COMING HOME by Christine Hayton – November, 2015
Joshua raced up the steep embankment, the Jeep’s tires spitting rocks and gravel in his wake. Steppenwolf blasted from the radio speakers. Reaching the top of the plateau, he jammed the brake pedal down, bringing the vehicle to an abrupt halt, and quieted the motor. The music stopped and he listened to the silence for several minutes, his eyes fixed on some invisible point beyond the dashboard.
A raven flew overhead, screeching maniacally as its shadow skimmed the rock face. Joshua removed his cap and lifted his eyes. The great black bird circled on outstretched wings, and then soared high into the endless blue sky. Grasping the top of the windshield with both hands, Joshua slowly stood up. Leaning forward, he sucked in a deep breath.
He smelled home. His mind remembered buttered corn, and roasted apples, on a cool autumn evening. He could almost hear the laughter and music in the background.
A hot updraft battled back the long brown hair, exposing the bubbled and swollen scar. Stretching from the underside of his chin to the outside corner of his left eye, it hollowed the cheek, slightly angled his eye, and pulled at the corner of his mouth. Joshua had a permanent half-smile. The jungle camouflage fatigues and heavy military boots identified him as a soldier. It was 1971 and he’d made it back from Vietnam.
Joshua jumped to the ground and walked to the edge of the cliff. Below him stretched a valley, cut into a colorful checkerboard. Hard working farmers kept the multi-hued squares neat and tidy.
The sky darkened and he felt the chill of cloud cover overhead and cowered from the torrential rain pounding his body. For a fleeting moment, the rice patties of Vietnam, huddled between outcrops of jungle and littered with skinny dark-haired children, filled his vision. The horrific downpour masked all sounds except the radio static and the rifles. He watched those kids drop lifeless in the filthy muck.
Gagging, he squeezed his eyes shut. His fists covered his ears as his head shook from side to side. Everything went quiet. He lifted his head and opened his eyes. The raven silently floated on the updraft and watched Joshua. Sweat glistened on his skin as he chanced another look at the valley. The checkerboard fields were back. Joshua dropped to his knees. He brushed wisps of hair from his face, and settling back on his heels, deliberately calmed his breathing.
His mind raced. Vietnam was over and yet he remembered. He killed the enemy, and they killed his friends and tried to kill him. Even after all the surgery, his face was still scary as hell, but his body healed. In his head, scenes from the war played on, bombarding his senses and leaving him weak and beaten. His visions of death and mutilation, of jungles ablaze all around him, became his reality without warning. Merciless heat and soaking sweat covered his body. Pounding rain, screaming, chaos, and gunfire filled his ears, and smoke burned his eyes.
Sometimes they were only fleeting glimpses, and other times they seemed to last for hours. They came without warning and then disappeared, leaving Joshua breathless and exhausted.
It took so long for him to remember the life he lived before the war. Slowly those memories surfaced and he grabbed and cherished every one. Joshua just wanted to go home to Maggie, but he was afraid. Would those hallucinations convince him to put a gun to his head? Would he drag Maggie into his private hell? He prayed the doctors could fix him, but they couldn’t even understand the problem.
Joshua stood up and leaned back against the Jeep’s hood. He wondered what he would find when he got to his house, and his life. His father died while he was in the jungle. He remembered the day he got that letter. His sister, Lauren, had written and explained how the old man died suddenly, from a heart attack. Joshua knew he would be in the hillside cemetery beside Mom.
He didn’t know what happened after that. It had been two years and he hadn’t heard from anyone. When he started to remember and told the doctors who he was, they didn’t believe him. The Army told him, Joshua Carter died in Vietnam. He was sure they were wrong.
Joshua and Sam, trapped behind enemy lines and severely injured, waited for a rescue team. Joshua probably should have died like Sam, but he survived. In the confusion of the war zone, Sam’s and Joshua’s identities became blurred. Lauren had buried Sam’s remains, thinking the box of ashes was her brother. No one knew Joshua was alive.
Joshua and Maggie had planned their wedding since they were sixteen years old. When Joshua got his Draft Notice, they went to the courthouse just before he left for boot camp. Maybe Maggie would be at the house waiting for him so they could finally start their life together.
He never heard from his sister, Lauren, again. He knew she wanted to leave the farm and set off on her own. Maybe that’s what she did. Maybe she found her true love and married.
