“Ghost Town” (580 words)
The wheels of the bus squeal and we stop in front of the station, orchestral music accompanying Doris Day through the tinny speaker. A Sentimental Journey. How appropriate. My fingernails dig into my palm. Six years. What could have changed? I rub my rigid fingers craving a fag between them. I hated smoking, but that first night huddled in a shallow trench just a kilometer from Normandy challenged my conviction. Oh, that the warming glow red on greasy faces above shivering bodies! We were children hiding nervousness behind dirty jokes and grimy grins fooling no one. Wispy smoke burns lung and throat, so different from the battlefield, suddenly welcome. I pull my jacket close and step off the bus into the fog. No one is here to meet me. It’s better this way. No fanfare. No large group of church women holding pies and casseroles and waving American flags. They would smile and avert their eyes, shuffling uncomfortably, unsure of what they should say, not wanting to appear intrusive, or worse, to be caught staring at the stump hanging below my shoulder. The station was newly white when I left. Now the paint is chipped and faded and stained dull brown. Oklahoma winters have been cruel. I walk down Main Street around the town square and wonder where the children are. It’s Saturday and there is no school. They should be playing in the park or buying chocolate malts from Mr. Sanders on the corner. Where are their mothers having tea and triangle sandwiches on red and white checkered quilts? The shops are closed. The town empty, except for Ol’ Mad Man Maury. He’s there on the park bench under the oak tree in the middle of the square. I was seventeen the last time I stoop upon this path, walking arm in arm with Kimberly. Sweet, sweet Kimberly. Blonde hair like corn silk. Eyes blue as summer butterflies when wings glitter under the
sun. And those soft lips. She promised she would wait for me, and she did for two years, but four was two too much to ask of anyone. My hand reaches for her picture still in my shirt pocket. He is lying on his stomach, his face resting on his arm and turned toward the back of the bench. I have seen him sleeping like this before. We used to tease him and even threw rocks at him once on a dare. I knew then that had been a soldier in the First World War and returned home full of nightmares and disquieted ghosts. Now I feel something entirely different toward him, for I too hear the whispers of lonely ghosts on the wind. They say my name, calling from beyond the fog, those friends who fell in France. I think they will never leave me. “Mr. Maury?” I nudge his shoulder. I want to tell him that I am sorry for the way we used to treat him. I want to tell him how I understand. “Mr. Maury?” I try again. The wind smells like snow. It’s cold. So, so cold. I touch his shoulder again and pull him ever so gently. He turns, his hand falling away so that it stops outstretched, a chain and open locket held by rigid fingers. Inside is a picture of a beautiful girl with curls and long eyelashes. His eyes are open, breath frozen on blue lips. I sit with him for a long, long while.