Return of a Hero
Master Sergeant Rob Koenig thought his wife’s dinner plan was a hell of a way to have to spend his first weekend home. He’d wanted to spend Saturday evening eating supper and watching TV in his own house with Becky and their nineteen-year-old daughter, Nicky. But Becky had prodded and coaxed him to cross their quiet suburban Texan street for dinner with their neighbors, promising she would later make it well worth his while.
So they’d walked over to the Walker’s house, a two-story, red-tile home, which was part of a more expensive subdivision. The Walker’s double-door entry swung open as soon as the sergeant knocked.
George Walker greeted Koenig with a firm if exaggerated handshake and a wide grin—too wide to be natural, the sergeant thought—and invited them to the backyard for a beer. George smoothed a faint wrinkle in his pressed Polo, and led them through the sliding glass door to the patio. Fifty-some people, a few holding “Welcome Home Hero” banners, yelled “Surprise!”
Sergeant Koenig was not surprised. From inside the house, he had spotted the feeble attempts of men and women to hide behind trees, posts, and patio furniture, but he wondered where his daughter was and who the hell all the people were. A few he recognized as neighbors, a couple more as girls who worked with Becky in the beauty parlor, but most were strangers.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to propose a toast.” George waved his beer bottle and nodded to his wife, who handed iced Lone Stars to the sergeant and Becky.
Sergeant Koenig eyed George. They had both just turned 39 but George, who was a half-head taller, still boasted a full head of carefully groomed hair; the sergeant’s hairline was receding quickly, leaving behind a bald spot in the shape of an inverted horseshoe beneath a buzz cut. Still, Sergeant Koenig bench pressed 315 pounds and did 200 sit-ups each morning to preserve his six-pack abs, and he knew George, whose gut flopped an inch-and-a-half over his belt line, could come nowhere close to matching those numbers. George, a city councilman with designs on the mayor’s seat, stepped further onto the patio, and the sergeant guessed that George—like a politician visiting the troops—was seizing the opportunity for a speech.
“Over thirteen months ago, on Independence Day, 2005,” George said. “I asked my good friend Rob, sitting right here on the patio that he helped me build, if after almost twenty years as an Army Ranger and being close to a military retirement, he resented having to train and go to Iraq with National Guard troops.”
Sergeant Koenig stood erect, sniffing at the petroleum smell in the air and watching the flames roil above George’s barbecue pit. He had helped pour the patio cement because he’d felt sorry for George after his business had nearly gone bankrupt. They had watched a couple of football games on television and drank a few beers together, but he considered George a neighbor, not a friend.
“Rob answered me immediately and without hesitation,” George said. “He said, ‘George, absolutely not, no resentment.’ He told me he’d joined the Army after high school, expecting at some point he would fight for America. He was ready, willing, and able”—George pointed his finger at the crowd—“to defend her in combat at any time with any troops.”
“Yo, where’s the party?” A young man’s voice echoed from inside the house and a girl’s laughter followed. Sergeant Koenig recognized his daughter Nicky’s giggle. He swiveled his neck to see her and grimaced when he saw how Nicky’s surprisingly plump body almost flopped out of her tight halter-top and short-shorts. As soon as he’d returned from Iraq, he’d probed Becky about their daughter’s weight gain, and his wife had grudgingly admitted that the fifteen pounds Nicky had put on while he was gone was probably because of the Lithium.
George’s wife hushed Nicky and her scraggly-bearded boyfriend and then led the pair to an open spot across the patio. Nicole waved and flashed her actress-perfect smile at her father.
Sergeant Koenig winked at his daughter. He had only seen her for two brief encounters in the thirty-eight hours that he’d been home. Her brown hair was long again, like when she was little, and he remembered the sweet scent of strawberries that permeated her hair after Becky used to bathe her years ago. In the filtered sunlight beneath a lemon tree, Nicky’s eyes were a lime green, like spring leaves, the way he remembered his mother’s eyes. Nicky winked back at him, and he grinned, but then he looked closer and found again the faint shadow of a faded bruise beneath her right eye.
The sergeant stared at her boyfriend. Billy’s sleeveless shirt showed large upper arms—the sergeant would give him that—but his biceps and triceps lacked definition. His right arm was covered with a tattoo of some kind of long-haired creature—probably an animal or perhaps a masked man. Sergeant Koenig had seen a lot of outrageous tattoos in the Army, but this one was ridiculous. He told himself it didn’t matter much now. He would deal with Billy soon enough.
Under the West Texas sun, George droned on about the war, about terrorism, about the importance of hundreds of thousands of men and women keeping America safe by fighting the terrorists in Iraq. The sergeant wished George would shut-up. Not that he disagreed with his neighbor’s views—Sergeant Koenig drilled the same beliefs into his troops, but what he had longed for at night in Iraq was for simple, quiet time at home with Becky, with Nicky, and sometimes, to his surprise, even with their dumb black Lab; he had no use for some civilian buffoon like George to lecture him about things he already knew.
The cadence of George’s speech slowed, and the sergeant sensed that the city councilman was finally drawing his long-winded toast to a close.
“Before he left for Iraq, I asked Rob what he hoped to accomplish on his mission.” George surveyed the crowd. “He told me he had two goals: “One, he was going to defend America against the terrorists. And, two, he was going to bring all of his National Guard boys home alive.”
Koenig cringed. Yes, they had all made it back alive, but Private Derrick Hayes had come home missing a big part of himself.
“It is my pleasure to report to you, that our friend and neighbor accomplished both goals.” George paused, and Koenig knew that he was waiting for the applause that soon followed. George smiled then and nodded. “Furthermore, I can share more exciting news from an unofficial but reliable source.” George turned with a grin to Koenig’s wife and winked. “Thank you, Becky. Rob has been recommended by his commanding officer for a Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery in fighting the enemy and saving another soldier’s life.
“Please join me,” George said, setting his beer down on the barbecue stand, “in giving a warm welcome home to a returning American hero: Master Sergeant Rob Koenig.”
George smacked his hands together in a resounding clap. Cheers resounded across the patio. Sergeant Koenig winced slightly, nodded, and looked toward Nicky. She clapped while Billy tapped his left arm against his side; his tattooed arm hung around Nicky’s neck, his hand dangling just above the cleavage of her full breasts.
For just an instant, Sergeant Koenig let himself imagine that he was wielding his Army saber, slicing it through the air, then cutting Billy’s arm off and giving the arm to the medics for a transplant for Private Hayes.
* * *
“Your idea?” Koenig asked his wife. He had shaken scores of hands, been swept past his daughter, withstood a dozen meaningless conversations, and ignored several intrusive questions before getting his wife away from the crowd and the barbecue pit.
“George’s,” she said, nodding in the direction of their neighbor, her long earrings jiggling.
“But you were a collaborator?”
“We don’t have to stay late.” Becky crinkled her nose; it was the same suggestive smile she had been disarming him with since she was a high school senior and he was a sophomore—it was a look that he usually found irresistible, but which occasionally, especially if coupled with a subtle reprimand, irritated him beyond words. “But it’s good for us to get out sometimes. Just enjoy it for now.”
