She heard the stomping of feet heading towards her room, but it was too late for any sort of reaction. With guilty eyes, she glanced up at her mother standing in the doorway of her bedroom.
“Helen, haven’t you finished dressing for bed yet?”
“Sorry, Mum,” she murmured, absently adjusting the apron on her favorite doll, who’d just a moment ago been hiding from the scary paper planes that flew overhead and dropped blocks from the ceiling.
Her mother sighed and quietly took the doll from her hands, gently caressing the yarn hair from the toy’s face. “Why do you make believe about the bombings?” she inquired softly. “Don’t you realize how dangerous they are?”
“Yes, but Gracie—” Helen reached out and grasped the doll’s hand in her own, “—is brave. I practice so when there is a bombing, I can learn how to be brave just like her.”
She saw her mother’s eyes swell with tears, but a smile played on her lips as she brushed Helen’s brown curls away from her face, just like she had with the doll. “Then you must always take care of Gracie, and she’ll take care of you. I think you’re very brave, my dear.”
A howl echoed from outside, swelling louder and louder until Helen placed her tiny hands over her ears and screamed. Her mother’s face shrouded with fear. Her lips moved, and though Helen could barely hear, she knew her mother was telling her to run to the bomb shelter.
Desperately, her mother grasped her hands and shoved the doll into them. “Run, Helen, I’m right behind you. Go quickly!”
She ran as fast as her legs would carry her, and the sound of her mother’s footsteps right behind faded as the whistle, silence, and boom overtook any other sound of the night. Whistle, silence, boom. Whistle, silence, boom. The flaming light and black smoke were close as Helen made it outside and down the path to the shelter.
Her hand reached for the door, but before it made contact another explosion erupted behind her, and for a moment she felt as though she were flying.
The smoke thickly settled as Sgt. Jim Turner picked his way through the debris, following the rest of his troop as they searched through the rubble for survivors. A heavy rain clouded their vision and formed a small brook that twisted and slapped against broken brick. The pasty clay clung to his boots; he tipped his helmet forward slightly to shield his eyes.
“Sergeant,” his commanding lieutenant called from up ahead of the line, “see anything?”
Turner glanced around at the collapsed homes and businesses lining what was once a quiet, obscure street. The ever-rising fog and smoke threatened to obstruct his sight completely, but with one last strain his eyes caught a small door to his left side.
“There’s a bomb shelter about one hundred yards away,” he yelled over the progressing rain. “There might be victims trapped inside.”
“Take your men and scour the area,” his commander demanded.
Turner motioned for a few men to follow, treading carefully over the debris. As they approached the shelter, his stomach churned as the body of a woman came into view, her legs crushed by part of a brick wall that would’ve smashed into her from behind during an explosion. He knelt beside her and touched her neck, shaking his head when no pulse met his trembling fingers. He fought the urge to cover his nose as the smell of blood drifted up to mock him.
“Do you hear that, Sergeant?” one of his men grabbed his shoulder.
He only heard the dinging of rain against his helmet and so removed the metal and raised a hand to silence the others from saying anything else. Still the rain persisted to interrupt until a sharp cry hit his senses, and he shot to attention, squinting his eyes to scan the area.
“There,” he cried, and dodged the men to hurry to where a small girl, likely no more than eight years of age, lay curled among a trail of bushes by the side of the bomb shelter.
“Hey, hey,” he soothed, dropping the helmet and gently resting his hand on her shoulder, “can you hear me?”
Her fingers clutched at her chest where a doll lay, the cloth face streaked with black soot. “Mummy?” she whimpered, her eyes squeezed shut.
“I need you to look at me, can you do that?” he urged, hating how chilled her small frame was to his touch.
Her eyes fluttered open to reveal panicked, deep brown saucers. She attempted to scoot away from him, but bent at her waist and desperately reached for her leg with a groan.
“Where’s my mummy?” she insisted, tears mixing with the rain pelting at her cheeks.
A quick skim of her leg revealed a deep gash, the source of her discomfort. One of the other soldiers retrieved a bandage from his pack and began crudely binding the wound.
“What’s your name, darling?”
“Helen,” she hiccuped.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Helen.” How his throat scratched at him, threatening to wobble as he was so determined to stay calm for this little victim. He continued staring into her eyes, drawing strength from their weakness. “I’m Turner. I’m going to get you out of here.”
“Where are the bombs?” she sobbed, stroking the doll’s limp hair. The rain had unraveled the fibers.
“The bombs are all gone. You’re safe now, Helen.”
Her eyes flickered towards him when he said her name, but she fell silent as he scooped her into his arms, making sure her back was to where her home once stood and to the body lying on the path only feet from them.
“Where’s my mummy?” she repeated.
“Just hold onto me tightly. Everything is going to be fine.”
She seemed satisfied for the moment, though the tears still streaked her dirty face as Turner made his way back to the troop. Silently motioning for a medic, he set her down gently by an abandoned grain cart in the street as the examiner assessed her leg.
A fellow soldier returned Turner’s helmet to him from where he had dropped it by the bomb shelter, and he placed it onto Helen’s head to provide a shield against the rain before making a move to stand and signal his lieutenant.
“No, no, don’t leave me,” she cried, grasping at his uniform.
“I’m not leaving, I promise.” Removing his jacket, he wrapped the warm fabric around her shoulders and pulled her trembling form into his lap. “You’re safe, remember?”
