Road to Kandahar
CRICKET SANDERS is fresh out of training as a nurse. At age twenty-one, her high ideals and her belief that love lasts forever emanate in warmth as she enters any room. With no losses in her life, her protective, Christian parents appear shocked and disappointed she joins the Army. They know her hard work and high scores while training in her profession could easily snag her a position anywhere in the best clinics.
Her first assignment lands her as a second lieutenant in Afghanistan. Her daily duty is to assist in medical attention during the evacuation of wounded American and allied forces.
However, when the U.S. military leaves unexpectedly, along with the ambassador, Cricket is stranded. Not a girl to be afraid, but ever trusting what will come is best, she feels compelled to continue nursing the wounded allies among the Afghan soldiers.
JACK DAVIS, the highest-ranking Marine sergeant at the U.S. Embassy volunteers to stay on guard until his flight is ready. He discovers he’s left behind. No more planes will be authorized to move Americans out. If he’s careful, he believes he can walk to Kandahar on foot—he’ll dress like an Afghan. He’ll fly out from Kandahar by helicopter to the Arabian Sea where the Navy waits. He already speaks the diverse languages of the region. His military specialty makes him familiar with the friendly Muslims aligned along the escape route.
At the last minute, just before his dangerous trek, he witnesses Taliban soldiers capturing two American women—Cricket and an embassy translator. Jack doesn’t need another mouth to feed or another person to keep safe on the hazardous journey; however, the enemy soldiers are fighting over both women. When the translator is shot in the head, Jack knows they will either kill Cricket, force a marriage, or rape her. He frees Cricket, killing her Taliban captors. He tells her of the limited options she has for safety—all of them with no guarantee.
Cricket follows him on his risky odyssey across the dry desert and treacherous mountain range. It’s the end of August and Jack wonders if he’ll make it over the mountain before the snow comes in October. He doesn’t want Cricket on the dangerous journey, but she comes. He dresses her as an Afghan and introduces her as his son.
With the constant patrol of the Taliban, Jack finds the previous friendlies no longer helpful. He must escape with Cricket to a cave where the enemy follows them but loses their trail. Walking again, a caravan stops them, and they barely escape identification as Americans. Then later, Cricket digs a shallow grave beside Jack’s to hide under the sand as they hear the enemy’s gunfire approaching.
Their friendship grows. Cricket likes the tough sergeant too much. She doesn’t want to live without him. And Jack, who never trusts women, feels comfortable to talk of things he’s never shared. The orphanage. His enlistment at seventeen. He thinks he is no way near her expectations of what she considers a man. To hear her talk, he would be a hero.
Before they make Arabian Sea and safety, enemy soldiers ambush them. She loses sight of Jack when she sees him fall with the sound of rifles. She tries to turn back to help him, but the U.S. Navy patrol boat stops her return to search for him. She wants to know where Jack is.
Two weeks later, Jack walks over the perimeter into the friendly area. He needs medical treatment. The Army medivacs him to the nearest U.S. hospital.
Jack’s lying in bed when a beautiful blonde nurse enters with a food tray. He’s surprised to see Cricket but is relieved.
She tells him he’s her dinner date for the rest of her life. Jack solidly agrees.
Christina Alaina Sanders, better known by her friends as Cricket, accepted her graduation certificate for completing her nursing degree. She already talked to the Army recruiter. Her sign-on bonus was exactly what she needed to finish paying her student loan. And she could travel to see Europe. She hoped she could use those military hops the enlistment authority told her cost nothing so she could visit her parents often.
She looked over the audience and saw her mom and dad in the front row. More than payments on loans or travel to exotic places, she knew her parents valued the care of others. They loved their country. She could think of no better way to serve it than to use their patriotic beliefs in nursing the country’s military.
Since she already signed the paperwork, she felt safe to tell them of her commission so they would not attempt to talk her out of the decision. She knew she would see tears from her mother. Even her dad might question her choice. But in the end, she knew they would be very proud they had a daughter who served. Her parents wanted her at the Mayo Clinic or a closer hospital near them, since she was an only child. She felt now would be the only time to see the other side of the world and serve a broader cause assisting her nation’s soldiers.
Orders from Headquarters
Cricket rode on the military flight from New York to Afghanistan. She looked at the papers again. Printed in black and white, she couldn’t believe her disappointment. Her plans to see Europe just hit a detour.
She took a deep breath. “At least I’ll be helping soldiers.”
“Yeah, honey. The roughest and the toughest.” Joan, the nurse seated beside Cricket, nodded as she smacked her chewing gum. She was returning to the Middle East after being stationed stateside two years.
Before leaving New York, Cricket saw Joan’s six-year-old daughter Teresa crying as they walked down the long hallway to board their flight. Joan’s mother held Teresa’s hand, accepting guardianship again. Whether the soldier served in combat zones or not, the service required legal papers drawn to appoint guardianship for single parents or military couples.
Cricket felt troubled seeing how the situation played out in real life. She questioned if she could do the same—leave her daughter with her mother. She turned to see Joan’s eyes filled with tears as she kept joking. Her voice broke. All the nurses who walked with her laughed but Cricket.
Instead, she stepped closer to her, thinking Joan needed a word, something to comfort her. “You know, we have promises from the Bible, Joan. It says ‘all things work together for good to them that love God.’”
