Rebuilding Hope. Co-written by AngelAtTwilight and Jazz Girl.
A volunteer with the American Red Cross and a First Lieutenant in the United States Air Force come together to make a difference for the people of Haiti. What they didn't expect was to make a difference in each other's lives as well.
(This was created for MsKathy's Haiti auction.)
-- To my beta Caryn (Jazz Girl), whom was also my co-writer... I love you dearly. Thank you for cooperating with this time crunch, for late night coffee binges, & for hours of researching & dedication.
--Thank you to my readers for doing your part to help the victims of the Haiti tragedy, even if it's simply spreading awareness. Thanks to all of my supporters. Couldn't have done this without the amazing motivation I gain daily from you.
Disclaimer: I own nothing that is Twilight or Stephenie Meyer related. (But I busted my ass to write this story. Do not take/repost what is not yours.)
"All this time spent in vain. Wasted years. Wasted gain.
All is lost, hope remains. And this war's not over.
There's a light. There's the sun. Taking all the shattered ones
to the place we belong, and his love will conquer.
And I've lost who I am, and I can't understand,
why my heart is so broken.
(Rejecting your love) Without love, I've gone wrong.
Lifeless words carry on."
~ Trading Yesterday, "Shattered"
All around me were haunted, echoing screams. Screams of desperation. Screams of will. Screams of defeat. Screams of every measure, every decibel. In the distant background, the sound of chopper blades whipping through the air was minimal in comparison to the voices swarming around me.
"Grab anything you can!" a man shouted. "Wood, rocks! We need to lift this foundation before the whole damn building caves in on itself!"
"Hurry up!" an older lady screamed as people knocked into each other. "There's a child under here!"
A giant man with a half-destroyed two-by-four slammed into me, quickly apologizing as I crashed to the ground. He didn't bother to help me up and I didn't blame him. I watched in shock as he made it up the obstacle facing the destroyed building. Three women rushed past me shouting orders to each other. As soon as I found my footing, I took off running to help them. My dingy, torn sneakers -- new before I arrived -- scraped the grey cement with every stride, falling into the cracks and crevices as I climbed the steep, unsturdy slab. The skin on my palms was badly cut and scraped by the time I found the top, but my brain barely registered it. The pain surrounding me was much greater than my own.
"Grab that board!" a man with a torn button-down said, motioning behind me. Caught between a rock and a hard place, I was nearly pushed back down by people scurrying around me, screaming over one another, everyone desperate to do anything they could. I struggled to keep my balance. Twisted and bent, I lifted the heavy wood with all my strength. By the time I swung it around in front of me, the man had grown reasonably impatient and ripped it from my hands. The board left splinters in my skin, another reminder of this devastation. The screaming continued.
I crept down with the woman to my left and together, we held flashlights as two men lifted a piece of the building with the supplies they'd found. A dark hole below it opened up, and the faint noises of a small child echoed out into the dusty air. Two skinny, bruised, fearless teenage boys slipped feet first into the darkness with no second thought or apprehension. "Be careful!" the lady beside me screamed. "Oh God, Josh, be careful!"
"He's okay," I reassured her. I watched the flashlight jiggling in her panicked fingers. The dim light bounced off the bent cement walls. "He'll make it." I knew I shouldn't be making promises I wasn't able to control the keeping of. In the six days I've been here, I've seen more casualties and false hope than I ever wanted to. You see this kind of thing on television, sprayed all over the news channels and movies. But, when it's right in front of you, and you're powerless to fast-forward to the ending in hopes of the happily ever after, you wonder if it will come at all.
The minutes passed, the anticipation grew, and I felt myself growing dizzy as I watched hope drain from everyone's eyes. They were all terrified, thinking the same thing, but tried not to show it. Fear was contagious. "Josh!" the woman screamed, snapping me back into this hell. When she received no answer, her voice bounced off of the other volunteers. "Can you see him? Anyone?! JOSH!"
"Send someone else in there!"
"NO! This whole building is going to collapse!"
"He's okay," I repeated to her, before I could think about it. I couldn't stop the words from coming out. When something this tragic happens, it's human nature to find the desire to want to regain control of the situation. I wanted so badly to believe that there was a chance. Just one chance. "Help us!" people screamed behind me. "We need water!"
"We need help!"
