1st place in our Picture Prompt short story contest goes to Sierra Ret, and her story, Dust and Tears!
Thirteen hours. That’s how long it took to travel from the scorched and dusty streets of Ramadi to cool, green Fort Belvoir. Pretty short if you thought about it, though it hadn’t felt that way to Matt. It was also incidentally how long it took his friend to die on the medevac back home.
Matt shifted his weight yet again and ran his fingers impatiently through his close-cut hair. He had been standing in line for nearly ten minutes now, and his heavy pack was worsening a kink in his neck that he’d gotten from hunching over for most of the flight. Presently he wanted nothing more than to drive home through the safe, American streets and crash in his private apartment while he tried to forget this whole wretched day. But he had one last duty to follow through with first. If only this yahoo in line ahead of him would get a move on.
“I’m sorry,” the woman at the desk was saying, showing an admirable amount of restraint. “This is Information Services, not USAF Lost and Found. If you left your cellphone on your transport you’re better off checking with the flight crew. Next.”
Matt stepped forward as the other bloke set off grumbling down the gray hall.
“Corporal Matthew Hunt,” he said, giving his name before she could ask. “I’m inquiring about Curt Connor. He was scheduled to return today.”
The woman nodded briefly and rapidly inputted the information, her fingernails clicking rhythmically across the keys.
“Ah yes. Specialist Curtis Conner. Severely injured at 0600 this morning and died during medevac,” she read impassively.
Matt couldn’t avoid wincing. That was the worst of it. Every soldier who signed up knew that death was a possibility and generally accepted it on a day to day basis. But it seemed outrageously unfair to die ten minutes before returning home after fifteen months in the thick of things.
Against his will, the whole scene began tortuously replaying itself in his head as it had from the moment he’d sat down on the plane. Shutting his eyes only made it more vivid. Curt, a couple of buds, and himself sauntered outside the camp gate towards the newly deployed MRAP that was too big to drive into the compound. All of them had been joking over their plans for fun once they got home, and Matt teasingly shoved Curt forward when he said he just planned to go out for dinner with his family and to church the next day. Out of nowhere two insurgents burst from a house that had been cleared weeks ago with AKs blazing. They were badly trained, obviously fanatical idiots, and dead before they made it three steps. But without warning Curt had slumped against him and started his slow bleed to death that had only ended shortly before they landed, despite every effort to save him. From the first moments since Matt had dropped to his knees on the gritty, blood-stained street beside his friend, all he had been able to think of was that Curt was dying, and it was his hand that had shoved him into the line of fire.
“Corporal. Corporal Hunt,” said the woman exasperatedly, snapping him back into reality. He abruptly blinked and tried to focus on her again. Thankfully she seemed to have a wearied tolerance for preoccupied soldiers. “Any other questions?”
“Yeah. Has his family been notified yet?”
“Let me check.” More taps on the keys. He’d only met Curt’s family once before, at a barbeque he’d invited Matt to before their deployment. He remembered three blonde boys, all smaller copies of their father, and a pretty wife who had seemed nice enough but a tad fragile to be married to an active serviceman. Throughout the deployment Curt had always gone to extreme lengths to protect her from the worst of the news- or any negative news at all, really. If he so much as grazed his knee on a patrol he’d be imploring Matt not to mention it so Kristine wouldn’t worry.
“Not yet, but they will be shortly. Four-hour rule, you know. But our resident CNO-”
“CNO?” He’d heard the term before but couldn’t recall its significance.
“Casualty Notification Officer,” she said impatiently. “Is currently engaged, so the grim task will probably fall to the deceased’s former senior officer. Unless you would like to do it. You were in his unit, correct?”
No, Matt did not want to do it. At all. He wanted nothing more than to stagger home and forget this whole nightmare that had started shortly after he’d gotten up this morning. There was no way he’d be able to face the family of the man whose death he was agonizing over. But again unbidden memories flew to the forefront of his mind.
They had both been enjoying some of their precious screen time. Curt had been reading the news and replying to emails while Matt had been somewhat less usefully employed with a movie.
