Mostly rambles, few brambles
Welcome Home, Captain Patterson!
Running through the tunnel, his stomach knotted for the first time since Kandahar last May.
The thunder of 70,000 football fans intensified as he passed through the smoke and laser lights. As he emerged, the ovation crescendoed and the public address system burst into “God Bless America.”
Jess, his wife of fourteen years, stood at the thirty-five-yard line with their three boys. He started sprinting. After eighteen months of photos and tablet screens, they were finally right here, all of their faces frozen with shock and joy.
He grabbed her with both arms, twirling her around twice and nearly falling before locking into a deep, overdue kiss. His eyes welled; Randy had been right. Of course he was going to cry. Why had he even argued? Of course there wouldn’t be any more deployments. Never again. No question about it.
Jess dug her face into the nape of his neck and planted a succession of kisses. The three boys, all under thirteen, tackle hugged the two onto the turf. The grin across Captain Patterson’s face stretched, further and further. He was almost thirty-four, but, at long last, adulthood was in focus.
The music ended. An usher corralled the Patterson bundle over to the sideline so the second quarter could start. The boys scampered ahead. Captain Patterson and Jess held hands, still savoring.
They moved slowly towards the exit. His psyche had been calloused witnessing the ghastly depths of humanity over three different tours, though looking at Jess—his other battle buddy—that all seemed like lifetimes ago. He didn’t see his past. He saw their future. He saw the landmarks and milestones ahead: the boys graduating, marrying, and starting their own families. He saw himself and Jess, two soulmates who would challenge each other daily to become better people, continuing to reap each other’s rewards year after year.
The crowd noise quieted to a low rumble as they followed the security attendant into the concrete labyrinth under the stadium. The attendant and kids sped ahead. Jess looked up at her husband. She smiled and struggled to stifle a giggle, just as she always had since they’d first started dating at eighteen. “ I can’t believe you’re really back.”
“I’m not leaving you again. Not ever.” She cooed. “Wouldn’t matter what they offered. I’m stationed right here. Indefinitely.”
He pulled her close and draped his arm around her. “I think we can follow those orders,” she said, coy.
His heart felt heavy and thawed, more so than ever before. “Me too, kid.”
She nestled into him as they kept marching on through the tunnels. “ I do have to ask you one thing, though.”
“I wasn’t expecting you for another three weeks. Did you fly in this morning? I know we haven’t Skyped in a few days. It’s just a lot.”
“Landed Wednesday, actually.” He paused, emitting a little chuckle. “So glad you guys were surprised!”
“Yeah. Randy picked me up.”
“Of course.” She pushed away from him. “Of course it was Randy.”
“He was free—”
“He’s always free. He doesn’t have a job.”
“Four days you were home, after being gone for eighteen months, and you don’t see your wife or children?”
“Would’ve ruined the surprise.”
“It’s a surprise that you’re home early at all. Who cares if we’re at a football game?”
“I thought the boys would like it.”
“Four days. What have you been doing?”
“Waiting to surprise you, of course! And, sure, Randy and I went to Dave & Buster’s, Red Lobster—”
“Friday I almost had a panic attack trying to drive Kevin to soccer practice.”
“I’ve been juggling three boys alone for eighteen months. Zero days off.”
“I—I hadn’t considered.”
“Four fucking days. Not being with your family and just drinking at Red Lobster and Dave and Buster’s?” She bit her bottom lip. “Red Lobster was supposed to be our first family dinner back.”
“I don’t think I’m allowed back. Randy and I were pretty wasted. I broke a table and Randy tried to kiss a waitress.” Jess seethed. “I mean, we can drive to the one in Springdale.” Her face remained fixed. “What I’m trying to say is that there are other Red Lobsters.”
Her lips tightened.
He shrugged. “I didn’t think it would be a big deal.”
“It is a big deal.”
“I’d been stationed Kandahar and Kunduz for eighteen months. I’m so sorry that when I returned from defending freedom that I so selfishly took a few days to just veg out, decompress from being at war, and stuff my face with beer and Cheddar Bay Biscuits.
“It was selfish.”
“Well it’s never happening again. ” He tried to pull her close for a hug, but she resisted.
“Anything else? You have fun?”
“Randy did want to go the titty bar.”
“…And so we went to the titty bar! Don’t worry, nothing happened. I mean, this one girl—I guess her dad died in Iraq—Randy said she had a soft spot for veterans and I was all, ‘No, Randy. You go with her and I’ll stay here. But check if she’s got a discount for brothers of veterans.”
“Randy isn’t allowed over anymore.”
“This isn’t Randy. This is my fault.”
“I’m not disagreeing. Randy still isn’t allowed over.”
“You’ve never liked him.”
“He cheated on my sister!”
“After your sister tried to stab him in his sleep.”
“She mixed up her meds.”
“Mixed them up with vodka, Jess!”
Jess quickened her pace, pulling away. “I’m not rehashing this now.”
The attendant held the door for them as the five of them emerged into daylight from under the stadium. Jess marched them silently through the parking lot up to where their van was parked. She threw him the keys. “Get in. We’re going to Springdale.”
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