There were warnings. There were no warnings.
Slipping into my black boots and olive flight suit, braiding my hair, pressing my name tag on my breast, zipping my B-4 bag, kissing Cowboy goodbye, I was leaving. We were leaving our base on the rolling Texas plains. We were always leaving.
I was scared. I was thinking of O’Grady. He had been shot down by Bosnian Serbs and was famously rescued after six days of evading. Eating leaves and drinking dew. Surviving. I was used to being a rescuer. I was used to being evasive. I was not used to peacekeeping.
There were twenty-five-pound missiles on shoulders.
There were signatures. There were always signatures. On Dayton Peace Accords this time. Warring parties were compromised, compromising.
Families were gathering, the women’s skirts gathered at the knee, slips showing, blouses billowing. We were saluting. I was wrapping my calves with boot blousers. The men were rooting for their six-year-olds playing soccer. The six-year-olds were sliding, cleats flying, lying in the grass crying.
We were leaving for the Balkans. In Srebrenica, bodies were lying. Soccer stadiums filled, the killing—years from a ruling, from prosecutors appealing, from The Hague eventually deciding. Genocide. I didn’t know I would soon be staring into the homes of the dead, lying to myself about compartmentalizing, about trying.
Women were grieving.
The meteorologist was droning. Ignoring, we were always ignoring, always pretending about droning, about drones. There’ll be precip, he was saying. My stomach was aching. I was ignoring it, bending over aerial maps, mapping jet routes, black lines. We called it the upside-down wedding cake of airspace. We were filing, signing flight plans, spinning prop blades, firing engines.
I was piloting, my head burning, a flu reeling inside me. We were landing, laying over, fueling, refueling, maintaining. I was eating ice chips, chipping, chiseling history, naming navaids. Years later, we would call this camaraderie. I was hydrating, flushing. Sparky was bringing me ice. We were always bringing people, pallets, papers, paratroopers. The generals were calling it peace. We were piecing together our leave-taking.
We have to go, Mikey was saying. You take the crew bunk. We were always ready. All-volunteer force. I was sleeping, pulling winter-issue flight gear over my ears. Scrumpy was flying. We were leaving Newfoundland, always departing, checking out, not needing another night. We were arriving, always volunteering.
We were puddle jumping to Reykjavik. Climbing. The Northern Lights were wrapping streaks around the cockpit, and I was wrapping T-Squared’s green flight jacket over my eyes. A strong hand was pushing. Wake up, wake up, you’re missing it. Rut Roe was badgering. I was forgetting. We were always forgetting. Where are we? My eyes were slits. Scrumpy was yelling, Look! The cockpit glass was filling, neon, fluorescent, like phosphorescence. Painting, dipping in green ink, brushing the deep black. The world was sleeping, we were deploying, ocean-crossing.
Neat, I said. I was always agreeing.
But my body was keeping count. It was refusing. Too many partings on hot tarmacs. I was in longing, pining. Missing the way I folded into him. We were always separating, always in training. I was heading to war, to warring factions. I was multiplying myself, then dividing, into fractions. My corpus—reducing itself. Some parts leaving, some staying behind, no remainder.
My crew and I were descending, the sun rising, my fever lifting. Mikey was clearing. Scanning the skies with his eyes. I was breathing, we were all breathing. We were serving.
Start Sunday morning with a flash essay in your inbox. Enjoy short works hand-selected from the Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Diagram, River Teeth, and Sweet Literary archives, as well as the occasional original work.
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