Susan Duke has had stories published in Timber Creek Review, Straylight, The Griffin, The MacGuffin, Downstate Story Magazine, New Author's Journal, Nostalgia, The Storyteller, Clackamus, The Advocate, Thema, Bloodroot, Evening Street Press, Talking River, Chaffin Review, Whetstone, Oracle, Conceit, and The Santa Fe Review.
Retired from teaching children with special needs, I enjoy morning walks, reading, and writing, and treasure time spent with my husband, three adult children and two grandsons.
Edwin spotted them the moment he stepped off the train. Somewhat. The familiar voice sealed the deal.
“Ed! Ed! Over here!”
His head pivoted slightly in her direction, and he opened his arms just as his mother rushed to embrace him.
“Oh, Ed!” she cried. Her shoulders shook as sobs escaped into his chest.
Edwin patted her back a few times and cleared his throat. “Don’t cry, Mom. It’s okay. I’m here now.”
“Son, welcome home.”
Edwin squinted over his mother’s head. “Dad?”
“Let the boy go, Susannah. Let’s not make a scene right here at the Amtrak Station.”
Edwin laughed. Just like always. The good natured banter between his parents drew him home like the promise of apple pie and clean laundry. This hadn’t been easy for them, either, and he could only guess what they were thinking—the white lines that criss-crossed his closely shaved head could be concealed with hair but would his emotional scars heal? He imagined his mother’s worried frown.
“I’ll get your bags,” his father said.
Edwin shook his head. “Just have this,” he said as he hoisted his duffle onto broad shoulders. “Lead on.”
In the parking lot, Edwin ran his free hand over the frame of the car.
“You’ll want to sit in the front with Dad,” Mrs. Vetter said.
“Is this new? What is it, Dad?”
Mr. Vetter answered, “It’s the new Camero. Your mother drives it mostly. I still like my old pick-up.”
“Wow. Is that blue?”
His mom laughed. “Wait ‘til you see me toodle around town in this shiny thing.”
Thick silence hung between them—parents and son.
“Oh, Edwin. I. . .I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean anything.”
He dropped his duffle onto the pavement to place both hands on his mother’s
shoulders and faced her.
“Mom, I’m sorry you both couldn’t come to re-hab in Germany. Dad and I have talked this through. He knows what I can and cannot see. We agreed not to tiptoe around this. I need you to act normally. Just be my mom.”
She nodded. Lord, he was trying to make this easy for them, but she feared hard times lay ahead. Her son had shipped out a complete man and had returned legally blind.
Mr. Vetter quickly stowed the duffle in the trunk and released the door locks. Ed buckled up and closed his eyes as a warm Midwestern breeze blew in the windows.
“She sure rides smoothly, Dad.” He relaxed and leaned back. “I kinda thought you’d bring Ruby, though.”
Edwin Vetter, survivor of an IED detonation, couldn’t see the expressions exchanged between his parents in the rear view mirror. He hoped too many things hadn’t changed. He needed to start establishing a new life built on basics.
Stepping back in time, Edwin paced the confines of his bedroom. Nope, she hadn’t moved a thing. He felt inside the dresser drawers. Underwear, socks, T-shirts. He pictured his old clothes hanging in his closet. He’d change out of his uniform in a bit.
Dinner conversation hummed along as varied as the menu—pot roast, carrots, peas, red-skinned potatoes, hot buttermilk biscuits. When his mother brought out warm apple pie and ice cream, Edwin groaned.
“I know you’re trying to fatten me up, Mom, but this has to stop.”
Susannah Vetter clucked her tongue as she bustled around the table, happy
to be clearing dishes and gazing at her son. She’d already kissed the top of his head twice before his dad spoke.
“Edwin, I was wondering.”
“Why do you close your eyes sometimes?”
Edwin leaned back and rubbed his stomach. “Well, sometimes the fuzziness, the shadows of light and dark, mess me up. I mean, my other senses, hearing and smelling, are getting pretty sharp. When I need to concentrate, I eliminate confusion by closing my eyes. Don’t you ever close your eyes to think about stuff?”
Mr. Vetter nodded and said, “Yes, yes I do.”
“Dad, I can’t wait to see Ruby. Can you take me to her now?”
His mother stopped mid-stride, hands full of dishes. Sighs filled the room.
“Son,” Mr. Vetter said quietly, “I didn’t say anything at the hospital in Germany because I didn’t want to add to your worries.”
Edwin attempted to look from one parent to the other.
“Ruby’s not here anymore, son.”
