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Featured Story

The Night Belongs to Ghosts

By Jacob Strunk

Colton thinks it’s a dog at first, the shadow by the dumpster, hunched and hiding in the stretched fingers of light clawing down the embankment from the interstate. His vision washes white and he squints as a long haul rig turns into the lot. The truck’s headlights splash across the dumpster long enough for him to see a flash of color. A jacket, maybe. Or a hat. His eyes aren’t what they used to be.

Still, he’ll mind his own. He’s too old to get wrapped up in someone else’s trouble. And it’s already later than he likes to be on the road. He’s too old for that now, too, driving at night. 

 

Across from the filling station, down the frontage road, he sees the welcoming neon of a motel’s office, and he eases his foot off the brake. Ten minutes later, he’s brushing his teeth. Ten minutes after that, he’s taken his blood pressure pill, the statin for his cholesterol, the baby aspirin and fish oil his cardiologist said are every day for the rest of his life; he’s rubbed lidocaine ointment into his hip, and he’s eased onto the edge of the creaky mattress. He sets his watch on the nightstand. Then his glasses; bifocals these days. And then a small silver brooch on a delicate chain, clasped shut.

 

He watches a bad sitcom, one with too many kids, and then the 10:00 news. Bush again, talking about Kuwait. He turns it off. The highway’s not 100 yards, but even with the window open he’s asleep almost as soon as his head hits the pillow, scratchy starched pillowcase be damned. Driving will do that. 

 

Colton has the tank filled at 7:00 the next morning and is walking back to the Ford LTD and opening a jerky stick with his teeth when a voice stops him: “Mister?” He turns and realizes it wasn’t a jacket or a hat he saw last night, it was a well worn pair of stained red sweat pants. Their owner stands in them now, meekly stepping toward him from beside a large, humming freezer marked ICE.

 

“Well, you came up out of nowhere,” he says. The girl – he sees now it’s a girl – takes another timid step toward him. She is wearing a hat, the Red Sox, and she has it pulled down low over her eyes, but he has a feeling she’s looking at the ground as she speaks anyway.

 

“I’m sorry if I startled you. I was just wondering if you could spare a few dollars.” Her hands are stuffed deep into the pockets of her black sweatshirt. The sweatshirt is too big, the kind of big kids think they can hide in. All it really does, he thinks, is make her frame look even smaller. How old is she?

 

“Are you here alone?” he asks. She nods, and Colton lets his eyes scan the lot. He doesn’t move his head, just his eyes; he learned this long ago, around the time he learned you best not trust any situation, any landscape, any person that feels safe. Not until you’re sure. He takes in the girl, maybe 80 pounds soaking wet and drowning in that dusty black sweatshirt about a dozen sizes too large for her. Then he looks down at his watch. “Well,” he says again, nodding in the direction of the greasy spoon tucked between the filling station and last night’s accommodations. “I was about to get myself some breakfast. You’re welcome to join if you like. Breakfast is always better with someone talk to.”

 

The fluorescents hum above them, and even halfway through her full stack she still hasn’t made eye contact. They’re sitting at the counter, and he’s just finished his two poached eggs on dry wheat toast. She eats ravenously. He knows that feeling, too, and again he wonders how old she is. So he asks her.

 

“I’m 14,” she says. “I can get my permit this summer.” If she’s 14, he’ll eat his shoe, he thinks, but doesn’t say.

 

“That seems a little young to be prowling truck stops on the interstate, doesn’t it?”

 

“I just said I can’t drive yet. How else am I supposed to get around?”

 

“I suppose that makes sense.” He sips his coffee, gives it a beat, then, “You have the air of someone who’s been traveling for a few days.” Hitching, he assumes, and he already knows she’s not very good at it. “Where are you headed?” She drops her fork and shrinks away.

 

“Are you some kind of pervert?”

 

“Of course not.”

 

“Then why do you want to know where I’m going?”

