The Girl Who Cried War
Author: coritherien

Chapter 3
Silenced

October 8th, 2007

Dear Erin,

I’m going to be blunt, darling.  This war is…opening my eyes, I suppose.  The cruelty of humanity-- I guess you could call it a lack of humanity—is mindboggling and I curse my naivety.  I’m becoming more cynical than ever before, and it’s disconcerting at best.

I’m not speaking of the crime and brutality I’ve seen amongst the natives, amongst the men who formerly ran this country.  No, I only wish I were.  I am writing, instead, of the malice amongst my very own bunkmates.  It’s barbaric, their behaviors.  These aren’t all good men, my love, which disproves everything I once believed in, everything my father stood for. 

Towards their country, they feel nothing but pride and accomplishment, not unlike myself.  But towards its inhabitants?  My throat burns with the aftertaste of my barely-restrained admonishments half the time.  The worst offenders are called Alec Ricardo and Rocco Swanson .  They way they treat women—even verbally—sends a violent prickle along my spine.  I find myself gripping my bed sheets till my knuckles are white whenever they boast of the “sluts” they were so fortunate to “bang” before departing and the girlfriends whose backs they went behind to do so. 

Perhaps I’m making them out to be monsters—perhaps I exaggerate.  They are merely men; simply hormonally fueled beings, but that’s what disappoints me the most.  Soldiers, I still believe, are the best of men; the bravest, the worthiest, the most gentlemanly.  Of course, I’m positive there’s an accountant somewhere, or an engineer, possibly, with those very same qualities.  But soldiers, as a whole, are truly the paramount of our species.  I’ve always believed that.  Now?  As I said before, my desire for a part in this war has diminished quite severely. 

Now, not every recruit is like that; Gods, no.  My bunkmate, Chris Fournier—I’ve mentioned him, I’m sure—is the quintessential American hero.  Truth be told, he’s my best friend in these barracks. He and a few of the other men—Anthony Romano, Dwayne McCormick—they’re the few bright spots in a torrent sea of gray. It’s only the aforementioned two who are as crude as I’ve described but it astounds me nonetheless.  A whirlpool of disappointment I never thought I’d face.  Not here; not in the heart of a battle for which valiancy is a requirement rather than an attribute. 

I love you, darling.  I think of you by the moment.  I see your face in the most obscure places, and situations—the clouds, the rain, the civilians.  The last is toughest of all.  I hope all is well.  Aimee, take good care of her for me.  I’ll be forever grateful. 

 

I love you,

 

Nate

         

I clamped my eyes shut tightly and breathed deeply for a moment.  I hadn’t cried for months—since the first letter, in August.  But one could never be too careful. 

Aimee sat before me, gauging my reaction.  She did this every week, after each of his blessed notes.  When I was sure that my emotions were in check, I opened one eye cautiously, then the other, and finally chanced a smile at her.

She sighed in relief, as she did every week. 

“It really is romantic the way he writes you,” she said, a phrase I’d heard countless times.  “I mean, I know it’s hard for you, but still—”

“It’s romantic,” I finished for her, my fingers unconsciously smoothing the very edges of the creased page. 

She nodded.  “He writes so beautifully,” she sighed.  “I can hardly understand him at times!”

A small grin lifted the corners of my mouth.  English was never Aimee’s strong suit. 

And then I did something I hadn’t done before.  I stayed.  Previously, I would rush home, craving nothing but solitude.  It never really accomplished anything except varying levels of solemnity.  I looked towards these days with both anticipation and dread.  I was sick of it—I wanted to cherish these letters, and the hours surrounding their arrival. 

Aimee smiled benevolently, waiting for my habitually rash departure. 

“I think I’ll stay,” I murmured hesitantly, still debating whether or not I wanted to as I spoke, “if that’s alright.” 

Aimee’s smile grew and grew.  If ever a smile reached one’s eyes, Aimee’s did.  It was endearing; she was like a small child on Christmas morning and immediately, a regretful pang reverberated in my chest. 

“Of course it’s okay!” she squealed, her arms encasing me tightly.  She withdrew in excitement before I could reciprocate.  “It’s been ages since we’ve hung out!  At least a month.”

Had it really been that long? 

I smiled repentantly.  “I know, I’ve been so busy,” I murmured in feigned petulance towards my “busy” schedule. 

She nodded, her smile remaining intact.  We both knew that I was lying but no good would come from drawing attention to it.  I smiled again, but this time it was genuine.  I knew we were best friends for a reason. 

