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

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Bahama Breeze is rowdy. I catch myself reaching for the M9 I no longer carry. Four women in designer jeans and sandals rush up to me with big, bright smiles. "Welcome home," they say, hugging me. I feel like I'm suffocating but resist the urge to push them away.

"You look great," Olivia says.

"Thanks," I say, thinking we'll never pick up where we left off.

The hostess leads us to the patio and seats us at a table by a fake palm tree. I notice their styled hair, makeup and manicured nails. They seem like strangers.

A waitress takes our drink orders. They ask for Skinny Margaritas, so I do the same. I pretend to be very interested in the food menu.

"So Kate," Sheryl asks. "How was Iraq?"

"It was hot," I say and then think to add, "It was great."

"You must have seen some crazy things," Jen says.

I shrug. The waitress returns with the drinks and takes the food order.

"I'd be a mess if I joined the military," Barb quips, "I can't stand anyone telling me what to do."

Sheryl spots a tent card advertising an upcoming Karaoke night. They deliberate about whether or not they'd be brave enough to get up and sing. I polish off my drink and order another. More than once during the meal, I catch myself zoning out and forgetting what they're talking about.

When they start going on about whether or not they'll dare order dessert, I take thirty dollars from my wallet, set it on the table, say something about a headache and leave.

I drive around for a while before I park on the bluff overlooking the city lights. A full moon glows overhead. It was a night like this when Steve gave me the agate pendant with the note that read:

This stone is like our love. We found it by surprise.
It has many layers. It's beautiful and strong.
It will endure.

I drive home sad to know the memory that used to give me butterflies now leaves me numb.

Steve finds me sitting on the edge of our bed looking through our wedding album.

"You looked beautiful that day," he says.

For some reason, this makes me angry. "I don't look the same," I snap. "I'm not the same!"

He's tries to say something, but my wave of anger takes over. I hurl the album at his head.

"You don't get it!" I scream. "Nobody gets it who wasn't there!" I'm trapped in the rage and unable to stop. I pace, punch walls and continue screaming at Steve. I know there's no excuse for what I'm saying, that a lot of it isn't true and makes no sense, but I don't care. Steve begs me to quiet down before I wake Jessica. His attempts to silence me provoke me. I batter him harder with uglier words.

I finally feel myself losing momentum like a sled past the bottom of a hill. Jessica is in Steve's arms crying. He convinces her I'd been having another nightmare. He ushers her back to her room, leaving me alone, ashamed, scared -- and sorry. I wish I could take it all back. I want to die.

The season's changing. Early morning light streams through the airport windows. The terminal smells of coffee and cinnamon buns. I'm heading to a 7-week Post Traumatic Stress Disorder program in Cincinnati. I'm scared, but I feel I have no other choice. If I run from it, it'll follow and only get worse. Steve and Jessica will be in another program for spouses and kids while I'm away.

When I take out my boarding pass, Steve notices my hands are shaking.

"You're not as scared as you think," he says. "You have the courage to get help."

He takes me aside and pulls a small box from his coat pocket. I open it to find the agate pendant. He's had a small diamond added to its setting. "That symbolizes Jessica," he says, "and all of our tomorrows."

He fastens the chain around my neck and kisses me.

"Call me when you get there," he says. "Call me every night."

I go through security, pick up my bag, and turn to find Steve still watching from the other side. We wave goodbye.

Before I know it, I'm aboard the plane.

A woman pauses in the aisle and stows her bag in the overhead bin. Our eyes meet and even though we're in civilian clothes, we instantly know we're both soldiers. We can pick each other out a mile away. She takes her seat beside mine.

"Cincinnati" she says. "You?"

"Same."

"Let's win this one," she says.

We buckle in for the flight. I adjust my shoulder harness, run my fingers down the gold chain and hold the agate pendant, tilting it toward the window to see the diamond catch the light. I close my hand and feel it -- smooth, cool and solid in my palm. I look out the window as the jet hurtles down the runway and rises into the sky. I silently remind myself I'm strong and brave.