The latest round of attacks in Fallujah was the worst Robert had seen. The air assault, snipers, suicide bombers – it was all too much for anyone to take. It was us against them – he could see it every day. Even the civilians, the men, women and children that populated this city pre-war, even they were potential targets.
He remembered an incident three months back, in April. That was when the fighting really got out of control. The little boy on the street who had been gunned down; he couldn’t have been more than twelve years old. Who could give orders to kill a twelve year old boy? Who could follow those orders? Sure enough, the kid had been armed, and was out fighting against them. He was the enemy.
Even three months later, that child haunted him.
Both sides of the war had an agenda. Robert believed, at first, he was on the right side of the fight. The U.S. Military had come to liberate this land and its people. He wasn’t so sure what to believe anymore, though. This city was at peace when the Army first took occupation. There were laws to be adhered to during warring conditions, but then the protests began. Fights erupted, weapons drawn – and then it all spun out of control. He couldn’t tell right from wrong anymore. He didn’t even know what they were doing.
When he first heard of his third deployment, to this region, he began to worry. He had not seen a lot of combat in the first two deployments, but the Military hadn’t done anything substantial in Afghanistan for a few years now. He’d missed all the good stuff. As the news of his return sank in, Robert briefly entertained notions of going AWOL, but they weren’t serious thoughts. Just a means of entertainment – mental escape. Besides, what would his mom think? She hated the separation, but he knew she loved to talk about her boy, the War Hero. She always asked him to send back pictures and any other paraphernalia he could get his hands on, which she would decorate the living room with. Yeah, she was a proud Army mom. Most of the time, she talked right over his insecurities and nervousness about the deployment. Not purposely, though – at least probably not. She was proud.
Back at home in North Carolina, Robert’s mom, Cynthia, was just waking. The morning air hung heavy with dew – it was going to be another one of those days. Seven-thirty in the morning, but she could already tell. She slipped out of bed, bare feet on the floor, and then slowly shuffled over to close the window, then out the bedroom, and into the dark, lonely house. She stopped to fiddle with the thermostat, cranking on the air conditioner just enough to take some of the humidity out of the air, and then headed toward the kitchen to fix her morning cup of coffee. As the warm, roasting smell of her morning breakfast blend filled the air, she thought she heard a small creak of the old, wooden porch steps just outside, which was instantly followed by a strong wrap on the door. She was to meet up with her sister, Charlotte, to get out of the house for a few hours, and maybe even drive into the city to visit her daughter, Karen. But wasn’t she going to give Charlotte a call first? Maybe she was going to join her for Church. At least she would have someone to share her coffee with this morning. Half of it was usually wasted anyway.
She made her way to the door after a second set of knocks – Charlotte wouldn’t be so impatient – unlocked the dead bolt and swung it open.
A huge, looming figure, which she couldn’t at first make out, with the morning sunlight casting a glowing aura around his silhouette, stood at the door way. As her eyes came into focus from the glaring sunlight, she saw the man was in an officer’s uniform, and he was clinging to a stack of papers in his right hand. She looked up into his face, and her heart immediately sank. Something had happened to Robert.
“Mrs. Gordon?” he inquired.
“Yes sir, that’s me.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Gordon. I’m Officer Samuel O’Bryan, with the United States Army. May I come in?”
With his question, she quietly nodded her head inside, and let him in.
“Would you like a cup of coffee, Officer O’Bryan?”
“Well, m’am, I would like to-”
“It’s quite alright,” Cynthia said, cutting him off. “I’m about to fix myself a cup. In fact, it sounds like the pot has just finished brewing.”
“Well, yes m’am.”
“How do you take it? You boys like your coffee strong, right?”
“Yes m’am. No sugar or cream, thank you.”
“Okay, dear. Sit down, make yourself at home. I’ll be right back.”
As she headed off to the kitchen, Cynthia’s head grew light, and a touch dizzy. She steadied herself at the counter for a moment, and then poured the two cups of coffee. Two spoons of sugar, and a touch of cream – just enough to steep off the steam pouring out of the cup for her own, and a strong, black cup for O’Bryan.
“It’s a hot day, already, Officer O’Bryan. Weatherman said we would be getting some showers in today; we sure do need it.”
“Yes m’am. Thank you. Mrs. Gordon, I-”
“I woke up this morning, and I was already sweating. It’s been this way all summer, you know. Hot and muggy. Hot and muggy. Too warm in here for you? I’ll go adjust the thermostat a little. Just turned it on. My electric bill has been off the charts this year. I’ll be back in a second.”
“Oh no, m’am, it’s perfectly fine. I need to-”
“No, no trouble at all. I’ll be right back.”
