Marinara stains blotted my white hoodie’s waist hem like blood droplets. Posters of fighter jets lined the grey walls of the recruiter’s office. A Dodgers baseball cap squeezed straight brown hair over my ears and scraggly peach fuzz climbed my jawline. A tuft of jet-black hair topped the recruiter’s head, sides shaved to the scalp. Fluorescent light reflected off his desk’s glass surface. Next to his U.S. Air Force insignia, a name tape read “Daigle.” I’d been studying rank insignias, and four chevrons on his uniform’s sleeves meant Staff Sergeant. Families bundled in winter coats shuffled past the recruiter’s office on their way to the skating rink next door.
“You ready to join the US Air Force?” Daigle said with a Louisiana twang, an accent out of place in Scranton, Pa.
I wasn’t. But I had questions. And, unlike the other branches, Air Force recruiters would let me see my ASVAB scores.
“I want to take the ASVAB and see what jobs I qualify for.”
Daigle wrinkled his brow. “Most recruits go to Basic Training ‘Open General,’ then take the test there.”
“I can list my top five choices at MEPS, right? My top five career field choices? After my ASVAB score tells me what I qualify for. Then I can pick a ship date with one of them available, correct?”
Daigle flashed a used car salesman grin. I wanted him to know I’d done my homework. I knew the lingo. He didn’t need to sell me. Dad had been selling me the Air Force brand since childhood.
“Okay, big-time. What AFSCs are you interested in?”
Saliva webbed in my throat. “Air Traffic Control is my top pick. But Loadmaster and Boom Operator look good, too.”
“All right. Come on to the back. We’ll schedule the real ASVAB sometime soon, but we got a practice test to gauge how you’ll do.”
Twenty minutes later, Daigle had a different tone.
“Well, hot piss! That’s some score, recruit. Listen, you’re still in high school, right? That means you ain’t shipping till summer. We get you in the DEP as soon as we can and one of your picks is bound to be available by then. That hunk of junk we got in the back ain’t the real test, so don’t fill your head with hot air. But if you score like you did just now on the real thing, damn near every AFSC is up for grabs. How do you do in school?”
“High Cs, low Bs, except for English. Sometimes history.”
“Football. I’m a busboy at an Italian restaurant, too.”
“No, none, never?”
Before her heroin addiction, I smoked plenty of weed with my sister, Noelle.
“No. None. Never.”
“What about trouble with the cops? Traffic tickets? Fights?”
I glowed radioactive pink. “When I was fifteen, I got cited at an amusement park for stealing sunglasses from a gift shop. My friends and I were pocketing stupid shit like stickers and gum. Undercover park security swarmed us. Paid a fine and got banned from the park for a year.”
Daigle didn’t blink. “That really it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Jesus kid, this isn’t the Ivy League. We have moral waivers for good recruits who’ve had minor screw ups. So, be straight with me. Is that it, or is there something worse?”
I shook my head.
“Then my job is to get you that moral waiver. Meantime, take a look at this.” Daigle slid a glossy pamphlet across his desk.
A man stood at attention in a multicam uniform, a scarlet beret folded crisply atop his head, “Combat Controller” above him in bold yellow type.
“If you wanna be ATC, these guys are basically forward ATC, some of the most elite special forces in the military.”
I’d read about Combat Controllers: equal parts Air Traffic Controllers and stealth warriors who endure a grueling two-year training pipeline. I liked the title. Combat Controller. Master of chaos.
“I know about them, but I’m worried about the PAST. I’m not a great swimmer.”
“You can train. It’s January. When you want to ship out?”
“Mid-July,” I said—a month after I’d graduate from high school.
“Shouldn’t be a problem. If you want it, you can have it,” he said.
The pamphlet splayed open atop the desk. A team of controllers in specialized suits and oxygen masks leapt from a cargo plane and into the heavens. The glare from the office’s overhead light haloed them like wildfire.
“Pick Noni up on your way home,” Dad had texted, calling Noelle by her nickname. Our parents didn’t let Noelle drive alone anymore. Weeks earlier, she’d celebrated her nineteenth birthday and Christmas in rehab. Sometimes, strung out, she’d fall asleep sitting upright. Others, she’d come home, coked and jittery, and reorganize the pantry. She nearly crashed Mom’s car driving us to school once, Xanax sapping her focus. Noelle had tried most drugs by the time she finished high school, truancy notice and all. Weed, booze, shrooms, acid, coke, ecstasy, Vicodin. She once stole $60, that I’d saved in my nightstand’s bottom drawer, to buy heroin, her drug of choice. When she got out of rehab the first time, she’d talked about joining the Army. Structure, regimen, camaraderie—the perfect medicine for a recovering addict. She was back in rehab months later. I hid the Combat Controller pamphlet in the center console.
