Death and Love in Marjah
Copyright© 2010 by Celtic Bard
A china-faced doll and a computer programming package full of science and math info and games, both wrapped, were stuffed into my overnight bag. The rest of my crap was packed up and shipped down to Ft. Benning. The day after the call from my sister I was called into the Commandant's office and thanked for my service but Uncle Sam had better things to do with my skills than teaching wanna-be Lts. how to fight hand-to-hand and lead small units in combat. While I agreed, I told him (honestly) that I enjoyed my time at the Academy and I was honored to have been given the opportunity to mold the leaders of tomorrow's Army. He looked at me for a long second and smiled, holding out his hand.
"I think your time here was well spent, Master Sergeant, and I am glad the time away from the front did you some good. You came to us a little ragged and I doubt Lt. Vance helped that any. I know his father and I knew him and neither one of them belonged in the positions they were in. That they caused you and your unit so much grief is regrettable," he said solemnly. Then he grinned and added, "But of course, should anyone ask me, this conversation never took place. I simply thanked you for your service and handed you your orders and notice of promotion, congratulating you. Congratulations, Master Sergeant." He handed me a folder fairly thick with all the paperwork that goes with a transfer from one command to the next.
I saluted him and left, headed to the store and then home to pack. I made sure my car was good for the trip to Morristown and gassed it up the night before I left. My flight to Columbus, Georgia was arranged and I knew my sister was good for a ride to Newark International and some long term parking in her garage for my car when I left. I took out five hundred dollars at the bank and made sure my accounts were set until I was stable and back with the Rangers. There was a little antique store near where I often went to eat outside the Academy where I found the china doll. It was beautiful and sort of reminded me of Alexandra in her Sunday best the last time I saw her. The computer program was easier to find in the PX and I picked up a couple of nice bottles of wine for my sister and Ilsa at the Class Six. And I was all set to leave Saturday morning.
On the drive down my thoughts slid towards Shameera, as they often did when I had nothing better to think of. She was in bad shape when we handed her off to the Brits running the C. S. H. (Combat Support Hospital) unit nearest us and what she went through was pretty harsh for anyone to deal with. If it were me, I would probably try to throw myself into work, which meant planning better ways to kill the very people who took me. But she was a war correspondent. At least I hoped she was because if she was not, the recovery period for something like that would be longer. Getting back to a war zone to simply watch other people kill the ones who took you would not be nearly as satisfying and healing. The docs that looked her over when we first took her in assured me that the damage was recent and not from a prolonged stay with the six bastards we sent to Allah.
I was nearing the New York-New Jersey border before I realized it, my thoughts taking up so much of my attention. Sometimes my driving was like that. I could concentrate so hard on something that all I consciously was aware of was the subject of observation or contemplation. I could get like that in battle, too. I consciously saw nothing but the target. However, my brain registered everything and if a threat popped up somewhere else, my brain seemed to ping him for elimination so I could go back to the target. My drill sergeant was very worried when he first noticed that in basic training. Worried enough that he set up a test of how aware I was of other things besides the target. He was shocked to learn that I saw everything in my field plus was aware of things I could not possibly see with my eyes. It was one of the reasons he put a note in my file that got me sent to Sniper School and eventually Ranger School. Probably also why I was a Master Sergeant at twenty-nine years old. Well, that and two wars killing the dumber people and showing the quality of those of us who survive multiple tours to Vietnam-quality kill zones. Back in Vietnam, you usually only did one or two tours, three at the max, before they cycled you back to the States to get you to show the idiots they drafted how to survive. I guess they figure nowadays, with an all volunteer military, you know what you are getting yourself into and they can send you to Afghanistan six, seven, eight-plus times without too much worry about what that does to a human mind and body.
Heh, not that I would change things as far as my M. O. S. (Military Occupational Specialty-your main job in the military), but I would definitely appreciate more down-time between deployments. I guess that is what some of the politicians talk about when they say the U. S. military is spread too thin. Of course, if they stripped us down a little more to a better fighters-to-support ratio like the Israelis, we might be better fighters and not cost quite so much. Then again, if they could do that with us, it would prove they could do that with all of the bureaucracy, and we can't have that, now can we?
Anyway, the I-87/I-287 interchange was clogged by the time I got to it, so I got to sit in an odd Saturday lunchtime rush hour. It took me an hour to get through it and onto I-287, which would take me straight into Morristown. In almost no time at all, I was turning onto my sister's street. I noticed a rental car, a red Mustang, pulling out of her drive and heading in the opposite direction. I was frowning as I pulled into the drive and all the way up to about three inches from the garage door. The front door opened as I was getting out and my sister was coming out with a remote control. She must have had to work this morning because she was wearing the pants and blouse from one of her power suits but she had on a beat up brown sweater and some sneakers on her feet. She looked at me with something between a frown, a grimace, and a sardonic smile and I knew she was going to be picking at me already.
