The Necklace

The rotors beat the air outside in a great whooshing drumbeat. Whirls of snow and icy air billow past the windows as I slide my boots into the straps on my snowboard. The pilot turns and nods at me through the cockpit door, giving a thumbs up. I pull my scarf and goggles over my face. Giddy, I slide open the outer doors and push myself from the helicopter. Falling blindly through the gales of snow, I brace myself, knowing the ground is coming up fast.

I land with a painful jolt, but the ground is steep, and I’m already moving. The din of the helicopter recedes as I speed down the mountain, which is bare for quite a while before sprouting a line of pine trees farther below. This is the only time I don’t mind the snow; here, where you can come as close as you can to flying without leaving the ground. The rushing of the wind sounds far away and muted through the scarf, and this high up, my ears are popped anyway.

The treeline is approaching rapidly, and the weathered pines behind it are mazelike and close together. But I knew what I signed up for when I booked the helicopter ride. I’m ready for this. Straightening slightly to catch more drag, I coast into the trees, swerving in long arcs to slow my descent. I know not to be misled by the sudden appearance of the trees; it’s still a long way down. I press a hand tightly against my coat and feel the sharp edge of my grandmother’s necklace. Good, it’s still there.

A low branch snaps off against my sleeve. I need to pay more attention. The woods are getting thicker. Weaving around a heap of toppled evergreens, I straighten my legs and stretch my back out in an effortless curve. I imagine I look something like a motorcycle racer rounding a bend, the way I’m hanging over the ground.

As I round the pile of fallen trees, I start to pull upright. Then something strikes the board so hard my toes go numb. The world reels around me as I tumble forward, head first, arms waving. I see a puff of snow rising off the hidden root I just stuck before I complete my revolution and my back hits the ground. A purple light flashes around the edges of my vision and black crop circles dance over my eyes. My sight clears in time for me to see the splash of white that shoots into the air all around me from hitting the ground. And in the center of the snowy wave, hung suspended in the air above me, is my grandmother’s necklace.

Then the world catches up, and I’m moving again, sliding through the woods down the mountainside as the necklace whistles through the air above. Momentum carries the necklace in the same direction as I’m moving. I dig my board into the snow, rising partway off the ground, and swipe at the necklace. I miss by a hairsbreadth and hit the ground again, now noticing the pine I’m undoubtedly going to connect with. I smash into the base of the trunk with a splintering crack, and the crop circles return, along with a pain like a migraine throughout my head. The impact sends me spinning diagonally through the trees and I strike another one, this time with my hip. My right side goes numb, and the jolt lifts me off the ground and propels me forward. In the periphery of my vision, I see a thread of silver cutting a thin line through the snow. It’s not far off, I can get to it.

I angle my legs to land board-first and ready myself to snatch the tumbling necklace as I speed past it. Just before I land back on the ground, a sizable pine bough seemingly stretches out from nowhere and catches me in the front of my ribcage. What breath I have left is knocked out of me. The bough splits in half and I move straight through it as I’m thrown down violently into the snow, my ribs bruised and my ears ringing. Gravity doesn’t care that I can’t see or hear or breath, and pulls me relentlessly down the mountain. I raise my head above the flurry of white and can still see the clear trail carved through the snow by grandma’s necklace. Raising my arms and legs off the ground, I cast my weight forward, aiming to intercept it.

Ten feet… five feet….

I stretch out as far as I can and seize the chain. Only now do I realize that I’ve barreled out of the trees and am heading straight for the edge of a precipice.

 

 

Polaroids

The speedometer on the GPS blinks red.

She remembers back to when she felt the terrible, bitter hollow in her stomach when November wind bit at her face and clothes. She remembers the tracts of nauseous suspension that gnawed into her as her toes felt nothing but open air.

She is taking fast, shallow breaths, each one leaving her a little more lightheaded.

She remembers a blurry sky full of lights and planes, and the coldness of the concrete as it seeped into her feet. She can still feel the soft rasp of her dress against her painfully taught skin as it billowed in the uncaring wind. What she cannot remember was what had brought her off the ledge.

She blinks, and finally notices the halted taillights she is barreling towards.

***

Bullets whistled like furious hornets, punching holes through the dirt walls. One sheared past Corbin Gates’s head and snapped a long splinter of ceramic off his helmet, staggering him. He swore and sagged against a wall, his armor gouging the yellow dirt. His ears rang, and his vision blurred.

“Gates, get your head on right!” his sergeant screamed.

