combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 06 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2008

Looking Back

          Most of the activity in the Billups Building had ceased by late Friday evening as most of the employees had gone to enjoy their weekends. However, lights still burned in various offices, including that of CEO J. Francis Billups himself. Earlier in the day, he and his staff finalized plans for a merger that would make him one of the major players in the communications industry.

          Only a matter of time.

          He stood by his office window, stared at the auburn San Antonio sky, and reflected back on not only the merger, but also to what brought him to this place in his life and where he hoped his future, business and personal, would take him. His secretary walked into his office and caught him daydreaming. "Was there anything else before I go?"

          "No, Janet," he said. "Thanks."

          "Is everything okay?"

          "Oh, yes. I'm just thinking ...."

          "About the McCorman merger?"

          "Among other things."

          "Well, if you're worried about your date with Monica tonight, don't," she said, walking towards him. "I've confirmed your dinner reservations and your tickets for tonight's play are in your top desk drawer. And you have the ...."

          "Right here," he said, patting his breast pocket.

          "By the way, nice tux."

          Billups turned to face his secretary. "What would I ever do without you?"

          "Well, for starters," she said, "you'd never be able to put a tie on straight. Here, let me." She gave his tie a couple of quick tugs, drew it tighter, and smoothed it out. "Maybe Monica can teach you how. Lord knows I've tried."

          "There's no need to fuss over me. I'm a big boy."

          "One who can't tie a tie," she said. "Besides, if I didn't fuss over you, who would?"

          Before he could answer, she poked him in the chest. "You can thank me later. Right now, just promise me you'll have a good time with Monica tonight."

          "Okay, I promise. And what about you? How are you keeping yourself busy tonight?"

          "I'm going to Nacogdoches with Rod to visit his parents this weekend."

          "It's that serious?"

          "I hope so," she said. "Rod's better than most of the other guys I've gone out with. He's really sweet, and he didn't grope on the first date. That's a good sign."

          Billups laughed, but suddenly turned serious. "Are you sure you don't want me to have him checked out for you? All I'd have to do is make a few phone calls to some people I know. It wouldn't take much and in twenty-four hours, you'll know more about him than he does."

          "Now you sound like my father."

          "Your father was a good man," he said. "Did I ever tell you about how we met?"

          "In Wilford Hall, while the docs patched up the boo-boos you two got as Marines during the war," she said. "I know. I've heard the story hundreds of times from both you and him."

          "Still, you could've done a lot worse."

          "I know that, too." She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "You're a sweet man. That's why Monica needs to marry you, and soon."

          "And why is that?"

          "Because if she doesn't, I just might."

          He smiled. "Enjoy yourself this weekend, but don't go and elope on me. I expect to see you first thing Monday morning."

          "Not to worry," she said. "If I eloped, who'd make sure you were on time for your appointments? The board members like punctuality as much as Monica does. We'll work more on that after you learn how to tie a tie."

          "Okay, enough of that." He grabbed her shoulders, turned her around and, limping slightly, pushed her towards the door. "Just go and have a good time."

          "You just remember to relax and be yourself tonight." She paused and turned to face him again. "She really likes you, you know?"

          "I know, but enough advice. Go enjoy yourself with Rod, okay?"

          "Okay. See you Monday." With that, she was out the door.

          He watched her walk into the hallway towards the elevator. When he heard the elevator 'ding', he knew that he was alone on the top floor. This fact ordinarily would not have bothered him, but it did now. Maybe it was the sudden quiet. Maybe it was the fact that, down deep, he really didn't trust Rod. He'd only met him once before when he came to pick Janet up for a date, but the encounter left a bad taste in his mouth about her new boyfriend. In the end, his instincts won out and he called his contacts. For everyone's sakes, he hoped the background check would come up clean.

          He walked back towards the window, but the pain in his right leg convinced him to stop at his desk. Once there, he grabbed his pills, shook two out, and washed them down with a glass of water on his desk. He knew the pain would pass, but for the time being, he decided to sit down.

          He pulled out an old black-and-white photograph of him and PFC Jared 'Mule' Combs from his top desk drawer. Billups treasured this picture of the two of them standing over the body of a dead enemy sniper more than anything else he brought back from the war.

          He thought back to how the sniper killed four soldiers in their squad and wounded two others and how Mule, their top tracker, wanted to flush him out before he had a chance to kill again. Billups agreed. The idea didn't sit well with their squad leader, Sgt. Hennings, but in the end, Hennings relented, as it would buy time to get their wounded comrades to the next checkpoint.

          Together with PFC Parks, they followed the sniper north for an hour until they came to a deserted village where they killed him as he attempted to hide in an empty house. Parks snapped the picture after the two of them posed on either side of the dead sniper. He had hoped to get the picture into Leatherneck Magazine, but Billups didn't know if he ever did.

          They rendezvoused with Hennings at the checkpoint nearly two hours later, bringing along the dead man's tags, ID, and weapon as proof of their deed. A small crowd had gathered around them as they told their story. The other soldiers cheered the sniper's death and swore that each of them would leave with at least one confirmed kill apiece.

          "We've got all the time in the world!" was their cheer.

          Unfortunately, Mule had only eight days left.

          They were ambushed while on their way to provide support to fellow Marines when an enemy shell exploded a few feet behind him and Mule. The impact threw Billups several feet away and severely injured his right leg. The blast killed Jared 'Mule' Combs. Billups was taken to a nearby field hospital and eventually to Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, for further care and rehabilitation. He received the picture in the mail from Parks while there. When the rehabilitation was finished, he was given thirty days leave to visit his family. Before going back to his home in Alabama, however, he went to Hiawassee, Georgia, to pay his respects to Mule's family.

          He spoke with Jared's parents, Bob and Martha, but talking about Mule's death soon became too much for Mr. Combs and he excused himself from the room. Billups saw the anguish in Mrs. Combs' face as well, but it didn't prepare him for the questions she asked.

          "Son, could you tell me a little more about my boy? I mean ... I mean he wasn't much on letter writin'. He'd send us things he'd found or bought overseas, little trinkets and such ... or a postcard to let us know he was doing okay ... but how was he? Was he ... was he really doing okay? Did he miss us much? Did he feel as if he was doing the right thing by being over there? I ... I don't know these things, you understand. Jared never wrote about his feelings much.

          "The soldier that came to tell us about Jared being killed said he did an honorable service for his country. I understand that, but there are just some things that he couldn't answer about my boy. Can you understand what I'm trying to say? I ... I'm still a little bit shaken over my Jared's death, even after all this time, so I may not be all too clear now, but ... it's just ... I miss my boy so much. It still hurts. He was my only son."

          "I understand, ma'am. I understand."

          They sat in the front parlor and he told her about how he and Jared met at Camp Lejuene, North Carolina. He even told her of some of the things they did together. She didn't understand everything, but that wasn't as important as it was just to hear someone talk about her son.

          "He loved you very much, ma'am, and he just raved about your peach cobbler. He was popular in the mess halls, too. That's part of the reason why we called him 'Mule', that, and because he disobeyed Sgt. Hennings on just about everything. When he set his mind to do something, he never took 'no' for an answer. Once, he decided he had just about gotten tired of eating canned and dehydrated food, so he decided to kill a wildebeest. Hennings told him 'no' about a million times. I relieved him one day for guard duty and told him that Sgt. Hennings wanted to speak to him, but instead of going straight to see him, he left our camp. He came back nearly four hours later, dragging a dead wildebeest behind him. He brought it down with one shot. The only reason Hennings didn't reprimanded him for disobedience was because the wildebeest tasted so good when we cooked it."

          Mrs. Combs laughed. "That sounds like my boy. The only thing about him bigger than his appetite was his stubbornness. Once, when he was thirteen, Bob took him hunting. He said Jared shot a buck, but he didn't bring him down with the first shot. The buck ran a good mile and a half before he bled to death, but Jared wouldn't give up until he found that buck. Bob said he didn't know what was tougher, findin' the buck or keepin' up with Jared."

          Eventually, her laughter died and her mouth trembled as she fought back tears. "We supported him in everything he did, even when he wanted to fight in the war. I didn't like the idea of Jared going over there, but I knew how set in his ways he could be, even at that age. My husband told me Jared had to make up his own mind and choose his own way. I knew he was right, so I supported my son's decision. What else could I do?"

          He told her about some of the things he and Mule did, including how they caught the sniper that was causing them so much trouble, thanks to Mule's single-minded determination in tracking him down. Martha nodded and smiled through the whole thing. She would cry occasionally while he spoke of her son, but he patiently answered all of her questions, even when she asked him about how Jared died.

