I could not help but relish in the flutter of elation that enveloped me. My moment had come. Kristian choked for the air that I was sucking from his lips. I savored the salty flavor of sweat and the iron tinge of blood as my mouth gently lingered upon his. For years I had wanted nothing more than to lead him back into my longing arms where he belongs. He had often wandered in my direction, but now I was finally his keeper.
Alone, she stood before the open casket. The black glossy finish reflected her pallid complexion. Her once bright, hopeful face was now tear stained and void of composure. I remember her rosy cheeks well, so flushed and full of life. Today, she is as white as snow.
She made every attempt to look anywhere but down. Before her lay a twenty-one year old Army soldier. His vibrant life, I had cut short by my sweetly intoxicating kiss.
Her whole body shook and I couldn’t help but cringe as the sharp knives of Grief cut so vigorously within her, ripping her insides into little pieces she would never reconstruct.
I pause to remember my calm, icy fingers desperately clinging to him.
It all starts with wasted valor. That’s something that I often have to swallow. It’s something that I can relate to. My fingers curl into tight fists when ninth-grade students read Romeo and Juliet for the first time. My eyes roll as girls swoon at the thought of a guy being so in love with her that he would die without her. What hopeless souls are lost to this fantasy?
Love. Why would you waste your life for such a pointless reason? If you want to die, why not die out of compassion for others? Why not die for a purpose?
Kristian Johnson took that to heart when he held up his right hand and swore his oath to the United States Military. Even then he knew that one of my biggest clients is War.
Now, Kristian’s Fourth Infantry division is dropping soldiers like flies. After years of war in Iraq, The President swore he’d bring all of the troops home. I guess he accidentally forgot a few. That’s why I am here to collect. Maybe I am the honey they so desperately long for after months of witnessing mindless slaughter.
I grasp each of their chapped hands as they fall victim to this hellhole. I reach out to caress their souls before their bloodied bodies smear the sunbaked sand.
I am here with them now in Taji, a city in northern Iraq. Kristian is leaning against a crumbled concrete building. Devon Jackson and James Reynolds are to his right and Ethan Daniels to his left.
Kristian’s fingers trace the tattered string of the necklace hidden beneath his ACUs. It was one of the many things she had given him over the past few years. He wasn’t sure why he had never taken it off. He knew his love for her had dwindled. It wasn’t as if he didn’t think about her often, but love wasn’t something he had ever come to terms with. The army caused him to doubt its existence. Through habit, the necklace had become one of the few objects of any importance to him.
His mind wandered.
It was the fourth of July and her heart was racing. I could count every quickened beat. It was such a strong, healthy heart. I relished in the fact that one day it would be mine for the taking.
A dark blue tank top and white shorts were all that separated her from the nights chill breeze. It was all that stood between them.
Kristian’s smiled mischievously, and it lit up the darkness surrounding the picnic tables. The day had left them at a baseball field.
I listened intently and heard his sweet, carefree voice pierce the silence.
“It’s 2am. Do you think we’ll wake anyone up?”
“Who cares?” she smirked.
I knew as he did that she was trying very hard not to sound concerned.
“As long as we don’t get arrested!”
I watched intently. He fumbled in his jean pockets, and pulled out a bright red lighter. Eagerly, he snatched up a bag of fireworks that had been slung across the picnic table.
He dumped its contents out on the wet grass and sorted through them.
“Are you ready?” I heard him say.
Kristian grabbed her hand and pulled her to him. He reached around her to grab the first firework. Lightly, he brushed the side of her arm with his cheek. Ever so slightly his lips found her soft skin.
He held the firecracker in his worn hands.
He was much stronger and far more capable of being on his own than she was. He had an air of mystery about him, and an aura of unspoken pain. I knew his misery well.
You see it is of no use for people to try to hide from me. I watch you closely when your time is almost up. When Fate draws names, I have no choice but to obey.
The flame flickered bright and warm momentarily. The fuse caught fire and with a flick of his wrist he tossed it lightheartedly into the air. They watched it burst into reds and blues.
I remember the smell of sulfur begin to penetrate the chill night breeze. Is it not ironic that that smell seems to haunt me? It has so often foreshadowed my unsavory arrival in many unfortunate circumstances.
He set off each firework in succession, and every brush of his cheek moved closer to hers. He stared cautiously into her eyes and they met in a fumbled kiss.
I could feel the nervous tension building within the air. The fireworks weren’t the only devices that were to be lit with the intent of exploding into chaos.
I watched and reminisced. I have known Kristian for a very long time. We met years before, when he was just a small child. I was drawn to his immortal charm. Even then, it was so elusive and tempting.
One morning, I lost all judgment. I wrapped my arms around the boy in a comfortable embrace. Needless to say, I was forced to relinquish my hold. I returned his sweet breath. From then on, I have haunted him. Never before had I seen his hands falter, the way they did when he picked up her small frame.
Her arms were wrapped tightly around his neck. Her wet bare feet and legs entwined around his waist. He walked from the grass to the shelter and sat her on the edge of the wooden picnic table.
