A Season Remembered
Written by: James Hellvig
All rights reserved
Josh squints in the mid-morning sun. Signaling the patrol to halt he scans the street ahead. This is his fifth year in the Army and his third tour in Iraq. As a newly promoted Staff Sergeant he doesn’t have to walk point. He does so because his troopers respect him for it and his troops are his friends.
Glancing back to ensure the formation is in position; he nods at the new second Lieutenant, ignoring his eye rolling radioman. The radioman is David Jerla and Josh Asher has known him since basic. The officer uses hand signals to ask what the problem is.
The problem is…Josh doesn’t really know. Everything looks ok, but he’s got an uneasy feeling he can’t pin down and he isn’t about to ignore it. Turning back to the front, he slowly scans left to right checking angles and rooftops.
What is it?
The people seem unafraid; that’s usually a good sign.
Traffic? No. Shops? No.….Damn!
Josh is still mulling it over when a low voice behind him asks.
“What is it Sergeant?”
Suppressing the urge to sigh or turn around Josh answers levelly.
“I’m not sure sir. Just..a feeling.”
Josh gives the unseasoned officer credit, he thinks before answering.
“I respect that. But we’re exposed here.”
Frustrated at his inability to confirm his suspicions Josh replies.
“Hold’em here while I check this out LT.”
Josh and David make eye contact and as usual David smiles, whispering.
“Bring me back an ice cream!”
Grunting in response Josh says.
The pair turn heading back to the main group. Weapon at the ready, Josh moves forward. Two steps. Four. A young girl ten feet away; bolts into the street running straight at him. His rifle automatically tracks the motion his finger on the trigger. Faster than rational thought he perceives a number of things.
First, the tears streaking down the terrified face. Secondly, the crimson color of the blood coming from her lower lip. Last…the snippet of wire visible beneath her baggy shirt.
There is only instinct and experience. He drops the rifle so that it dangles by the sling and picks up the child, pulling her tightly to his chest before she can run past him. He is in the process of sinking to his knees when the bomb detonates obliterating man and child in an instant…
A squad member yells.
David spins looking for targets and see’s his friend intercepting a black haired girl. The next instant the world brightens and a hot wind knocks him to the ground. Rough hands grab his harness dragging him backwards.
“Why can’t I SEE?”
Far away David hears voices screaming. He doesn’t realize until much later than one of them was his own.
Halfway around the world a mother sits up suddenly startled awake, gasping aloud.
Claire Asher blinks, her heart thudding in her chest. The unsettling feeling slowly passes.
Just a dream… go back to sleep.
The morning television program murmurs in the back ground as Claire and her husband ready themselves for work.
“Angie! Get your butt down here, you’re going to be late!” Claire shouts at the ceiling. Her youngest is thirteen and compared to her two older brothers a dedicated challenge.
Silence from above. Frustrated, she yells for her husband.
“Mark! A little help here!”
Heavy footfalls echo upstairs followed by a muted grumbling and a clear indignant,
“OK!” from her daughter. More mutterings as her husband tromps down the stairs.
Handing him a mug of coffee, he sighs.
Before they can continue the morning ritual the doorbell rings. Glancing at each other and the kitchen clock, Mark shrugs.
Claire kisses her husband on the nose in passing.
Looking thru the etched door glass, Claire can make out an indistinct pair of uniforms. Mouth suddenly dry, she opens the door slightly, clearing reading the somber expressions of the young soldiers standing there.
“Can I help you?” she asks remembering the dread of a few days ago. Her husband has come to stand behind her.
“Mr. and Mrs. Asher. We regret to inform you that your son, Joshua Asher, was killed in action in the Kandahar providence of Iraq on October the 12th…”
The young man continues respectfully, but Claire’s sobs drown out his words. She’s fallen back into the arms of her husband. They sink to the floor together each racked with grief and shock. The young officer, teary eyed, kneels in front of them clasping a hand to the grieving parents shoulders. He chokes out.
“I’m very sorry for your loss.”
The tight-lipped senior NCO accompanying him, hands a packet to the rising man who accepts it and passes it gently to the father.
“There’s information in here sir, contacts for the DOD and my number if I can answer any questions.”
