Short Story: A Hero’s Welcome

“I need to talk to God,” I said to the woman.

“What’s that dear?”

“I have to talk to someone. Make a confession,”

“There’s a chapel down the road. The old Priest comes in here every now and then trying to save our souls as he says,” she laughed, “never leaves until we save his first,”

“Is he coming in today?”

“Who knows. Maybe,” The palm of her hands made circles on the mid of my back. Soft hands for what she was. The hands moved up my back and caressed my neck.

“I hope he comes. I need to confess,”

“Confess to me, dear,” she kissed me on the forehead.

“Okay.”

I don’t know how I got there, naked in a tube with a strange woman running her fingers through my hair, telling me it’s all right, that I can call her mother, like I had proposed such a thing to her and she had a soap in her hand and was rubbing it on my chest, each time she swiped down and made contact with the water, some of it splashed up towards my neck. The light in the bathroom was faint as if they didn’t want you to see the picture clearly, maybe if you saw yourself, saw her, you’d think twice and the guilt would make you leave. 

I had to try and remember how I got there which meant I had to look back in my past which meant Barry was waiting for me. His face filled with blood, his eyes straining against his sockets threatening to pop out any moment, saliva coming out of his mouth, clawing the dirt, trying to come at me.

No that was not today. Today was my day. They said they wanted to welcome home the hero so they threw a party for me at the community hall and invited everyone I knew and most people there were people I didn’t know. Mother and father were there, I knew them but they didn’t know me anymore. I remember shaking my father’s hand and thinking how weak he had gotten in the past two years. It was like two decades had gone by since I saw that very same hand waving goodbye at the station. Mother was a crying mess and I remember father had to tell her to stop crying on my uniform. I told her it all right, just as the woman told me it’s all right. What’s the difference between me saying it and her saying it? We both probably didn’t mean it. It was just a thing you said.

Before all of that, I remember being alone in the taxi cab that had picked me up from that station and I told the man to stop by a store. The man working knew me but I didn’t know him. He shook my hand and said it’s all on the house. I took him up on the offer but wanted to crack him over the head with the whiskey when he called me a hero.

The driver and I almost finished that whole bottle before we got to the community center. Before I saw mother and father I saw my sister. She was waiting outside the hall, the snow was falling on her as she blew out a mix of cigarette smoke and the mist from her own breath. She tried to hide the cigarette from me when she saw me get out of the car. She was with her new husband, Stephen, who was an old friend of mine who was probably an acquaintance now that it had been two decades or two years or two minutes since I had seen him.

“You’re late mister,” my little sister, Mary, said and she started to cry on my chest, a little higher to where my mother would soon be crying for Mary had grown in the time I was away.

She went inside to tell mother and father that I was here. I was standing outside in the snow with Stephen who was telling me that he and some of the guys were planning on going out tonight and that I was coming with them and he made a joke about how he wouldn’t take a no for an answer.

“You gonna finish that?” I asked him. He had a drink in his hand which I threw back in a second and wiped my mouth with the sleeve of my uniform before heading through the doors.

“Come right in here General,” the woman said, “and take off your boots.” I took them off and then the socks. The bathroom tiles were cold and the tap squealed as the rush of water drained into the white tub.

She insisted on undressing me. First taking off my coat and hanging it over the bathroom door. She proceeded to untie my tie and unbutton my buttoned shirt. Both went over the coat and I wanted to tell her that’s not how the uniform is meant to be put away but the soft touch of her lips made me forget everything I was thinking. She twirled her finger around the crisscrossed pattern of the shrapnel scar left on my arm and she asked if it hurt when I got it and I nodded.

“Hurt like hell,” I said.

She got on her knees and began tugging on my belt and I told her I could do the rest but she batted my hand away.

“Not every day do you get to service a hero,” she said smiling and for a moment her red lips reminded me of Jessica Owens and I asked her if she was Jessica for the days’ liquor had clouded my mind worse than it normally was. She said she can be whoever I liked.

Did I tell you about Jessica? She was at the party and she wore a tight dress that showed her figure and she had bright red lipstick on. I knew the moment I saw her that she would be mine. I don’t mean it in an arrogant way it was just that this party was for me and everyone was calling me a hero and I even had some patches stitched into my uniform which I could make out to be anything I wanted cause none of them knew anything about it or anything about me. My mother had even brought my medal which the army had sent home. Of course, she was going to be mine. I don’t mind remembering her as long as Barry doesn’t come. Her memories are all good, her plump breasts in my hands, her wet lips, her tongue and my tongue, the sound of the jazz music coming from the hall as the two of us were lost within each other in her car. But doesn’t every good thing come to an end? If I remember such a thing then it must mean it didn’t end well so I guess I take back what I said earlier about how I don’t mind remembering her. If only she could have kept her hands on my face or on my neck but she knew I was hers the moment she saw me and it was probably in an arrogant manner. When she tried to get me, really get me, I wasn’t there, it wouldn’t work, it hadn’t worked for a while, and I tried telling her it wasn’t her fault and that I was just too drunk but I could tell by her look that I had let her slip by and that she no longer had me, that she knew me better then anyone knew me at that time.