Corbin pushed his helmet up and saw his squad disappearing through the exit of the shack. He rushed after them, still dazed. As he emerged, a blinding light shined all around him, accompanied by the painful cacophony of battle. Then his eyes adjusted and he saw his squad piling into the back of a personnel carrier, gesturing wildly for Corbin to run.

“Gates, get in the truck!” he heard someone shout.

Corbin dashed for the vehicle as its wheels began to move. More rounds pummeled the buildings behind him, and billowing clouds of dirt and cement dust filled the air. A jagged trail of bullet holes raced after him along the walls as he sprinted for the open hatch. The vehicle began to pick up speed until it matched Corbin’s pace. For a pair of heartbeats, neither the soldier nor the vehicle could gain any ground. Then, with a final lunge, Corbin grasped the edge of the hatch and heaved himself inside as the carrier accelerated, rumbling out of the ruined town which seethed like a hive.

***

Mary was horrified. “They shot you in the head?” she whispered into the webcam as she saw the long, hollow scar across the surface of Corbin’s helmet.

Corbin made a face as he realized he had forgotten to take his helmet off. He unstrapped it from his chin and let it fall to the ground, out of camera view. Mary could hear it rocking back and forth on the floor. Corbin inhaled, then replied playfully, “Yeah they did. Just gave me a headache though.”

Mary wasn’t amused. A flicker of static rolled across the screen of her laptop, momentarily distorting Corbin’s face.

“They shot you in the head,” she repeated as the image resolved.

Corbin looked away from the screen. “Not really,” he murmured.

Mary stared expectantly. Corbin sighed. “Helmet, not head,” he finally said.

“Baby, you know what I meant,” Mary said. “They shot you in the head!”

Her anger came on stronger than she expected. “What would’ve happened if you were an inch to the right?”

Corbin fake-guffawed. “Then I’d be very dead right now. But I’m not, because I wasn’t, because I dodged it.”

Mary pursed her lips to hide her smile at his incongruity, but her eyes remained angry. “And how many times can you dodge it before something kills you? she demanded. “I am not going to be a single mother- I can’t- this baby needs someone more than a stranger who comes home once a tour. Or a VA-funded education because you forgot to dodge it when it mattered!”

Corbin gazed knowingly at her flushed face, then, gently, “Dodged it.”

It wasn’t funny, but Mary couldn’t help but laugh in a release of pent-up emotion that was also a baring of teeth.

***

Corbin shuffled to the barracks, battered and exhausted from day after day of fighting. One of the men in his squad lay sprawled over a cot, reading a magazine. The soldier scoffed when Corbin entered. “The second we get back, you’re running to find a laptop. I think you must’ve forgotten what it is we’re doing here.”

Corbin’s mouth twisted, and he said, “Lay off, Sully; I just got shot in the head.”

Corbin moved to his own cot and unfastened his armor as Sully glowered at him. Sully cocked his head as he noticed the corner of a photograph pull away from behind Corbin’s shoulder pad. Sully knew even before he saw it that it was a polaroid of Mary, and presently the photo rested precariously over the heap of Kevlar and nylon on the floor next to Corbin as he fell face-first into bed, exposing the mat of bruises and welts along his back and legs. Corbin was asleep almost instantly, but not before he had reached over and crossed another hash mark on the back of the picture, counting off the days until he went home.

***

Mary shut her computer with a wordless exclamation. She ran her hands through her hair and inhaled poignantly. Corbin had always been exasperating. She thought of just how many different kinds of difficult he was. She had always found his stubbornness endearing- even when she was furious, and right then she hated that he knew that.

Stressed, Mary walked down the hallway of their apartment, one hand on her belly, the other on the small of her back. She glanced sidelong into the kitchen as she passed, wishing she could still drink; she couldn’t shake the image behind her eyes of Corbin being an inch to the right. Over and over, she saw a bullet splitting into the fiber of his helmet and ending the love of her life. Mary felt sick; maybe it was a good thing she couldn’t drink. Blowing a strand of copper hair out of her eyes in what was more of a sigh than anything, she snatched her keys and slipped out of the apartment.

As Corbin’s day was ending on the other side of the world, Mary braced herself for another draining shift at the hospital. She wanted to call in sick, but she needed what money she could earn before her maternity leave kicked in; Corbin’s checks only cleared so fast from Afghanistan. The steps down to the street jostled her overburdened hips, and she grimaced. She slumped into her car, glaring at the polaroid of her and Corbin that leaned against his old ball cap on the dash. With a deep breath, she picked it up and added another hash mark to the back of it. But seeing Corbin’s face renewed her worry. She pressed her forehead to the steering wheel and groaned; she couldn’t lose anyone else.

