Chapter 06: Surge
NOTE: This chapter begins approximately two and a half years after the previous scene.
Near Kabul, Afghanistan • Monday, June 7, 2010
“At ease,” I told the group of assembled men as I entered the room. I would likely never get used to so many people standing at attention on account of me, but I supposed I’d earned their respect, just as I’d earned my rank. Immediately, the Marines sat down almost as one and focused their attention on the front of the room.
I carefully went over our next mission, spending most of my time showing the men and women under my command several maps of the cave systems north of Kandahar as we knew them—not that we knew enough. Hopefully, we knew just enough, however—to keep them alive.
I also walked them through how in-person searches of the seemingly endless caverns were fraught with peril. I showed them slides that depicted the kinds of booby traps we’d seen in the past, including the kind that took one of Rasul’s legs from him.
I was known for my thorough planning sessions, and I knew that—if they had dared—a few of the greener Marines might have yawned through the litany of my reminders. But I didn’t give a fuck what they thought. Those who’d been in Afghanistan for more than a couple of missions understood well that thoroughness saved lives and limbs.
Those that didn’t know that yet would know within the next couple of days, for our current mission was extremely dangerous and intricate.
A group of Taliban fighters had destroyed a school and threatened to do the same with any other that opened its doors to girls. Of course, I knew that such things were done to bring terror to the people in the towns the Taliban had controlled before “The Surge.”
Afghanistan had been all but forgotten back in the States before President Obama and his advisors decided to up the ante with “The Surge.” Personally, I’d been all for it—though the fighting in Kandahar the month before had been almost as bad as the fighting in Fallujah had been. The Marines, however, were still riding high from a string of small victories. So the losses we’d suffered had seemed worth it in a way.
To the others, at least.
I’d been calling Afghanistan “home” for almost eleven months. After my duties in Iraq were deemed over, I’d taken a month-long leave in London in order to spend part of the previous summer with Pam. I still hadn’t returned to the States, and a part of me wondered if I ever would. In fact, I’d been thinking about—perhaps—asking to be permanently stationed at a U.S. Embassy in Europe somewhere. England, of course, would be ideal. However, I’d held off thus far because I didn’t want to encroach upon Pam’s life. She was an independent nineteen-year-old woman, after all.
I took a few questions from the men and women in front of me.
Like most of the missions I’d overseen in Afghanistan, the one in front of the Marines under my command would be fraught with danger, but I knew they’d be able to handle it. They always did.
After I was certain everyone was up to speed, I coordinated our drone support and then went to speak with our newest Afghani liaison. As had become my practice, I’d used what spare time I had to learn the most common dialects of the region I was stationed in. However, I still took a translator with me to speak with the liaison. Until I trusted him 110%, I would keep my own knowledge of the native languages close to my vest.
God knew that I’d “overheard” enough shady shit from so-called “local allies” before to know that their motives weren’t always what they seemed. Of course, most of our local contacts were good people, but it was part of my job to know the few that weren’t.
Once everything was in place for the mission, I retired to my quarters. My room was smaller than the one I’d enjoyed for my last tour in Iraq, but I had my own bathroom, which was nice. I glanced at my clock and waited to see if Jase would initiate a Skype call. As Sookie had asked, I’d cut back on communication with Bill’s son, but we still spoke once a month or so—generally the first Saturday of each month, always at around 0900 his time. At eleven years old, Jase had been given the responsibility of initiating our phone calls. Much to my disappointment, he’d missed a couple during the last year. I just hoped that wasn’t a harbinger of what was to come.
Usually, Jase would make up for a missed call by emailing and arranging for another time, but I couldn’t help but to hope that he would call that day.
Some missions just gave me a bad feeling, and the upcoming one was doing just that. Not only would speaking with Jase settle my nerves a bit, but also I didn’t like to think that I might get killed without speaking to him just one more time.
Always—just one more time.
I was happy when my computer let me know I had a call.
“Hi Jase,” I smiled as I connected.
“I’m thinkin’ about goin’ by Jason. What do you think?” he asked excitedly—by way of a greeting. “I haven’t talked to Momma about it yet, but I’m growin’ up, and I think I might like ‘Jason’ more than ‘Jase.’ I’m just not 100% sure yet!”
I chuckled. “I think you should do what you want. But what brought this decision on?” I asked.
At that point, Jase—or “Jason” as I began to put my head around—launched into an explanation that included his wanting to have a more “grown-up name” and Jessica’s preference for “Jason” over “Jase.”
