The warm styrofoam cup in his hands comforted Jason. The black coffee was his defense of choice against the biting wind and snow. From the porch he could see Caleb and Janel building snowmen. Their little faces screwed up in concentration as they struggled to push a ball almost as big as themselves across the lawn.
Caleb, the oldest at five, looked down at his sister, and in his typical “take command” sort of way, said, “Go ask mom for a carrot, he'll need a nose.”
Janel scampered past him into the house. The screen door slammed behind her, muffling her yell, “Mommy!”
They were so happy, these kids, so young. Taking a sip of the bitter coffee, Jacob thought back to his own childhood. Kids knew nothing of hunger, had never met loneliness, and the touch of sorrow was short at worst.
“Oh, to be a child again,” Jason mused, “where only movie stars and old people died, and where killing was how you won at video games.”
His thoughts were interrupted by Janel, slamming through the screen again, triumphantly carrying a big orange carrot, her twin pigtails trailing behind her, frizzy and beautiful.
“I got it!” she yelled.
That was Janel, always yelling. She was such a little bundle of energy, all wrapped up in her fluffy pink winter coat. Jason chuckled to himself as she pelted her older brother with a snowball. Indignation jumped into Caleb's face as he cried out, surprised, then bent to gather up his own weapon. Screaming in joyous terror, Janel turned and ran off.
A shadow passed over Jason's eyes as he heard the scream, echoing back to the trenches, the screams, the death, the war. An involuntary shudder ran up his back and out through his shoulders, and he blinked away the memory. The screen door behind him opened, and he turned to see his sister Jenna standing there, little Kyle, not yet a year old, resting on her hip.
“Need more coffee?” she asked.
Looking down at the now-cold drink, Jason shook his head, “Naw, I've probably had enough.”
“Alright,” she said, coming out to stand next to the railing beside him. “You okay?” she asked, looking up at him.
“I dunno, sis.” Jason wrapped his arm around her. “I just feel so... old, y'know?”
“Ha,” she snorted, “try having three kids and call me when you hit thirty, you're only twenty-two, you don't know what old means.”
“Yeah,” he admitted, turning to look her in the face, his back to the yard, “but I hurt like I do, in here” he said, pointing at his chest. “War does a quite the number on you.”
“It was bad, huh?” Jenna said softly, putting her hand on her brother's arm.
Jason didn't answer, the memories threatening to swallow him again. He could feel them hovering around the edges of his mind, waiting for him to let his guard down so they could sweep in and take him. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to remain in control. Faces hovered behind his eyelids, friends he had watched die, whom he had held through their last moments. He felt the tears welling up, his throat constricting with the raw emotion. The dark numbness of grief threatened to take him, and he felt his resolve slipping, felt himself giving in, surrendering to the pain.
Thwap! Cold snow smashed into his head, shaking him out of darkness' grasp. He shook him self, and looked around, wide eyed, his face stinging. Wet snow dripped down his neck, freezing its way through the back of his shirt.
Caleb stood on the lawn, hands frozen at his sides, his eyes wide with fear, “S-s-sorry, uncle Jason,” he stammered out, “I... it... slipped.”
“Oh really?” came the reply, “well, we'll just see about that” Jason jumped up, a huge grin on his face, eyes wide and roared in his best monster voice, “I'm gonna get you!”
Caleb squealed with delight as his uncle picked him up and spun him around in the air, tickling him the whole time. Jenna smiled. Picking up a wad of snow, she lobbed it at the three kids playing in the snow, then turned, baby Kyle in hand, and made a hasty retreat to the safety of the house.
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