Jack was nineteen. Top ten of his class of twenty three from Podunk High, out where the truck stop on 50 was called "town".

Knew he didn't have a chance in school, knew he'd never lived away from ma and pa, knew that, in his words, "the other kids in college woulda laughed when I showed up riding the horse they bought me for my 16th birthday."

So he joined the Army, figuring they'd show him what he'd been missing out on, grow him up a bit, and get him ready for the real world.

Jack wanted to be a mechanic. The Army didn't need a mechanic at the moment, so Jack was a grunt. With any luck he'd be able to change career fields at the end of his first tour, so he kept his fingers crossed and lied to his parents while he stuck it out.

Dan was called Tooth. He got the name at IET, when, during the initial round of scare-them-shitless yelling, he couldn't help but laughing out of nervousness. The clouds chose that moment to part, and the sunshine beamed off a yellow ray from his front incisor, a golden masterpiece crafted by the dentist in his hometown a few days after what anybody who was there calls "that time with the bike rack".

Tooth was 24 when he joined. He'd been working at a pharmaceutical packaging plant for six years and was set up for a promotion for shift supervisor. He was out celebrating when he met a girl at the bar and things took off. He'd been with her for six months when she told him that she was only sixteen, and had gotten into the club with a fake ID. Dan broke up with her, not wanting the kind of trouble that was coming anyway. Heartbroken, she went to the police and accused him of rape.

Dan had all of the text messages from her as what he thought would be unassailable proof of his innocence. Unfortunately, Dan also had a public defendant working his second case ever, and a judge who would later end up being disrobed for flagrant abuses and disregard of procedures and law.

In light of the evidence, the judge gave Dan the choice to either join the military or go to jail.

Dan scored off the charts - the recruiter even whistled when the scores came in. Dan wanted to be a pharmacy technician.

The recruiter knew the score and had billets to fill. So the recruiter told Tooth it was infantry or jail. After earning his nickname and using it for a while, Tooth was a grunt. He saw it all as a blessing in disguise, since the GI Bill meant he'd have the money to go to school and be a pharmacist.

Leroy grew up wanting to be a soldier. Leroy wanted a uniform and a gun and a mission, but mostly Leroy wanted a uniform. He wanted to win medals so he could show them off and be a hero.

What Leroy really wanted, though he wasn't ready to admit this to himself, was validation and self esteem. He made the common mistake of thinking that someone else could solve those problems for him. Leroy inherited enough money to blunder through school, so he did. He knew enough from his lifelong infatuation with war movies that officers get more respect, so he finished a degree and got his commission.

Given the choice, he chose infantry, because he wanted to win medals and command troops in combat.

Leroy was a prick and he was despised by his subordinates but for one thing - he was a brilliant platoon leader and kept bringing everybody home alive. So they tolerated his pompous idiocy and awkwardness, because if they were grumbling about his stupid games, it meant they were still alive to grumble.

Most of his fellow officers also thought he was a prick, but nobody could argue with his results. Not only had his platoon never suffered a loss under his command, they had also been performing beyond anybody's wildest expectations.

Leroy, much to the detriment of the morale of his men, was a grunt - and he loved it.

Leroy had just finished taking a final look through the checkout paperwork and inspecting the stragglers among the group. Fifteen minutes before the first briefing was the show time for mounted patrols, and he'd made it clear that he expected everyone to be there an additional fifteen minutes previous to that. Two had shown up only ten minutes before the show time, so he'd made a note to himself to be sure to counsel them on it.

Jack and Tooth knew they were in for a reaming, even though at five minutes late by the LT's standards, they'd still been ten minutes earlier than everybody else on the goddamned base. They both sighed when they saw they'd ended up in the same truck as the anal-retentive lieutenant. Tooth made a show of dry heaving, but quit when the heat made him feel like it might go beyond theatrics.

"Man," Jack said, turning 360 degrees in place so Tooth could check his gear, "Fuck this."

Tooth nodded, swatted Jack's helmet in a nonverbal OK, and did a jig of his own to make sure everything was tied, strapped, and snapped down just the way he wanted it.

Ahmad Ahmadzai had never been outside of a fifty mile radius in his entire life, and even then it had only been a brief trip with his father on business. It had made him feel important, going on that trip.

The frequency with which his parents discussed potential marriages had plummeted, which he took to be a good sign - they must have found someone. Ahmad assumed that his father had done well on the business trip, and had finally made enough to start seriously planning the wedding. He felt extra grown-up when he told himself that he had been a part of the business trip that had made enough money for him to be married, or at least engaged, at ten years old.

He wondered when he would meet his future wife's family. He wondered when he would be able to grow a beard. He worried that he wouldn't have a beard at his own wedding, but then he worried about having to wait that long.

Tooth focused on the road. It was his only job. No radios. No weapons. Nothing but driving, which was a difficult enough task if anything went wrong that it was insane to try to do anything else at the same time. They had drilled this into Tooth's head so permanently at Ft. Lost-in-the-woods that he was sure he'd be ruined for life, unable to listen to music in traffic or talk to passengers ever again.

