Author: Teresa Mummert
"Ready, take," I called one last time as the third row of soldiers placed their hands in the handles lining the casket.
August 19, 2010, 6:00 p.m., Kissing Bridge, Maine
My stomach ached as the muscles contracted with each sob. I slipped my leg over the railing of the bridge and steadied myself before following with the other leg. I gripped the iron railing behind me as I leaned out to look down at the blue water flowing wildly beneath me.
I couldn't handle another heartbreak like I had with Thomas. I couldn't smile and pretend I was all right, not with a baby to take care of. Gasping for breath, a full-blown anxiety attack had set in and my knees shook as I begged and pleaded to no one to make it stop.
Wind whipped my hair across my face, causing it to stick to the tears that streamed down my cheeks.
"Just throw her in. She will learn to swim." My mother waved her hand dismissively as I flailed in my father's arms.
"You are embarrassing us!" He struggled to keep his grip on me as he dragged me toward the pool.
"Please don't! Please! I'm scared, Daddy!" I pleaded as I brought my foot back, hitting him in the shin.
"You little brat!" he growled between clenched teeth as my body lurched forward, suddenly free from his grip. Before I could comprehend what had happened, cold water slapped against my side. I took in a deep breath in shock, filling my lungs with the chlorinated water. The light from the sun grew farther from reach as I sank to the bottom of the pool.
August 19, 2010, 6:10 p.m.
I could faintly hear the preacher speaking over the casket as the soldiers got into position behind their weapons they had left there earlier.
"Take, arms." The six soldiers who had carried the casket flanked the guard. In unison, they reached forward and grabbed hold of their M16.
"Ready, take." They stepped back with weapons at attentions, the butt stocks in the dirt as they wait for their next command. My eyes focused on the priest, waiting for his signal. My gaze drifted to Ryan's mother sitting in the front center of the other guests. Her head hung in her hands, her blonde hair covering her face. Another woman rubbed over her back as she brushed back her own tears. Everyone's eyes focused on the flag before them except a young boy who kicked at the dirt below his shoes and turned to face away from the casket.
"Let him be, Joe," Janet whispered to her husband as she ran her hand over her son Jake's head. I wandered farther from the gravesite, staring off into the tree line at the edge of the cemetery. I thought of running off into the woods. I could build a tree house and live by himself so I wouldn't have to be asked if I was all right anymore. I wasn't. My heart was broken and the one person I thought I could count on for the rest of my life was ripped away from me without so much as a good-bye. I slowly inched further away from the group before a hand landed on my shoulder.
"Shane, I'll go with you." Jake looked down at his cousin and smiled.
The priest nodded to me, pulling me from my painful memory and back into my painful present.
"Port, arms." The soldiers picked up their weapons and held them across their chests.
"Ready." Everyone charged their weapons at the same time putting a round in chamber.
"Aim." They stepped back with their right foot and aimed their weapons over the casket.
"Fire." As the sound of the guns firing filled my ears, I was immediately back in Iraq.
"Owens! Owens!" My voice broke as I screamed louder, my body immediately hitting the ground. The shots rang out around us from both sides.
The soldiers stepped back into position with their guns held across their chests.
"Ready." The guns loudly clicked the next round into the chamber as the crowd of onlookers watched silently.
"Aim." I took another deep breath, preparing for the onslaught of memories to rush through my mind again.
"He's not breathing! Owens wake up!" I grabbed Ryan by the vest and pulled him along the dusty path out of harm's way as my muscles burned and ached.
"Taps" filled my ears, the song of a lost soldier. I was thankful that the music was a distraction from my memories. I needed to keep it together long enough for the folding of the flag.
August 19, 2010, 6:15 p.m.
I stepped forward onto the ledge below the railing and sunk down until I was sitting with my knees against my chest. I wrapped my arms around myself as I tried desperately to push my fears aside.
I believed Shane when he told me he loved me. That made everything so much harder. From all of my sadness and heartache, I had met this stranger who took the time to make me feel cared for and now that was crumbling around me.
Chelsea was just another Gail, another person who only thought of themselves and was completely oblivious to the lives they shattered around them. But I couldn't compare Thomas and Shane. They were polar opposites. Thomas had always said the things he thought I wanted to hear, but Shane showed me his love. That made this entire situation that much more heartbreaking. I wanted to run and retreat within myself like I always had when someone hurt me, but this time it was different. I wanted the pain to stop, but I wanted Shane more. I wanted to fight for the man who saw something in me when I felt like nothing.
Knowing Shane was in America right now and I couldn't run to him was killing me. I knew he was hurting and I was who he wanted to take away all of his fears, not her. It was never her, no matter what she says to me. The brief time we had together played over in my head like a broken record. He was hurt, damaged, when I met him, and she was the cause of his pain.
Trust was all we had in this type of relationship, but it was hard to trust someone who kept themselves so guarded.
