Darkness and Light
Three shorts and a long. The phone’s ring broke the silence. Supper was finished. Chores were done. It was calm, an early evening, early fall calm.
“I’ll get it,” Tom Christiansen said, pushing away from the table.
“Good grub, Mom,” Matt complimented the woman across from him as he cleaned up the mashed potatoes.
His mother smiled.
Tom lifted the receiver from its hook, placed his mouth to the wall phone speaker. His fingers went mechanically to the wooden shelf on its bottom. “Hello.”
Anna Kraus’ voice was urgent. “Tom! Tom, you and Laura get down here quick! Send Matt into town for Marie!”
“Grandma? What’s wrong? Are the babies OK?”
Tom’s face masked concern. His mother-in-law’s voice broke. She attempted to smother the sob.
“It just came,” heartache filled her voice. Her words were barely distinguishable through her tears.
Tom Christiansen’s heart stopped. White-faced, he turned. His eyes found his wife’s. His broad shoulders sagged against the wall. The receiver fell from his hand.
Seeing his father’s reaction, Matt hurried over, lifted the receiver.
“Grandma?” he yelled into the speaker. “Grandma?”
“Matt? It’s Peter, Matt. It’s Peter,” she sobbed.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
The voice cut through the haze. Blinking, he knew only pain. It surrounded him, engulfed every fiber of his being. He slipped back, back towards darkness.
Darkness and light.
Fighting the darkness, he squeezed his eyes shut then opened again. Everything blurred out of focus. He worried. Uncertainty haunted him. Pain engulfed him. The darkness beckoned.
The voice drew him back, back to the light.
“Beth?” he whispered, blinking his eyes to clear them. “Beth?”
“I’m not Beth. Is she you wife?”
Hope plummeted. Trying to mask his disappointment, he whispered, “I can’t seem to see. Where am I?”
“You’re in a field hospital. Peter, right?”
“That fuzziness comes from a concussion. You tried to butt heads with a mortar. It’ll clear in a little while. How’s the shoulder feel?”
“Hurts like hell,” he mumbled. “I can’t move it.”
“That’s because another fragment tore into the muscle and broke your collar bone. You won’t be using it much for some time. You were in surgery for quite a while, lost a lot of blood so don’t try to move too much. Just lie still while I go for the doctor. That alright with you?”
Peter nodded once more and closed his eyes, drifted into the darkness.
Darkness and light.
Hearing then not hearing, he slipped in and out of consciousness. Once he thought he heard his father, once he thought it was Jess. Finally, he fell into a deep sleep. When he opened his eyes again, the fuzziness was gone. The pain in his head had diminished but was still all too real. He tried to move and failed. Spears of pain shot everywhere. He winced and cursed out loud.
“Now, I told you to lie still. You don’t dare rip those stitches.”
This voice he remembered—soft, seductive—but not Beth’s. He opened his eyes and saw that her hair was a pretty brown but lacked Beth’s richness; saw her eyes, the shape of her face. These were, too, wrong; but she had a nice smile, and he liked the sound of her voice. It just . . . It wasn’t Beth’s.
Noticing the way he studied her, she asked, “How are those peepers?” Leaning down to check his bandages, she watched him politely close his eyes as her breast brushed his shoulder.
Peter inhaled her fragrance; but this, too, was wrong. Hers was antiseptic, a hospital smell.
“Better than your tongue evidently. Well, no damage done. Now behave yourself. The next time you need something, holler first. One of us will help you, OK?”
“How long have I been here?”
“You can talk! Four days. You’ve been sleeping a lot.”
Nothing seemed quite real. Time held no meaning. It could have been four days, four weeks, or four minutes.
Darkness and light.
“How’d I get here?”
Saying it, he recalled the eyes that met his just before the explosion. “Jess! What happened to Jess?”
For the first time, Peter’s gaze moved outward. “He’s . . . he’s . . . someone from home.”
“Well, I don’t know, but I’ll see if I can find out. Will that help?”
Peter nodded, relaxed a bit as she walked away. He turned his head sideways on the pillow and shut his eyes. Once again he drifted, drifted away from the memory, away from the pain, but most of all, away from the overpowering loneliness that suddenly engulfed him. This time as he slept, he dreamed. He dreamed of home, of Beth running to meet him as he walked in from the pasture leading Pepper. She waved to him from the bridge that spanned the creek between their homes then ran up to him as he turned the horse out of the gate. She was young, happy. She laughed and spoke of her father. He could feel her in his arms as they walked side by side, leading Pepper. She giggled and teased him with her eyes. He bent to kiss her . . .
Without warning, she snatched the cap from his head. Light blinded him. She disappeared in its brightness. He called to her. She did not answer.
Running. He was running in a haze of smoke. Screams. Her screams. Sobs. Her sobs. He could not find her.
