We’re back for round two. This fell out of my head this past weekend, and as of right now is unedited, unscripted, and un-everythingelse’d. Bear with typos and basic head-hopping nonsense, please. At roughly 2,700 words, it’s a long one, but I think I like it. I also think there’s more to this story. Sorry kids, no porn this time. 🙂
And for more Tuesday Tales, please visit the Tuesday Tales website.
The day dragged along slowly. Karen was so bored she didn’t know what to do with herself, and was to the point where she felt she would start peeling the wallpaper if something didn’t happen soon.
As she eyed a particularly annoying dog-ear in the pink paisleys pasted over years of dried out paint and sheetrock, the distinct crunch of tires on driveway gravel caught her attention and drew her toward the window. Her mother had just left for her four-day business trip to Tucson, so she was certain it wasn’t family of any kind coming to visit. Wondering if maybe Fed-Ex had a package for the wrong house, she bobbed over to the window. Or maybe, she thought, it was the mailman.
When she went to look, her eyes filled with tears. What met her was a welcome sight, but one that somehow did not surprise her in the slightest. All of a sudden, her boredom was gone, the wallpaper was forgotten, and she was smiling brighter than she had in a long time.
It had been ten months since the last time, but she still wasn’t shocked at all to see him step out of the black car and start up the driveway toward the house. What did surprise her was the uniform. Clean, pressed, lightly decorated, and deep blue; he had finally made it. She recognized his eyes – so blue and clear even from a distance. His hair was shorter; in fact it was almost completely gone, and he was clean-shaven. He carried himself with pride, and he even seemed to stand a few inches taller.
She had the door open and was out to greet him before he was even on the porch. She smiled, hoping she had surprised him the way he had intended to surprise her, but she knew better. She was certain he had expected her to be there before he had to knock. He wouldn’t have knocked anyway. He was like family, and he knew the door would be open.
As he made his way onto the porch he smiled, but it was a sad smile. She knew something was wrong, and the dread clutching her heart stopped her in her tracks. There was no “hello”, no “how are you” or no “what’s up”… only concern and a sinking feeling of terror.
“How long are you in town?” she asked.
“Just the day. I had to pick up some things.” He attempted to smile again, but it didn’t quite come out right. Her heart sank.
“But boot camp is over, right?” she continued, fidgety. She found suddenly that she could not stand still. And the sinking feeling of terror threatened to choke her.
There was a pause, long and unnerving for both of them. He was almost visibly shaking, even through the stoicism that the US Army had instilled in him, and it made her want to cry. There was something he was wrestling with – something he had to tell her. Something she probably did not want to know.
“So where are they sending you now?” she questioned, taking a step closer. He swallowed and looked at his feet. He closed his eyes and took a deep, rattling breath.
Her hand went to her mouth before she realized it, and she closed her eyes. She had heard what he said, but the information didn’t process. Her mind was a muddle of emptiness and fear. They had known when he enlisted that the war was still going strong, but he had done it anyway. The Dillinger men were all military men. His great-grandfather was a gunner in World War I, his grandfather served in World War II, and his father died in Kuwait in the early 1990’s. All of his uncles and cousins were military, and despite his best friend’s desperate pleas, he’d still felt the same drive to follow the family line. Karen had gotten down on her knees and begged him not to go; to stay and go to college, get a girlfriend and a job and a home and a family. But on this one point, he would not be swayed. He would have time for that later, he had told her. He had a duty to his father.
When Karen had no words to express the heartbreak he saw shining in her eyes, she turned away and went into the house. He followed her without question, waiting for her response and wondering if it would ever come.
“Preston, no…” she sobbed as she looked back at him, and his heart fell to pieces in his chest.
“I have to, Karen. That’s where they said they needed me.” Her breath hitched and her shoulders heaved. The tears streamed down her face.
“They don’t need you!” she screamed. Karen backed away from him, tears welling up in her eyes. He wanted to reach out and touch her, to hug her and tell her it would be okay. Only, this time he knew there was a very good chance that fate would make him a liar. “They have plenty of other people they can send over there to slaughter!”
