Returning Home

The call came in the middle of the night.

“We need you.” The voice spoke through the phone in a tone that was far from desperation.

Frederick hesitated, “For what?” Frederick knew the answer. He knew the call would come eventually. He just didn’t want to believe he would have to go back. Not after the Great War. No one was supposed to fight again. There were too many deaths, too many men that suffered.

Frederick had seen it all fifteen years ago. He was the top general on the northern front for all five years of the war. Not a single soul thought they would go back. But they all did. And Frederick was going to be no different. I was wrong, Sterling, Frederick thought as he listened to the radio every night.

“Wake up, Corporal Sterling!” Frederick’s voice always sounded deeper in his memory. He was now sitting in a small forest, surrounded by five troops. “We have company. The opposition is moving towards the bridge.”

It was December 1918 again. Frederick and his troops were advancing on a vital position in the northern hills. They had moved through the mountains and villages and were near their final hurdle, St. Vincent’s Bridge. They traveled over the last thirteen months, with only two minor incidents. One involving a food service truck, and another with a small ammunition factory. Frederick knew that the enemy was growing desperate, and that it was time to take the bridge.

“I’m up,” Sterling didn’t move. “Just been waiting for you.” Sterling was sitting down, leaning his upper body against a tree, peering around the corner towards the bridge. The white-blue moonlight seemed to disappear in his dark brown eyes. “What’s the plan, General?”

“The plan is simple. We take the bridge, at any cost,” Frederick retorted. He had always found Sterling’s laid-back attitude comforting throughout their thirteen years of friendship. That was the main reason Frederick kept Sterling around, because he knew that he needed someone to bring some levity to situations. Even if Sterling said Frederick’s military title with a hint of sarcasm.

“But we’re the only ones here,” Sterling shot back as he waved his hand around. “A grand total of five troops and one general, who isn’t a good shot, I might add.”

It was true. Frederick was an average shot at best and they were short on men. The army had lowered the amount of troops stationed with Frederick. He knew why, the war was being fought in the south, and the enemy hadn’t made a legitimate push for over four months. It seemed that every time Frederick radioed, there was a request for twenty more troops to report back to base. Frederick had advised against it.

Frederick laid out the plan simply: they were to move in pairs, and take out the four posts stationed at the ends of the bridge.

“Sterling, you’re with me,” Frederick had said.

“Oh joy, just like our times at the academy,” Sterling said. “Except the broads we’re charging now don’t have breasts, they have bayonets.” Sterling kicked the dirt and snow off of his boots. “For glory and the gates of Hell, boys.”

“For glory,” they all responded.

As Frederick and Sterling approached the first post, they saw flashes forty yards to their right. “Damn it,” Frederick whispered. “They know we’re here.”

“Maybe it’s that aftershave, General,” Sterling said as the sirens started to wail.

“Focus. We need to take this post. It has valuable radio codes,” Frederick remained unchanged, he still wanted the element of surprise, or whatever was left of it.

Sterling and Frederick approached the door, and Frederick signaled for Sterling to kick it down. Frederick readied his gun, and as Sterling lifted his leg, the door swung open. Sterling dove left, and in a split second, Frederick shot the man twice in the head.

“Sweet Mother Mary,” Sterling yelled as he climbed out of the snow and grasped the door. “You’re a better shot than I gave you credit for. I wonder why that guy was in such a-”

In a hot flash of light Frederick was knocked back thirty feet. He rolled onto his stomach, checking his body to make sure he was still in one piece. His left pinky finger was gone, and the ringing in his ears was unlike anything he had ever heard. He wiped the mud and snow from his face as he tried to stand up. His ankle gave and he fell.

He should have known the enemy would blow the bridge before they ever surrendered it. “STERLING!” he yelled. Frederick looked left and right until he saw a large lump. He began to crawl towards the object in the snow. He could see the red blood against the white snow, and knew his answer before he arrived. Sterling was 15 feet closer to the blast than Frederick. Frederick turned the limp body over and saw the damage done to the right half of Sterling’s body. Frederick laid with his slain friend until morning, when reinforcements arrived. It was supposed to be Frederick’s last day in battle.

