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Eye for an Eye
From the porch of his mother’s farmhouse, Kyle sat, peeling paint from the weatherworn railing. The church bell in the town down the hill tolled once. It was noon and Kyle could hear his mother bustling around in the kitchen, making lunch. Soon she’d be coming outside to tell him his meal was ready. He gritted his teeth and shook his buzzed head.
He’d turned twenty only three months ago and yet there he was, in his childhood home living with his mother. Independence from her had been one of the reasons that made him join the Army. It gave him more freedom; it made him more of a man. The last time he checked, being a man didn’t include having his mother drive him into town whenever he needed. It definitely didn’t include having his mother help him dress each morning.
Kyle sighed and leaned back in his chair, trying to dispel his insistent irritation. He tried to focus on the warm July sun that slanted across the porch and on the innocent sounds of cicadas and frogs – sounds he’d missed while fighting in the war.
Just as he was starting to relax for the first time in days, the screen door creaked open and his mother stepped out from the house, a tray of food in her hands.
“Well, look at you! Looking nice and happy… I knew coming out here in the sun would do you some good, didn’t I? There’s actually some color in your cheeks again. I thought you’d like to eat out here. Wouldn’t that be nice? You used to do that all the time when you were little…” she babbled, walking in front of Kyle and fastening a tray onto the front of his chair.
Kyle mumbled his thanks and waited for her to scurry back into the house before he stared down at the tray. It was overlaid with more food than he could ever stomach, and it didn’t help that it was hovering over his lap. As much as he wanted to enjoy one of the three sandwiches his mother had made for him, all he could focus on was the fact that he wasn’t sitting on a lawn chair or a rocking chair. He was sitting in a wheelchair and beneath the food was something that made him lose his appetite every time he stopped to think about it. There were no legs sitting side by side beneath the tray. All that was left were two stubs, only succeeding in being a hindrance for both Kyle and his mother.
Taking a deep breath, Kyle tried his best to forget about how the war had left him, and forced himself to eat.
That night, after Kyle’s mom helped him change into pajamas and assisted him into bed, Kyle lay awake, staring at the ceiling where glow in the dark stickers glared down at him.
Ever since coming back from the war, his nights had become nightmares, leaving him restless and sleepless till the early hours of the morning. If he slept, he dreamed of the people he’d killed, their faces forever frozen on the insides of his eyelids. When they left him in peace, memories of the accident flashed into his head, as bright as the actual explosion that took his legs.
The whole six months he’d been wary about the car bombs, but being wary did nothing when it came down to it. The bomb still went off. Two of the men in his squadron still died, and Kyle himself had still lost his legs. And Kyle still replayed it in his head, night after night.
He slept for two hours that night, waking every half hour covered in clammy sweat. By the time his mother came into his room the next morning, carrying the smell of breakfast in with her, Kyle was more exhausted than when he’d gone to bed.
“How did you sleep?” his mother asked right away, pushing the wheelchair beside his bed. Silences between them were bad. They were spent thinking of all the things that should and could be said, but were avoided because maybe it would make it all easier to forget.
“I’ve slept better,” he grunted noncommittally. He didn’t like to make his mother worry. He knew he’d done plenty of that in the past year. She’d been against him joining the army, but he was set on doing it. This wasn’t the first time in the past few months that Kyle was feeling some regret.
He felt it even more as his mother helped him into the wheelchair and pushed him from his room and to the bathroom where the tub was waiting, filled to the brim with steaming water.
“If you need anything make sure you call for me,” his mom said and exited the room, leaving Kyle to struggle out of his clothes and into the tub.
In the hot water, he thought over the things he was currently regretting. He regretted having to come back to live here. He regretted walking down the street on the day of the accident and not being able to cry when he found out that the two other men that had been with him had died. He regretted joining the army, but even more than that he regretted letting himself want to join the army.
As much as he knew it was his own decision to sign up, he couldn’t help feeling some resentment toward the person that made him even consider joining the military.
