On Writing Islam


“Indeed, Islam began as something strange, and it will return to being strange just as it began. so glad tidings of paradise be for the strangers, the ones who are righteous and are guided by Allah.” ~ Prophet Muhammad, salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam.

When I started writing this novel, I set in my heart that I wanted to write an honest, heartfelt depiction of David’s Islamic experience. His journey into and out of the faith, explored against September 11, 2001, the greater War on Terror, and the existential shock that has pulsated through the Middle East since. I wanted to delve deep into what it means to be a Muslim, to love Allah with one’s whole being, to live to the rhythms of Islam. To embrace an Islamic and Arab identity.

I hope my attempt has succeeded, at least in part.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked by editors and proofers, following Whisper, is, “Are you Muslim?”

At the time of this writing, no, I am not. However, to dive deep into the soul of Islam and attempt to portray the faith with any shred of justice, I felt it was only appropriate to go to the very center of Islamic studies.

To that end, I enrolled in an Islamic seminary as a visiting student, and I still am a student.

The imams and scholars have warmly welcomed me as a seeker, opening their arms, their hearts, and their minds to my journey of understanding. I like to think, in some ways, we have helped open each other’s minds in certain areas.

I am queer, gay, and (loudly) out. My husband and I do not hide our relationship. We take what comes with that, all the ups and downs. In Islam, homosexuality as a personal identity is—at present—considered haraam, or forbidden, by the majority scholars. I stress “as a personal identity” because that is the crux of many current discussions about homosexuality in Islam.

The Islamic faith, as practiced in many countries, bifurcates the genders and enforces strict gender segregation. A homosocial culture for men is thus created, where men find their emotional, social, and oftentimes physical needs satisfied by other men.

This duality can be hard for Westerners to grasp. To study homosexual behavior and homosexual identity in strictly Islamic societies, it’s necessary to put aside all understandings of what it means to be gay in the West, or to identify as LGBT as a Westerner.

Homosexual behavior—men having sex with men—does not lead directly to a gay identity 100% of the time. This is true everywhere. Homosexual behavior occurs often in environments where there are no females, and, as human beings, men seek physical and emotional connections with other men. Prison is a classic example of such behavior. Some male boarding schools, and some military units as well, foster this kind of homosocial behavior.

In devoutly Islamic societies, it can be common for men to have sex with other men and NOT label their behavior as part of a homosexual identity, or of themselves as gay. For readers of my Executive Office series, Uncle Abdul, the fictional Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the uncle to my character, Faisal al-Saud, remarks on how ‘it is not unheard of’ for men to slake their lust with other men. In Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, Northern Africa, Pakistan, and even Afghanistan, sex between men is relatively common.

However, these men are expected to marry wives, father children, and hold on to their straight identity. (Being “gay” is not even a consideration.) These men are not “gay”, in the sense that they identify as a man who desires and loves other men to the exclusion of women. To them, and to the society they inhabit, they were only expressing their physical desires.

In Kabul, it was once said, “men are for sex and women are for babies.” The Taliban used to have pool parties where they ogled each other’s bodies and figures beneath their swim suits, and many Taliban members would then retreat to have sex with each other—all men. In the West, we’d most closely link these behaviors to the idea of “helping a buddy out” sexually. Something done, but not emotionally meaningful.

The cognitive dissonance, and the current struggle in present ideological Islam, is when a Muslim man wants to grasp a gay identity and wants to live their life as a gay man (much like Faisal chooses to do).

There is wide variance in how repressive an Islamic country is to a man claiming their gay identity. Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Egypt are three countries where owning a gay identity and wanting to live openly as a gay man can get you arrested and/or killed. Lebanon and Bahrain are two of the most open countries; in Bahrain, being gay is legally allowed and protected. In Lebanon, the courts have ruled that Article 534, which prohibits people from having sexual relations that “contradict the laws of nature” cannot be used against LGBT persons. Thus, in Lebanon, being gay is de facto legal as well, by court precedent.


So, am I a Muslim today? No.

Am I an Islamic seminarian? Yes.

Could I, one day, see myself as a Muslim? Yes, to the extent that, through my studies, I now nurture a burning desire to be a voice for peace, love, and acceptance within the Islamic world.

Muslims for Progressive Values is a small but growing voice in progressive Islam. With chapters around the world, MPV is a “human rights organization that embodies and advocates for the traditional Quranic values of social justice [bringing together] an understanding that informs our positions on women’s rights, LGBTQI inclusion, freedom of expression and freedom of and from belief.” (www.mpvusa.org) MPV’s vision states: “[We] envision a future where Islam is understood as a source of dignity, justice, compassion and love for all humanity and the world.”

What does being a Muslim mean to me?

To me, to be a Muslim is to be at peace with the universe. To have internally surrendered to Allah, to be in a constant state of surrender to Allah, to His love and compassion, and to the universe. To be in harmony with what Is.

To be in a state of Islam is to hold the faith of Allah in the center of your soul.

Today, Islam is experiencing a revolution, one as existential as the Reformation was to Christianity. Muslims and non-Muslims are struggling to answer questions about Islamic identity, the intersection of Muslim faith, politics, and society, and how to reconcile Islam’s past, present, and future. The question of gay identity in Islam, and LGBTQ acceptance, is but one of those issues Islam must address and reconcile. I firmly believe that there is acceptance within the faith for all human beings, no matter their race, ethnicity, color, creed, gender, or sexual preference. It is my firm belief that there is a welcoming place in Islam for all LGBT peoples.

We just need to get there.  


 Selected text from Author’s Notes of Whisper


Cross Cultural Communications – Part Two


“You must be Gul Bahar.” General Khan chuckled. “I see why the name stuck.” He spoke in Dari. Fazl, Khan’s translator, hung by his shoulder. “If you wore a turban, you’d be a beautiful Afghan boy.”

George coughed, glancing sidelong at Kris. He knew just enough Farsi, the Iranian version of Dari, to parse out what Khan had said.

Kris smiled. “As-salaam-alaikum, General Khan.” He pulled off his gloves and held out his hand, delicately. “Chutoor haste?”

Khan took his hand, placing his own free hand over his heart. “Wa alaikum as-salaam, tashakor fazle khoda ast.” Thanks to God, I am good.

Kris pressed his hand over his heart with a smile, then cupped Khan’s hands in both of his.

“It has been some time since I was here,” Khan continued in Dari. He looked over Kris and George’s heads, to their headquarters. “This was where I last saw General Massoud. We dined together, in his house.” He pointed to the building they now lived in.

“General Khan… We thank you for your honor. To stay in the General’s home.” Kris smiled, his breath shaky. “You honor us too much.”

General Khan’s eyes narrowed. One corner of his mouth curled up, an almost smile. “We will see if the honor is worth it.”

On the other side of George, Ryan cleared his throat. He didn’t speak a lick of Dari. He had no idea what was going on. His impatience was showing.

“General, may I introduce you to agha George and agha Ryan?” Kris used the deferential title to delineate the authority of George and Ryan over him. “We are CIA officers, here to help the Shura Nazar.”

George held out his gloved hand and pumped Khan’s once. Ryan followed suit with a firm handshake. Khan frowned. He stepped back.


On the CIA’s insertion into Afghanistan, Kris becomes both the linguist and the cultural expert for the team. He translates not only the Dari, Farsi, Pashto, and Arabic that the team encounters throughout all of Afghanistan, but also guides the team to understand Afghanistan’s culture, too.


Or, he tries to.


“This isn’t a machismo culture!” Kris roared. He’d never shouted this loudly, never bellowed like this. Not at his drunkest, not even when he was thrown out of beds in college or dumped by the older men he’d slept with on weekends and ditched on Monday mornings. Never, ever had he been filled with this much rage, this much sizzling-hot blood. “In Muslim cultures where there is a strict division of the sexes, men form close emotional bonds with other men. They aren’t concerned with posturing or proving who has the bigger dick in a perpetual ‘who is the bigger asshole’ contest! Yes, men here hold hands! Yes, men here hug! Being physical is a sign of trust!”


