I had a hard time with people touching me because of my PTSD. Even hugging my parents at the airport was a concentrated effort, but I wanted to hug them. To feel them close. Perhaps it was because I didn’t want to hug Ashley that I realized I didn’t love her.

I looked out the windshield at the streetlight ahead. White fairy lights entwined the pole with pine to join a bright red bow at the lamp. Cars and trucks lined both sides of the street. Someone was having a party.

Ashley’s words were true. I’d treated her badly and deserved her anger. “I never meant to hurt you. I’ve always loved you. And in some way, I always will.” I pulled back her shoulders and gave her a moment to lift her face to meet my gaze. Hope was shining in her eyes and I could see that she expected me to propose now. The timing was right. I was home again. Honorably discharged. Ready to settle down. This was what she’d come for.

I knew what I had to do.

“But I’m not the same man you once loved. I’m not the man who left home. I’m damaged goods.”

“No, don’t say that,” she rushed to say. “You just need time. I could help you.”

I shook my head with finality. My voice was low and firm. “You can’t. No one can. I have to do this alone.”

“I’ve waited before. I’m good at that.” She ventured a quick smile. “You’ll get better, I know you will. You’re one of the lucky ones. You survived. You’re home now.”

I felt a flare of anger at hearing myself called a lucky one. The question of why I survived and my buddies didn’t haunted me.

“Did I survive?” I said with a bitter laugh. My voice turned cold. “The jury’s out on that. Listen, Ashley, what I’m trying to tell you is—go ahead and leave me. No blame. I want you to.”

I saw the shock on her pretty face. And the hurt. “You don’t mean that,” she whispered.

“I do. And . . . ,” I said gently, “it’s what you really want.” I offered a half smile, reasoning with her, reassuring her. “That was a Dear John letter. And it’s okay. I deserved it. You’re here now to say good-bye. I only hope we can part as friends.”

Ashley stared back at me and I could see that she was weighing my words, trying to believe them. I’d given her a graceful out. I let her break up with me. She could save face.

“Friends . . . ,” she said softly, tasting the words in her mouth. She disentangled herself from my arms and smoothed out her coat with brusque movements, almost as though she were brushing away any remnants of my touch. She swallowed, then looked at me, her eyes flashing. “I don’t know if I can be your friend, Taylor. Or want to. Not after . . .” Her lips trembled and she bit them to stop the break in her voice. But she rallied. I was proud of her. “If this is good-bye, I want a clean break. I don’t want to see you again.”

That hurt, and it surprised me. I manned up and let her go. “Understood.”

Ashley’s eyes widened slightly at the finality. Then she sniffed and withdrew to sit behind the wheel again. She put her hands on the wheel and, after exhaling a long breath, said, “We should go.” She started the engine and put the car in gear.

“Ashley . . .”

She turned to look at me again. This time her eyes were cold. Vacant. It felt that it had been much longer than a year since I’d last seen her. More like I’d never known her.

“You’ll understand if I don’t join the party,” she said tersely, looking out the window. Her face was the picture of hurt mixed with resolve.

I swung my head around, filled with dread. “The party?”

She met my gaze with a grimace. “Oh.” Then, with only faint remorse, she added, “It was supposed to be a surprise.”

I groaned and put my throbbing head in my palms. I was torn. I couldn’t drive off with Ashley, that bridge was burned. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure if I could endure the convivial chatting and cheers of a welcome-home party.

“How many?”

“Fifty of your nearest and dearest. The old gang, neighbors, friends of your parents’. Everyone’s excited to welcome you home.” She averted her gaze out the window.

I stared down the street at the cars lining the road and thought of chatting and smiling with all those people. I’d rather face down an army of insurgents.

“I’ll get out here,” I told her, sparing us both the short drive in an awkward silence. Ashley deserved the chance for a quick exit.

“Suit yourself.”

I stood in the cold, darkened street and watched Ashley pull away. As the red rear lights disappeared from view, I felt as though a huge chunk of my past drove off with her. Maybe the best part of my life. I felt numb inside. I looked over my shoulder to check out the area, then, tucking my hands into my pockets, I turned and made my way down the street.

I stopped at the curb of my parents’ house, where shadows of men and women filled the windows. The sounds of laughter and carols flowed from inside, filling me with anxiety. My heart started pounding like a locomotive in my chest, and I fought the urge to keep on walking. I thought of my mother and all the work she must’ve done to arrange this party, and stayed.

I was trained to do my duty regardless of personal pain. I bent my head, clenched my hands in my pockets, and made my way along the crooked walkway toward the white cottage with the wide covered porch, up the wood stairs festooned with holiday swag, to the front door. Squaring my shoulders, I raised my fist to knock. I entered my childhood home.

“He’s here!”

When I stepped into the house, a cry of “Welcome home!” arose that could rival any Marine battalion’s Oo-rah! I froze as I was barraged by a throng of well-wishers. Women in clouds of perfume hugged and kissed me; men heartily slapped my back and shook my hand, boisterously asking why I wasn’t in uniform, wanting to see my chest candy. Standing close by, my father obliged them, proudly reciting my list of medals and commendations. I wanted him to stop embarrassing me. A hero? Hardly. I felt undeserving of those medals and racked with guilt that I didn’t bring every man under my command home safely this Christmas.

I was led to a table groaning under the weight of lowcountry food. It being McClellanville, there was no shortage of freshly harvested shrimp. Mama had made her world-class pickled shrimp in red sauce, knowing it was my favorite and a Christmas staple in our house. There was the classic Frogmore Stew with shrimp, corn, and spicy andouille sausage, she-crab soup, Hoppin’ John black beans and rice for good luck that was usually served at the New Year, the requisite barbecue, sausage balls and assorted deviled eggs, boiled peanuts and pimento-cheese sandwiches. Someone handed me a huge plate overflowing with food; another pressed a beer into my hand. I checked out my surroundings, looking to the left and the right, found an empty chair, set down the plate, and drank the beer thirstily.

Tags: Mary Alice Monroe Lowcountry Summer Romance
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