A lump formed in my throat when the old water tower came into view. I squinted my eyes against the moisture pooling in them.
I hadn’t expected to feel like this.
Grandpa steered his old pick-up along the highway. He patted my arm. “Not long now, Jimmy.”
I hadn’t been called Jimmy in three years. It felt comfortable coming from him, like a pair of old Levi’s. “Are Mom and Dad at home?”
He nodded, “Got a few folks coming over to visit.”
“Aunt Lisa, too?”
“I think so.”
I hadn’t seen them in a lifetime.
It seemed as if I still had foreign dust in my hair and eyes. I could taste it, probably always would. The blood of strangers stained my hands. The chaos of war burned my mind. It was all part of me now. Something I would carry until I died. At least that’s what they’d said at my debrief.
I felt dirty.
But the blue of the sky over Emeryville seemed to have a power. I let it bathe me.
I inhaled. The air was filled with the fragrance of corn, wheat, and fertilizer. I smiled. The fields were in sow. The shoots, new again, were fresh and reaching for the heavens.
“You heard they put in a stoplight?”
They’d told me that nothing stays the same. That people had moved on with life while I was away. They said to be prepared, the lights of home will have dimmed.
Three years is a long time.
Sandy had moved away to college in Iowa City the year after I left.
She was one of the guys back then, all barefoot and braces. I’d never thought of her much beyond that, a 17 year old tomboy. And I was a skinny farm brat fresh out of high school. In the ’Stans I began to realize that what I had back home was special.
I hoped I hadn’t lost it forever.
Grandpa turned the corner into town.
The Dairy Queen was still there, faded and peeling just like I’d last seen it. The granary, where Dad had been foreman for the past 15 years, stood majestic and gray. Shar’s Daily Drive-in was still missing letters on its sign, leaving only “har-D-ly Drive-n”, the way it had been for a generation.
I’d carried memories of these places through mountain passes and across deserts half a world away. They made my 50 pounds of gear seem lighter and the pain of loss feel softer. If time had put a little more rust on them, well, that was ok.
After all, I’d changed, too. My body was lean and firm where softness once reigned. Muscles rippled where before there’d only been potential. Tanned skin had covered my freckles.
And there was the scar.
I hadn’t told anyone about the shrapnel that had missed my spinal cord by less than an inch. Nor how I begged the Captain to let me stay in country and finish my tour.
I went to do a job.
I was glad to do it.
The sidewalks filled with people. They were looking at the old truck slowing in the center of Main Street. A banner was strung between the general store and the mercantile. It read “Thank you, Jimmy! Welcome Home!”
An American flag fluttered beneath it.
Folks began to wave and cheer. Yellow ribbons had sprouted from windows and doorways. Red, white, and blue bunting was everywhere.
The bell in the church steeple began to ring.
I hadn’t remembered the town having so many people. They spilled into the road and called my name. Their hands were waving and clapping, each movement as if reaching for me, gathering me, holding me. A soothing, healing, welcoming embrace.
Their mouths, drawn into smiles, had uttered countless prayers in my absence. Now they rejoiced with thanksgiving and their sound touched my heart.
It occurred to me that three years isn’t such a long time when faith and hope remain alive.
Grandpa stopped near the park. Mom and Dad held me, weeping.
I stepped into the midst of the people, my people. They patted and hugged me, bringing me near, drawing me home. I was washed with their laughter.
I saw her, Sandy, standing in the back. Her hands were folded beneath her chin as if in prayer. I moved towards her. She was smiling and her cheeks were streaked with tears… for me… my tears.
I was home.
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