The helicopter would be coming in the morning to take him home. Not home forever. Just two weeks of R&R. But after eight months down range, two weeks felt like a lifetime. And he planned to live it like a lifetime.
Not that he had much, but he packed up his belongings the night before. One green duffel bag was all he was taking. A couple pairs of civilian clothes for travel. Some toiletries. A spare uniform for the return trip. Some clothes to sleep in. Some books he had borrowed, using the term liberally, from the MWR back at FOB Bostick. The rest was waiting for him when he landed back on Texan soil.
"Looking forward to your trip, LT?" asked Sergeant First Class Espinoza, eyeing the packed duffel and the tidy cot of his platoon leader in their command bunk.
"You know it," responded Lieutenant Sawyer.
"You're gonna miss us," said the platoon sergeant.
"Terribly," agreed Sawyer.
"Don't be gone long."
"I may desert."
"In that case, godspeed LT."
"Now now, let's not blaspheme. The rest of us still live here."
It was a warm evening, and Sawyer made twice his usual rounds checking on his guards and monitoring activity up on the grey mountain. The moon was high and bright in the sky, and the jagged western peaks that looked down on Checkpoint Delta were bathed in the moonlight. The peaks were nearly barren, with only the occasional patch of reedy grass to break up the landscape. Occasionally, on bright nights, you would see men walking in the mountains. They were probably locals, but you never knew. There wasn't a great reason to be up on the mountain at night, other than for the moon or to cause trouble. You hoped it was the moon but were always on the lookout for trouble.
On the eastern side of the checkpoint was the trash pit, and then beyond the concertina wire was the sharp drop off to the Kunar River hundreds of feet below. It was black, glistening, and wound like a snake through the valley below.
"Hatchet CP this is Delta 1," Sawyer said into his radio when his checks were complete.
"Go ahead, Delta 1."
"All quiet here. No patrol tonight."
"Roger that, Delta 1."
"Delta 1, out."
"See you tomorrow. Hatchet CP out"
That night, Sawyer dreamed of home. In his dream, his wife was waiting for him at the airport gate. She was wearing a red button-down that was cut scandalously low for Texas and some ripped denim shorts. Her blonde hair was back in a ponytail, and she was bursting out of her smile when he came through the jetway.
She drove him in their black pick-up to the small, off-post ranch they called home. It had a black shingle roof and blue siding with a bright red door. When they pulled up, his son Tucker flung the door open and charged across the manicured front lawn and into his father's arms. Happy squeals were the cure to eight months on the frontier of freedom. As they echoed, the grey mountain and the black river faded from mind, and there was no more war.
At one point in the night, Sawyer was woken by the battle captain when Tower 2 reported movement in the draw northwest of the perimeter. After watching another thirty minutes, there was no other activity, so Sawyer went back to bed. He tried to return to the dream but could not.
In the morning, Sawyer was up before dawn and drank his coffee under the camouflage netting that bridged his command bunk to the radio shed.
"No breakfast this morning, LT?" asked Private Koons, the RTO.
"Not feeling hungry," said Sawyer.
"Enjoy your R&R, LT."
The Chinook came a little before 0900 local, its double rotors thundering as it arced along the river's contours, low to the earth. It hopped upward and then settled down on the landing zone south of the checkpoint, sending clouds of dust spiraling out into the morning.
Lieutenant Sawyer threw his duffel over his shoulder, clipped his helmet into place, slung his rifle, and sprinted out to the waiting chopper. He boarded through the side doors and buckled in as the Chinook lifted off.
It was a quick fifteen-minute lift back to FOB Bostick. Sawyer disembarked there and moved his duffle bag into the staging area adjacent to the Bostick airfield. His next hop wasn't till after lunch, so Sawyer made his way through the FOB and found the shop office. It was in a thermal foam-coated tent beside the 155mm battery. Every time the howitzers went off, the shop tent shook, and clouds of dust puffed into the air. You could see the line near the bottom of the foam where the dust from the shaking settled after the fire mission was complete. Sawyer let himself into the tent.
"Chief!" In the tent, sitting behind a folding plastic table was a massive man in his tan undershirt with his uniform blouse hanging over the back of his chair. He had a portion of a Long-Range Acquisition System on the table in front of him. It looked as though one side of the LRAS had been melted off.
"LT! What brings you back this way?"
"You haven't taken R&R yet?"
"I couldn't bear to leave."
"War suits you."
"I was born to fight for liberty."
"Is that what you call this?"
"Do you still have beers in the back?" Sawyer asked quietly.
"You know that's a violation of GO1."
"So you have them?"
Chief looked around. There were three other soldiers in the shop, but they were busy playing dominoes near the tent flap and didn't appear to be listening. Chief then gestured to the passageway into his quarters, which were in the back half of the shop tent. Sawyer went through the passage and past the cot and footlocker to the mini-fridge plugged into a power strip connected by an extension cord to the 10k generator outside the tent. Chief tailed him, his eyes lingering back on the passage to make sure the other soldiers were not following. Then Chief opened the mini-fridge and took out two Budweisers.
