Trigger warning: War, Death, loss of loved one, slight gore
February twenty-second, oh, how I remember that bittersweet day. It was the day where we made a promise over the glistering sea. How long has it been since you died? Five years? Eight? No, I think it’s been ten years since year since you passed. Still, I remember that night as though it were yesterday. It was my birthday, you and I both baked chocolate muffins, my favorite sweet. I remember how we partied until midnight. It was an enthusiastic celebration, but eventually, I went upstairs to rest. You offered to clean up. When I woke, it was early morning, I the scent of muffins still tinted the air. The sun also woke up from his own rest, peeking shyly over the horizon. Your red hair gleamed under the hopeful sunrise as if they were strands of shimmering gold. I remember being cuddled with you under the red blanket I had knitted a long time ago when you were but a child. Together we admired the rising sun, and your hums harmonized with the birds singing in the treetops. oh, my dear child, how you truly grew up so fast.
The squeaks of the mailslot echoed throughout the house. It was an odd occurrence seeing how we rarely ever got mail. Innocently, you and I went to the door. I went first and then my son followed. Both of us wondered what could have been delivered. Our steps froze upon seeing the white letter on the ground. My son, confidently, grabbed the white letter off the ground. His skinny hands tore it open with anticipation. I was, too, curious. So I leaned onto you and looked at the letter. For a second, it felt as if the world stopped. The loud ticks of the grandfather clock prove that to be false. Both of us went silent. I reached for the letter then, creasing it at the edges with my firm grasp. I can still recall the words I read. They haunt me to this very day.
“You are hereby ordered for induction into…”
“... The military,” you finished. I don’t think I had ever seen that look on your face before. It was… sad. Sadder than I’d ever seen you. I couldn't continue. Nor could you. Your frail numb hands reached over and grabbed the paper. Pulling it away from my numb hands. Without another word, you quickly stumbled into your room. Cold breaths left my mouth as I sat down on the rocking chair. I could see the small white clouds that left my mouth. Not even the red blanket could offer me comfort. Not even the chocolate chip muffins.
Clouds covered the large blue skies. It was a dreary day. The air was warm, yet I was still chilled to the bone. In front of me stood you. Your hair was hidden by a black hat. An auburn-colored suit was what you worse; your fragile body was puffed up by layers of fabric. It was the best suit you had. Passed down by your father. In your hand was a worn briefcase. Although your sorrow was evident, you still twisted your face into a pained smile as to spare me any of the hurt. Though it couldn't help but make my tears flow even more. My heart wrenched seeing you smile. How could he think of me at a time like this? You were so young, but already so mature. At that moment, you reminded me so much of your father. I heaved another sob. I couldn't help but believe I failed as a parent. I couldn't protect you, I couldn't save you. I hated how you still felt as though you couldn’t reveal your true feelings to me.
“I’ll see you soon, mom.”
You opened your arms, and I fell into them. I held you so tightly, tighter than I had ever held you before. My hands cramped up as they refused to let you go. Like the gentle boy you were, you slid my hands off of you. Then turning away, you settled into the low black car waiting on the curb.
And then you were gone. My handkerchief was soaked through with tears, damp and heavy. I found myself unable to raise my hand to wave, so I said as loudly as I could muster.
