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The suitcase was a familiar, comforting weight in his hand. He heard the tinkle of a wind chime, the bubbly laugh of a child, then reminding him that the ten or so pounds he carried was no longer a gun. The warm touch of the wind was a distant memory; but no longer. He drank it in and it lightened his heart and cleared his mind.
In his sight now, after long hours of walking, was the house. As a boy, he ran around it, ever curious. As a man, he walked inside it, his steps no longer as flighty, his intentions no longer as carefree as they had been in childhood. Behind his childhood playground was the church steeple where he spent his teenage summers, trying to find a God he had convinced himself wasn’t there to find. Stray leaves whipped into his face; the very sight of their source, a tall, dying Tennessee willow, made him ache for home. He had to shake himself. This was home.
The place where he took his first steps: as a child, as a man. His mom called him for dinner, his friends called him to play. His father was buried under that very willow. All that had to point to home, even when his mind was pointing everywhere but there.
For years before the war, this place was his home. The two-story house, old fashioned even for his time, wound down into the ground, almost like it had been grown there; carefully nursed and urged into maturity. The colors were old. Mixed in were blues and specks of white, like the blue of a nursery blanket. Porches wrapped around each layer of the house, leading to various places of the manor. You could see everything from those porches; their windows were like all-seeing eyes. Vines were dying on the rails, the dry and rancid air too much for them. A white front door was decorated with daisies and lavender, which contributed to the sweet flowery smell. That mixed with cotton, leather, and old gunpowder, which all came together for a unique backwoods smell. It smelled like home. It was a house of a whole; the structure itself mixed together and blended with the area around it so well, it was like a well-thought out painting.
Nothing much had changed, to a person with only a glance to spare. He saw it; curtains were placed in the upstairs windows. The swing on the front porch had been repainted-there was a new shine to it. Of course, it had been eight years. He was positive it was not kept uninhabited that whole time. It was such a beautiful house. He could sense it as he stepped closer. There was a certain presence. The house had adapted without him. There had been others living inside of it, making memories. That bothered him more then he cared to admit- more than he could describe. But that didn’t matter. The house was his now; the house was his again.
Except there was something missing. It didn’t feel like home, not like his home. There was a voice that should be echoing through the halls, a laugh that could be sending chills down his spine. There was a smile that wasn’t lighting up the room. And he missed it. In the years he spent outside of the rural town, when you were missing something, you went to find it. No questions, nothing to make it so difficult.
Except he was back. If he went searching for that voice (the one that was always on the top of his mind, on the tip of his tongue), that laugh (the one he would roll over backwards to cause), that smile (the one that went on for days and days, and miles and miles), he would only come up empty handed and disappointed. Because she was gone. Her voice would never be heard, her laugh could no longer be appreciated, and her smile would never be seen again. Because she was dead.
The gun that was tucked neatly in between his favorite Levi’s and his unfolded socks suddenly weighed a hundred pounds, weighing down his hand and his conscious. What could have been, what used to be, and the sad reality that was his present ran through his mind, making what was supposed to be a strictly nostalgic trip into one of self pity and melancholy. The air seemed heavier, weighed down with the emotion, and for the first time in his life, he didn’t want to be breathing it.
But pride and self-importance pushed through the veneer of his mind. He neared the door of the house, his steps echoing hollowly on the front porch, seeming to ring with something oddly familiar. A twinge of doubt planted itself in his mind, making itself known in every way possible. His hands shook while he fumbled with the keys. He felt sick to his stomach as he finally opened the door. His lunch almost came up when he saw that the previously yellow walls were now blue.
Her face flashed through his mind. Just a look, just a flash, just a memory. Nothing more, no matter how hard he prayed for it.
Minutes blurred into seconds. He remembered everything. The blue-carpeted floors, the tall wooden doors, everything. He could almost smell her perfume, almost taste her on his lips. But memories were just that; memories. The human mind wasn’t perfect. In years, in days, maybe even in seconds, he would forget the subtle curves of her face and the deep forest green that was her eyes. He had already forgotten everything else, but the few scenes he still had he held on to with an almost obsessive fierceness. Because the last time he was here with her was ten years ago. Ten long years that felt like ten never-ending years.
Never knowing when it was going to end, that was the problem. Sympathies and condolences told him that he wouldn’t hurt forever. Common sense and the too-cruel reality of the world told him that there were many different types of forever. Forever is what she told him before the world and the addiction took her. Forever is eternity. Forever was June. And, thank God, the forever that seemed to be his definition didn’t last nearly long enough. And again, the greeting cards and bouquets of flowers told him that there were many fish in the sea. But not that fish. Not the fish named June that smelled of lilac and liked to sleep in on weekends. Not his fish.
