By Sean D. Gardner
He walked back into his room and took a silent look around. It was familiar, yet strange to him. Posters of his favorite sports teams lined the walls, his trophies of past accomplishment gathered dust on the dresser and his bed sat freshly made, ready for him to ruin. It hardly changed since he left two years ago. His bag slipped off his shoulder and landed with a muffled punch on the floor. The bed hissed an awful screech as he sat down and his eyes were immediately drawn to the gold lettering inscribed on his pack. It read “Lieutenant Michael Taylor.”
He sat stiff in his own room. Although he knew the place he called home for 18 years, he moved around like he was in a museum. He kept his hands close to his sides as he looked at his own belongings. Each step he took was gingerly and very thought out, as if a creaking floorboard was a crime. When he caught his eye in the mirror he stopped and shuttered.
Michael came to attention and clicked his boots. He was a well-built man, yet slender having missed a few meals over the last two years. His brown hair was messily combed over to the side and dull. His skin was a creamy white, like an old cup of coffee, but for the drooping black bags under his eyes of a man desperate for sleep. His large hands were dirty. Each fingernail mangled and broken, painted with a mix of blood and mud that settled underneath each nail.
The closet door was gently pulled open and inside he found a pair of blue jeans and a flannel shirt. He neatly folded his uniform and laid it on the bed. The aches and pains shot up and down his body as he pulled the pants up and over the stitches on his knee and he winced as he pulled his shirt down on his badly bruised body.
“Oh, Michael,” Mrs. Taylor said walking into his room. “Those old clothes are just hanging off of you.”
He half smiled and shrugged back at his mom. “It’s ok, I guess.”
She looked him up and down and nearly shrieked at all the dirt on his fingers.
“Let’s get you washed up and I’ll make you a big hearty meal,” she said before kissing her son
on the forehead.
“We will get those pants fitting properly in no time.”
She grabbed at his arm as Michael started down the stairs. She noticed a new found limp on her son and dug her nails into his arm as she held back tears.
“Ma, it’s ok,” he said. “These aren’t the first stairs I’ve battled since being discharged.”
She gave out a nervous laugh and hesitantly loosened her grip as mothers often do.
Michael gripped the banister and looked around the house. He noticed old pictures of his younger smiling self and the traditional family portraits from Christmas time.
“Your father should be home soon,” he heard behind his thoughts like a voice in the distance. He wasn’t particularly hungry, he learned to fight the call for hunger on the front but he’d do anything for his mom and if he was being honest with himself, he did miss her homemade pasta.
Even her worst meal was better than the rations he forced down.
At first he twirled his fork aimlessly in the bowl and pushed around the noodles like he was a kid hiding his vegetables to earn his dessert. He caught his mom’s pale stricken gaze that made her red lipstick stick out like a sore thumb and scarfed down the plate. Almost immediately she scooped another generous helping on his plate.
“Mom, really I’m not that hungry I ate before I got home — honest.”
“I know, Michael, but I just worry. I haven’t seen you for years and I’m worried you didn’t eat too well. Who knows what they have all the way over there.”
Michael rolled his eyes and tried to think of a snarky remark, but before he could his dad came storming in the door.
“Son, welcome home,” he said behind waterfalls of tears. He grabbed his boy up from the chair, counted his limbs, eyes, ears, fingers and toes and gave him a hug that cracked his son’s back.
“At least you came back in one piece,” Mr. Taylor chuckled.
“You bet dad.”
“I’ll make you a plate dear, let Michael get back to eating,” Mrs.Taylor said. “He lost too much weight over there.”
Michael’s mood started to lift and for a moment he felt like he was truly back home. He laughed, made jokes, and caught up with his parents. His face started to hurt from smiling so much at once, a rarity in the last two years.
