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It was the end of that question that he regretted. Those weren’t his words. They belonged in the dusty compounds and training barracks and out of the mouths of others. He knew that Margaret didn’t deserve to be talked to that way. When he said those words, though, her face didn’t fall like he’d expected. It grew steely. He was the one who started crying. After some time, she stood up and sat on his lap and held him while he wept until her shirt was soaked like she’d been shot.
In the article, Margaret barely referred to their meeting. She’d used only two quotes. Confirmation quotes. He felt okay about that.
Wyoming glowed in the early spring sunset. The snow was gone except in clusters. It looked every bit the moonscape that the Afghan lowlands had when he’d first arrived and sometimes when they had patrolled and he let his mind slip.
He knew of men who’d done it, and when others had called them cowards or traitors, he’d played along but didn’t feel the same. He’d come to think that there was a kind of bravery in it, considering all you lost in the process and all you had to change in your mind to get you to the place where you could pack your bags, say your goodbyes knowing you’re never coming back. That was a deployment with no prospect of return and there was no cowardice in that. Some did it better than others, though, and he did judge that. The ones who got caught couldn’t commit to being lost. They’d called a girl they knew or stayed with a cousin in a faraway state. He wouldn’t do that. He would dissolve into the air like ash and smoke.
With her feet on the dash, Catherine read her book. Samuel had been silent for some time now. They were still hours from Rock Springs. Though it wasn’t yet dark, he pulled on his headlights. He wanted to camp instead of get a room, but it would be too late to set up camp now, at least in a way that would make Catherine feel safe and comfortable. Those were the words her mother had left him with. Not in that phrasing though. She’d said that someone needed to get her little girl away from the reporters and the eyes of the town and she knew that Samuel was a good man who knew how to get lost. Her voice was wrecked as she pounded her tight fists against his chest and sobbed into his collar.
“What’s so good about that book that you can’t take your eyes off it?” he asked.
She looked over at him. “It’s for school.”
“What is it?”
She turned the cover towards him.
“Shakespeare? Really? People still make you read that?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t mind it.”
“What’s that one about?”
“I’m just starting so I don’t know. It’s about two brothers and a storm and a daughter.”
She eyed him. “You don’t read books?”
He scratched his cheek peppered with a day’s stubble. “You think I’m just a mindless grunt, don’t you?”
Catherine pulled her feet down from the dash and turned towards him. “I don’t think that at all.”
He raised his eyebrows doubtfully.
“I think if my dad trusted you then you’re a good man,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong — he protected all his men, but he only liked some of them. He used to tell me never to kiss a soldier. He told me not to get messed up with someone who would choose to kill or be killed. He said something was inside a man like that. But he liked you. You know that. That’s the only reason my mom trusted you.”
Samuel heard all of this and then felt stupid again for reacting defensively about the reading. He didn’t read books anymore, and he didn’t know why he felt shame for that in front of this girl. He nodded at her and lifted his hand off the steering wheel and waved as apology and thanks.
She shifted in her seat. “I’m not a virgin,” she said and then added, more quietly, “I just thought I should tell you that.”
The car filled with unease.
“I don’t need to know that,” Samuel said, a mumble.
“I wanted to tell you I’m not as young as I look.”
“Catherine, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but — “
Her eyes flooded, and she darted a few nods. He felt nauseous.
“Are you gonna tell me more about what happened?” Her voice was squeezed with tears. “My mom won’t tell me anything, but then she put me in a car with you and I know you know things. I do. I know you know. And if it takes that, then I’m okay with it.” She reached over and touched his thigh. He could feel the tips of her fingers graze the keloid, the rising puff of his scar.
He shook his head. “It’s up to your mother to tell you.”
“I’m asking you to do it.” She slid her hand up.
There’d been a woman in Baghdad. This was before the IED exploded, before the hospital and the rehabilitation center. She worked in the Green Zone in the mess hall. She and the others like her with head scarves and angular noses. They stood in the kitchen making omelets, hamburgers, roast turkeys, barbecue ribs, and crab legs, salads, tacos, pies, and cakes. Sometimes she scooped Baskin Robbins ice cream for soldiers in their fatigues. Samuel noticed her immediately. With her angry eyes, she reminded him of his mother and the girls back in Houston who hated him after sleeping with him and giving him their still beating hearts. He spoke to her after weeks of watching her, just words of thanks and welcome, and he then approached her one evening in the deep freezer where she worked alone, stacking boxes of rib eyes. The shelves reached the ceiling of the frozen room as he stepped towards her. She didn’t look up at him until he was inches from her. He didn’t mean to scare her, but he did want to see her. She turned and gazed up, then shook her head. But then she surprised him and reached for him, cupped his crotch and said, “Not unless you free me from this place.”
“I can’t do that,” he told her in a hushed voice.
When she closed her eyelids, her tearing eyes quivered. She let her head fall against his chest. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, and they stood in that dance until the freezer’s cold became too much.
With Catherine in the cab, he pulled her hand away and clenched it. “I want you to hear me when I tell you this,” he said. “Okay?”
She gazed at him confused. “Okay,” she repeated.
“You don’t ever have to do that. There’s not a man on this planet who deserves you selling yourself short like that. You’re more than your body. That much I’ve learned.”
Her crying became apoplectic. “I don’t know what to do. Tell me why he did it.”
Samuel shook his head. He was here in the Wyoming lowlands and out on patrol, here with his Captain’s daughter and out in that mud-hutted village outside of Kandahar with those poor-as-fuck Afghan farmers living with no electricity or running water, all those bearded men with battered teeth and shredded robes.
“God damn it,” he said out loud and then eased over to the side of the road, the dusty edge spitting gravel until the truck lurched forward one last time and then settled. He left the engine and the blowing heater on.
Catherine didn’t look up, her face shrouded by her cupped palms.
“Alright. I’ll tell you. For all I know, your mother wants me to.” He looked outside his window where a jackrabbit skirted across the dirt and disappeared behind two boulders. “Your father knew about the kill team, but he was in one of those impossible situations. He could have reported it. He could have. But we all could have. We didn’t though because — it’s hard to explain.”
Catherine huffed into her hands as she tried to calm herself. “Explain it,” she managed.
He turned and looked at her. He reached over and touched her hair. It was soft. “There’s no wrong when it’s all wrong. That’s all I can say. You get into that kind of situation with kids blowing themselves up and old men planting bombs in every patch of dirt, and it can confuse you. So it confused him, and so when people started asking, reporters and then Washington, he did what he was trained to do.” He reached for her chin because he knew what he would say next would be a kind of betrayal to her. It was a window into her father’s priorities, the way that war and the preparation for war can scramble a man’s biological impulses to protect self and children first. “He looked after his men. That’s why he lied. He didn’t do any of the staging or the killing. He just lied and said it was him. And when it all came apart, he did what he thought would protect you and your mother best. That’s why he put that gun in his mouth.”