It took a few seconds for Frank to convince himself she was real the first time he saw her.
He spotted her at a distance, the shape of her warbling through the haze of the afternoon heat. Fair hair and skin glowing almost white under the harsh glare of the sun. She might have been a mirage. A vision in the desert.
Force Recon missions keep Marines isolated, entrenched for long periods in covert locations. They rarely received visitors, and in Frank’s long experience, the visitors were almost never civilians, let alone gorgeous blondes with mile long legs and sky blue eyes.
Frank was trying not to stare. They all were. Well, everyone except Bill, who’s face had just split into a shit-eating grin.
The entire camp perked up and took notice. She was walking with Colonel Schoonover, looking around and gesturing as they spoke. Schoonover looked as grim as ever, but she was smiling. She looked excited.
Frank looked away as they got closer. He stuck his nose back in his book, immediately rolling his eyes at himself for wanting to play it cool. He was a goddamn Marine. Unafraid of the hellfire of war, but the sight of a pretty girl makes him nervous?
Bill shoved him with his elbow and Frank scowled back. Unfortunately, Billy was immune to Frank’s dirty looks and just wagged his eyebrows to be a pest.
When the Colonel and the Blonde got close enough, Frank and the men all stood to attention. The Colonel waved them all at ease and Frank allowed himself to look at her again.
This had to be intimidating for her. Approaching a dozen armed men, all of whom were silently staring at her. But she had a confidence. She kept her head up, boldly greeting them all with a pleasant but neutral gaze. Frank studied her. There were small signs of her nerves; slight redness at the tips of her ears, fluttering of her fingers.
They locked eyes. He felt a small charge run up his spine before her gaze moved along, scanning the rest of the team.
“Alright men, we have the pleasure of a guest.” Schoonover said, in his typical loud monotone. “This is Karen Page, reporter from the New York Bulletin. She’ll be spending the day here with us, working on a story before the convoy heads towards Kabul tonight. Feel free to talk to her. No details about our missions, obviously- but all of you know how security clearance works- so I don’t need to go into all that.”
Schoonover turned to the Reporter.
“I’ll leave you to it, Ms. Page,” he said, tipping his head slightly before turning on his heel and heading back towards HQ.
The Reporter, Ms. Karen Page, almost choked. She stared after Schoonover, wide-eyed, like a deer in headlights, clearly not having expected to be abandoned so abruptly. But she was brave, she rallied. Gathering herself, she shuffled her phone and notebook quickly before smiling brightly at them all.
Her voice was slightly breathless.
“Like the Colonel said, I’m Karen and I write for the New York Bulletin. Thank you so much for your service and for your time right now. I’m here mainly just to listen, to anything and everything you’re comfortable sharing with me.”
She took a moment to gather her thoughts. Her forehead crinkled. Pretty.
“People back home know the bare facts about what’s happening here. The removed, big picture, bird’s eye view of it all. But they don’t know the details . The simpler realities of what’s happening, the ethos… the thoughts and motivations of the people here- yours, and the Afghanis. Most Americans- including me- just don’t get it. We don’t feel it. I think it’s important that we bring the truth, the stories, and the humanity of this war to the people back home. And I think the best way to do that is to get to know you. As individuals. As men, husbands and fathers, sons and brothers.”
She searched their faces.
“So, if you’re willing… I’d love to talk to you. About anything. We can talk about the war and the experiences you’ve had... but we could also talk about your favorite book, the best meal you’ve had since you arrived in Afghanistan, or what you have going on back home. I’m really just here to get to know you.”
When she finished, she just looked at them all. Expectant. Hopeful.
Frank had no idea what to say. He felt like a kid in class hoping the teacher wouldn’t call on him.
“Ma’am, you have no idea what you’ve signed up for. These guys are about to talk your damn ear off.” Curtis said, apparently not feeling any of the hesitancy that Frank had.
