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C H A P T E R  F I V E



7 MAY, 1983


        John traced his thumb over his open palm. He felt the grooves of his skin, smooth and unmarked. His flesh had forgotten the wound that had punctured it. The only memory of it now was held in the blurry images captured by his mind that day. Just as every cut, scrape, or bruise that had marked him before, this one had faded within the hour and left no trace by morning.

        Days had passed, but he still found himself feeling over his palm for any sign of scarring. Each night, he would dream of the pain in his hand, waking in the morning certain he would find a long, dried scab stitched over his palm. Nothing, there was always nothing. The phantom feeling would linger for a time, but would eventually vanish like the long-healed injury into memory.

        He stood in the living room. The sun had just begun to pass over the wall of sky-piercing rock that cradled the village, igniting the mud-brick homes with warmth. Afternoon light gently glided through the green-tinted windows to coat the interior in a spring glow. The imperfections of the glass sent mesmerizing rings of deep green over the curves of John’s hand. He watched the bending light wash over his skin, thinking how alike it must be to the sea.

        “John,” Viktor said, leaning under John’s gaze.

        John blinked, drawing in a sharp breath of air. He looked at his father, holding his breath behind a tightened jaw. The moment drew on as he struggled to remember what his father had been telling him. He had diverged into another ever-unfurling lecture that John quickly slipped from; his focus turning to his palm. His father’s eyelids drooped behind his glasses, seeing he’d obviously lost him again.

        Viktor sighed, crouching to place a ring-bound journal he had been holding into a leather bag by his feet. Several rusted tools and chewed pencils rolled aside as he crammed the book beside them. John stood in silence, watching his father stretch the leather fastenings over the bag’s opening. It had seen better days, but his father refused to get rid of the tattered, peeling thing. Viktor stood, rolled his shoulders, then turned back to him.

        “Let me see,” Viktor inclined, relinquishing whatever point he had been trying to make. John’s lungs gave up with a sigh of relief as he relaxed, turning his hand over to his father. Viktor held it carefully, pressing a finger lightly into the meat of John’s hand. John watched him methodically squish the areas of his palm, unsure of what he could possibly be searching for. There was never anything left after an injury–no underlying bumps, nor swelling–like it never happened.

        “How long this time?” Viktor asked, bringing John’s hand closer to his face.

        “Four days now, I think?” John replied. “I felt it last night, but…” he trailed off, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth. His father would assuredly see, too, that the cut was still truly and totally gone. 

        “Hm,” Viktor hummed. 

        “It’s fine.”

        “Good,” Viktor let go of his hand, pressing his glasses back up to his brow. “Then you can leave it be and listen.” Viktor circled around him, moving towards a set of built-in shelves made into the mud wall. He snatched a folded map pinned under a mug on the shelf’s surface, flapping off the dust it had collected. Viktor paced back to John, stopping inches from him. He looked up from behind his metal-framed glasses, his stare unwavering.

        John swayed back uncomfortably, looking up at the cracked ceiling and shoving his hands into his pockets. 

        Viktor whacked him with the map, insisting in a firm tone, “Please.”

        John winced, peeling his eyes from the miniature landscape of mountains formed by the dried mud above. He fought to meet his father’s gaze, stopping when he reached his glasses. One of his father’s brows arched up from behind the lenses, frowning at him. 

        “Mhm,” John managed.

        “You can go.” 

        “What?” John blurted. He couldn’t understand what he just heard. The words rammed into his head, scrambling to find meaning. Viktor brushed by, leaning over the bag and shoving the map into a pocket on the bag’s side. A flutter kicked into John’s stomach as he traced his thoughts to remember what they had been talking about before his focus drifted off. Then it connected–the car!

        “I-I can go?” John stammered, spinning around. “Out–out with–”

        “Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to listen to your father,” Viktor sighed, curling the corner of his mouth. “Yes, you can go. I’ve spoken with Moisey. He’ll take you with his team to scavenge parts from the car out on the northern road.” His face fell sullen again. “It seemed best as you would know what to look for. That way you would all be off the road faster and be home before nightfall. 

        “I’d go,” he continued, “but Bahramand has asked that I help to look over our inventory. I expect more electrical repairs to be needed as we enter the summer months and…” he trailed off, catching the beaming expression growing on John’s face. 

        “Son, understand the severity of this. This is work, not a chance to run wild over the open road.”

        John bit the inside of his cheeks, holding down his smile. He focused his attention, pressing down the delighted thoughts of adventure that were about to spring into his mind. He nodded, looking his best to not seem too eager.

        “When do we go?” John said, immediately relenting to his greedy thoughts. He couldn’t hold his excitement, he needed to know everything–every detail–now!

        Viktor raised a hand, demanding John’s patience. “Today,” Viktor replied. He preemptively gestured again for John’s silence, seeing lips ready to burst with more questions. “You’ll go today, but there is something we must speak about.”

        John relinquished the building thrill with a deep sigh. He knew what came next. A talk of responsibility, a weighted slog of words that would sully the exhilaration he felt and remind him of his duty to the village. He already knew what to expect, but dreaded having to listen to it again, having played out the conversation in his head already.

        “You were right. You are old enough to go beyond the village,” Viktor began. John’s brow furrowed, caught by what he heard. “You’ve been old enough, and I cannot keep you here forever. Unless my aim for you has been to have you live a life bound to this rock on the mountainside forever, I must accept the truth that you’re a grown man. Your life is worth far more, and full of so much more purpose, than the life of solitude I’ve made for myself.”

        John clenched his jaw. He didn’t know what to say. He watched his father’s eyes shift behind his glasses.

