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He Makes My Arm Strong

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1.

Carlos was not a quiet child.

The oldest of five, he was a loud, bossy and headstrong child growing up in a nowhere town in Oklahoma. His wide eyes and shy smiles won the hearts of the neighborhood ladies, and at church they would coo at his antics as he played with the other boys. He learned how to tilt his chin and duck his head to get extra sopapillas at the dinner table, learned to run fast to chase his cousins at the park, climbed trees when he could find them and jumped off the roof of the house when he was six (Mama! Mama! Mirame! Mirame! Que puedo volar!).

The wide yellow plains and red dirt of the Oklahoma summer pulled the water from his skin, and in the pale blue sky he learned to creep along the edges of the fallow fields just west of town, playing war with his sisters and cousins. His family was a large, sprawling thing, aunts and uncles throughout the city. They weren’t rich, but lived well in a ranch style house tucked between the Catholic Church and his grandmother’s, and their home was warm even in the winter.

Carlos had a laugh like a meadowlark, high and arching across the horizon line ahead of him as he sprinted down dirt roads and game trails, chasing the wind across the prairie.

Mama! Mama! Que puedo volar!

 

2.

Age eleven and everything changed when his father died hunting for deer in the deep winter. The policeman came to tell them that a misfire left Carlos’ father bleeding out in Johnson’s field some six miles east of town. It was a harsh winter, more ice than snow, and his father hunted to feed a growing family. The policeman was kind and full of pity, and he left as quietly as he came, the silence of the house his only remainder.

Two months later Maria was born, a sickly thing with a weak cry that barely cut above the sobs of his mother in the bedroom once shared by his parents. Maria had thin arms and soft hands, and her full brown eyes stared sad out of a face ruddy with constant crying.

Carlos remembered most the sound the prayers the mothers all made, circled around his sister as she rested in her crib. They lit candles that spread a soft light in the corners of the room; there was the smell of roses and sweet-things, all cut over by the cries of a child born with a hole in her heart. His mother said that little Maria was born knowing that her father was gone. That Maria was a child born knowing what death was.

Hospital bills and unpaid PTO meant that Carlos was moved from the Catholic school next door to the public school nearly a mile away. Every morning he would walk with his other sisters (Beth and Maggie, twins age 7, and Rose 8) to the bus stop and put them on their way to the elementary school before walking to the middle school.

He hated it.

Farm kids in Carharts and muddy cowboy boots, wannabe city kids in too-big jeans and sagging tee-shirts, gold chains and buzzed heads. White girls staring at him from around corners with straw colored hair and mean smiles. Mexican girls with deep eyes and syrupy smiles, mouths glossed with color and shirts too bright and tight against their bodies. They made fun of his accent, his rude grasp of English, his too-clean clothes and his hair, his childlike devout Catholicism.

He grew quiet, like a church. And like a church he was full of prayers, prayers to Mother Maria, Saint Michael, Santa Barbara and Jesus himself. He prayed for his mother, his sisters, for baby Maria in her crib at home. He asked god for patience, for forgiveness, for understanding.

          San Miguel Arcángel, Defiéndenos en la batalla;
          Sé nuestra protección contra la maldad y los engaños del diablo.
          Que Dios lo reprenda, es nuestra humilde oración.
          Y puedas, O príncipe de los Seres Celestiales, por el poder de Dios, echar a Satanás al infierno, así como a todos los demás espíritus
          que vagan por el mundo
          buscando la ruina de las almas.

                Amen.

 

There were no miracles to be found.

 

2.3

Quiet as he was, Carlos learned quickly that not speaking meant that people told you more than they would have otherwise. He found himself caught in a network of rumors, the shy girls in home ec exchanging whispered stories for cups of sugar and a helping hand with the mixing.

Mike was dating Cassie but got caught with Rachel behind the wood shop last Tuesday. Lindsey ran around with a high school boy. Tyson was queer and dating Justin, though God only help them when their older brothers found out about it.

The endless tales of middle school romance only endeared Carlos further to the church of his parents, a safe haven from the unpredictable ebb and flow of the relationships around him. He had no interest in being grist for the rumor mill, and so he kept his hands and his lips to himself.

Though if he happened to smile a bit more at Katy when it came time to pass out the cookies at the end of class, eyes shy and seeking, well… a boy couldn’t be blamed for a love of sweet things.

 

2.5

Little Bethie and Maggie took to school like fish to the stream, lost their accents and their soft edges, becoming something foreign to Carlos as they glided through the halls, backpacks tight across their shoulders and barrettes in their curly hair. Mama would chide them for their loose hair and shiny shirts, but smile and slip them sugared candy when they came home from school.

