I stand with my mother and sister. I hold my little sister, the poor girl shaking with fear and sadness. Her shoulders wracking as she cries against my shoulder. I can feel my mom's left hand resting on my left shoulder, her body to my right. I know she's silently crying as well. Her white dress with black flowers give her a tall elegance. My sister also wears a black and white striped dress. I'm the only one not dressed up; a suit didn't feel right for the occasion and khakis felt awkward. I ended up in jeans and a T-shirt, my Braves ball-cap tucked in my back pocket. I'm also the only one not crying. Frankly I wish I would, I wish I could let my fear and sadness be seen. If not for myself then for my father, so that all know that I love him as much as they do. Yet, regardless of my desire and attempts to cry, nothing comes. I just watch with stony silence as my dad stands tall and walks with his team to the plane. His duffels in either hand and another bag lazily strewn over his shoulder. Two of which are army green, a faded cheap mossy-color. The other a deep blue Patagonia I got for him three years ago. He wears his green beret awkwardly, it can barely fit over his non-regulation hair. It is probably the only time he'll wear a beret for the next nine months. No reason to wear a beret in combat.
As he drops his bags with the others' he turns toward us. I will myself to shed a tear; to no avail. He raises his hand and gives us a large smile, a reassuring smile that only a father can give. Sure, a mother can give a motherly smile that makes you think of nothing else except that life will keep moving and all will be okay, but he gives a smile that says "Now is not a time to mourn, but be happy". He smiles like an innocent man. Something that I wonder at sometimes.
He's been deployed six times as a green beret. He's been on the teams as SF for longer than anyone else in the force. And yet, still, he comes home more stable than most men do just seeing pictures of Afghanistan. He still smiles and laughs like his life has only ever been jolly. Sometimes when we're playing video-games I watch him and wonder if they bring anything back, if he ever remembers anything. Where his PTSD is. How could he have ever only shown one moment of any form of PTSD since his first deployment? Once, in Disneyland, we were walking and along comes this Muslim man. Full dress. My dad stops dead in his tracks and tenses, tenses hard. My mom is almost thrown to the ground with his sudden stop and defensive stature. A second passes and he's relaxed again. He keeps walking as if nothing happened. Just the smallest thing, something only a family member would notice.
I remember all this and more as I wave back, giving him full smile; like I'm having the time of my life. That's what I want him to remember. My strength and security. I want him to know that we'll be okay. My sister and mother wave. He turns and boards the plane. For the next ten minutes it is quiet. Few people talk. All inside a large military warehouse and everyone just watches as their husbands, sons, and fathers board for what may be their last deployment.
Ten more minutes go by, the plane hasn't moved. I still wish for the tears even as I grow restless. The guilt crawls up my gut to my chest as I wish I could cry, wish I could have the patience to respect the fact that this is my father leaving to a warzone. Yet still, I feel the need to move. Leave. No reason for me to still be here, he's already on the plane. Good as gone till he gets back in nine months. I shake with guilt and clench my left fist into a ball, digging my nails in. I rub my sister's back. Poor thing has finally stopped crying but I can feel her fragility at the moment.
"Do you want to leave?" My mom asks twenty minutes later. The plane still hasn't moved. I want to scream yes but the guilt stops me. It feels like a disrespect to leave. Knowing my father he would have told us to go so we wouldn't be standing out in the heat of the day, yet I don't want to leave.
"Yeah, kinda." I say looking longingly at the plane. After six deployments it almost feels normal. His absence almost feels like an average occurrence. And that scares me. It's why I want to cry so bad. To show that I still care that he's leaving again. That it isn't just another annual event. That it matters.
"Alright, let's go."
To my amazement, dismay, confusion, and just about every other emotion you can think of, on the way back my mom and I started telling jokes about things. Laughing about stuff. Again the guilt bites at me as I wonder if this is all some kind of disrespect to my father who might not come home. But in the moments that it grows quiet we all know the rest are thinking about him. I think about him in the uniform. He's in his ACUs, faded camo. Looking out of place with his overgrown hair and large bushy beard that comes down to his chest -things that are out of regulation for the average soldier-. A slightly red tinted beard. At least, that's what my mom says. I think it's brown like his hair, but, mom knows best.
My mom tries to keep those silent moments short, tries to keep someone talking. The whole drive home I hold my sisters' hand as she occasionally breaks out in fits of tears. I reach to the backseat and hold her little soft hand and wish our father could be sitting in the seat I am now. I just sit there and rub her hand, thinking, talking, and reassuring.
