A thrumming rattle cracked the night’s solace, and Alan sat bolt upright. He gasped, a drowning swimmer breaking the surface of a frigid lake. The pounding of his heart echoed in his temples. Each pulse ached, a thrum of speed-bag punches to the head.
His eyes dilated in the dark. The orange glow of the streetlight through the window reassured him. He ran his hand across his brow, gentle strokes meant to comfort a frightened child.
The rattle sounded again, and Alan breathed. Not small arms fire ripping across a darkened valley after all, but a vibrating cell phone bouncing across his coffee table. Other sensations crept forward — the sour tongue from a bummed cigarette, an aching back from a night curled on a cramped couch, the fatigue of three drinks too many; the sensations of a night poorly spent.
The States, the States, Alan told himself, a comforting mantra, as he rubbed at his face. Not Helmand. Not combat. Not for a long time. Maybe never again. He’d finished his deployment and took orders as an Inspector-Instructor just a week ago. He was tucked safely away in the Midwest, where he’d train reservists and collect donations for Toys 4 Tots until he figured out his next move.
The alarm clock read 2:41 AM. He was filled with a different kind of unease. Nothing good happens this late, he thought.
The certainty of an approaching vileness wrapped around his neck, insidious and gentle, the seductive caress of murderous hands. He reached toward the phone, hesitated as his breath caught, some primal part of him believing, If I don’t answer it, it won’t be real. He grabbed the phone, looked at it, read the caller ID: First Sergeant Kass.
A cascade of bad memories seized him, each one a train-wreck involving one of his Marines and Something Gone Wrong: A DUI, a motorcycle crash, domestic violence, a suicide.
The phone vibrated again, a ticking time-bomb.
“Goddammit,” he muttered, and answered.
“Captain Hackett,” Alan said, identifying himself. He reached low into his diaphragm for a professional octave, a knowing tone. Both he and the caller would know this for a sham, at this hour. Both knew they’d play along regardless.
“Sir, its First Sergeant.” Kass sounded cool, alert, and resigned. “Just got a call from Casualty Affairs. We’ve got a CACO.”
Alan knew the term, its implications, and its accompanying dread. Kay-ko, he thought, pronouncing the acronym in his mind. Casualty Assistance Call Officer.
He kept the term at a distance. He knew the role was a possibility on Inspector-Instructor duty, but he thought the odds favored him.
He’d never told anyone their son was dead before.
The terror inherent in his new task was purely intellectual, and that’s how he meant to keep it. In this he aimed to inoculate himself against the blow he was about to deliver.
The effort eluded him.
CACO, Alan thought again. The word became suddenly abhorrent. He wanted to hang up the phone, turn it off, slide it under the couch, bury his face in his pillow.
I don’t want this, he thought.
“Christ,” he said instead, dropping his stoic facade. The exclamation felt heavy with the wet-rag weight of his sour dreams.
“Yeah,” Kass agreed. “Not the first after-hours conversation I was looking to have with you, Sir. And thought we’d have you on station and rocking this job for more than a couple days before we got another CACO. With the drawdown, and all. I was hoping to snap you in to this over the next week or so. Really hoping we could just dodge something like this altogether. But a Marine died in the war, and their next of kin is in our area. Looks like you’ll have to learn by doing after all.”
“Yeah, looks like it,” Alan said, pivoting on the couch and letting his bare feet slap onto the hardwood floor. “Any details?”
“Sergeant John Dustwun, KIA, Helmand Province. Next of kin lives a few miles down the road from our armory, in Depot Town. The personnel casualty report will get launched to my work email. We’ll go over it together when we link up.”
Alan nodded. “Okay. You’re going to have to hold my hand through this whole thing. What happens next? Are we showing up in dress blues?”
Kass grunted dissent. “No Sir, uniform for notification isn’t the blues anymore — it’s Service Alphas, now. Is your pickle suit ready?”
Alan stood, grimacing at the wave of nausea that assailed him as he shuffled to the open closet. He saw his green Service Alpha jacket hanging on the inside door. He’d worn it to his check-in just three days prior, knew there’d be incidental wrinkles, some stray crumbs.
