Second Lieutenant Dan Miller paused for a moment as the distant rumble of gunfire caught his ear. After nearly a year spent patrolling the streets of Baghdad, he recognized it as a mixture of M16 and AK fire. Some other patrol was engaged this Christmas Eve.
Not his concern, he reminded himself. Not that he didn't hope the distant firefight wouldn't turn out to be a win for the good guys, but his attention needed to be focused right here on the two dismounted infantry squads he was leading tonight. The Army had drummed in his mind, from his first ROTC course all the way through Ranger School, that you always kept your mind on your mission, on your troops. To let your attention wander was to fail, or worse, get someone hurt when it could have been prevented.
They continued on their assigned route, moving carefully but without hesitation. They had covered this route in daylight and in the dark before and were familiar with the twists and turns of the ancient streets they followed. They moved openly, another small demonstration that they were the ones in control.
Dan recalled talking to his father, Sergeant Major (Retired) William Miller about his experiences in Vietnam. His dad had been a "Lurp", a member of the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols that had become the 75th Rangers. One of their missions had been to "Take back the night from Charlie". Here they held the night, and planned on keeping it.
The point man lifted his hand and issued a sharp challenge. Dan hastened forward to meet with the leader of the Iraqi Police unit who's path they had crossed. The past year had seen him learn enough of the local dialect to exchange information with the senior police officer, whose English was on a par with Dan's Arabic. Neither force had seen anything suspicious.
He shook hands with the Iraqi officer and they wished each other good fortune as they parted. Dan admired the Iraqi forces, especially the police, who took hard licks and heavy casualties sometimes but kept right in the thick of the fight.
A quick check of the time and the recognition of the landmarks about them confirmed that it was time to swing back towards the battalion area. Automatically the pace quickened, his own as much as those of his men. He had a letter from Lisa that had been marked "Do not open until Christmas" and by the time they got back it would be well after midnight.
For one moment he allowed his mind to dwell on his wife. Two years of dating had led to their marriage right after their college graduation. It seemed as though they had spent most of the time apart since then. His attendance at the Infantry Officer Basic Course had been without dependants, as certainly Ranger School had been. Then they had finally settled down at their first permanent post when the unit was alerted for deployment overseas.
Many of the personnel were on their second tour, including his platoon sergeant and two of his squad leaders. Dan had followed his father's advice and kept his mouth shut and his eyes and ears open, allowing his experienced NCOs to teach him the real life skills he needed.
And damn it, he was wool gathering again. He firmly thrust any extraneous thoughts out of his mind, and kept his mind on the mission until the patrol was safely back in the cantonment area. After the debriefing he was making sure that weapons were cleaned, turned in and the patrol members all taken care of when he felt a touch on his arm. Dan turned to look at the smiling face of Platoon Sergeant Russell Mentor.
"I got it El-Tee. I've been goofing off all night here anyway. You go take a shower and rest. Sir." The NCO's smile grew broader and he winked. "You done good as always Lieutenant. Your dad will be proud of you. Now let a broken down old non-com handle a little sergeant's business."
They exchanged salutes and Dan headed off for his room. He carefully hung up his gear, then sat down heavily on the rickety chair. He pulled his boots off and wiggled his toes. His eyes strayed to the fat envelope sitting on the desk next to him, surrounded by pictures. He checked his watch. It was nearly 1 AM local time, therefore it WAS Christmas. He decided to postpone his present until he had taken a shower.
Still, he stretched out his hand and ran his fingers over the thick oversize envelope while he studied his pictures. There were three of them. On the left was one of Lisa and he on their honeymoon, standing on the beach. On the right was one just of Lisa. He had taken it camping while they were still dating. She leaned against a wood railing, a breeze whipping her long black hair, and, he always noted, blowing her thin, short dress tight against her body.
Then there was the one in the middle. A lump grew in his throat. It was Lisa smiling into the camera. She was holding up a tiny little hand as though it was waving to him. Other than that, not much could be seen of his son Dan Junior. He was the son born five months after Dan's deployment, the son he had never seen.
Dan headed for the shower. On the way he paused by the paper hung on the back of the door. Picking up the pencil on a string attached to it, he marked off another day on his short-timer's calendar. Less than a month to go before rotating back to "The World" as the older guys termed it.
After showering he stretched out on his bed, propped his head up on the pillow and carefully opened the letter. It held a smaller envelope and two pieces of cardboard. No, he corrected himself, each piece of cardboard was actually a sandwich, holding something inside it. He was sure it was pictures.
Dan laughed. Trust Lisa to know him. She could have sent everything by email, or sent it to him during their on-line chats. She knew that he would probably not be able to resist opening downloaded files early, but he would grit his teeth and refrain from opening her letter until it was time. It didn't make much sense but that's how he was and he loved Lisa for knowing him.
The smaller envelope had a message on the side. "Open me second". He picked up one of the unopened packets. Nope, this one said "Open me last". He slid his fingernail along the seam of the other one, cutting open the tape.
Dan blinked back tears. Dan Junior looked back at him, propped up on some sort of pillow or something. His little boy was grinning at the camera. Lisa had dressed him in a tiny baseball uniform, that of Dan's beloved Chicago Cubs. He carefully propped the picture up next to the lamp beside his bed.
Now the letter. He held the envelope up to his nose for a moment. Now THAT you couldn't get through an email. The definite fragrance of "Shalimar", Lisa's favorite perfume. His closed his eyes for a moment as memories drifted through his mind.