A SOLDIER'S HEART
by Alexis Morgan
A Snowberry Creek e-novella
A novella of loyalty and survival-in which three soldiers must survive active duty before they can find their true loves in the town of Snowberry Creek, Washington...
Best friends Nick, Spence, and Leif are counting down the last days of their third deployment as members of the U.S. Army, and their first in Afghanistan. But when one of them receives heartbreaking news from home, their camaraderie will be tested both under fire and under the strain of nearly unbearable emotional pain.
Then, while on patrol in a dangerous sector, the strangest thing happens-a stray dog appears from nowhere, alerting them to a coming ambush, and saves their lives. And as the three soldiers struggle to rescue the pooch from the firefight, each of the friends finds a little lost piece of himself-and a part of themselves they need to carry home...
"Corporal Lang, do you need me to move in and take the shot?"
Spence kept his focus on the target, calculating both the distance and the angle. "Nope, I've got it covered, Sergeant."
Corporal Leif Brevik joined the whispered conversation. "Come on, Wheels, let Nick take over. Your aim's been off all week. Blow this one and we're all screwed."
Did they think he didn't know that? "Shut the hell up."
Spence put enough growl in the words to make sure the rest of the squad backed off. It was bad enough that both the sergeant and his best friend had questioned Spence's ability in front of the others. He sure as heck didn't need the rest of them chiming in.
Sweat stung his eyes, but all he could do was blink until his vision cleared. A lot was riding on the next few seconds, and the shot needed a delicate touch. Just as he'd been taught back in training, Spence took a step back inside his head, distancing himself from everything around him but the objective.
The whole world narrowed down to a single target.
Nick butted in again. "Spence, take the damn shot or stand down."
Enough was enough. "If I didn't need both my hands to do the job right, Sarge, I would be giving you a one fingered salute right about now."
One more slow breath in. One more slow breath out. Target acquired. Spence pulled the trigger and let go. The noise of the world came rushing back as the ball sailed through the air, arcing high against the stark blue of the Afghan sky. The shot took forever and yet was over in seconds.
Nothing but net! Game over. Game won. Objective achieved.
Spence's friends erupted in a raucous chorus of hoots and hollers and good natured insults about their vanquished enemy. In this case, it was a bunch of Marines who had challenged the prowess of Spence's squad in a pick up game of basketball. Before the game had started, Nick Jenkins, Spence's sergeant, had declared they were playing for the honor of the U.S. Army, period. No bets allowed.
Right. Like that was going to happen. Spence mopped his face with his T-shirt and watched as more than one Marine slapped a five or ten down on an outstretched hand. Nick watched for several seconds before deliberately turning his back and walking away. What he didn't see, he didn't have to deal with.
Even so, there was something weird going on with the sergeant. He'd been acting oddly for a couple of days now. If Nick didn't shake off whatever was fucking with his mind soon, Spence or Leif would have to do a little two-on-one therapy, the kind that involved a few bruises and enough blood to show they cared.
"Nice shot, Wheels, even if I aged two years waiting for you to finally take it."
Leif tossed Spence a bottled water and opened one for himself. He stuck the third one he'd brought in his cargo pocket as they both watched Nick disappear into the building. "Is the man still off his feed?"
"Yeah." Spence poured half the water over his head before guzzling down the rest. Giving Leif a narrow-eyed look, he asked, "You sure you didn't do something to piss him off?"
Leif shrugged and shook his head. "Not this time. Besides, that's your specialty, not mine."
Spence couldn't argue with Leif's assessment although lately he'd been on his best behavior. No screw ups, at least none he could remember. Besides, Nick wasn't one to pull punches. If one of them had managed to offend their illustrious leader, he would have said so loudly, repeatedly, and colorfully.
In fact, thanks to Nick, Spence was half convinced the army had changed his name to Effing Idiot and Leif's to Effing Asshole. Hell, he wouldn't be surprised if they engraved it on his dog tags along with his blood type.
They meandered back toward the quarters they shared with the man in question. Spence had hoped winning the basketball game would improve Nick's mood, but they found him sacked out on his bunk, his cap pulled down low over his face. He probably thought if he was asleep they'd leave him alone.
Fat chance. Leif tossed the bottle of water at Nick. "Incoming!"
Nick snagged the bottle out of the air right before it would have smacked him in the face. So much for him being asleep, even if he returned to the pretense right after he sent the bottle hurtling back at Leif.
Spence had to ask, "You okay, Sarge?"
Nick rolled over on his side, facing away from Spence. "For the last time, yes. Now either shut up or get out."
With that one question Spence had exhausted his entire repertoire of touchy-feely stuff. He dropped down on his own bunk and dug out the box Callie had sent him. It had come in the mail two days ago, but this was the first chance he'd had to open it.
Other than the basketball game, the last few days the squad had spent most of their waking hours patrolling the nearby town. All he could say about the experience is that it had been quiet. In some ways, that that was worse. Him at the wheel, Nick riding shotgun, and Leif on the big gun in back as they prowled through town just waiting for something to happen.
Sometimes it was quiet because the locals went into hiding when the insurgents had a special party planned for the Americans. And on other days, it was quiet just because. Not knowing which was which at any given time was a real bitch. Personally, Spence figured anytime they rode back into camp with all their body parts intact, even if bruised up and bloody, it was a victory for the flag, mom, and apple pie.
Speaking of home cooking, it looked as if Callie had been baking again. God, he loved her snickerdoodles. She'd also sent along some of his favorite granola bars, a box of microwave kettle corn, the past few issues of his favorite magazines, and five more DVDs.
A veritable treasure trove, which meant any minute now the vultures would start circling around. Sure enough, Leif was already staring at the box with pure greed glittering in his eyes. If Spence didn't keep an eye on him, the sneaky jerk would steal half the cookies and all of the popcorn. The bastard always had a real jones on for sugar.
Leif sat down on the near side of his bunk, slowly maneuvering himself into range to make a quick grab for the goodies. "So, what kind did she send this time?"
Spence scooted farther away as he dangled the plastic bag of cookies dusted with cinnamon and sugar in the air. "Snickerdoodles, my favorite."
Leif snorted as he leaned in closer, breathing deep as if needing to take a hit off the cinnamon himself. "Yeah, you said that last month when she sent you oatmeal raisin cookies and the one before that when she made you chocolate chip."
Spence raised and lowered the bag and waved it from side to side. It was a kick watching Leif's greedy eyes track the motion. "So true, my friend, but then the woman has always had a talent for baking. She learned from the best."
He opened the bag and breathed deeply of the sweet smell. It sent him back in time to when he used to sit in the kitchen at Callie's family home and sneak bites of cookie dough. Her mom would smack his fingers with a wooden spoon if she caught him, but she always made sure to send him home with a bag of cookies just like this one. No one at Spence's house had baked anything except frozen pizza.
"So, are you going to share or not?"
If it had been Leif who asked, Spence would have put up more of a fight, but it was Nick. He grabbed a handful and carried them over to him. Nick nodded his thanks and turned away again. Spence shot Leif a ‘WTF?' look. He just shrugged and held out a hand for his share of the goodies.
Having dispensed as many as he was going to, Spence flopped back down on his bunk with one of the magazines. Even with the scores weeks out of date, he enjoyed keeping up with his favorite teams back home. Right now it was spring, so baseball captured most of the headlines.
He was an American League fan, while both Leif and Nick worshiped at the altar of the National League. The three of them had sat up many a night arguing long and hard about the designated hitter's role in the game. Come football season, they'd find something new to fight about. It was all good.