That night I sleep with the knife my dad got me for my tenth birthday.
6 Months Later
"Has dad called?" I ask popping my head into my parent's room. My mom shakes her head. "Alright, call me if he does," I say and go back downstairs to keep playing Call of Duty. I need to be better than him when he gets back. That'll mean he'll have to play more with me so he can get better.
That night I fell asleep without a call. My fist wrapped around the sheath of the knife, held tight and familiarly. This is not the first time it's happened, yet each time I can't help but feel a slight ache when I go to sleep and sick when I wake up.
2 Weeks Later
"So, I have good news," my dad says giving us a weak smile. Something in his voice doesn't let me get excited. I want to be happy because his words are going to mean something, he clearly isn't in the mood for wasting time. Yet, it's that mood that scares me. A scare that makes me shake, a scare that flips my dinner over in my stomach.
"What is it?" My sister asks sitting next to me, bouncing on the bed the way happy children do.
His beard has been trimmed and he wears a blue T-shirt with his camo ACU pants. An OU, college football, cap on. All this I see through FaceTime. He gives another weak smile, strained.
"I'm coming home." My heart skips a beat. I'm too full of doubt to get excited. I don't let myself get excited anymore. The disappointment of something not happening after getting excited isn't worth the pain if I was just skeptical the whole time.
"What?" My mom asks sharply.
"You are?" My sister asks simultaneously.
"Three days, fastest flight home. I'm packing now, I'll leave tonight, I'll be there in three days." We sit silently in shock. His sad smile holds. I want to ask why he seems so strained. I suppose it's possible something happened to his team. Or him. That would explain why he's coming home. Perhaps his PTSD finally kicked in? Or his team is gone...
"Yes! Dad! You're coming home!" My sister gets up screaming. "He's coming home!" She jumps up and down on the bed with excitement. I can't help but smile, I look at the camera to make sure he sees. And my mom? To explain the joy she portrayed at the idea of her husband, the love of her life, coming home safely two and a half months sooner than expected cannot be put into words. This is only something that can be experienced.
After the call I head back to my room to clean it (I'd be lying if I said it were my idea, mom knows best). Instead I grab my phone and text my girlfriend.
My dad's coming home in 3 dasy!!!!?
I had to rewrite that stupid text four times I was so excited (and I still had mistakes), the full effect finally crashing in on me. To finally put it into concrete words with someone other than family seems to finalize it. Seems to ensure my father's safe travels. Seems to ensure that the rest of the day will guide him safely to the airport and home. To the great United States of America!
I thought he wasnt coming back for another 2 months She responds several minutes later.
Early return. Not sur ewhy, didn't say. I don't even bother with mistakes.
That's great, I'm sure you can't wait I know she understands, her dad is military as well. I feel my phone vibrate in my hands as she continues texting me but I just toss my phone on my bed and lay down and pray, pray that he comes home safely, I pray and try to ignore the little sliver of fear crushing my gut.
3 Days Later
My mom picked my sister and I up early from school and we went to the airport.
When he walked up to us the hugs and kisses and conversations were plentiful and always cut short before they were finished. My sister always cutting into what my mother and I were saying to share her own stories with our dad. We talk all the way home and over dinner as we go to different fast food restaurants all over town because we're American and we can (something my dad decided to do on his last deployment, claiming one Sunday afternoon after church: "Know what? Let's all eat somewhere different, because we're American and we can do that."). My dad and I get stacked Five Guys burgers ("You eat like you were in Afghanistan for six months" my dad commented when I finished my burger before him), my sister Taco Bell, and my mom Panera Bread.
When we get home it’s late from all the driving. My sister and I are sent to bed as our parents head to their room. Imagine that?
And all throughout the day no one asked why he came home early. And he never mentioned it. We all just ignored the elephant in the room.
2 Days Later
"Well, I have news. Good or bad depending on perspective," my dad says when we're all sitting around the dinner table. He has the sad tired look in his eyes again. I set down my steak as a sliver of fear runs up my gut into my chest and to the back of my throat.
"We're moving." I feel like I've been slapped. My thoughts go to my friends at school, my girlfriend, the close proximity of our grandparents, and my standing in school. Perhaps not in that order. I stay silent and pick my fork up to start eating my corn. Weighing my words carefully.
"What?" My sister asks.
"We have to move." My dad says slowly as if he's not sure if he's annoyed or sorry.
