The Dead Soldier's Ring
Nathan was thinking of chicken wings when he found the note in his backpack. “Whatever happens, don’t die. See you on Monday.” No signature. What the flying fuck. Was that more of the chief’s motivational bullshit? Did Zack choose today of all days to pull another of his stupid pranks? Could it be from Kyle or one of the other boys? Nah. That would be fucking weird.
See you on Monday. Yeah. right. Like he’d be seeing any of those fat asses on Monday. Their first day back home after nineteen weeks stuck in that North African shithole. Fezzan, Libya. Not on the top of anyone's list of tourist destinations. The Special Forces command would make shitty travel agents, that’s for sure.
Anyway, their holiday in the desert was almost over. Nathan already had his Monday morning all planned out. A big bowl of hot chicken wings, a case of ice-cold beer, a blowjob from his girlfriend. Fuck, he wouldn’t mind having all that for the entire week, breakfast, lunch and dinner. He had no plan to see the other eleven guys anytime soon once they were stateside again. No offence, but hey. Priorities.
Priority one was not to get shot, sure, but the note made that sound easy. Seriously? “Whatever happens, don’t die”? Get out of here. The officers were trying to play it down, but the entire team knew they could end the last operation with a couple of extra holes in their bodies. They called it a suicide strike against suicide terrorism.
You hardly saw one of those anymore. Sneaking up on an ISIS big shot like that, as if you were playing a game on your Xbox. Those were the ones you would vaporise with a drone strike nowadays. Boom, gone. Thanks, Obama. Why they wanted that particular motherfucker to be caught alive, well, that was way above Nathan’s pay grade. He only had two orders. Follow the plan for as long as it works, avoid killing the wrong bad guy if he had to improvise. And, of course, try not to be the unlucky bastard who ruins homecoming for everybody by getting shot on the last day at the office. Whatever you do, don’t die. Chicken wings. See you on Monday.
The rest of the country was asleep, but the TV lights stayed on all night at the houses of those twelve families. Live from Tripoli, CNN had breaking news about a military operation in Fezzan which led to the successful capture of the Isis leader codenamed Jihadi Tom, number three in the CIA’s most wanted list, as well as five of his closest associates. It was an outstanding victory in the war on ISIS, which the entire country would celebrate when morning came.
In those twelve houses, the capture of Jihadi Tom was an afterthought. What kept those families awake until dawn, dialling furiously on their phones and with their eyes bloodshot from staring non-stop at the television, was the short sentence news anchors repeated every time they mentioned the operation. “One special forces soldier was reported dead.”
On the day of the funeral, Kyle’s girlfriend was catatonic. Nathan had seen other military widows before, but nothing came close to that. Everything else was the usual. Family members would cry, friends from the army and school would exchange stoic looks, maybe have a short conversation and share a memory of Kyle. But the girl just stood against the wall, not a tear in her eyes, not a word spoken to anyone, not a sign of emotion on her face, staring at the casket for five hours until they removed it. Fucking creepy.
“He was going to propose to her,” said Kyle’s mother when Nathan went to pay his respects. She took Nathan aside and showed him what they had found with Kyle’s belongings. A thick engagement ring with a discreet diamond on it, stuffed inside his gloves along with a small piece of paper. The handwriting was the same Nathan had seen in the anonymous note left in his backpack. “I want to fight by your side for the rest of my life. Will you marry me? K.”
Nathan’s girlfriend fell asleep on the couch while he watched TV in the dark, drinking can after can of warm beer. His chicken wings were getting cold.
Fucking Kyle. A note and an engagement ring? Is that the kind of shit you leave in your backpack on the day of a suicide operation? Seriously? What the flying fuck.
They had an agreement when they went on those long missions — Kyle, Nathan, a couple of the other boys. It was no big deal. They would get together to let off some steam, forget about fucking ISIS for a night or two, try not to lose their shit like those veterans who go nuts after months touching nothing but military gear and their own junk.
The other side had their jihadi brides, their harems with two dozen virgins or whatever the fuck they had been promised. He and the boys only had each other. In the States, they would go back to their girls. What happened in Fezzan stayed in Fezzan.
Sure, Kyle would say some girly shit when they were together sometimes. Nathan played along and enjoyed it, but he would always tell himself it was a little game between the two, just to kill time. Maybe the desert had been messing with their heads lately. But an engagement ring? Holy shit.
Before falling asleep in front of the TV, Nathan thought about Kyle’s girlfriend again. Did she know the truth? If she did and was playing along to save his face at the funeral, well, that would explain the creepy fucking look on her face. That must be some tough shit to swallow. Nah. It couldn’t be that. The poor girl sent a boyfriend to war and lost a husband. That alone would be enough to leave her the way she was.
On that night, Nathan dreamt that he was at Kyle’s funeral again. Instead of military uniforms, they were both wearing suits and ties.
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