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We received 55 entries for The Vindicator’s sixth annual Valentine Love Story Writing Contest. The rules were simple. We asked for a clever ending to this year’s love story, “Waiting in the Wings,” using 750 words or fewer by the Feb. 2 deadline. Some of the endings were too long. A few were too late. But most were exactly what we asked for — a creative happily-ever-after ending. These are the judges’ favorite three and some of the other entries. The stories are unedited.

Here is the beginning of the love story:

The plane was cramped, the buckle of her seat belt dug into her waist, the in-flight meal was awful, and the flight attendants were terse and rude. Nonetheless, Sgt. Allison Andrews’ ebullient mood couldn’t be tempered. After a long two-year deployment in Afghanistan, she was finally heading home. As part of a female military engagement team, she had worked with six other female officers as they assessed the needs of women and children in Afghanistan and helped find solutions to their problems. They visited women’s centers, orphanages and education centers, delivering supplies and conducting assessments at various sites around the country. Sure, she wasn’t in a combat zone, ducking mortar fire or avoiding land mines, though she had great respect for her fellow soldiers who faced those each day. But she couldn’t deny the warm feeling of pride she held for her job and the impact it could have for future generations in Afghanistan.

Allison really and truly believed that even when she was long gone from the world, there might be some good out there that she, in part, made happen. Above her head, the plane’s seat-belt icon blinked and then turned off, eliciting a thankful sigh from Allison. She released her belt and reached into the overhead compartment, searching for her rucksack. From the front pocket of her bag, she pulled out three letters. The edges of the envelopes were tattered, and the pages inside were tearing at their folds. The paper was crinkled, and the black ink now looked a bit gray. The letters were from home, as indicated by the stamp of her local post office on the corner of the envelope, but there was no return address.

She couldn’t figure out the identity of the author of the letters, but she deeply treasured their words. There were words of great pride about her service and what she had given up for her country. “You’re not forgotten while you’re away,” the author wrote. “You’re on my mind each and every day.”

The words in the letters were present tense, but they made Allison dare to dream about the future, about what she wanted to accomplish and when she wanted to settle down. She had kept the letters in the inside pocket of her uniform since she received them. Their words helped her the most on days when she and her team went into places that seemed beyond help or on days when Allison was haunted by the thought of friends headed into dangerous battles.

On an overhead monitor, a plane icon showing the progress of her trip slowly but surely came closer to home. She squeezed the letters and felt her stomach do a little flip. The last letter had ended with the message, “I’ll be there to welcome you home.” As the plane descended, her heart thumped as every emotion regarding the letters bubbled to the surface. Would the mystery author be whom she expected? Allison was one of the last passengers who left the plane, and her bag was one of three suitcases still spinning on the baggage carousel. She headed toward the waiting area, and in the distance, saw her name written on a large white sign. Unable to see who held the sign, she began to run until the face of her mystery writer became clear. ...

AND THE WINNERS ARE:

FIRST PLACE - BOBBI ENNETT ALLEN - YOUNGSTOWN

She began to run until the face of her mystery writer became clear…. Crystal blue eyes held in a face ravaged by time stared at her. One wrinkled, worn hand held the sign with her name, the other hand held fast to a cane. His face said he recognized her. She hesitated, but only for a moment, because those clear blue eyes held her, and beckoned her forward. He smiled and introduced himself with a chuckle that immediately put her at ease. “I’m not what you expected, I’m sure. But, I can explain.”

She smiled and told him that his letters were a treasured gift from home, and encouraged her more than she could say. “But,” she said, “I’m afraid I have no idea who you are.”

“I am a soldier. My name is Staff Sergeant Joseph Allen,” he proudly stated. “Retired.” Allison relaxed. He probably belongs to one of those groups who pick a name from a hat and write to encourage the men and women of the Armed Forces, she thought to herself. Not Prince Charming, as she had so fervently hoped, but safe enough. She had let her imagination take her down the wrong road. It would be a nice afternoon with a very engaging old man, but that was all.

“I fought in the Second World War many years ago,” he explained as they sat to have coffee. Allison told him that her grandfather had fought in that same war and her father had served two tours in Viet Nam. “It was their sense of pride in serving their country that made me choose this path,” she told him. “They are both gone now, and I’d like to think I made them proud when I enlisted.”

“I know they are proud of you,” he said. And as Allison looked into those eyes, she believed him. “My son was a fine soldier, and my grandson just returned home on leave this week,” he told her. Those clear blue eyes misted with unshed tears. “My son died in Vietnam. He never saw his only child, but I know he is proud of him.” He wiped a tear away and smiled. “Your father was with him when he died. He wrote to me after he came home, and we met a few times to talk. He was a great comfort to me.” “I didn’t know,” Allison said softly.

“No, we never told anyone. I don’t think your mother or my wife knew. Two soldiers who have seen too much loss, met occasionally to talk of things only we understood. We lived in the same town, but we guarded our friendship closely. Memories can be hard for some, but so needed by others. Something only a soldier understands.”

He was quiet for a moment then he slowly shook his head. “I have watched over you from a distance. A favor your dad asked of me when he first knew about the cancer, and one I gladly accepted. I placed a wreath on your father’s grave when you left for this tour of duty. It was my way of asking him to watch over you while you were gone. I wanted your homecoming to be something special. I owe your father a great debt. And this country owes all you young people so much!” He looked over her shoulder and smiled.

Allison’s eyes filled with tears when she remembered the day she left for Afghanistan. A wreath with red, white and blue flowers stood on her father’s grave. She hadn’t known who placed it there until today. He saw that she was upset and quickly said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to take you to lunch before we take you home!” he said. “And, in case you didn’t notice, I’m a bit too old to be driving, so my grandson has graciously offered to go along and be our chauffeur.” He stood and placed his hand on the shoulder of another soldier.

“Allison, this is Daniel,” he said. And, for the second time today, Allison looked into the most engaging blue eyes. Eyes that held her, and beckoned her forward. Prince Charming smiled as he took her hand. …

SECOND PLACE - MARY JOYCE DILLON - MERCER, PA.

Allison spotted Sam’s adorable, scruffy face before she saw the wheel chair parked close by. It was obvious by the exuberance that Sam had not forgotten the love that they had shared nearly two years before in that faraway place.

After lots of hugs and wet kisses, Allison turned her attention to Sam’s companion in the wheelchair. Immediately, Allison visually registered the prosthetic legs; but then she recognized the bright, shiny eyes, the warm smile, and the name tag sewn on the Army fatigue shirt, “C. DAVIS.” Memories flooded over Allison.

Allison was busily involved with empowering the women and children in Afghanistan when she met Sam and experienced love-at-first-sight. After several days of pure joy for both, Allison discovered that Sam belonged to another person, who had been recently seriously injured in the war. Despite Allison’s devotion to Sam, she was compelled to see that Sam was reunited with the other person who had also been captured by that special love.

Allison accompanied Sam to the hospital for the reunion. She spent only a few minutes with Sam and C. Davis before she was confident that she had made the right decision. The two of them were meant to be together; and now more than ever they needed each other.

Allison left the hospital with only a photo of Sam in her pocket and an emptiness in her heart. Looking at the picture and reading the mystery letters that arrived later always brightened an otherwise dark day for Allison. Now, nearly two years later Allison was standing before Sam and C. Davis once again. It was obvious that their love was as strong as ever.

