An Open Letter

By K. Darblyne

Note: This story is set in a time when both men and women serve together in a military unit. Some names used within the realms of this story can be either male or female as decided by the reader.


The stifling heat of the midday sun was evident on the man's sweat-covered face. The soldier paused once inside the tent. Slowly his eyes adjusted to the change of light before taking in the contents of the make shift room with his sweeping gaze. Cots with neatly stored duffel bags at their feet filled the room. Off to the right sat a lone figure on top of a cot with pen in hand.

"Hmmph! I figured you'd be in here."

"Yeah, I'm here." Dale answered never looking up from the page in hand.

"Fresh off a mission and all you think about is..." the young man's words trailed off as he wiped his face with a hand then deposited the gathered remnants of the desert sand onto his pants. "Damn, it's hot out there today. I'll be glad when I never feel sand again." He entered further into the tent, taking his helmet off and shaking the perspiration from his close-cropped hair. "Now that feels better." The soldier opened the closures of his personal body armor and slid it off his shoulders. "And that," he pulled the sweat-soaked material of his desert camo shirt away from his body, "feels even better." His gaze shifted to the soldier, still dressed for a mission. "At least take off that flack jacket before you sweat to death."

"Later Mojo. I've got a... "

"Letter to write." Mojo finished Dale's sentence. He looked over to see white teeth flashing a smile out from under deeply tanned skin. "I swear for all the letters you write while we're deployed over here, you better damn well get laid for a year and a half after we get home."

"Well as long as I don't get a Dear John letter, I'll be thankful."

"You... get a Dear John letter? I don't think so." He teased his friend with a broad smile and a shake of his head. "You going to chow down or what?" The overheated soldier turned to leave. "Come on, Dale. I'm famished. I can hear the mess tent calling my name. That letter can wait until after we get some chow."

"Yeah, right." Dale's sarcasm dripped like honey.

Hearing the ridicule, Mojo didn't need to see the smirk on his friend's face. It was there sure as the pen was still in the soldier's hand, racing toward the end of the page. He placed his helmet on his head before heading toward the glaring sun that waited outside. "I hope that special someone knows how lucky they are for a soldier to give up warm chow and cool drinks." He stepped out into the blazing sun and re-evaluated his priorities. "Cool drinks especially." He squinted in an attempt to shield his eyes from the glistening rays before calling out his exiting remark. "See you in the mess tent, Dale."

"Whatever you say, Mojo." Dale's words were muffled as a callused hand wrapped tightly around a pen.

Lost in memories, the soldier gazed off into the distance, all thought of letter writing gone and only scenes from past encounters coming back to life.

The night was quiet save for the rhythmic chirping of a cricket that mimicked the beating of their hearts. The feeling of flesh upon flesh was new and so invigorating as they lay naked in each other's arms. Starting with a single kiss and a longing gaze, their passions built slowly until both were covered in sweat. Salt-tinged kisses and the poignant smell of arousal filled the air and their senses, driving them further. This time there would be no turning back, no saving it for later as they had hoped to do. Lost in the fervor of their moment, they consummated their love. Straining beyond belief to reach their lofty goal, pinpoints of light flickered before them as a myriad of colors burst across the sky.

BOOM! As if on cue, the deep, rumbling sound of thunder filled the air and shook the very ground that they lay on. Sorting their way through the aftershocks of pleasure, they rolled over and gazed into the sky above them. Chests heaving for breath, the young lovers fought to regain their composure under the foreboding clouds above them.

Desperate to say the right thing, Dale spoke the only words that came to mind. "I love you."

Two lives had been forever cemented together with the sound of those three little words. Neither soul had minded the rain as the storm cloud broke over them seconds later. So lost in the sound of their beating hearts and lingering thoughts of love were they, that the two lovers hadn't even noticed they were drenched until the afterglow was gone.

The euphoric haze of that long ago night settled in Dale's mind as every sense relived its sensations. Even now the hint of arousal lingered heavy in the air, as did the touch of soft lips upon the soldier's own. The faraway murmur of "I love you, too" came floating off the desert sands and enveloped the warrior with a mental embrace. So safe and secure was the feeling that for a brief moment in time, Dale's lover could have been there, blonde tresses fluttering around the warrior's face. Blue eyes closed, savoring the feeling of safety and innocence that clung to the soldier's soul.


