I recently found this story I wrote in 2008 for a creative writing class I took in college. Given the current tensions with Iran, I thought it was worth sharing.
O’ beautiful, for heroes prove
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
‘Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine!
~Katharine Lee Bates, 1893
“It was your feet that first attracted me to you,” Jake said, brushing his floppy blonde hair out of his bashful blue eyes.
Carter tilted his head, eyes narrowing, as he looked at Jake. His chocolate ice cream casually dripping from the scoop to the cone until finally melting onto his hand, skin tanned from the hours spent outdoors working on anything with four wheels and an engine. “My feet?”
“We were in your mom’s diner, the first week after I moved here. Your sister saw you and whispered ‘that’s my brother.’ You had your back turned to us, reading something. Probably one of those sports magazine you like.”
“Hey,” Carter said. “Don’t knock sports. Just because you’re not a real man.”
“I’m a real man!” Jake said, smacking Carter’s chest. Carter smirked, and Jake rolled his eyes. “Anyway, you were playing with your flip-flops, dangling one off your foot. I noticed right away.”
“You noticed my feet?”
“They’re too big to miss.”
Carter grinned proudly, his straight teeth stained with the remnants of chewing tobacco, a habit he had developed in high school but given up shortly after. “I guess that makes sense.” He noticed the ice cream on his hand and licked it off.
“Must you?” Jake asked, looking away as Carter lapped up the melted mess. “You look like a dog when you do that.”
Carter rolled his eyes. “Don’t start with me.”
“I am just saying you could use a napkin or something. Besides, I told you not to get a cone anyway.” Jake frowned, crossing his arms. His hair swished as he shook his head. “It’s just going to melt all over your uniform.”
Jake’s eyes narrowed, and he lifted his hand to his forehead to block out the sun, which gleamed on the gold buttons of Carter’s dress blues. “I don’t know why you’re wearing that in the middle of July, anyway.”
Carter shrugged. “Mama wanted me to wear it.” He sat down on one of the four oak benches surrounding a fountain.
The fountain, the centrepiece of Jake’s family garden, was one he had always particularly enjoyed. He loved the gurgle of water bubbling down its five tiers, all made of an ornate marble with reliefs of local scenes – coal mines, Appalachian sunsets, Daniel Boone – spilling into one another, until finally splashing into the giant pool at the bottom, murky from the southern moss collected along its sides and its base. It had always brought him a sense of peace, watching the water cascade along the smooth, white stone.
Jake sat down next to Carter, resting his head on his boyfriend’s shoulder. Carter wrapped his arm around Jake’s elfin frame, pulling him close to his own body. Jake had thought their combined warmth would be too much in the summer heat, but a cool breeze blew over the western ridge, the soft pinks and purples of the mountain laurel rustling in the wind as they filled the air with earthy sweetness.
“Aren’t you hot in that thing anyway?” he asked, feeling at the rough, thick fabric. Carter shook his head. “And besides, you’re 19 years old. Why is your mother still picking out your clothes.”
“It makes her feel like I’m still her little boy,” Carter said. “It makes her feel better about me leaving.”
Jake looked down, frowning. “Don’t talk about that. You’re not leaving.”
“I have to,” Carter said, his words deep and thick and rich, like a dark Karo syrup. He cupped Jake’s chin, lifting his head, but Jake refused to meet his eyes. Carter gently squeezed Jake’s jaw and Jake looked up.
“What?” he said, his lips quivering.
“We’re gonna be okay,” Carter said.
Jake sighed, closing his eyes. “It isn’t me I’m worried about.”
“Me?” Carter asked.
Jake looked up, opening his eyes, furrowing his brow and pursing his lips. “Yes, you.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Carter said, kissing the top of Jake’s head. “I’ll be fine.”
Carter cupped Jake’s face in his palm. His fingers curled under Jake’s chin, still raw from a recent shave, his thumb stroking over the other man’s cheek. Jake’s bottom lip quivered and Carter’s thumb followed, sliding across the smooth flesh “We’re going to be okay,” he said.
“Are we?” Jake asked, his voice cracking as he stifled a sob.
He looked away, not wanting Carter to see the tears now stinging his eyes. He stared across the ridge, a balmy haze shrouding the tops of the distant hills. The evergreens lining the summit just barely peeked above the fog-line, as though craning their necks to make sure this hollow was safe. Crickets fiddled the beginnings of a sullen lullaby as the day wound to a close. The trees and the crickets and even the fog provided a familiar, if cheerless, comfort.
