Un-Liberating

Following on the coattails of what was one of the coldest winters in Europe, the devastation of the second World War was drawing to an inevitable close unbeknownst to the prisoners of XVII-B. The warming afternoons led Harold to think maybe he would finally be able to go home and see his wife. He’d have a decent meal, he thought. He’d get his teeth fixed, and put on some much needed weight. And he’d never have to deal with a goddamn bed bug again in his life. But, Harold wondered who would come save the men from this prison? 

Food seemed to be running out, or at least unbelievably sparse. Almost a thousand men were too ill to participate in mustering on the parade fields – no less leave – their barracks; Some prisoners voluntarily gave up their beds to accommodate the sick, and bunked up more bodies to the remaining beds, like Harold experienced the previous summer. He missed the summer months. He thought of the lake houses, of water skiing and fishing in Seaford with Artie. When Harold got back home – whenever that would be – they’d have to go straight to the summer house. 

The men were roused early one morning in April. The SS were yelling at them to put on whatever shoes or gear they had available – they were leaving the barbed wire walls. The men were, at first, skeptical, especially after Commandant Kuhn stole their gear and food only a year earlier. Some hesitated. It was cold and dark, and they were frightened. However, the Germans had a plan to follow the death marches of the northern prison camps. What started in January and February, Allied prisoners were evacuated to avoid liberation and forced to march to their deaths in the bitter German winter. Even in early April, some nights found themselves at freezing temperatures; these soldiers before Harold and those imprisoned at XVII-B were already walking through temperatures that reached 13 below. 

After learning of Russian forces steadily making their way west, the only leverage these SS had – the prisoners – were at a risk. The guards used the dogs to put the soldiers in line, left those who were too weak or ill to carry themselves, and they filed out of Stalag XVII-B for the last time. Harold grabbed what he could and found some familiar faces to walk with. This was the beginning of the end – end of what? He didn’t know. He simply walked – marched – out of XVII-B, and it was uncertain if he or any of the men were in fact marching to their deaths. They were all malnourished, improperly dressed, tired. They were tired of hurting, of war, and of prison. Harold knew, though, that he wasn’t tired of living. 

“Leave them.” A guard motioned to sick men in the infirmary barrack. The medic was ordered to leave. “We don’t need them coming with us; they’ll die soon anyway.” 

The medic protested at the inhumane treatment of the ill. That winter left about 1,000 men too sick to function and now they were ordered to be abandoned in the camp without medical attention. The guard could not be swayed. He ordered the medic to abandon his post and march on with the rest of the soldiers. 

“They’re grown men, they can look after each other. Your attention will be required on the journey, anyway.” 

The men lined up and Harold stood among a crowd of cold and frightened souls as he prepared to walk forward out of the open gates of Stalag XVII-B. It all felt like a trap. He spent so many months dreaming of the day where he’d never return to that horrendous place and as it was happening before him, he couldn’t help but feel it was still a dream. He held close whatever he could carry and kept craning his neck to make sure there were other men following in the same direction. They all looked unsure, but they knew they had no other choice. The cold lingered while the fog began to lift over XVII-B, and the prisoners breathed through in heavy huffs as the hell they endured grew smaller; the faces of the sick hung in between the barbed wire fencing like old portraits until Harold could no longer discern them. 

Setting up for the Long Winter

A prisoner died in his sleep that night. Whether he was taken due to starvation, cold, or if he just gave up – Harold didn’t care to know – it didn’t matter. Another life was gone. Another solemn ceremony was held and a man was given a memorial. A stone was placed on an ever-growing pile to symbolize his presence in the camp, to show where the world cracked open and seemingly swallowed up these thousands of men and obscured them from the rest of the world like some kind of alternate universe. Harold shed a tear of remembrance, a pledge that he – along with other prisoners – wouldn’t let the truths of XVII-B die. A chaplain said words in the name of God, and for the first time, those words felt powerless and small; Broken glass against the wall of winter that presided over the camp.  

The men piled in for dinner to find potatoes in hot water with cabbage again.

“Ah, spud soup. How generous.”

“Is there any Jerry butter around for these chunks of bread? This is bread right? Or are these rocks?” One of the prisoners held a piece of what looked like bread. His elbow on the table, he delicately balanced the morsel in his palm. Then, he turned his hand over and knocked the bread three times against the table. It was rock hard. 

“Come in,” he said. Those within earshot chuckled. 

“You got spud soup? I got beetle soup,” another said. He lifted his bowl to the others and tilted it downward. They could all see, floating around on top, a beetle. 

“Boiled down, at least,” another said. 