Mark nods, numbly. He extends his hand to the obviously distraught young men. Claire still clings to his chest, engulfed by her sorrow.
“Thank you for coming.” He says simply. Grasping each hand firmly. The pair of soldiers brace to attention, saluting sharply and holding it for a full three seconds tears running unashamedly down their faces.
They say in unison. Snapping their arms down, they abruptly turn and walk, stiff- backed to their vehicle. Mark knows they are paying him a heart-felt courtesy, honoring his son.
Angie bounces down the stairs, I-pod blaring in her earphones. Passing the front hallway, she’s startled to see both her parents crumpled together in the doorway. Skidding to a halt she pulls the earpieces out and hears the painful sobs of her mother. Hurrying down the hall, she knows something terrible has happened.
Her parent’s heads turn, their features struggling to regain composer. Falling to her knees beside them, they tell her about the death of her oldest brother, the trio rock in agony together.
David stares out the window of the Walter Reed facility in Maryland. The low level ache from his missing left eye is inconsequential to the guilt and depression gnawing at him.
Why me? I shouldn’t be here! Josh..Damn it all to hell!
Thanksgiving is only days away and the rest of his unit is rotating home soon...Home for Christmas, it’s a rarity for front line units.
Like it matters now!
Angry with himself and for the way he feels, David steps away from the window,
Discharged tomorrow..NOW what the hell am I supposed to do?
The funeral and service for Josh had been difficult. They hadn’t even had the option of an open casket. The Army had awarded him a medal. The Distinguished Service Cross, posthumously. The descriptions of the events for its award had made her both proud and sad. Her son had become a man she really didn’t know very well. And now she never would.
The folded flag and the medal were encased in glass on the mantel.
Mark’s way of coping.
Claire hated the damn things. They were a constant reminder of what she’d lost. She put them in the closet each day he left for work and set them back up before he returned. Her way is in sticking to tradition.
The table is set with the usual trimmings and her family and relatives are trying hard to act normally. Josh had been deployed the last two years during the holidays. This was to have been his first Christmas home in four years.
Claire lies across her bed, face buried in her pillow, weeping softly. Mark enters the room and eases himself down next to her running his hand through her hair. Claire rolls over, wrapping her arms around him.
“I was wrong! I can’t do this! Not when the one I want to see will never…”she break’s off sobbing.
“Shhh. It’s ok. We don’t have to have a big gathering. Christmas will just be us… and the kids, OK?”
Mark holds his wife, murmuring into her ear softly. He doesn’t expect the next holiday to be any easier.
David gathers his dress coat tighter around him in the frigid December weather. Snow is falling and he has two stops to make on his ten plus hour journey to Burlington Vermont. Christmas is two days away and he has one last mission to complete. The flight he had originally planned is indefinitely delayed. Weather be damned, he won’t let it stop him. Getting into the rented four-wheel dive Cherokee, he turns the heater on high and eases into traffic.
Angie and Claire sit together on the couch, Mother holding her daughter, watching the sun set outside the window, snow falling steadily and building gradually towards a storm. The Christmas lights blink merrily on the tree in the corner, presents wrapped and stockings hung.
I managed that much at least…Angie has had to help so much lately!
Mark and her middle son Eric are clumping around in the garage. Stacking firewood.
Cancelled his plans with his collage friends for me. Or maybe he needs to be with us too?
She’s tired. They all are. Emotionally drained and unsure of the future; it doesn’t feel like any Christmas she can remember. Claire doubts any of them ever will again.
“I love you Mom.” Angie says softly.
Kissing the top of her head, Claire chokes back tears, whispering.
“I do you too baby.”
Outside the snow continues to fall. Beautiful and uncaring.
David stares intently out the window, wipers on high as they plod along at a snails pace. What should have taken ten hours has now doubled and they’re only half way there.
“SHIT!” he says, pounding the wheel.
“You need to let me drive!” proclaims Hector from the back seat.
“Didn’t you grow up in Florida?” Sam asks, turning his huge bulk around.
“Yeah…but…” Hector begins to object.
“Then suck rocks! I ain’t given you the wheel in this shit!” David proclaims.
The debate becomes more heated until Sam whistles loudly.
