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Army Angels

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It was raining, just a slow gentle rain. There were about thirteen people and twelve soldiers. They weren’t people, they were soldiers. And that was Casey or what would have been Casey. There was nothing in it, nothing. Zip. Nada. Mom didn’t’ care; we had a saying in my family, “The wood makes it home, even if nothing comes back.” The only reason we say it is because I’ve had ten brothers, all in some military branch. I have only lived with three. I have lost six brothers, I knew all of them.

Mom stands under the umbrella, I do not. I love my brothers, I have my lost brothers; my mom had sons and a husband, my mom only has me. My mom suffers, but I just keep living. Or what I would like to call living. Why should I be able to have comfort from the rain, if Casey wasn’t even home? Katey, my best friend, stood next to me. She too, stood in the pouring rain.

Katey knew Casey, Casey had saved her. A man came out of nowhere and tried to kidnap her. Casey had come out of the auto shop he worked at and scared him off. Katey felt horrible about it and she said she owed Casey. I, personally, think Casey fell in love with her first. I think, if he had come home, they would have gotten married. There would have been problems, I mean, Casey was twenty-two and Katey and I were newly nineteen. But they loved each other a lot. I knew that from the look on their faces when they talked about the other.

Katey and my mother are both scared that I’ll be the next Cadet McNally. Both are scared that I’ll be the next one with an empty coffin.

The guns went off, the flag was folded, then it was all over. Casey was missing, not dead, but the probability of living was low.

We packed up to go. I watched the coffin being lowered and while my mom made her way back to the car, Mr. Johnson, a family friend and former drill sergeant, went over and said words to mom. He came over to me and asked, “How are you holding up?” I looked up at him and asked, “Why does it rain every time?” He scowled slightly and asked, “Why do you watch the coffin being lowered?” I shook my head and asked, “How can I be Hope, but have none?” He opened his mouth, as if to answer, but I walked away, Katey at my heels.

Mom had gotten into the chauffeured car, I was driving my own. Katey got into the passenger seat and I got into the driver’s seat. We got in, but I don’t start the car. I stare at all the little white headstones of all the soldiers who either came home or didn’t’. Katey quietly said, “Hope, swear to me you won’t go. Swear.” I look back at the people filling in the hole, “I can’t do that.”


School, I was in high school. People around me argued and talked. My debate class picked the topic, military. I don’t talk much, I can’t see any reason to. Another good friend, Patrik, asks, “Is everything okay, Hope? Katey told me about Casey. I’m…I’m here if you need me. Or, you know, if you need to talk.”


I glanced up, his loving face stared at me. He thought he loved me. Every time I saw his face, I asked myself, “Who would love me?”

I said, “I don’t know where to go. My family has always died in green; I’m not all that sure if that’s not what I want. It’s not glamour or money or pride, really, it’s my duty.” Patrik sat down and said, “If you go, who will look after your mom?” “Katey and you.” “Who will live your dreams?” He knew I wanted to be a writer. He knew I wanted to travel the world. He knew I wanted to design something; a building, clothes, a car, a room. I replied, “Someone else.” “Do you want to die?” I sat on that one for a moment, looking deep within myself. Past all the sorrow and hate. I looked into his dark blue eyes and answered, “Yes.” He looked away and nodded. “Then go.” He got up and left. So did I.


Mom worked at a children’s hospital, asking God to trade her hard work for her sons. I once heard her pray, “God, I’ll save as many as my sons are worth. Just bring them back.”

I had been on my way to meet her for dinner; working late as usual. I stopped by the post office, where we had all our mail sent, and opened the little gold box to see what surprises it held. I knew that there would be a college admissions letter, I had applied for more than a couple dozen. Mom wanted to make sure I got into college before I got into the military. I found one that changed my evening plans.

After getting the mail, I sat in my car. Mitchel, Dan, Jace, and Zane’s dog tags hung from the rearview mirror. Kevin, Liam, and Jason’s hang around my neck, I knew them the most. It was never the best, it was always the most. However much time we had with them. Adam and Kendrick’sdog tags never made it home, just like my father’s.

