But knowing when the sun will set doesn't make it any easier to see in the dark.
Sanchez doesn’t cry. She doesn’t have any tears left, not after the past eight and a half days she’s spent at home listing off all the things she’ll miss most about him. It’s been raining more, which hasn’t helped. It started pouring the day he died and didn’t let up for close to a week. El Niño or something. It was the kind of weather that never would have slowed them down in their early days together. The kind of weather that, closer to the end, for the sake of her hair and his joints, they were just as happy waiting out indoors.
Today, though, it’s sunny. There are only a handful of clouds in the sky, a gentle westward breeze nudging them in the direction of the setting sun. It’s beautiful. She can’t help but think of his big brown eyes, the way they used to soak in every little detail. If he could’ve chosen a day to say goodbye, this would be it.
Sanchez tightens her grip on the cold aluminum urn. She looks out across the lake from the same spot where they used to sit together and it hits her for the trillionth time that he’s gone. Not for a deployment. Not for training. Not for a week of inpatient rehab after another surgery on the stump where his leg used to be. Forever.
A bird cries out with about as much emotion as Sanchez has left in her tank. The thing is, she knew this day was coming. The way the last few months had gone, she must have known it’d be sooner rather than later. But knowing when the sun will set doesn’t make it any easier to see in the dark.
She takes a deep breath and thinks about the good times, which is what she’s been trying to focus on: the early mornings, the long days, all those moonlight patrols in Afghanistan before the blast that ended his career and nearly took her life. And then, despite her best efforts, she’s thinking about the bad times again: the explosion, the silence that came after, the pain she doesn’t even remember feeling, that couldn’t possibly have hurt as bad as what she felt watching him limp around for the rest of his life.
Then there’s the guilt. Always the guilt. She thinks about how things could have been different, how they should have been different if she’d been more careful. If she’d paid more attention. If she’d been better at her job. She thinks about the others who’ve served, who’ve raked in praise and commendations and military discounts but never gave even half of what he gave, who would’ve fled while he stood fast, or cowered where he was fearless, or second-guessed every decision she ever made whereas he stayed loyally at her side no matter what. Even when it nearly got him killed.
Then the anger sets in.
It’s only as that westward breeze shifts and lifts the hair from her face that she’s able to let go of the anger. In that moment of clarity, she dumps his ashes. She watches as the million little flecks that used to be Rocko disperse and dissolve. The effect is immediate. She feels lighter than she has in weeks. Probably years. But with that lightness is an emptiness, and all of a sudden Sanchez feels less herself than she ever has before.
It’s her husband’s grasp that keeps her from diving into the lake after what’s left of him, and it’s her husband again who holds her when they get back to the car and she sees Rocko’s collar hanging from the rear-view and bursts into tears.
Her leg still hurts when it rains. Sanchez has been indoors all day browsing car seats and scanning diaper bags, but that smoldering ache behind her left knee is proof enough that it’s still coming down out there. She’s done therapy, both physical and mental. She’s processed the trauma. She’s strengthened her muscles and hardened her resolve and established alternative means of coping, whatever that means. She’s done everything she’s supposed to, and, for the most part, she’s fine. Every time the sky opens up, though, it’s just another bitter reminder that there’s a part of her still broken.
“What about this one?” Fowler says. “Convertible with four adjustable mattress levels. Made with real New Zealand pine wood!”
Sanchez reads the label. She touches the New Zealand pine wood pillars. She tries to show that she cares about what makes this $300 crib better than the $120 one across the aisle, but her husband sees right through her.
“Come on, let’s take a break.”
“No, I’m fine,” Sanchez says. “I like this one.”
“Lena.” He holds her hands, looks at her with those same magnetic eyes that pulled her in five years ago. “We’ve been going non-stop for three hours straight. I know you’re hungry. Let me buy you a taco?”
She stretches her toes along the cold tile of the food court floor. That was the first thing she did when she sat down—kicked off her shoes. The relief was immediate. She looks at her ankles, at the narrowed impressions of her tube socks and the billowing puffiness that stretches into her calves. The swelling is normal. To be expected. That’s what they told her. Nothing to worry about.
Sanchez scarfs down the last of Fowler’s Doritos Locos Taco, then balls up the wrapper and sets it on the tray next to the two she finished by herself. It isn’t quite revulsion that she feels, but it’s something close. Five years ago, she wouldn’t have even dreamt of a meal that wasn’t organic or locally sourced. Now at least two-thirds of her calories seem to come individually wrapped.
“It’s okay, babe.” Fowler smiles as he rubs her belly. “You’re eating for two, remember. It’s normal.”