C. Davis spoke first, “Allison, Sam and I have not forgotten you and your selfless gesture. We thought about you and talked about you every day. At the hospital on the day we first met, I mentally photographed the name on your shirt … “A. Andrews” and focused on it during the long, painful days of rehab. When I was stronger, I made it my mission to find you and maintain contact through letters until we could meet again. Sam and I hope that our letters sustained you while you bravely served our country and the women and children in Afghanistan. It is our hope that you will be part of our lives forever. Before Allison could respond, Sam eagerly wagged his tail and barked in total agreement. Allison experienced a second chance at love-at-first-sight.

THIRD PLACE - STEVE T. SHELTON - YOUNGSTOWN

Allison had volunteered for the female military engagement team that assessed the needs of women and children primarily because of the opportunity to visit and work with orphanages and education centers. Back in the States, she herself was an orphan who grew up in foster care from the age of two and spent much of her early childhood with a few foster families, most of whom she had fond memories. She still felt the sting of being moved around within the system, until she was finally adopted by a truly loving set of parents by the name of Andrews. Her new mom was Ellen and her father was Robert Andrews and they had no children of their own and were so excited to hear they were adopting little Allison, who was just seven-years-old at the time.

Allison grew up quite happy on the east side of Youngstown, even though her family had little by way of financial things and both of her parents seemed to work long hours, she always felt loved and really didn’t go without, because her mom and dad always put her first. She was their princess and the center of the family. Occasionally, Allison couldn’t help but let her mind wonder back to those days she spent in foster care and one particular little friend whose name pops in and out of her little brain, Abby. But as quickly as the name pops in, she gets distracted and soon it fades to a distant memory.

When it came time to graduate, she had to make a decision on her future and it seemed to come down to attend YSU or go into the Army. During a visit to the local Army recruiter is when she found she could join the Army and be assigned to the female engagement team working with orphanages and children, she was all in. Robert and Ellen were so proud of her decision and just knew she was going to make a real difference in children’s lives. That summer she forwarded her enlistment papers to Washington, D. C and soon was in basic training waiting for assignment.

In November of that year, her assignment came through with directions to work with the engagement team in Afghanistan. Some six months later, the assignment papers came across the desk of a young Army private, who had just recently been assigned to the desk position at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. What caught her eye was the date of birth, April 24, 1991. She at first thought “Hey that is the same birth date as me.” She was curious and looked further and saw that she was born in the same city, which was Youngstown, Ohio. She knew this because she had been looking for her birth mother for some five years and had the date and location imbedded in her mind.

Taking down the name and phone number, she immediately called the number to hear Ellen answer on the other end. She identified herself to Ellen and told her of the search for her birth mother when she came upon Allison’s birth date and place. Could it be? Ellen was as shocked as anyone, as if a lightning bolt had hit her. Over the next few months, Ellen and the young lady talked, compared notes and agreed to meet. When the young lady agreed to come to Youngstown to meet Ellen, it became clear she was a spitting image of Allison. Soon after, Ellen wrote the first letter telling Allison how proud she was of her service and she hadn’t been forgotten and she was especially on her mind every day.

The third letter was written by the young army private and talked about a shared future and simply said “I’ll be there to welcome you home”. It closed with love and lots of X’s and O’s.

Allison clutched the letters as she ran down the airport hallway toward the sign to see her Mom and Dad holding the “Welcome Home Allison” sign, tears running down everyone’s face and after a big family hug, her Mom said “I have someone I want to introduce you to” and then stepped aside while Allison stared into the smiling, tear filled face of the Army private. Both were dressed in their military best. She had a face that smiled back and looked just like Allison’s face. The young lady stepped forward and said “Hello, my name is Abby and I think we may be twin sisters”.

Here are some of the other entries the judges liked:

GERRY HECKLER - NEW CASTLE, PA.

It was Scott O’hara, her flight instructor. Before Allison joined the military, she had gotten her wings. She thought flight lessons might be of value to her military plans. But once she signed up and was deployed to Afghanistan, she spent most of her time with her feet on the ground. “Scott?” she questioned patting her pocket. “You wrote these letters?”

He nodded shyly, brushing aside a lock of golden hair. His green eyes made her heart flutter, the same way it always had whenever their gaze had met inside the cockpit. Scott took Allison’s bag. “I have a limo waiting and a surprise for you.” “Marsha?” Allison blurted aloud. Marsha was Scott’s fiancée.

“We broke up last year,” Scott said as they slipped out of the airport. Scott put Allison’s bag in the trunk and helped her inside the limo. “You probably heard that John and I parted ways too,” Allison said. “The day I joined up, John said he wouldn’t be waiting.” “What a loser,” Scott said, cracking open a bottle of champagne and pouring a few sips into Allison’s glass. “You can enjoy the rest later.” He also handed her a huge chocolate covered strawberry. “John should have been proud of you for serving our country.”

Allison savored the delicacies. “This is where we left off, isn’t it Scott? A celebration for me when I got my pilot license.” Scott nodded. “And then you went off to Afghanistan without getting the chance to sky dive like you talked about.” Just then they pulled into Green Acres Airport, a small airport for general aviation. Baffled, Allison glanced at Scott.

“Surprise! You’re going for a tandem sky dive. Let’s get suited up.” Allison was speechless.

After changing into skydiving gear, the next thing Allison knew she and Scott were aboard a Piper with the pilot flying the plane high up through the clouds. Scott briefed her on their jump. He was a jumpmaster as well as a pilot so she felt completely confident in his care. He attached her harness to the front of the tandem parachute system he was wearing. “I wish my family were here to see my first jump,” Allison said. The pilot announced, “Jumpers away,” the signal that all was clear. Scott opened the side door. “One, two, three, jump.”

Allison felt the sensation of wind on her face and the exhilaration of free-falling was even better than she had imagined. The view from 11,000 feet was spectacular.

Finally Scott deployed the parachute that suspended them both and soon the specks on the ground turned into people—not just people—lots of people, and a marching band. She spotted a golden tuba. Behind it, her brother Bob.

They landed softly in an upright position and the band began playing, ‘When Johnny comes marching home again . ...’ That’s when Allison noticed the banner that said, WELCOME HOME SGT ALLISON. Her parents were holding each end. Scott had thought of everything. “So what did you think?” Scott asked as he disconnected her from their mutual chute.

“I loved it!” she said giving him a hug. “On my way home I had been feeling a little apprehensive thinking about what I might do with the rest of my life. But now I know. I’d like to continue flying and skydiving. For the past two years, I’ve been working with women and children and now I’ve decided to work at our local women’s shelter. If I could take these women and their children, whose lives are presently falling apart, up in a plane, maybe they can get a whole new prospective on life and overcome their fears just like I did now.

Scott gazed into her eyes. “I’d like to offer my services. Oh, and one more thing, I’d like to take you out, on a real date. Somewhere on land,” he laughed. He kissed her softly and she felt a surge of excitement. She had a whole new perspective on life. She was home — with her family and friends and Scott beside her. It was just the beginning….

LOUISE CAMPBELL

She froze. The face of the man holding the sign looked familiar, yet she couldn’t remember his name, or where she’d met him. She was sure she’d seen him before, but not looking nervous and shy like he did standing in the middle of the airport.

Bewildered, she resumed her approach, albeit tentatively. The man lowered his sign and walked toward her. “Welcome home, Sgt. Andrews,” he said gently. “I don’t think you remember me. I hope I’m not a disappointment.”

Allison blushed. “Of course not! I mean, of course you’re not a disappointment. I do remember you, just — ” she swallowed hard. “I’m sorry, I just don’t remember your name, and I’m afraid I’m rather embarrassed.” She hastily added, “But I’m so glad you’re here! I’ve been anticipating this moment for so long and now that it’s here, I don’t know how to feel.” Her eyes brimmed with tears.

