Read on for the first chapter of my new book Hearts On Fire…
Dante – Afghanistan 2002
The bruised sky splits open like a gaping wound. The rumble of thunder masks the stillness for a few brief, savage moments. It fades like the promise of a reckoning before a second flash of lightning puts that shit to rest. At the same time the M-ATV hits another dip in the road, rattling the crap out of the suspension and forcing me to adjust my position. I take a drag from my canteen, my eyes fixed on the scorched horizon. Panning left to right, stretching out as far as the eye can see. Not a fucking tree in sight. Religion bleeds from every pore of this place but it feels like God abandoned it a long time ago.
The steady rumble of the engine continues as we weave a course through the wilderness. My team has been moving in convoy for two days now. We’re on a reconnaissance trip for B Squadron. The target is a potential Taliban stronghold that the US Government has deemed hot property. We’ve been sent in to scope it out and weigh up the civilian cost, but every single man here knows that’s bullshit. This mission is nothing but a decoy to appease the US media and their tireless anti-drone rhetoric. Somewhere in Washington there’s a trigger-happy general just itching to deliver retribution, whether he blows up a hundred innocents or not.
“You done with that, Captain?”
I feel a light tap on my shoulder. Wordlessly, I pass the canteen to one of the two men sat behind me. As I do, I catch the eye of the other guy. Chilly blue-grays slam into mine, and my eyebrows lift a notch. Pretty boy has some fucking balls looking at me like that. He’s a rookie, an unknown. He was only drafted in for the job after Lewis got the back of his head blown off by a rogue insurgent at a roadblock a week ago.
“What’s your name again, soldier?” I grit out.
There’s a pause. “Grayson, sir.”
“Look at me like that again, Grayson, and we have a serious problem. You got that?”
Blue-grays don’t flicker, even when his comrade elbows him in the ribs. “Yes, sir,” he mutters, refusing to lower his gaze. There’s another pause. “I heard about you.”
“You heard shit.”
An uneasy silence settles over the vehicle. I have a reputation, and it’s one that will continue long after I leave the US Military. I go where others fear to tread, I live my life so far on the edge I’m already pitching into thin air, I don’t know the meaning of mercy. Even the President knows my name – it’s a false fucking name, but still. Leaders only hear what they want to hear.
My Sergeant Major’s voice comes over the radio from the vehicle behind, slicing through the heavy atmosphere like a blade. “Three miles out, Captain. Dust storm incoming.”
“Roger that. Over.”
I rub my hand across my jaw. Is this the part where I feel apprehensive? Fuck that shit. I have the same numbness inside that I always do. The only time I feel is when I kill, when dark satisfaction furls around my soul like thick, black smoke.
I read an article once about people with the gift to see color in their emotions. I remember thinking at the time that it was a neat trick. They experience something like grief and their whole world turns a shade of blue. If I had that ability, if I could span a lifetime, there would only be one color in my palate.
The same color that used to pour from my dead mother’s mouth after my father’s fists went to town on her.
I glance at my driver. His grip on the steering wheel is tight. His face is set. Lips pale. For those who can actually still feel a goddamn thing out here there are two constants – fear and pain. I’ve seen grown men weep. I’ve seen others torn apart and die with dignity. And that color? Crimson. I don’t even have to imagine it. So rich and vivid, so omnipresent… Staining the battleground beneath their broken bodies, haunting their eyes, polluting their last breath.
I reach out and angle the rear-view mirror to see how the High School jock is holding up. Cool as ice. Grayson looks likes he’s on his way to a date with the Prom Queen. Shoulders relaxed, finger resting lightly on the trigger. He shakes a fly off his left hand and the sunlight catches on the gold of a wedding band. How old is this guy, twenty? Twenty-two? And hitched already? Tsk tsk, pretty boy. To me, that’s the worst kind of weakness.
He glances up and his eyes lock onto mine. He catches the sardonic tilt of my lips and now it’s his turn to lift his eyebrows.
I open my mouth to rip him a new asshole when a searing white light outside catches my eye. That wasn’t lightning. I grab the wheel to steer us out of the rocket’s path but it’s too late. Screaming hell fire rains down upon us as the M-ATV pitches sideways with a violent jerk. A blinding pain pierces through my left leg and I have one final thought before everything goes black.
Turns out I can still feel something after all.
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