Tom sat near the bookcase reading one of the three books he checked out at the library. He loved the look of the bookcase. It was built into the wall. It was empty. He owned no books but the library was close to the community center and between there and the VA hospital.
Tom only left Afghanistan three months ago. Most of that time was spent in hospitals. He moved into the small residence once he was an outpatient. The community center van came once a week to take him to the library and then to the community center for a hot meal.
Other vets were at the center on Wednesday afternoon for the hot meal. They liked the company of men who understood where they'd been and what they'd experienced.
No other vets had moved into the small row of attached residential units where Tom lived yet. He was discharged from the hospital the week the units were completed.
The plan was to move vets into the units once they were well enough to live on their own. The convenient new housing units were built by a contractor for 'Our wounded warriors.'
Tom went to the hospital twice a week for treatment and rehabilitation. He stayed late to read to the blind vets who didn't get to enjoy the literature Tom could lose himself in during his long rehabilitation. The books lifted his spirits and transported him to worlds far away from the daily difficulties he faced.
Otherwise there was a small radio he listened to for news and sports. The quality of music was poor and Tom turned it off once it got boring. The pile of TV dinners was replenished once a week by Loren, his nurse. She lived close enough to answer a call in fifteen minutes, so Tom felt safe living alone..
Tom was lucky. He had both his arms, although his left arm lacked strength. The lift on the van from the community center made loading and unloading him a breeze. Car trips were painful and unpleasant. He passed on car trips after trying that mode of transportation a couple of times.
He was sure the pain would subside more and car trips might be easier on him, but not yet. He was getting better. He was out of the hospital and able to get to where he needed to go. Tom smiled a lot. People offered to help him. but he didn't accept offers to ride in cars. When he was stronger, but not yet.
Even the short trips in the van wore him out. This meant he spent more time alone, but he liked to read and it wasn't stressful. Reading allowed Tom to escape from the restrictions his wounds had left him with.
The residence was his. It was the first place where he'd lived alone. It was built for someone in a chair. It was easy to get in and out and the cabinets were easy to reach.
Popping a frozen dinner in the microwave didn't require much skill and the meals were OK. There was quite a variety. He told Loren the ones he liked best. It was as good as the food in Afghanistan or at the hospital.
The Wednesday meals at the community center were worth the effort to get there. The people at the center were nice and they acted happy to see him. They didn't allow his milk glass to get empty, and he liked that.
Then there were the ladies who came by with a freshly made casserole, just for him. They'd stand at the door and decline his offer to come in. They had places to go and just wanted him to know they were thinking about him. It was an unexpected benefit of being home a lot.
There were opportunities to be more social, but not yet. He was just getting to where he was able to do most things for himself. The one day a week at the center was enough for the time being. It kept him in touch.
Tom didn't feel like it was a hardship waiting for cable TV to be installed. He didn't have a television, and the contractor wanted the cable service to be free for his vets. Tom was sure his disability payments would cover his expenses, until he was able to work again.
The ten units were all in a line and waited for occupants. Some of the guys who came to the center for the Wednesday meal would be moving in soon. There would be plenty of time to socialize with men like him, but not yet.
The cheerful canary yellow trim highlighted the small white dwellings, and it made them easy to find in a community of single family homes. They were distinctive. The contractor had begun work on another ten units on the other side of the highway behind the community center.
Television would allow him to see football games. It wasn't very long until baseball season.
Tom had once played baseball in school. He liked keeping up with major league teams. His prosthetic legs might allow him to walk again, but not yet. His damaged left arm would never again field a ball. At one time he thought he might play ball again, but the going was slow. He was strengthening a little at a time.
The doctors had asked Tom if he wanted the left arm amputated, but he'd given enough body parts to his country. He wanted to keep anything he could. The doctors were when he began using his damaged arm. He wasn't going to be beaten by the damage done to him. He would have a good life in spite of it.
He had what he had and he planned to make the most of it. He'd seen progress and he was far better off than the early diagnosis indicated he'd ever be.
"It may regain strength as time goes on but it'll never be a fully functioning arm," the doctor said.
Yes, and a prosthetic arm was amazing. It would be almost like having a real arm. Only he wouldn't have his arm and Tom wanted his original arm no matter how damaged it was. It had healed. It was no longer a threat to him. The infection had passed and he was using it more.
He could move the arm and he was beginning to get feeling back in it, although his hand did no more than open slightly and close. He'd been down but he was never out. He was lucky compared to some of the soldiers who had been wounded.
Tom would never be an athlete again and he understood his life was forever altered. He had limitations and he'd live with them. The other three soldiers in the vehicle with him didn't survive the blast. So Tom had a lot of living to do for his buddies. He wouldn't give up and he'd never stop trying to improve.
Even worse than being wounded, losing three friends was the hardest thing. They'd laughed, joked, lived, and worked together. When Tom thought he might feel sorry for himself, he thought of them. He refused to feel sorry for himself.
As Christmas came nearer and families and friends spent more time than usual with their hospitalized soldiers. Some people came a long way to spend the week with a son or brother. That was the kind of medicine doctors couldn't provide.
Tom still read to the soldiers who didn't get visits. He was surprised that some soldiers either didn't have families or they were too far away to make a visit practical. His family was too far away and travel was too expensive, but he'd gotten out of the hospital and he had a place of his own, so they felt good about his circumstances and they sent their love.
These men were Tom's family. So Tom spent his time with a different kind of family. After reading to a couple of the men, he stayed to play chess or checkers, until the final van of the day took him home. He couldn't do it every day but a couple times a week was fine.
Time passed slowly. Tom did his best to make it easier on the soldiers who were still in the hospital. It was his way of repaying the kindness of people who sat by his bed to help pass the time. His discharge was final. He was of no further use to the army, but the vets at the hospital were still glad to see him. He was the answer to their boredom.
Tom had time to think on his way to and from the hospital. His thoughts were often on Harmon Cobb. They'd been in close contact when they were both in Afghanistan.
Tom had been gone from Afghanistan for three months. He'd moved eight times before he moved into the house where he lived now. There was no time for his mail to catch up with him.
Did Harmon knew he had been wounded? What would he do now that his discharge was so close? Would he be able to find Tom before he decided what he was going to do?
The week before Christmas, Tom had an appointment to be fitted for his prosthetic legs. It was the beginning of the end of looking people in the belly button. He'd healed enough for his rehab to include his new legs now. He'd been building his strength but for adapting to his new legs as well. It was exciting as well as tiring.
The operations on his legs kept him from being fitted for artificial limbs before this. He'd seen them demonstrated and they were marvelous devices. Being ready for his new legs at Christmas was the best present he could imagine.
They'd started at eight that morning and it was after noon when the van came for him.
He was more tired than usual. He wasn't in the mood for the community center. He passed on a stop at the library but he wanted the hot meal. He had one cup of coffee before leaving home that morning. He was starved. He'd been told this meal wasn't one he wanted to miss.
There were Christmas carols, cookies, and fresh brewed coffee as soon as he rolled in the front door. There was a nice tree decorated from top to bottom. Tom loved Christmas but he didn't have enough energy to do a tree. He loved Christmas trees.
He was glad he came. It was all quite lovely and Tom got his second wind as turkey and yams were piled high on top of dressing, mashed potatoes, and it was covered in gravy, and there was as much as he wanted, and then they brought out the glorious pumpkin pie.
The vets stuck together to talk turkey, laugh, and share their reason for becoming soldiers. Each man missed the army and the friendships they'd left behind.
After admitting that, it grew silent as men thought of friends and families that weren't nearby. Tom thought about Harmon and how badly he wanted to hug him and let him know he was going to be fine.
There was no mention of their wounds or how they got them. Battle ribbons and medals said all they wanted to say. One look told you what they'd given for their country. They'd come out the other end and there were new battles to fight. They'd beaten death and were ready to go back to their lives, but not yet.
These men were vets. They'd earned respect and good treatment and it was a season of good cheer. When he was brought a third slice of pie, he held up his good hand.
"I'm stuffed like that turkey once was," Tom said.
"I'll wrap a piece to go, dear," the delighted senior woman said.
It was a case of their elders serving them. They'd cooked the food, served it, and cleaned up afterward. The young men's uniforms marked their service. They'd served, put their bodies on the line. and they deserved assistance.
Things once done with relative ease, created obstacles to be overcome. When they came to the community center, most obstacles had been removed and the vets were served.
The staff and volunteers took pride in seeing that the soldiers got their fill of what they liked best. No one wanted a situation where they needed to rush to a soldiers aid. Careful planning meant few situations that might turn embarrassing.
The cheerful faces made it apparent that it was Christmas and everyone wanted to have fun. The decorations and festive atmosphere was infectious for all who came to dinner.
What could be a difficult time of year, for old and young a like, was just plain fun. Some family members did show up unexpectedly for dinner, which made great reunions. The center had worked with the hospital to make the reunions possible and that made Christmas better for everyone.
Tom stayed too late but the van driver needed to get the majority of soldiers back to the veteran's hospital. He asked Tom to wait until his last trip to go home. With eggnog in one hand and a Christmas cookie in the other, Tom said, 'You know where to find me."
There was no reason for Tom to think anything was up. This was the best day since he'd come home. He still had a Grisham book he hadn't read. Then there was the radio.
As Vance, the van operator, returned for Tom, he'd begun to doze. Mrs. Farrell rushed over to hand Tom two pieces of pumpkin pie she'd wrapped in foil.
"Here you go, Tommy. You'll have pumpkin pie for tomorrow," she said, leaning to kiss his cheek.
"Thank you. I had a wonderful time," Tom said, blushing a bit.
