December 20, 2001
“Aldeen, Hoover, McGarrett, Rutherford, Smithe, Vincent, Yearling. Mail call. On your bunks, gentlemen.”
Steve McGarrett tipped his face into what was now a lukewarm spray, and let the suds of the borrowed shampoo run down his neck. He heard Randy Hoover and Kyle Rutherford, or Hoov and Ruthie as they were often called by the rest of the team, in the next two stalls start discussing the prospects of what their wives might have sent them. They had been afield for more than three weeks; no showers, no food that didn’t come out of an aluminum bag, no bunks, and definitely no mail.
Try as he might, Steve couldn’t imagine what his own mail could be, unless it was another notice from The Pier, the complex where he kept an apartment in Virginia Beach. The last time he received a notice from them was to invite him to join in the neighborhood watch, an action that would have proven just the slightest bit difficult to do since he was in the Philippines when the letter had finally reached him.
One by one, the showers to the left and right of him shut off and the slap of wet feet echoed on the bare cement floor behind him.
“Yo, Steve-o. Let’s go see what kind of loot Aldie’s got his mom to send him.” Steve chuckled as Ryan Vincent’s hand shook the cheap white plastic curtain behind him. The motion had allowed the rings to slide on the uneven rod, leaving a breeze to enter into the narrow cubical.
“Yeah, be right there.”
“You better or you’re going to miss out on dibs.”
Turning once more, Steve looked to the floor of the shower and watched as the water carried the last of the dingy grey suds away. He was half-tempted to re-lather and make certain that the sand and dirt was completely gone, but he knew it would be pointless as the minute he stepped from the showers and headed for the corner of the enormous hanger that they were sharing with a team from naval comms, it would just cling to his skin again. The closest comparison he could make to the feeling of never being clean in his current location was that it felt like swimming through seaweed. The more you tried to free yourself from it, the tighter it would wrap itself around you.
Slapping off the single water knob, he reached for his towel that hung limply over the curtain rod behind him. Steve ruffled it over his close-cropped dark hair a few times before wrapping it around his hips and stepping out of the stall. Slipping slightly in his shower slip-ons, he grasped briefly at the cement wall that separated the showers from the sinks to steady himself.
Steve stared at his reflection in the stainless steel mirror as he set about brushing his teeth. Sharp, calculating blue eyes peered back at him. Maybe the mail was from his dad. It had been known to happen; a letter stating how his sister was or how his high school football team had whooped up on the team from Maui. One thing for sure, he knew it wouldn’t be from Mary. His sister spent no short amount of time calling him a merman with a death wish, a boot-licker or some other juvenile jibe. He loved her, how could he not, but they were just too different to be friends right now.
Rinsing and spitting, Steve pulled the towel from around his waist and wiped at his chin. He should shave, but he needed to borrow a razor first. The constantly blowing sand sucked, but it would be murderously brutal on the raw skin the last worn-down disposable razor in his bag would leave behind.
Turning from the sinks, he reached into his bag on the bench behind him, pulled out the last clean pair of boxers, and stepped into them. He was going to have to make time to get his laundry seen to tomorrow. The team that he was newly assigned to was supposed to be standing down for the next two days for R & R, so if he didn’t get them to the laundry in the morning he would be going out in some gear seriously permeated with funk.
Snapping the elastic band into place along his slender hips, he next pulled on an old worn pair of board shorts and a dark blue tank with the word Navy barely legible across the chest. Stowing the rest of his meager toiletries into the worn black canvas bag that he had gotten his first week at Annapolis, he tucked it down into his duffle and slung the bag over his shoulder.
The door to the latrines burst open as he neared it and a baby-faced solider hurried by, clutching his stomach. Steve stepped back a little to let the man by, catching the closing door with the flat of his hand. Shaking his head at the hurried exclamation to the Almighty that fell out of the soldiers mouth as he rounded into the first available stall, Steve stepped out into the sultry night air.
Leaning back against the warm metal brace that constituted the headboard of his bunk, Steve surveyed the goods that were nestled in the box on his lap. A slim manila envelope, a letter more than likely, that had come with box, lay next to his hip. He flipped down the flap of the box again to read the postmark. New Jersey. It was addressed to “An American Soldier Overseas” in care of the US Armed Services. Steve’s calluses caught along the strings of the packing tape that had been spliced by his small butterfly blade.
Folding the flaps open again, his long fingers started to nudge through the contents. It was if whoever had sent it had called ahead and asked exactly what he had needed. Soap, toothpaste, a new blue toothbrush, a type of razors he had never used before, but also a can of his favorite shaving cream. A pair of new blindingly white socks, yielded a bottle of shampoo and deodorant tucked within their lengths.
There were also a small stack of blank stamped envelopes, pens and pencils, a tightly folded mylar blanket, pocket warmers (neither terribly helpful at his present location, Steve thought idly), A bottle of ibuprofen, cough drops, a notepad, a blank spiral bound journal, a book of crossword puzzles and one of Sudoku. Steve wasn’t much for puzzles, but he knew that Hoover loved them, so he knew that they would get used.
Digging to the bottom of the box were plastic zip bags of beef jerky, trail mix, and candy. There were also five lumpy packages wrapped in wax paper, each practically bulging out of their own plastic bag. The bags were numbered one through five, with the number three having exclamation points after it.
The box, now empty was pushed to the foot of the bed and Steve glanced at all the goodies, both purchased and homemade, that was now covering his lap and bunk and shook his head at the kindness of some stateside stranger. He had heard that patriotism was flourishing back home, rivaling that which had taken place during World War II. Steve was both saddened and proud of the fact. Sad because it took the tragedy of a terroristic act to draw the citizens of one of the greatest nations on earth together, but proud because they had jumped at the opportunity to do so and to stand up for their country.
Glancing again at the generosity of some unknown civilian, Steve ran a hand through his hair and let his arm drop to his side. The crinkling of paper caught his attention and he pulled the tan envelope into his hand. Laying it gently across his thigh, Steve used the edge of his hand to smooth out the wrinkles.
Looking around as the men in his team either talked quietly over their own packages from home or turned their backs to read their letters in private, Steve felt as if he was finally part of the team, it felt good. There had never been a package waiting for him. Well, not one filled to the brim with necessities and what promised to be delightful treats, alike. Sure, his father had mailed him boxes at Christmas time when he was in the academy, but those had been practical, nearly impersonally filled with socks, boxers, and the latest copy of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
This box of necessities. This here. This was different. This was someone showing their patriotism, their appreciation, their love for their fellow man in the only way they could and Steve was grateful for it. And just in time for Christmas, his mind supplied.
He ran a long finger over the cover of the spiral-bound notebook and wished he could shake the senders hand right then. But touching something that they had touched was probably as close as he was going to get.
Picking up the envelope again, Steve carefully unfolded the bent metal tabs and smoothed them flat again. A compact disc, a folded piece of paper, and a postcard welcoming him to “The Garden State”, slid out. Picking up the paper, he unfolded it, flipping the pages over and noticed that it was actually three handwritten pages.
Both front and back, handwritten pages.
Smiling at the precise, smooth lettering, a cross between cursive and printing, Steve flattened the fold and started at the beginning.
November 12, 2001
I am finding it hard to write this, as I really don’t know what to say. So I guess I should start by thanking you, for giving up your loved ones to travel so far away to fight for our great country against a difficult foe. It must be unsettling to be so far from home for the holidays and to be so far away from your family, but please know that as an American, I am grateful for your service. These are frightening times that we are living in.
I have no idea where you are stationed, but I now that it cannot be as comfortable as the safety of your own home, so again I say thank you for your sacrifices and your service.
It seems surreal that we are going to war. I know that may sound strange to you, but it is no stranger than walking out your front door and seeing the plume of smoke and ash that filled the sky on that terrible day in September. War, to me, has always been something so long ago and far away. Stories that were told by my grandpa, of him and his squadron flying out of borrowed hangers in England to fight for freedom in the skies. Or of my Uncle Dennis’ silence about his time in the Marines after he was drafted. But we are at war. It is so hard for one to wrap their mind around that fact.
You know, I hadn’t stepped in a church in nearly ten years (short of attending weddings or funerals), but I joined my family for mass as the smoke choked away the sunset that evening. I prayed that day for the first time in years. I prayed for those that lost their lives. I prayed for the men, women, and children that had lost their spouses, their parents, or their brothers and sisters. I prayed for peace. I hope that that last one comes very soon, so that you may come home –
“Girlfriend?” Nick Taylor asked from his bunk to Steve’s left. He reached across the narrow space between the bunks to filch one of the wax-wrapped bundles.
“No.” Steve replied, slapping at his teammates hand and snatching back the baggy marked with a number four. “Care package from a civilian.”
“Probably a girl. Trying to hook a man. We’re hot commodities, you know?”
“Doesn’t seem like that to me.” Steve scowled at the smirk that creased Taylor’s face. “I think it is a grateful citizen that doesn’t want me to starve over here.”
