She uncurled Jacob’s fingers from the glass and his arm fell limp back onto their bed, then she replaced the cork of the near empty bottle of bourbon resting on his bedside table. Flickering hues from the television lit the room. She muted the news coming in from the Eurasian Front. Why he tortured himself further was beyond her; couldn’t he fall asleep to sports or a movie? She brushed back his blonde streaked hair and ran her finger along the old scar that ran vertically down his stubbled cheek parallel to his sideburn – remnants of the wound from an exploding roadside bomb in Iraq shortly after they were married. She caressed the bullet wound he received just below the right clavicle years later in the Caucasus. But, it was the new scar that wrapped from his right kidney to his armpit from mortar fire in Gdynia that finally knocked him out of the war. She wouldn’t say it was the wound that brought him home because he wasn’t really back. He hadn’t gone a single night in the last six months without drinking himself to sleep. As far as Sophie was concerned, what was left of Jacob was scattered along the Eurasian Front in a thousand pieces. She was an ER nurse, accustomed to putting broken bodies back together, but she knew that what was broken in him was beyond her ability to fix. She wondered if he would ever return to evict the stranger that now possessed her husband’s body.
The gray light of early February crept through the window the next morning. He saw the winter-stripped trees lining the street below, raising their bare hands to the vacant sky. The Red Line train could be heard whirring just a block away where it crossed Wrightwood Avenue. The metallic grinding made the hangover all the more unpleasant as he scratched at his mustache. He grabbed his old Army t-shirt off the bed and pulled it on. She must have worn it the night before because it still smelled of her sweetness.
Jacob turned to see Sophie standing feet from him with her hands wrapped around a large coffee mug. Her ash blonde hair was pulled back into a careless pony tail. She peered through heavy black rimmed glasses with aquatic blue eyes directly at him. Jacob was unmasked. His uncanny ability to put on a strong face for the world dissolved in her presence. He stood before her as the fractured, war-torn soldier, unable to hide.
“I’m not coming with you,” she said.
Questions formed in his mind, but the words would not come.
“You’re drowning and I can’t save you and I can’t drown with you. It’s not fair to me and it’s not fair to the kids.”
He looked out of the window from the corner of his olive brown eyes and nodded. Words still weren’t coming. For a moment they stood in silence as she looked upon him and he stared at the floor.
“I am not saying it is your fault Jacob. No man should have to endure the number of combat deployments you have. But every time. less of you comes back and now there’s nothing left of my husband, nothing left of Evan and Rachel’s father. Take this time in California to find the man you lost before you lose us forever,” said Sophie through her tears.
He nodded again. His eyes were welling up as she closed the distance between them. She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head on his chest. Jacob felt her body against his but he was a million miles away. As he pulled his hand up to the back of her head he could hear the faint echoes of his former self cry out within him to wrap his arms around her and hold her tight, but the hollowness in his chest wouldn’t let him. He could only feel his absence in her arms, not knowing how to bridge the gaping space between himself and the woman he loved. The war had emptied him, leaving him no warmth to share with .
The muted yellow afternoon light shone through the massive skylights of Union Station as Jacob approached him. The man he grew up calling Dr. DeVaux was every bit of the Frenchman that Jacob remembered. His messy, thinning white hair and angular face was softened by hazel eyes beaming through round tortoiseshell glasses. He was impeccably styled with sleek black wool trousers, black cashmere sweater, charcoal pea-coat, and a bright red scarf. Jacob was struck by DeVaux’s eyes, which exuded a light that blended sorrow and joy, and this mixture spoke of wisdom. Though Jacob had known him from years before, he noticed how Daniel seemed to carry about him an earned tranquility purchased through many storms.
“You didn’t have to get all dressed up just to see me, Daniel,” Jacob said, as he extended his hand to shake Daniel’s.
“I couldn’t very well come to a great city like Chicago without dressing for the occasion,” said Daniel with a smile.
“Fair enough, old friend. How long has it been? Fifteen, maybe twenty years?”
“It’s been a long time, son,” said Daniel.
“Too long,” said Jacob, “Well, how about we drop off your bags at The Drake and have ourselves an early dinner?”
“You lead the way; this is your town.”
Daniel and Jacob took a cab north from Union Station to the Drake, stopping at two Homeland Security checkpoints along the way.
“I’ll take you to a place I think you’ll like. It’s a great little café on Dearborn just before Goethe, it’s only a few blocks away. I used to come down here from Northwestern during my college days,” said Jacob, “The smoking section on the second level, back when you could still smoke indoors, used to be a gathering place for artists, intellectuals, and the occasional rebel from the Bible college just up the street. It was quite the place; we used to debate everything from post-9/11 politics to religion and philosophy over bottles of wine and cups of coffee into the early hours of the morning. It was an interesting bunch. The only thing I think we came to unanimous agreement on were the merits of Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album and Mahler’s 9th Symphony.”
