Collateral

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Authors: Ellen Hopkins
scowls,
    and I almost change my mind.
    Yes, Ms. Patterson? What can I do
    for you? His voice is flat, though
    his blue glacier eyes seem curious
    enough. I study his face, subtly creased
    beneath a surfer’s tan. He might
    be handsome, if he could find a smile.
    â€œI won’t be in class on Friday or Monday.”
    I see. And where, if I might ask,
    will you be? He taps his fingers
    on the metal table top. Drumming
    impatience. “I’m flying to Hawaii
    on Thursday. Cole—uh, my boyfriend—
    is deploying to Afghanistan. He’ll be gone
    seven months and . . .” Suddenly, it hits
    me that Cole will spend the holidays
    overseas. Again. Flimsy celebrations
    this year. “It’s his fourth deployment.
    We’ll have a few days to say good-bye.”
    I see. His tone is not especially
    sympathetic. You’ll miss a test, but
    I suppose I can let you make it up.
    â€œThank you, Mr. Clinger.” I saved
    some ammunition, just in case.
    Apparently, I don’t need it, but I’ll
    use it anyway, if only for punctuation.
    â€œBy the way, Cole writes poetry.
    I was wondering what you thought
    about this.” I hold out the crinkled paper
    like it’s a special gift, which it is.
    He reads Cole’s poem, “The Weight
    of Silence.” Reads it twice, I think.
    Finally comments, This is good.
    â€œReally? I thought so, too.
    I’ll tell him you said—”
    I wasn’t finished. I’m almost sorry
    it’s this good. I hate to see talent
    wasted, and, one way or another,
    the military will squander it.

I’M AT A LOSS
    How to respond? I want to say
    something, but can’t find words.
    â€œI . . . um . . . don’t . . .” He stares
    intently, dissecting me with
    those translucent, cool eyes.
    Behind the frost, there’s a story.
    â€œI’m sorry. I don’t understand
    what you mean. Waste it, how?”
    Now he’s searching for his own
    words. That’s gratifying. Finally,
    This is a military city. Teaching here,
    I’ve seen a lot of what the service
    can do. Not much of it is good.
    People lose autonomy. Lose dreams.
    Worst of all, they lose other people.
    People who are important to them.
    I nod, because it’s largely true. Still,
    â€œI try not to think about losing him.
    I know it could happen, sure. But if
    I let myself worry, I’d be wrecked
    all the time. Cole was a Marine
    when I met him. That’s who I fell in
    love with. I have no way of divorcing
    him from the Corps, so I cope.”
    I understand. To a point, anyway.
    I was an Army brat, so no divorce
    was possible. My father dragged
    us halfway around the world and
    back. I never had real friends. Never
    knew what it meant to set down
    roots until after I came here. Once
    I finally sprouted some, the taproot
    grew deep. I doubt I’ll ever leave.
    That turned out to be a problem
    for my wife. Or, should I say, my
    ex-wife. She was hot to travel.
    Ah, the story behind the frost.
    Two stories, actually, or maybe
    a pair of epic poems. “So far, Cole
    has only been assigned to one PDS.”
    Except for deployments, you
    mean. Not like they’d send families
    chasing their soldiers into Iraq
    or Afghanistan. With the coming
    draw-down, who knows where
    he’ll go? Are you ready to follow
    him wherever? Especially if you have
    kids one day? It’s worth thinking about.
    The military is a highly engineered
    machine. It’s only as good as the sum
    of its parts, however, and its parts
    are fragile. But easily replaced.
    Cole, fragile? Not so much.
    But I’m not about to argue
    the point. “Thanks, Mr. Clinger.
    Guess there’s a lot to consider.”

I START TO TURN AWAY
    Ms. Patterson? Er . . . Ashley?
    You forgot this. He offers me
    Cole’s poem. I’m sorry if I seemed
    unsympathetic. This really is good.
    Tell your boyfriend when he’s done
    defending freedom, he

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