Guts, Glory, and a Forever Broken Heart.

With a sun so hot it bleached the blue from the sky, the heat lay on west Texas like an unwanted blanket. It was August, close to the end of a summer that would go down in the books. The hottest day, the longest dry spell, the highest temperature in downtown Odessa. On and on, a litany of heat that someone, sometime would pull out and say, “and on this day in 2018 …”

“Damn weathermen,” Casey spat and kicked the caliche with a boot. “Sum-bitch said it would maybe storm.” He kicked backward with the heel of his right boot, and again, and once more. There was nary a mark left on that hardened ground by that hard heel of his boot. This time of year the ground was like concrete.

“Even worse this year. All the storms go north or south. Some kind of current, ninja or ninny I think they call it,” he mumbled to himself.

He looked to the east, to the caprock shimmering and wavering in the heat on the distant horizon. To the north and south, all he saw was heat rising. To the west, nothing but a great roaring dust devil. “Damn weathermen.”

“Hey there, Mr. Bugs,” he said to the jackrabbit he could see hunkered down by the tumbleweed to his left. “Don’t think you need to worry ‘bout rattlers. No self-respecting snake would be out in this heat.”

Casey walked on, steel blue eyes shaded by his straw cowboy hat. His boots crunched and cracked on the hard-baked caliche. Eyes wrinkled from years spent squinting into a west Texas sky, he continued on his way, just an old man out for a stroll.

“Ain’t it wonderful, Mr. Bugs. In west Texas, you can be the tallest and the smallest, and both at the same time. Grandpa Leander used to tell me that and then that jolly old man laughed with that wonderful laugh he had. Lost him sixty years ago back in June. I miss that old man.”

A smile creased Casey’s face; a pleasant smile, full of life and laughter. “Hell, I am that old man,” and his grin broadened.

He removed his hat and revealed a pale forehead, with silver wisps of hair plastered to the temples from rapidly evaporating sweat. He yanked his kerchief from his hip pocket, wiped his brow, wiped the brim of his hat, bent down and wiped a spot on his left boot. He stood, wiped his forehead again leaving a smudge of dust from his boot, plopped his hat back on his head, wadded up the kerchief, and returned it to his hip pocket.

He squinted his eyes against the glare of that August sun and held a right hand up to block what the brim of his hat didn’t. Up ahead was what he sought. He passed the gnarled and bent mesquite tree, and the ground fell away for a spell. Casey walked down the slope, and to the old boundary of a cracked and dried-up pond. He stood silent, remembering friends, family, and fun times around this watering hole.

Ahead was the same mesquite log that had been there for, “nigh onto ta seventy years, I guess,” Casey said to Mr. Bugs. He stepped over it and sat.

Then he got an itch and a twitch and stood, walked back to the mesquite while unbuttoning his fly to do the mandatory business all the boys had to do. Watering the mesquite, they had called it. Today, it took a while. “Hell, I can remember when I could knock the bark off that damn tree.” He settled for a wee stream and a dribble. A shake, only one, and buttoned up. The mandatory business done, he walked back to the log and sat back down.

Shadows stretched, and the sun began its journey downward. A hawk took to the pale skies and screamed from on high. Mr. Bugs skittered away into other tumbleweeds. Casey sat, remembering a pond and blue water reflecting white puffy clouds. A dust devil interrupted his reverie. It dashed across the pond, whirled around Casey and lifted his hat from his head. Casey made a grab, grumbled, rose and chased his sombrero. Catching it near the mesquite, he plopped it back on his head and strode down the slope and into the middle of the dried up pond.

He turned to leave when a metallic glint caught his eye. The dust devil had cleared the middle of the pond of loose sand, and something bright and shiny winked at him. Casey walked over and scuffed the ground with his boots, and kicked up something gold and blue. He picked it up, knocked the dirt off and looked in wonder at a Medal of Honor.

“How,” he said, as he wandered back to the log. He sat, tilted his hat back, scratched his forehead, and pondered the enigma he held in his hand.