The deafening noise obliterated the warrior's mental mirage. The sand beneath rugged boots shook threatening to upend anything in its path while shock waves filled the air. The sound of debris raining down on the tent caused the soldier's mind to falter. Amid jumbled thoughts and an innermost need to survive, strong fingers released paper and pen, grabbing the M-16 rifle with one hand and jamming the helmet into place with the other. Acting out of instinct, a quick tuck and roll sent the soldier scurrying to the door of the tent.

Blinking through the grit in the air, blue eyes strained to focus on their surroundings. A single plume of dense, black smoke rose up off to the soldier's right about fifty yards away. Gauging the outline of the encampment, the only damage that had been the wrought to a vehicle. Its burning shell was now the only reminder that it had ever existed.

"Thank God!" Dale sighed in relief and began to stand.

KABOOM! The deafening noise was followed by a succession of smaller ones bringing back to mind the sound of a long ago Fourth of July. Boom! Ba-boom! Boom!

This time the sound of the explosions was definitely nearer, sending the soldier diving back to the ground. The warrior held onto the helmet tightly. When the noise subsided, the brim on the helmet was raised and blue eyes scanned the camp. This time the landscape had definitely changed. A second plume of willowy smoke had joined the first and the biggest tent in the compound was little more than a pile of burning rags on the desert sand. The sound of orders being barked out and distant screams started to punctuate the air, turning the lone warrior's world upside down.

"Fuck!" The word spilled out of a parched mouth as a half curse, half cry for help. A bead of perspiration formed on Dale's upper lip and a sudden wave of nausea unsettled the soldier's stomach. Staring eyes watched as the smoke rose over the place where the mess tent had been. Forgetting to breathe, the soldier scanned the rubble of charred cloth and overturned tables for any sign of life.

"Mojo." The thought of the soldier's friend being caught in the shelling sent a second wave of nausea churning in Dale's stomach. Fighting back the bile threatening to escape, the soldier first knelt on wobbly knees, then rose to his feet and headed toward Mojo's last known destination.

Hurtling over sandbags scattered in disarray, Dale's thoughts were riveted on finding Mojo. Soon the soldier was in the middle of mass chaos where the acrid smell of burning fuel and flesh tainted the air. Those still able to gnash their teeth did so without second thought and the bitter sounds of agony surrounded the warrior, filling Dale's ears. If anyone could imagine hell on earth, this would be it. Only those who were dead or deep in shock remained silent. Dale prayed that wasn't the case where Mojo was concerned.

Between screams and shouted curses, the soldier listened for a familiar voice. When none was heard, Dale pressed forward to the center of the encampment's devastation. Soon the heavy material of tenting was at the soldier's feet. Hurriedly, Dale lifted it and searched the overturned tables and scattered benches looking for anything remotely human in form. Blue eyes roaming hastily, they zeroed in on a partially charred, brown combat boot peeking out from behind a smoldering table on its side.

"Please, let it be Mojo," Dale whispered the subconscious wish as reverently as any prayer. A sudden intake of air powered the next words from the soldier's mouth. "Corpsman! Soldier down. I need a corpsman over here."

Dale's heart began to race as a burst of determination offset the initial fear that had paralyzed the soldier. "Mojo, I'm here buddy. I've got you covered." Acting quickly the soldier slung the military issued weapon over a shoulder and proceeded to prop the tent up by standing a table on end. That job done, Dale moved toward the next obstacle blocking the soldier's path. Strong fingers wrapped around the remains of a table and hoisted it. What the soldier's eyes lay on, no one should ever have to view.

"Son of a bitch!" Bile filled Dale's mouth, causing the soldier to turn to a side and vomit. "Augh!" Dale gasped for air and tried to shake off the horrible taste. Unfortunately the sight of the bloody stump savagely ripped from an infantryman's body couldn't be dislodged from the soldier's mind and it sent another round of shudders racking through the shocked body. "Please, not Mojo." Dale struggled to prove it right.

