When you’re driving on this road, it feels like O’Malley’s isn’t that far. Try to walk it, at night in the rain, and it seems a lot farther. I’ve gone about fifty yards when it occurs to me I might have just done something really stupid.
I put a hand out against a tree to steady myself, seeing bright spots dancing slowly in front of my eyes. Or is that just the rain catching the glow of the streetlight? My head feels like someone’s beating on it with a hammer. Hard. I look down at the ground, close my eyes, just breathe slowly for a little while. I can do this. It can’t be that much farther.
The pain doesn’t go away, but the dizziness passes, and I start walking again, slowly, imagining what my team would say if they were here. Stuart and Douglas would be pissed as hell. They wouldn’t say so, of course. They’re both too military to call their CO a fucking idiot to his face. But I know them well enough by now, they wouldn’t have to tell me.
I’m shivering, moving half in a daze. I know if I stop, if I let myself rest, I won’t be able to start walking again. Something — maybe it’s training, maybe just sheer stubbornness for its own sake — keeps me moving, one foot in front of the other, shoving the pain away, I’ll deal with it later. I have no idea how far I’ve come, can’t see much, just rain and more rain and wisps of fog rising from the road. The wind’s picking up, driving the rain into my face.
Lights are getting brighter up ahead, and I realize with a hollow feeling it’s the church. Doesn’t look like there’s anyone there, but the lights out front are always on. Wonder what time it is. Probably almost midnight.
It would be really nice to sit down for a few minutes. There are steps in front of the door, and even an overhang to keep the rain off. Without thinking I walk up to the door, lean on the railing. I was right. No one’s here.
I close my eyes, swaying a little. I can see it now, the last time I stood on these steps. Jack was standing next to me, in full dress blues with his scarlet beret perched at a rakish angle, looking like he was getting ready to jump without a parachute. It was an unbreakable rule — the groom was not allowed to see the bride until the ceremony, and that wouldn’t be for another couple hours. I’d never seen him so nervous. I was best man, and aside from giving a speech and proposing toasts and all that, part of my duties included making sure the groom’s pre-wedding jitters, or whatever you wanted to call it, didn’t make him go nuts and jump out a window. With Jack, it was a near thing.
I open my eyes, staring away from the church at the silent cemetery. I know if I sit down now, I won’t get up. I should keep going. It’s not far, now.
But I don’t. Instead I go down the steps again, walking across the grass, down the hill into the cemetery. I’ve only been here once before, but I remember where it is. The headstone is newer than most, but nothing fancy. A chill runs through me when I touch it, that has nothing to do with the rain.
Charles Jonathan O’Neill. Beloved son. 1986-1995.
I sink to my knees, running my fingers over the carved letters, bowing my head and clasping my hands together hard. Thunder rumbles, far away this time, but I don’t move, feeling the rain pounding against my back, soaking my hair, running in cold streams down my neck. Everything’s different now.
God, Charlie. Water runs like tears down my face, but my eyes are dry. I wish I could cry. There was a time when I would have broken down sobbing, unashamed, at something like this. I never had any kids, and once upon a time Charlie was the closest thing I ever had to a son of my own. Iraq changed all that, changed everything. Jack and I both came home from Desert Storm changed, hiding behind those safe walls of military bravado, the myth that says soldiers never cry. There were months, after the war was over, when half the time I walked around like a man already dead — but I never cried.
Jack doesn’t know it, but I saw him in the hospital, just after he came home. He was heavily sedated at the time, hadn’t been conscious since he flew back from Saudi, and from what I know of what those sick bastards did, it’s a damn good thing. I came in with Sara, and somehow she convinced the nurses to let me in, even though I wasn’t family.
They’d covered him with blankets, and half his face was bandaged, so I couldn’t see the worst of it. But what I saw was enough. What I could see of his face was covered with bruises, mottled yellow and purple, newer ones on top of the old. He’d lost weight, and he looked so fragile lying there, plastic tubes sprouting out of him like some kind of obscene vines, so different from how I remembered him. His face was still, waxy, and it scared me. The Jack I remembered was one of the strongest men I knew, and now… I’d seen him hurt pretty bad, after that chute disaster over the Iran-Iraq border, years before, but even that wasn’t like this.
I think the nurses thought I’d disturb him, but they shouldn’t have worried. He was far under, and if there was a God with any mercy at all he wasn’t even dreaming. It was more the other way around.