"Grab some more wood!"
Different locations. More victims. Every where I looked, chaos ensued. People were desperate to help, and in the midst of the disaster, they didn't realize that the more they panicked, the less they could actually contribute. But everyone panicked. I felt it washing over me as Josh, his friend nor the small victim in the rubble, none responded to our voices. The more I tried to shrug it off, to not think about it, the more I did.
"Oh God," I cried desperately, "please!" The woman beside me looked at me, not expecting my encouragement to fade so quickly. Our eyes met, brown and grey, hope and fear. We didn't say anything. There was nothing to say. Nothing we could do but wait and pray.
Immediately after, she refocused her screaming, and I did too, trying to get anyone's attention that would listen. Her tears splattered on the cement and, in the middle of it all, I couldn't help but wonder her relation to the courageous man. She was too young, couldn't be a parent to him, so he had to have been either a brother, or maybe a friend. I didn't want to ask, even if I had the time. Either answer would be too depressing if this ended badly.
I couldn't begin to describe the destruction that the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake on January 12th, 2010 brought to our world. The scene stretched for miles on end in every direction, looking more like something from a war zone than a natural disaster. The only difference was that there were camera crews here. They'd film rescues, the damage to the buildings, the injured, even the deaths. The rest of us ran around, trying to save people, trying to do our part in helping, and they stood back and filmed. It aggravated me. I understood that people back home had a curiosity, needed to see the damage and the reality in order to donate and help. But when something like this happens, when three souls are sitting under the bottom of a collapsed building, when every second passing brings them one second closer to their death. It kind of makes the news less important.
The building dropped another inch, sending heavy chunks into the blackness and more dust into our eyes. Without blinking, another man climbed through the rubble, his shirt tearing as fellow volunteers tried to stop him. I was mad, annoyed, helpless, as I watched him disappear. I wanted to take my anger out on anyone who could spare a few minutes of their time, just to clear my thoughts and refocus. But there was no one around with free time.
My heart thudded in my ears and all the noise surrounding me was suddenly silenced. I listened to my shallow breath echo in my chest. My eyes were frozen in horror as the weight of the building snapped a piece of wood holding it up. The building dropped another inch. I closed my eyes and felt the world opening up beneath me.
The people around me began to stir and the echo in my ears disappeared. "I hear someone!" they screamed and, with trembling hands, I held both the flashlight and the woman beside me. Arms and hands reached into the hole and we listened as feet shuffled on the rocks. I saw dirty white shoes before anything else, and then Josh reappeared carrying a little boy. Both their faces were ghost white from the dust, and a bone from the child's arm was sticking out of his skin. "Help them!" we screamed, watching the men struggle to pull them from the tiny hole widening the distance between life and death. "It's going to fall!"
There was a solitary tear on the boy's face as, by his elbow alone, the man with the torn button- down pulled him from the hole. The scrounging became more intense as a few rushed the small, dehydrated and extremely weak victim down the slab, toward the waiting medic team. Three more men bent down and reached for Josh, desperate. The building dropped another inch and I saw the fear in Josh's eyes as he reached out his hand to me. I took it, dropping the flashlight. Struggling with tears, I held his hand as three men wrapped their arms around his chest and pulled. "Please, please, please," I whispered, keeping my eyes on his. I knew that any second, anyone left was going to be crushed or buried alive.
The men grunted and pulled, clothes tearing and dust rising. An extremely loud roar ripped through my ears. I felt something hard hit me in the chest and I fell back, sliding down the slab head-first. When my body came to a stop in the gravel at the bottom, I realized that, not only was Josh pulled from the wreckage and laying on top of me, but that the entire building had given way. Dust and debris flew into the sky, and the entire crowd started to scream, climbing along the rocks and rubble. "Careful!" a few were shouting. "Watch where you step, they could be beneath it!"
"They are beneath it!" another shouted.
The man that knocked me down earlier slid down and helped Josh and I to our feet. "You," he pointed at me, "get him to that stretcher, now!" I stared in shock, realizing that two of the American Red Cross volunteers I signed up and flew to Haiti with were now badly hurt, lost beneath a building. He shook me. "No! Don't focus on that! Go!"
So I went.
"Bella, I don't want you going over there. I understand that you want to help. But really, you could be killed trying to help someone else. I don't want to lose my baby girl-"
"Dad, I have to go," I argued, pacing around his office. "I can't just sit back and watch that go on and not do anything. This is who I am. You've raised me this way. Please. I have to go. I love you."
"Yes?" I blinked, the present coming back into focus. I stood beneath a large white tent, one of the many that the Red Cross set up to help the injured. There were rows upon rows of stretchers laid out, with people occupying every one of them.
"Ma'am, look at me," the nurse said, swinging her tiny flash light toward my pupils. "Darren, she may be going into shock."
I shook my head quickly and looked toward the ground. "No. No, no, I'm fine," I insisted. "Really."
She studied me, looking for any signs of distress anyway.
"Really," I confirmed.
With a heavy sigh, she nodded and handed me a bottle of water. "Drink this. Take a second. Then I need you to go over to that chopper fifteen yards to your right and grab another crate full of supplies. Bring it back. Can you do that?"
I nodded, opened the bottle, and turned to my right. I tried not to focus on anything but my mission. Then, realizing what she said, I stopped and turn around. "Miss? Um... w-who do I ask for?"
While I moved, I kicked pebbles with the toe of my shoe, repeating the name in my head so I wouldn't forget. Lieutenant Cullen, Lieutenant Cullen, Lieutenant Cullen. The chopper was only fifteen yards away, but it was fifteen yards of concrete, steel bars and other debris that tripped me and grabbed at me. I moved slowly, my head buzzing and my attention everywhere but where I walked. My hands and arms were already scratched and cut, so I didn't notice as more of my blood fell.
Finally seeing the helicopter, I realized I was one of dozens flocking toward it, and I needed to hurry. I saw the Air Force personnel making a human fence in front to guard the supplies and hold back the building crush. People were desperate for any kind of help. Because of my size, I was able to stumble my way to the front of the crowd, dipping below arms and sliding between bodies. As I approached, a sound, a voice, broke through my fog. It was so strange to recognize a voice in this sea of strangers.
But, recognize it I did. I had no idea who it belonged to, other than a man. I was immediately pulled away from the noise and chaos on the ground, and thrown into a different chaos, a chaos of preparation, of nervous energy, of desperation to just be doing something.
Between the people and supplies, we were packed on the transport like cattle. It was a mix of people, officers and enlisted men with the Air Force along side civilian volunteers with the American Red Cross. There were humvees, jeeps, pallets of food and water, and stacks and stacks of medical supplies. As volunteers, we would join with the Navy and Marine forces already on the ground to help in any way we could.
The crazy began when we started our decent into Port-au-Prince. We knew that the situation at the airport had been dicey and everyone wanted to make sure the supplies were safeguarded. The yelling and milling and general uneasiness started then and it made me and many of the other volunteers nervous. And then came that voice. Strong. Smooth. Assertive. Instantly authoritative and calming. With just a few words, he brought order and ease to what had been frenetic just a moment earlier.
I looked for the source and found a tall, lean man standing on a crate. Even without the help, he was well above six feet. His hair was the first thing I noticed. I was used to any military man having a shaved head. But his hair was a shock of copper disarray which gave him a little more height. It was still cropped short in the back, but definitely not a "high and tight". Too focused on that hair, I almost missed his shocking green eyes. I listened to him command the men around him, give assignments and smoothly take control, his eyes flashing every direction. For just a moment though, they'd settled on me. The jolt I felt when those eyes locked on mine unsettled me. Then they were gone, replaced by that voice. Now it was time…time to land…time to enter the madness.
I shook my head slightly, trying to clear it.
"Ma'am? Can I help you?" That voice. It was close, calling to me. "Ma'am, are you okay?" This time, the voice was accompanied by a hand on my arm. Strong. Warm. Again, that jolt. That jolt pulled me completely back.
"Lieu… Lieutenant Cullen. I need to see Lieutenant Cullen." My voice sounded far away from me
"I'm Lieutenant Cullen, ma'am. How can I help you?"
"I need… boxes… supp- supplies. For… for the…" My voice shook and I my body followed suit. He must have seen my composure crumbling, because he pulled me to the side, between the guards and away from the swell of need and desperation.
