Part I: A Light In Dark Places
During the attempted Goa’uld invasion of Serpent’s Lair/Serpent’s Grasp, nobody outside the SGC had any idea of the threat facing Earth. Or did they? At Christmas of 1998, stationed in Germany and preparing for war in Kosovo, Frank Cromwell hears some strange rumors, and wonders what kind of trouble Jack has gotten himself into this time. Plus memories of a happier Christmas, a brave teddy bear, and why it’s NOT a good idea to drive across the Rocky Mountains in a snowstorm…
I’ll be home for Christmas
You can count on me…
If I ever meet the sorry bastard who wrote that song, I’ll kill him.
Yep. Just call me Colonel Scrooge. What is it about armed forces radio stations, that they have to play these songs all the time to the troops overseas? The ones who won’t be home for Christmas… if they even have a home anymore.
There’s something about the holidays that encourages thoughts like this, of home and family and warm cozy kitchens, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, and all that shit. Of course, all the sappy songs and cute decorations everywhere don’t help any. You can’t get away from Christmas here, no matter how hard you try. And believe me, I’m tryin’.
My team just got back to base after a week of war games, a nice long week away from carols and colored lights and all this “peace on Earth, good will to men” crap. Here in the mess hall it’s nice and warm, but right about now I’m wishing we were still out there, camping out in the woods and the snow. Out there, whether the mission’s real or not, there’s no time for thinking about anything else. And anybody so much as mentions that it’s almost Christmas, I can bust his ass faster than you can think.
But we’re on downtime now until New Year’s, assuming the situation in Kosovo doesn’t blow up between then and now. And I don’t think it will. Oh, we’ll go in there eventually, and it can’t be too soon for me. But not before Christmas.
And there’s a part of me that’s glad my team will get some time off. They deserve it, even though I’d never be caught dead sayin’ so. But for me, a nice little war over the holidays would be a relief, at this point.
It’s snowing outside, tiny white flakes falling steadily as I watch through the window. Jack would give me that look, if he was here… the one that says be careful what you wish for.
But Jack’s not here.
Master Sergeant Douglas, my medic, looks over at me as my hand curls into a fist, thumping down on the table. I pretend not to notice, staring at the clipboard in front of me, like I’m totally engrossed in this fascinating report I’m writing.
And suddenly I’m very glad Stuart’s not here. As annoyed as I was when he told me he was gonna put up Christmas decorations around the barracks, at least it’ll keep him busy. Unlike Douglas, my 2IC hasn’t learned how to hide it when he’s worried about me, and the last thing I need is him tryin’ to cheer me up.
I take a long gulp of coffee, scalding my tongue and making a face at the paper. Good old Air Force coffee. That shit’ll put hair on your chest, for sure. I’m flipping through the pages of the pad when the card falls out.
It came the day before we left on that exercise, and I remember shoving it inside the pad, not having time — or not being able to face reading it just yet. I rip the envelope open.
Sara sends me a card every year. I’m not exactly sure why. She always has, since Charlie… Maybe she knows she’s the only one who will, and she feels sorry for me. Or maybe it’s her way of trying to reconnect, if only for a day, with the past. When Jack and me were friends, when she and Jack were married, when their son was alive. Or maybe a little of both.
That past is something I avoid thinking about, whenever possible. No point in thinking about what’s gone forever. And I don’t know if it helps to hear from her this time of year, or just makes it harder. She knows as well as I do that past is dead, as dead as my friendship with Jack, as dead as their son.
But at the same time, I know I’ll call her, same as I have for the past three years. Just to check up on her, see how she’s doing. I promised Jack once, a lifetime ago it seems, that if anything ever happened to him I’d take care of Sara. And even though Jack’s still very much alive, at least according to military records — and even though if I know Sara she’d be unlikely to ever ask either of us for help — still there’s a part of me that sees keeping in touch with her, making sure she’s okay, as my last duty to the man who was once my best friend. It’s the only thing I can do for Jack, now, futile gesture as it is.
And maybe there’s a part of me, too, buried so deep I can pretend it doesn’t exist, that needs to talk to someone who understands. She’s the only one who knows anything about my life the way it used to be — her and Jack and Lisa. Not that I ever tell her how much I miss those days, in the unguarded moments late at night when the guilt and the loneliness are so damn thick it’s almost suffocating. But she knows, and she misses those days, too, as much as I do. And sometimes it helps as much as it hurts, even if it’s only a five minute phone conversation once a year, where we both lie and say we’re coping.
Or maybe I still need to know that Lisa’s okay. I haven’t seen my wife, haven’t heard from her, since I left in 1991. And every year I tell myself I’ll ask Sara if she’s seen her, how she’s doing. But somehow I’ve never had the guts. I always ask her if she’s heard from Jack, and she always says no, but I’ve never asked her about Lisa. Still, I know if she was in trouble Sara would tell me.
Douglas looks up at the sound of the envelope tearing, and I open the card slowly, staring blankly for a second at the picture of a smiling snowman. Charlie loved snowmen, the thought flashes through my mind. Inside, red letters: “Wishing you joy this holiday season.” Yeah, right. There’s a laugh.
I hope you’re doing all right, and having a good Christmas. Life’s been okay here this year, I guess. I started a new job last month. I’ve been busy, but that’s a good thing, and I’ve made some good friends there.
Well, that’s good to hear. Although she knows I know Christmas never gets easier, when the faces you love most are gone. It’ll be harder for her, without Charlie…
I don’t know what you’re doing or where you are right now, but if you get a chance can you call me? Something’s happened — nothing serious, I don’t think, so don’t worry — but I saw someone a little while ago, and I need to ask you something.
Frowning, I stare at the words. Okay, that’s not normal. ‘I saw someone’ could mean Jack or Lisa, but from the rest of the message I’d say it was Jack. She saw Jack, she thinks he’s involved in something dangerous, and she needs a colonel with a top secret clearance to try to find out how dangerous?
I skim the rest of the letter, worried now.
My dad’s spending the holidays with me, and I’m trying to convince Lisa to come stay with us for a few days, too.
I close my eyes, picturing Lisa’s face again, and all those Christmases years ago when she and I stayed over for the holidays at Jack and Sara’s house. Another lifetime, it seems like. See, this is why I hate this time of year so much…
And I’ll tell you what I told her, even though I know you won’t listen. Whoever your friends are these days, don’t hide from them over the holidays. Nobody should spend Christmas alone.
And if you’re in the States right now, you know you’re always welcome here.
The woman knows me too well.
But she also knows I wouldn’t come, even if I was in the area. Her house — the house she and Jack had once made a home — is the last place I want to be, this time of year. I spent too many Christmases there, when we were all young and stupid and full of hope. In those days, it was the five of us against the world… and the world didn’t stand a chance.
I close the card, shove it back inside the pad and stand up as Reiker and Warfield show up, red-faced and grinning, brushing snow off their field jackets. I finish the rest of my coffee, thinking of that mysterious force that always draws our team to the same place, in the field or on base. But my presence will only put a damper on the conversation, so I get up just in time to see Stuart heading this way.
“Sir!” He looks out of breath, like he ran all the way here. “I was just talkin’ to Janssen from the 23rd, and he says they just got orders to be ready to ship out on twelve hours’ notice.” He’s holding out an envelope. “And Lieutenant Smith told me to give you this.”
I take it, rip it open. Same thing — the 121st Special Tactics is officially on alert, and if and when we get the order to move we’ll have twelve hours to pick up and go. No mention of why, when, or where we’ll be going, but that’s nothing new.
Whatever’s gonna happen, it’ll happen soon.
And it’s about damn time.
I wonder what they’d think, if somebody told them I was practically dancing around the room one year, getting news we were going home for Christmas?
You ever tell my team how Jack and I both let out a whoop loud enough to wake half the city, or how him and me and the rest of the team were all hugging each other and pounding on each other’s backs — they’d tell you you were on crack. Nobody’d ever believe I know what it feels like, that sudden overwhelming relief and joy, like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. None of the guys would’ve recognized their hardass CO standing in line at the phone, fairly giddy with anticipation and grinning like an idiot. No way in hell. But that was a long time ago.
It was gonna be Charlie’s first Christmas. Jack and I had been called away to Incirlik in Turkey three days after he was born, six months ago, and we’d thought we weren’t gonna make it home until April. Then Colonel Evers woke us up at one in the morning on the 23rd, and told us we had thirty minutes to get our bags packed and on the plane back to the States.
It had taken us less than five minutes to pack, and now we were all waiting in line to call our families and tell them we were comin’ home.
There was a sort of magic in that word, then. Lisa and I had bought our first house only a year ago now, and I hadn’t spent much time there since we first moved in. Since I’d been away Lisa had probably completely redecorated the place, so I could hardly picture what the inside looked like. But all I thought of with the word home was her. The way her eyes lit up when I walked in the door, the way the sunlight fell across her face in the morning, when she opened her eyes and snuggled up close to me.
She’d written me a few days ago to say she’d be spending the holidays at Sara’s house, but I knew how much it hurt her, thinking I’d be gone. Again. I imagined her right now, answering the phone, her surprise and joy when I told her the news.
I wished I could see it, the look on her face when she found out. I wanted to wrap my arms around her right now and squeeze her breathless, lift her off her feet and spin her around and around. The thought of waiting another twelve hours was almost intolerable. She’d be so surprised… I knew she’d given up hope, just like I had.
This line’s movin’ too damn slow, I thought, glancing back to where my duffel sat packed and waiting. Jack had his arm around my shoulders, and Matthiasson was pounding on my back, he was so excited. The words to that sappy old song seemed like a sign, then, pointing the way home.
It was a twelve-hour flight from Incirlik to Travis Air Force Base in California. There, we’d change planes and be at Peterson by evening tomorrow. We’d stay up late that night, Sara and Lisa would make hot chocolate, and me and Jack would sit on the couch and hold Charlie and fuss over him. Then we’d sit around the tree talking until the dark hours of the morning.
Then, on Christmas Eve, Lisa and I would sleep in, or she’d sleep, and I’d lie awake for hours watching her. And I don’t care if it sounds way too romantic for a big tough Special Ops guy, but I loved watching her sleep…
“Hey, you awake there?”
I was suddenly aware that Jack was talking to me. “What’d you say?”
He gave an exaggerated sigh. “I said, this line’s movin’ too damn slow,” he echoed my earlier thought. “What do you say we forget this, an’ just surprise ’em?”
I looked at him. He was radiating enthusiasm, his whole face lit up with that conspiratorial grin — the one that usually meant he was gonna get us both in trouble. His excitement was contagious. We both ducked out of the line and grabbed our bags. A minute later we were jogging across the tarmac toward the C-130 transport plane waiting like an angel, wings outstretched to carry us home.
The flight to Travis seemed to last forever. Partly because I was excited to see Lisa, and partly because Jack was sitting right next to me singing Christmas carols. Jack’s a wonderful guy and a damn good friend and the best soldier I’ve ever had the honor to serve beside, but he can’t sing for shit. Sara agreed with me. But I was so happy then that I joined in sometimes, despite the fact that I couldn’t sing either. And I even laughed at his bad jokes, and didn’t roll my eyes every time he pretended he was wearing ruby slippers and chanted “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!”
None of us slept on the plane. We were too excited, talking or singing or laughing or just thinking about our families. Even Evers, usually very serious, joined in when Jack and Fielding started singing “Ninety-nine bottles of eggnog on the wall.” I just shook my head, pulling Lisa’s picture out of my jacket pocket.
I’d taken this one at the hospital six months ago, and she was holding Charlie and beaming at me with that look that had helped through so many long weeks out here. There was so much hope and so much happiness there, for Jack and Sara and their son, but also for me and her. For that day, and the days after until we got sent out here, it was like we’d forgotten any problems that lay between us, or put them aside for a little while ’cause we knew, no matter what, we could solve them if we were together. And sometimes, far away from her, that picture and the memory of those days was all that kept me going.
I carried that picture, and her latest letter, in my pocket wherever I went. Along with one other letter that Jack insisted I carry, for his son, just in case. But I didn’t want to think about that one, not right now.
“Eighty-eight bottles of eggnog on the wall, Eighty-eight bottles of eggnog… ”
I rolled my eyes at Jack, tucking the picture back in my pocket.
“You take one down, an’ pass it around,
Eighty-seven bottles of eggnog on the wall… ”
Jack opened his duffel, looking at the presents we’d bought for Charlie and remarking it was a shame we hadn’t bought wrapping paper, we could’ve wrapped the presents on the plane. Matthiasson was leaning over the back of the seat in front of us, as Jack held up a stuffed bear in a green dress uniform for his inspection. “What do you think? For my son? He’s six months old… ”
He had that proud daddy look on his face again, not even trying to hide it. I couldn’t help grinning, as Matthiasson said, “That’s an Army bear, O’Neill.”
“There weren’t any Air Force bears left,” Jack complained, giving the bear an appraising look. “Sara can sew him a blue uniform.”
“And have you talked to her about this yet?” I asked, earning myself a dirty look and an elbow in the ribs. “It’s just a question… ”
Jack scrutinized the brown, fuzzy face. “I think he’s hurt,” he told us. “You’re criticizing his uniform.”
