Leap of Faith
Chapter 20: One Big Sandbox Party
Thanks to JulieKohler, another Marine wife who pointed out a couple of Mariney things I was off on. 🙂 It’s the little things you can’t find on google. Thanks Julie!
Apparently, this is another sad chapter. It just happened that way, please don’t come after me with a pitchfork. I promise it will get happier.
Two weeks went by without a word. No phone calls, no emails, no text messages, nothing. Even though I had no idea when he would read them, I emailed him each day, telling him about what I’d been doing, how the weather was, and silly things I heard on the news or read on the internet. I kept my phone on at all times and never turned the ringer off. I kept it by my bed and I left it on my desk at work. On Saturday, when I was out to lunch, I almost hyperventilated because my battery was dying, and I didn’t have my charger. I actually made Amelia take me back to my apartment, instead of going to a movie like we planned.
The night Eric and Cal left, I got insanely drunk with Amelia, Soph and Thalia. We drunk-emailed the guys pictures of us doing shots of tequila, to view whenever they got the chance. When I was able to drag my very hungover self out of bed, I spent the next few days on the beach with Amelia. I couldn’t think or function, but Amelia said, “You can lay your empty shell on the beach just as easily as you can stay in bed with those sweaty fuck-sheets.” I wasn’t going to wash them until they lost his scent.
Amelia rode with me in the Vette back to Atlanta. I finished that first week doing the silly things that I needed to take care of with my new married name; changing my driver’s license, credit cards, and the like. Thankfully, Amelia ran into Alcide and told him the news of my marriage. He didn’t consider it good news, but I didn’t have to break it to him, so I didn’t care.
Most of my other friends were from work, and Chow had been keeping them informed about all of the changes in my life. I called him; to say that I’d be in at the beginning of the week to start tying up loose ends. He figured it would take a few weeks to transition my cases, but basically told me to stay as long as I wanted. The first morning I was back at my desk, the office manager, Doris, called me aside and told me they were planning to surprise me with cake and gifts during our coffee break. She smiled sweetly and explained that her daughter’s husband was in the Navy, and she knew how hard it could be when they were deployed, so she wanted me to be prepared. It was sweet, but it reminded me of how damaged everyone had apparently thought I was before. After hearing about the last two weeks, they must have been shocked that I was able to get out of bed in the morning. I had to admit, some mornings I was shocked by my own resolve.
My days were busy; coffee, work, yoga, dinner, reading until I fell asleep in bed, repeat. The only thing that tended to vary was where I had my dinner. As the days dragged on, I started to get anxious. Before I left North Carolina, Soph and I had put the phone on speaker and called the toll free number to make sure Eric and Cal had arrived safely, but that was all we knew. We agreed that as soon as we heard from either of them, we’d call each other. I hadn’t heard from her yet. It was almost as bad as not hearing from Eric, because it left me wondering about both men.
On the morning of the eighteenth day, the phone woke me from a dead sleep. I sat straight up in bed, eyes wide, fumbling for my phone, glancing at the clock that read 5:12 a.m. My breathing was fast, from being jolted awake, and as I took in the clock, I wondered if the time of the call meant anything, or if it was just his first opportunity to call, because it had to be him.
“Ohmygod, hello?” There was a scratchy quality to the sound coming through the phone. Please tell me we didn’t get disconnected. “Eric?”
“Hey Bird! I’m sorry to call so early.”
“It’s okay. Are you okay? How are you? Where are you?”
He laughed, and the sound brought tears to my eyes. “I’m fine, Sookie. It’s noon here and it’s the first time I’ve been anywhere near a phone to call you. I’ll give you the address you can send stuff to, it’s at Camp Fallujah, but I don’t know how much we’ll be back here. I’m hot and tired and I miss your cooking. I’m doing good though. How are you? Are you back in Atlanta?”
Camp Fallujah. Camp Fallujah. I repeated it to myself a couple of times so I could check the map when we got off the phone. “I’m okay, and yeah, I’m in Atlanta. Amelia drove back with me. I’ve been working, trying to transition my cases.” I sighed. “I miss you.”
I could almost see him close his eyes. “I know. I miss you too.” He exhaled, and changed the subject. “When do you think you’re moving?”
I knew he didn’t want to dwell on the sadness. I wasn’t sure if it was for my sake, or his, but I appreciated it. “I’ll be here at least another month, finishing up at work and packing up. My lease is up in three months, but I don’t think I’ll be here that long. Why? You wanna come move some boxes for me?”
He chuckled. “I’d love to. You don’t have anything too heavy do you? I wouldn’t want to throw my back out.”
“I have boxes and boxes of books and shoes.”
“Oh God, I’m glad I won’t be there. Jason can carry all of that crap.”