Harold chuckled along with the men and forgot for a moment that he was also eating the same spud and beetle soup, and that his bread was also like a rock, and that the Jerry butter had the same awful taste it did when he arrived in July of 1943. He forgot for a moment there was no parchment to write home to Loretta, and that the Red Cross hadn’t delivered in weeks. He was not yet broken, and he was amazed at how many of the men around him were also holding on to something – whether it was hope, comradery, vengeance – it didn’t matter. They took their licks together,and they ate their awful soup together. They kept each other warm; they died, they suffered, but they shared it all the same. If he were able to write to Queens, that is what he would talk about. 

The night drew on and the prisoners settled into their familiar bunks. The scratchy straw beds felt a little harder in the winter – but, in exchange for the cold, they at least experienced less insects. Harold drew in a deep breath and exhaled mist that illuminated the darkness above him as he stared up at the bottom of another bunk. An occasional crack was heard where a fire burned, but not for much longer. Bundled and ready for another evening encased in the chill of Austria, the prisoners dozed slowly at first, then all of a sudden, taken by the night.   

Making the Most of it

The cold stirred around the barracks and it forced the men to stay close, bundle more, and pray harder. It truly was the winters where they were grateful for overcrowding. Harold lay awake and wondered how he managed to pass over a second winter behind the wires of XVII-B – how the war seemed endless. 

Harold had not sent a note home to Loretta in weeks – nor had he received one back. He was unable to find parchment to write on; he didn’t know if the camps ran out of paper to send, or if the war was preparing to come to an unforeseeable halt. Or, in the far reaches of Harold’s mind, he feared he might not live much longer. The barracks, although filled, felt skeletal. The men were the bones, rattling and somewhat hollow, left behind after the decay of their imprisonment. After the sun set each day, hollow coughs and mist from mouths cracked through the bunks like the gunshots that no longer fazed Harold. When the sun did shine, it felt medical – prodding, invading the forsaken places of thousands of prisoners who wanted nothing more than to be home. 

Along with missing parchment, Harold noticed his own food rations dwindling. The Red Cross had not made a delivery in a suspicious amount of time. As he observed the rest of the men, Harold noticed everyone’s rations were scant. They were trading – not just more frequently – but frantically, almost. 

“You got some canned hash?” One man dug through his bunk for something to offer just in case he found himself lucky. He would have given up a pair of socks, maybe some smokes. But he was unlucky. They all seemed unlucky. 

“I sure miss my gal. I wonder what she’s doing right now.”

 Harold lay in his bunk, talking to whoever was sprawled out near him. It was much too cold to venture outside unless completely necessary. He had finished the two books Loretta sent, and eyed them next to his bed, debating whether or not to pick one up and give it a second chance. Anything to take him away from the barracks once more, even if he was visiting a familiar scene.

“I miss my mama’s cooking,” another chimed in and interrupted his daydream. “Some pork and beans. Maybe a nice fried egg. I’d love a fried egg.” 

Harold felt his stomach growl and agreed. “It’s certainly been too long for an egg.” He thought back to Sunday breakfasts at home with all his siblings. Pop would make breakfast on Sunday so Mama could have a day off. More important than the food, he tried his best to remember the warmth of twelve people all around a table – Harold and Arthur always next to one another. Arms overlapping for eggs or bacon or bread – everyone in a hurry to eat but no one in a rush to finish. Harold held onto the warm thoughts and wiggled his toes, just to make sure he could still feel them in their socks. His big toe poked out of a hole. Mama could fix that, he thought. 

The afternoon bled into the evening and the sun went down without so much as a notice from Harold. The men ate their rations – ever-smaller – and returned to the almost warmth of their barracks. It was apparent the guards knew something the prisoners did not, and whatever that was might mean either the end of the war or the end of the men. The Red Cross seemed to disappear almost completely, the guards seemed more on edge, and the suspicions of the enlisted men became palpable. There was an increase in manpower focused to the east, and Harold dared to think that maybe Allied troops were somewhere beyond his line of vision, coming closer. 

Truly Spectacular and Perfectly Wonderful

You know when you’re just meant to do something? You know when you may need some help to do the something you’re meant to do?

I have always loved the world of academia. I love being a writer, I love telling stories, and I already dreamed of grad school at the start of my senior year of undergrad. I knew where I wanted to go, who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do. Unfortunately life doesn’t care what we want sometimes. Just two weeks into my senior year of undergrad, my mom died of alcoholism. I moved back to school the day after her funeral, finished my bachelor’s degree in 2012, graduated on the Dean’s List, and returned home with a void that was filled only with writing. Grad school suddenly became the farthest thing from me. 

