It had been forty years since the war, thirty seven years since her 18th birthday, and thirty seven years and a day since she made a decision that would forever change her life. Desiree turned over on her side. Thinking about those things made her uncomfortable. There were too many memories attached to those years, some of which she never wanted to forget and some she hated herself for remembering. Today had been her 55th birthday and there she was at 8 pm, locked in her room, lying on her bed; all alone upon request as the snow fell outside her window. This was how she had spent almost every one of her birthdays. She never liked being the center of attention but she mostly just didn't want to be reminded that it had been so many years since she was truly happy, so many years since she had last seen their faces. She jumped as the phone on her night stand rang to life. She already knew who it would be before she answered it.
"Hello?" she answered.
"Hi Gramma," a voice said on the other side.
She had known this call would be coming today,
"Hi sweet heart!" She said, happy to hear her grandson's voice.
"Mommy says it's your birthday today Gramma. Did you have a party?"
"No, honey. Grandma's too old for parties." She laughed, "Not you though. Your birthday is coming up soon isn't it? You're going to be…15 right?" She said jokingly.
"No!" her grandson said and started to laugh. "I'm going to be 7!"
"I know, Adam, I was just kidding." She laughed again. "Is mommy there? Grandma would like to talk to her."
"Yeah….Mommy!" She heard him yell.
"Bye Gramma, love you" Adam said.
"Love you too."
"Mom?" her daughter answered.
"Hi Maggie." She replied.
"Sorry, he wanted to call you. He didn't understand why we didn't have a party."
"It's fine. I was just resting. So, how was John's little talk with his boss today?" she asked.
"It went good! He's one of three candidates up for the vice-president position now. If he gets it, we'll be able to afford the renovations for the kitchen by my 37th like we wanted."
"That's wonderful! You both deserve it. "She said.
The line was quiet for a moment as her mind raced back to the days when she once believed she would have a normal, happy life like her daughter did.
"Mom, I hope you didn't think about…all that stuff today. You can't dwell on the past."
"Honey, I'm not dwelling. Just remembering is all. It's nice to sit and remember things sometimes, even if they do make you a little sad." She said.
"Well, I actually got a call this morning from a man named Timothy…hold on let me find his name. I wrote it down so I wouldn't forget. Upham. Timothy Upham. He said he knew you from a long time ago and I didn't know if you actually knew him or remembered him. Do you?"
She almost dropped the phone. She hadn't heard that name in years and the thought of the man brought back too many emotions at once for her to give a complete answer.
"Anyways, he said he had been trying to find you for some time and didn't know you had changed your last name until a man named Richard told him a few days ago. He said he passed away yesterday and thought you would like to attend the funeral on Monday. He must've been using a phonebook from before you moved out and we moved in last year."
Reiben was dead? He couldn't have been too much older than her. A tear rolled down her cheek as she searched for something to say.
"I'm sorry mom. That probably ruined your night. I thought he was just some guy, I didn't think you really knew him too well since I'd never met him. "
"No no. It's okay. I remember them both, but only slightly." She lied. She remembered everything about Upham, everything about Reiben. She couldn't forget.
"Well, he said the service is in France at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial and that Richard's family has offered to pay for your plane ticket if you want to go. I guess he really wanted you there for some reason."
Again, she didn't know what to say. She knew going to the service would be hard, but just being in that cemetery would be even harder. As much as she wanted to go for Reiben's sake, she didn't know if she could mentally handle it.
"I'll…I'll have to think on it."
"Okay mom. Sorry to ruin your night I didn't know,"
"It's fine honey. I'm just going to go to bed now. I love you."
"Love you too."
She placed the phone back on the receiver and grabbed a tissue from its box. She wiped her eyes and lay back down on her bed, knowing that she would need to make her decision in the morning.
She gripped the arm of her seat as the plane took off. She hated planes. Her daughter had persistently insisted that she go with but Desiree couldn't let her. There was a huge chance that she would break down and she didn't want Maggie to see that. She hoped she wouldn't regret her decision to go alone. The man sitting next to her was young, probably about 25. He had huge headphones on his head and smelled like cigarettes. She tried to remember the first time she had had a cigarette. She rested her head back, and searched her mind.