Olga Kolos/Alamy


The CIA team that enters Afghanistan is made up of the biggest, baddest special operator legends in CIA history.

As Kris puts it:


Kris glanced left and right. He and about twenty others had been pulled by Williams into a side room off the basement-level bunker. Everyone around him was huge. Huge physically, hulking muscles and ripped bodies. Huge in reputation. Career officers of the CIA, men who had their names etched in iron, who had stopped more terror attacks than years Kris had been alive. They were legends in the CIA, officers used as training examples at The Farm. Men who didn’t breathe oxygen, who didn’t pump blood through their bodies. They were made of far sterner stuff, iron patriotism and pure American grit. It was like looking at one of the world’s first astronauts. Who were these men who did these things? How did humans accomplish these feats?

And then there was him.


These men have been conditioned to act. To get shit done, as fast as possible. They’re used to American time, brutal American efficiency, and American directness.

The rest of the world doesn’t necessarily operate that way, though.

Afghanistan is a solidly Muslim country, as Muslim as Saudi Arabia or any of the Gulf countries. Muslim traditions mix and bled with tribal traditions, known as Pashtunwali, an ancient code of ethics that has survived for over two millennia. Afghans broadly feel a stronger sense of loyalty to their tribe, kin, or ethnicity before loyalty to a larger state, largely because of the series of failed, overthrown, toppled, or repressive governments that have largely underserved the Afghan people for decades. Loyalty to blood kin and ethnicity reveals the deep tribalism and collectivistic attitudes of the Afghan people.

As a tribal, collectivistic, closely-knit society, Afghanistan operates on a set of behavioral codes that oftentimes run in direct opposition to American standards of behavior.

Most Afghans consider a person’s behavior to be a reflection of their tribal affiliation. This effects perceived honor in both directions. If the tribe is considered dishonorable, every member of that tribe is likewise considered dishonorable. In Whisper, the CIA struggles against the Afghans perception of America, and the United States’ twisted foreign policy, which has given them, as Americans, a deeply dishonorable reputation. Kris, knowing this, works hard to show considerable respect in order to rebuild their collective reputations and honor.

Greetings, in Afghanistan, are ritualized. Handshakes are warm and linger, while each party holds their hand over their heart to show their respect and honor for the other person. If someone want to show extreme respect and deferment to the other, they will hold both hands over their heart. Wearing gloves while shaking hands is considered incredibly rude. Skin to skin contact is preferred. As two people grow closer, and the respect deepens, kisses are often added to the cheeks. Kisses to the hands denote extreme respect and fondness.

Courtesy, DOD

General Khan waited at the steps. He beamed when he spotted Kris through the filthy passenger window.

“Gul Bahar!” Laughing, Khan held both his hands open as Kris climbed out of the truck, shaking his limbs loose and trying to reseat joints banged up and bruised from the brutal drive. “I am pleased you are here.” Khan hugged him tight and kissed both of his cheeks. He held one hand over his heart.

Haddad waited behind Kris. “David Haddad,” he said simply, holding out his ungloved hands. He clasped Khan’s hand in both of his as they shook, bowing slightly. “Thank you for your hospitality, General.”

Khan’s chest swelled. His smile grew. “Come, come, we will share tea,” he said in his stilted English. He beckoned them both into the compound.



Greetings extend beyond the formalities of a simple handshake and hello. Much time is spent lingering over tea and a meal, inquiring about each other’s health and their happiness.


“General, we have much to discuss.” As George spoke, Fazl translated the English to Dari for Khan. Kris listened. “We need to coordinate with the Shura Nazar and prepare the battlefield for the US’s invasion—”

“First, we will eat.” Khan spread his hands to the feast Ghasi had laid out on the sheet in the yard. Boiled meat, dates, almonds, fresh yogurt, sliced tomatoes, fresh-baked flatbread, and watermelon. “Come. We will eat together.”

Kris heard George’s teeth grind, but they followed Khan to the blanket and crouched down, sitting on the faded, lumpy cushions. Khan invited his men to join them. He was relaxed, jovial on the surface, but Kris watched him watching George and Ryan with an intensity that rivaled a hawk’s.



It is considered the height of impoliteness to rush through these social rituals, and an insult to the hosting party. Giving such an insult bring incredible dishonor upon an individual, and again, on their tribe.


Kris followed Khan, winding through corridors and up narrow staircases until they arrived at the top floor, General Khan’s private office and quarters. The room provided a panoramic view of the Shomali Plain, the former breadbasket of Afghanistan. Once, it had been a lush garden, fruit orchards and farmers’ fields from the eastern slopes of the Hindu Kush to the desert edges of western Afghanistan, all the way to the gates of Kabul.

Now, armies ringed both sides of the Plain, Taliban and Shura Nazar. Decades of war had ravaged the land, turning the fields to desolate wastes, as pitted and pocked as the moon, and just as welcoming. Only the dead lived in the Plain now.

Khan called for tea and bread to be brought out. Young soldiers, no more than boys, scurried in, balancing trays of tea with chipped Russian glasses and plates of hot, fresh-baked bread. Apples and dates followed, and fresh yogurt. Kris could smell the milk, the tart skin of the apples.

Khan sat beside him, right next to him, on floor cushions before the window. Haddad settled down a respectful distance away.

They spoke gently, chatting back and forth over tea for almost an hour. Khan wanted to know how Kris liked Afghanistan and the Panjshir, the valley Khan had called home for over forty years. He could name every tree, every creek, every fruit that grew. He knew the horse and camel tracks like he knew the twists of veins on the backs of his hands. The land was in his soul, and his bones were made of Afghanistan’s dust, his blood her waters.

Kris spoke honestly, telling Khan he thought the country was breathtaking, the land beautiful, but scarred by conflict and brutality. Haunted by sadness. Khan agreed, and their conversation shifted to what his people needed, and the supplies Kris had brought. Khan grasped his hand and held on, their hands resting on Khan’s knee. The entire time, Haddad sat silently nearby, sipping his tea and calmly watching their back-and-forth in Dari.

Finally, Khan shifted to the business of why Kris was down on the front lines. Had George been there, Kris thought, he’d have crawled out of his skin long before, stepping all over Khan’s friendship and relationship-building in his quest to get things done immediately and ferociously.


Personal space is non-existent. Afghans generally have a much smaller personal space bubble than Westerners, and will often hold hands, walk hand-in-hand, sit right beside their friends of the same gender, or otherwise seek physical, platonic contact from their same-gendered friends.

Physical contact between members of the opposite gender is highly regulated and restricted to family members or married couples.

Kris has his work cut out for him, trying to convince the members of his team to be as culturally sensitive as they need to be in order to help the mission along. American honor, in Whisper, is tied directly to the actions of six CIA officers.


“More American duplicity! Lies!” Khan cursed, but the fight seemed to go out of him. He sagged, sighing as he shook his head. “I put my trust in you Americans time and time again. Always, the same outcome. You never keep your word. Never.”

“No, not always. We’re friends.” George scrambled, reaching for Khan’s hand. Khan didn’t accept. He stayed still, a silent statue. “We brought food. The aid drop, it went great. We can bring more. I’ll schedule more food, more supplies for your people. We are friends, General.”

Khan stared him down. “You will do that, and you will destroy the Taliban like you said you would. Or you will leave my country.”

It’s not just the Afghans and General Khan who notice Kris’s cultural sensitivity, though.


