The Veteran

The local paper interviewed his parents. A reporter with a deep chocolaty voice and kind eyes came to their house and sat down right in the living room and asked them questions about him. She asked how it felt taking care of him. How they handled the commitment to him. She spared no detail, poking her pen into everything, from the way they’d dealt with him being in a coma to how long it took before they could stop changing his diapers because he’d managed to get to the bathroom on his own for the first time.

“It wasn’t even a question,” his mother said.

“Paul was always our first concern,” his father said.

In his room, bedridden, Paul listened. He had asked them not to let the reporter lady see him because he was tired and wanted to sleep. If they can lie, so can I, he thought, listening to the words seeping through the walls.

When the reporter left, his parents spoke softly and hugged one another. “We’ll get through this,” his mother said. “We’ll get him back on his feet in no time,” his father said. When they came in to check on him, Paul pretended to be asleep. He’d gotten to be even better at it since waking up from his coma. It was a skill he’d always had. His friends in service always made fun of him for sleeping so much – by military standards, of course. But he wasn’t a big sleeper at all. He’d never needed much of it. If he hadn’t had such disdain for anything that sounded even a little bit spiritual, he would have said that he was into meditating. He remembered long, sleepless nights when he was a teenager and obsessing over a girl. He’d lie there, hand still sticky, completely still but for the involuntary fluttering eyelids and muscle twitches that characterize slumber. When he bounced out of bed in the morning, his parents never suspected he hadn’t slept a wink.

Of course it was a question, Paul thought as his mother shut the door and his parents went off to do whatever it was they did on Sunday afternoons. He was basically an adult now, twenty-four, and he knew that parents weren’t perfect. He refused to believe that his mother hadn’t wondered what it would be like to have him recuperate at some rehab center for vets like him. She must have thought about everything she would lose from her life, keeping him at home and caring for him around the clock. She didn’t go to her chess club anymore, and he hadn’t heard of her meeting a friend out for coffee since before he’d gotten half his head blown off. He didn’t think his dad could have been so blase about the whole thing either. Paul knew about the woodworking shop his father had begun to assemble in the unused half of the garage, and he knew that the shelves and the chairs and the tables his father had planned on building would never come to fruition.

They’d also told the reporter that helping Paul achieve independence was what they wanted most in the world, because they knew he wanted to be a useful member of society. His muscles convulsed and he clenched his fists, practicing the movements his physical therapist wanted him to do. He wanted to tell his parents that they were sweet idiots. He didn’t want to be a useful member of society. He didn’t want anything. He wanted to have been left on the battlefield to bleed to death so that he wouldn’t have to ruin his parents’ retirement plans. They’d planned to learn how to take naps. They’d planned to take a cruise to Alaska. They’d planned so many things that didn’t involve him.

His only motivation for getting better was giving that back to them and getting the hell out of their life. The only society he wanted to be useful to was theirs, the society of two people, by removing himself as the third wheel.

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30 Day Writing Challenge – 1

This month, I’ve been participating in a thirty day writing challenge with a friend of mine. The rules, for anyone who wants to take the challenge for any other time, are here. The first day’s challenge was: “Select a book at random in the room.  Find a novel or short story, copy down the last sentence and use this line as the first line of your new story.” I had one of my housemates pick a book for me, believing I’d be biased if I picked on my own. She picked The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The yield is below. 