“The media reporting soldiers’ deaths before the families hear about it. Can you imagine, your family seeing you get killed right on their living room TV?”
Matt couldn’t, seeing that he didn’t have any family worth speaking of, but he didn’t say so.
“I don’t want that to happen to mine,” said Curt, shaking his head. “I can’t imagine any worse way to get the news.”
That was Curt, always focusing on others and his family even where his own death was concerned.
“I’ll do it.”
“You’ll need to take someone with you then. Two person minimum. Would you like a chaplain?”
“Sure.” Curt would have liked that.
“Right, I’ll send one over. Pick up a marked vehicle outside and head to this address.” She handed him a slip of paper, then looked over his grimy and –he hadn’t noticed- blood splattered cammies. The secretary frowned. “And change the uniform. Class A only.”
Thirty minutes later, Matt found himself in flat black pickup driving through the backroads of Fairfax County. He had been anticipating this drive for weeks- the green lush landscape, a vehicle with decent suspension, and no risk of an IED blowing him sky high. A sober-faced chaplain giving him death notification instructions had not been a part of the picture.
“Upper command’s got this down to a science. There’s even a reg manual for it,” said the man who had introduced himself as Lt. Gregson. “Phase one: Logistical and personal preparation. Designate who will be doing the talking. That’ll be you.”
He was speaking so briskly that Matt didn’t have a chance to protest. “Phase two: drive to home, knock on the door, and deliver news. Phase three: determine situation is under control, and leave the premises. Uncomfortable, but straightforward.”
“But what am I supposed to say?” protested Matt, feeling desperation surging up inside him. He couldn’t do this. There was no way he could face Curt’s wife and kids and tell them it was practically his fault their dad and her husband had been shot and killed.
“Something along the lines of ‘I have been asked to inform you that your husband has been reported dead in Ramadi, Iraq, as of today. On the behalf of the Secretary of Defense, I extend to you and your family my deepest sympathy for your great loss’.”
“I can’t say that! Do you have any idea how stiff and callous that sounds?”
“Anything’s better than breaking down and crying.”
Matt didn’t have an answer to that. He still didn’t when he found himself on the front step of the Conner’s house ten minutes later. The chaplain had remained in the truck. Very helpful.
Sweat started trickling down the back of his neck, and it had nothing to do with the sun beating down on the suburb. He felt horribly intrusive, venturing into this place of lawn sprinklers and sidewalk chalk drawings in his imperious green uniform. He hurriedly removed his cap and considered ringing the doorbell. Inside he could hear kids running around and playing. His chest started to tighten as if he was on point position for clearing an enemy house, and he became aware of each aching breath pulled into his lungs. He finally shook himself and rang the doorbell.
Matt cringed inwardly as the cheerful jingle rang out. He wasn’t ready for this. What had the chaplain say back there? I have been asked to inform you that your husband has been reported dead. I have been asked to inform you that your husband has been reported dead. I have-
Matt had taken it for granted that Kristine would answer the door. Instead it nearly flew off its hinges to reveal a small blonde boy, no more than ten or eleven. He had evidently been playing some kind of cowboy game, judging by his hat and lasso of rope in hand.
The boy’s mouth gaped open when he saw Matt standing there in his uniform, first in delighted amazement, but it quickly morphed into a distrustful frown. You could see at once that he knew that whatever reason this strange soldier was here for, it couldn’t be good.
Matt’s previous words stuck in his throat. He couldn’t even remember the boy’s name.
“Is your mom home?” he managed to get out.
“Yeah,” said the boy, tensely adjusting his hat. “Should I get her?”
The boy nodded, then abruptly shut the door in Matt’s face. He didn’t mind. Had their positions been reversed, he would have wanted to do the same thing.
When Kristine came to the door, it was obvious she had already guessed who he was and his purpose. On seeing Matt and the truck parked in front her face crumpled inwards and she began sobbing into a hand pressed tightly over her mouth.