          "One thing's for sure, ma'am, he truly believed that he was doing the right thing. He never once asked why he was there, and he always gave his best effort. That's all any of us could have asked for. I was proud to fight next to him and I was happy to call him a friend."

          Mrs. Combs dabbed away a fresh tear from her face and managed to smile. "You have no idea how good it does my heart to hear that, son."

          Before he left, she went into the kitchen and returned moments later with a small dish wrapped in foil. "I know you'll need something on your way home. It's some of my peach cobbler. It was Jared's favorite."

          Mrs. Combs called the general store and asked Mr. Peters if he would send his son over to give him a ride to the airport in Atlanta. Billups said his goodbyes to Mrs. Combs, got in the truck, and was on his way. He talked with the young man and discovered that he also wanted to join the military, but he was declined for service because of a problem with his hearing. Billups saw this as a blessing from God because at least he'd never have to see the things that he and Mule saw. When they finally got to the airport, he went straight for his terminal and found that he had another hour before his plane boarded. While he waited, he took a bite of the dessert.

          Mule, you were right, buddy. She DOES make the best peach cobbler!

          A knock on the door brought Billups back to the present and he set the picture on is desk, next to his Purple Heart. "Come on in, Monica. I'm almost ready." He grabbed his cane and headed for the door. When he opened it, he was stunned to see that it wasn't Monica.

          This woman wore a plain white dress and had graying sandy blond hair that barely touched her shoulders but betrayed her age, nevertheless. Her eyes spoke of a hard life, as did the fine lines around her eyes and mouth. She had a few extra pounds, but her figure looked almost as appealing now as it did nearly twenty-five years ago when he saw her. Despite the changes, he recognized her immediately.

          "Hello, Jeremiah."

          Hearing her voice made her seem like a teenager in his eyes again, regardless of the years that passed. It brought back a flood of memories. Some were good. Some were bad. The bad ones hit harder.

          "Hello, Beth. It's been a long time."

          They stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity.

          "Well, aren't you goin' to invite me in?"

          His mind reeled and his body suddenly felt more automaton than human, but he let her inside his office.

          "It's good to see you after all these years, Jeremiah. You look great. Tell me, how long has it been?"

          Her smile brought forth a small amount of pleasure, which was followed by a huge amount of pain that threatened to explode inside his heart. He composed himself just as the pain in his leg flared up. "Why are you here?"

          "Can't I drop in on an old friend?"

          "Old friend? I remember a time when we were more than that," he said. "So again, why are you here, Beth? I didn't know you had family in San Anton'."

          "Actually, I've been livin' in Beaumont for a little over six years. I've just never gotten around to comin' here, until now."

          "And now, you're here – in my office. We haven't spoken to each other in years, Beth, not since I came back from the war and found out that you were engaged to Billy Anderson. It's not everyday that your girlfriend marries someone else."

          "That's what I wanted to talk to you about," Beth said as timidly as a little child. "I also wanted to see how you were gettin' along."

          "Well, as you can tell, I'm doing well. I still have pain in my right leg and sometimes I need a cane to help me get around. Other than that, I can't complain much. I have my business, my hobbies, the remainder of my good health, and just a small touch of gray around the temples. Overall, I'm happy." He managed a smile as he sat at his desk. "But I know you didn't come here just to say 'Hi, how are you', so what do you really want?"

          "Really, I came here to see you, Jeremiah. I've been thinkin' of you for a long time now, wonderin' how you were doin'. I didn't know where you had gone to."

          "If you had bothered to ask my mother, she would have told you I was here. I know you haven't been by to visit her, so I can't believe you had me on your mind that much. If so, then you would have at least told me why you married Billy in the first place."

          "Jeremiah ... I know I hurt you –"

          "Yes, you did. The very least I deserved was to hear it from you."

          "I know I should have told you, but I didn't know how," she said. "The truth is I ... I was afraid that you wouldn't be comin' back."

          "I sent you a letter when I was in the hospital recuperating. If you read it, you would have known I was coming back," he said. "The truth is that you figured you'd have something better with Billy, and forgot about me. Then you just stopped caring altogether. That's why you never answered my letters."

          He glanced at his watch. "But this is all old news, so could you please get to the point? I'm expecting my date to arrive any minute now and we'll be leaving soon afterwards."

