Grabbing a rock jutting from the cliff face, Wierzbowski grunted and struggled to haul himself and Hudson upwards. "You could . . . do your part . . . and push up with your boots."

Hudson whimpered, clinging tighter to Wierzbowski. "God, that's a long way down. That's a long way down, man."

"Are you afraid of heights?" I asked.

"When I'm not supported by something, yeah, man." He was still pale and shaky after his climbing harness broke. We all know it was because it got caught in a tree and ripped from Hudson tugging on it, but we'd be joking that it was because he's too heavy for a long time to come.

"Is everything OK down there?" Hicks asked through our headsets.

"So far, so good," Wierzbowski replied. "Slow going, but . . . I can do this."

"I think you've got about six feet before reaching the top of the cliff. We're right here, waiting."

I remained alongside Wierzbowski and Hudson, despite being in an equally rough position with my smartgun strapped tightly to my chestplate and climbing harness. Vasquez had made it up OK, though.

We had been out in the mountains of Virginia for about two days, on the trail of armed kidnappers who had taken a vacationing Marine and his family from a rental cabin and deep into the woods. We didn't want this take very long, because God knows what was happening to these people.

Wierzbowski gave a pained groan as he pushed Hudson onto the top of the cliff. "You owe me something for this," he said.

"For saving my life? Absolutely, man," Hudson said.

"No. For making me carry your ass up a bloody cliff."

"We don't need to lower a rope for you guys, do we?" Spunkmeyer asked over the radio.

"We're good, thanks," Hicks replied, helping the three of us stand up. "Alright, let's keep going. Take in some water." He loosened the giant strap holding down my smartgun. "Breathe, Drake. Hudson, you OK?"

"I may've peed a little down there, but I'm OK, man," Hudson gasped in between gulping down water from his canteen.

Wierzbowski rubbed his face. "Oh, God."

"When my harness broke, not when you were carrying me, man."

"Still." Wierzbowski gave Hudson the finger.

"None of that," Hicks said. "Get moving. Stay together. Drake in front." He gestured for Crowe and Dietrich to follow him as they headed into the woods.

Almost as soon as we headed down our own path, Hudson's motion tracker started beeping. He looked up from it, and whispered, "Look, man, foxes."

Sure enough, a pair of young red foxes were standing on a hollow log, watching us. As we got closer, they turned and dashed into the darker parts of the forest.

"This is not a nature watch, Hudson," Wierzbowski hissed.

"I know, man."

"Actually, we should be paying attention to the wildlife," I said. "They'll act strange if something isn't right, which means we might be close to wherever these people are. Watch for birds and other animals fleeing."

We didn't have to watch for anything; as we took another step forward, gunshots rang out in the distance, followed by Hicks yelling, "Get cover, now!"

Running toward the sound of Hicks's voice, we were joined by Frost. "They're holed up in this old hunting cabin," he said. "We think the family's inside."

"So we gotta be careful," I replied.

"They might be using them as human shields," Wierzbowski added. "What do we have at our disposal that's nonlethal?"

"Smoke grenades, but how do we flush them out without accidentally hurting a hostage?" Frost asked.

"They started shooting at us, didn't they?" Hudson said.

"Yeah, but they could be trying to lure us into accidentally shooting a hostage," I replied.

"Gotta outsmart 'em, man."

"That's not happening with you around."

Hudson rolled his eyes. "We gotta do something."

I thought for a moment. "There's only two kidnappers. Two against eight heavily armed Marines. If we send four people behind the cabin, they'll be surrounded. There's no way they're able to guard both the front and back, and manage, what, four hostages?"

"Is that your plan, man? We split up and surround the cabin?"

I nodded. "You, me, Wierzbowski, Frost. Apone and the others already got the front. Radio them, Hudson."

"Got it, man."

In less than five minutes, the four of us were running through thick foliage to get behind the cabin. It turns out we were underestimating these people; bullets were whizzing by us, and then we heard a scream.

Behind us, Hudson was lying on the ground, blood gushing from a wound in his right side.

My heart was pounding harder and harder in my ears. Anger surged through my body, boiling in the pit of my stomach. My best friend had just been shot and somebody was going to pay.

