March in San Antonio wasn’t as hot as July, but it was hot enough in the damn sun that I’d soaked clean through my t-shirt before we were half-way through. I was used to it though. Even Texas heat couldn’t compare to some of the sandboxes I’d been sent to. As for the exercises, today’s weren’t any more strenuous than anything else I’d done in my nine-year military career.
Hell, they weren’t really that much crazier than the shit I’d grown up with, and these were a lot safer. The places the army sent me were sometimes safer than where I’d grown up.
I pushed the thoughts aside, raking my hand through my short, dark blond hair. I’d never kept it very long to begin with, but the day I’d enlisted, it’d been buzzed short and I’d kept it that way ever since. It was clean and efficient. I liked that.
In fact, that was why I liked the military, and why, after the chaos of my childhood, I’d thrived. I supposed, in some subconscious way, I’d craved the sort of order this life demanded. The stability that came even in chaotic circumstances.
Speaking of which…
I rolled across the short open space and stopped behind a large rock. I glanced over at the pair of young soldiers I’d left a few feet away. Both were watching me with wide, intelligent eyes. I gestured with my left hand, letting them know what I wanted them to do next.
This particular training exercise wasn’t particularly strenuous in the physical department, but it was definitely more mentally demanding. Our goal was up ahead and, so far, my team had been doing exceptionally well. Just a few more minutes and we should be gold.
Then I saw it. Movement out of the corner of my eye.
I flipped onto my back, raising my rifle as I went. I took the shot even as I yelled at the other two to go. Sacrificing myself was the best tactical move here, and I had no problem doing it.
Except my shot was accurate…and the other guy’s wasn’t.
As he went down, I rolled again and scrambled to my feet. Up ahead, another firefight was breaking out, and I headed straight into the thick of it without a second thought.
Less than two minutes later, it was all over, and we’d done what we’d set out to do. There were shouts and congratulations, but I didn’t join in other than to tell my people they’d done well. I wasn’t exactly a quiet person, but boisterous wasn’t really a word I usually used to describe myself.
“So, Sergeant, is it true?” The youngest of the soldiers came toward me, his outstretched hand holding a bottle of water.
“Woodley, right?” I asked, taking the bottle.
The kid nodded, and I noticed that his skin was red and peeling underneath the sand and grime. He’d need to remember sunscreen or he’d get cooked if he was sent to the Middle East.
Or any place with more than five minutes of sun.
“Is what true?” I drained half of the water in two gulps and let it cool me as I swallowed.
“That you’re from Philly?”
I nodded, not saying anything, but rather waited for him to continue. I learned that at a young age. It was always better to remain quiet; keep anyone from noticing me. It’d served me well before I’d enlisted and then almost as much after. Despite my background, I hadn’t been the sort who smarted off, so I’d rarely gotten myself in trouble. And I’d also learned a lot more than I probably should have because I listened more than I talked. More than once, it’d given me knowledge I’d found useful.
“I’m from Philly too,” he said. He had one of those baby faces that made him look like he was barely fifteen. “Chestnut Hill. Where are you from?”
I finished my water. “West.”
A shout came from behind me and I turned. A tall, lean soldier with bronze hair and crystal blue eyes trotted toward me. He was all smiles, but that didn’t tell me anything. Zed Ray was always smiling. I’d watched the fool grinning like an idiot while we were taking fire, his face streaked with sweat and dirt, those damn teeth gleaming. More than once I thought he’d end up getting himself shot because of those teeth.
“Seventy-two-hour leave, Philly.” Zed slapped me on the shoulder, then made a face at the sweat on his hand. “Damn, X. You seriously need to take a shower or we’re never gonna get you laid.”
I rolled my eyes. “You don’t want me to get laid, Zed. You just want me to be your wingman so you can get laid.”
He shrugged as his grin widened. I’d been told I was good looking. Decent features. Azure eyes. Chicks usually dug the tattoos too.
