“So how was the video game party?” I asked.
“Fine,” Matt grunted.
“Did you get to eat enough pizza?”
“What video game did you play?”
“You could play Halo or Warcraft. Jeff had both. I played Warcraft. Crystal plays a mage. She made me a character and ran me through some quests. I got some gear and some loot and leveled up it was fun.”
“Was Crystal the prettiest girl there?”
“Nah, well she’s not the girly, girl prettiest. She’s nice looking, and she plays video games. She didn’t sit around and talk all night like the other girls. She knows how to play and I think she ate more pizza than I did. She’s fun.” Matt seemed to have enjoyed his evening. I was happy to see he found a group where he fit in.
On top of everything else that happened Matt’s best friend Aaron moved to Idaho to live with his Grandmother. His parents divorced, and neither of them wanted to take the boy. I felt terrible for Aaron, and I worried how Matt was going to adjust to a new school year without him. Maybe it would be best for them to move closer. Matt could go to school with kids from the base, and he might even have some new friends before school started.
I closed down the house and settled into bed alongside my snoring husband. I tried to commit each detail to memory. How perfect his warm body felt next to mine, and how full and happy the small house was with them both in it. I could trick myself into believing they were with me when I was alone if I could just memorize the details.
The next morning we took the walking tour of the base, but I was too fixated on Matt and Dave to notice where we were going and how we had gotten there. I was happy to have them with me but also anxious because they would have to leave soon and my heart would be that much emptier without them there.
On Sunday, Matt found an unmanned drone and remote control plane demonstration to go to with some of the boys he met the night before. I walked Matt to the meeting area only to find several other children waiting for him.
Crystal and her father were playing Frisbee on the main lawn when the group of kids walked by and lured her away from him. I could see the man was disappointed to lose her to the crowd, but like me, he seemed happy to see his child find a group of friends. We stood far apart on the lawn and watched the kids meander away towards an open warehouse door.
Once Matt was out of my sight, I walked back to the cottage to join Dave. He and I had planned to make the most of our time alone, but he was unusually distant, and the whole endeavor seemed passionless and forced. Sunday, seemed like we had barely finished our pancakes and it was time to gather their stuff for the trip home. We stopped by the legal office and met with Nick. To his credit, he had the packets of paperwork ready for me to sign, no drawn out instructions, no explanations. Red, arrow stickers pointed to where he needed my signatures.
All that I had identified myself with over the past sixteen years dissolved by signing my name eight times. It was absolutely surreal. My hand signed my name as if it had a mind of its own. When I was finished, I tried to reassure Dave that none of it changed anything between us. We were just protecting our son’s future, protecting all that we had saved and gone without to provide him with that future. The paper meant nothing. Dave shut down all but the pleasantries of his vocabulary. He kept repeating the phrase it will all work out, and patting my shoulder. Too much had happened in too short of a time. Dave looked like a man operating solely on autopilot. There was no use trying to console him. He would need time to square up the things he had witnessed before he would be ready for any real conversation.
Dave would have a new job with better pay. The fact that Richards lackey had told him about the opening meant they had already arranged it for him. Dave would meet a great real estate agent, and our house would miraculously sell quicker than anyone could expect. The boys would move two small towns away and according to the plan I could see solidifying in front of me, Matt would start the new school year with new possibilities and new friends. Even under the watchful eye of big brother, it all might work out.
I stood at the edge of the thick, green lawn bordering the departure pad and watched as small groups of weekend visitors boarded the helicopters. Matt seemed to enjoy the loud hum of the aircraft and watched in awe as the flight crew prepared the large helicopter for passengers and cargo. Dave looked at me with the most somber expression I had ever seen on his face; it was as if he was looking at me for the last time. Everything happening in my life seemed to pull me further away from theirs, and any attempt I made to stop my progress only hurt them.
What kind of sick, twisted person would allow someone like me to venture off into the land of car seats and white picket fences knowing there was even a chance I might have to be brought back kicking and screaming one day? This cruelty I would wish on no one. I kissed them both quickly when the ground crew signaled it was time to board. I stretched tall, waved my last goodbye, and tried not to cry openly as the large helicopter lifted off the ground. It happened too fast. I wasn’t ready for them to leave.
The sunglasses Gerald bought me came in handy for hiding my tear filled eyes. As I looked around at the crowd, I realized that I was not the only one left abandoned on the grass. This torturous moment was a weekly ritual for many of my fellow detainees. Some people go home to their families at night. I see them waiting at the helipad but as I looked around I realized there are many like me that do not.
