A Fourth of July themed story, because I’ve been studying American Government and it’s depressing to me how we forget how much our soldiers have really done for us.
Also, I saw my first Shakespeare play last night! It was King John, and it was so good and I’m still all excited about it.
Anyway, enjoy reading, Happy Fourth, and God Bless!
It doesn’t end as cleanly as they say, of course. The ‘final day of the war’ and when was it exactly? You stopped fighting a week before I was recalled home as well, and that was a month after the war ended. You stand stiffly, clad in full uniform, almost out of place. The harbor is full of ships coming home and commerce vessels coming out and going in with the excitement of the blockade ending. All around us, hundreds of people, maybe thousands, jostle and shout and kiss and hug and swear and scream with gladness.
“I’m sure they’ll be here soon,” I tell you.
You look across, still a little lost in the chaos of civilians after so long at war. Your smile is doubtful at first, but then it grows and grows and suddenly you grab me and hug me tight. My feet dangle inches above the ground. I stare out over the water over your shoulder and hold tightly. The tears are hot in my eyes, but I refuse to let them stain my face today.
“You’ll love them.” You say. “They’ll adore you.”
“I’ll have to love them.” You set me down, and I smile. “They’re your family, aren’t they?”
You start blushing, so I decide to turn it into a joke.
“Of course, that vouches very little for their sanity or their sense of humor, so I might decide I hate them all instead. I mean, it’s not even like I like you.”
You shove me hard. “Jerk.”
I laugh, and try hard not to turn, looking for mom and dad and the kids. They won’t be here today. I feel like my heart is a balloon, full of nothing but tiny gas particles colliding. P1 times V1 over T1—but that has nothing to do with it.
“Mom!” You yell, snatching my hand and dragging me along, out of my thoughts and into the crowd. You’re almost bouncing with excitement. It’s been months, after all. I’m muttering “excuse me” almost constantly as you pull us and shove us through the crowd towards your family. I give up on politeness and settle for trying to avoid hitting little kids with my case.
Your mother yells your name just as we pull into a little opening and you are swarmed by loving, open arms. I stand apart, the pain in my chest fracturing and multiplying along nerve ends. I smile at your siblings as you finish hugging them and move onto the next batch of them. I don’t know what to say.
I’m about ready to slip away in the crowd and get away when you grab my hand, a glow of pleasure lighting your whole face as you introduce me to your family. Your mother hugs me. She asks where my family is, and my smile wavers.
“They’re—not here today, ma’am.”
She frowns. “Why ever not? They should be here.”
I nod. “They should be. So should a lot of other people.”
I see it in her face the moment she gets it. I extricate myself from her arms. “I’d probably better get going.”
I slide into the crowd before you can stop me. I’m still not crying. I wander the streets. It just happens. I try going home on autopilot, and pull up short in front of the broken house. “Oh,” I say.
A lady in a shop across the way comes out and walks up to me. “Excuse me, are you al—oh!”
I smile at her. She’s grown up. So have I. I think I was fifteen when I left. She was a child. Now she’s a woman. “Hi, Lyn.”
“Oh, God, Em. I didn’t realize you were back today.”
She looks at me like she’s seen a ghost. She has. She’s seeing the ghost of my childhood, written in my face. On the shrapnel scars and burns on my skin, the little piece missing from the top of my left ear where a bullet just barely missed its target.
“Yeah. Just got home.”
I hear an explosion and when I’m next aware of myself I’ve thrown myself and Lyn to the ground. I’ve scraped us both up on concrete. Overhead, in the twilit air, a firework explodes. I shut my eyes and inhale shakily through my nose. “It’s the fourth of July, isn’t it?” I ask.
Lyn is surprisingly understanding as we get to our feet. She doesn’t even seem to mind that I got blood on her dress. “Yeah. Independence Day.”
“Oh. Tonight’s gonna be hell.”
Lyn doesn’t say anything about that. No reproach or blame. Simple understanding instead. “If you want to, my family’s having dinner in about an hour. We’d love to have you. And I can see you thinking it’s an imposition, but it’s not, Em. Seriously. You gave so much to keep us free. It’s the least we can do to keep you company.”
The com on my wrist buzzes as I consider. I take the call. Your voice radiates through the mic. “Em, where are you?”
I stare at the wreckage. “What used to be home.”
You’re silent. “Are you okay?”
Another firework explodes. I wince. “Yeah.”
“Not ready to be with people, are you.” It’s not a question.
“I found just last week.” I sigh. “They’ve been dead for nearly three months.”
“Oh.” Your voice is very small.
I sigh. “I’ll be fine. They’ve got quarters in the city. Hundreds of people just off the ships haven’t a dollar to their name and haven’t got family around.”
Lyn stares at me with an aching expression as I’m talking. It’s at least comforting to know that yours isn’t nearly as pitying.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, probably.”
You don’t sound satisfied. “Em—”
“It’s the fourth of July.” I say, and let it settle in. “You need to be with your family.”
“Em, you are my family.”
“I’m not just saying that.”
I sigh. “I know.” I rub my forehead. “I’m just not ready.”
You’re silent for a long time. I wince in the gap that silence leaves. “I’ll call you later, okay?” You offer.
“I love you.”
“Love you too.”
The call ends. I gather the remains of my crumpled dignity. I put on the internal officer again and gather strength from it. I smile courteously at Lyn. “Thanks for offering. And for not being mad. Another time, alright?”
Lyn sighs. “Ok, Em.”
I start walking again, this time toward the city base.
I stop trying to sleep around eleven. Every time my eyes shut there’s an explosion and I tense up and reach for a gun that isn’t there. I think I’m in my plane again, the last time. I throw off the blankets. The air conditioning is too cold. The bed’s too soft. I open the window into muggy luke-warmness. It’s better than air conditioning.
I climb out onto the roof and stare at the light-polluted sky. I hate and love it at the same time. “Em?”
I hear a voice down in my room, and know that it’s yours. Anyone else would address me as either ‘sir’ or by my rank.
“Out here.” I realize slowly and all at once that I knew you were going to do this.
A short scramble and you’re beside me on the quilt I tugged out here. You offer me a cold can of soda. I pop the seal and drink. It’s been forever since I’ve had one. It must’ve been at least two years. You touch your can to mine. “Happy Independence Day.”
I stare at the sky. “Did you know John Adams predicted we would spend the fourth like this? Blowing stuff up to celebrate?”
You shake your head. “I don’t think I ever learned that.”
I sigh. “Yeah. Just like nobody reads the Declaration on the Fourth anymore.”
You understand what I’m getting at. “They’re going to forget us.”
“Everything we did. Just another period they study in history. All those lives destroyed. Touched on as a statistic.”
You slouch down. “It makes me feel so damn useless.”
I hear a shout of young laughter. A little girl clapping her hands. “Yeah. But I’ll tell you why they’re going to forget. It’s because they never had to know. They never had to know what it felt like. And that’s why our Founders fought, I think, and why we did. So they could be free enough to just see the cost of it rather than be part of the payment.”
Another explosion overhead so loud both of us jump.
“I hate it all, right now,” You say softly. “I know what you’re saying is true. I know why they’re all happy and celebrating but I can’t seem to get inside it. I just can’t stand it.”
I slide my fingers into yours and grip. “Then let’s be outside together.”
Overhead, I hear the anthem being blasted as a last barrage of fireworks goes off and the bell at the local Catholic Church tolls midnight. I’m not okay. I haven’t got a home to go to. But I can build one. And at this moment, with you, that’s enough to pull me through.