Husbands

This is another story inspired by the Jesus bracelet. See this earlier post for the picture and explanation.

        I slid my plane ticket onto the attendant’s desk, not bothering to look up from the email I was skimming on my phone.  I’d hoped to have at least one night to recoup after this trip.  Maybe I’d have even spent it at home with my wife.  I couldn’t remember the last home cooked meal I’d eaten.  Then again, home wasn’t as relaxing as it used to be.
        It didn’t really matter anymore, though, since I wouldn’t be getting that night anyway.  A good reporter followed the news.  And according to the email, the news was halfway across the country.
       I spared the attendant a glance to retrieve my ticket and shuffled my way onto the plane.  My small suitcase slid easily into the overhead compartment and I slumped into my window seat.  I considered pulling out my laptop to confirm the details of this additional, last minute trip and the breaking news I’d be covering.  Then I saw the first batch of travelers I’d be stuck with for the next two hours and tucked my briefcase under the seat in front of me instead.  Working on my phone would generate enough sour looks from this bunch without needing to add more technology.
        As more and more of them piled onto the plane, I noticed a lot of them carrying on large, group conversations.  And those groups merged and split like cells as they all found their seats. I rolled my eyes and groaned.  It was going to be a long two hours.
        I pulled my ear buds from a pocket and thumbed through various jazz albums on my phone.  If I had those ear buds in and kept my eyes on the screen, whoever ended up next to me would hopefully be less likely to start chatting.  It had worked on previous business trips. Then a metallic clatter brought my eyes to the aisle floor.
        A set of keys, or rather, a collection of key chains with a few keys on it, sat there in a jumbled clump.  My gaze traveled slowly up and I was not surprised by what I saw of the owner.
       Flowers.  A lot of flowers.  And who wore a hat on an airplane?  I mean, a ball cap I could understand, but that monstrosity?  Was she really going to wear it the whole time?
        Then I came back to her face and instantly felt somewhat shamed by the cynical thoughts.  She had a charming smile.  To make up for the disrespectful attitude, I gave her a small smile in return.  Her eyes lit up.
        For a moment I was transported back to the first time I had seen my wife.  Her eyes had lit up the same way.  And it dawned on me that she didn’t smile like that anymore.  Or perhaps she did and I was simply too busy to notice.
        “Hi there!”
        I came back to the present and suppressed a groan.  I hadn’t gotten the ear buds in soon enough.
        “Uh, hi.”
        “I’m Sally.”
        She was a talker.  Of course she was a talker.
        “Frank.”
        The flowery Sally gave me another charming smile.  Then she pushed her carry-on the rest of the way into the overhead compartment and bent to pick up her key chains.  She sat in the aisle seat next to me and the jangle they made grated against my already frayed nerves.  Like she was sawing my brain with them instead of flipping through them like they were a stress reliever.  And naturally she was jabbering away the entire time.
        I tried to focus on the emails I’d opened on my phone while the plane taxied out to the runway, but for some reason my eyes kept being drawn back to those ridiculous key chains.  There was Micky Mouse.  I could only imagine from Disneyland.  The Eiffel tower.  Either Paris or LA.  I couldn’t see her type enjoying LA, but I also had a hard time seeing her affording a trip to Paris.  A glittery one in all colors of the rainbow must have meant she had grandchildren.
        Then my eyes landed on one that seemed somehow different from the others.  In what way, I couldn’t figure out.  I almost dismissed it as another crafty thing her grandchildren had made her.  But something about it made me look again.  Perhaps it was the strange order in which the beads were arranged; or maybe it was the gleaming spots on some of them revealing how often she held this particular chain.  Whatever it was, I couldn’t stop glancing at it.
        Then, as the plane reached altitude, I became aware of a stark lack of chatter.  I glanced at the woman.  What was her name again?  Sally.
        She was staring at me with an unnerving look in her eyes.  Like all my sly peeking hadn’t fooled her for a second.  Like she knew every thought that had gone through my head and knew exactly what sort of man I was.  A shiver ran down my spine.
        Then she looked back down at the chain, releasing me from her piercing gaze.  I dragged in a deep breath as quietly as I could.  What was with this woman?  I started tapping out a reply to my boss’s email.
        “You know, I’ve had this particular key chain for a long time,” she said.  “I made it myself, actually.”
        I glanced sideways at her.
        “Really?  I never would have guessed.”  My dripping sarcasm didn’t phase her.
        “Yup.  It actually tells a whole story, too.”
        Oh no.  I was in …
        “Would you like to hear it?”
trouble.  Crap.  If I said yes, I would be stuck listening to old lady stories for the entire trip.  But if I said no, I’d come off as a heartless jerk.  Which normally wouldn’t bother me, except we were both stuck on this plane.  Being rude to embezzling CEOs, criminal masterminds, and multimillionaires was one thing.  Being rude to harmless, kindly old ladies – especially kindly old ladies I would be sitting next to for two hours straight – was just … Well, let’s just say I was even less eager to endure her glares for the entire trip.
        I glanced back at Sally and nearly groaned at the hopeful look in her eyes.  What was I getting myself into?
        “Why not?  Tell me the story.”
        Then, the strangest thing happened.  She started telling me all about Jesus, the same Jesus I’d learned about in Sunday School as a kid.  Only she began explaining things I’d never thought about, showing me new perspectives I’d never considered.  Without even realizing it, I had tucked my phone away and was soon not simply listening, but asking all kinds of questions.  Questions about Jesus, about faith, about life.  Where only moments before I had thought I had everything I could possibly want, I now felt empty.  Moments ago I had contemplated spending a night with my wife like she was a risky asset, and now being two hours away from her felt like an eternity.
        My boss had told me the breaking news was halfway across the country.  But he was wrong.  The breaking news was 30,000 feet in the air, tucked inside the heart of a sweet and caring grandmother.