They talked for a time in whispers. She played with her dark hair, and her eyes gleamed. There was no mistaking she would give everything for anything. She had already given him four years. All he could give her was uncertainty.
I moved closer to them, cautiously watching at the edge of the shelter. I wondered if he could feel my presence. I saw his sunburnt body shiver the moment I approached. He pulled even closer to her. She was warmth, and she was light. In the moment, he let himself give in. I had this inexplicable urge to wrench him away.
He looked at her with his misty, grey eyes. They were deep and as impenetrable as the fog. I wondered if he knew this was the last time he’d see her, the last time he’d feel her smooth skin under his worn body, the last time he’d kiss that bright red lipstick off of her lips.
She looked at him searchingly, trying to discern his thoughts. Her hands ran across his broad shoulder, up his neck, and ever so slightly traced her fingers across his cheek and lips. He knew they wanted the same thing.
He moved the box of spoons they had used for their ice cream. He gently laid her back upon the table with slow kisses and soft words. Her body trembled in his arms and her eyes were alight and nervous. He quickly slipped out of his shirt.
I turned away to face the darkness of the field. I felt the wind blow the wet droplets of water from the water sprinklers onto my visage.
That night was so alive.
It wasn’t long before such thoughts were interrupted.
“Shit! Jackson! 9o’clock!” Daniels spluttered.
Jackson and Reynolds raised their M4s and jerked to face the barren street just in time to hear Daniels let out a quick “suckaaaaa!”
“Fuck you man! You’ll get us all killed” Reynolds sneered.
I watched patiently.
Kristian rolled his eyes and let out a stifled laugh. He bit his chapped lip and stared into the distance. His eyes lingered, distracted by the child that had appeared from around the corner of a building.
The child wore a stained tan shirt and tattered light blue pants. He ran with arms outstretched and dark hair flying into his eyes. The child couldn’t have been more than six years old. His father closely followed him. His dark skin was matted with sand and his eyes were widened and blatantly cold.
The sweat dripped down Kristian’s face and his fingers tightened around his M4. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and moved cautiously away from the wall.
It is never a safe bet to guess who might or might not have a bomb strapped to their chest. In a split second you either have to shoot or meet me face to face.
Reynolds’s eyes narrowed in calculation.
Seconds later the cause of the commotion became evident.
Five Iraqi insurgents appeared, guns raised and jaws clenched. Their target was obvious.
The dust flew from the footsteps of the civilians. Daniels’s face flushed, as they grew closer. It was as if the words from moments ago had grappled their way back down his throat to choke him.
“Daniels, grab the kid! Reynolds, his dad!” Kristian raised his gun.
“Daniels!” Kristian screamed. He was frozen.
Kristian lunged forward just in time to grab the boy. He slung him into Johnson’s arms. Then the bullets hit with a deafening crack; two in his chest and one in his left leg.
The impact closest to his shoulder splattered blood up the side of his neck and cheek. He flew backwards and landed with a sickening thud on the callous ground. His head jolted sideways. The sand clung to his blood soaked skin. His Kevlar helmet obstructed his view.
The deafening ring of gunfire consumed the small street. Kristian’s clinched fingers slowly unfolded. All went silent.
In a moment of bliss I had taken her best friend, and her entire world. I had infinity frozen his intoxicating heart.
The flowers that the undertaker meticulously placed around the visitation area were the only hint of life remaining. I could not be called such. This poor girl’s life had been ripped from her. It lay before her, eyes closed and forever motionless.
The thought made her sick. She bit her lip to refrain from sobbing. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. Her trembling hands dropped the only thing she was clinging to for support.
A crinkled and tear soaked letter lay half open and misplaced on an excessively clean floor. Of course, I had been there as well. I watched her painstakingly write it months before.
She sat with notebook in hand just below the window ledge. She used to do so every night when he was in basic training. It had taken everything she had to question his loyalty and to rely her darkest thoughts.
She had wondered what had made Kristian so different from all the others. Was it because she had known him for so long? Or because of the distance between them? She could imagine him into anything she wanted him to be.
She had never held her breath long enough to drop the letter in the mail, but I knew what it said.
She glanced at the crumpled pieces of paper that had fallen at her feet and I heard her half choked whisper.
“Now I’ll never know. She closed her eyes tightly. She shifted her weight back and forth in an obvious unsteadiness. She saw only July.
Now he lies before us. He is still and unnervingly cold. He is mine, but I am not satisfied. He is no longer the warmth, the mysterious shimmer, the unspoken pain that I had wanted to hold.
I felt her grief and realized my own.
I watched her dig her fingers into the sides of the coffin as she lost all composure. There were no gut wrenching screams or shouting, but streams of tears and quiet sobs. Slowly, she reached past the velvet lining and into the black box. Her small shaking fingers touched his for the last time.
It was quiet enough in the room that I could just hear her say;
“It’s alright, because for a moment, you were mine.”
She turned and walked slowly towards the door, with tear soaked cheeks and reckless steps.
I followed her. Soon she would be with her best friend once more.
The door shut behind us, but the letter remained on the floor, a subtle imperfection.