Shock jolted Edwin to his boots. He’d never expected this. It was all so futile. Here he was, coming home disabled. Of course, Ruby would be gone. What’s the point? Suddenly, the walls, dining table, braided rug, ceiling fan, everything mocked him. Edwin felt the pity leaking from his well-meaning parents. He couldn’t breathe.
“I. . .I think I’ll sit on the stoop for awhile.”
Cooler evening air soothed his flushed skin. He closed his eyes while thoughts swam around unchecked. Therapists had assisted Edwin through grief and despair. His discharge papers described ‘sterling adjustment in extraordinary circumstances’. He knew he was more fortunate than many other veterans. At times, though, the loss of his other life, the sighted life, washed over him, leaving him stranded.
Now, this thing with Ruby. What else was beyond his control? His hands clenched. If one more thing. . .
Not a shout or cry, just the calm sound of his name brought tears to his less than perfect eyes. He stood and turned his head from side to side, searching the twilight.
“Over here, you big dope. I came through our opening in the hedge.”
Suddenly, his childhood friend stood before him, and Edwin Vetter couldn’t think of a thing to say. Crickets chirped. Traffic rolled by on the tree-lined street. Somewhere a dog barked.
“You want to sit?”
Gratefully, Edwin nodded. The large stone steps felt solid beneath him.
“How are you doing, Clem? How did you know I was out here?”
“I’m just peachy, thanks, and your mom called me. Not to mention, we used to sit out here every night after dinner unless we were playing ball or driving around.”
Edwin grinned and nodded again. The breeze tickled his head as night sounds surrounded the two friends. Something scurried in the bushes. Edwin liked that about Clem. Some people would have asked a million questions after a year of no correspondence. He owed Clem an explanation. His friend waited.
“Here you two.” The screen door slammed. “Ice cold lemonade.”
“Thanks, Mrs. V,” Clem said.
His mother patted Edwin’s shoulder as she turned and went back inside.
Edwin shook his head. “She keeps touching me.”
Clem held the frosty glass with both hands. “She can’t believe you’re home. I can’t either.”
“Listen, Clem. I was going to call you tomorrow. I’m trying to sort a few things out.” Like what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
“Okay. Here it is. After I was hurt, I kind of sank into a deep pit. I kept thinking my vision would improve. Finally, I had to accept it for what it is. And then I experienced that survivor’s guilt thing. Two of my buddies were killed and another had his leg blown off.”
Once the pump had been primed, Edwin couldn’t stop. Sitting next to his best friend, words he couldn’t say to anyone else poured forth. He apologized for not writing, for cutting everyone out. He described his fears for the future.
“Even Ruby’s gone. Everything is spinning out of control, and even if I want to, I just can’t sit on this porch for the rest of my life.”
“Well, get up then, big guy. Let’s take a walk.”
Edwin hesitated as the two friends reached the end of the driveway.
“It’s the same sidewalk we’ve traveled a million times before, Eddie. If I had a quarter for every time we walked, ran or skateboarded down Glen Ridge Avenue, I could almost fill up my gas tank.”
“Everything’s different now.”
“Yeah, well, I need to show you something.”
Bumping Clem’s arm, Edwin managed two blocks with little trouble. He inhaled deeply when his friend stopped.
“See? We made it.”
Edwin slowly turned and looked back. “Maybe I should have told them. . .”
“Please. You’re twenty-four years old. Besides, your mother was peeking out from behind the drapes the whole time. She always did think she was invisible when she used to spy on us.”
Edwin laughed out loud. He thought he’d forgotten how. He blinked as the street lights popped on, illuminating a car parked next to the curb.
“This yours, Clem?”
“Yup. Check her out.”
Edwin’s heart lurched as he ran his hands along the chassis. He had lived and breathed cars since he was old enough to hold a lug wrench. His fingers traveled to the rear. Something. . .
“It’s a four door.” He closed his eyes. “You know, I was a mechanic in Iraq. That’s how I came to be in that convoy that day. Doing what I loved will keep me from ever doing it again. Funny, huh?”
Edwin bent closer like he was smelling the paint. “It’s red. You drive a red car.”
Clem moved beside him. “It’s not just a car. This is a sixty-four Chevelle Malibu with a two eighty-three power pack with four on the floor. She’s cherry with a positive traction rear end. One of the best cars ever made.”
Edwin slapped the roof. “Ruby! You’ve got my car!”
“Ruby saved my life, Eddie. Thank God she’s built like a tank.” The words came faster, reliving a terrifying accident. “Some teeny bopper was texting, doing eighty, and drove me off the road out along I 74. Next thing I knew, Ruby and I flew down an embankment and hit an oak tree. The windshield imploded and I suffered a concussion, broken ribs, a leg fracture and my face was cut up pretty bad.” She paused to gulp air. “I’m a mess, Eddie, but the tree, Ruby and I made it. That’s. . .that’s why I didn’t write you. At first, I was in the hospital for about two months, and then, when you didn’t write me, I didn’t know what to think. Oh, Eddie. . .”
