by Peyton Roberts
Tonight an unfamiliar ringtone startles us awake. That’s never good. Two hours into knock out REM sleep, I have already forgotten my husband has the duty phone. He drops the covers on the bed and reaches for shorts as he answers the call, shutting down the invasive, foreign melody. I eavesdrop for hushed conversation in the other room, the sound I always hear when the duty phone rings.
But this time, there are no words. There is silence.
Maybe he’s checking a voicemail?
I wait. More silence.
A few minutes trickle by. Strange. I haven’t heard him call leadership to relay any messages. Or perhaps the white noise machine lapping ocean waves near my head is drowning out what I expect to hear.
I am drifting back to sleep when a tap on the shoulder jerks me awake. I turn to see my husband standing beside the bed fully clothed.
“I just got a call. I’m heading in to work.”
“Is everything okay?” I coil up in the sheets, my eyes squinting at him to get a better read. But I already know everything is not okay. The duty phone never rings with good news. No one heads to the command at midnight when everything is just fine.
“I don’t know.” His voice reveals an urgency I don’t care for.
Shit. I stare at my husband through the dim red lighting of the digital alarm clock on my nightstand. The intensity in his eyes sends a message straight to my soul. This is bad. I don’t know what he knows. I only know he cannot tell me.
Without considering the consequences, I ask the question that can change everything in a breath.
“Is everyone okay?”
“I don’t know. I have to go,” he says. But his eyes say otherwise. He knows. His eyes want to tell me what they know, but his lips are sworn to more silence. He kisses my forehead. His hand leaves my back. Seconds later the backdoor shuts. His pickup rumbles to a start. He’s gone.
The clock shines a siren red 12:07 A.M. It’s a Thursday night, turned Friday morning. My mind pinballs around considering what they woke him up to confront. I think of my friend’s husband on a flight over the Pacific Ocean right now. Earlier that day I bounced their 8-month-old baby on my knee saying how glad I was that our husbands aren’t in a dangerous job right now. I pray the duty phone has nothing to do with them.
I find myself hoping that, best case, there was some kind of DUI or alcohol-related incident. Better the night wreck someone’s career over their family. A DUI would be an entirely likely scenario on a Thursday at midnight. The officer on watch receives that call. But my husband has received DUI calls in the middle of the night before and never had to leave the house. On those occasions, he stayed up for an hour or two having hushed conversation on the phone in the other room. He never sped off in the dead of night. Plus, nothing about a DUI is classified. He would have told me.
My mind scrolls through a catalogue of people, places, scenarios. The best case, the worst case. And what makes me think it’s worst-case is the storm in my husband’s eyes before his hand left my back. These were not the eyes of someone annoyed by interrupted sleep. These were the eyes of damage control. Perhaps even the dreaded eyes of fear.
Far from the prospect of falling back asleep, I consider who I can call. My first instinct is to call another command spouse because no one else would understand any of this. But calling another spouse in the middle of the night to say, “I know something is wrong, but I don’t know what,” is a form of domestic terrorism. Especially since I might accidentally call the person whose life has changed forever. There is absolutely no one I can call right now.
The stalemate has led me out of our bed and as far as the kitchen. Consulting my laptop, I scour the headlines. The last time I turned to news sites for answers was after a cryptic text from another spouse rolled in. She led with, “Ben is okay…Is that what you were calling about?” Nope! I was just calling to say hi. Didn’t have a clue what we were all about to find out.
One glance at a news site that morning and I understood her response. A helicopter crashed killing everyone on board, but no names had been released yet until their families were notified. I wonder how many duty phones rang that night.
Those were some of the longest hours of our lives as we waited for those names.
Here in the silence of an empty house at midnight, I browse headlines not knowing what I’m looking for. A crash? An accident? An IED? My jaw locks, and my heart pounds in my chest. I am relieved my husband was under the sheets next to me when the duty phone rang. And yet, the eyes of fear stared back at me, imprinting into my memory like a horror scene.
Please be okay. Whoever you are. Please be okay. I pray. I hope.
But I spin the wheels of hope knowing something is not okay. Worse, someone is not okay. My husband is not going in to work to prevent a mishap or to fix anything. He’s going in to find out how bad the damage is and whose life is changed forever. The news sites reveal nothing helpful. Whatever it is hasn’t made the news.
At 12:42 A.M., my phone rings. I fumble through the circus that is my purse to answer the call before it goes to voicemail.
“What’s going on?” I try on a casual tone to mask that I’ve already researched every possible scenario.
“I just wanted to let you know that everything’s okay right now. There’s a situation I need to stay here and monitor, so I won’t be coming home for a while.”
“Is it some kind of international threat?” I ask, shamelessly fishing.
“No, it’s a situation with some of the troops that are involved with us out here. I have to be here to keep an eye on things. Won’t be home for a while. But everyone’s okay.”
I blink in disbelief. The words he is saying are the best possible words. I release a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. My shoulders drop, and my forehead falls into my palm. That everyone’s okay is an ending I never saw coming.
“Okay, thanks for calling. I love you and hope you get some sleep tonight.” I try not to let on that I’m so grateful, so relieved that this time our friends are spared.
“Thanks. Love you too.”
I set the phone down on the kitchen table and look up at the living room, as if searching for someone to tell. And then it really hits me.
Tears stream down my face making it all the way to my chin before I bother to wipe them on the sleeve of my nightshirt. After not even 45 minutes of the worst kind of worrying, I fall apart over not having to watch someone else fall apart.
They’re okay. Whoever they are tonight, they are going to be okay. These operators, their spouses, their babies. For now, they’re all okay.
Taking respite in social media, I scroll pictures of friends from former duty stations until I recover enough to shut my mind down and sleep. Around two o’clock, I crawl under cold sheets in the dark cave of our room. A single last tear slides across my cheek onto the pillowcase.
Thank God. Tonight, they’re okay.