Along the Broken Road (The Roads to River Rock Book 1)By: Heather Burch
AFGHANISTAN, PRESENT DAY
Ian Carlisle adjusted the backpack cutting into his shoulder and opened the journal. A light wind pressed against his back; the pressure of what lay ahead pushed against his heart. Off to the right of the base was a valley split in two by a green-banked stream. He sometimes went there in the evenings, boots off, no shirt, and wearing shorts with his dog tags clinking against his chest. After today, he’d return to American soil, where he could wade in water without the likelihood of a firefight. Ian touched his hand to the journal. With the base still quiet, he began to read.
I see you standing at the riverbank, your head tipped back, arms outstretched. The sun warms the locks of your golden hair. Does it warm your heart too? Or is it cold? That spot within your chest where you carry the hopes you dream and the pains you’ve suffered. But you aren’t bitter about those hurts. You’re strong. You welcome life. It’s absorbed by you, your grace, your beauty, that spark that only you have. And as I stand here watching I wonder if you’ll even remember me. Maybe I have no right to ask for a place in your heart. And yet, nothing will keep me from it. Nothing will keep me from reaching out to you. I can only pray your heart will hear me and you’ll reach toward me as well.
Ian wiped the moisture from his eyes and closed the journal. Why that specific page haunted him, he couldn’t say. Unfulfilled promises, he supposed. Broken dreams, the things a person planned to do, proposed to do, but never saw them through. Maybe there was a place in heaven where all the broken dreams littered a floor, reaching from side to side like a giant sea of disappointment and missed opportunities. There’d be a few with his name on them, for certain. Drawing a deep breath, he forced his attention to the world around him. The army base stretched before him anchored by tall mountains and what an Oklahoma boy would call tropical vegetation. It remained quiet for late morning, but that suited him fine. He needed a few seconds to adjust to what was happening. In essence, he was stripping off one coat and putting on another, the coat of a civilian. He hadn’t done that in years and wasn’t sure how he’d be at it. But fear was a useless thing. So he chose not to dwell on the what-ifs. A voice from behind took him by surprise.
“Yes sir.” He turned to greet the man dressed like him in shades of gray-brown.
“All you got?” The soldier hoisted one of Ian’s bags.
Ian grinned. “Like to travel light.”
The guy tossed it into the back of the Humvee and motioned for Ian to get in on the other side. “Guess I’d leave all my junk here for a ticket home.”
“No doubt.” And that’s when it hit Ian that he really, actually, truly was going home. It had seemed like a prank until now. Getting his paperwork, packing his belongings, all felt surreal, like someone would wake him at any moment or tell him, “Oh, sorry. We made a mistake. You have to stay.” His head knew he was leaving, but his heart hadn’t assimilated it yet.
In less than forty-eight hours he’d be stateside. And that’s when the real war would begin. The biggest mission of his life lay before him. And after two years in Afghanistan, that was saying something.
“Someone waiting for you back home?” the driver asked as he angled the vehicle toward the gates leading Ian away from base. This would be the last time he saw it. The last time he rode this specific bumpy road . . . away from one life and toward another.
He had to smile. “Yes sir.”
“Good for you.”
Ian peered at him across the Humvee. “I didn’t finish. Yes sir, she just doesn’t know it yet.”
Charlee McKinley had been painting when she got the news her father had been killed. His funeral was a who’s who of military elite complete with majors, colonels, even a general offering their condolences. Everyone liked Major McKinley. Everyone except Charlee.
On the one-year anniversary of his death, she jumped into the lifted Jeep she used for working the grounds and drove it through the creek bed to her favorite spot on the entire property. The sun rose before her, lighting the landscape and painting the shadows with color. Night animals scurried back to their homes, a possum crossing the clearing and disappearing into the edge of the woods that framed Charlee’s spot. She grinned when she saw the chubby animal as it waddled into the tree line. The thing that didn’t make her smile was the fact that now, one year later, she still didn’t know what to do with her father’s ashes.