FM 3-35, Chapter 3, Paragraph 15: Army Deployment and Redeployment, Staging Area.

Three steps behind.

You're always three steps behind her.

When SSG Pierce takes off running, you don't understand what's happening until it's over. Hudson did an outstanding impersonation of Humpty Dumpty and cracked like an egg. SSG Pierce is by his side in an instant. Others gather too, circling and offering help. You almost join them until you notice the one person that's scrambling away from the group.

SFC Fabray breaks out of the small crowd, pausing at the front of the truck to catch her breath. Her hands shake a little as she straightens the patrol cap on her head. She looks around, her focus passes right through you. Somehow you don't think it's a person that she's looking for. The Platoon Sergeant moves along the truck's front bumper, keeping a hand on the warm metal for support.

You step towards her, "Sergeant—"

"Hudson's broken his leg," LT Berry jogs around the truck and gets to SFC Fabray before you can. "It looks bad but I think you spared him from much worse. What on earth were you thinking? He probably weighs five-hundred pounds."

"Shut up," SFC Fabray grunts, her face paler than you've ever seen it.

She's in pain. One hand pressing into the small of her back tensely. LT Berry bites her lip, hesitating at the woman's elbow. You don't have time for hesitation.

Shifting in front of SFC Fabray, you ask, "What do you need?"

She struggles to focus and when she does finally register your existence her expression changes. It's obvious that she wasn't expecting you to be the one standing in front of her. Her eyes glance toward the rumbling soldiers on the other side of the MRAP. She lets go of the truck, trying to straighten to her full height. The rest of the color drains from her face and you realize that standing on her own might be too much.

When you try to catch her arm she pushes your hand back quickly. SFC Fabray is determined to do this on her own and it's not something you blame her for. She takes a step away from the truck, boots slow but steady in the gravel.

"I can walk," her jaw is set so tightly you can barely hear the words through her teeth. "I can walk."

You hover close to her shoulder and LT Berry mirrors your position on her other side. Flanagan goes barreling across the motorpool with an aid bag. You hope SSG Pierce is alright, and maybe Hudson too, but mostly you need SFC Fabray to make it to the tiny equipment shed she's marching to without passing out.

This silence is too much for you, the question falls off your lips awkwardly, "Did Hudson fall on you?"

"She tried to catch him," LT Berry corrects flatly. She's not sure if she's supposed to be praising or chastising her Platoon Sergeant.

"He would have cracked his skull open," SFC Fabray defends herself stiffly. She opens the shed's door and slips inside without another word.

LT Berry looks at you. Like you know what to do right now? Is she kidding?

"Did you want me to get Sergeant Pierce?" you ask automatically. When it comes to SFC Fabray, SSG Pierce is really the only right answer. "I can go—"

"No, she's helping Private Hudson right now," LT Berry glances back to the confusion near the trucks. A field ambulance is pulling into the compound. "I have to get back to them, I'll send Sergeant Pierce over as soon as I can. Just make sure Sergeant Fabray is alright."

She scurries off, leaving you alone outside of the shed. You stand there fidgeting until the only thing left for you to do is check on your Platoon Sergeant. The shed is so dark compared to the blinding sun outside that it takes a second for your eyes to adjust.

"Sergeant Fabray?"

A shadow in the back corner grumbles, "Lopez, grab me a bottle of water."


You turn on your heel and jog over to the water coolers, keeping an eye out for the senior medic as you go. It looks like they've already loaded Hudson into the ambulance, you wonder where they're taking him and if SFC Fabray should be in that bus too. She's hurt somehow, you're not sure if it's just a shock from the brunt of Hudson's weight or if it's something worse. You're nervous for her.

"Hey, Lopez!"

The voice takes you by surprise and you accidently drop the bottle of water back into the cooler. It's your Team Leader, SGT Anderson. He gives you a reassuring smile and makes this easy gesture for you to relax.

"Are you okay? You look stressed," he reaches into the cooler and pulls out the bottle of water you dropped.

"I'm fine, Sergeant," you take the bottle when he hands it to you and try to keep from being too obvious with your worrying.

"We need help throwing all the gear back in the trucks," SGT Anderson explains. "First Sergeant wants us to wrap things up quickly and get back to the company area."

"Because of Hudson?"

