In Afghanistan, the kids threw rocks.
Staff Sergeant Luke Fletcher watched four boys in the street take aim at an oil barrel and counted himself lucky that today, at least, they'd found another target.
He didn't dislike kids. They were sort of cute under the age of five. From a distance. The kids in Iraq used to tag after the Marine patrols hoping for handouts, candy, maybe, or soccer balls or humrats-humanitarian rations.
A stone ricocheted off the metal barrel like a bullet, and twenty-three-year-old Corporal Danny Hill, sweeping the bomb wand at the front of the column, froze.
"Easy," Luke said. "It's just some kids throwing rocks at a . . ."
Shit. At a dog.
He could see it now, slinking in the shadow of the wall, just another stray, abused, malnourished, obviously feral. Nothing he could do about it. The weak picked on the weaker. Yelling at a couple of ten-year-olds wasn't going to make them respect the dog or the law.
The dog yelped.
"Hey!" The word jerked out of him.
His tone needed no translation. The boys scattered in a flurry of jeers and stones. Nothing Luke could do about that, either.
He and his men were here to provide training and support for the Afghan National Police who would replace them. For two days, their joint patrol had hiked from town to town, sweating through the afternoons, freezing through the nights, trying to buy the ANP time and breathing room to hold this desert province once the Marines were gone.
Sergeant Musa Habib, the Afghan team leader, met Luke's eyes. "You know they will be back."
He meant the kids with rocks. Or he could have been talking about their fathers. Their brothers. The Taliban.
"You do what you can do." Luke glanced at the dun-colored mutt shrinking behind the barrel. He had too many people depending on him already. The last thing he needed was to take on responsibility for a dog. “Maybe it will be gone by then.”
The mutt didn't move.
Luke dug in his harness for an MRE. He'd eaten the snacks already. Ripping open the leftover meat pouch, he squeezed a chunk on the ground.
Lance Corporal Anthony Ortega, an ex-gangbanger from East Los Angeles, grinned. "I wouldn't feed that shit to my dog."
But the mutt wasn't so picky. It poked its head from behind the barrel. Its ears were cropped, one eye swollen nearly shut.
Nineteen-year-old Private First Class Cody Burrows whistled in sympathy. "They really messed that bastard up."
Kids didn't do all that," Luke said.
Fresh blood oozed from a gash on its shoulder. But its other scars were older injuries, puckered and scabbed over.
"No," Habib agreed. "This dog has been used for fighting."
The mutt inched forward, quivering.
"No way that's a fighting dog," Ortega said.
"It's big enough." Hill said.
"Often the bait dogs, they are cut like that," said Habib. "To rouse the other dogs and make them fight."
Poor mutt. Luke threw another piece of MRE. The dog's eyes rolled toward him as it took the food. Its big, black-rimmed eyes made it look like a bar girl after a bad night.
"Gee, Daddy, can we keep him?" Hill said.
"He's a she, numbnuts," farm boy Burrows said. "Look at her belly. She's gonna have puppies."
They all stood around watching the dog, like feeding some pregnant stray was the best, most entertaining thing to happen to them all day. Which it was.
"We should take her back with us," Hill said. "You saved her life. That makes you responsible for her."
Luke shook his head. "Don't give me that Zen shit."
Rescuing strays was not part of his mission. He put the rest of his MRE on the ground, watching the mutt lap it almost delicately from the foil.
He liked dogs. His family always had a dog.
He pushed the thought of home away, rolling his shoulders to resettle his pack. "Break time's over." He looked at Habib. "What do you want to do?"
The Afghan sergeant looked momentarily surprised. But the rules had changed in the past few months. Now it was the Afghans who were supposed to step up and take the lead.
Habib cleared his throat. "We should patrol the market."
They walked the narrow alleys between residential compounds. Luke watched the doorways and rooflines, braced for sniper fire. Their survival depended on his ability to make snap judgments, to distinguish between a threat and a friendly, to react quickly and correctly in a crisis. Everything in the village was parched and brown, the color of the never-ending dust that hung like fog over the landscape. It was part of him now, engrained in his skin, choking his sinuses.
Sometimes he missed the blue Carolina sky with a longing that burned the back of his throat.
The squadron emerged into the bazaar. A few stalls were open for business. Motorcycles zipped by like wasps, kicking up clouds of dust. A circle of men-village elders-squatted in the shade, surrounded by a standing ring of boys. Always boys, never girls. They kept their women out of sight. Luke's sister would have had something to say about that.
