June 2003 – Baghdad, Iraq
Motherfucker, this is not what I signed up for! I couldn’t stop getting pissed off as I looked around the tent that I currently called “home.” It was dusty as shit from the sand and hot as hell from the sun. The sun already went down, and yet it still feels like everything is being scorched. I’m not a whiny pussy, so don’t start on me.
And don’t get me wrong, I know I’m the one who chose to join and take the sacred oath, but shit, who could have predicted we’d go to damn war? It is my duty, and I am proud to serve, but a part of me wonders how long this will go on – because right now, it doesn’t feel like there is an end in sight.
I just turned 20 a couple of months ago, and every single goddamn day I am reminded that I am not invincible. I am reminded that I could be “next.” I am reminded that war is hell. And I am reminded that it doesn’t matter if I’m on the front lines or not, if my number is up, it’s up.
I am a cargo loader, well, technically aerial porter, working right on the flight line, and getting shot at constantly adds to the stress. When you’re out uploading or downloading an aircraft, what the hell do you think the enemy is aiming for? If you answered “the fucking aircraft,” then you’re correct. So those of us on the ground working the missions are just casualties, and therefore, the result of being in the right place at the wrong time.
Part of my job is HR, which means “human remains.” Loading dead bodies takes its fucking toll on the mind. Every single day I’m tempted to snatch the satellite phone and call back to Texas to hear my parents’ voices. I am also desperate to talk to Little Bits. I miss my baby sister; she’s only nine. I dread not being there for her growing up, especially without my protection. But I could not find the courage to call back home. I am weak and pathetic. I can’t let my family see me bleed from fear. So I opt for writing letters; letters are a safe choice. No internet means no emails, so snail mail is all we’ve got.
Where the hell is home now for me anyway? I was stationed in Oklahoma, and after only being there a little over a year, I got tasked for deployment to this shithole. Neither BMT (Basic Military Training), nor Tech School could have prepared me for this. I joined before September 11th, before America was forever changed. Yup, I was just fresh out of high school and thought I knew what signing on the dotted line meant in 2001. Shit, I had it all wrong. Would I do it differently though? Hell no! I get the feeling I’m meant to be here.
The siren was going off again. Another mortar attack was coming in. I didn’t even bother to get under my bed this time for shelter. What was the point? I was just an A1C (Airman First Class), so no one cared about a young rookie Airman. I guess I could bend over and kiss my ass goodbye. Hell, I am just another number and just another pawn in this game I will never understand. I could hear everyone shouting outside my tent, and then it was dead silence.
Chapter 1: Falling Up the Stairs
December 17, 2016
I’m sitting next to my brother-in-law, Alexi, at my little sister’s college graduation from Temple University. We’re packed in this auditorium like sardines, and my Air Force blues uniform is suffocating me by the minute. The air tastes stale, and I’m constantly fidgeting to no fucking end. Let me be clear though in saying that I do want to be here. I’m so proud of my little sis, Caylan, who happens to be Alexi’s wife. She’s graduating with honors with a Bachelor’s in Environmental Science.
I am in awe of the woman she has become. I’ve always been incredibly overprotective of her. After a recent attack and kidnapping by a pseudo ex-boyfriend from our home state of Texas, I had gone ballistic over finding out I had been left out of the ordeal from her first attack the year prior. God, that’s a long story in itself. But as a family, we’ve worked through everything and agreed there would be no more secrets. I knew why they kept me in the dark though. They knew I would have gone after the worthless, doesn’t-deserve-to-live, piece-of-shit Greg after the first assault.
When he had pursued her the second time, Alexi and I came to her rescue. We found her in an abandoned warehouse down by Penns Landing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I had my finger on the trigger, and the gun aimed right at Greg’s head. I almost fucking blew away the scumbag, but Caylan is the one who stopped me. With her being pregnant and scared, and in such a vulnerable state at that moment, it was a sobering experience. It snapped me out of the crippling rage. I realized I couldn’t let her witness me become a killer, even if the bastard deserved it.
But it’s okay; he got it in the end. All three of us watched the lowlife drown in the murky water at our feet. I hadn’t lost one night of sleep over his death. What I did lose sleep over, though, is thinking about what she endured. The details of her attacks turned my stomach. Christ, she was my baby sister, how was I supposed to forgive myself for failing her? I was trying to get better about realizing she was not mine to watch over anymore. Well, of course I always would watch over her, but Alexi was the man for the job now; the fucker made that quite clear at every opportunity he could.