There is a letter from somewhere in Africa. I rip it open, the handwriting is not familiar. The note read:


Hp?,



Brief. Stay. Bad land. Missi, N H. A I KX. UVO*.





~^~

To any regular person, this would be horrible gibberish. But I knew it for what it was. A code. A code that I grew up learning. I translated as if it were simple, like Spanish. I read it as:

Hope,


I have to be brief. You have to stay. This is bad lands. I miss you so much. I’m not coming home. Say hi to Katey and Mom. I love them both.


Love,



Casey


When we were kids, we all made a code and signatures. Our letters were private, you had to be a MacNally to understand. No one, enemy or unit, knew the code. We all had a symbol, one that recognized each of us. Katey had her own, but she didn’t know how to read our code. We trusted her, but it would take too much time to teach her. Compared to us, who learned the code since we could read, she would take forever.

I checked the date, two days after they told us he was missing. Which was four weeks ago, nearly a month. He’s alive, I realized. He had to be alive. I nodded, as if that made perfect sense. I needed to think. I needed somewhere with noise. I started the car up and drove myself to the one place I knew I could think peacefully. The mall.


I stopped by the fountain in front of the mall. Getting out of my car with the letter, I strode over to the fountain. I pulled out my ever-present lighter. I flicked the wheel and the lighter spit out bright fire. I put the flame right under the letter. I watched the letter burn in my hand.

My fingers hurt, the pointer and thumb. They were burned, as they always where. We burned every and any letter concerning anything military.

Casey was alive. But how? Why had he gotten separated from his unit? Why did the military think he was dead? What did Casey do? Granted, no one ever told me what branch of the military they went into. I knew Casey wanted to go into the Marines, but I had no idea if that was where he did go. He could be somewhere else. One question swirled around my head, appearing more than any other. How long would Casey be alive?



I liked to sit in the mall and ponder life, everything I would miss if I was deported. I didn’t know. Jace, Liam, and Kendrick had come home every Christmas with stories, until about a year ago. Mom always refused to let them in if they decided to tell those stories. My brothers and I had a thing we do. We have this old tree house in the backyard. Every time a brother comes home, we would take a bottle of vodka or whiskey, some candles, and a bible up to the tree house at midnight.

We each would take a sip of the alcohol as we say our prayers. All the candles were lit, we say our prayers with one hand on the bible and the other holding the bottle. Any weather and we’ll be out there. It was a ritual.

We started the tradition when Adam and Dad never came home and after Zane returned in a willow casket. Ever single one of us did it, and by default I started drinking when I was five. My brothers tried to persuade me to drink water, but I was a little brat even back then; not even eight boys could change my mind.

Military families can never give up, not when more and more children just keep signing up. They have to sacrifice things all the time. I was ready to do that. Mom never knew and I’m not sure if she does now, but I still do it. I still drink from a bottle, I still pray, and I still burn those candles. It used to be Casey and I for every holiday, every birthday, every death day, or for every scared day. But then, there was no one to complete the ritual with anymore; just me.


Katey knows where I am all the time, like I have a tracker and she holds the GPS. She started watching me two years ago, Casey had enlisted and I got really depressed. My arms and wrists never saw sun and I hit the bottom of the bottle.

Katey was my savior. She dragged me back. She made me a summer boot camp of activities. I danced, I swam, I ran, I drew, I wrote, I shopped, I worked, I did lots of things to keep my mind off things. She did everything she could. And the best things she could ever do was always knowing where I was.

“You need anything cold, sweet, and milky?” I looked up and smiled, “I’m lactose intolerant, ma’am. Thank you, anyway.” Katey laughed and said, “Always such a polite young woman.” I laughed and replied, “I grew up on it.” She smiled, but it didn’t’ touch her eyes. “Patrik was talking to me-” “Aw, don’t listen to him, Kate.” She continued as if I hadn’t said anything at all, “He was saying that you wanted to die. Not in this world, Hope, not in this world. You can‘t leave me in this world by myself, Hope.”

