I had a dream last night.
In my dream, I was flying with Rainbow Dash, flying high above the clouds, watching Equestria unfold below us. We laughed and we smiled, trying to outfly each other. She didn’t seem to mind that I was human. She only wanted to have fun, and I was perfectly content with that.
We flew until the sun dipped over the horizon, and by then the sky was fiery orange. But when I looked up I felt intense heat on my face, and I smelled smoke. Dash said something to me, but I had gone deaf. Then I realized that the sky didn’t just look like it was on fire; it was on fire. The clouds had turned to blobs of ugly black smoke, and columns of flame burst from the sky’s maw, trapping us in a cage of fire. My hearing returned, and I heard the hungry roar of the flames. I heard my heart beat faster. I heard Rainbow Dash gasp for air.
Then it appeared.
A monster, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It seemed to be made of the very flames from which it had just emerged. I saw its crimson eyes, its holocaustic teeth, and I heard it bellow in a voice that knocked us both from the sky and shook the ground that we collapsed upon.
It bore down on us. I had no energy left. I couldn’t move. I was bleeding. Rainbow Dash was crying…with fear? Realization? Or maybe…helplessness?
I never found out. At that moment, the fiery monster was practically on top of us. I didn’t know what to do.
The monster was going to kill me.
Then suddenly, out of nowhere, Rainbow Dash threw herself in front of me. Before either of us could make a sound, the fiery monster slammed into her, and I saw a look of helpless pain rip across her face. Her tears evaporated, her wings singed, and her rainbow hair caught fire. But she didn’t scream, nor did she writhe.
Rather, she looked at me.
Her eyes were wide with fear, and for the first time I realized that the famed Rainbow Dash was not invulnerable. She began to hyperventilate as her chest glowed red. She said something, many things, but I didn’t hear her.
She knew what was going to happen. Closing her eyes, she let herself be consumed by the flames.
Rainbow Dash disappeared inside a vortex of fire. As I screamed, the vortex contracted and then exploded, hurling a wall of fire toward me. I could do nothing but curl up in a protective position and wait for the flames to swallow me whole.
I looked up. The flames were gone. It was daytime. A few flecks of ash were all that remained of the great pegasus Rainbow Dash.
That, and the beautiful, iridescent rainbow that stretched over the cloudless sky…
That was last night. I had awoken the next morning bathed in sweat, so much so that the guy in the bed beneath me, Private Jimmy Tochak, thought I had pissed myself through the mattress.
For some reason, during my time in Afghanistan, training at Bagram Airfield or running patrols outside Kawari, nothing stood out as much as the dream. I couldn’t decide whether it was a dream or a nightmare. I’d been through hell and back in Afghanistan, dodging bullets and bombs, watching friends get killed or wounded so badly they wished they were dead. Not a day went by during my time there when I didn’t feel like I wouldn’t live to see tomorrow.
There I was now, sitting at the foot of my bunk in the barracks. It was 1102 hours. My unit was set to patrol Kawari within an hour. It was a cool August day, at least, cool for Afghani standards. The thermometer in the window read 93° Fahrenheit. And yet I was so cold, so utterly chilled…
My daughter, Julia, was the one who got me into My Little Pony. When my unit, the 13th Army Expeditionary Unit, ended combat operations in Iraq, I went home to my wife and daughter in Connecticut, if only temporarily. I knew I wouldn’t be in the States for long. We were taking casualties in Afghanistan, and though Obama kept preaching to the choir about troop withdrawal, I knew that we were being shuttled out of one shithole and dumped into another.
Still, the day I came home from Iraq was one of the happiest days of my life. I remember the snow falling outside and the happy shrieks that burst from Julia and her mother when I knocked on the door. I remembered our Siberian husky, Michelle, practically spazzing out with joy. Even our neighbors, the Thompsons, who had cousins in Iraq, came over. It was a night of happiness, of elation.
But it wouldn’t last. I was home no longer than two weeks. But those two weeks, I will never forget. Julia, then nine, had lost another tooth. My wife, Loren, had gotten promoted at her law firm. Everything seemed to be going well.
Then I had to tell them that I was going back.
Loren protested. Julia bawled and begged. Even Michelle seemed to avoid me, ducking away whenever I tried to pet her. I had suddenly become an enemy to my family, and I couldn’t blame them.
It is what it is, I had told Loren three days before I had to ship out. I have to do this.
I knew that every day she feared that she would get a phone call or that a man would knock on the front door and tell her that her husband was dead. I knew she worried to the point where she tried to Skype me nearly every week. I knew what would happen if Julia had to find out that she no longer had a father.
I knew, but I didn’t want to think about it.
The day before I went to Afghanistan, I caught my daughter in front of the television, absentmindedly stroking Michelle’s fur, her eyes glued to the screen. I sat down beside her and asked what she was watching.
