S7: Jihad

byqhml1©

"Prove it. Strip down to your trunks."

By then I was in pretty good shape, but I wasn't much to look at naked. But I loved my wife, so I kicked off the track pants and pulled my shirt over my head. They had fixed the scar on my cheek when they redid my face, but my body was another matter. There were small clusters of scars on my arms, chest, and even my back where the shrapnel had hit. There was also a pretty good scar where they'd had to put my intestines back in place, as well as a few obvious bullet holes.

People tried not to stare but couldn't help themselves. After about an hour they got used to it, until a young man with even more scars showed up. He came over grinning, and shook our hand while a petite redhead hovered.

"First Sargeant Will Grimes, retired. This is Molly, Lt. Molly Spencer, active duty. A pleasure to see a fellow warrior." He had a Midwestern U.S. twang to his voice.

"Major Mark Jones," I said, staying in character. My ability with languages made my British accent easy, and no one noticed when I occasionally said something without thinking in my natural voice. "My wife, Maddy, the General in our little army."

He grinned and saluted, which made Molly giggle. Soon they were beside us on the sand, Maddy's almost nonexistent suit and Molly's tiny thong drawing quite a few looks, but one look at their companions made them keep their distance. He asked, indirectly, how I got my scars.

"Bullet while I was in Syria. IED scars from another location I can't reveal, the other bullet holes from the same site. You?"

"IED in Iraq, bullet holes from there and Afghanistan. And this," he said, pointing to a small scar on his arm, "is from Molly. She can get quite excited at times."

Molly blushed, squealed, and hit his arm in mock anger. I turned my back, where four matching scratches, still fresh, trailed down my back. "From last night. I had to get a tetanus shot."

Maddy flamed red and smacked my arm. "Liar! Those were from this morning! Molly dear, something you need to remember. Old warriors never surrender, they just learn your weaknesses and attack on a different front."

We hit it off so well we invited them to dinner, taking them to a really nice place I had a feeling was out of their price range, and made sure they had a good time. When we bid them goodnight, he handed me a paper with his email and phone number. He was living in England, with Molly, who was in the British service, and she didn't want to move when her enlistment was up. "I need a job. If you know of anything, let me know. I would appreciate it."

We were so taken with the couple that I asked for a favor, and soon Molly was assigned to the local hospital, and Will got a job driving for a medical supply company. They were shocked when they ran into us at the local, and I just grinned and remarked what a small world it sometimes was.

Molly jumped into my lap, raining kisses all over my face. Maddy, not to be outdone, plopped down on Will's lap, wiggled around a bit while kissing him, them remarked she was happy he seemed glad to see her. He flamed red while the girls exchanged places, and Molly thanked Maddy for keeping Will awake.

They got a small flat and soon were regulars at our house. The kids loved them, and Will surprised them by being a big Opera and Ballet fan, besides being a classically trained pianist. He often played at the pub and local church when the regular was unable to perform or was off traveling.

.........

I was married to a woman I loved, had children I adored, and was surrounded by good friends. My old family was no longer in danger and could lead normal, fear free lives. So why wasn't I happy?

Will caught me one day, pounding the bag behind my house. I don't know how long he watched me before he went over to the bench and wrapped his hands. I stood, gasping with exhaustion, as he savaged the bag, his face a mask of rage, tears streaming, until he could barely lift his arms. I tossed him a bottle of water when he was done and we relaxed, sitting against trees.

"It never goes away, does it? The rage, and the pain."

I sighed. "No, it doesn't. I fight it every day, play with my kids, love on my wife, but sometimes, sometimes it just won't go away."

"I know. I relive what happen to me every night, over and over. Our Humvee is flipping through the air, throwing us around like rag dolls, until it stops, and I crawl out. Barely able to move myself, I got two of my friends out and propped them against a low wall. I was crawling back to try and help the rest when the RPG hit it, blowing it completely over me, taking most of the hide on my back, and into the wall, smashing my buddies. I was the only one left. Knowing I was dead anyway and only had my sidearm, I waited until they close enough to touch them before I cut loose. I dropped four before they started firing. I was hit six times. Help arrived just then and they ran away. My people thought I was dead until I tried to raise my weapon high enough to shoot again. I was in different hospitals for over a year. Molly was my duty nurse for the last eight months."