The man’s name was Ray Madden. While Kyle hadn’t even been sure where Ray lived, he and all the boys of the town knew that Ray spent his days outside of the ramshackle, local hardware store, playing checkers with himself and chatting with passersby who never shared his friendly enthusiasm. The only people that did stop to listen to him and speak back were the boys. Kyle remembered how they’d all line up around him, leaning forward to hear him speak, begging to hear the story about how he lost his right eye in the Vietnam War.
The story was a great one, filled with enough action to satiate the young boys’ hunger for more adventure than they stumbled upon in the surrounding fields and woods; no matter how many times they heard it, they always asked to hear it again. Hanging on Ray’s every word, they listened to him speak about the bullets whizzing by his head and the heat of that fateful day. They gasped to hear him speak in hushed tones of the nearby explosion that took away his eye and scarred the entire right side of his face, and they all leaned forward even more when he slipped of his eye patch to show the gaping hole beneath.
Ray had been Kyle’s hero, but all of that had disintegrated the moment the bomb had gone off, filling Kyle with fear and red-hot pain. Then there was anger. In the hospital that treated his legs, the anger turned to hatred when he found out a piece of information that changed his view on Ray forever.
Kyle jumped as the bathroom door opened, sloshing water over the edge of the tub. He glared at his mother around the floral shower curtain as she set a pair of clothes on the edge of the sink.
“Breakfast is waiting for you! After that, I thought it’d be a good idea to go into town for some grocery shopping. It’d do you some good to get you away from the house for a little while, don’t you think?” She paused to let Kyle answer, but all he did was continue to glare until she backed out of the room, still prattling on about nothing.
Only when he could hear silverware clanking against dishes in the dining room did he pull himself from the tub to dry and dress, trying not to look down at what was left of his legs. Instead he decided that being annoyed that he’d regressed back to having his mother pick out his clothes was a better use of his time.
The route to the grocery store carried Kyle and his mother down the grassy hill that they lived on and down to the streets of the small town below. The town had seen better days. The sidewalk and road were uneven and covered in an ever-present layer of dust. The dust also clung to the sides of the buildings lining the street as they watched the town’s inhabitants through broken window eyes.
For some reason Kyle’s mom thought it would be a good idea to leave their car at home and walk to town instead. Well, at least she walked, ghosting a protective hand over the handles of Kyle’s wheelchair when he refused to let her help him along.
Other than the heat of the day that was already soaking into the back of his neck, Kyle felt oddly content, even when the wheels of his chair bounced precariously over the rough cracks of the sidewalk.
However, all this changed when he remembered that the sidewalk went past the hardware store. From a distance he could see the boys in a circle sitting around the dilapidated rocking chair Ray Madden sat upon. They were young, at least ten years younger than Kyle, and they all leaned forward to eagerly feed upon Ray’s words. Kyle wondered if Ray still told the same tales that he told the group of boys Kyle sat in, or if he’d managed to acquire new ones over the years. He didn’t stop to ask when he drew closer to Ray’s circle. He kept pushing himself along, ignoring the sudden silence that settled over the group when he rolled by.
“Hello, Raymond,” Kyle heard his mother greet behind him. Ray responded with something that Kyle couldn’t make out, but he didn’t want to. Instead of stopping to politely stay with his mom, he rolled ahead till he reached the grocery store, taking refuge in the freezer aisle.
He slumped over in his chair, staring down at the grimy linoleum beneath him. Ray had been the reason that Kyle finally decided to join the military. Hearing Ray’s stories and seeing how much the kids of the town looked up to him pushed Kyle to do it. Hearing of Ray’s heroism had been all it took to get Kyle to drive into the nearest city to find a place to sign up for the army too. Ray hadn’t argued when Kyle told him about his decision. He hadn’t said much at all, and it wasn’t until more than a year later that Kyle figured out why he’d had nothing to say.
Preventing him from thinking about it any longer, his mother appeared at the end of the aisle, looking partially angry, but mostly worried.