"America," said Chief, handing Sawyer a beer.
"America," Sawyer agreed.
"How old is that kid of yours now?"
"Just turned two."
"Great age," said Chief. He looked up briefly at the picture of his own son, seven years old, on the nightstand he'd made from an MRE box. It was the only picture in his quarters.
"It's kinda crazy to think I've been here almost half his life. He won't remember me."
"Hell, you been Skyping?"
"No Skype at the checkpoint. Just a satellite phone."
"Yea, but even letters are about a month delayed."
"Livin' rough out there, LT."
Sawyer downed the beer.
"It's good to see you, LT," said Chief.
"You too, Chief. Be good."
The hop from Bostick back to FOB Fenty in Jalalabad was almost forty minutes. At J-bad, Sawyer didn't even put down his things. He walked right off one helicopter and onto another, which lifted him back to Bagram Air Base.
The ride to Bagram was long, and the bird was full, with duffel bags packed up in the middle of the cabin so that you could not see across to the other side. Sawyer was crammed in with a captain from the 173rd on one side of him and a Staff Sergeant from a national guard unit he didn't recognize on the other. The helicopter hugged the brown-green, rugged hills of the Afghan terrain, keeping altitude low to limit exposure to rocket-propelled grenades. The sky was blue with wispy white clouds. The rear hatch was open with a .50-cal machine gunner positioned on the floor inside the opening. Sawyer kept his eyes on the clouds outside to hold off nausea from the constant altitude changes.
The helicopter landed on the wide, sun-baked airfield at Bagram. There was a black cloud of smoke rising into the darkening sky. It was from burning the waste.
They put Sawyer in the temporary barracks for the night, with his flight to Kuwait early the next morning. Sawyer stowed his duffel, changed into his PTs, and headed for the dining facility with his rifle chow-slung. The DFAC was a ten-minute walk from the temp barracks down a paved central road not dissimilar from the main thoroughfare of Fort Hood back home. As Sawyer walked toward the DFAC, a unit ran by in formation with bright yellow reflector belts over their PT shirts. A small, bald man was calling cadence.
I wanna be an airborne Ranger
Live that life of guts and danger
Along the way, Sawyer passed an internet café with a big, open arch giving way to a long hall with several rows of computers. It was too early in Texas for him to Skype home, so he decided to eat and then come back to send an email to his family.
For dinner, he had yakisoba, served cordially by the KBR contractors in their red uniforms and dirty white aprons. He washed it down with three of the half-sized RipIt cans in the DFAC fridge. Then he finished it off with a small slice of pumpkin pie, washed his hands in the basin, and left the DFAC.
He walked over to the internet café and logged on. He typed out an email to his wife.
After, Sawyer took a long walk to unwind and then read using his headlamp on his cot in the temp barracks until he felt tired enough to sleep. It took a long time because he was so wired to be going home but eventually, the tale of Jack and Danny Torrance started to fade, and he put the old paper back down on the floor beneath the cot. He flicked off the headlamp and went to sleep.
In the morning, he boarded the C130 to Arifjan Air Base. The plane was monstrous, like an office building with wings. Sawyer boarded through the tail gate and buckled into one of the jump seats. It was an early flight, and he did not much like plane flying, so he put his earplugs in and soon drifted back to sleep from the vibration.
He woke as they were landing. Arifjan was a tiny airbase primarily for housing soldiers as they headed to or from forward areas. It was little more than a collection of tents, a few offices, and a handful of commercial retail operations like Starbucks that were willing to operate on military bases abroad.
He stepped off the C130, and the air was wavy and disorienting from the heat. It was the hottest place he'd ever been, and it took his lungs a few moments to adjust. He stepped it out to the MWR to email home and maybe call, now that the time zone was more amenable. The MWR was a little white building next to an old cement basketball court that looked like a relic of the Cold War. There was a man with a white mustache and very pink skin standing in civilian clothes outside the entrance.
"Internet is down, son," said the man.
"What do you mean?" Sawyer asked.
"Power's out," said the man.
"Oh. Any idea when it might come back on?"
"Sorry, young man. When the heat gets like this, there is no telling about the power."
"Isn't it always this hot?"
Sawyer retreated tactically to the Burger King on the other side of the road, resigned to a sad Kuwaiti version of a whopper, and keeping an eye on the MWR for re-opening. When it didn't re-open after an hour, Sawyer headed back to his new tent and tried to stay cool in his cot. The staging tent in Kuwait had no air conditioning, only floor fans, so Sawyer moved a fan next to the cot where he was waiting and closed his eyes, and thought of home.
How will she know when to get me, he wondered. If I can't let her know when I'm getting home, how will she know to get me from the airport? She'll know because the rear detachment keeps all the spouses informed of things like that, he reminded himself. Lieutenant Barnes, the rear detachment commander, would be keeping Kaci posted every leg of the journey so that the reunion went smoothly. Yes, the rear detachment would take care of it.
