"Freedom isn't free. It's paid for by the blood and sweat of our soldiers."
I stared at the empty desk as Mr. Richardson droned on about our founding fathers and the sacrifices they’d made for our great nation. Normally I couldn’t wait to hear his tales of the past, but today the present weighed heavily on my mind.
How are you coping? Are you outside in the batting cage the three of you made together, absorbing the vibrations of the bat as you hit ball after ball? Or are you sitting in your room, blaring your black metal tunes through your headphones, drowning out the world and your memories?
I wanted to be there, to be the support that Evan needed, but my parents refused to let me. Oh, they told me it was because they didn’t want me to intrude on this personal, family time. But I was certain it was because they didn’t want me to have an unexcused absence on my record. Like that mattered when his entire world had been ripped apart.
So I’d painted on a happy face and dressed in my go-to comfort clothes. The short denim skirt that alway drew Evan’s eyes to my legs. The warm-up jersey with his number. And my beat-up white Keds. If my friends noticed my fake smile and overbright laugh, none of them said anything. They’d just hugged me, no questions asked, and offered me the kind of support I’d wanted to give Evan.
“Freedom isn’t free.” Mr. Richardson’s words blared in my ears, pulling me from my thoughts. “It’s paid for by the blood and sweat of our soldiers. This payment began with the first man who willingly gave their life in pursuit of our nation’s freedom. And it extends into the future with every man and woman who pledge their lives in defense of our nation.”
Tears burned, and I blinked them back, angered at his audacity to talk about the price of freedom today. Yesterday, that price had hit too close to home. I thought word would have spread like wildfire through our community, but no one else seemed to have heard anything. The only reason I had learned what happened was because I had been at Evan’s home when the military officers came to break the news to his family.
The officer didn’t say much about what happened, just that Kyle had willingly sacrificed his life to save the men in his unit. He was a true hero. A patriot.
While the accolades were nice, they didn’t ease the grief. The loss. The drowning senselessness that permeated my mind.
Stunning disbelief turned to unbearable grief. Time lost all meaning as I held Evan as he sobbed over the loss of his brother Kyle. Listened to the stories the family shared about this man I had never met.
Kyle was only seven years older than Evan and me, but those few years seemed like a different generation. All I knew about him I’d learned from Evan. He had idolized his brother, wanting to be like him in every way. The best ball player. The best scholar. The only thing Evan hadn’t aspired to be was a soldier.
I felt cheated that I hadn’t gotten to meet Kyle, to see for myself what kind of man he was. I was supposed to meet him when he came home on leave in the summer. A leave that would never come. I wrapped my arms around my waist, holding in the anger I wanted to vent at the unfairness of it all.
I didn’t even know him and I’m angry, I can’t imagine how you and your parents feel.
The bell rang, and I jerked back to the present. Moving on autopilot, I gathered my books and shuffled off to my next class.
I turned toward the voice, my fuzzy mind taking a moment to recognize Ally, my best friend. She frowned and reached a hand out to me.
Tears trickled down my cheeks and I swiped them away. I didn’t answer. It wasn’t my story to share. My phone buzzed, and I pulled it out of my pocket, my breath hitching as I read the simple text.
I need you.
I fled down the hall and out the door, not stopping to sign out at the office. Not stopping to tell Ally what I was doing. All my focus was on getting to Evan.
At the end of the sidewalk I stopped and sent him a text. It wouldn’t do me any good to run to his house if he was somewhere else.
On my way. RU @ home?
No. At the bridge.
My heart stuttered, and I took off, running down the sidewalk, the need to be with him overwhelming. I knew he was safe. That he wouldn’t do anything stupid. No, the bridge was the place he went to when he needed to think, to find his path.
I cut through the field, my steps slowing as I neared the rickety planks. Evan leaned against the railing, his hands clenched around the faded wood, staring at the babbling brook below. My heart broke again seeing the depth of his loss. I sucked in a deep breath and stepped onto the bridge. The structure swayed, but I moved onward, stepping up behind Evan and wrapping my arms around him.
He stiffened then relaxed into my embrace, his hands anchoring me to him.
“He would have really liked you.” His voice rumbled under my ear, pain scarring his words.
I squeezed him, offering silent support. My actions telling him I was here for him, however he needed me to be.
After a few minutes, he released me and turned, his hands settling on my waist. His eyes were swollen and red, dried tears streaked his cheeks, and his hair looked like he’d tried to pull it out. Seeing him like this made me ache deep in my bones.
I cupped his cheek, wishing there was something I could do, something I could say to make this better. Easier. But there were no words to fix this. Nothing to fill the hole that would forever be in this family. My mother always talked about how time dulled the edges of the pain, but I couldn’t see how this pain would ever go away. No matter how much time passed.
He turned his head and pressed a kiss to my palm then leaned his forehead against mine and sighed. My hand drifted from his cheek to his back, rubbing in soothing circles.
“Thank you for meeting me here. I promise I’ll make it right at school.”
I pulled back, hooking my hands around his neck. “I’m not worried about that right now. None of that matters. What you need is all that matters right now.”
He tucked my hair behind my ear, the action familiar and grounding. “I still can’t believe he’s gone. I just talked to him two days ago. Right before he left for his mission.” His voice broke on the last word, and I leaned closer, resting my head on his chest, letting him draw from my strength. “Do you mind sitting here with me for a bit? I’m not ready to go back home yet. Mom and dad are…they’re trying to make arrangements, and I’m just in the way.”
“I’m here to do whatever you need me to do. If you want to sit, we’ll sit. If you want to throw baseballs, we’ll do that. Whatever you need, I’m here for you.”
“Thanks, Savannah.” He buried his face in my hair and held me close for a moment. “You don’t know how much that means to me.”
We settled on the deck of the bridge, our feet dangling over the water that bubbled and babbled ten feet below. Birds chirped as they flitted from branch to branch in the trees lining the brook. Overhead, the sky was summer blue and cloudless, too beautiful a setting for the emotions churning deep inside me.
“The Army Chaplain came back this morning.” He laced our fingers together, and I leaned my head on his shoulder, waiting for him to continue at his own pace. “He said Kyle’s unit came under attack. One of the men got hit and Kyle pulled him to safety before he was killed.” His breath turned ragged for a moment, and his Adam’s apple bumped the top of my head as he swallowed back his grief. “He was a hero, not just for me, but to his team.” His shoulder shook with his sobs. “We’re all going to miss him. The world will be a darker place without him in it.”
For a moment, my mind drifted back to Mr. Richardson’s words this morning. He was right. Freedom isn’t free. It’s paid for by the blood and sweat of our soldiers. And by the tears of those they leave behind.
My thanks and heartfelt gratitude to all the men and women who serve in our military, and the families who support them. We wouldn't be here without all of you. God bless you all!
I tried to find the source of the quote that started this story for me, but I could only find links to USMC tweet and the Seal of Honor FB page. (If you haven't see this page, check it out. It's quite moving!) If anyone knows who said it, I'd love to know!
This story is set in the same world as my new release, The Boyfriend Project. And yes, this is the same Evan you hear about there.
Twisting tales one story at a time.
YA author Mary Waibel’s love for fairytales and happy-ever fill the pages of her works. Whether penning stories in a medieval setting or a modern day school, magic and romance weave their way inside every tale. Strong female characters use both brain and brawn to save the day and win the heart of their men. Mary enjoys connecting with her readers through her website: marywaibel.blogspot.com