Mothers

This is another story inspired by the Jesus bracelet. See this earlier post for the picture and explanation.

     I surged to my feet as the ball hit the bat with a crack and went soaring over the players heads.  My son chucked the bat behind him and took off around the bases while I shouted and urged him on.  It wasn’t a home run, but he could make it to third if he pushed himself.  My face scrunched in a grimace when he stopped at second.
     It was the third inning and he’d been holding back the whole time.  If he didn’t win this game he was going to have some serious explaining to do on the way home.  This kind of slacking was simply unacceptable.  He was better than this and he knew it.
     I bent to take my seat again and nearly toppled over when someone bumped me from behind.  I spun around, ready to lay into whoever it was, but rolled my eyes instead.
     It was her.
     Even the worst tongue lashing wouldn’t make a difference with her.  She’d just smile through the whole thing.  Heck, she’d probably pray for me at the end of it for good measure.
     She was late, as usual.  Who knows why?  I had yet to see her witness the first inning of any of our sons’ games.  How did she expect her son to take the game seriously if she didn’t set the example?
     I grumbled to myself as she plopped down next to me.
     “Sorry I’m late. What did I miss?”
     I declined to answer as my son’s teammate sent the ball into right field, a sacrifice play allowing my son to make it to third.  I ground my teeth.  If he’d pushed himself on his last at bat, that would have been a run for home.
     “Oh, well done!” cheered the mom next to me.
     I glanced sideways at her.  Her son wasn’t even at bat yet.  Then again, all the other moms were cheering him, too.  Whatever.
     Late mom next to me turned to the mom behind her to ask how we were doing.  I massaged my temple at the reminder that no one had scored yet.  We usually had at least one run by now.  Everyone moaned as the current batter struck out.  That ended the third inning.
     I sighed as I watched the opposing players hustle off the field, replaced by our fielders.  Late mom bumped me again when she flung her arm around, waving to her son as he took the field.  How embarrassing.  How old did she think her son was?  Four?
     Then I rolled my eyes as her bracelet got caught on her sleeve.  She gave me a sheepish grin.
     “Rats.  This thing is always getting caught on stuff.  Isn’t that just the way of it?”
     If she didn’t stop nudging me, I was going to explode.
     “If it keeps getting caught, then why do you wear it?”
     She practically beamed at me and I instantly regretted the question.
     “Because it’s not just a bracelet.  It tells the story of Jesus.”
     “Oh, please.  I don’t need any of that religion crap, so don’t start.”
     Her smile turned pitying.  Oh, I wanted to smack her.
     “We all need Jesus.  Even your son understands that.”
     I groaned.  Trust her to bring up the biggest bone of contention between me and my son.  She must be one of the leaders at that ridiculous youth group he insisted on going to every week.  I’d only allowed it because most of his teammates went, so I figured it was another opportunity to strengthen their bond as a team.
     “Listen, I don’t know what sort of mumbo jumbo you feed him at that absurd group of yours, but we don’t put up with any of it in our house.”
     She just kept smiling.
     “But wouldn’t you like to know?  I mean, how can you combat it if you don’t know what it is?”
     I opened my mouth to refuse, but closed it again as I processed her words.  She had a point.  Then the first opposing batter stepped up to the plate.
     “Listen, why don’t we trade numbers and we can get together over coffee to discuss it?”
     Intrigued, but distracted, I rattled off my cell number.  A minute later she’d pressed a slip of paper in my hand, no doubt with her number on it.  I started to panic.
     “Hold on, don’t get it into your head that you’re going to convert me or anything.  I just want to know what my son is being exposed to so I can keep him from getting distracted from what’s important.”