Suddenly, it was 2021, and I moved five times, lost more family members, made it through a pandemic, and was in a stable job. Throughout all of this, I wrote. I wrote a book about my grandparents’ love letters during the second World War. I wrote my mom’s truth, that she was plagued with an illness so many people battle, but so few talk about. I wrote a memoir, short stories, essays, poems; I was published in a couple of small magazines and websites. I realized writing was the only thing that helped me heal over the last decade and I wanted to pursue it further, but I was also afraid of rejection, like I may have missed my prime, or that I was just too late for the rest of the world.

Then, last month, by almost complete chance, I saw an advertisement for the David Lynch MFA program in screenwriting.  I felt like I had to try (one of those, what are the chances moments), so I applied and wrote a full-length screenplay in three days. Along with some writing samples, one letter of recommendation, and an interview with a panel of four, I was selected to be a part of the DLMFA two-year, low residency program! I swear I’ve checked my email three dozen times to make sure I read it correctly. And I wasn’t wrong. After a decade, and a furiously-typed screenplay, I’ve finally been given the incredible opportunity to study for an MFA. 

It requires four, ten-day, in-person residencies in Iowa on the MIU campus which calls for round-trip flights, miscellaneous student resources, some food, possible transportation, as well as a fifth optional residency in LA that offers hands-on experience in the world of professional screenwriting. I have some paid time off from work and some financial aid, but if the help is there, why not ask right?

So, dear readers, here is the link to my GoFundMe. Share a fellow word nerd, donate if you can, or not. Thank you for reading my stories all these years, or months, or weeks – whenever you subscribed. I look forward to sharing more stories, and someday soon being a name that shares movies with you all.

Passing the Time

Passing the Time

September 5, 1944

My Doll;

It’s another one of those nights that I just can’t stop thinking of you. I love you so much doll, that I eat my heart out with every thought. Those detailed memories of you hurt until my heart is numb with pain, and yet, they are my only salvation. 

All my love,

Ha 

October 17, 1944

Dear Doll;

I received a tobacco parcel and am enjoying it immensely. Thank you Sweets. Your letters are coming through, but irregularly. My birthday letter was accompanied with one dated July. It beats me. I love you Doll, with all my heart. See you in my dreams.

All my Love,

Ha

November 27, 1944

Dear Doll;

Received the 2 books you sent and wish to thank you. Reading helps matters considerably; your letters too are a great consolation. My doll, I love you very much and hope someday to fulfill all your sweet dreams.

All my Love,

Ha

A Touch of Scurvy

From the combined lack of food and the summer heat, Harold began to notice the sores on his arms getting worse. One of his teeth fell out a week earlier. When he woke up that morning, he felt a sharp pain in the side of his mouth. Harold put his fingers back and felt around, and found one of his molars very loose and tender. He didn’t know what to do, but figured it was probably infected. Using his thumb and forefinger, Harold wriggled the tooth around for a few moments until it came out in his hand. The pain immediately subsided, and he discarded the tooth. He then made his way over towards the infirmary to see if there was anything further they could do to help him.

“My boy, you are positively yellow!” The medic on duty seemed to take a step back at Harold’s appearance. It occurred to him that he hadn’t seen a clear view of his own reflection in over a year. 

“What do you mean I’m yellow?” Harold looked down and outstretched his hands. In the light of the infirmary he realized he was, in fact, yellow. He gasped, “What in the hell does this mean?” 

“It means you have jaundice, son.” The medic took a few steps over to Harold’s side and lifted his arms, giving him a once-over.

“I just came here on account of my tooth falling out. What made me jaundiced?” 

“Hmm, well I don’t know. Maybe the lack of nutrition in this dump?” The medic was sarcastic, but Harold knew it was directed more at the Germans than him. “Tell me, what else are you feeling?” 

“Well,” Harold began, “my teeth hurt; one just came out this morning. I feel weak but that hasn’t come to me as a surprise or shock; they don’t feed us. Am I going to be alright?” 

“I have to look in the Red Cross kits and send out a couple of requests. I think the British Red Cross gives oranges in their kits; maybe we can trade some things to get you some vitamin C. Just keep hanging in there, son. Let me look at your tooth.” 

Harold had the space where his infected tooth once resided cleaned out, and the medic was kind enough to wrap a couple of the worse sores on his arms. He knew he would have to make them last for at least two to three weeks, but it was better than nothing. He returned to his bunk feeling a little cleaner than normal, but after listening to what the medic said about his skin and scurvy, Harold realized he wasn’t feeling good at all. Sure, he was playing softball with the other men when the weather permitted, but that didn’t take away the fact that he was still very much deep in prison camp. The medic told him to rest and wait to see what he could get from the British.