Noelle had been born with a leaking heart. We shared vertical scars across our chests. I’d plunged too deep into a rocky bottom lake; she’d had three open heart surgeries for a faulty tricuspid valve. After rehab, Noelle started wearing ice blue contacts, replacing her cookie brown irises. She tattooed ‘pura vida’ in black cursive on her wrist. She’d smoke Marlboro reds and listen to The Doors. She no longer resembled the curly haired drama geek who’d toss popcorn in her mouth while we played Nintendo games.
Becoming a Combat Controller offered an escape route from a small town, which, like all small towns, loved gossip. I hated school because, for many people, my only value was the information I could give them about Noelle. Her abortion. Her stints in rehab. I should have told them to go to hell, that Noni was none of their business, but I usually walked away, meek and silent.
I parked Dad’s dented Mercury Mountaineer in front of Weis grocery store. Noelle emerged through sliding glass doors, her blue polo and khaki pants uniform offering little protection from the frigid air. I reached across the center console, yanked the passenger door’s handle and propped the door open. It didn’t open from the outside. Neither did the left rear passenger door. The right rear door opened from the outside, not the inside.
“How was work?”
“It’s so funny.” She cupped her hands, blew into them, spread them over a vent coughing meager warmth. “Everyone goes to Weis to get their prescriptions, so I know what drugs everyone in town is on.”
I didn’t ask how it felt to know that everyone in town knew what drugs she used, too.
“You hungry? There’s spaghetti and garlic bread at Dad’s.”
Noelle stuck her tongue out and shook her head side to side, short black hair bouncing with it.
“Can we get wing bites instead?”
I shifted the car into drive, pulled onto the main drag, and sped away.
“You let the recruiter sell you on some shit?” Dad asked. He pulled a two liter of Diet Coke from the fridge and splashed it into a tall glass half full with ice and Bacardi Superior. He submerged a tablespoon into his drink, stirred, sipped and tested its strength.
“I said everything you told me to.”
“Then what’s this about Combat Controllers?”
I fished the Combat Controller pamphlet from my pocket and handed it to Dad.
“I can still list my top five non-special forces jobs when I go to MEPS.”
He plucked a smoke from his pack of Marlboro Lights, then nodded toward the front door. “Come with me.”
Despite northeastern Pennsylvania’s sub-zero winters, Dad took his time puffing tobacco on our front porch surrounded by prickly shrubs. A leafless oak tree stood frozen in our lawn. Snow mounted by the foot. Maybe Dad’s nightly rum blanket shielded him from the cold. Maybe he couldn’t resist the momentary freedom of smoke in the lungs—he’d promised to quit more than once. Either way, I shivered while he exhaled ghosts of smoke and read the pamphlet.
“It’s not what we talked about, but I can see myself doing this,” I said.
Dad didn’t want me rucking through a middle-eastern desert, M-16 slung over my shoulder. He hated that people think ‘infantry’ when they hear the word ‘military.’ But he had no qualm with me enlisting. Jobless for years, Dad knew military service guaranteed me health care and steady cash flow, things he couldn’t provide.
“Forget what I said. This transcends everything. Can you imagine coming back here in a few years in your uniform, looking sharp in that scarlet beret? After what you’ll have accomplished?”
Dad’s seafoam eyes glimmered when he recounted long nights playing poker with buddies in the control tower. He loved guiding aircraft to the ground, liked the way the military groomed young people. He never finished college. For him, the Air Force was a source of confidence, community, and pride.
“What if I choose to get out after four years?” I asked. I brushed snow off the spines of picker bushes with ungloved fingers.
I’d come of age in post 9/11 America. Dad had enlisted while the last choppers left Vietnam. He never deployed. But he knew I would.
“It’s your life,” he said.
I had a talent for following orders long before enlisting. Dad was my commanding officer, and it frustrated me when he didn’t provide clear direction.
“But if I were you, I’d hit the gym more. The pool, too.”
“How was Noni?”
“Good. Dropped her at Mom’s. She’ll be over for dinner tomorrow night.”
Dad mashed the remains of his cigarette against the patio’s cement, then flung it into the ice glazed snow.
“Let’s go inside,” he said halfway through the door.
