Blackbox

PART I

He could taste mortality on his tongue, but the compulsion to breathe forced his lungs to retract and expand, his eyes staring at the spinning tread by his face.

Blinking, he tried to recall what happened, remembering only a blur of action. He knew he had been shot, that his convoy was being ambushed, though he couldn’t lift his head to see, nor feel his legs. It had all happened so fast; one second they were driving and in the next, they weren’t.

A rush of potent, primal endorphins coursed from his torso to his head at the reminder, nullifying bodily agony with tremors of shock, cementing his dire straits. This is it, he realized through disoriented thoughts, the understanding of his imminent death dousing morbid clarity with a deluge of fear.

God forgive me for my sins, he prayed silently, urgently, knowing death was coming for him now. Nine days ago he had felt a premonition that his time was near; a sense of foreboding had hovered over his daily routine. He hadn’t been sure when it would happen or how, just that his time was close.

But what if you can live through this? An errant thought of fortitude whispered, his subconscious bidding him to hold on, to stay awake and keep breathing, as painful as it was. To survive.

Panicked courage surged, igniting his will to live and to fight back, to find his gun and shoot. But as he tried to grasp his soldierly duty, a battlefield explosion shook his world so thoroughly that his teeth broke, stopping those illusions in their tracks.

“I’m sorry,” he choked to her, wishing he could have seen her face one last time.

Grasping that he would never touch his wife again, his broken hands became active, sliding through blood-soaked sand. Though acceptance of death had toyed with him, this new conclusion broke his heart anew. Would he ever see her, be with her again? Yes, his heart promised. He was sure that he would go to Heaven, sure that life was for a higher purpose-a test he had always tried to pass.

He spent his remaining energy on turning his head, frantically seeking the color beyond the billowing smoke above, searching for heaven prematurely, praying that afterlife awaited him.

Chaotic fire rang out around him as a tremor of fleeting life swept through his core. Each second left to him was charity, and he decided then these moments on Earth would be spent with her.

He closed his eyes tightly, receding to a place entirely their own as mental snapshots of wedding day memories came forward, movie-like and vivid behind fluttering lids. He whispered her name, and neither the voices of men nor the snaps of gunfire could steal him away from her remembered laughter.

He recalled how wonderful and warm she had been in his arms, how soft her skin felt next to his every morning spent together. As hot blood soaked his side, he could almost feel her next to him.

“You’ll wait for me?” he confirmed amidst the bustle of deployment activity, knowing it was time to go. Kissing her again and again, he hugged her close, trying to persuade her.

She nodded as tears washed over the wall of her bravery, her fingers touching his face, praying he would come home to her again.

Searing pain ripped her away from him then as the forces of death slowed his heart, but he held on to the memory of her face, feeling regret more painful than his open wound.

He didn’t want to die, didn’t want to leave her…

Crying out into forgotten surrounding chaos, he wished he could have fought harder for her, prayed she would be safe and happy, hoped she knew how much he loved her…

This is ithe confirmed to himself again, the labor of breathing forcing his body to attend to death’s demands.

How strange it feels to die, he thought, staring into the blue unknown, wondering if he should close his eyes now.

He succumbed then, his mind detaching from mortal determination, from reality, his last breath one of letting go.

In his final moments, as his fellow countrymen rushed to his side, those bloody, dirty fingers released the fine grains of ancient sand. And for him, life was over.

-

PART II

Swallowing the lump in her throat, she stared at the box on the floor of the otherwise-empty apartment, knowing it was time to open it.

It had been so long, but the glossy black finish resurrected grieved-over memories from the past, memories of sitting on their bed alone, staring at the same box for hours. In it were not only the last words of her lost husband, but his confessions, his longing for a home with her—his goodbye.

During her darkest, loneliest days she had burned to read his words again, to feel him in the only way she could, to see the proof of his life.

But she never did.

Facing him would be too much, she told herself when her resolve wavered, knowing his words would break her open again. After losing him, her world had never been the same. Days, weeks and months had been spent navigating expectations and obligations, existing while never quiteliving. Repairing herself had required locking him away to places rarely explored, so for her sanity, she had refrained, promising them both she just needed more time.

But that was not the whole truth. Deep down, she believed that after all they had shared, pretending she could say goodbye was a betrayal of his memory. Even now, standing on the edge of the very act, this conviction was so deep that she prolonged the attachment.

But with a deep breath, she glanced at the new ring on her finger, repeating to herself the reason for this self-torture, knowing it was the right thing for her future, the fair thing to both men. After tracing the glossy cardboard to delay the inevitable, she took another heavy breath and opened the lid.

At first glance, the things inside were seemingly insignificant, ordinary objects special only to them: ticket stubs from movie dates and a napkin with her phone number on it. He had saved her ponytail holder and a pebble from the beach where they made love for the first time. Her heart raced and her throat felt dry, but otherwise she was fine.

The little pieces of them were deeply sentimental to her, but these she could handle. It was the nine letters tucked in the corner that scared her, one from each month of his second deployment.

She had read each one a thousand times during those days of waiting and worrying, each revealing more of the man she loved, while simultaneously showing her the changes in him.

For a long minute, she stared at his writing on the envelope and his writing stared back.

“It’s time,” she whispered to herself, speaking her resolve aloud to prevent it from shattering.

Reaching shakily for one of the letters, the crisp paper felt like an old friend against her fingertips, but she did not relish the familiarity. In the darkest corner of her heart she remained bitter. Instead of papers and words and all of this heartache, she still wanted the impossible. She wanted him.

Don’t, she chided herself, knowing this game would get her nowhere, stopping all movement as her chest swelled with grief. It’s time, she repeated her silent mantra. And it was.

Carefully, she opened the precious envelope, unfurling his first letter from its fold, losing herself in his words immediately.

December

Your letter arrived a few days ago. When I opened the envelope, I could still smell your perfume. Thank you for that. I miss you so much.

I was going to email you today, but the line was so long that I gave up. My handwriting is bad and I hate letters, but you asked and I’m doing it for you. Time is too spotty for me to jot you a long one and there’s rarely anything good to tell, so I’ll just write things down as they happen.

Christmas is coming in a few weeks. I feel like a kid, but I can’t wait to see what you got me. I hope more pictures. We’re so bored. Having new pictures of you to look at would be nice.

Today was a good day. We had almost three hours of free time in the morning and then, while out on patrol, we found wild pigs and bought them. We roasted them for Christmas! It was awesome. I hadn’t had pork chops in so long.

My heart skips sometimes when I remember that summer we spent in your apartment. I knew then that I loved you.

It’s late here and everyone is sleeping, but I can’t. I think about you all the time, and how badly I want to see you. I swear that I’ll make you so happy when I get home.

We got this new mission, and we were ready for it. Sometimes this idle patrolling feels like we’re wandering. Our new target is a kid who makes special lethal roadside bombs. He buries them in sand along our routes with a small metal plate as the trigger. They look flush with the road until the weight of aHumvee presses the plate. Then all hell breaks loose. We all want to find him.

This week we hit a cold spot on Bomb Boy. So close. He had been in the house across the street from where we inspected for an entire week.

Right now, I’m driving through a city thousands of years old. Older than anything we’ve ever seen in our entire lives. Older than shit in Europe.

I’ve had only two hours of sleep and if I hear another fucking Christmas carol, I’m going to snap. None of them can sing.

I thought today would never end. We went out on mission this whole week without incident. Cooper says we’re just showing presence now, and I can see what he means. Sometimes they even seem to like us.

It’s almost Christmas and your package hasn’t arrived yet, but I know the mail is slow. I can’t wait to spend Christmas and New Years with you for once. I want a tree and decorations. We’ll live it up, I promise.

Today reminded me all over again that I was born to do this. I can’t help it—I want to fight. Thank you for taking this path with me.

Merry Christmas. Do you want to know what I want? You, in this tent with me right now. I miss you like crazy. I hope I get your package before New Years. I’m sending this now. I love you—don’t forget that.

Though silent tears had fallen the moment she had unfolded the paper, she cried even harder once pulled from his stream of thought, those tears seeming like insignificant responses for such great loss. All of his promises were unfulfilled, all of his dreams of their life together, of returning to her… lost.

“I missed you, too…” she whispered to his written words, tracing the ink with her fingertips, hoping he had meant what he said: that he was born to fight and die for what he believed in. Truly, she wanted to believehis certainty, recalling the long months of her life spent without him, the days of pacing and daydreaming of his return, deciding it was all worth if he had been happy.

And for several minutes she mourned harder than she had in years, the dull throbbing in her stomach-churning nausea, the tightness in her chest straining her breath. Though it had been years since he had left her, his hold on her was so still so deep.

But she had a dark choice then: to call the wedding off, or to pretend she could say goodbye.

Irrationally, she teetered on the edge of uncertainty now that her emotion was fresh, staring at the letters in the box, seeing only the one she wanted to avoid. It was his last transmission to her, a well-documented testament to the changes that contradicted her faith in his purpose; changes she wanted to pretend didn’t exist.

You owe it to him, to them both; to yourself, she reminded her courage. And she was right.

Folding the paper still in her hand ever-so neatly, she slid it back into its envelope, fearful of what would come next, yet unable to hurt so deeply forever. With all the strength she could muster, she slowly reached for his last letter, reading his slanted script as she had a hundred times before losing him.

July

Hey. I’m sure you got the letter that I’ve been extended to November and if not, well… surprise! When they gave me those orders, I thought I would go fucking crazy. They better be lucky I’m way the fuck out here with no way to get free. I’m better now, so don’t worry. I just feel so far from you. I’m sorry about it all. At least I’ll be home for Christmas.

By the way, I wrote you a whole fucking letter last week, but it disappeared. I must have lost it somehow, but I don’t understand how that happened. Sometimes I think I’m losing my shit in this heat.

The longer I’m here, the more I don’t understand this place. People are so desperate for security, but they don’t fucking work with us like they could! It’s all about tribe and nothing else. On some level I respect that, but at the same time, it makes me think nothing here will ever change. That we’re wasting our time and our lives for nothing.

Today was ridiculous. I’m so sick of the heat and the smell of people.

You should see the dirt in my knuckles. It’s going to take weeks to get off.

My right ankle is sprained from kicking doors in.

This is fucked up, but the last few nights, I’ve dreamed of chasing the enemy through scattered tents. I never catch him.

Do you remember Bomb Boy from the start of my deployment? I told you about how we lost him, but we got word today we’re back on it.

We went to a neighborhood to question the locals today and it was surreal.  We met with their leader and they offered us food so we ate. They kept smiling at me like they were up to something. We didn’t stay long, but I kept thinking how fucking stupid I looked sitting on the floor like a guest with full gear. I really can’t wait to get the fuck home.

I’m starting to worry that I don’t really know your daily routine at all—I’ve always been gone. Do you like where you work? How is your mom? Do you ever get to see her? When you write back, tell me what you do all day. I want to hear it all, so don’t hold back. Even the little things.

Time might be short for me to write, but I’ll try. We’re going out on react missions every fucking shift it seems.

I wish all I had to worry about was protecting my own people.

I can’t wait to be with you. It’s all I think about lately and I shouldn’t say shit like this in a letter, but when I get home, can we start a family? I know you want to and that you were just waiting for me, but I’m ready. Think about it and let me know.

Remember how I told you about that Humvee with those Marines on fire? I keep seeing that accident in my sleep.

The smell of fuel is permanently embedded in my skin.

Civilians back home should see how we fight wars. They would demand their tax dollars back! We shoot last and ask questions first, but they never give us answers. Talking in circles is all they know and when they lie to me, I want to break their faces with my rifle.

Sorry. I shouldn’t have written that. If I didn’t already have so many days written on this paper, I would cross that out. I don’t even know why this shit always comes out on the end when I could start over and leave it out. I hate that I do that. We’re going on a long mission, so I have to send this. I’m sorry I didn’t get time to write more. I just want to see you again, so fucking badly. Just a few more months to go and I’ll be home. I love you. Don’t you ever forget that.

Thumbing his last words with the edge of her nail, she rained teardrops on the letters. The tone of his last few letters had been so unlike him; so sad, so lost and so angry. She wanted to forget his unhappiness, the emptiness she could feel in his words.

Her glossy eyes traced the letters of his last line again, “Don’t you ever forget that.”

It was the unorthodox use of you that had made her heart ache for his return years ago, and even now. Those last lines seemed an instinctive choice to her, a way to say goodbye without using the actual words. Evidence that he thought he might die before sending it.

The dire need to hold him, to comfort him and let him know he was loved forced her to lie down. With a frantic series of long-buried cries, she held the letter closer, bowing to her pain and loss. Unlocking her love was torture, but she let some free anyway, her body trembling with the force of it. Memories of the way he had said her name made her cry a little harder, spurring recollections of lying in his arms those mornings spent together.

I love you,” she whispered to him, hoping somehow he knew that was still true, after all of these years.

Lying on the carpet, she closed her eyes and rested her head against the worn threads, curling her knees to her chest for stability. Her husband had been such a good man and if she could trade anything in the world for him to return to her—she would.

Staring at her engagement ring once more, the small, carefully chosen diamond glittered guilt under her review. She had said “yes” to a future out of fear that she never would again. In a few days time she would be leaving their lost future and empty house for her new home, leaving behind every memory she and her husband had shared in every room. Leaving him.

Let your past go or tell your future you cannot embrace it… her mind whispered that advice from a counselor given years ago. It was a cruel ultimatum; a choice no one should ever have to make, the hardest thing she would ever do.

But after indefinable moments of time, the violence of her sadness gave way to heavy duty in her heart, and she lay quiet and empty. For even longer she did not move, taking deep, intentional breaths with her gaze fixed on his name, realizing she had prolonged this unnecessarily. Avoiding the grief for all this time did not diminish its affect. Eyes clenched, she shed her last tears reluctantly, promising him that one day they would be together again. If he had been right about Heaven, he was there waiting for her. She hoped so for that was all she had left to offer him in this life: uncertain promises.

She sat upright in a gesture of strength, placing his last letter in the box. Slowly closing the lid, she prayed that he could forgive her.

Goodbye,” she whispered to his shoebox memory. “I’ll never forget.”

And for her, life would continue.

-

THE END


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TiffanyMadison
Short Story
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Synopsis
For some, the bonds of love defy the boundaries of mortality.
A Word from the Writer
Submitted to “Through the Lens”, a fiction anthology recording life through the lens of others. Dedicated to J. Miller. Thank you. The sentiments or opinions of the characters are not my own. Rated M for mature.
Published Date
3/13/2010 12:00:00 AM
Published In
Tiffany-Madison.com
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