As she pulled out, she eyed the small, faded scar that wrapped down her thumb and along the side of her wrist. She still remembered the auto accident that had killed her parents and left her broken and alone in the world. She remembered the pain that had driven her to the roof, looking down at the sleepy streets below, willing her stubborn body to take another step. But she hadn’t. And she had found Corbin.

The speedometer on her GPS blinked red.

She braked hard, biting off a curse. Horns blared, and she had to swerve up onto the curb to avoid hitting the car in front of her. A violent bump sent a painful jolt through the car. The vehicle came to rest halfway over the sidewalk. Mary’s wide eyes stared unfocusedly in shocked silence as her already quickened breathing doubled. Warm blood rushed to her face, along with tears of anxiety, and she struggled not to heave. What’s wrong with me? she thought, almost gasping.

Long, agonizing minutes passed. Gradually, the attack receded. Only once she had regained enough breath to clear her head did she notice the pronounced discomfort in her abdomen; her entire body was tense and refused to relax. She realized with stupid shock that it wasn’t just a panic attack. Then, the contractions started.

The Beginning of the Idea of a Quest

The sky was empty and the moon was full, shining beams of iridescent light onto the earth below. The rays struck the trees and set them dancing like quicksilver in the slight wind. The moonlight played upon the rolling fields with liquid brilliance, setting them ablaze with motion and subdued white fire, each blade of grass a little flame in the inferno. Other than the breeze and the chorus of the July crickets, the night was still and silent.

Then an explosion pierced the air and filled the night with screams.

Daisy had been asleep until that very moment. It was nothing like a restful sleep- she had been twitching back and forth all night to some subconscious tension which haunted her dreams. She attributed the restlessness to stress, and had no reason to suspect it was anything more; her husband Tom was sleeping fine.

Then the men came. They wore kerchiefs over their faces so that only their eyes were visible- gleaming with cold malice. They carried revolvers that whistled menacingly as they were waved through the air. They spoke no threats, no curses, nothing at all. They simply shattered the oaken door to the bedroom and poured through in an explosion of skittering fragments and tramping, spurred boots. The room was filled immediately with the heated odor of several bodies packed close together, accompanied by the subtle but sharp scent of human fear as Daisy and her husband were torn from the bed and locked in merciless arms.

Daisy cried out, hysteria coloring her voice, and scratched at her assailants, tearing their masks and bloodying their faces. Tom roared and tried to dislodge the men crammed around him, but there were so very many. Two or three men crashed backwards, but they were immediately replaced by others. The steel spine of a revolver whipped Tom across the jaw, spattering blood onto the wall, and he went limp. The assailants began to drag him from the room. Daisy renewed her fuss and kicked wildly into the air. A sharp slap dimmed her furor and momentarily stole her vision. She felt herself being lifted up and into the air, and then her attacker threw her across the room. She struck the bedroom window- an array of cracks shooting throughout the glass- then crumpled to the floor. She looked through wincing eyes to see the last of the assailants disappearing out the bedroom door holding one of Tom’s legs.

Fortunately, the cacophony had awoken the entire household; servants and masters alike found themselves in a rush of movement and noise as a mass of men poured through the old manor. Arming themselves, the residents pursued the assailants into the yard, where the men’s restless horses were tied to the fence.

Daisy struggled to her feet as the report of gunshots raged outside. A stray bullet whistled through the window, missing Daisy by inches. The already compromised pane collapsed on itself, loosing fragments of glass onto the wood floor with a sound like a thousand little icicles breaking at once. Daisy hurried out of the room, past the frightened people in the long, broad hallway, down the splintered mahogany staircase and out the bullet-riddled double doors of the manor.

When she saw the scene before her, she thought she was back in the war. A mess of turfed, bloodstained loam and writhing bodies covered the yard. The assailants lay dead or dying, their horses scattered around the yard or prancing fearfully in the distance. The manor’s residents appeared hammered, but not beaten, and one of them made his way to Daisy.

“Where’s Tom?” She demanded, her emotion making her drawl even thicker.

“He’s gone, miss.” The burly man replied. “We- I- it’s….” He started over. “One of those bandits, we missed ‘im. He had Tom.”

Daisy felt her knees weaken, but at the same time, she was elated that at least Tom was still alive; that was more than she had hoped upon seeing the carnage outside. All the same, she knew a posse would take ages to start the search for him.

