Night has fallen and Michael decides we will sleep in shifts. He and I take first watch. We sit under the bright lights, shining on the border. There are two empty crates, we turn upside down to make seats. The wind is welcoming as it blows a loose strand of hair across my face. I can feel where my sweat has turned the dirt into mud on my cheek and forehead. I look over at Michael and smile.
“Are you okay?”
He’s quiet, but it isn’t the fact he’s not talking that worries me. I think back on his non-reaction to the men firing at him as well as the way he watched the man dying in front of him.
I eye him. “I’m around if you need me.”
“We’re on a mission. This isn’t the time to think about emotional shit right now.”
His tone has me sitting up slightly straighter on my crate.
“No, I know. Sorry, I said anything.” I recoil.
I wasn’t trying to be inappropriate. I know we’re on a mission and that comes first, always. His reaction today scared me, but I don’t dare mention that to him. Instead, I come with facts.
“You hesitated today. Those men got off four rounds each on you before you even looked up. What would’ve happened if I wasn’t there?”
“But you were there,” he says, turning his head in my direction. It’s the first time he’s looked at me since we sat down.
“Whatever has a hold on you . . . let it go,” I demand. “You can’t be reckless with your life, Michael. You’re our leader.”
Michael scowls. “I said I’m fine.”
I exhale, leaning against the chain-link fence. He turns from me, but his face doesn’t soften. I think this down time is allowing him to get too much in his own head.
“You know . . . what happened to Echo isn’t your fault.”
“I know that,” he says, wringing his hands.
“Michael, you can’t take on this burden. There was no way for you to know. The Collective has a huge range of resources, and if they couldn’t find her . . . than what could you have done?”
I continue down this line of dialect because his words don’t reflect his actions. Clearly, he’s not fine, and the only thing that’s happened in the last couple of days to change his behavior is finding Echo. Michael gets to his feet.
“I’m going to patrol the Eastern part of the camp for a while,” he says, walking away.
I push because he will stay quiet, otherwise. I know me asking him to talk about his feelings is what makes him walk away. Hopefully while he’s alone, he’ll have a chance to decompress. He has to get that on a logical level that it was out of his control. Even knowing that--from experience-- it won’t stop all the--what ifs--playing around in his mind. Watching him walk away sucks, I wish he would trust me. Talk to me. I gaze off into the distance and I can see the lights of the Sudanese soldier’s flashlights as they patrol. Getting to my feet, I look back in the direction Michael walked off in. I inhale deeply, knowing Michael is out there in the dark, alone.
Two hours pass, and Michael never returns. Delaney’s sluggish as he walks over to relieve me.
“Where’s Michael?” He asks, still a little groggy.
“He went to walk the Eastern side of the border about two hours ago. I think I scared him off,” I admit.
“That’s not possible,” Delaney scoffs. “Why don’t you go get some sleep. I’ll go help him.”
I nod, and start for the tent.
“Let Laci know, no rush. Michael and I got this,” Delaney yells, heading in the direction Michael went.
I enter to Beck snoring loud enough to scare off any insurgent. There’s no way I’m falling asleep to that. Apparently, neither is Laci. I see her staring at me as I enter the tent.
“Delaney is going to stay on watch with Michael. He told me to tell you, no rush.”
Laci lies back down, but doesn’t keep quiet.
“How was your time alone with Michael?” Her words clipped.
“My time alone-” I scoff, turning to face her. “What?” My eyes narrow. “What the hell are you talking about? What is your problem?” I’m so tired of her snide remarks and lethal stares.
“My problem is: you don’t belong here, Chandler,” she says, sitting up. “You’re a disruption and a distraction to the flow of our team. Case and point: who was the only one throwing up out there today?”
“I do my damn job every time I’m out here! And as far as me belonging here, you’re absolutely right. I don’t belong here, but I’m here nonetheless, so get used to it. No one seems to have a problem with the flow of the team, except you. Right, Beck?”
The snoring has stopped, so I know he’s awake and enjoying every moment of our little cat fight. He moans, rolling over to face us.
“I think Chandler helps the flow of this team. The more coverage, the better in my opinion. Laci, you need to stow that shit. Now, the two of you shut the fuck up and let me sleep,” he states poignantly, rolling back over.
Laci scoffs, rolling her eyes, either at me or Beck or both, who really knows.
“Look Laci, Michael and I are not an item. You either believe that or you don’t. Not my problem,” I state, lying back on my cot.
She doesn’t acknowledge I even spoke. She only lies down, rolling over on her side. The side not facing me. We’re all still amped up from this afternoon’s fire fight. I think that’s why she’s coming at me right now. What do you do when you still have fight left in you, and the fight is over? I wish we could get into a boxing ring and work our shit out there. Leave it all in the ring, and move on.