Carlos still walked them to the bus stop every day, though he felt like a specter as he walked behind them—they’d long since abandoned any attempts to lure him into conversation. His joints ached with new growth in the fall, and he resented their easy grace and their strange ways. He remembered a time when he would tweak their braids on the way to school and tease them about boys on the playground.

These new creatures, eleven years old and growing quickly, spoke too fast for him to follow, and took up new ways.

Carlos prayed alone most days.

He thought it was easier that way.

He told himself he’d never been much for talking anyway.

 

3.

Fifteen years old and Carlos threw his first punch. Long coltish legs trained by the high school track team carried him across a parking lot and put him between DJ Danvers and the sloe eyed girl from calculus. He didn’t know her name, or why she was driving around with DJ, cruising Main Street on a Saturday night, but he knew the sound of the word ‘no’ and saw DJ with his arm up ready to strike.

Carlos was moving before he made a conscious decision to do so.

DJ’s fist missed the girl, but found the side of Carlos’s face and put him on the ground, hands down and knees aching against the pavement. There was a moment of disorientation, a vague recognition that it was his blood dripping down to join the dirt on the ground (the warm spill against his hands, black in the street light and slightly reflective), before a feeling of weightlessness overtook his body, pulled him up off his knees and brought his fists around to set the smile on DJ’s face crooked.

He could feel his own lips curl with a grin as he struck out, awkward and loose, but light and with a quickness he didn’t know he was capable. He felt his mind clear, the world in a sharp focus as his shoulders dropped and he ducked low, spun to the left and hit home with a roundhouse to the side of DJ’s face.

He stood there, bouncing on his toes, blood in his teeth and a smile to split the sky. He wanted more, to feel that sharpness again, to put his body up against that of an opponent and emerge victorious.

It felt like music, like the song of angels, like the ringing of bright clear bells.

The girl tried to thank him with a kiss, her hands tight against his shoulders (cold, damp palms and sharp nails), her breasts tight against his chest and the waxy taste of lip gloss slick against his lips, but all he could think of was the first swing of his fist. The weightlessness. The lightness of his limbs.

It felt like flying, and the girl was nothing more than a shadow pressed against him, and he could still taste the blood on his tongue.

 

3.3

Carlos had learned to shoot at his father’s side. Hunting was not for sport but food, and a clean kill meant meat in the deep freeze to supplement the family’s meals throughout the year.

By the age of 16, Carlos was feeding not only his sisters and mother, but the aunts and uncles who came to help care for the children. He was praised for his patience, his instinct, and his steady hand on the rifle.

Carlos liked to think, in the moments when the cold would creep up along his bones and try and trick him into shivering, that it was his father’s touch that steadied the scope and brought the deep breaths and steady hands that fed a family.

Mostly, Carlos tried not to think at all. It was wind, and sky, and the soft steps of a deer creeping from the windbreak. Deep breath, focus.

Release.

 

3.5

Being quiet had its advantages. He was never called on in class, never lied to a teacher or said something he didn’t mean.

He also never got caught.

When Bryce from the football team called Katy a slut for going with a boy out of town and he and his buddies egged her house— no one thought to question Carlos when retribution came due.

He stood on the lawn of the high school with the rest of the school as the principal screamed at the administrators to control the situation. All the cheerleaders tittered to themselves as the police slowly pulled up and Bryce sat stunned in his pickup in the parking lot.

There, in bold color, were pictures of Bryce in a series of compromising positions and even more alarming underwear (yellow lace really wasn’t his color) with a woman twice his age. The lurid collage spanned nearly fifteen feet across and hung neatly over the lettering of the school name, some two stories above the ground. The pictures were damning, the execution flawless, and even as Bryce turned his truck around and peeled out of the school parking lot, the damage was done.

Bryce’s parents would later scream at the school to find the culprits, but no one was ever found with the means, the resources and the motives to make it happen.

But then again, who would have suspected the quiet boy from home ec?

 

3.75

When school got boring, Carlos took to picking fights with the farm boys at the weekend parties out at the sand pits. Drunk and stupid, they would flail around with heavy fists and slur expletives. Sometimes, Carlos would wait for one of them to land a hit before he fought back, sometimes he just needed that extra edge to bring the brightness back and land him in his body again.

Sometimes, he would just take them apart with his bare hands.

Once, a college boy from Norman showed up as a best friend to a big brother of one of the local kids. He was tough, big, and most of all, mean.