Jake bit his lower lip, sniffling as he repressed a sob.
“Don’t,” Carter said, wiping a tear from his cheek. “I’ll be fine.”
“I just don’t see the point in all this. You’ve already gone once. You did your duty. You served your country. What more do they want of you?”
“I had more to give,” Carter said, puffing out his chest.
“No, you don’t,” Jake scoffed, sneering at his boyfriend’s vainglory. It had always been one of Carter’s worst traits, this belief that he was somehow, as though by divine provenance, responsible for saving whoever or whatever it was needed rescuing at the time. “You’ve given enough.”
“It’s never enough. Not when you’re fighting for your country.”
“The President said the mission was accomplished,” Jake said, his tone quick and his volume rising as he gesticulated with his hands. “We have achieved victory. I watched it on television. I heard him say it a couple months ago.”
“He was wrong, okay?” Carter said, gritting his teeth. “That was a year ago, and he was wrong. There’s still more to do.”
“But do you have to be the one to do it?”
Carter shrugged. “Somebody does.”
Jake leapt up, stomping wildly as he screamed into the late afternoon air, his voice echoing off the mountains and throughout the hollow. “But why you? Why do you have to go? They don’t even want you. They say so themselves.”
“They never asked, and I never told.” Carter stood up too, but Jake turned away from him, unable to face his boyfriend as he tried to justify this act, which to Jake seemed to paradoxically be selfless and selfish at the same time. Jake admired Carter’s heroic streak. It’s why he loved the man. But Jake needed him here, in this hollow, by this fountain. Not wherever he was going.
He felt Carter’s hand on his shoulder. “I made a promise, Jake.”
“You made a promise to me,” he said, turning to face Carter, his arms crossed, his tearstained cheeks wet and red like a dewy rose. “You said we’d be together forever and now you’re throwing that away.”
“Nobody’s throwing anything away. I meant every word of that. But there are things that are bigger than us. We’re at war and my country needs me.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “Yeah for no good reason.”
Carter began rubbing his temple, breathing deeply. “For a million good reasons. Look, can we not start this again? It doesn’t matter how you feel, we’re there. And there is no way I can get out of it.”
“Yes you can,” Jake said, wrapping his arms around Carter’s torso, clinging to him as he rested his head on his chest. “You could tell them. You could tell them everything. Or I can.”
“You won’t,” Carter said, grabbing Jake by the shoulders. “If you did, you’d lose me for good.”
Jake winced as Carter’s fingers pushed into his bone, but he didn’t struggle to get away. The physical pain was at least a welcome distraction from his heartbreak. He looked up at Carter, choking on a sob. “Haven’t I already?”
Carter exhaled, running his hands from Jake’s shoulders down to his chest, squeezing the smaller man as tightly as he could.
Jake loved being wrapped in Carter’s strong arms. He loved listening to his breathing, the sound of his lungs providing him with life’s force. He felt safe as he listened to Carter’s heart beating. Tonight, though, he could hear nothing, save for the crickets. He loved their melodies, but to Jake, they were just the opening act: no matter how much he enjoyed them, they weren’t the reason he was at the concert. He wanted to hear the headliner. He wanted to hear Carter.
“Look at me,” Carter said. Jake didn’t move, so Carter forcefully grabbed his chin, lifting his head so that their eyes met. “Look at me, damn it. I’m always going to be here for you. I’m always going to be the one that loves you most, the one that will keep you safe. When I said forever, I meant it.”
Jake looked up at Carter, desperation stitched across his face. He bit his lip as he continued to quietly sob. Carter held on to him but slid his hands from the warm embrace to Jake’s hands, taking them in his own. He squeezed tightly, smiling gently. “Stop that.” Carter wiped away the tears from Jake’s right cheek. “Men don’t cry.”
Jake accidentally smiled. “Maybe we’re not men?”
“Bullshit. We’re men.”
“I’m only 17. The law says I’m still a boy.”
“Well then you’re a little boy. But me –” Carter peacocked, standing tall and lifting his head into the air a little. “I’m a man. I’m a soldier.”
“You’re my soldier,” Jake whispered. He snuggled into Carter, hoping to feel a hint of reservation in his embrace, or see a glimmer of fear in his eyes. Instead, he saw a man at peace. Jake looked down, but Carter once again forced his head up, looking Jake square in the eyes.
