Special thanks to Sbrooks for editing, any remaining mistakes are completely my fault, probably added after his able assistance.
One: While the title of this is Soldier Girl, beware of using that phrase with female soldiers. It’s for either very intimate or close familial use. Or for someone with a good dental plan.
Second: A quick definition – POST is the Peace Officer Standards and Training certification for police officers.
The throbbing growl of the truck engine overrode the muffled sounds of soldiers shouting. Staff Sergeant Tina James – TJ to her friends- edged around the truck tire, looking for one of the fleeting targets. Over the harmony of AK fire, M-4 carbines were sounding off in their curiously popcorn-like voices, occasionally punctuated by a burst of heavier automatic fire from the vehicle mounted weapons. What a goat-fuck. The convoy was halfway around the corner when the IEDs hit both ends simultaneously.
A stopped convoy, bent around a corner where the crew served vehicle-mounted weapons couldn’t support each other was really bad news.
It was never good when they got clever like this.
TJ glanced over her shoulder at Corporal Deaner, who was looking around the other end of the truck.
No answer. Try again.
“Deaner! Got anything?”
Damn engine was too loud to hear anything over. TJ scoped the area in front of her one more time before turning and fast crawling over to Deaner and tugging on his leg.
“Deaner, nothing on my end...”
Her voice trailed off as the foot fell over limply.
Half Deaner’s head was missing. A rattling of air gasped out of his mouth. TJ thought she could hear words even though he was clearly dead.
She started to drag him back behind the tire just as an Iraqi stepped over him, AK-47 swinging to bear.
Everything was moving in slow motion, TJ’s M-4 was pointed out to her end of the truck.
The insurgent, grinning madly, pulled the trigger.
The AK had jammed. TJ saw the man’s panic as he dropped the AK and dove toward her. Her M-4 was pinned to her as he smashed into her. A moment’s struggle – his breath stank like a dying swamp. She could see the realization that she was female hit him. His smile got bigger.
Until he felt her blade pushing into his chest just above the stomach and below the ribs.
Fastest way to a man’s heart.
The insurgent began to spasm, convulsing off of her, yanking the bayonet handle out of her grasp. She pulled herself up and reached over to pull the bayonet out of the body as three of her squad huffed around the corner, scanning like the pros they were – like the pros she’d trained them to be. It looked like Pruitt and her two, off the aptly named “Miami Sound Machine.” TJ felt a little relieved at that – she knew the crowd control, loudspeaker-heavy vehicle had taken a hit of some kind in the initial exchange of fire.
They hadn’t seen Deaner yet, and they were grinning like fools.
She pulled herself upright, staggering to her feet. A sick chill went through her.
Christ. What the hell would she say to Deaner’s mom?
A soldier from another squad ran up alongside the halted vehicle and headed toward the door of the nearest building. Even as he grabbed the door handle, she screamed at him to stop. The door was limned in unreal yellow-orange light as it bulged outward from the explosion...
TJ sat upright, gasping for air, sweat soaking her clothes. Her nerves were screaming for her to do something, do anything, but she caught herself. Closed her eyes. Calmed her breathing.
Leaving the Army had been ... awkward. Six months of therapy. A handful of ribbons. High praise from a bunch of senior officers about how important her service had been. The feeling of loss as she realized that whatever she did, she was no longer one of them.
An airline ticket to Saint Louis and a bus ticket back to Saint Claire, Missouri.
A disability check.
She looked down at the stump of her thigh. Her request to remain on active duty had been denied – right leg was amputated just above her knee, two fingers on her left hand and her left eye, gone. The leg was the worst of it though, the fingers had been barely noticeable compared to that. But it was the eye that kept her out, she suspected. She had illusions of being able to see with her missing eye – just pale, out of focus things and flashes of light, but it had never, despite all the treatments, stopped.
But like a lot of things, she’d learned to stop telling the doctors about them. So that she’d eventually been released.
Then came the penance.
