His Road Home

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Staff Sergeant Cruz, a Special Forces medic, has successfully treated a series of Afghan patients in a routine win-hearts-and-minds exercise in Afghanistan. He’s starting to trust Abdullah, the SF team’s new interpreter. But the next words out of the Afghan warlord’s mouth change the footloose soldier’s life forever. He just doesn’t know it yet.

“I understand Sergeant Cruz is unmarried.” Abdullah shared the tribal leader’s words. “I humbly offer him one of my daughters.”

While Dostum watched like a one-eyed, toothless cupid cradling an AK-47 instead of a bow and arrow, Cruz forced himself to obey the rules for breathing before a five-mile high parachute jump: inhale steadily, no gulps, no matter what instinct urged, no matter that he could barely keep his lips from puckering with rejection. “That’s–” 

“Shut up.” The interpreter’s voice quavered. “He’s giving you a gift that matters a hell of a lot to him and in his mind, doing you a favor. Half these men can’t afford to get married, and if you throw his daughter in his face, the insult might make them open fire.”

The air stopped moving except for two flies close to Cruz’s cheek. An insider attack: when a local soldier snaps and kills his allies. Green-on-blue, briefings called it.

“Get me out of it.” He missed his former teammate Wulf’s interpreting skill like a guy missed his nuts. He disliked giving so much power to someone the team had known for six months but saw no choice. “Whatever you have to say.” He tried to smile, but his lips were too dry to peel away from his teeth.

Undershirts always soaked through, the price of wearing more than forty pounds of protective gear, but now sweat chilled on his skin. The sun was a joke, making those weapons shiny enough to reflect glare, but not providing a bit of warmth.

The two men talked while he watched a fighter in a striped vest, the man whose hands were closest to his rifle. Target one if this went to hell. Shoot, roll left to cover Abdullah and count on the rest of the team to roar through the gate and clean the courtyard. One on twelve for ninety seconds, survivable only on paper.

He didn’t have to field test the plan. His terp pulled a save from the faded Tigers hat that never left his head. 

“Relax, lover boy.” Abdullah flung an arm across his shoulders.

Cruz wasn’t sure whose pits gave off the worst funk; his, the man hugging him or the two Afghans bringing them tea, flatbread and lentil paste.

“Told Dostum you’re engaged to a nice girl back home—”

An Afghan with a miraculous mouth of teeth pounded Cruz on the back to dislodge the bread stuck in his windpipe choking him. “What?”

“And because American law doesn’t allow two wives, you regretfully cannot accept this honor, but you’ll bring gifts next week to show how much you appreciate his generosity.”

“Great. We’ll haul a pallet of rice, but don’t let him think he’s getting weapons.” Wily bastard might have set up the incident to bag moe rocket-propelled grenade launchers. “If proud papas start offering me wives but settle for swag, I know who to blame.”

Abdullah raised his hands, palms out as if to deny his responsibility, then laughed as he turned them into finger-pistols pointed right at Cruz. “By the way, he expects a photo. He wonders what kind of woman American soldiers marry.”

“No problem.” A fake fiancée. He’d almost rather risk the business end of an AK-47.


Friday evenings provided time to finish work uninterrupted by meetings. An hour ago Grace had completed the employee input portion of her annual performance appraisal to prepare for the third anniversary of her job with Fisheries. She’d earned tonight’s pajama movie fest–that is, if she could unlock the door to her South Lake Union condo before her ice cream melted.

Her cell phone rang mid-twist, so she let the caller go to voicemail. Inside, she shoved her two grocery bags onto the kitchen counter while the landline her father insisted she needed for emergencies rang. Clearly her family wanted to talk to their first-born.

“When did you get engaged to Reynaldo Cruz?” Her younger sister’s voice came through the answering machine, higher and faster than normal. “Umma’s crying because you didn’t tell her, and Appa won’t leave the potting shed, and honestly, I’m annoyed, too. I mean, I’m your sister. You could’ve said something even if you didn’t want to tell them. What should we say to reporters? Should we call his family? He’s got a niece in first grade, but then you know that already, don’t you.” Click. Jenni’s message ended without goodbye.

