Undeclared (The Woodlands) - By Jen Frederick

Chapter One

Dear Soldier:

Our English composition class project this year is to write to soldiers who are serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. We were given a list of topics to write about, like the weather and our classes. I have to talk about the weather every Sunday at brunch with my family. It’s the most boring conversation ever. Even more boring than church sermons.

I’m not going to write to you about the weather or Differential Algebra because I don’t want to bore you to death.

I’d like to send a care package, but I’m not sure what you would like the most. I can’t send cigarettes, as I am not old enough to buy them.

Very truly yours,

Grace Sullivan


Dear Grace,

Thank you for your letter. We are always glad to have mail from home. Most of our time here in Afghanistan is boring, too. It seems like we have boredom in common.

While war might seem exciting in movies, there is actually a lot of waiting around and doing nothing. It’s incredibly hot and dry so the idea of sitting and talking about the weather indoors during brunch seems pretty awesome to me.

Definitely don’t buy cigarettes. I’m pretty sure your school assignment isn’t supposed to turn you into a felon. You don’t need to send me anything. Just getting a letter now and then is great. Look forward to hearing from you again.


Pfc. Noah Jackson

FYI: Marines aren’t soldiers; we are Marines. Only the Army has soldiers.


“How ‘bout you, Grace? Who’s your perfect man?” Amy Swanson, my cousin Lana’s sorority sister, stood with Lana and a couple of other Alpha Phis exchanging tidbits on who did what to whom over the summer.

“I’m not getting married. I plan to live a life of bachelorette-hood. I’ll be eccentric, have nine cats, and wear blue eye shadow and fur in the summer,” I said, trying to sound flippant. But based on the weight of Lana’s disapproving glare, I think I slid too far into snarky territory.

Whenever I was asked about why I hadn’t had a boyfriend, ever, I always responded in this manner. I knew I was unreasonably sensitive about my non-existent dating life, but the truth was more embarrassing than any story I could make up.

Other than a few drunken hookups, the closest I had ever come to condoms was finding a packet of them lying next to my brother Josh’s gym bag. Lana harped on the unhealthy attachment I had in high school to a Marine with whom I had corresponded for four years. “Self-fulfilling” and “self-destructive behavior” were among the many therapy-speak phrases that Lana enjoyed whipping out. At first, these were terms she learned in her own therapy sessions. Now they’re from classes she takes as a psych major.

I offered a snarky response to give people some small, delicious detail to focus on so everything else faded away. It was all in the perspective.

Swiveling in my chair, I turned to view my favorite expanse in the library. The reference and circulation desks sat on a balcony above the library’s entrance. The distance was just enough to provide the perfect perspective. I stood up and tilted my head down to peer through the viewfinder of my camera. I always set up my tripod when I worked. Some people studied. Others gossiped. I took time-lapse images, shrinking scenes into miniature, shutting out the peripheral noise, highlighting the minute details, and making everything seem unreal and toy-like.

I felt a nudge at my arm. “Let me see,” Lana was there, offering a silent olive branch. She knew I was still smarting from her disapproving stare, but I knew I should be the one apologizing. I moved away and she peered through the lens, careful not to touch anything. Lana knew how particular I was about the setup of my camera. She stood up and huffed, “I never get to see what you do.” It was a compliment. Lana was good for my ego. She was good for everything. Too bad I was straight. And then there was the whole “cousin” thing.

Shrugging, I looked down again. Two guys had entered the lobby and paused at the monitor’s desk. Their heads suggested diametric appearances. Great contrast. One was blond, the other dark-haired. Both were tall. I quickly moved the camera up the rails and retilted the lens. I took one photo and then looked again. The dark one had knelt down to tie his shoe—make that his boot—while the other waited patiently. The composition made them look like toy soldiers, particularly with