Carol shot up in bed. She was covered in sweat and gasping for air as stiffened arms held her up. It felt like a python constricted around her chest while her stomach spewed lava into her throat. She looked straight ahead into the blurry darkness, listening, hoping for silence, but it came again. The sound penetrated her ears and she knew there was no avoiding it. She knew it was the darkness bringing her greatest fear. Her lips quivered as she blurted out the words, “Jeff! Jeff! Get up! Now! Get up!”
Blonde hair rustled off the pillow as her husband sprung to his feet, reaching for something to catch his balance. Grabbing the bedroom wall, he turned back toward the bed. “What is it? What’s going on?”
“The door. There is someone at the door. It’s here. It’s finally here. I knew it was coming.” Carol dug her fingers at the dampened sheets, grabbing them with an iron grip, and raising them off the mattress. Her head shook back and forth and tears poured down her puffy cheeks. Jeff, shaking himself into consciousness, came to her side. He reached for her. She pulled away. “Stop it!” she screamed. “I’m not going out there.” Her emotions bubbled like a cauldron.
“Do you want me to go answer it?” Jeff asked.
“No, no, I have to go with you.” She said, sliding her bare feet from under the blanket to the cold floor, her toes reached for a worn pair of slippers. She slid them on then sat for a moment. Her dark hair hung in her face as the smell of shampoo wafted into her nostrils. The moments of her life marched through her mind like soldiers off to war.
She remembered raising children, having her first child a few days after turning nineteen years old, still a child herself. The year prior, her family moved from the city she loved to a new school at an insignificant crossroads far away from her friends, church, and neighborhood. She longed for home, but did her best to adjust; and through a talkative friend from one of her classes, she met Ron.
Her mind drifted to his going away party. Her friend’s older brother stood on the front porch of an aging farmhouse in Army Class A dress greens, neatly polished black shoes, and beaming blue eyes behind dark-rimmed glasses. He noticed her immediately. She had long, straight black hair that bobbed at her shoulders, and captivating brown eyes above a nervous smile. Carol was bashful around boys but thought he was nice. She talked while he listened. She laughed, and he smiled, however, she guessed his mind was somewhere else.
He played tough when asked if it scared him to go to Vietnam. He chuckled and said, “All I have to do is shoot them before they shoot me.”
They’d talked for a while and she agreed to write him letters after he shipped out. The letters comforted both of them. The two were on opposite ends of the globe but could relate to each other’s internal fears, uncertainties, and turmoil. Carol scribbled away about them going to prom and how hard a new school can be. He returned with news of mortar attacks, marriage, and professions of love. Carol wasn’t ready for this but enjoyed the attention.
When Ron’s experience as a full-time soldier ended, he returned home. He was ready to be married before the plane landed, but Carol hesitated. As they spent more time together, their night and day personalities left her struggling with the growing reality she regretted the future before it started. She also didn’t understand what he went through across the world. He didn’t either.
The anxious couple exchanged vows and immediately began their family with the birth of a precious, slightly premature daughter named Sandy. A year later, a skinny baby boy with black hair like his sister came into the world. Sandy and her little brother, Keith, were calm and well-behaved kids.
When they started elementary school, a tired mother thought she might finally have a few hours to herself. That would not be the case. Almost seven years after the birth of her first child, she delivered her third. Douglas, a chubby, dark-haired boy, came screaming into the world on a sultry summer afternoon. Fourteen months later, on a cloudless autumn day, a week before she turned twenty-eight, Carol welcomed her last-born child, David. He was small, blue-eyed, and quiet like his father.
Carol made mothering her life work. She dragged her family to mass every Sunday in clean, neatly pressed clothes, reminding them how to act around other people. The last thing she wanted was a disapproving look from an elderly couple because her boys were hitting each other with action figures they had snuck in their pockets.
She crafted her famous brownies for bake sales, worked the book fairs, swimming lessons, bought prom outfits, attended basketball games, communions, confirmations, and whatever else her children needed. Sandy and Keith had gone off to college when Doug and Dave became teenagers. Her life, as she had known, felt like it was coming to a close. She thought her kids didn’t need her as much anymore. She craved something different.
A young blonde-haired man, devilishly handsome, in her eyes, with three little girls from a contemptible marriage, looked like the answer. He needed her help with the children because of his age and inexperience. She felt whole again.
It started as a job, watching Jeff’s three young while he worked second shift. They gave Carol a purpose again. She could influence and raise these precious girls like she did her own four kids. Over the next several years, the babysitting gig spiraled into an extra-marital affair.
Now she sat on the edge of her bed, contemplating life up to this point.
Carol asked herself, Is this my punishment? Is this what I get for leaving my husband, for finding love? Is this the cost? A lump caught in her throat. It burned, tore at her esophagus like she was being drowned in a shallow pool, helpless to save herself.
“Let me drown,” she said as her eyes exploded with tears.
“Come on, get up,” Jeff pleaded
The clock ticked by since she had woken from a sound sleep, but it felt like time stood still.
“Check the girls, Jeff. Make sure they’re here,” Carol said desperately. “Check on them, I said!” Now in her late fifties, Carol raised herself off the bed, stumbled forward, having decided she would check on the girls herself. Her patience was nonexistent. She clutched for the wall, surprised when she lost her balance. Jeff was already checking the other rooms in the house to find out what he already knew: His daughters were fine and fast asleep.
