May 1988 Air Force Academy Colorado Springs
I think I'm actually going to pass Advanced Strategy. I've never been this close to failing before. My advisor warned me I would fail if I took advanced classes out of my field of expertise. It might have been conceded to take this class, but that wasn't why I failing. I could understand the book perfectly, it was class that was a problem. Colonel O'Neill was-distracting. He was gorgeous, and funny. But all I ever remembered from class was the jokes and his lips moving. Even so, studying would have got me by, if not for the tests. You see I spend more time staring at him than I do actually writing. So, I've been hovering right on the line between failing and passing all semester. I should be better than this, dammit, I graduated from high school two years early for God's sake!
But like I said, pretty sure I'm actually going to pass. Through no effort of my own mind you. No Colonel O'Neill has spent almost the entire final out of my sight. Now the only thing distracting me is the humiliation that my professor, and superior officer knows I've be ogling him all semester. But that was a much smaller distraction. When I finally hand in my paper, I try not to look into those eyes. They are like a beautiful brown black hole from which I can't escape. Just a few more seconds and this humiliation will be over.
I scan through the crowd, no Dad. However, I do see Colonel O'Neill walking toward me.
"Carter," he says, "Congratulations!" The crowd is pushing us toward the doors. When we're a little ways away and standing on the grass he says, "Carter, you're no longer a cadet."
"No, sir!" he says.
"Now, Samantha if you think what I'm about to say is inappropriate just walk out of this room, and we're done. Would you like to get a cup of coffee with me?"
Holy Hannah, he had to be kidding! "Like a date, sir?"
"See now Samantha, you can't call me sir. I you call me sir it's weird, and creepy, and wrong. If you call me Jack we are just two people who may or may not be going on a date."
"Ok, Jack, let's go get coffee." Holy Hannah!
"Thanks by the way," I said blushing.
"For what?" he said gathering his things.
"For staying out of sight," I said.
"And why would you need me to do that?" he said in a deadpan voice and a tilt of the head. Oh, he could tease!
I knock my shoulder against his and electricity radiates through me. Ok, so not so much with the touching. At least while still at the academy.
"So coffee," and his voice sounds a little weird. The shoulder bump but him of out of balance too. This could be fun.
Before long we're sitting in a coffee shop (he picked one far from campus) and I almost feel like the 'Sir' and 'Carter' are gone and this is almost normal.
"So Samantha," he says leaning back, "Tell me about yourself."
"Not much to tell," I said.
"You are a genius for starters," he said.
"I almost failed your class," I say.
He smirks, "Which is only interesting, because you are a genius."
"Well, I do usually," I'm laughing, "get good grades. And I skipped a couple grades."
His eyes narrow, "Seriously? How old are you Sam?"
"Twenty," I said.
He flinched, "Did ya have to go and be an extra young student?"
"So what's the damage?" he looks confused, "The difference in our ages, s….Jack?"
"Sixteen," he says with a flinch.
"Not, so bad," I say.
"It was better when you were twenty-two," he replied dryly.
"You know Sam, I've told the same jokes since I started teaching. Five semesters of the same jokes, 50-60 students a semester, and you are the first one who EVER laughed. And you never missed a joke. Which is amazing since apparently you didn't pick up anything else I said."
"Ok, Jack, can we stop talking about that now," I said blushing.
"It's good you're obvious Sam, otherwise I wouldn't have the guts to ask out a former student," he said.
I slit my eyes at him, "Ok, so Jack, tell me about yourself."
He smiles, "Well, went to military academy, did some black ops missions you are never going get to hear about, and then started teaching."
"Black ops eh?" but he cuts me off.
"I swear to God, Carter if you ask me if I ever killed a man…"
"Not that young, Jack," I say, and suddenly he was laughing at my joke.
"I was going to ask if you spoke Arabic," I told him.
"Yeah," he says.
"I'm working on learning it now," I tell him.
"Hope you're not looking for a tutor, because we know how well that would work out," he said. I want to nudge his shoulder, but we know how that would work out too.
"So why the air force, Sam?"
"Well, sort of a family legacy thing. But the real reason is the air force has fast planes. Also a good stepping stone to being an astronaut."
"Astronaut," he repeats, "I like it."
"Jack, you are way less of an ass then a lot of officers," I tell him.
"I like women," he said with a grin.
"Particularly young ones," I put in.
"Oh, so we can joke about that now?" he asks.
"You can tease, I can tease," I said.