“Hey, you bought me half of those books!” I teased back. “Hoyt said he’ll come too. With Jason, Hoyt, and Tray, I’ll have a whole moving crew.”
“That’s good. You know I wish I could help, right?”
“I know Eric. It’s fine. They’ll take care of me.”
He snorted. “They better. Have you talked to Pam?”
“Yesterday, actually. She’s doing well. She’s not on bed rest, but she’s not supposed to be working. They’re just worried because of the contractions she had while you were home.”
“Has she told Andre what she’s having yet?”
I laughed. “No, she’s still keeping it a secret. She says if he would have come to the appointment she would tell him, but he went out of town for work, so she’s not telling.”
“My sister is such an evil bitch.”
“I’ll be sure to tell her.”
“Ha! I’m more than an ocean away, go ahead! She can’t hurt me from there!”
I told him to check his email, and that I’d send him a package and real mail now that I had his address. We joked that he should stick to the phone, email, and web-chats when we could, since he was handwriting challenged.
He grew serious, asking me if I was ‘really‘ alright. I told him I was managing. I’d been alone and lonely for a long time; at least now, I had something to look forward to.
It got quiet, and he sighed across the phone line, breaking my heart. “Sook, I miss you so much it hurts.”
“I know.” My voice broke. I couldn’t tell him that I’d woken up in the night, crying and feeling like I couldn’t breathe, after dreaming about him. “We can do this. Thousands of couples are doing the same thing.”
“Bird, can we make a date?”
“Sure, let me get out my planner.”
“Smart ass. Ten o’clock tonight, go outside and look at the stars. I’ll do it here at the same time.”
My eyes were full of tears, and I thanked God he couldn’t see me. “Okay.” I was nodding. “It’s a date. I’ll have some wine. I’m sure you have some Kool-Aid powder or something.”
He laughed. “Something. I’ve got to go, Sookie. There’s a line of guys behind me. I’ll get to a computer before we get out of here and check my email.”
“Okay.” My mind tumbled around. I didn’t want him to go, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say besides, ‘I love you. I miss you. Please don’t hang up,’ and I didn’t want to be that girl.
“I love you. I’ll call again as soon as I can. It might be a couple of weeks again.”
“I’ll be here. I love you, too. Be safe.”
“I will. Give it a while before you call Soph. Cal’s going to call her, he’s a couple people back in line. He was slow getting over here.”
I don’t know how he knew I would call her, he read my mind sometimes, I swear. “Alright. I love you.”
He chuckled. “I love you too. I’m hanging up.”
I made a kissing noise into the phone, like a dork, and had no idea if he heard it or not.
Just as I figured, we stayed forty-eight hours at Camp Fallujah and were back in the field. Everyone restocked what they needed, including contact with home, took a long shower, and slept.
The sand was endless. It was dusty and annoying, making me cough and my eyes hurt. It was fucking hot, and we were running a loop of missions that were routine and mundane. Check for IEDs, follow the trail of presumed rebels, look for more IEDs, lead a convoy across barren desert, and look for more fucking IED’s.
We made it to civilization every few weeks. I called Sookie as soon as I could and even talked to her via web cam once. There were pretty strict rules about when and where you could do web chats like Skype, so you didn’t give away troop movements or other tactical information, but it could be done. We had an awkward start to our chat. Neither of us had ever had a video chat before, so we fumbled a bit, nervous from the feeling of being on camera. Sookie faked like she was picking her nose and we laughed, then it was easy. It was amazing to see her. The phone calls had been nice, but I needed this, to see her eyes sparkle, and her smile when she laughed.
Sookie had moved back to Bon Temps and was enjoying her time off. She had high-speed internet and cable installed at Gran’s place, and bought a new hot water heater, at my insistence. The old one was a fire hazard, not to mention it seriously limited our time in the shower together. Miss Jane Bodehouse was anxious to retire, but the county budget looked tight, and although they wanted Sookie to start soon, they told her that she couldn’t start until the new fiscal year. Faced with several months of unemployment, she had taken to substitute teaching at the high school, and loved it. She especially liked the fact that it didn’t tie her to having to stay in Bon Temps. If she wanted to go visit Amelia, or Soph and Thalia, she was free to go, and knew they would still need her when she got home.
I was looking forward to the next call, well, I looked forward to all of them, but by the next time we talked, Pam should have had the baby. She was due shortly after the last time I talked to Sookie, so I figured she had either gone into labor, or she’d gone psycho and scared someone enough that they had induced her already. I was kind of excited to be Uncle Eric, and I told Sookie to spoil the baby rotten until I got home.
