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The icy ground glittered beneath my boot-clad feet. I kicked a lump of dirty snow to watch it skitter across the gray parking lot. It exploded onto an unattended grocery cart. Biting my lip, I shoved my freezing hands into my pockets. Looked like a bomb. During my time over there I had too often watched the homes – so tiny they looked like doll houses – erupt beneath me. I tried not to think of the people inside the tiny homes, the lives they led. The lives I ended. I shuddered and kept walking, head down against the biting wind.
I enjoyed grocery shopping. It was orderly. All things simple kept me going through the winter, when everything freezes and dies. Lists, too. Milk, bread, butter, eggs. The organization of the store calmed me. Fourth shelf on the right in aisle nine, two shelves past the fruit, last register on the left. As I stepped through the glass doors back into the cold, a smiling soldier on a “Join the U.S. Army Air Corps” sign blew off the bulletin board. I caught it with my free hand, balled it up, and tossed it in the nearest waste can.
My apartment door jammed for the second time this week. I launched my body against it; the paint-chipped wood creaked and swung open. Sighing, I trudged in and dropped my keys into the basket on the floor. I turned to the kitchen-living room combination and sank onto my only piece of furniture, a fraying blue couch I'd found on the street. A puff of dust rose from the cushions. I needed to clean. Mom would be furious if she saw the condition of my apartment: bed unmade, clothes on the floor, paint peeling from the bare walls. I grimaced at the memory of her incessant chore list every Saturday.
Mom. For a moment I saw her in the barren doorway, arms folded disapprovingly at my lowly abode. Then she was gone, and the vast emptiness of the room enveloped me again.
I didn't sleep well that night, with the wind howling outside. When I did, it was restless as always. My dreams were haunted by my past.
Chris was screaming at me over the seat of the cockpit again.
“Jesus! We're hit, left engine!” he said. I grunted, disappointed. Our night mission had been going exceptionally well until the Nazis opened fire out of nowhere. Now it was a full-fledged air raid.
“Pull up, pull up! Get us out of here!”
I ignored him. Those bastards were going to get what they deserved; I was not giving up and leaving now. I didn't mind these missions, attacks on the enemy. It was the civilian raids that didn't sit right with me.
“Hit again! We gotta go back, John!”
My Douglas P-70 Havoc, my beautiful lady, could get us home. I was confident of it.
Our tail caught fire. The engines began to sputter.
I woke up shrieking. Poor neighbors. After I caught my breath, I leaned over the side of the bed to pick through the mess on the floor and found the addressed postcard. I had never written to Mom, even after I came home. She probably thought I was dead. Good. I preferred that to her thinking of me as some kind of hero. If anything, I was a villain. How could I face my mother, pale and frail – how could I look into her icy blue eyes and have her reward me for all the evil things I'd done?
I tore the card to pieces. I leaped from the tangle of covers and tore everything out of my closet, looking for the box. It came crashing down from the top shelf. With a deep breath I ripped it open and dumped its contents onto the floor. My uniform, the medals, the stupid paperwork. I chucked them across my small room, leaving a dent in the wall. Great – I'd have to pay to fix that. I sank to the floor in despair and rocked against the wall for a few hours, eventually falling asleep.
“Hit again! We gotta go back, John!”
Chris was begging for me to turn around, but I ignored him and flew on.
“You son of a b****!” He thrashed against the seatbelt, trapped by the dented-in cockpit.
We were hit two more times before my girl gave in. Moaning, she plummeted toward the unforgiving earth.
It was bright, hot. My eyes could barely open against the blazing heat. Desperately I unbuckled and pushed out of the tangled mess, looking for my co-pilot. I found him, neck bent unnaturally to the left, blood coating his uniform. I tried to drag him out.
“Never leave a man behind.”
We tumbled out onto the stiff grass. Then I ran, dragging Chris, until I collided with a pack of armed soldiers.
I failed Chris. At his memorial, I could not stand near his family, their unknowing eyes wet with tears. His mother had appeared beside me quietly, thanking me for my service, and told me that Chris had written to her about me. Her eyes searched mine, looking for some remnant of him. But I was a broken man, and my eyes were as blank as my soul.
I killed so many innocent people during the war. I killed him and was given a Silver Star and a Distinguished Flying Cross for my actions. And a third, the Victory award, for being in the war. Disgusting. I was not a hero. I didn't deserve anything better than death. My eyes burned with self-loathing. I thought of the medication by my sink. I didn't like to take it; it made me feel like a dependent coward. But now I thought of taking them all. I wanted to forget. Better, I wanted to die.
After four pills, I thought of my mom. Why hadn't I ever called her? How cruel and selfish of me. I regretted it now. With a jolt I stood and raced outside, searching for the nearest pay phone. I stuffed a few coins in and dialed the operator. Slowly, so slow. A bored voice answered. I demanded a number, here's the address, please put me through, it's urgent. Too long, an eternity, to connect. A sad, sleepy voice now: “Martha Branson here.” Thoroughly confused, not to mention groggy, I asked for Mrs. Geraldine Anderson.
“She moved four months ago; they put her into a home. Figger she had some sort of massive depression, since her son died in the war. Who's calling anyway?”
“Ah, her – grandson. Can you give me the address?”
I couldn't just let her die, couldn't leave her thinking I was dead. Hero or not, I was her son. My duty was to be by her side 'til the end.
I caught the earliest train to Boston, fidgety the whole ride. I felt sick, and not just from the drugs. Sick with regret for not doing this sooner. After I arrived, everything became a jostled blur of insane searching. Finally, Green Mill Village, 62 North Coddington Road. Sixteen steps down the snowy sidewalk. Two dings of the receptionist's bell. Fifteen minutes of discussion and waiting. Second floor, fifth door on the right. One hundred steps down the hallway. I stood before the white door, number twenty-three. She was snoring inside.
I knocked three times.