Colorado Springs, February 1999
It’s after 2200 when I stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts, in search of strong black coffee and thinking that what I really need is alcohol, something to knock me out cold for a couple hours, otherwise I’ll never get to sleep.
Reaching into my duffel for cash, my fingers brush against the lid of a cigar box, and I hesitate. Don’t, I tell myself silently. Don’t go there.
Nothing in there I need to see right now. Jack’s letter. My wedding ring. And some pictures… me and Jack the night we graduated Spec Ops training, me and Lisa the day we got married. Jack holding Charlie just after he was born. Memories of my life that was, all those things it hurts too much to think about, but that I can’t let go. A failed marriage, a broken friendship, and a dead child.
I stuff some bills in my pocket and get out of the car, slamming the door. The woman at the counter looks a little surprised to see a full-bird colonel in dress blues at this time of night, but she doesn’t say anything and I make my escape back to the car with a tall styrofoam cup.
Charlie was four years old, the last time I saw him. It was just after Christmas 1990, the night Jack and I shipped out together for the Gulf. Jack picked him up and hugged him hard, and promised he’d be home soon. Sara wasn’t crying, not yet, being strong for Charlie, but I saw her eyes soften as she watched them. And then she looked at me, just for a second, the look she always gave me before we left. The one that said, “Look after him, ’cause sometimes he’s too damn stubborn to look after himself.”
Charlie hugged me, too — and then he looked up at me, his face serious, too serious for a kid who loved to laugh as much as he did. He said, “Bring my daddy home, Uncle Frank. Please.”
I never did give him the letter.
Not that I ever imagined, in the two months before General Ryan told me, that I’d left my best friend alive and wounded in enemy hands. I swear, by whatever’s still sacred in my life, I thought he was dead.
Doesn’t change anything.
I took a round in the arm on that mission, nothing serious, but they sent me back Stateside, and somewhere in the shuffle my luggage — and that letter — got lost. I didn’t think of it at first. It had been four years since Jack had given to me, and I was distracted, trying hard to deal with my own grief, and patch up my relationship with my wife. By the time I found the letter I knew he was alive.
I take a long gulp of hot coffee, pulling out of the parking lot, feeling the tires skid a little on the wet pavement. I’ve left the busy part of the city behind, and now I’m heading north blindly, no real idea where I’m going, just… away from here.
It’s dark, heavy clouds covering the moon, and the rain lashing down in sheets. The road is long and winding, nothing on either side now but trees. In the glare of my headlights I can see fog rising up from the ground.
I was at the Air Force Academy hospital when Charlie died. I’d been shipped back home injured a week before, and I was well enough and awake enough to be driving everyone around me crazy — my usual response to hospitals. One of the nurses brought me a newspaper, with Charlie’s picture on the front page. Boy, 10, dead in firearm accident.
I hear thunder muttering somewhere far away. A little ways up this same road is the church where they had the funeral, and the cemetery where Charlie was buried. The same church where Jack and Sara got married, twelve years before. The car slips on wet leaves, sliding into the other lane before I can wrench the steering wheel back in line. Focus, dammit.
I sent flowers to the funeral. Yellow roses, the color of farewell. When the lady at the store asked me what the occasion was, I just gave her a blank look for a couple seconds. I was still pretty out of it at that point, but it seemed like a hard question. A hard answer, at least. A funeral, I told her. Thinking, for a kid who accidentally shot himself with his father’s gun. The son of my best friend, who I haven’t spoken to in five years, but that’s another long, ugly story you don’t want to hear. I asked her to have them delivered, told her I wasn’t gonna be able to make it to the service because I was shipping out the day before.
I didn’t ship out until the day after, but I didn’t think it would help Jack to see me. She asked me if I wanted to write anything on the card, and gave me a weird look when I said no. Long, ugly story. Jack would know who they were from.
Sara found me at the airport the next day. It was just a few minutes before my plane started boarding, but she hugged me with tears in her eyes and said she wished I could have come, but it was probably better I didn’t. And she told me Jack was gone, left that morning, and from the look in his eyes she knew he wasn’t going to come back.
West, you sorry son of a bitch.
The road curves sharply to the right, and water sprays up from under my right tires. I can’t see the line down the middle of the road anymore, just the headlights reflected off the wet surface. Somewhere above the trees lightning flickers, catching the curtains of rain drifting back and forth in front of me.
I blink, squinting in the darkness, turning the wheel around another curve. He did come back, though. I knew he wasn’t dead. Sara would’ve told me. But I hadn’t known until tonight what that mission was, what kind of blaze of glory West wanted him to go out in —
I can feel it when the tires leave the surface of the road, skimming the layer of water as the car spins out of control, and the last thing I see is a wide tree trunk seeming to rise from nowhere out of the fog.
I must have blacked out, ’cause the next thing I know someone’s shining a bright light in my face, and I can see red strobe lights reflected in my windshield — the part of it that’s not in pieces on the dash.
I’m shivering, and it takes me a second to register the rain pouring in through the jagged hole in the glass. Shit. And the damn car didn’t even belong to me. Wonder how much the Air Force is gonna charge me…
“Sir, can you hear me?”
And would somebody get that damn light out of my face… ?
