Nothing has changed.
I step off the train platform and let my gaze bounce around the familiar town. There’s the old post office. Clyde’s dusty wood shop. The corner of the grocery where Ann and I first kissed. I squeeze my eyes shut; it’s too much to bear. The back of my eyelids replay the events of the past two and a half years like a film strip, just like it always does. I focus on the sounds around me–the train’s wheels behind me, a faint car horn, some children screaming.
I open my eyes before the screaming carves itself into my brain. A group of kids are squealing and laughing by the school, nothing more. I find my hand running through my hair, trying to concentrate on something rather than think.
It’s easier not to think.
I finally force my feet to begin the walk through town, hoping no one notices me. I should have changed out of my uniform. The group of kids have stopped playing; now they’re staring at me like I’ve been sent from God himself. I avert my eyes, a surprising shame washing over me. I can’t explain the emotion. Why should I be ashamed? I’ve spent the past few years faithfully serving England–I’m considered a hero by many.
An image of Allen’s laughing face flickers in my mind and then evaporates, and I know why I feel this way. My conscience will never recover from what I’ve seen and done. Shame. Guilt. An emotion of wrong, whatever that word is.
Before I know it, I’m walking by the movie cinema, the one Thomas, Lillian, and I went to when it first opened three years ago. Thomas had been ecstatic to watch a real film, and I had been happy to accompany him and Lill for his sixth birthday. Mother and Father felt bad, I’m sure, that they couldn’t come with us, but rations from the war had left everyone desperate.
The war. It kept coming back to that, words and images that I could never get rid of, haunting my dreams and leaking into the day. War. Rations. Aircraft. Radios. Guns.
I shake my head and continue down the road, refusing to think about him. The dirt scuffing my boots looks like the same dirt I stood in while surrounded by the sound of bullets firing.
“Is that…James?” a voice says from behind me. I turn around.
Oliver. It’s Oliver.
He smiles like he doesn’t believe it’s really me. “James,” he says again.
“Hi,” I say; I barely recognize my own voice. I nod toward him. “Looking good.”
“I could say the same to you,” he says. He begins walking over to me, his limp evident in every step–a childhood automobile accident keeping him from the frontline traumas of war.
“How’s this beat-up town holding up?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Same as ever.” Then his face breaks into a grin and he slaps me on the back. I drop my bag and return the hug.
“It’s good to see you, Oliver,” I say. “It’s been too long.”
“I’m glad it’s over,” Oliver says, pulling back. The reflection in his eyes reveal that he had been worried for me. I know the feeling. Worry for the countless soldiers who had gone before me. Quiet apprehension when I had reached recruitment age. Fear for the men I had befriended in training. It never really ends.
“Yes, well, now it’s in the past,” I say. I would do anything to suck the fear out of Oliver’s eyes. “The Axis have been defeated. We won.”
It doesn’t feel like we’ve won. I can’t get Allen’s image out of my head. If this continues I’ll go insane.
Oliver is nodding. He shoves his hands in his trouser pockets. “Have you see your family yet?”
“No. I’m on my way.”
“I’m sure you have lots of people to see, but when you have the chance we should catch up. I’d love to hear all about your adventures.”
I smile, but something intangible hits my stomach. I don’t want to talk about the war. I want to visit like old times, discussing lighter topics. I don’t want to think.
“Sounds great,” I say. “I’ll see you around sometime.”
Oliver gives a smirk as I head off in the direction of my house. Oliver and Allen float around in my mind, their faces blending into each other as I try to shake them away. It doesn’t work. Each footstep reminds me of gunshots. Each breath brings me back to those long, cold nights of fearful waiting. Everything I do brings back memories.
If this is what life will be like, I don’t want it.
I finally stop by the side of the road. Around the corner is my house, but I can’t do it. Nothing is the same. No, that’s not it. The town is exactly how I left it. Every building, every school kid, every piece of dirt–it’s all the same.
It’s me who’s changed.
My hand is through my hair again. It’s become a habit now. Before my mind can process it, I’ve made several steps forward. The momentum keeps me going. I turn the corner.
And there it is. That small townhouse that seems to be falling apart in every way. The squeaky porch step. The broken window on the second floor. Even the pile of bricks is still sitting under the porch. It feels like I was here yesterday.
I’m halfway down the street when the front door swings open. A girl stands there in a pale blue dress, her feet bare and her hair a mess like always. Lillian.
“James!” she screams, the name ricocheting off the surrounding houses. She jumps off the porch and tears down the road towards me. I stand there, unable to move.
Something happens when she runs into my arms. Something breaks–a spell, a breath being held, a stillness–and suddenly it’s real. Suddenly, the music starts playing and the dirt I’m kneeling in feels right and Lillian’s arms are exactly what I’ve been waiting for. I’m home.
The next few minutes cave in on each other. Mother and Father come out, Mother with her teary smile and Father with his smoky laugh. Thomas appears beside me and gapes at me in wonder. The neighbours grin and wave their hellos. In the commotion, I spot Ann leaning against the house. She catches my eye and smiles shyly, turning to look at the ground.
My mind is boiling with energy. Memories with siblings and neighbours and Ann crowd my mind, pushing away thoughts of war. The embrace of those I love make me forget, for a moment, everything I’ve seen.
I know these things will come back. I will never recover from the war against the Axis and the war inside my mind. Allen will still visit me in my nightmares.
But for now, I’m home.
For now, that’s enough.