The bartender served Carter Williams and George Ogawa their bottles of AmberBock without looking at them. He moved swiftly through a haze of Hank Williams Jr. and radiator-heated air, carrying off their empty bottles with him.
Each man raised their bottle to the other, before taking a satisfied swig. George smacked his lips, and placed his bottle back on the bar, leaving his hands cupped around it, enjoying the coolness of the lager.
“So, got a girl?” George asked, with a soft smile.
Carter curled an eyebrow, before nodding in silence. He reached into his jacket for his phone. As George looked on with curious brown eyes, Carter unlocked the device with a couple swipes, and revealed the background photo. He swiped a couple more times, so the apps wouldn’t obscure the picture of Angel Anderson, beaming at the camera and carrying both of their dogs, Cerberus and Ajax under her arms, tail clearly visibly poking out of her jeans.
George’s eyebrows rose in mild surprise, and he drank again from his beer as he blinked to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.
Carter was used to the expression. “Got a family, you could say.” He said, with a little wry smile.
Ogawa licked his lips and blinked again, in silence. “I thought you liked blondes.”
Carter chuckled. Ogawa always had a way of surprising him.
“She used to be blonde.” Williams said, stuffing the phone back in his jacket.
“Where’d you meet?”
George smiled a little wider. “Oh, look at you go. Take you out of the service and you start fraternizing.”
Carter chuckled again. “What about you, Ogawa, you have anyone?”
“Nah. You offering to be my wingman?” He said with another wry grin, before bringing his bottle to his lips again.
“You want to embarrass both of us, Sergeant?” Carter shot back, taking his own drink.
It was George’s turn to laugh. “It’s just as well. You know how it is-” Ogawa reached under his barstool and rapped a knuckle against his prosthetic, which began just beneath his left knee, “- you lose points for losing a leg.”
“You do?” Carter remarked with a frown.
“Oh I forgot, you don’t date.”
Carter shook his head. “I thought scars were supposed to be - attractive.” He said, mulling over the right word to use.
“Says the man with scars.” George said with a little laugh behind his voice. “Sometimes you can play the sympathy card. But I never liked that.”
“Doesn’t sound like you.” George shook his head, agreeing with the larger man.
“Does she like them? The scars?” Carter thought about it for a moment. “Angel? I never asked.”
Carter’s brown eyes searched the bartop as Johnny Cash began his turn on the juke box. “She never looked twice though.”
“That’s a nice thing.” Ogawa remarked simply. “So you talked to any of the others?”
Carter helped himself to more AmberBock. “No.” He said, savoring the malty flavor left in his mouth. “I hear from Buck every now and again. He took Angel and I skydiving.”
“Fuckin’ Buck.” Ogawa smirked. “What’s he doing?”
“Working on some spit of an airfield in Canada.”
“He always said he wanted the quiet and the cold. Had enough desert to last him a lifetime.”
“Haven’t we all.” Carter said, staring through the bartop. George stared parallel to him, looking past the wood, past the cooler, past the hardwood floors…
Sergeant George Ogawa couldn’t reckon whether he was breathing in dirt, or fire. But every heave of his chest felt like it would choke out the next.
But he kept breathing.
His ears were ringing. He felt his left leg going numb. He was using his M4 as a crutch, burying the barrel in the desert soil with every step. One of the Privates was helping him move along the side of the Humvee. Ogawa was leaving a trail of blood with his footprints. One foot dug against the soil, straining to push George forward.
The other foot was meters away.
Ogawa coughed, and as staccato gunfire rose over the ringing in his ears, he placed a hand on the armored vehicle. He felt the vibration of the fifty cal above, more than he heard it. He looked up and saw the sun, and the blurry silhouette of First Lieutenant Williams, directing the fire of the men who could hear him.
A few minutes ago, the Lieutenant's Humvee hadn’t been here. Ogawa’s squad took fire from the ambush. They had no cover.
Now they did. Carter glared at the enemy across the rocky desert for a moment, before turning and looking Ogawa right in the eye. He placed a hand on his shoulder, and shouted something George couldn’t hear.
Then another explosion shook the earth, and all went black.
Carter took a breath. “Winter’s rolling in - Millennium’s nice in the winter.”
Ogawa blinked out of his staring contest with the counter. He swallowed and blew out a breath. “Yeah? I’ll have to visit.”
“Shame you aren’t in town longer. Next time? Angel and I will put you up.”
Ogawa smiled and met eyes with his fellow veteran. He lifted his brown bottle of beer. Carter lifted his. “To the quiet and the cold.”
Carter smiled ever slightly, and tapped the neck of his bottle against Ogawa’s.
“To the quiet and the cold.”