By the following morning, Harold developed a low fever and felt he couldn’t possibly get out of bed. He blamed the Jerry manipulation, of course – minimizing their rations to the point that Red Cross rations were exhausted only a few weeks earlier in May. He shakily sat up in his bed and grabbed for his tin can in hopes of either finding water in it, or finding water available somewhere else. 

“You should sit out in the sun, ya know. It’ll be good for ya, Red.” One of Harold’s bunkmates helped him up and outside of the barracks. He was grateful for the arm and sat down on some steps near one of the buildings. Harold opened his shirt and saw just how yellow his skin had become. There were some smaller sores on his chest but they weren’t open like the ones on his arms. He gave himself a once over and thought to himself that he looked like ketchup and mustard. Harold chuckled, and then frowned – he hadn’t had ketchup and mustard in almost two years. He thought to himself how awful prison camp really was, for him to miss condiments. The closest thing to a topping for Harold was if any gelatinous fat was left on top of the poor excuse for meat they were served. The thought of it would have made him gag if he wasn’t grateful for the extra calories that came with fat. He closed his eyes and listened to the men play softball – a lucky day for them, the guards didn’t interrupt today.

“You Schwerdt? ‘Course you are. Look atcha!” Harold opened his eyes to a large Englishman standing over him. He was very tall and his body blocked out the sunlight that Harold was so very much enjoying. Harold surmised that, from the meat on the man’s bones, he hadn’t been in the prison camp for more than a few months.

“How are you?” Harold extended a hand, but did not get up. 

“Better than you!” The man was joking, Harold knew this. He appreciated the banter. He continued on, “Name is Davies of the beautiful R-A-F.” His accent pleased Harold – almost musical. 

“You know,” Harold began, “in the Navy, my brother calls you ‘Limey’s’.” He saw the Englishman’s eyes light up.

The man let out a bold laugh, “Ha! Takin’ the piss, I see? At least you have your sense of humor still. Look, the reason I’m here is because I met with your medic, and we do have some supplies you Yanks don’t that’ll help with your little complexion issue you have going on there.” He pointed to Harold’s open shirt. “We’ll get you fixed up, just go on over to the infirmary.”

It had been a very long time since Harold was treated so kindly. Davies spoke with a boom in his voice that Harold felt was lost to him from his time in XVII-B, he just couldn’t remember when. With Davies’ help, Harold walked over to his infirmary and was met with the man from the day before who took care of his tooth and diagnosed him. 

“Ah, Red, good to see you walking about. Get some sun?” He smiled and put his hand in his pocket. “I have something for you. It isn’t much, but it will get the ball rolling. Courtesy of the British Red Cross.” From his pocket, the medic pulled out the most beautiful thing Harold had seen in months – an orange.

He was speechless. He looked at the medic and hesitated. The medic smiled and nodded his head, extending his arm a little further for Harold to take. Davies stood on and watched as Harold graciously took the piece of fruit from the medic’s hand. 

“I – thank you.” He began to feverishly peel the orange.

“More where that came from. Waiting on some antibiotics for you. Just keep those wounds wrapped up on your arms. Rest up; we’ll have you ready to play softball again with the guys in no time.” Harold nodded as he ate the orange. It was so sweet – he couldn’t remember the last time he had tasted anything so sweet.

It took several weeks for Harold to feel like his normal self – whatever normal was. He spent most days in bed, only venturing out to visit the Man of Confidence or the medic tent for a check up. His bunkmates were kind enough to shove over and make room, giving him the bed to himself as he mended; Harold surprisingly found it difficult to fall asleep in such an empty space. Among the scratchy straw he lay, seemingly more aware of the miniscule pitter patter of bugs around him – more conscious of the labored breaths of hungry, tired prisoners. There was no warmth next to him, no reassurance that life existed close by as he stirred and woke in the middle of the night. There was no one to suffer beside. He was so accustomed to the overcrowding of Seventeen-B – of having to quietly push past men sometimes to get to where he needed, or waiting impatiently for a water ration or to use the latrines outside. Of course the latrines were completely dismantled, and the men were relieving themselves in holes before each other, but they kept their dignity by maintaining the bathroom pits, and everyone waited their turn.

He thought often of Loretta over those few weeks, of penning a note home to tell her everything was alright, and that he was feeling much better. Every time Harold reached for a pencil, though, he stopped, finding himself unable to put on the same mask he had worn for the past year. He didn’t know if he could trust his own hand to tell her things were swell, that he played some softball, or that he learned something new. What he wanted to say was the truth – that he almost died – more than once – that he saw men beaten and killed, that she probably wouldn’t recognize him when she saw him.

When she saw him.

