outside of his own body's demands.

He recognized Josiah's bathroom and every so often he could hear Josiah's voice. Now for the first time he heard a woman's voice.

"Oh shit! Viv!" Buck physically cringed as he realized he had invaded Josiah's weekend with Vivyenne Winslow.

Viv was a human rights lawyer born to a wealthy Denver family. She was now a Washington lobbyist for Veteran's Affairs. Josiah didn't get to see her much these days since the present military action kept her busy in Washington most of the time.

Buck got shakily to his feet. He took a deep breath to try and settle the tremors that seized him as he let the tuxedo jacket slip off his arms and fall to the floor. He peered blearily at himself in the mirror. He thought that this was probably the one time that he really didn't look so good.

Leaning on the vanity for support Buck turned on the taps. Bending over the sink, he splashed water on his face and drank from cupped hands to rinse his mouth. Buck stood up again and pushed his wet fingers through his hair in an attempt to make himself presentable. He had to admit he wasn't too impressed with the results.

He picked up his jacket and laying it over his arm he left the bathroom. In the hallway he could smell coffee and eggs now. The coffee gave him a reason to go forward in search of the life giving elixir; the smell of the eggs turned his queasy stomach.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Josiah's arm was around Vivyenne's shoulders as they sat with chairs pulled together working on the crossword puzzle from the Sunday paper. They were well into their second cup of coffee when they heard signs of life stirring from the bathroom. The crossword puzzle wasn't something they normally did but it helped pass the time while they waited for Buck to appear. Josiah missed the leisurely Sunday morning breakfasts in their bathrobes. Since Vivyenne had gone to Washington they were too few and far between.

"He lives!" boomed Josiah when Buck appeared in the kitchen doorway.

Buck winced and hesitated mid-step, his hand going to his already pounding temple.

"Oh dear, maybe not," said Vivyenne sympathetically.

"Good Morning, Buck," she said putting down the Sunday paper.

"Morning, Viv," replied Buck. "I'm not sure how good it is just yet."

"Coffee?" asked Vivyenne.

Buck made a valiant attempt at his usual smile for the ladies, "You're an angel of mercy, darlin'"

"I can think of a few senators that would disagree with you," said Vivyenne with a chuckle as she rose from her chair.

"Eggs?" asked Josiah.

"Ah, no thanks," replied Buck. Josiah couldn't help but notice Buck's already pasty pallor seemed to take on a decidedly green tinge.

"Bacon?" Josiah asked without mercy.

"No," replied Buck more firmly as he turned another shade greener.

"How about some plain toast?" suggested Viv.

"I think that might be the way to go this morning."

"If nothing else, it won't hurt as much when you throw it up," quipped Josiah.

Buck really wished Josiah would lay off as he settled himself down on a barstool by the counter. Vivyenne handed to him a steaming mug of black liquid. Elbows on the counter he held the mug with trembling hands. Buck didn't notice the look of concern that passed between Josiah and Viv.

"Well, I think I'm going to go take a shower and get dressed," said Viv heading down the hallway.

Buck took another sip of the hot drink before he spoke. "Josiah, I am sorry for bustin' in on you with Viv here."

"Let's just say you owe me," said Josiah giving Buck a look that let Buck know he wasn't going to forgive this intrusion any time soon. Josiah started to fill the dishwasher. He figured Viv would give them twenty minutes or so to talk, he'd better get to it. "How was the Formal?"

"Good," Buck replied before taking another sip, "they decorated the place up real nice. They even had a working waterfall."

"Did Casey have a good time?"

"I think so. Not as good a time as she would have had with J.D., of course." Buck lowered the mug to the counter in front of him. Buck had turned a mild shade of green again. Holding it between both hands, he stared into his mug. Josiah watched as Buck fought off a mild wave of nausea and the green faded into a pasty white. "One of her girlfriends got engaged last night. It kind of took the wind out of her sails. After that she never really got back into the party mood and decided to go home early."

Buck sat quietly for a moment. Josiah took it as a sign that he was getting close to talking about what it was that had happened last night and continued to putter away at cleaning up the breakfast dishes.

Buck rubbed his chin briefly with the back of one hand. He didn't look up before he continued. "Casey sure is carrying a heavy load; worrying about J.D.; working part time; trying to keep her grades up. She says she's struggling with a course on Tax accounting. I wish there was something I could do to help."

"I think you're doing all you can do to help. Casey knows she can count on you to be there for her."

Josiah caught the wave of raw pain that passed over Buck's face. Josiah stopped filling the dishwasher. "Buck?"

Buck still didn't look up as he replied in a low voice. "I kind 'a made a pass at Casey last night."

Josiah dropped the knife he was holding. It fell through the top and then the bottom baskets and clattered loudly as it hit the open door of the dishwasher. The following silence seemed loud as he stood starring at Buck's bowed head.

"What do you mean you "kind 'a" made a pass at Casey?" asked Josiah, finding he had to work hard to keep his tone of voice neutral.

"She fell asleep on the drive home. When we got there I sat and watched her for a while. I got to thinking about how hard life has been for her, about how well she's handled it all, and how there wasn't much I could do to help her. She looked so beautiful. I don't know what came over me cause the next thing I know I gave her a little kiss... on the lips... and all I could think about was taking her in my arms and really kissing her."

"I see," replied Josiah gravely. Josiah had missed it. It was a classic case.

J.D. was such a big part of both Buck and Casey's lives. Somewhere along the line Buck and maybe Casey too, Josiah couldn't know for sure, had started looking for that part of J.D. they were both missing in each other. He'd seen it after he'd gotten home from 'Nam. Women who had gone looking for some part of their missing loved one in a best friend, or even a brother, to fill the emptiness. It had worked the other way too; friends and brothers who had stepped in to try and fill the gap and had ended up stepping over the line. Indiscretions born out of loneliness, ending up in disaster.

