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. 

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

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. 

There is Only one Devil

Deeper, deeper we descended into the abyss. Before exiting topside, I stood on top of the mound of red clay and sand that accumulated from weeks of digging and watched the last of the sun drip into the horizon. It was foolish of me to hope the last of the day’s light found its way into this cavern. 

My lantern swung wildly on the steep walk down in the empty space and made the clay appear as flames around me. My partner instructed me to lower it closer to my side so it would steady. He was right. He was always right, that’s why I am the assistant. It’s a role I take seriously and with pride – and admittedly a little fear when we go on expeditions such as these. I observed with a knot in my throat as hired hands cleared piles of earthen flesh for little money at a very specific geographical location. I found myself with the desire to sit, my gut pulling into my spine as if God himself was trying to remove me from the dig site. My partner remained silent for most of those weeks, sipping coffee from an old metal thermos and occasionally directing the unofficial foreman of the angle required to reach the cavern. 

“This will make everything better for me,” he said the night before our descent. 

I nodded and drank some of the bourbon he shared, but I didn’t ask him to specify what exactly would be better. Everything is a lot. Of course I speculated to myself in the twilight hours, as sand patted down my tent, what was in the cavern. What – or who, maybe – has patiently or impatiently sat in the deep, deep darkness waiting for a rescue party to rediscover it. Or him. Or her. Any average man may have suggested oil or gold, but I knew my partner. Quiet, yes – a businessman, no. My partner was a collector of artifacts – mostly religious paraphernalia. And it didn’t matter the religion, as long as it was held by someone with great faith in their god. 

“The energy exists within the item,” he’d say, turning whatever it was at the time over and over in his palms. Sometimes he would hold his hands close to the fireplace as if to soften the barrier of flesh before squeezing the item, like he wanted to absorb them. Of course I found it bizarre but I never asked questions. I’m an assistant. I’m only paid to assist. 

The air in the cavern was thick and hung like the velvet drapes in my father’s old bedroom, although the space smelled like our family crypt. It resembled slow organic decay and sweetly rotting flesh, encased in porous, chilled stone. My partner turned back and saw me flare my nostrils and exhale hard from my nose to banish the smell. He laughed and it echoed in our theater. 

“Smells like a graveyard.”

“Quite so,” I said. 

“Come now, not much further.” 

I obediently followed, my lantern at hip height behind my partner. He walked with no light of his own, guided only by the whispering glow of mine. I thought he must have spectacular eyesight – and it made sense the longer I thought – because his estate was often dimly lit. Something that I chalked up to saving on electrical expenses. My partner was extremely wealthy, though. His worth – I’m not sure of the exact amount – could have covered the lighting of a hundred estates such as his. After further deliberation in my mind, I settled on the theory that my partner simply had very sensitive eyes. 

We walked for what felt like hours, and I noticed my lantern light was low. Still, I continued behind my partner who marched dutifully forward with no light – and no map. He must have memorized an old, found parchment prior to our exhibition, I concluded. My inner dialogues ended when my partner began to speak. 

“You have always been a wonderful assistant.” 

I felt a bead of sweat produce at my hairline and trickle down my cheek. 

“Thank you, sir.” 

“No, truly. Thank you. You’ve never questioned my hobbies, methods, or exhibitions. You do exactly what is asked of you, and I never felt I’d find such an exceptional help in this very long lifetime.” 

“Well, sir, I’m humbled,” I panted. The air thinned in some way. What a horrible time to begin a conversation, I thought. 

“Oftentimes, my previous assistants either questioned – or were offended by – my wide collection of various religious artifacts. As if there was only one answer to their higher good. I never understood that – the judgment.” He turned back. “You don’t judge me.”

“Who am I to judge what brings another man joy?”

“My point exactly! Who is man to judge what brings another joy? See? There is still some good in this world.”
I was always told, only God can judge us.” I blinked hard and slowed my descent on the rocky steps in an attempt to catch my breath. I felt hot around my neck and back. My partner, fading from my lantern, strolled ahead. He carried no pack, no water – just himself. He turned to see me struggling and waited for me to catch up. 