“I’ll enjoy it when it’s just you, me, and Nicky, and I’m sitting down with a beer in my own house.”
While Koenig spoke, he kept an eye on Nicky, who bounced their neighbor’s baby in her arms with Billy at her side. Koenig couldn’t make out what Nicky was saying, but she chatted with the infant’s mother and kissed the baby girl atop her head. When Nicky was a baby, Becky used to complain that Rob had nothing to do with their daughter, but once she grew into a toddler and started following him around, he took Nicky everywhere with him. The best years had been when she was old enough to go fishing with him and then duck hunting, and when he coached her softball teams. It was a good stretch, before the disaster of her high school years.
He thought about walking over to the cooler and talking with Nicky, but George was snaking his way through the backyard toward him and Becky.
“Enjoying yourself, buddy?” George wiped his hands on the chef’s apron that protected his Polo, and then patted Koenig on the shoulder.
The sergeant pulled back, but checked his impulse to knock away George’s hand. He sniffed the air and smelled something like burning flesh mingled with charcoal. “Something’s burning, chef.”
“Good nose. A bit of your steak slipped into the coals, but don’t worry, I bought plenty.”
“You bought steaks?” Becky asked
“For you and our guest of honor,” George said. “Everyone else gets burgers and dogs.”
“Who the hell are all these people?” Koenig asked.
“Just friends, neighbors, a few people from the community I wanted to introduce you to,” George said. “A good turnout, better than I expected, to see our hero.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Hero?” George asked.
“I’m a soldier, a Ranger, a Master Sergeant,” Koenig said. He was going to stop there, but seeing the smirk on George’s face, he let fly most of what he was thinking: “I’m not your Hollywood hero”—he almost said fucking Hollywood hero, but he knew that would upset Becky—“to put on display.”
“Rob,” Becky put her hand on his forearm.
“Okay, pal. But to these people, you’re a hero.” George pivoted toward Becky. “Can you help us with a little glitch? With so many people coming, we’re short on seating. Don’t you have a folding table and chairs?”
“You’re welcome to use them,” Becky said.
“You’re a princess. I’ll run over with George Junior and grab them.”
“Stay with your guests,” Koenig said. “I’ll get Nicky’s boyfriend to go with me.”
Koenig peered at Billy while they walked across the street. A few long strands of hair fell from the perimeter of the boy’s FUBU cap; Billy had tucked his long hair beneath his hat, like a woman in a shower cap. Koenig had met Billy only twice before, both times in the week before the sergeant deployed to Iraq. He hadn’t liked Billy back then. Billy had a three-year-old son and ex-girlfriend he wasn’t supporting, a government disability check, and mental problems—Nicky had met him in her psychiatrist’s waiting room. Koenig didn’t think Nicky and Billy’s relationship would last, but this spring while he was in Iraq, they moved into an apartment together. Nicky ended up quitting her GED class to work, but she and Billy soon lost their restaurant jobs. A couple of weeks before the sergeant’s return, when they could no longer pay their bills and after the big fight when Billy had punched her in the eye, he had moved back to his mother’s house and Nicky moved home. Koenig had hoped that was the end of their relationship, but they were back together after three days.
Koenig slid open the doors to the large metal storage shed at the back of his property. He breathed in the smell of fresh-cut grass clinging to his mower.
“Cool,” Billy said, spinning around, taking in a panoramic view of the shed as if it were a mansion. “Somebody could almost live in here, huh?”
Sergeant Koenig threw an upper cut into Billy’s stomach. Billy doubled over, but the sergeant caught him by the throat and shoulder and slammed him into the metal wall, which buckled and rattled.
The sergeant shoved his hand against the young man’s windpipe, choking Billy’s words.
“Do you have any idea how long it would take me to kill you?” He eased back the pressure on Billy’s throat. “Do you?”
Billy coughed, shaking his head.
“You wouldn’t do that,” Billy said.
“If you ever strike my daughter again, you’d better believe that I will.”
“You’d go to jail. You’d get court-martialed and shot or something.” Billy stared at Koenig with wide, crazy eyes that seemed to hold some mix of fear and defiance.
“There’s plenty of ways to kill you without anyone ever knowing. But it doesn’t matter what happens to me—if you ever hurt my daughter again, you will pay.”
“No, Billy, I hear you are, but I’m not. Now listen good: when I let you go, you’re going to help me carry the table and chairs back, and—unless you want more trouble—you’re never going to hurt Nicky again. And you’re not going to say a word about this to anyone, especially Nicky. Got it?”
Billy nodded. Sergeant Koenig held his fingers on the boy’s windpipe for a second longer before letting go.
* * *
“Good dinner,” Koenig said the following Tuesday, after he forked in the last of Becky’s cheese potato casserole that had accompanied a sirloin steak and green beans with bacon chunks.
“Better than the Army’s?” Becky rinsed their dishes in the kitchen sink.
“By a bit.” He grinned, then chugged the last of his beer. “Nicky missed a good supper. She should have been here.”
Becky took a short step to the refrigerator—the small kitchen and tiny bedrooms were her only complaints about the house—and handed him another beer. She kissed him, and he savored the tenderness of her lips.
“Hmm,” he murmured as he took in the smell of her rose-scented perfume. “When do you think Nicky’s getting home?”
“Don’t know. Could be late, could be anytime.”
“Better wait then.” He patted his wife on the butt as she stepped back to the sink. Even though she was now on the far side of forty, he still thought she was a knockout. She dolled up her hair, wore sexy earrings, dabbed on perfume after every shower, and kept a good figure. She was even trimmer now than on their wedding night, but back then she had been pregnant with Nicky.
When Becky asked about his day at the base, he complained as he often did that the Army had a thousand times more forms than bullets, but he said he’d found a letter in the pile from Private Hayes. “He asked me to come see him.”
“Is he back on the base?”
“No, but he’s been out of Walter Reed for a few weeks and he’s staying at his in-law’s ranch.”
“Are you going to see him?”
“I doubt it. It’s a couple of hours away.”
Koenig decided not to tell her about the phone call from his ex-Ranger buddy who had joined a private security firm in North Carolina. His friend offered Koenig a private security position back in Iraq at a fat, fat salary, if he retired in December. But Koenig didn’t know if the Army would let him retire or send him back to Iraq for a second tour, and he wasn’t sure if he’d take the security job offer even if he could.
The front door slammed and Koenig jumped to his feet.
Becky peered at him. “It’s just Nicky. I mean, Nicky when she’s mad.”
The stomping of feet grew louder.
“You did this to me!” she shouted at her dad.
“Nicky, what?” Becky asked.
The sergeant sat back down and lifted his beer, the bottle clinking against his front teeth.
“Billy’s been avoiding me for three days, not returning my calls,” Nicky spoke in a rapid clip. “So today I drove over to his mom’s house. At first, he says he doesn’t want to talk to me. He won’t even tell me what’s wrong, but finally he does when I start crying. And do you know what he says?”
“What?” Becky asked.
