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It's not always easy coming home.

He grabbed his bag and stepped out of the cab, shutting the door behind him. Home. Finally home. He walked up the few stairs to the front door of his parent’s house. They had promised that his room would be the same, nothing touched. He turned the handle and opened the door. Complete silence, just how he remembered it. The scent of the old tapestry and the shoes in the hallway hadn’t changed. The old woodwork was the same and there were the same dents in the wall from when he was a teenager and gotten in a huge argument with his sister and kicked a hole in the wall. It was as if time had stood still, a time capsule that was made for him only. It hadn’t been more than a year, but the last time he stood here still felt like an eternity ago. He dropped his bag down on the floor and took off his shoes.

“Mom? Dad? I’m home!” He stepped into the hallway. Dead silent, not a single person in the house. He hanged up his coat and took a few more steps, like he was walking in an abandoned house in a horror movie, where you just wait for the monster to appear and attack you. The only sound was the creaking of the floorboard. “Strange,” he said to himself. He was beginning to wonder if he had walked into the wrong house. He opened the door and entered into the living room.

“SURPRISE!” Parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts, everyone standing there with a big smile on their face, happy to see him home safe and sound. Warm food on the table, the comfortable chairs, everything he had missed while he was gone. A banner above them all with the words “Welcome home Jim” almost brought him to tears. His mum stormed over to him and gave him a big hug, almost squeezing the air out of his lungs.

“Thank God you got home safe, baby.” Next up was his father with the typical man hug and the words “welcome home, son”. He couldn’t believe how much his sister and brother had grown in the year he was gone. Nick had gotten a deeper voice, but still wasn’t past the age where his voice tended to break every now and then. Sarah had become a young woman now. She probably was a young woman when he left, but he noticed it now. It wouldn’t be long until she’d have guys serenading her outside her bedroom window late at night. After what felt like a million of hugs to the rest they brought out the party poppers. The tiny pops followed by a rain of the rather annoying confetti. He smiled and closed his eyes.

“Hostiles, 3 o’clock. Frag out! Sanderson, McKinley, take the left flank! Sniper! Get down! MEDIC! HQ this is Dragon One. We’re under heavy fire and need reinforcements. Where’s the goddamn medic!”

“Look, Jim. I made you a cake. I made it myself” Victoria, his 6 year old cousin, proudly showed him the chocolate cake with the icing ‘You are a hero’ written like only a child could do it. He smiled and had to struggle not to cry. Jim cupped her face.

“Thanks, Vicky. It looks delicious.” Victoria hugged him again before Jim’s mom took control, tears of joy running down her cheeks and ordered them all to sit down.

The dinner was lively; everyone almost struggling to be the first to update Jim on what was new with them and their lives. School, work and friends. No serious topic was ever discussed, simply because no one wanted to ruin the good mood around the table. He had missed this. It reminded him of what he had missed the most. Not the comfy beds or any of the luxury that was found in his home, but his family. All the hours of his frustrating younger siblings and their bad habits seemed to have disappeared this year. The kids were eager to tell him about how they were doing in school and Sarah didn’t hesitate on updating him on the neighbourhood gossip. He didn’t really care about it, but right now the topic of conversation wasn’t important. It was having a conversation that would inevitably turn into a topic that everyone around the table dreaded.

After dinner he leaned back as his mom and aunts cleared off the table. He was being pampered as a king and given all the attention a celebrity would receive. They were glad he was home, but not as glad as he was. Despite feeling famished and not having tasted proper food in a year he ate with composure, even when all the cakes were put on the table. Victoria became the happiest girl in the world as the hero Jim tasted her cake and gave her the approving nod. The cake wasn’t all that good, but he was polite enough to say it tasted delicious to make her happy. He had done that plenty of times; lie or twist the truth to make other people happy. Jim sat at the table a bit longer talking with his dad before he got up and into the kitchen, looking out towards the backyard where his younger cousins were playing. He could see them run around, smiling and happy, without a care in the world. He heard one of them yell out ‘Bang bang, you’re dead, Sam!”

“Fire from the left window. McGregor, take him out!” Jim aimed his 50 calibre machinegun towards the left window of the building pointed out by his captain and fired away. Smoke and dust blocked the window as the bullets hit through the window and the wall, the big bullets making holes in the thick wall of the house. Then dead silence. No more gunfire. He couldn’t even hear people talking before he came to again, woken up from the deep slumber that caught him as he realised he had killed another human being. He didn’t notice the others screaming for the medic to give first aid to Sgt. Rickson, or just Rick as they called him. He was his best mate. They had enlisted together, same division and even same squad. Now Rick was on the ground 30 feet from Jim, bleeding out and dying, and Jim didn’t notice. He was in a trance.

Jim swallowed hard and looked at his cousins again, one lying “dead” in grass. He felt sick. He casually walked out of the kitchen and up the stairs, into the bathroom and threw up in the toilet. He took a couple of deep breaths then felt it come again as he threw up a second time, coughing and heaving for breath. He spat out the bits of lamb chops that had come up and flushed. Jim got to his feet and washed his mouth and looked in the mirror. He was pale.

“So it finally hit you, lad?” Jim turned around and looked at his grandpa standing just outside, clutching his cane.

“What you mean?” His granddad walked into the bathroom, closed the door and put toilet lid down and sat down. The whole appearance and movement of the man reminded him of an old sensei from Japan, a man with long life experience and the answer to every question you could ask. A real life Yoda.

“What you’ve been through. What you saw. I could see you slip out for a few seconds when they popped those party poppers. Bloody stupid thing to do.” The old Scotsman clutched his knee “Greeting a lad that’s just come home from a war with something that makes a loud noise. Bloody stupid.” He took a deep breath. “You’ll have a lot of those.”

“A lot of what?” Jim had gone from a hard boiled war veteran to a young boy in only a minute.

“The flashbacks, the memories, the things that make you sick. You’ll have nightmares and you might even hallucinate; thinking that you see something that’s not really there. I had them too when I got back from Germany and North Africa.” He paused. It was obvious to Jim he was thinking back. “It was a horrible sight. Bloodied corpses lying around in the sand. Hell, some weren’t even corpses; they were just limbs after getting a direct hit from an 88.” Jim sat down on the floor, leaning against the wall.

“How do you get over it?” The old man looked at Jim, straight in his eyes. A cold hard gaze that scared him.

“You don’t. You learn to live with it.”

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