"I think the Army took your talent for perfect f•©king timing and honed it into a weapon, Con," she groused after I pulled into the garage she opened with the remote, walking up to me and hauling me down for a kiss on the cheek as soon as I was out of the car. "Dammit, couldn't you have gotten here about three seconds faster?"
"Traffic on the interchange," came my reply with a smirk, "But why would three seconds have mattered?"
"Never you mind! Get your shit and bring it in the house. And there better not be any presents for the damn kids in that bag of yours," she warned with a dire glare. "You are their favorite uncle already and they only see you every growth spurt or so. They can't stand Seamus and Angus swears they think he is a mad scientist."
"Seamus is an asshole and wouldn't know how to behave nicely around kids if you wrote him a manual and gave him a Sergeant-Major to hold his hand," I told her, honestly evaluating our oldest brother. Then I grinned and added, "And they are right about Angus. He is a mad scientist. The only reason he isn't locked up is he is a good mad scientist and the government knows it. Otherwise they would have found him a padded cell instead of a multimillion dollar, state-of-the-art lab. Now, where are they? And where is Ilsa? I missed her the last time I came through."
"Ha! There's for your perfect timing! Alex is at a soccer game and Sean is at a friend's working on his science fair project," she told me as she led me inside and down the hall to the kitchen. "I don't know if you know, but we finally got him into school. Doctors got him on some good meds and Angus got him into Delbarton."
The pride on her face made me drop my bag and hug her. "I am happy for you, sis. I know it wasn't easy," I told her solemnly. A lot of her spare time, and even more of Ilsa's, went into keeping that kid alive during his first few years. That he was well enough to be in school, and Delbarton no less, was good. I could see fewer stress lines on her face since last time and she looked happier. I looked around the kitchen, as if clues to why I was here would pop out of the cabinets. The table was still set for lunch, with an extra place for the departed guest in the Mustang. "So, why am I here? What was so urgent you called the number I gave you?"
She crossed to the table and sat down, waving me to a chair. Normally the hug I gave her would constitute enough family closeness time, but something made me sit in the chair closest her facing the hall doorway. "Tell me about Afghanistan this time around," she started, eyes on the table, face courtroom blank.
I sighed and tried to look her in the eyes, failing. She was having more trouble than she usually has hiding something from me. I gave her a redacted, sanitized version of what happened. It did not take long. Ever see those shows where the police try to get military records and they arrive almost totally blacked out with marker? Well, my story was kind of like that, only verbal.
When I was done she looked up with her sardonic smile curving her lips and she shook her head. "That was pretty good, Sergeant Devlin. I can almost see the redacted report sitting in front of me," she said, bitingly. "Care to expand on that, or should I tell you what happened?"
My brow rose, my eyes got really suspicious, and I replied, "And how would you know what happened half a world away, councilor?"
"Because I have gotten a phone call and a visit from someone you know. Someone who has spent the better part of eight months and thousands of dollars trying to unravel the conundrum you wrap yourself in to hide away from the rest of the world," was her waspish retort, any amusement she might have had at the situation was now gone. She was working herself into a right Irish snit. "The fact that she got far enough to be aided and abetted by some of your compatriots from that obscure little world you like to live in kind of surprised me. Made me think long and hard before she got here. Made me think that perhaps they have decided that anyone who looks as hard as she has might have a chance to make you join the human race between wars."
I have to admit here that I did not hear much of her rant aside from her snide analysis of my personal life and the pronoun "she." So, I dumbly repeated, "She?"
"Well, Don't Ask, Don't Tell is still the law, so I would certainly hope it was a 'she' that was looking for you across half the world, including a stop in at least two other states before she got here," Maeve sniped back, her Irish up right and proper.
I pinched my nose, feeling a headache coming on. "Please tell me Shameera Afghani has not ferreted me out. Please tell me she does not know where I am. Please, please tell me!" I begged, the same squicky feeling I had back in a farmhouse north of Marjah coming back with a vengeance.
A wickedly malicious smile spread across my sister's face, her eyes dancing with unholy light. "She does not know where you are, yet! But she will know where you will be tomorrow."
"Why will she know tomorrow?" not sure I understood her answer to my plea.
She shook her head, looking scornful. "Nice try, but obfuscation will not solve this. She will not know tomorrow. She will know where you will be tomorrow, your location tomorrow. And she will know because I am going to call her in her hotel room tonight to set up a time for her to come tomorrow. Probably after mass, to which you will accompany the kids and me."
