The razor didn’t precisely shake in Jim Turville’s hands as he carefully shaved in the small mess-kit mirror. Nonetheless, Turville paused, took a steadying breath, then quickly finished. He packed away his kit, placed a soft-cap on his head instead of the more familiar helmet, and walked to the front door of the home the Army was renting.
Outside, the crickets and other insects made a roar, the sound resembling a jungle. Turville approached the humvee, where Lieutenant Blake stood next to Sergeant Nguyen. Both of them darted their eyes to Turville when he walked into view.
Blake had a frown on his face; Nguyen a resigned stare into the distance.
“Corporal Turville,” the Lieutenant said.
Turville straightened his posture, replied, “Sir?”
“For the record, your sergeant disapproves of this little outing. I’m pretty close to that myself, but I recognize the fact that some good might possibly come of it. You are on notice: don’t fuck up our relationship with the locals. Am I clear?”
Turville swallowed, replied, “Yes, sir.”
Blake frowned. “I’m not sure you get the seriousness of this, Corporal, so I’m gonna be as blunt and crass as I feel necessary. We’re fighting what looks to be the beginnings of a full fledged insurgency here. You know what’s going on in your little corner of the world, but you may not realize that the attacks aren’t just taking place here. We had half-a-dozen MPs killed in Morgantown this week, too. We absolutely depend on the goodwill of the locals. Especially the local government. Especially the mayor.”
Each time he said “especially”, the Lieutenant poked Turville in the chest, hard.
“In short, everything we’re doing is at risk of being completely and absolutely fucked if you decide to try to stick your dick into things. Or more explicitly, into anybody. Am I absolutely clear, Corporal?”
“Yes, sir. Absolutely.”
The Lieutenant and Sergeant Nguyen looked at each other, then back to him, as if to gauge the sincerity of Turville’s response.
Turville cleared his throat. What exactly did all this mean? We don’t approve, but we’re going to let you go ahead anyway. We think you’re going to fuck it up, but we’re officially disclaiming responsibility? Was this their way of placing blame on him? It sounded a little too much like, “We’re going to send you into a fucked up, violent, seething, angry neighborhood, armed to the teeth, but oh, by the way, you can’t protect yourself, and if you do, we’re going to blame you for whatever happens.”
He was a little too familiar with that kind of buck-passing.
“Sir, may I ask a question?”
Blake eyed Turville. “Go ahead, Corporal.”
“If you are so strongly opposed to it, why are you giving the okay? Why not just restrict me to the barracks?”
Nguyen snorted, shook his head as if in disbelief.
Blake’s face took on a flare of anger. “Because, Corporal, I got overruled. When the CO found out that the invitation came from the mayor, he told me I’d better roll out the red carpet for you. Clear?”
“Yes, sir. My apologies, sir. It wasn’t my intent to put you in a difficult situation.”
Blake’s face tightened in anger. “You, Corporal, are the one in a difficult situation. I’m sure it will all be fine, provided you can maintain the presence of mind to keep your fingers — and your dick — out of places they shouldn’t be. Am I clear?”
Turville took a breath to calm himself, then responded, “Yes, sir.”
Turville resisted the urge to salute the Lieutenant, which would have been a beacon to any watching insurgents. He muttered, “Thank you, sir,” and walked as far away as he could get and still be within the bounds of their little outpost. It was getting dark out, and the insects were even louder now than before, if that were possible. Few electric lights came on in the town as the sun went down: perhaps a few with generators and access to diesel fuel. For the remainder, a window or two was visible in the distance, with the telltale signs of natural lighting: flickering, yellow and brown shades.
As he looked toward the ridge, a pair of headlights pierced the darkness. That would be her, he hoped. Few enough people went out after dark these days, and when they did, typically they hurried home.
The headlights slowed to a stop. That would be the tactical control point, or roadblock, at the north edge of town. Two minutes later, the lights started moving again, and Turville heard the radio in the humvee crackle. A disembodied voice crackled out of the vehicle. “Blue four, this is gate post. Turville’s girlfriend is approaching, over.”
