This story by Gary Little is a runner-up in the 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Gary has been stringing letters into words for seven decades. From sermons, for a very short time, to forty years of writing low-level system software for computers, to finally writing what he wants to write. Widowed and living in Las Vegas, Gary manages to knock out short stories and irreverent gedankens on an irregular schedule.
She who must be obeyed nagged him. Miss Martha, his health care nurse, looked at George with determination in her eyes. “You need the walk. Besides, Charlie would want you to,” she said.
“Now that is not fair,” George answered, “using Charlie like that.”
“If it keeps your butt moving, Charlie wouldn’t mind, and you know it.” Both of them looked at each other and chuckled.
“S’pose you’re right,” George agreed, plopped his cap on his head and opened the door.
“Don’t forget a jacket,” she nagged.
He grabbed the windbreaker from another hook by the door, shrugged into it, and then stepped outside.
So he walked. Not a long walk. A short walk. Just up the sidewalk to the barbecue and picnic table under the gazebo. This had always been Charlie’s favorite place. For George, it was a nice place to sit a while and maybe enjoy a little early morning sun.
He sat this morning and looked up at the bluest blue patch of sky he had seen in a while. “Ain’t that the way it is in the desert?” He thought. “Days of dusty brown haze and then a blue like this blue.” There came a scream from above. A hawk, high up there in the sky. George thought, “Charlie would never tolerate that,” and smiled. From somewhere, there came an answering bark.
That bark sounded so familiar. The hawk screamed again. The bark answered again. “No,” George said to himself, “Charlie passed.” The scream and a bark again resounded from brick walls and apartment building. He knew that bark! “Charlie! Come here boy! Where you been?”
There he was, the same four-footed bundle of arrogance as the day he left; up on George’s lap, he jumped, licking George’s face, cleaning those ears, according to Charlie, that were never cleaned properly. The hawk screamed again and Charlie leaped off George’s lap and launched a fusillade of barking at the audacity of an intruder in his territory. Then he was off to check things out, sniff this tree, mark it, sniff that table leg, mark it. Never far from George, never out of site. George watched that ragamuffin friend of his. “Needs a good grooming. But Charlie looks like he needs a grooming even fresh from the groomer,” George said to the trees. Charlie wandered back, found the perfect spot, did a spin, and then curled up at George’s feet, his head laying on a shoe top.
George reached down and found that spot that always needed a scratch behind Charlie’s right ear. There came a huge sigh of contentment from such a small dog, and two friends sat, side by side, enjoying the morning. In the distance, a helicopter cut its way across the Las Vegas sky giving off a familiar wap, wap, wap …
Wap, wap, wap! Green flashed past beneath the chopper landing strut his boots rested on. The door gunner scanned the jungle below. “Joey. Corporal Joseph Levine,” George said to himself. One of the best M60 gunners in the unit.
George looked through the open door of the UH-1 at the chopper flying to their right. As he watched, it became a beautiful golden flower as an RPG tore into it and exploded. He ducked as shrapnel from the exploding chopper sliced his way. Joey was not as lucky. He dangled from the door gunner harness, his head no longer on his body.
Co-pilot dead, the pilot wounded, the jungle came up hard and fast. Carumpf! Trees and branches screamed and scraped passed the hull as they fell to the jungle floor, rolled once and stopped.
“Get out! Get out!” George screamed, ordering whoever was alive out of the chopper. He could smell aviation fuel.
“Move it!” He grabbed fatigues and pulled. Recognized the face. Platoon Sergeant. Eyes opened. An answer.
“Yes, Sir! You heard the Lieutenant! Move it! Get off my chopper! Move it! Move it!”
George moved to the cockpit and ignored the co-pilot. Half of him was gone. He checked the pilot. Pulse. Grabbed the harness release but it was jammed. “Damn it,” he heard the slight whoosh as fuel began to ignite.
“Sir, you need to get out of there!”
“Pilot’s alive Sarge! Wait one!” George reached and grabbed the handle of his Bowie knife.
The knife lay in a beautiful presentation box. The box top sat to the side, filigreed with gold swirls and the word Buck in raised gold letters across the top. The card read, “Use it well. DAD”.
Echoes bounced around him, and he heard Dad saying, “It’s the same brand and model I had when the 101st jumped into Normandy. Saved my life that day. Tree came up faster than I could see and I had to cut myself down. Hadn’t a done that I’d a been hanging fruit for a German patrol. Carried that knife all over France and into Germany. You take care of this one, keep a good edge on it, and it’ll take care of you.”
The Bowie knife sliced through the pilot’s harness like butter. George had him up and in a fireman’s carry and was sprinting for the clearing where his surviving men had gathered. The fuel tanks ignited. There came a rushing whoosh of air that lifted and pushed George and the pilot along and deposited them some feet away, the pilot rolling and tumbling off of George’s shoulders. George was on fire. He was rolling as his men got to them.
The platoon medic knelt by the pilot looked up at George and said, “He’s alive, Sir. Just knocked out.”
George felt a presence next to him on the bench there in that little park. Charlie raised his head, looked at the stranger, and then sat his head back down on George’s shoe top. George looked to the side and saw his dad sitting next to him.
“I lost it, Dad. Never could find it, even after the fire died down.”
“Nah. You didn’t lose it. You used it. Saved that man’s life. It’s why I gave it to you. Nuthin’ lost when you use things like that.”
George sat, alone under the gazebo, blue sky high above, a cool breeze softly sighed through the trees, rustling through the front of his windbreaker as it hung down his side. He looked up and saw the blue sky again. “Damn that’s a fine morning,” he thought.
He looked down. Charlie was gone.
He looked to the side. Dad was gone.
“No, that’s not right,” he thought. “What was it Dad always said? Gone, but not forgotten. Yes, that was it. Gone, but not forgotten. I am their immortality. I think of them and they live again with me. Hi, Dad. Hi, Charlie. My isn’t this a lovely morning.” They were with him, as he thought of them again.
George leaned back against the picnic table, there under the gazebo in that lovely little park. He looked up, saw that sky one more time and again said, “My what a gorgeous blue sky.” He closed his eyes, his chin slowly fell to his chest. He took one last breath, and the heart that had beat for eighty-eight years, that had known and given so much, slowed, and then stilled.