This is a one shot based off of Tim McGraw's song "If You're Reading This"
Note the the flow of this story is a little choppy. That's deliberate. For anyone who's ever sent someone off to war and had them fail to return home, you know that your thoughts rarely form complete sentences much less flow in any kind of logical order and time no longer has any meaning.
And of course, I don't own 'em.
In Loving Memory
Spc. Keith A. Nurnberg
KIA Sept. 05, 2007
Operation Iraqi Freedom
Rest In Peace, my friend
The airfield was crowded with families - mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, wives, husbands and children. All crying their goodbyes to their soldiers before they went off to war. The buses that would shuttle them to their plane sat not a hundred yards from where we all stood, an ominous reminder of what was to come. Everyone here knew there would be loses; some of these soldiers saying passionate goodbyes would never return to say the equally passionate hello's.
I swallowed back my own tears as I looked at my own soldier, all dressed up and looking noble in his ACU's. He was deploying to Iraq for the third time since this war had started and I could honestly say it never got any easier to say goodbye. And I never got used to it. I don't think I ever would. How do you get used to sending off the man you loved to get shot at? Some things you just don't adjust to.
His calloused fingers caressed my cheek, catching a tear that escaped before bringing his finger to his lips and kissing away the moisture. That glorious, crooked smile that I had fallen in love with six years ago brought a smile to my own lips as his hand moved to cup my cheek, his fingers tangling in my hair. A gentle urging brought me forward and our lips meet, soft and gentle as I fought not to cry.
As our lips parted, he pressed his forehead to mine, his free hand going down to rest on the slight swell of my belly, his touch light but confident, as though he could feel the life growing inside me. We'd finally been blessed after four years of trying. The thought that he might not be home in time to see the birth of our child drew a quiet sob from me.
Strong arms wrapped around me, pulling me into the musky sweet scent that was my husband and I wrapped my own arms around his waist, digging my fingers into his uniform as though I would never let go. "Shh, Bella. It's going to be okay. I'll be home before you know it." His velvet voice caressed my ear, soft but clear even over the noise of others families doing this exact same thing.
I nodded against his chest, wiping my tears on the rough fabric there before nestling my head under his chin where it was like a spot had been designed just for me; I fit there perfectly. His fingers brushed through my hair, a gesture that had never failed in the past to soothe my worries. "I love you, Edward."
I felt him smile against my hair and push me back slightly so he could look at my face. His green eyes were intense but warm, always so warm, so loving. "I love you, too, Bella. With everything I am." He brushed his thumbs across my cheeks, wiping away the tears that were flowing freely now, placing soft kisses on each cheek just below my eyes.
A loud voice came from somewhere to our right and I glanced over to see Edward's battalion commander announcing that the buses would be loading momentarily. I took a shaking breath and turned back to my husband, my hands clutching his as they cupped my face.
"Bella, my love. Look at me." Edward's soft voice commanded and I had no choice but to obey. When it may be the last time you see someone, you don't argue. "I love you so much. Never forget that, okay?" A pained look crossed his face, there and gone in an instant but I had seen it. I didn't have time to wonder about it as I nodded, taking a deep breath to stop my tears and clear the constriction in my throat.
We exchanged a few more 'I love you's' and then he had to go. I watched as he fell in line and disappeared into the old white army bus only to reappear at a window near the back. He smiled at me, kissing his fingers and pressing them to the window. I brought my own fingers to my lips kissed them, holding them out in his direction. The diesel engines roared to life and with a final, silent 'I love you' he was on his way. The bus turned a corner at the end of the street and was gone, taking my beloved husband with it.
It was only when I was sitting at home that night, staring at my untouched dinner with my two best friends sitting across the table from me that I realized something had been different when we said goodbye this time. Each time he'd deployed in the past, he'd promised me he would come home. He'd held my heart and kept it safe and spoken the words that had instilled the strength I needed to survive fifteen months without him. This time he hadn't. He had said he'd loved me but he'd not made me any promises. And the look that had crossed his face, that pained, choking look. It was then that I knew this deployment would be different. And without any further thought I felt my body start to shake and my sobs echoed through my silent kitchen.
It killed me to say goodbye to Bella, to sit still in that bus seat as she disappeared from my view. My heart was in my throat and I knew it was the last time I would ever see her. I only hoped she would be strong enough, for herself and for our child. Before that thought had even finished, a peace had settled into my chest that said she would. She would survive and she would move on. And despite everything, I felt a small joy in my heart at that; I only ever wanted her happiness, even if that happiness no longer involved me.
We received our weapons and boarded the plane that would take us to war, everyone quiet and subdued for the twenty-two hour flight. I sat between my two brothers and most trusted battle buddies, the three of us sharing in the tranquility of knowing that our wives would be there for each other, no matter what. They had been there for each other before we'd met them and they'd stay with each other after we were gone.