Habib looked at Luke, seeking guidance.
"Ask them how it's going," Luke said.
The new Afghan police force needed to build rapport with the community, to establish trust in the new government. He stood back, an itch between his shoulders, watching their faces as Habib and the elders went through the usual bullshit.
No Taliban, the villagers said. They hadn't seen anybody. They just wanted to be left alone.
"Is there anything we can do for them?"
"They got kids?" Luke asked.
One of the younger men nodded.
"You tell him he can go to the base if they need medical attention."
More nods, more smiles, more bullshit. It was the same in every village. The patrol moved on.
"Hey, look," Burrows said. "That dog's following us."
"Happens when bitch gets knocked up," Ortega said.
Laughter rippled up the column, relieving the tension.
Luke looked back. Sure enough, the dog had fallen in behind the last man like a member of the patrol.
She was still with them when they made camp that night on a plateau of hard-packed gravel. They could have sheltered in the last town. But despite Luke's mission to improve community relations, he didn't trust their hosts not to report them to the Taliban while they slept.
As the temperatures plummeted, the dog crept closer, drawn by the need for warmth or food or simple companionship. Luke could sympathize. He tore open another MRE and set it on the rocky ground.
"Why do you feed it?" Habib asked.
"Staff Sergeant's our den mother. He takes care of everybody," Burrows said.
He couldn't take care of everybody. But by tagging along, the dog had made herself one of them. Theirs.
After ten years at war, Luke wasn't fighting for freedom and democracy. He was in this for the guys next to him, to keep them safe, to bring them home alive.
The mutt licked the wrapper, her thin tail stirring cautiously.
Out here, it was the little things that mattered. Making the world safe from global terrorism sounded good, but these days Luke measured victory one step, one sunrise, and now one dog at a time.
"You ever have a pet growing up?" he asked Habib.
The Afghan smiled wryly. "We can barely feed our families. We do not think of animals as you do."
The dog sighed and settled her head on her paws, fixing her dark, mascara-ringed eyes on Luke. Like a hooker who'd been knocked around and still hoped this time would be different. Better. Help me. Save me. Love me.
He looked away.
"Think she'll make it back to camp with us?" Ortega asked, seeking reassurance.
Luke didn't know. He didn't know if any of them would make it. The weight of responsibility pressed on his shoulders.
No Marine left behind.
Or dog, either.
"Sure," he said. "As long as we keep feeding her."
"She's eating for two now," Hill said.
"More like seven," Burrows said.
"How many puppies you think she's got in there?"
Luke listened to their good-natured speculation, his shoulders gradually relaxing. By the time they reached the forward outpost two days later, the mutt was taking point with Luke at the head of the column, barking to warn of the approach of other dogs or people, and Ortega was making book on the size of her litter.
No way was Luke enforcing the ban on pets on base. His men were denied enough of the comforts of home. No beer, no porn, no barbecue. Only a hard-ass would deny them a dog.
Luke had more important things to worry about.
His report made, he sat on his bunk, turning over the thin stack of MotoMail that had accumulated while he was on patrol. Three letters in five days.
The fine hair stirred on the back of his neck.
He got mail, of course. His mom, trained by twenty years as a Marine wife, sent plenty of care packages, tucking in notes with the eye drops and baby wipes, hard candy and homemade cookies. His dad always had a word during Luke's infrequent phone calls home. Stay safe. Shoot straight. But Dad wasn't much for writing, never had been, even when he'd been the one on deployment.
And it wasn't like Luke had a wife and kiddies back home, sending him love letters and complaints about the toilet and scrawled crayon drawings.
He flipped to the first envelope, glancing at the return address. Katherine M. Dolan, P.L.L.C., Beaufort, North Carolina.
His brows raised. A lawyer.
He didn't need a lawyer. He wasn't sixteen anymore, getting pulled over for drunk driving. Anyway, no Beaufort attorney was going to solicit new clients in Afghanistan.
He ripped the envelope open.
Dear Staff Sergeant Fletcher, he read in neat type.
Okay, so this Katherine Dolan wasn't some woman he'd met in a bar during his last leave. That was good.
This office represents the estate of Dawn Marie Simpson.
Dawn. Jesus. That name took him back. All the way to high school. Pretty, blond Dawn, with her wide smile and amazing breasts.