When Carlos came home with a black eye, a busted lip and three bruised ribs, he hung his head in shame as his mother wept over his bleeding hands and torn shirt. She slapped him sharp across the cheek and then kissed him, her tears cool against his skin. Over and over she asked what he had done with her boy, her little boy, and she prayed to the angels to deliver him.

Carlos felt guilty, but that night as he went to sleep, he couldn’t help the smile that crossed his face, split his lip anew and left fresh blood on the white of his pillow.

 

4.5

When Katy broke his heart, Carlos knew he should have expected it.

She was beautiful, smelled like cinnamon and sweet things and braided her long red hair down her back and tied it with a blue silk ribbon. She had a slow smile that he could charm out of her with a stolen kiss before school or by showing up at her locker with a handful of wildflowers. He saved all winter and come spring, sold the deer skins he’d kept back to buy her a silver locket and a corsage for prom.

They’d hold hands and walk down south of town to where the creek cut under the county road, and there they’d sit on an old stump below the cottonwoods and he’d kiss her sweet and slow, whisper in her ear how beautiful she was, and hold her waist between his hands like it was something precious but strong, something to be counted on and cherished.

When her ex from out of town came rolling in with the summer, she cried and begged him not to hate her as she pressed the locket back in his hands and walked off his front porch and out to the pickup idling in the street.

The ex was older, with long hair and an easy smile that reached his eyes as he held the door open for Katy. He looked up, looked at Carlos, and his smile dropped.

He gave him a look of understanding, and then a nod. He wasn’t a cruel man, or angry. He was just another man who understood how easy it was to love a long-haired girl with a smile like summer rain.

Carlos stood on the front porch for a long time after they drove away, and then he headed in for dinner.

He gave Maria the locket. He thought she might like how it shined in the overhead lights and seemed to catch her reflection as it spun on the chain.

 

4.9

Carlos started going to the sand pits on a regular basis before the town kids caught on and wouldn’t let him hang around anymore. After that, he started going to the only bar in the county, waiting outside for closing time and the surefire bet of some redneck popping off about Mexican kids and those “damn immigrants.”

The risk of arrest was greater, but so were the gains.

It wasn’t like he needed to keep his hands clean anyway.

 

5.

Maria died when he was 18, bruises on his knuckles and on his ribs, his lips split with anger and not with speech. Born with a hole in her heart, a hole that the family could not afford to fix, she died in a sterile room at Via Christi, his mothers’ frail hands clutching her close, the low prayers of the priest washing over them like music, and the shuffle of the nurses walking back and forth in the hall like the rustling of wings.

It was not long after that his mother followed Maria, joining her husband and her youngest in the arms of God.

Carlos was eighteen and as he looked around his life, he found the world he once knew swept away with the changing times. His aunts had come to take the younger siblings away, girls he once knew but had somehow lost in the long silences of his sister’s illness, his mother’s quick decay and his own angry quiet. There were tears, and apologies, but no one had room for a nearly grown boy, a dark-eyed violent man-child with sharp bones and deep angles in his skin.

It was on the long walk home from his aunts that the recruitment officer caught up with him on a street corner. With nowhere to go but his mother’s empty house, Carlos stopped to hear the words the man was saying. The man spoke of honor, of brotherhood, family and nation.

The only word that mattered to Carlos was ‘out.’

 

6.

Basic training was a nightmare.

It wasn’t the drill sergeants with their slurs and screaming faces. It wasn’t the spittle on his cheek, the CAPE when he didn’t respond to orders. It wasn’t the early mornings, the pervasive pain that seemed etched in his bones.

It was the men and their young faces, their bulldoggish aggression and self-importance. They spoke of family like it was something easy, talked up their girls back home and peppered their speech with slurs and obscenity like words were cheap and something to be thrown away. Carlos would watch them swagger around between the bunks in the evening, tossing around insults and threats, joking about the joys of war and the honor of being a soldier and he couldn’t help but think of small dogs yapping, proud, loud but, ultimately, pets.

He longed for the simplicity of the sandpits, the stillness of the church. On the days the violence inside of him fought to escape, he would send himself back to the quiet of an open field, imagine the frost on the grass in the early morning and breathe deep. On his better days, he could almost taste the cold.

On his worst, he could feel the weight of the trigger.

Sometimes he could hear them talking about him during personal time at night. He kept to himself, pulled his weight and stayed out of trouble, but like in school before, his silence seemed to read as deafness to the boys around him.

One night, they got to throwing around call signs, naming each other with names that were a conflation of cocksure arrogance and teenage glee at being able to play with guns. Names like Ace, Daddy, Maverick, Rogue and Alpha were bandied about.

And then they got to talking about Carlos.

