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"The Last Battle": Third Place, Family Circle Fiction Contest 2012

"The Last Battle," by Caroline Sposto, won third place in Family Circle's 2012 Fiction Contest.

The gray-haired guy in the next parking space sees my U.S. Army bumper sticker, breaks into a grin and shouts "Hooah!"

"Hooah!" I respond.

"Where's your husband serving?" he asks.

"My husband's not in the military," I say. "I served in Iraq."

"More power to him," he replies, having missed what I just told him. "I was in 'Nam with the 198th." He opens the hatch of his SUV and starts loading bags of groceries.

I head toward the supermarket.

A sudden crash snaps me back -- it's just the stock boy collecting carts, but it makes me jump like it's an incoming mortar round. My heart pounds. I take deep breaths, go back to my car and get inside. Hands trembling, I lock the doors, rest my forehead against the steering wheel and close my eyes. The store's too crowded. I won't go today.

Through thirteen months of deployment, all I could think about was coming home, but when I finally got on the plane, I was hit by a strange sense of dread.

The welcoming crowd wasn't big, still it took me a minute to pick out Steve and Jessica. He'd taken up running and looked thinner. Jessica had grown a lot bigger. She looked older than seven. Seeing her necklace with the little green dog tag inscribed, "With love from Mom, U.S. Army Iraq 2012" brought to mind my necklace from Steve. We hugged and kissed through a blur of tears.

On the drive home, Jessica grew quiet. I turned toward the back seat and saw her playing with a smart phone. "Whose is that?" I asked, figuring it was Steve's.

"Mine," Jessica said without looking up from her game. This irked me. Just then, Steve passed the freeway onramp.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"We're meeting your family at Olive Garden for lunch. Remember?"

"Can we stop at the house first? I haven't had a shower for two days."

"There isn't time."

Inside the restaurant, I found myself scanning the perimeter for exits. Clusters of customers filled the waiting area. I overheard bits of their conversations:

"I had a rough afternoon. My internet was down." .... "I got an amazing deal on a pair of Oakley sunglasses." .... "Who do you think they'll eliminate from America's Next Top Model?"

My parents walked in with a few other relatives. They were all dressed up and kept going on about how proud of me they were. I didn't quite know what to say. Once we started eating, things felt somewhat more normal.

I asked Jessica about her Brownie troop. She was telling me about an overnight camp-in at the planetarium when a toddler in a high chair at the next table started crying. Her screams brought back Fallujah -- a dazed woman stumbling through flaming rubble, a screaming child clutching her skirt, a blood-soaked toddler limp in her arms.

I felt Steve's hand on my shoulder. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Fine," I said, glancing around the table. Luckily nobody else saw me freeze up.

Toward the end of the meal, the waitress came over, pointed toward a middle aged couple and said, "That party just picked up your check." They must have noticed my fatigues.

They paused by our table on their way out. "Thank you for your service," they said.

"Thank you for your support," I mumbled, feeling slightly uncomfortable.

Late afternoon, we pulled into our driveway. When I stepped out of the car, the smell of freshly mowed grass was overwhelming. Not hearing any generators running, helicopters overhead or colossal trucks roaring around was weird.

A new bistro set on the front porch caught my eye. "Nice," I said in a cheerful voice, disguising a pang of hurt. I went inside braced to find more evidence that life had gone on while I was away.

I studied Jessica's crayon drawings that hung on the fridge, the horses and butterflies were adorable, but I teared up over the childish rendering of her and Daddy...without Mommy.

I opened the freezer and marveled at the ice maker, the box of breaded coconut shrimp, the quart of Ben & Jerry's Cheesecake Brownie Ice Cream.

That night, I was about to get into the shower when Steve tapped on the bathroom door and handed me a gift bag that held a lace nightgown. I held it up -- more romantic than sexy, that's Steve.

"Ten minutes," I said, ushering him out. I closed the door and locked it. Stepping into the steaming spray was heaven -- beyond the good soap and water that was more than warm-ish -- I knew I was safe. In Iraq, I always showered with an open knife in hand. Some women carried their handguns. I never told Steve about the unwanted stares, propositions or the senior officer who groped me during guard duty. It was over. I hadn't filed any complaints. My husband would never need to know.