"Have to?" He grimaces.
"We're moving." This is softer, definitely apologetic.
"Why?" My sister asks in a small voice. She's undoubtedly thinking the same thoughts I am. She's younger and more attached to her friends than I am. I'm well acquainted to the idea of 'friends' turning their backs and leaving in an instant, friends moving, and having no one to call a friend at all. Luckily in my life we've only moved twice; so lived in three places. Thanks to Fort Bragg being SF command. My sister, however, has lived in this house since she could walk. Everyone (more or less) she knows lives here.
"You know what I do, right?" He asks after a moment. Top secret stuff we can't know about, so... No.
"Yes," My sister responds. Perhaps she thinks she does, or she knows she won't get a proper answer. No one ever does.
"So, as a soldier, it's my job to move where the army takes me. It's the price to coming back early." My mom sits quietly to the side, they've clearly discussed this and I have a feeling she knows more than he's telling us. But as much as I want to know all the backgrounds the keywords are "Top secret". We're not getting anymore than he wants us to know. That's his job, afterall.
"Where?" I ask, sticking with safe questions.
"Virginia," He says.
"Virginia?" My sister squeals. I can hear the panic in her voice. Then comes the worst question of the night.
"When?" He looks at my sister with sorrow. I can see the pain and turmoil in his eyes.
"Three weeks." I feel like I've been hit, twice and hard. I stop eating corn and stare out the window behind his head.
"Three weeks." I state hollowly.
"Three weeks." He confirms. My sister gets to her feet and runs over and hugs him, burying her face in his chest. An act I've never quite understood. I don't like to draw attention to myself so I don't like having to go out of my way for a hug. Even if it's just my family around me.
"It'll be okay," My mom tells her rubbing her hair.
"Why?" My sister asks again. No one responds and instead we all silently head upstairs and sit in my parents' room and watch Netflix.
1 Day Later
We begin packing as soon as I get home. I still sleep with my knife. It takes 66 days for something to become a habit. I have 6 months worth of time behind the knife. I still haven't told my girlfriend we’re leaving.
I didn't sleep well last night and I doubt I will sleep well tonight. But, like all things I don't want to do, I'll do it first thing in the morning. Tell my girlfriend I mean. I suppose I'll sleep then too.
I wake to a loud slamming. It comes from downstairs.
I pop up in my bed, sweat dripping down my body from my nightmare. I try to calm myself down and tell myself it was only a dream. I'm not in school, there isn't any shooter. I take a breath and stand up next to my bed, my knife still in my hand. I turn on my desk-lamp and unsheath it, inspecting the engraving in its side. One side holds the Special Forces insignia, 'De Oppresso Liber' along a banner with crossing arrows behind a Yarborough combat knife. But just as I flip it over to inspect my dad's team insignia I hear some stomping and creaking on the stairs. Loud, fast stomping. Boot stomping. Fear strikes through me as I think back to the loud bursting that may have awaken me. I reach to my side and fiddle with the light switch, finally turning it off. I hold the blade out in front of me as I rush to my door frame just as I hear a stomp on the second to last step. Fear and adrenaline wakes me up completely as I lean against the door, flipping the knife over in my hands so the blade points down. I hold my right fist (with the knife) up to my chest, my left hand palm-flat against the wall. As seen in the movies when a man is waiting for another to pass through a doorway (because they're reliable sources). I wait three heartbeats before I see the barrel of a gun appear; quickly followed by a forearm and a magazine. I look no further as I lunge out and stab out above the weapon where the man's upper chest and throat should be. I feel an impact and a hear a yelp as the man takes several steps back. I have no choice but to follow him, pushing forward. He runs into the opposite wall against the stairs. I grab the rifle the way I grabbed Nerf guns from friends when we played, and I twist it out of his hands. He lets go as both hands shoot up to his neck. I realize three shots had been fired. Maybe more, doubtedly less.