Caylan was right that I would have been discharged from the military, and consequently thrown in prison, for what I would have done to the little shit. I should be grateful in some ways that she never told me previously about the horrors. All that was holding me together these days was knowing I had a career and a job to do. This was a calling for me. I bled fucking red, white, and blue. But my PTSD was bad, hence the problem I was having being stuffed in this place like cattle.
If only Greg was here right now for me to take out all of my anger and frustration on. Pfft, he got off easy. His body would have been a human punching bag, and the satisfaction I would have derived from pummeling him into oblivion would have been well worth whatever consequences I would have faced. I wouldn’t divulge that revelation to anyone though. They’d lock me up in some loony bin and throw away the key. I’d surely get med-boarded after intense psych-evals, and my long 15 years of military service would be for nothing. No, no one could know my innermost thoughts.
I intentionally nudged Alexi in the side, but played it off like it was accidental. I liked giving him a couple shots here and there. Don’t get me wrong, I like the dude, and he is good for my sister. But let’s face it, no guy would ever be good enough for Caylan. And damn Alexi for trying to do things his way all the time! Like I said, I’m still learning to step back and let him handle things when it comes to her, but it’s hard. Being 11 years older than she is, you have to understand that she’s always been my responsibility. I’ve never felt burdened by it though. I love her so much.
I can’t believe I’m going to be an uncle. Caylan is currently seven months pregnant with my niece. She wears pregnancy well. She glows, and it’s a sight to behold. There’s no baby name yet, so I’ve taken to calling her “Lil Bits,” since I used to call Caylan “Little Bit.” I hope I don’t get deployed again anytime soon and that I’ll actually be here for the birth. My “tempo band,” or deployment window rather, is right now. I have not been tasked yet, but inevitably someone in my squadron will not be able to fulfill the slot, and they’ll probably send me back to one of the various wastelands. I’m all healed up from my surgery in May of this year. The doctors repaired my leg from an injury I sustained while I was in Afghanistan. I went through intense physical therapy for months, and I’m fully cleared and ready to go.
Alexi turned to me, and he was probably going to ask me something, but then we heard the name we’d been waiting for announced from the stage.
“Caylan Bree Graham,” the announcer called out.
Caylan walked across the stage, and we all cheered, hooted, and hollered. Shit, I was so damn proud! She was going after her dreams. I needed to take lessons from my little sis. I wasted too many years not going after some of mine.
Now that my sister’s name was announced, I couldn’t sit here a moment longer. The walls were closing in on me. I was sweating profusely, and this uniform would be ripped to shreds any damn second because I’d claw it the hell off of me; what a disgrace I’d be then to my branch.
I had to get the hell out of here. I abruptly stood up and damn near crushed the gift bag at Alexi’s feet. What a friggin’ pussy that one was. He spoiled my sister, but I guess I should be grateful she had someone to dote on her. Damn, I only got her a card!
My parents and cousin Meg all had concerned looks on their faces as I darted out of the stadium seating. They probably thought I was losing it, but I didn’t give a fuck because I was. My heart was pounding so hard, I thought it would thump right out of my chest. I was clambering for the nearest exit. I frantically looked in all directions, and it appeared up was the way to go. I was continually stumbling and falling up the stairs, trying to get my footing. What a freaking embarrassment. My shiny black shoes would surely be scuffed up now. This is not how I presented myself to the world when I was in uniform. Being an Airman is a way of life, not just a job.
I made it out through the exit and down the corridor. I was looking in both directions to find the goddamn restroom. The area was completely empty, which made me breathe a sigh of relief. I decided to turn right and head that way, and out of nowhere, I ran into a woman. It was a hard hit. After all, I am a big fucking guy. I just saw a mass of blonde curls and arms and legs flailing about.
“Shit!” I exclaimed as I was trying to stand up.
Now I’d add a dirty uniform from this dusty floor to the list. I brushed off some of the dirt, and then realized she was still on her ass with her head cast downward. I didn’t know who ran into whom, but where the hell were my manners? I guess they up and left with my goddamn brain when I ran from my seat. I always tried to portray a gentleman in my blues, but I was failing miserably on all accounts. I reached down for the woman’s hand, and she looked up with disdain and annoyance etched on her face. I sucked in a sharp breath. If I wasn’t already sweating, I’d be a friggin’ tidal wave of perspiration right now anyway.