David watched the meeting from the compound’s entrance, manning the point position on the team. Palmer had spread out everyone, encircling Khan’s party and the CIA team, creating a security bubble for their people. Everyone on David’s team had their weapons in hand, fingers curled around the triggers. One wrong move, one hint of subterfuge, or an attack—

His gaze kept dragging to Kris, no matter how he tried to look away. Kris, speaking fluent Dari and connecting with Khan in all the right ways, as courteous and respectful as the suavest socialite in Benghazi or Beirut or Cairo. He knew the rhythms of the people, that was obvious. He knew how to move and breathe with Islam, how to live in the religion in a way that David only barely remembered. Kris had spoken Arabic to David like it sounded in David’s dreams, his earliest memories. David had thought he’d covered his accent, had made it purposefully bland, purposefully Gulf with faint hints of Egyptian. He’d thought wrong, if Kris could uncover him so completely from their first hello.

But that was just one more thing to bury.

Sixteen hours, they’d been in Afghanistan. He’d kept his mind occupied from the moment they’d entered Afghan airspace. Running through the mission, over and over. What would happen when they landed, who would take the lead. Palmer’s orders, his mission plan. Their contingencies. Their contingencies’ contingencies.



Tomorrow we’ll delve deeper into David, and into his faith, as we get ready for Whisper’s launch on Thursday, April 26!



Have you ever been in a situation where it felt like you were talking past someone, and you didn’t know how or why?

Have you ever felt like a fish out of water, culturally lose? Have you ever experienced culture shock?

What are some defining  attributes of your own culture?


Writing Recent History – Part One


Historical Fiction.


What do you think of when you picture that genre? Far-away times? Distant generations? Events where there couldn’t possibly be an emotional connection to you at all, other than the intrigue of a historian?


What does it mean to write recent history?


Contemporary fiction is defined, as a genre, as anything written from the 1950s forward. To me, that seems a bit broad. I would personally look at a novel from the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s and feel it was historical, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t alive during those decades.


But what about writing recent history? Things that have happened that we ALL remember? Pivot points in history upon which our memories, our identities, and our entire worlds seem to turn?


In Whisper, Kris and David (and other associated characters), live and breathe within the world of our recent past. The novel opens on the morning of September 11, 2001, at 8:46 AM, when American Airlines Flight 11 slams into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, New York.


American Airlines Flight 11 strikes the North Tower of the WTC at 8:46AM on September 11, 2001  Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7949013

Kris is in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, CTC, when the attack happens. He’s a junior CIA officer, two years into his role, and has been relegated to the dregs of the agency—the Afghanistan desk.


For the first part of the novel, we follow Kris and the CIA as they leap into high gear and struggle to respond to the attacks. Who, why, how are questions that must be answered. Kris is instrumental in identifying al-Qaeda as the culprits behind the attack.


This launches the CIA into preparation for an all-out war against al-Qaeda, and their state sponsors, the Taliban, in Afghanistan. In 2001, the US military could not mobilize fast enough for an invasion of Afghanistan. The president called on the CIA to go in first, within two weeks of the attacks, while the ruins still smoldered in New York and in DC, and to begin laying the ground work for the invasion.


Kris struggles with certain truths through the workup to the invasion and once on the ground in Afghanistan. He’s facing a war on three fronts. His teammates don’t care for him, he’s fighting against his self-castigating conscience for choices he could have made differently, and there’s an actual war he’s suddenly in the middle of, thrust into the crux of history by a twist of fate: he, in being relegated to the sidelines on the Afghanistan desk, becomes a singularly indispensable person following September 11, 2001.


While writing the CIA’s invasion of Afghanistan, and their quest to secure the assistance of the Northern Alliance forces arrayed against the Taliban, I went to great pains to write the history as accurately and truthfully as could be portrayed while inserting fictional characters into actual events. The members of the CIA insertion team that I created are all entirely fictional. The real-life men who comprised Operation Jawbreaker are both CIA and American heroes.


I tried to tell Kris and David’s story at the same time I painted the picture of the Afghanistan invasion led by the CIA. Kris and David undertake missions that the actual CIA officers did: mapping the front lines, using laser-guided SOFLAMS to target-designate Taliban and al-Qaeda positions for bombing runs, and following Bin Laden to his mountain hideout in Tora Bora.


Below are photos from the actual mission:

CIA team inserting into the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan. (Courtesy, CIA)
Renaming the tail number on the insertion helo – 91101. (Courtesy, CIA)
Afghanistan Blood Chit. Written in all the local languages, this blood chit was worn in a container around the officer’s necks. If they were captured, this chit promised whoever recovered the officer a significant reward for their return to US forces. Luckily, no officer was captured in the invasion of Afghanistan, though several CIA officers lost their lives. (Courtesy, CIA)
Saddle used by the Afghan Uzbeki fighters in the north. In the novel, they are led by General Hajimullah, and they fight to retake Taloquan and Mazer-e-Sharif. The saddles were far smaller and firmer than any Western saddle. After riding in them, most American were severely bruised and rubbed raw. (Courtesy, CIA Museum)
One of Kris & David’s missions is to map the front lines of the Northern Alliance and the Taliban/al-Qaeda forces. Kris and David spent days meticulously mapping with GPS units the precise locations of friendly versus opposition forces, to enable precision targeting during the military’s bombing campaign. (Courtesy, CIA)
More GPS mapping of the front lines in Afghanistan. Without accurate maps of the forces arrayed on the battlefield, the military could not begin their bombing runs. It was critical to only bomb enemy positions, and not inflict any casualties on friendly forces or innocent civilians. (Courtesy, CIA)
These are the SOFLAM laser target designators Kris and David use in Whisper, and were used by the CIA in Afghanistan in 2001. (Courtesy, CIA)
The front lines between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance went straight across Bagram Airfield. The Northern Alliance held the control tower, which had seen it’s share of fighting. This is how Bagram looked when the CIA took control of the airfield, following the fall of the Taliban in Kabul. (Courtesy. US Air Force Central Command)


Following the CIA’s invasion and the fall of the Taliban in Kabul, al-Qaeda retreated to their mountain camps around Tora Bora. The hunt for Bin Laden in the mountains lasted through November and into early December. Though the Special Forces team was within feet of Bin Laden at one point, they were unable to capture him. Bin Laden slipped through the Spin Ghar mountains and made his way into the remote tribal regions of Pakistan, where he hid for some time. In the novel, I recount the Battle of Tora Bora through David’s eyes.


Bin Laden in his Tora Bora complex. (Courtesy, CIA & Southern District of NY District Attorney’s Office)
Bombing Tora Bora. Actual images taken from the forward team – represented in Whisper as Forward Team Bravo – as they bombed Tora Bora and Bin Laden’s hideout. (Courtesy, CIA)
Al-Qaeda training manual, recovered in the ruins of Bin Laden’s complex. (Courtesy, CIA Museum)


After Tora Bora, the novel follows Kris and David onto the CIA’s next priority: capturing and interrogating al-Qaeda’s highest-level commanders. Kris is intimately involved in the capture of the CIA’s first high-value target…



What do you think when you read “historical fiction”?

How soon is too soon, when writing about recent history?

Is there a different feel to reading recent history than there is to history from a more distant time?



Whisper Is Now Available!


The truth is complicated.

On September 11th, 2001, Kris Caldera was a junior member of the CIA’s Alec Station, the unit dedicated to finding and stopping Osama Bin Laden.

They failed.

Ten days later, he was on the ground in Afghanistan with a Special Forces team, driven to avenge the ghosts that haunted him and the nation he’d let down. On the battlefield, he meets Special Forces Sergeant David Haddad. David – Arab American, Muslim, and gay – becomes the man Kris loves, the man he lives for, and the man he kills for, through the long years of the raging wars.

David Haddad thought he’d be an outsider his whole life. Too American for the Middle East, too Arab for America, and too gay to be Muslim. It took Kris to bring the parts of himself together, to make him the man he’d always wanted to be. But the War on Terror wreaks havoc on David’s soul, threatening to shatter the fragile peace he’s finally found with Kris.

When a botched mission rips David from Kris’s life, Kris’s world falls into ruin and ash. A shell of the man who once loved with the strength to shake both the CIA and the world, he marks time on the edges of his life. The days bleed together, meaningless after losing the love of his life.

