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At Last

"The memorial is composed not as an unchanging monument, but as a moving composition..." - Maya Lin, Designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

By Annie B.Published about a year ago Updated 7 months ago 11 min read
Second Place in If Walls Could Talk
27
At Last
Photo by Katherine Grace on Unsplash

If walls could talk- if I could talk....I would say..well, I guess it depends on the day.

If you'd asked five years ago, I would have wanted to talk to Janice. Janice came to see me every day for 36 years, from that first day I was open to the public. She was in a bad way then. I learned very little about her in our early years. She rarely spoke. She just cried and cried. I wondered if a person could ever run out of tears. She never did.

I was so shiny and new back then. Years of rain and sleet and hail and snow and dust and wind have dulled my surface a bit over the years, despite my regular cleanings, but I still make a pretty good mirror in a pinch. Not everyone was happy to see me after I was first built. Some of them didn't approve of my design. Thought I was too abstract. Some of them thought I was bullshit.

"Just another bullshit reminder of a bullshit war," one young gentlemen said while his eyes roved over my satiny black exterior. He caught a glimpse of his face in me, and I saw the hollow sadness that had stolen his empathy and reflected it back at him. He spit on the ground at his feet and turned away. If I could have spoken to him, I would have told him that I wasn't there to remind people of war or fighting, but of the men and women who gave their lives to it. Men like Harold.

I am here to help, not to hurt, I would have said. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry for your pain and your loss, but please, let the people who need me be.

Janice needed me. She was the very best human I've ever had the pleasure of facing. I've seen lots special people over the years, but she was different. Most of them fade from the veins of my memory after they stop coming, but there are a few that stick. Even after they leave me and never return. Janice isn't like the others, a rose-patchy memory. Her brightness is emblazoned in me indelibly, like the thousands of fallen soldiers carved into my surface.

I felt as close to her as I did to the men that built me. My fathers. I knew her much longer than them, though of a couple came to see me now and then. I haven't seen any of them for a while, though. I hope they're okay. I know that sometimes when one of my regulars stops coming that they're not okay. They're not anything except gone. Like Harold. It's very lonesome knowing that I'll outlive every single one of them. Unless someone or something knocks me down, and I think if that happens, it means that we're all gone.

But what do I know?

I know only what I can see around me, and what I hear from my observers. That's my real portal to knowing. If you listen long and hard enough, you'll learn all kinds of stuff. Some of it matters. Most of it doesn't. For instance, I've learned that men who beat their wives and children have a very distinctive gleam in their eyes. I don't have the words to describe it, but I know it when I see it. I think they see it, too. They always stare at me, at themselves in me a little too long, lingering there, searching. What's that saying I've heard about the abyss? It gazes back. Something like that.

I've also learned that according to Cheyanne, the waitress from Gino's, whose grandpa died in Nam when she was three, there's no better place to see the sunset than the top of Mount Rainier after an early morning thunderstorm. It's where she met her husband, and where they made love the first time. She found out last week that she's pregnant after years of disappointment. She hasn't told anyone yet because she doesn't want to 'jinx' it. I don't know what that means, but I know that she's holding a smile captive in her mouth and she lets it out for a just a few minutes when she comes to stand in front of me, staring down at the outline of her hand resting against her stomach.

I learned the most from Janice. She talked to me like I was her Harold, standing there before her. Every day for 36 years. She taught me what I would call humanity. Empathy. Kindness. Forgiveness. Maybe even...love. I'm not sure I'd understand any of those concepts, those feelings, the way that I do if she'd stopped coming early on. Stopped talking to me. When Janice talked to me, I felt...moved. It's an exquisite thing for something made of stone. And I can never thank her. Because, as everyone knows, walls can't talk. But if I could, I would most want to talk to Janice, to see her one last time and tell her all the things I'd been saving up these long years. Like how I knew that Trent guy she was dating in college was only going to hurt her. When she'd tell me about him, I could sense he was one of the men who might have that certain look in his eyes, that ultimate red flag that can be invisible to those blinded by love. Janice was in love with this Trent, though she hated herself for it.

"Oh, Harold. What am I going to do?"

She stared down at her feet as tears splashed off her red galoshes and onto the bricks at my base. It had been raining on her walk over from her dorm. She gently stroked the letters of her fallen beloved's name stamped into my face and leaned her forehead against me. She was so warm. I wanted to cool her off, to be able to provide that small comfort. I hoped I could. I couldn't ask her, of course.

But just then, she said, "Thanks Harry, that feels good."

It was almost like she'd heard me. Like I'd helped her.

