The Girl Who Cried War
Author: coritherien

Chapter 7
Taken

February 8th, 2008

 

Nothing.

            Finding my mailbox empty each day was no longer a surprise to me.  it had been empty since December, and each day, my heart broke a little bit more.

            ‘He’s just busy,’ I kept saying to myself.  ‘I’m lucky I got all those letters as regularly as I did before.  Delays in the mail were probably commonplace.’ 

            Still, with each passing day, and no letter in sight, it was getting harder and harder to accept this mantra. 

            Pulling on my old field hockey sweatshirt, a pair of dark wash jeans and my black winter boots, I grabbed my keys and my bagged lunch and headed for school. 

            My days, especially without Nate’s letters, were dreadful stretches of redundancy.  Nobody but Carla and Mattie were speaking to me because of my moping about.  I’d been trying to hide it, though, and Carla said I was improving, but neither Aimee nor Tawny would give me the time of day. 

            I instantly regretted stopping by my locker before Euro class when Aimee appeared next to me.  We looked at each other for a second, neither of us exceptionally angry at the other but neither willing to apologize, either.

            The moment was broken when Tawny shoved her way next to Aimee.  “Hurry up,” she whined, “I want to get to English fast so I can get Andy Christianson’s homework.”  She glared at me, more for show than anything else, and stalked off. 

            Aimee glanced at me, at a loss for what to do, and eventually trotted after Tawny.

            I sighed.  I couldn’t see this fight ending any time soon because Tawny was too stubborn to back down and Aimee seemed to be too big a follower. 

            I collapsed into my seat in Euro, bone-weary during the day because I wasn’t sleeping at night.  Carla sauntered in after me, wearing a pretty yellow sun dress that didn’t look right in February.

            She greeted me, smiling expectantly.  Everyday, she came in positive that I would have heard from Nate and everyday I was forced to disappoint her.

            Today was no different.

            Her smile faltered at the shake of my head.  She regained her composure quickly, though, muttering, “I’m sure tomorrow will be the day.”

            The morning announcements sounded and we stood, like we did every day, to recite the pledge of allegiance.  If that didn’t connect me to Nate, nothing would.

            We sat down, and the senior class president droned on about class meetings, basketball practices, etc. 

            Finally, he seemed to be wrapping up.  He finished with, “And would Carla Richards please report to the main office?  Carla Richards to the main office.  Thank you.”

            Carla shot me a glance, eyebrows raised, a half smile cocked.

            “What have you done, skipped class?” I laughed. 

            She laughed back.  “You know me and my love of rule breaking.”  She walked up to Mr. Connolly, who wrote her out a hall pass, and then left to see what the office wanted with her.

            Mr. Connolly began his lesson on Tsar Nicholas and the rest of the Romanoff royal family.  It was a subject I found rather intriguing.  The group of girls behind me, however, apparently did not.  Mr. Connolly told them several times to quit it, but they continued.

            As much as I tried to block them out, their conversation flitted my way.

            “It’s so sad,” said Jenna Paul, a chubby, kind girl with long white-blonde hair.

            “I know,” said another girl, whose name escapes me.  Her sand colored hair was chopped just long enough to reach her ears.  “They say at least a dozen civilians were killed.”

            It was Alison Harding who spoke up last, her fiery red hair braided down her back.  “Not only Iraqis were killed—I heard the bomb killed like three or four soldiers, too.”

            “Yeah!” Jenna exclaimed.  “Wasn’t one of them that kid who graduated last year?”

            “Who?!” the other two whisper-shouted. 

            “Oh, what’s his name…Ned?  Neil?  Umm…”

            “Girls, this is your last warning,” Mr. Connolly said, oblivious to the importance of their conversation.

            Whipping around to face the girls, I spoke over him.  “Nate?  Was that his name?”

            Jenna’s face lit up.  “That was it!  Nate…Nate something!”

            I closed my eyes against the horror I was hearing.  “Nate Richards,” I whispered, but my voice was little more than a strangled whimper. 