Clouds and shadows passed and the sun dropped towards the horizon. He heard boots crunching dry ground behind him. He noticed the shadows were far longer than he expected.

“Pop? You ok? It’s on to dark and we got worried.”

“Sorry, Bobbie. Got sidetracked. Recognize this?” He tossed the medal to his son. Bobbie fumbled it a bit but caught it, and examined it.

“Not engraved. Know whose it is?”

“Yeah. Used my phone to run the serial number through the database. It’s Chucks.”

“Chuck? Uncle Chuck?”

“Yeah.”

“How did his medal get in the pond?”

“That is what distracted me. When did this pond last have water in it?”

“I dunno. Five, mebbe six years. Old man Hawkins rerouted his irrigation and this pond wasn’t needed for runoff anymore.”

“Thought so. ‘Bout the time Chuck visited me that last time.” Casey looked around. “It’s late, Dottie’s going to be pissed at me.” He lurched as he leaned forward and winced. “Damn it. Gimme a hand, will ya, Bob.”

The younger man took his father’s hand and steadied him as the old man rose from the log. “Knee,” Bob asked.

“Yeah. Sat too long with my butt too low.” He walked a step or two, shook his right knee out a bit, then started up the slope from the log with a diminishing limp.

“There ain’t nothing you could do to get my wife mad at you.”

“Well, it’s rude …”

Bob interrupted. “I know. It’s rude to not be on time if someone took the time to make you a meal. You and Mom drilled that into me and my siblings.” The two of them walked into an evening not much cooler than the afternoon had been. The sun-soaked caliche radiated all that heat back into the evening.

Dinner was ready when they arrived. The conversation around dinner retold tales of horney toad hunting by Bobbie Jr. The trip to town with Momma was told by Susan.

“If you folks don’t mind, I’ll be on the patio.” As he walked from the table, Casey heard Bob explain things to Dottie. He sat in his comfortable lawn chair, rammed a hand down his Levi’s and pulled that medal out of the depths of the pocket. His fingers traced the surface.

“We were planning to churn up some ice cream,” he heard Dottie call from the door. “Too hot to be baking anything.”

“That sounds good. Bring it on out.”

Everyone scurried about getting the wooden bucket, dropping the bags of ice on the patio concrete, finding the salt, and then at last Dottie bringing out the canister and setting it down in the wooden bucket. He let Bob supervise the churning. A layer of ice. Liberal rock salt. More ice. More salt. Then the affixing of the crank and handle, plastic bags, newspaper, and a blanket on top, followed by a young butt to hold it all in place.

Bob turned the churn towards himself and began cranking, tickling his daughter a time or two to make her giggle. Then there was silence. Susan, the butt on the churn, started to speak but Bob hushed her, “Shush. Not right now baby. Pop, can you tell us about the medal?”

Casey sat silent, fingering the object in question. His grandson walked to him and climbed up on a knee, and just looked at the gold pentagon in his grandfather’s hand. “Sure,” Casey said and seemed to set straighter with a bit of resolve.

“I can’t say for sure how it got in the pond but the time fits. Remember the last time Chuck came to visit me?”

Heads nodded around the circle, Bob cranked the ice cream, and a coyote yipped from the fields.

“He and I made several trips down to the pond and mostly just did what we did as kids. Sit and spit, and skip rocks across the pond. And talked. We talked a lot about our military life, and Ted’s. Ted had been the first to die. Didn’t even know what hit him. Lost a lot of good men that day in that valley.” He looked at his grandson, and said, “his grave is one you set flags on.”

“Theodore P. Brookes, 1st Lieutenant, 2nd Troop, 1st of the Third Calvary,” Bobbie Jr recited.

“That’s right,” Casey said. “You want me to turn that a while?”

“Nope,” Bob replied, “your job is to tell us about Uncle Chuck.”

“Guess we never have talked much about it.”