Frederick was pulled back to the present. He stood, alone, forty feet in front of his men. He stared at his company, with his back to the enemy. Then, he slowly raised his arm, and a weight much greater than that of his rifle was suddenly upon him. As if Sterling himself was pushing down on Fredrick. After a few seconds, he gave in, dropped his hand, and signaled his men to charge.

As the soldiers yelled and stampeded towards the fight, Frederick felt the chilling breeze of legs and shoulders brush by his body. Fredrick froze. The weight was still on him. He continued to gaze at the mud and grass where his men had just stood, the vast desolation and destruction stretching back miles until it became tangled up with the horizon.

Then he saw the land for what it was: Home. Not just for those who had inhabited the brick and wood houses, but for Frederick and his men as well. This place of smoke and fire had once been a thriving town, with women, children and husbands. Just like Frederick’s hometown, they had bakeries, pubs and grocers. His men had turned this town into a battle station, removing stores for “strategic positions.” Frederick paused. “I’m coming, old friend.”

Through tear-filled eyes, Frederick now had clear vision. He was witnessing what many would never glimpse again and he found it beautiful. The sun shined bright in Frederick’s face as it began to crawl beneath the land. It was making one last push to give the earth some warmth and light. She needs it, Fredrick thought.

A sudden chill sprinted down his spine as Frederick finally pulled his eyes away from the glow and turned to join his family in battle. He felt a shadow creeping over his shoulders as he strangled the neck of his rifle.

It was at that moment Fredrick began his charge toward the gates of Hell.

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The Drive

Samuel sat inside of his Chevy, shivering. He didn’t bother with the buckle, he wouldn’t need it. On the passenger seat next to him, among the napkins, dirt, and straws, lied a paper bag. The contents of which Samuel was all too familiar.

It started in high school, when there was nothing to do on the weekend. Samuel and his friends would go to the barn, chug a few and goof off. Maybe shoot a gun at the empties, jump into some hay or even attempt to ride the horses. Harmless teens just looking for fun.

But for Samuel, the drink followed him. When he went to college, his “associates” came with him.

“Jack, Jim and the Cap’n!” He would always bellow. “And I can’t forget my six friends…the Bud’s!”

Soon they became his only friends.

The more Samuel consumed, the more the drink consumed him. Weekends bled into weekdays, and his life became a blur. If you asked William, he was alive. He allowed the alcohol to drive his life, but it was not anywhere he wanted to go.

The wipers of Samuel’s Chevy slid up and down, discarding the droplets of water that were snowflakes moments prior. Samuel reached into the paper bag and pulled a Heineken from the six-pack.

The cold bottle burned against his hand, as his mouthed wailed in anticipation. He cracked it open and stared into the bottomless abyss that had been his life. The sweet popping of carbonation called for him. “Just one sip?” it asked. Or, rather, it commanded. William wanted to swim in it, drown in it. But instead, he just stared, his eye catching the flicker of the bracelet that lay on his right wrist, not three inches from the bottle.

1 year…5 years…10 years the charms read. The bracelet was his anchor. He used to rub each charm whenever he felt the need to answer “Yes” to the question he so often asked himself. He tore the bracelet off, and dropped it on the floor.

“Sorry,” he said absently. Now William and his first love could be alone. The way it used to be. The way it was meant to be. “Six in Six.” he called it. Six bottles-six minutes-no spills. He never wasted a drop, for his body craved the drink. It was his oxygen.

One winter, when things were dark, William had a party by his lonesome at a local park. After he stumbled to his car, William slid into the driver’s seat, poked at the ignition for ten minutes, and finally fired up the car. He had done this countless times before. “Eyes on the dotted lines and keep ‘er at 35 MPH’s,” he would always repeat to himself on the journey back. That night, William could not find the brake in time, and the paramedics said he was lucky to be alive. The other driver was fortunate too, they said, only a concussion to go with a broken leg and fractured jaw. William had to undergo physical therapy for the fractured vertebrae, plus the mandatory trip to rehab for a year. It was the turning point in his life. He started to regain control, he was a new man.

The snow danced as it landed on the windshield. Back in his Chevy, William was suffocating. Now, with bottle in hand, he started to breathe again. He caressed the bottle, cherishing the final moment. This would be the actual last time the two would dance together. William knew that.

William snatched the six pack from the seat. He crumpled the paper bag and tossed it into the back. It landed on the infant car seat behind him. He paused, and turned around.

The shivers stopped.

“No,” he whispered with finality. William buckled his seatbelt, turned the ignition and began to cry as he started his journey home.

The six pack, scattered in pieces, lay drowning in his exhaust.

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A Broken Record

“The service was beautiful, Tom,” Stacey said with a hug. “She would have loved it.”

“Tom, I’m so sorry,” Will whispered.

“You know, she always loved to dance to that song,” Paul laughed. “What was it called?”

The Makings of You,” Tom said. “By Curtis Mayfield.”

Paul chuckled, “Yeah… She was a diamond, Tom. You let me know if you need anything.”

“Thanks Paul, I’ll let you know.”

The mass amounts of people unnerved Tom. It didn’t matter why they were all gathered here at St. Benjamin’s, Tom just didn’t like crowds. He enjoyed his friends, that was true, but he mostly enjoyed the times when he could tinker. To Tom, there was nothing better than taking something broken, and fixing it.

It was, perhaps, the reason he was so in love with her. She fixed things, too. However, her endeavors were far greater than Tom’s little mechanical projects. She fixed him. And Goddamn was he broken. See, Tom brought the fight back home with him. The shell shock, or PTSD, or whatever name they gave it now, it didn’t matter. Tom just wasn’t ready for what he saw over there. He was only a mechanic, specializing in aircrafts and heavy artillery.

“Nowhere close to the front lines,” his commanding officer had said.

War knows no lines, and when the ambush came, Tom reacted.

The doctors healed all of the physical wounds on Tom’s body, but the scars in his mind needed a different procedure. He never thought he would be healed, he had become a broken record, bound to relive the same horrible day, over and over again. That was before he met Clara.

Tom’s life after the war had become routine, comfortable. He worked as a mechanic, fixing Fords, Oldsmobiles, and Chevys. Tom did not mind, it was better than working on B-52’s. Tom loved to tinker with other machines, he would go to the local scrap yard, grab what he could, and fix it up. It did not matter what he fixed, Tom never cared to sell it or show it off, he just needed something to do. Fixing refrigerators, lamps, and lawnmowers was an activity for Tom. It kept his brain occupied and focused. Kept his mind away from the memories of the battlefield. Whenever Tom finished, he would usually give the newly fixed appliances away to folks that needed them. He never took credit for anything. “Just doing my part,” he would say to the lucky benefactors, “no need to thank me.”

It was after ten years back, when Tom went into the local malt shop to install his latest fixer-upper, that his life would change again. It was a 1940 Wurlitzer Jukebox 700, the poor thing must have fallen off a truck, for the feeder had been snapped, and most of the records were broken. Tom had built his own mechanism to feed the new records, many of which Tom bought and installed himself. He had the perfect mix, he put in Elvis, The Beatles, and some of the new R&B that was becoming increasingly popular throughout the states. Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and Tom’s personal favorite, Curtis Mayfield.

“She looks brand new,” commented Jerry, the owner of Jerry’s Malts, as he rubbed the glass “WURLITZER” sign,  “how long this take you?”

“About a year and a half,” Tom responded matter-of-factly. “Had to find the right head cover, that was the hardest part.”

“You sure you don’t want any money for this?” asked Jerry.

“Nope, not a dime.”

“Well, Tom, just know that your money is no good here. I owe you big time,” Jerry said as he put a hand on Tom’s shoulder.”

As Tom turned to go, he heard a voice, “What the heck is this old thing?”

A woman not three years younger than Tom, with flaxen hair curled around your shoulders, was staring at the machine. “W-earl-izz-urrrr?” she cocked her hear.

“It’s a Wurlitzer record jukebox,” Tom said as he approached her. “Look, you can play anything from Elvis to-”

“I know what a jukebox is!” she interrupted, bobbing her curls. “Just never seen that name before. ‘s it any good?”

“Well,” Tom hesitated. He never liked to brag, so he let the machine to the talking. “Every heard of Curtis Mayfield?”

“The Gentle Genius of Georgia!” she shouted as she pressed her nose to the newly cleaned glass. “Who hasn’t?”

Tom looked at her and smiled for what seemed to be the first time, “I’ll get it started then.”

“Dance with me,” Clara asked as the record began to spin.

“I, uh, don’t really dance,” Tom said, looking down.

“Well I do, so let’s go,” Clara grabbed Tom’s hands and they danced to Curtis Mayfield’s The Makings of You.

Again, Tom was smiling.

As the music hummed in the background, Tom and Clara sat and talked in between slurps of chocolate malts and bites of hamburgers, on the house of course. It was their fifth date. Clara did most of the talking, which was fine by Tom, who never liked to talk much.

“Your turn,” she said, abruptly.

“Wh-What?” Tom pulled himself out of the trance he was in. “My turn for what?”

“To tell me about yourself,” Clara waved her hand in front of Tom’s face. “You awake Tommy boy?”

“Yeah, just enjoy listening is all,” Tom said with a smile. He enjoyed this ambush. “Okay, well what do you want to know?”

“Everything.”

After the funeral service, Tom pulled into his driveway, opened the garage and sat. He killed the car, walked into the garage and closed the door. The car could wait outside, he needed the workspace in here, inside his sanctuary. Tom started his project like he did all the others, by meticulously laying out every screw, bolt, tool and part he would need to complete the task. He had all he needed in the basement, Tom knew that. This project was one he was planning to do for quite some time, but never this early. Tom continued to work through the night, ignoring the telephone and its insatiable ring. The beads of sweat rolled down Tom’s nose as he leaned over the machine, finishing the final touches. He gently connected the diamond needle to the newly crafted arm, laid the record on the pad, pushed the arm down, stepped back and waited.

The record spun, and the song repeated, never moving onto the next track. However, the record wasn’t broken, it was just how Tom built it.

He wiped tears away for the first time since losing her, and as the sound of Curtis Mayfield’s The Makings of You echoed throughout the garage, all at once he was dancing with her one last time, over and over again.

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A Second Chance

“What if I screw up?” he asks as he sits down in the cold chair.

“You won’t,” the silver-haired man in white says matter-of-factly.

“You don’t know that,” retorts the man. “I could get distracted, or I could say the wrong thing, or I-“

“You won’t,” the silver-haired man interrupts as he checks his gold pocket watch. “Trust me William, I know you won’t.”

“Well if I do, can I try again?”

“Tell you what, if you fail, I’ll quit my job. If you succeed, you buy me a drink.”

Like everyone else, William had regrets.  He lived a good life, yes, but not a complete one. There was one thing that he just had to change.

He knew he couldn’t go back and buy a lottery ticket or bet on the Super Bowl. That was against the rules. But he didn’t need the money; he had banks full of money. No, that’s not why he wanted to go back.   He wanted something more.

“Do you know where I’ll end up?”

“I don’t need to.”

“So,” William starts. “You just push some buttons and hope I go where I need to be?”

“It’s not up to me,” the silver-haired man sighs as he takes William’s pulse. “I only prepare the machine, you control it.”

“But I didn’t go to school for this,” William says. “I don’t know how it works.”