After being captured, tortured to the edge of his life, and left for dead by his comrades, David doesn’t know how much of himself is left. He vanished one day in the tribal belt of Pakistan, and the man who walks out almost a decade later is someone new: Al Dakhil Al-Khorasani.

But strange rumblings are whispering through the CIA. Intelligence from multiple sources overseas points to something new. Something deadly, and moving to strike the United States. Intercepts say an army from Khorasan, the land of the dead where the Apocalypse of Islam will rise, is coming.

And, at the head of this army, a shadowy figure the US hasn’t seen before: Al Dakhil Al-Khorasani.


David is coming home.



Available Now @ Amazon!



Whisper Chapter 6 Excerpt


Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes, and the last excerpt of Whisper before the release! This week, enjoy a sneak peek at Chapter 6!


Chapter 6

Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan

September 27, 2001


War, like all things, moved slowly.

Scouting the front lines was delayed. The trucks Kris ordered from Khan arrived through Ghasi and Fazl, hulks of scrap metal with bullet holes and overheating engines. Each had a bucket of water in the bed and old mounts for a Russian PK machine gun. They’d been technicals once, the light cavalry of warlords and sanctioned countries the world over: old, beat-up pickup trucks retrofitted with machine guns.

“Captured from Taliban,” Fazl said, pride in his voice. “Now they are ours. Yours.”

Despite General Khan’s insistence that he wanted to move quickly, he still seemed to operate on Afghan Time. George, Ryan, and Palmer fumed as one day bled into the next and the Shura Nazar officers still hadn’t arrived for the joint intelligence cell.

“The culture isn’t based on linear thinking, George.” Kris tried to calm another of Ryan and George’s rants. They paced on the concrete porch as they drank cups of instant coffee. “The culture is based on relationships. Impressions. Time is an afterthought to the importance of relationships.”

“We don’t have time to waste on relationships,” George growled.

“You’re going to have to make time. You can’t force this. We’re guests in their country asking for their help.”

Ryan snorted. “We can do this without their help. We really can.”

George’s jaw worked, his teeth grinding. “What do you suggest, Caldera? As the Afghanistan expert?”

“Slow down. Connect more with Khan, with the Shura Nazar forces.”

“Speaking of connecting—”

George shot a harsh glare at Ryan, shaking his head sharply. Ryan held up his hands, but he stared Kris down.

“How are the intercepts coming?”

Kris sighed. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the headache that lived behind his eyeballs. “Good, so far. We’re getting a shit ton of traffic. I’m going as fast as I can, but…” He trailed off. His fastest still wasn’t enough to keep up with everything they were getting.

Half a day in-country, Phillip had broken into the Taliban radio net. Every Taliban radio transmission in range of their receivers was vacuumed up and recorded. Kris spent hours listening in real-time and to the recordings, translating endless conversations in Dari and Arabic.

Al-Qaeda used a different radio frequency, and Phillip hadn’t had as much success breaking into their radio net. Yet. Part of the problem was that the team’s headquarters was so far from al-Qaeda’s base of operations. The Taliban front lines were far closer.

“Sergeant Haddad has been helping you translate?” George’s voice went thin. His gaze was guarded.

Kris nodded. He said nothing.

Haddad stuck to him like he was Kris’s personal shadow. From sunrise, when the team rose, all through the day, and into the evening. When the radio transmissions started piling up, Haddad jumped in, grabbing a set of headphones and listening in to the Arabic transmissions, the Taliban communicating with al-Qaeda, or foreign fighters within the Taliban ranks.

He and Haddad hadn’t spoken much. Translating radio intercepts wasn’t a talkative job. After, Kris was so brain-dead and exhausted that he usually stayed quiet throughout dinner and the team meetings. But Haddad was always right there, at his side. Most evenings, he sat close enough that Kris could slouch into his side. He could almost rest his head on Haddad’s shoulder.

But he didn’t.

Not because he didn’t want to.

It was Ryan who stopped him, and George. The eyes that followed him at headquarters, the snide comments behind his back. The guys from The Farm, even, in training, who’d thought he’d never make it through, would never graduate and become an officer. Everything and everyone stopped him.

Ryan’s eyes glittered, the way he watched Kris, like a predator stalking a gazelle on the savanna. One wrong move, one mistake, and Kris would prove everyone’s worst imaginings, their worst prejudices, right.

And what would Haddad think if he folded into Haddad bodily the way his soul was folding into his care and comfort? What was this, between them? He didn’t know, and he couldn’t know. Couldn’t imagine anything, either. There was no time, no space to wonder, or to dream. Each day was spent living one hour at a time, doing what they had to do. Building an alliance. Starting a war. Striking back.

Every night, Kris retreated to his sleeping bag early, collapsing for a few hours of fitful sleep. He woke in the middle of the night, inevitably, and crawled out to the radio room. If he was up, then he might as well translate some radio intercepts.

Haddad had followed him, about an hour later, the first night. He hadn’t said anything, just sat beside Kris and started working on his own translations.

Every morning, as the first beams of the cold marigold sun began to peek through the mountains, Haddad brought him a cup of instant coffee and insisted he take a break. The rest of the team woke up to them sitting around the fire, sometimes talking softly, sometimes just staring at the flames.

Occasionally, Haddad asked about life at the CIA. What Kris did at Langley, and how he liked working there. Kris asked him about the Army, about the Special Forces.

Haddad said training was awful, he loved the camaraderie and brotherhood, and that he’d deployed to Somalia and survived the Battle of Mogadishu. He didn’t say much after that.

There was no privacy in their compound, or in the village. Everyone saw how Haddad stuck by him, how close they were becoming. Every meal was eaten side by side. They all ate together on a wide blanket spread in the corner of the main compound, surrounded by cushions. Occasionally, Haddad slid a piece of meat to Kris’s plate, or gave him two apples and his hunk of fresh-baked bread. Every night, they retired to the same sleeping room.

Their sleeping bags were islands in the little stone room, though. As much as Kris might wonder what was happening between them, the six inches of empty space between their sleeping bags was answer enough. To Haddad, he must be someone to protect. A part of the mission, something catalogued and itemized and checked, like his medical equipment and his rifle.

Should he be bothered that Haddad thought he needed so much caretaking?

The truth was, he didn’t want to fight it. He liked Haddad’s protection, his quiet care. A part of him even craved it.

Dangerous ground, he warned himself. Dangerous territory. Focus on the mission.

Besides, you’re not worth someone like him. He should do better than the likes of you.

Kris slipped up to the roof of their compound in the evenings to watch the sun set. Phillip and Jim were up there five times a day, cleaning the fuel filter of the generator and trying to keep their power up and running. The fuel in Afghanistan was so poorly refined that it clogged their generator, shutting everything down. When Derek saw the condition of the generator’s filter, he booked it back down to the airfield and checked their parked helo. Both fuel filters were clogged, almost completely. Had they flown any farther during their initial flight, they would have stalled and crashed.

Afghanistan’s war-ravaged past littered the country as far as the eye could see. The village they were in had been captured six out of the eight times the Soviets had invaded the Panjshir Valley. It was the high-water mark of their invasion. They’d never succeeded in advancing any farther. The Afghans had pushed them back each time, devastating the Soviets. For months, the village had been shelled and bombed day and night during the invasion, almost fifteen years before. Every building had crumbled. The rubble of old houses stood beside the new square mud homes, the entire village shifted ten feet to the left. Resilience in its purest form.

Massoud had led his fighters against the Soviets and against the Taliban. He’d been an Afghan nationalist for longer than Kris had been alive. His presence, his influence, his leadership, was everywhere in the Panjshir, permeating the people and the nation.

Al-Qaeda had succeeded where empires had failed, extinguishing the life of the strongest warlord in Afghanistan. Massoud’s death had been their opening act to September 11.

If September 11 hadn’t happened, if it had been stopped, would Masood still be alive?

Could it have been stopped? If his team, if he, had shared what they knew of Marwan al-Shehhi, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar? Could the hijackers have been stopped?