Sergeant Nguyen, the Lieutenant and Turville all muttered curses simultaneously, though Turville felt certain his reasons were different from theirs.
He straightened his posture unconsciously, and tugged the uniform blouse into a reasonable straight position. He rubbed his hands across his clean shaven chin and watched the lights approach.
She pulled to a stop and opened the door of her pickup, slid out of the driver’s seat. She wore a white dress embroidered with red flowers, trim around the neck and waist, and matching dark red pumps. Turville caught his breath at the sight of her in the light. She was absoluty beautiful. Turville approached, and was annoyed to find Lieutenant Blake right behind him. She simply smiled and said, “I’ll have him back by midnight.”
Turville stifled a laugh. She looked at him, eyes bright, and said, “You ready?”
“Let’s do it,” he replied.
Rebecca blushed furiously, and for a moment Turville was merely puzzled. But the Lieutenant’s face had also turned bright red—with anger—and Turville stammered, “I uh, not …um… ‘it,’ …. I mean, let’s go?”
By that point he was so flustered he couldn’t think of what to say. She burst into laughter and said, “Come on,” then got into the truck.
They rode in an uncomfortable silence until she had driven back north past the roadblock. The forest swallowed the road, and she slowed down, taking the broad switchback turns slowly. “You look stunning in that dress,” he said.
She blushed, and allowed herself a smile. “Why, thank you, Jim.”
Abruptly she slowed the vehicle, then said, “I want to show you something.”
Seconds later, she expertly turned off onto an unmarked road into the woods, then began climbing a steep road up the ridge line. Tight switchbacks through the woods. Every time she turned, he swayed a little in his seat. He felt naked without his rifle.
Turville was startled then, five minutes later, when the sun shown through the trees. She slowed, then came to a stop at an overlook on top of the ridge. To the west, just near the horizon, the sun still shown over a ridgeline, casting deep orange hues across the sky. Behind and below them, the valley was shaded in complete darkness.
She turned the ignition of the truck, then slipped out of the vehicle.
Turville opened his door, stood up. She smiled, said, “I come up here sometimes to watch the sun set.”
A concrete picnic table sat next to a stone wall. She sat on the table, smoothed her dress over her lap. He approached, tension in his body, and sat down next to her. He looked out at the setting sun, then back to her. Her back was straight, hands folded in her lap. Looking at her now, he realized she had nail polish the same color as the red flowers on her dress. A tiny spot of mascara had smeared on her upper eyelid, but it didn’t look bad… if anything, it made him more aware of just how pretty she was.
“You’re nervous,” he said.
She giggled. “A little.”
“It’s okay, so am I. I … something about you…”
She turned toward him, looking up into his eyes. “You don’t seem like the nervous type.”
“What you see is a carefully cultivated appearance of competence and skill. Inside I’m … scared as hell I’m going to screw this up.”
She swayed, leaned against him. He put his arm around her, resting his hand on her waist.
They sat there as the sun slowly set, and tentatively, they began talking. She told him about her dream of moving to New York, performing on Broadway. She’d been accepted to NYU, but there was no money to pay for it, so she’d ended up also applying to Jefferson State in Charleston. In high school she’d performed in the drama and glee clubs, and did competition cheerleading outside of school.
He told her about growing up in Virginia, and about his father, and the bitterness in his home after his dad came home from Iraq. The nights of drunken rage, his dad sitting staring at the television, there but not there, unable to break free of his self-imposed isolation and anger.
“Are you ever afraid that you’ll end up like that, if you stay in the Army?”
He sighed. “Sometimes, yeah. I mean… I can understand it. I’ve not been in the Army long, but I’ve seen some really screwed up… I’ve … it’s not easy to talk about it.”
She responded by putting her arms around his shoulders and leaning into him. “It’s okay. You don’t have to.”
