On the days James was home, Summer wrapped him in her arms only twey times a day. Each time, the tips of her fingers glided across the fabric of the clothes on his back centimeter by centimeter, feeling each individual thread with the grooves on her tips. He always wondered why she did what she did.
She smiled, and pressed her lips to his only forty-five times a day; twenty of those kisses went along with those hugs. She never answered his question--to his face at least. His warm, built body, was like home baked cookies at grandmother’s house. Thick and tasteful. It made Summer feel, well, like summer. She felt happy, in love, at home, safe, comfortable, and in some ways, she even felt like they would live forever. Like they could be together every moment of their eternal walk. But. . . those days only came in intervals.
On the days James was gone, Summer wrapped herself in a blanket, looked at the phone, and often never slept. When her eyes closed, she saw blood. She saw war trucks and tanks shooting heavy artillery fire at bases, mines that slipped pass scouts, and James, her husband, coming home with an American flag covering his coffin. The only escape that she found was keeping her eyes open. So that was the only thing she did. Even so, this. . . feeling covered her. It hung on her shoulders, slithered up her spine, and repeatedly kicked her heart, making it beat faster every time she heard the doorbell or the phone ring. It was like a parasite. Doctors didn’t know it existed because it was so rare--so violent--yet she was stuck with it. She named this parasite, Winter, simply because whenever it reared its head she wasn’t herself anymore. She became cold. Frozen. The foil to her personality. When she left the house, there were times that she didn’t notice, but she would stop and think about what James was doing. She thought about how long it had been since they talked on the phone, or on Skype, or if he couldn’t get time to do that, how long ago did he write her? It was like a never ending loom, or a spider-like bug, constantly spinning thread to form a noose to choke the life from her.
She tried to push the feeling down into her toes. Squash the parasite under her bare feet. Futilely, she tried to distract herself with friends and work, but nothing could fill that large gap. This. . . empty space where something should be. This black hole that James usually kept satisfied. It ate away her like a tapeworm.
“Summer,” her friend Mindy said, her lips straightened until they disappeared, “I know what you’re going through. And to be quite honest, you never really get over it. You never feel at peace. You just get better at hiding from yourself.”
“Well, what do you do?” Summer replied.
“Well, I take Mario to get ice cream, or shopping on my good days--days that I’ve talked to George online or something. Basically, days when I feel like he’s okay. I usually get really happy. But sometimes when he hasn’t called, or emailed me, I just go about my day and try to not notice that heavy feeling of anxiety.”
“Is that all?”
“I told you, Summer,” Mindy stood up from the stool around the kitchen counter island in Summer and James’ house. She put her hand on Summer’s shoulder, “You don’t really just stop worrying. I mean, you have moments when you don’t realize you haven’t thought about it, but other than that, you just don’t. It’s hard being an army wife. You’re a bit young to be one too.”
Summer thought about her final statement. “You’re a bit young to be one too. “
How true was it if Summer felt like she had aged so much? She was twenty-four, and was turning twenty-five in two weeks. However, often she thought the numbers switched places; they went from forty-two to fifty-two, in a slight breeze that no-one could feel. Just yesterday, she and James were sixteen. It was after school, and Summer had debate team, and James had swim. They both didn’t feel like going, so decided to skip together. Nowhere seemed right to go. It was either that hidden feeling of guilt that we all feel when doing something we shouldn’t do, or it was the fact that they were genuinely clueless. Either way, they had about two hours before their parents would know that they were “out of practice”, and should be on the way home. They went to a park in the middle of a wooded area about four blocks from the school.
It was late-summer or early-autumn, and the leaves had not yet turned. They were as vibrant as their young love. Ever so often as they glided over the crumbled gravel and mulch paths in the woods, a breeze would blow through the mile high treetops first, before giving a cooling drink to their thirsty skin after traveling between the trunks of thick oaks and huge bushes. James loved the outdoors, and kept a smile on his face on the journey.
“Keep up,” he said, purposely running ahead, “I don’t think we have enough time to sightsee.”
“Har,” Summer snarled, “It isn’t like we’re going anywhere important anyway.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yeah? Well where are we going?”
“Well, we’re heading towards a park, but that’s not where I want to take you.”
James stopped in the middle of his tracks, so fast there were nearly skid marks on the surface of the pebbles he walked on. He broadened his smile before slowly walking to Summer, who was a few paces behind him. His blue eyes with this distinct twinkle in them met with her brown ones, filled with adoration. It seemed like the universe stopped expanding just for this. He wrapped his arms around her waist as she mirrored him, “Have you ever just wanted to, not know ya’ know?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I mean, I won’t hurt you. So, couldn’t you just trust that where we’re going is gonna be great?”