“Out of breath, old boy?”

“The air feels thinner. Forgive me. And it feels warm. I feel so warm.” 

“I know, isn’t it great?” He hugged himself. I couldn’t understand his resilience. I envied him in that moment. 

In the final throes of my conscious wobbling into the hot, unforgiving void, I noted my hunger and thirst rise as my flame grew smaller. We didn’t pack water. We had no food. My partner kept pace with me, although he was entirely unaffected by our surroundings, and I lumbered onward, heaving my legs one in front of the other. 

“To continue,” he said, “almost everyone who believes seems to be under the impression that their interpretation of the highest being – God, if you will – is the best version, and all others are wrong.” 

“At least there’s only one Devil.” 

My partner grinned in the dying glow of my lantern. He helped me up with ease and steadied me to my feet. We were finally on some sort of flat surface, and just in front of me, I could make out an impossibly large wall. I tried to raise my lantern, but was too weak; All I could see was a thick, vertical crack in the stone. 

“Yes my boy, there is only one Devil, and to some believers, the Devil is their God.” 

“What are you saying?” My vision blotted in and out in the already dark, oven-like space. 

“I’m saying, you have been an excellent assistant. But I need to go home for a while. Thank you again, for believing in me – for following.” 

The crack in the cavern wall began to glow and I was overcome with a white-hot light. My skin felt as if it would melt from my bones. Whatever air I had left in me escaped with a final bloody scream as I was engulfed in fire, my partner holding me, laughing. 

I woke up on the dirt mound. Red clay and sand stuck to the sweat on the back of my neck and behind my knees. Slowly, I sat up from what felt like a horrible, horrible dream only to notice my partner was gone. I placed my hand on my chest to make sure my heart was beating, when I felt something solid in the inner pocket of my vest. In it was a thick envelope, and in that envelope was the deed to my partner’s estate and a will. Both written over to me. I stood carefully and looked over to see an apparition of yellow raise up over the horizon. My partner seemed to have gone home, so I used my hands and began filling in the hole. 

Fish in a Barrel

Harold drifted down faster and faster until he hit land in the village of Kehrenbach, about 15 miles southeast of Kassel. The plane was long gone, as was the remainder of his crew. He landed in a field, cut his chute and began to look for cover in the trees of this small town. As he ran, he felt a sting in his arm and back. Harold looked down at his ripped sleeve of his bomber jacket and saw blood – definitely his. It was amazing he made it out of that plane, he thought. The last thing he remembered was smoke and heat, and jumping out of that damn bomb bay into nothingness. He was in pain, but alive – at least he had that to look forward to. 

Two little boys in the village saw the plane spiraling to its demise and noticed the red headed man with the parachute making his descent onto their town. As Harold reached this tiny village, the boys ran to him and followed him on his search for help. They spoke German at the man with the name “Schwerdt” on his jacket, but he couldn’t understand much of what they were saying. They pointed at his bloodied arm; he imagined he looked worse for wear and hoped they would be kind to him. He stopped before the two small boys and smiled. They looked up in wonderment at this dirty, injured American man who happened to land in their home. One of the boys approached Harold and tugged on the hem of his jacket and spoke at him in a pleading way. Harold didn’t understand much German, but he understood children.

His bomber jacket, although torn, still had intact pockets – one of which held chocolate. He reached into his jacket, broke up a bar, and handed pieces of the candy to the boys, who happily received them and continued to follow Harold as he searched for medical attention. Others in the town already gathered, drawn by the trail of smoke and crash. He smiled sheepishly and pointed to his arm and tried to draw some attention to his back. Sympathetic eyes of an old woman looked him over. The village’s Burgermeister and his wife arrived and approached the injured tech sergeant and offered assistance. The sound of barking dogs drew Harold’s attention to an official-looking group of armed men. A German police officer led them. He approached with reports that an American plane went down and there may have been survivors. 

“What are you doing with this American?” He un-holstered his firearm and aggressively waved it at the Burgermeister. The man was speaking German, but Harold knew he was the topic of conversation. 

