THE HARD WALK
by Forrest McElroy
Tommy struggled to climb out of the car, wobbling precariously until he gained purchase with his crutch. The driver got out of the sleek, black government vehicle and came over to aid him. Tommy glared at the driver. The man backed away with his palms out. Tommy straightened and brushed his free hand over his freshly pressed uniform. He donned his Army issued dress cap and started forward up the gravel parkway.
As Tommy hobbled up the driveway, he gazed around at his surroundings. A white picket fence lined the small lot leading up to the house. A freshly mown lawn glistened with morning dew. The house was a faded blue. A white washed porch with a swing had two freshly painted white steps leading upwards to the door. A gold star in a field of red hung from the front window beside the front door, moving gently back and forth in the slight breeze.
Tommy’s face curled into a snarl of defiance at the rising guilt he felt towards the task that lay before him. You owe this.
Tommy took an unsure step and his foot slipped out from under him. He shouted out in alarm as he fell to the ground in a heap. Tommy sat up and dragged his crutch over to himself. He heard the driver’s feet on the driveway gravel behind him. “Get away from me.” He snarled. Tommy heard the driver’s exasperated sigh, and the man turned back on the driveway and waited by the car.
Tommy took a firm grip with both of his hands and began pulling himself upwards. He had managed to get his foot underneath him, when the door to the blue house opened, and an older couple came out onto the porch. The woman wore a dark green dress and smart black shoes. Her hair was bark brown and greying, pinned up behind her ears. The man wore tan slacks, brown dress shoes, and a white undershirt that was smudged with dirt. Tommy gazed at the Man’s bespectacled face. He remembered Will had spoken often of how his father came home from work and went straight into the garden.
Tommy’s throat tightened with emotion, and his grip on his crutch slipped and he fell to his side in the riveway. “Damn!” he yelled, frustration and grief causing his voice to come out hoarse.
The old gardener came over quickly to his side while the wife waited anxiously on the porch. “Hold up, son,” he said, clear concern in his voice. His strong arms lifted Tommy up. He scooped up Tommy’s crutch and Tommy took it gratefully. “There now, come sit on the porch. Mary,” the man called. “Can you get the boy a glass of water, dear?” he called to his wife.
As she swept inside, Tommy came to sit on the stairs of the front porch. He took off his cap. “Thank you for your kindness, Mr. Hewitt.” Tommy said, sighing. Mr. Hewitt peered down at Tommy, his hands on his hips. “Do I know you, boy? What can I do for you?” he asked in a steady baritone.
Tommy gazed up at Mr. Hewitt and saw Will’s face looking back at him behind the spectacles and wrinkles. His eyes stung, and tears spilled over onto Tommy’s face. “I am so sorry, sir. God help me, I am so sorry.” A sob crept out of his throat and Tommy buried his face in his right hand. He fought down the powerful storm of grief that threatened to sweep through him.
A firm but gentle hand squeezed his shoulder. “It’s okay, son,” said Mr. Hewitt. “Take a minute. It’ll be okay.” His voice was calming and soothing, like he was speaking to a spooked horse.
Tommy angrily whipped his eyes and turned his face up to look at the old gardener. “It won’t, sir,” said Tommy, miserable. He shook his head back and forth at Mr. Hewitt’s concerned and confused expression.
“How do you mean? Who are you, son?” Mr. Hewitt asked. His voice had lost some of its softness. The question came more demanding as the man’s patience began to diminish.
“My name is Tommy Ryne, sir,” said Tommy. “I’m a friend of your son, William.”
Mr. Hewitt’s face turned from a puzzled expression to one of happiness. “Glad to meet you! How’s my boy? Is he coming home?” He grasped Tommy’s free hand and squeezed it. Tommy could feel the desperation for news of his son in the man’s grip.
Tommy shook his head. Flashes of the muddy French field appeared in his mind. The sound of gunfire and screaming filled his ears. Will’s terrified face starring straight through him, looking at nothing and seeing nothing.
Tommy closed his eyes and took a breath. After centering himself, he looked again at Mr. Hewitt’s now hesitant expression. “Will can’t come home, Mr. Hewitt. William is gone, sir.” Said Tommy, and his words rocked the man back on his heels like a physical blow.
Mr. Hewitt’s face whitened, and he sank onto his knees in the driveway. “My Will?” he asked, and his voice sounded small.
Tommy hobbled forward. “I’m so sorry,” Tommy said, but the words felt hollow to him as they left his lips.
Mr. Hewitt didn’t seem to hear him. He fell to his knees. He sat back on his heels and shook his head. His hands were upturned and lifeless in his lap. “They took our baby boy.” he said. Tears formed in the old gardener’s eyes and spilled down his cheeks.
A sound of shattering glass cut through the scene, and Tommy staggered and turned around in alarm.
Mrs. Mary Hewitt stood there on the porch. Her face had gone white and empty with shock, starring at Tommy. The pieces of the glass cup she had dropped were scattered all around her, and the water from it dripped between the cracks of the old wooden porch. A stuttering scream clawed out of her throat as she collapsed to the floor, headless of the glass shards that dug into her legs. Mary Hewitt screamed silently there, rocking back and forth as she clutched at her stomach. Finally, she managed words between her gasping sobs. “My boy,” she said, and she closed her eyes. “No, no,” her voice trailed off into sobs.
Mr. Hewitt stood uneasily to his feet and came to his wife’s side. He gently raised her to her feet and pulled her inside, closing the door behind them.
Tommy looked out toward the street. The sounds of Mrs. Hewitt screaming tore through the peaceful suburb, and neighbors stood out in their doorways. Tommy felt their eyes. The guilt of bringing the hell and pain of the War to these people threatened to crush him. He took rapid, hopping steps with aid of his crutch back down the driveway and climbed into the black car.
The driver started the car. “Are you alright, Mr. Ryne?” asked the Driver, and the concern was there again. Tommy glared angrily down at his hands and his vision blurred with tears. “No. I am not. Can we please leave?” He begged the Driver, and his voice wavered again with emotion and exhaustion. “I’ve done enough.”
About the Author:
Forrest McElroy is a Marine Corps Veteran of the terrorism conflicts of the Middle East. He is a published writer whose written works up to this point have been private reflections on the traumatic influences of war. He is in the current process of honing his craft while writing a fantasy novel series. He is a father of a strong willed two-year-old daughter. He is married to his high school sweetheart. They live in Stuart, Florida.