I listened intently, as always. Though Jason would have certainly denied it—since girls still had “cooties” to him—I knew that his “friend” Jessica was a powerful voice in his life.
He asked me to call him “Jason”—as a sort of trial. He wanted to see if he liked it before he talked to his mom and Mr. Herveaux about it. I agreed, of course. Jason always amused—and impressed—me with the processes he went through when he made an important decision.
“So—are you looking forward to your trip to see your grandparents?” I asked him after his explanation was over. He’d talked about the upcoming week-long vacation in Annapolis, Maryland the last time we’d spoken.
Immediately, his little face grew a worried expression. “I can’t go now. Grandma had a stroke,” he said sadly.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Jason. Is she gonna be okay?” I asked with concern. I’d always liked Bill’s mother, Sophie-Anne, and she’d always seemed very healthy and vibrant.
He looked down. I could tell that he was sad and a little scared. “She had it four days ago, but she’s still in the hospital. Momma says she’ll be okay, but she started cryin’ after she talked to Grandpa on the phone. She said somethin’ about Grandma bein’ paralyzed on one of her sides.”
“That can happen with a stroke,” I said softly. “But a lot of the time, the person that has a stroke can get a little better. It just takes some time.”
“That’s what Alcide said too,” Jason sighed.
“Uncle Eric?” he said my name as a question.
“Speakin’ of names and stuff, I’ve been kinda wantin’ to ask Alcide if I can call him Dad? Do you think he’d let me?”
In that moment, I felt a stab of jealousy, but I was happy for Jason too. It was clear that he already thought of Alcide as his dad. It was also clear that he had a lot of love for the man.
“I’m sure he’d love it,” I said, my throat tight.
Jason smiled brightly. “I think I’ll ask him today or maybe this weekend. I’m goin’ with him to one of his construction sites this afternoon, and he’s gonna show me how to mix cement.”
“That sounds like a lot of fun,” I smiled back, trying to restrain my jealousy and focus on how glad I was that Jason had such a good man in his life.
His face fell a little again. “Do you think it’s okay to have fun with Alcide when Grandma Sophie-Anne is so sick?”
“I’m sure she’d be glad that you’re having fun,” I reassured.
“That’s what Alcide said,” Jason returned with a nod.
“Well—Alcide is right,” I reinforced. Whenever Jason brought up something Herveaux had told him, I always tried to bolster the thought. The last thing I wanted was to cause any waves by seeming to go against Jason’s new father. I enjoyed the relationship I still maintained with Jason too much to do anything that might put it at risk.
Plus, I liked Alcide Herveaux himself. He’d made it a point to step into Skype calls now and then to chat with me, though he’d never stayed long, nor had he tried to monopolize them. It seemed that he was simply concerned about Jason’s wellbeing and wanted to know the man who was providing a monthly influence over his stepson. Mr. Herveaux had not had the benefit of the many years of reading my letters to Jason that Sookie had had. Indeed, I didn’t mind Mr. Herveaux’s carefulness at all; I thought that it spoke to his overall competence as a father for Jason.
I think that, in getting to know me a bit, Mr. Herveaux felt more secure about his own position in Jase’s life. And I felt more secure about my own, for—though my communication with Jase had been lowered—it had never been disrupted by Mr. Herveaux. In fact, during the couple of times that he and I had spoken when Jason had left the room for whatever reason, he’d been man enough to admit his own insecurities to me, which I felt was pretty damned brave on his part. Those insecurities seemed to have been brought on partly by the fact that he was unable to father children of his own. He’d also made sure that I knew that he wouldn’t ever encourage Jason to stop communicating with me. I’d appreciated the assurances, and I’d believed the man who had made them.
With Sookie herself, our communication had remained quite limited. Adele Stackhouse had stepped into Skype calls quite a few times over the last several years, even initiating one with me without Jason being there. During that call, she’d told me how grateful she was for me being in Jason’s life—and how grateful Sookie was too, though neither of them had done a good enough job of showing that. Adele shared with me that Sookie was truly scared of me on an emotional level that she’d never openly acknowledged—not even to her own grandmother. According to Mrs. Stackhouse, I reminded Sookie of Bill and her brother Jason because I wore a uniform that put me in danger on a daily basis. Seeing me brought her losses into the forefront of her mind. Still, Adele wanted me to know that Sookie often spoke of the contributions I made to Jason’s life.