          "Your date?" she said, pouring on the Southern charm. "But, Jeremiah, aren't I company enough?"

          He reached for the phone. "I'm calling security."

          "No! Wait ... please. I'm here because I need ... help ... for my family."

          "What's wrong?" he asked, "Is your mother having problems with her blood pressure again?"

          "No, Momma's doin' fine. I meant my ... my kids and I."

          "Well, if it's a job you're looking for, you'll have to fill out an application like everyone else," he said. "What skills do you have?"

          "I'm not here for a job, Jeremiah."

          "If not, the nearest WIC office is on North Main. One of the guards downstairs will be happy to give you directions."

          "That's not what I mean, Jeremiah. My kids ... they need a ... a father, not to mention I need a man in my life."

          "What happened to Billy?"

          She looked down nervously, ashamed of telling him the rest. "Billy ... he ... he left us last year," she said, "right after Sarah turned six."

          Jeremiah forgot everything Beth said when she mentioned Sarah. This was news to him. He tried to keep up with the news that passed through his hometown, so he already knew about Billy, Jr. and Benjamin. But to hear about another child ... a little girl ....

          He spent many nights overseas dreaming about starting a family with Beth when he returned. He imagined himself coming home from a regular job and being greeted by Beth and their children, a handsome son and a beautiful girl, a girl that had Beth's beautiful amber eyes.

          He spoke as if waking from a dream. "My congratulations, Beth. I didn't know you had a little girl."

          "I have four kids, Jeremiah."

          "Four ... kids."

          "Yes," she said. "Billy, Jr., he's the oldest, then there's Benjamin, then Robert, and then my little Sarah."

          "You named Benjamin after your father," he said. "You must be proud of them all."

          "Yes, I am," she said, sitting down in front of his desk as tears welled in her eyes. "That's why it hurts me to be here, under these circumstances. Billy left us without so much as a word of goodbye."

          "I'm sorry to hear that."

          "Don't be. I'm the one who should be sorry. Everyone told me this would happen, even you, but I didn't want to see it. With so many people against him, someone had to give him some support."

          "He should have gotten his support from someone else," Billups snapped. "We were going to be married when I returned. Remember?"

          "I ... I didn't know you were so bitter about it."

          "What did you expect? You were the first girl I ever fell in love with. I wrote you for years and you never wrote back. I get back home and everyone treats me as if I have the plague when I ask about you. I go to your house, but your parents tell me you don't want to see me. You wouldn't answer my phone calls. I had to hear about it at the barbershop. I couldn't believe it, but I saw the same thing mirrored in everyone's faces. I finally had to corner you in church to get you to admit it. Now you come here to drop in on an 'old friend', like there was never anything more than that between us, like our relationship never happened." He sighed. "I don't know what hurt more, your leaving me or my moving on without you. Some good did come out of it, though. It taught me some important lessons. It forced me to move on with my life, and for the past twenty-four years, that's what I did. I'm pleased with the outcome."

          "Then maybe I'm gettin' what's comin' to me," she said, "because in the end, he proved to be little better to me and the kids than his father was to him." She dabbed the corners of her eyes with a handkerchief. "He beat me, Jeremiah. He'd come home drunk and take his frustrations out on me. Any little thing he saw out of place or didn't like, he'd beat me for it. If his dinner wasn't kept warm enough, or if there wasn't enough beer in the fridge, or if the television was too loud, or if the kids didn't pick up their toys, he'd beat me for it. If not me, then he'd beat one of the kids. I was six months pregnant with Benjamin and he shoved me into a wall so hard that I thought I was goin' to lose my baby. I eventually started believin' that I deserved it, so I did everything I could to make him happy.

          "I thought it was my fault that he drank so much, but no matter what I did, nothin' changed. He still drank and he still beat me. The more he'd beat me, the harder I tried to please him. Everybody told me to just get out, just take the kids and go. Of course, I couldn't, because ... because I loved him and ... and I thought I was the only one who understood and cared about him.

          "Things got worse when he lost his job. He said that his foreman had it in for him, and then he beat me and said that I didn't love him because he didn't have a job. Once he beat me after seein' a story about you on television, sayin' I didn't love him because he didn't make the money you make. That's when he ... he ... started takin' things out on the kids. Still, I just couldn't bring myself to leave.

