There was a certain reverberating quality to the doorbell that morning. It had called to her from far away, and she swam slowly to the surface, taking deep breaths to reassure herself. She always left behind her dreams with relief and marveled at the sanity of conscious thought. Her dreams were always the same: dreams of lonely men, the lonely women they'd left behind, and the children who weren't yet aware of their loneliness.
The doorbell sounded again as she pulled on her white bathrobe. She staggered toward the door, glancing at the digital: 5:58 AM. Oh, my God. It hit her with a breath-strangling certainty. This is it. It's happening. To me. Nobody else would come this early in the morning.
The stairs felt strange; she'd heard of vertigo, but now she knew what people meant. Things were shifting, and she could see now, through the beveled-glass on the front door: men in uniform. Each step felt forced, long and exaggerated. She reached, fumbling, for the handle and cracked open the door, peering into morning darkness; the one with the cross over his name advanced...
As she passed her son's room she saw him sleeping through the cracked door, his blond hair tousled sweetly, pouty lips slack. She couldn't stop now, she had to keep moving. Movement meant something. She reached her bathroom with its large mirror-paneled walls; three sides, three ways to view one's self. She let the robe fall off her shoulders and surveyed her body. Her profile, her back, the 360 degrees the world viewed her in. She saw from the back view her imperfect thighs; she stared reproachfully at her stretch marks. She felt for the first time she was really seeing herself under this florescence. She'd spent so much time with her face pressed close to the mirror, examining microscopic flaws, applying mascara, tissueing mistakes. It occurred to her that she'd never seen the person he had loved. Had loved. Loved. No longer loved.
The two weeks he'd spent at home on leave seemed a distant memory. Instead of a second honeymoon in the Virgin Islands, they'd spent it trying to patch up all the little holes leaking air out of their marriage. They'd married young, were high school sweethearts and the harsher realities of life had taken awhile to set in. Marriage counseling with the battalion chaplain made her feel like an exposed organism in a petri dish. Under the microscope they had become the poster children for all that was wrong with Army life. They'd been given strategies for communication in their sessions but strategies seemed unequal to the task of long-distance communication. There had been blackouts, when she didn't hear from him for a week. She'd spent those days running up credit card bills at the mall, trying to forget her fears.
It seemed strange that she was thinking of herself at a time like this. She felt guilty for how much she'd thought about herself and how little she'd dwelled on his daily routines. But she was alive. Not dead.
The sound of gunfire fell, muted and distant on her ears. Crows scattered to the sky, strange and near. She pulled her black three-inch heels out of the sod again and tried to stand up straighter as the man with the flag approached. She knew how she should appear at this moment: there should be dignity in her bearing, pride shining through her tears. Instead she felt unsure of her appearance, intensely aware of the valium in her system, so ashamed of her need of it. There was the vague pressure of her mother's arm, and there was an awareness of how cold March felt. She thought how ugly Mount Pisgah cemetary was in early Spring; the sky grey and blank except for crows; the trees were bare and empty of brighter birds. The phrase "Sorry for your loss" kept striking her face cold as the wind as she received the mourners. Michael, the 38-year-old single cardiologist, hugged her familiarly and told her he was available if she needed anything at all. She felt her mother's approval and it turned over in her stomach. The skin on Michael's neck was already starting to sag and it bothered her to think what he would look like on the other side of 40. But she reminded herself that he represented money and security and things her son needed. She supposed it wasn't so bad to be 25 and attractive if one had to be a widow. Good thing he doesn't know how things look underneath the pantyhose.
Her lighter flamed and ate the end of her cigarette as she drew in a little too deeply. Oh, but it felt good: to hide away by the creek and flee the oppressive sentiments of her relatives. She smiled a little to herself as she thought about them all sharing macaroni and cheese, wheelhouse salad and KFC. She could just see her 93-year-old great-grandmother rocking in the corner, mumbling in her deranged fashion, "There's a lot of muddy water under that bridge...whole lotta muddy water." Great-Grandma always spat out "muddy" like it was a bitter secret. It had almost frightened her when Grandma turned and gazed at her and repeated those words, "Whole lotta muddy water." She felt the bitterness biting into her own spirit.
She stared down under the small footbridge into the creek water, reflecting the old light of stars. She drew in clarity as she relaxed with her cigarette. The house had made her feel anxious, claustrophobic with people eyeing her; she could feel them wondering about her future. She lit a second cigarette and thought how her throat would hurt the next day if she kept on going. But she would not deny herself these small pleasures any longer.
She cocked her head to the side, and viewed the planks, 13 of them, from a horizontal angle. Things were shifting again, coming into focus now. The dead grass on the banks of the creek was long and unmowed. She reached for a clump and lit it, watched it flame up and felt it embrace her face with its momentary warmth. She grabbed more grass and lit it.
She built up a small tepee of fire on the rotting planks, and gazed with satisfaction as the flames burned tall and mesmerizing. She reached into her ski jacket and removed the lump next to her heart. She gazed at the stripes and then placed the triangle-folded flag atop the flaming planks.
She walked off into the dark night toward her grandmother's porchlights.