The ocean raged and churned. The black and silver foam lashed and attacked the sides of the boat like furious sharks that broke and disappeared when they touched the sides of the ship. The soldiers rocked and shifted with the swaying motion of the hospital boat. Men clomped loudly up to the top of the ship, not content with staying underneath in the hull. Black forms were strapped to the beds that lined the ship and the cries of the wounded and disturbed reverberated through the darkness. The uneasiness of the soldiers who watched their comrades suffer gave a sick feeling to the ship; a feeling that could not be washed away by antiseptics and swathed with cloth bandages.
The man sat in a corner and watched the wounded be cared for while he nursed his own bandaged wrist. He stayed silent and watched with eyes that had seen too much for his nineteen and a half years. The ship had left from the tip of Germany a few days ago. He didn’t like that he left from the place that started this whole disaster. He felt proud that he had fought for his country, but the fact that it was his heritage that had nearly destroyed all Europe made him feel sick in his gut. The cries of his fellow men echoed from the battles fought; the cries that refused to escape from the hull of the ship into the open air and be carried away. He shook fiercely and shoved himself up and limped stiffly to the stairs that led to the open air. The stairs still gave him trouble with his shredded leg, but he refused to use crutches because it showed weakness to the anyone watching.
He reached the top and hobbled over to the railing and leaned gratefully on the worn, sea hardened wood. The salty air felt like a cool slap in the face after staying down in the hot hull of the ship. The cries of the men below didn’t reach his ears now, but the cries of the last year and a half were so fresh that he would have sworn they stood next to him screaming in agony. He shuddered and pushed the men back into bog that encompassed his mind and heart. He concentrated on the water and wished, that as the water disappeared behind him, so would the memories that were scorched on the inside of his skull like cave drawings.
A hand on his shoulder had the soldier whirling and grabbing the forearm of his attacker and before his realized what he was doing he was attempting to break the sailor’s arm.
“Easy boy,” the man said. His voice was a deep brassy rumble. The older man let his hand drop from the soldier’s shoulder and surveyed the boy with crinkled eyes. “I just came over to see if you needed anything.” The boy was young, but that was a normal situation of the men who were coming back to the States. The sailor didn’t tell the boy that he was still gripping his arm because the reflex was instinctive. A natural desire to hold onto another human being after all the death he had witnessed. To ensure one person wouldn’t die while he stood next to him. The boy didn’t want that to happen again the sailor could tell that much by the boy’s grip. “Do you need a drink or something kid? I have a stash in my bunker.” He offered the chance to all of the men coming back from the war, but it was seldom that the boys took it: too wrapped up into their minds to understand the release it could offer.
The boy’s eyes glowed not with warmth, but with caution much like an animal deciding to act on its animal instincts and flee or fight. He shrugged in what the sailor could tell was an attempted nonchalant way, “Yeah I guess I could.” His voice was gruff and blocked from any type of emotion that would betray a weakness. That was the training and everyone knew it, well everyone who had the decency to look past that barrier.
He led the boy past the stairs that descended to the hull of the ship and over to the side of the cabin where is quarter were and opened the door for the boy. The sailor’s simple head gesture made it clear that the boy could go in first. He would not exploit his injuries and walked stiffly into the cabin and stood rigid in the middle room. When the sailor let the door slam shut the boy jerked and looked wildly to the sailor.
“Take a seat kid. I’ll poor us something to drink.” The boy looked around and picked a seat in the corner, one that displayed the whole room without anything to his back. The sailor knew that some considered this a withdrawn pose, but he had been traveling this painful road longer than he cared to think and he knew that it was a position that was used in case of attack. It held the best view of all the entrances to the small room.
The room was worn by the years of use and hard travel across the Atlantic. There was a small shelf of atlases to the right of the door. All had tattered edges and looked worse for all of the years of use. The hardwood floor held only the barest amount of color. The harsh saltwater and the climate in which the ship traveled had taken its toll on even the ship. Everything in the little room was stiff due to the salt. Even the faded and torn curtains hung stiffly like shutters to the outside world. The sailor bet that this ship had more than enough stories to tell about all the things it had seen. It sure moaned about them at night when people attempted to get sleep to make up from their lack of it after however long the men had been over in Europe. It refused to let the decent men sleep, preferring that they stay up as well and listen to the moans of the past rather than letting it die with the passing waves. Outside of this little globe that one hundred and twenty eight men rode home on, and to what home the sailor did not know, but he figured going home wasn’t any easier than leaving.
The glasses the man brought out were yellowed with age, but the water he poured into each glass was clear, bright and free of tarnish. He handed one to the boy who took it and downed it in one large swallow. The sailor raised one bushy eyebrow, “If you were thirsty then you could have had the whole bottle over there.” He shook his shaggy head over at the bottle of water that still lay on the top of the counter. “Have at it kid.”
