Near Fallujah • December 14, 2004
I was tired—right down to the bone—when I returned to the FOB (Forward Operating Base) after our latest mission into Fallujah.
Given the loss of my Lieutenant—the loss of my best friend—and many other deaths suffered in various Squads, my Platoon was being broken up, its members added to other Squads.
Such re-groupings happened—especially during war-time—but usually not on such a large scale. It was a sign of just how rough the last weeks had been. Among the Platoons in my Battalion, the rumor was that over 20 soldiers had been killed. And—of course—many, many others had been injured.
Almost ten times as many.
From the meeting I’d just attended, I knew that the number of dead was actually 23 since November; in fact, we were, by far, the hardest hit Battalion in Operation Phantom Fury, which I thought was a silly name—truth be told. But it was a very serious offensive. With the help of the Brits and Iraqis who’d joined our side, we’d finally taken Fallujah—albeit for a very steep price. And the clusters of enemy combatants in the city were becoming few and far between. Indeed, my squad’s previous two missions had resulted in no gunfire whatsoever.
I just wish that Bill had lived long enough to enjoy the relative quiet.
Also, in the meeting I’d just been to—during which I’d been given a field commission to Lieutenant—I’d been confidentially told that one squad of Marines within our Battalion had been accused of committing war crimes against our enemies and, therefore, removed from the area for questioning.
A very small part of me empathized with those soldiers for a moment. War was hell, and becoming a demon in that hell was sometimes a tempting step to take. However, I truly hated the idea of U.S. Marines turning into monsters. Yes—there was a sense in which we had been trained to be killing machines, but that didn’t mean it was okay for us to be murderers or to torture our captives.
We were fighting against that shit!
Even the man who’d killed Bill—a man whom I’d killed—would have deserved fair treatment, had capturing him been a feasible option. I don’t know exactly what it said about me that I hated the man that killed Bill, but also hated the fact that I’d been the one to end his life.
Maybe it just said that I was either the perfect soldier or the least perfect. I didn’t know which; I just did my job.
And—right now—my job was packing up my shit in the barracks that had housed my Platoon off and on for the last month so that I could be transferred to another Platoon. I was glad that Clancy and Rasul would be joining me. Both were getting promoted to Sergeant, and I’d known them both since Bill and my second deployment.
Altogether, Bill and I had shared four deployments, with the first being a stress-free stint in Germany. But then 9/11 had occurred. Our second deployment—in Afghanistan—had lasted almost two years. After another leave, our third tour, lasting eight months, had taken us to Iraq. Our fourth—Bill’s last—had brought us to Iraq for a second time and was supposed to have lasted for nine months. However, the tour now had “TBA” as its end-date. Of course, Bill would have likely been dismissed on the date of his planned exit since his paperwork had already gone through paving the way for his transition from active duty to the Reserves.
If he’d lived.
I quickly showered and packed my belongings in my footlocker. And then I turned my attention to Bill’s belongings. Since the time between his death and my subsequent missions had been so short—and that “free” time had included several meetings with a psychiatrist as well as with my C.O. to make sure that I was okay following the death of my best friend—I’d not yet gone through his things.
And no one had rushed me either. But I knew it was a chore I needed to get done before we left; I couldn’t very well take the belongings of a dead Marine to our next stop, after all. Plus, I figured that Sookie was waiting for them.
It was customary, actually, for the Marine closest to a fallen brother to be the one to go through his footlocker. After all, no spouse needed to receive evidence of her husband’s misdeeds among his personal effects.
Knowing Bill so well, I also knew that the contents of the footlocker wouldn’t rock Sookie’s world too much—at least, not at first. However, there were a few things that she might wonder about—things that she could begin to investigate, and I saw it as part of my duty to my brother to remove those things.
For his sake and for Sookie’s.
Bill had promised to do the same for me—if our positions had been reversed (which I guiltily wished they had been)—so that Pam wouldn’t receive anything untoward. It wouldn’t do at all for my kid sister to find two worn copies of Penthouse amidst my belongings, after all.