"Buck, it's not unusual for people who are missing someone to-."

"It is for me," Buck spat the words out. "Sure I love women, but I'd never take advantage of a woman as lonely for her man as Casey is for J.D., especially," something flickered in Buck's eyes, "if it that man is my best friend." Buck looked sick at heart. "At least, I never thought I was one of those guys who would," mumbled Buck as he dropped his head into his hands.

Josiah cursed himself inwardly. He felt partially to blame here; hell they probably all were. They had left most of Casey's care up to Buck. Josiah was especially annoyed with himself. He knew what could happen.

"Buck, you're the closest person J.D.'s got to family."

Buck dropped his hands but didn't raise his head. "J.D. needs a better class of family then," said Buck morosely.

Josiah ignored the comment. "Casey's happiness is important to him and because it's important to him, it's important to you. You saw that Casey was hurting last night and you wanted to help. You wanted to take the loneliness away, even if only for a little while, for her... and for yourself."

At that Buck looked up suddenly. Josiah saw the pain in Buck's eyes. The pain of missing J.D., the pain of failing at the impossible task of making Casey feel better and the pain of what else he might have done last night.

Josiah calmly returned his gaze. "There's nothing wrong with a kiss, a hug, some small display of affection just to let her know that you care that she's hurting. I think the problem here is that when it comes to women you're used to doing more than that. Only this time it wasn't just anyone and I think you were afraid you wouldn't stop there."

"I suddenly remembered it was Casey I wanted in my arms and it scared the hell out of me," said Buck quietly. "Lately, I've gotten to know her as a young woman, not the girl J.D. is dating."

"Buck, you didn't want to do anything more than let Casey know that even if she's lonely, she's not alone."

"You're sure about that?"

"I'm sure." Josiah watched as the pain in Buck's eyes was replaced with the realization that his only intention had been to make Casey feel better."

"How did Casey feel about what happened?" asked Josiah.

"I don't know if she knows what happened. She's got to be pretty confused though. I just about threw her out of the car after it happened."

"You better talk to her then. Like you said, she's carrying a heavy load these days. You've been there for her so far. If she thinks something's wrong between the two of you, it would be just another weight for her to carry."

"What do I tell her? I can't tell her the truth."

"No, you can't. Maybe this is a time for a stretching the truth a little. Tell her you suddenly didn't feel well and ended up puking most the night," Josiah broke into a toothy grinned breaking the heaviness between them. "It's not that far off the truth."

Buck snorted as the strain left his face, "I guess not."

"Can you clear something up for me?"


"How did the Jag end up in Oregon?"

"Oregon?" Buck frowned.

"Yeah, last night you told me the Jag was in Oregon."

"I left the Jag at O'Regan's bar. As far as I know it's still there."

Josiah set a plate of now cold dry toast in front of Buck and chuckled. He slapped Buck on the back as he walked past him. "Help yourself to whatever you want. I'm going to go take a shower."

Buck munched quietly on the toast for a few minutes ignoring the occasional sound of morning delight coming from the back of the house. He slid off the stool and poured himself another cup of coffee. He felt considerably better. The dry toast had done wonders to settle his sick stomach, and his confession along with Josiah's ensuing counsel had helped settle his upset heart.

He sat down at the kitchen table and let his gaze wander into Josiah's yard. An irregularly shaped lot, it was bordered by large shrubs and small trees, all of them looking ravaged by the winter weather. He noted a number of early springtime birds ate at the feeders Josiah had hung in the trees.

Spring! He hadn't realized until now that it was almost springtime.

"Feeling better Buck?"

"Oh! Hey there, Viv, yeah much better. Thanks."

He waited until Viv poured herself another coffee and sat down beside him at the table. "Viv, I'm really sorry for busting in on your weekend."

"It's okay, Buck." Vivyenne Winslow smiled, "I think it was about two weeks after I met Josiah that I realized he came with some sort of an extended family."

"I hope I haven't ruined your plans."

"No, we're just going for a ride with Chris and Mary this afternoon."

"When do you go back to Washington?"

"After supper, I'm booked on the 8:30 flight."

Buck got up and moved away from Viv to lean against the window frame.

"Viv, can I ask how's it going?"

"In Washington?"

"No, for our boys, the troops coming back, you know." Buck trailed off. He knew that if anyone knew, it was Viv. She and Josiah had met at a presentation on Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Josiah had gotten involved after Vietnam and again after the Gulf War with returning vets. As a Veterans Administration lobbyist, Viv worked hard to get Federal and private funding to treat the returning solders for their wounds, both physical and emotional.

He watched her. He knew she was trying to decide how to answer him. She knew Buck had asked her knowing he'd get the truth. Vivyenne Winslow may have been born with a silver spoon in her mouth but she was hard working and a tough and honest person.

"It's not good, Buck. There are so many more dead than the Gulf War, so many more wounded and with it, there's a corresponding increase in the number of cases of Post Traumatic Stress. The economy's not doing so well so there's not the money there should be to treat these boys."

She shook her head. "They're not young adults Buck, they're kids. Most of them are under twenty-two, nearly half of them have never voted and the other half aren't even sure why they are there or how what they are doing makes a difference. For so many of them it's the first time away from home in a foreign country where nothing is familiar to them and the mere act of walking down the street could get them killed. If that weren't enough, with these large calibre weapons, people don't just get red spots and fall down. They come apart; pieces everywhere. How is anyone supposed to handle that?"