We were going on one last mission before heading to back to Fallujah, and of course we were running out of everything. Batteries were dying, we were down to crap MRE’s, and we were all fucking sick of each other. We were a tough bunch, but we all stank of sweat and funk, we had sand in places that no one wanted to think about, and we just needed a taste of civilization. Hell, I think most of us would have been happy with a hose of unlimited, cold, clean water; anything more than that would be icing on the cake. But no one complained; we loaded our gear and readied the humvees, silently wanting to get it over with.
It was nearly dawn when the chain of vehicles pulled out, but it was already hot, and it was only going to get worse. We were driving to meet another group of Marines carrying supplies that needed to get through some hostile territory. On top of my exhaustion, I was excited, it wasn’t exactly what we’d been trained to do, but it had more potential than anything else we’d done. We sang to pass the time and philosophized about ridiculous things; if you could meet one famous person who would it be and what would you say to them? I shook my head. Some days felt like reliving junior high, except this time I was experiencing it in a dusty piece of shit vehicle in 110 degree heat.
The day dragged on, uneventfully. We drove, my feet, ass and back were soaked with sweat, Cal was bitching over the comms unit, and I was trying to ignore it all, keeping my eye on the horizon. We came into a town that looked deserted. I imagined that it had been a sort of oasis at one point, a halfway point between No Where and Nothing on the map. However, looking deserted didn’t mean it really was, so we were all on alert, scanning the windows of buildings and looking down alleys.
A few blocks onto the main street, commands were yelled on the radio about the same time that we saw flashes of gunfire ahead of us. We kept driving forward as the flashes grew closer. There was a loud boom and then an explosion several cars up. We fired back, as the gunfire reached our vehicle, shooting out glass, taking out hostiles, and maneuvering around a burning humvee. It happened very quickly, and we were suddenly back on the open road, communicating up and down the line on the radio to get status updates. In the end, we lost two humvees, but no men, and everyone was oddly glad to have seen a little excitement. When we stopped to set up camp, the story was excitedly retold from every angle, because every Marine saw something slightly different. The details changed like the size of a prize winning fish, with each storyteller becoming the hero. Some things would never change.
When we finally made it in to camp, I was exhausted and felt like I’d been rolling in the sand for weeks. Oh wait, I had been. I showered and changed, and I’m pretty sure I fell asleep sitting on the end of my bunk, before going to wait in line for the phone, where I think I fell asleep again.
The phone rang several times before I was surprised by a man’s voice on the other end.
“Heh,” he coughed and cleared his throat. “Hello?”
“Yes.” I resisted saying, ‘Who the fuck is this?’
“Shit, let me go wake up Sookie.”
Seriously, what the fuck? I heard footsteps that seemed to be running up stairs, a door creaked open, and I recognized the sounds. I realized it was my bedroom door; the stairs were at Aunt O’s house, and I knew who was on the phone. “Andre?”
“Hang on, Eric. Sook, wake up.”
I heard mumbling, and then very clearly heard her start to panic. “Oh my God, I didn’t hear it ring. Shit. Andre find the charger. Oh, hell, the battery. Andre!” She sounded close to tears, and I wondered if she had been lying to me all along about being alright.
“Shhhhh. It’s okay. I charged it when we got home. Talk to Eric.”
“Eric?” She was breathing fast.
I didn’t want her to know that I’d overheard how frantic she had been. “Hey, little Bird. How come you’re sleeping? Am I an uncle?” It should be close to lunch time there.
“Hi! Yeah, it’s a girl! She’s so cute! They named her Beatrice Octavia. We were at the hospital with Pam all night.”
“Were you sleeping in my bed?”
“I’m kidding.” I heard the sheets moving, she must have been stretching. “Pam’s doing well. I was here with her when her water broke, so I drove her to the hospital. Andre brought me back for my car, and I was so tired I crashed here. He’s probably going back to the hospital soon.”
“Did you send me pictures?”
“Not yet. She just had the baby five hours ago. I’ll do it in a while when I get up. How are you? I bet you’re tan.”
Leave it to Sookie to think about my suntan. “Yeah. I’m getting pretty dark. That’s what I do all day you know, work on my tan.” She laughed. “I’m good. We’ve been out in the field like usual, just in for supplies again. How are you? You hanging in there?”
“You heard me didn’t you?”
“Yeah.” I sighed. “Sookie.” She cut me off.
“I’m fine, Eric. I was half asleep, and I’m exhausted. It’s been a pretty emotional twenty-four hours.”
“I just worry about you.”
“That makes two of us. I worry about you.”
“I’m fine.” I huffed. Shit. I didn’t want to fight with her. Not about this, not while we had so little time.
“Hey, I love you and I miss you, other than that I’m fine. Okay?”
