By Jeffrey Wilson
It wasn’t the heat this time; it was the friggin’ sand. Those first couple of weeks the heat bothered him the most– no question. This place felt less than a mile from the sun.
Dry heat my ass!
On that first day only eleven weeks ago, John had stepped through the door of the C-17 transport plane and sucked in his first breath of desert air.
Sweet mother of god! My throat is going to burst into flames.
But he had adapted since then: now he barely even noticed the constant film of sweat that painted his body, trickling from his head to between his toes inside damp boots. Now it was the sand– everywhere, all the time. Nothing escaped the fine layer of grit, not even the lining of his lungs. Brushing his teeth had a disgustingly grainy feel and no amount of swishing with sandy water made it better. At meals, an audible crunch! crunch! accompanied every bite. At night a fine layer of sand invaded his rack and sheets, sticking to his skin. Yeah, definitely what sucked was the sand.
John worked at the far end of the tent city compound in the Fleet surgical hospital. The work came in spurts– long dull days when his surgical team received no wounded Marines, punctuated by the hysteria of hours and hours of mass casualties. It was nothing like medical school or surgery residency. They hadn’t prepared him for this place. But he felt proud of his team. Here, he made a difference.
Not that his pride would ever offset the terrible emptiness of being away from his wife and little boy. He ached for Claire and Jordon. In just a moment, though, he would close that gap a little. A smile tugged the corners of his mouth upward as he headed to the opposite end of the compound, to a small, square tent with one wooden step up. The expensive electronics and communication gear inside took his mind off the hated sand. This was the comm tent, the communications center of the compound. In the “internet café” across the way (a cruel exaggeration for the long wooden hut with a row of ten work stations), computers connected John and his comrades to the world beyond the sand. They captured the tiny, invisible electrons that bounced from heavenly satellites, and gave the troops of Alpha Surgical Team their most important morale boost. From there, John could access his personal military e-mail account. He had been aggressive about getting on the list for his turns at the computer, so he could stay in touch with home about every other day. By drafting letters in advance, he could use his limited time for reading instead of composing. He liked emailing home, but lived for receiving emails. Claire would write in her own easy, just-saw-you-this-morning style, making John feel that he could almost hear his son’s giggles, smell his house and his wife’s hair. It felt good–and it hurt.
But here, in this tent, John got the real luxury, about once a week or so, of The Call. Ten minutes of real time, real voice, honest to God phone time. What would the World War II vets think of that? They’d sometimes gone without letter for months on end.
War is still hell, but I least I can feel like a part of my family.
“Afternoon, Sir,” the corpsman said as John pushed through the canvas flap door. “Your lucky day, eh sir? I’ll Try and squeeze an extra minute or two for you.” The young man, HM2 Santiago, accepted the piece of paper with the number for John’s home in Virginia.
“Thanks, HM2. I appreciate it.” Claire would be waiting, having gotten a rough estimate of time by email the day before. He always sent her that bit of info, terrified of the impact that an un-answered or missed call would have on his mental health. John felt like a kid at Christmas. He couldn’t wait to hear her sweet voice, and to talk to his best buddy, Jordan.
How much harder would this be, if Jordan wasn’t old enough to talk on the phone?
A minute later, HM2 Santiago handed him the receiver and John held it to his ear. He listened to the bizarre clicks and whistles from the satellite bleed-over and waited with fragile patience for a firm connection. He wondered if his time started when he got the phone or when the connection was made. Funny he had never thought about that before. He decided to ask HM2 when he was done. John felt his pulse quicken with anticipation when he finally heard a tinny ringing sound on the line.
“Got it!” he exclaimed like an excited kid, giving HM2 Santiago a thumbs up. The corpsman smiled and returned the thumb salute before walking casually to the far side of the cramped comm tent.
Halfway through only the second ring he heard a crackling click and then–“Hello?” Her voice was barely blurred by static, and John could hear the excitement. “Hello, John? Sweetheart, is that you?”
