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The day Jacob came home was September 5th, 1918. His mother was weeding the garden in the front of the house when he came limping up the walkway, a bloody rag holding his thigh together, crutches supporting him on either side. It was the odd clop-thump of the alternating crutches and boot that made her look up from the dying flowers and to her son, one hand shading her eyes; within seconds she had reached his side and was alternating between cheerful exclamations of joy to see him home and horror to see the grimy bandage. He smiled half-heartedly and asked for the one thing that had been on his mind for the last hour; “Water.”
“Of course, of course, come in!” his mother replied. She had always been the excitable type, and for a second he worried that she'd pass out there on the walkway. But she blinked faster and all but dragged him through the door and into the tiny, sparkling kitchen. He stopped at the door for a second, taking in the bright, cheery wallpaper, the gleaming sink, the open window, and nearly cried. He'd forgotten what a kitchen felt like after only a month in the trenches. When his mother looked back inquiringly at him, however, he heaved himself across the floor and into a chair. Oh God, he thought, The war would've been over by now if we'd only had kitchens in those trenches.
Like magic, a glass full to the brim of clear, cool water appeared before him, followed closely by a plate heaped high with scrambled eggs and sausage.
“You eat up now.” said his mother sternly. “You look as thin as a stick-” She fell silent when he downed the entire glass in one gulp and fell on the food with a gusto that made her wonder how much he'd had to eat this past month. The plate was empty before she finished the thought and she turned back to find some more eggs.
When Jacob had finished two more plates, his fork slowed to a normal pace and he spoke to his mother for the second time that day. “Where's Dad?” he asked around a mouthful of buttered toast. “And Sarah?”
“Oh.” said his mother. Her hands dropped to her skirt and clutched handfuls of the fabric. “Oh, they're- they're at work. I mean, your father is. Sarah's at school. She won a poetry contest, you know. It was beautiful, about the flag guiding the soldiers on paths of red and white-”
Jacob let out a short laugh. “It was a little different than that.” A vision of unseeing eyes rose before him. Not now, he thought urgently. I'm home, I'm safe. She can't know what it was like there. I won't let her know.
He forced a smile at his mother, and she smiled uncertainly back. Pushing the plate away, he started to stand up, but pain shot through his thigh and he collapsed back into his chair with a strangled gasp. His mother was up and bending over him in an instant. “You're hurt?” she questioned, although she already knew the answer. That was the only way he'd be home. When Jacob tried to answer, she hushed him down. “No, no, don't answer. Stay right here and don't move. I'll be right back.” Her little body rushed into the hall and was back before Jacob could calm himself, carrying a roll of fresh bandages, a rag, and some substance she told him to drink. From the first sip he could tell it was morphine; he looked at his mother wide-eyed, wondering why she could possibly have morphine on tap. But she refused to meet his eyes and the pain began to dull mercifully in his thigh.
She picked up a knife and had cut off his pant leg before he could protest, revealing the full array of bandages below. She sucked in a breath and began to unwind them. Jacob could only stare at her in a dull sort of wonder as the morphine began to make him feel sleepy. His mother had been famous for fainting at the mere sight of blood- he could recall perfectly the time he'd fallen on some broken glass and returned home with an arm completely covered in blood, screaming for his mother. She'd fainted right away and hit her head, causing his father to come running out of the living to see his son covered in blood and wife unconscious on the floor. But now, she was glaring at his wound with a fierce sort of hatred that told him she'd seen plenty of blood in his time away.
She poured some ointment on it, and pain surged into Jacob's drugged brian with such potency that he yelled aloud. She shushed him and began to wind clean bandages around the wound. With a last deft twist of her hand, the bandage was tied firmly into place. Wearily his mother sat down on a chair opposite Jacob- the first time he'd ever seen her sit down outside of meals and prayer.
“That was quite nasty.” she remarked, as if talking about an unpleasant bout of weather. “How on earth did you get it?”
“Shrapnel.” Jacob choked out of his shock. “A bomb exploded right by me and a piece got embedded in my leg. A surgeon had to get it out.” Dang it, he'd told himself he wasn't going to tell her anything about the horrors of war. She was too delicate to hear such things, his mother. Yet, his mother didn't seem to be the same woman he'd left back at the beginning of summer.
The woman nodded as if she heard about such things every day. Jacob glanced at the clock, wondering if he could convince her of some lunch, too, and was surprised to find that it was almost four o'clock.
“Mother.” he asked. “Shouldn't Sarah be home by now?” As far as he could remember, school let out at three sharp, and the building was only a block or two way, hardly an hour's walk for an energetic girl like Sarah.
“No, no. She's in the Patriotic Girls club, they roll bandages and such every day after school.” dismissed his mother briskly. “Such a good girl, Sarah, she's doing all she can for her big brother in the war.”
Jacob nodded uncertainly and slowly stood up. “Do you mind if I go upstairs and take a nap? I'm awfully tired, I rode in a truck all night to get here.”
“Of course you may! Just make sure you get down here in time for dinner, I'm making chicken tonight. Your father loves my chicken.”
But when Jacob made to go up the stairs, she bounded out from her seat. “Oh, no, don't go upstairs, honey. You'll, you'll stress your leg and goodness knows we don't want to do that. Why don't you just lie down on the couch and I'll bring out a blanket for you? It's much nicer out here in the living room, anyways. Did you know that your father, Sarah and I sit out here every night and listen to the radio broadcasts of the war? Always thinking of you, we are...”