"Ma'am." He didn't yell, but his powerful voice commanded my attention. "I need you to look at me. Look at my eyes." As I raised my eyes, he continued. "Good. Now. Focus for me, okay. I know it's a lot. I know you're overwhelmed."
"So… so many…" I stammered, shaking my head to clear my thoughts. I didn't expect this. I didn't sign up for this.
"I know. There are a lot. A lot of people need us. But, you can only help one at a time. Remember that for me, okay. One life at a time. You have to help one before you can help the next and you cannot help anyone if you are panicking. Focus for me. One life at a time, starting with yours. Okay?" He emphasized his words by grasping my shoulders and staring right into my eyes. It was those eyes that grounded me, along with the physical contact of his sturdy hands.
When I found my way back into my head and regained the ability to focus, Lieutenant Cullen carefully placed a box in my arms. It wasn't heavy, but it was definitely awkward, and I had to bend backward slightly to make it work. He pointed me in the direction of the easiest path between the chopper and the hospital tent that needed the supplies. I started down the slightly cleared sidewalk, keeping my eyes on things that could potentially trip me up. As I walked what I figured to be no more than fifty yards, I could feel eyes on me.
At first, it made me nervous. We'd all been warned about looters desperate for any kind of supplies, and where that desperation could lead. But, when I turned to make sure I wasn't being followed, the only thing I noticed was Lieutenant Cullen watching me as a I walked away. His eyes were fixed on me. As I looked, a woman in a flight suit approached him and started speaking. He didn't immediately look away and she had to touch his arm to get his full attention. Before he turned to face her… no, I must have imagined it.
But still, I could have sworn he took a step in my direction.
For the dozenth time that night, I found myself drifting away and staring into the deep brown eyes that captured me. With a heavy sigh, I pressed my fingers into my own tired eyes. I should've been back at the airport, catching a couple hours of sleep before I was back in the thick of it again. I knew without a level head, I couldn't help at all. But, I wasn't. Instead, my HH-60 Pave Hawk was grounded by a mechanical issue I would normally be able to fix if I only had the correct equipment. So, rather than dwell on it, I set a guard around the chopper and headed toward the hospital tent to see what service I could offer there. As a pararescue officer, surely my medical training could help.
Nearing the tent bearing the huge red cross on the side, I noticed a group of people sitting just outside. In a normal situation, I would likely hear conversation, maybe even laughter. But not in that place and that time. No. The silence was eerie with the six people sitting there, each off in their own world. All but one drank coffee from small Styrofoam cups. The one who didn't sipped on water from a bottle. I checked my watch, semi-surprised. Zero-three-hundred…well past the time that the exhausted usually just turned to coffee to stay awake.
Looking back at the water-drinker, I realized it was the young woman from earlier, the one who had been on the brink of breakdown. That alone didn't make her stand out, as there were so many of them now, both survivors and volunteers. What made her stand out was those eyes… eyes that I'd first seen amidst a moment of lost command as we approached our staging area on the transport. I had to reign them in quickly. I have good men under my command, but many of them are young and eager and can lose decorum in that eagerness. It was in those moments that what my father always called my "natural leadership ability" took over.
While I spoke, calming my men by giving assignments to keep their focus, I lost my own for the first time in years. My eyes flashed from unit to unit, and then I was momentarily lost in a sea of wide, chocolate-brown eyes. She had to be a volunteer, given her civilian clothes and frenzied expression. But it was the combination of compassion and determination I also saw there that intrigued me most. From where I stood, she appeared fragile looking, smack in the middle of the chaos. But she was there with a purpose, despite her fear. I found that admirable.
"No coffee?" I said, pulling her out of her own thoughts.
She started and turned to face me. "Oh!!! Umm.. Lieutenant…Collins?" She tripped over her words, clearly shaken.
"Cullen. Lieutenant Edward Cullen," I corrected, extending my hand to her.
She stared at it for a moment, unsure of what she was supposed to do with it at first. "Sorry!" she blurted, taking my hand after a few seconds. "I'm a little out of it."
"And, you are?" I smiled, letting her know I understood her fogginess. But, the blush that was visible even by the scant firelight told me she was still embarrassed.
"Bella!!" she shouted, clearly nervous and shaken. "I'm so sorry! I'm not, um, n-not quite myself." Her shoulders curved in, and she exhaled in defeat.
