by Brett Allen
Nasir ran his finger lightly over the map at his knees. He was stalling now. Thick dust on the abandoned school house floor made the map seem ancient and it frayed at its folds, like the dogeared corners of his uncle’s Koran. He rubbed his swollen cheek as he thought of his uncle.
He jumped as an enormous fist slammed onto the floor next to him, leaving a crater in the dust. A dirty cloud rolled upward and settled on the coarse red beard of Captain Connor, its hue barely discernible behind a layer of grime two weeks in the making. Connor’s eyes were haggard but intense behind yellow tinted sunglasses and tiny bubbles of spit formed at the corners of his mouth as he spoke.
“Point. On. The. Map.” he growled. “Now!”
Nasir removed his finger completely and took a stern face. He was young, but he’d always been told he had a stern face like his uncle. The American’s demeanor softened some.
“Listen, Nasir, you came to us,” he said.
“I came to no one,” Nasir grumbled. His English still felt awkward as it left his tongue.
“Right, right. You were running away,” Connor lead. “And who’re you running away from?”
“My uncle,” Nasir explained again.
“Exactly. And he’s just the man we’re lookin’ for,” said Connor. “Now point to where we find him.”
“How do I know you won’t hurt my family?” Nasir demanded.
A soldier who sat across the room scoffed, but a sharp glance from Connor focused his attention back out the window. Connor put his head in his hands in exasperation.
“We went over this ten minutes ago,” Connor said. “We’re not interested in the rest of your family. We just want to speak with your uncle.”
“Speak with him about what?”
“Sweet merciful,” Connor groaned. He exhaled and forced the rigid features of his face to soften again.
“Nasir, you said yourself that your uncle used to be Taliban. We think he can help us find some of his old friends. I need to know which qalat to find him in.”
Nasir sat staring at the concrete floor. He touched his bulging eyelid as he swept a coarse curl of hair from his face. His thin mustache squirmed as he pursed his lips, trying to decide what to do.
“He did that to you, didn’t he?” Connor asked feigning concern.
Nasir looked back at the giant American kneeling beside him and found his resolve.
“Do not mistake me for a foolish child,” his voice quaked slightly. “I understand your intentions with my uncle. He has done many bad things; this I know. But he is family and I must be loyal to family.”
Nasir’s words hung in the air with the dust, an uncomfortable silence keeping them aloft. He tensed, fearing this interlude would be abruptly broken by the sound of Captain Connor choking him to death. Connor’s features hardened again and he turned to the soldier at the window.
“Sergeant Russell. The bag.”
Without looking, the soldier grasped a black backpack that leaned against his leg and flipped it backward into Connor’s hands. Connor turned and flopped the bag with a thud at Nasir’s knees.
Nasir hesitated. An olive-drab piece of cloth, embroidered with the name “RUSSELL”, was stitched across the top and a small pin adorned the bag below it. He ran his thumb across the pin’s shiny surface. It featured a long musket inside a sky blue rectangle with a silver wreath encompassing all.
“Look inside the bag,” Connor instructed.
Nasir fumbled the zippers on top of the bag. As he opened it, a bundle of money fell to the floor, bouncing slightly on its rubber binding. The bag was packed to capacity with more of the same.
“How’s that sit with your loyalty?” Conner asked, scratching his dusty beard. “I could always find other ways to use it.”
Nasir took a moment to collect himself. It was more money than he had ever seen.
“Do not mistake me for a foolish child,” he heard himself say again. His eyes remained on the money as he placed his finger on the map.
“He only visits our home during the day. In the evenings he leaves the village and we do not know where he goes. You will need to go soon if you wish to find him there.”
A squad of twelve soldiers, lead by Nasir, entered the Kherwar village. Arriving during the day was not ideal and Nasir sensed their tension as they moved with calculated steps down narrow clay roadways. The village streets were all but deserted, which was unusual for a warm spring afternoon. A lone old man squatted silently against the mud wall of a qalat. He turned his sun-weathered head at the sound of approaching boots, but his milky eyes stared far beyond the approaching men.
