Regret – #FridayFlash

[Author’s note:  You can read this as a war story standalone. Or, if you’re a Combat! fan, this is my take on what happened to Doc #1]

Regret

“Un autre verre du vin rouge, Mademoiselle. S’il vous plait.”

The young woman looked down the bar at the ragged GI sitting there, bearded and scowling, but who’d spoken to her in good French and with decent manners. Ignoring the two sergeants and a corporal who’d charged up to her, waving scrip, she poured the red wine and set it down in front of the soldier.

Merci beaucoup.” Their eyes met, and he considered trying to engage her for later, after the bar closed, and decided against it.

She saw the idea come and go and shrugged to herself. There were other Amis there.De rien, M’sieu’,” she tossed back casually as she picked up the money in front of him and moved back to wait on the non-coms.

I should have gone back – marrrde, I should have. Why didn’t I? In his heart, he knew why. I’m a soldier. I follow my leader. I obey orders. But I should have gone back.

“If you don’t let go of that glass, it’s going to shatter.”

The quiet voice broke through his reverie. Caje looked over his shoulder to find Saunders there, and released the glass, which wobbled uncertainly until he steadied it. “Sarge.” The Cajun turned back to face the bar, body rigid, face set.

“Still angry?”

“What do you think?” The scout hissed at him, avoiding looking at the man who led his unit, the man he thought of as a friend, or as much of one as he’d let himself have, after Theo.

“I think you’re still angry.” There was a tiny bit of wry humor in Saunders’ voice, but it faded completely with his next words. “How many times have I told you that you can’t carry this stuff around with you? Haven’t you learned yet?”

“I obeyed the order. I’m here.” He slammed the wine back and nearly choked.

“We couldn’t have gotten him out of there. I’m no doctor –“

“No, you aren’t.  And now, neither is he!” His voice rose to a shout, and he stopped suddenly as he realized he was attracting attention, and not in a good way.

Saunders pressed on, disregarding Caje’s anger. “One, he wouldn’t have made it, not at the pace we had to travel. And two, the Germans had moved around us.  Even if he’d had a chance, sending someone back would have been suicide.”

“I could have made it. I’d have found a way. Maudit, Sarge! It was Doc! He wasn’t like us, he wasn’t…” Caje’s voice trailed off, pain evident. He thought of the gentle medic. Of all the people to leave alone, dying –

“We pull out of here tomorrow. Should I tell Hanley you’re staying behind? You want a transfer?”

For a long moment, the scout focused hard on the empty glass. To have to start over again. Leave the others behind, maybe never knowing what happened to them. Slowly, he began shaking his head. “No. No, I’ll be ready.”

“Good.” Saunders knew better than to push the Cajun scout. He waved off the waitress and turned to leave. “You’re on watch tonight.”

“I’ll be there.”

The non-com exited into the twilight while Caje glanced at his watch and then signaled for another glass of wine.

The Locket

“Where do you want this, Grandpa?”

Bill turned around and rubbed one work-roughened hand over his forehead, wiping away the sweat. “Put it over there, Jeremy.” He waved generally over to a blank spot on the far side of the small apartment. “Just anywhere.”

“Ok.” The teenager dodged around the stacks of boxes with the innate grace of the young and stood by Bill, concerned. “You okay?”

Bill mustered a smile. “Sure, Jeremy. Fine.  Just tired.” He dropped onto the sofa and closed his eyes for a moment, then sighed and looked around the room.  Whoever thought that 35 years could be packed up into a dozen or so boxes?

“Dad? Jeremy?” He heard his son on the stairs, puffing as he brought the last box up and dumped it on the stack.

“Over here, David.” His son joined them, hands on hips. My son, the desk jockey. Dave worked out and played tennis, and was in pretty good shape, but somehow he seemed soft to his father. Bill couldn’t help it – he loved his son, but he had a former factory worker’s innate distrust of people who earned money by sitting behind a desk using their brains instead of their hands.

