2: Beneath Orion, Worlds Apart 06bySpartan22©
Time itself was a blur for Luke. The moment the helicopter touched down back at base, everything happened so quickly. He was immediately escorted to a C-17, waiting to take him out of the country. Within minutes the heavy cargo jet was airborne with Luke on board, transporting him to Ramstein Air Force Base for medical attention. During the flight, an Air Force Flight Doctor and his medical team took care of Luke's injuries. An infection that developed around his shoulder had them concerned, not to mention the damage was bad enough that he would most likely have to undergo surgery.
Watching the drizzling rain through a window at the end of the hallway on the eighth floor of the hospital at Ramstein, Luke stared off in the distance, lost in his thoughts when someone behind him distracted him.
"I heard they beat you until you turned ugly. I guess they weren't lying."
Luke turned around to see his Lieutenant, Clint Wayne, standing there in a hospital gown, leaning on two crutches and wearing a stupid grin on his face.
"...cuz, you know, you're pretty ugly right now," Clint explained slowly as if Luke didn't get it, grinning from ear to ear.
Luke shook his head and laughed. He was truly amazed to see his friend in one piece, even though he had a heads-up earlier that Clint made it out alive. "Wow, I... How are you? I mean, I... didn't think we'd even be having this conversation this soon, if at all!" Still in shock, his mouth hung wide open while his brain slowly tried to process the right words to say. He wanted to say more, but words escaped him.
Clint shrugged, "Yep, this infidel is still alive, baby. I didn't exactly come home in one piece, though." Lifting his hospital gown up, he showed Luke a carbon fiber prosthetic right leg, just below his knee. Clint lightly tapped on it with his crutch.
Luke's face went pale.
"Those bastards got my artery; I should have bled out but they slapped a couple tourniquets on it. So despite what you see here, I'm pretty lucky. Lost the leg, kept my life. Decent trade-off I guess," he said, somewhat sarcastically. Pointing to his new leg, he told Luke, "It's alright, man; I'm starting to get the hang of it. The doctors and physical therapists are pretty good here at least."
Clint continued, "You know what's funny? When I'm lying in bed at night, without my prosthetic leg on, sometimes I'll reach down to scratch my right leg, completely forgetting it's there, until my hand passes right through. They tell me it's normal. They even have a phrase for it; it's called 'phantom limb.' It's kinda creepy."
Clint saw the expression on Luke's face. "Don't worry, man, I'll get through this," he said. "They've got a lot of people here willing to help out. I met one guy that lost half of his pointer finger in a firefight; a bullet shot it right off. No joke, people call him 'four-point-five'. And that's how he introduces himself. So he isn't missing an entire leg like me, but it shows he has a sense of humor about it."
Luke was even more speechless, awkwardly shifting his stance. "Sir, I... I don't..."
"First of all, just call me Clint since we're not in uniform. No 'sir's'. Secondly, don't feel sorry for me. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't even be here. I'd be six feet under. I saw you stepping up and drawing fire away from me."
Clint awkwardly stepped forward. Luke realized he wasn't yet proficient walking on his new prosthetic. Holding his hand out, Clint said, "I just wanted to say thanks, and tell you how good it is to see you alive. I wouldn't have been able to sleep if it wasn't for the drugs they gave me. All I could think about was you out there, alone. You have no idea how I felt; I was responsible, the higher-ranking one supposed to be in charge. You should have went up the cable first..."
"Sir... Clint, don't worry about it. There wasn't anything you could do. Besides, we're both here, and that's behind us. We both made it."
Except for the sounds of the raindrops hitting the window, silence filled the hallway.
They were thinking the same thing. Both of them made it, but two others didn't. Westwood and Cash made it home on a C-17 but they lay underneath the Stars and Stripes, which had been carefully draped over their respective coffins.
Luke couldn't shake it. 'Survivors guilt,' they called it. It was like a flip of the coin; when the helicopter went down, it was a fifty-fifty shot that they would live or die. Two lived, two died. What made his life so much more important than Cash's or Westwood's?
Maybe it was selfish, but he was at least grateful Clint could relate. He was the only one in the world that knew what he was going through, because Clint was going through the same thing.