        “Allowing you to go beyond the village is a given. So long as you are safe, and listen to my warnings, we can make this work. But to do so, we must trust one another.”

        John felt uncertain about what his father meant by that. He did trust him. Of course they disagreed at times, but he always listened and did what was asked of him. His father’s words thickened in his head. 

        Viktor squinted, bending down to retrieve the bag from the floor. As he slowly stood, straightening his back with a crack, his face bent and twisted in thought. Viktor’s mouth pressed into a line. He held the bag in his hands in silence.

        “I’ve kept something from my past, something I should have let go of,” he began. “I’m worried now, that in my selfishness, I’ve risked the safety of the village–and most importantly, your safety. It’s difficult to explain, still, I’d like to–but, I need your trust–”

        “Dad, I–”

        “I know, I know, but this is a different kind of trust,” he looked to John, his grip on the bag tightening. “I want to tell you everything, but I need time to think.”

        “Okay,” John said, setting his jaw.

        Viktor handed the bag over to him. John took it, holding it down by his side. He waited, not wanting to interrupt his father’s thoughts.

        “I’ve included a few things to help you,” Viktor continued, clearing his throat. His tone changed. He seemed to swallow whatever emotion had previously latched onto his words. “Wrenches, the map, and a journal–I’ve included a list there of the required parts. You can check them off as you retrieve them.”

        John peered into the bag, feeling put off. No part of this seemed to fit the gravity his father expressed. He rummaged through the supplies, seeing no more than what his father had mentioned.

        “What you’re looking for, I gave to Moisey,” his father said. “It’s a box, small and metal–rusted. I’ve asked that he take it and bury it far from here. He’s to bring it along on his mission route today, part of which will take you to the abandoned car. I want you to see that he has it with him when you go today.

        “You’ll only be going so far as the car. They’re traveling in two trucks, so you and whoever he sends you with will come home before dark. I’ll check with him when he returns this evening to ensure it’s been done.”

        “What’s so important about the box?” John asked, slinging the bag over his shoulder.

        “Trust me,” Viktor tilted his head with an austere look, walking to the front door. He shifted his weight as he walked with a little more difficulty lately. The corners of John’s mouth sank watching his father’s age reveal itself. With a good shove, the door shook from its rest as Viktor pushed it outwards, letting the sun burst into the room.

        John closed his eyes against the wash of white light. He turned his head, blinking. Lowering his head, John stepped up to the entrance, stopping beside his father. He peered at him with strained eyes.

        “One more thing,” Viktor added. “If you see it, don’t open it. Its contents are dangerous.” He turned away, heading inside. “Now, get going. I want you back before the sun sets.”

        John opened his mouth to speak but was left standing in the open door frame. Viktor had disappeared back inside, drifting into the shadow of the home. He heard his father shut himself in his room with a muted thud. 

        Puzzled, John turned away, stepping outside. He flung the front door behind him as he stepped up onto the road. A familiar crack snapped as the door shut against the stone. 

        A smile began to spread across his face. He rolled his head back, filling his lungs with warm air. He let the sun seep into his clothes, surrounding him with the day’s heat. The mess of black hair that curled into his brow trapped that heat that tried to swim lazily away, causing beads of sweat to form on his forehead. He shrugged his father’s words from his mind as he stretched his arms wide.

        He welcomed the sun on his pale skin. It was difficult for any color he gained to last, so he took any chance he could to be outdoors before summer’s sweltering would eventually cook the valley. Then he’d do whatever he could to keep to the shade, subsequently losing his tan.

        Breathing out, he leaned into a walk, following the winding road. Moisey could usually be found in a two-story home requisitioned by his crew of deserters at the end of the road. Sitting at the village edge, the building dubbed Little ‘Merika served as the barracks and lounge for the men as well as those they helped to flee the country–though it had been some time since another high-paying refugee had been smuggled through the village.

        Most found the building unpleasant. Filled with smoke and the scent of stale sweat, everyone was glad Little ‘Merika sat far from the rest of town. However, anyone passing through could expect a rolling fog of burning food and hashish to flood their nostrils. It was advised to run fast or wait for the men to roll out of bed on another mission before crossing that way.

        John didn’t mind though. While he tried not to linger to avoid a sick stomach, he found the mixture of smells to be enticing since they were so unlike the routine life he lived each day. It seemed part of the natural gruff of adventure. And now, he had a chance to be part of it–to taste the bitter air that rolled from the green trucks they drove.

        A breeze blew towards the mountains, ruffling his hair and shirt. He shut his eyes, avoiding the drift of dirt that followed. Specs of dust peppered his face as he continued to follow the path by memory. 

        His momentary blindness nearly cost him his footing though as his foot swept forward against something solid, which made a surprised, bleating cry. His heart leapt to his throat, his eyes flinging open. A sheep with sandy locks stumbled out from between his legs. Its rectangular eyes enlarged, confounded by such a motion taken against it. With a shake of its head and a grumbled chuff of air, the animal climbed back off the road.

        John skirted aside, hands raised. An immediate fear that he’d harmed the animal sprung to mind. How horrible it would be to start this adventure by not going at all, and instead spending the remainder of the day apologizing to the karakul’s owner. His breath was held as he watched for signs of injury in the waddling animal. 

        The only change was a miffed look in the creature’s eye as it stared back over its shoulder, clambering up an incline and under an old, dried wood fence. Its rotund shape lifted one of the fence’s gray branches to pass under it. 