“Well that’s gotta be about the creepiest damn thing I’ve ever seen,” whispered Connor as they passed.
“He was a great Mujahideen warrior,” Nasir rebuked. “He helped push the Russians out.”
“Oh, now he is, as you say, ‘creepy,’” Nasir said. He motioned that they had reached his family’s home.
The Captain gave a signal and six men moved out to take up security positions around the perimeter of the qalat.
“Stack right,” Connor called softly over his shoulder with another subtle gesture.
Another four men moved forward and formed a single file line beside the entrance of the compound. Nasir’s heart plunged as Connor unslung the shotgun from his shoulder and took aim at the wrought iron handle.
“Stop!” Shouted Nasir. He lurched forward, but was caught by the large hand of Sergeant Russell.
Connor paused and cocked his head.
“What now?” He growled, his shotgun still poised to shoot.
“There’s no lock on that door!” Nasir exclaimed. “You don’t have to shoot!”
Connor drooped his shoulders in disappointment.
“Fine,” he said with a sigh. “Stand down, gentlemen.”
The four soldiers moaned and shuffled rocks with their boots. Nasir brushed past them and pushed the door open.
“See?” he said to Connor, who rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses.
“Bor-ring,” Connor groaned.
Nasir walked into the compound and the remaining six soldiers followed, each on high alert, scanning the compound for potential threats. As they moved across the open courtyard, a mangy dog barked bravely at them, but then lost its nerve and scurried behind a building. Nasir was glad to be home, if only to get the backpack off his shoulders, its weight having become burdensome on the walk to the village.
“Where is everyone?” Connor asked.
A door creaked open from a stand-alone building at the back of the compound and a small boy, no more than five, wriggled out from the narrow opening made by the wood door and closed it behind himself.
“Aamir,” Nasir called. The boy had not yet taken notice of the men in the courtyard and he jumped with surprise.
“Aamir, where is everyone?” Nasir called again in Pashtun.
The boy’s eyes never wavered from the large bearded men as they approached. He raised his hand and pointed a timid finger toward the door.
“That is my brother,” Nasir informed.
“Good for him,” Connor replied and motioned to the door. “What’s in that building?”
“The Hujra?” Nasir asked. “It’s a room for entertaining guests.”
“Guests, huh?” Connor echoed. “Is it normal that your dad and uncle would be in there?”
Nasir shook his head and a menacing smile curled under Connor’s dusty beard. Nasir felt small as he caught his faint reflection in Connor’s sunglasses.
Connor turned to his men and pointed to the Hujra. Silently, the men moved to either side of the building, while Connor and Russell approached the door.
“Let me go in and get them,” Nasir probed.
Connor placed a hand on Nasir’s chest and firmly pushed him to the side. Before Nasir could protest, Connor’s fist was pounding on the rough wooden door. It rattled in its clay frame, sending waves of red dust cascading to the ground.
“Little pigs, little pigs, let me in,” Connor murmured with a sneer.
This cannot be the same man who asked for my help just an hour ago, Nasir thought.
He counted every heartbeat until the door again creaked open. His father and uncle stood inside. Beads of perspiration lined his father’s forehead, his face pale against the dimly lit room behind him. His uncle’s face was stone, though his eyes darted between the Americans, Nasir and the backpack. With a nudge from Nasir’s uncle, both men stepped outside, closing the door behind them.
“Nasir! What is the meaning of this?” His father stammered in Pashtun.
“They’ve come to speak with uncle,” Nasir responded in English. “They’ve given us this bag full of —”
Connor raised a finger to silence Nasir.
“Like the boy said, just want to talk to him,” he pointed to Nasir’s uncle.
“So talk,” said Nasir’s uncle sharply.
Connor’s eyebrows peeked over the top of his sunglasses.
“Alright then, let’s chat. My name is Captain Mark Connor, US Special Forces. I presume you are Fazil Muhammed Khan, are you not?”
A quick nod was the only response and Connor probed further.