“Ready as it’s going to be,” Alan said. “I’ll give it another once over at the armory when we link up.”
“If we’re lucky we’ll have the PCR in hand and be ready to notify before the morning rush hour. We want to catch the next of kin before she heads off for work, assuming she works. If we miss her we’ll be up the creek without a paddle.”
“I think we already are,” Alan said.
They already were.
Alan and Kass sat side-by-side in the govvie, the green, 12 passenger government vehicle attached to Alan’s command. They were parked outside Mrs. Dustwun’s single story, two bedroom home in Depot Town, the neighborhood built around the city’s ancient train tracks and rusted warehouses.
It was 8:32. There were no cars in her driveway.
“Doesn’t look good,” Kass said, wiping at his forehead.
The gesture made Alan suddenly aware of the sting of sweat on his own brow. July’s humidity and the thick service jacket wrapped around him, a pair of hot blankets. His neck chafed at his tight collar, and his hangover’s vice gripped at his skull.
“But this is the only start we’ve got,” Kass said. “Can’t help that we got the PCR after rush hour. If she’s not home, then we get to play Where’s Waldo.”
Kass turned to face Alan, his face weary, gripping his service cap in one meaty hand. Alan saw the gray hairs dotted through Kass’s regulation haircut, crow’s feet and wrinkles mapping his face, and lean, glancing scar at the base of his chin.
He’s fifteen years older than me but I’m supposed to be his boss, Alan thought, feeling the cheap weight of the captain’s bars pinned to his jacket. Who came up with this system?
“If she’s there,” Kass said, “don’t just jump right into the notification. Last thing you want to do is notify the wrong person. I’ve seen it happen and its ugly. SOP calls for double verification — verify she’s the person you want, then verify she has the relation to the Marine in question. Only then do you give her the news.”
Alan nodded, and repeated the lines they’d rehearsed at the armory. “Ma’am, are you Mrs. Jane Dustwun? Ma’am, are you the mother of Sergeant Jonathon T. Dustwun? On behalf of the President of the United States, I regret to inform you…”. Alan trailed off, opting not to complete the line again, not until it was real.
Kass nodded back at his captain. “Nailed it. You ready?”
Alan stared at the front door, the cracked cement stoop, the leavings of the mowed lawn scattered across the walkway. An American flag hung from the house, unmoved in the still air, drooping like the head of a beaten dog.
“No,” Alan said.
“Neither am I. I’ve done this twelve times in twenty years. Never gets less awful.” Kass nodded at the house. “On your mark, Sir.”
Alan swore, opened the passenger side door, and slid out of the car. Kass followed suit. With sharp precision he put his service cover on his head, checking the angle in the reflection of the van’s window. Then he marched to the front door, with Kass trailing just behind.
Alan’s shining black shoes clicked on the cement, crunching pebbles and dirt. The door grew before him, rising, a specter. Alan felt a knot grow in his stomach, doubling in size with each step, tightening, cinching, reaching up around his lungs, threatening to suffocate him, bend him, bring him low.
He raised his fist. He could not breathe.
He waited. The pressure grew, a hideous, dizzying grip on his head.
No one answered the door.
He realized he was holding his breath, and sighed out in a heavy gust. Alan glanced at Kass, who simply looked forward, pretending not to notice the discomfort of his young commanding officer.
Alan raised his hand, knocked again. His anxiety receded a bit, dancing at the periphery of his consciousness, a taunting ghost.
No one responded. He listened, waiting for the approach of a footstep, any disturbance from inside the home.
He knocked again, called out, “Hello? Ma’am? Mrs. Dustwun?”
Alan turned to Kass. “Do we have anything else? Another name? Another address?”
In the distance the pair heard the whistling blare of an approaching train. The tracks were on the other side of the house.
Kass shook his head. “His record only lists the one address. He’s got a younger brother, but the same address is listed for him, so that doesn’t do us any good. All we can do now is either start canvassing the neighbors or play the waiting game.”
“What’s the waiting game?”