"Drake, what're you doing?!" Wierzbowski watched as I crashed down the back door of the cabin. I know I remember seeing four people kneeling on the floor, blindfolded and tied up, and two standing with submachine guns.

The kidnappers definitely weren't expecting any of us to just barge in. The barrels of their weapons were aimed at my head and chest. For a split-second, I watched part of my life flash before my eyes, and I wasn't standing in the cabin anymore; I was standing in a Pittsburgh alley, faced with a group of guys who thought I'd be an easy target. I shot one of them with my dad's gun, then tried to escape in their car . . .

The smartgun was significantly louder than your average .22 handgun. It doesn't just make holes; it tears through things. The floor of the cabin was soaked in blood and littered with empty bullet casings, some of mine and some of theirs.

For a brief moment, there was complete silence. The silence was broken by Ferro and Spunkmeyer flying close overhead in the dropship, then Dietrich yelled, "We need an evac, now!"

Frost and Wierzbowski set about untying the hostages and taking them outside. Hicks took me aside, and looked unsure of what to say to me.

"You do realize that you could've gotten one of the hostages killed, right?" Hicks asked.

I felt like my emotions were going to spill out of me in an uncontrollable torrent. My voice cracked as I moaned, "They shot Hudson."

Hicks realized quickly there was no arguing with me. He led me back to where the others were leading the hostages out to a clearing, where the dropship was going to land. Dietrich and Crowe were carrying Hudson in a stretcher.

"Is he gonna be OK?" I asked.

"He will be if we get him to a hospital ASAP," Dietrich replied.

I sat in a waiting room for what felt like several hours. Wierzbowski joined me, holding styrofoam cups of hot chocolate. He looked around to make sure none of the others were listening, and sat next to me to say, "I don't think you did anything wrong. None of the civilians were killed."

I felt like I was being torn apart from the inside. On one hand, I was worried about Hudson. On the other, I was terrified that my actions were going to be evaluated, I'd get in trouble, and be sent back to prison. My emotions hadn't yet exploded, but they were getting close. It was only a matter of time.

Hicks walked over to us. "Drake, can I talk to you for a-"

"Not now," Wierzbowski said, calmly. "Can it wait till Hudson's in recovery?"

Hicks sighed. "I was just going to say that . . . he's not in trouble. There's nothing to worry about, because none of the hostages were hurt because of his actions. I was just talking that over with Apone."

It was roughly three hours later when Hudson was brought out to recovery. According to Dietrich, the wound was directly below the right side of his ribcage, and the damage was mostly muscular. There was damage to his intestinal lining, but would fully heal if Hudson didn't screw around during his recovery. Everything had been sewn up and he'd have a nice new scar to brag about to anyone willing to listen.

"So, this was pretty much a grazing?" Frost asked.

"A little bit more significant than a grazing. He got lucky," Dietrich replied.

While everyone else left, I stayed, not wanting Hudson to be alone when he woke up. Wierzbowski stayed as well, but at one point in the next hour or so, he said, "I'm going to get something to eat. Would you like anything, Drake?"

"No, thanks," I replied.

"It's been about two days since any of us have had a proper meal. You really should have something."

I sighed. "Something small. Half a sandwich."

Nodding, Wierzbowski walked over to me to pat my shoulder. "I'll bring water, too. Don't worry, I'll be back as soon as I can."

I didn't respond. When Wierzbowski left, I could no longer hold back my emotions. They came pouring out, like a burst pipe. I was well-aware Hudson wasn't conscious, but I still leaned over the bed and hugged him, sobbing hard.

I've cried lots of times. Hell, I've cried more than Vasquez. Most of the time, it's me crying for myself. This time, I was crying for both me and Hudson. Even though Hicks said I wasn't in trouble, I had already started getting angry at myself for what happened. I let my emotions get in the way of doing this mission correctly, and I don't know what to do with them. Am I supposed to ignore the fact that my best friend had been wounded? I don't know, and right now, I don't care.

I think I was mostly upset at the fact that I couldn't prevent him from getting injured in the first place. My face was planted in the pillow as I sobbed, hoping it would keep me somewhat muffled. Then I felt someone touch my left hand, and squeeze it.

Hudson's eyes were open, and he gave me a confused look before managing to process what was going on. "Hey, man . . . where the hell am I?"

"You're in a hospital," I said.

I let go of him so he could adjust himself and continue waking up. He rubbed his face, groaning. "Were the hostages rescued?"


He went to put his arms over his chest, but came across the bandage on his right side. "Jesus," he muttered.

"Dietrich said you'll be fine in a few weeks. Muscle damage and it partially ruptured the stuff holding your intestines in place. Any further in and you might still be in surgery right now."

"Well, that explains why I feel like my whole right side is being scratched at, man."

There was silence between us for several minutes, as Hudson slowly woke up. He groaned and sighed, and occasionally looked like he was in pain-not excruciating pain, but an annoying dull ache.

Wierzbowski returned, carrying a small package of food for himself and me. He smiled when he saw Hudson sitting up. "Well, look who's up and at 'em. How're you feeling, Hudson?"

All he got was a moan.

Wierzbowski's smile faded, and he looked at me. "I take it he just woke up?"

"About ten minutes ago," I replied.

After handing me a hot sandwich wrapped in paper, Wierzbowski sat down. Hudson didn't even perk up at the scent of food. I couldn't imagine he was hungry anyways; I know I'm not after surgery, but I was starving now. Hell, I wished I got a whole sandwich instead of a half.

We had just finished lunch when a doctor, trailed by Dietrich, came in to look over Hudson. In short, he'd be released later in the afternoon, with a substantial list of things he couldn't do while healing. They wanted to keep him on soft food for a few days, to which Hudson said, "So . . . I can have milkshakes and pudding for breakfast, man?"

The doctor thought for a moment. "Well, we'd prefer it if you had something healthier-"

"Yes, you can have milkshakes and pudding for breakfast," I said.

Dietrich rubbed her face. "God, Drake, you're not helping."

We returned to base in the early evening, and felt a lot better after shedding our sweaty uniforms and getting showers. Hudson went to bed early, and not a soul could blame him.

In the morning, I thought that we'd all be able to put this mission behind us and learn from our mistakes, but, no, that didn't happen. Not a chance in hell, buddy.

As promised, Wierzbowski and I bought a lot of soft goodies for Hudson so he wasn't completely miserable during his recovery. He looked better that first morning after, but still didn't have a lot of energy. Best of all, he wasn't mad at me for what happened, especially after I detailed the story. That definitely made me feel a lot better, but it wasn't going to last for very long.

While Hudson, Wierzbowski, and I sat in the courtyard and talked, Hicks came out, and whispered, "Drake, Wierzbowski, you guys gotta come in. We got company."

"What about me, man?" Hudson asked.

"You can stay here. I've already told Hardy what's going on with you."

"Wait," I said, "Hardy? Colonel Hardy?"

"Yep. You know each other?"

"He granted Hudson permission to use one of the big dishes to hunt Jenzi last summer. Why's he here?"

"Didn't fully specify yet, but he said he wants to see you and Vasquez in private."

We followed Hicks back inside, and he led us down to Apone's office, where Hardy was chatting with the sarge. A smile came across his thin face when he saw us, and I noticed there was more gray and silver lining his temples. "Private Drake-" Hardy stuck out his hand, "nice to see you again." He looked at Wierzbowski. "I don't believe we've met. Colonel Jarris Hardy."

"Private Trevor Wierzbowski, sir." Wierzbowski shook the colonel's hand.

"Pleasure to meet you." Hardy looked at Hicks. "He's not from the prisoner act, is he?"

Hicks shook his head. "No, sir. Only Drake and Vasquez."

"Vasquez. Where's the young lady?"

"I'll go get her." Hicks jogged out of the room.

Apone gestured to Wierzbowski. "At ease. Go back to what you were doing."

While we waited for Hicks, Hardy looked at me from the corner of his eye. "General Russell speaks highly of you, Drake. I look forward to getting to know more about you in person."

My stomach clenched. I don't think you do, sir.

Hicks returned with Vasquez, and, without a word, Hardy took the two of us down to the base's public complex-no one questioned him, not with those officer's stars on his uniform. Almost instantly, we got into one of the restaurants that privates never get to go in. We even got a nice secluded spot where we could talk freely.

I could tell Vasquez was trying not to look cold and closed off, and it was hurting her. However, I didn't say or do anything; there was no way I was revealing our relationship in front of an officer.

"Before we start talking about my real purpose here, I'd like to get to know the two of you a little better," Hardy started.

I gulped.

"Drake, you're from the city of Pittsburgh, correct?"

Shyly, I nodded. "Sir, I'm . . . I'm really, really sorry, but . . . I . . . don't want to talk about . . . growing up. Please."

"I don't, either," Vasquez added. "We really are sorry. There's just . . . things in our pasts we don't want to discuss with anyone."

"Understandable. Well, I guess I should dive right into why I came here to speak to you two specifically. See, since General Paulson laid down the framework for recruiting juvenile prisoners into the USCM, we've been trying to add to that, give you a little bit more to help you, I should say. Regardless of where you came from and what happened, it'd be best for you to have, say, a one-on-one mentor, not only to assist you with general military training, but also with personal issues, help you for when you're ready to become civilians. Though the two of you aren't necessarily youths anymore, we're calling it a 'youth outreach program,' because you were originally inmates within the juvenile prison system."

"So, anyone who came from that is eligible to join this program and get their own mentor?" Vasquez asked.

"Not everyone. Your individual records will be looked over, your sergeant and corporal will be talked to, and your actions during missions will be evaluated. It's a case-by-case basis."

In my head, I was hearing, "You definitely won't qualify for this. That's sad. You're so pathetic, you can't even get into a program designed to help people like you. Because you're not like them. You're beyond help. You're a failure. Failure! FAILURE!"

I stood up. "I have to use the bathroom. I'm sorry."

I made sure the men's room was empty before locking myself in a stall, and struggled to control my thoughts and feelings. You know the drill; I panicked, I cried, I let those thoughts overrun my head. I felt unbelievably helpless. I fucking embarrassed myself in front of an officer. First, I said I didn't want to talk about my past. Then, I decided that I automatically do not qualify for this youth outreach program.

I really am pathetic, aren't I?

Basically, all Hardy wanted was to tell us about this, and said he'd be staying with us for a day or two to observe us and talk to Hicks and Apone. Then, he'd take us under his wing, if we qualified. We weren't going to be taken away from our unit, which was good; we'd be taken to a location of Hardy's choosing, once a week, and for a few hours, he'd teach us stuff, and help us with any personal problems.

When I told Hudson and Wierzbowski, they both shrugged, saying something along the lines of, "It sounds good, but it's all up to you, Drake."

It was all up to me. Part of me doesn't want it. I don't even deserve it.

Hardy didn't just observe me and Vasquez. He looked at the rest of the squad as well. I found myself anxious, and prayed Hudson didn't embarrass the crap out of us by . . . I dunno, something stupid he usually does. As I said before, though, Hudson was still tired from the surgery to repair his injuries, so he wasn't his usual happy, cheery, obnoxious self. He did, however, sit and talk with Hardy for some time, and it sounded like it was actually mature.

Things settled down that night-well, physically. My brain was still going a hundred miles an hour, and I wanted it to just stop.

Alone in my room, I felt the wheels keep turning and turning . . . and turning . . . and turning. I got up to take a piss and I still didn't feel tired. Looking in the mirror, I took note of how I must've appeared to Hardy in the restaurant. Closed off. Sad. A little bit scared.

Sighing, I went back out into the bedroom, and sat on the bed. I opened the drawer on my nightstand to grab my journal, and saw the plastic smartgunner my young friend, Casey, had left for me, with a note about how I don't need to worry about bad dreams.

I've cried enough over the last two days. I missed Casey a lot. Taking care of him had made me feel so confident, so much better about myself. I was glad he'd been reunited with his family, but, dear God, did I wish he was here now, because my confidence was all but a shell of its former self.

Question: In your opinion, does Drake act too much on his emotions?