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i couldn't utter my love when it counted

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Marie knew the war would change her husband - she’d be naive not to - but she didn’t realise exactly how much

 

He was sent home early with an honourable discharge. Wounded in the line of duty. With a bullet in his back, he was picked up and shipped off of the field of war.  

 

Marie was ironing when she got the letter. If it were any other ordinary day, she wouldn’t have remembered what she was doing when the postman came. But this was no ordinary day, and it was no ordinary postman.

 

He was from the military, in his formal uniform - nicely pressed and fitting his body like a glove. A young thing. Couldn’t be much older than 18. A boy who looked like he was playing dress up in his father’s clothes. 5’7”; black hair, short and styled off of his face; cleanly shaved; sharp jaw. She would never forget this man’s face.

 

Who knows how many letters he had to deliver, and who knows how many of them said that someone was no longer coming home. Someone’s brother, someone’s father, someone’s lover.

 

When Marie first saw the man in uniform, her heart sank into her stomach. She couldn’t move. She stood there silently and opened the letter, the boy still standing on the porch.

 

The United States of America Marine Corp

To all who shall see these, greeting:

This is to certify that by the direction of the President and under provisions of section nine of the act of Congress, approved May 18, 1917, Cole James Phelps, First Lieutenant, Sixth Marines, U.S.A., was honourably discharged from the Marines in the United States Marine Corp at Okinawa Island, Japan, on the 25th day of August 1945.

 

As soon as she read the words ‘honourably discharged’, all Marie wanted to do was collapse on the floor and weep from happiness. Her husband was coming home. He was alive, and soon enough she would be able to hold him in her arms.

 

But the Soldier was still in her doorway, and she had prided herself on being a composed woman. So she would not collapse. She would not.

 

But that didn’t stop the gasp that escaped her mouth, and the tears that started to fall.

 

“Thank you for the letter,” she said, bowing her head a little in thanks.

 

“It was my duty, Ma’am,” He replied grinning, before bowing at her. “But I’m glad I could brighten your day.”

 

She watched the boy turn sharply on his heel, and leave her property. When it was acceptable, she closed the door, and let out all of the air that she was holding within her lungs.

 

Marie Phelps lets herself collapse on the floor. She lets herself bury her face in her hands and weep. If she had any makeup left, she would have cried it off. Her body was so heavy and so light at the same time, filled with so many emotions she didn’t know how to handle.

 

Her love was coming home. She didn’t know when the war would end, but at that moment, a selfish thought ran through her head. She didn’t care. Her Cole would be coming back.

 

She would have stayed there on the floor if not for her two girls running in from the back garden like a pair of excited puppies.

 

Peggy and Judith, her beautiful twin girls, age four. They had barely known their father, because of the war. He signed up and shipped off for the good of his country and his people.

 

She wasn’t surprised - he was always the type to try and do what’s right. Make a difference. Follow the rules and laws of our land to make it a better place. Him leaving hit her harder than she thought it would. To have him around every day, to kiss her, to play with his girls, to play records and dance with her in the living room.

 

The thought of having him back brought all those feelings back again.

 

“Mama, why are you crying?” Peggy asks, halting to a stop at her mother’s side. Judith follows behind, shoes skidding on the wooden floor as she tries not to crash into her sister. Black hair in nice tight braids, dresses slightly torn around the edges, and dirt on their shoes. “Are you okay?”

 

She picks herself up off of the floor, wipes away her tears, and brings her girls towards her. One in each arm, she surrounds herself with them.

 

“These are happy tears,” she says. “Daddy’s coming home.”

 

Judith jumps up and down and squeals in pure joy, Peggy covers her mouth with her hands and gasps. Marie smiles, watching the pure joy decorate her daughter’s faces. Their father would be back.

 

Cole would be coming home, and she was not prepared for the reality for it. She didn’t know better.

 

Marie didn’t know when Cole would be back. So she started preparing immediately. Everything needed to be in place for when he came home. She made sure the bed has fresh sheets, all neatly tucked in. She got the girls to clean their room, tidying up all of their toys.