        John frowned, blowing air from his nostrils. His heart still thudded as the momentary burn of surprise bled from his chest. The sheep stuck its head back out from between the fence, chewing. He swore he could see a look of disdain on its dark-furred face. John blew a strand of hair from his eye, moving to make a rude gesture as he heard a voice call out from above.

        “Assalam alaykom!” the voice called. A smile appeared between the horizontal fence posts as a figure walked up into view beside the sheep.

        “W-waalaykum assalam,” John returned, quickly moving his hand from cursing the sheep to placing it over his chest in respect for the greeting. He bent to see through the fence to get a better look at who had called to him. Atop the incline stood a thin man in drab linens, which when blown by the occasional gust, made him appear like a spindly tree. 

        “How are you today? How is your father–and your home?” asked the man in quick succession. Seeing that wide smile that cracked the surrounding skin with sun-baked wrinkles, John recognized the man as Mirwani. A bit of a recluse, Mirwani kept a few of the village’s last remaining sheep. He usually led them beyond the village to graze during the day, which was why John hadn’t expected to step on one.

        “I am well–my father too! Our home still stands,” John smiled, straightening up as he prepared to repay the respect to the elder. Anxiety pricked at the back of his neck as he became ensnared in the rituals of the greeting. “How are you and your livestock?” His gaze wandered to the karakul eyeing him as it yanked the sparse stalks of grass that grew beside the fence posts. His brow narrowed in response to its blank, molar-grinding stare.

        “Good, very good! Lively,” Mirwani grinned a practically toothless grin.

        “That they are,” John said, taking a step back onto the road, attempting to excuse himself. He grit his teeth as the elder took an additional step forward, keeping John in his view.

        “It is a warm day, is it not?” the elder remarked, looking over the lower turn of the village. John swayed, pretending to sweep a look over the area as Mirwani had. “A good time for tea! Please, will you come inside and share a cup with me? I have just prepared some.”

        John’s heart sank. Not wanting to offend, he rummaged through his mind to think of a proper excuse. The sun continued to trace through the sky, burning away the time. He couldn’t chance missing Moisey, and in his frantic thoughts, he even considered risking a sudden, and rather rude decline to Mirwani’s offer in order to escape the hospitality. No. He disregarded the thought and began to masterfully string together a plan of phrases to wiggle out of afternoon tea with the old shepherd. 

        “You are very kind to invite me into your home, Mirwani,” John began with a slight bow. “I would be grateful to be entertained by you in your–happy home, and I will make the effort to do so. I’ll try to come by this afternoon!”

        The man nodded but remained silent with an expectant expression on his face. The silence pried at John to say more. Chewing his lip, he scrambled to make a better excuse, “Bahramand has asked that I assist the others in retrieving some–”

        “There you are!” chimed another voice.

        John turned to see a white face obscured by a toss of twisted, red hair. She had a wide smile visible beneath the windswept curls. Nuria, again, arrived just in time to save him from another ambushed invitation to sit with an elder and converse for hours about family and current events.

        She wore a light blue shawl over her head but did nothing to keep her tangled hair from falling over her face. It was one of those things she thought was helpless to prevent. The wind that crept over the valley always found a way to sneakily pry strands from behind her ears. Eventually, she gave up fighting it and let the wind carry it as it pleased. John liked that about her–that she was able to not care about certain things.

        Nuria walked up the road towards them, stopping at a respectful distance. She bowed slightly to the elder who remained silent. Mirwani nodded in turn, tucking his smile between his cracked lips. 

        “Are you ready?” Nuria said more softly to John. She spoke in English. For her and John, it was their secret language. Few could speak it apart from his father, who had taught him. Moisey knew a few words; mostly swears and how to say ‘friend’ if he ever ran into Americans, but no one else could understand them–the villagers or Moisey’s men. It was their way of being alone together, even amongst others.

        John smiled, nodding.

        “I’ll come by soon,” John said to Mirwani in Pashto. “My father just got another package of roasted almonds–I’ll bring some we can share with your tea!” John leaned on his toes, eager to leave. The elder jovially bobbed his head in acceptance and turned to guide his sheep away. With a sigh of relief, John practically hopped into a jog down the road. Nuria chased after him.

        “Wait!” Nuria laughed behind him. The two of them skirted around the bend, banking behind a tall, mud brick tower. John stopped abruptly and flung himself against the wall, looking back the way they came. Nuria spiraled around him, taking refuge in the shadows beside him–hidden from their invisible pursuers.  “You think he’ll come running after you–a cavalry charge with the whole flock?”

        “Yeah, to tear me to shreds for refusing tea for the tenth time in weeks. That sheep had it out for me.”

        “I’m sure it did,” Nuria said with exaggerated belief. “Don’t think I didn’t see you flounder on your heels–evading that attempt on your life.”

        “It would have gnawed through my ankles,” John spat, trying to cover his embarrassment. It didn’t help–Nuria tilted around him, catching the redness that had undoubtedly appeared on his face. She grinned the way she always did when she embarrassed him. It was a specific smile–one that curled at its ends and made her eyes squint. 

        John kicked off from the wall, shoving his hands in his pockets and marching off. Nuria fell in beside him, striding on light feet. 

        “Bet he’d have you baked into naan–served alongside tea to a more grateful guest,” Nuria stirred.

        “Tch,” John replied through his teeth.

        “Don’t let it bother you–today’s a big day!”

        John smiled, eyeing her beside him. She was more than a head shorter than him–something fairly common amongst everyone he’d known, but he didn’t let that dilute his own attempts to tease her with that fact when he could–not that it was very effective.

        Despite her habitual mockery of him, John was glad to have her along today. For years they had talked about a day like this–a journey beyond the village together. Those conversations grew longer and more frequent as children. He'd come home jabbering about it to his father late into the evenings. It got to the point where his father would make John read aloud from one of his school books just to hear something else for a change.

