I was given an assignment to write a short story about a Norman Rockwell painting. This is what I came up with.
The American Way
He looked into my eyes and I felt safe. For the first time in what felt like days I was out of danger. I couldn’t simply describe the feelings that I was holding dear to my heart. They were complicated to say the least.
I had just left my family, standing in the doorway of our home as I left for school. I didn’t know that it had hit until the sirens starting going off when I was on the playground with Sally. She looked at me and dropped her sandbox toys running like all hell to get out of the way. I looked up to see the clear blue sky had taken on a rhem of grey as the fighter jets filled the horizons.
The buzzing of their engines shook the ground beneath me as my knees began to hum with the rhythm. My heart leapt from its secure place in my chest and landed in my throat where I let out a ripe scream.
For days, weeks, months we had been learning about the impending war. In school, at home, on the news it was everywhere that this Great War was going to touch our home. Father could barely manage to rise himself out of bed after hearing the newscasters announce the arrival of the Germans into England.
After that day he would stand in the middle of our field, plow in hand and stare at the horizon as if anticipating that this day would come. At times when I found myself in the field next to him as he was enticed by this vision I would ask what he was looking at.
Then, if he answered at all, a single word would escape his lips, “Germans…” he would say as if it was the beginning of a sentence he would never finish. I would then take his hand and pull him away back towards our home where mother was waiting at the door, also gazing out at the unanswering horizon.
I found myself remembering these small moments, the tall grass in the field, the rough patches that made up my fathers palms, and his sad expression as he ate supper. They came to me as the plane flew over my head making their descent into our home.
I started running, running as fast as I could for as long as I could. I ran through the school gates, I ran through the near empty streets, I was running home.
The closer I came, the rockier the roads became. I tripped and stumbled and bruised my way down country road after country road. Cows viciously mooed at me over the rumbling of jets, as if asking what was going on. My shoes fell off one by one on the road, I paused for a moment attempting to retrieve my the, but I ultimately gave up and kept running.
My legs ached, my sides burned, and the tears the had long been present in my precious eyes began to leak down my face. The pain and loss hit me in a wave as the earth below me felt like it was slipping away. And that it did, as I plummeted to the ground in a heap of sorrow and longing.
I awoke scared and unaware of my surrounding, my legs still burning with the anticipation of the days attack. As I stirred, my skin crawled in all sort of funny ways. I blinked, looking around for something familiar. A vase, a window, maybe a field, my father’s field but all I could see was the inside of a tent. I closed my eyes again, willing myself, tricking myself into thinking that this was a dream.
My eyes did not stay closed for long for I heard rustling footsteps enter the tent. I blinked once again, hoping to magically awake in a different reality. But instead I was gazing into the eyes of a man, an unknown man, a soldier.
He smiled at me, his eyes warm in the summer light. His uniform was old, and very dirty. I could tell that he was tired, but he was trying not let it show. I opened my mouth to ask him a question, but I found that my voice was lost. I touched my fingers to my throat, a feeling of concern scratching its way across my face. The man promptly noticed and reached for his canteen offering me a sip of its substance.
I hesitantly held out my hand taking his offer and putting the bottle to my lips. Water flowed into my mouth, smoothing the tension that had previously crippled me.
“Thank you,” I let out, a gasp escaping with my words.
“You’re welcome,” was all the man said before leaving the tent. His thick northern accent filled the air around me.
All I could do was lay there. By the time he returned, the day was done and it seemed as if I were the last person awake. I had heard the muffled voices of people walking to and fro outside, but I was too scared to venture out of what I know felt was my secure tent.
“Where am I?” I asked the soldier after he had fully entered my tent. He took a seat on a large rock, resting his weight on a discorded canvas bag.
“You are in a refugee camp,” he explained, his voice sounding far away but it quickly returned after he noticed the bows of my braids. “Did your mother braid your hair?”
“Yes,” I said shyly as I raised myself to a sitting position the braids falling rhythmically to my shoulders. “She braids my hair every morning…” My voice trailed off as I looked out of the tiny slit of the open door. This morning she had made this very braid, I thought as I took my hands, scraped and bruised, and ran them along the formation.
“What is your name?” the soldier asked, noticing the distance that had left his eyes, and had instead attached onto mine.
“Susan,” I said still running my fingers along the braid. “My name is Susan, just like my mother’s.”
“That’s a very pretty name, Susan,” the soldier said his face lighting up in an attempt to comfort me. “My name is Stewart.”
“Stewart?” I questioned, feeling the word move around in my mouth. It was comfortable, it was safe, it would do. I gazed into his eyes, noticing the small freckles that were placed around his face.
“You have freckles, just like me.” I pointed to my cheeks which were layered with the funny round dots.
“Don’t all Irish have freckles?” he asked the crinkles in his nose and mouth folding in as he smiled at me.
“My daddy said that only the best Irish have freckles,” I giggled, taking in the pride of the moment. Stewart laughed in return. The happiness seemed so foreign to me, and as it appeared to the soldier too. We stopped.
“Are you hungry?” he asked, sensing the need for a new conversation.
“No,” I said but the truth was I was starving I just couldn’t imagine eating supper without mother and father. “Where is my family?” the question shooting out of my mouth without any forewarning.
“I don’t know,” Stewart said a look of dread wearing heavy on his face, his lower lip dragging down with the weight of uncertainty. “Do you mind if I eat?” he asked, his eyes looking as if he was going to cry.
“No, I don’t mind,” I replied, my voice trailing off in a thought. He leaned over to the canvas bag and dug out what appeared to be a can of soup. From his pocket he took of a knife, small enough to fit in my palm, and began whittling away at the lid of the can.
“Actually,” I said, hesitating on my request.
“Would you like some?” he asked, extending his arm and therefore exposing the contents of the soup. The carrots and peas danced around in the ominous gravy as his arm balanced the liquid.
“Yes, please” I said hoping that the request was still appropriate.
Stewart stood up, his uniform crumpled on the edges. He knelt down and put his can of soup down. He then walked towards a corner of a tent where a tree log sat. My eyes followed him, noticing the slight limp of in his right leg. When he reached the log, he squatted down took it between his arms. He then stood, gracefully gained his balance, and walked towards me.
He stopped near to where I lay and smiled at me through his rosy red cheeks. He set the log on the dirt floor, a cloud of dust rolling over his shoes. He motioned for me to sit down and I did so slowly as my feet were cut and oozing. He lifted me the last few inches, making sure I wouldn’t fall off the podium.
I scanned the room around me, taking it in with my new height. The crimped tent that I had woken up to still surrounded me, but instead of a hiding spot it now felt like a temporary home. Stewart sat promptly on top of his nearby rock. Resting his right leg outward.
Then he look his spoon and offered it to me. I looked into his eyes, previously unaware of how far his tenderness reached. I then opened my mouth, like any child would do, and ate.