I’d thanked Mrs. Stackhouse for her kind words and explanations, but—truth be told—I hadn’t needed them. On an intrinsic level that I couldn’t quite explain, I understood Sookie, and I felt that she “got” me in a fundamental way, too. First and foremost, she seemed to understand instinctively that I would never do anything to harm her son. Maybe that was because she trusted Bill’s assessment of me. Maybe it was because of the few times she and I had spoken on the phone during and right after Bill’s life. Maybe it was the fact that she’d understood my motives from my first letter to her following Bill’s death—and my many letters to Jason.
Indeed, during the first few years of my interactions with Jase, I intuited that Sookie had come to know everything she needed to know about me from my letters to her son. Given my relative inexperience with relationships, it had comforted me to know that—if she’d thought them to be even a little damaging to Jase—she would have simply stopped reading them to him. Moreover, during those early years, she had needed to write Jason’s responses to me—at least, until his writing grew strong enough. In Sookie’s letters on Jason’s behalf, there had been a lot to read between the lines. In the subtext, she’d made clear that she valued me in her child’s life, but could never allow herself to become too “friendly” with me because she couldn’t withstand the constant worry that she would endure for a soldier if she did come to care about me, beyond a casual level. Up to that time in her life, she’d had a soldier to worry about for years: first her brother Jason and then Bill. And her worry had been—unfortunately—well-founded. They’d both been killed in action.
I was well aware that I could be killed in action.
Plus, in one of her letters written for Jason—one where she’d let quite a bit of herself slip in by the end—she’d “joked” that she was somehow a jinx. The joke had been of the variety that conveyed more guilt than mirth. I couldn’t imagine why she would feel that her love or friendship could jinx anyone, but I couldn’t begrudge her feelings either, for I wasn’t in her shoes. During her young life, I knew of four people she’d lost—losses that had occurred when those people had been far away from her. Her parents, as I understood from Bill, had drowned while on a vacation in the Caribbean. Her brother had died in Kosovo, one of the few U.S. soldiers to suffer that fate in that warzone in the late 90’s. And, of course, Bill had died in Iraq. I figured that Sookie must have felt powerless each time—far away from those whom she’d lost and unable to tell them goodbye.
Thus, Sookie just couldn’t afford to invest her heart into the wellbeing of another person halfway around the earth from her.
I never blamed her for that. After all, I was like her in a way. My own reticence about investing my heart in relationships was likely what made me hold back my true affection from the soldiers around me. Losing Bill had made me keenly aware of what it felt like to have one’s heart gutted with grief. Could I blame Sookie for not wanting to know me better—for sparing herself more potential grief? For wanting—at least, on a subconscious level—to spare her child from becoming too dependent upon and attached to someone at such risk?
Because—yes—I “got” her. I recognized that we were the same in the sense that we knew the value in guarding the heart, though I envied her for being brave enough to put herself out there with Alcide.
And I “missed” her—what little I’d gotten of her—from when she would insert herself, though in a limited way, into Jason’s letters. Jason’s learning to write well so that he could take up the task of writing to me had been great, but I did sometimes pull out the ones Sookie had written, just to enjoy them again.
Jason, who had been in silent thought—just like myself—for a while, recaptured my attention. “Since I’m not goin’ to see Grandma and Grandpa, Alcide’s takin’ me campin’ with Aunt Hadley’s kid either this weekend or the one after that,” he reported. “Hey, maybe I’ll wait to ask Alcide if I can call him ‘Dad” until then,” he mused.
Again, I felt a quick jab of emotional pain, but I covered it up. The last thing Jason needed was to feel guilty for his own feelings.
“Hadley’s son is named Hunter—right?” I asked. I knew that Hadley was actually Sookie’s cousin, but that Jason called her his aunt. Jason had also talked about Hunter from time to time; the boy was almost exactly two years older than Jason was, and Jason looked up to him a bit.
“Yeah. We’re goin’ to Gramps’s cabin at the lake.”
I nodded. Gramps was Alcide Herveaux’s father, Jackson. And I knew that the lake being referred to was Cross Lake.
I listened as Jason told me the other things that had been going on in his life. Then, as usual, I offered him a bit about my own comings and goings before ending with a story about Bill. The one I chose related to something Bill had once told me about fishing at Cross Lake and seeing an alligator there. Jason listened excitedly.
