"Excuse me, sir?"
The voice came from far off, yet extremely close. He tried to focus, to see the speaker.
A slender hand gently shook his shoulder.
He sleepily looked around, finally bringing his unconscious conscious, and gazed into the bright blue eyes of the flight attendant.
"I'm sorry. I must have dozed off."
She smiled. "You certainly did. You've been asleep almost the entire flight. I didn't want to wake you earlier, but we're going to be starting our final descent and I wondered if you wanted anything to eat or drink before we start stowing everything."
He thought a minute, still groggy from a blessedly dreamless sleep. "Yes, please. Maybe some ginger ale."
"I'll be right back."
1st Lieutenant Raymond Chapman shifted in his seat, using his arms for leverage. He rubbed his hand over his close-cropped blonde hair and stretched, as much as the airline seat would allow, his six foot four frame. He opened the small blind to the window to his right and looked out on the checkerboard of farmland below. He felt the change in the plane's speed and a slight drop as the pilot prepared for final descent.
"Here you go," the flight attendant returned with his drink. "We'll be landing in about twenty minutes. I'll keep your crutches until we're taxiing to the terminal. We'd like to have you deplane first so you don't have to deal with the crunch of the crowd. I'll keep you posted."
They had bumped him to first class on this connecting flight from St. Louis. The flight attendants had treated him like royalty. He couldn't discern if it was appreciation for his service, simply doing their jobs, or pity. At this point, it didn't really matter to him. There was only one response that truly mattered to him now.
"We can't be late, Daddy, we just can't! I have to be there when he gets off the plane!"
Her father smiled at his youngest daughter who, at twenty-eight, still called him "Daddy."
"Jill, honey, Dad will drop us off at the curb and then he'll park the car. We'll be on time." True to her mother's word, they closed the doors to the car and dashed into the terminal.
And began to wait.
As the plane angled lower and lower to the ground, he wondered what he would find at the airport. He had been through three airports since he'd been stateside. Some passersby stared. Many simply walked on, unaware of his—or anyone else's—presence. Dressed in his uniform, he'd even received a smattering of applause in St. Louis. There were also the looks of pity.
All of that was expected and the lieutenant could deal with it. It was the others that bothered him. Sneers he received from a handful of travelers who resented him as a representation of a war they did not condone. He wanted to scream at them that he hadn't chosen this course of action! He had enlisted as a kid, right out of high school, to get an education. There was no war then. There wasn't even a skirmish. There was even a different President when he made the choice to join the military—even when he reenlisted. He had been swept into this position as had thousands and thousands of others—with no say in it, no control.
He felt the anger rise as his teeth clenched and ground together. His jaw ached and he realized he had been holding this anger for quite some time.
It had started in the evac hospital...three months ago.
He closed his eyes and made a conscious attempt to relax. Before he could even conjure the images that brought him peace, the plane's tires chirped on the tarmac and soon they were taxiing toward the gate.
"What is taking so long?" she asked impatiently, to no one in particular.
"We're early, Jill. I don't think he's probably even landed yet. Do you want me to go check the monitor?"
"He'll be here, dear. He's come this far, we've waited this long, we can be patient for another few minutes." Her mother softly stroked her arm.
Jill sighed. She'd spent the last four years waiting. Ray had been deployed even before a formal action had been declared. He'd served that tour, was home on leave for a month, and was shipped out again—this time closer to the action. He had been promised a stateside tour next. But after his next furlough, he had been sent back to the front for a third term. Each successive tour was closer and closer to the fighting.
This time her fears had been realized.
And she became good at waiting.
First they had waited just to hear from him. Correspondence, even e-mail, was not nearly as frequent because of where he was stationed—right in the heart of combat. She would sometimes wait several weeks for word from him and it was usually brief. But she knew he was OK.
Then one day she got the call from his commanding officer—the one that sucked the breath from her lungs and the spirit from her heart. He was alive, but being airlifted to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. And she waited again—for word of his condition and prognosis, for the sound of his voice, anything reassuring her that her life had not crumbled around her.
She'd twisted her hands until they were sore, waiting for confirmation of his recovery and then his orders home. She tried to sleep but was only aware of the cold side of the bed and the sopping wet pillow.
And still she waited.
"I'm just sick and tired of waiting!" she blurted to the airport throng.
He gratefully sank onto the bench at the end of the underground train bound for the airport terminal. His armpits, shoulders and forearms ached from his hobble on crutches from the very last gate at the end of the concourse, down the escalator to the shuttle terminal, and finally into the train. He had refused the airline's offer of assistance via the electric cart. He'd been through a hell of a lot worse, and he didn't want anyone's sympathy.
He gazed down at the pant leg of his sharply pressed uniform, held up in a folded position by a safety pin, to keep the empty fabric from flapping. He'd eventually have a prosthesis, but until the stub was completely healed, he couldn't be fitted for one.
He reached to scratch his ankle—and then remembered it wasn't there. Phantom feeling, the surgeon had called it. Thinking you feel something that isn't there anymore.