She’d missed the funerals, the memorial services. Everything. Nothing was left but long dried tears and crippled families. Keller’s wife and Deaner’s mom cane to see her in the hospital. But she’d had to seek out the wives, husbands and parents of the others. She’d met most of them. At promotion ceremonies, organization day Bar-B-Queues and, of course, Departure Day.
They were all polite, but she could see they were mostly trying hard not to blame her. Not for making a mistake – somebody had made sure everyone knew what happened. But for being alive while their loved ones were gone.
Nobody said anything. But TJ couldn’t help notice Pruitt’s younger brother staring at her. Twelve-year-olds don’t hide their feelings as well as adults.
They all tried so hard not to blame her. Except for Specialist Eric Jenkin’s wife.
She’d answered the door with her now-fatherless two-year-old baby girl on her left hip. She’d taken a second to recognize TJ, but when she did her greeting choked off. White-faced and drawn, she let the door swing open the rest of the way, then took one step forward and slapped TJ with all her strength. She turned, stepped back in and shut the door without saying a single word.
That slap made TJ feel better than all the Chaplain’s platitudes and therapists’ endless bullshit put together.
TJ agreed. Amy Jenkins was right to blame her.
After that, she’d stayed with her dad and his new wife for a few weeks, but she’d felt claustrophobic from the beginning. The house where she had grown up in was too full of uncomfortable silences; memories of her mom, and that horrible cancer that killed her. Her dad’s new wife was great, a nice person, and he deserved someone. But it didn’t matter, TJ just couldn’t handle it. She felt herself growing restless and irritable. And they didn’t deserve what she seemed to be turning into.
Eventually she had to ask her dad for the keys to the cabin, filled her old Ford Ranger with supplies and headed out. Her family had owned the cabin on Platte Lake as long as she could remember, and it had always been the quiet place. A place for rest. It had been used less and less over the years, especially after her father hurt his back and pretty much gave up hunting and fishing.
When she’d pulled up to the cabin in the middle of an oppressively hot Ozarks afternoon, it had been the first time that she actually felt like she’d come “home.”
She’d had to run spiders and mice out of the cabin, and weeks later she was still doing it, but everything felt right – the smells, the sounds.
Especially the solitude.
She loved just being alone, listening to the sound of the dark Ozark woods. Sometimes those sounds could even drown out the screams and blasts in her head. Sometimes.
It’d taken a while to get things set up but she had plenty of gas in the propane tank and the well was running fine; so was the deep freeze that she was rapidly filling with catfish. She could even watch TV – if she’d had one. All she had was an old radio that smelled funny when it first turned on, but that was fine, all she used it for was weather anyway.
Through most of the summer, she’d found a type of peace. Fixing up the cabin, fishing and just sitting on the porch swing. If not for the haunting memories and endless nightmares, it would have been almost idyllic.
As much as valued her retreat, after a few weeks, she eventually found herself headed to town.
She really hadn’t wanted any company or conversation but a broken hose coupling forced her on in.
As TJ slowed the old Ford pick-up, the broiling afternoon air made the dusty town seem washed out, like an old western town in a sepia tone postcard.
After the hardware store, she headed to the grocery store to pick up something other than fish as a main course. The checkout girl, “Cindy” by her name-tag, was a brown-haired girl in long sleeves, a high collar and a floor length skirt that marked her as a member of one of the stricter churches in the area. She’d somehow seemed vaguely familiar. The girl had started at the sight of TJ, but that was a reaction TJ had grown used to.
Still, she tried to place where she had seen “Cindy” before.
She’d try to figure that out later; right now the old diner on the side of the road beckoned, a sign in the window promising “the best” fried chicken and potatoes for five dollars in bold red marker letters.
What the hell. She pulled into one of the many empty spaces in front of the diner.
Tammi winced as she pushed a tray back to Donny through the tray window. Her ribs were killing her.
Probably fractured again.
.... There is more of this story ...