The Girl Who Cried War
Author: coritherien

Chapter 5
Prosperity

December 8th, 2007

Dear Erin,

            Life in the desert has carried on frustratingly slowly, my love.  And each passing day is like a scene from a soap opera.

            Ricardo has the mindset of a 13 year old girl.  He’s the most immature person I’ve encountered in a while.  He’s got this superiority delusion running through his head.  One of these days, I’m going to take it upon myself to knock it right out for him.

            I told you, of course, how he burned your letter and that I subsequently punched him.  He’s been a right git ever since. 

            It is so petty, it’s almost like I never left high school.

            But, I digress.  How are you, darling?  What are you up to?  I hate not knowing how you spend your days.  I can’t describe how much I miss you.  I feel almost juvenile, like a pouting child.  I yearn for your eyes, your smile, your voice, your scent.  And your touch, your lips; mine crave for—”

            Suddenly blushing, I became aware that I was gradually shielding the letter from Aimee’s view.  Well, not as much Aimee’s as it was Tawny’s. 

            For the first time, I felt uncomfortable sharing his words.  Was that selfish?  Probably. 

            It was a cold, snowy Friday.  Aimee brought this week’s letter to school, because she was scheduled to leave for the Cape this weekend.  Our Sunday letter-ritual had been halted.  So, here I sat, clutching his message like my life depended on it, in the middle of a crowded cafeteria.

            Laughter pounded in my ears and I couldn’t concentrate.  Food flew overhead.  Immature boys hopped over tables.  It was like a zoo without cages. 

            I opened my mouth to explain and then promptly closed it when I realized I had no real reason for my secrecy. 

            Aimee smiled lightly in understanding, squeezing my hand.  “So, are you ready for math?” she broached in an attempt to take the focus off of me.

            Tawny was having none if it.  “Wait a minute,” she exclaimed.  Her icy blue eyes turned on me and narrowed.  “Are you hiding that from us?”

            I blanched.  How the hell was I supposed to respond to that?  “Well…”

            She cocked an eyebrow.  “So those letters are too good for us now?  You’re too good for us now?” 

            I had no idea what to do.  I shot a glance at Aimee, who furrowed her brow in confusion.

            Tawny continued.  “Wow, Erin,” she scoffed, “you’ve been so…well, irritating lately.  All you do is mope.”

            My jaw dropped.  “Are you serious?  ‘Moping’?  Let’s see you take my place, then.”      

            Both Tawny and Aimee whipped around to face me, stupefied.  I understood their reactions; in the past, I’ve always been extremely passive when it comes to fights with friends.  I never cared how wrong the other person was.  If we were friends, I’d be begging for forgiveness.  I know, I know, it’s pathetic.  I haven’t the slightest rhyme or reason for being so submissive.  I do think that’s why I liked the debate team so much and why I dreamed of law school: I had to get my arguing out in some way and if I couldn’t voice my opinions to my friends, strangers and/or opponents would have to suffice because, if I won, it wasn’t “cruel”, it was being successful. 

            But now, it was different.  My heart wasn’t sinking at Tawny’s words.  My mind wasn’t demanding that I apologize for any wrong doing she was accusing me of.  I felt nothing but a steadily growing anger.  It was kind of nice, though.  I’d never gotten openly angry at my friends before.  This was refreshing.

            I suppose that, if nothing else, Nate’s absence gave me that, right?  I’d already lost him, to an extent.  What does Tawny matter, in the long run?  Perhaps that’s harsh, but Tawny was always more loyal to Aimee than she ever was to me.  Always. 

            Tawny’s shock at my outburst didn’t last long, however.  Her pursed lips opened only a crack to say, “He’s just a boy.  There are plenty of them.  All you’ve got to do is have a little taste test and it’ll be, ‘Nate, who?’”  A mischievous smirk played on her lips as an evil glint shone in her eye.  “Maybe then you’ll get over this depression thing because it’s getting very old.” 

            Presently, I was speechless.  Tawny smiled wider, picked up her cold turkey wrap and began a conversation with Aimee about a movie she had just seen, or other such nonsense.

