Souvenirs, A Short Story

Souvenirs

Here’s to the twilight / Here’s to the memories
These are my souvenirs / My mental pictures of everything
Here’s to the late nights / Here’s to the firelight
These are my souvenirs / My souvenirs

~::~

A whiff of sweetness from the pine tree in her living room filled her nose as she walked past the Christmas tree. She stopped for a moment, smelling the sweet, syrupy scent. The lights sparkled around her; lights from the tree; light reflecting off the ornaments; rays from the sun shining an incandescent illumination upon the room through the drawn shades; all part of the conglomeration of lights forming a radiant brilliancy throughout the room.

Music played from a stereo on the far side of the room; “Carol of the Bells.” The music and light filled her with warmth as she observed the room around her. Packages in various states of disarray, wrapping paper torn to pieces, children squealing, giggling with delight in the playroom upstairs as they made use of the goods they had received, their grandparents laughing heartily at seeing the young children at play.

And, for the briefest of moments, it brought a smile to her face. Until tears clouded her vision again; wet globules of water streaming down her unblemished cheeks. She had turned her head to the single, non-Christmas picture hanging on the wall. Her husband, in his USMC Dress Uniform, his expression stoic; so plain just as all military pictures were. Seeing his face only brought more tears, wishing he could be with her now.

But his absence wasn’t the worst part. It was not knowing if he’d ever come home alive; not knowing if he was alive now with the delayed notifications from the chaos of war. An organized chaos, but chaos all the same. She knew his body may never make it home – one wrong step and he may become millions of unidentifiable pieces. An empty coffin with only a flag.

That was what she feared, why she cried herself to sleep every night. Are you alive tonight? was her constant query. Part of her liked to think that she would know – that they were connected by some unseen force, binding them together, letting her know when he breathed and when he didn’t – but she knew that wasn’t possible. So instead she hoped, she prayed, she cried; begging God to give him just one more day. Until the next night when she repeated the same desperate plea.

She lifted her head from her hands, unconsciously having sat on the sofa as the memory of her husband controlled her thoughts. The pine still sharp in the air. The music still playing. The lights still dazzling. Her children still shrieking. Pull yourself together. It’s Christmas for God’s sake. She grabbed a tissue. Wiped her eyes and blew her nose. She sniffled and stood up.

Her children ran down the stairs, proudly displaying their recently acquired gifts. She smiled again as they tugged and pulled on her hands and clothes. She acquiesced, allowing them to drag her into the backyard, then chasing them, tickling them – all the while letting herself become more and more involved in the game, her sorrows melting away through the joyous squealing of her children. Children too young to understand the gravity of their father’s situation.

~::~

Mike Colson, USMC, sat on his cot in Afghanistan. Memories flooded his mind. Memories of his wife, his children, his life. He could see them smiling, playing on the sands of a beach the day before he shipped off. He held a picture in his hands – a small black-and-white portrait of him and his wife taken shortly after they started dating.

“Hey, Colson, c’mon,” one of his fellow soldiers called from the entranceway to the large tent. “We’re making ornaments by the fire outside. It’s Christmas Eve, you know.”

Colson remained silent, just staring at the picture in his hands. His comrade started to leave when Colson finally spoke, his voice shaky, his eyes watering. “I can hardly even imagine her anymore; it’s been so long since I’ve seen her face.” He paused, choking back tears. “What kind of husband am I?”

“Colson, don’t do this.”

Colson looked up and into his friend’s eyes. “This is killing me, Fawley. What kind of man am I when I can’t even remember the color of my wife’s eyes? My children’s faces?”

“You can’t keep beating yourself over this. We’re in war. It’s an awful, shitty mess, but it’s war. You can’t expect to remember all that with all this shit here. Come on, you’re the only one still in here. Come sit by the fire with us; the warmth may do you some good.”

Colson nodded, wiped his eyes with his palms, and stood up, following Fawley outside the tent and to the campfire the rest of his squad had created.

Scraps of metal lay around them; shrapnel from explosions. They held pieces of the metal in their hand, forming crosses or other ornaments for the small tree they used as a Christmas Tree, using the fire, tongs and knives to bend the metal into shapes. Smiles adorned all their faces, and deep, hearty laughter could be heard from their lips. The laughter subsided as Colson approached. They welcomed him, motioning to sit, and one threw a piece of metal at him. Colson caught it and opened his hand, revealing a small, iron cross. He smiled inwardly at his comrades, a serene look on his face.

He pulled out the picture of his wife again, a slight smile on his face. “I love you,” he whispered, kissing the picture before putting it away and joining his fellow soldiers’ conversation.

~::~

“Colson,” a soldier called, tossing a package at Colson before making his way through the rest of the room, handing out various packages and letters from loved ones. It was December 28th and the first time anyone had been able to receive mail in a week.

Eager to see what his family had sent him, Colson quickly opened the package, finding a letter, various paper creations from his kids, and A Charlie Brown Christmas recordable storybook narrated by his six-year-old son; their Christmas presents to him. He read through all the letters before he leaned forward and opened the book.

.His son’s voice filled the room as the little boy read the book. His eyes watered, tears fell down his cheeks. He closed his eyes, going back in time as more memories of his past life filled his mind; souvenirs of his life at home. When the call for his squad to move out came, he slowly put down the book, gently resting it among the other contents of the package. He picked up his gear, wiped his face and eyes, kissed the picture of his wife, and followed his comrades out the tent and into the cold.

Throughout the fighting that day, throughout all the explosions, all the gunfire, the screaming, one voice and one face stayed with him: his son’s voice and his wife’s face. The voice and face he took to the grave.

~::~

It was New Year’s Eve, and Mrs. Colson was busy cleaning up the house for the small family party they were having later that night. She was walking down the stairs when she saw the two Marines in Dress Blues approaching her house. Immediately she knew what had happened. She knew her husband had been killed.

“No…” she whispered to herself, tears filling her eyes. The Marines saluted through the large glass oval in the door. “Nonono.” She stumbled backward, falling on the foot of the stairs. The tears streamed down her cheeks. She covered her face with her hands as the two Marines stepped forward, opening the unlocked door.

“Ma’am,” one of them started slowly, before telling her what had happened. “He was a hero, ma’am; if it weren’t for him the rest of his squad would have been killed. He’s been nominated for a silver star.”

When he finished recounting the details, the other said, “we found this clenched in his hand.” He handed her a small picture; the picture her husband had. She accepted it with trembling hands, holding the crumpled, worn image tightly when she received it. Her last souvenir.

~ :: ~

I close my eyes and go back in time / I can see you smiling, you’re so alive

I close my eyes and go back in time / You were wide eyed, you were wide eyed

These are my souvenirs / My souvenirs

Song: “Souvenirs” by Switchfoot

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