The falling snow slowly drifted side to side with the help of the wind, coming to a halt on the ground where it first covered the footprints of men, women, and children that had gone before him and after that, it melted, wetting the stairs which he climbed towards the open doors of the Branchwood community center.
Once inside he handed his coat to the boy working at the front desk who quickly went in the back and through the glass window in the wall, he saw the boy deposit his coat into a locker and came back with a red slip in his hand with the number twenty-two written on it. He thanked the boy who stared at his uniform and the patches on his right arm with wide eyes barely acknowledging his words for the uniform spoke louder.
The boy said ‘you’re welcome, sir.’
As he stepped through the main door of the hall, his ears were filled with the sound of drums and a saxophone and the deep voice of the man singing in the corner of the room. No one was on the dance floor yet except for little children dressed in their Sunday best. They looked like little grown-ups and not by their choice. The open hall was lit by the various chandeliers and also by candlelight, one candle placed in the center of every table around which people gathered, drinking and conversing.
Before he could take another step into the hall a hand reached out towards him and he shook it. The man introduced himself but he quickly forgot the name. He was mesmerized for a moment by the man’s thick grey mustache as he thanked him for his service and said something about how proud he had made them all. The attention drawn by the mustached man caused a small queue of people to quickly surrounded him. Some of them wrapping their arms around his shoulders as if they were long-lost friends but his friends were all long lost. He looked over the head of the little black-haired man who owned the butcher shop to see where his mother and father were. He spotted them standing beside the Mr. Felmond the president of the community. They saw him and waved. His mother’s tiny hands were kept warm by the gloves, she always suffered badly during the winter.
He excused himself from the others who were still surrounding him and made directly for his parents. Before he could get to them, he found his path blocked once again and this time the touch was gentler and the perfumed scent of cherry wood brought back memories of his sister and he remembered he had one and he embraced the woman tighter.
“How have you been?” He asked her as he took her in. She wasn’t a girl anymore but to him, she was too him. She wiped her eyes, green like those shattered trees broken into pieces by bullets and artillery, their evergreen branches sticking out of the snow-covered crowd, limbs of wood, limbs of flesh and the green of the trees reminded him of his sisters eyes at first but slowly he had forgotten those eyes and now they were staring into his own. She mumbled something trying her best to hold back her tears and he simply nodded as if he understood her. He hugged her again and together they went up to their parents.
“Oh!” he heard his mother say before she buried her head in his chest.
“Let me get a good look at him.” His father said and his mother reluctantly let go. “You’re a man know aren’t you. Look at you.” His father studied him from head to toe as his mother and sister stood side by side. He wore the black boots that were given to him when he first entered the service, they were only to be worn during special occasions which came far and few during the war but now that was all he wore because ever since the war ended he had been chaperoned from one dinner to the next. His pants were simple and navy colored with no a crease on them for he had ironed them himself and under his uniform, he wore a button up that was too big for him and the coat was too big around his shoulders as well. He stood with his hands behind his back holding his officer’s hat, his thumb tracing the brim of the cap, his hair neatly parted to one side. He tried his best to smile and for once he didn’t find it difficult for his father and mother were there in front of him. His sister was taller than his mother now, he had missed so much. His father grabbed his shoulders and squeezed them, the man was old but his grip was still strong and his father laughed, as his eyes grew brighter. He looked away and wiped his eyes.
“He’s a man know.” He said again this time to his mother who nodded in agreement. “It’s good to have you back.” The two of them shook hands awkwardly. He hadn’t known his father to be emotional. When he left for Europe three years ago his father had shaken his hand then too and told him he was proud of him. It was the first time he had heard his father say those words.
“You made us all proud.” He said as he let go of his hand.
It was Mr. Felmond’s turn now to touch the man of the hour. He had turned to expect a handshake but instead found Mr. Felmond’s arms wrapped around him.
“Welcome home, welcome home.” Mr. Felmond said. “You look too thin. What were they feeding you over there.” He smiled looking around at his parents. “Don’t worry now, son, you’re going be begging us to stop feeding you by the time this nights over.”