Matthiasson laughed. “You’re insane, O’Neill, you know that?” I was struggling to keep a straight face as Jack made the bear dance to that tune the rest of them were still singing…
“Seventy-seven bottles of eggnog on the wall,
Seventy-seven bottles of eggnog…
“Hey, he dances better than you,” I said, and this time I ducked before he could whack the side of my head. “Can he salute?”
“You take one down, an’ pass it around,
Seventy-six bottles of eggnog on the wall… ”
The bear’s arm proved too short to salute properly, and Matthiasson and I agreed that the Colonel would have him on the ground doing fifty pushups for such a pathetic attempt. I shook my head as the conversation quickly devolved into speculation on a stuffed bear’s ability to do pushups, and the likely consequences if it failed to do so.
You could call Jack O’Neill a lot of things, I thought, trying to hide a smile. But boring was never one of them.
There was a four hour wait at Travis, before we could get on a plane to Colorado. Three of the guys got on a plane up to Washington state twenty minutes after we touched down, leaving me, Jack, Fielding, Matthiasson, and the Colonel waiting for flights going east. Me and Jack headed for the PX while the rest of them went to call their families. We were thinking of our wives’ reactions, when they saw us standing at the door, completely unexpected — and we were on the hunt for an Air Force bear. But alas, the PX at Travis was also out, and after starting a fist (or paw?) fight between the West Point cadet bear and the BDU bear, we had to leave the PX disappointed.
We did get wrapping paper, though, and two hours later we were sitting at the gate wrapping presents when a young sergeant appeared. “All flights are gonna be delayed, sirs,” he said apologetically. “It’s snowing too hard to take off, so everything’s been pushed back for at least twelve hours.”
The sergeant looked a little nervous at having to bring bad news to five Special Forces operators on their way home for the holidays. I crumpled a piece of wrapping paper in my fist, trying hard not to show how disappointed I was. We were so close. I’d thought it was only a couple hours before we were home…
Now we wouldn’t be taking off ’til after midnight — assuming it stopped snowing, and assuming it wasn’t snowing even harder in Colorado Springs. Which was always a possibility on Christmas Eve. Jack looked as pissed as I felt. Evers slammed a fist into the back of a chair, then straightened and said, “We’ll still make it by Christmas.” He met our disappointed looks calmly, slung his duffel over his shoulder. “No point sittin’ ’round here,” he said. “There’s a nice little bar near here, y’all comin’?”
And that’s how we ended up spending the next couple hours at a bar just off base, watching football and listening to Christmas songs, and groaning at Jack’s bad jokes and Matthiasson’s wildly exaggerated stories of his exploits in basic training. If he’d done half the shit he claimed he did, he’d’ve been kicked out on his ass ten years ago.
Three hours later Jack was still nursing his first beer, still talking a mile a minute, like that would make the time go faster. I’d gone through half a pack of cigarettes, not really in a mood to drink, barely paying attention to him while I watched the game, and pictured in my mind the scene when we opened the door at Jack’s house and saw Sara and Lisa. If we didn’t take off soon they might be asleep when we got there.
The bar was almost deserted, on a late afternoon two days before Christmas. Out the window I could see snow falling. It seemed to be getting thicker. Evers and the other guys had to be drunk by now, ’cause they were laughing at Jack’s retelling of The Wizard of Oz like it was the funniest thing in the world.
“I could while away the hours, conferrin’ with the flowers, Consultin’ with the rain… ”
The football game was ending, and I whacked Jack on the shoulder with a present as a weather update came on.
“And my head, I’d be scratchin’, while thoughts were busy hatchin’, If I only had a — what?”
“Shh.” We all stopped talking, staring at the TV above the bar, at the weather map with the little snowflakes on most of California, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. Shit.
“… heavy snowfall in the Western states, expected to continue for another two to three days… ” I smacked my hand down on the bar, hard enough to make the glasses jump. “ …goin’ to have a white Christmas, folks, snowstorms clearing up a couple days after, with clear skies for New Year’s… ”
“Fuck,” I said, the same time as Jack yelled, “For cryin’ out loud! I do not believe this!”
“ … still trying to fly home, can expect long delays at airports… ”
“No shit,” Evers told the weatherman loudly, and called to the bartender for another beer.
Two to three days? We were so close, dammit, so close… and now we’d have to spend Christmas sitting at a base in California, instead of a base in Turkey, with half the personnel gone for the holidays… hell, I thought. We could get home faster driving…
I looked at Jack, not really surprised to see him looking at me, a silent question in his eyes. It didn’t really spook me anymore, the way we always seemed to think of the same damn thing at the same time. He picked up his duffel and slapped some money down on the bar, standing up with a defiant look at the TV.
“Screw this,” he said, and I stood up too, reaching for my wallet. “We’re driving.”
The other three turned to stare at us. Fielding spoke first. “Don’t you two live in the Springs?” I nodded. “That’s on the other side of the Rockies!”
Matthiasson waved a slightly unsteady hand at the window, where the snow was still falling softly and steadily. “You’re gonna drive — across the friggin’ Rocky Mountains — in that?”
“Damn straight,” Jack said, looking suddenly exuberant once more, clapping a hand on my back. Evers was giving us that look, the one that said, you two are absolutely insane, but I’m damn proud to be your CO. The other two were shaking their heads slowly, but I felt a kind of warmth spreading through me again at Evers’ approval. That, and I was just so glad to be doing something, instead of sitting around waiting for it to stop snowing.
“You’re crazy, you know that, right?” Fielding slapped my shoulder affectionately. “Don’t fall off the mountain,” was his advice. That, and, “If I were you, I wouldn’t tell your wives about this dumbass stunt. Just tell ’em you flew in straight from overseas. Trust me on this one.”
I tried to imagine Lisa’s reaction if I called her up and told her we were gonna drive across the Rockies in this weather, and decided Fielding might have a point. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged all ‘round, and good wishes for the holidays. Then we were grabbing our stuff, Jack flinging his arm around my shoulders, announcing to the room at large, “We’re off to see the Wizard!”
“There’s no place like home,” Evers agreed. “Godspeed, you crazy bastards.”
Why does it have to be that Christmas I can’t stop thinking about?
It doesn’t take me long to pack up and get ready to go, and by the time I leave my quarters to look for a phone the whole base has gone to highest alert. No explanation why, and we haven’t got the orders to fly out yet, but you can bet they’re coming.
There’s a phone in a corner of the officers’ club, and nobody on it right now. Sara answers after one ring, sounding tense. “Hello?”
“Sara? It’s Frank.”
There’s a pause, like she’s surprised. Like she was expecting someone else. Then, “Frank, what the hell’s going on?”
“Ahh… ” I’m caught a little off guard. “What do you mean? Are you all right? I got your message… ”
“I’m fine,” she says quickly. “I’m all right, but — ”
“What happened?” I cut her off. “You said something happened… ?”
There’s a silence. “Oh, that,” she says. “Long story, I’ll explain later. It’s not important.” I’m not at all convinced, frowning at the phone. “I want to know what’s going on right now.”
I blink, glancing quickly outside at the roar of a plane taking off. It’s pretty usual for a civilian to know something’s going on within minutes of a Special Forces team finding out about it. Unless…
“Have you heard from Jack?”
“No. Well, yes” — she stops, and in my mind I can see her tilting her head to one side, her eyebrows furrowed. “That was months ago.” Is that what she was talking about in the card? “I can’t get a hold of him now, though. I’ve been trying all night and all they say is that he’s ‘unavailable.’” She sounds scared. “Have you — ”
“No.” I’m really worried now. Sara doesn’t freak out for no reason. I’ve known her long enough to know that. “Why do you need to talk to him?”
“I just want to know he’s okay.”
Something inside me turns cold. “What makes you think he’s not?”
Jack and I aren’t exactly on speaking terms right now. Haven’t been for eight years. And he doesn’t know this, but I’ve been keeping track of him. It was only a couple days ago that I last looked up his current assignment, and I know whatever he’s doing is higher than my clearance goes. But if he was involved in something big enough for Sara to hear rumors, I should’ve known about it by now. Last I checked, he was overseeing the dismantling of some secret project he’s been working on for the past two years, at NORAD. That’s all the computer would give me, and my security clearance goes up to where the air’s pretty damn thin. That, the name ‘Blue Book’, and ‘analysis of deep space radar telemetry.’
“Well, hell, you know more than I do,” she says. “I don’t even know who we’re at war with.”
Who we’re at war with… ? “We’re not at war with anyone yet,” I remind her.
“Don’t you give me that, Frank Cromwell!” Her voice is suddenly harsh, surprising me. “I’d expect to hear that kind of bull from General West — not from you.”
I scowl at the phone, completely at a loss. “Sara, I wouldn’t lie to you.” What the fuck is goin’ on here? Since when does the civilian population know there’s a war on before they tell Special Forces? Unless — shit — something’s happened back home? Somebody’s attacked us? But who? And why? “What are you talkin’ about? What war?”
I look around, but there’s nobody I can grab and try to shake any answers out of. Our team was off base for two days for an exercise, sure, but we had radios. If anything big happened while we were away, they’d have called us back…
But I’ve known Sara O’Neill for seventeen years, and she wouldn’t make something like this up.
“Twelve hours ago, the President ordered all reserve and National Guard units to full alert status.” Her voice is very quiet. “Since then there’s been nothing. Nothing on TV, nothing on the radio, just the usual ‘negotiations are still in progress’ over there in Yugoslavia!” This makes no sense. “You’re telling me this is the first you’ve heard of anything?”
“Yes,” I said, my brain suddenly spinning with all the possible major crises that could’ve erupted around the world in the last twelve hours.
“Frank… ” She pauses for a while, like she’s searching for words. “I know it’s all some kind of big secret, whatever it is. I’m used to being kept in the dark. Hell, I was married to a Special Ops guy for twelve years. I know you can’t tell me what exactly you’re doing.” Her voice wavers a little on the last words. “For God’s sake, just tell me you know what’s going on, and if there’s a chance Jack’s gonna get hurt!”
I let out the breath I didn’t realize I was holding, watching the door at the end of the hall like maybe, if I stare hard enough, somebody’ll run in and tell me what this is all about. “I don’t.” The words are soft, and there’s only silence on the other end. “I swear to you, Sara, I don’t have a fucking clue.” There’s a part of me that wants to slam the phone down and storm into General Leslie’s office, demand an explanation, demand to know where Jack is. We’re Special Ops, dammit, we’re supposed to be in and out, mission accomplished, before anyone back home knows there was a mission at all. Not the other way around. “Maybe you’d better tell me everything you heard.”
The minute I hang up the phone, I’m expecting some young aide to come dashing in with orders for my team to be on the goddamn plane ten minutes ago.
It turned out Sara didn’t know much else — and what she did know she’d heard first from friends of hers who were married to reservists who were called up. The only news reports said only that the President had issued the order, but the White House and the Pentagon refused to talk to the press, saying there is no crisis.
Ten hours later, Sara told me, all Guard and reserve units were returned to inactive status like nothing had happened. But in the Springs, at least, something’s definitely up — NORAD’s still at the highest state of alert, and so are Peterson and Fort Carson. She knows this ’cause there are wives in the Springs whose husbands are stationed there. There’s been no official announcement except to say that everything is fine, but the press is speculating everything from a UFO crash to imminent nuclear war.
They say the only thing faster than light in the modern military is gossip. And the fact that something bad is going down back home seems to have found its way here through the Air Force grapevine in the time it took me to hang up the phone and dash off to General Leslie’s office. The general’s not there, but his harried-looking aide tells me he’s gone ’til tomorrow morning and she doesn’t know where, and no, she doesn’t know anything about the situation.
But it’s obvious there’s a situation from the way she says it. And I can practically feel the tension walking back to the barracks. If I hadn’t talked to Sara I would’ve thought it was just ’cause we were on alert, and something was gonna happen in the Balkans. But the more I hear — or don’t hear, really — the more I’m thinking this probably doesn’t have anything to do with Kosovo at all.
Stuart’s there when I get back to our quarters, sitting on his bunk writing something. He drops the pad instantly when I come in, jumping up like a cadet at inspection.
“Sir!” And then he looks at me expectantly, like he thinks for some reason I have all the answers. When I don’t give him anything but a curt nod, he asks, “What’s going on?”
That seems to be the freakin’ million dollar question these days, doesn’t it? “I was hopin’ you could tell me.”
He actually blinks at that. “All I know is what’s on the news.”
“Well… nothing, sir, really.” He doesn’t seem at all fazed by my impatient glare. “The official line on base is that nothing unusual’s happened, same as all the reports from the States.”
And so the kid comes lookin’ for me. Like he thinks whatever’s going on, I’ll be able to fix it. But whatever the big secret is, I’m not cleared to hear about it through official channels. And there’s only one person I know who might be, and I don’t think Jack O’Neill would tell me if I called him up and asked him.
Assuming he’s not already away on some super secret mission…
Something must’ve showed on my face, ’cause Stuart’s giving me that worried look. “Sir?”
“Your father works at the Pentagon.” He’s nodding. I never had too many friends, and I’ve managed to alienate most of them in the past eight years. But Stuart’s an Academy man, so he’s got to have contacts in the Springs. Not to mention his dad’s a two star… “Find out if he knows anything. And call anybody you know in Colorado. I want to know what the hell’s goin’ on at NORAD.”
“Yes, sir.” He grabs his hat off the bunk, taking one step toward the door before I stop him.