Her brain was flashing memories at her as she pressed her forehead against the cold drywall. She saw Sandy’s long brown hair flowing around her delicate, round cheeks, holding an Easter basket. That little face transformed into a woman proudly donning the uniform of a Pennsylvania State Police Trooper. Carol worried about her beautiful girl and knew she was risking her life every minute she was on the job. What if my sweet Sandy got hurt, shot, killed? What if she was on the side of the road, bleeding, asking for her mom? Her body shook.
“The girls are fine. They’re all in bed,” Jeff whispered, knowing the last thing they wanted to do was have them wake up.
She pictured Keith with his innocent and endearing smile. She worried about him driving in Philadelphia. It seemed so far away and busy all the time. What if he wrecks his car? What if he has an asthma attack and they can’t get air in his lungs? What if he gasps his last breath, looking up, and no one was there?
Sharp tones buzzed in her ears, and her throat filled with phlegm, making her cough. She wanted to throw up but couldn’t, instead, it just burned at her esophagus. The walls closed in on her. She knew there was no turning back, no place to hide, no way of ending this nightmare.
Carol stopped before the end of the dark hallway, knowing one more step would allow her to see the door and look through the glass at who was there. If she couldn’t see them, it wasn’t real yet. Jeff stayed close to her.
A round face with long, dark eyelashes around deep brown eyes came into focus in her mind. Doug was wearing her dad’s Manhattan-style flat cap, his arms wrapped around a lion pillow with a smile and round cheeks. So cute and innocent at one time, but now he was all grown up and a corrections officer. He was the toughest to raise, always pushing the limits, but always coming out on the other side unscathed.
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and saw her baby boy, David, with his bright blue eyes, sitting on the floor smacking G.I. Joes together and saying, “Mom, I’m goin’ be a soldier someday.”
With Jeff’s hand on her shoulder, she stepped forward. His arm reached around her and flicked the switch for the porch light. A yellowish hue laid upon the silhouettes of three men. She jumped back as Jeff reached for the knob.
“Stop!” she gasped. Don’t do it. Don’t open that door, Jeff! I swear. I can’t do this.”
Her husband’s hand paused, waiting. He was well aware there would be no peace following this.
“Do you want me to open the door now?” Jeff asked. He knew he couldn’t do it on his own; he would need her permission.
She looked at Jeff and said, “Open it.”
Three uniformed men stood ominously on the small porch, their faces shadowed by the dim lighting.
“Mrs. Carol Polley?” a deep voice said. “I’m with the United States Army. May we come in?”
Jeff pulled the door wide open, gesturing for them to enter. A soldier and two State Troopers removed their hats as they passed through the door, then stood stoically in the cramped living room.
“Ma’am, would you mind having a seat?” the soldier asked.
Carol’s legs turn to Jello, but she refused to sit down. “No, I’m not sitting down. Just tell me. Tell me right now what you have to say. I don’t need to sit down.” She pleaded, her back hunched by the yoke of overwhelming fear.
“Ma’am, please have a seat,” the soldier repeated as gently as possible. At these moments, he was sure he had the worst duty in the whole military. “Please...”
Carol collapsed into a reclining chair. Her swollen eyes cut through the four men.
The soldier knelt down on one leg in front of her. “As a representative of the United States Army, I regret to inform you that your son has been killed in action defending his country and fellow soldiers, and I offer my deepest condolences to you and your family.”
The words poured from his mouth like hot soup onto her lap, scalding her with a surreal and unfathomable pain. She desperately looked at her husband. “Jeff, what did he say? Is David gone? Is my David gone?”
Jeff’s voice cracked. “Yes, David died in Iraq.”
Carol’s world shattered into a million pieces like glass hit with a sledgehammer. Her body trembled as she buried her face in her palms and prayed for death. She begged God to take her from this vicious world to be with her baby; to keep him from being alone and afraid in the unknown. She flung her head back into the padding of the recliner and, with every ounce of energy she could muster, screamed to the heavens.
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Douglas, you did a really great job of using the language to build suspense. I wonder if it would have been even more effective to stop short of revealing exactly what happened. Once you go there, the story loses a little bit of air whereas up to that point, the reader is inserting all their own worst fears, which might be even more potent.
Kevin, thanks for the feedback. It made me think of the series finale of the Sopranos where the mind is left to run wild with scenarios. Very effective. Thanks again for taking the time to read it.
Douglas, as a mom, I totally relate to the full-time fear of being a parent - of not always being able to protect your kids from life (or themselves), or almost worse still, them not needing you. Parts of this story felt like it could have been plucked from my deepest, most hidden insecurities. There were some really beautiful lines and visuals in this; "...she regretted the future before it started", "...her back hunched by the yoke of overwhelming fear", and "The words poured from his mouth like hot soup onto her lap, scalding her with a...
Hannah, thank you for the sentiments and feedback. I am certain being a parent is the toughest thing I've ever done. Every interaction feels critical and the worry is never-ending. This scenario terrifies me and wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. I appreciate you taking the time to read the story and am thrilled it resonated with you.