"I hope you know what you're doing. You could get the whole company into trouble with that." Dale's gaze shifted to the piece of rust colored yarn sticking out from the eye of a government issued boot.

Mojo stopped lacing his boots and admired the colorful decoration. "I do." He looked his fellow soldier in the eye. "I promised my kid I'd keep him close to my heart."

"Well, if my anatomy class serves me correctly," Dale pointed to the boot in question, "that's nowhere near your heart."

A silly grin spread across the man's face. "I know, but it's the first thing I'm going to see when I look down to take my next step." Seriousness came to Mojo's face. "I'll remember my wife and kid and really think before I put my foot down somewhere it shouldn't be."

"You're worried about stepping on a landmine?"

"All I want to do is get home in one piece."

"Stick with me. I'll keep you walking the straight and narrow." Dale's eyes twinkled with a hint of mischief.

"Straight and narrow," Dale mentally smirked. "If only he knew."

Dale's thoughts returned to the present. "Rust. Please don't let me see rust." The soldier turned and concentrated an intent gaze on the boot. Seeing none, Dale's spirit rose. "Thank God."

Eager eyes searched the area. "Mojo!" Dale started toward the point of the explosive impact. "Mojo, where are you?" The soldier stepped over a bench and around an overturned coffee urn. "Answer me dammit!"

When no answer came, panic set in. "Son of a bitch, Mojo. When I find you I'm going to... " the outpouring of thought stopped abruptly with a wisp of rust that caught the warrior's eye. Dale moved toward it. The closer the soldier got, the more intense the coloration became.

"Mojo?" Dale whispered before scurrying over to the pile of trays and utensils. "I'm here buddy. I'm here." Dale dropped down on shaky knees and started to clear the debris. A few seconds later, desert brown camos could be seen. Dale worked fervently to uncover the downed soldier's face. "Talk to me, Mojo. Talk to me." Trembling fingers lifted the last tray, half-afraid of what would be found underneath.

A face devoid of emotions starred back at its would-be rescuer. It was that god-awful serious face that Dale had seen when their worlds had first collided.

"Okay ladies," the Drill Sargent barked before continuing in a less harsh tone of voice, "and gentlemen. We have a few new recruits to round out our ranks." He looked straight ahead and called out their names. "Mojohovich, Bennington, fall into ranks with ‘C' company."

Two soldiers off to the side snapped to attention and responded without pause. "Yes, sir." Crisp movements carried them to where they needed to be.

"Rockledge!" The Drill Sargent turned to the soldier at the end of the row. "Make sure the newbies are bedded in and up to speed with the program."

"Sir. Yes, sir." Dale responded briskly, eyes looking straight ahead. When the Sargent's gaze no longer bored into the soldier, blue eyes shifted to the new additions. One was male, the other female. Both of their well-groomed faces boasted strong features with intelligent-looking eyes. Instantaneously the soldier's heart sped up.

"Right face. Double ti-ime." The Sargent turned in precision with his unit. "Company C, start the cadence."

The order brought Rockledge back to the present and gave purpose to the soldier's racing pulse. Dale drew in a deep breath and started. "I don't know but I've been told."

"Army life is the way to go." The rest of the company kept time with the cadence.

Dale remembered their meeting as though it was yesterday, even though it was six long years ago and thousands of miles away from here, in a different world. There was no going back. They were stuck here in this time and at this place. Dale starred bleakly into lifeless hazel orbs. After a long moment, Dale's gaze shifted to the tattered, torn, and blood-stained shirt. Absent from view was the flack jacket the two had vowed to wear until their tour of duty was over.

Tears welled up quickly and trailed down desolate cheeks. "Where's all your intelligence now?" Dale asked, not expecting an answer. "What am I supposed to say to your family, to Beth and little Charlie?" Saying their names out loud brought them to life in Dale's mind.

It was the year their reserve unit had trained for two weeks in the Mohave Dessert. They had just gotten back to the reserve base and finished stowing the company's gear. Finally dismissed from their duty, the two friends walked toward their vehicles, duffel bags weighing heavy on their shoulders.

