Thursday, April 15, 2021

Homecoming by David Darling

Sergeant Paul Horne threw his green duffel bag in the back of his pickup truck before 

climbing in the cab. His combat uniform was worn in places and his boots had seen many 

miles. The young man glanced in the rear-view mirror. His tanned face and tired brown eyes 

stared back at him.

 At twenty-eight-years old, Paul had just finished his fourth tour. The last nine months in 

Afghanistan have been more stressful than all the previous deployments combined.

 Half his section had been taken out by IEDs while patroling a highway in the Helmand 

province. The thin scar under his left eye was a constant reminder of how close the shrapnel 

came to having him join his friends in death.

 As he shook his head to clear his thoughts, Sergeant Horne concentrated on the positive. 

His tour was over four weeks early and he was going home to surprise his parents.

 He smiled when the Chevy truck turned over on the first try. The platoon quartermaster 

had made sure their vehicles were running and the batteries charged up. The windshield 

was clean, but there was enough dust on the black truck to make it almost appear gray.

 Paul had ten days of leave before he had to report back to Fort Benning, and he wanted to 

make the most of it. Once the windows were fully down and the warm spring Georgia air 

filled the cab, he left base and headed out on I-185N. The hour-long drive home to Pine 

Mountain helped calm the knot of tension he’d carried around in his chest for months. 

 He relaxed the tight grip on the steering wheel and turned on the radio and sang along 

under his breath. He never could carry a tune and his deep baritone voice was more suited 

to yelling commands over the battlefield than joining Garth Brooks in a song.

 Paul grew up in Pine Mountain and he smiled at the familiar sights. It had been nine 

months since he’d been home, but it felt like a lifetime. Soon, he saw the Wild Animal Safari 

sign and headed east on county road forty-seven. When he was a teenager, he had worked 

many summers at the attraction, and it helped nurture great respect for the animals and the 

outdoors.

 After he passed Harris County High School, Paul turned south on Maple Street instead of 

continuing to his parents’ home. 

 His grandmother lived a few minutes from the school and he hadn’t talked with her in a 

while. She didn’t own a computer, so he had sent a few letters to her over the months he 

was away, to keep her up to date. 

 He parked on the road and strode up the driveway to the old white bungalow, then 

stepped onto the wooden porch. The gardens were full of early spring flowers and the grass 

looked like it had recently been cut. Nothing had changed since he played here as a little 

boy. Paul automatically straightened out his uniform before knocking on the screen door.

 He heard the old floorboards creak as his grandmother ambled toward the door and 

paused. She didn’t appear too surprised to see him standing there, but he saw her tear up 

and a big smile washed over her face. Once the door was opened, the small woman stepped 

forward and gave him a big hug. 

 “About time you stopped by,” she said. “I missed you.”

 She barely came up to his chest and the familiar smell of her perfume filled his senses.

 “I missed you, too, Grandma.” Paul couldn’t help the tears as they fell down his cheeks.

 She stepped back and reached up to wipe his face clean. “Have you been home?”

 Paul shook his head. “I stopped here first. I was going to surprise Mom and Dad, but I 

wanted to see you first.”

 Clearing her throat, she gave a short laugh. “You are my favorite grandson.”

 Paul laughed along with her. “I am your only grandson.”

 “That’s why you are my favorite. I have something for you, hold on.”

 She stepped back into the house and quickly returned with a red and green tin box. Paul 

smiled when he saw it. His grandmother had used that same tin box all his life after she 

baked. 

 “Here you go. I made your favorite cookies this morning. Bring them with you and make 

sure you share them.”

 “Yes, ma’am.”

 “You better get home. You have some surprises to do.”

 Paul stepped forward and gave his grandmother another big hug. “Love you, Gram. I 

missed you. I will be back later.”

 “Don’t worry about me, everything is fine. I love you, too, Pauly. Tell your mom and dad I 

love them, as well.”

 “Will do.” Bending down, he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.

 “You better go before I start crying. Welcome home.”

 As he walked back to the truck, Paul turned and gave her a quick wave goodbye before he 

jumped inside. Placing the cookie tin on the front bench seat, he gave a little honk and wave 

before he headed home.

 After he turned right onto Main Street, he took the back roads home. At this time of the 

morning, he knew his mom would be out in the gardens before the day grew warm while his 

dad puttered around the garage. 

 Paul parked a few homes away and turned off the truck. With the cookie tin in one hand 

and his duffel bag in the other, he slowly strode along the sidewalk. He had guessed 

correctly. His mother knelt on the lawn, weeding the front garden.

 “Excuse me, but I seem to be lost.”

 At this, his mom looked over her shoulder to see him standing there. Letting out a scream 

of delight, she crossed the lawn in two steps and threw herself into his arms. 

 “Oh, my baby boy is finally home.”

 Paul dropped the duffel bag and held on to the container with one hand while he picked up 

his mom with the other. “I’m home a little early.”

 “Paul!”

 He saw his dad come around the corner toward them, and soon they all were hugging and 

crying at the same time.

 “When did you get in?” His mom wiped her eyes on the back of her hand. She couldn’t stop 

smiling.

 “Late last night. I wanted to surprise you guys.”

 His dad gave a little chuckle. “You certainly did.”

 Paul’s mom took in a sharp breath of air and moved a step back. She glanced down at what 

he held.

 “Where did you get that?” she asked.

 After he fixed his gaze on the red and green tin, Paul smiled. “Sorry, this wasn’t my first 

stop. I went to Grandma’s and she sent some cookies back with me.”

 His mom closed her eyes and lowered onto both knees on the grass. “Oh my God …”

 Confused and concerned, Paul turned his attention to his father. “What’s wrong?”

 His dad was white as a sheet. He also couldn’t take his eyes off the cookie tin. “We didn’t 

want to tell you this far into your tour, but your grandmother passed away a few weeks ago 

in a house fire.”

 At this, Paul chuckled. “Nice try. I was there six minutes ago. She’s fine.”

 His mother shook her head. “We are not joking, Paul. My mom died from smoke inhalation 

when her house caught fire fifteen days ago.”

 Looking down at the cookie tin, Paul didn’t know what to say. He could still smell his 

grandmother’s perfume on his uniform. Once the lid was removed, he saw the stacks of 

chocolate chip cookies under the wax paper. “They are still warm. Grandma just baked them 

and handed them to me.”

 He filled them in on what happened and described the light blue dress his gram wore. 

Helping his mom to her feet, Paul realized she seemed to be in shock. 

 “Come with me, son.”

 Paul handed the container to his mom and followed his dad over to his truck while she 

knelt back down onto the lawn and sobbed, the tin held close to her chest.

 Paul handed the keys over to his dad before they got inside the truck. “Is Mom okay? 

What’s up?”

 His father held up one hand. “Just hold on…”

 A few minutes later, they turned left onto Maple Street and his father stopped the truck 

outside the house. The tightness was suddenly back in his chest as Paul looked out the 

passenger window.

 His mouth dropped open.

 What was left of his grandmother’s house had collapsed into the basement from the blaze. 

Blue fencing surrounded the home to keep everyone out and the burnt smell of the fire still 

lingered in the air.

 “This isn’t possible,” Paul whispered. “I was just here.”

 His father’s strong hand reached over and squeezed Paul’s shoulder as their tears started 

once again. 

 I love you too, Gram. Thank you for saying goodbye.


© David Darling

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