Jack would say “We never had this conversation.” But, of course, that sounds too cloak-and-dagger for somebody famous for my complete lack of a sense of humor. “Keep this off the record,” I tell him. Wondering why in the hell I still find myself thinking of what Jack would say, at random moments.
Stuart nods. But he doesn’t leave. Almost like he knows I’ve got more to say, before I know it myself. The guy spooks me sometimes. “You might want to start by asking about Project Blue Book,” I suggest. It’s obvious from the look on his face that the code name means nothing to him. “And find me the location and current assignment of Colonel Jack O’Neill.”
My voice is neutral, but all the same his eyebrows shoot up, and I can practically see his mind working, trying to guess why I would ask that particular question. I’ve never mentioned Jack’s name to him before, never said a word about my life before ’91. As far as he knows, I have no life outside of the 121st Special Tactics team — which is pretty damn near true.
But I have to know. For Sara’s sake. And ’cause in spite of everything, even after eight years, I have to know my friend’s all right. “That’s ‘O’Neill’ with two ‘l’s,” I tell him, ignoring the questions I know he wants to ask.
He hesitates, one hand on the door. “Friend of yours, sir?”
The tone is studied, casual. I turn away abruptly, and he knows he’s pushed too far.
There’s a tense silence, as I wait to hear him leaving, but when I turn around he’s still there, standing stiffly correct now. “Was there something else?”
Harmless words, but the glare that goes with them says this had better not be another personal question, or you’ll be cleaning latrines with a toothbrush for a week. Anybody else would’ve said “no, sir” and left. But self-preservation was never one of Stuart’s highest priorities.
“Yes, sir.” From that earnest look he’s giving me it’s clear he’s not leaving till he’s said his piece. “The men wanted to have some kind of get-together tomorrow night. Just for the team. A little prayer service, and we got a tree to decorate, and my wife sent cookies… ” He trails off when I don’t react, clasping his hands behind his back before he finishes, “We’d be honored if you’d join us, sir.”
No more questions, at least. Only another one of his attempts at bringing Christmas cheer to his terminally disagreeable CO. The man does not know when to give up. For a moment I consider saying “Bah! Humbug!” just to see his reaction.
That’s before I realize that’s exactly the kind of thing Jack would do. “I hardly think this is a time to be planning Christmas parties, Captain.” He looks like he wants to say something else, and I snap, “Dismissed.”
Take a hint, Captain.
I wait ’til he’s out of earshot before slamming my fist into the door hard enough to leave a visible dent. Not the smartest idea I ever had, but the physical pain is a relief, compared to the thoughts crowding my mind. Get it together, Cromwell. Now is not the time to lose it.
But, fuck it, this was gonna be the year when I didn’t spend the whole damn holiday season thinking about Jack.
I tell myself the same damn thing, every year. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. Other people get to spend Christmas with their families. Other people have families. The only family I ever had is gone, torn apart with the careless savagery of rotor blades tearing through the hot desert air. And I’ve spent the last eight years trying to forget.
For a second I almost wish we had got leave this Christmas. Then at least I’d be free to crawl into a bottle until the holidays were safely over. It’s this sitting around waiting for something to happen that’s gonna drive me insane. I just know it. If there’s a fight going on somewhere, why the fuck am I still here? What are we waiting for? Let’s go, say the word and the 121st will kick their asses into next week — send us off somewhere, anywhere, the most miserable, Godforsaken shithole you can think of, we’ll climb through mountains or march across desert or crawl through the jungle and get shot at all day and at least I won’t have to think…
I stop myself before I try to wreck anything else, the throbbing pain in my hand telling me I’m already gonna have bruises. Last thing I need is to bust it up so bad I end up in the infirmary over Christmas. I’ll miss whatever the action is gonna be, and it’d also be kinda hard to explain. Sure, Captain, I’m fine, I just had this uncontrollable urge to destroy some furniture…
I need to be doing something, for cryin’ out loud! (Jesus Christ, I still sound like him!) I start pacing the little room, glaring at my duffel sitting packed on my bunk ready to go. And I try to think of any paperwork I have to do, and realize I’ve done it all. Not many times you’ll hear me wish for more paperwork.
Having nothing better to do, I head outside. Leaning against the wall of the barracks, just out of the orange glow of the lights, pulling out a cigarette and holding the flickering lighter to the end. I haven’t had a cigarette all day.
I can still hear Christmas music playing. In the yard in front of the barracks, Reiker and Warfield have somehow found a tree, and Douglas is helping them decorate it. It’s a pretty lame-ass specimen of a pine, hardly as tall as they are, and they haven’t quite managed to get it to stand up straight, but they’re trying.
We three Kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar
I try not to watch them, try not to think about the last Christmas I spent at Ramstein. More than ten years ago, now. Jack and I were on a mission until Christmas Eve, and when we finally got time to look for a Christmas tree all we found was a tall, gaunt, scraggly thing with half the branches broken off in the wind. We had to cut the top of it off to get it inside Jack’s house, and when we got it decorated there was more tinsel on it than pine needles. But Lisa said it was beautiful, and that night we slept over huddled in a sleeping bag on the floor in Jack and Sara’s living room, until six AM, when we were awakened by a three-year-old bundle of limitless energy…
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star
I take a long drag on the cigarette, breathe out slowly, shivering in spite of my heavy field jacket. The tree’s still listing drunkenly to one side, but they’re wrapping a garland around it now, gold tinsel reflecting the cold glare of the streetlights. I can’t see their faces, but I hear Warfield saying “So what exactly do trees have to do with Christmas, anyway? How’d that get started?”
I don’t have a clue how this conversation got started, and I can’t make out Reiker’s reply past the rumbling of a jeep along the road, but his half-annoyed, half-bantering tone strikes a painful chord. And suddenly it’s not him I’m hearing at all.
It’s been eight years, and I still hear Jack’s voice at odd moments when I least expect it.
Not just the last words he said to me, at the hospital after he came home. Those words are seared into my mind, the only memory that stands out clear against the fog of despair that was the two months after I found out he was alive — those words, and the image of his face, pale and starved and half covered with bruises, and a force of rage and betrayal in his eyes that still shocks me awake some nights shouting his name.
Star of wonder, star of night
Warfield’s voice slices through my thoughts. “That has got to be the most pathetic star I’ve ever seen.”
“We gotta have a star.” Reiker makes it his job, every year, to try and make sure the rest of the guys don’t forget this is a religious holiday, and not just a reason to go out and spend money. “It’s a symbol. The wise men had to follow a star. You think you could make a better one?”
Star with royal beauty bright
“If they’re so damn wise, why’d they need a star? Can’t they read a map?” Warfield’s self-appointed job is make sure Reiker doesn’t take himself too seriously, so he goes around poking fun at him every chance he gets. “And I thought they were kings, not wise men.”
“Same difference,” Reiker retorts, and I’m thinking, I’d never guess they were best friends if I didn’t know them so well. And if Jack and I hadn’t been the same way, hiding our feelings behind sarcastic banter and friendly insults…
Westward leading, still proceeding
The dreams have never really stopped. I still wake up some nights in a cold sweat, and the only thing I remember is the look of absolute trust in his face before that last mission. But that’s not the worst part.
“Not really.” There’s a snort from Douglas. “Bein’ the leader of a country doesn’t make you wise.”
It’s when somebody says something like that, and it strikes me that Jack would think it was hilarious. Or I’ll say something that I know would’ve gotten a snappy comeback from him, and for a second I’ll wait to hear his wiseass comment. Just for a second, and then it hits me all over again that he’s not here, and he’ll never annoy me with his good-natured sarcasm again.
Guide us to thy perfect light
In a completely unrelated situation, I’ll notice an opportunity Jack would’ve taken to do something wacky and totally inappropriate. If Jack was here, as soon as we got back to the base he would’ve nailed me with a snowball. And I would’ve grabbed some snow of my own and had my revenge, and pretty soon the whole team would be involved, we’d be running around or rolling on the ground like kids at recess, and who really gives a shit if we’re both officers who should know better?
Reiker’s still talking, the words sliding across the surface of my mind like water over glass, as I light another cigarette. “They were astrologers, probably. They saw the star, and they knew it meant something important.”
It’s freezing out here, and I’m finally starting to feel tired. Not surprising, considering we just got back from a week of exercises camping out in the snow… I’m too damn worried about Jack to ever fall asleep, and if I do manage it I know tonight, of all nights, the nightmares will come again.
“How’d they know that?”
“Well, what would you think if you looked up there,” and in the glare of a passing car’s headlights I see him point upwards, waving a hand at the dark sky between two leafless trees “and saw this big bright light that had never been there before?”
Absently I glance up, but there aren’t any stars out tonight. Thick clouds are covering the moon, and between the skeletal fingers of the trees I see a red light blinking as a C-130 comes in to land. It’s only visible for a moment, then it’s gone behind the buildings.
“Some kinda supernova? UFOs? Alien invasion?” Warfield’s just trying to rile him, and he knows it.
If Jack was here right now, we’d figure this thing out together. And we’d know whatever happened and whenever we got the order, we’d go in together and we’d complete the mission together, and we’d get out together.
“What? What’d they think it meant?”
And while we were waiting to get the mission he’d be trying to distract us both with the worst jokes on the planet, or his abysmal singing, or by dragging me down to the officers’ club to play pool and watch hockey and put up Christmas decorations.
I was never really a religious guy, even before Iraq. But all the same Reiker’s exasperated sigh sounds so much like mine after one of Jack’s bad jokes that I can’t help feeling a little sympathy for the poor guy. “Hope,” he says earnestly. “A chance for a new beginning, for forgiveness… ”
Something twists painfully inside me at those words, and I drop the cigarette on the ground, grinding it angrily under my boot before walking quickly toward the road. Last goddamn thing I need to hear right now…
I catch myself looking for him still, at random moments, but most often around this time of year. And then it crashes over me again, the brutal realization of my own failure, and the sheer magnitude of what I’ve lost.
“We three kings of Orient are… ” I can practically hear Jack’s voice singing, if I let myself. God knows he was never shy about his complete lack of a sense of pitch. But that year I didn’t even mind so much, ’cause I hadn’t gotten any sleep on the plane, and I was driving in the dark along a highway that was slippery with new-fallen snow. “Tried to smoke a rubber cigar … ”
We’d left Travis around 1730 hours in a rented jeep, after loading up the presents in the back seat. At the first rest stop we got tall cups of black coffee and a box of donuts, and then we were on our way, hitting I-80 east with the sun setting behind us.
“It was loaded, it exploded… ” Jack ducked with the skill of long experience as I struck out to whap his arm. “What? I’m just tryin’ to help! Can’t have you fallin’ asleep on me.”
It was dark by now. We’d been on the road three hours, passing Reno fifteen minutes ago and angling north toward Salt Lake City. Out here it was all flat, snow-covered desert, with only the green signs along the side of the highway to mark that we were making any progress at all. The landscape around us never seemed to change, the barely visible lines in the road blurring hypnotically in the glow of our headlights.
This flat, monotonous highway was gonna be the easy part of the trip, I knew. And we’d only get more tired as the road got more dangerous, as we got closer to home.
Privately, I’d already admitted this was a damn stupid thing for us to be doing. We weren’t even that familiar with the roads in Colorado. We’d only lived there for a few years, and during that time we’d been overseas a lot. We’d certainly never tried to drive across the Rockies, even in summer. For all I knew, the passes could all be closed, in this kind of weather. I knew if Lisa or Sara ever found out we were risking our lives on a macho stunt like this, just to get home a couple days sooner, they’d be furious with us. And they’d have every right to be.
But at the same time, I felt alive now, in a way I hadn’t since we left six months ago. It was more than knowing I’d see Lisa soon, more than thinking we’d be home for Christmas. There was a wonderful feeling of freedom, now that we were out here on the open road. It was idiotic and dangerous and we knew it, but for the first time in way too long we were in control. No more waiting for leave, waiting for the weather to change, waiting for a plane to take us home. We’d decided we wanted to go home now, and so we were gonna go, and nothing as trivial as the weather or common sense was gonna stop us.
For months I’d been missing her, haunted by the memory of those few days we’d been home, before and after Charlie was born. And haunted also by guilt, gnawing at my heart whenever I thought about her, waiting for me for so long while I went off to a new adventure. And it had been an adventure — it still was. I loved the Air Force, I loved what I did. I just never realized, in the beginning, just how much I’d be separated from her. Never realized how much it would hurt her, how much it would hurt me. And it wasn’t until recently, not until this last six months, that I’d started to be really afraid.
Afraid that one of these days I’d hurt her too badly, and she wouldn’t be able to forgive me. Afraid that our marriage wasn’t as strong as I’d thought it was. More than anything in the world, I was afraid to lose her. But for six long months things like orders, things like duty, and my responsibilities to the service and my teammates, kept me away.
So once those things were no longer keeping me from going home, I’d be damned if I’d let a little snow slow me down.
We were both thirty-four and old enough to know better, but tonight was like we were both twenty-five again and just out of training, when we’d believed we were invincible. That belief was stronger than patience, stronger than common sense. After so many long and frustrating months spent training overseas, not even going on any missions, the sense of being in control of our own lives again, for however briefly, was almost intoxicating.
I didn’t have to look at Jack to know he was thinking the same thing. When you’ve known somebody as long as I’d known Jack, through the kinds of experiences we’ve been through, there’s not a whole lot you really need to talk about. The most important things can be said with a look, a gesture, a touch on the shoulder.
