Brotherhood protectors s.., p.1
Brotherhood Protectors: Soldier's Heart Part One (Kindle Worlds Novella), page 1
Text copyright ©2017 by the Author.
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Ilsa J. Bick
Cover Art by Croco Designs
Table of Contents
EMBRACE THE SUCK
THE BLACK WOLF WILDERNESS, 2017
For Jordan Dane, who popped into my inbox at just the right moment.
You don’t know me very well yet, but here’s what’s important.
I’m a shrink. (Started out in surgery but switched to psychiatry for a whole slew of reasons I won’t bore you with now.) More to the point, I was a psychiatrist in the Air Force during the First Persian Gulf War.
Now, people will say there weren’t a ton of casualties. That’s crap. More soldiers suffered more wounds to the heart than you can know, and if there is one thing I learned, it is this: every soldier is haunted.
This isn’t always a bad thing because it’s not all trauma. Sit with any group of vets or active-duty and, boy, do those stories start flying. Military folks get each other in ways that many people don’t understand. Sure, there’s sadness and anger but also pride and a deep camaraderie that doesn’t fade, and those memories stick. My husband always said I would look back on my time in service with great fondness and nostalgia—and he was right.
So I know a thing or two about a soldier’s heart.
Here’s the other important thing you should know. I’ve had a really rough couple of years. Again, no need for the gory details, but let’s just say that I moved to a place where I don’t feel at home yet and been kind of spinning my wheels. I must’ve started, what, six books? No…wait…seven, yeah.
In moments of clarity, I knew what was wrong. I had a bad case of soldier’s heart. (That’s what they used to call PTSD way back in the Civil War. They also called it nostalgia, because soldiers had intrusive memories of what they’d left behind and just couldn’t stop looking over their shoulders.) Well, I’ve been doing that, looking over my shoulder at what I’ve left behind—until the day first Jordan Dane and then Elle James popped into my inbox with an offer which forced me to look ahead and I’d be batshit crazy to refuse.
So, guys, this is a big step for me and here’s how you can help.
One of the biggest hurdles for any author, traditionally published or otherwise, is gaining eyeballs. A writer needs visibility. A rating or review on Amazon is invaluable, and very much appreciated. Honest reviews and ratings boost a book’s placement in searches which, in turn, increases the number of those all-important eyeballs.
So, please help out. Rate or review this book, and be honest. Really. This is why God invented cocktails.
And thank you, truly, for giving me some of your time. We all have only just so many hours in the day. I hope you find my work worth a couple of yours.
War is a great eater.
-Stephen Elliott, 1863
She was on a ventilator and in pieces when they pinned a Purple Heart to her pillow in Germany but on two feet that were not her own and still pissed off as all hell a year later at Walter Reed where they awarded her the Silver Star, which was not silver at all but gold. Except, hey, this was the Army and whatever could go completely FUBAR would.
Her Army shrink—a prissy little guy named Dowell with a bad comb-over and tight-assed Hitler-style moustache he habitually tapped with the eraser end of a pencil—blahdiddy-blahdiddy-blah-blah-blahed about “fantasies of revenge” and threw around a lot of shrink-speak: words such as closure and acceptance and forgiveness.
And Kate was, like, oh, riiight, tell me another. Dowell ought to snap on his legs every morning and then see how good he managed closure. Go on, buddy, dare you. Lucky thing he never pulled out the old saw about one foot in front of the other. If he had, she’d have rammed his damn pencil up his nose and given his brain a good stir.
Sure, she wanted revenge. Big surprise. Kate might have passed through the moral equivalent of a paper shredder and ended up in a coma for a couple of weeks, but her brains weren’t oatmeal last time she checked, thanks.
Before Vance, a lieutenant colonel from DARPA, made an offer she would be batshit crazy to refuse, an old Vietnam vet named Leo put it best. Having been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, Leo volunteered time in rehab. Ostensibly, he was there to help but mostly to channel the Marine platoon sergeant he’d once been: a guy who did three tours, got the rot, ended up minus several buddies (not to mention a leg), and yet still turned misty and wistful talking about war.
One afternoon in rehab, when she’d fallen for about the millionth time, Leo stumped up, looked down at her alternately cursing and crying and flopping around with her one crutch, and said, “Soldier, everyone falls. Now pick your ass up and embrace the suck.”
Of course, Leo was right. In her more charitable moments, she understood that Dowell was on point, too, the little pissant.
Kate McEvoy would never foot in Afghanistan again, pun intended, in part because she didn’t have the feet she’d been born with anymore, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A girl’s got to dream, though. Kate did, and not always nicely because rage is sweet and anger lends an illusion of power. (Dowell would be so pleased. All those sessions, she’d actually paid attention.)