He paused, tears welling, before he began again. "She saved me, Major, by then my body was functional, but my mind was somewhere else. I would still be in a hospital ward somewhere, sitting in a wheelchair staring at the walls, if it wasn't for her."

"Believe it or not, Sargeant, I know the feeling. If it weren't for Maddy, I don't know where I'd be. She started saving me even before I got wounded the last time. She had to have her hip replaced because she was near me. If it weren't for her and my children, I'd be in a very dark place right now. Hell, you saw me, I'm in that dark place now when they're not around me. "

By then we'd gotten into the beers, and our wives showed up and gently led us home.

.........

We'd been in the village for almost a year, and while we often talked of going to California and live in the cabin Maddy had, I don't think either of us were serious, because we liked the quiet little village, removed from the turbulent world we'd lived in. The kids were happy and well adjusted, and growing like weeds. Josef chose to go by "Joe," and was almost as tall as me. Tati was developing into a stunning woman, even at thirteen she was attracting attention.

It was at, of all things, a birthday party, when my mask slipped and the rage came out.

It was held on the edge of the commons, at a little area reserved for picnics and family gatherings. Tati's best friend had turned fourteen, and in honor of the occasion they had decided to wear sundresses, to reflect their maturity. All the girls were pretty, but Tati outshone them all, wearing a yellow sundress, her glossy black hair flowing down her back. Twelve girls, ranging from eleven to sixteen, having the time of their lives. Maddy and I were with the parents as chaperons, and we brought Will and Molly with us. In honor of the event, both wives were in new dresses.

We sat back and observed the girls, the boys hovering in the background. Molly remarked how sweet it was to see the boys shyly take a hand, of the older ones sharing a hug. One took Tati's hand and she glowed. I must have had a dark look on my face because Maddy suddenly kissed me.

"She's growing up, honey, and we can't stop it. It's all innocent now, and I've had "the talk" with her, so let her enjoy the moment."

It went to pieces when some older lads, sixteen to twenty, six of them, crashed the party.

Soccer hooligans was the most polite term I could use for them. They'd attended a local match between their team and ours, and they'd lost. Seems they thought harassing local girls would brighten up their day.

Maddy frowned when they came over, but remained calm until one grabbed a girl. "That's enough! This is a private party. You need to leave. Now!"

"What you gonna do, grandma? Call the constables? We're gonna have a little fun, then maybe we'll give them back to you. Bugger off!"

Maddy smiled sweetly. "I don't need constables. I've got an army, and I can kick your punk ass and not even muss my hair. Last chance, assholes."

They were aghast an older woman would speak to them like that. Another, trying to prove their point, made a grab for Tati. She jumped back, but his hand caught the strap and ripped her top down, exposing her budding breasts. The last thing I remember was her scream, until Will tried to grab me from behind and almost got kicked in the head for his efforts. "Stand down, Major! It's over."

I shook my head, the force of my rage lifting. Looking around, I was shocked at the carnage.

Maddy had taken her opponent down in three moves( "God I'm getting old!," she told me later. "One punch should have done it. And I should have stopped before I kicked him in the balls.") She was right about that, she crushed one, and it had to be removed.

Will had taken care of two, but before he could reach me I'd waded through the last three. One had a broken nose and arm, the second a shattered kneecap and three broken ribs. The third, the one who grabbed my daughter, got a broken jaw, eight teeth kicked out, and I was stomping the hand he'd touched her with to mush when Will stopped me. I probably would have killed him if he hadn't.

Molly had stepped aside when the violence started, and had enough presence of mind to call the constables and medical services. There were lengthy explanations to two officers and business for four ambulances. When it was over, the hooligans were released on the condition that neither of us press charges, and they never enter the country again. Will and I got strong warnings about taking justice into our own hands no matter what the provocations, and I got a visit from the Colonel who had been my primary physician. He had three letters with him.

"Read these, and report to this address at the appointed time." He didn't say "or else," but I caught his meaning.

