The day of the honoring gala had arrived. Instead of directions to a downtown hotel, the gala was taking place at the country club on the ritzy side of town. It was nestled on thirty acres of prime golf land and manicured woodlands. The gardens were just as notorious as the wealthy families that frequented the place.
Sophie was glad she’d decided to take her mother’s advice and wear a gala worthy dress. It was dark as blood and thin as rain against her skin. She opted for the lighter fabric to keep her cool, since the nights they’d been having had been humid with southern warmth. With a diamond cuff about her wrist, long silver strands at her ears and a single karat dangled at the base of her throat Sophie checked her darkened eyes one more time in the bathroom mirror before setting out.
Music flowed out of the lit pavilion at the rear of the country club estate. A narrow brick walk wound through the gardens toward it. Behind the pavilion the massive brick entertaining hall rose up from the grounds in a mass of stairs, wrapping balconies and towering windows. Families mingled on the terraces, some folks she recognized from Ryan’s funeral and the annual remembrance parties her mother would attend.
With her clutch in one hand, Sophie took a glass of champagne from a passing server. The grounds had been decorated with lights and people mingled about the lawns next to the hall. Surveying the crowd Sophie spotted her mother and her date, Doctor Lowe. She smiled when she caught their eye up on the main patio and worked her way toward them.
“Hello!” her mother and Dr. Lowe said in unison, before each embracing her.
“Hi, you two look sharp.” Sophie said. Her mother’s dress was a two piece maroon top with knee length matching skirt of lace over top satin. Modest pumps and a bit of eye mascara and she looked fancier than Sophie had ever seen her. “That’s a great dress mom, and Doctor Lowe - your tie matches.”
“Thank you Sophie, and you quite fashionable this evening.” He smiled warmly behind his wire rimmed glasses, his suit looking freshly pressed and a single maroon orchid at his lapel.
“Oh!” Helen said and dug into her purse pulling out a green folded ribbon. Sophie noticed next to Doctor Lowe’s and on her mother’s collar they wore the same ribbon. “This is for your brother, only the immediate families of the honored have them. Ryan’s color is green, and here’s yours.”
Sophie took it and looked down to her strapless gown.
“Right.” Her mother said, “I’m not sure where you’ll put that…”
Sophie smiled and sacrificed the top edge of her gown, “I’ll put it here, over my heart.” She said and started pinning.
As they made small talk, the three moved into the Hall as time drew nearer for the dinner and ceremony were to start. The main ballroom was filled with tables covered with white starched table cloths, the tall ceilings were broken up by large palm planters and full bar stations at each corner of the massive room. In the middle a wide hardwood dance floor had been setup for later and at the front, a stage with podium emblazoned with the Army insignia and the shield of Ryan and Cason’s units.
As they found their seats Sophie watched as the guests came in, a few of Ryan’s surviving unit were there in their dress blues. She scanned their faces for Cason, but he was no where to be seen.
As Sophie sat her mother leaned over and whispered, “Turns out there’s going to be an Army General here - this is a lot bigger deal than we’d assumed.”
As the festivities continued Sophie chatted with her mother and Doctor Lowe. The initial speaker, the Army veteran’s outreach officer introduced the General. He was a tall leathery man whose hair had gone white at his temples and spoke with a dry cadence. As he addressed the crowd and spoke of being honored to present the awards that would be given that night, the men who were to be honored gathered up on the stage.
A young woman with the ceremony committee came to retrieve her mother and the other representatives of the fallen soldier’s families. Sophie gave her mother’s hand a squeeze as she left for the front. On stage behind the speaking General were the line of remaining men from both Cason’s and Ryan’s unit. There were just a handful of them and in between them were empty seats representing the fallen soldiers. Slowly as the families came up on stage the chairs between the men began to fill. Next to her mother sat Cason.
He sat tall, his eyes straight forward and his crisp dress blues contrasted to the bars proving his rank and overseas combat, with honors. He was like a statue, his cap darkening his eyes so that they almost disappeared. Despite this, Sophie’s mother still patted his leg when she sat down next to him. As if to say, “it’s alright.”
Cason’s head tilted slightly in her direction, in acknowledgment before going back to stoic. The rest of the men Sophie realized, were much the same.
The General finished his speech and the coordinator came to stand at the podium next to him. They’d begin the honors then.
Sophie felt her chest tighten at the first sight of the medals. The room suddenly went warm and she found it difficult to breathe. She picked up the gala brochure and fanned herself but the constriction and heat of the room grew unbearable.