Grace realized a bag of frozen potstickers had numbed her fingers. Rationally, she knew the news that had Jenni in a tizzy must be a misunderstanding. Her last date was two weeks ago, and she didn’t know a Reynaldo Cruz, but she’d attended the University of Washington with at least four other Grace Kims. One of them probably had a fiancé. Hopefully the woman would change her last name.

She retrieved her laptop to uncover what another one of the Graces had going on.

The story was easy to find. A Special Operations soldier named Reynaldo Cruz, twenty-nine years old, from her own 675-person hometown of Pateros, had rescued a boy from an irrigation canal in Afghanistan. Climbing out, he’d stepped on a land mine. A reporter and a photographer had documented the incident, beginning with the child in the water and ending with the helicopter evacuation. The story was a blow for people in Pateros who’d known him, but the hometown connection wasn’t what had motivated her sister to call.

That reason was the last picture of the on-line photo essay. It was the one with the slew of comments, the most shared, the one that mattered, in the juggernaut way that a temporary internet sensation mattered for a day or at most a week. The close-up showed a printed photo of two people identified as the soldier’s fiancée and Sergeant Cruz. Spattered with ominous dark spots, the couple’s images stared from on top of a pile of shredded clothing and used bandages. “Aftermath,” the photographer had titled the shot.

She zoomed her screen, dared it to change, but it remained her: Average Asian Girl eyes, medium-snub nose, forgettable mouth, oval face. The staff directory used that photo, and that blouse and suit hung in her closet. Her hair was longer now, but that was her.

Who the hell was Reynaldo Cruz? A shiver made her wrap her arms around her torso as she tried to guess why a soldier would carry her photo in Afghanistan—why?

Then the phone on the end of the breakfast bar rang, but talking to her family could wait until she had more answers. She checked the caller’s number: her boss.

“Grace? How are you?” His warmth and concern sounded genuine.

“Fine, I guess.” Words to describe her situation did not freaking exist.

“I’m sorry to phone so late, but I wanted to reassure you not to worry about the office or your annual review. Focus on your fiancé.”

His sympathy was too much. “But he’s—”

“Your hero needs you now. I’m proud that we can support a soldier’s loved ones. As an American, that’s my duty. If it was my son—” he broke off.

Crap. She’d forgotten his oldest child graduated from the Naval Academy next month.

“Your emergency leave is approved for next week so you can be at his side.” His worry projected through the phone to create an almost physical feeling of her condo filling with kindness and pressing on her to suffocation. “Hope it wasn’t presumptuous, but I also used my frequent flier miles to arrange a ticket for you to D.C. tomorrow night on the red-eye.”

“Washington, D.C.?” When her supervisor rambled at work about Pacific currents or ocean temperature models, she enjoyed following his thoughts, but this conversation was becoming surreal. She stared around her loft, hoping for rescue, even for an ugly clown to pop out screaming joke’s on you!

“I’ve heard soldiers arrive at Walter Reed Hospital within twenty-four to thirty-six hours, so you should go right away.”

“Right away?” The phone bounced against her cheek, and she realized her hands shook, perhaps from lack of food, or perhaps from the crazy events of this evening.

“When I say we’re behind you, it’s not a bumper sticker. If you need extra days from the leave bank, they’re yours.” It sounded like his voice cracked. “We care, Grace. You’re part of the Fisheries team. We want to help.”

A response seemed to be expected, so she whispered her thanks.

“By the way, congratulations. Have you set a date?”

“Ahhh—” She didn’t want to lie, but the knowledge that he’d reserved a plane ticket for her stuck the truth in her throat.

“I’m sorry.” He half-laughed. “My wife would flash-freeze me. A wedding must be the last thing on your mind.”

“Er, yes.” Lies by omission were still lies, and still tasted like cardboard.

How, she wondered after they’d disconnected, was she going to tell her boss that the latest American hero wasn’t her fiancé, he was a liar?