They tossed the names around, from the stupid to the obscene—Pedro, Chief, Machete, Sancho. They bickered back and forth like old women, debating justifications and causes, never asking for input or apologizing, treating him like an object to be hung on a wall and examined. Something to be seen and then forgotten.

Carlos just shrugged and buffed the polish on his boots. Roll-call would be early in the morning, and his drill sergeant seemed to have a grudge against the quiet ones.

The next day at Victory Tower, Carlos quietly and efficiently settled the problem of the call-sign on his own. Two new course records and a high jump that made even the toughest of instructors pause, and the slack-jawed boys began to breathe his name in whispers to each other during the night.

He liked that his new name was earned. Liked the way it sat in his mouth and made the others look at him sideways when he was introduced.

Cougar.

 

6.25

Private Leonard Ruskin, better known as Bird, was a red-faced shit kicker from Kansas way up north in a town tucked between Colorado and Nebraska. He’d spend his free time writing letters home, talking about his folks’ place and the smell of corn in the summer. He was also one of the few within the unit to strike up a conversation with Cougar every now and again. He’d chat about Oklahoma, the drought and the price of dry-land corn, watching for Cougar to nod along and then smiling when he got a reaction.

He was also a ham-fisted klutz with two left thumbs and a nervous twitch. The sixth time he dropped his dummy gun during Drill, Fox, Jeremy and Crank took turns shoving his head in a toilet during personal time while the rest of the bunk very carefully looked away.

Cougar, though, he watched.

And the next morning for roll-call, Cougar was the only one who didn’t laugh as Fox, Jeremy and Crank turned up, clean shaven, their uniforms perfectly pressed, and with the backs of their pants dyed neon red.

Bird was still a klutz, but at least he wasn’t some piss-ant cherry Private with a screaming red ass, so it all worked out in the end.

 

7.

At the end of basic, Cougar took up a poker game with a group of marines home on leave and waiting for a flight off base.

Fearless, quiet and with nothing of any value to lose, he made a fierce contender in the game, scoring a case of beer, some bottom-shelf whiskey and sixty bucks. On the last hand of the night, Jameson, the hot-headed ginger from somewhere up north, threw in an open IOU to make the call and ended up losing to a straight flush Cougar laid out with no small amount of flourish at the end of the game.

Drunk, silent, and persistently stubborn, Cougar nodded along when Jameson came up with an idea for the fulfillment of the IOU. He knew a guy off base who ran a slightly shady tattoo parlor and owed him a favor and could get them in that night if Cougar was game.

Three hours later, sober and sore, Cougar emerged from the parlor into the hot Carolina night with a tattoo of the sacred heart bleeding red on the skin on his chest. He didn’t explain the tattoo to the man behind the counter or to any of the marines who followed him in, just pointed to the picture he wanted and grunted a confirmation when the man laid down the outline.

It’d been a long lesson to learn, but he was coming to realize that those things you carry with you can be taken away, and even the words to a prayer can be forgotten.

But this? This skin and ink above the beat of his heart, even as unobtrusive as it was? This you couldn’t lose to time or the whim of the winter.

With each beat of his heart, carried in the thrum of his blood, he could hear the flutter of wings, the beep of machines and the wind blowing over a frozen Oklahoma prairie.

 

           Sagrado Corazón de Jesús, ten misericordia de mí.
           Oh Dios, perdóname por todos los pecados de mi vida;
           Los pecados de mi juventud, y los pecados de mi edad,
           Los pecados de mi cuerpo y los pecados de mi alma,
           Los pecados que he confesado y los pecados que he olvidado,
           Los pecados contra otros en pensamiento, palabra y obra,
           Mis pecados de omisión.
           O, Dios mío, me arrepiento de todos mis pecados, porque eres tan bueno;
           Y no voy a pecar de nuevo con la ayuda de Dios.
           Dios, sé propicio a mí, pecador.
           Divino Corazón de Jesús, convertir a los pecadores, sino el morir,
           Entregar las ánimas benditas del purgatorio.
                 Amen

 

7.4

He sat at the kitchen table surrounded by his family two days after the end of basic. He felt crowded and too big in a chair that once had sat in his mother’s home, and he silently ate dinner as they chattered around him. The meal was tense. Never a soft child, basic had stripped away the flesh of adolescence to reveal the knives underneath, and his persistent quiet now carried with it an edge of danger that unsettled his aunts and smaller siblings alike.

After the meal, the children all left, leaving the aunts and Cougar alone at the table.

He told them of basic, of Bird and the time at Victory Tower. He told them about the food and the bunks and the constant noise of sleeping in a room with twenty other men.