        Those days were gone now as they started to see each other less. When John grew into adulthood, his father saddled him with more work; taking on his more mundane responsibilities he could no longer perform at his age–or so he claimed. Nuria too frequented the village less. Between her work with Moisey and moments spent with John, she was rarely seen. She would often disappear for days at a time, and when she was home, she kept to herself. 

        John never went after her, doing his best to avoid a village-wide scandal. Instead, he would wait for her to find him, and they would pick up where they left off; usually, with an exciting tale strung by Nuria about her latest roamings, or the missions she’d help Moisey with. 

        “You ready for this?” Nuria asked.

        “Of course,” John assured. 

        “Sure? You don’t look fit for this life-threatening task,” she pointed to his simple attire consisting of a loosely fitted shirt tucked into old, work khakis his father handed down to him. He had them tucked into a pair of grubby, ankle-high Soviet combat boots. It seemed fine enough an outfit to gather car parts. “We really ought to get you into some real fatigues–now that you’re a real soldier,” she grinned.

        “Uh-huh,” John squinted. Her words were always sewn with sarcasm directed at his father. While he would sometimes join in with poking at his father’s paranoia, he wished she would lighten up on her remarks every now and then. After all, his father cared about her safety too.

        They came upon a wide fork in the road, Little ‘Merika wedged broadly between the dirt paths. A long balcony of rock ran along the outside of the second floor. Several men in sandy-green fatigues puffed smoke from cigarettes as they rocked back on rickety, wooden chairs. Someone was flinging cards from an open window above, each one swirling down to the ground. After watching three more cards frisbee into the wind, John noticed they were aimed at a finch dancing over a suspiciously placed pile of seeds on the balcony’s stone guard rail.

        He couldn’t keep his lips from spreading wide, grinning ear to ear as he quickened his pace. He was nearly there when Nuria spun out in front of him, placing a hand on his chest. His feet stuttered to a halt and furrowed his brow. A mixed feeling of frustration and elation lifted within him.

        “Best you wait out here,” Nuria stated flatly. “They don’t like having just anyone coming inside–even if it is you–” she pivoted back to face him as she walked to the building’s front door, “–actually, especially because it’s you.”

        John folded his arms, shrugging off the comment. He turned on his heel, grating pebbles beneath his boots. He tried to make himself appear unbothered as he waited outside the deserter’s clubhouse. 

        A playing card curled suddenly from above, thwacking John in the face. He jumped, snatching it as it flapped to the ground. Several rough laughs broke out from above. John felt his ears grow hot, and he turned to see two shaved heads looking gleefully down at him; bent cigarettes on their lips. John wrinkled his nose, taking the card between his fingers and flinging it up into the air.

        The card spun frantically upwards, landing somewhere on top of the balcony. The men cheered happily, “Uraa!” He was unsure of where the card landed, but it was good enough to steal the attention away from him. He took the chance to step under the balcony’s shade.

        He heard chatter murmur from behind the front door. Leaning closer, he could make out Nuria’s voice clashing with one much louder–Moisey. He strained his ear to make out what they were saying, but only caught a few words.

        “–’morrow?” Moisey’s voice echoed.

        “Yes, there’s–” Nuria’s voice followed, speaking now in Russian; her tone fell, hushed. “–meeting in Kabul this time.” 

        John attempted to understand the context of the conversation but heard heavy thuds of footsteps approach the door. He skipped away, turning to lean against one of the trucks parked outside of the barracks. 

        Moisey forcefully swung the door open, trudging into the light. Nuria leapt after him, avoiding the door as it swung back angrily in retaliation.

        “Ack!” Moisey groaned. “That’s no good! Better a fuckin’ week from now, yeah? Tell ‘em!”

        Nuria made a sound under her breath, avoiding John’s eye. John made a quizzical expression, moving aside as Moisey strode past him. The large man stabilized himself on the hood of the truck as he shifted around it. John frowned. Is he drunk?

        “Alright,” Moisey said loudly, stopping in his tracks. “Where’s he?” Moisey crunched around on the road, turning to see John standing anxiously. “Ah! There’s our fortune soldier!” Moisey’s eyes were bloodshot.

        John smiled weakly, nodding his greeting to the barrel-chested Russian. The man shifted his footing, taking a long look at John. John fought to not break his gaze from the Russian’s scrutiny. From the corner of his eye, he could see a look in Nuria’s eyes that screamed ‘Do not look at me, look at him!’.

        Moisey snorted, swiveling, making his way to the back of the truck. John followed along with Nuria. They walked around to the back of the vehicle. It had no roof and could sit four in its uncushioned seats–and several more thanks to its “modified” additional seating welded into the truck’s bed. Two crude benches were fused into the back of the truck with metal containers secured beneath them by harshly tied straps.

        Moisey unfastened the straps of one of the containers, sliding the metal crate free from under the bench. With two clicks, he undid the crate’s latches and flung it open. Having mulled over its contents, he made a disapproving grunt.

        “Lyonya!” Moisey called.

        One of the two shaved heads careened over the balcony, a vexed expression pulling down on the man’s stubble-ridden face. Two beady, dark eyes frowned at them. The man’s cigarette was already burnt to a nub that he chewed on the front of his lip.

        “Ya!” the man answered.

        “Where is the box? You know the one!”

        “Ya–the rock? Why do you care so much about it?”

        “Shh!” Moisey hissed. “Suka! Tell me where the box is!” He peered over his shoulder at John, who looked more confused than ever.