“Fazil Muhammed Khan, member and Minister of Education for the one and only Taliban Party?”
Nasir could see his uncle’s knuckles whiten.
“Former member of the Taliban Party,” Fazil emphasized. “I have not associated with such men in many years.”
“That so?” Connor asked. “Well, that’s not what we’ve heard.”
“It is of no concern to me what you have ‘heard,’” replied Fazil.
Connor shook his head and exchanged a glance with Russell.
“Then you won’t mind if we take a quick look inside, will ya?” Connor asked as he tried to step around the two men. “Since you wouldn’t be entertaining anyone of interest to us anyway.”
Nasir watched as Fazil shifted to keep between Connor and the door, placing his hand in defiance on the center of Connor’s vest. Connor looked down in disgust at the hand that now covered his embroidered American flag.
“Best be careful,” Connor hissed through clenched teeth. “Or Ol’ Glory’ll get ya.” Then called over his shoulder, “Big Sarge, get these men back!”
Sergeant Russell stepped forward with rifle raised. The imposing American’s were too much for Aamir, who ducked quickly back through the wooden door.
“Move back!” Russell shouted, making sweeping motions with the end of his rifle. The two men stumbled back from the door; their hands half raised. Connor cautiously gripped the door’s large brass knob.
“Little guy locked us out!” he chuckled. “Stack right!”
Again the four soldiers lined up to the right of the door and again Connor unslung his shotgun. Nasir’s head swam as he tried to process what was happening. While the soldiers readied their assault, he raced to his father’s side.
“Father! Tell them who’s inside! Call them out! Aamir’s in there!”
Nasir’s father looked to Fazil, but the stoic uncle was unburdened with sympathy and shook his head.
Desperate, Nasir turned his attention to Connor. Darting forward, he lowered his shoulder and rammed into Connor’s back. His shoulder seared with pain as it impacted the thick metal plate concealed inside Connor’s vest. Connor’s hulking frame did not budge, but instead turned and shoved Nasir to the dirt.
“Back off kid. You got your money,” he growled. “Three…two…one…”
The blast from the shotgun disintegrated the door knob. The ringing in Nasir’s ears was almost enough to mask the scream that came from inside, while the soldiers poured through the door like liquid. The men outside hit the dirt as bullets snapped and cracked inside the Hujra. The smell of burnt gunpowder hung in the air, as a private war raged inside the room. Then there was silence. For Nasir, it was impossibly long.
“Four up! Room clear!” came four voices from inside the room.
Connor breathed a sigh of relief, then stood and paced swiftly through the door. Nasir looked to Fazil, who had remained standing through the onslaught. His shoulders throbbed from the weight of the bag as he picked himself up off the dirt.
Connor emerged from the doorway. In his hands he carried two rifles, which he heaved into the dirt at Nasir’s feet. Nasir hardly noticed the rifles as he craned his neck to see any sign of Aamir.
“No more Taliban connections, huh?” Connor jerked his thumb toward the door. “Then how do you explain the ‘recently deceased’ in there?”
“Maybe you guys were just give’n each other ‘make-overs’ in there. Nice eyeliner job on both of ’em, but they ain’t no Cover Girls,” Connor quipped while removing the zip-ties from his vest.
One of the soldiers appeared from inside the building.
“Hey Big Sarge, grab your med bag, we gotta wounded kid in here. Musta had his hand on the door when we breeched.”
Nasir’s stomach tightened. A second soldier emerged from the room carrying Aamir who writhed violently in his arms. Blood streamed from the mangled flesh of his right hand. Sergeant Russell moved swiftly to the boy’s side, barely beating Nasir’s father. He worked quickly to stop the bleeding, while Nasir’s father shouted hysterically at Conner in Pashtun.
Nasir searched their faces for a place to cast his guilt.
This is all his fault, Nasir thought, turning to his uncle.
“You knew they were looking for you. You brought this to our home!” Pain shot through his shoulders as he shouted. “Is this your idea of loyalty?”
“Loyalty is for dogs and slaves,” growled Fazil. “I serve only Allah.”
