A/N: Star-Cross'd Awards is the bi-annual writing contest of ADoR (A Drop of Romeo). There will be one from January to June, then another from July to December.
For each round, there is a set of prompts. You may choose from any prompt. For each prompt, there is one winner. Honorable mention will be awarded when there are sufficient submissions.
The requirements are:
Must be the specified story type (either multi-chaptered or one-shot)
Reference to Romeo and Juliet (this does not have to be a MAJOR reference. For example, your narrator could walk past a poster advertising a nearby showing of R&J)
Must have been written after the contest begun
The purpose of Star-Cross'd is to give you enough time to start and finish something you can edit until you're satisfied. I know that when I try writing for a prompt, I tend to not have enough time to finish my response. One month goes by like that. Star-Cross'd gives you five to six months to complete your entry.
All authors who submit their work shall receive a review from me AS LONG AS YOU FULFILL THE REQUIREMENTS! The winner of each round will receive a banner.
This story was written for the photo entitled "Water".
My literature teacher once asked us what came to mind first whenever we thought about the soldiers who fight in a war. Heroes was our answer. She asked us what we believed soldiers viewed war as before they ever entered the battle. A chance to prove themselves, to be heroes, to show how brave they are. Now, she said, think about how those soldiers think about war after they return home. Awful. Destructive. Gruesome. Terrible.
War is never truly good. The purpose behind it may be, but the things that it does is not. It rips families apart. It ends relationships. It brings death. It turns cities into ruins. It turns people into ruins. It can be the downfall of a person rather than being the rise to fame that so many believed it would be.
It's a chance to serve their county, that's true, but at what cost are they serving their countries? At the cost of their parents? Their brothers and sisters? Their wives and girlfriends? Their children? Is it worth it? Is any cause really worth it?
It can be. It can be, but, at the same time, the loss of human life, be it through death or through psychological effects, is a huge loss, one that, in the case of death, can never be restored. The mind can be permanently damaged.
Why, then, do people still go and serve? Because if it weren't for the brave, the ones who are willing to risk all of these things, then there would be many people in danger. And, for that, these men and women deserve all of the fame and recognition possible. They deserve every medal, every award, that they are awarded. Their families deserve recognition for supporting them through it all, for dealing with their absence for extended periods of time. They all do a job that requires a special person.
He sits, staring out the window as he always does at this time. The ducks and geese fluff up their wings in the lake that is situated behind our home as the sun rises over the tree line. I lean against the wall, watching him as I always do. His tanned, worn face doesn't give away any hints to the thoughts that I know are racing through his head. His dark hair is still short, but it's no longer a buzz cut. His once electric green eyes have faded to a dull, almost lifeless, color due to the horrors that he refuses to talk about, even when they wake him up in a panic during the night.
He knows that I am watching him. I know he does. This is our routine. I don't speak whenever he's in front of the window. After the first day, I learned that it was best to keep my distance until he was ready, until he had pulled himself out of that desert and brought himself back to the present. Sometimes it is a matter of minutes, but other times it can be a matter of hours. He never tells me what he is thinking about. He merely stands, looks at me, and says that he's going to start breakfast. I always offer a small smile and wait until he passes, pressing a soft kiss to my forehead, before I follow him into the kitchen and we begin our daily routine of making breakfast.
Today, though, I know it's going to be longer. It marks the first year since he was discharged from the Army. For the past week, he has been building up a wall between the two of us, pushing me away even when I try not to push him. Pushing me away before I can do something to give him a reason to push me away.
I wrap my arms around my stomach and watch him, wishing that I could help him somehow. He goes to counseling sessions everyday still, but I don't go in with him. I sit in the car for an hour until he comes out and then we go home. He won't run errands with me. He won't go out to eat. Everything still overwhelms him. It took weeks for him to be able to be around more than just two or three people, even if they were family. It's a slow process, one that I know frustrates him to no end.
The sun has cleared the tree line and is continuing its climb into the spring sky. I study Cory, wishing that he would give me some hint about what I could do for him. He doesn't want to be babied. He wants to do it on his own. He doesn't need my help. He's told me those things over and over again since he was released from the recovery center six months ago. The medicine that they gave him doesn't help, he says, it makes him feel drowsy and hazy. They normally end up being flushed down the commode while the doctors try to find other methods for him. Yoga after breakfast. Art after his doctor's appointment and lunch. Puzzles in the evening. No television. No newspapers. No electronics.
The techniques worked a little. He's relaxed more since he started them, but they haven't fixed everything. I don't think anything ever will and I'm willing to accept that. I'm not going to lose him just because I'm unable to cope with him trying to cope with what he's experienced. That's not a thought that I can comprehend.
A knock at the door caused both of us to jump. Cory looked at me, his eyes wide and alert. I looked at him for a moment before I pushed off the wall and walked to the door. When I opened it, I was met by a man that I didn't know. He wasn't much younger than Cory, probably about nineteen or twenty with golden colored hair. His face broke out into a boyish grin whenever he saw me.
"Hey, Cory around?" he asked, his hands in his jean pockets. I arched an eyebrow and tightened my grip on the doorknob.
"Who are you?" I asked cautiously. He stuck out his hand for me to shake.
"Johnathan Williams," he replied, that grin still on his face. I eyed him, looking for some clue to tell me more than just that. "I was his tent mate."
"Cory's tent mate," I repeated. None of this meant anything to me. I had no idea who Cory's tent mates were, he always called them by their nicknames whenever he spoke of them before he came home. The only one he called by name was James, but that was because they had gone to school together.
"Right," Johnathan said, nodding. He slowly dropped his hand. He tilted his head to the side. "You alright?" I blinked, realizing that I had been staring at him.
