Man Wearing a Garrison Beret

Submitted into Contest #155 in response to: Set your story in a kids’ playground, or at a roundabout.... view prompt

29 comments

Coming of Age Gay Historical Fiction

This story contains sensitive content

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.

“Faster, Miles!”

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.”

“Okay.” 

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. 

July 22, 2022 22:40

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29 comments

J.C. Lovero
00:55 Jul 23, 2022

For more of this couple, check out "PPS. Remember that I love you" https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/wzaaiz/

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Riel Rosehill
08:04 Jul 23, 2022

Where's Kristina Abbott when these two need her for their fairytale afterlife?😢 Final version turned out beautiful - who knew the same pair could break my heart twice! Great work, and I'm beyond impressed by you for getting two stories done this week! Best of luck! Xx 🏆👀

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J.C. Lovero
13:21 Jul 23, 2022

Ri Ri~ Thanks for stopping by to read the final version of the story! Your feedback and edits, as always, were super helpful. And who knows, maybe Kristina Abbott will find a way! 😅 😂 🤣

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Alex Sultan
07:22 Jul 23, 2022

Hey friend, I hope you're well. I'm so glad you posted this! I reread "PPS. Remember that I love you" right after. It's so nice that you continued it. I really liked how you framed them together before the war, so it's not action/thriller heavy - just an emotional piece of people before ww2 with hints of what happens next. It all had a light hearted, yet bittersweet/forlorn feeling to it. I wanted them to live and be happy. But it is how war is. In other notes, I liked the dialogue a lot, especially the 'Just the three of us.' part. It was...

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J.C. Lovero
13:20 Jul 23, 2022

Hello Alex! So good to hear from you. I don't know if I've told you this, but soldiers/veterans hold a special place in my heart, so this couple is especially important to me. Stories about couples torn apart by war are always the toughest for me to read, and writing them is equally gut-wrenching. When they have shared hopes and dreams that are never fulfilled, it is just the toughest situation to wake up to. And yes, I will definitely take you up on that offer to co-write 🤩 😇 😍

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Riel Rosehill
13:29 Jul 23, 2022

An Alex-JC collab?! For Miles during the war? Oh I'm SO here for it. Please dot it! Alex, JC is brilliant to co-write with ;)

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Graham Kinross
00:43 Aug 05, 2022

This is beautiful, very sweet.

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J.C. Lovero
01:50 Aug 07, 2022

Thanks for reading it. Definitely one of my favorite pieces published here on Reedsy.

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Patrick Samuel
20:03 Jul 28, 2022

This is splendid. Like Brideshead revisited by John Boyne (yes, I know it's Evelyn Waugh. I mean: "revisited" by Boyne ;) From the opening sentences it feels like stepping into a dream. But what gives the story its particular elegance is how understated the strongest emotions are. "Though I hadn’t known it then, all we had, all we would ever have, was that one precious moment." So many things left unspoken, and the story is all the more richer for it - such as the father's departure (hinting that it had to do with the boys relationship...

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J.C. Lovero
10:58 Jul 29, 2022

Hey Patrick! Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. Appreciate it. I definitely wanted the subtext and words unspoken to be the driving force for this story. I'm glad it worked out!

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Marty B
01:09 Jul 28, 2022

Such a sad story- good work getting the depth of emotion across. I appreciate the feeling behind this line. '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.' and understand these: '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.'

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J.C. Lovero
10:59 Jul 29, 2022

Hello Marty! Thanks for stopping by to read and comment. I really liked playing with Bradley's theme of being an artist and tying it back to the dream's colors at the beginning. Glad it worked out!

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Aeris Walker
18:31 Jul 27, 2022

This opening paragraph..just wow. “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.” The whole story maintained that kind of dreamlike quality, and then shifted to something somber and depressing with this line: “I woke to a world teeming without life nor magic, greeted with a dreary painting where the artist forgot there we...

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J.C. Lovero
11:01 Jul 29, 2022

Hello Aeris! Thanks for stopping by to read and leave a comment. I really appreciate it. I was going for a dreamy tone for the story, so I'm glad that came through with the words and descriptions! I can see your perspective on the desire for backstory and the father. I could have added a throw away line to give more history, but ultimately decided to leave it subtle. Appreciate the note though! Definitely a consideration for a future revision of the story. Always a pleasure to connect!

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Aeris Walker
18:25 Jul 29, 2022

Absolutely! 😊

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Kelsey H
22:20 Jul 26, 2022

I really loved this, such a beautifully written story full of emotion and connection and loss. The way you started it as a dream really worked, which I feel is hard to pull off, but I loved that it actually had a slightly dreamy feel to the narrative with him watching the child play. Like this; -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. - such a lovely line and really sets the scene without being too flowery. Also I t...

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J.C. Lovero
00:47 Jul 27, 2022

Thank you for taking the time to read and leave feedback, Kelsey! I know lots of people say to "NEVER" start a story with a dream, but what are rules if they aren't meant to be broken, right? Plus, if the entire story is a dream-like sequence, maybe that cancels it out, yea? LOL Historical is not my forte, so I tried to write it with a light brush stroke and not a heavy hand. Glad it worked!

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Amanda Fox
13:57 Jul 26, 2022

Stunning, heartfelt, and beautiful.

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J.C. Lovero
00:11 Jul 27, 2022

Thanks Amanda! Appreciate the read and comment.

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Shea West
21:35 Jul 25, 2022

This line; 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. So deeply nuanced and the double meaning of enemies in this was well executed. You're a hoe for giving us the sads this week.

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J.C. Lovero
22:39 Jul 25, 2022

"You're a hoe for giving us the sads this week." Heart you too! 😍 🥰 😘

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Zack Powell
01:20 Jul 24, 2022

I got to the name "Miles" and the fanboy in my started freaking out because I recognized it from a previous story of yours. Come to find out, same characters in a different period on the timeline! I love that you've been reusing your characters. Makes their previous (and current) stories feel that much more well-rounded and complete. (It also helps that I wanted to see more of this couple - but hey, I feel like I say that with all your couples. 😜) Side note: You never post on Fridays, and I got nervous that you were taking another week off....

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J.C. Lovero
03:12 Jul 24, 2022

My pen pal! So good to hear from you. I took a week off from Reedsy when I co-wrote "Bliss Point" with Ri Ri, so I'm a bit behind on my reading. I do plan to get caught up with your stories though! Also, you are very astute - I had full intention of posting this on Thursday night, but a storm came through and knocked out my power until Friday afternoon... hence, the Friday post lol. I've been wanting to come back to this couple for quite some time, but I was waiting for the right prompt/inspiration. Glad you enjoyed it. Since the last stor...

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19:13 Jul 23, 2022

JC, you got me all choked up over here <3 this was so emotional and beautiful. I think what I love most about your writing is you really know how to make a moment between people, and they are always so moving. well done!

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J.C. Lovero
20:32 Jul 23, 2022

Thanks Hannah! Appreciate the read and feedback. I do my best to write character-driven stories, so this means a lot to me.

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Michał Przywara
16:34 Jul 23, 2022

Sweet and sad. We never know which moment is the last time we see someone, but war makes us poignantly aware of the possibility. Does that make it easier or harder? Hard to say. It's clear they have feelings for each other, even if not fully articulated, and plans for a shared future, and something like that being interrupted is always sad. But there's a second theme I'm picking up on. It's one of guilt, and lines like "Though only partly true, tonight was not about me." The narrator blames himself for driving Miles's father away. His lov...

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J.C. Lovero
16:46 Jul 23, 2022

Hello Michał, Always a pleasure to see you stop by for a read and comment! I took a week off Reedsy last week, so will need to get caught up to your stories! The story of Bradley and Miles is a sad one in the J.C. universe of couples (possibly rivaled by Nathan and Taylor depending on which timeline you are looking at). Times of war always bring about conflicts, both internal and external, that I wanted to explore with this piece. And you are right, they never really get the chance to see what would happen, which is the heartbreaking part....

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16:16 Jul 23, 2022

When I beta read this, Im quite sure I told you how amazing this story was, and I couldn't even think of anything to recommend to make it better. The length was great, and everything fit together. Somehow, in the final product, you added some small details to made it that much better. The title really brings it home. Because of this, I give this story an 11 out of 10.

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J.C. Lovero
16:41 Jul 23, 2022

Thanks Jaden! I had a few people read the draft you saw, and they pointed out some things to make it better. Gotta love the power of feedback! Appreciate the time you took to read and comment. Means a lot!

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