Buck looked into the gray eyes that looked back at him. Viv was angry. Buck knew she felt this war was unjust. Viv usually kept her politics to herself when she was home from Washington but one evening after a particularly costly week in terms of human life in Fallujah, she had made it clear how she felt about this war. That it had been contrived by the present administration in Washington with more of an eye to Iraq's oil than to the well being of their nation's young men and women. In her opinion the greatest travesty of all was that the invasion of Iraq did nothing to bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice.

And now, just when Buck felt he was handling J.D. being away, she brings up a new set of concerns. "So what happens to them?"

"The military's answer seems to be a good dressing down in front of their comrades over cowardice and regular lectures in 'sucking it up' bullcrap."

"Viv, I really need to know." Buck tried to keep his concern out of his voice but Viv looked at him suddenly. He watched as her expression changed, she must have realized she was scaring him.

Viv's voice lost its lobbyist's demeanor as she toned down her manner. "It's not until the soldiers come home and try to go back to the civilian life they left that they find they can't leave the war behind. Nightmares and flashbacks are the most common side effects. They're hard to handle. They bring back a lot of the strong feelings and fears from the war. It's then that the soldiers begin to realize just how much they've changed, how they don't quite fit in anymore. It's a lonely and frightening feeling. How could anybody who hasn't been there understand how they feel? Who can they talk to? Mom? Dad? Their girlfriend? Boyfriend? How do they share such horrific experiences with them? Would their families understand if they did? Not likely, so they end up shutting out the very people who love them the most. Instead they turn to alcohol, drugs or worse to handle the stress. Many handle the post traumatic stress that way for years."

"What's worse than drugs and alcohol?"

"I won't lie to you, Buck, incidents of family violence, divorce and suicide rates are all rapidly on the rise among those who have served in Iraq."

Buck felt a cold shiver pass over him, he suspected it had very little to do with alcohol poisoning.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

"Casey, darlin' how are you?" Buck had decided a quick friendly telephone call would be the way to handle it.

"Hi, Buck, I had a little bit of trouble sleeping last night, otherwise I'm okay. How about you?"

Buck closed his eyes and grimaced. He was sure his behaviour had been the reason she hadn't slept well. "Fine, ahh, better today. I'm just calling to apologize for my lack of manners last night when I dropped you off. I wasn't feeling so good and then I spent half the night talking on the great white telephone."

He was glad to hear Casey giggle at his out-dated euphemism for throwing up.

"Oh no, you just had the flu. I hope it isn't a relapse."

Buck was sure he heard relief in her voice. "I don't think so, darlin', at least I hope not. Anyway I'll give you a call in a week or two. We'll go for coffee or something okay?"

"Sounds good, Buck."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck didn't meet Casey for coffee or anything else that week. Neither did anyone else from the team.

Ezra went undercover a week later. What was supposed to be a routine bust became a month of close surveillance. Ezra had parlayed the contact into a lead to a top arms dealer.

During that time Josiah managed a couple of quick phone calls.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

It was early morning. The sunrise was full of beautiful colourful streaks in what was promising to be a clear, blue-sky day. J.D. stared out of the window of the Hummer. He didn't notice the sunrise.

They and three other units were going into Al-Qa'im. The transfer of sovereignty back to the Iraqis was to take place June 30th. The civil authorities had requested help with security at the police station while they interviewed volunteers for the local police service. They were in desperate need of police officers to take over the security reins from the U.S. Troops. This was their second day.

The first had passed peacefully enough. J.D. had to admire them. Despite the insurgent activity and the continuing violence, men, young and old and even some women had come out to volunteer. It showed Iraqis loved their country as much as Americans loved theirs.

It would be nice, J.D. thought, if this could be another peaceful day.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Nettie was shocked by her niece's appearance. No amount of make-up could hide the dark circles under Casey's eyes.

"Casey, maybe you should take to day off and rest-"

"I'm fine!" snapped Casey.

"Child, you're not sleeping..."

"I said I'm fine and I'm not a child!" Nettie blinked, shocked by the abrupt words from her niece.

"Aunt Nettie, I have an appointment with a TA today to discuss a term paper, I have to meet with my lab partners to redo that lab that Kelly Fewster screwed up, exams start in three weeks and I have a shift at the bookstore. I CAN'T AFFORD TO TAKE THE DAY OFF!"

Nettie sat calmly, her expression stern as she watched her niece.

Casey glanced angrily at her. Then her face fell. Maybe she was on edge but she shouldn't be yelling at her aunt. "I'm sorry," said Casey slowly, "I'm just tired. End of term pressures I guess. I'll see if I can trade my shift at the bookstore. I'll get some sleep tonight. I promise."

"All right, Casey," replied Nettie gently, "Remember, I'm here if you need me."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

'Oh shit.' Thought Buck as he sat starring at his computer screen. J.D. was asking what had happened at the formal. Casey's e-mail sounded like maybe she hadn't had a good time. What did J.D. know? Buck leaned forward, elbow on his desk, hand over his mouth. Casey had seemed fine over the phone when he had called to apologize for his hasty departure. He hadn't talked to her recently. This undercover operation was taking up a lot of extra time.

Don't panic Bucklin. Read it again.

Buck, Casey's e-mail didn't sound like she had all that good a time at the formal. Did something happen? Is she alright?

J.D.'s concern here was for Casey. No reason to believe J.D. had anything else in mind. Buck leaned over the keyboard to type his reply.

Nothing really happened. I think it was because you weren't with her. It seemed that every time we turned around there was a reminder that you weren't there: before the meal there was a tribute and a prayer to our armed forces; a professional photographer was taking pictures of couples by the waterfall; and Darla and her boyfriend got engaged. I think it was a nice idea for her to go to the formal and be with her friends but it would have been a lot more special for her if it had been you with her. Trust me Kid, I know women.