To his right was the LT, sitting #2 and manning radios. Jack was up in the turret, standing on the piles of shit they were hauling across town to one of the smaller FOBs as part of the patrol.

They'd gone over the plan three times, even though they'd done the same thing a hundred more. Drive from the base to the outpost, remain overnight, then drive home the next morning. It was less than fifty miles as the crow flies, but that didn't mean shit here. It was going to be an all-day nightmare. It was already hot when they'd started at 10am, the latest end of the random time changes that the LT insisted they make. They always got a three hour window and were only told what time they were actually leaving the night before.

It was one of the things the LT did that kept them alive, even if it was a pain in the dick. Leaving from the same gate at the same time was stupid when the people trying to kill you have nothing better to do than watch you like hungry dogs at a taco stand.

Hungry dogs with RPGs and heavy machineguns smuggled into range one part at a time over weeks and weeks.

Ahmad's father had woken him up early that morning, telling him that there was a big day coming. When Ahmad asked him what the big day was, his father had only shaken his head and pressed his lips together, a common expression from the man.

You got the same reaction whether you were discussing how bad of a beating you were about to get, or, say, wedding preparations.

After tea, his father called someone on the phone. Ahmad heard a few words of the quick conversation, but got just enough to know that they were going to the tailor. Ahmad was giddy at the prospect, since he'd already been fitted for his new clothes for the year. A visit to the tailor could only mean clothes for a special occasion.

They walked into town, though Ahmad would have preferred to run. It was already hot, but he could barely contain himself. He kept telling himself that he was a man now, and should follow his father's dour example.

The tailor's shop wasn't in the bazaar with the others. It must have been one of his father's friends, because Ahmad didn't know how else his father would have learned about a tailor working in the mayor's guest house.

"CONTACT RIGHT CONTACT RIGHT" was all Tooth heard before he floored it. Somewhere in the parts of his brain that were not concerned with autonomic function and driving, he could hear the DOOKDOOKDOOKDOOKDOOKDOOKDOOK of the .50 on the roof as Jack hosed down whatever had shot at them.

Ten kilometers down the road, the convoy regrouped into orderly formation and the LT took reports of no casualties and no significant damage.

Ahmad was puzzled but excited. The tailor had made him pick up a bag of rice and run around the yard with it while he and his father talked. The tailor had told him it was a test of manhood, and his father had remained characteristically silent. They had both nodded when he made the full lap, and the tailor took him in the back to measure him.

The tailor told Ahmad he didn't have the special fabric necessary, and told Ahmad that he would need to go to the next town over to pick it up. Handing him a heavy backpack, the tailor had shooed him out the door while his father watched.

Ahmad's only instructions had been to go out to the road, and then wait for the Americans to come by and ask them for a ride. He wasn't supposed to open the backpack until he got to the bazaar in the next town, so he could eat lunch and pick out the cloth.

Jack could see over the boulders on the curve from the turret and called out "Pax in the road, two clicks ahead," amending it a moment later with, "Looks like a kid, just sitting in the road."

Tooth kept driving.

The LT shifted in his seat and made some calls on the radio.

Ahmad could hear the American trucks. The way he'd always hitchhiked on the jingatrucks was to sit in the road, wait for them to slow down and honk, and then run around and jump on the back. Usually the drivers were too lazy to stop and get out to pull him down, so he'd get a free ride whether they wanted to give him one or not. His cousin had taught him how to do it when they were younger.

As they rounded the curve, Tooth saw the kid sitting in the middle of the road. They had a good few hundred meters, so he laid on the horn to scare the kid off and let him know they weren't going to stop.

As they got closer, the kid stood up and started trotting toward them. It wasn't a bare instant that his foot was off the accelerator in a natural reaction that the LT screamed at him to "DRIVE DRIVE DRIVE!".

So he did his job, and he drove. There was nowhere on the narrow road to swerve that wasn't a boulder.

The first noise was the kid headed under the HMMWV. The second noise was whatever the kid was carrying going off under the next vehicle.

While Tooth was driving, and the LT was trying to assess the situation via radio, Jack was on the roof screaming "CONTACT CONTACT CONTACT CONTACT" under the hot thump of his gun.

Jack died instantly when the RPG hit. It cut him in half before it hit the inside of the turret cage and detonated while it was still halfway inside of him. The pallbearers who took him off the plane when his mortal coil landed back in the States knew it had to have been a bad one, as the load was noticeably lighter than usual.

Tooth died less than a minute later when his heart quit beating, a puzzlebox full of holes that matched shrapnel-shaped pegs.

The LT died on the MEDEVAC. His last thought was whether or not he'd get to be in a parade when they sent him home with his Purple Heart.

Ahmad's father was paid $500.

The rocky outcropping was marked on the following week's convoy plan as a known ambush site.

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