This story is by Mike Conradt and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Bolting straight up in bed with sweat running down his back, Dan sits in bed, staring into the darkness. He continues to shake uncontrollably, and his breathing heavy as though he had just run a marathon. With a flailing of arms, as if searching the darkened room for something and finding nothing within grasp, slowly, Dan begins to gain some composure. He quit shaking, and his breathing begins to come back to normal. He sits in bed, rubbing his head, hoping to disperse the memory of the nightmare. The nightmares continue to possess him, in mind, and of spirit. As time begins to pass, he calms down. Sitting in the dark, with his head buried in his hands, he wonders if they will ever quit.
Dan lies down and closes his eyes. He tries to sleep, but sleep would not come. The memories of the nightmare continue with torment and unrelenting horror. In Vietnam, he commanded a patrol boat, patrolling the rivers, looking for boats carrying arms. Anxious moments and haunting thoughts of war. Death stocked him with the dead’s faces, their bodies bloated, partially in the water. In his dreams, He tries to run but goes nowhere. Bullets whizz all around him. He tries to scream, but nothing comes out. Then the flash of light and a deafening explosion. He wakes up and it is still dark, the middle of the night.
Ill-fated as it was, Dan joined the Navy in response to a war that seemed to be going nowhere. To go is in his blood, like his fathers and his grandfathers. They expect him to follow in their footsteps, bringing honor and integrity to the family. Besides, he just finished college and earned a degree in History with coaching. But with no jobs at the time, it left him no choice but to join. When he left, his father stood in the airport, almost in tears, giving him that proud stance, the way to go son look. His family and some friends come to see him the day he left, and all of them supported his decision. In the end, Dan just smiled and waved goodbye.
Coming home was not the same as his father’s. There was no one to greet him except his parents. No friends, no brothers or sisters. It was a strange and unfamiliar world.
Everyone moved on, embodying a different way of thinking, and a different point of view. They grew up, and he felt like he missed it. His friends were different, they had different interests and abandon the dreams of their youth. Older people died, and younger ones took their place. Even the billboard on the way from the airport had changed. The bank that once advertised there for years was replaced by some sleek woman smoking a cigarette. When did they do that? He thought. His brothers and sisters changed, they moved up in school. His family had changed in ways he could not imagine. He felt disengaged from everyone.
Sleep finally came, and it was light, but with it, no nightmares. Daylight eventually comes, and Dan sits up in bed. While sitting there, he studies a picture on the dresser. The photograph of him with his girlfriend before he left. He thought for a while as he stares at the picture. She seemed so sweet and loveable. He thought they were in love. She quit writing a year after he left. He felt sad and disillusioned, a little confused as a tear slowly made its way down his cheek. One of these days, he will turn it around but not today.
It was almost noon when he came into the kitchen. His mother was standing in front of the sink, washing some pans. She tries to understand what he was going through but rarely said the right words.
He felt terrible when sometimes he would not speak when she talked to him. It was nothing to do with her; he just did not have anything to say.
“Good morning, dear,” She said in a pleasant way that almost seemed false.
“Good morning or is it the afternoon?” said Dan. He tried to smile, but it did not come, so he let it go.
“Would you like anything to eat?” she asks. Mothers were always attentive to their children, and Dan’s mother was no different. He felt at times the way she looked at him that she would gladly give her life to make him whole again. It made him feel guilty, so he pushed the thought out of his head.
“Sure, just something like a sandwich would do.” said Dan.
“Ok. I’ll make it for you.” She said. “Seen any of your friends lately?”
“Who was that?”
“Jon,” Dan felt irritated.
“What did he have to say?”
“Nothing,” said Dan. It was just the other day, he thought. Jon came to the tavern to get some beer for a get-together. Friends of his, which Dan knew from high school. He remembered asking Jon if he wanted to get together and have a few drinks, hash over old times. Jon declined and told Dan, “maybe some other time.” Then Jon smiled and left. Dan felt a sense of emptiness, lost, and unwanted.
“We do not have anything in common, besides didn’t he protest the war in college?” he asks.
“That’s the rumor,” she said. “Your sister will be home soon. They had a half-day of school today.”
“Oh,” muttered Dan as he ate his sandwich.
He finished his sandwich in silence and then telling his Mom he would be back later he left. She listens to him going down the sidewalk until she could not hear him anymore. Sadness crept into her heart, she wanted to help him, erase the hurt he felt. A tear crept down her cheek.
Dan entered the tavern and felt the coolness of the air inside. A few old men in the back of the bar engaged in a spirited card game of pitch. He wanders back to their table. None of the old men would offer him a seat. They just stare, saying nothing, then continue to play their card game. He moves to near the bar and ordering a beer he stares out the front window. Nothing could have prepared him for this—the feeling of emptiness, outside looking in concept. After a couple of beers, he heads home.
When Dan arrives home, his little sister, Mary, is already in the kitchen.
“Hi, Dan,” said Mary. “You will never guess what I am going to go out for next fall?”
“I don’t know, what?” asked Dan.
“I am going out for basketball.”
“Oh, really. Since when did the school start basketball for girls?”
“The school board approved it, and other schools are doing it,” said mom. “They have games scheduled starting next winter.”
“That’s great isn’t it,” said Mary with a large smile on her face.
“That’s quick. Who’s going to be the coach?” said Dan.
“They don’t have one yet,” said Mary. “Hey, maybe you could coach our team. ”
“I don’t have the experience,” said Dan.
“That’s ok,” said mom. “There are not many coaches who will coach a girls’ team.”
“That would be great if you were our coach. Just awesome,” said Mary as she runs off upstairs to change her clothes.
“Well, what do you think?” asked his mom.
Dan looked up at his mother. She gave him that approving look, an encouraging smile as a gentle shove. Mothers do it so well.
“You would be a perfect fit for the job,” she finally said.
Dan thought about it for a while, tossing it around in his mind. The obstacles he would face could be overwhelming, and how would he overcome them. Dan went to his bedroom to lie down for a while. Closing his eyes, he tried to envision himself as a coach. Would people accept him? How would he handle it? He began to drift off, and then the nightmares started creeping in, menacing dreams from another time. He jerks awake and sits up in bed. He begins to think of the challenges ahead. He would have a goal, small ones at first. For him and the team. He would not have to teach at first. A little at a time. Just take it easy and make progress. He thought for a while longer. Then decided. If a young girl can play basketball, why couldn’t he, a man in a wheelchair, coach a basketball team?