It was the best night I’d had in a while—since Nate left, certainly.  It wasn’t particularly exciting; we didn’t throw a party and rave, or any of that nonsense.  We played her Wii for hours, and watched The Breakfast Club twice in a row. 

What I loved about Aimee was her ability to sense my emotions.  She could tell when I felt talkative or if I just wanted to sit comfortably in silence, and vice versa.  A lot of the time, our emotions were in sync.  And tonight was certainly a comfortably silent evening.  We spoke perhaps 10 sentences to each other in the span of 6 hours.  It was the most perfect Sunday I’ve had in a long time.  Perhaps I’ll stay more often. 

The doorbell chimed, obnoxiously cheerful, startling me out of my reverie.  Aimee stood to answer it, not taking her eyes off of our second run through the film.  I, on the other hand, strained my neck to see through the arch way leading from her living room to the doorway in order to hopefully catch a glimpse of the visitor.  I was beginning to regret my decision to stay.  In the midst of my irrational curiosity, I seemed to misjudge the length of the couch, or my ability to balance—I was sent toppling right over the arm rest.  My right side collided with the carpeted floor, in perfect view of those in the entryway. 

Stepping into the house was the finishing touch to our trio; our third Musketeer, Tawny. 

Tawny Palmer was the epitome of an all-American buxom blonde.  She easily dwarfed Aimee’s pitiful 5’3” stature, standing at a full 5’9”.  Her…assets, to put it daintily, were too developed for a 16 year old—more developed than myself, and detrimentally more so than Aimee. 

Aimee was something of a late bloomer. 

Tawny has, in the past, been described as “plain”.  I suppose it’s that all-American vibe.  First of all, her looks were classically…average.  I’m not trying to be harsh, she was one of my best friends; I’m being realistic.  She had it all—straight blonde hair, crisp blue eyes and legs that went on forever.  And that whole package was attractive, of course.  But after day in and day out of very similar girls, especially in our sheltered school district, it begins to lose its appeal. 

Our relationship, the three of us, was…complicated.  I loved them, but differently.  Aimee was more like a sister than a best friend, and I know it was applied to me vice versa.  It was our relationship with Tawny in which we differed.  I considered her a very close friend.  To Aimee, she was another sister and perhaps a more entertaining one at that. 

Let me explain.  Tawny was the most energetic person I’ve ever encountered.  She never sat still and Aimee adopted her lively aura whilst in her presence.  On a good day, I would have, too.  But what it came down to was that I’m simply a mellower person.  I went with the flow.  Tawny created it. 

And despite our closeness, I didn’t see Aimee as often as I would’ve liked.  Tawny, on the other hand, should have been paying rent, she was there so frequently.  Living down the street from one another, they were rarely apart.  So it goes without saying that their relationship developed infinitely more quickly than mine and Tawny’s did. 

But, I digress.  As I’ve said, I collided into the rough carpet, my face getting the brunt of the abuse.  Tawny managed two steps into the house before she erupted into laughter.  Admittedly, I must’ve looked hilarious.  I scowled at her nonetheless.

Aimee, bringing up the rear of the welcome wagon, raced to see what in hell was so amusing.  She stopped dead in her tracks and immediately doubled over in mirth. 

Alright, it wasn’t that funny. 

That’s the effect Tawny had on people.  She was a good person, but everything was a joke to her and those around her were always immediately bitten by the laughing bug.  I’m sure it came in handy for her.  On a normal day, I know I would’ve joined in the hilarity—that was our relationship.  But under the circumstances, laughter seemed inappropriate.

I kicked my legs off the back of the chair and swung them over my fallen head.  I braced myself for a graceless landing—I expected my legs to just collapse around my head, or something to that effect.  Instead, the soles of my feet made contact with the rug and gripped involuntarily, forcing my body into something I could only liken to a sideways somersault.  Brushing myself off and shrugging, as if I’d had that move up my sleeve for years, I seated myself upon the safe russet plains of the sofa. 

Aimee and Tawny clambered into the two remaining spots, immersed in a fit of giggles that nearly sent them toppling.  Realizing I’d said not a word since Tawny’s arrival, I murmured a congenial greeting—a salutation that went unnoticed. 

An insufferably giggly hour crawled by, during which I grew increasingly (and inexplicably) irritable.  These were my friends, I loved them—and yet my legs were itching to run from there.  To run from Aimee’s house and to keep on going.  My nerves were burning and I couldn’t explain it, but somehow I knew to seek relief beyond the confines of the walls of the Belmont family’s home. 

I glanced at the clock, almost frantically.  I caught it just in time to see the numbers change; 7:03 pm.  I chewed on my lip pensively.  From inside my sweatshirt pocket, Nate’s letter began to chafe against my arm—further provocation to take my leave. 

I stood and gathered my things quickly.  “I think I’m going to head out,” I said, almost cautiously. 

“What?  Why?” Tawny exclaimed.  I expected it. 

“It’s…umm…getting late,” I murmured weakly.  It was a lame excuse at best, but I was hoping it would suffice. 

And it did.  Barely.

Aimee looked at the clock incredulously.  “It’s 7 o’clock!” she cried out. 

I fixed her with a look that made it clear I wasn’t to be toyed with at the moment.  She was silenced almost immediately, but not before fitting me with a scathing look at my own.  I shook my head; mere hours ago, Aimee was only too thrilled with my decision to stay.  Now, she scowled at the television, her dark curls shading toffee eyes. 

I love Tawny, but that’s the effect she had on Aimee and today, of all days, I was not prepared to take it lying down. 

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I muttered, slamming the front door before I even finished my sentence.  My face was flushed with heated rage, but the icy rain effectively cooled my fury and calmed me.  How I loved the rain. 

I lowered myself into my beat up, 1997 Toyota Camry only reluctantly.  I would have much preferred to walk.  Pressing my head to the pink-flowered seat cover, I gripped the steering wheel tightly and shut my eyes.  I turned the key and the engine groaned to life.  I cranked the (thankfully) newly restored radio and turned the dial in between two stations till I unearthed what I sought: white noise.  After a while, it sounded like silence to me—it always does.  Some people use music to calm them.  In other situations, I’d have been drawn to my beloved acoustic.  But at times like this, when I feel completely out of control, white noise is like an icy salve on third-degree burns. 

When I regained a sense of reality, I opened my eyes.  Fifteen minutes had passed and I had yet to shift into drive.  A quick glance at the Belmont residence told me that Tawny and Aimee didn’t notice—finally, something had gone my way. 

The drive home was a blur, I’m embarrassed to admit.  Normally such a cautious driver, I was taken aback when I found myself slamming the door to the car, parked safely in front of my raised ranch style home, having no recollection of how I got there. 

After a brief interaction with my parents—as succinct as possible—I took the stairs two at a time, eager to sleep despite the early hour.  I loved my parents, I truly did, but I didn’t feel like conversing with anyone at the moment.  I longed to shower, but exhaustion prohibited it.  Instead, I reset my alarm clock for an absurd hour and collapsed into bed, fully clothed.  Tucking the note beneath my pillow, I was grateful that feelings evaded me.  I thought of nothing but sleep and embraced it within a moment. 

 

5:35 AM

“When I was a young boy my father took me into the city to see a marching band…”

I groaned loudly, slapping wildly at my bedside table, aiming to either destroy or shut off my alarm—whichever came first. 

Having MCR blast into your room at 5:30 in the morning is what I call a rude awakening.  They’re my favorite band, true, but I can’t stand even them at such a God awful hour.

Suffice it to say that I was not a morning person. 

I rose, stumbling towards my closed bedroom door, disrupting the perfect silence that had saturated my house not moments ago.  The house was empty, save for Abbey and me.  The old dog always slept until noon anyways.  My parents had long since left for work and Sarah—thankfully—had returned to college a little over month ago. 

I was in total solitude and it was the one aspect of mornings that I treasured.  My family could be a bit overbearing at times, and I knew that mornings would be utter hell if I was forced to deal with my beloved mother’s hovering. 

Icy floors bit at the soles of my feet and I hopped in the shower before I even had my contact lenses in, eager for the warmth.  The steaming water washed the traces of sleep from my body, but didn’t fully banish the cold. 

I staggered through my morning routine in an exhausted haze.  As it always did, Nate’s most recent letter floated in the back of my mind.  Parts of it stuck out in my mind, unmovable and sturdy.  Despite the somber tone of the note, it actually placed a smile on my face this morning.

Nate always saw the big picture.  He understood aspects of situations and characteristics of people that nearly no one knew existed—myself included.  It’s what made him a good writer.  It’s an ability that would guarantee him a career in psychology.  He understood people.  It was often a burden to him; it’s actually frightening for him to understand some people. 

