Touch, by Jill Stegman

Only one bone came back. It was a fragment about four inches long, enfolded in bubble wrap and as smooth as driftwood. Merriam didn't know what part of his body it was from, and she didn't ask. She only knew it had been found in Cambodia and that DNA proved it was Larry's.

The excavation process had been long. The MIA people had to contact the Cambodian government before the team of forensic anthropologists, U.S. military personnel and archaeologists could dig out the muddy site where Larry's Cobra had gone down. Someone had sent her a photograph of the remote jungle location and she had dreamed of Larry in his chopper falling from the sky into the green canopy below. No sound but the screech of twisted metal whirling out of control.

Merriam rolled the bone lightly between her palms. Usually the remains were cremated, but after all these years she wanted something to hold so she could feel the weight. She had convinced them to let her keep it.
“I can bury him?” she said.
Lieutenant Holcomb smiled, “Yes, sure you can, Mrs. Stinson. After twenty-five years you can finally bury your husband.” When he saw her look his smile faded. Reaching for her wrist he said, “I'm sorry, I didn't realize. You've remarried now, of course.”
“Three more times. But not now.”

His hand felt sweaty, but she didn't pull away. She felt sorry for Lieutenant Holcomb. He was nervous, as well he should be. He looked about thirty at the oldest. He had been five when Larry was shot down. What did they think they were doing sending a boy to do a man's work?
“So this is it?” She had expected more of a skeleton, or at least a skull.
Lieutenant Holcomb brushed his close cropped head and flushed. Her response apparently wasn't in the script. “He'll get a full military funeral."

Merriam nodded absently as she imagined herself playing the grieving widow at such an affair. “With a twenty-one gun salute?” she said.
He folded his hands on the table looking relieved that this was over. “If that's what you want.”
She rewrapped the bone carefully, placing it back in the cardboard box. The MIA people had suggested she bring a relative or a friend, but she didn't know how she would react. Now she wanted to be alone with this piece of Larry. What she needed was a church or a bar, maybe both.

In the front seat of her car she pulled the picture out of her purse. It was the last one Larry had sent home, arriving just before she heard he was MIA. He was standing by his Cobra helicopter dressed in jungle fatigues, his fist up, middle finger raised. On the back it said, “To Merriam.” No one had seen the picture, not even her daughter Tiff. No one else but Merriam had read the letter which came back with the picture. It was written after he had received the letter from her.

I can't say ``Dear Merriam'' because that's not what you are. When I left, you promised to be faithful. But now you've taken my life more than the Army ever could have because you took my soul. Your touch is poison. You talk about love, yet you know nothing of it. I can't believe I'm here fighting for whores like you. I can't believe you have my child, my little girl. You didn't even give us a chance to be a family. She's the one I'm fighting for.

The letters were what united the three of them. The last one had come after Larry was reported missing. He had been concerned about the stories Tiff might hear. Merriam had showed it to Tiff when she was ten.

If I don't come back I want you to know that I wasn't a murderer. I would never kill a child. That's why I wrote this for you. It's a true story.

June 16, 1970
I had to take a captain out to a remote area on the Laotian border, well behind enemy lines. He was supposedly meeting some CIA agents there. It was a spooky place, in VC country. It didn't look at all like anywhere you'd find CIA. It was in an open area and the dust swirled around the houses. We landed on the outskirts of a village and there was no one in sight except a woman and little girl. They were standing in the doorway of one of the thatched houses. The captain went into one of the houses and left me by the chopper. The woman and little girl just stood and stared at me. They seemed to be waiting for me to do something. Then the woman said something to the little girl. She looked about five. The little girl walked toward me with her hand behind her back. She wasn't smiling or looking scared, but she was coming right toward me.

My throat went dry and I felt sick. We had been warned about women and children, and how they would carry grenades. I clutched my rifle and watched her closely. She kept coming until she stood right in front of me. She had big brown eyes and the sweetest face. She was smiling now like she had a big surprise and I was frozen before her, under her spell. I thought of all those guys they brought back and the gut wound I saw. Some just came back in parts. But she was a child, and I'd never had a child look at me that way.

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