Fifty-two more days. He could do this. It had been five months since Lucy had kissed him goodbye at the airport. For a man that does not pray all that often, Tim prayed that would not be the last time he got to kiss her lips. He had been to Iraq before when he was much younger. Two tours before he was twenty-six in charge of a squad of ten soldiers. Some of them just kids that enlisted just like him to get away from their lives back home. He just needed to make it through the next fifty-two days, praying that their return home was not delayed, then he would be on his way back home. Back home to her.
He thought that walking the streets of Los Angeles in a pure wool uniform was bad, it didn’t compare to being in full gear out of patrol in the one hundred- and fifteen-degree heat here. There was not a lot of time to rest while on patrol either. Ambushes end just as quickly as they start leaving soldiers and insurgents little time to dive for cover. They would check themselves over for injuries after the bullets stopped flying. There were times someone would be scraped up or brushed by the bullets, he knew of other squads that had lost a member, thankfully none of his men were among the few that had perished.
The days that his squad had been given off, Tim found himself sitting on his bunk, a picture of her in his hand and he thought about all the things they were going to do when he got back. He wanted to take her on adventures, he wanted to spend nights cuddled on up on the couch with her tucked in his arms right where she belonged, and he wanted to take her to bed and not leave for a couple of days. Other times, he would find himself in the gym on base going rounds on the punching bag. It was a type of therapy that let his mind escape from his current situation and drift back home to her.
“Well if it isn’t Tim Bradford,” a voice called behind him causing his hand to reach for the bag to stop it before turning around. A small grin appeared his face when his eyes landed on the other sergeant behind him. The man stood about the same height as Tim, but just a couple inches shorter. His hair cut in the classic cropped haircut. His green eyes playful as Tim turned to face him.
“Kyle Bowman,” Tim said, the grin still on his face. “How you been man,” he asked extending his wrapped had to the other who took it promptly.
“Good. Good. Been better, but it is what it is. I haven’t seen you in so long Bradford. I heard you got out. How did you find yourself back in Hell’s sandpit again?”
Tim moved his shoulders slightly. “When your country calls, you can’t say no. Transitioned the reserves after the last deployment and joined the LAPD. It’s been what? Fifteen years since then? Been a hell of a ride.”
The other man laughed. “Yeah. It’s been a long time. Some of the other sergeants and I are having a watch party for the Superbowl tonight. You should stop by. We can catch up. Our squad is going on patrol with yours in the morning, so might as well get reacquainted with your old battle buddy.”
“Yeah,” Tim said with a nod. “I’ll stop by after while.”
“Good. Now, you can go back to beating the punching bag into next week and I’m going to go sit my ass down in the shade because it’s a hundred and six out today,” Kyle said with a smile. Tim’s eyes rolled and he shook his head. He waved his friend away before turning back to the patched-up black bag. He readied his hands, his fist clenched, and he swung. Each hit allowing a little piece of himself to relax. Relaxation was hard to find when you are seven thousand miles away from home.
Hours later, Tim was freshly showered like it mattered. Sure it helped with the hygiene and kept things smelling fresh, but it did not stop the sand from being crammed into places that it should not be. Sand always managed to find its way into the food, his clothes, his rifle, even his canteen.
He walked down the row of tents trying to find the tent that Kyle told him they would be at. A resounding cheer coming from a few tents ahead let him know he was on the right track. He opened the flap of the tent to find a group of eight other sergeants, most of which he had gotten to know over the last five months, and Kyle perched on a table. All their eyes locked on the screen when he walked in.
Tim walked up behind Kyle watching the gameplay out on the screen. He was not a fan of neither the Falcons nor the Steelers, but football was football and it provided a little taste of home they all craved. “Tim, glad you could make it,” Kyle said turning his head during the commercial break to face him. He patted the spot beside him, before sliding over a bit to give Tim room to sit on the tabletop as well.
Tim climbed atop the table to sit beside Kyle. “I know you being an LA boy, you cheer for the Rams, even though those boys suck year after year. So, you are either Pittsburg or Atlanta tonight. Can’t be both.”
“The Rams don’t suck. They just have had a couple of rough years trying to rebuild the defense,” Tim tried to defend.
“In other words, they suck,” Kyle teased.
Tim opened his mouth to reply but stopped himself. He could go on and on defending his team giving an excuse to every reason that was thrown his way. He just shook his head rolling his eyes before focusing his gaze back on the projector screen at the front of the room. “Oh, come on Timmy, you are no fun,” Kyle huffed beside him.
“While one of us matured, the other still has a way to go,” Tim said, his playful tone evident in his voice.
“It’s okay to admit that you still have a way to go, Tim. No one will judge.”
A chuckle escaped him before he knew it. He wasn’t supposed to be having a good time. He was seven thousand miles away from home. Away from the woman the loved. Away from the life he had built for himself. Yet here he was, in an old tent with the Superbowl being live-streamed for them to watch. A little piece of normal.
Thankfully, the game resumed before he had a chance to reply. Tim focused his attention back to the screen. Tonight, even though it went against every fiber of his being, Tim cheered for the boys in red and black.
Halftime had just started when Kyle hit is knee motioning to the door outside. Both slid off the table and crossed the room on their way out. The humid air hitting them as they stepped outside. Tim sat in the old metal chair while Kyle sat on the top of the cooler. The younger of the two, slipped a cigarette from his pocket and placing it between his lips and lighting it. Kyle offered Tim one, but he refused it. “LAPD huh? How’s that going?”
“Good. You never know what is going to happen. Each day is something new. Kind of like over here, every day has a chance to be your last. I work with some great people. Some of them turned into family over time. You ever think about getting out?”
Kyle nodded taking the cigarette from his mouth letting the smoke roll out. “A few times, but this is all I’ve known since we were eighteen. I figured by now I’d be out, married, and having a few little ones running around the farm back home. Guess you never know how things will pan out in the end,” he said with a small laugh. “I see that little black silicone band around that finger, Bradford. When were you going to tell me about her?”
“Eventually,” Tim said with a smile. “Her name is Lucy. She was my last rookie as a training officer before I got promoted. She’s—she’s something else. When my world was falling apart, she was there to pick up the pieces, and slowly, she pieced me back together with all types of glues and duck tapes. She’s a fighter. She’s a survivor. Lucy is the best thing to happen to me. I don’t know where I would be without her.”
“She sounds like a hell of woman, Bradford.”
“Yeah,” he said softly, “She is.”
“How long have you two been together?”
“Three years and four months. We dated for about a year and a half before we went down to the courthouse and made it official. She didn’t want a big fancy wedding just a little something with our friends and family afterward. I think to mainly piss her parents off, but she will deny it until her last breath.”
“Sounds like you got lucky Tim.”
“Damn straight. Luckiest man alive. I was finally able to get ahold of a phone about a week after being here and I called her. She told me—uh—I’m going to be a dad,” he said the smile on his face the happiest it had been in a while.
Kyle’s eyes filled with joy as they met his friends. “Congrats man,” he cheered. “You’re going to be a great dad. How far along is she?”
“Twenty-eight weeks. She didn’t find out until after I left. Kind of glad, I wouldn’t have wanted to leave her more than I already did. Now I’m counting down the days until I get back to her. Fifty-one more days and I’ll be on my way back.”
“Do you know what you’re having yet?”
“No,” Tim said shaking his head. “She knows. I didn’t want to know. I don’t care either. All I want to know is if it’s healthy. I’m going to love it either way.”
“Hooah,” Kyle stated quietly. “I’m happy for you Tim. After everything, you deserve to be happy.”
“Thanks,” he said with a smile. “I think your game is back on,” he said hearing the commotion pick back up inside the tent.
“You ain’t going to come back in?”
“Nah., We roll out at 0800. I better hit the hay.” Tim stood to his feet when Kyle did.
Kyle’s hand reached out and Tim took it quickly. They shared a firm handshake while sharing a smile. “I’m happy for you Tim. Truly…you deserve it.”
“Thanks,” he said letting go of Kyle’s hand. “Don’t be late in the morning. 0800 is 0800. Not 0805.”
“Yeah yeah yeah. Take your ass to bed before you fall over old man. See you in the morning, Bradford.”
“See ya, Bowman.”
It was hours after he laid down for the night that Tim finally closed his eyes. His mind was racing with thoughts of Lucy. She was the strongest person he knew, way stronger than himself. She survived being kidnapped by a serial killer, she survived everything the job had thrown her way, most importantly she had survived him. He didn’t think she would pass the training phase of her career, but she did. Proving him wrong more than once.