She doesn’t tell him that this only makes her feel worse.
“Ready to get back to it? This registry’s not gonna fill itself.”
Sanchez smiles, but the thought of putting her shoes back on so soon fills her with more dread than it should. “You go on. I’ll catch up.”
Sanchez balls up the wrapper of another Doritos Locos Taco, which she doesn’t even have the energy to regret eating. She rolls up her socks and squeezes her bloated feet back into her shoes. The food court waivers a bit as she stands, but things quickly stabilize and she starts hobbling in the direction of the Baby Department. Her limp is worse than it was before. Her feet feel better, but sitting for 40 minutes has left her knee even stiffer. People are staring, probably thinking she’s a beaten wife, a poor traumatized girl. If only they knew. She takes a deep breath and pushes through the pain. Even today, even at its worst, her leg isn’t a tenth as bad as what Rocko’s was.
She cuts through the Women’s Department, past the perfume she never wore and the jewellery she never could. She looks at the clothes—the skirts and blouses and tanks and dresses. She touches the fabrics. They’re so soft, so welcoming. So different from the thick, suffocating camouflaged burlap she’s worn practically every day since she got off the bus at basic training eight years ago. Then she sees the lingerie—the teddies and chemises and babydolls. She would have looked great in any of them before the blast, before all the surgeries that left her belly and her hip and the length of her inner left thigh riddled with scars. “But at least you’re alive,” she tells herself and thinks again about Rocko. “Broken is better than dead.”
The Baby Department is within sight, but for some reason Sanchez finds herself veering away from it, to the back of the store, to whatever else is out there. Home Goods, Home Improvement, Electronics, Sporting Goods, Pet Supplies. She stops there. She’s never been to that department before. She’s never had a reason to. All the supplies she ever needed for Rocko were issued to her. And, besides, he wasn’t a pet. He was a working dog. A military working dog. He never would’ve cared about any of this stuff.
Sanchez looks at the colorful collars, the ergonomic leashes, the tennis balls and rope toys and squeaking stuffed animals. It all seems so exorbitant, an indulgence more for the people than the dogs they buy them for. But then she can’t help but wonder what Rocko would’ve thought about this wall of toys. If he would’ve even known how to play with them. If that was something he would’ve wanted. If he could have chosen between searching cars and sniffing for bombs or squeaky toys and sleeping at the foot of the bed every night, wouldn’t he have chosen that life instead? Wouldn’t anyone?
She’s holding a stuffed alligator when she feels her husband’s arm around her waist.
“I bet Rocko would’ve loved this guy,” Fowler says, then squeezes the squeaker in the Alligator’s belly.
Sanchez doesn’t say a word.
“Babe.” He tucks her hair behind her ears and looks her in the eyes. “He had a good life.”
She feels the tears welling up in her throat. “It’s not that.”
It takes him a moment, but he catches on again. “You’re going to be a great mother, Lena. You’re going to love our baby every bit as much as you loved him. I promise.”
Sanchez takes a deep breath. She lets Fowler hold her, their unborn child occupying the space between them. She tries to believe what he’s been telling her for weeks—that doubt is normal, that her maternal instinct will kick in. That there’s room in her heart for both Rocko and her child.
But she still doesn’t believe it.
“Let me buy you a taco?”
The words Sanchez had been waiting her entire deployment to hear. Not those words precisely, but the message behind them: Fowler, the dreamboat gate guard with steely eyes who she’d been flirting with since January, was into her. Or at least wanted to be more than just co-workers. Or at least wanted to buy her a taco.
“I’m really more of a taco salad kinda girl. Know any good places around here?”
Fowler lowered his ballistic shades and peered over Sanchez’s shoulder at the vast, empty desert, then turned and looked at the twelve-foot T-walls separating them from the inside of the base. “I know the guy at the Taco Bell trailer pretty good. I bet I could convince him to crumble up a Doritos Locos and throw it in a bowl for you.”
Sanchez laughed. She was blushing, but her sunburnt cheeks and the coyote brown shemagh over her nose made it impossible to tell.
Sanchez nodded, the butterflies in her stomach doing backflips.
“You can come too, Rocko,” Fowler said as he scratched the stern Belgian Malinois behind his ears. Sanchez laughed. So did Fowler. Rocko didn’t budge, his wiry brown frame as steadfast as ever. If he thought it was funny, he didn’t let on.
Then their radios came alive and the rest of the world came crashing back into focus. A vehicle was approaching the gate. Fowler rolled his eyes and checked his watch. “Just a couple more hours.”