Which didn’t mean, of course, that Jack had learned how to shut up. Far from it. There were times when it seemed he just liked to hear himself talk. I’d gotten used to his constant chatter, though. It was something reassuringly familiar, no matter where we were. I’d never admit to what extent his warped sense of humor and his steady presence kept me sane, through all the crazy shit we’d seen. But then, he knew that without me having to say it.
I held out a hand, snapping my fingers impatiently as Jack retrieved the box of donuts from under the seat. “You ate all the chocolate ones,” I accused.
“I think that was you.”
I gave him a skeptical look, grabbing a glazed donut and dunking it in my now cold coffee. “Was not.”
I aimed a punch at his shoulder, which he blocked, laughing. “Will you look at the road, for cryin’ out loud?”
“What road? I don’t see any road.” There was nothing but white now, and only the little orange reflectors along the top of the guardrails told us where the highway ended and the desert began. I couldn’t see the lines in the road anymore at all.
“You could at least try to go in a straight line,” Jack commented, as the highway curved to the left.
“Hell, I’ve been driving three hours. I think it’s your turn.” I snorted. “See how well you do.”
I swerved right and pulled over next to the guard rail. I wasn’t sure if we were really supposed to stop here, if this was a shoulder or an actual driving lane we were stopping in the middle of, but there weren’t too many cars out tonight. Most sane people, I reflected, were already home for Christmas, watching the snow fall while sitting by their fireplaces and drinking hot cider… “But don’t even think about goin’ to sleep on me,” Jack said. “You gotta keep me awake here.”
I gave him my most innocent look, before opening the door and running around to the other side of the jeep, shivering as the frigid wind struck my face. Getting in the passenger side, I slammed the door. We grinned at each other as Jack got in, brushing snow out of his hair and shifting the jeep into drive.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking!” I rolled my eyes at him, holding my hands up to the heating vents on the dash. He ignored me. “I’d like you to take a moment to fasten your seatbelts,” he went on, in his best exaggerated flight attendant impression, “’cause we’re in for one hell of a ride!”
“No shit,” I told him, as we peeled away from the guardrail too fast, skidding before the wheels gripped the surface of the snow. “Jack, unless I missed something, there’s no one shooting at us right now.” Both his eyebrows went up. “So I don’t think doin’ ninety in a snowstorm is a smart idea.”
“Nothing about this trip is a smart idea,” he reminded me. “And I’ll have you know I’m not goin’ a mile over seventy-five.”
I didn’t say anything to that, reaching for the lever to make my seat recline, staring out the windshield at the wipers batting away tiny snowflakes. Jack slowed down a little after we skidded again, but not by much. There weren’t many other cars on the road tonight, though, so I wasn’t too worried. Sara always said Jack drove way too damn fast, but I knew he was perfectly capable of controlling the vehicle.
Sara’d never seen him driving a Russian army jeep along the back streets of East Germany with three or four others chasing after us and shooting at us. He didn’t crash us then — at least not till the very end, and he always claimed he meant to do that. Either way, we were both still alive, so I had to say he wasn’t a bad driver. Reckless as hell, maybe, but I trusted him all the same.
Didn’t mean I couldn’t rag him about it, though.
“Did I miss the sign for the Indy 500 back there?”
“Oh, for cryin’ out loud!” I hid a smile behind my coffee cup. “You’re the one who asked me to — shit!” I saw the red and blue lights reflected in the windshield the same time as he did. “Of all the — ”
The patrol car switched lanes behind us as Jack pulled over, smacking the dash angrily before shifting into park. “The poor car didn’t do anything to you,” I remarked quietly, reaching into the glove box for the registration and insurance cards. The strobes cast weird shadows on Jack’s face as he turned, his glare gradually melting into a half smile. “Play it smooth, Jack.”
That got a laugh, and he was grinning as he took the cards from me. “Watch and learn, Frank,” he said. And I thought, oh no, here we go again. “Watch and learn.”
“You know how fast you were goin’, bud?”
“Would you believe me if I said no?” Jack knew how to turn on the charm when he had to, but the cop wasn’t buying it.
“Seventy-five.” The way he was glaring at Jack, he looked almost like our first drill instructor at Special Ops training. “In case you didn’t see it,” and the words dripped sarcasm, “the speed limit here’s seventy. But you’d have to have a death wish to drive even that fast, in this kinda weather.”
“We’re in the Air Force.” Jack tried the conciliatory tone. “We just flew in from overseas, and we’re tryin’ to get home. You got a family, officer?”
“Yeah, and I’d rather be home right now than out here chasin’ after assholes who can’t read the speed limit signs!” Great, I thought. He’s having a crappy day, so he’s gonna make sure everybody else does too? Peachy.
“Look, officer, I got a six-month-old son.” Jack’s voice was sharp. “I haven’t seen him since July. And my buddy over here — ” he waved his hand at me “ — he’s been married for seven years. He’s been home for Christmas twice. So why’n’t ya cut us a break, okay?”
The cop scowled at us, but I thought I saw his expression soften a little. “And I know damn well your wives would rather you take your time and get home safely,” he told us sternly. “Go on, and for God’s sake, be careful.”
Jack nodded, giving him a salute. “Merry Christmas!” he called after him, as he walked away.
Watching the patrol car drive away, Jack and I looked at each other, seeing the same thought going through both our minds. If our wives ever found out about this little adventure, we were both dead men.
Pulling back onto the highway, Jack started singing. “Oh, the weather outside is frightful… ”
“Damn straight.” I leaned back, stretching my legs out and grabbing another donut.
“But the fire is so delightful… ” I groaned theatrically, which of course only encouraged him. “And since we’ve no place to go… ” Jack glanced once behind us before accelerating into the left lane, switching the highbeams on. In the glare, the snowflakes all seemed to be rushing right at us, clinging to the windshield wipers as they thumped back and forth. Oh well, at least it’d keep us awake. So I sang along, as we belted out the next line as loud as we could. “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”
“I’m dreaming of a whiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiite Christmas… ” Jack was doing his Frank Sinatra — wait, Bing Crosby? — impression when we hit the exit for Salt Lake City. In the city, at least, there had been some attempt at clearing the roads, leaving a slushy mess of wet snow and sand. I was driving, squinting through the snow to see the signs for I-15 south. It was still snowing, though not as hard as it had been, but away to the east the sky was glowing gray. “Just like the ones I used to know… ”
My mind was starting to drift fuzzily, and my eyes felt like they were full of sand, to the point where I wasn’t sure if even Jack’s singing (which sounded like a dying cat more than anything else) could keep me awake too much longer.
It was almost 0530 when we pulled over at the first rest stop on I-15. In the lights inside the building Jack’s eyes were bloodshot, and he stifled a yawn as he ordered coffee and more donuts. I leaned against the counter with my head resting on one hand, watching with a flicker of tired amusement as Jack carefully counted all the chocolate donuts.
He paid the cashier, then took a long swig from his coffee cup, as I straightened with an effort to follow him outside. Normally, I thought, twenty-four hours without sleep wouldn’t bother me so much, but we’d spent most of last week in the field on an exercise before we flew back, and we were already exhausted before we left. Jack touched my arm as we went out the door, saying with a pointed look, “You. Sleep.”
“You sure you can stay awake?”
“I’ll wake you up if I can’t.” We got in the car, and he laid the box of donuts carefully on the back seat with the presents. “I’ll have the radio on. And we have to both be awake when we cross the mountains.”
Good point. I just nodded, leaning against the cold glass of the and closing my eyes. I was out before he started the engine.
He shook me awake four hours later, parked on the side of the highway in the middle of Utah somewhere. It had stopped snowing, but the sun was still hidden behind the clouds, the land stretching out around us flat and white. He didn’t say anything, as we got out and switched seats. I stretched, shivering, lighting a cigarette as I got in the driver’s seat. Jack was already asleep, snoring softly. The radio was playing opera, which wasn’t usually my thing, but I left it on as I started driving. There were more cars around now, last minute travelers taking advantage of the lull in the weather for however long it might last. Still we were moving pretty fast along I-70 east. Or that was what the green signs said, counting down the miles until we reached Colorado.
The radio was playing something familiar now, and after a minute I recognized it was from the Nutcracker. Now I’m not much of a classical person, in spite of Jack’s best efforts, but tunes like these were an important part of Christmas, and I soon found myself humming along.
It was almost noon when we crossed the border into Colorado, and by then I could see the outline of the mountains, white snow and dark rock against the gray sky. I hadn’t spent too much time in Colorado, since Lisa and I bought our house there, and it was an awe-inspiring sight for a guy who’d never been west of the Mississippi before I was twenty-two. Last time I was home, Lisa and I hiked together up Pike’s Peak, but that was the first time I’d ever seen the Rockies up close and personal, and that was in July. Now they stretched out in front of me as far as I could see north and south, glistening white peaks dominating the horizon. It was somehow humbling to look up at them, and more than a little daunting to imagine trying to cross.
It’s not like I’d never seen mountains before. I was always the outdoorsy type, and I’d done a fair amount of hiking in the Appalachians in summers when I was growing up. And I’d followed a mule train across the Hindu Kush range, from Pakistan into Afghanistan and out again, on a mission with Special Ops five years ago. Although on the way out I wasn’t in much of a position to appreciate the scenery. A sucking chest wound can be a pretty big distraction…
I looked over at Jack, sleeping quietly and oblivious, feeling my breath catch a little at the memory of pain. Of our whole team, Jack and I were the only ones who made it out alive. With some help from the locals, of course, but Jack was the one who got me out of there when by all rights I shouldn’t be alive today. I didn’t remember much after I got shot, but I remembered he was there the whole time, helping me, talking to me, yelling at me, refusing to let me give up. I still dreamed about it, sometimes.
I shook my head abruptly, reaching for a chocolate donut and squinting out the windshield. Were those snowflakes falling again? By the time we got to Glenwood Springs it was afternoon, and it was snowing again. I’d been driving almost five hours now, so I woke Jack up and we switched again, after he carefully counted the chocolate donuts again and grabbed one for himself.
I grinned, and suggested that maybe we should think about stopping somewhere for hot food before we got into the mountains. Or at least someplace with lots of coffee. It’d be better if neither of us had to drive those roads without the other awake and ready to navigate. An hour later I jerked awake when Jack elbowed me. We were still on I-70, and the snow seemed to be slowing down. There were trees around us now, thick pines with white-tipped branches. “What’s goin’ on?”
He pointed at the radio. “ …repeat, there is an accident on I-70 east, exit 176. Expect delays of up to three hours… ” I opened the glove box, very glad we’d taken the time to buy a map of Colorado before we left Travis.
“Where are we?” Looking around, I could see mountains around us now, brown and white slopes rising not too far away, to the right and left of us, and more in front. So far the highway didn’t seem to be climbing any of them…
“Just passed Avon,” Jack said, as I unfolded the map and located the town after a long search. “Any way we can go around it? I don’t really feel like waitin’ three hours out here.”
Me neither, I thought, trying to flatten out the map enough to figure out the shortest route to Colorado Springs. “Did we pass the exit for US 24?”
“Um… ” He glanced behind us. “Yeah, about two minutes ago.”
“Then we’d better turn around.”
“Oh, for cryin’ out loud.”
“We can take 24 all the way across to the Springs.” He was looking at me, skeptical. “The turn was right after we passed Avon.”
If there wasn’t a divide down the middle of the highway, I had no doubt Jack would’ve done a U-turn then and there. It was only 1630, and still light out, but traffic had thinned noticeably from when I last went to sleep. Probably because nobody in their right mind would be trying to take the passes across the mountains when it was snowing, and they wouldn’t get across before it was dark.
But hey, nobody ever accused me and Jack of being completely sane.
We got off the highway just before we hit Vail, turning around and heading back the way we’d come. The sun was starting to go down now, so we stopped in Avon to look for a diner after I discovered there were no more chocolate donuts left. Jack claimed the bear had eaten all of them.
I got a snowball in the face two seconds after I got out of the jeep. Half the staff of the diner were probably watching out the windows as we chased each other around the parking lot, pelting each other with handfuls of snow. We didn’t care. After twenty-four hours in the car, it felt so good to run around, stretch our legs, let off a little steam, and just act like complete idiots for a couple minutes. God only knows what the waitresses thought when we walked in. There were hardly any other customers in there on Christmas Eve — just two military guys with snow in their hair, looking like we hadn’t slept or shaved in days.
Soon we were seated in a booth at the back of the diner, with black coffee and half a dozen curious employees who had nothing else to do but chat with the only two customers in the place. They all told us we were nuts, soon as we told them where we were going, and then Jack pulled out his picture of Charlie, and everybody admired it and said how cute he was. Jack sat there with that proud grin on his face, loving every minute of it. We got our food in record time, and plenty of company while we ate, most of whom were content to chatter at us and give us advice, which was nice since neither of us had much energy for making conversation.
Eventually the manager herself came out to say hi, and when we told her where we were going and where we’d come from she refused to let us pay for anything, and gave us a big thermos of coffee to take with us. It was just after 1700 when we got on the road again, and the sun was going down behind us, glowing red as we headed into the mountains in the gathering dark.
We really had no fucking clue what we were doing.
But we didn’t care. We were young, and incredibly stupid, and we were driven on by something more powerful than anything I’ll ever feel again.