Dave looked around at all the boxes, and said again, “Dad, you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. Sure you don’t want some help?”

Bill laughed. “Son, I’ve got nothing but time. And now I’ve got something to do.” I would have driven your mother crazy, if… There was a tiny tremor around Bill’s mouth, just a little one that neither of the others noticed. “So don’t worry about me.”

For the next week, the apartment resembled a badly-run thrift store. Bill had meant to have a system about unpacking the boxes; after all, he and Jeremy had labeled them so they’d go in certain rooms and even done a brief list of the contents. Though he started out with the best of intentions, it hadn’t quite worked out the way he intended.

Eventually he managed to get almost everything put away and was down to the last couple of boxes. They held things he’d cleared out of his wife Evelyn’s desk, barely even looking at the items as he packed them away.

Most of what was in there was office supplies, and notes on things she’d been working on but never finished. He put the stapler, tape and other things aside, thinking he could donate them somewhere. He sifted slowly through the notes. Bill overruled the part of him that was ridiculing his impulse to keep the notes as an early sign of turning into a packrat and stored them away.

At the bottom of the box, there was a small brown envelop.  He didn’t recognize it until he turned it over and saw the mailing label. For several moments, he simply stared at it. Slowly, he reached back in and took it out, opening it and shaking the contents into one shaking hand.

He lifted the locket into the light by the delicate chain and watched the engraving sparkle as it swung softly back and forth. Eventually, he opened it and looked at the pictures inside.

For their 25th anniversary, he’d found the photos her dad had taken of them as they got ready to go to their prom, had them reproduced and put into the locket. Evelyn had loved it and wore it all the time, right up until she’d had to go into the hospital. Then there were so many other things to think about – treatments and paperwork and being able to stay with her as much as he could – and he didn’t know what she’d done with it.  When he finally had time to ask, it was too late, and she’d slipped away from him without another word. I wanted to put it in your hand in the casket, Bill thought. I wanted …

He shuddered for a moment, then picked up the envelope, put the locket back inside and replaced the envelope on the desk.

Bill caught an unfamiliar odor and sniffed the air. What is that? Is something burning? He realized he’d left the soup he was heating up for lunch on the stove. He hurried into the little kitchen and grabbed at the pan without thinking.

The handle was hot and it seared his hand. He jerked back and knocked the pan on the floor and soup went everywhere.

Suddenly, all the pain that he’d buried behind his stoic façade, behind the rule his father had pressed on him from the time he was old enough to understand – “Men don’t cry” – broke free. He lowered his head, hot tears streaking his  face, dripping onto the worn work clothes that he’d put on that morning without thinking, as if it were just another work day and he could come home, and she would be there.

“Ah, hell, Evelyn. Why? Why did you leave me? Oh, honey, what am I supposed to do without you? What am I supposed to do?”

In Flanders Field… (Part II)

(This was going to be my FridayFlash this week, but it got too long.

BTW, you might want to read the first part of the story:  https://demonesprit.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/in-flanders-field-part-i/ so you know what’s going on.)

The next morning, just before dawn, Pierre assembled his sergeants and advised them of the new orders. “Artillery will commence at 2230 hours tonight, softening up the German position.”The four men in front of him exchanged glances. Each thought some variation of: hope they get the range right, or they’ll be ‘softening’ us up.

“I can’t decide if the generals don’t know what they’re sending us into, or just don’t care.” This came from Sergeant Amboy of First Squad.

The lieutenant looked Amboy in the eye.  “Does it really matter which? We have our orders, and unless you’re planning a mutiny, we’re going to go over the top in the morning. 0600 hours.”

“I think we’d have a tough time marooning you, Lieutenant, since we don’t have a dinghy,” Sergeant Marsden grinned.  He was a tall, rangy man who’d been an instructor at Bowdoin College. “Although we’ve got plenty of water to float one in.” Marsden lifted his legs, encased in trench waders, one at a time out of the muck around him.

Marcel grinned at Pierre. “Maybe we should send home for a pirogue?”