The Burgermeister stepped forward and stood his ground between the policeman and Harold. “He is injured. He needs help. We can provide him help.” Harold stood, in pain, barely catching what words were said. “Hilfe, hilfe, hilfe,” he heard. “Help, help, help.” He remembered his mother asking for help with chores, or his father asking for help with handy-work. He thought to himself in that moment how he could have used his parents’ help by speaking more German in the house back in Jamaica.

The policeman didn’t care that the soldier was injured. He was American. “He must come with me,” the policeman insisted. He edged closer to the Burgermeister and lifted his weapon. “If you refuse, I will not hesitate to shoot all of you.” The Burgermeister, without lowering his head, stepped aside. He knew there was nothing more he could do for this injured American. Harold twinged in pain as the policeman bound his hands behind his back. 

“Schwerdt?” He gestured to Harold’s badge. “Do you speak German?” Harold shook his head no. The policeman mocked him. Surrounded by the villagers, and the Burgermeister and his wife, Harold never felt so alone. He was hauled off back through the town, the Burgermeister pleased with himself and his dog snarling at Harold’s feet. He was thrown into a vehicle and shut into darkness. Where would he be taken? Will he ever get to write Loretta again? 

From the Pacific

From the Pacific

June 22, 1943

Dear Sis,

I’m saving my pennies up now so when I hit the States I can buy an Army uniform and have two wives. I received a letter from Jeanne today and she told me all about your wedding and how successful it was. I don’t see how it could be, especially when it meant getting married to a lug like my twin brother. Did I ever tell you how much better I was than he? That’s not all, he and I are going for a couple of rounds when we meet. Yeah, up in Longs.

Well ReillySchwerdt – you old pot, congratulations and I wish you the best of everything. Don’t forget the kiss you owe me.

P.S. I thought we were having another air raid while all the time they were celebrating your wedding.

Love and Kisses,

Artie

Loretta had a good laugh over Artie’s letter. He was always going to be the funnier of the two. She never regretted her decision to marry Harold – the heart wants what it wants – but boy did she love seeing his handwriting. Receiving his letters took what felt like forever; the Pacific was a strange place. Artie obviously wasn’t permitted to discuss the toils of war on the other side of the world, but from what Loretta read in the papers and heard on the radio, it seemed just awful. There were internment camps for Japanese citizens in the United States – President Roosevelt deemed them necessary – so she could only imagine the type of treatment American soldiers received if captured in the Pacific. She hoped Artie would stay safe. 

Summer in New York seemed a little emptier. There was a bittersweet feeling of being newly married to a man who was now halfway across the world. Loretta sat over a pot of coffee with Jeanne, admiring her delicate gold band.

“I wonder if Harold looks at this often – and as fondly.” Jeanne poked a little fun at Loretta. Loretta looked up shyly and laughed, blushing. Jeanne smiled after she realized she got the desired effect out of her new sister. 

“So,” she began, “Mrs. Harold Schwerdt. Don’t ya just love it? Married to a Schwerdt man?” Jeanne and Artie were already married, and she was just as in love with her redhead as Loretta was with her own. 

“It’s a dream come true. No matter how quick it was – that doesn’t matter. None of that does. I just want him to come home safe to me.”

“He will,” Jeanne said as she sipped again. “They both will.”

Loretta felt at ease at hearing Jeanne’s words of reassurance. Her new sister’s confidence in the safe return of their husbands helped her to truly believe everything was going to be alright. It was a warm night and the coffee was cooling off the longer they sat in Jeanne’s kitchen in Hollis. She began to think about a nice warm night at their future cottage, little ones running around and animals chirping. She listened fondly in her imagination for water lapping the shore and the creak of a rocking chair next to her. The cars and people bustling around outside the window distracted Loretta from her daydream for a moment, and she returned to Jeanne’s kitchen. Someday, she thought. 

