2. All Go Down Together

Florida, 1986

Third and most important, I need you to know that no matter what you do, no matter what you decide to do with your life, I will always be proud of you. You are my son, the best part of me, and whatever you do I know you will make me proud. I don’t want you to think you have to join the military or choose any particular life because you think it’s what I want. You have to choose your own life, and I know you’ll do well no matter what road you take.

“What do you think?”

It had stopped raining, finally, and we were sitting on the hood of the car, looking out at the ocean and watching the seagulls. The sky over the gulf coast was reddish now, amber bleeding into purple at the horizon, as the sun went down.

I glanced at Jack, but he wasn’t looking at me. “I think you should tell him all that yourself.” He turned sharply. “And I think you will tell him. Maybe not in so many words, but he’ll know.” I leaned back on my arms, the metal of the hood still warm under my hands. “And I think you’re making me nervous, talking about dying all the time.”

His eyebrows went up, and for a second I thought he was angry. But he just smiled, a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, and touched my shoulder briefly.

“You worry too much,” I said softly. “Seriously. I’ve known you and Sara, what — six years?”

“Seven,” he corrected absently.

“Okay, seven.” I fixed him with a look, mock stern. “Long enough to know you two will make great parents. Trust me. Charlie’s damn lucky to have you for a dad.”

He looked away again, staring at nothing. “Everything’s different now.”

He said it slowly, almost like he was talking to himself. He didn’t say anything else, didn’t even look at me, but he didn’t have to. There’s an old saying, I don’t remember where I heard it. True friendship is when you can sit with someone else for an hour and not say a word, and walk away feeling like it was the best conversation you ever had. That was me and Jack. Neither of us were ever very good at all the touchy-feely, talk-about-your-feelings stuff. Drove our wives crazy that way. But between the two of us that never mattered. Somewhere in the past seven years, we’d learned to say the most important things without words.

Under fire we hardly needed hand signals anymore — all he had to do was look at me and I knew which way he was gonna go, what he was gonna do next. It went deeper than that, though. We’d been through seven kinds of hell and back together, starting with the crucible that was Spec Ops training. Places like Afghanistan, Iran, East Germany, missions no one back home would ever read about. We’d shared the same missions, the same wounds… the same nightmares. So that on a night like this, even though Lisa and I had no children, I could imagine what was going through his head now, as clearly as if the thoughts were my own.

Everything’s different now.

I’d said the same thing, on our first mission behind enemy lines. Afghanistan, 1980, holed up in a cave waiting for extraction, barely conscious with two bullets in my chest and blood leaking into my lungs. I was so damn scared then, scared I was gonna die, but even more scared I’d die without talking to Lisa again.

It wasn’t long after we got married, and the night I left we were fighting, I don’t remember what about.

She didn’t want me to leave, though, and when I did go she cried, but she wouldn’t tell me goodbye. We’d married young, way too young, I thought sometimes. We loved each other desperately, and we drove each other crazy.

But marrying her changed everything. Nothing terrified me so much as knowing I might die without making up with her. Suddenly it wasn’t all about me anymore. No matter where I was, a part of me would always be far away, with Lisa, half a world from wherever I was stationed.

So I knew something of what Jack was feeling, and he knew I knew. I lit another cigarette, tilting my head back, breathing in the salt smell of the sea. The wind was picking up, cool air against my face, ruffling through my hair. The soft shush of the waves beat a soothing rhythm against the sand, as we sat in silence, watching the sun go down.

Don’t think about it, I thought. Don’t think about dying, or what’ll happen to your family then. It’ll just make you depressed. Hell, you’re making me depressed. I don’t want to think about you dying, either. You’ve said it yourself, about a hundred times — what would I do without you?

Think about the look on Charlie’s face when you come home and surprise him. Think about playing Santa at Christmas, birthday parties, teaching him how to hit a baseball, how to play hockey, how to fish. Think about all the fun you two will have, all the trouble I know you’ll get into, and how you’ll love every minute of it. Think about watching him grow up, getting his first car, his first girlfriend. Don’t think about anybody dying.

The sun was slipping below the waves, red light fading to gray behind us, glinting on the water. Jack was unwrapping a chocolate cookie slowly, breaking it into pieces and tossing them at the gulls hopping around us.

I folded the letter carefully, holding it out to him. He looked at me, but he didn’t move to take it.

“Jack… ” I trailed off, seeing the look on his face. “Listen, I’m probably the last person who should have this.” He started to say something, but I stopped him with a hand on his arm. “We’re on the same team. We get the same missions. We go in together, and we get out together, or not at all. If anything happens to you, there’s a fair chance I won’t make it out either.” There weren’t many things in my life I could be absolutely sure of, but this was one of them. Always had been, ever since that first mission, a long night in a cave, and a promise that could never be broken. “Nobody gets left behind, remember?”

“Right.” Half his face seemed to smile, and he looked like he wanted to say something more, but he couldn’t find the words. “I still want you to keep it, though.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” His eyes were dark, serious. “There’s no one I trust more.”

I blinked, surprised, but I didn’t say anything. It’s not like it wasn’t something I knew, something I’d known for years. What surprised me was that he’d say it out loud. Jack usually didn’t talk about stuff like that.

I nodded slowly, then put the letter in my pocket. “I’ll do it.”

“Thanks.” He stood up, dusting cookie crumbs off his hands and shaking his head at the gulls hopping around our feet.

I’m giving this letter to Frank, and he’ll make sure it gets to you if anything ever happens to me. You probably know him by now, but in case you don’t he’s my best friend, and if anything happens to me he’ll take care of you and your mom. He’s a good man, and the best friend I’ve ever had.

 

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