Jake took comfort in the big brown eyes, so friendly and dark and warm. Carter smiled, leaning down as Jake craned his neck, stretching his body to meet Carter’s lips. The kiss felt different than any other kiss they’d ever shared. Somehow, this kiss was emptier, was more one-sided. Jake didn’t understand, but he didn’t much care; it was nice being with Carter for however much longer they had together.
Jake broke the kiss. “Let’s get out of here.” Carter smiled and followed Jake up the cobblestone path, the gurgling fountain becoming more and more distant as they made their way to the big house. Jake decided to make them both a chicken salad sandwich, left over from the annual 4th of July picnic, but Carter didn’t touch his. He didn’t have an appetite. Jake figured he probably wouldn’t have much of an appetite either if he knew that he would be going off to war.
He imagined the sound of the gunfire, the heat of the desert, the scratchy, irritating sand drying out his sunburned skin. He didn’t like to think about these things, and he’d never dare ask Carter about them, although he had a natural curiosity about them.
Carter never wrote about them during the first part of his tour. He had always wanted to concentrate on things going on at home: who won prom queen, who was valedictorian, was Old Man Rice still alive and if so was he still hanging out in front of the Dollar General with his friends. Carter didn’t like to talk about Iraq, and that was fine with Jake. He didn’t much want to know. Imagining Carter in that situation was more than he could handle.
After sandwiches, Jake led Carter upstairs to his bedroom. He flicked on the light, revealing the midnight blue walls with white trim, giving the room the ambiance of a snowy winter’s night. On the walls were various posters of celebrities and models he had cut from his Abercrombie shopping bags. A pile of stuffed animals, artefacts of Jake’s childhood, sat in a distant corner, save for one plush, cerulean rabbit.
Carter had always said it reminded him more of a girl’s room than a boy’s room, but Jake didn’t care. He was going to decorate his room how he saw fit. Jake recalled how Carter especially hated the “blue bunny”, though, because even when he slept over Jake insisted that Buster stay in the bed with them. “He’ll get lonely down there,” he’d always say.
Jake slid onto the large bed, pulling down the blue-and-white gingham quilt and crawling under it. He reclined back on one of the three body pillows used in place of regular pillows. He motioned for Carter to join him.
“You already tired?” Carter raised an eyebrow.
Jake grinned. “Not particularly.”
“Good.” Carter crawled on top of Jake, pinning him down. “Because I’ve got a better idea.”
“What would that be?” Jake looked at Carter, his eyes full of excitement. He knew exactly what Carter wanted. He sighed and twitched anxiously under Carter’s strapping frame. “Do we have to?”
Carter frowned. “We don’t have to, but I really, really want to. I’m not going to be able to for a long time, and I’d like to do it one last time.”
Jake groaned. “Fine. But only once. Okay?”
“Great,” Carter said. He leapt off Jake and ran to the other side of the room, turning on the television and then, the old Nintendo 64. Jake smiled as he watched Carter shuffle through all the games he’d played as a child, methodically searching for just the right one. Jake was never a big video game aficionado, but Carter loved them. The only time Jake ever played anymore was when Carter was around. He hated playing, but watching Carter get excited about beating the next level of Golden Eye or some shoot-‘em-up war game made it all worth it.
Jake climbed off the bed and walked over, leaning down next to Carter. “Find one yet?”
“This one,” Carter said. He held up one of the more violent games, proudly displaying his careful selection. It had never actually been Jake’s, but his brother’s; Jake had received it as a gift when his brother had left for college, but never played it. Carter, though, loved it. It involved little toy soldiers fighting in their world and ours, going to war in such places as the bathroom and a Christmastime living room. Jake found it utterly ridiculous.
But this time, it was more than ridiculous. It was an atrocious choice. Jake picked the game up and examined it. He contemplated it for a moment, carefully remembering the details. Instead of the little green army man running around, he envisioned Carter shooting a grenade launcher at a blender in the kitchen. He giggled at the thought, but couldn’t bring himself to put the cartridge in.
“Pick another one,” Jake said.
Carter pursed his lips, pouting. “But I want to play this one.”
“We can’t play this one. Pick something else.”
Carter stared at Jake. He leaned down and kissed him. “It’s okay. It’s just a game.”
“I don’t want to think about it,” Jake said.
“Fine. Then we won’t. You pick one.” Jake searched for a moment before pulling out a children’s racing game, where a chimpanzee and his friends raced around in hover crafts and the like, trying to save their land from an evil reptilian invader. It was marketed to children, but Jake still found it thoroughly enjoyable.