     “Oh, of course.  After all, the best defense is a good offense.”
     I narrowed my eyes at her.  She just smiled at me again and I got the unnerving feeling that I was getting more than I’d just bargained for.
     Then I shrugged and turned back to the game.  I was strong.  I had too much backbone to give in to someone like her.  Besides, what did she have that I could ever possibly want?

 

Sisters

This is the first story inspired by the Jesus bracelet. See this earlier post for the picture and explanation.

I twisted the key in the ignition, killing the hatchback’s engine, and took a deep breath.  It was just a grocery store. I could do this.
I yanked on the door handle and levered myself out of the car.  My eyes stayed glued to the pavement all the way to the automatic doors.  If I kept my head down, maybe I’d get through this unnoticed.
It was the middle of the day, so chances were slim that anyone here would recognize me.  Still, I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone, so I erred on the side of paranoid and made a beeline for the TV dinners.  No one ever stuck around in that aisle.
I sighed in relief when I got there without making eye contact with anyone.  Safe from pitying smiles and painful condolences, I stared at the colorful array of single serving boxes.  She’d always teased me about eating so many of these things, claiming I’d wake up one day made of cardboard.  My eyelids fell shut and I dragged a calloused hand down my face.  My sister would be handling this so much better.
Yeah, I probably would be, and you know why.
I whipped around so fast my foot slipped.  Elbows went flying, along with half the chip bags on the snack shelf behind me.  I leaned back against the chilly, glass doors of the refrigerator.  A groan slipped out of my mouth while a tear dripped down my cheek.  Of course it wasn’t her.  She was gone.
She was … d-
Well, she wasn’t ever coming back.
“I can’t do church, sis,” I whispered.  “That was always your thing.”  I pulled in a deep breath and started picking up bags.
“Oh, let me help.”
I spun toward the unfamiliar voice, latching onto the distraction.  She was pretty, in a nondescript way.  Not exactly worth a double take, but something in her smile made my gaze linger anyway.  Somehow it reminded me of my sister, though they shared none of the same features.  Then she began grabbing bags and I blinked myself back into the moment.
“Thanks,” I said.
We replaced bags in silence while I tried to get my head back on straight.  Our hands bumped when we both reached for the last bag at the same time.
“Oh, sorry.”  We spoke over each other.  There was that smile again.
I watched as she lifted the bag to the shelf.  A colorful bracelet made of an eclectic assortment of beads dangled from her wrist.  The crafty looking jewelry brought back long buried memories, and for the first time in several weeks, a smile crept onto my face.
“I like your bracelet.”  Wait, did I say that out loud?
She turned back toward me.  What was it about that smile?
“Thanks. I made it.”
“I wondered.”  I bit my lip.  Oh, what the heck.  “I used to make things like that a lot.”
“Really?  That’s awesome.  But you know, this isn’t just a pretty piece of jewelry.  It tells the life story of Jesus.”
My chest tightened and I began to get a hint of why her smile seemed so familiar.
“Would you like to hear the story?”
I barely held back a cringe.  How many times had my sister tried to tell me about her faith?  I could feel the automatic refusal click into place.  The same words I’d repeated to her over and over.
Then her face drifted up in my memory.  The way her brows wrinkled with hurt every time I’d declined to hear her.  The way her shoulders slumped, as if I wasn’t just rejecting her words, but rejecting her.  The refusal lodged in my throat before it could leave my mouth.
If I’d only known how little time I would have with her.  If I could just go back and listen for once.
My surroundings snapped back into place and I was again staring at the woman in the store.  She was still waiting for my answer, that smile brushing her lips again.  I took a deep breath.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’d like to hear the story.”

