Lines: A Southern Journal
Home from the War
River T. Huffman
John was back from the war with a wounded leg. It had happened so quickly he didn't have time to write his family and let them know to expect him. It would be a surprise.
Despite the pain, he wanted to walk the final three blocks to his parents' house. He wanted to enjoy the brief beauty of a fall afternoon in the neighborhood he had dreamt of so often. He wanted to see the familiar old houses on either side of the brick street. He wanted the neighbors to see him marching proudly home in his dress uniform. (They would see his limp and know he'd sacrificed.) He also needed the extra time to prepare himself for the homecoming with his parents. They wouldn't be the same. Their health had declined since John's older brother, Richard, had died in combat.
Is he gone?
The letters they'd sent John over the past three years usually contained some form of bad news. Various neighbors had died. His little sister Jenny was no longer in pigtails; she was growing up and causing them heartache. Father was ill. The house was in need of paint and repair. His sweetheart, Celina, who had stopped writing him, was now engaged to a big-city attorney. And then, Richard. They'd sent John the obituary; he still carried it in his pocket.
He ignored the pain in his leg and started down Maple Street with a new admiration for the houses. They were old but well-kept. The walkways were higher than street level, with steps leading down to the sidewalk. Flags flew from front porches and trees sprinkled brilliant colors on manicured lawns.
He'd always loved the fall and mourned its brevity.
Straight down the end of the street, facing him, was his destination--his parents' house. It was tall, two-stories with a flat front and three sharp gables. He once imagined those gables were hooded figures watching his every move.
On his left, John saw a high school-aged couple in a porch swing. The young man had slicked-back hair and wore a T-shirt. His girlfriend was in a skirt and saddle-oxfords. They looked familiar, but he didn't know their names. The young man called out, "How goes the war?"
"Another day of life is another battle won," John answered. "How's everything here?"
"Here?" The young man held out his hands, shrugged. "Couldn't be better."
"That’s good," John said. "Enjoy your day."
He looked to his right at Father Lieber's cottage-style house. The Father sat behind the latticed window of his second floor study. He had snow white hair and a starry twinkle in his eye. When he saw John, he mouthed “Welcome home,” then began writing furiously as if struck by inspiration. His sermons, John remembered, were always positive. He focused on the good things in life, and after.
John looked again to his parents' house at the end of the street. He saw black windows and three gables behind a veil of gold shade trees. No activity in the yard; no lights; no sign of life anywhere.
Little children came from nowhere, seven in all. They slowed John's progress.
“Hey Mister. Where’re you going?”
These same children, John remembered, were running around the neighborhood before he left. Active and energetic, but not loud and mischievous. John was happy to see they hadn't grown too old to play.
“Home,” he told them. “I’m going home.”
Each one gave John's uniform a reverent touch before racing away.
Three houses closer to home John received a shock. An elderly woman was raking leaves in Mrs. Needlemeyer’s yard. She wore a long coat and blue scarf with stars and moons. She had her back to John, but he noted how much she resembled Mrs. Needlemeyer. John thought his mother had mentioned in a letter that Mrs. Needlemeyer had passed away.
He slowed, got closer.
She turned quickly and shielded her eyes from the sun. "Yes? Oh, hello, Johnny. Welcome home. We’ve missed you here."
She was younger than he remembered, or maybe he’d just gotten older. “Hello, Mrs. Needlemeyer.”
"How are you, boy?"
"I'm all right."
"Come by and see me later. I’ll make you a pan of maple fudge.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Needlemeyer. And I’ll pick up your leaves when I come. Just like old times.”
She laughed. "That won't be necessary. I can manage. Run along home now and see your parents." She resumed work.
"Yes, ma'am. Enjoy the rest of your day."
John passed a vacant lot where a house once stood. He and Richard had played in the empty house until the city tore it down. They had pretended to be soldiers. Pretended. He took the obituary from his pocket and read it for the hundredth time. He thought he heard a voice say, "Is he gone?"
He got closer to home with a sense of dread. He looked for signs of life. Maybe his parents were out visiting neighbors. He tried to see evidence of the state of disrepair his father had mentioned in one of his letters. Maybe someone else had done the work, or maybe his father had exaggerated.
When he was less than a block from home John heard a sharp rapping. He looked at Miss Simon's house, where he’d taken piano lessons for three years. Miss Simon was standing at the bay window with a wand in her hand. John wondered why he'd never noticed how pretty she was. She lifted a finger as if to say, "Wait," then sat at her piano and played. It was a piece she’d tried to teach John, one he loved and desperately wanted to learn; but he never quite mastered the left hand movement. He even had trouble remembering the whole name, but it came to him now: “Sonata Number 14 in C Sharp Minor” by Ludwig von Beethoven. He usually referred to it by its more common name, "Moonlight Sonata." It sounded as if he were in the room with Miss Simon, even as he passed.
It was like a Welcome Home parade, John thought, with flags flying, music playing, people waving and leaves falling like confetti on his dress uniform.
He was home from the war. Just like that.
He forgot his wound and sprinted to the sidewalk in front of his parents’ house. No need of repair. The house was like new. Sparkling clean in the mid-afternoon sun. Warm light. Cherubs on either side of the steps welcomed him. Church bells, in perfect harmony with Miss Simon's piano, heralded his arrival. He bounded up the steps to the front door. The smell of good food--the smell of life--wafted through the screen. He heard voices from within. Mild laughter. He entered and let the screen door slam behind him.
He found them in the dining room, awaiting his arrival. He received hugs from his mother, who was happier than he’d ever seen her; and Jenny, still in pigtails, looking no different than the day he left; and even Celina, who was not engaged to someone else, but was waiting instead for him. And he received healthy handshakes from his father, who was back at full strength, and Richard, his big brother.
Richard, too, had come home from the war.
Pain shot through John's leg. Everything went dark, then a bright light blinded him. He was cold, dizzy. He had the sensation of lying on his back. Three shadows loomed over him and spoke with urgency.
"Is he gone?"
"Damn, he's just a kid. Is he going to make it?"
"I don't know. He's lost a lot of blood and they'll have to amputate what's left of his leg."
"Are the medics on the way?"
"Anything else we can do for him?"
"Say a prayer. It's out of our hands."
The voices faded. The shadows disappeared. John was back home again. He looked forward to a long visit with his family, and later, another walk down Maple Street to enjoy the lasting beauty of a perpetual fall.
River T. Huffman is a front porch guitar picker, living room composer, and a closet case scribbler of stories. His fiction has been published in Muscadine Lines, Flashquake, Heavy Glow, Everyday Fiction, Flash Me Magazine and Apollo’s Lyre.
Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2008