by Carolyn Stritzke
“Just a little farther.” I gritted through clenching teeth. Sharp pains shot up my left leg as my bad knee buckled and dragged. Even at a light jog, Raider with his loping strides was dragging me forward. Stumbling, I worked to regain my balance. Sweat beaded along my forehead and dribbled down my face and neck in halting tributaries, icy under the onslaught of brisk autumn gusts. Winter was marching steadily forward; Autumn was in full retreat. Anymore time, that elusive reminder of man’s fate, was a hard fiend to keep track of. The weather during my daily jog was my only reminder of the passing months. This was my third season since my return from active duty. Strange—I hadn’t realized it had been so long.
A hazy picture floated to the surface of my mind. A gruff major was bending over my bed. “Son, it looks like you made it, but this is gonna be where you and the army part ways. I sure hope you’ve got a back-up plan.” I had learned later that I had shrapnel in my knee from a roadside bomb. They’d shipped me back home with the rest of the wounded.
The wind pummeled my flushed skin, drawing me back to the present. Raider kept jogging with unflinching diligence, his furry pads bounding through the grassy, leaf-filled ditch, and his pointed ears tucked back against his head. For a moment, I wished I could be a German shepherd rather than a former soldier.
Finally, I tugged at Raider’s leash, pulling him to a stop. “Enough. Let’s take a short break, buddy.” I bent over double, trying to draw the frigid air into my lungs. I had no form, no pounding routine cadence. Not even the rookies in boot camp look this bad. My physical therapist said that this is normal—would be my new normal, now—but I can’t bear to accept the thought. I don’t want to be a cripple.
A car raced past, tires crunching over the rough road. I ignored it. Probably just a carload of kids laughing. ‘Look at that man,’ they must say, ‘doesn’t he look funny? Why does he walk like that?’ I had heard the words plenty enough before to hear their unspoken scorn now. I pulled myself back up right and stretched my spine. High above a flock of geese honked as they flew south in their trademark “v” formation. Dead, crumbling leaves rattled in the branches overhead as the cool autumn wind flowed past; green hedge apples with rust colored spots littered the ground. I frowned. One of those could probably twist an ankle. Should have seen those sooner, Corporal. I took another deep breath, held it in, and tried to push away the pain as I let it out.
“Jest get on up there, you stubborn—” muttered an old whiskery, age-roughened voice. Grunts followed this gruff statement.
My gaze flitted around as my muscles tensed. I tried to locate the only other person I’d heard or seen actually out in this weather. The mutterings continued. Just like Andy used to. I grimaced, remembering skin-scorching waves of heat as Andy struggled to load a ponderous box into the back of a Humvee. Laughter had slipped between my lips as he pushed, finagled, and finally shoved the box in. He had always been good for a brief laugh... until we’d lost him to a land mine. Not much to send home to his Mama.
The muffled shouting, mumbling, muttering continued. I finally located the voice. Old Man George was trying to load an almost full bag of mulch into a wheelbarrow. He had it perched haphazardly on his shoulder, trying to push it up along the side of the wheelbarrow and over the rim. Any minute now and the bag would dump back onto the ground. The poor old fellow. His muscles were clearly much too atrophied for that sort of lifting. I sighed. Duty calls. Approaching the wooden fence, I carefully picked my steps through the hedge apples and ducked under the tree’s low hanging branches. He didn’t seem to see me. Sitting on the fence, I swung my legs over and trod haphazardly through the stalky dried branches of what was probably a bush.
“Get off my land!” Old Man George, having finally seen me, yelled in outrage, shaking his fist as he tried to balance the mulch bag against the wheelbarrow. Already the wheelbarrow was starting to tip.
I would have hurried, but the flowerbed was inches deep in mulch; every step I took threatened to upset my already iffy balance. Raider whined, watching me through the fence.
“Now see here!” the old man protested, moving his hand back to support the bag of mulch as it started to slide back down.
“Where did you want this?” I gestured to the bag.
His mouth opened soundlessly. The bag slumped to the ground. “By the shed, but—”
I hunched down, grabbed it in my arms, and tossed it in the wheelbarrow.
