Everything was frigid after a year in the scorching desert. The airplane was frigid and the cold was empty. Hollowness echoed inside. Hollowness echoed in my tired eyes as I looked quietly around me. The faces of humanity filling the cabin were foreign. People sat, dressed in their civilian clothes. Their cheeks were clean of the constant sand layer that I had gotten used to. Instead, their cheeks were ruddy with flustered emotions. Mundane conversations buzzed on the undercurrent of the plane’s engine.
Life had continued without me. Normalcy had continued in my year’s absence, but I was not normal anymore. I glanced down at my calloused hands, remembering the feel of the ribbed barrel and smooth trigger of an M16 rifle. Now my hands were empty and the emptiness was awkward. My hands were light as a butterfly’s wings.
Hastily, I filled them with pushing back my blonde hair. My fingers trembled slightly. How could I feel so empty, my heart so lifeless, but my fingers twitch so uncontrollably? The emptiness of my emotions contradicted my bodily reactions. Having been solely responsible for myself, coming back home to him gripped my inner being with anxiety.
A subtle change in air pressure instantly alerted me. The engines began to whine faster. Unconsciously, people either leaned back in their seats with closed eyes, some lips moving in prayer, or they inclined forward in anticipation with gleaming eyes. The airplane was finally heading into a descent. Emotion suddenly choked my heart, and I could feel everything hold still for one instant in time. Then, eagerness fluttered at the edge of my heart valves. My heart beat was in the shell of my ears, the whoosh of a condor taking flight.
As soon as the plane landed, my feet jumped of their own accord. The image of my body racing through the cabin blurred in my mind. I gripped the arm rest in a death vise. With fingers still twitching, I took a deep, calming breath. Then I choked as the air stuck in my throat. Light twinkled behind my eyes and the world spun in my mind. Memories swam in the swirling
The vehicle lurched forward, jammed from behind. We skidded out into the middle of the intersection. I braced myself while glancing in the rear view mirror and gripping my rifle. “Get out of the god damn road!” I heard myself yell.
The private swung the vehicle out of the intersection and then looked to me with wide eyes. Smoke glossed the outside of the windows.
“Lock and load,” I ordered. Then I turned the handle of the car door . . .
“Miss? Miss?” An unfamiliar voice broke the strangle of my memories. I felt my blank eyes glance at her. I was a miss? I had grown past my youth. The intruding, high-pitched voice was followed by curious eyes. “Miss, are you going to get off the plane?”
I nodded and she looked relieved. Then I was heading down the walk way. The cabin walls seemed to buckle in, followed by the accordion connector, and then I was expelled into the bright lights of the airport. Around me swam unfamiliar faces of anxiety and apathy. But no matter the expression, bodies moved hurriedly in a herd heading towards the security check point. The crowd caught me in its grip of rushed bedlam. I felt that I was running, but nervousness made my legs languid. I held myself apart to scan the waiting faces on the other side of security.
Then I saw my tall father, his brown hair now more gray than before. Blue eyes twinkled at seeing me. But he knew: I wasn’t looking for him nor my shorter brother who stood next to him.
There, in the shadow of my family, a small figure darted first behind my dad, then behind my brother alternately. Large dark eyes peered at me with the same nervousness that I felt. I stopped short. My family stood very still in anticipation.
I directed my voice to the child in the shadows. “Do you remember your mother?” I asked.
The three year old stilled with a finger half raised to his lips. He nodded.
At first, he did not look like he would answer me. He turned his small head away, and peered at the ground. Then those dark eyes looked directly at me. Very solemnly, he said, “She has a brown t-shirt, black boots, and gray hair.”
Only a moment did I hesitate before smiling. He looked to me in consternation. I nodded as if that was exactly what his mother looked like and then asked, “Does she look like me?”
The boy unconsciously took a step back, his head turning away again. My arms jerked, my fingers twitched. How I dreamed of this very moment. This was my reality. The desert camps, the bits of sand that I ate with every meal, the pounds of gear that permanently weighed down my shoulders and the adrenaline rush from near misses facing the enemy. That was not reality. My child in front of me, contemplating who I was became the sole reason that I existed. I reached out a hand, and he flinched.
Tears choked in the back of my hollow throat. The world began to dim. The people in the airport became but shadows, clouding my peripheral vision. Flashes of color clouded my mind: the bright yellow sun, the brown, half-alive desert, a green canteen, the black rifle. My body ached as I crouched down to the floor. I railed against the injustice of having left and then congratulated myself for fighting for the country that kept my son safe. Although the hollowness was evading my soul again, I persisted in my quest to win him back. I forcibly swallowed the tears and then smiled hugely.
He has to remember me!
Dark eyes peered into the depths of the tired lines across my face, resting lightly at my up-turned mouth. Very slowly, he began to smile.
I reached out a hand again, and this time, he took it.