I caught a whiff of cigarette smoke. Menthol. I gagged. Which brought up my own scent, so I had to fight down the dry heaves.
The shadow I followed spoke, so quietly I strained to hear. “Oscar plus one. Do not answer. Oscar plus one.”
Ah. We were under observation. Probably from the smoker. Either they didn’t know I was Zulu, or not even the code name Zulu needed to be said out loud here.
What a time to be half shit-faced.
We went in one heavy, splintery door. Oscar spent no time lingering in the doorway. I closed the door behind me without asking, leaving us in a totally dark and chill room, small enough I felt cold stone all round. But only for a second.
A keypad abruptly lit up on the opposite wall. Oscar tapped a quick sequence on it. The inner door opened to a dimly lit room with a stone and hammered-iron fire ring in the center, a young blond dropping something into the teakettle over the fire, and a flat smell of lanolin and cooking oil. My stomach clenched.
Oscar stepped in. “Why is your back to the door, Echo?”
The blond grinned over his shoulder. He was very young, with brilliant blue eyes like my brother Mohammed’s. “Nice to see you too, Oscar. To answer the question I’m sure you meant to ask, there’s no more fried pumpkin. There is some leftover lamb, meaning the greasy, stringy carcass of the toughest old ram for miles around, and there’s onions. And naan, not too stale. And green tea, which doesn’t pretend to have either flavor or caffeine. No coffee, of course, but we did pick up some more caffeine pills. Where is he?”
Oscar looked back at me. “Please come in. The door needs shutting.”
I eased in, locating the room’s other two doorways -- both dark -- before I shut the airlock door. The lock clicked a quick syncopation behind me. Sounded like two dead bolts snicking home. I put a section of wall to my back.
The darkness in the far doorway moved, revealing a man’s outline. “Sorry to hear about your brother, Zulu.”
The grief I’d fought off with Jim Beam hit me. I flipped it to anger. “Who are you to speak of my brother?”
Ah, that was so very rude. My ears burned. And my tongue throbbed, reminding me how recently I’d bitten it.
The blond moved the teakettle, allowing more light from the fire ring. The man in the doorway, now visible, cocked his head like he was studying me. “We’re the people who requisitioned you to arrive hours ago. Your skipper said you’d tied one on, and took the trouble to explain the situation. That’s why Oscar went to get you, instead of leaving you to find your way here alone -- and run the risk you wouldn’t.”
Oscar opened a chest, took out a pair of chunky white ceramic mugs, and crouched by the fire. “Give him a little space. He ain’t all here yet.”
Echo poured the white mugs full. Oscar sipped one. The other he lifted in my general direction before he set it by the fire. Invitation? Or command?
I’m here enough to want answers.
“What risk? When have I ever disobeyed a direct order?”
Oscar looked at the man in the inner doorway, who kept watching me. Okay, so that guy was the boss.
So what was his reason... Wait. “Zulu” meant they’d prepared to call me something other than Doc, even before I’d said anything. Nobody was assuming I’d be called Doc here. But there wasn’t any other excuse for a bunch of bullet-sponges to drag me off my ship.
The world swung around, reoriented. Yes, there was.
What did ninety of every hundred feranghi
need, more than they needed bullets or dollars? Translators.
Someone had outed me as a native speaker.
Or I’d pissed off someone who had in turn arranged to get me dumped in a war zone among people who’d been told I had a skill they needed -- hoping I indeed didn’t have it and that everyone would assume I was holding out on them.
The doorway shadows let pass a man with a weathered face, dark hair, and faded denim eyes. He was at least my age. “Call me Mike.”
I really need to be sober for this.
“Forgive my manners, but I heard mention of a shower? Please tell me he didn’t mean a six-liter tease.”
Mike’s smile crinkled his eyes, made them look kind. “Not by a long shot. The major did us right. We can use that much in the steam room alone.”
I’d been in a steam room once. Gave me a crushing headache. Didn’t need to magnify the crusher I already had. “I’ll settle for the shower, if it’s all the same to you. You can use the time to get my paperwork laid out.”
The kindness left his eyes. “There are orders cut, if you agree to them, but the paperwork stays in the major’s hands. You get to talk to him, hear him out, then tell him your decision.”
My nerves wound tight enough to stiffen my face. I gave him a smile I was careful to keep out of my eyes. “Shower?”
He regarded me a moment, then waved me through the doorway.
The shower had ten heads, but the two nearest the entrance had ball joints so I could aim them both at me. I stood under the hard rain a long time, letting the stinging drops beat on me, before I reached for the soap. The soap smelled strongly of evergreen and very faintly of peanut butter. Cashew butter, perhaps. It stirred memories of staring into the fire in the hujra
, huddled under a blanket with my older brother, hand-clapping a rhythm while my uncles danced in the long winter evenings.
My older brother Hamid was long gone. Now, Ben --
The grief hit again, a knee-bending wave of it. I locked my knees and folded my arms over my chest and let it come. Like surf, drowning me. Scouring me with sand and burning salt.
Ben was not yet born the night my father got shot. Everyone blamed the invading Shuravi, but it could have been a jealous kinsman. Myself against my brother. My brother and myself against my cousin. My brother, my cousin, and myself against all others.