"Yeah, I think they're going to have a bunch of safety briefs ready for us when we get there."

Your worry takes a sidestep to your curiosity, "Who's going to replace him?"

While you didn't exactly get along with him, PFC Hudson was in your squad and he was someone your team relied on. Now that you're down a gunner you're not sure how the squad is supposed to complete security missions.

"We might get someone from a different platoon to cover down," SGT Anderson frowns. "Maybe even someone from Headquarters."

"Hm," you squash your initial disapproval towards Headquarters soldiers. The Headquarters kids aren't so bad. SSG Pierce and PVT Motta are teaching you that. "Well, whoever we get I'm sure they'll be better than nothing."

He seems to agree with you.

"But I was grabbing a water for someone so," you throw your thumb over your shoulder and take a step away. "I'll meet Evans by the tuck right after, Sergeant."

SGT Anderson nods with a simple, "Hurry back."

You're thankful that he walks away because you don't need him watching you run off to the strange little shack in the corner of the motorpool. You don't see LT Berry but now that the ambulance is gone you're assuming that she's with SFC Fabray. Would SSG Pierce have gone with Hudson to the Aid Station? It would be horrible if she did, you're certain that she's the only one who would be able to convince SFC Fabray to get help.

Then you see her.

SSG Pierce breaks out of the shed, without her aid bag, without SFC Fabray, without giving a second look to the Lieutenant calling after her.

You make a quick decision, "Ma'am, heads up!"

LT Berry barely manages to catch the bottle of water you toss her way. Without another word you head off after SSG Pierce. She's ducked into a latrine trailer. You follow without thinking. You just have to be there, just in case she might need something or… you don't know. You can't overthink it. If you do you're sure to chicken out. The latrine's door squeaks when you open it, your boots sound heavy and unwelcome on the thin plywood floor.

She's standing at the sink, her jacket and patrol cap are on the floor, and there's water everywhere.

"Taking a bath?"

It's not a good opening. You don't mean to poke fun at or belittle whatever she's doing at the sink. SSG Pierce watches you through the mirror and for the second time today you've surprised someone with your presence. Water drips off her elbows and pools on the ground as you wait for her permission to enter. If she doesn't want you here, you'll leave. She deserves her privacy and a moment to herself.

But it'll be the saddest thing if she turns you away.

Finally she gives you an answer, "You're letting the cold air out."

It's an invitation, and she's letting you into more than this crappy trailer.

There's nothing you can say right now. Asking her if she's okay would sound trivial and you don't want to hear her brush you off. So you try a quieter approach. You match her posture, standing at a sink next to her and turning on the water. You don't know what this is, but you'll play along. As long as you're welcome, you'll do anything.

"Feels good," you tell her, keeping your eyes on the water run over your hands.

It's so subtle, the tiny readjustment of her shoulders, a slight softening to the strain held there.

You've done something right, so you continue to follow her lead. Minutes pass and no words pass between you. In the silence your attention sort of strays. You remember things you haven't thought about in years.

There's dirt caught in the line of your cuticle.

With a little scraping from your thumbnail, the faucet spray takes it down the drain. You take a breath, now that your hands are clean and try to decide if anything has changed. Is the day a little brighter? Do you feel any better about the world?

You don't, but you're weren't holding your breath for a miracle.

After the divorce, your mother used household chores as a kind of neurotic healing ritual. She would putter around the kitchen, scrubbing counters that haven't been touched, shining a stovetop that hadn't been cooked on, convinced that cleaning was cleansing to the soul. As if order in the kitchen somehow spread order in the cosmos. While you were never convinced that her methods could ever really help, SSG Pierce has her own process going on in the sink next to you.

The last time you caught her in a bathroom was just before her NCO of the Month Board. She hovered over the sink, reciting the Creed of the Non-Commissioned Officer. She was nervous then. This time she's troubled. Tense and anxious, her hands are shaking under a cockeyed stream of water. She's been washing them since you walked in, periodically spreading the water onto her forearms, and every now and then taking more soap from the dispenser.

Looking down at your hands, you find them clean and uncalloused.

This isn't really about germs or dirt.

You want to say something, anything that will make this easier for her. If you could string together the right sequence of words to take that shadow from her eyes, if you could wring out even the smallest ray of wit to relieve the weariness from her shoulders—if you could do anything at all.