Karen grinned. The rest of the guys laughed. Curtis was good like that. Breaking the ice, making people feel comfortable.
“Well, if they’re gonna talk my ear off, how about I start with you and you’ll take it easy on me.” She smiled mischievously. “That ok?”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Curt said, offering his arm like a prom date, leading her away. He grinned over his shoulder right in time to see most of the guys flipping him off.
Frank just smiled and shook his head. Let the other guys fawn over the girl, get their time with her. He had no idea what he’d say if she tried to interview him anyway. He sat back down and tried to lose himself in his book.
It was a lost cause.
He was staring at the pages of his book, but not seeing the words. He was distracted. The guys were making crude comments about the reporter… about how hot she was, about various things they’d like to do with her during their interview “one-on-one” time. Dumbasses. Yeah, Frank’s mind might go there- he was a flesh and blood man after all- but he wouldn’t talk about it. She’s a lady.
“Alright, that’s enough.” Frank kept his voice quiet, but the men listened when he spoke.
“Aw- come on, Frankie.” Bill teased, tossing a Nerf ball at Frank’s head which Frank caught without looking. “It’s not just because we’ve been roasting our balls off in the desert without a woman in sight for weeks - that reporter is hot as hell. Even you can’t deny that.”
“I’m not denying it.”
Bill paused in shock for the briefest second before leaning back in his chair and letting out a huge “HA!”
“In all the years I’ve known you and tried to set you up with women - gorgeous ones, hand-picked by myself-” he said, winking at one of the other men. “I’ve never seen you even halfway interested."
Bill leaned closer, like he was seeing Frank clearly for the first time in his life.
"So, this is your type, huh? Hot blondes with lips that look like they could just-”
Frank threw the ball straight at Bill’s face and he caught it in the nick of time, grinning.
“Very interesting, Frankie. Very interesting.”
Thankfully, Bill let it rest at that. He liked to mess with Frank, but never took it too far. An annoying little brother. Frank loved him like family.
For the next couple of hours Frank watched over the edge of his book as the rest of the guys talked with Karen. He saw Blaine walking with her around the med center. He saw Gunner making her laugh in the mess tent. He saw Bill sitting with her near the humvees, looking relaxed in a way Frank was pretty sure he’d never been in his entire life. He fought back the small urge to be jealous. Bill had a way with the ladies.
He’d been paying such close attention to her from afar that he was slightly shocked when she somehow managed to sneak up on him. He’d finally begun making progress in his book when he heard light footsteps, a feminine voice.
Frank snapped his book shut and looked up. There she was. Tall and beautiful and quirking her head at him with a small smile. He stood to attention.
“Um- hi. It’s nice to meet you.”
She extended her hand and he took it automatically. She was so soft. It made him realize for the first time that his hands must feel like sandpaper after all these months out here.
“Would you mind if we talk for a bit? Bill- Mr. Russo- said you might show me around the armory? If you aren’t busy?”
His eyes darted over Karen’s shoulder to see Bill in the distance giving him a dramatic salute. Frank’s gaze flickered back to the reporter. She was smiling at him entreatingly, her fingers fluttering around her notebook. She wasn’t just beautiful. She was cute. Frank couldn’t deny her.
Actually, he was suddenly curious as to what on earth she’d want to ask him.
“Sure thing, Ma’am. I’m not busy. The only interesting thing happening around here today is you.”
She blushed again and smiled. He liked that he could make her blush.
“Well, I’m happy to entertain,” she offered, good naturedly.
Frank gestured with his head for her to follow him and he started leading her to the armory. It was quiet for a while as they walked side by side, and he appreciated that he didn’t feel awkward at all. She was easy company.
He surprised himself by asking the first question, “Have you been out here long?”
“No, actually, and I won’t be able to stay as long as I want to.” She sighed.
He turned to look at her, tilting his head to get her to explain more.
