“Get the damn door!”

I slid the tray in the oven, then trudged through the house, wiping my hands on my apron. Why he felt the need to yell, I couldn’t fathom.

“Coming!” I called, as I made my way down the stairs. I quickly threw my apron off to one side and quickly smoothed my clothes. I smiled as I opened the door.

My smile evaporated as soon as I saw the two uniformed men standing there. The world suddenly opened up beneath me and I sunk to my knees. No… Not Thomas. 

“Ma’m,” one of the officers began, “may we come in?”

The words slowly sunk through the quicksand that was quickly filling my head. Come in… come in… They want to come in. Stand up.

“Stand up, Leslie. What are you doing?”

The voice came from the top of the stairs. He’d finally figured out how to get out of that recliner then. I looked up at him, the bastard. His voice droned, reverberating in my head as he repeated himself, “Stand up. Let these men come in.”

I looked up at the men from my place on the landing. They were looking away, giving me my space, allowing me my shock and grief. They started swimming in my view, images puddling. I sank my head into my hands as sobs wracked my body. I just wanted to lie down and let the earth swallow me whole.

I felt a firm but gentle grip on my arm. He was trying to pull me up with one hand and widen the door with the other.

“Leslie, pull yourself together,” he hissed. “You can fall apart later.” Then he turned to the men and offered his hand. “Please come in,” he said.

I stood as the men entered, looking down, my face already a puffy and tear-stained testament to the news that was coming.

“Ma’m, sir,” the officer began, “we regret to inform you that your son died early this morning when his convoy hit a roadside bomb.”

The bastard’s voice was quiet. “I thought he was safe. His unit was merely tech support for the troops.”

Safe. I had tried to keep him safe.

All the happiness I had ever felt drained out of me. I remembered that downy newborn head, the sweet smell of baby skin. He had been a big baby, nearly ten pounds. He had grown into a quiet, sensitive boy, preferring to lock himself in his room with his online gamer friends rather than deal with his often drunk father.

The men were talking about arrangements. I nodded without comprehending, unable to breathe, drowning in the air, suffocating. I saw his sweet smile as he brought me flowers from the field out back. I pictured him ruffling Bear’s scruffy fur. I thought about the time he had eaten the cookies I had made for my meeting. He had just shrugged and grinned sheepishly, pleading hunger. He was always hungry.

Memories flowed from an uncorked well – walks and talks, watching movies on the couch, driving lessons, prom, his recent graduation.

I looked at the bastard, now nodding and shaking hands with the men. Where had he been during all those moments? Working. At the bar. In front of his laptop. As he saw the men out the door, I turned and headed for the bedroom. I pulled the suitcase out from under the bed. The acrid scent of burning food wafted through the air as I plucked clothes from drawers.

He spoke from the doorway. “I didn’t ever think…”

The tears resurfaced. I packed with a renewed frenzy, avoiding his eyes. He walked toward me, trying to catch me in an embrace, but I turned on him, a snake coiled, ready to strike.

You did this,” I said, seething. “You could never accept him the way he was. You always wanted him to man up, to be more like you. You did this.”

His eyes narrowed.

“You could have given him more time to get things together. It’s tough out there these days. But no, you had to draw a hard line – move out or join the service.”

He stared, silent.

“Aren’t you proud of our son?” he asked, finally.

“He was just eighteen,” I said, pushing past him.

I dialed a taxi as I walked out the front door, feeling the weight of a lifetime of compromise and acquiescence pressing down on my shoulders.

I would need to learn to breathe again.