A silence overcame the dinner table and his mom put the final dishes into the sink. He felt a tight grip deep inside him. He found it hard to breathe and started to feel a cold sweat on his brow. He gripped the table and avoided all eye contact as his mind began to race. Explosions rang in his head, the screams of his friends and the pitter patter of bullets flying into the ground drowned out his parents. He took a few deep breaths and listened to his heartbeat through his chest.
“Calm down, Mike,” he told himself. “You’re home. You’re home. You’re home.”
Tires screeched outside and an engine roared down the street. Mike sprang up out of his chair, knocking it over and screamed.
“It’s ok son, it’s just the dumbass neighbor and their race car,” Mr. Taylor said. “If I’ve told him once, I’ve told him a hundred times to knock that shit out.”
He reached for his kid and placed his hand comfortably on his shoulder. “Look here, boy. You’re home now. It’s going to be ok.”
He looked over to his wife, who could no longer hold the tears back.
“You just gotta get re-accustomed, Mike.”
Michael felt his dad’s hand on his shoulder and the nightmares disappeared and his heart started to beat normally.
“I think I ought to head to bed. It’s been an eventful day,” Michael said. “It will probably be good for me.”
A week went by and every day was the same. He tossed and turned in bed and woke up in a puddle of sweat stained into his sheets. Screams filled his head and then came out of his mouth. His parents rushed in and saw their boy in tears. Along with the bad was the good. He laughed, watched sports with his dad and sipped on whiskey, but when the memories came all was lost. Even the smallest noises set him off. Racoons rummaged on trash day and his eyes shot open and he nervously checked the window gripping a knife from his pack. When he was sure it was safe he’d crawl back into bed holding the knife under his pillow, never parting with it until the sun rose.
One morning he ventured into town. It was the first time his mother let him leave the house since coming home. He breathed in the fresh air and a sudden calmness came over him. A calmness he hadn’t felt since before he came home.
Once in town the nerves got the best of him..
“It’s just people, Mike. People you’ve known your whole life,” he told himself.
As he walked men tipped their caps, stopped and shook his hand and told him thank you. Little boys awed at him and they told their parents they just met a real hero. His body shook as he looked down at them with an awkward smile. His vision started to get blurry and he spun around, running into the nearest storefront to get away and was hit with the smell of fresh bread.
“Well, it could have been worse.”
He grabbed a fresh loaf of bread, turned around and immediately dropped the loaf.
“Eek, I didn’t mean to startle you,” Katie said. “I saw you walking and I just wanted to say it is really good to see you again….I was worried I may not.”
Mike stared at Katie and felt an anxiety that was worse than any memory of war. He looked her up and down and noticed how much growing she did since he’d been gone. He became awestruck by her flowing blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. Her smile dug into his heart and he almost forgot how to speak.
“Well, it was up in the air there for awhile,” he said, gaining his confidence back.
“Oh my, are you serious…What happened,” she said with instant regret. “I mean, you don’t have to answer that. I don’t want you to if it doesn’t make you comfortable.”
“Honestly, I haven’t thought about it much,” He said with a sore smile. “Can I get you a cup of coffee and we can catch up?”
He held onto his coffee tightly and walked down the cobblestone street with Katie. The brick and mortar stores made him feel trapped and the passing cars made him jump.
“You seem a bit antsy, Mike,” she said. “Do you want to sit down?”
“You know, it’s odd. I never expected to be like this,” he said as they made their way to a bench.
“Everyone stops and says ‘thank you’ and even my parents treat me differently. I can’t sleep and I can’t get it out of my head. Funny enough, the only time I’ve felt fine is when I’m alone again.”
“Well maybe you should go away for a bit and find yourself.”
He stared into Katie’s eyes and thought for a minute. He considered an old camping spot he used to frequent and how the sun beat down on the river and the birds sung their innocent songs.
“You may be onto something there.”
“I always knew what was best for you.”
“If only I had you by my side over there. I probably wouldn’t have gotten into any mess.”
Mike told Katie about how he got hurt and ultimately sent home. He told her about being reckless and wanting to be a hero and volunteering for a mission.