“We wait here until she comes home. No guarantee she’s at work, though. She could be on vacation, for all we know. Either way, Casualty Affairs Branch isn’t going to like it. The goal is to notify no later than twelve hours after the incident. This will put us over that line, but sometimes we don’t have a choice.”
Alan grimaced. “So what’s the downside to canvassing the neighbors?”
“Well, when you see a random service-member done up in a nice uniform knocking on doors, it tends to get people concerned. If they have her number, they might be inclined to give her a call, get her all wound up before we’re there to deliver the news, answer her questions, and talk her through everything that has to happen next. That’s another black mark from Casualty Affairs.”
“What’s worse?” Alan said. “Waiting a day to let someone know their kid died, or letting a random neighbor deliver the news before us?”
Kass didn’t answer. Instead, the train whistled again, reaching a crescendo in a panicked wail, nearly deafening them as it passed. It disappeared into the distance, and the pair of Marines stood there, sweating in the heat of the July morning.
Alan shook his head. “Screw waiting. I’ll take left, you take right.”
“Got it, Sir,” Kass said, and headed to the next house down.
Alan mirrored him, knocked on the door. An older man answered, apologized, and said he didn’t know where Mrs. Dustwun could be right now, that she normally worked second shift.
He closed the door. Alan looked up into the sky, and was overwhelmed by a sense of vertigo, felt the sky opening up like a chasm, felt as though he was falling into the blue. I don’t want this, he thought again.
Alan heard the click of a storm door opening across the street. He came back to himself, looked toward the noise, saw an old, wrinkled woman in a night shift and a bathrobe, a newspaper in her hand, staring curiously at Alan and Kass.
“You boys Marines?” she called.
Alan and Kass glanced at each other and back at the woman. “Yes Ma’am,” Alan called, quickly walking toward her. He held out his hand, shook the woman’s and introduced himself. “We’re looking for Mrs. Dustwun. Do you know her?”
“I know Janie,” she said. “But she’s not here now.”
“Do you know where we could find her, Ma’am?” Kass asked.
The woman nodded. “She’s at that office at the edge of town, where John went when he shipped off for the service. I don’t remember what Janie called it.”
“MEPS?” Alan guessed, confused.
The woman smiled. “That’s what she called it. MEPS.”
Military Entrance Processing Station, Alan thought. What’s she doing, enlisting? Why the hell would a forty-something mother of two be at MEPS?
“Yes,” the woman continued, smiling, “she’s seeing her other boy leave for the Army today.”
This cannot be happening, Alan thought.
“This cannot be happening,” the woman in front of him echoed. The MEPS Operations Officer, an Army captain, was livid. “We’re swearing in and shipping off sixty fucking kids today. Over half of them have parents with them. They are going to grab their sons and daughters and run for the hills.”
Heat rose up Alan’s face, meeting the pain at his temples. He felt his phone vibrating in his pocket, undoubtedly the Casualty Affairs watch officer asking for another update, the third call this hour. Alan took a breath, tried to lick his dry lips, tried to stifle his growing frustration.
“I’m not asking to do this in front of God and everybody. By no means is that what we want. But we do need to do this now. We’ll need an isolated area. Somewhere she can…”. Alan grasped for an appropriate phrase. “Somewhere she can have some privacy.”
The captain grimaced, then sighed. “I know. I know. I’ll see what we can find. I need to let the CO know, first. Just wait here.” She walked back to the office in the back of the cubicle farm, where the MEPS commanding officer, a major, was visible working at his desk. The captain shut the door. Alan could still see the two of them through the office window.
Alan looked over at Kass. “This is a goddamned nightmare,” he muttered.
Kass nodded. “Each one of them goes a different way. This will probably be the worst one you have.”
Alan raised an eyebrow as he watched the major’s face shift across a range of emotions, like an image in a flip-book: confusion, surprise, anger, indignation, resignation.
“Why do you think so?” Alan asked.
Kass looked around him, taking in the MEPS. “When you find them in their homes, and they look out their window, and they see you, standing there, in your uniform… they get walked through a couple of things.”
Kass navigated the next sentences by counting them off on his fingers, punctuating each one with the gesture: “You are a Marine. Their son is a Marine. Their son is deployed. You are at their door. You are wearing a service uniform. You are not their son.” He looked up at Alan. “Put yourself in their shoes. What do you think is about to happen?”
“You have something bad to tell them.”
Kass nodded. He looked down at his belt, adjusted it to fix his gig line. “They’ve all seen this in movies. They know what’s coming. For that brief second at least, they know what’s coming, and they can brace for impact.
“But in this place,” Kass pointed at himself, at Alan, at the officers behind the door, “they don’t expect it. We’re all in uniform. Everyone here is dressed like the people who knock on your door and tell you that your son is dead.”
“She can’t brace for impact,” Alan said.
Kass nodded. “Nope. She can’t.”
“So what do we do? Just wait till she gets home anyway?”
Kass shrugged. “How long would you want to wait to find out your son was dead?”
The operations officer approached them, her face stressed and taut. “We’ll get them in our conference room. The mother and the brother. Give me five minutes.”
Mrs. Jane Dustwun and her only living son, Jacob, were seated in the conference room when Alan and Kass walked in.
Jane stood to greet him, smiling, her words and enthusiasm gushing forward, overwhelming Alan: “You’re Marines! My John is a Marine! He’s in Afghanistan! Jake’s joining the Army today…”, and on and on, Norman Rockwell’s vision of a proud, all-American mother.
She doesn’t know yet, Alan thought. God, she doesn’t even suspect it.
Alan cleared his throat. He felt the crushing vice start to squeeze at his chest. Kass, standing just behind him, gave him a brief pat on the elbow. Alan knew it was for encouragement, but likened it to a jumpmaster kicking a frightened parachutist out of a plane.
“Ma’am,” Alan said, “Are you Mrs. Jane Dustwun?”
“Yes,” she said, still smiling, eyes shining, “I am.”
Alan’s eyes flicked over to Jacob, who watched Alan with attentive curiosity. He’s barely eighteen years old, Alan thought. He looks like a kid. Did I look like that when I joined? Did Kass? Did John Dustwun?
“Ma’am,” he continued, “Are you the mother of Sergeant Jonathan T. Dustwun?”
“Yes,” she said, still at ease, smiling and proud, still excited to be here, at MEPS, sending her second son off to follow his brother into service, away from the tracks and warehouses of Depot Town, away from the traps that only such places can lay.
Why won’t she just connect the dots? Alan thought. Why can’t she make this easy? The pressure rose from his chest to his throat, cinching down on his windpipe, threatening to strangle the words, to keep him silent, to bend him from this dreadful task. He glanced again at Jacob.
Jacob just got it, Alan thought, watching the color drain from Jacob’ face, his eyes growing wide, the twitch at his mouth, a precursor to a shock, to a stab to the gut, a knife’s blow seen swiftly approaching but unavoidable.
“Ma’am,” Alan said, a whisper choked out against all instinct, his very body rebelling against him, trying to hold the words in, as though by not saying them they would not be made true.
He pictured what would happen next. As the notification came out, like a priest reciting a funeral rite, Mrs. Dustwun’s enthusiasm would transform first to confusion, then a seed of anguish that would blossom with a violent speed, a flower blooming in the chest of a corpse. As he finished the words, a death sentence, a spell of doom, she would fall to the ground, as though struck in the belly with a bag of bricks, her face breaking like a shattering window, her world falling apart around her. Sobbing, shaking, she might curse Alan, or strike him, or wrap herself around him, somehow grateful that this dreadful news was at least delivered with something resembling dignity.
Alan stood there, rigid as a statue, battling her impending grief, a consuming despair that echoed within him as he imagined it flaring within her.
He bit his cheeks until they bled, he braced himself for impact, forbidding himself to weep for this stranger, this brother and son, this fellow Marine, a man he did not know, could never know.
The grief wasn’t his to taste, only his to carry and deliver, until the deed was done and he could take off his mask of command with his uniform at the day’s bitter end.
Mrs. Dustwun stood, waiting, eager and expectant for Alan to say something.
Kass tapped Alan’s elbow again.
I don’t want this, Alan thought one last time.
He opened his mouth to speak.