When we were a few hours away from Kuwait, I turned to Emmett and made a quiet request. After a little bit of searching and asking around, he handed me a notebook of clean paper and a pen. I braced the notebook on my knee and put pen to paper, not even having to think about what I was going to write. I let the words flow and didn't bother to read over the letter when I was finished. It was the way it was meant to be and no corrections were necessary. I tore out the page and returned the notebook and pen to their owner before resuming my seat.
I held the folded piece of paper in my hands until we landed and were minutes away from unloading. Jasper's hand on my shoulder shook me out of my thoughts but I continued to stare at the letter I held for a few moments longer. Finally, I spoke, my voice soft though I knew they would both hear me.
"Make sure she gets this. I don't want anyone else to give it to her."
Jasper took it from my hands with a firm nod and tucked it away as we stood. Emmett's hand wrapped around my upper arm and turned my attention to him as our fellow soldiers started walking off the plane.
"You'll make it home, Edward. You'll see her again."
I met his gaze for a few seconds before turning and following the line off the plane. "No, Emmett. I won't."
It was six months into the deployment when he missed his weekly phone call. Since the day he'd arrived at his FOB in Iraq, he'd called me every Friday night like clockwork. If he couldn't call, he had someone else do it, just to let me know things were okay. I lived my life by the week, anticipating his next call, waiting to hear his voice again. Alice and Rosalie knew not to bother me on these days, just as I knew not to bother them when they got their phone calls. Otherwise, the three of us were joined at the hip.
Rosalie found out two weeks after our soldiers deployed that her and Emmett's attempts at conceiving had been successful and she was due three months after me. I had talked to Emmett a couple of times and he couldn't be happier. I knew he'd make an excellent father. Just as I knew Edward would, too.
The feeling of loss and dread I had experienced that first night alone had dissipated with every phone call I received from him and lately I hadn't even thought about it at all. But when Friday night came and went without a single ring of the phone, it all came crashing back to me.
The next week passed without a word from any of our guys - Alice and Rosalie hadn't gotten their calls either - and we all alternated between worry and confusion. We knew of blackouts, when a soldier on the FOB was killed in action and they shut down all lines of communication until the soldiers' family had been notified, and that only made us worry more. Many of the soldiers in our guys' unit were good friends and the loss of any one of them was going to be hard.
Wednesday came to find Rosalie, Alice and I in my living room, looking at old pictures of our guys from their childhood. They had all been adopted at an early age by Carlisle and Esme Cullen, the best in-laws a girl could hope for. They raised the boys right and taught them everything they needed to know. When Jasper had talked about joining the army at the age of eighteen, a seventeen year old Emmett and a fifteen year old Edward had decided to follow in their brothers' footsteps. The three had been closer than any blood brothers I had ever met.
A sharp knock on the door startled all of us and I jerked my head in the direction of the front door, my heart jumping into my throat. The three of us exchanged a quick glance before I carefully shifted the photo album off my lap and stood, taking the dozen steps necessary to reach the door. My hand was trembling when I reached for the doorknob and turned it, opening the heavy wood door to see a man in ACU's standing on my front porch.
I leaned heavily against the door as my brain recognized him. The Rear Detachment commander, Sergeant Major Mike Newton. We had had him over for a few dinners and a lot more parties; he was a good guy. But seeing him on my porch with a solemn look in those blue eyes brought tears to my eyes.
"Bella," he started, but he didn't have to say anything else. I knew already. The look on his face, the tone in his voice, the phone call I didn't get last week. I knew.
My hand came to my mouth as a loud sob was torn from my throat. I felt hands on my back but barely noticed that Rosalie and Alice had joined me at the door. Mike's face was pained and I knew he and Edward had been friends, despite the difference in their rank. Rosalie wrapped her arms around me, holding me against her body when I wanted nothing more then to fall to my knees as I sobbed uncontrollably.
I don't remember moving but the next thing I knew I was sitting on the couch, Alice and Rose on either side of me, Mike on the chair across from us. I don't know how long I cried for but when my tears had run their course I was exhausted. My friends each had a tight grip on one of my hands as I asked Mike what had happened. I felt detached from my body as he explained that an RPG had hit the gunner's turret of his tank where he'd been, killing him instantly.
After Mike left, making sure I knew to call him if I needed anything, I called Esme. I wanted to be the one to tell her. I had barely gotten through half a dozen words before she was crying and Carlisle was on the phone, telling me they'd be here by the next evening. I felt empty as I hung up the phone and turned to my two best friends in the entire world, needing something to anchor me least I get blown away by a stray breeze.
I didn't sleep that night and didn't eat until Esme and Carlisle showed up and Carlisle, being a doctor and a reasonable man, forced the both of us - wife and daughter-in-law - to eat a full dinner. I slept that night, a deep, dreamless sleep, that I suspected had more to do with the sleeping pill Carlisle slipped me then any desire to actually close my eyes.
Two days later, Esme, Carlisle and I waited with Mike Newton as Edward's body was unloaded off the plane, his two brothers acting as honor guard to the flag draped coffin. Both men wore serious expressions on their faces, their eyes bloodshot as they approached us.
Carlisle and Esme embraced their remaining children and whispered words were exchanged while I stood rooted to the ground, my eyes fixed on the coffin that contained my life, my heart and my soul. Movement to my left drew my attention and I looked up to find Jasper standing there, sympathy glistening in his moist eyes.
"I'm sorry, Bella." He whispered, his voice rough. "You don't know how much."
I wiped at the tears that had gathered on my cheek and offered him a watery smile, placing my hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, too, Jasper." I barely recognized my own voice.
He managed to return the smile for a brief second before looking down. I followed his gaze to see him pull a dirty white envelope out of his pocket and hold it between his hands for a moment. He cleared his throat and slowly extended his hand, holding the envelope out to me.
"He asked me to give this to you, if anything happened."
My hand was shaking as I reached out, numb fingers taking the envelope from him. I stared at the paper for a few seconds before holding it against my chest. He had known he wouldn't come back this time, I knew that now just as I knew my own name.
I took a step forward and embraced my brother-in-law, squeezing my eyes tight against another onslaught of tears as he wrapped his arms around me. He buried his face against my neck and we cried for each and for the family we had lost.
It was just the seven of us at the funeral, aside from the customary military personnel, and I had never felt so alone. They all had each other, their other halves. I broke into sobs again as my other half was lowered into the ground, the flag that symbolized the country he'd loved, fought and died for held in my arms. Despite the fact that I hadn't been by myself since I got the news and my family was there for me, I felt abandoned. My heart was gone, my soul ripped in two.
That night I sat alone in the living room, nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee, staring at the picture on the mantel above the fireplace. Our engagement picture, on a beach at sunset. A photographer friend of mine had taken it. I could see his love for me, captured forever in a picture that was all I had left of him.
I jumped when I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned my head to see Esme sitting down beside me on the couch. Her eyes were red rimmed and her makeup had long since been worn off. She laid my head against her chest, her fingers stroking my hair, her arm tight around my shoulders. We sat like that for a long time before I remembered the letter Jasper had given me. I pulled away from Esme and stood, going over to my purse and pulling the envelope out. I returned to the couch and took a deep breath, swallowing hard before opening the envelope and pulling out a perfectly folded piece of paper.
I hesitated then and Esme put a hand on my back, a show of much needed support that gave me the strength to unfold the letter. Edward's perfect slanted handwriting stared back at me and for a minute I couldn't even see the words to read them through the tears that filled my eyes. I gripped Esmes' hand with my free one as I started to read.
Bella, my life, my love,
If you're reading this, with my mother sitting there, it looks like I only got a one way ticket over here. I sure wish I could give you one more kiss. And I wish that war was just a game that we played when we were kids. But now I'm laying down my gun, and I'm hanging up my boots. Just know that I'm up here with God and we're both watching over you.
So lay me down in that open field on the edge of town and know my soul is where my mother always prayed that it would go. And know that if you're reading this, I'm already home.
I know that if you're reading this, halfway around the world, I won't be there to see the birth of our little girl. I hope she looks like you, my love, and I hope she fights like me. I hope she stands up for the innocent and for the weak. Teach her to love herself and to never be afraid.
I understand that there's going to come a day when you'll move on and find someone else and that's okay. Just remember this: I'm in a better place. A place where soldiers live in peace and angels sing amazing grace.
I left my heart and my soul with you my love. Be strong for yourself and for our daughter. I love you with all my heart and I will wait for you at the gates of heaven. Until we meet again, my sweet Bella.
Forever and eternally yours,
Edward Anthony Cullen
I felt a watery smile on my lips as I read my husbands' words, my tears flowing freely again though they were silent this time. Esme took the letter from my hands and read her son's words, an equally watery smile crossing her own face as she turned to me. We hugged and held each other and I knew that, despite the pain and the loss, everything would be alright. Edward was watching over me and I had to be strong for him and for our daughter. I would make him proud of me. Until I saw him again.
This really hits home for me. My husband was badly injured in Iraq by an RPG and not even a week later a good friend of ours was killed, exactly the same way that Edward was. Me and my husband were lucky but this story is dedicated to all those who weren't so much, to every husband or wife who's said goodbye for the last time. My heart goes out to all of you. Remember, guys, freedom isn't free.