I clutched the folded flag in my arms as the first notes of “Taps” began. Twenty-one gun shots rang out throughout the cemetery as the sounds of people crying for the loss of Sergeant Thomas Cole echoed through the warm breezy air. I wasn’t crying for Sergeant Thomas Cole, I was crying for the loss of my other half, my best friend, my husband.
I cleared my throat as the overwhelming smell of his cologne filled my nostrils. I frantically looked around, thinking it was all some sick joke and that Thomas was standing off in the distance waiting for the precise moment to surprise me with his arrival and beg for my forgiveness for playing such a cruel and heartbreaking joke. I’m not sure how long I sat there scanning the cemetery for a glimpse of Thomas when a man’s voice pulled me back to reality.
“MacKenzie Cole?” I turned my head towards his voice and sucked in a breath from the close proximity of the man sitting beside me. I hadn’t been this close to another man’s face since the last time I was near my husband, the day he left for his last tour of duty.
“Yeah?” I sat back in my chair, putting a little more distance between me and the stranger. He was dressed in the same uniform Thomas was buried in.
“I’m so sorry for your loss…” He choked back his own emotions and extended a hand for me to shake. His sandy brown eyes were glistening from unshed tears. “Sergeant Julian Cooper.”
As soon as his name left his lips I knew exactly who he was. He was Thomas’ right hand man during the last tour of duty. Every time I talked to Thomas he spoke about Julian and how good of a man and soldier he was. I slid my trembling hand into his.
“Nice to meet you, Julian.” A sad smile pulled my lips up just enough to look friendly instead of completely broken.
“Thomas and I were on the same mission when…” Julian trailed off.
“It’s okay,” I placed a hand on his shoulder, still clutching the flag with my other arm. “I know what happened that day.” My voice sounded stronger than I actually was.
Julian’s eyes were full of sorrow and understanding. “He was a helluva Marine.” The strength and honor was laced thickly in his voice as he spoke of Thomas.
“That he was.” I smiled again at the memory of how much Thomas loved fighting for our country. He was brave, loving, and always believed in the mission of keeping our country safe from harm. I loved that about him.
The wind blew in my face and the smell of Thomas’ cologne hit me hard once again. I coughed a couple times as tears pricked my eyes. “Are you okay?” Julian asked, concerned from my small coughing spell.
“I’m—I’m okay,” I lied as I realized the cologne was coming from Julian. I closed my eyes and took in the familiar smell that reminded me so much of my husband. It was almost too much to bear.
“I know you have a lot on your plate, and I don’t want to keep you.” I opened my eyes to find Julian standing. “It was nice to finally meet you, MacKenzie.” He smiled sadly. “I’m sorry it was under these circumstances.”
I stood and placed the flag under my left arm. “Thank you for being a good friend of Thomas’, and thank you for coming today.” A set of tears rolled down my face and I quickly wiped them away.
He nodded. “You don’t have to thank me, ma’am. Thomas saved me on numerous occasions; I just wish I could have done the same for him.”
The thickness of my emotions was closing off my throat. A large sob ripped through my body as I took in the truth of the day. Thomas was gone, his brothers-in-arms couldn’t save him, and I was officially all alone again. The trembling in my legs was so severe that I thought I could collapse at any moment; my arm reached for the wooden chair as I slowly lowered myself back into it.
“I didn’t mean to upset you.” He leaned forward and took one of my hands in his.
“It’s not you,” I managed to say through my heartache. “I just don’t know where to go from here,” I admitted.
Julian took a seat beside me again and allowed the silence to fill the air. He knew there was nothing he could say that would make me feel better; I just wished that there was a way to bring back Thomas. My life was changing and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it except move forward.
As my tears dried up I watched the leaves hanging from a tree a few yards away swaying in the light wind. Julian was still sitting beside me, taking in the silence just as I was. I shook myself out of my trance and turned away from the tree to look at him. “What are your plans while you’re in town?”
“I don’t have any.” He turned his attention to my face. “As soon as the hospital released me, I came straight here.”
“You were in the hospital?”
“I was hurt during the raid.” Julian diverted his eyes to the area where Thomas lay.
“I—I didn’t know.” Tears stung my eyes once again.
“I’ll be okay.” His grin didn’t touch his eyes. “It’s a pretty deep flesh wound, but it’ll heal.”
As awful as it sounded, I had never thought about the others that were injured that day. Was it selfish of me? I wasn’t sure. I was still learning how to cope with the news that Thomas wouldn’t be coming home ever again. Guilt twisted in my gut at hearing that Julian had been injured during the same raid that ended Thomas’ life. I wondered how many others were hurt, but I was too afraid to ask.
The sound of a phone buzzing caught both of our attention. Julian dug in his front left pocket and pulled out his cell phone. “I apologize.” He typed away on the screen before placing it back in the same pocket. “I have to go.” His eyes met mine for a second before standing.
I stood as well and wrapped my arms around him tightly. “Thank you for sitting with me.”
Julian hesitated before hugging me back. “You don’t have to thank me. I would have done anything for Thomas.” He took a step back, and I picked the flag up from the chair I had been sitting in. “I’ll be in town for a few days, if you need anything.” Julian pulled a pen from his pocket and scribbled his phone number on the inside of my free hand.
“Okay, thanks,” I smiled. We said our goodbyes and I watched as the only person who was as close to my husband as I was disappeared over the hill.