He didn’t know what it was that brought his feet up to her room; habit, maybe? But regardless, he was there and he found himself wishing that he had never left. 1943 proved to be a year of heartbreak and love and world-wide war. In 1943, he turned 18, she died, and he decided that there was nothing else to live for. So every sign, poster and officer that told him that killing men across the sea would give him something else to live for seemed, if nothing else, appealing. Not just something to live for, but something to die for.
Off he went into a startlingly bland world. Tennessee was miles away, so a whirlwind of European fashions, women, and new technologies took him in without giving him time to glance back. For two years, to fight was his life, and his life was a constant fight with himself. He got letters from his mom, her mom, begging him to just give up. But giving up would mean letting go of what he had fought so hard to achieve: numbness. Her memory now brought nothing but bitter, angry feelings of gut-wrenching betrayal. For all his sanity was concerned anymore, she brought this upon him. He wrote her letters with scorching words of resentment. He wrote and wrote until his shaking hands tore through the paper. He sent them straight to his house, where they lay unopened in his mailbox.
After two years of what most would call insanity and he just called his life, he decided that it was time to wake up, face reality, have a good cry, and go home. His mom sobbed with relief, her mom sighed with the same feelings, and his dad said nothing. But, regardless, he did go home. For a week. When he got off the bus, just one suitcase in his hand, his mom rushed to greet him. He gave a weak smile, wilted at the ends, and gently patted her on the back. His father had even made the effort to get outside, so he gave him the same bitter smile and wheeled him back up the ramp to the door.
His parents made him stay in his old room. He wouldn’t have minded it, had he not kept every possible memento from his teenage life there. Then, lying with his arms behind his head on his too-small bed, her memory was an all-encompassing presence that spun his world on its axle. It had taken him ten years to fall in love with her, two years to almost forget her, and one second to erase all his progress. The elegantly framed picture sitting on his bedside table seemed much more apparent in that second. He gingerly picked it up. His eyes locked onto her face, framed with bouncing red hair and glowing with laughter. He was next to her, like a peasant next to Aphrodite. No smile, no face, no laugh, no love could have compared. His anger flared. His resentment grew. His increasing sadness broke through the floodgate. His arm, in what seemed like an involuntary movement, threw the beautiful frame across the room. It shattered on the floor at the same time as his tears welled up and flooded over his face. He flailed around the room, not caring one bit about his parents, his neighbors, or his pride, as he brought his fist down upon the wall. His knuckles stung, but so did his heart.
He left his parents house the next day, leaving them only with a short note and fifty dollars to fix the hole in the wall. He went to his house, and spent the next five days sitting and sorting through the 182 letters addressed to his past love, the first one containing only four words,
“Junebug, I love you.”
The last letter sent had the same amount of words, but they had such a different meaning.
“Junebug, I hate you.”
The whole collection was promptly thrown into the fire, burning as he sadistically watched. The embers burned out on the floor and the fire glowed in his eyes, the light reflecting back off the tears. For too long the couple had just sat, talking, in this house. He wriggled his toes against the blue carpet and sat up. Not long after, the house was empty again, nothing left to give any clue that a heartbroken man and his Junebug had once lived there.
His father had once told him that time heals everything. So far, time had not been on his side. But maybe he just needed a few more years. Maybe in a few years he would be able to go back to that town and not feel stabs of pain, not get the judging, sympathetic eyes every time he stepped out. So he left. He was only twenty, and there were many distractions available to him. Gambling, women, liquor. He went to Vegas, Chicago, Los Angeles; anywhere he could hitch a ride to. His savings got slim; he was no good at poker, no good at pretending to be something everybody, it seemed, knew he wasn’t. His pain didn’t die down, just numbed once again, this time due to the alcohol, not the bullets. He didn’t care to know that, back home, his family was suffering. His father died from old age and disease. His mother sobbed, as it seemed she was losing every man in her life. He tried to wire her from Vegas, but he choked on his tears and hung up. He received letters. He wasn’t keen on writing them. He once wrote to his mom to get money, but he never again wrote a letter to June.
After five years, he wore himself down to half the man he used to be, half the man he felt he deserved to be. His smile was stiff, unused for years. His hand was cold, and still lingered with the memory of her touch. His eyes had blackened with shame, guilt, and the memory of a past too far away for his liking.
