He called her Nebraska. The first time he did was in a Wal-Mart parking lot with August humidity pressing the air from their lungs. It also happened to be the first time she saw him. “Whoa there, Nebraska!” he’d said as the blue shopping cart got away from her and rolled right into him.
She apologized profusely. At least it was empty, and hadn’t got a chance to gather much speed. Besides, what the heck was he doing standing in the cart return?
“Why the heck are you standing in a cart return?” she asked him. He was tall. Lanky. He had a military haircut, and she should have known then. He was young; she likely had the long side of a decade on him. But when he smiled, everything just felt better.
He vaulted out of the pipe enclosure and held something up between his thumb and index finger. A nickle. He grinned again, and his green eyes crinkled, “I dropped it.”
“Well that explains it.”
“And now,” he said, “I have enough to buy you a Coke.”
“I should hit guys with shopping carts more often.”
Now she laid in their bed, with all the lights out, and looked at the flashing clock. 2:43AM. And she listened to the crackle of the sat phone connection under her ear.
“You still there, Nebraska?”
She nodded habitually when she said that she was. “You were supposed to be cleared for leave three weeks ago,” she said. She knew her voice sounded teary, even though she always tried to be strong for him.
“I know. We came under attack though. We’re hunkered down out here, out-numbered, I think. They’re supposed to be sending in more units, but they keep getting waylaid.”
Waylaid. She knew that meant killed. He always tried to protect her from the brutality.
“I’ll be home as soon as they get us out though.” There was a break in their connection. She called his name a couple of times, straining to find him within the scratching. “Listen to…Ne….aska. I lo… very m…. D… orget that, OK?”
Her fingers ground her lips against the fronts of her teeth while she nodded madly. The clock kept flashing. 2:57AM. There was no sound from the phone.
He’d bought her that Coke. And she’d told him her name wasn’t Nebraska. It was Lydia. He’d said, That’s a beautiful name, Nebraska, and grinned his big goofy grin. Why Nebraska? We’re in Louisiana.
He’d told her later, after he’d dropped to his knee inside a cart return outside that same Wal-Mart that she made him think of blue skies and wide open plains and sudden summer storms. That she made him think of home. And that he loved that Springsteen album, it was his favorite. So it only made sense that she was Nebraska to him.