 

“That’s what people do on the road. Talk about where they’re headed. Where they’ve been.” She looks up and he sees for the first time her eyes are hazel. “I promise I don’t mean anything by it other than making polite conversation. Go on and finish those pancakes before they get all soggy. Nothing worse than a wet pancake.” This seems to settle her.

 

Between bites, she says, “I’m headed west.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Syrup dripping onto her chin, onto her sweatshirt, she adds, “I’m going to Buffalo.”

 

She’s no cartographer. He smiles to himself. Then he notices something he hadn’t seen before, something easy to miss with her hands buried deep in that sweatshirt, even for someone as observant as he is. Beneath the patina of highway dirt, sticky with syrup: under her nails, in her nail beds; rusty red, dark, almost black. He knows what that is. He’s seen it plenty. It’s dried blood.

 

He has two more cups of coffee and she puts down a big chocolate-glazed, neither of them saying much, and by the time he’s paid and they’re stepping back out onto the pavement, he’s already an hour behind schedule. 

 

“Thanks for breakfast, mister,” she says, and he thinks about her nails.

 

“My name’s Colton,” he says. “No more ‘mister’, though I appreciate your being so polite. You call me by name and I’ll call you by yours.” He extends a hand. She frowns, thinking, then reaches out to shake.

 

“Emma,” she says, and he knows she’s lying. She looks down at the ground, at her shoes, then squints up into the sun.

 

“You could ride with me for a bit if you like.” She bites her lip, looks around the lot, back into the restaurant. He waits patiently.

 

“You’re going west?”

 

“Have some stops to make, but I could get you as far as Oswego.” He watches as her eyes narrow and darken, almost disappear, focusing on something far away, something around the bend and down a highway only she’s ridden. He’s seen this, too. Shell shock, they call it. The thousand yard stare. Then she’s nodding and following him to where the Ford is parked beneath a tall oak.

The first call he made was for the ambulance. The second, after taking a minute to steel himself, to calm the shaking in his hands, was to his son Danny, a drill instructor at Fort McCoy in western Wisconsin. He relayed the information to the operator, who informed Dan’s superior, who brought Dan to the phone.

 

“Dad?” And Colton’s heart broke for the second time that day.

 

He’d known she was gone, of course, before the ambulance arrived, before the EMTs went to work, long before the ride to the hospital and the doctor’s grim face mouthing at him something like “stroke”, something like “embolism”, something like “before she hit the ground”. He’d known when he saw her through the window in the garden, motionless, when he ran as fast as his hip would let him to her side, touched her face. He’d seen death before.

            Six years later and Dan was with him when another doctor with another face delivered more grim news. But he wasn’t shaken. And when Dan stepped into the hall of the VA hospital with the doctor, Colton smiled. They’d taken his prostate two years earlier. If I had two, you could take ‘em both, he’d said. No lead left in that pencil since Delores anyway. And it had worked, and the doctors at the VA had been optimistic, and he hadn’t needed chemo. 

 

The news now was worse. Eighteen months. Maybe two years. A big maybe.

 

There’s no way of knowing what you were exposed to, the doctor’s face had said. Mustard gas. Fumes. Artillery. He remembered siphoning gasoline, spitting it from his mouth. Hours in the mud. He remembered a man’s gangrenous leg. Smoke. Imagine, he thought now, whole cities on fire. Imagine an entire continent in ashes.

           

He’d considered it his last gift to Delores, outliving her, sparing her from feeling what he’d felt these past six years. And there was only so much time left, each of us running from our own ticking clocks, wondering when they’ll run out. If only we knew. Well, he thought, maybe this was his gift to himself. He would know. For the second time in his life, Colton made a decision just for himself.

           

No chemo, he said when Dan and the doctor returned. Of course they’d tried to talk him into it. Dan came close to pleading over the next few weeks before returning to Wisconsin. But Colton stood fast. I’m not wasting any more time on tests and tubes. I have things to do. And besides, this head of hair is about all I’ve been able to bring with me for the whole trip.