"Yeah, I'm fine," I said, straightening up. "Wait here a minute." I turned and went into the house, jumping whenever I turned the corner to the living room and Cory was standing there. "Someone named Johnathan is here to see you." Cory was frowning, staring at the door. "Cory." He looked down at me and nodded.
"We'll be on the porch," he murmured softly. He squeezed my arm and I watched as he walked towards the door and stepped outside, leaving me alone and with no explanation.
I stood there for several minutes, waiting to see if he was going to cut the conversation short like he did so often, but, to my surprise, he didn't. Five minutes passed, then ten, and when it was going on to fifteen minutes, I realized that he was actually holding a conversation with a fellow soldier on his own terms. I smiled softly before I turned and went into the kitchen to start cooking something to eat for Cory and I, and, hopefully, for Johnathan Williams
I was rummaging in the fridge for drinks whenever I heard the door open. I straightened up, holding a half full cartoon of orange juice in my hand and watched as Cory walked into the kitchen, alone, and went over to where the sausage was frying in the pan. Slowly, I closed the fridge door and watched him as he used the spatula to move the sausage around in the pan.
"Well?" I asked softly. He glanced up at me and then turned his attention back to the sausage.
"Well what?" he replied. I sat the orange juice on the table and went over to stand next to him.
"Where did he go? What did he say?" I asked. He flipped the sausage over one by one before he answered me.
"He had to catch a flight," he said softly. I looked at him, waiting to see if he was going to elaborate. When he did, my heart jumped for joy. He actually made an effort to talk to the boy. "He had to get home before he shipped out next week. He just wanted to invite us in person to his wedding." I arched an eyebrow.
"His wedding?" I repeated. He nodded and turned off the stove, reaching over my head to get a plate out of the cupboard before he put the sausage on it. "What did you say?" He shrugged and turned towards the table.
"I said we'd go," he said, returning to where I was standing to get the glasses out of the cupboard. I looked up at him, studying him to see if there was something that I was missing. He took the glasses over to the table and sat down, but I didn't move.
"You said we'd go?" I asked. He nodded, taking a pancake off the stack and slathering it in butter. I wrapped my arms around my stomach. "Are you sure that's a good idea?" He had been reaching for a piece of sausage and his hand stopped in midair. I watched as it shook from the effort it had taken to have that conversation with Johnathan. He withdrew his hand, clenching it into a fist on the table before he turned in his chair to look at me.
"Was it a good idea for Juliet to fake her death so she could be with Romeo?" he asked. I frowned. "She wanted to do what she had to in order to be with him. If I want to move forward with my life, I'm going to have to do things that I don't want to do. At least, that's what the doctors keep telling me." I nodded and went over and crawled onto his lap.
"We can make plans to go," I said softly, resting my head against his, "but we won't promise anything until we are ready to walk into that wedding, deal?"
"Deal," he whispered.
Five Months to Go
When Cory came home from the war, we didn't have the sort of homecoming that they show on television. I picked him up from the airport and watched his hands shake the entire way to the recovery center outside of Houston. He stared straight ahead the entire way, only speaking when I asked him if he wanted me to get some food before we went in. His answer was no.
Leaving him there, after just getting him back, had been one of the hardest things that I had had to do. It felt even worse than whenever I had said goodbye to him before he left for that desert for the first time four years previously. Did it help him? I'm sure it did, in some way, but most of his recovery depended on him, on him trying to get better, on him try to get a handle on his life. His hands still shook when he was nervous or stressed. He jumped whenever the garbage truck crusher banged. Crowds still made him nervous. But, he was trying and that was all I could have ever asked of him.
A month after his visit from Johnathan, Cory put his yoga mat in the closet and dusted off his weights in the basement. He put the puzzles up and brought out his old high school literature books. The art stayed. I would have definitely been concerned if the art had gone away with the yoga and the puzzles. He still kept the same morning routine. He still woke up screaming from the horrors that haunted him in his dreams. I would sit with him, listening to him gasp for breath. He would tell me that everything was okay, even though I knew better. He'd pull me to his side and I would pretend to sleep, even though I couldn't because I knew that he was still awake, the horrors playing over and over in his mind.
I sat next to Cory on the swing that he had installed on the front porch. He had changed so much in a month, but so much still remained the same. He was putting on a brave face, but I wasn't certain that he had changed as much as he showed. I felt as though he was just trying to prove to me that he was improving, that he was capable of accomplishing this.
Although I had no doubt that he was able to accomplish it, I didn't know if he could accomplish it in a matter of six months. Getting over the trauma that he had witnessed was hard to do. It took time. It took work. And it took a heck of a lot of patience on everyone's part. Cory was capable of triumphing his fear and learning how to manage it, but I thought he was going to just end up pushing himself too far, that he was going to try and make it work when it was actually broken. If he pushed himself too far, he would break and he would be back to square one. That was something that I did not want to see him doing. I wouldn't be able to bear seeing him ruin everything that he had worked so hard to accomplish.
The problem was, I didn't know how to approach the subject with him. I didn't want to upset him or to make him feel incapable. But, I didn't want to see him get discouraged weeks before the wedding when he wasn't getting the results that he wanted or when his therapist told him that maybe it wasn't quite time for him to try and conquer something like that. He was still in the baby step stage. What he was trying to do was take long strides, strides that he wasn't ready to take. I needed to help him, I needed to tell him to slow down and take the time that he needed, but I knew that he wasn't going to listen to me. Even before he had left for his tour, he had never listened to me when I tried to give him advice. He was too stubborn for his own good sometimes.
"Cory," I said softly, watching as the kids across the road darted around the yard. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cory turn in my direction. "I want to ask you something and you have to promise not to get upset or angry, okay?" I turned now to face him. He frowned.
"You aren't breaking up with me, are you?" he asked with evident concern on his face. I shook my head.