There were a few hours of daylight left, and I didn’t want to go back to my empty, disheveled house and cry my eyes out just yet. I decided to take a walk in the opposite direction of my cottage to clear my head. As I turned to leave, I spotted Richard waving in my direction from across the grass. He motioned for me to stay put as he handed his bags off to one of his over eager assistants. She grabbed his bags and pushed a clipboard full of papers in his hands. He quickly scribbled his signature on the flapping pages before turning his attention back to me. Richard made his way through the crowd of weekend mourners, oblivious to their grief, with a big fat smile plastered on his face.
“Hey, how did the visit go? Richard asked cheerfully.
“I signed off on my house deed, turned over all my bank accounts, and started my divorce. That Nick really knows how to fill a girl’s weekend with excitement.”
“Nick had mentioned a few business items would be tied up this weekend."
I crossed my arms and poked at the ground with my boot tread. “He mentioned that to you, did he? So did you enjoy your time with your family?”
“Family, no my family lives in Montana. I won’t be visiting them anytime soon.” Richard raised his hand in the air to block the sun.
“I assumed you went home like all the others.”
“Nope, my home is over there past all the other white dome roofs. Just had a few loose ends to tie up in town, nothing exciting like yours though. Hey, I’m headed over to the south stables to check in with the Vet. Come with me to see the horses.” Richard’s request sounded rehearsed. I wanted to question him further so I agreed.
“Why not, I am in no hurry to go home. My place looks like a tornado hit.” Richard moved to take my arm. I folded them and looked back at the people behind us before walking a few steps out of his reach.
“Actually, that problem I can fix. While we check out the stables and grab some dinner, your cottage will be put back to rights.” Richard opened his phone and pressed a few numbers. “Yes, hello, this is Colonel Wolfe, I would like to request a full restock and clean for the far north village cottage, yes C. Mcnair, thank you.”
“Speaking of restocking, I noticed my place was loaded up with all my favorite stuff. My vanilla shampoo, my tee tree soap, the Kona coffee I like, even the fancy pancake syrup I use. How would someone guess correctly on all those items?”
“No guessing was required. It’s all info from your credit card purchases for the past few years. I did guess on the coffee filters. I figured you for an unbleached girl. Amazing really, the things you can find out about a person by pawing through their credit card transactions. I bet I could shock you with the deep, dark secrets I have collected.”
“All from my credit cards. You must think you know me pretty well.” The air was getting cold, I rolled down the long sleeves on my thick shirt and buttoned them to keep the chill off my arms.
“You haven’t changed that much. Your support for capitalism aside, you seem a bit mellower. I’ve seen you with the nurses. You can actually accept help from people. You used to be so fiercely independent.”
“The car wreck taught me how to need help and then it forced me to accept it. Needing anyone to help me with anything was completely foreign to me. I do remember that much.”
Richard’s smile faded, and his tone turned serious. “Has Gerald talked to you about the accident?”
“We have discussed it a few times. I know it was all fabricated here if that’s what you’re getting at, but it was real to me.” An awkward silence filled the space around us. The only sound left was the heavy tread of our boots smashing the tall grassy ground beneath them. I couldn’t stand it. “Let’s test your credit card clairvoyance. What am I thinking about right now?”
“How much you hate me for dragging you back here.” Richard slid his hands into his pockets and looked down at the ground as he slowly walked beside me waiting for my response. "So you do hate me?"
“Are you an only child? Seriously, not everything is about you. I’m quietly keeping an eye out for the chipmunks protecting the trees and bushes they live in around here.” I zipped up the fleece vest I was happy I had the good sense to wear to the helipad.
“I will have you know I have three brothers and honestly Cal I have never seen the chipmunks do anything besides scurry away.”
“They don’t try to cuss you out when you walk by.” I heard something squeak from behind a short, sparse patch of tall grass and whipped my head around to see what it was.
“Does Gerald still have you on painkillers? What are you taking?”
“Stop it, they don’t speak to me they chirp, and squeak and make grinding sounds. They’re mad, and I think they’re following me.”
“You are seriously afraid of chipmunks?”
“Wary, I am wary of the chipmunk population as a whole. I must have unknowingly disturbed one of their dens or burrows, hovels, whatever they live in.”
“I will have maintenance take a look around your cottage maybe they have a chipmunk stronghold under your rose bushes.” Richard joked, laughing aloud at me.
“You laugh but one of these days they are going to attack; you’ll believe me then.”
“Just kick the furry little buggers; they’re no bigger than a tennis ball.”
“No, I couldn’t hurt them. They look like squirrels with pinstripes, they’re too cute.”
“So you don’t hate me for bringing you back here?” Richards’s tone was serious again. I felt the need to make an attempt at a serious answer.
