Duty

Scrub brush formed a threadbare carpet of silvery green. Mesquites grew slanted, roots straining to hold against the near-constant wind.

The horse was tall enough to lift Cole above the meager shelter the trees provided. At first, the onslaught felt natural, reminding Cole of a hot desert half a world away. He wondered at that, how he felt so at home in a place so foreign, how foreign in a place that was once home.

.

“I, uh, hate to leave this on your voicemail.” The sound of Crystal’s voice riled Cole up, even after all these years. Then her voice broke and he was eighteen again, saying goodbye before he left for boot camp. “I guess I should ask you to call me back. It’s Danny. He’s– Call me, okay? Or come home.”

Cole held the phone to his ear long after the message ended.

 .

A buzzard soared across the sky. Instead of smooth swoops, the ugly bird jerked around, buffeted by the swirling air. The horse hopped and shimmied. His ears swiveled nonstop.

“Can’t settle either, huh?” Cole patted the horse’s neck.

Pumpjacks bobbed in an attempt to wrestle oil out of the earth. Atop the escarpment, sleek white blades swept through the sky in lazy circles. The windmills were too beautiful for this place.

.

“What can I do for you, First Sergeant?”

“I need to request leave, Sir.” Cole stared straight ahead.

“Of course. How long?”

“A week.  Maybe less,” Cole answered.

Captain Harris peered over his glasses. “Is everything okay?”

“My brother had an accident, Sir.”

Harris didn’t even try to hide the surprise that flickered across his face. Few people knew that Cole had a brother.

“Anything you need from me, Cole, and I mean anything, you let me know.”

Cole nodded. “Thank you. I will.”

.

The horse began to fidget even more. Cole didn’t know his name, but the sorrel was a dead ringer for the rangy old roping horse he had as a kid.

“Easy boy,” he crooned. “Settle. Does anyone around here ride you, or do they just use those ATVs in the barn?”

A jackrabbit burst across the trail. The horse jumped sideways before bounding straight up in the air. Some instinct kept Cole in the saddle. He hung on until the horse calmed, then nudged him forward again.

“I don’t know why we’re out here,” Cole confessed. “I don’t know why Danny drove that night or why Crystal got in the car with him.” Cole sighed. “I don’t know a lot of things.”

.

“You’re just going to leave? What are we supposed to do?” Crystal sobbed.   

“I don’t have the sort of job where you just call in sick, Crystal.” Cole searched for patience. The blankets lay flat where Crystal’s right leg should have been.

“So that’s it then? You’re just going to walk away like you did before and leave me with nothing? What about your niece and nephew? What future do they have now?”

She was hurt and scared, but her words took Cole by surprise. “I didn’t walk away from you, Crystal. I had to get out of here. I couldn’t be tied to this place.”

“It was all I knew.” Crystal corrected herself, “All I know.”

Sympathy edged its way in, and Cole patted his sister-in-law’s hand. “You’ll be okay. We’ll figure it out. But I have to go back for now.”

 .

Two decades had passed since Cole gave up one family for another. Twenty years, same choice. Love or duty. Just the last time, it wasn’t really a choice.

Pink and orange and gold streaked the sky as the sun began to set. Cole turned the horse for home. Behind him, a hawk folded its wings and dove for the ground. The shriek of a rabbit rose above the wind.

.

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26 thoughts on “Duty”

  1. This was interesting to read, as I just “lost” the physical presence of a friend to a military move. There’s something a special sort of hard about military moves and distance – knowing that they have no choice… but they did have a choice once, and chose duty over family, sort of… This piece made me think and remember and muse. Good job with blending all the stories together.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your imagery is really vivid and worked well to draw me in early. I really liked the way you presented the conflict for your main character. Despite not being part of the military, this was a really relatable scenario.

    The only thing that surprised me a little was that it was Cole’s sister-in-law that called, not his parents. It left me with questions about the shape of this family and the nature of the accident — bad enough for Cole to go home, but not bad enough for a call from his parents. I got a little sidetracked by that.

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    1. Honestly! How do you and Nate ALWAYS find the thing that was sitting in the back of my head? Cole and Danny’s parents are either dead or incapable of being involved. I hadn’t really decided. I was afraid that introducing their details would be too much. Then I figured out a way just as I was going to bed last night!

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      1. Michelle–I DO THE SAME THING. LOL. I just try to avoid the damn verb altogether. LOL. This was a great story and I second everything Asha said. It’s so nice to read your work and have you on the grids. 😀

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  3. I love that this tells a lot about both sides of the story, even though it’s only from one point of view.Great attention to detail in the setting – it was easy to picture.

    I’d like to know more about Cole & Crystal’s relationship – there’s definitely history there, but there weren’t enough hints for me to puzzle out what it was.

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  4. The stylistic differences between the two parallel stories here work well together to convey the passage of time. The dialogue and the clipped structures of the Before suggest youth to me, and the lingering descriptive language of the Now suggest wisdom. I assume Crystal is the only family Cole has left, but I wish I knew for sure. I was also confused about why Cole was reminiscing about Crystal and Danny’s accident 20 years after it happened. What did you want readers to glean from that?

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    1. I definitely need to check the time jumps if I revise this. Cole was supposed to be dealing with a recent accident – deciding if he needed to come home and take care of his brother’s family or go back to his military family.

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    1. I was trying to convey that he thought of the military as his family instead of his brother and Crystal. I had room in the word count to clear that up, but wanted to try to keep it fairly spare.

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  5. I think that the stylistic choices between segments are nicely nuanced, but I am completely unsure when the accident happened (past or present) and why his sister-in-law shouldn’t have been in the car with her husband.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback! The accident was recent past – the reason Cole came home. I have a few ideas on how to make that more clear. Not so sure how to clear up the details of the accident just yet, but I can see that I need to do that. I hoped the “he was driving impaired” thing was implied enough, but I’m still playing with how much to put into these stories and how much to leave out.

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  6. Great job giving us a glimpse into Cole’s thoughts. I also found the timeline a little hard to pin down – what happened when, which “now” is really “now.” But Cole has a great voice, and I have to say that ending paragraph was really lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Cole was one of those characters that had a very strong presence once I got going. I was nervous about the timeline after reading last week’s breakdown, but figured this is the place to work on those things, right?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My hubby was ex-Air Force, and the stories he’s told about having to move so often during his 19 years in it mirrored the bittersweetness of this piece. I admit that I got lost with the passage of time between the various scenes, but I think that was more me than anything else.

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