"No, of course not," I said. "I just want you to answer me without your emotions controlling what comes out of your mouth." He nodded slowly, his eyes darting about as he tried to look for a clue as to what I was going to ask him.
"Okay," he whispered. I took his hand in mine and folded my legs underneath me.
"Do you think that you're doing the right thing?" I asked. He tilted his head to the side. The concern that had been on his face had disappeared to that of confusion. "I mean, do you think that you might be pushing yourself too hard? That maybe this isn't such a good idea?"
He looked away. "Do you remember what I told you the first time you asked me that?"
"Yes, I do. Vividly, in fact, but we aren't Romeo and Juliet. We're Cory and Emily," I told him. "We live completely different lives which is why I'm concerned."
"You shouldn't be."
"But I am."
He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. I watched him silently, knowing that I couldn't push him anymore. I was at his mercy, left hanging as I waited for him to answer me or to say something, anything. The kids across the road were laughing, calling out to each other, but we were silent, neither of us saying a word for several minutes.
"I need to do this, Emily," he said finally and so softly that I almost missed it. "I need to prove to myself that I'm not broken, that I can move on with my life. Sitting around the house, jumping at every little noise isn't the life that I want to live. I want to have a job. I want to have a family. I want a chance at normalcy and this is the first step towards me achieving that."
"I want all of those things for you, too, Cory, but I also think that you need to take your time in achieving all of that. It's a lot. You can't . . . You can't force yourself to be someone that you're not because you'll end up breaking. You need to take your time and eventually you can accomplish all of those things, but it's going to take—"
"Patience, yes, I'm aware of that. Everyone keeps telling me that it will take time and it will take patience and it will take hard work and a good attitude and a lot of other crap, but I know my body and I know my mind," he said, turning to look at me. "I know how much I can handle." I sighed and looked down at our entwined hands.
"I don't want to lose you again, Cory," I whispered. He was silent for a moment before he spoke.
"I'm still here, aren't I?" he asked.
"Yes," I replied, and, mentally, added but for how much longer?
Four Months to Go
Cory was outside on the phone with his therapist. The previous night had been a bad night, full of ghosts and horrors haunting him all night and all morning. He had been panicking, not listening to me, as he shook with the sweat pouring off of him. Even with his eyes open, the demons had remained, filling his reality with memories and pictures from the past. He wouldn't, or, rather, couldn't listen to me or his mom when she came. It had taken both of us and a handful of pills to get him calmed down to the point where he was able to go out back and call his therapist.
"I was afraid that something like this would happen," I said to Darlene as we stood in the kitchen fixing something to eat for lunch.
"It's just a minor setback," she murmured as she diced carrots. "He'll be okay."
"Will he?" I asked softly. Her knife paused in mid dice before she continued.
"Yes," she said firmly.
I walked out onto the back porch and stood there, watching the sun set. Cory had been sitting in the same wicker chair since he ate lunch. His phone lay on his lap and a glass of untouched tea sat on the table next to him. I wrapped my arms around my stomach and sat down on the footrest in front of him, looking up at him. He avoided my gaze, staring at the lake as the geese splashed in the water.
"Tell me how to make it better," I said softly. He shook his head.
"You can't," he replied. I sighed and stared down at his feet.
That was the worst part. Sitting back and watching someone you love go through so much pain and not being able to help them. Just because Cory was technically home did not mean that he was actually home. A part of him would never be able to come home. Ever. A part of him would always be over there, no matter when the war ended. He was never going to be the same person.
You always think that you can handle it, that you are prepared to stay with them no matter what happened. I wasn't about to leave Cory, but I hadn't been prepared. I had thought that I would have been able to cope a lot easier than I was, that I would have been able to give him whatever help he needed, but that was proving not to be the case. I didn't know what to do for him other than to tell him that I was there. That he could rely on me.
Did it help him? I had no idea. Probably in some way it did, but overall there really was little I could do for him. We both knew that. Cory had tried to push me, and everyone else, away at first, but after that sent him into a downward spiral, he pulled us all back. Me, his parents, his sister, his grandma, and anyone else he felt like he needed. There was little that any of us could do for him, but he needed us for the little that we could give him.
"Are you going to drink that tea?" I asked softly and looked up at him. He finally tore his eyes from the lake and looked at me with a confused expression. "It's perfectly good tea and I'd hate to see it go to waste." The confusion disappeared and a whisper of a smile appeared on his face. I'd take it. "I worked really hard on it."
"Mom made it," he replied. I nodded, sitting up straight.
"I know, but I was the one who stirred it. That's the most important part, you know," I told him. He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair.
"I suppose," he said. I smiled softly, taking his hands in mine.
"It really is," I replied, lacing my fingers through his. "If you stir it too much, then it doesn't taste right, but if you stir it too little, all of the ingredients just sink to the bottom."
"They do anyway."
"I know, but for those first few glasses," I said, fiddling with his fingers, "it's just right." I looked up at him again. "Then again, since that tea's been sitting out here all day it probably doesn't taste just right anymore." He rolled his eyes. The weight that had fallen onto my heart began to lift. He was coming back. "I guess we'll just have to start from new and you'll have to make a new batch, teach me how to do it correctly."
He gave me a look. "I thought you were the queen of tea."
I shrugged. "I never said that." He arched an eyebrow. "What?"
"Five years ago, when we met, you claimed that you made the best tea in all of the county," he replied. He rubbed his chin, his habit whenever he was thinking. "What was it that you said? Was it something like being the princess of tea? No, that wasn't it." He snapped his fingers. "You said you were the queen of tea." I laughed and shook my head.
"I was just trying to impress you."
"No kidding," he replied, giving my hand a squeeze.
"My tea is awful."
"No kidding." I smacked his leg lightly.
"Thanks a lot!"
