The sun hadn’t completed its ascent over the neatly tiled roofs yet, and here I was, faithful as ever, waiting in the pre-dawn gray of a February morning. I was powerlessly bound to my ritual these past few weeks, this greeting the light of a new day. I pressed my forehead to the windowpane, seeking cool comfort from the thickly frosted glass. Sighing at the instant numbing to my brow, I desperately wished that for once my heart could be remedied as easily. It was a wish that never came true. The aroma of strong coffee lured me away from my post at the window seat; a place that had inadvertently become more familiar to me than my own bed.
It was not the first time I found myself replacing the second mug back onto the cupboard shelf; old habits die slow. Die. Hard as I may try to avoid thinking or speaking that word, the more it pops in and out of phrases. A haunting reminder – as if I needed reminding.
Coffee in hand, I shuffled past the silent rocker, sending it into a creaking rhythm as I snatched the heavy woolen plaid from its intricately carved arm. Fumbling one-handedly with the dead bolt, I yanked open the front door and muttered an oath as the scalding liquid sloshed over the brim and onto my tender flesh. I paused at the doorway as the icy blast hit me full in the face, taking a moment to reconsider. I was preparing to make a hasty retreat when a single word hit me with more force than the biting wind: COWARD!
“No!” I countered harshly, screaming at the wind . . . the ice . . . the quickly retreating shadows of night. Anything that would pretend to listen.
“No,” I repeated again softly, wiping the steady flow of tears away with an open palm. “You can’t stop me, not today. I’m coming out, like it or not.” It would be the first time in nearly a month since I had crossed the threshold, and I lifted my chin in defiance. Well, nobody said it would be easy, and to pretend otherwise would be ludicrous.
I eased myself precariously into the porch swing, taking great pains to secure the plaid around my body in cocoon fashion before taking a sip of the intoxicating brew. Ahh … coffee with Scottish Heather Cream. I closed my eyes, sighing as the heat slowly warmed its way to my center, leaving me feeling cozy despite my artic surroundings. Lazily, I allowed my mind to wander back to the first time I tasted of the creamy liqueur, undiluted and deliciously addicting.
~ ~ ~
Kevin had brought a bottle back from Scotland after being stationed on temporary duty in Great Britain. From the look on his face, one would have thought he had discovered pure gold, not a commonplace mildly inebriating beverage. The humor in the situation was the simple fact that Kevin did not drink. Ever. Not alone, not socially, not in times of sadness or celebration.
Oddly enough, he happened by an establishment on the streets of Fort William while samples were being freely dispensed and, on a whim, accepted the proffered drink.
A trace of a smile curved my lips as I recalled his sputtering attempt at an explanation for this most uncharacteristic compulsory act. After a few poor excuses and much shuffling of feet, he suddenly changed horses in mid-stream and opted for an entirely new tactic. Straightening to his full height – an impressive six feet two – and deepening his voice an octave or two, he winked conspiratorially before beginning again.
“Weel, there I was breathin’ the fine Scottish air in the shadow of Ben Nevis himself, when a comely lass with flowers in her hair and a bosom that would melt yer heart came upon me oot of the blue. I thought to m’self, surely one as fine as she must be of the faery folk, and t’would be a shame to refuse that which she is offerin’ me. So, may the good Lord hae mercy, I took a wee drink.”
I had gawked for a second or two before bursting into a fit of laughter at the poorly attempted brogue he was obviously so proud of. All the while, he stared indignantly down his nose at me with a frown firmly in place.
I snorted at his pinched expression.
Unable to maintain the façade any longer, Kevin succumbed to my infectious laughter, and we soon had tears of mirth streaming down our faces. It was then that he had swept me into his arms and onto his plaid, laughter fading with each breath. We made the sweetest love that my eyes filled with tears of an entirely different nature.
And that had been the last time.
I clung tightly to the black, purple, and green hues of the Black Watch tartan; my dear Kevin, ever the gentle rogue. He had been recalled that very night to perform the mission of heroes. The kind that many dream of, but seldom get the chance.
The difference is, in dreams, the hero always comes back.
I watched in stony silence as the uniformed man strode purposely through the gated entry and up the steps, an emotionless mask set firmly in place. In the way of a disciplined soldier, his eyes veered neither left nor right until he stopped directly in front of me, and then they looked down and pierced my very soul.
I recognized the man, of course; from parties, barbeques, weddings, and . . . funerals. Abruptly the mask shifted, then shattered to pieces, and I found myself being pulled against the cold metal of a decorated chest. I pounded relentlessly for all I was worth until, exhausted, I could do nothing but sob uncontrollably.
God bless him, he never let go.
When all was said and done, I was left holding a meticulously folded flag and a trace of echoes resounding in my ears: Top secret. Line of duty. With Honors. Always remembered. Sorry. So Sorry.
~ ~ ~
I blinked and looked down at the flag. It was gone. Of course it was; that was over a month ago. It was a well-worn path that I had traveled down, the destination as familiar to me as the journey itself. A bitter trail of tears that leaves the soul empty and despondent.
Through my watery veil, I marveled as the rays of sun lit the frosty snow on fire, consuming the shadows in a warm embrace. I was suddenly reminded of a scripture my mother used to quote, although I could only paraphrase the sentiment in simplest form: God will never put more on a person than they can endure. I thought of her, and then of my father; at least he had lived long enough for them to raise a family together.
Before he died.
That verse had been my mom’s stronghold ever since. And now, on a mid-winter’s dawn, I adopted it for my own as well.
It started as a low hum, undistinguishable in words, but as familiar a rhythm as my own breath. The strong steady cadence of a soldier’s morning routine; the backbone of military training, the uniting of a core. I watched in silence as the undulating mass of bodies circled the parade grounds, rounded the bend, and row by row, drifted out of sight.
It was time for me to leave as well.
I stayed a moment more, knowing this would be the last time I did so, taking in the progressive motions of a military base awakening to a new day. Personnel had been gracious enough, giving me ample time to recuperate from my loss, pack up, and move out. But it was time. I looked around the officer’s quarters and the nondescript structures that had been home during recent years.
Home. My mom still lived in the same home we grew up in, nestled snugly against the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana; a place I hadn’t been back to in a very long time.
I stared down at my cup, now cold from neglect, and rose to dispose of the contents over the porch rail. It was just as well; I shouldn’t be indulging anyway, not in my condition. I had found out this morning on a whim, a mere chance . . . a prayer, really: Pink is positive, simple as that.
Simple and yet profoundly powerful.
A reason to go on.
Once inside, I walked directly to the phone and stared at it for countless minutes before punching in the familiar sequence of numbers. The voice on the other end sounded like an angel, and I trembled at the tender rush of emotion that filled my heart. I pressed a hand to my stomach and whispered the first words to my un-born child.
“We’ll make it together, my little one,” and then louder into the receiver.
“Mom . . . we’re coming home.”