Fuck, she was hot! She looked to be about my age, and I felt tongue-tied at first. Her face was heart-shaped and framed by bouncy golden spirals going off in every direction. She had emerald green eyes and freckles splashed across her dusky apple-cheeks and narrow nose. Her lips were a delicate pink, and she had a dainty silver hoop nose ring in her right nostril. The nose ring was sexy as hell. The matching silver hoops in her ears stuck out noticeably, but I didn’t make it past her face because she interrupted my gawking.
“Well shit, what a nice greeting, soldier,” she grumbled.
I righted her on her feet, and took in the rest of her body. Unfortunately, it was well hidden behind the layers of clothes. But I could tell she was tall and lean. I’m 6’1,” so she was about 5’9.” She wore some kind of denim ballet slippers or flats, or whatever chicks call them. Her flowy, ankle-length, patterned skirt gave off the bohemian-chic look. Her top was white and tucked in the skirt to give it that billowy effect, which she paired with a cropped denim jacket. Shit, it’s a good thing I know a few terms about fashion from my baby sister, I laughed to myself.
Whatever this chick was wearing, it didn’t matter. She could be in tatters, and she’d look just as alluring. How she stayed warm though in the December cold, was beyond me. She belonged on a beach, not in Philadelphia with her golden skin. She was now tapping her foot clearly waiting for something. What, like an apology? Tough shit, cupcake. She ran into me, now that I come to think of it.
“Airman,” I stated back.
“What?” she questioned me with snarkiness to her tone.
“I’m an Airman, not a soldier. Airmen are Air Force. Soldiers are Army. Big difference, sweetheart,” I clarified.
She scoffed and returned with, “Does it really fucking matter at this point? And don’t call me sweetheart. I’m a woman. Big difference, buttercup.”
Wow, she had a damn mouth on her. I didn’t know if I liked it or not yet. With my hackles up, I had to set this young woman straight.
“Fair enough, ma’am,” I said sarcastically.
She narrowed her eyes into tiny, piercing slits. If I knew anything, I knew women didn’t like to be a “ma’am,” unless they were much older. No woman liked to be aged before her time. I stifled my laugh. Shit, she was easy to rile up. This could actually be fun. Normally the women I screwed around with just wanted a good time in the sack or some company to go to dinner and a movie with. I’d go out to bars or find lonely women who were fellow NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officers) around the base to keep me company.
I’d never had a serious relationship so far. It was just too hard with all the deployments. Who in their right mind would voluntarily sign up for this kind of life? Being married to a service member was like a ticking time bomb. You never knew when the hell we would go off; I mean this in many different respects. We’re a unique breed because we have to be.
I looked at the lanyard hanging from her neck, and it appeared to be some kind of a press badge. I reached for it, and she must have thought I was going to grab her tits because she had lightning-fast reflexes. She swatted my hands away furiously. Whoa there, karate kid!
“Hands off, buddy,” she admonished. Then followed it up with a sugary-sweet, sarcastic tone, “I mean, Airman.”
My dick was just as pissed off, and turned on, in equal measure. How the fuck was that possible? This woman pissed me off and made me want to cover her in cum. I smiled at her and had to take back control of this situation. This was a game I was willing to play all day and night if I had to.
“Technical Sergeant, actually,” I corrected her.
She tilted her head to the side and narrowed her eyes again, while pursing her lips. I could see the wheels turning. Before she could respond, I went on to say, “I am an Airman, but it’s more of a generic term, much like soldier is. I should be addressed by my rank, which is Technical Sergeant.”
She laughed in a haughty manner and retorted, “Oh, I’m sorry, is this introduction time? Well then, you can address me as ‘Your Highness.’”
Wow, this woman was thorny and hot as hell. Thorny and horny rhymed, hmm. I just grinned widely back at her. She tapped her foot again, and it was cute the way she got so mad. “By the way, ‘Your Highness,’ I wasn’t reaching for your tits. I was looking at your badge,” I claimed.
She looked confused at first, then glanced down at her chest and back up to meet my gaze. “I knew that!” she announced, but clearly she hadn’t known.
I bit my tongue from quipping back with something just as sharp as her bite. I had a sneaking suspicion this would not be the last time I’d cross paths with this woman, so I was trying to rein in my need to rib her. Call it intuition or whatever you want, but surely we’d meet again.