The boy stood and walked over the bottle and instead of refilling the glass he simply picked up the bottle and walked and sat back down. The sailor reached over and grabbed a chair which he dragged over and sat down in front of the boy. He watched the boy just as the boy watched him.
“How old are you kid?” he asked finally after a great deal of silence.
“Nineteen or so,” he said before he took another drink of the clean water.
The sailor shook his head, “Too young for my taste. I think that you’re still a child.”
The boy grunted and drank more of the water before looking back at the sailor, “So what do you want,” he said bluntly. His eyes held only the clear milk chocolate stare that had seen too many comrades fall.
The man shrugged and shook his mass of hair, “Just figured you may want to talk. You looked like you might want to get it off your shoulders, but what do I know,” he shrugged again, “you know better than anyone if you want to talk about it.” Neither needed to say what this it was because everyone who traveled this stretch of water had a pretty descent idea of what it meant. “It’s simple; you talk, I listen.” He looked through his unruly bangs to the youth sitting down across from him. “Tell me what you want me to hear and let it out. It just seemed like you’d want to talk.” He repeated the last line. He knew the best thing was to wait until the offer was analyzed.
The boy started gruffly as if opening a rusty vault, and the hinges screamed as if protesting the revealing of his life leading up to his time serving in World War II.
The pounding of feet had a trail of dust rising up in the running boys’ wake. They shoved and pushed and each other as they raced each other to be the first to step foot on the porch of the general store. The children reached the store front and hooted and hollered as they opened the door. The bell dinged as they came in as a swarm of young energy and dreams.
Dale looked up from his position at the counter and grinned. “You boys could be heard quite a ways away. Bet you could use a drink.” Dale said as he moved from behind the counter to the refrigerated Coke-a-Cola dispenser and pulled a few nickels from his jean pocket. He dropped them into the dispenser and pulled out four cans of soda and handed them to the boys who were tramping around the store talking animatedly.
Dale set the soda cans on the counter and moved back behind the counter and watched the four terrors from the corner of his eye. The boys were celebrating their release from freshman year in high school, and he couldn’t blame them. He remembered when he was a freshman and couldn’t wait to get out. Now he only wished that he could have finished the second semester of his senior year. Oh well, he mused, all’s fair in love in war. He wasn’t too sure about the fairness of war. He’d heard too much from his mother. He shrugged mentally; it was a small price to pay for serving his country. The boys pushed and shoved their way to the counter brought Dale out of his thoughts.
One leaned on the shiny counter and threw the sodas back to his friends. “Thanks Dale,” the boy took a sip of the soda. “So I hear you’re leavin’ pretty soon to go serve,” he grinned with childlike abandon and the older boy, “Sure wish I could, be a lot more fun than staying here at school.” He took a long drink of the soda and jabbed the boy behind him in the ribs. The other boy snorted and choked on his half swallowed soda. The others laughed at their friend’s discomfort.
Dale frowned, “Take it easy boys, you get too carried away and you’ll end up hurting someone without meaning to.”
The boys sobered a little and looked sheepishly at him as he braced his hands on the counter and looked down his nose at them.
“Yeah, sure Dale,” the ringleader muttered and this male apology was followed by the other’s mumbled words.
The bell chimed leading into the store which broke the spell held over the younger boys. They jostled and joked with each other again before looking to see who entered. A woman stood in the doorway and she held an air of grace to her despite the small town surroundings. The younger boys took their sodas and left. As they passed the woman their eyes fell to the floor as if an animal instinct told them that meeting her gaze would smolder them instantly.
Dale’s mother walked forward and he noticed that she tried to hide her sore hip. He sighed, the day that his mother said that her hip hurt her would be the day that he looked forward to going to his English class.
She moved with a grace that came only with the upbringing of a confident woman. She came and stood by the counter. Her eyes were unpainted and her fragile frame stood and tall as a willow. “Mr. Jones said that you could go home early today. He figured that as your last day here you deserved a full night home.”
“Mr. Jones is a nice man to do that.”
She nodded, “Well I came to pick up some butter and band-aids. Your sister thought she would be clever and try to fly off the roof using my linens as a cape. Needless to say to didn’t work and she has a scraped knee. Luckily that’s all it was. She could have broken something. She thinks that a band-aid and a treat will make it all better. Needless to say, she wont we getting a candy bar.” His mother’s eye lingered over the candy bars. Dale knew that his mother would have given anything to her daughter, but with money so tight it was hard to buy treats. “That girl will make me lose my hair faster than you ever did.”
Dale leaned over and kissed his mother on the cheek, “Thanks mom, I’ll be home after I straighten things up. I’m afraid that the kids disturbed some things. Do you want me to bring the stuff home when I come?”
His mother moved to the rows of the band-aids and rummaged around, “No dear I can manage, I brought the car. I spoke with the officer who is taking you to California. He said to get a good sleep tonight because it’s the only good rest you’ll get in a while.”
She moved to the chest where the butter and margarine was kept. His mother worked in the recruiting office for the areas in and around Laramie. It didn’t surprise him that she had spoken to the officer, but it made his gut clench with the realization that his transfer to California was so close. He figured that it would become all too real in the morning. It was come upon him like a freight train and when it passed he would be on it leaving everything he held close to him in the vanishing dust.
“When do you think that you’ll be done here dear?” His mother asked again. The question was like a sledge hammer drilling into his brain because he knew she wanted him home, and he knew he needed to stay here. Regardless that Mr. Jones had given him the green light to go home he felt that he needed to stay here rather than take the easy way out.
“I’ll be home when I get home mother.” He said and rang up the other things that he saw in her hands.
She pushed the bills and change unnecessarily towards him. She looked up and smiled warmly at him. “Well, come home as soon as you can dear. Can’t leave us waiting forever now can you?” She patted his cheek and walked out, and this time the wind did not rip the door out of her hands, but rather plucked it from her fingers and held it open for her almost like a gentleman holds open a door for a lady. Once his mother was out of the door way the wind closed the door with a gentlemanly thud against the frame. As he watched, the wind followed his mother out to the car, plucking at her hair and her skirt causing both to flutter and churn around her.
He moved to the front of the store and picked up the broom. He started at the back of the store and pushed the dust and cobwebs to the front of the store where he could see all of the dirt without missing a piece. He leaned over and picked up the metal dust pan and swept up the filth and carried it out into the trash out in the back of the store. Heading towards the front once more he saw that there were still some dust that had been missed lying on the floor, and some things like he could never got off the floor. The dust simply hung there at the front of the store in a line that faced the door. The bell to the back of the store chimed and as he looked up a man walked into the store from the back.
A person from out of town might swear that he walked right out of a history book the way he dressed. His jeans were starched and ironed to the point that they appeared they may not bend as the man walked. His checkered shirt was faded and worn at the hems. The handkerchief that adorned his neck was a faded red that looked pink. The kind of pink that reminded a person of uncooked meat on a wooden slab before it is cooked and served. The man’s weathered face was the brown of the surrounding landscapes. And the lines and dips that were peppered near his eyes gave his face hills and valleys that were absent when one looked outside. He stomped his worn riding boots on the step outside and removed his hats before walking in and setting a set of keys on the counter.
“How ya’ doing son?” Mr. Jones grinned at Dale and looked around the shop while he set his weathered hands on his hips. “Didn’t yer mama tell you to go home with her? Figured you should have the rest of the evening off seein’ as you was going away and all tomorrow.” He nodded and moved behind the counter as Dale placed his hands palm down on the counter and looked at Mr. Jones.
“I cleaned up and–,” he began.
“Yep, you made a good amount of money today for me. Thank you much, Dale.” He breathed in through his nose and looked around the store the way that an eagle looks for food. “And ye cleaned up the place for me. Ye did good today, Dale. Now why don’t you head home and spend the rest of the night with yer family. I’m sure that they would like that since yer going away tomorrow.” He nodded his head swiftly and sharply, “Yep, you did a good job today for me.” He grinned at the store and then looked at Dale. “Thank for yer help son.” He held out his hand. Dale reached out and shook it before hanging up his apron, picking up his light coat. He paused at the door, and dug around in his pocket pulling out change for a candy bar. He could hear Mr. Jones rummaging in the back and simply left the change on the counter before taking his prize and leaving the store to begin the mile and a half walk home.
The walk home was always peaceful for him. He preferred to walk home rather than take the car because it allowed him time to think. The trees were large and hung over the lane like claws of a bear. The wind that roared like an oncoming train did not still in the least as the sun set. The last day before I leave, he thought without any real emotion. The emotions seemed to come up when the people he cared about were around. The actual act of being deployed had remained in his mind as nothing more than a dream as of yet. Similarly, with the setting of the sun came the ending of the dream and the imminent arrival of the reality that had eluded him since he had been drafted.
He had no thought as to what would be expected of him when he traveled tomorrow to California. He had heard nothing of other people’s experience after coming back from the war, but any that had returned had been injured so that they had to be brought back to be taken care of rather than left in Europe.
The wind howled and screamed in his ears and he heard the distant crying of a hawk. He looked for its lethal from and spotted it right before it plunged into the ground and rose just as swiftly. Dale could see, in the dim light, the hazy shadow of what had formerly been a field mouse. The small mouse had never stood a chance against such a mighty foe. The hawk cried its victory to the skies before it turned to its home to show its success to his comrades. The survival of the fittest was the key for the animals out here and they never forgot that primitive fact.
The sun sank further and further down past the small hills and immense plains and as it did Dale realized that he had paused in his trek home to view the demise of the mouse. He moved forward once more, but now he hunched his shoulders against the wind that, as the darkness loomed ever closer, grew in its ferocity and intent to sweep the very buildings off of their foundations.
He picked up his pace and reached the rickety white fence of his front lawn within a matter of minutes. He stretched his hand forward and pulled the storm door open. Letting it rest against his back he pushed open the wooden door and walked in. The aroma of his mother’s cooking hit him just before he was pushed to his knees by a solid impact from his right.
“Dale, you’re gonna go away tomorrow and come back and be a war hero aren’t you?” His younger sister bawled in his ear. He grabbed her wrists and stood letting her feet dangle several feet from the ground while she shrieked with glee.
“You bet Cassie, and when I come back I’m going to tell you everything.”
She squealed happily and leaned and whispered in his ear, “You’re gonna write me every day aren’t you?”
At nine years old to have her brother going away to the army was an honor that made her older brother cooler than any movie star. He set her down gently and turned to her he saw the band-aid on her knee and grinned, “Nice war wound kid. If I get the chance I’ll bring you back some present. How does that sound?”
Another squeal of joy followed this last statement and she was off and he could here her telling their mother that “he promised to bring her a gift.” Rather than correct her he let it slide and removed his coat and hung it on the hook on the hallway coat hanger. The warm lighting greeted him as his moved to the living room. He saw his father sitting in the large chair reading the paper. He looked up as he walked in and nodded to Dale who smiled in return. He moved into the kitchen and kissed his mother on the cheek. Cassie was bobbing next to her mother watching her as she cooked dinner.
“And how was the rest of work dear?” she asked.
He leaned against the counter, “Just fine. Boring–,”
“Oh I wish you would not use that word. It is such a horrid word because only mundane people need be classified by that word.” She looked sternly at him, “Now go set the table please and fix a drink for your sister and yourself.” She stirred the stew and tasted it. “Almost perfect.” She brushed her daughter away and looked at Dale once more. “Go get things ready dear.”
He shifted into the dining room that was cramped next to the kitchen. Both were done in a white paint that covered the walls and the ceiling. The table was a polished and deep oak that his mother had found in a pawn shop. The carpet was tan and while the skeleton of the room looked plain the bright red cracked glass made the light dance like red flame up on the walls and the ceiling. He down the place mats before setting down the white dishes and placing the napkins next to the plates. He shifted the utensils before moving back into the kitchen.
“Cassie what do you want to drink?” he called.
“I want soda.” He heard her call.
“Absolutely not young lady you will not be having that stuff so late at night.” He heard his mother call.
“How about water?”
“Yeah I guess.”
He filled up the glasses and set them around the table. He moved and called downstairs to his father. Receiving no answer he moved down the rickety stairs and stood at the base of the stairs and looked into the cluttered arena of traps and rusted metal parts that surrounded his father.
“Dad what would you like to drink?”
“What’d you say,” Dale heard a crash and winced as a hub cap rolling out of the back room of the basement.
“Dad you know that mom hates it when you put that stuff down here. She thinks it’s dirty enough.”
His father appeared and wiped the oil and grease off of his face. His overweight belly fell over his belted pants and he huffed as he looked at Dale.
“What did you say Dale?” He moved forward and clapped his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Good to see you how was work?”
“Pretty good. What do you want to drink for dinner?”
“Ah well I guess I’ll go with water. Be the best thing for me. Let’s head up, and don’t tell your mother about the whole mess down here.”
“I’m pretty sure she already knows dad.”
He father chuckled, “Well let’s head up to dinner.”
Dinner was subdued, almost as if a tranquilizer had been placed in the food and the family had lost their ability to speak. Dale wanted to say so many things. That he loved his family and that no matter what happened he would always love them. He could not; he father would scoff and his mother would weep, and his little sister would begin to cry and his sister’s tears were the worst possible sorrow for him. He didn’t taste the food because his mouth was so dry. He did not each much as it was, but pushed it around the plate and made it blend and war on the fancy china his mother had been given as a betrothal gift from her grandmother. They sat in the living room same and always and to an outsider it looked like nothing was happening on the next day.
Dale got up and moved to his sister asleep on the couch. Looking down at her he smiled and picked her up. He said goodnight to his parents who both smiled at their children. His mother held back her tears as she watched her oldest child take her baby into bed. She waited until the two had disappeared up the steps before she leaned into her husband and cried silently. The war had taken little from them, but in the morning it would be taking their greatest hope. They weren’t supposed to have children so Dale had been a blessing. His sister was so completely unexpected, but it never changed in her mind that Dale was the miracle.
Dale set his sister down on top of her comforter and walked quietly out of the room. He could hear his mother from downstairs and moved to comfort her, but he pulled up at the last second. She had always been little withdrawn from everyone except his father, and if she wanted all those emotions out it would be only with him.