SSG Pierce shuts off the faucet with a sharp twist of the handle.

You follow suit, calmly. Everything needs to be calm. You have to prove to her that you can handle this, whatever this is, you can be there for her even when you don't know what she needs. You can be on her level—mature, and intuitive, and there is nothing more important to you than giving her the opportunity to see that you can be this, here, for her.

The air-conditioning unit buzzes against its metal bracket, filling the silence left by the water taps.

SSG Pierce pulls a handful of paper towels from the wall-mounted dispenser. After drying her arms she wipes her face with the damp paper. Your hands aren't that wet so you brush them against your pants. She sighs quietly, crossing the trailer on her way to the inconveniently placed garbage can. For something to do, you pick up her uniform jacket from the floor.

You notice that the size is different from your own. Because of her height, you think, she wears a long while you wear a short. It's a small thing, a scrap of information you'll tuck away for a rainy day. When SSG Pierce turns to you her attention snags on the jacket in your hand before her eyes meet yours. You can see their color so clearly without the smudged mirror between you.

Her voice is thin when she asks, "Were you lying to me?"

Your mind spins, trying to find the context of the question, "What do you mean?"

"Remember when I found you on the side of the road with Sergeant Fabray and that motorcycle of hers?" she pulls the memory back into reality. "Was she speeding?"

Yes, you remember.

Yes, SFC Fabray was speeding.

Now you realize how this is familiar to you, this woman is something like the SSG Pierce you saw storming out of her jeep in the middle of the night. Her posture that night is similar to the stiff shape of her spine. Her strained enunciation echoes against your ears and you see the same sense of sadness in her eyes.

Yes, you were lying and she knows it.

It's a struggle to keep from looking away when you mumble, "It wasn't anything reckless, or whatever. Even if she wasn't my Platoon Sergeant, I don't think I would've given her a ticket."

She stares at you like she can't decide if you're being faithful or foolish. Then her expression softens. She looks so tired when she says, "I get why you would want to protect her."

You think she's been trying to protect her friend for a very long time. SSG Pierce takes a few steps forward, her worn boots are much quieter against the floor than yours. Dirt speckled and blood stained, the leather of her soles has seen more than you've ever known.

SSG Pierce stops just in front of you, her focus falling to the floor as she tucks a stray bit of hair behind her ear, "But sometimes protecting someone means reminding them of their limits."

Your thumb glides against the fabric the jacket you're still holding.

Her eyes glance up to meet yours, her voice shakes just a bit, "Can you help me with that?"

The air around this question feels so much more serious than the sum of these syllables suggest.

There's something keeping you from speaking, a struggle in the pit of your stomach. You hold out her jacket and hope she takes it as an answer.

She glances down to the jacket, blinking once before she accepts it, "You won't lie to me again?"

You want to say you promise, instead you say, "I won't."

SSG Pierce shrugs on her uniform top. You turn away slightly but still watch out of the corner of your eye. Then she does that thing, where she gives you an explanation for herself even when she doesn't owe you one.

"I have to get back," she mumbles, stooping to grab her cap from the floor. She looks back, her lips tucked to one side of her mouth as she chooses the words, "Um… thank you, though."

"Yeah," you shrug, because it's all you can do.

You can't exactly tell her that you'll always be here for her, you can't explain that you'd do anything to make her feel better, you can't offer anything.

She slips out of the flimsy trailer and when you follow a few moments later, you feel much farther than three steps behind.

"Sausage or bacon?"

Neither option looks very appetizing. While the dining facility rotates the menu for lunch and dinner, you think the Army has been serving the same egg-meat-starch combo since Kennedy was in office. At least you get the choice of a meat, right?

That's democracy right there. Deep fried freedom.

"Sausage," you tell the cook behind the serving line.

"Does Sergeant Fabray eat bacon?" Lieutenant Berry asks from beside you in line.

She looks way too concerned about it, but then again, she looks concerned about everything. You think it's because she's young and new and deployed three seconds after graduating whatever fancy school gave her that gold bar. But whatever, on this beautiful Kuwaiti morning, she caught you between the latrine and the female tents without a battle buddy and made a less than subtle suggestion that you should accompany her to the chow hall. You thought she was being a hardass. Now you realize she wasn't trying to be a jerk, she needs help carrying back breakfast for SSG Pierce and SFC Fabray.