            And Aimee responded to her like nothing had happened.

            I spun to face her.  I was no longer speechless.  “And what, exactly, do you have to say about this?”

            Aimee froze.  She tucked a few stray curls away before looking down at her untouched lunch.

            “So that’s it, then?  You agree with her?” I said, significantly quieter.  I wasn’t angry anymore.  I was…hurt.  Tawny’s aggression was one thing; she was always a little frank and cold in temperament.  But Aimee?  She was my best friend.  I went to her for everything; her opinion was only ever second to my own.

            “No,” Aimee said, before taking a sharp intake of breath as Tawny shot her a warning glance.  “I mean…well, I don’t know, Erin.  You have been kind of depressing to be around.”

            I gulped audibly, furrowing my brow.

            “I just miss my best friend,” she said quietly, raising her eyes to meet mine.  “We all know you’ve been acting differently.  You are different.” 

            A million retorts ran through my mind but I couldn’t bring myself to voice them.  Not to Aimee.  For God’s sake, she was right, on an elementary level. 

            That didn’t soothe the sting.

            I grabbed my unopened paper lunch, slung my school bag over my shoulder and escaped their presences as quickly as possible.

            It wasn’t till I reached the hallway that I realized I had nowhere to go.  But hell would freeze over before I went back in that lunch room.

            So I started to walk and I took refuge in the first empty room I happened upon: the bathroom.

            I went to the far, barred window and pulled myself up on the little ledge in front of it.  I proceeded to eat my lunch in both utter solitude and silence, save for the occasional footsteps out in the hall. 

            I felt like Lindsay Lohan in the beginning of, “Mean Girls.”  How pathetic. 

            Finally, I was able to extract Nate’s letter and continue reading. 

            “—mine yearn for yours.  Please give Carla my love.  And my parents, should you see them. 

            I love you, darling.  I saw a girl here, a native Iraqi, who actually looked so much like you that my heart nearly stopped.  I count the days until I see you next, Erin

 

Always,

 

Nate

            Despite that little spat in the lunch room and the fact that I was eating my lunch in the bathroom because of it, his words brought a smile to my face. 

            Just as I tucked the letter into the inside pocket of my sweater and pulled my chicken sandwich from its plastic wrappings, the door swung open.  For a moment, I froze, realizing how strange I must look. 

            Until I saw that it was just Carla.

            She took three steps into the room, spotted me, and burst into laughter.

            “What on Earth are you doing eating in the bathroom?” she gasped between guffaws.

            I smirked lightly.  “I’m doing exactly that,” I replied.  “I’m eating in the bathroom.”

            She regained control of herself, with difficulty, because she realized there was something wrong.  She hopped up on the ledge beside me and pulled an imaginary piece of lint off my sleeve. 

            “What happened?” She asked gently.

            I took a deep breath and glanced away, staring at the far wall.  “Apparently, I’m getting on everyone’s nerves by missing your brother.”

            When I turned my gaze to Carla, her brow was furrowed.  “Excuse me?” she asked incredulously. 

            I simply nodded.

            “And who, exactly, spawned such an idea?” 

            I laughed.  Humorlessly.  “Who do you think?” I asked, turning to her.  “Tawny.  It’s always Tawny.” 

            Carla sighed and gripped my hand.  She was the one person I could go to when I couldn’t talk to my friends.  Which was often, these days.  Tawny was simply more than I could handle now.  Her brazen demeanor just…well, bugged me lately.  And I couldn’t very well go to Aimee, now, could I?  Carla was my only option. 

            But she was an extraordinary listener…just like her brother.  The two of them were so intuitive and they always knew what to say.  Me?  I was horrid at giving advice.  I can read a person from a mile away and diagnose his/her problem, but fixing it was a different story.  Nate, though…he knew the right solution to every problem. 

            In the summer, for instance, I had a huge tiff with my parents.  I don’t quite remember the reason; all I know is that it was loud enough to wake the neighbors around midnight.  And when I told Nate, he suggested that perhaps I had been shutting them out a bit.  It was natural, he said; teenagers are prone to putting distance between themselves and their parents because they are subconsciously readying themselves to leave for college.  He said that my parents just might not be prepared to let me go.  Of course, I was never a sentimental person.  I told him they were used to all that.  Sarah had already gone off to college and it wasn’t as hard for them the second time around. 