“Pop, it’s the only thing you never have talked about. Think maybe it’s time?”

Silence lay on the patio for a bit. The rusty churn creaked, the canister rushed and swished through icy water, and another coyote yip-yip-yipped, followed by the squeal of a rabbit. Life, Casey thought. You live, and then you die. He continued his story.

“I remember the last time Chuck was here. He wandered off to the pond by himself. We hadn’t lost Martha yet, and she told me she had seen him wandering down that way. When I got there, he was on his knees, sobbing. I squatted down, put an arm around him. All I could hear him saying was, ‘I couldn’t save him, Casey. Half of him just wasn’t there.’”

“Damn,” Casey stopped and looked at his daughter-in-law. “Dottie, you want the kids to hear this?”

“Casey, these kids watch the news with Bobbie and me. They ask questions, we answer. We don’t hide the world from them. I think they will be alright.”

Looking at the brown eyes of his grandson, he hugged Bobbie Jr close and gently stroked the head of his granddaughter.

“I think before I got there, he had skipped this across the pond,” Casey whispered, holding up the medal. “We did not do anymore rock skippin’ till he left, and he didn’t throw it any other time.”

“But why …” Dottie started to say.

“He never wanted it. Not because he didn’t think he earned it. Hell, anybody in that valley on that day earned and deserved that medal.”

“You were there,” Bob said.

“Yup, and I wrote citations for many medals for several men in my platoon. Chuck did not want it because of who he left in that valley, not who he brought out.”

“Dottie,” Bob said, helping Susan down and removing the newspaper and blankets from the ice cream churn. “I think the cream is set. We ready to uncork this?”

Bright eager young eyes focused on the contents of the wooden bucket and churn. Bowls were passed out, and everyone received heaping helpings of cold deliciousness. Silence reigned for a few minutes as the sweetness of a summer treat was savored, enjoyed, and shared. Seconds for Bob, Bobbie, and Susan. Dottie got the paddle. Casey sat back and enjoyed his family more than the ice cream. At last, it was all hands chipping in to clean up. Bowls and churn took to the kitchen, dishwasher loaded and started.

At last, everyone returned to the patio, Casey again with his grandson on his lap. Susan sat next to her father on one side, and Dottie next to her husband on the other. Casey and Bobbie Jr sat in the comfortable chair to the left of everyone.

“You want to continue, Pop? You don’t have to, ya know,” Bob said.

“I know.” Casey pulled his kerchief out, blew his nose, and dabbed his eyes. “Sorry about that, Grandson.”

“S’ok, Grandpa.”

“Nope, folks I think I need to. For me, yes, and also for Chuck. He didn’t want that blasted medal,” and Casey fell silent again, finding it difficult to swallow.

“Pop, why didn’t you get that medal,” Dorothy asked. Bob squeezed her hand, not in a deprecating manner, but in a manner that said thank you for asking the question I wanted to ask.

“I told them no. I lost too many men in that valley. Went in with 45. Came back with 12.” Silence, again.

“God, I lost so many.” The kerchief again. “I didn’t think, and I still don’t, that a platoon leader that lost over half of his men deserved it. I heard battalion was putting me in for it and I flatly told them, ‘Hell, no!’ Chuck would have done the same, but he was hospitalized and out of it for nearly a month. By the time he knew what was going on, he had the award. As I told him, you can’t un-award that medal, not with honor.”

“But why didn’t he want it?” Bob said. “From what I read in his citation, more than anyone, he deserved it. He saved that pilot and many of the men in his platoon just by his leadership. One sidebar I read said his platoon went to Battalion with the nomination.”

“He didn’t want it for the one person he could not save.” Casey paused, torn about what he was about to tell them. “A lot of things have changed since those days. It was decades before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I knew in high school that Chuck and Ted had something going on.”

Dottie gulped, started to usher the kids out when she caught Bob’s eye. He was telling her no. She thought about it, sat back, and agreed with her husband. She saw Casey looking at her. “Go on Casey. Please.”