The man smiled – oh, with such kindness – and gestured toward a seating area nearby. “Please, sit down. Rest for a few minutes,” he urged. They sat, and he handed her a box of tissues. “I thought you might need these. I know what it’s like to come back after deployment. It’s never anything like what you expect, and no matter what you’re feeling right now, it’s okay. The transition will take time.”

Allison was grateful for the tissues. After taking a moment to collect herself, she laughed nervously and said, “Well, I already feel silly enough that it’s not going to make me feel any sillier to ask who you are.”

He smiled again – hadn’t she seen that smile before? “My name is Sgt. Ben Madison. We met in Afghanistan last year, just briefly, not long before my deployment was over.”

Allison gasped. “Yes! I met you in Afghanistan!” She took out the well-worn letters. “I read these over and over looking for a clue. The postmark was the only one – and since it was from back home, I assumed you were a friend or an admirer from the past. I never would have imagined you were someone from the military. How?”

Ben explained how, after returning from his deployment and finishing his enlistment, he had decided to attend college using GI Bill funds. “I didn’t grow up here – I’m from a tiny town in Pennsylvania – but I heard good things about the materials science program and the job prospects in that field, so I decided to come to school here.”

For the first time since their eyes met, Allison relaxed and smiled. “That’s a good story,” she remarked. Then her brow furrowed. “But, that’s the second half of the story. What’s the first? I remember meeting you now – you were a medic, and you needed women from my team to help some Afghan women with their medical needs. But what was so special or memorable about me? What inspired you to write to a woman you hardly knew?” There was a pause as Ben reflected on how to answer her. “It was the love that you showed,” he said finally. “You were efficient, but never in a hurry. I could see in your face that you cared about those women.” Allison demurred. “I was very devoted to my work, but no more so than my fellow officers.”

“I know, I know -- you had a great team over there, no question about it. But you demonstrated compassion and mercy beyond what I was used to. You were the face of love to those women, and that is something I could never forget.”

Allison was delighted and honored, but couldn’t bring herself to agree. “We all shared the hope that our work would eventually bear fruit. We all wanted to have a lasting impact.” “And I have no doubt you will, and that your work will continue to bear fruit – but Sgt. Andrews, don’t you see? It already has, the moment you gazed at a woman with compassion, the moment you gently bandaged the wounds on her hands and in her heart. Yours is a legacy of love. That’s why I couldn’t get you out of my head, not for an instant, ever since we met.”

Allison felt like her heart was flooding with joy. No one had ever spoken to her like this before, and she couldn’t help but hope that their story was only beginning. She shyly held out her hand and squeezed his gently when he placed it on hers. “Call me Allison,” she said softly.

CATALINA CURRIER

Became clear… Her bag thumping against her side, she ran towards him and was surprised to see it was not her boyfriend Jackson, whom she had broken up with before being stationed, but a young boy, no more than 13. With a questioning look on her face she stopped in front of him.

Suddenly the boy grasped her in a hug, dropping the sign to the ground and then looked at her with bright green eyes and a large white smile. “Sgt. Allison, it has been nearly a year since I have seen you! You have changed very much, but I still recognize your kind eyes.” Suddenly, her first few months of action came back to her and she remembered going to an orphanage on the edges of Afghanistan.

“Amir?!” She grasped the boy in a hug, remembering their time together. Allison remembered back in Afghanistan when she had first met the boy, he was dressed in ripped, dirty clothes, and was covered in dirt from head to toe. He was the oldest, yet most shy, of a group of 12 children who were taking refuge in an old church. She had talked to Amir, helped him, and brought him out of his shell. He began to open up and fully confide in her. They spent a month together as the soldiers collected data and transformed a church into a local community shelter.

“What are you doing here?! Last I saw you; you were going to school with the other children!” She exclaimed. “A soldier came up to me a month after you left and I told her about you. I told her you were a wonderful officer, and she introduced me to a man.” His eyes glittered in excitement. “What are you talking about? What woman?” “One of your friends, Sgt. Lara O’Brian.”

Her deployment was up in my 7th month, and she was from my hometown too. So was it my friend who had written all the letters? Allison thought. “She said one of your other friends wished to talk to me and adopt me. They knew I was friends with you.”

“So you wrote these letters to me?” Allison asked confused. “Yes, the first two I wrote after you left. I got help from the teacher and wrote them to you, but never had a chance to send them. When I met your friend, I gave the first to him to send when I first met him, and the second when I arrived in the U.S. When I realized I was here to stay, I quickly wrote another, and sent it, but we had gotten the dates wrong and I thought it silly to send another after that.” “So you are here with Lara?” Allison inquired.

“No, she left with her husband a long time ago, but turn around and you’ll see who.” Allison turned around and behind her was a familiar man in a T-shirt and jeans. Looking at his face, she barely hesitated before burying her face into his chest in a hug and breathing in his scent of gasoline and oranges. “I missed you so much Jackson.” Her voice was muffled and filled with regret for leaving him when she was deployed. She pulled her head out of his chest. “Why Amir?” Jackson smiled and spoke in his familiar voice. “Lara came back and told me how much you two connected. She told me how much you dreamed of the future and how it hurt that you had to break up with me before you left. When I went over to Afghanistan to speak to Amir about you, he was a great kid, and I knew that he would make a perfect addition to our family.” He paused. “That is, if you want a family.”

Allison’s breath hitched and thoughts spun around in her head. “But, we’ve only been together for 2 years and I broke up with you and---” As she paused for a breath, Jackson passed something between him and Amir. Now down on one knee, Jackson held out the small box with a ring inside and Allison began to laugh through the tears.

“Will you be my wife? I love you so much more than I could ever say, and Amir could be a part of our family and it would be wonderful!” Allison nodded her head yes, then pulled the two boys into a large hug. “I love you.”

JIM VILLANI

Unable to see who held the sign, she began to run until the face of her mystery writer became clear, faces became clear, oh my God Allison gasped to herself, and she froze and dropped her rucksack. There were so many people, there were more signs coming into sight, a half-dozen signs, “Welcome Home, Allison” some said, “Allison Andrews” another said, “We Love You, Allison” still another read, and there was Mr. Figglefine holding a sign, and Mrs. Caring, Mrs. Romp, Mabel Maply who lived next door to her mother, and Dr. Fuddle, and all of a sudden adults step left, right and children, over a dozen, little Julie first, she would be six now Allison reflected, and Naton and Carla, and some younger children she didn’t know, and Sarah Soot, and Virginia, and Michael Near, they were all so much bigger after two years.

The adults having split apart reveal a larger sign way to the back Allison could see now. Big red capital letters projected BREAKING DAY DAY CARE, and short of breath, still fixed unmoving to the tile walkway, Allison tumbled through a treasure of memories about that last summer before she deployed when she worked as an aide at Breaking Day. It was very sad when she enlisted.

The children so loved her, the mothers too, and Mrs. Reason, the owner, was kind but firm when she cautioned Allison that the day care could not hold her job because attritions were unusual, most people working at Breaking Day had been there for so long there probably wouldn’t be an opening when she returned... “Oh my,” Allison thought and she clutched her hands to her mouth.

Out of the hall shadow walked Mrs. Reason. Clara Reason approached the returning soldier and extended her hand to Allison. Letting her hands drop from her face, Allison took Mrs. Reason’s hand, squeezed it gently, and muttered a thank you. Clara Reason smiled. “It’s OK, Allison, we’re all here. I do have room for you back at Breaking Day. We miss you.”

