Sergeant Smith sat on a bench with his back to busy Eighth Avenue. Cars and pedestrians rushed by him, creating the blur of sounds typical of a large city. His camouflage uniform still harbored dust from some unnamed hill in Iraq where two Marines under his command had been killed less than forty-eight hours earlier. Beside him was the tan duffel he had tossed into the back of the Jeep that rushed him to the hospital. Buried in the duffel, but carefully protected, was a small cardboard box wrapped in pastel blue paper and tied with a ribbon. It was a gift that could sit proudly on a dresser if daddy didn’t come back. Smith had traded a longer leave for this excruciatingly short weekend of leave so he could be home when Rachel delivered their first child. He was going to have a son, and he was overjoyed. He would swear until his dying day that thinking of his son had given him that extra burst of energy that had been the difference between two Marine funerals and three.
Smith’s forehead rested in his hands and his elbows on his knees. Anyone who more than glanced at him would have seen the unmistakable heaves of his back. Only Smith could see the drops on the concrete sidewalk between his boots. Many passed Smith and thought only political thoughts. A few imagined stopping to express their gratitude, but those were only fleeting daydreams of the pontifically patriotic. Instead, they scurried onward while conjuring a multitude of excuses. A small boy wandered toward Smith, but his mother pulled him along quickly.
There were many things that went wrong. She didn’t make it. The child? His son? No. Dead before they even started.
Smith would spend the weekend saying goodbye to the wife he loved more than anything and the son that he would never know. He would board another C-130 for the return trip with a lock of her hair taped to the back of his dog tag.
He raised his head and looked at his reflection in the tinted glass window in front of him. A tired, weathered, twenty-six-year-old United States Marine stared back at him.
Finally, he stood up. He straightened his camos and slung his duffel over his shoulder. He stared into his reflection as people and cars passed and took a deep breath. He stood tall, saluted sharply, and turned away.
Mark Partin writes in Kansas.
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Camilla d’Errico: A character designer and artist who dances on the tightrope between pop surrealist art and manga inspired graphics. Explore her paintings, characters and comics: Tanpopo, BURN and Helmetgirls.