She stumbled through her bedroom door and slammed it shut behind her. Her arms clutched a folded flag against her middle, squeezing it like she’d been wrapped in a straight jacket. She fell back against the door and, with a choking sob, slowly dripped to the floor. Her shoulders jerked and shivers traveled over her body as she wept. Her lips nearly disappeared when she pressed them shut, trying to remain quiet in her grief.
There was no reaction as he materialized across the room from her. His weapons were no longer strapped to him, his fatigues replaced by a different and much more relaxed uniform; the t-shirt and faded jeans he always wore whenever he was home on leave. But this time they were even more faded than usual. In fact, his entire body was faded. He could see the pattern and texture of the carpet through his sneakers.
His eyes pinched in sorrow as he watched the girl weep. She was breaking right before him. And he couldn’t put her together this time.
An unnerving tugging sensation pulled at his stomach and he remembered how little time he’d been granted. His feet left no marks in the carpet as he strode to her and knelt before her bent knees.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered hoarsely. “I didn’t want to leave you like this. I never wanted to leave you at all.” His voice hitched.
“Why?” she croaked, though she was unaware of his presence. “Why, why, why?”
“I don’t know, honey,” he sobbed in response. “I don’t know.”
He spread his knees and scooted closer, desperately wanting to pull her into his arms, to crush her to his chest as he’d done so many times before. His hand instinctively reached to caress her cheek, but it fell right through her body. His throat clenched, holding back more sobs.
“I don’t know why any of this has to happen and I would come back to you in a heartbeat if I could. But I do know you will make it without me. You’re strong, so strong. You will get through this. I know you will.”
Her head fell to her knees and he ached, once again, to hold her. Then the tugging came back and the ache turned to panic.
“I will always love you, honey. Always. Nothing can stop that.”
The tugging grew stronger and stronger and he saw his hand, hovering above her head, begin to fade.
“I love you, I love you, I love you,” he chanted as he slowly disappeared until even his voice faded away.
She gave a few more hiccuping sobs, then slumped down to the floor, exhausted. Worn out from the grief, she eventually fell asleep, her head pillowed by the flag, the representation of the country he had died to protect.
He slid into the driver’s seat and set the six pack of Sam Adams on the seat beside him. Man, that brand brought back memories. Memories he wasn’t sure he was ready to face yet. He swallowed and dragged in a steadying breath, then pulled out of the parking lot. It wasn’t a short drive to the cemetery, so rather than letting old memories crack his composure, he focused on one more recent.
The funeral had been small, but respectful. Perhaps a bit more formal than his friend would have preferred. His lips twitched as he pictured her expression if she’d been able to see it. Then the solemnity returned. She wouldn’t be seeing anything again. She would never give him that bemused smile again. Oh, how he missed her smile.
He’d been a member of the honor guard. He’d fired his salute shots. His throat clenched as he recalled kneeling at her Soldier’s Cross after the memorial. They’d both seen a lot of awful stuff out there. Stuff that would have had him chugging painkillers just to escape it, if not for her. They’d kept each other sane through it all. She was still keeping him sane, even now that he was home for good. Even now, after she was gone. She wouldn’t have wanted him to quit trying, quit living just because she wasn’t around anymore.
The entrance to the cemetery came into view and he slowed to pull onto the narrow drive. She would have liked the place. Again, a little more formal than she would have liked, but it was really green and open. Besides, she deserved the recognition and respect the memorial cemetery afforded every resident.
He parked in one of the little lots strewn along the drive; the one nearest to her grave site. Then he slipped two bottles out of the cardboard carrier and stepped out of the car. There were other people there, but it was still pretty quiet. It was nice. She’d needed more quiet in her life. Better late than never, he guessed.
He strolled over to the headstone he would always remember and stared down at it for a long moment.
“Hey, Smallfry. Sorry, it’s been a while.” He cleared his throat. “I suppose I thought being away might make it easier, I don’t know. It doesn’t. Still hurts like hell.”
He took a quick, ragged breath, then set one of the bottles on the edge of the flat headstone, careful not to cover any of the words. Then he eased down onto the grass beside it. For a long time he just sat and watched the sun inch closer to the horizon, taking an occasional sip from his beer.
“I looked up some of our old poker buddies. Thought I’d get out a bit more. That should make you happy.”
And just like that, all those old happy memories slammed into him. The late poker nights. The movies. The bowling games she’d dragged him to. It was a whole other life. Like living someone else’s memories. He couldn’t make the man he was now fit into those moments.
He frowned then. Because she did. Remembering her carefree, bright-side-of-anything personality didn’t hurt as much as he’d been expecting. And as he glanced down at her unopened bottle, he realized it was because she’d never lost that spunk. Despite everything they’d gone through, or maybe because of it, she’d always stayed his Smallfry. She was just as tough as the rest of them, but while he’d grown hard and gruff, she’d never lost her spirit.
“Wish you could tell me how you managed that.” He huffed a sigh. “Maybe I’ll figure it out on my own someday.”
As the sun set, his hunched shoulders gradually rolled back. His quiet, introspective words turned lighter and even a few small chuckles escaped as he recalled aloud the brightest moments of their friendship. And by the time his bottle was empty, he thought he might actually be able to figure it all out. There was no way to go back to that happy, carefree time, no. But he might, someday, find a way to go on living without her.
The light was fading fast then. He tapped her bottle gently with his, then hauled himself to his feet.
“Well, Smallfry. Same time next year?” His lips pulled up in a weary smile. “I’ll bring the beer.”