John closed his eyes tightly and the tears squeezed out onto his cheeks.
“It’s me, baby. Oh, God your voice sounds great! How are you? How’s Jordan?”
He heard a clattering of activity over the line. In the distance he heard his wife talking to their four year old. “Just a second, Jordan, hold on.–Baby I love you I love you I love you! I wanted to get that in, in case we lost the connection. Now I’m going to let Jordan talk for a few minutes before he explodes! Okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” John heard himself shouting, despite the good connection.
Far away he heard “Ok, Jordan here he is. Here’s Daddy.”
“Hi Daddy, where are you?” Crystal clear and very loud and excited. The sound of Jordan’s little-boy-trying-to-be-a-man voice was both soft music and a fist clutched around his throat. He wiped the tears from his cheeks.
“Hey there little buddy. Dad is still over here taking care of the soldiers fighting the bad guys. How are you doing? I miss you so much.”
“Are you in the desert, Daddy?”
“Yes, son. Daddy is still over here taking care of the soldiers.”
The brief silence on the other end of the line was deafening. John was almost ready to say something, when his son spoke again. This time his voice sounded smaller and younger.
“I don’t want you to stay in the desert Daddy. I’m scared the bad guys will come and hurt you.”
“Oh, Jordan, no. Daddy isn’t going to get hurt.” Tears filled his eyes again. “I’m taking care of the soldiers. Daddy’s not fighting. Remember I’m a Doctor?”
“Yes,” said the still small voice.
“Well Daddy is just here being a Doctor and taking care of soldiers if they get hurt,” a pause again. “Okay, Buddy?”
“Okay, Daddy. But, Daddy–” John pictured his little boy’s beautiful face and the way he wrinkled his brow like a little old man when he was thinking. He waited for his son to get his thoughts together, but unconsciously looked at his watch. “Daddy, do you have a gun to shoot the bad guys if they come and try to get you?”
John felt absently at the empty space on his right hip where his issued nine millimeter handgun was supposed to be hanging and then lied to his son. “Yes, Jordan I do. But I won’t need it because the bad guys are going to leave me alone, okay?”
“Okay, Daddy!” The voice sounded bright and happy again. John felt his heart in his throat at the thought of his precious and innocent little guy at home worrying about him getting hurt. “Daddy, guess what we did in school today?”
“What did you do, bear?”
“Well. Daddy, Um…..At school today, you know what? Daddy, me and Max were playing on the tire swing and then Ms. Jessica was pushing us. And then we went around in a circle!” Jordan’s laugh sounded more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined. He started laughing too, though he didn’t really know why.
“That’s fun, Jordan! That sounds REAL fun. What else did you do?”
“Oh, well…..You know what else? We made pictures of houses and then we had to put in the beds and the potty chairs and all that stuff. And Daddy, guess what?”
“Daddy, Tyler is having a party to be four years old. And then a cowboy is going to be there.”
“Wow, Jordan. A real cowboy? “
“Yeah, Daddy a real one and everything. And there will be games and snacks and the cowboy won’t have a horse because they can’t go in the house. Daddy, can horses go in the houses?”
“No, son, not usually,” John smiled and cried at the same time now. He hoped Jordan could only hear the smile.
“Yeah, I know they can’t,” his four-year-old said matter-of-factly. “So the cowboy will leave the horse at his house. That’s called a ranch Daddy–”
Shouting and the commotion of people running outside the comm tent distracted John from his son’s story. What the hell? Jordan continued to chatter excitedly about Tyler’s birthday party, but John had trouble following what he was saying. He lowered the satellite phone from his ear and looked over at the corpsman who stood politely on the far side of the tent to eavesdrop a little less in the cramped space.
“HM2, what the hell is going on out there?” he asked, palm over the phone.
“Don’t know, sir” the young man answered. “Let me check it out.”
Just as the corpsman approached the door to the tent, a high pitched, screaming whistle pierced the quiet, followed by a loud explosion, which rattled the desk John sat on. A snowfall of sand from the tent crossbeams sprinkled down on them as a gritty mist.