“You dudes gotta chill! I grew up in New York. I’ll drive a while, OK?”
Both of his teammates grumble their consent and David gratefully finds a place to pull over. Running around the front of the vehicle, the two men swap places. Sam ratchet’s the seat fully back to get under the steering wheel.
“Every-things built for midgets!” He mumbles.
Moving again, David slumps in his seat closing his eye. It’s good to be back with his teammates.
We’re coming brother…we’re coming.
Mark’s eyes open before dawn; they often do lately. Quietly easing himself from their bed, he heads downstairs to make coffee and start a fire. He reflects that in past years, he’d sneak down early to set out the unwrapped Santa gifts for each of his children. A ghost of a smile crosses his lips, fond memories of squealing youngsters racing down the steps replaying in his minds eye.
If we could only keep them there…and safe.
Paused at the foot of the stairs, he stares; caught in the twinkling tree lights, at the mantel display.
I miss you son…
Sighing loudly, he continues toward the darkened kitchen. The promise of coffee beckons his weary mind.
David slows in response to the GPS directions. The snowfall had ended a few hours before, leaving the countryside covered in four inches of fresh snow.
Thirty-seven hours! Sigh…I so screwed the pooch on this one!
The newly risen sun glistens on every surface, sparkles of light shining like diamonds as far as they can see. The occupants silently watch the GPS tick down the last remaining mile of their journey.
The usual festivities of the morning are muted, feeling forced. The Asher’s have opened their gifts and raided the stockings. A ritual that normally required much fanfare and silliness, this morning was done with the efficiency of IRS accountants.
Sitting together, sipping coffee and chocolate, they half-heartedly debate a breakfast menu that none are really in the mood for. Preparing to go to the kitchen, Claire is the first to notice the strange vehicle pulling onto the driveway.
It’s covered in salt and road grime, making identifying the occupants impossible. Squinting towards the window, she turns a puzzled expression to her husband. Mark leans forward, noting the out of state plates he raises a questioning eyebrow to his son.
“Anyone you know Eric?”
Shaking his head negatively, he replies.
“Nope. Most likely lost tourist.”
Angie plops down on the floor in front of her father.
“Hey, they’re getting out.”
The passenger door opens and a colossal black man unfolds himself from the vehicle, stretching and grimacing in discomfort. In stark contrast, from the rear door a much smaller Hispanic man exits, shielding his eyes from the glaring sun.
The driver steps out last, haggard looking, with a large black eye-patch covering his left eye. All three men are dressed in rumpled dress uniforms and stand gazing at the front door, unaware that they’re being observed.
Reaching back into the rear of the vehicle, Hector retrieves a brightly decorated package and the trio start towards the porch, each man tugging their uniforms and adjusting the dark berets into position.
The Asher family bunches up at the door, each burning with curiosity. Claire leads the tiny procession, opening the door as the young men step onto the porch, stomping their boots to knock of the snow.
“Can we help you?” she asks. A part of her fears the answer.
Can they not know about Josh? They all look so tired…
Heads coming up in unison, the man with the eye patch answers politely.
“Yes Ma’am. We’re sorry to interrupt your morning, we meant to be here yesterday but the weather slowed us down a bit. We all served with your son Mrs. Asher, I’m David and this is Hector and Sam.” David points at each man, who in turn, nods nervously, mumbling.
Before he can continue, Claire opens the door wide inviting them in saying.
“Please, come in! It’s freezing out here.”
Mark grasps each man’s hand as they enter the door, introducing himself, Angie and Eric. Telling them.
“Don’t worry about the boots gentlemen, we’re used to it around here.”
Obviously uncomfortable, the young men stand near the entrance after the door closes surveying the decorated living room. Eric notices that all their eyes are drawn to the display on the mantel. David meets each family members eye before continuing.
“Thank you all. We won’t stay long. I know you’re all wondering why we’re here. We’ve spent some time gathering some of Josh’s things that the Army didn’t know he had. We thought you should have them.”
Hector steps forward with the wrapped box and hands it to Angie, smiling.
“Merry Christmas. I kindia got carried away with the tape. Sorry.”
Claire struggles to maintain her composer. She takes David’s hand, telling them all softly.