“I’m sure that was the idea, not to let any of us starve. Share like a good little boy, McGarrett.” Steve watched as Taylor made grabby hands for the treats again, but he merely reached over, grabbed all the numbered bundles, and deposited them back into the box. He nearly got all the candy and other foodstuffs, but Taylor rolled away laughing, with a pack of bite-sized Snickers bars. Steve thought that it was a small price to pay to get rid of him.
He picked up the letter again, smoothing out the few crinkles that found their way onto the paper from the candy-nabbing. He skimmed until he reached where he had left off.
I hope that that last one comes very soon, so that you may come home and be with your friends and family once more.
Steve’s brow furrowed. The last time he had seen any of his family was probably about the last time his mysterious benefactor had stepped into a church.
It was hard that first day, the sounds of sniffs and coughs were only drowned out by the open sobs of grief. My mother goes every morning and lights a candle that you all may return home safely and for all those that were lost. I don’t want you to think that you have been sent a gift from a heathen. I have started attending mass with her. Well, only once a week, but it is a start. It's rather scary. She has such a hard time letting any of us leave to go anywhere without telling us that she loves us and squeezing the daylights out of us. I get it. I do. I love my family so much, but I don't know if I'll ever be so involved in someone else's life to be scared to let them go. My cousin Charlie and some of the people I went to school with, were there, well, we all knew somebody that was there or at least it feels like we do. I try not to stop and think of anything more detailed than the big picture, you know? If I do, it just all seems to heavy and like even the air around me is weighted down.
Did you know that they shut down Broadway? The Great White Way was dark for the first time in decades. And all the TV and film productions were shut down for weeks. I even saw Robert De Niro helping to hand out bottled water to the working crews. It’s kind of humbling to see such a major star just doing what he could to help out. But it’s his home too, I suppose. I wonder if this place will ever feel like ‘home’ again, I’m sure it will, but will I notice?
Wow, I’m getting a bit more reflective than I wanted to and I’m sure that you are facing a lot more issues than late transit buses and an over-protective mother.
It was my mom’s idea to send this package (not that I didn’t do it willingly), but it makes me feel like I am contributing in some small way. I know that what you are doing is so much more important and I just wanted you to know that we back home are so thankful for you and your fellow soldiers.
I heard a fact on the news the other night that made me stop and think. They’re saying that one in three Americans know somebody that was at one of the crash sites or on one of the planes. Do you think that’s true? I really hope not, but when you look at the scope of it all – well, it’s just so overwhelming and terrifying, you know?
I bet you are wondering what the numbers on the baggie’s mean, so I’ll explain. My mom, being a good Irish Catholic mom, cooks and bakes in times of stress. If her family (and the entire neighborhood) is well fed, then she feels like she is doing something. So you can imagine what our kitchen has been like the past few months. There are many times that I join her in her quest to try out new recipes, so the packages that I sent you are some of my favorites that we have made in the past week. (I sent a mix, because I didn’t know what you liked. Obviously. Please pass along those that don’t appeal to you to some other deserving soldier.) I hope they are still edible. I froze them before I mailed them, but I guess I have no idea how long it takes for a package to travel from New Jersey to well, wherever you are.
Steve looked at the packages that were lying in the box that had been relocated back to his lap and smiled. He wasn’t one for sweets really, but he vowed silently to at least try each and every one. He read the numbered list on the page as he touched each of the baggies in turn; chocolate chip, peanut butter, butterscotch oatmeal, peanut brittle, and lemon shortbread.
If you want, you can write back to me for anything else you might need, food or otherwise. Since this is the only way I feel as though I am helping right now, I want to offer to help you and your platoon out. (It is a platoon, right?)
Steve shook his head, knowing full well that the woman . . . it had to be a woman . . . would probably send the moon if he asked for it. Oh, he was going to write a thank you note, just a few lines to tell her that her gift was greatly appreciated, but that he wasn’t interested in anything more.
Oh, I wanted to tell you that the Yankees were in the World Series (you probably already heard). I’m more of a Mets fan, but the Yankees?!?! That’s got to be a good sign, right? They didn’t win, but it was great that a team so close to home made it. It finally gave us here at what they’re calling Ground Zero something to cheer about. And the Patriots are looking really good this year as well. My dad says that they will probably win the Super Bowl, so with both of the Yankees and the Patriots doing so well; it has got to be a good omen. Somebody upstairs is trying to tell the world something. Don’t mess with the Yanks or the Patriots or you’re going to be in a world of hurt.
That last paragraph caused a short chuckle to erupt from deep within Steve’s chest. He looked up to see Rutherford in the bunk across the way staring at him questioningly, but he just waved the letter a little causing Ruthie to grin at him which he returned before flipping to the last page.
Anyway, I just wanted you to know that we all still care back here at home. I still care and I wish that you didn’t have to be so far away or separated from your family for so long. Here’s to hoping and praying for a quick resolution to the war and your safe return. Again please, please, please take care of yourself and stay safe.
P.S. Again, if you or anyone else in your platoon needs anything, please don’t be afraid to ask.
P.P.S. The CD is some of my favorite songs. I thought that you would like to be able to hear a bit of home (well, my home at least :)
Steve sat holding the letter, a small lump had formed in his throat as he thought of the care and kindness of this Danny person. When he first regarded the package that had placed on his bunk, he had wanted to return it to the postal clerk. It should have been given to one of the enlisted men, but now that he had opened it and had read the heartfelt words of one civilian out of thousands that had been affected by that one tragic morning in September. Well, he wasn’t about to give up a single thing from within that small box; or at least anything that Taylor, the Jackass, hadn’t already pilfered.
Stowing everything back in the box, he folded the flaps down and pushed it gently beneath his bunk. All except the letter, that he kept with him to reread after he situated his long body beneath the gritty sheets. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would try to think of a way to say thank you.
May 13, 2002
The team of weary SEALs hurried silently under the cover of darkness to the mobile unit at the extraction point on the borders between Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. From there, they would travel less than twenty miles into the rugged landscape to the pre-ordained rendezvous point for the big Chinnock helicopters to carry them safely back to the aircraft carrier along the shore of Oman.
Steve ducked down behind a boulder that was almost large enough to hide a poodle. His eyes darted to the left as he kept as still as possible. Ruthie angled his hand away from his body. Three fingers flashed up and then two flashed down, before the hand flattened out in a small sweep across his chest. Steve nodded and then repeated the signal to Tim Aldeen off to his right side. Tucked behind a burnt out shell of what used to be a truck, Aldie nodded slightly, then leaned forward with his hand on the small of Vincent’s back and whispered the information to the teammate in front of him.
Once Vince nodded, Steve balled his fist as a signal to Ruthie to start the ball. If he hadn’t had known that Ruthie was going to dart right and then scramble across the open space between Steve’s rock and the still smoking truck, Steve would have never known he was moving. For all the gear they carry, the team’s ability to move as silently and as deadly as they could was what was going to save them.
Flashing his eyes to the right again, Steve saw Aldie lean forward again to speak almost inaudibly to Vince and then turn to give Steve the go ahead. In less than a minute, both the other men followed. The team was like a finely-tuned Swiss watch. Each gear (or man) slipping with ease and grace around the cogs of a dangerous assignment; a nearly flawless and soundless journey to which there seemed no end.
It wasn’t until the last man, Hoover with his sharp eye and purposefully dulled sniper rifle, climbed aboard the open topped truck did anyone speak.
“Did you see the kid with the Franken-gun AK?” Ruthie asked quietly, the wonder of the gun and the horror for its triggerman evident in his voice. “He couldn’t have been more than ten.”
Steve nodded. He had seen the kid, but only after he lay in the dust, eyes wide to the dark sky and the tan, cracked earth darkening beneath him. If there was anything that he hated more than this war it was the price everyone was having to pay, to be in it.
“We saw him.” Vincent said, bumping his shoulder with Aldie’s. He nodded at Hoover. “Thanks, bro.”
Hoover made no indication that he had heard him; he just continued to stare out into the night sky above them, his face stoic, eyes hooded, as the truck raced across the land toward their safe exodus.
“Yeah, so I finally got the issue of the water figured out, dude. We got to get another one of the siphoning systems and wrap it in an old t-shirt and then put it under . . . McGarrett? Yo, Steve-o? You listening?
Steve looked up from the gun he was cleaning. Taylor had been rattling on for a half an hour on how he was going to keep his water cold in the arid, and often stifling, surroundings. Steve had given up listening around twenty-five minutes ago.
“What? Oh, yeah, t-shirt should work. Canvas would be better though.” He rammed the rod with the cotton wad back down the barrel, chasing after any miniscule grains of sand that he may have missed.
“Canvas, huh? Yeah . . . you may be right. Bet I could get some from our next journey into the Bogey-man’s Land.”
“You could probably get some over at sup –“
Steve laid his rifle down as easy as he could and slapped Taylor in the ribs, which brought about a wince and a muffled groan from his teammate. But any cursing and bitching was soon swallowed down as both men stood up tall and straight at attention as Commander Andersen entered the team’s sleeping quarters, two of his aides trailing respectfully behind him..