“Oh, shit–” HM2 hollered, dropping to a crouch beside the tent flap which served as a door. “Rocket attack!”
John had already dropped to his knees. From the phone receiver he heard his son’s quivering voice.
“Daddy, what’s wrong?” John heard his son holler away from the phone. “Mommy, Daddy’s not saying anything”
He crouched lower and tried to calm his own quivering voice as the sound of small arms fire cracked sporadically from outside.
“Jordan, listen. It’s Daddy,”
Only silence, but he could hear his sons sobbing.
“Jordan, are you there?”
“Yes,” a tiny voiced said. “What’s the matter Daddy?”
“Jordan, Daddy is fine, but I have to go do something real quick, Okay? Daddy has to go, but I’ll call you back.”
“Will you call me right back, Daddy? Do you promise?”
“Jordan, I will call you as soon as I can. Daddy loves you and I will call you as soon as I can. Tell Mommy I had to go, but I will call again.”
“Okay–.” Tiny. Hushed.
“It’s okay, Jordan I WILL call back. I promise.”
“Okay, Daddy. Call me right back.”
“I love you, Jordan.”
“I love you, Daddy.”
John clicked off the receiver and dropped it to the ground. Then he crawled on all fours over beside HM2 who still crouched beside the door. The corpsman had his pistol in his hand, the hammer back. John suddenly wished he had his weapon with him, although he had not – despite regulations – carried it a single day since his arrival. The corpsman beside him looked rattled, but not as scared as John felt.
“What the hell is going on, HM2?” John didn’t think his voiced sounded too frightened. “Are we under attack?”
John cringed as another rocket screamed over their tent in reply, the explosion this time followed a second later by someone screaming in pain. A woman’s screams.
“Apparently so, Sir,” HM2 replied. John didn’t think there was sarcasm, but definitely fear in the corpsman’s voice. “I can’t see shit.”
John felt suddenly very naked and vulnerable, protected only by a thin canvas tent and a twenty-four-year-old with his handgun. He heard more small arms fire, this time mixed with automatic machine gun fire– louder and deeper–the M240G from the other side of the compound. He could hear Marines shouting, directing fire and moving positions.
Son of a bitch!
“I’m gonna try and have a look, sir,” HM2 swallowed hard. “If it’s clear outside, I think we should try and make a break for the shelters.”
“Okay,” was all John could get out. He wished he could sink through the floor and three feet beneath the sand, too. Instead he crouched lower and concentrated on making himself small.
From the floor, John watched the corpsman shuffle forward on his knees and gently push back the tent flap with his handgun. John saw that the corpsman’s hand shook badly. Santiago peered cautiously out through the small gap he’d made in the door, bobbing his head up and down and back and forth, apparently trying to scan around as best he could without opening the tent flap any more. Then he let the flap fall back into place and turned to John.
“ I don’t know sir. I can’t see anyone right outside, but I can’t see much. I sure as hell don’t want to stay here anymore. What should we do?”
John gritted his teeth. Hell of a time to have to try and be a real officer.
“I’m not sure, HM2. You want to try and circle around the back, down by the heads and showers? Better cover, but a longer route, and more time in the open. It sounds like most of the engagement is on the other side.”
John jumped at several loud cracks of rifles. Probably the bad guys, but definitely not right outside their tent.
“Yeah, right over where the damn shelters are,” HM2 grimaced. “Shit, sir, it’s whatever you think. Why don’t we–”
He heard no rifle crack, only a loud whistling POOF! which caused the tent wall to move, and then HM2 Santiago lurched forward, his face surprised. His right arm went slack and his pistol clattered to the wood floor.
“Ow! Ow, shit!” His face still looked surprised, “Am I shot?” The voice sounded more amazed than frightened, but he had turned suddenly pale and a purple stain grew rapidly on the front of his green, military-issue T-shirt, spreading down to the waist band of his desert fatigues. Just as John reached for him, the corpsman pitched forward into his arms, the dead weight spinning him around so that the boy’s face looked up at him, the eyes unseeing. Santiago’s head slapped loudly on the wood floor, bounced up a few inches, then plunked back down and lay still. His eyes stared straight up and ahead into nowhere, his face frozen in surprise.