            Jenna got even more exciting.  “Yes, Nate Richards, that was his name!  How did you know?  Did you hear the news report, too?”

            Alison elbowed her quickly.  “Shut up,” she said through her teeth.

            “What?” Jenna asked indignantly.

            “He’s her boyfriend!”

            Instantly, all the color drained from Jenna’s face.  “Oh, my God,” she murmured, a hand flying to cover her mouth.  “I…I’m so sorry, I—”

            I felt like my heart was imploding.  My chest constricted, making breathing almost impossible.  I glanced at the clock.  Carla had been gone nearly a half hour.  What could have taken that long?

            I got my answer when the door opened, revealing a stoic man in a very formal military uniform.

            “I was instructed to retrieve Miss Richards’s things,” he told Mr. Connolly, who finally understood.

            He looked from me to the soldier and then back to me several times before releasing an anguished cry.  He pointed at Carla’s desk.  The soldier swooped down, gathering her things in one arm, and then retreated. 

            I heard a guttural groan, one of utter agony, and I wondered vaguely as to its origins until I realized it was me.  My mind was racing, my vision was blurry and my ears buzzed.  I truly thought my body was shutting down; I’d never felt anything like it.

            “Erin,” Mr. Connolly cried, at a complete loss for what to say.

            I shook my head, extracting myself from my desk.  I didn’t believe it.  I couldn’t.  It didn’t stop my mind from reacting, though.  I hadn’t taken even three steps toward the door before my knees met the tile floor, and I collapsed.  Enormous, soap-opera sobs wracked me, and I think it scared everyone else because none of them had ever seen me cry.  They were silent as can be.  I didn’t even hear any breathing.

            I felt Mr. Connolly’s grip on my arm.  It was the only thing keeping me from becoming a bawling heap on the floor.  He barked orders to the rest of the class before dragging me back to a standing, though hunched, position and pushed me out the door.  I’ll be forever grateful to him for not allowing me to continue my outburst under the watchful eyes of my classmates.  He knew that was the last thing he wanted when he was standing in my shoes, some 17 years ago.  Once we were out of sight, and earshot, in the hallway, he released me.

            A gnawing had begun in my stomach, an anxiety too terrible to stand.  I felt the cold metal of a locker on my back and slid down it. 

            Mr. Connolly knelt down before me.  “I’m so sorry, Erin.”

            I scuttled away from him and his apologies.  “Don’t,” I croaked.  “It’s not true—they heard wrong.”

            Mr. Connolly held his tongue.  The last thing he wanted to do was get my hopes up.  “We’ll go to the office,” he said calmly, “see if Carla is still here.  Maybe that soldier can give us a few answers.”

            I was on my feet, sprinting down the hall before he finished his sentence.  He didn’t call after me—he knew it wouldn’t make a difference. 

            I passed a number of people on my way, students and teachers alike, the majority of which looked at me perplexedly.  Near my locker, before I stumbled down a flight of stairs, I saw Aimee walking presumably to the bathroom.

            Her face twisted with concern.  “Erin?” she exclaimed, but I raced right past her.  I burst into the main office shouting, “Where’s Carla?”

            Some of the administration jumped, but I don’t think they were exceptionally surprised.  Most of them were in tears.  Mrs. Germaine, the secretary, was positively wailing. 

            “She was just taken home,” the poor woman cried.  “There was a tragedy in the family.”

            “No, no, no,” I shouted, retreating before she could say more.

            I jumped down the flights of the main staircase leading to the foyer.  I rushed out the door in time to see Carla ducking into the backseat of a black sedan.  From where I was, I couldn’t see the expression on her face. 

            “Carla!”

            One of the soldiers shut the door behind her before she had a chance to respond.

            “Miss Richards can’t be bothered now,” he said, stone faced.  “There’s a family matter she needs to attend to.”  With that, he got into the driver’s side door and pulled out onto Mendon Road.

