The bright red of the painted bench seemed an act of rebellion in and of itself.
Since his discharge from the army, the prospects for his postwar success dried up like raisins in a drought. The rooms for rent grew cheaper and seedier, but never free, and a man can only descend so far.
He was down to just carrying his duffel bag, the last of his money, and the end of his rope. Swallowing the bitter pills of the last of his pride, he left the hot, dirty building for the hot, dirty streets.
Didn’t think I’d be sleeping under the stars again so soon.
The city’s citizenry were increasingly uneasy with the rising homeless population. They were less helpful, more hostile, and there were bullies and worse who thought nothing of preying on them.
Fighting over there had prepared him. Still, he was aware of every nervous tic and twitch that made him look like a shell shocked, restless bum. All too aware of every movement, and every sound.
He saw the bright red bench gleaming like a rising red sun on a green sea; there was no one around, and he decided to take a rest on it. Perhaps even a nap.
I hope the cops don’t roust me; that could end badly.
He searched his duffel bag, rooting around: with his fingers he shoved the medals aside and peered into it. He still had two camouflage jackets, two journals bound with black leather covers, and a knife with a large, wicked looking blade.
He repacked the medals and threw the knife in the manmade lake. Curious, he opened one of the journals, but it was too dark to read it clearly now.
The park was emptying as people went home to their lights, warmth, and loved ones, but he had nowhere to go.
He went back in the duffel and took out one of the jackets, placed the duffel under his head, and stretched out to sleep. Where his previous training would have had him on edge listening for sounds that meant he was a target of someone hiding in the trees, he felt no sense of danger and vulnerability now.
Sleep took him under its wing.
Through the night, the dreams and nightmares played tag.
He relived it all.
The long, hot nights with working girls that gave an artful illusion of love for a few hours in smoky, perfumed places.
Running across the killing fields, legs pumping on adrenaline as bullets tugged at the extra cloth on his uniform as he fled, the splattering of broken, busted flesh with bones poking through skin at odd angles as the man running next to him was suddenly no longer there, and he couldn’t hear his own screams or his heart hammering in fear.
The slap and flutter of well worn cards played by small fires, and eating silently in the dark on stormy, starless nights.
Sleep was as rare as finding an uncut diamond in plain sight, and far more precious.
Taking stock when the skirmishes were over: the dead, the soon-to-be dead, friends, and some precious few he’d named as brothers.
The scent of blood, the cacophonous clusters of crows, flies, and vultures.
Something hit his head, jolting him; he’d fallen asleep, slipping off the bench, bumping his head.
He felt light and unburdened somehow.
He knew the dreams had been dark, but couldn’t remember them at all. Everything he recalled seemed innocent, even innocuous.
All the memories of war’s ravages were gone.
How did I get here? What am I doing here?
In the morning a jogger found him and called the police.
The EMT’s zipped the body bag closed as the birds began to sing and a rind of orange sun turned the night clouds shades of pink and blue.
The cops went through the duffel, saw the medals.
“All that combat,” one said, “and he gets to go out peacefully in the most quiet place in the park.”
The ME took a look at the bright red bench with an expression that got the cop’s attention, so he looked at the bench too.
“Something wrong, doc?”
“Nothing. Just, it’s not the first time it’s happened at this spot, and a lot of old veterans seem to find their way over here.”
“No kidding. Why do you think that is?”
The M.E. came out of his reverie, looked at the cop and shrugged.
“I don’t know. Guess it’s what you said yourself: it’s the quietest place in the park.”
“Makes it easier to slip away?”
The M.E. looked at the bench again, the red gathering some vibrancy in the growing, paling light, then at the midnight black body bag loaded in the back of the ambulance as the doors closed.
“To be finally at peace? Yeah, that ends all kinds of wars.”