On the radio is more talk of war, one they’re calling Desert Storm. Colton thinks that’s appropriate; what every New Englander knows and what the West Point brass moving lines on a map will never understand is the unpredictability of a storm; a storm lives, it breathes. A storm can turn on a dime, can sneak up on a clear day and swallow your life whole.

           

From the passenger seat, Emma says, “I hate the news.” Colton turns it off. He chuckles. “What?” she asks?

           

“You just remind me of someone.”

           

“I have a knife, you know,” she replies.

           

“Oh?”

           

“Yeah, and I know how to use it. So don’t get any ideas.”

           

Colton begins to laugh. He can’t help it. Emma frowns. She’s almost offended.

           

“What’s so funny about that? Because it won’t be if you try anything.”

           

“You have nothing to worry about is all. Not from me.” He wipes his eyes as the laughter finally subsides, sees Emma with her arms crossed. Is she pouting? “I’m sure you can take care of yourself, young lady. And I assure you I’m the least of your worries.” His liver spotted hands on the steering wheel. The bifocals on the bridge of his nose. The heart rent to pieces in his chest. No, he doesn’t think he’d go looking for trouble in any size package.

           

They ride in silence for awhile, then –

           

“You don’t have to talk about anything you don’t want to, but I have to admit I’m awfully curious to know what’s in Buffalo.”

           

Not looking at him, she says, “My brother.”

           

“Older brother?”

           

Still looking out the window, she says, “Yeah. He’s 25.”

           

“And I suppose this is a dumb question, but do your folks know you’re going to Buffalo to see your brother?”

           

“My mom’s dead.” Calmly, watching the trees, she says, “She’s been dead for ten years. I don’t remember her much.”

           

“And your father?”

           

She doesn’t say anything. And he doesn’t push it. He watches the road, following the gentle curves of the two-lane highway. Out here where the trees push right up to the road, where the blacktop is shaded and smooth, the LTD nearly drives itself.

           

“Open the glovebox for me, will you?” Emma looks at him. She doesn’t open it. “Listen,” he says, “I’m not charging for the ride, so you’re gonna have to copilot. There’s a map in the glovebox.”

           

Wordlessly, she opens the glovebox and pulls out a folded map.

           

“You know how to read a map, don’t you?”

           

“Of course I do. I’m not stupid.”

           

“Well, that’s what I figured. So unfold that map and you’ll see where I’ve marked the route. There should be a turn up here onto the state highway, and then we won’t be too far from our first stop. Do you see it marked there?”

           

Her finger tracing the highlighted route, she says, “Yeah.”

           

“Good. This way I don’t have to pull over to look at the damn thing. You let me know when I need to turn. We’re on a tight schedule here.”

           

“A tight schedule? Aren’t you retired or something? You don’t have anything to do.” He laughs, deep and loud and from the belly.

           

“You just keep your eyes on that map.”

           

And she does.

           

Forty-five minutes later, Colton’s slamming the trunk shut and spreading a blanket in the grass. Groaning, not without effort, he kneels on the blanket; picks up an old, stiff paintbrush; and begins to brush dead leaves, dirt, debris from the stone. A name emerges from the bronze beneath the grime.

 

DONALD TAYLOR

PFC U.S. Army
European Theater

Nov 16, 1919 - Sep 14, 1944

 

           

Emma looks at the ground, watches her feet and the kicks the occasional rock, making her way through the rows of graves. They’re at least a mile from the highway, at least two from the nearest town, and the calls of birds in the still air cut through the air like bullets. She looks over to where the old man kneels, rubbing one of the stones about fifteen yards from her. He’s pretty weird, but he seems all right. She definitely thinks she could take him if she had to. And a ride’s a ride. He doesn’t seem rich, but there is that fancy piece of jewelry in the center cupholder, a locket or something. She wonders how much it might be worth.