Is that what he was coming home to? Phantom feelings from her?
She paced back and forth at the top of the escalator that would soon spew forth passengers from the shuttle train. She kept as close to the security barrier as she could, watching each swell of passengers intently for his face. Twice she thought she saw him, but each time it was just another soldier in his Class A's.
She sighed heavily, absently rubbing her protruding belly, wondering if he had changed so much he could no longer love her.
A small boy, maybe four or five, with curly red hair, entered the train car and wiggled through the sea of legs toward the end of the car. It was his favorite spot. He could look out the wide expanse of window and watch the tracks being swallowed before him. Occasionally he would catch a glimpse of another train headed in the opposite direction as they passed cut-throughs to another tunnel. He loved the airport! First the baggage belts, then the train, then all the planes. Then coming home, you did it all in reverse.
He stopped short just as he came to the seating area of this car. A soldier sat quietly looking out the window at the grey concrete wall. The boy slowly climbed up on the carpeted bench and slid to the opposite corner of the seat, his short legs extended in front of him, not reaching the edge of the seat. His tiny Converse sneakers rocked back and forth on their heels, his eyes never leaving the soldier. His attention was completely derailed from the disappearing tracks.
"Are you a real soldier?"
"Yes, I am," replied the lieutenant.
"What's your name?"
"Ray. What's yours?"
"Pleased to meet you, Ryan."
"Where's your leg?" he asked gesturing at the folded pant leg.
"Ryan!" A dark haired, petite woman blurted out. "I'm so sorry," she said, her faced twisted in an expression of shock and flushed with embarrassment.
Ray pulled his hat off his head, wiped his forehead with the back of his opposite hand, and then reset his beret.
He shrugged. "That's OK," he said to Ryan's mother. "It's a legitimate question from a curious little boy." Unlike Ryan, she looked tired. To her the trip itself was probably a chore but to Ryan it would be an adventure. Every minute provided new things to explore, new people to meet.
"We've flown three separate flights—one international and two since we've been back in the U.S. We still have one to go. We're changing planes here. We're pretty worn out. He's usually very polite."
Ryan looked anything but worn out. He had crawled closer and was lightly fingering the silver bar on Ray's sleeve.
Ray smiled at the exhausted woman. "You're probably more worn out than he is. And he's not impolite at all. He's just inquisitive."
Ryan sighed in impatience at these two adults who were avoiding the interesting things they could be talking about.
"So what happened to it?"
"What? Oh, my leg. I, uh, I..." Ray stammered, not afraid to talk about it, just not sure how much detail Ryan's mother would appreciate her son receiving. "I got hurt."
"In the war?"
"Yes. In the war."
"Did someone shoot at you?"
"Did they shoot your leg?"
"Something like that."
Ryan snuggled up close to Ray and gave him an enthusiastic hug. Ray, feeling awkward but moved nonetheless, tentatively put his arm around the small boy.
"Ryan, we have to get off here to catch our next flight."
He scooted off Ray's lap and put his chubby little hand in his mother's neatly manicured one.
"Bye, Ray," he grinned as they headed for the door. Just as the tide ebbed through the doorway into the concourse train station, he turned and flashed a smile. "Sorry 'bout your leg."
Ray waved back. The door closed. He returned to studying the concrete walls of the train tunnel.
The baby kicked and poked trying to find a comfortable position—none of which were comfortable to Jill. She placed both hands on the underside of her large abdomen, supporting the ever increasing weight.
That was something else she'd had to wait for. Wait to get married, wait for his next station, wait to move, wait to try to have a baby, and wait and wait and wait. Finally the timing was right. He was promised the stateside assignment. They got pregnant immediately.
Then he was shipped out overseas.
He missed the ultrasound. He missed hearing the heart beat. He missed feeling the baby move, the poking little body parts that interrupted the smooth surface of her belly. He'd missed it all.
And she missed him.
She sighed and began to pace again.
As the train pulled away from the stop at the concourse, he thought of little Ryan's questions.
Did someone shoot at you?
How could he begin to explain to an innocent boy the things he had witnessed? His final patrol played in his mind like a looping movie. Silently walking along the dusty road. Intently listening, ears trained to ignore the soft shuffle of the boots around him, probing instead to what might be there, anything out of the ordinary that might constitute a threat. His shoulders tight with tension, body quivering like a taut violin string. Moving hesitantly with hair trigger fright.
Yes, he was afraid. Afraid for himself and for his men. Afraid of death, tragedy, torture, destruction. Waiting for something to break the tension, the anticipation, like riding through the haunted house, knowing something was going to jump out and startle you, coming from an unanticipated direction.
But if something jumped out here, it would not be a mechanical ghoul that would pump the adrenaline and then disappear.
Entering the village, the sense of terror mounted. It was quiet. Deathly quiet. No sounds of humanity, life being lived. Yet there was a sense of impending evil, palpable in the thick, hot air. It was too quiet.