            He was right, though.  My parents sat me down and explained, almost verbatim, what Nate had predicted.  From that moment on, I trusted his instincts.

            His little sister took after him.

            Carla sighed and squeezed my hand, inspecting the nails that I had bitten to practically nothing.  “How many times have I told you to get away from her?  She’s a toxic person if I ever saw one.  Stick with Aimee.  She’ll never—”

            “Aimee agreed,” I whispered. 

            Carla halted, her breath caught in her throat. 

            “Tawny said that my mood was getting on her nerves, and Aimee agreed.  Said she wanted her ‘best friend back’,” I said, with an ample use of air quotes.  “I know I must be annoying, but how can I change that?  I would turn off the sadness if I could, I would’ve turned it off months ago.  I can’t help it.  Everything Tawny talks about seems so trivial.  I can’t pretend that I care anymore.”

            “They don’t know what it feels like,” Carla whispered.  Her voice was thick, raw.  I turned to her and, for the first time, saw tears sliding slowly down her cheeks.

            She brushed her tears away furiously, smiling sadly at me.  I wrapped my arm around her. 

            “I’m sorry,” she whispered.  “It’s just…I know what you’re feeling.  One minute, I’ll be fine, watching TV or reading or what have you.  The next minute, I’ll see a commercial for the National Guard or I’ll see his empty place at the dinner table and I’ll break down.  Sometimes, it feels like…like he’s…”

            A sob interrupted her thought and her head hit my shoulder.  She couldn’t bring herself to say it, and I couldn’t bear to hear it. 

            “He’s not,” I whispered into her hair.  “He’s healthy and hopefully happy and he’s doing what he’s always wanted, what your father has always wanted.”

            She nodded against me, but her tears still flowed.  Oh, how I hated seeing other people cry.  I never knew quite what to do. 

            “But, I know,” I told her and her eyes sought mine. 

Nate’s eyes.  I looked away. 

“I know what that’s like.  And I look at my parents, who don’t even know Nate and I are together and I wonder how they haven’t noticed a change in me.  Or, even worse, I look at others sometimes.  Happy people, laughing and smiling, and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to laugh or smile like that again without it hurting.”

She nodded, slowly.  “I have dreams,” she said.  “Well, nightmares, really.  And in them, he never comes home.”  She closed her eyes to compose herself before posing the question, “What will we do if that happens?  If he—”

My ears burned and I retreated slightly.  That was a possibility I was not ready to confront.  “You listen to me,” I said as convincingly as I could manage.  “Nate’s going to finish his term and then he’ll come home for good.  He’ll have served his time and be satisfied with the help he’s given those poor people and then he’ll come home.  He will always come home.”

She nodded, but I knew she was just patronizing me.  I didn’t care.  She let me hold on to my shred of hope and that’s all that mattered. 

She shook her head, laughing lightly.  “Look at us,” she scoffed.  “We’ve become blubbering messes!  My, oh my, we’re acting like children.”

I giggled back, shoving her lightly as she hopped off the edge.  “Speak for yourself.  I see only one child here.”

“I’ve got to get back to Calc.  They’ll think I’ve gone and fallen in.”  She collected her pass and, before retreating, turned back to me and asked.  “What do you say to a movie night at my house tonight?” 

I hesitated, and she knew why.  “Mom and dad will be on their best behaviors if you come,” she assured me.  “I give you my word.”

I sighed.  “Sure, Carla.  Sure.  Sounds like fun.”

She grinned at me, her eyes shining.  You would never know she had been crying. 

We exited the bathroom but turned different ways.  She headed back towards the math wing while I stopped at my locker in the language wing.

The one I shared with Aimee. 

I shoved my half-eaten lunch back into the bottom of our messy locker.  Water bottles, spare clothing, and text books all threatened to tumble to the floor.  We had initially planned to clean the locker out before it got overwhelming and was edging towards insurmountable. 