Joshua smiled to himself. There was only one way to find the answers. He climbed into the driver’s seat. A couple fancy maneuvers, a good bounce off a flat rock and he had the Jeep turned around. It roared down the hill. In twenty two minutes, he got from the rock cliff to the old farmhouse. As he drove down the lane, he saw Maggie standing on the porch smiling and waving.
He slowed, terrified it was his mind playing tricks on him. Joshua realized quickly he didn’t care. He tramped the gas pedal, and braked just short of the porch steps. Jumping out, he ran to his wife. Clearing the steps in two strides, he threw his arms around Maggie, and lifted her into the air. He kissed her, long and hard, and she clung to him. Spinning around and around, they kissed, laughed, and cried. He gently landed Maggie on the porch. Joshua brushed wayward hair from Maggie’s cheeks and ran his fingers over her face and shoulders. Maggie traced his scar, and then looked into his eyes and laughed.
“I knew you’d come home to me. They said you died, but I knew that was a lie. I’ve waited so long. I’ll never let you go away from me again, never.” Tears ran down her cheeks. “I love you.”
They held hands as they walked into the house.
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Lauren dropped down onto the vanity stool, and threw the black cape and long gloves over the arm of the sofa. Kicking off the six-inch heels, she viciously rubbed her feet. When she finally turned to the mirror, she began the arduous task of becoming Lauren Carter again. She lifted the long bleach-blonde wig off her head, placing it carefully on a foam stand. Her own hair was dark and short. She decided on the spiked cut a week earlier. She was tired of fighting with that stupid wig.
She stood and removed what was left of her stage persona. She peeled the black G-string and mesh stockings from her sweaty skin. Pulling on an old robe, she removed the cheap ornate jewelry and tossed it onto the dressing table. Although being a stripper had never been her dream, she realized when she hit Vegas, there was little call for girls who could dig potatoes, or husk corn. Realizing her only real assets were large breasts, and a cute face, she soon found steady work.
Waltzing around a stage, under hot lights, showing off her enormous boobs made her good money and great tips. The only part that bothered Lauren, was the reality none of this bothered her. She didn’t care if the men ogled her as long as they paid for the privilege.
She soaked cotton in baby oil and removed the heavy stage make-up. Her face back to normal, she headed for her tiny bathroom to shower off the glitter.
She promised to meet Elaine for a drink after they finished their shifts. Lauren wanted to explain her latest plan to her friend. A strong urge to move to New York and work in the theater, had become her obsession.
She stepped out of the shower and dried off. Elaine was meeting her at Toby’s Grill in twenty minutes. Lauren dressed and applied light makeup. A pair of small silver hoops slid into her ears, and the sore feet eased into soft sandals.
Lauren sat down and opened the top drawer. She picked up the pendant. It always radiated warmth. The half inch ring held the tiny ivory leaf set inside a gold heart. When her father gave it to her, he told her it had passed through generations and it belonged to her now.
Clutching the pendant to her chest, she closed her eyes and remembered her father. A tanned burly farmer, he smoked and drank too much, worked way too hard, and loved life completely. She closed her eyes and could still hear his hearty laugh.
She had found him in the barn, lying face up on the floor, vacantly looking up at her—dead from a massive heart attack. It was harvest time and he missed supper again. By the time she went looking for him that night, he was beyond help.
Mom had died of pneumonia when Lauren was two. She never knew her. Lauren adored her father, and felt lost without him. She hoped he felt at home, buried beside the woman he loved. It took all her strength to write to her brother, Joshua. He loved his father too, but to her surprise, he never wrote back.
A perfect big brother, Josh made her laugh and sometimes cry. Six weeks after she buried her father, the telegram came. Her brother died in Vietnam. She remembered the look on Maggie’s face, when she told her. She and Josh had married only a couple days before he left, and now he was never coming home. The poor kid just walked away. She never cried, never spoke a word. Maggie starred out the window of her and Josh’s bedroom and watched the laneway for hours. She waited. For what, Lauren had no idea.
Joshua’s ashes arrived in a small box. Lauren had a short service, and buried the box beside her parents. Maggie, consumed with depression, still didn’t cry and wasn’t communicating at all. Lauren didn’t know what to do with her. The last thing she wanted to do was run the farm herself.