Pierre cast an amused glance at his friend. “Platoon Sergeant Jeffries, are we set for ammunition?”

Jeffries grunted.  Because Pershing had issued orders early on keeping the new volunteers and draftees separate from the Regular Army units, he was the only RA man serving under Pierre. “Ammunition has been distributed.”

Pierre shot Jeffries a hard look.  “Will the men have enough to eat tonight?”

“Yes, sir.”

Amboy spoke up.  “My men are ready to go, sir. Just give the word.”

Marcel saw the look between Pierre and Jeffries, and his heart sank. We’re going to lose men today, and Pierrot’s going to hurt for each and every one of t’em. Le Bon Dieu, aidez-nous.

* * *

Pierre’s men considered him a “good officer”, one who didn’t demand an officer’s privileges, who did all he could to keep soldiers alive, and didn’t insist that everything be ‘by the book’ when it wasn’t necessary.

A trench rat trotted across Pierre’s path and he stood back and let it go.  The men had divided into two camps concerning their constant companions; one group killed any rat it found and the others had adopted some for pets. Marcel said he spent more time keeping the two factions apart than almost any other duty.

Les ratons! Can you imagine, cher?”

“If it wasn’t t’at, Marcel, it’d be somet’ing else. It’s tedious duty, sitting in a trench waiting for artillery – ours or theirs — or to charge into almost certain death. They’re going to blow off steam somehow.”

“Hmph.  Rats!”

Pierre himself had been ‘adopted’ by a rat he’d made the mistake of feeding one day. The men were amused by how it followed him, trotting alongside him on the trench wall, and occasionally climbing on his shoulder. The cry “Look sharp, there! The Lieutenant’s rat is reviewing the troops!” would go up as it skittered around the trench — eventually shortened to “The Rat”. Pierre tolerated the good-natured ribbing as long as it didn’t interfere with discipline, and even grew to miss the animal on the days when it found other places to be.

He stored his orders and maps, and sat with a sigh.  There was the sound of tiny skittering feet and The Rat appeared, scuttled onto his shoulder and settled in. Fishing for a small piece of food he’d saved from his meal, he scratched his companion on the head and proffered the morsel. The Rat sniffed it and took it gingerly. It swallowed quickly and looked hopefully at Pierre. “Sorry, mon ami, but I’m afraid t’at’s all I got.” In return, his small companion snuffled at his ear, apparently accepting his apology.

The lieutenant stared at the dugout in the trench wall ahead of him. The French had taught them to carve these holes for protection during artillery attacks.  They are no help in the event of a direct hit, of course, the French officer who was their instructor said, but they are better than nothing when it comes to shelter from shrapnel. The sergeants set their men to creating them, carefully choosing locations so as not to bring the whole trench down. Marcel muttered about how his maman hadn’t raised him to dig holes in the ground, but they had been glad to have them when German artillery had struck. Shrapnel had rained around them, but there had been no deaths, or even wounded.  The grumbling stopped after that.

Pierre retrieved his pocket watch and peered at it by starlight.  Artillery should commence in 15 minutes. I should go out and review the men.

He stood carefully and The Rat stayed put, then eased around the back of his neck and rode on his left shoulder. Pierre raised an eyebrow and gave his tiny companion a sideways smile.  Maybe I should make him a little uniform. How on earth does he know I need my right arm to salute?

He splashed down the trench and the men stood and saluted as he went by.­­­­ He returned the salutes and carefully watched for signs of illness, hunger or poor morale.  He knew he had to rely on his sergeants to keep an eye on the men, but he liked to be aware of things himself. Sometimes I wish I could have stayed a sergeant.

As he passed a group of soldiers, one turned and grinned at him. Saluting, the boy said, “Good evening, Lieutenant.”

Pierre mentally ran down the list of names. Mayor, no – Myers. “Good evening, Myers.”

Myers nudged the man next to him. “Look here, Butler. The lieutenant brought one of the upper echelons to see us.” A chuckle ran along the line and even Marcel laughed.