Mom hated Pennsylvania. She’d moved to a house at the other end of our neighborhood a year and a half after she and Dad divorced. For the past six years, my parents had lived amicably as neighbors, as co-parents. Mom shared her house with my stepdad and my two little sisters, Annika and Lexi. My oldest sister, Natalie, lived in Scranton, twenty minutes away. Noelle, sixteen months my senior, alternated between Mom and Dad’s houses depending on her sobriety.
I needed both parents’ signatures to join the Delayed Enlistment Program as a minor. I knew Mom would be resistant. Too dangerous, too much time away from her only son. One morning over coffee, I told her I’d seen a recruiter and wanted to join.
“I don’t know, mijo. Can’t you go to school and do ROTC? At least you’d have your degree.”
“You and Dad sign off now or I do it myself in three months.”
“What career do you want?”
I thought about how ‘Combat Controller’ would sound to my mother. “Forward Air Command. Not so different from what Dad did.”
“You want to be like your father?” Mom asked. She likely feared I’d wind up a lonely alcoholic, or return from Afghanistan with PTSD, the child she’d fixed PB&J sandwiches for while he watched cartoons, gone for good.
Noelle shuffled into the kitchen and filled a mug with French vanilla coffee. Mom eyed her sharply, but Noelle focused on the steam fogging the window above the sink. Noelle turned around, slid her feet across the floor, and shut her bedroom door.
“I could stay here, find a job,” I said.
Northeastern Pennsylvania has plenty of community colleges I could have attended. ROTC offers scholarships. I could have amassed loan debt like millions of students, like Noelle who’d been studying Special Education at a Penn State branch campus. I didn’t understand the turmoil I’d be putting Mom through—one of her children battling addiction, another, eager to leave her for combat zones.
Like Dad, Mom never went to college. A Los Angeles native, she’d look at the sleet and black salt coating our neighborhood’s pothole plagued roads, wonder how she and her family wound up there. Northeastern Pennsylvania is home to plenty of people who love it. For Mom, it was a place where her daughter became an addict, a place with no opportunity, a place to leave.
“Alright. I’ll do it. I’ll sign.”
I lifted weights twice daily. Ran four miles at a time. Trained with my school’s swim team at 5:30 a.m. I hated the stench of chlorine, the vicious cramps that shocked my calves, my lack of improvement. Ninety-five percent of airmen who attempt Combat Controller training wash out, then spend their enlistments checking IDs at the front gate like glorified bouncers. I wouldn’t be one of them. Weeks passed. I took the real ASVAB and listed my career choices, but kept my sights fixed on Combat Controller.
One evening after work, I sat in Dad’s basement rolling around in our black desktop chair. Dad had stuffed unopened bills beneath our landline phone. Teal mold climbed the wall behind the washer and dryer, the carpet discolored from a handful of floods. Yard work, giving our house the appearance of a home, was my responsibility. But we never had visitors, so the inside could rot.
Every movement was audible in our tiny house. Noelle crept down the hallway and short stair case that separated our bedrooms from the kitchen.
“Dad, can I take the car to the library? I have a project I need to finish,” Noelle said.
“You know the rules.” Ice cubes rattled around his glass.
“I’ll only need it for like twenty minutes. I have to print some charts and glue them to my poster board. Please, Dad?”
Eventually, they were screaming.
“Fine. You can go, but Ari’s driving,” Dad said after they traded profane insults.
Dad couldn’t drive because he was drunk. Noelle knew better than to ask him, so perhaps she truly was prowling for heroin. The yelling, the swearing: routine as brushing my teeth or making my bed.
I walked upstairs and outside, into the driver’s seat of Dad’s car, cranked the heat, and waited for my sister.
“Can you believe him?” Noelle said, her silver bracelets jangling around shaking forearms. She slammed the door.
“He loves you. He doesn’t want anything to happen to you.”
“He doesn’t have a leg to stand on, Ari. Dad’s a fucking alcoholic.”
One night between rehab stays, Noelle picked me up from work. A new boyfriend, one she met at a meeting, drove her car. Noelle pressed her face against the passenger’s window, pale and sick. I demanded answers. She told me she’d relapsed, please don’t tell Dad. Two minutes down the road, we pulled over so she could vomit. She sobbed, stringy orange mess dripping off her chin, cried she was sorry. When I told Dad about it that night, he already knew. Drink in hand, he asked me to haul a bucket to her bedroom.
“Noni, if you don’t stop, you’re going to die,” I said, back in the car.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not. It happens.”
“Who do you know who’s OD’d?”
These days, discovering another acquaintance from Pennsylvania has overdosed no longer shocks me. The list of people I know who have died from opiates, prescription pills, other drugs, and alcohol, numbers in the dozens and continues to grow. I lost count years ago.
“No one.” I ground my molars.
Noelle softened her gaze and relaxed into the seat. “I’m not going to die, Ari.”
We drove to the library. Noelle printed charts and images and glued them to a green tri-fold poster. We drove home.
A week later, a blizzard buried northeastern Pennsylvania. My school had cancelled classes the night before, snow blanketing silent foothills when I woke up. I smelled Dad frying bacon in the kitchen. Dad found ways for us to eat well, food stamps or no.
While I lay in bed, Noelle walked past my room and into the kitchen. She asked Dad if school had been cancelled for me and our little sisters. She saw that her campus had cancelled classes, too, then returned to her bedroom.
Snow days meant hot chocolate and video games with my sisters. Mom had dropped Annika and Lexi off at Dad’s that morning because, despite wintry roads, she still had work. They had a friend over and made movies with Dad’s camcorder in the basement. With Noelle back in bed, and Dad scrubbing dirty dishes, I had to entertain myself.
In my bedroom, I rifled through belongings I hadn’t touched in years. A white and brown desk occupied a corner beneath wall mounted bookshelves. Hot Wheels cars rattled around its bottom drawer. As kids in Las Vegas, Noelle and I hauled them to the top of our winding fuchsia staircase and hurled them over the bannister. We scratched the tile floor with an assault of tiny metal while our wheelchair bound grandma hollered for us to stop. My stomach retracted into my ribcage when Mom and Dad came home. I started crying. Noelle draped me in a bear hug and said, “At least we’ll be in trouble together.”
I pinched small rubber wheels between my fingers, inspected the callouses hardening my palms. Enlisting in the Air Force meant no more snow days. I bunched the micro cars in my fists and let them hover above the open drawer, before releasing them like monsoons, and I longed to retain something I hadn’t yet lost, thinking that everything I used to love, every childhood pleasure, would be stripped from me.
In the kitchen, Dad and I chatted about if I’d swim before work that evening. Dad eyed the digital clock above our stove. It was just after noon. Something, I’ll never know what, made him suspicious. He opened a drawer below the microwave and snatched a yellow Philips head screwdriver from a pond of clanking metal. He marched upstairs, to the hall’s end, Noelle’s room. He’d done this often enough that it felt normal.
I didn’t budge. Vigilant, I waited for their usual uproar. Screws from the doorknob thudded against wooden floorboards. My ears perked. Dad eased the door open.
No screaming. I leaped from where I’d been leaning and snagged our house’s landline. Then Dad yelled for me to call an ambulance.
I hurdled the five stairs leading into the hallway, sprinted into Noelle’s room. Noelle’s torso slumped over her thighs. Her turquoise, purple, and white sheets cascaded off her bed. Bloodstains sprinkled the mattress cover where her left arm lay limp, athletic training tape hugging her bicep, syringe sticking from the vein. Her hair that once curled and bobbed as we played together now matted, sweat drenched. Dad lifted her upper half, slouched and heavy. He laid her straight and I saw her face. Purple. Strangled. Mouth slack. Eyes closed.
I knew then she was gone.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
A Combat Controller must efficiently relay crucial information, often in hostile circumstances. “Help,” I said before tossing the phone to Dad.
“My daughter’s overdosed,” Dad said. He chucked the phone back to me. Dad slapped Noelle’s face repeatedly. “Come back, Noelle!” he shouted. “Come back, come back, come back.”
The operator said an ambulance was on the way and hung up.
Dad stood, trembled, planted a shivering palm over quivering lips. “Ari, take over.”
A Combat Controller must operate under extreme peril. I pressed on Noelle’s chest, tried to breathe life into her. I hoped I was wrong, that Noelle wasn’t dead, that I could save her. Her lungs rejected each breath, her flapping and rubber tasting lips taunting me, telling me I was too late. I don’t know how this moment looked to my father. I don’t get to know. We never talked about this moment before his suicide two years later.
Almost a decade afterward, wondering if I had combat-related PTSD, a friend would ask if I have any intrusive memories. My little sisters’ shrieks that boomed through the house like mortar explosions. An EMT Noelle’s age loading her purple corpse onto a stretcher. The noise my mother made when Dad told her, a sound only mothers can make. My parents’ tear-soaked faces shaking when the ER doctor asked if we wanted to see Noelle’s body, punctured and laced with plastic tubes. Huddling with what remained of my family in a hospital hallway. My sister’s heart, leaking until she vanished. The husk of my father, puttering around his house until he killed himself. Returning from Afghanistan and crumbling onto the plot that my father and sister share as a final resting place. And I’d say, no, not combat related.
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