TW: contains themes of death
Every night, it was the same dream. Motes of magic drifted through the surrounding air, casting everything in shades of blue and green. Vining flowers I did not recognize hung like curtains from the willow tree’s leafy boughs, and the earth underneath my feet radiated a love untamed, waiting to bloom.
Margot laughed, then followed with a shout. “Come play with me!”
Miles turned to me, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “You up for it?”
I shook my head, lips pursed. “She’s your sister.”
And you’ll be gone tomorrow. You owe this to her.
He stood, dusting blades of grass from his Class A trousers, neatly pressed like the rest of his uniform. He left me for this first time that afternoon, running to meet his sister on the seesaw. Margot giggled with every motion, her pigtails bouncing up and down—a reflection of their highs and lows over the years.
“Again!” Margot yelled on her downward descent.
His mouth quirked up at one corner as they played. For a second, it was as though he’d forgotten about tomorrow, about the war.
“Brace yourself!” he yelled back at her.
After the graduation ceremony, my parents had taken us out to eat, and then dropped us off at the playground. No sign of their mother, just like every other major milestone in his life. But I suppose after their father left, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
Though I’d never admit it to him, there were times I envied his relationship with Margot. Perhaps it was because I was an only child, never competing for attention. Or maybe it was because I admired how much he cared. I hadn’t been able to keep a goldfish alive, let alone another human being.
It’s beyond my control. Do you see? It’s not that I dislike kids, but I want you all to myself.
Yet, as I sketched the contours of his face, pencil against paper, it was as though the lines between worlds blurred. So soon after joining the war, was it too early for crinkled smiles and wandering laughter? Or maybe we fooled ourselves into happiness—even if for a breathless moment—to hide our invisible enemies, the ones we knew all too well.
“Now you’re in trouble, Margot!”
I could not deny how much I loved watching them play together.
Over a decade apart, Margot looked at her older brother with such adoring eyes. Distant mother, absent father. Miles embraced his part with frequent hugs and lunchboxes filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
He pushed her on the swings and ran around until he got tired, then sat by me to catch his breath.
Margot followed him, tumbling into his lap with a giggle. “More!”
Miles ruffled her hair, his gaze firmly on his sister.
Charmed by his friendly nature, my stomach tingled. The way he looked at someone when they spoke, as if their words were the most important thing he’d ever listened to, sent my heart in a fluttered frenzy. Or maybe I was jealous of how easily Miles shared his smile. Like right now, with Margot.
Obviously, his smile was not mine alone to keep.
“Off you go,” he said with a gentle nudge. “I need to talk to Bradley.”
His hair, waves of pure earth, softly reflected the light of the sun, each strand moving freely in the gentle breeze, a complement to his stillness. His forehead crinkled with worry wrinkles as the eyes of river waters flowed with Margot's movements.
“Is it always like this?” I asked.
He peered at me, one eyebrow raised. “What do you mean?”
I focused on Margot, her hands in the air as she spiraled down a yellow slide. “Your sister. She’s got you wrapped around her little finger, doesn’t she?”
“I guess so.”
I lost myself in his sheepish grin, and we fell into a bittersweet silence as Margot ran along the tiny pebbles on the playground, her short legs moving so fast they blurred. Miles looked happy—the same way he did on stage, holding the American flag as he watched me deliver the valedictorian’s speech.
I picked up the garrison beret he’d left on the ground beside me. The faint scent of lemon verbena—his shaving soap—tickled my nose. Either that, or the fragrance of his pomade. It mingled with the smells of summer: fresh greenery and floral blooms.
The air between us grew charged. He regarded me intently, staring with those steel-blue eyes that always seemed to run right through me. “Can I ask you a personal question?”
My breath hitched. “Yes.”
“What will you do? After medical school?”
I shrugged, twisting his beret in between my hands. “Be a doctor.”
“You know what I mean.” He peered over my shoulder, elbow on the ground with his focus fixed on the sketchbook in my lap, his breath hot against my cheek. “You should be an artist.”
