Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Help (02/20/06)
- TITLE: Last Letter
By Mary Lang
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Just moments ago enemy fire had lit up their camp like Independence Day fireworks. Dan successfully dove behind a saving tree. Paul had tried.
Dan heard Paul’s screams above the volley of explosions. “Paul! Where’re you hit?” Dan’s fingers sifted shredded cloth where Paul’s legs should have been, and he vomited.
“Cain’t feel my legs,” Paul’s breath was shallow. “… Kid …ya can’t help me.” Paul was in shock. “Not even a medic.”
“Hang-on, Paul. I'll radio for help.” Dan ripped his shirt sleeve for tourniquets. “They’ll get us out of here.”
Paul’s breath rattled in his chest. “… rest of the troop?”
“I ain’t sure, but haven’t heard anything move.”
“S’ okay, Danny boy,” Paul rasped. “I ain’t hurtn’ so much now.”
Dan felt Paul’s grip loosen on his arm. “God, No,” Terror was taking control. “Paul, … don’t.” Heart knocking inside his chest, Dan whispered, “Paul, you can’t die. I’ve been so scared, an’ it was you helped me. I’ll help you now, Buddy.”
Hope leapt back when Paul stirred. “Dan … don’t kid yourself. … both know I ain’t gettin’ outa here,” phlegm strangled Paul’s voice.
“Get letter .. shirt pocket… help me … find Meg. Tell her,” Paul strained to get his thoughts out, “…all for her …”
Putting his ear down to hear, Dan felt a puff of breath, and Paul’s lips were still. Paul’s rattling chest quieted and sank beneath Dan’s hand.
Sweat and tears burned Dan’s eyes. He swabbed with his blood-stained hand, smearing his face. It didn’t matter. It was too dark to see.
He slid his hand along Paul’s shirt. The heart in the solid chest beneath his hand was still. Finding the pocket, Dan pulled out a thick envelope. Inside he found a sheet of paper, the letter he supposed, but he also fingered a small book and beads with an attached cross. Christ crucified.
He turned his anguished face upward and prayed, “Our Father, who art in heaven….” With sticky fingers he clutched the objects close to his heart as if holding onto Paul’s essence. “Oh God,” he mourned, “they’re covered with blood.”
Dan walked beneath a canopy of arched trees leading to a brick ranch-style home in the coolness of spring. Birds sang their welcome. He breathed in the freshness of the air detecting the scent of lilacs and freshly mowed grass. This was the embodiment of what they fought for – he and Paul and all the soldiers sent away to war – this freshness, this serenity, this hometown.
Seeing the house at the end of the walk, Dan remembered that Paul had planned to retire after this last tour of duty. As Dan studied Paul’s home, the door opened and a pretty, young woman in a t-shirt and jeans stepped out.
“You must be Dan.” She extended strong hands firmly gripping Dan’s. Her brown eyes searched his face. “Were you there?” she asked. “Did he suffer long?”
With her words he recalled a June Carter Cash song, “Were You There When They Crucified Our Lord?”
He nodded. “I was there Mrs. Shafer. I’m proud to have known him, ma’am.” Dan saw emotion flicker across her face. “His thoughts were always of you.” She seemed so much younger than Paul.
“I brought you these,” he held out the brown, blood-stained letter, pocket bible and rosary. “I … I never read the letter,” Dan stammered. “I just used the return address to find this place and you.”
“Then you don’t know,” she murmured. “Come inside. There’s a lot to tell you,” she moved inside. “I’ll make some coffee.”
Dan settled in a chair at the table watching her, drawn to her.
“Dan, I’m not MRS. Shafer. I’m Paul’s sister, Meg. Paul’s wife was killed in a car crash, which is why he opted for another overseas tour.”
Meg’s hands shook as she poured them each a cup of coffee. “Paul was always trying to ‘help’ me find Mr. Right.”
She smiled, “In that last letter, I told Paul that I’d be willing to meet only one of the men he described - You.”
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