A twig cracked in the distance. Luke Tyler froze mid step—motionless, silent, listening. Head cocked to one side, he strained to discern the source of the sound, but the night remained silent except for the slight rustling of the wind mingled with his own rapid breathing.
With the silence his thoughts turned inward. What was he doing out here anyway? More of a pacifist than a warrior, he now found himself in the middle of the night deep in Taliban controlled territory dodging sentries as he worked his way to a suspected terrorist trainingcamp. Joining the army and special ops had sounded like a great adventure four years ago, but the fun stopped when the killing started.
Everything appeared an eerie green through his night-vision goggles. Nothing moved. Had it been the sound of an animal scurrying to get away or the cold wind breaking a long dead branch from one of the scraggly bushes that lined the narrow canyon? His instincts shouted no, it was something more deadly.
He had been thinking of home and Carla again, not a good idea considering where he was. Thoughts of her were becoming more and more persistent as his deployment in Afghanistan approached an end. Was she thinking of him as much as he was of her? Did she really care, or was she just being nice to a lonely soldier? Their three hours together had been a long time ago.
A slight rustling sound. It was not the wind. Forcing all thoughts of home aside, Luke silently moved to his left, blending into the deeper shadows of a bush growing out of the canyon wall. His stomach knotted, his heart pounded like a drum inside his head. “Help me, Jesus,” he muttered quietly.
Luke crouched lower as someone slowly rounded the corner of the canyon fifty feet ahead. Luke’s anxiety left him as the coldness of his training moved in. He slipped his knife from its sheath and waited.
Shadows lightened as the moon broke briefly through the clouds. A slight glimmer of light reflected off what looked like an AK-47 slung over the man’s shoulder. Luke sighed. Another bad guy.
The pre-mission briefing mentioned possible roving sentries guarding the camp. Having already slipped past two other men he suspected of being terrorist lookouts, he hoped he could do it again.
The guard stopped twenty feet away. Luke carefully laid his rifle on the ground. He couldn’t use it for this. The smell of garlic and sweat wafted past him in the light wind. A muscle in his leg cramped from its crouched position. Ignoring the pain, he remained motionless.
The man slipped his rifle from his shoulder. The click as he released the safety drifted across the distance, and Luke reconciled himself to the inevitable. This man sensed something. He would not walk past as the others had done. He would have to die.
Luke tightened his grip on the knife. Nothing else existed. Focusing his full attention on the man, he waited.
The sentry moved forward again. One step and stop, another step and stop, then another, all the time listening and searching. Now just four feet away, his eyes searched the shadows. Another step. He glanced to the right toward Luke’s hiding place.
Luke held his breath. He could see the man clearly through his goggles. Could the man see him? Luke watched him for several seconds, willing him to move on.
The man remained motionless, watching, listening, evidently sensing some danger he could not see. His bearded face showed caution, not fear.
His eyes focused downward, then widened. He stepped back.
Luke lunged. His left hand yanked the terrorist’s gun hand away from the trigger while his right hand drove the knife deep into the man’s chest.
Shock changing to fear crossed the man’s face as he dropped his rifle and struggled against the knife. He attempted to call out, but only a slight gurgle escaped. His struggles lessened and his legs slowly buckled beneath him. He died as Luke lowered him to the ground.
Luke shuddered as he pulled his knife free and wiped the blood off on the man’s shirt. What would Carla think if she knew? Yet, the terrorists understood no other language. They had maimed or killed too many innocent people during his four years in the army for him to give them much quarter. He would do whatever it took to stop them, even this hated killing. Would she understand?
Again he shook his head to clear his thoughts. He returned his knife to its sheath, keeping his eyes off the dead man as he did so. Checking his GPS coordinates, he noted the time. There were still three rugged miles to go and only two hours left before dawn. He must hurry. Retrieving his rifle, he made his way quickly up the canyon.
* * *
“Yes, yes, YES!” Carla shouted as she raced across the meadow above her father’s farm outside Salem,Oregon. Her mare, Buttercup, was a full two lengths ahead of her sister’s horse.
