Blackbox by Tiffany Madison


- Written for 2009 Alex's Lemonade Charity Fiction Auction

- Selected as Judge's Choice published in Pooled Ink available on Amazon.

PART I: HIM

The compulsion to breathe forced his lungs to retract and expand; his eyes fixed upon the spinning tread by his face. Blinking, he tried to recall what happened, remembering only a blur of action.

He knew he had been shot, that his convoy was ambushed, though he couldn’t lift his head to see, or feel his legs. One second they were driving and in the next they weren’t.

A rush of potent, primal endorphins coursed from his torso to his head at the reminder, nullifying bodily agony with tremors of shock, cementing his dire straits. This is it, he realized through scattered thoughts; that understanding dousing morbid clarity with a deluge of fear.

God forgive me for my sins, he prayed silently, urgently, knowing death was coming for him now. Nine days ago he had felt a premonition that his time was near; a sense of foreboding had hovered over his daily routine. He hadn’t been sure when it would happen or how, just that his time was close.

But what if you can live through this? An errant thought of fortitude whispered. His subconscious bidding him to hold on, to stay awake and keep breathing, as painful as it was. To survive.

Panicked courage surged, igniting his will to live and to fight back, to find his gun and shoot. But as he tried to grasp soldierly duties, a battlefield explosion shook his world so thoroughly that his teeth broke, stopping those illusions in their tracks. It was his turn to die in Iraq.

“I’m sorry,” he choked out to her, wishing he could have seen her smile one last time.

Grasping that he would never touch his wife again, his broken hands became active, sliding through blood-soaked sand. Though acceptance of death had toyed with him, this new conclusion broke his heart anew. Would he ever see her? Be with her again?

Yes, his heart promised. Clinging to that hope, he spent his remaining energy turning his head toward the sky, frantically seeking color beyond the billowing smoke above. He searched for Heaven prematurely and prayed that afterlife awaited them both.

Chaotic fire rang out as a tremor of fleeting life swept through his core, and he knew each second left was charity. He decided then that these final moments on Earth would be spent with her.

Closing his eyes tightly, he receded to a place entirely their own as mental snapshots of wedding day memories flashed vividly behind fluttering lids. He whispered her name, and neither the voices of men nor the snaps of gunfire could steal him away from her laughter.

He recalled how wonderful and warm she had been in his arms, how soft her skin felt, next to his every morning spent together. As hot blood soaked his side, he could almost feel her next to him.

“You’ll wait for me?” he confirmed amid the bustle of activity. It was time to go. Kissing her again and again, he hugged her close, believing she would be good to him, wanting to be as closer. He knew that hundreds of days would pass between this moment and Iraq, each one full of the pull for her touch. She nodded as tears defeated bravery. Her fingers touched his face as she prayed he would come home to her again.

Searing pain ripped him back to reality as the forces of death slowed his heart. Still, he held on to the memory of her face, feeling regret more painful than his open wound.

He didn’t want to die, didn’t want to leave her.

Raging into the forgotten surrounding chaos, he wished in vain he could have fought harder for her, prayed she would be safe and happy, hoped she knew how much he loved her.

This is it, he confirmed to himself again, his vitals bowing to death’s demands.

How strange it feels to die, he thought. Staring into the blue unknown, he wondered if he should close his eyes now. He succumbed, his mind detaching from mortal determination, from reality, his last breath one of letting go.

In his final moments, as his fellow countrymen rushed to his side, those bloody, dirty fingers released the fine grains of ancient sand.

And for him, life was over.


PART II - HER

Swallowing the lump in her throat, she stared at the box on the floor of the otherwise-empty apartment; it was time to open it.

It had been so long, but the glossy black finish resurrected grieved-over memories of sitting on their bed alone, staring at the same box for hours. In it were not only the last words of her lost husband, but his confessions, his longing for a home with her—his goodbye. During her darkest, loneliest days she had burned to read his words again, to feel him in the only way she could, to see the proof of his life.

But she never did. Days, weeks, and months had been spent navigating expectations and obligations, existing while never quite living. Repairing herself had required locking him away to places rarely explored. For her sanity, she had refrained, believing she just needed more time.

But that was not the whole truth. Deep down she believed that after all they had shared, pretending she could say goodbye was a betrayal of his memory. Even now, standing on the edge of the very act, this conviction was so deep that she prolonged the attachment.

With a deep breath, she glanced at the new ring on her finger and repeated to herself the reason for this self-torture. It was the right thing for her future, the fair thing for both men. After tracing the glossy cardboard to delay the inevitable, she took another heavy breath and opened the lid.