“Karen, stop,” he begged quietly. He swallowed the lump in his throat and focused his eyes on her as he took her by the shoulders. “Listen to me,” he ordered. “It was my decision.”
“What?” Anger melted from her face, replaced by confusion. “You mean you chose suicide?”
“It was either Iraq or Siberia.”
“Why the hell didn’t you choose Siberia then?”
“Because it’s too cold.” He smiled at her, hoping to end the fight before it really began. He knew how fiery she was, and how she would say what she wanted despite their long-standing friendship – or maybe because of it – and he knew he could not take the disappointment from her. Not right now.
He had come to say goodbye to her, and that had not been a requirement. It had been a choice, just like Iraq. It had been his decision, and as hard as it was, she had to respect that. She turned her head and closed her eyes. Distance; they both needed distance.
“Why did you choose Iraq?” she asked.
“Because there I might be able to make a difference instead of sitting in some hut, freezing my balls off.”
“Preston, you’re just one man.”
“I know that, but…” She held up a hand and he trailed off.
“You can’t stop the war.” Her eyes popped open, dark, hurt, and brimming with tears. She fixed her stare on him, storming forward as he took steps back. “You can’t convince a nation of people raised to believe martyrdom is an honor that they are wrong and need to stop killing people!” He stumbled over the rug in the hall, but kept moving. “You can’t change the world with a gun either. All you can do is go out and be brave like they want you to – to run headfirst into the fray without thought of the people back home that love you. And for being brave, your reward will be death.”
“You don’t know that,” Preston replied, stopping just before he fell back down the stairs. She looked away again, and tiny tears squeezed out from beneath her again closed eyelids. He watched them roll down her cheeks and fall to her blouse, leaving two small, round spots.
“What do you have to come home to?” she asked then. “What do you have that’s going to give you a reason to stay off the front lines and come back safely?”
“My mother, my sister, and you.” She opened her eyes, red and puffy from holding back the tears, and looked at him. His eyes were heavy with unshed tears of their own, but he continued to smile at her, to be strong for her.
“Yes, you. Karen, you’re my best friend. You have been there for me when no one else was. You have never let me down, and I’m not about to let you down now.”
Warmth spread through her body, radiating out from the place where her heart beat so hard. One by one, the pieces of the puzzle in her head fell into place. When she looked at him again, she saw something new; something that hadn’t been there before.
She straightened her back, wiped the dew from her face, and looked up at him with new-found strength. She took a deep breath, blinked, and really looked at him this time – not through the selfish eyes of a child, but through the eyes of a young woman who had grown up all at once. And she looked at him not as a boy, but as a man capable of making his own decisions and taking care of himself.
He looked right in the uniform, she realized; like the man he was instead of the boy she wanted him to be. They were only nineteen, but the military training had done wonders for him. She felt his love, but she also felt something else…something much more dark and painful.
“We’re never going to see each other again,” she whispered, trying to fight back her emotions.
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do. This will be the last time we talk, because you won’t come home.” She knew it, just as she knew her name, and she knew that he could see it in her eyes. She didn’t know how she knew, but she did, and when she said she knew she was rarely wrong. The heartbreaking grimace on Preston’s face told her that he knew it, too.
“Alright.” Not the best of responses, but he obviously had nothing else to say. His breath was short, and the sudden fear rippling back and forth between the two of them was turning into a deep sadness.
“I need you to do something for me,” Karen said, her voice soft.
“I need you to kiss me.” There was a pause.
“What?” he asked, as if he didn’t speak English. She smiled. “What do you mean?”
“Exactly what I said. Kiss me.”
“But what? You don’t know how?” Before he could answer, she closed the distance between them. He stood frozen, staring down at her. “It’s not hard. Watch.” She took his left hand in her right, pulling it around to rest in the center of her back. She laid her hand against his bicep. She repeated the action, her right hand over his left, guiding it to her shoulder before laying her own palm against his chest. She looked up at him and smiled. “Now, kiss me.”