Just as I successfully yanked my pre-calculus book from the wobbling tower, I felt a tap on my shoulder. 

I turned to see Matthew Hendricks, shy and cheerful.  I smiled warmly.

“Hi, Mattie,” I said, slamming my locker closed.  Otherwise, it bounces right open again. 

“Hey,” he replied, the ever-present laugh in his voice. 

Mattie Hendricks was probably the kindest boy I’d ever met.  He always had a smile on his face.  His adorable face.  He had s surfer boy, Californian look about him.  It was sorely out of place in Rhode Island but looked cute nonetheless.  Shaggy blonde hair, perhaps a touch too long, hung in his grey-blue eyes.  He worse a slightly oversized t-shirt at all times, which he sometimes paired with swim trunks.  The only thing missing was a surf board. 

Overall, he probably seemed…perfect.

He wasn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, there are loads of girls in school who would go nuts over him.  But there is such a thing as being too nice and I think he is the personification of that.  He’s always so concerned with others’ opinions of him.  He would never say a harsh word to anyone, he was a sweet heart.  But in that, he lost some of that valuable personality he would possess if only he shared the opinions he must harbor. 

I smiled at him, and he blushed.  “What can I do for you?”

He cast his gaze askew before saying, “I was just wondering what you’re doing later on.”

His blush deepened and he couldn’t meet my gaze.

I hesitated, before replying, “Oh…Mattie, I’m sorry, I just agreed to watch a movie at Carla’s.” 

Silently, we both acknowledged that it was Nate’s house, too, but chose not to say it aloud. 

Mattie’s face fell a little lower.  He tried to play it off kindly.  “Hey, don’t sweat it—next time, right?”  He laughed lightly. 

I grinned, somewhat ashamedly.  I was always telling him ‘next time’.  “Yeah, next time.  We can get a group together,” I added, to be on the safe side. 

His smile faltered further, as I knew it would.  Let me explain.

Mattie has been a great friend to me ever since we met during our freshman year.  He was sweet.  A shy boy, but always tons of fun.  And he helped me bring me algebra grade from a C- to a B.  What more could a person ask for in a friend?

But it got uncomfortable in the beginning of our sophomore year.  Nate and I had just started talking.  It had that new relationship rush of excitement, which meant that I shared every little detail with my closest friends: Aimee, Tawny, and Mattie. 

Aimee and Tawny acted predictably.  They were excited, but with touches of joking jealousy from the latter.  But, whenever I brought up even Nate’s name to Mattie, he got increasingly…well, angry. 

Now, ‘angry’ for Mattie was like ‘happy’ for the next person.  He wasn’t actively hostile or anything like that.  I don’t think Mattie could ever be cruel.  He was simply more distant when I spoke of Nate.  He laughed less and talked minimally.  That constituted as anger for Mattie and despite how harmless it was, it bothered me. 

Finally, I confronted him.  “What is your problem?” I asked after a particularly potent bout of enmity.

We were sitting on the bleachers watching one of our school’s lacrosse matches.  He’d been pocking at a spot on his knee, virtually ignoring me.

At my inquiry, his head shot up and he met my gaze.  “I—wh…what?” 

I cocked my eyebrow at him.  “You know what I’m talking about.  Every time I bring up Nate Richard’s name, you shut down.  You get colder.  Why?  Do you two have some deep seeded past I should know about?  I can’t even talk to you anymore, Mattie!” 

He hesitated.  His eyes were genuinely apologetic but he looked scared. 

“Well?  What is it?” I demanded, sounding angrier than I actually was. 

He sighed.  “I like you,” he said, but he hurried through it, so that it came out more like, “Ilikeyou”.

It was my turn to be shocked. 

He rushed on before I could speak.  “I don’t mean to pressure you or anything, I’m not asking for a thing in return.  You asked me and so I’m telling you.  I can tell you really like this Nate Richards,” he said with a soft, sad laugh.

I just stared into his curious blue eyes until I found the words I was looking for.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

He raised an eyebrow.  “The truth?”

“Always.”