"Yes, ma'am, she eats bacon."

You've seen the Platoon Sergeant demolish a pile of bacon and then steal a sausage link off SSG Pierce's plate. That's how you know to get SSG Pierce sausage, because sometimes they mix and match their food. At dinner one of them will get a bread roll and the other will get cornbread so they can split to get a little of both. They're a pair. Peas in a pod. Left and right shoes. And LT Berry is right, they shouldn't have to hike a mile in the heat for breakfast this morning, not after the Hudson disaster yesterday.

It had been a quiet night in the female tent for SSG Pierce and SFC Fabray. LT Berry had pulled out notebooks and paperwork to try to figure out how they could replace Hudson in the ranks. They worked right through dinner and your Squad Leader even brought everyone dinner when he joined the discussion. You were thankful for that, because SFC Fabray is still hurting from the fall and it would have been hell for her to go to the chow hall with the rest of the unit.

LT Berry isn't so bad. It means something to you that she would go out of her way to help your two favorite NCOs but, when you start the trek back to the tents, you really wish she'd stop gabbing about how hot it is.

It's hot.

It's a thing.

We don't have to talk about it.

By the time you get back the female tent most everyone has already taken off for breakfast. Some of the girls are still sleeping in. You wish you could have been one of them. It's the company's last day in Kuwait and everyone is supposed to be taking it easy. Tomorrow you'll fly out for Iraq and finally start the next part of your mission.

You're not sure what makes you more nervous, going to Iraq or waking up SSG Pierce.

She's curled on her side, facing SFC Fabray's cot, with her eyes squeezed shut and not looking at all peaceful. You know she didn't sleep night. Too many times you heard her turn over in her sleeping bag and, this time, you don't think it had anything to do with her heat rash. When you held very still and squinted into the darkness, you could see her shadow sit up and lean over towards her friend, like she needed to be sure she was still there.

LT Berry is just as nervous. Carefully balancing the takeout box, and with a mumbled prayer, she pokes SFC Fabray's shoulder. The Platoon Sergeant draws her knees up into her chest, face turning into her pillow.

One word makes it out of the muffled fabric, "No."

It would be funny if you weren't in the same predicament. You finally gather your nerve and tap your knuckles against SSG Pierce's knee. She sits up so quickly it startles you. Her eyes first dart to SFC Fabray, then LT Berry, then they find you.

She blinks, smoothing her hair down absently, "What's wrong?"

Her words tumble out, sleep filled first words of the day. They're nice to hear. A privilege, you think. You'd like it if they weren't so worried, maybe a little warmer.

You're quiet when you explain, "Nothing's wrong."

Her eyes fall and you know that's not true. You remember yesterday, following her into that latrine and seeing the way her hands shook under the faucet. She looked younger then, her anxiety peeling away a few years of experience and breaking down walls she's fortified with a mixture of desert sand and sweat. Even as she washed her hands, over and over, you're not sure she was able to rinse away whatever was going on in her head.

"There's food," LT Berry appeases, "we have food for you. Meats, scrambled poultry embryos, potatoes, and milk? I wasn't sure about skim or one percent, but it's good for bones, right? We can all use a little calcium these days..."

SFC Fabray is slow to get up, like a zombie rising from the grave. She has to push herself into a sitting position and you know the grimace on her face isn't from being annoyed with an early wakeup call. Unsurprisingly, she's still hurting from a man the size of a gorilla landing on her. From what you've caught glimpses of you think she's tweaked something in her back. Pain or not, she manages to grumble a small word of thanks when the lieutenant hands over the food.

SSG Pierce turns away from watching her friend and stares at the takeout container in your hands. She studies the box of orange juice on top like she doesn't know what to do with it. Her eyebrows knit together, tee shirt hanging off to one shoulder awkwardly—adorably.

"Good morning, Sergeant," you hold the box a little closer, prompting her to take it.

She accepts the box, but not your smile.

SSG Pierce barely meets your eyes when she returns the sentiment, "Morning."

You get it. She's upset about Fabray getting hurt and she got absolutely no sleep last night. There's no reason to smile, least of all at you, the girl who took it upon herself to barge in on her private moment and pretend she could stand beside a soldier so seasoned and attempt to be supportive. You quickly turn to your cot and grab your shower bag. As you jog across the igloo to catch up with SPC Chang and PVT Motta, you see that at least she's eating.

