April 15, 2013

His Lover's Keeper

His Lover’s Keeper
by Brenna L. Aldrich

“Matthew!” Rick felt he screamed the name, but couldn’t distinguish his own voice above the cacophony rattling the air. Sound was a beast standing over the trenches, chewing metal and spitting mortar. Rick’s ashen lungs wheezed, and he imagined he was exhaling smoke. His once rich baritone was hoarse, his blue-eyed vision blurred, his sharp hearing clogged, but his purpose was clear. It was the clean, cold terror of loss that drove him on; a splinter of ice in his consciousness that sharpened to a brilliant stab of premonition: he would not die today. Not before he found him.

* * *

A painful blaze of camera flash cast the room into a dingy rainbow of ghostly figures. Rick pinched the bridge of his nose and laughed as Matthew wiped trails of moisture from his eyes.

“Your mothers are gonna’ love that one, gentlemen,” cooed the photographer. Rick didn’t doubt it. He knew from a life-long stream of compliments that he was photogenic, and the uniform only increased his clean cut, all American brand of appeal. His blue eyes would still glitter in the black and white print, and his features would arrange themselves pleasantly. Glancing at Matthew, he knew the camera would be less kind to the boy: soft bone structure, slicked curls that refused to yield even to obscene amounts of pomade, and an awkward posture born of timidity. Nevertheless, Rick would have liked to have a copy. It was probably the only photograph of the two standing side by side, holding one another, which would ever exist.

“Now let’s get the happy couple!”

Rick stepped into the crowd as a short, freckled, young woman with eyes so huge and dark they were too big for her head, looped her arm into Matthew’s. Rick’s throat constricted.

“To Jenny and Matthew!” someone shouted.

Congratulations and a second blinding streak from the camera answered.

The crowd returned to mingling when the flash wore off, allowing Rick to slip back in beside Matthew. Jenny begged off to check her mascara.

They wandered happily until a pot-bellied, bi-focaled relative materialized out of the crowd of party guests.

“It’s darn fine of you boys, joining up so late,” said the relative.

Rick threw his arm round Matthew’s shoulders and smiled.

“Thank you, sir. But heck; we’re only late because Mr. Wilson’s had cold feet for three years.”

The beer gut with glasses patted Rick’s shoulder. “Of course,” he said. “Anyways, it’s a fine thing you’re doing. Why I’d go myself if I was still young enough to raise a little hell.”

As he wandered off, Matthew lifted his glass of punch and muttered behind its lip.

“What’s the count?”

“Five ‘raise’ hells, two ‘give ‘em’ hells and one ‘teach them kraut bastards the meanin’ of’ hells.”

The two battled laughter for a few moments then resumed wandering through the crush of celebrants.

“I’m horrible,” Matthew said at last.

“How so?” Rick asked, refilling his friend’s glass and passing it back to him. A slight tremor gripped Matthew’s hand as he reclaimed the drink.

“I’m poking fun like a spoiled brat. They mean well and I’m…”

“Following my lead?”

“As always.”

Rick smiled. “We can’t break tradition now. We’re about to become inseparable.”

Matthew swallowed the rest of his drink in a single gulp. “Right,” he said, casting a terrified glance at his fiancé.

Rick gripped Matthew’s shoulder, masking intimate pressure in a brotherly pat. “It’s okay,” he said. He raised his eyes to the crowd and continued to flash his perfect smile to keep them reassuredly distracted. “You won’t be alone over there.”

“I’m not afraid of the war,” Matthew answered, eyes still fixed on Jenny’s lumpy figure. “I’m afraid of coming home.” Rick sensed Matthew step closer; so close that he could feel the heat of him and scent the cloying aroma of pomade.

“You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of,” Rick said, his voice flat and hollow. “Heck, do you think I’m not shaking in my shoes? I’m just better at pretending than you,” he said, slipping an arm around him. Matthew shrugged gently, just enough to dislodge Rick’s grip.

“I wish I could pretend the way you do,” he said with a sad smile.

Rick watched Matthew wind through the press of bodies, too aware of him for the sight of his frame to melt into crowd. Across the room, Matthew took up the arm of his fiancé and plastered on a brave face. No. Matthew was no good at pretending.

And at that moment, Rick doubted he was either. In fact he was quite convinced that the pain of watching the man he loved pretend to be happily engaged was clearly etched upon his face.

It was the oldest fact his Rick’s life: he loved Matthew. It had the purity of inevitability which cleared the feelings of guilt or shame. Childhood adoration had matured, become shadowed by physical longing, and escaped the horrors of a conflicted conscience, untainted and unquestionable. That Matthew shared the core of those feelings was Rick’s only comfort as he watched him try, and fail, to put on a good show.

Not for the first time, a spasm of regret seized Rick. As naturally as he’d taken his own emotions in stride, he’d understood that Matthew would struggle with the feelings. The two had always been opposites: Rick outgoing where Matthew was shy, athletic beside bookish, and comfortable with a level of necessary dishonesty that Matthew’s candid nature deplored. And even knowing all of this, Rick had rushed him anyway. He inwardly cursed himself and the thirty-year-old scotch he’d stolen from his father a few short nights ago. Animated in part by drink, and in part by the looming agony of the idea war might separate them forever, he had kissed Matthew. It had been sweet and lingering, yet all too brief. When he’d leaned in to kiss him a second time, Matthew had recoiled in shame.

A shift in the conversations around Rick interrupted his thoughts, rendering him stunned to find that the crowd had carried Matthew and Jenny near. A moment more found the pair separated, and Rick in closer proximity to bug-eyed and trembling fiancé. Pity for her shyness swelled to drown his envy, and he crossed to her.

“Left you at the vultures’ mercy, has he?” Rick asked with a gentle smile. Jenny’s large eyes bulged, but she nodded. He offered his elbow. “Then allow me to rescue and return you where you belong,” he added. She accepted the proffered limb with all the enthusiasm of a dishrag.

“Thank you,” she said.

“My pleasure.”

“I can’t believe we agreed to this,” she muttered.

“You mean the party?” he laughed. “I’ll admit, I was… puzzled when Matthew suggested it.”

“He hates crowds as much as I do. That’s why we combined the going away bash with the engagement party. I wish we’d done neither.”

“I’m sure you’d have both been more comfortable. Did he give you any idea why he agreed to the dreaded ‘social soirée?”

Jenny shrugged against his elbow.

“He said he wanted me to have the ‘full show.’ I suppose he was just being sweet, but I wouldn’t have cared regardless. I wouldn’t even mind if we got married before he left. Something small and private,” she sighed, and looked a little tearful. “There’s no time for a big ceremony, you see, but Matthew’s still insisting on having everything ‘traditional.’ He told me he doesn’t want me to miss out on anything. He’s so thoughtful.”

“He is.”

“He gave me a beautiful promise ring. It’s not the same as an engagement ring, he can’t afford that yet, but it’s still pretty.” She held out her hand. A silver, Celtic tangle encircled her stubby finger. “It was part of a matched set. He has the other one,” she said.

Rick paused to take in the ring, then looked hard at Jenny. The pang of envy he’d felt at the beginning of the night was fast receding. Her description of her fiancé’s behavior was pitifully false. Matthew was pretending to give Jenny what a girl should want for her wedding day, but because he wasn’t really in love with her, her real wants were lost on him. But Rick could see in her face and hear in her trembling voice that she adored Matthew. He recognized the emotion to well to mistake it. For the first time in his life, he felt guilty about loving Matthew. Not for his feelings, but for the fact he’d been in such a damned hurry he’d pushed the man into unwittingly making a victim of Jenny. She might not be now, but she would be in the future. Whether Matthew actually married her or no, the fragile creature on Rick’s arm was going to end up with a broken heart.

Matthew suddenly loomed into view. Rick turned to face the fiancé and lifted her hand to his lips.

“You’re a very nice girl, Jenny Philips. You deserve to be happy,” he said. She blinked at him and smiled.

“You’re a lot sweeter than you act in front of crowds,” she said.

He winked. “Don’t tell anyone. It’ll be our secret,” he whispered loudly. That brought a real smile to her lips.

As he moved away from her, he locked eyes with Matthew whose intent gaze hovered somewhere between stricken and puzzled. Rick tried to meet his eyes with a reassuring look, but knew that his emotions had driven his expressions beyond his control.

* * *

* * *

The bullets and shrapnel were coming less frequently now that the retreat was almost over. It made it easier to see and concentrate, but Rick’s panic increased nonetheless; he was nearly out of time.

He retraced the steps he’d taken at the start of the battle, desperately attempting to find where he’d first been separated from Matthew. Stumbling, he fell against a bloody stump.

It took a few moments for weight, texture and scent to attest to the reality of the discovery. Harnessing the urge to vomit as he examined the object, Rick found the stump was indeed still attached to the blackened, oozing, reeking remains of a human being. He caught a glint of silver out of the corner of his eye, looked close enough to see it was glittering around smoking bone, then turned away.