“This story… I want it to be a deep dive. I want to get into the hearts and minds of the people here. I want to spend time. I want to melt in. Unfortunately, security is so strict and transportation is so limited, that the best we could do was get me the few hours with you guys today, and I’ll have two days in Kabul after this to speak with some soldiers and civilians there before heading home. It feels like it won’t be enough time.”
She was frowning and that wrinkle appeared between her brows again.
“What I would really like to do is take time with it, talk to someone on and off for months, develop a real human story …” She sighed. Then, seeming to remember herself, her eyes darted back up to Frank’s. “But, enough about me. How long have you been out here?”
Frank wanted to hear more about her and her story, but she wasn’t about to let him get away with asking all the questions and getting her to do all of the talking. Her eyes were sharp and bright and she was already on to him.
It was ok though. He found he actually felt like talking. Strange.
“Eight tours.” He said, watching as her eyebrows reached for the sky.
“Eight?” She choked.
He nodded and shrugged, feeling exposed.
“That’s… wow,” She said, quickly jotting in her notebook. “You must really believe in what you’re doing here.”
She left that hanging, obviously hoping he would pick up where she left off. Frank brought his hands together and started kneading them for something to do as he considered her words. She’d laid down a loaded statement.
“I believe-” he started, but then had to stop, regroup. “I believe that I can do a lot of good here. I can keep my men safe. I can make sure they get home alive. That’s important to me.”
Karen was nodding along, listening so earnestly that he couldn’t help but continue.
“I don’t know why, but being here- this type of life… I’m just good at it.” Frank smirked and shook his head. “I was always a little shit, you know? Growing up, I was this little punk- always in trouble. But when I turned 18 I joined the corps and it was like everything just fit. It’s like I was built for it.”
He looked over at her again and his stomach flipped. She was staring at him. Her big blue eyes seeing everything about him. Her mouth was the softest smile.
“I can see that in you.” She said, searching his face a bit, somehow making him feel more relaxed and more alert at the same time. “You have a peace that most of the other guys don’t have. Some of the guys, it’s like you can feel them vibrating from across the camp, but you... you’re almost serene.”
He had to look away. He hoped he was tanned enough that she couldn’t see his cheeks getting red.
“You must have seen a lot in all your time here.” Again, she left that statement hanging.
Frank caught her eyes and nodded, but didn’t elaborate. He didn’t feel like talking about any of that.
She nodded back and her eyes were warm, letting him know she wasn’t going to press him.
It felt so damn good to be communicating on this level with someone. He could read her, and somehow, she could already read him. He was rarely this in sync with anyone, let alone a woman he’d just met. Something in his chest ached.
They reached the armory. Karen averted her gaze politely as he keyed in the passcode to open the doors.
The armory was the biggest and most fortified building at the camp. It was a windowless, metal warehouse and it had been baking in the sun all day. When Frank swung the door open, heat billowed out at them like a furnace. Frank barely noticed. He was used to the Afghan heat and lack of air conditioning by now, but Karen immediately started unbuttoning her shirt. Frank’s eyes went wide, his jaw dropping slightly. It took less than two seconds for him to realize that she had a tank top underneath. She just wanted to lose a layer.
Frank looked away as quickly as he could, while she wrapped her button up around her hips, tying the sleeves in a quick knot. He took the moment to rein in his reaction to seeing so much more of her skin, her curves hugged by the tight tank top. Damn. She probably had no idea how that would impact him, but jesus- he hadn’t been around a woman he was this attracted to in way too long- you can’t just spring that on a guy… God, now she was pulling her hair up, wrapping it around itself in a bun- exposing her neck.
Frank distracted himself. He shifted his weight, swung his arms, clasped one fist in the other hand like a baseball in a glove.
“There! It is hot as balls in here.” She exhaled.
Karen’s slightly foul mouth cut through his tension instantly and made him laugh. He grinned at her.
