I watched the man trudging down the lane and then realized there was something familiar about him. By the time he got to where I could see his face I knew. And by the time he got to the gate I was scared but determined not to show it.
I walked down the steps and out to meet him, he on one side of the gate and me on the other. “Sol. What are you doing here?”
A bitter, half-angry “I’m asking myself that.” was my answer.
There was something on his face I couldn’t put a name to. There wasn’t just anger there but several conflicting emotions.
“Do you know how much time I’ve wasted trying to find you?” he snapped.
Shaking my head I said, “I don’t know why you would. You signed them papers.” To further make my point and forestall any attempts he might make I reminded him, “And you uncle did too.”
It was almost like he didn’t hear me. “I stopped a half dozen places trying to get information on where you had gone, even the Seed and Feed. No one said anything. Mrs. Heflin even chased me off her porch with a broom. That’s the way it was every time; I was treated cold or like trash someone had forgotten to take out. That, even if no one else would, told me you’d at least been around long enough to spread you side of the story.”
I sighed, suddenly realizing what a vain boy Sol had been and what a self-centered man he was growing into being. I asked again, “Sol, why are you here?”
Again he seemed to ignore me. “It wasn’t until I ran across Cindy as she was walking home that I learned the truth.”
I snorted. “Cindy doesn’t seem to know the truth when it slaps her in the face so I don’t know how she’s supposed to reveal it to you.”
In a nasty voice he said, “You certainly did land on your feet. Some ‘housekeeping’ job. You know, if you had stayed at least you wouldn’t have had to do chores like a twice-owned slave to pay your way.”
I was feeling most unladylike but I’d learned a thing or three watching Aunt Adona. I gave him a good ol’ Pappas stare, all covered in ice, and I must have done it pretty well too ‘cause he started fidgeting and couldn’t meet my gaze.
He switched tactics trying to put me on the defensive. In a plaintive voice he said, “I come all this way to see you and you haven’t even asked how I’ve been.”
“You seemed to be doing just fine last time I saw you,” I answered him, refusing to rise to the bait.
He shuddered but I had the sense that it wasn’t a completely fake one. “You don’t know what my life is like.”
“It’s the one you chose. How is Shantelle by the way?”I said asking my own question.
That sparked a bit of defensive anger. “Fine. Beautiful. She knows everyone and is in high demand due to her manners and personality. She dresses pretty, just for me, wears perfume because she knows it pleases me, and doesn’t go around acting and smelling like a field hand.” That last was obviously for my benefit and it sparked a bit of my own anger.
“No I don’t imagine so. She would probably freak at making an honest amount of sweat. Bet that perfume she has to wear is really to keep from smelling all the manure you dish out. Probably makes her smell like a two dollar whore.”
He snarled, “God you are so common. And fat. I don’t know what I ever saw in you.”
“I’m fat for a reason you idiot. At least the me you were seeing back then was real and honest. You were just play acting. I saw what you wanted me to see. And like a fool I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.”
“And I broke your heart.” He tried to look sorry and contrite but by the catch of his breath and the look in his eyes I saw him as too eager for the confirmation, like he needed it to be true to prove something if to no one else but himself.
Well I wouldn’t lie so I shrugged and said, “Maybe so. But then Dino Pappas mended it. Not just by being man enough to marry me before bedding me, but by being the man you never will be period.” He jumped like I’d slapped him. “Now for the last time Sol Bly, why are you here?”
He looked like he wanted to jump the gate and do me some damage, enough so that my hand went into my pocket where the comforting feel of my old pistol eased my mind. Sol was many things but forgetful wasn’t one of them. He knew what I carried. He knew I was better and faster than him. And he knew I wasn’t afraid to use it.
“I’m here,” he ground out. “Because Hannah and Mom wouldn’t leave me alone about it, not that you’ve asked about them at all. You’re so selfish. It got to the point even Shantelle and Uncle Bill told me to take care of it just to shut them up.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. Suspiciously I asked, “Take care of what exactly?”
Mocking me he said, “Harry, exactly.”
“What about Harry?” I demanded now that we were getting down to business.
“Geez you are so ignorant and clueless. You’ll never be anything but a white trash hick. Here,” he said throwing a manila envelope at me and then turned and walked away.
Ignoring the envelope I rushed to push the gate open and called after him, “Wait! What about Harry?!”
Taking off in a gallop to reach the car he called back, “You’ll figure it out. Hope you enjoy it as much as we did.”
He peeled out so fast he threw gravel that peppered the fence and fish tailed, barely making it across the gully bridge. He was there and gone in such a way that I would have wondered at him being a figment of my indigestion except for the brown envelope on the ground.
I bent to pick it up and nearly fell on my head. I thought to call Kerry to do it for me but I wasn’t ready for explanations and when he went to come out I waved him back inside and told him to give me a few minutes to collect my thoughts. I held the envelope with two fingers by its corner as I got myself seated in a chair on the porch.
I looked at the thing I held, bitterly uncertain whether I wanted to know what was inside. But surely if it was from Harry I was just over reacting. Certainly whatever it was had angered Sol. But why would Hannah and Mrs. Bly have gotten involved?
I’d never know unless I opened the flaming thing so I shook off my confusion and did just that. A note, a letter with my name on it, and a pile of stapled papers fell out. I decided to handle them shortest to longest. The note was from Mrs. Bly.
