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. 

Spatter of Memories, Fusillade of Regrets

Caleb Downey heard the sound and turned to see Edwin Howard’s head flung backwards and his body sag to drape the ground like a sack of rags. He felt the spatter of Ed’s memories on his face.

“I didn’t sign up for this,” Caleb said, knowing the men to either side of him in the Union line couldn’t hear him. Just like they never heard the .50 caliber slugs from Rebel Enfields come fetch them to Jesus. Wide-eyed, Caleb skittered back from the makeshift breastwork of a rotten hickory as more Reb bullets chopped it to tinder, let alone kindling.

“Where’re you going, Downey?” he heard Captain Mayfield yell, the flat of his sword spanking Caleb like his Pa would with a switch back in Indiana. “You get back to your position and hold this line with your squad.”

“Cap’n, I ain’t got no more squad. The last of ‘em, ‘cept for me, just lost the top of his head not three feet from my own.”

“You mean…”

“Yessir. All dead.”

“…you completely abandoned that position?”

“Only of the living, sir.”

“You get back up there and hold that post while I find some men to fill in the line.”

“I don’t think so, Cap’n.”

“What? Think of what you’re fighting for, boy. Think of the Union, Indiana, think of your family,” Mayfield said.

“I am. The feller to my right was my cousin Edwin. On the left was my brother, Charles. They never signed up for this, neither,” Caleb said.

Wrote this 250-word mini-story in response to the prompt of using the phrase “I didn’t sign up for this,” for Siobhan Muir’s Thursday Threads feature. Thanks, Siobhan and judge Silver James. Now, on to tomorrow. Another chance to climb into my desk chair and attempt staying there.

Zero-Six-Ten at LZ-Boston

Their five-day mission complete, LRRP Team Cobra rested silently but alertly within the jungle 20 meters from the edge of a small open space where they were to be extracted from “Indian Country” back to their base. This was Landing Zone-Boston.

“Okay, it’s zero-six-ten. Now what?” Sgt. Eddie Jones whispered.

“Orders were to wait here at LZ-Boston. So…” Lt. Ben Sharper replied.

“And when was that supposed to be?”

“Zero-five-hundred,”

“Christ, over an hour ago. And here we sitting like a pimple on Cramer’s lily white ass. He must want me dead,” Jones said.

“C’mon, you’ve been in-country for what, eight months? They’re just late. It means nothing,”

“LT, call in and see where our birds are. I mean before this extraction becomes a dust-off,” Jones said.

“Shut up and relax. We’ve got good cover and security’s tight. Besides, why would they ignore us?“ Sharper said.

“Maybe ‘cause Captain has throbs for Jonesie’s moose, Bian? That’s no hooch girl. She fine. An educated babe, no doubt. And man, she puts out like a five-dollar piece, but only for Josesie,” radioman Bernie Cioppa said.

“That’s ‘cause, while Cramer’s got a lotta swing with Supply, can get her anything from nylons to napalm, he ain’t got a lotta swing in this department,” Jones said.

“Put that away, Jones. I doubt Cramer’s jealous of your Johnson. Chopper, radio,” Sharper said.

Cioppa stood, then dropped like a sack of camouflage fatigues, cut down by an AK-47 round.Two seconds later the first mortar round fell onto their position, lobbed in. by the North Vietnamese LLDB special forces squad that had been tipped to their LZ.

In a couple of minutes, it was over. Much as was the sex between Jones’ girl and Capt. Cramer, happening at that same moment at Team Cobra’s base.

“Your name, honey. Bian. I’m sure it means something beautiful as you are.” Cramer said.

“In English I it means ‘Woman with secrets,’ lover.” Then she laughed the laugh that used to remind Eddie Jones of bamboo wind chimes. Jones was a good listener. SO was Bian.

“Ooh, me likee,” Cramer whispered in her ear.

“Mmmm…tell me more, mon chéri.”

This is a goosed up first draft of a story I wrote in response to author Cara Michaels’ Menage Monday contest, where she sets up three prompts and the writer must write a piece of flash fiction of 250 words or less using all three prompts. This week’s contest presented that photo at the top the story, plus exact use of the phrases “It means nothing” or “it means something.” Being a wise-ass, I did both. Finally, Judge Teresa Eccles wanted a conspiracy theory to be part of the story. I’m not sure how I managed to use that, but I’m equally stumped about where this story set in the Vietnam War came from. But here it is.

Act of Contrition

In the deep-rooted shadows upon which the forest stands, where nothing grows but moss and the debris of winter-felled branches, Scott Lang and his brother Tony heard the stuttering k-r-r-r-k like someone opening the door to a derelict shack.

But near all around them, there were no such homes except last spring’s birds’s nests and the torn-up insect domicile buried within a pine upon which a woodpecker hammered another k-r-r-r-k.

“This noise where there’s nothing around creeps me out, man,” Tony said.

“Some of us, little brother, find such ‘noise’ a blanket of comfort, the caress of natural music far from the crash and soul-crunching violence in city life, the promise of peace,” said Scott.

“Okay, I get it, but does it take sloshing all the way out here just to find your precious quiet? Besides, it’s so damn dark here, how the hell am I supposed to see anything well enough to shoot it?” Tony said, swinging his rifle in carefree arcs.

“Your life always comes down to noisy violence. It killed Mom. I don’t want to know who else. Can’t you just enjoy some serenity for once?”

“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that? Now where to something I can enjoy?”

“You’ll never get it, will… Wait, what was that?” Scott said.

“Where?” Tony said, swinging the muzzle of the 30.06 toward the shadows.

When the echo of the k-r-r-r-k made by four rapid shots from the .22 Scott pulled from his pocket faded, he sighed. After a few seconds, he heard the birds begin singing again. He could actually hear his heartbeat settle down as the wind strummed the tall pines like harp strings. And he was pretty sure there had been only two witnesses to what he’d done.

He made a silent Act of Contrition to one.

“Peace, Mom, just like I promised. At last, some peace,” he whispered to the other.

Something About This

We need to do something about this.

I know. If this goes on much longer, I doubt he’ll ever be able to – you know – again…

Don’t even think that. If he stops for good he’ll just lose the will to go on…with anything.

Then we need to do something.

He’s tried almost everything, walks, music, reading. God, look how he just sits there. A blink, blink, a sigh.

I caught him crying the other night.

No you didn’t!

Yeah, in bed, alone, staring, like he was expecting someone to come to him from out of the ceiling. Or past. You know how he likes the room totally dark and cool.

So how do you know he was crying?

Heard him. Like a stage whisper. Said her name and then…well, a sobbing sound. Like he couldn’t catch his breath.

No kidding! Maybe we should suggest he reach out to her. And yeah, we both know she’ll eventually make him more damn paralyzed with misery than he is now. Humming away in his chair one minute and then…

I know. But he can’t go on like this. I’m afraid he might just…you know, POOF, gone. And what about us?

Okay, you go to his right and I’ll go left.

Wait. Listen. The laptop. Is he writing her? Think she’ll answer? I mean kindly? What’s he say?

Let me check. Oh… Well at least he’s trying.

Okay, but what’s he written?

It says, “We need to do something about this.”

(This is pretty much the only way I can write fiction these days. I imagine two characters speaking and then my imagination follows their conversations. But I’m miles ahead of where I’ve been for months.  In this case, I’ll let your imagination discern who – or what – these two speakers are.)

Where a Heart Would Be

You and I are no strangers
to the inevitability of Loss.
We’ve held its hand together.
Like a shadow, it has clung to us,
darkened the paths before us,
dogged our steps, for all our days.
And then come the nights,
the nights when all is shadow,
and Loss lies next to you in bed,
cold and silent, stealing your rest
with tossed elbows and hogged covers.
You have lost something you cherished
and are now bereft of that
to which you gave your heart
but received a heart in kind.
I lost something I never had,
though my heart cherished nonetheless.
You lost your Love. I lost my Hope.
You still have that heart to hold.
I have shivering shadow and
a tangle of covers where I always
hoped a heart would be.

Just An Opened Eye Away

The fantasy always
exceeded the reality,
until the reality
brought so much pain.
It is an inevitability
in my existence that joy
is more often make-believe,
a wish, a what-if,
while suffering is real,
even if only imagined.
What is fantasy if not
the yearn, the ache,
for that which we wish
to feel, if only
to make the pain stop?
You know this, though,
since you’ve been the fantasy,
you’ve brought the pain,
you’ve dreamed the joy,
yet came to learn as I did
that anguish was always
just an opened eye away.

Back to the métier – dreams and hope, loss and pain.