Following Idaho, 2018 First Place Adult Division

By Rebecca Crouse

Her last letter had been postmarked from Kooskia, Idaho. It took me longer to read the two pages than to drive through the small valley town. I ease the rented Toyota into a space in front of the Post Office and grip the wheel. She’d been in that squat little brick building. I stare at the glass door, aware that every part of me is leaning towards the entrance, silently begging the building to spill forth a tall, slender woman with a wild tumble of dark curls. When a grizzled man in a seed company hat limped out instead, I slowly let go of the wheel.

I rub a finger over the worn envelope and slip it into my flannel pocket. My last clean shirt, I muse; I should probably find a laundromat soon. I am not sure how much longer I’ll be on the road. I have another 8 days of leave left and there are still two letters left to read. They call to me from the center console. I crave them like a junkie craves one more hit of smack. There are only two left; rationing is imperative.

Each stop on her journey ended with a trip to a post office. For me, the post office is the starting point. It does not matter that there had been absolutely nothing at the previous three postal buildings to show that she had been there. No lingering wisp of her perfume or glint of recognition in the counter workers’ eyes when I held out her photo. At least I am becoming more effective in dialing back the intensity; the first couple of postal workers had taken in the 9mm on my hip and the wounded desperation oozing out of me and had shaken their heads before even looking at the photo. I’d pulled out my dog tags and offered a few clipped words of explanation. Their fear had evaporated, leaving a sticky residue of pity, which was worse.

The story is the same here in Kooskia. No one has seen her. The guy behind the counter gives me directions and I grab fuel and supplies. Thirty minutes of twisty highway driving to reach my destination. She’d stayed the night at Apgar Campground. I’d do the same.

“…the Lochsa is gentle and wide here and I feel as though the river is playing with me as I stand, ankle deep, in its icy waters. I have to hop up on a boulder again and again to warm my toes. If the Snake is a rushing torrent, dangerous as its namesake, this little bit of the Lochsa reminds me of a Labrador. I skip rocks for an hour and imagine the river bringing them back to me for another throw.

I think we should get a dog. Yes, you read that right! I’m agreeing; we should get a dog. Your tour will be up in 36 days, 14 hours and 7 minutes and I think the second thing we should do is visit the animal shelter.”

The drive is soothing. I’d been in Boise a few days ago and hadn’t handled the crowds well. Too many sounds, from too many vectors. The Boise letter told me she’d spent multiple days in the city, but I managed a day and a half. This back road driving is more my speed. There are few other travelers out. My grip on the wheel relaxes an extra notch to see only one camp spot at Apgar is occupied.

I settle into the site furthest away and set up my pup tent. When my mat and sleeping bag are stacked inside, I store my sidearm in the glovebox and lock the rental. The rush of the river beckons. It takes a few minutes to reach the rocky bank and unlace my boots. All that water. It has been more than a year since I’ve seen this much water. I shake my head and wade in. The current elicits a gasp from me; it’s as icy as she’d promised. I look around for a boulder, the boulder. Too many, no way to know which one was hers. One a few yards downstream looks good. I sit and pull up my pale feet. The sun reaches down and eases the chill.

I wanted to last an hour, throwing rocks into her river, but I am shaking after 30 minutes. The rock is too exposed, nothing at my back and the noise of the water would cover up the sound of anyone approaching. My hand sneaks up to my hip again and again and my knuckles graze the empty holster. Teeth grinding, I grab my boots, roll up my jeans past pale knees and ford across the shallowest part of the river.

“…the trees remind me of my childhood home. Giant cedars stand sentinel for the wispy firs that dance beneath their canopy. A never-ending chattering of chipmunks and birds and insects chases away my loneliness. I can imagine you here. I sit on a log that’s taller than our Chevy and watch the breeze catch a cocoa-colored seed pod from a locust tree. I think about us.

I know a part of your heart belongs to your unit. I can live with that. I can live with the parade of new bases, new assignments. I’ll finish my degree this year and I can write anywhere. But I need this. I need this time spent in the woods and small towns and hidden, almost secret expanses of quiet water. You don’t know it yet, but you need it, too. Your letters and phone calls have shrunk over the course of your deployment. Not in quantity, but as if the words themselves are trying to crawl into a hole. I can’t imagine what you’ve seen or had to do over there. One of the other spouses is former military and she tried to explain it. Her eyes went hollow.

So I’m going to continue on this road trip, exploring the back roads of Idaho. When you get home, I want you to come with me. I want to curl up next to you wrapped in the wide expanse of glittering velvet that is the night sky on the Camas prairie or in the protective cocoon of a fire lookout perched on top of the world.”

I want that, too.