Joan gulped and looked away, not able to speak. She remained quiet until the boarding terminal.
Cricket’s words to Joan reminded Cricket of the scripture she needed to focus on for herself. Gary, her high school sweetheart said several nasty things about her entering the military. After his abrupt breakup with her last week at the news of her Army entrance, she discovered he dated several girls while she lived away finishing college. Losing his friendship hit her harder than the simple loss of a friend. She repeated the scripture silently to herself, “All things work together for good.”
Sitting beside Cricket on the plane, Joan began her uproarious conversation, keeping the nurses pleasantly entertained with her New York accent and laissez-faire attitude until most of the plane’s passengers lay asleep or were watching a movie.
Upon landing in Afghanistan, Cricket and Joan, along with the rest of the nurses, settled into their medical cadre apartments designated for females.
After a day of rest, Joan opened Christina’s apartment door. “Are you ready?”
Cricket stood, brushing her hair. “Ready for what?”
Joan laughed. “You didn’t listen. We are going out tonight. Our shifts are going to be so different once we start at the hospital, I bet we won’t see each other. We’re waiting on you right now. You have ten minutes.”
Cricket turned with uplifted brows. “Going out? I heard they don’t have clubs. Why would I do that?”
“They have Tent City, or you could call it Camp Snoopy.”
“Camp Snoopy? That sounds safe enough. But why would we want to go out?”
Joan lifted her palms as though she must teach a baby how to sit on a stool. “To scout for men, of course. What else would we be doing?”
Cricket shrugged. “But we just got here. And there are Muslims everywhere. I’m certain I don’t want to date one. And he sure doesn’t want to date me—a Christian.”
“Come on, girl. We’re going out to see the U.S. soldiers—Christian—Muslim—Catholic—Jew—maybe even an atheist. All of them drink and play cards the same at Snoopy’s. They used to call these places Tent City because they were all in tents. But the U.S. has been over here twenty years. They have a house now. It’s a place to unwind like at a club. And you’re going even if just this once.”
Cricket grimaced. “I guess I could go once.”
“That’s more like it. We’ve been here almost twenty-four hours. Time is flying if you need a man.”
Cricket laughed. “Joan, I don’t think I’ve ever needed a man.”
The other nurses now stepped behind Joan waiting at Cricket’s door. Joan turned to them and lifted her brow sagely. “Girls, I guess we’re going to have to teach Cricket how to need a man.”
They all nodded with huge smiles on their faces.
Captain Tom Brennen narrowed his eyes on the community center’s door as it opened. “There they are.” He nodded.
Jack grimaced, not looking around. “Who?”
“Newly assigned nurses.”
Jack sipped his beer. “And you’re an Army nurse, too. So why would I be interested?”
“Yeah, but these are all women. I’ve been waiting for them. I need to get out of this place and at least one of them is my ticket to escape.”
“You’ll not get out of here for at least another six months.” Jack turned to eye the women—all in uniform, and all about the same height and weight. Their heads were covered with the traditional Arabic headgear for women—the hijab. Jack couldn’t see their hair color. He turned back to Tom. “I guess I’ll never get used to that scarf over their head.”
“It’s called a hijab.”
“I’m going to call it a scarf if you don’t mind.”
“I do. Get with the program, Jack. You’re in Afghanistan. Do what the natives do.”
“Oh, that’s right, kill your wife if she doesn’t submit. I’ve got that down pat.”
“Shh . . .” Tom hunkered down, looking around. “I wouldn’t say that so loud. Someone might take offense.”
“Take offense,” Jack repeated. “Yes, let’s not offend anyone who thinks it’s OK to kill a wife. Come to think of it, I could get used to the practice with some of my dates.”
“That’s just it, Jack. I don’t think I’ve seen you practice dating a nurse more than once—ever. You date them all, but just once.”
“Yeah, well, I like variety. It’s the spice of life. I’m not supposed to be dating any of them, anyway. They’re officers.”
“Hmm.” Tom frowned. “I think I’ll go ask that well-rounded one to dance.”
Jack narrowed his eyes on Tom’s rank. “Get the lingo down, Captain. Tell her she’s rounded in all the right places.”
“Tom eyed Jack’s enlisted rank in mock disdain. “Gunny, you think you’re the master—the one I see with a woman only once, and then she flakes off because you’re so boring.”
Jack laughed. “Yeah, Captain. You wish you could be so boring.”
Tom stood up. “Here I go, I want to see where this one is from and what’s going on over there with all that laughter.”
Jack nodded, “Have at it.” Not budging toward the women’s table, Jack tilted his beer to his lips and emptied it to the bottom. He needed to go back to his place.
At the sound of a table clattering, he turned to see Tom fall with it to the floor. The Marine corporal who hit Tom pulled him up and lifted his fist to hit him again.
Jack grabbed the corporal’s arm, spinning him around. “You have a problem?”
The corporal saw the rank on the older Marine’s uniform. He shook his head and straightened. “No Gunny, he was just fooling around with . . .”
“You’re about to fool around, too, and lose your rank. You just hit a captain. He may not be in uniform. But he’s a captain. What the hell do you think you’re doing? What unit are you in?”