I don’t think I’m asleep for two hours when I’m woken by rapid gun fire. My heart is in my stomach and my stomach is in my throat. I quickly scan my surroundings. Beck is nowhere to be found and Laci is on her way out of the tent. I grab my infrared goggles on my way out. I hear shouting as the Sudanese soldiers are quickly getting picked off. I put on my goggles before I’m out of the tent. It’s too dark for anyone without infrared goggles to see where the enemy is. I grip my M4, holding it tight against my shoulder as I look through my scope. I can’t find the enemy. I stay low as I maneuver through the camp, trying to find somewhere to take cover. My arms fly up in defense as I hear the bullets impact various things around me. I spot a broken-down van to my far left. Hurrying towards it, I make my way to the roof of the van. I lie flat on my stomach, looking through the scope. Scanning the area, I see muzzle flashes in the distance. They’re too far from me. I can’t make the shot from this distance. Beck and Laci are about fifty yards to the left of me behind another vehicle. Beck should be in this position. He’s the best sniper I’ve seen. I can’t find Michael or Delaney. I now know why they have so many old vehicles scattered about. They make the perfect cover. There’s no way of knowing, with the cover of dark, how many insurgents there are. We need help. Heart racing, I grab the comm unit from my cargo pants pocket, and stick it in my ear.
“Vivian, you copy?” I yell.
“I’m here, Chandler.”
“We’re taking heavy fire. I need sat. imaging, and a possible airstrike. We’re pinned down here.”
“Copy. Pulling up sat. imaging now. Keep your gun pointed northwest. They’re coming in from that direction. Stay put, backup is coming,” Vivian replies.
“Have you heard from Michael or Delaney? They were on patrol when we got hit,” I inform her.
“No, but I’ll keep this channel open.”
I turn to my right, spotting more insurgents heading in this direction. Switching to channel B, I speak, “Beck, Laci they’re to the right of you. Vivian is sending in air support. Have either of you seen Michael or Delaney?”
“All I see are bullets,” Beck comes back.
“I don’t see them,” Laci says.
I squeeze the trigger, letting loose a barrage of bullets towards the enemy. The air around me cracks loudly--like thunder--with every pull of the trigger. All of a sudden, the sky lights up with the most beautiful light show as our fighter jets open fire in the night sky. They circle around one more time before it goes quiet.
“All hostiles down,” Vivian says loud and clear.
“Copy,” I say with extreme relief.
I stand from my prone position on top of the van. Jumping down, I head toward the middle of the encampment to meet up with Laci and Beck. Looking around at all the bodies on the ground, I wonder how I will ever get this mission out of my head. I have never seen so much death before. I come to a stop next to Beck and Laci. Beck gives us a look.
“Let’s go find our boys.”
We head off in the last direction I saw both men go before I headed to the tent. We get twenty feet when I hear a voice call out.
“Beck, Shy, over here.”
My heart jumps at the sound of Michael’s voice.
“Where the hell have you two been?” I ask, harshly.
“Michael thinks he may have found Amir Artoli’s camp. We were doing some recon when we heard the shooting, so we hauled ass back. We were able to take out a few before the airstrike,” Delaney explains.
“Everyone okay?” Michael asks, looking at each of us.
“Yeah, fine,” I state, walking away.
The relief is there, but I can’t hide my emotions well enough right now to stay. The rest of the night is quiet, not that any of us sleep a wink.
The next few days are without incident. We’re all in the chow tent--all but Michael--having lunch. I’m completely covered this time in order to avoid the stares. I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. Michael enters, heading toward our group.
“I just spoke with the General. He wants Laci and Shy back at the cave.”
“And Beck?” Laci asks.
“Why? I thought the General only wanted Delaney to stay,” Laci asks.
“I don’t know. Those are our orders.”
“And you didn’t question this?” she asks, clearly irritated.
“It’s not my job to question the General’s order, nor is it yours,” Michael states, glaring at her.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Laci protests for both of us.
“The General has his reasons, I’m sure. You leave at sixteen hundred hours,” Michael retorts.
Laci stands in a huff. “Backward ass bullshit country,” she imparts on her way out the tent.
I don’t blame her mood one bit, in fact, I agree wholeheartedly. Beck and Delaney never stop eating while Michael said what he had to say. Nothing gets in between them and their food. Michael looks at me. I’m not sure what he’s looking for as he searches my eyes, but his look is one of authority. Maybe he thought I would push back. Honestly, I’m thankful to be leaving this God forsaken place. I’ve seen enough carnage to last a lifetime. I do hate the thought of the boys having to stay. We work best as a unit.
As I head to the bunker to gather my belongings for the trip back home a knot forms in my stomach. Tiny hairs on the back of my neck perk up at the General’s orders for Michael and the others to stay behind. I can’t explain my apprehension, but something just doesn’t feel right. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I push it aside. Packing up my gear, I see Michael approaching.
“Have a safe flight back,” he says.
The man hasn’t said two words to me, other than to give me an order, since the first night of patrolling.
I narrow my eyes at him. “Why do you do that?”
“Ignore me then act as though we’re friends. You’re making me dizzy with all of this round and round nonsense. If it’s all business, let it be all business. If you want to be friendly and engage in conversation, it can’t only be on your terms.” I hold his gaze.
I had to say it. I can’t keep doing this with him. I’m actually, physically exhausted trying to figure out which Michael I’m going to get on any particular day.
“I understand. I’ll leave you alone,” he states, walking away.
I inhale deeply, counting to ten. He’s insufferable. I don’t--by any stretch of the imagination--want him to leave me alone. I shake my head in frustration.
As we board the plane, the uneasy feeling hasn’t dissipated one bit. It weighs my stomach down like a boulder, never letting up as the plane ascends.