Now—with two hours to kill and a bit of privacy, thanks to the fact that most of my Platoon had already been reshuffled elsewhere, I sat down and opened Bill’s footlocker. Sending it to Sookie would mean that the last part of him that was still physically with me would be gone too, but I tried not to think about that.
First, I took out the three things Bill told me needed to go, one representing a lie and the other two signifying the only major sin that I had ever known Bill to commit. He’d already pointed out the things I needed to get rid of—just so that I’d be certain to get them all.
One was a picture of the woman Bill had lost his virginity to. This was what he called his “first lie” to the woman he’d always called “the love of his life.”
I knew that Bill had told Sookie that he, too, had been a virgin on their wedding night. However, he’d been very nervous about pleasing Sookie so he’d let his father William talk him into losing his virginity with a high-end prostitute at a place called Southern Comfort. Apparently, going there to “become a man” was just as much of a Compton tradition as joining the Marines or being elected to public office. Bill had intended to forego that tradition until his nerves got the better of him one week before his wedding.
He’d kept a picture of the woman—whose name was Selah—because she’d been so kind to him, teaching him ways to make a woman “happy.” Though the picture would have just looked like a random woman to Sookie, she might have wondered who it was. I put it into the trash. Bill had told me the story of Selah on the first night we’d really spoken, drunkenly using the “Selah situation” as evidence for why he was unfit to be a father and a husband. In truth, I’d disapproved of Bill’s “visit to the house of ill-repute” (his phrasing, not mine), and I’d told him so. He’d had a beautiful fiancé who loved him unconditionally and who had been saving her own virginity for him—and specifically for their wedding night. I had thought he’d been a lucky bastard to have someone like Sookie.
Oh—I’d had my share of one-night-stands in high school and after it. After the first couple, I found out the hard way that the young women were with me only for my good looks—as well as for my novelty as the “new guy” in school. It likely doesn’t say much about me that the kinds of girls who gravitated towards me in high school were the same kinds that casually gossiped about things like a guy’s ability in the sack or his penis size. Even at eighteen, I’d felt a bit used by girls—an idea my father had certainly reinforced would be the case.
I’d spent hours trying to have conversations with the few girls I’d actually wanted something more than sex with—only to learn very little about what made them tick. Always, they seemed to be telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. I’d started to believe that I only attracted girls that had no desire to share any aspect of their “real” selves with me. But as a hormonal teenaged guy, I’d ultimately decided that any female companionship was better than none.
And sex felt good—at least while it was happening.
After high school, I’d gone almost straight into the Marines. On weekend passes or leaves, I would find women in bars or clubs, some of those women “specializing” in service men. Few of them wanted more than a casual fuck.
Again—sex felt good. But I never felt a connection beyond a brief physical one with any of the women I would “entertain” in one random motel room or another.
So—yes—I’d envied Bill for the intimacy he shared with Sookie, intimacy that went so far beyond sex that I had no idea what it must be like to experience something like that. I’d certainly never seen it modeled by my parents.
Sookie seemed so damned kind—in every story Bill told me about her! And she was certainly beautiful, lighting up every picture I’d ever seen of her. She seemed perfect—really. And it was clear that she loved him with all that she was.
She’d insisted upon “meeting me” over the phone, and she always took the time to ask Bill about me. Plus, she’d send me little things in Bill’s care packages, too—baked goods mostly. In fact, for the last several years, the only birthday cards I’d received had been from Sookie and Jase.
So—yeah—I thought that Bill was an extremely lucky bastard for having someone like Sookie.
Not surprisingly, Bill had felt guilty for cheating on Sookie before they married, and—though I could sort of understand his apprehension about “performing well” on the wedding night—I’d told him that his guilt was pretty fucking justifiable.
