Poppy fell the moment Carlos showed her his feet. She’d never met a man—or rather, a civilian man—with feet uglier than her own. But ballet slippers weren’t any kinder to toes than combat boots were.
Before she saw him, she’d planned on making a tactical retreat from the reception. It’d been a mistake to take leave for this wedding, an even bigger one to wear her dress uniform. Coming home never worked. Hadn’t she learned that by now? Too many awkward questions, too many thank yous.
What made her pause at the ballroom’s entrance, Poppy couldn’t say. She didn’t see the groom twirling his bride or the bridesmaids in clouds of chiffon floating across the parquet.
With uncommon grace, he crossed the room. He navigated the maze of chairs, tables, and guests like a man intimately familiar with each muscle of his body. When he landed in front of her, he didn’t speak but merely held out his hand.
“I don’t dance,” she said.
“Not me. I march.”
He tipped his head back and laughed. “I can dance well enough for both of us.”
And yes, he could. Demanding to see his feet came several glasses of champagne later.
“Stay,” he whispered the next morning. “Spend the week with me. You can come to rehearsal. I’m dancing the role of the steadfast tin soldier.”
She laughed at the audacity of it, of burning a week’s worth of leave in New York City, with this beautiful man whose world was so different from her own.
“Do you know anything about being a soldier?” she asked.
“That’s why I need you. You can be my technical advisor.”
“No one will believe that.”
Everyone did. Or, rather, they indulged their principal dancer. She taught Carlos how to drill with a wooden rifle. During breaks, he taught her how to hold herself so he could lift and spin her around.
With Carlos, she could dance. With Carlos, she was weightless.
At the airport, he tucked a necklace into the palm of her hand, the pendant an exquisitely engraved poppy.
“We both have demanding mistresses.” His words were so soft she barely heard them above the clamor of traffic and travelers. “You don’t need to come home to me. Just come home.”
She wore the necklace every day in Afghanistan. Poppy no longer regretted attending the wedding, or even wearing her uniform. Her only regret was never seeing Carlos dance on stage.
They wrote letters, the old-fashioned kind, hers torn from a notebook, the paper encrusted with sand and dotted with dirty fingerprints, his on the back of paper placemats, or cleverly crafted in the margins of playbills.
Then her world erupted in fire. When the burn subsided to mere embers, it was too late and Walter Reed a world away from New York City. Still, Poppy vowed: she would see Carlos dance.
Sleeping Beauty gave her the chance.
She had flowers delivered to his dressing room—white roses laced with red poppies. That way he’d know. That way, if he didn’t want to see her, he could hide until she abandoned her vigil at the stage door.
Poppy waited there, her head still buzzing from his performance, her weight sagging into the crutches, her foot heavy in its cast.
Her cheeks flamed when she caught sight of him emerging from the door, her skin hot against the December air. He scanned the alleyway behind the theater. The moment his gaze met hers, he froze.
“Bet my feet are uglier than yours now,” she said.
He exhaled and laughed. It was only then she saw the poppy tucked in his lapel. He took in her crutches, her foot in its cumbersome cast. His eyes grew somber.
“My steadfast soldier.”
“I’m home,” she said.
He moved close, fluid and graceful, and cupped her cheek with his palm. “So am I.”
All at once she was weightless.
Steadfast was first published at Flash Fiction Online (and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well). It was my attempt to retell Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier.
So I did, with a gender flip and an unapologetic happy ending. And if you like, you can also read a review of the story here.
All in all, how could I not share this story on Valentine’s Day.
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