Jeb, a good while ago.
I know it’s a dream. But it’s not really a dream. I’m there. I’m back in it, certain I’ll never make it home. Baxter, my spotter, is on the radio screaming for air support and an immediate extraction. The scent of sweat and burning tires, cordite, and lead permeates my nostrils, filling my lungs. The dry taste of powdery yellow dirt sticks in my mouth, grits in my eyes, clinging to my lashes, making it hard to focus on the gathering storm of armed men advancing on our position.
I fucked up. I took three shots and before we could bug out, and they spotted us. Now we’re pinned down, surrounded. It’s just me and Baxter and two guns that are no match for the army down there with rocket launchers, AKs, and an edict from their god that says we’re the infidels who’ve invaded their land, killed their children, and wrecked everything in our wake.
I taste salt on my tongue. Not the sweet briny flavor of ACE basin oysters back home, but the dirty, toxic salt of tears and fear.
“God dammit! We need a fucking extraction!” Baxter shouts at the controller who’s located a thousand miles away in an air-conditioned office, probably with a cold diet Coke on her desk, looking forward to her next cigarette break.
I squint through the round lens of my scope, scanning the ground below. There are at least thirty men who I can see. There’s no telling how many others are outside my field of view. They move forward cautiously, crouching for cover. I pick out a big guy with a tube on his shoulder and a rocket in his hand. I drop him without hesitation when he pops the rocket onto the launcher tube. When the round hits, a pink mist explodes behind him. He falls into the dirt without twitching.
Then the thing I never want to see happens.
A kid – he’s maybe nine years old – runs into the street to pick up the dropped rocket launcher. The thing is loaded, ready to fire. He struggles to lift it, wobbling on unsteady feet. I watch him balancing the thing precariously on narrow, little boy shoulders.
“Put it down,” I mutter between clenched teeth. “Run away. Put that damn thing down.”
“A minute out!” Baxter announces. “We’ve got F-16’s getting ready to light up this place!”
The boy manages to steady the launcher on his shoulder as Baxter calls out coordinates to Command.
The boy, dressed in a pale blue and white gown with a cap on his head, looks up. It’s as if he seeks eye contact with me. I know he can’t see me, and yet, through the magnification of my scope, we make eye contact. He says something, closing his eyes – a prayer. He’s going to do it. He’s really going to do it.
I feel my trigger finger tremble, then cramp.
He’s so young. He has no idea what he’s doing.
I hold my breath, choking down my regrets, feeling my hands shaking. I press firmly on the trigger just as I’ve been trained to do. They told me about days like this back in sniper school. I’ve suck it up, trying to convince myself that I’m saving lives.
“Oh shit!” Baxter cries. I feel him drop to the floor beside me.
The sound behind us is unmistakable; a precise click, followed by a whoosh and high-pitched trill. The RPG enters our space propelled by the rush of hot gas, slamming the wall in front of me with a deafening, core shaking roar. Everything turns to trembling dust. My ears ring. I can’t think. Bricks fall hard all around us. The whole building shudders.
Over the chimes ringing in my head, I hear rotor blades. They slice the air like an angry sushi chef’s big knife, while the chopper’s on-board, 50-calibre guns clear the ground below of un-friendly’s.
“Hang on,” a voice says as it drags me by the ankles. “We got you.”
I’m dazed, confused, deafened, blinded by dust.
The next thing I know I’m airborne, flying high and smooth over a sand colored, sunbaked hell.
I know this is a dream, but it doesn’t feel like a dream. Somehow my father is on the helicopter with me. He peers down on me, scowling. “Is this what you came here to do?” he asks. “Look at you. You came over here trying to prove something, but I don’t know what. You proved you’re a monster.”
The medic who’s working on me wears a grim expression. “Stay with me Ballentine. It’s not bad. You’re gonna be okay.”
I look over to Baxter. A young medic stares down on him vacantly. Baxter’s eyes are open, but there’s no one there. His skin is gray, his mouth slack. There’s a fissure open across his forehead a centimeter wide with a trickle of blood oozing out, drying on his skin, caked in dust.
A corpsman with pale blue eyes and shaved red hair lifts a cloth from the floor of the helicopter, pulling it over Baxter’s face.