“Beth!” he called. “Beth!” he pleaded, aching for her to come back to him. “Beth.”
Darkness then . . .
The voice brought the light. A touch on his hand stopped him, ended his pursuit, retrieved him from the terrifying clutch of the nightmare. Pulling quick, shallow breaths, he fought his way back.
“That must have been a bad one. Are you in a lot of pain?”
His eyes met the hazel ones that studied him with honest concern. He shook his head.
“OK. I couldn’t find out much except that two guys brought you in. I don’t know who or how? Someone left this two days ago. I can read it for you if you like?”
Peter took the letter she handed him with his good hand. “I don’t . . . will you open it for me?”
“Just a minute.” She raised him slightly so that he could see better, then she carefully opened the envelope. Ever so gently, she handed the contents to him. “This must be Beth,” she said with a smile.
Joy flooded him as he took the photograph. Suddenly, he was no longer alone.
“Oh, they’re darling. They sure look like you,” she commented, handing the next picture to him.
Overcome with emotion, he clutched them to his heart and closed his eyes. His gratitude was unspeakable.
“Someone took great care to have saved them for you. Here.” When she handed him the letter, a final picture fell from its folds onto the bed. She picked it up, handed it to Peter as well.
The picture was old and badly damaged. Peter reached for it. Barely visible in the photo was a boy by a horse in front of a willow tree. “Jess,” he whispered.
“That’s odd,” she remarked. “I thought it kind of looked like you. Can you manage now?”
When she was gone, he fumbled the letter open:
I had hoped you’d be awake today when I stopped, but I’m just glad you’re alive. They tell me you’ll be good as new, but not good enough to keep fighting. I’m glad you’re going home.
I meant every word I said to you the other night. I understand if you don’t believe me. I even understand if you still hate me. You have every right to. But I pray some day you will both be able to forgive. Not that I deserve it but because I truly am sorry. I understand that it’s probably best if we never see one another again, but knowing the goodness that is in you, I want to believe that sometime you will be able to do just that—forgive me.
You asked what changed me. There isn’t an easy answer to that question. The best answer is—you did.
I’ve never met anyone like you. All these years, all the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met. No one was like you. You were the most honest friend I could have hoped for. You never wanted anything from me. Everyone else seemed to, not you. I couldn’t handle your unselfishness. I kept telling myself it was because you had everything you wanted. I lied to myself until I hated you for it.
Truth is, when I was sober and really honest with myself, I knew you were right about most everything. But because I couldn’t face that or the other problems in my life, I started running away, and I kept right at it until I found something I couldn’t run away from. I couldn’t run from the memory of what I did, not to you, but most especially, not to her.
I never told you about the time I watched her hoeing potatoes from under the bridge by the creek, the day we finished shocking the oats, the time you thought I got sick. I was sick all right. Sick with envy, with jealousy. She was beautiful, the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. And she was yours. I guess that’s when it really took root. I couldn’t stand the idea of you having her, too. From there, it just got out of control.
You were right. I deserve to die for what I did—to both of you. At times, I even considered death. I simply couldn’t escape her. I’d remember her there in the sunshine, so pretty, so innocent. Then I’d see her in that room, see . . . see what I did to her.
I hate myself for it, but nothing I say can change it. And then my mother told me you’d come, told me . . .
God forgive me, Peter, I thought maybe you lost them both. I am so sorry.
We’re moving out real soon, so I have to close. Phil is going to see that you get this. He’s a good friend. He didn’t run out on you when you needed him. He stayed and helped me get you to the medics. I’m not running away anymore, Pete, but I can’t stay. God, I’d like to. I’d like nothing better than to be able to spend the rest of my life making things up to you, being the friend I should have been. I can’t tell you how very much or how often I’ve missed you over the years. I know that can’t be now. I would never ask it of you. And even if you could put up with me . . . I couldn’t ask it . . . not of her. It wouldn’t be fair, not after the pain I’ve already caused.
Maybe the Nazis will do us all a favor.
Tell her, please, how sorry I am. And tell her, if it matters, that my helping Phil save your life is my humble way of trying to make it up to her.
I pray the two of you have a long, happy life together.
Oh, by the way, you were right. I’ve always been slow, about most things, but lucky for you, I’m real good at evasive action. They never knew what hit ‘em.
God keep you, Peter.
In a better life,
Peter’s hand fell. The letter landed on top of the pictures lying on his lap. What little strength he had left him. Closing his eyes, he clutched the letter to his heart and wept openly.
Hearing him, the nurse, who’d waited nearby, came hurrying back. “Was it bad news?”
“No,” Peter said in a whisper. Wiping his cheeks with the back of his hand, he took a long deep breath, smoothed the letter, and asked, “How soon can I go home?”
The nurse’s smile was light, serene. “As soon as we can get you there.”