The surgery was successful, but Luke would have to have his left arm in a sling for at least the next several weeks. In addition, he would have to undergo months of physical therapy. Even then, the doctor told him it wasn't guaranteed that his shoulder would be back to one hundred percent. Luke wasn't happy about that.
He considered himself a patient person; on an average day Luke was one to never let anything get to him, but ever since he returned he noticed the fuse on his temper had been cut a lot shorter. He could barely lift his left arm perpendicular to the ground – lifting it above his head was impossible – but the doctor told him if he could stick to the physical therapy he would be able to improve his muscular strength, even if he would never be able to lift anything heavy over his head again.
At least Luke would be able to do his physical therapy back home in California. He was already scheduled to fly back to the states on a C-17 heading for McGuire Air Force Base. Out of McGuire, the Air Force had a KC-10 ready and waiting to take Luke across the country to Travis Air Force Base, where his family would be waiting for him.
Home was almost within reach.
The day before he left, he made sure he saw Clint one last time, meeting him in the hospital's dining facility for lunch.
"I heard you made parole; congrats," Clint said, moving slowly while trying to sit at the table with careful balance, setting the crutches down next to him. One of the hospital staff carried his tray and set it down.
"Yeah, they have me flying out on a C-17 tomorrow. We'll have a few stops before we cross the pond, but we're not on the ground long enough to do any sightseeing," Luke said, setting his own tray down with one hand, making sure not to spill his drink. "Which is fine, because I'm just ready to get back to my normal life in the U.S."
"Are you stopping through Iceland?"
"Too bad; Iceland is a blonde fiesta. The hottest girls I've ever seen in my life are all up that way; it's like invading a secret club for hot chicks that no one ever told the guys about. You probably could have scored pity points with your war wounds and brought one of them back home, especially with the news making you out as a hero," Clint said with a grin. "Oh wait, you already have your own blonde," Clint laughed, remembering his girl from the pictures in Luke's Life Support locker back in the desert. "I almost forgot. Never mind."
Luke winced but didn't say anything, looking down at his lunch and taking another bite of his grilled chicken burger. It was easy for Clint to interpret his reaction, understanding that Luke and his blonde were no longer together. He apologized, "Oh, sorry man. I didn't realize...,"
Reaching for the ketchup bottle, Luke shrugged it off, "No big deal, it was kind of my fault anyway. What do you mean the news making me out to be a hero?"
Clint stared at Luke, analyzing him to see if he was actually serious. Realizing he was clueless, Clint shook his head and said, "Man, you haven't turned on the television, have you? They're talking about you like you're the next Scott O'Grady; the only problem is they haven't released your name yet. Not sure if they will either, and who knows how long your fame will last so you better start writing this stuff down so you can get a book deal. If you don't, I might beat you to it, even though you were out there longer than I was," he laughed.
Luke subtly shook his head as if he couldn't believe what Clint was saying. Quickly changing subjects, he asked, "So when are you supposed to go home?"
Taking a drink of water, Clint set the cup down and said, "They're thinking of sending me back to the states in a few weeks, after the first phase of therapy. I'll be in D.C. for several months wrapping up therapy before I go home to Seattle. Once I'm home, I'm still not out of the woods; I'll have to have get some help as I transition to normal everyday life as an amputee. There are little things no one ever thinks about, like stairs leading up to the house or apartment, things like that. I'll still have a long way to go, but we'll get there."
"I'm sure you'll do fine," Luke encouragingly told him. Clint nodded, but it was clear he had a lot on his mind. He would have a whole new set of challenges ahead of him. Luke knew if anyone could do it, it would be him.
Luke was still trying to open the ketchup bottle. He knew he wasn't supposed to use his left hand, but he couldn't get the lid off with his right only. Grasping the bottle and trying to twist the lid, his face turned red with anger. "I almost know what you mean," Luke grunted, almost in a snarl.
"Dude, you've got a serious vein popping out of your head, let me open that for you," Clint told him.
"It's personal now," he said, gritting his teeth, finally twisting it off. Luke knew he shouldn't have been angry over something as trivial as that; a sense of unfamiliar rage flowed through him. He used to be able to shrug off the big stuff, but now he was letting even the little things get to him. His hand started shaking.