           

Colton squeezes a dime-sized drop of polish onto one of his stained rags and begins to work at the surface of the stone. It’s not easy, but he has it looking pretty good after about fifteen minutes. He glances at his watch as he rolls the polish rags, returns them to the wooden box he keeps in his trunk. 

           

“You sure do look at your watch a lot. Some schedule.” He starts at the sound of her voice and turns to see Emma standing close, nearly towering over him.

           

“You know you shouldn’t sneak up on people.”

           

“I wasn’t sneaking.”

           

Colton unrolls a large sheets of white paper, flattens it against the grave. From the wooden box he pulls a piece of blue chalk. Concentrating, he begins to rub.

           

“Is he a friend of yours or something?” Emma watches as Colton carefully runs the chalk back and forth, then in little concentric circles across the letters of Private Taylor’s name. Leaning forward, she sees his hands, steady, as they ride the outer edge of the stone. Then Colton blows the chalk dust off the paper and rolls it again.

           

Standing, grunting, not without effort, he says, “Or something.”

           

Emma bends down toward the wooden box. He opens his mouth to tell her he can do it, to tell her to be careful with that, to tell her he does appreciate the help, but as she reaches out, without thinking, she pushes the sleeves of her sweatshirt up to her elbows and Colton sees the bruises. Deep. Dark against her pale skin. Fresh. And if she’s 14, he’s General Patton. He looks away as she turns, and he makes a big show of being out of breath. He rubs his hip, which is already stiffening. He opens the trunk of the car without looking at her. When she places the box inside, as they roll up the blanket together, as they climb back in the car and close the doors, he sees her sleeves back at her wrists. 

           

“We’re burning daylight,” he says, turning the key, and the LTD thrums to life.

It was raining, he knew that, the night he killed the boy. He couldn’t have been more than 16, Colton thought, drowning in a brown uniform made for a man twice his size, belt cinched, pant legs rolled. Colton’s squad was hunkered down in a burned out farmhouse, and four of them were on patrol about a kilometer down the road, sussing out what they heard might be a blown bridge.

           

Colton didn’t know why he stepped behind that barn to piss instead of letting it fly right there in the ditch, staying within eyeshot of his brothers; perhaps the lure of one private moment, even on a rainy night, was too much to pass up. What he did know was that he had no more than turned the corner to the backside of the barn and leaned his rifle against stone foundation to unbuckle when he found himself staring down the shaking barrel of a Mauser-Werke Karabiner and into the terrified eyes of a kid who looked like he’d been dragged out of school and dropped right into the muddy night.

           

Colton’s mind grabbed a gear and observed in rapid succession the dim flickering light from inside an open barn door about fifteen paces down; the drop into the ditch two feet to his right; the kid’s uniform, soaked through – they’d probably had a laugh putting him on night watch while they stayed dry; and while his comrades would likely remain safe and dry inside and the kid still hadn’t shouted for help, that could change any second. Colton stepped and ducked, bringing himself up under the kid’s rifle, one hand on the stock and one swatting the kid’s away from the trigger. Still moving, fluid, he wrapped an arm around the kid’s neck and pulled them both over the edge into the ditch.

           

He landed on his back in the water, his arm around the kid’s throat, and tightened. He snaked his feet over the kid’s, used his free arm to pull one of the kid’s up between them, all the way until he heard it pop, the shoulder dislocating. And around the kid’s neck he poured all of his strength, clamping with his bicep and forearm, squeezing as he felt the trachea start to tear. He saw in his mind the knife on his belt. To get it, he’d have to free one of his hands.

         

It took seven minutes, Colton knew, to die by suffocation. He started counting. One-one-thousand. Two-one-thousand. Three.