“Don’t move your head.” I start to turn, and there are warm hands on my face. “Anybody got a blanket here? He’s gonna get soaked.” I’m staring at something, white silk, and I’m thinking, parachute? But of course not, it’s the airbag, never seen one of those in action before. Funny… the number of times I’ve been shot, in twenty years in Special Ops, and I’ve never once been in a car wreck. Not that I haven’t come close, God knows, with the way Jack drives…
“Is he awake?”
“Can you get the door open?”
Dark spots appear on the white fabric, spreading outward. Blood? There’s a sharp pain like someone pounding against the back of my skull, and voices, drifting fuzzily in and out of hearing range. Everything’s blurry, not sure if it’s the fog, or something wrong with my eyes. All right, damage control, how bad is it?
Someone’s opening the door, an arm reaching across, releasing the seatbelt. Okay, safe to assume I hit my head pretty hard against something. Not sure what, not sure I want to know. Looking up, my neck feels like somebody tried to twist it off. That hurt.
“Come on, where’s the stretcher?”
Possible concussion… which would explain why the trees out there insist on cloning copies of themselves… I try to look over at whoever’s talking, but my head won’t turn that way, and it’s a couple seconds before I realize someone’s still got their hands on my neck, and a voice is telling me don’t move your head, possible neck injury, and where the hell’s the damn stretcher?
I’ve had worse, I decide. Enough. “I’m awake, dammit,” I growl. “And for God’s sake, kill the light, will ya?”
I’ve always been the patient from hell, even on the best of days. Ask Douglas. He’s my pararescueman, and the one who usually has to deal with me when I get myself shot up or otherwise mangled.
Someone finally lowers the flashlight, and I can see the face in front of me, a woman’s face, blue eyes and short blond hair.
“I’m a paramedic.” Her voice is calm, steady, like she’s trying not to scare me. “Your car ran off the road, and you were out for a little while.” No, really? “We’re going to get you to the hospital as soon as we can. Right now I need you to answer some questions for me, okay?”
“I don’t need a hospital, ma’am,” I snap. Okay, so minor head injuries don’t do much for my already sparkling personality. “I’m fine.”
She’s leaning over me, blocking half the doorway, but I duck around her and stand up, grabbing onto the roof of the car.
“Sir — !”
O… kay… wait for the world to stop spinning slowly round… and round… and round…
My legs are kinda shaky, but I can stand on my own, that’s what’s important. Although from the way she’s holding onto my arm, it’s obvious she thinks this is a dumb idea.
Two more paramedics are carrying a stretcher out of the back of an ambulance, and she waves urgently at them. “Sir, you could have injuries you don’t know about,” she says, sounding exasperated. “You hit that tree going pretty fast.” For the first time I notice the front of the car, or what’s left of it, the metal of the hood crumpled like tinfoil. “You can’t just walk away from something like that, not without getting checked out.”
Oh no? Watch me. I have a very low tolerance for hospitals, lying in small rooms with lots of people fussing over me and trying to take care of me. Just ask my team.
If I don’t turn my head too quickly, I can stand without holding onto the car. For now, anyway. She’s tugging on my arm, trying to get me to lie down on the stretcher. There are two cops standing by the ambulance; one of them comes to take my other arm.
“Just take it easy, okay? Looks like you banged your head pretty hard. You want to let somebody look at that.”
I’ve banged it worse. For cryin’ out loud, people, I jump out of airplanes for a living. I don’t need a freakin’ hospital. Although… crap… yeah, it hurts like hell, but right now what I need is to find someplace to hide away for the next two weeks and lick my wounds in private — the physical ones, and the ones they can’t see.
“I’ll be fine, trust me.” The cop looks at me, and I see him notice the uniform and the eagles on my shoulders for the first time. “You need me to sign something? If I die it’s not your fault, that kind of thing?”
“Sir, it won’t take long,” the first medic says. “You should really — ”
“Okay, you’ve done your job,” I cut her off. I know she’s trying to help, but I really just want to get away from here. “Where do I sign?”
I’m starting to feel a little out of my depth here. I guess too many years in the military does that to a guy — I’m used to people jumping up and saluting and then leaving me the hell alone when I use that tone. The paramedics just look at each other helplessly, wondering what to do. Then they look at the cops, like they think they’ll have the answer. I’m resisting the urge to snap “I gave you an order, airman!” My mind’s starting to wander. Damn.
They finally give me the release form to sign, saying if I die from my own stupidity nobody’s gonna sue.
Yeah, right. Like there’s anyone who cares enough to sue the ambulance company if I die. I hand her the clipboard, and turn around slowly, carefully, reach into the car for my duffel and the briefcase with West’s reports. Standing up again, I close my eyes and rest one hand on the car, waiting for the dizziness to pass, and I can feel their concerned stares.
“You need a ride anywhere?” one of the cops asks, and I shake my head slowly. He looks at me funny, and I realize it does look kinda stupid, refusing a ride on a road in the rain at night. But I have no idea where I’m going yet, and O’Malley’s isn’t that far up this road. By the time I get there, maybe I’ll figure it out. I can call a cab from there.
Red and blue strobe lights wink out, and I watch as the ambulance and the two police cars pull away. I sling the duffel over my shoulder, pressing a hand to my forehead for a few seconds, feeling blood sticky under my fingers. All right, Cromwell, time to get the hell out of here.
The amber lights of the tow truck fade behind me as I start walking. It’s still raining hard, but my blue jacket is already soaked through, so it doesn’t make much difference. There aren’t many buildings along this part of the road, only the occasional orange streetlight, and the soft shush of rain hitting the pavement.