He looked at Carter for approval. Carter groaned, but nodded.
They spent the next couple hours playing, racing, and laughing. Or rather, Jake did. Carter said he wasn’t interested in playing “a kiddy game” but took great pleasure in watching Jake enjoy himself. Jake wished Carter would play with him; he felt guilty telling Carter no to the army men game, figuring this was his punishment.
After finishing the game and changing into pyjamas, Jake lay sandwiched between Buster Bunny and Carter. Curled into the nook between Carter’s arm and chest he snuggled as close to his boyfriend as he could get.
“Hold me tighter,” Jake whispered. “I want to really feel you.”
“You will,” Carter smiled, pulling Jake closer to him. He kissed Jake’s forehead. “I love you, kiddo. You know that, right?”
“I love you too.” Jake closed his eyes and took in the sounds. The crickets chirped louder and louder outside his window. He smelled the pillow; it still smelled like Carter – his drugstore cologne mingled with the scent of Marlboro’s and motor oil. It was a familiar scent that put Jake at ease. He snuggled up closer to Carter, falling asleep in his arms as he had done so many times before.
Carter was gone when Jake woke the next morning. Jake didn’t think anything of it. Carter often snuck out in the morning to avoid being detected. If Jake’s parents knew Carter slept over as much as he did they would have killed them both. They had long ago accepted that their son was gay, but they sat strict boundaries about relationships. Jake found this wildly unfair, but his parents reasoned that the same rules would apply to women had he been straight.
“Jake, honey, are you up?” Jake’s mom knocked on the door. “You need to get up. We’ve got to be at the church soon.” Jake lay there, silently staring at the windows. He fished around under the covers until he found the blue bunny, drowned in the sea of blankets sometime in the middle of the night. “Jake?” she asked.
Jake yawned. “I’m up,” he said.
“Good, because we don’t have a lot of time. Open up, honey. I’ve got your suit.”
Jake climbed out of bed, the hardwood floor cold and sticky against his bare feet. He unlocked his door and cracked it, peeping through at his mother. Her flowing blond hair was in a conservative bun, and she was already wearing her black Sunday dress. She smiled sadly.
“Honey, you need to get ready.” Jake opened the door further and she handed him his suit. “We don’t want to be late. The church crowds fast.”
Jake looked at her curiously. She couldn’t meet his gaze and instead looked down at the floor.
“There’s breakfast on the table. I made your favourite.”
Jake closed the door and turned to jump into his shower, directly adjacent to the bedroom. After getting ready and putting his suit down, he headed downstairs; he and his parents ate in silence. It was so unlike them to be so standoffish. Jake has always prided himself in having a very good relationship with both his parents. He wondered if they were angry with him. Did they know that Carter had spent the night last night? Was it because Jake was so late getting up? He knew he had to go to church, but it wasn’t even Sunday. They should cut him some slack.
The car ride to the church was also filled with a terse silence. The curvy mountain roads were flanked by steep hills, lush with the green summer foliage. Jake was thrown all around the back of his father’s new SUV, which made him queasy. He watched as the trees gave way to the familiar sight of the river below, and on the other side of that, more mountains and more trees. Little shacks, some still occupied, others long ago abandoned, would sporadically appear as they drove, but nothing even remotely close to a community took form for most of the trip.
They finally arrived in town twenty minutes later, and after Jake’s dad fought for a parking spot, they walked into the church. Jake asked to stay behind and wait for some of his friends. He wanted to wait for Carter. After all, this church is where he’d first met Carter’s sister, and if it weren’t for her, he wouldn’t have known Carter. It was full of good memories. Jake’s parents went inside.
More people followed. People Jake knew from school – teachers, janitors, students, the principal. The wait staff of Carter’s mom’s diner and the mechanics from the local garage Carter had worked at through high school. Even Old Man Rice showed up, forgoing his usual game of checkers by the courthouse.
None of them would even look at Jake, but he shrugged it off. Being openly gay in the mountains won you a few enemies—especially in a Baptist church. Nobody, it seemed, wanted anything to do with him. He had long since gotten used to icy stares or, as was the case, no stares but rather a quick deflection of the eyes, as though he were some sort of gay Medusa.
He didn’t care. He had Carter. He had a few friends, too, but nobody was as loyal and devoted to him as Carter. Few people knew that Carter and Jake were together, which Jake realized was for the best. Those who did were mostly supportive, but they were also mostly family. He longed to one day be able to hold Carter’s hand as he walked proudly down Main Street, past Old Man Rice and the checker-playing pensioners and straight into the diner, holding his head high and demonstrating their love.