"I told you that I would never lie to you," he said as he freed his hand and picked up the glass of tea before standing up. He held out his hand and pulled me to my feet. I took the glass from him and studied the particles that had settled in the bottom of the glass. "Today ended a lot better than it started."
"Yeah," I murmured, swirling the glass around, "it ended a heck of a lot better."
Three Months to Go
I was downstairs doing laundry when Cory walked down with a photo in his hand. He held it, looking at it while I transferred clothes from the washer to the dryer. If he wanted to share something, it was best to let him do it in his own time. When I had gotten all of the clothes into the dryer, I turned it on and then leaned against the washer, waiting.
"We were on a three day leave," he said finally, "in some city, I don't remember what one now, and I had decided to take my camera. You know, since we were on leave and there was bound to be something funny happen." He glanced up at me. I nodded slowly and he looked back down at the photo in his hand. "There were a lot of funny things that happened, but the thing that I remember most from that day wasn't anything funny. I mean, I guess it could have been viewed as funny to the people who lived there, but to me it was just another reminder of the brutal war that was raging on while we were there, resting or whatever we were supposed to be doing."
"Cory," I said softly. He was getting off track, something he did when he was nervous. The corner of his mouth twitched once as he fought to find the words.
"It . . . It was a perfect day, about ninety degrees, sunny. It felt amazing after being in temperatures over one hundred," he said as he pulled himself back onto track. "There were people out, young and old, and they were soaking wet as they ran around laughing. I was with Johnathan, actually, and we went to investigate what was happening. Needless to say we didn't expect to find this." He handed the picture over to me and leaned against the washer next to me.
This was the first time that he had ever offered me something visual from his time in the dessert. He had hundreds of pictures stored away in shoe boxes upstairs, but he had never shared them with me. I took the picture from him and studied it carefully. Water was gushing out of the side of a building, but no one looked to be concerned. It was just the opposite. They were laughing and playing in the water, some of them were even just wearing socks. They looked so carefree and I saw what Cory meant about it being another reminder of what the war did. Those people were appreciating the water that was gushing out of a building that had probably been neglected thanks to the war.
I handed the picture over to Cory and looked up at him. "That's a bittersweet image." He nodded, looking down at the picture.
"That's why I took it," he murmured. "I've looked at this photo so many times over the past year or so and every time I'm just fascinated with it."
"I can see why," I replied. He was silent and I took the time to look him over and to appreciate that he was home in one piece, physically, and that he was coming home in one piece mentally. He was still that ornery kid from high school. The only difference was the scars on his face, the paint stains on his hands, and the empty look in his eyes.
"This picture," he said softly, "is one way of me showing that I am going to be okay to go to that wedding in three months, Emily. I'm going to do it, one way or another."
"I believe that you can," I replied. "I'm still worried about you pushing yourself too much, but I do believe that you can do it and I'm here to help when I can." He smiled slightly.
"So you keep telling me."
Two Months to Go
Cory sat beside me, holding the paintbrush that had just been in my hand, and was fixing the tree that I had just butchered. I had only told him that he could teach me to paint because he and his therapist thought he needed to socialize more. I wasn't sure that this was what his therapist had in mind, but I wasn't about to tell him. Baby steps.
"You know," I said, "it would just be easier for me to just paint it like I did when I was a kid." He gave me a look. "What?"
"Those trees look like broccoli. They aren't realistic," he said with a scowl. I arched an eyebrow. "If I let you do that, you'll want to make the 'v' birds and then some flat house that doesn't have any character or depth at all."
"What's so wrong with that?" I asked, crossing my arms over my chest. He dipped the paintbrush into the paint and went back to the painting.
"Because it's not at all realistic," he said with a sigh. "What house doesn't have character? Or depth? What tree looks like broccoli with just leaves at the top and no branches or bark or roots? It's just wrong."
"And the birds?" I prodded. He shrugged, leaning back to inspect the painting.
"I mean, what bird looks like a 'v'?"
"Geese make a v-formation, they themselves do not look like a 'v'. They have heads and wings that are covered with feathers and feet," he replied as he picked up a different brush. "If you're going to do something, you might as well do it right."
I arched an eyebrow. "Alright, coach, then what do I do different?" I asked. I liked this Cory. He was more playful than he was three months before. He rolled his eyes at me.
"Practice," he replied. I laughed and shook my head.
"How can I do that if you keep taking over?" I questioned. He smiled sheepishly and stopped in mid stroke.
"Alright, smarty pants, you do it, then," he said, handing the small brush over to me. I gave him a satisfied look before I turned to the painting. I stared at it before I slowly turned towards him and it was my turn to smile sheepishly. He grinned back at me, satisfied, before he took my hand in his and directed me, murmuring softly what he was doing and why he was doing it.
None of it made any sense to me, but I didn't tell him that. It was nice to hear him talking so much. Baby steps were something that I could handle and I hoped that he was able to handle them as well. All of this was testing his patience, something that he had little of before he joined the military. His patience had improved, but just slightly. He still had a short fuse sometimes, but that was okay. He was working on that, too.
The wedding was really motivating him. It was something that he wanted to be at and it was a goal that he had set for himself. At first I had thought that he wasn't going to be able to do it, that he would break, but he was still pushing on. There were setbacks, but that was to be expected. He overcame those setbacks every time and his motivation never wavered because of them. I was proud of him, I truly was.
The true test to how well he was doing was going to be his sister's birthday party the month before the wedding. There wasn't just going to be family there. It was going to be her work colleagues, high school friends, and friends of the family, people that Cory hadn't been around since he came home. He had been very selective of the people that he saw and he still was. When Becca had called, he told her that he would be there. Rather, he told her that he would try it. He was just as anxious as I was to see if he was really making any progress or not.