"He's nothing like you, Honey. It makes no sense. Why do I love him? When all I wanted for so long was to have you back, and now I've fallen for your opposite. You'd hate him, Harry."

A sad little laugh escaped between her fingers against her lips.

"He doesn't like poetry. And he prefers to eat his toast plain, with nothing on it. Can you imagine? No. You can't. Because you're gone. My, how you loved my mama's raspberry jam."

Another thing I would've told Janice was to quit smoking. I'd begun to notice the changing faces of other regulars who smoked, and I didn't like what I thought it meant. You pick up on these things when people stare into you all day. The smokers always looked more tired than everyone else. Their breath had this very heavy 'vibe' to it, the youth of today might say. Every word, every movement, seemed more labored. But I couldn't tell her that. Or anything else.

Janice didn't stay with Trent, thank goodness. Or David, her philosophy professor. Or Michael, the claims adjuster. He seemed boring to me. Safe, Janice had called him. Tyler the teacher lasted the longest. I met him. As much as a wall can meet someone. He accompanied Janice on her daily visits on several occasions. I didn't like it when he came, though I don't know why. There was nothing I could count against him. He was nice enough. I never once caught him checking his reflection in vanity or saw him treat Janice poorly in any way. He was a respectful man. Maybe it was because Janice didn't talk to me when he was there. She talked around me. She talked about me. Or rather, she talked about Harold. Maybe it was because I was afraid of losing her to him. But I think he was jealous of me. Of Harold, and his memory.

"Ty wants me to stop coming to see you." She looked older than I'd ever seen her on that cool November morning with its stark white light. It was the first time I really paid attention to the little lines snaking away from the corners of her eyes, the crinkle between her eyebrows that had deepened into a crease, the glints of silver streaking their way through her rust-colored hair. She was thinner, too.

"He says I'll never truly move on if I keep coming. That I'll be stuck grieving for the rest of my life if I don't learn to let you go. Imagine if he knew I talked to you."

A harsh bark of laughter came out and dissolved into a raspy coughing fit. That happened a lot those last few years. She leaned her forehead against me like she had that first time, decades ago, and just as before, I tried to cool her skin, calm her mind. The tiny pearls of sweat gathered there glared in the sunlight from where they shone on my surface. I could taste her sadness in them, or maybe I just wanted to. I wished I could tell her that it was okay to stop. That I wanted her to be happy and that I thought Tyler was a good man. He would be able to take care of her in all the ways that I never could. I wanted that for her. I wanted to know that she'd be okay. Even if I never saw her again.

"Maybe he's right. But I can't stand ultimatums. He said he'd leave if I didn't stop." The stubborn crease between her eyes eased as a grin spread itself across her face.

"You remember when we went down to the quarry with Danny and Ruth after the Sadie Hawkins dance? I wanted to go swimming in my underwear with them but you didn't want Danny to see me undressed. You said, "Jan, get in the truck right now, or I'm leaving you here." I ripped my dress off over my head and tossed it onto the hood of your dad's old Dodge and leapt off the edge without hardly looking. I can still it perfect in my mind. The wisps of your shaggy hair forming a fuzzy halo around your head as you peered over the edge to make sure I hadn't killed myself. I knew I loved you in that moment. My very own angel. I knew I was gonna marry you and you would always take care of me, no matter how mad you were at me. I thought we had forever then. But you learned that day what Tyler is about to. If you try to corner me, I will run."

She let out a ragged sigh and wiped the salt from her cheeks. Her fingers found the letters they'd sought countless times and pressed deeply into them, as if trying sear them into her fingertips.

"So I guess I'll run. Proverbially. I doubt I could make it around the block without passing out, these days. You've always been the better listener, anyway. Just me and you, Harry. The way it should have been. I'll see you tomorrow, as long as there is one."

That's how she always said goodbye to me. Sometimes with a smile and a wink over her shoulder. Sometimes with puffy eyes and a runny nose. Sometimes with a resigned grimness that made me feel guilty, or at least that's what I think that sinking sensation was. I can't be certain, of course.

Tyler was the last man in Janice's life that I ever heard about, except for her father. And me. Or Harold, I guess. I'm just a wall, after all. After that Janice was always alone. But she wasn't. Because I was there. I'd always be there, no matter what, even if I had had a choice. I tried to reflect all the beauty I saw in her face so that she might know how much I loved her. Yes, I loved her. I think. No, I'm sure. I did love her. And I love her still. She's the only person to make me feel like I'm more than a memory. To make me feel anything at all.