On her way back to her house that evening, she checked to see if any more letters came in. Unfortunately, the only parcel on the table was the note from Artie that she opened up earlier that afternoon. Loretta picked it up and carefully put it back in its envelope. She put the letter in her old shoe box full of other war letters from the likes of Harold, Jack, and Ned, and put it away again until the next message would come.  

Two Pieces

This story, along with the one before it Death is a Woman were rejected from a writing contest. I wasn’t allowed to publish the stories unless they were rejected, so, here!

Swarms of people gathered at the terminal and waited impatiently for it to open. All walks of life – men, women, and children formed like hungry animals, eager to board the next ferry across. The terminal was more frightening than the boat ride, it seemed; Wet, dirty cobblestone and high cavern ceilings of what surely felt like the center of the earth gave way for a symphony of echoes from nervous voices and shuffling feet. It wasn’t just the echoes, though, but the stink of tragedy that still hung to the freshly departed passengers. The growls and groans of a three-headed beast on the other side of the foggy river was a welcome tune.

And then there was Ellie. 

She didn’t recognize any of these people. Moments ago – it seemed – she was crossing the street with her family when she dropped her doll. Next thing she knew, Ellie was in this place. She must have fallen into a sewer, she thought, and these were all sewer dwellers. She wanted to cry out for her mother, but Ellie was taught to never cry out if she was lost, because a stranger would see her alone and take her. So she stood very still instead, and looked earnestly around for her parents. 

The jolt of an ancient whistle grabbed the attention of the passengers, and Ellie found herself swept up in a wave as they gathered in an orderly line per the instruction of the ticketmaster. Slowly, she felt herself sucked backwards as large feet, petite shoes – ball gowns and hospital gowns – pushed forward. Ellie heard an old woman complain that she waited her whole life for this moment and now she was stuck behind a destitute.

“Two pieces!” the ticket man hollered. Two pieces of what? Ellie wondered. She had two clips in her hair, two shoes on her feet – two pieces of what? She was last in line, still unable to locate her parents, although compelled to wait exactly where she was, certain they would come find her. And at the back of this line, she figured, it wouldn’t be long before she found out what two pieces the ticketmaster required. 

It felt like an eternity before Ellie could actually see the call box. Just beyond it was a short pier and – at the end of that – a long boat waited in the fog. She couldn’t see the captain’s face, but he was tall and thin and she thought maybe she didn’t want to ride this boat. She’d keep her clips and her shoes. Ellie couldn’t understand why these passengers wanted to cross into the fog – and it was almost her turn – so she tapped shyly on the back of an old woman’s arm. The lady turned around and looked down at the little girl. Her face softened, sad, to see someone so young in this line. 

“Oh, you poor thing. How did you get here?”

“I don’t know,” Ellie said. “I can’t find my mum and dad.” 

“Oh dear. They didn’t come with you?”

“I was just with them,” she replied. “I lost my doll.” 

“Don’t worry, dear.” The old woman put a soft hand on Ellie’s shoulder. “My husband didn’t come with me either. We can ride the ferry together.”

“Where is it going?” 

“To the afterlife, of course.” The old woman flashed a warm smile down to Ellie, but all she felt was the cold chill of fear run down her little spine. 

“I want to go home!” Ellie stomped a foot and it echoed across the floor, prompting those ahead of her to turn and stare. 

“Oh, child,” the old woman said, “you’re going to a new home. Your parents will find you there one day.” 

Ellie wanted to cry. She looked frantically for an exit, and saw none. She was alone, and only had the old woman to guide her. Eventually, it was the woman’s turn to pay the ticketmaster. 

“Two pieces,” a voice called from the shadow. She opened her hand and dropped two pence on the counter. A large palm covered the pieces and slid them into a drawer. She walked to the boat. 

“See you soon, dear,” she said. 

Ellie gulped and approached. He demanded the same two pieces. She checked her dress pockets, though she knew they were empty.

“I – I don’t have to pieces,” she said. Her throat was dry and hoarse.

“No pieces, no ferry,” he replied. His pitch didn’t waiver for anyone, not even a little girl. 

“But where do I go?”