A man with a little girl passed. She was happy to have a father. I heard the clinking of metal. I saw the sharp eye, the careful watchfulness. He wasn’t done, he was visiting. I knew that little girl would cherish those moments later. He might not come home, but God might take the girl and say, “Here’s your father.” Maybe she would have her father at her graduation, at her wedding, maybe he would be in her life. But there was a chance that she might not.



Katey’s favorite thing to do was to go shopping . Try on clothes that she would never be able to afford, clothes that made her look funny or clothes that would make her look beautiful. She loved playing dress up. I was her critic, always telling her something. She came out wearing a ball gown. I raised an eyebrow. “Where did you find that?” She giggled and said, “Someone left it in there. Pretty, huh?”

I got up and asked, “Where is it tight?” Katey giggled again, “It’s not, it’s all airy, like it was made of air!” “MISS!” We both turned to face a flustered sales lady. She was hurrying toward us. “No! No! You must take that off. Now!” Katey was confused, “Now?” “NOW!” Katey stripped. Right in front of the sales lady. The lady looked at her in horror.

In her bra and panties, Katey held out the dress, “Here.” The lady took it. I said, “We should probably get going.” I let Katey dress, while she whined that she would rather walk around half-naked. The lady came back to apologize, “I am so sorry, girls. It’s just…well, the lady who wanted that dress…well, she can be a little snippy. She left the dress in there and was going to come back after she found shoes to match. I put you in there on accident. I am so sorry.” We accepted her apology and left the store.

Before we left the mall, I saw that man and his little girl outside the mall. A tall woman stood behind the little girl, wiping her face with a tissue. The man was kneeling in front of the girl, he was talking to her and the girl was crying. A bus full of soldiers was waiting behind him. The woman, the girl’s mother and the man’s wife, hugged him and held her daughter as he got on the bus. He left, waving from the window; both his girls were crying.


Katey slept over at my house that night. We ordered pizza. Mom didn’t say a word. She was still upset over Casey. I hadn’t told her about Casey’s letter because she hadn’t told me about dad, but I have been, like, seven. I had told Katey and she had been wearing this sad look ever since I told her.

Finally, when she was drinking her evening tea, I sat down beside Mom and took a deep breath. I blurted out, “Mom, Casey is alive.” She didn’t respond. Perhaps she had fallen asleep, I glanced at her face, she had. Her cup was on the table. I shook her, hoping she would wake. This was really important. But all she did was tip over. That set off a flurry of alarms in my head; my mom was a really light sleeper. Mom stayed tipped over. What the heck? No. NO! “KATEY!”


Beep. Beep. Beep. I act like I don’t care. How am I supposed to act? What am I supposed to do while my mother lies in the white bed? Why? What was her thoughts on the act? Why did she do it? Katey sat in the hard chair and asked, “What are we going to do?” I shook my head and answered, “I know what I’m going to do.” Katey looked up. I said, “Mom’s sister is coming down from Chicago. They haven’t talked in a while, but I don’t care.” Katey nodded and asked, “What are…No, where are you going?”

I didn’t answer and a woman walked in. Her blonde hair hung in two braids with black ribbons. She was wearing a red cap, pain-splattered jeans, and a red shirt that said, “I’m a painter…Duck.” There was a paintball gun under the bright blue words. I smiled and said, “Hey! Aunt Leslie!”

She glanced at Katey and said, “Good thing you said something, Opee. I though you had dyed your golden locks! You two look so much alike.” She had called me by my childhood nickname, which made me smile. We hugged. I said, “Katey will show you around, if you need anything there is a list of contacts on the bedside table, who will be glad to help you.” Leslie smiled, “We’ll manage. You talk this over with her?” She indicated Mom. I gritted my teeth, “She’ll know where I’m going.”