He told them he had been elected for sniper school and that he left for training in a week.

There was a moment of silence after he made his announcement, and he kept his eyes on the tabletop, praying with a naïve hope that they would understand how hard he had worked for this, how he’d struggled, and how, for the first time, it seemed like everything wrong about him was right, like he had a place in the world.

Sofia, the eldest, was the first to respond, her voice quiet and cold in the silence.

“What do you want from us, Carlos?”

His eyes darted up to hers.

“Que?” he asked, feeling the last of his hope drifting away like leaves in a winter wind.

“Do you want us to tell you that we are proud? You have been gone, Carlos, and you are not coming home. There is no place for you here. What you would do is… not right. So I ask, what do you want from us?”

Rebecca, his middle aunt, turned to him, her eyes soft, but cool. “You cannot expect that you would be welcome. We had hoped that the army would help you contain your anger, but this… This is not… good. You must know that we love you, and will pray for you, but Carlos… ” Her voice trailed off and she looked away, her hand coming up to touch her lips.

The house was quiet, and still. The tabletop was scratched and scarred from generations of use, the once shiny surface scuffed and dull. Cougar placed both hands on the top of it, rubbed gently at the finish, and then nodded once, rising from the table.

“Lo siento. Perdóname.” He looked at each of them for a moment and then headed for the front door. He paused as he passed a picture of his parents in the entryway wall—he could hear his mother’s laugh and feel of his father’s hands on his shoulders… he remembered the warmth of the home, the smiles on his sisters’ faces. He felt the walls of the house settle around him, too sharp and small to hold the home he remembered, and he let go of his memories. Said goodbye to his mother, his father, and his little sister Maria.

He left that house that night. His youngest aunt pressed him close to her chest on the way out and whispered a parting prayer above his head.

Her words were gentle, but she locked the door behind him.

He left his memories hanging on a wall in a house he would never visit again, walked off the porch behind him and drove away.

 

8.

Two months before he turned twenty, he scored leave with several members of his team and they all chipped in and got a hooker sent to his room at the no-tell hotel right off of base as an early birthday present.

He still remembers her cool hands and vacant smile, how she coaxed him through an orgasm and left without a word. How she never even took off her bra and left the condom knotted off and in the bathroom trash can.

It was the first time he’d ever had sex, and it meant less than anything. He didn’t feel elated, or angry. Just sticky, vaguely put-out at the smell that lingered in his room, and tired.

He went to sleep that night without saying his prayers, his mother’s rosary sitting on the bed stand like an accusation.

He woke the next morning, naked and alone.

There had been no dreams the night before.

 

8.5

He stared down the scope of his gun and shot a man when he was twenty. He’d been following the man for weeks, had celebrated his own birthday the same day the man had gone to his daughter’s school for her first parent-teacher conference, carried her in and made small talk with the principal.

He was a bad man. He was a good father.

Cougar sat on a rooftop a quarter-mile away and counted out the heartbeats between the breaths in his lungs. When the go sign came, he didn’t hesitate.

By the time the daughter had recovered enough to start screaming, he’d already made it down the fire escape, gun case on his shoulder and hat pulled down low to shade his eyes. He received a medal, a letter from a superior officer and two weeks leave.

He slept in a hotel off base until it was time to return.

He stopped praying.

 

9.

He trained as a sniper, a medic, and a demolitions man. He took up parkour and rock climbing. He set range records with his favorite rifle and picked up a cowboy hat in Argentina to keep the sun off of his eyes.

He grew his hair long and underwent SERE training, rotated from team to team as they needed him and made sure that he stayed good enough to be someone that everyone needed.

He spent six months on a long op in South America and never spoke a word. He forgot what his voice sounded like, what his face looked like, or what it felt like to touch his skin and find himself within it.

He killed men who deserved it and men who didn’t. In Iraq, he killed a militant who had a clear line of sight on his CO and knew when he pulled the trigger that the enemy was a child wearing his father’s clothes. He went on black ops, he went on blacker ops, and he found himself more often than not wandering onto a battlefield with no tags or flags to mark his identity, shadows around him and com units stripped of all but the basics.

When he returned to the states, he had an apartment he kept off base that he’d return to, secure, and wait out the downtime. He’d go to bars, sleep with women. He would drink, but not dance; smile, but not speak.

He moved through the world like a ghost. He kept a rosary around his left wrist for luck, kept the burning heart above his own, and tucked his hat low to block out the eyes of those around him.

He was the wind, in the winter, cutting through a barb wire fence six miles east of town.