Their relationship was strong. It was passionate. It was fierce. It had changed after he pulled her from the ground not breathing and dead, but something told him it happened way before then. They were truly the perfect pair. Their marriage was easy. Sure, they fought, but what married couple doesn’t have disagreements. Everything between them was always full of passion. Now, she was bringing his kid into the world. He couldn’t wait to get home. To get back to her. He figured up the dates and everything. If it all went according to plan when he stepped back onto U.S. soil, he would be a loving husband and soon to be a proud father in just a handful of days. He just had to survive fifty-one more days. Fifty-one more days until he’s boarding that plane heading back home.
He woke up the next morning in routine. Just after the morning sun rose, so did Tim Bradford. He would spend his mornings getting his gear gathered up for the patrol, grabbing a quick bite of breakfast, then meeting with the platoon leaders for their assignment for the day.
The letter he wrote her in case something happened to him over here tucked in a pocket on the left of his vest along with a photo of Lucy and a snapshot of the sonogram picture she had sent him. Those two things were pushing him to keep himself safe.
They drove out of the base exactly at eight. The convoy of Humvees headed to a small town roughly twelve miles away. The path had been swept for IEDs the day before, but there was always a risk that one was missed. Their objective was to secure the village and clear it of any insurgents.
The action here was short and quick, but intense. Close proximity fighting gave both sides little time to dive for cover. Every soldier in the squads was on alert every time they stepped foot outside the safe zone. The enemy could be hiding anywhere waiting for their moment to attack.
The Humvees rolled to a stop just outside of the town. They would do the sweep on foot. With Tim’s squad on one side of the road and Kyle’s on the other, they entered the village. Guns aimed ahead as their eyes swept every window, doorway, rooftop, alley, and road for anyone wanting to cause harm.
They were halfway through the sweep when bullets started flying from higher ground. Tim tucked his men behind a stone wall trying to shield them from the bullets. His eyes locked on Kyle’s across the way. With a nod and simple hand gesture, the two sergeants turned the corner firing up at the assailants. They fired until their clips emptied, ducking back behind cover to reload. The soldiers behind them quickly following suit firing as they advanced.
His adrenaline was pumping as he looked across the road again towards Kyle. The other man’s breathing just as quickly as himself. Tim peeked around the corner just a bit trying to find where the bullets were coming from trying to see if there were any more insurgents. He could see the bodies of dead men lying in the road from where they fell from the building. He looked back to Kyle. “Four down ahead. No visual on others,” he informed quickly. Just as the gunfire started it was over just as quickly.
The two squads left their cover minutes later. They checked on the bodies to confirm they were dead and to secure the weapons. The two squad leaders standing behind the group as they checked the bodies. Tim’s gun hung from his shoulder as he unclipped the helmet strap on his chin. “We’ll continue the sweep in a few. Let’s go up top and see what we’re dealing with,” he said gesturing to the top of one of the building.
“Yes sir,” one of the men before him said before turning back to the others. The younger man motioned to three other soldiers before the group started towards a building and entered it.
“You think there are more,” Kyle asked causing Tim to turn towards him. Blood hit his face before Tim had a chance to reply. He looked at the older sergeant, his eyes wide as blood started to trail out of his mouth. “Tim,” he yelled looking down and seeing the growing spot of blood coming from his friend’s upper chest. Kyle caught Tim as he started to fall forward. “We need a medic,” Kyle yelled again lowering himself and Tim to the ground. His hand pressed against the wound on Tim’s chest just below his neck.
He could feel Tim struggling to get air. “You don’t get to die Bradford. You saved my life in Fallujah and I’m saving yours. You don’t get to die!”
With a shaky hand, Tim reached across his body for his pocket. He undid the velcro after a brief struggle and pulled the letter from his pocket. “Give…. this…to Lucy,” he said choppily, the struggle for air increasing each passing second.
“No,” Kyle said shaking his head, applying more pressure to the wound. “You’re going to see her again. You have a kid to meet, Tim. You can give her that letter yourself. Where is the damn medic,” he yelled again at the group of soldiers.
A soldier came running out of the house towards them. He slid to a stop beside Kyle and dropped down. “Sergeant Bradford, this is going to hurt,” he said before pouring a power of the wound causing Tim to scream in pain. “Sergeant Bowman let me take over,” he instructed. His hands replaced Kyle’s bloody hands on the wound. “We’re going to get you home sergeant. Don’t give up on us yet,” the medic said calmly as the blood continued to flow through his fingers. “We need a Humvee and we need to get him back now.”
Kyle nodded his head instructing a group of soldiers to go get the Humvees and. They needed to work quick, Tim’s life depended on it. “You’re going to see her again. You’re going to meet your kid,” he promised as barely conscious Tim in the back of one of the humvees. He held Tim’s bloody letter in the palm of his hand as his fingers held his head still so the medic could continue his work. “You’re going to make it home. Don’t give up on us Bradford.”
She was counting down the days. Forty-nine more days and he would be on his way home to her. Their little boy would be making his appearance a few days later. Her life was everything he had always hoped for it to be. She had a career she loved. A husband that loved her more than life itself. Soon a little one running around an example of the love between them.
Tim had told her he didn’t want to know the sex of the baby. It would a surprise for his return. He just wanted the baby to be healthy. She had almost slipped a couple of times during their phone calls but caught herself. He wanted it to be a surprise so that is what he was going to get. Forty-nine days and she could be in his arms again.
The doorbell ringing interrupted Lucy’s cooking in the kitchen. She was seven months pregnant and all she wanted to do was eat. “Just a minute,” she called turning off the eye and moving the food, so it didn’t burn. “Who is Cojo? Huh,” she asked the dog walking beside her as she waddled from the kitchen to the living room.
She pulled the door open with a smile on her face that quickly fell when her eyes landed on the two military officers in their green dress uniform. All the air left her body as she looked at them. No, this was not happening. He was supposed to come home to her. He made her promise. Her heart dropped to her stomach.
“Mrs. Bradford,” one said after a minute. “Can we step inside?”
Lucy nodded and moved to let the two men inside. She joined them in the living room sitting on the couch as they sat in the two chairs facing her. “Mrs. Bradford, two days ago your husband’s unit was on patrol. They were engaged by enemy fire. Your husband was shot. He was injured severely, but the combat surgeons were able to control the bleeding. He is being flown to Douglas Shaw Memorial as we speak. We’re sure that he would love for you to be there when he gets settled in.”
Lucy could feel her heart racing. When she saw these two men at her door, she was sure he was dead. He wasn’t going to be there to meet their kid. He wouldn’t be coming back to her. She was thankful that she was wrong in every way. “Yeah,” she said softly wiping a tear from her eye. “I’ll call a friend.”
The two military officers stood to their feet. “Have a good rest of your day, Mrs. Bradford. We’re glad your husband is going to be okay,” the one said giving her a slight smile before they headed to the door.
Lucy quickly grabbed her phone, dialing someone she knew she could count on. “Hey Angela, I need a ride to the hospital,” she said shortly when the woman answered the phone. “No, it’s not the baby. It’s uh Tim actually. I’ll explain in the car.”
She did not know what to expect exactly when she walked through the door to the room. All they had said he had been shot. They did not say where or how many times. Was it in the face? Would he be able to walk again? Could he still use his arms? Truthfully, she did not care. He was alive and she was going to love him no matter what.
When she saw him lying in the hospital bed shirtless, a giant piece of gauze taped across his chest, a tear escaped her eye. He had come so close to leaving her. Leaving them.
She walked deeper into the room and grabbed his hand. His eyes fluttered open to look at her. His blue eyes meeting her brown ones. “Welcome home soldier,” she said with a smile looking down at him.
“Hey,” he said softly. “I missed you, both of you, so much.”
“We missed you too daddy,” she said gently rubbing her rounded stomach. Lucy leaned down to kiss him. Her lips hovered over his for a moment. They had dreamed of this since she had kissed him goodbye at the airport. His head lifted off the pillow just enough for his lips to meet hers. Her hand running through his hair as one of his hands tangled in her brown locks.
They broke apart after a couple of minutes, Lucy resting her forehead against his as they both closed their eyes. He was home. He was going to be alright. They were going to be alright. Everything was going to be better than it was before because they had each other.
A month and a half later, they welcomed Kyle Wade Bradford into the world. Named after the man that had been his good friend and battle buddy since they were just kids themselves ready to give everything for their country. Also, named after their watch commander and friend.
Those fifty-one days they both dreaded were cut short. Tim thought he was going to die there. Seven thousand miles away from home, away from her. He did not think he was going to be able to hold his kid in his arms, but he did. He survived. That is what they did. They survived everything that was thrown their way. Together.