Allison knew right then and there that Mrs. Clara Reason wrote those letters and she couldn’t believe it. Yes, she respected Mrs. Reason, feared her a little, tailored to her requests, but never thought her embrace warm. “Please come back, Allison, say you will,” Clara Reason continued.

“Yes, yes,” Allison screamed. “Thank you, thank you. I love you all so much.” In a breath, Allison thought quietly back to her military team field work, the women’s centers, education center, orphanages, and then cycled her thoughts all the way back home to Breaking Day Day Care and she understood that children were her mission then, there, and now in the future unfolding. She is certain because she feels, knows children are true love and her calling, children are waiting in the wings.

MARTHA WEIRICK

Allison stopped dead in her tracks. Could it be? Yes! It was the guy who bought granny’s home. Rick ... something. He wrote the letters!? Astonishment coursed through her. In a flash, her mind transported her back two years earlier. She was standing in granny’s kitchen, taking a sad, last look around at the, now, empty shell of what once was her home. Tomorrow the new owner took possession. He was a single man, perhaps in his late twenties, that’s about all she knew.

A melancholy feeling settled over her as she removed the spare key from her ring and placed it on top of a welcome note. In her hand written note, she mentioned the house’s history, the renovations done thus far, the plans not yet finished but hoped he’d continue, and lastly, Allison wrote her name and cell number in case he had any questions.

A deep, rich voice called a few days later, looking for the garage door remote. That same day, Allison found herself standing on the old, familiar porch exchanging the remote for some overlooked family photos. She considered the handsome, thoughtful face standing in front of her. She found Rick easy to talk too and spent a good amount of time chatting.

In their conversation, she learned Rick made a living restoring old homes. He didn’t usually keep them for long. However, he might “just hold on to this one.” He could see it was special. “Granny had willed the house to me a few years earlier,” Allison confessed. “Once I replaced the roof, windows and then the furnace, there wasn’t anything left to modernize the inside.” She admitted the decision to sell was an extremely difficult one, but was grateful he recognized the same diamond in the rough.

She professed, though heart sick she wasn’t able to keep the home. A huge weight lifted from her shoulders when the house finally sold. She felt comfortable enough to share with him she had purchased a small condo just a few blocks away with the profits.

She could leave for Afghanistan knowing she made the right decision. She shared details of her pending deployment, her multi-lingual skills in Baluchi, Pashai, and Nuristani dialects, and her eagerness and desire to do what she could for the women in Afghanistan.

He admired her bravery and her determination to make a difference. He asked about her family and how they felt about her pending deployment. Allison admitted, “except for a few cousins who live in other parts of the country, I’m alone.” “No boyfriend … or girlfriend?” he laughed, then added, “That probably wasn’t politically correct of me to ask ... or very subtle.” She laughed in kind. “No. No special guy,” then quickly added. “But I hope to settle down someday.” Rick admitted he was tired of the single life and was ready to settle down himself, if the right girl came along. When she finally took her leave from his company that afternoon, she felt a familiarity she’d never known before. A noise brought her back to the present. She watched him drop the sign in a nearby trash bin, walk forward until he stopped directly in front of her, grinning. Her heart raced as if she’d run a marathon. “Hello, Allison,” his voice soft, his joy apparent. “I did say I’d be here to welcome you home.” His smile widened. Her stomach flipped, yet again. “I hope its ok.” It was more of a question than a statement. “Of course its ok, Rick,” her cheeks flushed red. Relieved to finally know the author of those precious letters, “it was you?” He nodded. “I’m glad you remember me. I was worried you wouldn’t.”

Rick took the bag from her shoulder, held it with ease in his left hand, and casually tossed his right arm over her shoulder. It felt as natural as breathing. “How did you know when I was coming home?”

“It took some doing and someday I’ll tell you all about it.” Rick looked around, “Is there anyone, besides me, to welcome you home?” “No, just you,” she admitted freely. Rick nodded, “I’m sure you’re anxious to get home and settled. But, if you will indulge me, I’d like to invite you to the house for a late dinner. I want to show you what I’ve done so far!” he grinned and she responded in kind. It took only a second for her to agree. “Sure! Why not!” “Come on, my truck’s parked outside!”

IRENE SANTON

No, it was a man standing in front ... why it was Uncle Rick with Aunt Audrey. Not the anticipated mystery writer. She suppressed her disappointment and faked a big smile as kisses and hugs were exchanged. They had come home early from their trip to meet her. “We wanted to surprise you, “Audrey explained. “You needn’t have cut it short,” Allison replied, feeling a bit flushed. She thanked them for coming and politely focused on their welcoming words. “It feels good to be back.” she said, trying to shake off feelings that might spoil her homecoming. On the way home she stuffed the letters back into her rucksack.

Allison’s parents had died in an accident when she was a child and her aunt and uncle had raised her. They loved and cared for her like parents and she regarded them as such. At the house, Audrey informed her that they had kept her room, “just as you left it.” Rick carried her bag upstairs and they followed. When Allison entered it, she said, “I’m so grateful to both of you. You can’t imagine how I’ve missed this room and this bed,” “Get some rest because later I want you to meet someone,” Rick informed. “Who?” she asked. “Rest,” he yelled as he disappeared toward the stairway.

Alone in her room, Allison removed her boots and lay on the bed. Her thoughts roamed. She fought an empty feeling. Had someone played a cruel joke on her? She couldn’t fathom who would do that. And who was Rick’s “someone?” Was it the ‘someone” who wasn’t at the airport? Tired, she dozed off.

When it was time to meet the “someone,” they all got into the car. Close to town Rick said, “We’re almost there.” Allison’s heart skipped. “This is getting interesting” she remarked, trying to mask her befuddlement. Finally, he pulled into a parking lot. The sign on the shingle read: Anthony Stuart D.V.M. Allison said, “I thought he moved away years ago.” They stayed in the car momentarily, and Rick explained that after veterinary school Tony had joined the service, fulfilled his commitment, came back and set up his practice. Allison recalled that he was a star football player when she was a cheerleader. But she wasn’t getting the connection and doubted Tony was connected to the letters.

Inside, the receptionist led them to Tony’s office. After friendly introductions and a few minutes of reminiscing, he told them to “hang in there, I’ll be back.” In a few minutes, the door opened and all Allison saw was a familiar face and big bright eyes. Surprised, she said, “My God, it’s ‘Caesar’.” He had been one of the working dogs at her camp in Afghanistan. She kneeled and said, “come here old boy.” He barked his hello and leaped into her arms. “You’re a sight for sore eyes and as handsome as ever,” she said, holding him and rubbing his head. She continued, “I never thought I’d ever see you again, dog.”

Teary-eyed, she asked Tony, “how did this happen?” He explained, “as you knew, the military retired him. His handler could not adopt him but suggested you because you knew the dog. As an ex- military veterinarian, I volunteer to find homes for the dogs. I remembered you from school when he mentioned your name and contacted your family. I hope you will agree to adopt.” Emphatically, she said, “I definitely agree.” He deserves a home and much more. In fact, I once commented to his handler that I would love to have him.” “Also,” Tony stated, “Caesar’s future was uncertain and the letters were meant to honor you, as a soldier and possible owner, and express his loving nature. I’m sorry about not being at the airport. I had an emergency.”

Before leaving, Tony related that he also, had a retired working dog. And that he had been taking his dog and Caesar to the park to play together. He asked, “maybe we could continue?” “I’d like that,” she replied. “I’ll call you for the next play date.” he said.

It had been quite a day, she thought. Her emotions had been all over the grid. Loneliness had led her to romanticize the letters but she still had her dreams. Clearly, Caesar would be a constant source of love. And, if there was more waiting in the wings, she would let it happen.