I was seven that night, old enough to join the men and sleep in the hujra instead of indoors with the women and the babies. But my mother, an American who’d taught at a Kabul girls’ college until the Shuravi emptied it, had insisted that I would not be circumcised as my brother Hamid had been, in the courtyard where the men gathered.
My father had said that if he allowed her to take me to the hospital in Jalalabad for such a thing, my masculinity would be forever suspect. They’d fought bitterly, while I hid and hoped none of the cousins overheard.
The last time I saw my father alive, he was driving the goats into the mountains. Shepherding was not his job -- he was an educated man who paid one of my cousins to tend our animals -- but I understood his need to go. The arguing at home made us all sick and miserable.
So he’d left. So he died.
We were still swimming in grief a week after the New Year when my favorite uncle called me to leave my mother’s side and help tend the livestock. Mom, exhausted with the new baby, wrapped an old shemagh
tightly about my neck and ears and told me to stay out of trouble.
My uncle grinned roguishly, took me to the men’s place, and made the cut while my grandfather and great-grandfather shot the family’s most celebrated rifles over my head.
Now I was again in the land of my fathers. Perhaps this time I would find my family, would learn what had become of them. Or perhaps I would find peace without knowing.
A glimpse of movement made me fold my grief inward, leaving the plain skin envelope for anyone to see. That was the American way, wasn’t it?
Oscar stepped behind me to the showerhead farthest away. He was built lean, like a Pakhtun, his glossy black hair somewhat longer than most marines kept it. His voice said Texas, or somewhere west of there. Deep wrinkles radiated from eyes that had seen plenty of sun.
My first impression made him a cowboy. A certain wolfishness in his manner, in his soundless stride, raised the next assessment: gunslinger.
I always wanted to try on a gunslinger for size.
I blinked in the water and washed any trace of the thought off my face. He’d walked past my naked ass far too casually to have any interest in men.
His ass wasn’t white. His hands were darker than his legs, but not by all that much. And I suspect I would have noticed if nude sunbathing had become the fashion.
“What tribe are you, Oscar?”
He looked over one shoulder, and I wondered if tribe
had become a non-PC term. He answered anyway. “The Desert People. Tohono O’odham.”
I’d never heard of them. “Like Navaho?”
“Neighbors. Here I pass for Tajik or Hazara, until I open my mouth.”
I scrubbed my tongue and teeth with a clean corner of the washcloth. Ugh. At least I could de-crud my mouth. I couldn’t scrub my brain, which was what needed it.
Oscar didn’t look Tajik to me. Hazara are supposed to make up a good chunk of the population, but I didn’t know any. From now on my guess of who might be Hazara would be based on who looked like Oscar. With his brown muscular ass and powerful thighs.
I reached down casually and gave my scrotum enough of a pinch to drop the dick.
Oscar completed his shower in the time I took to rinse off. Neither of us shaved. No razors had been laid out. I had heavy five-o’clock shadow. He had none.
When I came out to the dressing room, towel draped about my hips, Oscar followed. No modesty there -- he carried the towel in one hand. He went past me, straight to a bin of clothes, hung his towel on a hook, and commenced dressing.
I turned away. Drooling over the man-candy wasn’t going to get me anywhere I wanted to go.
The other bench was set like a shop’s table with an array of camo in tidy stacks, all the pieces comfortably worn, each neatly labeled with a size tag. A line of new boots had been laid out on the floor before the bench. Small wads of dark cloth lay between each stack.
I picked up one of the wads. A...jockstrap? I checked two more. Jockstraps. What the fuck?
“Pick a tight one,” Oscar advised.
My face heated. “I do not wear such things.”
I dreamed of them. Has more exciting underwear ever been devised? But I didn’t wear them.
The blond stuck his head in. “Major’s here. Hurry it up.”
I threw a jock at him. “I won’t wear this!”
He grinned, snagging it out of the air and tossing it back. “Then you better find some other way to keep your balls from slapping the saddle with every stride, or by sunset you’ll be waddling in circles, going meep...meep
. Won’t he, Oscar?”
“Shut up, Echo.”
Echo blinked at that quiet order, and yes -- that was an order. Oscar had rank as well as years on this boy Echo.
I eyed the jocks. For hard riding, my father had used a long strip of cloth, wrapped to hold his scrotum high and forward. In the US, I’d worn very tight jeans for support. Now...it wasn’t a salacious garment. It was a very practical garment.
I hesitantly stepped into the nearest jock. It felt okay, I guess, like it wasn’t there. When I bounced on my toes, though, my balls bounced more than the rest of me. No-go. This was supposed to be for support.
The next stack of jocks felt like silk, which is unworthy of an honest man. The fourth had more give than the first. The last looked like it had been worn before, but it was certainly clean. And it fit right, cupping my balls like a hand.
“Have a spare.” Oscar offered me another, black and clean but used. “Same style.”
I realized the two of them were his and pocketed the spare he offered. We dressed in silence, my mind lumbering like a tired bear from the amazing fact I’d been kidnapped to the question of why I’d been kidnapped to that fine brown ass of Oscar’s. And his underwear, cupping my balls like a hand.
The painful place was sealed away. Mourning my brother was something I’d have to do in my own way, in my own time.