Buck debated deleting his last comment before hitting the send button. To omit it would have been out of character for him and he didn't want J.D. suspecting anything was wrong. J.D. needed to have his mind on the job not wondering what was going on back home.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The contingent of three Hummers had pulled into the walled courtyard of the police station. The soldiers were disembarking when they heard shouts of alarm from the street.

A pick-up truck with its horn blaring turned to enter through the same gate the Hummers had just passed through. The driver miscalculated and missed the entrance hitting the wall beside it.

"Take cover," bellowed Sergeant Ingram.

Before any of them could move, the truck went up in a fiery blast.

J.D. was thrown to the ground along with the other men around him.

Glass from the second and third story station windows rained down around them.

The smell of the burning vehicle and the flesh of the driver reached his nostrils. What had once nauseated him barely fazed him now. It was all part of a day's work.

J.D. rose carefully to allow the shards of glass to slide off of him.

He looked around. The rest of the squad was getting up slowly.

He swallowed in an attempt to clear his ears and get his hearing back.

J.D. didn't have to hear the Sarge. He moved automatically into position; he knew Ingram was ordering them to set-up a secure perimeter around the station.

A few of his comrades had suffered minor cuts from the glass but otherwise it was a good day for them. No one had suffered serious injury.

Not so for the local citizenry, at least a dozen people had been killed outright by the truck bomb. A far greater number had been wounded.

Police officers, recruits and town's people sprang into chaotic action with first aid, organizing litters and transportation to the near aid station.

Soon enough, J.D. could hear the sounds that went with the mass pandemonium around him: the moans and cries of the wounded and the dying; the shouted orders of the rescuers; the wails of anguish and weeping of the family and friends at the discovery of a loved one.

By mid afternoon the police station was open for business again and J.D. Dunne was another day closer to going home.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Casey leaned back against the closed door of the bathroom stall in the washroom of the student's union. She looked at the clear water of the toilet bowl and then back at the small, plastic bottle in her hand.

There were only six pills, the student health centre doctor said they were physically non-additive, just a very mild sedative to help her body relax. He did warn her against becoming reliant on them. Her body wouldn't need them to help her sleep but it was very easy to fall into the habit of thinking you needed them to sleep.

She didn't like the idea of sleeping pills at all but she had to do something! Her grade average was slipping. It started with the anniversary of the start of the war on the 19th of March. The violence increased and so did the reports of soldiers hurt and killed. Her assignments began to suffer. The anniversary would pass and the violence would die down, she had told herself. She would be able to sleep again and be able to concentrate better, then she would be able bring her marks up again. Then came the murders of the four military contractors and the trouble in Fallujah seemed to explode, new reports of attacks came hourly. She couldn't sleep and final exams began in less than a week. She had to do something! It was her personal commitment to keep her marks up. It was part of why J.D. was over there. She would be letting J.D. down if she didn't get good grades.

She suddenly realized she was crying. She slipped the pills into her backpack. Then using toilet paper blew her nose and wiped the tears away. She was just really, really tired, she told herself, emotionally worn out because of fatigue. One or two good nights sleep and she'd be fine again. She picked up her books, squared her shoulders and left the stall.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

It was Easter Sunday.

J.D. had gone to Mass. He hadn't gone for more than a month, despite a long ago promise to his mother. He told himself he hadn't been going because there wasn't enough room in the "soul train", a former passenger train car that served as the chapel for as long as J.D. had been in Al Qa'im. The soul train seated only thirty comfortably, meaning a lot of people had to stand during the services. Navy Lt. John Anderson, the battalion Chaplin, had made an official request to build a much needed larger chapel. J.D. hoped that long before the new chapel was built the American military would be long gone. Somehow he doubted it.

Today he'd gone because he had hoped to find some answers, some degree of comfort, anything to help deal with the insanity daily life had become. He had once found a warmth and comfort in the familiar ritual of the mass. Now it didn't seem to help much.

He still believed in God. He wasn't so disillusioned that he couldn't still see evidence of God here every day. Like the soldier who was so tired of the giant sandbox they lived in, that he asked his wife to send him dirt, fertilizer and grass seed. He tended his little plot of grass faithfully and it has grown rich and thick. Situated in one of the long narrow alleyways between the dozens of tents, the green stood out, a welcome relief to the eyes. Using scissors, the soldier trimmed the grass like it was a sacred task feasting on the sweet aroma of the freshly cut blades.

Like the way his fellow reservist, Brian Randall, the consummate dad with three daughters and a son on the way, found great joy in the children of this land. Though the spoken language was a barrier, Randy still managed to connect with them by teaching them to high-five. Every time, he was rewarded with a big smile.

Then there were the prayer circles that a lot of the units had adopted. Before going out on patrol, the members of a unit stand in a circle, arms around one another, and take a moment for prayer. Sometimes one soldier led the rest in a prayer, sometimes they prayed silently to themselves. The prayer circles had done more to unite the soldiers within units than any of the military training ever had.

Sergeant Crisp, regarded as the toughest, and some said, the meanest, Sergeant bar none, stationed at Tiger Base, maybe in of all of the American forces in Iraq. But to watch him when he got a letter from home? Sergeant Crisp always held it up to his nose first to take a whiff of his wife's perfume before opening it. The look in Crisp's eyes, that universal expression, a mixture of emotions every soldier feels, love, homesickness, yearning, loneliness all at the same time. The very thought of it brought a lump to J.D.'s throat.