        “The box,” John spoke up. “Is this the one my father asked you to bury?”

        “Yeah, yeah,” Moisey waved at him dismissively. “We have it–where is it, yeah!?”

        “I put it in the truck, yeah!” the man named Lyonya yelled down in a mocking tone, spitting over the edge of the balcony.

        Moisey made a throaty snarl, slamming the crate closed and shoving it away. “It’s not here!” he barked.

        “Other truck!”

        “Mudak,” Moisey muttered, pushing past John. The second truck sat behind the first and looked identical apart from a tan canvas top that loosely covered the back. A long tear had been ripped from the top diagonally down to its side, making it useless in keeping out sand. 

        John let his imagination run, thinking how advantageous it may actually be to aim a rifle through the tear, the shooter being concealed inside. His brow raised at the thought of himself hidden within the canvas cover, clutching a Kalashnikov as he waited to assassinate a high-value target passing down the street.

        John’s scene of espionage was shaken from his mind as he blundered right into Moisey who had stopped behind the second truck. The man didn’t seem to notice thankfully, allowing John to lurch back and compose himself. Nuria shook her head, stepping onto the truck’s wheel and looking through the split in the canvas.

        She leaned into the opening, bending over to reach for inside. John lowered his eyes, engrossing himself with rolling a yellow stone over with his boot.

        “This?” Nuria said, hopping down from the truck. She held the handle of a small, metal box; its edges flaking with rust.

        “This is it!” Moisey smiled, pointing. He slapped John on the shoulder as he moved towards Nuria, taking the box from her. “Lyonya!”


        "Jus’ for the inconvenience, you’re on this run with me!” Moisey yelled, turning to smile at John and Nuria. “You too, Vadim!”

        Two groans echoed from above, followed by a string of curses John couldn’t quite hear. Footsteps shuffled above as a door was opened and promptly slammed. A minute later, two men emerged from the front door. 

        The first to step out was Lyonya, who had thrown on a loose, unbuckled harness and slung a Kalashnikov rifle over his shoulder. The rifle’s wood grip was stripped of its polish and marked with cuts made by a knife. John thought a few of the carvings looked like tallies, but it was difficult to tell. The only other accessory the man wore was a strip of sun-bleached cloth tied over his arm; its blue stripes had faded to a color-washed gray.

        The second man to appear wasn’t the other buzzed-cut twin, but rather a different, swarthy individual. He had an unfortunate face that looked to be frowning at all times. He had a high set of thick eyebrows which slanted downward, followed by laugh lines burdened with such outward disappointment that the rest of his face hung with perpetual gloom. This was complemented by a strangely contrasting pompadour haircut and bushy sideburns, both of which were uncombed. If there was anyone here at risk of carrying lice, it was this miserable-looking man. 

        Obviously aware of his disheveled appearance, the man gave a slothful shrug upon meeting John’s eye. He made a sucking sound, then mumbled something about brown soup before lumbering through the group. He carried two rifles on his back along with a large bag that clanged with an assortment of metallic items that looked like kitchenware.

        Lyonya squinted at John, slipping another cigarette from his pocket and setting it between his flat lips. John would have felt uneasy under the man’s glare if it wasn’t for a tuft of pocket lint that was stuck to his cigarette. John kept from making a face as he watched the fuzz become stuck to Lyonya’s lip. The deserter didn’t seem to notice it though as he lit up the cigarette and sucked on it with gaunt cheeks. 

        “You’re coming with us then, hm?” Lyonya said, blowing smoke from both his mouth and nostrils. His voice was hoarse, rolling like sandstone over granite.

        “That he is, yeah,” Moisey yawned. “Rolan’s got a project that needs doing–part of an agreement, really.” John raised an eyebrow. It sounded like there was more than just disposing of the metal box that his father had arranged with Moisey. He thought it best not to ask, sensing his presence may already be enough of a damper on the group’s day.

        “If it finally means better eating, then hell, the lad can sit on my lap,” Lyonya snickered. His head bobbed with a silent laugh, exposing a row of discolored teeth. “Jus’ messing, boy.” He jabbed John’s ribs with two talon-like fingers, slouching as he trudged around the trucks.

        “Nevermind ‘im,” Moisey said, flaring his nostrils; mustache twitching. 

        John smiled, shrugging off the bizarre comment. He met Nuria’s glance which grimaced with apologetic embarrassment.

        “Come on,” Nuria gestured to the trucks. “Let’s hop in.”

        “Take the las’ truck,” Moisey interjected, pointing. “My boys and I are camping on the mountainside tonight, but we’ll guide you to the wreck Rolan mentioned–”

        “Are you not staying?” John asked, walking beside him and Nuria.

        “Ah, yeah, we’ll stick around while you do your scavengin’, bu’ only for a bit to watch yer back. We’ve got to be off south before dark.” 

        “So does that mean–who’s driving us?” 

        “Who do you think? Your girl!”

        John was surprised. He shot a look at Nuria, who snorted, shaking her head.

        “Did you think I was the cook?” Nuria asked, a twinge of ire in her words. John’s mouth hung open, his face feeling hot. “That’s Vadim,” she shoved a hand against the almond-shaped man as they passed by, nearly toppling him over as he rummaged through his camping bag. Vadim croaked, then coughed, and carried on with searching through the bottomless clatter.

        John cleared his throat, stopping at the back of the second truck with Moisey and Nuria. Moisey looked to be deep in thought for a moment, then snapped his fingers with a sudden burst of recollection.

        “Here,” he directed to Nuria, pulling out a handgun from his sweating waistband. “Don’t lose it.”