She felt Doctor Lowe’s hand on her shoulder then, “Are you feeling OK?” he whispered.
Sophie shook her head, “Just a bit dizzy. I think I need some air.”
Doctor Lowe nodded, his face concerned when Sophie ducked out of the hall through rear patio doors. As soon as the voice of the gala coordinator faded to a dull mumble and the cooling night air encased her, Sophie felt the tightness in her chest release.
On the stone patio, Sophie looked out over the lawns to the gardens and the forested park beyond. A concrete wall ran like a banister along the patio and down the stairs at either end. She took a deep clearing breath and tried to gather her wits before returning to the gala.
A few later she felt better and turned to head back in but couldn’t. There was something about being in the room of the other families of fallen loved ones. She’d been able to finally accept Ryan’s passing, but at that moment it all seemed fresh again.
Instead of going back in she walked toward to the wide open patio doors and watched from around the hall’s palm trees as the soldiers and family members accepted their honors. From the back of the patio she could barely hear the announcer or the family members, it was as if they were all on television and the mute button was on.
Another cool breeze ruffled by as her mother stood and accepted the medal from the General after reading Ryan’s letter. The next and last person to receive their medal was Cason. For his the General stood back up to the podium and spoke, it seemed like Cason was being overlooked, but then he was asked to stand next to the General.
Sophie watched as Cason stood stoic, waiting. The General finished his speech and turned to Cason and with much ceremony pinned a medal to his left uniform breast. As they shook hands, Sophie turned from the door and wound her way down the patio to the far end where the lights barely illuminated.
She knew what that speech had been about. Her mother had told her earlier in the night that because of Cason’s heroics in forming a rescue effort to the initial strike team the men who were sitting to his right were alive. Cason was too humble to talk of it, rather the gala coordinator had told her mother when she realized Helen didn’t know why Cason would be honored with a different medal. His actions came to light from the other men in his unit and Ryan’s who had repeated the story.
Sophie stopped at the farthest point on the patio and let the night envelope her. Soon dessert would be served and if the agenda was to be followed, dancing would be next. She just wanted air. She watched the fireflies as they came out and winked yellow and orange sparks. They blended in with the gala’s lights creating a moving light display.
It was some time later that people came out to the rear patio, their laughs and conversations echoing down toward Sophie’s end of the patio. She thought about going back in, her mother would worry she’d catch cold or worse. Sophie turned then stopped as Cason approached her.
“You OK?” He asked. The dark of his dress blues blended him into the shadows at that end of the patio.
Sophie gave him a polite smile, “Yes, thank you. I just needed some air.”
“Your mother is asking for you.” He said going to the railing next to her and slipped off his uniform cap tucking it under his arm.
“I see.” she said and turned toward him. She kept silent, listening to the easy chatter of the folks farther down. There, though, between them was another concrete wall. One that was invisibly erected. Sophie so desperately wanted to ask all the millions of questions that were rolling around in her brain. Instead she stowed them and simply waited.
When he didn’t talk she asked, “Congratulations on your medal of honor. You’re very humble to have kept quiet about your actions in the field that day.”
He just kept his eyes averted and made an acquiescing noise at the back of his throat that sounded more like a grunt.
Cason’s hands were splayed wide on the top of the concrete wall. Sophie noticed that he looked as if he were gripping it tight to hold onto reality.
“How’s your hip?” Sophie asked softly changing subjects as the friction between them was palatable. She felt like she was in a tinderbox and Cason was a sparking lighter.
He took a moment and looked down at his once offending leg, “Better.”
“That’s great.” She said and keeping her satin dress away from the rough concrete wall folded her arms about her middle, “Do you still have that little piece? The piece that they took out?”
“Yup.” He said then blew out a breath, “Look, I know you want to chat. I know what you want to chat about, but I’m not going to Sophie.”
She was silent then said, “It’s your honoring gala with your fellow soldiers, I was thinking I’d save ‘us’ for later.”
“There is no ‘us’ so it’s not a conversation we’ll have later.”
“We don’t have to have a conversation about it, just a little explanation on why you thought I was your wife and was carrying your child.”
He stood back from the wall then and slipped his uniform cap back on. His eyes were immediately plunged into dark shadow, “It.” He said then stopped then forged ahead, “It was really good to see you.”
Sophie smiled softly letting him go, “You too.”
Cason nodded and strode back across the stone patio and back into the celebrations. She watched his backside, his long strides seamless now that his shrapnel was removed. He confused her, everything seemed to be out in the open, and that should be freeing. But some invisible force was holding him back, preventing him from taking what they both seemed to intrinsically want.
Instead of chasing him down she let him go, let him stride back into the celebrations and just watched him. Sophie slipped back in and watched from the sidelines. Watched as he smiled at the family members of the fallen men and women of his and Ryan’s unit, watched him humbly nod at the General when he took up conversation with him.
The room was actually warm now, the middle was filled with dancing couples and groups. The open bar had been a good idea on the coordinator’s part, she thought.
Sophie had a moment where, standing on the side, she felt her distress melt away and instead was filled with a sense of pride. Her brother’s sacrifice had been honored that night and through it all everyone of the families could still find joy. After everything, that happiness was still tangible.
Sophie found her mother on the crowded dance floor, the jig playing seemed as if it were made for both her and Doctor Lowe. They looked genuinely happy. It was the first time in a long time she had seen that look on her mother’s face. She smiled softly to herself, it was a welcome change.
Across the flit of dancers to the other side of the room she found the General and next to him at equal heights was Cason. She watched him. He was seemingly listening to what the older man had to say, but his eyes were on the dancers. She retraced his gaze and found he was looking at what she had been just a second before. Her mother and Doctor Lowe. When she looked back, his eyes were on hers. His head nodded ever so slightly then his focus moved away.
Sophie knew he was acknowledging that between them there was one thing they both wholeheartedly agreed upon and that was the deserved happiness of her mother.
Another hour passed before the hall began to clear and the festivities began to settle down. Cason and his comrades had disappeared from the dance area long before and at the last dance her mother and Doctor Lowe came off the floor to the table where Sophie sat.
“Whew!” Helen said, her face shone red with exertion and Doctor Lowe had loosened and unbuttoned the top of his suit shirt long ago.
Sophie smiled up at them genuinely, the room still bustled with activity, people not wanting the evening to end.
“You two can really bust a move.” Sophie said as they stopped next to the table and drank the rest of their waters from dinner.
“Awe, well Martin is really the dancer here.” Helen said touching his arm fondly, they both still breathing heavy from their last dance.
Sophie stood, gesturing, “Do you guys want to sit and I’ll get you some punch?” She said and looked past them across the room, “That is, if they haven’t packed it in yet.”
“Oh, that’s okay honey.” Helen said as they emptied their glasses and put them back on the cleared white table cloth, “I think I’m ready to head home. Do you want to come with us?”
Sophie knew it was just a formality, “No, I’ll let you two love birds have the rest of your evening.”
“Oh gosh - we don’t need—”
“I’m just dropping your mom off—”
Sophie laughed, “Stop,” she said putting up a hand, “I’m only teasing you two. I’ll see you both tomorrow for lunch.”
Martin had picked up his coat and her mother’s as Helen spoke grabbing her purse, “Alright, but if you want to come over—”
“Mom, I’m right behind you, and I’m beat so I’ll just hit the hay when I get back to my place.”
Helen was appeased by Sophie’s words and nodded, “OK. Well, we’ll see you tomorrow.”
Sophie waved as they went out and looked about the room once they were gone. Cason still hadn’t returned. Most likely he and his old war buddies were at the local bar, the General had left with his wife earlier in the evening. With nothing left to do, and despite what she said to her mother, she had no desire to go home. Her blood itched.
She found the families of the men in her brother Ryan’s unit and made small talk and goodbye’s until there was no one else to say goodbye to, and that she should actually leave. She waved to the last of the families and headed out the front of the hall. The night air had cooled considerably and with it the moon had risen and become bright, shining down on the country club’s gardens casting a silver ethereal glow. The long fuzzy fingers of swamp moss waved in the gentle night breeze under the tree canopies. A front path wove around the building and into the manicured forest beyond.
Coat and purse in hand she headed toward the thicket. The path wound down to the trees then instead of diving in, it diverted suddenly to pass along side the forest. Sophie took off her heels and stepped into the cool grass and looking up could see the tree tops were well lit in the moonlight. She followed the dabbled light into the trees, the softness of the hanging moss brushed her cheek and shoulders. In the silvery light Sophie felt a centering peace come over her, the world was completely blocked out by the trees and yet the world was still illuminated gently. Just the pieces she needed she could see and walking deeper, the grass became softer and mingled in with moss.
She thought about recreating a space like it, a room in one of the mansions she was working on. Silvery light from above would be blended and spliced by overhead mossy branches. Only the clean smell of Earth and greenery would be hard to duplicate, or the soft call of a night bird in the distance. Sophie stopped and took a deep breath.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” came a deep male voice off to her left.