"It's alright, Bella. I'll tell you what. Do you think activity might help, moving?"
"Yes," she answered quickly. "I hate being idle."
I understood the feeling. "Well, I was going to check in the medical tent as to whether they need help. Would you care to come with? " She was clearly a thinker, one who got lost in her own head. If she was going to make it, she needed something to keep her in the present. I wasn't really sure as to why, but something about this young woman raised all my protective instincts. I didn't want to see her haunted by this place. "Follow me, Bella, please?" I turned, assuming she would follow. I knew she was a civilian and a volunteer, but leading was what I did. It never left me.
I headed into the makeshift hospital and sought out the doctor in charge. He appeared to be a civilian, given his attire. I introduced myself and explained my medical training and wish to help. The American affiliated with Doctors Without Borders explained that things were quiet at the moment but he would call me if necessary. I gave him my cell number and explained that I would be available to assist until morning. While we spoke, Bella stood behind me and glanced from bed to bed, taking in tragedy after tragedy.
When I finished speaking with the doctor, I turned to her, wanting to clear both her head, and my own of this devastation. "I'm going to walk a perimeter. Nothing exciting really, just to stretch my legs. Would you care to join me?"
She chewed her bottom lip a little as she considered. "It's better than sitting and waiting..." she stated, weighing out her options.
"That is true." I said simply.
This time, I gestured toward an opening in the side of the tent and waited for her to walk past, then followed her out into the dark. I'd seen enough of this area by air in the last few days to have a pretty good idea where we were and where we could go. I pulled the minimaglight out of my pocket and turned it on.
"So don't you..."
We both spoke at the same time, and then chuckled nervously. I gestured that she should go first. "Aren't you exhausted?" she asked quietly. Bella kept her eyes trained on the ground. Every few yards, there was a fifty-gallon drum with a fire burning, which helped provide some light. "I don't really sleep." I replied. "At least not in the midst of this kind of situation. I catch a few hours here and there. Enough to keep me focused and functioning. Plus, coffee can work miracles..." She let out a silent laugh in agreement. "What about you?" I asked. "I noticed that you were sticking to water rather than coffee. You must be beat."
"Well, I hate coffee. It makes me jittery. I think at this point, I'm running on adrenaline. I'll probably drop in a few hours, but they promised us that we'd be able to crash when we need. Right now, the idea of sleep just makes me cringe. There's so much to do. I feel helpless." If she'd been more aware, I doubt she would have said as much as she did. But, I wanted to keep her talking, so I let her go, asked her questions. "So, you're here with the Red Cross?"
"Yes. I was watching the tv coverage at home and I couldn't just sit there and do nothing."
"That shows character. What volunteer work have they had you do?"
"Well, this morning, I was delivering water, unpacking supplies, digging through rubble to help get someone out, and cooking in the lunch tent." A small laugh followed, with a hard edge to it. I couldn't imagine what she'd witnessed, at such a young age.
"Sounds like you've had a busy day and done some good work, then." I replied, trying to keep it light.
She felt the need to speak briefly about it anyway, "Two people died because we couldn't get them out," she said, almost a whisper. We'd come to a bit of a wall created by some debris, so I turned and headed back the direction we'd come, giving her a little time to gather herself.
"What's the first thing the ARC told you in your training?" I asked, knowing the answer.
"People die in disasters. You cannot save everyone." She repeated it, almost without emotion. I gave a nod.
"One life at a time, remember? It's hard when you lose one. Believe me, I know. But, saving the ones that you can is the most important thing." We kept walking, both trying to clear our heads. "So, you never did tell me your last name," I said, again, trying to lighten things back up.
"Swan. My name is Isabella Swan. But, I go by Bella. Isabella always meant I was in trouble." The smallest of smiles crossed her face and changed it entirely. She was certainly beautiful. When she smiled, she became a different person. I could even see a little mischief in her eyes.
We walked for another hour, essentially making two trips around a perimeter of the hospital tent. I pointed out landmarks to Bella, things I'd seen from the air that might help her if she was lost. We talked about very superficial things, things of no major importance. Spoke of music, movies and even sports, which she admitted she knew little about, though her dad watched incessantly. She told me bits and pieces of her life, more about why she chose to volunteer her time. At one point, when we'd stopped by a fire barrel outside the medical tent to warm our hands a little, she noticed my call sign printed on the inside of my hat. I'd removed it to run my hand through my hair.