Three weeks later, Lauren awoke to a strong burning smell, her bedroom filled with smoke. Fire engulfed the two storey farm house. Running to the window, she pushed out the screen, and sliding over the sill, jumped feet first onto the grass below. She heard creaking and knew the roof would collapse. Running to the edge of the yard, she turned in time to see the house implode.
The air felt cool and calm inside the tree line and dropping to her knees, she placed both palms on the ground, lowered her head, and closed her eyes.
Lauren had no idea how long she’d been there. Her brain refused to work.
Getting to her feet, she walked back towards the house. Fire trucks filled the lane way. It was over. The house was gone. The fireplace still stood, smoke stained and crumbling. She recognized odd pieces of furniture, charred and burnt. Workers dug out hot spots, streaming water into them. She heard one of them yelling, and looked up.
“Over here. We got a body.”
She felt her stomach lurch as she watched the charred body pulled from the debris. Lauren wondered if the fire was Maggie’s way of committing suicide.
The house was gone and the entire family dead. With tears in her eyes, Lauren wandered the fields in the dark. When emergency crews finally packed up and left, she went back, got into the family car, and just kept driving.
Lauren treasured that pendant. It was everything she had left of her former life. She secured the chain around her neck, grabbed her tote, and scurried out the back door to meet Elaine.
Lauren did her last show Saturday night, packed on Sunday, and left on Monday. Before she headed to New York, she had to go home. The family farm had sat idle for over two years. She had to clean things up before putting the property up for sale. That meant moving the graves, and clearing the debris from the burned-out house. The old Chevy Suburban would get her there, but it would take about four days to drive to Hitchings, Minnesota.
Pulling onto the interstate, she laughed and enjoyed the first hundred miles, sketching a respectable history for herself. She’d spent the past two years stripping in Vegas. She would NOT be telling old friends about it.
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In the middle of a hot afternoon, she pulled onto Hitchings. The town hadn’t changed at all. The main street still housed small town stores, edged with wooden sidewalks. Old men sat in rickety chairs leaned against filthy windows. The women formed their huddle on the sidewalk, and tittered amongst themselves. She wondered if anything ever changed in Hitchings. Boredom controlled the town, and despite her efforts to ward off the numbness, she felt it seeping into her joints and fogging her senses. She decided to keep driving. She’d rather sleep in the Suburban than stay in town.
As Lauren made her way to the farm, she saw her fields in crops. She was the only Carter left, and wondered who was running the farm. When she turned into the lane, she felt a pull. She had intended to drive up to the cemetery, but for some reason she drove towards the site of her childhood home.
The lane way, arched with trees, ran heavily shaded. When the car suddenly quit, Lauren found herself stranded beside the field. She could see the graveyard on the hill, but the site of the old house was hidden behind the trees. By her calculations, it sat across the field, about a half mile away. She decided to walk it.
Once she got into the trees, she lost direction. The tree line seemed much deeper, and the trees much bigger, than she remembered. The sky disappeared in the foliage overhead, and shadows played in the dark corners. Nervous and confused, she stopped and turned slowly, hoping to find any familiar landmark.
She froze when she heard her father’s voice.
“It’s wonderful to see you, honey.”
Lauren’s bag hit the ground, and she felt her knees buckle. She slowly turned her head, her eyes wide, scrutinizing every shadow and listening closely for the source of the voice.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” Lauren watched her father emerge from between the trees, and stop in the heavy shadows. He looked at her and smiled.
“Dad? It can’t be.” Lauren starred at the dark apparition in front of her.
The man nodded. “It really is me. You look terrific.”
Lauren’s courage was gone and she didn’t dare say a word. How could this be real? Memories flooded her mind. She buried him. When they laid him out at the church, she kissed his cold forehead, and she put him up on the hill beside Mom. That was two years ago. How can he be here now?
She sat down on the grass, pulled up her knees, and leaned against a tree trunk. With eyes squeezed shut, she took a deep breath. When she finally looked up, he stood in front of her. She saw his familiar smile.
“Lauren, it’s okay. I been waiting for you and your brother to come home so we could get everything sorted out.”
Lauren bolted upright. “What are you talking about? Joshua died in Vietnam. They sent his remains and I buried him on the hill… right beside you.” She shook her head, and felt the tears start to flow. “Oh God, how many ghosts are here. Did you bring Mom too? How about Maggie, she gonna join us for the party.” Lauren’s tears turned into a temper. Getting to her feet, her nostrils flared as her anger electrified the air.