He merely smiled and nodded. His throat was dry. The shot of whiskey he had in the car had left him desiring more and he could feel the weight of his flask in the inside of his uniform and also the letter. His father had never seen him drink so he felt guilty doing it in front of him. Even now, after all that he had been through, he could not gather the courage to reach inside of his uniform and take out the flask so he stood there as Mr. Felmond and his parents talked about how proud they were of him.
“Are you hungry?” His mother asked.
“I could eat.” He replied.
“I’ll show him where the food is,” his sister said driving her arm in between his right and holding him tightly in fear of losing him again and he liked that. She led him away from their parents and Mr. Felmond.
“That Felmond still talks too much.” He said and his sister laughed.
“Would you mind grabbing me a plate? I wished to listen to the music a little while. Its been too long.” She left as he sat down near the band. Even mediocre sounds sound wonderful once deprived of music. His ears were used to the shouts of his commanding officers, the untimely cries, loud claps that mimicked thunder, whistles that impersonated trains and the unsilenced silence.
He preferred the old man who sung now over anything he had ever heard. To him he was as good as it gets. He hoped that at night it would be this old man’s voice that meets him in his dreams but those hopes were shallow ones for he knew what awaited him when he closed his eyes.
He reached inside his uniform and turned his back to everyone that was looking at him. Watching the man play the saxophone he took a deep gulp of his flask and the whiskey washed down his throat and his thirst subsided for now. He put away the flask and closed his eyes momentarily. When he opened them again his sister was there with her green eyes and a plate of food and a cup of juice.
“I saw something very interesting while I was over there.” His sister said.
“What might that be?” If his father had said those words his mind would have jumped to the flask and he would have felt guilty having his father see him drink. His sister was different. She would understand but at the same time, he didn’t want her to see either.
“That Jessica Owens can’t keep her eyes off of you.” He slowly turned around and glanced at the table where four women sat in the center was Jessica Owens who quickly looked away when she saw him looking and then slowly brought her gaze back to him and hesitating for a moment before waving. He turned his back to her and went back to his food.
“What’s wrong?” His sister asked. “Go over there and talk to her.” He was used to taking orders but for once he didn’t have to follow them.
“What’s the point? Besides I’m not in the mood.”
“Not in the mood! I thought you liked her too.”
“That was years ago.”
“What’s so different now?”
He quickly drank his juice and stretched back watching the drummer play with his eyes closed as he saw through his fingers and the tips of the drumstick.
“Tell me about the war.”
His sister was leaning in towards him with her chin resting on the palm of her hand. “What did you see? How pretty was France? I always wanted to go there. Did you go to Paris? Is the Eiffel Tower like the pictures? I bet its even better in person right? I can’t wait to see it.” She stopped to take a breath and waited for his response.
“Only saw Paris briefly and yes the tower is better in person.”
“I’m so jealous. I wish I could have gone too.”
“I didn’t go there to see the sights.”
“I know but they were there. I bet you’ll never forget them.”
“No. I’ll never forget.”
He felt a hand on his shoulders and heard Stephen Cornberry’s voice. He shook hands with the man he had known before. Stephen lived on the same street as him when they were kids and the two had grown up together.
“It’s been too long.” Stephen took a seat beside him. “I’m sorry if I’m interrupting.”
“No, not all. You two catch, for now, I’ll have him later.” His sister said rising from her chair and leaving the two of them.
For a moment neither of them said anything.
“How have you been?” Stephen broke the silence.
“Good. And you?”
“Can’t complain. I work for a bank now you know, as an accountant.”
“Is it good money?”
“Can’t complain about that either.” He looked the same as he did before but just taller. Stephen adjusted his glasses and swiped the hair on his forehead to one side. “Man I wish I had a drink right about now.” He said.
He reached into his uniform and pulled out the metal flask and handed it to Stephen who let out a short laugh. “You always had the answers.” He said before undoing the top and taking a swig.