“Don’t run – don’t just leave like that!” she lectured, marching over to him. “Don’t do that again! I was worried about you, Kyle. Promise me that you won’t just disappear like that ever again.”
“I promise…” Kyle sighed. Being yelled at for sneaking away from his mom definitely wasn’t being an independent man, and so he decided to break that promise the next evening.
Kyle sat on the lawn beside the porch of his mother’s farmhouse, tying the long strands of dried grass that poked through the spindles of his wheels in tight knots. He could hear his mother singing in the kitchen as she cleaned their dinner plates, and decided that it was the perfect time to escape.
Taking a deep breath, he checked the item he’d hidden in his pocket, and began the haphazard trek down the hill into town.
Ray was just folding up his checkerboard when Kyle came to a stop in front of the hardware store. Ray looked up, surprise playing across his scarred face.
“Kyle Parker…” Ray mumbled, straightening up and staring at Kyle through his one good eye. “It’s good to see that you’ve made it home safe and sound.”
“I lost my legs, Ray,” Kyle pointed out the obvious, raising his hands from the chair to show Ray what was left of his legs. “Not exactly sound.”
“It’s better than being dead.”
“I’m not too sure about that sometimes.” They stared at each other for a long moment, studying each other’s scars. Finally Kyle cleared his throat and shrugged. “Are you headed home? I could help you carry your table.” He gestured to the fold-up table at his side and Ray nodded after a brief hesitation, picking up the table, folding it, and laying it across Kyle’s lap.
As they began to move down the sidewalk, Ray favoring his right leg with a limp that age gave him, Kyle checked his pocket once more to make sure everything was staying on track.
At Ray’s house, a stained and sagging little cottage, they paused at the base of the front steps.
“Thank you for the help,” Ray said, taking the table from Kyle’s lap. “It’s good to see you back here. Your mother had been worried about you while you spent all that time in the hospital.”
Kyle nodded. “Speaking of that hospital, I stayed in the one that you said you stayed it after you lost that side of your face.” Kyle carefully studied that face now in the fading daylight and slid his hands into his pocket.
“Did you? That’s quite a coincidence, isn’t it?” Ray looked up to his front door, jingling his keys in his pocket.
“Yeah, it is. Know what else is weird about it?”
“No, Kyle. I can’t say that I do.”
Kyle smiled, although it quickly wilted on his lips and turned into a sneer. “I asked doctors about you, Ray. They checked their records. They said you’d never stepped foot in that hospital.” He waited for Ray to say something back but when he didn’t, Kyle continued. “I thought it was pretty strange, so I did some research. You were never in the military, Ray. The whole thing was a lie.”
Ray sighed and sat down on the front steps of his house, bringing himself down to Kyle’s level.
“No one was ever supposed to figure that out. It was just a story to entertain you kids.” He shook his head. “No one was supposed to know.”
“You thought keeping it a secret would be better?” Kyle demanded, his voice rising. “You thought letting me go risk my life was the best thing to do? I lost a lot in that war, Ray, and you could’ve stopped me. Why didn’t you stop me?”
Ray shook his head again and gave a helpless shrug. “I wanted you to have something better than I did. I wanted you to be the hero. I lost my eye in a car accident, but think of what you gave up for your country.”
Kyle’s hands shook in his pockets. “I didn’t want to give that much up,” he spat through gritted teeth. “You ruined my future. What can I do like this? I’ll be stuck living here for the rest of my life, depending on my mother, because you were too much of a coward to tell the truth!”
“I’m sorry, Kyle.”
“That’s not good enough.” Kyle withdrew his hand from his pocket, the knife he swiped from dinner clutched in his fingers. He almost wanted to smile as he watched Ray jump in surprise. “I’ve had to kill people. I’ve had to watch my friends die. Saying sorry isn’t good enough. You owe me.”
Kyle knew the saying was “An eye for an eye” but he decided that an eye for a leg worked just as well.