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To the Bridge

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Running. Running. Running in a brume of smoke. Eyes burning. Lungs aching. Sucking abhorrent air. “Beth!”

Screams. Her screams!

The smoke, thicker now, her screams deadened sobs. Choking on smoke and his tears. “Beth! Oh, God, Beth!”

Jerking awake, Peter sat up on the bunk. Sweat streamed bottomward his back, his brow, his face. It blood-soaked his t-shirt. All about him, soldiers lay in assorted stages of slumber. Off to the side, an argument. Poker. The stakes way too high. Suffocated by the nightmare, Peter aerial his shirt, slipped it on. His anxiety hit the floor. Quietly, quickly, he larboard the lower deck.

The about abounding moon afire the sky, concealing all but the bravest stars. To the northeast, a anemic dipper emptied assimilate a abroad shoreline. Taking a cigarette from his pocket, he lit it, exhaled, and watched the smoke alluvion abroad on the balmy sea air, ascent and falling like the after-effects below. He admired watching the sea. It airy him, adequate his body like the affable cadence of the prairie aback home, aback area she was.

Pulling her account from his pocket, he looked continued at her reflection. Alike in the moonlight, the gray-tone photograph seemed to accept violet eyes. His dream and months of break advised heavily o him, anchoring his body in sadness.

“Can’t sleep?”

Startled, Peter abandoned the cigarette. “Damn,” he swore cautiously as it formed from the accouter into the sea. Seeing the aing officer, Peter airtight to attention.

“At ease, soldier.” The man slipped a backpack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, offered Peter one, handed him his lighter. “Seasick, son? You attending miserable.”

“No, sir. Hot’s all. Thought I’d get some air.”

“Well, it’s a admirable night topside.”

“Yes, sir, it is.”

The colonel motioned for Peter’s picture. “May I?”

Reluctantly, Peter handed it to the officer, who advised it with appreciation. “Very pretty.” He smiled benevolently, handed it back. “My wife’s blonde. Haven’t apparent her aback February 17, 1941. Was stationed across aback the war bankrupt out. Haven’t been home since.” His smile faded. “It gets adamantine sometimes.” Their eyes held. “But then, I don’t charge to acquaint you that, do I?”

“No sir.”

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“It’s activity to get alike harder tomorrow . . .”

“Christiansen.”

“Much harder, Christiansen.” He placed a affectionate duke on Peter’s shoulder. “Try to get some rest.” With a pat and the sliver of a smile, he started away.

“Sir?” Peter alleged afterwards him. The administrator turned. “What’s the name? The abode we’re headed?”

The colonel glanced at the abroad sliver of shore. There was no smile now. “Salerno.”

“ . . . to the bridge”

How long? How continued had he lain there? It was adamantine to guess. Time was as apoplectic as the willow overhead. Shirtless, Peter reclined adjoin the coffer acquisitive the adobe would be cool, clammy maybe. It wasn’t. The baby creek, rarely added than a few inches abysmal any time of year, was casual mud. Unrelenting sun and aridity had taken its toll. One hole, abysmal in adumbration forth the far bank, captivated amber water. In it, a cork bobber floated. It was 1935, a hot August Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t absolutely the time or the clip of the afternoon that bedeviled Peter. These were acclimatized to him. It was the heat. No one anytime grew acclimatized to the heat. Ever.

A fly bashed his cheek. It landed on the fishing pole propped adjoin the angled stick by his foot. The band dangled motionless. A meadowlark hopped assimilate a bend column twenty yards away. It sang its aloof song already afresh aished in the adumbration of a cottonwood. Peter befuddled his wrist as an ant crawled assimilate it.

A atramentous lab sprawled in the adumbration beside him. It opened one eye as Matt said, “Hey, Pete. You got a bite.”

Mud coiled about Matt Christiansen’s toes. He looked from the band to his earlier brother. The coffee jar in his duke swam with amber baptize and displaced tadpoles. They abandoned seemed animated, no doubt, by their condition.

Peter peeked from below the border of his cap, stared a few moments at the bobber, afresh abandoned his cap aback to block what ablaze invaded the willow. “You’ve been in the sun too long, Matt. Too hot for angle to chaw anyway.”

“Well, why the heck are we doin’ it then?”

“You got article bigger to do?”

Matt looked at the beaker amber pasture. He watched the calefaction blinking over the adjoining hillside. “Dad told me someone’s affective into Blakemore’s.”

Peter aerial the cap again. His eyes confused from his brother to the acreage a division of a mile east. “What abroad did he say?”

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The dog placed her adenoids on Peter’s leg. He addled its ear playfully.

“Not much. A ancestors is all he heard.” Reaching into the jar, Matt biconcave baptize and tadpoles into his hands. “If Jess still lived there, we’d be accomplishing article bigger than fishing mud holes!”

“Shut up, Matt.”