“The least we can do for all of you is to get you some coffee, chocolate if you prefer. Please. Come in and have a seat. Are you hungry? We were about to start breakfast.”
The young men stutter denials and shuffle their feet, not wanting to hinder the family’s time together. David finally relents saying.
“Coffee would be fine Ma’am. We’re not hungry…”
Sam’s stomach growls loudly, making everyone stop and look at the mortified man.
Grinning and squeezing the man’s shoulder, Mark chuckles, saying.
“I think that settles that! I hope you all don’t mind getting drafted into some K.P. duty, my wife says nobody eats for free!”
The soldiers smile at one another, Hector quipping deadpan.
“OK Mr. Asher, but we might have to go out back and do some hunting…you’ve never seen Sam eat!”
Sam rolls his eyes, making Eric and Angie snicker. Poking his sister, he tells them.
“C’mon guys. Dad’s only half kidding,” Claire playfully swats his shoulder. “I’ll show you where the cups are.”
Entering the large kitchen, Claire seats her guest at the bar style table while Angie and Eric set cups of hot beverages in front of them. Gathering items to be prepared, Mark sets each on the island while Claire bangs pots and pans into position on the stove. With quick efficiency, Claire assigns task to everyone in attendance and the horse-trading begins in earnest. The Asher parents are amused at how quickly the three young men adapt to the family tradition. Sam tells Angie shrewdly.
“I don’t know…peeling potatoes and grating them seems like an awful lot of work compared to mixing eggs and chopping a few vegetables.”
She replies indignant.
“It’s the onions that make it rough! I’m doing you a favor cause you’re a guest!”
Chuckling, Sam relents saying.
“OK. It being Christmas and all, I’ll take your word for it.”
Picking up the large bowl with the carton of eggs and omelet fixings, Angie walks behind the seated soldiers, mouthing a silent “YES!” and pumping her arm in victory over the trade. David looks down the length of the short counter to his teammate and says loudly.
Glaring menacingly at his teammate, Sam growls.
“Mind yo business, pancake mixer!”
Hector who has been given the task of helping Eric set the table howls in delight, snickering under his breath.
“Dish monkey!” David retorts.
Eric guffaws. Poking his sister, he snorts.
“GROSS” Angie yell’s punching his arm.
Mark is doubled over in laughter, as are the younger men in attendance. Claire, smiling herself, steps in saying.
“Alright boys, less yickity-yack, more working! Slapping her snorting husband on the rear, she turns her attention back to the stove.
I would have never dreamed we could all laugh again…
Finishing the meal, the group returns to the living room; each more comfortable with each other. The soldiers had shared some of their stories with the family at breakfast. Carrying the wrapped package back into the living room, the family sits together on the sofa and David and his friends cluster around in chairs facing them. David says.
“I know I speak for all of us when I say that was the best meal any of us has had in a long time. Thank you all.”
The family smiles as David continues.
“We never intended to stay this morning. As we told you, we just wanted to deliver this and pay our respects. Through Josh, we all felt like we already knew you and each of you welcomed us and made us feel at home.” David’s voice is quiet and becoming emotional. He finishes,
“Thank you. I…we, don’t want to overstay that welcome.”
Starting to rise, the family stands as a whole and asks them to stay. Angie saying.
“You have to at least watch me open your present!”
Exchanging glances with Sam and Hector, David nods his acceptance. Sitting down, Angie unwraps the box, opening the lid and taking out the contents. There are several large photographs of her brother and his fellow soldiers. She looks longingly at each before passing them to her waiting brother and parents. There is a small hard drive and a DVD disc, which she removes and holds in her hands looking at Sam questioningly. His deep baritone is hushed in reply.
“The drive is full of pictures and video clips of our deployments that we gathered from everyone we could find that had ever served with Josh. Some of the images are grainy and most of the clips are just passing shots and general stuff.” He takes a deep breath and continues.
“The DVD is a compilation of the best clips and pictures and a clip that Josh made just for all of you.”
The surprise is evident on the family’s expressions. Hector says.
