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No Fear on Earth

by J. L. Schmidt

Sergeant Ledbetter discovered his favorite haunt home after his first deployment. He couldn’t sleep. One night he drove down the main thoroughfare and onto US-1 North headed for the next state. He entered trucker territory, out past empty church parking lots and rows of self-storage units, in between cow pastures and one story motels. He slowed at the sign flashing Night Moods and followed the gaze of its motionless fair-skinned blonde looking off toward an entrance not visible from the road.

He’d been here on occasion ever since and had never seen the same girl twice. He hardly remembered them either, except one, who went by “Angie.” She was tall with luxurious auburn hair, long sinewy legs she could wrap behind her head and small breasts adorned with sterling rings through the nipples. He made to touch her belly during a “private” dance and she flicked his hand away with a feline reflex. That’s when he noticed her wedding band.

Everything else about the place was unchanged. The uneven concrete floor remained grey and worn like the surface of the moon. The bar failed a tiki attempt without torches or totems – just a glazed bamboo counter in front of a mural-sized mirror.

This night Ledbetter sat at the bar and faced his reflection with a sweaty Budweiser in his hands. He was taut as a bed-spring. His heel clicked a frenzied code against the barstool; his elbows buttressed his slouch. He glanced at the stubble on his lupine jaw then scanned the area behind him.

The place was horribly lit. There were many dark corners. The only light came from neon signs near the bar, sparse red floor lights pointed at the stage and long tubes of black light above it. Such spotlight turned the girls into psychedelic devils with flawless skin. The whites of their eyes glowed; their acrylic nails left tracers where they danced.

On stage now the girl wore a string bikini top and briefs patterned with intricate chevrons. When she spun around, the arrows caught the black light and made her underwear shine like silver.

A small place like this, off the interstate, next to the trucker motel, it could go seedy very easily. Ledbetter found it quaint. His first night here, Angie led him to a red room no bigger than a bathroom stall and into a throne-like chair. She maneuvered her legs over and across his lap as purposefully as walking a tightrope. She was so close to him, he saw the tender blonde hairs that covered her torso like down.

“No touching? In this place?” he said.

“No touching,” she said, “on me.”

“Your old man wouldn’t like it?”

She took his hands in her own and arched her back slowly until her head hung between his feet. She pulled herself up, using Ledbetter’s stillness as a lever and whipped her hair over his head, letting the strands fall across his face. He closed his eyes and breathed in the scents of her shampoo, sweat and perfume.

“Never mind my old man, honey. Just do what I say.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said and opened his eyes.

The stage was low to the floor and the customers sat at tables pushed up around it, their eyes knee-level with the dancers. The place didn’t get too crowded and the girls were nice. None seemed professional. He didn’t have to worry about anyone bothering him.

As handsome as he was, he had a stare like a saber. And while slender, he emanated force like a coiled snake. The acute angles of his bones protruded in spots beneath intertwined muscles, encasing him in strong and thorny vines. He especially liked his arms and often traced with his fingertips, the serpentine trails of blood under his skin and down into his hands.

Tonight was cold though and tomorrow morning there would be the season’s first frost on the ground. Ledbetter wore a dark navy sweatshirt over a couple of collar-torn tees.

He looked down and watched his ringless fingers pull the soggy label off the Bud. Same piss poor beer selection as well, he thought. He tilted his head way back, drained the naked bottle and set it down as he wiped his chin with his sleeve.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Faster than it could flinch, he twisted, reached right and caught a bony wrist in his grip. Ledbetter looked into the face of an old man, the creases of his jowls so deep, they looked like parentheses carved out around his mouth.

“Jesus Christ, you . . . .” Ledbetter stopped himself.

“Whoa-oh-oh,” said the old man holding up his empty hands. He wore a black baseball cap emblazoned with an Army unit patch: a red and gold, lightning streaked tarot leaf. “Tropic Lightning.” Vietnam. Shhhhit.

He quickly rubbed his wrist. “You okay?” Ledbetter asked.

“I’ll live. Little on edge there, buddy?”

Ledbetter turned back to the bar. His heartbeat, which could have powered the earth’s orbit around the sun a second earlier, adjusted into a slow, full-bodied throb.

“No worries. I shouldn’tuv snuck up on ya like that.” He sidled up to Ledbetter sporting 70’s style sideburns and earlobes that could feed calves. He wore a crisp button-down shirt and baggy jeans. He motioned to the bartender, pulled a white cigarette from his breast pocket and placed it between his lips.