"Phone call for Jack O'Neill," the waitress calls. When he goes to answer he is not far enough away that I can't hear him, "Yeah, Becca? What? Ok. No don't worry about it. Yeah, I'll be there in a little bit." He hangs up and comes back to the table, "Look, Sam, I've got to leave, but it has nothing to do with you."
"Right, Becca," I said. Shit! Should not have said that out loud.
"Becca is my babysitter," he says.
"You're a little old for a babysitter," I say.
"Yeah, but my three year old son, Charlie, isn't," he says.
"You have a kid," I say smiling. Inside I'm trying to figure out if kids like me. Don't want to mess this up.
"Yeah, you like kids?" he asks concerned. He doesn't want this to come between us either. And I bet he didn't mean to bring this up today.
"Yeah," I say smiling.
"Ok, I've gotta get going then," Jack says, but he's not actually moving.
"Oh, sorry Jack, here let me give you my number," I scribble it down, and look up to his face grinning.
"Your face is very young when you smile," I say.
"Age, is just a number," and he points at me with two fingers, and slips his sun glasses into place. I sit there for a while stunned, and with a smile on my face. So, Colonel O'Neill likes me as much as I like him.
"Uh, Sam?" Great phone conversation starter, Jack. But hey, guys do have the harder part here, so I'll be nice.
"Yeah, Jack how are you doing?"
"Well I'm breaking the rules." He says. Shit. Is he getting in trouble? All we did was have coffee! But he must have known what I was thinking, because he rushes on. "I mean, three days right? You're supposed to wait three days before you call the girl."
"Oh, right, yeah, but out first date got cut off," I stammer.
"Yeah, that was my thought," he pauses, "Either that or I just need to see you again," and he laughs, but he also wants me to know it's true.
"I'm glad you broke the rules, Jack."
I hear his smile, "Yeah, me to, Sam. So, I was thinking tomorrow? I know it's too quick, but we're working around Rebecca's schedule here, and…"
"Tomorrow sound good, Jack."
"Breaking another rule asking you the day before," he mutters.
"We've established you brake rules, Jack, get over it," and he's laughing into the phone.
Turns out I'm really glad he kind of asked me last minute, because by the he picks me up the next day I have totally started to panic. He has a kid, a three-year old. So that probably means he got divorced not long ago. Then I started to panic that he's still married. I can't BELIEVE I didn't ask before. Because now, it's going to be harder, and more awkward. It takes me until the restaurant to work up the courage to ask him.
"So we didn't talk about family before," I say smiling at him.
"Sure we did," he says with that bewitching grin, "I know you've got family in the air force."
"Uh, right, you probably know all about me from my file," I say wanting to slap myself on my head-of course.
"I don't read those things, Samantha," he says
"Uh yeah, so Dad is in the airforce. Also have a brother who is definitely not in the air force. How about you?"
"Well, Charlie of course. Then my parents are up in Chicago, and I have a saint of a Grandmother who has this amazing cabin in Minnesota."
"Right…well, do you have some other family…uh….in the area," oh smooth Sam, smooth.
"Sam, if you want to ask about Charlie's mother, just do it," he says enjoying my discomfort.
"Ok, Jack, what about Charlie's Mom?" I ask.
He clears his throat and looks away from me, "My wife, Sarah, died when Charlie was three months old."
"Oh my God Jack, I'm so sorry," and before I even know what I'm doing my hand is on his, "What happened?"
"Car accident," he says, looking away for a moment then he focuses again, "This place has good steak. They cook it in beer. Everything is better cooked in beer."
"That how you cook, Jack?" I ask.
"Yeah, when I absolutely have to cook; I give everything a good dousing with beer, sure," he says, "It's good on steaks, but you know what it is best on? Omelets," he freezes, "That sounded more innocent my head."
Now I am enjoying his discomfort, "Maybe I'll have to sample your fine breakfast making skills sometime Jack."
"So you didn't mention your Mom before, mind if I ask?" he says.
My chest tightens up, but he deserves this. He told me about his wife, "She died when I was fourteen. Car accident." I feel his hand quiver underneath mind, and those eyes lock on mine. I'm lost in those chocolate brown black holes, and I hear him saying, "Shit! Sam."
"So tell me about Charlie," I say, breaking contact with his event horizons disguised as eyes.
"Sam, don't you know better than to ask a parent about their kid? Usually results in hours of boredom."
"Wouldn't be bored," I said with a smile.
