Blood in the Sand

The world turned on itself. Shifting over and over in the chaos of battle. Talia’s stomach tumbled and lurched as her equilibrium was thrown off. She pushed off the scorching sand, putting her back up against the short wall and back into cover.

They’d been called into action; a group had taken a foothold outside Gaza and been firing rocket-propelled grenades into the city. It was Caracal 426’s responsibility to stop it.

“Morgenstern!” Sg. Harel’s voice boomed. “You with us!?”

She shook off the grogginess. She could barely see the rest of her squad through the dusty haze. “Sorry sir, got my bell rung.”

Shots rang over her head, skipping off the small stone wall. The sun beat down on them, and heat shimmered off the Gaza sand. The grenade that put her on her ass had left a thick cloud of khaki dust in the air.

Talia peaked over the wall momentarily. From behind overturned cars and bombed out houses they shot at them. She pitied their attackers, they weren’t outmanned but they sure as hell were outgunned.

“George, Talia,” Harel called out.

Like a wave of muscle and grit, her best friend was at her side. His pale blue yarmulke held tight to his sandy brown hair.

“Sir?” George replied through gritted teeth. Dust covered him, but he looked unscathed otherwise.

“You two cut around that warehouse.” Harel pointed off to their right, at a half toppled shed. “you’re flanking them. We’ll cover you.” He indicated the rest of the squad.

“Yes Sir,” Talia grinned at George. He held out a closed fist for her to bump. Over the back of it, on his tanned skin, resided a rough star of David tattoo.

“No,” Harel chastised them, then ducked as a round hit the wall just above his head. “Just do your damn job. No games. Stay sharp, you hear me?”

“Me and Georgie,” Talia smiled wryly, “Never play games, sir.”

“Take Kaufman,” Harel said, grabbing the soldier next to him.

“Let’s do this!” Kaufman smiled at the two of them. The American’s face was dirt coated, but his blonde hair still resided perfectly in place. Talia felt her blood pressure rise at his cocky presence.

As if they shared the same brain Talia and George, looked over at their sergeant with pained expressions. Before either could voice their concerns, Harel gave them his famous ‘do what I say or find yourself cleaning the latrines for the next month’ face.

“The American can shoot, I’ll give him that.” George shrugged and looked at Talia. She glared at the larger man deeply betrayed.

Kaufman smiled proudly. “You noticed?”

George shook his head disapprovingly.

“Fine,” she growled, and grabbed Kaufman by the collar and forced him to look at the warehouse. “You see that corner?”

“Uh huh,” nodded the private. The warehouse still had three standing sides but a sizeable hole in one of the walls, perfect for a marksman. Perfect for Kaufman to stay out of her way.

“Set up in there, and cover Georgie and me when we move. You think you’re a good shot?” Talia glared at him. “Prove it.”

“Can I have my throat back?” Kaufman requested with the shitty smile he always wore no matter who was yelling at him.

Talia pushed him away and released his collar, “Let’s go. On you Sergeant.” She positioned herself with George, ready for Sgt. Harel’s signal.

The rest of the squad erupted in unison. Sending expert gunfire across the desert toward the sporadic and unorganized flashes of the guns opposite them.

Talia, Kaufman, and George vaulted the wall and sprinted for the warehouse. Kaufman was fast, he began to outpace the other two easily.

Talia felt herself pump her legs harder, faster, to catch him. No matter her drive, the American was taller and obviously quicker; Talia knew he’d never shut up about it.

Kaufman slid into the corner of the warehouse. From there he began to cover Talia and George as they finished their run. He chose his shots with care. Talia slid in next to him, and a moment later George followed her.

Kaufman continued to fire, pulling the hammer back and replacing the round with fluid ease. His shots were on point. Muzzle flashes from the shade of the buildings ceased with each pull of his trigger.

Talia maneuvered around the edge of the building; movement caught her eye.  An enemy braced himself on a nearby building, over his shoulder he aimed an RPG in their direction. Talia’s heart thumped heavily as she felt herself turn, grab the back of Kaufman’s vest, and drag him away from the corner into the dirt.

“Down Georgie!” She screamed and felt his frame over the top of her and Kaufman.

The grenade hit the corner, shattered concrete and rock sprayed around them. Another dust cloud enveloped the group. With her eyes firmly shut, she coughed in the swirling dirt. The shrill ringing in her ears replaced all other noise.

She hoisted Kaufman back to a sitting position. The spot where he’d been standing moments before was gone, the clay bricks had been blasted away. She couldn’t hear him coughing, but the jerky motion from his chest let her know.

“You good!?” she screamed, her ears rang, deaf to the world. Her words were muffled and nearly unrecognizable in her own ears.

Kaufman looked over, he hadn’t realized she was yelling at him.

“Get inside.”

He hadn’t heard her.

She grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him toward her. She repeated herself, as he stared down at her lips, trying to read them. She added, “cover us!”