 

9.2

Once, he spent three minutes staring through the scope, centered up on the head of his most recent CO. He contemplated pulling the trigger, knew it would be easy, and knew that he had no reason to do so.

The CO was a good man.

Really.

But it would be so easy.

He didn’t, but to this day, he cannot remember why.

 

9.4

The closest he came to a dishonorable discharge took place on his first op back after spending six weeks stuck in a hole in the ground somewhere in Southeast Asia.

On the way back to the helicopter after all was said and done, his XO reached out and tweaked Cougars pony-tail as Cougar was adjusting the straps on his gun case, teasing him about a lucky shot.

His body went electric as he turned on the man, incandescent with a silent rage that made him feel his body for the first time in over a year. He rolled, a smooth machine, twisted and turned on his XO. His hands were weapons, fingers like small knives and legs wrapped around the body of his superior officer like a demonic lover.

He could hear his CO yelling into the coms for a medic, could feel the hands of his teammates as they hauled him back, one on each arm and another reaching out to grab him around the neck. He could feel the smile on his face, taste the blood on his teeth and he would swear to all the saints he’d never felt more alive in his life.

There was pain, sharp against his skin, and everything faded out.

He got a mark on his record, a slap on the wrist, and a reassignment to another unit.

This was going to be his last shot.

The Losers.

 

9.5

By the age of twenty-eight, Cougar was a Problem for the US military, and he knew it. Too good to let go, too disturbed to keep, they shuffled him around from unit to unit, hotspot to hotspot, hoping he’d wash out, give up, or just not come home one day. Everyone knew that The Losers were the last stop before a court martial or a body bag, and Cougar had few illusions about which one they’d prefer.

Two days after he got his assignment, Cougar and the Losers were called out for an unexpected mission. Cougar had only just met Clay, his new CO, and Roque, an overbuilt XO with a grudge against the world. There were apparently two other members of the team: Pooch, the wheel man, and an overactive tech named Jensen who was down for the count with a busted knee after their last mission and wouldn’t be joining them on this gig. It was a simple extraction and elimination, and Cougar was on deck to be put through his paces and prove his worth.

The night before the bug out, Cougar was in the locker room after a run to burn off his pre-mission energy. He was packing up his gear out of his locker when he overheard Clay in the hall talking to a higher-up who had a serious problem with Clay’s newest team member. Cougar was an issue, the man claimed: he had problems with authority, a profound apathy for his teammates, and a near Catholic zeal for the Mission. He’d almost killed his former XO, had been cited for excessive violence multiple times, and the psych department refused to touch him after he’d damn near broken his last shrink with ten hours of silence and sustained eye contact. Handing him off to Clay’s unit was the last act of a desperate military. The message was clear—fix it or fix him, but either way, correct the issue.

Cougar was still and silent in the locker room, barely breathing to hear them better. He heard the unknown officer, he heard Clay’s grunts of agreement. He heard the men part and wander in opposite directions down the hallway.

And a plan began to form in his mind.

It wasn’t the first time he’d thought of it, wasn’t even his idea really, it was something he’d picked up in sniper school. But there is a risk to being a sniper that people don’t normally think about. They’re killers, to be sure, but they’re also incredibly effective weapons of psychological warfare, invisible hunters that stalk the enemy whether or not they are there. The boogie-man in the shadows, the monster in the closet.

And as such, when they are captured, the enemy doesn’t wait around to see what they know. They don’t send videos home or taunt their superiors.

They take them out behind the chemical shed and shoot them.

In sniper school, snipers are instructed that in case of capture, they are to abandon or obfuscate all signs of their position as a sniper in order to delay execution and increase survivability. Being captured and identified as a sniper was reported as a near guarantee of a prompt execution.

But Cougar had always wondered, though he’d never thought to ask, if the capture and kill was just what happened when snipers grew too old behind the gun. That maybe one time, the soldier would just react a bit too slow, cling to his scope just a bit too long… If maybe this was how old snipers found peace after living a life staring down the barrel of a gun.

He reached into his duffle and pulled out his scope. He’d spent the morning calibrating it, and it was cool in the heated air of the locker room. He ran his fingers over the smooth metal and could feel his heart beat beneath the tattoo on his chest, steady and strong.

He sat there for a long time.

 

9.6

The plane ride to their target was quiet, though Cougar found himself smiling more than he had in years. Pooch had a wry sense of humor and a love of riling up Roque that reminded Cougar of his little sisters teasing him when he was younger. Clay had started off a bit of a hard-ass, gruff and blunt, but relaxed over the course of the flight, seemingly bolstered by Cougar’s high spirits and easy-going attitude.

