“Boy oh boy, it’s a hot one,” my wife exclaimed as she gave the sweating pitcher one last swirl before pouring each of us a glass. Exhausted and relieved, I sipped my iced tea while slowly rocking in the hammock of our screened porch. I savored my reward while my dog and I watched the movers close the back of their truck before driving away. Knuckles then curled up beneath me and fell asleep.
This was me honoring our agreement. One final tour for country, then I’d leave. We’d renovate that dreamed farm house, move in, and raise our family. Demons be damned. This was our recipe for life.
“Yuppers,” I answered my wife. “It’s not desert hot but it’s definitely a scorcher.”
My six-year-old son immediately pounced, seizing opportunity having caught me in an egregious verbal faux pas. “What was that, father?”
Ours had devolved into a zero-sum game of linguistics. Simple rules. Winner and loser. Speak properly or die. My children learned quickly. However today, I only had my own fatigue to blame.
“YESSS,” I replied, glaring over in jest at my grinning son. “Yes, damn it. Yes. Is that better?”
“Proper grammar, dad,” he said while mimicking the slow head shake of a disappointed parent. “Respect the language, man.”
The precocious boy’s straight-faced sidekick, his younger sister-in-crime, held out her opened hand. “Double score, daddy. One for the swear jar too.”
I was about to whisper something more profane, but my snickering wife caught my eye and shook me off like a seasoned back catcher. Instead, I swallowed my swear, dredged out a couple of coins, and dropped them into my youngest’s awaiting palm. Both kids then excitedly ran to the kitchen and slam dunked the quarters into their growing college fund. My wife and I just looked at each other and laughed.
This is what I longed for while in captivity. Torturers be damned. My desire to get home was stronger and was what kept me alive.
As she eased into my hammock, I relived the naughty high school stranger from detention, who chose her friend’s dare over truth. Giving daddy an unsolicited under-the-table handy will not be the answer to how mommy and daddy met. We were high school sweethearts. That’s all they need to know. Now ten years later, that naughty girl still sends my heart a flutter. And as we often did, our minds travelled the same path of memories.
“Do you think the hammock will hold us?” she asked. “Renovated home. New hammock. We’ve got a lot of christening to do.”
Oh, how I missed this. Being away, so very far away, on the other side of the world away, I missed everything. I missed a silent mind. I missed the intimacy of the one I loved. My service even caused me to miss the births of both of our children. She eventually forgave me. That Hollywood moment was witnessed by many at the airport. My wife ran to me and jumped into my arms. Our kids followed close behind, yelling, “Daddy, Daddy!” There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. However, a few years earlier, she handled my absence differently.
“Off saving the world, he is!” my laboring wife screamed to the military medical staff.
“Don’t mind me. Nothing to see here. Just pushing an eight-pound bowling ball out my vagina,” she raged in birthing pain. “While you’re off playing little army man with your little army man buddies, I’ll just raise the little bastards myself.”
Of course, my wife’s tone changed once the glory that was our children, were cleaned and swaddled in her arms. Both times, her flushed face beamed into the camera as she positioned our newborn for me to see. In life, even ten thousand miles away, there’s nothing more beautiful than that first moment of mother holding child. Nothing.
As my wife curled next to me, her smirk relayed a clear message. My parenting methodology would haunt me the rest of my life. I long ago accepted my fate. It was a fair price.
At that very moment, that dreamy moment in the evening stillness of the setting sun, it felt like the desert demons had been damned away. My lovely wife had nestled beside me. My mixed-mutt, Knuckles, like in the Afghani desert, curled at my feet in slumbered but dutiful wait. And my two adorable children explored their new life while pressed against the safety of the bug screen, uncontrollably giggling while trying to tickle the feet of some large, unfamiliar insect that slowly crawled on the outside of the mesh. Life couldn’t get better. It could only get worse.
“Daddy, there’s a man standing in our house.”
My daughter saw it first, even before the dog. However, it was no man. It was just a shape. The figure stood akimbo in our living room, feet shoulder length apart, staring at us through our home’s living room windows as the dusk light provided its ominous silhouetted shape.
It wasn’t flesh and blood. It was wood - legs, arms, body - constructed with varying lengths of knotty pine floorboards that had somehow taken the shape of our trespasser. They were the same boards that we’d reclaimed and used in our home. The boardman stood motionless, seemingly judging. Its squinting eyes, one larger than the other, were two black knots in the same board that lay across its face like a raccoon’s mask. They intimated some life, slow moving side-to-side, like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica. I again felt violated. It was scanning each member of my family.
The silence of this standoff was broken when Knuckles startled the figure with a slow-rolling, deep-throated growl. To the untrained ear, it was a rattlesnake’s warning. To the trained, it was the precursor to an imminent and violent attack.
As I slowly rose from the hammock, the invader remained still but its eyes now locked on me. I still hadn’t quite wrapped my head around what we were witnessing. Perhaps it was a sick, welcome-to-the-neighborhood prank. Perhaps not. Whomever or whatever it was, it wasn’t quite unneighborly and it had to bloody well go.
By now, the kids were sobbing. Terrified, they clung to their mother like infant koalas as my wife cautiously ushered her brood toward the screened porch door. Escape was down the wide, re-built wooden stairs that led to the front yard and beyond. She grabbed the handle and pushed, but the door would not budge. The wooden jamb and frame had fused shut, almost like the dimensional lumber reverted to its forest state. My wife repeatedly shook the door in desperation, but we remained trapped. We’d become prisoners in our own home.
I triaged the noise and focused on the problem at hand. We were in imminent danger. We were under attack. I had to protect my family. Following my lead, I whispered the ready command, and Knuckles knew we were going in. He also knew there weren’t any Taliban to flush out or buckshot ducks to retrieve. This was different. He was readied to pursue and apprehend with extreme prejudice. I’d seen it before. The day of my rescue. Knuckles was going to rip this mother to shreds.
Blocking out the wailing behind us, I slowly reached for the handle of our home’s front door. But before the hinges squeaked open, the boardman turned and ran, disappearing behind the hall wall that led to our bedrooms. My instinct to pursue was as strong as Knuckle‘s and I swung open the door and gave the command. Knuckles bolted in pursuit and disappeared behind the same wall.
I quickly followed, tracking the sound of dogged determinism, but momentarily glanced at my locked living room-displayed gun safe. However, there was no growling. Or barking. Knuckles was trained to bark. It was a form of intimidation. Bare his teeth, growl, and bark like mad when zeroing in on a target. But there was none of that. There was only the sound of claws sliding on and scratching the newly refinished hardwood floor. Room by room Knuckles eagerly slid and searched, like he was playing hide and seek with the kids. But he found nothing. Not a splinter. Not even a scent. And then, it all went silent.
We searched for what seemed like hours, screaming his name. Nothing. No dog of war. No man of sticks. I refused to shed a tear or accept his inconceivable fate. I instead channeled that energy into recovery, and vengeance with a sidearm. Knuckles had survived everything the desert threw at us. He saved my ass more times than I could count, and I had vowed to give him a retirement life befitting the war hero he was. He could not go out like this. But as the night wore long, failure crept in. Surrender was never that soldier’s fate.
It wasn’t until later, after the kids had calmed, and my son had fallen asleep. As we prepared my daughter for bed, she found him. Looking down from her bed, my frightened daughter whispered, “Daddy, look. He’s in the floor. They all are.”