“No fair, CC,” her sister yelled, laughing. “You got a head start.”
They continued teasing each other as they reined in their horses at the tree line. Carla smiled wistfully as she watched her sister swing down from the saddle. It had been a fun day. They had left home early and rode the seven miles through lush forest to a small lake where they talked, swam, talked, ate lunch, and talked some more. We don’t get to do this much anymore, she thought.
“Do you mind if we walk awhile?” her sister asked. “My butt’s sore.”
“That’s why I call you Sissy, little sister,” Carla teased as she lowered herself to the ground. “But if the truth were known, my backside isn’t doing much better. I haven’t ridden that far in years.”
Sissy sobered and led her horse down the trail, Carla falling into step beside her. They walked several yards before Carla said, “Penny for your thoughts.”
Her sister smiled. “I was just thinking about how much fun today was and how much I’ve missed having you at home ever since you left for college.”
“I graduated last May and have been home most of the summer.”
“Yeah, but you’ll be leaving again in a month. Why do you have to go off to Multnomah, anyways? Haven’t you had enough of school?”
“Multnomah is different. If I want to teach in a Christian school, then I need to get more Bible training.”
“My friend Jamie says you’ll just find a husband there who wants to be a missionary to some faraway place like Africa or…or…orAfghanistan, and I’ll never see you again. Do you know how far awayAfghanistan is?”
“About half a world.”
Carla grinned at her sixteen-year-old sister. “In fact, if you promise not to tell, I’ll share a secret with you. I’ve been dying to tell someone.”
Sissy eagerly raised her right hand. “I promise.”
“I’ve been writing to a soldier who’s stationed over there. His name’s Luke Tyler.”
“You’re kidding!” Sissy exclaimed, slipping slightly in her excitement. “InAfghanistan? Is that why you’ve been so quick getting to the mailbox lately? How’d you meet him?”
Carla looked away, remembering the moment. “It was when I went up to Multnomah for the preview weekend last April. Luke was there, too. I threw some books at him.”
She chuckled. “I’d just been to the bookstore. You know me. I bought five books and was carrying them down the hall trying to read as I walked. One book shifted; I tried to grab it and lost them all. They crashed to the floor behind this tall young man. He must have jumped a foot.
“I yelped, embarrassed, then bent to get them. He stopped me and picked them up himself.” Carla was quiet a moment, smiling, remembering what came next.
“Then what happened?” Sissy asked, even more excited. “What did he say?”
“Absolutely nothing. He just stood there, holding my stupid books, staring at me.”
Sissy gave her a confused look, so Carla continued. “We stood there for maybe fifteen seconds, just looking at each other. I got the strangest feeling looking into his eyes. I felt myself starting to blush.”
“You always blush.”
Carla playfully shoved her. “I do not.” She sobered and walked on several more steps. “His eyes. I’ll never forget his eyes. I sometimes lie in bed at night trying to remember all the details of what he looks like. A lot of things are fuzzy now, but not his eyes. They’re the darkest brown, full of tenderness and strength, fear and self confidence, confusion and determination, love…”
“He sounds kinda mixed up to me.”
“No, just complex.”
“So there you were, looking into each other’s eyes. What happened next?”
“I finally thanked him, took my books, and went on to my car.”
“That’s it?” Sissy exclaimed, shoving a branch out of the way so it wouldn’t hit her horse as they walked past.
“No, there’s more.” Carla walked on quietly for several more steps. “There was a party for the prospective students that evening. I hoped he’d be there, but he hadn’t come by the time the party started. I was pretty disappointed. The leader asked us to stand up one at a time, walk to the front, introduce ourselves, and say or perform something that was unique about us.
“He chose me to go first. When I got to the front of the room and turned around, Luke was just coming in the door. I got that strange feeling again and almost forgot what I was supposed to do.
“I smiled at him a couple of times while I talked. He smiled back. When I told everyone that the unique thing I liked to do was sing along with the oldies on the radio, and that I had most of them memorized, someone asked me to sing, ‘Rain Drops Keep Falling’ because it reminded him of Portland’s weather.
