Colorado Springs, August 1999
The weather must be turning, because it’s cold up here on the roof. Giving up on trying to focus the telescope, I lean back and look up at the sky. There’re a lot more stars visible here than at my place. Not as many streetlights.
I wonder if that’s why he chose this house.
I think I finally understand, now, why he wanted to build a deck on top of our house. I’d been dead set against the idea at the time. It would be too expensive, too much work, and Charlie wouldn’t be careful enough up there, he’d end up falling off the roof and breaking his neck… But there’s something about being up here above all the houses on the street, nothing around me but the dark, quiet sky. And there’s something about looking up at the vastness of the heavens that brings me some measure of peace.
Charlie always loved the stars. And I loved to watch him and Jack together at night, as Jack taught him the names and the shapes of the constellations. I always hated having to call them inside when it was time for Charlie to go to bed.
If you didn’t have a map, Jack told him, you could always find your way by the stars. And he showed Charlie how to find the North Star, and what constellations were in the east, and which were in the west. For Charlie it had been a fun game, an adventure, when sometimes they’d pretend they were explorers on a great journey through our backyard. And Jack loved those games as much as Charlie did, but I knew that for him, reading the night sky could be anything but a game. Too many times, I was sure, he’d had only the stars to show him the way to safety and home.
I’m lost in my own thoughts when I hear a sound from the ladder, turning just in time to see Jack drag himself onto the deck with an effort.
With a guilty start I wonder how long I’ve been up here. He doesn’t even notice me until I stand up, pushing the chair back with a scraping sound. I half expect him to be mad, but instead he looks surprised, and a little uncertain.
I should have known he’d be up here eventually. He used to find comfort in the night sky, long before we got the telescope. Though how he managed the ladder is beyond me.
Feeling very uncomfortable, I move past him toward the ladder, when his voice stops me. “You don’t… have to go.” It’s not quite an apology, not quite a plea for me to stay, but something just short of both. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I should have just left, I’m thinking. I don’t want this to turn into another awkward scene, and right now I’m hoping I can extricate myself from the whole situation as painlessly as possible. Go home to my empty house, curl up and cry myself to sleep in private.
But I see him sway a little as he leans against the deck railing, and I realize I can’t leave him now.
He’s drunk, and he’s busted his leg somehow, and if I leave him alone he’ll probably break his neck trying to climb down.
How the hell did I get myself into this?
“Jack.” He scares me when he sits down suddenly, leaning back against the railing and looking up. “Jack, you can’t stay up here. It’s freezing.” When he doesn’t look at me, I crouch next to him. “Come on, let’s get you to bed.”
“Not yet.” He looks lost, staring up at the sky like his once familiar map has been changed, and he no longer recognizes the patterns up there. I sit down next to him, shivering. Not yet, Mom, Charlie would say. Can’t we stay out a little longer? Just five minutes? It’s just started to get dark!
“Jack — ” He ignores me, and I sigh. Fine, then, I think. Maybe the stars will bring him some peace tonight. Nothing else seems to be working. If nothing else, I can stay with him and make sure he doesn’t kill himself climbing down from the deck.
A cold breeze seems to pierce right through the thin shirt I’m wearing, and I move closer to him, letting him warm my left side. He doesn’t seem to notice, and he doesn’t look at me when he speaks. “Looks pretty, doesn’t it?” Not sure how to respond, I just nod, and he waves an unsteady hand at the heavens. “All those stars — all the light from those stars — ” The words are a little slurred. “It’s all thousands, maybe millions of years old. They’re so… far away… ”
“It takes the light a long time to get here,” I finish softly. I was never as into astronomy as he was, but I remember listening to him telling Charlie about it.
He looks at me sharply, then turns back to the sky. “Some of these stars aren’t even there, anymore.”
That’s a strange statement. “Stars don’t just disappear, Jack,” I say gently.
There’s a soft snort from him. “No, they just burn out, or blow up. Something like that. I’m not an astrophysicist, for cryin’ out loud. Ask Carter… ” He trails off, and I’m thinking, now that sounds like the Jack I know. “Or… they collapse. Turn into white dwarfs. Neutron stars.” His voice drops. “Or black holes.”
I’m only half paying attention to the science lesson, but something in his tone makes me look up at his last words. “And there’s no way we can know for sure, from here. We won’t see what they look like now for another million years. Not unless — ” He breaks off, looking down at his hands.
This is significant, somehow. Though I can’t for the life of me guess why. I wish I’d brought my coat. The wind’s picking up, rustling through the trees, and it’s getting even colder.