“Goodbye, my darling”
Despite you being absent due to war, I maintained an orderly routine. The house was as clean as ever. Every month I would bake chocolate cookies for you so that when you return, you’d be able to feast on your favorite food. I ended up adopting a dog. I found him on death’s door whimpering in the streets. Something told me to take him in. Something about him seemed so familiar when I first saw him in the alley. I realized then that his red coat was so similar to your own hair. Or his fragile body that seemed so similar to yours. Anyway, you always wanted a dog. I figured you’d be glad to see him when you came back. I believe, with all my heart, that you will come back home again safe. You were a smart boy. Talented, too. You were so strong and determined. Such a boy wouldn’t be able to die on the battlefield, I frequently reasoned with myself. My hands clasped together as I looked out the window. The wind chimes with a ruby dangling in the middle twinkled back to the birds. Yes, you would return. I was sure of it.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be. thy name. Please protect my son”
Silence engulfed the house, though I didn’t mind it. I had grown used to such silence shortly after you left. Nuzzling my leg was our little dog with red fur. Soft whines left his body. Occasionally, my knitting needles would click together, breaking the silence. At the same time breaking an invisible grasp around me. I was making a sweater for you. Red, to match the blanket you loved so dearly. I sighed contentedly at the thought of your smiling face when you see this sweater. I imagine you’d never want to take it off. Frantic yelps then filled the air, blocking out all sound. The red dog almost never barked. Hence why it threw me off guard. At that moment, I'm not sure how I was able to hear it. I was waiting for it, I guess. I had been waiting for months. Waiting for that knock on the door. It was you, my dear son. It had to be. No one ever stopped by our house for a visit. It was too secluded, I suppose. Even delivery men find trouble in locating this house. Hence why we got our letters at the mailing station. Only you knew it, only you. So when I caught the rapping on the front door, I knew immediately that you had come home. I nearly cried with relief. You were home at last. While stumbling, I ran to the door. Past the picture frames who lost their pictures, the now clean rug, the untouched coat-hanger. Quickly throwing open the wooden plank to see my dear son. A bright smile overtook the rest of my features. I looked up to meet your eyes, but…..
It wasn’t you.
How could that be? You had been gone for so long surely it was time for you to be back now. My mind spun, trying to piece together why this stranger was standing on the porch in your place. No, it was another young boy. In the man in front of me, was, well, not even a man at all. He looked to be about your age, 18, maybe? 19? It hardly mattered. His hair was brown and unkempt as if he had run his hands through it just seconds before. He held the wide, intimidating stance of a powerful individual, however, it lacked its luster as the young man was so obviously distraught. In his hand was a picture. A picture of you and I back when you were but a young lad. The male had a sorrowful expression plastered onto his face. As if he wanted to speak but the blanket of shame stopped him. No, no, no. This can’t be true. It just can’t. Though before my mind could react my heart let out an overwhelming wave of emotions. As if a dam finally broke.
“Who are you? Where is my son?”
My shaky voice was growing frantic, I could tell. The soldier struggled to get an answer together, stuttering.
“WHERE IS HE?” I was loud, my voice piercing.
The soldier held his head low and softly said, “Ma’am, your son, he’s… dead. Three days ago we got the news, but if it’s any consolation—”
“No, NO, he can’t be dead! How can you say that? Is this a prank? You’re pranking a woman who has spent MONTHS of her life waiting for her son to come back home? He’s not dead, I know it. He’s coming back, he’s going to come back, I—”
“Ma’am, I promise I would never joke about something like this. I understand it’s hard to hear but your son—”
“NO. WHATEVER IT WAS YOU WERE GOING TO SAY, DON’T. LEAVE. GET OFF OF MY PROPERTY. MY SON ISN’T DEAD!” I was crying by that point, shaking and screaming with grief. I tasted salt where my tears reached the corners of my mouth. “He– He can’t be dead, he promised. He promised me. Tell me where he is, please. Tell me the truth. Where is he? Where is my son? PLEASE, TELL ME WHERE HE IS! I NEED TO SEE HIM! PLEASE!”
The soldier in front of me reached out, steadying me. I brushed his arm off. “Ma’am, I apologize, but it’s out of our power now. You will be able to see him soon, but—”
“No, NO! PLEASE! I’ll give you anything for him! PLEASE, JUST GIVE HIM BACK TO ME!” My throat ached. Badly. “Please. He did nothing wrong, he was innocent. I’ll give you anything, I’ll give you my life, just, please… let him return home to me, safe.” I raised my wet eyes to the ones across from me. “Please.”
With every croak of my voice, my throat burned harder. Why did it hurt? I realized I had been screaming. My legs gave out. I dropped to the ground. I was weak, so weak. My lungs failed to provide me with enough air. It was as if a ghost was sucking the oxygen from around me. The soldier tried to help again, still, I swatted him away. His expression softened and tears began to fill his eyes. At the same time, looking at me with these crystal-like eyes. Looking at my pathetic figure crouched helplessly on the floor. But as I looked up at the boy soldier, it hit me. He was no more than the age you were. He was still but a child. I forced myself to stand up, to wipe away my tears.
