This story by Deb Bailey is the fifth place winner of the 5th Anniversary Writing Contest. Deb is pursuing a lifelong dream of writing fiction. A native Californian, she lives in Minnesota with her husband, Gary.
Let them come. Let me die.
The unwanted thought came and Etienne Boucher sucked in air. A jolt of adrenaline heightened his senses as his vision darkened. He smelled wet earth, heard pounding rain. He felt cold meat, smelled blood. His vision cleared and he saw the knife. He focused on the scars on his arms, shining silver against his bluish skin. He slowed his breathing and put his knife down. He wiped his hands on his apron. They were cold from handling an icy pig. He spent his day with bloody carcasses. Too much blood. He shook his head.
As the adrenaline left him, the emptiness returned. He stepped to the chopping block and willed his hand back into position to make the final cut through a hinge of bone. That done, he wrapped meat in two packages and put the larger slabs on a tray in cold storage.
Etienne heard laughter from the shop as his assistant completed a sale. The doorbell tinkled as her customer left.
“Monsieur Boucher?” Marcele stood at the door, her hands clutching her apron.
“It’s time to close.”
“Very well.” He visualized her locking the front door, turning the placard, and drawing the shade. Quick and thorough, she would prepare the shop for tomorrow.
Etienne cleaned his space, honed and cleaned his knives, and mopped the floor. He walked back to the abattoir to ensure his apprentices had done the same. Satisfied, he locked the big door.
He ran hot water in the sink and rolled his sleeves, exposing his arms to the elbow. The small craters pitting his arms were difficult to wash. He applied soap and scrubbed them with a stiff brush. He was never gentle with his arms, even when the wounds were fresh. He rinsed the brush and sink, rinsed and dried his hands, folded the towel, and hung it on the rack. He removed his apron and put it in the laundry bin.
Marcele stood at the door in her coat and hat, waiting.
Etienne donned his hat and coat, put one package of meat into his bag already full of wine and sausages. Valerie would bring bread, cheese, and fruit. He tucked the second package under his arm, set the alarm delay, and walked into the shop.
“For your supper.” He handed her the second package of meat.
“Thank you, sir,” she said as she put the package into her bag.
They left the shop through the front door. It was raining, thunder sounding in the distance, and Marcele opened her umbrella. Etienne was without, as usual. It wasn’t a heavy rain and he had lived through worse.
He said “bon nuit” to Marcele as she walked away. He did not hear her answer.
He walked up the street, his head bowed. He recalled loving the rain once. Splashing in puddles, riding his bicycle maniacally through a storm, raising his head to catch drops in his mouth. His love of rain died with his friends.
Etienne looked up and saw her, umbrella open, walking toward him. The bright spot in his life, Valerie waved and smiled. His heart swelled. She waited for him at the entrance to their building. He touched her cheek with his fingertips. He loved every line on her face. She reached up and caressed the scars on his cheeks.
They entered their apartment and hung their coats in the closet. They moved into the large parlor. She turned and wrapped her arms around him.
He clung to her, breathing deeply of the scents that identified her always as the woman he loved. He moved to hold her face with both his hands and kiss her gently on one cheek and then on the other. She reached up to hold his elbows and moved her face to touch his lips with hers. Then she let him go and took his bag along with hers through the door into their kitchen. When it became apparent they wouldn’t have children, they renovated the apartment, combining rooms and creating well-loved spaces. The kitchen opened to a rooftop garden. Together they cooked, grew tomatoes and herbs, and spoke of many things. The apartment was perfect for the two of them and no more.
“I thought I warned you about the rain,” she said.
“You did, but I wasn’t listening.” Etienne opened a bottle of wine and poured the red liquid into two glasses. He handed her one and took the other in his hand. They clinked and drank. She put meat and vegetables into the pressure cooker for stew.
He stood at the parlor door and looked at the photograph on the wall. Valerie found and framed it after he left for Vietnam. How young they all were. Six boys, no one could have called them men, in paratrooper uniforms, mugging for the camera. He stared at himself, his arms around Hubert Archambault on one side and Andre Blanc on the other. Little Charles Desjardins stood in front of the three and behind them stood the Chastain brothers, Maurice and Antoine. They were inseparable, once. Only Etienne remained.
When he came back, alone, friends would ask about Dien Bien Phu. Etienne told them, “It rained.”
The crack of lightning, booming thunder, and the smell of fire. Monsters roiled from the forest spitting lead, flaming balls shooting from their arms, showering him with burning metal. The ground heaved and shook. From a distance, he watched Maurice and Antoine ejected into the sky, ripped, and torn apart. A shock wave rippled the air as dirt, rocks, boulders, metal, wood, and body parts rained down. The screaming filled his brain.
He felt Hubert clutch his arm, felt the trench fill with bloody water. Falling shrapnel pierced and sliced their uniforms and the skin below. They clung to one another and bled.
Shrieking war cries surrounded them and, back-to-back, they faced the enemy. He fired his rifle again, and again, and again. Bullets whizzed past his head and plucked at his clothes. His back grew cold and he turned to see Hubert face down in the water. He sank to his knees, sludge cascading over his boots, and dropped his rifle in the muck.
Let them come. Let me die.
Etienne jerked awake, sweating, adrenaline pumping. Another crack of lightning, the memory’s trigger, lit the room. Thunder boomed. He smelled the rain, the forest, the blood. He swung his legs over the side of the bed, his chest heaving, and waited as his heart slowed. He rubbed his arm where Hubert’s touch had been.
He looked at the other bed where Valerie slept, unaware. Early in their marriage they shared a bed. One night, she reached out to wake him from his nightmare. He awoke with his hands around her throat. The next day she bought twin beds and earplugs.
He shuffled to the kitchen for water. Squinting at the parlor door, he saw embers glowing in the fireplace. He saw the pillows strewn on the floor. Her robe was where he dropped it when their lovemaking began. He was alive as he carried her to her bed. Her scent embraced him, her sighs filled his ears. He rubbed his face, feeling the wounds that had healed, knowing emptiness in his soul.
Etienne closed his eyes and felt, again, the monsters push past him as he lay slumped against the timber. Medics found him clutching Hubert’s foot. Only after he returned to France, only after they picked metal and bone from his skin, only after the worst of the infection had subsided, did he learn that Andre and little Charles were blown to oblivion when Viet Minh artillery scored a direct hit on their position. Valerie held his hand and cried for them all.
He heard the bedroom door open, heard her soft footfall.
He felt the warmth of her body against his back. Felt her arms around his waist. Felt her kissing the welts on his shoulders. He took a deep breath.
“Etienne?” she whispered.
He heard, but could not feel, the plea in her voice. She was the love of his life but she could never understand. Those who could were dead.
As he should be.
As he would be.