Jesus Bracelet

I recently attended a Christian Women’s Retreat where we made bracelets and key chains that represent the life story of Jesus. A picture and explanation are below. The next three posts are short stories I wrote that were inspired by these bracelets and key chains.

 
The shepherds (3 brown flowers) left their flocks, and a star (star charm) led the three wise men (3 green beads) to witness the birth of Jesus (clear bead). Jesus grew up to become a carpenter (wooden bead), but left the profession to become a fisher of men (fish bead). He then traveled the land to share the gospel (blue bead) with the help of His twelve disciples (12 rings). Then he was crucified, spilling His blood (red bead) to purify us (open diamond) and after three dark days (3 black beads) He rose from the grave (open circle). He then ascended into heaven (blue/white bead), leaving behind the Holy Spirit (dove) because of His great love for us (red/white heart). So now if we accept His gift of salvation (clear diamond) we can be born again (butterfly).

The Apple Tree

(If you’d like to listen to this story, you can find the audio narration at the podcast 600 Second Saga, narrated by Mariah Avix)

    Flowers and leaves swayed in the breeze as Ann strolled through the gardens. It had been a lovely morning, until something hard landed on her head.

    “Ow.” She bent to pick up the bright green apple, then peered up into the branches above her. She sucked in a gasp.

    “Nic, what are you doing up there?”

    The prince perched in a most undignified manner on one of the thicker branches of the large apple tree. He grinned sheepishly.

    “Um, picking apples?”

    Her eyes narrowed. “Picking apples.”

    “Uh, yes.”

    She stared at him for a moment.

    “Any particular reason you are picking them instead of one of the gardeners?”

    “Um … uh …”

    She crossed her arms, waiting for his poppycock excuse.

    “Okay, so I’m not just picking apples.” After darting glances around them, he launched into his explanation, which was, indeed, poppycock. Then he had the gumption to invite her to help.

    “No!” she replied, her forehead wrinkling in consternation.

    “But it’ll be hilarious.”

    “Nic, your pranks are always hilarious to you and annoying to everyone else.”

    “I know. That’s what makes them so funny. Oh, come on, Ann. Don’t be such a stick in the mud.”

    Her hackles rose at the insult. She shot him one more glare, then hiked up her skirts and climbed up after him. He let out a quiet whoop in triumph.

    “I will have you know,” she spat when she reached the branch he was perched on. “I’ve seen plenty of ‘sticks’ flower quite beautifully when simply ‘stuck in the mud.’”