He tried to rein in his morose thoughts, tried to stop the tumble and slide of his mind into the darkness of shame.

“Caldera?” Haddad’s voice cut through the miasma, the fog that surrounded him. Kris turned. Haddad strode across the empty roof. Jim and Phillip had left, probably long ago, through with cleaning the fuel filter. They’d be back in a few hours, at it again.

“Hey.” The sun had almost set, the sky streaked with watercolor pastels, lilac and periwinkle, persimmon and cornflower. Stars winked overhead, burning points that speared through the sky, undaunted by city lights or pollution. When the night turned black, and the only light came from the fire and the red night-vision bulbs they switched over to, the night sky looked like a beachhead of the universe, the stars like the sand of the galaxy twinkling as waves and waves of darkness rolled over the world.

Staring up at the stars made him feel like he was the only human on the entire planet. For once, the universe appeared as lonely as he felt, seemed to echo inside all of his empty places.

Haddad stopped at Kris’s shoulder, close enough that their arms, their thighs, their hips brushed, swayed back and forth. In a moment, Haddad would step away, cough and look down, shift, and try and play the touches off. Kris saw it all the time.

“It’s pretty here.” Haddad’s voice was soft, deep. “Sometimes it’s hard to imagine the worst atrocities happen in the most beautiful places. Somalia was like that, in a way. And—” He stopped. Swallowed. “Makes you wonder sometimes. Why the world’s like this.”

Kris sighed. “Everything’s connected. It’s all one big web. A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, and the stock market crashes. We thought we could ignore Afghanistan, but we were wrong. Where does it all begin, though? Where’s the beginning of the web? Of this hate?”

Massoud fighting the Taliban. Massoud fighting the Russians, the communists, America’s enemy. There was a thread connecting everything together, he knew it. History was a flow that tumbled all things to their end, consequences and outcomes frothing up from the actions and reactions of time. What were they creating now, in their moment? What would tumble forth, ever onward, from their actions, this time?

Haddad sighed. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket. He didn’t step away. Kris felt every inch of his breath, the slow rise and fall of his chest. “Whatever beginning there is, it was long before now.”

Kris’s soul flinched, his insides carved out so suddenly he almost collapsed. His mouth moved. He tried to breathe, tried to speak. Couldn’t. Black flags flapped in the distance, on the edge of the horizon, and in the back of his mind, burned into the backs of his eyelids.

Haddad stared at him beneath the stars. In the darkness, his eyes were stars themselves, too close to Kris, burning through him, exposing him. “Caldera?” His words puffed in front of his face, the chill of the night trying to freeze their bones.

Kris stepped back. “We should get inside.” His breath fluttered, as if it could escape him. “Ryan… He’ll wonder where I am.”

Haddad said nothing, just walked with Kris down to the landing and then into the compound.

George and Ryan both looked up as they walked in together. Kris saw them trade long looks.

At his side, Haddad stared back.



In the morning, Khan’s promised officers arrived: Wael and Bashir. They got to work and connected with the Shura Nazar radio operators across the Panjshir, started receiving detailed intelligence and information reports from each outpost. Taliban frontline positions, fortifications, fighters, and armaments. Observations of troop movements. Even what some of the Taliban ate for breakfast.

Kris helped tack up a wall-sized map of Afghanistan in their command center. George and Ryan marked off the positions Wael and Bashir identified, setting pins wrapped with colored string around the Taliban and Shura Nazar positions. Ryan faded away after, hovering over Phillip as he transmitted the morning’s reports back to Langley over the fussy secured satellite interlink.

“If we start bombing, and we don’t have exact GPS positions on the Shura Nazar forces, we’re going to be killing a lot of innocent people.” George scrubbed his face. “Kris, the GPS positions are critical. We have to know exactly where they are.”

“I know. I’ll get it done.” What was this, him being given possibly the most critical job on the team? George, for all his criticism, his dark glares and veiled stares, wanted the mission to succeed. Wanted the US to wash Afghanistan in righteous vengeance, destroy the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, and even bolster the Shura Nazar.

“You’re the best linguist of us all, Kris. And you understand the people more than the rest of us. You’ve connected with Khan. You’re the only one who can make sure nothing is missed.” Over his coffee, George’s eyes looked like sunken pits, eyeballs falling into sagging crevices of exhaustion. “Ryan, Jim, and Palmer are going to take the Special Forces guys and survey the Shura Nazar forces. See what kind of support they need. Supplies.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes closed again. “We—the team, Langley, CENTCOM, even the president—can’t do anything until you get back with those coordinates.”

“I understand, George.” Pressure coiled around his spine. Was it not enough he had thousands of souls on his conscience already? Should he add the nation of Afghanistan to his guilt? “What about the MREs? I told General Khan I would be providing aid to his people.”

“And you’ll be bringing it. All of it. God help us, I hope we don’t starve.”

“Ghasi is taking care of us.”

“For now. I’ve requested a resupply from Langley. They have to fly the MREs to us from Germany through Tajikistan. It will take a week. I hope our goodwill with the Shura Nazar lasts that long.”

Don’t be an asshole, and it will. Kris bit his tongue. “When do I leave?”

“They’re packing everything into your truck now. The driver who brought Wael and Bashir is taking you down to the front as soon as that’s done. Are you ready?”

He’d been packed for days, since George had first told him he was going. Kris nodded.

“Good luck. We’re all counting on you.” George shook his hand, the firmest he’d ever had, as if George meant what he was saying. “If anyone can do this, it’s you.”

He didn’t know what to say.

Haddad appeared at their elbows. “Truck is packed, sir.”

George’s eyes skittered away from Kris. “Good. Time for you both to head out.”

“Both?” Kris looked from Haddad to George and back.

“No one goes anywhere alone. You two seem to work well together. Haddad will provide security and backup while you’re scouting positions with General Khan.”

Haddad gave Kris the tiniest smile.



Within the hour, they were bouncing down the loosest definition of a road, ever, in their truck. It was a bone-shattering one hundred miles to the front lines, but it might as well have been a thousand. The mountain track winding through the Panjshir was one lane wide, big enough for horses or camels. Any width added by the Soviets during the invasion had long crumbled away into ruin. Craters and remnants of artillery and splintered bombs littered the mountains, the roadside, the road itself. Dust, millennia of dust, blew around the truck until Kris couldn’t see. He couldn’t brace himself when the truck inevitably careened into the craters, the pits in the road. Each jolt felt like a car accident, felt like he’d been rear-ended by a semi.

He sat in the front while Haddad sat in the back with both their daypacks. Kris had packed all his cold weather gear—sweaters, neoprene undersuit, wool gloves, scarves, Haddad’s hat—water, and a few MREs for himself. Haddad’s pack was larger. The MREs for Khan were in the truck bed.

Two hours into the drive, just over halfway to the front, the road curled around a blind bend in the mountain and then opened up, descending to a verdant, wide river valley, the mouth of the Panjshir Valley. The river that wound through the village collected tributaries and creeks through its passage south and had widened to a flat delta spread between the mountains. Mudbrick homes, ringed in apple orchards and small farms, squatted between the peaks on the bank of the delta. They were a million miles away from home, but, for a moment, it seemed like a scene from President Lincoln’s childhood.

On the opposite peak, fluttering above the valley, a line of green flags waved in the wind. Martyr’s flags. Sunlight splintered into the mountain, streaks of light that hit each one.

“General Massoud’s grave?” Kris’s stomach knotted.

Their driver nodded, but didn’t look up. His hands clenched around the steering wheel until the old plastic squealed. He refused to wipe away the tears rolling down his cheeks as he sped them out of the valley and toward the Shomali Plain.