So, well before DARPA and Vance, some nights she let her mind wander to a back closet of her brain. There, she stored a few, very particular memories, shut up tight in a black Pandora ’s box and shoved onto a high shelf. Lying in her hospital bed, staring up at a ceiling churning with shadows, she cracked the lid, let out all those demons, let them really dig in their claws. Then she would turn the whole damn thing over again in her head, looking at that day from every angle, trying to spot the moment when she and Jack and everyone else on that last mission had passed the point of no return.
If only I hadn’t wondered about Fatimah and Malik. If only I’d listened to Bibi. If only I hadn’t suggested we head for the ridge, then the medevac... If only I’d squared the dog away a little sooner, and if only Jack hadn’t...if he hadn’t tried...if he hadn’t...
Round and round and round. She’d failed everyone, completely: Fatimah, Malik, Tompkins, Bibi. Jack. Even the dog.
She was obsessed but not stupid or insane. She couldn’t turn back the clock. All this endless revisiting the past got her nowhere. Best thing would be to leave that box be, shut the closet up tight.
But she couldn’t leave it alone. Afghanistan was the gap where a tooth had dropped out and her tongue refused to stop probing. If life was a record, then Afghanistan was the one track dinged-up so badly the needle just kept skipping back. Her memories were so vivid she choked on phan
Those were the nights she took out that Purple Heart. When she fumbled the medal’s little lock doohickey open and trailed a forefinger on her left hand—which still had true feeling and real skin and nerves—over that nice, long, very sharp bar pin.
Then she would dig at herself. Sometimes her arm, sometimes her belly, a flank. Never her legs...well, thighs. (Hard to dig at what wasn’t there.) Jabbing herself wasn’t her trying to die—though before DARPA and Colonel Vance, she had her days—or even release some of the pain.
No. She wanted to watch the slow swell of blood turn from a living scream of shrieking red to a cold, dead, mute jellied clot the color of a spoiled grape.
Then Kate would think, you know, whichever brainiac designed the Purple Heart got it all wrong. Purple? Ha. As if all wounds mend. You want to really embrace the suck? Then that thing should be red.
Because the heart never truly heals—and some memories always bleed.
EMBRACE THE SUCK
“Let’s be crystal clear on this, people.” Captain Jack Campbell had to raise his voice to be heard over the churn of the air conditioner going full blast. The temperature in August in Afghanistan rose to hotter than a blast furnace by midday. “I don’t need heroes for this.”
No, but I would elbow my grandmother for that AC. To Kate, sitting in the back of the mess, the AC offered nothing more than a whisper. What she wouldn’t give to get up close and personal, wrap her arms around the unit, and settle in for a nice, long worship. Instead, she slouched, the sweat trickling between her breasts and shoulder blades to pool at her waist. When she got back to Wisconsin, she would find herself a snowbank and wallow. Or maybe build an igloo and hunker down for a couple months. Screw the parka.
“If you’re itching for a last couple pops at combat, this is not the mission for you.” A big man with broad shoulders and a sleek torso, Jack possessed a hint of danger, the air of a brawler. Kate particularly enjoyed his abs, which glistened with sweat after a hard run. She also liked when he hit the weights in KOP Kessel’s outdoor gym, too. A lot. “I frankly don’t want you because I don’t anticipate nor will we invite trouble. Knock on wood”—Jack rapped his knuckles against a conference table—“it’s been a pretty good 2014, all things considered, probably because the Taliban know we’re leaving soon.”
“Yeah, right.” A soft grunt from Tompkins, who sat on Kate’s right. “Sooo mission accomplished.”
At Tompkins’s comment, Stone, Second Platoon’s staff sergeant and a ten-year Army man, turned them both a scowl. Great. “Hush.” Having mastered the art of whispering without moving her lips, Kate tapped a boot against the dog handler’s left Birkie for good measure. “Not now.”
“Watch the sandals.” Tompkins brushed a scuff of grit from brown suede. “Just got ’em from my folks.”
She rolled her eyes. A pity she couldn’t stomp harder, but then she’d have to explain why she broke his toes. Worse, she’d have to set them. Although he was an outdoorsy farm kid from her neck of the woods, Tompkins sometimes set her teeth. He was so negative and yet so granola, he could’ve been John Denver’s stunt double only without the sunshine. More like a little black rain cloud. It was just what Afghanistan did to a person.
Which probably explained why Jack let things get pretty relaxed at KOP Kessel. Seven, eight months into a deployment, when you’d sucked in so much dust your spit turned brown and grit popped whenever you bit down, no one gave a crap about blousing trousers or squaring patches just so. This late in the game—with the United States and Brits closing Leatherneck and Bastion to the south and pulling out of Helmand Province for good at the end of October—the top brass had made themselves scarce.
At Kessel, guys wandered around in flip-flops and tees they hacked off up to their pits come summer when the temperature soared. Cooler under their body armor, that way, and so long as the sleeves showed, no one was the wiser. Jack once told her by the end of a deployment at a combat outpost in the Korengal, a nasty slit of a valley northeast of them in Kunar and about as far from anything remotely approaching civilization as you could get, some men pounded out rounds with a lit smoke screwed in a corner of their mouth, another parked behind an ear, and buck naked, not a stitch on but combat boots.