“You might be better off finding someone more like you to hang out with.”
She laughed, a low sexy sound in the back of her throat. “That’s a bigger challenge than it might seem. Most of the guys I go to school with don’t have any ambition bigger than watching Monday night football.”
He stared out at the rapidly darkening sky, and said, “I’m no prize, Rebecca. Just a guy trying to get through life.”
She wrapped her hand around his arm and said, “Maybe, we’re still getting to know each other. But here’s what I know about you: you’re a guy who believes in something. Every day you get up and put your own life on the line to help other people. When that mess started downtown, you didn’t duck or hide. Your first response was to find the nearest person in danger and help them. That’s … remarkable.”
He looked at the ground. “Don’t think that’s all there is to it.”
“What do you mean?”
Turville sighed. “You’re right, I did that. But… I’ve also done some really dumb things. Last year, do you remember when Dale Whitt was assassinated? And the Army was sent into the city in Charleston, and that kid got killed?”
“I was the guy who killed him. I wasn’t … I didn’t follow orders properly. I got scared, and when that kid came running out of the alley I thought he had a gun. And I shot him.”
She tilted her head, looked at him closely. Turville saw that her eyes were watering. “Jim… I’m so sorry.”
He continued talking. “It’s not something I can ever take back. Or change. Whatever else happens, for the rest of my life I’m going to know that I ended that kid’s opportunities to have a life, to have a dream. I took him away from his family, and then walked away scott free.”
She hugged him, and whispered, “That makes you a human, who makes mistakes. Nothing else.”
Her closeness was intoxicating. He buried his face in her hair and breathed deeply, the scent filling his nostrils like a field of flowers. “Deadly mistakes.”
Turville pulled away just slightly, enough to look in her eyes. She met his, not flinching or turning away. His eyes fell to her lips, and he slowly leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers: not demanding, a bare touch.
She responded, tightening her arms around him, her lips open, the tip of her tongue just touching his.
The feel of her lips against his, her arms around his shoulders, the warmth of her waist underneath the cotton dress combined to make him lightheaded, a simple bliss he couldn’t remember ever experiencing. He looked in her eyes and smiled.
She smiled back, openly, and said in a voice rich with emotion, “I could stay right here with you forever.”
“They’ll be expecting us soon.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
They stood together, and walked arm in arm to the truck. Simply separating to get into the cab was a loss.
Rebecca turned the keys, and a low whining sound emitted from the engine. The starter engaged, but not enough to catch.
“Oh, hell,” she said. “Battery’s low. I should have thought, this has happened a couple times recently. I think my alternator’s going out.”
She turned toward him, her face incredulous. “What?”
He chuckled again. “Are you sure you didn’t plan it? Get me into an isolated spot in the mountains, and oops, conveniently the battery is dead? Now we’re stuck together.”
Her mouth twisted up wryly, and she lightly slapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t get so excited about yourself hotshot. In fact, get out and push. If we can get it rolling down the hill, I can pop the clutch and get the truck started.”
Turville howled with laughter and opened the door. She put the truck in first gear and pressed in the clutch, turned the key to “on.” He leaned, hard, against the doorframe, and the truck very slowly began to roll forward. A little further, and then a little further, and the truck began to pick up a little speed.
In silence, the truck began to roll forward on the slope. A few steps further, and Turville jumped back in the cab and slammed the door shut.
She had a look of intense concentration on her face. The truck moved a little faster, and when it hit around ten miles per hour she took her foot off the clutch.
The truck shuddered, almost stalled, then the engine caught. She switched on the headlights.
Turville caught his breath at the flash of a man standing in the road when she switched on the lights, then she let out a scream and slammed on the brakes. The engine coughed once and died.
The man in the road was gaunt, his black hair long and on the edge of unkempt, a bristly beard growing in all directions.
Rebecca put her hand flat against her chest, took a deep breath. After just a second she leaned her head out the window and said, “Oh my God, Uncle Joe?”
Turville blinked in surprise. She knew this man?