It had been about 4 months after she turned 18. Only 4 months and there she was: surrounded by a bunch of men she didn't know on a small boat. She had quickly gotten used to not having her long hair on her shoulders, not wearing makeup and unpleasantly, not showering. A wave of water crashed into the boat soaking everyone. The salt burned her eyes. She raised her arm too wipe off her face and noticed she was shaking. She was scared. Everyone was scared. A man standing next to her leaned forward and heaved but nothing came out. Apparently, their ration of water and bread they had for breakfast 6 hours ago had already been digested. He heaved again. Another man behind him put his arm on his shoulder and said,
"You're gunna be fine Johnson."
She wished she could say something to comfort the boy who was probably the same age as her but she was afraid if she stopped clenching her jaw, she would break into tears. They could hear gunfire just a few yards in front of them and knew the doors would open any second. Men were praying all around her and she wished at that moment that she believed in God. She thought of why she was doing this. Her brother Jimmy would be thankful he didn't have to leave his family and Jacob would be able to grow up with his dad around. That was why she had placed herself in this position. She remembered opening the draft letter in front of the post office back in Pittsburgh and knew at that moment that she would do anything to stop her brother from going to the war. A captain at the front of the boat yelled back that the doors were about to open. They all grabbed their guns and waited. They all knew that they would probably be pummeled with bullets the second they saw the beach. The air was thick with the smell of blood. They waited. Waited.
"OPEN!" yelled the captain, and the doors fell down.
She didn't see anything else but the beach as she jumped out of the crowded boat and tried her best to swim to shore. She could hear the bullets flying past her head as she tried to keep herself aloft in the water and knew she had to keep calm if she didn't want to drown. She struggled, but was able to quickly get the pack full of rations and blankets off her back. It felt like a bag of bricks had just been taken off her shoulders. She swam fast to the shore and ran behind a barrier. She looked back and saw that the ocean was tinted red and full of bodies. Everyone that had flanked left had been killed except for her. She looked right and saw the rest of the group hidden behind another barrier. They had had more luck going to the right. There were about ten men left. She knew it was a huge risk but she needed to regroup with them. She took a huge breath, and hoped it wouldn't be her last as she threw herself forward and ran as fast as she could. The wet sand was like suctions cups on her shoes and it slowed her down drastically. She could see the bullets hit the ground in front of her. She jumped and hurled herself behind the barrier with the other men.
"You alright Parker?" a man asked as he helped her up.
"Yeah, I think so." She replied, masking her voice.
"Good. Okay, everyone listen up!" The man said.
"We need to get over to the barricade about 50 feet in front of us to meet up with C Company. Anyone got any ideas that won't get us all killed?"
She couldn't think of anything. She couldn't focus. Her heart was still thumping hard against her chest when she looked down and saw Johnson lying on the ground, half his face was gone. Her stomach turned and she almost got sick. All she could think about was his poor mother and how just a few minutes ago, he had been told he'd be alright.
"Bring up the bangalores!" She heard someone yell up shore.
They waited until they heard "fire in the hole" and then they ducked and covered. Dirt, sand, and god knows what else rained down on them.
"We're good. Let's go!" The man called out.
They ran towards where the bangalores had been used. Desiree landed with a thud against the sand barrier. She slid slightly up, enough to see her first German soldiers. Her heart filled with hate as she thought of Johnson. She aimed at one as he loaded his gun and a split-second before she pulled the trigger; he fell to the ground with blood spurting out of his neck.
"Got 'em." A voice next to her said. It was the captain from the ship. As he rolled over, she read the print on his bag.
She sat for a second, surprised at the fact at how easily she almost just killed another human being.
"This is war," she told herself, "you'll have to do it at some point."
A few minutes later, all gunfire stopped and all she could hear was the cries of the wounded and the crash of the waves against the shore.