When Tim read the words, “I am in the hospital. We lost a baby.” His heart sank. It took everything he had to keep his composure. The last thing he wanted to do was break down and cry right there in front of everybody in internet café.

“60 seconds number 18!” A voice yelled over the crowd. That was Tim. He was on the computer numbered 18. He waited in line and hour to get five minutes on the computer. Com had been down for five days. They usually are in the event of a casualty. This allows the government to notify the family before they hear the news through the grapevine. The fact that the attack, which yielded the casualty, took out the power plant meant that com was down for longer than usual. When it finally came back up, everyone wanted to get online to notify their family that they were OK. Thus the brass required a five minute limit on all computers at the internet café.

“I’m sorry.” was the next thing to pop up in Tim’s instant messenger window.

“Don’t be. You didn’t do anything wrong,” Tim typed. “Be sad but don’t be sorry. Call your mother. Fly her in for a few days. I’m about to get cut off. We’ll Skype later. I love you.”

“Times up number 18,” a voice yelled.

“I’m signing off right now. Give me a fucking second,” Tim responded to the voice.

It was after normal duty hours so he went to the only place he knew he could be alone, the shop. When he got to the door, he frantically unlocked the padlock as if he was trying to get into the bathroom and was about to piss his pants. As soon as he opened the door, he stepped in, and it slammed behind him. He leaned back against the door and slid down to the ground and started sobbing.

*

It cost him six 1-pint water bottles of his homemade wine to get access to an unauthorized computer in the COM tent. Being a civil engineer had its privileges in the desert but so did being in the Communications Squadron. Each of the tents where the COM squadron members quartered had a computer and unlimited internet access. While the six members that occupied this tent were out enjoying Tim’s hooch, he had complete privacy and over an hour’s worth of access to the internet. This was when he Skyped Maria.

After a long while of them crying and trying to assure each other that they would be OK, Tim finally got around to telling Maria what happened.

“The news was wrong. It wasn’t four. It was only two,” Tim said. “One of them was my troop, Senior Airman Ricketts.”

The mortar round blew Airman Ricketts to pieces, and the ensuing fire ensured that there was nothing to send home to his parents. Sergeant Martinez survived the blast but not fire. Diesel fuel surrounded the hardened shelter that was the operations plant and engulfed it in flames. Martinez opened the door but quickly closed it after the heat singed his mustache and eyebrows. The autopsy report read that Martinez died of smoke inhalation.

Breaking the rules was probably what saved Senior Airman Jones’s and Airman Ski’s life. They were sitting in the pickup with the windows up. The engine ran while the AC blew, keeping them cool and wasting taxpayer’s money. Protected by the concrete barriers they did not get much of the blast wave from the explosion or the shrapnel from the mortar. Thinking quickly, Jones threw the gearshift into drive and sped away. When he realized that the tires were on fire, he slammed on the brakes, threw it into park, and he and Ski jumped out and ran to safety.

“This whole thing sucks, Babe. I just want to come home,” Tim told Maria.

*

Though he did tell Maria the gruesome truth of what happened, he didn’t tell her how it made him feel. He still couldn’t believe he lost someone under his “command.” In the movies, it happens all the time. But even in the movies, it only happened officers or senior enlisted in the Marines and Army, not Air Force Staff Sergeants in charge of the heating and air shop. He was also disgusted and disappointed with himself. If he hadn’t of told them to “get lost” or had just gone with them, Ricketts would be alive. The worst part about it was every day they had to go to work where there were reminders of Ricketts everywhere. Also since every game of dominoes would have to be cutthroat now, they just stopped playing altogether.