Twenty-Three Weeks

Twenty-Three Weeks

A Story by Ari McLeren

She sent him pictures of life at home. He sent her pictures of life at war.


There was a small smile on her face as she reread the email Danny’d sent her just yesterday, but it was always bittersweet.  There was the familiar flutter in her stomach when she read again how much he missed her, but it was followed by the sinking memory of why he was emailing her rather than sitting on the building steps and telling her.  Afghanistan was asking a lot of her childhood friend.


She glanced around her sparsely furnished room and was forcibly reminded of why Danny’d had to leave in the first place.  Since she’d moved in down the hall, it’d been him and her against the world.  His father was a drunk, her mother was a deadbeat, and they’d struggled to have normal childhoods in a world that was fighting to strip away their innocence.  When her mother forgot to buy food, he split his sandwich with her at lunch.  When his dad went on a rampage, she hid him in her room, and they read books out loud, trying to drown out the yelling.  She made excuses to his teachers when he had to pick up another shift at the drugstore to cover his rent that month.  He worked two jobs and secretly paid part of her rent so excuses would never have to be made to her teachers.  She took pictures of him at his graduation when his dad couldn’t be bothered to show.  He placed eighteen candles in some brownies when her mom forgot.  She cried her heart out when he said he was leaving.  He held her until her eyes ran dry. 


She scrolled to the bottom of his email and double clicked on the attachment.  Danny’s face popped up on the screen, in between those of two of his Marine friends.  They were standing together, arms around each other, while a pickup football game went on behind them. She couldn’t help noticing there was an overwhelming amount of tan in the background, but she supposed all deserts looked like that.  His hair was shorter, and his face was tanner, but his smile still reached his eyes, making her smile back. 


Before he’d gotten on that plane, they’d made a promise: every single week they’d send each other a picture of themselves living life.  He’d even bought her a used digital camera.  This way, when he finally got home, it wouldn’t feel like all those months had been completely lost.  She sent him pictures of life at home.  He sent her pictures of life at war.  She went to the library once a week and printed each one so she could cut it out and glue it in a book at home.  This was all she had of him for now, so she kept him close by.  The one with the football game in the background would be number twenty-three.  She didn’t expect another one. 


Five more days.  Words couldn’t describe how she felt just thinking that.  All the happiness that had flooded out of her six months ago was coming back with a vengeance.  But hope was dangerous, and a few days could change everything.  She’d learned that six months ago, as well. 


It wasn’t hard to remember the day he’d told her he was joining the Marines.  It wasn’t easy to remember, either.  The second worst day of your life shouldn’t be easy to remember.  It’d been a grueling June day, all those months ago, and she’d just gotten home from work.  She was trudging up the apartment stairs when Danny’s door opened and he stepped out. 


“Interested in some Chinese?” 


“Do you have kung pao chicken?” she called up to him as she continued clomping up the steps.


“Don’t I always?”


She smiled at that.  “Give me five minutes.”  She used her keys to open both deadbolts on her door and padded inside to change into a pair of cotton shorts and one of Danny’s old track t-shirts.  The fabric was soft and worn from years of use, and it was just big enough to be a perfect kind of comfortable.  She sought out her fuzzy slippers before returning to the stairs in the hall. 


She gripped the railing and climbed steadily, knowing the footholds were deceptively slick, and emerged on a sunset-graced rooftop.  A lot of their childhood had been spent up here, but when they’d first found it, it had been far more rough than diamond.  She remembered Saturday mornings and weeknights before homework where they’d sorted through debris and fought off man-eating spiders while they hauled forgotten junk to garbage bins.  They’d cleaned and swept until the flat, open expanse in front of them looked nothing like the wreckage field it had been.  The coup de grâce was their discovery of a pair of dilapidated lawn chairs amidst the rubble.  They had been fished out and cleaned up and given new leases on life.  It became their sanctuary. 


Danny was already relaxing in the chair to her left, chopsticks in one hand and takeout box in the other.  She shuffled over to the remaining seat and sighed with relief when she was off her feet.  Wordlessly, he offered her the food in his hand, and she grabbed a pair of paper-clad chopsticks from the overturned crate between them.  They ate in silence, enjoying the good food, the good view and the good company. 


“I quit my job at the drugstore today.”  His straightforward admission broke the tranquility as he set the empty container between them.  Her heart plummeted. 


“Are you really going to join?”


“It feels like something I need to do �" a way to get my life back on track.”  His green eyes spoke to her soul when he turned to look at her.


But what about my life? she wanted to ask.  What about when I fall off track without you?  But that would be selfish.  Instead she asked, “Are you sure there’s no other way?”  Her eyes pleaded for the possibility.


“My life here is working at drugstores and McDonald’s.  I want more than that.”


She closed her eyes and sighed, the genuine words speaking straight to her heart.  He didn’t just want more than that �" he deserved more, and she wanted more for him.