When they landed and were gearing up to go to their individual locations—Cougar taking the high point nearly a mile above their target, scouting for the team and providing long range defense, Clay and the others doing a ground strike on some half-assed military complex tucked in the arid mountains six hundred miles from anywhere—Clay turned to Cougar and clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re okay, kid,” he grunted, then grinned, and turned to join his team in the Humvee.

“Thanks, Boss,” Cougar said, gifting them with a small smile and wave as he watched them drive away.

They were good men. He was glad to have met them. It was a good day.

 

9.7

He found his nest around midnight and settled in a mile northwest of the compound they were set to infiltrate.

The night was cold and nearly silent. He could hear the animals around him hunting in the dark, and his heart beat strong and steady inside his chest. He counted his breaths.

He was watching the sun rise in front of him when he heard them approaching from the west. His team was below, out of sight for the moment, and nearly a mile away. He knew that they would never have time to get to him.

And he knew that this was it.

It was time for an old sniper to find a home beyond his gun.

He knew he should scatter his gear, knew he had enough to time to strip his gun, toss his kit and hide it well enough that the men would give up long before they found it, leaving Clay and his crew time enough to execute a rescue and dig him out of whatever mess he’d gotten himself into.

But it was such a good day, and the sun was rising.

He settled into his bones, his hat, and his gear. He felt his fingers flex against his gun, and he took a moment to rub his cheek against the side of his scope. He thought that he would miss this gun, when this was all over. She was a beautiful machine, and he could smell her in his skin.

He thought for a moment of his family, his little sisters. He wondered, as the men broke the brush line behind him, if his aunts would be relieved when they heard he was dead.

He sent up a last, half-hearted prayer to Saint Michael and fired blankly into the distance, knowing his team would hear it and be warned of the incoming attack. The last thing he saw before the rifle-butt knocked him out was the sun, weak and golden, breaking across the mountains in front of him, the light blinding and beautiful in the desert air.

He might have been smiling.

 

9.8

The room here is dark, but hot, the sun baking the walls and turning the room into an oven.

His hands are tied behind his back and attached to a chain hanging from the ceiling. He’s bent over, shoulders straining at the pressure. Sweat drips down his face. Every breath rattles in his chest, and when he coughs, he leaves a faint speckling of blood on the floor.

He is going to die here, or near here, and from what little he can translate, when the sun sets, he will be taken outside and put down.

He is not worried. There is no anxiety, and he does not count the minutes. He can feel the dirt and dust beneath his bare feet—they’d taken his boots before he’d even woken up—and he wonders when he last thought to walk barefoot anywhere. He thinks about creekbeds, and the smell of cinnamon, and all the moments he’s denied himself in the past ten years, and he is grateful for the time he has to pull out each time-faded memory and rub at the edges of the images till they are soft, and worn, and fond again.

When the heat begins to fade, he takes the memories, tucks them away, and breaths deep into the cooling night.

The door to his cell opens.

He smiles, spits blood and begins to laugh.

It is a good day.

 

9.9

They come for him. When the night is full and the man behind him is bitching to his buddy about being on body duty again, Cougar kneels docile on the ground and waits for the inevitable when the world around him erupts in fire.

He doesn’t move. He can’t.

He is a ghost, a man with no fear and a smile on his face, and while the world around him burns and explodes in gunfire, he sits on the ground and cannot move.

A shadow in the dark comes running at him, face painted camo and a gun on his hip, and Cougar can see a mouth moving, but he can’t hear anything—the world is quiet and still inside his head, and his eyes are having trouble focusing on the man in front of him.

The man screams something at his companion, a giant of a man with a scar over his eye who comes out of the darkness and grabs at Cougar, throwing him over his shoulder and running low and quick away from the base and into the night.

When they reach camp some time later, Cougar is set on the ground next to a man he begins to recognize as Pooch. Cougar stares at Pooch, preoccupied with the novelty of seeing him again while Roque (it must be Roque, no one else is that terrifying) cuts his hands free from behind his back and massages feeling back into them.

Cougar cannot feel anything, but the man called Pooch keeps telling him that he’ll feel better soon, so he waits patiently for the feeling to come.

He waits a long time.

It is when Clay sits down in front of him after building a small fire off to the side and looks him in the eye that Cougar begins to remember what it is to settle into his skin, feel the world around him and breathe each breath in and out.

“You didn’t think we’d be back for you, did you? You stupid son of a bitch, you thought we’d leave you there to rot, didn’t you?”