   And once more all the boys joined in his exclamation. They lifted him onto their narrow shoulders, their voices and bodies ragged from disuse. His fist signaled triumph to the waiting masses beyond the walls, where faces turned up in adoration to catch a glimpse of him, to call out his name. 
    “Patrick! Patrick!”
    And once more all the boys joined in his ridicule. They laughed at his slack-jawed disbelief, seeing the ruler hit his hand twice more. His skin, almost entirely covered by freckles, didn’t retain a red mark like many of the pasty children around him.
    “Patrick! Look at me when I speak to you.”
    He tilted his chin, straining. His neck was stiff on cold days. He met Teacher’s eyes, which darted away to stare at his forehead. Patrick hated this trick. It made him need to strain even more to try to meet Teacher’s eyes, but to everyone else it looked like it was he who was avoiding the man’s gaze. It made him look like a chicken. A little girl. Bad enough that he was a cripple. 
    “Now. I want you to please tell me what it was I was just saying.”
    Teacher had stopped asking Patrick direct questions – nine times five, Latin verses – because Patrick would answer them correctly. Now he played this game. There was only one right answer.
    “I don’t know, sir.”
    “Exactly. I would tell you to go stand in the corner, but, well. Sitting in a corner just isn’t the same thing, I think.” Teacher turned the ruler end over end between his short, stubby fingers, the flat wood seeming incongruous with his fleshy hands. The boys didn’t laugh outright, not with Teacher twirling his weapon lovingly like that – he could snap at any moment – but they exchanged looks and smiles, on the edges of their seats. “Instead, why don’t you just wheel yourself around the room while we continue the lesson?” 
    Two boys winked at one another. This was what they’d been hoping for.
    Patrick allowed his head to fall. The tension in his neck, the ache that went down his twisted back, ebbed. He slowly wheeled back from his desk, a large one that had to be made specially for him. He sometimes wondered whether it was this desk, this bigger, lower and definitely out of place desk, that made Teacher decide to make an enemy out of him. He was a good student, after all. His arithmetic and Bible recitation were both better than any other boy in the class. He remembered the historical dates that Teacher taught the class, banging his ruler on the desk for emphasis when the boys would begin to nod off during particularly hot and mosquito-ridden summer days. It didn’t matter. 
    His mother had told him that he was different, that God had made him different, and that men who were afraid would always remind him of it. Afraid of what, his mother hadn’t said. Certainly not of him, Patrick was certain.
    His wheelchair squeaked as he turned it, that was the thing. That’s why Teacher made him do this, this in particular. The desks were close enough to the walls that he couldn’t turn gradually, so each corner involved the execution of a slow turn with a few back and forths of the old wheels. It was a loud business, the second-hand wheelchair.
    Patrick’s mother had sewn a cover for the old padding, but he’d worn a hole in it with his finger so that he could see the old brown stain on the left side of it, which he was certain was blood. A soldier’s blood, from the Great War. A brave man, Patrick could feel it. 
    And once more all the boys in the back row wedged things into his seat as he turned around the room. They repressed their giggles and took whatever scolding Teacher gave them because he also coughed loudly at every squeak of Patrick’s wheels. His freckled face burned red with embarrassment but he touched the blood stain and tried to remember that he had nothing to fear. 
    And once more all the boys joined him in his exclamation. They stood in awe of the man with the clean-shaven face and close-cut hair who swept into the schoolroom and took Patrick up in his arms. His hand seemed larger than it had ever been before as he waved a farewell to the saluting, trembling, Teacher. 

Some Everydays

Wadi’ah sat under the table, tying and untying her father’s shoelaces. He was speaking English, a language she knew the contours of and could recognize, but didn’t understand. She knew that he was talking to a sahafi from a radio program from America. He told her that talking to the sahafi might help, that he would tell the people in America that they needed help, to please help everyone who was struggling. He had made Wadi’ah promise to be quiet during the interview, and she’d promised.

And now she was under the table. Wadi’ah hadn’t expected was for the sahafi to be a woman, in jeans and a long-sleeved black shirt and short, graying, uncovered hair. The woman’s shoes were similar to Wadi’ah’s father’s. They were tennis shoes, grey with a blue stripe. One of the laces was untied.

Wadi’ah slid, as quietly as she could, across the dusty floor. Her mother wasn’t around to clean anymore. Her father said she wasn’t coming back anymore. He’d cried, and she’d cried too, but she still was certain, somehow, that he was wrong.

She lifted the woman’s white laces up off the floor. The woman’s leg was very, very still, and she said something in English that made Wadi’ah’s father laugh. Wadi’ah loved her father’s laugh because it was very loud, like a donkey braying. It made her nervous for a second now, though, because she thought that maybe he would look under the table and see that she was holding the woman’s laces, but he didn’t, so she tried to tie the woman’s shoelaces tightly but without the woman feeling it. When she finally managed the last bit of the knot without the whole thing falling apart, the woman’s leg twitched, and Wadi’ah scuttled back towards her father’s feet.

There was a bang. The door of the house had slammed open. It was Farouk. He was yelling, shouting, like he had so many times before. Wadi’ah lifted her arms up, almost on autopilot, and sure enough, her father swept her up from under the table, at once.

The shelling began in the street as he ran downstairs to the tiny cellar they had built under their house when all this began. Farouk pushed the sahafi woman in front of him and heaved the cellar door shut behind him. The woman whispered something and Farouk hissed, angry. Wadi’ah’s father slapped his wrist in the dark. Then he spoke in Wadi’ah’s ear, so softly that only she could hear it.