“Wait here.” I couldn't say much more than that. I prayed he would still listen.
I'm sure I sounded dead on my feet, broken. Still, the young soldier startled at my voice. He stood firmly, waiting for punishment, I concluded, but that wasn't what I had to offer. Slowly, one foot at a time, I treaded back through the house. I grabbed the plate of cookies on the kitchen counter I had originally baked for my son. I stacked them neatly into a box, securing it tightly with a red ribbon. I was about to head back to the soldier when I stopped. I scribbled a hasty note and tucked it in with the cookies: My son loved these cookies. I hope you will too. Then, I made my way outside again.
I walked out and gave the box to the boy. His surprised face made me chuckle slightly. It reminded me so much of you it was almost painful to look at. He had tried to protest, but I hushed him and pushed the cookies into his hands. I stuttered a “Thank you,” as he admired the cookies inside.
“It’s late,” I smiled kindly at the man. I was still numb, still hurting, and smiling was almost more than I could bear. I manage to shake his hand politely and wave to him goodnight.
He took off his military cap and bowed. Afterward, he walked back to his parked car and drove away.
I was exhausted. Constantly. My body felt as if it was tied to the ground. Knowing I’d never see you again was too much for one body to handle. Everything I lost played over in my mind. I would never see your smile, the one that makes your eyes squint into crescent moons, again. I would never get the chance to hear your laugh, the one that always harmonized with my own, again. The crystal tears that left your eyes when you were sad, I would never see them. Your fiery red strands of hair that appeared crimson-gold in the sunlight, the very same hair that would never again get to cut every other month like I used to, I would never see it or touch it again. Your stunning green eyes that had hints of brown dispersed in them… weren’t emeralds. Not quite. Rather, they looked like dark forests tinted with brown stumps and dirt. I would never see those again either. You would never bake your best chocolate muffins again, you would never taste my chocolate cookies again. You would never clean the house or meet our little red fur dog. Those days when you helped me in my kitchen, those days when you played in the ocean, they would never be the same again.
Sorrowful music played in the church that day. You had a small funeral. Only me, a few of your old classmates, and your fellow soldiers joined. I knew it’s what you would have wanted. Before you were buried, I made sure to see you. One last time.
“Well, darling. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”
There was no answer.
“I’ve missed you in ways you couldn’t imagine. How have you been?”
There was no answer.
“I made you favorite, here!”
I pulled out a small bag of chocolate chip cookies. Wrapped with the red blanket that you and I huddled under so long ago. I glanced at your wound-covered body. Cuts scattered across your limbs, scars of all kinds, everywhere, a large bullet wound dark on your neck. Your battered body was an obvious handicap. But I noticed, your face was still filled with kindness, even in death. Even when you were forced into fighting by those above, I recalled, you still smiled as bright as ever. I wanted so badly to do the same for you.
So, with a smile, I pressed your gift carefully into your hands. With a quick goodbye, I shut the casket. I watched as the casket was lowered to the ground. I watched as dirt fluttered down, covering the hole, and buried my son. Slight sniffing was heard all around. The loudest ones were heard from me.
Now, rocking back and forth on the rocking chair, I hummed. It’s nighttime, and are no birds to reply to my song. My hands stroke the dog on my lap. His sickly figure fell asleep no too long ago. I sat, contemplating, for who knows how long. When I looked up, I was greeted by the rising sun. The limp red dog on my lap holding an expression of satisfaction. The same sight of the beautiful water glistening from the sun, how beautiful it was. I heard the first chirps from away in the leaves.
“Goodmorning my songbirds.”
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How impressive it is that a 14 year old kid can write a story like that!
Very moving story. I loved it!
Amazing!! And only 14 with such depth. Every detail and nuance came across effortlessly and painted such an image of love, grief and such heartache, I too cried a bit. I now will be sure to hug my children tightly tonight, even though they are now young adults. Thank you for sharing this story that you have so skillfully conjured in your heart, I am grateful! David Arias