“At ease, gentlemen.” Andersen’s voice filled the now silent room, the years of service and leadership riding the tone like the ringing steel of a tuning fork.
Steve liked Andersen; well actually, he liked most of the men he had served under so far. They had all taught him something, no matter how small and trivial the fact may be, to becoming a better soldier. But Andersen seemed to have mastered the art of balancing the improbable, making him Steve’s favorite commander so far in his military career. He was stoic and steady, graceful under pressure, and knew just how to push his men to achieve the objective. Steve knew that he was dangerously close to idolizing the man, but since the matter of whether he lived or died often depended upon Andersen’s decisions, he was surprisingly okay with that.
“Good work out there today, men. We were able to identify those we sought to and with little to no injuries.” He nodded to Taylor, who had sat out the action, along with Brian Peterson, both sustaining injuries in the last skirmish against the adversaries. “Feeling better son?”
“Sir, aye sir.” Taylor replied promptly, smartly. It wouldn’t do to show weakness in front of a superior, especially one that already held two Purple Hearts.
“Good, good. Glad to hear it. I have received word from Washington that there is a possibility the presidency of the Iraqis may be harboring some of the missing members of the group of insurgents that we just detained. A plan is being formulated currently and within the week, we will be commencing preparations to look into these allegations. On the DL of course, gentlemen. So please any messages to your loved ones must be sensitive to the nature of the mission. Please do not speak out of turn. Am I clear?” Andersen asked, his voice commanding the respect his years in the service of his country had earned.
“Sir, aye sir.” Echoed in the metal-walled sleeping quarters as twelve voices answered as one, the only voice not heard was that of Peterson, who was still laid up in sick bay.
“McGarrett. Rutherford. I need you in comms tonight, gentlemen. Report after mess.”
“Aye sir.” Steve spoke a half-second before Ruthie.
“Thank you, men. And speaking of letters to home, how would you all like to receive some? Carver.”
Steve felt his stomach curl up in excitement and hope as the aide stepped around the commander from the left and hefted a white tote filled with envelopes of varying sizes. A few corners of cardboard could be seen, but the number appeared to Steve, who stood not more than ten feet away, to be quite few.
“Albert, J.” Carver spoke loud and clear, his voice carrying over the hushed whispers of the team.
Steve knew that there were seven names before his on the team, but that knowledge did nothing to squelch the desire for a letter that ran deeply in his soul. He had written Danny back, sent a nice ‘thank you’ and a highly sanitized version of his life in the Navy. The previous two mail calls had yielded no replies, but this time, he could almost visualize a return letter for him in the white tote.
“Hey, Steve. Check out what that mail tote is made from.” Taylor’s voice registered and Steve looked down.
He bet that the mail room was going to be short a tote come next inspection.
Steve startled and took a quick step forward to receive a small parcel box and a few envelopes. He stepped back to his bunk and waited impatiently for them to be dismissed.
It seemed to take forever for Yearling, K.’s name to be called.
“Thank you again, gentlemen.” Andersen said. “We will have a briefing at 0800 tomorrow morning after mess, followed by a terrain mapping exercise. Be prepared.”
O’Neil, the second aide called out “Dismissed.”
All the men waited until Commander Andersen turned and exited the doors, his assistants following him out, before diving for their berths to examine their all too brief touch of home.
Tossing another letter from his apartment complex, an official looking envelope from his bank, and his latest edition of Military History magazine to the foot of the bed, Steve sat quickly to concentrate on the three pieces of mail that mattered. A postcard from one of his old Annapolis friends, a letter postmarked Honolulu, and a slender parcel box. He scanned the box, a corner was jammed up in a bit of a permanent wrinkle and the white glossy finish had been scuffed and worn down to the primary brown base, but by squinting, Steve could make out the word ‘Jersey’ on the upper right corner.
His fingernail caught along the edge of the box and he clicked it against the glue a few times. The desire to rip into the box was strong, but if he did that, then he would know what was in it.
It was one of the more ridiculous quandaries of his life; open it and know the contents or wait and savor the anticipation.
He glanced at the other men in the room; Aaron Chester, the youngest and newest member of the team, was carefully slitting open his mail with a shiny Swiss Army knife. It seemed such a juxtaposition to his usual manic disposition. Taylor was busy trying to ‘help’ Ruthie open a box from home, much to Ruthie’s chagrin. Aldie and Vince were both digging into a box of that seemed to be from a candy store, if the never-ending pile of crinkling plastic bags growing between them indicated anything.
Steve swallowed and placed the box down by his knee. He was going to wait just that much longer to see what was inside.
His self-restraint made him grin. Picking up the postcard, his grin quirked into a smile at the bevy of leggy showgirls on the front, they were flanking a bent-up old man in a white pantsuit, sporting a hideous black toupee, and leaning on a walker. ‘Las Vegas: Where Every Man is King’ was printed across the bottom in a horrible violet neon. He flipped the card over and skimmed the message.
Well, he thought, seems as though Nate had finally pulled the trigger and married his girl Brianne. Reading on, his eyebrows rose as he realized that more than one trigger had been pulled and they were to become parents next month. Nate Bower had been injured during some training exercises last year and now was riding a desk stateside to fulfill his commitment to the United States Navy.
Steve mentally wished them luck and hoped that it all worked out for them. He, himself, had never gotten close enough to a girl to think about settling down. When he was just a teen and becoming interested in the opposite sex, his mom had been killed in a tragic auto accident. The next month was spent in the hellacious limbo of trying to get through each day without thinking about her or in trying to connect with his rapidly withdrawing father.
Both cases left him drained and even more lost, but then his dad helped him decide what direction his life needed to take and he was soon on a plane bound for Maryland and the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Grinning again at the postcard, Steve dropped it on top of the glossy magazine and picked up the letter from Hawaii. Looking more closely at the return address, he realized that it wasn’t from the family house on Pi’ikoi, but from somewhere up near the North Shore. Placing a finger under the flap, he tugged against the adhesive until it gave way. Steve pulled out the piece of folded blue paper and saw that it was an advertisement. He flipped it over and saw a large messy scrawl that had taken up most of the blank backside.
If you ever be needing a hana, just come and find me. The wai is a great makana today and every day. Ho’I mai koa and ola, my hoaaloha,
(Look at the ki’i on the bottom.)
Steve grinned at the small drawing next to his old friend’s signature. It was of a hand giving the ‘hang loose’ signal. It was just like Mamo to add such a thing to a letter. He was as laid back as the day was long and seemed to have the patience of twenty saints when it came to teaching rambunctious eight year olds to ride the waves.
Steve flipped the ad over and smiled at the headline.
‘Mamo’s Surf and Wax Shack’, it read in big block letters. Steve felt his smile widen and deepen as he read the pertinent information for Mamo’s newest venture. Apparently, he had finally given up on the knocked together shack of slender palm trunks and fronds and was now setting up shop in a real building made of wood and nails and everything. Steve had never thought that he would see the day.
He let his gaze drop down and he took in the various pictures that were placed randomly along the sides of the poster. They looked as though they had been added as an afterthought. The photo of the big man himself, riding one of the beasts up on the pipeline, blocked out the last number of the zip code. Steve saw a friend of his from high school in one of the smaller shots.
Keino was still looking young and eager as he toed up to the front of the board over a small white crest of water. Worry lines started to form between his brows as he remembered that Keino was now in the Halawa Correctional Facility for dealing meth.
Sighing, Steve looked through the rest of the images until his breath sucked in and refused to come back out again. There on the bottom, near the left corner was a photo of him and Mamo practicing paddling on dry sand. It was his first day under his teacher’s tutelage and he was so impatient to get in the water and to show off. It had taken three more lessons before that had happened, if Steve remembered correctly.
Steve squinted his eyes and peered into the background of the shot for the three people he knew would be there. There, under the shade of a palm, was his dad, his three-year-old sister Mary perched high upon his strong shoulders. And, standing just a breath away, was his mom; her head tipped up to smile at her husband. So young and pretty, so full of life. A dry tickle started to form low in his throat. He swallowed roughly and ran his finger over the image. It was hard to believe that eight years after this picture had been taken she was gone.
Steve laid the paper down and stretched his arms high above his head. Tipping his head back, he stared at the straight line of rivets that ran down the steel that served as a roof for their residence for the week.
He thought of his mom most days, if not every day, but seeing her carefree and in her element. . . well, that was shot clean to the solar plexus. He breathed deeply and continued to stare at the perfectly formed rings of metal.
“Yeah?” Steve blinked a few times, let his arms drop, and his head swivel down to its proper position. Hoover was standing at the foot of his bunk, Kevin Yearling peering over his shoulder.
“We’re headin’ over to mess. You comin’?”
“Ah . . . yeah, be right behind you guys. I just got to hit the head first.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder in the general direction of the bathroom. He could feel Hoov’s eyes tracking his movements, trying to get a handle on not only his physical motions, but also his mental and emotional workings. Hoover was the best on the team when it came to sizing up a situation, one of things that made him the best of the lot when it came to the team’s need for a sniper. . . or a confidant.
“You sure? We’ll wait . . .”
