Far from home, a soldier, with a little help, reaches back for some good news.
|The sun was just above the horizon, but sank quickly, like a fleeing criminal.
Corporal William Holloway pushed his rifle aside and reached for his can of Skoal. Even through thick winter gloves the metal of the weapon chilled his skin and reminded him of where he was. He was jerked back from Cincinnati and a warm house with his wife and his parents to a mountainside in the Paktia Province of Afghanistan. Were they thinking of Holloway, sitting here freezing his ass off standing watch on the wall?
Holloway put a chew in and adjusted his armor, not liking how it rode on his shoulders, and inadvertently let more frigid air underneath. He shivered.
Across a wadi a medium-sized mountain rose, snow-covered and majestic, the sibling of every other mountain around him including the one he was sitting on right now. He had seen enough of mountains.
A dust cloud appeared in the wadi. Holloway’s practiced eye identified three vehicles – Toyotas. The locals drove Toyotas, but not in convoys like this, and not out in this god-forsaken part of the country. He checked his weapon and continued to monitor the oncoming vehicles. The radio buzzed.
“Brewhouse, this is Joker 1, come back, over.”
Holloway recognized the voice and the callsign. It was the special warfare team which was resident at the FOB. He saw them come and go, but rarely spoke to them – except on the radio. What were the Navy SEALS doing out and about on Christmas day?
He picked up the radio.
“Joker 1, this is Brewhouse, roger, over.”
“We’ll be there in five mikes. Have that gate open for us, would you? Over.”
“Roger,” Holloway replied, just as he had done a hundred times before. He picked up the phone and warned the gate sentry, then relaxed and floated back to Cincinnati and home.
The Toyotas drove past Holloway’s position revealing bearded men with rifles and cargo compartments jammed with equipment. He paid them no mind, having seen the specwar guys go in and out dozens of times, sometimes at night, and without warning. He never knew where they went or why, and would probably never know. That’s how it worked with specwar.
Instead, Holloway’s thoughts again drifted home, to the hospital where his wife lay dealing with a difficult pregnancy. He had received word via a brief transmission from Kabul. Just two words from his father: IN LABOR. No further word, no American Red Cross messages to send him home. In a way, this was a relief. AMCROSS messages usually portended the worst news, but Holloway badly needed to get home to see Lisa, to see for himself that she was okay, and for her to see him and to hold his hand as she gave birth.
His hand tightened on his rifle a fraction, enough to bring him back to reality. It was still Christmas Eve back in the States.
Footsteps crunched in the gravel behind Holloway, and he turned around and saw a man carrying a large pack, with a non-standard sidearm strapped to his leg. Holloway recognized him as “Bob”, which he was sure was not his real name. Bob grinned at him through a frosted red beard, set the pack down and started to dig through it. His muscles bulged through the t-shirt he wore despite the bone-biting cold. The mysterious specwar operator finally dug out a boxy, VCR-sized device and what looked like the frame of an umbrella. He set the “umbrella” up on the ground on stands, carefully positioned it, and then connected it to the box with a cable. Holloway realized that he was looking at an encrypted satellite phone.
Bob picked up the handset attached to the box, fiddled with the box, and began speaking into it, his breath creating a wreath around his head in the cold air which turned faintly reddish as the sun sank even lower - an extension of Bob’s scruffy red beard. Bob spoke for a few minutes, then he turned to Holloway.
“You’ve got a wife right?” he asked. “In labor, right?”
Holloway wondered how Bob knew this, but it was a small FOB. People talked, and the specwar guys probably knew all kinds of things they weren’t supposed to.
“Yeah,” he replied. “What about it?”
“Got a phone number?”
Holloway paused, and the sun sank into the cleft of two mountains to the west. He considered the question, then gave Bob his father’s number.
Bob spoke into the handset, waited, and then handed it to Holloway. He gestured toward Holloway’s can of dip, visible in its little pouch on his vest, just above his magazine pouches. Holloway handed the can to Bob without a word and took the handset.
“….hello…hello? Billy …. you?” Holloway heard his father’s voice faintly through miles of static and encryption.
“Dad!” he cried. “Where are you? Are you at the hospital? How’s Lisa? Dad!”
More static. Then:
“…very long labor… doing fine… this morning …”
“Dad, it’s a bad connection! What’s going on? How is the baby?”
Now it was nothing but static.
Bob had taken a generous chew from Holloway’s can and was regarding him with a mixture of curiosity and compassion. Holloway knew that panic was creeping into his face, but he couldn’t stop it.
He turned to Bob.
“Hey, can we adjust this thing, or something?”
Bob looked sad.
“Not much we can do. This is as clear as it gets around here. Maybe up there…” He looked up toward the top of the distant peaks, now ruddy in the sun’s last rays.
Holloway pressed the handset to his face and listened with every ounce of his attention, almost pushing the Kevlar helmet off of his head. He was hunched over, other hand jammed over his ear when the static parted for an instant like clouds after a storm and he heard a single word: