"I love the smell of napalm in the morning!" Cash was only trying to lighten the mood; help keep the fear at bay. Noah knew that. But nerves were too badly shot up; the platoon too afraid.
"Shut the hell up, Rivers!" Calvin snapped at him; stiff shoulders pressed against the opening of the doorway; rifle nestled between nervous knees in readiness. "This ain't a fucking joke!"
Cash snorted in the darkness, hands shaking. Of course he knew that. He meant no harm. He was just as scared.
"Yeah, Rivers! Fuck!" Jo breathed heavily; a thick smell of blood filling the air from the bullet wound on this right calf. It was infected, Noah was sure about that.
But it didn't matter. They weren't getting out anyway.
"We're trapped!" Calvin exclaimed for the fourth or fifth time, voice raising a further notch of hysteria. He risked another quick peek around the crumbling brick lintel, only to have an enemy's sniper bullet ricochet off the brickwork; inches from his head. He flew back inside and out of sight. His face was bright with panic, even in the bad light. "Shit! We really are trapped. Aren't we, Blue?"
Noah tried to avoid the man's wild, wide eyes; still hopeful despite the situation. With one last clip of ammo in his pocket, and hands clutching an almost empty gun, what could Noah reply to him? What could he say to any of them?
He felt at the four dog-tags hanging around his neck; one his own, the others belonging to the men they'd lost that week; swiftly whipped over their necks as the platoon retreated further and further back. Noah had hoped to one day return the metal tags to their families, but that wasn't likely to happen now.
Kissinger, Brown, and their platoon leader McClatchy, the man who had taken the young Noah Mayer under his wing and sheltered him for two whole years; all gone.
Noah stoically held back the threatening tears. He had to be the strong one here. For whatever reason, these men were looking to him for strength; and that gave Noah a purpose. It gave Noah focus.
He propped his shoulders up against the wall of the small one-roomed house; roof long since blown off in a previous mortar attack. He dropped his head back; closed his eyes to the visions of death that refused to leave him. He swallowed hard; wondered why they all looked to him for answers. Compared to the rest of the platoon, he was the rookie, the youngest… yet at some point during the past week his cool head had made him the unofficial leader.
It wasn't a role he wanted.
For at least two days they'd been sheltering there; a standoff. There was no way out; Noah knew this; had already accepted it. The radio lay smashed at his feet, but it didn't matter. They hadn't been able to signal for help even while it was working.
Except for the slight starlight bathing them through the hole in the roof, it was pitch black and silent in the desert; that eerie silence when you knew you weren't the only people there. Insurgents were watching… waiting. Soon the US platoon would run dry of ammo or worse, food and water. Eventually they'd be forced to make a deadly mistake.
However this ended, their fate was sealed.
Noah crossed his arms over his knees; dropped his forehead into them. Sweat dripped from his face and onto the gun he held tightly to his chest. He nodded affirmation in response to Calvin's question. He couldn't bring himself to say it out loud.
"Shit!" Jo exclaimed in what was almost a sob, kissing the crucifix he kept round his neck; a protection charm gifted to him by his mother. He made the sign of the cross over himself.
Noah watched a little jealously. Nothing like bombs and mortar to make you wish you had something to cling to; something to believe in. He'd been thinking about God a lot lately actually.
God and Luke.
Opening his eyes, Noah partially lifted himself off the stone floor, rooting around in his deep cargo pockets for the letter he kept safe there. Almost two-years-old, the paper was crumpled; thin and fragile where the page had been folded into four; read and re-read.
He didn't open it now; simply spun the paper square around between his fingers. He knew what was written there by heart anyhow.
I know you're already out on patrol. It's something too terrifying even to think about. Anyway, I hope you get this.
Collage isn't working out for me. I'm going to take time off to figure out what I want to do with my life. Reg asked me to move with him to Chicago and I said yes. He's become really special to me, Noah, and that's why I'm writing.
I thought I could do this, but six months in… It's harder than I imagined. I will always love you sweetheart, but I need more than vague letters with silly little xxx's on the bottom. I still don't understand why you chose to go there. Does it give you such a strong sense of purpose that you can ignore a future beyond the army? A future with me?
I'm sorry. I don't mean to come off as bitter. I might not understand your decision, but I do understand your heart; and I know your enlistment has nothing to do with some kind of macho patriotism.
I just wanted my Noah to come back to me. I want my Noah back. But I know that won't happen… and I can't sit around waiting for that knock on the door…
You'll always be in my thoughts.
If Noah could adopt one talent, it would be the deliverance of words. Then perhaps he could have found a way to hang onto Luke; make him understand... tell Luke how he really felt.
Change, so he could be enough for him.
The grenade landed with a strange ticking sound where it bounced twice, just inside the doorway. It came as no shock to him. He simply wrapped his head in his arms as it exploded.
Everything settled around him; he found himself covered in heavy debris; part of the concrete roof crushing one knee. He felt numb, except for a strange feeling in his spine like tiny pinpricks.
The combination of smoke and thick dust was suffocating; unbearable. He couldn't hear anything; just a strange hollow whooshing; a high-pitched whistling sound and the thump of his heart slowing. As Noah closed his eyes; welcoming the darkness; he knew he was crying; cheeks staining with regret.
Luke's premonition; Luke's greatest fear as he clung to Noah years ago, begging him not to enlist; was realized. For the first time in his life, Noah found himself praying; that Luke had moved on enough to avoid any further pain from this.