He wasn't going to be there by himself. I was going to be there, his family was going to be there, he was going to have his normal support system, which was more than what he was going to have at the wedding. It would just be the two of us there. I had told him the previous night that if he couldn't do Becca's birthday, then the wedding was absolutely out of the question. One month was not enough time to get over the setback and push forward to overcome the hurdles that were standing in his way. He had been reluctant and stubborn, sure that he was able to do it even if there was a setback, but I got him to agree. It was for his own well-being. If he pushed himself too hard, the consequences could be dire and I didn't want to see that happen to him and I knew that he didn't want that to happen to him, either. That was probably why he had agreed. For me, he had said, he would agree. He didn't want to put me through all of this again. I would have done it all again and again if that was what it took, but I hadn't said a word. If that was what he needed to believe in order to come to terms with the fact that he may not be ready, then I was willing to accept that.
"How do you make the bark?" I asked him softly when he let go of my hand and instructed me to switch to another small brush so I could fine tune some of the smaller branches. He looked at me and then at the painting.
"We aren't there yet," he replied, watching as I gently ran the brush over the dark lines that he had already made.
"When will we be there?" I asked, biting my lip as I focused on not messing up his perfect lines.
"Patience, grasshopper," he told me softly. "You'll get there." I arched an eyebrow. "That's what my therapist always tells me."
"I bet you love that," I murmured as I dipped my brush into more paint. He shrugged.
"No, but it's what I need to hear," he replied. I nodded and we fell silent as I finished going over the remaining lines. "Perfect."
"Only because you did the hard part," I pointed out. He took the brush from me.
"Not true. It was a joint effort," he replied as he stood up. "I just fixed your mess."
"Mess?" I asked, arching an eyebrow. He grinned at me.
"It was pretty bad, Em, before I fixed it," he informed me. I put my hands on my hips.
"How dare you!" I said jokingly. "It was a one of a kind piece of art!" He snorted as he walked into the kitchen to rinse out the brushes. I stood up and followed him in.
"It was a one of a kind something, but I'm not sure that art is the word for it," he replied as he turned on the water. I leaned against the counter and folded my arms across my chest.
"Have you seen some of those paintings at art galleries?" I asked him. "I think that I could get away with calling my painting a work of art." He shook his head as he rinsed out the brushes.
"Not really. Those paintings that don't look the prettiest are planned to look specifically like that. There's a meaning behind them, they're meant to explain something. The author is trying to make a point, to let people know what was going on in his head or around him and he, or she, if you will, is trying to capture that. A lot of the paintings that are just a bunch of randomness have a story behind them. The painter is telling a story through them. You just have to know how to read it," he replied and turned off the sink. He laid the brushes out on a paper towel and turned to face me. "What would the story behind your painting be?" I looked at him and then out the window. The neighbor kids were out again.
"We both know what the story behind it would be," I told him. He followed my gaze out the window.
"You have homework for me," he replied. I looked him sharply, furrowing my brows. "You have to write out the story behind your painting. I want to read it."
I looked at him for several moments before turning my gaze back to the window. "Fine. But you have to write yours, too, since, as you said, it was a joint effort." He sighed and gave a slight nod.
"Fine," he replied softly. "I'll try."
"That's all I ever asked you to do."
One Month to Go (Becca's Party)
Cory stood in the bathroom mirror at his parent's home, fixing the sleeves on his shirt for the sixth time. I leaned against the doorframe, watching him. He was nervous. It was written all over him from his tense stance to the look in his eyes to the shaking of his hands. The party had moved from being outside and spread out to inside where it was cramped and loud and hard to avoid people. And, to top things off, there was a proper storm roaring outside, one filled with lightning and thunder and all things that set Cory on edge when he was at home with me. Add about a hundred people to the mix and he was a basket case.
"We can go home, Cory," I said softly. He shook his head and set his jaw.
"No. I'm doing this. I can do this," he said, turning away from the mirror.
"I'm just saying that maybe today isn't—," I started, but he cut me off.
"I'm doing this, Emily," he said as he put his hands on my shoulders and looked me directly in the eye. "I can do this. I just have to go out there and do it."
I looked at him before I stepped forward and wrapped my arms around him. I could feel the tension in his body, but he still put his arms around me.
"If it gets to be too much," I said, "just say the word and we'll go, okay?" I looked up at him. "Promise me that you will."
"I will," he murmured, stroking my hair lightly. I stepped back and lightly smacked his hand when he went to fix his sleeves once more.
"They're even. They look fine. Stop messing with them," I told him. He gave me a sheepish look before nodding and gesturing for me to step out of the bathroom.
He followed me down the hallway and into the living room, where most of the crowd was gathered. He put his hand on the small of my back and gently urged me forward, leading me in the direction of his father, David, who stood talking to Frank, the old man who lived down the road and David's golf partner.
David smiled when he saw his son and clapped him on the shoulder like he hadn't seen him for weeks even though it had just been a matter of days. I smiled softly at David and then turned to Frank and asked him to go with me to get something to drink. If Cory wanted to do this, I knew he had to do it on his own. I couldn't be lurking around.
Frank offered his arm to me. I laughed and curtsied to him before accepting his arm and allowing him to lead me to the kitchen. I glanced over my shoulder to see David introducing Cory to one of Becca's coworkers. He was still tense, but he was working through it.
"He'll be okay," Frank whispered in my ear. "Give him some space, let him figure it out on his own." I smiled at him and nodded.
"I know," I murmured as we reached the drink table. "I just want to help him and I hate that I can't." Frank took two punch cups and dipped the ladle into the bowl.
"I know," he replied. "When my son came back, I was the same way, but sometimes they need to sort things out on their own before they can come to us. They can't ask for help until they figure out just what kind of help they need and that takes time and patience on everyone's part." I nodded and took one of the cups from him.
