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Chester, one of my field platoon brothers, bows his brow high into his thick, dark hairline as his light blue eyes glare into mine. “Are you sure, Hawke? You’re sitting on sixteen. Any blackjack dealer will tell you, sixteen is solid,” he asks.
He raises his voice to ensure I can hear him over the choppers landing in a dusty field a quarter mile from our base. Our squadron is bunkered down, waiting for the call on where we are going next. We’re on day five of a six-month deployment. A carefree sentiment prevailed since we’ve recently returned from a two-week break. My mood is extra relaxed as I only have six weeks remaining before my four-year stint in the military comes to a close.
My crew’s two-week hiatus from Iraq passed in a blink of an eye, but it was fourteen days of amazing accomplishments for the entire platoon. Chester’s prize winning mare birthed a foal, Tallis got engaged, Miquel got divorced, London, well. . . he went back to London, and I married the love of my life.
Jorgie is the type of girl men can only dream of catching. Thick, luxurious dark hair, the fairest, unmarked skin I’ve ever seen, and eyes that look like they were painted by Rembrandt himself. I’m not lying when I say Jorgie is the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. She didn’t just knock me on my ass when I met her, she completely winded me—literally.
I’ve never been a man who believes in fate, until I met Jorgie. I’d known her brother, Hugo, since he joined the Kappa Sigma Phi fraternity at our local university. Not once in those two years did he mention how hot his little sister was. Don’t get me wrong, Hugo talked about Jorgie all the time, but from the stories he shared, Jorgie sounded like a female replica of him. Nothing against Hugo, but at six-foot-five and two hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle, a female Hugo didn’t sound like the type of girl I’d be interested in getting to know a little better.
Boy, was I wrong. So very wrong.
After taking an unexpected naked plunge in Lake George during summer break, I discovered that Jorgie may have had Hugo’s dark hair, sky-blue eyes, and large smile, but she was nothing like her big brother. She was all woman, a woman I would have given anything to become well acquainted with.
I’m not going to lie, my endeavor to woo Jorgie the following four months was an uphill battle. I wasn’t just up against Jorgie’s displeasure of me crashing into her canoe butt naked after an impromptu skinny dip with a bunch of college girls, I was fighting a much harder challenge: Jorgie’s older brothers. The Marshall boys were raised by their father to always protect their mother and their sisters. Considering Jorgie is the baby of the family, Hugo and Jorgie’s older brother, Chase, made it their mission to keep us apart.
But like every determined offensive lineman, their challenge only made the game more enticing to me. You can’t achieve the greatest victory known to man without putting in a stellar effort. I did exactly that. I gave it my all. And, in the end, I won. Snagging Jorgie was the best game I’ve ever fielded. A triumph worthy of the record books.
I am the luckiest bastard in the world, because I not only caught Jorgie; I courted her, married her, and knocked her up with our son who is due in a little under six weeks. It’s been a great four years. Some of the best I’ve had.
Now, don’t take my admission the wrong way, I’m not saying things are always rosy in my relationship with Jorgie; we are like every other young couple out there. We fight, I get jealous, and we both have quirks we can’t stand about each other. She hates that I bite my toenails. I loathe that she covers my house in hideous floral towels and knitted tea covers when I am deployed, but just like every other couple, we take the good with the bad. It’s what makes us stronger.
My reminiscing comes to a halt when a deck of cards is flung at my head, hitting me just above my left eyebrow.
Gritting my teeth, I snap my eyes to Chester.
“Hit or stay,” he mutters.
He may have only said three little words, but his eyes relay so much more. Peering into Chester’s eyes is the equivalent of scanning an open encyclopedia. If you want to know anything about Chester’s life he isn’t willing to share, you just need to stare into his eyes. They disclose way more than his mouth ever could.
I rack my knuckles on the makeshift blackjack table. “Hit me. I’m feeling lucky.”
A roar from the men seated around me sounds over the choppers in the distance. With four cartons of cigarettes on the table, my gamble is substantial, but I have a feeling something immense is about to happen, so I am willing to take a risk on losing my bargaining chips for the next four weeks. My laidback mindset might also have something to do with the fact I don’t smoke, so my gamble isn’t as life-altering as Chester’s. His brow is beaded with sweat, and the distinct scent of defeat is leaching from his pores.
As Chester flips over the black checkered card, the room falls into resolute silence. I divert my gaze to the late afternoon sky when a flock of doves fly over the dust covered mesh tent we are camped under. The sky is void of a single cloud. It is beautifully serene but weirdly eerie at the same time. A patent imitation to the war-torn country I am immersed in.
