by Michelle Bartz
The sudden dip in altitude nudges him from his sleep. The plane is landing. His chest swells and he is filled with anticipation and excitement. They’re finally going to see each other again. It’s been five hundred and five days since their last touch, their last kiss. He’s talked to her many, many times since then, he just can’t seem to remember right now any specific conversations. He knows this separation’s been hard on her. He’s heard her sobs and felt the pain in her voice. He can’t wait to see them; to gather them in his arms, pick them up and tell them everything’s going to be all right now. Will he even be able to pick him up? He’s five hundred and five days older. How much can a little boy grow in five hundred and five days? But he’s seen pictures, right? Surely he’s seen pictures. He just can’t remember right now.
The wheels touch down with a gentle bounce and he pushes back against his seat, savoring that familiar tug of his body being pulled forward while the brakes fight back and extinguish all the speed and power the plane has left.
He keeps his eyes closed, trying to envision their faces. He’s been gone a long time. He hasn’t done the best at staying in touch, but in a few moments none of that will matter. Soon he will feel her arms wrap around his neck, soon he will look into her loving eyes. He hopes she’s not mad. He hopes she understands. He hopes she forgives him for being gone so long.
He hears the excited chatter from those around him and opens his eyes. He looks out into the hangar as the plane slowly comes to a stop. He scans the crowd, searching for them. Others have gotten out of their seats; they’re leaning over him, crowding his view of the window.
He’s annoyed. He hadn’t caught sight of them yet and now he can no longer see past all the camouflaged bodies blocking the window. And goddamn do his feet hurt! They must have fallen asleep during the flight and now they are waking up. He reaches down hoping to rub relief into them, but instead feels wetness and pulls his hands back in disbelief. They are dripping and dark.
What the fuck? He looks down and sees his boots are filled with blood. He brings his hands to his head to calm his confusion. But his head?!? Something is wrong with his head!
The others are getting off the plane. It’s time to go. He tries to get up but he can’t. His body won’t let him stand. He calls out to his friend who had been sitting in the seat beside him. His voice is strained with fear; pathetic and pleading. From the aisle his friend looks back and sees the pool of blood seeping out from around his seat. His friend meets his gaze but drops it quickly, horrified at the sight of his grisly misshapen head. He is stung by his friend’s look of shock and pity.
His friend cannot help him.
He turns back to the window and watches as the first ones off the plane are swallowed up by the hugs of their families. His stomach falls. He leans forward and rests his face against the window, comforted by its soothing coolness. He gathers his courage and asks his friend to tell him what he already knows. “They’re not out there anyway, are they?”
His friend doesn’t look up. He keeps his eyes fixed on the floor; concentrating on the toe of his boot; watching as he pushes it down into the red soaked carpet and bloody bubbles ooze up. He cannot bring himself to meet his eyes again, fearful of what he’ll see.
“No man, they’re not,” he says quickly, then turns and walks away.
“Well I guess it’s just you and me.” He looks across the aisle in the direction of the voice and sees Ray. Ray couldn’t get up either. His melted body is fused to his seat.
Do any of them remember that first flight five hundred and five days ago?
I don’t know.
Do any of them think now about the two that aren’t on this plane?
I don’t know.
They were supposed to bring them back. Do they feel responsible?
I don’t know.
Did any of them try to bring them back? Did they imagine them sitting next to them on this flight? Did they remember them laughing and joking, healthy and whole; excited to soon be reunited with their families?
Did they look back as they exited the plane? Did they see how their burned and broken bodies kept them from standing up and walking off too? Did they feel the sadness of knowing their wives and children wouldn’t be out there to greet them? Did they feel remorse knowing their families were told to move on without them…to let go of their dreams for the future; to surrender any hope that they would come home?
Maybe some did bring them back. Perhaps they spent the long journey home imagining their bodies wrapped tightly in white, neatly laid out on twin stretchers; nervously glancing at them throughout the flight; uncomfortably stepping around them on their way to the restroom.
And when the plane landed, did they run away? Did they distance themselves from those bound bodies as fast as they could? Or did they stop, putting off their own homecomings to gently pick them up and carry them off with dignity…to grant them one final act of honor?
Maybe they tried, only to be shoved aside by eager soldiers dashing to greet their families. The bustling excitement knocked loose their hold and the stretchers fell; the hallowed cargo tumbling down the steps and thudding to the tarmac. The once neat, tight bundles now rumpled and exposed…trampled by impatient, enthusiastic feet; scarred with dusty boot prints; abandoned.
And no one there to care.
“We’ll be back for you in a minute, sir,” the medics announced to him as they maneuvered Ray onto a stretcher and down the aisle.
“No,” he said out loud to the now empty cabin. “No. I have to find out. I have to know for sure.” And somehow, someway he willed his battered and broken body to stand.
Lumbering down the steps to the hangar floor he noticed his wasn’t the only plane. There were many more; a diagonal formation stretching out to infinity, reaching well beyond the walls of this building and out into the night.
And from those planes came others like him, some walking down, some being carried. All accepting; all without struggle; all dutifully taking their assigned places on the prepared beds before them. No need for restraints, no reason for anyone to be strapped down. Here at the end, they all go willingly; their memories confronted, their truth acknowledged…the last measure of fight having been blown from their bodies.
But not him. He stumbled past the gurney, the one empty and waiting for him, and propelled himself out into the jubilant throng of happy families.
Hurry…move…find them, were his only guiding thoughts.
He soon became aware of a constant and steady pulse thumping in his ears, pulsating through his body. But he knew it did not come from him. It was not his racing heart. It came from somewhere else.
Don’t panic. He looked back in the direction of the medics. They were preoccupied with others, they were not looking for him. Calm down. Focus. Past them he saw the source of the beat…twin swinging doors rhythmically swishing open and swaying back shut; repeating the cadence as the next gurney in line rolled on through. One more in; one more gone. One more out of sight; one more out of mind.
Just find them. Sort through these faces and find them. But it wasn’t easy. His fellow soldiers were annoyed and disgusted by his presence. Their sneers and dirty looks told him he was not welcome here. And worse, their spouses and children dismissed him completely…as if they couldn’t even see him; as if he wasn’t there at all.
And his body didn’t feel like his own; it was heavy and numb. As he trudged forward his arms billowed out and thudded back against his thighs, taking him by surprise each time before realizing that the swinging stony slabs belonged to him. His legs were slow and shaky; he couldn’t help but fall into those around him. He’d grab at them to steady himself only to be shoved off and thrust into someone else.
“Dude, get the fuck off me! Can’t you see I’m with MY FAMILY!”
“Yeah,” said another, “it’s bad enough we have to smell your charred ass, we sure as fuck don’t want to look at you.”
Confusion and despair begin to overtake him. He looks back toward the swinging doors and that’s when he knows they’ve spotted him. They’re pointing him out and motioning one another to his location.
It’s now or never, I’ve got to find them. And then, amazingly he sees her; near the front. He’s certain. And she is looking for him too; stretching up on her tiptoes, scanning the crowd of bobbing heads for his. And his boy is there too. She’s holding his hand.
The other soldiers have given him doubt. He is suddenly worried what she’ll think of him. Terrified she’ll reject him too. No she won’t. She loves me. She won’t care about any of this. “Just come home to me, baby.” That’s all she ever asked.
He gathers all of his strength to push through the swarm of arms and legs and bodies to get to her. He takes a sturdy step forward only to stumble over combat boots that suddenly and purposely moved into his path. He strains with all his might to stay upright, to keep her in his sight, but it’s no use. As he goes down, he wills his arms outward to catch himself, only they don’t comply. His face and shoulders slam to the floor; his body crumples in a heap.
Desperately he tries to raise his head, to find her again, but the pull from the floor is too strong…his body is now immobile; completely unresponsive to any of his commands.
Frustrated and defeated he can no longer hold back his anguish. Deep, sorrowful sobs wrack his body; hot, wet tears fill his eyes and spill across his face.
Through the blurry maze of motion he sees a hand, reaching down, offering help. With no response to its offer, the hand grabs at the front of his uniform, twists into a fist and swiftly pulls him to his feet.
Once upright, his legs lock and he can now see toward the front. He anxiously tries to catch sight of her again. He is angry at his body for failing him; angry at himself for allowing his line of sight to be broken; angry at the boots for getting in his way.
“Sir…it’s time,” says the owner of the hand and the boots.
“Time? Yes! Thank you God! Time to finally hold my family.”
“No, sir. It’s time for your autopsy.”
For the Best
His friend is watching from across the way, up in the stands; shaking his head when he sees him slip past the medics and into the crowd.
He fights an impulse to intervene but tells himself, It’s all right…he won’t get far.
“What’s wrong…are you looking for someone?” His wife asks, not pleased at having to compete for his attention so soon and after all this time.
“No, I just thought…no, it’s nothing.” He doesn’t want to break his gaze; afraid of losing sight of him, but forces himself to focus all his attention back to his wife. He turns to her and can’t help but smile. He looks into her eyes to reassure her and tells her, “It’s all good.” He kisses her on the forehead and wraps his arms around her, squeezing her tight.
He feels her body relax and fall into him. He keeps holding her but scans the crowd again, hoping to see the medics escorting him away. But they are still unaware of his absence and it worries him that he has made it so far across the floor; much farther than he thought possible given his weakened state. He should admire his determination but instead only pities his sad futile attempt at delaying the inevitable.
Finally the medics take notice and begin making their way toward him.
“The two spouses are here,” he hears his wife say as she breaks their embrace.
“Should we go say hello?”
He turns to look in the direction of his wife’s attention.
There she is, her and the boy…thankfully entangled in a far-reaching receiving line of handshakes and hugs. But yet, her eyes catch his and they hold more than a passing glance. He nods, letting her know he’ll catch up with her when she breaks free.
“We’ll go over in a bit,” he assures his wife as he pulls her in close for another hug…this time able to let genuine relief pass through his body.
For down below he saw his friend being guided at last through the swinging double doors. He had walked in of his own strength but as the doors slapped past each other once more, he caught sight of his body finally laying down.
Silently he calls out to him, “It’s for the best, man. You wouldn’t want her to see you like that.”
Home Where You Belong
I know even if you had come home, our homecoming wouldn’t have been like the first part of this story. Planes don’t pull right up to the crowd. Instead there would have been a bus ride and a painfully long formation before any joyous reunion.
But as the redeployment date came closer, that is how I saw you coming home. The images of you there alone, hurt and confused, searching for us, wouldn’t let me sleep.
I considered going back for the ceremony, just in case. But I didn’t. It would have been too painful to witness happy families reuniting and then us driving away without you.
I don’t know why in the dreams your body is so fiercely connected to where you would have been during those five hundred and five days. When I’m awake I like to think of your soul wafting out of your body, blissfully at peace even before the blast hit. But if it’s not your soul that is suffering unrest, why does your body hold out? Maybe it’s the memory of goodness and love; happiness and desire and dreams of a future fused down deep within every cell that refuses to give up.
Maybe that describes my body and not yours. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to let you go. Maybe that’s why I created this part of our story.
This is the part that brings some relief and resolution. It’s the part I’ve imagined a thousand times and then some. It’s the part that keeps changing…written and rewritten, edited and enhanced to fit and fill-in all of the places and times I need you the most.
It usually skips over the awkward formalities to the point in time where it’s just the three of us driving home. Where there’s you…you smiling, always smiling. You’re anxious, yet patient; interested but so very tired.
And then there’s the excited chatter of a gleeful little boy, “Hey Daddy, guess what?” He’s talking so fast; beyond elated to have you as a captive audience. Feverishly filling you in on all you’ve missed; not willing to leave anything for later. You ask him a question and he beams…reassured that you’ve actually been paying attention.
What he shares with you has morphed over the years. I’ve been bringing you along through all of his passions…from Legos and Minecraft and Halo to hiking and sailing and trumpet playing.
In the beginning, he was little, still strapped in his booster in the backseat. Now he’s older, sitting up front. You decide to drive home and he calls shotgun. You ask him about the multi-colored string tied around his wrist.
“It’s a friendship bracelet,” he answers without any hint of embarrassment.
“I know it’s a friendship bracelet. I want to hear about this friend,” you say teasingly. You catch my eyes in the rearview mirror and we share a knowing smile. I think of how very soon, he’ll be the one driving. He’ll chauffer us home and you’ll be sitting in the backseat here with me.
But it’s the image of the giggling, excited little boy in his booster so completely overjoyed to have his daddy home that I cherish. I need that scene to cover up the very real memory of our little boy in the backseat sobbing uncontrollably after realizing that not only had you died, but that you had also gotten hurt. For close to a month he had been living with the knowledge that his daddy wasn’t coming home, but it was on a quiet morning running errands around post that he suddenly equated your death with bodily injury. He kept coughing out over and over, “I didn’t know Daddy got hurt,” and no amount of gentle words from me could soothe his heartache.
So yeah, I have this part of our story. It’s not confusing fragments of a dream like the other parts; it’s the part I control. It’s the part where I right a wrong. It’s the part where your presence erases all of the hurt and pain and sadness of the last four years. And it’s the part that always ends the same…you, home where you belong.
Michelle Bartz resides with her son in Bellingham, Washington. After spending nearly 20 years as a military wife, she became a war widow when her US Army husband was killed in a suicide bombing attack in Kabul, Afghanistan. She holds an MSA from Central Michigan University and currently serves as a director of the Josh Fueston Memorial Foundation, which works to promote awareness of military Post-Traumatic Stress and is a Service to the Armed Forces caseworker for American Red Cross.