His hand tightened on the letter. And now she was . . . ?
I am sorry to tell you that Dawn is deceased as of August 9.
Shit. Ten years in the Corps had hardened him to violence. But death came to the battlefield. Not to girls back home.
His gaze dropped back to the letter.
I am writing to inform you that Dawn left behind a minor child, Taylor Simpson, born February 2, 2003. In her will, Dawn identified you as the father of her child . . .
The tent broke around him, a kaleidoscope of shards, as his world, his heart, stopped. His vision danced.
. . . and as such named you as the child's guardian and trustee.
His heart jerked back to uneven motion. His head pounded. He didn't have a child. He couldn't. It was a damn lie. A joke. He hadn't seen Dawn in ten years, since she dumped him at the end of senior year for Bo Meekins. No way was he the father of her baby.
He read the first paragraph again. February 2, 2003. Not a baby. It hit him like a kick in the gut.
I understand that you are currently deployed with the US military, the letter continued in crisp, impersonal type. Pending instructions from you, Taylor is living with her maternal grandparents, Ernest and Jolene Simpson. Please advise me of your intentions for assuming parental responsibilities for your child.
He dragged in an uneven breath. His responsibilities were here. His life was here. The familiar tent whirled and refocused around him, his surroundings assuming the flat, clear detail of a firefight, boots, locker, green wool blanket, everything coated in a fine layer of grit. Time slowed. The paper trembled slightly in his grasp.
I realize this news must come as a shock. In addition to her will, the deceased left a letter for you which may address some of your questions and concerns. I will be happy to forward it per your instructions. Dawn was adamant that you were the right person to care for Taylor in the event of her death.
Dawn was out of her fucking mind. That was the only explanation that made sense.
I hope that you will consider your response very carefully in keeping with Taylor's best interests. Your present situation may not be conducive to the raising of a minor child. There are other options that you and I can discuss. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, K. Dolan.
She was going to hear from him, all right, Luke thought grimly. As soon as he could find a damn phone.
"I want a paternity test," Luke said.
It had taken him four days to arrange transportation to the main camp, Leatherneck, so he could make this call. Another eight and a half hours waiting for Eastern Standard Time to catch up with Afghanistan so that he could talk to this lawyer person, K. Dolan, in her office. His head throbbed. His mouth was dry. His nerves stretched tight with stress and fatigue. This was not a conversation he intended to have via e-mail. Not a conversation he wanted to have at all.
But he was determined to be responsible. Reasonable. He had no proof this kid was even his. Only Dawn's word, and Dawn . . . He blinked gritty eyes. Dawn was dead.
"That's understandable and practical," the lawyer said in a voice that matched her letter, guarded and cool. "If you're not a blood relative of the child, you have no real standing for custody."
Perversely, her attitude made him want to argue.
"Except for Dawn's will," he said.
"The court is not bound by Dawn's decision," the Dolan woman said. "If you want to renounce your claim to the child, her grandparents are very willing to take her."
Grandparents. God. How would his parents react to the news? They'd already rallied once, to help raise his brother's child. He couldn't ask them to . . .
But she wasn't talking about his parents, he realized. She meant Dawn's folks, Ernie and Jolene Simpson. Were they even around anymore? He vaguely recalled his mom saying they'd moved off island when the fish house closed eight years ago.
"That's not what Dawn wanted," he said.
"I don't think Dawn truly anticipated this situation ever arising. Her death was very sudden."
Tell me about it. He still couldn't wrap his mind around the idea of Dawn, dead. There had to be something he should say, something he could do. "When's the funeral?"
Two weeks ago. His throat tightened.
"I'm sorry." The lawyer's voice softened.
He swallowed. "Why the hell did it take you so long to contact me?" he asked roughly.
"I took the will to the clerk's office to be probated within a few days of Dawn's death. After which, I had to locate you."
"How'd you find me?" It wasn't like he and Dawn had kept in touch. He didn't even know she had a child. He had a child. Hell.
"Your parents still live on the island where Dawn grew up. I looked them up."
"Do they know?"
"Only that you've been named in a will that I'm probating and I needed to get in touch."
"Did you tell them it was Dawn?"
"I didn't see the need," the lawyer said, still in that carefully measured voice. Actually, he was grateful for her restraint. This wasn't the kind of news you wanted to spring on somebody.
Luke winced. The way she'd just sprung it on him.