The Runalongs

Another boring weekend meal at the home of Friends of a Friend of Mom and Dad. A stout housewife in heels that were either cut low or compressed under her size pushed once-a-year-used silver trays of tartlets and stuffed mushrooms in our faces with a smile embedded so deep in her apple cheeks that I swear I saw her molars. Mom graciously took or denied a bite at each pass; My boredom led to the discovery that she took from every two offers. Dad sat with a crystal glass half-full of sherry and enthusiastically engaged in banter with buzzwords such as “dividends” and “fiscal” and – my personal favorite of the evening – “fiduciary.” 

These Friends of a Friend had no children for me to engage with and partake in my own new fancy words, such as “fuck.” I sat politely, as previously instructed in the car on the way to dinner, and accepted hors d’oeuvres as they came at a rate of one-to-one. Exponential is the word Dad might have called that. Mom warned me more than once to watch my intake or else I’d spoil my appetite come dinner, but if I was forced to commingle with adults, I was going to take advantage of the free, painstakingly-prepared food. As far as I was concerned, she should be grateful to have a child who loves mushrooms as much as I do. 

The dinner itself was nothing short of overdone in regards to both the effort of the wife and the texture of the roast. Fortunately for Mom, Dad, and me, we were provided with serrated steak knives that effortlessly glided through the housewife’s science project. Unfortunately for Mom, Dad, and me, our teeth were not of the same strength as the cutlery. We ate, though, and complimented the Friends of a Friend, and made it to dessert which — although I’d hate to admit it — I was too full to eat. Mom was right, and I did spoil my appetite on the mushrooms from earlier in the evening. Another glass of sherry for Dad before we departed. The husband handed each of us our jackets, and made sure to help Mom into hers, before we bid them adieu and piled back into Dad’s car. In my opinion, he had one sherry too many, and Mom should have driven, but God forbid she gets behind the wheel of his Mercedes. She has her own. 

“It was a lovely evening.” Mom spoke like a B-flat in the sticky air of the car, the remnant smells of Friends of a Friend’s house dangling from the ceiling. 

“Mhm,” Dad said, trying to focus on not swerving. 

“Why do we have to do these things anyway?”

“It was a very good business connection for your father, dear.” Mom answered on Dad’s behalf because I think she, too, knew he was trying his hardest to focus on the lines of the road. 

“Whatever,” I replied. 

Thirty minutes into the drive I found my head moulded into the car door and I watched the white line of the road’s shoulder glide alongside the vehicle. Each yellow-orange street light just blink blink blinked along. It may have been the massive amount of food I ate, but I swore something was making its way along the side of our car, at the same pace as Dad. A man? Maybe some wolf-like creature? I’m not entirely sure, but the longer I looked, the more real it became. It used the guard rails, fire hydrants, lamp posts — jumping and leaping along as if it needed to deliver a message. I watched intently at the shadowy figure, hoping it wouldn’t lose its balance. Part of me wanted to tell Mom and Dad to look out the car window and see what I saw, but I knew Dad was too busy to focus, and Mom was too boring to care.

This creature — runalong — found its cadence eventually and ran well-enough beside us to make me forget that it was unnatural or abnormal in the first place. For the first time that evening I felt less lonely, and also forgot about my upset stomach where I imagined prosciutto piled on mushrooms piled on meat-flavored brick. I put my face in my palm and leaned my elbow into the car door so I could watch more intently, but just as I became comfortable, Dad turned a corner and continued down our street. I let out a sigh of frustration. 

“Oh, what? Now you don’t want to go home all of a sudden?” Dad snapped. His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. It was the first time he spoke to me all night, except for the pep-talk in the car on the way to Friends of a Friend’s house, where he told me to be on my best behavior or else he’d drop me off on the side of the road. Watching the shadow beside our car, I wished I goofed off at the dinner party. 

Once the car was off I leaped from the backseat and ran up to my private bathroom where I washed my face and brushed my hair, brushed my teeth and gargled, and got into my bed. It was up against my windows, and instead of falling asleep, I perched myself up far enough to get a good view of the street and lights that surrounded the end of our cul de sac. Anxiously, demanding in my head, I wished for the runalong to come find me. 

“Where are you? Come on…” I whispered into my safety blanket and cursed — quietly enough that Mom and Dad wouldn’t hear or try to come into my room. I locked my bedroom door anyway. I often heard about friends from the private school whose parents argue a lot after dinner parties, but mine never disagree. In fact, my parents don’t talk very much to one another. Mom goes along with whatever Dad wants to do — whether it’s a dinner party, or punishing me, or a new business venture — and everyone is happy. Everyone but me, I guess. 