He doesn’t say anything else, and I look away, staring at the branches of the trees next to the house. My eyes are starting to drift closed, and I know I should be getting back home now. “Jack.” He doesn’t answer. “Jack, it’s cold up here,” I try again. “You need to rest, let your leg heal. You’re going to catch a cold up here.”
I might as well have been talking to a wall. Sighing again, I wrap my arms around myself, exasperated. “Jack,” I say again, shaking his shoulder.
If he even knows I’m here, he doesn’t make a sign. Finally I give up, leaning against him and resting my head on his shoulder, trying to soak up as much of his warmth as I can.
“They’re not as bright here.” His voice is remote. “Not as bright… as… ”
As somewhere classified, I don’t doubt. And I’m about to say something, ask if we can go inside now, when he starts speaking again. The words come slowly, but they’re not slurred anymore.
“They used to tie us up outside.” And suddenly I’m wide awake. “Sometimes for hours.” Sitting up, I look at him sharply, but he’s lost somewhere in the past, most of his face in deep shadow. The chill that runs through me has nothing to do with the cold, and I clasp my hands together hard. I’m not at all sure I want to hear this.
But all the same I have to know. He’s never talked about Iraq before, not to me, not to anyone. He must be a hell of a lot more drunk than I realized, to talk about it now.
“This one time, I guess they forgot about me.” His hands move restlessly, playing with a twig, but the rest of him is perfectly still. “Left me out there after the sun went down. It was cooler, then.” He throws the twig aside, and I watch it fall of the edge of the roof before remembering to breathe. “Our guys had been bombing all day, we could hear ’em. I guess they must’ve hit a power plant, ’cause the lights were out all over the city.” There’s a long pause, so long I think he’s not going to say anything more. But in the next words there’s a note almost of awe. “I swear to God, Sara, you never saw so many stars.” He lets out a long, shuddering breath. “It was… so damn beautiful… ”
I turn away so he won’t see the tears, wiping my eyes with one hand, my throat too choked to say anything. “I thought he was gonna come that night.” The bitterness creeps back into his voice. “I’d… almost… stopped hoping. But that night… I really thought he was gonna come back.”
Sometimes people make mistakes, Sara… All I can see is the haunted look in Frank’s eyes. Sometimes you can fix ’em. Sometimes…
I remember the day he came to our house, standing on the doorstep like he had no memory of how he got there, and that shell-shocked look on his face. Two months after Jack was supposed to have been killed. I remember the months of frantic phone calls, and letters, to the Air Force, the Red Cross, the UN… He was gone, back to Saudi, three days after he found out, but still he called me whenever he could. Even when he had nothing but bad news to report.
Jack didn’t know about that, hadn’t seen the look in his eyes, hadn’t heard the desperation in his voice growing stronger with every phone call. He didn’t know how Frank had planned and prepared everything for the rescue mission. How he hadn’t slept for weeks, and kept after any officer who would listen, pleading and threatening, using such language to General West that he just about ruined his own career.
Jack only knew that no one came, for four long months. No one allowed Frank to do anything to help his best friend.
How can I even begin to imagine what’s going through his mind now, what horrifying memories the last few days have dragged back to the surface? I know only too well how the scars, mental and physical, never really went away. You don’t get over something like this… best you can do is keep going, try as hard as you can to forget, to move on. That was how Jack dealt with it, anyway.
He wasn’t interested in my help, either, after he came home. It tore my heart apart to see him, when he woke up in the hospital. He looked so fragile, his arms so thin the first time he wrapped them around me, holding me with all the strength he had left. But when he came home, he would just sit for hours, staring into space. Sometimes, at night, he’d let me hold him after he woke up screaming, but more often he’d turn away and say it was nothing. Either way, he’d never tell me what the nightmares were about.
I’d lie awake, and try to cry softly so he wouldn’t hear. And I’d pray, with everything I had, asking God to please just let him talk to me, let me know the right words to say. Let us get through this, and I’ll never ask for anything again. To this day I don’t know where I found the strength, to keep going and to be there for him through that time, when it seemed like he was doing everything he could to shut me out.
I lay a hand on his arm, but he doesn’t react. What can I say? Do I tell him how Frank tried, how he would have given anything, done anything, parachuted into downtown Baghdad all alone if they’d let him? He knows that already, and none of it made any difference. Do I tell him about the last time I saw Frank, how the guilt still tormented him after so long? That would hardly help him. Jack knows all about guilt.
