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The Sun Never Rises: Chapter Fourteen
The Stage Is Set
Five-hundred miles to go, on a Greyhound, chasing the setting sun . . . Katie and Max are safe, somewhat-sound, and heading for Seattle and a reunion with Max’s family.
There are a lot of miles behind them, a lot of living and suffering, a lot of regrets and fears, and only five-hundred miles to go.
Will the ghosts of the past finally be laid to rest? Can these two move forward and begin a new life together? Will Max’s family welcome them with open arms after being ignored for ten years?
Let’s find out!
The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round
The thing about the Rocky Mountains is that they’re so damned big, it’s like they never end, like they’re the one last obstacle between us and happiness and Jesus, man, they just keep rising up in front of us, taunting us, laughing at us, telling us how insignificant we really are. They tease you into thinking the end is behind you, but then you turn a bend in the road and another wall of rock stands before you.
That’s how it is as the bus heads northwest out of Yellowstone country, the mountains part and a grand valley opens up, welcoming us with open arms, windswept, barren in winter, snow swirling but still, flat and nowhere near as daunting as the ranges fading from view, and Katie lets out a sigh against my chest, a sigh of relief, but just as quickly a gasp as we take a bend in the road and see what awaits us to the west, snowcapped guardians by different names, rising above the valley floor, laughing at our futile efforts to put it all behind us.
“Good God, Max, do these mountains ever end?” Katie asked me three hours into our ride. “It’s like God has decided you and I will never see the sun again.”
“Kate, if there is a God, I’m pretty sure he’s got better things to do than continue some petty feud with us. You and me, we’ve seen worse than those mountains up ahead, and here we are, standing proud, spitting at it all. We’ll make it, Kate. We’ll make it.”
A road sign promised conveniences up ahead in Butte, Montana. Antelopes bounded across the frozen land, oblivious to the force of Mother Nature, while cattle turned their backs to the wind, facing leeward in a grove of skeletal trees.
“Tell me more about your family, Max.”
“You got to remember, Kate, I haven’t seen them in over ten years now, so my memory might not be accurate.”
“Tell me, Max!”
“Well, my old man, he must be right around fifty-four now, if my math is correct. Mom must be fifty-one, and sister Jeannie is twenty-five. I saw them once after basics were over, but then I did my first tour of the Sandbox and, well, I just couldn’t go home after that.
“Anyway, they’re good people. Mom and Dad, Dale and Josephine, they had me when they were young, Dad right around twenty-one, Ma about eighteen, and it was a struggle for sure, them being young and at the time not much work available, but Dad worked several jobs, and Mom picked up spare work when she could, and they made it. Dad’s a longshoreman, works the docks in the SoDo area of Seattle, or at least he used to, drives one of those big-assed forklifts and moves shipping containers around the lot all day long. He’s shorter than me, about five-ten, and bulky, wide-shoulders, sandy hair he’s always worn long, a face that looks chiseled, like the Mount Rushmore faces, but his smile is kind and warm. Funny, but the thing I remember most about him is how big his hands were, how strong he was, and how much I loved it when he hugged me. It felt like nothing bad would ever happen.”
The outskirts of Butte came into view, not much really, deserted cars in the yards of ranch houses, silos rising like sentinels, the hills scoured with flat tops from the mining, ugly country spoiling the romantic notion of the Rockies.
Tell Me More, Max
“Don’t stop, Max. What about your Mom?”
Pawn shops, the Golden Arches, and Jesus Saves were now our companions.
“Mom was . . . is . . . the kindest person I’ve ever met, bar none. I’ve never met a person who didn’t instantly like her. She has this smile that just feels like being smothered in love, like creamy butter on a warm scone, you know? Dad worked hard at his job, but he’d come home, visit for awhile, maybe read the newspaper and then fall asleep in the recliner. Mom, her day would just continue, sewing, washing clothes, preparing lunches for the next day, making sure Jeannie and I had all the love we could handle in twenty-four hours.
“She’s a beauty, my Mom, long blond hair, going gray slowly, wore it in a long braid when there was work to do, wore it loose on her shoulders when it was family time. Didn’t believe in makeup, hated spoiling her face, over the years her smooth skin taking on laugh lines, a few worry lines, but remaining beautiful, a face I first saw over three decades ago, smiling down on me, telling me everything is all right, telling me she loved me.
“She didn’t want me going into the military, afraid, she was, that she’d lose her little boy, saying war changes a man, and she didn’t want her baby ever changed.”
The bus driver took the second Butte exit and navigated white streets to the depot. People got off, me and Katie included, visited the rest rooms, grabbed snacks, stretched our muscles as best we could, before re-boarding. There were only ten others on the bus, ten pilgrims trying to find their way through the maze of life.
“And what about your sister, Max? What about Jeannie?”
I saw here in my mind’s eye, the projector playing home movies, me and Jeannie, me watching out for little sister, helping her grow up, guarding her against the older kids, making sure guys had proper intentions around the little beauty with the same last name as me.
“If I were ever a parent, Katie, I wouldn’t want a daughter like Jeannie. She’s too damned pretty, you ask me, and I have these memories of guys drooling, fighting off the hard-ons, trying to get her to notice them, all through grade school and middle school. She was fifteen when I left for home and already breaking hearts and taking names, so I can only imagine what degree of beauty she carries with her now.
“She was a great sister, truth be told. She loved her older brother, idolized him, thought I walked on water and cried, oh how that girl cried, when I saw her the last time, made me promise I’d come home safe.
“Anyway, you’ll be meeting them soon, sometime tomorrow, and you can see for yourself, Katie.”
It gets dark fast in the mountains, by five o’clock the white landscape a ghostly gray, and Katie snuggles into my shoulder, holding on tight, trusting in me.
“Are you afraid, soldier?” she asks me.
“I guess I am, Katie. Don’t make much sense to be so, but there you have it.”
“It will be all right, Max.”
A few more miles passed by.
“The last mission I was on, Katie, we were clearing a village, making sure the Taliban had moved on, taking fire from an occasional sniper or rear guard, nothing serious but enough to make us edgy, our nerves jumping at every sound.
“I was clearing a house, making sure no hostiles were in it, and I pushed open a bedroom door and saw movement flash on my right side. I fired off three rounds, waited, fired off another burst, the sweat stinging my eyes, my blood pumping so damned fast, heart threatening to climb right out of my throat, the smell of cordite thick in the air.
“It was a six-year old boy, Katie. My rounds tore him apart, his lifeless body shattered there on the dirt floor, his blood mixing with the dirt, a red mud forming.
“I don’t think it will ever be all right, Katie.”
SEE YOU NEXT WEEK?
I figure two or three more chapters and we’ll be all done with this story . . . for now.
I hope you’re enjoying the journey. Thanks so much for riding along with Max and Katie.
2016 William D. Holland (aka billybuc) #greatestunknownauthor