It was a nice thought, Jake thought, looking at his wristwatch and tapping his foot. Maybe someday.
He clicked his tongue as he heard the church bells start ringing. Pulling out his cell phone, he dialed Carter’s number. No answer. Voicemail. “Hey, it’s Carter. Y’all know what to do.” Beep.
“Carter, it’s me. Where the hell are you? Church is about to start and I really don’t want to have to sit through two hours of fire and brimstone without you by my side. You need to get here!” Jake slammed his phone shut and turned on a heel, about to head inside.
“Miss me?” Jake heard Carter ask. He turned around and saw Carter running up the concrete steps to the old brick church. The wooden steeple, painted white, towered above them as the bells again rang, this time chiming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“Where have you been?” Jake’s eyes were bugged out in frustration, his teeth clinched tightly together, locking his jaw into an angry curl. “They’re about to start!”
“They can’t start without me,” Carter said. Jake looked him up and down; he looked clean, but he was still wearing his dress uniform. Carter hadn’t changed clothes at all.
“I can’t believe you’re wearing that again,” Jake said. “Never mind, we have to go in. My parents saved us a seat.”
Jake drug Carter into the church as the bells finished chiming the miserable hymn. They walked past rows upon rows of people, all looking sympathetically at Jake and Carter. Jake didn’t understand what their problem was. He found his parents and sat down next to them. They hadn’t saved Carter a seat after all; there was room only for him between his father and the principal of the high school.
“You were supposed to save Carter a seat, too.”
“What?” Jake’s dad stared at him, mouth agape, as though he’d suggested saving a seat for bin Laden. His mom motioned for him to sit down, and he did. He looked at Carter, silently mouthing the words “I’m sorry.” Carter waved it off and went up to the front.
The choir took their places to the side of the pulpit and opened their books. The congregation followed suit, Jake included. He was a little confused, as they didn’t normally start off with a hymn. But then again, they didn’t normally have church on a Thursday, either. As he stood, he looked around the room for Carter. He spotted Carter’s family, including his sister – Jake’s best friend. She was weeping uncontrollably.
Jake didn’t understand. He started to head in that direction but was stopped by his own father’s hand on his shoulder, cautioning him to stay.
“Are you okay?” his father asked.
“I’m fine,” Jake said, baffled.
He looked again at Carter’s sister. Why was she crying? The choir began singing the first verse of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger.” It caught Jake off guard. He looked up at the choir, their long blue robes flowing and swishing as they swayed with the piano’s sombre melodies.
Jake noticed the preacher wasn’t at the pulpit, but rather was below it, kneeling and offering a prayer. The choir continued to harmonize as Jake tried to discern what the preacher was doing. It didn’t make sense to him. An American flag? The preacher was praying over an American flag? The blue shield, speckled with the white stars were barely visible, but that’s what it had to be. An American flag.
Jake looked around for Carter, hoping maybe he could explain what was going on. Carter always had the answers Jake didn’t. He looked around, but Carter had disappeared. Carter wasn’t there. He looked behind him and noticed that Old Man Rice was wiping a tear away from his eye. Jake had known Old Man Rice since the day his family had arrived in town, and he’d never seen Old Man Rice cry before.
Jake looked again to Carter’s family, but Carter still wasn’t there. Jake began to worry. His breathing became rapid. It was cold in the church, and Jake wished someone would turn down the air conditioner. Carter’s sister was still crying. It was cold and Carter’s sister was still crying. Why was she crying? Why was it cold? Jake looked around. He wanted Carter. Where was Carter?
The choir finished their song as the preacher stepped up to the pulpit. The American flag was still draped over something. A box. Jake saw the American flag covered over a box. And next to it, on one side, a picture of Jesus. Framed in a golden casing, Jesus looked like he was frozen in an unyielding agony. The nails were driven through his wrists as he limply draped off the cross, blood staining his olive cheeks from the crown of thorns. His head was uplifted, as though God had cupped his chin and forced Jesus to look Him in the eyes. But Jesus’ expression wasn’t one of hope, or happiness, or surrender. It was one of sheer pain, of brutal misery.
And on the other side of the flag-covered box, framed with silver, was a photo of Carter, smiling at Jake with those tobacco-stained teeth one last time.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer covering politics, media, and culture in the US and UK. His work has been published at the Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, the Daily Dot, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee.