"You're too quiet." She smiles.
He doesn't. "Did you sleep?"
"I couldn't," she says.
He just nods. She pours him coffee. He drowns it in milk and sugar. They welcome the morning in companionable silence.
"I wanted to be there for him." It's a whisper. He stares at the coffee mug in his hands, seeing something very different. "I saw him get hit. I wanted to be there so bad. I would have gone in, but Vance held me back. Probably saved my life.
"Zack." He stops, almost overwhelmed, then forces himself to go on. "I would do anything for him. I would die for him. But I couldn't be there." His eyes are rimmed with tears.
She lays her hand over his.
Leeds wipes his face. "I know you didn't want him to go for the second tour."
She shakes her head. "It was his choice. I respect that. I love him. I couldn't keep him home. It meant so much to him."
"Thank you." The tears escape anyway, and slide down over the scar and stubble on his face. "Thanks for letting him come with us again. I'm sorry I couldn't bring him home."
"It's not your fault."
"Maybe not. But it feels like
" He falls silent. He's the same age as Zack, twenty-two, almost twenty-three. Same strong shoulders and narrow chest, flat stomach, straight hips. His arms are all muscle and sinew, skin deep tan from months in the desert. His dogtags rest lightly against his drab green tshirt. Unconsciously she reaches to the chain around her own neck, Zack's dogtags, which she has worn since he first graduated boot camp.
Leeds scrubs his face again, and this time, he stifles the crying. He lays a dirty white envelope on the table and slides it across to her. She starts to reach out, but he keeps his hand over it. "Chia... You know what this is."
She realizes in that moment. It chills her. She nods, not trusting her voice.
"I think you should wait," Leeds says.
The first thing she feels at his words is relief. She can put it off! She doesn't have to confront this now. She feels sick with guilt after that. She feels the heat in her cheeks as she blushes with shame.
"I know," he tells her. "It fuckin' hurts. You can wait. Wait until you're ready."
She can only nod again. Brandon withdraws his hand, leaving the crumpled envelope lying there . It is thin and plain, unassuming, but it might as well be a bomb. There are faint, smudgy fingerprints on the front. Zack's fingerprints she thinks, and feels her heart fist, her guts go icy and knotted. She nearly breaks down. Her eyes sting, her throat aches.
She slides it off the table into her lap so she doesn't have to look at it for the moment. It is light too light and thin to carry so much import.
She puts the letter into the footlocker at the foot of the bed. Into this she has already placed Zack's dusty uniform, his boots, and gloves, his watch, a pair of sunglasses etched by sand. Kits, and papers, a couple of journals, dog-eared manuals, and photos. The things he had in his pockets when he died; a gum wrapper, spare change in several currencies, a stone, three spent brass bullet casings, a safety pin, a new pair of bootlaces, a pack of cigarettes, a die-cast Matchbox car with most of the paint worn off, a stub of pencil, a soft-cover notebook he'd reinforced with duct tape. His wallet has no money in it, only more photos, and a video-rental membership card; a frequent buyer's card from their local bagel shop with eight of the ten punches filled up; a few postage stamps, already obsolete; a scrap of paper with international phone numbers written in pencil.
On top of this pile rests the tri-folded flag. She came home from the funeral and the flag went straight into the footlocker. The unread letter drops like a dry leaf on top of the flag. She shuts the lid and breathes a sigh. It is like relief.