It was about three in the morning, and I felt myself strain to keep a minimum one eye open for the runalong, when I saw a shadow zip from the pine tree on the front lawn to the street light across the street. My heart jumped out of excitement, not fear, that the thing I thought I saw really existed. 

“What are you,” I whispered. “Come closer. Come to the tree again.” I sat up tall and gestured for the runalong. I didn’t know if it could see me, but I wanted to at least try; I’d been awake far too long and wasn’t planning on going to sleep with failure on the brain. 

To my surprise, the shadow jumped back from the street light to the pine tree. Its movement was so smooth, but the shadow was far bigger than it appeared from where I sat in the car earlier, and I jumped back a little when it moved. I didn’t know if it could speak, but I said hello to it, and opened the window. 

“What are you?”

The runalong only stood perched in the tree branch. I couldn’t see its eyes — that is — if it had any. I could only make out vague appendages that wrapped around the branch and held it in place. Little swirls of shadows and darkness blotted out the street light behind it. I asked again, but it still didn’t answer.

“It must be so nice to just jump from treetop to treetop. Do you like chasing cars? Are you like a dog?”  

The shadow only moved a little. It inched closer to my window. I didn’t want it to think I was afraid so I didn’t move. My deduction was if the runalong wanted to eat me it would have done it when I first opened the window. Maybe it was never noticed before and just wanted a friend. Either way, I had questions. 

“Are you alone? Are you lonely? I get lonely. Mom and Dad only wanted one kid and even though I asked for a sibling they said no, so I just stopped asking. We were coming home from a dinner party. I hate dinner parties. There are never any kids. Do you know what kids are? I’m a kid. My parents are adults. And you — I’ve been calling you a ‘runalong.’ I hope that’s okay.”

The runalong appeared to sit up and mimic me. I determined this was its way of communicating so I patiently waited for its next move. It seemed to grow a head and a neck and even though it didn’t have eyes, I felt like it was looking into mine. 

“I bet you are lonely. I would like to be your friend, if you’ll let me.” 

Mom and Dad expected me to sleep in late from all of the excitement of childless, mushroom-filled dinner, so it was no surprise to them when I didn’t come downstairs for breakfast. It was slightly more suspicious when I wasn’t present for lunch, but Mom had a hair appointment and Dad was in a meeting. When dinner came around, and I didn’t show up, Mom walked up the spiral staircase and knocked on my door. When I didn’t answer, she jiggled the handle to find it locked. Mom ran downstairs and rummaged through the junk drawer for a spare key, ran back upstairs to shakily open my door. She finally called out to Dad when she saw my room was empty, the lights off, and the bedroom window open to the evening air. 

Dad grabbed the keys to the car and they peeled out of the driveway, out of the cul de sac, and down the road for any sign of where I might be. Mom cried for the first time in years, and Dad’s lower lip disappeared from how hard he chewed on it. They looked ahead, to the left and right — but not up — so they didn’t notice two shadows running alongside the car. 

Win it for Red’s Gal

Win it for Red’s Gal

The weather was warm and the sun shined brightly down on the prison camp. It was Sunday, and the men were fed prunes that morning and Harold attended the small mass with the prison chaplain. He received communion and was on his way back to the barracks when some of the men stopped him.

“Hey, Red! We’re going to try for some softball today. Wanna join? We could always use an extra man.” His bunkmate waved him down and Harold decided it was a nice enough day to spend some hours out in the sun before writing a letter to Loretta. 

“Well, alright,” he said. “I gotta tell you boys, though. We better win. It’s my girl’s birthday back home.” His teammate smiled.

“That’s just swell! We’ll be sure to win it for her.” 

The men had a good game going, very evenly matched. They were back and forth, unable to score on each other but still having a great time nonetheless. Harold felt in himself a release of the prison – the fences and barbed wire a blur as he swung and struck out. He had energy. He didn’t know if it was the prunes he received for breakfast instead of hot water, or that it was Loretta’s birthday, but there was an infectiously happy energy among the two teams. 

By the ninth inning the men were exhausted. The teams broke for a moment to recollect themselves and come up with a strategy. 

“We gotta win this for Red’s gal,” one of the men was panting excitedly. It was nice for them to have a goal to work towards. 

“Yeah, we have to give him something happy to write home about.”

“I always write home happy things to her. She doesn’t need to worry,” Harold reassured. 

When the teams assumed their positions to finish the ninth inning up, a guard approached.

“Wrap it up and go back to your barracks.” He was holding a rifle across his chest. The men looked around, confused. It was only midday – not to mention Sunday – and they were entitled to their ninth inning of softball. One of the men approached the guard with his hands out.

