Charlie Williams wiped the sweat from his face and leaned the rake against the shed. The sun stood overhead in a cloudless sky. He grabbed a small cooler and headed for the bench near the pond. A sharp pain shot through his leg, and a grimace crossed his face. The trees surrounding the pond provided welcome shade. With one hand, he opened the cooler containing his lunch. His other hand massaged his thigh. Charlie followed the same routine every day; the only things that changed were the sandwich and dessert. Today he ate roast beef on rye with chocolate chip cookies.
A skittish squirrel approached the bench, nose twitching and tail flicking.
“I make a damn fine sandwich. One of the few useful things Mom taught me.” He broke off a corner and tossed it to the critter. The squirrel leapt away and then crept back to snatch up the morsel. Charlie.
It took a tiny nibble of the bread and dropped it.
“I see you don’t have the same appreciation for sandwiches I do. Tomorrow I’ll bring a bag of nuts for you.” He bit into his sandwich.
The air shimmered beside him, a faint shadow appeared. “Good day to you, Charlie.”
“Hi Rosie. I was wondering if you would show up.” He sipped his beer; the refreshing liquid slid down his throat.
“You were late arriving this morning. We worried something happened to you.”
“Car wouldn’t start so I had to walk. A nice day for it, too.”
“You should get a new one.”
“Maybe. But I’ve put a lot of work into the old girl. Doesn’t seem right to cast her aside for a new model.” He glanced at the shadow beside him. “Saw Billy last night at Pete’s Place.”
Rosie sighed. “Knowing Billy, he stayed until closing and staggered home.”
“Yep. Mark walked with him so he made it home ok.” Finished with dessert, Charlie concentrated on his beer. “After lunch, I’ll be planting a flat of snapdragons along the path leading from the pond to the crypt.”
“That will brighten things up around here. Many people come and visit, but you are the only one who takes care of the place. We appreciate it.”
“Since you spend every moment here, it’s the least I can do. It’s wrong to forget about the ones that died, sticking them in the ground, and giving no more thought to them.” He sighed. “I also promised my mom before she died that I would visit my sister’s grave and take care of it.”
“Your mother and I spent a lot of time together. She helped me around the house when I couldn’t get out of bed any more. We often discussed the arguments the two of you had after you came back and were discharged from the army. She thought you were wasting your life away, sitting in your room, and staring out the window.” Rosie sighed.
“Mom didn’t understand why I enlisted after Sue died. I had to get back at the bastards that killed her and the others.” From his pocket, he pulled out a cigarette and a lighter. The flint wheel shot sparks several times before the flame caught. A cloud of smoke enveloped his head and drifted away on the breeze.
“What scared her most was the possibility of you dying like her brother Jimmy in Vietnam.”
Charlie stood, walking to the edge of the pond. Fish swam, fins waving them along. “I know, but what else could I do?” He flicked the ashes from the tip. “Almost did end up like him, if the medic hadn’t been close by.” Charlie locked away his own feelings on the matter, something his counselor said he shouldn’t do. Maybe I should deal with nearly dying, but what’s the point? I’ll still have the nightmares. Those kids died because they ran across the field of fire. We couldn’t stop the bullets after we fired them and the captain ordered us to keep the insurgents pinned down no matter what. His heart pounded, and a cold sweat broke out on his face and neck. He inhaled from the cigarette and exhaled the smoke in tiny wisps. He calmed as he shoved the memory back into the depths.
“Have you found the man who saved your life? Last time we spoke, you said you had a lead on his location.”
“Yeah. In a cemetery three towns over. He killed himself because he couldn’t deal with what he saw in Iraq. Too take that way out. But I understand why they do. The pain builds up until you can’t take it anymore. It’s hard talking to others about the way you feel.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Last night the nightmares were bad, and I thought about ending it all.”
“What made you change your mind?” The shadow joined him at the edge of the pond.
“No one else would take care of this place, or tell you and the others what’s going on in town. Wouldn’t be right.” Staring at the water, Charlie finished his cigarette.
“We appreciate your coming here every day and talking to us. Most of our families have moved away or visit on special days to pay their respects. You give us a connection to the lives we once lived.” She paused. “Does it bother you?”
“It did at first, but after two years it feels normal.” Charlie field stripped the cigarette, placing the butt in his pocket. He returned to the bench and grabbed the cooler. “Time to get back to work.”
“Remember to take plenty of breaks. The sun is brutal today. Mabel will talk with you tomorrow. She wants to know how her great granddaughter is doing.”
“Thanks for the heads up, Rosie.” At the shed, Charlie filled the wheelbarrow with what he needed for the afternoon, setting the rake across the handles. Whistling, he limped down the path, passing the tidy grave sites.