For a terrifying instant there was no sound. A puff of smoke behind a low brick wall flipped a mental switch … then nothing … only the rending grate of my own breathing.
From the plume, an incoming RPG. The metal tip glinted orange, reflecting a sunset tinted with dust scorched in the Iraqi desert. At 170 meters, we had less than two seconds.
My world flickered and slowed like a nickelodeon movie that slipped off its reel.
I tracked the flight path, calculating its trajectory from the launch position beneath a silhouetted minaret to the point of our squad. The fatigue in my muscles evaporated and I tensed, ready to dive into cover.
But I hesitated.
Danny was covering point.
He'd run track with me in high school and kept on me about practice until we both made state finals senior year; he'd given up a full scholarship at UCLA to work his way through Fresno State with me; he’d held me for ten minutes when I proposed to his sister, tears of joy soaking my sweatshirt.
He’d led me to Christ the day after my mother died of cervical cancer.
A vulture circled above the flaming maw of Rhamadi. The grenade streaked over the sand, a gray trail of burned propellant stretching behind like yarn pulled taught from a tangled skein. Its path was true, direct, deadly.
I couldn’t, wouldn’t, accept the inevitable.
I staggered toward him, running as if under water with a full pack. My movements encumbered, dull, despite the thunder in my chest. He hadn’t seen, didn’t know.
He had a child, eight months old. Purity. Golden ringlets already. Her father’s eyes, bright with laughter. He’d never met her. Only the pictures. Our deployment was ending in three weeks, when my own daughter was due. We’d wanted to raise them as sisters.
I drew a breath, filling my lungs, and tried to shout a warning. But my throat constricted behind drawing lips, the lone sound a muffled scream that dribbled through my mind like wet cotton.
Movements beside, Gunny was gesturing, fingers pointing as the squad began to disperse. They raised weapons, taking aim as they tumbled away …
… from Danny who turned, face twisted, mouth gaping.
Valley of the shadow … valley of the shadow … valley of the shadow. The words spit in machinegun rounds, cutting me as deeply as any wound. … of death.
The cocoon of silence was breached by a rising growl, fierce, and ominous. The rocket bore in, flaming red, a foreshadowing of the flesh it was about to consume.
“Danny!” I screamed and the full tumult of chaos broke over me. Gunny barking orders, the clatter of armaments being readied, the press of breath as bodies fell to the dirt, seeking shelter.
And Danny’s eyes, wide, searching, staring at me.
I dropped my M-16 and hurtled toward him, my shoulder making impact with his chest in mid-leap. Concussive heat seared my back and legs as we toppled into a ditch.
Danny rolled my twitching frame off of him, shouting for a medic amid a scene that transfigured to black and white … and red. He stood by my boot, sodden with gore, in the center of the road while the crackle of return fire faded into whispers.
The Lord is my shepherd … the Lord is my shepherd … the Lord is my shepherd.
Darkness covered me as Danny knelt and held my hand.
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