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Bringing Them Home

Kristan Hoffman

We were not pleased. For over an hour we had been crowding around the gate like dogs at dinnertime, and now they were telling us it would be another twenty minutes before boarding. A plane they had been waiting for had just arrived, but on the opposite side of the airport. There were certain passengers who needed to make their way here.

We rolled our eyes, thinking that no plane had ever waited for us.

There was sighing, grumbling, quick trips to the restroom. At long last, the gate agent called for those passengers requiring assistance. Then priority members and first class tickets. Then the lowly masses, row by row.

We shuffled down the jetway with our backpacks and our rolling cases. We settled into our seats with our laptops and our headphones. When everyone was finally seated, we expected to push back and take off. Instead we waited. Again.

The air in the cabin grew warm and stale from our bodies, from our frustration. We were about to complain to our flight attendants when a clomping noise came from the jetway, like horses on cobblestone. We all sat up and peered over the headrests in front of us.

A small group of soldiers came on board. Clean-cut and stone-faced, they quickly took their seats in the first two rows behind business class. They had no luggage.

Okay, we thought. For them, we would gladly give our time.

But by then, the plane was pushing back. The engines spun. The wings trembled. We took off.

The flight was long but smooth. We sailed over the city, twinkling lights spreading out below us. We nosed up through the clouds, the thin air icing and cracking our skin. We leveled out, surrounded by stars, and then we read, worked, watched videos, and slept.

The soldiers sat like statues the whole time. Hands in laps, faces forward, mouths silent.

Hours later, the plane began its descent. Another city, another constellation of lives fanning out across the earth. Our stomachs dropped as the Fasten Seatbelt light dinged on. A tired voice asked us to return our tray tables and seat backs to their upright and locked positions. We stowed our personal belongings and leaned forward in our seats, eager to get up and off this plane, eager to stretch our legs, eager to be home.

The captain came on the speaker. He thanked us all for our patience at the beginning of the flight, and asked us for just a little more patience now at the end.

This is a bit unusual, he said.

We were carrying fallen soldiers in our cargo hold. If everyone could remain seated until the bodies were transferred off the plane and into the waiting vehicle, he would be most appreciative. Also, we shouldn't worry about the airport’s fire trucks stationed along the runway. They were only there to do a water salute.

The cabin went completely silent. We looked at each other, and out the windows, and at the magazines peeking out of the seat pockets in front of us. We snuck glances at the soldiers sitting at the front of the plane.

There was a loud whir and a soft whine as the wings adjusted and the wheels went down. There was a whump as we landed, and the screeching of wind as the plane sped up to slow down.

As promised, two boxy red trucks sat on either side of the runway. They let loose two giant arcs of water, and we passed underneath. Droplets fell onto the plane and ran down our windows, glistening in the blue and yellow runway lights. An unnatural rain.

The plane pulled up to the gate and stopped, but we didn't stand. We didn't even unfasten our seat belts. We didn't reach for our phones.

The cabin door opened, and a military officer stepped on board. He walked past first class and found his fellow servicemen. They stood as one.

Whatever words they spoke, brief and low, were lost to us. Afterward, the officer dismissed each soldier with a nod. They marched past him, off the plane, out of sight.

The officer stayed, moving back a little ways into the first-class cabin. He addressed us in a gentle but resounding voice.

Those men took an oath, he said. To bring home the fallen. To get them back safely to their families. You all did not take that oath, but tonight, you fulfilled it nonetheless. Your country thanks you.

The heel of his polished boot clicked against the thin carpet as he did an about-face and exited the plane. We were left floating in his wake, suddenly adrift from a shore we hadn't known we were standing on.

The flight attendant kindly threw us a line. She let us know that it was now safe to move about the cabin. She thanked us for choosing her airline, and hoped to see us again on a future flight. She knew the script and gave us our cues.

We stood. We opened the overhead bins and pulled down our bags. We emptied out, row by row, and shuffled up the jetway.

The airport was dim and sleepy. A lone janitor wearing headphones was running a vacuum right in front of the gate. He paused the machine when we emerged, his eyes passing over us with disinterest before settling on the view through the window.

The way his brows drew together made us look, too.

A casket draped with the American flag. Then a second. A third. A fourth. They slid out of the plane’s belly on a conveyor belt, like babies being born.

The soldiers stood next to the caskets, one apiece. They waited, patiently, as a small herd of people walked across the tarmac. The herd separated, peeling apart at the direction of the military officer. He pointed each family to their fallen soldier. When everyone had gone past him, he looked at the ground and sighed.

We all crowded around the window, lips pressed together, hands over hearts. We watched as an older woman in a purple shawl collapsed against the first casket in a tearful embrace. The man next to her grasped her shoulders as if to hold her up, but his head was shaking so hard that the tremors rippled down the pleats of his suit. Several men, women, and children surrounded the second casket, clasping each other’s hands and crying into each other’s chests. The circle of their bodies was like a halo. At the third casket, two dark-haired women with a toddler between them laid their palms against the red and white stripes of the flag. They lowered their heads and began to pray.

A young man stood alone by the fourth casket. He stared at it for a long time, hands in his pockets, mouth in a hard line. He stepped forward and leaned in, squinting as if to see through the fabric and wood. Then he pounded his fist against the casket, once, with force.

Shocked, the soldier standing next to him grabbed the man’s wrist and yanked him away. The man didn't resist. He simply turned and fell into the soldier, sinking to his knees.

That was when we turned away.