“You don’t need to,” says the silver-haired man. “I’m doing the hard work. Just relax. You’re a grown man. You know exactly where you want to go and this will take you there.”

The silver-haired man hands William a switch. “Just flick this when you’re ready to go.”

“Does it hurt?” William asks.

“It feels like your going down a slide,” the silver-haired man says calmly.

“Well I haven’t been on a slide in about 50 years,” William says to himself. He gathers his courage. “Okay, I’m ready.”

“Goodbye William, I know you’ll do fine.”

William closes his eyes, flicks the switch with his thumb and begins his journey back.

He slides down what feels like a 200-yard slide in a matter of seconds.

Well doc, William thinks to himself as he lands quietly on a sidewalk outside Sammy’s Pub. You were right.

“That’s a little weird,” William tilts his head as he gazes at his reflection in the bar door window. “I don’t look like me.”

“Excuse me,” a very familiar voice says from behind William. “I’d like to get in and get myself a-”

“Stinger on the rocks,” William finishes quietly as he slides over.

“Uh, yeah,” the man says. “Probably.”

William follows after the man and sits next to him at the bar.

“Excuse me son, you look a bit familiar,” William stammers, afraid to even ask the question. “Can I ask your name?”

“Name’s William,” Young William says as he sticks out his hand. “And you are?”

Holy shit, William thinks to himself. I’m ACTUALLY talking to myself. “Ah yes,” William shakes his hand. “My name is…Uh…Jack. Jack Morgan.”

“Well Jack,” Young William raises his glass. “I hope your night is going better than mine.”

“Yeah,” William whispers as he glances at the light blue Bud Light calendar: You must be born before June 2nd 1970 to drink Bud. “I went back to 1991…”

“What was that?” Young William asks.

“Nothing,” William says. “Just thinking about my younger years.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, they were probably as exciting as yours,” William chuckles.

“I bet,” Young William says doubtfully. “So whaddya do Jack?”

“I used to work in finance,” William says. “That was ten years ago. I’m retired now.”

“Finance eh,” Young William says. “I do finance work at Morgan Stanley.”

“You don’t say?” William asks the question to which he already knows the answer. “How long have you worked there?”

“I just started,” Young William says. “It’s not too bad, though.”

“Well that’s nice,” William says. “I know some good people over at Morgan Stanley.”

“Yeah they’re not too bad,” Young William sips his stinger on the rocks. “You got a wife?”

“Never married,” William swallows hard. “But I was in love once, when I was around your age.”

“What happened?” Young William sits up in his chair.

“I was young and selfish,” William admits. “I cared more about myself and my job. Heck, even this bar saw more of me than she did.  One day, I came home from a night of drinking, and she was gone.”

“No note?”

“No note,” William repeats. “I didn’t need one.  I knew why she left.  She needed someone to actually be in her life. I was a hollow man concerned with numbers and charts. There wasn’t much to leave, because I was never there.”

“Oh…” Young William says slowly. “That’s rough.”

“Yup,” William says. “I never knew how much I loved her. I hate to quote a cliché, but I never really knew what I had until it was gone.”

“I hate clichés,” Young William agrees. “But I think I know what you mean.”

“You having problems, son?” William asks another question to which he already knows the answer.

“Yeah,” Young William says thoughtfully. “My girl and I actually just got into a fight, so I decided to come here.”

“I see,” William says with a wince. “Well…You going to go back?”

“I don’t know, I was going to wait until she calmed down.”

“Go now,” urges William. “I’ll cover the tab.”

“Thanks,” Young William says standing up to leave. “I think I needed this.”

As Young William heads to the door to leave, Old William spots a shiny object on the ground. “Hey kid, I think you dropped this,” he yells.

“Excuse me,” a familiar voice interrupts from behind Old William. “I believe that belongs to me.”

William turns around. “Oh, well here you-“ He stops. “Thank you,” William says as he slowly hands over the pocket watch.  “Thank you so much.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” the silver-haired man says with a wink. “But I do think you owe me a beer.”

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