I almost wanted to snap to attention and salute mockingly, but I knew this mood. It was what I liked to call her Ivana the Terrible mood. Handle her the wrong way when she was like this and she will bitch slap you into next week. I am six-four, two hundred-plus pounds of muscle and I knew she would do it. Our mother was the same way. Probably had something to do with too many genes contributed by warriors and soldiers from more than one O'Neill clan.
I cautiously nodded my acquiescence. "All right, Maeve, all right. Calm down, I will go to mass with you and the kids. I am overdue anyway," I told her placatingly, trying to smile.
She nodded and smiled, the fire in her eyes gradually receding. "Good. Now that that is settled, we are having schnitzel and spätzel for dinner. Ilsa decided to cook something special for you," she said just as I heard the front door open. She nodded towards the front door. "That is probably her now. Why don't you put those muscles of yours to use and go help her bring in the groceries, since you will probably eat half of them while you are here anyway?"
It was, indeed, Ilsa. I took the two bags she was carrying from her and kissed her cheek in greeting. She began crooning to me in German, all smiles and happiness at my presence. I suppose I should explain that she was my parents' cook/housekeeper before they died. By the time the folks died in the car crash, Maeve was already a lawyer with a good income, her sleaze ball husband having "left" almost right after Alexandra was born. I never told her that a few friends and I warned him to leave the state and make sure never to miss an alimony or child support payment or we would see him again. To my knowledge, he has never been late and that plus Maeve's salary allowed her to take on Ilsa when the folks died. She helped raise us and Maeve's kids and Maeve felt she owed it to her. As much as she loved Maeve, for some reason I was always her favorite. Probably because my youngest brother is a little weird, my oldest brother is an asshole, and Maeve is often driven to the point of abstraction. I was always just there. No goals, no quirks (other than introversion), and no qualms about soaking up TLC from someone who cooks like Ilsa can.
I got the rest of the bags out of the car while catching up with Ilsa in German (she taught me fluent Bavarian-accented German growing up). I told her what I could of what I had been doing since I last saw her almost two years ago. She told me about the kids and Maeve before getting to the visitor that morning. Ilsa told me the gist of what was said and then smiled up at me. "Sie ist deine Liebchen? Ja oder nein? Sie wart sehr schöne."
"Ja, sie ist schöne und sie is meine liebchen, ich denke. Aber-"
"Knock that off, you two. English or I will think you are talking about me," a spritely voice said from behind me as we were heading back to the kitchen with the last of the bags.
I looked over my shoulder and saw Alexandra behind me, taller, prettier, and shapelier than last time I saw her. She was dressed in a soccer uniform and had a bag over her shoulder but she was undisheveled, as if she were getting ready to leave, not coming back. I put the two bags I was carrying on the counter for Ilsa to put away and turned just in time to catch my niece in a great big hug as she hurled herself into my arms, wrapping herself around me and planting a kiss on my cheek.
"I missed you, Uncle Con. I heard you were not staying long," she said in a voice that trembled with her emotions. "I watch the news sometimes and worry about you."
"You have nothing to worry about, Alex," Ilsa said as she scurried around the kitchen putting away the food. "God watches over this one. He is blessed."
I saw Maeve grimace out of the corner of my eye. I always found it funny that someone who goes to church every Sunday could not stand it when people said things like that. As if God were not real and it was impossible for someone to be protected by Him. And then she will go and talk with our cousins about some of the strange talents that tend to crop up in our family and have no problem discussing things most Christians would think are impossible.
Alex, however, looked over my shoulder at Ilsa with a deadly serious look on her face and demanded, "You promise, Ilsa? You promise nothing will happen to him?"
"I promise, little one. It shines about him like a beacon. Now scatter and take him with you. He is too big a lump to be in my kitchen when I am cooking," she said, flapping her hands at us. "Besides, he likes to taste and as big as he is, there will be nothing left for dinner. Now go."
So my niece dragged me into the living room and ordered me to sit while she went to change out of her soccer gear. Apparently her game had been cancelled due to a water main break in the school, flooding the locker rooms and electrical closet, shorting out the entire school and several blocks around the area. They had arrived to fire trucks and police officers and city water trucks scurrying around like a kicked-over ant hill. I sat on the couch and my mind wandered to thinking about Shameera and why she was doing this to me. She had to be smart to have gotten as far in her profession and her quest to find me as she did, and God knows I knew she was beautiful. One rarely gets as good a look at a prospective mate as I had gotten that night north of Marjah. And knowing Afghanis as I do, her family probably had a future husband or two already in mind for her. Although, if she was a reporter, she might have rebelled against that and gone her own way. I was just trying to think of a way to get out of town and to Newark tonight when Alex rattled down the stairs and flung herself into my lap, arms around my neck.