It's a small victory.

When there's twenty something signs in the bathroom warning people to not drink water from the tap, it's sort of impossible to feel clean at any given moment. You eye a poster that reads Do Not Defecate in the Showers and feel a little sick.

This is it.

You're living the dream.

A sweaty, sandy, sewer water dream.

You can't say goodbye to Kuwait fast enough. It's time to get to Iraq and finally start the mission you've spent so long preparing for. As you brush your teeth in this rickety tin shower trailer, you think of PFC Hudson and how he never made it out of this country. You'd be so angry if you were in his shoes. Spending months of work training for a deployment you don't even get to really start? Talk about a waste of time.

"You hear anything about Hudson?"

PVT Motta nods, spitting toothpaste into the sink before answering, "He made it to some hospital in Germany last night. Sergeant Pierce said they'll probably put a plate in his leg."


"Weren't you right there when it happened?" SPC Chang glances at you in the mirror. "Was his leg really crooked?"

You mumble from behind your toothbrush, "I didn't get a good look at it."

SPC Chang's voice gets lower, "Did Sergeant Fabray really try to catch him?"

As you grab the bottle of water you brought for mouth rinsing, PVT Motta catches your eye over her friend's shoulder. While you seriously want to brag about your Platoon Sergeant playing Wonder Woman, you didn't really get the idea that it was supposed to be common knowledge. Motta's look only confirms it. She must have heard something from SSG Pierce.

"Please, not even Superman could have caught that fatass," you shake your head dismissively and are quick to change the topic. "Have you guys heard anything about where we're going?"

"Nothing," Chang rolls her eyes. "All I want to know is what we'll be sleeping in. I love the whole kumbaya girl power vibe in the female tent but I don't think I can go a whole year without a little more privacy. These showers are bad enough."

You get what she's saying. Living in a tent with twenty something other females is getting tiresome.

"This is literally a trailer they put showers stalls and toilets in."

"Which probably hasn't been cleaned we invaded godforsaken sandbox," Motta huffs, towel drying her hair.

"I feel like I'm going to fall through this floor," Chang bounces on her toes. The plywood floorboards, warped and stained with water damage, creek under her black shower shoes.

"Keep that up and you'll bust right through," you warn her with a smirk.

Her mouth falls open in faux offense, "Are you calling me fat?"

"I'm just raising a safety concern, Motta what do you think?"

"I think..." Motta actually leans back to inspect Chang's backside, "after conducting a proper risk ass-essment…"

You crack up into the back of your hand. Chang slaps Motta's arm and shares a laugh with you both. Deeming her dark hair dry enough, she pulls it all back into a ponytail and rings out the last of the water, flicking the water left on her hands at you in retribution for your joke.

"Gross, don't get that cruddy water on my face," you wipe it off quickly.

Chang laughs, rolling her eyes, "You just took a shower in that water."

"Please don't remind us," Motta pulls a face.

"Oh, I think you both reminding," you put your hand under the faucet and splash the girls next to you.

They shriek, covering their faces with their arms. Motta gets a faucet open and splashes you back. Soon you're all trying to protect your toothbrushes and your faces and laughing like you haven't laughed in weeks.

It's nice. To laugh for three seconds and forget that you're so far from home. It's nice to smile.

The door closes sharply behind you.

Sergeant First Class Fabray still has her hand on the doorknob when your hearts stop in a way it hasn't since basic training when a Drill Sergeant caught you breaking a rule. She has that same stare. Hard eyes, squared shoulders, every element of her posture is asking the same thing, "What on earth are you doing?"

None of you really have an answer for that, but maybe snapping to parade rest will be enough.

"Taking a mental health break, Sergeant," PVT Motta tries quietly.

It surprises you that she spoke up before you could. You don't even know what a mental health break is supposed to mean but whatever it is makes your Platoon Sergeant's eyebrows raise ever so slightly. It's a good sign. When she's interested it keeps her from being angry. There's hope that you'll get out of this without extra duties.

"Mental health break," SFC Fabray repeats dryly, shifting the shower bag on her shoulder. "Did Sergeant Pierce teach you that one?"

Motta nods quickly, "Yes, Sergeant."