"I'm glad that's over." Mojo resituated the strap from the bag on his shoulder. "I can't wait to get home." He looked over to his fellow guardsmen. "How about you? Anybody waiting to see you?"

"Mom, Dad." Dale shrugged, then stared off into the distance. "You know, the usual."

"We got to get you hooked up with someone to come home to." Mojo teased his friend before turning more serious. "It's the greatest feeling in the world to know someone's waiting to throw their arms around you and kiss you silly the moment they set eyes on you. Kids... we got to get you some kids, too." He looked over to his friend as they turned the corner of the building. "The love they give you is unconditional and ready at a moment's notice. God, I can't wait until my son's arms are wrapped around my neck."

Dale looked down the line of parked vehicles, searching out the beat up blue Mazda that got them here. "You came with me, right?"

"Yeah. You don't remember?"

"Nope, just wanted to make sure before I said anything."

"Huh?" Mojo looked puzzled.

"Don't look now but I think your family couldn't wait to see you." Dale's head motioned toward the blue jean clad woman with a child riding on her hip standing next to the familiar looking pick-up truck.

"Daddy!" A child's high-pitched voice split through the air. "I see Daddy. Daddy, daddy." Small arms flung about trying to reach the man.

Dale watched on as Mojo reacted to the cry by readjusting the duffel on his shoulder and stepping up his pace to double time.

"Come on, I'll introduce you to them." He turned only briefly to yell back to his buddy.

"You go ahead, I'll be there in a minute." Dale looked on as first child, then woman reached out and pulled the soldier in for a hug and a welcome home kiss. The soldier kept the pace to a slow walk to afford Mojo's family the privacy they deserved.

"Dale," Mojo called out. "Honey, this is my buddy, Dale." His smile grew. "This is my wife, Beth." He took his child from the woman and spun him around.

"Hi!" Dale waved, then stepped closer, offering a hand. "It's a real pleasure to meet you."

"Rockledge," Beth read the nametag on the soldier's shirt. "Aren't you the one that... "

"Nursemaided your husband though basic training?" Dale finished the woman's words for her with a hint of laughter. "Yes, ma'am. I did."

"Thank you." The woman pulled Dale in and hugged the reservist's broad shoulders before relinquishing back their personal space. "I'm so glad you're together again in the Reserves. I won't have to worry so much."

"Me too, Ma'am." Dale grew quiet, turning to Mojo to take up the burden of conversation.

"And this here," Mojo hoisted the toddler onto his shoulders, "is my best buddy, Lil' Charlie." He jostled his shoulders to get the tyke's attention. "Say hi to Dale, buddy."

"Hi!" Tiny white teeth flashed into a waning smile and a small hand waved briefly before it raked shyly through his light brown hair that was so much like his father's.

"Not too bad for a two year old, huh?"

"Twenty months," Beth corrected her husband.

"I was close."

"Sure you were." Beth rolled her eyes. "And if I let you go, you'll have him in college before he's five." She shook her head, then directed the conversation toward Dale. "Do you have any kids?"

"I... ah... " Dale took in a breath and slowly let it out. "No, I'm not a fan of single parenting."

Beth's eyes lit up. "You're not married. Charlie," she turned to her husband, "why didn't you tell me Dale wasn't married? I could have been using all this time to play matchmaker." Beth turned back to study the soldier just in time to see the guardsman cringe.

"Please, no... "

"A shy one." Beth smiled coyly. "I can work with that." A determined look came to her face as she thought for a moment tapping her forefinger to her lips. "Next Friday night you come to dinner at our place. I'll have someone there for you to meet." Brown eyes honed in on Dale. "What do you say?"

"What... a blind date?" Dale squeaked out.

"My wife's pretty determined once she gets started. Better say yes Dale, or I won't have a minute's rest until then." Mojo opened the door of his club cab pick-up and placed lil' Charlie into the child's car seat.

"I... I don't know," Dale murmured under a shaky breath. "Isn't that awfully soon?"

"Not for my wife." Mojo winked at his son. "Right, Charlie?"

Dale raked a hand through windswept hair. "She doesn't even know what I like."