 

Going through the house room by room, she cleaned. Scrubbing the floor, wiping down the surfaces, dusting the ornaments she had on display, taking the rugs out back to beat the dust and dirt out of them. It gave her a new sense of purpose she hadn’t felt in a long time.

 

Before, she survived. Now, she lived.

 

Peggy wanted to learn how to make paper flowers - to put together a bouquet for her Daddy that wouldn’t wilt. She took old newspapers to practice on. Marie didn’t mind, she didn’t get to see the depressing headlines this way.

 

Judith wanted to write her own song. A welcome back song she could perform the day Daddy got home. She could hear her singing as she played in the yard, singing as she showered, singing as she ate until Marie told her not to.

 

---

 

Cole stepped foot on the front porch a week and a half later. His formal military uniform - ironed and pressed until there were no wrinkles, his tie neat and centred, shoes shined, hair slicked down and hidden underneath his hat.

 

They drilled a lot of things into you in the Military and keeping your uniform clean and in order was one of them. He liked things clean anyway - Cole had a feeling he wasn’t going to break that habit anytime soon.

 

He could see the light shining through the curtains. They were home. It was evening, they were most likely eating dinner. Or maybe they were doing the dishes together. Something simple. Calm. Domestic.

 

Marie would have made herself a new routine, a different structure of life without him in it. She would have had to - essentially raising two young girls on her own. Basically a single mother - along with every wife of a soldier out there.

 

He barely even knew his own children. They were still babies when he applied for ROTC, and toddlers when he left for Marine Camp,  small and fat, with toothless smiles and matching onesies. Marie had sent him photos - so he knew what they looked like - but didn’t know anything about them. They’d have personalities now. Likes and dislikes. Favourite colours, favourite foods.

 

Marie would know what to say to calm them down, what song they liked to hear as she brushed their hair, what story they liked to read when they went to bed.

 

What had his wife told them about him? Did they know who their father was? What he was like? Would they even recognise him?

 

Once he stepped through that door, he would have to join in their casual domesticity. He would no longer be a Marine, but a War Vet. Retired from service. He’d have to get a job, provide for his family, start making his own choices again.

 

There’d be no commander to tell you what to do, to tell you what you did wrong as soon as you did it, to be there if you had a question.

 

He’d be on his own. He had to make his own decisions. What job to apply for, what food to eat, when to go to sleep and wake up. Moving forward, he was a free man. And he was terrified.

 

It had been years of having all his decisions made for him. Every single one. And as soon as he stepped foot through that door, it would all be gone, and Cole didn’t know how to handle it.

 

He didn’t know how long he stood there, waiting silently on his front porch for his cowardice to leave him.

 

Cole didn’t know if it ever would. Not with the Silver Star pinned to his chest to remind him of what he did. What he caused. And the honourable discharge pin in his lapel, just to drive home the fact that he got to go home early. Alive and well. Unlike so many others. Unlike so many others that were under his command.

 

God, the neighbours could probably see him. Standing on the porch for something to happen. They’d think he was a nut. Got a bad case of Shell Shock. He should open the door.

 

Taking a deep breath, Cole drew his hand into a fist and swung it up towards the door. Two knocks, knuckles on wood. He stood at attention, duffel bag in hand.

 

Movement in the window. The sounds of shoes on floorboards. The soft, casual motions of a woman in her home. Cole didn’t know if it could be considered his home anymore. Not after so many years away.

 

The door opened. There stood Marie - his wife, his best friend. Hair nicely curled, swooped off of her face. A new blouse - a soft cream colour, with matching buttons and a clean cut collar. Gorgeous as ever.

 

Her hair was a little greyer, face a little more wrinkled, but she was still beautiful. Cole was honestly lucky he still had a wife after his time in the war. Not many husbands were so lucky. Not a lot of wives were so lucky either.

 

“Cole,” she said, the words falling out of her slackening mouth. Tumbling and rolling off of her tongue. He watched her lips form the letters and sounds of his name - the soft roundness of the C, followed by the O - lips pink and plump in a soft gape. He watched her tongue hit the roof of her mouth to form the length of the L, to finish off his name.