John felt for a pulse in the boy’s neck, but he knew there wouldn’t be one. HM2 Santiago was dead.
Holy Shit! What the hell am I gonna do?
He felt any semblance of control evaporate from around him. He snatched up the nine millimeter automatic pistol and clutched it to his chest, and crouched there for a moment– frozen, his hand not even properly wrapped around the grip of the weapon. John noticed the pool of dark blood around HM2 growing rapidly, preparing to lap up against his boot, and he pulled his foot back in revulsion. Somehow that, the familiar sight of blood, snapped him back.
He decided to try and make it to the shelters. He re-gripped the gun in his right hand and checked the safety off. He had never fired a weapon at anything but targets, and that only a few times to qualify before the deployment. He had not grown up around guns– had never hunted.
I’m a doctor, for Christ sake. What the Hell am I doing here?
He might not hit anything, but he realized that he had no doubts about his ability to point the gun at the bad guys and pull the trigger. He was terrified, and his fear erased any qualms about shooting a human being. He looked down at the dead boy at his feet.
He had no idea what was going on outside, but he grimly decided it was time to get out of here and home to his little boy. He gripped the gun tighter, still crouching, and inched towards the tent flap.
Like Santiago had done, John used the corpsman’s weapon to cautiously pull back the tent flap. He could hear movement outside, but it didn’t seem to be too close. Looking through the small slit he had created in the door, John scanned around the area outside as best he could. Nothing. He crouched like that for a moment, unsure. Then he rose slightly and pulled the tent flap open a bit more.
John stood up and pushed through the canvas door, his gun held awkwardly in front of him. He moved slowly, but prepared to sprint to the safety of the bunkers. Then a sound to his right made him turn, his grip tight on his gun–his new-found security blanket.
He didn’t see anyone or hear a thing– no shout, no warning, much less the crack of a gun. Not even the whistle of a bullet cutting through the air. But he suddenly felt a dull slap, like someone had hit him squarely in the center of the chest with a bat. He staggered backwards but didn’t fall, the only new sound the grunting cough of air forced from his lungs. He stood for a minute, dazed and uncertain, his gun still pointed out in front of him. He dropped his head slowly down to find the source of the burning pain that grew like a spreading fire in the middle of his chest. On the front of his desert camouflage shirt a dark, coffee-colored stain grew.
What the shit?
He suddenly felt like he weighed 500 pounds, unable to fight the overpowering force of gravity pulling him down into the ground. His right arm remained fully extended in front of him as he sank to his knees in the hot sand, but the heavy black object he had been holding was gone.
What had he been holding? What the hell was going on?
Nothing came to him. He heard the bustling sounds around him slowly fade and disappear until he could hear only the rapid thump, thump thump of his pulse in his temples and the raspy sound of his own breathing.
He heard a whistling sound and felt the sharp burn of a second bullet tearing through his right shoulder. He spun around from the impact, but felt nothing except dizziness and nausea. Lying on his back in the sand he looked up in silence at a dark blue sky.
John watched the sky grow darker and darker and then closed his eyes.
I’m so tired. Just a few minutes of sleep. Then I have to call home. I have to call Jordan so he won’t be afraid.
The darkness swallowed him up, wrapped around him tightly.
Jordan…….I have to call my boy.
Thousands of miles away, Claire sat in a rocking chair– her fragile little boy, curled in her lap. She held him like an infant and he let her. He seemed much less than his four years now.
“Please give me the phone, Jordan.”
Claire rocked him, the front of her shirt wet with his tears.
“No,” he whispered, “Daddy is going to call me right back.”