For some odd reason, she held the badge out to me, away from her chest, in acceptance. It still dangled on the lanyard from around her neck. I took a step closer. Her neck was so delicate; I could see her collarbones stick out from the sides. I found that feature so sexy, I wanted to lick her right there. Being closer to her like this now, I could smell a light scent of cucumber melon. I held the badge in my palm and flipped it over. It read, “Everly Reynolds, Reporter, Philly Timez.” Hmm never heard of her, or the publication for that matter.
I let the ID fall from my hand, and it swung back to rest again at her chest. I watched the movement. Shit, I wish I knew what her body looked like under those flowy clothes. She took a deep, shuddering breath. Gone was her bristly, cactus attitude. Before me was a more serene, peaceful woman with a hungry look in her eyes. I was left thinking, what the fuck? Then she shook her head as if to clear it, and back again was the prickly side of her.
“Okay, well I have to go, creampuff. I’m covering a story about college graduations and the success rates of students obtaining immediate employment,” she explained.
She then cleared her throat as if realizing she didn’t, or shouldn’t, have to explain anything to me. I just kept staring at her, wanting to know who she was and what she was about. After glimpsing a taste of how she could be under that barbed exterior, I wanted to know more. She didn’t give me a chance to learn more, though. She just turned and started walking off in the opposite direction I came from. I stood there for a second before I finally reacted. Wait, what, she was leaving?
I yelled down the hall to her, “See you around, ‘Your Highness.’”
Then I performed a bowing gesture for added effect. She smiled and actually laughed a hearty, girly laugh, if that’s possible. I loved it. I wanted to throw her down and fuck her senseless. Shit, she was beautiful.
In return, she saluted me and said, “Technical Sergeant.”
She then disappeared, and I didn’t see her again the rest of that day. I returned to my seat in the auditorium with a bounce in my step. I managed the stairs just fine this time. When I sat down next to my brother-in-law, I sported the biggest, goofiest grin. Alexi looked at me like I had been smoking crack.
“What gives?” he asked.
I smiled and responded, “I just met a royal pain in the ass.”
Chapter 2: Never Really Came Back
February 14, 2017
My niece arrived after 39 weeks and 3 days. I am happy to report that my sister delivered the most beautiful baby girl the world had ever seen. I’m told Lil Bits came out screaming, so I think she takes after her father. I was petrified to look at her, so even holding her was out of the question. But Caylan insisted I take a turn, so Emeline Valentine Graham was placed gently in my arms. Once I held her, though, I knew I wouldn’t drop her for anything. The last time I held a baby was when Caylan was born. I was scared shitless then, and I was scared shitless now. I’m a messed-up person, so being entrusted with something so small, pure, and fragile, was terrifying.
There’s something about holding a baby though. Gazing down upon my niece and feeling her in my arms was like holding an angel. She weighed as much as a damn feather at six pounds, 5 ounces, and she was 20 inches long. I marveled at her tiny features: petite nose like her mother and long fingers like her father. I couldn’t yet see her eyes since she had them tightly closed, but my sister said they were the brightest blue that rivaled hers and Alexi’s. I kissed the top of her head and inhaled that new baby scent; sorry that sounds fucked up, like I’m comparing it to a new car scent, but babies just have that smell. Come on, people, back me up here!
Caylan lay there in her hospital bed with the most tranquil look on her face. It was one of utter contentment, and she looked so genuinely happy. She occasionally glanced up and beamed at Alexi, who donned the biggest grin. I found myself both jealous and sickened by their display of affection. Would I ever have that with someone? Chances were probably slim considering I wasn’t ready to settle down, if I ever was, but a part of me longed to fill the void that years of loneliness had caused. The gap kept getting bigger and wider over time. The longer I stayed a bachelor, the more likely I’d remain one for eternity. It was a life sentence of disappointment signing up to be my spouse, and I didn’t wish it on anyone. Conflicted much? Yeah, that’s an understated question.
But out of nowhere, an image of Everly Reynolds popped into my head. I hadn’t seen or heard from her since the graduation two months ago, so what made me think of her now? Odd. I shook my head from the bizarre visions flashing through my mind. I was picturing Everly holding my niece. These images were so foreign to me. It was like watching someone else’s life, a movie playing in my mind of different scenes in which Everly starred. Of all the things or people that could have popped into my head, I couldn’t believe this woman was one of them. I remember she didn’t wear a wedding band the day I met her, so I hoped that meant she was single. Wait, what?