Still, would have been nice to call. Yes, very nice. But you didn't sign up for this to have nice things. You signed up because you believed in something and felt responsible for something. You signed up because of the announcement in your senior math class when Father James said over the PA that the United States was under attack and because of the list of prayer requests for the 110 souls of lost student parents that they hung on the bulletin board by the gym.
Yes, that is why you signed up. But that didn't mean it had to be everything. No. Not everything. You had done what you had promised, and you had done it very well. You had done it such that you could face the responsibility you felt inside. You had done it for years in general and specifically now for eight months, and you deserved a break. Just two weeks. It wasn't too much to ask for two weeks.
Stop being so philosophical, he told himself. You deserve your two weeks, and you're getting it. So stop whining. So what if the power is out? You will have to make the most of these two weeks, and surely there will be bigger hiccups than this.
And then, what? What if I don't want to come back after two weeks?
Of course, you won't want to come back. That's the whole point. You come back so that others can stay home.
Yes, but the war has been going on for so long. What if it goes on forever?
Maybe all wars go on forever now. But your time in it won't, so stop feeling sorry and be glad that you'll be home and for two weeks the war will be gone. If two weeks is what you get, that is what you have, and you better stop being so philosophical and enjoy the hell out of it.
The MWR still hadn't regained power when they called him to formation for the flight home.
Some fourteen hours later, he was walking through the terminal at DWF airport in his civvies with his duffle over his shoulder. He looked for Kaci as he approached baggage claim but could not find her. He went to the last carousel and then back. He hoped she was not in the wrong terminal.
"Lieutenant Sawyer?" Sawyer stopped and turned.
"I'm your ride, sir," said an E5 from Charlie Troop. He was part of the rear detachment.
"Oh," said Sawyer. "My wife isn't coming?"
"I guess not," said the sergeant. He pulled a folded sheet of paper out of his cargo pocket and unfolded it. He peered at it. "Yea, you are on my pick-up list. Not sure about your wife. You'll have to ask Lieutenant Barnes. Do you want to give him a call?"
"I don't have a cell phone."
"Oh, right. Want to use mine?"
Sawyer called Lieutenant Barnes, but there was no answer. He gave the phone back to the sergeant. He thought about calling Kaci but realized that after eight months, he could not remember her phone number. He tried one from memory, and an All-You-Can-Eat Chinese buffet picked up.
"Okay, well, I guess you can take me home."
As they walked out, Sawyer kept looking around for Kaci. He did not want to miss her and leave her at the airport. But he did not see her and could think of no other option.
Probably just Barnes being lazy, he thought. They tell you it's all squared away at home, but you worked with Barnes in garrison before you deployed, and nothing of his was ever squared away. Why should this be any different?
The drive to Killeen was a long two hours. The van seemed to move in slow motion. The sergeant didn't talk to Sawyer, and Sawyer didn't feel like talking to the sergeant. Instead, he just watched the morning traffic going the other way towards Dallas.
Yes, it must be Barnes. He would have to speak with Barnes.
But as Killeen neared, a pit began to form in Sawyer's stomach. It was deep inside, and he tried to tell himself it wasn't there, but you could never really tell yourself anything. Some people had learned over the years to lie to themselves and had gained great skill with it, but Sawyer had always tried to avoid it and could not lie to himself now.
Don't be so sure old boy, he told himself. Maybe you've been lying to yourself for quite a while.
When they pulled up to his house, it was quiet. Sawyer swallowed.
"Thanks, sergeant," he said. He got out of the van and went to the back without looking at the house. He took out his duffel. The van drove away, and he was still standing in the street. Then he turned and looked at the house. It looked back, unmoved by his return. No doors flying open. No kids running out on the lawn. No low-cut shirt.
He walked up to the front door. There was no car in the driveway, and he could not see any lights or activity in the house. He knocked. No answer.
"Kaci?" No answer. He tried the knob. The door swung open.
Inside, the house was empty.
Well, not entirely empty. There were some toys on the floor. A sock in the corner. There was an envelope on the windowsill, and there were still some glasses in the sink. But it was empty. The furniture was gone. The life was gone. And suddenly, everything inside Sawyer was gone too. The pit in his stomach burst, and everything drained out of him like the water out of a bathtub. He stood there as it drained until it was fully empty and hollow. Then he went to the envelope and opened it.
He read it.
So that was that, then. He put the letter back into the envelope and placed it back on the windowsill. Isn't that something, he said to himself. Isn't that something.
He peeked out into the yard, and the lawn chairs were still there. So was the cooler under the covered patio. He wondered if she had left those on purpose. He went and pulled a lawn chair up to the cooler and opened it. The cooler was full of tepid water, but there was an old 30-pack of Keystone Light. The box was warped from the water. He reached down and took out a beer, and opened it. He sat down in the lawn chair and sipped it, looking up at the morning clouds. Isn't that something.
For the first time, he was happy that wars never ended.