The last day of Sanborn's tour was as scorching and sand-blown as any other. He spent it saying goodbye to the men in his unit, and running through enough prayers to rival the flowers in his grandma's church-hat that he wouldn't get called out for bomb duty one last time. He didn't need that jinx.
Instead, he made it out safely, the transport riding over broken roads all the way to the airport, and the plane lifting off and soaring skyward through the long half hour to the demilitarized zone. Only then did he let the thought escape: I am never going back there again.
When the last plane brought him home, he kneeled on the tarmac and kissed the ground. It was over, the whole deadly nightmare finally behind him. He'd survived—both the war and SSG William James. The first was luck. The second was some kind of goddamned miracle.
Sanborn went back to the work of living. He got a job managing a Home Depot and met a girl named Shonelle while volunteering for his church. The girl was gentle and as pretty as her name, and she made Sanborn feel peaceful when the world got too loud. They were married in April and expecting by August, and it all felt so right.
"Are we ready for this, JT?" Shonelle asked. "It's happening so fast."
"This is everything I ever wanted," he said, and he meant it. His very own family, with first words and steps and new experiences around the corner, was exactly what he needed to be certain he was actually alive. He could gather them close and fill the emptiness left by all he'd seen and done to make the world a safer place. There were times he'd been afraid he might never have the chance.
A year later, Sanborn got the news. He was bouncing his baby girl on his knee and listening to her laugh, thinking how foolish he'd been to get so worked up over the idea of a son. He'd never seen anything more wonderful than the sweet-smelling, chubby little girl right there in front of him, unless it was her Mama.
"The phone's for you, honey," Shonelle said. "I don't recognize the voice…"
They went to the funeral, of course. A full day's drive and too much time to punish himself with questions like whether liking someone you didn't trust and were mad at most of the time still counted as friendship. He and James hadn't contacted each other but once after Sanborn went Stateside. He'd heard James had re-upped (crazy motherfucker), and now he was just glad the man had gone down on somebody else's watch. With James it was never if, only when, and Sanborn would never understand what drove him to be that way. It made him tired just thinking about it again.
He wondered how it happened--whether James had even been wearing the protection suit—and whether there'd been anything left of him to ship home apart from the box he'd always kept under the bed.
Eldridge wasn't at the funeral, but that was no surprise. It was just Sanborn and Shonelle, James' wife and family, and people James had probably known in high school. They all stood by the graveside with the sun beating down so hard that Sanborn could almost feel the scrape of sand at the back of his neck, like he was back in the desert just trying to make it to the other side of one more day. James' widow seemed more resigned than anything, and Sanborn realized James had abandoned her long before he died. With a beautiful wife and son waiting for him at home, James had still been too fucked-up to put their future first.
Sanborn spoke to her afterward, offered whatever help she needed. He couldn't give her the comfort of kind remembrances, couldn't even tell her that Will James was the bravest man he'd ever known. Bravery on the battlefield would never make up for lacking the courage to come to terms with living as an ordinary man.
On the long trip home, Sanborn drove with one hand on the wheel and the other wrapped around his wife's fingers, the touch of her skin keeping him tethered to the present. He'd never forget his time in Iraq, never silence the nightmares or lay the ghosts of fear and desperation to rest. But he'd already chosen to surround himself with what he wanted instead of what he couldn't change.
He drove on through the night, Shonelle sleeping there beside him and a baby girl with her Mama's brown eyes waiting for him at home.
He couldn't get there soon enough.
-------- fin --------