“I love you too. And I miss you. Shit, I miss you like crazy. I got a great package from you last week. It was a giant box of candy and drink mix.”
“Oh good! That one was fun to fill up! Did you share?”
“Of course. You don’t think I ate all of that candy by myself do you?”
“No, I figured you had snorted all the Tang mix though.”
I laughed. “What the hell does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I’m just kidding. How are Cal and the guys?”
“Everyone is good.” I was so not telling her about the day before.
“So it’s all just one big sandbox party over there?”
“Oh yeah, it’s a great big party.” She sighed. “We’ve had a few missions, but nothing too crazy.”
“Only a little crazy?”
My turn to sigh. “Yeah, a little crazy. Please don’t worry.”
I could barely hear her say, “I’m trying.”
“Sook, don’t cry.”
“I’m not. I’m just really tired and emotional today.”
“Alright. I’m going to email you some pictures when I get to the computer. I think Cal is asleep, so go ahead and call Soph if you want, to let her know he’ll be calling.”
“You have to go so soon?”
“There’s a line. There’s always a line. I love you, Bird. Tell Pam and Beatrice I love them. Andre, too.”
“I will. Be safe. I love you.”
Closing my eyes, I ended the call, hoping that what I heard a snippet of on the other end of the phone wasn’t a sob.
When I first moved back to Gran’s house, I pulled out the box of letters that Eric had sent all those years ago, and sat down with a bottle of wine to read them. I had every intention of reading them in one sitting, but it was physically impossible to read anything with the tears running down my face after the third letter. I decided that I could only read one letter a day, and that I would do it in the morning when I drank my coffee. I knew it might set the tone for a shitty day, but I also knew that I couldn’t read them before bed. No matter how sad it was, I thought of it as my daily time with Eric.
They were gut wrenching. The first few letters were full of concern for me, and hints of explanations for breaking up. When he left Basic and went to his next assignment, there was a sort of turning point in the letters, where he no longer wrote to me, but about his experiences. He said that he wasn’t sure that I was even receiving the mail from him, but if I was, he wanted me to know he was horribly sorry for hurting me, but that now he needed a friend, someone to confide in, and he didn’t know who else to turn to. My heart broke for him. He had so many friends that it was devastating to me, that after everything we’d been through, I was still the only one he was willing to show any vulnerability to. He was not afraid of failing, but afraid of disappointing, that his best would not be the best. His letters would analyze his successes, questioning why he hadn’t done even better and explaining how he had learned from every experience. He would never admit it, but being raised by his Aunt, and not his parents, had left a chink in his armor. Somewhere, deep down, I knew he thought he could have done something differently to make his father want to raise him.
In his final letters, when he was facing deployment, there was another shift. It was typical of Eric, to drive himself harder than anyone else around him through the learning process, and in the end, accept his mastery of whatever it was, knowing that he had taken every opportunity to improve and excel and that he was, in fact, the best. The final letter was another goodbye, thanking me for listening, for letting him tell me the things that he needed to get off his chest. He wished me luck, wherever I was, and told me that he thought of me often, but that he wouldn’t write again. He was turning a page, starting a new chapter, and he needed to do it on his own. I stayed in bed for two days after reading it. I was swamped with emotions, about the letters, his absence, and the frailty of the future. What if he didn’t come back? What if these letters were all I had left of him?
In the end, it was Pam that got me out of bed. She came into my room, looking very surprised to find me there, carrying coffee in one hand and juice in the other.
“Oh, hell no. I am a fucking train wreck; you don’t get to fall apart too.”
She took her sunglasses off, and she looked as awful as I felt. She set our drinks down and crawled in bed next to me, and we told each other what we were afraid of, crying and talking for what seemed like hours.
Finally, she took my hand and held onto it. “Sook, there isn’t a damn thing either of us can do to change things. This baby is coming, and Eric is in Iraq. What’s going to happen is already in motion. But we’re done crying. We have got to get our shit together. Okay? I need you to help me do this baby thing, and clearly you need me right now, too. So let’s get up and take our crazy, red, cried out eyes to the spa in Shreveport and get pampered.” When I didn’t move, she gave me a mean look. You didn’t mess with pregnant Pam. “Sookie, that wasn’t a question. Now get up, and get over here, I need help to stand up.”
After that, time dragged on. I got to tell Eric about Beatrice, but I hadn’t heard from him since. I began to wish that I didn’t have time off. Slowly, steadily, days ticked off the page. Substitute teaching was fine, but it was almost Christmas break, and I was going to be bored, at home, with nothing to do. I supposed I could go to North Carolina and help out at the bar, but again, Thalia didn’t need me every day, and the apartment there was depressing. I kept finding things of Eric’s that made me cry.
He had been gone four months. It felt like four years.