We hung up 52 minutes after the call began. But I found myself already looking forward to the next one.
My newest shrink, Dr. Avery, had floated the idea that I should have close relationships beyond the ones I shared with my sister and Jason, which—I couldn’t deny—were mostly phone relationships. I had been trying. Indeed, I’d developed some casual friendships over time with fellow soldiers beyond Rasul and Clancy, with whom I still kept in touch via letters. Clancy, now living in Philadelphia, worked as a mechanic, and his wife was due to have their first child in November. Rasul, because he spoke Arabic, was currently stationed at the Pentagon as a translator. He was doing well, considering the loss of his leg; he’d reconnected with his high school sweetheart, and the two were living together in D.C.
In addition to trying to develop casual friendships where I could, I’d had romantic encounters too—even having a brief “relationship” with a woman in London for most of the month I was there. And there had been a woman in Iraq too—Thalia—a reporter for the Associated Press who was assigned to Baghdad for an extended period of time. I’d enjoyed spending time with her; she was smart and knew a lot more about certain places in the world than I did. And she was fearless, sometimes wanting to go to places that weren’t quite stable enough to afford guaranteed security. And I couldn’t lie and say that I didn’t enjoy the sexual intimacy I’d shared with her.
I had not loved her though—just as she’d not loved me. So, when she’d gotten reassigned, we’d parted amicably, agreeing to move on.
Or—at least—move elsewhere.
Of course, it was somewhat difficult to really be friends with men and women of a lower rank than myself. I was in a position of power over them, and—for better or for worse—that meant that I could never fully be myself with them, just as my superiors couldn’t be themselves with me. So—yeah—I recognized myself as being a lonely man. But I knew other Marines who had very little beyond the Corps, too.
I lay down on my rack, knowing I likely wouldn’t be getting any more decent shuteye until the upcoming mission was over. I looked over at my nightstand. The picture I’d taken from Bill’s things—the one of Sookie and Jason—was now framed and sitting on the little table, along with Jason’s most recent school picture and a picture of Pam and me that had been taken the previous summer. She’d grown into a beautiful young woman, and there was an air of confidence and ease about her that she might never have developed if she’d spent all of her childhood years with our mother and Appius. Through my counseling sessions, I’d come to acknowledge that they were cold—closed off.
Shitty parents, really.
I was glad they’d been better to Pam, but I knew her life with Edward Ravenscroft included something Freyda and Appius Northman couldn’t have possibly offered her: love and real acceptance.
A part of me wanted—perhaps desperately—to believe that my mother, at least, had loved me. She’d left me a letter of explanation with her Will, after all. And she’d been sorry that Ravenscroft couldn’t take me in as well. Plus, she’d left me some life insurance money, which had helped me to hold on to the Long Beach house for as long as I chose to.
As for Appius? Well—I suspected he’d never quite grown the ability to love anything beyond himself.
Yes—Pam was lucky. Edward Ravenscroft was a good father, and he’d encouraged my sister to express herself and pursue the things she enjoyed.
Jason, too, was extremely lucky. I could tell that Sookie fostered his interests. And Alcide Herveaux had clearly been an excellent influence and role model.
As for me? Well—I’d been lucky enough to make it through more than a decade of intense military service. And that was nothing to take for granted.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010 • 18:30 Hours / 7:30 p.m. (approximately 2 weeks later)
I was tired—dog tired. The initial mission, to take out a group of Taliban who were hiding in caves north of Kandahar had almost resulted in the loss of most of my Marines, not to mention me. It seemed I’d been right to doubt our new liaison, whom I’d discovered trying to convey information about our position to the very people we were trying to capture or kill. At the last minute, we’d had to scrap our specific plans since we didn’t know how much our so-called guide had already shared with the Taliban. However, we were still ordered to take the caves.
Had it been up to me, I would have waited a while—since the enemy pretty much knew that we were on our way. But I was overruled by those above me. Hell—even my current C.O., Colonel Russell Edgington, had been overruled by one General or another! In executing our quickly-put-together revised plan of attack, three of my men were separated from the rest of their Squad, and—I feared—captured. Inconveniently, the enemy had set up equipment around the cave systems that fucked with our communications.
In the end, the lost men were recovered, just a bit worse for wear, but one member of the Platoon, a redhead that looked about sixteen years old named Jetson O’Malley had been killed in action. Two others were badly injured by a trip wire.