“Nowhere,” he said, and slammed the callbox window shut. Ellie was left speechless as she stood alone at the pier. She watched the old woman turn around and saw her face change to sadness. The old woman lifted a hand in a limp wave goodbye, her head falling to one side. The boat pushed off into the fog, taking with it whatever light there was. 

Ellie sat on the ground in her dress. Her mum would have scolded her – but her mum wasn’t coming. She knew that now. She wrapped her arms around her knees and cried for what felt like hours, until a hand touched her shoulder, frightening her. 

“Why are you crying?” The woman smiled down at Ellie on the cobblestone. 

“I can’t go on the ferry, and I can’t find my mum and dad. And I’m scared,” Ellie wept. 

“You can ride with me,” the woman said.

“Do you have an extra two pieces?”

“I don’t need two pieces,” she laughed. 

Another boat arrived, different from the last. It was bigger, newer, and there was no ferryman in sight. Death took Ellie by the hand and walked her to the end of the pier. She picked up the little girl and placed her on a cushioned seat. Ellie felt safe for the first time since she arrived at the ferry terminal and thanked Death for taking her in. 

“No worries, darling. Let’s go find that old woman.” They rode into the fog.

Foresight

Foresight

I hate first dates. I hate dating in general. I hate awkward small talk — I hate letdowns. More specifically, being the let-downer. My job, my life — my commitments — all play into the conclusion I made decades ago where my personal timeline will remain solitary. It’s best that way. And when your job is timelines and time — when you know how everything plays out — dating seems a little frivolous.

    As a timeline keeper is it my sole responsibility to make sure time does what it’s meant to do — go forward. No hiccups, no hitches, no unplanned natural disasters. Many of the people in my own dimension feared the idea of possibly being assigned as a timeline keeper when they graduated the School of Intergalactic Maintenance and Monitoring, but as a type-A personality I prayed for it. My friends became black hole monitors, space debris cleaners — most of it done at home in our galaxy. But I always wanted more. I wanted to see everything, and more importantly, I wanted the opportunity to know everything. To be a timeline keeper is to know everything whether or not you want it. And once assigned, I was placed into the Think Tank — a very bland name for a very complicated, brain-stuffing process that loads the outcomes of all possible timelines I have to travel into and monitor. As soon as my brain was opened up and prepared for all things intergalactic knowledge, I was given my portal jumper and sent out into the universe. I go in, I monitor, I do maintenance; I right a wrong or two, and I go home.

And I don’t date.

    Why date when I know how and when everyone I come across will die? It’s on an individual basis, thankfully, so I am not overloaded with billions upon billions of lives. But who wants that? Every person I see, I scan. I can’t help it. The only one I can’t see is myself — they spare you that in the Think Tank. Could you imagine? Every time I brush my teeth, seeing my expiration date? Like a hard-working milk carton. Awful. I can’t complain about everyone else, though, because this is the life I wanted.

    My favorite chaotic little orb to visit is Earth. They are so primitive yet so confident in themselves. Even their language — communicating with their mouths in codes and words. Overly complicated if you ask me. Most of the living planets I visit are one language, or they just speak through their minds. Earthlings will get there someday if they don’t blow themselves up first.

    That’s my first order of business whenever I visit for maintenance and monitoring, more recently at least. I pop over to Earth every seventy years or so. My primary directive is to make sure all of their little nuclear buttons are still in the “off” position. They aren’t meant to self-destruct, and it honestly baffles me that every time I go to Earth there are less people in charge but they adversely have more power over things such as war. Earthlings still treasure wealth over efficiency and collectivism, individual power over forward-thinking. I don’t get it. Just because I am an interdimensional maintenance and monitor employee who knows all about every planet doesn’t mean I fully understand every race of beings.

    They have come a long way, though, even if they don’t see it. I certainly do. They’re slow, but they have a lot of little ones who are louder than past humans. I was surprised when I did my Think Tank update this time around, to see so many younger Earthlings demand what’s right instead of what’s easy. I told myself if things seem to be in place once I get there, I’ll hang a little longer in the dimension. Technically, I’m not supposed to linger; Timeline keepers are surprisingly lacking in the realm of free time. But I landed near Chicago, did a global scan, saw things in order, and decided why not? I work hard, I deserve a glass of wine. When I found a hole in the wall bar — I love that expression — I stopped in for a beverage.