"Dad! Shorty!" I scream as I turn to run away. The fear crawling from my chest and clogging my throat. I can barely breathe and my head pounds. I don’t even think about the man I may have just killed and instead focus on the thing that brings me peace. I think of my sister. My Sister. I tense to turn to get my sister but am interrupted by figures rushing up the stairs. I’m moving before I can comprehend the weight of the actions that will so impact my life. I flip the gun around in my arms so that the butt is against my right shoulder and my hand wraps around the handle. My finger searches for the trigger-
I feel myself hit the ground, my finger squeezing the trigger. The butt digs into my shoulder as I continue to hold onto the trigger, the rounds biting into the roof. I feel the panic and adrenaline pumping through my veins as my finger maintains a death clamp on the trigger. The gun runs dry in my arms. I throw it aside and sit up, shooting exploding around me. A foreign language fills my ears through a mixture of screams of my dad and my mom and sister. I reach over to the body to my right, a man lying facedown on the carpet. Panic swells in my chest, confusion and the cloud of incomprehension takes over my head. The darkness consumes my eyes and brain. Yet, yet past all that, I can hear my sister's screams. I focus on that. I focus on my need to protect her.
I reach down with my right hand and draw the pistol at his hip. Memories of the range kick in. My father’s voice rings through my head as he taught me how to hold a pistol. As I raise my left hand to hold it properly a pain shoots up the left side of my body and I scream. I look down and see blood pouring from a hole in my shoulder, and a puddle along my gut where I suddenly (and painfully) become aware of at least one more wound through my abdomen. I stare at it for a second, the cloud of incomprehension taking over again. But then it all registers with the aftershock of pain. Tears blur my vision as I try not to pass out at the sudden pain threatening to overcome me.
My sisters' scream knocks me out of it.
I raise my right hand with the gun and see a figure holding a rifle, pointing down the stairs shooting. I let out a blood curdling scream and fire six rounds into his back, then turn and empty the magazine into another man who took that moment to step out of my bedroom. He falls back against the doorframe and slides down.
I don't think about the killing or the pain but about my little sister. My poor innocent sister who catches little bugs. She is what is important.
A single man stands up over me and pulls the trigger. The gun clicks empty. My life flashes before my eyes in a jumble, thoughts and feelings and memories overtaking my every brain cell as I laugh at the stupidity of the whole situation.
I have stopped crying, my eyes have mostly cleared and have adjusted to the darkness. Before my brain catches up with the serious sickness of the situation and that it is not a laughing matter I catch something out of the corner of my eye. One of the lying figures, the one I shot in the back, sits up against the wall and lifts a pistol. It's over, I think, I'm sorry Constance. Tears coming out and pouring to the ground. I hear the discharge of the gun. Multiple discharges, then some clicks. The man standing over me falls, landing beside me. I sit in stunned silence, shock taking over all emotion.
I look to the shooter, the crumpled form of a man who has dropped his gun. I recognize the muscled shoulders and the tousled beard. I recognize the form and figure. I recognize the man who raised me. And I recognize his slackness as death.
I stare at the ceiling. No tears come. I'm too empty to feel guilt. To feel anger or sadness. My indifference to life consumes me. That feeling of anxiety building in the chest as life passes on without you. It passes without a care for you or the pain you feel. The pain in your gut that works its way to your chest, making it hard to breathe, making you shake, you want to scream, want to ask for help, to do something. You stand still in the middle of a field as people walk around you, laughing, crying, hating, loving. But you feel nothing. Nothing but an anxiety building up in your chest begging to laugh, wishing that you were able. Wishing for the pain in your throat to push the tears out.
Yet I just stare at the ceiling and wonder why it's purple. And why it looks like a school ceiling. No, an airplane ceiling. Am I skydiving? No, I'm hiking. I'm looking at trees. I just tripped and fell. That's why my side aches. I must've pulled a muscle, that's why I can't move my arm. Maybe it's broken. There's my dad, he's right there.
"Dad!" I yell to him. My love and relief flooding through my body, but the underlying guilt and fear laces my chest with every breath. But he turns his back to me. He's fully dressed in ACUs, smile on his face, beard large and unkempt. A look I'm unaccustomed too since he's always clean shaven. But he stops and I hear shooting. Small red holes appear along his back and left shoulder. He turns back around to face me and keeps smiling. He falls back against the nearest tree and smiles at me with empty eyes. I look at my hands and see I'm holding the gun. "We're moving" he says. But he's dead. And I killed him.
I wake up and stare at the ceiling. I know I'm not but I have to ask anyway.
"Am I dead?" My head hurts. A sure sign that I'm not dead. Granted, if I went to hell (which killing three men, one of which was my father, certain would entail) then it would explain a hurting head. However, it looks more like a hospital than hell. Maybe hell has a hospital too? For the too torn up souls? The torn up, guilty, angry-
"Ryan!" I hear a familiar voice and see a familiar face over me. But there's a fog over it. Over everything. The events of last night seem all to clear and yet so chaotic and hectic they're impossible. Couldn’t’ve happened to me. No sir, no way.