She held him tightly and fought back her own fear. Her little boy needed her to be strong. But she had heard the commotion on the phone when Jordan had held it out to her, crying because Daddy wasn’t saying anything. She thought she had heard—well, she didn’t know what she had heard or only imagined. She did know she was terrified for her husband. She felt her precious boy shake as he sobbed and held him tighter. She let go of her grip on the phone, and he pulled it into his chest like a teddy bear.
“It’s, okay, Baby,” she said, kissing her son’s hair. She watched her own tears fall and paint a curious pattern on the leg of her jeans. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
She tried to believe that and held her boy and felt him hold her back.
John tried to focus his eyes through the greenish haze that now surrounded him with a different kind of dark, but could not. He felt a fear grow inside him at the deadly silence and the green haze in front of him. His mind searched its inventory for a reference and finally settled on something familiar–A blanket!
John pulled the green wool blanket from his face, the hazy green replaced by another green, farther away. The roof of a tent.
How long have I been asleep?
He sat up quickly. There was something he desperately needed to do, though he couldn’t think what it was. He felt stiff and movement brought nausea and dizziness.
“Take it slow,” a calm voice said. John turned his head and looked at the man in the chair beside him, legs crossed, watching him with soft green eyes and a patient smile. The corps insignia on his digital Marine Corps cammies said he was a chaplain, his rank that of a Commander. His uniform looked crisp and clean, and his desert boots were perfect, as if they had just come out of the box.
John scanned around the large open tent, empty except for the single stretcher suspended between two saw horses on which he now sat. The room was huge, well lit, and unfamiliar.
“Where am I?” John asked, swinging his legs slowly over the edge of his stretcher. His fear evaporated, calmed away by the stranger’s soft face and melodic voice.
“Ar Rutbah, remember?” The man’s voice sounded surreal to him.
“Who are you?” John asked dropping a few inches to the wood floor on unsteady legs. He felt a firm, strong grip on his arm and looked to see the stranger beside him, steadying him. He had not seen the man rise from his chair, and he looked and saw that the chair was no longer even there.
What the Hell?
John wanted to be afraid again, but the stranger’s touch on his arm filled him with warmth and calm.
“I am Matthew.” The stranger wrapped his arms around him in an intimate embrace, which for some reason did not feel inappropriate. Then he released John from the hug, and held him out at arms length, smiling a radiant smile.
John smiled back awkwardly and looked around again.
“Well, Matthew, just what the hell is going on?” He felt calm, happy, despite his curiosity.
Suddenly memories came crashing down on him. Images flashed before his eyes like little picture explosions. The phone, the rockets, gunfire, HM2’s dead stare. Then a brilliant flash preceded an image of a bullet tearing through his chest, the hot sand on the back of his head, the blue, darkening sky. John stumbled back against the stretcher, which shook loose from its sawhorse cradle and fell to the wooden floor with a loud, echoing crash. John’s hands went instinctively to his chest and shoulder. His fingers and eyes searched frantically for terrible wounds. His green T-shirt felt dry and looked clean, and he pulled it up in a panic.
Nothing. The skin on his chest and shoulder were warm and unblemished. No wounds. No stitches. No scar.
“What the hell is going on, sir!?” his own voice sounded shrill and raspy in his ears. “I was shot–there was an attack! Where is Santiago?”
John turned to face Matthew, and was surprised to find him across the room, sitting with his legs crossed. John again felt puzzled and a little frightened. He had not seen the chaplain take his seat.
One second he was standing beside me and then—
John noticed a second chair beside Matthew, whose face remained calm and almost glowing. The same, simple smile. He motioned to the chair beside him.
“Sit with me a moment, John. Relax and calm down. Everything is fine and you are okay.”
John hesitated, but again felt a strange calm spread over him. He felt certain that he was going crazy, but at the moment he didn’t care. He sat down slowly in the chair beside the chaplain. Matthew placed a hand soothingly on John’s bare arm.
“HM2 Santiago has gone home,” he said simply.
“But how?” John asked. “He was dead. I was there. I saw him die.”