    Nic just rolled his eyes and continued picking. She wrinkled her nose at him and started pulling fruit from the branches as well. He could be a pest sometimes, but he was her best friend. Her only friend. When it seemed like all the world was out to get her, he could always make her laugh. And even she had to admit, his little prank would be funny if they could pull it off. Soon, they’d created a sizable pile of apples at the base of the tree.

    Then a quiet cough came from below and they both froze.

    “Something tells me you’re not picking those apples for the pies Miss Bridget is making for the feast tonight.”

    Ann gulped. It was her father. She knew helping Nic with his prank was a bad idea.

    She dared a peek down toward him. Would she have to scrub the dishes? Go to bed with no dessert? Surely he wouldn’t make her attend the ball tonight. That would be horrid. Her brows pinched in confusion upon finding him staring at their pile of apples. His hands rested on his hips and she couldn’t see his face.

    “Uh,” she heard Nic say above her. Her head whipped up in panic. “Sure. Sure it is. That’s exactly what we’re doing.”

    “Uh-huh,” her father replied skeptically.

    Finally he looked up at them. His lopsided smile baffled her, but not nearly as much as the wink he gave her before turning around and disappearing out of sight. She sat frozen. Should she stay and take the punishment, or try to escape and risk making it worse? She didn’t have enough time to answer the question, though, as her father returned within moments, carrying two huge boxes. As he set them down she was able to peek inside. What she saw only confused her more.

    Nic gasped and when she looked up, his expression was all delight and excitement. She looked back down at her father, who gave her another wink. She looked back at the boxes. Then, as her father began to help with their mischief, she suddenly understood and nearly let out a chirp of laughter. Sometimes being naughty could be fun.

    It took them most of the morning to finish picking all the apples, then a good bit of the afternoon to get through the contents of the boxes. They were all exhausted and sweaty by the time they were done, but they looked up at the tree in pride. Her father held the boxes, now containing the apples they’d picked, Ann carried more apples in her flower baskets and Nic propped his hands on his hips.

    “This is going to be epic,” Nic whispered.

    A creaking in the distance spurred them into action and they all raced back to the rose covered trellis they’d decided to hide behind. The apples were tucked underneath a particularly large rhododendron and they all crouched by the opening in the trellis, Ann and Nic on the left and her father on the right. Just then, Miss Bridget came bustling into view carrying a box much like the ones Ann’s father had brought, only this one was empty. Ann glanced up at Nic and smothered a snicker as his face turned red from suppressed laughter. She turned to her father on the other side of the path and he gave her another wink before turning back to watch Miss Bridget.

    They all held their breath as the cook reach the base of the tree and set her basket on the ground. She straightened, peered up into the branches … and gasped.

    “Pears? Pears?! When did my apple tree start growing pears?!”

    At that point they were clutching stomachs and biting fists to keep silent. The shock and befuddlement on Miss Bridget’s face made all the effort entirely worth it. The ties her father had found blended so well with the branches, no one would know with a cursory glance that the pears weren’t indeed growing on the apple tree.

    Miss Bridget stumbled back a step and made the Saint’s sign of protection against evil and Nic let a snort escape, apparently unable to hold it in any longer. Miss Bridget’s gaze snapped in their direction. Ann gulped and glanced at her father with a worried frown. Would he abandon them? He looked back at her and his eyebrows rose as if to say ‘oops, I guess she caught us.’ Relieved, she returned it with a grin and a shrug.

    Miss Bridget marched right up to them, slamming her fists onto her hips. Nic guffawed in renewed laughter and fell onto his behind, wrapping his arms around his middle, tears streaming down his face.

    “Think it’s funny, do you?” She glared at Nic and Ann, then turned and gasped in surprise to find Ann’s father. He gave a guilty shrug, trying and failing to appear contrite.

    “Not you too, milord! What’s gotten into you?”

    “My humblest apologies, madam,” he replied, rising and giving her a polite nod. “I believe the apples you seek are beneath the rhododendron there.”