I shook my head, trying desperately to focus on the task in hand—zipping my black, rose-patterned pencil skirt.  Slipping on a pair of dark red flats, I glanced at the time: 7:05.

“Damn,” I muttered to myself, grabbing at my school bag sitting innocently on my lilac sofa.  I took the stairs two at a time, remembering to snatch a banana and lunch money at the last minute. 

The October air nipped at my bare arms as I trotted towards my car, mourning the absence of my Northface jacket.   One of the pitfalls of life in the North East. 

My car reluctantly sputtered to life, groaning dramatically.   The 7 minute drive to school seems a lot lengthier when you’re short on time.  As I turned into the student parking lot, across the street and down the hill from the high school itself, I grunted audibly.  The line of cars stretched at least ½ a mile down the long stretch of pavement.  The trek to the school would be at least 15-20minutes, if I was lucky.  I glanced at my dashboard-clock. 

It read 7:12.  I had three minutes to get to class. 

A colorful string of curse words later, I pulled my car to a stop, evaluating my options.  I’m not one to swear, I find it disgusting, but desperate times call for desperate measures. 

Moments passed and the only change was the rapidly progressing clock.  I came up with only one option that ensured I’d get to class on time, but I wasn’t exactly proud of it. 

I threw the gear shift into reverse and successfully pulled back onto the main road—not a move I would normally recommend.  Taking a sharp left, I found myself barreling up towards the teacher’s parking lot behind the school. 

I glanced around fervently, without stopping.  There were a few students milling around—some of the rowdier of the bunch were heading away from the school, towards the woods directly behind the parking lot, for their daily weed inhalation.  I rolled my eyes; I had no patience for people like that.

There wasn’t a teacher in sight.  Thank you, Cumberland school system. 

I pulled in between a Lexus and a Mercedes.  My little Toyota looked detrimentally out of place.   I hopped out, clutching my bag, and was once again assaulted by the cold but I had more pressing matters at hand.  Praying no one saw me, I quickly joined the lingering students around the entrance and was lost in a sea of towering adolescent boys. 

Actually, I’m making it out to be a bigger deal than it actually is—dozens of students parked up top daily without a second thought.  However, I’m normally what you would consider a “goody-goody.”  I mean, I don’t follow every rule or encourage others to do so obnoxiously.  I simply live the way I believe to be right and fly under the radar as much as I can.

Although, since Nate left, the line between right and wrong has begun to get hazy.  I find myself not caring about small things, like homework assignments I’m fairly certain won’t be collected or gatherings with friends that I know I can get out of.  Is that bad?  Probably.  A psychiatrist could probably drone endlessly about the importance of independence, or some sort of psycho-babble.  Did I care?

Nope. 

           

                    

            12:00 PM

           

The first half of my day had been a blur, as it usually was.  Pre-calculus, physics, psychology—they all started to look the same, sound the same.  Even the habitual conversations I had with friends became redundant after a while.  It made the day seem longer, as if I was sitting in one class for four and a half hours. 

I trudged into my European History III class somberly.  It had gradually become my least favorite class.  It reminded me of Nate more than I cared to admit—he was in my Euro II class last year, my sophomore year, and if it weren’t for that class we would most likely still be strangers.  This year, though, I had only Nate’s younger sister, Carla. 

Carla Richardson, a year ahead of me in school, was probably one of the kindest people I’d met in a long time.  Despite her parents’ discouragement, she approved of my and Nate’s relationship whole-heartedly.  I easily became incredibly close to her—almost as close as I was with Aimee.  At times, though, Carla’s friendship was more important to me, if only slightly.  She was the only person I knew who had even an inkling of what this all felt like.  We cared about him equally, but in obviously different ways. 

They were close, her and Nate.  Less than ten months apart in age, they looked and acted like fraternal twins.  So, needless to say his departure marred her psyche as well. 

For the first few months, we clung to one another.  Now, though, her presence sometimes serves as only a painful reminder.  They looked too much alike.  Sure, she was shorter than Nate and a bit…rounder—though, the boy was stick thin, until he bulked up in training.  It was impossible not to be rounder than him.  So, obviously, they had their differences.  But Carla’s charcoal eyes were an exact replica of her older brother’s.  So dark you could hardly see a pupil, they literally took my breath away whenever I looked at Nate.  Now, I avoided Carla’s eyes whenever possible. 

Carla either understood, or didn’t notice my new evasive maneuver.  She never pressed the subject. 

