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
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
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 hourlong 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
“I missed you, too, Grandma.” Paul couldn’t help the tears as they fell down his
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.”
“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
“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.”
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
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.
(c) David Darling