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A Thousand Letters(12)
Author: Staci Hart

Time, time, time.

The word pulsed around me, a chant that ticked up my heartbeat with every second that passed. I didn't know how we would survive this, didn't know how we'd ever get through the next few weeks with him or the rest of our lives without him.

It was a long time before the shuddering stopped and their breaths evened, tears ceasing for the moment.

Sadie looked up at me, her gray eyes shining like I had all the answers. She had no idea that I didn't have a single one.

I cupped her cheek and wiped a tear away with my thumb. "Do you want to see him tonight?" I asked gently.

She nodded, chin quivering.

"Visiting hours end soon, so we should go."

"O-okay," she said, and I stood, helping my sisters up.

"I just … I need a minute, okay?" Sadie blinked, eyes darting between us. She was so young in that moment, and I saw her as a little girl again instead of seventeen, needing my comfort after a skinned knee. If only this were so simple. If only.

Sophie smoothed Sadie's dark hair. "Whatever you need. Just let us know when you're ready."

Sadie nodded and left the room, and Sophie turned to me, shaking her head.

"How did this happen, Wade? How did we get here?" The words were agony.

"I don't know, but I feel like I've stepped into hell." I took a deep breath and let it out slow, but the pressure remained in my chest, heavy and aching. "I'm gonna go put my stuff in my room before we leave."

"Okay. Maybe I'll make some coffee."

"Good idea." I grabbed my duffle bag and headed upstairs. At the mention of coffee, exhaustion washed over me — I'd been awake close to twenty-four hours at that point, and adrenaline had carried me through it. But now, nearing the end of what had been the longest day of my life — and I had endured some very, very long days — I didn't know how much more I could take.

My boots might have weighed a hundred pounds each as I climbed the stairs, turning down the hall and into my room.

Nothing had changed except me.

I dropped my green canvas bag into the closet, leaving it there to deal with later, parking it under my old letter jacket and other clothes that had been mostly forgotten. And I sat on the edge of the bed, looking around the room.

Everything reminded me of her.

There were so many reasons why I'd avoided coming home over the years, and this room was one of them. When I left, I left part of me here, part of me I'd never quite found again. War changes you that way.

I left here without Elliot, and that alone hardened my heart. But nothing could prepare me for war. The things I'd seen, the things I'd done … when you're over there, you can't think about life back home. You can't think that everything is going on as it always did, that your friends are out working desk jobs or going to school, hitting happy hour at bars, living a normal life.

Life inside of war is no life at all. It shrinks your world down to a thirty-mile radius, and everyone in that radius is living the same hell. There's a comfort in that. But there's also fear, fear that you'll never live that normal life again.

My family was my only connection to that normal life, and even that at times had been thin.

I'd poured myself into the Army, volunteering for tour after tour because it was easier than facing the life I'd left behind. I knew my Army life. I knew how to exist there. I didn't know how to be a civilian anymore.

So, I didn't come home much. But my family and I were close despite the fact. We spoke daily in the form of text, calls, emails, video chats. They'd visited me too, everywhere but Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think they understood why, though no one mentioned it. Especially not me.

But here, in this room, I was eighteen again. I was in love with a girl, with the girl, the one who I'd have moved heaven and earth for. And as I looked around, that past seemed so far away, like a story of a person I used to know.

Her pictures were on my cork board over my desk. Her poems were in my nightstand. That was the window she used to climb in when she was supposed to be in her bed at home. A sweater she'd gotten me for Christmas years ago was in the drawer still, I knew, and the box in the top of the closet held boutonnieres and notes we'd left in each other's lockers.

She was everywhere.

But then I considered my life for the last seven years. Considered what I'd seen. Flashes of memories flickered through my mind — an IED hitting the truck in front of us, my men, my friends wounded. My friends dead. Gunfire and the smell of mortars. The stars at midnight outside of Kardashar. The heat of the desert. The sickness of war, which hadn't changed since the beginning of man.

I twisted the black bracelet on my wrist, the reminder of those I'd lost. As if I could ever forget.

I'd convinced myself it had been easier without her. She'd been spared the pain, the fear she would have endured as I endured war. It was a mercy she'd ended it. I'd had no idea when I left here what the truth of my situation would be, but still, selfishly, I wanted her. I wished she'd chosen me. I wished that when the war and the world broke me, that she was there to hold me, to remind me there was still good in the universe.

Truth was, I didn't know if there was good in the universe. And losing Elliot was just another point of proof.

The memory of the last time I saw her crashed into me, and I closed my eyes against the force.

As much of a snap decision it had been to propose, I knew with every atom in my body that it was right, that it was time. Our plan had been on paper since weeks after I'd met her, but as I packed my duffle bag for boot camp, that two-dimensional plan rose off the page, every detail in high relief.

I was leaving, and I didn't know if I'd come back.

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