We don’t have alcohol where I’m from. It seems like the more we learned of the vastness of the universe, the simpler we became. There’s no need for a drink after a long day because I always know exactly how long my day is supposed to be. There isn’t stress — or rather, there is the foresight of the stress — so there’s no need to crack a beer with friends at the end of the day. Conversely, there’s no need to celebrate anything either. There aren’t really any friends. There aren’t the connections like I see here where humans are busy fighting for their lives, their freedoms, their loves — and they come together after a long day and pour a drink and they laugh. If they don’t drink, they don’t, but they’re welcome anyway. And if they’re alone, they’re alone, but at the same time they aren’t. Not in a hole in the wall like this. Because everyone is collective in this space. I find it endearing. It’s something worth understanding.

I arrived at the hole in the wall and ordered a glass of merlot. Blackburn’s Belle from Cactus Park. It sounded like a fairy tale, something humans rely on because they want to believe in things like me. The space was small but inviting — safe compared to the galaxies I jump through. I sat alone and observed the people, scanning each one and watching them all as I slowly sipped my drink. I love merlot. It looks like power, tastes like Earth and its many fruits, and warms me like love and the dates I don’t have. It makes human-watching more enjoyable.

Then he walked in.

    His eyes looked like his soul was not from this planet. Usually when I see humans I see what I imagine they observe when in a zoo. Simple gazes, teeth-bearing, hugging — primitive affections that are almost wholesome to watch. But not him. He wasn’t endearing, he was engaging. It can happen sometimes — a humanoid gets stuck on a planet and adapts. It’s impossible for other humans to tell the difference, but I saw right away. He walked to the bar and ordered a beer and I observed as I always do. Then I scanned him. It was his last night alive. Poor thing.

“May I sit here?” He gestured to the open seat at my two-top and I nodded. He didn’t know what he was — old blood buried deep somewhere in the cosmos. If I wanted to I could have done a more thorough scan, but then he’d think I was just staring at him. So I nodded and smiled instead. The small bar was at capacity, and maybe I seemed to be the least-threatening to approach for some unfamiliar company. He probably wondered why a woman-passing, human-passing person was alone in a bar drinking a glass of merlot.

“Sure,” I replied. Then cringed. I never have to use my human voice. I never talk to anyone on these jobs. Rather, I’m not supposed to talk to anyone. But it was his last night on Earth, and I felt pity for him. I didn’t want him to have to spend it alone.

“What are you doing here alone?”

“Oh, you know, just passing some time after work.” That sounded legitimate.

“What do you do?” He took a sip of his beer and got mostly foam.

“Maintenance.”

“What kind of maintenance.”

“Intergalactic maintenance.” Why lie to him? He was going to die anyway.

“You work for NASA?” He seemed impressed.

“Yes.” I lied. “What do you do?” I wanted the attention off of me. Each passing moment on the Earth dimension could cause a hiccup. I should have excused myself and walked out, jumped portals, but I didn’t. I sat and listened, and watched. I had this tingling feeling in my belly — maybe of lowered inhibitions — but I was curious. I wanted to learn. That is my primary job description, anyway.

    He spoke easily and his human voice carried like a melody of some song bird I learned about in the Amazon. His eyes grew wide when he talked about college — something similar to my School of Intergalactic Maintenance and Monitoring. He wasn’t from Chicago, but he always liked it. He had dreams and hopes, friends and family — passion. Humans have so much passion.

“Can I buy you another merlot?” He pointed to my empty glass. An hour must have gone by. I didn’t even realize I finished it.

“If you buy me a drink then this becomes a date,” I said, trying to deter him.

“So what if it is?” He smiled and left the table without granting me a moment to protest, and returned moments later with a full glass of wine.