SFC Fabray shakes her head with this hint of exasperation and sends each of you scrambling with a simple order, "Just get out."

You don't think any of you have put your hair up, tucked your tee shirts in, packed up your shit, and thrown on your sneakers so quickly. Somehow you're all able to get yourselves in regulation and out of that shower trailer in less than a minute. Chang barely makes it around the corner of the trailer before she loses it, doubling over in a fit of giggles. Motta joins in, leaning against the tin wall for support.

"Mental health break," you're grinning along, shoving Motta's shoulder. "What the hell is that?"

"Three magic words that make assholes think twice before screwing you over. No one wants to be the one that makes a soldier go… you know," she taps a finger to her temple.

"Stupid," you snort, shaking your head. You think Motta being SSG Pierce's soldier had more to do with SFC Fabray taking that explanation seriously than anything else. The girls gather their wits and turn to start the hike back to the tent. You're about to go with them until you notice, "Goddamn it, I forgot my shampoo."

They cringe and you already feel like an idiot so you don't need to waste any of their time, "Go ahead, I'll catch up."

"You need a battle buddy, and you already got caught without one this morning," SPC Chang reminds you with a frown, "so I don't think Motta's magic words will get you out of that one."

"I'll hitchhike with someone," you wave them on, "seriously, I can get back on my own."

Motta shares a glance with Chang, "We'll wait here."

"Okay, fine, I'll be right back," you're quick to jog around the corner again and back to the trailer.

You hesitate at the door.

SFC Fabray had gone in there to shower. She'd be in a stall by now right? Presumably, you could probably sneak over to the sink and grab your shampoo bottle without her ever knowing you were there. You really hope she's already taking a shower. Walking in on her when she's getting undressed is one of the last things you want to do. Nothing against your Platoon Sergeant, you're sure she has a great body, it's just that you don't want to know she has a great body.

It's awkward.

You're awkward. And stalling. And the girls are waiting for you so you should just get in there and grab the stupid bottle of shampoo you left on the counter like an idiot. You plead for the Force to be with you as you slowly, quietly, open the door a crack.

Because you've never had the best luck in the world, of course SFC Fabray is not in the shower. Thankfully, she's not entirely undressed either. She's sitting on a flat wooden bench in front of the shower stalls. Her bare back is towards the door, her focus preoccupied with folding the grey PT shirt in her lap.

It only takes one glimpse of this woman to realize no matter how crappy you think this deployment is right now—how you hate the heat, the sand, the disgusting water, and the cheap showers—this is nothing compared to how bad it could actually be.

A shadow falls onto the side of your face.

Someone is at your elbow.

You know who it is before you even turn your head. It's familiar, the weight of her attention on you. And really, how fitting? Two peas in a pod, right? Wherever one goes, the other isn't far behind. SSG Pierce glances over your shoulder and inside the shower trailer, the question on her lips fades into a frown. She knows why you've stopped in the doorway. She sees who and what you were staring at.

SFC Fabray has noticed the door open and starts to turn—SSG Pierce is quick. None too gently, the medic nudges you aside and takes the door so she's the only one visible from the inside.

"Britt, come on, close the door."

"Sorry," SSG Pierce kicks gravel at the base of the doorframe, "it got caught on a rock."

She steps inside without another look at you, closing the door solidly behind her.

You'll buy more shampoo.

It's such a miniscule sacrifice compared to others.

"What's up?" Chang eyes you curiously when you finally catch up to them. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

Your mumble is thin and offhanded, "Pretty close."

Does close really only count in horseshoes and hand grenades? Is close the difference between a scar and a salute from twenty-one guns?

You never want to find out.

"Pass me that brush."

You point at the one you want, the long thin one that will help get the sand out of your rifle's trigger mechanism. When Evans doesn't help you out the laptop at the end of his cot gets one of your best glares. He's seen this movie so many times you're sure he can recite the dialogue line by line.

"Hey," you snap your fingers, "Captain America, pass me the brush."

"Oh, sorry," he looks away from his movie with an embarrassed grin, just now remembering his own rifle in his lap. "Multitasking isn't really my thing when Iron Man is involved."

"Amen," SGT Anderson sighs quietly from his cot.

