There’s no escaping the cold seeping through the cracks of the Jetway, and it makes me realize nine months in the desert heat has thinned my blood.

Everything feels wrong, not just the cold. The sounds are foreign in the cramped tunnel, too loud with civilian bellyaching. I want to turn around and reclaim my seat, maybe ask the pilots to take me back to Baghdad. Thank God leave only lasts fourteen days.

I miss that desert, my home.

As I step out of the Jetway, the travelers’ chaos creates a white-hot knot in my gut.  But I spot an old man in an airport-issue wheelchair who salutes me. I focus on him with desperation I haven’t felt since before my deployment — when I was afraid to leave this place. His eyes tell me he knows. I want to sit next to him, stay at that gate as long as he’s willing to stay with me. Instead, I return his salute and give a nod.

A woman with hair too black to be real and too curly to be natural breaks my contact with the man and grabs my free hand. “Thanks for serving, honey.”

I want to laugh in her makeup-caked face. Thanks for serving?

“You’re welcome,” I say. Her face crinkles into a mask of understanding, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. Not like the man in the wheelchair.

I hike the assault pack higher on my shoulder and head down to baggage claim. I keep  my eyes focused straight ahead, though I feel the curious looks from everyone I pass. Is it the sand and sweat-stained patrol cap? My worn and faded uniform? It was the nicest one I had. Should’ve taken the five minutes to add my civvies to the pack.

I wish my men were here.

As I grab my A-bag from the conveyer belt, throwing it behind me, two guys with tattoos covering every part of exposed skin roll over a baggage cart. They place my bag on the cart without saying a word. The attention is torture — should’ve packed those damn clothes.

I reach out my hand. “Thanks,” I say.

They each shake my hand, giving me the same nod I gave the old man. Their eyes tell me they know, just like his did. With a glance at the bars on my chest, the taller man says “Anytime, Captain.”

I want to ask them if they feel like grabbing a beer, a lot of beers. I want to hear their stories and tell them mine. I don’t want to leave the airport. But I wave and push the cart out the swooshing glass doors to meet the frigid air.

I scan the cars lined up and waiting for passengers. Five cars down, Dad’s faded blue Ford pickup sits idling. The hood still sports the dent created by my feet after jumping off the garage roof. For the first time today I smile. The dent comforts me; reminds me that I belonged here once.

My mother’s scream reverberates off the metal of the waiting cars. She clings to me before I can take one step towards her. Thin arms wrap around my neck as I hold on tight, reveling in the familiar smell of strawberries that saturates her hair. For an instant I feel like I’m ten. I want to cry and confess how scared I am, how completely alien this place is.

I just say, “Hi, Mom.”

She unfurls her arms and places her palms on my cheeks. Her eyes are the same color brown as mine, and all I see in them is relief. “Hi, John,” she says.

The ride home is filled with Mom’s excited chatter. She says, “The last time I picked up a handsome soldier was in 1972, when your dad came home from ‘Nam.”

My dad concentrates on the road, with a few quick glances my way. He gives me his crooked smile, but his eyes are sad. I know my eyes now mirror the shadows that haunt his.

Mom continues, unaware. “We’ve got a full house, Johnny. Everybody’s excited to see you.”

I want to yell at her, jump out of the truck, and race back to the plane. I don’t want to see anyone. “Sounds good, Mom.”

When we pull into the driveway, family I haven’t seen in nine months pour out of the Cape Cod I used to call home. Their crying and laughter force that sharp knot to squeeze my insides tighter. They’re too loud, it’s too cold, and I just want to find the comfort of my old bed and curl in a ball until the world stops spinning.

They all move in to crowd me, invade my space. Grandma plants wet kisses on my cheeks, and I don’t know if I’ve managed a smile or if my face reveals too much and I’m snarling. Uncle Larry shoves a longneck in my hand after twisting off the lid. I hold it up with a nod of thanks and take a deep pull. His slicked-back, thinning hair and smug face look exactly the same. I think of his dishonorable discharge. Coward is the first thought that comes to mind.

He clinks his bottle with mine. “You kill anybody?”

Stunned, sweat gathers under my arms and my bottle shakes from the rage assaulting my fingers. I imagine his wrinkled, sun-damaged face broken and bloodied.

I just shake my head, hand Dad my beer, and escape through the small gathering to the haven of my old room, locking the door behind me.

A blown-up version of a picture I sent Mom months ago sits on my dresser, framed and surrounded by half-melted candles. It’s one of my platoons.

The knot relaxes as I exhale. “See you all in two weeks.”

I tilt the picture towards the bed before I lie down. Only thirteen days to go.

Lynn Vroman is a struggling writer who moonlights as a server to pay the bills. When not listening to the characters inside her head, she’s spending time with her husband and four awesome children. Her work can also be seen in The Penmen Review.

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