"I know," I answered, watching as Becca laughed at something her best friend had said. "He wants to go to this wedding next month and I'm terrified that it will just be a setback for him, that he'll go and he'll realize that he wasn't ready to do it yet."
"He's here, so that's a start," Frank replied. I could feel him watching me. I nodded and took a sip of the punch.
"I know, but he knows almost everyone here," I told him, turning to look at him. "And, everyone here hasn't served in the military. I'm scared that he's going to meet some of his buddies and he'll go backwards instead of forward."
Frank was silent for a moment before he responded. "Look, Emily, sometimes that's what it takes. For every step forward, sometimes we really do have to take two steps backwards until we can get to where we want to be. If the wedding doesn't go as planned, then it'll give Cory something to work towards, it'll give him motivation to try and figure out how to make everything go as planned, well, as much as you possibly can. I don't want you to get discouraged or worry too much about Cory. It's not good for either of you."
I sighed and leaned against the counter. "I know, but it's hard to sometimes."
He patted my shoulder lightly. "You don't have to tell me that. I know all too well just how hard it is."
"When's he coming home again?" I asked softly. He shrugged.
"He said he may be home for Christmas. It just depends on how things go," he replied. "He said he may have to stay over there, though. He didn't really know for sure."
"Shocking," I said sarcastically. He chuckled.
"Yeah," he replied, "but it's what he wants to do. I think being over there again helps him deal in some odd way. He seems better, not depressed all the time. Really I think he just felt guilty that he got to come home and he still had friends over there." I nodded, watching as Cory walked up to his sister and gave her a hug.
"Do you think that might be part of what's going on with Cory? That he feels guilty for leaving his friends behind?" I asked, looking at Frank. He was watching Cory closely.
"Maybe," he replied, "but you won't know unless he tells you and to do that he'll have to figure it out himself." I sighed and looked back towards Cory.
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
Cory did well that night. He made it until almost all of the guests had left. After the thunder and lightning had gone and the few remaining guests chatted with his parents, Cory and I sat on the back porch swing, watching as the rain fell. He was less tense than he had been when we had first arrived, but I could tell that he was still on edge. And exhausted. He looked like he had ran a marathon rather than having just made small talk all night. But, for him, small talk was just as tough as running a marathon anymore.
He ran a hand through his hair and looked at me. I drew my knees up to my chest and rested my chin on top of them, looking back at him. I wanted to know what he had seen over there, I wanted him to tell me so I could try and understand. All I knew about the war was what had been on television and what he had told me the first few weeks of his tour. I knew that part of the reason he didn't tell me was because he himself did not want to face it, but I also knew that he didn't tell me anything because he thought he needed to protect me from the horrors.
The horrors, no matter what they were, could not have possibly been worse than watching him fight his demons silently and, essentially, on his own. I wanted to know. I wanted to help, but I wasn't going to push him. I wasn't going to be the person that sent him over the edge.
"Tonight went well, wouldn't you say?" he asked softly. I smiled at him.
"Yeah, it was a good night," I replied. He looked back towards the yard as the rain lessened to a mist.
"I was surprised at how well it went," he told me. "I surprised myself."
"You surprised a lot of people," I replied. "Your mother told me that she didn't think that you'd have even lasted an hour."
"They sure have a lot of confidence in me, don't they?" he said with a joking tone to his voice. I moved to rest my head against his shoulder.
"They do, but I think your mom was just expecting you to take baby steps and not to spend five hours making small talk after not seeing most of those people for over a year," I told him. He sighed and put his arm across the back of the swing.
"I think I'm too exhausted to have nightmares tonight," he said. "Maybe I should try this more often." I looked up at him.
"Maybe you should."
If only Cory had been right. He woke up in the middle of the night, screaming and drenched in sweat. When I tried to calm him down, he acted like I wasn't even in the room as he yammered about things that didn't make any sense. I kept trying to get his attention, but he either wouldn't listen to me or he couldn't listen to me.
He threw back the covers and started pacing, muttering to himself. I sat there, staring at him. I had no idea what to do. He had never had nightmares that bad. One thing I couldn't do was yell at him or do anything drastic to pull him out of it. That would only make the situation worse and would unleash a new nightmare on him.
He stopped in mid step and looked at me sharply. I remained where I was, looking back at him and willing for him to pull himself out of his dream. If he didn't have control over what he was doing, it was hard to tell what he was capable of doing. I had been warned of that when he had first come home. He could be extremely dangerous in a situation like that.
"Cory," I whispered, my eyes still locked on his. He stared at me, his fists clenched at his sides. The look in his eyes terrified me. It was one of pure hatred, one that I had never wanted to see on his face. "Cory, it's me, Emily." He looked at me for a moment longer before he turned and resumed his pacing and muttering. My heart was racing in my chest.
Slowly, I threw the covers off of me and stood up. Cory glanced at me but otherwise ignored me as I moved slowly towards the foot of the bed and closer to him. I didn't know what to do. I was afraid to touch him in case that he turned on me.
"Cory," I said softly again. He stopped pacing, his back to me. "Cory, it's just a nightmare." His hands were clenched by his sides still. "Cory, it's not real." When he turned to look at me, the look of hatred had disappeared and was replaced by a look of fear. I was relieved and crushed at the same time. He was out of the nightmare, but that didn't mean he was okay.
"What am I going to do?" he whispered, sinking to his knees. I moved to kneel in front of him and wrapped my arms around him. He leaned against me, shaking from the fear that was coursing through his body.
"You find a way to take a step forward," I whispered, holding him tightly.
"What if I can't?" he asked. "What if I can't change and I'm stuck like this forever?"
"We'll deal with it, then," I told him. He looked at me. "We'll find a way to make it tolerable." He looked away, closing his eyes.
"I don't know if I can do tolerable."
"You have to."