Rebecca jumped out of the cab, ran forward and said, “Uncle Joe, oh my God, what are you doing here? I almost ran you over! You scared the hell out of me.”
Turville slowly got out and followed her. The man hugged Rebecca, but his attention was on Turville. His eyes scanned the uniform and combat boots, then up to Turville’s eyes. Turville shivered. There was no warmth in that expression.
The man … her Uncle … broke off the hug and said, “I was just headed to your place actually, Rebecca. Sometimes I like to come out here and watch the sun set when I’m in town. I wasn’t expecting to find you here.” He emphasized the word “you.”
Her eyes flashed to Turville, and she held her hand out to his. Turville took it, but somehow he felt this was a mistake in front of this strange looking man.
“Uncle Joe, I’d like you to meet someone. This is Corporal Jim Turville. He’s the man who saved my life.”
Turville said, “It’s nice to meet you, sir.”
The man looked at him, no warmth at all in his eyes. “Joe Blankenship.”
Blankenship scanned the uniform again, then said, “No mistaking what you do for a living. What M-O-S?” He was referring to Turville’s military occupational specialty.
Blankenship grunted, and Turville couldn’t make out the meaning for sure, but it felt like contempt.
The three stood there in an awkward silence, broken only by the sounds of the night: an owl in the distance, crickets, frogs, who knew what else.
Turville felt Rebecca’s hand tighten on his. She pulled him a little closer, then said, “We’re headed back to the house right now. Can you follow us, Uncle Joe? I’m having some trouble with the truck.”
Blankenship stared at her for a moment, no expression on his face. Then his eyes darted to Turville again, then back to his niece.
“Yes. We should move out.”
A few moments later they were moving again. Turville sat in the truck with Rebecca, with Joe Blankenship following behind them in his own truck, a much older pickup completely covered in mud and dirt.
As she drove, Turville said, “Your uncle… I don’t think he cared much for me.”
She frowned. “He did seem odd, didn’t he? I’ve barely seen him in the last year, just once or twice. He’s grieving though. Ever since my aunt died last year, Uncle Joe’s never been quite right.”
Turville asked, “How did she die?”
Rebecca sighed, her voice said, and answered, “She was killed when the DHS raided the factory where she worked.”
“Oh God, that’s awful,” Turville replied. He started to ask her if she thought Blankenship was involved with the insurgents, then stopped himself. Blankenship was family to her. Not a reasonable question. He made a conscious effort to change the subject.
“Jim, would you like to see some pictures of Rebecca growing up?” asked Rebecca’s mother as they finished the dishes.
“No, he wouldn’t,” Rebecca replied, at the same time Turville said, “I’d love to, Mrs. Mays.”
Rebecca rolled her eyes.
“Call me Zoe, please,” said Rebecca’s mother. “Bob’s mother was Mrs. Mays.”
Turville smiled, said, “Zoe, then. Yes, I’d love to see them.”
Rebecca dried the last dish with a towel, set it in the rack next to the sink, then stuck her tongue out at Turville and crossed her eyes. Turville laughed, then stood and followed Zoe into the living room.
Zoe took a thick album off the shelf, sat down on the couch, and patted the seat next to her. “Sit down next to me, dear.”
Turville did, and she opened the album and began flipping through the pages.
“Here we are,” she said, pointing to a photo of a tiny girl, a toddler really. In the photo, Rebecca, three years old, wore a pink ballet outfit with a flower. “Rebecca’s always been a fantastic dancer.”
Standing behind the couch, arms crossed over her chest, Rebecca said, “Oh God, mother, must you embarrass me?”
Zoe smiled at her daughter. “Why be embarrassed, darling? It’s true.”
Rebecca flushed red.
Zoe flipped through the pages. Many more photos: Rebecca at school, at museums. A group of photos of the family together in Washington, DC. Rebecca looked six in that group of photos.