          "It was right before I found I was pregnant with Sarah that he got a job with a truckin' company in Houston. That's how we came to live in Beaumont. Things were startin' to look up again. Billy was workin'. He cut down on his drinkin'. He wasn't beatin' the kids or me anymore. I was looking forward to bringin' little Sarah into the world. I thought I was finally goin' to have the life I wanted with the man I ... love."

          Beth kept her eyes down, not wanting to see his reaction, but felt his eyes on her the whole time. "Then one day he left for work, sayin' he had to haul a load from Houston to California, pick up another, and bring it here to San Antonio. He told me the trip should take only four days. Five days came and went, but there was no sign of him. After a week, I called his company to see if he had been delayed or worse, been in an accident. His boss told me he made that trip and was workin' on another haul to Memphis. I tried reachin' him on his beeper again, but I couldn't get an answer.

          "A couple of weeks later, a friend of mine, Colleen, who works in a truck stop in Houston, told me that Billy and a young blonde woman had been regulars there together for more than a month. I had to see it for myself, so Colleen took me there. I saw his truck parked across the street from the diner, so we waited for him to come out. He walked out of the diner with a leggy blonde in a short dress. I couldn't believe what I was seein', even when he helped her into his truck and drove off. I don't know how long I cried afterwards.

          "That was last December. A week before Christmas, he came home, kissed me good-bye, and left for good," she said through tears. "He left me with nothin', Jeremiah. The bill collectors are constantly callin'. Our car has been repossessed. I don't know how I'm goin' to pay the mortgage. I've just started workin' full-time as a waitress, but I don't believe it will be enough. We're still covered under his job's health insurance policy, but there's no tellin' when or if that will change. Jeremiah, I-I don't know what to do."

          "I'm sorry to hear that this happened to you – I really am – but it sounds to me like you need a good divorce lawyer," he said flatly. "I'm afraid I don't know of any."

          "You don't understand," she said, rising from her seat. "I don't want a lawyer, at least not yet."

          "Then please get to the point, Beth," a clearly frustrated Billups said. "Just what is it you want?"

          "P-please, don't be so gruff, Jeremiah. I was hopin' for a somewhat pleasant reception, considerin' our history together ...."

          "Our history together ended twenty-four years ago. Considering what happened between us, I'm surprised you're even here at all."

          "Now, now," she said. "Is that really how you treat an old girlfriend? I realize we haven't spoken to each other in a long time. We have a lot of catchin' up to do."

          "The time for talk was when I came back from the war. There's nothing to talk about now."

          "Y-you mean you're not glad to see me after all these years?"

          He grabbed his cane and walked towards the window. "Don't get me wrong, Beth. I'm glad to know that you're alive and well, but what gave you the idea that I'd want to catch up on old times with you now?"

          She smiled softly and sat on the corner of his desk. "Well, I was goin' through my things a couple of weeks ago and I came across the letters you wrote –"

          "And that you never answered," he shot back. "You're only now acknowledging them? You might as well burn them."

          "Don't say that, Jeremiah. Those letters were from the man I loved."

          "Oh, please, save it. You forgot about me the minute Billy Anderson got between your legs."

          "Please, let me explain, Jeremiah. I only dated him was because ... because I thought you were never comin' back."

          "Oh, and why was that?"

          "Because Dennis Poole and Ricky Dean both went off to fight and they were killed. Dennis's body came back two weeks after you left. Ricky's came back four months later. And with all the talk on the news about the war, I wasn't sure if you were ever comin' back. And that's why ... that's why I couldn't allow myself to keep my hopes up. That's why I couldn't answer your letters. That's why I dated Billy."

          "But I sent you a letter from the hospital saying that I was coming home. I sent a letter to my folks, too, and I know Mama would have told the whole town," he said. "The truth is that you didn't care."

          "Th-that's not true, Jeremiah."

          "You'd already made your mind up. I was already out of the picture."

          "That's not true!"

          "It is the truth! You'd have known I was coming home if you bothered to read my letters! I kept writing you even when it became clear to me that you weren't going to write back because I felt you still needed to know! So don't sit there and lie to me, saying you didn't know, because you did! You knew and you didn't care because you had Billy and, apparently, you were satisfied with him!"

          "But that's all in the past, Jeremiah," she said. "I've made mistakes, I know. I fell for the wrong man and I'm payin' the price for it, but how long do I have to pay for one mistake?"