“Dad attacked him last Saturday—hit him and choked him and said he’s going to kill Billy.”
“I didn’t say I was going to kill him. I told him if he ever hits you again, then I will.”
“You have no right!” Nicole jabbed a pointed finger in the air toward him.
“Oh, I do. You’re my daughter.” Her face had always been broad but now her cheeks were fuller; Koenig pushed away the thought that she looked like a chipmunk storing up food for winter. In her green eyes, he still saw innocence, like when she was a young girl. “Anyone who attacks you or mom, attacks me. And they’d damn well better be ready for the consequences.”
“He’s not going to hit me again. Before you ever came home, he told me he was so sorry. We even talked about it with Dr. Richardson.”
“Oh, great,” he said. “Nicky, listen. If he hit you once, he’s a threat to—.”
“He made a mistake,” Nicky said. “He admitted it and he promised he’d never do it again.”
“Nicole,” he said. “He’s not to be trusted.”
“I do trust him.” She stepped toward her father. “I trust him so much. He told me he was sorry for not talking to me right away about what was wrong.” She glanced at her mother. “And he wants to marry me.”
“You’re engaged?” Becky asked.
“Not officially, but we talked about it. We both really want to get married.”
“How’s he going to support you?” Koenig asked. “He’s not working, he’s not supporting his child, he’s not supporting the boy’s mother—and sure as hell, he’s not going to be supporting you, either.”
“He was depressed for a while but now he’s looking for a job again and so am I. And,” Nicky said, smiling, “he’s got a lead for a chair open at a tattoo parlor.”
“Tattoo parlor—that’s a great line of work, for sure,” Koenig said.
“He’s an awesome artist. He’s going to be famous.”
“Oh, Jesus,” he said. “Billy will be lucky to hold down a part-time grill job at McDonald’s.”
“Shut up!” Nicky shouted. “I hate you!”
He pointed his finger at his daughter. “Stop!”
“Apologize to Billy for hitting and threatening him,” she said.
“Not going to happen.”
“You better be nice to him.” Her eyes were defiant, with an intense, almost berserk look. “And you’d better not hurt him again.”
Koenig gripped his beer and let a long swallow run cold down his throat. Metal clanged loudly and he startled. Two pans rattled on the tile floor while Nicky slipped out of the kitchen.
“Nicole!” he shouted. “Get back here, now!”
A bedroom door slammed. Becky bent down to pick up the pots.
“Becky, leave them. She needs to clean up her own messes.”
Becky rinsed off a pot and returned it to the counter for drying.
“Still coddling her, huh?” he said.
“And you, Rob?” Becky whipped around to face him. “What are you doing? Still bullying her boyfriends and trying to control her like she’s your little girl—or one of your privates?”
He grabbed another beer and left the kitchen. He sank into the recliner in the living room and flipped through the cable channels before finding the 1991 Chiefs-Dolphins playoff game on ESPN Classic.
Their black Lab ran into the living room. Travis’s long tail whipped over the end table, flipping aside one of Becky’s ceramic angels and rattling the framed photo of Nicky’s seventh grade championship softball team with Koenig as the coach. Beneath the bill of her ball cap, Nicky’s smile showed a metal grid of braces. The orthodontic work had been expensive, but Becky had persuaded him that a nice smile was important for a girl, and especially for their daughter since he was turning her into a tomboy. The dog plopped his head onto Koenig’s lap. Travis’ round, caramel-colored eyes stared up at him.
“Go on, sit.”
Travis’ eyes bulged but he didn’t move.
“I said sit!”
Travis was supposed to be his hunting dog. He had built the dog a big pen in the backyard. But after 9/11, after the Army had sent him for months at a time to Germany, to South Korea, and to Saudi Arabia, Becky had spoiled the dog. She had let him in the house and Nicky had petted and played with him and let him sleep on her bed. Once, the sergeant had even caught Travis trying to climb up on the recliner with him, like some overgrown, dumb lap dog.
It was the same kind of thing with Nicky. Her life fell apart while he was gone after 9/11. Her high school years were a catastrophe right from the start. She smarted off to teachers, got into trouble, cut classes, and quit the softball team. Becky sent a flurry of emails to him in Germany describing the problems at home: Nicky yelled and screamed, refused to go to school, stayed up half the night during the week and then slept most of the weekend.
He was gone, and Becky didn’t give Nicky the discipline she needed. Becky admitted as much during a long-distance phone call, saying Nicky was unpredictable and she didn’t know how to control her. Nicky needed him home, but there was nothing he could do about it at the time. Instead, Becky dragged her off to the psychiatrist, where she got a diagnosis of bipolar and a prescription for Lithium.
Becky sat on the sofa, her knees pointed toward him. “Can we talk?”
He aimed the remote at the TV and punched the mute button. “Another missed tackle.” He shook his head. “That’s why we lost.”
“Rob, I hate as much as you do that Billy hit her. When Nicky came home with that black eye a month ago, I wanted to punch him out myself.”
He shifted his gaze from the Chiefs’ game to his wife. “I hear you.”
“And in the first place, he’s a coward for deserting that other girl he got pregnant and their baby,” Becky said.
“Damn right.” He enjoyed the contempt in Becky’s voice for Billy.
“But you can’t go around beating up people.”
“I’ll do whatever’s necessary to protect this family.”
“And I guess you're going to make your own decisions, no matter what I say, just like always.” She sank back into the sofa. After a minute, she reached over to the end table.
He waited for her to say something, but she twiddled with the angel figurine and was silent. “What Becky?”
“I don’t want to see you get in a fight and land in jail or—”“
“I barely touched Billy.”
“Good,” she said. “I’m glad to hear that.”
“He’s a worthless jackass.”
“He’s irresponsible and I’ve been secretly hoping they’d break up.”
“Me, too.” He swallowed more beer.
“But now they’re talking about getting married.”
“That’s just make-up talk.”
“I hope so,” she said.
“It’s easy to dream,” he said, “and hard to live in reality.
“I know.” Becky repositioned the angel, standing it almost like a sentry in front of the framed photo.
“Nicky ought to send his ass packing.”
“That’s fine with me,” she said. “But Nicky’s the one who’s got to decide that. And right now, for better and for worse, I think she really loves him.”
“Spare me,” Koenig said.
“You know, Billy’s definitely got his problems, but he’s not an all-bad kid. He’s got a sweet side, and his getting Nicky out of the house has been good for her. It’s just too bad he had such a hard childhood.”
Koenig anticipated the things that Becky recited once again about Billy: his father, a Vietnam Vet, had left him as a child and eventually committed suicide; his mom had a drinking problem; and his school years were a series of lost battles, with failing grades, and diagnoses of learning disorders, ADHD, and bipolar disorder. When Koenig couldn’t stand to hear any more about Billy’s past problems, he interrupted: “He’s still responsible for what he does. He’s got to feel bad about himself, and he needs to man up. No excuses.”
“I agree,” she said. “I’m just asking you to take it easy on him. Let Nicky work it out on her own.”