She led him into the living with an urgency that almost frightened Jacob. Sitting him down on the couch, she reached into a closet and pulled out a cheery quilt in the imitation of the American flag.
“Isn't it wonderful, dear? A lady was selling them at the fair last month, all proceeds going to the war, of course, and when I thought of you, I just had to buy it! Here you go, now rest up, dinner'll be at six-thirty, just like it always is...”
She tucked the quilt neatly around Jacob, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and was out of the room in a flash. He wondered briefly at her quickness, but his head hit the arm of the couch and within seconds he was fast asleep.
Jacob woke to the sound of dishes clanking. The delicious smell of chicken tickled his nose, and he sat up to sniff the air appreciatively. His mother's voice floated out on the smell; “Oh, Sarah, do tell us all about you Patriotic Girls meeting today. I hear-”
Sarah was home! Jacob rolled himself off the couch and limped over to the archway that connected the living room to the kitchen. His mother's voice seemed to urge him on.
“-that you girls raised two hundred dollars last week from your bake sale, you girls have done such a great job and-”
Jacob reached the archway and stopped, shocked. The dinner table was set for four place settings, each plate overflowing with roast chicken, green beans, and corn on the cob. His mother was sitting in her customary spot, holding a piece of chicken aloft on a fork and looking in interest to the seat at her right. The seat, along with the other two at the table, was empty.
“-I just wanted to say how proud of you I am!”
Jacob felt a chill go down his back. The scene before him was wrong, so wrong he wanted to close his eyes and go back to sleep and forget he'd ever seen it. Better yet, get a ride on some truck and go back to the trenches in France. But he squared his soldiers and asked politely, “Mom? Where are Sarah and Dad?”
His mother looked up at him, startled. “Oh, Jacob! I'd almost forgotten about you! Look, dear, Sarah, look who's home!”
She stood up, her eyes sparkling.
“Doesn't he just look wonderful, honey? I bet you've never been prouder of your son!” Her hand reached out and rested on thin air. “Of course, he was a little worse for wear when he arrived but-”
“Mom.” Jacob's voice was alien even to himself, a cold, dead thing. “Where are Dad and Sarah?”
His mother's eyes met his in shock. “Why, Jacob.” she said slowly. “They're right here.” She gestured to the two empty chairs, to the two full plates next to her.
Jacob looked into his mother's surprised eyes and replied, “No, mom. They're not. Those chairs are empty.”
Slowly, his mother's face turned from surprise to realization to a deep, painful grief that seemed to leach every bit of color from her face.
“No.” she agreed. “I guess they're not.” With that said, she sat down and began to sob into her hands.
The chills that had begun a minute ago began to escalate into a horror that seemed to Jacob unbearable. Disregarding the urgent plea of his thigh, he ran up the stairs and burst into his parents' room. The sight stopped him dead in his tracks.
The bedspread, carpet, and wallpaper were covered in a dusty red color Jacob recognized instantly as dried blood. It was as if someone had taken buckets and buckets of fresh blood and thrown it all over everything and then danced in it, for Jacob could see the outlines on hands and feet in the mess. Beneath the onslaught of red, the white bedspread was tucked in as neatly as it always had been.
Turning from the room, Jacob sprinted down the hall and into Sarah's room, only to be met by the same sight. The only difference was that a quilt in the pattern of the American Flag was covering her bed in the place of her regular white bedspread. A piece of paper lay on top of her pillow, and if Jacob had had any desire to go over and look at it, he would have found that it was her award-winning poem with the prize money still taped to the back.
Slowly, as though carrying a hundred pound weight, Jacob walked back down the stairs. The two images, the two rooms were burned so thoroughly into his vision that it took him a second to realize that he was in the kitchen again, facing his still-sobbing mother and the too-empty table. He swallowed and went over to the distraught woman.
“Mom?” he asked hesitantly, wondering if he really really wanted to know. Wondering if his mother would tall him. “What-” His voice sounded so weak, so scared. He cleared his throat and tried again. “What- what-”
His mother's voice rang out startlingly clear in the small kitchen. “It was the flu, Jacob. That God-damned Spanish Flu that the God-damned Heinies sent over to kill us. I can stand them fighting honestly in trenches with bullets and poison gas, but oh God, why with the flu? Sarah got it first, she brought it back from school, I think, and the next day Harold had it and three days later I was watching their bodies being taken away on the back of a truck. They won't let us bury them in town, you know. It's too dangerous. They're being taken out into the woods and put in some big hole with a hundred other people and sprayed with disinfectant and then buried. I don't even know where they are, Jacob. I don't even know where they are.” Her voice broke and she began to sob with a renewed vigor, the tears running down her face so thick and fast it almost seemed like her very skin was melting in grief.
Jacob stood and ran out of the room. His thigh was burning, but his mind was exploding with the images of the blood-splattered walls and his mother's voice and the fact that he had slept under a blanket identical to the one Sarah has died under. The only thought in his mind was to find the nearest recruitment office and beg them to let him join. Anything was better than going back to that awful empty house. He'd face a lifetime of trenches and Germans and bombs if it meant that he didn't have to go back.
Some things, he reasoned, are worse than war.