Right Now, Long Ago
The rain pattered against the storefront glass, weaving throughout the flashing reds and blues of the sirens outside. George could see distorted figures through his rain-veiled view and in that moment, had no memory of where he was. He had to hurry, though he’d misplaced why, and knew only that he had an important job to do, if only he could remember it.
The gas station attendant, a dark-skinned boy with eyes to match, looked up at him from beneath the counter, surrounded in the debris of what it once bore. Bags of chips, multi-colored candy bars and packs of cigarettes littered the floor between them, all but swallowing George’s bedroom slippers.
The young attendant’s eyes welled with tears, eyeing the old man and the baseball bat normally kept beneath the counter. The milk and eggs still by the cash register, where minutes before all was a normal Tuesday.
The television behind the counter blared now, and a woman in a dark-pressed suit, microphone in hand, took the screen. Her head lurched upward, and she fluttered a moment, some lifeless malformed robot booting-up.
Breaking News: Alluwity Police have located George McCauley, the 77-year-old man who wandered from his home off 4th and Crescent Street. He lives with his daughter, who discovered George missing around 3am this morning.
George hadn’t heard the television, and was gripped instead by the roaring static of the SCR-536 on the shelf nearest him, the same radio his platoon had used in Sicily. Still peppered with sand and the blood of the young radio man who had died moments before. George needed to radio for support. They were almost overrun- Italians to one side and Nazis on the other. It was up to him to save them all, to save what little of the operation he could.
The static roared in George’s ears, and as the clapping of the machine-guns and men screaming in the night rared up at him, he fell against the inner-side of the counter, trembling.
“Mr. McCauley,” the boy said, through clenched teeth and still eyeing the bat. “The news, we’re on the news.”
George jumped as the artillery-lined screams crescendoed and died within the walls of his skull.
How did the boy know his name?
George would’ve known if the kid had been on the line with them in Sicily, but no- that was long ago. And most who knew him from the beach were gone now. Decomposed and one with the earth they fought upon. No, he had never seen this boy before, he was sure of it. George straightened, clenching the bat in both hands as a thought struck him. The Imposter, he could’ve…
A chill ran through George and he drew his face close to the boy, who recoiled into what little space was left between him and the wall.
“Who are you?” George asked, his horn-rimmed glasses descending his nose a bit. “How do ya know my name?”
The boy’s eyes leapt from the bat to George’s glare, silhouetted in the still looming red and blue lights from outside the gas station. He opened his mouth, but said nothing.
“You come in once a week, George.” A voice from the other side of the counter. A heavy-set man in a red shirt like the boy’s held a phone to his chest. “Milk, eggs and a scratcher, every Tuesday. George, your daughter’s on the phone. She’s outside, with the police.”
His eyes widened at that. He and Evelyn always talked of a little girl, but it just wouldn’t work right now, not with her so sick. That’s why he was here, because they were after them, he and his ailing wife.
Evelyn had helped so many people in Sicily, where they’d first met, she a war nurse and he an infantryman in the U.S. Army.
George remembered the beach and the wails of the boy beside him, both caught in a barrage of Italian-Nazi gunfire. George took a round in the thigh, the boy took them everywhere else, and as the kid fell to the ground, so did the radio. Lodged in the sand, in some hole his mother wouldn’t care to hear about.
As far as George was concerned, getting bitten by the bullet was the best thing that ever happened to him. It got him off the front, and into the 128th, a hospital just east of Palermo, and that’s where he met Evelyn.
He saw the nurse coming, and despite his crutches, held the door for her. The gap was small, and she struggled between it and George, who balanced awkwardly on his surrogate legs. She’d run ahead a bit, and held the next for him.
“Returning the favor,” she’d said, southern accented and in a tone his New York ears hadn’t heard before. And that’s all it took, one simple gesture to fall in love. In a room of makeshift beds, a Malaria outbreak and men melded with shrapnel, George had met her, an angel if one ever existed, and from then on everything made more sense.
George clenched the bat in his brown-spotted fist, time trickling away with every breath. The Imposter had been closing in on them, but George was smart. He’d been planning this awhile now, and as soon as he had the money for Evelyn’s medicine they’d be long gone.
“…in the Fast n’ Ready off of Oak Boulevard, and from what authorities tell us, is wielding a baseball bat. McCauley suffers from an acute form of progressive Demen-“
The digital chime echoed throughout the racks of magazines, chips and candy, and it was then George saw her, the woman he knew and yet, had no memory of.
“I know what I’m doing,” she said, swatting the officer behind her away, though he still managed to follow her through the door. She was young, perhaps in her thirties, and she reminded George of Evelyn.
Her hair assuming that particular shade of hazel; those big brown one-of-a-kind eyes, like his beloved’s, like Evelyn’s. She looked at him and her shoulders dropped, as if a weight pressed down upon her. Mascara running down her cheeks, smeared in black lines, like the trenches they dug in the war.
She wiped away the half-formed tears with the back of her hand, and with a sharp breath in, stared him in the face.
“Dad, it’s me, Karen. Do you know what year it is?”
George froze at the sound of her voice. She was sent by The Imposter. Why else would the officer draw his weapon, if not to capture or kill him? To stop he and Evelyn from being together.