“I wouldn’t think you would care, but no I don’t hate you. All this is my fault. Maybe I shouldn’t have been allowed to leave in the first place, but I’m glad I did. I can’t imagine my life without my son. Dave is another matter entirely. He’s a good man he would have found another wife. A wife who could have been with him every day, grown old, and died in that restaurant like she was supposed to.”
“Have you considered that you weren’t supposed to die in the restaurant? That maybe this is the way everything was meant to work out.”
“You mean fate? No, I don’t believe in fate that's ridiculous. There’s no mystical map out there for us to follow. It’s a bunch of crap people believe to rationalize the chaos we live in.”
Richard began to laugh quietly. “There was a time I believed the same thing but not now I’m not sure. The problems with the civil suit and the families of the dead gunmen will go away in time.” Richard looked up at the trees as he spoke. He knew more than he was willing to admit.
“Oh, I expect that they will. You told me everything would be taken care of the day you brought me here. I plan to cooperate so I expect every last detail will be handled.” I looked Richard square in the eyes as I spoke and he didn’t flinch. Whatever problem there was had been taken care of the moment the ink touched the paper, and I signed my life away.
“In that case, I wouldn’t give it a second thought,” Richard smiled and squinted to look past the low-hanging sun in the distance. His eyes looked green in the sunlight. The tiny specks of gold and brown in his pupils sparked a moment of clarity in my murky brain. I had to look away; it physically hurt my head to look at him.
“I know it’s selfish of me, but I’m glad Matt will be closer. I think the new school will give him a second chance to make friends. I’m not happy about having to separate myself from David, but we worked too hard to save for Matt’s future. I won’t let that money be taken from us. I have done enough damage to their lives already.” I was beginning to get tired. The walk was turning into more of a hike. As I looked around at the un-manicured scenery, my mind began to wander. “Hey, what if Dave had done something that made me want to hurt him, what could have happened to him?”
“Oh, I doubt even our resident mad scientist could predict when you were capable of frying him where he stood, but I guess I would have had to come rescue you sooner.”
“Rescue me? My God, is that what all this is supposed to be, a rescue?” I laughed too loudly, but I couldn’t believe what I hearing.
“Yes it is, but we are not out the woods yet. It may take the better part of a year to get everything cleared up, but it will happen. See this is why I wanted you to come with me to the stables. We needed the opportunity to talk and discover your fear of small rodents taking up arms against us. I was totally unaware of the hidden threat beneath the shrubbery.”
“Guess what I am thinking now.” Richard was laughing at me, and I suppose I had it coming. The stables were just up ahead, but it was quickly getting dark. “It looks like we only have a bit of daylight left in the day,” I mentioned casually.
“Are you afraid of the dark Cal?” Richard asked sarcastically.
“No, obviously I’m much scarier than anything you will find out here, but I am a city girl and little critters hunting and foraging, running around doing their business. It creeps me out.”
“You do realize we are on a mountaintop. Where are all the little critters supposed to hunt and run around doing their business?”
“I am not in charge of all that Boss. You and the other tower guards can handle that one. I just make sure I am in well-lit areas before nightfall.”
Henry, the large animal vet on staff, met us at the edge of the stables. “Hey Colonel Wolfe, I’m sorry to say we didn’t get any action today.”
“Henry my friend you look tired. How are the mares doing?”
“The chocolate mare is doing well this is her second foal, and I don’t expect any real problems. The black mare is a different story. She is showing signs of fatigue so we have been monitoring her progress closely. I’ve consulted with a longtime friend of mine, he has a ranch in California, his outfit has hundreds of successful births each year. He’s emailing me his journal on similar cases he’s had. I’m hopeful something in them will help us out.”
“Good, sounds promising. Are there any other issues with the mounted patrol I should know about?”
“No, we are doing well overall. We have six riders at the lower camp today. They will be switched out tomorrow. They should arrive at the north stable by thirteen hundred hours.”
“Good, keep me informed of the progress with the mares. I would still like to assist with the deliveries if I am able.”
“We have instructions to call you day or night Colonel.”
“All right, Henry I won’t keep you any longer” Richard shook Henery’s hand, and he started walking off toward a domed cottage about twenty-five yards from the stables.
We wandered around the outside fence and looked at all the horses. Richard explained how he had two horses that were about to drop their colts. Henry and his assistant had been keeping watch on the two mares around the clock. His assistant had arrived to relieve him, and Henry was on his way home for the evening after twelve hours with the mares.
Sunset was beginning to form off in the sky behind us. It was beautiful, different from home. The purple and blue ribbons of color hung above the snow-capped mountains in the distance, it didn’t look real, it looked like a painting. It was gorgeous.