    She harrumphed and retrieved the apples, turning to march back to the kitchen. The three miscreants peered at each other, not sure what they were expected to do. Then they all jumped as Miss Bridget shouted back at them without breaking stride.

    “Quit lollygaggin’ and get all those pears back where they belong and report to the kitchen.”

    Ann and Nic peered up at Ann’s father.

    “We’d best do as she says. You know how fond the king is of that woman’s cooking.”

    So, the three of them spent the rest of the day ‘picking’ pears and baking in the kitchen. And when one of those hard won apples somehow ended up thumping Nic on the head, Ann decided it was the best day ever.

An Ill-fated Scarf

(For anyone interested, there is an audio recording of this piece, narrated by Mariah Avix, which can be found through the podcast 600 Second Saga at insani-x.com)

    Ann poked her head out the door to the castle gardens.  Her eyes widened as they adjusted to the darkness.  She tiptoed out and shut the door behind her.  The combined scents of lavender and sweet pea wafted toward her and her nose twitched in appreciation.

    Cheery laughter drew her attention to her goal.  Just one look at the pretty gowns, then she’d sneak back to her rooms to prepare for the birthday celebration.  Nana would never know she was gone.  She turned toward the courtyard, creeping from shadow to shadow.

    Finally, she crouched behind the large sweet pea covered trellis that bordered the fire lit courtyard.  All the ladies.  All the gowns.  And even prettier than her eight year old heart could have dreamed.  Everything sparkled, like they were all floating on a sea of diamonds.  A sigh escaped her lips.

    A squeeze on her upper arm was her only warning before she was yanked onto her backside.  She peered up toward the sky and crumpled in on herself when she saw who stood above her.

    Princess Stella was several years older than her and much taller, so from Ann’s vantage point, cowering at her feet, Stella practically loomed.

    “Spying on the higher class, orphan?” she sneered.  “Hoping to dig up some dirt?  Or perhaps you planned to soil the whole occasion with your lowly presence.”

    Ann stammered.  Surely Stella knew Ann had been invited, didn’t she?

    “Hey, girls,” the princess called over her shoulder.  “Look what I found.”

    Ann clambered to her feet as Stella’s jewel encrusted friends joined them in the shadows.  “I h-have as m-much right to be here as you.”

    “Ha, we’ll see about that.  Ladies, how much would you say that scarf is worth?”

    Prices were shouted out, each more outrageous than the next and Ann’s hands darted up to cover the glittering fabric that concealed her hair and ears.  Stella smirked and held up a hand to quiet the group.

    “Certainly more than a petty orphan could afford, wouldn’t you say?”

    This was met with snickers and jeers.

    “It w-was a gift, from my father.  He’s the k-king’s Ambassador.”

    The snickers elevated to chuckles and guffaws.  Stella’s brows rose in mock surprise.

    “Oh, is he now?” Stella mocked, glancing over her shoulder at her co-conspirators.

    Ann’s eyes began to sting.  Stella’s eyes narrowed to slits and her lips quirked up on one side.  Ann decided in that moment that she must have been a demon dressed in the princess’s body.  Stella was the only one in that courtyard who knew who she was, but Stella would go to her grave before admitting their acquaintance in public.

    “Nellie, what is the punishment for stealing?”

    Ann’s stomach turned to sludge.

    “For a first offense, cutting off the hand.”

    “Well, then.  It looks like you have a choice, orphan.  Give me the scarf, or suffer the consequences.”

    Ann gasped and clutched the scarf tighter to her head.  “But I didn’t steal it.  My father gave it to me.”

    “Hand it over, or I’ll call the soldiers.”

    She shuddered.  She’d overheard stories, seen the soldiers training.  Stella was a kitten compared to them.  Ann lowered her hands to the knot at the nape of her neck, but paused before untying it.

    Her father would be so disappointed if she lost another gift.  And Ann was too ashamed to admit that Stella was taking them from her.  Picturing his downcast face as he learned of her missing scarf, her gut clenched.  She’d had enough.