* * *

The Philips family had a pretty living room. It was simple, modestly populated with the kind of furniture that the rich purchase by the truck full and the poor spend a lifetime scrounging to buy. No doubt the whole room was the product of years of saving and careful collection. Rick doubted they could have afforded a large wedding even if Jenny had wanted one.

She was sitting across from him now, burrowed into a leather wingback, and burying her face in her hands. She’d been quietly sobbing for full on ten minutes.

“So he didn’t suffer?” she asked at last.

“No ma’am.”

“And you know it was him?” she asked. Rick swallowed back the knot in his own throat and fished a small ring-box out of his pocket. He extended it to Jenny who took it, opened it, cried afresh and nodded. “Thank you for coming to tell me,” she whispered.

He nodded and watched her cry for a few moments more. She was a dignified weeper, which was unexpected, and he admired her for that.

“I can’t stay,” he said.

“I understand. I think mother wanted you to, but it’s not necessary. I’m just grateful you could be the one to tell me.”

He half smiled. “Being wounded in battle has its advantages,” he said, then choked. “I just wish it had been me instead.”

Jenny nodded. “So do I,” she whispered.

When he had almost reached the door to leave, Jenny’s mother stopped him. She was a stooped, fretful little woman covered in a tight, dehydrated brand of wrinkles. She looked like she’d been steeped to make tea.

“Thank you for coming, dear. God was watching out for my Jenny when he saved you,” she said. She wrung her hands nervously, as if she were unsure of whether or not to speak. She cast an anxious glance over her shoulder at the door of the living room. “You know you can come back and see her anytime you please. I think she’d like that.”

Rick stared at the woman for a long moment, then followed the line of her backward glance.

“Come back” of course was a euphemism for “see Jenny.” Like a thousand mothers of homely daughters before her, Mrs. Phillips was terrified of seeing her one and only confined to the ignominy of spinsterhood. But Rick didn’t think of that. Instead he considered the plausibility of the circumstance. He could come back. He could cultivate, if nothing else, friendship with this bereaved girl, the only other human being who could possibly understand the depth of his loss because she shared it. And, technically, one could argue he was partially responsible for her devastation. Had he not, in kissing Matthew, frightened him into getting engaged to her? Had he not driven that sweet, beautiful star into her the sphere of her drab little world? He didn’t envy her for loving Matthew; how could she fail to love him? And now, how would she ever be able to love someone else? He thought of her living room. Its meager elegance, and the huge wedding the poor girl was to have had and that would forever remain a ghost in her imagination. Could it be he owed her some penance for having unwittingly ruined her life?

He looked down at the wizened, fretful little woman before him and gently shook her hand.

“Thank you Ma’am. I will come back. I promise.”

* * *

It was a small wedding, but the reception was still populated by most of the town, being a small enough town to be accommodated in the high-school gymnasium used for such occasions. Rick had overheard one of the better known gossips comment that they were a fine couple, but the saddest pair of newly-weds she’d ever seen. He’d almost laughed at her perception.

Rick stood beside the radio and listened to the crackling strains of a classical piece so garbled with static that he could hardly recognize it. He had a bourbon in one hand and Matthew’s army photograph in the other. Alternately, he drank and cried, choking on the liquor, but forcing it down anyway.

“Rick?” called Jenny.

He roughly wiped at his eyes and nose with the back of his hand. “Yes, sweetheart?” he said.

“Are you coming to bed?”

Rick fingered the picture in his hand, running his thumb softly along the line of Matthew’s cheek.

“Be there in a moment.”
* * *

* * *

Brenna L. Aldrich says: I am a writer, English tutor, and Alumnus of the Masters in Professional Writing program at Kennesaw State University. My short fiction has been published at Armadillidium Publishing. Though I have written in numerous genres, the heart-line shared by each work is a fascination with stories that confuse, teach, and change me.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?

For me, the attraction of Historical Fiction lies in the fact that history, cultures, and eras may change, but human nature does not. No matter what period the story is set, good historical fiction is peopled by recognizable characters, characters who though constrained by a different set of social strictures, still think and feel as familiarly as our close friends and neighbors. When we as readers can recognize our own struggles across time, we are attracted to the characters within the story, no matter what the era. As a writer, I appreciate the distance Historical Fiction imposes on certain issues. Issues that might be timeless, but perhaps too personal or close to examine via a story that takes place in a modern setting.