An hour later, after speeding along the northern edge of the Shomali Plain and hugging the mountains and cliffs, their driver turned toward a compound surrounded by a chain-link fence twined with barbed wire. Blocky concrete buildings, reminiscent of Soviet architecture, loomed within. T-72 Russian tanks and Soviet artillery lay parked in even rows. Sandbagged machine gun positions hovered before the compound with antiaircraft positions dug into the hills above. Soldiers in crisp, clean uniforms manned guard posts, watching their approach with an eagle eye, weapons at the ready. They recognized their driver, but gave Kris and Haddad long, lingering looks.

Radios on the guards’ waists chirped, spitting out Dari. The guards listened, and then opened the gates and waved the truck through. A delegation of officers waited across the clearing, at the compound’s entrance.

“This is… much more organized than we expected,” Haddad said under his breath. “I’ve seen Army bases run with less precision.”

Kris met his gaze through the rusted rearview mirror. A motley band of guerilla fighters, these people were not.

General Khan waited at the steps of the compound. He beamed when he spotted Kris through the filthy passenger window.

Gul Bahar!” Laughing, Khan held both his hands open as Kris climbed out of the truck, shaking his limbs loose and trying to reseat joints banged up and bruised from the brutal drive. “I am pleased you are here.” Khan hugged him tight and kissed both of his cheeks. He held one hand over his heart.

Haddad waited behind Kris. “David Haddad,” he said simply, holding out his ungloved hands. He clasped Khan’s hand in both of his as they shook, bowing slightly. “Thank you for your hospitality, General.”

Khan’s chest swelled. His smile grew. “Come, come, we will share tea,” he said in his stilted English. He beckoned them both into the compound.

Kris turned back to the truck for his pack. Haddad stopped him. “There’s only one pack.”

“What? I packed mine and loaded it into the truck myself. Did it get left behind?”

Haddad shook his head. He hefted his own, much larger than it had been when they left. He didn’t strain, didn’t flinch. “I repacked everything. Into my bag.”


“The general is waiting for us.”

Khan called from the doorway. “Come! The tea will be cold!”

He wanted to scream, rip the pack from Haddad’s shoulders and shake out all his belongings. He could carry his own weight, Goddamn it. Wasn’t that his vow from day one? He could handle himself. What right did Haddad have, butting in and sweeping everything away from him? Wrapping him up in… What was this? Consideration? Or condescension?

Haddad nodded for him to follow Khan. Kris sighed, a promise that they would revisit this later, that the conversation was not finished. He had to put his foot down before Haddad ran right over him and his convictions.

Khan eyed Haddad shouldering their shared pack. He smiled again at Kris. “Agha Gul Bahar.”

Agha, the honorific title for a man of respect. A leader, the man in charge. Kris stared at Haddad.

Haddad smothered a smile as he looked down, keeping behind Kris’s shoulder. Deferential.

Damn it, he’d done it on purpose. And he’d known what message shouldering the pack would send, what General Khan and the others would see out of his actions. Haddad had just shown Khan, and all the Afghans, that Kris was his leader, his superior. That Kris should be treated as an equal to General Khan.

Kris followed Khan, winding through corridors and up narrow staircases until they arrived at the top floor, General Khan’s private office and quarters. The room provided a panoramic view of the Shomali Plain, the former breadbasket of Afghanistan. Once, it had been a lush garden, fruit orchards and farmers’ fields from the eastern slopes of the Hindu Kush to the desert edges of western Afghanistan, all the way to the gates of Kabul.

Now, armies ringed both sides of the Plain, Taliban and Shura Nazar. Decades of war had ravaged the land, turning the fields to desolate wastes, as pitted and pocked as the moon, and just as welcoming. Only the dead lived in the Plain now.

Khan called for tea and bread to be brought out. Young soldiers, no more than boys, scurried in, balancing trays of tea with chipped Russian glasses and plates of hot, fresh-baked bread. Apples and dates followed, and fresh yogurt. Kris could smell the milk, the tart skin of the apples.

Khan sat beside him, right next to him, on floor cushions before the window. Haddad settled down a respectful distance away.

They spoke gently, chatting back and forth over tea for almost an hour. Khan wanted to know how Kris liked Afghanistan and the Panjshir, the valley Khan had called home for over forty years. He could name every tree, every creek, every fruit that grew. He knew the horse and camel tracks like he knew the twists of veins on the backs of his hands. The land was in his soul, and his bones were made of Afghanistan’s dust, his blood her waters.

Kris spoke honestly, telling Khan he thought the country was breathtaking, the land beautiful, but scarred by conflict and brutality. Haunted by sadness. Khan agreed, and their conversation shifted to what his people needed, and the supplies Kris had brought. Khan grasped his hand and held on, their hands resting on Khan’s knee. The entire time, Haddad sat silently nearby, sipping his tea and calmly watching their back-and-forth in Dari. He couldn’t understand a word.

Finally, Khan shifted to the business of why Kris was down on the front lines. Had George been there, Kris thought, he’d have crawled out of his skin long before, stepping all over Khan’s friendship and relationship-building in his quest to get things done immediately and ferociously.

“We must travel my front lines, yes? Plot positions of all forces?”

“Yes, General.” Haddad passed over the GPS units. “We need exact positions of your forces.”

“This is so your planes can bomb the Taliban? So you can destroy them completely?”

Kris nodded. “We want to make sure none of your people are mistakenly targeted—”

“If you destroy the Taliban, and my people fall while fighting beside you, it will be an honorable death. As long as the Taliban are wiped from Afghanistan in the end. Them, and their al-Qaeda allies,” Khan growled, spitting out his last words. “Those al-Qaeda dogs, they are filth in this land.”

Stunned, Kris sat silent for a moment. Haddad stared at him, eyes burning into Kris’s profile. He’d sensed the change in the conversation, the ebb and flow, though he couldn’t understand the meaning.

“Khan is fine with collateral damage,” Kris breathed, passing back the GPS handheld. “As long as we obliterate the enemy.”

Haddad’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.

Khan let go of Kris’s hand and stood. “Let us begin this survey. The sooner we get it done, the sooner you begin dropping your bombs.”



Khan led them to a convoy of trucks in the courtyard and guided Kris and Haddad to the back of his truck, giving the signal to his convoy to move out. As they drove, Haddad started taking photographs, snapping pictures of the fortifications on the hills, dug into the mountains above, and across the dreary plains toward Kabul.

“Our front lines are not what you imagined, yes?” Khan twisted around in the front seat. For Haddad, he spoke in his heavily accented English. “It never is for you. From the West.  Journalists, they come sometimes. They are disappointed. We are no savages, guerilla fighters around campfires, shivering as we starve.” Khan laughed.

On their right, the hills bled upward into the northern mountains. Khan’s soldiers had fortified positions running up the slopes, embedded fighting positions, machine gun placements, and antiaircraft positions. Bunkers ran along the ridgeline. “We own the high ground here. The hills, the mountains. We have built bunkers in place, and have solid firing positions for miles across the Plain. Our lines run down into the Shomali, across Bagram Airfield.”

“With the high ground, you can see all of the Taliban movements in the Shomali?” Kris asked as Haddad took more photos.

“Everything they do, we see. We have tanks and artillery. To keep them in place. If they break out of the Shomali and try to cross our lines—” Khan grinned. “They will be destroyed.”

“You’re organized, you’re armed, you have the high ground. Why do you not attack?”

Khan sighed. The truck bounced and swerved, weaving and climbing along the hillside. He slipped back to Dari. “We hold them in place. But they hold us in place as well. I do not have the men or the arms to mount an attack. I only have the strength to repel their attacks, and hold the Taliban out of the Panjshir.” Khan nodded to Kris. “This is where you come in. Why we have invited the Americans to help us.”

“We have a common enemy, General.”

“The people of Afghanistan have been enemies of the Taliban for years, agha Gul Bahar. But now the Taliban are your enemy, too. The Taliban killed thousands of Afghans for years before they killed your Americans.”

Kris kept his mouth shut. The taste of ash filled his mouth, acrid smoke that seemed to fill his soul. He closed his eyes, rocking sideways as the truck slipped past a boulder in the road.

