Chicago, Illinois on route to Chaparral, California
The last of Chicago’s dwindling suburbs gave way to sprawling farmlands as the train sped westward on its tracks. Snow from the previous day’s storm blanketed the endless plains in blinding white under a cloudless sky. Since the war began, most overland travel of any substantial distance was now by train. The high cost and scarcity of fuel made flying or driving prohibitively expensive. In order to promote more efficient means of travel, the Federal government revitalized the American rail system along the pre-existing interstate highway corridors. So, a trip from Chicago to Southern California that might have taken four hours on a non-stop flight would now take four days.
All the extended travel time didn’t bother Daniel in the slightest. As an expatriate, he had come to appreciate the sheer vastness and boundless diversity of the American landscape in a manner particular to foreigners. Every new vista, every change in terrain was a discovery of a world heretofore he didn’t know existed. For Daniel, traveling was an exercise in expansion, new territory opened before his eyes and in his mind and with that, new possibilities for pondering the silent language of the Divine Word that resounds in all creation. Over the course of a few days he would traverse the Midwestern prairies that stretched on forever, divided by farms and broad serpentine rivers; the rugged peaks and aspen-laden glens of the Rocky Mountains; the hauntingly empty, wind-swept ridges and valleys of the Great Basin; the legions of cactus, yucca, and sagebrush covering the Southwest deserts, texture by painted canyons and blushing mesas. To venture across America was to navigate the long ages of creation. It was to behold a land that had been broken and remade, carved by rivers, scoured by glaciers, sandblasted by desert winds, and shaped into a kind of splendor that can only be achieved by the relentless march of time. Nature’s peculiar glory had been forged by cataclysms measured in epochs as opposed to mere moments. Daniel couldn’t help but wonder if God delighted in the unfolding of his ever-changing world the way a father takes joy in watching the growth of a beloved child.
Jacob approached the table in the café car where Daniel was seated. He was scrawling furiously in his black Moleskine journal. The cup of coffee beside him had chilled to room temperature since he ordered it nearly an hour ago.
“Mind if I join you?” asked Jacob.
Daniel raised his head as if startled out of meditation, then smiled when he saw his young friend, “By all means, I’d enjoy the company.” He signaled to the waiter who stood nearby, “My friend here might want to order something.”
“What are you working on?” asked Jacob.
“I’ve been reading the Iliad again, trying to polish a story I came up with a few years back that speaks to some of the bigger issues I’ve always grappled with,” said Daniel.
“And those are?”
“Nothing too deep,” Daniel answered with a sly smile, “just things pertaining to salvation and damnation.”
“Light stuff indeed,” said Jacob, “I’ve always loved your stories. When will I get to hear this one?”
“In a few days, perhaps.”
The waiter came over to the table, “Would you like me to start you off with a drink before I bring you the menu, sir?”
“Yes, thanks. Bring me a tumbler, a bottle of Wild Turkey with a water back, and you can hold off on the menu for now.”
While Jacob took off his jacket and began seating himself, Daniel vacillated on the precipice of a question. This was, after all, a man he felt called to help. So, in spite of his misgivings, he steeled himself and asked, “Will Sophie and the kids be joining you at some point in Chaparral?”
Jacob averted his eyes to the window for a moment, searching for an answer from the snow-swept prairie. He briefly glanced at Daniel before redirecting his gaze to the table where his hands were tightly clasped. “No,” he sighed, “at least, not for now.”
The waiter brought Jacob’s drink and a welcomed interruption, “Is there anything else I can bring you, gentlemen?”
“Yes, you could warm up my coffee,” said Daniel.
“And bring me some more water when you do,” said Jacob, as he threw back half of the bourbon he had poured into his glass.
As the waiter nodded and left the table, Daniel said, “I hope you don’t mind me asking why?”
“No, Daniel, I don’t mind. I’ve always been able to talk to you,” said Jacob, as he ran his fingers through his cropped brown hair, then tilted down the last of his whiskey, collecting the remaining droplets off his mustache with his lower lip. “Where do I start?”
“Anywhere you’d like, my friend.”
“Things have been pretty rough for Sophie and me since I’ve been back. I haven’t been able to be much of a husband to her, or a father to Evan and Rachel. I wasn’t doing well over the last three or four deployments as I began to question what we were fighting for. Then, after what happened to Malachi, I lost all taste for the war, but had to keep soldiering on anyway. When I got hit in Gdynia, I prayed that God would take me.”
