The Girl Who Cried War
Author: coritherien

Chapter 17
Unearthed

May 10th, 2008

Fontaine told me that Fadhil was one of the nicer, safer districts in Baghdad, but believe me when I tell you it was no Bellaire.  It wasn’t even San Diego

We passed children who were barefoot and filthy, chasing each other along dirt roads.  Stores were somewhat rundown and shady.

But Fadhil had fruit trees like I’d never seen.  One particular pomegranate looked like a work of art.  It was sprawling and its bowed under the weight of an abundance of fruit.  The rest of the district buzzed with activity but two men, one with ginger hair and a beard to match and the other in a tattered pair of what looked like hospital scrubs, were lying beneath the tree like the world was at a standstill. 

“What’s the name of his base?”

I hesitated.  “I don’t know.”

Fontaine looked at me incredulously.  “Then how the hell are we supposed to find—”

He slammed on the breaks instinctually.  “What?!”

I pointed off to the left.  At the end of what looked like a market strip was a small, undeniable army base.  A supply bunker was positioned to the left and to the right, a bunk house.

“How do you know that’s it?”

I smirked.  “There’s only one base in Fadhil.”

Fontaine opened his mouth to argue and then closed it.  “Oh.”

He pulled the truck alongside the barrack.  I don’t know what I imagined, but I couldn’t picture Nate spending his last months here.  I couldn’t see him penning those beguiling, often poetic letters whilst looking over nothing but dirt roads and a dilapidated market strip.

Behind the bunk house was the plot of grass Nate wrote me about.  Atop it sat two photos I didn’t recognize, and one I could trace from memory.

Nate’s treasured patch of grass had become a memorial.

I took his photo in trembling hands and poured over the face I’d only ever see now in photographs.  I didn’t know I was crying until I saw drops on the grass.

“Excuse me,” someone called.

A dark skinned uniformed man with glasses was approaching us from the side.  I replaced the photo and swiped at my eyes quickly, hoping nobody noticed.

“Can I help you?”  He came to a halt in front of us.

Fontaine started to explain, but it became obvious the soldier wasn’t listening.  Instead, he was staring at me like he’d seen a ghost.

I glanced uncomfortable at Fontaine, who looked equally puzzled, before asking the soldier, “Is something wrong?”

“You’re her,” he whispered.  It wasn’t much of an explanation, but I don’t think he meant it to be.

“I’m sorry?”  Was the man ill?

He grabbed my hand and all but dragged me into the bunk house.  The few soldiers that milled about inside jumped up when we burst in.  I shrugged at them apologetically.  We came to a sudden stop in front of a dusty old trunk that had been shoved into the corner.

The man rummaged through it for a moment and then withdrew what appeared to be a photograph.  He stood quickly and studied it for a second before slapping his thigh.

“You’re her!” he exclaimed.  “You’re Erin!”

He spun the photograph and I found myself staring at the yearbook photo I’d sent Nate back in November.  Its edges were worn, as if from frequent handling.

“He used to sleep with it beneath his pillow,” the man said by way of explanation.

Suddenly I felt a bed beneath me.  “You know Nate?” I whispered.

He nodded.  “My name is Anthony,” he said.  “The bed you’re sitting on was Richardson—uh, Nate’s.  I sleep on the next bed over.”

Anthony sat beside me on Nate’s bed and pulled the trunk closer.  “It’s all the stuff we haven’t been able to ship home yet,” he murmured awkwardly.  “He kept everything in here.”

Almost hazily, I sifted through Nate’s trunk.  I found every letter I’d ever written him bound by a shoelace.  I found several more pictures, this time of the two of us, and one of each family member.  I found scraps of poetry, many addressed to me.

I became aware that someone was speaking to me.  “I’m sorry,” I said to Anthony, “what?”

“How on earth did you get here?” he breathed.

I closed Nate’s trunk.  If I wanted to keep my composure, I had to stop looking.  “Mr. Fontaine here is a journalist,” I explained.  I felt dizzy.  “He’s doing a story on the war.  I convinced him to take me along.”

