A soldiers’ reflection appears in the newly opened laptop screen. His eyes are dampened from a prolonged breakdown. A loading sign rotates in the middle of the screen, connecting to his wife and child back home. Connecting to the place where he belongs; on a couch, his children playing in front of him, his wife planting a kiss on the top of his head as she walks by with a bowl of treats. Instead he’s been relegated to the back corner of an aircraft hangar, flanked by never ending sand, and by men who are trained never to show a soft tear. His veteran status comes with the burden of staying emotionally strong for recruits to mimic. His reputation is one of fearlessness and heroism. So many tours done, and only weeks before his plane touches down on home soil. Just a few more missions on the log, his brothers gullibly play basketball in the shade of the hangar doors not knowing what is coming. The mission coming will be their last.
The soldier will blame a ‘teargas exercise’ or a swift gust of sandy wind for the strain upon his eyes. His wife can’t know that he’s choosing his country over his family. She would see him as an unnecessary martyr. He stays strong when they finally connect. He asks the usual questions, calls his daughter and son by their nicknames, then they ask when daddy’s coming home. His internal organs sink to his feet and his eyes flood with water. The heart is summoning a confession, the brain interrupts to lie. His heart shatters, and within five minutes he is praying for a command to gear up.
He doesn’t want to leave the screen. It’s the last time he can feel his daughter gripping his ring and little finger as they walk to school. It’s the last time he can applaud his son for scoring a goal. It’s the last time he can feel the soft skin of his wife. It’s the last time he can buy her makeup flowers for causing her a tear. It’s the last time he can hear their laughter, the cackle of his wife, and feel the love of three hearts beckoning him home. It was the last time he could imagine graduation day; the pride of knowing his two children would grow to be the right adults in a wrong world. It was the last time he could imagine his wife cosying up to him at a family BBQ; the greatest medal he could have ever worn. But it was the first time he had ever lied to their faces, and that was enough to walk away from the screen.
He couldn’t think of himself being selfish, or he’d sprint through the desert to get back to them. The only justifying thought was that he was shielding them from witnessing death’s grip. The bony hands, the long cape, a shadow over his shoulder on the screen. They couldn’t know that he was in agony. He needed to leave them with the reassuring message that his death was instant. As he strapped the equipment to himself, his brothers patted him on the back and nodded, as if it was shared knowledge now that his fate was sealed. He checked the picture of his family was still secure in his helmet, and was lost in a minute long gaze into their smiling faces. Then they began to jog, out into the scorching sun, along with streaks of other soldiers. He blended in with hundreds of jogging men. Just minutes earlier on the screen, he had been the centre of their universe.