.........

The first was from the Consulate, warning me about breaking cover and demanding I go through anger management and counseling for PTSD. The sooner the better. One more outburst and the family would be relocated.

The second was a note from the Pope.

"Pete, my son

Let me give you my belated condolences for the deaths of your friends and family members. Don't be surprised I knew you were still alive, by now you know it's hard to keep a secret from the Church. I'm sending someone to see you, an old friend I think can help you. Please greet him with an open mind.

I looked in to your new family while you were in Hospital. They need you as much as you need them, please don't let them or me down. You'll always be my favorite agnostic."

The third was from the Grand Mufti of the royal family. I had talked to him several times while we visited his country.

"Greetings Pete Trammel!

I am pleased to know that Allah has been merciful enough to spare your life, and allow you to start over again. Please, do not disrespect this gift, think of your families.

The Prince and his father are working on their own personal Jihad, and I fear many lives will be lost to appease their anger. I ask that you stay clear of it, and allow your warrior days to come to an end. I sensed something when we met, something dark, something that would be terrible if it were unleashed.

Embrace your new life, enjoy your new family, for the sake of us all.

Allah Akbar"

So at the appointed time and place, I found myself being ushered into a large office. I nearly turned around when I saw my therapist was a Catholic priest. He saw my look and grinned.

"All right, you caught us. This is nothing but a cleverly designed plan to lure you into our clutches. Or, maybe it's because some very powerful friends wanted you to have the best. And Major, I am the best."

He was a small man, bald, but he bore himself well, and had probably the sharpest intellect I'd ever encountered. I saw him for seven months.

Along about the fifth month, he looked at me solemnly. "I think I have it now. You divorced your wife, and ran off to have adventures that ended up getting most of your friends and part of your family violently killed. It's all your fault, and you don't deserve happiness. Does that pretty much cover it?"

I stared in shock at his serious expression, before he smirked.

"Sounds pretty stupid, doesn't it? We'll never be able to pinpoint why all this happened. Maybe it began almost thirty years ago when you exwife, your best friend, and your father sat down and conspired to plan your life. Or maybe it was triggered when you found out about the betrayal, and was shocked by your wife's lack of remorse. Or maybe it was when you met Teddy and Sherry and accepted their offer, or when the chap in your security services decided to out you."

He paused to see if I was really listening. "In the end, none of that matters. You survived. Your daughters are safe. You have a new family, a woman that loves you and children that think you hung the moon. You have friends, and a decent, fulfilling life. Maybe you should take up teaching again, you were very good at it. Don't squander this gift in bitterness and regret."

I think that's when I finally began healing.

.........

My friends in high places fabricated enough of a past that I got my credentials, but instead of finding a college, I taught history at the school my children attended. It was a bit of an adjustment going from college students to twelve and thirteen year olds, but in the end I found their eagerness refreshing. Although I have to admit, wearing the solemn robes the school required took a little getting used to. I felt like I was wearing a dress. Maddy and I made one of our fondest memories, one night when the kids were away, when she insisted I wear the robe and nothing else to bed. Fueled by a more than moderate amount of wine, the pillow talk kept us in stitches for years when we would relive it.

I pulled enough strings to get Will some remedial counseling, and it helped, a lot. We still hit the bag, still sparred, and would occasionally hit the range at the local base and run a few magazines through the Makarovs. The Colonel invited us skeet shooting, and while Will was good, my skills impressed them all.

Just when I thought I had outrun my demons, they caught up to me with a vengeance.

.........

I came in from school smiling at the lively debate I'd sparked among the kids about different interpretations of the same historical event. I ended the class by reminding them that before the age of mass communications only the victors bore witness.

My mood evaporated like dew in the Mojave when I looked at Maddy. "What?"

She didn't say a word, just pointed at the television. I pushed play, and watched.

It was another beheading broadcast. They would pop up, and the governments would shut them down. They would reappear thirty minutes later, routed through different servers.

What made this one note worthy was the victim. It was a woman, you could tell by the rags that hung on her, covering nothing. The executioner did his normal rant, before yanking the mask off.

