Terminal Contagion

Mortality casts its shadow jet black
at such dark times as these we’re living in.
My journey will end and I won’t come back,
probably lie on roadside, giving in.

I tried and tried to make my days brighter
to fend off the cause of this affliction.
But these dark clouds won’t let it be lighter,
erasing even my shadow depiction.

I caught this sickness when I was a kid
and it almost killed me and some others.
It’s contagious, and inside me it’s hid,
and can infect me, you and our brothers.

The virus in the news isn’t this disease.
It’s terminal hatred. Don’t succumb, please.

Always ~ Your Poet

I suppose I could try reaching out,
to inquire how you are.
I wonder about that too often,
more than from time to time.
But when I gather the courage
to extend my hand, I find my arms
grown shorter and my courage smaller
than they feel here in the dark.
But what if I could touch you?
Probably I’d feel your shoulder
twist away from this something
unexpected, unusual, unwanted.
So I send this soft bit of me with
unlimited reach, a near-anonymous
touch from my darkness to yours.
Hi, how are you? Thinking of you.
Always ~ Your Poet

1919

As Alice put another cold compress on Frankie’s forehead, I had my hand on her shoulder and felt it heaving up and down.

“Don’t cry, Alice,” I said. But when I looked in her eyes, they were dry. What I felt was not sobbing. She’d been suppressing her coughs, so she wouldn’t wake Frankie.

“It’s okay, honey. I’ll take over now,” I said.

“Thank you, Frank,“ Alice said, pressing her burning cheek to mine. As she left the room, I heard her cough…hard.

For a year, I’d seen buddies die in front of me, nearly ripped in half by German Maxim machine guns, wrong place/wrong time in an artillery barrage, and now a cold that killed in only a few days. I’d seen it France. I was told by some of the boys soldiers were dropping like flies at Fort Riley in Kansas. We slid more than twenty over the side of the Liberty ship bringing us home to the States. They told me it had hit New York City, too.

I was beginning to feel guilty about how some folks were saying we Doughboys brought the sickness back to America, this Spanish Influenza. I didn’t need that kind of help. War can make a guy feel guilty all on his own.

Frankie murmured something and started coughing, a weak, choking sound, so I propped him up a little more. But I knew even that wouldn’t help much.

I’d gone to France because I was drafted, not to make the world safe for democracy.

I fought there to take care of my buddies, but you can’t take care of someone vaporized by an 88mm shell dropped on his head.

I stayed alive to get home to Alice and Frankie, to see my boy grow up. To feel the warmth of my wife again. Tonight I felt feverish heat.

I heard the bed springs ring in the next room, then heard Alice cough again. And again. And again.

You feel so helpless at a time like this, no matter who you are or what you’ve experienced in life. How do you prepare for this? How do you prepare for dying by the hundreds and thousands? Or one at a time.

Frankie tried coughing again and he sounded like he was drowning and I could barely take it anymore. Such suffering for a kid. He opened his eyes and looked at me that same way. And that day broke through the thin crust I’d try to grow over the memory.

I saw that German kid in the middle of that shell hole again. It was full of water that had this yellow-green scum on top of it – the residue of their mustard gas. 

Me and my buddy Charlie Oakley had him covered with our Springfields and motioned for him to come out. But he wouldn’t. He just kept yelling – no, screaming – “Hilf mir, bitte.”

Then the boy, he wasn’t more than seventeen, I’d guess, he kind of fell over and his face went into the water. And he looked like he had shrunk by about a foot. He fell again and between the stagnant water in the shell hole and that Mustard residue, he started choking, drowning really.

Charlie said, “Shit, the kid’s stuck in there. Bottom of the hole must be all mud. I’ll fetch him.”

“Let him go, Charlie. He’s just another Kraut,” I said and spit into the water.

But Charlie was a preacher’s kid from North Carolina and it was obvious since all the way back in training at Fort Slocum that his mama raised him a real Christian gentleman.

Charlie slogged around to the far side of the crater and slid about halfway down. You could see how he was trying to figure out how he could reach the kid. 

“Hey, Frank, come over here. Hold my hand and I think I can grab this kid’s collar,” he said.

The mud in France is a living thing, you know, a monster that’ll suck your boots right off your feet and then eat your toes for dessert. As I clopped-plopped over to Charlie, the mud in that shell hole must have had enough of the German kid and it decided to try an American.