I plopped down in my seat beside her, just as the late bell rang.  She shook back her raven, flat-ironed hair to greet me.  A smile graced her lips, but didn’t quite reach her eyes enough to be genuine. 

I smiled back, authentically, and picked an imaginary piece of lint off of her turquoise sweater.  She was considered to be a bigger girl and she always looked fantastic.  She disproved the stick-thin theory of attraction. 

A small cough from the front of the room caught everyone’s attention.  In an honors-roll class, that’s all you needed, which was comforting—in lower levels, it’s not the students I can’t stand, it’s the teachers’ shouting. 

Mr. Connolly was a tall, intimidating man to those who’d never been in his class.  An older man with a full head of gray hair, he looked like he once could have been quite strong—perhaps even exceptionally brawny, but now he looked in desperate need of a sandwich.  In the halls, a perpetual scowl was painted on his face as he shouted at students with their hats on or their cell phones out.  He was the stereotypical hard-ass teacher, a Vietnam War veteran; people, students and administration alike, both admired and feared him.

But in class, the tables were turned.  He was rarely seen without a smile on his face—in his honors classes, at least.  He was congenial and emphatic about his subjects.  His class was…fun

Being the advisor of the debate team, he was sometimes even more amiable towards his debaters.  I’d been in debate for three years now.  Mr. Connolly was always perfectly cordial towards me—probably, I think, because I had never touched a drop of alcohol. 

Perhaps that sounds obscure, out of the blue.  Allow me to explain. 

During the middle of my sophomore year, I’d stayed behind after debate to finalize the last arrangements.  Location, time, topics and what not.  After a short while, I noticed that whenever I spoke of the topics (the benefits/defects of increasing the drinking age), Mr. Connolly would wince.  Subtly, yes, but it was there.  After the fourth or fifth grimace, I began to feel uncomfortable, like I was repeatedly hitting raw nerves.  When I inquired about it, his carefully guarded expression was punctured and the most powerful sorrow I’d ever seen had shown through.  Tears even sprang to the war vet’s eyes.  He squinted at me after he had composed himself, seeming to size me up.  I didn’t know it at the time, but he was gauging my maturity, debating how much to tell me, if anything at all.  I don’t think he intended to spill everything, but once he got going, he realized how much it had been weighing on him.

“You don’t have to—” I amended quickly, trying to spare him harsh memories. 

“It happened on January 23rd, 1991.  A Wednesday,” he interrupted, his eyes glued to mine uncertainly, “our 10th anniversary, my wife and I.”

I gulped.  He was single now; I knew that for a fact.

“It wasn’t snowy or icy or even rainy that night.  It was actually quite warm for January—I remember I left my jacket in the car.  We drove separately that night, having both come straight from work.  I arrived first and waited for her for forty minutes.  Eventually, the customers dwindled.  Nervous, I left—I drove not a mile down the main road before I saw it.”

He swallowed hard, his voice getting thick with barely restrained emotion. 

“A car was ablaze at an intersection.  Another car beside it was toppled over.  Police cars and ambulances were scattered all around the crash sight—so many sirens sounded.  At first, I was simply an onlooker…until I saw the plate number on the fiery mess of a car.  KC2344.  KC—Kathleen Connolly.  I ran to her as fast as I could.  The only thing that stopped me from jumping into the flames was two of the burlier police officers.”

Tears finally trickled down his cheeks and I held my breath. 

“We were so young,” he whispered.  “She was 31.  And her life ended all because some low life drunk refused to splurge on a cab that night.” 

I didn’t know what to say.  Finally, the lawyer in me perked up and satisfied her curiosity.  “Did you get justice, at least?”

He shrugged tiredly, but I like to think that I saw a glimmer of relief that day, too.  It’s comforting to know that I may have helped him cope, if only as a willing audience.  “At the time, the punishment for manslaughter whilst intoxicated was merely a slap on the wrist in Rhode Island.  If the trial went his way, he might not have even gotten jail time.  As it were, the Heavens saw fit to throw me a bone after the troubles I’d been through.  I fought the system, I demanded a harsher punishment and, with the help of our excellent family lawyer and the skilled prosecutor, I was obliged.  Last I heard, he’s still up in Attica.” 