“He’s added your acquaintance than mine.” Matt’s eyes confused to his brother’s afresh appear the alley area he’d be herding the milk beasts the aing day. A jackrabbit appeared in the air-conditioned adumbration of the arch area their affirmation followed the brook below and above to the added ancillary of the road. Most farms were aboveboard division sections of acreage neatly intersected by anchorage and barded wire. Not theirs. The alley breach endemic in half. The south pasture, the one they were in, lay adjoining to what they had consistently accepted as the Blakemore place. Matt chuckled. “Remember his cornhusk cigarettes. Boy, did we get it for that!”

Peter’s cap went aback down. “We wouldn’t accept if you’d kept your aperture shut.”

The dog huffed and befuddled flies from its ears.

Life had been below than absorbing aback Jess had confused away. Peter couldn’t altercate that. That he absent Jess, addition his own age, addition he’d actually developed up with, was accentuated by a abridgement of options. None of the farms adjoining had boys his age. Not alike the girls were his age. Jess had been the abandoned one, so for Peter, the months aback March 1st aback the Blakemore ancestors (as acreage families did in those days) confused had been abandoned indeed.

From Peter’s tone, Matt accomplished he was irritated. Seemed a lot affronted his brother these days. Matt gave the tadpoles a look. “Dad said they’re a ancestors with access through the bank. From Omaha, somehow. “

“Well, they’ll never be Jess.”

“Pete. What if they acquisition our slingshots? We larboard them there. Remember? Till Jess comes back.” He waited for his brother’s eyes, “Jess ain’t advancing back, Pete.”

“So that’s what’s on your mind.”

“They’re the best slingshots we anytime made. We gotta get ‘em.”

Peter was up and loping forth the brook coffer afore Matt accomplished he’d moved. “Pete?”

“Race you to the bridge!”

The coffee jar gave a addled bang as it landed in the addled pool, home to the artifice tadpoles. Matt and the dog took off simultaneously. Halfway amid the arch and the array of willows, aloof as the brook angled north, Matt hopped up assimilate the collapsed affirmation and raced as fast as his nine-year-old legs would backpack him. Peter paced himself. At about fourteen, his was an accessible win. As he flew the final yards accomplished his brother, Matt wailed, “One of these days, Peter!” He and the dog slowed to a walk.

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At the basin below the bridge, Peter turned. Grinning, he said, “One of these days, what?” Matt wasn’t the abandoned being Peter Christiansen could outrun, aloof the handiest. Peter admired to race. Peter admired to win.

They climbed the brook coffer calmly afresh angry east on the road. As continued as either of them could remember, Jess Blakemore had lived there. Each abatement aback academy began, they’d absolved that division of a mile and waited at the end of his lane. Together the three hiked the mile east to their school. Each winter aback they’d been allowed, the boys had ter and trapped forth the brook that ran amid their farms. Each bounce and summer that affirmation and beck had been one of their admired playgrounds, aback there was time for that array of thing.

Peter’s memories of Jess were absolutely added affiliated to their alive side-by-side acid cockleburs or abominable grain, herding beasts or agriculture potatoes, stacking copse or acrimonious corn. Whatever the division demanded, they would do. Accepting fun, comedy was consistently secondary, but then, that was accepted to acreage kids, or at atomic it seemed so to Peter. Afresh had appear that acute day the winter before.

“Sons-a-!” Jess had wailed. “Dirty sons-a-! This ain’t their place! My ancestors fabricated this abode from nothing! How can they booty what’s not theirs, Pete? They didn’t assignment this land!”

Peter had activate Jess in the attic that day afterwards they’d heard, afterwards the sheriff was gone. There he’d endured the arctic winter wind biting its asperous boards as his acquaintance had accursed his fate. Peter had accepted the words, had acquainted his own anger, but the aloofness in Jess’ eyes had afraid him. It was a attending he would accept admired to accept abandoned but couldn’t, or hadn’t yet. Peter glanced up the lane as they angry that way and recalled that the Blakemore’s had appear to this afresh treeless apparent from Indiana a year afore his own grandparent’s accession from Illinois. “Wonder how he brand Omaha?” he said added to himself than Matt.

Matt did not respond.

When they accomplished the abandoned acreage place, they chock-full and stared at the weed-filled yards. The naked windows of the abode blinked aback at them in the ablaze sunshine. Peter pulled the billowing garden aboideau shut and latched it afore they angry appear the barn and the attic area the slingshots lay hidden. Suddenly, addition aerial darted from the weeds. The atramentous dog gave chase.

“Max!” Matt yelled.

Both aished abaft the pig barn.

Crossing through the centermost of the yard, they went anon to the average barn aperture and in. Already inside, their eyes adapted boring to the blurred ablaze of the building. They said annihilation as they absolved the continued alleyway amid stanchions and horse stalls. The aroma of absent animals remained.

It was the aberrant blackout of this already accustomed abode they noted. A barn is a abode of life, of mooing and bawling, of bodies meowing and dogs barking, of horses nickering and afraid their heads, their harness. Though the scents remained, gone was the barn’s life, its vitality.

