Bad Boy Rancher(6)

By: Karen Rock

She’d tensed up as if he’d struck her. True. She didn’t know what it felt like to take someone’s life, or any of the horrors these courageous soldiers endured, but she’d been trained to understand. To empathize. To listen. To minister. Still, no books, classes or seminars prepared you for the harsh reality she’d discovered during her first deployment.

“No one’s hands are clean except God’s,” she’d said slowly, as if convincing herself of her faith, her purpose, her mission. How did you spiritually minister to men who were still being assaulted? she’d wondered. “All we can do is pray He gives us the strength to do what we have to.”

A fleeting smile twisted Jefferson’s lips. She wasn’t sure she believed her own words, or any words at all. What did words matter in Kandahar, where death struck indiscriminately? Its nonstop toll was a drip, drip, drip on the heart of every service member, boring a hole straight through for some, hardening it for others.

“Look at my hands.” He’d shoved them at her, callused palms facing the ceiling, then he flipped them over and stretched out his fingers. “I look calm, right?”

“Are you?” Should she call his superior? File a report to request he skip today’s patrol? Not that her requests were honored except in the most extreme cases…

“I never sleep anymore,” he’d said. “But check out my hands—look at me. Look at my hands. It’s like I’m calm.”

But she hadn’t really looked, not closely, not like she’d had to do later the next morning, when he and the rest of his platoon returned to the base in pieces. She’d been asked to help identify some of the questionable remains. Her skin shook over her bones as each blood-soaked horror cascaded in her mind’s eye. She’d seen too many brave troops lose their lives in defense of their country. And what’d she do? She’d succumbed to dark emotions and turned her back on her comrades when they’d needed her most, the deadly result one she’d never forgive herself for causing.

Never again.

She screwed her lids shut, snatched up another handful of sour candies and chewed so hard she bit her tongue. Warm, metallic-tasting fluid mingled with the synthetic fruit flavors.

“Don’t think about it,” she whispered to herself, knowing the dangers of reliving her experiences, the drowning depression that’d occur if she let herself sink back into them.

“Complete your mission,” she ordered herself, then shifted into Reverse and headed backward from the dead end, her eyes trained on the rearview mirror, her mind compartmentalizing the way she’d been trained.

It only took one slipup.

The dog tags swung like a meat cleaver, ready to saw her in half.

Pain didn’t exist unless she let it, her father always told her.

If a tree falls in the woods and no one witnesses it, does it make a sound?

If soldiers die in the field and no one survives to tell about it, did they make a sound?

She flipped on the radio as she jolted back onto the main road, drowning out her friends’ screams. She heard them, often, when she wasn’t careful to keep her mind empty or forgot to take her Prazosin before bed.

Those mornings she woke exhausted, restless and anxious, haunted by nightmares. Hopefully out here in Carbondale, in the middle of nowhere, she’d lose her past, her old self, and become someone new. Someone who no longer carried the gut-wrenching responsibilities of her former job—the memorial services for soldiers, friends killed in action, the therapy sessions after contact with the enemy, the perilous excursions outside the wire to minister to remote posts while under enemy fire.

Carbondale seemed peaceful.

Would it silence her demons and let her lead a normal civilian life at last? Or was she doomed to never fit in—to haunt the edges of the real world, straddling the line between it and war, unable to leave her past to fully join the present? She’d arrived at her Kandahar assignment starry-eyed with a head full of jargon and a heart certain of its ability to save everyone. Twelve months later, she’d left with nothing, not even herself.

Her cell phone buzzed on the seat beside her. She risked a glance down at the number, recognized it as her new employer’s, then reached for it, slowing as she approached an intersection.

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