"So when are you gonna ask Kendra out, Nathan?" Elizabeth Smith-Levy teased over the array of voices in the mess hall. She smeared her golden toast across her over easy egg and shoved it into her mouth with an impish grin as the teen blushed. He crossed his arms and stared down at the table behind his glasses.
"Look, I don't wanna rush it. I'll be on leave in June over my mom's birthday. Might ask her then."
"So what sort of date will you ask her out to?" Tyrone Woodson smiled as he chewed a bite of banana. "Maybe a long walk to the arcade and a nice dinner out to Taco Bell?"
"Shut up," Nathan managed a chuckle as his blush reddened more. He set his napkin aside. "When are we getting out of here?"
"Enjoy the meal," Ajax ran a palm over his blonde buzz cut with exhaustion. "We have a long day ahead of us. By the way, are you gonna pick her up, or do you still need someone to drive you?"
The other soldiers laughed.
"Dude, you're like three years older than me!" Nathan laughed. "Twenty-two, right? And Dustin is twenty! Come on, I'm already cooler than her ex just because I'm in the Army and he works at that Taco Bell. He works the drive-thru window."
"Did you find that out at your last date?" Dustin asked. Another round of laughter erupted around the metal folding table.
"Just shut up," Nathan said into his hands, despite the smile on his mouth.
"Get serious, guys," Alexander Menendez said. "We're running out of time to eat."
The sun rose hot and radiant in Afghanistan that May morning. Mountains were silhouetted against a coral sky. The roar of helicopters soared above a convoy rumbling across the desert. Within the second Humvee of the second March unit sat Elizabeth, contemplating a letter she would write to her husband when she got the opportunity.
Dear David, she narrated in her mind, this week has had more moments of joy than others. Mom sent me some teddy bears to give out to the village kids I come across here. I gave one to a little girl, and she threw her arms around me with tears in her eyes.
She stared out the window at the desert streaming past. She sneaked a glimpse up at Dustin, who was absolutely silent as a gunner. She determined by his stature that he was laser focused on the road ahead. She could hardly blame him. Attacks had been on the rise lately.
We have been assisted by some soldiers in a small kingdom called Zaintza. There is one guy named Raphael. He is a native of Egypt, but he has blue eyes. Never seen that combination before, and it looks pretty cool. Anyway, a lot of the local boys seem to want to hang out with him. He gave a group of kids a soccer ball, and they have been playing with it ever since.
The Humvees steered to the roadside to halt. The sky was clear, and the streets dusty. Elizabeth leapt out of the Humvee, eager to rummage around for a bottle of water.
Seems much of my unit is comprised of teenagers. Strange to seem so old at the age of twenty-five! I suppose Tyrone and the commanders are still older. Tyrone asked me to send his greetings, by the way. I miss all of you so much, but I must admit, it's nice to have someone who is like family around here. I love you. Sincerely, Elizabeth.
"You all right, Levy?" Dustin asked as he approached. "Seemed kinda quiet in there."
"So did you," she smiled.
"Yeah, but that's my usual. Your usual is that you never shut up."
She laughed. "Yes, I was deciding what to write home about next. But I appreciate your asking."
The soldiers relieved themselves and rehydrated, some stretching their arms and legs beside their Humvees. Everyone seemed glazed in sweat, laden with armor and equipment despite the summery weather. Despite the dust, the wind was welcomed and embraced. Elizabeth steered her cheeks against it, closing her eyes to savor the sensation. After ten minutes, the soldiers climbed back into the Humvees and prepared to start again.
Elizabeth situated herself in the passenger seat and turned her hazel eyes out the window. She saw a boy sprinting in their direction wearing a galibiyya. He approached them from the side, waving his arms and shouting, "Qif" and several other words she could not understand.
"Stop! Radio the others," Elizabeth could hear Ajax speak into the radio as the Humvees ahead started to creep ahead. She threw open the passenger door and raced toward the boy. Was he asking them to help him? No, he was pointing ahead of them. He was warning them –
A crashing explosion behind her sent her soaring ahead and sprawling on the desert ground as she was showered with shrapnel and debris.