We talked about his tragedies quite infrequently after that and to others, nothing had changed.  But there was a sort of understanding between us that wasn’t there before.  He offered his condolences when Nate went to war, as many people from school did—the outpour of sympathy actually stunned me a little.  Normally, I felt uncomfortable with it.  But Mr. Connolly was speaking through experience when he when he said he knew what that terror was like.  It was a comfort when he admitted that it was his turn to listen should I ever need to talk.  I was sure that I’d take him up on his offer before Nate’s blessed return. 

He stood now before a class full of hushed students, taking us in.  He did this frequently, as if teaching was his deepest passion. 

He then pranced through the room, preaching of European history as if it were thrilling.  In truth, the subject was very dry, but his fervor for it was enticing. 

Today, though, I wasn’t feeling much like exploring the complexities that faced a common Renaissance author. 

Time ticked away rather quickly and the clanging bell for lunch surprised me.  Slowly, I gathered my things, allowing the mob of students at the door to trickle down before I joined them.  Before I reached the door, I heard a soft call behind me.

Erin,” Mr. Connolly spoke, barely above a whisper.  I furrowed my brow, making my way over to him slowly.  What could possibly be so urgent as to hold me after class?  I’d be seeing him at debate, not two hours from now.

Erin,” he said softly, “I’ve got the debate topics.”

I smiled despite his uncharacteristically grim tone, but it faltered when I saw his equally dour face. 

“I’m sorry,” he murmured. 

Utterly perplexed, I said nothing.  My brow furrowed, I waited in bewilderment for an explanation. 

“You’re to relay the pros of the war in Iraq tonight at the tournament and to defend President Bush’s decision to hold the stationed troops where they are.” 

My mouth slackened terribly.  My hand, shocked by the news, released my French book and sent it clattering to the floor. 

“I can’t,” I said firmly, though it came out as merely a whisper.  “Can I request a different topic?  Please, Mr. Connolly.” 

Retrieving my book, he stood now, towering at least a foot above my head.  “I’m sorry,” he repeated, and he sounded every bit of it.  “The topics have been signed and submitted.  It was her turn to pick a topic, Erin.  I had no say.”

He said no names, but I knew who he meant. 

He spoke of Becca Foley, a deeply irritating troll of a girl with enough pep for the whole county.  One of those girls who was involved in every organization merely to improve college transcripts, she was quite chummy with the administration.  I don’t spite her for that, though.  Excessive school spirit and self-servitude can certainly be annoying, but Becca had a number of undesirable traits that outshined the former. 

She had the uncanny ability to make anyone and everyone feel inferior when engrossed in conversation.  Either with a scathing look or a biting comment, she never failed to make a person feel stupid.  She was underhanded and manipulative and seemed to think her word was Gospel.  I endured several years of her friendship before I was ready to rip my hair out in madness, and ours was only a semi-close relationship.  I called it quits and until this year, I’d been fortunate enough to have escaped her company in school.  This year, however, it seemed that someone had it out for me.  I mean that figuratively, of course, but how else do you explain Nate’s absence being filled with Becca’s presence?  It’s utter madness, what I am to deal with this year. 

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I whispered, shutting my eyes against the ironic cruelty of the situation.  Instantly, I switched gears.  “All right,” I muttered, “all right, fine.  Let me to the cons!”

Mr. Connolly continued to look uncomfortable and I understood that that, too, was out of the question.  The lawyer in me sprang into action and I was ready to spew a hastily prepared argument at him, but as the late bell chimed, the fight in me died.  I began to accept my misfortune like a “good girl” and waited patiently for the late pass that he sat down to write. 

Goodness, be damned.

7:17 PM

My heart was literally in my throat.  I’d never gotten stage fright before so I can’t say exactly, but I don’t think that was my affliction.  All I knew was that my notes, however brief, were crumpled in my sweaty palm. 

Mr. Connolly was giving us something of a pre-game pep talk.  “Same old story,” he whisper-spoke, though everyone heard him.  “Debate your topics, enforce your points.  Be levelheaded but make your point, and make it clear.  Do not degrade each other, but show, to the best of your abilities, that you’ve rehearsed and researched more than the rest, because you have.  Claim the credit that is rightfully yours.  Same old story.” 

“But it’s not the same old story,” whined Randy, a sniveling child who seemed to be in need of a shower.  “It’s Lincoln.  They’re undefeated this year and it’s not like we’ve had a good track record on them in years passed!  Why would things change now?”

“It won’t change with an attitude like that, Randy, will it?” Alexandra said, turning her somewhat pointed nose upward and grimacing openly at the boy’s grimy stature. 

