Jim Turville was bored. Three days since they’d arrived in Whitesville, and already he was as bored as he could be. As the quick reaction force, Sergeant Nguyen’s squad pretty much had nothing to do, except sit around. Two guys maintained security on the vehicles, always manning the machine guns. Otherwise, the rest of them sat around and did: nothing.
Right now, he sat in a lawn chair next to one of the humvees, cleaning and oiling his M16A4 rifle. Unusually, the weapons they carried now had never seen service: brand new from the factory.
They cleaned their weapons. They played cards. They played video games. They dealt with Corporal Meigs’s increasingly bad moods. And then more nothing.
Of course, the thought of Corporal Meigs made Turville smile for a change. Yesterday, Turville’s fire team had crushed Meigs’s at Hearts. Turville had never been so happy in his life.
But now he had to correct that: because walking toward him was the most beautiful thing he he’d ever seen.
Short Girl was approaching. He almost slapped himself. Dude, her name is Rebecca. Whatever. She wore a pair of faded blue jeans that hugged her hips, and calf-high boots that looked well-used. A burgundy, turtleneck sweater hugged her upper body, accentuating her breasts and narrow waist.
Turville reminded himself that he really didn’t want to piss off the Lieutenant, and by extension, the Mayor of this town. He’d had a crappy year last year, and so far things were off to a better start now.
“Hi,” she said. She rested her weight on one leg, with the other toe pointed at the ground at a sharp angle. It was the stance of a dancer.
“Hi,” he replied.
“I hope I didn’t embarrass you the other day. I just never got a chance to really say thank you.”
“No problem,” Turville answered. “Give me just a second here.” Very rapidly, he slapped the parts of his rifle back into position. It took longer than a second, but considerably less than thirty. The practice of reassembling the rifle in the dark, during basic training, had finally proven of use. He slung it over his shoulder and stood up.
“I’m Jim,” he said, holding his right hand out.
She took it in hers, and shook. “Rebecca.”
“So what can I do for you, Rebecca?”
She smiled, and he felt short of breath.
“Well, I sort of was looking for my Dad: I think he’s with your Lieutenant. But I also wanted to talk to you.”
Oh, shit, Turville thought. He didn’t need to get in trouble for messing with some high school girl. But God, was she beautiful.
“Well,” he heard himself say, “The LT and your Dad took a drive up to the top of the dam. They’ll be back in a bit. Why don’t we take a walk while we wait?”
Open mouth, insert entire combat boot, Jim. What the hell are you thinking?
“Okay,” she said, shoving her hands in her pockets.
He looked up at PFC Leo, manning the machine gun in the humvee.
“Yo, Leo,” he called.
“Yep,” Leo answered, his expression just short of a leer.
“I’m taking a walk down the street. Yell if we get a call.”
Turville turned back to Rebecca. “I’ve got to stay close. We’re the quick reaction force this week, so if anything happens, I got to move in about three seconds.”
She shrugged. “Okay.”
A truck roared past, shaking the ground as they turned to the street, then they crossed in silence.
“So what’s your story, Rebecca?” he asked. He felt awkward as hell.
She shrugged. “Not much of one. I’m supposed to be graduating high school in two months, but school’s been closed since January.”
“Your Dad said you were going off to college next year?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “At least I hope so. I got an early acceptance to Marshall, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with the schools. Who knows? Things have been crazy.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I know what you mean.”
“What about you?” she said.
“I am what you see. Joined the Army last year, expecting to be sent off to the Middle East, and instead they sent me to war practically around the corner.”
She laughed. “Where are you from?”
“Falls Church, Virginia.”
“Well, that’s not too far.”
“I guess not,” he replied. “Feels like a million miles sometimes.”
“Well, we are pretty much in the middle of nowhere. If you wanted to find an exciting spot, Whitesville probably isn’t it.”
“Exciting enough for me,” he said. “I don’t like having people shoot at me. Which reminds me: I know you got your truck back, but are they doing anything about the damage?”
She smiled. “Yes, my Dad said the Army was paying for everything. It’s in the body shop now.”
“Oh, good. I was a little worried. I didn’t want to return your kindness with a bunch of bullet holes in your truck.”
She laughed. “That wouldn’t be that unusual around here. Trucks with bullet holes, I mean.”