“Later some of us guys were going to go out. You should come along.” He took the flask from Stephen and looked to see where his father was and when he saw him talking to his sister he took a sip himself and put the flask back inside his pocket. “What do you say? It’ll be on me. I know you can’t turn down a free night.” He smiled and patted him on his leg as if the two knew each other.
“I’ll think about it.” He said.
They sat in silence. Stephen’s foot tapping along with the beat of the music. There were a few more people now on the dance floor and Jessica Owens was one of them. The two of them caught eyes once more, her eyes, her lips, her look, her hips, all calling him to come join her.
He looked away again.
“Heard about poor Barry. His parents are here somewhere.”
He clenched his jaw, watching the windows behind the drummer fog up, it looked like mist.
“What was he? 19? 20?”
“Terrible. So young. A good boy I guess, good man I should say.”
He stayed quiet.
“I always envied the two of you. Here I was sitting in a classroom while you and Barry had an adventure of a lifetime a real mans journey you know. Nothing like it can be duplicated from inside a four-walled room with some old man teaching you about numbers you know what I mean?”
“You’re braver than I’ll ever be that’s for sure. I could only dream of going over but you and Barry did.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Don’t call me brave.”
Stephen raised his eyebrows and sucked in his lips. “Whatever you wish.”
The music played and people talked and laughed around him and he watched the snow fall.
“How was it over there?” Stephen asked once the music stopped the players took a quick break to rest their hands and throats. A waiter brought them each a drink on a silver tray and the people dancing also rested their feet with a slight glisten of sweat on their foreheads and back of their necks. “I mean…how are you really doing?”
“Good. That’s good to hear. I met another veteran on a business trip not too long ago and to tell you the truth he seemed a bit off if you know what I mean. It was his eyes really. They were hollow. Drawn in. Lost.” He noticed Stephen was staring at the cloth that was spread over the table rather than looking at him. “Even the way he talked was different.”
“I’ve seen it too.” The same eyes stared back at him each morning. “It’s different now for them. For us. Things are different but they’ll get used to it.” Used to the beds and the food and the peaceful sounds of life.
“Yeah. Come out with us tonight then. Get back to the normal. We’ll show you how we do things now.” He patted him on the shoulder.
“I’ll think about it.” He said again.
“Anyways,” Stephen let out a belly full of air as he got to his feet, “have to make some time for the wife before we go out.” He said. “It was nice catching up and make sure you think about it okay?”
He nodded and the two shook hands and Stephen left.
The snow fell sideways now as the wind picked up causing it to slant away from him as he stood near the footsteps of the community center with his jacket unzipped so that his uniform was still visible in the middle. The smoke of his breath mixed with the smoke of the cigarette and together it drifted towards the dark skies before being cut through by the wind. The mist leaving him and not crawling, inching towards him. One thing he liked about the war was that at night he could see the stars. Standing outside now he couldn’t see anything but the pale that fell and the dark that blanketed them. He used to count the stars when he was on gunner duty at night. He would count them over and over again distracting his mind so that it would not hear the mercy cries of the soldier wounded in the middle. They cried not for help or rescue but for simple death.
He had gone over wishing that he would make it back with stories of grandeur. Then he wished to simply stay alive, then he was content with his passing as long as it was a quick death, then he prayed for a painful one and now for a simple one.
Beside his flask, he felt the letter he had written filled with false excuses of why he didn’t make it. But the look of disappointment on his mother’s face formed in his mind as he wrote the lies and he couldn’t bear to let her down. He had come after all but now he wished he hadn’t because each time he heard someone praise him he saw the suffocated face of Barry Andrews.
The door of the community center opened and he turned his head to see who it was and he found himself surprised to see Jessica Owens in her red dress the same as her lips and her black heels that clicked on the wet concrete the clicking soon stopped as she stepped on the thin layer of snow at top of the final step where he was standing smoking.
Am I interrupting?” She asked.
He let out smoke from the corner of his mouth away from her.