"See ya' Friday." Mojo turned to his wife. "Come on, Beth. You can do all the plotting and planning you want tomorrow." A sexy smile came to the man's face. "Tonight you're mine." Charlie gave a sexy growl in his wife's direction, then looked over to his fellow soldier. "Friday, Dale. Don't forget it." He gave a two-fingered salute to his friend before ushering his wife into the truck.

"Plan for seven." Beth hurriedly opened the passenger window once Charlie had closed the door. "Come hungry," she added before settling into the seat.

"Yeah, right," the soldier sighed. The conversation was over. Dale stood watching the truck pull out and head toward the gate. "Well, that's going to be a waste of time."

"Aw Jeez, Mojohovich! Goddamn those insurgents."

The gruff voice of their Sargent shook Dale's thought from out of the past.

"Where's his body armor?" A stern face searched the body and its surroundings. "I thought you two were going to wear those vests for everything but taking showers."

The stunned soldier hesitated before answering. "I... I'm not sure, sir. We'd just returned from our supply mission to Halaylah. I promised to meet him here just as soon as I was done writing a letter home."

"Lucky for you then."

Suddenly the reality of war hit home. Two soldiers, friends, comrades-in-arms had been called up and shipped out together. As it stood, only one would be returning home alive. Well, if nothing happened between now and then, whenever that would be.

"Yeah, lucky." Dale's thoughts turned to Mojo's family. "Sir, I know it's not my responsibility but I'd like to be the one to notify his wife. I know her, sir. I think she might take the news better hearing it from me." Blue eyes pinned the Sargent. "I promised him, Sir."

The Sargent turned to view the rescue operation going on around them. "I'll talk to the Captain and see what I can do. Now dig in and let's get the living out of here while they still have a chance."

Unable to do anything more for Mojo, Dale carried out the order.

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The encampment's mood later that night could best be described as sullen if anything. A need for a higher sense of alert had brought everyone's nerves to the brink. Tired from the rescue effort and shaken from the direct attack on the camp, let alone the death of a friend, the soldier stood staring off into the blackness of the desert.

"Why, Mojo? Why couldn't you wait for me?" The warrior placed the blame internally, striking a clenched fist to the personal body armor wrapped tightly around a sobbing chest. "We promised our families we'd come home together. You promised me we'd get through this." Blue eyes glistened from a remote beam of starlight as tears rolled freely over long dark lashes. "What am I going to tell your wife and son?" Dale's eyelids pressed shut in an attempt to halt the tears streaming down the soldier's face. "What were we thinking, making promises of any kind?"

Once the trip from the Reserve center was out of earshot of friends and families, the line of military vehicles settled into its usual convoy mode. Buddies seated side by side in the back of trucks began to settle their nervous expectations with conversation.

"So... " Mojo cleared his throat. "I guess your mom and dad had you promise to stay warm, dry, and write home every day, huh?"

"Yeah." Dale nodded, then glanced over to Mojo. "Same for you?"

"And more." The soldier sighed.

"What?" Dale reigned in a teasing laugh. "Does she want you to change your shorts and socks everyday, too."

The man looked around to see if anyone was eavesdropping on the conversation before leaning in toward Dale. "Beth made me promise to live in my body armor."

"No!" Dale studied the man for a moment. "You're serious, aren't you?"

"Would I lie about something Beth did?" He flashed a shy smile. "She had Charlie make me swear to it." Mojo looked away, then back again. "I'm going to look like such a nerd."

"Not to mention the possibility of having heat stroke on a daily basis," Dale chided.

"Tell me about it." He sighed. "What am I going to do?"

Weighing the possible ribbings versus the health risks of heat-induced coma or death by shrapnel or rounds of ammunition, Dale made a choice. "Well, it could be worse."

"And that would be?"

"They could have had you promise to wear a knight's suit of armor." Dale's eyes twinkled in jest. "Complete with chastity belt."

"Get out of here." Mojo laughed, pushing Dale with his shoulder. "Beth doesn't have to worry about that. I'm faithful."

"And so am I." Dale's gaze turned intent. "What do you say we make a pact? Right here and now."

"Pact? About what?" Mojo was skeptical.