They say you never realize what you have until it’s gone. But we knew just how lucky we were. To have each other, and two beautiful women waiting for us, and a baby I couldn’t have loved more if he was my own son. And the time, however short it might be, to spend Christmas in a magical place surrounded by l ove and snow and tinsel and music. A place called home.
They say all good things must end.
Stuart doesn’t look at all surprised to find me still awake, sitting at my desk, when he comes in at 0400. He’s got a folder under one arm, and his face is red like he ran all the way back here, but still the kid looks wide awake.
“I don’t understand, sir.” He stands stiffly in the doorway, until I motion impatiently for him to come in, even though this is his room, too. “It doesn’t make any sense. I’ve called everybody I know in Colorado, and I called my dad back five minutes ago, but… ” He trails off, looking confused.
“Spit it out, Captain.” I don’t have time to play games here.
“Well, whatever it is, sir, they’re keepin’ a tight lid on it.” He drops the folder on his desk, clasping his hands behind him, unconsciously falling into parade rest. “But that’s not the weird part. I’d understand if my dad couldn’t tell me, or if his friends in Washington couldn’t tell him… but from what I can tell nobody knows anything.”
I scowl at him. “What do you mean, nobody knows?”
“I mean, sir, nobody in Washington outside of the Joint Chiefs seems to have any clue what’s going on. They’ve been in emergency meetings with the President all day, but all anybody else at the Pentagon knows is the same as what’s on the news.”
“What about NORAD?”
He sits perched on the edge of his desk, picking up the folder and leafing through it. “That’s even weirder, sir. All my dad knows is that the order to alert the reserves came after the President got some kind of top secret phone call from Cheyenne Mountain.”
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the chance of an attack on the US homeland isn’t something most people worry about too much. Possibilities spin through my mind — some kind of “rogue state” decided to launch a surprise missile attack? That would be more than enough reason to put our troops on alert… but why the secrecy? And if we’ve been threatened, whether or not the attack was a success… why aren’t we doing anything about it?
“I talked to General Ryan,” Stuart goes on. I give him a blank look. “He’s in charge of NORAD. And he doesn’t know anything, except that the whole state of Colorado’s on alert, and ever since last night there’ve been trucks and lots of people going in and out of the mountain.”
“The call came from Cheyenne, and the CO of NORAD knows nothing about it?”
Stuart’s unfazed by my skeptical glare. “Like I said, sir, it doesn’t make sense.”
“Hammond,” I say suddenly. Stuart’s eyebrows go up. I don’t really know anything about the man, except that he replaced General West two years ago, and he’s listed as Jack’s CO.
“Probably,” Stuart agrees. “He’s in charge of that Project Blue Book you mentioned. And considering Ryan knows nothing about the project, that’s the only possibility I can think of.”
“So Hammond discovered some kind of threat to American security — which totally slipped by all the rest of NORAD — and calls the President about it.” I stand up, starting to pace around the room. “And then what? The President calls an alert, and — the problem solves itself?”
“I don’t think so, sir.” Stuart’s eyes follow me, back and forth. “There’s still a crisis, on the lower levels of Cheyenne. Looks like the Pentagon just decided it wasn’t important enough to alarm the public.”
“Did you find out anything about this Blue Book?”
“’Analysis of deep space radar telemetry,’” Stuart quotes from the folder. “That’s the official line.”
“So, what, a threat from outer space?” I ask sarcastically. “Are we talking alien invasion here?”
“I doubt it, sir,” Stuart answers, and if he notices my sarcasm he doesn’t let on. “In fact, I doubt this project has anything to do with deep space or anything scientific. General Hammond’s a pilot, served in Vietnam, but he doesn’t have any kind of science background. And his 2IC… ” He gives me a strange look here, before bending to look at the folder again, “Colonel O’Neill, doesn’t either. O’Neill’s Special Operations, since ’78. A highly decorated combat officer, hardly the type you’d find working in radar or telescopes.”
“No shit,” I muttered, turning around to stare out the window. “What’ve you got on him?”
“He was in Afghanistan back in ’81, and then he got a lot of medals for missions in the Middle East — all classified. Then he was in prison for four months in the Gulf — ”
“I know that.” I cut him off sharply, waving my hand, suddenly very glad he can’t see my face. “I served with the man for twelve years, Captain. I know his record. I want to know where he is now.”
“That doesn’t make sense, either, sir. According to General Ryan he’s on an assignment, but he knows nothing about it. I couldn’t get a hold of Hammond.”
“So he’s on a mission? They’re sending him and one team out to deal with this threat, whatever it is?” Privately, I’m thinking if the US has to rely on one Special Ops team to save the day, then we’ve got a better chance with Jack leading it than anybody else.
“I had my dad ask around at the Pentagon, too, sir.” He sounds really confused now. “And according to Washington, Colonel O’Neill is AWOL.”
“That’s bullshit.” I turn around to glare at him, incredulous.
“I agree, sir,” Stuart says quickly. “An officer with his record isn’t gonna go AWOL in the middle of an alert. But that’s the official line from General West’s office.”
The temperature in the room seems to drop several degrees. “West?” I say it quietly, but something in my voice makes Stuart look up from the folder again. “What’s he got to do with it? I thought he was retired.”
“He was in charge of the project before Hammond,” he says. I know that much. “And he was reactivated yesterday. He’s at the Pentagon right now, advising the President.”
“Son of a bitch,” I whisper. I only met the bastard once, in ’91, and our conversation only lasted ten minutes before I was forcibly removed from his office. It’s not a meeting I’m gonna forget in a hurry. I’m sorry, Major, we haven’t got the resources to launch a rescue mission at this time…
“He was the one who got Colonel O’Neill assigned to the project back in ’96… sir?”
“And he wasn’t supposed to come back.” The words are quiet, hollow.
I didn’t even realize I said that out loud, until Stuart asks, “How do you know that, sir?”
I don’t answer that. What am I supposed to say? Because I saw it in his wife’s eyes, the last time I saw her. She knew he wasn’t gonna come back. His son had just died, accidentally shot himself with Jack’s gun. Jack wanted a suicide mission. And that bastard was callous enough to give it to him.
“Whatever this is, it’s deep black ops shit,” I tell Stuart. “Illegal as all hell, probably. And likely to blow up in our faces.” I take a deep breath, resisting the urge to fling a chair across the room. “So they send him somewhere — all alone — and then to cover their own asses they say he’s gone rogue, so when he gets captured they can just cut him loose.”
And Jack would take it, I know he would. If the threat’s as big as it looks like, he wouldn’t think about his own safety for a second. The fact that West’s prepared to let him die — or worse — and then dishonor his memory doesn’t change any of that. It’s what he does, going in against shitty odds, to do the Pentagon’s dirty work so millions of Americans can live in peace. What we both do, but this time I can’t go with him.
God, Jack, where the hell are you?
Stuart’s staring at me. I don’t know how the kid manages to look so damn shocked at the idea. He’s been in Special Ops eight years now, you’d think he’d’ve seen shit like this before. But he’s still got that idealistic streak in him, and he really thinks everybody in Washington believes in the same code of military honor he does.
He doesn’t move until I bring my fist down on the desk, a loud crash in the sudden silence. “Sir?”
“Trust me, Captain.” The words are bitter. “I’ve served under West before. The lives of his men don’t mean shit to him.”
Hasn’t Jack been through enough?
I want to pick up the whole damn desk and throw it into the wall. I want to get on a plane to Washington, walk into West’s office and shove a gun against his head and demand that he tell me where my friend is. Whatever deep-cover op Jack’s doing, I want to go in with him, watch his six, like I did once.
But even if West gave me the orders, Jack wouldn’t trust me anymore. And for a damn good reason.
I hold Stuart’s eyes for a long moment, testing, searching, questioning. He doesn’t flinch, and there’s nobody else I can trust, nobody else who can help me now.
“Whoever your friends are, keep in touch with ’em,” I tell him quietly. “If O’Neill gets into any shit on this mission, I want to know about it.”
He nods silently, his face suddenly hard and determined. And this time I don’t have to tell him to keep this off the record.
I don’t have a clue what I’ll do if anything happens to Jack. I don’t know what I can do. But if he gets captured, I’m not gonna sit back and wait for him to be released — or executed. Orders be damned.
Not this time.
I lie awake until dawn, after Stuart goes to bed. Thinking of a million different things, none of which I really want to be thinking about, but it’s not like I have a choice.
And remembering. Which is the last thing I need. But it’s Christmas Eve, and I can’t help thinking of Jack. And of a different Christmas, when the only things between us and home were a few winding, slippery mountain passes without any guardrails…
And I remember thinking it was just our luck, to end up hitting the mountains just as the sun was going down, when we hadn’t had more than six hours’ sleep in the past thirty-six hours. We’d never done any serious mountain driving before, but we were Special Forces, and back then we believed there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do together.
Watching the snowflakes swirl in the beams of our headlights, I felt a kind of clear focus settle over me, the kind that usually came on missions, behind enemy lines, or just before we jumped. The route was slippery, and narrow, and hard to see, and it took all my concentration to keep us from sliding all over the road. I was still exhausted, and starting to shiver — at Jack’s suggestion, we’d put our jackets on and turned the heat down as much as we could stand, to reduce the strain on the engine, and conserve gas.
We were both relieved to see the lights of Leadville up ahead, around 1900. According to Jack, who was skimming a tour guide, the place had a long history as a mining town, besides being the highest city in the country. That little fact made me wonder if the reason I was so damn tired had more to do with lack of oxygen than lack of sleep — I was physically conditioned enough that I wasn’t out of breath at this altitude, but I could feel a headache starting behind my eyes.
There were lights burning, and people walking along the streets, and a group of carolers in front of one house. Most of the buildings had an old-fashioned, frontier look to them. We drove slowly through the main street, looking for a place that might be open that would have coffee, but there weren’t any. Jack suggested if we knocked on somebody’s door and sang carols somebody might give us hot chocolate, but eventually we ended up outside a store that was having an open house, pulling over just long enough to grab two paper cups full of hot cider.
By silent consensus, we decided not to stop here, though. Now that we were on the road, we didn’t want to stop until we got home. In the back of my mind, the thought of Sara’s bright kitchen lingered, along with that of a real soft bed in Jack’s guestroom and Lisa’s warmth against my back. I drained the cup of cider quickly and forced myself to focus on the task at hand. Jack was saying something, as we headed out of the town and the lights faded behind us.
“There’s a shortcut comin’ up.” I glance at him, his face intent on the map, barely illuminated in the glow of the penlight.
“Shortcuts are good.” Anything that gets us home quicker, I thought, looking quickly back at the road as I felt the tires slip a little. “How far?”
“Soon.” He flicked off the penlight. “Weston Pass. There’s a road that’ll take us straight east a ways, then we’ll take 285 south to get back to 24.”
The numbers meant nothing to me, but since Jack had the map, I assumed he knew what he was talking about.
What he didn’t mention — or what wasn’t on the map — was the fact that the road through Weston Pass wasn’t even paved. I almost missed the turn, steering sharply onto a dirt road covered with half-frozen snow. I heard Jack swear softly, staring through the windshield with a dubious expression as the road started to climb, disappearing around the side of the mountain in a sudden curve to the left. There was nothing but blackness on our right side, and no way to tell in the dark how high we were, or how long a drop it would be if we slipped off. There wasn’t even so much as a guard rail between us and the abyss.
US 24 wound south as the light faded and the snow started falling steadily again. I was driving as we left Avon, buzzed from caffeine and fatigue and excitement. Jack was wide awake now, the map spread out on his lap, a penlight in his hand. I remember thinking it seemed like somebody Up There really wanted to find out just how badly we wanted to get home, ’cause as we started to climb we could hear the wind blowing stronger than before. I don’t know if it was my imagination or some weird trick of mountain acoustics, but it sounded like a far-off howling, echoing eerily in the shadows.
Weston Pass might’ve looked like a shortcut on the map, but it felt like we were crawling along. A few minutes after we started ascending I shifted into second gear, coaxing the jeep up the mountain, exquisitely aware the whole time of the feel of the tires gripping the surface of the road — and dreading the moment when that grip failed and we started to slide.
This was a dirt road once, but now the surface was slick ice, covered with a thin layer of new snow. I could feel my heart beating faster than normal, either from adrenaline or ’cause the air up here was thinner, I couldn’t tell. My hands on the wheel were sweating in spite of the chill, and I wished I’d taken the time to put gloves on before we started this crazy climb. The road went up and up, twisting and turning into hairpin curves with no warning. Part of my mind was thinking, this is a damn stupid idea. Any other thoughts were replaced by a clear, cold concentration, shoving all thoughts of home aside. There’d be time to think about our destination later — right now, trained survival instinct was focused on each foot of road in front of us, each sharp turn, one at a time.
I didn’t have to look to feel Jack next to me, alert and squinting through the darkness. There weren’t any streetlights out here, just our headlights piercing the thickening snowfall. I could see the next turn as well as he could, but still each time he saw another he’d say something, right ahead, or left, and his voice was an anchor. We had a familiar rhythm, a pattern we fell into almost automatically now, after so many missions together. Tonight was no different, and that familiarity reminded me that we were a team, and a damn good team. The ascent seemed to take forever. I never thought to look at the clock when we started, so I have no idea how long it took us to get to the top. I remember relief when we started going down, thinking we were halfway through, turning to a jolt of fear as the wheels slipped a little. After a few tense seconds the jeep was moving steadily down.