“No, ma’am. Just getting a little smoke. Would you like one?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t smoke.”
They stood there, as snow fell away from them neither talking both waiting for the other to say something. He just wanted to smoke in peace but even that was taken away from him.
“Aren’t you cold ma’am?” he said looking at her bare arms.
“Its Jessica. And no. Dancing always makes me hot.”
He nodded, confirming her statement.
“Can I ask you something?” She said.
“How come you didn’t come talk to me?”
He was glad that he had his coat on. His uniform would not have hidden the redness around his neck.
“Was I meant to?”
“I suppose not. I guess it must be difficult getting back into the norms of things because from what I know when a pretty girl smiles at you it usually means she wants to talk to you.”
“I’m sorry. I guess we’re talking now.”
“That we are. So, ask me how I’m doing. That’s the normal thing to do you know.”
“How are you doing?”
“Not well for a while but better now that I’ve finally got this man’s attention.”
He finished his smoke and dropped the last nub on the ground where she crushed it with the heel of her shoe.
“Aren’t you going to ask me to dance?”
“I’m not much of a dancer.”
“I can teach you.”
“I don’t want to be a burden.”
“Its nothing. I teach kids and I’m sure you’ll be easier than a five-year-old.”
“I think you’ll be surprised.”
She laughed. He managed to smile to and for once it didn’t feel forced.
“You know I am getting cold now.”
He made to take off his coat but she stopped him.
“No, it’s all right. I’ll be going inside now and I expect my dance Mr. hero.”
He didn’t say anything.
She leaned closer and kissed him on the cheek. She wiped the red lipstick stain left behind with the palm of her hand before walking back. The clicking sound returning and for a brief moment the muffled noises grew to coherent tones and the door closed and with it, the muffled sounds returned.
She was sitting with her friends and the band was playing a new song. Faster than the one before. He looked around for his mother and father. He spotted Stephens talking to a woman who he assumed was his wife. Beside them was a little boy, their son he thought. He found his sister with a group of girls chatting and drinking wine. At last, he spotted his mother and father. For the first time, his parents were alone. They were seated in the front of the hall under the bright lights of a chandelier eating steak by the candlelight. He was making his way towards his mother to let her know he wasn’t feeling well and that he had to leave when he heard his name called. He turned to see where the sound came from and when he did see, he felt his throat close up. Mr. Andrews called for him, and his wife Martha was there too. Without willing, his feet carried him towards the old married couple. Mr. Andrews’s white hair was neatly combed to the right and his black suspenders were visible underneath his white shirt over which he had his unbuttoned coat. His wife stared at him through her large glasses and Barry did too for the mother and son both shared the same blue eyes the ones that he saw the life fly out off but not the accusation. She had a sad smile on her face as she leaned on her walking stick having broken her hip a month before or so his mother told him over the mail.
“How are you?” Mr. Andrews asked as he sat down beside the tired couple. There was a dark ring underneath Mr. Andrews’s eyes.
“Very well sir.” He said staring at the flickering candle flame.
“Its good to see you again.”
“You too sir.”
“Samantha and Lenard must be so happy to have you back.”
From the corner of his eyes, he saw Mrs. Andrews raise her wrinkled hand to her face.
“What are you planning on doing now?”
“I haven’t thought much about it, sir.”
“I hope you’re still reading son.” He had once been his 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.”
“If you need anything you can always come to us.”
“Barry wanted to be a fireman.” Mrs. Andrews said softly.
“Yes dear. He did.”
“He would have been a good one too.”
“Yes dear. He would have.”
He swallowed hard the spit in his mouth and it hurt going down his dry throat. He wanted his flask and whatever was left inside.
“You know he was given a medal for his service.” Mrs. Andrews said proudly.
“I know ma’am.”
“Was he a good soldier?”
“Come on dear. Don’t ask such things.”
“I just…wanted to know.” He saw her raise her hand to her face again. Mr. Andrews took a deep breath and asked him how the roads were coming here and he told them they were fine.
