I was on my way to the store on my lunch break when my phone began its peppy song. I grinned, recognizing the ringtone. I opened the phone and answered without even looking at the caller id.
“So, Daniel, I’m thinking about dying my hair burgundy in honor of Andy’s homecoming. What do you think? I know the last time I tried it, my hair ended up purple, but I figure it’s a big occasion…”
My big brother’s voice on the other end was quiet, solemn. “Dubby, are you driving?”
I ignored the childhood nickname. “I have to pick up a few things at Walmart over lunch. Matt’s mom wants to talk wedding details tonight, so I need Tylenol – and hair dye, of course. What do you think of the burgundy?”
“You’re going to want to pull over, Deborah.”
It was the same deathly calm tone he used the day he limped into the house after accidentally shooting himself in the foot. I don’t like that tone. I turned on my blinker and nearly had a wreck getting into the nearest parking lot.
“Okay. I’m parked.”
“I got a call from Andy today –“
Daniel paused, and my whole body froze. Andy, my next-oldest brother, was due home in eight days from his deployment to Afghanistan. Matt and I had postponed our wedding twice when his tour was extended, and now, finally, he was coming home.
“Don’t tell me he’s been reassigned again.”
“Dubby… he’s been shot.”
The tears were rolling down my face before I realized they were forming. I was shaking so badly I nearly dropped the phone. Bless Daniel for making me pull over.
“Dubby, talk to me.” Daniel was insanely calm. I almost hated him for it. “He was talking fine when he called, said they were taking him to Germany right away and not to worry. We’ll know more later this afternoon.”
“But – but he’s coming home next week.” The words barely squeezed their way around the lump in my throat. Not my brother.
The silence showed just how much my oldest brother knew what I was feeling. “I’ll call Matt to come get you. Don’t drive. Just wait for Matt – and pray.”
There was little chance I could do anything else.
The next few days passed in a blur of tears and news. A three-inch Russian-made bullet had partially severed Andy’s spinal cord. As of the moment, he had lost the little mobility he had after the shooting and was paralyzed from the armpits down. Many friends called and emailed with support. Others – older, deeper friends – merely offered the silence of empathy.
Ten days later I found myself well-accustomed to the sterile hallways of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Andy’s face had lost the purple tinge of the multiple bruises he had when I first saw him. He was clean-shaven and no longer smelled of battlefield. He was powering through the physical therapy at a rate that astonished the doctors and made Dad smile, but it didn’t change the fact that it was likely he would never walk again.
“Hey, Andy, your backpack came!” I said brightly as he came out of one of his short naps. We were alone, a rarity with the family and Andy’s army pals swarming the room.
“Sorry I ruined your wedding plans again,” he said, bypassing my attempt at light conversation. It was becoming a habit that I understood, but hated.
“James Andrew Burnett, you did not ruin anything,” I scolded. “I don’t want to hear you talk that way.”
“I can’t very well walk down the aisle, can I?” He paused, and offered the slightest of smiles. “And I don’t think this hospital gown will pass for a tux, do you?”
“Matt’ll get all the other groomsmen to match you. It could be a new style.”
“You need to have it without me.”
“Listen to me, big brother. I’m not getting married without you. I’ll wait until you’re ready. Matt already agreed to that.” I fixed him with what I hoped was an intimidating stare.
He sighed, jaw tightening. “What’s in the backpack?
I opened it, holding up the items for his inspection. His extra t-shirts. Some paperwork. A uniformed teddy-bear with a gift card. A necklace box. Wait. I held it down in the backpack for a moment, snapping open the lid. In that moment, my lungs ceased to work.
Nestled inside was a small metal bar, and a medal. Andy’s purple heart.
Author’s Note: This is a slightly fictionalized telling of the actual events of July, 2008. Andy is my best friend’s brother, and is currently living on his own. He is still paralyzed from the armpits down, but has gained excellent use of his arms. Deborah was married in October, 2008, with Andy watching via webcam.
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