He sputtered at me for a minute, his face reddening as his blood pressure rose. His eyes narrowed at the bag in the wheelbarrow. “The young these days have no respect for their elders.”
I fought a smirk from spreading across my face. “The old these days have no respect for themselves. What else did you need moved?”
He huffed irritably. ”Well,” he finally sputtered, “since you’re here, you might as well get my rake and trimmers for me, too.”
“All right.” I bent down to grab them. “Did you want them in the same spot?”
Old Man George nodded tersely. I threw them in the wheelbarrow on top of the bag of mulch. I could feel his sharp eyes watching my precise movements. Gradually he seemed to relax. “Where’d ya serve?”
“Afghanistan.” I grabbed the handles of the wheel barrow. Why does everyone ask that?
I dug my shoes in and pushed the wheelbarrow towards the shed, trying to hide my limp. “Around.” Behind I could hear my dog barking. Dimly, at the back of my mind, a voice reminded me, “You’re not supposed to be separated from him. You still have flashbacks.” I pushed the voice away. I’m not that broken.
The old gardener snorted and then started walking to the gate to let Raider in. The dog glared suspiciously at him before darting past. Old Man George didn’t even seem fazed. Strange, it’s not often I meet someone who isn’t fazed by Raider ‘s glare. I committed the observation to memory.
As I pushed the wheelbarrow forward, I glanced around the yard, studying the general lay of the land: the gates and the buildings, the beds, and the bushes, and the trees. I needed to know the fastest route out of here: call it my training.
Several mutts were sleeping in a pile on the porch. One of them lifted his head and growled at Raider but didn’t bother to actually try to chase him off. Smart dog. Beyond I could see two cats with swishing, bottle-brush tails stalking around the corner of the house away from us. I stifled a grin. Other than the obvious motley collection of pets, the place was empty
It didn’t used to be like this. Old memories resurfaced of the old man and his late wife. Their home had been the heart of this neighborhood. A cider mill oozed under the apple trees while neighbors milled, a tire swing hung from the old oak tree, and somewhere, far in the back of the property, boys fished in the stocked pond with willow branch rods. I missed those days. The neighborhood felt disconnected now.
Beside me, the old man offered his hand to Raider to sniff. Raider stuck his nose out and sniffed quickly before darting back. The old man smiled. “If you stay and help me finish this bed, my daughter-in-law left me some apple pie. Might be willin’ to share a piece.”
“That won’t be necessary.” I shoved the wheelbarrow to a stop in front of the shed.
He chuckled. “Don’t matter if it’s necessary.”
I looked at Old Man George. The lightheartedness faded from his face; deep lines carved by sun and wind tightened around his mouth. The difference felt like the difference between childhood and the real world, and it hurt to watch. It hurt to understand. Finally, I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
He nodded. The deal was sealed. “Might as well get this lot in.” His hand waved over the wheelbarrow.
I picked up the tools. “Where do you want them?”
He twisted the doorknob on the shed. It squeaked and ground before the door banged open. With a flick of the switch, the light turned on, buzzing and glowing, the light bulb slowly warming up. I stepped onto the threshold. The musty aroma of a dirty, hay-strewn floor, rusty tools, old tractor oil, and stale cat food met my nose. The light didn’t reach the far comers of the room, but everywhere that I could see tools, boards, mowers, parts, pieces, spare screws, metal poles, and plywood boards lined the walls and filled the center. At the back, a cat’s eyes glared incandescently at me, and then disappeared
“Just stick ‘em by the mower.”
I hesitated, eyeing the cramped, small, dark room. I didn’t want to enter. Panic clawed at the back of my throat like a rat trying to escape its doom. I backed up. Crumbling walls the color of desert sand hemmed me in. The rat-a-tat of AK47s echoed in the close space. Sweat trickled down my back. I crouched down against the wall, trying to remain hidden and small in the night’s shadows. I didn’t have my gun. Where was my gun? My breathing shortened. Gasp in; gasp out. Something wet tickled my fingertips. I glanced down. Raider was licking my fingertips. Why is Raider here? When I looked back up, the city was gone, the fight long over. Old Man George stared down at me, his lips puckered together and moisture in his eyes. I rose from my crouch. “I don’t need your pity.” I grabbed the mulch and the tools and threw them into the shed without bothering to watch where they landed. I tugged the door shut with a fierce pull.