"Venom? What does that mean?"
"It's my call sign." I hesitated, not knowing if I wanted to show her that side of me.
"And? There's more." She didn't have to ask. She knew.
"I was a combat pilot before I flew medevacs." I sighed as she looked at me expectantly. "My first CO gave me the name, because I was fast, silent and deadly. I never missed a target, had a perfect kill ratio. So he called me Venom. I flew combat for a year in the Middle East. I hated it. Transferred as soon as I could. I decided I wanted to save lives, not take them."
"That's very… noble." It sounded like the word surprised her.
"I don't like to talk about it a lot," I shrugged. "It was kind of a rebellious time for me. I was…lost…sort of. I'm not really proud of it. But, I'm proud of the work I'm doing now."
"You should be." Again she smiled, lighting up her face. What was it about this young woman?
"You should be, too." I insisted. "I know you're struggling. Just try to stay in the here and the now. Quit going inside your head and don't dwell on the bad. You're a rare person, Bella. Coming down here, leaving the comforts of home and normal life to try and make a difference. That's amazing and courageous and you should be so proud. And so should your family, your parents, your boyfriend."
"My dad thinks I'm out of my mind and I don't have a boyfriend," she quickly replied. "But, yeah, I think I am, at least I will be, when I'm able to look back at it. Right now, I just want to make it through without crying."
"You'll make it. You're tougher than I think anyone gives you credit for."
She smiled again, and I smiled back.
"Thank you, Lieutenant." She yawned. "Wow, I think I might actually be able to sleep some."
"You should do that then. Sleep well, Bella." And, I watched her walk back into the adjoining tent that served as volunteer headquarters. I wondered if I would even see her again. And as I hadn't hoped for anything in a long time, it felt strange now. But still, I hoped I would.
As I sat on the airplane, unsure if I was ready to leave disaster behind, or if I was capable of reentering civilization, I stared out the tiny window and clutched the small package in my hand. During the twelve days I'd spent volunteering with the American Red Cross, I learned more about myself and life itself than I could ever have imagined. I had a better understanding of what it truly meant to help people. To make important decisions. To let things go. To sacrifice. To mend.
Whether it be the simple tasks of carrying coolers of fresh water for any of the helpers or dusting off covers in order to reuse them, or the much harder ones like when I threw myself in harms way the day before last to help a fellow volunteer I'd grown close to save an older man stuck between two badly damaged buildings. I'd seen people die, and during the events, I wondered if I'd ever get the images out of my head.
But as I sat and listened to the low hum of the plane surround me, I realized that it was the tender smiles of appreciation given by those I'd helped save, the pat on the back from a group leader when you went out of your way to help, the relieved expression on a doctor's face when you have supplies before they ask for them, and the soothing eyes and tender voice of one United States Air Force Lieutenant that I'd remember the most. Those were the memories I wanted to etch in my skin for all eternity.
I never saw Lieutenant Cullen after that night. During the brief breaks I would allow myself, I'd ask around for his location, anyone who maybe saw someone who worked with or under him, but most people were too concerned with the locals that were missing due to the damage, and not someone who was alive and well somewhere. With complete understanding, I stopped asking, refocusing on my mission and my goals. I had a reason for coming here, a reason for my service.
But every once in a while, when the hollowed screams of pain would fade into quiet laughter of children when we'd deliver toys to keep them grounded, I felt my thoughts slipping back to him. It was strange how, one day, one person could walk into your life and leave a permanent mark.
I wondered what he was doing, where his team was going next, if he was safe. I wondered about his family, where he came from, why he chose to be in the Air Force. I wondered if he was married, if he had children, and if so, if they knew how strong he was. And, selfishly, I wondered if I recovered from my early clumsiness and left a good impression of myself by the time we'd parted ways.
Two hours before I packed my stuff to leave Port-au-Prince, Alice Brandon, the volunteer who'd risked her life with me to help the old man the day before, approached me with a smile and her always-bouncy attitude. "Bella, Bella, guess what!" she squealed, grabbing my arm and pulling me out of the tent. "I have a special delivery for you!"
