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Page 6

We round a corner, and my gut clenches. I slow, scan the rooftops. Derek is doing the same.

  "Feel it?" I ask.

  "Fuck yeah. Shits about to hit the fan. "

  The others are piled up behind us. I see nothing, so I continue, even though my instincts are telling me to stop, go back, stay, get the f**k down. I creep forward a few more feet, and then my gut is screaming too loud to ignore. I shove Derek to the side and drop to the ground for no reason whatsoever. As I taste dirt, an AK barks from a rooftop. Bullets snap through the air where we had been.

  Fucking knew it.

  Someone behind us shoots back—Barrett, Im pretty sure. Only Barrett fires like that, three-three, pause, three.

  Then all hell breaks loose. AK fire erupts from all directions, and suddenly were split, half our unit cut off from the other half. Derek has a bead on an insurgent on the roof opposite us, so I wait until a muzzle-burst gives away a location and pour fire at it. I see a head and shoulder pop up, black metal and tan wood and black-spot eyes. I squeeze the trigger, and a burst of pink mist tells me I dropped him.

  Theres a pause, and Derek and I lurch into a run, breaking for a better position. I hear boots pound behind us. Were nearly there when I hear a hackhackhack and then fire and pain gouts through me, centered on my left shoulder and thigh. Im spun around, fall. Im dragged by the hand through the dust, bleeding. The strain on my wounded shoulder as Im pulled is agonizing. I see Derek beside me, firing at a doorway. I see a shape, a muzzle-burst, bullets peppering the dirt and the wall near us.

  Derek hits his target. I watch, the world sideways, as the muzzle-burst goes silent mid-bark. Derek shifts, prepares to drag me farther into cover. Then a figure, thin and young, stumbles from the doorway, bleeding. He throws a grenade, and I try to move, but Derek is already on top of me, rolling away with me, and the seconds until detonation tick in my head like thundering drums, each one a heartbeat.

  Heat and fire and pressure erupt, the sound so deafening it becomes silence, and were thrown. I feel wetness spread, feel pins of pain stab me. The silence continues and I wonder if Ive gone deaf, but then ringing fills my ears, and I know my hearing will return eventually.

  Derek is too still. Too wet. I find my feet, bullet-pierced leg screaming, refusing to support me, but I dont care. Can’t afford to care. Adrenaline powers me. I grip Dereks red-slick hand and pull him, needing him to be okay. Rifle fire is a distant roar, and I see puffs of dirt marking Deaths walk toward me.

  My side hurts, low, near the hip. Shrapnel, I think. I push my hand against it, trying vainly to dull the pain with pressure. I get Derek a few feet away, closer to the doorway that would provide some cover, but then Im struck again in the shoulder. I fall to my knees, find my rifle, fire blindly. Find a target, fire. Dropped him. Another—crackcrack—dropped him.

  Fuck, I hurt.

  A slug of agony hits my thigh, right near the original wound. I cant stay upright any longer. I hear more rifles firing, M-16s, an AK, and then a detonation. Someone shouts my name, Dereks name. Barrett. I want to answer but have no breath in my lungs. Its been stolen by pain, by shrapnel and bullet holes.

  I succumb to the pain, let it wash over me. I drift and float, and then I feel something push me. Pain breaks over me like a wave when I crash to my back, and I force my eyes open.

  Goddamn, shes beautiful.

  Its a stupid, random thought, out of place on this battlefield, but I cant shake it. Shes kneeling above me, her head-scarf thing, a hidab, or. . . my pain-fogged brain wont spit out the right word. Hijab. That’s the word. Its coming loose around her face, tendrils of bottle-blonde hair escaping to drift across her delicate-featured face. I want to touch her finely sculpted cheeks, but my hand wont work.

  "What are you doing here?" I ask.

  She looks at me in confusion. She doesnt understand.

  I my head and see Derek. Hes a f**king mess. Panicked horror is a thick, hot knot in my throat. NO! Not Derek….

  Weve been buddies forever. Second grade. He called me a sissy and I beat his ass and weve been buddies ever since. Joined up together, got lucky, and managed to get through Basic in the same unit, assigned to the same grunt squad. Impossible luck, to stay together like this for so long, through war, through death.

  Now hes dead.

  "Derek?" I claw toward him. Poke him; he hates being poked. "Derek?"

  I look at the girl, bright brown eyes like sun-bathed earth fixed on me. She touches two fingers to Dereks neck, looks back at me, shakes her head. Her meaning is clear.

  "DEREK!" I cant help the scream.

  I know Im crying, feel the salt burning down my cheek, but I cant stop it. I dont care if Im crying in front of this gorgeous Iraqi girl like some kind of goddamn sissy. Derek is dead.



  Darkness swallows me.

  * * *

  I wake up in the darkness. Shadows have eaten me. Silence sits on my chest like a wet, heavy blanket. I look around me, see shapes in the shadows. A chair, a table. A mirror reflecting shards of starlight. A square of lighter black with a swatch of pinprick stars: a window. Hard earth beneath me.

  I want to get up. Need to get up. Cant stay here. Gotta get back to the guys. I manage an inch upward before pure agony bolts through me and I cry out, a soft grunt, high-pitched and girly. Goddamn sissy whimpers. I grit my teeth to silence myself.

  Scratching, motion, rustling cloth. Then a face appears above me, blocking my view of the stars. Blonde hair hangs loose in long waves around her bare shoulders. Im struck again by how stunningly beautiful she is, even in the dark of midnight black.

  She says something in Arabic and touches the center of my chest to push me down, a feather-light touch between bullet holes in each shoulder. I stare at her, unable to look away. I wish it was light so I could see her better.

  She tugs a thin blanket farther up my body, and I realize Im clad only in my skivvies. Clumsy bandages are held on by tape, not medical tape. Regular tape. I laugh, which hurts. The girl tilts her head in confusion.

  I point at the bandage, the tape. "Did you do this?"

  Page 16


  I know she cant answer me, or understand me, but I ask anyway. I dont know why. I just want to talk to her.

  She says something back, her voice sharp. I think she caught on to my criticism.

  I hold up my hands to stop the accusing sound of her voice. "Thank you. " I know Ive been told how to say it Arabic, but I have to think about it. "Chokran. "

  She nods once and turns away, lies down, facing away. Her shoulders look tense, and I can tell she doesnt trust herself to really sleep with me here, even wounded.

  "You can sleep, you know," I say. "I couldnt hurt a fly right now. "

  She rolls over and looks at me, dusky skin starlit silver. She whispers something, shaking her head, shrugging.

  "I know you dont understand me. It doesnt matter. " I smile at her, but she stares at me, impassive. "Sleep. "

  I mime sleeping, hands folded under my face, an exaggerated snore, then point at her. I point at myself with a thumb. I try to move and a groan escapes. I look at her and shrug, then mime sleeping again. She frowns in thought, then gives me a tiny smile. She gets it. She closes her eyes slowly, her eyelids flutter, then close again. Her breathing slows, and then shes asleep. I watch her sleep.

  Why did she bring me here? Why did she help me? I would have bled out, died. Im a burden. I wont be able to do shit for myself for weeks. Ill need to eat. Ill need help shitting. How can she help me? This house is tiny. She cant have much. Ill need antibiotics, probably. Id wish for morphine, but I know I wont get it. Probably wont even get aspirin.

  Now that shes asleep, I let the pain wash over me and let it show. It hurts so goddamn bad its hard to breathe.

  I fall asleep again.

  When I wake, bright sunlight streams through the square, uncovered