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Love, Not War This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

   Whenever I think of home, I don’t get the fuzzy feelings most would. When I step into my house, I feel like cardboard. Stiff and useless. My mom was always there for me, a bright sun against the cloud of my father. My sister was a firecracker. Bursting with expression, good or bad, every which way. So, cardboard signed up for the military. I’d come back a man, having made something of myself.
   The jolt of the plane hitting the runway broke my eyes from sleep, my breath heaving. The sun from the window had been baking my cheek for hours, but when I pulled away a cool burst of air kissed the surface.
   The drive from the air port wasn’t far. I tried to keep my mind off the crowds of families awaiting my buddies. Even amongst my friends, I still felt like cardboard.
   When I pulled up to my house, the same white townhouse on Maple Street, I barely recognized it. Sure, the peeling white paint was still familiar, but maybe I wasn’t specific enough. I didn’t recognize the girl on the porch.
   My sister’s hair grows like weeds. In months, it had gone from a short boyish blonde cut to soft curls cascading over her shoulders like a rushing yellow waterfall. She squinted at me in the matching golden sun, an arch of disgust forming on her lips.
   She rested her chin on her hand and glared at me. The same cold stare my dad used to give my fifteen year old self, no doubt the learned habit from his coaching days. I always thought girls were suppose to turn out like their mothers, but my sister was all Dad. She had a spitfire temper with her youth still intact while my dad preferred to shrug things off with a grunt nowadays. Yet all the brute strength and thick head stubbornness were traits she and Dad shared. It was probably the only thing they had in common.
   “Hey,” I called, knowing she wouldn’t start off the conversation. Frankly, I didn’t want her to, not sure what I did to offend her.
   “You’re home early.” Her lips curled back into a sour form.
   “Yeah,” I answered, staying staked in front of the porch. My eyes caught the white corner poking out from underneath her arm.
   “What’s that for?”
   “Rally.” Her face came to life for a second, grabbing the sign as if she were sharing a secret with me. Love not war made me want to throw up.
   “What the-?” I didn’t know what to do first - pin her down or smash the prop. I bit my tongue in an effort to keep my anger at bay. It only brought me blood.
   “Just got back from Vietnam. Remember me?”
   “Sure, glad you’re back,” she deadpanned. I rolled my eyes and trudged up the porch, the steps crying under my weight.
   “How’s Dad?” I asked the door.
   “Old,” Victoria commented. I almost laughed.
   “Mom?” I wondered again, but when I turned she was halfway across the lawn, a blue Chevrolet Caprice honking at the end of the sidewalk. I watched her sun kissed hair blaze behind her, leaving a fire of pain in her wake.
   I sucked in air before opening the door. I knew my mother would be perched at the window, a fragile hand gripping the crippled curtain as she watched her daughter grow up.
   “Mom?” I called, though it wasn’t needed. Her quick embrace was enough to settle my nerves and I pressed my nose into her shoulder as I inhaled her lilac perfume like it would be my only breath.
   Tears sprung into her eyes, a watery glaze over them.
   “Will. So good to see you,” she choked, pulling me into another necessary embrace.
   Dad sat where I left him months ago. Head down as he stared an an invisible stain in the carpet, hands folded neatly around the armrests of the olive club chair, the pancaked cushion hugged him.
   “Dad,” I chirped, plopping across from him into the brown plaid love seat. I settled in with my elbows resting on my knees.
   “Soldiers don’t sit like that,” he mocked in a groggy tone, as if just waking up. I snapped into position, my back a precise line. I eyed him carefully, my eyebrow arched in suspicion.
   “How have you been, Dad?” He shrugged, a movement the average eye wouldn’t have noticed.
   “Same old, same old,” he grunted. I bit my lip, acknowledging my sister’s honest words. The house held it’s breath as our conversation died out. For all the conversations I had prepared for, nothing came close to the silence that ensued. Time had stopped.    My eyes darted from left to right wearily, searching for anything but the motionless man in the corner.
   “Want something to drink?” I asked, my lifeline for a distraction. Before he uttered a word, I was off the couch and trekking into the kitchen.
   My mother was there as always, her eyes soft and curious. Her gaze never broke mine until I slammed the door of the frig, a Bud between my clenched fist.
   “How long has he been like this?” my voice quivered just above a whisper. I combed through my mind to find the old dad I knew. The one from my coaching days with a spark in his soul, fighting to live a full life.
   “You know your father,” my mom excused him. She swiftly went to comfort me, her hand brushing up and down my bicep. “He’s always been quiet.”
   I shook my head minimally, knowing she was wrong. The shrill peal of the phone broke my mother’s hold, the lie she told us suddenly choking me.
   “Hello?” the shouts on the other end alerted me before I made eye contact with my mother. Her mouth fell agape.
   “Where’s Victoria?” panic split the cracks open in her voice.
   The rally. The bottle shattered as it connected with the linoleum floor, the screen door slammed and I cranked the key into the ignition. The tires squealed down the road as I headed into the maze of downtown.
   Blue uniforms and the orange hue of a fire spilled over the cracks of the sidewalk. Screams echoed in their painful symphony, blurs of instinct streaming away from the chaos.
   I called for her, my longing tone falling faint against the thick shouts that surrounded the scene.
   Suddenly my eyes caught locks of the sun, stretching behind her as she sprinted in retreat.
   “Victoria!” I bellowed, clutching her arm. She whipped around, her eyes melting sapphires.
   “Will!” she gasped, collapsing against me. We held each other captive, a billowing musical of heaving breathes.

***

   The sky was an emerging bruise once we returned. I leaned back against the seat, another failed effort to calm my taunt nerves.
   “Back to the place we used to call home, a sour tint of unspoken words…” Victoria murmured, her face shadowed by the night.
   I turned gradually. “What’s that from?”
   “A poem I wrote.” Her voice was a tired groan, but honest nonetheless.
   “I agree.” I surprised myself. “This house used to be so…colorful, didn’t it?”
   “You made it like that,” she noted.
   I turned away from the window again. My eyebrow arched, coaxing her to go on.
   “You remember Dad. Even when he was stuck in his coaching growl, it was something. He lost that life when you left for Vietnam.”
   “Well, I didn’t choose to go. I mean, I did, but…I don’t think I came back any braver. Still get lost when it comes to them,” I murmured.
   “No…you just came back with biceps,” she joked. I laughed, my stomach prickling with pain at the absence of the gesture.
   “When I was in Vietnam, all I thought about was how it would feel coming home. We weren’t given anything coming back.”
   I heard Victoria shuffle in her seat, the minty tang of her breath whooshing into my ear.
   “I’m sorry. No one in the world agreed with what you were doing. When we lost you, we lost Dad, and even Mom stopped trying. So I stopped too.”
   Silent tears made tracks down her porcelain face, tipping over the edge of her jawline and disappearing into darkness.
   “I’m sorry for leaving you,” I whispered. We locked together again, her heat seeping into my skin and her tears cooling me. I nuzzled into the dip between her shoulder and neck, drinking the scent of lavender.
   The house planted on Maple Street didn’t make our house. It wasn’t the peeled paint or the creaking porch. Not the olive club chair or the crippled kitchen curtains. It wasn’t the words we left hanging in the air, or the fluctuating emotions I believed it to be. It was my sister missing me, my dad’s old coaching voice, and my mother’s warm embraces. I didn’t need welcoming cheers on the tarmac.




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