 

It looked strange in her mouth. It felt odd in his ears.

 

Here, he was Cole. Husband, father, neighbour. He wasn’t Lieutenant Phelps anymore. The sharpness of the T, the pop of the P. They said it sharply. With effort and conviction.

Marie was in shock. She didn’t mean to say his name - it just happened. His name was an accident. A foul. A mistake in her mouth.

 

“Hello Marie,” He replied, lips trembling into a smile. Cole didn’t know what else to do. He dropped his bag onto the porch as she threw herself into his arms. Burying her face into his chest, the metal buttons of his jacket digging into her skin. She didn't care.

 

Wrapping his arms around her, Cole pressed her into his chest. Feeling the soft material of the new blouse, the beat of her heart, the warmth of the blood running through her veins. He placed one hand on her back, just above the waistband of her skirt. The other on the back of her head.

 

She cried, tears dripping down her face, seeping into his formal jacket.

 

Cole wondered if she could feel the Silver Star pinned to his chest.

 

Marie slowly pulled away, bringing her hands up to cup her husband’s face. She smiled up at him, eyes still watering and lips wobbling. Brushing a thumb underneath his eyes, she wiped away a tear.

 

Oh. He was crying. He smiled down at her, and let his wife pull him in for a kiss. She pressed their lips together, tears pressing together on their cheeks.

 

It was the first time he had been kissed in almost four years. It had become a foreign feeling. Kisses. Hugs. Affection. Weird and misplaced. He didn’t deserve a hug. He didn’t need one.

 

Cole didn’t tell his wife this. He kissed her back and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe away her tears. She covered his hand with hers, pressing the soft material into her cheeks and pulling it away into her hands.

 

He picked up his bag and followed his wife into her home. His home. Their home. Shutting the door behind them, they were finally alone. In private. Secluded. Surrounded by walls and windows. It felt small. Closed in.

 

Cole didn’t say anything.

 

As soon as he put his bag down he was charged at by a pair of identical girls with their dark hair in braids. One wore a pale yellow dress, adorned with tiny pink flowers and a sharp white collar. The other wore a shirt and blouse - light and dark blue, with a dark blue ribbon around her neck. Both of them chatted at him, talking about completely different things.

 

They were his girls. His twins. His daughters. And the sad thing was  - he couldn’t tell which one was which. Cole knew their names, Judith and Margaret (or Peggy for short) but he couldn’t decidedly say which one was which. Couldn’t say which was the more outgoing one, and which one prefered to stay inside.

 

They both had the same round face - their mother’s chin, their mother’s eyes. His nose, his jaw. The perfect combination of the two of them.

 

There were slight differences between them, as there always is with identical twins, but he didn’t know what details belonged to which one.

 

One had a birthmark underneath her right eye and a slight cleft in her chin.

 

The other had three distinct freckles on her face - right side of her lips, underneath her nose, and above her left eyebrow.

 

He still couldn’t name them. And he didn’t dare guess - lest he gets it wrong.

 

---

 

The first night back in his own bed was the worst.

 

He wasn’t used to going to bed so late. He wasn’t used to having someone sleep next to him. He wasn’t used to the bed being so soft. He wasn’t used to having the time to really settle in and prepare himself for sleep.

 

Cole wasn’t used to a lot of things.

 

He remembers their evening routines before he left for the front. He’d be in bed with a cup of tea and a book, watching his wife from her spot at the vanity. She’d have her nightgown on, with a (usually matching) dressing gown over the top with the waist tie tight in a bow.

 

Marie’s hair would be damp - never wet she had told him, otherwise her hair won't dry by morning. On the days she did wash her hair, of course.

 

She'd start with the brushing. 50 strokes through her hair were standard, although she had gossiped to him that some women did 100. Which she personally thought was ridiculous. 50 strokes were enough to redistribute her scalp’s natural oils along her hair - keeping it soft and healthy. Maybe he should try it - if his hair got long enough - she had once joked.