Cricket watched as the corporal gave information to the gunnery sergeant. Tom stood up rubbing his jaw.
Jack turned to Tom. “Do you think we need to court-martial him, sir?”
The captain shook his head. “Maybe an Article 15 will do.”
“For hitting you . . .?” Jack almost called out the captain’s first name—a faux pas he would never have done in the past—especially not in front of another Marine. His assignment to the embassy made him soft. Jack turned back to the corporal. “You’re leaving here, now. I’ll talk to your commander about this tomorrow.”
The group of nurses watched with wide eyes as the tall gunnery sergeant in dress uniform followed the young corporal out.
Joan whistled, as the door closed on both Marines. She looked at Tom. “How many medals can a Marine wear on those uniforms? I couldn’t count them all.”
The captain stepped toward Joan, still rubbing his jaw. “I think Gunny has served in every war—even before he was born. That’s why you see all those medals. Do you mind if I sit down?”
“Only if you promise not to make anyone mad again.” Joan smiled broadly.
Tom looked at her rank on her fatigues. “Hey, you’re a captain.”
“Yes. But I don’t bite. Sometimes I don’t even yell.”
Tom looked around at the other tables nearby. “I don’t see anyone else who wants to hit me. I may as well take a seat.”
Cricket liked him—especially the way he talked to Joan. And the captain didn’t seem to take the hit from the corporal as hard as the tall Marine he called Gunny
Trying to remember Jack’s words, Tom blurted, “I sure like how you look, Joan. You have your weight in all the right places.”
The nurses looked nervously around. Cricket’s eyebrows lifted. Maybe she should change her mind about the way he talked to Joan.
Joan nodded. “It’s those banana splits. I try to keep my figure for men just like you.”
Kabul Afghanistan: Six months later
Sergeant Jack Davis rushed up the embassy stairs taking two steps at a time. He didn’t want to see another Benghazi. No U.S. ambassador was going to be killed on his watch—no matter what politically correct orders came down.
Jack stepped into the emissary’s office. “Are you ready to go?”
“Not yet, Gunny”
“I’ll come back to destroy what’s left of the documents. But you need to go, now.”
Ambassador Gregson scowled. “Is it that bad?”
Jack nodded. “It’s going to get worse fast.”
Gregson handed the Marine a paper. “This needs to be destroyed, too.”
Jack looked at the top-secret folder. “Yes, sir. Now, let’s go.”
The trip to the airport took five minutes. Before Jack escorted the ambassador out of the vehicle, he saw several aircraft waiting to load the wounded lying on stretchers.
The plane to carry the ambassador sat beside Jack’s armored vehicle. Several Marines stood as guards. It looked like the whole city wanted a ride out as Jack observed hundreds locked out of the loading zone by tall metal fences.
Jack walked beside the ambassador into the plane, then he remained standing outside until it lifted off. While watching, Jack took a double-take and stared in surprise. Clinging to the jet’s retractable wheels, a young Afghan swung from the aircraft. By the time the liner reached three hundred feet, the man lost his grip. Jack cringed as he watched the Afghan fall to his death. Outwardly, Jack appeared calm. Inwardly, he reeled at the senseless loss.
He felt at a loss and empty as he admitted to himself, it is true, we are abandoning our allies. The man was probably one of the Afghans who helped the Americans. The thought angered him even more. The Afghan preferred death rather than facing the Taliban.
Jack turned to sprint back to his ride when he saw a woman dressed in combat fatigues with a black hijab over her head. He winced at the dichotomy—a freedom fighter uniform enshrouded by headgear identifying the woman as the sex who must submit.
With the headdress, he recognized the medical command’s order for all assigned female nurses and doctors to comply with the local culture. The command wanted to preclude any offense to the wounded Afghans treated in their medical facilities. All females attached to that command must wear the hijab.
Suddenly, Jack recognized the man the nurse escorted on the stretcher. It was Captain Nelson, Jack’s previous Marine Corps commander. The young captain wore loose gauze over both arms. Jack stepped beside his carrier, but the nurse immediately blocked his path.
While diminutive, the woman’s stance brooked no-nonsense. “Sergeant, he can’t talk. He’s on heavy morphine. It’s to ease the pain. Stand back.” Cricket almost backed up, herself. By his rapid step, she thought he would keep going to lunge over her the way his eyes remained focused on the stretcher and not her. “Did you hear me?” She realized this was the same gunnery sergeant who helped Tom out of a fight the night she went to the club.
Regretfully, Jack nodded still eyeing the stretcher. He finally looked down at the small nurse wearing the ridiculous scarf. Blue eyes looked back at him—outlined with caramel-colored eyebrows and cream-colored skin. The bizarre notion rushed him wondering if her skin felt as soft as it looked. He frowned. He didn’t recognize her. He knew all the nurses at the club. He scowled deeper as he stepped back, checking her name tag printed in all capital letters on her fatigue uniform: SANDERS. He didn’t know the name, either. He wanted more information about Captain Nelson. He remained standing as he watched Nelson’s stretcher move on toward another plane.
The nurse shifted toward Jack as the carrier moved on. Without his questions, she seemed to know what he wanted, anyway, “Don’t worry, Gunny. At least Captain Nelson is in pain. That means his burns are not more than second degree. If he couldn’t feel anything, the nerves would be destroyed.” She turned and followed the stretcher.