Roque, who is now making shitty camp coffee over the fire, speaks to Clay without turning around. “We didn’t find any of his gear… Pretty sure he had it with him when they got him…”

Clay never looks away: he stares at Cougar. He reaches out and puts his hand on the side of Cougar’s face, brushing his thumb against his cheek, firing gloves rough on the stubble there. The touch is firm, intimate, and Cougar is suddenly reminded of his father pulling him up from the ground when he’d broken his arm and his eyes were wet with tears. His father had brushed his face with his thumb, his voice quiet and strong, whispering prayers in his ear as Carlos cried and cried and cried.

“You in there, soldier? I need you to come back to me for a sitrep. Can’t leave me to fill out this paperwork all on my own.”

The smell of smoke in the air is faint and covered over by the heavy bitter scent of camp coffee, body odor and gun oil. Cougar fights against the hollow buzz inside his mind to focus on the face in front of him, breaking though the haze to stare, scared and terrifyingly alone, into Clay’s eyes, before his body seizes, locking up as he comes screaming back into his skin.

“Boss? Que…?” Cougars voice is weak, and hollow, and suddenly Pooch is at his side, Clay has his front and Roque is against his back in silent guard, and Cougar is crying—quietly at first, and then loudly—screaming into Pooch’s shoulder, curled against him and shaking.

In the morning, Cougar wakes with Pooch curled around him at his back, Roque standing watch and Clay crouched over a camp fire making coffee.

The sun is shining, and he is warm.

It comes to him slowly as he stretches in his skin along the cold ground.

The Losers. Fucking A. They came for him.

And they brought him home.

 

10.

When the plane touches down stateside, Cougar insists on walking off on his own two feet. The medics don’t necessarily appreciate it, and though he might be a small Mexican man with his arm in a sling and the other wrapped in ice, he still has a gun the size of Texas and Roque lurking over his shoulder with a “try-me” grin.

The landing is rough, and Cougar carefully masks how it aches in his bones when he is jostled by the plane.

When the pilot releases them, Clay, Pooch and Roque fan out around Cougar, keeping him guarded on all sides as they de-plane. While the babysitting rankles, he can’t help but appreciate their presence and the unique experience of having a team at his back.

At the edge of the tarmac, there is a crazy man dressed in a riot of color, neon blue board shorts, and a magenta Hawaiian shirt, with a pair of crutches clutched in one hand and the other holding a glitter-smeared sign that appears to read “Welcome Home Peaches (and Cream)!” Pooch begins laughing and waving back, and Roque starts growling under his breath about overactive white boys with more balls than brains. Clay is chuckling beside him, and suddenly Cougar realizes that this is the missing teammate… Jensen.

When they get within fifteen feet of the crazy man, he comes hopping over to them, falling into Pooch’s arms with a fake sob and a criminal southern drawl.

“Mah BABY! You brought back mah baaaaby boy!” Jensen stands up and holds his arms out to Roque. “Come to Mama, my darlin’ baby boy!” At Rogue’s growl, Jensen shams sorrow, “But PEACHES! You came home to me!” He turns to Clay. “And you even brought back CREAM! My BOYS ARE HOOOOME!” His arms pinwheel, crutches and sign flying as Jensen attempts to tackle Clay into a hug, tripping on his cast and falling forward.

The resulting hopping, jumping, tumbling excitement results in Jensen toppling into an already injured Cougar, eliciting a grunt and a glare.

“And who might you be, my tiny Mexican friend? POOCH! Did you bring me pressies from the back end of the asshole of nowhere? How did you know just what I was looking for?!”

Jensen ends up perched on his one good leg, hand on Cougar’s good shoulder and burning through his shirt. His eyes are blue against his pale skin, and Cougar can’t help but note that he smells of clean sweat and hospital, cool things and spring rain. For all of his previous flailing, his hand rests light against Cougar’s shoulder and avoids straining his injuries.

“Hello there, my tiny angry friend, and who might you be? Wanna be my buddy? Pooch here is getting married next month and his fiancé already told me I would have to get a new bestie after the wedding and Roque is boring and pointy and Clay always runs off with crazy ladies, so wanna be my BFFL? Pretty please? With sugar on top and a cherry to match? And, um… I have candy??” Jensen’s face is so hopeful and so close that Cougar can almost taste his breath, and he can’t help the grin the quirks the corners of his lips as he peeks out from beneath the brim of his hat.

“Candy?”

They walk to the edge of the tarmac to the sounds of Jensen’s gleeful laughter and taunts to Pooch about his new best friend.

Cougar looks up to the sky.

It’s a good day. He might be smiling.

 

1. (a new beginning)

Jensen.

His name is Jake Jensen.

And he is a revelation.