Steeling herself, she snatched the man’s revolver from his grasp, darted to the nearest horse, leaped onto it, and drove her heels into its ribs. The animal rushed forward, leaped over the fence, and galloped down the road. The residents behind her called out, but she was gone. Daisy well knew her foolishness, but she wasn’t about to sit and weep when Tom was at the mercy of a kidnapper. Whatever the men’s reasons for taking him, Daisy was going to get him back.

 

 

Leadership

I think of a good leader as a teacher with a switch; as someone who stands as an example to his followers and then expects them to follow that example- not because of a title, but because he’s earned that much respect. But a leader is also willing to reprimand the people under him for their errors or hubris or any other fault that may undermine the group as a whole.

One example of a good leader would be Ralph from Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a novel about a marooned group of English schoolboys. While not a good leader in every sense, he was still principally good in that his main concern was the well-being of those under him. Ralph’s priorities revolved around finding a way home for himself and his people, and ensuring the boys’ society didn’t devolve in the meantime. Even though he was underprepared and overburdened, Ralph still showed many traits of a good leader; he did his best to stay composed and avoid impulsiveness. He listened to others’ advice and acted on it when he felt it would help. He tried to present an example of maturity for the other boys to follow. While they were times his rule was largely ineffective due to his young age or the growing hysteria of the marooned boys, ultimately, it was Ralph’s leadership that enabled some of the boys to return home.

In contrast to Ralph’s good and well-intentioned leadership, there was Jack’s. Jack ruled not by right or by example, but by intimidation. He used the promise of fun to woo some of the boys away from Ralph’s society, and then the promise of pain to keep them from leaving his own. In some ways Jack was a capable leader: he wasn’t afraid to make tough decisions or give orders, and he was always the first to volunteer for dangerous work. However, these qualities were offset by Jack’s startling lack of compassion for others, his debauchery, and the way his temper dominated his thinking. It was Jack’s flimsy rule and selfishness that led to the eventual downfall of the boys’ society.

Of the two examples, of course I would want to say I’m more like Ralph, but honestly the subject is too personal to view objectively. I’ve heard so many vastly differing opinions on a single person’s leadership skills that I know better than to think the question of whether somebody is a good leader or not can be anything other than subjective. So with as little subjectivity as possible, I would say in some cases I make a decent leader and in other instances I shouldn’t even try. I’ve heard that my best friend and I were more the leaders of our team than the actual captain, but I also know that I can be stubborn and write people off almost as an instinct.

Titus 1:7 says that a good leader “…must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine (there’s the teacher part) and also to rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers (and there’s the part about carrying a switch).”

Peace and Love*

She’s waiting for something. A nervous breakdown, a panic attack, a tirade full of big words and tears and emotions. But he just sits there, looking about as riled up as a dead guy. That gets on her nerves because this is really important. Why is it important? Well, because she thinks it seems like it should be; it has all the markers seen on TV: she’s upset, she’s yelling, they’re in public, she has all her friends on her side…. Why doesn’t he see how important this is? It strikes her that he simply doesn’t care about the conversation, which means that he doesn’t care about her views on the subject and he doesn’t respect her friends’ opinions and by not humoring her-UNDERMINING THEIR ENTIRE FRIENDSHIP-selfish and completely missing the point and-HOW CAN HE BE THIS IGNORANT-the whole time can’t handle it!!!

*she slowly returns to sanity as steam exits her ears*

Her friends lose interest, and she’s desperate to keep the closure going; she hasn’t felt this alive since six months ago, when she first read that great book that she never shuts up about. He’s still sitting there, little flecks of her spittle dripping down his face. But she’s sure he deserved that. With her verbal arsenal empty, she glowers at him from across the table. He stares back with those biting eyes, and she renames their shade Accusatory Green. She debates whether she should say “Stop staring at me,” but those words come uncomfortably close to “Don’t look at me,” and that could denote weakness; she decides not to say it.

He reaches across the table for his pen, and she has to restrain herself from grabbing it first. If she missed she would just look like a fool. He starts doing that super annoying pen-flip thing that he always does when he’s bored. It’s a sleight slight: he’s saying he’s bored with her!

