This story is by Richard Hogan and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
October 17, 1944 – Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, St. Louis
The cold wind whipped through the chamber and coursed through Tom’s overcoat like needles. Tom was trained to be very aware of his surroundings, but today he was oblivious to the colder than average day. He was unmindful to the fact that he was alone and cold.
“How did it get to this?” Tom thought. His emotions felt out of control. For a moment he felt helpless and a feeling of chaos swept through his conscious brain.
As a soldier, the way to maintain control was to assess your situation and determine what you could control. Tom reminded himself that he had to let go of the uncontrollable. He could not change what had happened a few weeks ago, he could not control what he now had to do…an unthinkable act of saying goodbye. He had to say farewell to a man that was not his kin, but he loved like a brother and who he had failed.
“Am I still a soldier?” Tom thought.
It was a stupid question to anyone but himself. The casual observer would see a seasoned soldier, an officer in his dress uniform. Sharp creases and well pressed.
To someone who didn’t know Major Tom Jazz, they would assume he was a man who was in control of everything. On the inside he was a whirlwind of emotions. His mind was like an old barn in a thunderstorm, creaking and bending from the violent winds, and nearly about to implode.
He looked up finding himself in a stone room with three exits. A chandelier in the ceiling lit the room, however the grey light streaming through the openings of the room overpowered the small lamp. It gave the room the feeling of a 12th century forgotten English castle. The stone walls were grey and cold, the flooring a boring dark brown stone with dirty grout.
Glancing through the doorways he saw a well manicured field dotted with white crosses. Leaves blew across the grass. The trees showed signs of a great battle between summer and fall with the leaves mostly green yet dotted with hues of brown, red, and orange. Obvious signs of Fall nearing victory.
Tom closed his eyes and inhaled through his nose. Cold, damp air filled his nostrils. The smell of leaves and grass faltering permeated through the chamber.
Another breath revealed the smell of burned incense. A morbid smell of the reality directly in front of him.
Tom opened his eyes to find himself kneeling on a small prayer stand. His hands were pressed against the cloth of a great symbol. Feeling the flag he had fought so hard to protect was not as comforting as it once was.
Instead of the flag being a symbol of greatness, it served as a symbol of respect for the loss of a fellow soldier.
Tom stood up.
“I’m sorry Mitch. It should have been me.” Tom said out loud.
No one responded. The coffin covered with a large bright American flag held the body of his brother, his best friend, a man he swore to protect. The resting place of his friend Mitch Luna.
Tom became aware of the cold, damp air permeating his overcoat. It reminded him of the day he met Mitch. The day he met his best friend. The day he met a man he trusted with his life.
It all began long ago…Tom closed his eyes and remembered.
November 1st, 1904 – St. Louis World’s Fair Grounds
Tom ran through the immense crowd. People were everywhere. Exactly how he imagined a herd of cattle would look like. The bodies were flowing in unison, going somewhere and nowhere at the same time.
The World’s Fair had come to St. Louis and Tom had earned a dollar working throughout the summer. Tom was in charge of himself; he was free. Only three days of whining to his mother to let him run around the fairgrounds by himself.
“This is incredible”. Tom muttered under his breath.
Massive white structures were built for the Fair housing displays about new gadgets and stuff that ran on electricity, a luxury that Tom’s family was deprived of, museums with mind-blowing displays from Egypt and Africa, and weird animals. Fantastic items that Tom had only heard of, yet never seen.
The wind blew strongly as he exited a large building full of monkeys, gorillas, and other animals that he actually didn’t believe existed before today. It cut through his ratty wool coat like a knife, causing a shudder to coarse through his body like a wave of water crashing into a steep beach.
He exited on a wooden walkway that connected the building to the main road. Not much of a road but really a dirt pathway. The walkway was crowded and the slew of people were pushing by, seemingly unaware of Tom. As he was trying to navigate the crowd, Tom failed to see the steps going down to the main path. Missing the first step he tumbled forward, flailing his arms outward to break his fall.
Tom hit hard with his right forearm taking the brunt of his weight. He felt a snap in his arm, flipped over hitting his head on the hard, cold, ground and blacked out…
“Uggghh” Tom moaned, opening his eyes.
The first thing he saw was a large Sycamore swaying in the wind. The wind was still cold, still biting his skin. As his vision became even more clear, Tom saw a boy standing over the top of him with his arms crossed and wearing a somewhat concerned yet confident smirk on his face.
“Welcome back, kid.” The boy said. His voice was raspy.
“What happened?” Tom muttered trying to still clear the fog.
“You took a nasty fall. Broke your arm”, the boy replied. “I fixed it for you.”
Tom attempted to lift his right arm. Pain coursed through it and he winced. He turned his head to look. His arm was splinted with a thick stick and brown leather belt.
“You did this?” Tom inquired
“Sure did!”, the boy replied. He looked proud of his handiwork.
“Name’s Mitch”, the boy announced.
“Nice to meet you Tom”, Mitch said. “Let me help you up”
October 7, 1944
Tom rose from the prayer bench and straightened his coat. A single tear ran down his cheek and he quickly wiped it away, hoping no one noticed. No one did. He was alone
“That was a great day Mitch”, Tom said to the quiet coffin.
Tom stood there collecting his thoughts. So many images running through his mind of the many years that he and Mitch knew each other. They didn’t go to school together, but spent as many afternoons as possible together playing catch, imagining they were one of their favorite players on the St. Louis Cardinals. The even snuck into a game or two each summer.
Tom remembered his wedding day. Mitch was there, his best man. The night before convincing Tom that Betty was the best thing that had entered his life and that he was lucky to find a gal like that.
He remembered the day Betty passed during childbirth. That day he lost the love of his life and unborn child. Mitch was there, to help him through it all. Mitch saved his life when Tom wanted to take his and he told him God had a plan and it wasn’t a bullet in the mouth.
Tom remembered the early days in the Army. So many foxholes dug, bullets flying by, shell shock from the constant barrage of cannon fire fighting with the French against a formidable German army. Mitch had again saved Tom’s life in the First Great War, pulling him out of one of those miserable holes after the Germans tried to gas them and Tom had passed out from the thick smog of mustard gas.
Tom snapped back into it…
“Twice you saved my life buddy,” he thought. His heart shuddered and squeezed and he shuddered, his body responding to the massive guilt Tom felt.
“And I let you down, I didn’t save you.”
Tom shook his head violently as if he could shake the memory out of his head. He had made the decision to take that bridge and knew well that many of his men would likely perish. Such a dangerous operation that he had asked for ten volunteers. Mitch and nine others did not hesitate to step forward. Tom very rarely made a tactical mistake. His chest tightened again, feeling the effect of his anguish
Failing to have scouts sent to identify danger prior to the operation, he sent Mitch and the other volunteers to their death. They never had a chance against those snipers.
He fell to his knees on the prayer bench. Tears flowed. He didn’t know how he was going to move on. His rock, his brother, was gone forever.
And it was his fault……