There wasn’t much left of the hootch. There was never much left of them. “It’s always like this… every side of town is the bad side of town.” Major Trip Anderson cautiously pushed past the rag that served as a door. He was immune to the stench of urine, mould, rot, all magnified by the stifling summer heat. He strained to sure he had heard something. On the floor lay a woman, bloodied, still. Anderson’s throat tightened, his eyes narrowed. He wanted to turn away, to shut out reality, but he knew better.
The source of the noise was already evident, but until he had checked the hootch thoroughly, it had to wait. There was little inside; a mattress, a low table, a mat on the floor. He checked under all of them, released a breath then moved to the woman’s side.
“Hey, there.” He smiled at the child, too weak to cry, as he waved away swarms of flies. “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
Kneeling in the dust, he first held out a grimy finger that was instantly grabbed. He then picked up the little girl, cradled her, kissed the top of her dirty head. Over her head, he examined the mother, knew there was no point checking for signs of life; there would be none. “She probably took her last breath two, maybe three, days ago.” He reached out, brushed the hair back from the woman’s forehead. “Your mother was beautiful, little one.” He had seen this many times, but it would never be routine. It was clear hers had not been an easy death.
He opened his canteen, dribbled a tiny stream of water near the baby’s mouth, hoping she would drink. When she didn’t, he used the corner of his shirt to wipe her little face, smearing the layers of the baby’s existence. Large brown eyes gazed up at him; vacant orbs devoid of sparkle or shine.
“Major?” Lance Corporal Jamie Duncan stuck his head in the hootch then fell silent.
“Is there a goat or something out there? Something we can get milk from for her?”
Duncan shook his head. “No, Sir. The place is deserted.”
Anderson nodded, Duncan disappeared without a word. The baby whimpered, reached an emaciated arm toward Anderson. He leaned closer, felt the fingers run over his weathered face. “You look like a BethAnn, sweetheart.” He whispered to the child. “I knew a girl… I fell in love with her – she had beautiful dark eyes, too. She was a BethAnn… sweet as the scent of flowers in spring, a smile that could light up the world.” He started to rock back and forth, at first uncomfortable then giving in to the movement.
Her breathing slowed, stopped.
“You had such a short little life, sweetheart; didn’t count on any of this, did you?” A tear fell from Anderson’s cheek, landed on the little face. “I’m sorry I couldn’t have helped you, couldn’t have done more.” He kissed her once more, set her gently in the crook of her mother’s arm, straightening the tattered clothes on each. After getting to his feet, he adjusted his pack then walked to the door without looking back. “Jesus Christ, when will this fucking shit end?”
“You’re a good man, Trip.” Eleanor Anderson’s eyes brimmed with love for her son. “You’ve always made me very proud.”
Trip stood beside the bed.
“Open the curtains, Sweetie. It’s a beautiful day out there; we should let some of that into the room.”
He went to the window, pulled back the drapes, stood looking out for a moment. The flowers were starting to bloom; daffodils – her favorite.
“You need to know I am not afraid. You shouldn’t be either.”
Her frail voice pulled him back into the room. He turned, smiled at her as he returned to her side. “There’s no reason for you to be afraid. Grandpa will make sure you toe the line over there.”
She looked out the window, watched the sway of the branches in the breeze. Trip wondered if she was considering what it would be like to be a whisper on the wind. “Your Grandpa was a great man, Trip. More important, though, is that he was a good man. He was guided by his morals, his clear sense of right and wrong, and he never wavered from that.” She frowned. Trip knew she was thinking not just about her father but the man she married. The look was always the same. “Please remember your Grandpa, how he stood on principal, how he believed that everyone was to be treated with respect unless they gave you sound reason not to.”
Trip chuckled. “I can still hear his voice, Mom. ‘Trip, always remember; fear is the enemy. It’s a reaction, and it has its place in keeping us alive when the need arises, but more often than not it makes people do stupid stuff, hurtful stuff, and it is easily used as a weapon. Control the fear as best you can, analyze it, and whenever possible, help others control it; it will make a difference. It’s okay to be afraid, just never let the fear win.’”
“I can, too, even more, now. When he came back from the war, he said the hardest thing for him to watch was the fear. ‘No one should die while consumed with that kind of fear’ he would say. You could tell he was thinking about the many people he saw. He just wanted to make it a bit easier for them. There were too many, though.” Her words were dotted with gasps and rest stops.
“He never talked about what he saw in combat; he talked lessons, philosophy, but never said anything about what combat was like. I imagine there was more than enough to keep a chaplain busy.”
“He had his challenges, I’m sure.” Her brow furrowed. “You know he never expected you to… he never wanted to make you think you had to…”
Trip chuckled, shook his head. “I have no vocation to be a minister, Mom.”
A tear slipped down her cheek. “You’re going to be okay.”
She wanted it to be a statement. Trip heard the question in it. “Yes, Mom. Don’t worry. I have Dad… and Mavis.” He hoped he hid his distain at the name. “I’ll stay with them in Phoenix, until I finish high school.” He hoped he sounded convincing. “You don’t have to worry. You just rest, and remember that I love you.”
Trip Anderson stood looking down at his mother. She was calm, angelic; it was a drastic change from the pain that had pinched her face for the last four months. He picked up her hand, held it in both of his as he felt a crater split open in his heart. “Sleep well, Mom. Godspeed. I love you.”