She spoke through gritted teeth. “Who are you and why are you here? You are not my father. My father is dead. My brother is dead. Everyone is freakin’ dead. Go away! Leave me alone!” Lauren tried to stomp away, but her body wouldn’t move.
“You’re not going anywhere, and neither am I. We have work to do here. You will listen to me.” Dad wasn’t smiling anymore.
Lauren recalled that tone from her childhood. Lauren starred at him, sat down, and leaned against the tree.
“Okay. I’ll listen. It just better make sense.”
He sat down in front of her and looked her in the eyes. “Lauren, your brother did not die in Vietnam.”
“If he isn’t dead, who did I bury in his grave?” Lauren raised her eyebrows.
“His name is Sam Goodwin. He died in that jungle, not Josh. They were lost behind enemy lines, and ambushed by a small group of Vietcong. They suffered terrible injuries, but they killed their attackers. Joshua fought hard like they taught him. His enemies screamed and pleaded for their lives. That shook him up. Then our own bombers lit up the jungle, and surrounded them with flames. Josh and Sam stood in a water-filled ditch and waited to be rescued. Sam died and Joshua survived but had amnesia.”
“I believe you. I don’t know why I believe you, but I do.” Lauren looked at the ground and then up at her father. “How did I end up burying Sam?”
“The US Army mixed up the names on the paperwork. They notified you of Joshua’s death and even sent you ashes to bury.”
“They had to know they made a mistake. What about Sam’s family?”
“They contacted his parents and told them, Sam had been transferred to a VA Hospital in California. They told his dad, he was injured and had amnesia. Sam’s mother was waiting to have a tumor removed. The Army doctor insisted there was no rush. Sam probably wouldn’t recognize them anyway. They decided to wait until Sam’s mother had her surgery, and got her strength back. Then they could go see their son.”
“All this time, it was my brother in the hospital, not Sam?”
“You got it. Josh didn’t know who he was, or where he came from.”
Lauren reached for her bag, and pulled out cigarettes and a lighter. She offered a smoke to her father. Holding out the package, she cocked her head and smiled.
“Just like old times. Remember you and me sitting under that big oak, up behind the barn. You taught me how to smoke. What was I—fourteen?”
Dad took two cigarette from the pack and lit both. He handed the first one to Lauren and kept the second. They both slowly smoked and enjoyed the noise of nature. The raven screeched high above them.
“Let me see if I got this right? The government duped me into burying a man who I thought was my brother?”
“That’s right. You need to understand, Josh, injured and traumatized, didn’t remember anything about his life before Vietnam. He didn’t know his own name. I couldn’t get through to him then. He thought I was another weird delusion.
When Sam’s parents showed up, they told them, Josh was not their son. The Army panicked. In their infinite wisdom, they did what any good government office would do. They shuffled the paperwork and eventually buried the whole thing in some dusty basement filing room.”
“They never bothered to investigate?”
“By this time, that war was a big embarrassment. Protesters marched everywhere. No way would the Army let the press get a hold of this mess. According to their records, Sam was MIA, and Josh was dead. They labeled my son a crazy John Doe at the VA hospital.”
“How do you know all this? Do you, like—fly around, eavesdropping on everyone, or do you just know?” Lauren looked him in the eyes and waited. She thought she’d know if he lied to her.
“I’m here to help my son. I know exactly what I need to know. People like to tag ghosts as always having unfinished business. I guess that’s what this is.” Dad shook his head and mumbled. “Even dead, I have to deal with being stereotyped.”
“Finish your story, and don’t forget the part where you think I’m supposed to be helpful.”
“Josh spent two years in that hospital before he started to remember anything. Little things at first, but then his Mom finally got to him, and helped him remember everything.”
“Whoa. Back up the train. Are you saying Mom is in on this?” Lauren was up and pacing again. She never knew her Mom and her fingers went instinctively to the pendant.
“Of course. She’s the one who said I would need your help to convince him.”
“This is too much. I’m having a hell of a daydream.” Lauren shook her head.
“This has to happen and you need to be part of it.”
“Okay.” The girl sat back down and starred into the trees. She heard the raven again and looked around. This was all crazy. She’d lost her mind. She would go along for now. When her chance came, she’d get to hell out of there.
“Don’t think that way. Please.”
How did he know what she was thinking? She looked over at him and lit another cigarette. “Okay! Okay! I‘m to do what…exactly?”
