On Patrol

by Ronald Friedman

"Goddamn, fuck, Bobby, he's just a kid," Ackerman said.

He held his M 16 rifle at the ready, the butt pressed into his shoulder, trigger finger straight along the receiver. Wherever Ackerman looked, the barrel of the rifle tracked along with his gaze.

The boy was still alive. He lay in the street, his body bent, extending in a short arc from between the two cars that had provided a hiding place on the side of the road. One leg was just a dirty mound of bloody cloth with pieces of shredded meat and bone. He stared at them with a single dark eye; his other eye was lost in the torn mass of flesh that was all that remained of the left side of his face.

Sergeant Casper crossed the dusty street and came up next to Ackerman. Their unit had taken the small village twenty miles west of Najaf only the day before, driving out the Taliban and a faction of a Sunni militia, but they had encountered no one other than the boy during their hour long patrol of this sector this morning. All they had seen were the ruins of houses and small buildings with the burned out hulks of cars and trucks studding the road.

A convulsive shudder shook the boy. Bob Caspar had unloaded half a clip when the boy had stepped out from between the cars. Butch Ackerman had fired twice. He thought the boy was maybe ten years old. He seemed about the same size as his nephew.

He told Caspar.

"I don't think so. These people are small. He's older than that."

The suicide vest and detonator were visible now that the boy's filthy jacket had been pulled open. The detonator was mounted in the center of the vest beyond his reach.

The two soldiers wore combat gear with body armor and stood ten yards from the bomber.

"Probably plastic and a frag vest," Caspar said.

Ackerman kept his eyes on the dying boy.

The wind began to pick up. Caspar pulled down goggles to shield his eyes and some of his face. Sharp grains of sand, like a worn razor, cut into their skin. Ackerman made no move to protect himself.

They were too close. If that load of C-4 exploded they would be killed by the shock wave of the blast or shredded by the shrapnel that would be built into the fabric of the vest.

The boy was incapable of triggering an explosion, but Taliban bomb makers often put a second radio controlled detonator in the vests if they had any concern that a coerced or very young suicide bomber might hesitate at the last moment.

Caspar only glanced at the boy. His restless eyes twitched as he scanned the road and rooftops for any sign of movement.

"He's watching us," Ackerman said.

"Bullshit. If he's not dead he's unconscious or in shock. Waste him and let's go. Pull back a ways first." Caspar walked away, but turned back when he heard no gunshot. "Corporal Ackerman, I ordered you to shoot that man."

The still rising wind carried dust and gritty sand raising a cloud of dirt. The two men were only thirty yards apart, but they appeared as fuzzy shadows in the gloom. The wind howled.

"He's a boy, not a man."

Caspar moved closer to Ackerman so he could be sure he would be heard. "He's not a boy or a man, damn it. He's a bomb, that's all. He was built to kill us. What the hell's the matter with you?"

"He'll bleed out in a few minutes. I don't have to shoot him again."

"You and I already killed him. What difference does one more bullet make? You have an order."

"C'mon, Bobby. Don't pull that crap. You shoot him if you want to."

Both men stood silently for a moment.

"So what are you standing there for? Let's move."

"Somebody should stay with him till he dies. Then we can go."

"Fuck this shit," Caspar said. He raised his rifle and aimed at the boy. Despite the dust in the air, he was an easy target. The boy was motionless. Caspar lowered his rifle.

"How're you figuring to tell when he's dead?"

Ackerman shrugged. "I don't know. He must be dead by now."

"We got to get the bomb guys to clear the vest."

"I'll call."

They started to walk away to a safe distance.

"No way that guy was ten years old," Caspar said. He glanced at Ackerman. "You are one screwed up guy, Butchie. I can't figure you out. Half the time you don't make any sense at all."

BIO: Ronald Friedman is a retired psychologist living in Scottsdale, Arizona. He is the author of two books and over 50 nonfiction articles published in magazines and newspapers, but has been writing fiction for only the past three years. His short stories include "The New Suit" published by Huff Post 50 and "Night Orderly" published by Bartleby Snopes. "Night Orderly" won first prize in the magazine's 2013 "all dialogue" story contest. He credits his mother for his success as a writer. She worked as an assassin for the CIA, and later for the Detroit Mob, so she travelled a lot for work. She supplemented her income by working as a copy editor for the Detroit Free Press. Mom passed away at work about a year ago. Sophie the Dog put two in her head while they were sitting in a stolen '87 Buick Riviera near Detroit City Airport. Nobody's fault. It was just a misunderstanding. When Friedman went to identify the body, he made three pledges to his mother. He said, "I'll never write another comma splice, I will always show, not tell, and all my stories will arc higher than the Arch in St. Louis."