A Handful of Ash
I'll never forget the day I met Jacqueline Jensen. Jacks they called her. Nobody had told me she was Jake's twin and what he would have looked like if he had been a she. I had only been going out with Linwood a couple of months and was starting to get a little irritated by the constant presence of his unit. Now don't get me wrong I like the guys, but seriously? Do they have to live in each other's hip pockets? When I complained to Jacks she gave me this look. And said, Jolene, if you are going to love a soldier there are some things you need to know and shit you need to get straight, and first and foremost is, love him, love his unit.
She was right about that. Watching the boys was like watching a group of brothers. They might bicker and quarrel, but you messed with one and the others jumped into the fray without a second thought. Case in point, Jake. What can I say about Jake? The man was a special snowflake, scary smart, drop dead gorgeous, brave, sometimes to the point of recklessness, funny and absolutely no sense of self preservation. And did I mention that he had zero filters on that mouth of his and all the social skills of Calvin or Dennis the Menace? You hang out with the guys for any length of time and the phrase you heard uttered, moaned, whispered, shouted, pleaded, demanded, coaxed and cajoled over and over was 'Jensen shut up.' You might think that if Jake ran his mouth somewhere and it got him in trouble that they would sit back and see if it taught him a lesson. You would be wrong.
One night we were all at a bar near post. You know the kind… unit patches on the wall, a bulletin board with advertisements for soldiers looking for roommates, soldiers being transferred with stuff for sale cause it's easier to buy a new TV when you get there than to take up precious weight allowances in your hold baggage, and in pride of place behind the bar, framed photos of soldiers who will never be coming home. A military bar, a soldier's bar. This was the place they all came, a place to hook up, get drunk, hang out and just decompress when they got back from 'Bumfuck, sorry I can't tell you where we were cause it's classified'.
In the back corner was a pool table and a couple of dart boards, in the other corner was a pinball machine and a couple of shooter type video games. Cougar was playing pool and hustling a pair of Rangers. Seriously? Never play pool with a sniper, you won't win. But I digress, Lin and I were sitting in a booth making eyes at each other and Clay and Roque were holding up the bar and arguing about the game on the TV. Jensen was over on one of the shooter type games and true to form he was talking smack. No malice in it of course. Just Jake trying to be friendly and funny, but this big Marine took exception and pinned him in the corner threatening to beat the crap out of him if he didn't shut the fuck up right now. The thing about Jake is he may be a geek but he is the most badass geek you will ever meet, so he shoved back, 'cause there is just no give in him. There was barely time for me to even realize something was wrong before the Marine found Cougar at his six, pool cue in hand. I turned to say something to Lin but he was already on the move with Clay and Roque right behind him. The next thing that poor Marine knew he was surrounded by a wolf pack and they looked hungry, ready and willing for the slightest excuse to take him down. I swear to God you have never seen a man deflate so fast in your life. Clay stepped forward and said something too low for anyone else to hear, the Marine shook his head frantically and then Jake was all smiles and an offered handshake and it was all over, but I wonder if anyone else saw the predator behind the bright smile?
And speaking of the Colonel, around post they called him the King of the Losers. Seems he had a real knack for taking rampant individualists, read insubordinate misfits, and turning them into... what was it Lin called them? Oh yeah, productive assets. Lin said he was a good CO, and even when the boys argued with him about this or that you could tell that they respected him. I didn't really see the commander, what I saw was the Papa Bear, the man who would kill or die for his men. He took care of his boys, and yes kicked their asses when they needed it. And they loved him for it. Like when Lin and I got married and Clay walked me down the aisle and gave me away, 'cause my own daddy had been gone so many years. Then he traded missions with another CO so that we could have a few days for a honeymoon. Stuff like that was why those men would follow Clay to the gates of hell itself, if only out of a morbid sense of curiosity. Unless there was a woman involved and then it was all hands on deck and Roque in charge, 'cause as smart a man as Clay was, he was flat out stupid when it came to girls. I don't know what it was about Clay but if he was attracted to a girl you could pretty much take it to the bank that she was batshit crazy in one way or another and Roque wasn't having any of it.
If Clay was a papa bear, then Roque was the hard-ass, grumpy, 'grizzly bear with a bad toothache', big brother. Will was a hard man and showed the world a hard face, but when it came to his team, you really didn't want to be the one messing with them. Will was an incredibly complicated man, but he hid it behind scowls and scars and huge freaking knives. I swear sometimes I seriously wondered if he didn't have a portal to another dimension! It just isn't normal how he could manage to hide a blade just this side of a damn sword. Roque was truly a scary man and I would have been terrified of him except for one day after a rough mission I visited Lin and Jake in the hospital and found Roque sitting in a chair beside the bed, patiently reading to Jake in that low rumbling voice of his, keeping watch so Jake could sleep peacefully, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was safe. After that, I was able to see the caring man hiding behind the grouch.
As complicated as Will was, he had nothing on Cougar who elevated the whole quiet, stoic man thing to an art form. I swear to God, in all the years I knew him, the amount of actual words I ever heard come out of his mouth didn't even add up to as much as one conversation with Jake. But oh, the things he could say with his body. Cougar held whole conversations with not much more than an eyebrow, his shoulders and the tilt of his hat. The funny thing was, the one person who could always understand him was the non-stop chatterbox. It was amazing how two so very different men just got each other, ya know? And the rest of the guys just accepted it, with no judgment cause Jake and Cougs were just so right together. You might think that being a sniper Cougar was a violent man, and yeah sometimes he was, but deeper than that was this fiercely protective side of him that would seriously fuck up anyone who dared mess with what was his. And the team was his, and by extension Jacks and Sophie and I. We were his too, and there was nothing he would not do for us. I remember this one rare Thanksgiving and the boys didn't have a mission so they were home. Jacks invited the whole lot of us for dinner. Sometime during the afternoon Cougs disappeared and when I went looking for everyone to call them to dinner, I found him upstairs. I stepped to the door and there was one of the most arguably dangerous men in the world, crammed into a delicate little pink, white and gold chair, surrounded by stuffed animals, with his hair in ribbons of lavender and rose, having a tea party with Sophie. I never told any of them 'cause they would have teased him to death about it, but that was Cougs. Still waters and a deadly aim.
It's kind of funny how much I came to love them all. How quickly they became as vital to me as Lin was. Jacks and I became best friends, and together we put together care packages, wrote letters, prayed for them, and thought about them every day. And when they were home, we watched over the boys as best we could, even though sometimes it felt like being Wendy to their lost boys.
So now I stand here, next to my best friend, with a flag clutched to my chest and a baby in my belly. My heart is screaming and my throat aches from holding back the tears and I have lost not only a husband, lover, friend, but also four brothers. In one fiery moment Jacks and Sophie and I are left devastated and mourning with nothing more to remember these men than a few pictures, our memories and a handful of ash.