You shake your head and focus on your trigger mechanism. Does your weapon really need cleaning? No, you don't think so. Are you trying to avoid the weirdness you might run into in the female tent? Yes. The male tents are fuller, louder, and a whole hell of a lot smellier than the female tent, but they're a lot less complicated. You've hidden away to hang out with your squad until you figure out what to do with all of this information you're not supposed to know and can't share with anyone.

SSG Pierce has been off ever since Hudson was shipped back to the rear.

You can't stop thinking about what you saw in the shower trailer.

Sometimes it's just easier to keep your head down and be a soldier.

"So… I was gonna head over to the phone trailer after dinner today," Evans tells you, "to call my mom."

"Cool," you consider calling home for a millisecond. Ultimately that's one more thing you can't deal with right now. "Tell your family I said hey."

"Why don't you come with me and tell them yourself?"

Whatever excuse you were scraping together is interrupted when someone outside kicks the igloo door and calls, "Female!"

"All clear!"

SFC Fabray and LT Berry step inside, spilling harsh sun onto the plywood floor. The Platoon Sergeant takes off her patrol cap, shaking out wavy strands of blonde hair as she looks around at her soldiers. She drops into the male tent every now and then, to check in on things, speak to her Squad Leaders, and talk with her troops.

"Evening, Third."

Nearly every soldier call back, "Good evening, Sergeant."

They like her a lot, the men of Third Platoon. It's obvious to you because everyone wearing headphones takes them out in case she has anything else to say. Soldier don't grant their attention to just anyone. Even Evans pauses his movie.

"Here's the thick of it," SFC Fabray folds her arms over her chest and taps her notebook against her shoulder. "We fly out tomorrow, the busses will be taking us to the airport at zero six."

"Sweet," Evans sends you a smile. He's been itching to get to Iraq nearly as badly as you have.

"We'll be dropped at an airbase in Iraq," she continues, "sign for our trucks and some equipment, and then convoy out to our mission site."

"Where are we going, Sergeant?"

"A speck of a FOB called Aglaope," SFC Fabray consults her green notebook for more information. "Our primary mission will be running convoy security, escorting supply trucks to and from a larger installation to resupply our post."

There's a few grumbles around the tent. Spending hours on the road taking semitrailers back and forth isn't the mission you all were hoping for. At least you've had some time to come to terms with it since SSG Pierce gave you a heads up out at the motorpool.

"And don't shoot the messenger," SFC Fabray hold up her hands with a lighthearted smirk, "but our secondary responsibility will be gate guards."

The groan is contagious. Entry Control Points (ECP) are probably the most boring gig in the whole warzone. You didn't sign up for this just to sit at a gate and check paperwork all day.

"I know, I know," the Platoon Sergeant rolls her eyes in agreement with her soldiers. "Sounds like a blast."

LT Berry steps a little further into the tent and adds, "There's an Army Reserve unit running a QRF mission on the FOB. Our sources tell us that half of their security element is returning to America soon so we're trying to convince the higher ups to let us replace them."

Quick Reaction Force (QRF) could be exciting. The QRF are a reserve element, ready to respond to any distress calls made in the area. When someone is calling for backup, the QRF is the squad that goes out to help whoever is in trouble. You'd be interested in that mission, for sure.

"We can't promise anything," SFC Fabray warns honestly, "but we're trying to get the platoon assigned to something a little more interesting than babysitting cargo trucks. I don't know about any of you but I'd rather take the fight to them instead of sitting on my ass just waiting to get blown to hell."

She answers a few more of the platoon's questions. You watch her without really hearing. There's a way she holds herself, tall and sure. It's almost hard to imagine now. If you hadn't seen it with your own eyes you would never be able to guess that her back bares the ghost of an old battle—darkened scar-stained skin and the marred marks of war.

That purple ribbon you saw on her dress uniform, this has to be the injury. You're achingly curious about the story behind it, about SSG Pierce and their sweet sixteen. You know it's not your place to ask.

Sometimes you feel like you don't really have a place in anything.

The phone trailer, like everything else in this desert, is too small to accommodate the number of soldiers expected to fit inside. They sit shoulder to shoulder, barely six inches of space between them, legs tucked awkwardly between thin plywood partisans meant for privacy. Evans sits down at a payphone and you hover by the door. You thought about waiting outside but too many people walk by this place, you don't want to look like a loser sitting on the curb without anyone to call back home.

Even if that's completely true.