“I wasn’t pitying you, son.” His eyes were still moist. “Come on and bring the wheelbarrow,” he turned back to his gardens, “we still have one more bed. It’s chock full of walnuts. Got to get them out. My daughter-in-law wants ‘em for a pie.”
I stared at his retreating back. What? The distance between us increased as he kept walking. Raider took one look at me and trotted after him. Traitor. I hurried after. The pain in my leg was more intense; the flashback had reminded me of the shrapnel. I grabbed my pant leg and used it to pull my leg forward. There’s no time to lag behind. That’s for the weak.
When I finally caught up, the old man was standing next to the last bed, a large, irregularly shaped slope lined with bricks. It slouched to the left of a sidewalk leading up to the two-story farmhouse. On the right, a thick tree with rough bark towered over the shingled roof. The dogs that had been sleeping on the worn wrap-around porch were gone. Raider lounged against the tree’s roots. Walnuts littered the ground.
“Jest take ‘em and toss ‘em in the wheelbarrow.”
I set to work, focusing on each nut in front of me. I would not have another flash-back—at least not in front of the scrappy, scraggly old man picking up nuts in front of me. The next time I looked up the wheelbarrow was full, the grass and mulch were clear of nuts, and the sun was significantly higher in the sky. Old Man George leaned back against one of the pillars of the porch, a hand on his back and a grimace on his face. “Time for pie,” he groused. “Leave the walnuts and come on.” He disappeared inside.
Raider stood up, waiting for me, his tail wagging languidly. I stroked a hand down through his bristly fur. The open front door revealed a homey living room—not metal boxes or canvas tents. Comfy sofas, covered with crocheted Afghans, lounged on oak floor. Family photos lined the walls, while several candles and a shadowbox rested on the mantelpiece. You’re home. Remember? I stepped forward, hesitated, and then finally entered, Raider close beside. I could already hear Old Man George at the back of the house. With one swift glance around, I followed. That was a folded flag on the mantle. My feet retreated backwards as I re-evaluated my observation. The display case...he lost someone in the military.
“Well? Are ya comin’, or aren’t ya?”
“Coming, sir.” With one last look behind, I left the room. If he didn’t want to bring it up, I wouldn’t ei ther. I knew enough about grief to respect his privacy. I found Old Man George on the back porch lounging in a wooden rocking chair, a plate of pie in his hand. Another piece rested on a plate on the side table. I sat down and dug in. Raider sprawled down on the ground beside me. This view must be spectacular in summer time. A flat yard mowed down stretched back to a heavily forested tree line. I don’t remember Old Man George owning this much land. It’s an awful lot for him to take care of.
“I reckon if you want to come out and shoot sometime, I don’t mind.”
I tried to hide my slight jump. I had forgotten he was here.
“Might be nice to have some of the vermin cleared off the place,” he continued, leaning back into his rocking chair.
I shoved another bite into my mouth and savored the sharp flavor of the cinnamon, mingling with the lighter taste of apple slices and buttery, flaky crust. “Might decide to.”
He nodded amiably. “If that’s settled, these plates need washed.”
I turned to look at him. “Really?”
The old man snorted. “You remind me of my son. Always so precise—everything ‘cept his humor.” His eyes drifted off into the distance, remembering old memories looped together on a reel. “Deployed in Iraq. They gave my daughter-in-law a purple heart. Said he’d served well.”
The knowledge washed over me, cold and quiet. I had come home, but, like so many others, his boy hadn’t. My eyes sought out the tree line again. He should be here, having pie with his father, yet here I am instead. The honor of the moment was only outweighed by the duty now settling deep into my heart. I scratched behind Raider’s ears. “A worthy recognition.” I cleared my throat, trying to rid it of the tightening feeling. “Did you have anything else you wanted to finish today, sir?”