“He suffers terrible visions of that war. He has to open that grave and send Sam’s body home. Joshua knows the truth, but he lacks the confidence to correct the mistakes. You have to help him do that. Once things are right again, he’ll be able to heal. He and Maggie can live a normal life, have children, and grow old together.”
“Here we go again. Maggie is not here. She died in the fire when the house burned to the ground. I was there. I saw them drag her body out of the debris.” Lauren looked at her father. He was shaking his head.
“I’m wrong again, aren’t I?”
“Maggie didn’t die in that fire.” He said it quietly, and Lauren noticed his eyes tearing up.
“You know what, Dad? I can’t deal with anymore of your stories. I’ll just take your word for it. Okay?”
Her father stood very quiet for several minutes.
“It’s time to go up to the house. I’ll go in first. You wait outside. Josh doesn’t believe I’m real. He thinks I’m just another delusion. I think I can probably get Maggie to understand. She’s already talking to a psychiatrist in Minneapolis who’s been treating Vietnam vets. She really wants her husband back.”
Lauren opened her mouth and closed it again. She was going to explain that the house was gone; destroyed in the fire. Instead, she threw her hands in the air and followed her father.
They walked across the fields to the homestead. Although it looked like it always had, Lauren could tell the house was new. The bigger porch, the new roof, and the shutters gave it away. Lauren dropped onto a new porch swing. “This is nice.”
“Wait here.” Her father looked very serious as he entered the house.
Lauren, settled nicely on the swing. She sat up straight when her brother walked out the door, a half hour later. He starred at his sister. Lauren saw the ugly scar across his face. She felt her heart break, and she jumped up and hugged him. She felt tension in his shoulders at first, but soon they relaxed. Taking his hand in hers, they sat on the swing together.
“It’s wonderful to see you. I missed you, Josh.”
“I thought I would never see you ever again.” Josh looked at the porch floor, his expression serious, and body tight. “It’s true isn’t it? Dad says I have to send Sam home, to be free from that war.”
“Dad knows the truth…all kinds of truth…somehow. Just do what he says.”
“He says he stayed to help me understand, but nothing seems real.”
Lauren reached for the pendant, but before she could reach the clasp, it dropped into her hand. “Dad gave me this just before he died. He said it was a family heirloom.”
Josh’s mouth hung open and he took the pendant from Lauren. “This belonged to Mom. She wore it all the time.”
Lauren smiled. “You take it. Give it to Maggie, and then have a house full of kids, so you can pass it on to them someday.”
Joshua held it tightly with both hands. Lauren saw the tears roll from his eyes. “Oh God, this is all real.” He hugged Lauren and walked back into the house, the pendant held against his heart.
Her father appeared beside her and nodded. “Your brother will be okay now. Good job, kid.”
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Lauren awoke in her car. She walked in the morning sun and then headed for the trees. Under a large oak, she sat and waited. A few moments later, her father dropped down beside her.
“Nice morning.” Lauren broke the silence.
“Josh and Maggie dug up the grave. They left this morning for Arizona. They’re bringing Sam’s ashes back home. You know these young soldiers are coming back from Vietnam pretty messed up. They’re looking for ways to treat them. Joshua will see a psychiatrist next week.”
“Wish I understood all this. You’re dead. Josh and Maggie aren’t dead. I’m totally confused”
“Come with me. I have something to show you.”
He took her hand and they walked across the field and up the hill to the cemetery. The markers showed her parents buried side by side. Beside them was the open grave with a weathered marker. The name carved on the stone was scarred and unreadable.
“Why is the stone destroyed? I put Joshua’s name on it.” She looked at the man beside her, and saw his smile. “You scratched out the name, didn’t you?”
“It wasn’t Joshua in that hole. Besides, I had a couple years to kill.” He became very serious.
“That’s not why we came up here. What you need to see is over there.” He turned and walked into the shade of a big willow tree higher on the hill.
Lauren looked up into the branches. “I remember this tree. I sat up here all the time. It was so quiet, and peaceful.” Something caught her eye. A marker. A grave. It stood alone, and Lauren knelt in the grass to read the
inscription. Lauren smiled and looked up at her father.
“I’m the body they pulled out of the house after the fire. This is my grave. Maggie buried me here. She knew I loved this spot.”
“Do you understand now?”
Lauren took her father’s hand. “I do. Can we go see Mom now?”
Copyright © 2015 Christine Hayton