As if from nowhere, a small dark haired boy appeared in the center of the dirt road that ran through the middle of the village. He smiled at the soldiers, the toothless grin of a seven or eight year old. The tension in the men dropped for a fraction of a second. Then the innocent boy pulled the pin on the grenade and rolled it underhand amidst their legs. He wiggled his fingers in a childlike wave and disappeared.
The explosion rocked Ray, throwing him against the wall of one of the village hovels. Suddenly they were under heavy fire, seeming to come from all directions at once. He quickly surveyed his men. Four down, the rest scattered, diving for cover. He ducked into the open doorway beside him and returned fire as best he could, not knowing where the snipers were firing from. One of his injured privates in the middle of the street moved and groaned. My God, he's still alive!
Without another thought he ran to the center of the dirt road, grabbed the bloody, semi-conscious man, dragging him back to the relative safety of the deserted home. Responding purely on adrenaline and not a lot of brain cells, he dashed out to retrieve another of his men. And another, and finally the fourth. On his last foray into the street, he thought to himself, "I'm as stupid as Forrest Gump."
On the final return, just yards from the safety of the doorway, a flash and impact smashed the earth in front of him. Dirt flew in his eyes, stinging his face. His body rose up as if flying and cartwheeled through the air, completely across the road, slamming into the wall of the opposite hovel. His last image was a clear blue sky through a filter of smoke and the acrid smell of gunpowder.
These were the images that now haunted his days and nights. Burning flesh, bloody wounds, the sounds of young men crying in pain, crying for their mothers. Panic, confusion, chaos.
He thought again of Ryan. And he thought of Jill. Could she still love him with his wounds, both internal and external?
He carefully stepped out of the shuttle train and headed for the escalator. Two more sets of moving stairs. He was suddenly slammed with a horrible thought—what if she wasn't even there to meet him?!
It was too late to entertain that notion now. He hopped onto the step of the escalator, nearly losing his center of gravity, but steadied himself almost instantly. He noticed, however, the man behind him with his arm out just in case. They smiled at each other.
Second escalator. Foot by foot he rose to the waiting area in the terminal. First the ceiling came into view. Then the upper level with the food court and tourist shops, then the heads of the waiting crowd. He scanned faces, but then had to focus his entire attention on the moving staircase as it came to the top so he didn't fall face first onto the smooth floor. He readjusted his crutches, straightened up to full military posture as best he could and turned to face the mass of people waiting for loved ones.
Although the airport was a constant motion of humanity, only one face registered with him. The piercing green eyes set beneath a worried frown. The familiar slight wrinkle of her nose. The way she chewed on the right corner of her mouth when she was anxious. She'd cut her hair. It suited her—short, casual, easy to take care of.
She was beautiful.
Her eyes were scanning the crowd, impatiently waiting and searching. Their eyes found each other like a radar lock and the creases of tension washed away from her face to reveal a brilliant smile, complete with dimples, adorned with rapidly falling tears.
He faltered and stumbled across the moving mass, finally hopping on his one remaining leg the last ten feet. Dropping both his crutches and military bearing, he again became just Ray—Jill's Ray. He leaned across the security barrier, enfolding his wife as though he would never let her go. In that gesture, he erased the months they had been apart.
She whispered light kisses frantically along every surface of his body she could reach while held in his tight embrace.
"Oh, God, it's you!" Jill said through the tears. She placed both hands on his face and stroked his cheeks, his forehead, his hair. "I can't believe it. I've waited so long. You're actually here."
"Well, most of me," he replied with a glance at his empty pant leg.
Her eyes never left his. "You're here. You're right here. That's all that matters." She brushed away the tears wandering down his cheeks, oblivious to her own. Her finger traced the scar above his right eyebrow and then followed his jaw line to his chin. Her unbroken caresses skimmed across his body, unwilling to release him for fear he would disappear again to unknown places and perils.
He leaned back and gently touched her enlarged stomach. "My God, look at you. You're beautiful."
She giggled. "Look at us." Then she placed his hand in just the right place to feel the elbow or knee or fist that had been annoying her earlier.
"Oh God, it's moving!" He jerked his hand back, then wide-eyed with amazement that new life was here in front of him, taunting the death and horror in his past, he gently caressed her belly again with both hands.
She looked up, drinking in every line, every wrinkle, of his face, his tears, his crooked smile and the tiny divot in his chin.
"Ray, hold me. Hold me tight."
Other travelers passed by with misty eyes and slight smiles, silently cheering for the reunited couple, yet not wanting to stare and intrude on their tiny bit of privacy.
It wouldn't have mattered if people had stopped and stared. Ray and Jill were oblivious to everything around them, even the security fence still between them. They clung to each other as though they were the last rock before the falls. The two young people, each broken in their own ways, melded into one and each became whole.
The chaos of the past years dissolved into the past, something remembered but not in their present. Part of their history, but not their future. Something you'll feel, but isn't there anymore.
A phantom feeling.