Shawn Yager: I am an over-educated, under-employed family man with a passion for language. Over the years, I have had a few short stories or works of flash fiction published in various venues.
LOVE by Shawn Yager
Robert Mackey, soldier in the United States Army, Infantry Division, woke up with his cheek in a puddle of blood.
As he stood up slowly, he discovered that his body was sore as hell, and that he was surrounded by house-sized craters, blown apart war machinery, and corpses.
He checked himself over. He had his fair share of cuts and bruises, but the blood on his cheek was not his own. It probably belonged to the corpse at his feet, next to where Mackey had been laying a moment ago, and whose arm had been blown off. A look of surprise frozen on his death mask, as if to say "Dang, my leave was going to start tomorrow, too!"
What hurt most was his stomach. It was empty. His new purpose was clear. Search for food. Like a game of hopscotch, he dodged crater and corpse to began his quest.
A couple of hours later, he walked through a bombed-out village in which the only structures still standing were the headstones in the village cemetery. On the smoking outskirts there was a house that had somehow, like himself, survived the recent bombing run. Maybe he could get something to eat there, if the cupboards hadn’t already been picked clean by roving, hungry soldiers.
The door of the house swung open easily. There were curtains on the windows, tied back with bows. There was a table, with a table cloth. A flower stood in a soup can in the middle of the table.
And there was a teen-aged girl standing in front of the table, holding a gun in her hand.
Mackey's fingers touched his holster.
She wore the uniform of the enemy, but the sleeves and the pant-legs were rolled up, so she looked more like she was playing dress-up than defending her country. He pulled her hat off, the hat of an officer, and saw a long blonde braid, a rope of sunlight, wound around her head. Something soft and pink, like a pajama top, peeked out from between the buttons of her coat. He reached for the buttons, but she stuck her gun in his side and snatched his gun from its holster.
The house was an art museum. The girl was a work of art, even though her eyes were red from crying, lack of sleep, or just sustained fearfulness. Her cheeks were sunken. She looked like she had spent many nights crouched in a dark corner, hugging herself, listening to bombs exploding, waiting for death.
"Food!" his stomach screamed.
Taking a chance that she wouldn’t shoot him with his back turned, Mackey opened cupboards, pulled out drawers. The girl stood to one side and watched.
After he covered the table with what he found, she sat down next to him.
Together they rejected nothing, regardless of appearance or taste. They shared chunks of fat, huge pieces of gristle, crunchy cartilage.
At the point where his stomach could stretch no further, Mackey pushed his chair away from the table. He rubbed his belly and smiled at the girl to say that they had achieved something. She looked at him, smiled for a moment, then looked down at the floor and the smile vanished.
She stood and walked into the bedroom. Like a puppy, he followed her. Without pulling back the blankets or taking off their clothes, they lay down on the bed. It was like a huge pillow. Mackey was asleep within seconds.
When the soldier awoke, he found the girl standing in the doorway, holding her gun and waiting for him. They went outside, behind the house. There was a shovel and he knew what she wanted him to do.
He dug until the hole grew large enough for a man to fall backward into, if he stood in front of it and was shot in the heart at point blank range.
Is this going to be my grave? he wondered.
She waved her gun in the direction of the house and they walked to the cellar.
On a wooden shelf, two small bundles, tightly wrapped in gray woolen blankets, lay next to a few moldy potatoes. Each bundle was rounded at one end, and flat on the other--little mummies wrapped in wool. She made him pick up the bundles.
Mackey carried them in his arms as if they were sticks of wood. Like they were on fire, how they felt on his arms burned into his memory. He set them down next to the hole. The girl took a bundle and set it into the hole, then set the other one down into the hole snugly against the first.
“Go,” she said to him, pointing her gun at him.
She might as well have shot him. The only word she had spoken to him the whole time they were together went through Mackey like a bullet.
She threw his gun onto the ground at his feet, then picked up the shovel and started replacing the dirt.
He stood there for a moment, watching her.