Kelvin, it was the only name J.D. ever heard him called by. Kelvin was from the Deep South. The first time J.D. heard Kelvin speak, his drawl was so thick J.D. couldn't understand a word the kid said. Kelvin claimed to be eighteen, J.D. was doubtful of that. He watched Kelvin's gentle manner as he knelt and enticed one of the wild kittens over to him. Rewarding it with a morsel of meat, Kelvin stroked the kitten between the ears as it ate. It was such a natural pose, something you'd see everyday at home and not even think about. But here, in this place, while Kelvin stroked the kitten with one hand he cradled his M16 with the other.

Then there was the miracle.

One evening they were returning from patrol, the sky was overcast and rain had threatened all day. They had all wanted to get back before the rain came down. Patrolling in the rain was brutal. Tank especially had been complained bitterly about the prospect. J.D. wondered why the Sarge even put up with him. The rain had started down in earnest when Tank, working point, had signaled to halt. "Do you hear that?" Tank asked over their comms. They stood in the rain and listened. They groused and bitched back at him that they only hear the pelting of the rain. "I tell ya there's something out there," replied Tank. From his place in the rear, J.D. watched as Tank's head suddenly turned left. Then Tank took off disappearing into the dark. Ingram swore at him over the comm ordering him to get back on the road. There was a second of silence before they heard Tank, "Holy shit! Look what I found." Tank came lumbering back onto the road. They gathered around him and there, nestled in Tank's arms, a child. She wore a pink sweater and leggings. J.D. figured she might have been as old as two. She stared up at them with big brown eyes. Her only reaction to the six strange faces that looked down at her was to snuggle deeper into Tank's arms. Though her sweater was dirty and she was barefoot, her hair and face were clean and she appeared to be well fed. "Lennie, TJ, go see if there's anybody else." ordered the Sarge. J.D. pulled his spare t-shirt from his pack. Tank wrapped her in it and then, holding her close, he draped his rain slicker over her. When Lennie and TJ returned they made their way back to Tiger base in the rain. Tank had said she fell asleep almost right away.

There had been no one else, neither living nor dead, where they had found her. How she had come to be alone in the side of the road remained a mystery. She was transferred to the civilian authorities but they never heard whether or not any of her family had been found. They only knew that had they kept walking, between the weather and the night creatures, it was likely that she would have been dead by morning.

God, somehow, someway, still made his presence known, even in this place.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

... I won't lie to you. The fighting is getting worse every day. Everyone says it's going to get worse until the hand-over on June 30 but we, American troops that is, are going to be here a long time after that.

That's not for me to worry about, nine weeks today I'm headed home.

Love J.D..

Casey sat back after reading the words.

She felt a little ashamed of herself. She had hoped J.D. could have found a way to telephone her today. She had hoped that his E-mail would have been special today. He'd never even mentioned that today, April 22, was her birthday.

She wiped away a tear. 'How selfish can I be?' She thought. 'He's dealing with so much and I am worried about my stupid birthday.'

"Come on, Casey," she chided herself, "You've got two more exams to go and Tax Accounting isn't going very well, there's studying to do."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

He lay on his bunk. He felt miserable. It was the 29th of April a full week after Casey's birthday. He hadn't even e-mailed her that day. He'd just plain forgotten. He was on leave then, he had planned to telephone her and wish her happy birthday in person but instead he was too busy puking his brains out in that filthy bar-slash-whorehouse to even think of her, let alone her birthday.

Getting drunk had, for a few hours anyway, allowed him to escape from the images of the bodies of the four contractors hanging in the street in Baghdad. They'd seen it on TV. The dangling, charred remains looked just human enough for you to realize they had once been men. What kind of animals were these people anyway?

He wrapped his arms around his head; he felt like he was losing his mind, losing touch with everything that was important.

He thought he'd feel better after the few days of leave, instead he felt worse. Nothing had changed when he got back. He was still living butt cheek to butt cheek with all these other men in this tent. He was tired of living this twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week routine demanded by the military. Worse yet, he was still afraid of screwing up, of making a mistake that could get himself killed or worse yet, someone else killed. When he got right down to it, he was afraid of killing someone else. He wasn't sure he had the balls or the hate or whatever the hell it took to kill another human being even if that other person was the enemy.

"Oh God, not again!" he thought to himself as he sprang off his bunk and ran for the latrine. Whenever his fears began to get the better of him, he threw up. This time was no different.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

"Aunt Nettie?"

Nettie rolled over to look at the shadowy figure standing at her bedside in the dark, "What is it, Casey?"

"I can't... I can't... I can't sleep." A sob followed the stuttered words.

Suddenly concerned, Nettie sat up right and turned on her bedside table lamp.

Casey stood before her shivering in her nightgown, her hands clasped together at her chest.

Casey did not look well. She looked at Nettie through red rimmed eyes. Her face was blotchy with tears.

"You can't sleep? Why have you been crying? Is it because of J.D.?"

"No, no," Casey shivered and hiccuped. "I can't sleep. I ran out of these."

Casey held out a plastic container in an upturned palm.

"What are they?"

"The doctor said they would help me relax and fall asleep."


"There were only six. He said they weren't physically addictive but-"

Years of experience were not wasted on Nettie, she knew the answer, "But you got into the habit of depending on them to help you fall asleep."

Casey only nodded her head, her throat tight with impending tears. "What am I going to do," she cried as the tears let loose. "I have my Tax Accounting exam in six hours. I'm barely passing. I need this exam to raise my grade."

"It's going to be all right, child," soothed Nettie as she slipped out of bed and quickly donned her housecoat.

Taking the spare blanket from the bottom of her bed, she wrapped it around Casey's shoulders. Nettie then led Casey to the kitchen and made her sit while she warmed up a saucepan of milk, disappearing briefly to snatch the quilt off Casey's bed and put it in the dryer.

Casey watched her as she retrieved a bottle of rum from its cabinet. Nettie poured the milk into a mug and added a tablespoon of rum. Then Nettie handed it to Casey to drink.

Casey looked sadly at the drink. "I remember a time when this drink was Ovaltine."

Nettie gave Casey a small encouraging smile. "Drink up," Nettie ordered gently. She watched as her niece finished the drink. Nettie couldn't help feeling as if she had failed Casey. She had obviously left her too much on her own to cope with everything. After that one outburst, Casey seemed to be handling things. It had never occurred to Nettie that she had gotten another kind of "help".

Nettie retrieved the quilt from the dryer and wrapped Casey in the warm quilt. "Come, Casey, back to bed."

"Aunt Nettie? Would you-" The tear stained faced looked back at her.

"Of course I'll stay with you."

Nettie settled Casey on her side in bed. Sitting beside her, Nettie rubbed Casey's back until she fell asleep, just as she did when Casey, then a grief stricken four-year-old, had first come to live with her.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

I feel like I committed murder today.

Randy and I have been watching the kids playing while we were on watch in Al-Qa'im. We can't help it. It gives us something to keep our attention on while we're on duty. The kids play a lot of soccer. The older boys take the ball, of course. It's old and beat up and needs to be repaired a lot but it is a ball. The younger kids use a ball made of rags.

When the last Spanish contingent pulled out, they left their soccer balls behind. Their replacements brought their own new balls with them. We took the old balls into Al-Qa'im and gave them to the kids to use. You should have seen their faces. Even used, the balls were a whole lot better than what the kids had.

You should have seen how happy these new balls made the kids. Randy taught them to high-five, which they did with each other every time one of them scored.

That was a week ago.

J.D. stopped typing. He felt his heart rate go up. Every time he thought about what had happened he had a minor anxiety attack. He had to face this, deal with this or it would get the better of him.

Today, a car came up the street toward our checkpoint. It drove slowly through the kids while they played. Then the driver pulled over and parked just on the edge of the marketplace about 50 yards down from us. The driver got out and walked away. I don't know what it was. The driver never looked back or anything but something about the guy and the car made me edgy. Randy had the same feeling that something funny was up. Just then the soccer game moved toward the car. Randy and I both started running toward the kids, yelling at them to get away from the car.

We were too late. The car exploded. Three children died immediately, four more before they made it to the hospital. I don't know how many more have died from their wounds.

J.D. stopped typing again. He closed his eyes. It did little to block out the horror of what he and Randy had seen that day. Kids playing; people going about their business in the market; the next second screaming, blood, fire, chaos. These people were just trying to live. Was there some rule that the people of Iraq weren't allowed to live a normal peaceful existence?

Neither he nor Randy had really slept since it happened. Randy had tried to pick a fight with Lennie. Lennie kicked his ass and then covered for him when Sergeant Ingram found out about it.

I wish I'd never given those soccer balls to the kids. They rolled so much better than the other ones. So much better they rolled right into harm's way. I wish I'd been more alert; maybe I could have warned them sooner. I feel responsible.

J.D. sat back and stared unseeing at the screen.

He couldn't send this home.

They wouldn't understand. He highlighted the whole e-mail and then as he wiped the tears from his cheeks with one hand he hit the delete key with other.

He leaned back over the keyboard and started typing again.

I hope everyone is well. Today was pretty much like any other. Surveillance is pretty slow duty. Like any other duty, it tends to be boring and it's hard to stay alert. You might hear about a car bombing on the news in the next day or two. It happened at a checkpoint on the other side of town from mine...

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Casey stirred. She frowned sleepily.

Her exam! What time was it? Her clock radio said 12:30! Her exam, she'd missed her final exam. The exam session had ended a half-hour ago! She tripped and fell as she hurried out of bed. She scrambled to her feet and dashed into the kitchen.

"Aunt Nettie!"

Casey shrieked the name.

"Aunt Nettie!"

"I'm here, Casey."

"Aunt Nettie, I missed my final exam. I've failed the course!" Casey was crying now. "I won't graduate! I failed J.D.!" Casey began to cry so hard, she couldn't speak.

"Let it go, child," soothed her Aunt as she put her arms around young woman. Casey hugged her Aunt and cried. It wasn't just for the exam that Casey cried now. It was for all the fear and worry and feelings of helplessness that had built up over the last few months.

After some minutes, the tears finally began to subside. "Dry your tears, Casey, and listen to me," ordered Nettie gently.

Holding Casey at arm's length she explained. "I called your academic advisor. I told her what happened. She was very understanding. She said you will have to have a hearing with the faculty Supervisor but she doesn't expect a problem and that you can probably write with the inter-session students in June.

"What about my articling at Hargreaves and Campbell? Their acceptance was dependent on my final grade average." Hargreaves and Campbell was the most prestigious accounting firm in Denver. They accepted only two students a year. They paid slave wages for long hours of work but the Hargreaves and Campbell name would impress on a resume.

"We'll just have to explain it to them as well. I'm sure they'll understand."

Emotionally spent, Casey didn't have the heart to argue with her Aunt. The position was lost. Other good accounting firms had shown interest in her as well. It would all work out somehow.

Nettie leveled a serious gaze at her. "Now, what do you mean by 'you failed J.D.?'"

"It's my job to do well, to be successful and to make J.D. proud of me. It's the least I can do since he's fighting for me." For the first time she had said it out loud, the goal she had set for herself while J.D. was away. Now it sounded absurd.

