January 20, 2016

Crystal drove her black Prius along the dirt road at a casual pace. Though from the outside of the car it may have seemed as if she was simply driving along and was calm and collected, her hands gripped the steering wheel tightly as to turn her knuckles white. She pulled over to the side of the road for the fifth time in the past two hours and turned off the car. She once again considered turning around and beginning the long drive home alone.

'What am I doing here? Why am I going for him after all this time? After all these years, why am I driving to pick him up? I have a boyfriend for crying out loud. Why am I doing this?'

She sat in the car for another twenty minutes before finally starting the engine again and driving in the same direction towards the Air Force Base. She had finally set resolve in her mind. If he was still there, she would slap him and yell at him for a few minutes and see if he still wanted a ride from her or not. If he did she would drop him off at the nearest airport and continue on alone. If he wasn't there then better off for her. She was late anyway. A day late. So it was likely he was gone anyway. She had spent extra time on the road and in leaving convincing herself to go get him and then convincing herself to not go get him. But she had finally decided for it and was arriving a day after he was supposed to have flown in. As she drove along, memories came back to her of everything she and Nate had been through. The good and the bad together.

The airfield loomed ahead as Crystal pulled up to the gate in the fence. The hot afternoon air blew into the car as she rolled down her window at the booth. The security guard had a friendly face as he smiled politely.

"How can I help you ma'am?"

"I'm here to pick up a soldier. He sent me a letter saying he was coming in on the transport yesterday. It was a Nate Douglas from the Marines. I was wondering if he was still here."

"I'll have to check the registry. Give me a moment." The man turned and began flipping through a booklet on his desk. After a few short moments he turned back to Crystal, no longer smiling. "You're positive he was in the Marine Corp right?" Crystal nodded as a sudden tightness grabbed at her chest. "He hasn't checked out. Probably won't for a while unless you're the family come to claim him."

"Claim him? What do you mean claim?"

"I'm sorry ma'am, but he's labeled under the deceased."

Crystal just sat there in shock. Nate was dead. How could he be dead? She had received his letter a few weeks ago saying he was going to be coming home to stay. Crystal felt a hand on her shoulder and she looked back up into the face of the guard leaning out of the booth. He stood back up and pressed a button on the desk. The gate opened before Crystal allowing her access to the base. "He's in hanger three miss. Just make sure you check out when you leave."

Crystal began driving forward slowly again. She was still in a daze from the news that Nate was dead. She pulled up in between of the abandoned airplane and the large hanger three and she put the car in park. As if walking through a dream, she opened the door to her car closing it softly behind her. Silence pressed in around her as she walked to the open door of the hanger. She stepped in and stopped in her tracks. Her hand came to her mouth and a slight gasp passed between her lips. The rows of coffins before her left her speechless and immobile. Almost a minute passed before her legs began moving forward and she began running in the aisles between the coffins; glancing at each name as she passed. Searching for his. Tears began to well in her eyes and they slowly dripped away as she passed coffin after coffin. Finally, in the second to last row, she stopped. The name on the coffin was the name of the man she had come for. She placed one hand on the coffin and a tear dripped from her eye. She caught the tear and placed a wall around her. She would not cry. She refused to cry for him. She tried to step back but her hand stayed in place, held there by some unseen force. She stepped to the coffin again and placed her other hand on the coffin. Her hands balled into fists and she slammed them down onto the lid of the coffin as she let her frustration take control of her.

"Why Nate? Why?"

"Why what?"

The voice behind her caused her to spin around in surprise. The man before her was tall. Well most people appeared tall to her. With her standing at five foot one everyone looked tall. He was certainly six foot, maybe a little taller. His dark skin looked healthy. His black Marine Corp uniform was bereft of patches and insignia and was slightly wrinkled as if he had been wearing it for a while and had slept in it. His eyes were what caught her attention. A deep brown looked back at her. Bottomless and full of many years of hardships. It was these eyes that sparked recognition for this man that she had not seen in six years.

"Nate?" Crystal flung herself into Captain Nate Douglas's arms and finally the walls came down. The tears flowed fast and hard. She was truly crying now. Nate simply, after only a moment of hesitation, wrapped his arms around her and held her to him speaking to her soothingly.

"I thought you had forsaken me Crystal. I waited for all of yesterday. I stood on the loading ramp for three hours till after everyone else had left before I came in here. I haven't left here since then. Why didn't you come yesterday?"

Crystal just stood there crying for a moment before the tears stopped once again and were replaced by anger. She stepped back and slapped him as hard as she could on the cheek.

"You had me scared shitless Nate! How could you do this to me? Create this elaborate scheme where you make a coffin with your name on it and list yourself as deceased? How dare you?"

Nate tipped his head forward and laid a hand on the coffin next to Crystal.

"Corporal Nathan Douglas of the US Air Force was a good man and a damn good pilot. His helicopter was shot down a week ago. He sacrificed himself to save the other fifteen men and women on board. There was no scheme Crystal. Only me trying to see you again."

Crystal gave no reply to Nate's comments. She knew in her heart that he hadn't set her up. But years of neglect and pain had caused a rift between her and the man in front of her now. Could she trust him? Would she give him the chance? His eyes begged her to listen as his mouth opened but Crystal cut him off.

"Nate, stop. You left me. Years ago. And before you left you hurt me quite a bit. A pain that has taken these years to get over. Right now, I have someone else. There's someone else in my life Nate."

Nate, Captain in the Marine Corp and member of Delta squad, almost fell to his knees. A single tear fell from his eye. He blinked once slowly, and when his eyes again opened, it was no longer the strong man that he had become whose eyes they were. The eyes were now those of a boy. A boy that had just lost all his hopes and dreams. A sad and lost child.

Crystal took Nate's chin in her hand and turned it to look at her.

"The other person is away for a while. I'll take you to the commercial airport. It's a seven hour drive. You have that time to convince me that I shouldn't drop you on the curb with a ticket to wherever you want that isn't with me in your hand. If you can convince me of that, you may stay with me for one week. During that week you will have the chance to prove to me that you have changed and that I shouldn't cast you out of my life for good. Do you understand?"

A spark returned to Nate's eyes as a smile touched his lips and he nodded once. No words were needed, no words would help right now. He had seven hours. He had a mission again. He knew what to do and how to do it. Operation memory recall had begun.