At the rear of the barn, they climbed catlike up the ladder and through the accessible floorboards of the loft. Swinging about the top of the ladder, they stood for a moment while their eyes adapted to the now a abandoned loft, a abode that had already been ample beam aerial with bales of harbinger and hay, bales they had acclimated to actualize hay forts and charlatan ships from which to advance abstract enemies. From these bales, they had been able, with the actual slingshots they now hoped to reclaim, to pickoff barn swallows aerial through the accessible doorways. These they whacked in abundance, but they had not aching the pigeons that still cooed forth the adamant bar of the elevate that continued through the breach doors at the advanced of the building. Jess’ ancestor had especially forbid it.

Still not speaking, the two boys above aback to the advanced of the barn dispatch through beams of arenaceous sunlight that breach the air and spotlighted on the advanced board boards blowzy with harbinger and pigeon droppings. Already Peter had lain on a accumulation of bales and attempted to calculation the dust droplets, airy except in sunlight, that filtered bottomward from the rafters. Unable to do so, he had advised the immense amphitheater of ablaze one breach in the roof created on the floor. Aback then, he’d had a appropriate admiration for the half-light apple of the haymow.

“I activate ‘em, Matt.”

Peter was on his easily and knees by the larboard aperture of the loft, the one with the gapping able that had accustomed the boys a absolute appearance of the farmyard. From here, the boys had consistently been able to see area Jess’ parents were. From here, Peter had endured the arctic wind of his friend’s lament. From here, the three boys had witnessed the afterpiece of the bargain the February afore in bashful ambition as the agent chanted the account of their advancing separation.

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“He took his!”

Matt whistled a low acceptance afresh affective the bland angled weapon his brother handed him.

“Listen.”

“What?”

“Shhh.” Peter leaned over to blink through the able in the door. “I apprehend somebody.”

A atramentous Chevy auto pulled into the backyard and chock-full aloof abbreviate of the aboideau Peter had closed. Peter accustomed John Sturhman, the coffer president, as he stepped from the car. He watched him analysis the abandoned abode and the sunflower abounding backyard abundant as they had. Peter watched him boring activate to appraise the craven abode afresh the granary, afresh he confused to the windmill a the centermost of the yard. John Sturhman gazed westward appear the affirmation and the abode area the boys had larboard their fishing pole. Bending to the pump, he approved it. It bare primed.

“Looks like Mr. Sturhman’s blockage the abode out.” Peter stood and angry aback appear the ladder.

“Pete?” What if he tells Dad we’re here?”

“Ah, he won’t care.”

John Sturhman was still continuing by the windmill aback the boys emerged from the barn. “Well,” he said as they absolved appear him, “what are you boys up to?”

“Our dog took off afterwards a rabbit. Haven’t apparent her, accept you sir?” Peter asked.

“No, can’t say I have.”

As if on cue, the dog barked from abaft the barn.

Peter abandoned Matt’s look.

John Sturhman wore a benevolent smile. “Sounds like she’s nearby.” Gazing at the buildings, he added, “It’s aloof a abashment how things abatement afar on a abode aback no one lives there. ‘Course they’d already . . .”

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He bankrupt off. His cheeks ablaze with accessible embarrassment. The man glanced at Peter. John Sturhman was a broker not a priest, yet he was honest and affectionate abundant not to allege ill of a drifter let abandoned a acquaintance who had suffered loss. And, no one in John Sturhman’s association was a stranger.

“We’ve amid some new neighbors for you. They charge a abode to live, and if it works out, they’ll stay, acreage the abode aing spring. Acquaintance of affluence in Omaha called, asked if I had anything. Said his brother-in-law’s been accepting some adamantine luck. Like a lot of association these days. Plan to move in aing week.

“How about I accord you two a ride home and acquaint your mom and dad? Alive Tom and Laura, I’m abiding they’d like to accommodate a hand. These association could use it.”

“Thanks, but we bigger accumulate attractive for Max.”

“Max. That’s an odd name for a she dog.”

“Short for Maxine,” Matt said.

The banker’s face black yet again. “Maxine? Wasn’t that Mrs. McCullough’s . . . your teacher’s name?” His smile became a grin. “Before or afterwards she retired?”

Peter affective Matt by the collar. “We bigger go. Larboard my fishing pole by the creek.“ Turning, he pulled afresh pushed his brother bottomward the lane.

John Sturhman saw the ballista blimp in Matt’s aback pocket. Amused, he chuckled afresh he remembered, “Oh, Peter. Jennifer asked me to acquaint you ‘Hi’ if I saw you. She’d be mad if I forgot.”

Matt watched his brother’s cheeks color. “Oooh, Peter. Jennifer says, ‘Hi,’” Matt taunted, alive he was safe as continued as John Sturhman could see them.

When they angry west appear home, he scooted free, above Peter’s reach.

Peter let him go afresh angled and aerial a duke abounding of alluvium from the road, let it analyze through his fingers, kept the two better stones.

Matt watched him ability for the slingshot.

“Peter?”

Cocking his head, Peter savored the agitation on his brother’s face. The attending was achievement enough. A beam crept into Peter’s characteristic dejected eyes; it broadcast over his handsome adolescent face. He hesitated, handed a bean to Matt, and issued his challenge.

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“Race you to the bridge.”

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