LANCE LUMLEY - COLUMBIANA

While her mother and father hugged her close, Allison was shocked to see Damon, her best friend throughout her childhood, holding the sign with her name. She always had a secret crush on him, even when she signed up for the service, and the words that he wrote ignited her feelings again.

“So glad you’re back, I missed you. We’ve got some catching up to do, “ he said as he gave her a big smile. “ I can’t wait either,” Allison said as she picked up her bags. “Thanks for being here when you said you would in your letters.”

As they started walking to the car to take her home, Damon put his arm around her. Allison thought to herself It’s been Damon all along!!!

Allison and Damon sat at the dinner table in his apartment a few hours later, along with Damon’s roommate, Vince, discussing old stories and adventures Damon and Allison had growing up. Damon was now a lawyer, and counted on Vince to help him with research, even though Vince worked at a local grocery store, with a degree in English.

Vince exited the room to get a bottle of wine from the kitchen. Allison leaned over to Damon and said, “I was hoping it was you at the airport, because of the letters. Those letters kept me going you know.” Damon smiled and nodded to her as Vince walked in, and said “ Um, Glad to hear it. I think”

The months passed as Allison and Damon started hanging out, going to dinners and to the movies. Allison’s feelings for him grew, but noticed that Damon acted no different around her, just like they were before he wrote the letters; two longtime friends spending time together. Allison was afraid to bring up the romantic distance she sensed in him. It seemed he forgot what he wrote in the letters.

Maybe he’s stressing over court cases, she thought to herself. In the back of her mind, she knew something was strange, but she was spending time with the guy she always had a crush on, and since he never mentioned another girl, she thought maybe it was best to leave the subject alone. “Hey, Vince. Is Damon here?” Allison asked a week later standing at the apartment door for their movie night marathon of cheesy horror films.

“He’s running late, but he’ll be here soon. Come on in, I was just heading out.” Allison walked into the apartment and sat on the couch. “Make yourself at home, you know the drill, “ Vince said, and grabbed his coat.

“Aren’t you staying with us, “ Allison asked, “It’s early black and white night theme! How’s the writing coming along? You working on a novel yet?”

Vince threw his coat over his shoulder, and pointed to a notebook sitting on the table. “I just have a notebook of ideas, but feel free to look at them, maybe you can help me with something. If it’s in your way, just throw it in my room on my desk. Later gator!”

Allison decided to start a movie without Damon. She cleared off the coffee table in front of the television to rest her feet. She took Vince’s notebook and took it to his room to place on his desk, which had many stacks of papers on the top.

“Writers, “ Allison laughed as she threw the notebook on top of a pile of papers. As the notebook hit the pile, a “Post It” note fell from the back of the notebook.

It was her address at the base in Afghanistan. Why did Vince have her address of the base in his notebook? She started reading from the back of the notebook, which had several drafts of the letters that were sent to her…

Word for word… Allison and Vince married two years after she found out that Vince was the mystery writer. Although she had a childhood crush on Damon, she could never forget the prose that kept her going day to day throughout her journey. Allison receives powerful words just like those that were in her three letters everyday, either hanging on the refrigerator door, in a text message, or when Vince sends her roses at work. The most romantic words came when Vince’s first novel got published and he wrote in the Dedication page: To my wife Allison,

While you were chasing a childhood star, I was waiting in the wings. Vince

JANICE PRIDON

“Bill?” She stopped dead in her tracks. “I can’t believe it’s you! How long has it been?” Allison wasn’t sure if she was ready to get back together with Bill. They had dated on and off throughout high school. Actually, they were more off than on. All she could picture was the night of their senior prom. He looked so handsome in his tux. The twinkling lights were like stars in the sky and her heart beat rapidly as he looked into her eyes. The next thing she knew, he confessed that he liked her best friend, Nancy, and that he wanted to break up.

“I missed you so much,” said Bill. “I was a fool to let you go. I couldn’t believe it when I heard you signed up to serve in Afghanistan. I thought I had lost my chance to ever get you back.” “But, Bill, it’s been years and I’m not that starry-eyed girl from Hubbard, Ohio. Don’t you think this is a little sudden?”

“All I know is that I love you. I always have. I was just too young and stupid. In fact, I don’t want to waste one more day.” He opened a small box and asked, “Will you marry me?”

Allison looked around. She became keenly aware of the sounds of planes flying overhead. Everyone around her seemed to be going in slow motion. Was this really to be her future?

As Allison scanned the crowd, she saw a familiar face. Was that Seth? She remembered how nice he was to her when she would see him at Barnes & Noble. She would order her usual—a Mocha Frappuccino Light, double blended—and Seth would always write a little note on her cup. Whether it was “Have a nice day;” “Hi, Sunshine;” or, simply draw a smiley face, his notes always brightened her day. “I wonder what he’s doing here,” asked Allison. “Who? What are you talking about?” asked Bill.

She looked at Bill and replied, “Oh, I just thought I saw somebody I recognized.” “Well? Will you marry me?” asked Bill.

“Bill, why don’t we go? I need time to think this over.” Allison looked at him and she couldn’t tell whether he was disappointed or angry. She hurried off and was looking down at the diamond pattern in the carpet when she bumped into. …

“Seth! How are you? What are you doing here?” asked Allison. Seth shyly smiled at her and replied, “I’m here to meet a friend. What are you doing here?” “I’m just getting back from Afghanistan. Bill, this is Seth. Seth used to work at Barnes & Noble. He always knew what to make for me when I walked into the cafe.” “Oh,” said Bill. “What did you order?”

“A Mocha Frappuccino Light,” replied Seth. “Double blended.” Allison smiled. Bill, on the other hand, frowned. He didn’t like the looks they were giving each other. Why would Seth remember her drink order after all of these years?

“Do you still work at Barnes & Noble, Seth?” asked Allison.

“No. I got my business degree from YSU. I’m working as a business consultant for Pizza Joe’s in New Castle. Joe has been very successful baking donuts on the weekends and now plans to franchise that part of his business.”

“What do you do, Bill?” Seth asked. “I’m a lawyer. In fact, I’m working on a very important case right now. I just asked Allison to marry me.” Seth looked at Allison. He didn’t realize she had someone serious in her life. He obviously misread her happiness at seeing him. Perhaps if he would have signed his letters.

“Well, Seth, you’re not working at Barnes & Noble, but I see you can’t stay away from the Starbucks coffee. What kind of coffee did you order?”

“Actually, it was just a black coffee I finished hours ago while waiting for my friend. I was looking for a trash can.”

“We’re on our way out. I’ll throw that away for you. It was really nice seeing you again. I hope your friend comes soon. Bye.” Allison looked for a trash can. As she was about to throw the cup away, she noticed writing on the cup. “You were not forgotten while you were away . . . you’ve been on my mind each and every day.” She smiled. He did come to meet her at the airport!

ZACH CURRIER

The person standing before her wasn’t whom she expected. It was an Army buddy of her grandfather’s from WWII. She knew who he was because when she was very young and when her grandfather was alive he was always over at his house laughing and reminiscing of the good ol’ days. He’d always been in the shadows of every big event of her life: her graduation, even her first vehicle accident.

She knew him as the “Colonel”. The Colonel was a rugged old man who had lived every day of his life. He still stood 6 feet tall, a little skinnier and a bit weathered. Standing before her in his old military uniform which fit as perfect as the first day he wore it, he gave her a salute and welcomed her home.