“I didn’t want anything to change between us.  Heck, I didn’t know I had feelings for you until you first mentioned his name.  But when you did, it was like my blood was boiling.  My throat burned—I wanted to scream but I couldn’t.  And the whole time, I was trying to understand what was happening.” 

He took a deep, shuddering breath and put his face in his hands.  I was surprised; this was the most I’d ever heard him talk in one sitting. 

Then he looked at me, levelly, calculating.  “You do really like him, don’t you?”

I gave him an uncertain half-smile.  “Yeah,” I muttered as gently as I could, “I really do.”

He nodded, making a decision.  “Then I’ll respect that.  You won’t hear another word about it from me.”

I smiled, genuinely this time.  “Thank you.  And, I’m sorry.”

He waved my apology off.  “You can’t help who you like, right?  But promise me something,” he said earnestly.  “Promise me this won’t change anything; tell me this won’t stop us from being friends.” 

“Of course not,” I assured him.

But it did, to an extent.  We talked every chance we got and hung out fairly often but it was nothing like freshman year.  We both knew it.  After I started officially dating Nate, things changed.  Mattie avoided us when we were together, which was quite frequently.  Now, with Nate gone, I was seeing more and more of Mattie.  It was bittersweet; I was happy to see more of him, but not at the expense of Nate’s absence.  Because I would give anything for Nate to come home safe and sound.  Anything. 

Now, with hoards of people passing by us now and a rapidly increasing din rising around us, Mattie looked crestfallen that I’d mentioned a group.  He tried to cover the emotions flicking across his face quickly before I had a chance to decipher them. 

He was too slow.  “I’m sorry,” I murmured uncomfortably.  “It’s just, with Nate gone and all—”

“You know I wouldn’t try anything,” he whispered.  He sounded hurt.  “I respect you more than that.”

“No—I know, I know.  That’s not what I’m saying,” I protested.  I was drowning in my own explanation.  What a day, right?

Then, I stopped and blocked out my surroundings.  I tried to forget Mattie’s imploring gaze, the rambunctious passing students, the overwhelming uproar…

And I took five deep breaths. 

I opened my eyes.  Nothing had changed; my surroundings remained as were.  But now, I was a whole lot calmer. 

“Look,” I said, grabbing his arm, as if he were about to float away, “I’ve had a day straight out of hell.  You know I didn’t mean it that way.”

He nodded, looking tenderly at the spot where I’d touched him.  “I know.  I’m sorry.”

I smiled slightly and extracted my hand.  This was going to be a long day.

5:30 PM.

 

I sat on my couch drowsily, half-watching recordings of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show”.  My phone vibrated loudly, pulling me out of my afternoon stupor.

Carla R: Hey!  My house, 6:15—you’re coming for dinner J.

I gulped.  Dinner with Nate’s parents.  Without him.  This would be…interesting. 

I decided I should look presentable and change out of the sweats I had planned on wearing.

I hopped in the shower reveling in the worm, almost scalding water.  It was a blessing in the middle of the bleak winter and I wished I had ore time to enjoy it. 

Instead, I lathered on the shampoo like it was going out of style.  I squirted on the body wash quickly and the scent of vanilla saturated the air.  I ran a loofah over myself before pouring the conditioner onto my scalp.  Once it was massaged in well, I took the head of a brush which had broken off years ago and ran it through my sopping hair.  Aimee always mocked me for that.  “Just brush it when you get out!” she would say.  But I swear—brush it while the conditioner is still in and your hair will be 10x smoother.  Try it, you’ll see.

            While I waited the predetermined 5 minutes for the conditioner to settle, I ran a hand over my legs to see whether or not I could hold off shaving for another day.  Turns out, I could. 

            Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do, right?  I didn’t have time to shave everyday.  Besides, who was going to find out?

            Finally, I got out, waited for the steam to dissipate and proceeded to execute the quickest towel-dry I’d ever experienced. 

            I threw on a high-waist white skirt, tucked in a coral v-neck t-shirt and slipped on my black Northface coat.  I stepped into black flats, flicked on a coat of mascara and ran out the door.

