When Taylor went off to the Citadel, he was still close enough to come home when his schedule allowed. Once he graduated and accepted his commission in the Marines, however, Taylor had truly left home. His commitment was as steadfast as his sense of duty. Over time I sensed him shifting his focus from his family and friends—even his girlfriend, Ashley—to his band of brothers. He’d let go of my hand.

Then his deployment to Afghanistan was announced. Everyone in the family reacted differently. Miller was excited. He was too young to be fully aware of the dangers. In his mind his older brother had soared to new heights. Alistair had accepted it with a southern man’s pride in his son’s fighting for his country. Me? I was proud, of course. But I’m his mother. I simply could not reconcile my son’s going to fight on hostile soil. I’d rather he’d stayed home, safe, and worked in the family business as we’d hoped. But Taylor had always been clear he’d had his sights set elsewhere. Alistair had accepted this and argued that I should, too. But what mother was glad that her son went off to war?

I did what mothers of soldiers have done for centuries. I prayed. I had always prayed for my children, yet during the year of Taylor’s deployment I prayed morning, noon, and night that my baby would come home safe. I clung to my faith, believing my prayers were heard. What else could I do when I felt so helpless? I was also vigilant in following news of the war, getting information from wherever I could.

Then my worst fears were realized. In the middle of a summer night my heart had stopped when we received word that Taylor’s convoy had encountered an IED, killing all the men in the truck that hit it and seriously injuring others in the convoy. I’d read about the carnage caused by IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan—how they were a game changer in the war. So when I’d learned Taylor had been thrown from his truck, suffered several fractured bones and burns, but had survived, I fell to my knees in gratitude and wept. He was alive. Injured, but bones would heal. My son was coming home.

After his discharge from the hospital, I’d hoped he’d come home for Thanksgiving. But instead he went to Oregon to visit a Marine buddy. That was hard, I admit. But good things come to those who wait, right? Now it’s my turn. Taylor was coming home for Christmas. Today!

At the appointed hour, the family climbed into Alistair’s pickup and headed for the airport. Driving separately was Ashley, Taylor’s girlfriend. Everyone else stayed behind at the house for the big surprise. Once at the airport, I felt the final ten minutes standing outside the security gate lasted longer than the months I’d waited for Taylor’s return. At my left, Alistair stood stoically, his big arms crossed over his slight paunch, his mouth set, and his gaze never leaving the gate. Miller was bored, dragging the hand-painted welcome sign as he walked aimlessly around the airport. He’d grumbled at least twice how he wished he had an iPad.

In contrast, Ashley was talking on her phone to a friend, her eyes lit up with anticipation. She was wearing a cherry-red coat that only someone young and trim could pull off. The color accentuated the paleness of her golden hair, curled loosely down her shoulders in the current style. Her manicure was perfect, as was her makeup. I felt a bit self-conscious and glanced down at my pressed navy pants, polished-but-worn black boots, and my plain black wool coat. I wore a bright red scarf for holiday color, but it seemed dowdy compared to Ashley’s. When I looked up, I met Ashley’s nervous gaze. Suddenly it didn’t matter what I was wearing. I felt older and wiser seeing the vulnerability in her eyes, and smiled encouragingly. Of course Ashley would be dressed to the nines. That poor girl had been in love with Taylor since middle school.

I glanced at the arrival board to confirm Taylor’s plane had landed. Anxious, I took a few steps forward, meriting a warning glance from the guard. Several people were walking down the exit ramp, a sure sign the plane had released passengers. Ashley put her phone away and came closer to the gate, eyes glittering. She reapplied her lip gloss and checked her reflection in her pocket mirror.

At long last I spied Taylor coming our way. He had to be one of the last off the plane. I sighed with relief when I didn’t see the cane he’d been using. He was dressed in civilian clothes, required for an off-duty Marine. I would’ve recognized his gait anywhere—steady, sure, shoulders straight. My eyes roamed his face hungrily. His hair was cut short in the high and tight style of the military, and his green eyes were searching the crowd. I knew the moment he saw me; Taylor missed a beat, then walked faster toward us with a smile on his face.

I stood breathlessly, bound at the gate with open arms as he grew nearer. Squinting and leaning forward, I scanned his lean, tan face, seeking out scars and finding none. In a final stride he dropped his bag and wrapped his long arms around me. I hugged him close, shutting my eyes, feeling hot tears flow down my cheeks. My boy was home. Safe in my arms. God had answered my prayers. I stepped aside and, wiping my cheeks with my palms, watched as Alistair stepped forward in a handshake that morphed into a hug. Finally, Miller couldn’t hold back any longer. He drew near, then stopped short, uncharacteristically shy. Taylor extended his arm to include Miller. I took a step back, overwhelmed with emotion to see my three men together again, wrapped in a single embrace.

A few feet away Ashley hovered, fingertips pressed to her lips. Taylor hadn’t seen her yet. When he released his brother, he turned his head and his eyes widened with obvious surprise. He opened his mouth but Ashley rushed into his arms, looping hers around his neck, and began crying. Taylor put his arms around her and lowered his head to speak into her ear, but it wasn’t a tender moment. Nor was it the bear-hug, lift-her-off-her-feet kind of hug she’d expected him to offer. Despite his smiles and polite words Taylor appeared somehow . . . reserved. As if he were going through the motions.

In that moment I thought of my hug. I’d shed tears and hugged tight, but Taylor had felt rigid in my arms. His chest was as hard as a rock, but more, I hadn’t felt any reciprocal emotion. I narrowed my eyes and watched as he spoke to Ashley. He stood tall, arms crossed before his chest. Ashley was like a fluttering bird, touching his arm, laughing a bit too much. Was he overtired? In pain? He appeared strong and healthy.

But a mother knew. . . . Something was different about him. I couldn’t put my finger on it. A withdrawal. A distance. A mother knew. . . . Taylor hadn’t really come home.

Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.

Tags: Mary Alice Monroe Lowcountry Summer Romance
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