"Oh Casey," the love in the eyes that looked back at her made Casey tear up again. "J.D. only wants to come home and find you safe and healthy and happy."

Casey wiped away the tears with the back of hand. "That means not getting so strung out with worry that I can't sleep without pills or getting so uptight I yell at you and I can't study."

Her Aunt answered her with a hug.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

...I had had it.

I was tired of the ambushes, the fire fights, the car bombings. I didn't care if they were Sunni, Shiite, Kurds, Shabak, Turkomen or Christian. Fuck them. If they were Iraqi, I hated them all.

Then yesterday, a lieutenant, I forget his name, joined us for a re-con patrol of some kind, I didn't know what exactly and I didn't care, I just wanted to get back okay. Different from the usual, we followed the road toward Baghdad. It turns into a pretty modern looking highway, modern looking except for the shot up and bombed out cars and trucks all over the place.

We were approaching an underpass and could hear a Bradley open up. We drove on. There were Iraqi men everywhere, yelling and waving their arms at the Bradley. There was another guy. He's yelling in English, his accent sounded like he's British maybe. He wasn't in uniform so I figured he was probably a journalist.

The lieutenant orders us to stop. The Bradley may need support he says. I didn't say anything but the worst thing the Iraqis could have done to the Bradley was throw stones at it. One of the soldiers from the Bradley was already talking to the British guy. "My commander won't let me talk to them," he said, "Could you tell them I'm sorry, that this isn't the war that America wanted and I would wish a better life for all Iraqis."

Then the soldier turned around. He walked past us like we weren't even there. He tried to climb back up onto the Bradley but missed his footing. Instead of trying again he leaned against the side. Even from where we were waiting we could see his shoulders shaking.

This war is tearing everybody up. We're a powerful country. Couldn't we have another way to deal with Saddam? Was this the only way? It wasn't him who flew those planes into the towers anyway. Iraq never once dropped anything on the U.S. and look what we're doing to its people. I want to support my country. I want to obey my Commander-in-Chief but I don't know what's right anymore.

J.D. stopped typing. His hands remained suspended over the keyboard. He was still angry and upset over the new orders. 'I guess the only way to tell them this was to just tell them.'

Then this morning they told me I've been extended for at least another 6 months. FUCK!


~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Casey stepped quickly off the bus. She felt good. This make up exam was going to be a piece of cake. She had gotten back on track, studied hard and was ready to do well.

She had received a formal letter yesterday from Hargreaves & Campbell. It had read that in light of the letter from the University explaining the extenuating circumstances of her missing her final exam they had taken the unusual step of a holding an articling position open until after they received the result from her final exam.

Casey suspected there was more to it.

Josiah had asked her how her exams had gone. Casey had admitted she had missed her final in Tax Accounting and why. Later she had remembered that Ted Hargreaves and Josiah Sanchez knew each other. They had stood side by side at the dedication of the Viet Nam memorial on Veteran's Day two years ago.

It was after talking to Josiah that she had received the letter from Hargreaves and Campbell.

Acing the exam, the chance that a placement at Hargreaves and Campbell was still a possibility and fact J.D. was due home in three weeks, life was good.

She hadn't check for e-mail from J.D. this morning. She would save that treat for after her exam.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

"Here, Randy, hold this, keep that tourniquet tight. Let up for a count of ten every few minutes got it?"

Brian Randall's face was white beneath his freckles. He was beginning to shake with shock. "Okay," he replied through chattering teeth.

"You can't pass out, Randy. You gotta release this tourniquet every few minutes," J.D. didn't explain any further, he knew Randy could lose his leg. "You gotta watch the sarge, make sure he keeps still so his chest wound doesn't bleed too much."

J.D. knew he'd done a piss poor job of bandaging Sargeant Ingram's chest wound. Nathan would have been appalled, but he'd never had to dress a wound under fire before.

"I won't pass out, J.D.," replied Randy weakly as the sweat began to roll off of him. "I'm too scared."

"It's okay, we're gonna get outta this, I promise." J.D. squeezed his friend's shoulder to reassure him. Randy closed his eyes and nodded weakly in reply. J.D. knew Randy had lost a lot of blood before he'd managed to get the tourniquet set-up. Randy didn't have much time.

Sarge's chest made that awful whistling noise with every breath he fought for. For all he knew, the Sarge was worse off than Randy.

J.D. wiggled in close to the broken wall. Keeping his head low, he peered over to where Lennie, Tank and JT had taken cover.

Randy had been on point when something had exploded between him and Sarge. J.D. had been a few feet back directly behind Sarge. Ingram's body had shielded J.D. from the blast.

Lennie, Tank and TJ had been a hundred feet or so further behind. Caught out in the open they were almost directly in the sniper's line of fire. Their cover, remnants of a broken fence, was meager at best. From his vantage point, J.D. could see that the sniper only had to do was move ten feet in either direction and they'd be sitting ducks. If they went for better cover, the shooter would just pick them off. They were trapped. J.D. could see Lennie moving but he had no idea if Tank and TJ were okay or not. He rolled back across behind the broken wall they were using as cover.

How the fuck were they going to get out of this?

Sizing up the situation, J.D. had a pretty good idea where the sniper was. He, Sarge and Randy were almost directly to the sniper's left. From where they were, if he timed it right, when the sniper took a shot at Lennie and the others, J.D. could use that moment to break cover and move completely out of the sniper's view. Then maybe he could find his way around behind the sniper and take him out.

"Dunne!" the strangled voice was Sarge, he was choking on the blood in his airway.

"Yeah, Sarge?"

"Stay put until help comes. You hear me, Dunne?"

