By John Thomas Tuft

It began in the dead of night, as these things usually do. The soldier cleared the ridge, a dark silhouette against the desert night sky. Then he realized that he was exposed and ducked down below the dunes, rolling over and over, keeping his weapon high, arms outstretched. A machine gun opened up, chewing and spraying the dirt where he had just been standing. That was followed by the ‘crump’ of a mortar, which landed short. As he dug himself down into the warm earth, he could hear the mortar rounds being walked toward his position. Panting hard, he scrambled farther underneath the overhanging rock formation at the bottom of the slope. That’s when he heard the clank and rattle of a tank being maneuvered around the top. A pause, pregnant with dread. Then a shell slammed into the rock and his world exploded in a dizzying whirl and deafening roar of flame and smoke.

When he came to, he found himself lying dazed and hurting on the hard floor of a dank cave. He tried to get up but discovered his left leg was shattered, his desert fatigues soaking through with his own blood. The soldier slowly dragged himself away from the opening to the cave, which showed jagged edges against the stars, silently watching high overhead. He was trapped, alone.  The opening was higher than he could reach. He turned on the Phantom Warrior special flashlight to blue and shone it around. It kept enemy night vision goggles from spotting him. Nothing but rocks and more rocks in the eerie light. He was trapped, no way to escape. If he called out for help, the enemy would hear and come finish him off. Or capture him and take him God knows where to do God knows what.

He leaned his helmet back against the wall of the cave and tried to stay calm. His platoon was on the other side of the valley, waiting for the evac choppers. His buddies called him Skippy because he liked to skip all the rules which he felt did not apply to him. Regs were for those who didn’t know any better, who didn’t know how the world really worked. Which was why he slipped away from the patrol to explore this little ravine, see what he might score. “And here I am,” he muttered to the emptiness. The blood, his blood, was forming a small river across the cave floor. Something about it reminded him that he’d brought his iPhone with him, definitely not something permitted. There would be hell to pay from his sergeant when he got back…if he got back.

He dug behind his tactical vest and pulled it out, hesitated, then switched it on. He shielded it close. No service. His wounded leg that felt like it was on fire was now growing cold. He thumbed to TEXT, paused. “Jesus? Are you there?” he typed, hesitated, pushed SEND. He was shaking his head at his foolishness when the screen lit up. WHAT DO YOU NEED? Skippy stared in disbelief. He chewed his lip as he typed, “Where are you? What do you look like?” Seconds later: IS THAT WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW? He sighed. “Yes, I’m scared and alone.” Waited. BEEN THERE, DONE THAT. Skippy shook his head and decided to go for broke. “Send a selfie.”

The pause was long, too long. Sweat poured down Skippy’s face, but he grew ever colder. Finally, he typed, “Jesus, don’t do me like this. I’m hurting, dude.” After a moment: WHAT DO YOU NEED? Skippy typed, “Why can’t I see you? I don’t want to die.” The screen lit: I DID MY TIME. YOUR TURN. Skippy slammed the phone down, heard the glass crack and instantly panicked. The lens had a spiderweb distortion, but he tried anyway, “Jesus, you still there?” His heart was starting to race. WHAT DO YOU NEED? Skippy grunted and said a few choice words before typing, “I just want to see you.” Right away came the reply: SEND A SELFIE.

The big, strong soldier, encased in the garb of efficient killing for warfare, broke down and started to cry. Great sobs that filled the cave. His heart stopped racing. He could barely feel it any longer. He could barely feel anything at all. With his last strength, he held the phone out at arm’s length and snapped a picture of his tear-streaked face, caked in his own blood. He put it into the text box and hit SEND. The phone dropped into his lap. It is not known whether he saw the reply: THAT’S WHAT YOU NEED.

High up in the surrounding mountains an eleven year old girl in the clothing of the Pashtun studied the image on her cell phone. Ever so slowly she reached out one finger and traced the tears on the man’s face. Then she gently pulled it to her and gave it a gentle kiss.

Words are magic and writers are wizards.