    I took a sip. A date. A first date. I checked my intergalactic watch which began to buzz because I was on Earth for too long. I was stalling, I knew, but he was interesting — and he was going to die. So I stalled. I talked about NASA; Even though I never worked there, I know all about its primitive space programs. It was easy to make things up as I went along, like a human saying their A B C’s. I rambled and hid my wrists in my lap as my watch jolted and vibrated. He talked about humanitarian projects. I checked my watch again. Almost midnight. Perfect. A nice little hiccup to help him along. Timeline keepers can create small bursts for themselves in the event of emergencies. Just make it to the next day and cause a minor slip — it will correct itself before the next solstice. I have done it for myself when trying to preserve a planet, but never on Earth, and never for someone else.

“Do you have somewhere to be?” He pointed to my watch, which I must have checked ten times in ten minutes.

“Just the bathroom,” I said. I left my half-glass of merlot on the table and walked into the women’s room. I checked my watch once more and took my portal jumper out of my jacket pocket. One minute after midnight. I took a deep breath and looked back at the door, as if I could see him seated at the table. I stayed far longer than I should have, and I would have to make up some excuse when I returned home. I didn’t get his name; I didn’t need it. His eyes were enough. And besides, he’d be dead by my next Earth visit anyway. I opened the portal and left Earth smiling, knowing the car would miss him — give him at least one more day.  

One-Way

I looked toward the mismanaged row of trees – leaning into each other and pitched curiously forward as they looked back at me. I can’t rightly explain why I chose France as the place to spread her ashes, but something about a chateau in the mountains posed an opportunity to put her where she wouldn’t want to return. There was the beach, sure, or the creek she grew up on. But I recalled an afternoon when she got the most brutal sunburn on her knees, and I recalled all the horrible memories she had in the house on the creek. I couldn’t let her burn again, or spread across the water, blanketing the murky, salted mire until she sunk beneath the surface forever.

She jokingly said, “Yeah, a one-way ticket to France,” at the deli counter of our local grocery store every time the portly butcher asked what she wanted. It turned into a ritual for them. I only remembered the phrase because I was very young at the time – that and the free slice of bologna he hung down over the counter for me each visit. I’d reach up to grab at the free food and look through the glass panes to his discolored apron pressed against the display case. He’d laugh at her jokes and she’d order meat and cheese for the week, and I’d return to my seat inside the cart alongside boxes of cereal and canned goods; I wondered to myself in my sea of groceries if the butcher was in love with my mother and what it would be like to have free bologna all the time. There aren’t too many memories that live in the forefront of my mind anymore but for some reason, as the years passed in their domino succession, out of order with the way things should be, I always remembered her comment about France.

Her death was just as much a shock as much as we weren’t surprised she died young. It had been twenty years since her last doctor’s appointment; She drank every night – and eventually every day; She never went without a cigarette between her middle and forefinger.

“Merit Ultra-lite 100s, please. For my mom.” I would hand the cash up to Kevin, the grocery store manager. He’d hand back change and two packs of cigarettes to me, a seven year old, and I’d run back to my mother in the checkout line feeling accomplished and responsible. By the time I was nineteen and she’d ask me to go buy cigarettes for her, I’d stand in defiance. “I may as well just hand you the gun along with the bullets.” 

She gave up asking me, the same way she gave up saying, “Yeah, a one-way ticket to France,” and the same way she stopped going to the grocery store altogether. A driver’s license became my freedom ticket and her death sentence expedited because I’d run all the errands and she could drink in silence and in secret without the worry of peering eyes. I could deny trafficking her cigarettes, but I couldn’t keep her from a bottle. Eventually  I looked forward to leaving, so I didn’t have to watch her hurt herself. I began to go to the deli counter on my own, but I just ordered a half-pound of ham, half-pound bologna, and a pound of American cheese. I never asked for France – France wasn’t far enough away. 