He didn’t ask, but I could see the question in his eyes.  “I needed to see what his last months were like,” I said.  “He always sugar coated it for me, I knew that.  I couldn’t stand not knowing the truth.  It’s all I have left.”

Anthony clutched at my hand.  “Look,” he said quietly.  Tears were forming in the corners of his eyes.  “This is hard for me to say.  Nate was one of the best men I’d ever known.”  He swallowed hard, but kept my gaze.  “I was with him during the blast.”

I felt myself edging away, but at the same time I clutched his hand tighter.

“I was the only survivor.  There were two blasts.  The first one took two of our soldiers.  It was the second one…the second one killed Nate.”  The tears finally rolled freely down his cheeks.  “I went to him and, well, he knew his time had come.  He accepted it, I think.  He held my hand and the last thing he said,” Anthony whispered, taking a long breath, “was ‘tell Erin I love her’.”

My breathing hitched uncomfortably, and my throat constricted around the ball of emotion that always grew when I was trying not to cry.  I couldn’t believe it.  This was more than I ever expected.  I didn’t even know there was a survivor.  “Those were his last words?”

He nodded and wiped his eyes.  “I was going to write you, but I could never bring myself to send anything.  It didn’t seen right.”

For the next hour or so, Anthony told me stories about Nate.  He had us laughing so hard, I had a stitch in my side.  He walked us through a soldier’s daily routine.  We watched through some of the streets in Fadhil and Anthony showed me where Nate had successfully reunited a small child with his mother.  He showed us the corner where Nate’s Humvee was shot at. 

We slowly made our way back to the barrack and I found myself dreading our departure.  The poor man had a job to do, but there was still so much he could tell me.

But all too soon, we were saying out goodbyes.  “I can’t thank you enough,” I told him, sticking out my hand.

He shook it firmly.  “If you ever want to talk, you know where to send the letter.”  He smiled congenially.

As he shook hands with Fontaine, I noticed his attention being drawn behind us.  I glanced back and saw the two men I’d seen earlier beneath the pomegranate tree.  They were stooping low by the patch of grass and I watched as one of the men snatched up a photograph.

“Ah, it appears I’m needed,” Anthony murmured.  “Excuse me.”

Fontaine started toward the car as Anthony hurried toward the commotion.  I knew I should have headed for the Chevy…but what fun is that?

By the time Fontaine called after me, I had almost reached the uproar.  Three more soldiers were on the scene now, and two of them restrained the men.  The one with the ginger hair looked stupefied, and made no attempt to fight off the soldier confining him.

The other man was a different story.  He still held a portrait; a soldier had hooked an arm through the man’s bent elbows and held it behind the distraught man’s back.

The man looked a little worse for wear.  The medical scrubs I’d seen earlier were dirtied and too small, and he stood barefoot.  His black hair was in desperate need of a trim and he had a good two inches worth of growth on his surprisingly youthful face.  His dark, maybe black, eyes were ablaze but he looked more bewildered than anything.

“Why do you have a picture of me?” he was shouting.

I got a glimpse of the photo in his hands.  It was Nate’s.

“Sir,” Anthony said, stepping just in front of me.  “Sir, I think you’re confused.”

The man’s eyes swung to Anthony but caught my gaze instead.  There was something unsettling about the man, something I couldn’t put my finger on.

He dropped the photograph and it shattered. 

“You’re her,” he whispered, softly now.

That was the second time today I’d gotten that kind of reaction.

“I’m sorry?”

One of his knees seemed to give out.  He fell towards the ground weekly, but the soldier caught him at the last second and not once did the former break our eye contact. 

“You’re her,” he repeated.  “You’re the girl I’ve been seeing.  I dream about you.  Every night, I see your face!”  He broke into an uncertain smile.  “You’re just as beautiful in person.”

The ginger-haired man spoke up for the first time.  “That’s her, Bucko?” he shouted.  He sounded awed.

The man wearing scrubs gazed up at me.  “Who are you?”

And then I realized what struck me so oddly about him.  Now, I’m not a spiritual person, and I’ll never believe in ghosts, but if I did I would’ve sworn I was looking at Nate’s. 

 

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