VETERANS • by Kate Thornton

He looked across the breakfast table, knowing that soon he’d have to choose his words carefully. It was the same every year. First the flags popped out along their quiet suburban street. Then the television broadcasts of news, parades, observances and picnics, special sales on sheets and shoes and gardening implements. Finally, there were human interest stories, an interview or two, and then it would all be forgotten until Memorial Day.

Twice a year he had to watch his step, watch his mouth, not say anything he knew would upset her, not let the memories of war long past come between them.

Every year the war itself receded. It was someone else’s turn now, and young kids had their own war to think about, dread, and hope to return from.

Hardly anyone thought about the Gulf War, Desert Storm, with the horrors of the Iraq War on everyone’s mind. Gulf War vets were older now, most of them staring down their forties, although so many reservists had gone that there were plenty in their fifties and even sixties now. It had been a short war, so there weren’t that many disabled, not like the masses of disabled Iraq War vets. Not like the last of the disabled Viet Nam vets, either, with their hollow eyes, at the ragged ends of their ruined lives.

He looked at her with a mixture of affection, exasperation and pride. They had been separated during that short war, and both of them had done things they regretted, things they wished they could erase from their experience. He had been lonely and scared, looking for comfort and order, and some kind of reassurance. It had been his first real experience of war, as he’d been just a kid when Viet Nam was the nightly news.

Veterans Day and Memorial Day — they always brought back all the old pain and resentment.

He cleared his throat. “Want to visit the kids this weekend?” he asked with what he hoped was the right amount of casualness.

She looked up from her paper, over her steel-rimmed reading glasses and smiled. “Sure,” she said. “Let’s see if they want to go out to dinner or something.” Then her eyes clouded as she remembered it was Veterans Day. Everything came flooding back in a wave of pain.

He watched helplessly as her memories took her back to a bad place, to a desert road backed up for miles with trucks and family cars, the blades of her chopper whipping up children’s toys and the smell of burned bodies. The blinding heat and noise passed over her face and she was gone for a few minutes.

“Yes,” he replied. “Dinner. Let’s try that new sushi place, okay?”

She nodded. Okay.

Kate Thornton is a mystery writer in Southern California. She is also a retired Army officer and a Gulf War vet.

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