Big eyes and big ears caught the exchange going on between the adults, turned it over in their young minds as they looked at each other, and Susan said what Bob Jr was wondering. “Unca Chuck was gay.”

There, it’s out. They know Chuck, maybe knew all along, Casey thought.

“Yes, Susan, Uncle Chuck was gay.” To Bob and Dottie, he said, “Ted was the co-pilot in that chopper. The RPG that took out the chopper, cut him in half. Chuck had to leave him behind.”

Now Dottie gasped. Eyes welled with tears as she said, “Oh no.”

Casey paused for a moment as the sun dipped below the horizon and lit the western sky in ochre and gold.

“The one man he wanted to save, over all those that he did save, was the one man he could not save.”

 

 

 

To Love is to Conquer without Shedding Blood.

‘Not so rough!’ 9 watched 23 hurl the human across the rock floor. ‘We need the specimen unharmed.’
23 grunted before skulking into the darkness.

Continue reading “To Love is to Conquer without Shedding Blood.”

Pizza, roses, and a unsurpassed mutual appreciation.

Claire pressed the green button and the printer spat out another fistful of orders. She picked them up and headed into the blissful cool of the back room, close to the walk-in fridge. It was only eleven, and they had been busy since seven. No wonder her sister had asked her to come and help today. Even with three florists working full time, Valentine’s Day was a bear.

Photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash BookBaybZ

She pulled out a stack of trays, placing an order on each. Then she selected flowers, ribbon, oasis and wrapping paper, putting everything on the trays, so that the florists only had to work their magic.

It was not until she glanced at the delivery address on order eight (roses (12): colour mixed), that a chill ran up her spine. It was her address. It was her name. Quickly, her eye scanned downwards.

‘Greg Harlow.’ She knew that name. Claire closed her eyes briefly and a face swam into view. Disordered ginger hair, straight eyebrows under frameless glasses, freckles and an auburn three-day-growth… Unit 22. Her downstairs neighbour.

Photo by Dev on Unsplash used by BookBaybZ

He was pretty cute. When she had moved in eight months earlier, she had noticed him alright. But she had been seeing Dave at the time. So even when they met at the bus stop or down by the bins, she had done her best to play it cool.

What was the instruction for the message? She looked again.

Ah…

From your secret admirer.’

A smile played around her mouth. Two could play at that game.

She left at four thirty and stopped at Coles on the way home. She had seen enough meat lover’s pizza boxes go into his bin to know that he wasn’t vegetarian. When she got off the bus and dragged her shopping up the stairs, she made a quick stop outside his flat, carefully placing a sealed envelope and a single, long stemmed rose outside his door. Claire threw a couple of steaks into marinade and made a salad.

When it got to six-fifteen, Claire positioned herself in the corner of the landing so she could see his door. He trod up the stairwell, briefcase under his arm, as usual. Claire watched avidly. At his door, he put the key in the lock before he noticed anything, then bent and picked up the rose, breathing in its fragrance, stroking the soft petals. He sliced through the envelope with the edge of his house key and pulled out the single printed sheet.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash used by BookBaybZ

Claire took in the look on his face and grinned to herself.

Fifteen minutes later, Claire carried her picnic hamper down to the communal garden and BBQ area. Greg rose and laughed, his face a picture of bashful pleasure.

‘I hoped the note was from you. How did you know?’

‘I’m psychic.’ She smiled at the look of shock. ‘Kidding. You sent your order to the florist where my sister works. I was helping out today while uni is still on vacation.’

‘Wow. Maybe fate is on my side then?’

‘Maybe.’ She pulled a bottle of Jacob’s Creek sparkling out of the hamper and handed it to him. The cork popped and she held up two champagne flutes. ‘Thank you for the roses. They are lovely.’

‘My pleasure.’ He clinked his glass to hers and met her eyes. ‘Here is to mutual admiration.’

‘Here’s to us.’

