Melissa wants badly to fly the drone, but Jeff might get mad.
It rests on top of the fridge, like one of those giant insects she’s seen in her oldest son’s books about the Jurassic, gleaming at her, waiting to take flight. She’s been looking back at it for the last few days, wondering if she should even dare touch it.
She ignores the urge and sets the timer on the oven; best to not burn down the house. The last time she forgot something in the oven, Jeff had been out mowing the lawn. He burst inside yelling that he could smell the burning from across the yard. How in the world could he sniff it from so far away, over the smell of the wet grass clippings, with the ear protection on and over the deafening noise of the lawn mower? They say your sense of smell diminishes when you can’t hear. She heard that in a podcast.
But the Hound doesn’t miss anything. The Hound is what the guys in his Afghanistan unit used to call him. That’s because when he was working as a pilot at Creech, nobody could fart fifty yards away without him knowing it.
Those days are long gone though. Now he’s on disability until he can get a contract job and head back out somewhere to the Middle East.
She was down in the hot tub and didn’t smell or hear anything. She had stuck the blueberry crisp in the oven and gone down for a soak. The sun had come out and she was relaxing with the jets at full blast when she saw Jeff run towards the house. She missed the sun, the only good memory she has of Nevada now that they moved to a much colder and rainier part of the country to help him switch gears. She couldn’t hear anything with the jets on but she saw him wave at her, his lips opening wide to yell her name.
“Buy me a new oven then,” Melissa said later when they argued, before he drove out to the supermarket to buy dessert. “The timer on this piece of crap is broken,” she had said as she smashed the glass baking dish into the extra-large cast iron kitchen sink.
“You bitch, set your damn phone,” he had said.
The two kids were woken up by all the yelling. They spent the evening clingy and cranky, the baby crying most of the time while Melissa was trying to have a conversation with their guests, and the toddler throwing fits — he spilled a tall glass of root beer on the white linen skirt of one of the ladies, the wife of a contractor Jeff worked with side-by-side on his last Afghan tour.
Late that night Jeff apologized for calling her a bitch and they tried to have sex. That was a couple of months ago.
Now, the yard is decorated by piles of leaves on each side of the patio, symmetrically arranged. Jeff woke her up early in the morning with the leaf blower— must have woken up the whole neighborhood. Then he went to the city to meet with a company manager who may look past his mental health history and give him a job. This time it would be in Iraq.
He’s definitely changed. In the past he would have cleaned up the piles right away.
She sets the timer on the phone. Forty minutes. It’s the meat loaf recipe that he likes. The meeting must have gone well because she hasn’t heard from him yet.
She looks up at the drone again. Would he get mad if she touched it?
Jeff never used to have gadgets like this, but now that he’s unemployed and home all day he often browses online stores for hours, buying all kinds of things. He must have paid at least a grand for the drone.
His shrink, who is the head of the VA Medical Center in the city and a close friend of Melissa’s family, said it was a good idea for Jeff to connect to his past through an object that was innocent and harmless, and yet could serve as an anchor to some of those traumatic memories. He said that Jeff mentioned that in his cockpit at the Nevada desert all he could hear was the low rumble of the air conditioning, but when he retired and started working as a private security contractor in Kandahar, he heard the constant buzzing of the drones landing and taking off, and the memories started to get the better of him.
Jeff never talked to Melissa about it, but the doctor disclosed to her that the image that most haunted Jeff was one of a little boy he saw on the screen running towards the house a second before an attack.
She never questioned why the doctor disclosed this information to her, but she did ask him what he thought of what Jeff had done. The doctor said that Jeff was just following orders and that somebody had to do it.
“It takes a lot of courage to do this kind of work because so many who will benefit from it will still condemn you for it,” he said, while he walked behind Melissa to the door, at a distance that allowed him to take a full look at her from behind.
She never asked Jeff anything because he doesn’t like talking about it. The only time she heard him address it, he was pretty drunk, joking around with his buddies. He referred to the “silent movies” at work, with the soon-to-be “crispy critters” moving around on his screen eight thousand miles away.
Silent movies? They must be images in black and white with no sound, she thought at the time, until she went on YouTube and discovered a whole drone-porn genre of movies to watch. She didn’t wonder anymore after that.
Before Jeff left for his interview, he played with the boys. The oldest showed him a paper airplane Melissa had helped him build the day before. He flew it right at his dad’s forehead. Jeff laughed. The baby crawled towards him and held on to his shoe. Jeff picked him up and kissed him, then gave Melissa a peck and took off.
She gets a text from him that the meeting went great and he will likely be flying out before Christmas. Iraq and then Afghanistan. Light-duty training and consulting, easy stuff.
“Money’s gonna start flowing again,” he writes.
“A new range perhaps,” she shoots back.
“Anything you want, babe,” he replies.
She pictures Christmas Eve with just the kids and her parents, and thinks that’s not too bad.
He’ll be home in less than an hour, just enough time for the meat loaf to cool down. The kids have plenty of time left on their show for her to step out into the yard and try it. With the youngest in the auto “rock and play” three-position baby sleeper and the oldest glued to the HDTV screen, she’ll buy herself enough time. She makes up her mind and gets on a stool. She reaches for the thing and the remote control that’s tucked behind it.
The drone is lighter than she thought.
She steps out into the yard. The piles of leaves are starting to drift. She can smell autumn coming out of the decaying leaves.
She sets the drone on the lawn and turns on the remote control. She pushes a button in the joystick and the propellers begin spinning rapidly.
The drone buzzes like a giant wasp. She moves the joystick and it takes off. She makes it hover over one of the piles of leaves and the lawn turns brown. She makes the drone soar higher, and higher again.
The buzzing turns into a loud roar as a hatch opens up on the bottom of the plane, and a small cylindrical object shoots out of it.
She’s seen those missile-like shapes on YouTube: a standard laser-guided bomb, powerful enough to wipe out their entire property as well as the neighbor’s.
The world becomes a movie in slow motion as she sees her oldest boy coming out of the house.
“What’s that noise, mommy,” he must be shouting.
She can’t hear him because the roar of the drone is louder than anything she’s ever heard before. She can’t smell the autumn either — the sounds are too loud for her to smell anything. The baby must still be inside in his “rock and play” in front of the TV. She wonders if Jeff will think she forgot something in the oven again.