“Well, we’ve got our share of hunters. My Dad goes shooting sometimes with Uncle Joe, and then we’re stuck eating venison for days. Seriously. Ewww.”
As they talked, they walked the length of Boone Street, Whitesville’s main corridor. The black marks from fire still darkened the street.
“How long do you think you’re going to be here,” she asked.
“Don’t know,” he replied. “They’re telling us quite a while. Army’s worried that folks are pissed off about the whole losing the war thing. They want us all over the place as kind of a local police force.”
“That’s probably a good thing,” she said. “You heard the sheriff got murdered last week.”
“Yeah, I heard about it. Not much left in the way of local cops, are there?”
She shook her head. “No. My Dad says it’s not a huge deal—there’s not much crime around here. Mostly drunks beating up on their wives. It’s almost like a ghost town anyway—not too many people left living here, especially since they started scraping off the top of the mountains around here.”
“We drove past one of those on the way down here,” he said. “Looks like the surface of the moon.”
Turville stopped walking. They were two blocks from humvees now, and almost out of sight around the curve. “This is as far as I can go, I’m afraid,” he said.
She turned toward him, tilted her head to the left. “Do you like being in the Army?”
He made a rough sound low in his throat. “I don’t know. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I’ve had some bad moments in the last year. Then I got shot in January, and spent three months in the hospital. Just got out three weeks ago.”
“Really?” she said, eyes wide.
“Yeah, really. I kinda of forgot to duck, you know?”
She giggled. “Not funny.”
“Then why are you laughing?”
That made her laugh harder.
As they turned back toward the humvees, Turville’s vision almost went white as he forced out the question. “Rebecca, I have to ask you something. I’d like to invite you to dinner or a movie sometime, but are you, like, old enough? Am I going to have your Dad coming after me with a shotgun or something? Cause, you know, I don’t need that kind of trouble.”
She giggled even harder. “Somehow I don’t see my Dad coming after you with anything but flowers. He can’t seem to talk about anything but you lately. And yes, I’m old enough to go to dinner. If you asked nicely.”
He stumbled, and his heart beat even harder. “Okay. Well, the rest of this week pretty much sucks, and you’d have to do the driving, but, can I take you out to dinner?”
“Yes, Jim, you can take me to dinner. Or even come out to our place. It’d thrill my Dad.”
“I bet your Mom would love it too. I’ll have her chasing me with a pitchfork, huh?”
She frowned. “Maybe I was wrong about you after all. You be nice. My uncle told me to stay away from you guys, that everyone in the Army has only one thing on their minds.”
He shrugged. “Well, that’s true enough.”
She laughed. He pointed up to the top of the dam. A military humvee was making it’s way down the face, turning on one of the tight switchbacks. “That’ll be the LT and your father. We should head back.”
They slowly turned back towards the tiny house where the quick reaction force was sleeping, keeping the conversation on inconsequential topics. As they reached the humvee, he said, “I know you gave me your number before, but I passed it on to the LT when he turned your truck over, so can I get it again?”
They exchanged contact information, and he keyed hers into his mobile. Moments later, the humvee rolled up. Lieutenant Blake and Bob Mays got out of the vehicle.
“Rebecca,” Mays said. “Corporal Turville.”
Turville nodded at the Mayor.
Before Turville could say a word, Rebecca said, “Dad, I hope I wasn’t too forward, but I’ve invited Corporal Turville to dinner with us. Is that okay?”
Mays raised his eyebrows, then looked at Lieutenant Blake. “Lieutenant, I’d be delighted to host the corporal, if that’s all right with the Army.”
Blake looked as if someone had forced him to swallow an uncomfortably large pill, but he nodded. “Of course, Mayor. Timing may be a bit awkward to work out, given Corporal Turville’s duties, but we’ll work something out.”
On top of the other humvee, Santiago was manning the machine gun. He waited until Turville caught his eye, then winked. Turville looked away.
The mayor and the lieutenant shook hands, then parted. Rebecca followed her father and they drove away, leaving Lieutenant Blake and Turville standing next to the humvees.
Blake looked at Turville with an unforgiving eye and said, “Corporal, I don’t even want to know what you are getting yourself into here. But be pretty god damn careful.”
Turville swallowed and said, “Yes, sir.”