“Santiago is fine, and he is home. You–” Matthew paused, leaned forward, and rubbed his chin. “Well, you are a bit more complicated, I am afraid. You need to go home, too, but you’re not ready.”
John looked deeply into Matthews deep green eyes, looking for answers, but seeing none.
“Home?” he asked simply. Then he remembered. The phone call. Jordan.
My God, he must be terrified!
John had to get to a satellite phone.
“I need to call home, sir. I have to call my boy. I was on the phone with him when the attack started. He’ll be terrified. Are there any communications working?” John looked pleadingly at the kind face beside him. “Please, sir. It’s important.”
Matthew sat for a minute, apparently contemplating something.
“Well, it’s really against policy. Perhaps we can work something out in a little while, when things are clearer.”
And then he was standing beside John, his hand outstretched to help him up from his chair. John felt no surprise this time that the other chair, the one the chaplain had been sitting in, was no longer beside him.
“Shall we go?”
“Home?” John asked, his voice quivering.
“Of course, John. We have a long way to go and we really should get started. We can call Jordan in a little while.”
John took the hand and rose from his chair. There were so many questions. Why could he not think of them?
“Ok,” he said simply. And they walked towards the door at the far side of the tent together.
To Jordan and Claire.
Claire watched Jordan from the door of his room. Her son sat quietly on the floor, playing with his toy animals halfheartedly, his toy phone clutched tightly in his left hand as it had been for weeks. She tried many times to get him to let it go. She tried to explain in simple ways, as the family support counselors had suggested, what was going on. Jordan always, calmly, refused.
“Daddy is going to call me,” he would say simply.
Claire felt the tears stream down her face again as she watched her son, his face so much like his father’s. Then a sharp sound made her jump and she felt her pulse quicken. There was a short pause and then the tinny pretend ring of Jordan’s toy phone sounded again. She watched Jordan put down his stuffed toy monkey and turn to her and smile an excited and knowing smile as he raised the phone to his ear. Claire covered her mouth in anguish at Jordan’s sad fantasy, and unable to do anything else she pulled herself from her son’s doorway and leaned against the hallway wall, crying.
“Hello,” her son’s little voice said timidly. There was a long pause and then–
“Yes….Ok….Yes…Yeah?….Ok…….Ok, bye, bye”
Claire heard the sound of little feet running across the floor, and then Jordan was beside her. His arms wrapped around her leg and he smiled up at her, his phone still clutched in his hand. Claire swept him up and held him tightly in her arms, crying uncontrollably now. Jordan laid his head on her shoulder and patted her on the back.
“It’s ok, Mommy,” he said, his voice still happy. “It was Matthew. Daddy is ok, but he can’t come to the phone. Matthew says he has to go home, but he can call me later.” Jordan raised his head off her shoulder and put a small warm hand on her cheek. His blue eyes looked happy and alive.
“It’s ok, Mommy. Daddy will call.” Then he laid his head back on her shoulder. Claire clung to her son and then found her voice.
“Jordan, who is Matthew?” she finally asked softly, unsure why she felt so afraid.
Jordan held her calmly and left his head on her shoulder.
“Daddy’s friend. He’s helping Daddy get home.”
She felt him hug her softly and she held him for a long time in the hall.
The bright sun didn’t seem particularly blinding, even without his sunglasses that the Plans, Operations, and Medical Intelligence briefers had warned him always to wear. Stranger than that was how comfortable he felt. He could tell it was hot, but the heat did not suck the strength from him as it had always done before.
Slightly ahead of him, Matthew walked effortlessly through the sand. John had no idea how long they had walked, and he calmly gave up the idea that he retained any sense of time. Earlier, after what had seemed only moments of walking, he had glanced back at the compound and seen nothing– no tent, no people, only an endless stretch of rolling sand. He followed Matthew in contented silence for what might have been hours or minutes, but now he felt lonely for conversation.
“Where are you from?” John asked. He could feel the smile from his new friend, although he couldn’t see his face.
“Many places,” Matthew answered simply. “I go where I’m needed. Most recently I have been needed here in the Middle East, but I’m comfortable here. My family is from not to very far from here originally.”