Clint could tell, too, "It's all good, man. Tell you what, for the rest of lunch if you need two hands, let me take care of it. If I need something that takes two legs, I'll let you do it. Fair trade?"
Luke took a huge drink of water, trying to get settled down. After taking a deep breath, he even managed a weak smile, "Alright, sounds good."
"So you talk to your family and your... former girl?"
Luke nodded, "I have. Just through phone, though. I didn't want to Skype and have them see all the cuts and bruises on my face. It was great hearing their voice; all of them were there. Mom, dad, my sister, and my... and Kaylee."
Clint gave him an opportunity to say more, but Luke ended it there. The silence prodded Clint to say, "And?"
"Well, mom started to talk first, but I could barely understand her because she was crying hysterically the entire time. Dad kind of had to take over from there, but even he was choked up. I talked to Faith for a while; it was really great talking to my little sister. I don't think I've ever missed her as much as I do now."
Luke continued, somewhat reluctantly, "I probably miss Kaylee the most. It was amazing talking to her. I mean, the conversation wasn't really that good; she didn't know what to say, and I didn't either really. Looking back on it, I basically had the same kind of conversation with her that I had with my sister, nothing more. I know she misses me, I just don't think she does as much as a girlfriend would. Like I said though, that's to be expected since we kind of had a falling out."
Luke sighed, "I'm incredibly grateful that you and I can actually go home. I can't help but think of the welcome Major Westwood and Sergeant Cash had when they came home to their families." Shivers ran up his spine as he said, "In a box with an American flag draped over it. That's how their families get to see them come home. You know, I was out there so long I didn't even get to attend their funeral. How awful is that?"
Clint nodded, "I know what you mean. I was here in the hospital, but they could at least Skype me in during the funeral. I feel awful, though. Between the time zone difference and the meds I was on, I can't remember a single thing about Cash's funeral. Westwood's funeral was hazy at best." Taking a break from a somber moment, Clint laughed, albeit somewhat solemnly, "Do you remember when he said he'd be buried in his Camaro before he ever gave it to me? Drive it right on down?"
Luke couldn't help but chuckle himself, "Yep; that was Cash. Maybe he does get the last laugh after all." After the moment had passed, he sighed, "I just can't believe they're gone. Snuffed out, just like that. I'll tell you what, I'm glad there's a God. I don't understand why they had to die, but I know they believed in Him, and I believe they're with Him right now."
Clint didn't look up from his tray. Luke straightened up, asking, "Where was Major Westwood from again?"
"Um... Hennessey. Hennessey, Oklahoma. His parents still live out there."
"And Cash was from Knoxville, Tennessee, right?"
Luke said, "I was just thinking, I'd really like to go out there and pay my respects one of these days. Sooner than later. At least give their families my condolences."
Clint added, "I'll go with you in a heartbeat if you want, just say when."
They took their time while eating, knowing they would soon be going their separate ways. When they were done, Luke and Clint shook hands.
"Hope you get the hang of that soon," Luke said, pointing towards his new leg. "If you ever need anything, or if you ever make it to Northern California, look me up."
Clint smiled, "I'll do that. Same goes for you; at least I should say that offer stands when I finally get back to the Great Northwest. If you ever make it up that way, you've got a place to stay. I owe you one, Luke. I owe you huge; don't forget. Because I know I won't. Have a safe trip, and good luck healing up."
"You too," Luke smiled back.
Kaylee bit her lip as she spotted the KC-10 on final approach, a small grey spec on the horizon within minutes from landing. She grabbed Audrey and Aaron's hands, squeezing both tightly, trying anything to stop her heart from fluttering.
Apparently everyone else saw the tanker jet coming in for landing; cheers erupted through the crowd on the tarmac at Travis Air Force Base. As the wheels touched down, small trails of white smoke puffing out behind the tires, the crowd roared even louder. Kaylee found herself practically bouncing, her knees bending as she bobbed up and down with short and rapid movements, unable to contain her excitement.
She admitted she was jealous of Ryan, Jessica, and Faith; they had a front row seat on the red carpet where the KC-10 would be taxiing up at any minute. They would be the first ones to greet Luke off of the jet, along with a few high-ranking individuals. She, on the other hand, waited directly behind the red velvet rope barrier.