“You got that right, Ma’am. It’s one of the hardest things to get used to out here- always being so damn hot. We we happen to get a few days off, a bunch of us head in to the nearest town, not for booze or food or anything… we just want a hotel with AC.”
“Makes sense.” She said, wiping her brow. There were a few beads of sweat running down her neck, he caught himself tracking their progress.
Jesus. Stop ogling the woman and show her around… Frank scolded himself and began an impromptu tour of the armory.
She was wide eyed again, looking around at the vast mountains of containers and giant crates. Openly fascinated.
If Frank had been pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to talk to Karen before, he was absolutely in his element now. He walked her through the warehouse, occasionally opening a case here and there to let her peek inside. She was like a kid in a candy store and he loved it. It was entertaining, showing her this incredible technology, explaining how it all worked and how these things were used in real life scenarios, and she was truly interested. Frank was having fun.
He was halfway through a story about who knows what, when he realized that she had him wrapped around her finger.
Frank was talking about himself just as much as he was talking about the various weapons. She now knew he was a native New Yorker, his best pals were Bill and Curt, and he was currently trying to re-read all the books he should have paid attention to in high school but didn’t. Once he noticed it, he couldn’t believe how much she’d gotten out of him. Hell, she knew his favorite food was anything Vietnamese, and his favorite band was Springsteen.
Frank hadn’t been the only one sharing though. She was from Vermont, but considered herself a New Yorker now that she’d been there for over 8 years. The only book she’d read in high school that really stuck with her was The Grapes of Wrath (which she couldn’t recommend highly enough). And for some reason, she thought that Springsteen being his favorite band was “so obvious” and it made her giggle in this really pretty way. She was doing that a lot. He could make her laugh. And crazily, she could read him and tease him and get him laughing too. She was fresh air. She was familiar and comforting in a way he could barely understand. He hadn’t felt this way in… Jesus, he couldn’t remember ever feeling this way.
Frank showed her everything in the armory and they were headed back toward the doors when she sighed and looked at him sidelong.
“Eight tours is a long time, Lieutenant. Do you have family back home? Do they want you to retire soon?”
Frank’s chest deflated a little, but not too much, he was used to telling people this by now.
“I don’t really have anybody waiting on me.” Frank looked at her quickly before focusing on the ground. “It’s probably one of the reasons it’s been easy for me to be at this for so long.”
Karen’s expression sobered, but she didn’t apologize for asking. She just waited to see if he had anything else to say. To his surprise, he did.
“I’m not married or anything. My folks, they had me when they were pretty old. We weren’t very connected- they couldn’t really control me. Probably part of the reason why I was such a little shit,” he smirked to himself. “They passed when I was a senior in high school.”
There was a long pause. Frank hoped he hadn’t made her feel awkward. This was about the time in his story where the person he was talking to suddenly looked stunned and sick and started apologizing for even bringing up the concept of a family. Karen surprised him.
“I know how you feel.” She said, almost mimicking his movements, not looking at him, but at the ground as she talked. “I travel a lot, work like a maniac, often take on really difficult and even dangerous stories. Sometimes, I think the only reason I’m able to do what I’m doing is because I don’t have a family. No one worrying about me, or depending on me.”
Frank stopped walking, so did Karen. He waited for more information, sure she would give it if he waited long enough. Her eyes flickered up to his and the understanding in her big blue eyes hit him like an ocean wave.
“I lost my mom to cancer and my brother in a car accident. My dad isn’t in the picture,” she said, shrugging slightly. The careful, casual way she talked about it; it was like looking in a mirror.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am.” He said, the words grinding their way out of his throat.
“I’m sorry about your family, too. And-” she added softly, “You can drop the ‘Ma’am’- call me Karen.”
“Ok Karen. Call me Frank.”
“Frank.” She said and grinned at him, all of a sudden playful again. “Of course. Your name is Frank.”
He squinted at her, knowing he was being teased, but not sure why.