“You up from Bragg,” he asked, cigarette flapping. “Haven’t seen many of you guys up here lately.” The beers arrived; he nodded at Ledbetter.

“I just got back.” Ledbetter reached for his wallet.

“Don’t worry about it. He knows I’ll take care of him later. Don’tcha kemosabe?” The bartender ignored the vet. He leaned against a fridge, folded his arms across his chest and returned to staring at the girl on stage. His hair a black mullet; his skin tawny. His dark eyes like a hawk honed in on one spot, saw the whole vale.

The vet took the cigarette out of his mouth. He looked down into Ledbetter’s eyes like he wanted to remember the color. “Welcome home,” he said. He leaned back and lit a match. He took a long drag and longer to exhale. “I’ll say it again, brother. Welcome. Home.”

Ledbetter breathed through his mouth. “Thanks.” Wrong war. Brother.

“So what do they call you hero? You wanna come outside?” He winked at the bartender. Ledbetter looked at the bartender and back to the vet. “What’s outside?”

“Hank!” A nasal bark interrupted them. It was the owner, a pot-bellied yank named Marty. “Getthefuckouttahere with that thing,” he shouted.

“Shit. You comin’?” Hank said.

“No thanks. I’m good.”

“Alright, I’ll be back in a minute.”

“I was afraid you’d say that.”

Hank offered up a good-natured laugh, almost slapping Ledbetter on the back as he left before thinking better of it.

Alone again, Ledbetter recounted the beers. The place would close in another hour or so, maybe one more rotation of girls. Then he would have to restart the hundred mile drive. He rubbed his face with hands cool and wet from the dripping glass. He wasn’t even buzzed.

Next, in what felt like a beetle landing on his neck, fake fingernail tips gingerly scratched the base of his head. He swatted at it. “What the fuck?” He thought the old man Hank, the vet, had come back for him already.

“What’s your problem?” The eyes of a slight stripper bored into him. They were caked with black make-up and set deep in a face of alabaster skin. She put her hand on her hip, simultaneously shifting her weight to the same side’s foot. Ledbetter swallowed. “Shit, I’m sorry.”

“I don’t suppose you wanna dance?” She wore a tight red dress and an expression of time wasted.

Ledbetter looked her up and down. “Not right now, babe. Maybe later.”

“Suit yourself.” She no longer looked at him. He watched her march directly over to Marty near the entrance. From behind, she could have been a twelve year old tattletale.

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” Marty said, taking a turn behind the bar. “You doin’ alright?” He plucked the top off a Budweiser and tossed it in the trash.

“She complain about me?”

“She does that.” Marty handed him the hissing bottle. “How long you in town?”

“Just tonight.” Ledbetter ran a hand over his head. “Who is the old guy?”

​“Who, Hank?”

“Yeah, the vet. What’s his story?”

“He’s alright. Hangs around when he’s not on the road. Helps out sometimes.”

“I’ve never seen him before.”

“Keeps his trailer out back.”

“His trailer?”

“He drives an 18 wheeler.”

“He’s a trucker?”

“Obviously.”

Marty stopped fidgeting. He rested his hands on the edge of counter then slid them outwards as far as they could reach. Between them, his gut threatened to rest on the bar.

“How many times you been overseas?”

“Three.”

Marty shook his head. “Well thanks for comin’ man. You let me know if you need anything.”

Ledbetter spread his thin lips, revealing many teeth.

“Really. Anything.”

“Are you trying to thank me for my service?”

“Just relax, man,” Marty said. “You’re home now. No one is gunning for you here.” He looked beyond Ledbetter’s head, surveying his business – the smattering of travelers, infrequent customers, the odd regular or two.
“Go sit at the stage,” he said. “Enjoy the girls, alright?”

“Yeah, I will.” But Ledbetter didn’t move; instead, he asked about Angie.

“Who?”

“Angie. Tall. Long red hair?”

Marty’s mouth hung open.

“The one with the nipple rings.”

“Hasn’t been here in a while. I could call her? See if she’s home.”

“You can do that?”

“I own the place.”

“So she still works here? That’s what I’m asking.”

“Sometimes.” Marty pulled his cell from a back pocket. “It’s dead as hell but she might show up.”

“Actually, on second thought, don’t worry about it.”

“It’s no problem. She owes me a favor anyway.” Marty held the phone at arm’s length in his palm, toggling with his thumb. His eyes drew a tiny constellation on the screen. “Who should I say is asking?”

“Tell her Fred asked about her. She probably won’t remember me.”

Marty seemed to not hear Ledbetter’s reply. Out of the corner of his eye he watched a group of Mexicans grow impatient for admission at the door. “Fucking jumping beans,” he muttered and shoved his phone back into his pocket. He walked off, yelling at the doorman, “Alright, let ‘em in. But each one better have ID.” The doorman said in bastardized Spanish, “No identifica? No entrada, si?” and Ledbetter realized the music was paused.

The stage was empty. He watched customers in shadow: one pushed away from the stage and got up to take a piss, while another leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms over his head. A used car salesman of a DJ announced the next dancer.

Ledbetter squinted.

From behind the bar Hank stepped into his view and grinned. The skin around his eyes crinkled like wrapping paper. He waved his forearm mechanically – a decrepit, downtown Vegas cowboy.

“Anybody home?”

Ledbetter stared at him.

“C’mon man. I’m just messin’ witcha.” Hank let his waving hand drop.

The girl on stage now was a cute chubby one. She wore the classic Catholic school-girl outfit and smiled readily. She wasn’t exactly Ledbetter’s type.

“Can I getcha anything,” Hank asked.

“Where’s the usual DJ?”

“Who, the queer?”

“Yeah, with the sissy voice. David? Damien? What was his name?”

“Eric,” Hank said.

“Fuck. Yeah, Eric.”

Eric was the DJ-slash-janitor, sometime pole-shiner and stage-sweeper, occasional bartender and resident bitch. Ledbetter knew he was gay as soon as he heard, “Our next danssser guyzzz, is a gal y’all are alllll going to luv.” And he was reed-thin but the last time Ledbetter visited, his face was gaunt; his skin noticeably splotchy and peeling, even in the hellish lighting.

“He passed.”

“He’s dead?” Ledbetter raised his eyebrows.

“He got AIDS.” Hank raised his.

“AIDS. Are you shittin’ me?”

“I’m tellin’ you. He got sick man. Real sick. Caught fuckin’ pneumonia and died. He got to where he couldn’t even lift the mop out of the bucket no more.”

Ledbetter laughed like a witness to a bungled armed robbery. “Fuckin’ A,” he said.

​“Fucking AIDS,” Hank said. “I told Marty he oughtta get rid of him. Bad for business.”

“He wasn’t exactly the greatest DJ. I’ll give ya that.”

“Why would someone like him even wanna work here?”

After their dance and right before the place closed, Ledbetter posed the same question to Angie. She threw her head back in a full-throated guffaw. He watched the mounds of her esophagus move up and down. They struck him like something out of a fantasy book he read as a kid – like scales on a sleeping dragon’s belly. “Why would anyone?” she said. Then she deadpanned, “He picks up more cock here than anybody.”

Ledbetter just shook his head. The bartender, back from break, patted Hank twice on the arm. Hank looked at Ledbetter. “Mind if I join you?”

“I could go for another beer.”

“I got it,” the bartender said.

Hank scraped his barstool on the floor close to Ledbetter’s. When he sat their elbows bumped. Ledbetter pulled his arm into his body and propped his dimpled chin in his hand.

“I spent some time at Bragg. After ‘Nam of course.”

“Is that how you ended up here?”

“No,” Hank chuckled. “That was a long time ago.”

“I meant here in North Carolina.”

“I was born here but I grew up in South Carolina near Myrtle Beach. Just across the state line. You know it?”

“Heard of it.”

“It’s a party town if you ever get a chance. Got some great titty bars. Much bigger than this place. What about you?”

“Texas.”

​“Where at?”

​“El Paso.”

​Hank coughed up a laugh. “Well you just went from one armpit to another, didn’tcha?”

​Ledbetter blinked his eyes slowly. “Not exactly. I was first stationed in Hawaii.”

​“No shit. I was in 1-27,” Hank said.

​“I gathered.” Ledbetter tapped his forehead.

​One-two-seven, an infantry regiment nicknamed “The Wolfhounds,” for their fierceness in World War I Siberia. To Ledbetter’s generation the unit was best known as part of the 25th Infantry Division out of Hawaii called, “Tropic Lightning.” The last to leave Vietnam.

​Hank adjusted his visor. “Nothing gets by you, does it?”

​Ledbetter pressed his lips together like a bored chimpanzee.

​“What brings you all the way up here?”

​“You know, ‘back at Bragg.’”

​“I know they got titty bars closer to base, son. Seen ‘em all down there already?” Hank’s phlegmy laughter rose to the ceiling and dispersed. “You’re welcome here anytime. Good to see a fellow soldier home again. I know it ain’t easy, son. Believe you me. I know.”

​Ledbetter’s jaw clenched. You don’t know shit. Son.

​“It’s these fucking politicians,” Hank said. “We have the finest force in the world – nobody’s fighting that doesn’t want to – and we can’t just lay waste to these camel-fuckers hiding out in their caves? They should just get out of the way is all I’m saying. Let you do your job. Leave the fighting to the experts.”

​“I’d say I’m gettin’ pretty expert,” Ledbetter said.

“How many times you been?”

​“Three.”

​“Jesus. Iraq? Afghanistan?”

​“That. And then some.”

​“You got family? Kids?”

Ledbetter nodded and jostled on top of his barstool. “What are you smoking?”

Hank dotted the question mark of his face with a thick blink.
​“Cigarettes. What kind of cigarettes do you have?”

​“Salems,” Hank fingered his breast pocket. “They’re menthol.”

​“Can I get one?”

​“Sure. We gotta go outside though,” Hank said.

​“You can’t smoke in here?”

​“Marty doesn’t like it.”

Ledbetter rolled his eyes as they got up together and headed for the door.

​Outside Ledbetter sucked on smells of damp asphalt, rotting leaves and something burning. Above the horizon of dark pines a search light meandered. To the south, a distant city glow shone an orange aura into the night. Signs of life.​

The two men stood under a fog light mounted over the entrance. Ledbetter looked at their illuminated shoes, the sparkles in the rocks of the gravel and dirt patchwork underneath them and the few blades of grass that pierced through. He took a big inhale from his bummed cigarette then watched his breath marbleize with the dew.

“You’re really lucky, y’know?” Hank said. “When I got back, I couldn’t wait to rip that camo off and throw it away. I never wanted to see another uniform for as long as I lived.”

“I couldn’t sleep either,” he continued. “Well, I take that back. I managed to sleep but I didn’t want to. Had horrible nightmares. Horrible. Children on fire and my friends blown to smithereens. Holes in their faces and shit. Some nights I’d wake up thinking I was back. I didn’t know if I was dreaming or if I was back in ‘Nam.”

“Sometimes I still wake up thinking I’m there. To this day. Just the other night I woke up and started reaching for my rope. To make sure I was still tied to the tree.” He reached down and touched his thigh.

The cigarette anesthetized Ledbetter. The beers kicked in. Hank droned on and Ledbetter could have drifted off just standing there. He played a game with himself, predicting the type of approaching vehicle by the sounds rolling off the highway. He watched the trees slice at their headlights minutes ahead of passing.

“You ever do that,” Hank asked.

“Do what?”

“Wake up thinking you’re in a dream? Or not in a dream. That the dream is real? Like you’re looking for a glass of water, or the door or whatever. Then you wake up and you’re moving your arms, reaching out for it, like it’s right in front of you? That thing. Whatever it might be.”

Ledbetter nodded. “I’m going back inside, man. This thing is making me wanna puke.” He threw down the cigarette and crushed the ember under his boot.

Back inside, the girl now on stage was black. Her brown skin and satin underwear of a similar shade made her look totally nude.

“You say you been overseas how many times?”

“Third time’s the charm.”

“That’s rough. We were lucky in a way I guess. One year – one tour. Didn’t matter what unit you were with. Did your time, then you got out. None of this, making guys go back and forth every-other-fucking-year. Jesus. I mean, talk about not being able to wake up from a dream.”

The black dancer removed her brown panties. She now wore only a black g string – not much more than three ribbons tied around her haunches and through her legs. Ledbetter’s guts contracted.

“They oughtta bring back the draft,” Hank said. “Why the fuck should my generation be the last to get called up? What’s the huge secret, y’know? What’s the big fucking deal? They wanna fight so many God damn wars, it’s almost like they don’t wanna win.” He turned his head from side to side like he could only see through one eye at a time.

“Be sure you get something out of it is all I can tell ya,” Hank went on. “Get your education. Get a degree. Get it paid for at least.”

“I have a degree.”

“You an officer?”

“Master Sergeant.”

“You old enough to have your own platoon?”

“I’m 39.”

“Well you ain’t no spring chicken.”

“Look who’s talking,” Ledbetter said and Hank blew up in a
malignant laugh.

“You got kids? Family? How are they doin’?”

“Fine, I guess.”

“Divorced, I take it? I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be.”

“And your kids?”

Ledbetter pinched the bridge of his nose with a thumb and index finger. “Yes, I have three kids. I have two boys and one girl. They live with their mother in Texas.” He took his fingers off his nose – turned his palm toward the ceiling. “You wanna know how they were conceived and when? You know how children are made. Or you need me to explain that to you too?”

“At ease hero,” Hank said. “Just making conversation here.”

“I’m trying to drink here. Do I look like I wanna talk about my kids? My fucking ex-wife?”

Hank nodded. He took a few swigs and adjusted his visor again. “Thought you might want to talk is all. To someone who’s been there.”

“I didn’t come here to talk.” To you. And for a blessed little while Hank stopped trying.

When Ledbetter met Angie, she approached him. He had been dropping her dollars all night near other customers when she wasn’t looking. He would return to his spot at the bar and watch how she thanked them in the mirror. She wore an unusual one-piece with many cut-outs. It glowed lime green.

“Why don’t you come sit at the stage hon?” Her voice was soft but clear; her southern drawl, affected.

He turned toward her. She now wore a flimsy dress over her leotard. She had pulled her hair up and away her face. Slight perspiration still shone on her forehead and temples. A small curl near her ear stuck to her cheek. The blue of her irises and her glittery eyeliner reminded Ledbetter of sunrise over the sea.

“What’s your name?” he said.

“I asked you first.” She held her elbows in her hands and leaned her forearms against the bar.

“I like to watch you.”

“Obviously. You wanna watch in private?”

“What time you get off?”

“I meant a private dance.” She tilted her head, motioning to the booth in a corner.

“You wanna get something to eat? Let me get you something. Take you somewhere we can talk.”

“You’re not one of those are you?”

“What do you mean?”

She turned around and put her back against the counter. “It’s always the weirdos that just wanna talk.”

“I didn’t say just.”

“We close pretty soon,” she said. “How about that dance?”

“How much?”

“For you? On the house.”

Ledbetter spun a bottle on the bar. Hank stopped it before it rolled off and set it upright. The bartender continued the ritual of removing their empty bottles with one hand, replacing them with two full ones from the other.

“Three kids, you say? That’s great, man,” Hank said.
“Congratulations.”

“My daughter passed.”

“She died?”

“She was stillborn.”

“Jesus. I’m so sorry son.”

Ledbetter asked the hawk-eyed bartender for some water and tried not to think of her birth. She was the only child for whom he was home to help deliver and it had been a difficult pregnancy. They were at the hospital a whole day before the heartbeat went missing.

His wife was heavily medicated. The doctor warned him, he was going to break the baby’s neck to get her out – she was huge. They swaddled her in a white blanket and presented her to him. She was much heavier than he expected, like the largest matryoshka filled with concrete. Her skin seemed thick like candle wax and was bubbling.

The doctor said it was the effect of soaking in the womb. Something, he called it that sounded like decimation. Ledbetter felt he should say something but there was no one to listen. She was gone. A lifeless bug – a shed exoskeleton of something precious – already escaped.

“She would have been four this year.” He picked up his beer. “I got to hold her though.” He threw it back.

Hank nodded. “I held a baby once.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. I held a baby one time too.” Hank smiled.

The music stopped. The black dancer held the remains of her garments to her chest, lapped up some last minute dollars out of customers’ hands then shuffled off the stage with a full-fisted wave.

The stage was empty again. Ledbetter focused on the darkest point in the mirror in front of him out of which the next girl would soon emerge. He was very drunk. This must be what it feels like to have eyes in the back of your head. He laughed out loud.

“You think I’m joking?” Hank said. “I’m serious. I held a baby. It was the first and the last time I ever held one too.”

Ledbetter looked directly at him. I don’t wanna know where this is going.

A limited-time-only voice came through: “Next up gentlemen is a lady some of you may know. And for those of you who don’t, well, believe me, she is something you will never forget. She decided to come back and pay us a little visit and we couldn’t be more excited.”

“The only time I held a baby,” Hank said. “I still remember. Like it was yesterday. We came up on a village. It was deserted, of course. I thought I heard some kind of squeak or whimpering. Something small. Must have been crying. I walked toward the sound, pulled back the thatch and a blanket and there it was. A little baby. Naked as a jay bird.”

The music heated up. Ledbetter swished some warm water in his mouth and let it fall down his throat. He clung to the DJ’s words. “So let’s work up a big round of applause to welcome her back. Our own darling angel. Give it up folks, for Night Moods’ own . . . Angie!”

A familiar guitar riff crashed over Ledbetter’s head. Then all sound was drowned out by the forward march of blood in his ears. He was unable to remove his eyes from the vet, like he searched an old movie on rewind.

With puppet-strung arms, Hank picked up a ghost off the bar and nestled it against his chest, resting its head in the crook of his arm. He bent his other arm severely, flexed his bicep unnecessarily. His index finger and thumb popped out of his fist, forming a gun with his bare hand. The barrel moved closer to the crook and pointed.

Ledbetter looked up in the mirror and there she was. He last saw her five years before. She looked exactly the same. She wore an animal print dress like a second skin. She glided on spikes, squeezed the fireman’s pole between her thighs and twirled, her limbs like white risers whirling against a blackened, molten lava sky.

Ledbetter stood up, knocking over the barstool behind him. “I gotta go.” He took a couple of steps toward the stage.

“Alright,” Hank said and bent over to retrieve the fallen seat. “I’ll come with you.”

Ledbetter turned around. With one wide step he stood in front of Hank who had to rise sideways, then up from his crouch to meet Ledbetter’s eyes. Ledbetter stabbed Hank in the chest with a forefinger, fingertip to rib. “Oh no you’re not,” he said. “You’re staying.” He jabbed. “Right.” Jab. “Here.”

Hank missed Ledbetter’s forearm but managed to catch hold of his elbow. “You think you’re better than me, you little sonuvabitch? You think you’re some kind of hot shit that doesn’t belong here?” He licked his lips eagerly.

“FUCK you old man.” Ledbetter easily jerked his arm away.

“This is you, asshole. This is you someday.”

Ledbetter shoved him. He fell back against the counter. “I did what I had to do,” Hank shouted. “You would’ve done the same.”
Ledbetter pivoted, pulled his elbow back, putting all his weight behind his aim and punched Hank in the face.
There was some banging and a few yells but Ledbetter was too far down the well. He grabbed Hank’s collar and head-butted the old man, breaking his nose. It sounded like a rip in burlap and spurted blood. Ledbetter pushed Hank’s face with his palm, smashing his nose further, attempting to jam it up into his brain.

The bartender jumped over the counter with a swiftness that betrayed practice and pulled Ledbetter off. Hank crumbled to the floor, crying in agony.

Ledbetter was immobilized and dragged outside. He thought he was drowning. He struggled to break free – trying to reach the surface. Adrenaline burned through his muscles like acid. He could no longer breathe.

***

An overcast morning glared at Ledbetter when he opened his eyes again. He filtered the light through his lashes while his pupils contracted in pain. A giant pale woman – eyes shut against the day – slept soundly next to him. Wait. Above her face, Night Moods no longer flashed; the letters stayed dark like a cowhide brand.

He sat up in the driver’s seat. His body trembled as if it had been soaking in icy water for some time. His head was a glacier splitting down the middle; his jaw felt like it hung by a ligament. He pulled his arms inside his sweater and tees. He placed his hands into his jean pockets, fingers deep. He stiffened his body into a violent vibration and cracked the cold shell that had settled upon him.

Ledbetter looked around. The keys sat on a pink note stuck on top of the dash. He pushed his right arm back through its sleeve, picked up the note and brought it close to his face. It read in loopy cursive, Hey hon, So sorry about tonight. Wish we had a chance to talk. I hope you’re doing ok. Come back soon! XOXO. It was signed with a large and hasty, capital “A,” a bit misshapen but no less clear to Ledbetter – a five-pointed star to guard him on his way.

Jennifer L. Schmidt served as a Sergeant in the 125th Military Intelligence Battalion, 25th Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, HI, from 1998 to 2002. She works at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC, and recently earned her Master’s in Social and Public Policy from Georgetown University. This is her first publication of fiction and she is very proud to be a part of the Veterans Writing Project.

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