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The war had been hot, so hot. But it had also been cold, so cold, and filled with grief. I couldn’t take it.

I walked up to the house, so happy to be home. One suitcase. That’s all I brought back with me. That’s all I had needed; I couldn’t take the memories that would upset me. I couldn’t take them here. It would tear me apart. I couldn’t do that to my family.

I gently smiled and put the key into the door. I’d been holding it between my index finger and my thumb the whole flight and taxi ride home, so incredibly excited. It slipped into the door with ease and I carefully pushed it open, waiting for that familiar squeak.

I smiled broader when I heard it. Yes, I was home. “I’m back.” I said in the foyer, more to myself than anyone who would be on the couch watching TV or in the kitchen making coffee. But it was too early for anyone to be up yet.

In the war, we’d all been up early. Sometimes it had felt like we got no sleep at all. Just shooting. That’s all we’d been doing. Some of us lost recognition of who we were shooting because the war was too much, too harsh. My comrade Frankie had gotten shot by one of ours. I hadn’t seen who; I’d only seen them drag a screaming, writhing body away while I rushed to go help my pal. But he was my pal no more.

I shook my head to erase the memory. But it didn’t help. None of it did and none of it ever would. They were too fresh, ingrained in my head and no Alzheimer’s could take it away.

I set my suitcase down by the door and walked through the hall. It was still familiar. But it smelled different. It smelled…like cinnamon. Before it had always smelled like lavender, or even pine a couple of times. The strong cinnamon burnt my nose and made my eyes water, but I ignored it. Change was good, right?

I turned into the kitchen, expecting to make coffee. But when I opened the cabinets, I couldn’t find the coffee grain. No coffee machine, either. My father loved coffee; when had this happened? I probably just wasn’t looking in the right spot. No matter.

In the war, I’d forgotten the taste of coffee. Everyone had. Our position was bad, and sometimes we barely even got to eat. We were always shooting… When we did get to eat, the food had tasted like ash in our mouths, and it had been hard to chew. We knew. We always knew that we were risking our safety, just by eating. But we had to live, to protect our country. Even so, I hadn’t felt like I’d been living anymore. They’d already killed me. I couldn’t take it.

Instead, I pulled out a box of cereal and poured myself a bowl. A rather large bowl. I was happy to have the familiar taste of food in my mouth. It still tasted different, but at least it didn’t taste like ash anymore. And even though the house was warm and toasty, the cutlery was cold. Colder than I remembered. It felt like it hadn’t been used in a while.

I washed the dish when I was done and replaced it where I’d found it—not the spot it had been before I’d left, but that didn’t matter much. Then I marched into the living room and collapsed on the couch, head lolling back. It was comfortable, but the couch felt like it hadn’t been used in a while, either. Hmm.

And then I noticed them. Ashes. On the mantel, above the fireplace. The latter looked clean. There’d almost always been a fire before I’d left; now there wasn’t even soot in on the hearth. And then I realized. This place had changed. Ashes. On the mantel. Again, cinnamon tears burned my eyes.

A couple times in the war, we’d had to walk around those bodies of our companions. The cadavers only brought us sadness; we hadn’t been able to smell them or anything above the smoke. But as always, people came to take their souls away, to clear the area. I hadn’t known if they’d ever return, not as living people, but as dead ones. Would they return to their country? And then everything was a blur. For the rest of my time, I saw everything through blurred eyes from the tears that wouldn’t leave. It had helped against the smoke. I had gotten used to it, and could still function properly. But this time, pride for my country had withered away, leaving nothing but woe and numbness in its place.

Small feet padded down the carpeted stairs. A hand grabbed the banister and swung around, then ran through the hall into the living room. She pounced on me. “John!” She shouted. “I’m so happy your back!”

John. Was that my name? In the war they’d called me Johnny Boy. They’d looked up to me, proud to have me as their leader, wondering just how I could make it through the day with all the death and pain. The real answer? I couldn’t. That wasn’t me making it through, that was a shell, like a used up bullet, pushing my way through until I absolutely couldn’t take it no more.

“Hey, Lucy!” I said, holding her up in the air. My young sister. I didn’t know how young; I just new she hadn’t hit double digit. “How old are you now?” I asked her, pretending to joke with her, but I was dead serious.

“I’m ten, silly!” She said. Oh. That was a big change. How come I hadn’t realized that? I put her down next to me and leaned forward with a grim face.

“What’s wrong?” She asked me. “You missed me, didn’t you?” She asked.

“What? Oh, yeah, o’ course I missed you! It was hard, being away for so long.” I said, pausing. Then I looked back at the mantel. “Whose ashes?” I asked.

“Oh,” She said, and I heard the sadness thick in her voice. A tear slipped down her rosy cheek. “Dad’s.” She said. “You left, and…and he just…” She sniffed.

In the war we’d dealt with so many deaths that I couldn’t even remember who had died anymore. All I could remember were the number of times I couldn’t feel a thing for any one person anymore. It was all meshed together, like dirt and rain. They were the dirt, I was the rain. Can’t see through muddy water. Can’t keep going. It sucks you down and destroys you, even if you’re still living.

I thought I couldn’t take that. But it was this I couldn’t take. So much had changed here; this wasn’t the familiar home I once new. Now it was filled with pain, more than I had ever felt in the war. I loved Lucy and Mom and Grams, but I just couldn’t take it anymore.

“Luce,” I began. “I just came back for a quick visit.” I lied.

“How quick?” She asked, brow knotted. “When are you going back?”

I sighed. “I need to head back today, actually. I just came to tell you girls I love you, and I’ll come back again someday.” I knew I was just breaking her heart now. She was a smart kid and she knew that I wouldn’t be coming back soon, if at all. I stood, before she could stop me, and heard another set of feet on the stairs.

“John!” She shouted. “You can’t leave again, you just got here!” She said, running after me as I walked through the hall. More tears were rolling down her eyes.

I turned back and hugged her, picking her up in the air, and then set her down again. “Sorry, Luce, I don’t have a choice.” But I did. “I have to go back, but I’m glad I got to see you again.” I told her.

My fingered curved around the only thing that was still familiar to me: my suitcase. I opened the door.

“John,” My mother called from the stairs.

I turned back and took in her red, puffy eyes and her gray hair. “I’m sorry, Mom, but I gotta go.” Too much has changed, I added silently.

I was a terrible person for leaving them, but I just couldn’t take it. My family had changed, because of me, and there was no way to change it back. There was too much pain in that house, and…and I had to leave.

Sooner than I had planned, I was back at the base, at the secretary desk. Then I saw the colonel walk by and I turned, saluting. “Sir, I want back in, Sir.” I said.

He turned to me, saluted in return and looked me over with a hard face. “You sure, Corporal?” He asked.

I nodded.

He rubbed his stubble for a moment, remembering how hard it had been for me, for everyone, but then nodded and walked away, leaving me with the secretary.

“I’m back.” I spoke to myself.





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Sarah K. said...
Jun. 26, 2010 at 11:40 am

*mind blown* Holy shoot I love it!!!

Ah, I'm very jealous of your superb ideas and writing skillage. Keep writing :)

 
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