    Ann took a deep breath.  She met Stella’s smug stare with icy resolve.  She lowered her hands.  Then spun and ran.

    Shouts and crunching footsteps followed her, but she knew the gardens better than any of them.  She was going to beat Stella this time.

    She jumped over daffodils, ducked around azalea’s and climbed over short trellises, avoiding the paths altogether.  She paused beneath some draping wisteria and held her breath.  A sharp crack to her left startled her and she stumbled onto the path.  Her foot crunched on gravel, giving away her location.

    Panicking, she pushed her way through a row of unruly forsythia and stumbled into the courtyard.  She paused as several pairs of eyes turned to her in surprise.  The sparkly gowns she’d admired moments before, now surrounded her in flurries of glitter.

    Then a rustling and shouting from behind made her jump and turn.  A few girls from Stella’s posse tumbled out of the forsythia and spotted her.  Ann bolted for the courtyard’s main doors, ignoring the shouts of the guests.

    She didn’t make it more than a few steps, though, when she spotted Stella from the corner of her eye.  The princess charged straight at Ann.  Her feet flew, but she wasn’t fast enough.  Ann felt a sharp tug on her scalp and her feet slipped as Stella yanked the scarf from her head, pulling out a handful of pins and hair along with it.

    Her heart dropped into her sludgy stomach as gasps surrounded her, followed by an eerie silence.  Ann turned to see Stella standing frozen.  Stella stared at her like Ann’s eyeballs had fallen out of her head.  Her silver scarf dripped from the princess’s fingers.

    She’d always known she looked a little odd, that her hair and ears were a little different from everyone else.  But she’d always thought of her oddities like having a large nose or being unusually short.  Something she could be teased about, but nothing more.

    Tonight, as she stared back at the horrified faces surrounding her, she finally noticed what her father had never told her.  The real reason he’d always made her wear her scarves.  Why she’d been privately tutored all these years.

    Not a single head in that crowd bore green hair, nor did a single ear show the slightest hint of a point.

    Her throat tightened more and more with each achingly silent second that passed.  Then sharp footsteps drew her attention to the courtyard doors.  Her father plowed through the doorway and stumbled to a stop as his terrified gaze landed on her.  Her sludge soaked heart wrung itself dry.  Then a gentle zephyr plucked the scarf from the ground and as it drifted past her, Ann desperately wished she could follow it to the twinkling stars.

Memorial Day

She stumbled through her bedroom door and slammed it shut behind her. Her arms clutched a folded flag against her middle, squeezing it like she’d been wrapped in a straight jacket. She fell back against the door and, with a choking sob, slowly dripped to the floor. Her shoulders jerked and shivers traveled over her body as she wept. Her lips nearly disappeared when she pressed them shut, trying to remain quiet in her grief.

There was no reaction as he materialized across the room from her. His weapons were no longer strapped to him, his fatigues replaced by a different and much more relaxed uniform; the t-shirt and faded jeans he always wore whenever he was home on leave. But this time they were even more faded than usual. In fact, his entire body was faded. He could see the pattern and texture of the carpet through his sneakers.

His eyes pinched in sorrow as he watched the girl weep. She was breaking right before him. And he couldn’t put her together this time.

An unnerving tugging sensation pulled at his stomach and he remembered how little time he’d been granted. His feet left no indentations in the carpet as he strode to her and knelt before her bent knees.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispered hoarsely. “I didn’t want to leave you like this. I never wanted to leave you at all.” His voice hitched.

“Why?” she croaked, though she was unaware of his presence. “Why, why, why?”

“I don’t know, honey,” he sobbed in response. “I don’t know.”

He spread his knees and scooted closer, desperately wanting to pull her into his arms, to crush her to his chest as he’d done so many times before. His hand instinctively reached to caress her cheek, but it fell right through her body. His throat clenched, holding back more sobs.

“I don’t know why any of this has to happen and I would come back to you in a heartbeat if I could. But I do know you will make it without me. You’re strong, so strong. You will get through this. I know you will.”

Her head fell to her knees and he ached, once again, to hold her. Then the tugging came back and the ache turned to panic.

“I will always love you, honey. Always. Nothing can stop that.”

The tugging grew stronger and stronger and he saw his hand, hovering above her head, begin to fade.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” he chanted as he slowly disappeared until even his voice faded away.

She gave a few more hiccuping sobs, then slumped down to the floor, exhausted. Worn out from the grief, she eventually fell asleep, her head pillowed by the flag, the representation of the country he had died to protect.

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He slid into the driver’s seat and set the six pack of beer on the seat beside him. Man, that brand brought back memories. Memories he wasn’t sure he was ready to face yet. He swallowed and dragged in a steadying breath, then turned the car on and pulled out of the parking lot. It wasn’t a short drive to the cemetery, so rather than letting old memories crack his composure, he focused on one more recent.

The funeral had been small, but respectful. Perhaps a bit more formal than his friend would have preferred. His lips twitched as he pictured her expression if she’d been able to see it. Then the solemnity returned. She wouldn’t be seeing anything again. She would never give him that bemused smile again. Oh, how he missed her smile.

He’d been a member of the honor guard. He’d fired his salute shots. His throat clenched as he recalled kneeling at her Soldier’s Cross after the memorial. They’d both seen a lot of awful stuff out there. Stuff that would have had him chugging painkillers just to escape it, if not for her. They’d kept each other sane through it all. She was still keeping him sane, even now that he was home for good. Even now, after she was gone. She wouldn’t have wanted him to quit trying, quit living just because she wasn’t around anymore.

The entrance to the cemetery came into view and he slowed to pull onto the narrow drive. She would have liked the place. Again, a little more formal than she would have liked, but it was really green and open. Besides, she deserved the recognition and respect the memorial cemetery afforded every resident.

He parked in one of the little lots strewn along the drive; the one nearest to her grave site. Then he slipped two bottles out of the cardboard carrier and stepped out of the car. There were other people there, but it was still pretty quiet. It was nice. She’d needed more quiet in her life. Better late than never, he guessed.

He strolled over to the headstone he would always remember and stared down at it for a long moment.

“Hey, Smallfry. Sorry, it’s been a while.” He cleared his throat. “I suppose I thought being away might make it easier, I don’t know. It doesn’t. Still hurts like hell.”

He took a quick, ragged breath, then set one of the bottles on the edge of the flat headstone, careful not to cover any of the words. Then he eased down onto the grass beside it. For a long time he just sat and watched the sun inch closer to the horizon, taking an occasional sip from his beer.

“I looked up some of our old poker buddies. Thought I’d get out a bit more. That should make you happy.”

And just like that, all those old happy memories slammed into him. The late poker nights. The movies. The bowling games she’d dragged him to. It was a whole other life. Like living someone else’s memories. He couldn’t make the man he was now fit into those moments.

He frowned then. Because she did. Remembering her carefree, bright-side-of-anything personality didn’t hurt as much as he’d been expecting. And as he glanced down at her unopened bottle, he realized it was because she’d never lost that spunk. Despite everything they’d gone through, or maybe because of it, she’d always stayed his Smallfry. She was just as tough as the rest of them, but while he’d grown hard and gruff, she’d never lost her spirit.

“Wish you could tell me how you managed that.” He huffed a sigh. “Maybe I’ll figure it out on my own someday.”

As the sun set, his hunched shoulders gradually rolled back. His quiet, introspective words turned lighter and even a few small chuckles escaped as he recalled aloud the brightest moments of their friendship. And by the time his bottle was empty, he thought he might actually be able to figure it all out. There was no way to go back to that happy, carefree time, no. But he might, someday, find a way to go on living without her.

The light was fading fast then. He tapped her bottle gently with his, then hauled himself to his feet.

“Well, Smallfry. Same time next year?” His lips pulled up in a weary smile. “I’ll bring the beer.”