With the information, Jack released a breath of relief. He remained standing as soldiers loaded Nelson’s stretcher into the plane.
Then Jack sprinted to his vehicle traveling back to the embassy. He needed to release the staff and destroy any remaining documents.
Cricket escorted the last wounded man to the aircraft. The soldier she walked beside stepped into the plane with a fitted brace on his broken ankle. This service member’s injuries were not as severe as most she escorted today.
A declaration blasted over the loudspeaker causing her to stop abruptly. “Last plane out. Load up. Last plane out.”
Cricket narrowed her eyes at the unusual broadcast. She looked around. Hundreds of people stood waiting to board the planes. And many aircraft sat empty beside the last one loaded. Cricket felt more confused. She supposed the proclamation meant the last plane out for today. The declaration seemed unreasonable with the huge crowd which stood in line. It was getting dark, perhaps that was the reason for the speaker to proclaim it. But she didn’t ask.
Tomorrow, many wounded allied forces still needed her to escort them safely to their transportation out of the country.
With no more wounded soldiers to load for the day, she needed a hot shower and a bed. She hopped in her jeep and the duty driver took her to the nurses’ apartments. She fell asleep easily, even on the hard mattress.
The next morning, Cricket waited for her driver. But no one arrived. She needed to go to the medical facility. Yesterday, she loaded all U.S. service members to aircraft which would take them to safety. Now, her assigned duty was to transport the wounded allies to their respective flights out of the country—some French, British, and more. Then she must return the Afghan soldiers to their local families. She needed to verify they were put into a safe place that would treat them appropriately.
Apparently, the U.S. didn’t trust the medical personnel in Afghanistan to provide adequate care to American allies, although many of those allies were Afghan citizens. The Taliban called them traitors. The Afghan allies did not comply with the Taliban. They wouldn’t be treated well.
Cricket knocked on all her nursing friends’ doors to borrow a ride. No one answered. She called the hospital headquarters. No response.
She wondered if she missed an order. She walked the two-mile distance, about twenty blocks, to see if she could get a ride. No vehicle sat waiting at the front of the Afghan medical facility. And inside, no personnel stood monitoring the medications. Cricket rushed to keep the medicine intake on the right schedule for those who missed their dosage.
She suddenly realized only Afghan soldiers who served in support of U.S. missions still lay in the clinic. The French and British no longer remained in their beds. They were missing. She tried to communicate with the remaining wounded Afghans left behind. Most spoke Urdu—that’s what the Afghan doctor told her. He wasn’t here, either. She looked worriedly around.
Suddenly she heard a vehicle stop in front of the building. She rushed to the door to see an American army jeep with three fully garbed male Muslims loaded in it. She didn’t recognize any of them. Seated in the back, a woman sat with hands tied behind her. She dressed in American attire with no hijab over her head.
Cricket knew the woman as an interpreter from the embassy, a U.S. citizen of Arabian descent. At the one meeting where Cricket met her, the interpreter kept pointing at the hijab on Cricket’s head and often said, “I will not wear that.”
In the distance, Cricket saw another Arab walking toward the jeep. No one else traveled the streets in the usually bustling city. Something about his height and brisk steps as he walked seemed familiar. She stared as he stopped on the far corner and appeared to be waiting.
The translator screamed. Cricket turned back immediately to see her as one of the Arabs grabbed her hair in his fist and pulled her out of the vehicle to sling her against the wall. He drew a pistol out of his robe pointing it in all directions. In fear, Cricket remained in place. She eyed the translator who stumbled in getting up. Then Cricket looked back to check the man on the corner. He wasn’t there. She scanned the street. He was nowhere.
The Arabs turned to Cricket. She tried to make out what they wanted. The few words she knew well were the mandatory phrase required by her command. Cricket repeated it in Arabic. “I don’t know how to speak your language. I’ve learned these words to inform you.”
That seemed to pacify the man with the gun. He turned to the interpreter to get her to translate for them.
The translator looked calmly at Cricket. “We’re going to die.”
One of the men yelled in Arabic as he grabbed Cricket’s arm in a death grip. The interpreter looked straight at Cricket and translated, “He says of you “this one is mine.” Do you want to reply to him?”
Cricket shook her head and looked at the tall Arabian who held her arm so tightly it throbbed. The Arab’s black eyes looked like a snake’s. She didn’t move although her arm hurt with the man’s hold. The other Arab held a gun on her.
Cricket looked at the interpreter and pleaded, “Could you tell them the wounded inside need my help? I have to get them to their families.”
When the interpreter restated Cricket’s request to the Taliban soldiers, all three Arabs laughed loudly.
One of them spoke, and the translator looked at Cricket and gave the Arab’s answer. “He says, your patients deserve to die as traitors. And he will cut off their heads as Allah demands.”
Suddenly, the Arab with the pistol lifted it to Cricket’s head. The second Muslim who squeezed her arm pulled her behind him, yelling the same Arabic words he said before, “This one is mine.”
The first Arab immediately turned the gun on the female interpreter and shot her in the head. Cricket screamed, struggling to get to the woman. The man gripping her arm kept her in place.