Leslie nodded and asked, “What do I tell her when she wakes up? She won’t be happy seeing me here and you gone.” I nodded and said, “I left a note on the fridge. I explained and I confessed that I broke the lamp.” Aunt Leslie nodded and asked, “Can you believe she made such a big deal over a lamp?” She laughed and continued, “You take care of yourself, you hear? I want a letter every Christmas. Now, you’d better go talk to your friend, you apparently didn’t tell her.”

I looked past her, Katey had been silently watching and now tears slid down, still silent. I grabbed my duffel bag and her jacket. I pulled her up, “Take a walk with me.”


There was nothing exciting about the hospital gardens. All there was were shrubs, a slimy fountain, stone benches, and some flowers. We sat down on a stone bench. I began, “You can’t understand.” She snapped, “No, I can’t. We all have lost something. Now I have-” I interrupted her, “No, I will come back. I can promise you that.” She looked at me and with her nose all stuffy, she asked, “How can you promise me that?” I looked up at the moon, “We all promise something. I am promising you this. Please. Just let me go.” She didn’t smile, she nodded and replied, “You were wearing all camouflage, your hair was pulled back in ribbons that were black and your jewelry was black. You wore a hate, a black hat. People thought you looked funny. You didn’t’ care, you walked around proudly. Then Bradley James called you the dead girl, the girl with no one to lover her. You… Well, you did some real damage on him. You ended up dating him three years later. You thought you loved him.”

I remembered Bradley, he was my first and only boyfriend. He was a year older than me. He died in Iraq last year, a road side bomb. He came back too; before his last year in service, the year he died, he had come back. I smiled and said, “He proposed.” Katey nodded, “I know. You were so excited.” “I have to go. They need me. More than anyone needs me here, you know that right?” Katey shook her head and in choked sobs cried, “No, it’s not fair! It’s not…You can’t leave me behind! What about me? I need you. I always have! Ever since I came here! Ever since I came here, living with my aunt and her family, I have always needed you! You were always the one thing that would never leave, the one thing that would never disappoint me!”

I shook my head and whispered, “I could never leave you behind.” And just like the bench we sat on, we lapsed into cold, hard, dead silence. After a few moments I said, “Best friends aren’t inseparable. Best friends are friends who get separated and nothing changes. I’ll be back. I swear.”

Katey


Promises are hollow. Both my father, mother, brother, and Casey promised they’d come back. Every month I got a letter from who-knows-where. Hope was always there, telling me some wild story. Her unit was sabotaged and she was lost. Six months later I was at a hospital in Germany as a doctor and this woman kept chanting, “Kate, Casey, Nick.” Repeated over and overt.

She lost her left hand and parts of her skin. She had a long cut on her face with twenty-eight stitches. She was malnourished and delirious. I was changing her bandages on her stump and I saw a symbol carved into her skin. HP?. It was familiar and my mind didn’t go to Harry Potter. So familiar it was like looking into the mirror. The woman kept chanting, “Kate, Casey, Nick.” Hope.

“Hope! Hope!” A man in a wheelchair rolled over and said, “You mean Radar?” I looked at him, “What?” He laughed, “That’s what we call her, Rader. I think her name is Hope. Could be. To be honest, I really don’t know, she probably told us, when she was new, but we usually use the nicknames.” He leaned forward and held out a hand and said, “I’m Crib. Yeah, like the baby bed.” I shook his hand. I glanced back to Hope. This woman was so scarred, it might not have been Hope.

The man, Crib, leaned over and said, “Yeah, that’s Radar. The capital H and P followed by the sun. She carved that into her arm when we got lost. Girl was bored. Nearly bled to death.” He scowled, but I could tell he had strong feelings for this…Radar.