“You’re a murderer,” my father repeats. “At least I never did that.”
I wake with a start, hearing the rotor blades thumping the air, hearing the whine of the aircraft’s big turbine engines howl in my head like a siren. I taste dust and blood. I’m drenched in sweat, waving my arms, shouting, crying.
“Jeb! Wake up! Wake up!”
I see her in the midst of my waking dream; her pretty face desperate, shaken, afraid to approach me. She’s wearing my t-shirt, her long brown hair tousled from sleep.
I’m pushing the corpsman away, trying to get to Baxter. “Save him!” I plead, fighting tears. “God damn it. Do something for him!”
And just like that, the dream fades to ether. The room is dark. The night air still. The girl looks at me like she’s terrified. Her expression is stricken.
I shake it off, trying to catch my breath, feeling my heart pounding in my chest and head.
“Jeb?” she asks, her voice fragile, cautious. “Jeb? Are you awake? Are you okay?”
I look at her through sleepless eyes. She’s pretty and a sweet girl. She laughs at my bad jokes and she likes my cooking. She’s too sweet a girl to put through this.
“I’m… I’m sorry,” I hear myself say, my voice low, raspy with desert sand. “I need to go home.”
“I’m real sorry,” I repeat, getting to my feet, finding my jeans, socks, and boots. I leave her with my t-shirt, pulling on my flannel and buttoning it up.
She tries to get me to stay, to settle down, to tell her what that was.
I tell her the same thing I tell every girl; I have bad dreams. I can’t shake them. I don’t expect anyone else to understand or put up with them. When I walk out of her apartment and down the stairs to the street, I know it’s the last time. It’s September and soon she’ll go back to wherever she came from and I’ll go back to being the fucked-up headcase that’s never going to be suitable company for any decent woman.
I’m just like my father. I live too much in my own head and carry all my regrets in isolation. I’ve got baggage no one should ever unpack.
The drive home in the dark gives me plenty of time to think. I always have that same dream, and my father always shows up. He died while I was in Afghanistan, so he never got to say those words to me, but I know that’s exactly what he felt and thought about me. I was an annoying pain in the ass when I was a kid, and an embarrassment when I got older. He was a mean, volatile drunk who didn’t mind taking his frustrations and disappointments out on Mama. When I got big enough to stop him from hitting her, taking him on myself, he steered clear of both of us, moving into one of the old shacks down toward the stables.
When I joined the Marine Corps, I expected he’d move back into the house, but he never did. He drank himself to death, taking his last breath sprawled on the bare wood floor of that tiny cabin with a bottle in one hand and a pistol in the other. My best friend Stu told me the Sheriff said he thought he was either going to kill Mama or kill himself. Luckily the liquor got him first.
I came home for the funeral, then went back to serve out the rest of my tour. I got out six months later and I wish I could say I never looked back. The dreams stayed with me. I can’t get away from Afghanistan or forget all the faces I saw through my rifle’s scope.
At least I didn’t come home and sit on my hands, feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t come home broken, or missing a limb, or with my head completely scrambled up. I came home and got to work. I came home and started correcting all the mistakes my father made, trying to put everything back together, board-by-board, brick-by-brick. It hasn’t been easy.
Pulling up beside our house, the lights inside in the kitchen are on; Mama’s up. I can almost smell the hot coffee from here.
Coming in the back door, letting the screen drop gently behind me, Mama looks up from her quiet spot sitting at the kitchen table. She doesn’t say anything to me at first. Instead she gets up, goes to the cabinet for a cup, and pours me a black coffee before returning to her seat.
Finally, looking me over, assessing me, she says, “You look like you could use some sleep, son.”
I nod. “Probably,” I reply. “Maybe tonight. Sun’s coming up and I’ve got sixteen acres of oysters to check, turn, and start harvesting.” I look at my watch. It’s almost dawn. The crew will start showing up for work within the hour, ready for a long, hard day on the water.
Mama nods. “You going to share with me where you were tonight? Or just leave me to conjecture?”
I sip my coffee then shrug. “I was at a girl’s place. I fell asleep. I should have called. I’m sorry.”
Mama brightens a little. “A girl? Anyone I know?” She’s so hopeful.
I disabuse her of any notions she might harbor along those lines. “Summer girl. She’s going home to New Jersey or Rhode Island or somewhere,” I say. “She’s leaving next week. No one special. Just a girl.”
Mama frowns. “Jeb, at some point you’re gonna need to find yourself a good girl to help you run this place, and maybe even give me some gran-babies. You work too hard and don’t get out enough, and when you do it’s with people you’ve got nothing in common with. Why don’t you find some nice local girl?”
I smile. “All by design,” I say, not really teasing. “The local girls all want to get married and make babies with the owner of Blanc-Bleu because they’re convinced we’re out here rolling in money. I don’t want to get married or make babies, and I sure don’t want a girl with aspirations who’d be disappointed with my reality.”
Mama glares at me.
I feel bad that I’m not going to have a son or daughter to leave this place to. The property has been in the Ballentine family for almost three-hundred years and I’ve managed to become the first descendant in a century to improve things since I inherited it. My father and his father before him neglected the place, made some terrible business decisions, and basically left me holding a money-pit with no income to support it. I turned everything around within six years of getting home from Afghanistan, but it hasn’t been easy. It’s been hard work from “can’t see to can’t see” and sleeping only when my nightmares permit it.
I don’t have time for girlfriends. I tell Mama as much.
She sighs, shaking her head solemnly. “Jeb. Honey. One day when you ain’t looking for it, some girl is gonna come along and knock you off your high horse.”
“Not happening,” I reply, sipping my coffee, thinking aloud. “I’m way too much like Daddy to want to put anyone through that. I know better than to even try.”
“You’re nothing like your father,” she says, her face drawing tight. “You’re hard-working, and willing to step up to whatever comes your way, doing whatever it takes to make do. Your father thought the world owed him a place because his last name was Ballentine, like that matters a whit in this century. Your daddy just blamed everyone else for his lack of imagination and lack of giving a shit. Pardon my French. You keep trying until you succeed, and from what I can see, you’ve succeeded better than anybody around here. Son, you are nothing like Beau Ballentine, God rest his tortured soul. You’re a hundred times the man he was, and any girl worth her salt would be lucky to turn your head.”
I laugh right out loud at my mother’s praises. “Mama,” I say grinning, setting my cup on the counter. “Next time one of those feature writers from Charleston or Savannah wants to come out here for a tour and write something about the oyster company, I’m going to turn it over to you. You can be my press agent.” I peer out the window toward the water. “Sun’s coming up soon. I’ve got work to do. Those oysters ain’t gonna harvest themselves. Season’s open today and I’ve got orders for Sweet Maiden Oysters to fill from Wilmington to Miami.”
My oysters are touted as some of the best in the country. Every posturing seafood chef from Maine to Baja wants my farm-grown delicacy on their menus. There aren’t enough of them to go around.
“Go pull in your Maidens,” Mama says. “Make your money and pay the bills, but don’t forget, there’s more to life than paying property tax, fixing roofs, or saving the world. One day you’ll have to do something for yourself. I’ll be right here to help when it comes along.”
I have no doubt about the fact that Mama is as good as her word on that promise. She’s always been here for me, no matter how fucked up things got. I wish I could give her what she wants, but it’s just not in me to be a husband or father. It’s got to be enough that I saved Blanc-Bleu and probably saved the ACE Basin from ecological collapse by re-introducing oysters, farming them, and opening the only oyster hatchery in South Carolina. There’s only so much one man can do.
It may not be quite enough for Mama, but I’ll live with her disappointment on that account. She’d be more disappointed if I fucked up some poor girl’s life with my bullshit baggage.
Beyond the window, the flash of headlights shines far down the drive. They’re headed toward the docks. That’ll be Manuel, coming in to gas up the boats in advance of the crew coming to work. Out to the east the first blue light of dawn threatens over the water. It’s a new day with new work to do. I’ve got a hundred orders to fill and few hundred thousand oysters to harvest from the briny water of the Coosaw River and its fingerling creeks. Some people go to an office for work. I go out on the marshes, getting chest deep in the salt and muck, burning in the sun with the wind in my face, and I love every minute of it.
Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s my philosophy and how I make my living.
“Manuel’s here,” I say. “Gotta go, Mama. I love you. Have a good day at work. Tell the tourists to eat more oysters.”