 

He’d watch her run her brush through her hair, silky smooth, dark and healthy. A part of him would want to run his own hands through it, although she had scolded him for that before. Half-heartedly of course, with a smile tugging at her lips as she shooed him away from the vanity.

 

With a pile of pins or rollers in a basket on the vanity next to her, Marie would start to pin her hair up. She’d take a small section from the top of her head, roll her hair up tightly, and then pin it down to her head. Going section by section, soon her whole head would be wrapped up in rollers, and then covered with a scarf. Transparent, of a soft pastel colour.

 

Cole used to like the pastel green one best - it bought out the green in her eyes.

 

Next, she would moisturise. She’d take the blue pot, unscrew the lid, and start applying it to her face. Smooth gentle motions, fingertips moving in circles to really rub it into her skin. To prevent dryness or chapping.

 

It made her so incredibly soft. He loved brushing hair out of her face, just to feel her sily smooth locks against his calloused fingertips. He loved running his thumb along her cheek, just to feel her soft skin pressed into his.

 

When she was pregnant, she looked perfect to him. Soft and gentle, plump and round, and so so happy to be carrying his children. He’d hold her, kiss her, and dance with her. Take his time to feel her in his arms. So perfectly soft and smooth and loving.

 

He’d put on a record, and with her in her dressing gown, and him in his slippers - he’d take her into his arms and dance.

 

That felt so long ago.

 

She had a different routine now, and so did he.

 

Marie took care of the girls first. Dress them into their pyjamas, brush their hair. Let them borrow a small amount of her moisturiser from time to time, she said. It made them happy they could be more like their Mommy. They would brush their teeth, and Judith would try to start a competition to see who could make the foamiest spit they could.

 

Judith was the one with the birthmark and the more outgoing personality, Marie had told him. He hoped he could remember that detail.

 

They would both get a bedtime story, half of the time from books, or from fairytales. The other half of the time, they wanted their Mommy to tell them stories about their Father as he protected their country. He was a hero in a suit of armour on a pure white horse.

 

If he had armour, he thought, then his own teammate wouldn’t have shot him. Cole didn’t mention this.

 

Marie still had her whole routine to go through, she said. Does he still want her to make him a cup of tea? No, he replies. Not tonight. The travel has made him tired, he says. Marie smiles and believes him.

 

The world has made Cole Phelps a very tired man.

 

In the Marines, they’d all have to wake up at 0400 hours, ready for physical training at 0430 hours. Train for an hour, before returning to the barracks at approximately 0530 hours to get ready for the day. Breakfast at 0600-0630 hours.

 

They did not have a set bedtime in the Marines. But in his unit, there was a light out of 2000 hours in order to get a solid 8 hours sleep.

 

Cole didn’t know if he could break this habit. He laid down in bed - the same bed as before - but it felt so different. Softer. Warmer. As if he was laying down on a marshmallow. Or a cloud. It was so soft, Cole felt like he was going to sink so far down into the mattress, it would open up and swallow him whole.

 

Cole didn’t say anything. He lay down in his too soft mattress, without a cup of tea, without a book, without watching his wife go through the motions. He closed his eyes and prayed for sleep.

 

---

 

He didn’t get to sleep long. He dreamt of the war. Of the dirt of the foxholes, of the guns and cannons, of the blood and fire.

 

Sweat sticking dirt to his face, melting into mud that threatened to fall into his eyes. The warmth and sweat of it rolling and dripping down his back, sticking his clothing to his tired body. Crouching in holes in the ground, foxholes and ditches. Legs burning with the strain of holding position for so long.

 

Bullets flying overhead, impacting the ground, sending chunks flying. Hitting his teammates, metal plunging into flesh, ripping their way through skin and muscle.

 

A gun in his hand. Finger pulling the trigger. Again. And again. And again. Shooting at those “filthy japs”. Do your duty to the country and your men. Kill the enemy, end the war. He didn’t see if the bullets hit. Didn’t see the blood leave their bodies and the life leave their eyes.

 

Yelling orders.