“He was a good soldier and a brave one too ma’am.”
The elderly couple lamented over those words. He was sure they rather have the boy here with them and be called a coward instead of being buried in a nameless grave on some piece of dirt in France with a bravery tag to his name. But in the end, they had to find contentment somehow and if it made them content that their boy was a good and brave then so be it.
“Is it still snowing?” Mr. Andrews asked.
“Oh dear, 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.” He stood up and without looking at Mrs. Andrews he helped her to her feet and the old woman clutched to his right arm as she walked with her walker in the other. It was a motherly embrace he had known of it from his own mother and he dared not look at either one of them.
“You know we always liked you, son.” Mr. Andrews said. “Barry did too.”
He wished they would stop calling him son.
“When we heard that you were coming back we were so happy. Tell him, Martha. We were happy weren’t we?”
“Yes dear, very happy.”
The elderly couple got their winter coats from the front desk. The wind was harsher now and he carefully helped Mrs. Andrews down the steps and over the slippery sidewalk and the wet parking lot floor to their black Volvo.
“Be sure to come by now.” Mrs. Andrews said squeezing his hand and he stared at the black shinning concrete ground and nodded.
“We are your family too okay? Don’t forget that.” Mr. Andrews said through the open window of his driver’s seat. “Come by anytime.”
“Did you hear dear he said Barry was a good soldier and brave too.” He heard Mrs. Andrews say once the old couple was inside.
His neatly combed hair was stuck to his head as the melting snow lay wet on it and he could not feel the tips of his fingers or the top of his ears for the cold came harshly now that his mind was no longer concerned about the old couple. He reached into his uniform for warmth and found it as his hands wrapped around the cold metal of the flask and the warmth spread through his mouth down his throat and reached even as far his toes as he placed the empty flask back in his uniform. He felt the letter beside it and took it out. Here was the clear evidence of his cowardice. The reason why the medals that were given to him or the officer’s cap did not belong to him. Why bravery was a term left for the dead for the likes of Barry Andrews. He crumpled the page in his fist and threw it aside and watched it get wet as the snow fell on it.
He made his way back up the concrete steps, wet and slippery so he had to use the railing to carefully climb them. He wanted to tell everyone what had actually happened. What he had actually done over there. He had to tell someone.
As climbed the last step the hall doors opened.
“Oh, here you are, my man, we been looking for you,” Stephen said putting his arm around his shoulder. “Did you think about it yet? We’re all going now. Come on man, join us.”
He looked at the faces of the other two men who were with Stephen and he knew the men but he could not remember their names.
“It’ll be like old times. You, me, Abe and Marshall together again. Just come and have a drink with us.”
Abraham Donovan was a tall man with broad shoulders and his tie was loosely hanging around his neck. “We won’t take no for answer.” He said smiling his toothless smile. The front tooth knocked out when he was thirteen and he broke his fall with his mouth outside of Stephen’s house. Since than Abraham had left it broken because he preferred the way he looked in the mirror.
Marshall Hannigan, on the other hand, had his shirt neatly tucked and his tie properly worn and he took off his glasses and wiped them using the brim of his overcoat and put them back on his face. “What do you say? Old times sake.”
“Hell Marsh is even coming and you have no idea how hard it is now to get this old man out of his house. Or should I say his wives house.” Stephen and Abraham laughed and before he knew it he was walking back down the steps that he had so carefully climbed moments before along with the three men.
“I should tell someone that I’m leaving.”
“I already told Anne,” Stephen said. “She said to take it easy on her brother and I told her I can’t promise nothing. So don’t worry about it.”
He was trapped. On one side Stephen held his arm and on the other Abraham. Marshall led the way down the sidewalk as snow swooped sideways crashing into the side of their faces and all of them walked with their heads tucked slightly looking to their right. Marshall flagged down a cab and they all jumped inside. Marshall sat in the front beside the driver and told him where to go.
