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The Love Letter

Bio: Brynn MacNab has been reading speculative fiction since before she knew there was any other kind, and writing it for almost as long. You can find links to more of her published work at brynnmacnab.blogspot.com.

We deployed on February 14, Saint Valentine's Day, named for the saint who performed forbidden marriages. I stood in line next to a guy named Wallace Ault. Around us was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, a lot of people sobbing on each other's necks.
Wallace and I weren't falling apart. He had a girl, a nice lean thing with good legs in a swirling brown knee-length skirt. She kissed him goodbye real quick and ran. I figured maybe they were secretly married themselves.
Overactive imagination, maybe. But a secret marriage would explain the stoic way he stood there beside me. Maybe he didn't want to draw attention, draw questions. Not a necessary strategy, as there were plenty of guys weeping all over their girlfriends, women weeping over their boyfriends, and sundry enlistees of every gender weeping over their small children/lawfully acquired spouses/aged parents.
Me, I hadn't told anybody I was going. It's a federal offense to get into somebody else's mail, so nobody is going to freak out over your misfortune unless you open your mouth.
"So," I said. "I wonder what boot camp's like in space."
He shrugged. "I wonder what boot camp's like at all."
"Like prep school, I hear. I wonder what prep school's like."
"Lots of Latin homework and sexual exploration, I hear," he replied. "I wonder what prep school's like in space."
So we were friends.
Wallace had this letter.
He used to pull it out and read it, whenever there was light enough and a little downtime. At supper once I noticed a bloodstain on it. It was July 4 at home, so we got a long meal and an evening of entertainment.
"Hey," I said. "You kill somebody for that piece of paper?"
He looked up from his reconstituted potatoes. "I could kill somebody for knowing too much."
"I could kill somebody for threatening me." I was used to this.
"I could kill somebody for jumping to conclusions."
"Weak," I said. "You going to tell me or what?"
"I was working on it in the infirmary. Frederick hit me in training." He tilted his head down the table toward Frederick, who caught me looking at him and blushed beet red. Frederick was the nicest guy you'll ever meet, but I'm convinced he had no depth perception. (Apparently army physicians disagreed with me. He died bravely for country and planet like so many others, and staked out primo territory in a hero's mass grave.)
"Working on it? I didn't know reading was difficult for you."
"I didn't know jokes were difficult for you," he said.
By the time it came to me, the letter had more stains. Coffee, tears. It got pretty bad up there in space, sometimes.
Your buddies, your best buddies, are supposed to die beside you if they're going to die at all. That's what war movies had promised me. I kind of liked when Wallace and I were sent to different ends of a skirmish. It's crazy, but I felt safer.
It was one of those days. He was out of sight, out of mind, and I was blasting through the crawling infantry of the enemy's troops and feeling fine. I liked taking on their infantry; they don't look like us, they look more like roaches and to this day I love smashing a roach under my boot. Imagine how sweet it was to shoot the things with a high-powered automatic Uncle-Sam-issued machine.
I was riding high. So imagine my shock when a shell ripped through my suit and subsequently straight through my thigh.
I don't know if it was the toxic alien air or the hole in my leg but I thought I was dying.
It did not get better when Wallace showed up.
I think I stopped screaming long enough to shout, "Get away from me! I'm not dying in your arms!"
He smirked. "Just simmer down. I've got a job for you."
He gave me the letter. Asked me to deliver it when I got home.
I called him all the foul names I could think of for ignoring my profound suffering at a time like this, and I was half way through the list a second time when medics arrived.
I never saw Wallace again. By the time I got through the hospitalization-and-discharge circuit, they'd reported his sacrifice.
I like to think they put him and Frederick close together. A guy should have a friend.
The letter wasn't from that woman he'd been saying goodbye to; it was from him. And boy, had he been working hard at it. Half the words were crossed out, replaced. Arrows told where whole paragraphs should be rearranged to.
He'd been reworking it for months, dreaming about his sweetheart, perfecting all the ways he could tell her he loved her. All the gushy kind of stuff you'd never guess he had in him.
I typed up his last version of it, read it over, wrote out a fresh envelope and stuck it in the mail.
I put my return address on it. Out of habit, or maybe I was hoping Wallace's girl would be my new best friend. One week later she knocked on my door.
Oversized blue jeans obscured her legs, and she looked worse for wear all over: puffy eyes, greasy hair. I guess I shouldn't talk; I'm the one who had the fresh bum leg.
"You were there," she said. "With Wally."
I let her in. Microwaved some instant coffee. Tried not to limp too much.
"Thank you for the letter."
"Hey," I said, and shrugged.
"It's so good to have something from him. I was hoping... you didn't keep the handwritten one, did you? I'd like to have it."
I hadn't mixed my coffee well enough. Grit stuck in my throat.
"No," I said. "I guess I didn't."
She nodded a bunch of times. We reminisced a while, trading stories.
When she left, I watched after her out of the window beside the door. I kept eyes forward and could almost swear Wallace stood beside me, just a step or two back in the shadows.
"You should have married her. Left her with widow's pay."
I left her the letter, he would have said. You should have given it to her.
"Guess you picked the wrong guy."
The Wallace I knew would have had a snappy comeback. And the one who wrote the love letter would have said, No, I picked my best friend.
But the real Wallace, the dead one buried on a distant world, didn't say a thing.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 5th, 2014
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