Two Weeks to Go
I sat on the couch, watching Cory closely as he sorted through his paintings that had been leaning against the wall. His nightmares hadn't been as bad as that night, but they were happening more and more frequently. I didn't think that it had anything to do with his sister's birthday. I thought it had to do with the fact that it was the anniversary of his homecoming. He was more agitated that day, moving from room to room and organizing things that didn't need to be organized.
Cory pulled a painting out of the stack and put it carefully on top of the keep pile. He told me that the other pile he wanted to take to the rehab center he had stayed in. I took a sip of my coffee and continued to watch him. He had put on his dog tags that morning and they jingled as he moved around. He wore his green Army shirt, one that he had told me he wanted to burn, but had kept anyways. He was just missing the buzz cut, pants, and boots.
He stood up and rubbed his chin as he stared at the paintings. "Where's that apple painting?" I looked at him blankly. He turned and looked at me. "The apple, the first thing I ever painted. Where is it?"
"It should be there," I told him as I put my mug down. "I didn't touch any of them." He frowned and turned towards the paintings.
"I don't see it," he said, flipping through the paintings that were on the wall. I stood up and went over to him, carefully going through the piles on the floor.
"It's not in these piles," I told him. He rubbed his chin again.
"I didn't move it, so it has to be here," he replied, crouching down next to me and going through the piles himself and came up empty. "What the heck?"
"Maybe you accidentally did move it," I told him. "It was one of the smaller paintings, wasn't it?" He shook his head.
"It was full sized. I—," he was cut off by the shrill of the phone. "I'll get it." I watched as he crossed the room and picked up the cordless phone.
His posture grew tense as he listened to the person on the other person, saying little as they spoke. I stood up and crossed the room cautiously, listening to Cory as he spoke to the other person. I put my hand on his arm and looked at him questioningly. He shook his head and turned away from me, talking in the formal, businesslike voice that he always spoke in when he called me while serving overseas.
When he hung up the phone, he brushed past me and went to our bedroom, shutting the door silently behind him. I stood at the end of the hall, staring at the closed door and wondering who had been on the other end of the line.
I paced back and forth in the kitchen, debating rather or not to go and try to get him to open the door and talk to me. The caller ID on the phone had read private number, so I wasn't able to look on there to see who it had been. I wiped down the kitchen in an attempt to calm myself down.
Outside, it was growing dark. Cory had been in our room for over two hours. Finally, I went and knocked on the door and said his name softly. The room was silent. I tried again and when he didn't answer, I turned the handle to the door, surprised that it was unlocked, and slowly opened the door. Cory was sprawled out on the bed, his bottle of sleeping pills on the nightstand next to him, but he wasn't asleep. He was staring at the wall. I leaned against the door frame and silently watched him.
He turned his head towards me to acknowledge that he knew that I was there before he looked away, resting his head on his arms so he was staring at the wall that was behind our bed. I walked into the room and knelt down on the floor beside him, looking at him and waiting.
"He's dead," he said so softly that I almost missed it. I blinked and stared at him, trying to figure out who he was talking about.
"Who is?" I asked just as softly.
"Johnathan," he replied, looking at me. "He stepped on an IED and now he's dead." I swallowed the lump that was forming in my throat and rested my head against his shoulder.
"Oh, Cory," I whispered. He was silent for a few moments as he pulled himself together.
"He was going to be home in less than a week," he said softly. "Less than a week, that's less than seven days, less than one hundred and sixty-eight hours. He was getting married in less than two weeks and now . . . now he's not. Now he's not coming home, he's not getting married, he won't get to see his fiancé, family, friends, no one ever again." He sat up and shook his head in disbelief. I watched him carefully. "This is was war does. It doesn't bring any honor to anyone, like they say. All it brings is pain and suffering and it takes good people away from the people they love."
I rested my head against the bed, not speaking. "Even if you do make it home, the question is what kind of person you'll be." He looked at me. "What kind of person would I have been if I'd never gone? What if something had happened to me like it did to Johnathan? All I did was take some shrapnel when people have lost limbs and their lives."
"You can't think like that, Cory," I said softly. "If you start talking in terms of what if's, you'll go crazy because you could never possibly know. The important thing is that you did go and that you made it home safely. What happened to Johnathan is an awful thing, but it was not your fault. There was nothing you could have done even if you had been there. You couldn't have prevented it and you cannot feel guilty for making it home safely, either. It sucks, it really does, but those of us here, back at home, we can't blame ourselves for anything that happens over there. There's nothing that we could have done and there's nothing that the men over there could have done. We have to grieve and we have to do our best not to hold onto our own guilt. It won't benefit anyone."
He closed his eyes and sighed. "They should have been more careful."
I nodded and moved so I could rest my head against his leg. "Maybe. Maybe there was a risk whatever they did. We weren't there, Cory. We won't be able to truly know what was going on. Maybe he took the risk and that risk saved the lives of the rest of the men in his unit."
"There are no heroes in war," he muttered. I stared at the wall across from us, too.
"It doesn't feel like that," I said softly, "but if his life saved the lives of dozens, maybe he did die a hero. The war itself, it doesn't produce heroes. It's the people who are willing to do whatever it takes to protect the rest of their men, to step up in such a shitty situation. Those are the heroes."
He stood up and went over to the window on the opposite side of the wall. "Say what you will, but there are no heroes in a war."
Cory spent the next few days preparing himself for a different event. He was determined now to make it to the funeral of Johnathan Williams. James, his friend from high school, was staying with us until it was time to go to the funeral in Tennessee. It was good that he was there because he was able to talk with Cory about things I couldn't. The two of them were able to lean on one another in a way that I couldn't.
To his credit, Cory kept himself together. He took his sleeping pills at night to ward off the nightmares that were sure to plague him. The paintings were shoved into the closet for later. He pulled out his dress uniform one day and stood staring at it with a grim expression on his face. He had only worn it twice. Once for a medal ceremony while he was still serving and once more for the Christmas ball when he had been home on leave. He took the uniform off the hanger and began to carefully pack it into the suitcase that lay open on the bed.
Four days after the phone call, the three of us left for the airport. Cory and James were silent for most of the trip to Tennessee and I didn't feel much like talking myself. Johnathan had seemed like such a sweet person in the brief time that I had known him. As Anand Gopal wrote, "There are not good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead." That was the best way that I could put it into words.
Cory and James both made it through the funeral, their faces pasted with grim expressions the entire time. It was packed with soldiers in their dress uniforms and family members in their finest clothing. Just by looking around the room, I could tell that Johnathan had truly been a special person. A person who had that many people there to say goodbye to him at such a young age had to be a special person.
I leaned against Cory as we stood in the graveyard, watching the burial from several feet away. He, James, and Nathan, another one of their former tent mates, had decided not to go forward. Nathan was dealing with his own PTSD and it had nearly taken everything that he had to make it through the funeral.
"He was obviously well loved," I murmured, watching the crowd of people.
"I'm going back," James said softly, causing all of us to look at him.
"You're crazy," Cory said suddenly. "We promised that we would stick together." James stared down at the ground. "We said—"
"I know what we said, Core," he replied as he shoved his hands into his pockets. "It was my idea, remember, but it was you who said that we shouldn't reup."
"Because it's suicide," Cory told him. He shook his head and turned away. "Just look at what happened to Johnathan."
"That's why I need to go back."
"Haven't you done enough already?" Nathan asked, staring at James like he was crazy. "We did our part, we served our country and now it's time for us to try and serve it here, in a different way."
"We can't," James snapped. He looked at Nathan and Cory, his brows furrowed. "How could it possibly be okay for us to stand back after what happened to Johnathan? We can't let them get away with it."
"And I can't go back," Cory said coolly as he spun around to face his friend. "I'm just now starting to get back on my feet. I can't go back there. I won't go back there."
"I'm not asking you to."
"You are by suggesting it," Nathan said softly. "We made a pact, James. We promised that we wouldn't let one man go on his own."
James sighed and turned away, facing the funeral again. "I know what we said, but I can't sit back and watch this happen to people, to good people."
"And we can't break the pact, James. You stick with your men, remember?" Cory asked coldly. "How do you expect us to be okay with you going on your own and the two of us staying behind?" James shook his head and didn't answer. "You're just being irrational, reacting to the situation. You can't do that, James. It doesn't benefit anyone, okay?"
"I'm not being irrational, Cory. I've been thinking about it for a while now."
"James," Nathan said, staring at his friend, "what we're trying to say is that we can't afford to lose you, either. We've lost too many friends already. There's only three of us left now."
"There's no good men among the living and no bad among the dead," I whispered. They all turned to look at me. I met their gaze. "Gopal. He wrote about the Afghan war and how it affected the people who lived through it. He said that there's no good men among the living and no bad among the dead. The good men are dead and the bad are still living. Prove that quote to be false. Be the good men that are still living."
"What are you saying, Emily?" Cory asked with a sigh. I put my hands into my coat pocket and looked at him.
"Going back won't bring Johnathan back. It may cause there to be less good men who are still alive and that's not something that we can afford," I told him. "If you guys want to try and bring justice for Johnathan's death, be the good men among the living. Do what you can here, on the home front. Your contributions here are just as important as your contributions overseas, understood?" I looked at them each in turn. They didn't speak. James adverted his gaze when I looked at him. "Being rash will not do any good. You need to think all of this through."
James shook his head and kept his eyes trained on the ground. "It's all just messed up."
Six Months Later
I sat on the hard, plastic chair that belonged to the United States Military and watched as Cory talked with his former commanding officer. He had made so much progress in the months following Johnathan's funeral, almost like it had been a wakeup call for him that he was alive and he could do so much with his life. He worked even harder than before and was almost the same Cory he had been before the war, with the exception of the few nightmares that still haunted him at night.
We were visiting his former commanding officer to plan out how to start a program to help soldiers that were returning from overseas. Cory had been toying with the idea since the funeral and now he was in a good enough place to start making the arrangements to make his idea a reality. I was there because he wanted another set of ears to hear what his commanding officer had to say, but I had stopped being able to follow what they were saying about five minutes into the conversation. They had slipped into military jargon that I didn't understand, but that was fine by me. I was just happy that Cory was happy.
After Cory's conversation with his commanding officer, we walked outside. The weather was starting to turn warm and nice. The wind was gusty, but that was okay. The temperature was a comfortable sixty degrees, the sky was blue, and it was perfect.
"I have to call James and Nathan when we get home," Cory said as he sat on the back bumper of his truck. I sat down next to him. "They're going to want all of the details."
"You'll have to explain it all to me again tonight," I told him. "I didn't understand half of what you two said." He smiled and nodded.
"Maybe I'll just ask James and Nate to come over and tell all three of you at once," he replied. I smiled and looked away, watching as a trainee ran on the track.
"You could," I told him, "but you may want to explain it to me on the way home anyways, if this conversation is any proof."
"I tried," he said. I nodded.
"I know, but old habits are hard to break."
"Yeah, they are," he said softly. I squeezed his hand.
"That's not always a bad thing, though," I murmured. He looked at me and arched an eyebrow.
"You have a habit of dragging your feet about certain things," I replied.
He smiled sheepishly. "I told you I would do it soon."
"There's only a month left, Cory," I told him. He winked at me.
"I have it under control."
"It's a we project, Cory," I replied. "Picking out wedding rings is not a one person task."
"I take it that you made an appointment, then?"
I nodded. "Of course." He smiled and kissed me softly.
"Of course you did."