“You saved her life, you know. If you hadn’t tied her shoelace, she’d have fallen and never gotten in here. You’re a good girl, my Wadi’ah, you’re a good girl.”

“Will Ama come back to us now I’m good?” Wadi’ah asked.

Farouk hissed at them to be quiet again, and the sound of shelling and the stomps of soldiers grew closer. Wadi’ah knew she couldn’t ask any more questions now, so she hushed. She’d have plenty of time to ask about her mother again later.

 

A Better View (Flash Fiction)

Esther Nussbaum sniffed her dentures and decided they could use a clean. She tottered to the bathroom in her embroidered blue-and-purple dressing gown, the cheap, easily replaceable grey slippers from Shuk-Hakarmel on her feet, and began running the water in the sink. She turned the old handle to the left, as far as it would go, where it only trickled very slowly. There was a problem with the pipes, but every time he came to unplug the toilet, the plumber told her that the only way he’d be able to fix it would be by tearing up all the tiles between the bathroom and the kitchen. It would cost too much and what would she do without a bathroom for a week while he worked there, stinking and dirtying up the house? And who’d clean up afterward, huh? No, Esther wasn’t going to let anybody fix anything, not till she was dead. Then her good-for-nothing kids and their beautiful-but-ungrateful, children could do whatever they wanted with the old apartment.

Leaving the faucet dripping the slowly heating water into the sink, Esther shuffled to the kitchen to get a glass to put her dentures in. There was a tablet she would add that would clean them well and get rid of the stench of her old mouth. If there was one thing she was meticulous about, it was her personal hygiene.

Someone pounded on the door. She almost dropped the glass, she was so surprised. Her family members all knocked in different staccato raps, little taps that sounded rude and impatient, barely bothering to graze their knuckles on the door before sticking their keys in and invading her privacy. This wasn’t them. There was a large, flat palm on the door, knocking again and again and again. It reminded her of barely remembered days, being very, very small, in her big sister’s arms, hidden away in a closet in Poland.

“Giveret Nussbaum? Please, it’s very important!”

She recognized the voice. It wasn’t a man, as she’d imagined, but her neighbor across the stairwell, a woman of about fifty who lived alone with a dog and a cat. They sometimes had coffee together. Esther shoved her dentures back in her mouth, left the glass on the counter and opened the door.

“Ruth?”

“Giveret Nussbaum, thank God you’re home! Oh, I was so worried. Come on, we have to go downstairs.”

Ruth’s hair, a brown so glossy and shiny that it was obviously dyed, was stuffed in a messy bun and her makeup, normally very neat and put together, was a little smeared. Convulsively, Esther’s hand shot out the doorway to clutch Ruth’s.

“Why? What’s happening? Downstairs?”

Ruth stared. “Giveret, didn’t you hear the alarm? ..oooooOOOOOoooo?”

“Wasn’t that just for Shabbat? Or is it not Friday yet…”

“Wednesday, Giveret, come on,” Ruth said, and she pulled Esther out of her apartment and began to tug her, bodily, towards the
flight of stairs that led down to the building’s small lobby.

“What are you doing? Are you crazy? Aia, you’re hurting me!”

“Slicha, Giveret, but I’m not leaving you up there. Haven’t you been reading the newspaper? Didn’t your kids call you? The war started last night and the scuds are on their way just like in 1991 and who knows, maybe even worse, some people say they have other things, chemicals, diseases, I don’t know.”

“War? Oy, and I left the water on upstairs, I need to go back up-”

“No, just leave it, come on.”

Ruth and Esther finally reached the building’s pathetic bomb shelter. It was little more than a storage space; the walls were as thin as the rest of the building, it was above ground, and there were two metal doors that led outside that nobody had the keys to anymore. The only good thing about it was that it had less debris in it that could fall on people than anyone had in their own homes – the kids of most of the building’s residents were grown-up and their bikes had been outgrown and thrown out. There were a couple old, rusting refrigerators in a corner of the shelter, a small and dirty faucet that might or might not work, and that was it. With Esther and Ruth, they were fifteen people. Everyone else had stayed in their homes, even after the siren. A young couple who’d moved into the building after one of them had inherited an apartment in it had gotten onto the roof to watch for falling bombs, if they came. Ruth told Esther about how she’d seen them going upstairs.

