Excerpted from Flashes of War
I packed up all his things. They’re where they need to be. I don’t go smelling pillowcases or lying in bed for days, and I don’t expect pity. There’s a support group that meets at Blue Ridge Hospital, twenty mountain-miles into town. I go once a week even if I’m grumpy. The plastic chairs squeak, and the conference room is always cold, but going there feels more like a Carolina God-throb than anything I ever had in some building with a steeple. What I mean is, it feels all right, so I keep going back.
Buns went to Iraq, but I don’t ever say that out loud: one, because it sounds like he left me for bullets, two, because he made me promise never to tell anyone I called him that, and three, because it sounds like something with a bad ending. You should know from me saying that, Buns never came home. He died in that racket of a war, and you should also know just because this sounds trite doesn’t mean it can’t be true: He was the only man I ever loved. He knew me better than my own skin. There’s no replacing that.
Buns was Ben. Benjamin Colton Young, one of too many Youngs to count in the Blue Ridge Mountains but the only one I couldn’t stop looking at. Ben’s mom says good looks hid for five generations of Youngs, then came out all at once on him. Like the rhodies blooming atop Roan Mountain in summer, everything polished and glowing from the inside out. It might not make sense, comparing him to a mountain, but now that he’s gone I feel him around me even stronger, lodged into the horizon. Ben’s mom also says I’m going to have to relearn myself, but all I have to say to that is, there’s no time. Single mom. Two words I thought I’d never put next to each other, but now I’m one of them, which is a heck of a lot better than a spider that kills. Widow? I’ve had enough of death. The last thing I need is people calling me something I’m not.
Ben homeschooled, then started junior year at Mitchell High the same year I graduated. He worked after school bagging groceries at Hughes Market where it was my job to unlock the tobacco case anytime somebody wanted a pack of Camels. That year, Ben’s kid brother overdosed on crystal, and he missed a week of pay. The paper ran the story. Everyone in town said Patrick convulsed for hours in the ER, rattling the hospital bed like the rapture.
Sometimes, I gave Ben a ride home after work. He got to Hughes Market on the school bus but couldn’t always thumb a ride out of the valley after close. His family’s trailer squatted at the base of Pinch Ridge on cinderblock piers—a Carolina Country doublewide the color of spent Levi’s and just about as worn. I lived with my folks further up the holler in a stone-faced house with a white porch and tin roof.
Our first date, we hiked Pinch Ridge to the apex and climbed the radio tower at dusk. Two hours uphill and another half mile along, I led Ben to a mowed patch of mountaintop and heavy fencing.
“Do you want to climb it?” I asked and nudged him a step toward the guard fence.
“Have you done it before?”
“Once,” I lied.
“Lillis, you’re too much,” he said, but I saw the corners of his mouth holding back that rhodie smile.
We both knew about climbing chain-link fences, but taking hold of that first rung of the maintenance ladder at about eye level was another matter. My heart dropped to my stomach. How could I have been so brave and so chicken-scratch at the same time? I looked up at the ladder, and Ben put his hands on my waist. I think about that moment a lot. How I could feel his focus, everything in him pulsing right through his palms and into me. I reached for the ladder, and before I knew it, the toes of my boots hooked over the first rung. I felt light and scared in the same breath, exactly the same way I’d feel a few years later right before our wedding vows. Now I know that feeling means something good’s going to happen next, even if it ends differently down the line.
About two-thirds of the way up, Ben hollered to stop. He climbed a few more rungs and put us face-to-face, our bodies pressed so tight into the ladder I could feel his stomach arching into mine. We breathed together and there was nowhere to look but straight into him.
“You okay?” he asked, barely a whisper.
“Yeah, I’m okay.” My heart skipped around like a squirrel across hardtop. Our fingers wrapped end-to-end around the sides of the ladder, knotted fists as tight as rope.
“We don’t have to go all the way to the top,” Ben said.
We leaned into each other and I felt the ladder dig into my ribcage. The world up there smelled like ice. Fresh and piercing. Ben loosened his grip and stretched his arm across my back to the other side of the ladder, holding me steady. Then he kissed me like he meant it and part of me crawled inside of him and never looked back. That was our beginning. You know the ending. In between, we had ten years.