By Diana McCollum
He had just been dumped. Dumped by Elizabeth Barrett Steller, his college sweetheart, and not for just any reason, but because he signed back on with the Army.
Ben stomped to the car, his anger making it hard to get the key in the lock of his old 1989 Chevy pickup.
Yanking the door open, he slid into the driver’s seat. Leaning his forehead against the steering wheel, he took deep breaths as he fought to control his emotions. At twenty-four he could damn well make his own decisions. The sweltering June sun only added to his temper.
God, he felt like his heart had been ripped out. He had re-upped for her, for a chance of a future together. He didn’t want to end up pumping gas like his brother or doing some other menial job. That was no way to support a wife and family. The Army would insure he could afford college, and get a degree in computer science. He’d be able to get a VA house loan someday and take care of his family. That didn’t matter to Lizzie, spoiled self-centered Lizzie.
“Ben, Ben…wait!” Lizzie ran towards the truck barefoot, her long brown hair flying behind her. He paused for a second as he glimpsed the college cheerleader he’d fallen in love with four years ago.
He turned the key and floored the gas. She’d had her say. His pride didn’t need any more abuse from her about how he should live his life. He fingered the ring box in his pocket, as he glanced in the rear view mirror. The road was empty. Good thing he’d had sense enough not to ask her today.
Her words burned in his memory.
“Ben, if you re-enlist there is no guarantee you won’t be sent to Iraq. I can’t go through it again, not knowing if you are safe or not.” Lizzie had turned on the tears, always a good move, only this time they didn’t work. “I want to be with you. Don’t I mean more to you than the Army?”
When he told her why he had re-enlisted, she took her final stand with her arms crossed, “I’m not waiting for you, Ben. You do what you have to do, but I’m not waiting. I’m not an Army wife and I don’t plan on ever being one. The stress was too much during your last deployment. When you went missing for four days…I couldn’t eat or sleep. I almost lost my job. I can’t do it again, I just can’t.”
She turned away from him and stared out the kitchen window. “Go. Just go.”
He turned to leave. His hand on the doorknob, he paused, waiting for her to tell him to stay, that they could work it out. She didn’t.
Six months later in the Iraq desert the Cougar Ben was riding in set off an IED. As Ben lay in the sand listening for the whirl of the Medevac copter to arrive, he thought of Lizzie. He had thought of her almost daily since the breakup. Once he got to the war zone, he’d tried to put her out of his mind. The sadness of losing Lizzie gripped him and a tear slid down his face.
The fire in his core engulfed him. He gasped. The sweat ran down his face, he wiped at it and came away with blood. Now with the potential of death, he prayed, a low whisper of a prayer, “Lord, let me see her one more time.”
Helicopter rotors kicked up a cloud of dust and in seconds a medic was by Ben’s side. His ears rang from the blast and that along with the noise from the copter made it impossible to hear what the medic was saying. The last thing he remembered was being strapped onto the litter and hoisted into the Blackhawk.
Wounded Warrior, that’s what the staff at Walter Reed Hospital called him. A respectable title for what he and many other wounded soldiers had been through. Ben worked hard at recovery. Physical therapy kicked his ass.
The doctor came in carrying a small book. “This is yours soldier. It just might have saved your life.” He handed the small Bible to Ben.
“What‘d you mean it saved my life?”
“Turn it over.”
Ben turned it over and saw the jagged hole in the cover.” His eyes misted over, his voice trembling with emotion he said, “Thanks Doc, thanks a lot.”
His mom called that night. Her recuperation from a mild stroke was as good as it was going to get. She had trouble with her speech but the doctor hoped it would clear up eventually.
They wanted him home, his family. When he could walk on his own, he’d be going --not before. His goal was to walk off the plane on his mom’s favorite holiday, Valentine’s Day.
On February fourteenth he headed home. He walked off the jet, picked up his luggage and hailed a taxi. He couldn’t wait to see the look on Mom’s face when he gave her the box of chocolates and told her he was taking her out to dinner. He chuckled remembering how much she loved Valentine’s Day. That was their special day, ever since he drew her a Valentine’s card in first grade.
When the cab turned down his mom’s street Ben let out a low whistle. “Looks like someone’s having a party.” Both sides of the street were filled with cars. A few he recognized. His brother’s and Aunt Tilly’s were parked in front of the house.
“You can just drop me here.” He handed the cabbie the fare, and got out. The heart shaped box of chocolates he’d bought for mom tucked under his arm. He turned towards the house and stopped, not able to pass the car that sat in the drive.
His eyes must be playing tricks on him. Nope, it was Lizzie’s unmistakable mini-Cooper in the driveway. What was she doing here? He wanted to see her, but not now, not here. His heart beat out a rat-a-tat-tat and his palms were suddenly sweaty. He glanced towards the end of the street but the cab was gone. No escape. Man up, Ben. He readjusted his luggage and marched up the steps. Before he could ring the doorbell, the door swung open.
“Ben!” Mom said.
“Ben’s here.” She shouted over her shoulder. His mom embraced him, tears of joy slid down her rosy cheeks. “Come in, come in.”
The entryway was filled with pink heart shaped balloons. A Valentine’s party? The living room was filled with all his aunts, cousins and friends. There was definitely a party going on.
“What…” Did he forget a birthday or something? “Here, mom.” He held out the heart shaped box of chocolates.
Everyone stared at him. His shirt collar seemed too tight, and he was beginning to sweat. He looked at his mom for an explanation.
“Ben, Ben dear boy,” She plopped down in an overstuffed chair and fanned her heated face with her hands. “Why don’t you put your bags down in the hall and get me a drink of water? I’m feeling a bit faint from all the excitement.”
She winked at Aunt Tilly. He tried to figure out why while he stashed the bags in the hallway, and rounded the corner to the kitchen.
“Hello, Ben.” Lizzie’s voice was tentative. She sat on a stool on the other side of the counter, filling little bags with candy and tying them with pretty pink ribbon.
“Lizzie…” He reached up and unbuttoned the top of his uniform shirt.
“I’m glad you made it home. I was so sorry to hear you were injured.” Her voice quivered as if she barely held back tears.
“What are you doing here?” She was so pretty. He couldn’t catch his breath. Well, he’d got his wish.
“I was invited.”
“Why?” He ran his fingers through his hair.
She stood up then and he could see she was expecting. His heart galloped in his chest.
“Your mom is giving us a baby shower. I’m pregnant with your daughter.” She ambled over, and placed his hand on her belly. “I found out the week after we broke up. I didn’t tell you because one, we broke up and two, I wanted you to focus on coming back alive.”
He felt a movement. His daughter! He removed the small bible from his pocket and held it out to her.
“Lizzie, will you marry me?”
A puzzled look crossed her face as she opened the Bible and stared at an engagement ring dented in half. “What…”
“I was going to ask you before I left for duty. Then we fought, I kept the ring in the pocket flap in the Bible. The Doc said it saved my life, you saved my life.”
“Yes, yes I’ll marry you.” Her eyes sparkled with tears of joy.
© Diana McCollum 2012 All rights reserved.
A special thank you to artist Nick Pino
© Nick Pino 2012 All rights reserved.