           

The kid writhed atop him, clawing with his free hand at Colton’s arm. Colton held firm. After a minute, the kid’s legs stopped trying to kick. Sixty-two-one-thousand. Sixty-three. Sixty-four. When he hit 100, the kid’s feeble hand went limp. A hundred one. A hundred two. Please stay where you are, boys. Rain falling into his face, he hoped they were distracted. He hoped they were grabbing ten minutes of shuteye. He just hoped they would stay there. Stay quiet.

           

Two hundred. He could get up now, he thought, slink away. But there was still a chance this kid would wake up in ten minutes and send two dozen Krauts down the road after them. Three hundred. Steady pressure. Colton’s eyes were closed now. He took steady breaths in time with the count. Years later in the VA, he’d learn of meditation. But he’d never be able to do it. Closing his eyes, counting his breaths. No one would know. No one could.

           

Four hundred. Then 410. Then 420 seconds. Seven minutes. He slowly rolled over, leaving the kid face down in the muddy water. His buddies were where he left them, and they hustled when Colton said he’d spotted a German unit in the barn. He never told a soul about the kid in a brown uniform made for a man twice his size.

           

The next May, in 1945, Corporal Colton Mendrel was face down in Mirecourt, France, in the 21st General Allied Field Hospital with an ass full of shrapnel, about three weeks into what felt like the worst hangover of his life. Many of his friends were not as lucky. He was offered a choice. He could rejoin the skeleton crew that remained of his unit and start the long process of reconstruction in Europe, all but guaranteed a promotion and a long career pushing paperwork and answering phones.

           

Or he could accept an honorable discharge, take his Purple Heart, and ship back to the the good ol’ with the rest of his life ahead of him and a limp that would dog him for all of it. Seeing as he had a sweetheart waiting for him back in Vermont, sirs, he’d just as soon catch a ride home when he was able, if that was all right, and get back to the business of growing old and fat and happy with a a few acres in the mountains and a girl named Delores. His career in uniform, he decided, was done, save for the occasional parade. He’d make it home. This, now, was his chance to restart the clock.

           

One month later, he found himself at Gare du Nord in Paris, waiting on the train that would mark the true beginning of his long journey back across the pond. On the sidewalk outside the station, women and children sat before blankets, hocking silverware, jewelry, priceless heirlooms, he thought; now hoping they could buy a loaf of bread. Hoping they could make it long enough to see their country – their lives – rebuilt.

           

Colton paused in front of one woman. He pointed with the tip of a crutch. She smiled and held out to him a silver brooch. He took it, offering her the last coins in his pocket in exchange. The train’s whistle blew, and he made his way to his platform, carefully up the steep steps into his car, and to a south-facing seat. As the train pulled out, Colton watched Paris recede, then pulled the brooch from his pocket. He ran his fingers along the engraved surface and opened it. There was no photo inside. Not yet.

           

As the train pulled into the countryside, Colton got the attention of the soldier across from him, a private with his arm in a sling. It didn’t take much to convince the private to switch seats, and Colton sat facing forward now, watching his future approach.

They stop at two more cemeteries before pulling off of Highway 104 and onto Cemetery Road outside Oswego. Emma sucks the last of a strawberry milkshake through a straw as Colton eases the Ford to the shoulder. He doesn’t cut the engine, but points through the windshield at a large Colonial. Emma follows his finger, looks up at the house.

           

“That was the last stop on the Underground Railroad. You know what that is?”

            Emma nods.

           

“Where we just turned off, about a mile back that way is Lake Ontario. And on the other side of the lake is Canada.” He turns in his seat to face her. “Oswego is the first and most eastern port of entry in the Great Lakes chain, coming in off the St. Lawrence Seaway, making it a linchpin in the shipment of goods to and from Europe.”

           

Squinting, Emma says, “That’s cool.” He’ll take it.

           

A couple minutes later he’s parked under the cool shade of a large oak and spreading his blanket in the grass.