Two things happened in that moment:
Summer felt like she didn’t need to worry.
She knew he was the one she’d marry one day.
He made her feel happy, in love, at home, safe, comfortable, and in some ways, she even felt like they would live forever. He had a feeling of adventure in his actions, and was laid back and humorous in the most stressful and serious of situations. Even in the current event of his three months overseas with no leave, he laughed with her on Skype, “You just must think I’m not gonna last? I mean, I did train for this.”
“I don’t mean it like that.”
“Come on. Be honest, Summer. You’re scared I’m not gonna make it home? Right?”
It was at this point that she couldn’t hold it in, and she found herself crumbling into pieces like the trail in the woods so long ago.
“Don’t cry,” he smiled, “please. If you start, I’m going to.”
“It’s just the news,” she sobbed,”I don’t know if it’s just me, or is all that’s ever on TV and the radio is, ‘This ambush, that heroic tragedy’, ya’ know? I just. . .”
She wept uncontrollably, and thought for a second that his face on the screen could hold her back like he always did whenever she cried when he was next to her. But he was thousands of miles away. Maybe that’s the part that hurt the most for both of them. He slowly began to weep, but he fought the tears to the point that only their heads came to the surface, rather than the streaky trails that should follow, “Listen, Summer. It doesn’t matter what they say. I’m making sure, I come home to you. God, you don’t know how much I wish this war was over now so I could see you everyday in person. I love you so much. Even if something was to happen, I promise you, I wouldn’t let go, until I could touch your face one last time.”
Conversations like such were more frequent than Summer intended them to be. She realized how hard it had to be on him too. But she couldn’t help it.
She had a parasite after all she reminded herself.
Two days prior to her birthday marked the fifteenth week since they saw each other.
“Happy anniversary,” James joked with her over the phone. Summer had worked overtime last week. To prevent from having to pay too much, her boss said she could stay home. She was an administrative assistant at a local startup law firm that her brother’s friend began. She always liked to say her job was to be the boss’ maid considering his office was always a mess. Recently, the business had grown, and more local higher-ups started to invest in it, and more people asked for lawyers who were employed there. Because of their growing size, her boss had enough money for a second assistant, so Summer wasn’t his sole reliance. She loved this, because it meant that she could talk to James during the day, rather than only at night.
“Happy anniversary,” she chuckled.
“Excited for the big day?”
“Big day? It’s just a birthday; nothing special about it really. I’m not a kid anymore”
“Come on. You act more depressed than I do--the guy in Iraq. You can’t just mope around. I want you to go out, and have the greatest time of your life. And maybe. . . I can get leave and be there by the night.”
“Gasp. James Henry Johnson! Are you making a sexual innuendo there? Why I’ve never!”
“I don’t know,” he said with a smirk, looking up at the sky, mocking a guilty face, “I guess it’s whatever you think. I mean it’s not like I can change your opinion right?”
“Well in that case, I think I might just take a trip to the grocery store.”
She winked as well.
“Gasp! Summer Rose Hines-Johnson! Are you inferring what I think you are? Why I’ve never!”
He looked away from the screen a bit, nodding his head at someone out of the camera’s view, before looking back, “Alright. I’ll see if I can. I have to go, someone else needs the space to talk. Love you babe. Bye.”
“Love you too.”
Summer began to get a grasp of what Mindy explained to her. She felt happy. Maybe this day off was meant to be. Maybe, it was the cure to this parasite. It had crawled somewhere in her body where she couldn’t feel it anymore. Maybe it even crawled out. She smiled to herself, before looking out the window at the swaying sycamore in her front yard, and it brought her back to that day in the woods.
After they shared a quick kiss, and Summer went off on romanticized journeys with him in her imagination, they continued their walk for about ten minutes. They arrived at a small bluff. Below it, was a small pond surrounded by woods. The water appeared to be unscientifically clear. The dirt around it looked soft and wet, almost making it look like a swamp, but the dirt seemed to leave the shiny water untouched. It was like a crystal mirror, shaded in some spots because of the angle, but for the most part transparent. The fishes swam in schools, and some alone, frequently feeding off the dragon flies, gnats, and other treats that the area overflowed with. A frog splashed in the distance.
“I don’t see what’s so special,” Summer said, interrupting the silence aside from the calls of the nearby creatures, “it’s a pond.”
James continued to look at the water, watching the sun’s glare reflect on the ripples and bounce to the ground beneath his feet. “It is just a pond. But that’s just the outside of it--what you see.”
“And that means?”
“It’s not about what you see,” he looked at her again, “I think the most important thing, is what it makes you feel.”