“Damaris, I believe Hanna and I have finally convinced Sol to do the right thing. Harry was so insistent last time we talked. I would have come myself but Bill says the roads are much too dangerous these days and we really aren’t sure where you are. All Harry would say is ask our old neighbors. I know you feel you are doing the best you can but please reconsider. Part of me understands, really I do. It has just been one shock after another since my dear husband left me a widow. But in my heart, a piece of paper doesn’t change the fact that the baby is my grandchild. And now that seems even more important.”
It was an odd note that told me nothing beyond Harry wanted something but hadn’t told her where to find me.
I picked up the envelope with the letter inside, slit it open, and took out the sheets of lined paper. The pages were smudged and the handwriting worse than normal but it was definitely from Harry.
Hey Riss, if you are reading this then maybe there is some hope for my brother after all. Or maybe my second line of offense kicked in and Mom and Hannah got him to do it. I hope it is the first but accept if it is the second. I heard what you did and don’t blame you. Just think on the rest of what I said. I think it still matters if that means anything.
You’re probably wondering why you haven’t heard from me. There’s been a lot going on. It is only recently that I’ve got up the strength and the nerve to tell you.
Your man was right. I wound up seeing things no one wants to see. It all came so fast I couldn’t take it in except in flashes. And I had to do things I still don’t want to talk about. Me and my buddies – those men who watched my back like I watched theirs – did the work we had to. It was hard work and most of the time could mean our lives. And those in between times when we weren’t working we were playing hard, ‘cause in a way that could mean our lives too. The days just got away from me and every time I meant to write … well I just didn’t. Mostly I didn’t know what to say or how to say it so you’d understand.
There’s a new thing that the enemy does to us, a terrible thing. They’ll strap explosives on a young child, sometimes even a baby that isn’t out of its basket yet, and then when someone goes to help they’ll detonate a bomb by remote control.
As bitter as it is we’ve had to learn if we don’t shoot the kid fast enough the bomb winds up killing a lot of people … and sometimes it does anyway. But even if you don’t get killed some part of you dies just from seeing what this war is creating. A lot of guys who have pulled the trigger on a kid wind up eventually pulling the trigger on themselves.
We were at the canteen having just come back from patrol. It had been a hard slog but we all got back in one piece which called for a celebration. We hadn’t even had time to clean up but most of the weapons were stacked over in the rack used for that purpose. Only a few of us still had our side arms on.
No one I heard talking afterwards seemed to know how the kid even got on post. No kids were allowed beyond the outer fence anymore and there were two more fences passed that they would have had to get through too. It was like suddenly he was just there.
I still remember exactly what he looked like standing there in the doorway; hair so black the light didn’t seem to reach it, eyes so dark they looked like bottomless pits of despair. He was crying and snot was running out of his nose and over his lips. A camel fly buzzed and landed in it for a second. The vest was strapped tight across a tunic that had worked its way up and showed he wasn’t wearing a nappie under it though he was still young enough to need one.
It was the unexpected arrival of the kid that drew most every eye but it was the vest that a few of us saw. God forgive me Riss ‘cause I don’t know if I can. I was the only one standing close enough to have a clear shot that was still armed. All I thought was I didn’t want to die. I shot that little kid, almost point blank. I blew his little body right out of the canteen, but it was too late.
I’m ruined Riss, mind and body. There isn’t enough of me left to do much with. Better to have died over there than be left like this. I don’t know why I didn’t, I was triaged and everything. I think I remember begging at one point for them to let me go.
But somehow here I am. Lying in a bed in the VA hospital taking up room that another man could make better use of. They keeping telling me not to give up, that there’s all kinds of therapy and prosthetics these days; that lots of men lead normal lives, contribute to society, have families.
Well I ain’t never gonna make a family that’s for dang sure. And I don’t have enough left on one side to attach a prosthetic to and what there is they keep shaving off trying to stop the infection. Finally got an old army nurse that had seen real action himself to sit down and tell me the truth.
I’m gonna have to break that promise Riss. I didn’t go over there meaning to never see your baby in this life but it looks like that is the way it is going to be. The infection’s in my blood now. I’m already starting to feel weaker and the pain medicine ain’t making as much difference as it used to.
But I’m still of sound mind so I had the Chaplain help me work up some papers. I’m not sure if they’ll ever be of any use but I want you to have them just in case. I also told Sol exactly the way I saw what he did and how dad would have seen it too had he lived. I forgave him but I haven’t got enough time left to me to forget.
By the time you read this …
I didn’t get any further. A curiously freezing sensation had encased my chest but with those words it was like a volcano had ruptured the ice and the steam from the explosion escaped out of my throat in a scream the likes of which I never hope to make again.
The power of it threw me onto the wooden floor of the porch. I couldn’t breathe. The scream had turned to great air-stealing sobs. I vaguely heard Kerry calling to me over and over but God help me I couldn’t respond. Then a kind of blackness engulfed me. The only thing that existed was the pain of my breaking heart.
I had thought I was done with that; or at least done with it for a long, long time, until age and wisdom could take the sharp edges off when I had to feel it again. Over and over it seemed that those I loved got stripped away and sent on ahead without me and here I was left behind again. I’d already lost one brother, why did God have to take the new one he’d sent to ease the pain of that loss?
Then it wasn’t just my heart breaking. There was a great gush and in no time I was laying there shivering as the water that had not but a second before encased my baby cooled below body temperature.