But life without Danny?  Just the thought was a knife to the gut.  She wrapped her arms around her middle, trying to hold herself together, while her eyes filled with tears.


A comforting hand rested on her shoulder.  “Don’t cry, Bear.” 


“I’m not,” she whispered, but the thickness in her voice betrayed her.  There was a sound of metal scraping cement, and then his chair was close enough that he could wrap an arm around her shoulders and she could rest her forehead against his neck. 


“I won’t go if you don’t want me to,” his voice whispered, and her shoulders shook harder.  This was his chance, and he was offering not to take it �" for her. 


“People die.”  Her frail voice was almost lost to the night, but she could tell he’d heard.  “In Afghanistan.  The news doesn’t really talk about it anymore, but people still die over there.”


“People live over there, too.  Plenty of good men go over there to do their jobs and then come back to the people they love.”


“Being a good man or having people love you doesn’t mean you get to come home.”


“I know.”  Two simple words, but when spoken with that sort of unfettered awareness, they made all the difference.  Her eyes caught his and saw his understanding.  He knew the risks and the innocence he’d have to pay and the still greater toll his country might ask of him.  He knew, and he still wanted to say yes because opportunity was a fickle beast.  If he could bet his life on those odds, she could stand behind him.


“What happens when you sign up?”  It wasn’t her blessing in so many words, but they were still the words that let him go. 


Remembering that day brought a terrible lump to her throat, but she fought to push it down.  Tears wouldn’t change anything.  They hadn’t stopped the notice of his impending deployment.  He’d held her in his arms, and she’d cried and cried until she could no more, but the plane had still taken him away.  That was the first worst day of her life. 


Swiping an arm along her nose, a flash of red caught her eye, and she grinned a small grin.  She was still wearing her Formal dress, even though she’d gotten home hours ago.  She reached down and fingered a layer of the gauzy material resting on her thigh.  She’d never owned a dress like this before, especially not one that was brand new.  She’d never planned to own this dress, either. 


When she’d mentioned in passing that Winter Formal was coming up, Danny’s excitement was almost palpable.  Neither of them had ever been to a school dance before, so his enthusiasm made little sense.  She tried to tell him that she had no desire to go, especially by herself, but he wouldn’t listen.  He said he didn’t want her missing out on this experience.  He hadn’t seemed to mind when he’d missed out on the experience, but she finally agreed if it would make him happy.  The next morning there was an incoming transfer of a hundred dollars in her bank account.  The accompanying email said she deserved a dress all her own, so she went out and bought one in Marine Corp red.


An ornery yowl broke her from her thoughts, and she turned to look at the heathen beast sprawled next to her bed.  By all rights, Church should have died three years ago in that terrible cat fight in the alley, but Danny had saved him and nursed him back to health, and now he existed in a perpetually ill-tempered, surly old man frame of mind.  She honestly hated the creature, but he was Danny’s, so she and the cat had an agreement.  She made sure he got fed, and he made sure not to die. 


She gave the fiend a healthy glare as she stood up and went to the basket of clean clothes at the end of her bed.  It was time to take off the dress and put Formal behind her.  She’d had a good time and taken pictures like he’d asked, but it wasn’t something she wanted to do again soon.  It just didn’t feel right.  She wanted to slip into shorts and one of Danny’s old shirts and then crawl into bed, to close her eyes and open them five days later. 


The pungent odor emanating from the basket told here there was more than one hitch in that plan.  She didn’t need to lower her head any closer to the folded laundry to know that the demon creature had seen fit to use her clean clothes as a litter box.  Her hands clenched into fists, and she inhaled sharply, forcefully concentrating on not yelling at the beast.  She belatedly remembered her mom hadn’t come home tonight, so she didn’t have to worry about being quiet, but the moment for a scream had passed.  All her casual clothes and pajamas had been in that basket due to a similar occurrence just last week, and now she had nothing to wear. 


She groaned in frustration and glanced at her alarm clock.  4:08.  She hadn’t realized how late it had gotten, but the Laundromat on the corner was open twenty-four hours.  She knew it was irrational to insist on doing laundry in the middle of the night when she could just sleep in her underwear, but she wanted Danny’s shirt.   She hadn’t slept in anything else since he’d left. 


She ignored the fact she was going to the Laundromat in her Formal dress with fallen down hair while she located her pinching, death-trap heels.  She shook her head.  If she was going, she might as well be comfortable, so she pulled her last pair of clean socks from her drawer and slipped the leopard patterned knee highs on.  Her fuzzy slippers and grey hoodie were the crowning pieces to this eye catching ensemble as she hoisted the basket of befouled clothes to balance on her hip.  She made her way out the door, doing her best to keep her nose averted from the rank pile in her arms. 


The door to the Laundromat opened with a jingle, which drew the attention of the other two patrons and the graveyard employee.  She gave them a weak smile and claimed a vacant machine on the opposite side of the room, dumping the clothes, detergent and softener into the barrel and feeding it some quarters.  The sound of running water greeted her ears, and she moved to sit in the chair leaning against the adjacent wall.  Feeling herself beginning to doze, she slid off her slippers and removed her hoodie to use as a pillow against the wall. 


The machine buzzer jarred her from whatever dream she’d been having, and she stretched and yawned before opening the machine lid, sure her hair looked even more interesting after her nap.  She tossed all the sodden garments into a dryer along the opposite wall and watched them spin when she started it up.  A glance about the room told her that her only companion was the little old Asian man reading a newspaper during his shift.  She watched the dryer spin round and round for a few more seconds before her ears took over and she realized she recognized the song on the radio.  It was a soothing tune, one she’d actually listened to a lot over the years, so she closed her eyes and hummed along, allowing her body to sway to the beat.  She must have been a sight in her leopard socks, red dress and tousled hair, but in that moment she was content. 


She didn’t hear the jingle of the door or the click of footsteps across the floor.  She didn’t feel the change when a shadow passed in front of the rays from the rising sun.  She just hummed and swayed with her eyes closed, letting the music and sunshine wash over her. 


“Carrie Ann?” a tentative voice spoke up from somewhere behind her, and she froze, eyes opening slowly.  “Care Bear?”  There was only one person who called her that, and suddenly she knew.


She spun around as fast as she could and nearly fell over, but that thought paled in comparison to the sight before her.  There he stood, a vision in blue, and as real as the day she’d let him go. 


“Danny!”  She launched herself at him and twined her arms around his neck, allowing the thick fabric of his dress coat to absorb the tears she couldn’t stop. 


“Oh, Bear,” he whispered, one arm encircling her waist and the other hand coming up to tangle in her hair as he rested his cheek on the top of her head.  She wasn’t sure, but she might have felt a shudder rush through him. 


“You’re here,” she chanted over and over in her tear-thickened voice. 


His grip tightened.  “I’m here.” 


They stood in silence, clinging to one another in a hug that tried to make up for six months of separation. 


“I’m sorry I missed Formal.”  He spoke quietly, massaging her head through her hair. 


“What?”  She lifted her head away in confusion to look in his eyes, and his lopsided grin nearly stopped her heart. 


 “I was supposed to get in last night, but the flight got delayed.  I was going to surprise you at Formal.” 


Fresh tears filled her eyes, and she couldn’t hold in the accompanying sob, so she pressed her face back into his shoulder and held on as tightly as she could. 


She didn’t know how long they stood there, rocking in each other’s arms in the Laundromat aisle, but she could no longer hear the dryer behind her.  With a sniff, she lifted her head and stepped back, doing her best to wipe away the tears and dried makeup from her cheeks. 


“So why are you doing laundry at six in the morning?”  He spoke casually as he moved to the dryer to unload her clean clothes, and she was struck by how surreal this moment was.  Her best friend, who had come home early from Afghanistan to surprise her, had done so while she was doing laundry in her Formal dress at the crack of dawn.  Now he was standing there in his Dress Blues, folding her clothes as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  She considered pinching herself, but she’d heard him say her name and she’d felt his arms around her.  She decided to accept this moment for what it was and simply enjoy it, so she walked up next to him to help him fold. 


“Church peed on all my pajamas.”  His loud guffaw brought a smile to her lips.


“Goddamn cat.”


“You have no idea.” 


After a few seconds of silent folding, he passed her a worn grey shirt that she recognized from his track days.  “Is this what you wanted?” he asked tentatively.  She could only nod and clutch the garment to her chest in an attempt to stave off new tears.  His arms slipped back around her as he pulled her into his embrace.  “You know I love you, right?”  His words were quiet, but they were strong and sure. 


She tilted her head back so she could look into his clear green eyes.  “I love you, too.”  She was sure of the shudder that rippled through his body this time.  He leaned down to press a lingering kiss to her forehead, and her eyes slipped closed.  It was enough for now. 


“Let’s go home,” he said, stepping back and balancing the basket on his hip with one hand and clasping her hand in his other one.  She smiled as she snatched up her other things before returning her hand to his.  Yes, it was more than enough. 


©2012 Padfoot101/Ari McLeren

© 2012 Ari McLeren

Author's Note

Ari McLeren
This was written a few years ago for a picture writing challenge and took second place. Since then, I haven't had a lot of feed back on it, and I would love constructive criticism or to know about any parts that don't make sense. Thanks!

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Added on December 18, 2012
Last Updated on December 18, 2012
Tags: best friend, romance, deployment, military, marines, pictures, loved ones


Ari McLeren
Ari McLeren

San Diego

I am a 25 year old Southern California girl. I do math and science for fun, I like practicing my Spanish and I can quote Shakespeare, Austen and Rowling. Basically I'm a walking contradiction, and I.. more..

Prologue Prologue

A Chapter by Ari McLeren

Chapter One Chapter One

A Chapter by Ari McLeren

Chapter Two Chapter Two

A Chapter by Ari McLeren