Chapter 34 - Fade to black
The last time I saw River she was curled into a little ball under her covers and she was safe, which was exactly the image I wanted to leave with.
The first week away was the worst. My mind was running rampant, wondering what she was doing. My body was less than pleased that I refused its urging to be inside of her again before I left. But my heart was the worst. I'll never know how she did it, but she burrowed herself so deep that I felt physical pain anytime I sat down long enough to really think about her.
Pain because she was so far out of my reach.
Lucky for me, I was able to keep myself busy. So downtime to think about things like how she closed her eyes when she laughed, or how her eyes lit up when she talked about a new cookie recipe wasn't really a luxury that I had.
But now, after three months, little things she did were popping back into my mind whether I was busy or not. It was about time that I faced the facts. River would occupy my thoughts more often than not so I figured I should just get used to it.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy thinking about her and remembering things she had said or done just to make me laugh.
It was a sweet form of torture.
God, I was sick.
I kicked my boot against the side of the humvee and watched the local kids scatter from around it.
We spoke a common language.
And I swear they could see me coming from a mile away.
They were so timid at first, so unsure of how someone who looked like me and carried a big gun around his body would treat them.
I tried talking to them at first but that only seemed to make them clam up more. I reached into my pocket that first day and pulled out a handful of wintergreen peppermints and they went wild.
We received care packages full of candy and every time I headed out this way, I grabbed a hand full and shoved it into my pocket.
Today, it was double bubble bubble gum and I think I might've been more excited than they were.
They snatched the pieces out of my hand as soon as I opened my palm. I watched as they ripped them open and plopped the gum into their mouths. Their little jaws worked hard to chew the nearly rock hard pieces.
It made me think of the way River chewed the cry baby gum she loved so much. She would chew a few times the freeze when the sour taste locked her jaw. I laughed and the little girl swatted at my leg.
It was a weird day today, something felt off but I just couldn't put my finger on it. I had figured seeing the kids would cheer me up enough to get over it but it only made it worse.
I had only completed minor medical procedures so far, which was almost unheard of. A few stitches here and there and a couple of pulled hamstrings to stretch out. And those were all caused by roughhousing, nothing else.
The little girl lifted her hand up to me, she showed me her index finger that had an old scrap across the top. The scab was about to fall off but I pulled out a bandaid and wrapped it around her tiny finger just to humor her. She smiled and it helped center me. It reminded me how much I loved my job and how much I satisfaction I got out of taking care of people, even if they didn't really need it.
River never really needed it but that didn't stop me. My God, what I wouldn't give to know exactly what she was doing right now.
I pulled out her latest letter and ran my finger over her perfect cursive handwriting. She wrote to me constantly but I had only sent a couple of letters in return. Nothing that I could come up with seemed good enough.
I knew that she was still on track to graduate at the top of her class and that she had gotten accepted to every college she applied to. She never mentioned which one she picked but I hoped it was the best, most expensive one on her list because that's exactly what she deserved.
I'd do anything to make sure River got everything out of this life.
I gave each of the kids another piece of gum before we headed out. We had one more stop to make before we could get back and settle down for the night. My feet were killing me and the sand was swirling around more today than usual.
We went on our usual route and I sat in the back seat, watching our surroundings as we drove to the next place. There was some sort of cart blocking the usual spot we always turned at. The humvee stopped and Sanders hopped out to get a better look. There was no one around and the cart seemed to be empty but we tried to not mess with the local's things if we could help.
"Let's take the other route."
He said as he climbed back in and sat back down in the passenger seat.
We kept going straight until we passed the larger building that sat back further off of the road than the others. I looked up into the top window and was met with a pair of eyes, they belonged to a boy that couldn't have even been fourteen yet. But I'd seen that look before.
We kept going and passed a group of grown men standing around, almost in a semi-circle. Almost as if they were waiting for something.
My stomach churned, this was off.
Those guys didn't look right. I knew they weren't familiar, I knew I'd never seen their faces and there was something in their eyes that didn't sit right with me. It was different from the boy's eyes in the window. I realized then what I had seen in his eyes, it was fear. I was familiar with that. But these guys they weren't fearful, they had anger mixed with triumph in their eyes.
I was about to open my mouth to speak when something blurred my vision. I braced myself against the door of the humvee before it went airborne. It rolled once then only two things happened that I knew for sure.
One, something exploded. It was so loud in my ears that everything fell silent, deafening me from its volume.
And two, my head was slammed back causing everything to fade to black.
But not before an image flashed before my eyes as clear as day, as if she was right above me.