Malachi’s official status was unknown. Before the war began he had left the SEALs and taken a position as a CIA case officer. He was stationed in the Kurdish region of Iraq near the Turkish and Iranian borders. Jacob had served alongside Malachi in the early months of the war, after his company in the 1st Battalion of the Army’s 10th Special Forces Group was folded into the newly formed NATO 1st Joint Special Forces Battalion. Jacob’s new joint company was stationed at the same forward operating base in the Haji Omaran Resort where Malachi was posted. They had been tasked with keeping the Iranian and Russian EAC forces from advancing into Iraq and Syria. Some time after Jacob’s battalion had been reassigned to the Donbass region to halt the EAC’s incursion into Ukraine, he received word that Malachi’s outpost had been bombed before an Iranian assault on the resort town. Malachi’s body was not recovered. He was presumed to be captured or killed.
“Have you heard any news on Malachi’s status?” asked Daniel.
“Only rumors. Some of my friends in the intelligence community said the Russians may be holding him, but I haven’t been able to get a straight answer. If he is still alive, chances are the EAC’s got him, which means he could be anywhere from Tehran, to Novosibirsk, to Beijing.”
The waiter returned with a coffee pot to refresh Daniel’s cup and more water for Jacob to wash down his bourbon.
They thanked the waiter as he left and told him to bring another round in about fifteen minutes. Jacob slowly swirled his glass in his hand before taking a drink and continuing, “Some of the guys I served with are hardwired to fight, something inside them needs to be tested in combat. They are born and bred warriors drawn to the chaos of war like moths to a flame. If I’ve learned anything about myself, it’s that I am not wired to be that kind of warrior. It’s not because I am without courage when the bullets start flying, but because I need a good reason to fight. I loved my men, but as the war dragged on the old cliché that “for the soldier, war is about fighting for the man next to you”, wasn’t enough for me anymore. It wasn’t enough when men I loved like brothers fell, under my command, in a war I no longer believed in.
“I joined the Army to serve the Republic and to do some good in this world. I joined Special Forces because it stood for something – to liberate the oppressed. Many brave men who served before me did just that. But, the more I looked at it, the more the war sickened me.”
Jacob rubbed his right side which was getting sore from sitting. Pain from the wounds he received on the Gdynia retreat would subside as the years passed, but the scars on his soul from that savage battle never would. When Germany switched over from NATO to the EAC after electing Helmut Albrecht, a member of the New Right with Eurasianist sympathies as Chancellor, the war that had been fought to a stalemate along the Eurasian Front took a more brutal twist. NATO forces were rolled up in Ukraine as the EAC marched north and west into eastern Poland. When Germany opened a new front in western Poland, NATO was caught in an EAC vise-grip. Their only escape was to retreat north to the Baltic Sea and cross over into Scandinavia to regroup. Over the course of three months during the previous fall and summer. NATO staged its withdrawal from Poland. Jacob’s company served as the rear guard for the retreat. As the last of the NATO forces were disembarking from the port city of Gdynia for Finland. the fighting became desperate to hold the city. Jacob’s company sustained ninety percent casualties. He was one of the last soldiers evacuated after mortar fire had collapsed the wall from where he was leading his company’s final flight from the port. He had flat-lined twice on the boat ride to Finland and only stabilized after hours of surgery to stem internal bleeding and to screw back together a crushed ribcage.
“The war has been tragic on so many levels,” said Daniel, “but my foremost concern is for you and how your faith is holding up.”
Jacob finished off what was left of his whiskey and slid the half-finished bottle to the edge of the table. His eyes stayed transfixed on his glass as if he could extract courage from it even when the bourbon was gone. “I suppose I am like the blind man groping his whole life in the dark, unsure if the light will ever break through.”
Daniel rested his chin on his hand and smiled with understanding. He knew that sometimes the thing a man needs most is to give language to his pain, to let the cries arise from the depths to take on words. The questions a man asks God are often as valuable as the answers he receives in return. He hoped that Jacob would come to see how God’s love reaches through the wounds to touch his broken heart. The journey to the light can only begin after facing up to the darkness of pain for what it is.