“Anyway, Luke just stood there by the door listening to me sing. When I finished and started back to my seat, the leader asked him to go next.
“You should have seen the look on his face. Panic! He didn’t want to give a speech in front of all those people. He excused himself, said he had to leave, and reached for the doorknob. I shouted out, ‘No you don’t. If I had to do it, then so do you.’ I hurried up to him, grabbed his hand off the doorknob, and pulled him toward the front.”
Sissy’s eyes were wide. “You did that? That’s so not you. I can’t believe it.”
“I couldn’t believe it either, but once I started, there was no way I was going to stop. He let me lead him to the front like a helpless lamb to slaughter. He muttered something like, ‘I can’t sing,’ but that was it until we got there.
“I kept hold of his hand and said, ‘I’m not letting you go until you tell us who you are and something about yourself.’ He stammered at first, but finally relaxed and shared his name, that he was home on leave from an army special ops unit stationed inAfghanistan, and that he would be getting out and returning to Multnomah in the fall for his senior year.”
“Did you keep holding his hand?”
“Yes.” She smiled at the memory. “In fact, when he finished, we walked hand in hand to a couple of empty seats in the back row and sat together.”
“Still holding hands?” Sissy asked, eyes even wider.
Carla felt the blush rising. “Yes, if you must know, still holding hands.” She walked on quietly a moment. “I can’t explain the sensations I was feeling sitting there with him. I’d never felt that way with any of my previous boyfriends.”
“You haven’t had that many.”
“No, I haven’t been interested in serious dating.”
“What happened next?”
“When the introductions were over and refreshments were being served, he asked if I’d like to go for a walk. It took us about twenty minutes to get away, though. First one person, then a group of them, gathered around us to ask Luke questions about the war. He really believes in what he’s doing over there. He talked of seeing children blown up by terrorists. He almost cried telling about it.”
“Cry? I thought he was a tough soldier.”
“He is—but, then again, he isn’t. Oh, I don’t know. I’m sure he’s been in several battles over there. I don’t think you can be in special ops and not fight and kill. But all I saw was tenderness and a soft heart that day.”
“Did you ever get away, just the two of you?”
“We walked over to Montevilla Parkand and sat on the swings where we talked for over an hour. I lost track of the time, so was late starting back to Oregon State. He walked me to my car, said goodbye, and that’s the last time I saw him. His leave was over, and he flew back to Afghanistanthe next day.”
“Wow! And you’ve been writing?”
“About once a week. We’ve gotten to know each other through those letters.”
“Are you in love?”
Tears stung Carla’s eyes and she bit her lower lip as she thought about that.
Sissy noticed. “Are you okay?”
Carla nodded. “I’m just scared. We both know he could be killed over there, so we’ve chosen not to get our hopes up or tell anyone. We’ve tried to keep some distance between us and our feelings. We haven’t said the love word.”
She turned to her sister. “But, yes, Sissy, I’m in love. I love him so much it hurts. He’s due to get out of the army in a few weeks. Until then, I’ll just keep holding my breath and praying.”
“Do you think he loves you?”
Carla shrugged. “I don’t know. Like I said, we haven’t talked about love. One minute I think he might, the next I think he’s just a lonely soldier away from home needing someone to write to. Sometimes his words are so soft and gentle, then the next letter may seem more impersonal and distant. My emotions soar, then crash and burn.”
Sissy stopped walking and hugged her. “He loves you, CC, just like I do, but he’s afraid to tell you in case he gets killed or something.”
Carla shuddered as she kissed he sister on the cheek. “Thanks, sis, I needed that hug. I love you, too. Don’t tell Mom and Dad about Luke, yet. I don’t want a big fuss until I know he’s safely home and really does want to see me again.”
“He’ll come home, and he WILL want to see you. So stop worrying. It must be almost morning there. He’s probably safely snuggled in his bunk on some base somewhere dreaming of you.”