Cynthia flitted off down the hallway, fumbled again with the thermostat, and came drawing back up to the room, to the waiting Officer.
“So, do you have family here, sir? It’s beautiful country to raise a family in.,” she said, as she took a seat again. “My daughter, she lives in the city now – up in Greenville – can’t stand the isolation, she says. It does get lonely sometimes, out here, but it sure is pretty.”
“No, m’am, I am stationed in Fayetteville, Fort Bragg.”
“Um, well, yes, Mrs. Gordon. My wife, Mary, she’s over in Fort Bragg with me. Now, Mrs. Gordon-”
“No kids then?”
“No, we’re waiting a few years.”
“Smart. Smart of ya. Ray and me, that’s my husband – he’s passed, though – we waited ourselves. Probably a little too late, though. Poor Ray, he barely saw Robert out of high school before he passed.”
“I’m sorry to hear that Mrs. Gordon.”
“Yeah, yeah I miss him. Forty years together, but we had a good time. Lucky we didn’t wait too late for the kids. I thought my time passed by the time we got around to it. Took us three years, but honey, we were blessed with the two most beautiful kids, Karen and Robert, one right after another.”
“Yes, well, Mrs. Gordon, I’m here to talk to you about your son, Rober-”
”Well damn it, son! I know why you’re here!” Cynthia suddenly burst out, and then paused for a moment. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be so rude, but I know you’re here to tell me about my boy. You boys don’t just stop by to talk nonsense, now do ya? I know you’ve got some news, but all I know is that right now, I still have a boy, and I still have my cup of coffee, and to be honest with you, I’d like to sit here and enjoy my cup of coffee one more morning. The way I see it, ten more minutes is not going to make a damn difference in the world, now is it, sir?”
“Okay, then, so can we just sit here and enjoy our coffee?”
So they both sat, quietly sipping their coffee, as the minutes ticked by, each second marked by the ticking of an old cuckoo clock on the wall. Seconds grew into a minute, and then into three, then five. After ten or fifteen minutes of taking baby sips from her cup, Cynthia inhaled deeply, calmly placed her coffee cup on the side table next to the couch, where she was seated, looked across the room to Officer O’Bryan, and softly said,” now, tell me about my boy.”
“Well, Mrs. Gordon, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your son is dead. “
Officer O’Bryan continued on, and Cynthia heard each and every word he spoke, but it was just all noise at this point. As soon as she heard the word “dead,” his words simply stopped making sense. He continued on for another half an hour, and then excused himself to let her grieve.
Cynthia couldn’t even process the news. It rang over and over in her head, but it just didn’t make sense. It couldn’t be Robert; there was just no way. It had to be a mistake. They had the wrong man. She kept wishing that the Officer’s knock had fallen upon someone else’s door that morning, but to wish that news onto someone else? It was horrid, horrid to even think that way. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t sit.
She stared hollowly across the tiny, cluttered living room onto the wall, once a perfect eggshell white but now dirtied, soiled and aged. Robert’s framed diploma, from finishing cadet training, centered itself on the adjacent wall. That was Robert’s wall, with all his pictures and other articles he was able to send home to her. That’s what she called it, anyway, when anyone came to visit. Pictures of him at his cadet training commencement ceremony, and with his platoon decorated the wall. The world map, where she pinpointed every single location where Robert had been stationed, now showing the wear and tear of the years he’d been gone. She walked over and noticed all the dust that had settled over his wall and his pictures. Even the newer ones were already old and aging.
She started noticing all the details of the room; the old corner chair, with its seat cushion worn a little thin, almost to the threads – that’s where he sat the last time he visited. The notches on the side of the wall, leading into the hallway – he thought it was silly when she insisted on marking his height the last time he was home. The old telephone table, he’d busted his knee open on the corner. The whole house – it steeped in his memories. He grew up in this house. She felt suffocated suddenly – she had to get out of the house; take a walk and try to sort out what had just happened.
The sky was overcast that day, which helped with the heat, but as Cynthia walked along the old country road, lined with outstretched and sprawling southern oaks, she felt as if she were fighting her way through the humidity in the air. The typical rustling of the leaves and playful dance of the Spanish moss from the branches along the road was noticeably absent. Instead, the throngs of moss hung down through the oaks, lifeless. She had hoped for something, some kind of distraction to take her mind off of everything – perhaps a light breeze or a scurry of a squirrel. The caw of a crow, oh how she hated those things, would even be a blessing right now. Nothing came, though.
She had always loved the country, with its solitude and quiet demeanor. It was getting lonely now, though. The paths were narrow, and the trees stood, unyielding, like a long, tall fence with no opening to the outside world. When they first moved out into the country, all of this was for their own good – for her family’s protection. The isolation and solitude kept them all together, and kept them safe. As the years passed, though, her daughter grew restless, and vanished into the city. Her husband had passed away just before Karen left. And then Robert – her darling son Robert – he was the baby of the family. He was content with the country. When he joined the Army, he talked about eventually buying some of the land down the road, where his old hide-out used to be.
This was his third deployment, but he really took it like a trooper. She hated it, but was also so proud of him. He would come back a decorated soldier, she was sure of it. Then they extended his tour. He should be home now. But now what? What did these damn trees have to give her now? Suddenly, the tunnel of trees broke, and she found herself coming up to the clearing with the old barn.
The old, dilapidated barn had been Robert’s favorite escape when he was a boy. She gazed at the wreck, with the ashen boards that made up the exterior walls, all of which leaned toward the east with an antique frailty. Half of the dull, weathered aluminum roof had sunken and either collapsed, or hung down to expose its frail, wooden skeleton. It’s a good thing the wind’s not blowing today, she thought, or else this entire shack would just collapse on itself. As she cautiously crept closer, toward the half-opened door she wondered about all the time Robert had spent up here. She could barely even remember the old thing, some twenty or thirty years ago. It was still sturdy and proud enough to stand tall and strong. Its remaining shell now just hunkered down over the ground, waiting for the okay to rest. Robert had talked, at one point, of trying to keep the frame of the old barn intact, and building the rest of his home around it. Perhaps he’d seen more than she had. Or maybe not. This was her dream, wasn’t it? There was no real use for this damn barn. This stupid, worthless pile of lumber, held together so haphazardly with just a few old, rotting supports. How could this place have ever held together for even animals to live in? There was no sturdy foundation for a family.
As she took in all the detail, every detail that she’d never even bothered with before, she felt faint. She couldn’t even recall what the barn once looked like for a moment or two. Had it been painted? No, it was bare, but the dark, tawny walnut boards had not yet faded – had they? Now she remembered it all. There were, even then, some pieces of the aluminum siding missing from the roof, so that the sun would light up the place during the day, and Robert (and any host of his little friends who would sometimes camp out here at night) could probably gaze up at the Milky Way until his eyelids grew heavy. The door still half hung on and half off the hinges, and never really closed, just as it is now. Such a strong barn, though, back when it hovered over and sheltered Robert when he was at play. Such a strong barn. What happened to it? This wasn’t really the same place – the same cold shell that used to be so comforting. She couldn’t make sense of any of it. Nothing was right anymore. Suddenly, it all started coming back to her.
“Mrs. Gordon, your son is dead. We found him Thursday morning.”
“Oh my – wait, found him? Where? What, was – was he missing?”
“Well, m’am, we found him in the wash room. He’d probably been there all night. He was gone when they found him.”
“Wait. Wait a second. They? What do you mean? Washroom? He was killed on base? Or, what is it, location? How? I don’t understand, son. My boy was killed where he was staying??”
“Yes. I mean, no m’am. I’m sorry, Mrs. Gordon, but it appears that he took his own life.”
As the words resonated in her head, she took a seat on a nearby tree stump. He killed himself? He did this to himself? No. Not Robert. They did something. Something else happened. Robert wouldn’t do that. He’d always been so happy. She wouldn’t accept it. So many questions now arose, but Officer O’Bryan was long gone. She dug up his card from her pocket, but what could she do now? She started blankly at the card for a few minutes, and then shifted back to the barn.
This God damned barn!
She pictured herself flying into complete hysterics, charging the barn and tearing into it. Prying off each rotten plank of wood, sending splinters and fragments asunder through the air, along with all the years of old dirt and ash and mold and decay. Tearing the damn, wicked thing to shambles. What a crock. It was so old and decayed. What a farce. All along she’d been led to believe he’d come back. Comeback and settle right here. It had been a lie – all of it! He’d known all along, too. He wasn’t coming back. How could he do this to her? She didn’t even know him anymore. Always happy – always. Why did he put up the act? Now he’s become this stranger that she didn’t even know. Lying to his mom – about the barn, coming back home, and leaving her with this mess to clean up.
Cynthia’s throat grew tight. Her eyes began to sting. She finally had come to the realization. He was gone. Her only boy. Her baby. He should have been back already.
She collapsed to the ground, overcome with grief – crying, wailing and blindly cursing everything within reach. He should have been home. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. How could they do it? How could she do it? She can’t bury her own son. She just can’t. How is she supposed to tell Karen? Charlotte? How could she do it? She couldn’t even take the news herself. She couldn’t tell them this. As she rung out her soul in the dust and dirt, she exhausted herself and passed out.
