Broken Oak This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

June 27, 2014
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It was an autumn day early in fall when the letter arrived. Sealed tightly and stamped with the American flag, it felt like cold iron in her hands. With the dry leaves crunching ominously beneath her feet, she slowly walked back to her house, unable to look away from the tainted white envelope she held.
At first she thought it was from him, but she soon came to the realization that it simply couldn’t have been. The mailing address was written with a hand she didn’t recognize, and that fact nearly brought her to her knees right then and there.
She missed the door handle when she reached for it. Her eyes still glued to the letter before her, her left hand went searching for the handle frantically, opening it with weak fingers when she finally found it. Slamming the door behind her she then shoved her back to it and threw the letter on the floor, slapping her hands over her face and sinking to the ground.
A deep, dark part of her soul was laughing at her as she cried. It was mocking her; it was telling her it told her so. She had known this was going to happen from the moment she read that letter over his shoulder two years ago. Or, perhaps the first time was when they were staring deep in each other’s eyes, saying “I do.”
Maybe she knew it the moment she first laid eyes on him.
Whenever the revelation had truly occurred didn’t matter to her, though. Nothing mattered to her. Warm, salty tears seeped through her trembling fingers as she sat like a punished child on the floor, muttering to herself how much nothing mattered anymore; how nothing had mattered to her anymore since he left… Since he had first gotten that draft letter.
“Oh, dear. Oh, dear,” she whispered between shaky sobs, lowering her hands to reveal to the empty house her blotchy tear streaked face, and slowly hoisting herself onto her feet. She brushed absently at the skirt of her dress as she looked about the entryway aimlessly. “Oh, dear,” she mumbled once more, taking tentative and clumsy steps towards the living room. “Oh, Robert, look what you’ve done this time.”
She approached a large window that overlooked her orange, yellow, and red backyard. Crossing her arms, she fastened her gaze on the big oak tree. All of its leaves seemed still to be holding on tight, all different shades of the bright autumn colors. Its giant branches reached for the heavens, as if asking for salvation.
“My Robert,” she whimpered, tears rolling down her cheeks like boulders. “How could you do this to me? How could you leave me all alone?”
As if already losing her mind, she then saw before her herself and her beloved husband, standing under the big oak tree while holding hands. Gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes made them look like a couple of fools, which, at that point, was all they really were. Perhaps all they ever would be.
Grabbing a stray lock of her burgundy hair, he brushed it behind her ear and smiled at her, murmuring something as he did so. And, grinning like a giddy school girl, she murmured something back as well.
That had been the only deciding factor between the house she now called home and the one that could’ve been her home. It all came down to a tree.
“It sure is a nice tree,” Robert told her with a smile, brushing that strand of hair behind her ear. “That other house don’t got a tree like this one.”
Then she had giggled. “You really going to base our decision on whether or not the house has a tree? Sounds like a reason your folks would have given to argue for picking this house. Aren’t you afraid of being too much like your folks?”
Robert shook his head. “Never in a million years. My ma and pa are nothing short of exemplary in my eyes. I wouldn’t mind if I followed directly in their footsteps.”
Maybe that was when she had really known that someday she would be standing right in front of the very window she stood before now, crying her eyes out after receiving a letter. Robert wanted to be just like his parents. Just like his good ol’ ma and pa. The only problem with that was that his father was killed in World War I, and he and his mother had discovered that through a letter sent to them by the U.S. Army. And, according to Robert himself, his mother had never been the same since.
“You got what you wanted, Robert,” she cried. “You’ve been shot into your grave and I’m going to be a crazy old widow.” She paused to lower her head and let out her sobs. Slowly, as the minutes passed, she could swear she felt her very heart breaking. It felt like fist in her chest was tearing at it, ripping it into pieces and stomping it into her stomach. “For the love of God, look what you’ve done.”
After what felt like hours, she finally left the window, allowing her unstable feet to drag her down the hall and back to the envelope that lay on the ground. As she picked it up she argued with herself whether she should open it at all. The optimistic side of her pleaded to open it, just to make sure; it could be some other notice. But, the dominant and pessimistic side of her scoffed in optimism’s face, retorting that the army doesn’t send home happy little letters saying that your loved one just won a gold star; they aren’t children anymore. No, the Army only sends bad news.
She walked into the kitchen and threw the letter away. Staring at the trash can in crazed silence, she eventually decided that that wasn’t good enough and she peeled the garbage bag away from the can and carried it out to the bin outside, slamming the lid down when the deed was done. As she looked up to start walking back inside, she noticed a woman waving back at her. She stood in the driveway no more than fifty feet away with a bundle of envelopes under the crook of her arm.
“Hey, Claire,” the woman greeted amiably, brushing her curled, black hair out of her porcelain face. “Just getting the mail.”
“I see that,” Claire replied, dropping her gaze and starting toward her front door. The leaves crunched more with every step she took, and for some odd reason it started to sound like gunfire to her ears.
“Hold up, Claire,” the woman demanded politely, jogging like a princess across the small patch of grass that separated their two houses. After she stood only feet from Claire, she regained her poise and her smile, flipping her hair and pressing a hand to Claire’s shoulder. “What’s the matter? You don’t seem quite right this morning.”
Claire had never liked Molly; she had always been too peppy, too happy, and too invasive. She stood before the distressed widow now with a fake smile and fake concern in her dark eyes, holding onto Claire with a grip that seemed just a bit too tight. “All I was doing was taking out the trash,” Claire growled as she shrugged Molly’s perfectly manicured fingers off her shoulder so she could start back for her home.
“Well, have a good day, dear,” Molly called after her. “You can come by for some coffee and cheesecake if you’d like!”
Claire rolled her eyes as she entered her house and slammed the door, trying her hardest to hold in the tears that just wanted to be set free. Entering the small kitchen, she took a seat at the table and picked up the newspaper that she hadn’t moved since the day it arrived, just as Robert told her to do. Looking at the headline, the tears finally began to roll free, and she rested her head down on her forearms. It was meant to remind her why he was fighting; to make sure she knew what he was fighting for. It was to remind her of the day that caused the war, and to forget the sorrow that his being drafted left for her.
“Oh, Robert,” she murmured, digging her nails into the paper so it ripped. “Please, come back to me.”

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