        “I never do,” Nuria droned, taking the firearm and shoving it into the back of her fatigues. John tilted his head, taken aback by her ease of the situation. He always knew her to be steadfast, but it was different actually seeing her in her element. He suddenly felt very aware of how unlike her line of work was from the chores he’d spent his life doing. A brief reminder of the danger Moisey’s patrols risked wedged into John’s side. He quickly dismissed the worry, turning to Moisey.

        “How are you taking care of that?” John gestured to the metal box Moisey held. He held his chin up high, fully conscious of how direct he was being. He had to ensure his duty to his father was completed, especially now knowing Moisey wouldn’t be returning tonight. “My father asked that I–”

        “I know–don’t worry!” Moisey leaned in. His breath landed on John’s face with the ripe scent of alcohol. “I’ve got it, yeah? We’ll take it with us!” 

        “But where are you–”

        “We’ll bury it on the mountain!” Moisey’s voice grew louder, but he quickly covered it with a slight smile. “Trust me, alright? It’ll be long gone when we return.”

        “Alright,” John replied, trying to keep a firm stance.

        Nuria blew a chuckle from her nose, brushing past John and climbing into the front seat of the truck. Moisey raised his brow at John, giving a look that told him to get moving. John spun about, walking to the other side of the vehicle and tossing his bag into the passenger seat. He awkwardly clambered up into the truck, taking his seat and setting his bag between his legs. 

        “Ever been in a car before?” Nuria asked, starting up the truck. It belched to life, its engine grumbling much like Moisey’s men.

        “Uhm,” John contemplated.

        “Strap in,” she said, motioning to the buckle on John’s seat. “It’ll be fun!” She had to yell over the engine now.

        John fumbled with the straps but eventually buckled himself into the seat. It hardly seemed to keep him in place as the vehicle bumbled forward, shaking him in every direction. He held onto the exposed door frame for stabilization as they followed Moisey driving the lead truck. Lyonya and Vadim sat in the back of Moisey’s truck, bouncing side to side on the welded benches. Lyonya seemed to laugh as John struggled to get comfortable, his black and yellow teeth hammering with his drowned-out chortle. John did his best to straighten his posture, making himself look less unnerved by the shaking.

        The trucks gradually meandered around the fork in the road like a couple of tortoises with empty stomachs. The engines churned the serene, afternoon air with their thumpings. Once they made it past the last home in the village, Moisey abruptly kicked his truck forward, a cloud of sand exploding behind him. Nuria throttled their truck into action as well, sending John sliding back against the seat. He caught himself from falling right out of the truck, white knuckles clutching to his seatbelt and the squat door beside him.

        John grit his teeth, pulling his shirt over his mouth as grains of dust and sand blew over the windshield, wisping through their hair and around their feet. Nuria laughed, pulling her shawl with one hand around her face. The light cloth flapped backward in the wind, exposing the waves of her curled, red hair. John stared, smiling beneath the protection of his shirt. Here he was, with her, as they always dreamed they could be–tearing over the Afghan countryside.

        They rode for hours in silence, mostly because it was impossible to talk over the engines without getting a mouthful of dust. John kept his eyes shut most of the time too, adding to his stress with each unforeseen bump and jostle the truck received on the unpredictable road. Rocks sputtered from behind Moisey’s wheels too, sometimes striking the hood of their truck. It startled him each time, causing his palms to sweat and Nuria to crack with laughter.

        Eventually, they slowed to a jumbling stop in the middle of nowhere. The horizon was marked only by the mountains behind them and rolling hills ahead with dots of dried shrubs. The sun bent further over the sky now, peeking down through the sparse clouds at them as they hopped from their vehicles.

        John landed on the warm sand with both feet, his legs numb from the ride. With a drawn-out yawn, John stretched back, hands behind his head. The stress melted from his muscles as they extended. 

        Nuria playfully whacked his abdomen with the back of her hand while walking by, snapping away the brief, pleasant moment. John’s yawn choked in his throat from the startle, quickly smacking her hand away. He grouched, turning back to the truck to retrieve his bag. 

        Slinging it over his arm, he pivoted, eyes trailing to the metal carcass they’d come to pilfer from. The boxy thing sat partially sunken into a shallow ravine beside the road. No wheels, glass shattered, paint appearing to have been burnt away–it didn’t fill John with confidence. Still, he approached it, bringing his bag around and pulling out the journal his father had given.

        Flipping through the pages, he found his father’s list. He flicked another glance at the sorry-looking skeleton of the car, sighing. Dropping his bag at his feet, he proceeded to inspect the vehicle.

        While he worked, Moisey and the others wandered into a triangular pattern around them, their rifles held loosely in their hands. Lyonya squinted so hard against the sun that his eyes seemed to withdraw into the folds of his skin. Vadim also looked to be napping while standing, occasionally jolting upright when he swayed too far from his planted feet. Nuria sat on top of the car, watching the horizon with a pair of binoculars.

        “What do you think?” Nuria asked.

        John was busy prying into the sand-blasted engine beneath the car’s hood. He’d become absorbed with unscrewing various parts and tubes to get deeper into the vehicle.


        “Hm?” John hummed. “Ah, sorry–uhm, they’re fine.” He assumed Nuria was speaking about Moisey’s men. 


        John looked up for a moment, nodding to Moisey’s men. 

        “Them? To hell with–what do you think of all this?” she waved her arms in a wide semi-circle, looking down at him, beaming.

        “It’s beautiful,” John smiled, leaning his head back under the hood. The sooner he found what he was looking for, the sooner he could enjoy the scene with her.

        “You’re clueless,” Nuria exhaled, sliding down from the car and walking off. 

        John chewed his lip. His forearms gradually became dark with old grease as he delved deeper into the machine. After several minutes of struggle, he finally pried free the last part he needed. He checked off his father’s list, leaving black fingerprints smudged over its surface. Frowning at the mess he’d made, he turned to look for Moisey. Hopefully he had a rag to wipe his hands with so he wouldn't have to use his shirt.

        “Hey–” John started.

        “Here,” Nuria was already approaching him. She tossed a splotchy towel into the air, landing at John’s feet. He snatched it up and scraped the goopy oil from his arms and hands. The aging gunk flaked and smeared into streaks that refused to leave.

        “Almost done there, yeah?” Moisey hollered from somewhere. John looked around for him, spotting a pair of boots behind one of the trucks. A single, yellow stream splattered into the sand between the shoes. John wrinkled his nose. Moisey sighed in a way that was unpleasant to hear. The towering man stepped out from behind the vehicle, still doing up his trousers. “Got all the ol’ man needed?”

        John cleared his throat. “Yeah, everything.”

        “Good! We’ll be off then.” Moisey said. “Lyonya, Vadim–shake off the dust, we’re outta here!”

        “When are you coming back? So I can tell my–”

        “Tomorrow, boy,” Moisey gruffed. “We’re watching Soviet movement patterns tonight. They like to slink over the hills when the stars are out–”

        “Sneaky-like–guided by duchi!” Lyonya interjected, passing by.

        “Point being,” Moisey eyed Lyonya slump by. “We’ll need to be back early tomorrow. It’s best not to stick around–’specially not in the same place twice.”

        “Alright,” John nodded. “I’ll let him know then…and that you’ll have taken care of the box–”

        “Ack, boy! You are his son,” Moisey dragged his hand over his stubbled chin. “Do me one favor, and turn your attention from one box to another,” he directed, jabbing a finger toward Nuria who was checking the straps on the cargo at the back of the truck. Moisey chuckled, amused with his own acuity. 

        “Don’t go red in the face now,” He added, breaking into a rolling laugh. Moisey landed a heavy hand on John’s shoulder, “If you’re gonna run with the boys, expect a busted lip every now and then, yeah?” John shook as Moisey’s deep laugh vibrated down his massive arm into John’s shoulder. He suffered through it, not wanting to appear fragile despite having definitely blushed at Moisey’s crude comment.

        “Ah, you did fine boy,” Moisey breathed, letting the rest of his laugh blow softly into the wind. “Get on back home now before you worry Rolan to death and back. It’ll be my ass that’ll hear about it for the next month if you’re late–get on now!

        “By the way,” Moisey called over his shoulder. “Your Russian has improved! You no longer sound like a banjo played in the tub, hah!” The man bumbled with more laughter. John scratched the back of his head, heat returning to his face.

        With that, the Russian rounded his truck and lifted himself into the driver’s seat. The vehicle heaved to one side, sending Vadim into Lyonya’s lap who promptly shoved him away with a burst of curses. 

        Their truck groaned reluctantly to life, sputtering fumes behind it. The sickly beast barked from its rear, then rolled on. John covered his mouth and nose in his shirt, avoiding the smog of exhaust and sand that stirred in its wake. 

        As they strolled off towards the southern mountains, John turned to look for Nuria. He found her sitting on the hood of their truck, her small frame kicking her boots leisurely over the side. She seemed allured by the golden horizon. It was a gorgeous sight.

        John let the collar of his shirt fall, breathing fresh air once more. He stepped onto the bumper of the truck, lifting himself up beside her. She looked kindly at him. Her hair caught in the sun as it dripped down from the sky, glowing like honey.

        “Now that you have a moment,” she breathed gently. “What do you really think?”

        John’s eyes drifted from hers, looking out to the vastness of the landscape. The sky began to bake into a crisp, tasteful orange. Lengths of thin clouds spread taught like wool in the distance, their whispered traces just faintly touching the sky. He had seen sunsets like this before, but never so far out from the mountain’s cradle. It was like the two of them were adrift at sea, nowhere to go, nowhere to be but here in the center of it all.

        “Actually, I can tell,” she mused, squinting at him, pleased. He took a glance at her, unable to keep the grin from his face.

        “How about you?” Do you have a favorite?” John wondered.

        “A favorite sunset?”

        “Yeah,” He chuckled, feeling silly for asking.

        “I mean, there was one once over Kabul–pinks and deep reds. And another time, when I climbed the Buddha statues in the mountains, I caught it just as–” she paused, gritting her teeth, catching his amused stare. “This one–this one is.”

        “Thought so,” John laughed.

        “Do you ever want to get out there?”

        “Yeah, do you have to ask?” John lolled his head back. Even now, this taste of freedom wasn’t enough. He wanted more.

        “I know, I know,” Nuria moaned. “I mean the Buddhas.” John looked at her with a befuddled wrinkle in his brow. “The statues–would you ever want to go?”

        John looked out to the skyline. Giant statues, stories tall? He’d learned about them, but the idea seemed fantasy. Much of the Afghanistan country seemed that way. Magnificent temples and sprawling fortresses of stone, minarets that plucked the sky. All that amidst an unfurling land of close-knit cities and distant farmlands–it was mythical.

        “Sure,” he said, humoring her question. Venturing out into the wasteland was one thing, but to travel so far to see other people? There was no way in hell his father would let him.

        “Let’s go,” Nuria prodded him.

        “Yeah, I–” John started with a scoff, but then his expression fell. “What do you–?”

        “I mean right now. Let’s go,” she repeated. “We could drive through the night–be there in the morning.”


        “It’s time! You can do what you want–you’re your own man,” Nuria turned abrasive, swiveling to face him fully. “Rolan said it himself–he let you come out here.”


        “That’s no fluke! It means he knows you’re a damn adult and can make your own decisions–time to make them!”

        “Look I–” John tried to interject, but she kept pressing.

        “Look, what? You want to spend another few years working up to getting permission to go to the next town? To go a few more feet north?” Her voice slowly rose with each word. John exhaled, relinquishing control of his part in the conversation. She’d beaten him over the head with this kind of talk for years. It was true his father acknowledged his independence now, but there was still work to be done. He didn’t want to hurt him. John wished there was some way he could explain that to her, but anything he would say would come about too drawn out and fumbled to have any effect. 

        “You need to take control of your life. The time to live it is now–there’s so much I want to show you!” She rambled on, waving her hands at the grandeur of her words.

        “Yeah, you’re right, but it’s not that easy,” John shot a glare at her before she could leap on him for deflecting her again. “There’s nothing I’d want more in this world than to travel with you–but I can’t just abandon everyone. And I don’t mean to say I’m resigning myself to stay until this war is over, I just mean I want to leave with things feeling…right.”

        “Feeling right?”

        “Yeah,” John rubbed his thumb over his palm. He collected his thoughts, feeling the creases in his hand.

        “What does that look like?” Nuria said, leaning away.

        “It looks like talking to my father and letting him know of my intentions. I’m building trust, that–I don’t know, I’ll be okay?” he was beginning to feel uneasy about his choice of words, but they made sense to him.

        “Promise,” Nuria said flatly. She came inches from his face, boring an intense look into him with her cool eyes.


        “Promise me you’ll talk to him!”

        “Okay, I promise,” John laid back onto the hood, arms behind his head. “But you need to let me. No more elbowing me around.”

        “Deal,” she uttered. “But it won’t stop me from elbowing you like this!” 

        Suddenly the wind was forced from John’s lungs as Nuria rammed her arm down into his gut. A wave of sickness bloated in his stomach following the burst of pain. He coiled up, groaning loudly, and nearly rolled from the hood of the truck. Nuria cried out with sharp laughter, grabbing onto him before he slumped over the edge. 

        He covered his stomach, wheezing, unable to speak. He just laid there, letting the waves of pain pass through him; all the while, Nuria laughed in his ear. The blunt pain fell numb abruptly, dwindling into a faint, queasy feeling. 

        “P-piss head,” he managed through clenched teeth.

        “Oh, like you even felt that,” Nuria giggled.

        John made a grating moan, setting himself upright. He squeezed his eyes shut, positioning himself to lean back against the windshield. When he opened his eyes, he saw just how far the sun had fallen in the sky.         A twinge of worry surged inside him. 

        “Hey,” John croaked. “It’s getting late–”

        “We’ll get going soon,” Nuria quietened down. “I want to show you something first.”

        John made another effort to sit up straight, looking at her as she fumbled with something at her side. She turned to him, holding a metal box–the metal box. John suddenly forgot about the pain in his abdomen, his face contorting in astonishment.

        “Nuria, that’s–!”

        “I know, I swiped it while you were working,” she admitted. “Look, I overheard Lyonya the other night. He, Moisey, and some others got into it, wondering what was so important about it–just some rock I guess–but they were thinking about selling it.”

        “What?” John couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Sure, Moisey’s men were far from the ideal soldiers he hoped they would be, but to go behind his father’s back like that–it formed a pit in his stomach.

        “John, these people–most people actually–they’re not all good. I mean, they’re not bad–they just don’t always act in a way you’d like them to.”

        John slumped. He didn’t think himself so naive to not already understand that, but to have Moisey–his men–these people he wanted so badly to be like–to be the ones to betray his trust... It crushed him. They were the only people he had to look to as a connection to the outside world. His only glimpse into the world of excitement was now tainted. He felt sick.

        “Don’t let it hurt you,” Nuria quickly added. “They don’t understand what this means to your father. Hell, they’d sell just about anything that wasn’t given to them by the Mujahideen. They’re deserters–desperate people, John, and desperate people make mistakes.” She put a hand on him. John inhaled deeply, trying to understand.

        They were deserters. They had no home to go back to now and were unsure if there would be one for them in the future. They did what they did to survive; he had to convince himself of that. Squeezing the thought did nothing for the gross loss of trust he felt. He was suddenly very alone.

        “I’m going to take care of it,” Nuria said.

        John looked at her, raising an eyebrow. The notion shouldn’t have felt as ridiculous as it did to him.

        “I don’t want you to worry about it. And I certainly don’t want this to hurt your chances of getting out more. So–that’s why I took it.” She had a nervous look about her, waiting for John’s reaction.

        He contemplated the offer. It would save him from having to explain to his father, keeping John’s independence intact. He would still build the trust his father demanded. Though would that trust be built on a lie? Doing so would avoid a confrontation between his father and Moisey, too. And did he trust Nuria to handle this? Of course, he quickly disregarded the question. He trusted her wholly. 

        He settled then that putting his faith in Nuria would still be fulfilling the duty his father placed on him. He wouldn’t allow guilt to weigh on him for that. They would take care of this, together. 

        “Okay,” John sat up. A slight smile tilted the corner of his mouth. She looked relieved, setting the box aside and breathing contentedly.

        “Promise?” he added, grinning. If he was going to keep a promise to her, then he would make her keep one to him. A spark flashed in her eye, seeing she’d been challenged.

        “I promise,” she said, placing a soft hand on his.

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