They pulled to a stop at the base of a winding hillside track. “We go up.” Khan pointed to the steep, narrow track zigzagging past boulders and through low scrub. They’d continue on foot to the crest of the ridge overlooking the Shomali. “The front is there. We will follow the front and plot your maps. Come!”

Kris struggled to keep up with Khan. He slid out on the loose dirt, the rocky soil, falling to his hands to steady himself. They were climbing a mountain, but the base was already at almost ten thousand feet of elevation. He felt like he was sprinting up the Rocky Mountains. Each breath seemed thin, as though there wasn’t enough air left in the world for him to survive.

Haddad followed behind, carrying their pack. Kris heard his grunts, his labored breaths, his soft curses under his wheezes. He wanted to offer to share the load, carry the pack for half of the climb. If he did, he’d die, though. He would tip over backward and slide to the bottom of the hills, or collapse like a tin can under the weight of the pack. He wanted to do more, be more, especially for Haddad. But it was all he could do to cling to the dirt and keep climbing, following behind General Khan, who roared up the mountain like it was his morning walk.

It probably was.

Finally, they arrived at the top. Khan politely waited, looking away as Haddad pulled out his canteen. He offered it to Kris first. Kris refused, and Haddad downed half the bottle as Kris hovered beside him, breathing hard with his hands on his hips. Haddad passed over the canteen and wiped his face, dripping with sweat.

“You okay?” Kris muttered. “That was…”

“Awful.” Haddad chuckled. “That was terrible.” He spat in the dirt, rolled his shoulders. “But I’m good.”

“You shouldn’t have repacked everything. You shouldn’t have had to carry everything up by yourself. I can carry my own weight.”

Haddad’s gaze pierced him, again seeming to look right through him. “I know you can. I didn’t do this because I thought you were weak. I wanted the General to see you right. To treat you the right way.”

“What way is that?”

“As the leader. The man in charge, and the expert. I’m just your muscle here.”


“No rank. Not here, not now.”

Khan called out, “Are you ready to carry on?”

Haddad raised his eyebrows, waiting for Kris.

“Yes, General.” Kris turned away from Haddad and joined Khan. From above, the Shomali was a blurry mess of brown, all the shades of brown Kris had ever seen, from oily tar to dusty, smog-filled air choking the distance. Kabul was a smudge, a rub of dirt on the horizon, surrounded by fallow, empty farmland and desert. Dirty snow rose on the Hindu Kush to the east.

“This is the eastern end of my front lines.” Khan spoke in English and waved over the ridgeline, the Shomali Plain below. “We will follow the front to the west. You will see our positions and those of the Taliban. You can see them now, in fact.”

“Can they see us?”

He waved his hand in the air, a vague, kinda-sorta gesture. “They like to shoot off rounds of artillery if they think strange things happening. They are sometimes lucky.”

Haddad stepped Kris’s back, like he could protect Kris with his muscles, shield Kris from an artillery strike with his presence alone.

Khan led them down the front lines, following a well-worn trail behind his men and their fighting positions. Dug-in foxholes and sandbag-reinforced berms shielded Shura Nazar fighters. “Everything in the Shomali, the Taliban have destroyed. Farms, houses, villages. All gone. They took over the villages outside Kabul. Everyone who used to live there is gone.” He mimed shooting a gun as if he were executing someone. “They use these villages as bases, bunkers. Artillery can hurt them, but to truly fight the Taliban there, you need either close fighting, village by village, or—” He smiled. “Or, your American bombs must fall on them.”

Haddad peered across the plains. “What about al-Qaeda?”

“The Arab fighters are embedded in the Taliban. They keep to their own units. They fight better than the Taliban. They can aim. They are fierce fighters, especially those from Chechnya and Central Asia. They want to die fighting. They love death. The Taliban keep the Arabs out of range of our artillery, in a line that circles Kabul, beyond the outer villages.”

“You can show us where they are?”

“Come. We will begin plotting.” Khan waved them both toward a bunker built into the hillside, behind the fighting positions and beneath the artillery. It was a concrete box with slits for windows, built to withstand Taliban artillery fire. Inside the dark, musty, frigid room, wooden beams, cut from thick trees, propped up the concrete ceiling. Lanterns burned on a central table laid with maps of Afghanistan in Russian and Persian. Khan spread his hands wide. “Let us begin.”

Haddad dropped their pack and Kris pulled out their maps, marked with rough information about the front lines. As Khan read off the positions of his own forces, Kris translated those to their map, marking exactly where Khan’s forces were placed. All three maps were in different scales: American, Persian, and Russian geographic scales all using different measurement systems. After Kris jumped through the conversions and marked Khan’s positions on their map, Haddad input the coordinates into the GPS system, saving each entry as “friendly forces.”

Khan checked each coordinate, approved each input into the GPS.

Every few hours, they moved down the line to the next bunker. In the afternoon, Khan radioed for lunch, and they sat with Shura Nazar fighters, sharing mystery meat roasted over a fire, and apples, rice, and tea. Haddad was drenched in sweat, even though the temperature hovered in the upper thirties. Kris offered to carry something, anything, to lighten the load. Haddad refused.

At the end of the day, they had half of the Shomali Plain mapped. Khan called for them to quit as the sun began to descend, and a hoarse Shura Nazar soldier started crying the azan, the call to prayer. Kris and Haddad stood to the side as Khan joined his soldiers, everyone kneeling and facing southwest to pray.

“Are you a believer?” Kris leaned into Haddad’s side, whispering in his ear. Haddad wasn’t praying with the Shura Nazar.

Haddad hesitated. “I was raised Muslim.”

Kris frowned. “With a name like David, I thought…”

“It’s actually Dawood. I changed it when we moved to America. And I stopped going to the mosque then, too.” He smiled, but it seemed strained, almost forced. “There were too many other things to do, especially in high school.”

Kris chuckled. His own high school years had been a blur of hormones and hot boys, pimples and his gangly body growing in too fast. He’d wanted to inject New York City straight into his veins, live the fast life, but he’d been all mouth and legs and pimply sass. It had taken college to blunt those edges, and then a few years of government grind to force him down even further. A few years of stares and glares and socialization, being ostracized from the herd when he was too loud, too gay, being welcomed when he was conforming just enough. Psychology 101, Pavlovian responses, building a life.

And one attack to shatter his soul.

“So you don’t still believe? Or pray?”

Haddad shrugged. “Feels like a lifetime ago. A different person. You?”

His mamita had dragged him to Catholic mass when he was a boy, licking his hair into place and forcing him to wear those awful shiny shoes that pinched his feet. He tagged along until he was old enough to stay out Saturday nights, just late enough that he could whine and bitch about not wanting to get up early to go to Mass. Mamita had soured at him, her lips pursed like she’d sucked on a lemon, but after three months straight of that act, she never asked him to go with her again. At the time, it had felt like a weight had been pulled from him, like Atlas had set down the world. Not having to pretend, to endure the stares, the whispers, the questions about when he’d bring a sweet girl to Mass with him and Mamita.

He hadn’t had to think too deeply about things like eternal guilt, hellfire, and damnation. He’d flat-out refused to believe he’d burn in hell for liking dick. That was ridiculous.

But murder? Three thousand souls hung from his soul. Their screams shredded his bones, the sobs of families ripped apart drowned him in his nightmares. I’m getting revenge, he’d whisper. I’m avenging you.

It’s not good enough. It will never be good enough. Like a constant refrain, the words echoed up from the nothingness, the pit within him that had opened at 8:46 AM, Tuesday, September 11.

“No. I don’t believe.” Kris crossed his arms. Shook his head. Looked away.

Haddad stared at him. Said nothing.

After prayers and another dinner of mystery meat, fruit, rice, and tea, Khan led them to the soldiers’ sleeping quarters, caves chipped into the hills behind and above the bunker. Some of the Shura Nazar had been living in the caves for years. The sleeping nests looked permanent, and lanterns hung on the rock face. Fire pits dug deep holes into the dirt, dark smoke blackening the cave walls and ceiling.

