Copper colored leaves swept gently against the glass of my bedroom window, and the early morning light, that wonderful fresh-washed light you get after a good storm, streamed in steadily, waking me in the best way. I sleep with my window open year round, so my bedroom smelled of late Autumn; fresh, frosty, almost spicy.
I lay very still in my deep, velvety bed, my eyes closed, and let wakefulness steal over me slowly. If he had been here, there would have been a leisurely morning snuggle to look forward to, followed by a walk together down to the coffee shop for a latte and a paper. Before last night, this thought would have left me absolutely miserable for the rest of the morning, but today was totally different. This morning I was finally able to accept what my instincts have been telling me every day for the past two years. He is still alive.
I could barely breathe as I lay there and let that realization percolate slowly. I don’t know where he has been, I don’t know what happened to him, nor why he has been so long in coming home; I don’t need to know those things. I just know that he has finally come back to me.
The morning that followed was surreal. I rose and showered, a small smile as I washed my hair with his favorite pear scented shampoo, and shaved my legs, something I had neglected to do more often than not since he had left. I dressed, slipping into my long-legged jeans, the faded ones I’ve had since college, the ones he says make me look so tall and slender and elegant. Donning one of his flannel shirts over my soft grey long-sleeved tee, and thick wooly socks, I padded out to the kitchen and started the coffee pot.
I spent the morning going through the things they sent me when he went missing. The official notice that he was Missing in Action Presumed Dead, delivered by his Commanding Officer on a sunny Fall day full of brittle heartbreak. I pulled his dress uniform out of the closet and slowly unzipped the black plastic bag I bought to store it in, black so I wouldn’t have to see it hanging crisp and white every time I walk into the closet, black because they told me he was dead. Crushing the jacket to my face I inhaled deeply, searching for any remnant of his unique smell, his spicy after-shave, his integral ‘maleness', but no matter how many times I’ve done this, it still smells like the dry cleaners have just finished with it. His kit bag unzipped, I repeated the ritual laying out of his things, things he would have used every day that he was away from me, serving our country. It used to send me into near hysterics to picture his strong thick fingers wrapped around the razor or toothbrush that I was holding, but today, by touching his things, I just feel even more connected to him.
By late morning I am tucked in the wicker chair on the deck, wrapped in a thick grey sweater, onto my third mug of creamy coffee. I feel quiet inside, like what I imagine the center of a storm must be like. I should feel stormy, shouldn’t I? But there is such a peace with this Knowing, no rush, no sense of urgency, no feeling that I must rush about town, hunting for him. I Know and that knowledge calms me like nothing else could. My mouth has become possessed overnight; secret smiles work the withered muscles of my face, and it feels so alien that I cannot stop myself from repeatedly reaching up and touching my cheeks, feeling the smile lines, which only makes me smile even wider.
He’s coming soon.
In the trees the squirrels jump from branch to branch, stashing their hard won winter forage into every nook they find. The late birds are happy today, and sing especially for me. They know this is a special day.
I feel like I have awoken from a long dream and am fully awake for the first time in a long, long time.
I need to be busy so I bundle up and head outside. I cut the grass, probably the last cut of the year, it grows so slowly now.
And I wait.
I barrow the cuttings up the drive and into the compost heap.
Still I wait.
I rake leaves fallen from the Japanese maples that line the drive into a giant pile and add the branches fallen from the storm last night to the pile. I start a smudge fire, inhaling the sharp, smoky aroma, loving the snap and crackle as the branches ignite and perfume the area with scents of sap and evergreen. Leaning on the rake, I stare into the fire. And wait.
And then it happens.
Everything stills expectantly. I raise my head, and for the last time, I gaze down the curve of the drive, straining to see around the bend, searching. There is a rushing sound in my ears, and I realize I am holding my breath.
I see the copper top of his hatless head first, as slowly, unevenly, he walks around the bend. Head bowed, he’s watching where he walks carefully. He’s limping quite badly, enough to warrant a cane, something I did not notice last night. I’m so quiet, still holding my breath, willing him to raise his beautiful head. When at last he does, he sees me and stops abruptly, teetering a bit. We pause, eyes locked, and with a slow smile, he continues towards me. It’s everything I can do not to rush over to him but I stay where I am, just as I always have, waiting. When finally he reaches me, I see that he is much thinner than the last time I saw him, making him seem even taller than he is, and his face is very much more worn.
“So,” he says and his smile stirs me as no other’s. I can barely contain the fountain of emotion that washes over me, as I slowly reach up and place the palm of my hand on his rough cheek.
“You’ve been a while,” I say smiling up into his eyes. His free hand comes up to rest in a similar position on my face and with his thumb he gently brushes a smudge of dirt from the tip of my nose.
“Yes.” His deep voice catches and my eyes fill. “But then, you knew I’d be back, didn’t you my love.”
If you missed the first two installments of this short story, you can find them here:
This story is dedicated to all the men and women who risk all to serve our country, and to those who wait paitiently, hopefully, at home, risking just as much. Never Forget.