August 19, 2010, 6:26 p
I stood at the head of the flag-draped coffin as the three soldiers on either side waited for their commands from Sgt. Gallery. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the three shell casings, squeezing them and letting them dig into the flesh of my palm.
"Ready, down," Sgt. Gallery said as all the men made eye contact and bent down to grip the edge of the flag. "Ready, step." They stood and pulled the flag tight, stretching it flat above the casket. "Ready, fold." Their hands met over the casket. My eyes went unfocused in the blistering heat of the sun. I wanted more than anything to be in North Carolina. I needed to hear Jenn's laugh and believe everything was right with the world.
I wondered what it would be like for her to have to sit alongside my casket. I wasn't sure I would be able to keep my promise to come home to her. Now, nothing seemed possible and the idea of her having to bury me was excruciating. Chelsea wasn't weak for leaving me. It was self-preservation and no matter how much I hated what she did, she did the right thing to protect herself.
Gallery tucked the last sliver of flag into the triangle. He cradled it against his chest in his arms, pointing up as he made a half-right face. I followed suit making a half-left face so we were facing each other. As I watched the flag lower in his hands, I realized that the hardest part had yet to come. I would have to look Owens's mother in the eye and not break down. I inspected the perfect corner of the flag and slipped one of the shell casings inside the fabric. Gallery turned the flag in his hands, and I repeat the process on the remaining corners, while my mind raced as I struggled to remember the words I had to say. As Gallery raised the flag to his chest, I saluted it saying good-bye to my friend. We both lowered our arms, and I took possession of the flag, the memory of my battle buddy. My heart was thudding in my chest as I approached Ryan's mother. I only wanted to tell her how sorry I was, how it should have been me. I kneeled down before her as the tears poured from her sad gray eyes.
"This flag is presented on behalf of a grateful nation and the United States Army as a token of appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."
August 19, 2010, 7:02 p.m.
My phone vibrated in my pocket and I tried to ignore it, tried to ignore the world around me as I struggled to clear my thoughts. As I pulled it out and glanced down at the screen, a sad smile spread across my face. It was a Texas number and even though Shane couldn't be with me, he was still there for me when I needed him.
"Hello?" I answered as I sniffled.
"I love you," he sighed into the receiver.
"I need you right now."
"I need you too, sunshine." I could hear the pain in his voice and I knew whatever was worrying me was nothing compared to what Shane was going through.
"Why do you call me that?" I asked for what felt like the millionth time.
"You were the light when my entire world was dark. You gave me a reason to keep going when all I wanted to do was give up."
"I love you so much, Shane." I rubbed over my stomach as I looked out over the dark, murky water below.
"It will get easier. I know it doesn't seem that way, but it will."
I nodded to myself.
"How was the funeral?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"I'm here for you, Shane. You don't have to do this alone."
August 23, 2010, 2:00 a.m.
"Hey…" Jenn yawned as she answered the phone.
"Did I wake you?" I tapped my fingers on the phone. I haven't been able to sleep since I left Texas.
"Yeah, but it's okay. I am hungry anyway."
I laughed as I tried to picture her with her round belly. She had sent my pictures through e-mail, but none of it seemed real. With the lack of sleep, I was starting to wonder if Jenn was just a figment of my imagination. She was too good to be true, so much more than I deserved.
"I can't believe they even sent you back just to turn around and leave again."
I hung my head. I made sure I got sent back. I didn't want to fall of the horse and let the fear set in. I needed to come back and see this deployment through. I owed it to everyone here. Jenn wouldn't understand that.
"It's only a few more days," she said, and I could tell she was smiling. I hated that I was scared to leave. I was scared to face the real world again. I didn't want to screw things up with Jenn, but I wasn't sure I could be the person she needed me to be.
"Have you been taking your vitamins?"
"Of course. May has been practically shoving them down my throat per your orders."
I smiled. I knew Jenn hated to swallow the horse-sized pills, but it was what was best for her and our baby.
"Good. I want our boy to be strong and healthy."
"Our boy needs a name." I could hear her rummaging through the cupboards to find something to eat.
"One step at a time." I ran my hand over my forehead. A name would make all of this too real. What if something happened? What if we lost him?
"Shane, he is going to be here in a few months. It would be nice to be able to get him some personalized things."
"We will. I'll let you get back to sleep. You need your rest."
"I love you, Shane."
"I love you too, sunshine."
August 23, 2010, 2:24 a.m.
There was no way I was going to be able to fall back asleep after talking to Shane. I wished I could make him feel better and focus on the future instead of dwelling on what had happened to him. But there was nothing I could do from here. I would just have to wait it out until I could hold him in my arms again. The idea of Shane and I being together again made me excited and terrified at the same time.
What if his feelings for me had changed? We had spent so little time together in the past. What if he got to know me and realized I wasn't what he wanted?