“My Little Pony,” she replied, smiling. “It’s my favorite.”
Of course, I had heard about My Little Pony before, but this was back in the 90s when they were just objects of marketing ploys aimed at little children. This show seemed different. The characters were well-rounded, the content was amusing, and little by little I found myself engrossed with the ponies of Equestria…
“Oh yes, she loves that show,” Loren had said. “Can’t get enough of it. She’s got toys and dolls of it in her room.”
So I went up to Julia’s room and found, alongside with typical nine-year-old-girl bedroom material, pony figurines, pony drawings, and pony coloring books. Half the room was dedicated to ponies.
I felt safe in that room, for some reason. I felt like I belonged.
And so it began.
The day of my deployment, at JFK Airport, after our hugs and kisses and tearful goodbyes, my Julia stopped me one last time.
I turned around, the blast of the air-conditioning ruffling my fatigues. She ran up to me, Loren close behind. She was wearing her Disney princess shirt and a purple jacket, but she held something light blue in her hand. Her eyes glittered with tears as I knelt down to her.
“What is it, sweetie?”
Hiccupping, she stretched out her hand, revealing the blue object.
It was a pony figurine, a cyan, winged horse with a mane of rainbow hair, and a multicolored lightning bolt across its flank.
“This is Rainbow Dash, Daddy,” Julia said sadly. “I want you to have her.”
I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say. “But, Julie, that’s your toy…”
“Rainbow Dash represents the spirit of loyalty,” my daughter whispered. “She won’t leave you, Daddy. She’ll always be with you.”
My heart leapt at that point. I hugged my daughter so hard that I was afraid I might choke her, so I pulled away and fought back tears of my own.
“Thank you, honey,” I said, taking the pony from her hands and slipping it into my pocket. “You’ll always be with me, too.”
I kissed her cheek, and she wrapped her little arms around my neck.
I never wanted to let go.
I had been running my fingers over the plastic pony, daydreaming, when the sharp bark of my commanding officer brought me to attention. The Rainbow Dash figurine fell from my hands and, thankfully, rolled out of sight next to my trunk.
“Yes, Sergeant!” I called, standing at attention.
Sergeant Lionel Kassel, referred to by some as Lion Castle, stood in the doorway of the empty barracks. A powerfully built, battle-hardened man, his dark eyes matched his skin, stone-cold, icy. He was a no-nonsense kind of guy. Men who make sergeant generally are.
“Corporal Wolfe,” he said, addressing me and stepping further. “Your convoy rolls out for Kawari at 1230 hours. Explain to me why you are not dressed and ready to go.”
His voice was low, but not scathing. I had to pick my answer carefully. Staring straight ahead, I said, “I have no explanation, Sergeant!”
“Well then, Corporal, let me explain something to you: if I don’t see your sorry hide at Hanger 3, fully dressed and geared, in the next half-hour, I will put you on KP until the next rotation. Is that clear, Corporal?”
“Get to it, soldier!” He turned on his heel and walked out.
I sighed and was about to get dressed when I remembered the Rainbow Dash figurine. Stooping down, I clutched it and observed it, wondering if I should bring it with me.
My daughter’s voice drifted into my mind. She’ll always be with you, Daddy…
I sighed and got ready, putting on my fatigues and slipping the plastic pegasus into the chest pocket.
I was geared in less than fifteen minutes, and when I stepped outside, I was blinded by the sun and slammed by the heat, both of which I had assumed I had gotten used to. Bagram was rife with activity today. A-10s and Blackhawks flew overhead as Humvees rolled down the tarmac. Crossing the base, I finally reached Hanger 3, catching sight of my men, armed and prepared. Sergeant Kassel was addressing them.
“…expect little crossfire, but the locals think Hazaras and Tajiks may be at each other’s throats in Kawari territory. This is a routine convoy assignment; get to Bravo Point, drop off the supplies, then get the hell out. Short and sweet. Private Tochak, I want you in Wolfe’s Humvee as gunner. Schmidt and Lewis, ride with Velazquez in the truck. Everyone else, to your usual positions. Let’s roll out!”
A cry of Hooah! rose up from the soldiers, and I joined in, even though I knew this was going to be a walk in the park.
See, I keep saying that I know things. But that, I didn’t know. I didn’t think it would be hard. I didn’t think that by the end of the day, more people whom I had come to call friends would be dead than ever before.
I never could have known.
Planning on vacationing around the world? Take my advice. Skip Afghanistan. Just imagine the Mojave Desert, except it’s filled with people that hate you. That’s how the place felt. I was riding shotgun in my Humvee. The driver, a private named Collins, wore aviators that were too big for his face. Dust practically blinded our vision as we drove along the unpaved road on our way to Kawari.
“So, Ben,” Collins said with a Texas drawl.
“So anything. I dunno, what else is there to talk about?”
