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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.

By Caroline Sposto

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.

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.

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.

shim