*she loses it*

It now feels like a sauna, which is apropos, considering the fine mist she’s giving off. The fire alarm triggers. They’re all doused with water and ushered into the hall. As the door to their classroom opens, the mist collapses in on itself and whooshes out. Everybody in the hall sees where it came from, so she makes no attempt to hide her frayed hair or running makeup or crazy eyes. She views those things as battle scars, proof that she stood up for something as important as transgender bathrooms. Wait, that wasn’t it. That was from the day before. She struggles against the mental fatigue she now feels. She knows it was something political. But the answer eludes her until she barely remembers that it was something worth discussion.

The teachers, realizing that the alarms were just that girl from room 113 having one of her “moments”, herd their students back into their respective classrooms. But just then the bell rings. Forgetting she was ever mad (as tripolar, paranoid, psychopathic, occasionally homicidal individuals do), she turns and gives him a quick hug before she exits, leaving him to shake his head and wonder what he’s doing with his life.

Love, Like Medicine

He didn’t believe the heart could be pierced like that, not at first sight; then he met her. Her eyes were so full of hurt that it was painful to look in them; He made them beautiful again. The doctors told him he could never cry again; She unlocked his soul and brought tears. Her heart was so brittle, her pulse almost broke it; he made it into something that could feel again.

***

There was no one waiting for his return in the airport. He’d had a brother and a cousin, but now they were gone too. He wished he could join them- in Arlington. But he had been left just alive enough to suffer. And he had been just strong enough to be crippled. He was returning now to nothing. No family or friends lived in the town that he hated. Buddies from the Army were either dead or still overseas. At least he didn’t have to stay; his physical therapy would start in a week, and it would be somewhere on the map, at least, not this dustbowl where the adults were depressed and the children were vandals.

He had had long days in Kabul, but that week of waiting was the longest of his life. He would wake every night, sweating and scrabbling at the sheets, muttering warnings to already dead friends. The days were barely better, as they only consisted of waiting for the night to come and again bring the whispering ghosts of the past. He survived with a few notches in his sanity, and his temper worn down to a taught wire. The nurses were clueless, thinking peppiness was an acceptable attitude when dealing with soldiers who had witnessed inhumanities daily. The beige walls, mauve ceiling, and cream floors were nauseating, closer to a children’s show set than a recovery center. At least hospitals were modern and busy, and didn’t cater toward seniors who had lost their minds.

After a lifetime of reliving hell, over and over, he was finally shipped to the VA hospital in D.C.. They allowed him to drive himself, not because it was procedure, but because nobody was going to tell him no. His black Ram sped down the interstate, his dog tags rattling against each other in the rearview mirror. They read:

Gates, Corbin J.

He arrived late, always late, not because he was careless, but because it took a long time to crutch into the hospital and onto the third floor. They’ll never be quite the same. The Kabul medic had told Corbin months ago, as he lay wrapped in bandages, his legs shattered. Also, the blast shriveled your tear ducts. You’ll have to use artificial ones now; you’ll never cry again. The session was just starting, and he found himself slightly anxious. Would this worsen the pain in his nearly ruined legs? However, to his relief, the physical therapy proved gentle enough to spare him any seizures in his legs. His was on an elliptical, panting and exhausted, when a physician’s assistant behind him asked, “How are we doing over here?”

The tone grabbed Corbin immediately. It wasn’t the forced warmth the nurses used. It was genuine, coming from someone who didn’t pretend to know what he was going through. He stopped pedaling and turned toward the voice. Eyes. From farther away, one might have just said they were attractive. But that close, unable to look away, Corbin saw how full of sorrowful experience and concealed hurt they were. They were biting, almost, to the point that it was a physical blow to look in them. They matched the pain in his own, and something inside of him, something he had long thought dead, stirred. After a moment of choking on his stubborn voice, he managed a weak response. She nodded, said, “Keep it up,” and turned away.

Spontaneously, barely realizing he was doing it, Corbin stepped of the bike and touched her arm, then snatched back his hand before he caused offense. She faced him again, and once more they both flinched at the force of each other’s gazes. Corbin wasn’t sure why he did that, he had no idea what he was after. He offered a hand. “Corbin. Gates.” he said painfully.

The eyes scrunched as she smiled- genuinely, but there was wariness behind them- and shook his hand. “Mary.”

It was so… teenager, it was almost embarrassing. But Corbin couldn’t stop himself. She wasn’t quite what the magazines would have considered perfect cover material, but she was pretty, and to Corbin, there was something desperately alluring about her; In Mary’s eyes was an attractive vet who was undoubtedly only there on orders. Why had he taken an interest in her? She was no Holmes, but it was apparent from his tone and posture and his formality that he was the opposite of the types of men who normally noticed her. He was scarred but mild- wounded, but composed. But behind the enveloping glint of his grey stare, burning sorrow roiled in his eyes. So he had lost people too.