            Rain drops began to poor, fittingly, as I weighed my options.  I knew I needed to get to Nate’s house, needed to talk to his parents, but something told me that driving in this state of mind wouldn’t end well. 

            Deciding that his house wasn’t too far away, I began to run.

            For a while, I was able to concentrate safely on the sound of my feet pounding the pavement.  In no time, the rain had seeped clear through my sweatshirt and the February cold penetrated my bones.  But I didn’t feel it.  I focused on my footing as though it was all I knew.

            As I turned into his neighborhood, though, my mind traveled to thoughts I hadn’t let it explore.  If it was true, what on Earth would I do without him?  Hot tears mixed with the rain drops and mascara on my face.  I reached the driveway, shook off as much of the rain as I could, and rang the doorbell.

            As soon as I did, my heard began to pound.  If his parents confirmed the rumor, I couldn’t deny it any longer.  The sedan that picked up Carla was parked in the driveway, alongside an identical one. 

            All too quickly, but still agonizingly slowly, the front door opened.  In the doorway stood a stricken Emily Richards, disheveled and disoriented, looking older than I’d ever seen. 

            “Erin,” she breathed, eyes crinkling in pain. 

            “Tell me it isn’t true,” I demanded, cutting her off.  “Please, please tell me he’s okay.  That this is all some misunderstanding.” 

            My voice came out broken, groaning, but she understood me.  Her carefully guarded face contorted then with anguish, and tears began to roll down her cheeks. 

            She said nothing initially, gripping my arm and pulling me out of the rain.  As soon as the door closed behind us, Mrs. Richards wrapped her arms around me and sobbed into my already soaking hair. 

            I froze.  Her reaction wasn’t reassuring in the least.  Feeling helpless, I fell into her slightly.  My legs no longer had much feeling. 

            “Come,” she said, “we’re gathered in the dining hall.”

            She clutched my elbow—probably because I looked like I might faint.  I wondered how in the world she could be as calm as she was. 

            Together, we climbed the grand staircase like we did several months before and turned right.  We passed Nate’s room, and I had the sudden compulsion to hold myself up in there.  I resisted though, and forced myself to look in the opposite direction. 

            The Colonel and Carla were seated in their usual seats but nothing was usual about today.  Carla had her head between her knees, fighting nausea or tears, I couldn’t tell.  Perhaps both.  Her long black hair was all knotted, going every which way. 

            The Colonel, however, stared straight forward, not a tear in sight.  In fact, the only sign that he even knew was his uniform—three buttons were undone and his boots were unlaced.  An immaculate, and impeccably dressed, man such as himself would have never let such disarray slide without a good reason.  Otherwise, the man was stern as ever.  His brow was furrowed, his jaw was tight, but that was all normal for him.  In that second, I realized that I didn’t understand this man at all, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to.

            Behind them, four soldiers stood erect and serious, hands clasped behind their backs.  I saw the two from the school, and two more that I hadn’t seen.  I tried to detect sadness—this couldn’t have been easy for them—but all I saw was professionalism. 

            Everything was cold, disheartening.  The Colonel didn’t even glance up when we entered, but Carla ran to us, throwing herself into me.  I clutched her tightly, not knowing what else to do.

            “And I kept expecting you to get a letter,” she whispered.  “I was so stupid.” 

            “Carla,” I cut her off, “I don’t know what happened.  Will someone please explain to me what happened?”

            Carla pulled back sharply.  I saw her face for the first time since Euro, and my breathing caught in my throat.  Her eyes were so bloodshot and swollen that I might’ve thought somebody punched her.  Her face was puffy, her cheeks glistened with tears.  Her forehead was wrinkled.  She was a mess.

            “You…you don’t know?” she whispered.

            I opened and closed my mouth several times before shaking my head.  I had to hear it.  If it was true, I had to hear the words. 