Shaking off the uneasy feeling growing in the pit of my stomach, I turn my eyes back to the table in just enough time to see a five of hearts flip onto my solid sixteen. The crowd surrounding me erupts into an ear-piercing holler. I stare at the cards, absorbing what should be a glorious victory, but for some reason unbeknownst to me, I can’t celebrate.
When the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention, I return my eyes to the sky. Something doesn’t feel right. I have a terrible feeling deep in my gut that something is horribly wrong.
I bolt out of my seat and rush to the improvised communications room the crew set up when we first landed. I hear Chester calling my name, but my frantic speed doesn’t slow. Doctors have warned us numerous times the past two months that Jorgie may go into labor early due to our son being a little on the large size. Unfortunately, that can’t be helped. Jorgie is a stick of dynamite with a small frame and mouth-watering curves, but she stands a little over six feet tall. Add that to my six foot three height and two hundred twenty pounds, and you have a recipe for a record-weight-breaking newborn. The guys in my platoon have been taking bets the prior six months. At last check, ten pounds is the clear favorite sitting at 2 to 1 odds.
When I enter the communications room, I scan my eyes around the area, hoping to find a free station. Due to our secluded location, standard cell phone reception is spotty, so my regiment have stayed in contact with our loved ones via satellite internet the past five days. The service is slow, but when it’s all you have, you make it work.
Failing to find an unoccupied computer, I prop my shoulder onto the thick canvas material lining the room and patiently wait for a free station. You know that feeling you get when you know something isn’t quite right, but you can’t pinpoint the exact reason for your racing heart and clammy hands? That’s how I am feeling at now. For every second that ticks by on the clock, the churning of my stomach grows.
When the wary feeling in my gut becomes impossible for me to ignore, I move toward the closest bank of computers, preparing to plead with a fellow squad member for a portion of their fifteen-minute allotment. If that fails, I am not below yanking them out of their seats.
Just as I hit the first row of computers, Dangelo, a fellow member of my platoon, waves his hand in the air, signaling he is about to finalize his call. Breathing a sigh of relief that I’m not going to be assigned mess duty for a week, I run my hand over my clipped hair as I quickly span the distance between us.
“Stay safe. I love you, D,” I catch Dangelo’s wife, Penny, saying when I stop to stand beside him.
“I will, baby; see you soon,” Dangelo replies before pushing two fingers to his lips and pressing them onto the computer screen.
Once the screen goes blank, Dangelo stands from his seat and runs his eyes over my face, absorbing my stunned expression.
“Ah, shit, I better go and change my bet. I thought Jorgie still had a good three weeks to go, but from the look on your face, I have a feeling things may be happening a little sooner than predicted,” he mumbles before sidestepping me and racing toward Hamilton, the money man behind Jorgie’s bets.
Although Dangelo’s comment is aiming for playful, it adds to the gnawing pit in my stomach. As much as I can’t wait to meet my son, I would prefer for it to happen when I am on home turf, and when Jorgie is closer to the safe zone the doctors have been aiming for the past two months: the magic thirty-seven weeks mark.
Ignoring the shake beginning to control my arms, I plop into the chair and lift my hand to the mouse. My heart is walloping against my chest so furiously, the cursor on the screen wobbles as I scan it across the monitor to click into my Skype account and connect to Jorgie’s profile.
For every ring that goes unanswered, the weight on my chest grows.
By the time half an hour creeps past, I can barely breathe because the heaviness on my chest is so intense.
When another thirty minutes passes, my panic hits an all-time high.
Jorgie always carries her cell phone with her. From the day I was deployed two months after we started dating, she has ensured her cell is fully charged and accessible. Like every serviceman’s wife, she knows the importance a five-minute chat with significant others have on the men and women on duty. When I return from a tiresome day in the field, sometimes those quick calls home are the only thing that keep me going. So, it isn’t like Jorgie. She wouldn’t not take my call unless something terrible has happened.
I sink deeper into the hard wooden chair, causing the rusted hinges to give out a creak. While running my hand over the scruff on my chin, I try to calm the mad beat of my heart. I’ve never felt more hopeless than I do right now. I try to convince myself that if Jorgie is in labor, our son will be okay. Although six weeks is early, with how advanced technology is, I am certain he will be fine.
For all I know, the panic could be completely unnecessary; Jorgie may not even be in labor. She could be simply sleeping. She barely sleeps a wink when I am deployed as it is, let alone with a heavily pregnant stomach to contend with. I just wish she would answer my calls so I can settle the unease swirling in my stomach.
Any chances of settling the gnawing pit in my gut are lost when Major General Carmichael enters the communication room with the chaplain following closely behind him. My breathing turns labored as I slouch deeper into my chair, praying to God the chaplain isn’t here for me. I’ve only seen the chaplain once during my last deployment; it was when London’s brother was killed in duty. Other than that, the members of my crew only seek the chaplain’s assistance when they are either broken or on the verge of being broken.