Kris and Haddad received their own cave, next to the others, but for their private use. Two cushions lay next to a fire pit.

“We will meet again after morning prayers.” Khan, as gregarious as he had been that morning, shook their hands and bade them good night, disappearing to his own cave to rest. Echoes of soldiers’ conversations in soft Dari floated on the twilight.

Haddad dropped their pack with a heavy sigh. He closed his eyes and rolled his neck, groaning.

“Sit down. I’ll unpack.”

For once, Haddad didn’t fight him. He slid down the rock face to the dirt as Kris pulled out their sleeping bags, extra sweaters, and water bottles.

Kris eyed the small cave. The fire flickered, throwing off enough light to scatter glittering shadows into the darkness, an amber glow that seemed to conceal more than illuminate. The cave was warm, enough that they wouldn’t freeze. But when the fire burned low, they would be cold. Very cold.

Should they bracket the fire? Sleeping bags on either side, and try to keep it going all night? Would Haddad insist on staying awake and trading shifts to watch over it?

“We’ll need to sleep side by side. For warmth.” Haddad tugged at one of the cushions, dragging it across the dirt and sliding it beside the other. “We can lay the sleeping bags next to each other. It will help, especially when it drops below freezing.”

Silent, Kris laid their bags out as Haddad directed. He felt Haddad’s gaze on him, heavy, weighted with something. It was almost like Ryan’s stare, but it moved through him in a different way.

He didn’t want to run from Haddad.



Haddad crawled into his sleeping bag and passed out almost immediately. Kris stayed awake, watching the flames flicker on the cave walls, watching the shadows turn to puppets and plays, images dancing in front of his unfocused gaze.

As the soldiers went to sleep, the front lines quieted, a silence that seemed to saturate time. Without the noisy snores of George and Ryan, without Phillip and Jim working on the radios, or the soft chirps and whirrs of the computers in the nerve center humming away, or the groan and chug of the generator, it was as if the world had gone adrift. Three weeks ago, he’d been at Langley in the United States, and now he sat before a fire on the front lines of a war in a corner of the world that wasn’t on most maps. Somewhere, sometime in those three weeks, he’d bungee jumped from the edge of reality, and he was still falling. When would he snap back?

Or was he going to fall forever?

Eventually, Kris slid into his own sleeping bag, his back to Haddad. Haddad had spread out, sprawled on his back, one arm over his head and the other flung wide, as if waiting for someone to crawl in next to him, curl into his side. He’d look amazing with a sweet girl against him, someone kind and gentle who thought he was her Superman. Kris could see a perky American blonde, someone with a button nose and a cheerleader’s outfit from high school in her closet. She’d have porcelain skin and blue eyes, the classic American beauty, the look that had been force-fed to him his entire life as the impossible standard. She’d be someone who scrunched up her nose at him, winked over coffee. Someone who held his hand as they walked through a farmers’ market together, picking out weird fruits and farm-fresh flowers and homemade breads, getting suckered into buying local honey. Haddad would protect her, shield her, be her hero against the world. He’d be gallant, her knight in shining armor.

He’d be like he was with Kris, a personal guardian angel. Except he’d be hers, and she’d know it. And she’d love him for it every day.

Kris lay on the very edge of his cushion, his head just barely resting over Haddad’s outflung arm. He stared at the flames. The heat prickling his eyes was the scorch of the fire, too bright for his eyes. Nothing else.

Haddad’s arm fell across his waist, and his body scooted in behind Kris. Sleeping bags rubbed together, nylon whining as Haddad pressed as close as he could, separated by the vast distance of compressed down. Haddad nuzzled his face into Kris’s neck. His beard, unshaven since Tashkent, tickled Kris’s skin. His breath smelled of black tea and ghee, the Himalayan butter. His snores were soft, gentle puffs of breath that tickled Kris’s ear.

Kris let his soul pour backward, let his body go limp, let everything he was fall into Haddad’s sleeping hold.

Just for this night. Just until dawn.



The scratchy, off-tune wail of the soldier’s muezzin calling the azan woke them as the first ray of sunlight split the horizon and peeked into the cave.

Kris woke bundled in warmth, wrapped in two arms of solid muscle, strength and power that kept the world and darkness at bay. His cheek nuzzled a scratchy beard, a warm face. Safety flowed through him, and a flicker of contentment. Happiness. From his head to his toes, Haddad was pressed against him, spooning him, only their sleeping bags separating their bodies.

His eyes popped open. Shit. At least it wasn’t as awkward as it could have been: their bodies uncovered, pressed together, uncomfortable truths exposed against bellies and thighs. He ached. God, he hadn’t woken with morning wood in weeks. Now, in a cave in Afghanistan, his body was acting up? He tried to edge away, slip from Haddad’s hold.

“Five more minutes,” Haddad mumbled.

Kris froze. Haddad must be dreaming still, lost in his memories of home and the sweet American girlfriend. “What?”

“It’s what I told my mom every morning. When I was in high school.” Kris felt Haddad’s smile, the shift of his beard on the back of his neck. His sleepy breaths, his soft voice.

He shivered. “Sergeant, we need to get up.”

“You can call me David.” Haddad swallowed. “If you want. We usually drop rank when we’re operating in-country. Try to blend in. Use our first names only.”

Kris tried, he really tried, to control his breathing. Keep from hyperventilating. His body ached, straining against melting back into Haddad’s—David’s—hold again. “You can call me Kris, then. Kris with a K.”

“I like your name. It fits you.”

“Do you prefer David or Dawood?”

David was quiet for a long moment. “They’re two different people. I’m David now.” His breath caught, hitching against Kris’s neck. “But I like the way you say it.”

“Joking about my accent?” He was as American as New York City, as Coney Island and heat baking off the asphalt in Lower Manhattan. His mamita’s accent was as thick as the day she’d flown out of Puerto Rico. He, however, had been socialized on cartoons and New York streets. His accent was sass and snark, with just a dusting of his mamita, a touch of island.

“I had an accent when we moved from Libya. The kids made fun of me. I spent all summer getting rid of it.” David’s voice changed, shifted. Went flat and nasal, his sound dropping to the back of his throat. “I was ashamed to be who I was. I had to change everything I could.”

David’s body burned through the sleeping bag, everywhere they were pressed together. They hadn’t moved, not even an inch. “I know what you mean,” Kris whispered.

David’s breath fluttered against Kris’s hair, his jawline. The azan faded, the muezzin’s caterwauling finally finished.

“I think that’s the first bad muezzin I’ve ever heard.” David chuckled. “Usually they’re chosen for their voice.”

“He sounds like he wants to be doing it as much as we want to be hearing him.”

“Let’s win this war so he can give his duties to another muezzin.”

“Sounds good.” Kris laughed and felt David squeeze him, just slightly, an almost hug. He didn’t know if he should hug back, wrap his arms around David’s, hold on to his hold. Or pretend it never happened? What if he was misreading it? What if that was just a stretch, and not a hug at all?

David let go, rolling back and sighing, stretching on the cushions Khan had provided. They were softer than the ground, but lumpier. Kris’s hips ached as he rolled over. “How’s your back?”

“Stiff. But it’s nothing like training. I’m good.” David smiled. “I can go another hundred miles. And you can add another hundred pounds to the pack.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Just a little.” David winked, and then peeled himself out of the sleeping bag. They’d slept in their clothes, added layers of warmth, and David readjusted as he stood and stretched.

Kris watched it all, the ache in his body growing. David caught his gaze, blushed, and looked away. “I’m going to check on what’s happening out there.” He slipped out of the cave.

Groaning, Kris dropped his head, rolling over and face-planting into his sleeping bag. His promises to be distant were growing thinner every day. Every moment he spent with David.

It was one more thing to add to the guilt pile, the avalanche of shame rolling through him…

Timestamp: Whisper, Chapter 6, Excerpt