A knock on the door woke me.
It was the middle of the afternoon. I’d fallen asleep on the couch. I’d meant to take just a short nap, but a glance at the clock on the VCR showed I’d been down for almost two hours.
The knock came again, sharper. I knew exactly who it was — only one reason to be knocking on my door in the middle of the afternoon.
I’d known it would happen like this. It happened this way in my dreams.
The knock could wait.
I closed my eyes again and saw you, your body slouched against a Humvee, your head down on your chest as if napping, your helmet low on your forehead, your shirt stained with blood and sweat and dirt, one hand stretched out next to you in supplication.
We’d talked about it before you left, and you told me it was silly to worry, that nothing would happen to you. We made plans for when you came back, but we both knew you were lying.
You were typical military, born to live in tents halfway around the world, born to shoot guns at the bad guys. Once you went over, once you tasted it, it stayed with you always. You tried to ignore it, tried to push it down and live a normal life, but it wasn’t working for you. I could see the quiet haunting despair in your eyes — after an evening drinking with your army buddies, after watching a war movie on TV, after hearing a car backfire, after being in a crowded open area.
You wanted to go back. You needed to go back.
I knew better than to stop you. You’d stay if you had to, stay for me and any future we might decide to have, but you wanted something else.
How could I stand in your way? I loved you and wanted you to be at peace. I watched you while you slept, memorized the lines of your face. I told you to go.
You forgot, though, what you’d told me about war.
I knew how tired you were — tired of life and all the battles, tired of fighting just to fight again the next day, tired of the ghosts of your brothers who didn’t make it home.
I knew you weren’t coming back.
At the hangar, the night you shipped out with your platoon, you kissed me, hugged me, wouldn’t look me in the eye.
So I swallowed my terror and whispered to you, “It’s okay. You gotta do what you gotta do.”
Your shoulders relaxed with palpable relief. You knew that I knew — knew you wouldn’t be coming back.
I told myself it really was okay, but when I woke up in the middle of the night, alone in our bed with sheets that didn’t even smell like you anymore, screaming and crying from nightmares where I watched you die but couldn’t reach you, couldn’t save you, couldn’t even say goodbye, I tried to calm myself with thoughts that this was what you wanted.
An honorable death, you’d said when you didn’t think I’d remember.
When I watched the evening news, watched the body count rise and sobbed so hard that another soldier had been lost, I tried to calm myself with thoughts that this was what you wanted.
A death that saved another soldier’s life, you’d said bravely, but I knew you were scared too.
When I sent you an email, talked to you on the phone about mundane events back home that neither of us cared about, and fought so hard to be brave and supportive and not terrified for you, I tried to calm myself with thoughts that this was what you wanted.
A death that would end the screams you heard every time you closed your eyes, you’d never said, but I saw it in your eyes anyway.
So when that knock came in the middle of the afternoon, I wasn’t surprised. I knew you were finally at peace.
E.D. Martin is a writer with a knack for finding new jobs in new places. Born and raised in Illinois, her past incarnations have included bookstore barista in Indiana, college student in southern France, statistician in North Carolina, economic development analyst in North Dakota, and high school teacher in Iowa. She draws on her experiences to tell the stories of those around her, with a generous heaping of “what if” thrown in.
She currently lives in Illinois where she job hops while attending grad school and working on her novels. Read more of her stories at her website.
“The Futility of Loving a Soldier” was first published in her short story collection of the same name, which is available at Amazon.