He didn’t believe the heart could be pierced like that, not at first sight; then he met her. Her eyes were so full of hurt that it was painful to look in them; He made them beautiful again. The doctors told him he could never cry again; She unlocked his soul and brought tears. Her heart was so brittle, her pulse almost broke it; he made it into something that could feel again.
There was no one waiting for his return in the airport. He’d had a brother and a cousin, but now they were gone too. He wished he could join them- in Arlington. But he had been left just alive enough to suffer. And he had been just strong enough to be crippled. He was returning now to nothing. No family or friends lived in the town that he hated. Buddies from the Army were either dead or still overseas. At least he didn’t have to stay; his physical therapy would start in a week, and it would be somewhere on the map, at least, not this dustbowl where the adults were depressed and the children were vandals.
He had had long days in Kabul, but that week of waiting was the longest of his life. He would wake every night, sweating and scrabbling at the sheets, muttering warnings to already dead friends. The days were barely better, as they only consisted of waiting for the night to come and again bring the whispering ghosts of the past. He survived with a few notches in his sanity, and his temper worn down to a taught wire. The nurses were clueless, thinking peppiness was an acceptable attitude when dealing with soldiers who had witnessed inhumanities daily. The beige walls, mauve ceiling, and cream floors were nauseating, closer to a children’s show set than a recovery center. At least hospitals were modern and busy, and didn’t cater toward seniors who had lost their minds.
After a lifetime of reliving hell, over and over, he was finally shipped to the VA hospital in D.C.. They allowed him to drive himself, not because it was procedure, but because nobody was going to tell him no. His black Ram sped down the interstate, his dog tags rattling against each other in the rearview mirror. They read:
Gates, Corbin J.
He arrived late, always late, not because he was careless, but because it took a long time to crutch into the hospital and onto the third floor. They’ll never be quite the same. The Kabul medic had told Corbin months ago, as he lay wrapped in bandages, his legs shattered. Also, the blast shriveled your tear ducts. You’ll have to use artificial ones now; you’ll never cry again. The session was just starting, and he found himself slightly anxious. Would this worsen the pain in his nearly ruined legs? However, to his relief, the physical therapy proved gentle enough to spare him any seizures in his legs. His was on an elliptical, panting and exhausted, when a physician’s assistant behind him asked, “How are we doing over here?”
The tone grabbed Corbin immediately. It wasn’t the forced warmth the nurses used. It was genuine, coming from someone who didn’t pretend to know what he was going through. He stopped pedaling and turned toward the voice. Eyes. From farther away, one might have just said they were attractive. But that close, unable to look away, Corbin saw how full of sorrowful experience and concealed hurt they were. They were biting, almost, to the point that it was a physical blow to look in them. They matched the pain in his own, and something inside of him, something he had long thought dead, stirred. After a moment of choking on his stubborn voice, he managed a weak response. She nodded, said, “Keep it up,” and turned away.
Spontaneously, barely realizing he was doing it, Corbin stepped of the bike and touched her arm, then snatched back his hand before he caused offense. She faced him again, and once more they both flinched at the force of each other’s gazes. Corbin wasn’t sure why he did that, he had no idea what he was after. He offered a hand. “Corbin. Gates.” he said painfully.
The eyes scrunched as she smiled- genuinely, but there was wariness behind them- and shook his hand. “Mary.”
It was so… teenager, it was almost embarrassing. But Corbin couldn’t stop himself. She wasn’t quite what the magazines would have considered perfect cover material, but she was pretty, and to Corbin, there was something desperately alluring about her; In Mary’s eyes was an attractive vet who was undoubtedly only there on orders. Why had he taken an interest in her? She was no Holmes, but it was apparent from his tone and posture and his formality that he was the opposite of the types of men who normally noticed her. He was scarred but mild- wounded, but composed. But behind the enveloping glint of his grey stare, burning sorrow roiled in his eyes. So he had lost people too.
Corbin returned eagerly the next day and that time hovered at the weight pile; he had lost much of his prodigious strength since the bombing, but he was still in excellent shape. Occasionally, Mary would glance sidelong at him as she worked with other vets, a ghost of a wry smile dancing on her lips. That evening, after the session had wrapped up and most of the vets went home, Corbin asked Mary to drinks. She agreed, and she rode with him to a military bar in the city. If they had been enamored the day before, now they were even more taken with each other. They didn’t have everything in common, but where they differed, they could still respect- easily. The feeling grew, daily, weekly, until to his surprise, Corbin realized a month had passed. A month of grueling days just to get to the nighttime, when he could be with Mary. His legs strengthened, and his friends began coming home between tours. It struck Corbin one day that he wasn’t even depressed anymore. He would always carry the pain of his past, but now he could live with it. Mary felt the same way.
Four months later, when they were standing on a lonely pier on the Potomac, wrapped in each other’s arms, Corbin stepped away slightly. Perplexed, Mary turned to find him kneeling, holding a ring between his scuffed fingers. Mary’s hand covered her mouth. “I was ready to die,” Corbin said. “You made me want to live again. Mary Reed…” She was already nodding her head, and they both laughed in a release of pent-up emotion. “…Marry me?”
They were married the same day that Corbin received the papers clearing him for duty. The news felt like a hammer blow. Joy and trepidation flooded his mind in equal amounts. He put off telling Mary until after the wedding. The wedding, where her family clapped and his Army friends whooped as they kissed on the same pier where he proposed. When the reception had died down and they had a moment to themselves, Corbin removed the slip of paper from the inside pocket of his jacket. Mary’s beaming smile disappeared, and her eyes shone. “I’ve been cleared-”
“No…” Mary whispered.
“I leave in six weeks.”
“No.” she said again, louder.
The guests at the tables closest to them gave the couple a look. A tear carrying flecks of mascara rolled down Mary’s cheek. “You’re finally better, and now your going back?” she said thickly through her emotion.
A lump formed in Corbin’s throat. What could he say to that? The night and following weeks passed both quickly and slowly. An acute sense of unreality hung over their time together in their tiny apartment. The day he left consisted mostly of them just swaying together on the fire escape. It felt to Corbin like he was being split in two. In a way, he was.
A carrier was docked in a military harbor near the mouth of the Potomac. It was to carry Corbin and several dozen others back to the hell they hated, but perversely and tragically needed. Crowds of relatives clustered together on the concrete pier, some sobbing, others silent in their worry or pride. The order was given to board, and a wave of finality struck everyone there. Corbin turned and kissed Mary, cupping her face in his hands. He didn’t want to move.
“Come on, buddy!” some of his friends shouted from the ship’s ramp.
Mary was shaking; even in her dread, that wasn’t like her.
“What is it, baby?” Corbin asked without breaking the kiss.
Mary exhaled, her breathing shallow.
The diagnosis that had held true for almost a year was bested then. Corbin laughed in shocked joy, then, to his dumbstruck surprise, he found himself crying.
Week V, ‘Love’ in title.