Without warning, a shell burst overhead and everyone cringed.

Merde. They’re early. “In the dugouts,” Pierre shouted.

Myers stood stock still, an expression of shock on his face.

What t’e hell? “Myers, move!”

“Yes, sir!” The soldier gathered himself and scampered into the dugout behind him. He crouched down, stared beyond Pierre and then directly at the Lieutenant. “Guess that shell fragment was meant for someone, sir.” He spoke awkwardly. “Glad it wasn’t you, sir.”

Pierre  turned slowly, almost afraid to look. The Rat was pinned to the opposite wall of the trench, pierced by the shrapnel that had narrowly missed the lieutenant – that he hadn’t even been aware of. It looked at him almost pleadingly, shook the blood off its whiskers and died.

(To be continued)

A Dance at Midnight

The wind off the lake was ice-cold, slicing through my thin coat like a sword cut.  Part of me wished I’d worn something warmer, but then I realized how silly that was.  If I’d felt better, I’d have laughed.

The city was spread before me in a pattern of dancing lights, alternately hidden and revealed by the blowing snow. At this distance, it was almost beautiful. Of course, the beauty was an illusion, obvious only at a distance. If I stood here until dawn, I’d see the streets below me for what they were. Just as I had, for the past six months, seen life for what it was, finally. Well, no more.

I stepped toward the edge of the building and looked down.  Was four floors enough? I suppose there were guides for these things somewhere on the Internet, but even though I had made a New Year’s resolution I intended to keep, the thought of Googling “Defenestration proper height fatal” was more than I was willing to do. Heaven knows why, but I just decided to take advantage of what height I had access to and go — go on to whatever there was.  I hoped it would be somewhere I could find Martin again.

Out of nowhere, hands closed around my shoulders and gently tugged me back. Damn it! Who’s interfering now? And then the wind brought me some very familiar scents: Bellagio for Men, good tobacco and the frequently-recalled smell of him. “Martin?” And tears sprang to my eyes, tears not caused by the wind.

“Allie, don’t.  Please don’t.”

I turned slowly, afraid to look. But there he was, in his black wool topcoat over the charcoal suit that suited him best, black hair tossed by the wind and a loving expression in the beautiful brown eyes I cherished so much. With a cry, I leaped to him and felt his warm arms wrap around me, shielding me from the cold in my heart. “Oh, beloved, I’ve missed you so!” I wept myself into sobs and finally into silence.

“I never left you.  You might not be able to see me, but I’ve always been there.” I felt his lips softly brush my cheek. He rocked me gently and then stood back. “But this — if you’d done this, I’d never have seen you again.  I couldn’t bear the thought.  So here I am.”

“Everything’s so empty without you.  People try, they do, but it’s just not enough.”

“Please don’t give up, my heart. I promise you that it will get better, that there is something good waiting for you on the other side of this. The pain won’t last forever.”

“Somehow, that’s even worse — knowing that one day, I won’t miss you as much. I love you!”

“I know that.  I love you, too.  My love for you didn’t die just because I did.”

The chimes began from St. John’s Cathedral. Martin tipped his head back to listen, and I saw moonlight reflected on his face. It was midnight. As the chimes ended, on the street below a car stopped and music drifted up to us where we stood.

“Let’s dance, Allie.  One last time.” He enfolded me and we danced slowly together, my face tucked in the crook of his neck. When the music stopped, he stepped away from me. “Promise me, dear one.  Never again. When the day comes that you cross over to where I am, I want to be with you.”

I felt a wrench in my heart at the thought of him leaving me again, but the sadness in his eyes moved me to promise. “One day, Martin.”

“One day, Allie.”

He blew a kiss to me and vanished in a swirl of snow.

Boarding Call

boff

The little boy sat with his great-grandfather and waited anxiously. He saw a soldier coming through the terminal and started to jump up and down. “Papère! It’s him!” When the man got closer, he realized he was wrong. “Darn.” He plopped back down and sat, chin in hands, disappointed.

“Paulie, I told you that when he comes, he’ll come from that way, ” said his vieux-papère, pointing in the opposite direction. “Now sit down and be patient, cher.”

Papère, I don’t know HOW to be patient.”

“I’ve noticed that,” the old man said with a grin. “But try, anyway.”

“Okay.” Paulie leaned against him and sighed. “Papère, can I ask you something?”

“Maybe.” Paul surveyed his namesake with concern. T’is little fellow has no off-switch on his curiosity and one day he’s going to ask the wrong person the wrong question. Just that afternoon, Paulie had been puzzled by the appearance of a very large man with multiple piercings and tattoos. Before his great-grandfather could stop him, Paulie started with the questions. Fortunately, despite his fierce appearance, the big man was quite kind and had handled the child’s shower of interrogatives with patience, to the older man’s relief. My elephant’s child, he thought, shaking his head with amusement. Oh, Paulie, what are we going to do wit’ you?

“What did you want to know?” Just then, his cell phone rang. Dratted technology. He reached for it, and was bemused when Paulie grabbed it first and stared at the caller ID. He recognized the number and sagged in relief. “It’s just Mamère Amelie”.

Paul took it from him and answered it, quizzically surveying the little boy. He explained to his daughter that no, her grandson had not yet arrived, and yes, Paulie was fine and he was fine and that she should just quit worrying. “I’ll call you when we see him; just go on and help Cherry get dinner ready for when we get back.”

He chuckled at her pretend-meek “Oui, Papa” and hung up.

“Paulie, what was that all about? Why did you grab t’e cell phone?”

The little boy sat on the edge of the plastic chair, legs kicking, staring at the ground. “Well …”

“Well?”

“Denis said you were old.”

Paul nodded. “Yes, I am. Your big brother is right about t’at.”

“And he said old people die. But Papère –, ” he said, all in a rush, “I don’t want you to die. You — you haven’t taught me everything you know!” He finished, still not able to meet the old man’s eyes. “And I’d miss you. You’re my vieux-papère. Mine. I don’t want God to have you yet.”

God. Ah, I t’ink I understand. “Did Denis tell you that when God calls me, I have to go?”

Paulie nodded earnestly. “Oui! So I t’ought if I answered t’e phone first, I’d tell God he’d just have to wait because Paulie LeMercier needs his vieux-papère. And t’en I’d hang up. So t’ere!”

If it had been anyone else but Paulie, the older Paul would have thrown his head back and laughed until he cried. But he knew this was deadly serious for the little one and he wanted to help him understand.

Cher, it’s not t’at kind of a call.”

“Oh.”

“One day, when it’s time, I’ll die, yes. But I don’t believe dying means that I end. I think we continue, only differently.”

“But I won’t see you. You won’t take me shrimping or show me how to whittle,” the little boy said earnestly, eyes screwed up against threatened tears.

The old man put his arm around the little boy. “I understand, Paulie. I miss my Papère aussi, and my papa et mama, and my Nonc Pierre, all of them. It’s okay to be sad when it happens. But you must go on. A little bit of me will always be wit’ you. Did you know you look just like me when I was your age?”

“I do?”

“You do. And one day very long from now, you’ll sit with your great-grandson, and maybe he will be named Paulie, too, and you’ll tell him what I just told you. And he’ll carry on for me and you, and my Nonc Pierre and his uncle — all of us will live through him. And until that day, we live through you.”

Paulie looked at him. “When you go — wherever you go — will you remember me?”

“I promise, cher. How could I ever forget you?”

“I won’t forget you either. I promise, too.”

“Good.” Paul tapped him on the shoulder. He gestured down the concourse. “Look who’s here.”

“Andre!” The little boy jumped up and ran to his brother.

Paul glanced up and saw the departure board. One day soon, Bon Dieu. I know t’at. But not today, eh? He stood carefully and headed slowly toward his great-grandsons.