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Roll the Dice

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33N 25’ 34.48’’ – 68E 26’ 36.42’’

1100 hrs LT 05/20/2009

The sun beat down with a vicious force, turning the godforsaken dustbowl into a cauldron that seemed to be designed to do nothing except sweat people until they were nothing but shrivelled little husks without the slightest bit of moisture left inside them. At least that’s how he felt in his fatigues, sweat trickling down his back, sand rubbing his skin raw in the most obnoxious of places. God, he was so ready for his tour to be over already. The thrumming of the humvee’s engine felt like it was rattling him like a sack of bones, every single hole on this track that was a dirty excuse for a highway jolting through his system. He glared out into the desert as if the hairy eyeball could actually convince the landscape to turn into something else than brown, rocky wasteland. It didn’t of course. But it served to distract him enough that he nearly jumped out of his skin when a hand landed heavily on his shoulder. His fingers tightened reflexively near the trigger of his MP-16, before he reminded himself that he was just in a supply convoy right now and not in the middle of inner city combat.

“Hey, JT, what’s with the silent treatment? You gotta lighten up, man, two fricking weeks. Only fourteen days and ten hours, and we’re out of here, hasta la vista, baby and hello sweet fucking home Alabama and all that shit.”

“Jesus, Chad, you asshole, you startled the crap out of me. How many times do I have to tell you not to do that? One of these days you’re going to get an elbow to the face just on principle alone.”

“Awww, you only say that because you love me, man. Have you thought about what you wanna do when you get home?”

“I’m going to fuck your momma, Murray; maybe that’ll shut you up for a minute.”

“Hey, don’t you talk no shit about my momma, or I’ll kick your ass. Jeez, you’re in a prissy mood today, whatever’s crawled up yours truly and died there?”

Chad grinned mischievously, since even though anyone else would be appalled by their routines to them it was just friendly banter. Sarcasm and blatant insults to get the edge off and put the stress on hold for a couple of minutes at a time. Their Staff Sergeant had tried to get them to keep their tongues in check for the first couple of weeks of their tour and then just threw the towel and let them be. Jared felt his muscles twitch into half a smile, but his sullen mood wouldn’t be dispelled so easily.

“’s nothing, I just have a weird feeling ‘bout today. Like something’s in the air, you know?”

“Damn straight something’s in the air. That’s you and the beans, bro.”

Jared answered that one by boxing Chad on the arm, hard. He ignored his best friend’s indignant squawk, but the smile that had been tugging at the corner of his mouth got a little broader. Chad was right, he was being ridiculous. They were in a back zone and things had been quiet the whole morning, no reason why that should change any time soon. He settled back, a little less tense and watched the flares at the horizon slowly turn into houses and people a couple of miles down the lane.

~*~

The sky was on fire.

Well, not the sky exactly, just about half the block of houses that lined the main street, but with the crackling flames adding to the scorching midday heat, devouring everything in their path and licking high into the air, it sure felt like it. Their convoy was trapped in an ambush, hoarse screams and rattling machine gun fire, splintering sounds where bullets hit stone, soft thwups where they hit flesh, radios going crazy.

“Shots fired, all units out and find cover NOW. I repeat all units out and in position.”

Jared was going to tattoo ‘I told you so’ onto Chad’s fucking forehead.

For the moment though, the more pressing incentive was staying alive and regrouping, and if he dragged his no good best friend down behind a wall that was sprayed with a salvo of high caliber ammunition half a second later, it was only with fonts and rainbow colours in mind. The sounds of men fighting for their lives rang loud in his ears, and he tried to orient himself to find out how the rest of their unit was holding up and which streets those bastards were holed up in. He could hear Chad shouting directions at him, but he could barely hear him over the blood rushing in his ears, and the urgency of the fight pumping adrenaline into his veins. They advanced together, relying on signs for communication, and Jared felt himself fall into the motions that had been trained and tried countless times now, but which still didn’t completely quench the terrifying sensory overload that threatened to overwhelm him every time he found himself in combat. Then there was a thin whistling sound, like a shrill pipe just this side of being audible, and he knew something was going to come from above. When the sound suddenly cut out, and only a quiet swoosh remained, he knew it was going to be close. He only had a split second to shout and shove Chad into a stumbling sprawl, before a powerful pulse rocked the ground, and the world suddenly turned hot and dark.

“Jared, Jesus, Jared, you stupid fucker, open your goddamn fucking eyes, or so help me God… I’m…”

The world was murky, dull, like a grey had been laid out over everything, and if he didn’t feel himself blinking, he wouldn’t be convinced that his eyes were open.

“That’s it JT, just you…”

The rest of his body was a little slow on the response time though, and he wondered why Chad sounded so urgent, since there was no way he was getting up anytime soon. Must’ve had too much of that fricking goat’s piss they called liquor around here last night. His head was heavy like lead, and there was some unpleasant tingling going on in his nether regions. Something didn’t quite add up though.

“Just hang on, man, pl…”

For instance, he didn’t think that the skin around your elbow was supposed to look that frayed around the edges. The fabric of his fatigues was soaked, and he could only stare and think, God, his momma was going to kill him when she found out about this mess.

“Jared? JARED! DON’T YOU FUCKING…”