Sangin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
They kept it simple. They could cut off his right hand, or he could use it to learn how to fire the weapon they gave him.
They had even picked the target. He knew before they told him it would be American. By now he could repeat the Imam’s Friday harangue to do jihad on the invaders word for word.
All he had wanted was to go home. Pakistan was a hungry place for a young Afghani man with no family or friends. His father had been killed when the Americans invaded in 2003, and his mother had taken the children and fled over the border, joining the hundreds of thousands of other refugees in the camps. When she died, he found his way back to his own country, where he had not been so much recruited by the Taliban as kidnapped.
At least they fed him.
The camp three hundred yards up the narrow valley was small, an outpost dug into a small saddle between two hills, consisting of forty American soldiers. The top of the hill in front had been leveled to provide a landing place for a helicopter. He had been waiting for it for three days, broiling by day and freezing by night beneath the camouflage netting that had been stolen, they told him, from the enemy in another firefight in another valley.
The weapon was beautiful and deadly, brand new, light of weight, black in color, made of heavy plastic married to a dense, dark metal with a dull shine. A zippered sheath kept it free of the dirt and sand that filtered through the netting to layer his clothing and coat the inside of his nostrils so that he could barely breathe.
In the distance, a few tumbledown buildings marked a primitive landholding. A boy herded goats toward a patch of earth that showed the barest hint of green and hosted a few wormword bushes twisted into nightmare shapes from lack of water. Those fields he could see lay fallow, the only cash crop this area had ever known rooted up by the invaders.
A faint sound of wings disturbed the air. He looked up. A steppe eagle had been hunting this valley every morning and evening, soaring overhead on brown wings spread six feet from wingtip to wingtip, black tail spread wide.
This sound wasn’t the eagle, though. It was the helicopter, coming at last.
It hurtled up the valley, barely time enough for him to get the rifle out of its protective sheath. He settled his eye to the scope, as he had been taught, and sighted in. The magnification of the scope threw the aircraft into startlingly immediate relief. The windshield was scratched and sandy and the sun rendered the Plexiglas nearly opaque, so that the figures at the controls on the other side were barely visible to him. He caught the merest glimpse of a smooth cheek, nearly hidden beneath helmet and sunglasses. Too young yet to shave. His age.
One shot was all it would take, they had told him, so long as he hit the target. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes as his finger pulled the trigger, slowly, firmly, even gently, again as they had taught him. The stock recoiled against his shoulder as the high explosive round left the barrel. The sound of the shot rendered him temporarily deaf.
Before he could raise his eye from the scope, the helicopter touched down on the pad and on landing seemed simply to shatter into a thousand pieces. The three-man crew died instantly, shredded by fragments from their own splintering aircraft, as did the one soldier on the ground standing fifteen feet from the landing pad, skewered by a flying piece of one of the rotors. All six of the soldiers waiting for their ride home fifty feet from the landing pad were injured as well, two of them mortally.
The watcher upslope granted him just enough time to be amazed at the destruction he had wrought before putting a bullet into the back of his head precisely where his skull ended and his spinal column began.
Copyright © 2012 by Dana Stabenow