“Yeah, well that’s the Navy, I guess,” John agreed.
“Yes,” Matthew answered simply.
They walked quietly for a few more minutes– or hours, or days.
“Where are we going?” John asked finally.
“Home,” Matthew responded.
“Well, right, but where are we headed now?” John asked. Strange he had not thought to ask that sooner. He felt as if he already knew the answer, but it hung just outside of reach. His forehead wrinkled as he searched for something. But, what? Then he stopped and stood still in the field of sand.
“Matthew,” he said softly. “Why haven’t we seen anyone else? Why are we walking instead of riding in a Humvee or flying out in a Blackhawk? Why are we alone out here?”
Matthew stopped and turned patiently to face him.
“You know the answer to that, don’t you John?”
John thought for a moment. He felt his new friend was right– that there was some big answer he knew, but he still couldn’t get his hands around it.
“I think so,” he said, “but I can’t grab it.”
“Yes,” Matthew responded simply. Then he turned and John followed him, continuing their trek through the desert towards nowhere, but somewhere important.
“But, Mommy, what if he calls?” Jordan asked and shoved his little arms into the toddler sized blue blazer behind him, struggling with his left hand, which still clutched the toy phone firmly. Claire smiled a real smile, maybe her first in months, at the sight of her little boy in his little man church clothes. So beautiful. So very much a small version of John.
“Honey, we talked about this. What is special about when we are at Church?”
Jordan scrunched up his forehead and thought. “We can talk to God?”
“That’s right, Jordan. We can talk to God, and make sure he is taking care of Daddy, right?” Claire felt the familiar burning pain in her throat and chest and swallowed it away. She had promised herself that she would not cry in front of her little boy anymore.
“Right,” Jordan said without much conviction. “But, Mommy, Matthew is already taking care of Daddy, he promised. And God never answers me out loud and Daddy said he would call.” He pouted.
“I know, baby,” Claire said softly, kneeling in front of her little boy, and holding his little arms softly in her hands. Then she thought for a minute. “You know what else we can do in church, Jordan?”
“What?” He asked, looking at his feet.
“We can talk to Daddy, too,” Claire said, mustering a happy sound in her voice.
Jordan’s eyes lit up.
“We can?” he said, his voice full of awe at this new idea. “Will he talk back to me?”
“Yes, Jordan. If we talk to Daddy in our heads when we pray, and we try really hard to hear him, he may answer us in our heads, too. I talk to Daddy every night when I pray, and sometimes I think he can hear me. Do you want to try?”
“Yes, Mommy.” Jordan hugged her neck tightly, his phone still tight in his hand. Claire bravely fought back her tears.
Jordan let go of her and walked quickly to the garage door. Then he stopped and looked over his shoulder at her, his face beaming. “Come on Mommy!” Claire took her son’s hand and opened the garage door.
“I can still hold my phone if I don’t make noise,” he informed her matter-of-factly.
“Of course, baby,” Claire answered and squeezed her little boy’s hand.
John trekked through the sand beside Matthew, lost in thought. Over the last few minutes (days?) a slow awareness had spread over him. He felt alone as he walked behind the chaplain, not exactly sad, but isolated.
“Are we nearly there?” John asked, unaware how much his sounded voice like his son’s.
“Are you ready to be home?” he asked without turning around.
John thought a moment. He grasped the full weight and meaning of the question for the first time.
“Yes,” he answered softly. “Yes, I think so. But….” His voice trailed off.
Matthew turned and held John by the arms, just as he remembered holding Jordan’s so many times.
“The love you have for them is a powerful thing, John. That love is not gone. It will never go away. What we leave behind for people is sometimes even greater than what we give them when we are with them, and it is a part of them forever. Do you understand?” Matthew’s green eyes stared deeply into John’s. He waited.
“Yes,” John answered softly. “Yes, I think I do now. But he’s so little, Matthew, so young. Will he understand?” He felt a tear run warmly down his cheek.