Standing there while she cried had to be the worst two minutes of his life. He was completely clueless as to what to say, as the previous speech now seemed unnecessary and even more heartless than it had in the truck. His own grief and guilt threatened to slowly strangle him, particularly when the boy- Ryan, he suddenly remembered- wrapped his arms around his mom and buried his face in her blouse. He needed to get a grip. He turned away slightly while running his hand over his face and ordered himself to breathe.
“I’m sorry- I’m sorry,” Kristine finally got out between breathless cries, noticing his discomfort. As if she should be worrying about his feelings. He was the worst excuse for a CNO to ever have been appointed to the duty.
“Don’t apologise,” he rushed out. “Would you like me to… give some details?”
Kristine nodded miserably and attempted to wipe some of her tears away. She ended up creating more of a smeared mess of eyeliner and blush. He then noticed her bright floral skirt and arranged hair, and realised that she had probably been dressed up meet her husband at the base. The already horrible situation seemed that much worse.
“Why… why don’t you come into the kitchen?” she managed to say.
“If that’s what you’d prefer, Mrs. Conner.”
She nodded then abruptly turned and hurried into the house, crying again. Matt had no choice but to follow.
In the kitchen he told her. Haltingly described the walk down the street, the surprise attack, and the following emergency flight. No, there weren’t any last words; Curt had never regained consciousness. Matt left out the detail about how he had shoved him forward. He knew in his head that it wasn’t his hand that had pulled the trigger, it was only his own conscience tormenting him, and sharing that fact wouldn’t help or comfort the family. He still felt like a coward as he stood there while Kristen and two of her sons cried around the kitchen table.
“He was so close… so close. Why God? Why?” she mouthed several times in between tremendous sobs that shook her whole body.
“Is Daddy with God now?” asked the younger boy between hiccupped cries, catching her words.
“Yes,” murmured Kristine brokenly, rocking the two of them. She closed her eyes and began to murmur inaudibly to herself.
Matt realised she was praying, and suddenly the obvious signs of their faith, from the crosses on the wall to the Bible verses painted over the mantle, seemed glaringly obvious. He felt more out of his depth than ever.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” he asked. “I’ve got a chaplain in the car.” It seemed so pitiful and insignificant, but he had to ask.
“No-no,” sniffed Kristine, after a few moments. She looked up long enough to wipe her face and look around the room for her youngest.
“I’ll find him,” Matt said hastily. He vaguely recalled seeing a blonde head run past when he walked in and hearing the slam of a screen door. And besides, any excuse to get out of the room would do right now.
Outside a wave of warm air smacked him in the face, and he hurriedly crossed the deck and took refuge under the shade of the trees. At the far end of the yard he could see the youngest Conner boy, crouching in the long grass. There were no traces of tears on his face, but his cornered posture and quivering lower lip were painfully obvious. Matt could hardly bear to meet those dark eyes that were both heartbreaking and accusing at once. Kyle also was wearing matching cowboy getup like his brothers, a black Stetson with red underlining and tan leather boots, the only difference being he was holding a small flintlock pistol instead a rope. Abruptly Matt recalled something Curt had said only that morning.
“When I get back, I’m going to sell out and move upstate to my brother’s ranch. My boys are nuts about cowboys, they’ll love it.”
So that’s what this was about. They’d dressed up for their dad just like their mom did. The realisation felt like yet another emotional punch in the gut.
“Hey Kyle,” he said, crouching down to appear less threatening as he’d done when addressing scared Iraqi children. “Your mom’s looking for you inside. She’s very upset.”
“You made her cry,” said Kyle accusingly, his voice wavering slightly. Matt was perplexed by his reaction. Perhaps he hadn’t heard exactly what had been said inside.
“I’m sorry Kyle, I didn’t want to. But I had to tell her some bad news. Why don’t you come inside and she’ll explain it to you?”
“You said my Daddy’s dead,” Kyle said bluntly.Matt tried to keep the shock from registering on his face. “He’s not. Mommy said he was coming home today, because he was all done fighting. He’s not dead!” Slowly Kyle had stumbled to his feet while speaking, and now stood facing Matt, his face red with anger and small fingers clenched distraughtly on his gun.
Suddenly it occurred to Matt that the pistol might be loaded. It certainly wasn’t plastic. He told himself he was being paranoid and that Curt would never have left arms lying around the house. But the nagging doubt wouldn’t go away.
“Kyle, I was there. I wouldn’t make this up-” he tried to say, his nervous sweat increasing.
“If you were there, why didn’t you do something?” Kyle was borderline hysterical now, and Matt felt on the verge of joining him there.
He could see Curt striding along in front of him, laughing as he said “Oh, we’ll probably go out for dinner and then head to church.” He could feel the prickle of annoyance that accompanied his friend’s frequent religious references that was quickly masked by a shove forward. His hand pushing him directly into-
“Why?” Kyle was shaking now, and tears threatened to spill over the lashes of his rapidly blinking eyes. Any second now those hands that were clenched around the trigger were going to slip, and if the gun was indeed loaded Matt would be just as dead as Curt was. He couldn’t shake the feeling that it would serve him right. A husband, a father, a better man was dead because he had been bugging him about his faith and predictably good behavior. It was neither rational nor intentional, but he couldn’t shake the feeling he had killed Curt.
“You’re right, it was my fault. I was there, and your dad might still be alive if I wasn’t,” Matt rushed out. “But I do know one thing. Your dad’s in heaven Kyle, and I’m sure more sure of that than anything I’ve been before in my life. If I had died…”. He hadn’t a clue. Every wrong deed he’d ever done to Curt and to others, on this tour and his whole life before then suddenly stood out in his mind in horrifying detail. All of Curt’s talk about the depravity of man suddenly clicked.
Kyle reached the end of his five-year-old limit of endurance, and somehow ended up on Matt’s lap as he broke down and sobbed. The gun fell to the ground, forgotten. Matt wanted to cry but couldn’t. Too many years of practice of ramming his emotions down inside.
“I’m sorry,” was all that he was able to choke out, and he repeated it several times, not knowing if he was talking to Kyle or to Curt or God.
After what seemed like hours from the first stormy outburst of tears, Kyle quieted down, and he pushed back his hat to stare up at mountainous white clouds in the sky, as if he expected to see his dad up among them.
Finally, in a whisper so soft Matt almost missed them, came the words “I forgive you.”
At last his own tears began to fall, and somehow Matt knew in that moment that there had been more to those words than Kyle had meant. Someone greater had forgiven him.
“Heartbreaking read! The conflict waging inside of Matt’s heart is portrayed in an excellent stroke of creativity. I like how we see the emotional side of this soldier, it’s very relatable to most people in the fact that more often than not we tend to want to hide our emotions. Thus this struggle is connectable. An excellent story!” – Haley Long
“I was captivated by this story from the very beginning. The vivid characters, descriptions, and heart-wrenching emotion of this story convinced me that this story would ultimately take first place, and here it has. Creating emotion in a short story is always difficult to do, but ‘Dust and Tears’ provoked an immediate response by drawing on a tragic reality too many have faced. The creative spin on the prompt was very well done, and served as a knockout punch in a series of tragic emotional blows. Despite the suffocating sadness, the tale wrapped up with a redemptive message of hope. Excellent execution!” – Reagan Ramm
Sierra Ret is a dedicated homeschool student who has loved reading and storytelling for as long as she can remember. She is the oldest of her four siblings, one of whom is now in heaven. The loss of her little brother impelled her to think about deeper, more eternal things, which she expresses through writing. She lives in Northern Ontario with her family, where she and her much-loved siblings build treeforts, create videos and stories, and dream of visiting New Zealand. Her chief aim is to live a passionate and fulfilling life for the glory of God.
As the first place winner, Sierra will receive our grand prize of $100, AND a print of the prompt for this story, “Major The Cowboy”. Our awards are provided by our fantastic sponsor, CoastalConservatory.com: Intentional Living for Cultivating the Family Enterprise.