Nasir’s face grew hot with rage.
“Choppers are en route,” called Connor as he lowered his radio’s hand-mic. “You can serve Allah from Gitmo.”
“We’re going to have to take them with us, sir,” stated Russell, pointing to Aamir and his father. “The hand’s salvageable, but he’ll lose it if we don’t get him to a surgeon ASAP.”
“Them?” questioned Connor.
“Dad’s gotta come too, unless you wanna be accused of kidnapping a five-year-old.”
“We don’t have room for both—”
“We’ve got a runner!” shouted one of the soldiers.
Nasir and Connor both spun on their heels to see Fazil running for the qalat door.
“Stop!” Connor shouted, raising his rifle. He hesitated, then dropped the rifle back to his side. “We got a runner. Grab him,” he said calmly into his hand-mic.
“Roger, we’ll get’em,” came a staticky voice on the other end.
The crack of a rifle reverberated off the compound walls.
Connor spun again and dropped to a knee, his rifle back at the ready. In front of him, Nasir stood with one of the discarded rifles now raised to his shoulder; a wisp of smoke left the barrel which was still pointed at his uncle who lay lifeless in the dirt a few steps inside the qalat door.
“Drop the rifle, Nasir,” Connor coaxed, putting on a fatherly tone again.
Nasir lowered the rifle and looked around. Every soldier’s weapon was now trained on him. The polished steel of the grip felt vindicating and for a fleeting moment he wondered how many rounds remained in the magazine. He dropped the weapon to the ground. Rifles lowered and Connor shook his head as he removed a tin of chewing tobacco from his pocket.
“The boss-man ain’t going to like that. Not one bit,” he muttered as he stuffed a large pinch behind his lip. “That little stunt’s going to cause me a whole world of trouble. Where’d you learn to shoot like that?”
Nasir nodded toward his uncle.
“Cold-blooded killer,” Connor murmured.
Nasir’s father had stopped shouting and in a stupor his gaze shifted between his maimed son and lifeless brother. Nasir watched him and desperately wanted to feel remorse for his uncle, but all he felt was the weight of the bag on his shoulders. Approaching helicopters brought him back from his daze.
“Get ’em moving!” Shouted Connor. “Birds are two mikes out!”
With that, the men picked up Aamir and headed for the qalat door. Nasir watched a trail of blood trickle from Aamir’s hand, leaving circles of red mud in the dirt. His father followed closely behind the soldiers and began shouting again at no one in particular.
Nasir looked to Captain Connor.
“I’m a dead man if I stay.”
“Yeah. Probably,” Connor said. “But I don’t have room for you and you’ve caused me enough trouble today anyway.”
As he spoke he picked up one of the rifles that lay on the ground. He motioned to the second rifle at Nasir’s feet.
“You’re probably going to need that more than I will,” he said.
Nasir sank to the ground and for the first time removed the black bag from his back. Its weight seemed to remain.
“It’s a Combat Infantry Badge,” Connor said, pointing to the pin on the top of the bag. “In America, only warriors get to wear ’em.”
Nasir couldn’t help but feel that was the first genuine thing Connor had said to him all day. With a nod, the American trotted off as his team exited the qalat.
The courtyard was still and only the sound of helicopter rotors could be heard, beating laboriously through dusty Afghan air. Nasir looked around the empty qalat, finally settling on his uncle’s body.
Loyalty is for dogs and slaves, he recalled.
With steady fingers he removed the pin from the backpack and fastened it to the breast of his jacket. As he stood, he slung the backpack over his shoulders and retrieved his rifle from the dirt. He was in a decidedly better position now than he had been that morning. For the second time that day, he took a last look around and headed for the door.
Brett Allen is a former Army cavalry captain who served with 3-71 CAV, 10th Mountain Division, out of Fort Drum, New York. A graduate of Michigan State University, Brett is currently seeking representation for his satire novel, “Kilroy Was Here,” which is loosely based on his deployment to Afghanistan in 2009. He resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife and two children.