A few damp sprinkles fell over Cynthia’s face and shook her from her slumber. The day’s storm was finally about to blow through, and caught her out, a few miles from home. Cynthia sat there, stunned, for a few moments, but as the drops grew faster and heavier, she pushed herself up from the dirt and crumpled grass. She thought of the barn, perhaps taking shelter there until the rain subsided. No – no more. It could rightly be destroyed in a small storm such as this, but it would certainly destroy her to spend anymore time out there.
Back at the house, Charlotte sat timidly in the rocker on the porch, swaying forward in a rhythmic pattern with the rain, as she watched it fall straight down from the sky. It was a heavy rain – not so much of a monsoon, but drops so bulbous they’d weigh a person down to the ground upon impact.
She’d let herself in the house, after a few rounds of knocking on the door and calling for Cynthia. The nose-curling aroma of burnt coffee hit her upon entering. The decanter had long since run out of coffee and the burnt remnants of the morning’s brew cooked to the bottom. She shut it off, and went back into the hallway.
“Cynthia, are you here?”
She paused. Waited. Nothing. She went back into the living room to close the door, and then noticed the two cups on the table. Karen must have stopped by. It did little to ease her concern, though. She went through the home, but paused at the thermostat; it had been set down to 60, the lowest setting. Cynthia never kept the house so cold; she was always so frugal. She phoned Karen. No answer. They must be out. But why hadn’t Cynthia called her? They’d already made plans for the day.
She had only been outside, rocking in the chair on the porch for a few moments when she saw someone trudging up through the storm to the house. Was that –
Charlotte burst out from the chair and ran out to Cynthia.
“Honey, what on earth? You’re soaked to the bone! What on earth are you doing out in this mess?”
“Honey, you’re going to freeze yourself inside. The air was on 60 when I got here.
What are you doing, out walking around in this storm?”
“I got caught out.”
“They’ve been saying it’s going to storm on us this week. You had me worried. What’s going on?”
“Well, it’s alright, I guess. It’s just – let’s get out of this rain – my God, we’re both soaked now! I thought you’d forgotten about our plans today. I let myself in. You left the coffee pot on, by the way. Before your – little walk out in the rain,” Charlotte said, a little puzzled.
Cynthia knew she’d have to break the news, eventually, but not so soon. She looked at Charlotte and opened her mouth to speak, but nothing would come out.
“What is it? Cindy, now you’re scaring me.”
“Charlotte, I – I’m just tired right now.”
“Well,” she paused, “okay. Let’s get inside and out of these wet clothes, and worry about everything else when we’re fresh.”
Cynthia plopped down on the couch as soon as they were inside.
“Hon, are you out of your mind? You’re soaked,” Charlotte said, while motioning toward the hallway. “Come on, up. Dry clothes. Let’s go.”
As they neared Cynthia’s room, Charlotte paused in the bathroom doorway.
“You want me to run you a bath, hon?”
“No, I’m just going to lie down for a while.”
“Okay, I’m going to go grab some clothes from the closet.”
Charlotte moved through the closet, grabbing some dry clothes, then glanced over at her sister – now sitting on the bed – and picked out something for her as well. Cynthia was in some kind of mood today. It frightened Charlotte, though. Cynthia was always the older and ‘wiser,’ always leading the way instead of being so subservient. She walked over, placed the clothes on the end of the bed, and sat down next to Cynthia.
“Hon, what’s wrong?”
“Robert. They’ve found him dead.”
“Oh my God. Cindy. They found him-“
“He was shot,” Cynthia exclaimed, “They were out. They were on a mission. There was a fight, and um. He was shot. He was helping all the other guys, standing over them, and they shot him! They shot him, Charlotte. By baby-“
“Oh, Cindy. Oh no. Have you –“
“They shot him,” Cynthia repeated, as she looked dead into her sister’s eyes. “He wasn’t – he was protecting. He-“
Cynthia could think of nothing else before her grief and shame overcame her.
The words just came out, and she couldn’t stop them. She didn’t want to stop them. She wanted to tell Charlotte – no, she needed to tell Charlotte what really happened – but she couldn’t. Her son – her baby – Robert, he was a brave man. He was a strong man. He signed up to be a hero, and to fight for freedom. He was a War Hero, and he died a War Hero. Nobody was going to take that from her.
“Here, lay down for a while,” Charlotte whispered, while giving her a tight hug, “I’m going to go put on some tea, and give Karen a call. We’ll take care of this. We will figure it out.”