More recent photos. Rebecca on a stage, at sixteen. She wore a white dress with bare shoulders, lace cuffs on her arms and a tiara: left leg and arm extended in the air behind her back, right arm extended forward, head up, a smile on her face. Turville caught his breath, then said, “That’s beautiful.”
Rebecca almost choked behind him, but Zoe simply said, “Yes, it was. Rebecca was in the River City Youth Ballet before the war shut it down, last year she was the Snow Queen.”
Turville looked up at Rebecca and winked, then leaned close to Zoe. “Any chance you could email me a copy of that?”
Zoe’s smile grew, and she said, “I’d be happy to, Jim.”
Rebecca shook her head, said, “Oh, God. I should have known you two would hit it off.”
The next page showed a photo of the entire family: Bob and Zoe sitting next to another couple, Rebecca seated on the ground in front of them. The resemblance between Bob and his sister Mandy was obvious. Joe Blankenship in the photo looked completely different than the man Turville had met this evening: younger, happy, with his arm curled protectively around his wife.
Turville glanced at the door of the study. Bob Mays and Joe Blankenship had gone in the room and closed the door as soon as dinner was finished.
Turville touched the photo. “That’s Joe’s wife? The one who died last year?”
Zoe nodded, her face sad. “Yes. Mandy was a wonderful, generous hearted woman. Joe’s heart broke when she was killed.”
Unexpectedly Rebecca leaned forward and put her arms around Turville’s shoulders.
Zoe looked at them, a thoughtful look on her face, and she asked, “It’s serious between you two, isn’t it?”
Turville felt an unexpected rush of emotion as he felt, rather than saw, Rebecca nod.
“Well then, I’d best prepare your father.”
As she spoke the words, the study door opened. Bob Mays and Blankenship came out of the study, both of them looking serious and unhappy. Blankenship walked to the front door, putting on his jacket as he walked. Turville caught a glimpse of the tattoo on his huge bicep as he put on the coat. “De Oppreso Liber,” it read, and displayed a knife and a green beret. Special Forces.
Blankenship opened the front door and walked out without a word. He shut the door behind him forcefully.
Bob turned toward them, and his eyes fell on Rebecca, her arms around Turville. He frowned, then said, “I think it’s probably time for Jim to get back to the Army, isn’t it?”
Turville checked his watch. 11:30. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m afraid so.”
Rebecca stood up, leaving behind an empty feeling as her arms left his shoulders.
“Is Uncle Joe leaving? Without even saying goodbye?” She sounded depressed.
Mays frowned. “Sorry, Berry, your uncle had some business to take care of. He promised to visit again soon.”
Something in his tone seemed off. Turville tried to ignore it: he didn’t really know the man, after all.
The four of them stood, and Rebecca said, “Mind if I take him back in your car? The truck’s acting up.”
“Sure, honey,” Zoe said. “Let me get you the keys.”
Turville walked around the couch to stand next to Rebecca. She reached for his hand and took it. Mays’ eyes dropped to the held hands, and Turville couldn’t help but notice the lack of warmth in them. It was marked change from before the meal.
Zoe hugged Turville as they left, and Mays shook his hand.
In the car, Rebecca said, “Well that was just uber-weird. You’d think it was my dad hitting menopause, not mom.”
Turville laughed. “I suspect he just isn’t comfortable with some soldier hanging around his daughter.”
She touched his shoulder. “You’re not just some soldier, Jim.”
They drove in a comfortable silence, back to town, through the road block. She stopped a block short of their destination and whispered, “Jim… I had a really nice time with you. Despite the fact that you got along with my mother.”
Turville smiled, reached out with his left hand and lightly touched her neck. “I did, too.”
She leaned close, and slowly they kissed.
As they parted, she looked him in the eyes: a promise, a level of emotion that shocked Turville to the core. She whispered, “Call me.”
He smiled, then said, “I’ll be thinking of you, short girl.”
She smiled, and he slid out of the car and gently closed the door behind him. He walked toward the humvee, light headed and happy.