Summer chuckled, “I didn’t realize we were in some deep, poetic, romance movie.”
He did the same, “Well, I’m just showing you somewhere I always used to go with my dad since you want to tear down my shot at making a smooth life quote or whatever.”
He sat on the dry grass, and moved closer to the edge, so that his feet dangled above the coast of the pond. Summer knelt on her knees, and straightened out her skirt over her thighs, placing her hands in her lap, and tried to look where he was. She could see he was somewhere she wasn’t.
“This is where he told me he was joining the military. . . the place where he wanted his ashes spread.”
“It’s fine. He was a really cool dude, he wouldn’t want me to try and make it all awkward and sad. I just wanted to tell you. . . I’m gonna join.”
This is the point of the story where Summer forgets what happens afterwards.
The day of Summer’s birthday, she called off of work. She had a plethora of vacation days, so it wouldn’t hurt much. Plus, she thought her boss was tired of her personal calls whenever James had free time anyway. Mindy was in a good mood, and her son was at school. To make it more interesting, Mindy invited some of their mutual friends to come on the outing. It was nothing major, as they didn’t drink for the most part, and there wasn’t anything fun in the area open during the day. They decided to go out for lunch at Red Lobster. Summer received a call while the group was talking about kids, something everyone but Summer had; she could slip away. “Hey babe!”
“Hey,” James replied.
“Are you here!”
She could only hear the background noise of the restaurant.
“Actually. . . that’s what I called about. I didn’t put in a request early enough. . . I won’t be able to get there until next week.”
Summer tried to hide her disappointment with a smile as she talked. “It’s fine. I’m having a great time. I mean, I wish you were here too, but it’s okay.”
She wasn’t disappointed because of him not being able to make it on her birthday--any day would be great. She was just disappointed by the fact that she was eager for nothing. It had happened before, so she told herself that she shouldn’t be surprised. He’ll come when he does. He will come. The rest of the lunch passed like a cloud; slowly, yet there was no doubt that it was gone just as it was seen.
“Bye,” each woman said at their respective times, but Mindy walked to Summer for a personal farewell. She placed her hand on her shoulder, and said, “You gonna be alright?”
“Good. See you later sweetheart.”
It was because of this that Summer could distract herself until she got home. She opened the door to the mid-sized home, and turned on the light next to the frame. The wooden floor glared back at her, along with the waxed wooden mantle. But something else gleamed too. Summer was brought to tears of happiness, and couldn’t help but drop her leftovers on the ground, and run to him throwing herself into his arms. “OH MY GOSH I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE HERE!”
“You didn’t think I’d miss my wife’s birthday did you?”
“I told you already,” he laughed, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I put in that request months ago.”
“But you said you couldn’t.”
He released and smirked, looking down at the floor with an innocent look of guilt in those same twinkling eyes. “I may have. . . already been here, and was just trying to surprise you.”
She smiled, hugging him again, rubbing her fingertips along his white cotton shirt and kissing him three times. He had to be here for a while considering he had changed.
“Now, what’s really important,” he said.
“Those leftovers are alright still, right? I’m starving.”
They both laughed, and hugged and kissed again before he sat at the island in the kitchen, and ate as she watched him, occasionally rubbing his blonde hair in between her fingers.
“Weirdo,” he smirked.
“Camo,” she shot back.
“And that correlates how?” he chuckled.
“Because it rhymed. And, you do wear camo right?”
“Yeah, I guess I do. But babe, I don’t really want to talk about the military for a while.”
“What happened? I mean--if you can or want to tell me.”
“Nah. Just some stuff. Things have been getting pretty rough out there.”
His face started to flatten out.
“Yeah. You remember Harry? Just the other day, him and his squad were securing this village, and it was an ambush. He got shot in the spine. He’ll never walk a day again.”
She rubbed his back.
“That’s all. Then the government just keeps sending more of us over because of how bad it’s turning out to be. I’m just ready for it to be over. But, luckily, I haven’t experienced anything too crazy. Plus, I got to get a break for a while.”
“How long did they approve you for?”
“I go back the day after tomorrow.”
“Really? That seems like nothing.”
“I mean hey, it’s better than nothing. Besides, there’s other holidays too. It’s not like we get a whole lot of leave time for a year. But I think a day and a half is just enough.”
He stood up, and picked up Summer, sitting her on the counter. Their faces met, and they passionately kissed before he carried her to their bedroom as they both laughed, making jokes, and playing along the way. Afterwards, they laid in the bed, embracing each other in their arms, gazing at the ceiling.
“It’s been a long time,” James exhaled.
“Very,” Summer smiled.