The twisting of my stomach winds all the way up my throat when Major General Carmichael turns his gaze in my direction. I crank my neck to peer behind my shoulder, certain his glistening eyes are peering at someone else. A stabbing pain hits the middle of my chest when I discover there is no one behind me. After swallowing away a horribly bitter taste in the back of my throat, I return my eyes front and center, stand from my chair, and salute my senior officer as he spans the distance between us. Every step he takes tightens the stranglehold wrapped around my throat, silently asphyxiating me.
Carmichael stops in front of me, returns my salute, then gestures for me to sit.
“I’d rather stand,” I reply, speaking through cotton mouth, the shakiness of my words unable to hide the hammering of my heart.
Snapping my eyes shut, I faintly mutter, “Thank fuck,” into the late afternoon air when Carmichael hands me a satellite phone. In the military, bad news only ever comes in the form of a telegram, not a phone call.
My gratefulness is short lived when I press the phone to my ear and am delivered the news no man ever wants to hear. “Hawke, it’s Hugo. Jorgie’s been in an accident. She’s not good.”
“Our baby?” I stutter, my words barely a whisper.
Hugo doesn’t utter another syllable. He doesn’t need to speak for me to know the words his mouth is failing to produce. I can hear every horrid comment through the heartbreaking sob sounding down the line.
As the room spins around me, I fall to my knees and howl.
I am completely and utterly destroyed.
Two days after the call that ended my life, I met and held my son for the first time in the morgue he was resting in. The tuft of hair on top of his head was as dark as his mother’s, his lips just as plump. Even being six weeks early didn’t take away from his chubby little cheeks and chunky thighs. I know parents can be biased, but I am not lying when I say Malcolm was perfect in every way. Ten perfect little toes and ten perfect little fingers on a precious little boy who never had the chance to play catch with his dad, ride a bike, kiss a girl, or take his very first breath. Malcolm was everything I could have wished for and more. He was the perfect combination of both Jorgie and me.
As if the pain of losing my son wasn’t tragic enough, I also lost my wife—my beautiful little firecracker. The injuries Jorgie sustained when she was hit by a drunk driver after having lunch with her best friend, Ava, were fatal. But, thankfully, against doctor’s advice, Jorgie’s family kept her on life support so I would have the opportunity to say goodbye to the love of my life in person.
It was a bitterly sweet day.
I’ll be forever grateful that I was the man who got to place Malcolm into his mother’s arms for the first time, but I’ll never forget hearing Jorgie take her last breath only a short four hours later.
I thought the disturbing images of war I encountered during my years of service in the US Army was going to be the worst thing I’d ever see in my life. It wasn’t. It was seeing my wife laid to rest two days after her death with our son, Malcolm, cradled in her arms. There has been no crueler image than that one. It still haunts me to this day.
Even more so since I am standing at the foot of the church they were laid to rest in. A little less than five years have passed since that day, but I still recall it like it was yesterday. Jorgie was buried in the wedding dress she walked down the aisle in only three weeks earlier. Malcolm wore the outfit he was supposed to be christened in at this very church. They were buried in a beautiful plot near an old oak tree only a few feet from here.
It’s somewhere I haven’t visited since the day they were laid in their final resting place - a place I’ll never be strong enough to visit. Jorgie and Malcolm aren’t in that white coffin covered in dirt. They are in my heart. I carry them with me everywhere I go. It won’t matter if another five years pass or fifty, they will forever be carried in my heart.
I gulp in a deep breath, trying to build the courage to push open the church doors that both haunt and appease my grief. When I married Jorgie in this church, I thought we were creating memories we would have forever to cherish. Little did I know I’d be saying my final goodbye to her at the same church only three short weeks later.
As I push down on the old brass handle on the whitewashed double doors, I remember a saying I’ve quoted numerous times the past five years.
Memories last a lifetime, but not all of them are sweet.
A late fall wind whips up my hair, adding to my already disheveled appearance as I slide out of a rusted old pickup. “Thank you,” I praise the lady who rescued me from being stranded at a B&B ten miles out.
The leanly built lady with dazzling brown eyes bows her head before pulling her truck away from the graveled-lined parking lot of a cute little church on the outskirts of Rochdale, NY. When I requested for my Uber driver to alter our initially agreed-upon route, I never considered that I’d end up stranded on the side of an isolated road. Thankfully, my bad timing corresponded with the knock-off time of the maid from the B&B, otherwise I’d be not only wrangling a tousled hairstyle but blistering feet as well.
Although I’m arriving at my friend’s wedding a little ruffled