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He Said Forever
The stiff fabric of her black A-line dress scratches her, but she doesn’t notice. Just like she doesn’t notice the pain that shoots up her arm when her nails slice into the soft pads of her palms because she’d been clenching her fists too hard. She doesn’t notice the pools of golden sunlight on the grass, nor does she see the other mourners, their clothes so similar to hers, or the preacher in his midnight blue suit. She doesn’t take in the hard, rough texture of the wooden chair or pale tombstones gleaming in the midday sun.
She doesn’t notice these things, or anything else for that matter, because her world has shrunk. Her entire universe has diminished into one point and that point is the brown ash-wood coffin that sits before her on a polished white dais.
The coffin where he lay.
She can’t think his name; it’s hard enough to just keep breathing.
As the preacher speaks on, asking God for help, she finds herself studying the coffin. She stares at it and sees that the wood isn’t just wood; it is, in fact, a map. The grain becomes fields of grass; the darker patches of timber becomes rivers and valleys and it is all made up of different shades of brown and if she strains her eyes hard enough she can even make out lighter patches, which she imagines represents towns and cities.
Then something moves inside of her and her world expands slightly, just enough to accommodate the second point in her belly.
‘It’s okay,’ she mentally says to the Nudge as her hand automatically flutters to rest on her swollen abdomen. ‘Mommy’s fine. Just a little while longer and we’ll get you something to eat, okay?’ The Nudge comes again, as if to show her it understands, and she wonders for the umpteenth time if ‘it’ is a boy or a girl.
He trailed a row of kisses along her jawbone as his hand traveled down to her stomach, where a small bump was beginning to form.
“What do you want?” She asked, pulling back slightly to look into his luminous blue eyes. He smiled and kissed her nose.
“I want whatever’s in there.”
She is brought back to the present by a gentle touch on her elbow.
“It’s time to sing.” Her brother whispers. She stands, fiddling with the thin, icy band of her wedding ring, a constant reminder of what she’s lost, as the congregation starts to sing. She keeps her mouth closed; if she opens it the only thing to come out would be a chorus of sobs. And she can’t cry, not here, in front of all these people—tears would indicate weakness. To keep from breaking down she shuts off all of her senses; retreats into herself and locks the door. But she can’t cut off the flow of memories, images of the last time she had cried…
She clutched at her husband’s flannel shirt, breathing in the sweet scent of him, sobbing with the pain of her loss. A small part of her brain told her that she shouldn’t be acting like this; she had to be strong for her brother, but that part was lost as another wave of grief washed over her.
“Ssssshh, it’s okay.” He whispered, his arms tightening around her, rocking her gently.
“Why… does it hur…hurt so…much?” She asked in between sobs.
“He was your father,” He replied, “You loved him; of course it hurts.”
“But now…my brother and me…we’re…I’m a…” She broke off, unable to say the word ‘orphan’.
“I know,” He said, his voice low and soft, “I know.” When her crying had somewhat ceased and her breathing returned to something resembling normal she pulled away and stared dismally at the wet mark covering most of his chest.
“I’ve ruined your shirt.” She whispered.
“I’ll survive.” He replied, offering her a small smile before his expression changed to one of concern. “You should probably get some sleep.”
“Yeah.” She felt exhausted, as if her bones would crumble into nothing if she stayed upright for much longer. He suddenly swept her up, bridal-style, and carried her to their queen-size bed, setting her down gently among the pillows and drawing the thick comforter up to her chin. He turned off the light and climbed in next to her, stroking her hair gently.
“Go to sleep now, sweetheart.” He said, the words becoming a sort of croon.
“Go to sleep.”
The song comes to an end; the preacher bows his head for the final prayer, and she finds herself mimicking his actions, though her mind is unable to comprehend the words. She feels a gentle pressure on her hand; she looks up to see her brother smiling at her. It’s not his usual full-blown grin; instead it is a small smile, sad and reassuring. And just like that her world grows again.
Three points, now.
She is surprised to find herself smiling back. It’s the first time she’d smiled in six days, since the portly man in military dress had knocked on her door and handed her the letter.
The preacher says “Amen”; two men, both in dark forest green uniforms begin to fold up an American flag. Her breath hitches in her throat. “Please,” She wants to say, “Please don’t make me take it.” But already one of the soldiers, a tall man, with skin so black it’s almost blue, walks towards her, the folded colors in his hands and sadness in his eyes. He begins to speak, his low velvet voice washing over her as an icy terror builds in her stomach.
“As a representative of the United States Army…”
“No, please, no, I don’t want it…”
“…it is my high privilege to present you this flag. Let it be a symbol…”
“No!” She mentally begs him. “I don’t want it; please don’t make me take it…”
“…of the grateful appreciation this nation feels…”
“Don’t make me, don’t make me…”
“…for the distinguished service rendered to our country…”
He doesn’t understand; to take that flag would be acknowledging his death.
“…and our flag…”
Reality hits her; He’s going to give it to me whether I want it or not.
“…by your loved one.”
He offers her the flag but she doesn’t take it. She can’t; she’s numb, frozen. She can’t move, can’t think, can’t even blink as she stares at the white stars on the field of navy blue. A murmur rises; the mourners shift impatiently as she stands, unmoving, until her brother gently nudges her forward. Of their own accord her arms lift, her hands grasp the thick folded fabric and she brings it to her chest as the cold horrifying truth hits her; he’s gone.
The echoing sound of gunfire splits through the still graveyard, making her jump, once…twice…three times; the sharp tang of gunpowder sits heavily in the air for a moment, before disappearing altogether. She bites her lower lip, drawing a small speck of crimson, as she wonders if that was the last sound he heard, or if he didn’t hear anything; maybe it was simply over. A small tendril of hope snakes around her heart; perhaps he didn’t suffer and he just opened his eyes to heaven.
But, what if he did suffer? What if the last thing he felt was a searing pain, instead of her hand in his, the way it should have been?
Suddenly, the mound of cloth in her arms feels so much heavier, an unbearable burden; the others start to leave, but she doesn’t notice them as her world expands again, this time to include the flag. However she feels no love or grief for this fourth point; instead she feels hot, abrupt anger seeping into the nooks and crannies of her heart. How dare this flag take him away from her so suddenly, without warning, how dare it deprive her of the chance to say goodbye! She wants to rip it apart at the seams or throw it to the ground and burn it.
But of course she does neither of those things because he died for the things this flag symbolizes.
The bus rolled to a screeching halt in front of their house. They looked at each other; he picked up his duffel bag.
She had spent the past hour watching his things disappear, one by one, into that bag. His clothes went first, then his Yankees baseball cap, shaving cream, deodorant, a pack of razors, a box of stationary, a few pens, his lucky tie.
He looked at her again, dropped his bag, and pulled her in close.
“I love you.” He whispered before kissing her. She wrapped her arms around his neck, wishing she was strong enough to keep him there forever. She pulled away first.
“Do you have to go?” She asked. They’d had this conversation before; she just hoped his answer would be different this time.
“Yes.” He was calm, his voice steady. She felt her heart breaking.
“Please don’t.” She pleaded, her arms tightening. She knew it was wrong to beg him like this but at that moment she was willing to say or do anything to keep him with her.
He didn’t reply; he didn’t have to. His eyes said it all. The bus driver honked the horn; after a hurried kiss and another “I love you” he picked up his bag, turned and walked down the driveway. She counted his steps.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.
Then he was gone.
She looks up and blinks owlishly. The mourners are gone; the graveyard is empty save for her and her brother.
“Could you give me a few minutes?” She asks in a small voice. He nods.
“Of course.” He replies, gives her hand a small squeeze then heads down the gravel pathway. She waits as he rounds a corner, vanishes behind a line of trees, and then takes two, then three steps towards the coffin, all the while holding the folded up flag to her chest like a life line. She takes a deep breath and closes her eyes.
“You said forever.” She whispers brokenly, “And it would’ve been.” For one brief second she can see an entirely different path, the future that died when it had barely begun to live. She can see a house on a beach where the days are long and the nights warm. She sees lace curtains in the windows, a porch swing, a garden that fairly bursts with color. She can see him, too, with his beautiful smile and bottomless sapphire blue eyes, laughing his deep throaty laugh as he cradles their child, a perfect little baby with light curls and long fingers. Sees them slowly walk away, down the seashore, until they disappear, the vision with them.
She chokes back a sob, opens her eyes and takes a step back.
“But I have to stop thinking about what could’ve been because that future died with you.” She takes another step back, then another. “It’s going to take me years to get over you,” She blinks back tears, “And maybe I never will. But I have to try.” She starts to turn away, then stops.
“It was always you, you know. It was like I couldn’t have said no, even if I wanted to.” A pause, “I love you.” She waits, listens for something, anything.
Then her baby kicks, impatiently, reminding her that she has things to do and a life to live.
“Don’t worry about me,” She says, in case he is listening, “I won’t be alone.” Her baby nudges her again, as if to say it agrees.