This story is by Melissa Dopp and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Guilt…….it consumed him, he couldn’t sleep or eat. All he did each day was sit on the bench in the town square. He watched people walk by him without a word or even a look. Maybe it was his dirty uniform that made him unworthy of human connection, or maybe it was the townspeople were just so disappointed that he had let the only son of a much loved family get killed. He watched as the landscapers got the square ready for the annual Memorial Day Celebration and even as they worked Tom went unnoticed. Tom knew that soon the townspeople would observe the lone statues ultimate sacrifice during the Civil War and its’ descendants would give speeches. “There will never be a statue of me,” he thought to himself as his childhood dream of being a hero vanished. He stood to stretch his legs and saw his old neighbor. “Good morning, Mr. Hanford,” he said pleasantly as the old man walked by. But Mr. Hanford just continued walking almost looking right through Tom. Everyone in town was treating him like this and he began to wish he hadn’t come home at all. Even his sister wouldn’t talk to him. He thought she would be happy to see him back from the war but as he stood on her big front porch she just looked at him through the screen door and didn’t say a word. His only friend became Henry, the old mailman. Each day Henry would stop and talk to Tom before making his deliveries with a pleasant “good morning Tom,” and “how ya doing today?” It was the same question everyday but Tom didn’t mind, he had a friend. “I’m OK, Henry, how are you?”
“Can’t complain, no one would listen anyways.” But today was different. Today Henry had something for Tom. “Look,” he began to say, “I did something wrong but I figured that when you do something nice and decent for a friend then it can’t really be wrong, right?”
“I guess that makes sense, why what did you do?” Tom asked as he sat back down on ‘his’ bench.
“Well,” Henry began, “I got some mail here that was supposed to go to your house but I know you don’t go home so you would never see it. I just slipped it into my pocket ‘so’s I could give it to you. Anyways, I figure it’s not really stealing when you give it to one of the rightful owners, right?”
“Yeah, I guess. Is that addressed to me?” Tom asked as he saw the envelope in Henry’s hand.
“Well, that’s the thing. It’s addressed to the McIlroy Family so that means your sister and you. I know what it says and you need to read it,” he said as he handed the envelope to Tom.
Tom took the envelope and read the contents and promptly handed it back saying, “No, I won’t go, they don’t want me there.”
“Please Tom,” Henry pleaded, “This is very important. You have to go with me, you won’t be sorry.”
Tom looked at his uniform, dirty and wrinkled. He had always been so proud of his uniform, always clean, pressed and polished. He knew he had to go, to face everyone in town but did he have the courage? He had faced down the enemy but this seemed so much harder. “OK,” Tom replied, “but I can’t go to Smitty’s Bar looking like this.”
“Oh, don’t worry about how you look, nobody will care.”
Tom walked the streets of his town all day; thoughts of the celebration worried him. His mind was racing. Why couldn’t he remember coming home? Where did he put his duffel? He at last decided Henry was right, time to face the people of the town he had lived in all his life.
The day arrived and Henry went up to Tom, still on his bench. Henry held out his hand in a gesture of sincerity and friendship. Tom felt his eyes well up with tears. Nobody had been this kind to him since his return. “Come on, old friend,” Henry said. “Your family and friends are waiting.”
Tom wanted to beg off but the look on Henry’s face gave him some hope, that maybe the people in this town would again accept him and welcome him home. “At least”, he hoped, “maybe give me a chance to explain what had happened.” He stood up and tried to brush off the wrinkles from his uniform. “You look fine.” His friend reassured him.
Together they walked into Smitty’s. The place still looked the same. Tom looked at the bar where he and Rick had shared one last drink together. As he looked around the crowded bar he began to think he made a mistake, nobody was coming up to him. Suddenly, Tom noticed them. Standing in the back of the bar were his men, the men he saw get killed. “No, how can that be?” he turned to Henry to ask but Henry wasn’t there, he was sitting at a table and smiling but he was a young man now dressed in a civil war uniform. Tom was confused but then he began to listen as the people began to pay homage to him, to speak very highly of his heroism and valor. He saw his sister holding his Medal of Honor and his picture and she was crying. These people were proud of him! Tom was confused until he realized the truth. He did not come home as he thought, he was a casualty too. People hadn’t been ignoring him, they couldn’t see him! He began to feel the love of his friends and of the men who had been waiting for him to realize the truth, that he was a hero, just like the statue of Henry in the park. Now they could all go home together.
That afternoon at the traditional ceremony a new statue was unveiled, LT Thomas H. McIlroy, USArmy.