“He already does, John. Young ones see things so much more clearly. Do you want to talk to him?”
More tears spilled out of John’s eyes. “Oh, yes Matthew. Very much!”
Matthew took John’s hand and squeezed it, then started walking again.
“I think he is ready for your call, John,” he said.
The ring of the toy phone made Claire jump and she slowed the mini-van down as she watched her son in the rear view mirror. She said nothing. Jordan smiled and put the phone to his ear.
“Hello? Hi, Matthew, is Daddy there?……He does?…..Oh,…..yes……That’s what Mommy said, too!” Jordan locked eyes with her in the rear view mirror and smiled, then waved at her with his free hand.
“Ok, I will…Yes, I know….Ok……Bye, Bye, Matthew.”
Jordan smiled at her, again.
“You were right, Mommy. Matthew says I should talk to Daddy in church.”
Then he went back to flipping through his Nemo book, naming the fish that he saw.
“He’s almost home,” he whispered, and smiled.
They came to a rise in the desert sea, a dune that ran to the end of sight in both directions, and they climbed together, hand in hand, up its gentle slope. Just short of cresting the rise, Matthew stopped and scanned around in both directions, but it seemed more as if he was listening to something. Then he plopped down in the sand, Indian style.
Criss-cross, apple sauce Jordan would call it.
He folded his hands in his lap, and there he waited.
John stood for a long moment, and then, unsure what else to do, sat down beside him in the sand, legs outstretched, leaning back on his arms. They sat in silence, and just when the quiet was too much and John was about to speak, he realized what they were waiting for.
And he knew what waited over the crest.
Just inches and light years away, Jordan bowed his head in a middle pew of his Mommy’s church. He pressed his hands together in front of him, just like Daddy had showed him to do when he said his bedtime prayers. To those looking at him, his soft face looked much older than his four years, his eyes closed tightly. Daddy will hear me. Matthew promised
He concentrated with all of his might on a single word.
John felt that word, more than heard it, in the very center of his soul. It took his breath away.
The word echoed in his soul, and he closed his eyes and answered his son.
“Yes, Jordan! It’s me. It’s Daddy, baby, and I’m right here.”
“Where, Daddy? I can’t see you,”
“I’m right here, Jordan. I’m here inside your heart. Can you feel me here?”
A long pause and then the answer. Bright. Happy.
“Yeah, Daddy. I feel you. It’s better than seeing you, isn’t it Dad?”
“I think it can be, Buddy.”
“Daddy, are you ok? Matthew said he would take care of you. Is he there with you?”
“Yes, Jordan. Matthew is right here. Is your Mommy alright?”
“She’s sad, Daddy. Will she get better?”
John felt tears roll down his cheeks. He ached for his wife. To hold her. To comfort her. He wanted her to know everything was alright.
“Yes, son. You can help her, okay, Bear?”
“I will Dad.”
“Pinky swear, son?”
John felt the giggle
“Yeah, Dad– pinky swear.”
John pictured Jordan curling the pinky of his right hand.
“I have to go, son. I love you so much. I’m so proud of you, and I will love you forever. I’m so sorry I had to leave, Jordan.”
“It’s ok, Daddy. You HAD to go. Well, I just miss you, is all,” There was another long pause and then “Hey, Dad?”
“Can I talk to you again?”
“Whenever you want, Jordan. I will always be in your heart and I will always be listening.”
“Ok,” and then “Bye, bye Daddy.”
John walked with Matthew, hand in hand, over the crest of the dune. As he looked down, he gasped at what he saw. Then he smiled and, alone now, ran like a child down the sandy hill.
Jordan held tightly to his mother’s hand as he walked from the church towards their van. He was smiling and happy, and he had the knowing and wise look that only the very young can get, and then only rarely. He squeezed his mother’s hand and smiled.
His mother did not notice that his other hand, swinging beside him, was empty. In the middle of a long and otherwise empty pew, in the center of an empty church, lay his toy phone, forgotten.