Jack was simply not the same man he was before he left. He would look at me, but he didn’t see me. He held me sometimes in his familiar strong arms, but he didn’t feel me. He was quick to anger over the smallest things. I knew he still loved me, but we just weren’t like we used to be. When he spoke he often stared into the distance like his mind was now permanently somewhere else. And I know where his mind was.
He came back two months ago from his first deployment to Afghanistan. I had prepared for him to be away for the entire year. Maybe I shouldn’t say prepared, because I wasn’t prepared. He just left one day. There is nothing that can prepare you for that. I wandered the house for three days unsure what to do with myself, just listening to the creaking of the floorboards as I paced. I stared at pictures I’d carefully hung on the walls of the two of us on our wedding day until the tears wouldn’t allow me to see them any longer. I wrapped myself up in his PT shirt that still smelled like him, closing my eyes and willing him to come back and be here to me with all that I had.
I never got used to him being gone. Our little white house was always too quiet, the bed too empty, and cooking for one just didn’t seem worth the time. Things never got easier, but I did get stronger. I threw myself into my work at the hospital. I always arrived first and was the last one to leave. It kept me focused on worrying about the patients and not about Jack, who was a whole ocean away.
We were six months in to the deployment, halfway there. I heard my phone ringing around 3 a.m. and the joy I felt was unlike any other when I saw the “unknown number” flashing on my screen. I knew it was going to be him. I had grown accustomed to leaving my phone on the highest volume possible even while I was sleeping, so I would never miss his calls. It wasn’t Jack on the phone though. The news seemed to suck the air out of my lungs as my worst nightmares slowly became real. I listened closely to the voice on the other end of the line waiting to hear what was wrong. Jack had been shot in his right arm and was recovering at a hospital in Germany. I reminded myself that he was okay. I hadn’t received the dreadful knock on the door from the two somber men in uniform, and for that I should be thankful. Jack would be coming home to me. The day I had waited six months for was finally here. I took off running when I saw him step off the plane. I tried to convince myself it was reality and not the dream I’d played over in my head each day. He was home and everything was going to be okay.
Jack sat at the kitchen table with this morning’s newspaper that he knew he wouldn’t actually read and stared out the window watching two young boys throw a football back and forth underneath the old oak tree. He longed to be 10 years old again with the carefree grins they wore on their faces. He could feel a faint smile spread across his face as one of the boys tackled the other and they rolled on the ground laughing. He could hear Annie humming as she danced around the kitchen making breakfast. The smell of bacon and syrup filled the room. Another smile.
Suddenly Lieutenant Keller was yelling. Bullets whizzed past his face as dusty clouds of sand exploded in the distance. There was no time to think and he didn’t exactly feel fear, but rather more adrenaline than he new was possible. Jack threw himself under the table when he heard the loud boom, knocking his hot coffee to the floor He covered his head with his hands curling into a tight ball on the floor and waited. Nothing. He opened one eye and then the next glancing around to check for the rest of his platoon. Annie was the only one he could see though. He did miss her every second. “I wonder what she’s doing right now,” he thought as he prepared himself for the worst.
They were back in the kitchen and she was picking him up from the floor, shaking, but firmly holding him. Jack winced as if he were in pain as he slowly came back into the moment, noticing the beautiful spread she had prepared on the kitchen table now looking as if a train had come through. Annie looked at him pulling together a weak smile, but the worry and hurt began to cover it like a dark cloud looming in the sky. She had simply dropped a plate on the ground. This wasn’t the first time Jack had had a reaction like this one, triggered by almost anything it seemed and sometimes just coming on without any cause at all. Each time Annie was terrified and unsure how to help him realize that he was safe here. They were back in the kitchen, but that isn’t where he wanted to be. Jack hadn’t wanted to come home. He belonged with his platoon, doing his job. His arm had healed and he didn’t see why he should get to come home when his brothers were still over there fighting. Each of their faces were forever etched in his mind, the ones he had let down.
They lay in bed that night and he held Annie tight after she was asleep wishing he could fix what kept happening. Jack tossed and turned with each and every creak of the house. He had been trained to observe and to stay alert, and he couldn’t shake his habits. He finally drifted off to sleep, but could once again hear Lieutenant Keller yelling that they were being fired on. He was awake instantly, getting up to take cover, but someone was in his way. Unable to see the face just sure it was the face of the enemy, he fought with everything he had, and slammed the figure into the wall behind them. He stepped over the body and picked up his gun. He was up before the sun the next morning. He looked over to find his beautiful Annie and kissed her forehead. She lay lifeless and still.