"We'll both wear our body armor unless we're changing uniforms or taking a shower." Dale waited to see the glimmer of recognition settle into his eyes before offering a hand to shake on it. "Deal?"

"Deal." Mojo grabbed Dale's hand and shook it. "First one caught without it... "

"Except for the conditions previously stated," Dale interjected.

"Unless changing uniforms or showering," Mojo added. "The other one gets to kick their butt all the way back home."

Short dark hair shifted forward as Dale's eyes cast down to the desert floor. "Damn you, Mojo. This is one bet I never wanted to win." A tear escaped from a sorrowful eye and fell onto the desert sands where it quickly evaporated. The soldier craved for a comforting embrace but there was none to be had. Turning inward, Dale shifted through memories both old and new, finally one series of hugs stood out from all the rest.

Hands as soft as silk ran through close-cropped hair. "Dale, I can't believe you did this."

"Trust me, neither did I." Dale reeled the woman in, holding her close, and inhaled. The flowery scent of windswept hair filled the reservist's nose and was committed to memory. "God, I'm going to miss this."

"Me, too." She moved in and kissed the soldier with all the passion she could muster. "Dale... " their eyes met and there was a silent exchange.

"One day, when this tour of duty is done and my enlistment is over... " Dale trailed off.

"I know." She had resigned herself to their fate. "Be safe, my love. Be safe."

Unwilling to let go of the woman, strong arms tightened, savoring the moment before eventually releasing her. "I've... I've got to go, Chris."

Their eyes held for a moment then slowly closed against the pain of imminent separation. Without saying another word, Dale turned, picked up the duffel bag waiting at the door and left under the cover of night.

"How different our worlds are." Dale's thoughts shifted to Mojo. "Were." The warrior muttered, slipping into another segment of memory.

"Rockledge! Front and center," Mojohovich's strong baritone voice barked out against a cacophony of good-byes. "Over here." He waved with one arm while the other stayed wrapped around his wife.

"Honey, maybe Dale's saying good-bye to someone." Beth admonished him. "How would you like it if someone disturbed us?"

Charlie swept his son up in his hand and nuzzled the lad. "Dale's family, hon, and that's what these last few minutes are all about." The man's eyes implored his wife before quickly glancing to the approaching figure. "Hey Dale," his tone became friendlier sounding.

"Hey!" Dale nodded, then smiled at the tyke in Mojo's arm. "Hi ya', Charlie. Beth."

"Hi, Dale." Beth took in the lone figure. "Didn't your family come to see you off?"

"We said our good-byes earlier at home. I didn't see the sense in them coming out." Dale's gaze flickered from Beth to Mojo and back again.

There was a moment of awkward silence among them until the rough-hewn voice of the company commander sent a chill through the air.

"Two minutes, people."

The words set off a frenzy of movement through reservist and civilian alike. Husbands and wives clung to one another like the eternal lovers they were. Sons and daughters reached out waiting their turns for a mother or father they may never see again.

Dale stood frozen in time, watching the Mojohovich family say their good-byes. The minutes seemed distorted, ranging from hours to only mere seconds. Before they knew it, the time was up.

"Reservist, fall in." The order sounded and the heart-wrenching sobs began.

"Love you," Mojo kissed his wife, then his son. "Love you too, buddy."

"Bye, Daddy." Little Charlie waved as he hugged his father until his feet touched the ground.

Beth caught Dale by the arm. "Hey, where are you going?" She watched as Dale glanced toward the line of soldiers forming just a few yards away. "Everyone needs someone to send them off. Even you." The woman reached up and pulled the surprised soldier into her embrace. "Come home safe, Dale."

All Dale could do was nod, wishing the woman's loving clasp were the arms of another.


The hard-edged sound of the name jolted the soldier back to the present.

An about face maneuver was executed, allowing a flash of brass to strike keen eyes. Dale snapped to attention, then followed it with a crisp salute. "Yes, sir."

"Your request made it to my desk, soldier." The Captain eyed the reservist curiously. "Why do you think you can do a better job than I? How many women have you told their new classification is widow?"

"Permission to speak sir."

He regarded the reservist skeptically for a long moment. "Granted."