Kaufman nodded again, took a deep breath and vaulted into what was left of the storage house. She found George, dusting himself of brick fragments. His cheek was cut and already bruising.

“Circle up,” she pointed around the far corner of the building.

“Let’s do it,” he acknowledged and began to move, she followed.  They maneuvered around the building until they positioned themselves correctly.

Talia’s hearing began to perk a bit. The rattle of Kaufman’s rifle could be heard from the other side of the wall. Beads of sweat rolled down her spine.

“Keep tight,” she patted George on the shoulder.

“You know it.”

“Three,” she started.

“Two.”

“One.”

She and George moved in tandem. Talia trailed just behind him. His rifle would swing right, and hers knew to cover his left. All the chaos disappeared. Violence was familiar, adrenaline, survival. The world that existed when she and George worked wasn’t like anything she could explain.

She knew when he was finding a new target, he knew where she wasn’t looking, they knew when the other needed to reload. They moved as swift water among the burning cars and falling brass, taking cover when needed and continuing to roll up the side of their enemies. They were turning and firing, a deadly clock ticking with each hammer strike. Time felt slow and measured. Her body moved as if guided by some other entity, it knew what to do, and she let it.

He covered her as she moved toward an over-turned truck then she did the same for him. It was simple. It was everything she’d ever been good at. The numbness in her hands as the rifle shook comforted her. Knowing as soon as she felt the click of empty, George would take her place as she reloaded. She never trusted anyone like she trusted the man at her side. They kept one another safe, alive.

Talia hated the conflict, but this was where she belonged. She was a warrior, and war was what she did best. This was the only way she felt she could protect her home, her friends, her mother.

Flashes of unfriendly fire disappeared in the dark pockets of burned-out buildings, as rounds from George, Talia, and Kaufman hit their marks. Brief screams followed each shot before being silenced forever, lost to clutches of hungry mortality.

Kaufman’s rifle rung behind them. It’s distinct ping sounded with each shot taken.  A body fell from a nearby roof. The man’s gun fell with him until they both thudded solidly in the dirt. The American, she admitted to herself, was very good.

George stepped over the still body that had tumbled from above them and entered the building his rifle finding the corner as she trained hers forward. A slight framed silhouette came running forward the gun swung from thin arms aimed directly at George’s back. A surge of adrenaline rushed through Talia. He would kill George. She pulled the trigger, blinding flame illuminated the room, the world then fell still. He wouldn’t take him away.

After a tense minute without gunfire, George and her maneuvered through rooms littered with bullet casings and still bodies. “Clear,” Georgie uttered with finality.

“Clear,” Talia acknowledged with a steadying breath.

She moved back into the first room, spying the rest of the squad heading toward their position. Her eyes adjusted to the room. Lines of light from bullet holes in the walls pierced the shadows of the room. Intangible columns solid to only sight. Then she saw him, the one who’d pointed his rifle at George.

He stared up at the ceiling a look of shock permeated his stagnant face. He was so young, too young.

Kaufman entered the open doorway, dirt and sweat colored his usually smiling face. Instead of his usual arrogant smirk, his face now looked burdened. His eyes found the boy who lay on the ground.

Talia turned from the body, letting her rifle dangle by its strap down by her side. She wrestled with the urge to throw up and swallowed bitter bile.

“How old is he?” she asked in an ashamed whisper.

“I don’t know,” Kaufman knelt by the boy. “Seventeen, eighteen, maybe. ”

An unearthly weight slammed into her shoulders, a new burden to bear. Kaufman was staring at her. Pity and concern emanated off of him, pity for her. She’d rather the arrogance. Talia winced and pushed past Kaufman but felt his hand on her elbow trying to stop her.

“Let go, Jacob,” She warned.

“Talia, you didn’t know.” His hand softened, trying to comfort her. “This isn’t on you.”

“Get your hand off me Private,” she growled. The grip around her arm lessened, and she continued out into the Gaza heat.

“Morgenstern?” Sgt. Harel asked as she exited.

She sat on the ground, her back against a charred car and stared down into the sand. She pressed her boots into the hard desert earth and stole a glance back at Gaza. The city smoked, buildings on its outskirts burned from the RPG’s haphazardly aimed in their direction. She wondered how many people were hurt, dying, or already gone. Lives she didn’t save now mixed with those she’d taken .

“Talia?” George was kneeling in front of her.

“He was a kid,” her voice was far away. It shook, ready to crumble against her despair.

George’s eyes found the ground, before scooting next to her without a word. He looked at Harel then into the darkened doorway, directing his superior into the building. Harel nodded, his worry lingered on Talia before leaving the two sitting in the dirt.

George didn’t say a word. Didn’t attempt to stop the hollowness growing within her. The world was different than it had been, darker than before. But he was there, George would be there for her. A friend in the emptiness she felt. A friend she’d saved, at the price of one so young.

by: James Romansky