He rubbed her arm in a way that wasn’t seductive, but just the right amount of affection that Summer felt that feeling of summer again. He was home; even if it was for a while.
“Have you thought about having kids?” Summer said abruptly.
James turned to her, laughing, “Where did that come from?”
“Well at lunch today, all of my friends were talking about kids, and I just couldn’t relate to anything. So it got me thinking.”
“Do you want kids?”
“I mean I never really thought about it. But, it would be nice to have some company. Plus I’d love to see a little mini-me grow up one day.”
“Kinda self-centered don’t ya’ think?”
“Shut up,” she playfully slapped his chest, “I know you know what I mean.”
“Well. . . do you?”
He hesitated. Kids weren’t exactly James’ thing, but the thought of not having any children to keep his family going frequently crossed his mind. He wasn’t an only child, but his own family that he created with Summer is what he was referring to. “Let’s wait a little while longer. I just don’t think that kids would be the best thing to have considering I’m hardly around.”
They went to sleep in their same positions.
On the day he was leaving, James woke up extremely early to go to the airport, and it was their ritual for Summer to drive him. The morning sun was wide awake, so Summer decided to put on shorts. The dew on the grass and cloudy sky however, made the scene look like an early morning spring journey. With one hand, nearly the entire time, Summer held onto the fingers of James, which sat on the middle divider. When it was time for him to get out, it was like that parasite had bit into her heart, injecting it with mercury. Her body ran cold again as she watched him walk away, turning back with a smile on his face before the door closed, and he was gone again. The first thing James did when he got the time to, which was two days after he left, he called Summer.
“Took you long enough,” she smiled.
“I know. I was trying, but things have been even busier since I got back. I think
something big is gonna go down.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know I can’t tell you that. I’m just saying, I won’t be calling for a while.”
“Well, okay. That’ll be fine.”
She shivered, and just like that, Winter had taken over her body again. It felt colder this time. Stop worrying. He’s fine. Why can’t you just be like everyone else? I bet no-one does this like you do.
“Alright babe. I love you, I’ll talk to you when I can.”
“Okay babe. Bye. I love you too.”
James didn’t contact summer again for a week. In this time, her body nearly shut down from cold, and no blanket could heat it up. She found herself going through the motions of living, even though her body was basically dead. She had forgotten to distract herself. It was then that she got a letter from James explaining what was happening. He was going on a mission off the radar, and they couldn’t risk someone on the other side finding out about it by finding their software or hacking into their systems, or something of the sort. After he said why he hadn’t contacted her, nothing else mattered. The letter arrived many days after the date that was written on it however, so it didn’t comfort Summer as much as she hoped. It still made her smile, and for a brief moment, she was herself again. This time two weeks passed. At the bottom of his first letter, he wrote that they should be done with what they had to do by two weeks, so she should expect a call or letter around that time.
On the exact date of that two weeks later, Summer kept her cell phone on her desk at work, and stayed logged into Skype on the computer. She juggled calls, paperwork, errands, and her own excitement and fear perfectly. It was a Friday, so even if it arrived tomorrow, she could have even more time to wait on it considering she wasn’t at work. She would have waited eagerly either way. It was Saturday, around noon when the mail usually comes, and there was a doorbell ring. This usually happened when he sent packages. One time, he sent the most beautiful blue necklace made of sapphire, that he had gotten from a merchant. Summer vowed she would wear it one day, but she could never find an outfit to do it justice. But. . . there wasn’t a package waiting when she opened the door.
He was an older man, followed by a pastor and a younger man. Their faces were flat, and they looked like giants in their pressed and decorated suits. The suede looked unrealistic, and the deep blue color made her skin crawl as it all came to a hush. Her internal silence told her everything before his grave lips opened, and she saw the world going down in a blizzard.
“We are sorry to inform you that James Johnson, Private First Class, Platoon Five. . .”
She zoned out into that place again. Her hearing muffled, and she could barely make out his words anymore.
“Johnson, while his squad was securing a. . . taken. . . sniper. . . we will. . . we have no. . . information. . . apologies.”
And that feeling that hung over her, now weighed a ton. She felt her bones crack, as she fell to the floor in silence, her body quivering and convulsing, as Winter closed in on her, and she cried. Not hearing a sound of her own wails. But the feeling was quickly gone, the weight of her now heavy body caving in on the parasite and squashing it. But Summer prayed that it would come back, because what replaced it wasn’t like a season at all.
A new. . . feeling had taken over her.
One that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. It was something of a mixture of apathy and disdain. The world disappeared. She couldn’t see it anymore. But she felt like it was there. She named this feeling Desolate: that period of time where you can’t distinguish the seasons, and you just float for a moment