At first glance the contents were seemingly insignificant, ordinary objects special only to them: ticket stubs from movie dates and a napkin with her phone number on it. He had saved her ponytail holder and a pebble from the beach where they made love for the first time.

The little pieces of the two of them were deeply sentimental to her, but these she could handle. It was the nine letters tucked in the corner that scared her, one from each month of his second deployment. She had read each one a thousand times during those days of waiting and worrying, each revealing more of the man she loved while simultaneously showing her the changes in him. She stared at his writing on the envelope and the words stared back.

“It’s time,” she whispered to herself, speaking her resolve aloud to prevent it from shattering.

Reaching shakily for one of the letters, the crisp paper felt like an old friend against her fingertips, but she did not relish the familiarity. In the darkest corner of her heart, she remained bitter. Instead of papers and words and all of this heartache, she still wanted the impossible. She wanted him.

Don’t, she chided herself. This game would get her nowhere, stopping all movement as her chest swelled with grief. It’s time, she repeated her silent mantra. And it was.

Carefully, she opened the precious envelope and unfurled his first letter from its fold, losing herself in his words immediately.

December

Your letter arrived a few days ago. When I opened the envelope, I could still smell your perfume. Thank you for that. I miss you so much.
I was going to email you, but the line was so long that I gave up. My handwriting is bad and I hate letters, but you asked and I’m doing it for you. Time is too spotty for me to jot you a long one and there’s nothing good to tell, so I’ll just write as things happen.
Christmas is coming in a few weeks. I feel like a kid, but I can’t wait to see what you got me. I hope more pictures.
We’re so bored.
My heart skips sometimes when I remember that summer we spent in your apartment. I knew then that I loved you.
It’s late here and everyone is sleeping, but I can’t. I think about you all the time, and how badly I want to see you. I swear that I’ll make you so happy when I get home.
We got a mission and we’re ready for it. Some kid that buries bombs along our routes with a small metal plate as the trigger. They’re flush with the road until the Humvee presses the plate. Then all hell breaks loose. We all want to find him.
This week we hit a cold spot on Bomb Boy. So close.
Right now, I’m driving through a city thousands of years old. Older than anything we’ve ever seen in our entire lives. Older than anything in Europe.
I’ve had only two hours of sleep, and if I hear another Christmas carol I’m going to snap. None of them can sing.
I thought today would never end. We went out on mission this whole week without incident. Cooper says we’re just showing presence now, and I can see what he means. Sometimes they even seem to like us.
It’s almost Christmas and your package hasn’t arrived yet, but I know the mail is slow. I can’t wait to spend Christmas and New Years with you for once. I want a tree and decorations. We’ll live it up, I promise.
Today reminded me all over again that I was born to do this. I can’t help it—I want to fight. Thank you for sticking this out with me.
Merry Christmas. Do you want to know what I want? You in this tent with me right now. I miss you like crazy. I hope I get your package before New Year’s. I’m sending this now. I love you—don’t forget that.

Though silent tears had fallen the moment she had unfolded the paper, she cried even harder once pulled from his stream of thought, those tears insignificant responses for such great loss. All of his promises were unfulfilled; all of his dreams of their life together, of returning to her, were lost.

“I missed you, too,” she whispered to his written words, and traced the ink with her fingertips, hoping he had meant what he said: that he was born to fight and die for what he believed in. Truly, she wanted to believe his certainty as she recalled the long months of her life spent without him, the days of pacing and daydreaming of his return, deciding it was all worth it if he had been happy.

She mourned harder than she had in years ago, since those uniformed soldiers drove away, leaving her with nothing. The tightness in her chest strained her breath and pain ripped anew. His hold on her was still so deep.

Irrationally, she teetered on the edge of uncertainty now that her emotion was fresh. But she had a dark choice then: to call the wedding off or pretend she could say goodbye. Staring at the letters in the box, seeing only the one she wanted to avoid. It was his last transmission to her, a well-documented testament to the changes that contradicted her faith in his purpose; changes she wanted to pretend didn’t exist.

You owe it to him; to them both; to yourself, she reminded her courage. And she was right. Folding the paper in her hand ever-so neatly, she slid it back into its envelope, fearful of what would come next, yet unable to mourn so deeply forever. With all the strength she could muster, she slowly reached for his last letter, reading his slanted script as she had a hundred times before losing him.