"Well, he's three. He has more energy than an atomic bomb, and is about as destructive as one. His grammar is atrocious, and his vocabulary precocious. He's obsessed with aliens. Alien pajamas, alien toys, alien blankets, alien books. He went through a phase where he wouldn't eat anything that didn't look like an alien. So I'm trying to shape grapes into Jabba the Hutt, and I'm going through green food coloring like no body's business. Finally convinced him that if he ate it out of an alien shaped bowel it would still count. You know how many times I washed that thing?"
I'm laughing so hard I'm almost falling over.
"That phase is thankfully over, and he'll eat normal food, again. But he's still pretty big on the aliens," he finishes.
"He sounds adorable," I say.
"Yeah, I did his room up in aliens when the phase started. Little green men all over the walls. He's got a cancellation chart on his ceiling, and everything."
"You interested in stars?" I ask.
"I'm certainly no astrophysicist, like you missy, but I know my way around a star chart. I've got a good telescope at home," he says.
"Really? I used to have an amazing telescope. But it got broken during one of the moves."
"One of the dangers of being an air force brat, eh?" he says sadly. He opens his mouth to say something and shuts it. I know what is going on. He wants to invite me over to look through his telescope. But if he does it will sound like he's invited me over for something else. I just smile at him, telling him that I understand without telling him, and we switch topics yet again. We're going through them like lightning.
"So how many states did you live in growing up?" he asks.
"Eleven," I say, "How many have you been stationed at so far?"
"Well, since most of my work was out of country only three. What was your favorite base?" he asks.
"Bitburg Air Base…"
"In Germany," he finished.
"You were stationed there?" I asked.
"Not exactly, spent a little time there though, mostly saw the infirmary."
"Oh, sorry. Uh, had my tonsils out in that infirmary."
"Nice view in the infirmary, actually as far as places to recover from head wounds, it was one of the better ones," he pauses, "Now was that the place that had the extraordinary jello?"
"Yes! Thank you! Everyone told me it was just like all the other jello, but it wasn't. It was like…a million times better, and it wasn't just because that was all I was allowed eat!" I explained.
"Yeah, haven't been able to eat jello since," he said shaking his head, "It's like all other jello is a shadow of that stuff."
"For me it's the opposite. I keep eating jello thinking maybe one day…I don't know it will taste like that again."
"Life doesn't usually work that way Sam. You usually just get something one time. But if you are lucky, the next thing you get is just as good, and the thing after that, is maybe just a little bit better. Might miss something better longing for something good."
"What could possibly be better than jello, Jack?" I ask.
"Cake, Sam, cake," he grins. "Speaking of which, want dessert?"
"Anything, to draw out this experience," I said.
"I don't think you're supposed to say that out loud," he teases.
"If you can break rules, so can I," I say.
Our third date was even less ordinary than all the others. He called me up, probably planning a date for later. But he picked the wrong day, or the right one depending on how you look at it.
"What was wrong, Sam?" his voice is full of concern.
"Nothing, just not a good day," I said.
"Don't play poker, girl," he says.
"Actually I'm quite good at poker, especially some varieties," I'm trying to sound suggestive.
"Even your jokes are choked in tears. I'll be over in a bit. I've got a neighbor who can watch Charlie."
"No, Jack, I am not fine. But I will be fine. It's just today. I just need to be alone for one day."
"No, Sam, I'm coming." I think he's hung up and then he adds, "I know the darkness thing. I've done the darkness thing."
He comes over, and I consider not letting him in. But he could get obnoxious, and I don't need him annoying my neighbors.
"Please, Jack, go," I say cracking the door open. Then he's holding me, and I bawling in his shoulder like a baby.
"I've got you Sam, let it out," he says.
"I'm better than this," I mutter into his shoulder.
"Really? When did you transcend the rest of us mere mortals? Everyone cries sometimes, Samantha."