"Ryan!" my right arm is shaken. It all comes over me. And finally I cry. I cry for the leaving of my dad, I cry for the joy of him being back. I cry for us leaving. I cry for my sister and her soon to be loss of friends. I cry for myself, my own pity and weaknesses. I cry for my mom and the strength she has to show for us, I cry at the cruelty of the world, I cry for the sacrifices my dad had to give up. I cry for my sins and I cry for my mistakes. I cry and cry like there's no tomorrow. I cry for yesterday and the time I've missed. I cy and my own stupidity and I cry for my self pity. I cry that I killed my dad. Then I fall back to sleep, my head pounding.
I wake again to find my mom and sister next to me, I later found out that they never left my side. Always there for me. My mom told me I was shot five times. Once through the left bicep, once through the left shoulder, two times through the gut, and once in the lower chest. All along my left side. The 'chest' wound skimmed and broke a rib but otherwise harmed little. The other two were the ones that almost killed me. The gut wounds. Loss of blood.
My mom told me that my father was killed in the fight. The three of us were the only survivors. And the way she tells me that the government didn't know who the shooters were tells me that she doesn't believe it. Maybe she doesn't know either, but either way, she doesn't tell me the truth. And I don't ask. They're all dead. The freaking Russians. Because that's the language I heard. That is the freaking language I heard.
3 months later
It's here, at the funeral, that my mother tells me what happened. When my sister goes off with our grandparents and my mom and I stay and stare at grave does she tell me.
"He was shot six times by a pistol. In the back.”
My mouth is dry but I manage to grunt out something. Something unintelligible. Something only a mother would understand.
"Yes," She says. I had asked her if it was me, because it could have only been me.
"You were the one holding the pistol, yes." I nod slowly.
"You knew that though, didn't you?" I nod hollowly.
"These past three months I've learned to live with it. There's been nothing else to do lying in that freaking bed.” There’s silence for a moment, I wish I could show some weakness and stutter or something, to show the pain I feel. Because that was a lie. It still hurts, like someone ripped a hole through my left breast. And my heart reminds me with every aching pump of blood. It reminds me with every memory. With every object and lesson I’ve ever learned. I can’t live with crap. “If he were here right now he'd punch me in the shoulder and give me a dead arm and tell me ‘don't team kill next time’".
My mom gets up and slaps me.
I stare at the ground as she walks away. Who knows what I'm talking about anyway? I wonder, looking to the sky. I don't know what I'm talking about, I'm only freaking 16. And, afterall, mom knows best. I stand and stretch my legs. I ignore the pound of my heart, I ignore the blood that feels to be spurting from my chest. I ignore the anxiety eating out my torso. And I ignore the lump in my throat.
I look over at the remaining car, a truck owned by a friend of the family. My sister's best friend. My mother and the car she drove here are nowhere in sight. I didn't even hear her leave. I pull out my phone and open my contacts to my girlfriend. I scroll through the eighty-three messages she left. Most of which are 'goodmornings' and 'goodnights'. I open up the keyboard and hover over the keys. Minutes go by as I stare blankly at the screen. Minutes of pounding and memories of the weight of the trigger. Every beat of the heart is a pull of the trigger. It gets heavier and heavier as my finger gets tireder and tireder. I scream at myself to stop, that it’s my dad I’m shooting, to let my finger rest. But it endlessly shoots and shoots and shoots.
I don't know on what level I mean. Heck, I doubt I'm talking to her.
I pull the knife from my pocket, it gleams in the sunlight. Someone cleaned it of the blood I spilled upon it.
I roll up the sleeve of my suit and mark an 'x' halfway down my forearm. Then I mark a line through the center of it. One for each life I took. And finally one diagonally through it, creating an asterisk. The final for the life that took them. I take a moment to watch the blood flow down my arm to my elbows, staining the white suit-shirt and jacket. I watch it with wonder. I watch as each new blood pump and each new trigger pulled sends blood spurting. Each time my finger lets another bullet fly another life is taken. Such a heavy trigger and yet…
My father once told me he had nightmares that he was in combat and his trigger was too heavy. But every night for the past three months I’ve had nightmares because the trigger was too light.
I wish for the regret and guilt to leave but to never forget. Then I walk to the grave and bury the knife with him. I bury the hatchet and wish for tears. It's over.