“That boy’s going to be nothing but big trouble for this family.” He jabbed the mute button, turning the volume back on to the Chiefs’ game. “I can sense it.”
* * *
Becky suggested he join George for the last preseason football telecast. “George’s having a few guys over for the game and he’s hoping you’ll come by.”
“He can keep hoping.” Koenig had already cut the grass, weedeated, and washed his pickup truck. He settled back into the recliner.
“So, what are you going to do today?” She glanced at the wall clock.
“When’s Nicky getting home?”
“She didn’t say, but she’ll probably be out all day with Billy.”
He tossed the sports page from his lap to the coffee table. “Got another letter yesterday from Private Hayes asking me to come out.”
“Do you want to?”
“Then don’t go. Rob, you took care of him—and all those other boys—for nearly a year in Iraq. I know you feel bad about him—“
“I don’t feel bad.”
“Anywho, you don’t owe him anything now.” Becky leaned down and planted a kiss on his lips. “I recorded a bunch of movies for us while you were gone. We can watch one tonight, but I’ve got to get to the salon now. A perm’s coming in at noon.”
He looked back at the TV. “I wish it was deer season.”
After Becky left, he climbed into his pickup and wound his way through the suburbs toward Wal-Mart. When he passed the high school, he saw the football team scrimmaging. He swerved to the curb, watching the quarterback drop back and fire a twenty-yard pass to the wide receiver.
He checked the scoreboard. It was blank beneath the large sign that read “Home of the Warriors.” Warriors was also the name of his old high school team back in Missouri. It was a good name, and he shook his head remembering an Army buddy saying a California school board had changed his son’s team name from Warriors because it might be offensive to American Indians. That was plain stupid, he thought. He told his recruits that he wanted them not only to be good soldiers but also to be warriors, and he wasn’t worried about offending anyone. It was good name to earn and one to be proud of.
The quarterback broke the huddle, dropped back again, and then scrambled away from a blitzing linebacker. The quarterback sprinted past the defensive end, sidestepped another tackler, and picked up fifteen more yards before the safety knocked him to the ground.
Koenig grinned. Hundreds of times in the past he had darted around big linemen, switched directions, and sprinted up field before the crunch of shoulder pads. He’d been both players, quarterback and free safety, and football was supposed to be his ticket out. He was too small, only five feet seven and one-half, but he was good, and Iowa State and a handful of D2 colleges were talking scholarship possibilities with him before the Missouri 3A state high school championship game. He was having a great game passing and rushing, and the Warriors were leading a bigger team from a rich, private school in St. Louis by fourteen points midway through the third quarter. He had scrambled for another fifteen yards when the defense piled on. He felt the late hit—it was from their 220-pound linebacker—crack against his throwing arm. His bone popped like a rifle shot. He tumbled on the ground, the other team dogpiled on him, and he felt his shoulder contort, twist, and then tear, as if part of him had been ripped away.
He had refused the stretcher, but he remembered a flash of horror while watching his arm dangling limply at his side, no longer responding to his commands.
Koenig was inspecting the duck decoy when he sensed he was being watched. At the end of the narrow Wal-Mart aisle, he spotted the ponytailed young man staring at him.
“Hey, Mr. Koenig,” Billy said.
“Nicole with you?” The sergeant returned the decoy to the shelf.
“If I say no, are you going to slug me again?”
“That depends, Billy, on whether you’ve hit her again.”
“No sir.” Billy stutter-stepped closer.
“Where is she?” The sergeant quickly sized up Billy. He was wearing ripped jeans and another sleeveless shirt, showing off his hideous tattoo. Koenig could now make out that the tattoo depicted the huge teeth and jaw of a saber tooth tiger connected to a man’s face, except skinless with exposed sinewy muscles and eye pupils formed by spiders.
“Shopping at the mall with my mom. Hitting Nicky, sir, was a big mistake and a one-time thing. I didn’t mean to—we were arguing and she started screaming at me, poking her finger into my chest and then waving it right in my face, and I just felt all this pressure—”
“That’s no excuse.”
“I know. I feel like a dick.”
“You should. A man never hits a woman.”
“I know.” Billy nodded, his ponytail bouncing. “But there’s just so much pressure sometimes. You know, shit happens, and life sucks.”
“I don’t care if your life sucks. Just don’t fuck up Nicole’s. Got it?”
“Yeah.” Billy scratched at his tattoo.
“I don’t know what Nicole sees in you, Billy. I’ve trained thousands of boys your age, young men who go through hell and back, risking their lives, making the ultimate sacrifice for their country and their families, if they have to, and they don’t whine about ‘pressure’ and life sucking. When I look at them, I see young men that I’m proud of—” the sergeant paused, debating himself for an instant on how much to say, but when he saw the apathy lurking in Billy’s expression, he let his words rip. “When I look at you I see a worthless coward who doesn’t support his own child and hits his girlfriend.”
The sergeant waited, expecting Billy to defend himself, to say something, but the young man only looked at the floor.
Koenig brushed against Billy’s tattoo on the way out.
* * *
Koenig flicked another cigarette butt out his open pickup window. He shot the stub toward the pavement, away from the oil tanker that cruised alongside, and he steered for the exit off the Texas highway. He drove on a two-lane road, through a small town, past a watermelon farm, and then through graze land. Holstein cows stood in the shade of an oak and at the edge of a pond. As he passed, a cow with water above her knees stared at him from the watering hole.
With black and white markings across the face and shoulders, she looked like his cow from childhood. As a boy, especially when his mom was sick, he would lay with Tessie on the grass after he finished his chores. He’d rest his head on Tessie’s flank, chewing on a long stalk of milkweed, watching for the first star to appear in the evening sky.
His mother’s cancer had returned when he was twelve. After she came home from the hospital for the last time, she stayed in bed all day and her nightstand was covered with more pill bottles than before. His father told him then the next six months were going to be hard and he needed to be strong.
A week later, riding the school bus home, he saw an ambulance at their farmhouse. He left his books and ran his fastest up the dusty road. Two men in white stepped out of the farmhouse, carrying a stretcher. A sheet covered the thin figure. He turned toward his dad, but his father looked away, staring out across the farm.
Lisa Hayes fussed over Sergeant Koenig when he introduced himself at the front door of the farmhouse. She hugged him but the sergeant recoiled without intending to, and she immediately stepped back and shook his hand.
“I’m sorry—I feel like I know you already,” she said. “Derrick talks about you all the time.”
She wore no makeup or jewelry, save for a small necklace with a cross, and her black hair fell straight onto her shoulders. Still, the sergeant found her beautiful, which he had not expected.
“He’s going to be so surprised and happy to see you,” she said. “Even from Iraq, he used to email us, saying you were the best sergeant and his favorite commanding officer in the Army.”