"Sooo, tell me about Shameera, Uncle Con," she said way too casually, her green eyes glinting with mischief. She had let her strawberry blonde hair down and I was shocked to see it almost hit her butt. Last time I saw her, she swore she was going to grow it to her ankles and Maeve shot back that her mid-back was as far as it was going while she lived in her house. "You met her in Afghanistan, right? But she speaks like a t. v. anchor from Nebraska. I knew a girl from Nebraska and she sounds a little like her."
I shrugged. "I met her in the middle of a gunfight and she was in shock for the few hours it took to walk to where we caught a ride home. Not a lot of talking went on because we were busy making sure we did not get shot," I told her, forgetting she was my eleven year old niece and not my sister.
I think I shocked her, because her eyes went from poking fun to stricken in about .8 seconds. "I thought Ilsa said you were not gonna be hurt! She promised!"
It was kind of funny even while being sad to see illusions stripped away from my little niece who liked to act as if she were so worldly. I always joked she is eleven going on thirty, but there is still the little girl who used to crawl up into my lap and fall asleep underneath the world-weary airs. It was that little girl that wrapped my heart around her fingers before she was three and knew it by the time she was five. I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed just enough to get an indignant squawk out of her.
"As long as I am healthy enough to do that until I am old and gray, I will be fine regardless of what Ilsa says. A nick here or there is a small price to pay to bring my men back every time we go out," I told her with earnest eyes and solemn tone.
Alex looked up into my eyes before nodding slowly and burrowing into my arms and laying her head on my chest. She was asleep and I was smiling bemusedly about a half hour later when Maeve came out to call us to dinner. Sean was walking in the door, eyes shining, as I woke Alex. "Uncle Con! When did you get here?"
His shout brought Alex to full wakefulness and she grumpily told him to not shout like a barbarian as she walked into the kitchen, thumping him on the arm as she walked by him. He yelped and rubbed his arm as he came over to give me a hug. It was awkward because I was not used to hugs from him and he was not good at overt emotional displays. It touched me that he missed me enough to try.
"I hear you started school this year. How do you like it?" I asked as I herded him down the hall to the kitchen.
Much as I am not a very sociable and family-oriented man, I enjoyed that night unlike any I could remember outside of my infrequently attended family holiday dinners. We chatted and teased and caught-up and did all the things that usually grate on my nerves after about ten minutes. Dinner took two hours that night and Maeve, Ilsa, and I sat up talking until nearly midnight. Perhaps because she did not trust my fight-or-flight instincts, or perhaps she did not trust that her dominance of us brothers still held as strongly as when we were kids, but Maeve walked me to my room after Ilsa chased us to bed so she could clean the kitchen before going to bed herself.
Outside my door she tugged on my arm and looked up into my eyes, serious and almost vulnerable-looking. "I need you to come with us to mass tomorrow morning, Con. I don't know why, but I need you to do this. For me, please?"
For all the strange talents we Devlins have displayed over the years, the only one Maeve ever really showed was a devastating ability to see people to their core and act on what she saw. She was never able to see me, for some reason. Perhaps because my talents lay in what I liked to call "caveman" abilities. I could hide and seek like no other child and that stood me well in my adulthood, be it hunting black bear or deer, be it finding a target in the jungles of Columbia or the Philippines, or be it leading Rangers against Iraqi insurgents or Afghani Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists. Were I an Indian back three centuries ago, I would probably have been an honored hunter among the Algonquin or Sioux tribes. But I also had a rather good sense as to the abilities of others and how and when to use them or pay attention to them. I looked down into my sister's gray-green eyes and sensed now was a good time to heed her feelings on this. I still felt squicky and a need to hide back in the Army (Iraq this time), but this time I simply nodded, kissed her forehead, and went to bed.
To dream of Shameera naked on a different bed. And she wasn't tied up this time. I shuddered out of a very interesting dream with a shout, rolling off the bed and throwing up my hands in defense, barely noticing it was light out already. I had felt something touch my shoulder. Something smaller and rougher than Shameera's long, thin, soft hands. Blinking sleep out of my eyes, I saw Alex standing there in her Sunday best, a nice light green blouse and dark brown slacks, her hair already braided and pinned for church.
I frowned and she giggled. "Time to wake up, sleepyhead. Mom says, 'If you want breakfast before church, get your butt up!' So come on! She made blueberry muffins and Ilsa has some nice fruit juice. You have about ten minutes to dress and eat before we need to go," she said, her tone dripping hilarity, before leaving me in my boxers still blinking sleep from my eyes and coming down from a dream I both enjoyed and wanted to run from.