Of course the Patton family insisted she should be up there with them, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. She knew she would regret it, but she stood firm and told them family came first. They kept pushing back until she managed to convince them by reminding them she would at least be able to see him immediately after they did.
Kaylee wasn't sure why she said that knowing full well she was passing up an opportunity to see him and wrap him up in her arms the moment he stepped off of the plane; maybe it was because she wasn't really his girlfriend anymore. Maybe she was just chickening out. There was a lot on her mind; so much had happened that she could barely trust her own instincts and emotions.
A million thoughts ran through her head, but they all centered on Luke. How would he react when he saw Kaylee? Would he even have time to give her a hug with his parents and sister out there? Would he even acknowledge her after his tryst with that dirty desert slut... and was that man-stealing whore even in the picture anymore? Just thinking about her made Kaylee furious. She found herself bashfully scanning the crowd more than once, fighting her own insecurity. Kaylee wondered if she was also in the crowd, waiting to pounce on Luke and smother him with love and kisses.
That made her skin crawl. What did she have that Kaylee didn't have? She tried to shake that thought from her head. As excited as she was to see Luke – and she was tremendously excited – he wasn't off the hook yet either, but there would be a time and place to chew his ass out. But if she saw that Air Force bitch... she'd claw her eyes out, right here and in front of everybody.
The tanker stopped, holding position at the red carpet while the maintainers quickly chocked the tires and moved the airstairs up to the door.
"Ow, my hand," Aaron exclaimed to Kaylee as she practically squeezed it off. "I'm gonna need it for the camera when he gets off the jet, Kaylee."
"Kaylee," Audrey grunted, jerking her hand away, holding it tenderly like a wounded pet. "Save the squeezing for your hero."
Briefly glaring at Audrey out of the corner of her eyes, Kaylee snapped her head back to the door of the jet, trying to focus on Luke's arrival and ignore her friends comment. She snipped, "Whatever. He's not mine anymore; I can't believe you just said that to me."
"Oh, lighten up, hon. It sucks, I know, but he's still our friend, and he's still going to give you the biggest hug in the world."
Kaylee wasn't so sure. Would he?
What if he'd just ignore her? She didn't know if she could bear that. It turned her stomach to think Luke would only want her as a friend, but it was unbearable and extremely frightening to think that he might not want her in his life at all.
She had several months to think about Luke while he was gone, and half of that time she was thinking he was dead.
She was still haunted by the memories of what had happened not too long ago. Kaylee remembered driving Faith home; Kaylee spent so much time at the Patton's since Luke was gone that, in a way, it did feel like her home too.
As she pulled up into the driveway, she saw two Air Force officers talking to Ryan and Jessica through the window.
They were the same two that delivered the news of Luke's death.
Kaylee was enraged. All of the pain, all of her old emotions began to return. Today was the first day she didn't see something in the mall or the stores that reminded her of Luke, and those two pricks had to ruin it. Her heart ached as memories of Luke came back to her. She bit her lip so hard she thought it was going to bleed. She wanted to cry, wondering if she could ever heal.
She willed her pain to turn into anger. "How DARE those two show up again," she shouted in the car as she jammed the brakes and slammed it into park. With a glance over at Faith in her passenger seat, she could tell she was scared.
Kaylee took a deep breath, temporarily calming her rage for Faith's sake, but still fully intending on ripping their heads off. "It's ok, sweetie," she told her, storming out of the car and slamming her door closed.
Faith didn't want to come out; she froze. Kaylee walked around to the passenger side, opened the door, and coaxed Faith out, saying, "Whatever those bastards have to tell us, we'll do it together."
It wasn't easy, remaining calm for Faith. But once she would enter the house it was a different story. Taking Faith by the hand, she stormed inside the house.
Kaylee stopped in her tracks, completely caught off guard now that she had the full picture. The two men were smiling, and Ryan and Jessica were holding each other, sobbing.
But they were smiling, too. Their tears were tears of joy. Kaylee was bewildered; her jaw hung open.
She would never, ever – not in a million years – forget the words Jessica spoke as she ran up to hug Kaylee and her daughter:
Luke's alive; Those two words replayed over and over in her head as Kaylee watched the jet door open and saw Luke.