           

He’s shown Emma how to clean the stones, how to use the brush to release mud, sticks, neglect. How to get between the letters with an old toothbrush, scrubbing away regret. She knows now to apply the polish in small circles, to reverse time, how the polish can make memory shine.

 

KENNETH HAAS

U.S. Army

1923 - 1942

 

           

Now she lays the white paper flat and takes the chalk in her hand. She’s watched him do it, but she’s still nervous. Mostly of disappointing him she thinks, which is stupid. She doesn’t even know this guy. And soon she’ll be in Buffalo with Will and everything will be fine finally for the first time in her life. Her hand slips, and the chalk punches a hole in the paper. She gasps and immediately feels the burn of tears welling in her eyes. She drops the chalk and covers her face. She knew this would happen, that she’d fuck something up, and now she has.

           

Colton places a hand on her shoulder and she recoils, almost hissing like a snake. He raises his hands.

           

“Whoa, it’s fine. Happens all the time. Here.” He rolls up the paper and produces a new sheet. “Here. It’s fine.” He flattens it against the stone. He holds out the chalk to her, knowing that to spend too long in the moment of her embarrassment will only push her even further away, maybe all the way back to the forest at the edge of the cemetery where shadows waited to swallow her up, where men and their ambitions destroy to rebuild to destroy again.

           

After a moment, she takes the chalk, wiping her eyes on her sweatshirt.

           

“Sorry,” she almost whispers.

           

“Like I said, it’s fine. Happens to me at least once on every one of these trips. Go ahead, go slowly.” He watches as she does just that, concentrating on what he told her, how he showed her. His hands, steady now, hold the paper firm. “I suppose eventually all these records will be in computers. People won’t even want to visit these places anymore. There you go. Around the edge. Now blow. Look at that.”

           

The shadows are growing long as they pack up the trunk. Colton closes the trunk, looks down at his watch, and when he looks up sees Emma’s arms folded across her chest. She’s looking at the ground again.

           

Not looking up, she says, “You and your stupid schedule.”

           

Waving to her, he says, “Come over here and take a look at something,” and he turns. Emma follows him down the wheel ruts, between the rows, and finally along the woods. He stops and waits for her to catch up, then points to the stone at their feet. “Someone else polished this one.”

           

Emma reads it aloud.

 

MARY E. WALKER

Medal of Honor

Civil War

1832 - 1919

 

           

“Mary Walker was the first woman to win the Medal of Honor. There’s a park named after her in town here, but I’ve never been to it.” They stand a moment, listening to the wind in the trees pick up. He thinks a storm must be coming in from the lake. He should really be heading back the way he came. He turns to Emma, but she’s gone, already halfway to the car, knowing what he was about to say before he did.

           

Five minutes later, Colton slows to a stop at the highway as traffic crosses in front of them.

           

Looking out the window, she says, “You can just drop me at the bus station, I guess. Or I can get out here if that would make you late.”

           

Staring at the highway, Colton counts the seconds. Seeing the gathering wind push against a stand of pines, he listens to the tick of his watch. He watches a hawk ride a thermal, hovering, frozen in time. Then he unclasps his watch and drops it into the cupholder, where it clicks against the brooch he bought in Paris a lifetime ago. Emma turns her eyes up to him at the sound, and he pulls through a gap in the traffic onto the highway, the ache in his hip disappearing as he pushes down on the gas and turns on the headlights, pointing the Ford west. 

About the Author:

 

Jacob Strunk has been short-listed for both a Student Academy Award and the Pushcart Prize in fiction, as well as the Glimmer Train short story award and a New Rivers Press book prize. His films have screened in competition and by invitation across the world, and his genre-bending fiction has appeared in print for over twenty years, most recently in Coffin Bell, Five on the Fifth, and his collection Screaming in Tongues, published in early 2023. He earned his MFA in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and teaches film and media in Los Angeles, where he lives with a few framed movie posters and the ghost of his cat, Stephen.

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