***

Corbin returned eagerly the next day and that time hovered at the weight pile; he had lost much of his prodigious strength since the bombing, but he was still in excellent shape. Occasionally, Mary would glance sidelong at him as she worked with other vets, a ghost of a wry smile dancing on her lips. That evening, after the session had wrapped up and most of the vets went home, Corbin asked Mary to drinks. She agreed, and she rode with him to a military bar in the city. If they had been enamored the day before, now they were even more taken with each other. They didn’t have everything in common, but where they differed, they could still respect- easily. The feeling grew, daily, weekly, until to his surprise, Corbin realized a month had passed. A month of grueling days just to get to the nighttime, when he could be with Mary. His legs strengthened, and his friends began coming home between tours. It struck Corbin one day that he wasn’t even depressed anymore. He would always carry the pain of his past, but now he could live with it. Mary felt the same way.

Four months later, when they were standing on a lonely pier on the Potomac, wrapped in each other’s arms, Corbin stepped away slightly. Perplexed, Mary turned to find him kneeling, holding a ring between his scuffed fingers. Mary’s hand covered her mouth. “I was ready to die,” Corbin said. “You made me want to live again. Mary Reed…” She was already nodding her head, and they both laughed in a release of pent-up emotion. “…Marry me?”

***

They were married the same day that Corbin received the papers clearing him for duty. The news felt like a hammer blow. Joy and trepidation flooded his mind in equal amounts. He put off telling Mary until after the wedding. The wedding, where her family clapped and his Army friends whooped as they kissed on the same pier where he proposed. When the reception had died down and they had a moment to themselves, Corbin removed the slip of paper from the inside pocket of his jacket. Mary’s beaming smile disappeared, and her eyes shone. “I’ve been cleared-”

“No…” Mary whispered.

“I leave in six weeks.”

“No.” she said again, louder.

The guests at the tables closest to them gave the couple a look. A tear carrying flecks of mascara rolled down Mary’s cheek. “You’re finally better, and now your going back?” she said thickly through her emotion.

A lump formed in Corbin’s throat. What could he say to that? The night and following weeks passed both quickly and slowly. An acute sense of unreality hung over their time together in their tiny apartment. The day he left consisted mostly of them just swaying together on the fire escape. It felt to Corbin like he was being split in two. In a way, he was.

A carrier was docked in a military harbor near the mouth of the Potomac. It was to carry Corbin and several dozen others back to the hell they hated, but perversely and tragically needed. Crowds of relatives clustered together on the concrete pier, some sobbing, others silent in their worry or pride. The order was given to board, and a wave of finality struck everyone there. Corbin turned and kissed Mary, cupping her face in his hands. He didn’t want to move.

“Come on, buddy!” some of his friends shouted from the ship’s ramp.

Mary was shaking; even in her dread, that wasn’t like her.

“What is it, baby?” Corbin asked without breaking the kiss.

Mary exhaled, her breathing shallow.

“…I’m pregnant.”

The diagnosis that had held true for almost a year was bested then. Corbin laughed in shocked joy, then, to his dumbstruck surprise, he found himself crying.

Week V, ‘Love’ in title.

*Don’t hate me. I didn’t mean for this to be this long. I’m not sure what happened. I’m sorry in advance. Skim if you want.*

Part II (Kirby)

Alexei lay on a surgical platform, fully unconscious. Langley hadn’t been exactly what he had expected. An automated arm detached from the platform and whirled up a quarter-sized saw. Then it began cutting into the back of Alexei’s skull, which, though cauterized and drained, still dripped a yellowish fluid from the incision.

Harkov stood in the viewing room while the procedure took place- well, he didn’t have to think of himself as Harkov anymore, did he? I’m Sullivan again. He told himself.

The surgical saw withdrew, and mechanical pincers plucked a blood-covered silicone chip from Alexei’s medulla. The chip contained a revolutionary recording system, reflexive clamps, and a tiny capsule of cyanide connected to a jet-injector which could feed into the spinal cord.

“Just in case.” Sullivan scoffed to himself.

Surgeons entered the room and began dressing the incision, and the chip was handed off to a Langley technician. Just then, the door to the viewing room opened, and two men entered. Sullivan knew the first man; it was Nathan Gould, the overseer of the sleeper program. Sullivan had corresponded with him often when he was still in Russia. The second, as Gould soon announced, was a Detective Surewood of the Erie PD, as unlikely a visitor to Langley as any.

