This story is by Chris Murphy and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Once in khaki suits, gee we looked swell
Full of that yankee doodly dum
Half a million boots went sloggin’ through hell
And I was the kid with the drum
The record player’s needle made its slow trek across the black vinyl just as it had done countless times throughout Harold “Harry” Donovan’s 89 years. Bing Crosby usually brought him some measure of peace. But not today. Not on this damnable anniversary.
He wiped at his eyes. Doris had always told him how his blue eyes could light up a room. But time and tragedy had faded his ‘baby blues’ into a cloudy grey, his vision fading with them. He stared at the open large-print book in his lap but all he could see was the physical toll his ‘golden’ years had extracted from him.
Say, don’t you remember, they called me Al
It was Al all the time
Why, don’t you remember? I’m your pal
Say buddy, can you spare a dime?
His hearing wasn’t much better. In fact, all his senses had apparently joined the rest of his body in their final spiral into decay and death. His only unaffected asset was the one thing he wouldn’t have missed. Instead, he was ‘blessed’ with the sharpest mind in the assisted living home. A mind capable of replaying eight decades of memories that he could relive every single day while he waited to die. Whoever was in control of the universe had a cruel sense of humor.
He had believed in God once. But that was before war had consumed his faith. He had never forgotten the moment when he realized there was no benevolent deity watching over humanity. He could still hear the sounds of the battlefield, still smell the scent of freshly turned soil, gunpowder, and blood. Mikey’s lifeless body was seen as clearly as the day he fell seventy years ago. Harry had cried out to God asking him why he had been allowed to live when so many others had died. But, as usual, he got no answers. Just a wounded leg and a ticket home.
…Say, don’t you remember? I’m your pal!
Buddy, can you spare a dime?
The needle crawled to the center of the vinyl, the player’s lone speaker spitting out the familiar sounds of the record’s end. The metaphor was not lost on the old man. Endings had constantly been on his mind in the six years since his wife’s death. With each passing year, his anger and bitterness grew to intolerable levels. He honestly couldn’t blame his children for sticking him in a home. What he did blame them for was their heartbreaking silence.
Three months had passed since they had dropped him off. No one had visited him since. No phone calls, letters, nothing. What he wouldn’t give to see his children, to hold his wife and hear her voice one more time. Instead, all he had left was to sit alone in his room until he died, known only as the resident in room 163.
“How’s the leg, Harry?”
“Eh?” Harry’s head darted around the room. “Who is…?” His frantic search ending at a young man dressed in muddy military fatigues sitting on the end of his bed.
Harry Donovan stared in silence, his mind refusing to believe what his eyes were showing him.
“Still the chatter-box, ain’t ya?” The young man stood up and chuckled. “Boy, you sure haven’t changed much since France, well, besides the obvious.”
Blue eyes blinked their owner’s disbelief.
“So, you just gonna sit there like a drowned rat or are you gonna say sumpthin’ to your old pal?”
Harry shook his head. “Mikey. You’re not… I mean…” He sat up and pointed at the impossible. “You… died!” “I saw you die, Mikey. On that hill. I carried your body…” He wiped at his eyes again. “I’ve finally done it.”
Mikey smiled. “Done what, buddy?”
Harry Donovan lowered his head into his hands. “I’ve lost my mind.”
The young soldier slapped his friend’s shoulder and laughed. “Oh, stop with the gink act, Donovan. You’re not crazy. You’re just dead.”
Harry’s head shot up. “What?”
“Yep, you’ve finally checked out, cashed in your chips, slipped the -”
“Stop it! I’m not… I don’t believe this. I must be dreaming.”
Mikey held up his right hand. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
Out of habit, Harry squinted at the man’s hand and suddenly realized he didn’t need to. “Why, I can… see. I can see your hand!”
Mikey nodded. “Yep, and that’s not all.” He extended his hand. “Get up and look.”
Harry stared at his dead friend before slowly taking his hand. Strength he had long forgotten had ever existed flooded his entire body and he immediately felt the effects of decades and disease melt off him.
He was suddenly pulled to his feet and turned around in one smooth motion. Harry inhaled sharply when he saw his chair. An old man sat where he had been sitting, the afghan Doris had crocheted for him draped around his bony shoulders. It took him several seconds to realize he was looking at his own body.
“Welcome to death, Harry.”
Several more seconds passed before Harry realized the body showed no signs of life. “How… how did I… die?”
Mikey leaned closer to Harry’s body and squinted as if he were studying the remains for clues. He stood up and put his hands on his hips. “Well, I’m not a doctor or anything but…” He flashed his infectious smile. “I’d say you died of old age.”
Harry’s eyes traveled from his unexpected visitor to his corpse and back again. “I’m very confused. How did… what are you doing here, Mikey?”
“Well, I’m here to explain the afterlife rules.”
“Yeah, Harry, rules. Just like back at Fort Bliss. You remember boot camp, don’tcha?”
“Boot camp? Mikey, that was seventy years ago.”
“Maybe to you.” The smile grew even bigger. “That’s one of the rules, Harry. Time works very differently when you’re dead.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, you’ll see. But we need to hurry. I’m due for my next assignment soon.”
“But didn’t you say time works differently after you die?”
Mikey’s smile softened a bit. “Yeah, but there are still rules. For example, there’s the one about having to watch over the person who was with you when you died.”
Instantly, memories of Mikey’s death flooded Harry’s mind. He watched the life drain out of his buddy’s eyes for the millionth time, only this time, the usual sadness and heartbreak were replaced by a mild curiosity. “Wait, you’re telling me that you’ve been -”
“Yep. I’ve been with you from that hill in France to this room. Though, for me, it doesn’t feel like seventy years. Seems like I just died yesterday.” The smile brightened again. “That’s a killer diller, ain’t it?”
“Yeah. That’s pretty amazing, all right. But…” Harry looked around the room. “You just said you get to watch over people who are with you when you die.”
The smile faded again into a more somber expression. “No, I didn’t say ‘get to’. I said, ‘have to’.”
Harry frowned. “So… uh, what happens if there’s no one around when you die? Who do I have to watch over?”
Mikey nodded at his friend. “Well, Harry, I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is since you died alone, you can’t ever leave this room. So, your assignment is to watch over everyone who lives here.
“Afraid so, old friend.” Mikey began to fade. “Uh oh. Looks like my next assignment is about to begin.”
“Wait! You can’t be serious.”
Mikey was nearly translucent. “Don’t worry, buddy. There’s some good news, too.” He stuck out his hand. “It’s been an honor watching over you, Harry.”
Harry reached for his friend’s hand and found only empty air. “Mikey?” He frantically scanned the room. “Wait! What’s the good news?!?”
A soft, familiar voice responded from behind him. “The good news is you’ll never be alone again, Harry.”
He spun around to see the beautiful young woman who had captured his heart so many years ago. His deep blue eyes glistened. “Doris?”
Doris Donovan smiled at her husband. “Yes, sweetheart. I’m here.”
He didn’t bother trying to stop the tears. “Doris!” He pulled her into his arms and emptied years of heartbreak and sorrow into her shoulder.
Doris waited for his sobs to soften before pulling back to wipe her husband’s face, “Happy anniversary, darling.” Her smile melted him all over again, “Would you like to guess what my assignment is?”
The room was suddenly a whirlwind of activity as medical personnel began futilely working to revive the resident in room 163. A flash of light and the room was filled with mourning Donovan children. Another flash and a new resident of room 163 was wheeled in.
Harold “Harry” Donovan watched it all with his beloved wife and a smile.