“How about we don’t talk, and you keep your eyes on the road?”
“Oh, sure. What am I gonna do, hit a dust cloud? Maybe a scorpion or some shit?”
“Fine, fine, just tryin’ to make conversation.”
That was Ryan Collins for you. Never knew when to shut up, but a helluva good soldier.
A voice crackled over the radio. “Gold Four, come in. Over.”
I picked up the radio. “Roger, this is Gold Four, go ahead.
“Gold Four, this is Gold One, be advised, possible rocket fire coming from Kawari, northwest, about 113 degrees. Eyes on smoke trails, but no confirmed targets, over.”
I frowned. Rocket fire? “Gold One, acknowledged. Be prepared for possible enemy contact, but continue mission.”
“Solid copy, Gold Four. Out.”
I leaned back in my chair, feeling sweat drip down my brow. Collins giggled.
“Maybe we’ll kill some towelheads today.”
It was the last thing he ever said.
The moment the first Humvee entered the city limits of Kawari, I knew something was wrong. There were four Humvees in our convoy, followed by two cargo trucks. I was in the fourth Humvee, but I knew something was up. Call it what you will, but I had a feeling like we were in real deep shit.
My suspicions were confirmed when, from nowhere, a rocket screamed down the road and slammed into Gold One, exploding through the windshield.
“SHIT!” I yelled. “CONTACT NORTH! MULTIPLE MEN DOWN! GOLD ONE IS DOWN!”
Private Collins swerved around Gold Three as Gold Two, unable to stop in time, rammed into the back of the burning Humvee. Another rocket spiraled down, and I saw from the trail that it had come from a multistory apartment building to the northeast. The rocket detonated about twenty feet from the burning hulk of Gold One, throwing dust and smoke over the street.
Then the gunfire started, a steady rattle of AKs and M60s. Collins stepped on the gas as I readied my weapon, but suddenly a loud crack! drew my attention, and before I knew what was happening, our Humvee was on a collision course with a columned building.
We rammed the building at about thirty miles an hour, and had it not been for my seatbelt, I would’ve been killed. As my mind cleared and my vision returned to normal, I saw the cause of the accident: Private Collins had taken a sniper’s bullet to the throat, killing him instantly, and his weight had shifted itself onto the gas pedal. I pulled the radio as the battle raged around me.
“This is Gold Four! My driver is down! Multiple contacts to the north and RPG in the multistory building to the northwest!”
I didn’t wait for a response. Above me, Jimmy Tochak was not firing the mounted machine gun, and when his body fell through the opening in the roof of the Humvee, a bloody hole where his left eye had once been, I knew I was on my own.
I stumbled from the wreck of the Humvee. My nose was broken, and I was sure I had a concussion. But when the ground next to my boot snapped up, I became alert, taking cover behind a pillar on the covered sidewalk, returning fire.
It was a bottleneck. The combatants were firing from the north, and a rocket had managed to disable one of the cargo trucks, effectively blocking any way out of the city. We were trapped. The radio was a constant crackle of updates and screams. I heard the phrase “man down” over and over, but soon the gunfire had become so loud that I couldn’t hear anything except a ringing whine.
I fired on the multistory building. I fired down the street. If I saw movement, I fired. Shrapnel had shattered the ACOG scope on my M4A1, and I could barely see as it was.
Something slammed into my heart.
“FUCK! I’M HIT!”
I saw black. The world was spinning. Everything seemed so distant, so muffled. Nobody was coming to save me. I was dead.
I was dead…
When I finally came to, the battle was mostly over. I found out some of our boys had gotten CAS from Phantoms and Apaches to nearly obliterate Kawari. I found myself strapped to a stretcher, the rhythmic thumping of Blackhawk rotors filling my ears.
I wasn’t dead.
But so many others were.
The bullet had gone through my vest, though it had caught on the Kevlar and slowed down minutely. Something else had stopped the bullet. I should have been dead.
The medics said nothing as they loaded me onto the Blackhawk. I didn’t say anything either. I was wondering how I was still alive.
Then I remembered.
Pain shot up my side as I reached into my bloody chest pocket, feeling the bullet hole and biting my tongue to keep from crying out.
I withdrew my hand. In my palm were bloody fragments of plastic and shrapnel, once blue. The biggest piece, torn and marred by the bullet, was covered in my blood, but through the crimson I could see it was a head, a head with rainbow-colored hair…
The pony in my pocket. Shattered, bloodied.
The pony in my pocket saved my life.
I thought back to my dream, when I flew with Rainbow Dash, when she exploded in flame, when she dove in front of me, to…
To save my life.
I smiled. On a day of wanton death, I smiled.
Thank you, Julia.
Thank you, Rainbow Dash.
I’d be lost without you.
I closed my eyes and let sleep overtake me, and my sleep was peaceful and dreamless.