"I can help you with that," he said.
She didn't respond.
He emptied his pockets of bullets, dropped them next to his weapon. He turned and resumed walking along the dirt road that had led him here, away from her.
The moon came out, as well as a lonely star.
The backs of skulls and elbows and heels burned his forearms. The woolen shrouds scratched his skin. The look of the girl, haunted, haunted him.
“I killed those children," he said.
He walked for another day until he encountered an encampment of fellow Americans. They all seemed happy and talkative. Mackey spoke only when spoken to.
An Army doctor looked at him, tapped his knees with a little rubber hammer, and said he was fine.
The US Government put him on a ship for New York. He spent the voyage leaning over a railing, vomiting into black water.
The entire city was in the streets celebrating the end of the war when he arrived. As fast as he could, he found the next bus home and boarded it, managing to miss being in a parade in honor of the returning soldiers.
During the bus ride, between bouts of restless sleep, he thought about the girl: Who was she? Was she their mother, their sister, their babysitter? Maybe she found them lifeless, and took it upon herself to provide them the dignity of a burial? Did she go to school? How old was she? What was her name? What were the names of the children? How old were they? Did she have a boyfriend? What is she thinking about right now? Is she still alive? I hope she's still alive.
I should have stayed, he said to himself. She must have seen something in me that she liked. She chose me to help her bury the children. She would have grown to love me.
He imagined living with her, in that house. They would be farmers, have lots of children.
I'm going to marry that girl, Mackey decided. I'm going back there and I'm going to marry her.
The bus dropped him off in front of the house he had grown up in.
Mackey stood next to the mailbox, the rounded kind that everyone had, with the red flag you can put up if you need to, but it looked strange to him. In neat black letters, his father had painted "MACKEY." The paint was faded. It could use a touch-up. He watched the bus drive away, belching a black cloud of exhaust. Part of him said "Wait, I changed my mind!" It swerved to avoid a pothole and he watched it shrink to a dot. Then, all he could see was corn. He turned and faced a dirt driveway leading to a white house with peeling paint, almost surrounded by chest-high corn.
The house didn't seem that big anymore.
The lights were on downstairs, creating squares of brightness contrasting with the early morning grayness. Leaving the mailbox behind, he headed for the door.
His father opened it and Mackey looked at him.
“Well, well, well," his father said with a smile as he opened the door, "Hi there, Bobby. Mother and I were wondering when you'd get home."
Are you really my father? He's shrunk, Mackey thought. The general shape was the same as he remembered--skinny and stooped. But he had a lot less hair, and what he had was totally gray. More wrinkles. Had he always squinted like that?
Don’t you dare salute me, Mackey thought.
“Come inside and have something to eat. We're just sitting down ourselves. Mother! Bobby's home!"
He hated how hungry he was. His father pushed him into the dining room.
"You're just in time to help me bring in the corn," he said as he guided his son along. "Hey, did you do any mechanical work while you were gone? The tractor's acting up and darned if I know what's going on. Your cousin Phil's been helping with the farming while you were gone. I told him it would be temporary, though, until you got back. Course, that was a few years ago I told him that. Anyway."
The table was set for breakfast.
He eyed the spread lustily.
His mother ran to him from the kitchen.
Are you really my mother? She, too, seemed to have shrunk. Like the house and his father. Hell, he thought, maybe I've shrunk, too. How do I know? She seemed not to have changed as much as his father had, except that her hair had gone gray, and her face displayed more wrinkles than he remembered, and maybe she was a little more rounded.
I guess this is the right place, he decided.
She threw her arms around him.
"Oh Robby, I'm so glad you're home! I was afraid you'd never make it back." She shed tears that stained Mackey's shirt. Mackey stood there, like he was getting a shot, and endured her embrace.
"Yep," he replied, "here I am."
She released him, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
"You don't know how many times I woke up in the middle of the night, certain that you'd been killed."
"Nope, made it through."
His father had him sit at the head of the table. Mother gathered a pile of eggs and bacon and toast onto a plate. She poured him a cup of coffee.
“Here you go, Bobby,” she said, as she passed the plate over to him.
His parents stood against a wall as he sat at the table and gorged.
"You were very lucky," his mother said, watching him eat. "WE were very lucky."
“So,” his father said. “how are you?”
“Oh, just great,” Mackey said, mouth full. "War was a blast. You should have been there."
"Robert!" his mother scolded.
His eyes went from his father to his mother and back.
“You know what I did?”
“What did you do,” his father asked.
“I killed two children.”
“Oh, Lord!" his mother cried out, and covered her face with her hands.
“I might as well have,” Mackey added quickly, apologetically.
“Oh, well, OK, yes," his father said, patting his wife's back. "I see what you mean. That’s why they say war is hell, son. But we won, thanks to you. That's the important thing. And now you’re back in the good old U.S. of A.”
“You know what really gets me?" Mackey asked his parents. "What gets me is that I can kill for America and they’ll have a parade in my honor--for killing! Children!”
“Please stop," beseeched his mother. "I know you've been through a lot, but please--"
Robert shoved more food into his mouth.
"Sorry," he mumbled through the mouth full of eggs.
"Oh, my," his father said, eyeing the cuckoo clock on the wall. "Look at the time."
"Robert," his mother asked him, "did you want to go to church with us?"
"No thanks. Kind of tired."
"Well, that makes sense. Maybe next week, then? We'd love to have you go to church with us."
A car, black with rounded fenders, turned onto the driveway, producing a silo-sized cloud of dust and exhaust. Its horn let out two quick beeps.
“Harold,” Mother said, quickly dabbing the corners of her eyes with her napkin, “Mr. Harris is here.”
“I’ll go get our coats.”
"I got the Bibles."
Mackey watched his parents hustle around, gathering keys, handkerchiefs, hard candy, their breakfast forgotten.
"Bye, Robert," his mother said to him. "See you later."
"Bye, son," his father said.
They were half way through the door.
"I met a girl over there," he said.
His parents stopped and looked at Robert.
"Well, that's a pleasant surprise!" his mother said.
"Tell us all about her after church, OK, Robby?" his father said.
"Sure, sure." Under his breath, he said, "Not much to tell."
His father closed the door behind him with a gentle click. Robert looked at the doorknob. He felt like his stomach was about to burst. He stood up slowly from the dining room table and looked around. He found cabinets, opened and shut their doors, until he found a glass bottle nearly full of brown liquid.
"Whisky," the dusty bottle read. This is exactly what he was looking for.
Mackey went to the bathroom and stuck his finger down his throat until everything he had just eaten ended up in the toilet. He felt much better. Now he could breathe. From there he walked to the living room with the bottle and let himself fall onto a couch that faced the picture window. The big window allowed him to see the road, see where the bus had dropped him off. There was the ordinary-looking mailbox with his name on it. There was a huge field on the other side of the road, full of chest high corn. Like it or not, he would probably end up helping his father harvest it, as well as the corn on this side of the road that threatened to invade the house. Off in the distance was the river that passed through town, reduced to a dark sliver. He took a gulp from the bottle, gasped, and took another. He remembered his father's question about doing anything mechanical while he was over there, because one of the tractors needed some work. He laughed. I know how to fix a rifle, that's about it. He closed his eyes and slept.
He dreamed that the girl was standing on a cloud. She took her hat off, her long golden braid wound around her head. She unwound it and let it fall, thousands of feet. He caught it. He climbed and climbed. It was so easy! It was the easiest thing he had ever done! It seemed to take forever, though, but he kept on climbing and soon enough he could see her through the cloud, her rolled-up pantlegs. She could see him, too, and she waved to him, smiling, encouraging him. A feeling of happiness went through him. He knew they would be together again.
He woke up with a start. He had no idea where he was. He looked around and realized that he was in his parents' living room.
He almost spilled the whisky.