 

Chunks of his teammates' bodies’, unrecognisable by sight alone. An arm. A torso. Organs leaving bodies and blood coagulating in the dirt.

 

Shell shock.

 

Laying untouched in a foxhole for hours upon hours, waiting for another American to show up and take you back.

 

The smell of burnt flesh. The sound of Kelso yelling at him. The blood that ran down his skin, soaked through his uniform. The tight pressure in his back. The air leaving his lungs.

 

The pain that ripped through his body as the adrenaline left his body and he felt the bullet wedged in his back.

 

The sting as his body hit the ground.

 

The sting of an old wound in his back, still tightly bound with old bandages. The softness of the mattress consuming him.

 

It was late, and Cole was awake. His sleep shirt was sticking to his back, the sheets tightly wound around his body.

 

His chest, heaving up and down. The panic twisting his gut together, winching his ribs in until his lungs were crushed under the weight of it. He couldn’t breathe. Smoke, ash, dirt, filling his lungs and burning him from the inside out.

 

Cole wanted to leave. To go outside and soak in the cold air, to feel the grass underneath his bare feet. To escape the walls and door of his too-small house. He couldn’t wake up Marie. Or Peggy. Or Judith. He couldn’t let them know he failed them. He failed his men. His team.

 

He was the one who got Merrill blown to pieces. He was the one who fell behind. He was the one who called his team to set fire to the cave. To shoot the survivors. He failed his team, his family, his country. He got himself shot by his own man and got sent home with a phony star medal and an honourable discharge.

 

Cole Phelps was a fucking disgrace.

 

Moving slowly, stealthily, he slid his legs out from underneath the covers. The smooth wooden floorboards were cool underneath his feet, and he tried not to hiss at the shock of it. Standing up, he carefully put the covers back onto the bed, watching to see if Marie would stir. She didn’t used to, but who knows if she did now.

 

He needed to get out of the room. The walls too small, the bed too tiny, the curtains too dark. Walking out towards the kitchen, Cole made sure to shut the bedroom door behind him. Didn’t want to wake Marie up.

 

Now he needed a drink. Something to take the edge off. Help him sleep. That was it. Would the whiskey still be in the cabinet in the living room? That's where it used to be. Had always been. It was made of a dark wood, coated and polished - it was gift from his parents after their wedding.

 

The whiskey was in the kitchen. Pushed into the back of one of the higher cabinets. Didn’t want the kids to get it. Of course. Cole leaned up and pulled out the bottle - clean class, dark classy logo. His favourite brand.

 

There was barely a thimble of liquid left. Was he allowed to finish off the bottle? Would Marie be mad if he poured himself a glass, and drank away the rest of what was now an expensive, hard to come by, commodity. Sighing, Cole put the bottle back. Didn’t want to risk anything. Didn’t want to make her mad. Didn’t want to fuck up again.

 

Water would be fine. Generic tap water. Tastes of nothing.

 

His back pulled, his hands twitched, his heart thudded with so many unsaid things. He felt so deeply. Always threw himself into things with all of his might. Work, the Marines, family, love.

 

Cole had nothing to invest in now. He had no job, a wife and kids he barely knew, no friends. All he had was a cold and tiny house and a plain glass of water. He wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep again anytime soon.

 

Gripping his glass tighter, he unlocked the door to the small porch overlooking the backyard. It was small. A few trees, a small collection of flower bushes. His wife wasn’t much of a gardener. But it was pretty, and outdoors. So he sat on the too small porch, with his just water, and watched.

 

It was cold, and he was alone.

 

For the first time in a very long time, Cole wished he smoked. Wished he could burn away his problems at the end of a cigarette. Wished he could feel the burn of ash in his lungs instead of an ache in his heart.

 

Or maybe he could be like so many other war vets out there and keep taking Army issue morphine. Drift off into nothingness and feel nothing at all. Put his whole life in one little syrette. Only about the size of his pinky. Not even that.

 

When he goes to the local hospital for his check up, maybe they’d give him high dosage pain killers. He got shot, after all. And then all of his worries would float away in a drug induced haze. No pain in his back, no pain in his head, no pain in his heart.