I wondered sometimes if it was my own promiscuous behavior that led Bill to commit what I felt to be the greatest of his sins. After all, during almost every weekend pass we had, I picked up some one-night stand or another. Bill even said that he envied me, and—knowing that—I should have stopped looking for temporary relief. Meanwhile, Bill missed Sookie—and sex—so much. And a Marine could almost always find a date. I saw how Bill denied the many offers he got. I admired him for being stalwart—faithful—to his wife.
And—again—I’d envied him for having someone like Sookie at home who was definitely worthy of his faithfulness.
But then there had been a night when we were two weeks into our more advanced training when Bill had gotten drunk and not rebuffed a woman’s advances; instead, he’d spent a good deal of time flirting with her. I’d foregone my own amorous pursuits that night to make sure he didn’t do something stupid with the woman—Lorena.
That night, I’d made sure we made it back to the base without Bill doing anything beyond flirtation. But Bill had done something that I’d missed; he’d taken Lorena’s phone number—on the very slip of paper I now held in my hand, which was the second item Bill had wanted me to throw away from his belongings.
When he’d sobered up the morning after we’d first encountered Lorena, Bill had told me how ashamed he was for flirting with Lorena, but the next time we went out to the bar we frequented when we were able, she happened to be there, and he flirted again. Again, I avoided picking up a woman so that I could make sure my best friend didn’t fuck up royally!
That night, Bill and I got into a fight as I dragged his too-drunk ass from the bar after he kissed Lorena right on the fucking dance floor of the hole-in-the-wall bar.
He’d told me to stop being his fucking babysitter and that he was a “grown ass man—and a lonely one at that!” I told him he was just being an ass! And then I reminded him of his then very pregnant wife!
He threw a punch I didn’t return. And, then, he threw another that laid me onto my own ass before stomping away.
The next morning, we talked things out, and he told me that I couldn’t possibly understand how hard it was for him to have all the pressures that he did. He rightly pointed out that I had no people to be responsible for beyond myself. Meanwhile, he had to worry about Sookie, his unborn child, his parents, and all of their expectations of him.
I could understand the power of expectations, though I no longer had any myself.
I wanted to tell him that I would have traded all the one-night stands I ever had just to have one of the gifts he sometimes took for granted—a woman who loved him unconditionally. But I kept my mouth shut.
Indeed, in order to keep our friendship, Bill told me that I needed to “back off from being the moral police.” I hated Lorena, blamed her for being beautiful, tempting, and unrelenting. She knew Bill was married and knew he had a kid on the way.
But—ultimately—the choice to cheat on his wife belonged to Bill alone. And any power Lorena had over Bill was power he let her have. As far as I knew, Bill had “hooked up” with Lorena half a dozen times or so. He knew I disapproved, but I also looked away.
A better man would have risked his friendship to do anything possible to ensure that someone like Sookie wouldn’t be dishonored in any way.
But I wasn’t a better man. I was a selfish one. And Bill was my only friend.
Plus, he was right in a way. What did I know about the trials involved in being faithful? After all, my own mother had gotten pregnant by another man when she was married to my father! And my father certainly wasn’t faithful!
Moreover, I’d hoped that Bill would give Lorena up forever after his active duty was over. He’d promised that he would.
Still, he’d kept her number and the third item from his footlocker I needed to throw away—a picture of himself and Lorena. Someone else had taken the shot; Bill had, at least, not asked me to do it. In the picture, Lorena was sitting on Bill’s lap, and his arms were wrapped around her. They were both smiling happily.
I frowned, wondering for the millionth time how Bill could seem so happy with Lorena while he claimed that Sookie was his “soulmate.” He’d always told me that Lorena was just a way for him to “sow his wild oats.” I thought both he and that phrase were fucking ridiculous!
After all, while Bill was “sowing,” Sookie was growing and then taking care of their kid!
I sighed; I figured that the last time Bill contacted Lorena had been right before our current deployment. We’d been briefly stationed in San Diego—to do some additional training with new Platoon members. It was during that time that Bill was promoted. We’d all gone out to celebrate in our civvies. Bill had been having the waitress snap a few pictures of the group that he could email to Sookie when I’d seen Lorena enter the bar.