But Zed was one of those model-types who turned heads everywhere he went, no matter who he was with. I didn’t mind. I was fine with my soldiers looking to me for direction, but outside of the army, I didn’t like eyes on me. Yet another product of my upbringing. Besides, the wingman got laid most of the time too.
“Are you guys going out?” Woodley looked from Zed to me. The eagerness on his face was clear.
“How old are you, kid?” I asked with a sideways glance at Zed.
“Nineteen, sir,” he answered.
“You know I can’t condone under-age drinking.”
The kid’s face fell. Then Zed leaned over and said something in Woodley’s ear that brought the smile back. The expression on Zed’s face told me that I didn’t want to know what it was. There was a reason Zed wasn’t usually put in charge. He was a good guy, fierce as hell and loyal to a fault. He was the sort of guy who’d always have his buddy’s back.
But he never took shit seriously.
Case in point…
“Come on, X, we gotta get you in a shower.” Zed punched my shoulder. “Our leave started the minute you finished that exercise and I don’t want to waste any of it.”
I rolled my eyes again, but didn’t argue as we started to walk away. I wasn’t quite as demonstrative in my enthusiasm, but Zed was right about two things. One, I stunk. Two, I didn’t want to waste any time either.
I just didn’t think it was for the same reason. Unlike most of my buddies, I rarely looked forward to leave.
“First thing I’m going to do when I get home is eat some fucking real food.”
One of the soldiers behind me was talking with a couple others. His accent told me he was from around here.
“Mom’s meatloaf with mashed potatoes. Homemade gravy. Grandmama’s collard greens.”
I was guessing Grandmama was from down south. For a moment, I wondered if any of my grandparents were from the south. I’d never met any of them, and my parents sure as hell hadn’t talked about them. I didn’t even know if any of them were alive or dead. Odds said that at least one probably was still alive, but I’d always figured that if they hadn’t found me by now, I doubted I really wanted to know them.
“Hey, Sarge, you got a home-cooked meal waiting for you?” the soldier called up to me.
“Naw, Philly here’s an East Coast boy.” Zed tried to rub the top of my head, but I swatted his hand away. “We’re going to spend our time getting shit-faced.”
“Speak for yourself,” I said. “I’ll take one night out drinking, but I’m not going to spend Tuesday morning puking my guts out and wishing myself dead.”
Zed shrugged. “Your loss.”
“Do you have a girl in the area, Sergeant?” Another of the soldiers asked. “You don’t talk much about life outside. Family back home. A girl.” He grinned. “Or a guy. You know, since that’s no longer an issue.”
“That’s it.” Zed threw his arm around my neck and planted a loud kiss on my cheek. “You’ve found us out. Xavier Hammond and I are lovers.”
“Shut up, you ass.” I shoved him away from me, hard enough to make him nearly stumble.
I couldn’t help but join in as we all laughed. By nature – and by nurture – I was usually a serious guy, but if anyone could make me laugh, it was Zed.
“Come to think of it, sir,” the local boy said. “I’ve never seen you with a woman.”
“He’s got you there,” Zed said as he fell in step beside me again.
“Just because I don’t brag doesn’t mean I don’t get any,” I retorted. “Zed, on the other hand, shoots off his mouth so much that I’m starting to think he’s all talk and nothing else.”
“You’re just jealous that you always get the ugly friend,” he said with a grin.
“How come you’re not going home?” The soldier turned his question to Zed. “Aren’t you from somewhere around here?”
“New Mexico,” he answered easily. “But who else would keep Sarge here company if I took off. Besides.” He flashed that infuriating smile. “My mom doesn’t cook so good.”
The guys laughed again, but the local boy’s attention was on me again.
“What about your family, Sarge? Seventy-two hours could be enough time to fly out to Philly and back again.”
I saw Zed out of the corner of my eye, shaking his head at the soldier. I didn’t mind answering though. It wasn’t like it was some secret or anything. I just didn’t talk about myself or my past. Zed only knew because we’d been friends for a while.
I kept the answer simple, my eyes straight ahead. I had no problem with the truth, but that didn’t mean I liked what I had to say. “I don’t have any family.”