Currently over at Stitched Smile Publications Magazine’s website, there is a contest going on. There are 5 stories so far, and yes, I wrote one. So, go check them out. Make sure and like and comment on your favorite stories (those count as votes, and no, you do not have to vote for mine) Seriously, like and comment on them. We apprecaite it.
My phone chimed its usual tone of three knocks on a door, letting me know I had received a text. I picked up my phone, not really expecting a text from anyone and thinking it might be some spammer trying to get me to buy something useless or steal my social security number and bank account information. I frowned when I saw the number was all sixes, like from one of those legal commercials you see on television during daytime programming. The preview message simply said, ‘picture.’
I opened the text and clicked on the image. My mouth dropped open and my eyes grew wide. The text beneath the photo of my beaten, bloodied and mutilated body read, ‘Shhh … try not to scream …’
“Nothing but a ghost,” Bobby said as he looked from the ground where rails were covered in mud and weeds to the rusted out locomotive jutting out of the water.
“It’s a steam engine,” Hannah said and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. She wiped snot on her pants, sniffled and dug both hands into her pockets. She didn’t care much for most boy clothes—she wore hand me downs she got from her older brother, Tucker, and hated them—but she liked those pants. The pockets were deep and she could stick her hands all the way in (unlike all of the ‘girl’ jeans her friends had).
“How do yah no?”
“Look at it.”
“I am looking at it. It’s nothing but a rusty locomotive.”
“But it’s more than that, Bobby-O.”
“Yeah, I guess so, Hannah. By the way do you know what a locomotive is?”
Hannah rolled her big hazel eyes, not trying to hide it from Bobby. “It’s a train.”
“Nah. That’s not what it is.”
“Then what is it?”
“Crazy motion. That’s all. Crazy motion.”
Again, she rolled her eyes and shook her head to go along with it. Hannah stepped into the muddy water. Her shoes and ankles were suddenly cold, but she wouldn’t turn around. No, once she got something in her head, she followed through and she aimed to get a better look at the train in front of them.
“What are yah doing, Hannah?”
“Checking it out.”
A few steps in and her right foot slid, almost sending her to the muck she now waded in. She corrected, regained her balance and looked back.
“Yah trying to take a spill?” Bobby asked with a snicker. “Yah almost went face first right into the river.”
“But I didn’t, so stop your laughing.”
Hannah put her arms out at her sides and waded through the deepening water. She reached the front of the engine and put one of her hands on it. The heavy rust that covered it felt like chalky nubs of glass, not quite sharp enough to slice skin if she was careful, but if she wasn’t, oh the gashes it could cause. She put one foot onto the side rod. Water fell from her pants and sloshed out of her shoe as she reached up, grabbed hold of another rod and pulled herself up and out of the river.
“Yah see anything?” Bobby called from the bank.
“Hold your horses and let me look.”
She shook her head, a little in disgust, a little in annoyance. Bobby was two years older and about six inches taller, but a hundred percent more chicken than she had ever been. Yup, his yellow streak ran from the back of his skull all the way down to his oversized tailbone.
Hannah eased along the rod, and slid her hand on the side of the locomotive until she reached the cab. She leaned just enough to peak inside the open window. Sludge and weeds covered what she could see of the floor. There was a bench seat, rusted and corroded springs jutting from the ruined upholstery. Sitting on the bench were the skeletal remains of the engineer. Though his clothes were mostly tattered rags, a striped conductor’s hat still remained on his fleshless skull.
“What the …?”
She stared, her eyes big, her mouth open. Then the skeleton moved, its head shifting on its boney shoulders. It seemed to look at her with its blackened sockets and its forever grin. Hannah’s hands slid away from the locomotive, her left foot slipped from the rod and she tumbled backward. A second later, she landed in the brown water of a river that was once a lake and that one day, maybe even one day soon, would be a pond, then a stream, then nothing but a memory. She went under the surface for a moment, then popped up, took a deep breath and gathered her legs under her.
Hannah stood, looked at the locomotive for another five seconds, then she turned back toward the bank. She said nothing until she reached a very dry Bobby.
“What d’yah see?” he asked.
“Nothing but a ghost,” she said and walked by him, water dripping from her clothes, her feet sloshing in her shoes.
Ronnie’s breaths are labored; sharp gasps that sounds like he’s whistling through his nose, even with his mouth open and the few remaining teeth barely visible behind thick lips. He’s a little bigger in the midsection than he was years ago, when his health was better, legs and arms stronger. The green uniform doesn’t fit the same, a little snug in the middle. A contradiction of sorts being that his legs and arms never got much bigger, only his torso.