July

Hey. I’m sure you got the letter that I’ve been extended to November and if not, well surprise! When they gave me those orders, I thought I would go crazy. They‘re lucky I’m way out here with no way to get free. I’m better now, so don’t worry. I just feel so far from you. I’m sorry about it all. At least I’ll be home for Christmas.
By the way, I wrote you a whole letter last week, but it disappeared. I must have lost it somehow, but I don’t understand how that happened. Sometimes I think I’m losing my mind in this heat.
The longer I’m here, the more I don’t understand this place. People are so desperate for security, but they don’t work with us like they could! It’s all about tribe and nothing else. On some level I respect that, but, at the same time, it makes me think nothing here will ever change. That we’re wasting our time and our lives for nothing.
Today was bullshit. I’m sick of the heat and the smell of people.
You should see the dirt in my knuckles. It’s going to take weeks to get off.
My right ankle is sprained from kicking doors in.
This is crazy, but the last few nights, I’ve dreamed of chasing the enemy through scattered tents. I never catch him.
Do you remember Bomb Boy from the start of my deployment? I told you about how we lost him, but we got word today we’re back on it.
We went to a neighborhood to question the locals today and it was weird. They kept smiling at me. I really can’t wait to get home.
I’m starting to worry that I don’t really know your daily routine at all—I’ve always been gone. Do you like where you work? How is your mom? Do you ever get to see her? When you write back, tell me what you do all day. I want to hear it all, so don’t hold back. Every little thing.
Time might be short for me to write, but I’ll try. We’re going out on react missions every shift it seems.
I wish all I had to worry about was protecting my own people.
I can’t wait to be with you. It’s all I think about lately and I shouldn’t say things like this in a letter, but when I get home, can we start a family? I know you want to and that you were just waiting for me, but I’m ready. Think about it and let me know.
Remember how I told you about that Humvee with those Marines on fire? I keep seeing that accident in my sleep.
The smell of fuel is soaked into my skin.
Civilians should see how we fight wars. They would demand their tax dollars back! We shoot last and ask questions first, but they never give us answers. Talking in circles is all they know, and when they lie to me I want to break their faces with my rifle.
Sorry. I shouldn’t have written that. If I didn’t already have so many days written on this paper, I’d cross that out. I don’t even know why this always comes out on the end when I could start over and leave it out. I hate that I do that. We’re going on a long mission, so I have to send this. I’m sorry I didn’t get time to write more. I just want to see you again, so badly. Just a few more months to go and I’ll be home. I love you. Don’t you ever forget that no matter what happens.

Thumbing his last words with the edge of her nail, teardrops rained on the letters. The tone of his last few notes had been so unlike him; so sad, so lost, and angry. She wanted to forget his unhappiness, the emptiness she could feel.

Her glassy eyes traced the letters of his last line again. It was the unorthodox use of 'you' and his final phrase that squeezed her heart. Those last lines seemed an instinctive choice to her, a way to say goodbye without using the actual words. Evidence that he thought he might die before sending it.

The dire need to hold him, to comfort him and let him know he was loved, forced her to lie down. With a frantic series of long-buried cries, she held the letter closer, bowing to her pain and loss. Unlocking her love was torture, but she let some free anyway, her body trembling with the force of it. Memories of the way he had said her name made her cry a little harder, spurring recollections of lying in his arms during those mornings spent together. So much time and life were robbed from them both.

“I love you,” she whispered to him, hoping somehow he knew that was still true after all these years.

Staring at her engagement ring once more, the small, carefully chosen diamond reflected guilt. She had said “yes” to a future out of fear that she never would love again. In a few days’ time she would be leaving their lost future and empty house for a new home, leaving behind every memory she and her husband had shared in every room. Leaving him.

An hour passed and she hardly moved. Each deep breath was no more therapeutic than she'd hoped. This pain had been prolonged unnecessarily; avoiding the grief did not diminish its intensity.

Let your past go and choose your future, her mind repeated that advice from a counselor given years ago. It was a cruel ultimatum; a choice no one should ever have to make. But after moments slipped into one another, the numbed grief resumed. That violent sadness gave way to heavy duty, and she lay quiet and empty, resigning to the loss.

Eyes clenched, she shed her last tears reluctantly, and promised him that one day they would be together again, that he was somewhere waiting for her. Sitting upright with all her strength, she tucked his last letter gently into the box. For at that moment, she accepted the truth. There was no more fighting, no more hoping, no more grieving to be done. Their future was over.

Slowly closing the lid, she prayed one final chant, hoping that he could forgive her.

“Goodbye,” she whispered. “I’ll never forget.”

And for her, life would continue.


THE END

Dedicated to J. Miller. Thank you. © Tiffany Madison, 2009