“Things have changed mighty since you left,” Abraham said when he asked them where they were going. “We’ll take you to a nice little spot a bit outside the town. Don’t worry. It’s great.” He winked at Stephen who smiled and looked outside.
“Tell us something then, how many Germans did you kill?” Abraham asked.
“Don’t ask him things like that,” Marshall said from the front seat.
“I don’t know.” He answered.
“But you killed some right?”
“I guess so.”
“Goddammit, I knew I should have gone too. You got no clue how boring this town is.”
“And you got no clue how horrible war is,” Stephen said.
“And you do?” Abraham said.
“No, but I’m no fool either. Hell, I rather be here than be there. Don’t be delusional Abe because if you went there you wouldn’t be here.”
“Enough about that already,” Marshall said.
“You’re right. Instead of asking him about killing we should really be asking him about the French women.” Stephen nudged in the side with his elbow. “Are they as beautiful as the pictures?”
“Depends on the picture.”
“HA!” Abe slapped him on the knee “there’s the old boy we knew. You still go it.”
“They must have been throwing themselves at your feet. Hero from far away lands come here to save them and all.”
“It was nothing like that.”
Stephen failed to hear him. “You’re a lucky dog, my man. If only we had what you and Barry…”
The cab fell silent and the slight patter of wet snow hitting the windows could be heard.
Abraham cleared his throat and asked him if he saw Barry pass and Marshall protested once more to Abraham’s questions.
“I did.” He said.
“Was it peaceful at least?”
“It was not.”
“Yeah.” Abraham shook his big head. “We read about Ypres. The gas. How awful. Damn those German bastards.”
Stephen mumbled something that sounded like what Abraham had just said.
“I have killed only one man who I know of and probably others too but with all the shells flying I could never be sure if it was my shot or someone else’s that made the boys across from me fall. Damn the Germans but they were no different from Barry and I and damn them and damn us and damn the whole thing.”
“I hear that,” Abraham said looking out through the dark window.
“You think much about what’ll you do now that the wars over and done with?” Marshall asked.
“We’re always looking for new workers at the mill,” Abraham said.
“I don’t think I’m much suited for that.”
“Come work with me at the bank,” Stephen said. “Good job. Good pay. Respectable. Besides I’m sure I can get you in.”
“No one is going to deny a veteran. Once I tell Mr. Pressfield everything you did overseas and your promotions and the medals you won I’m sure he’ll be begging me to get you.”
“Yeah? I’ll think about it.”
In flashes came the memories of that night as he climbed the wooden staircase led by a woman who held his hand. Everywhere he went they told the bartender who he was and what he had done and they were all given drinks on the house. He had failed to take out his wallet at all the whole night as the other men at the bars offered to buy him shots and he could not refuse the offers for it helped him forget why they were buying him the drinks.
The woman smelled nice and he heard others downstairs talking. They came upon a hallway and he passed a door that was still ajar and he saw Abraham inside it with another woman. He felt hot. Snow fell as he passed a darkened window. He saw himself taking his uniform off to show the shrapnel scars on his left arm to a group of men crowded around the dim light of the Irish pub. That had gotten him enough drinks to forget that he had ever stepped foot in France.
Whatever this place was it smelled heavily of perfume so much so as if it too was hiding its true scent, masking it with a false aroma. He heard Stephen voice through a closed-door and he called out for his acquaintance. Right in here, sweetie, he heard the woman tell him and he followed her hips inside the room. I need to take a bath he told her and she made no protest as if she had been asked such services before. That’ll be extra she said and he didn’t know why a simple bath in his home would cost him money but the headache erased any thoughts of protest.
“Come right in here General,” the woman said, “and take off your boots.” He took them off and then his socks and he felt the coldness of the bathroom tiles and he heard the tap squeal and rush of water drain into a white tub.