          "I've been paying for the mistake of loving you for twenty-four years," he said, as he turned to face her, "but I eventually got past you and, in doing so, I found that I could have a meaningful life without you. I accomplished all this," waving his arm around in a huge circle, "without you. It wasn't always easy, but I did it. Whenever you heard my name in the news, it was because of something I did without you.

          "I once held on to my love for you like a lifeline. With the horrible things I saw overseas, it was my memories of you, picturing myself back home with you again, that kept me going. But even after I found that you didn't want me anymore, I still held on to you, and that kept me from getting too close to anyone else. That was my mistake. True, I made a name for myself, and a lot of money for myself and others in the meantime, but at the end of the day, an empty office is the last place I want to be, and an empty house is even worse."

          "But it doesn't have to be like that anymore, Jeremiah," she pleaded. "We can be together again, just like before. It can be better than before! Just give me a chance to show you. I'm a different person now!"

          His voice betrayed a small trace of sorrow as he contemplated what could have been. "But you're just not the person I want. When I say I moved on with my life, I meant my personal life, too. There's already someone else in my life. Her name's Monica, and she'll be here any minute."

          "I-I can be whatever you want me to be," she said. "I'll do whatever it takes. I'll be your lover as well as your friend. I'll take care of you, cook and clean for you. You'll never have to come home to an empty house again. Just give me a chance to set things straight, to have things back to the way they were."

          "You don't get it, Beth. Yes, I did love you once, but things will never be the way they were before. I'm sorry. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm waiting for Monica to arrive. I'll see to it that security escorts you to your car or calls you a cab if you need one."

          He checked his watch and walked to his desk to get the tickets when Beth's desperation turned into panic and she grabbed his arm, stopping him in mid stride.

          "Jeremiah, listen to me. You don't need her. You and I already have a history together! Just say the word and we can be together again, forever this time!"

          When she realized her words weren't having the desired effect, she panicked. "Jeremiah, I need you! I have nowhere else to go, no one else to turn to! Please ... for me!"

          Jeremiah was surprised to discover that he still had feelings for Beth, despite what happened between them. Here she was, 45-years-old, most of them difficult years – not at all what he once envisioned for her. They made her into the woman he saw before him – a far cry from the Elizabeth Renee Moore he grew up with, the girl that boys stumbled over themselves to be with, the woman any man would have been proud to call his. He was that man once, but that was a long time ago. She made her choice years ago and this was the result. Nothing would change that. At the same time, he felt pity for Beth because he loved her once. Nothing would change that, either. However, no matter how many memories her presence brought back, no matter how many old feelings her presence stirred up, he couldn't shake the fact that she had left him once before more than twenty years ago. To him, everything else was unimportant.

          Moreover, there was Monica to consider.

          In the end, there was only one thing for him to do.

          "Let go of me."

          His rejection was almost more than she could take. She lowered her eyes to the floor and dropped her hands from his arm. That's when he saw a red light flash on his telephone. It was the front desk security guard.

          He pushed the button. "This is Mr. Billups."

          "Good evening, sir," spoke the guard. "There's a Monica Rocca here to see you."

          "Good. Have someone escort Miss Rocca to my office."

          "Yes, sir."

          "Thank you."

          Beth noticed Jeremiah's smile at the mention of Monica's name. He used to smile like that for me. "This ... Monica ... is she ...."

          He took the tickets from his desk and put them in his pocket. "Yes, she is ... and a lot more." He handed Beth the picture of a very striking redhead.

          "M-my, my. She's ... very ... pretty."

          "'Pretty' isn't the word," he said. "She's gorgeous. We met three-and-a-half years ago at a benefit for a local hospital and we've been dating each other ever since."

          She stared at Monica's picture and never noticed Jeremiah walking around the desk towards her. When they were nearly face-to-face, he took the picture from her and set it back on his desk. "Tonight, I'm going to ask her to marry me."

          Beth's world seemed to crumble around her at that moment. The color drained from her face and she was left speechless. Jeremiah then reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a small box. He opened it to reveal the biggest diamond she had ever seen on a ring. "My secretary helped me pick it out. She agreed with the salesperson about it being top quality. It's the least I can do for Monica, seeing as how she's done so much for me. She makes my heart smile when I'm with her."