Richard stretched, took his sunglasses off his head, and slid them into his shirt pocket. “Well, it is about time to head back to the main complex and get a tri-tip sandwich.”
“That sounds tasty, but I am not in the mood to eat anything.”
“Eddy makes great beans and potato salad too. It is a Sunday BBQ tradition here. Besides, I have to walk you back to your place.”
“You don’t have to do that. My place has got to be way out of your way.”
“I have to protect you from all the wild animals. One of them might jump out and shit right in front of you.”
“Very funny, I hope a rabid chipmunk bites you.”
We headed back toward the base. The early evening sun cast long shadows on the ground in front of us. Richard made animal shapes with his hands.
“You must really like horses, offering your help with the foals; it can’t be easy to deliver such a large baby animal.”
“I planned to become a large animal vet back in the day. It is more of a hobby now. If I hadn’t joined all this, I might have stayed in Montana and had a practice. I finished my degree in biology but the college fund was drying up, and I wasn’t able to get into a few of the classes I needed to start the veterinary program. I was looking at going back to the sheep for a season or maybe even two, so I joined the Air Force, it was only supposed to be for a few years but here I am. Never went back to finish any part of my original plan.”
“I don’t think I ever finished college. I ended up mixed up with all this I guess.”
“There might be something in your old files, transcripts or some kind of explanation.”
“It doesn’t matter. After I made it back home, I was so upset that I couldn’t remember anything, but then I started dating Dave. He didn’t want to think about the past. His past wasn’t anything he wanted to remember. Everything was new. It’s better to live in the present, dwelling on the past is pointless, and the past it’s all things you can’t change anyway.”
“That is easy for you. I remember the past. I like dwelling on it. I’m hoping some of our history repeats itself.” Richard winked at me as we reached the outskirts of the buildings. I wanted to ask him exactly what he hoped would repeat, but it was too late. He had switched back to his crusty Colonel personality as we reached the main lawn. There was a stark difference between his two personas. One man was normal and easy to talk to. The other was a cold, calculated, hardened ass of a man that I can only tolerate in small doses.
As promised, there were delicious smelling barbecued items and many people gathered around enjoying them. Richard got his sandwich, and I was talked into having some potato salad. We mingled with a group of people that I hadn’t seen before. Most of the people worked in the technology building and are inside all day. There was still a lot I didn’t know about the base. It was nice to hear some of the everyday problems and joys the people around me were facing. I really wasn’t as alone as I believed.
I walked home later than I had expected to. I convinced Richard to stay at the top of the hill and watch me walk down into the residential area as long as I agreed to take a huge four-battery flashlight with me. The cook seemed too eager to hand it over to me as if it was his job to stash the flashlight and wait for just the right moment to offer it. It was very odd.
I looked the metal object over and found nothing out of place. It was an agreeable compromise under the circumstances. I didn’t want that uncomfortable moment with Richard at my door when he went to leave. There was something familiar about him now that I had siphoned his energy. He and I had been friends before, more obviously, judging by the jewelry I had found in my old things. I was seeing him almost every day. There were dinners and lunches all under the guise of work, but they seemed social. I looked forward to my time with him even though I know I shouldn’t have.
The smell of freshly mopped floors and the sound of the dishwasher running greeted me when I arrived home. These sounds and smells were part of my nightly routine. I would go through the house and plug in the cell phones, wipe down the kitchen counters and start the dishwasher before heading up to bed. The sound was almost a perfect copy. The boys would have already arrived home by now. Dave would be sitting in his chair watching the news. Matt would be playing a video game. They were fine without me. Dave would need time to sort everything he had seen into manageable pieces. He was so dead set against divorce when he first arrived, but after I repaired his arm, his demeanor changed entirely. I swear he almost looked relieved as he watched me sign those papers.
It has always taken some time to get him to warm up to change. I can remember the first day we brought Matt home from the hospital. Dave didn’t want to hold him. He was afraid to grab him too tight or make him cry. It took several days and me getting run down and having to stay in bed before he would hold his newborn son. Once Dave figured out Matt wasn’t going to break like some china figurine he relaxed, and I had to practically beg to have him back just long enough to feed him.
I put everything else out of my mind and sat quietly on the edge of the couch. If I concentrated hard enough, I could remember my old life, my old house, my old bed. I could pretend that I was living another day in my predictable world, safe and content, oblivious to this place and everyone in it. After a few minutes, I could feel my old life sympathetically gather around me.
Slowly I stood up and inched across the floor with my eyes closed, my arms outstretched feeling for the wall in front of me. If I could hold this memory tightly enough and fall asleep believing I was back at home, maybe I would wake up and find that none of this was real.