She was happy to see him while at the same time confused. He sent me those letters? But Why?, she thought, while pulling out the letters. “Let’s sit down”, he said. The Colonel moved very slowly and eventually rested in a chair with a big sigh. As she started to question him he reached into his inner breast pocket and pulled out several letters even more tattered and worn than hers. His hands shook terribly due to the arthritis. The writing was even more faded, to the point of being illegible. He proceeded to explain that his wife had written these letters to him a long time ago during his tour. He explained: these letters kept him focused to come home. They meant the world to him and he read them every day. He explained further, on the battle field he and her grandfather made a promise to each other that whoever survived would look out for each others’ family and this was his way of looking out for her while she was away. Tears of joy filled her eyes and a large smile grew on her face. She leaped forward and hugged him and it felt like she was hugging her grandfather once again. She thanked him very much as the letters helped immensely.

The Colonel said they ought to be going as he needed to get back to the assisted living facility. He hadn’t told anybody where he was going because they probably would not have let him leave. They joked about him being AWOL. Allison helped him up and found herself helping him all the way out to the taxi that was waiting for them. The years have taken the toll on him, every step was more difficult than the previous. Allison started to realize why there was only three letters. His hands shook so visibly, there was no way he could hold a pen. They laughed and shared stories during the long ride home.

When they arrived at her home, Allison was met by her family and friends who were all waiting for her. She ran into their arms. By the time she turned around to look for the Colonel, the taxi was pulling away. The next day she went to see the Colonel and was saddened with the announcement of his passing the night before. The funeral was exquisite and packed to the rafters. Allison received a letter asking her to be present during the reading of the will. The executor announced the usual material objects. At one point he reached into an envelope and pulled out the tattered letters the Colonel cherished and presented them to the Colonel’s grandson, William. William was two years older than Allison. They had gone to high school together, but with William being older, they had never hung out together. William was the spitting image of his grandfather; rugged, strong, and very handsome. After the reading, Allison saw William trying to read the letters with a bit of confusion on his face. She sat down beside him, pulled out her letters and explained. Tears of joy and sadness filled both their eyes and they gave each other an embrace. William reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe her tears.

There was magic in those letters. They helped those who were away to come home and now they have brought these two together. Days later William called Allison and asked her out on a date. Since then, they have been inseparable. Allison continues to help women and children in need through local volunteering. They have taken excerpts from the letters and painted the words on the walls for others to see.

MEREDITH DEICHLER

As Allison neared her one-person welcoming committee, she suddenly realized why she was having trouble seeing the individual clearly. Instead of two strong legs, the person relied on a wheelchair for support. Allison felt her quick pace falter just twenty-or-so feet from her destination.

The sign with her name lowered, and Allison’s eyes connected with those of the holder. Their blue tone was just as vibrant as she remembered even if the face had aged slightly.

“Angie,” she breathed. “Hi, Alli,” her cousin smiled back hesitantly, the uncertainty in her voice echoed by the hesitant expression in her eyes.

Allison exhaled slowly as memories crashed over her. Born ten days apart, the two were the first granddaughters. When Angie’s mom had needed to return to her office job after six weeks, her sister had smoothly added the younger infant into her home during work hours. The two babies had bonded immediately, learning to talk and walk together. By elementary school Alli’s stories about Angie’s dogs and Angie’s tales of Alli’s brothers antics flowed so easily from each girl that new teachers usually needed a few weeks to realize that the two girls were not actually sisters. Junior high brought a new connection when the tall seventh-graders began competing for their school’s basketball team. Proudly wearing the reciprocal numbers 12 and 21, Allison and Angie confused opponents all the way to graduation.

It had been a bit of a surprise to family and friends when the two girls had revealed different plans for life after high school. Angie chose to follow her older brother into the military while Allison enrolled at a nearby community college and its ROTC program. They had used e-mail, Skype, and good old-fashioned letters to stay in touch over the next four years.

The news came at a small family gathering celebrating Allison’s completion of her social work degree. Aunt Cheryl answered the phone in mid-laugh, her eyes dancing at her two-year old grandson’s silly expressions. A few seconds later, her face drained of color, and her phone fell to the ground. Only her son’s reflexes kept her from ending up in the grass herself.

On her way back from an Afghani village, Angie had been the victim of a roadside bomb. On the opposite side of the world, doctors were fighting a useless battle to save her left leg. When Angie returned home to the States, Allison quickly discovered that her vibrant cousin had lost more than a limb; she had also lost her energy and motivation.

“I’ve enlisted full time,” she had told Angie during a visit about three months after her cousin’s subdued homecoming. “I want to do want you were doing, help the people in Afghanistan.” Angie had stared at Allison for a long time before replying coldly, “You want what I got? Maybe you’d rather lose an arm instead of a leg.” Then, leaning heavily on a crutch, she had stood and hobbled out of the living room.

Adjusting to military life had been tough at times, but Allison had pushed through. She had focused on the lives she could help. Thoughts of her now-estranged cousin got locked up the back of her mind, only allowed out late at night when the weariness of a demanding day broke down her safety wall.

Now she stood in front of her cousin, tears brimming for both of them.

“Alli,” Angie bit her lip. “I am so sorry. I should never have been so cruel when you told me you were heading overseas.”

“It’s ok,” Allison said, stepping forward and wrapping her arms around Angie. She realized that sometime in the months of seeing suffering and hope in Afghanistan she had forgiven Angie without noticing. “You were hurting.”

Angie pulled back enough to look straight at Allison. “No, I started therapy after you left, and what I said was wrong. I understand why I said it. How I was jealous that you were able to fulfill my dream, but I was wrong. I am so grateful that you’ve come back safe.” Swallowing hard, Allison nodded her thanks, and then her eyes narrowed at the wheelchair. “Wait, haven’t you been walking?” Angie chuckled, “I sort of sprained my good ankle skiing over the weekend. Doctor thought this was a safer bet while I healed.” “He knows you well.”

Angie smiled again. “So are you ready to go home? Our moms have been cooking for the last three days.” “Sounds perfect,” Allison said, her heart full.

DR. FRANK J. DENIRO - CANFIELD

... that it wasn’t her mother but a girl who looked exactly like her. It was like looking in a mirror. Allison stopped in her tracks like a soldier at attention and the girl lowered the sign and said, “Hello Allison ­— Welcome home! I am your twin sister Ashley” as she bent over and gave her a big hug. Shocked and confused, Allison pulled back and said, “My sister?” I don’t have any siblings let alone a twin sister.” “I know you are surprised,” Ashley stated, “but we are definitely sisters and we have a lot of catching up to do. Let’s go sit down in the airport coffee shop and I will try to explain my incredible story to you.” Reluctant to follow, Allison did go as she was curious to learn more about this life altering event unfolding in front of her eyes. Ashley started the conversation by saying, “I discovered that I was adopted while growing up in nearby Salem. My adopted parents were wonderful and as I got older they encouraged me to find my biological parents. However,” she added, “as I started to investigate, I came to a dead-end dealing with various adoption agencies. Then about a year ago, I read a heartwarming story in the Vindicator about a female soldier from Youngstown who was stationed in Afghanistan helping women and children find solutions to problems throughout that country. The article included a picture of a ‘Sgt. Allison Andrews’ and amazingly you looked exactly like me. Several of my friends and family said that this person had to be my long lost twin sister.” Ashley continued and said, “I looked in the phone book and found your parents number and dialed immediately. A woman answered and I asked if she was your mother and if it was possible her daughter had a twin sister? I was hoping that my prayers would be answered that day to finally locate my biological mother.” After a period of silence, she finally answered by saying, “I knew that one day you would call.” Allison, totally shocked hearing this asked, “What did my mom say to you?” Well actually, Ashley answered, “our” mother came here with me today and is “waiting in the wings” as she gently made a hand gesture towards the hallway. Suddenly, mom came running towards Allison hugging and kissing her beautiful daughter. “I missed you so much and I am so glad you made it home safely” mom said. Immediately, they all sat down as Allison confusingly asked her, “Why didn’t you tell me years ago that I had a twin sister?” Mom replied, “I tried on several occasions over the years but I just couldn’t bear to tell you.” “I was afraid in some selfish way that I might lose you.” Allison responded by asking, “How did this all happen?” Mom then said, “I delivered you both at 18-years-old and my parents were very upset over the pregnancy. They told me that I had to give up one of the babies for adoption because I was too young to care for both. I was devastated at the time but realistically being a teenager and out of work, they were probably right.” “My dear Allison,” mom stated, “I did my best at raising you to ‘be all you can be.’ However, there is not a day that goes by that I regret that decision 24 years ago giving up your twin sister for adoption. I had always hoped that you two would have grown up together. When Ashley contacted me about six months ago, there was a sense of relief knowing my secret could finally come out.” Listening intently, Ashley shouted, “I was the one who sent you those letters. I thought of you every day as I am so proud of you for your military service to our country. I had hoped my three letters kept you focused on your daily mission. I wanted to tell you who I was but I didn’t think it was the right time.” Mom then said, “I hope you can forgive me for not telling you sooner but we now have many more years together to finally be a family.” Allison, at this time smiling, answered, “Yes mom I forgive you. I am so grateful and blessed to have you as my mother. And now, I have a twin sister for me to get to know, love and dream with in the future.”