His eyes focused on hers, and he hesitated a moment, looking down at her. Then he bent closer, the hand on her shoulder moving to her neck to hold her head, and she reached for him, eyes falling closed as their lips brushed for the first time, barely touching as they passed. There was a moment’s pause as he exhaled against her, and though her eyes were closed she could feel that he was smiling. Her lips were tingling, and she smiled in return. He moved again, their lips touching, hers soft and wet and his dry and warm. He tightened his grip around her waist, his mouth pressing gently against hers.
He lifted from her, this time catching her bottom lip between his own. She gasped, and he smiled, using her surprise to sweep his tongue along her lips. With his left hand, he guided her head back and closed on her mouth again. She leaned up to meet him, allowing him to lead her and losing herself to his control as his mouth searched, memorizing every inch of hers.
The taste of him was sweet; like water in the desert. She drew herself up against his chest and allowed him to lift her from her feet, desperately trying to take all of him in at one time through that kiss.
When they finally parted, he gazed at her, his eyes on fire. She was shaking against him, her fingers clinging to the fabric of his shirt. They were both short of breath and holding tightly to each other for support.
“Don’t leave me,” she whispered, blinking back another set of tears.
“I will always be with you, even when I’m not here. I will come back to you, Karen.”
“Please stay with me.”
“I wish I could.”
He brushed a stray tear from her cheek with his thumb, bringing it to his own mouth to taste the saltiness. She cupped a hand around his face, feeling the warmth and life in his skin, taking in the intoxicating stare in his eyes, and silently begging whoever would listen to let him stay with her, at least for one more day.
“I love you, Karen,” he whispered, “I always have.” He bent again, her tears on his lips, and drew her mouth up to his. His kiss this time was hungry and desperate, and his hands moved to her shoulders and down her arms. Without losing contact with her mouth, he lifted her from the floor to cradle her in his arms. Her own arms went around his neck, holding tightly to him as she started to explore his mouth.
She felt him turn and start to walk. She was not sure where he was going, nor did she care. She could taste him, both salty and sweet, and feel the strength of his arms as he cradled her, and knew she could stay this way forever.
His watch beeped close to her ear and brought their kiss to a close. When she opened her eyes, he sucked in a deep breath and leaned his forehead against hers. She could feel his spirits drop.
“It’s time,” he whispered, his voice shaky. To accent the moment, a horn honked twice from the waiting car outside. “Damn,” he muttered, carefully settling her back on her feet. “If we had the time, I’d marry you today and spend the rest of my life holding you,” he whispered, and kissed her forehead. “You are my reason to come home. This time, I will prove you wrong.”
“God, I hope so.”
He took her face in his hands and kissed her gently; a sweet, innocent touch of lips.
“If it happens,” she started. He tried to shush her, but she refused. “If it happens, remember this moment. Our first kiss. If you have to die, die thinking of me and this one moment of true happiness.”
“I will never forget this,” he promised, taking her hands as he willed his heart to stay together. “I will come home to you.”
He turned and started for the door with her hand clutched in his, and it felt like something was out of place. For the first time in his life, he felt regret for joining the military. In his rush to continue the family tradition, he had overlooked the one perfect thing staring him in the face. All for what his grandfather continued to call the greater good.
The same long, black car waited at the end of the driveway for him, and he knew there was no more stalling. Letting go of her hand, Preston picked up his bag from the end of the porch and turned toward the car. She was standing close behind him, crying openly now. He took the first step down, then the second. He paused, then turned back to her.
Before she could respond, he took her hands and pulled her close, capturing her mouth in one final kiss before taking that last, long walk away from her. “I love you,” he whispered into her ear as he let her go. Vision blurred by tears, he ducked into the car and closed the door. He continued to stare back at her until the car rounded the corner at the end of the neighborhood.
This time, come hell or high water, he would prove her wrong.