Phoebe has chosen the purple marker for her letters, because a soldier’s heart is purple, not red.
SomtIms solders nEd ther slEEp.
If Matthew likes her poem he’ll tape it to his closet door, under the swan dream drawing he likes so much.
“I wish I had dreams like that,” he said.
“What kind of dreams do you have?” she asked.
“Um … not swan dreams.”
“This is the swan in the stars,” Phoebe reminded him. “The one you told me about.”
I prA the lord your sol wil kEEp
I dont no whi war maks U trIed
but ths littl poim wil mAk U
What word rhymes with tired? No matter how hard she thinks, she can’t think of one.
* * *
Someone is calling his name.
Is it his name?
Hm-hm: two syllables. Two sounds stuck together like debris floating toward him on a desert wind.
“Matthew! Get down!”
He does not get down. He’s scanning the grounds, examining the face of the concrete structure, pock-marked by a violent disease. The door is solid, shut. Two windows stare blankly at him. He has seen that stare on the enemy’s face; it tells him nothing. Nothing but, “I am your foe. I am the unknown.”
The street is silent, the calm before the storm. Then--
Horizontal hail, bullets hot as hate.
One comes straight for him, its steely, spiraling head the head of a death-bee. He cannot move. This is it, he says. A bullet in the brain, metal meeting flesh, meeting memory and stopping it cold, on a sweltering day, on this city street, in a strange land. He says goodbye to Michelle, who glances over her shoulder from ten thousand miles away, pity flooding her face. He says goodbye to his parents, who stand at the front door, weeping. He says goodbye to--
It blazes past his helmet and slams into a wall.
Lee is there beside him, gripping Matthew’s arm. He has yanked him down.
Corporal Wills yells, “Douglas, the door!”
Douglas aims a grenade and fires. Like a tooth extracted the door is gone, leaving a smoking gap in the brown-stained grimace.
They move forward—Wills, Douglas, Matthew, and Lee.
Someone tugs him on the back, and he whips around. Lee’s mom is standing there, her eyes sad-gray, saying, “Promise? Promise? Promise?”
“Lee’s tough, Mrs. Walker” he tells her. “Don’t you worry about Lee.”
Lee is grinning at him. “When I get back—”
A white-light thunderclap alters their world.
Ashes … ashes …
A muffled voice.
A chunk of concrete in his view.
He tries to answer, peels away the pillow.
Smoke ... waves of distortion ... something pale emerging ...
He lifts his head to meet it.
A flower ... floating, unfolding. Pure and white, it opens for him.
A young girl’s face, calm, with soothing eyes, a crooked, heart-shaped smile.
* * *
He blinks the mist from his eyes.
“Did you say something?” she asks.
With uncertainty, he shakes his head. “I … don’t think so.”
“Well, it sounded like it to me.” She giggles. “You’re dressed and it’s bedtime!”
He looks at his clock. But it’s dead because he’d unplugged it—the red numerals burned his eyes.
Phoebe leans close, whispering with toothpaste breath, “I have something to show you.” She tugs his arm. “You’re slippery.”
“What is it, Phoebe?”
“Can you come to the window?”
At the window, with their heads underneath the shade, he kneels and she stands, her hand on his shoulder. He raises the window a crack, and the cry of a cricket springs up.
Phoebe points. “See? The moon’s up in a tree.”
It looks like a used cotton ball. “That’s a gibbous moon,” says Matthew.
Phoebe’s face goes blank. “What?”
“Gibbous. It’s lopsided.”
“Is it supposed to be?” Her voice has a squeak in it.
He nods. “It goes through phases. It waxes fuller and brighter, until it’s—”
“It waxes? Like what Michelle did?” The squeak in her voice now shows on her face.
“Phoebe, you’re too much. When the moon waxes it gets brighter.”
“A what kind of moon?”
“Like, gib-us this day our daily bread?”
“There you go again.” Though he doesn’t feel like it, he can’t help smiling. “Gibbous means it’s not complete, not all there.”
“Oh.” Then she says delightedly, “Like the soap that went down the drain!”
Another smile. “Did it?”
More giggles. “Yes!”
“You gotta watch that with soap.”
“Or like your hand,” she says.
He yawns in place of a reply.
“Matthew,” says Phoebe, “what rhymes with tired?”
“Tired … hmm … I don’t know.”
“I don’t either.”
“Fired? Is that a word?”
“It’s a word.”
She tells him goodnight and turns to go, when out of the moonglow and shadows comes something that brings her back, and Matthew hasn’t moved.
What a haunting sound. A sentinel noting secrets in the night. It’s been a long time since Matthew’s heard it, the call of an owl.
It could be the same owl, or one of its offspring, that he encountered when he was a boy, as he and Lee played in the woods, having a fight with two laser pointers from his dad’s small arsenal. They were honing their skills of stealth and strategy, dodging and ducking around trees, aiming the thin red lines at each other, while a chorus of insects provided the score. When the chorus suddenly stopped, Matthew heard a movement from behind, just above his head, and whirled to shoot his light on Lee. It wasn’t Lee. It was a great barred owl, perched on a branch, glaring at him, authority in its wings. Matthew lowered his light, and through his fascination began to feel shame. Against this raw reality, their play had shrunk to foolishness.
In a faraway voice, Phoebe asks, “What’s he saying?” and Matthew doesn’t answer.
She’s tapping his shoulder now.
He stirs himself, and says, “I think he’s looking for a friend.”
© 2015 by Troy Howell