"Check that out," said Scott. "Where are the adults? God, I'll be glad when we're done with this damn country."
They both got out of the Jeep and looked around, squinting.
"Be careful," whispered Jake. "I don't see any place to hide except that hut, but those Taliban suckers are sneaky as all hell."
Crouching and zigzagging, they approached the hut. Jake was bigger than Scott. Taller. Thick muscles. But clumsier. The little girl, hearing a noise, suddenly looked up. They were about 15 yards away. Her eyes widened in surprise and fright.
"Boo!" said Jake, right before he stumbled. The girl shrieked.
Jake tried to get his grip back on his M-4 rifle as a shot came from inside the hut. It slammed into the rifle's stock and spun the weapon right out of his hands. Both Jake and Scott hit the ground seeking cover.
"Allahu Akbar!" cried a turbaned man who emerged wielding an AK-47 in his right hand. He grabbed the girl and pinned her body in front of him with his left arm. He started spraying bursts of fire at them as he backed toward the hut.
"Shoot him!" shouted Jake. "Shoot that bastard!"
Scott, feeling calmer than he thought he ever would, took careful aim and emptied his magazine in a small gentle sweep of lethal sputtering. He knew he was lucky to be alive at this range. He tried to avoid the girl, but it was no use.
As the turbaned man started falling and dropping the girl, a blazing detonation roared from inside the hut. One of Scott's bullets had hit a cache of explosives. As the thunderclap filled the air, the man and girl wrenched around in an awkward position like puppets being yanked. They tumbled to the ground.
Then it was over.
Everything stopped. There was a long silence broken only by the crackle of the fire burning the hut.
"Hey, buddy," whispered Jake. "You OK?"
"That was a hell of a kill," he said. "When you do it, you do it right." He looked over at Scott, who was staring at something on the ground in front of them.
"Wrong... That's wrong," said Scott, getting up as if in a trance. "That's wrong..."
"What's wrong?" asked Jake. "God damn it, get down!"
But Scott was beyond hearing. He drifted almost like a ghost to the spot he was staring at. He leaned over and picked up a small dismembered arm.
Looking back at Jake, he said woodenly, "That's wrong. Little girl needs her arm."
Jake tried to control himself. "You'll get us both killed!" he seethed in a whisper.
"Little girl needs her arm."
Scott walked slowly, zombi-like, to the dead girl. Her body was mangled, but her face had not been hit. It stared back at him, lovely and surprised. He placed the arm next to the red bleeding stump. Then he backed away and fell to his knees.
Jake, glancing around furtively, came up to Scott.
"I don't think there's any more of them, but we gotta get back," he said.
Scott was gazing at the ground. "I killed a child," he said softly.
Jake looked at him with slight irritation. "Come on, we gotta go."
Scott didn't move. He just kept staring. Jake let out a long breath and knelt down to get eye-level with Scott.
"Listen, buddy," he said. "You didn't do anything wrong."
"I shot a little girl," whispered Scott.
"No you didn't!"
Scott looked up, distantly perplexed, but starting to come out of it.
"Well," said Jake "I guess you might see it that way. But it isn't your fault."
"The collateral damage."
Scott didn't say anything. He didn't show any emotion. A tear started forming at the corner of his right eye.
"We're in a war, buddy," said Jake. "Shit happens."
"This little girl lost her arm," said Scott, trance-like. "I tried to put it back, but she's dead."
"You got that right. So's the enemy. Now, let's get out of here."
Scott didn't move.
"Stop feeling bad!" said Jake. "It's not your fault she's dead."
"Whose fault is it?"
"The Taliban. Don't you know the unwritten rule? The aggressor bears the moral guilt for all innocent victims. Your guilt is that you took out the bad guy. You did that real good. You saved lives."
Scott looked down at the girl. Her innocent face was so pretty. "I didn't save hers," he said. "I shot her."
"So what?" asked Jake annoyed. "That's not your problem. It's theirs. They made you do it, so they killed her. Not you. Forget about her."
Jake stuck his hand in a pocket and pulled out a small item. "Here, have some chocolate."
Scott missed a long beat, then asked, "Whaaaaat?" He was coming out of it fast.
"I'm busting out a bar of chocolate," said Jake. "I'll give you half. Go on. Eat it. It'll make you feel better."
Scott's eyes gradually narrowed into full penetrating focus. They bore into Jake until he was satisfied that he was not seeing anything he recognized as human. Then he looked off.
"Fuck you," he said.
Jake opened his hands in deferment, one hand holding the half-peeled chocolate bar. "Have it your way, buddy. We still gotta get back and get the others to come out here." He stood up, turned around and took a bite. He started walking back to the Jeep.
Scott slowly got off his knees, looked at the girl one last time, then plodded behind.
What's eating him? thought Jake, munching. What did he come down on me for? It's only chocolate, for Christ's sake.