"Sir, we're friends." Dale stared straight ahead, face devoid of any emotion. "I... I was friends with the Mojohovich family. I thought it would only be... "

"Right? Is that what you were about to say?"

"Yes, sir."

"In a world filled with revolutionaries, radicals, and terrorists of every kind popping up at random, nothing is right. The moment we're sent to a foreign soil, all holds are barred. There are only two things we can hope for." The man took in a breath. "One, we come out of our tour of duty alive. Two, if we must die, we pray to hell and back it will be quick. No one ever said we'd take the feelings of those left behind into consideration. Hell, if we did... " he looked away, "we'd never leave the American soil we were born on."

The stillness of the desert did little to disrupt their thoughts as officer and soldier alike contemplated the truth of the previous statement. Dale watched the twilight's changing hues reflecting in the Captain's cold, gray eyes. Bound by protocol, the soldier waited.

"The insurgents we face today," the officer started softly, "are different from any other enemy we've ever encountered. They don't value life the way we do. Their fighting tactics weigh heavily on suicide bombers and their quest for martyrdom in a Jihad. Our only hope is to maintain our course," he cleared his throat, "to hold on dearly to our families and friends, and to persevere in our day to day lives." He paused only long enough to wet his lips. "That's why I'm granting you one phone call home, soldier." He watched as Dale honed in on his words. "You can use it as you see fit." He glanced to his watch. "There's an eight hour time difference, come by my office at oh-one-hundred and your phone call will be arranged."

"Thank you, Sir." Dale's sincerity was evident even though attentive blue eyes gazed straight ahead.

"I hope your sentiments remain the same after the phone call's been made, soldier." The Captain's line of sight drifted off into the darkness of the desert night. "I'd give what you're going to say some thought. No matter how hard I try, notifying someone's family never goes the way you think it will." Gray eyes came around and caught the soldier off guard. "Dismissed," he snapped gruffly and waited for a salute.

Dale's right hand flew into a precision salute, holding four fingers stiffly canted off the right eyebrow. Once the Captain returned the salute, their exchange of words were over. With an about face maneuver, Dale strode off into the desert night to find the right words to say.

{ } { } { }

With stars shinning brightly above, Dale stood outside the Captain's make shift office. Having no door to rap on, a cough sufficed for an announcement.


Dale did so, then snapped to attention and saluted. "Corporal Rockledge reporting as directed, Sir."

"I take it you're still intent on doing this?"

"Yes, Sir."

Seeing the determination in the set of the reservist's jaw, the Captain rose from his chair and motioned to the phone on his desk. "I've given the information to the communication center. They'll put through the call as soon as you pick up the phone. I'll give you some privacy. Take as much time as you need."

Dale saluted again. "Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir."

Once the Captain left, Dale's attention riveted to the government-issued phone on the desk. Fighting back a bout of nausea, Dale pushed forward and reached for the handset. A few seconds later the connection was initiated and ringing could be heard.

"G'morning, Mojohovich residence."

The sound of Beth's cheery voice coming over the line increased the nervous perspiration on Dale's face.

"Hello? Can I help you?"

Dale struggled to keep a determined level of composure. "Beth...

"Dale, is that you?"


"Well, this is a surprise. What's the matter, no one at home up yet for you to call?"

"Beth," Dale took in a breath and started down the path that no one ever wanted to go. "I'm calling for Charlie."

There was a moment of silence before Beth gave voice to her thoughts. "He's hurt?"

A solitary tear slipped out through Dale's tightly closed eyelids. "No, not anymore."

Silence reigned supreme as the words hung heavy in their ears. Their raspy intakes of oxygen played musical chairs with the muffled sobs carried across the lines. Each one was hurting and the other knew it.


"While you were sleeping," Dale tried to lessen her pain. "Beth... "


"I'm sorry."

"So am I, Dale." Beth's voice trailed off. "So am I."

Not knowing what else to say, Dale started to pull the receiver away until Beth's voice broke through the static silence.

"Dale, be careful. Charlie would want you to come home even if it's without him."

Choked up beyond belief, Dale wrestled with raw emotions to keep a steady voice. "I'll do my best, Beth."

"Don't forget." Beth's grief overwhelmed her and the sobs came through. "Don't forget him... or any of us."

The line went dead and so did any hope that Dale could lessen Beth's blow.

{} {} {}

Under the cover of night, Dale relived the events of the past day. If only there had been some premonition or revelation to warn them, things could be different. But there wasn't and things would never change. Mojo was dead and he was never coming back, not now, not ever.

"If only... " Dale pondered the thought for a long moment before reestablishing a link with reality. "Maybe it's too late to say things that should have already been said." Reaching for a flashlight, Dale withdrew the folded-up letter from a pocket. With pen in hand, words poured forth from an aching heart.

My Dearest Loved One,

I've learned a hard lesson today. Time waits for no one. Not me, not Mojo. I lost him today. The one person, beside you, that I felt the closest to is gone, his life snuffed out like the flame on a candle. He never saw it coming. The look on his face when I uncovered him wasn't one of anguish. I can honestly say he looked at peace with that little quirky smile of his still lingering on his lips. I swear he knew. He had to know everything there was about me. I'm sure his wife Beth knew too. She had to catch on to my little insecurities and tight mouthed ways. It was so hard to tell her that Mojo wasn't coming home the way we'd want him to. My Captain warned me it would be. He was right. I struggled to find the words to lessen her blow but in the end I knew that no matter what I said, it would hurt her all the same. It's over and I have forever been changed. We all have.

Blame it on the desert sun or the fact that I've lost a good friend who never knew my inner most secrets. Why, you ask? Because I was too afraid to be labeled, to stand up for whom I am. But most of all, I was too ashamed to admit that I was not living up to the standards others hold dear. The events of the last day have brought a new perspective to my world. No longer am I concerned with appearances and proprieties, but rather the feelings that I hold within my heart. My thoughts immediately turn to you. I pray I'll have the time to share them with you. To stare lovingly into your eyes and brush my fingers along the curve of your cheek, then tell you exactly what you mean to me. I'm not talking tucked away in some secluded room, but anywhere I damn well please. It's time that I accept my place in the world and speak my mind, openly and without reservations.

The searing heat of the midday sun here is nowhere close to the fire burning in my heart and soul awaiting your next gaze. With every mission, I think of you. It motivates me to fulfill my duty and suddenly no obstacle seems too great. You are like the desert, golden in color with softly rounded forms. One thought of you and immediately I ache for the relief only you can bring. That's when I pine for the gentle touch of your hand on my face and the sweetness of your tender kisses the most. God, how I long to feel one of those right about now.

Enough said about your absence from my presence or is that the other way around. Either way, it doesn't matter. All I know is that I want you safe and the world we live in to be at peace. If that means your not being with me during this short time, then I will have to accept it. I wouldn't want you in harm's way, especially now in these times of violent upheaval. In my heart I know every nation and people deserve to be free from fear and dictatorship. That's why I'm here. Perhaps one day, if there is a future for us to have, I'll be able to show you the bittersweet beauty of this distant land. It is such a mix of old and new cultures with each one claiming to be the more dominant. The simplicity of the ancient ways can be so appealing in one instance, while brutal in the next. The paradox these people live by seems only befitting the desert itself, blisteringly hot by day and chilled to the core in the dead of night.

The stark reality of it all is that I often look forward to the soothing coolness of the desert night. It brings you to me in the shimmering veil of a twilight mirage. The hues of the sunset linger long enough to allow my memory of your form to come to a life of it's own. I can still feel the heat of the sand radiating through the souls of my boots, as the heat around me slowly diminishes with each passing moment. It reminds me of the peaceful feeling I get after we make love and the fire of the night's passion begins to subside. There, in the gentle coolness, I imagine myself lying with you wrapped in my arms. Oh, how sweet the feeling of love is in my heart with only the stars and the moon looking down on us. I long for a time when I can speak my thoughts into the night air and you will hear them. What I wouldn't give for that time to be now. Perhaps in time our love for each other will be accepted without limitations or self-defining connotations. I am already committed to you. No one has to label us in that way. My soul is forever entwined with yours and from this day forward I intend to make it known.

Your loving soldier, now and always,



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