“I was about to start looking when I got your call.”
“I won’t ask. I know how you work. You should never have left, Frank. You’re good. We could use more men like you.”
“I can’t go back into that hell, Arnold. I don’t have it in me anymore. There’s part of me that knows if I went back, it would be the death of me.” Just like my grandfather.
“There are desk jobs, you know.”
They started walking around the lake, dodging the occasional Canadian Goose pile.
“We need analysts, Frank. Men who can look at a situation and second guess it. You excel at that.”
“Like I did the day Clay died?”
Shay frowned, rubbing his long nose. Frank noticed the scar across the bridge and the bend to the left that gave testimony of a long forgotten break.
“That wasn’t your fault, kid.”
“Whose fault was it? I was in charge. It was my call! If I can’t blame myself,who do I blame?”
Colonel Shay walked in silence, neatly avoiding a series of goose turds, before answering. “Isn’t that why I’m here?”
“You paint a different picture of the day. I don’t remember getting hurt. I don’t remember being in that helicopter. I only remember Clay dying in my arms.”
“Do you remember taking down a small army on your own?”
Frank’s puzzled expression told Arnold Shay the younger man had no idea what he was talking about. He took a seat in a nearby gazebo. Frank sat next to him, staring out at the fountain in the middle of the small lake. Ducks and geese swam in the calm water, occasionally diving for a fish. The scene was idyllic, placid, the very picture of peace, like something from a Thomas Kinkade painting.
“I remember hearing they’d been attacked. I got in the helicopter and flew to the scene. I found Clay. He was torn up pretty bad. Surrounded by dead bodies—ours and theirs, he died. I held him, waiting for the medics, but there was nothing anyone could do. That’s how I remember that day.”
“You’re partially right. He died in your arms. You waited with him for the medics. . . . But the bodies around him were of men you killed trying to protect him. You were flying air support that day. You saw the explosion and made the pilot fly in low so you could jump out. You picked up weapons, emptying them as you went. You ran through hell like an angel of death, saving lives and taking them. I don’t know if they ever got a head count. I never saw a man fight like you did that day—like you were possessed by the Grim Reaper Himself. . . .”
Shay’s eyes watered. He hated to admit he was bitterly sorry about how it had gone down, but he was also proud of of his younger companion. No one, not even he, had fought with such bravery.
“They tore you up plenty, but you didn’t stop until relief came. By that time, the enemy soldiers were dead, dying or captured. You left them all standing there and went looking for Clay. You damn near died yourself, but you wouldn’t leave him. . . .”
Frank fished in his pocket for a clean linen handkerchief that he always carried. A vestige of another time, it rarely left his pocket, but he was glad he had it. Beside him, Colonel Shay did the same. A slight smile flickered across their faces as they spotted the pieces of cloth. A few moments passed as they blew their noses and pretended they weren’t crying.
“They took you in, put you back together with staples and tape. Even as messed up as you were, you made the rounds of that hospital and spoke to your men. The doctor finally convinced you to go back to bed. He gave you a shot to make you sleep. When they went in to check on you a few hours later, you were gone.”
“And didn’t show up for three days.”
“I want Marka to hypnotize you.”
“She’s trained. She’s done past life regressions, hypnotherapy, hell, I don’t even know what all. That girl’s a genius, you know. She’s got more letters after her name than I can count.”
Frank laughed sardonically. “Pity she ended up with a dumb grunt like me.”
“Dumb?” Shay’s turn to laugh. “Hardly. You’re smarter than you like to let on.”
“Being smart sets you apart,” Frank admitted quietly. “Being average means you can blend.”
Shay laughed louder. “Yeah, you blend all right.” He rolled his eyes. “A peacock among chickens.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Frank stood, putting the handkerchief back in his pocket.
“It means you need to revisit basic camouflage. You blend about as well as the Queen Mary.”
Frank chuckled. “Thanks?”
“Will you think about it?”
“Letting Marka hypnotize you.”
Frank looked away, shaking his head. “I don’t know if I can. What if. . . .”
“What if you don’t remember? That’s okay, Frank. . . .”
“No. What if I do? What if it’s me? What if I fucked up, got Clay and all the others killed? What if it’s my mistake? Maybe the reason I blanked all this out is because I fucked up so bad, I got my own brother-in-law killed—made my baby sister a widow before she’s thirty? I’m not man enough for that, Arnold. I’d fucking kill myself.”
© Dellani Oakes