Charlie’s feet slid out from under him and, like on a sliding board, he flew out over the edge and fell flat on his back in that poison water and sticky mud. I ran over as fast as I could, but I couldn’t see him. I couldn’t see the German kid anymore, either.

“Charlie!” I screamed. I mean I screamed. Then I saw his head bob back above the water. But that was all I saw.

“Frank! Help me! I don’t want to die like this. Help me, buddy.” Then he went under again. 

He came back up, but all I could hear was this gurgling in his throat. His eyes were wild then they settled down. Just his face was above the water now. He stared at me like a yellow-green picture of Jesus in Gethsemane. Kind of pleading. And I knew what he wanted me to do.

I remembered what Jesus said that night. I looked into Charlie’s eyes and said, “Father, remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

Charlie sort of nodded and I raised my rifle and squeezed off the most difficult shot I ever took, even though my target was only seven feet away. Charlie disappeared, but the image of his face didn’t. Never will.

Frankie stirred again, shaking me out of this memory. I saw the whole thing in but a second or two. This time Frankie’s breath came like a fingernail swiped on a washboard. It sounded so much like guys who’d caught just enough gas to singe their throat and lungs, but not kill them. Not until they got to the hospital in Étaples. Then they’d get sick, dying there a day or two later. Fever. Lungs giving out.

Like Frankie’s did that night. Honest, they did. Alice lasted two more days. I’d been home three weeks and I can’t help but wonder. Did the influenza kill them or did the war?

Last night, I had that nightmare again where Frankie and Alice are neck-deep in the water and mud of that shell hole and pleading with me to save them. I raise my rifle, but just as i bring my rifle to my shoulder, I woke up. I eventually fell back asleep.

But then, a new dream. I hear the scream of that 88mm shell and it’s falling on top of me instead. I wake up and I realize it’s been me screaming. Again. But that 88mm falling on me? 

Oh, how I wish.

This story is a beefing up of a 250-word mini-flash I wrote for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads. That version won the week’s contest. This version is the first draft of a more complete study of war, PTSD, survivor’s guilt and a world-wide pandemic. Needless to say, it was in many ways inspired the coronavirus infecting folks worldwide. I just built around a similar illness from 100 years ago. 

Turning Back the Pages

The decisions we’ve made
have steered our lives
like some existential
“choose your own adventure” book
with its pages ablaze.
We flip them back in recall
and feel the sting of those
times we chose C instead of
A or B. But what if we hadn’t?
I’d probably still be jamming
my fingers in my mouth,
wincing with the pain
I’d feel about the pain
I caused, scanning
the scorched past through
blackened memories of
times when I thought
my light was bright enough
to decide C sparkled like
the sapphire or obsidian
in those eyes I misread,
too.

It’s Making Me Sick

I’ve reached that age where things start going south,
at each doc’s visit I say “You’re kidd’n’ me.”
I think, after she checks my ears and mouth,
“What this time? BP, Prostate or Kidney?”

But those are already on my long list,
and we’re trying hard to get them off it.
When they find something new, I try not being pissed,
but medicine’s become for-profit.

What if I get that corona disease?
It can be deadly for old guys like me.
Copays and premiums, all rising fees,
if you think they’ll go down, that’s unlikely.

My Doc means well, she keeps me upright.
It’s the med bills make me feel sick and uptight.

The Virus

A sneeze from behind makes people cringe and turn
to see what culprit’s spreading the disease.
They’ve yet to call at night for dead to burn,
but just wait ’til we’ve more fatalities.

We ‘Mericans think we’re super powered
to fend off almost any aggressor.
But lately our record with wee foes has soured,
or haven’t you noticed that, Professor?

Now comes the smallest we’ve faced in a while,
and folks worry about how serious.
Heed your doctors, they won’t jive you with guile;
just don’t listen to pols imperious.

Wash hands, cover coughs, it’s not just the flu.
So prepare, but don’t panic. I care ‘bout you.

It’s Your Move

It’s not every day I see a face
that makes me think of a time long gone.
Days before I was caught up in the race
to be a king, but always was a pawn.

Pushed about the board by an unseen hand,
willingly, one of another seven.
Just to feel your touch, always seemed so grand,
turning emotions up to eleven.

However, in the end, as most pawns do,
I’d fall in service to you, dear mistress,
Tipped and swept from the field without a clue,
was it my pride or yours caused this distress?

I lied about that face, though. This board’s swept clean.
Pawn to Knight 3. That’s checkmate, my Queen.