So you squeeze yourself into the only available booth and pretend you're not eavesdropping on everyone's conversations.

"How do these things even work?" Evans frowns at the calling card in his hands.

"There's directions on the back," you lean over and take the card from him, using your thumbnail to scratch off the foil on the back that covers its authorization code. "Call the one-eight-hundred number and then dial this pin number. After that they'll ask you for the phone number of whoever you're trying to call."

"Huh," he picks up the receiver, "have you used these before?"

"No, but I can read."

In reality you've been carrying around your own calling card for the last couple months. You had bought it back at Fort Campbell on a whim. Just in case. It's the sort of things soldiers are supposed to have, worn and wrinkled in their pockets. Soldiers with family to call, that is.

The third time Evans has to hang up to start over he asks you to do it for him.

"Are you using the country code? You have to dial zero-zero-one and then the number."

"I don't even get to that part, I can't get the pin, there's like twenty numbers and I keep losing my place."

"Give me that," you snatch the card out of his hand and stand to reach over his shoulder. "You're so useless, I swear."

He looks up at you from his seat with this silly smile, like he knows you're barely able to keep from messing up yourself. He points at the phone number in his notebook and after a moment you hear it connect.

You hold the receiver out to him, "It's ringing."

Evans slides to the payphone you had been sitting in, "Cool, tell Stacie I said hi."

"What?" you hiss, unbelieving. "Evans, the phone is ringing—take the phone."

Evans has a second phone card in his hand, fingers punching buttons with much more confidence than they had been moments before. He shoots you an easy smile, "Shh, I'm on the phone over here."

"Are you fuckin—"


The curse dies in your throat. You panic, completely unprepared for any kind of conversation.

"Hello, is someone there?"

"Did she pick up?" Evans asks next to you. He knows the answer by the look on your face and swats your leg, "Say something, dummy."

"Evans says hi," you rush to speak in a painfully perturbed voice.

He laughs at your fumble.

His sister laughs too, warm and excited, "Is this Santana?"

"Yeah. Yeah, it's me, Santana," you sink into the flimsy chair and duck forward so that you're hidden behind the plywood barrier. For some reason needing to get away from his eyes. "Um, how are you?"

"How am I? Girl, how are you? Is Sam there? Are y'all alright?"

"He's fine, we're both good, he's—" you lean back to get a look and find him punching in numbers into the payphone like an old pro. "He's sitting in at the phone next to me, probably about to call your mom right now."

"Oh good, good," you hear a smile in her voice, "she's been baking up a storm with worry."

"What's she baking?"

It's a ridiculous question, irrelevant and any other day it might be construed as small talk but… you want to know. And Stacie, bless her, she tells you everything. She talks about apple crisps and the pecan-peach cobblers. It takes you back. You remember the Evans' house and the sounds of the boys horse playing in the back yard and the smell of Mrs. Evans—Mary's cooking. Somewhere between Mississippi mud brownies and explaining to you what chess pie is it hits you that you miss this family more than you've ever allowed yourself to miss your own.

"Santana, you there?"

You cough a little to hide the tight feeling in your throat, "Yeah, I am."

You're here, stuck in a desert, and it hasn't even started yet.

"Are you doing alright?" Stacie sounds softer now, and you can imagine her sitting in her bedroom with the adorable homemade quilts and posters of horses on the walls. "What's like over there?"

"It's hot, so fricken hot," you pinch the bridge of your nose to keep the tears away, "and the wind feels like someone is shooting a hair drier in your face."


"Yeah, and then the sand flies up and it's like you can feel each little speck scratching off your face, it's horrible."

She hesitates for something to say and comes up with, "I'm so sorry."

"It's fine," you're reminded that, "I'm sure it could be worse."

You ask her to tell you about school and that boy she's been seeing. Her stories about simple teenage things take you far away from this place, if only for just a moment. You're so thankful. You try to tell her that but the words catch in your throat and you can barely manage the weak, "Talk to you soon."

She tells you she'll be praying for you and your friends.

You place the receiver on the rack with an unsteady hand, quick to escape the call booth before you have to listen to Evans say goodbye to his mom.

You'll thank him later, for dragging you down here and letting you leech off his family.

You might not ever be able to say it out loud but, more than anything, you're thankful for the reminder that someone would notice if you didn't make it back.