“Surewood worked with Agent Federov on a joint task force between their PD’s.” Gould explained. “In 2012, there was a drug smuggling ring that stretched from the Midwest to Beirut, and Federov and Surewood were critical in dismantling it.”

“You worked together?” Sullivan asked.

“We did. You could have called us friends. He was fluent in English, not even an accent, really.”

“He’s here to help our department shrinks work up a psych profile for Agent Federov.” Gould said.

“I would like to see him if I can. Once he wakes up.” said Surewood.

“We’ll see.”

***

Alexei gritted his teeth as the nurse removed the first round of syringes from his major muscles. The bound incision in the back of his head throbbed. One, two, three, four…. He stopped counting at nine and focused on sitting still. I don’t even know what that is. Alexei thought as he stared at the mix of steroids and antibiotics in one of the syringes. “You’re done for now.” the nurse said.

He rolled his sleeve over the injection marks, then checked his recently-issued pager. Surewood had sent a request for Alexei to meet him before he left for Erie. It was the last thing Alexei felt like doing, but Surewood was a friend. Alexei took an agency car to the suggested street corner on the D.C. limits, in a shopping district beneath a bustling overpass. It was late into the night by the time Alexei got there. Surewood was waiting in an SUV. Alexei strolled to the car, and he and Surewood clapped hands and shared a few inside jokes. “Why the cloak-and-dagger?” Alexei asked.

Surewood dropped the small talk, and his tone grew somber. Alexei’s face matched the sound of his friend’s voice as he listened to the narrative. Alexei glanced around the darkened block- an unconscious tick of his. He returned his attention to Surewood as the detective’s tone took on an even more charismatic note. The instant after he did, however, he registered something odd; there had been the slightest variance of black in the reflection of a storefront window a few dozen yards ahead. Alexei’s breath caught in his throat as his fast-twitch mind screamed ‘danger’. At the speed of thought, he instinctually rewound his mind back a fraction of a second, and he found himself staring at a frozen Surewood, his open mouth stilled, mid-speech. Before his eyes, Surewood chattered on, but behind them, Alexei saw unmoving moths stuck around unflickering streetlamps, halted planes trapped in the stilled night sky…

…And a gradiating shadow in a window reflecting the outline of a man. A gleam danced off something in the man’s hand.

Alexei snapped out of his mental reconstruction, and he flinched, tensing, his hand twitching toward his gun. It was well he did; a searing line of heat lashed Alexei’s ear as a vapor trail sped away from the side of his head. His honed reflexes, coupled with a surge of adrenaline, caused everything in the world to slow tremendously. Alexei’s eyes followed the warp just in time to see a window pane get pierced by the bullet and fracture into shards, the pieces catching the light of a muzzle flash. The flash bloomed brighter, lighting the block, refracted in all the shops’ displays. The glare was disorienting, but the windows’ multiple angles allowed Alexei to pinpoint the position of the shooter, using the silhouette of his own body as a reference.

Before Alexei could respond, the pain kicked in, causing him to stagger; out of the corner of his eye, he saw a piece of his ear cartilage whistle through the air, trailing blood. He pressed one hand to the wound and drew his weapon with the other, whipping it towards the ground while holding the slide to cock it. He took a step; he heard his shooter running down the street sidelong to him. The man twisted and fired at Alexei as he ran. A trail of rounds pummeled the side of Surewood’s SUV, and another wave of pain caused Alexei to lose his balance. He fell, firing sideways, but it was like falling through water. Jagged lines of bullet-holes punctured the walls behind both shooters. After what seemed like an eternity of falling, Alexei hit the ground, firing a last shot that tagged the man in the hip.

The shooter lurched, a paroxysm running up his leg and into his arm, causing him to drop the weapon. Alexei’s gun clicked empty, and a loud revving filled the streets as a van sped around a corner toward the shootout. Alexei rose partially, the bleeding tracts in his arm and ribs burning like pitch. He staggered forward as the wounded shooter made an abrupt hook toward the van. The tires of the vehicle squealed as it cut across the street, braking hard. The door slid open, and two men jumped out with submachine guns. The original shooter limped closer, and his comrades raised their guns and fired at Alexei.