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash used by BookBaybZ

A must read miracle with a delightful recipe that will tantalize!

“Move, Dave!” Shelby screamed into her mask as she ran towards her crew leader. Her hands connected with his back, pushing him out of the way.

The branch came crashing down in a hail of smoke, sparks and thunder. It slammed down on her left shoulder, knocked her helmet and breathing apparatus off. Charred earth dug into her cheek and chin before heavy darkness took the place of smoke and dust.

This was the worst bushfire the Sunshine Coast Hinterlands had experienced; and on Christmas day, of all days.

A sharp light darted across her vision and a myriad of muffled voices echoed around her as…

“Hello, Pumpkin.”

Shelby spun on her heel to find herself back in Maleny in her Nana’s kitchen.

“Oh God…” She slapped her hands across her mouth. “I’m dead!”

“He’s not here this very moment, and no, not yet.” Nan’s bright, hazel eyes shone with love from where she sat at her old wooden kitchen table, chopping green and red maraschino cherries.

“Well, those nuts won’t crush themselves. Wash your hands and get to it.” Nan said as though there were nothing odd about their current situation. Nan had passed away ten years ago.

 

 

Shelby looked around her. Everything was just as she remembered, down to the multi-coloured crochet blanket hanging over the well-worn leather couch. How had she gotten from the bushfire to here?

“Well, come on then,” Nan urged and returned to the cherries.

Shelby silently obeyed her grandmother. She pulled off her bulky fire-proof jacket, and hung it on the hook on the back of the kitchen door. She washed her hands and came to sit opposite Nan.

“If I’m not dead, why am I here, Nan?” She dug a hand into the container full of walnuts, and dropped them on the wooden chopping board in front of her.

“Can’t you remember what happened, Pumpkin?” Nan stopped her chopping, frowned, then turned her attention to the slices of sponge cake soaking in Old Brown Sherry.

“I was fighting a fire and saw a branch about to fall on Da – my crew leader. I – I pushed him out of the way but … I think the branch fell on me…” Shelby swallowed back her tears, “I am dead!”

Nan’s plentiful bosom heaved as she chuckled, “Not quite. And there’s another reason why you pushed him out of the way, isn’t there?”

A flash of light and distant muffled voices drew Shelby’s gaze toward the front door. Tendrils of smoke drifted in from beneath the door and through the keyhole.

“Where am I?”

Nan put down her knife and reached across the table, placing a leathery wrinkled hand on Shelby’s. “You’re here with me. It’s kind of a halfway stop between there.” She nodded up towards the ceiling, “and home.”

But why?

Shelby asked herself.

“To decide, of course.”

“How did you…”

Nan gave Shelby a knowing smile.

“What do I need to decide?” Shelby asked as she picked up a large sharp knife and began to chop and crush the Walnuts.

“Whether to return with me or go back home.” She stood up and walked over to the fridge, “Aaah… the custard’s chilled.” Nan pulled a small silver pot off the shelf. “When I saw the branch fall on you, I asked for a favour in return for one of my favourite Christmas trifles.”

“God eats trifle?” Shelby asked, shocked.

Nan chuckled again. “Oh, I’m sure He’ll want a taste too, but it’s for another…”

Nan came to sit back down. “Now, will you slice those peach halves for me, please?” Nan aimed the business end of her small kitchen knife at a bowl of peach halves soaked in syrup on the table beside her. “You were always afraid of being left alone. From the day your mum dropped you off at my front gate and vanished into thin air. And the day when you found I had simply not woken up. And especially, when you put your life before Dave’s. I was given a peek deep into your heart at that moment. You’d rather have died than loose him. Even though you’d never confessed your feelings.” Nan scooped a tablespoon of red jelly from a bowl which appeared from nowhere, and spread it out across the first layer of soaked sponge.

A sharp prick in Shelby’s arm, and another in her leg made her jump. They were followed by the muffled voices. She looked down at her arm. Nothing!

“Why’d you never tell him?”

“How I feel about him? That would be insane, Nan!”

“He’ll be half a man if you decide not to return.”

“How so? The only person who’s ever loved me was you,” Shelby scoffed as she returned to slicing the peaches.

Shelby!

Her head shot up. “Dave?”

She squinted when her Nan’s face wobbled and distorted. Through a haze, a pair of eyes she’d quietly fallen in love with the day they’d met, appeared. Blue as the brightest sky reflected off an ocean.

Then from Nan’s wrinkly old lips spilled a voice she knew better than her own, Don’t you die on me! Do you hear, Shelly! Hang in there…

Dave.

Dave’s eyes remained staring back at her form Nan’s face.

“You’ve loved him secretly for a while, now haven’t you?”

Shelby had no words, but only nodded.

Nan reached across the table and picked up a few slices of peach, spreading them across the jelly before adding the custard and nuts, and then another layer of sherry-soaked sponge cake. “It’s not been as one sided as you might have thought Pumpkin. You’ve just been too afraid to notice.”

“But what if I take the leap and fall, Nan?  If it doesn’t work out… I have no one… I only have you.” Tears trickled down Shelby’s cheeks as Nan sprinkled the red and green finely chopped maraschino cherries on top of her Trifle.

“You’re not unlovable Pumpkin. Stop trying so hard to convince yourself that you are.”

“I can’t lose someone else, Nan…”

A shiver ran across Shelby’s chest.

Shelly don’t go, hang in there!

“I want to go with you.”

A tingling sensation rippled down her breast bone and the voices grew dimmer, but Shelby’s mind returned to the sad, crisp blue eyes of a man who’d just lost his greatest love.

“And will you be happy knowing you gave up on a chance to have your own family? Love is not something anyone should fear.”

Another tingle, closer to a static shock this time, travelled across her chest and into her heart.

“I will always be with you, Pumpkin.” Nan reached out and stroked her face.

Shelby looked into the blue eyes that weren’t Nan’s but called to her with such love. His devastation at her loss reached out and wrapped itself around her heart.

“He really does love me!”

“Yes, Pumpkin, he does.” Nan smiled.

Sharp, ice cold fingers tore across her chest, jolting her where she sat.

“I love you, Nan. I’ll never forget you.” Shelby cried.

“And I will always be with you.”  Nan’s face and the kitchen faded in to a soft darkness.

Muffled shuffling. Pain. So much pain returned to the surface of Shelby’s consciousness. With effort, she forced her lids to open, revealing a blurry green fog which surrounded her, and a large yellow lump slumped in a chair to her left.

“N-Nan…”

Her voice was hoarse, and her throat ached as though she’d swallowed red hot embers.

The lump stirred, and her focus improved. “D-Dave?”

“Shelly!” Relief and love edged the hoarseness of his voice.

Dave jumped up and came to stand beside her, his face close to hers as his fingers stroked her cheeks.

“Wh-where am I….”

“Sh, don’t speak. You inhaled quite a bit of smoke. You’re in the emergency department at Caboolture hospital. They’re waiting for a bed to open in High Care. God, Shelly, I thought I’d lost you… you saved my life!”

Dave’s voice broke, as diamonds sparkled across the azure of his gaze. He was still dressed in his protective gear and his face was covered in soot which streaked as the tears toppled from his eyes and tumbled down his face.

Shelby reached up and cupped his cheek bringing his face down to her, their lips touching and sending another shock right down to her toes.

“Always knew you two would end up together. Think we knew it before you did, though.” Raf, the large teddy bear in their crew , smiled as he pulled open the green privacy curtain.

Behind him stood a man, tall and blond, with eyes of coal, and dressed in black scrubs. In one hand he held a sickle and in the other, Nan’s Christmas Trifle.

Thank you, Shelby mouthed.

The man smiled before the remainder of their firehouse crew walked straight through him toward her bed.

 

Written by Michelle Dalton