          Beth looked at him through vacant eyes, not knowing what to say. He used to say that about me.

          He closed the ring box and slipped it back into his pocket when he heard the elevator ding. "Here she comes now." He checked his pockets for the tickets and his cell phone and went back to his desk to make sure he didn't forget anything.

          At that moment, two security guards walked up to the door and announced themselves.

          "Come in."

          The first to enter was a small, dark-haired man wearing a light blue shirt and dark blue pants. His nametag was over his left breast pocket and the word 'SECURITY' was over the right. Clipped onto his belt were a flashlight, handcuffs, a cell phone and a walkie-talkie. He was followed by a larger man whose build and demeanor reminded him of Mule. He was dressed the same way as the first man. They were followed by a young redhead with hair past her shoulders, wearing a fancy, strapless royal blue evening gown with three-inch black heels that still left her about an inch or two shorter than Jeremiah. A pair of pearl earrings and a matching pearl necklace and bracelet complimented her look. He felt she didn't need the small strapless gold handbag, but he admitted to himself that she looked good carrying it.

          Beth saw her and, more importantly, how they looked at each other and wished more than anything that she could just fade away. She looks even prettier in person.

          Monica walked up to Mr. Billups and kissed him. "Jeremiah," she said, "you didn't have to go through this much trouble with the guards. I'm a big girl. I know the way to your office. Still, it was a nice gesture."

          He took her free hand in his and looked into her green eyes. "I'm glad you appreciated it, but they're here for another reason." He turned to the two men and motioned towards Beth. "Please escort this woman to her vehicle. If necessary, call her a cab."

          The guards walked up to a dumbfounded Beth. "Ready, ma'am?" the larger guard spoke.

          She gave the guard a half-questioning, half-pleading look, but the only look he returned was that of a man with a job to do. She then turned to Jeremiah, but his attention was solely on Monica as they engaged themselves in their own private conversation. The scene hurt her deeper than any physical pain she'd ever suffered. It took all the strength she had to keep herself from crying as the guards led her from his office.

          Jeremiah spoke as the trio reached the door. "I apologize for not being able to help you. I wish you better luck in the future. Goodbye, Mrs. Anderson."

          Beth turned around and saw them holding hands. Jeremiah wasn't sure, but he could almost swear he saw a tear roll down her face just before she turned around and walked towards the elevator with the security guards.

          "Who was she?" Monica asked.

          "Oh, just somebody who thought I'd be able to help out with a bad situation. I told her I couldn't, but I don't think she accepted my answer gracefully." Monica looked at him and he took a deep breath. "Actually, that was my old girlfriend from my hometown."

          "The woman you told me about, who left you for someone else."

          "That's the one."

          "What was she doing here?"

          "I believe she wanted to rekindle our relationship."


          He shrugged. "I think she wanted a fresh start with me now that her marriage turned sour, but I told her there was no chance of that happening."

          Monica watched them disappear behind the elevator doors. "You can't exactly blame her for trying, especially where you're concerned. You're quite a catch. You've even learned how to tie a tie."

          "Actually, that was Janet's work."

          "Hmm. It figures. Between Janet and me, you'll learn ... eventually."

          He laughed. "That's what Janet said."

          "You should listen to her," she said. "Are you ready to go?"

          "Just lead the way."

          She stopped him just as they made it to the door. "Tell me honestly," she said. "Weren't you just the least bit tempted? I mean, a lot of people would love a chance to start over again, to see what would happen if their lives had taken different paths."

          He put his arms around her and pulled her to him. "The path I took led me to you, and I couldn't be happier. If I had it to do all over again, I'd still grow up in the same small town, fight on the same battlefields, and suffer the same aches and pains, as long as we could still meet at that same secluded balcony." He kissed her. "I wouldn't change a thing."

          "You always know the right thing to say." She kissed him back. "I love you, Jeremiah."

          "And I love you, Monica."

          Time seemed to stop as they stared into each other's eyes. It was as if they were seeing each other for the very first time.

          He smiled at her. "Let's go."

          She smiled and took his hand as he turned off the lights and shut the door behind them. As he heard the door lock behind him, he became aware of an unseen weight being lifted from his shoulders. He knew that his path in life was about to take another turn.

          This time, he wouldn't look back.

by Tommie J. Smith Jr.
... who is an Air Force veteran of the Gulf War; this is his first published work.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones