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2nd Annual Popular Fiction Awards Winners - Romance

Announcing the Romance winner of the 2nd Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards
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First-place winner (Genre: Romance) in the Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards

By Brian Taylor

September 15, 2004
Sex, for the younger guys is the main issue. For those of us with a wife, it's something else entirely. It's not, When am I going to have sex next? It's When am I going to feel love again? Of course nobody is going to come right out and say that because we're Marines. But damn, I can feel it slipping away. This place turns off that center of the brain. I'm not sure if I even know what it feels like anymore.

Not even Alex's e-mails turn it on. She didn't even say I love you in her last one. It's slipping away for her, too. Last time we talked, she said she didn't know how long she could take this. The distance. The time. The uncertainty. It's hell, I know, but how many ways can you say you're miserable? I need a break, too. From this heat, from these guys, from all of this.

September 17, 2004
Lizzie, my old psycho college girlfriend, somehow popped up in my in-box. Her message was sad; kind of like her hand written letters were when we broke up. It sounded like she was missing me. Take care of yourself there in Iraq, she wrote, come back to us in one piece. Us? One piece? She's crazy. She was probably chasing a Vicodin with some merlot when she wrote that.
At least she wrote. Nothing but silence from Alex since last week. I've missed her on the phone, too. She used to answer her cell morning, noon, and night. Now it's straight to voicemail.

September 18, 2004
A few months before I shipped out, Alex said something that still haunts me: "I want you to be my hero only. I don't know if I want you to be anyone else's."

She had her doubts about me enlisting, as any wife would. She eventually came around and after learning that a college degree meant better rank, better pay and the potential for a better assignment, she started to really enjoy the idea of me as a soldier.

For me, it was a calling. Or was it just something that so many guys talked about, but no one did? When I signed the dotted line, I did feel like a hero. I felt like the big man on campus again. The frat prez I once was. Important.
What's awful is that Alex probably never knew what it felt like for me and was only paying attention to the financial column. Not even a year into the marriage and we were already going in two different directions.

She finally wrote today and apologized for not getting in touch. She said it's hard with the time difference. As if we didn't already know this. Said she's had a lot on her mind. She's not telling me something. I can tell it in her sentences. Just tell me Alex. I'm a Marine, remember? I'm tough.

September 21, 2004
Call me when you can, her e-mail said. So I did and I woke her up at four in the morning, Pacific Time. I had a feeling she was done and I had even worked a comeback.

"Well aren't we already divorced?" I retorted. "I mean, what's the point now? You wanna let the war ruin our marriage? You're gonna give up on us now? Why?"

I was trying to use the reverse psychology I've learned in war.

Straight to the point and to the heart, she replied: "So that we can move on, Thomas."

"You don't know what it's like," she continued.

"No, you don't know what it's like," I snapped. "Did you forget that I'm working here? Supporting us. Remember?"

"You chose to do that. You didn't have to enlist."

"I'm doing this for you, for us, for our country."

"You knew I was unsure about this. Now I'm stuck in this mess. It's been almost a year. All these military wives counting down the days. But to what? You guys aren't coming home anytime soon."

"You told me to follow my heart, and so I did."

"Now we know where your heart led you."

"Bullshit!" I was furious. "How could you say something like that? You told me I had your support. You said it was brave, honorable. What was all that?"

"I don't know Tom. I didn't know how bad it was going to be. I didn't know how much I was going to need you."

"Well I'm right here."

"Exactly," she said. "I can't talk anymore."

"Why not? Talk to me damn it."

She was silent. Her voice began to shudder.

"Tom, I'm moving back to Tempe."

"For what? Family? Friends? An old boyfriend?"

She stayed quiet as her tears fell. I had figured it out.

"Call me when you've had sometime to think about this," I commanded.

September 24, 2004
Lieutenant Schmidt, who's managed to maintain a burning romance with his wife while over here, asked me how much I miss mine. I looked at him, annoyed.

"Alex, right?" he leaned in. "How much do you miss her?"

"I don't."

Schmidt shrugged and continued eating.

"I miss mine like crazy. Can't wait to get home and-"

"I know," I said.

"Hey, pass the bacon," he snorted.

Despite being in a Muslim country, we have constant access to American food. Burgers, pancakes, eggs? You got it. Bacon? A meal time staple. I'm beginning to wonder if we're even in the Middle East.

Life here is strange. We're in a shell where no one can touch us. Outside our Green Zone is the real war. Outside these walls and razor wire life is falling apart, like my marriage. It's not a war on terror; it's a war on life. A war against peace. Against love. They've told us not to use the word civil war, but that's coming. Those two words make no sense together. Civil. War. Is war ever civil? I guess the only kind of war that is civil is love. It's always a battle.