He lets me sob until it's gone. "Going to tell me what's wrong?" he asks. I shake my head, "Ok, I'll start the talking. Three years ago I was doing black ops." I staring at him, he can't possibly be going to tell me about Sarah's death, could he? "I was gone, all the time. Charlie was three months old, I'd seen him maybe ten, twelve days of his life. And when I was home. Your Dad do back ops?" he asks. I shake my head, "It's not something you leave at work. It follows you Samantha. So I'm home, but I'm being chased by ghosts of people I didn't save, and things I was ordered to do. I came home one night. It was a bad mission. A really bad mission. The kind of mission where the rest of your team is still in the infirmary or some body bag," he pounds on the couch with his fist, "and you are going 'why the hell am I still alive.' I come home, and I all want to do is drink about six beers and curl up the fetal position, hoping, hoping, the memory is gone come morning. I get home and Sarah is there, and she's alive. You know I don't mean not dead, I mean," he puts his hands up and makes a face. I nod, I know what he means, "And I'm almost mad at her, because she doesn't get it, Sam. She's never felt the darkness. And she's holding Charlie, and she says, 'We need diapers, Jack.' And I really don't want to go get the diapers, I mean really, really, don't want to go get the diapers. I want to curl up in a ball and die. So I say, 'Can you get them?' And I think the reason she tried to get me to go, is she didn't want me alone with Charlie. I don't know if she trusted me with him or what. But when you feel like that…a babies face can make it better, a little better, as good as anything can. So I pick up Charlie, and she gives me a sad half smile, and she goes and gets the diapers." He pounds on the couch again. "I should have got the goddamn diapers, Sam."
I'm holding him, and he cries for a while, "Drunk driver. Should have been me."
"No Jack, it should have been no one."
"I should have gone for the diapers," he chokes out.
"You didn't know Jack. It was not your fault," I say, holding him closer.
"You would not forgive so easily if it was someone you had loved, that I killed."
"Yes, I would. And you didn't kill her." He's staring at me, "My mom was coming home from visiting her parents. My dad was supposed to pick her up at the airport. But he was running late. Dad was always running late. Some big important air force thing. He didn't show, and she gets into a taxi. There was an accident. Drunk driver, too. At first I was furious with Dad. I thought if he had just been there for us, just one time been where he said he was going to be when he said he would be there, none of this would have happened. We would still have our mother. But then I realized. It doesn't really work like that. Maybe they both would have died. Maybe the stupid drunk would have hit someone else, and changed the whole course of history. And maybe everyone would have been fine. But it doesn't really matter, because none of those maybe's happened. And my Dad didn't mean to hurt her. He would never mean to hurt her. And you didn't mean to hurt Sarah. Shit happens, Jack."
He's leaning against me. "After she died, I felt like I was stuck in mud. Like the mud was strangling me, and I couldn't get free, couldn't do anything. My grandma, the one with the cabin, she flew down to help me. Took care of Charlie, cause I sure as hell wasn't functioning. After a bit she got sick of my moping, my guilt, my inability to move. She started reading me statistics about kids who grow up with depressed parents. Not good outcomes. But that couldn't even get through to me. One day she left me alone with Charlie, and went to get groceries. She comes home and Charlie is crying, he's been crying for like half an hour, and I just couldn't…I couldn't get up a care," I'm looking away so he can't see the judgment in my eyes. But I'm pretty sure he knows about it anyway, "And she calms Charlie down, and then she walks over to me and slaps me in my face," a ghost of a smile covers his face, "here this sweet old woman who literally won't kill flies in her house is slapping her only grandson. And she says to me, 'You may think you have a choice, but you don't. Because you survived. You have a son. You will buck up and be a father, because he lost a mother. He doesn't need to lose another parent.' And I did. You know. I picked him up. I fed him. I changed him. I talked to him. I played with him. I got switched off black ops so I could be there for him. I started teaching. Started living. Got better. And the mud, some days it sticks to my feet. But it doesn't choke me anymore. 'Cause my son needs his dad."
"Yeah, I uh, get the mud thing Jack," I say.
"So what I need to know is the mud around your neck, or under your feet. What kind of help do you need?" he says rubbing my back.
"It's been six years since my mother died," I say.
"I don't think that matters," he says.
"I mean exactly six years," I repeat.
He takes me into his arms again, "Before you said-tough day, you will be fine." I nod. "So you are usually fine? Cause I could get my Grandma down here to bitch slap you."
I'm laughing. I can't believe I'm laughing. "One day a year the mud swallows me up, the rest of the time I trample all over it."
"Sam," he whispers in my ear, "You aren't going to have to be alone on your choking day, ever again, ok?"
And he's stupid to make that promise. Because we've been going out less than a week, and only one normal full date. But I like the promise anyway. And we cry, and talk. And after I tell him how my mom used to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," he makes me tell him all the verses. And he sings it in English, and Arabic, and Irish. And then he holds me until I fall asleep.
When I wake up I'm not surprised he's gone. He has Charlie after all. But he's left something behind. A little shovel. And no note. But I know what it's for. It's to dig myself out of the mud.