Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Return

Flash Fiction Challenge 2010: Challenge #2, Round 1
Genre: Historical Fiction
Location: A Farm
Object: A Diamond

1,000 word limit


It is the reason for this journey and an impossible weight in my pocket.
I imagine it pulling at the straight line of my uniform, casting a tilt to my bearing that I work to compensate with the duffel bag gripped in my left hand. Groups of anxious-looking people, mostly women, cluster on the platform, watching, waiting, and hoping. Discarded newspapers litter the ground, the headline of one reading: Soviets Surround Berlin.
It is nearing an end, this war. And it has taken so much from so many.
I stifle a grimace, dropping the duffel bag to return the salute with my left hand. It doesn’t feel natural. I doubt it ever will.
“Help you with your bag, Sir?”
The snap of his hand is crisp and he works to keep his eyes at a point over my right shoulder.
“No thanks, Sergeant.” I bend, slipping my hand through the well-worn canvass handles and stand.
“Have a good trip home, Sir.”
I dismiss him with a tilt of my chin and continue down the platform. Steam erupts from the undercarriage of the train startling several waiting passengers. I continue on, unfazed. I feel dulled to the impact of the real world.
The morning light turns Army green to brown as I give the conductor my ticket, meeting his eyes briefly. He glances away from me as if it is impossible to look without pity. Punching my ticket, he grabs the duffel before I am able and tosses it effortlessly up the stairs. I grip the rail and cross the slight gap between platform and train, climbing the stairs and stepping into the passenger car.
The men in the car all hold the same expression of experience trapped in the faces too young to have lived so much. I tuck my hat beneath my left arm before retrieving my duffel. Without the cover, it isn’t necessary to salute and I am saved the awkward reminder that only part of me is coming home.
My soul stayed on Utah Beach. My right arm is in Carentan. And my heart never left Iowa.
I won’t get any of them back.
I toss the duffel on the top rack, then drop into my seat, patting my pocket. It is still there. Sighing, letting the noise of men slide into my background, I lean my forehead against the cool pane of the window and close my eyes.
“Mind if I sit, Captain?”
I don’t remember falling asleep, but the world outside my window is changing.
“Sir?” The voice is at my shoulder.
“No, no, it’s fine. Sit.” I nod to the seat across the way.
He sits and I feel my breath freeze in my lungs.
“You all right, there, Sir? Look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
He died in Carentan.
“What’s your name, Private?”
“O’Grady, Sir. James.” His grin is young but his eyes are ancient as he settles back in his seat.
“James.” My voice sounds strange in my ears. The name is wrong. “I knew a Private O’Grady.” I watch him for a moment. Watch his hands. “Did you have a brother?” It’s a bit forward, but I have to know. It’s as if the boy I let die was following me home.
He nods. “Robbie. He bought it in France about a year ago. Some German sniper bumped him off.”
I swallow and look toward the passing countryside.
“I knew him.”
“I was there,” I say. “In that barn.”
He sits forward, elbows on knees, and looks at me.
I slide my hand into my pocket, feeling it there. My fingers trace the edges and I think about this journey home. About the person who left her and the person returning. About the moment that changed me from one into the other.
“We retreated to a little farm outside of Carentan.” My voice is low. He leans closer. “O’Grady carried the BAR. The men needed it. But we got trapped in the barn.”
I see it now, outside the window of the train. I see the German uniforms crossing the barren field, plow furrows still buried in the empty earth behind the carcass of a horse. The farmhouse had been gutted, roof collapsed inside, walls still reaching in supplication.
“The sniper hit him as we took cover.”
Glancing down at the empty sleeve, I continue.
“I used the gasoline from his weapon to light the barn, thinking to keep them away.” I have to stop. Breathe. “The farmer stored ammo.”
His eyes track to my missing arm.
“You headed home, Captain?”
I look away again. “I think so.”
“Not me.”
I am surprised.
“We grew up on a farm. Robbie tell you that?”
I shake my head.
“Yeah. And he goes and dies on one. Ain’t gonna happen to me. I’m jumpin’ off at Chicago. Find me a dame. You got a dame, Captain?”
A small smile is my answer. He settles back against the seat. I think to do the same, but for a moment can’t look away.
“You did what you could, Captain.” In those words I hear forgiveness.
When I wake again, he is gone. At my stop I exit the now-empty car to an equally empty platform. No one knows I am returning. Shouldering the duffel, I begin to walk. It takes me three hours to reach her door.
I am no longer whole. I have only scars and time holding me together. When I was a different man, I wrote her, asking a question. A farm in France kept me from sending her the letter.
I slip my hand into my pocket as I hear the knob turn.
She stands in the open door, clear blue eyes pooling, face pale from shock. I pull the envelope from my pocket, my eyes catching on her hand as she gripped the door frame.
The diamond on her finger glints in the dying light.
I have my answer before she’s even able to read the question.