He was coming back tonight.
It had been so long since I last laid eyes on him; he with the piercing eyes of grey mist and russet curls, like autumn in bloom.
From the beginning of our days, we were inseparable. We went through everything together, our lives marked by each other’s presence. We fought in anger, blaming each other for stained carpets and smashed crockery. We cried in grief, burying our beloved dog Max in the back-garden. We shrieked in laughter, racing back home from the overgrown park.
“Those twins,” the neighbors would always say, chuckling, “joined at the hips.”
Joined at the heart, at the soul.
In a letter, furrowed along the folds and worn on the edges, he told me “It has ended,” and I was over the moon. Four years to the day.
I had hoped for a great many things over the years. I hoped he was safe. I hoped he hadn’t changed too much. I hoped that he would still be whole. Oh, how I hoped. Could he still smile, flash his quick grin that lit up his affable face? Could he still laugh at my incorrigible clumsiness? I waited, and I hoped.
Before leaving for work at the hospital this morning, I washed the dishes and dusted my flat. Through the open gridiron gates, the twisting alleyway was empty. No car honks shattered the early tranquility. No voices greeted the dawn.
Preoccupied, I fingered the red ribbon in my hair on the cobbled sidewalk, a habit I had developed over the years, waiting for him. He had bought two of them, two ribbons in poppy red. One for me, and one for him, “so that we both may have a piece of each other always,” he explained. It was the last thing he said to me before he went away.
In the sick ward, my anticipation was mounting. I couldn’t concentrate at all on the tasks at hand. Patients cried, coughed, convulsed. Hurrying around, I served them lunches of green pea soup and rhubarb pie. Tendrils of my hair soaked up the sweat on my forehead.
I left work early, laden with chocolates and poppies and “welcome home” cards from fellow nurses. Before unlocking the door, I rubbed a creased wallet photo of him in uniform, a proud set to his shoulders, ribbon around his wrist. He looked happy; to serve his country was exactly what he wanted to do. I couldn’t convince him otherwise.
Picking up the post from the floor just inside the door, I moved to the gleaming kitchen to unload my burden. I had to raise a hand to push back strands of my hair, since my braid had unraveled. After setting the gifts and post down, I took a deep breath and rolled my neck around, relieving tension. My ribbon slid from my liberated hair and landed on the stack of letters. It was only then that I noticed his handwriting on the top envelope, postmarked from Belgium.
Strange, I thought, slitting the envelope open. I carefully pulled out the letter. It was splattered with russet stains.
A red ribbon fell out.