On my last day with Janice, snow was drifting heavily downward to the earth, hushing everything underneath it. The birds had ceased their endless chirping, and the few remaining leaves on the trees were stone still, like me. The world will surprise you with its intuition, if you're there long enough to witness it. Janice was a person who deserved respect and nature provided a day of silence. She trudged through the untouched snowfall to meet me, leaning heavily on her gloved hand and trying and failing to catch her breath. There were two thin tire marks next to her footprints. She drug an oxygen tank around with her all the time in that year. I never saw her without it. Her little tin man, she'd called it once.

I hated that I couldn't feel the warmth of her hand. I knew that she was leaving soon, and I wanted her to touch me just one last time. To feel the tips of her fingers tickle those delicate indentations she loved so much and know that I meant something to someone. More than just a wall or a symbol or a memorial or stone. I wanted to know I was important to her.

She pushed herself against me and steadied herself on her boots, crunching them down to get a good purchase. I thought she was turning to leave, but instead, she drew herself up and ungloved her hand with effort. My first reaction was worry; I didn't want her hand to get cold. Then she reached up and ran her fingertips slowly, so slowly, over the name etched beneath them, as she had done a million times. The papery warmth of her skin singed my frozen exterior and once again, I had that incredible sensation of movement inside me. What was left of her hair had turned white and stuck out of her hat like little tufts of cotton around her crown, giving her a halo.

My very own angel. She had heard my prayer. She gave me one of her own in return.

"Harold, Honey, I'm so tired. I can't do it anymore. I tried to live a good life like I know you would have wanted, but I'm done with living, and living's done with me. I think I was always a foot out the door, if you ask me. I had me some good times, but it was never the same after you left me. So I'm coming home, Harry. I'm coming. At last. I won't see you tomorrow, because I ain't got one, but I'll see you soon.

I never saw her again.

I stopped listening to my observers after that. They all felt like strangers to me. Passersby. Millions of them every year, wholly indistinct from one to the next. The sharp coldness of my nature began to overcome any semblance of feelings I'd had towards humans and I shut them out almost entirely. Longing for something that could never be, I turned toward the dark.

I'd closed myself off so totally from the world that I almost didn't see her. She stared at me expectantly, her eyes running over names until they settled on a familiar spot. But it couldn't be. Janice was gone. She'd left years ago. How was she here, standing before me after all this time? And was she...younger? I felt the tiniest little shift inside me. The woman reached up and ran her silky fingers over Harold's mark, just as Janice had, time and again. The tiny shift became movement.

"Daddy? It's me. I'm Harriet, your daughter. I'm here. At last."

Short StoryLove
27

About the Creator

Annie B.

Gratitude is my religion. Thanks for being here.

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  3. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

  2. Masterful proofreading

    Zero grammar & spelling mistakes

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Comments (15)

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  • Jeremy Hallabout a year ago

    A great read, congratulations!

  • Shannon Burgerabout a year ago

    As a veteran myself, and being married to one as well, this was heartfelt. Those moments of any kind, whether it be while alive returning from war, or standing at that sleek black wall, that I myself have visited, are all precious. This was beautifully done. Very tasteful. Thank you for honoring all my brothers and sisters in arms.

  • Gurulathan Sabout a year ago

    Congratulations...

  • Natalie Stoverabout a year ago

    Beautiful!!!

  • Hannah Mooreabout a year ago

    Lovely.

  • CJ Millerabout a year ago

    Congrats, Annie! You infused this with such tenderness. I especially liked the observations about people looking at their reflections.

  • Sonia Heidi Unruhabout a year ago

    You honor veterans and their loved ones with this story. You made Janice come alive, you made the Wall come alive! So well done. One of my favorite lines: The world will surprise you with its intuition ...

  • Gal Muxabout a year ago

    Sooo beautiful! Very much deserved win!

  • Donna Reneeabout a year ago

    Wow! This was stunning. Such depth of emotion and I loved seeing the passage and journey of her life in this. Congratulations!!!

  • Lori Meltonabout a year ago

    This is so wonderful on multiple fronts. So touching, so much heart and depth to this story. A beautiful interpretation of the prompt! Congrats ❤️

  • Cathy holmesabout a year ago

    Beautiful story. congrats on you win.

  • Caroline Cravenabout a year ago

    Wow! I thought this was beautiful and brilliant. You have completely changed how I see the Vietnam War Memorial. Great stuff.

  • Babs Iversonabout a year ago

    Lovely!!! Heartfelt & touching!!! Congratulations in Second Place win!!!💖💖💕

  • Bryan Buffkinabout a year ago

    Beautifully done. Well deserved.

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