A shot rang. The Taliban soldier holding the pistol jerked forward and fell to the ground. The remaining two Arabs looked around. Cricket could see no one. Another shot sounded. The man squeezing Cricket’s arm jerked. His grip broke and he immediately fell against the wall, sliding to the ground. The third Arab scampered swiftly away down the street. But at the ring of a third bullet, he fell.
Cricket looked on every side to see only the three dead Arabs and the interpreter. Then suddenly from the opposite direction, the same Arab who previously stood on the corner walked toward her. A rifle rested over his shoulder. He wore common Afghan clothing, a loose-fitting shirt, and pants. The traditional pakol covered his head.
Cricket knew he was going to kill her, or she would soon hear the Arabic words, “She is mine.” She turned to run.
“Sanders?” Is that you?” The words held no foreign accent. She recognized the voice.
She paused and turned toward him. “Gunny?”
He nodded. “Are you OK?”
Except for trembling violently, she felt fine. “I’m OK.”
He scowled at the entrance of the medical facility. “Where are the other nurses?”
Cricket shook her head. “I don’t know. I’ve been calling. But now my phone doesn’t work. No one was in their rooms. The medical headquarters isn’t answering their phones.”
He nodded. “They’re gone.”
Cricket realized it wasn’t a question. “What do you mean?”
“I mean the military has pulled out. We’re here on our own.”
“That can’t be. I’ve got to get the wounded out.”
“Do you have all your patients—I’m thinking the French and Brits already came and got their wounded. They’re madder than a hornet at our commander-in-chief. No notification Newsom is what they’re calling him. I just heard it this morning over the radio. Check your facility.”
Cricket felt devastated. “I already have. The French and British aren’t there.”
“Have you seen the doctor?”
Cricket felt more drained of hope at the question. She barely shook her head.
Gunny moved his rifle off his shoulder and pointed it at the ground. “They’ve torn down the towers. That’s why you can’t use your phone anymore. No more flights out for Americans.”
“They’ve left the military behind?”
“What’s left of it. I hope that’s just you and me. You can stay here.”
“There’s a Christian organization broadcasting they’re coming to bring the American civilians back home.”
“But I’m military.”
“Yes. But you can wait here. You said you wanted to protect the Afghan wounded.”
Cricket’s eyes grew wide. “But you saw what just happened. One of them wanted me as his property.”
“I’m headed to Kandahar.” He gestured at the men lying in the street. “There will be men like them where I’m headed. Do you think I can protect you?”
“I saw you protect a captain. I think you could help me better than just me. How are you going to Kandahar?”
“On foot.” He grimaced.
“That sounds ridiculous.”
“Yes, it does, even to me. So, you stay here. The Christians should be here soon to get you.”
“When? When will they come?”
He narrowed his eyes. “Well, I’ve never been in charge of a Christian group. I figure they’ll come as soon as they can.”
“That’s not soon enough for me.”
“Look, Lieutenant Sanders, the trip I’m taking is exactly how you described it—ridiculous. The trip will be worse for you than staying here.”
“Why do you say that?”
“No running water—sleeping on the ground—getting wet and no shelter. That group that’s coming will get you to safety.”
Cricket shook her head, “Then why aren’t you staying here with me? Won’t that be safer for you? And besides, I was told to get these Afghans out of here. You just saved them from being murdered.”
Jack shook his head. “Right now, I can’t even guarantee I’ll save me. You need to tell their families. . .”
“Tell their families? I don’t even know if they have any families. And they are on medications—most of them. I need to tell them what dosage and when.”
He shrugged. “Someone needs to come to get them. Those that can walk out need to do it now.”
“I can’t speak their language.”
Jack grimaced as he blew out a frustrated breath. He stepped toward the medical facility’s entrance. “I can.”
“You speak Urdu?”
He looked impatient. “I speak every language in this God-forsaken country. Come with me. You tell me what to say about the different dosages.”
She paused, her voice rising with the terror she felt. “You want me to tell the Afghan soldiers inside to walk home because of the danger here in the city, but it’s OK for me to stay here?”
He grimaced. “I meant for you to move to another place. That’s all I’m saying since the Taliban know where this medical facility is. They’ve already come here once to murder the Afghans today—and you.” He looked down at the woman still lying in the street. Then he shook his head. “She was a good translator.”
“Gunny, you need to help me take the Afghans away. Those who can’t walk can be taken to the nurses’ apartments where I sleep. And you’re going to have to help me communicate with them.”
“We don’t have time. I’ll tell them how to get to your place.”
“I need help with the two who can’t walk. Please, help me.” Her voice broke. Her eyes filled with tears. And her hands still shook violently.
He took a deep breath knowing he was a sucker when it came to a woman in tears. He figured a thirty-minute delay might mean a bullet in his head. But then if he lived through this, he wasn’t reenlisting, no matter how big the bonus.
He narrowed his eyes on her. “Let’s get this done.”
Hide and Seek
Cricket watched from her second-story apartment window as Gunny walked out of the building’s front door and onto the street below. All but two of the Afghan soldiers took off on foot as soon as she gave dosage directions to Gunny. For the Afghans now lying in her apartment, he gave money to two boys on the street with the promise of more if they brought the two patients’ kin back to carry them out. Then he gave the extra cash to each Afghan patient to make sure the errand boys got their reward when they brought the help.
Cricket would be here by herself once the families came to pick up the two soldiers lying in bed. Over the radio, she now heard the Christian organization was further delayed. The last radio blurb indicated it may take them more months than initially expected to retrieve the Americans from Afghanistan.
What if they never came? She couldn’t even listen to the radio anymore. The electricity was out in the building. She couldn’t take a shower or make coffee.
I’m not a civilian—I’m military.
She walked to the window again and looked at Gunny’s receding back. He kept walking farther away in the distance. He certainly looked like an Afghan.
Suddenly she heard laughter, Children raced up the stairs. She went to her door and saw several children, three women, and one carrying an infant. Then several men topped the stairs. She saw the errand boys Gunny sent to retrieve the families, too. She motioned for them to enter. The men carried what looked to be homemade medical stretchers, although she had stretchers from the clinic sitting under the beds.
She could taste the fear. She wasn’t used to this feeling. After the translator’s murder today, she realized she was a coward.
The patients laughed as the children entered. They spoke rapidly and the errand boys waited as the Afghans happily counted out their reward money. A pitcher of water sat on a table and one of the men poured himself a glass and drank heartily. Several wrapped peanut butter sandwiches were still sitting between the two men. The children grabbed them and tore off the clear wrapping that kept them fresh. When accomplished, they ate as though they were starving.
Cricket made a quick decision. She saluted the two Afghan soldiers as she said, “Goodbye, I’m leaving. I’m glad your family got here soon.”
One of them nodded. “Yes. Thank you.”
Cricket looked at him in shock. “Why didn’t you tell me you could understand English?”
He shrugged, and with his heavy accent said, “You didn’t ask.”
She nodded and pointed to the door. “I’m leaving now.”
“We know. Be safe.”
She turned and raced down the stairs. When she exited, she saw no trace of Gunny, but she kept running in the direction she last saw him walking. Hiding in the bushes when she heard vehicles coming, she still wore her uniform and didn’t want to broadcast herself to the enemy. She finally caught up with someone who looked like Gunny from the distance. She kept running breathlessly until she reached twenty paces behind. Then she slowed to a skip and a hop, taking two steps to his one. Suddenly the man paused and turned back toward her. She was relieved. It was him.
“Gunny!” She sprinted up beside him and stopped.
He frowned. “What are you doing?”
“I’m following you.”
He didn’t look happy. “What about your patients?”
“You took care of that. Thank you.”
“So, what are you doing now?”
“I’m going with you.”
“No.” He looked angry.
She felt confused. “Why? We’re both military. The Christian organization is delayed. And even if it comes, they’re coming for civilians—not military.”
“It’s too dangerous.”
Cricket looked up into the clear blue sky. “And you think leaving me here is not dangerous?”
He looked down at her uniform with its bars identifying her as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. “You’re not coming dressed like that.”
She followed his line of sight. “I don’t have anything else.”
He nodded. “Follow me. Not too close. And hide if you see anyone.”
Cricket frowned at his words as she waited where he left her. She remained standing in place until he reached about twenty paces in front. Then she stepped forward, two paces to his one. After walking several blocks, the streets still sat eerily vacant. He paused and knocked on a door, then went inside. As she walked up to the front of the building, she saw the door sat opened. Inside an array of clothing was hung on rods.
It looked like a clothing store. But it didn’t sit in the market area. She eyed Gunny shuffling through the material and asking the owner questions in words she did not understand. He saw her at the door and carried pieces of clothing which he draped over her, checking its length and width. He also bought another pakol.
Gunny pointed to the back. “There’s the dressing room, Sanders. Get in and put your clothes on.”
“What do I do with my uniform?”
He tilted his head. “We’ll burn it.”
“That’s not funny.”
“If they find your dinky little fatigue uniform anywhere, you’re right, it won’t be funny. Get rid of the uniform.”
Cricket carried the bundle of Afghan clothing into a dressing room. She looked around the small enclosure seeing mirrors on all four sides. Since she wasn’t familiar with how to wear the articles, she tried conjuring up an image from memory to fit the pieces together.
After ten minutes she heard Gunny’s voice. “Are you ready, Sanders?”
Her light blonde hair still sat in the chignon on her crown. And she still wore her hijab over it. She placed the pakol on her head and stepped out of the dressing room. “I’m ready.”
“Not with the scarf, you’re not.”
“The scarf?” Cricket felt confused. “I’m not wearing a scarf.”
“You’re wearing a hijab which is a scarf. It identifies you as a woman.”
“But I am a woman.”
He shook his head. “Not on this trip with me, you’re not. Now, take it off.”
Cricket turned to reenter the dressing room.
“No. You’ve spent too much time in there. This is just your head you need to uncover.” He touched her arm to turn her around.
She squeaked in pain. “Ouch!”
Jack stepped back and frowned. “Did that hurt?”
“I’m bruised there.” She pointed to her bicep. “That Arab who thought I was his property almost squeezed my arm off.”
“He nodded. “Now, let’s see your hair.”
She removed her pakol, then her hijab. Jack’s scowl grew deeper if that were possible. Finally, he spoke in exasperation. “You expect to walk across Afghanistan dressed like an Afghan teenager, and you’ve bleached your hair blonde?”