MARY WOMBLE

And then she stopped. For no apparent reason, she looked behind her in the near-empty baggage claim area before slowly turning back to face the man she thought she would never see again. Brad Johannsen. Growing up in the small town of Kinsman, Ohio, she and Brad had known each other since the third grade and had started dating in the tenth grade. They were inseparable. Both were athletic and competitive, even with each other. Eventually, they decided to enlist together. Then, about a year ago, Brad’s parents were informed that he had been killed in the line of duty. So how could it be Brad standing in front her right now? He was dead. Wasn’t he?

Brad ran to embrace Allison. They hugged without saying anything for a very long time. And just as Allison was about to ask, Brad hushed her with his kiss. A kiss that was the sweetest, most tender moment of her life. Brad next turned his wide grin with those perfect white teeth into words that instantly formed tears in her eyes. “I love you Ally,” he said. A million thoughts went through her mind but all that came out was a stuttered “How?” “The only thing that kept me going was knowing that I had to get back to you,” he whispered in between kisses. “I’ll tell you more later, but right now I just want to hold you.” Brad looked into Allison’s beautiful brown eyes and said, “You were never forgotten while you were away. You were on my mind each and every day.”

“I hoped the letters were from you, but I knew I shouldn’t get my hopes up,” Allison murmured. Brad explained to Allison that when the land mine went off in front of their jeep, he managed to jump from the jeep and hid in a nearby ditch for nearly 10 hours. Finally, to his relief, he was rescued by two local Afghanistan women. His near-death ordeal was nearly over. He could not have been more wrong.

Taken to an encampment, Brad was interrogated through torture on a daily basis. It was not the men, but the women who tortured him. “Ally, it was knowing that your work educating and providing hope for the next generation of women in Afghanistan that helped me forgive the evil of these women.” Brad listened as Allison told him of the hardships and fear these women faced daily and the horror stories they shared. “If only one girl’s life could be changed,” she said before tears of grief overwhelmed her. Brad held her in his arms, gently wiping away the tears. No words were needed. All through his detainment, Brad refused to give in or give up that some day he would be with Allison again. As each day went by, he stayed alert and planned for the one chance he would have at escaping. And then one night the guards got drunk and Brad saw his chance – perhaps his only chance – to escape. With only luck and a prayer, he McGyvered himself over the compound walls. Once outside the compound he couldn’t believe someone was there to help him escape. A US soldier gave him night goggles and told him to “run like hell” straight ahead to the rescue helicopter. Back in the hospital in Bethesda, Brad learned that his angel in the night was Navy SEAL extraordinaire, Nicholas Checque.

Now recovered and finally reunited with his one true love, Brad knew what he had to do. On Valentine’s Day, he proposed. They planned to marry in June, before either was deployed again. And this time they would be deployed together, as man and wife. The weather (and everything else) on their wedding day was perfect. It seemed the whole town came out to congratulate them. At the reception, Brad scoured the crowd. And there he was.

“Mrs. Johannsen,” said Brad, taking Allison’s hand in his. “I want you to meet someone very special in our lives. Ally, this is Nicholas Checque, the Navy SEAL who rescued me.”

“Thank you, Nicholas. From the bottom of my heart.” “Anything for a fellow soldier, mam. Now get on back in there and enjoy your wedding reception,” Nicholas said with a twinkle in his eye. Allison turned to smile at Brad and when she turned back around, Nicholas Checque was nowhere to be seen.

CEIL KIDD

At first she couldn’t believe her eyes as they filled with tears. How could this be she wondered. It had been almost a year since she watched as his gurney was being lifted onto the Black Hawk for evacuation to a safe zone for medical treatment. An IED had all but demolished the Humvee he was driving in the convoy escorting her team to their rounds.

Time stood still as flashbacks of the events of that day filled her mind. The assault had lasted for over an hour before reinforcements arrived. She recalled how she and her teammates had crawled to the front to try and provide aid to the injured, but there was little they could do. Now, as then, she began experiencing the same physical and emotional exhaustion as when they had returned to the base; their mission once more sabotaged by the enemy. Then, overcome by feelings of helplessness at the sight of so much senseless destruction, and the thought of so many lives forever changed by these bloody battles, she carefully pulled the letters from her inside pocket.

Staring at the letters in her shaking hands, thankful they had survived, she once again opened the last letter and began reading. My Beloved Allison,

Although it sometimes seems like forever, it won’t be long now until we can once again be together. Our being apart has left a void in my life that nothing and no one but you can ever fill. I’ve missed seeing your beautiful smile, feeling your warm embrace and just being with you. When I’m with you, all the problems of this war and the world disappear.

I know how hard these last two years have been on you and how much we’ve both changed. But nothing will ever change my love for you. You are the kindest, most caring person I know. I’ve watched as you cared for and assisted all those desperate women and children in Afghanistan. You always went above and beyond what was asked or expected of you. You not only brought food and clothing to them, but also love and hope as well. Your contribution is making a difference. Don’t ever doubt that. Even when it seems useless, I assure you that good will come from it some day. I’ve dreamed of your homecoming every hour of every day for a very long time. Please stay safe my love, knowing that I’ll be there to welcome you home. I Love You With All My Heart,

Over time she had memorized every word. The tenderness with which they were written made her heart melt. How could he know so much about her and understand her feelings so well. It was as if he had known her for many years even though they only spent a very short but crucial time in their young lives together.

She remembered being in training together in Camp Shelby, before being deployed to Afghanistan. And how they had been randomly assigned to the same unit, he as a paramedic. As arduous as the drills were, she knew that the skills they were perfecting might be needed one day to save themselves or one of their teammates. In their off-hours they often hung out together. From the beginning they seemed to have so much in common, especially their feelings for each other. How surprised she was to learn that he had grown up in Liberty Township, which is not far from where she was living in Youngstown. He had enlisted in the Army National Guard, as she did, hoping to help those suffering from the effects of war and ultimately bring peace to the world. What idealists they were back then, thinking it wouldn’t take long before the two of them would be back home ready to start a new life together. The last word she had received about him was that he had been shipped out for some R&R before being redeployed.

