On the morning that he became a fugitive from justice, Lee McCabe awoke with two persistent sensations in his consciousness. The first was the sound that Apache helicopters make when they land in the desert, and how the dust swirls beneath them as they raise up little tornados of sand. The second was the smell of a woman’s strawberry shampoo.
As he struggled awake—alone in the small bedroom of his rented trailer—Lee realized that the sound was not that of an Apache helicopter but the rumbling of an approaching motor vehicle. Sounds carried a long way this far from town, especially on a Saturday morning.
He resisted the notion that the approaching car or truck might be something to worry about. He was still overly cautious, he knew. What else could he expect after two years of living in a war zone?
The clock on the nightstand beside the bed read 5:32 a.m. In recent months, Lee McCabe had learned to appreciate the small luxuries. It was a luxury to sleep until 5:30 a.m., even on a Saturday. It was a luxury not to have to arise even earlier, to step outside your barracks into the glaring, sand-blown heat of a hostile land, where any man, woman, or child might be bent on killing you.
And it was a luxury to have the regular company of women again. The smell of the strawberry shampoo was on the tee shirt that he had worn to bed. It mingled with the perfume of the woman he had danced with the previous night at the Steeplechase Saloon.
She had been young—and in Lee’s estimation—frivolous and carefree. At first it had seemed that she wanted to do nothing but laugh and talk. But after a while she somehow perceived that Lee was still reclaiming that world in which light conversation and laughter were possible. She did not push him beyond his means. She took his hand and led him to the center of the room, where they slow-danced, her head on his chest, her hair on his cheek and his shoulder.
He had taken in the scent of her wild strawberry shampoo then, and now its lingering presence brought back the feel of her firm young body pressed up against his. Before they had parted, she slipped him a matchbook cover that contained her phone number. The recollection made him smile. Perhaps he would call her. Yes, he definitely would.
Lee McCabe was twenty-three years old and he had returned from Iraq to Perryston, Kentucky, less than three months ago.
Early sunlight filtered through the curtains of the single window in the bedroom. The few pieces of furniture that surrounded him were scuffed and dented. The furniture was older than he was. But why would he care? The furniture was neither green nor camouflage, like practically everything that they gave you in the Marine Corps.
Once again his attention was drawn to the sound of the lone motor vehicle; and he tried to estimate its distance. A mile? A half mile?
What difference did it make, anyway? There were no al-Qaeda in Perryston. No suicide bombers. He was safe here.
Since Lee had come home, not a single person had tried to kill him. Three months without hostile gunfire aimed in his direction. Three months without a booby-trapped car or some maniac hiding a bomb beneath his dishdasha at a checkpoint.
The streets of Perryston were free from gunfire and explosions. Walking around town in civilian clothes rather than combat fatigues, Lee had not once had to turn away from the shrieks of hysterical survivors, or the anguished groans of the dying. Not once in three months.
Lee decided that he had lain in bed long enough. It was the first week of June and the day’s heat was already rising, prickling his skin with humidity. He swung his feet out of bed and stood erect, his toes digging into the blue threadbare carpet.
He reluctantly discarded the tee shirt with its pleasant woman’s scent and retrieved a clean one from the bureau drawer. He hastily pulled on a pair of jeans, then socks, and then the steel-toed boots that were regulation safety gear at the machine shop where he worked. The boots smelled vaguely of oil.
The distant engine was drawing closer now, crowding the thoughts of the young woman from of his mind. This despite his best efforts. He did not want to think about the vehicle but there it was: He judged it to be a pickup truck or an SUV that was coming along the adjacent two-lane highway.
He paused as he heard the vehicle slow down and then come to an abrupt stop. Next he heard the metallic sounds of the vehicle’s doors opening and closing. Finally there were several masculine voices—perhaps three or four.
Ease up, Lee, he told himself. Now just you ease up.
He did have to learn to take it easy. Despite his joy at being home, relaxation no longer came naturally to him. He was still struggling to rid himself of the constant wariness that had kept him alive in Iraq. He did not intend to go through the rest of his life flinching at ordinary sights and sounds.
Some days were better than others. The other day he had been standing in line at the Perryston Wal-Mart when a small boy suddenly ran up to his mother, who was waiting in line directly in front of Lee. Lee had practically jumped, his body tensing from an involuntary reflex. He had scared the boy and the boy’s mother, and greatly embarrassed himself.
He had never been prone to that sort of reaction before going to Iraq. He was back in the world now, and he would have to work to fully retrain himself to the old ways.
Lee continued to lace up his work boots, resisting the urge to investigate what was outside. It was just this thing he had developed about cars while over in Iraq, he told himself. Three men in Lee’s platoon had been killed one day when a jihadi detonated a car bomb. Over there you quickly learned to regard every car and truck with suspicion—or you ended up dead even more quickly. In Iraq all unknown vehicles had been potential harbingers of death.
But in Kentucky a lone vehicle at a strange hour was no particular cause for alarm.
It was nothing, he decided.
* * *