G1 Chapter Fifteen, Part Five – Charlie Tells His Story

Author’s Preface:

This chapter is told from Charlie’s point of view except where noted. This is the first chapter I have ever written in the first person, making it a Farmer Legacy first! It’s a long one, so grab a cup of coffee or tea, sit back, and get ready to experience Charlie’s incredible journey—from the phone call before his fateful mission to his emotional reunion with Fran at the diner. Enjoy!

This chapter contains adult language and situations. Reader discretion is advised.


i.

— Charlie: Pre-Mission — 

“Frannie?” I say into the phone. “Frannie? Are you there…?” All I hear is grave silence—you’ve hung up on me. Not that I blame you, darling. You deserve better than what you’ve gotten from me over the past year. I shut my phone down, unplug it, and place it back into my footlocker for safekeeping, just in case I survive this mission. But without you waiting for me back at home… I just can’t let myself consider it. I check my watch—the pre-mission briefing begins in ten minutes. I swap out my standard uniform for my flight suit and prepare to meet with the squadron, hopeful that the conversation I had earlier with Lorne sank in.

When I arrive at the meeting tent, Jim’s standing at the front chatting with some other pilots. He sees me as I walk in and nods at me. He walks over and we make small talk until everyone else arrives, but he divulges nothing regarding the upcoming briefing. Once we settle and Jim announces the mission details just as they were earlier, my blood boils! It isn’t Jim’s fault, though. I recognize this decision comes from someone higher up—a man I thought of as a friend, but that friendship ends today. 

I duck out of the briefing a little early and gather my intel, then make a beeline for Lorne’s tent. He’s going to answer to me for making this decision, for allowing this suicide mission to proceed. I push past the two MPs standing outside of Lorne’s tent. I don’t even bother to wait for a formal announcement.

“Lorne! Why are you doing this?” I walk to his desk and bang my fist on it. “You get that you’re sending good men to their graves, right?!”

“Back off, Farmer,” he says. “Your opinions, your paranoia—they have no place here.”

“You just had to save face though, didn’t you? Your rank, your reputation—are they SO much more important than people’s lives?! You’re a selfish, lying, hypocritical bastard, Lorne, and we may as well add coward to that list, as well!”

“I did what I had to do, Farmer! You screwed this up. You and your little stunt at the strip club!! That affected more than just you, you know—it affected this entire unit! Before you call me selfish, look in the mirror. This mission SHOULD have been under your command, but your actions tied my hands!” He stood, planted both arms on his desktop, and leaned in close to me. “If anyone dies during this mission, Farmer, their blood is on YOUR hands!”

Angered by the accusation and the truth within it—the strip club incident is a sore topic with me, and he knows just how to make it hurt—I grab Lorne by his collar, draw my arm back, and land a solid blow to his jaw. Not one to back down from a fight since I’ve known him, Lorne wastes no time returning the punch. I try to dodge him, but he expects my move and lands it, anyway.

“Call it off, Lorne! These men don’t have to die!” I yell, tensing my arm to throw another punch.

“Like hell, I will, Farmer!” Lorne snarls back. “You’ve got no right—no authority—to come in here and demand ANYTHING!” He lunges at me, but I sidestep him and he falls to the floor.

“Are you kidding me? It’s MY ass on the line out there in that airplane, Lorne, not yours! You’ve got no stake in this!” When he gets to his feet, I attack him again. “No family waits for you at home! What about Frannie?” I catch him with an uppercut, knocking him off balance. “And what about my baby girl?” I strike again, adrenaline courses through my body. This blow lands on his cheek—the impact splits open the skin over his cheekbone. That one’s going to leave a mark, I think to myself, almost proud of it. I bend over to catch my breath. Lorne is reeling from the last hit.

“Punch me all you want, Charlie, this is still all on you. You botched this up—”

“I’m not the one who promoted Gentry, you damned moron! You know Jim doesn’t have the experience or qualifications to lead this kind of assault. YOU put him in command of the most crucial mission of this whole conflict to screw up! I’m not General here, Lorne, and if this blows up in your face as I expect it to, YOU won’t be, either!” 

Lorne stares at me, fury filling his eyes. On his feet, he strikes hard, landing a punch straight on my jawbone and I fall backward. I scramble to my feet so I take no more damage—I still need to fly this mission. I pull my arm back and throw another punch, putting every bit of strength I have into it. When my fist meets his face, my wedding ring connects with the bridge of his nose, carving a ridge into it, and I feel cartilage break. A rivulet of blood oozes from the top edge of the mark, but begins free-flowing from his nostrils. His hand wipes blood from his face—his fist clenches one last time. I brace myself for what I am certain will be a tough blow, but he stops, then spits a glob of blood on the floor.

“Court-martial, Farmer.” He points a long, slender finger in my face. “I’m revoking your flight credentials, effective immediately. You’re done here!” He barks, “Guards!” and the two MPs step into the tent, each one grabs an arm. “Escort Major Farmer to his quarters and confine him there.” He turns his attention back to me. “When this is over, Charlie,” he growls through his teeth, “we’ll take you into official custody, and you’re going to rot in the stockades until your trial.” He plops into his chair and exhales—I’ve worn him out. “Make your last phone calls home. You may never see your family again.”

I spit at Lorne, a scowl on my face. “This isn’t over, Turek!” I try to fight as the guards drag me from his tent.

A few minutes later, my cot squeaks in protest as I sit hard on it. It’s not my fault! I think to myself. I stop and hold my breath for a moment. Outside, I notice the roar of jets taking off on a mission doomed for failure. I hear Lorne’s words echoing in my head—it is my fault. My mistake caused ALL of this. I haven’t hurt just you, my darling. My mistake will cost my brothers their lives. There’s no decency, no honor, in that anywhere.

I need to fix this. If I don’t fly, I’m putting my brothers at even greater risk. Just one man missing in this battle will spell certain disaster for the entire mission. I figure I’m already in deep, so what’s one more charge on my record? 

Lorne’s got the two MPs outside my tent keeping watch over me to make sure I don’t rabbit. I tear the name patch off my flight suit and place it on my cot. Then I scribble a quick note to Lorne and leave it beside my name patch. A stray breeze blows into the tent and when I look up, I smack myself on the forehead. Without even realizing it, Lorne has presented me with a way to slip past the guards outside. This is my chance to make amends with my brothers for all my mistakes. I might never get the chance to redeem myself with you, but someday, when I’m gone, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.

*****

All suited up and buckled into the seat of my jet, I’m ready to go. I take your photo from my pocket and place it on the plane’s console, held by a clip intended for last-minute notes. Though your picture is lovely, I wish you were here so I could kiss you in person, maybe for the last time before I go. Even if I survive this, I’ll still face an abundance of fallout. I might never get home to you.

I taxi out onto the tarmac and see Lorne staring at me. He likely can’t see it, but I flash him a “V” for victory, then open the throttle on the plane’s afterburners. I can just distinguish the tailfins of the squadron ahead of me as I go airborne. I’ll be late to the party, but I will be there. 

A few moments later, I can see the squadron already flying in battle formation just off my two o’clock. And just behind them, I see thirteen enemy aircraft in kill formation closing fast. Damn it! I hate being right. I fire up my radio, trying to get a hold of Jim. His experience hasn’t given him the instinct to assign someone to guard their six. He’s only seeing the decoy birds ahead of them and the ground targets, unaware of the firepower coming up on their tail. 

“Jim, this is Charlie. Do you read?” I radio him. Static. Still too far away. I bump the afterburners again, speeding my approach. I get in radio range just in time to hear Jim give the go-ahead to engage, and they cross into enemy airspace. “Jim, this is Charlie. Do you read?!” I shout into my headset. 

“Charlie? Walker?! General Turek said you weren’t flying this mission, something about being sick…” he radios back.

“Let’s just say I made a fast recovery, Jim. Listen, pull the squadron back, buddy. There’s a baker’s dozen enemy birds coming up fast on your backside. The planes in front of you are only a decoy! Hell, maybe they leaked the intel we gathered about this fight to draw us into a trap!” 

“No can do, Charlie. This mission will end the war, and we’re not backing down now. We’d all like to go home—”

“Gentry, you idiot, you’re outnumbered two to one! You’re going to go home, but it’s going to be in a damn body bag!” I watch as the enemy Warhawks close on our fighters. I’m too far away to help. I watch as one of the enemy birds vectors off and heads towards me. 

“FU—” I don’t get it out before I’m being fired upon. Somehow, I’m able to dodge the incoming gunfire, but my antagonist is persistent. He’s closing on me fast, and we’re right on each other’s twelve. It’s a suicide runner—I’ve heard of them. He’ll find out I’m not going down without a fight.

I glance at my radar; the Warhawks are on top of Jim and his men. I’ve gotta shake this guy and help them out. 

“Damn, Charlie, what the hell do we do, man? They’re all over us!” I hear Jim’s panicked voice over the radio. “McCoy, McCoy, rotate right, you’ve got a bogey on your…” BWHOOM!! I hear an explosion and see a fireball where Jesse McCoy’s jet was.

“Dammit!! Jim, break formation! Break it or they’ll pick you off. You’re sitting ducks right now. I’ll be there to help you as soon as I can…”

The suicide runner fires another salvo at me. I bank left, rolling to avoid his fire, opening up with my anti-aircraft cannons. “C’mon, just a little closer, you sunnuvabitch…” I say to no one and everyone. I pulse my afterburners twice, heading towards him fast. He follows my lead and increases his speed, hoping to score an Allied hit even at the cost of his own life. 4,000 feet. 3,000 feet. 2,500. My collision alert light blinks on, screaming at me. 

“Johnson, pull up, man, pull up!” Jim’s on the radio again, his voice grows more panicked. 

“Cuh-Can’t, coming too fast, too fas—” radio silence, this time from Kyle Johnson’s plane.

I’m out here and my brothers are still dying. I have to get past this idiot. My meter reads 800 feet. I look out my cockpit and I can see the front of his Warhawk looming like the Grim Reaper in front of me. Frannie… 

In an instant, I’m out of my body, telling myself what to do. I reach up and kill the power to my engines. My nose dips and heads downward. The runner shoots past me, the bottom of his fighter clips my vertical stabilizers. My fighter goes into a flat spin and I smell jet fuel—I see it crawl down my cockpit windows. The impact must’ve pierced the runner’s fuel tank. His plane ignites into a fireball about 1,000 feet past me. I’m trying the stick to gain control of my plane. Just about there. WHAM!!! I’m hit by a piece of flaming debris, my jet lights up like a bonfire, and I’m still spinning.

“Jim, Jim—I gotta eject!” I hear Moore on the radio, seeing yet another squadron plane explode, but its pilot ejecting to safety.

“Gentry, damn it man, I can’t shake this bast—” Silence. That was Hound-Dawg, one of our best.

I kick my engines back on, but feel only one fire up. Now I’m spinning off-axis at a crazy-quilt angle; my stick may as well be dead. My finger moves towards the “EJECT” button.

“Charlie! Charlie, man, I can’t die like this, brother, what do I do?” I hear Gentry on the comms, almost crying. “I never should’ve…”

The spin is hard to overcome, and as my altitude drops, it gets more and more difficult. Use it… I say to myself.

“Get it together, Gentry! Take whoever’s left and clear outta here as best you can. I’m going for a Hail Mary pass” I radio back. I pull back hard on the stick. My plane’s nose comes up just enough that I’m not pointing at the ground.

“Charlie!! I’m hit, brother, I gotta ditch!” Byers on the comms. That only left Jim. 

“Are you clear, Jim? Do you copy?? Are you clear??”

“I’m—-bzzztt—cle—-bbbztt…” my radio dies as the burning jet fuel takes out my antenna.

Let it all go, Charlie… I hear myself say. I hit the “ARM ALL” button on my console and squeeze the trigger on my stick. My plane becomes a spinning, twisting fireball of death, bullets and missiles flying in all directions. The canopy on my plane disappears—the intense heat of the fire destroys its integrity. I feel burning jet fuel on my flight suit and scream. 

“Frannie, I’ll always lov…”


— Lorne: Twenty Minutes Ago — 

I’m watching the last fighters take off at the end of the runway. I see one last jet taxiing towards the long stretch of asphalt. Farmer. He makes a gesture at me from the cockpit, but the glare of the sun obscures it. Most likely giving me the bird. It fills me with both rage and sadness as I see Charlie’s fighter tear down the runway, go airborne, and disappear into the shimmering heat. I’m helpless to stop it, as helpless as I was to prevent him from screwing up at that club. My gut tightens into a knot when I think about our long friendship and the sad, but necessary, actions I must undertake when he returns. If he returns, that is.

A few minutes pass before I make my way to Charlie’s tent; the MPs still guard the front door. I need to know how he got past the men outside his quarters. When I step inside, I see it. Oh damn, I think to myself, that gaping hole Farmer’s been after me to fix. On his cot, I notice the name patch from his flight suit beside a note with my name on it. I reach out, hesitate, then pick both of them up. As I unfold the note, Second Lieutenant Canson pushes past the MPs and into the tent.

“General Turek, sir,” he begins, saluting. “You need to come back to the main tent, sir. We’re getting radio reports in from the squadron, and, sir, most of them don’t sound good.” 

I shove the patch and the note into my pocket and exit the tent, the Lieutenant behind me. 

“Have we heard anything from Farmer’s plane, Lieutenant?” I ask.

“Farmer’s, sir? I thought you revoked his credentials, and he wasn’t flying this—”

“I did, but he decided to anyway.” 

“In that case, sir, no. Farmer’s comms are silent.” 

We make it back to the Ops Tent, the air heavy with anticipation and a lot of fear. All the radios are chattering at once—voices and reports overlapping. “Can you clear any of that chatter, Lieutenant,” I ask the radio operator.

“I’ll try, sir, but we’re getting a lot of radio interference.”

Just like Charlie predicted. 

“I’ve got some comms, sir…”

“Well, let’s hear it, son.” I move in closer to the radio.

Ccsschhhttcch—Jim, th—s Char—zzz—e. Do you—ead?!”

“Ch—bzzzrrr—? Walker?! General Ture—ccschhttcch—k said you weren’t flyi—bbzzzzt—his mission, something—bzzzrrrzz—about be—g sick…”

“Can you clean that up more? All I’m hearing is static and pieces!!” I shout.

Though he’s intimidated, the radio operator fiddles with more of his knobs and buttons. “This is as clear as I can get it, sir—”

“Alright, move out of there, son, I need to hear this up close…” I place my hand on his shoulder as he vacates the space in front of the console. I turn the volume knob up as loud as it will go.

“Jim—bbzzzzrtt—sten, pull the squadron back, buddy. There’re—zrrrt—’s dozen enemy birds coming up fast on your backside. The planes in front of you are—bzzz—decoy! Hell, maybe they leaked the intel we gathered about this fig—zztzzt—ht to draw us into a trap!”

I grab the microphone in front of me. “This is Papa Bird calling the nestlings. Please respond…”

“—bbbzzzrrrccchhh—arlie. This—zztz—sion will end the war, we’re not back—zzrrt—down now. We’d all like—zzt—go home…”

“Attention nestlings, this is Papa Bird. Please respond!!” I shout into the mic. 

“—bbbrrzz—ntry, you idiot, you’re outnumb—zzt—ed two to one. You’re going to go home, but it’s go—bzzzrrrt—-be in a damn body bag!”

“FU—”

“Walker?! Walker? Dammit, Charlie, this is Turek!! Do you copy?? Do any of you copy??” I shout louder. “Why the hell aren’t they answering me, Lieutenant?”

“I—I—I don’t know, sir. They could be out of range. Antenna damage. Enemy interference…”

“DAMN!” I say through my teeth. I’m blind AND dumb. All I can do is listen. Charlie was right about everything.

“—bbbrrrrzzzt—ey’re all over us!” I hear Jim’s panicked voice over the radio. “McCoy, —-brrzzt—Coy, rotate right, you’ve got a bogey—zzzrrt—on your… BWHOOM!!” I hear an explosion. Jesse’s is the first blood on my hands. I fear it won’t be the last.

“—zzzztt—reak formation! Break it or they’ll pick you off. You’re sitting du—zzt—ght now. I’ll be there to help you as soon as I can…”

I reach into my pocket and feel the note folded there. Should I read the words there? Do I have the right?

“C’mon, jus—brrzz—ttle closer, you sunnuvabitch…”

“Johnson, pull up, man, pull up!!!” Gentry again, even more panicked. 

“Cuh-Can’t, comi—-bbbrrrzt—o fast, too fas—” radio silence.

I’m secured here on base, sitting on my ass, and these men are dying because of me. Because of my pride. My cowardice.

“Ji—brrzzt—Jim—brrrzt—gotta eject!”

“Gentry, damn I—bzzt—an, I can’t shake this bast—”

“Charlie. Ch—zzrrt—an, I can’t die like this, brot—zzzz—at do I do…? I never should’ve…”

“Get it together, Gentry—zzzrrtt—ake whoever’s left an—bzzzzt—ear out of here as best you can. I’m going—zzzzt—or a Hail Mary pass!”

“Charlie!! I’m hit, br—zzzrrrtt—otta ditch!” 

“Are you clea—zzrrt—im? Do you copy?? Are you clear??”

“I’m—bzzztt—cle—bbbztt…”

“Frannie, I’ll always lov…”

“Oh—no, no—bbbbzzr—lie, not you…”

Silence.

I push myself away from the radio set—my hands, my body quake in sheer terror. All eyes are on me, waiting on my next move.

I look up at Lieutenant Canson. He salutes, I salute back. “I’ll be in my quarters, Lieutenant. Get on the horn. See if there are available recon units for search and rescue.”

“Sir, yes sir!” Canson salutes again.

Once I’m at my desk, I take Charlie’s note from my pocket and unfold it:

Lorne,

Even though I know it’ll make things worse for me, I’m disobeying your direct order and flying this mission. You’ve read the intel. You know if we’re even one man short, this operation WILL fail and I can’t live with that. I can’t sit back and watch my brothers die, my hands covered in their blood. I know I’ll suffer severe repercussions, but I’ll do so with a clear conscience. In my heart, I know I’m making the right—the only—choice. I’m sorry we fought, old friend. All I ask now is one last favor: if I don’t survive this mission, please find my Frannie. Give my name patch to her for me. Hold her hand how I wish I could and tell her I’m so sorry I let her down. Tell her I will always love her.

Charlie

I was wrong, so wrong on this whole thing, I think to myself. And Charlie, you were right. I should have listened to him. I should have fixed this combat mission. But my ego was too important. My superiors couldn’t know that a subordinate outsmarted me. In my foolish pride, the one man I could always count on to have my back… is dead. His blood is on my hands. The other guys went into this blind. They didn’t know the risks. But Farmer… he chose to fly the mission, knowing full well it was suicide. Charlie was right; I am a coward, but he… he was the bravest SOB I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.  

I sit in my chair, his letter in my hand. All I can think of is Fran. She didn’t deserve this. Thanks to me, she’s a young widow. How do I face her? How do I tell her he’s dead because of me? I look at the heavens, my voice warped with regret. “Godspeed, Charlie Farmer.” I speak to him as though he can hear me. “Godspeed.” 

Overcome with guilt and shame, I unpin my rank insignia from my uniform—I no longer deserve to wear the stars—and place them on my desk, along with Charlie’s name patch and the note. It’s as though I’ve been sucker-punched in the gut ten-times harder than Charlie ever thought of decking me, and I can’t breathe. I know what I must do. 

“Guards!” I call the MPs outside my tent. When they respond, they find me sitting in my chair, my arms on the rests, my eyes stare forward into nothing. “Take me into custody. I surrender.” 

“With all due respect, General Turek, we can’t do that—”

I gasp for breath. Who sucked all the damned air from this tent? “Do it, officers.” 

“But General Turek, sir—”

“I said do it, officers! That’s a direct order.” 

They are reluctant, but as I stand, they each clasp an arm and escort me from my quarters to the stockade on base, right where I would have sent Charlie. Oh, the cruel irony.


ii.

— Charlie —

“Ugh….” I awaken to a mouthful of sand as a long, painful groan hisses from my lips. The wreckage of my fighter jet lies behind me in a smoldering heap. All I can smell is burning jet fuel and acrid smoke. How I survived that is anyone’s guess, but I don’t have time to sit and ponder it at the moment, to gather my thoughts. I need to move from the wreckage and the smoke plume, both dead giveaways for my position.

I try to crawl from the crash site and feel a searing pain in my right leg. A scream of agony leaves my mouth, and I try to stifle it, but I don’t succeed. I flip onto my backside the best I can. The bottom of my right leg makes a slight jog to the left. It, and the associated pain, let me know that it’s broken. I check the trousers of my flight suit for any blood and am relieved to see none. A break out here is bad enough; a compound break would be a death sentence.

I scan my surroundings, shielding my eyes from the bright sunlight. Between the shimmering of the horizon line in the desert heat and the miasma of pain coming from my leg, trying to guess my position is sketchy. I figure I’m about a mile from behind enemy lines. If memory serves, there’s a small village about five klicks to my west. Odds are, I’ll crawl there; that will take precious time. First thing I need to do is try to stabilize my leg.

I crawl back to my plane’s wreckage to see if there’s anything I can use as a makeshift splint. I push myself up on my arms and my good leg, trying to avoid moving the broken one. There’s a piece of straight debris sticking up from the wreckage, flames licking all around it. I take my flight jacket off and put it over my hands, then reach into the fire and grab the piece of hot steel. Must be my lucky day. It’s a strut from the nose cone assembly—aircraft aluminum, so not too heavy, but hot enough to be bent into a primitive “U” shape. I use my good leg to make the bend and, as it cools off, I slide my busted leg into the temporary brace. I need to secure it. Think, Farmer, think. 

My First-Aid kit burned in the crash, so that’s not an option. That’s when it hits me; my flight suit. It’s tan and blends in well, but it’s also the only fabric light and strong enough to do the job. I feel around in my pockets; another lucky break. The pocketknife you gave me is in my pocket. I unzip the suit and peel it off the top half of my body. I open the knife, cut both sleeves off, and tie them around the strut. I’m trying to keep my leg as still as I can. I grimace in pain as I tighten them down, wishing I had a flask with some bourbon in it; anything to ease the throbbing.

With my leg taken care of, I need to head out to the village. I would kill for crutches right now, or just a walking staff, but I’m it. I check the sun’s position in the sky; it looks to be about four in the afternoon. That gives me four hours before nightfall and four hours of being a sitting goose in the middle of the desert. 

Before I leave the crash site, I know I have to destroy everything that could identify me. My flight jacket would help camouflage me, but I can’t justify keeping it; it’s a dead giveaway that I’m a soldier for the Allied Forces, and that’s a risk I’m not willing to take. The wreckage still aflame, I toss the jacket, my dog tags, and any other items that would identify me into the fire. All I have left is my white undershirt, my suit, and boots. I’m turning to limp away, then I remember the one thing I cannot leave here. I crawl to the smouldering cockpit and see your picture, scorched but not incinerated, still hanging on the console. With considerable effort, I heave myself into the opening and grab the photo, cradling it in my hands. Just seeing your smiling, beautiful face makes me smile as I crawl from the wreckage towards the village. 

I can’t help the tracks I leave in the sand behind me—I’ve got no way of erasing them. I try weaving as I crawl, letting the splint drag through the sand, hoping it will cover my trail at least a little. Between the searing sun pounding down from overhead and the blistering sand, I have doubts whether I’ll even make it a couple of miles before my body surrenders to heatstroke. I’d kill for a good pair of gloves right now; the sand’s relentless heat is blistering and burning the skin on my hands, making it difficult to even want to continue. I collapse into tears and prayers a few times, wishing for the sweet release of death, but it falls on deaf ears. The lack of water is affecting my body’s functioning—each step, each drag, each inch I crawl feeling like I’m wading through molten lava. When I want to lie down and die, I see your face, sweet Frannie, smiling at me, your voice urging me on. “Come on, Charlie, just a little further…”

When the sun sets on the western horizon, I’ve crawled as far as I know my body will go. The sand blistered my hands and they’re useless—my broken leg screams at me with rage. I look back over my shoulder, the plume of smoke from my crash site an almost indiscernible mirage in the distance. I turn my head to look forward—I feel a sharp pain on my left temple, and then I feel woozy. “They’ve found me. I’m sorry, Frannie…” your name the last thought to pass through my mind before the void of unconsciousness swallows me…


— Lorne: Six Hours Post-Mission —

I haven’t been able to think since the end of the mission. Only two men, Moore and Gentry, survived the operation; we lost the other five, Charlie included. Good men, all of them. All dead because of my ego. I’m such an ass. 

The next-in-command sent a recon mission to recover the men we lost. My holding cell is only about ten feet from the radio that keeps him up to date on progress. Two fighters went down behind enemy lines; their bodies and belongings required time to recover, as we needed to wait for the cover of darkness. 

Two hours later, I’m lying on the cot inside my cell when I hear one soldier from the recovery mission speaking with General Dan Rhoades, the new commanding officer. Their words are indistinguishable, but I make out one word followed by more gibberish. My hair stands up on end. 

“What about Farmer?” I ask. I don’t expect an answer. 

“We searched the area twice, General Turek. We could not find Major Farmer’s body, sir. Our recon team found the charred aircraft wreckage, but we couldn’t tell if Farmer had ejected. We found these, however, in the debris.” He tosses me Charlie’s dog tags, scorched and black. “I’m still determining whether to declare him MIA or KIA.”

“I see. Thank you for the update, General.” I turn over in my cot and close my eyes. Charlie’s dog tags are in my fist, and I clench them so hard I feel them bite into my skin. In every sense, I have Charlie’s blood on my hands. I think about the hell that his beloved Fran will endure. I pray for her. And I pray for Charlie. If he didn’t die in the crash and is a prisoner of war, he will wish he had died. I take a deep breath in, hoping that sleep will claim me, but I know I will not sleep tonight.


— Charlie: Four Days Post Mission —

When I awaken, I’m lying on a primitive cot, bandages on my hands and across my midsection—my leg is in a splint and I can’t move. The bright sunshine pouring in through the window, combined with the bleariness of my vision, keeps me from seeing very well. Must be in an enemy prison infirmary; that would explain the medical treatment. My first instinct is to get up and try to escape, but when I try, pain wracks my body. Yeah, Farmer, I think to myself, you’re not going anywhere. I pat the pockets of my flight suit and feel your picture still there. It gives me a little hope before I dissolve back into darkness.


— Ten Days Post Mission —

The next time I awaken, I see our bedroom ceiling—ceiling fans spinning clockwise, the shadows they cast creating a sort of kaleidoscope on the ceiling and walls. I hear you and Destiny in the kitchen making breakfast: your famous, homemade pancakes with eggs and bacon. My mouth waters and it smells so good! And coffee! That I haven’t smelled since I deployed! But how can I be here?

I remember crawling through the sand, and then my memory goes catawampus. I have a vague recollection, random images really, of a makeshift hospital and bandages, but it ends there. Allies must’ve found the enemy camp and liberated everyone. I can only conclude I’ve been comatose since the desert. 

I try to sit up, but I still feel pain and lie back down. “Frannie…?” I call out weakly, my voice hoarse and timid. A moment later, you and Destiny enter the room—you’re wearing the dress I love so much, and Destiny’s in her coveralls and carrying Angaloo, the stuffed animal I gave her for her last birthday. I beam at both of you.

“Daddy!!” Destiny exclaims, then runs over to the bed to give me a hug. Her impact, while so loved and welcome, wracks my body with pain. I wince and say, “Good morning, my sweet baby girl!” You must see me grimace as you call Destiny back to your side.

“Come on over here, sweetie. Daddy needs his rest,” you say to Destiny and walk towards me with a full tray of food. The pancakes I heard you mixing up, bacon, eggs and even hash browns! A small glass of orange juice is also on the tray along with my favorite coffee mug, filled to the brim with fresh coffee. “It’s good to see you awake, my love,” you say as you set the tray down on my nightstand. “I was thinking you’d sleep the entire day away.”

“Fr-Fra-Frannie?” I croak out, “How did I get here…?”

“Shhh,” you say, reaching down to touch my face. “You just rest, my darling…”

Your hand brushes my hair—wait, I have hair…?—to one side, and I feel something cool on my skin. That’s when everything around me fades and I find myself on the cot I almost don’t remember. A woman with exotic eyes—a headdress and veil covering her hair and the rest of her face—is wiping a cool cloth over my forehead. Whatever’s on the cloth is potent and it stings. It’s enough to bring the woman’s face into focus as she smiles at me.

“Noman, you awake,” she says. I can tell from her broken English that she is not from the mainland, but her accent doesn’t match up to the enemy’s, either. 

Am I alone here? I wonder to myself. When I open my mouth to speak, I don’t recognize the voice that croaks out. “Where am I? How long have I been asleep?”

“You sleep for ten mornings. We not sure you were to live. You in bad shape when brother find you on desert edge, Noman.”

“Please tell your brother thank you for saving me,” I reply, “but who is Noman?”

Her face is an enigma, but her golden eyes are the most beautiful ones I’ve ever seen. “When brother find you, he bring you here. We not know what to call you, so we call you Noman, means ‘blessed’ in our language. You should not be alive.” She walks to an adjacent room, and I hear water filling a glass, which she leaves by my bedside. “It good you awake. You rest now, Noman. I check on you later.”

“What do I call you?”

“I Nahla. You rest.” She bows before she leaves.

I look around and try to take stock of my surroundings. I’m certain it isn’t a hospital room. It looks more like a makeshift infirmary—a detached cupboard has jars with cotton fluff, gauze, wooden sticks, and bandages. I sit up in the cot to check out my leg; there is no way their equipment could handle a fracture like mine. My makeshift splint is lying on the floor, so I’m guessing they set my leg and splinted it the best they could. I’m sure I was fortunate to be unconscious during that ordeal. Feels pretty good unless I try to move it, so I won’t complain, though. Looks like I’ll be sticking around a while. 

In my head, I try to figure my next move. When I am able, I know I need to travel west, and then south. I don’t dare show my face back at the base, and I doubt Lorne even cares whether they find me dead or alive. The position I’ve put him in is unenviable. No, it’s better if they believe I’m dead.

I can feel my eyes growing heavy; I’m having a tough time staying awake, and it seems I’m protected here. Nahla’s brother could’ve killed me long ago. I think I’ll just rest my eyes and hope they’re not healing me just to torture me later.


iii.

Six Months Later

L’lan-Ero, Kawakea’shan Province

“How are you today, Noman?” Nahla’s blazing eyes greet me from under her niqab, as brilliant as any sunrise. She wants to check how my leg is healing. Six months have passed, from what I can determine, since the crash, and my leg is on the mend. It’s not perfect, but at least I’m able to walk on it.

“It’s the best I’ve been in a long while, thanks to you, sweetie,” taking her hand to kiss it. Nahla blushes. I realize I shouldn’t feel like this about her, but this woman saved my life. And how our last conversation ended, Frannie, it’s not clear if we have a relationship, much less a marriage, left to salvage. 

With the help of other villagers, I built a fire hot enough to allow me to unbend the aircraft strut, split it in two, and create a pretty snazzy walking stick. Mekhi and Rasmus, two of the craftier kids in the village, carved a beautiful wooden handle for the walking stick and love to take turns smoothing the aluminum down with rocks, sand and plant oils as I tell them stories about flying. The village Elder, Sariyeh Farouqi, offered to carve a permanent cane for me. He hasn’t finished it, but I’ve seen other elders with walking sticks he’s carved. They’re impressive, and I can’t wait until he completes mine.

While we had such a solid blaze burning, I taught the village the beauty of an old-fashioned pig roast—in this case, it was a goat. The animal roasted for hours over those coals, rubbed with dry spices and herbs that grow native in the area, ones the villagers use in their everyday cooking. Even I had to admit, goat meat cooked like that was pretty tasty. The entire village feasted that day, with some extra for Elder Farouqi and his wife.

“I am happy you well, Noman swee-tee.” I laugh hearing her mix her broken English with some of what I’ve tried to teach her to speak. Proves to me, that’s why I’m a pilot instead of a teacher. She pulls her hand, warm, soft, and perfumed with myrrh and juniper, back inside her abaya as she walks beside me. 

While their customs and ways of life here are more relaxed than typical Middle Eastern countries, the unmarried women still shroud themselves from head to toe in public. They only expose as much of their body as necessary, even in private. As a result, I’ve seen very little of the woman who’s stealing my heart. But her eyes are mesmerizing. If that is all I see until I make it official, it’s enough. I reach for her hand and squeeze it, give her my winning smile, and blow a kiss before we part ways. She needs to be at the infirmary. Laleh, the Elder’s young wife, is expecting to deliver a baby soon.

After my visit to the infirmary, I wander back to the house where I stay—well, it’s more of a hut compared to the farmhouse I shared with you, but it’s still home. I make my way to my room and sit on the bed. Your photo still sits on the side table, but you seem more of a distant memory these days. I trace your image on the paper and lay the photo on its face. No, I think to myself, this is my home now. Nahla loves me, and I, her. 

The house is small and set apart from the village, near the edge of the desert, close to where Nahla’s brother found me. It belongs to a friend of their family—he was gracious enough to let me stay with him. For now, it’s just us two bachelors, though Mahak is marrying soon. I’m sure the newlyweds won’t want a third wheel in their home, so I’ll make other arrangements within the month. 

Though I’ve been here a few months, I have nothing to my name. I sometimes barter labor for necessities at the market a few miles to the west. I am headed there this morning. Someone’s always looking for help, and minor projects are perfect to earn fast money. 

My boots are in good shape, so I slip them onto my feet and lace them. I need new pants—blue jeans if I can find them—ones that don’t reveal that I was once an allied soldier. It doesn’t mean I’ll find a warm welcome elsewhere just because they are friendly here. My cane in my hand, I begin the three-mile walk to the market. Nahla is busy at the infirmary, so I won’t bother her for a kiss before I leave.

I’m only half a mile away from the village when I notice the roar of jets overhead. I recognize their markings—I used to fly one when I fought for the Allied Forces. But what are they doing out here… in battle formation?! These settlements are peaceful! I watch in horror as the squadron rains down hell upon the village I’ve called home for the past five and a half months. My mouth opens to shout a warning, but I am too far away for them to hear me. Fearing the worst, I run back to the village, and I don’t care if it isn’t safe. Nahla is working at the infirmary, a target if they have orders to fire on us.

When I reach the village, nothing but devastation surrounds me. Huts and homes burn—their thatched roofs are like tinder. The villagers have no chance against firepower of that magnitude. I run to the infirmary, or what’s left of it. My darling, sweet Nahla lies on the floor—blood trickles from her mouth, nose, and right ear. “NO!” I run to her side and pick her up to hold in my arms, her body limp and warm. “No…” I cry as I hold her, but I hear something ominous outside.

With Nahla in my arms, I hear the planes coming around for another pass. I have to run like my life depends on it, because it does. On my feet, I bolt for the door, running as fast as my injured leg can carry me to the house I call home. Your picture! I need to grab it, so I snatch it from the side table and duck under the bed. If they hit the house, the blast would kill me, bed or no bed. Concussive explosions rock the village—the makeshift windows in the house shatter in what seems a never-ending barrage of fire. I wonder if any villagers have survived. Every person I have met in this settlement may be dead, and I’m powerless to stop it. 

The sounds of aircraft fade, and I pull myself out from under the bed. Somehow, this room in the house still stands, and I can’t believe I’m still alive. This had to be Jim’s harebrained idea, too. No one else I served with would dare hit a soft target like this. I stand to shake off the dust and remove the few things I’ve accumulated from a drawer in the dresser—a pocket watch given to me by Elder Farouqi, and my watch, which I strap around my wrist. I need to find my way outside through a pile of rubble, bricks, and broken glass. Once I’m outside, I notice the birds have retreated, no doubt pleased with themselves for taking out villagers in a peaceful settlement. 

I walk back to the infirmary to be with Nahla, though I know she’s dead. I’m careful when I kneel beside her body and pick her back up into my arms. “Damn you, Jim! And damn you, Lorne! They weren’t hurting you!” My tears cover her face while I rock her in my arms—my body shakes with rage and sorrow. Her face, her eyes still show fear, and it infuriates me more. How dare they hit a civilian village?! 

Hours pass, and I brush a strand of hair from Nahla’s face. “My darling, I’m so sorry,” I say to her. “I failed you. I failed everyone here.” This seems to be a pattern with you, Farmer, I think to myself. I press my lips to her cheek one last time and set her body on the floor. “I love you.” A sob chokes my voice as I leave the infirmary.

I need to inspect the village and search for survivors. Off the beaten path is the home of the village elder, and I hope the allies missed his home. I peek my head into the door and call his name, but there’s no answer. It’s obvious the attack damaged the house—the kitchen lies in ruins. Dread washes over me. I creep inside the door and peer into the large sitting room off the kitchen, and I find him weeping, holding the bloody, battered remains of his very pregnant wife. 

“Sir?” My mouth hangs agape, my head bows in sorrow. “Oh, my—”

“You!” Anger drips from his words. “Your kind did this! You are no longer welcome here, Noman!” He stands and places his wife’s body on the floor by his feet. “Get out, or I will kill you myself!”

My blood runs cold hearing his words—I know he’s not joking. But as a gesture of kindness and peace, I leave my aluminum walking stick by the bookcase, then take the pocket watch he gave to me and lay it on the table close to where I’m standing. 

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” My breath hitches, looking at the surrounding destruction. It’s too horrible to comprehend. If I turn my back to him, he could kill me with the scimitar that hangs over the hearth. I’m ready to take that risk, and I suppose I’d deserve it. Instead, he walks to the table where I’ve laid the watch. He wipes tears from his eyes and hangs his head. 

“I no wish to kill you, Noman.” Elder Farouqi takes the watch and slips it into his pocket. “Thank you. You have honor, but your kind has none. Go in peace, but do not return.” 

Without saying another word, I walk from his house and away from the smoldering village, and off toward the sunset.

*****

I thought the Allied Forces finished their deployment, but I guess I’m wrong. Now that I realize the fighters are still active, I need to be careful. Any place nearby is a potential target. If they would destroy a peaceful village, I can’t imagine what’s next on their strike list. I don’t need the Allied Forces to discover me. If Lorne knows I live, I face a never-ending, expensive legal battle, and I can’t put Frannie and Destiny through that shame and humiliation. 

The sky is growing dark, and without the moon in the sky, I will lose my direction. I make it about five miles from the village before I need to stop. My leg’s throbbing tonight after running on it. Without pain medication, I won’t be able to travel well. My thoughts wander to my exchange with Nahla just before I left for the market. I should have stopped for one more kiss. Had I known what was coming, I wouldn’t have left her side. 

Despite the heat, the desert gets frigid at night, and tonight’s no exception. It’s brisk out here. I need to either keep moving—not an option—or build a fire for warmth. I limp around, looking for dead branches that will act as kindling. When I have enough wood, I arrange the sticks with some dried grass and brush for a starter. I find a piece of rock, one that looks as though it will throw a spark, and start the tedious process of building my fire. About thirty minutes later, I catch a break when the dry grass ignites. 

As the fire grows, I notice my stomach growling. I haven’t been hungry in a while, but my leg’s in no shape to hunt, either. I’m in pain, and I’m tired, so I settle down beside the fire for the night. As I fall asleep, I think of Nahla—if I ever run into Jim or Lorne again, they will answer for what they’ve done today. When I close my eyes, I see the fear on her face. I can’t imagine what she went through in her last moments. The image haunts me—I won’t sleep much tonight. When I open my eyes, the tears that pool in them trickle down my face. I notice a shooting star in the sky. Maybe it’s a sign from Nahla that she’s home with her people, and I take comfort in it. 

“Rest in sweet peace, my darling Nahla,” I weep. “Until I see you again.”


— Fran: A Month Later —

I wake covered in sweat from a dream I had of you. The dreams are vivid, almost realistic. Are you trying to tell me something? I can’t tell if you are. My bladder is letting me know, now that I’m awake, that it needs attention, so I walk to the bathroom and check on Destiny on my way. Her bedroom is still off the master. I enjoy having her close. We need each other.

Your funeral was yesterday, but we buried an empty casket. The ceremony was beautiful—the Army spared no expense. Without your body, there was no sense of closure. Destiny didn’t understand any of it, only that you weren’t there. She’s intelligent, but some things are too terrible for a child to grasp. 

Lorne showed his face at the funeral, but he didn’t dare come near me. I can’t even look at him. Jim Gentry and Trent Moore came, too, sporting the Purple Heart awards they earned in the mission. The Army granted both Jim and Trent a medical discharge. Jim will never be the same. He broke his back when he landed wrong after ejecting from his fighter, and now he’s in a wheelchair. Trent fared better, but they won’t clear him to stay in, either. At least they lived. 

After I’m done in the bathroom, I stop to check Destiny once more, tuck her in and kiss her cheek. She stirs—she doesn’t wake up, but I wish she had. I wouldn’t mind her little body curled up next to mine tonight. I’m lonelier than usual and I miss you more every day. 

Since Lorne brought me your duffel, I haven’t had the heart to open it up, but something calls me to it. I take my robe from the chair that sits next to my side of the bed and wrap it around me. I need to be close to you—to be with the items you loved—the items in your bag Lorne packed up for me. I tiptoe up the stairs to the attic where Caleb carried your bag when he brought it home. 

The first thing I see is the civilian clothing you brought with you; the ones you wore to the strip club, the ones I saw in the photo. It was bittersweet seeing them. I know they were your favorite clothes. The last time I saw you alive, you were wearing them, kissing another woman. I bury my face into the shirt and inhale, your fading scent still on the fabric. Hot tears drop from my eyes and soak into it, and I sob, hungry for every trace of you. All of your things—the entire bag still smells of you, and it’s overwhelming. A few moments later, when I’ve collected myself, I fold them and lay them on the floor next to where I’m sitting. 

I reach in without looking and I feel a book, one I recognize. It’s your prayer book, something you never left on deployment without. I set the book on the floor next to me when I notice something sticking out of the pages. It looks bigger than a bookmark, so I pick the book up again and see two notes handwritten in your chicken scratch writing. One is for Destiny, the other one for me. My hands tremble while I unfold the note and read it:

My darling Frannie,

If you are reading this, I didn’t come home with the unit. I’m sorry I broke my promise to come home to you. I am sorry, honey, that I didn’t retire when I had the chance years ago, before Destiny was born, or I’d be home with you now, asleep with you in my arms. I’m sorry you’ll raise Destiny without me at your side. I’m sorry for all I’ll miss with both of you, and my heart aches because of it. I’ve made so many mistakes in my life—marrying you was never one of them. It might have been the only thing I ever did right. 

Frannie, I don’t want you to stop living your life. Don’t waste it loving and missing me. You’re young, and you’ll need help to raise our little girl. If you have the opportunity for love, baby, I want you to take it…

I stop reading and wipe tears from my eyes. Never, I whisper to myself. Never…

… because all I want is your happiness. If I can’t do that for you, then someone else must. 

I’m sorry that I slipped up at the club. Our phone call today didn’t end on speaking terms, and I don’t blame you. I recognize that I have hurt you, and I didn’t deserve your forgiveness. But, Frannie, please know that I love you with everything I have, with everything that I am, and that will continue forever. I love you so much, honey, it hurts. 

I hear an audible gasp, and then I realize I am not breathing. Emotional agony chokes me. Did you really think our phone call ended that way? Didn’t you hear me say ‘I love you?’ The pain is increased tenfold—you died believing I don’t love you. The attic feels like a vacuum—like someone sucked the air out. I see my hands shake. The rattle of the paper echoes in the bare room. On my knees, I pray for the strength to inhale. And then it comes—a loud, forceful gulp of air. So much pain… I’m not sure my heart can handle the torment. With quaking hands, I continue to read:

Please, don’t let Destiny forget me. Tell her how much her Daddy loved her. Keep my photos nearby, and please, don’t let her forget me.

Destiny… My heart hurts so much, I feel like I will die. That bastard left my four-year-old daughter without her father. Damn you, Lorne Turek… “Damn you!” The sound of my voice startles me. “DAMN YOU!” I take another deep breath… I have to finish reading this:

Thank you, sweetheart, for a life well loved. I will never forget you, and I will never stop loving you. You are my heart and soul forever. I’ll see you on the other side, my Frannie.

“I love you, Charlie… forever.” 

*****

I don’t recall falling asleep, but I wake the next morning on the floor in the attic, shivering. Destiny is down in her bedroom yelling my name and crying. Before I descend the steps, I bring your prayer book with me, both letters tucked inside. Destiny won’t understand her letter just yet, but when she does, I will read it to her. “Your baby girl will remember you, I promise.” I look to the heavens, hoping you can hear me. She will remember you if it’s the last thing I do.


 — Charlie: Four Months Later —

Since I left the village, after the bombing that killed Nahla and dozens of other villagers, I’ve traveled almost five hundred miles on foot by my best guess, walking by night and resting during the heat of the day. For now, I’ve made a temporary home in a bustling town about three hundred miles from a port city. 

I am sleeping in a park the morning I arrive in town, when a man, dressed in a polo shirt and blue jeans, approaches me. I feel a hand on my shoulder. 

“Um, buddy, are you alive?”

When I open my eyes, a stranger hovers over me, his face stares into mine. He wears a cross like yours around his neck. “I’m alive. Quality of life is questionable.” Every muscle in my body aches, and I’m weary.

He chuckles. “You’re not from around here, are ya? You look like you could use a hot meal.” 

The first thing I notice about the stranger is his western accent—he’s from the mainland. “I can’t remember the last time I ate something good.” I let the question slide and hope he doesn’t press the issue. 

“Well, shoot, why don’t we get a cup of joe and some breakfast? My treat.”

I consider his generous offer and decide to take him up on it. “Sounds good, friend.” 

We walk together to the nearest diner, not speaking to one another. When we reach the door, he holds it open and ushers me inside first. We sit in a corner booth, and he hails the waitress to our table. “Coffee, please darlin?” 

The waitress, who seems like she knows him, waves and nods. “I’m on my way, Tex.” 

“So,” Tex said, “you know my name. What’s yours?” 

I try to think up a name. I don’t want to reveal my identity. This man carries himself like he’s military, and I don’t need to give myself away. “Rich,” I blurt out. 

He smiles. “Nice to meet you, Rich. I know you’re hungry, so order whatever you’d like. Don’t be bashful.” 

“Thank you, Tex.” The waitress walks to our table with a fresh carafe of coffee and two clean cups, sets them down and fills them to the brim. It’s the first time I’ve had coffee in months, since before the mission, and the aroma brings me home. I can almost see the dining room, almost smell your perfume I love. I can almost see your lovely face… Tex is calling my name, the one I told him, and I break from my daydream. “Sorry about that. I got lost in a memory of home.”

He laughed out loud. “Yeah, I get that a lot. No one enjoys sitting here with me.” I’ll admit, I’m not sure what to think of his lighthearted ribbing at first. “It’s okay, Rich. I’m kidding! So, where is home?” 

“I’m from the mainland, a little town near Bridgeport. Are you familiar?”

He nods his head. “Quite familiar. I’m from Hidden Springs myself.”

“Gotcha.” 

We continue our small talk through breakfast, sharing vague details of our lives, and saying nothing of substance. When it’s time to part ways, he asks me an unexpected question. 

“So, do you have somewhere to stay? That’s probably a no, since I found you sleeping on a park bench.” 

“I haven’t gotten that far yet, Tex. I have been walking for months and only got into town early this morning. I haven’t even slept that much.” 

“There’s an extra bedroom in my apartment. I don’t mind sharing with you. You don’t look like a serial killer.” His sense of humor is dry, and I’m catching on. “What do you say?” 

“Wow, that’s quite an offer. Thank you. I wouldn’t mind sleeping in an actual bed for a change.” We shake on it, and I follow him home. 

The apartment is in the center of town, a short walk to stores, places of employ and entertainment. His key turns in the door, and he swings it wide open. “It’s not much, but it’s home.” 

I wander inside and take in the surroundings: A small galley-type kitchen with a two-seat bar. The living room has a sofa and an ancient television, complete with rabbit ears and foil. There are two tiny bedrooms and one shared bathroom, but his second bedroom only has a bed and a dresser. It’s suitable for now, and I’m thankful to have met my new friend.

“Thanks, Tex. As soon as I find work, I’ll help with expenses.”

“The factory is looking for a janitor. It’s not the best paying job, but it’s something. I work there—I can get you in, no problem.”

I can’t believe my luck. “That would be great. Thank you.” I walk to the bedroom door and open it. “Do you mind if I nap? I’m tired and sore.”

Tex nods and smiles. “No problem, Rich. Rest well.”

I close the bedroom door behind me, peel back the sheets, strip down to my skivvies and climb into bed. I don’t remember my head hitting the pillow before I’m sound asleep.


— Two Months Later —

Tex works in a factory that produces circuit boards, and he works the graveyard shift from nine at night to six the next morning. My days are free while he sleeps and I spend my evenings alone. It’s the ideal situation for two ‘bachelors’ in the town. We seldom see each other, but sometimes we pass in the hallway when he’s getting home and I’m leaving. 

He helped me land the janitor position at the factory on the early morning shift. I’m too old to use the machines on the assembly line, so I sweep the floors, empty the waste bins in the offices and clean the break room. He wasn’t kidding when he said it wasn’t much money—most of what I make I give to Tex for rent and my part of the expenses. I save some money back each week for my ticket back to the mainland, back home to you and our daughter. 

I’m cooking in the kitchen when the door opens and heavy footsteps enter. “Tex?” 

“Yeah, Rich, it’s me,” he says. “What’re you cooking? It smells good.” 

I smile and think of you. “My favorite breakfast. Eggs, bacon, biscuits, and gravy. It’s only missing one thing.” 

He kicks off his shoes and walks back to the kitchen. “Yeah? What’s that?” 

“Grits. I guess they don’t import grits from the mainland.” 

Tex laughs. “Yeah, they never heard of half the good stuff we had at home.” He picks up a biscuit and tears a piece off. “Do you miss it, Rich?” 

“Yes, I do. Someday I want to go back. I just don’t have enough saved for my ticket home.” 

“Lucky duck. I wish I could go home.” He spoons a little gravy onto the biscuit and changes the subject. “Hey, this is pretty good slop. Where did you learn to cook?” 

“Someone special back home, Tex. That’s who I’m trying to get home to, you know?”

“Yeah, I understand.” 

“You having breakfast with me?” 

“I would, but I’m dead tired, man. They worked me hard last night.” 

I finish cooking the eggs and scoop them onto the plate with everything else. “I’ll save you some biscuits.” 

“Appreciate that,” he says, then yawns. “Don’t forget, rent is due on payday. I hate to take your money, but I could use the help this month.”

I plop down at the bar with the plate in my hand. “It was the agreement we made when you let me stay here. No worries, man.” I say a quick prayer and pick up my fork. “Sleep well, Tex.” He says nothing more before he closes his bedroom door behind him. 

Today’s my day off, so I’m on my way to the town center. I need to replace things I wore out on my five-month trek from the village—my boots are first on the list. There’s a store that carries western imports, and I’m hoping they’ll have some cowboy boots today. It’s been too long since I’ve had a pair on my feet. The owner, Gio, is familiar with me, as I’ve traded there before. When I open the door, a bell rings and alerts him to my presence.

“Hey Rich!” he calls out. He wipes his hand on an apron he wears to protect his clothing. The store smells of paint thinner, and I hear the whir of a fan nearby. “What can I get for you?” 

“I’m hoping you have some boots today.” There’s a rack with tacky, western shirts, and I laugh until I realize they look like mine back home. 

“I have about five pairs I got in last week, and I saved a pair for you in size twelve. Is that right, Rich?” 

“Perfect.”

He brings the boots to me and sets them down next to a chair. “Try ‘em and see what you think, Rich. To be honest, I’d not spend that kind of money on those boots if I were you. The shop down the street sells knock-offs. You can’t tell the difference.”  

The boot slides on as though they are fit for my foot. “It isn’t the look I’m after, Gio. This boot fits like it’s custom made. Knock-offs look the same, but they’re not comfortable. I have a long journey ahead of me, and these are perfect.” The other has the same familiar feel when I slip my foot into it. “I’ll take them.” 

The shopkeeper smiles. “I appreciate a guy who knows what he likes. How does my cost sound to you?” I open my mouth to protest, but he shakes his head. “Don’t worry about it, Rich. This one’s on me.” 

My mouth drops open as I stand there. “Well, thank you, Gio. My wallet thanks you, too.” The boots, as ticketed, are almost a full week’s wages. With the savings, I can shop for food at the market. “Don’t worry about wrapping them. I’ll wear them out.” My military-issue boots, with the broken down leather, worn soles, and frayed laces, are going back home with me. They’ll be useful for work, and when I’m ready to travel again, I’ll dispose of them then.

My next stop is the food market, and it’s a short walk. I grab a cart and head for the produce section. It’s been such a long time since I’ve been able to purchase fresh fruit, so long since I’ve eaten an apple or an orange. I buy one of each for my lunch this week. 

By the time I reach the meat section, I notice someone following me. It isn’t anyone that I recognize, but I feel uneasy about it. Whenever I turn around, he ducks behind something or busies himself with an item. When I round the corner to the bakery section, he’s slow to respond, so I approach him. 

“Can I help you with something?” 

He looks past me and shifts on his feet. “No, why do you ask?” 

“Because you’ve been following me since I came in. Is there a problem?” 

He checks the area for some unseen threat and nods his head. “I can’t speak here. Meet me at the cafe across the street in five minutes, Mr. Farmer. I have information you will want to hear.” 

I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. “Do I know you?” 

He looks past me again, his hand on his hip, and I recognize the stance. He’s packing heat! “Just be there.” He checks his personal perimeter again and in the same fashion as he appeared, he leaves. 

So many questions run through my mind, but the big one is how he knows my name. No one here knows anything about me. How did he find out? That’s what I want to know. I pay for my items at the bakery stand and take my parcel. I’ll admit I’m a little spooked, but I know I need to be across the street. Something deep inside me tells me to go.

*****

Five minutes later, I’m sitting at an outdoor table across the street from the market when the mystery man appears. “Come with me, Mr. Farmer.” We say nothing while we walk to a secluded park by the cafe. “I have information for you—”

I shake my head. “Oh, no. I’m not hearing anything until you answer MY question,” I say. “How do you know my name? No one here knows my true identity, but you do. How?”

“Mr. Farmer, your name and face were all over the news when the army changed your status to ‘killed in action.’ Your roommate, Tex, is not who you believe him to be, Charlie. He is ex-military, and when you strolled into town, he recognized you.” He looked around, searching bushes and unseen areas for spying eyes and ears. “The intel community has been watching for you after the village bombing. We have agents spread out everywhere, lying in wait.”

What?! How in the… “Wait a minute! What do you know about the bombing?”

“I know it was a grave mistake by the Allied Forces. I know you survived it, Mr. Farmer. Your unit is back home, and we will return you home, all expenses paid, in exchange for your silence on the village bombing. The army will restore your rank and drop all charges against you if you accept this deal.”  

I stare in disbelief at this man. “You say Tex is not who I think he is. Can I trust him? Is he hostile or friendly?” 

“Tex is ex-intelligence, Mr. Farmer. He is out for himself and no one else. Watch your back around him, or you may find a knife sticking out of it someday.” 

I have much to consider. This guy wants an answer, and I’m sure he wants it before we part ways. How many others know I’m alive? I am guessing very few. I suspect he is out for himself, and by bringing me in, perhaps he would benefit himself with the Army. Is there a price on my head? Will he be the one to collect it? My gut says to not trust a thing he says. 

“You know, I’m going to decline your offer, mister…” I wait for his name, but he doesn’t volunteer it. “I will get home to my family, on MY terms.” 

“You’ve made an unwise choice, Mr. Farmer. Watch your back.” He turns to leave. “I wouldn’t sleep around Tex, if I were you.” Without another word, the mystery man leaves. 

I feel queasy, but now I don’t feel safe here, so I plan to leave after Tex goes to work tonight. Lucky for me, he works tonight at the factory, so I’ll leave after he does. I walk back to the cafe, to the payphone out front, lift the receiver and dial the factory. I quit my job and tell them to give the money to Tex. It’s his, anyway. Whatever food I have now will go with me when I leave, and I ditch my military boots in a nearby dumpster. 

I try to act normal when I get back to the apartment. Tex is still asleep. I pack what little I have into the knapsack I bought and set it by the bedroom door. I make sure I tuck your photo into the bag. If what the mystery man says about Tex is true, he can’t know you’re my wife. I have to keep you safe at any cost.

I walk back into town, about a half mile or so. At the bank where I keep my meager savings, I withdraw everything and close the account. It isn’t much, but it will purchase things I need for my journey. I’m even rethinking my strategy on that, too. I might double back and head a little east before I turn south. 

My last stop is a pawnshop to purchase three specific items: a canteen, a compass, and a pistol with ammo. I know that I need to watch myself, so the firearm is not negotiable. This purchase takes all my cash on hand, and my wristwatch. At least I will feel safer with the gun at my side.  

I want one last good, hot meal before I leave, so I cook some of what I bought today for both of us. Things need to look normal, or Tex will become suspicious. 

“Hmm, that smells good, Rich. I need some of your recipes before you leave,” he says, and I freeze in my tracks. 

“Who said anything about leaving?” 

He laughs. “You did, doofus. Aren’t you heading back home when you’ve saved enough money?” 

Inside, I breathe a sigh of relief and snicker. “Of course. I’m not gonna spend the rest of my life with you.” I turn the heat off on the stove. “Are you hungry?” 

“Hell yes! You made enough for me too, right?” 

“Don’t I always?” 

“That you do.” 

After supper, I clean the dishes while Tex readies himself for work. The leftovers are in the refrigerator. I wrapped them for travel, and though it won’t last long, I can eat before I sleep for the day tomorrow morning. Though I promised the leftover biscuits to Tex, I need them on the trip. Food will be at a premium once I’m in the badlands. 

I sit on the sofa with the day’s newspaper and rest. Even though I’m tired, I know I have to leave tonight. I can’t risk the mystery man is right about Tex. Confronting him might make things worse for me, and I can’t risk not getting home to you, my darling. 

“I’m out to work,” Tex announces. “See you in the morning.” 

I nod my head. “See you then, friend.” It is odd lying to him. 

Dusk settles over the town, and the streets are quiet and empty when I leave the apartment. My knapsack is over my shoulder, every bit of food I bought packed into it, along with the canteen, filled with fresh water, and my compass. I set out toward the east, following the road out of town and into the wilderness.


iv.

— Two Months Later —

I’m about five miles past a settlement headed south on my journey. I passed it by earlier this evening on my walk, and I’m back into the wilderness again. Now, I’m kicking myself that I didn’t stop and look for water in the village. My canteen is bone dry and I’m growing weak from sickness.

Noting the stars and the moon’s position, I determine it’s about two hours before sunrise, but I need to stop walking now. Though the temperature is mild and somewhat humid, my teeth chatter, and my body shakes with chills. The area is not arid, sandy desert like what I left months ago. Lush vegetation covers the area. Harmless prey animals populate the forest, but I am too sick and weak to hunt.

I walk to a clearing where the trees are less dense. I gather a few sticks, dry grass and moss to use as kindling for a campfire. Only a few lucky minutes later, the stone I’m using throws a spark, and the grass ignites. I can’t believe my good fortune—a brook babbles nearby, and I gather some water from it into my canteen. I should boil it, but it’s running water, not stagnant, so I should be okay for tonight. 

In the distance, I hear the rumble of thunder in the night sky. I don’t need rain right now. I’m already ill—I don’t need wet, cold clothing to sleep in while I rest. But the wind blows from the east and the air is icy. My small fire is in danger of being extinguished if I can’t protect it from the elements. 

I take a sip of water from the canteen and lay my head on a moss-covered rock. For now, the fire grows—a good, soaking shower will extinguish it. In the dark, I shiver and feel nauseated. I know I am feverish, but all I can do is pray I recover. 

The storm must have gone around me somehow, because I awaken some hours later in the daylight, my fire hanging on by an ember. I throw a little more grass into the fire to rekindle it and grab a small log that lays nearby. The chills have passed, and now I’m burning up, sweating and achy. I do not know where I am, only that I’m in the forest. There is no one here but me and the one I worship. He hasn’t let me down yet, and I hope he pulls me through now. I say a quick prayer, close my eyes and groan in pain. Please, if it is your will, end my suffering, I ask, but it isn’t what I want. I want to survive, to see my family one more time…

I fell asleep, I’m guessing, because when I open my eyes again, your face stares at me. Your red hair shines in the sunlight. Your emerald eyes gleam and your face is full of love—when I reach for you, your image fades. “Frannie, come back,” I whisper. “Don’t leave me here to die alone.” My mouth is dry and my voice is hoarse. My chest heaves with a cough—I have so much pain.

Your face appears to me again, and I can almost feel your touch. “Don’t give up, Charlie. I’m waiting for you…” I hear you as clear as when you’re lying next to me in bed, after we’ve made love together. “Come home to me…” Am I home? Wait, Frannie… Where the hell am I?

“Give me the strength to survive,” I pray. “Take this sickness from me and bring me home to my love. Please…” 

*****

When I awaken, it’s dark, and my fire has been long extinguished. Though I’m still achy, my chills and fever are over. From the moon’s position, I determine it’s not long after sunset. I’m not sure how long I slept, only that I feel better. My stomach rumbles, but when I try to stand, my legs wobble and I come close to falling. The canteen is empty. I don’t remember drinking the water I gathered the night I stopped walking. I must have been very sick. 

The brook isn’t far away, so I make myself walk to it. As I dip my canteen into the running water, I notice the moon’s phase has changed. How long was I out of it? On my way to my campsite, I pick up more sticks, grass and some brush to start a fire. I know I need to eat something, so I stalk a jackrabbit I spot about twenty yards from me. A lucky head-shot kills it nice and clean, so I prepare and cook it for supper. I can’t guess how long it’s been since I’ve eaten.

I know I need to keep moving, but I decide to rest tonight and the following day. Being sick has sapped my strength and energy—I’m on the mend, and I don’t want a relapse, so I’ll stay put one more night. I have a full belly and clean, boiled water, so I sit by the campfire and watch the flames—thinking of you, thanking our maker he spared my life… again.


— Three Months Later — 

As the sun rises, I see a large body of water in the distance—I assume I’m close to my ultimate destination. It was about three hundred miles total as the crow flies, but the trek on foot was slow and grueling. I spent a good portion of my time sick, and who knows how straight my path was. When I left Tex, I knew I was ill-prepared for this trip, but I had no alternative. Now, it looks like I’m on the outskirts of town, but I have to admit I’m not doing well. 

Food has been scarce on this trek. I only ran across one town, which leads me to believe I meandered off my desired path by a factor of at least a hundred miles. I’m glad I had the pistol for protection, though I used it for hunting when I couldn’t gather anything in the more deserted areas. I’ve had to rely on my survival skills—many nights I found nothing to hunt, and no edible plants. My clothes hang off of me, as I’ve lost a bunch of weight. 

It’s daybreak when I’m a few hundred feet from the town proper. The town’s residents are waking up. I’m ready to collapse under the first tree I find and rest. In the town center, a large fountain trickles water, and though I know I shouldn’t, I fill my hands and drink from it. Though the cool water doesn’t taste terrible, I know it has the potential to make me sick. However, I’ve been sicker on this trip than I could get from a sip of fountain water. 

The weather is cool, almost cold, and I don’t realize it until I stop to rest. I can’t light a fire in the square, so I walk to a wooded area outside the settlement. Using some sticks and a lucky find of flint rock, I start a small fire. I can’t sleep all day—I need to find food and shelter. If I don’t, I’m stuck out here in the woods tonight.

A few hours later when I awaken, I pick up my sack and sling it over my shoulder. The fire must have burned itself out hours ago, because the area surrounding it is cold. I will need warmer clothing if I’m to survive outdoors for any length of time. Just inside the town near the docks, I spot what looks like a pawnshop. That is my first stop. 

A bell rings on the door when I open it, and I catch everyone’s attention. I tiptoe inside, a meek smile on my face. 

“What can I do for you, um, sir?” a young man, who stands behind the counter, asks me. 

“I have something I need to sell. Can you help me?” 

He wipes his hands on his pants. “Yeah. What do you have?” 

I don’t want to startle him, so I tell him up front. “I have a pistol I don’t need anymore. Do you buy things like that?” 

He nods his head. “Yeah, let me see it.” 

I approach the counter and set my sack on the floor. At the bottom sits the sidearm that helped me for the last five months. I grab it by the barrel and remove it, then place it on the counter. I know it’s seen better days, and if I had the tools, I could clean it and make it look nicer. “I don’t have more ammo for it. That ran out a while ago.” 

The young man picks the pistol up and surveys it. The clip is empty, but he checks it anyway. “What are you looking for on it?” 

I stop to consider the young man’s words. I hadn’t thought about an offer, so I tell him half of what I paid for it. 

The clerk smiles and holds his hand to shake. He knows I’m cutting myself short, and so do I. “Deal?” 

There’s a coat displayed on a hanger that looks to be my size. “Throw in this coat, and we have a deal.” 

He looks at the coat, at the gun, and at me. “Yeah, you look like you could use a warm coat. Deal, mister.” He paid what we had agreed upon and I took the coat from the display. 

“Thank you,” I say just before I leave. 

My next stop is the dock. I limp to the ticket booth just outside the docks. A woman chewing and snapping her gum greets me, but she looks as though she’d rather be anywhere else but in that booth.

“What can I do for ye?” she says in a distinct, non-local accent. 

“I’m looking for passage back to the mainland, leaving soon. What’s the rate?” 

She gives me the once-over and scowls at me. “More than you can well afford.” I see her eyeing my wedding ring, and her face lights up. “But if yer wantin’ a comfortable room on the next ship outta ‘ere, I’ll take that there ring as payment in full.”

I fiddle with the ring I’ve never taken off my finger in the years since we got married. I need to believe we have a chance. I need to believe there’s a reason for me to come home. If I trade my ring, I feel as though I’m admitting our relationship is as dead as you believe me to be. If I don’t, I might be here until summer. I’m not sure I can deal with being away much longer. 

“I’ll pass on that, but thank you anyway,” I say. “Could you answer my question, please?” 

She snaps her gum and chews it much the way Missy and Moo used to chew their cud. “Fifteen hundred, and that’s first class. I’d recommend third for you, though. About one-third of that.” 

Five hundred bucks. Well, this might take a while. “Are there ever any discounts?” 

She looks at her fingernails, still chewing her gum. “Sometimes ye can catch a deal, but ye have to work on the crew. It’s hard, backbreaking work. Too much work for you, old chap.”

I sigh in disgust. “Thanks.” 

I don’t have enough for the boarding house down the road. I use the money for fruit, a loaf of bread and a small hunk of meat to cook. I have my coat to help keep me warm, a little food to eat, and a place to hunker down. I am tired, so I head into the woods to camp.


— Six Weeks Later — 

The alarm on my nightstand sounds early, and I turn it off. It’s another day of work at a local construction company doing hard labor. It isn’t my area of expertise, but I only tote things they need hauled around. The pay is decent. I can afford a rent with a guy that works for the construction company. Because of the problems I had with Tex, I tell them my name is Brad. No one here needs to know who I am, either.

Though I have little to my name, I bought another pair of jeans and a shirt, so my old, ratty clothes I’ve traveled in, I wear to work. Today is payday, and after I pay the rent, I have the final bit to purchase my ticket back home. Depending on when the ship departs, I’ll give my notice today or on Monday. My breakfast this morning is a cup of coffee and a slice of toast, and I’m out the door twenty minutes after I awaken. 

The work is hard, and the boss is a jerk, but I keep my nose clean and do my job. My roommate, Giacomo, works with me—we’re the pack mules of the operation, carrying materials and finished products where they need to go on the job site. We’re together when the boss pays us, and we all break for lunch. 

I grab my knapsack, which, on a normal day, has food stowed in it for lunch. Today, it has the money I’ve saved for my ticket home. “I’m heading to the docks for lunch, Jack. If I’m not back, please cover for me?” I walk to where he stands and peel off the balance of my rent owed, and I hand it to him. 

“Sure.” He nods his head and puts the cash in his pocket. “What are you doing at the docks?”

“Checking fares to the mainland. I’m hoping to catch a ship back home soon.” I hold my fingers to my lips and shake my head. “Please, don’t tell the boss? He’ll fire me if he knows I’m buying a ticket, and I’d rather leave on my terms.”

“Yeah, I get it.” He opens his lunchbox and takes a bite of the meal he packed as I walk away from the job site.

Ten minutes later, I’m at the ticket booth where the same unpleasant woman still sits. She still looks miserable. “How can I help ye?” she asks in the same non-local accent.

“I’m looking for passage back to the mainland, leaving soon. What’s available?” 

She looks on a schedule attached to a clipboard and looks over her glasses at me. “Which class are ye looking fer?” She gives me the once-over and shakes her head. “Second class is sold-out, first class has a few cabins left.”

“How about third?” 

She cocks her head and gives me a crooked smile. “Ye don’t want third class, lad. Only the bums buy third class.” 

My temper flares a bit, but I bite my tongue. “Third class, please. What’s the fare?” 

“Four-fifty one way, seven hundred round trip.” 

I smile. “One way, third class, please.” I count out four large bills and a fifty. “When does it leave?” 

She looks at the wall, I guess at a calendar, and back to me. “Four days.” She hands me the ticket and a pamphlet. “Be here two hours before departure. Will ye have a case or trunk to stow?”

I almost laugh at her. “No, just me and a knapsack, I’m afraid. I’m a modest traveler.”

She nods her head and snaps her gum. “See you then, toots.” 

I leave the docks with a renewed spring in my step. I’m almost ready to tell my miserable boss that I’m resigning. Jack will have a few days’ notice before I leave, and now I’m excited. He notices a difference in my expression when I return to work.

“Did you have time to eat, Brad?” 

“No, I didn’t. I have something better.” I take the ticket from my pocket and show him. “The ship leaves in four days. I’m sorry about the short notice, but I need to get home.” 

He extends his hand to shake, a gesture normally done only by mainlanders. “Congratulations, Brad. I know how homesick you’ve been.” 

“Thanks, Jack. I’ll leave some money for you to cover my expenses. I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time.” 

“This is good for you, no?” 

I nod and take a drink from a water bottle before lunch is over. I’m not even hungry. 

*****

My boss was not pleased when I quit on Friday. I’m fortunate to have the weekend to rest and prepare for my trip. There is much I need to finish before I leave. 

I’m wearing my work clothes when I walk with a small bag of dirty clothes to the nearest laundromat. What I’m washing, I’ll wear on the ship. Though the jeans aren’t brand new, they’re in decent shape, and the shirt was clean and showed little wear. It’s comfortable for a long trip, and that was my only consideration when I bought it. 

The laundromat isn’t in the best part of town, close to the docks and the pawnshop. A lot of riff-raff hangs around the docks; the homeless population in the port town is considerable, and I pass someone begging for money or food on my way to work in the morning. 

When I enter the laundromat, there’s no one here. It seems odd for a Saturday. I dump the bag of clothes into the same washer, and I almost hear your voice telling me to separate everything. I’m sorry, sweetie, I think. Money is tight, and so is my available time. This will have to do for now. A few coins to start the machine, a scoop of soap powder from a bin, and the washer starts its cycle. 

A half-hour later, everything is clean, so I switch the clothes from the washer to the dryer and start it. I’m getting restless hanging around inside the laundromat, so I go for a stroll to the docks. The ship that departs for the mainland sits in the port. The crew is working like mad to prepare for departure in a couple of days, and I enjoy watching them work.

I’m so caught up in daydreams about the trip and getting home that I forget my clothes at the laundromat, so I run back. When I enter, the dryer where my clothes were is empty. Somewhere around the docks, a homeless man is enjoying my nice, clean, warm clothes. My fault, but I growl in anger and kick the trash can inside the laundry. “Nice going, Charlie,” I grumble under my breath. Now, I’m stuck with too-big pants and a ‘white’ shirt that has seen much better days. I’ve given Jack the rest of my paycheck to cover my expenses, so I have no other options. You’re an idiot! I think to myself. I walk home empty-handed, feeling sorry for myself.

Now that someone has stolen my clothes, my knapsack will be almost empty. Jack is a bigger guy than me, but I ask to borrow a pair of sweats and a shirt while I hand wash my work clothes in the washbasin. These aren’t leaving my sight, unless I want to board the ship on Tuesday in my birthday suit. I’m pretty sure that isn’t an option, even in third class. The thought makes me laugh while I wring out my shirt.

On Tuesday morning, I pack what little I own into my knapsack and thank Jack before he heads to work. Though my clothes are clean, they are stiff from drip-drying in the shower, and it’s uncomfortable. However, it’s not the worst I’ve been, so I don’t figure I should complain. I take the few apples I bought from the fridge and pack them into my sack, along with a bottle or two of water and a chocolate bar I bought a month ago. I meant it as a treat—something special for the day of my departure. The beginning of the end of my long nightmare. 

I leave my key on the table for Jack and lock the door behind me when I leave the house. I look around at the town where I’ve spent the last almost two months of my life, and I realize once I’m home, I won’t leave Appaloosa Plains again. After this ordeal, that’s fine by me. I’ve sated my lifelong wanderlust, and I’ll be content to live the rest of my days with you at my side, my darling.

Once I check in at the dock, they board first-class passengers first. I sit on a bench near the water, deep in thought, when a young lady approaches me. 

“Is this seat taken?” she asks. 

I shake my head. “No, in fact, you can have my seat if you need it.” 

“Oh, that’s okay. I just saw you here waiting and wondered if you’re heading to the mainland?” Her accent suggests that she’s a visitor, and she doesn’t have much. 

“I am trying to get home to my wife and daughter. I haven’t seen them in almost three years.” 

“Wow, you’ve been away too long. What brought you here?” 

I ponder her question. I still don’t trust anyone I don’t know. “We’ve been backpacking across the continent, but I’m tired and it’s time to go home.” 

She nods. “I’ve never been to the mainland. I’m hoping to stay. My fiance lives in Sunlit Tides. We’ve been writing for five years.” 

“How did you meet him?” 

“He’s a Marine, stationed here with the Allied Forces a few years ago. I met him at a bar; he was wearing his uniform. He was so handsome.” Her face flushed with the memory, but she smiled. “My little boy is with my mum.” She pointed toward an older woman, about Fran’s age, with a little boy a bit younger than Destiny would be. “He’s his son. Jeremy is his name. He’s coming with me, and he’s so excited about the trip. Joe… he doesn’t know about him, but there’s no mistake. Jeremy is his boy.” 

“Our daughter is a bit older than Jeremy. He’s what, four?” 

She nods. “He’ll be four in a few months.” A crew member calls out to board third-class passengers just then, and the young woman stands. “It was nice to meet you…” she holds her hand out and expects a formal introduction. 

“I’m Charlie,” I reply without thinking. “It was nice to meet you too, Miss…” 

“Delilah.” She blushes and gathers her purse. “I hope to see you onboard.” 

I nod my head and smile at her. “Enjoy your trip.”


v.

The ship sets off into the Mediterranean Sea, headed west toward the Atlantic. Within a day of departure, I’m sick as a dog in the bunk. My ticket price includes one meal a day, but I can’t keep anything down. I find I am not cut out for open sea travel, and I’m thankful I joined the Army instead of the Navy. 

Three days after we set sail, a soft knock sounds at the door, and I am laying down. “Come in?” 

Delilah peeks her head into the door, spots me on the bed, and covers her mouth with her hand. “I’m sorry, Mr. Charlie. I didn’t mean to interrupt your nap.”

“No, it’s okay, Delilah. I’ve been seasick since we started out on Tuesday. I haven’t left the room much.” 

She enters the room and sits on the bunk opposite mine. “How can I help you?” 

I reach into my knapsack. “Take my meal ticket, Delilah, for Jeremy. Nothing stays down. Otherwise, I’ll lose it, and I don’t enjoy wasting money.” 

She shakes her head and pushes my hand away. “I can’t do that, Mr. Charlie. It’s yours.”

“Please, I can’t eat anything. It will just come right back up.” I hand her the ticket again. “I’m sure about this. He’s a growing boy, and he needs more than one meal a day. Please, Delilah, take it for him.” 

Her next words break my heart. “Oh, I’ve been giving him mine, Mr. Charlie. I need to lose a stone or two, anyway.” She blushes and looks away from me. Delilah is thinner than you. 

Even if I wasn’t sick, I’d say my next words. “I insist, Delilah. Please take it. I’m not accepting no as an answer.” 

I see she doesn’t want to, but she takes it from me, anyway. “If you need it back, just tell me, Mr. Charlie.” She dabs her eyes with a handkerchief she has in her hand.

A sudden wave of nausea sweeps over me, and I grip the side of the bed. “I will. Please excuse me. I’m going to be sick, and I’d rather you didn’t watch me vomit.” 

She backs out of the room. “Thank you, Mr. Charlie. Thank you so much.” 

*****

A week later, I’m feeling better as we travel closer to the mainland. The weather isn’t as turbulent, and the seas are calmer. For this, I am thankful. Delilah and Jeremy have been my travel companions, and I play and read books to him from the ship’s library. I will miss them when we dock and part ways in a few days. Being with them makes me ache to see you and Destiny all the more. 

The ship docks at the port on schedule. Families line the docks, waving to loved ones they wait for to arrive. But no one waits for me. Delilah finds me one last time before we go ashore and thanks me for everything. I hug her and pick Jeremy up.

“Be a good boy for your mum,” I tell him. He plants a sloppy, four-year-old kiss on my cheek and giggles. I turn to Delilah to hand him back. “Take care of yourself.” We hug once more. “I hope everything works out with you and Joe.”

“Oh, it will, Mr. Charlie. It has to. Jeremy needs a daddy.” She kisses my cheek. “Thank you again for your ticket. I’ll never forget your kindness.” 

Now I’m the one blushing. “It was nothing. Really.” We say our last goodbyes—when she and Jeremy walk away, I know I’ll never see them again, and I wipe a tear from my eyes.

After my arrival in the port, I walk to the pawnshop near the docks, my knapsack over my shoulder. When I open the door, a young girl behind the counter greets me. “What can I do for you, sir?” 

I take the knapsack from my shoulder. “I’m close to home, but not so close I couldn’t use a few bucks. Can you help an old traveler out?” 

She smiles. “Well, sure! Let’s see what you have.” 

Inside the knapsack, I have my old canteen and compass. It’s still winter in the northern part of the mainland, which means snow. Water shouldn’t be a problem. “I have the compass, and the knapsack. The canteen, well, it’s seen better days. I’ll just toss that.” 

She looks at the items—it’s obvious they aren’t worth much. But she smiles anyway. “The knapsack is good, nice and sturdy. But I’m afraid I can’t give you much for it.” 

I spot a pocket knife. This could be useful, I think. “How about we trade? The sack for the knife? It would come in handy on my trip.” 

She picks the knife up and inspects it. “Yeah, I can do that for you. Where are you headed, sir?” 

“Back home to Appaloosa Plains, to my wife and daughter. I haven’t seen either of them in three years.” 

“Wow, that’s a long trip. Is this all you have?” 

I nod. “Don’t worry. I’ve come further with nothing. I’ll walk it and be home in a week or two, quicker if I can hitch a ride.” 

The clerk looks me over and shakes her head. “I saw you limp when you came in. Are you sure you’ll be okay?” 

“Oh, that’s an injury I got in the army. It hurts once in a while, but I’m alright.” 

“Excuse me a moment?” she says, then disappears into a back room. A few minutes later, she is back at the counter where I’m standing. She takes the sack and hands me the knife, along with a twenty-dollar bill. “I wish I could do more. Good luck getting home to your family, sir. Thank you for your service.” 

I smile, touched by the generosity of a stranger. “Thank you. May blessings follow you, young lady.” We shake hands before I turn and leave the store. 

The extra money won’t buy much, but I stop at a diner for a burger. It’s the first thing I’ve eaten in three weeks, since before I got on the ship, and it tastes good. A warm cup of coffee to go with it, and I’m nourished for the first part of my walk. No hunting and cooking over a fire tonight.

*****

The next morning I awaken in the cold. The fire I built has long since burned out, and I am freezing. Though I’m a mile from the port city, I consider going back for a hot cup of coffee and a bite to eat. I can’t do this every morning, but since I’m close, I backtrack to the same diner. 

I sit at the counter and overhear a conversation between the server and a young man. He’s driving to Bridgeport, and it would get me close to Appaloosa Plains if I could hitch a ride with him. She walks to me and asks what I’d like.

“Coffee, please. Cream, no sugar.” She nods and grabs the carafe from the coffeemaker and pours a fresh cup. “Thank you,” I say, then fix it myself. I’ve always been outgoing—I look at the young man, still nursing his first cup of coffee. “I heard you say you’re on your way to Bridgeport?” 

He nods. “Yeah, that’s right. I have a delivery to bring there today. You going that way, mister?” 

I smile. “In fact, I’m on my way to Appaloosa Plains. A lift to Bridgeport would help, if you don’t mind the extra company.” 

The young man considers my words, then nods his head. “I wouldn’t mind an extra body. But why are you headed for Appaloosa Plains? What a Podunk little town that is.” 

I can’t help but chuckle. “My wife and daughter are there. I haven’t seen them in over three years. I agree, though, it is a Podunk little town. My wife owns her family farm, and I’d never ask her to give it up, not on my account. I don’t deserve it.” 

He gives me a sheepish smile. “I meant nothing by it—”

“You’re okay.” 

We share small talk through breakfast. I have a few dollars left. But after he’s decided I will not hurt him, my new friend, Sean, assures me he needs nothing for the ride. This three-hour truck ride saves me days on foot, and I am very thankful.

When we arrive in Bridgeport, Sean tells me there is a mission in the center of downtown. I thank him and shake his hand before I walk down the bustling streets toward the shelter. 

I open the door of the mission, and an icy gust follows me inside. The young man behind the desk smiles at me, but shivers. When I approach him, he stands.

“Hi fella,” he says. “We’re almost at capacity. All I can offer is a bed in the common area.”

Considering where I’ve been sleeping these nights, anything indoors sounds good. “It sounds wonderful.”

The mission’s common area looks like a gymnasium with room dividers separating each bunk. The accommodation is more than sufficient—semi-private, and it looks much more comfortable than having to camp outside tonight. Weather reports predict sub-zero temperatures and snow flurries.

Before I settle into my bunk for the night, I walk to a large bookcase and browse the shelves. On the bottom I spot a familiar book binding, and I pick it up: Destiny’s favorite book, the one I read to her every night before bedtime. Memories of home flood my eyes with tears—I can’t wait to get home. I haven’t been this close to you in years, and it feels good. The book goes back into the bookcase and I walk back to my bunk. I slip my boots from my feet, place them under my bed, and take my pants off, fold them and place them on my boots. The cot is lumpy, but it feels like a cloud compared to frozen ground and a campfire. I’m asleep before they turn the lights out.

The next morning I’m awake early, and I take a cup of coffee they offer me before I need to be out of my bunk. It’s not the best coffee I’ve ever had, but it’s hot. From inside, I can hear the wind howling between the buildings, and I’m not looking forward to my walk today. 

A ride-share bulletin board hangs by the front door. Bridgeport is the largest city in a two-hundred-mile radius. For many, the city serves as a hub for travelers. I stand with my coffee, and for laughs, I look at the board, seeking someone heading to Appaloosa Plains or a nearby vicinity. This must be my lucky day. An older gentleman posted his travel that way in the morning. I dig out a coin for the nearby payphone and call him.

“Hello?”

“Hi, my name is Charlie, and I’m calling about your advertisement on the ride-share board at the Mission.”

“Oh yes, my daughter lives just outside Appaloosa Plains, and I’m driving to see her tomorrow. You’re going that way, Charlie?”

I nod my head, as though he can see me. “Yes, sir. I’m traveling back home to see my family. Do you have room for me?”

“I do. Few folks travel that way. All the times I’ve posted for the ride-share, you’re the first one ever to answer it. I look forward to the company. My name’s Earl. I have an older, blue pickup, and I’m leaving at 10:00 AM. I’ll be there.”

“Thank you, Earl.” I hang up the phone and smile. Tomorrow, I’ll be home.

*****

The truck stops just on the peripheries of Appaloosa Plains. “What can I give you for the lift?” My hand is on the door, ready to open it.

Earl smiles at me. “I enjoyed hearing about your adventure. Just knowing that I helped you get back home is enough payment for me. Thank you for serving, and be well, sir.” 

I nod. “I appreciate it. Blessings to you.” I close the door and wave as he drives away. 

I’ve made it just on the edge of town. It’s still cold, and I shiver as my body adjusts to the wind biting at my exposed skin. It’s pitch dark, so I can walk into town unnoticed. I know a park is nearby, so that’s my plan for the night. The walk there is cold and lonely. It will only be two days before I’m in your arms. I hope you’re as happy to see me as I will be to see you. 

I don’t look like myself these days. My hair’s longer than shoulder length and I have to admit that it’s filthy. My beard, which I’ve never grown out before, is long, scraggly, and peppered with gray. It’s a long way from the close haircut I’ve worn for years. I haven’t washed my clothes since I left the port city three weeks ago, and my “new” boots, well, they’ve seen better days. I can’t imagine I’m very pleasant to be with, which makes me even more grateful for my ride to the town’s edge.  

I walk to the far end of the park, away from the dirt path that leads here. The lake is familiar, though the rope tire swing Rob and I hung up over twenty years ago is no longer attached to the old, dead tree. I break some low branches from the tree and gather them in my arms. I place the branches in a stack and take my flint rock from my pocket. The flint throws a spark on the second strike and starts the fire. In a bit, I’ll be warmer than I am now. 

Everything I own is in my pockets, and it’s not that much—my flint, the pocket knife I traded for my knapsack, a couple of dollars, and your well-worn photo. I’ve been hungry for so long that I don’t even feel the pangs anymore. I want to warm up and sleep. I look into the clear night sky—a million stars are out. I remember the night in Dragon Valley that you asked me to watch the stars with you, and I smile at the memory. The loneliness is almost over, darling.

The next morning, when I wake, I find I have slept longer than I wanted. The frozen lake is beautiful—it’s the tail end of winter, and it doesn’t look as though it’s still frozen through. A rime of frost on the grass sparkles in the early afternoon sun. The cold settled into my bum leg, and it pains me today. I have a long walk ahead of me.

What seems like the longest part of my walk is this last part between the park and downtown. A normal person could walk it in an hour, but I take all day. I arrive downtown as the sun sets in the western sky. I am limping, making my way to the mission—just as I round a corner, a young man runs smack into me, knocking me off my feet. Ouch, I think to myself. I’m splayed out on the sidewalk. He looks sheepish when I hold my hand out to him.

“Willing to lend a guy a hand?” I ask him. He grabs my hand, and with a gentle tug, I’m on unsteady feet. “Thanks friend.” 

“No problem,” he says. “Listen, be careful out here, buddy. They say there’s some heavy snow coming in tonight.” 

I nod my head. “Yeah, it’s typical for this time of year. I’m headed for the mission.” I think for a moment. I have nothing to lose, so I ask the young man a question. “Have you been in town long, friend?”

“Yeah, about a year, give or take.” 

“If I show you a photo of someone I’m looking for, do you think you could tell me if they’re still around?”

“Maybe, but I gotta get going. I’ve got stuff to take—”

“Please, it will only take a moment.” I slide my hand into my coat and retrieve your photo, unfold it and hand it to the young man. “Have you seen her around town?”

He doesn’t think I notice his face go white, but he hands me the photo and shakes his head. “Ahh, no, no, sir. I can’t say I’ve seen her around here anywhere.” I suspect he’s not being honest with me.

“Well, damn,” I say. “Thanks for looking at it. You’re the first person I’ve run into since I got back into town, so I thought, perhaps, with the small population in the Plains, you might have run across her.” 

“Nope, no, sir. Sorry. Hey, you need some money for bus fare or something? Go somewhere warm instead of here in the cold and snow? I’d be happy to drive you to the bus station…” He shifts on his feet and acts suspicious. He has seen Frannie, and he knows where she is. What is he to her? “It’s the least I could do for, uh, you know, knocking you down.” 

I search his face for a clue, anything that would give him away. “I appreciate the offer, friend, but I’ve spent the better part of two years getting back here to Appaloosa Plains. It’s where I call home.” I place your photo back into my pocket and offer my hand for a shake. “Thanks again for the hand up. I hope to catch you around town someday.”

The young man returns the shake, but his eyes will not meet mine. “Yeah, anytime, buddy. Stay warm.”  

I tip my hat at him. I believe our paths will cross again. “Will do,” I say with a smile.


— Jason —

Since my wife left me years ago, I haven’t been this happy. Fran. My sweetheart. She is the most beautiful, kindest soul I’ve ever met. I can’t wait to bring her to dinner next week, where I will ask her to marry me. In my coat pocket is the ring I bought for her—the almost one-carat diamond will look so pretty sitting on her finger in place of that old, worn, beat up wedding ring she wears now. Her husband died more than a year ago, and she’s let him go and said goodbye, but she still wears his ring. That’s okay, though. After our big date, she’ll have a prettier one. 

It’s too early to go home, and I have too much energy, so I meet my buddies at the bar down the street from the jewelry store. As I round the corner, I plow into a homeless guy, and I flatten him on the sidewalk. I catch myself on the corner of the building. The poor guy is reaching a hand up to me, so I take it and help him to his feet. The stench of dirt and poor hygiene surrounds him—I almost gag, and I don’t want to touch him. 

“Thanks, friend,” he says. I try to back away from him. His breath is even more horrific than his body odor, and I can’t wait to be on my way.

“No problem.” I warn him about the incoming snowstorm. At least the mission provides shelter for the homeless on a night like tonight. He is on his way, he tells me. He can grab a warm shower there. At least I hope he does, because he reeks. 

“Have you been here in town for long, friend?” he asks.

“Yeah, about a year, give or take.”

“If I show you a picture of someone I’m looking for, do you think you could tell me if they’re still here?”!

Look, pal, I think to myself. I don’t know many people, so I doubt I know who you seek. “Maybe. But I gotta get going. I’ve got stuff to take—” 

“Please, it’ll only take a moment.” The bum retrieves a photo from his pocket, unfolds it and hands it to me. My heart skips a beat and I feel the blood drain from my face. Fran. “Have you seen her around town?”

Who are you? That is my first question. I thought the press and Paparazzi had long since died down after her husband’s death. Everything was so controversial, and the press put Fran through hell. I’ll be damned if they start this again! “Ahh, no, no, sir, I can’t say I’ve seen her around here anywhere.” I hand the photo back to him. 

“Well, damn,” he says. “Thanks for looking at it.” I hear nothing else while my head swims a bit. “…you might have run across her.” 

His last sentence brings me back to reality. “Nope, no, sir. Sorry.” If he’s military intelligence sniffing around her again, we’re going to have a problem, so I have a great idea. “Hey, you want some money for bus fare or something? Go someplace warm instead of here in the cold and snow. I’d be happy to drive you to the bus station…” Though the cost would hurt, it would be well worth it to get him out of town.

The old man doesn’t look like he’s buying my offer. What the hell does he want with my Fran, anyway? “It’s the least I could do for—uh, you know—knocking you down.” I can tell he is suspicious by how he looks at me. It’s clear we don’t trust each other, but if he makes a move to hurt her, I will hurt him back, twice as bad. I don’t care if he is an old geezer. 

“I appreciate the offer, friend, but I’ve spent the better part of two years getting back here to Appaloosa Plains. It’s where I call home.” He extends his hand for a shake. “Thanks again for the hand up. I hope to catch you around town someday.” 

I nod my head and shake his hand, but I’m leery of him. “Yeah, anytime, buddy.” If I catch you around my woman, you will regret it, I think to myself. “Stay warm.” 

He tips his hat, now full of snowflakes, and smiles. “Will do.”


— Charlie —

The next morning, I walk to the Koffi Cafe just near the mission. My last two dollars will buy a cup of coffee and a warm place to rest while I decide on my next move. I still need to find you, my darling. Now that I’m in town, I’m growing restless and I need to see you. Little do I know, you’re closer than I think. 

I open the door of the diner and walk to the corner table. The waitress looks familiar, but I don’t notice who she is until she approaches my table. Even without the name badge, I recognize you. You haven’t changed a bit—you’re just as beautiful as you were the morning I left you weeping on our front step. I notice the man that knocked me over last night sits at the counter, and he’s flirting with you. No wonder he wanted me out of town. 

“Good morning,” you greet me. “What can I get for you?” 

I can’t look at your face, not yet, so I stare straight ahead. “Coffee—cream, no sugar.” 

“I’ll be right back!” 

From the corner of my eye, I observe you and this young man together. You look happy—I almost consider leaving town to begin a new life without you. But I can’t bear the idea of missing one more day with you, missing any more of Destiny’s childhood, it’s too painful to bear. I have to let you know I am home. It’s a chance I’m willing to take to reunite our family. For us, my love. 

When you walk back, you have a cup of coffee. You place it in front of me and stand there, your pad in your hand, waiting in silent expectation. And I get this feeling of nostalgia. This is where we reunited twenty-five years ago, when you stood in that exact pose, awaiting our orders. This moment right here makes me realize I’ve come full circle, and as I was twenty-five years ago, I’m uncertain of your reaction. I keep myself unknown for just a little longer.

“What would you like this morning?” you ask. I sense your impatience, and it will only get worse when you realize I’m only here for the coffee. 

“Coffee is it for me, I’m afraid.” As those words leave my mouth, my stomach growls—the aroma of food and fresh coffee triggers the pangs of hunger, and I sigh in frustration. 

You look at me, and for a moment I think you’ve recognized me. “Are you sure? You look like you could use a hot meal.”

I’m starving, I think. Of course I could use a hot meal. But I know if I say yes, you’ll end up paying for it. I shrug. “Look, I’m not here seeking a handout, but if you insist, I won’t say no.” I look through the menu—to keep it cheap, I pick a bagel.

That’s when you smile at me. “I know exactly what you should have. How about some orange juice?” You jot something on your notepad. 

“Thank you,” I say and wave at you. 

I can’t hear the chatter between you and this young man, but it’s clear you have involvement with him. The banter is playful and flirty. I want to be with you, but perhaps you’re better off without me. Maybe you’ve moved on. Maybe, my darling, you don’t need me anymore. I struggle with what I want and what’s best for you and Destiny. Can he provide for you better than I can? While I agonize, you approach me with plates in one hand, and a pot of fresh coffee in the other. 

“I ordered this special for you.” You place breakfast down in front of me, and it looks like a feast. Then I recognize what you’ve done, and I choke up. “Eggs, bacon, gravy, fresh biscuits and grits. I used to make it all the time…” I see a glimpse of emotion. “Can I refresh your coffee?” 

I nod at you and look at the meal you brought for me—my favorite. I can’t wait another minute to reveal myself. How can I? Everything you’ve done—breakfast, the look of sadness and longing when you served it. Baby, it tells me you still miss me, that you still love me. And then I notice your wedding ring—the one I gave you—still sits on your left hand. I nod at you, choked with emotion. 

“Enjoy your breakfast,” you say, a gentle smile in your voice. “If you need anything, my name is—”

I can’t wait any longer. “Frannie,” I say. “Sweet Frannie.” 

You scream and drop the carafe, which shatters at your feet. Broken glass and hot coffee splash everywhere, and I hope you aren’t hurt. When he hears you, the young man runs to your defense. I see you tremble as you move closer to me, your eyes searching for that glimmer of recognition. 

“No…” you say. “It can’t be.” 

“What is it, Fran?” He looks at me and growls. I know he recognizes me, too. “Did this man hurt you?” 

You push him aside and approach me again, so I turn in my seat to face you. I take your hands, soft and warm, into mine and I finger the gold band that sits on your left hand. “It was my destiny to meet you,” I whisper and then stand. When I smile at you, I see it on your face. You know. 

Frannie, my sweetheart, how I have waited to see you, to hold you in my arms again. Every step, every mile I’ve walked, I did it for you, for this moment. To see your face, your smile. When the crash broke my leg—while I crawled through the burning desert sand, and I thought I would die, your photo reminded me of who waited for me here, and it gave me the strength to bear it. When I thought I couldn’t walk one more step, you spurred me on, whether or not you knew it. I loved you then, and through every step, every hardship, I love you still.  

With tears in your eyes, your face in your hands, you cry out, “Oh, my! It is you!” I catch you as you collapse into my arms, crying, “You’re alive! You’re alive…” I hold you close—nothing will ever separate us again, baby, I promise you. 

The young man shouts something, but all I can hear is your quiet weeping. You pull closer to me—your hands grasp the lapels of my coat, and with your face nuzzled into my neck, you whisper my name. “Oh, Charlie…” My heart melts on the spot. I’ve waited too long to hear you call my name. It’s the sweetest sound my ears have ever heard.

I hold you tighter, and when you look up into my eyes, I caress your cheek. “Honey, I’m home.” Though it takes all my energy, every ounce of strength, I pick you up in my arms and hold you. I’m home, my darling. I’m home.

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Up Next: Chapter Sixteen, Generation One


Pose Credit

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Writer’s Pose Pack by Tylie

*****

Once again, a special thank you to my editor and dear friend, Chris W., for your tireless work in helping me write and edit this behemoth of a chapter. For hours of selfless advice, your unconditional support, the brainstorming, laughing, and that last sigh of relief, I owe you a debt of gratitude, and a few loads of laundry.

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