Soldier Boys and Flower Girls
I had misgivings about him from the start.
He was a nice boy, I'll give him that – all politeness and helpful eagerness when I ran into him at the church. In fact, he would be anyone's dream son-in-law. Genuine, good-humored, and with a good head above those strong shoulders. But it didn't matter; his job alone was enough to cancel all of his stellar qualities out to nil, and that was that. Given his extraordinary talent and position, some would die to be in my shoes; I scoffed at it.
He was a soldier. Not just any soldier; he was SOLDIER, First Class.
Some say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. But there are those who must be judged, such as the man who cheated on his wife. The woman who abandoned her child. And the young man who killed in wars to be a hero. Because let's face it, war heroes are those with the highest head count; in this day and age, no one considers you a hero for saving a comrade. You're a hero if you raze down a village, enslave a kingdom.
Perhaps he was young, and had to be forgiven his naiveté. And I would have. If he had been steady with my Aeris for a longer time, and proven himself worthy, I would have looked past the blood on his hands, and sat him down for a talk. But it never came to be.
And why would it? He was busy. He was a prodigy, rising through his ranks with soaring wings. Often he was away, and his visits became sparser and sparser. He built her a cart; then he stopped coming altogether.
Those army boys. Never can trust them.
She didn't give up, of course. Every day she would step outside dressed in a different shade of pink. Days turned into weeks, into months, years. Pink and red spread in her closet, spilled onto her dresser, her bathroom sink.
It was heartbreaking. What would teenage boys know of such sweet devotion? Their own hormones deceive them; they don't know what love is until they are old and brittle. And such a handsome young man, and one in uniform at that – I know what makes whorehouses stay in business and it's not businessmen.
I sat her down and told her to forget. First love is sweetest when it remains a memory.
He's not like that, she said stubbornly. He's not a coward. He wouldn't cut off contact to stop seeing me – he would come and let me know. But he wouldn't because we weren't serious – yet – there is no reason to avoid me – and he promised that he would come to see me –
She never cried, my little Aeris. Every day she would prime herself up with that goddamn pink and walk out the door with a flower basket. The cart he built for her was old and rattled, and she refused to get it fixed until he returned and fixed it himself.
It was a rainy day when she came home without her flowers. She was soaked through, and when I approached her to reprimand the way she was dripping water onto the floor, she looked up at me, and when I saw her eyes I couldn't say another word. She walked right past me, disappearing into her room, and as she passed I heard the ghost of a whisper directed to a place I could not see. Zack. Zack. Zack.
That broken chant was the closest thing to a confession of love she had dared, or had the chance, to make.
Of course there were a million possibilities. Perhaps she had seen him in the streets with another girl. Perhaps he had come to say his goodbyes. Perhaps she had heard something, rumors of his whereabouts that made her lose hope. By all means her dreams were over.
Next morning, she told me between mouthfuls of breakfast that she was over him. She announced that she was done moping over a boy she barely knew, who had cut contact with her years ago. He was a lady's man, he had won her over quite easily, so he was probably doing the same thing with some other young thing. She was grown up; it was time to move on.
And that's how I knew he was dead.
She never had much growing up, my little Aeris. And what she does have, she hangs on the only way she knows how – she would rather give it up than to see it destroyed. She would rather laugh about being a cheated girlfriend than to see him dead.
The boy was dead. And she would never admit it.
I had never really managed to believe her when she told me she knew my husband had died. Who would? I continued to disbelieve even after it was confirmed; I wanted my little Aeris to be normal - perhaps then they wouldn't try to take her away. But seeing her proclaim with such fierce nonchalance that she didn't care, I knew in the deepest core of my body that he was dead. Faced with her adamant disbelief, I had no choice but to believe. I smiled and told her not to forget her lunch, and after she stepped out of the house and closed the door behind her, I sank onto the kitchen chair and cried for my little girl. Maybe she stood on the other side of the door and cried too. I would never know.
We moved on, of course. His name was never brought up between us again. I once saw her watching some second-class SOLDIERS walking through town, and herded her inside. She didn't protest.
My husband was drafted and killed in a war. I know what it's like to lose someone to other men's wars. I tried my best to smile for Aeris, and I felt for the boy; but that didn't mean I reversed my opinion. ShinRa was still up to no good, and SOLDIERs still couldn't be trusted. And he could have left her for another young thing. Why else would he have stayed away for so long? Knowing that he's dead, I now know that he had been alive for at least four years. What had he been doing all that time? Staying away, that's what.
But Aeris still continued to wear that dress, still tying her hair in that age-old ribbon, before stepping out with her flower basket. Hearing her wash her ribbon at night, I realized that she was never going to stop. That perhaps she would live the rest of her life proclaiming her disinterest so that he may somehow live. Living on as a martyr to try to revive a dead man. She would never let him die, not in her world, until she held a cold body in her arms. I went into her room while she was out, and cleaned out everything that was pink in her closet. Leaving the threadbare wardrobe behind, I sold her dresses to the peddler, and took the extra gil to buy some blue and green dresses. When she came home and saw her room, and came running out with that look in her eyes – and seeing the blue and green dresses waiting on the table – I knew, as she quietly thanked me and took the new clothes to her room, that she would never forgive me for it. The next day she showed up wearing the pink dress she had been wearing when I destroyed the rest. She began to wear that same dress every day. And bought herself a pink ribbon to tie around her neck, like the blood strings of a martyr.
I let it rest. So did she. We could pretend that nothing of the sort had happened. That there was no SOLDIER in our lives, there was no ShinRa, there was no danger or denied deaths or withheld tears. And then one day, she came back with another SOLDIER.
Ex-SOLDIER, he called himself. With that striking blue and cocky stride. And I knew she was trapped.
Flitting around with a bounce in her step, she talked, she laughed, she was happy. Life was breathing in her eyes, and it was all wrong. Because this is was Cloud Strife, ex-SOLDIER mercenary, not her lost, dashing hero Zack Fair. Though in the end it was all the same: soldier boys, their beautiful youth, and the heartbreaks they leave in their wake.
Dinner was an excited affair, laid out over the ghosts of the dead. She flirted outright, leaving the boy tongue-tied, turning the tables on her second Zack. After he had been guided to his room, I took her aside in the lamplight, and asked her what she was thinking.
He's lost, she said, and he is looking for his friends – just for a little while, Mom –
The Good Samaritan tactic. She had done it before with Zack. And look where it got her.
But he saved me, she tried, this time a damsel in distress. He didn't even know me but he saved me from the Turks – he's a good man, Mom –
Oh, how many a beautiful maiden the hero would have at his feet for a passing act of generosity.
I shook my head while she pleaded; and so we stood, arguing quietly in the darkened hallway. She would not listen. She would not stop believing. To her Zack was alive, and if he couldn't be, at least this new boy was his messenger. I grabbed her shoulders and whispered: "Who is it for, Aeris?"
To that she couldn't answer.
Because we both knew in the end that she couldn't let go, she couldn't forgive herself for letting the love die unbloomed. She needed to do it right this time, make it up to herself and Zack. I would know. Death comes unexpected, and the loss is so startling, that we spend the rest of our lives shackled to it.
After at last she retired to her room, I made my way to his. The silence hung heavy, and in the darkness I prayed for my little Aeris. He answered my knock immediately, still armed. I apologized, I stared, I tried to reason. But his bright eyes were so understanding, his silence so polite, that I could not bring myself to tell him that Aeris needed to stop chasing ghosts. That she needed to see another SOLDIER leave her in the dust to finally accept the facts of life. That death made him a martyr but he was in the end still Shinra's dog, leaving the lesser behind. But he understood. He left as I watched; seeing his form disappear into the cold gray of morning, I wondered why I was so desperate, why I wanted to weep for them both.
I stayed up that night, praying for the lost young man thrown out of my house into the slums; for the flower girl who couldn't even cry for a love long lost. And for myself, a woman who lost a husband and would not lose a daughter too. And in the pale dawn I knocked on her door, tired and wanting nothing more than to embrace my girl and tell her it's all right, Mama's here. The gray of morning was billowing through the open windows, a chill encircling the empty bed.
She was gone.