“Josh made it for Thanksgiving to send to you. We were all kindia in it…”Hector blushes, clearing his throat. “Horsing around before he threw us out. The Army didn’t send it, because it was on my camera. Josh was going to edit our messing around out…but…” Hectors eyes fill with tears and he shrugs, sniffing. “David thought you should have it anyway. That it was the right thing…”
Each member of the Asher family has tears streaking their faces. Claire wipes her eyes and takes the disc from Angie, rising from the couch and kneeling in front of the soldiers, she asks.
“Can you watch this with us?”
David nods in response, his lips pressed tightly together. Claire hands the disc to Mark and after starting it in the player, he reclaims his seat next to his wife. The picture comes up, Josh’s tanned face filling the screen as he backs away from the camera, sitting on a cot in what appears to be a large, cluttered tent. He’s dressed in a sweat stained t-shirt and grins broadly at the screen saying.
“Hi guys! Welcome to the exotic Middle East! As you can see, our Uncle Sam spares no expense in our lavish accommodations!” Smirking at his own joke, Josh continues.
“I wanted to take a minute to tell you all that I’m fine and that I’m excited about seeing you all soon…” In the background, David strolls in wrapped in a towel. Seeing the camera, he starts waving and hula dancing. Josh turns around, mumbling.
“My Mother is going to see this! Get out’a here!” Grinning, David exits the frame. Turning back around Josh tries again.
“Sorry. Anyway, what I was saying is; I’m gonna really miss not getting to eat turkey with you…”
Hector enters the background, making faces and yelling.
David returns, dirty dancing and laughing loudly. Josh turns around annoyed, yelling for Sam.
“Sam! Throw them both out!” Sam rushes into the video, picking up a startled and loudly protesting Hector and pointing at the still gyrating David, he booms out.
“STOP all that HOMO shit you pervert!”
Sighing loudly, Josh turns back to the camera, leaning in for the switch saying.
“Guess I’ll do this later.”
An instant later his image returns and in it he’s cleaned and in a lighted office space, sitting on a desk facing the camera. He chuckles to himself and says.
“Hey Mom and Dad. I’ll tell you what was so funny, when I see ya at Christmas. I just wanted to tell you all that, I’m ok. I miss you all. A lot. I can’t really explain it…but I wanted to tell you so that you’d know and so you wouldn’t worry so much.
I’m in a place that’s hard sometimes, but I’m here with an amazing group of people. Its kindia like having a family.” Josh smiles again.
“A really dysfunctional one..But family. Please don’t believe all that crap in the news. Most of the people over here want our help. It’s important. What gets me though is knowing that no matter what…each of you is always with me. Its weird…I hear Dad’s voice, telling me stuff when I was a kid. Mom encouraging me…Eric and Angie, us helping each other and picking on each other. All that stuff…it makes me a better soldier. And a better person.”
He pauses and shakes his head; looking at the floor, then back to the camera.
“Wow. What I guess that means is if all of you are with me..then a part of me is always with you. No matter where I am, or how far away, that will always be true. I love you guys. Have a great Thanksgiving and I’ll be seeing you soon.”
The picture fades to black and pauses with a menu showing various labeled sections.
Claire and Mark hold each other weeping, as do Eric and Angie. David’s head hangs between his knees and Hector and Sam have tears running freely down their face. Jerking to his feet, David tells the family.
“I’m sorry. I should’ve edited the goofy parts out. We should go.”
Claire stands, Mark and their children following and embraces David, squeezing him tightly. Angie hugs Sam and Eric and Mark take turns hugging each man in turn. Claire’s voice is broken, but she manages to get David and the others to sit back down. Kneeling in front of the anguished man, she tells David.
“How can you think such a thing? You.. all of you have given us something I thought was impossible! You gave us back our son! I get to know him..say goodbye to him…” Her voice breaks again and she hugs each man.
Many hours later, after watching the clips and telling the stories that accompany them, they stand together in the dwindling light, long shadows falling across the unbroken snow. The marker is a simple one. Each soldier has knelt, whispering private words of goodbye. They have all cried, laughed and shared together. Where there was once a hollow emptiness, there is now tempered warmth filled with remembrance and hope.
© James John Hellvig 4-24-2103. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author and/or BigWorldNetwork is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to James Hellvig and BWN with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.