“But don’t kid yourselves. Quiet is not a synonym for gone.” Jack’s mouth moved in a wry grimace that tugged a thin white crescent of a scar running from the corner of his right eye to his jaw. “Here’s the reality, people. The Marines couldn’t keep the Taliban out of Nawzad to our north, and we’ve only just held them from working their way past us out of the mountains to head south. Thing is, the Taliban are cockroaches. You can beat them back, but the second you vacate the apartment, they’re going to swarm right back in. It’s what happens.”
Ouch. But no, we’re not cynical. He really shouldn’t talk about this stuff in public. First off, implying that, essentially, an entire deployment had been a waste of time wasn’t great for morale. Second, Jack was a lifer, in the military for the long haul. Break with the company line often enough, and he could kiss his career goodbye.
Come on, Jack. She felt her back go a little straighter, as if she could lend him just a touch more resolve. We’re all tired, but keep it together.
“Now, we are this close”—Jack pinched air between a thumb and forefinger—“to getting out. Battle Company’s taken our share of hits. We’ve said goodbye to a lot of good men.” Jack’s eyes, a deep, startling blue, flicked toward Kate. “Women, too.”
True. No matter what the media and top brass said back home, this was not conventional warfare, with armies facing off in well-defined zones and women staying well away from combat. There was this old joke: Want to know where the front line is in Afghanistan? Easy. Just draw a line in the sand with your boot.
This translated to her and the other women here—all four of them, two combat medics and two privates in supply and support—having seen just about as much action as the men. While all soldiers could administer rudimentary emergency first aid, squads venturing into hazardous territory were required to have a combat medic in tow. Which meant she had come under plenty of fire.
“But we patrol up to the very last day. We do our jobs. Cham Bacha’s a purely humanitarian mission. Drone flyovers show nothing suspicious, and Prophet hasn’t picked any Taliban chatter. Still, we are talking Afghanistan here. That means we don’t get sloppy. We run our usual clinics, dole out food and fuel. We leave everyone in Cham Bacha with a good taste in their mouth. That said”—Jack held up a finger—“there is one fly in the proverbial ointment.”
Crap, I knew it. Her stomach clenched, and she worked at not letting her poker face slip. Why is nothing in Afghanistan ever easy?
“We have also been tasked with escorting a contingent of Afghan National Police... All right, all right.” At the murmurs and shuffles, Jack held up his hands. “I hear you. But Major Gholam and his men will be here long after we’re gone.”
“Uh-huh,” Tompkins muttered. “ Wanna bet?”
“Sitting down for a shura with the village elders is both customary and prudent. Yes?” Jack used his chin to point as a hand went up. “You have a comment, Corporal Lowry?”
Lowry nodded. “All due respect, Captain, the Afghan police can’t shoot for shit, and most have relatives in all these villages. Push comes to shove, they’re not going to fight their families or cross their tribes. Why are we doing something just for show?”
Before Jack could answer, another soldier, Douglas, chimed in. “Hell, why go anywhere?”
“Cuz we got our orders.” Sergeant Stone glowered. “Not a debate, people.”
“No, no.” Jack stayed the sergeant with a hand. “Let them have a minute.”
“Truth is, s
“No, that’s not true.” The words popped out before Kate could call them back. Well, hell, you’ve put your boot in it now. Might as well go for it. “Yes, some people don’t like us, but some isn’t all. My clinics are always full, and the villagers have been incredibly receptive to what we’ve taught them.”
Lowry executed an impressive eye roll. “Well, they’re not stupid, Kate. You can still take stuff from people you wouldn’t mind killing.”
“Yeah,” Douglas seconded. “Tolerating us is not the same as seeing things our way.”
“How about seeing things their way?” Kate fired back. “If you had nothing, and people kept coming through your house and using your kitchen and all your stuff, watching your TV and trashing the place...wouldn’t you take whatever you could get and call it even? Look, before we got here, none of these villages practiced even the most basic hygiene. They never washed their hands after tending to their animals and used soap only for laundry or to take a bath once or twice a month, and the family would share the same water.” Which meant the youngest girl—because girls always bathed last—was totally out of luck. “Since we’ve been here and working with them, the rate of illness in a lot of these villages is way down. In Cham Bacha, there are a couple of girls who are now talking about going to school. How many of us have given the kids pens, books?” She’d learned months ago not to offer candy or toys. Candy was easy, didn’t take much thought, but a packet of M&Ms wasn’t valuable or a game-changer. Neither was a toy.
Books were, though. These children needed a dream, a goal, and the promise of someday being able to read and write...these things the children cherished even more. She’d heard that in some places closer to Kabul, girls and boys walked miles every morning to school. While Cham Bacha and the surrounding villages might not be so forward-thinking now, perhaps someday that would change.
by Ilsa J. Bick / Young Adult / Horror / Thriller have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes