by David Blome
Andy learned of the deployment in January. In nine months, his platoon was heading back down range. This would be Andy’s third tour in as many years so he thought nothing of it until March. That’s when the feeling crept up on him. Andy, it whispered, you’re not coming home from this one.
“Fellas, welcome back. Got some good news and some bad news. Good news is we’re still going to Iraq. Bad news is we’re going a lot sooner than we thought. As of this morning, we’re leaving the first week of July.”
“Whoa! Captain Price, what happened to September?”
“Nothing happened to September. But we’re leaving in July. We also need two volunteers for advance party.”
No one moved.
Fuck it, Andy thought, I got nothing to lose. “I’ll go,” he said.
“Sergeant Bower. That’s one. Anyone else?”
“All right, Bower and Hern. That was easy.”
From across the room Hern smiled at Andy. Andy winked. Captain Price wrote down their names, went over the plan for the week, then fielded questions.
“Sir, do we still get leave?”
“Yeah, in June. The tenth through the twenty-first. Mo, when’s your wedding?”
Captain Price nodded. “Anyone going?”
Six hands went up, including Andy’s.
“All of you?”
“Yes sir, you’re looking at my groomsmen.”
“Should be a good time then. Gunny, you got anything?”
“Nope. Start getting your shit together. Zero-eight tomorrow.”
Andy and Hern put on their sunglasses and walked outside.
“Well, old buddy, here we go again. Did you get a room for Mo’s wedding?”
“Yup,” Hern said, “wanna drive up together?”
“Not sure yet.”
“Seeing your mom?”
“Maybe. The wedding’s close to her house. It’d be kinda shitty of me not to stop by.”
“Did you tell her about the wedding?”
“Then how’s she gonna know?”
“I’d know. That’s the problem.”
That afternoon, Andy sat outside his apartment thinking about his mother. He wasn’t sure how to say goodbye this time. Eventually, he flipped his phone open and called her at work.
“ICU, Evelyne Bower.”
“Andy? How are you?”
“I’m good. Got a question for you. Can I stay with you for a day or two in June?”
“Of course you can stay. What’s going on?”
“We’re leaving at the end of the month.”
“You sure it’s not a problem?”
“Are you crazy? It’s never a problem. Is there anything you want to do?”
“No. Just spend a little time together. I won’t be able to stay long.”
“All right. I’ll see you soon then.”
Andy closed the phone and looked around. There it was again. He shuddered and went inside. Two weeks later, on a Friday morning, he was on his way north. The trip took nine hours counting stops for gas and coffee. He drove in silence. After a few wrong turns in Jersey, he found the hotel and walked straight to the bar. He met the other groomsmen and together they drank until Mo arrived carrying a paper bag.
“Hey guys,” he said, “come here real quick. Got something for you.” Mo reached into the bag and pulled out six shiny flasks, each engraved with a name. Andy took his and noticed it was full. He unscrewed the cap.
“What’s in here?”
“Jack Daniels. Thought you guys would appreciate that.”
Everything went as planned at the ceremony the next day. After about twenty minutes at the reception, Andy started checking his watch. When the party bus dropped him off at the hotel, he went straight to bed and left early the next morning for his mother’s house.
No one was home when he arrived so he sat on the front porch. He was staring at his shoes when Evelyne pulled into the driveway. She parked, exited the car, and ran toward her son. Andy stood up and hugged her.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, “I went shopping after work. How long have you been here?”
“Not long. I was early anyway.”
They walked to the car. Evelyne took the keys out of the ignition and opened the trunk. She held the front door while Andy carried the groceries into the house.
“I thought we could have stuffed shells tonight,” Evelyne said. “Are they still your favorite?”
“Always will be. Are you working tonight?”
“No, I have off.”
“Do you wanna make the shells now?” Andy said.
“I don’t have to.”
“Let’s do it. I’ll keep you company.”
Andy helped put away the groceries then sat at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. Evelyne filled a pot with water, placed it on the stove, and started making the filling. The phone rang. Andy didn’t move and Evelyne didn’t seem to notice. When the ringing stopped, she said, “I saw your uniform in the car. Do you have an event?”
“Yeah, a wedding.”
“When is it?”
“It was yesterday, in Jersey.”
Evelyne nodded. “Was it someone you work with?”
“Were you a groomsman?”
Evelyne stopped mixing. Andy looked up at her. She was beaming like a child at Christmas.
“Can you send me a picture?” she said.
He had to smile. “I can do that.”
“I bet you looked so handsome.”
“I don’t need dress blues to look handsome.”
Evelyne laughed. When the water came to a boil, she added the shells and set a timer. She put a baking pan and a jar of sauce on the counter and poured herself some coffee. Then she sat across from Andy and studied his face.
“How have you been?” she said in a low voice.
“I’m okay,” he said.
“You don’t seem okay.”
Andy shifted in his chair. She knows, he thought.
“No, I’m fine. Got a few things on my mind, that’s all.”
“Are you ready to go over there again?”
“I’ll be ready in two weeks. Are you gonna be okay?”
“I’ll never be okay with this, you know that.”
Andy nodded. “I know.” He walked to the coffee pot and poured himself another cup. When he sat back down, his mother looked upset.
“What’s wrong, Mom?”
Evelyne shook her head.
They sat in silence. The timer beeped. Evelyne walked to the stove and strained the shells. Then she poured sauce into the baking pan and started stuffing the shells. Andy watched her. When she finished, Evelyne covered the pan and put it in the refrigerator.
“Is it okay if I get some rest?” she said.
“I wish you could stay longer,” she said, frowning.
“So do I,” he said.
While his mother slept, Andy went for a run and took a nap. At dinner, Evelyne ate very little. Neither said a word until Andy finished his shells. “I’ll do the dishes,” he said and carried the plates to the sink.
While he was washing the dishes, Evelyne transferred the leftover shells to a plastic container. She touched Andy’s arm and said, “Will you take these tomorrow?”
Evelyne smiled. “Okay,” she said, “I’m gonna read for a little bit and go to bed.” Andy said he’d do the same. She kissed him goodnight and walked upstairs. Andy finished the dishes and turned off the lights. In bed he stared at the ceiling and did a lot of thinking.
He thought about his childhood. He could remember being happy but that was long ago. He thought about all the arguments he had overheard between his parents. The worst ones he remembered best. He also remembered the day his father left. Mom was crying. So was Dad. So was he. He thought about his first three years in the Marine Corps when he didn’t speak to his parents or answer their letters. They made him call home when Dad died. “Are you okay?” Mom said.
“I didn’t get to say goodbye,” he said and hung up. He thought about the past two years. He saw the faces of the friends he’d lost. He missed them.
Then the feeling returned. Hope you’re ready, it whispered.
I’ll be ready, you motherfucker. Andy rolled over and shut his eyes.
When he woke the clock said seven thirty-eight. He made the bed, packed his things, and walked down the stairs for what he figured was the last time.
“Did you sleep well?” Evelyne said as she washed a pan in the sink.
“Breakfast’ll be ready in a minute.”
“Okay,” Andy said. He sat at the table.
Evelyne brought him a plate of eggs, bacon, and pancakes. She put butter on the table and sat down with her coffee to watch him eat. Andy finished everything on his plate.
“You’re not eating?” he said.
“I’m not hungry.”
Andy looked at his mother. He saw grief, confusion, and pain. It sickened him.
She looked up from her cup.
“I need to go.”
“Okay,” she said.
He stood, put his plate and cup in the sink, and walked to the front door. Evelyne followed him.
“Hold on,” she said. She took him by the wrists and led him to the living room.
“What’s the matter?” Andy said.
She hugged him and started to cry, her face pressed against his chest. Andy shut his eyes and fought back the tears. They stood like that for a couple of minutes until Andy released himself. When he did she broke down. She tried to sit on the coffee table but slipped and fell to the floor. She sat there sobbing. Andy looked away.
“I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her face.
“Mom, please. I can’t leave you like this.”
“I’m okay,” she said and held out her hand. Andy took it and helped her stand. He wiped the tears from her cheek, kissed the top of her head, and walked to the door. She called his name.
“What is it?” he said.
She took a breath and said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again.”
Andy turned to look at her.
“I don’t know either, Mom. I’m sorry.” He opened the door and left.
After starting the car, he rolled down the window and waited. He expected her to join him in the driveway. She didn’t. He waited another minute then backed into the road. No one was at the front door when he drove past the house. He waved anyway.
Less than a mile down the road he pulled over and dug the flask out of his bag. He took a drink and closed his eyes. That calmed him. He took another drink then remembered that he forgot the shells.
“Goddamnit,” he said. He looked at the clock and shook his head. No, he thought, I’m not going back.
But you didn’t say goodbye, it said.
Andy gritted his teeth. “It’s too late now.”
He put the car in gear, checked the mirrors, and stomped on the accelerator. He felt better after a few miles. When he reached the highway, he felt calm and light, as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.