"Alice," I rolled my eyes, "I'm not in the moo-"
"No, not that," she laughed, dismissing the statement with a wave of her hand. "Something to cheer you up."
I placed my hands on my hips and waited for her to continue. When she didn't, I sighed. "Well? What is it?"
She clapped her hands and jumped up and down some more. "Do you remember how we were laying on the cots the other night and I was telling you about how I think I maybe psychic?"
I lifted my eyebrow.
She beamed wider. "I was right! I totally am! I predicted that sexy, bronzed haired Lieutenant you grew so fond of -- but will never admit it -- would find a way to see you again, and he did!"
"Edward's here?" I asked quickly, unable to help myself. I rolled my eyes when she pointed and laughed at me.
"Edward now, is it?" she teased with a nudge to my elbow. "No. Well, he's not here, here. Actually. He had to fly out, onto the next... ground... zone... area... thing, whatever. Anyway, someone he knows said that she knew me, and that I knew you because we worked together, so he asked her to ask me to give something to you."
My heart fell into my stomach. "Oh God," I answered nervously. I wasn't sure why I was nervous. I had no reason to be. "What is it?"
She ran around the side of the tent. Before I could blink, she was standing in front of me again. "Here!" she shouted, fisting a tiny package wrapped up in a brown paper bag, sealed with a skinny, worn brown rope. "Now Bella, I am under direct orders to make sure that you do not open this until you are on that plane. Got it?"
I nodded, my throat going dry. Alice helped me pack my belongings, and before I knew it, we had to say goodbye. I frowned when she gave me a hug. "Gonna miss you. It was fun risking our lives together." She laughed and squeezed me tighter. "Yeah, we should totally blow up some buildings or something when we're both back in the States and do it again sometime."
I inhaled heavily and pulled away but held firmly to her shoulders. "You have my contact information," I reminded her. "Use it when you get back to New Hampshire."
She grinned. "I will."
As a few good men lifted me up on the back of the wooden truck bed, I heard Alice hollering, "Hey Bella!"
She grinned and crossed her arms over her chest, bouncing from heel to toe. "Don't forget to go find that Airman of yours."
The captain's voice came over the loudspeaker, asking us to put on our seatbelts and prepare for landing. I had been so caught up in my own thoughts that I hadn't realized how much time had gone by with the different flights and layovers. I had no idea what time it was.
Feeling exhaustion take hold, I began to shove my magazine and gloves in my carry-on bag. When I pulled it from below my seat, I accidentally knocked off the package I'd been given.
The unopened package.
With trembling fingers, I held it in my hand as I looked out the tiny window again and watched the clouds give way and the city come into view. I couldn't wait to see my father's face when he picked me up from the airport. I couldn't wait for his one-armed hug, his uncomfortable laugh, and his sly grin as he asked me how it went but didn't really want to know the details.
But I had one thing left to do before this plane landed, before I made an attempt to reenter the life I had before my eyes were opened to the realities of the world. With my breath held and unsteady fingers, I ripped open the package to find a tiny letter, folded in fours, written on the back of another brown piece of paper.
Throughout the years of my training and experiences in The United States Air Force, I've seen both the good and the bad, both in the world as well as myself. What kept me going was the small hope I didn't realize I had. One that had been hidden in the back of my mind, protected from the certainty that life may not always end up the way I wanted. In a short amount of time, with our meeting, our walk, and our conversation, you've shown me what it meant to hold that hope out in front of me. I think, along the way somewhere, I lost some of the good in me, as well as some of the reason why I initially chose to join the Air Force. Getting to know you, however briefly, to see the power that people can have when they give of themselves in order to help others.
Bella, I want you to know that you have helped me more than you'll ever know. You've given that hope back. That same hope that you keep in your heart, that keeps you driven and working and sacrificing for the greater good. If there is one thing I pray for you, it is that your hope remains sacred. Don't lose that light behind your beautiful brown eyes. It's what has given you the ability to change people's lives, including my own.
First Lieutenant Edward Anthony Cullen.
Air Force Special Operations Command,
Hurlburt Field, Florida
Through misty eyes, I struggled to fold the letter neatly. When it didn't cooperate, I caved in and held it to my chest. I was thankful that he put his station on the letter. I needed an address so that I could write back, so I could tell him that he'd changed my life too, that he'd helped to strengthen that hope he so admired.
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