I went away to college, traveled around Europe, and by the time I was ready to start my life I had to come home to watch hers end. The hospital was only a short drive from where we lived, but it was certainly the most foreign place to me those two weeks. Bright white walls and high ceilings didn’t take away from the mental prison that I lived in. Each day, a little more of her escaped her body and crossed through veils we couldn’t see; Veils searched for with large overhead fluorescent lighting but never found. I sat in a room cramped with wet eyes and runny noses and mentally found myself as far away as possible. I stared at her body and saw a woman who wanted to escape the grocery store, the town, the house on the creek – and only found her answer in death. After we closed her casket one final time, I found myself waiting for the same thing. I wanted to be back in the cart, with her, wherever she was. 

Instead, life happened. Her urn found itself in the back of my walk-in closet, all but forgotten between a pair of suede pumps and an empty laptop box. My time with her was spent opening and closing the door to look for a sweater or a scarf. A picture of us hung in a thrifted frame on my wall where she stood next to the three year old me and looked out at my bedroom and watched me judge my changing body, saw my heart break more than once, saw my dog die – all trapped in silence, unable to escape. Sometimes I caught myself gazing into her eyes and wondering where she was in the photo. Not the catering hall where she held me on her hip – but mentally, where was she? Had she already predicted in 1993 that she wasn’t going to live 20 years more? Was the sadness always there? I asked myself where she wanted to be. Looking up at her urn on the shelf, I knew in my heart that my walk-in was not her plan of escape. Weeks passed until one afternoon the encounter with the butcher rushed to the front of my mind like he was placed there by someone.

France.

It was much easier to bring the cremated remains onto a plane than I originally anticipated; I could stow the ashes of my mother in my overhead compartment, but not more than three ounces of liquid. There are three essentials to transporting a compact container of a dead person: 

  1. They must be in an x-ray friendly box 
  2. They must be carry-on and not checked (honestly though could you imagine an overly-jostled container of dead mom exploding all over? I thought my mom would have liked that chaos)
  3. A copy of the cremation certificate from the crematory and also a death certificate for good measure 

Easy.

My mother never left the country before that day. When I was younger, I heard a story where she told my grandmother that she had a trip planned to Florida, but instead moved to the Southwest for three months to live with a boyfriend. Eventually, she returned, met my father, and married. She stopped flying in 1998. She stopped leaving town in 2009. She stopped leaving the house in 2011. At times, I blamed my own birth for her lack of exploration. I felt guilty whenever I traveled around, or when I studied abroad, because she was stuck at home. We would email back and forth – she’d say she was proud – but I also felt like she was longing. 

When we landed in Toulouse I felt more energized than exhausted from a flight to Paris followed by a flight to the south of France. It was finally happening and all it took was a couple of swipes of my credit card. With my mother rolling comfortably behind me through the airport, I picked up the keys to a small rental car and fastened her to the front passenger seat before making my way further south to the chateau. 

Toulouse itself became the perfect place to start my adventure. The city is juxtaposed between new and old, with its museum of natural history only a short distance from its space museum. In one time, a mammoth stands next to a space suit. Ancient artifacts next to tools intended to explore the universe – neither in a race with the other, both fueled by the thrill of discovery. There, in Toulouse, existence isn’t in dominoes of life and death, but rather bundled together in beauty and feeling. Time was free. It was the perfect place to release my mother.

My childhood itself was frozen in amber. I had no choice but to suspend it in time, lest the joyful moments be overrun with the crawlin, toxic monster of the end of my mother’s life. There was a time where I thought about learning to sail with her, or kayaking on the creek, or roasting myself on the dock in the summer. I rested my head on the memory of salt water and the constant smell of cigarettes and hairspray. After she died, though, my mind shifted to the odor of cleaning chemicals, the sounds of hissing oxygen, and the taste of my own tears. In order to preserve my memories, I had to displace the horrors. I turned to journals, articles, publications, and blogs – anything to keep the realities out of my mind and away from my innocence. And in order to preserve who my mother was, I had to put her where time stood still, where existence itself was one great moment. I didn’t rightly know why I chose that chateau – just south of Toulouse – but as I turned the car towards that structure, backdropped by mountains, flanked by wildflowers and a pond, seated between snow and Spring, I knew it was where she would want to stay.