She undressed him. First taking off his uniform coat and hanging it over the bathroom door. After, she proceeded to untie his tie and unbutton his buttoned shirt. Both went over the coat and he wanted to tell her that’s not how his uniform is meant to be put away but the soft touch of her lips on his made him forget everything he was thinking. She twirled her finger around the crisscrossed pattern of the shrapnel scar left on his arm and she asked if it hurt when he got it and he nodded. Very much he said. She got on her knees and began tugging on his belt and he told her he could do the rest but she batted his hand away. Not every day do you get to service a war hero she said smiling and for a moment her red lips reminded him of Jessica Owens and he asked her if she was Jessica and she said she can be whoever he liked. He asked her if she can be his mother and she hesitated before replying. I didn’t take you for a man with such requests but can’t say I haven’t had that one before she said. Mother, he called out for her, as he stood bare in the middle of the bathroom. He looked himself in the mirror and noticed how frail he looked. He held his mother’s hand as he carefully stepped into the bathwater that was lukewarm and slightly steaming. The warmth spread this time from his toes to his neck as he submerged himself up to his ears. Mist rose from the bath. He saw the red lips moving but only heard muffled noises until he sat up.
“I never slept with a hero before. The closest I ever got was this one man who said he saved his nephew from a fire but I don’t believe him.” His mother stroked back his hair.
“I’m not a hero, mother.”
“Of course you are dear. You’re mommy’s little hero.”
“No. No. No.”
“Don’t be so stubborn. Of course, my boy is a hero.” She felt his scar on his back this time. “Proof right here. Here too.” She touched his arm.
“No. No. No.” He shook his head each time. “I’m just a coward, mother.”
“You’re friends told me that you’re a general or something.”
“Well, would they make a coward a captain?”
“Here sit up straight so I can wash you’re back.”
He did what his mother asked him.
“I need to talk to God.”
“What’s that dear?”
“I have to talk to someone. Make a confession of my cowardice.”
“There’s a Church not far from here. The old Priest comes in here every now and then trying to save our souls as he puts it.” His mother 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 his back. Soft hands for what she was. The hands moved up his back and caressed his neck.
“I hope he comes. I must confess.”
“Confess to me, dear. I am your mother you know.” He tilted his head back and saw her red lips grow as she bent down to kiss his forehead.
“Tell me what you wish to tell God.”
“You remember Barry, mother?”
“Of course dear.”
“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 mist was coming and he was going to die anyway. A had been struck in the stomach and in the leg and maybe the shoulder too. He was going to die anyways but why should I die too? Those bastards shot my gas mask and forced me to do it. Please understand. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. But the mist was coming. We needed the masks and Barry had one. He was going to die anyway. Why should I die too? I took his. I pried it from his hands. He begged, mother, he begged for his life and I begged for my own and he was hurt, bleeding bad, the green around us stained with his blood he was going to die anyways mother please believe me. 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. He kept staring at me as the mist came towards us and he still stares at me at night and I need God’s forgiveness to make those blue eyes close and the pain behind them go away, I need him like Barry needed that mask when the mist took us. Those pained eyes grew larger still and he clawed at his throat this time trying to breathe. I should have shot him but remember, mother, I am a coward. Useless. He was going to die anyway he was bleeding worse now. He scratched open his throat and I see it mother, at night I see it again I see it ever since. He talks to me each night but he can’t talk no more for his throat is closed from the chemicals but his eyes talk still. Disappointed. Coward. Murderer. They call me but he was going to die anyway, mother. Please. Make him go away.”
The water was cold and his mother had left him long ago. He was alone with the sound of his tears dripping into the puddle of water his drip creating a small ripple that he watched grow and disappear just for another one to take its place. His knees were stuck to his chest and his arms wrapped around it a babe lost and scared looking for his mother waiting for her to return.
Outside the snow drifted silently with the dead wind gone. It buried the pathways and the roads and the prints of those that came before. A fresh blanket but underneath it was the same grey streets.
He got out of the bath and dried himself. He got dressed and left the money on the dressing table for the woman was asleep in the bed. The church bells rang. Snow fell on the brim of his officer’s hat and on his uniform and he walked until the sound of the bells died away. There would be no sleep tonight but he hoped for some one day.