The snow was thicker now, but there was no space left over in my mind to worry about it. The descent was no less harrowing, as we started to slip twice on the way down. And then a third time, coming around a curve we hit a slick patch, skidding to the right for what seemed like a long time, compared to the others… and I might’ve imagined it, but I could’ve sworn I felt nothing but air under the right front wheel just before I was able regain control of the vehicle. I heard Jack breathe out sharply, gripping the steering wheel so hard my hands hurt, taking a deep breath and trying to force my heart to beat normally.
The road got even more narrow after that, and I wondered what would happen if we met another car coming from the other direction. There was no way in hell two cars would have room to pass each other on this road.
It wasn’t that likely, I told myself. Who’d be crazy enough to try to drive out here in this weather?
Other than us, of course.
There was no sound but the low growl of the jeep’s engine, a strained sound I didn’t like at all, and the rhythmic thump-thump, thump-thump of the wipers beating steadily back and forth.
The wind was picking up again, and it seemed to be blowing the thickening curtains of snow straight at us. It was getting harder and harder to see more than a few feet in front of the jeep — and it didn’t help that the road liked to twist and turn sharply without any warning.
“Should only be a couple miles more.” Jack’s voice was quiet, and I didn’t answer, just nodded. I couldn’t afford to take my eyes off the road. Not now. Not when there was suddenly nothing in front of me but a sheer drop as the road curved abruptly and I had to wrench the wheel hard to the right to keep from driving us straight off the cliff.
I remember the sound… that sound the wheels make when they’re spinning in place, not gripping the slick surface of the road at all. After that it all happened too fast to think. The jeep skidded a few feet to the right, and there was a loud crunch as we hit the piled snow at the inside of the curve. We bounced back from the right-hand side like a hockey puck bouncing off a wall, and Jack yelled something as we slid for an interminable moment. There was a violent lurch, and the ground dropped away under the left wheels, and all I could think was, oh my God, Lisa’s gonna kill me…
We hung in the air for forever, but it couldn’t have been more than a second. There was a loud noise as we slammed into something hard, pain shooting through my skull as my head hit the window, and everything was still.
It was a while before I remembered to breathe.
Apparently there’d been some kind of ledge, not too far down, that broke our fall. Though how wide it was — and how stable — was anybody’s guess. The jeep was lying tilted on its left side, the windshield wipers still going back and forth like the legs of an insect that’s been flipped over on its back.
I heard Jack grunt as he released his seatbelt, falling half on top of me before he caught the headrest of his seat, bracing himself against the center console. “Well this sucks.”
There was no way in hell we were gonna get the jeep back on the road. The only way out was through Jack’s window, which turned out to be stuck. A couple hard blows from the butt of Jack’s sidearm solved that problem, and I threw an arm over my face as broken glass showered down.
“You okay?” Jack cast me a worried glance, and I nodded as he grabbed one of our packs, pulling a flashlight out of it and slinging it over his shoulder. I sat up cautiously as he switched the light on, shining it up out of the window. A flash of green reflected back at us through the snow, a road sign, reassuringly close. “We’re good,” he whispered.
It’s not that far. We can climb back up there, no sweat. “Go,” I told Jack, grabbing onto the steering wheel and starting to pull myself up. “I’m right behind you.”
A strong gust of wind hit us then, howling down the mountain, and I felt the shock of colder air and the snow blowing into my face. And then it happened — the smallest of motions, hardly noticeable, if we hadn’t been waiting for it. The car rocked, back and forth, back and forth, and we both froze.
The wind died down and the car went still again, but we didn’t move, staring at each other. Jack’s eyes were wide, and my mouth had gone dry, my heart beating wildly in my ears. “Go,” I whispered again finally.
He shoved the flashlight in his pocket, moving slowly, carefully, to push himself up through the window. I didn’t dare move, not ’til he was out, hanging braced between my seat and the steering wheel. I heard him hiss sharply, like he was in pain, but there was no time to worry about that now. Then he was out, climbing up the slope toward the road. It wasn’t far, only a matter of seconds once he was all the way out the window, grabbing onto the pole holding up the green sign. I could hardly see him, even so, through the snow… only the glow of his flashlight, steady and unmoving, told me he’d made it.
The jeep rocked again, and I thought I heard Jack yelling to me over the wind as I pulled myself over the center console, hanging onto the passenger seat. Snow stung my face as I raised my head and shoulders out of the window. Jack was shining his flashlight at me now, and I could see a couple handholds on the slope above me.
I started to lean forward, reaching for a small rock sticking out of the snow, when the jeep began to slide.
Not a little rocking back and forth this time, just sliding with an unmistakable grinding sound. I grabbed desperately for a handhold, and my fingers scraped slick ice. Below me there was only blackness, no way to tell how long the drop was. I looked up, couldn’t see Jack, braced my feet against the center console.
As far up as I could, toward the glow of that flashlight, so close, and behind me the grinding sound had stopped as the jeep slipped off the ledge, into the abyss. Jack’s hand closed around my wrist, hard enough to bruise, catching me like I’d known he would.
I fell against the slippery mountainside, scrabbling against the frozen snow, managing to grab onto Jack’s arm with my other hand. Pulling myself up, while he held onto me, holding the pole of that sign with his other hand to anchor us both. Behind me I heard a crash, echoing off the sides of the tall mountains.
And we were up. We’d made it. Staggering upright in the middle of the road, as Jack grabbed my shoulders, pulling me close to him so he could peer into my face with that fiercely worried look. “You all right?”
“Yeah.” I was shivering, only partly from the cold. “You?”
He nodded, letting go of me and looking back toward the ledge. There was a dim orange glow visible through the veils of white, far, far below us, the remains of the jeep burning. I wondered absently if they’d charge us for it, or if their insurance covered idiots who tried to drive across the Rocky Mountains on Christmas Eve in a snowstorm.
It was still and dark, with nothing to light the way but the flashlight Jack held, and no sound but the wind and the crunch of our boots on the snow. We didn’t talk much, as we made our way down the mountain on foot. I was just beginning to realize how cold it really was, outside of our nice warm car. My whole face was numb, and my lips felt like wood, so that speaking was an effort. More than that, we hadn’t the breath to spare for conversation, as the air was still pretty damn thin. We noticed it more now that we had to walk, and I remember thinking how lucky we were to be going downhill the whole way.
Still, it wasn’t easy going. I was out of breath after the first couple minutes, and shivering violently. Not to mention struggling, with every minute and every step, to keep my eyes open. Every few steps, if one of us stumbled, the other would reach out, offer a steadying hand. The ground was slippery and the snow was deeper, and more than once I wanted nothing more than to sink down on the ground and sleep.
We were both exhausted, physically and mentally, stumbling along half in a daze by the time we got to the end of the pass and got back on US 285, marked by beautiful blue signs. But it was almost sixty miles, still, to Colorado Springs, and flat roads or not we weren’t gonna be able to keep walking long in this snow. My whole body felt like a block of ice, and my head was pounding from walking at least a mile in such thin air. But months of training told me we’d have to find shelter or make some pretty soon, and get out of the snow and the wind, or we weren’t gonna see home again.
If we had to, I thought, we could dig some kind of shelter out of the snow. It was just about deep enough, along the sides of the road. But we’d only been on the highway a couple minutes before the light of the flashlight caught what looked like an abandoned barn off the road. Only until the snow stopped, I told myself. Whenever that was. I looked at Jack, as we stepped over the guardrail, and I knew he was thinking the same thing. We were so close. If we still had the car it wouldn’t have been more than two hours before we were standing at the door to Jack’s house, seeing the look on Lisa’s face, holding her in my arms, following her into the house and falling asleep in a real bed with her next to me. My mind was filled with morbid visions of us being found frozen to death Christmas morning, the authorities showing up to tell our wives that after seven years in Special Ops we’d died hardly sixty miles from our home. It wasn’t fair. We’d come so far, and now who knew when the snow would stop, when we’d be able to go home?
A chain held the doors closed, and the padlock was rusted. I’d picked worse locks than this before, but now my hands were numb, and I dropped the knife in the snow twice before I got the damn thing to open. Then we had to use our bare hands to dig the snow away from in front of the doors before we could pull them open and escape inside.
The air inside was frigid, and the beam from the flashlight skittered across the hard-packed dirt floor revealing several piles of moldy straw. The walls looked solid, though, and at least they blocked out the wind and the snow. There was a rustling in one of the piles, and I saw a mouse run across the floor.
“Add a fireplace, a tree, and it’ll be just like home,” Jack remarked, his voice sounding loud and hoarse. There was a silence here that echoed, and a sense of total isolation, surrounded by cold and dark and snow, with one flashlight against the night. But we’d had to hole up in worse places to wait for daylight, and at least there was no one following us to try to kill us this time. Thank God for small favors.
Jack set the flashlight on the ground, taking off the pack that was the only thing he’d had time to grab from the car. “Let’s see what we got.”
Stiff muscles protested painfully as I sat down. Jack reached into the pack, and I grabbed his wrist, making him drop the spare battery. “You’re bleeding.”
The palm of his right hand was covered with blood, dark and sticky and starting to congeal in the cold. He looked at it like he was seeing it for the first time. “Must’ve cut it on the glass,” he said. “I’m all right.”
“Sure.” I rummaged through the pack, searching for something that might serve as a bandage and finding nothing. “Right. If you say so.” Picking up the flashlight to get a better look, I saw it was pretty deep, and it looked painful. “You didn’t think this was worth mentioning?”
He watched as I pulled a handkerchief out of my pocket, wishing for a medkit, and tied it carefully around the cut even though it wasn’t bleeding all that freely now. “We had more important things to think about.”
In the dim light he looked pale and exhausted, but then I probably didn’t look much better. I wondered briefly if our wives would believe us, if we walked in looking like this, and told them we’d just stepped off a plane.
Looking into the pack again, I pulled out a half-squashed box of donuts, holding it up with a tired grin. Jack just raised his eyebrows at me, as I opened it to find three chocolate donuts inside, half frozen. “So that’s where you were hiding ’em.”
He gave me his innocent look, and I couldn’t help bursting out laughing, in spite of everything. “Who, me? I was just savin’ ’em for an emergency! And it’s a good thing I did.”
I nodded, still smiling, as I took one, munching on it slowly as I checked to see if the pack held any more valuable tools for survival. But I only found one more thing.
Its green uniform rumpled, brown fur ruffled every which way, I pulled the stuffed bear out, holding it up for Jack to see. And it might’ve been my imagination, but I thought the expression on its smushed face looked a bit disgruntled and put-upon. Sort of like it was thinking, what did I do to deserve these two crazy guys dragging me all the way out here into the middle of nowhere…
Jack let out a short laugh, grabbing it from me. “So that’s where this little guy got to!” He smoothed the green dress jacket, setting the bear down on the ground and grabbing a donut for himself. “He must’ve been the one who hid the donuts!”
I rolled my eyes. “I guess you’re gonna say we better save the third one for him, huh?” There was that innocent look again, and I grinned, feeling much better already, in spite of the fact that it was still freezing. It was one of my most accurate measures of any situation, no matter how bleak it seemed — as long as Jack hadn’t lost his sense of humor, I knew we were all right. It was that simple.
Glancing at my watch, I saw it was only a couple hours before midnight. Soon it would be Christmas. This wasn’t exactly how I’d imagined spending Christmas, but considering what the last few hours had been like I wasn’t complaining. My eyes were gonna close in a couple seconds. Going to sleep without even a blanket to insulate us from the frozen ground wasn’t the smartest idea, but we didn’t have any other choice. We’d have to share body heat to get through the night, and hope that would be enough.
I unzipped my jacket, lying on the ground as Jack put the bear back into the pack and stretched out next to me. We’d had to do this before, under much worse conditions. We didn’t have to say anything. I wrapped my arms around him, under his jacket, feeling the first real warmth I’d felt in hours slowly surrounding us as he did the same. If we were more awake I’d tell him how bad he smelled after almost forty-eight hours in the car, or how loud he snored. I was too tired, though, to be anything but grateful for his warmth and his presence, for a few seconds before I was sleeping soundly.
It comes just before 1300. What I’ve been waiting for — and dreading — since I talked to Sara yesterday. At 2100 hours, the 121st is gonna take off for Washington. Our orders are to report to General West’s office, at the Pentagon.
There’s a part of me that’s so damn glad to have something to do. West wouldn’t have called us home from Europe if he isn’t gonna tell us what this Blue Book is all about. Whatever the hell’s goin’ on, the 121st is done sitting around waiting for rumors. We’re gonna go out there and meet the bad guys head-on, whoever they are.
And maybe I will get my chance to back Jack up again, after all. At least I’ll know for sure, this time, what West and this Hammond have gotten him into.
Deep space radar telemetry, my ass.
But at the same time, getting a back-up team called in makes it look like something’s not goin’ as well as they expected.
Like Jack’s in trouble.
And that thought turns me cold, someplace deep inside where no warmth can reach.
The hours crawl by. There’s a team leaders’ meeting at 1400, where General Leslie shows up and basically tells us all he doesn’t know any more than we do. Leaving us wondering what the hell the point was in calling the meeting. When it’s over, I go for a run, pounding flat out down the slush-and-sand-covered roads like if I run fast enough I can make myself stop thinking.