She laughed, reading him so well. “It’s just funny, even if I hadn’t already known your name, I would have guessed Frank. You’re the Frank-est Frank there’s ever been.”
He laughed, having no idea why it was funny, but her laughter demanded his in response. And it felt damn good.
“I hope that’s a compliment.” He said as he pushed open the armory door, allowing her to step out of the inferno of the warehouse and into the cool evening breeze.
She didn’t say anything, just looked at him over her shoulder, eyebrows raised, teasing. The desert wind whipped her hair all around and she glowed golden in the light of the setting sun. Goddamn, she was beautiful.
But, it looked like his time with her was up. Schoonover was making his way over to them directly. Frank stood to attention. Karen straightened her face and perked up as well.
Schoonover gave the both of them a look over from head to toe and subtly rolled his eyes. Frank sensed that his superior officer was annoyed. Odd.
“Wondered where you two had gotten,” his typical flat voice, unusually snappy. Frank was confused by Schoonover’s tone. What was his problem? Frank looked to the side, slightly behind Karen, and he saw Bill and Curt watching from just out of Karen’s line of sight, high fiving each other and giving him two big thumbs up. What the hell?
It all hit Frank at once. It was evening. Karen had spent 15 to 20 minutes with each of the other guys, but she’d been with Frank for probably… over two hours. They’d been in the armory. Alone. She’d emerged wearing less clothing. Goddammit.
There was nothing he could do to correct their assumptions now.
“Miss Page, the convoy will be leaving at 19:00 sharp. I’ll need you at the humvee in 3 minutes.” Schoonover ordered.
“Yes sir.” She responded, as quick as any soldier.
Schoonover pulled his trademark rapid turn on his heel, and left Frank and Karen as quickly as he had come.
Frank didn’t wait to give any of the other guys a chance to say something idiotic to her. He gestured for her to follow him to the humvees.
He was at a loss. 3 minutes… she was literally going to disappear from his life in 3 minutes.
That was the worst. It couldn’t happen. It was- she was- too good to let go. Frank was suddenly so damn nervous that he wanted to kick his own ass. How hard was it to just ask her for her number? Dammit- just do it!
He turned to Karen and froze. Her big blue eyes were sad. He hated it.
“Frank, I’m so glad I got to know you.” She said, quickly, so sweet and sincere. Maybe she was caught off guard by having to say goodbye in three infuriating minutes, just like he was. “Thank you for the interview...”
She trailed off. It had been more than an interview. It had been a connection. He’d felt it. And he could tell by the look on her face- she felt it too. The interview was just the start...
“You know, maybe if- if you want to do that longer interview you were talking about… the kind where you keep in touch for weeks or months or whatever… We could do that.” He said, wondering if the look on his face was betraying how casual he hoped he sounded.
She lit up. Her smile. Glorious.
“Really? I’d love that! I’d really love that!”
She was already scribbling in her notebook and tearing out a page. She handed him the small scrap of paper with her phone number on it and he felt himself relax the moment he got it in his hand. She wasn’t going to just disappear. He had a way to get to her, to talk to her, to hear her voice again.
“Call me any time.” She said excitedly, and then once more. Softer. “Any time.”
Suddenly they were surrounded by about 25 other soldiers who were all piling into the humvees.
It was a swirl of motion and activity- and then Karen was up in the truck watching him from the window with a melancholy little smile, her fingers fluttering a goodbye as the giant vehicle rumbled away.
Frank watched the convoy get smaller and smaller in the distance.
Curt’s wolf whistle and Billy’s maniacal laughter snapped Frank back into reality. He rolled his eyes as he carefully folded the scrap of paper and slipped Karen’s number into his pocket.
That night the guys were extra rowdy. Frank had a lot of slaps on the back and high fives coming his way, and no amount of denial or explanation was having any effect at all. The guys were immature. And annoying. And too loud.
And Frank was in such a good mood that he didn’t care one bit.