Sanchez led Rocko back to their end of the search pit, doing the best she could to glide underneath the sixty pounds of armor strapped to her body. She stole a quick glance at Fowler, who was too busy relaying commands into his own radio to notice. Rocko, though, saw right through her. The disapproval in his deep brown eyes was piercing.
“Gimme a break, Rocko. I have needs too.”
The truck pulled up. A white Nissan, the same model as every other pickup in the Middle East. She radioed in the description and checked the driver’s ID, then led Rocko past the hood, along the passenger side, around the rear. She looked back across the search pit at Fowler. He moved so smoothly. His job wasn’t complicated, but he was good at it. Five months of working alongside him, that much was clear as day. She wondered if he thought the same about her. She wondered what else he was good at.
Sanchez sighed and turned back to the job at hand. “Come on, Rocko.”
But Rocko was sitting.
Her heart sank.
She’d never had a hit before. Not in real life. Plenty of times in training. She’d seen Rocko sit in more exercises than she could count. But this wasn’t an exercise. Her mouth was dry. She could feel her lungs shrinking in her chest. She knew what she was supposed to do, but knowing and doing are two separate things.
“Canine’s got a positive ID,” she whispered into the radio, her voice trembling with each syllable. She sidestepped back to the driver-side door, her fingers throttling the grip of her M4. “Out of the car.”
The driver must have recognized the panic in her voice. Sanchez certainly recognized the panic in his eyes.
Her stomach churned. She keyed the radio again.
Then everything went black.
Her flight orders said “Litter for Comfort,” but there was nothing comfortable about the rigid nylon stretcher she was strapped to on the transatlantic flight back to the US. Wounded Warriors. That’s what everyone back home called them. The plane was full of them, though the range of “wounds” and the extent to which most could reasonably call themselves “warriors” was broad. The spec-ops guy in particular, the one in the back missing a leg with five medics assigned just to him, was a pretty heavy dose of perspective. Sanchez tried to focus on him, to remind herself that it could have been worse.
The jet hit a patch of turbulence and she felt that familiar searing pain shoot up the inside of her thigh and twist into her gut. For a brief, weak moment she found herself wishing that she’d lost the leg so she’d never have to know that pain again, but that quickly passed as the plane levelled out.
“Are you okay? Do you need your pain meds?” The steeliness in Fowler’s eyes was gone. There was a softness to him she hadn’t seen before. “I’ll find your nurse.”
Sanchez eyed the spec-ops guy. She looked at all the tubes and wires connected to his mangled body, probably as many as there were under the hood of the C-17 they were flying on. “I’m fine.”
Fowler took her hand, his thick calloused fingers squeezing hers. He wasn’t supposed to be on that flight. He’d managed to escape the blast without any major injuries, just ringing ears and a few scrapes and bruises. But Sanchez needed an attendant—someone from her unit to stay at her side on the flight to Germany, to be there when she woke up from surgery, to make sure she got home safely, to help her make sense of everything that had happened. And because Fowler had been the one to tie the tourniquet around her thigh, and because he’d requested, then insisted, then begged to go along with her, and because it’s what Sanchez wanted and there were only a couple weeks left in their deployment anyway, their commander signed off on it.
Sanchez tried to cherish Fowler’s touch. She tried to appreciate how well he’d taken care of her. She reminded herself over and over that, if it wasn’t for him, if he hadn’t tied that tourniquet, she probably would have lost her leg. And when she thought about that, for a moment, the pain would subside. But then she’d look at the photo of Rocko hanging from the litter above her and it all came rushing back.
Golf magazines. Sanchez couldn’t understand why there would be golf magazines in the waiting room of an Army vet, but it was all they had. Her fingers trembled as she flipped through the pages, trying to focus on the utility of an SGI versus a compact iron, whatever that meant, but the pit in her stomach seemed to grow with each passing minute. Eventually, she gave up and set the magazine aside.
“You excited?” Fowler smiled.
Sanchez smiled too. She nodded, though the truth was that she didn’t know what she was feeling. Excitement to some extent. But there was also guilt, anger, fear, uncertainty. That’s what it was more than anything—uncertainty. What would he look like? Would he be able to walk? Would he be able to run? Would he remember her? Would he remember what happened? Would he forgive her for what happened?
She took a deep breath and thought back to the moment after the blast, when everything came to. Dust settling. Ears ringing. People running around and shouting, but no sound coming out of their mouths.
Rocko. He was all she cared about. Her training would have told her to link up with her team, to secure the scene and form a perimeter. But she had to find Rocko.