I shook my head. I’d never forget the look that Bill gave Lorena, and—in that moment, I’d known that Lorena had somehow gotten ahold of a piece of his heart. Honestly, the whole episode had made me doubt that real love actually existed.
After all, if a great guy like Bill—and make no mistake about it, I continued to love him like a brother, despite his indiscretion—could stray from a wonderful woman like Sookie, I figured no relationship could pass the tests of time and distance.
But brotherhood did withstand those tests, and that’s why I dialed the number on the scrap of paper before throwing it into the trash.
I knew it was mid-morning in the States, but the voice that greeted me sounded like it belonged to someone who’d been asleep, nonetheless.
“Lorena?” I asked.
“Who’s asking?” she returned suggestively.
I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge between them. “Eric Northman. I’m a friend of Bill Compton’s.”
“Yeah—I remember you!” she said, suddenly sounding more awake. “Is Bill coming to San Diego soon? You live around here—don’t you?”
I took a deep breath. “Ma’am, I have some bad news for you. Bill’s dead. He was killed in action.”
“What? No!” I heard her gasp into the phone. And then I heard whimpering and knew she’d started to cry.
“Bill,” I paused, “cared about you. He asked me to phone you—to tell you—if anything ever happened to him, Ma’am. He didn’t want you to always have to wonder.” I sighed deeply, hating my chore and wondering if I could just hang up as she cried a little louder.
“He’s really dead?” she finally voiced.
“I’m sorry. Yes. He was killed in Fallujah at the end of November. His funeral was ten days ago at Arlington Cemetery,” I informed.
Immediately, Lorena stopped crying. “I’m sure his perfect little wifey made sure it was the perfect little service,” she spit out bitterly. “He loved me in a way he could never love her, you know! He just had to stay with her because of the stupid kid she trapped him with and his political future.”
“He said that?” I asked, immediately regretting the question. I didn’t give her a chance to answer. “Listen, Lorena, whatever he said and felt about you, he wanted you to be told if he died. And now that I’ve done that, I . . . .”
“Wait!” she interrupted. I could tell that she was crying again. “He didn’t suffer—did he?” she asked.
I wanted to tell her what I’d refrained from telling Sookie and William—that Bill had apparently suffered for about a minute, which had been the time between the sniper’s first shot at him and the time of the next three, which came in quick succession.
Apparently, the sniper had been trying to draw out more would-be rescuers.
His gut wound had brought Bill to his knees and made it impossible for him to take ample cover, though a gory blood trail had told me that he’d tried to crawl to safety. He ordered the men to not try to get to him until the all-clear had been given about the sniper—an all-clear I was too late in giving.
Likely knowing he was dying, but fighting for his life nonetheless, Bill had suffered. According to Rasul’s account, Bill’s ineffective crawling had ended with his resting on his knees. That was when the second shot came; it hit him hard enough to spin his kneeling body; then, the third and fourth shots finally ended his pain.
And his life.
I wanted to tell Lorena in order to punish her—to give her the burden of knowing the truth so that she would have to suffer, at least a little, for being the one woman who had successfully tempted my friend to the point that he broke his marriage vows.
But I didn’t.
“No, Ma’am,” I lied. “Bill didn’t suffer.” I found myself wondering if Bill really did intend to end things with Lorena as she continued crying.
“Thank you for calling, Eric. I loved him, and if he’d just never called again—if I never heard anything—I would have always hated him a little for abandoning me.”
Truth be told, I was angry at Bill for abandoning me! Still, I kept my tone steady, not wanting to stir a hornet’s nest that might lead to Sookie and Jase getting stung. Indeed, in my opinion, Lorena was just the kind of woman that might call Sookie and tell her about Bill and their “great love” just to spite Bill’s widow.
I couldn’t let that happen.
“I’m sure that Bill would have been happy to hear that you loved him. Look, I—uh—know that Bill really cared for you—a lot,” I embellished, “and I know he’d want me to make sure you were okay—uh—financially. If you aren’t, I’ll do what I can for you. There wouldn’t be a need for you to—uh—contact his family or anything,” I added before holding my breath.
Indeed, my worst fear in calling Lorena was that it might spur her to go after Bill’s money—either from his parents or Sookie.
“I wasn’t with Bill for the money!” Lorena snarled angrily.
“I know,” I quickly placated. “But he’d want to make sure you were okay—because he cared so much,” I emphasized.
She sniffled. “You’re right—of course. I’m sorry I got angry. It’s just—I didn’t care about his money. I wanted him,” she sighed. “But that dream’s gone now.”
“I am sorry,” I said, trying to sound sincere when I was not. I was sorry for Sookie and Jase and William and Sophie-Anne. Not Lorena.
“Thank you for telling me about him, Eric,” she said before—thankfully—hanging up.
I quickly erased her number from my phone and breathed a sigh of relief before looking through the rest of Bill’s footlocker. In it, I found final notes he’d written to his parents and to Sookie. I had a similar note for Pam in my footlocker. There was also a manila envelope with several letters to Jase, all meant for different times of his life. I sighed and re-closed the envelope. There was also a half-written letter to Sookie. In it, he talked about how much he missed and loved her and how anxious he was for them to start trying for another baby once he was home. I felt my sorrow building as I thought about all the things Bill would never be able to do. I folded the letter and put it with the others. And then I found Bill’s stack of pictures.
I smiled at the ones of little Jase. He favored Bill, but had bright eyes like his mother. The next picture was one of Sookie. She was dressed in a pretty sun dress and was holding up a sign that said, “Happy Anniversary!” In her eyes was so much love that my heart broke a little more for her.
In that moment, I was glad I’d taken care of the uncomfortable Lorena phone call and that it seemed like Bill’s mistress would stay a dirty little secret. Sookie need never know about her; that knowledge would only hurt her.
The next picture in the stack was one of Sookie when she was heavily pregnant. She was sitting on a porch swing and had a smile on her face, despite the fact that she had to have been uncomfortable. I flipped the photo over, knowing what it said already, since Bill had shown it to me when he got it. Still, I read it: “We love you, Bill!”
And we did. Me. Jase. Sookie. Bill’s parents.
There were many other photos of Sookie and Jase in the stack, and after making sure that there were no other photos there shouldn’t have been, I put them all to the side—all but one. I took a picture of Sookie and Jase sitting on the porch swing that had been taken quite recently—maybe two months before. Unlike most of the others, it had no writing on the back.
I don’t know why I felt the urge to take it—maybe it was because I’d hoped to one day meet Bill’s wife and child in person. I couldn’t help but to wonder if I would get that chance now.
A/N: Well there you have it—a complication about Bill. I know that some of you were happy to see a “good Bill” in this story. I’m sorry if this ruins that for you. Bill’s unfaithfulness was always a part of this plot though. Still—I hope not to paint Bill as completely bad in this story. Yes—unfaithfulness is unforgivable, but there are some things that he does which are “good.” Above all, I wanted to hang on to some threads from the SVM world, but also paint a very “human” and flawed Bill. As for one Marine “cleaning out” the footlocker of another: I have heard of this kind of thing happening, so I’m painting it as kind of the “norm” for the Platoon that Eric and Bill are in. It makes sense though that this kind of thing would be done. You’ll see a continuation of this scene next time.
Speaking of next time, it seems like the next times for this piece are going to be coming with more frequency. Thanks to the amazing Kleannhouse and her mad beta work, I’ll be able to being you two chapters a week. I’m thinking either Tuesdays or Wednesdays and also either Fridays or Saturdays.
Thanks to everyone who sent me well-wishes about being sick. I hope that you will leave me a comment if you have the time and inclination.