The cane goes out in front of him, the rubber stopper silent on concrete that looks as worn as he feels. His right leg pulses, his left one sends a shard of pain from knee to hip with each hobbled step. Ronnie reaches the corner, takes a deep breath, lets it out in a whistle through the hole in his throat. To the left, a crowd has gathered, men and women and children lining the sidewalks on both sides of the street. He straightens the best he can, a man in his late sixties who looks like he’s approaching ninety. Bones pop and a sliver of pain chides him for trying to stand tall.
He adjusts his VETERAN OF FOREIGN WAR cap and steps into the road, turns and limps along the sidewalk, passing families and groups of children, his eyes fixed forward as if none of them were there. He sees the small opening in the crowd—a place just large enough for a veteran of his size and stature. The sidewalk is barely six inches higher than the black top, but for legs that have seen a bullet in one and shrapnel in the other it is three feet or higher with no handrails to pull himself up with.
For several seconds Ronnie eyes the curb, steeling himself against certain pain that promises to eat away at him the rest of the day and into the night.
“Would you like some help, sir?”
He glances up at the young woman, her eyes soft and brown, her face a study of concern. “Thank you, Ma’am,” he says, sticks out a gnarled hand missing two fingers and places it in hers. With her strength and his cane, he gets onto the sidewalk, lets out a long whistling breath and nods at her. His face is pink with exertion and maybe… just maybe a little embarrassment. When he was younger, he wouldn’t have needed help. Ronnie looks back at her, gives a nod.
Her eyes linger on him a moment longer, something in them… something stronger than concern. Unease? Fear? Worry? All of them? The sound of a marching band pulls their attention from one another. He looks to his left. One of the local high schools’ bands proceeds toward them, the students in yellow and green outfits, feathers in tall caps. They pass with their eyes straight ahead, their instruments blaring, drums thump-thumping. Behind them a car—a Thunderbird, he thinks—inches along, the mayor on the back, his wife beside them. They are waving, broad smiles on their faces. He thinks of Kennedy on the day of his assassination, shakes his head and watches the car pass, his heart beating hard, mind praying for no such event today.
Another car passes, followed by a second band, then a third. A truck pulls a trailer decked out with a wooden platform painted green, brown, gray and black. A forgotten unit from World War II is painted on the truck’s door and along the side of the float. Ronnie switches the cane to the three fingered hand and raises the other one in salute, the fingers as straight as he can get them, arm rigid. His throat whistles.
Police cars trail behind the soldiers, followed by another band and a tribe of Native Americans, their dances being of war or peace or rain. He didn’t know. A smile traced along his thick lips as they paraded by.
Another band was followed by a lull of… nothing. In that nothing they began to appear, soldiers in muddied uniforms, their helmets covered in mesh and leaves, their arms carrying assault rifles. Some limped, others were helped along by their comrades. His eyes narrowed.
Is that Bobby Jenkins helping… Is that Leroy Wallace with a bandage on his head, a bloom of red decorating the cloth? Are those the Sullivan twins carrying Mike O’Rourke on a stretcher? But…
They stop, the soldiers of yesteryear, their battered bodies forming a rag tag unit of the deceased. They turn to Ronnie—a soldier long dead on the inside, cast aside by the country he stoutly defended—their eyes like yellow fire, their mouths straight lines drawn on haggard faces. Those being helped along or carried, stand and straighten their spines. One man—David Calao, puts his arm back in its socket.
Ronnie backs away, his legs barely holding him up. The building behind him keeps Ronnie from tumbling back and breaking a hip or arm or his skull. The people turn and stare, the woman, her eyes now full with fear. She approaches him. Ronnie waves her off, grunts at the stiffness in his arms, his legs, the weight in his chest, the pain in his shoulder and shoulder blade.
He looks back to the soldiers, his heart beating hard—too hard. They’ve changed. They’re bodies are no longer war torn, but the way they were before death charged the battlefields of Vietnam, waving It’s scythe in broad arcs, claiming them with bullets, bombs, mines and even arrows. With a whip snap of arms, they salute… him.
Ronnie’s eyes fill with tears as Bobby Jenkins steps forward, motions for him to join them. He lets out a pained laugh at the notion of joining the ranks of dead soldiers—men who died honorably, fighting for a country they loved in a war… in a war their people didn’t believe in, didn’t support. All while Ronnie went home, a medical discharge ending his military career before it really ever got started.
Tears spill down his face. The whistle in his throat grows louder with each painful breath. His heart hammers too hard. Ronnie straightens, the bones in his back sighing in relief. His legs don’t ache for the first time in forty years. His brothers wait, their voices lifting on the air, calling to him, beckoning him to join them. He takes a step forward, then another. The edge of the sidewalk greets him, but he steps off of it easily enough.
