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By:Jay Mclean

ide a couple times, relaxing the muscles I can see pressing out of his tanned skin. “I love you,” he says, as if it’s the last time we’ll ever see each other.

I laugh, not at him, but at the situation. Taking his hand and gripping it tight, I face the edge. “Ready?”

Not a second passes before I start running, holding his hand tight, not letting go—just like he asked me. It’s a ten-foot run up, nothing huge, but it’s enough so that he can’t see the drop beyond the edge. Three more steps and we’ll be airborne. One. Two. Th—

“NO!” he shouts, his hand gripping mine tighter.

I jump.


A resonating thud fills my ears.

Loose gravel hits my shoulders.

And I fall.


A year and a half later.

“Does the air feel thicker here?” Dave mumbles, half turning to me with a lit cigarette in his mouth. With the kid’s fiery red hair and freckles all over his face—it’s pretty clear why the other boys in the unit have dubbed him “Irish.”

I kick the back of his boot, urging him to keep walking. “Not that I can tell. Maybe your lungs are dying. Quit smoking.”

He stops suddenly. “I’ll quit smokin’ when you quit preachin’.” He jerks his head, suggesting I walk ahead of him.

Our shoulders bump as I take his place in the line so his smoke won’t get to me. Not that I mind, but that’s all Dave. He’s always looking to take care of other people—something I worked out since I roomed with him during basic. See, Dave, unlike me—never wanted to be a marine, but when your old man’s the type with the heavy hand and an even heavier drinking problem and your mom’s left to take care of your three younger brothers, you hit a turning point. Dave’s point was when he walked in on his dad using his youngest brother in place of himself or his mom. Dave chose to turn the tables that night…

So, with Drunk Dad now in lock up it was on Dave (or Davey, as his mom calls him) to take care of shit. At barely eighteen, he found himself stuck with me twenty-four seven. He soon learned I didn’t have much to say, so he says enough for both of us.

He asked once why I chose this life. I told him a half-truth. I said I was avoiding. He said he was doing the same. I was too much of a pussy to admit that his version of avoiding and mine were on completely different spectrums.

Now here we are: kicking dry dirt in fuck-knows-where, Afghanistan.

“It’s bullshit they make us do this,” he says, and I can hear the frustration in his voice. Hell, we’re all frustrated, but only he has the balls to speak it.

“It’s our job,” I tell him.

“You think we trained all that time to be knocking door to door looking for threats?”

I ignore him and keep my eyes on my surroundings, bringing my weapon closer to my chest.



“Are you happy?”

With a sigh, I mumble, “Quit with this bullshit already.”


My shoulders drop. “I’m happy enough, okay?”

“That’s a fucking lie if ever I heard one,” Leroy chimes in from in front of me.

“Who’s talking to you?” Dave responds.

Leroy shakes his head, never once looking back. “Anyone who says they’re happy in this shithole is a fucking liar.”

Dave steps up next to me. “Who the fuck are you to tell him he can’t be happy? Maybe D’s the kind to get off on being miserable.”

“Shut the fuck up, assholes,” First Sergeant Fulton whisper-yells from the front of the line. He places his weapon in position, eyeing the rest of us before knocking on what feels like the hundredth door of the same old dilapidated house we’ve seen every day for the last few weeks.

“Yo,” Dave whispers, coming up so close behind me I can feel the metal of his gun against my back. “How many more of these you think we got?”

“How the fuck am I supposed to know?”

We enter the house and go through every room, every crawl space. We open every door, flip over every piece of furniture. It’s a routine check, or at least it was. It’s not until I hear screaming coming from a far room that my pulse begins to pound and the adrenaline spikes.

“Put your weapon down!” someone yells.

Dave and I eye each other in the small, dark kitchen—the only source of light coming from a crack in the pieces of wood nailed over the window. Dust particles fill the air and now it’s silent again, all but for the beating of my heart.

“What the fuck we do, D?” Dave whispers. Gone is the frustration in his words, now replaced with something no one should hear, let alone show. Especially here. Amidst a fucking war.

I walk past him, nudging his elbow with mine as I do. I assure him that he’ll be okay even though I have no idea. But he’s young, and the fear in his eyes is something I’m sure he’s had to hold back in his past life.

We walk side by side through the narrow hallway, our weapons drawn, until we get to the other side of the house. The yelling starts again, only this time it’s louder and more than just one voice. “Put it down!” I hear over and over.

Then another voice.

A different one.

One of a kid.

He’s yelling back, his volume matching that of my unit’s. He’s screaming; muffled words in a different language and my feet, though they feel heavy, find a way to keep moving forward.

“Don’t fucking do it!” Leroy yells.

I round the corner first, Dave behind me, to a room I’m sure was once a bedroom. Five of my brothers cramp in the space, all facing the corner just to my left, their weapons aimed, fingers on their triggers.

My gaze quickly moves to their target—to a boy no more than twelve holding a semi-automatic, his eyes frantic as his weapon moves from my brothers to me.

I was wrong. The air is thicker here.

“Put your weapon down!” Leroy screams, splatters of spit leaving his mouth and joining the dust flying through the dead air.

“Jesus Christ,” Dave says, stepping to my right. “He’s just a fucking kid.” He loosens his hold on his gun, one hand in front of him—a peace offering to a kid he’s never met who’s aiming a gun at us. Only here