Colorado Springs, February 1999
I remember the smell of coffee, already wafting through my house when I woke up the next morning.
When I got downstairs, Frank was all decked out in full dress blues, standing by the counter with a mug in one hand. I gave him a look as I came into the kitchen. “Tell me that’s decaf.” His raised eyebrows said quite clearly, I wouldn’t waste my time, and I sighed, deciding it wouldn’t do any good mentioning that caffeine generally wasn’t recommended for people with possible head injuries. Instead I took the mug he offered, taking a careful sip. “You going somewhere?”
In uniform he looked somehow different, comfortable, more self-assured. Or maybe it was just easier to pretend this way. “I have an appointment with some people at the Academy, to start setting up training scenarios,” he said. “Rest of the team’s not gonna be back for another two weeks, but we might as well start planning.”
Jack would’ve had something to say about that, the thought hit us both at the same time. Leave time is not for catching up on work, for cryin’ out loud! It’s called vacation for a reason. Time to kick back, relax, go fishing…
Frank always made a great show of reluctance, especially at first. But for all that, I know he missed those days. And it wasn’t so much that he didn’t know how to relax with two weeks’ leave, as that he had no one to relax with… except too many memories.
I didn’t believe for a minute he was going to talk about training exercises, though.
“I’ll drive you,” I offered. He looked like he was going to protest, then remembered he didn’t have a car. “You want breakfast before you go?”
He shook his head quickly. “No, I’m all right.”
Shrugging, I grabbed a muffin from the counter and sat at the table. “You can at least sit down, you know. You look like you’re waiting for an inspection.”
His lips twitched a little at that — the closest I’d seen him come to a smile — and he refilled his coffee cup and sat down across from me. “I told the commandant I’d be there by 0900.”
“To plan your training exercises.” I nodded. “Right. You told me.” I took a long sip of coffee, grimacing a little. Frank made it a lot stronger than I usually did. “I don’t know what you’re really doing over there, and I’m not going to ask you to tell me.” Leaning forward, I clasped my hands around the warm mug. “I’m just going to make a couple educated guesses. You don’t have to tell me if I’m right.”
His expression guarded, he tilted his head to one side and waited for me to go on. “You’ve been keeping track of Jack for a while now.” If I didn’t know him I might have missed it, the way his face froze for an instant before he looked away. “That’s not a guess, that’s a fact, you’ve told me. And if I know you, you’ve volunteered for hazardous duty whenever you had the opportunity, in the last few years. I don’t know what half of those mean,” I waved at the ribbons on his jacket, “but I’m pretty sure they’re not the kind you get sitting behind a desk.” I fixed him with another look. “Or running training exercises.”
He didn’t say anything, but then I didn’t expect him to. “If half of what I see on the news these days is true, we may be at war in Yugoslavia pretty soon,” I went on. “At a time like this, you take an assignment back stateside teaching cadets. Where you report directly to General West, of all people. And you’re not trying to fight this.” His face still averted, he nodded. “I also know that whatever Jack’s doing, he’s based out of Cheyenne Mountain.”
He looked up finally, and when his eyes met mine I saw a quiet determination that confirmed the rest of my theory. “West wouldn’t have told you what Jack’s doing unless you’re going to be involved in it somehow. Now he would know — or Jack would tell him — not to have you two working directly together. So my guess… is that you’re some kind of backup team. Extra security. Something like that. I’m not even going to guess the details, but you wouldn’t take stateside duty with a war on the way unless you know Jack’s working on something dangerous. And the reason you’re here is to be ready to help if something goes wrong.”
I’d worked this out late last night — or early this morning, actually, lying in bed trying to fall asleep again. Knowing Frank as well as I did, there could be no other explanation, and I didn’t need him to break any regulations to know I’d guessed it. And if that wasn’t enough, his next words confirmed it. “Nothing’s gonna happen to him.”
He looked like he wanted to say something more, but that was all he could say without revealing classified information. “I know.” If Frank has anything to do with it, I was sure Jack would have at least a fighting chance. But I wasn’t about to lose sleep over it. I’d spent far too many nights, over the years, worrying about Jack when he was on missions. Or at least, I tried to convince myself I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.
The look he gave me then said he knew exactly what I was thinking. “You wouldn’t be so mad at him if you didn’t still care.”
He met my skeptical glare without flinching. There was a surety in his eyes I hadn’t seen in way too long, the look of a man who knew his duty. No fear, no doubts, only calm acceptance. I would have expected him to be at least a little nervous about the idea of meeting Jack again. But it wasn’t until that moment I realized why he wasn’t.
He expected to be called in to help, if anything went wrong. To pull Jack’s ass out of the fire, the way he couldn’t in the Gulf. To do whatever he had to do, so that Jack would get home all right.
And when he did get called in, he didn’t expect to come back alive.
Didn’t expect to, didn’t want to… I felt a chill run through me. He meant to give his life, when — not if — he had to, to save his friend and to make some atonement for his past failure. And he expected — he hoped — it would be soon.