            Nate’s house was only 1.3 miles away from my house.  We clocked it once, because he always preferred to walk if he could.  “Saves gas,” he would say.  So, on a good, traffic-free day, it was only a five (or so) minute drive. 

            As I pulled I into his wide, looping driveway, my breathing become somewhat shallow as memories flooded back to me.  I realized I hadn’t been there since August, right before his departure. 

            His red mustang, paid for with almost two years worth of McDonald’s paychecks (because he detested the idea of using his parents’ money…and oh, did they have money) was parked to the right of his garage in the grass.  It had gathered dust, dirt, snow and ice by now. 

            I collected my cell-phone and car keys and took a deep breath before I walked up the stone path and let the golden knocker drop. 

            Nate’s house was as ornately furnished and decorated as a Victorian era home, though it was only 3-4 years old.  It was set in a neighborhood of equally extravagant homes.  They were beautiful, accompanied by sloping, ever-green front lawns and structured with something like 4,000 square feet.  Nate’s house, in particular, was gorgeous.  What I liked about it is that, although it was decadent in style, it also had a subtle beauty about it; they didn’t seem to be exploiting their wealth for all to see, like some of the other homes. 

Nate hated his wealth.  He was brought up in a home that was barely still standing—the foundation was not only crumbling, it had already collapsed.  But Nate had found happiness in that.  He learned to appreciate little things over grand gestures.  So, when his mother’s distant and reclusive uncle left all of his excessive wealth to her upon his death, it shook Nate’s world. 

And though his mother clung to it (understandably, because no one would enjoy a home that threatened to disintegrate at any second), I got the impression that Mr. Richards shared Nate’s animosity for it.  I think that is why his passion for the Army roared back to life. 

Nate said his father wasn’t always as patriotically driven as I know him to be.  He said that when he was younger, his father would put him to bed with stories of his “golden days” when he was in the service.  His heroic tales were what prompted Nate to join in the first place.  But that’s all they ever were, until five years ago.  Simply stories.  His father had financial worries to tend to, a family that needed him, and so he was forced to get a “real” job, Mrs. Richards called it.  Thoughts of the Army were pushed from his head when he started as a stock broker, because he had more important things to worry about.

Five years ago, though, things changed drastically.  The family no longer needed a stock broker’s salary when they acquired the millions that were left to them.  I never got a real sense of how many millions exactly but it was easily over 6.  Perhaps even over 10. 

Mrs. Richards spent her days acting as something of an interior designer.  She was always adding some new armoire from Europe to the parlor, or a classy grandfather clock in the foyer.  Her hard work paid off—her home was absolutely beautiful.  Each room—except for Nate’s—had gold plated furnishings and undertones of either maroon or navy.  Like I said, it was subtly extravagant, and exceptionally exquisite.  And she spent her life recently trying to perfect it.

Mr. Richards, on the other hand, had nothing with which to occupy time now.  Before Nate left, he told me that his father was trying to spark an interest in golf, because that was what retired men in his neighborhood did.  But Mr. Richards was never much of the “golfing” type.  He was a traditional war vet.  Story telling about his days on the front line was the only thing that put a sparkle back in his eye.  That, and speaking of his son, who followed in his father’s same extraordinarily patriotic footsteps. 

I waited for a few seconds and took in the home I hadn’t set eyes upon since August.  The double front doors were made of solid oak, with golden trimmings.  Above it was a vast window that seemed to overlook the entire neighborhood.  Just inside the window, a mesmerizing chandelier could be seen, its diamonds reflecting the light and twinkling like stars.  The home itself, built of stone and drywall, was a deep burgundy, almost the color of wine, with a black tiled roof.  During the spring and summer, the lawn was lined with the most spectacular flowers.  Presently, it was lined with snow. 

I let the golden knocker drop twice more before the doors opened before me.  I took a deep breath, placed a smile on my face, and readied myself.

It was Mrs. Richards who answered the knock.  She smiled cordially, exclaiming, “Erin!  How wonderful, it’s been so long.  Come in, come in.”

I smiled warmly at her.  “Hello, Mrs. Richards.  I’m so sorry, I would’ve brought a dessert or something, but Carla didn’t tell me about dinner until half an hour ago!”

She waved my apology away, shutting the door behind us.  “Don’t be silly, you’re the guest!  And, how many times do I have to tell you?  Call me Emily.”  She chuckled and let the way through their grand foyer. 

I had forgotten how truly breathtaking this house was.  It was like a work of art.  The tiled floor was stained creamy beige.  The walls were painted to replicate Claude Monet’s “Giverny in Springtime”.  To the left was a were a pair of long windows, curtained in a beautiful light pink satin that had been roped back earlier to let in the sunlight.  In between the windows stood a Venus de Milo statue.  To the right, the fire place was roaring.  A rich, oak-finished chaise lounge was situated beside it.  Towards the center of the room stood a glass table whose intricately sculpted steel legs twisted down to the floor, looking like wild vines.  Upon the table was an assortment of presentable books and magazines, such as War and Peace and “Home and Garden”. 

It was like a high-scale waiting room at the doctor’s office, with all the reading material you could ask for and more art than you could handle.

We ascended the grand, curving staircase before us.  At the top of the stairs, mounted on the wall, was a giant family portrait and, for the first time in months (because I had hidden all of my photographs) I saw Nate’s kind eyes peering at me from beneath a flop of black hair. 

I swear to you, my heart nearly stopped beating.  I had forgotten about this portrait.  Seeing him in front of me, even in the confines of a frame, was so wonderfully healing and yet damaging, too. 

I tore my eyes away from his face, because the last thing I needed was to collapse into a sobbing heap in front of his mother, right?

The West Wing of the house was where the home theatre and computer room were.  That’s where Carla and I would be spending our night.

Instead, we took a right and ventured into the East Wing where the dining hall and all of the bedrooms were situated. 

Immediately to the left was Carla’s bedroom which looked like it had been drenched in Pepto Bismal.  Different shades of pink were thrown together and created the most feminine room I had ever seen.  Truly, the only other color was the white armoire. 

And across the hall, with its door ajar as usual, was Nate’s room.  The sight was comforting.  He had perhaps the cheapest looking room in the house, which is exactly what he aimed for.  His twin sized mattress was a carry over from his childhood; his sheets donned rocket ships.  Right in front of his makeshift side table (an old CD wrack he’d thrown a sheet over) was two pictures.  One was of the two of us at his Senior Reception last year.  His emerald tie matched my dress exactly.  My eyes were scrunched and my nose was crinkled, but Nate looked perfect.  Sun-kissed and laughing, I found it hard to imagine that he could ever look better.

The second picture was a more casual one but it meant all the more.  It was taken at my lake house, in the clearing that I had written him about.  He was shirtless, his sun-browned skin glistening.  He had a hint of abs without any real definition, but I’m sure that was different now. 

In the photo, he was standing over me, his arm around my neck in a fake-the-move headlock.  My face was gleeful, laughing.  It was a day I remember well because it was the day I’d found his birthmark.  We’d been taking turns attacking each other in the water, pushing one another under.  One time when Nate came up for air and I saw that his trunks had slipped a bit—not too far, but they showed about an inch of a tan line on his back.  There I found, right where his waistband had been, a curious, abstract looking birthmark.  Though he never agreed with me, I always insisted that it looked like a distorted heart.  On further inspection, I found that the point of the heart swirled out and to the left.  It looked like a lowercase ‘e’.  That’s the day I told him that it was God’s way of telling him he was meant for me.  It was predetermined; it was out of our hands. 

I would have given anything to live in that moment forever.  At the time, it was just another day with Nate.  A wonderful day, but just a day nonetheless.  I craved, now, for simply a moment like that. 

Realizing that I had stopped, I ran to catch up with Mrs. Richards, now several feet ahead of me and together, we walked into the dining hall. 

It was something to see.  The walls were high; the ceiling was arched and cathedral-like.  A dozen long windows with golden framings surrounded us, giving us a view of the presently falling snow. 

Colonel Richards and Carla sat at the masterfully set dining table, seemingly not saying a word to each other. 