“Mr. McCauley, drop it. Let the boy go,” the officer said, cold and with a sense of duty; his career on the line.
George heard the officer say something, something he couldn’t make out for all the ringing. The ringing of the old wheel-bound phone on the counter behind him, the same one he and Evelyn had had in their first house together. The Louisville Slugger fell to the floor, and he lifted the receiver mid-ring.
“Hi, honey,” Evelyn replied, and he could tell she smiled through red lipstick on the other end. “Tell me again, what we’ll do when we get back.”
“Get, back?” George asked, hoping that through some miracle, he and her shared the same air.
“After the war, silly,” she replied, and he saw her sitting on the porch outside their first home, where the white paint chipped and peeled in the hot Georgia sun. George brushed the scar where the bullet had been removed those years ago, thinking of the care it took for his Evelyn to do so.
“I,” he began, tears welling in his eyes. “I’m going to make you better, dear. I’m going to make you well.”
A hand fell on his shoulder.
“Dad…who are you talking to?”
“We’re getting out of here. The Imposter, he-“
The woman pressed a fist to her nose, holding something within herself.
“You mean the man in the mirror…don’t you? Dad, we talked about this…”
“My wife…you’ll never find her. You and The Imposter will-“
“Dad, Mom’s gone. She’s been gone ten years now…”
George took a step back from the woman next to him, the phone still to his ear, still hearing Evelyn’s breath through the receiver.
“I’m going to make her well,” he said, vomiting the words from the deepest parts of him. “Like she did for me, and all those in the war.”
The woman took George’s face in her hand, cupping his cheek, the tears still streaming in that black mess of salt and mascara.
“I know, Dad. I know. Say goodbye to Mom.”
“Bye, Evelyn,” George said, lowering the phone, the pattering of a machine-gun in the distance.
The leather chair wrenched as he adjusted himself, watching the woman he knew and didn’t on the television across the dimly-lit room.
He thought she must be famous to be on the news like that, and would have to ask her what it was she did.
The Evelyn-esque woman, hair in a bun now, set a sandwich and mug of water before him. George smiled up at her and pointed to the television where an anchor interviewed her outside of a Fast n’ Ready. George loved the hot dogs from the local convenience store and resolved to make a trip out that way soon.
“It’s like, there’s this hole in my dad’s brain and his life spills out more and more each day. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember he’s still my father. The man who pushed me on our swing as a child. The one who loved my mom with a fervor I hope to find in a partner one day.”
“And do you think they’ll have him moved to a facility? I’m not sure the police or any medical prof-“
The picture rushed to black, the after-image swimming in greens and blues before George’s eyes.
“I’m sorry you had to see that, Dad,” the false-Evelyn said, sitting on the love-seat nearest the television. “It’s just, sometimes, I hate you for not remembering. I know it’s wrong, but sometimes I just do.”
George watched her as she nestled into her chair, and scanned the room filled with pictures of people he didn’t know.
Some in military garb, a tank in the shot behind them, men arm in arm with one another, all smiling at the camera. The barren earth and ocean creeping in behind them.
Another photo, a man in a grey suit, holding a woman in his arms, standing in front of a white house with blue shutters, in between the opening in the picket fence where the miniature gate lie spread open.
Cracked for the newly married couple.
George pressed his glasses to his face and leaned forward, taking in the picture and the woman there-in. Something about that smile, those eyes, that dress, that suit. It was him, he and Evelyn. The two of them at the start of it all. The house on 1606 Acorn Avenue, down in Georgia. They had been married, Evelyn had passed and they’d had a daughter after all.
And in that moment, something awoke in him. Something smothered and buried deep in the darkness came up for air.
“Karen?” George said, tears streaming down his face. Her mouth fell, and she leapt from the chair, her sandwich and water splaying on the floor.
She knelt beside her father, eyes wide and ears wider, clasping his wrinkled hand in her own. “Dad…? Oh my god, Dad, I-“
He muttered something, and Karen leaned in close. “What, Dad? What is it?”
“…I left him on the beach. Just a boy, bleedin’ out in the sand…”
Karen placed a hand on her father’s own, her eyes a levee, battered and breaking.
“Dad, it’s over. The war is over.”
“Let me die, Evelyn…just let me die.”
Karen gasped, hand clasping her mouth, and as the tears came, she left the room, her wails echoing down the hall.
George sighed as she went, grabbing his sandwich from the fold-out table before him, and taking a bite, he wondered what she could be crying about. He hated to see her cry like that, and thought she seemed nice enough, whoever she was.
A chill ran through George and he sat upward, his eyes focused on the man staring at him from across the room. George raised his brows and The Imposter did the same. George puffed his cheeks, and The Imposter did the same.
His heart slammed in his chest and he gripped the sides of his chair. They had to escape, but they’d never make it without Evelyn’s medicine. Her medication was expensive, but he would find the money and then they’d be on their way. The war was over, and they’d survived the shelling together; they would surely survive a life in the suburbs.
“A little longer, honey,” he said, under his breath, shielding his words from The Imposter, who still surveilled him from the mirror. “Just a little longer…”
He awoke with a gasp, heart pounding in the darkness, and as the fog rolled in, an old man began to wail, not knowing where, or who he was.
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