"Sarge, there isn't time. If someone doesn't do something quick, the sniper's gonna figure out that all he has to do is move a few feet and then Lennie, Tank and TJ haven't got a chance."

"Dunne, you know-it-all little prick! Follow orders dammit!"

J.D. could see every word was costing Ingram dearly. Maybe he was a know-it-all little prick but he'd learned enough about tactics from Chris and Buck to realize if something wasn't done quick, Lennie and the guys were dead men.

The sniper must have figured the explosive had taken care of all three of them. There hadn't been a shot in their direction for quite a while. He still didn't want to take any chances and draw attention to their position. Randy and Ingram were in no shape to defend themselves.

He'd noticed that the nose of the sniper's gun barrel appeared on the rooftop beyond them just before every shot toward the other three. If the shooter was taking aim at that moment, then it was unlikely he'd see any movement in this direction.

J.D. drew himself up onto all fours and waited.

There was the gun barrel.

"Dunne! No!"

J.D. felt the weak tug on his pant leg as Sergeant Ingram grabbed for him just before he took off.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

"His tour has been extended." Chris stood directly in front of Buck as he delivered the words calmly, ready for the expected fallout from this news.

"What?" The disbelief on Buck's face wasn't hard to read.

"It was in e-mail from J.D. this morning. He'd just received notice. His tour has been extended for another six months."

"NO FUCKING WAY! He's done his duty. It's his turn to come home."

"Buck, most of the reservists are serving back-to-back tours. There isn't the manpower available to replace him right now." Josiah was explaining something Buck already knew.

"I don't care. Get Travis to pull some strings. I want him home."

"You know it doesn't work like that, Buck." Chris knew how he felt; hell they were all feeling gut-punched at the moment.

Buck dropped heavily into his chair. "I know it doesn't," muttered Buck, "I just want the kid home."

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

J.D. had the sniper in his sights. He didn't care that he was shooting him in the back. He didn't care that he was shooting him in cold blood. All he cared about was the fact that this bastard was trying to kill his friends.

It hadn't taken him long to make his way cautiously up the blasted remains of the stone stairway to the rooftop. In that time he'd heard four more shots from the sniper, and no return fire from the others. He prayed he wasn't too late.

'Slowly now,' J.D. could hear Vin's voice in his head walking him through this shot. Compared to Vin's rifle, the M16 felt like a cannon. He was behind the sniper and, so far, undetected, but other than the broken wall the sniper now hid behind, there was no other cover on the bombed out roof. The first shot had to count. 'Steady, controlled breathing, squeeze the trigger slowly,' whispered Vin.

Holding his rifle in both hands, the sniper moved back from the wall before turning.

J.D. hesitated. He saw the instantaneous recognition of danger in the man's eyes, the sudden fear. In an instant, the sniper had moved to his gun to his shoulder. J.D. pulled the trigger.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

The adjudicator called for time and Casey turned her exam over. She smiled to herself. She knew she had done well. This exam would bring up her grade back up again. She was done. She wouldn't be part of the Convocation ceremony next weekend. She would go to be with her friends. She would be part of the September ceremony. Maybe it was all meant to be. J.D. would be home then and it would be that much more special.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Breathing hard, his rifle still raised to his shoulder J.D. cautiously made his way over to the sniper. The man was now laying face down in the rubble. J.D. kicked him roughly in the side and waited for a reaction. When none came, he took one hand off his rifle and bent down to roll the man over.

The man was dead. The M16 had blown a sizable hole in the man's chest.

J.D. suddenly felt light-headed. Breathing hard, adrenaline still rushing through his veins, he sank to his knees.

The only warning he had was a sudden flurry of motion to his right. He was hit hard. His gun had gone flying and he was suddenly down on his back with a man on top of him. J.D. didn't have to understand the language to realize that this second man was spitting epithets of hate into his face.

J.D. saw the raised hand, then the flash of the blade. It slid off his body armour and sank into the muscle of his upper arm. J.D. screamed at the sudden searing pain. His brain made the connection, this man meant to kill him. J.D. felt the hand as it clamped onto his throat. J.D. saw the blade raised above him again. He grabbed for the man's wrist with his wounded arm. The movement was agonizing.

He realized he was going to die.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Lennie had waited. For whatever reason, they hadn't been able communicate with Sarge, Randy or J.D. since they'd been pinned down. He wasn't sure what was going on. He recognized the last shot as that of an M16. Now it was quiet.

Then they heard the scream.

"Sarge got 'em," said Tank with a hint of satisfaction in his voice.

"C'mon," ordered Lennie, breaking cover with Tank and TJ right behind him. Leaping the wall used for cover, they landed in beside the Sarge and Randy.

"Dios mio," he heard TJ whisper. The Corporal didn't have to be looking at TJ to know he'd just crossed himself. This was not what any of them had expected to see.

Lennie bent down beside Ingram. The bandage over the chest wound was soaked through, but he was still breathing. He turned to Randy, his eyes were open.

"Randy, where's J.D.?"

Randy gasped. Lennie knew Randy was in shock. Randall's lower leg was a mass of blood and shrapnel, a crude tourniquet secured just above his knee.

"He..." Randy swallowed, "he went after... the, sniper."

"Shit! TJ, look after them. Tank, you're with me," ordered Lennie as he took off with Tank following close behind.

Dodging from place to place, alternating cover for one another, they made their way quickly around behind the building and up the broken stairway.

On the debris-strewn rooftop, they discovered the body of the sniper. Blood had already gathered in dark pools as they rolled his fellow insurgent off the young reservist.

From below where he was tending to the others, TJ heard Tank's agonized wail, "AWWHH DENVER, NO!"


Finding the Way Home