"Behold. The last S7! Justice is patient, and rewards the faithful." The face was bruised, one eye swollen shut, the marks of at least one beating on her. It was Fatima!

She had disappeared after the bombing, and no one really went looking for her. Maddy told me her friends thought she was in Canada, living quietly among a group of expatriates from her home. Apparently, we learned later, a friend had discovered who she was and immediately fingered her for the reward money. She was kidnapped, spirited out of the country and half a world away, to meet this fate.

The executioner ranted for a few more minutes before Fatima spoke, so low no one could hear her. He immediately stopped, and asked her to repeat what she'd said. She spoke quietly, and he bent down to listen.

"The whore wants to confess her sins! It will do no good, her fate has been decided, but maybe Allah will be merciful. What bitch? Speak up."

He leaned over again and Fatima lunged, biting him on his cheek and hanging on like a bulldog before he got loose, a chunk of flesh missing and blood gushing.

"Look at that scar and remember, dog! Even bound, a member of S7 can mark you. Your times comes, and then it will be you trying to excuse your actions. Allah Akbar!"

The executioner, in a blind rage, swung the scimitar, but instead of a clean cut, it angled down her neck, cutting the jugular. As blood spurted he swung again, to the opposite side, still not cutting cleanly. Her head hung down on her chest by a thin strip of skin, and the transmission ended.

At first, I was numb. Then the anger hit. I walked quietly out, up into the hills, and stood on a rocky cliff, screaming my lungs out until I was too hoarse to make noise. Will found me two hours later, legs dangling off the cliff, looking out over the moors. He didn't say a word, just sat beside me and pulled out a flask.

"To your friend, may she rest in peace." He handed me the flask.

"To Fatima, may Allah smile on you." I took a drink. "To Josh." Another drink. "To Jo." I drank and named them off. Emil, Said, Anatoli, Sherry. To Moshe, may he find peace. I tossed the empty flask over the cliff, watching as it bounced to the bottom. I stood, wobbling suddenly, before Will caught me.

We walked back, and Will left me when the trail split behind my house, going back to Molly. I walked in, kissed Maddy like it might be the last one I ever give her, and hugged the children of my heart tightly. I could see the worried looks on their faces.

"Sorry, kids. I just found out someone close to me passed suddenly. It bothered me more than I thought it would."

They hovered, Tati sat on my lap and refused to move, and Joe would awkwardly rub my shoulder, before helping Maddy serve dinner. By evening we were almost back to normal. We almost never watched television, preferring to sit and discuss our day, or read. They would sometimes fire up the gaming console and they would all take turns beating me at whatever game we would play.

We always, always, kissed each other good night. Joe was a little stiff at first, but soon he would kiss my cheek like it was the most normal thing in the world, saying "Goodnight, Dad. Love you." Then he would wait while I repeated the ritual, before going to bed. Tati was more emotional, kissing our lips and hugging us tightly. Then she would kiss her brother, usually teasing him by licking his cheek or something else silly, then run to bed giggling while he fussed.

Maddy and I made love that night, twice. No mean feat for a couple in their early fifties. It was tender, heavy with emotion, and soul satisfying.

After the second round we lay beside each other, snuggling. "When?," asked Maddy.

"Soon."

The lamp clicked on, and Maddy loomed over me, her breasts inches from my face. She grabbed my chin, forcing me to look up. "Listen to me, honey. I know this is important to you, so I won't try to stop you. But hear this, You come home as soon as you can! You've given me a life I used to daydream about when I was younger, stuck in some shithole in the middle of nowhere, wondering if I would come out alive. I'd kill every one in the Middle East if I had to, to get you home."

"But I'm not that warrior anymore, I'm a plain housewife with two wonderful children and a man I love beyond reason despite his many faults. My plan is to keep you alive long enough to see our kids grown and settled, before I nag you to death. So go, but remember us, and what you have to come home to."

Then the woman who I thought was the toughest human I had ever met collapsed on my chest sobbing softly. I kissed and loved on her until she went to sleep, still on my chest. I just held her, breathing her scent, waiting for sleep that never came that night.

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