“We’re allowed to finish our game here. We only have one inning left.” The guard, without speaking, raised his rifle and struck the prisoner in the side of the head with the butt of the gun. A couple of men in the crowd of softball players cried out in disbelief, while the others stood breathless in the dirt. The man fell to the ground, unconscious and bleeding. The guard returned his rifle to the front of his body and took a step back, facing the men, giving room for them to come in and collect their friend. Some of the prisoners were afraid to move, thinking it was another challenge for them to also be struck with the rifle – or worse – shot. 

Harold hesitated for a moment with two other men, but decided to approach the player. His face was covered in dirt and his hands limp. His right arm lay loose across his stomach. They reached his side, and Harold crouched beside him.

“Can you move?” Harold now knelt in the dirt next to the prisoner. He lay on his side, breathing, thankfully; there had been enough death earlier in the year. There was a small pool of blood under his head where the guard connected with the butt of his gun. Dirt and sticky red caked the man’s forehead. Harold placed a gentle hand on the fallen prisoner, who winced under his palm.

“We have to get him over to the infirmary,” another prisoner suggested. Harold nodded and stepped aside while the prisoner who spoke up, along with the help of one of the medics, lifted the injured man to take him away and dress his wounds. 

“We’re already prisoners! What gives you the right?” A disembodied voice protested from the small crowd that gathered.

“Stay in line, and it won’t happen,” the guard replied. He was sickeningly overconfident with his gun in his hand. He gave a cool, dismissive glance over the malnourished faces, turned on his heels, and returned to his post.

As soon as it began, the situation diffused. With no one left to confront, the men dispersed. Harold brushed the dirt off his knees and looked down at his palm, then further past it to the blood on the ground. How much longer, he thought. The blood lay stagnant in the August heat, flecks of dust fallen from his pants swirled around on top of it. He returned to his bunk to write Loretta. 

August 13, 1944

Kriegsgefangenenpost

My Dearest Wife;

I want you to know, doll, that today my thoughts and heart went home to you. I hope you had a happy birthday, and I wish the future brings happier ones, with your truly to share in the honor of bringing pleasant times to you.

An exciting game of softball was played today that went into extra innings. Before game time, I informed the boys that it was your birthday and immediately they shouted, “We’ll win it for Reilly.” We did honey, we won it in the ninth inning by a score of 1 to 0. It seems now, that I’ve taken on a new name; the fellows call me Reilly. I like it doll, for every time I hear your name I think of you. That’s all for now sweets. Regards to all.

Your Ever-loving Husband,

Ha

A Couple of Notes

A Couple of Notes

July 5, 1944

My Doll,

It’s in my heart, on the tip of my tongue, and at night, it forms on my lips, I love you. I miss you doll, more than I can say.

Time is going fast, for when the weather permits, I’m outdoors playing ball, and on “rainie” days I read. I would like a few best sellers. Yesterday’s sport events were excellent; the main even being a softball game between the North and South. After a 10-inning struggle, the North won with a score of 3 to 2. I’m looking, these days, for mail containing a picture of you. Although, I see you in my dreams, it’s not enough. I’d enjoy seeing you during the day. That’s about all for the time being, my love to the family and regards to all.

Your ever-loving Husband,

Love Ha

July 22, 1944

Dear Doll,

Another note to tell you I love you and miss you more than words can say. Each minute is packed with thoughts of you, which makes the time seem to go much faster.

I received another cigarette parcel – March to May – yesterday, and am looking forward to getting my food parcel. Many thanks.

My activities of late consist of basketball, about 4 games a week, and baseball of which I average about 4 games a week. Tomorrow, Sunday, I’m playing 3rd base for our All Star Team. It should prove to be an interesting game. On rainy days, I catch up on reading. I’m still OK honey and I’m hoping you’re having some fun and enjoying good health. That’s all for now sweet stuff.

Regards to all, and Always Love Ha

Perfectly Horrible & Unspectacular

Perfectly Horrible & Unspectacular

I wrote my mom’s eulogy before she died. Well, technically, she was brain dead, and I sat on the hospital bed next to her and penned what I thought were the appropriate things to say about a dying woman. She heaved her breaths — no pitter patter — more like a see-saw with cinder blocks tied to each end. Or like two men in the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s, sawing down the mighty sequoia at a pace not unlike the amount of time it took for the tree to grow. And I sat beside the heavy, small woman and wrote on my phone’s note taking app about science projects, real estate, and how her favorite saying was that she was “sparkling,” in reference to her mood. I cried with guilt that evening, as if I sealed her fate for her; The eulogy is written, no turning back. Even though she was already brain dead.