“I’m not an officer, but thank you, ma’am.” The sergeant had never spoken the words aloud, but Private Hayes had been his favorite soldier in the platoon. It hadn’t started that way. Hayes was a tall, skinny, awkward kid in the National Guard, and the sergeant had been afraid from their first training exercise that the boy would get himself killed. A college kid, Hayes read books in the barracks and the other soldiers used to call him a nerd. He was clumsy performing new drills, and the sergeant had been extra hard on him, hoping to wash him out rather than see him killed in Iraq. But the kid eventually mastered the drills, did whatever was asked of him, and took without complaint everything the sergeant dished out. By the time they hit Iraq, Sergeant Koenig had developed a soft spot for the kid and considered him one of his best soldiers.
“Thank you for saving my husband’s life, Sergeant.”
“I didn’t really, ma’am. I just reacted to the situation.”
“I know,” she said. “God saved his life, but He worked through you.”
She led the sergeant through the kitchen—the sweet smell of cornbread baking filled the air—to a small room in the back. Derrick was sprawled on a love seat, watching football on the TV. A bandaged stump occupied the space just beneath his shoulder where his right arm should have been.
Derrick clambered to his feet and a wide grin crossed his lips before disappearing into a scar on his cheek. He sprang forward, and for an instant, Sergeant Koenig worried the private would hug him. Instinctively, the sergeant stuck out his right hand, but then quickly pulled it back.
“Don’t worry, Sergeant.” Derrick reached out his left hand to shake. “Happens all the time. Have a seat, sir,” he pointed at the easy chair in front of the coffee table.
Lisa excused herself, saying she needed to check on their napping three-year-old. The men were silent for a moment, which made the sergeant uncomfortable, so he took command of the conversation. He inquired about Hayes’s treatment. Derrick said he was increasing time and activities in rehab with the prosthesis.
“So you’re doing okay?” the sergeant said.
“Yeah, I am.” Derrick nodded. “My only complaint is that sometimes my arm still hurts.”
“No, my arm that’s missing. Sounds crazy, huh, feeling a pain in some place that’s missing?”
Koenig shook his head, though he wasn’t sure why. “I don’t know. What does the doctor say?”
“He called it phantom pain. He said it’s normal after losing an appendage but there’s no real treatment for it.” Derrick said. “I’ve found that if I just let it hurt, then I feel better later.”
The sergeant felt something sickening churn in his stomach, so he changed subjects, asking Hayes about his future.
“I’m going to start back at college in January,” Derrick said. “Finish that English degree, then I’m thinking of going to law school.”
The sergeant nodded, though he couldn’t understand why anyone would get an English degree. “My best friend growing up got a law degree.”
“How’s he like it?”
“Okay, I guess. I haven’t talked to him in a few years.” Todd had become Koenig’s next-door neighbor in sixth grade, after the move from the farm. They played football together, although Todd was second string, always better with books than sports. After Todd had dropped another pass in practice, one of their meaner Warrior teammates started calling Todd “Mr. Spastic” until Koenig told the kid in private that he’d better knock it off.
“You like football, Sarge?” Derrick nodded at the TV behind him. “I can turn it off if you want.”
“Leave it on.”
The defense blitzed, sacking the passer from his blind side. The quarterback stayed on the ground and the trainer ran onto the field. After Koenig’s injury, the colleges had withdrawn their scholarship offers; his high school coach had told him to rehab his shoulder, red-shirt a year, and then play junior college football. In three years, there would be another scholarship offer, his coach had said. Koenig had planned to follow his coach’s advice until Becky told him after graduation that she was pregnant. Soon afterward, at a party, he beat up pretty bad a big kid who had been stupid enough to say nasty things about Becky getting pregnant; after the sheriff told Koenig he was going to jail unless he joined the service, he’d enlisted in the Army.
“Sergeant?” Derrick asked when the television coverage switched to a commercial.
“Do you remember what happened?”
“In Iraq. All I remember is driving into a town. In the hospital, they told me the Humvee got hit by an RPG and was on fire and that you pulled me out. What do you remember about it, Sergeant?”
It was the same question the Army counselor had asked him during the debriefing interview from Iraq. She had looked over his record, nodded at the paper that she held in her small, fair-skinned hands, and told the sergeant to tell her what he remembered about the incident. The sergeant refused. She peered at him through petite glasses, and spoke softly, almost in a whisper, saying something about knowing the memory was painful, but he needed to talk about it. She was in her mid-twenties, the sergeant figured, and the faint scent of perfume clung to her. He refused, but she pushed him. She said she knew it was hard, but he should open up and share the experience with her. He thought she needed a good fucking; he told her she could ask about anything else, but if she stayed on that incident, they would sit in silence for the two-hour session.
“Sergeant?” Derrick asked again. “What do you remember?”
He clutched his car keys lying on the coffee table. “Nothing, really.” He looked past Derrick, past where his right arm should have been, at the football game on TV. “I gotta go, Private.”
“Family dinner,” he lied. “Gotta get home.”
The old yellow Neon with the crumpled fender that Nicky drove blocked his side of the garage. He’d told Nicky dozens of times before not to park in the driveway—but he was glad that both his wife and daughter were home at dinnertime. He hadn’t lied to the private after all, he thought. He’d ask Nicky to move her car to the street, but he wouldn’t, as Becky so often complained, make a big deal out of it.
Before Koenig had swung the house door all the way open, he heard Nicky crying. Her wailing—high-pitched and broken by a sob—echoed through the house; it sounded like when she was twelve and Buddy, their first black Lab, had been hit by a car. He ran toward the crying, remembering about Billy and the bruise below his daughter’s eye.
Nicky was curled into a ball on her bed, her mother’s arms wrapped over her.
“What happened?” Koenig shouted.
Nicky raised her head. She glared at him, then buried her head back into the pillow and sobbed.
Becky stared at him, too. Tears trickled down her cheeks. “Billy,” she said. “He’s killed himself.”
* * *
At Billy’s graveside service, the sergeant stood in dress uniform across the circle from his daughter. He counted only nineteen people at the funeral, including himself and Becky, the minister, a few long-haired boys in their early twenties, a couple of young women, and some older people that the sergeant figured were relatives and neighbors. Nicky wrapped one arm around Billy’s mother, a skinny woman a few years older than Becky, with dark sunglasses and gray showing at the roots of her purplish hair. With her other hand, Nicky gripped the shoulder of a young boy dressed in a Navy blazer. The boy—Billy’s son, Becky whispered—squeezed a gigantic purple dragon under his right arm.
It was hot for early September, though nothing like the inferno of Iraq. An older man shifted from foot to foot; at his side, a young man wearing a white shirt and a pink tie wiped his sleeve against the sweat on his forehead. The sergeant withstood the heat without moving, but he noticed Nicky wiping her cheeks. He hoped at first that she was perspiring, but he realized she was removing tears.
Koenig tried to listen to the minister, but he lost track of the words. He found himself staring at the empty softball field across the street from the cemetery. A gust of wind scattered a puff of infield dirt toward the grass. When Nicky was in eighth grade, he coached his last softball game. They were playing in the regional final, trying to advance for the second straight year to the state championship tournament. Nicky had pitched a great game but after she struck out the first two batters in the bottom half of the last inning, the team began to unravel. An error, a bloop single, another error, and a walk had tied the score at 1 to 1 and left the bases loaded. When Nicky went two balls and no strikes on the next batter, he made the trip to the rubber and told Nicky to forget about the errors and the walk. They can’t hit you, he’d said. Be strong, fire strikes down the middle.