“Bleached? No. This is natural.”
“White-blonde? Natural?” He asked incredulously. “I don’t think we’re going to make it across Afghanistan with blonde hair—even under a pakol—and with long hair? How did you keep long hair coming into the military?”
She felt her head heat up in anger. “If it stays off our collar, we women can keep it. You didn’t know that, Gunny?”
He wished he never found out. He released an annoyed breath. “It needs to be chopped. If not, you’re definitely going to keep that blonde stuff up in that bird’s nest on this trip. If you don’t, they’ll know you’re a foreigner.”
She touched the bun on top of her head. “This is a chignon, not a bird’s nest.”
“Listen, Lieutenant, I don’t care if you call it a pile. The pile just better not be visible to me. And especially not visible to anyone we meet anytime on this trip. That pakol with its flap in the back better be covering every inch of that blonde stuff. And those blue eyes, they have to go. Never look up. Act like you’re deaf, dumb, and blind. I’ll introduce you as my son.”
He could see the woman’s sky-blue eyes filming in tears. But she looked angry instead of hurt. She stepped up to him with her fists on her hips. “Look Gunny. I need your help to get out of here since it looks like the military left me.” She paused and restated, “Left us.” Now tears spilled down her cheeks. She turned away and took a deep breath before she hurriedly looked back up at him. “But don’t take these tears for weakness. Don’t you dare. I can keep up with you, whatever it takes. I can do this.”
Jack Davis grimaced. He never expected the little five-feet-two lieutenant to confront him like that. And he certainly didn’t like to see a woman tear-up. “I’ll take your word for it.” He turned to the keeper of the store. “Just to keep safe, Ali, do you have a wig and maybe some dark makeup?” Jack spoke in English. Cricket frowned. He and the storekeeper had been talking in rapid Persian earlier.
Ali nodded. “Of course, Jack.” He opened a floor door behind the counter and reached in for the supplies.
Cricket eyed Ali. “You spoke English without an accent. Who are you?”
Ali frowned. “Not for you to know, Lieutenant. Now forget you met me.” He turned to Jack. “That will be six hundred American dollars.”
Jack nodded. “That’s what I thought. Put it on my tab.”
Ali shook his head. “Do you think you are coming back?”
“What do you think? Abdul is still alive.”
“But you could get killed, and then where would my profit come from?”
“If you don’t give me this,” he picked it up and handed it to Cricket, “I will get killed, and then where will you and your family be? I figure that wig only cost thirty bucks, if at all.”
Ali nodded and shrugged. “You know you deal a hard bargain.”
Cricket scowled. “You speak English well.”
Ali shook his head. “No. I will deny it if anyone asks.” He turned back to Jack. “That will be a thousand dollars if I have to put it on your tab.”
Jack nodded. “If I make it through, you’ll get it.”
Ali came out from behind the counter and hugged him. “That’s for your Mama.”
Jack returned the hug. “And the thousand will be for all my nieces and nephews should I return.”
Cricket felt more confused. Nieces and nephews?
“What trail will you take?” Ali questioned.
Jack scowled. “Certainly not the highway. Too many enemies on the main road.”
“You’re not going into the mountains where the caves are, I hope.”
“That will be a safer route.”
“Not so if you come across the giants.”
“You don’t believe that myth, do you?”
“Jack, my neighbor never returned. They found his tent and supplies strung over the mountain path.”
“I’ve heard that story many times. The Taliban is known for that.”
“But it’s true. And the Taliban was nowhere in the area when it happened. Even your military lost a whole squad along the way.”
Jack put up his palm attempting to stop the explanations. “That could have been an ambush too.”
Ali shook his head. “When the rescue mission began their search for the missing squad, they found broken gear, radios, uniforms with broken bones along the way. One more elite force sergeant died defending the other members.”
Jack shrugged. “I’ve heard that, too. But I found nothing about a giant in the after-action report.”
Ali laughed. “Of course not. They know about the giants in the mountains and changed it. I talked to the rescue leader. They made him sign a non-disclosure statement.”
Cricket held the black wig up. “Why do you have wigs here?”
Her question interrupted the conversation. “For ladies like you.” Ali nodded. “Now put it on and then place the pakol over it. Jack, you need to let her get this dark makeup on.”
Jack turned toward the dressing room. “Go on. Smear it on. But not too much. We’ll need it for when we meet up with other enemies along the way.”
Cricket walked to the dressing room to put on her costume. She could hear Jack’s voice discussing the trip. “Thanks for the warning. I’ll be careful about the caves.”
“Do not go near the deep ones. That’s where they take refuge. We shorter humans don’t generally go into the deep caves since the floor drops away too steeply.”
“Are you sure you believe this?” Jack asked incredulously.
“I only believe that lead sergeant and what he saw. You know, they used a lot of firepower on the giant they killed.”
“They killed one? There was no information on that in the after-action report.”
“Oh, yes. Exactly. They helicoptered it out to a local base. Even the pilot saw it since it was huge and had to be towed by net like a tank. It weighed 1,100 pounds.”
“Now someone has to be lying.”
“It stood almost twelve feet tall when they measured it.”
“And it had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot.”
Cricket came out of the dressing room. Her skin looked dark, like a Middle Easterner. Hair sprung out from under the pakol as expected of a teenager. Jack grimaced when she looked up, her blue eyes ruined her disguise. She stepped beside the two men. “You know, that sounds like the giants in the Bible.”
Jack scowled. “Yeah, it sounds like one of those fairy tales I’ve heard.”
Cricket shook her head. “No. Not a fairy tale. It’s true. The Bible talks about David and Goliath and the giants who had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot.”
“OK, Ali. I think you’ve persuaded the lieutenant. But not me. I’ll believe it when I see it.”
“Since you believe it, Ali,” Cricket asked, “what makes you believe?”
“I trust those who brought the story back from the mountains. I do not trust your government. And why should you? They left you here! I guess they think you are a miracle worker and can get out with no help.”
“Come on, Habib. We’re leaving for the mountains where the giants can eat us,” Jack said.
“Who are you talking to?” Cricket frowned.
“You, of course, Habib. It’s an Afghan boy’s name. Come on.”
Ali laughed. “That’s a good name for you, Habib. It means friend.”
Jack scowled at Ali’s explanation as he turned to Cricket. “Come on. You said you could do this.”
After hearing the story of the giant, Cricket didn’t know if she was up to this or not. The known enemy was one thing. But giants?
She shrugged. “Yes, I’m coming.” She turned back to Ali. “I’m going to find out how you can speak English so well and why Gunny said the thousand was for his nephews and nieces,”
Ali smiled. “That’s easy. I’m Gunny’s uncle. And his nieces and nephews live here with me.”
Cricket grimaced, picturing Jack. Tall, dark, ruggedly handsome. Is Gunny an Afghan?
When her mouth dropped open, Ali used his forefinger to close it. “I think you better run to catch up with him. He wants to get there as soon as he can.”
“I know we’re going to Kandahar. But we’re walking. Isn’t there an easier way?”
Ali laughed. “You’re traveling with him, and you don’t know?”
She looked out the door to see Jack in the distance. “I’d better run.”
“To keep up, I think you’ll be running most of the journey.”
She released a tense breath. “I think you’re right.” She raced after him, her closed-toed runners all she needed to comfortably catch up. She reached his side, breathing hard. “You could slow down.”
His eyes remained on the empty street ahead. “Why? And let the Taliban surround us?”
“I don’t see them anywhere.”
“That’s right. And that’s how we’re going to keep it if we can.”
Not for the first time today, she noticed she took two steps to his one. “I guess you’re going to be walking this fast all the way there, aren’t you?”
“It will be harder in the mountains. But if you’re set on going with me, you need to keep up.”
Cricket nodded. With her black wig and pakol, her boy’s loose-fitting shirt, she stayed up with him through the many empty streets in Kabul. However, groups in the distance soon appeared. While they carried no weapons like the Taliban, Cricket noticed Jack took broader strides, making her move faster to keep pace.
“Remember, you are not to look up.” Cricket heard his low whisper as a group of men approached. “Hold on to my elbow and pretend I’m leading you.”
Cricket tilted her face down, knowing her blue eyes betrayed her if anyone came close. As they passed, one man said something to Jack. He returned a comment, the tone and delivery of words sounding similar to the men who passed.
After several seconds, she whispered, “What did they say?”
“Hello is all they said? It sounded too long for hello.”
“Alright, they said the way is clear. The Taliban is in a convoy on the other side of the city.”
“Why would they give you that information? Are they informants, like Ali?”
“Ali is not an informant. He just hates the Taliban and comes up with costumes in case anyone wants to hide. He also gets paid well for the work.”
“But then, why did those men tell you about the Taliban and where they are?”
“Lieutenant, why do you think we’ve not seen anyone until now? We’ve been walking this direction to get out of the Taliban’s way. And those men who just spoke have as well. The Taliban is not a friend, they kill anyone if they don’t agree with them.”
Cricket looked at the trail leading out of the city. “We’re lucky, aren’t we?”
“Why do you say that?”
“We’re almost out of town.”
“That’s the trouble. It will only get worse after this.”
“Just keep quiet. Your English won’t be welcomed right now. Remember, we’ve deserted them. Left them defenseless against the Taliban.”
“They may be confused about the U.S. departure, but so am I. It’s a mystery to me. Why did they leave us here?”
“I think you were a mistake. Someone thought they got everyone, and they didn’t.”
“Yeah, they had a head count and counted incorrectly in the chaos to leave.”
“Maybe so. I just think it was sloppy. Rude!”
He laughed and looked down at her. His smile, the first she’d ever seen from him, made him even more handsome. But he didn’t stop stepping forward. He looked ahead as he questioned, “Rude? I like that definition.”
“Yes, here we are behind enemy lines.”
“There’s no lines here. The enemy could be anywhere.”
The thought terrorized her. She felt her face flush with exertion, but she kept forcing her steps forward. “I think you’re trying to intimidate me with all your field terminology. OK. So, there’s no lines here. At least I know we could get killed, and they didn’t even check their count to make sure!”
He nodded. “I don’t think anyone is in charge. They’ve stumbled all over themselves. As far as failures go, leaving in chaos with eleven Marines dead looked a lot like Benghazi to me. Someone made sure it looked bad.”
WANT MORE OF ROAD TO KANDAHAR – IT’S COMING SOON