It’s not like I didn’t know what to expect. I knew what they did to their prisoners. But it’s one thing to read about it, hear stories… and something else entirely to see the scars on your best friend’s face, and know you were responsible. It was… a shock, a damn terrible shock, and something of that must have showed in my eyes, ’cause the next thing I knew Sara was pulling me out of the room, telling me to sit down, and was I all right? I didn’t answer her, what the hell kind of stupid question was that, anyway? I just covered my face with my hands like that would make it all go away, and I didn’t say a word to anyone for the next ten minutes or so, then I got up and walked out.
Lisa told me, after I found out he was alive, that he’d understand.
She was wrong.
He never did forgive me for leaving him behind. Not that I expected him to. Sara always said he’d come around eventually, but I know him too well, better than she does, in some ways. He doesn’t forgive easily, and he doesn’t forget. And even if by some miracle he ever does, I know I’ll never forgive myself.
There’s no one I trust more.
On impulse I reach into the duffel, searching. It’s sealed in an envelope, wrinkled and smudged and half crumpled from being carried everywhere I went for more than ten years.
It was a sacred trust, one of many. And my track record with such things pretty much sucks.
He’s a good man, and the best friend I’ve ever had.
There are still nights when I wake up shouting his name, thinking I’m back there again, watching him go down, my too-vivid imagination filling in all the horrible details I never saw.
Thinking about it now, though, I know that’s not the worst part. My worst failure wasn’t anything that happened to him in that prison, as impossible as that thought would have seemed to me in ’91. I never would have imagined, back then, that whatever power runs this screwed-up universe wasn’t through dumping shit on Jack O’Neill.
A little more than four years later, Charlie found Jack’s gun when no one else was around, and shot himself with it. He was nine years old. It was an accident, a terrible, tragic accident, but if Jack’s an unforgiving bastard to everyone else, I know that’s nothing compared to how he blames himself.
And I wasn’t there.
I called myself his best friend for twelve years, and when his son died I wasn’t there.
I tried, God knows I tried. But in the end, before he left for Abydos, he wasn’t even talking to Sara. She told me to stay away, and I did. Maybe, if Iraq hadn’t happened, I could’ve got through to him where she couldn’t. I never would’ve let Jack go on a suicide mission. At the very least I would’ve stormed into West’s office and shouted and threatened and pleaded and done whatever I had to do, to get him to send me to Abydos, too.
I don’t know what changed his mind. I don’t know why he decided not to blow that warhead, but if he had it would have been my fault, as surely as if I’d flipped the switch myself.
I hope you never have to read this, but if you do I need you to remember that I love you, always. You made my life better in so many ways. Do one thing for me, and tell your mom I love her, too, and I’m so sorry. I am so proud of you, and I hope however I die, you’ll be proud of me.
Love always, Dad
I turn the envelope over in my hands. I don’t need to open it. I’ve memorized every word over the years, first so quietly eloquent, now dripping with a savage irony that chokes me so I can hardly breathe.
‘Bring my daddy home.’
“I’m sorry, Charlie.” I force the words out, barely hearing my own voice through the rain. “God, I’m sorry.”
He can’t hear me. He’s gone, now. And even if he could… I know that for some things there can be no absolution.
I lay the envelope on the ground in front of the headstone, finding a rock to set on top of it so it won’t blow away. It belongs here, if it belongs anywhere. I sure as hell don’t have any right to keep it anymore.
My eyes are stinging, but no tears come as I stand up, one hand holding onto the cold stone for support. It’s a few seconds before I can stand up straight, but as soon as I’m confident my legs will work I give the letter a last look and turn away.
It’s a long walk still, long and cold and wet, but O’Malley’s is up the road somewhere.
And somewhere across town, hidden under Cheyenne Mountain, there’s a secret the people of Colorado Springs know nothing about — a war nobody will ever hear about unless we lose. If half the shit in West’s report is true, we’ve escaped Armageddon by the skin of our teeth more than once in the past three years.
And Jack’s down there on the front line.
Maybe my word isn’t worth a damn anymore, but staring at those church lights in the rain I make a promise, to myself, and to Charlie… Next time all hell breaks loose, I will be here. And whatever snakes, monsters, or little green men come through that ring of metal — they won’t get Jack O’Neill. Not while there’s air in my lungs or an ounce of blood in my body.
Because I have nothing left to lose except my life, and that doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. But maybe, if it helps Jack… maybe my death will mean something.
Somehow that thought brings a measure of peace, more than I’ve felt in years. Along with what I know is the only real hope I have left.