“Sounds like the kinds of places I would haunt in Paris during my undergrad days at Sorbonne. I’ll be happy to follow your lead,” said Daniel.
They went through the revolving door out of the Drake and onto Oak Street. There was a stiff breeze blowing in off of Lake Michigan. It had been years since Daniel had spent time in a city the size of Chicago, having spent his time during the war in the bucolic vistas of Chaparral. He saw the Hancock Tower reaching skyward and panhandlers on the streets as busses and taxis rushed down Michigan Avenue. The life of the city, full of human aspiration and despair was on display as they made their way along the south end of the Gold Coast on their way to the café.
When they arrived at the café, Daniel could see the old-world charm of the place. Red vinyl upholstery wrapped around the lower dining room. There were racks of wine at the entrance and the server galley held an antique chrome and black espresso machine on its counter with an ancient NCR cash register adjacent to it. The shelving along the back wall contained an unpretentious, but respectable, selection of liquor. The perimeter walls displayed impressionistic landscapes of nearby Lincoln Park painted by a local artist. Though the style of the décor differed from St. Jude’s Tavern, the pub he owned and operated in Chaparral, it evoked a similar feel. Bars, taverns, and cafes, at their best become transcendent spaces suspended between the sacred and profane; places where the ground is level between sinners and saints. He could see why this place was special to Jacob as they went up the two steps to the upper level dining room and seated themselves at a small table in the back corner.
Aware of Jacob’s attempt to mask his own fragility, Daniel was careful not to delve into anything too personal after nearly twenty years of not seeing him. Since the time of his vision he had come to the sneaking suspicion that the Brandt brothers were somehow involved, but he had no way to be certain, perhaps they were the Sons of Fire. He knew it would be unwise to bring up the matter of his vision from five years ago. If there was truth to it, God would show Jacob when he was ready. As excited as he was to see the young man he had prayed for so often over the last few years, Daniel opted for patience to see how he might best help this man who was marked by God.
“How do you think Chicago has changed since the war began?” asked Daniel.
“Honestly,” said Jacob, “I haven’t been here much to observe that. Sophie and I moved back less than two years ago. I had planned on retiring then, but when Germany flipped to the EAC, the Army denied all unnecessary discharges, so I was shipped back to Europe. The past six months is the longest I have been in the city since I finished college. I can tell you this much though, the city feels almost nothing like it did when I was an undergrad.”
“How so?” asked Daniel.
“The economy tanked here, so unless you are military or work in a defense-related industry, chances are you are either unemployed or underemployed and living off of government assistance. It’s shocking to see how many Northwestern MBA’s are bartenders and baristas. The South Side is rougher than it has ever been, and the western neighborhoods are pretty wild, too. The North Side is only as calm as it is because of Homeland Security’s massive presence.”
Daniel replied, “Doesn’t sound altogether different than several other urban centers in the US.”
“Yeah,” said Jacob, “lots of folks who don’t want to live off of government assistance or want to escape the squalor of the cities have made their way to the newly reclaimed rural zones.”
As Jacob and Daniel finished up their dinner, Daniel asked how Jacob ended up taking a position with the Rural Reclamation Department, in Chaparral, of all places.
“My injuries in Gdynia kept me from being able to lead in combat,” Jacob answered, “but with my education in political science and years as a Special Forces Officer, the government thought I’d be a good fit for the RRD post that opened up in Chaparral. With all of the security concerns surrounding the Reconquista movement along the Mexican border they wanted individuals with military experience in any border posts. All I know is that someone in the Pentagon passed my name along to the RRD, and they approached me a month ago about taking the position.”
“I see,” said Daniel, “it would be my pleasure to share with you what I know about the area. My tavern is fairly popular with the locals, so I have a pretty good sense of what is going on in the region.”
“I definitely appreciate that, Daniel. How about we discuss this more on the train over the next few days?”
The two men made their way out of the café into the frigid Chicago night. The wind from earlier in the evening had subsided, giving way to steady snow. Snowfall at night casts a hushed silence over the city, noise that would usually echo through the streets falls flat when snow fills the sky and insulates the ground. Streetlights shine golden halos out over the blanketed streets and sidewalks. Daniel and Jacob strode eastward toward the lake, enjoying the tranquility of the midwinter night as the soft crunch of fresh snow carried them back to the Drake.