September 27, 2004
The heat is agony. The Bubble, as we call the Green Zone, with its trees and gardens feels like a hot and sticky greenhouse. I haven't slept in days from this damn heat and thinking about Alex's sorry request for a divorce. She's already given up and she's probably already shacking up with some idiot. Goodbye war hero. What the hell is next for me? I'm losing it in here. This place is a country of sex and love deprived, war hungry men. Me included.

September 29, 2004
The bazaar inside the Green Zone is the only slice of the real Iraq. Turbaned and shrouded locals peddle Middle Eastern foods and wares, cheap American knock offs, books, magazines, snacks, drinks, and cigarettes. There's nothing that interests me but the people.

I walk around the market to feel important. The vendors look at me with reverence, my hand resting on my gun, gear stacked high. I never buy anything. Just take it in and feel like a leader again.

September 30, 2004
There's a falafel stand called Shah Khan that has to be the busiest in the bazaar. Everyone in the Green Zone goes there: Iraqi service men, US soldiers, consultants, Baghdad big wigs, young people and women.

The stand has a way of sucking you in even if you're not hungry. That's why I stopped today. I stood back, absorbing the quick shouts, greasy scents and frenzied movement coming from the booth. A big man, probably Shah Khan himself, stands out in front behind a waist high table barking orders to the young drones behind him. He plays two distinct roles: one of humble shop owner with the customers and the other maniacal dictator to the workers, likely his kids.

The operation behind the man is wild. Dark skinned teens run around slinging flat round bread and white sauces while the smiling Shah looks away from his clients to growl at them. I think it's more a show for the customers if not a strange way to prove why his stand is the best.

As I watched the line grow and people walk away with thin white paper wrapped food, I saw a worker emerge. She was older than the kids inside and she wasn't dressed in black or covered in veils like the traditional Muslim woman. She wore a long sleeve top and black pants. She had long black hair and piercing dark eyes. She was alive. She was beautiful.

She approached the raving Shah and said something to him to which he looked at her with a stone face and gave a small nod. She left the booth and I didn't see her return for the rest of the afternoon.

October 3, 2004
Passing the stand on my breaks is now a ritual. She knows that I've taken notice of her because those beautiful eyes have caught me a couple of times. We're playing that funny middle school version of peek-a-boo. I don't know what it is. I'm intrigued.

I've concluded that she's the runner for the stand. She doesn't handle the food inside. She oversees operations, talks to the Shah, then leaves. She comes and goes, always with something in hand.

October 5, 2004
I went back today and she was working the stand, alongside the Shah. I got the nerve to go up there and buy something. While in the cluster waiting to order, I couldn't keep my eyes off her. She moved like a doe, quiet and gentle, even in that crazed environment. Her hair, her eyes, her neck. So perfect.

"Me'help you?" the Shah barked in a thick Arabian accent.

I stood there, exchanging glances with the Arabic/English menu overhead and the lovely woman working by his side.

"Sir?" he impatiently leaned closer.

I didn't study the menu so the Shah's frustration was warranted.

"Give him the regular," she said with the left side of her lip curling up to a smile.

"Regular," the Shah nodded then commanded me to move down.

He pointed to the woman. She was the cashier.

"Finally you buy," she said with her hand out.

I stood, two feet in front of her, silent and stupid.

"Two dollars," she said, her English perfect.

"This is the busiest stand. Have to give it a try."

"Come back," she said, taking the money and exchanging it for a falafel. "Next."

She looked over my shoulder at the next customer.

October 8, 2004
Today was like finding out that a girl in school likes you.

On my usual strut by Shah Khan, mystery girl wrapped up what she was doing and emerged from the madness. She had a brief case with her.

I walked by, slow as usual, and just as I was about to pass the stand altogether, she walked right up beside me.

"Who taught you how to get a Muslim woman's attention?"

"What are you talking about?"

"The eyes. That's all you need."

I stopped for a moment and looked at those very eyes.

"Let's keep walking. Will you escort me?"


"What is your name?" she asked.

"Captain Tom Mitchell."

We continued through the bazaar and walked deep into a residential zone. She said we were going to their bank. I learned her name is Amal and she learned English from her schooling in Cairo. She's 23 and wants to be a chemist.

"So you're working for a mad falafel man until you find a job?"

"That's my father," she answered, unperturbed.

"My apologies."

"No, he is a crazy man," she smiled.

"So then what's your plan?"

"Save money and get a job out of the country. It's the only way out."

"You want to leave the Middle East?"

"Don't you?" she said. "Wait here."

She went inside a home sandwiched between ruined walls and buildings. It wasn't a bank. She appeared back on the street sans briefcase. We then headed back the way we came.

"These lands are ruined," she continued. "There's no hope."

"We can all fix it. It'll take time."

She looked up at me with a smirk of doubt.

"We? Not the Americans. Not the Iraqis. People are running wild. We should hurry or you and I will be killed."

She wasn't kidding. A daytime walk down the wrong street could mean certain death. We hurried our pace.

"This is not even a war," she continued. "It's a horrible mess. Who is fighting who?"

"I agree. I don't know where all this is going."

"To hell," she said.

"I'm supposed to be a leader here, but I'm lost."

"Me, too," she said.

Soon we were back in the bustling bazaar. She nodded, thanking me for walking her.

"Maybe I see you here again?"

"You will," I answered.

October 10, 2004
There's a war going on around me and all I can think about is Amal. She's the calm in this storm. She has a goal and it's about improving herself. She's found a way when everyone else has given up.

I met her again today when she was leaving the stand. My gut fluttered when I saw her.

"You're back Captain Tom Mitchell," she smiled.

"Yes. I wanted to see you."

"I thought of you today," she said. "You're not like all these men running around here. They're all greedy pigs. You're like a lone wolf. Quiet, pensive."

"I never thought of myself like that. It's the wolf who destroys the pigs, you know?"

"Is war the only thing on your mind?" she asked.

"No. You are."

Her olive skin turned red and she smiled.

"I cannot stand around here," she said, looking back at the stand. "Can we meet later, maybe tomorrow?"

"I'm working all night," I told her. "I'm off tomorrow. I'll be up early in the morning."

"Meet me for tea in the bazaar. There's a stand at the end of the market."


She put her hand to her forehead saluting me in mockery. I gave her a broad smile. Something I hadn't done in a while.

October 12, 2004
I was sweaty from a run around the Bubble and the early morning sun when I got to the tea stand. I tried to look presentable to Amal, who was sitting at small table.

She was embarrassed and hid her eyes while I sat down.


"Your legs," she laughed. "You know you are in the Middle East? Showing your legs is like me exposing myself."

"They're under the table, see?" I leaned in and laughed. "Besides, you're not so conservative. No veil, no scarf?"

"My father thinks it's an abomination. I call myself modern."

"And getting ready for life in the West?"

She laughed.

"I don't know. My father is looking for a husband for me."

Husband, I thought. A foreign concept.

"Marriage is difficult," I said.

"Are you married?"

"Yes, but it's over. I think the love has ended."

She stopped and looked at me with sadness.

"Love is all there is. This war and these petty battles are nonsense. Don't give up on love."

"I haven't," I said. I looked into her deep almond shaped eyes, black as raven's wings and put my hand on hers. She didn't resist. She needed to feel love, too.

"Tom, you're like a friend I've always wanted. I don't know your wife, but she is lucky. I should not even be talking to a married man."

She pulled away, shameful.

"I've lost that battle Amal."

We ended tea and planned to meet the next day so I could escort her to the bank once more.

October 14, 2004
I met Amal as planned away from the stand. We greeted each other with warm smiles fighting an embrace. Instead, we nodded and continued down the street away from the bazaar.

We turned a corner and for an instant, we were alone in the city of a thousand watchful eyes. On impulse, I pulled her close and tucked her in my arms. She felt so good, her warm breath on my neck Ð a real woman in this land who still has love in her heart.

We pulled back from our warm embrace and gazed into each other's eyes. I felt we were on the verge of a kiss Ð a chance moment where two strangers connect in a beautiful, forbidden, and tender form of love.

Just then, a massive blast less than 100 feet behind us yanked our moment away. It rocked the street, ripping down the tents of the bazaar hurling flames, shrapnel, and burning objects at full speed in all directions. Fire licked the ground, fabrics, and goods of the market as thick and oily smoke smothered the clear desert sky. The rat-tat-tat-tat of semi-automatic guns chattered in the distance.

Amal screamed in terror calling for her father. She was about to run toward the choking heat when I pulled her back. I turned her away from the blast and we started running. Before we knew it, another explosion, this time only forty feet away, shook the ground like an earthquake. I pulled us to the ground, tucking her in my arms and rolling. I covered her as the crackling flames shot over us and the heavy smoke pressed us to the road. Amal was sobbing, screaming, cursing.

She squirmed in my arms, trying to free herself.

"Tom" she screamed, "Let me free!"

"It's too hot, wait a second!" I shouted back.

I pushed myself up to assess the scene. People were screaming, running amok. The heat was unbearable. I looked down at Amal to find her curled in pain, a small pool of blood at her side.

"Something hit me!" she screamed. "It hurts Tom!"

I turned her over and saw a sharp, triangular piece of metal lodged into her right side, above her hip.

"Stay calm," I instructed. "I'm gonna move you to safety."

"What is it, Tom?" she wailed.

"Don't worry," I instructed. "Cover your mouth."

I scooped her up and ran through the stifling blackness away from the madness. She winced in pain.

I ran her to the hospital in my garrison.

"Captain Tom Mitchell," I said. "Bomb victim. Admit her immediately."

October 15, 2004
The Bubble was chaos that night. I went to Amal's bedside my first free minute. She suffered one hell of a laceration from the jagged metal that lodged into her waistline. An inch or so more, the medics said, and her kidney would have been punctured. She got eight stitches and a nice bloody bandage.

She was released at 20h00 and spent the evening listening to frantic messages on her voice mail from her father. He was alive.

"I have to go home. My father has no idea where I am. He knows I was that street today. He's expecting the worst."

"Let me walk you home," I said. "I have about half an hour before I'm due back."

We entered the cool desert night and the withered streets of Baghdad, the worst victim of all. I walked her to their home just inside the bubble.

"You're safer on the inside," I said.

"After today, I don't know." She said. Her voice was beaten and tired.

"The only time I've felt safe here was today, when you were holding me," she continued, looking up at me as we walked.

"Thank you," I said. We stopped and I took her hands. I pulled her close, just like before the blast. At last, our lips met, our eyes closed, and just for that moment, we remembered what love felt like.

"Let's go," she said ending our kiss and looking around, with a sad grin. "Don't you hear the next bomb ticking?"

We approached her home. I held her again in the darkness, planting small kisses on her forehead. I wanted to keep her with me, away from this war, away from this disaster.

"Can I stay here forever?" she asked, tears welling up in her eyes.

"Yes you can, Amal."

"What happens next?" she whispered.

"This war ends. I get to go home, you get a job in the states and come with me."

"You Americans are dreamers!" she laughed. "If it were that easy! You are married, this war will go on forever, and my father will disown me if he finds out that I want to run away with an American soldier."

"It's OK to dream. Maybe you can sleep on that and come up with a plan," I smiled. "Amal, all I can think about is you right now. I don't know what's come over me, but you make me feel safe, too. I don't know what's going to happen, but let's just enjoy this, OK?"

I leaned in for one more kiss, this time more passionate than before. She returned my kiss with her gentle lips and firm embrace. She pulled away and walked into her house. I stayed in the shadows and heard shouting and crying when she entered. Their beautiful daughter had returned from the war.

October 19, 2004
One unread e-mail from Alexandra Mitchell. Her named looked foreign to me. Unwelcome and unusual like Lizzie's a few weeks ago. I didn't want to open it.

Dear Tom,
I first want to tell you that I'm sorry. I was having a hard time a few weeks ago. I still am, but I'm coping and I just want you to know that I still love you. I don't know when I will see you again and I don't know if you'll even want to see me when that time comes. I just want you to know that I miss you, love you, and hope to hear from you soon.

I've been told not to write e-mails in the heat of passion. Today I couldn't resist. Something greater than me had control.

Thank you for the note. Our last conversation was hard, but I realize that I cannot be your husband when I'm over here. It's just not that easy. You're fighting in a war all your own.

Everyday is something different. A new challenge, a new battle. After we last talked, I haven't thought of us that much. But when I have, I've thought that maybe we rushed into all of this. I know I did. Look where I am now: bound by duty, indefinitely.

I'm also bound by something else right now Alex. Something real. It's a duty to myself, to this war. You know that I'm one who finishes what I start, so I'm thinking that this is when we finish. We can go over this on the phone, but just know that I too have to move on. My life is here right now. I hope you understand.

I'll call Alex, we'll talk, she'll cry, I'll even cry. I'll explain what's happening here. I'll talk about the war, the bombs. The casualty. She'll understand.

The dust will settle, like it always does. The struggle will continue, and after all the blasts and bombs, the calm will return, maybe for a day. I'll go back to that tattered bazaar under the blazing Iraqi sun in this beaten crescent of land and visit Shah Khan's Falafel stand to remind myself that love is not lost.

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