My heart raced as I nudged him, our elbows colliding. “I can’t make a living off these silly sketches.” I set the beret on top of his head, crooked.
After a squint paired with a hard smile, I adjusted his military cap, brushing the fringe out of his face.
Will you look just as handsome after battle scars?
“Maybe I’ll be a medic,” I said. “Find out where you’re stationed and annoy you like when we were kids.”
“You were never annoying. You’ve kept me sane all these years.”
Except it was my fault your dad left.
And though he never blamed me outright, the way he stared at the grass was like a vice tightening around my chest. Miles protected my heart like a knight in shining armor. Even here, sitting beside me now. Or in the small, quiet moments when we laid in bed, in the early morning, before the sun had risen, and the world was peaceful. If only we’d been more careful, he could’ve hidden the truth from his father, and he’d still have him in his life.
Maybe then, you wouldn’t have something to prove.
“I have a gift for you,” he said.
He reached into his duffel bag, and my gaze lingered on the heart-shaped box with intricate designs of Cupids and roses. In all the years I’d known him, Miles was never direct with feelings. But with one simple gesture, he eliminated any ambiguity between us.
“Take it,” Miles said, holding it in the air between us, his stare a promise suspended in orbit, with words unspoken.
“Thank you.” I grabbed it from his hand, my fingers brushing against his knuckles, leaving a fiery trail of heat behind.
“And what about you?” I asked. “What will you do?”
“You mean, if I’m still alive?”
I cringed at the partial truth, smacking me with bitterness. “I’m serious.”
Miles let all the air ease out of his lungs. War always sucked the joy out of conversation, let alone one’s mortality. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe go to college. Settle down.” His head flicked towards me, and his eyes glinted. “Have kids.”
Before I could reply, Margot jumped onto him, tackling him backwards. They played a round of tickling, of which Miles won in a record time of less than thirty seconds. He sat up with his back to the willow tree while she snuggled into him.
“Hey, when I get back, how about we take Margot somewhere far away? Start a new life after the war. Just the three of us.”
I forced a smile; whether it was for him or for me, I could not say. But Miles would return. Of course he would. He had been a constant for over ten years. And more than that, I wanted more kisses—more Miles. For once in my life, it seemed possible that someone might love me, want me, and stay with me. Not because of obligation, but because of something deeper. I’d yearned for him to be my companion, my lover, and the very air I breathed.
“I’d like that,” I said, almost in a whisper. Though only partly true, tonight was not about me. While I sat in the safety of a classroom, Miles would hold a rifle, fighting for me somewhere far away. Fighting for us in our dreams. And fighting for a country that would forget his significance. The least I could do was give him fond memories to keep him warm in the darkness.
And as the evening cast its lunar shadow over the playground, we counted the stars in the sky. I reflected on the rest of the truth, buried deep inside: I cared too much for Miles. His love planted a seed in my chest, slowly growing into a sapling wrapped around my heart.
The following day, he left me for the second time. Though I hadn’t known it then, all we had, all we would ever have, was that one precious moment. That was it. If only we could have said it then, in the open, instead of keeping our feelings inside.
In another time—another life—I wanted us to be together, just like we were on that playground. Not just for an afternoon, but for forever. To go on for so long that it felt normal. To do ordinary things that we never had the chance of doing: making toast, raking leaves, holding hands, sitting in silence.
The love I feel for you runs through me like grain through wood.
Every morning, it was the same nightmare: he left me for the last time in Normandy. I woke to a world teeming without life nor magic, greeted with a dreary painting where the artist forgot there were more colors than just blue and gray. His face, his voice, and his touch entered my mind in the least opportune moments, and I had no power to withstand them.
And no desire to.
Instead, a future uncertain haunted me with words unspoken, the memory of us, and dreams deferred, because all that remained was the drawing of a man wearing a garrison beret and a wooden box in the shape of his heart.