“We had maybe a minute.” It’s barely above a whisper, and I squeeze his arm gently, encouraging. “We both knew it might be the last. I wasn’t… didn’t want… ” I know it’s useless, but right now I’d give anything to be able to take away some of the anguish behind those words. “He always was a stubborn son of a bitch.”
I just nod, not feeling the cold anymore at all, knowing if he doesn’t talk about this now he probably never will. “He wouldn’t let it go. Wouldn’t let me ignore him this time. Knew me too well, I guess.” It’s too dark to see his face, but I can feel the muscles in his arm tense. “He asked me. To forgive him.”
That surprises me. Frank tried, in the months after he came home, to get Jack to talk to him. But after a little while he seemed to give up, or else to accept that there could never be any absolution for him. He always thought he deserved nothing more from Jack than what he got. And even if Jack had forgiven him, I know that wouldn’t have helped him forgive himself.
So why did he ask, then? What gave him the courage, I wonder, to face Jack and his own feelings, buried for so many years? To admit to Jack and himself how much he still cared, how much it still hurt, how much he needed that absolution, whether he deserved it or not? He must have known, in that moment, he was about to die. But still it amazes me.
“I told him to go to hell.” His voice is soft, full of self-loathing. “There was — an explosion. He pushed me out of the way. I tried… tried to hold on to him… ”
“Jack — ” And then I realize it’s no use. There are no words that can fix this now. It’s far too late for words. So I stroke his arm gently with one hand, as he bows his head. Giving him the only thing I can, the reassurance that he’s not alone.
Could they ever have fixed what was between them, moved beyond the past, if Frank had lived? Could they have been friends again, as close as they used to be? It’s obvious now Jack still cares, as much as he used to act like he didn’t, and I know if there was anything he could give, including his own life, to save Frank, or even just to let him hear the words he needed to hear, he would give it in a heartbeat.
But I also know, from bitter experience, there’s a world of difference between forgiving and forgetting. Some kinds of trust, once broken, can never be repaired. And the trust those two held in each other once was beyond anything I’ve ever known.
The tragedy of it all, though, is that we’ll never know. They’ll never know if they could have saved their friendship, never be able to sit down and talk about everything that happened. They’ll never know if the friendship they still felt for each other could ultimately prove stronger than the pain of the memories.
After a long moment Jack looks up at the sky, and his hand moves to cover mine. I don’t know how long we sat there together, it felt like at least an hour, but my eyes are starting to close when he looks at me. “You’re cold.”
I’m still shivering, and his eyes seem to focus, really seeing me now. “Yes, Jack,” I say quietly, “it’s chilly, and it’s almost four in the morning.”
He lets out a soft sigh, and I can see the mask is back now, either that or he’s just too tired to feel anything. “Come on.” He almost falls over trying to stand up, though, and I have to grab his arm to steady him.
“Whoa, easy there.” He holds onto the railing as I look down, wondering how we’re going to get down. He doesn’t look very capable of negotiating a ladder right now.
In the end he manages it all right, and he leans on me as we go back into the house. The warm air seems to hit me in a wave, and there’s a part of me that just wants to sink down in that big armchair and go to sleep.
But I have to get home. It’s late, and I have to work tomorrow. “Are you going to be all right?” I ask seriously.
Jack sinks down onto the couch, running a hand through his hair. “Yeah. Sure.” He sounds exhausted, but not totally convinced. “You betcha.” Then, as I lean over to give him a quick hug, he says, “You don’t have to leave.”
I straighten up, surprised. A few seconds later he seems to realize what this sounds like, and he looks suddenly awkward. “I mean… you can crash on the couch if you want. It’s pretty late… I have spare blankets… ”
This is a bad idea, and I know it. But now that he mentions it, I really don’t feel like driving all the way across the city right now. So I sigh, and tell him, “All right.”
I’m going to regret this, in the morning.
He starts to stand up, but I give him a look and he sits down again. “Blankets are in the closet at the bottom of the stairs.”
I’m only out of the room for a minute, but when I come back with the blanket he’s fast asleep, his head tilted back and his mouth slightly open. It’s a sight that tugs at my heart still, to see him like this. For a minute he looks almost peaceful, his bruised and battered face slack and vulnerable in a way I haven’t seen in years. I hesitate a long moment, listening to him snoring softly. Then I sit down next to him, without bothering to turn out the light, sinking into the softness of the cushions and laying my head on his shoulder. I spread the blanket over us both, letting myself relax, surrounded by his familiar warmth.