A/N I started this little tale a couple of years ago but was distracted with other projects. In 2014, one of my favorite authors on this site (writersblock24) published a beautiful story called Memorial Day with very similar themes, and I considered abandoning this. Turns, out the little voices in my head that belong to my versions of Stephanie and Ranger would not leave me alone. Please consider this JE fanfiction and writersblock24 fanfiction! A very big thank you to Dog in the Manger for her amazing editorial and creative support. All mistakes are very much mine.
It was a perfect day.
The week before had been unseasonably hot for the Potomac Valley, the mercury pushing ninety degrees in the shade. Today, though, felt exactly like early June was supposed to be, with cloudless azure skies and a cool breeze.
Although Ranger had left her the Porsche, she'd opted to avoid the crazy D.C. traffic and took the Metro instead. She walked slowly down North Memorial Drive, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her bare shoulders.
"You need help, Miss?" a uniformed guard, standing just inside the entrance gate, asked her.
"I know my way. Thanks," she said, clutching the small map she had printed. He simply nodded in return, pretending not to notice a tear rolling down her right cheek. Tears were common here, at Arlington.
Leaving the Welcome Center, she couldn't hold back a gasp. The thousands of small white headstones and all that they symbolized never failed to take her breath away. Honor - yes. Heroism - certainly. But, most importantly, in her mind, she saw each one as a reminder of the heartbreak for the loved ones, left behind.
As she walked down the tree-lined sidewalk, she was glad that she had skipped the crowds and the fanfare that happened here on Memorial Day and waited until today to pay a visit.
The first time she had come here, she had been angry… very, very angry that he had left her just when she needed him most. For the longest time, she harbored a secret thought that, maybe, he hadn't tried hard enough to stay. Maybe that he hadn't loved her enough to stay. So, she'd let a long time lapse between visits.
After consulting her map, she slowly climbed a short flight of steps, cut into the side of a steep hill. From a distance, all the headstones looked the same. Up close, she had no trouble finding the one she sought. She sank down in front of it, allowing her finger to trace the 'M' carved into the marble. She smiled in spite of herself, remembering the pet name he always called her.
"Ranger." She turned and smiled at him, surprised to see him but grateful for the company. "Did I ever tell you his nickname for me?"
He shook his head, his lips tilted up in the softest of smiles. "Tell me."
"Toots. He called me Toots."
He crouched down beside her, pulling her into his arms. When his lips brushed her cheek, he tasted the saltiness of her tears.
"See… Grandpa loved to smoke. Unfiltered Lucky Strikes, no less."
"Ah, Luckies. You brought him a pack." He looked at the iconic red and white box she held in her hand. "A favorite of the troops."
"Yeah? Did you ever try them?"
"For a time, the military brass considered smoking a great way to relieve stress. For decades, they included cigarettes in the C-rations… they thought it improved morale. They'd stopped decades before I enlisted."
What he didn't say was that soldiers still had ready access to cigarettes. It was an easy and legal stress reliever. He hadn't smoked in years, but, sometimes, he still craved a cigarette so badly he could almost taste it. The faint lightheadedness, which always followed the first drag. The soft tingle of the smoke as it filled the lungs. The heightened sense of awareness once the butt was done. He shook the feeling off.
"Yeah, well. My Grandma tried for years to get Grandpa to stop. After his first heart attack, his doctor told him he had to stop, but he wouldn't or couldn't… not completely. Beginning when I was ten, or maybe eleven, we'd drive out to Point Pleasant, to one of the lookouts with a view of the beach. We'd sit on the hood of his Plymouth Falcon, and I'd have a chocolate bar, and he'd have a cigarette… or three.
He'd look at me and say, 'I know you, Toots. You're no snitch.'"
"He was right, you know." Ranger tightened his arms around her. There was no one he trusted more to keep his secrets. By now, he'd shared more than a few. "I wish I could have met him."
"You would have liked one another, I think. In fact, you're a lot like him."
She laid her head against his chest, marveling at how different it felt here. The soft black t-shirts he wore in Trenton were traded for the stiff military uniform with a double row of ribbons over his heart.
"You talk to the office about arranging your Grandmother's funeral?" he asked her.
"Yeah. They gave me June 23. That's a lot sooner than I had expected, given what I had heard about the schedule here. Some families wait months. You didn't pull any strings, did you?"
He gave her a smile so blinding, it made her heart race. "That's not my style, is it?"
She laughed and smacked his chest while he pressed a kiss to the top of her curls.
"You know, I never heard your grandmother mention Arlington, or that your grandfather was buried here. I was surprised when you told me she chose this as her final resting spot."
Steph nodded. "Me too. I guess it was something I should have expected, but we never really talked about it."
He waited patiently, knowing there was more to the story.
"Even though my grandma loved the viewings, the first conversation we had about what she wanted for her own funeral was in the hospital, after she broke her hip."
"Nope. It's true. She told me she always wanted to live in a big city, and she figured this was her ticket out of the Burg."
"Good for Edna."
When Stephanie had first arrived at the cemetery, she had cried for her grandpa. She had lost him right in the middle of her disastrous divorce from Dickie Orr. At the time, she couldn't imagine how she was going to get her life back on track without him. She wished he'd been able to see that things had eventually turned out all right. Now she cried for her grandma too, mourning the woman who had always encouraged her to take chances and live life to the fullest.
As Ranger held her, his lips skimmed the shell of her ear and he whispered, "Smiles, tears, of all my life! And, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death."
Her nose started to run, and she fished through her purse for a tissue. "I beg your pardon?"
"It's a poem—"
"By Carl Sandburg?" She was thinking about the little leather-bound book of poetry on the table next to his side of the bed.
He shook his head. "Not Sandburg. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I was just thinking that this is a side of your grandmother I never got to know. It really is poetic… wanting to be physically reunited with the love of your life after death."
"Ah well…" She shrugged her shoulders and tried for a lopsided smile. "There are all kinds of love."
"What are you saying, Babe?"
"My Grandpa loved my Grandma… I know he did. I never heard him say an unkind word to her, and he never raised his voice in anger. He took her dancing at the lodge at least once a month because he knew she liked it, and he brought home fresh flowers for her every Friday. My Grandpa and Grandma had a quiet, steady kind of love, you know? But she wasn't the love of his life."
"No. He met her in Europe during the war. Her name was Yvette. She was sixteen."
One of Ranger's eyebrows went up, and she gave him her best Jersey eye roll in return.
"Don't look at me like that. He was only seventeen when he enlisted and was shipped to Europe, so there wasn't that much of an age difference."
Ranger glanced at the inscription on the small white headstone. "Your grandfather was part of the 101st Airborne?"
Steph nodded. "He was in the 327th division… landed on the beaches of Normandy in a glider. He was injured in a battle near Carentan. Yvette found him unconscious and bleeding in a little clump of trees near her family's farm. She drug him back to the house and with her parents' help, nursed him back to health."
"He fell in love with the woman who saved his life." Ranger looked at the woman in his arms. Yeah, he totally understood how that could happen.
"That's what his friends and platoon-mates thought. But, he said it wasn't like that. He said that they were put on this Earth to find one another… that they were soul mates."
Yeah, he got that too. "But they didn't get their happily every after?"
Steph sighed. "The 101st Airborne was eventually shipped backed to England to regroup for their next battle. Grandpa promised that he would come back for her after the war was over."
"What happened?" he asked, rubbing little circles on her back.
"That winter, she contracted diphtheria. She died giving birth to their son. The baby was stillborn. Grandpa came home after the war, found a job as a mechanic, and eventually met and settled down with my Grandma."
"He told you all of this, during one of those trips to Point Pleasant?"
She nodded. "The last one, right before he died."
"Your Grandma knew?"
"I think she did and she… accepted it. I think that's why she was the way she was later in life. She never gave up hoping she'd find the one whom she could love as my Grandpa loved Yvette. "
They sat together for a few minutes longer. When they heard a distant drum roll and the first few plaintive notes of Taps, Stephanie shifted off Ranger's lap and placed the pack of cigarettes on top of her Grandfather's headstone. Ranger stretched then stood, brushing a few stray blades of grass from his sharply creased uniform pants.
"I was going to ask you to give me a ride back to the office, but it seems the Porsche is still at home."
She snorted as he pulled her to her feet. Many things had changed in their lives over the last few months, but that wasn't one of them. Ranger still tracked her and her cars as relentlessly as he had in Trenton.
"Never gonna change, Steph."
Home, at least for now, was a two-bedroom condo in a high rise with secure underground parking on Connecticut Avenue NW. Ranger's current 'office' was at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. A couple of rogue Secret Service agents had attempted to assassinate the president and had nearly succeeded. Now the Commander–in-Chief trusted his safety to no one but the Army, and Ranger had been recalled to active duty to oversee his security detail.
She sighed as she squeezed his hands tightly, affirming that she hadn't really expected anything else. "I love the Turbo — you know I do — but, I'm still getting my bearings here. Taking the Metro makes me feel like a local."
He brushed his lips against hers. "Proud of you."
They had only taken a few steps down the sidewalk that led back to the Welcome Center when the relative calm of the cemetery was interrupted by the sound of two fighter jets screaming overhead. Ranger stopped, tensed. Then he reached for Stephanie and pulled her into his arms, her back to his front. "Just training maneuvers," he whispered into her hair, reassuring himself as much as her. She relaxed into him and together, they watched the jets streak toward the horizon and disappear.
"So you think it's possible for two people to have both kinds of love?" she asked him softly, as they watched the sky. "The great passion that makes your knees go weak and your heart feel like it's going to beat out of your chest, and the steady kind of love that lasts forty years or so?"
He laced their fingers together on her abdomen just under the baby bump mostly hidden by her yellow sundress.
"I'm counting on it, Babe."
A/N #2: This story is dedicated to my Grandpa, who was a member of the 101st Airborne and did land at Utah beach in a glider. As far as I know, he never loved anybody other than my grandma
I also wanted to honor my father-in-law, who occasionally spoke about a girl he met in Italy during the war… long before he met my mother-in-law.