I nodded and said, “My name is Katey.” He stared, shocked. He said, “Well, by golly, I know you!” I looked at him, seriously doubting that. I had never seen this man in my life. He laughed and yelled, “Hey! Boxes! Boxes, get your butt over here! I found the Mystery Picture Girl!” A blonde man limped over, using two crutches while his left leg was in a cast. He peered at her under his long hair. Then he laughed.

“Well, I guess you did, Crib. My oh my. Katey Lady. Remember me? Casey? You know, grease and homeless guys? No? Hmm, well, maybe Hope can remind you. You’ve been fussing over her for the last couple of hours.” I looked down at the unrecognizable woman. Her eyes were as open as they could be. She coughed and it turned to hacking. I reached, but she stopped me, using her stump. I realized she was laughing. She said, “Well, see here now, I told you. I always told you, you were going to be a doctor!”

Hope. My hands shuddered and a tear dropped onto her stump, “Hope?” She coughed, “The one and only.” I leaned over to hug her, joy filling my life again, but then pulled back, afraid I’d hurt her. I said, “You…you almost died in a roadside bomb!” She murmured, “I promised. I always promised.” I smiled at her kindly as her eyes fell shut. Then a little sarcasm dripped into her voice as she said, “Almost?” Then the machine she was hooked up to went crazy.

There were three yells that time. Three cries that cried the same thing. “NO!”

Fourteen Years Later


“No! Put that down! No! Put that down!” There went the blonde one, there went the brunette one, there went the redhead one. “Katey, don’t let her touch that!” “Why? Oh….” CRASH! Katey looked around to her three children, running wild. A broken lamp on the floor. Knock! Knock! In exasperation Katey said, “Casey, get the door!”
“Nick! Such a surprise to see you!
“Sure it is, you old baboon!”
“What am I? Chopped Liver?”

A wheelchair holding a woman and a little girl rolled in. The brunette girl cried out and raced toward the wheelchair. The woman grinned and asked, “Katey, how did this little tyke come out brown?” Katey walked over, holding the little redhead boy, and made a confused look, “Well, goodness, I just don’t know! Where is Kyle, Hope?” The woman in the wheelchair grinned, “Jumped the fence in his trunks, he’s already in the back, unless he got the wrong fence.” A fleeting look of worry crossed her face.

Katey smiled at her best friend and bent to hug her. “So glad your back. How’s the leg?” Hope nodded and, with an annoyed face, said, “Stupid neighbor’s cat got under me and tripped me. Don’t know how I ever lived through the army; clumsy little fool that I am.” Casey leaned down and said, “Well, sis, you were a good tracker. Always knew where to be or where not to be.” He grinned at her.

Katey hugged Nick and asked, “How’s life, Crib? Still going well?” Nick made a face at his old nickname and said, “All’s well, except for our little daughter. Who seems to have an unhealthy shy streak.” The little girl, Emma, laughed and hopped down from the wheelchair. She and the brunette girl, Sarah, ran off to play. The red head boy in Katey’s arms cried, “Me too, Mommy! Me too!” Katey set her youngest son and said, “Go bother your brother and cousin instead, Lucas. You always know Kyle and Sean are always willing to play.” The little boy grinned and left.

The four adults sat there, grinning at each other and Casey said, “Well, good news first.” Hope said, “We’re both staying.” Katey grinned at her best friend, bent to hug her and said, “I know.” The two woman, once girls, grinned at each other. Nick broke the silence, “Got anything to eat? Hope wouldn’t let us eat on the way over.” He gave a pointed look at his wife, but grinned all the same.

Katey sighed and said, “Well, Crib, if you must. You know where the food usually is, Crib. Just go.” She grinned as she dismissed him and Casey, who pecked his wife on the cheek before leaving to the kitchen with his friend. Katey looked at Hope and Hope said, “Well, I guess we might as well go swimming.” Katey glanced at her friend’s leg; being a doctor prevented her from thinking that was such a good idea. Hope sighed, “It’s a sprain. The doc gave me a wheelchair cause I complained enough.”

The women grinned at each other. Then went to the kitchen to rejoin their husbands.





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