Alexei’s pounding heart had completed a course of blood through his body, bringing a fresh surge of adrenaline; Alexei reached into his coat, kicked into a sudden roll, and pressed the mag eject on his gun. He came to a stop, a new magazine in his weapon. A spray bullets pinged off the asphalt where he had just been. Alexei shot back, twice, and the two men dropped; the van behind them was splattered black in the poor light. The first shooter reached the van and fell into it as the vehicle peeled away, crashing through the glass first floor of an office building and onto the street on the other side, heading towards the overpass. Alexei sprinted ahead for a clear view of the street, calculating how far a van that size could travel on a flat tire. He reached the corner, sped around it, slid to a stop, took a deep breath, and fired.

His body was humming with such mind-altering clarity that he could see the subtle variations in the tracer’s otherwise straight flight path as it sped toward the vehicle. The bullet hit the van in the rear left tire, and the driver jerked, slamming into an oncoming city bus. Sparks skittered between the vehicles, and bits of glass rose into the air. The van jerked in the opposite direction then, and slammed into a pylon of the overpass with a deafening boom. Tongues of fire leaped from the engine block, and a hail of parts and concrete rained into the street. Alexei lowered the gun and returned to Surewood, shuffling in pain. Behind him, the van’s engine burst into flame.

The doors of Surewood’s SUV looked like a Pollock piece. Vapor rose from the SUV’s compromised gas tank, and tiny pieces of glass from the damaged windows fell clinking onto the street. A thread of blood raced down the driver’s-side door. Surewood didn’t move. Alexei holstered his weapon and pressed to fingers beneath Surewood’s jaw; he had no pulse.

***

Alexei thrust open the door to the conference room, his dressed wounds smarting- all grazes, luckily, according to the unit doctor; two in the ribs, one in the bicep… wouldn’t even scar. “Your ear, however…”

Alexei resisted the urge to touch his bandaged ear. He’d just have to live with it. The bullet had sheared a groove out of the edge, leaving basically a bullet hole in the outside of his ear. “Women’ll love it.” the doc had said.

Alexei could care less- about the ear or the women. Surewood was dead. He wanted to know why.

The staff in the room gave Alexei almost fearful glances as he entered. Did he look that bad, or was he just scary? Smithy was there, along with Gould and Sullivan. The rest of crowd was made up mostly of analysts. “Agent.” Gould said.

“Sir. Where do we stand?”

“They were Russian. A joint operations force between the special task division of Moscow’s PD and a KGB defector-hunting unit. Going off the tattoos on the two bodies, we know they were ex-Spetsnaz. Our guess is you were supposed to be an example. Sort of a warning to other defectors still in Russia. And they didn’t have to worry about the politics of an international incident because we can’t admit you work for us in the first place. Only thing is-”

“They didn’t know I was a sleeper.” Alexei muttered.

“Exactly. We never reported the embassy incident. They couldn’t have known.”

The thought of people he might have spoken to before trying to kill him, and the fact that he killed them first, unsettled Alexei. Had they just told their families they were taking a train to St. Petersburg for a weekend meeting? Had their children stared confusedly at the hearses of their fathers? Alexei swallowed, surprised with himself, with his humanness.

“Anyways,” said Gould. “We’ll know more when you get back.”

Alexei looked up. “Get back?”

“Smithy?” Gould asked, busying himself on his tablet.

“We’ve caught an assignment.” Smithy explained. “You’ve been tasked to join us. Sullivan too.”

Alexei glanced at Sullivan, who looked serious. “When do we leave?” he asked.

“Tonight.”

***

The C-130 carrying the team to their destination had been an Air Force requisition, but the airmen had been happy to lend it. It seemed it wasn’t every day they got to work with SEALs, even in such an indirect way. The respect and fear the SEALs commanded still shocked Alexei; even though his memory had been restored, he was still unfamiliar with such American hierarchy. Hierarchy seemed like the best word to Alexei, as he had come to realize that that truly was the essence of every military.

“Alright, we should all get some shut-eye before we’re there, so I’ll keep this brief.” Smithy had said. “We’re going to Azerbaijan. An English-American national is being held by Azerbaijani extremists; they’re an offshoot of the main ultranationalist presence in the region. We’re cleared to use any means to bring her home, but we aren’t cleared to fire on non-splinter ultranationalists per NATO regulations. Basically, if they’re patriots, leave them; if they’re terrorists, kill ’em. The girl’s being held in a refinery in a border town to Iran. These guys have strong affiliations with ISIS, so we’ve gotta be long gone by the time the ultranationalists call for help. The US will deny any involvement in the area so once we’re on the ground, we’re on our own. Any questions? Then go to sleep.”

Week IV, Group III