Once he heard the elevator lifting him into the van, Tom smiled. If he'd been tired before getting to the center, he was really tired now. He was ready to get home.
It was getting dark as the van eased across to his side of the highway. If not for the highway, Tom could get to the center on his own.
Vance came around to push him to his door, once he was back on the ground. This was service with a smile. Vance usually buttoned up the van as Tom wheeled himself the last few feet. It was friendly territory for a man in a chair.
"Look, Vance, someone put Christmas lights up. Oh, I do love Christmas. I can take it from here," Tom said. "You want to get home to your family. Thanks for the ride."
"No, sir. Door to door delivery today, son. You've had a long day. I want to make certain you're safely inside before I leave you. You boys are my family, you know."
"Suit yourself, Vance. You've had a long day too. Thanks for looking after me. Everyone at the center is good to us, Vance."
Tom's key turned the latch and he pushed the door open. His eyes opened wide and any thoughts of exhaustion left him. The inside of his unit was bathed in colorful Christmas lights. There was a Christmas tree filling the front corner of his once empty living room.
"Merry Christmas," people yelled, and Tom had a cup of punch shoved into his hand.
"Merry Christmas," he said.
Garland was draped around the ceiling and it ended at the empty bookcase, only it was full of books now. Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald were some of the authors that filled the shelves. It was the best Christmas he could remember.
"Thank you. This is about the best present anyone could give me. I can't thank you enough. You've been so nice."
"Oh, there's more," Emily said. "We got you a coffee maker, a slow cooker with a recipe book. We'll take you to the market when you like. There's a television. It's small but it has a great picture and the cable was hooked up today. Santa told us that you wanted to watch football."
"Yes, it's not as much fun listening to football on the radio. How can I thank you? I didn't think Christmas would amount to much this year. Boy was I wrong. You guys thought of everything."
"It's we who are looking for ways to thank you, Tom. You boys are our heroes. We wanted to see to it you got everything you wanted," Emily said, looking at the door.
Tom looked at the door where Vance stood looking out. He was still there. Everyone was looking at the door. Was there more to come?"
"Vance, come get some punch. It's quite good."
"In a minute, Tom. I've got one more job to do," he said, not taking his eyes off the glass in the door.
There was someone Tom wanted to see more than anything. They'd lost contact after Tom was wounded. Harmon would be discharged soon. He'd find him then. Tom was sure of that.
Harmon was far away and Tom had moved around so much he needed to check his I.D. to be sure where he lived. He'd be hard to track, going from hospital to hospital and from country to country. It was a long journey that brought him here.
Once in the States, he'd moved three different times. It was too much to hope for that the gift he wanted most of all might be coming home tonight.
Tom had the strangest feeling as he sipped some punch and listened to people talking. No one had made a move toward the door. What were they waiting for?
Tom had gotten the best care possible and he knew he was lucky, but there was one gift that would have made his Christmas perfect. Tom was happy that he was treated so well. Thinking about the one thing he couldn't have seemed wrong. He couldn't help but think about the man he loved. It would be wrong for him not to think of Harmon when he was happy.
No one spoke to him as Tom thought how he wouldn't be able to walk to meet Harmon when he did come home. He wouldn't know the extent of his wounds. It would be a surprise. How would he feel about the way Tom looked now?
"No matter what happens. No matter where we are when we are discharged, we'll find our way back to each other," was Harmon's vow to him.
Vance stood at the storm door looking out into the night as the cab stopped at the curb. Tom thought Vance must have been ready to get the van back to the center and go home, but he'd stood by the door since he rolled Tom inside. He was staring outside at something.
Other people looked at Vance. Everyone got silent.
Vance stepped outside, holding the door open.
Harmon Cobb stepped inside. Tom gasped and the tears began to flow. Harmon was as beautiful as ever in his soldier suit.
Harmon's eyes met Tom's. He stood looking for a few seconds, dropping his duffel bag, he went to Tom's side.
Harmon hugged and then kissed him. Tom hugged Harmon tight with his one good arm. There was never a better hug ever.
The people from the center were surprised too. They knew someone special was coming, but no one was prepared for the intensity of the two men.
Harmon was what Tom wanted more than anything. Tom's dream had come true and he felt blessed.
"I love you, Tom," Harmon said, after he wiped away his tears. "I came home to marry you."
"Not half as much as I love you, Harmon Cobb," Tom said as they held hands and beamed. "If that was a proposal, the answer is yes."
Applause of approval reminded the boys they weren't alone. They both laughed at their oversight. They blushed.
They were together again. Harmon's discharge was coming early in the New Year. He was home to take care of Tom. After a long separation, they were together again. This was the best Christmas ever for both of them.
Tom and Harmon didn't get married right away. Tom wanted to walk down the isle. They were married in April.
And they lived happily ever after.
Merry Christmas to you. 2015 was a very good year for the LGBTQ Nation. And soon, all men are created equal, will finally mean LGBTQ people throughout the world.
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