It still hurt him every time he thought of her, the way she left him. He remembered the pain, the tears, and how he counted down every second until he would wake up from the dream, the nightmare. He was still counting.
It hurt him even more to admit that he still loved her. He still cherished the memory of her smile, still thought her voice was the most beautiful music, and still ached for her touch. He remembered the way the light danced in her eyes, and how her laughter echoed in the halls of their house. Hell, he even remembered how the deep, hollow pain quaked through his chest whenever her tears would fall. He remembered everything.
As much as it hurt him, he couldn’t bring himself to forget. He used to dream about her at night, but now, seven years after her death, every thought was intensified by thousands, every second stilled, paused, the world seeming to love to see him suffer. But life was unfair. Right. Patience was a virtue. He would just have to wait, longer than he already had. Wasn’t time the key to winning the battle he had fought for too long? Wrong. Time healed nothing, only made him wallow in the painful memories.
After five years of reckless living, he finally realized that pain was just a feeling. One that could be easily blocked out, easily held in. So he held it in. He took the pain and buried it as deep as he could, with no intention of ever bringing it back up. But how do you live like that? Can you? He thought so.
Three years. That’s how long it took him to realize that it wasn’t working. Slowly but surely, the pain was gnawing through him from the inside out. He would get random flashes of memory, memories he didn’t even know he still had. It seemed that the pain would never let him out of its grasp. It held too tightly, suffocating him, slowly killing him.
It had never seemed like an option before. It seemed unthinkable, calamitous. To help the pain, why would you go to the source? He thought the only way to get rid of it was to avoid it, to hide it. But now, ten years wiser, going home seemed like the only thing to do.
A tear slid down his cheek when his mother didn’t recognize his voice. It added a little bit more to the heart ache when, after he told her it was him, her only son, she hung up the phone. Was it even home anymore? It was no more of a home to him now than his car was. The only thing left for him there was redemption. But if that wasn’t a reason stay, he didn’t know what was.
It was a three day drive to Tennessee, and he spent one day thinking about setting fire to the house. He spent the second day realizing that he would have to kill himself, and the third knowing that he would go through with neither. He thought he had it all planned out, but when he pulled up to the gravel driveway of his mother’s house, he had no idea what he was doing. He wasn’t quite sure if he could deal with the judging eyes, knowing that he could never wash the shame completely off his hands. So he fled.
Running was his specialty. He ran away from pain, he ran away from death, he ran away from life. He couldn’t just change now, after ten years of habit. So, once again, he ran from what was sure to greet him when he knocked on his mother’s door. He left his car, grabbed his suitcase, and began walking down the long dirt road that led to the source of his never-ending memories.
So after long hours of contemplating, long hours of walking, and long seconds of rash decisions, he was in what used to be her room. The walls were orange, just like she left them. The window looked out over the creek, winding and twisting whatever way it chose to go. Trees dotted the miniature valley and hummingbirds vibrated in the distance. The clouds dived low in the sky, slowly moving about with the gentle whispers of the wind, while the sky glowed orange, mimicking the wallpaper in the long-abandoned room.
The room was small, and left no air to breathe, so he quickly dived for his destination, underneath the loose floorboard, and left the room. He wasn’t sure if it was just him, but the air seemed clearer, easier to breathe as he left.
As he sank to the floor with his back against the creaking wall, he opened the little black book he had received from her room. As he scanned through its contents, he quickly changed his mind: the air had never tasted so melancholy.
His eyes swept adoringly over the photo book. They held only resignation and pure, unbridled love.
For a second, he was unsure about his decision. Did he really want to let go? Was he going to make the ten years he spent pining over this dead girl worth nothing? Yes, he was. He was finally giving up.
He took one last long look at the smiling girl in the photographs; it would be the last look, ever. At least he couldn’t erase the happiness, the joy and love.
His feet once again carried him back to her room, this time only to discard the book back beneath the floorboard and grab his jacket. Shrugging it back on, he coolly walked out the door and out of the house. Sitting himself on the porch swing, he gave himself one last chance to remember. Once last chance to bask in the glory that was his first love, gone awry. One last chance to commit the house to memory, forget it, and walk off the property. The trees swayed in the mild wind, and the sun was beginning to set. He could hear, once again, the creek roll and flow over the rocks. His footsteps echoed into the clear air, and for the first time in a long time, he could breathe. So he was gone, leaving nothing to give any clue that a once-heartbroken man and his Junebug had once lived there.