Esther laughed and looked around, holding a hand in front of her mouth, just in case anybody came near her. “They’ll have a nicer view than the rest of us.”

Toy Soldier

“Of course, of course I shoot. Of course I kill. In the war. I kill because if I don’t, they kill me.”
He had big, watery eyes, and his irises were golden-brown, as if the color of dead leaves stained with blood had become entrapped there. He sat hunched, in a constant flinch. His hands were oddly quiet and still – but it wasn’t calm that made them so, but rather the tension of imminent fight or flight. Even though both his buttocks were sunk deep in the armchair, he seemed to be on the edge of his seat. If he’d have wanted to, he would’ve been able to be up and running before the woman across from him knew he’d left his chair.
“It was war – you had to shoot. You wanted to live.” The doctor’s soft voice was melodic and almost too soothing for him. He had known women who looked like her once, and he had seen them contorted in shapes that this doctor couldn’t even imagine. He couldn’t meet her eyes. He was scared that if he did, she would be able to see his commanders grinning at him, calling him a good boy, and giving him a small, unripe fruit as a reward for the work he’d done during the day. And then there’d been the better reward, the reward that he even now craved and wished he could get again, even though they – the new they, not the old they – had explained to him that it was bad for him and that he couldn’t have it anymore. It had taken him days to get out of bed, he’d felt so rotten without it all, but he felt alright now, though the thought of that reward still made him twitch at times.
The silence had stretched on until he couldn’t stand it, so he broke it again. Those golden-brown eyes of his looked at the corner of the room, where a spider had made an elaborate web. He had good eyesight, and he watched the spider move across the web to fetch its dinner. It must have been an old spider because it moved slowly. “Yes. I wanted to. But it was bad. It was very bad. But they promise – they always promise it would be last time.”
“And you hoped, every time, that maybe this time they meant it.”
The spider had reached its meal and it began to detach the wrapped, cocooned insect from the man web so that it could hold it in its front legs and hold it up to its mouth. He watched it. He almost thought he could see it smiling.
“I liked it. Sometimes.”
“It?”
“Shooting. What they gave me after.”
There was another long pause, but this time the woman broke it, her voice so gentle and careful that he looked at her for a quick moment just to make sure it was really her speaking. “You liked it just like they wanted you to like it.”
“Yes.” He hadn’t meant to sound so harsh, but his voice came out that way, raspy and deeper than usual. His voice hadn’t changed yet. He hadn’t thought about the impending joys of manhood since he’d been a little boy admiring his father’s chest hair. He hadn’t really thought about growing up in years. He hadn’t been sure that he was going to grow up. He still wasn’t.
“Am I bad?”
“Do you feel bad? Do you think you were bad?”
“I was. But I didn’t want to be.”
“So maybe you were’t, really. Because you didn’t want to.”
“And now I can be good. Right?” He wasn’t sure if the question was the one he wanted to ask. It wasn’t really about being good. It was about what being good meant. Being good had meant shooting just a few months ago. Now being good meant something different, he thought, something that he remembered from those early years before they – not the current they, but the past they – had moved into his life. What scared him was that being good was going to change again, soon, and that he wouldn’t be ready for it this time. If he couldn’t keep up with being good for whoever the future they were going to be, then he would die. And he knew, although he couldn’t quite put it into words, that he’d done too much by now to be able to retract his decision to live, no matter what.