And after she died, in a church she never went to, under a God she never confessed to, I held the hand of the brother I didn’t get along with and talked about science projects and who Patricia was, or at least how I wanted her to be remembered by the masses. I wanted the rows filled with mourners in black and blue to leave with tears in their eyes and the happy memory of Patricia doing paper mache science projects the day before they were due. What a perfectly horrible intention. What an unspectacular woman.

I left the church with knots in my stomach and watched the hearse take her back across the street in a non-procession to be cremated and split between several small containers and be kept forever, so each time I returned home I could look at the physical minimization of the personality I shrunk in church for the fear of being too real. Too true. I imagined for weeks that she was looking down at me, mumbling and cursing as she often did when alive because I blotted her existence under the guise of good intention. It ate me up inside, consumed my thoughts that I failed to speak the truth on her behalf.

Until I did.

It took several months of denial and only two beers on a ferry across the sound — my academic River Styx — the gateway between the horrible truths of my home and the fluffed up ideals of undergrad. I wrote about the hospital. I wrote about driving through state after state, and taking a boat, and driving some more to see a woman with egg yolk-colored eyes and matted hair stare into my face and say, “What the hell are you doing here?” I wrote about how lucky I was to select a school only a hundred miles away just in case Patricia decided she didn’t want to live anymore. That yes, in my senior year of college, my choice to pick the school I already invested three years in finally proved itself to be the best decision, because my mom finally pushed herself over the edge and I could make it home in only a few hours.

That was my truth. And her truth. The woman who left me on the see-saw with my legs dangling in the air was an alcoholic. During much of the wake and funeral, my dad told everyone she was simply ill, or that she had liver cancer, or that her kidneys failed — all in an attempt to escape the taboo of a successful small-town business woman drinking herself into oblivion. The whispers would have been too great for him to bear alone, and I never blamed him for it. But while she lay in the closed casket for two afternoons and two evenings, I felt as if I was staring into a deep well of secrets that would follow her to her grave. I couldn’t allow that, so I wrote. I described the hidden bottles of vodka around the house, and I wrote about her throwing me into a refrigerator in a blackout. I mentioned the afternoon, just months before she died, when I talked her back from committing suicide. A couple of weeks after that, I went and studied abroad at Oxford. She sent normal emails, happy emails, don’t worry emails.

Then she left.

She was an expert at science projects. She always said she was sparkling. Those were truths. She was also unbelievably troubled, but Patricia was far from unspectacular. Never in my life have I seen another woman drum on the steering wheel of a 1984 Toyota Camry hatchback with the vigor of John Bonham, nor have I ever witnessed a middle-aged woman rap horribly albeit passionately to Eminem’s Curtain Call album. I never saw someone talk into a phone with such a commanding voice that she practically ruled the world of real estate in our town, standing on the shoulders of egotistical men in cheap cologne that was drowned out by the scent of her White Diamonds perfume. Never in my life — still never — have I witnessed someone as hard as the liquor she hid from view soften to the needs of childhood friends and feed whoever sat at our table, no questions asked. Patricia wore a name tag that said “Slut” on it for an entire day of work. She made a very detailed paper mache penguin, she taught me how to drive; She didn’t want to live. And she left me alone in the worst way.

But I shared her truth.

I shared it with friends, literary agents, strangers on my blog — the universe. I feared the responses. I feared taboo and stigma, addict non-sympathizers, etc. I also feared that my writing was garbage and that I was no more than the ramblings of my childhood diaries. So when the overwhelmingly positive responses came through, I found myself in shock coupled with pride — and most of all — humbled at the amount of people who told me they could relate. They felt less alone. They wanted to share their stories as well. They felt less horrible in their grieving.

Slowly at first, and then all at once, I realized I was meant to be a storyteller. I learned the value of truth and the importance of telling it to others. I felt an honor inside of me to tell the truth of my mom — someone plagued with demons — while maintaining her humanity. It inspired me to tell the truths of others, like my grandfather, and his struggles in the war. I turned it into a screenplay as well as a book, and an online series on my website for good measure. Then I received a text telling me, “Yeah, I think you’ve found yourself in the right place.” There is no need to hide the truth of others, to make them unspectacular. It’s a secret that festers and holds overhead like a specter, unwilling to leave until it is let go with reality. My mom was so dynamic, three-dimensional — human. Her story was multifaceted and something that many people may not have directly lived, but the crevices of her persona, the events of her struggles — the feelings of her life — are what brought my readers to common ground. I am most passionate about writing truths, and presenting them in such a way that shows the beauty of people without demonizing them for being human. I will spend my life telling stories, and I will spend my sometimes perfectly horrible life speaking the truth.