I run into Stuart walking back to the barracks. He’s carrying a shopping bag from the PX, and we exchange salutes as he falls into step beside me. “What’ve you got?”
“This?” He reaches into the plastic bag, and I stare for a second at the stuffed bear in a blue Air Force uniform. “For my daughter. She’s two years old.” He grins at me, and I look away. “You think she’ll like it, sir?”
“You have any information, Captain?” I ask, more sharp than necessary, but the last thing I need to think about right now is how much Charlie loved that bear. I wonder if Sara still has it? Jack and me always used to say we’d tell him someday, everything that bear went through to get to him that Christmas. Someday when he was old enough to keep a secret from his mom. A day that will never come.
“No, sir.” If it bothers him, my complete lack of interest in his family, he doesn’t show it. “I haven’t heard anything since we got our orders. I’m sorry, sir.”
I don’t look at him, keep walking, resist the urge to tell him to get lost. He’s a damn fine officer, and if I’d met him a decade ago we might’ve been friends. But every year at Christmas he makes it his personal mission to get me to loosen up a little, and show some Christmas spirit. He doesn’t seem to be deterred by repeated failure, either. But then I guess he wouldn’t be Special Ops if he gave up easily.
“1930, in hangar A,” he says, and I look at him blankly, wondering what he’s talking about now. Oh, right. His little team party thing.
“Captain, I don’t think — ”
“Colonel, the guys all know some serious shit’s goin’ down right now,” he says, cutting me off. He ignores my glare. “They’re worried, hell, sir, they’re scared. Whatever this is, it’s happening back home, in the States. They want to know what’s goin’ on.”
You think I don’t? “And what the hell do you think I know?” I snap. “Soon’s I hear anything, they’ll know. Until then, you can tell them I don’t know shit.”
“With all due respect, sir,” and his voice is quiet, “they should hear it from you.”
He’s right. I know that, and he knows I know. After seven years he knows me too damn well, and he knows if he makes it about the team I’ll come.
I’m gonna lead these men into God knows what in about six hours, now, and they’ll follow me. The blind leading the blind. In spite of my complete lack of humor, or sympathy, or tolerance for their slightest mistakes — in spite of the fact that I’ve said at most two friendly words to each of them in the past eight years — in spite of my total inability to be anything but, as Douglas used to call me, “the drill sergeant from hell” — they trust me.
I don’t know why. I sure as hell don’t deserve their trust But I’ve got it, and the enormous responsibility that goes with it. And that’s one of the very few things in my life, anymore, that means a damn to me.
So at 1930 hours I’m at hangar A, still with no idea what the hell’s going on or what I’m going to say.
Reiker and Warfield are bringing their tree inside the hangar. When they notice me they look at each other nervously, like they think I’m gonna chew them out for putting up frivolous decorations. When I give them a curt “carry on, sergeant,” they both grin and drag the tree past me into a corner.
The tinfoil star looks like the one Charlie made, the last Christmas before Jack and I left for Saudi. Stuart’s walking over now, sitting the Air Force bear under the tree, exchanging backslaps and laughing at something Warfield said. I’m standing just far enough away that they can politely ignore me, but hopefully not far enough that Stuart will decide he has to come over and invite me to join them.
It’s Douglas who comes over here, with two paper cups of hot cider. He hands one to me, then leans back against the wall next to me, slanting me a look that’s more curious than anything else. “Didn’t expect to see you here, sir.”
I don’t answer that, but then he doesn’t expect me to. He’s the opposite of Stuart — and the only man on this team besides my 2IC who’s not at all afraid of my temper. A big guy, almost as old as me, doesn’t talk much. And a damn good medic, as I’ve had reason to learn more than once. Ain’t much that can rattle him, and if he’s worried he doesn’t show it.
Another one who’d be my friend if I let him, in spite of the fact that he didn’t much like me when we first met. I sip the cider slowly, watching Reiker and Warfield and the rest of the younger guys trying to get the tree to stand up straight.
“You all right, sir?”
I look at him. He’s the only one who’ll ask me straight out if I’m okay, if I’m not obviously bleeding all over the floor. Even though he knows what my answer will be. “I’m fine, sergeant.”
He gives me that look, the one that says, you’re an officer so I won’t say it, but we both know you’re full of shit. And with a nod, he turns away and walks slowly over to the tree.
He knows damn well there’s a reason I loathe this time of year so much. And every year he’ll say something, the smallest word or gesture, but it’s enough. Just to let me know if I ever want to talk about it, he’s here. Not that I ever show any kind of appreciation. But all the same his concern touches something that’s been buried way too long.
Then there’s Stuart. Coming over to offer me cookies, baked by his wife back in Michigan. My bright-eyed idealist, the kid I rescued from a burning plane seven years ago, who still believes there’s something in me worth saving. I don’t know why. He’s been on this team long enough to know better.
“Merry Christmas, Colonel.” I murmur something in reply, take a cookie, and watch with relief as he moves away without trying to start a conversation. There’s a reason I usually avoid this kind of thing. I’ve never been very good in social situations, and right now I’m so damn worried about Jack I can’t think about anything else.
An hour and a half, and we’ll be on the plane. And when the sun rises on Christmas morning I’ll know what’s going on, and what we were called back for, and where Jack is right now. I hope.
I’m still trying to figure out what I’m gonna say to my team, when Stuart calls us over to pray. We stand in a rough half-circle around the tree, heads bowed. There’s a part of me that feels guilty, like I should be the one leading the prayers, as their CO. But I wouldn’t have any idea what to say, and they’d all know my heart wasn’t in it. I gave up on asking God for anything, after Iraq.
“Heavenly Father.” Stuart’s voice is clear and steady. Like he actually believes what he’s saying. “We come before You tonight to give thanks, for all You have given us.” But it’s more than that. Tomorrow’s Christmas Day, and we’ll be off on a mission by then. None of the guys will get to see their families this Christmas. They won’t even get to go off base, hit the bars in town, blow off steam and spend the holidays together. This little half-circle is all the Christmas celebration these guys are gonna get. Hell, depending on what happens tomorrow, it could be the last Christmas for some of us.
“We thank You for our friends, for the comradeship of our teammates this Christmas Eve.” I close my eyes, seeing Jack’s face, hearing his laugh ringing in my ears, like phantom pain from a limb violently severed. “And for those friends who are not with us tonight, who we keep in our hearts.
“We thank You for our families, and ask that You keep them safe and secure this Christmas, and bring us comfort in their absence.” And I think of Lisa. Her face, her voice, her hair, her arms that held me for so long. I left her without even saying goodbye, lost in a fog of anguished guilt and desperation, crushing her against me like my only hope of salvation, before I turned my back on her tears and got on the plane to go back to Saudi. I hope she’s found someone else. Someone who deserves her. “And most of all we thank You for the gift of Your Son, who came to us on Christmas Day so our sins might be forgiven.”
And again I’m glad no one can see my face. That might be a great comfort to Stuart, and to the rest of the guys. But God isn’t the one whose forgiveness I need.
“… so that by the shedding of His blood we might be set free …”
It was Jack who paid in blood while I walked free, and the rest of team, after that day in Iraq. It was Jack who was ready to accept a suicide mission, three years ago, to protect us all against whatever the hell this threat is. It was Charlie’s death that drove him to want that mission, that gave West his chance to use Jack’s grief for his own purpose. It’s always the innocent who have to pay for others’ mistakes…
“Touch our hearts, Lord, and let Your light guide us in the days ahead. Watch over us, as we leave here to go and defend our homes. Watch over our loved ones, keep them safe, hold them close to You through this crisis.”
If God cares about me at all, He’s sure as hell got a funny way of showing it. But all the same I add my own silent plea to Stuart’s. Lord, if You exist, if You’re actually listening…
I don’t believe in anything, anymore. Except for my gun and my team and the sure knowledge that if there is a Heaven, I’ll never see it. All the same, what can it hurt? If You’re listening, keep Jack safe. Let him be okay. Don’t let me be too late. Again. He has to be okay. If he’s not…
I can’t finish that thought. Stuart’s speaking still. “Give our leaders the wisdom to see us through this, and give us courage to stand against whoever we fight.” Let me make the right decisions for once. Don’t let me screw this one up.
And while You’re at it, maybe you can bring Charlie back. I know I deserve everything that’s happened to me, but what did he ever do? He was just a kid, dammit!
Hell, maybe You could just make the last eight years go away. Never happen. Give us another chance. God can do anything, right?
If I sound bitter, it’s ’cause I am. Hell, why shouldn’t I be? Not for myself, so much… But Jack never deserved all the shit that happened to him. I know we both did some things we ain’t proud of, but he never deserved that. Sara never deserved to have her world ripped apart, turned inside out, either.
And he’s finishing, finally. “Keep us safe through this and all our missions, let us return to our families and our friends.” Those of us who have them. “In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.”
Murmured “amens” from the rest of us, and when I look up they’re all looking at me.
Like they’re expecting me to give them answers. But I don’t have any. I take a step forward and they all straighten up. And I hope they all know how proud of them I am right now, ’cause I’ll never be able to tell them.
“You all read the orders.” My voice sounds loud and harsh in the silence. “I don’t know any more than you do. I don’t know what we’re gonna be up against, or what’s at stake here. But you can bet this is gonna be big.”
There’s no expression on their faces, but I know they’re scared. I was never any good at pep talks, that’s Stuart’s department. But somehow I have to say the right thing. “They don’t call us Special Operations ’cause we give up easy.” I glare around at them, meeting each man’s eyes in turn. “Whatever this shit is, they’re askin’ us to deal with it. Anybody want to say no?”
The silence echoes, and they all stand perfectly still, and that’s when it hits me. It doesn’t matter what I say. If I get on that plane tonight, they’ll be with me. “Let’s get the job done.”
It takes me two minutes to grab my gear from my quarters. I wonder if I should call Sara before we leave. I don’t have anything to give her but rumors, and most of those are probably classified. And they’d only scare her. She doesn’t need to know what kind of shit I’m afraid Jack’s in.
But at the same time I’m thinking I may not get to talk to her again for a while. This could be the last phone call I ever make. And I owe it to her, at least to tell her personally that I still don’t know anything.
It’s dark out when I leave the barracks, carrying my duffel over my shoulder. The sky’s clear, but the lights on base are too bright for any but the brightest stars to show up. Someone’s singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” as I walk through the snow toward the officers’ club to look for a phone.
Here we are as in olden days
Happy golden days of yore…
There aren’t many people out now. It’s too damn cold, and nobody really feels like celebrating tonight. We’re all worried, wondering what’s going on, and what’s gonna happen.
Faithful friends who are dear to us
Gather near to us once more…
A snowplow rumbles past, drowning out the next few words, for which I’m grateful.
Hang on, Jack. We’re coming.
…we all will be together If the fates allow.
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough…
I look up then as a plane roars in overhead, wondering if that’s the one that’ll carry us back to the States. We’ve got an hour left, before we leave.
Two points of light appear above the command center building, right next to each other, like the wingtip lights on a C-130. I watch the sky, thinking of all those nights when Jack would drag me out of bed to look at the stars on a clear night. It’s hard to believe, sometimes, how much I still miss him…
In shocking silence, the tiny lights explode, without any warning.
One second they were barely visible, now clear white light pulses brighter than the brightest star, almost as bright as the half moon rising, blossoming soundlessly against the night.
I woke after a few hours when Jack stirred and got up. It was still dark, but I heard him walking toward the doors, heard the creaking as he pushed them open.
I didn’t notice how quiet it had gotten, ’til I heard Jack’s low whistle. That was when I realized the wind had stopped.
I rolled over, sitting up with an effort and rubbing my hands together. I could hardly feel my hands or my face, and my joints felt like they’d frozen in place while I was asleep. I stood up slowly, moving like a man three times my age.
“Frank.” Jack was whispering, standing in the doorway. “C’mere. You gotta see this.”
A thin layer of white covered the road, dusting the top of the guardrail and smoothing over the piles of old snow left at the roadside by yesterday’s plows. Soft-tipped evergreen branches bowed low under the weight. The wind had carved rippling patterns in the snow lying on the ground, like waves on the surface of a pond in summer.
The wind wasn’t blowing anymore. That was the first thing I noticed, coming to stand beside Jack. The air outside was cold, but still. And the snow had stopped.
Jack didn’t say anything. He stood there, his head tilted back, looking up. After a minute I looked up, and for a while I just stared. I’d never seen stars so bright in the States. Only when we were on missions out in the wilderness, behind enemy lines and far from any city lights. Afghanistan, Iran… sometimes these stars were our only allies, shining brighter the further away we were from help, pointing the way home.
Out here on a lonely highway they burned fiercely bright, free from the snow clouds that had covered the sky for the past days. The words to an old carol whispered in my mind. All is calm, all is bright.
“Merry Christmas, Frank.” I looked at him, startled to see him watching me with a tired smile. I glanced at my watch, saw the green numbers blinking 01:00.
And I knew we were gonna make it home today.
“Merry Christmas, Jack.”
We went back inside, gathering up what little we had with us. We divided the last chocolate donut, which was mostly frozen, and then set out walking down the highway, with the bear safely tucked under Jack’s arm.
We’d only been walking for ten minutes when we heard the car behind us. When we saw the headlights come around the corner, I moved to the side of the road, hoping for a kindly soul who might be willing to give two tired, half frozen airmen a lift home.
Jack decided not to take the chance they might pass us by, striding out into the middle of the road and waving his arms. The old, battered Mustang came to a stop in the middle of the deserted highway, and I walked over as the door opened.
“Just what in ’ell d’you think you’re doing?” an older voice demanded, sounding annoyed but not at all afraid.
“We don’t mean to bother you folks,” Jack said, spreading his hands in a placating gesture. Trust Jack to charm them every time. “But we could kinda use a lift.”
“We just flew in from overseas,” I added, hoping for some sympathy for two homesick military men. “We’re tryin’ to get home.”
The driver, an old man with silver hair and piercing eyes behind his thick glasses, got out of the car and gave us an appraising look. “Just flew in, eh? What, so your plane just dropped you out here in the middle o’ nowhere?” He snorted. “Y’all better have a talk with your pilot. Jim Baker.” He stuck his hand out, and we introduced ourselves. “Get in, you look frozen half to death.”
The heat was turned all the way up in the car, and the warm air hit me in a wave as we got in the back seat. The old woman who turned around to look at us reminded me of my grandmother, the way her eyes twinkled warmly. “My wife, Edith,” Baker introduced her, as the car’s engine started with a loud growl. “You boys in the Army?”
“Air Force,” I said, trying to keep my teeth from chattering. For some reason, now that we were someplace warm, I’d started shivering again.
“Marine Corps, twenty years,” the old man said with a tone of satisfaction. His wife opened the glove box, rummaging until she found two wool hats, which she gave to us. “So where you goin’?”
“Home,” I said, the same time as Jack said “Colorado Springs.”
“We’re goin’ to Denver,” Baker told us. “Our daughter and her husband are up there, and they’re expectin’ our first grandchild in March.” He looked at his wife then, and I thought I saw a look very like the one on Jack’s face the day after Charlie was born. “We’ve been on the road all night, but it’s worth it.”
Jack and I looked at each other. We could only nod. Oh, yeah. It was worth it, all right, more than words could ever say.
“Jim, haven’t we got any blankets in the car?” Edith Baker gave her husband a reproving look. “The poor boys are freezing!”
We pulled over on the side of the highway so they could go into the trunk, handing us two faded wool blankets. We wrapped ourselves in them, still shivering as we got back on the road. “What happened to you?” Edith asked. “Did your car break down?”
Jack and I exchanged another look. “Well, sort of,” I said.
“It kinda — fell off a cliff,” Jack told her simply.
Her eyes widened, and her husband asked, “Where did y’all fly into?”
He let out a short bark of laughter. “Let me guess. You boys are fighter pilots?”
“Special Operations,” I said.
“Even worse.” He shook his head. “You gotta be crazy to try somethin’ like that.”
Edith gave her husband’s arm a playful swat. “Oh, and like you were any better at their age!”
He gave her a look that was full of shared memories, and I hid a smile. Edith turned back to us. “You have little ones at home?”
Jack’s face was filled with that proud daddy look again. “My son’s six months old.” He pulled out a picture and handed it to her. “Haven’t seen him since two days after he was born.”
“No wonder you’re in such a hurry to get home.” I wondered how many Christmases Baker got to spend with his daughter when she was a kid. ’cause from his voice I could tell he understood just what we were both thinking right now. “Don’t you worry, boys. Sit back and relax, and you’ll be home before sunrise.”
The minute I see that light, I fear the worst. Some kind of accident on one of the aircraft, some kind of explosion… I remember standing outside at Peterson, years ago, watching two fighter jets collide in midair, the flames bursting out of the fuselage, ribbons of black smoke trailing the wreckage as they fell.
But it doesn’t fall. Whatever it is, it ain’t moving at all. It seems to be pulsating gently, and there’s no smoke that I can see from here. Just a steady white glow, two overlapping stars that are way too bright.
And once again, I stop myself just before I look over my shoulder, to ask Jack what it is. Jack was always the astronomy buff, he’d know if it was anything natural.
Stop it, Cromwell. I force myself to look away, keep walking. No point in thinking about what Jack would say if he was here. There was a time when I might have looked at something like this as a sign, some reason to hope. But that was a long time ago.
A lot of weird things have been happening lately, and this is hardly the first. And if it’s anything I need to worry about, anything other than an unfortunate air accident or a pretty astronomical event, I’ll know soon enough.
I’m about to go into the officers’ club when Stuart runs up behind me, coming to a breathless halt and snapping a salute.
No more pep talks or Christmas cheer right now, Captain, please. “I just got off the phone with my dad, sir.” Okay, now he’s got my attention. “Colonel O’Neill is all right. He’s on his way to the Springs right now.”
I stare at him. “How do you know?”
“Well… ” Stuart looks uncomfortable. “I can’t really say, sir, my dad wouldn’t tell me. All he says is he’s got a friend in West’s office, who he’s been after all day to find out what’s going on. The guy wouldn’t say anything about what O’Neill was doing, but just a couple minutes ago he called my dad. He says whatever it was, it’s over, and O’Neill’s flying back to Peterson this minute.”
I can’t breathe. Looking away from him, hanging onto the door handle like it’s the only thing keeping me from falling over, I hope it’s true. God, it has to be true. I force the words out. “You trust this guy?”
“I think so, sir.”
“You think so?”
He takes a deep breath, nodding. “I’d trust him, sir.”
Flying back to Peterson now… then the chances of Sara getting a hold of him before I get on the plane to Washington are pretty slim. I won’t know for sure until we land. “There’s… something else weird, sir. I have a friend at Peterson, we were at the Academy together… ” He trails off, and I turn around with an impatient glare. “He says he got orders to clear a runway to land the space shuttle.”
I scowl at him. “Space shuttle doesn’t land in Colorado.”
“I know, sir, that’s why it’s weird.”
I’m still puzzling over this as I walk into the officers’ club, picking up the phone and dialing Sara’s number. And wondering what the hell I’m gonna tell her. A friend of a friend of a friend of my 2IC, all of whom wish to remain anonymous, have assured me Jack’s okay. I’m not sure she’ll believe that.
I’m not sure I believe it myself.
“Frank?” That tone of voice is one I’ve heard too many times from her, years ago. Desperate for news of her husband, but afraid of what that news might be. “Did you find out anything?”
I’ve given her good news and bad news, over the years. I can’t help remembering, now. Remembering the tears in her voice when I told her we’d found him, after that accident over the Iran/Iraq border, and he was missing for nine days. Remembering the last phone call I made from Riyadh, after that last mission went straight to hell in Iraq, trying so hard to break it gently when I was this close to breaking down crying in the hallway with everyone watching.
And then those tense, horrible weeks after we found out he was alive, calling her practically every day, every day telling her I didn’t know anything new, they weren’t gonna send in a rescue mission yet, and I didn’t know when he would be coming home.
“He’s all right.” She doesn’t say anything, but I hear a sound like a sob on the other end. I’ve heard that before, too. “He’s on his way home right now.”
And the irony of those words strikes me, then. ’Cause he’s not going home now, not in the sense we used to say we were going home. He’s on his way back to Cheyenne Mountain, back to his duty station, but he’s not going home. He’ll never go home again, any more than I will. And she knows it.
Home was that morning thirteen years ago, when that battered Mustang pulled up outside Jack’s house at 0400. It was the way the tree looked, standing bravely in the center of the living room, decorated beautifully even though Sara and Lisa had thought we’d never see it. They were both asleep when we sneaked in, taking off our boots in the foyer and walking as quietly as we could into the kitchen. I wanted to see Lisa right now, but I wasn’t about to let Jack go anywhere before he got that cut on his hand properly washed and bandaged. Then we tiptoed up the stairs, feeling like kids who’d sneaked out of bed before we were allowed to be up, just to have a look at our stockings and see what Santa brought. In the glow of a nightlight we found Charlie’s room, and I stood next to Jack by the crib, as he gazed at his son’s face. Charlie was fast asleep, breathing softly, his tiny fingers just visible where he held onto the corner of the blanket. For as long as I live, I will never forget the look on Jack’s face, watching his son asleep.
“Are you sure?” And I want to say yes, of course I’m sure. She always asked me that, too, and I’d always say yeah, I’m sure, he’s standing right next to me. Or yeah, I’m sure, I just saw him in the hospital two minutes ago.
But there won’t be any joyful reunion this time, not for me and Jack, or for Jack and Sara. Our little family is scattered now, those of us who are still alive. And there is no consolation for either of us, even if we were certain he’s okay. He’s lost to us both, now.
“As sure as I can be,” I tell her. “I haven’t talked to him, but some of my team know people at the Pentagon, and they say he’s okay.”
She doesn’t say anything for a while, and I get the sense that she’s talking to someone in the background. Her dad, I guess. Or Lisa… A chill runs through me, and I wonder if Lisa’s at Sara’s house this very moment. If she’s listening to Sara’s half of this conversation. Or if the memories of Christmas in that house are still as strong, still as painful for her as they are for me… if she couldn’t face those memories now, at a time like this.
Maybe she’s found someone else by now. Maybe she’ll spend Christmas with his family, and she won’t have to think about me, or Jack, or Charlie anymore. I hope so. I hope she doesn’t think about me anymore at all. God knows I’ve hurt her enough already.
I remember Jack laying the bear in Charlie’s crib, and the way Charlie’s blue eyes snapped open at the touch of soft fur. The way his tiny fist curled around his dad’s finger, and his little face lit up as he cooed loudly with delight. There was a hard lump in my throat, watching them. And I was so busy watching as Jack made the bear talk back to Charlie that I didn’t hear the footsteps in the hall, didn’t hear anything else until she said my name.
“Frank?” Her voice was soft, questioning, like she was afraid if she spoke too loud she would wake up and I’d be gone. But it was enough, and suddenly I was wide awake, like I’d been hit with an electric shock. When I turned she was standing in the doorway in a long nightgown, her long dark hair tumbled about her shoulders and her eyes wide. There was a look in her face I hadn’t seen in way too long — so long it took me a while to realize what it was.
It was hope.
I can feel it like it was yesterday, the way her fingers traced my face, touching me gently at first, like she wasn’t sure I was real. Then, suddenly, her eyes filled with tears, and she hugged me hard, burying her face against my jacket. And nothing else mattered anymore, not the long, cold road or the brush with death she’d never know about. Nothing else mattered with her pressed close against me, and my arms wrapped around her, the way I’d wanted to hold her, so many long nights far from home. I was home now, and she was here, and we were together.
And this was what Christmas time was all about.
“Frank?” Sara’s talking again.
“Thank you.” She says it quietly. “For everything.”
“Least I could do,” I tell her. I glance at my watch. 2020. “Listen, are you sure you’re okay?”
“Better than last year.” She sighs. “What about you?”
I don’t know how to answer that. It doesn’t get easier, and if I say I’m fine she’ll know I’m lying. But I say it anyway. “I’m fine, Sara.” She doesn’t say anything. “Look, I might not be able to call for a while,” I say finally. “If you need anything… ”
“Don’t worry about me.” There’s an awkward silence, and I know she can tell from my voice that I’m leaving for a mission. “Frank… ”
“Lisa… ” She hesitates, and I feel my breath catch. “Lisa says to tell you… be careful.”
I close my eyes. Lisa shouldn’t care if I’m careful or not. She shouldn’t care if I die tomorrow, or the day after. ’Cause I sure as hell don’t care. I’m not afraid to die, hell, it would be a relief. But all the same, the thought of her hurting is more than I can stand. Lisa… Lise, baby, please don’t do this…
Don’t think about me. I’m not worth your thoughts, I’m not worth your tears. Move on, find someone else, someone who deserves you. Someone who can give you everything I couldn’t.
Don’t think about those days we were together, that Christmas when we found hope. Don’t think about how you held me and kept me warm, that morning after I almost froze to death. Or how Sara made hot cider and we all sat in the kitchen until the sun came up, and you both fussed over me and Jack, insisting on bandaging every minor cut and bruise without ever knowing how we came by them. I don’t know why I still think about it now.
I can’t speak, but even if I could I can’t think of anything to say, in response to that. “Tell her… ” My voice is a whisper, and the words sound hollow. “Tell her… Merry Christmas.”
When I leave the officers’ club, there’s a little crowd outside, staring up at the light. It’s just as bright as it was ten minutes ago, and as I walk quickly away toward the hangar where the 121st is gonna meet the plane, Reiker’s words echo mockingly in my mind.
Well, what would you think if you looked up there and saw this big bright light that had never been there before?
Thirteen years ago, we looked up at the sky and saw stars. No clouds in sight, even though the weatherman had said there was gonna be snow until after Christmas. We looked up, we saw stars, and we knew we were gonna get home that day.
What? What’d they think it meant?
We thought we were invincible, then, as long as we were together. And in spite of everything we’d made it. And we were stupid enough to believe what we had would last forever.
Hope… I wish I could believe there was hope for me and Jack, for me and Lisa, for Jack and Sara. A chance for a new beginning, for forgiveness…
But what guys like Reiker and Stuart don’t understand is that for some things, there can be no forgiveness.
I hope they never have to understand that. They have their families, and their friends, and their careers ahead of them. All I’ve got now are these seven men, who still follow me for some reason, and my oath to the service. And years of memories I can’t leave behind.
But it’s time to go, now. I turn my back on the light, walking slowly to meet my team.