Becky was angry with him for ignoring Nicky after the game. He tried to explain later to Becky that he wasn’t mad at Nicky because she had lost control of her pitches and walked in the tying and winning runs. But he refused to go out there after they’d lost the game and pamper her when she sat on the mound crying like a baby.
He had replayed the end of the game in his head more than a hundred times. At first, he pictured the second baseman getting her glove down instead of booting the grounder, or the third baseman making a good rather than a wide throw to first, or Nicky firing three more strikes. Much later, while he was overseas—and he never admitted this even to Becky—he wondered if he should have handled Nicky differently after the game. Not that he would have coddled her, but he could have told her that she had a great season, despite the loss, and that it was going to be okay as long as she kept her head up. He had thought of telling Nicky this when he returned home from Germany, but he decided it was too late.
The minister asked the group to lower their heads for a final prayer. Koenig bowed his head, but he sensed Nicky’s eyes on him. He turned to meet her stare, but she looked down at Billy’s coffin.
After the prayer, after they shuffled away from the lowered coffin, Becky called to Nicky
Nicky stepped away from Billy’s mother and son.
Becky encircled Nicky in her arms. “I’m so sorry.”
Nicky held onto her. “Me, too, mom.”
When Becky released Nicky from her embrace, Koenig asked: “You all right, Nicole?”
“Hang in there, Nicky,” he said. “Keep your head up. It’ll be okay.”
“It’s not going to be okay.” Her lips parted in a sneer. “Billy’s dead.”
“I know, but you’ll feel better soon,” he said. “It’ll be okay—I promise.”
“Why did you even come here?” Nicky asked.
“Don’t be disrespectful—”
“Me? You disrespected Billy, bullying him. He needed you to like him, but you had to be the hard-ass sergeant. You stressed him out.”
“Billy was stressed out long before—“
“Billy killed himself because of you.”
“Nicole, don’t talk crazy,” he said.
“Please stop,” Becky said, but Koenig wasn’t clear if she was talking to Nicky or both of them.
“I’m not crazy,” Nicky said. “But you are—hitting him, choking him, threatening to kill him. Do you know what he wrote in his note? That you were right about him, that he’s worthless.”
“After he punched you in the face, I did what I had to do.” The sergeant saw the young man with the pink tie and his two long-haired friends glaring at him, but he didn’t care. He stared back at them for a moment and then looked into Nicky’s green eyes. “I told him if he ever hit you again, I would kill him.”
“He killed himself—thanks to you.”
Behind Nicky, Billy’s son trembled, his dragon slipping from his grip. His face contorted, like he was going to cry. The sergeant choked back his angry words that were about to spew out about Billy.
“Becky, let’s go.” He pivoted toward his pickup.
“I wish you’d been killed in Iraq,” Nicky screamed after him. “Billy would still be alive.”
* * *
Becky had gotten home late from the beauty salon, saying her last coloring had run over. She worked in silence, shoving the meat loaf pan into the oven, rinsing off lettuce, slicing tomatoes.
Koenig sat the kitchen table, the coldness of the beer bottle chilling his palm. “Nicky going to eat with us?”
“She said she’s not hungry. She wants to sleep.”
“She hasn’t been eating much.” Travis’s round eyes peered down the barrel of his long black snout. Koenig returned the dog’s stare. With his ears flipped back, the black Lab almost looked like a seal. “How’s Nicky doing?”
“She’s depressed,” Becky said. “She told me this morning she feels like she died with Billy.”
Koenig snapped his fingers and the Lab scooted forward. He rubbed the dog’s ears.
“I called her psychiatrist again today,” Becky said over her shoulder. “He wants her to take an extra half tablet of the antidepressant until he can see us on Monday.”
“She’ll be okay,” he said. “Nicky will get over him.”
Becky spun around. “For God’s sakes, Rob—try being a little more understanding, will you? You hated Billy, and I didn’t like him very much, but Nicky loved him.”
“It’s a crappy mess—I get that. Crappy for his son, crappy for Nicky, crappy for Billy, too. But shit happens and she’ll get over him in time. It’s true.”
Becky cut up carrots in silence.
He picked at the beer label with his thumb. “I guess she’s still pissed at me?”
“I’m afraid it’s even getting worse.” Becky pointed a carrot stub at him. “But you know what would help?”
“Tell her you’re sorry.”
“For Billy’s death.”
“Don’t you start blaming me, too.”
“I’m not. But she’s got it in her head that Billy killed himself because of you.”
“That’s not fair. I didn’t want him seeing Nicky after he hit her—what father would? I threatened him so he’d never touch her again. But I didn’t want to see him dead and I sure as hell didn’t tell him to go shoot himself.”
“I know,” she said. “Billy had overdosed once as a teenager before he ever met Nicky.”
“That was his choice to pull the trigger, not mine.”
“You’re right. But right now, she’s so depressed she’s not thinking very straight, and you could be more sensitive to her feelings.”
He stiffened in his chair. “I’d do anything for Nicky. I’d die for her—or for you—If I had to. But I’m not going to take the blame for what Billy did to himself.”
“Rob, no one’s asking you to die for her. All I’m saying is talk to Nicky, listen to her. Maybe,” Becky said, “tell her how sorry you are about all of this.”
He rested his hand on the dog’s shoulder, peering into the lab’s dark, round eyes. He turned Becky’s words over in his mind, considering them for an instant. But he lost the words in the warm, then hot sensation swelling from his gut into his chest. “Don’t,” he said, “tell me what the fuck to do.”
* * *
He watched for the pond on the drive to the private’s farm but the cows were gone. The last time he had seen Tessie she was in the pasture on the far side of their farm. He’d walked out in a gusty, cold rain to see her one more time before they left, but he stopped when he noticed his stepbrother had followed him.
“Aren’t you going to kiss your cow good-bye?” his stepbrother had teased. Will was two years older and towered over him. “You’d better, because the next time you see her, it’s going to be at McDonald’s.”
His father remarried three months after his mother’s death and sold the farm six weeks after that, saying he needed the money to pay hospital bills.
They moved into a cramped house in a small town an hour away. His father worked a day factory job and did janitorial work in the evening. His stepmother planned a Memorial Day party, inviting her family and their new neighbors over for a barbecue. After Rob had eaten two cheeseburgers, Will laughed at him. “How do you like Tessie now?” Will had asked.
Rob knew it wasn’t true but he pummeled his fist into his stepbrother’s nose, anyway. Will grabbed his nose with both hands. Rob tackled him. He pinned Will’s shoulders to the ground with his knees and threw a flurry of punches into his stepbrother’s face until his father yanked him off.
He didn’t care that he took a bad licking with the black leather belt. He wouldn’t let himself cry, and when his father stopped and told him to apologize to Will, he refused. His father whipped him again, harder this time, but Rob neither cried nor apologized, and he knew he was winning even though his father continued with the belt until his stepmother pleaded with him to stop.