We’re undefeated as well,” I chimed in, sounding much more confident than I felt, “and there’s a first time for everything.”

It elicited cheers from fellow debaters and an encouraging smile from Mr. Connolly.  Randy merely sniffed bad-temperedly and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. 

In a matter of seconds, people around me erupted into pre-debate jitters.

“I forgot my topic!”

“Do I look all right?”

“I hate speaking in front of people…”

“What the hell does quantum fiber optics even mean?!”

My previous confidence had suddenly begun to dwindle.  The bell clanged to start the match.  First, we were to debate with Lincoln on a topic chosen in front of us.  These debates were generally piss-poor, but spontaneous topics were a “fun” way to test our minds, according to the district. 

This half of the debate was very rapid.  Soon, it was Lincoln’s turn to debate one another and we sat in the audience openly judging them, hanging on each and every syllable in hopes of catching a blunder.  They made very few, and those that were made were merely slight infractions.  It was somewhat disheartening, I admit, but it also stoked the fire of competition. 

Eventually, after a long hour of solid debating, a short intermission was taken on the judges’ behalves.  While the other debaters milled about around the measly concessions table, I remained rooted in my chair.  My nerves were explosive.  Conversations around me buzzed in my ears.  Then, I felt the slight shift in weight as someone occupied the seat beside me. 

“Don’t choke,” Becca Foley whispered, so low that I strained to hear her. 

Whipping my gaze around to meet her conniving eyes, I whispered back at the same irritating volume, “Wouldn’t dream of it because if I did, you’d be the one doing the Heimlich.  I’d be dead before the next heart beat.” 

What you need to understand is that I’m a generally kind person.  I get along with most.  But this girl, she ignited something within me that could only be identified as loathing.  I couldn’t help it.  Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t be the bigger person and walk away.  Absolutely not. 

Becca planted a sickly sweet smile on her spray-tanned face.  “We’ll see,” she murmured before prancing away.  Alexandra, root-beer in hand, saw Becca’s retreating image and smelled trouble in the air. 

She quickly plopped onto the seat Becca had just vacated.  “What was that?”

Our mutual dislike was more obvious than I would’ve liked.

“Nothing,” I murmured, deterring Alexandra from her gossip-fueled high.  “Just Becca being Becca.”

Alexandra furrowed her brow, sour because I had denied her of any juicy scandal.  I liked her, I did, but her mouth was never shut.  She always had something to say about someone else.  A stereotypical teenage girl—it was girls like her who made the rest of us look bad. 

The judges filed back behind their table and the announcer took the podium. 

“Kicking off the second half,” said the announcer, “are Becca Foley and Erin O’Malley from Cumberland High.” 

Immediately, my throat went dry.  Becca, always the entertainer, waved to the barely listening crowd and pranced onto the stage.  I followed in her footsteps, avoiding people’s eyes. 

Becca said her piece first.  With a flourish, she flipped her straw-colored hair over her shoulder and “performed” for what little audience remained.

“The war in Iraq,” she murmured in feigned solemnity, “is not only draining this country of its tax money.  We are being drained of America’s bravest, as well.”

I can say, and think, what I like about Becca Foley, but I cannot deny that she is a skilled debater.  As my mind drifted painfully to Nate and further away from the debate at hand, however, I couldn’t help but consider that my opinion might have been slightly biased. 

She prattled on and on about our dwindling finances and man power.  She included horror stories from the battle field, stories of young lives cut far too short. 

“Near Baghdad in 2005,” she uttered, clutching her heart for emphasis, “a woman, 32 years old, was fatally wounded by a car bomb.  Weeks later, when officials had both identified her remains and tracked down her next of kin, they went to inform her family, as was their duty.  They happened upon a child’s birthday party.  Her son had just turned four.” 

Swallowing became increasingly difficult—my throat was desperate for a gulp of water. 

“Finally,” she said at long last, “I’ve got a story that hits close to home.”

She chanced a glance at me and then at Mr. Connolly before addressing her audience once more. 

“I’m sure many of you locals have heard that our dear friend, Nathaniel Richardson, has recently departed for the war himself.” 

Every ear in the room was attentive now and, to my horror, those who knew of our relationship fixed their eyes on me.  I heard myself gasp audibly, jerking around to face my malicious opponent.  She refused to meet my gaze.

“This, thankfully, isn’t a horror story…yet.”  She whispered the last bit almost indistinctly.  “But though his actions are honorable and brave, I know that I can’t stand the thought of a friend in the middle of…peril.” 

That’s all she said.  No closing argument, nothing.  She knew it was unnecessary.  People were watched me with unguarded interest.  Many wondered, I’m sure, if I was going to hit her. 

For a moment, I wondered that, too.

Instead, I took my place behind the podium and ignored the intrigued stares, Becca’s arrogance and my shaky breathing.

“It’s true,” I whispered but the microphone picked it up.  Every face in sight was wrought with bewilderment.  Even Becca’s. 

“There are millions of horror stories surrounding the war.  Our soldiers are in definite danger.  But aren’t many vital jobs extremely dangerous?  A cop faces death every day on the job.  Should we dismiss the force?  A fireman is required to run into burning buildings, facing a number of severe health risks.  Should the fire department be called off?  For goodness’ sake, people die in car crashes every day.  Should we banish cars and walk everywhere from now on?

“So, yes, there are countless horror stories surrounding the war but we are not a country based on failure.  We are a country based on freedom, which means somewhere along the line, we’ve already succeeded.  We’ve experienced what happiness freedom can bring.  Not only is our brave military defending the way of life to which we’ve grown accustomed, our soldiers are helping those less fortunate by ridding them previous evils and by showing them a safer and happier way of life.  Is that not the greatest charity of all?

“My dear opponent, here,” I spat, gesturing grandly towards a disgruntled Becca, “might’ve liked to argue that the Iraqis do not want our help.  That’s true, as well.  Does that mean we give up and go home?  Would you grant a later bedtime to a whining child?  Would you give up on a drowning friend simply because they rejected your assistance?  Of course not.  We possess one of the greatest gifts in the world.  Shouldn’t it be our duty, when possible, to enlighten others to such a happiness?”

My voice was elevating now.  I was angry.  I was frustrated because they were eating up everything I had said when even I didn’t believe a word of it.  The following, however, is the absolute truth.

“Nathaniel Richardson gave his services to Iraq because he loves this country.  It’s true that though he is a devout patriot, even he admits its flaws.  By universal standards, our country is young and has plenty of its own kinks to work out.  We are neither the most affluent nor the most technologically advanced.  We aren’t the most intelligent.  But despite everything we aren’t, we are free.  And it’s Nate’s belief that we have a duty to educate the world in that regard.” 

Applause sounded, heartier than I anticipated, but I didn’t wait for the ruling.  Becca remained, smirking into the crowd until I was announced the winner.  She trudged backstage to meet me, sullen and angry.  Seeing my expression, however, gave her something new to smirk about. 

Mr. Connolly met us backstage where I stood, clutching a beam to keep from forcefully wiping that sneer right off her face. 

“Why would you bring Nate up, Miss Foley?  That was unnecessarily cruel…even for you,” Mr. Connolly said, whispering the last bit.  I’m not sure if she heard it or not.

“Why, sir, it was very important to my argument,” she answered.  She was the very picture of feigned innocence. 

“Liar.”

Both set of eyes swung to me, but I only focused on one.  Becca’s complacency made her look like a wolf eyeing the prey she knows she has cornered. 

“What was that?  I couldn’t quite hear you.  Do learn to speak up.” 

I lost it.  I’d never tried to physically attack someone before, but I’d seen a number of fights in school.  It all seemed to happen so fast, when you’re a bystander.  Now, however, time slowed drastically.  I saw her flinch and step backward.  I saw fear flash in her eyes as I rushed towards her.   And I can’t understand for the life of me why, but I felt sorry for her.  Mr. Connolly, slightly stymied by my reaction but for the most part unsurprised, looped his arm through both of mine, pinning them behind my back.  Had I actually intended her harm, he would have been too late.  He loosened his grasp when he realized I had already stopped my advance. 

“If you ever mention him like that again, I can’t promise I’ll be able to stop myself,” I spat. 

Becca nodded, somewhat speechless.  It was kind of satisfying—she always had something to say.  She walked off, looking almost embarrassed.

My anger dissipated.  It gave way to embarrassment.  I’d never come close to attacking somebody before.  I turned to face Mr. Connolly and waited for the inevitable tongue-lashing. 

It never came. 

Instead, his hand clapped my shoulder and all he said was, “I know.” 

I swiped at the trail of tears racing down my cheeks.  I said nothing.  I didn’t know what to say.  All I knew was that if I reacted that strongly to the mention of his name, I didn’t know how I’d make it the next 9 and a half months without him unscathed. 

 

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