I’ve never been told flat out, so my mind had been left to its own musings, but I got the feeling that their relationship was strained ever since Nate left.  I think she blamed her father for making him leave.  And the Colonel, ever so stubborn, refused to admit that he’d pushed his son into the army, simultaneously alienating his daughter. 

Mrs. Richards went to stand beside her husband.  Their relationship didn’t show any obvious signs of strain, but looking at the closely, I came to the conclusion that they were physically disconnected.  Mrs. Richards smiled at her husband, but it was tight around her mouth and it didn’t reach her eyes.  He placed an arm around her waist, but barely touched her.  And when they looked at each other, it lacked the loving ease it once had; now, all that transpired through their shared gaze was an uncomfortable sense that their charade might just fall apart without warning.  Suddenly, I felt uncomfortable for a whole new reason.

Erin,” Mr. Richards greeted me, with a gentlemanly bow. 

“Colonel Richards,” I smiled with forced congeniality, “it’s nice to see you.”

I turned my gaze to Carla, who grinned enthusiastically.  She seemed just as thrilled as I at having a distraction from her parents. 

We sat at the table, which was far too big for four people, and Mrs. Richards set about uncovering various dishes of grilled chicken, garden salad, Spanish rice, and a crème brûlée for later. 

Soon, Mr. and Mrs. Richards were immersed in the trivial gossip of the neighborhood—whose wife was screwing the pool boy, who had just been fired, who seemed to be gaining weight like they were prepping for hibernation.  It wasn’t the sort of dribble I imagined Mr. Richards to be interested in, but he seemed attentive all the same. 

Carla began to prattle on about a boy in her English class whom she just realized was attractive.  She left me no time to respond, but that was fine; I had always preferred to listen. 

Soon, the conversation across from us slowed to a stop and the atmosphere changed dramatically from light-hearted to grim.  Carla and I, sensing the sudden cold-front, turned to her parents.

Mrs. Richards was staring at her plate almost morosely.  “Nathaniel loved chicken,” she whispered.  Tears brimmed in her charcoal eyes. 

Colonel Richards threw his napkin down in exasperation, as if this was a common occurrence.  “Loves, Emily.  He loves chicken.  For Christ’s sake, he hasn’t died!  Don’t do this now, Emily.  We have company.

Mrs. Richards turned to him, brow furrowed, tears forgotten.  “’Don’t do this now’?  I’m sorry if missing my son isn’t convenient for you, Samuel!”

The Colonel bent his head low, straining to relax the muscles in his face but his frustration seeped through.  His shoulders tensed, and I easily saw the undeniable control and power with which he once controlled his troops.  It was frightening. 

“Haven’t even had a word from him in weeks.  For all we know, he’s lying in an Iraqi ditch somewhere, all thanks to his Daddy—”

“Emily!”

Colonel Richards shot up from his high-backed chair so fast that it clattered to the floor.  His hands were continuously clenching and unclenching, as if he wanted nothing more than to hit something.  He took a step back to keep himself under control as Mrs. Richards buried her face in her and wept.

I chanced a horrified glance at Carla, who murmured a disgusted but not frazzled, “I’m sorry.”

“I’ve heard from him,” I ventured, so quietly that Mrs. Richards’s sobs almost drowned me out.

Her head shot up to face me and her tears stopped.  Colonel Richards, still trying to restrain his anger, faced me slowly. 

“You heard from him?” Mrs. Richards whisper-shouted.  “Recently?!  How long ago?”

“I got the letter this morning,” I said uncomfortably.  “He wanted me to send you his love and well-wishes.”

A hand clutched at her chest and relief washed over her features.  If she was at all insulted that I’d received a letter and she hadn’t, she hid it well.

“Thank God,” she whispered.

The Colonel emitted something like a growl.  “If God had anything to do with it, Nate would be focused on his duty, not distracted by the mail.”

I gulped uneasily.  Mrs. Richards patted my arm, rolling her eyes.  The real anger was gone, however.  The storm had run its course and we were once again just a party of four, discussing little of real importance.

 

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