“Nah, I’ll be right there.” Steve stood and felt his knee pop in protest. He may only be in his mid-twenties, but his body, no matter how good of shape he was in, was starting to object to some of the abuse that he and the Navy were putting it through in the name of freedom. “And save me some.”
Yearling chuckled and lifted a hand as the pair stepped out into the narrow hall.
Crossing to the latrine, Steve heard Chester asking Nick about the impending trip into Iraq; if he thought that it would be bad. Steve knew that if he had been asked that question, he wasn’t sure if he would have admitted that he had an uneasy feeling about the mission. No one would call him on it, but he would rather not say anything and have the rest of the team do the same. There was no call for worry anyway, at least not until they had more intel.
He was just finishing relieving himself when he remembered that he hadn’t opened the package from New Jersey yet. Fastening up his cargo pants, Steve gave his hands a cursory rinse and hurried back to his berth. Right after dinner he had the shift in the comms and then it would be lights out. He had to fit it in somehow.
He slipped the edge of his nail under the bent up corner and tore at the flimsy cardboard until it gave way. A portable CD player and a pack of eight AA batteries slid out after he pulled the small wad of bubble wrap away. Shoving his hand gently to the bottom, he pulled at a bag made of soft plastic until it became unwedged and it too slid onto the scratchy blanket that covered his bed. A familiar manila envelope slipped out silently after.
‘Steve.’ was written carefully, yet decisively across the front, in black marker. The penmanship was similar to the letter he had received with the package back at the beginning of the year.
Steve checked his watch and regretfully tucked the bag of what had to be candy, the CD player and the batteries into his pack. Snagging the envelope, he headed out of the room and towards the dining area a deck above.
April 03, 2002
I was so happy to hear from you and I am so pleased that you were able to make use of the contents of the package. I was worried that I had chosen incorrectly or that you were a woman or diabetic or something like that (not that you being a woman was a bad thing, but most of the items were based on the fact that I hoped you were a man. And I’m not saying that I wouldn’t send you anything if you were a diabetic, I would just have to shift gears on what I sent.)
My mother was overjoyed to hear that you and your team enjoyed her baking. Those butterscotch oatmeal cookies are brilliant, right? She has sent off countless packages since then. So many packages that when I was preparing to mail this, there were no homemade goodies to enclose, sorry. Next time, I promise.
Thank you for setting me straight on the proper terminology, as well. I would have kept calling your team a platoon if you hadn’t educated me properly. I looked up the Navy and the SEAL teams on the internet at work, but there wasn’t a lot of information. Well, on the SEALs at least, I’m guessing that is because you go on so many scary missions. Please stay safe!
You asked about my home and what I do for a living so I’ll try to give it to you in a nutshell.
I’m Danny Williams, but you already knew that J and I have lived in New Jersey all my life. Best place in the world if you ask me. My parents have been married for nearly forty years and they have lived in the same house since long before I was born. I am the second of five kids and we have all been raised in that house.
I am a 25 year-old blonde with blue eyes. I’m also 5’5’’, so please – no short jokes. I’ve heard them all before. I work in the customer retention department at the bank down the street. It’s not what I always dreamed of doing, but taking pictures doesn’t always pay well, so I think I’ll stay. Besides, it pays more than being a teller.
I live alone, well, actually, I rent the small apartment above my pop’s garage (he runs a mechanic shop with my Uncle Phil), so it seems as though someone is always around. Plus, I usually walk the two blocks over to the house and spend time with mom. The free food is a bonus, but she’s also having a hard time dealing with the fear of being alone right now. I think a lot of people are like that.
I guess I could say that I like long moonlit strolls on the beach and quirky foreign films, but that would only make me sound like a playmate or something, (and besides, the beaches around here aren’t exactly clean right now). Do you get home to Hawaii often? Do you miss the beach and the ocean? I like to go watch the waves when there is a storm brewing, with the clouds all dark and ominous. It really makes you think of your place in the grand scheme of things.
I take pictures of pretty much anything (maybe I’ll send you some next time). I also like to watch baseball and football with my pop (but I think I told you that before) and I really like music. The CD I sent last time and the two that were enclosed this time have some of my favorite songs ever on them. I was able to get the songs from Napster, which is a music-sharing community online, and then my friend Brian burned them to disc for me. Two copies each – one for me and one for you. I hope you like them. I remember that you said that you had to borrow a Discman, so I’m sending you your own. Don’t worry about the cost, as I don’t really have anyone else to spend money on and I’m pretty frugal. It was on sale too, so there is that.
I know you can’t tell me what your missions are, but are they dangerous enough that I should worry more about you? I know that sounds weird as they are all pretty dangerous, I suppose, but I already find myself scouring the Times to for any articles about all of you over there. I cannot believe how scary it must be. But I’m assuming that being a SEAL, you must have had quite a bit of training.
Again, I’ll ask if you need anything. I know I don’t have to, but I want you (and your team) to have some of comforts of home since you can’t be here to get them yourselves. If there is anything that you are looking for or are missing, please don’t hesitate to ask. I mean it. Oh, and I know that you said that it was alright that I continue writing to you, but if you ever want or need me to stop doing so, please let me know. I wouldn’t want to make things difficult for you over there.
Maybe when you get a chance to come back stateside, we can meet up for coffee or something. I just reread that last sentence and it sounds like I’m hitting on you. Sorry. I just think that it would be nice to actually meet face-to-face, so that I can thank you properly, honestly.
Please be smart and return home safely,
P.S. I forgot to mention the candy is salt-water taffy from this place down near the Hudson Bay that makes some of the best treats in the world. It’s pineapple flavored, which is okay (I like watermelon the best), but I wanted you to have a piece of both our homes. Enjoy!
Steve smiled as he thought of the candy hidden away in his bag, the moisture on his tongue growing in anticipation of sneaking a piece of it before bed. He folded the letter up along the folds already in place and then once again before he tucked it safely away into the thigh pocket on his pants. It slid in neatly beside Danny’s last letter and the two new CD’s.
Straightening up from the wall outside the Comms room where he had paused to read in peace before he needed to do his recon work, Steve leveled out his shoulders and pulled open the door. He entered and took a seat between Rutherford and one of the Comms sailors at a satellite table; a slight grin still graced his face.
March 15, 2003
The low voice calling for prayer was still echoing down from the minarets off to the east of Steve’s position. The heat waves nearly obscured the faithful’s genuflecting forms as the murmured prayers added weight to the already oppressive air. Steve knew some of the local dialect, but the voices were too soft for him to make out the whispery words, not that he wanted to, it seemed such a private matter and he had no desire to intrude on it.
A portion of the team had been sent back into Baghdad to finalize some of the local landmarks before a large push for a stronger military presence was made in the next few weeks. He and Vincent, both with darker hair and complexions had been outfitted in civilian gear and were to enter the bustling center of town under the guise that they were journalists.
Vince sidled up next to him and silently bowed his head. To anyone watching the two of them, it would appear that he was paying respect to the local religious practices. As it was, it was only Steve that could make out the low tones of Vince murmuring quietly into the concealed microphone under the collar of his jacket.
They were less than two hours away from extraction when the miniscule ear bud in Steve’s left ear transmitted the information that that some American independent contractors appeared to be in some trouble. Many contractors had swarmed into Baghdad under the premise of rebuilding, but Steve knew that it was mostly dollar signs that drew them to the war-torn region, rather than humanitarian efforts. Steve caught Vince’s eye and knew that his teammate knew what they had to do. The pertinent information repeated in their ears as they started a slow meander down the street.
It would extend their time in town, compounding the danger, seeing as how neither were armed with anything other than a couple of knives and an ankle holster apiece. Steve swore silently at himself for his decision to leave behind the holster that fit in the small of his back. He could really use the added security in the knowledge that it was there rather than back in his locker in the barracks.
They shifted gently around the indigenous population, now nearly prone as they faced west towards Mecca and started for the area where the contractors were last known to be. They spoke softly about trivial matters as they walked, so as not to alarm or raise suspicion about their movements. As they neared the bullet riddled façade of the hotel that the American’s were reported to be at, Steve felt a knot of unease starting to form in his gut.
A voice in his ear told Steve to secure the location and help was already en route in the form of the rest of the team. He breathed in and held the breath deep within his lungs as Vince signaled that he was going to cross the open expanse of a wide alley and make for the hotel.
Steve never heard the hiss of the bullet as is sped through the air, nor did he hear the poof as it buried through the layer’s of Vince’s clothes to embed itself in his body, but when Vince dropped to his knees, Steve didn’t stop to think, he just scrambled for his friend. A second bullet whizzed by, then a third, and a fourth. They kept coming until Steve reached Vince and was able to pull him in through the doors of the hotel and slammed the spider-webbed glass behind them.
“Man down. Man down. Man down. Vincent is hit. I repeat. Vincent is hit. Unknown sniper.” Steve fought to keep his voice even and his breath coming as he knelt over his teammate to investigate the blood that was starting to darken the dingy tan t-shirt that Vinnie wore beneath his jacket.
“Status of his injury.” The disembodied voice droned in his ear. Steve started mental listing the necessary actions that he needed to perform to ensure their safety and that of the approaching team.
“Bullet wound to the . . . upper right . . .um, ches . . . no, back. Upper right back. Secondary bullet wound to the left calf.” Steve ran his hands methodically over the rest of Vincent’s body as the man lay as still and silent as possible. Vince’s eyes were pained, Steve noted, but clear. He winced slightly, as he stoically allowed Steve to continue assessing his injuries.
Steve apologized as his long fingers probed his teammate’s right shoulder looking for an exit wound. Vince whispered that it was okay and remained as still as possible to lessen the chances of bleeding out.
“Vincent is conscience and aware. Bleeding is mid-flow and growing. ETA on evac team?”
“Evac team ETA, Thirty or less. Location of gunman?”
Steve leaned back on his knees and craned his neck to peer through the cracks of the shattered glass. He tried to recreate Vincent’s run in his mind and the location of the bullet wounds.
“Unknown, sir. Best guess is from the top of the two story building next to the hotel.” It was a pure guess, but Steve felt good about the idea formulating in his mind.
“McGarrett, can you give a percentage of surety?” The voice had changed to that of Peterson, the team leader.
“Seventy, sir. Based upon location of wounds and angle.” Steve replied.
“Vincent? Can you hear me?”
Steve stood as he heard Peterson address the man in front of him. He then shucked off the button-down shirt that was over his own sweat-stained t-shirt. He ripped off both the arms and used them to bind the wound on Vince’s calf. The rest of the shirt he used to pack against the hole in Vincent back.
The men were still talking, Vincent sounded weary, but his voice strong enough that Steve stopped worrying so much about him dying right then and there. He reached under his pant leg and removed his pistol from its holster. Showing it to Vincent, he didn’t even wait for the nod before he retrieved Vincent’s gun thanking all that was holy that it was on the opposite leg than where he was shot.
Turning again, he scanned the roof-top of the building across from him. He couldn’t do much, but hopefully if he could pinpoint the location of the shooter he could offer his team some more cover as they came to their rescue.
“McGarrett? Location of shooter?”
“No, sir. No movement on the roof. Best guess percentage about six- . . . Wait. Second floor. Third window from the west. Same building Curtain movement.” Steve peered up at the window, willing the gunman to show himself. “ETA, sir?”
“Twenty. Vincent still good, McGarrett?” Steve looked down at the man behind him and quirked his lip at Vince’s pained nod.
“Yes, sir. Vincent resting until evac, sir.” Steve craned his head up to see in the window across the way again.
A tell-tale glint in the afternoon sunshine gave the shooter away.
“Gunman spotted. Second story window, three in from the west. Confirmed location. Permission to engage.” Steve looked back at Vincent to see if the man had any qualms about Steve leaving him where he was. Vincent nodded, indicating that he was okay. “I repeat. Gunman location identified. I am requesting permission to engage.”
There was silence building in his ear. He knew that Peterson would engage if it were him in Steve’s position, but the radio silence showed his reluctance to allow one of his men to go out on what could become a suicide mission.
Steve edged closer to the door and located his first and then second piece of cover if he decided to go out the way they came in. But that way didn’t seem to make much sense to him. Turning briefly to Vincent, he drew his knife from the sheath that hung down on the lanyard between his shoulder blades and handed it to the fallen soldier along with the man’s own gun. With a wink, he headed to the right and up the stairs to the second floor.
“McGarrett. Permission denied.” The sudden voice in his ear bud did not cause him to flinch, but it did make the pounding of his pulse quicken for a moment. He did not respond to Peterson, he just kept carefully heading up. “McGarrett? McGarrett? . . . Vincent? Where is McGarrett?”
All it took was a single kick to the door that Steve estimated to be closest to the other building and spun, gun raised, into the room. A quick scan proved that someone was watching out for Steve, as the room was blessedly empty.
“McGarrett, what is your location? Eyes on the gunman?” Peterson apparently figured out Steve’s movements from his lack of communication and was now trying to figure out if there was any way that the rest of the team could aid in the capture of the enemy.
Steve peered out the window and saw the pipe that he would jump to and the window that he would climb into; he visualized the jump and eyed the expanse.
“ETA on evac, sir?” He spoke quietly.
“Evac in fifteen. McGarrett?”
“Yes, sir?” Steve looked down to the ground below and tried to calculate the probability of broken bones should he miss the pipe.
“Go safely, McGarrett.” Peterson’s voice had regained the surety that his position commanded. “And get the bastard.”
“Roger that, sir.”
He lifted the sash and pulled the window open as wide as it would go. Clasping an edge, Steve hoisted his body to fit into the opening. He let his body drop back and forward a few times, to gain the proper momentum to make either one of the most heroic or most monumentally stupid moves of his life.
He closed his eyes and tried to center his mind on the actions he would need to succeed.
Blinking his blue eyes open, he began swinging back again and then once more. Steve used the muscles in his legs and his arms to launch himself towards the building across from his position.
There was a certain freedom and rush in the unknown, Steve decided, as his body hurtled through the air.
Steve felt two of the fingernails on his left hand start to give at the same time that the pain from his ribs smacking into the stucco façade registered in his head. He squeezed his eyes closed and rolling waves and clouds filled his mind, allowing him to center himself.
Gasping in a couple of quick breaths, he lifted a foot to catch his toe on the rough clay and grappled up for the window ledge. A second lunge allowed him to pull his body half into the window. A third eventually allowed him to fall into the room.
As he stood, Steve noticed a wizened older woman staring at him from a straight back chair next to a second window.
Holding a single (and bloody) index finger to his lips, he whispered ‘sorry’ in Arabic and moved towards the door. Her head swiveled slowly upon her neck to watch him go, but she made no other sound or movement to stop him.
He pulled his gun from his hip pocket, where he had tucked it before his jump, and his knife from the sheath that was suspended down the inside pant leg on his left hip, and then edged into the hall. Sliding his shoulder blades silently along the wall, he listened at the door of the next door.
Nothing, but complete silence.
Onward he stepped, boots muffled by the faded blue carpet. At the next door, he paused again, ear pressed against the wood.
A soft thud was heard behind it and a man’s voice murmuring.
Stepping back, Steve drew in a breath and counted to ten. On the second breath, he raised his foot and gun as one and moved forward.
Two shots rang out, echoing loudly in the small room. Steve stumbled forward and tackled the gunman, his fist connecting with the man’s neck. After a few moments of wrestling, Steve was able to overpower the shooter. It was when he was securing the enemies hands’ behind his back with his own belt that he heard the growl of an engine pulling up out on the street.
“Gunman handled. Location as stated.”
Steve felt groggy as he fought to force his eyes open.
“I’m so relieved.”
“I thought. . . I thought that I had lost you.”
“You didn’t. I woudn’t leave you like that.”
The voices were barely audible. Steve wanted to look, but as he became more awake and aware, he recognized the two voices as those belonging to Vincent and Aldeen.
“I’m okay. Steve will be too. You should have seen him, Tim. He was like a machine out there.”
“Well, I’m glad he was . . . I . . . Jesus. You know what I want to say.”
There was a brief silence. Steve blinked up at the ceiling and saw a movement of shadow flit across the white paint muted in the dim light, before it briefly blended with the shadow next to it.
“Yeah. Me too,” came the reply a few moments later.
Steve felt himself pulled helplessly back into sleep.
Steve opened his eyes and flinched at the brightness around him. When he felt prepared enough, he squinted up at his team leader.
“Pete. Thanks for the ride, man.” Steve lifted a hand to rub it across his parched mouth and was surprised to see the crisp bandages wound around three fingers. He tried to lift his other hand, but found it tethered to two different intravenous drips.
“One broken finger and two missing nails.”
Steve peered up at Peterson’s calm face. He knew that he deserved an ass-chewing for going against orders and steeled himself for it.
“How could you –“
They spoke at the same time, but once Steve’s question registered, Peterson sighed.
“Vin’s going to be okay. He’s out of the game for about six to eight weeks or so, but both shots were clean, luckily.”
“Good. The amount of blood was worrisome, but he seemed pretty cognizant.” Steve said, using the heel of his injured hand to rub at his bare chest. “So I’m here for a broken finger?”
“Not quite. Try a broken finger, a rather deep graze to your thigh and if it weren’t for that hard skull of yours, you wouldn’t be here at all.” Peterson sat on the edge of the bed, his eyes softened as Steve flinched at being jostled. “And your chest looks like you took on a Mack truck.”
Steve tried to look down, but the movement caused his eyes to swim.
“Oh, yeah. The crease along your skull rang your bell a bit. So I’m guessing that you’re going to get queasy and dizzy for the next few days due to the concussion.” Peterson stood and walked away for few minutes. When he returned he was carrying a small square mirror that he must have gotten from someone at the medic’s desk.
He held the mirror at an angle and, with a few nudges from Steve’s thumb; Steve was able to see the dark blues and violets that stood out in stark relief against his unusually pale chest. It looked to Steve as if the wall had won this one.
“I . . . thanks.”
“McGarrett. I denied your request for engagement. You two were safe in the lobby. Sure, Vince was bleeding, but mostly okay and I am guessing you probably got the leg wound at the same time. You should have stayed put.”
“I . . . I didn’t want you guys rolling into danger, sir. Once I was able to ascertain where the gunman was . . . I knew I could subdue him and we could get Vincent out clean. I apologize, sir, for going against orders, but I was confident in my actions.” Steve knew that Peterson wasn’t angry he just wanted to understand. When you were a member of a team you were as good as family, and it would take a colossal fuck-up to change that fact. “I understand that my actions were contrary to your orders, sir, and I am prepared to accept the consequences.”
He watched as Peterson looked over to his left and seemed to contemplate what he had just heard. Steve turned his head as slowly as possible to follow his line of sight. There, two beds away, lay Vincent. His eyes were closed, but Steve had a sneaking suspicion that the SEAL was awake and listening to every word.
“I was concerned with the team being ambushed and Vincent appeared alert enough. I left him armed and I would have returned to the lobby if my plan looked as if it wouldn’t work.
The tall red-headed team leader ran a hand over his face and let his hand fall back to his lap.
“Dammit, McGarrett. I get what you were thinking and I even understand why. I can’t even be sure that I wouldn’t have done the same, but fuck! You went against orders, Steve.”
“I understand, sir, and I will accept any punishment you see fit.”
Peterson stood and paced next to bed a few times. Steve closed his eyes so that he wouldn’t be tempted to follow his actions with his eyes, thus making himself even more dizzy.
“I . . . you are stood down until you are healed and we’ll deal with your insubordination when you are feeling better. Am I clear, McGarrett?”
“Aye, sir.” Steve knew that by the time he was ready to re-enter the field there would be no punishment and no mention of his contrary actions on his service record. Peterson understood and that was all that mattered.
“Feel better soon, alright Steve?”
“Aye, sir.” Steve aimed a lopsided grin up at his superior and was relieved to see a true smile returned.
“Oh, you missed mail call yesterday, though I don’t think that you will be able to read it right now. Maybe you can get somebody to read it to you.” Peterson picked up what had now become almost a monthly manila envelope from the table next to Steve’s bed and dropped it gently on his stomach.
“Mail call isn’t until Tuesday.” Steve said, perplexed.
“It’s now Thursday morning, Steve. You’ve been out a few days.” Peterson explained. He looked at the envelope that Steve was absently rubbing his injured fingers against. “You get a girlfriend or something? I thought you were training to become a monk or something.”
“Just a friend, Pete. A real good friend.” Steve used his uninjured fingers to push the envelope up his chest.
“Well, maybe if we ever get to go home . . .”
“Maybe, maybe.” Steve felt his stomach flip at the thought of meeting Danny. He wondered what she was like.
January 29, 2003
Well, Hello Sailor,
I hope this is finding you well and healthy. I do worry you know. I scour the paper everyday to find mention of the SEALs. I often find mention of various other sailors and I wonder if it is someone that you may know or that you have served with. I don’t know if it makes me a bad person or not, the relief I feel when I don’t see your name on the growing list of injured (or worse) soldiers. I hope not. It’s not like I don’t feel bad for them, I’m just thankful it’s not you.
Before I forget, my mom says to tell you ‘thank you.’ Not only for your service, but it is because of my concern about your well-being (and that of everyone deployed at this time) that I have started to go to mass on Wednesdays and Saturdays with her. I think she would have you beatified if she could.
She is pushing me to go more, but I think that she thinks that if I do, my younger brother will join us. Neither is going to happen, but a mother can wish and dream, I suppose.
I got a promotion at work and now I am the head of the safety deposit box section. Some people might not see it as a step up, but it is a couple hundred dollars a month more and I no longer have to practically beg people to keep their savings with us. Plus, I no long have to work Saturdays. Wow. That makes me feel like a real goof right there. I bet you guys hardly ever get a day off. Sorry.
I’m sorry I couldn’t send you any goodies other than the CD’s, but I’ve been busy trying to get my life going again. I think I told you that I was seeing this guy named Kevin. He was the guy that worked at the gym I started going to?
Anyway, that is no more. It was only about three months, but I rather got used to having someone to share things with, you know? At least he broke up with me before Valentine’s Day. It would have sucked to go through what is supposed to be a romantic day and then find out that the one that you were supposed to love didn’t love you. Not that it was love, mind you, but you know what I mean.
Oh, well. On to bigger and brighter things.
So, I’ve started saving my money for a trip to Hawaii. I know you said that you haven’t been there in years, but what you write . . . I really want to see the ocean and feel the waves wash over me. I think my aversion to the beach may be because the general coldness and sometimes unsanitary beaches around here. Warm sand and the crystal blue water you talk about sounds fabulous! Oh, and to see the dolphins and the sunset? Sign me up.
Besides, it will really irritate my sister, who wanted to go there for her honeymoon but could only afford a trip to Florida. That’s what she gets for marrying a no-good slacker.
I know that you cannot speak of your missions, but I read that the president was talking about sending troops into Baghdad. I hope you are not one of them; the pictures that flash across the news are terrifying. If you do go, please be careful and know that I am worried and care deeply about your safety and that of your team.
Speaking of your team, Aldeen sounds hysterical, as does Rutherford. Did he really eat that many sugar packets with no water? Gross. And tell Taylor to keep his hands out of your candy. If he wants some all he has to do is ask and I’ll see that he gets some. Who won the monthly push-up/pull-up contest? I’m putting my money on you (but I may be biased.)
The CD has some new music and a few oldies. I apologize if it is a bit cheesy, but I was feeling pretty mopey when I had it made. Napster is now gone, but my friend Brian found a new site in which to get music from, so all is well. I hope you like it. (How can you not like Bon Jovi ?!?!? He’s like a musical genius. Plus, he is sexy as all get out. I’ll change your mind, if it’s the last thing I do!)
Until you get home,
It had taken a couple of days before Steve could get his eyes focused enough to read the letter, but the wait had been worth it. He now knew that the joy of hearing from Danny was more than just getting a taste of home. He was becoming infatuated, plain and simple. In the year and a half that they had been corresponding, he felt as if he had grown to know her better than anyone else he knew, save his own team. And Danny definitely knew more about him than even his dad or his sister.
Maybe, he thought, maybe on his next trip home he would try to arrange a meeting.
August 03, 2004
Steve looked behind him and let his eyes fall on Chester’s sidearm. He didn’t want to use it, but he knew that he would if his play was called. He licked at his cracked and blistered lips, but there wasn’t enough saliva left in his mouth to sooth them. A shiver stole up his spine as the chilled air glided across the sweat on his forehead.
It seemed unnatural for Afghanistan to be so cold, but then again he wasn’t out in the scorching sunlight.
Steve was buried deep in one of the tunnels below the hard-baked earth. He, Aldeen, and Chester had taken cover in a sandstorm and due to an already deep-seated dehydration, no food, and all three sporting their fair share of scrapes and bullet holes, they had become discombobulated and blundered deeper still.
And that had been three days ago.
Once, a day or two back, Steve could swear that he heard voices, but with the state that they were all in, he didn’t venture forth to investigate.
He turned again to check on Chester, but knew that his teammate was beyond suffering now. If Steve was honest with himself, the first-year SEAL had been gone for several hours by now. But it was a fact that Steve didn’t want to face, he knew that he would have to at some point. He had already promised himself that if the rest of the team didn’t show up by morning, he would crawl out to find them.
Running his right hand along the wall, he found the tiny trickle of moisture had built up again. Swiping his fingers along the crack, he gathered as much as he could and then jammed the fingers into his mouth. He had given the last of their water to Aldeen late last night.
“Ry . . Ryan?”
Steve used his hips and his one working arm to drag himself closer to Aldie.
“No, Tim. It’s Steve.” Steve winced as his voice crackled up through his parched throat. “Steve McGarrett.”
“Ste – ve?” Aldeen had been flitting sporadically between unconsciousness and delirium for the past day and then some. Steve eyed the dirty gleam of Chester’s gun again.
“Yeah. We are on the same team, Tim.”
Steve brushed his hand over Aldie’s brow. The man’s skin was pouring sweat and nearly scalding to the touch.
“Ryan is looking for us. He’s out there.” Steve tried to reassure the gravely injured SEAL, but his surety in the possibility that they would be found alive was waning. “Vince’s coming. Vince will find us.”
Steve swept a hand over Aldeen’s hair, hoping it was soothing and not jarring at all to his friend.
“I’m co –ld, Ryan.” Aldeen stuttered out slowly as he turned his head to rest upon Steve’s injured thigh. Steve flinched at the touch, but gnashed his teeth to prevent himself from pulling away. He was sure that Tim wasn’t going to make it much longer and he wasn’t going to let the man pass without giving him the comfort he sought.
He tipped his chin to his chest and closed his eyes, his hand still feathering lightly over Aldie’s head.
The quiet murmurings of many voices woke him from his nap. His eyes stung in the brightness of the room.
He was surrounded by so many people, some he knew and other’s that just smiled at him and patted him on the shoulder. His dad was there, so was Mary and his father’s partner on the force, Chin Ho and Mamo and his entire team. The table before him was laid with ornate china and gleaming silver. It looked to be a celebration of some sort. He looked around and tried to see if he could spot any holiday decorations, but all he could make out were dark greenish-brown walls. The air smelled sweet and warm. Is it Thanksgiving? He mused blurrily.
He glanced around again, his gaze falling on his mom standing just beyond the opening of a wide tunnel, talking to someone in the shadows. He could make out the light falling on a blonde head. A dream then, his subconscious noted, or a hallucination. He tried to lift his arm to wave at her, but it was tied down with something.
“Mom?” His voice was barely above a whisper, but she must have heard him as she turned and the room lit up brightly by her wide smile.
“Hi, baby. You’ve really gotten yourself into it this time, huh?” She took a step towards him.
“Mom?” Steve repeated, confused, his thoughts blurring together in his brain.
“Yeah, sweetie, it’s me.” Steve watched as she took another step closer.
“Am I dead, mom?” His question caused her to laugh; a soft tinkling lilt filled the air. “Is this heaven?”
“Oh, Steve.” As suddenly as her laughter started, it ceased. The air ominously still around him. “Do you want it to be?”
Steve stared at the image of his mother, her dark hair hanging in loose waves against her shoulders. He recognized the sundress; it was dark blue with delicate lavender and peach flowers all over it. A shadow loomed behind her.
“Ko’u makuahine?” Traditional Hawaiian for mother. A soft smile graced her features. Steve only called her that when he was scared or in need of comfort. “Ko’u makuahine. . . I don’t want to die.”
“I know, baby, but you might not be able to stop it. You have done well, Steven. You have made so many proud, your dad, your team . . .me. You’ve helped so many people.” The shadow behind her grew larger still, blending effortlessly with the dankness of the tunnel. Where had the table gone? The china? The silver? “You shouldn’t be afraid, honey. I will be with you.”
“But . . . dad and Mary. My team.” Steve’s lips stung as the salt of his tears crested over their roughness. “. . .Danny.”
“They will understand, Steve. You father and sister will understand. –
“But Danny –“
“Danny will understand, honey. He knows that what you do is dangerous and he knows that there may be a time when he never hears from you again. I’ve heard him, baby. He loves you and he will understand.”
Something snagged at Steve’s memory. “But, Mom . . .”
“Baby, he loves you just as you love him. I know you and you do, you know? You love him. You love the idea of someone that loves you for all that you are and not just for what you can do. And that, Steve, is your Danny.”
A shocking pain in his leg jolted Steve to full alertness. His spine curled forward causing the dried blood that had fused his t-shirt to the bullet hole in his shoulder to pull roughly at his wound. He gasped loudly again, his eyes trying to get a fix on his surroundings. The blackness had receded, leaving behind the perpetual gloom of the tunnel.
The pain shot up his thigh again and he clawed at it only to encounter another hand beneath his. His eyes flashed wide as he glanced down in the gloom.
“Aldie. . . Aldie. . . TIM!” Steve tried to get his sole living companion to focus on his face. The shouting tore at his throat, which caused his eyes to water. Swallowing, he tried again as he set about getting Aldeen’s hand to unclench from his shredded thigh muscle.
“Ry?” Steve could barely make out the word, Aldeen’s voice was so filled with anguish. He wanted so badly to comfort his teammate, his friend, but felt powerless to do so. It was the hopelessness of the situation, which forced a lie from his mouth.
“Yeah, Tim?” He gingerly bent at the waist trying to get his ear closer to the fading man.
“Love you.” Steve couldn’t remember when he started crying, the tears dropped heavily onto Aldeen’s face, who paid them no heed. “Sorry.”
“You’ve . . . you’ve nothing to be sorry for, Tim. You are the bravest man I know.” The lump in Steve’s throat threatened to cut off his supply of air.
“Sing me that song, Ry.” Steve had no idea what song he was talking about, but started humming a song that Danny had put on his latest CD. “Love you.”
“Love you too, Tim.” Steve ground out before he started humming again. He reached his good hand over and clasp Aldeen’s tightly in his own.
Steve kept humming until the words started coming back to him.
“ . . .I’m not one of those who can easily hide. I don’t have much money but boy if I did, I’d buy a big house where we both could live. If I was a sculptor, but then again, no. Or a man who makes potions in a travelling show. I know it’s not muc –“
He stopped singing when he sensed rather than felt Aldeen’s body go slack next to him. The hand currently clutched like a lifeline in Steve’s hand flopped limply to his leg when he dropped it to check for a pulse. Running his hand gently over the dirt stained face resting on his hip, Steve let his fingers rest on Aldeen’s neck for several minutes before he lifted his hand to wipe over his own face.
And then he was alone.
December 20, 2004
Steve sat back and watched as the cab in which he was riding navigated away from the curb. He had spent the past four and a half months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and while he was always busy, it felt as if he was in seclusion.
His dad had visited briefly, very briefly as he had to return home to some top-secret case that he was working on and his sister had popped in the first week, but Steve had been on so many pharmaceuticals at the time, he barely remembered speaking with her. He didn’t really miss either of them, which might classify him a bad son and a worse brother, but it had been so long since they had been a family.
The team, he did miss. He missed being part of the action, of the camaraderie and brotherhood that he shared with the same eleven men day in, day out. Peterson and Hoover had travelled with him on the plane to the US military hospital in Germany. Hoover returned to the team soon after, but Peterson continued on to America with Steve and the bodies of Timothy J. Aldeen and Aaron W. Chester. Being team leader, he saw it as his responsibility to speak with the families.
He watched the traffic ebb and flow around the cab as the driver switched lanes and pulled onto the expressway. He tipped his head back against the seat back and closed his eyes. Part of him hoped that he would fall asleep; he was exhausted so much of the time now, but the other part was scared of the nightmares that plagued him when sleep did come.
Steve didn’t remember much of what happened in the honey-combed maze of tunnels in Afghanistan nearly five months ago. Sure, he remembers the briefings before they engaged and Taylor giving him the nickname ‘Smooth Dog’ for getting a girl to fall in love with him, sight unseen, but anything after that first day out is mostly hazy. Steve figures that much of what causes him terror when his eyes are closed is from that time, but the dream world is a tricky place to navigate. The thinnest membrane of fact is often the only thing that separates what is true and what the mind fabricates.
Some things have come back to him though. It was an overly warm day in October when he was standing propped between the support rods of the physical therapy room, trying to get his right leg to move forward, when an old Elton John song came on the radio. It had taken two orderlies and a shot of valium to get him calmed down enough to return to his room. But he was still unsure as to why that song trigger that kind of response in him. He was unsure of a lot of things these days.
He doesn’t remember the rescue or the heavy fire that their column of Humvees took as they journeyed towards safety. He was awarded a medal for bravery and the Purple Heart for wounds that he didn’t know he had for the month that he faded between lucidity and the dream world.
He remembered some things with complete certainty, like Yearling and him playing hoops in the motor pool. Or Hoover helping him to adjust his the scope on his rifle as he was named the back-up sniper position for the team. Some things, still seemed so unreal. Like hearing two of his teammates confess their love for one another, or him feeling the hot shame at touching himself in his bedroll to the idea of those same two kissing a few feet away on a darkened desert plain weeks before he was injured. The shame wasn’t aimed at his teammates. No, what they did was almost a necessity. It was natural. The shame had been within and how it had made him feel at the time. Granted, Steve had made peace with it since then.
Steve shook his head lightly to clear away the past.
The cab driver caught the ramp to enter the parkway and the cab sped west at a good clip. Steve congratulated himself for being wise enough to catch a flight in the wee hours of the morning, thus allowing him (and subsequently the driver) to travel before the heavy morning traffic jammed up the highways. He peered out of the dirty windows, but the skyline, for all of its lights still towered above the taxi, obscuring what he knew wasn’t going to be there. Steve hadn’t spent a lot of time in the city, but he knew what it should look like. The thought of seeing Honolulu without the Aloha Tower or Iolani Palace flitted through his mind and he winced in belated sympathy for those that called New York home. He was almost grateful that he couldn’t see far enough, for once it was practically a blessing that he could keep the blinders of the unknown on for just a little longer. Today was going to be difficult enough.
The orange glow of the sodium-infused lights above the road kept a steady game of hide-and-seek within the darkened cab. Steve craned his neck to look out the back window and saw the indigo of night losing its hold on the sky. The nerves in his shoulder twitched as the muscles pulled at his movement. He lifted a hand to rub at them as he swiveled his head back to a less straining position.
“Excuse me, sir,” Steve addressed the driver for the first time since he had settled into the back, “but do you have an estimate on how much further? Please?”
The driver’s eyes flicked up to the rear view mirror and he shrugged.
“The bridge and then Holland. Maybe twenty or so.”
Steve nodded and looked back out the side window. The man’s heavily accented voice caused his breath to catch, but Steve had learned long ago that not everyone was evil and not everyone wanted to kill him, but after the past three years . . . well, being hyper-vigilant was a hard habit to break. The lights of the various harbor boats twinkled far below as the car sped across the bridge.
Glancing up through the plexiglas barrier, Steve caught a flash of white as the driver smiled at him in the rearview mirror. He attempted a smile back, but Steve knew that his smile definitely needed some work as of late. He sighed and rubbed a hand over his face. He also knew that he would never go back to how he was before, but he hoped that he could at least learn to live without any regrets and ‘what if’s’. He had played that game enough while he was in rehab.
Why had he lived and Aldeen and Chester died? What if he had left them and went for help sooner? Would they have lived? What if he hadn’t been able to find them again?
Round and round the possibilities and improbabilities circled until he finally had to talk to one of the many therapists that seemed to stop in to his room on practically an hourly basis.
But the therapists weren’t the ones that helped him see that he did all that he could. No, the person that helped him the most was the one that he never expected to talk to again. Ryan Vincent.
The team hadn’t lost three members when Steve was injured and Chester and Aldie died. It had lost four. Vincent couldn’t seem to pull himself up from the painful loss of his teammate, his friend, and his lover, Tim Aldeen, and so he put in for a transfer stateside. The government fought him for a month or so, but with a word from Peterson and Commander Andersen, Vincent was now stationed out of the training facility in Virginia Beach. In fact he was living in Steve’s old apartment complex.
It had been a rough afternoon, both men shedding more tears than one would expect a pair of highly trained, combat-ready veterans of war to shed, but neither mentioned that fact. One regret that Steve would live with until the day he died was the fact that he lied to Vince that rainy afternoon in September. He told him that Tim had asked after him and had told Steve to tell him that he loved him, but due to the Swiss cheese memories of Tim’s final moments, he can’t recall if that was actually how it went down or not.
But regret aside, Vincent has been a true friend the entire time that Steve was convalescing; helping him to make the transition from being field-ready and always ‘on’ to being more relaxed and open to the new experiences that he would gain at his new position in the Navy. That being his new position at the naval base in Pearl Harbor as an instructor and mentor.
He was going back to Hawaii for the first time in nearly twelve years. In a way, the future was nearly as terrifying as the past.
The sky had lightened enough that Steve could make out much of the car’s interior. He reached down to his pack that was at his feet and pulled at the zipper. Reaching in, he pulled out a yellow notepad with a pen clipped to the edge. Scanning the bulleted list of information, Steve checked off the first three with the pen and then laid the pad on the seat next to him.
The car dipped below them and Steve saw the sign that announced the tunnel entrance. He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes. He didn’t know how anyone could navigate this road on a daily basis. Time seemed to slow and the urge to grab onto something tangible gnawed at his gut, but Steve continued to just visualize what was waiting for him on the other side.
The driver must have noticed, because his voice startled Steve, causing his eyes to fly open.
“We are through, sir.”
“Wha . . .Yeah, um, thanks.” Steve replied.
“You do not like the tunnel?” A sense of awe could be heard in the driver’s voice.
“Not so much, no.”
“I think they are interesting. Tunnels. Allowing the world to move where the earth will not.” The cabbie shrugged as if he couldn’t care less if Steve agreed or not. “We will be at your stop in moments, sir.”
A few long minutes later, the cab pulled to a stop along a nearly deserted street.
Steve told the man to leave the meter running and limped to the store across the street. The door was still locked, but he could see the employee’s preparing for the day inside. He checked his watch and paced back and forth a few times. The movement felt good, painful, but good, on his damaged leg. Someone must have noticed his impatience and his limp because the door soon was cracked open and he was able to explain his hurry. Less than five minutes later he was ensconced in the cab again and they were off.
“It is too much, sir.” Steve quirked an eyebrow at the driver. He had never had someone tell him that he had tipped too much before.
“Do you have a family? A wife? Kids?” he asked the man, receiving a nod at each question. “Good. Do something fun with your family. Give them a day to remember. When bad things happen as they sometimes do, they’ll look back at that day and remember how good life can be, how that there is fun and happiness and...love. Tell them you love them and hug them every day.”
“Please.” He cut off any more argument, by shutting the car door and hoisting his pack onto his back. The driver was still staring at him as if he was crazy and maybe he was, but he spoke softly through the open window before he slapped the top of the roof and stepped awkwardly up onto the curb. “Drive safely and thank you.”
Steve glanced at his watch and found that he had at least an hour to wait. Looking around the neighborhood, he spied a diner across the street and down a ways. Taking a cursory glance in either direction, he started to limp slowly across. Breakfast sounded pretty good right now, eggs and toast . . . no, pancakes. Eggs over easy, pancakes, and a glass of juice would really hit the spot he thought as he paused on the centerline to allow a delivery truck to pass.
Steve sat on the black iron bench beneath the dormant cheery tree. He could feel the cold of the metal seeping through his pants, but he didn’t make a move. He didn’t figure it would take long, he had taken the box and the letter into the bank about thirty minutes ago, he figured that Danny should have gotten it by now, but he was willing to sit here until nightfall if that is what it took.
A woman stepped out of the bank, coat collar pulled high and a spill of blond hair beneath a stylish winter hat. Steve eyed her carefully, but she merely hurried past him to flag down a cab.
He lifted his bare hands to his mouth and blew on them before rubbing them briskly. It wasn’t really that cold, probably in the low fifties, but Steve was still recovering from his injuries and had travelled from the heat of summer to spend the next several months in a controlled environment. He tucked his hands into his coat pockets and looked up and down the sidewalk.
The soft, worn paper of the envelope that was home to Danny’s many letters slipped along his chilled skin.
It was a nice neighborhood. Everyone seemed friendly enough, maybe not as relaxed and laid back as everyone he remembered from Hawaii, but nobody was scowling at him as he loitered on the bench.
Several more people entered and exited the bank doors, a few of them blonde, but he could tell, even though he had never seen Danny, he could tell that none of them was who he sought. A horn behind him had him pivoting on the bench in time to see a driver of a beat up blue Honda giving someone the finger. Yeah, he thought, that is exactly how I imagined New Jersey. He was chuckling as he eventually turned back around.
A man in pearl grey dress shirt was standing in the middle of the sidewalk, halfway between the building and the bench, staring at him. The mirth that Steve had experienced a moment before evaporated in the intensity of the man’s stare. His eyes travelled from the man’s slate grey tie up to his slicked back blonde hair and then back down to his black shoes. A plastic bag in the man’s hand snagged his gaze. Steve had placed the same bag in a small white box less than two hours ago.
So it wasn't a woman, flitted through Steve's mind, but he didn't care at this juncture. It didn't matter. Not anymore. It was Danny that had pulled him through. Danny and his love of photography, his taste in music, his love of home. . . Yeah, Steve thought, I'm okay with this. He rose slowly from the bench.
For all the letters that they had sent back and forth over the past three years, all the words of hopes and wishes, of fears and secrets told and kept, Steve felt the words swirling around in his head and his heart, none of them finding their way to his tongue.
He took a tentative step forward, then another before a twinge in his leg caused him to wince. Steve didn’t know if it was his attempt at moving closer or his sudden stop that prompted the blond to move, but suddenly Danny was right in front of him, a warm steadying hand on his elbow.
Steve looked down into the bright blue eyes that stared up at him in disbelief. His lips shining in the morning sunlight as his tongue slipped out to sweep quickly along their plumpness.
“They’re watermelon,” he said softly, his free hand motioning towards the bag of salt-water taffy still clutched tightly in Danny’s hand. “I remember that you said that that was your favorite.”
Steve felt nearly paralyzed under the weight of the warring emotions that battled for dominance in Danny’s brilliant blue eyes. He cleared his throat and wet his own lips.
“I hope . . . I wanted you to have them. It isn’t nearly enough to pay you back for all that you’ve given me, but . . .” Steve’s voice, barely above a whisper, trailed off as Danny took another step closer.
“It doesn’t matter, Steve. I. . .you’re . . .” he watched as Danny’s eyes filled slowly with tears. He wanted to ask if Danny had given him up for dead, but he couldn’t figure out the right way to phrase the question. Maybe someday. In the future.
“I’m home, Danny. I’m home.” Lifting his hand, Steve cupped it softly against the smaller man’s cheek before sliding it down along his neck to tilt his head back. There was no fear, no doubt, or second-guessing as Steve lowered his cold lips to smooth over Danny’s warm ones.
Briefly, his mother’s smiling face floated through his mind, before it went clear and quiet as he and Danny’s lips brushed repeatedly in the softest kisses that he had ever experienced.
Pulling back slightly, Danny wrapped his arms around Steve, the bag of candy bumping softly against the dark-haired man’s spine.
“Home.” The voice, heavy with emotion, sounded so final, so sure to Steve.
“I’ve been dreaming of home. You are my home, Danny.” Steve smile was soft, but not as soft as Danny’s mouth as he surged up to kiss him again. “All this time it’s been you that I dreaming of.”
Danny’s lips whispered against his twice and then once again before he withdrew a fraction of an inch. “Welcome home, Steve.”