Now, jolted into the present by her pounding heart, she raced toward him, breathlessly leaping into his open arms, as the sign slid silently to the floor. Locked in his strong embrace, their lips met in a soft, passionate kiss that neither seemed willing to end. Tears flowed freely as they glided arm in arm toward the luggage rack to pick up her bag and the two he had brought back with him. Then gazing into her deep blue eyes, Jeff whispered, “Home at last my love.”

PHOEBE BRECKENRIDGE

Standing there in the terminal, with the same boyish smile that had teased her all through high school, was her best friend Jamie’s older brother, Sam. Perplexed, she slowed her run down to a reluctant walk. Surely Sam wasn’t the only one here, and if he was it wasn’t because he wanted to be. Jamie must have sent him.

“I was starting to think that plane was never going to land!” The dimples on either side of his lips turned her knees into noodles, and she could almost hear the pop music of her teenage years ringing in her ears as she stepped dangerously close to her old crush. “What are you-”

“I have been waiting to see you since about a week after you left!” She was feeling her heart in ways she hadn’t since before she’d gone away. Sam had always been a day dream to distract her from calculus, and she could feel the old clumsy Allison painting herself across her face. “Did Jamie tell you to come pick me up?” “Nah.”

His silence was driving her crazier than her curiosity. Her bag and uniform suddenly felt like the weight of the world. How had she ever forgotten about him? How could she have forgotten that smile and the way his overgrown hair fell over one of his eyes because Sam was just too cool to care about something like that, for even a second? “Then how did you —” “My mom told me when you’d be landing, Jamie doesn’t know I’m here, she would have made fun of me.” “Made fun of you?” “Well yeah,” he took the bag from her hands and started to lead her down the hallway by the small of her back, “She’s always made fun of how much I asked about you while you were gone.” He was looking at the ground sheepishly, while Allison was nearly choking on the butterflies trying to escape her stomach.

She had to take wide steps to keep up with him, even though he didn’t seem as intimidatingly tall as he used to. He didn’t, in fact, look at all intimidating like she could remember. She wasn’t sure if it was her newfound worldliness, or his new vulnerability, but she could think of nothing else but the words in those letters.

She hoped he couldn’t still hear the immature confusion in her voice. “So those were all from you? The letters?” He finally looked over at her, and she felt her face burn from his eyes. “Oh yeah, those, well I can’t take all the credit, some of them where quotes I borrowed.” “Yeah, from Romeo and Juliet. When did you ever read that?”

“I remembered you guys studying it a long time ago, you said how much you loved it, I figured if I was going to impress you I may as well use words I already knew you liked.”

She had never seen Sam fumble over his words like this before. Sam was always so smooth in high school, but she liked this Sam even better. “That was at least three years ago, I can’t believe you remember that!”

“I’m not sure how I could have ever forgotten anything about you, Jamie had you over so much, I knew you better than my own friends.” His laugh wrapped around her like a security blanket; she was home.

“You know, you didn’t even come to my going away party, I figured you would be glad to have me out of your hair, I always felt like I was-” before she could even close her eyes her bag hit the ground and Sam’s hands gently landed on either side of her face. The feeling of his lips felt unimaginably better than any of the hundreds of times she had fantasized this moment with him. It wasn’t until they were both out of air that he backed away, with his hands still burning her neck, and she was able to see something in his eyes that somehow answered all of her questions.

“I guess I thought that maybe if I didn’t go to the party that maybe you wouldn’t really leave.” He looked back down at the ground for a second before he bore even deeper into her eyes, “But now that you’re here, I don’t plan to waste a second with you.”

JANET MITCHELTREE

It was the only face Allison had long dreamed of, and he was now directly in front of her, his warmhearted chocolate-colored eyes beaming, his sensuous smile scintillating, and his athletic body inviting her into him. Allison could no longer contain her pent-up emotions. “You! My heart begged over and over again for it to be you,” Allison whimpered as she happily melted into Armagan’s embrace. Two years earlier:

On the tarmac at Bagram Air Base in Parwan Province, Afghanistan, Sgt. Allison Andrews hastily departed the C130 transport that she and her team had impatiently traveled on for the last 16 hours from Los Angeles, California. She looked around speculatively. “So this is my new home-away-from-home for the next 24 months,” Allison thoughtfully considered. “May I come to love it as much as the lush rolling hills of Ohio!”

After enduring another long ride, this time on land, Allison and her teammates instantly headed for their barracks, eager to unpack and hit the road for a quick tour of the area.

As they approached the Jeep that would be their afternoon ride, Allison heard the rich voice that would forever be logged in her consciousness attached to the face that would be etched into her memory.

“Hello. My name is Armagan Nazari.”

Armagan, a young native of the area and a skilled driver, spent the afternoon educating the American military team about his homeland. With each stop during their day, Armagan patiently explained local customs and behaviors the U.S. team would need to respect, in order to gain the trust and cooperation of the local people. He spoke fluent English and displayed a surprising wealth of knowledge about the Midwest region of the U.S. Often he would make American analogies to the women to help them better understand situations foreign to them. Allison could readily tell that Armagan had a keen understanding of the mission these women hoped to successfully complete. An instant connection was made between the two and, needless to say, Armagan and Allison became fast friends. Allison relied on Armagan’s ease with families and his numerous connections from town to town. He proved to be a valuable asset to the American military team, as well as a trusted advocate and guardian. The two spent many a night discussing the relationship between America and Afghanistan and the plight of the Afghan people.

“How is it that you appear to understand the American way of life so well?” Allison quizzically asked one night. “I remember your distinct references to Chicago and Columbus so well when we first met. Yet, you never divulged your connections.”

“You have such a keen memory, Allison. Yes, I know about these cities. My older brother Awrang was fortunate enough to attend Ohio State University. He is now a practicing pediatric surgeon at St. Anthony Hospital in Chicago. Although I have never been to America, Awrang and I communicate daily. He is my only family connection.” “Your only connection? Where is the rest of your family?” A curfew alarm suddenly interrupted their dialogue.

“That will be a conversation for another time,” Armagan sadly responded and he was gone. However, that conversation was never to take place. The very next morning, Armagan sent a message sharing surprising and sober news. He would be leaving the area that day. A joyous opportunity had recently come his way. As a result of his time spent with the Americans, Armagan had begun to investigate family members whom he had been separated from for over 10 years. Three sisters and their children were discovered to be possibly living in a province some 300 miles away. Armagan had to make the trip to see if this were true. Though she shared in the excitement of his words, Allison’s heart was deeply wounded. When would she again see her friend?

As the weeks and months passed, Allison and her team wove themselves into the culture of the area, focusing on the daily routines of the women and children. Eventually, they formed bicultural teams, collaborating to create a lifelong learning network for them. A sense of overwhelming pride and accomplishment was shared by all. Unfortunately though, Allison could not share these triumphs with the one person she knew would be as pleased as she. Armagan had not corresponded since his initial message some many months ago. Allison feared he was gone from her life forever. A year later, the first letter arrived. Allison’s heart pounded as she read over and over again the heartfelt words: “You’re not forgotten while you’re away.” Could it be Armagan? Why no signature? Two months later, another letter arrived. It pulled at her heartstrings: “You’re on my mind each and every day.” And then the third: “I’ll be there to welcome you home.” All three unsigned, no return address. Allison could only hope.

Back to the present: Armagan’s eyes met Allison’s. “I couldn’t sign the letters for fear of my family’s security. My sisters, nieces, and nephews are now safe in America, thanks to Awrang. And I am here to love you.”

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