* * *
Without displaying the slightest bit of hesitation as far as Koenig could detect, Lisa Hayes smiled and invited him into the farmhouse.
“Is this a bad time?” he asked.
She reassured him that it wasn’t. “You’re always welcome in our house, Sergeant. Come, Derrick will be so pleased to see you.”
Derrick and a little towheaded girl leaned over the coffee table. The girl scribbled a red crayon over white paper.
“Sergeant!” Derrick scrambled to his feet and extended his prosthetic arm and hand.
Koenig took the end of the prosthesis in his own hand; it had a cold, mechanical feel.
“I’m getting pretty good with this, huh Sarge?”
He nodded, looking at the little girl.
“This is my daughter, Michelle.”
“Hi Michelle.” He smiled wide, but the girl wrapped herself behind her dad’s legs; she peered out with one eye.
“She’s in that shy phase. It’s okay, honey.” Derrick rubbed the girl’s shoulder. “Sergeant, it’s great to see you.”
The scent of rotting eggs wafted toward Koenig.
“Whew,” Derrick waved the air with his prosthesis. “That wasn’t me, Sarge. Honest. This cute little one has been letting stinkers since lunch. Michelle, do you have to go pooh-pooh?”
The smell was like the stench of sewage that had greeted them on their last day together in Iraq as they rolled into a small town. A bad feeling had just come over Koenig and then he saw a hooded figure spring from behind a wall. The RPG flashed, and the Humvee behind him exploded in black smoke near the cab. The Iraqi turned and ran while another insurgent fired an automatic weapon from inside a doorway.
Sergeant Koenig had jumped to the ground. He shot a burst from his automatic rifle at the doorway. The insurgent stumbled back, suspended like a puppet for an instant in the doorway; his body jerked, taking more bullets, and he collapsed at the threshold. Sergeant Koenig fired again, this time at the fleeing Iraqi who was zigzagging into an alleyway; bullets ripped into his back, and the man tumbled face first onto the ground, stirring up dust, and then he lay motionless.
Screams assaulted the sergeant from the rear. Flames spread across the cab of the Humvee. Sergeant Koenig yelled for his troops to secure the area, and he scrambled past the flames into the Humvee for Private Hayes. He pulled on Hayes’ shoulder—it was wet and sticky—searching unsuccessfully for his arm to grab. He tugged harder, lifted Hayes’ body against his own, and carried him from the Humvee. He laid Hayes on the ground and blood poured from the stump below his right shoulder. Sergeant Koenig told the medic to take over and he radioed for a chopper evac. Then Sergeant Koenig told Derrick to hang on, but the private had passed out.
Wailing clamored inside the house where he had killed the insurgent. He wiped his bloody hands on his uniform and walked over to three of his men who stood at the doorway with the dead Iraqi. The incessant crying grew louder, and Corporeal Ramirez nodded toward the house. A woman, her face sullied by deep wrinkles, howled from inside the doorway; she sat on the floor, next to a young boy, and cradled the limp body of a young Iraqi woman. The young woman’s face was beautiful, with smooth, olive skin below where her hijab was punctured by a single bullet hole. The old woman half-screamed, half-sobbed something in Arabic. “She says they didn’t know this man,” the translator said. “He came into their house at gun point and now you’ve killed her granddaughter.”
The woman’s wailing hit a higher pitch. Sergeant Koenig wanted to say something—not so much to the old woman, but definitely to the young boy who stared at the floor. He thought of giving the boy money and a candy bar, but he realized that was an impotent gesture, and while he had the impulse to give the boy a pistol, he knew he couldn’t do that. Then he pictured himself reaching for the boy’s shoulders. He stared at the child, trying to decide what to do or say. The boy looked up, his face contorted with what Sergeant Koenig recognized as rage and hate. Sergeant Koenig knew that he couldn’t—and shouldn’t—take that away from the boy. He nodded at the boy, turned, and walked back to Private Hayes and the medic.
He stared at the stump beneath the private’s shoulder. The bandages were soaked maroon with blood. For an instant, he hesitated, unsure what to do, and then he ordered his troops to search the area for the private’s missing arm. When his soldiers hesitated and looked awkwardly at him, he screamed profanities and threats.
After a few minutes, Private Briggs called him. The private pointed down at the dirt road. The severed end of a finger—raw flesh exposed and bloody—lie in the dust. Koenig felt something awful rise in his gut—he had no words for the feeling—but when Briggs threw up, the sergeant pushed the sensation away and told the private to get a grip.
Lisa brought iced teas to the men and a juice box for Michelle. Koenig thanked her. She said to call her when he needed a refill.
“Sergeant,” Derrick said, watching his wife leave the room. “I forgot to say it last time: thanks for saving my life.”
“You would have done the same thing for me.”
“I pray that I would have, Sergeant. But the facts are that you actually did it for me.”
Koenig shook his glass, clinking together the ice cubes. “I gotta go. Do good in college, huh Private.”
“How many times do you think . . .” He looked at his daughter who had climbed onto his lap. “Honey, go to Mommy now.”
The girl rolled her blue eyes up at her father. She shook her head.
“Young lady,” Derrick glanced at his sergeant. “That’s an order.”
“No!” the girl said.
Derrick struggled to lift the girl from his lap with his good arm. When her feet hit the wood floor, Michelle flailed out her legs, falling onto her butt.
“Lisa!” Derrick yelled.
When his wife walked into the room, Derrick tried to hand off Michelle, but the girl clung to his real arm and exploded into sobs.
“Oh, sweetie.” Derrick squatted down and hugged his girl. “I’m sorry.”
On Nicky’s fourth birthday, Becky had to drop the sergeant off at the base for his flight to Germany. He had kissed Becky, and then Nicky, and walked away, but Nicky broke away from her mother and ran crying after him. He had picked her up, and then put her back in Becky’s arms, kissing Nicky again on the cheek, but she sniveled more tears and reached her arms out for him. He had hugged Nicky, smelling the scent of strawberries in her hair. He’d whispered softly into her ear so Becky couldn’t hear, “Daddy’s so sorry. But I’ll be home soon and it’ll be okay.”
“Michelle,” Derrick said, “Daddy’s got to talk alone with his sergeant for a few minutes.”
The girl cried harder and Derrick blew her kisses as Lisa carried her out of the room.
“You know, when I first came home from the hospital, Michelle was scared of me. I don’t know if it was because of this.” Derrick nodded at his prosthesis. “Or if she didn’t remember me because I had been gone so long and it was just part of the stranger anxiety phase that she’s going through. But now, she doesn’t want to let me out of her sight, and she clings on as if for dear life when we have to separate.”
Hold onto her. The words flared through Koenig’s mind and then something heavy churned in his chest. He wasn’t sure if he felt out of place or if his unspoken advice simply seemed weak and useless, but he tried to dismiss the thought. He said nothing.
“For a long time, Sergeant, I’ve wondered.” Derrick gulped more iced tea. “You were really hard on me back during training, before Iraq. I mean, I know sergeants are supposed to be tough on their troops, but you were extra hard on me. Anyway, I’ve always wondered, did you just pick out one guy at random to use as an example and I got the short straw, or was it something, you know, about me?”