“You’ll be in and out. As routine as it could be,” He remembered the general saying.
It was anything but. After an ambush, he took a bullet to the leg and his squad was left without ammo until they were miraculously saved.
Hours passed by in an instant and Mike took Katie to her door and they said their goodbyes.
“Don’t forget what I said, Mike,” she said as they held each other. “Get out of here for awhile, it will be good for you.” She gave him a passionate kiss on the lips and looked up at him. “Hurry back though, I’ll be anxious for our next date.”
Mike took her advice seriously and thought about the old spot and how he’d break the news to his parents.
The miles of walking began to catch up to him and his knee started throbbing in pain as he approached the door to his home. He grabbed the doorknob and leaned into it and almost toppled to the ground as his mom, who was staring out the window waiting, swung it open.
“I was worried sick about you, Michael. We both were.”
“I’m sorry but can I talk to you guys for a second…it’s important.”
They sat down on the couch and Mike broke the news that he has to leave.
“But you just got…” his mom began before being cut off by Mr. Taylor.
“I thought as much. It’s like you’re not really home yet. Just tell us what you need.”
Ominous clouds began to fill the sky the next morning yet Michael pushed on and threw a backpack into the trunk, grabbed the cooler his mom packed with enough food to feed a family for the week — let alone one person camping, and tugged on the straps holding a canoe snuggling on the roof.
Michael drove alone on an old road out of town and watched the traffic backup going into town. The yellow lines were faded on the tattered road littered with potholes. The uneven roadway proved a challenge for any driver who appreciated their vehicle and tires. For miles the car moved slowly, zigging and zagging to avoid danger until he hit the freshly paved turnpike in front of the assembly plant. The building stood like a mighty castle in the concrete jungle of the city. Michael slammed on the brakes and felt a cold shock run down his back as he gazed at the smokestacks spitting out smoke, a line of airplanes ready for use, and billboards asking for war bonds. He stared up at the poster painted in dazzling colors and an eager face running into battle. He lost himself in the eyes of the soldier and began to hear the screams and explosions of the past. The truck’s tires squealed and smoke oozed from the pavement as Michael sped off. He spit out the window and continued his way north, all the while keeping a nervous eye on his rearview mirror and fixated on the plant until it was safely out of sight.
The gray skies followed north and grew darker at the campsite as Michael pulled into an empty stretch of land hugging a river. A few trees were scattered around and provided enough cover from the winds and rains surely on their way. Michael hung a tarp between a handful of trees and placed his tent under it and threw his pack inside and laid down.
After a quick rest he pushed his way up a trailhead and marched through a narrow passage that opened up onto a rocky plateau. The wilderness opened up and he saw the deep valley sprawled out across the land, cut in half by a winding river and enclosed by towering mountains lightly powdered with snow. From the plateau he grew uneasy. The clumps of grey clouds quickly push their way across the sky, like huddled bodies at a concert. In the distance wisps of clouds made their way to the ground. The explosions filled his head but he soon realized it was the storm moving quickly towards him. He turned and ran from the sounds and the rain and moved his way back through the wooded trail. He jumped over roots, weaved between tall pines and crossed over the river via a beaver dam and back into his campsite. He strapped his tent to the tree and huddled himself inside the tent, nearly in tears as the thunder clapped above him and the rain echoed off the tarp above him.
Michael now sat shamelessly in his own tears, screaming at the top of his lungs as the lightning struck. He cursed the war, he cursed God, and he cursed himself. In a fit of rage he brought himself out of the tent and stood in the rainfall and watched the clouds.
“If you won’t go, I will,” he screamed to the heavens.