I swallowed hard, setting aside the remaining half of my muffin, suddenly no longer hungry. I didn’t have to put forward this last guess, to know I was right. And I didn’t know how to say it, or what good it would do, to confront him with it.
After all, it wasn’t like he had anything left to lose.
So I got up, finishing the last of my coffee in a long gulp, and setting the mug on the counter. He followed me wordlessly out to the car, throwing his duffel and briefcase in the back seat.
Overnight the rain had turned to sleet, and although the sky was beginning to clear up now, the roads were still icy. This gave me something else to concentrate on, a reason not to have to say anything, while I was trying to absorb this latest revelation. And figure out what on Earth I was going to say to him, in what might be our last goodbye.
He sat silent beside me, playing with his hat, turning it around in his hands. Along the side of the road, long-needled evergreens bowed under the weight of ice coating their branches, and the sun was beginning to come out from behind thick banks of clouds. “Sara, are you… ” When he finally spoke, it was with an awkward look, like he wasn’t sure how to say what he needed to say. “Are doing all right as far as money and all that?”
He always asked that, whenever we talked to each other, in that almost apologetic tone. Like he was afraid I’d be offended at the suggestion that I couldn’t take care of myself. And from anyone else I might be. But I knew this need to make sure I was provided for was more his way of honoring what he saw as his duty to Jack, than a lack of confidence in my abilities. Even so, my answer was always the same. “Sure, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
Silence descended again, as we turned onto the main road leading toward the Academy. Then he asked a question he’d never asked me before. “And… is Lisa doing all right?”
He wasn’t talking about money this time. He still sent her the bigger part of his salary, and she had a job of her own. “She’s fine,” I said quietly. Thinking of the conversation I knew I’d be having with her, as soon as I dropped him off at the base. She’d want to know all the details.
Looking at him, I could tell he still loved her as much as he ever did. It was never an absence of love that kept them apart. But he left her, eight years ago, because he was convinced he didn’t deserve her, didn’t deserve any kind of happiness. And for some strange reason he thought it would be easier for her, if he stayed away after the war and didn’t come back.
He never actually divorced her, though. He would have, I was sure, if she’d wanted it, but I guess he thought that as long as they were married, the Air Force would provide for her when he died.
I wondered if I should tell him how much she still loved him.
He probably wouldn’t believe it. And besides, she’d moved on, found a job she loved and friends she could trust. After all this time, it would only reopen old wounds. Especially when I knew he was involved in something very dangerous. If she wanted to contact him, after I told her everything that had happened in the past two days, let it be her decision. I didn’t have the right to decide for her.
I could see the crystal spires of the Academy chapel now, turning in the main gates, and beyond them the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The guard at the gates snapped a sharp salute for Frank, and he returned it, sliding easily back into his military attitude.
The wind was cold, striking our faces as we got out of the car. Frank put his hat on, straightening his uniform as I stood in front of him, not knowing what to say. “Please say you’ll have a doctor check that out,” I said, waving a hand at the side of his head.
“Douglas — my medic — will want to see it, I’m sure,” he said. He looked resigned, like he’d avoid it if he could. I was right, he had been hanging around Jack too long. “Thanks again,” he said, standing straight, his eyes lingering on mine in that familiar awkward affection, saying all those things he’d never say out loud. “For everything.”
“You know… ” I had to stop, clear my throat. “You’re always welcome at my place. Any time.”
He just nodded, squaring his shoulders again, before turning around and walking away. And all I could think of was that day, more than two years ago, when Jack had packed and left without a word to me. Carrying top secret orders, and with a look in his eyes telling me he wouldn’t be coming back. The look of a man with nothing left to live for. I saw that expression again. There in Frank’s eyes. And I could feel the tears starting in my own.
I let him get maybe halfway across the parking lot, before I called to him.
He turned, waiting as I ran toward him. I had no idea what I was going to say. What I could say. “Frank, you know… ” I stopped, and he looked at me, with that concerned expression. “If anything happens to you… ” The wind tore across the parking lot, cutting through the thin coat I wore, and I shivered. “If you and Jack don’t fix this between you… ” My voice wavered, and I swallowed hard, finishing in a rush. “Jack will never forgive himself.” His face was set, and if he believed me he made no sign. “You know him,” I insisted. “You know I’m right.”
He looked away, squinting in the sun. I tried one more time. “He wouldn’t hate you so much if he didn’t still care.”
Our eyes met then, and his held a look of hopeless anguish that no words could help. For a long moment we stared at each other, as he struggled to regain some semblance of military control. Finally I gave up on finding words and hugged him. He was surprised, and didn’t respond at first, standing stiffly for a few seconds before he wrapped his arms around me, holding me against his chest as I fought the tears. I was not going to cry.
It was a long time before he stepped back. I watched him as he walked away, straight and military correct.
He didn’t look back.