“It was a test. I wanted to see if you could toughen up before Iraq.”
“A tough test some days, Sarge. You know, at first I hated you—sorry, I know that’s not very Christian, but it’s true. I thought of washing out, but I didn’t want to give you the satisfaction—and I didn’t want to be a failure.”
Koenig worried he had been too hard on Billy. But what are you supposed to do when some guy punches your daughter in the face?
“And then, somehow, I got stronger,” Derrick said. “And then I found myself looking up to you.”
“Don’t.” Maybe if he had it to do it all over again, Koenig would have done things differently with Billy, but he couldn’t think of how and there was no way to change the past. Besides, he’d been a lot harder on Derrick, and the private didn’t kill himself.
“I do look up to you,” Derrick nodded. “But tell me: did I pass your test?”
“Yeah,” the sergeant said. “You passed.”
“I came in, a bit of a nerd, I know, but you made a man of me.”
“You made a man out of yourself.”
“Thanks, Sarge.” Derrick lifted his glass but then returned it to the coffee table. He grinned. “Tell me, how many times during training do you think you called me a candy-assed pussy? Five thousand?”
“Ten thousand, probably, but you became a good soldier.”
“And a warrior?”
“Yeah.” The sergeant stood up to leave. He reached his right hand out to shake Derrick’s prosthesis. “You’re a goddamn warrior.”
* * *
From the two-lane, country road, he could see dairy cows in the pasture on the far side of the pond. He decided then if the Army didn’t send him back for a second tour of Iraq, if they let him retire at the end of his hitch, he’d take the private security company’s offer. He’d work for just six months—nine at the very most—but with his salary as a contractor, they’d have enough money to buy a farm and livestock back in Missouri. They’d even have a nice little buffer left over.
Becky wouldn’t like the idea of him returning to Iraq for even a few months. She’d be mad and give him the silent treatment for a while, but she’d get over it before he left. He’d make enough money for her to start a nice, new beauty parlor of her own in Missouri, if that’s what she wanted.
And it would be good to give Nicky a change of scenery, he thought. He’d work in Iraq long enough to buy her a better car and to send her to the junior college. If she got herself back in shape, she could play JCO softball, he thought. Maybe she could even get a scholarship after that—she’d been a hell of a pitcher. She wouldn’t stay with them forever, he knew, but they’d have another good year together, maybe even two or three.
Nicky wouldn’t want to move at first, he thought, but by the time he returned from Iraq, she’d be over Billy. And by then, she’d probably be over blaming him for Billy’s death, too. The time away would help.
He slammed his palm against the steering wheel; for months, he’d been thinking Nicky’s problems were because he’d been gone from home when she needed his discipline, but now he concluded what she really needed was his absence.
Nicky’s Neon was parked curbside. He took her choice of parking spots as a good sign, that maybe her anger toward him was fading, since she was finally complying with his directions not to block his truck from the garage. Becky’s car was gone, and he entered the house through the garage, expecting Nicky to be lying on the living room sofa, watching MTV, but the room was empty.
He checked the kitchen; only Travis’s long black tail whipped back and forth on the other side of the back door.
Koenig advanced down the hallway. The door to his daughter’s room was closed as usual. He figured she was sleeping, but when he stood next to the door, he heard heavy metal, though the volume was much lower than Nicky usually played her music.
He tapped his knuckles against the door. “Nicky?”
“Just a minute.”
He smiled, waiting.
“Okay. Come in.”
His daughter sat at the far end of the bed, lifting his .45 pistol to her temple.
“Nicky, put that gun down now.”
“Is that what you would have said to Billy?” Her eyes were puffy. “Or would you have told him to squeeze the trigger?”
“We’ll talk about Billy after you give me the gun.” He stepped toward her, onto the mess of jeans and tops strewn across the floor.
“Stop or I’ll shoot right now.”
“All right, Nicky.”
“Why did you have to be so mean? Billy needed you to help him—not attack him.”
“Right now you need help, Nicole, and that starts by putting the gun down.”
“Not going to happen, Dad.”
“Nicky, stop. Have you thought about what this would do to your mother?”
She fluttered her eyelids closed, and in that instant, the sergeant inched closer. He calculated that he was seven-and-a-half feet from his daughter; if he could keep her talking, if he could slip forward three more times, then he could restrain her if she blinked again or lowered the gun.
“You’d break your mother’s heart,” he said. “You’d break my heart, too.”
“Do you even have a heart, Dad?”
“Yes.” Her boots were plopped in front of the bed. If he rushed her, he’d have to sidestep and not trip over the boots. “You know it would break my heart, but if you don’t believe that, believe it for sure about your mother.”
Her hand wavered, the gun drooping, and the sergeant stepped closer, but she pointed the gun at her chest.
“My heart is already broken.” She pressed the gun into her breast. “This means nothing.”
“It does. You mean so much to your mom, to me, even to Travis.” On her nightstand, a framed close-up photo captured her and Billy, cheek to cheek; the adjacent frame held another picture of Nicky, Billy, and his son. “Billy’s son and mom—I bet they care a lot, too.” He shifted his weight as he spoke, slipping forward, another foot.
“Stop!” She shouted. “Don’t try your macho Ranger moves on me. If you come any closer, I’ll shoot.”
“Relax, Nicky. I won’t.” He considered the current distance between them. He was still too far away. If she neither lowered the gun nor shut her eyes, he had no hope of saving her.
He glanced back at the nightstand where she used to keep a photo of them together with her seventh-grade championship softball team, but the picture was gone.
He looked into her eyes. There were no more tears. She looked like she hated him.
“Are you that mad at me, Nicky, that you’d shoot yourself?”
“Then shoot me instead. Don’t shoot yourself.”
She cocked her head.
“I mean it,” he said.
“Give me the gun then and I’ll shoot myself for you.”
“You wouldn’t. You’re trying to trick me.”
“No, Nicky. If that’s what it takes, I’ll shoot myself. I give you my word.”
She shook her head. Her forearms tensed, her fingers clinched.
“Nicky, don’t—I was wrong.”
He hesitated. “The way I treated Billy—it was wrong.”
“You’re just saying that.” She stared at him. “You’re trying to trick me.”
“No, I fucked things up.”
Tears surfaced in his daughter’s eyes, and he felt pressure building around his own eyes.
“Don’t kill yourself. If you have to shoot someone, shoot me.”
Her lips quivered.
“I screwed it up bad,” his voice softened to a near whisper. “Nicky, please, I’m sorry.”
Without planning it, he reached his arms toward his daughter. He felt tears welling, threatening to overrun the corners of his eyes. He blinked his eyes shut, and as he did, he saw the Iraqi woman with the bullet hole through her hijab and her boy with rage in his eyes. He felt then his daughter wrap her arms around his back. Her head and silky hair rested softly against his chin. He heard her sobbing as a tear escaped his own eye, and he smelled not strawberries but something like roses.