I hated to admit it, but I had thought of Everly off and on over the last few months. Hell, I jacked off thinking about her. Yup, she was at the top of my list when I conjured up my spank bank material. No woman should be that friggin’ gorgeous. She was a danger to herself and me. It was better I never saw her again, even if I had the feeling I would. Shit, what is wrong with me? I’m holding my beautiful niece, for fuck’s sake, and thinking all this crap!
Just then, as if Emeline was startled by my inner rant, she opened her eyes, and I looked into the deepest, truest blues I’d ever seen. My breath was lodged in my throat, and I was frozen in place. This baby was looking into my soul. She blinked a few times, did a little stretch, and drifted off to sleep again. In that moment, though, I knew. I knew I did not belong here. I was poison, and she was too pure and precious. I’d end up tainting my niece somehow. Thoughts of Everly, or any woman for that matter, sharing moments like this with me, would never be. It was not in the cards for me, and I should have realized my deck had been stacked a long time ago.
What was I even thinking in coming here? I had no right. I stood up and carefully laid her in my sister’s arms. Sweat was pouring down my face, and I was about to lose my shit…again. Caylan looked up at me with worry and distress hanging in the shadows of her eyes. She whimpered slightly, knowing I couldn’t stay; she knew me too well. I bolted from the room before the walls closed in and anyone could question me. It wasn’t fair to my family to ditch them all, but my need to survive was propelling me forward more than concerning myself with anyone else’s feelings. Fight or flight, right?
Fuck, I couldn’t make it work anywhere. There was nowhere I could go, nowhere I could hide. I might as well be in the shitty desert at this point! Either way, I never truly came back home all those years ago. I realize that now.
A week later, I found myself outside the door of my Unit Deployment Manager’s (UDM) office, where I just met with my Commander, First Shirt/Sergeant, and UDM. I slumped against the door and accepted the fact I just fucking volunteered to go back into hell. A voice inside my head told me I was a stupid motherfucker, while the rational side said I was doing the right thing. I kept thinking how I didn’t belong here.
Now how do I tell my family I’m going again? They were so upset when I PCS’d (Permanent Change of Station) from Oklahoma to New Jersey with a new assignment. At least when I was in Oklahoma, they were close, being in Austin, Texas. We had spent years apart as it was. However, when they moved to Philly a year and a half ago, it was luck that I was now stationed in New Jersey. I felt like my parents, Milly and Fred, were secretly relieved I got injured during my deployment in 2014. That probably sounds shitty because my parents are like Ward and June Cleaver, but my mom wanted me safe and at home.
Maybe if Caylan didn’t have Alexi, I never would’ve walked into my UDM’s office, but she’s taken care of, and so are my parents. So, there was nothing else keeping me here. I don’t want to be a burden and the head-case brother hanging around. I know people probably think I’m so fucked up, and if that’s the situation, then how could I even go over there again? But the truth of the matter is that the war centers me. It’s this storm that rages on. And amongst the turmoil and stress, I’ve learned to find my own sense of calm in the eye of that storm. I’ve come a long way since I first went over in 2003, and at first glance, probably appeared to be pussying-out. Jesus, I was just a boy then. Well, that’s what has changed. I’m a man, and the desert is my “home.”
Christ, I didn’t want to lie to my family about this deployment, so I would have to omit the truth, which was that I volunteered this time. This was the first time ever that I even needed to volunteer because I’d always gone when it was my rotation. This time around, however, all the slots had been filled. But since I volunteered and another guy was trying to get out of his tasking because his wife would be having a baby soon – well, it just all worked out. We were the same rank, so it was an even swap. This would be my ninth tour to the Middle East. Fuck, that sounded like one too many. My family would deem me a hero, but I was no hero. I was a coward. I was hiding, and there was no other place to do it. Over there I would be nothing to no one, and I could just concentrate on the mission.
I was scheduled to leave in a week on the First of March, so time was ticking. I had a lot of shit to get done that no one ever thinks about until they’re faced with it. I’d have to put my vehicle into storage again, purchase more life insurance because I was a firm believer that my SGLI was not enough, get all my bills and mail in order, pack, and out-process from the squadron. The list of shit I had to get done was a mile long. On top of all that happy horseshit fun, I would also have to move out of my place because my roommates would want to fill my room. Even though I would gladly keep paying my portion, we had all made an agreement a while back about deployments. Then somewhere in there, I’d have to find a way to break the news to my family and spend a little time with Caylan and Em. I liked calling Emeline “Em” now for short; I guess you could say I was really partial to nicknames.