“I never slept with a hero before,” the woman was saying, “the closest I ever got was this one man who said he saved his nephew from a fire but I don’t believe him.”

“I’m not a hero,”

“Of course you are dear.”

“No. No. No.”

“Don’t be so stubborn,” She felt his scar on his back this time, “proof right here. Here too,” she touched my arm.

“I’m just a coward.”

“You’re friends told me that you’re a general or something,”

“Captain,”

“Well, would they make a coward a captain?”

“They did.”

“Here sit up straight so I can wash you’re back.”

They were there too. Sitting by themselves in the corner of the room as if they had been set there on purpose so people didn’t accidentally see them and have to remember their pain. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of them and I had to go say something.

Barry’s father stood up to embrace me and I felt his care in that hug and if I wasn’t so shameless I would have broken down and started to cry but I kept my illusion going for a bit longer.

“What are you planning on doing now?” He asked as I joined them making sure they couldn’t look me in my eyes cause I heard they can’t lie.

“I haven’t thought much about it, sir.”

“I hope you’re still reading,” Mr. Andrews had once been my English teacher in another lifetime.

“I’m afraid I have fallen behind. But I’ll do so now.”

“That’s understandable. You always had the eye for a good sentence.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Barry wanted to be a fireman.” Mrs. Andrews said softly.

“Yes dear, he did,” Mr. Andrews gently patted her hand. Was that love?

“He would have been a good one too,” she said, “you know he was given a medal for his service.” 

“I know ma’am.”

“Was he a good soldier?”

“Come on dear. Don’t ask such things,”

“I just…wanted to know…”

Mr. Andrews took a deep breath and asked me how the roads were coming here and I told them they were fine.

“Is it still snowing?” 

“Yes, sir.”

“Maybe we should leave before the roads get any worse,” Mrs. Andrews said.

“Would you mind walking us out to our car? I imagine those stairs are awfully slippery and Martha with her hip…”

“It’s not a problem,” I stood up, without looking at Mrs. Andrews he helped her to her feet and the old woman clutched to my right arm as we walked together.

“You know we always liked you, son.” Mr. Andrews said. “Barry did too.”

I didn’t think there was a worse insult than being called a hero but now I heard it. What’s worse than being called a son?

“When we heard that you were coming back we were so happy. Tell him, dear. We were happy weren’t we?”

“Very happy,” Mr. Andrews said.

I helped Mrs. Andrews down the steps and over the sidewalk and the wet parking lot floor to their black Volvo.

“We are your family too okay? Don’t forget that,” Mr. Andrews said through the open window of his driver’s seat. “I will make you a reading list.”

“Yes, sir.”

I think it was just minutes after that I was groping Jessica Owens.

This woman was asking me if I wanted to go to bed now.

“You remember Barry?” I asked her.

“Of course dear,” she played along.

“I saw him die,”

“Well, that doesn’t make you a coward.”

“I saw him die because I was too cowardly to die myself. I took his, no I stole his mask I had to please believe me I had to. The gas was coming and he was going to die anyway. He had been hit in the stomach and in the leg and maybe the shoulder too. He was going to die anyway but why should I die too? Please understand. We needed the masks and Barry had one. He was going to die anyway. Why should I die too? I took his. He begged, I begged, he begged for his life and I begged for my own and he was hurt, bleeding badly. I took the mask from him and he crawled towards me and I crawled away from him and he clawed at my boot and I kicked him away. I should have shot him but I am a coward. He was going to die anyway he was bleeding worse now. He scratched open his throat and I see it, at night I see it again I see it ever since. Make him go away.”

The water was cold and the woman had left long ago. I was alone. My knees were by my chest and my arms wrapped around it a babe lost and scared looking for his mother waiting for her to return.

I got out of the bath and dried himself. I got dressed and left the money on the dressing table for the woman was asleep in the bed. Snow fell on the brim of my officer’s hat and on my uniform. The church bells rang. That’s when I came here to confess to you but you aren’t here. No one is. Just me and Barry. What I wish for is that whiskey bottle that I left in the taxicab for the driver that way I could be alone.