Just down the road another band was making their way toward them. Behind Ronnie, the woman screams as she and another man struggle to get Ronnie’s body to the ground. He looks back once, noting the world becoming silent. He takes a deep breath, lets it out. There is no whistle. Ronnie smiles, walks toward his fallen comrades, a soldier of honor, his war finally over…
The elevator bell rings and we step inside, the door sliding closed behind us. The four of us punch our floors, six, seven, eleven and nineteen. I’m going the highest.
The elderly lady directly to my left stares straight ahead, her eyes on the mirrored door. She clutches a purple handbag that doesn’t match her light blue dress and black shoes. Her eyes are a dim gray and her face holds the wrinkles of a life near spent. Yet she goes into work each day as if she were in her early thirties. It’s in her face, her eyes…
The man in the left corner, closest to the door wears a pressed blue pin striped suit, matching shoes and matching tie. His hair is near perfect, He brushes an invisible strand out of his face. Fake baked tan skin rounds off his false good looks. He stares down at a handheld device—I’m guessing a blackberry—punching on keys with a little pen. Self assured Important. Everyone else evolves around him.
A pretty blond stands to my right, her hair full of waves, her eyes shimmering, lips a perfect red. The dress she wears hugs her figure and I can’t imagine her wearing clothing like the elderly lady to my left. Too much pride in that body, in those features. She pushes her chest out a little, probably to get the suit’s attention. I want to smile but refrain. Blondie is a woman who knows how to use her assets to get what she wants.
As the elevator lurches upward I glance at each of them, notice their flaws, their ages, their lifelines stretched across their faces.
One by one, they file off on their respective floors and I see…
The Suit is first and he departs on the sixth floor, his briefcase traded for a baseball glove, his suit for a pair of dirty jeans and a t-shirt, his hair poking in all directions; gum smacking. The hopes of any little boy who ever played a sport still carried in his heart. I notice his old sneakers—Converse scrolled across the back. He has written the number 3 on the sides, possibly the jersey number of his favorite player. There is a field waiting for him and other boys with gloves and bats in hand. As the doors slide shut he is greeted by old friends and family.
On the seventh floor the door opens and the elderly lady shuffles toward it. As she crosses through the threshold I see the drab blue dress is gone, replaced by a frilly white one—her Sunday best. She holds a basket in her hand instead of a purse. There are eggs in the basket. She skips off and looks under a bush.
“I found one! I found one!” Her joyous proclamation fills my heart and I smile. Two adults kneel beside her, a man and a woman. They hug and congratulate her. The man kisses her on the head.
The door hisses shut and we ascend.
On the eleventh floor Blondie gets off and her head is full of precious ringlets that bounce with each step. She wears socks with frilly laces and slip on shoes; her dress is yellow and there is a bandage on one knee. The room before her holds a dollhouse. She picks up one of the dolls and hugs it tight. She sits on the floor and cradles the doll like a baby. I hear the toy coo and realize the baby is real and not a plastic store bought item. Blondie tickles beneath the child’s chin and giggles happily.
I am left alone as the elevator continues upward. It reaches the nineteenth floor and the doors open. I look out into white puffs of cloud that await me. I step off and see other elevators, others like me. Some of them wipe tears from their eyes. Others smile from the joy of delivering the children to their destinations, to their happiest times; times before life took over and changed them into the adults they became. Before decisions and indecisions, wrong and right moves, love and heartbreak ruled their lives and skewed their views. Before the downward spiral of life–real life.
The door remains open and I look back to it. I wonder if I will ever know that forever peace, forever joy of my greatest times as a child, when Mommy baked apple pies and Daddy held my hand as we walked the trails in the woods; when the best present was time spent with my parents.
I sigh and move back onto the elevator. There are more children who need to be taken home. I can already feel their presence and tastes their sorrows. The doors close and the elevator descends.
Then, it stops on the ninth floor. The doors open and I stare into a familiar room. I hear my name and I exit the elevator. I don’t look back as the doors close and the elevator moves on. The fresh smell of apple pie drifts in the air. I hear my name and I turn to see Daddy standing there, his strong hands held out to me.
“Come on, son, let’s go for a walk.”
My heart leaps and I grab Daddy’s work-rough hands and I know my journey has finally found an end. As we walk toward the woods not far from home I smile. Never again will I go to the highest floor, the only one left on the elevator at the ride’s end. As my heart leaps I say a silent thank you and then turn my attention to a world long gone and a heaven far better than I ever imagined.