So it was up to him to tell his folks. To explain that while he was overseas, they had suddenly somehow become grandparents again. "How did she die?"
"An aneurysm. A ruptured blood vessel in the brain," Dolan said, as if using little words would help him understand. "The doctors said it was probably the result of a congenital condition."
"Did she suffer?"
"As I said, her death was very sudden." Did he imagine it, or did her voice shake slightly, as if she was suppressing actual emotion? "Dawn had a headache, a bad one. I told her to take the afternoon off. And then . . ."
"Wait. She worked for you?"
"Where was the kid?" The kid. His kid. He didn't believe it. Dawn would have told him.
"In school," Dolan said.
Yeah, sure, the kid would be school age. Nine? Ten?
Dawn had written to him in boot camp, he remembered suddenly. Once, ten years ago, the summer after high school graduation. But try as he might, he couldn't remember anything beyond some hello-how-are-you kind of bullshit. He'd had other, more important things on his mind than a remorseful ex-girlfriend. He'd been too exhausted, or too pissed off still, to reply.
And when he'd gone home for his ten days of leave before his unit was deployed, Dawn had already left the island with ol' Bo.
Part of him had been disappointed she wasn't around to admire him in his new uniform. Maybe he'd even been hoping for one more hookup for old time's sake, a little pre-deployment action. But he'd been relieved, too. Dawn had made it clear when she dumped him that she didn't want a boyfriend in the Marines. She was already part of his past, part of the life he was leaving behind.
How the hell was he supposed to know she was pregnant?
He struggled to organize his thoughts. "You said she left a letter. What did it say?"
"It was sealed."
"But you're her lawyer. You could open it."
"I would have, if there had been no other way to find you. Since I was able to locate you through your parents, that wasn't necessary." The lawyer had this precise, deliberate way of speaking, like she charged by the word instead of by the hour.
Her lack of drama actually made this easier to get through. But she was so guarded that Luke wanted to reach through the phone and shake her, the way she'd shaken him.
He bit back his impatience. "Well, can you read it to me?"
"If that's what you want."
His teeth clenched. What he wanted didn't enter into it. This was about what needed to be done. "Yeah."
"One moment. All right. Here we go." A rustle of paper-or maybe that was just the connection-before she took a breath. "'Dear Luke, I guess you never expected to hear from me again. But Kate says every parent ought to have a will naming a guardian, and I couldn't think of anybody better to raise our baby girl than you.'"
Oh, shit. He cleared his throat. "Who's Kate?"
"Me." Yeah, definite emotion there, under the professional act. "When Dawn came to work for me, I told her that a lot of cases I see . . ."
"Yeah, okay, I get it. Go on."
"Er . . . 'Her name is Taylor. She's wonderful, Luke. The best thing that ever happened to me. I feel bad because you haven't had a chance to see her, how special she is. Maybe you never will. I didn't figure I'd ever have to ask you for anything. We've never needed anybody, Taylor and me. But if you're reading this, then she needs you now. I love her more than anything. I hope you can, too. Take care of her for me. Dawn."
No explanations. No excuses. None of the answers Luke craved. Just the faint, remembered rhythm of her speech and the weight of expectations reaching across the years and miles.
His blood pounded in his head. She needs you.
"It'll take me a couple days to get there at least," he said.
"I'll get emergency leave. But even with a good connection through Ramstein Air Base, it's thirty hours from Kandahar to Lejeune."
The phone was silent. Then, "I appreciate the thought. And your effort, Staff Sergeant," the lawyer said carefully. "But there's no need to act impulsively. We need to find a long-term solution for Taylor."
"That's why I'm coming home," Luke said. "I can't take care of this over the phone." Take care of her for me.
Another measured breath. "I hear what you're saying," the Dolan woman said almost gently. "But we have to think practically. Taylor has no relationship with you. You're a stranger to her."
I feel bad because you haven't had a chance to see her.
"So she'll meet me now," Luke said. "If she is my kid, she's entitled to military benefits. I can take her to the base, get her ID."
"Obviously, it's in Taylor's best interest to have health care," the lawyer said. "I can ask the court to grant you temporary custody, which would allow you to remove her from the Simpsons' home. But the issue of long-term care still has to be addressed. You have options. Dawn's parents . . ."
"We'll talk about it when I get there," Luke said.
After the paternity test. After he'd met her, this daughter.
The daughter he'd left behind.