CHAPTER ONE HIS RECKLESS HEART
It was a day I’d been waiting to come for a long time.
It wasn’t easy to tell I was really excited about it or if I was dreading it. Both feelings came and went, clashing with each other and sometimes going in reverse to define each other. There were times when I thought about the date looming on the calendar and felt a heavy rock sitting in the bottom of my stomach.
I knew when that date came it meant facing reality, coming to terms with everything that happened, and having no choice but to force myself forward. But then there were other moments when I couldn’t wait. I wanted it to be there, to finally have it all behind me.
The only thing I really knew was that I’d been waiting for months and it was finally here.
I stood in the bustling Kabul, Afghanistan airport watching everything rushing by around me. Few people even seemed to notice me standing there, but I noticed all of them. I couldn’t stop the rush of my brain or the tension of my thoughts and my muscles. My senses felt too sharp, waiting for something to happen and trying to anticipate it.
I tried to stop it, to turn it off. That wasn’t my life anymore. It didn’t have to be. I didn’t have to be on full alert every second and try to etch every face, smell, sound, and word I perceived into my memory so I could bring it forward if I needed the details later.
That was what today was about. Soon, I would board a passenger plane that would bring me out of Afghanistan and all the way to Washington DC. From there, a connecting flight would take me back to Montana. Just the thought of it all had me exhausted, and I was only at the beginning of my journey home.
I didn’t let that go through my head very much. A lot of the guys got themselves through the long days by thinking and talking about nothing but their homes. It got to the point where I could perfectly describe their houses, dogs, and girlfriends.
Everything they left behind became the stories they told to push through hard days and dark nights. Those stories helped them cling to those moments and feel like there was still something to claw their way through every day for. It was like they believed if they talked about it enough, they would make it more real and be able to hang onto it. They wouldn’t lose themselves in everything they were seeing and experiencing every day.
None of them knew how many times I’d felt the opposite. I never talked about what I called home or what might or might not be waiting for me there. There was a house but no perky dog ready to jump on me and greet me with a face full of licks and no girl to wrap me up in her arms and make me forget everything else.
Sometimes, I told myself if I didn’t talk about it, I wouldn’t have to remember everything I left behind there. So much of me had already been lost. Talking about a past I would have to censor wasn’t going to make that any better.
The announcement came for me to board the plane and I tossed my duffel bag over my shoulder. A hint of nerves made my stomach flutter as I showed my boarding pass and walked down the ramp into the plane. As I made my way to my seat, those nerves turned into full-blown anxiety.
There was a time in my life when the idea of flying didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t do it much growing up, but there was a sense of excitement and adventure in the idea of getting onto a plane and soaring off somewhere. Not anymore.
For the last few years, I haven’t liked flying. Too many things about it brought up memories I’d rather not ever think about again. Loud noises were hell and could trigger a dark, terrifying episode I didn’t want to experience and, even less, didn’t want anyone else to see.
That meant having a random seat wasn’t an option for me. I had to choose my seat to ensure I was in a place close to the front of the plane and in front of the wings. Those were the seats kept most buffered away from the roar of the jets so I wouldn’t have to struggle against them through the whole flight.
There was another reason I was glad to be sitting in the front of the plane. It might not be the most logical thought, but I dwelled on the nose of the plane lifting off the ground first.
When I boarded the flight that brought me to my first tour of duty, I had a seat in the very back of the plane, and I looked ahead of me at all the people on the rows close to the front. When the plane took off, those were the first people to lift up off the ground. They were the first to really leave. It was only a matter of seconds, but I resented those seconds. They meant I was still being held back. I wanted to be gone too.
The next time I got on a plane, I was in the front and felt the satisfaction of shaving those seconds off. I was on my way even before the people in the back had left the ground. It was the same now. Only this time I wasn’t on my way into the fray but leaving it behind.
Once I was at my seat, I stuffed my duffel bag into the overhead compartment, pulling out the smaller bag I wanted to keep in the seat with me. I sat down and checked again to make sure my dog tags were tucked under the collar of my shirt.
A moment later, a young woman barged her way onto the plane. She was one of those people who didn’t take up a lot of space in terms of her size but made up for it in sheer presence. Nobody already on the plane could miss her. She managed to hit every seat she walked past with the backpack on her back and the rolling bag she dragged behind her. She walked past my row of seats, paused in the middle of the aisle, and walked backward to me.
“This is me,” she said to no one in particular and scooted sideways into the row.
The sound of her slamming the handle of her suitcase down into the hard case made my heart jump and my hand clench briefly, but I forced myself to take a breath and calm down. She stood on her toes to try to shove the case into the overhead compartment but wasn’t tall enough to quite get it in. Once her somewhat flailing attempt got it on the edge of the compartment, her small stature didn’t give her the leverage to actually push it into place. I stood up and reached for the case.
“Let me help you,” I said.
She looked relieved and gave me a wide, friendly grin. “Thank you so much.”
Her suitcase in place, I closed the now-full compartment and took my seat again. The woman plopped down beside me and let out a breath as she turned her head toward me.
“I’m Mandy,” she introduced.
“I am ready for this to be over with,” Mandy commented. “I don’t particularly like flying.”
“Then why are you on a plane?” I asked.
The question came out with more of a gruff edge than I intended, but if she noticed, she didn’t say anything about it. Instead, she tilted her head slightly.
“Because they haven’t built a bridge between Virginia and Afghanistan, and even if they did, I don’t think even my little Toyota has the gas mileage to get me over it,” she said as if the explanation made perfect sense.
I guessed it made just as much sense as me asking the question in the first place. “Fair enough,” I said.
Other passengers came on board and distributed throughout the cabin. Soon, the seats were almost all filled, and I heard the tell-tale sound of the plane doors closing. Suddenly, it felt like there was less air and I drew in a sharp breath.
Mandy reached down for the backpack she’d put at her feet and searched around in it. She pulled out a tablet and started swiping through screens. I didn’t want to seem like I was intruding by looking, but the way she turned it subtly toward me was like she was inviting me to. A selection of movies came up and she made a few contemplating sounds as people around us were taking their seats and locking their seatbelts into place.
Mandy didn’t take her eyes off her tablet but balanced it on her thighs as she secured her seatbelt and tugged it tightly over her. I followed her lead and ensured my belt was in place. A flight attendant took his place in the aisle and the crackle of the announcement system officially started the takeoff sequence. As the plane started rolling backward away from the airport, I felt the anxiety rising.
Mandy looked over at me. “Where are you headed, Jesse?”
“Montana,” I told her. “Green Valley.”
“Yeah? I’ve never been to Montana. I’ve actually never been to the mid-west. It’s funny, I’ve traveled all over the world, but I’ve barely even seen the United States. I’ve been to more countries than I have states.”
“I’m a journalist,” she told me. “That’s why I was in Kabul. I’m working on a piece about American military involvement in the region and the toll it’s taking on the locals.”
“That sounds interesting,” I commented, my hands tightening on the arms of the chair as I braced for takeoff.
“I thought so,” she said with a nod. “Everything you see is always about how the military is handling being away from home and what it’s like to try to get comfortable over here when you’re still thinking about home. There’s a lot of showing how the men and women adapt and bring little bits of the comforts of home to their time in service. Even how being around the locals and the different culture impacts them. But you don’t see anything about how the military being around influences the locals who aren’t involved in combat. I want to highlight them and what it’s like to live their normal daily lives when there’s really nothing normal about it.”
“That’s pretty impressive,” I told her.
I didn’t say anything about being one of those American military forces or what it was like for me, and Mandy didn’t ask. I didn’t know if that was because she didn’t care or because she could already tell and didn’t want to say anything about it. Either way, I appreciated it. That was the last thing I wanted to talk about right then.
“What is it that you do in Green Valley, Jesse?” she asked. “I’ve never heard of it.”
That inspired half a laugh, even though I’d closed my eyes and pressed my head back against the seat.
“Not many people have,” I told her. “It’s not exactly a bustling tourist spot. It’s just a small town surrounded by cattle ranches.”
“Do you think you’ll be able to see the ranch from the air?” she asked.
I lifted my head to look at her. “What?”
Mandy nodded toward the window and I glanced over to see the ground disappearing beneath us. She’d talked me through takeoff, so I barely even noticed the plane leaving the tarmac.
Giving me a smile, she turned on her tablet again and chose a movie. She offered me an extra pair of headphones and I watched the comedy with her while we continued to rise higher in the sky. It didn’t take long for her to fall asleep, but I didn’t mind. Pulling out the earbuds, I got the attention of the flight attendant coming our way down the aisle and ordered a stiff drink.
Letting the burn of the alcohol slide down my throat, I stared out the window and contemplated what awaited me at home.
Nothing. Just cows and grass.