Michael ripped the canoe off the truck and threw it on top of his back and grabbed a paddle. The rain rang off of the aluminum hull and reminded him of bullets glancing off a tank. He plopped it into the water and climbed in. He scanned the sky for any sign of blue or sun shining and caught a beam of light shining down in the distance like a spotlight. Michael dug the paddle through the water and heaved it backwards. The current pushed back and the canoe seemed to stand still in the current. With every clap of thunder and every lightning strike the chains wrapped around Michael’s heart and a smog began to fill his head. His shoulders burned, stomach ached, and he couldn’t discern between his screams or the ones in his head, but he paddled on.
He remembered being in a freshly washed uniform, thinking how glorious the war would be and how he’d come home with medals and be a hero. He remembered his first mission and being struck with the reality of war, the lies of glory and the men around him, some of them his closest friends, lying in pools of their own blood.
His hands tightly wound around the paddle and blood dripped down it. The rain masked his tears and the thunder masked his screams as he continued to struggle against the mighty river.
He remembered the humming of planes overhead and out of sight and the whistles of bombs falling through the sky. He remembered bombs landing and bodies torn to bits and cascading with the rubble in the aftermath.
He remembered storming buildings and smashing faces with the stock of his gun. Dragging soldiers, just like him, to prisons and to an uncertain future.
Michael pleaded for forgiveness as he broke his gaze with the beam of light. He cried out and let the emotions take him over.
“I can’t fight anymore,” he told himself.
The paddle fell with a clunk inside the boat and he brought his bloody hands to his face and let out a painful cry. The current carried him away, back into the eye of the storm. He stared into the river occasionally catching his ghastly reflection. A shell of himself remained in the canoe, an empty house that once belonged to a young boy.
The campsite passed by and Michael guided his canoe to shore. He made his first strides on land and the rain began to fall easier as he brought the canoe back to solid ground. Michael sat on the edge of the river and felt a sudden sense of calm as he looked downstream. He washed the blood from his hands and watched a cardinal swoop past him and find itself on a bare branch of a pine tree near the ground.
The bright red bird looked at Michael and cocked its head, giving him an odd feeling. The bird reminded him of lost friends, but he found a certain comfort by the winged creature. He moved towards it, expecting it to dart away, but the bird was not easily startled. It quickly turned its head with a sudden curiosity as Michael got up and walked over to his pack and got his cooler from the tent. He pulled off chunks from the loaf of bread he bought at the market and tossed it in the birds direction.
The bird hopped down from the branch and started to peck at the bread.
“I’m sorry,” Michael said wiping away the tears running down his face.
He ate a sandwich and filled his canteen with the river water and filled his empty stomach until he had to undo the top button of his pants. Michael constantly watched the bird pecking at bread and couldn’t help but give out a smile. He had his back up against a tree and occasionally looked up at the grey sky with his eyes closed and felt the light sprinkle of rain on his skin. When the sunlight broke out from above him, the cool air slowly became a warm breeze and blew the rainwater from the trees.
The sunlight warmed his skin and he stood up leaning against a tree until the sun ultimately set. As day turned into he started a fire, changed into dry clothes, brought his pack to the fire and peered into the beauty of the fire. The flames danced around and the wood crackled. He saw the faces of his parents and Katie as he lost himself in the flames. He breathed in the camp air and felt at peace — an emotion he thought he lost.
The gold lettering of “Lieutenant Taylor” caught his eye as it flickered off the light. Michael reached into the pack and pulled out a beaten up leather bound notebook. He cracked it open and began to flip through his journal entries. In between the covers were stories from the front. Some were happy stories, most were nightmares. As he got to the end of the notebook he turned to a page titled Goodbye: My final words. Michael read it over and over again before tearing it from the notebook and throwing it into the fire. In a flash it was ablaze and he gave out one last sigh of relief before falling asleep to the gentle sounds of the crackling fire.
About Sean D. Gardner
Sean D. Gardner is a journalist residing in Grand Blanc, Michigan. When not writing he enjoys being outdoors, good coffee, and the company of his beautiful wife and their two dogs. More of his work can be found at Gardnersjournal.wordpress.com.