She crawled. Through the debris, past the smoldering wreckage. Then she saw him. Lying on his side, his back to her. He wasn’t moving. Sanchez felt her heart in her throat. She crawled faster. She couldn’t see through the tears. There were hands reaching for her. She didn’t know if they were good or bad. She didn’t care either way. She had to get to Rocko.
A chilling dread washed over her as she reached him. She wasn’t ready to feel his cold, lifeless body. But she had to touch him. She had to know. She lifted her hand and placed it on his chest. He was warm. Then, as she felt his heartbeat just behind his front leg, steady and unmistakable, she was filled with a sense of relief she never could have imagined possible.
“Sergeant Sanchez? You can come back now.”
Sanchez’s heart skipped a beat as the waiting room came crashing back into focus. Fowler helped her to her feet and handed her the crutches she still relied on to get around.
“I’ll be out here if you need me.”
She nodded, took a deep breath, then followed the tech through the door.
Sanchez had never been so nervous. The next time she would come anywhere close would be two years later walking down the aisle to meet Fowler at the altar. But right then, right there, there were no thoughts of marriage or the future or that piercing pain that shot up her thigh every time she swung her leg forward. All she cared about was Rocko.
“Here he is,” the tech said as they rounded the corner into the rehab room, and immediately Sanchez’s doubts melted away. Rocko was still Rocko. He’d lost weight. His hind left leg was conspicuously absent. He looked exhausted, physically and mentally. But as he limped over to her, his eyes lowered, his tail swaying cautiously side to side, she recognized the only other creature on the planet who understood exactly what she’d been through.
“Hey, buddy,” she said, wrapping her arms around Rocko’s neck. The tears weren’t long to follow. “I’m sorry, Rocko. I’m so sorry.”
Rocko sat back, his head tilted, those same piercing eyes looking into hers. He sighed, inched closer to her, then licked the tears from her cheeks.
It was a stupid fight and Sanchez knows it. Of course Fowler doesn’t love their unborn child more than he loves her. Of course he’s just being fatherly. Warm and tender and caring—all the things he’s always been, all the things that got her through her trauma and the months of recovery that came after, not to mention the nightmares that still plague her a few nights every week. It’s the hormones, she tells herself. The stress and the sleep deprivation. It’s the pain she still feels from Rocko’s death. But she knows it’s none of those things. It’s this baby, this human creature living inside of her that she helped create, that soon she’ll be responsible for keeping alive. It’s more than she’s ready to handle.
She looks at Fowler, watches him turn the page of a car magazine as they wait to be called back for their appointment. He doesn’t care about cars—he’s been driving the same beat up Civic for twelve years—but he seems genuinely interested in whatever it is he’s reading. Sanchez closes her eyes. She wishes she could be more like that. She wishes she had that same kind of focus and intrigue and open-mindedness that will make him a great father. But that’s a piece of her that just isn’t there, that maybe she lost in the blast. The closer they inch to their due date, the more convinced she is that she’ll never be able to find it.
“Mr. and Mrs. Fowler, you can come back now.”
Sanchez hasn’t been to medical very much since she graduated from rehab. All the hours she spent in ORs and clinics and exam rooms after her injury, she figures she’s been through enough poking and prodding for a lifetime. Yet somehow, as the tech adjusts the sonogram probe to get a clearer look at her insides, this feels even more invasive than anything she’s been through before.
“You see right here?” The tech points to a hazy nub emerging from the nebulous blob in the center of the screen. “These are your baby’s little arms starting to grow. And these are the little legs.”
Fowler gasps. He actually gasps.
Sanchez stares at the screen. It’s just a blob. Just black and white noise. Just sound waves translated into some unintelligible depiction of the life that she and Fowler created. She feels nothing. All of her worst fears are confirmed. She’s not ready to be a mom. She’s not ready to let go of Rocko. She thinks for a moment about forcing a gasp, but she knows Fowler will see right through it.
“And right here…” The tech hovers her cursor over the fluttering fleck in the center of the blob. Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. She smiles. “That’s your baby’s heartbeat.”
Sanchez tightens her grip on Fowler’s hand. There’s a warmth in her chest. It’s a feeling she doesn’t recognize, maybe one she’s never felt before. But it’s something.
So much time has passed since she’s been able to make sense of even the simplest things in her life. Yet, lying on that exam table, listening to that little heart marking time inside of her, Sanchez wonders if maybe—just maybe—she’s not so broken after all.
✽ ✽ ✽
ANDREW MACQUARRIE is a reader, a writer, a veteran, and a doctor. Originally from Nova Scotia, he now lives in Los Angeles. MacQuarrie has previously published in The Montreal Review, The Write Launch, Pennsylvania English, and On The Premises. He can be followed on Twitter @haemo_goblin.