 

But Cole Phelps wasn’t any of those things. He didn’t smoke. He didn’t do drugs - he wasn’t some common junkie that LA seemed to be full of. He would visit the doctor and let the man examine his wound, let the nurses redress his bandages. He would take his pain killers as directed, do the mandated stretches as required.

 

He would be a model patient. A charming war hero. A handsome husband and a loving father.

 

Cole Phelps would be all that and more. He wouldn’t let people know that it felt like his medal was burning through his uniform and into his flesh, leaving a star shaped wound in its wake. That he was a stranger in his own home. That the Sixth Marines hated him.

 

He couldn’t let people know he wanted to drown his guilt in so much whiskey his body was filled with more alcohol than blood.

 

If he was still on the field, he could throw himself into his own. Distract himself with instructions and orders. He would have a goal an would work until it was completed. Kill the enemy. Cross this field. Kill all survivors. Burn the caves.

 

But now he was home, and he was unemployed. No job. No goal. No mission. No superior officer to give him orders and no subordinates to tell what to do.

 

He didn’t know what to do with himself anymore.

 

“Hello?”

 

A jolt ran through his body, sparking his nerves, like electricity was coursing through his body and bolts were shooting off at his blood, his bones, his muscles. He tensed, muscles tightening, hands starting to clench into fists. He put more pressure on his feet, loosening up his knees and hips, ready and waiting to stand up and fight at a moments notice.

 

Cole turned towards the source of the voice.

 

It was a little girl, with her dark hair hanging loosely down her back. Her brows were ever so slightly furrowed, and she kept tugging at the sleeves of her nightdress - pulling a loose string until it started to unravel.

 

Oh. It was one of his daughters. Right.

 

“Daddy?” She asked, stepping out onto the porch, the sound of her bare feet hitting the worn wooden boards eching into the night. “Why are you outside?”

 

“I think I should be asking you that, little lady,” He deflected, turning to face his daughter. Three distinct freckles on her face. So it was Margaret. Peggy for short. The shy one. “Last time I checked, this young girl should still be in bed right about now.”

 

“Couldn’t sleep,” She mumbled, shifting on the spot and wringing her hand together. She was nervous. He scared her, and honestly? He didn’t blame her. “And I wanted some water. But then I saw a light.”

 

“Daddy couldn’t sleep either,” he replied, a smile gracing his face, tugging at his lips. His words felt weird in his mouth. Daddy. Dad. Father. Papa. Pops. The words lay heavy and weird as they coated his tongue like when you had to wash your mouth out with soap. It didn’t feel like his word. Daddy was not a word that should be used to describe him. The girls were his daughters, they held his blood, they were related in every sense of the word. But he wasn’t their Daddy. He felt more like their father.

 

The words felt very different to him. Same meaning, different connotations.

 

A Daddy was loving. Caring. He would always be there to kiss your wounds to make them better, to cheer you on at your first dance recital or big game, to love and care for you with every fibre of his being. He was there for you.

 

A Father was distant. You never really knew him. You were the fruit of his loins and he was your maker. That was it. You wouldn’t like your Father. You would barely even love him. But you were related, so you had to respect him, at the very least.

 

Cole Phelps was a Father.

 

“So how about we get you a glass of water and get you back in bed?” he suggested to his daughter. “Daddy already got himself water, so he'll do the same.”

 

That's what parents did right? Tried to make orders seem like suggestions, or made the kid feel like they were the one who came up with the idea in the first place. Maybe suggesting that he was doing the same thing would help.

 

What did Cole know, last time he was a parent, they were newborns.

 

He missed their first word, first step, first smile, first tooth. He missed everything. Getting his daughter to bed wasn't anything in comparison to all Marie has done. But it was a start. A first step.

 

With an empty smile on his face, he led his daughter to bed, kissing her gently on the forehead. She had her glass of water, and took his word as gospel, doing exactly what he said.

 

His Marines did exactly as he said and he’d never forget how that worked out for them.

 

Cole sat back out on the porch, letting the cool air seep into his skin, and tried to forget.