The Little German Boy

“Everything will be just fine,” Greta murmured. She rocked back and forth with the small, frightened child in her lap, and hoped that he didn’t feel her racing heart and her fear. He clung to her neck and sobbed, voicelessly. He didn’t even pull on his nose or sniffle. He just let his tears and nose run and his shoulders shake, all in eerie silence. Greta was horrified that any child his age – she guessed he was four or five, although he was small and terribly thin – could control himself this way. The boy that she’d had when she was younger had been rambunctious, always running around, putting his hands into everything, shouting at the top of his voice until he tired himself out and plopped down in the comfiest spot in the house for a nap, just like an enthusiastic kitten might do.
“Shh, shh,” Greta began and stopped herself immediately. No, no, she shouldn’t, she mustn’t shush him. The poor thing hadn’t spoken a word, hadn’t made a sound since entering her house. She knew why, or she thought she knew why, but she didn’t want to think about it, and succeeded in pushing the complicated, conflicting notions out of her mind. She hoped that her son wouldn’t get home tonight. He hadn’t said he would, but sometimes he popped by after a night of drinking with the men, and when that happened, she never knew what kind of mood he’d be in. He was often weepy and melancholy as a drunk, and he would want to discuss her memories of him as a boy. But sometimes he would get himself into a rage and would talk at Greta, pacing around and around the small kitchen like a caged tiger at a circus. When he was like that, she tried to make herself small. He frightened her then and reminded her of her husband, may God rest his fiery soul and protect him from ending up in Hell.
The sobs abated and Greta pulled back from the child, trying to look into his face. He allowed her to do so, becoming limp like a rag doll in her arms and looking down at his little hands instead of up into her eyes. He’d only met her gaze once, when she’d found him in the outhouse, shivering, and then there’d been such fear – such absolute terror! – in his hungry eyes that Greta was almost thankful that she hadn’t needed to face it again.
A shout from outside made them both jump. Greta listened, and recognized the sounds of a parade starting to go through the village streets. The soldiers paraded often – theirs was a small town, and they didn’t have much work to do in it in between ventures to other towns in the area to recruit or into the countryside to scour it for runaways. As the boots began to pound the street, the boy in Greta’s arms started to shiver violently and then tried to leap off of her.
She struggled to hold him close, but he was like a wild animal, scratching at her hands and kicking his feet, trying to get away. When he bit her finger, she let out a moan of pain and let go and he scampered off through the house. Greta was off the couch in a second, after him. He ran from one small room to another, trying to open doors and windows, but they were all locked – Greta had locked them quickly and silently when she’d brought him in. She’d pulled the shades down too. When he couldn’t find a way out, he crawled right into the chimney and attempted climbing up it, frantically, falling down over and over again, try as he might to catch a handhold.
Greta knelt in front of the hearth and held out her arms to him, ignoring the pain in her finger. “Come, I’ll protect you,” she whispered. “They won’t get you. They won’t come here. You’re safe. You’re my little boy – I have peroxide, we can dye your hair, everything will be alright. My little blue-eyed boy.”
He stared at her, his sea-blue eyes stretched wide. He touched his hair, so filthy that Greta didn’t know whether it was brown or black. He met her eyes again, and she wondered whether someone like her had betrayed him once already, because there was such wariness in his face, such uncertainty.
“Everything is going to be alright, I promise. I’ll protect you,” she said again. Slowly, ever so slowly, he crawled out the fireplace and allowed her to whisk him away to the kitchen, where she made him a hot cup of tea as that parade went by outside.

A Story Excerpt

I was inspired today to start writing something else in addition to my main project. It was one of those things, like Robin of a few days ago, that just started writing itself in my head before I was ready for it. Luckily, I was able to turn immediately to my computer and write. This is only about half of what I’ve written so far, and I don’t know how much potential it has, but I’m going to keep working on it, because, well, I feel like it!

**

The sirens began to wail all over the city, and we made ourselves ready. We all knew what the sound meant. In our shelter, Ben and I gathered up the weapons we had at our disposal – he a staff, and I my twin daggers. He’d learned how to use a staff at his mother’s knee, and he wielded it as if it were part of his body. I envied his skill, especially when he’d shown me that the extras he’d added to his weapon. When twisted in the center, sharp steel blades shot out of either end of the heavy wooden staff, heavier still with the lead infused in it. I could hardly lift the thing, although I’d tried often enough. Ben had the muscles of an infomercial bodybuilder – he’d added two pounds of lead to the staff every year since he hit his teens.

My skills were harder won, for I wasn’t a child of violence. I had never meant to join the revolutionaries, never meant to get tangled up in any of this. My parents were simple folk, and I grew up in a small town near the coast. I learned fishing and cooking while Ben learned the fighting arts from his mother. While he sweated in the gym, I paddled happily in the vast salt lake’s waters. While he took his oath and swore his dedication to the rebellion and revolution, I was picked as beauty queen of the seventh grade. While he debated and studied philosophy and the way of life in which we lived, I was blissfully unaware of anything outside my small community. I didn’t even know how downtrodden we were.

We were allowed television, although no Internet access. I knew vaguely about the Net because of visitors that came to the coast to enjoy some free time. They often complained about the isolation – the radios only caught music stations, and our televisions had no news channels. In our town, the war might well have been a myth. It was a myth to me until I reached adulthood at seventeen and was allowed the knowledge that had been barred from me during my childhood: the world was at war.