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

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Digging through my duffel for my meds, I ran across the necklace I'd sworn I'd never take off. I'd worn the agate pendant under my uniform until its chain was broken during an attack.

On our first date, Steve and I were in the woods looking for a picnic spot. He noticed a stone, picked it up and said, "This one's a keeper." It looked like an ordinary rock to me and I forgot all about it. A few months later, he gave it to me polished and set, on a gold chain.

Steve's a rock hound and he later confessed he'd scoured the ground that day hoping to find a special stone because he knew I was the one. I laid the necklace on the counter so I'd remember to get it fixed.

I took half a Xanax, a sleeping tablet, a Prazosin for nightmares and then buried the pill bottles in my bag. I would tell Steve about my prescriptions -- but not tonight.

I emerged wearing the nightgown and his eyes lit up. He kissed the scar where a piece of flying debris had grazed my shoulder, then my lips. I felt self-conscious unbuttoning his shirt. We fumbled our way through lovemaking like two people who hardly knew each other.

Neither of us mentioned it, but I sensed that Steve felt let down. I guess he had imagined a wild night of superhuman passion. I know I had.

He dozed off and I lay awake, aware of the gentle sounds in the air -- his rhythmic breathing; the crickets outside. I'd gotten used to the snores, mutters, coughs and farts of soldiers sharing close quarters. This quiet seemed eerie. Tired as I was, it was hard to fall asleep.

I dreamt I was in the driver's seat of a Humvee, our convoy rolling through a faded landscape past mud houses with barefoot children in the doorways. I woke up feeling for my weapon. When I couldn't find it, I started to panic. Then I remembered where I was.

I went to the kitchen to find Jessica sprinkling extra sugar on a bowl of Frosted Flakes. She carried it to the family room and turned on the TV. I shot Steve a look, expecting him to say something about this. Instead he came over, put his arms around me and asked, "What are you going to do today?"

I suddenly realized I had nothing to do. Hard as I tried not to -- I cried.

I used to be able to buckle down and do anything. Now, I'm sitting in my car because I can't even go in and buy groceries without screwing up. I've been in this supermarket hundreds of times before. Steve gave me a list. I should make myself go in.

I check my watch and decide there isn't enough time left before I have to pick up Jessica at school. I swing through McDonald's and buy iced teas for Jessica and me. I'm about to head into the car pool lane when my cell phone rings. It's Mom.

"Listen, Kate, I just finished a hairdressing appointment near Jessica's school. Why don't you let me get her and take her to my house for dinner?" she says.

I think of the two iced teas. "Thanks, Mom," I say. "That would be great."

"Kate, is everything okay?"

"Everything's great, Mom," I say, worrying about why she asked.

I drive home desperately missing my army friends.

CNN blares in the background as I pack my uniform into a box. I run across a picture of Coleman, Sanchez and me standing by a red and gold banner that says "Welcome to Camp Fallujah." It was Coleman's twenty-eighth birthday. Her mother had managed to send her a cake. That night, a bunch of us surprised her with a party. Four days later, she was killed by an IED. I miss Coleman every day. She was the funniest person I've ever met.

The phone rings. It's Olivia. We grew up on the same street and were best friends.

"Oh my God, Kate!" she says, "I ran into Steve at the bank. He told me you were back. Why didn't you call me?"

I don't know what to say, but I guess it doesn't matter because Olivia keeps talking. "Girls night out! Barb, Sheryl, Jen and me, Bahama Breeze, seven o'clock tonight. You've got to come!"

"Sounds good," I say, trying not to sound as shaky as I feel. "I need to check with Steve."

When Steve comes home I mention Olivia's invitation.

"Go," he says. "You need to reconnect."

"I'm just not sure..."

"You've known them forever. They were in our wedding." When I don't respond, he reminds me that Sheryl's daughter goes to school with Jessica.