Due to an injury and the fact that I’ve taken up another project, I will not be able to continue writing short stories for the foreseeable future. In the mean time, please enjoy this short story, which was originally published in December 2014.
Liza remembered having waited by the phone for Darryl to call her after their first date. She had tried to pretend that was not what she was doing because she thought girls who did that were pathetic. In any case, it hadn’t been long before Darryl called.
This time was so much longer, and Liza didn’t think it was pathetic. She didn’t try to talk herself out of it or convince herself that was not what she was really doing.
She read next to the phone. She ate her meals next to the phone. She showered as quickly as possible and then rushed to check her messages while water dripped from her hair onto the floor. She refused to deny herself the occasional night out with friends, but she usually spent those nights wondering if the phone was ringing in her empty apartment.
Unlike the last time, when she had waited so hopefully for the sound of an incoming phone call, now she waited with dread. She hoped she would never have to hear that sound again, even as she waited endlessly for it.
The arrival of the daily mail brought just as much anxiety, all tangled up with hope and fear, because it could contain either bad news from the army or a letter from Darryl himself. He did write occasionally, and Liza always tore open the envelopes to read and reread his letters.
The letters were a mixed blessing. They were proof that he was alive (or at least had been a short while ago), but reading them broke her heart. He was scared. He missed her. He was always either fighting for his life or killing time in camp, bored out of his mind.
His early letters tried to remain upbeat. He knew she worried about him and he didn’t want to cause her any concern. Then his positive facade started to crumble. He grew more cynical and it showed in his letters more and more. Liza slowly watched the man she loved morph into an angry, frightened, resentful man who didn’t resemble the one she had married.
Liza wanted to find Darryl and wrap her arms around him. She wanted to tell him everything would be OK. She had started counting the days until his return even before he left. She just wanted him home safe and to know that he was hers.
While she waited, reports came in of numbers. The numbers of men being drafted. The numbers of men coming home in body bags or not coming home at all. So many lives reduced to mere numbers.
When Liza got the news that Darryl was coming home, safe and sound, she cried with relief.
She met him at the airport. They smiled and hugged and just looked at each other, drinking in the faces they had nearly forgotten.
Darryl was leaner and more muscular than when he had left. His hair was shaved into a buzz cut and he had a scar that angled across his left cheekbone. It had mostly healed, and now left nothing more than a pink line across his face.
Liza traced the scar with her fingers. “You never told me about this,” she said.
“I didn’t want you do worry,” he said, pulling his head away from her hand. “It’s nothing.”
Liza wanted to say it didn’t look like nothing, but Darryl’s tone was so dismissive, she let it go. She didn’t want to start fighting on his first day back.
Instead, she said, “Let’s get you home.” She wrapped an arm around his waist and started walking. He had an arm around her shoulders, but Liza sensed a distance. His arm hung loosely around her, rather than holding her close like he used to.
She shook off her worries. He just needed some time to readjust.
Liza awoke suddenly to the sound of Darryl’s fist whooshing past her ear and into the mattress right next to her pillow. She jumped awake and fell off the side of the bed in her mostly-asleep hurry to avoid the impact. She whacked her head on the nightstand on her way down.
The clatter woke Darryl, who immediately stopped thrashing as Liza nursed the growing bump on her head.
“Liza?” he said.
“Yeah?” she said from the floor.
Following the sound of her voice, Darryl crawled across her side of the bed and peered over the edge. “What are you doing on the floor?”
Liza glared at him.
“Why don’t you tell me?”
“I was sleeping peacefully, minding my own business, when suddenly there was this loud ‘WHUMP!’ right next to my left ear. Scared me half to death. I jumped right out of the bed. Now do you want to tell me what all that racket was about?”
Darryl’s brow furrowed. “I don’t remember,” he said, but it was a mumbled reply that didn’t convince Liza.
“Uh huh,” she said, grabbing her pillow. “Well, if you happen to remember and want to talk about it, I’ll be on the couch.”
Liza tossed and turned the rest of the night. Every time she tried to relax, she would see Darryl’s perplexed expression over the edge of the bed and she would feel guilty again. Poor Darryl. He would never hurt her. She was just cranky because she had been woken in the middle of the night and ended up on the floor with a headache. A rude awakening, to be sure, but she could hardly blame Darryl for it. Before her guilt could coax her back to the bedroom, Liza fell asleep.
Her second waking was much sweeter. Darryl was standing over her with a plate of hot, microwaved waffles, already soaking in syrup, and a steaming cup of coffee. Liza smiled. “Morning,” she said.
“She sat up and reached for the plate and mug.
“Oh, did you want some, too?” said Darryl.
Liza hesitated before Darryl’s face broke into a grin and he handed her the plate and mug. Liza smiled back and tried to think of a comeback, but her sleep-addled brain came up blank. She settled for slapping him on the arm as she took her breakfast.
He sat next to her on the sofa as she ate, cradling his own cup of coffee in his large hands.
“Is it too much to hope you slept well last night?” said Darryl.
“I slept OK,” she said, trying to keep her voice light.
Liza smiled up at him, careful to keep her lips closed around a mouthful of food. She finished chewing her mouthful and swallowed before answering. “Probably no worse than you slept.”
Darryl shrugged. “I slept OK.”
Liza noticed the dark bags under his eyes. “Liar.”
He smiled at her. After a moment, he said, “It’s weird. The whole time I was over there, the only way I could sleep was by imagining you lying next to me. Then, when you finally are lying next to me, I nearly kill you.”
“You’ve been through a lot,” said Liza, resting a hand on his shoulder.
He stared at his coffee mug as he rotated it in his hands. Liza noticed his lips pressed tight together and knew that meant he didn’t want to talk. She finished the last of her breakfast and headed to the kitchen with her dirty dishes. “Well, I have to get to work,” she said. “What do you have planned for the day?”
“I thought I would start at the station. See if they would give me my old job back.”
“Good!” Liza’s voice came out higher-pitched than she had intended.
“You sound surprised.”
“I am. I mean, it’s just hard, you know? You hear so many stories of all these vets that come home and can’t even get a job after being sent off to fight for their country half way across the world. I’m glad you have something to come back to.”
“I have you.”
“Of course you do.”
“I mean it.” He came up behind her, placed his hands on her hips, and gently turned her to face him. “The thought of coming home to you was the only thing that kept me going at times.”
She was stunned. She looked at him for a moment as he looked back at her, letting her see the truth in his eyes. After a moment, she wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. All she could feel was him. She had missed this feeling for so long that having it again was almost overwhelming.
Darryl pulled out of the embrace and cupped her face in his hands. “I’m really sorry about last night. You know that right?”
“I never want to hurt you.”
“I know,” she said taking hold of his hand as he brushed her cheek.
To be continued …