“Hush, Clementine,” he whispered as his strong arms drew her close to him.
“Good grief. Two women crying on me in one day.” He kissed the top of her head as he gently stroked her long chestnut hair.
Edwin didn’t care how long they stood next to Ruby, wrapped in their memories and each other’s arms. He smiled as pictures of Clem reeled through his mind. The stubborn little brat who tagged after her brothers and Edwin. Clem as an awkward girl marching in the rain with her clarinet at the high school football game. Clem crying because no one asked her to the prom and later, beautiful in a midnight blue dress in Ruby as he drove her to the dance.
“Take me for a ride, Clem.”
She sniffed and opened he passenger door for him. “Hop in.”
“Bucket seats? In Ruby?”
“Buckle up and I’ll explain. First, hand me a Kleenex out of the glove compartment, will ya?”
As she blew her nose and wiped her eyes, Edwin touched every square inch of the interior he could reach. His left hand rested on the gear shift. A contented sound purred from his throat.
“Remember all the fun we had in this car?”
Clementine grinned. “I remember you almost took my head off when I spilled that soda. And that time she stalled in downtown Peoria.”
“Oh yeah. Cars were honking and whizzing inches from my head. I’m back there, pushing like a mule. All you had to do was pop the clutch. I almost had a heart attack.”
Clementine laughed. “I didn’t know I had her in reverse. You cared more about Ruby’s linkage than you did about me.”
They sat in easy companionship, reliving highlights of their youth. As the twilight deepened, Eddie cleared his throat and said, “Tell me about you and Ruby.”
Clem twisted in her seat to face forward. “Well, after you were hurt, your dad took it really hard. When he returned from Germany, he said every time he went into the garage and saw Ruby, he felt worse. He knew how much you loved this car, and since your eyes. . .”
“I get it. I’m blind and can’t drive. Go on.”
She sighed. “He couldn’t bring himself to sell her so he gave her to me.”
Edwin pursed his lips as he digested this information. “Okay. Continue.”
“I began classes at ISU and was doing pretty well. Studying journalism and creative writing. Anyway, I was heading to class when this idiot. . .”
Edwin touched her shoulder. “It’s okay. What happened after the wreck?”
Clementine’s throat tightened. “Oh, Eddie. Ruby and I were both in a bad way. But, while I was healing, Ruby was being overhauled. I’m sorry about losing the bench seat, but I feel more secure in a bucket with a shoulder harness and air bags. I don’t ever want to be a ping pong ball again.”
“Is she still in my name?”
“How could you afford all the repairs on top of all the doctor bills?”
Clem smiled. “It literally pays to have a father who is an insurance agent and two brothers who own a Chevy dealership. It took time but Ruby and I are all patched up. I couldn’t finish the semester, though.”
Two hearts kept time in silence.
“My face looks like a road map, Eddie. Remember me like I used to be.”
“I’ve got my share of scars, too.”
“Yeah, but your hair can grow back.”
Edwin grunted. “The important thing is you’re okay, Clementine.” He paused and buckled his seat belt. “No more pity party. Start the car.” His left hand rested on the gear knob. He felt Ruby tremble.
Clem chuckled. “Oh, boy. I can finally tell you what to do.”
He shook his head. “You won’t have to tell me when to shift Ruby. I can hear it and feel it.”
They eased out of town onto the interstate.
Cruising along with windows rolled down took Edwin back to his teenage years for a brief visit. He exhaled. He needed to focus on the future.
“Me and a few guys ran the radio station on the base in Iraq. I really liked that.”
Clementine nodded as headlights flew by in the opposite direction. She counted to ten in her head and told herself, Take it easy. Don’t get too pushy.
“You know,” she said casually, “there are classes in broadcasting at ISU. You might want to check out the Fall semester.”
“Maybe. I’d have to get a ride.”
“Ruby and I could work something out. I’ve got at least five semesters to go.”
Stars twinkled and the moon watched the red Chevelle breeze down the highway. Traffic was light.
“Eddie. One thing I should tell you.”
“The car runs about the same, but I think they messed up her grille. It looks a little crooked to me. It doesn’t seem quite right.”
Eddie leaned back on the head rest. He hated to admit how comfortable he felt in the bucket seat. “Nobody’s perfect. We all change.”
Clem glanced to her right as green exit signs flashed by. “How far do you want to go, Eddie?”
He closed his eyes and smiled. “The distance.”