I’ve reached a log that is a fallen giant. Certainly taller than our Chevy was, before its violent introduction to the front grille of a drifting semi. I sink to the ferny ground. With my back protected, I rest my head on my drawn-up knees and let out a raw breath. I have locked away all but the surface of my grief, the part that bubbles over no matter how much I try and choke it down. Little bits of loss escaped my eyes at her funeral, at the cemetery, on the road, in empty hotel rooms and tents. Never more than the surface overflow. But here in the woods amidst her words, something breaks inside of me. I’m wrenched in two like the unsuspecting assistant to some sadistic magician. There is no chattering of squirrels or bugs now; the forest listens to the ugly, hacking sobs of a broken man.

Dusk arrives while I’m checked out. Awareness returns with the cracking of a branch; likely some squirrel misjudgment, but the sudden noise shoves adrenaline to the forefront of my brain, past the numbness. My heart pounds a rapid beat as I slowly rise from my side to a sitting position. Deep breaths help calm my pulse and I focus on her words from a previous letter.

“Twilight is my second favorite time of day, after sunrise. Sharing dawn with the world makes me feel like I’ve been let in on a secret few bother to wake for, but dusk is its own kind of wonderful. Today I’m sitting above the Anderson Ranch Reservoir. I visited Tomas and Cara Sellers this afternoon. They’re still stationed at Mountain Home and they invited me to stay the night, but I want to try dunking some worms tomorrow morning just as the fish are waking.

I think I’ll sit here until I can’t stand the chill and then I’ll snuggle into my bag in the back of the Chevy. Maybe I’ll splurge on a hotel tomorrow night. For now, I watch as the day creatures finish their chores and prepare for a well-earned rest and the night creatures stretch the rest from their limbs or wings and begin to think about a twilight breakfast. A hawk cries out in the expanding dark. A trio of crickets kick up their melody and now moths replace butterflies in an aerial dance. I fold a wide blade of grass and bring it to my pursed lips, adding irreverent squeaks to the night music. Later, when the moon has moved from hover to soaring, I’ll try a wolf howl. Just because I can.”

I hear her voice when I read her letters. I see her smile as she writes the part about howling. The freckle to the right of her lip would be pulled up towards her dimple and she’d wait for her smile to become my smile. My facial muscles have forgotten that particular act. No smiles since I came back from patrol to the news, handed gently to me by my CO.

All that time in the desert I wanted to be home, with her, but now that I’m Stateside, without her, I itch to go back. Over there I’ll be able to rush into my duties, never pausing to dwell on the missing part of me. I’ll fill that hole with patrols and PT and things that require my full attention. Things that aren’t a part of the world we made together. I won’t think about truckers driving while drowsy or my wife alone on the road.

But that has to wait. I stumble through the forest on my return to the tent. My limbs are leaden as if I’d run a marathon fully geared up. My throat feels bruised and I pause at the river to splash my puffy face. In the morning I’ll have to decide, as I have every morning since, whether to continue in her footsteps or sound retreat and hide in the war.

I’m not sure how long it will take for me to feel safe enough to sleep without my sidearm next to me, but it won’t be tonight. I stop at the rental car to grab it before staggering into my tent. I’ve positioned the entrance so that the stars aren’t visible. I’m already feeling small enough. It’s late and my body tells me sleep is just around the corner. I should probably have eaten something, but getting up again seems like too much at the moment. I manage to take a few swallows from a water bottle before I give in to exhaustion.

”…today I watched an eagle catch a fish. He came streaking down, talons breaking the water’s surface and just that quick he sped off in a new direction, silvery fish clutched tightly. How incredibly keen his eyesight must be. He saw what he needed, exactly how far to go to get it and when to pull back and redirect his energies. I thought of you. I’m thinking of you now.

I know this year apart has changed you. It’s changed me, too. Some of my soft edges have worn away and I have become stronger, gained a firmer foundation of who I am. I know exactly what I want and I’m willing to go to any lengths to get it. They told me as the clock winds down on your deployment, you may withdraw, unwilling to jinx it, not trusting you’ll arrive home safely. But you will. I know it. I feel it. You may be changed, but you will be the same man I fell in love with and you will have that love for the rest of our lives. Just come home.”

I expected to sleep in. I figured I’d be groggy when I did wake. Instead, I am up with the dawn. My mind is as crisp as the air. I tie on my boots and crawl out of the tent to a cold, lightening of the sky. The sun’s warmth is a distant promise. It’s time to make the daily decision: March on or retreat.

A flicker to the left catches my eye. It’s a large, brown seed pod twirling on the breeze. I scan the horizon but can’t locate any locust trees. The pod lands silently at my feet. I stare at it while the river rushes on and small birds fly about their business. I can feel the bumps from the seeds as I pick it up and slip it into my pocket, next to her letter.

I return the gun to the glovebox and slip on a jacket. I take two Power Bars and a bottle of water and turn towards the Lochsa. Today I will last 40 minutes on that boulder.