            Carla’s hand rushed to cover her mouth and she shook her head.  “I can’t,” she cried, “I—”

            “Sit down,” said the Colonel, more gently than I’d ever heard from him.  It disappeared, however, when he turned his steely eyes on me. 

            I nearly flinched.  The Colonel and I were never particularly chummy, but he was never hostile.  Now, though, his eyes showed nothing but distaste and aggression, even.

            “Nathaniel,” he spat, turning his whole body to face me, “and two other soldiers were caught in an explosion on patrol a few weeks ago.  They died on duty along with over a dozen civilians.”

            His answer was so cold, so factual, that he could have been speaking of unfortunate weather.  I glanced at Mrs. Richards to confirm.  She was now sobbing into her hands, her shoulders hunched, and for a moment, I thought she might collapse.  She held her stance, however.

            I wasn’t as lucky.  For the second time in an hour, I felt my legs give out only this time, a firm grip under my elbow kept me upright.  I looked up to see one of the soldiers, now pushing me towards a chair, his stoic face now gripped by something akin to sympathy.  Once he was sure I was seated safely, he retrieved Mrs. Richards and deposited her in the chair opposite me before returning to stand with the others. 

            My mind raced, buzzed, swooped.  I thought of a million things and nothing all at once.  Memories, and thoughts of his last moments, were overwhelming.  It was like how they say when you’re about to die, your life flashes before your eyes.  As my life with Nate ended, insignificant but wonderful moments of our relationship played across my mind’s eye like a movie reel. 

            I saw the moment we met, when I walked into his senior English class last year.  I saw us at one of the many bonfires that I held last summer, making S’mores.  I saw us at his senior reception, waltzing and mock-ballroom dancing because ‘grinding’ was never our style.

            I saw us lying in the middle of my street, watching the stars and speaking of the future, before the threat of war ever even grazed us.  I saw him bounding through my front door carrying a whole tub of Del’s frozen lemonade when I pulled my calf muscle last year. 

            And then my mind’s eye darkened, and I saw Nate being blasted off his feet, the landscape around him ablaze.  Instantly, my future got bleak, happiness evaded me. 

            A wail escaped from behind the hand that was clamped over my mouth. 

            The Colonel’s voice cut through my torment.  “You shed tears over my son’s death,” he said, low, almost growling, “but his safety wasn’t your concern when you insisted on writing to him, was it?”

            My head shot up and, for a moment, my tears ceased as shock overcame me.  I tried to formulate a coherent response, but could manage only a garbled string of words. 

            He stood and now, his face twisted with rage.  He pulled himself to full height and it was more than a little intimidating.  “Did you wonder whether or not it was you who got him killed?  If he wasn’t so caught up on you and your wretched letters, maybe my son would still be alive!”

            Gasps sounded around the table.  Mrs. Richards swatted at him in outrage.  Carla stared up at him, horrified at his accusations.  But he stood firm, his eyes brimming with angry tears, his jaw set firmly. 

            It was my turn for outrage.  “How dare you,” I murmured, quietly at first, but then the shouting started.  “How dare you?”  I kicked my chair back with all the force I could muster and rounded the table to where he stood, unwavering.  “I love your son more than you could possibly understand!  If I thought for a second that those letters would be a liability to him, do you seriously think I would’ve sent them?  I’m not a monster,” I cried, poking his chest as threateningly as a girl facing a military colonel could manage.  “I’m the girl who loves your son.”

            I was prepared for a fight, a debate.  That was my expertise.  What happened next, though, was something I couldn’t have prepared for if I tried. 

            Colonel Richards’s face crumpled.  “Loved,” he whispered.

            I stepped away from him.  “What?”

            He looked at me as tears began to stream down his face.  “You loved him.”  And then, he hit the floor and was attacked by the most violent, body-wracking sobs I’d ever heard.

            “My boy,” he howled.  Over and over and over again. 

            The rest of us stood around bewildered, heart broken, at losses for what to do.  A portion of my heart died that wretched February 8th, 2008, something that can never be reborn. 

 

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