My superiors were pleased, however, because the mission goals had been accomplished with what they deemed to be “minimal losses.”
I scoffed. I’d spoken to O’Malley’s dad in Boston. Minimal loss my ass!
Still—I knew it could have been worse. Hell! I’d been in worse situations more times than I wanted to count.
Finally, after about eight hours of debriefing and taking care of the call to the O’Malleys, I had time to go back to my room.
However, I was caught on my way there by an out-of-breath Corporal, whom I’d never seen before.
“Captain Northman?” she panted out.
“Yes,” I confirmed.
She nodded. “I’ve been looking for you since you’ve been back, Sir.”
“I’ve been debriefing,” I responded. I didn’t tell her that I had been with the CIA in an undisclosed location. After all, most of the soldiers had no idea that there were U.S. spies all over the fucking war zone, feeding us information and—in turn—getting fed information back.
Having a good eye for detail, I’d been able to map out a good deal of the caves and tunnel systems we’d just cleared, as well as point out some passages that we’d not had the opportunity to explore once we’d rounded up everyone we’d been sent to capture or kill.
“Sir, it’s your family. There’s been an emergency, and I’ve been asked to give you this,” she said, handing me a folded piece of paper.
My heart dropped as I took the sheet and opened it. Could life be so fucking cruel as to allow harm to come to my sister—even as she was “safe” in London and I was traipsing through caves with trip wires all over the fucking place?
When I looked at the note, it had only a name and a phone number on it: Amelia Broadway 555-318-1674. I looked up at the Corporal, “This is a Stateside number. My sister is in London.”
“I’m sorry, Sir. I was just told to give you that and tell you that it was a matter of great importance that you contact that person ASAP. Sorry I don’t know more.”
I gave her a brief salute to signal that she could leave and then hurried the rest of the way to my room, wondering who the hell Amelia Broadway was.
And then it hit me. 555 was Jason and Sookie’s area code too!
A/N: Well—another long time leap! And a cliffhanger. Are you as worried as Eric is?
Many of you commented last time about how you were miffed at Sookie and/or Alcide for their treatment of Eric. I very much enjoyed your comments! I definitely wanted to show the flaws in all of the characters in this story. It makes things more “human.” Also, I wanted to carry on some of the character traits we see in the books: Alcide’s territorial behavior and Sookie’s propensity for not dealing with matters that involve Eric. In my heart of hearts, I think that she is somewhat attracted to him (even in the “now” of this story)—from his pictures (we know that Bill sent her at least one with Eric in it from her focusing on it for a minute at Bill’s funeral) and/or letters and/or brief phone/Skype interactions. And I think she wouldn’t have wanted to acknowledge any “care/attraction” she had for him. Also, a lot of you gave Sookie a really hard time for letting Jase interact with Eric without really monitoring that. This is where—I’m afraid—the time leap might have undermined my intentions. To, perhaps, clarify—when Jase was younger—for the years right after Bill died—Sookie both read and responded (for Jase) to Eric’s letters. And I imagine that she would have monitored phone calls and shared a few words with Eric during phone calls, especially when Jase was 5-7ish years old. And—of course—we know from her thoughts a few chapters ago—that she monitored Jase’s Skype calls with Eric enough to know that he’d taught her son certain things (a lesson about chores, for example). Anyway, I wanted to make clear that Sookie did (and does) monitor Jase’s interactions with Eric—at least enough to be sure that Eric wasn’t/isn’t some kind of creep. Gran and Alcide, too, did this. And, of course, Jase never showed any signs of negative effects from his interactions with Eric. Anyway, I wanted to clear that up. As far at the criticism of Sookie for cutting down Eric’s interactions with Jase to one call a month (rather than one call a week) and just one letter a month, I understand—and, to a certain extent, agree with you, especially since she acknowledged that she’d absorbed Gran’s lesson—that the heart always had room for more love. However, one of Sookie’s major flaws in the books (show) was that she could NEVER seem to apply her positive life beliefs in Eric’s direction. Of course, in the above chapter, Eric acknowledges that—and attributes it to her fear, which I think also motivated her in the books/show (until CH seemed to scrap both her and Eric’s previous characterizations in the last several books). Anyway, this long note is meant to be a big THANK YOU for reading, reacting, responding, and rebuking (in some cases) the characters in this piece. It makes me feel amazing when readers have such a strong reaction!
Please, keep it up—if I manage to provoke your responses again.
All my best,