She murmured, her lips barely moving, and the rain prevented him from hearing her soft words.
“What did you say?”
She held up her doll. “I was telling Gracie to be brave. She’s always brave. That’s why she never leaves my side, because if she’s brave then I can be brave, too.”
He smiled at the simplicity and folded Helen’s arms so she held the doll close to her face. “Then you keep her close. I bet Gracie gets her courage from you.”
Helen shook her head violently. “No, I’m not brave at all. The other kids at school laugh at me when we have air raid drills because I get scared.”
“Sometimes a little fear can be a good thing; you’ll never take anything for granted.”
“Mum says the only thing to fear is God.”
He wasn’t sure how to respond to that one. He knew what she was talking about, having grown up with his mother articulately reading the Bible to him every night, but he never understood the concept of fearing someone Who supposedly personified love.
“Is Mummy with God now?”
He was struck back to the present and gazed once more into those wide eyes. He thought about delaying the inevitable for longer, pushing her question aside, but somehow within those few moments the emotion in her eyes had altered. He realized she was not only about to lose the naivety of childhood but was ready for it.
“Yes, Helen. Your mum is with God now.”
Her breathing rasped as she clutched the doll closer against her to the point of nearly crushing her chest, but no fresh tears emerged, only sniffles as the medic applied antiseptic to her leg.
“She needs to be taken to the medical facility,” the medic instructed.
“I’ll take her,” Turner announced, ready to carry her down the road to their temporary base.
“That’s my job, Sergeant. You need to stay with your troop.”
He could feel Helen’s fingers sneak around his own hand and squeeze tightly. Before he had a chance to protest, a voice interrupted him. “Let him go.”
Turner twisted and saw the lieutenant standing over them, realizing from the sympathy in his eyes that he’d been watching them the whole time.
The medic nodded, and Turner rose to his feet, slipping slightly on the thick mud. The child’s shivering body was almost weightless, and all he could think of was his own younger sister. He force-swallowed the lump threatening to block his breathing.
She had lost a lot of blood, he was told, but not enough to be life-threatening, though the gash had damaged nerve endings. The hope of her walking normally again was slim. She lay on a cot, finally unaware of the pain and horror surrounding the day. Turner made sure the doll was tucked securely in her arms, and his hand lingered on hers.
What would happen to her now? Did she have a father? She had survived this vicious attack, but what about the next one?
“Have you found out anything about her?” he asked the nurse, who had just arrived to check the leads delivering blood to Helen’s veins.
“We found another surviving villager. She says the girl’s father was killed in battle six months ago, but she has an aunt that lives in Sussex. Once she’s well enough to travel we’ll send her there until we know more information.”
He nodded, hoping Helen knew her aunt well enough to feel comfortable and safe with her.
“Sergeant,” the Red Cross nurse placed her hand on his arm, “many soldiers come through medical bases like this with children in far worse condition than Helen. We understand how each of you must feel, but it’s best if Helen doesn’t see you again. Your face will trigger memories of the trauma she’s suffered today, and with her young age we do our best to help children forget as quickly as possible.”
Her words barely made sense to him, but he got the gist of her hint and nodded. “I just need one moment before I rejoin my troop.”
Once the nurse had finished her routine and stepped away, Turner knelt by the bedside and swiped at a tear tickling his unshaven face.
“I hope you can put all these horrors behind you and become a little girl again, Helen,” he rasped in a whisper, coughing slightly from the smoke still lingering in his lungs. “I hope you do forget today. I hope you forget me. But I can tell you right now, I’ll never forget you, not as long as I live.” A wry smile played on his twitching lips as he brushed back a piece of hair fallen over her eyes and mimicked the action with the doll. “You stick with Gracie, and both of you will be just fine.”
He stood and turned on his heel, nearly stumbling out of the tent and not daring to look back on her sleeping form. He turned his eyes towards the night sky. The rain had stopped.
“I don’t know if I fear You, but please take care of that little girl. She needs something more than a doll to give her strength.” Ridiculous, talking to the stars like he was, but right now even the possibility of the existence of a greater Being was going to be enough for him tonight. Situating his helmet on his head, he followed the light of campfires up the road.
Blackness. That’s what he described to the dozens of doctors over the past three decades, though the number of examiners dwindled within the last two. Blackness was the curse from the poisonous gas, or so everyone said, but mere blackness was never the whole picture.
He had eventually removed the bandage covering his eyes, having only found the contraption claustrophobic and humiliating. Yes, he couldn’t see the present, but his eyes now provided a blank canvas for his mind to play images of the war, like a movie reel beginning in a darkened theater.
He snorted, thinking of what the theater would say today if it were so. Showing: British Troop Caught Off Guard by Poisonous Gas. One Survivor.
The handle of the door to his bedroom clicked. “Jimmy, it’s time for your medicine.”
Though he couldn’t see the clock, his sister was always punctual.
“Does it really help?” he wheezed, lungs struggling for air.
“Jimmy Turner, you’re sitting up and taking your medicine. I don’t care what argument you give.”
He couldn’t catch the smile before it broke on his lips. He startled, however, when a crash clanged from downstairs. Living with his sister and her three boys for the past ten years was challenging to say the least.
The medicine tray rattled as she set it down by his bed. “I’ll tell them to quiet down,” his sister’s apologetic voice was ripe with frustration.
“No, don’t worry about it. The medicine always knocks me out cold, anyways.” Chilled metal touched his tongue. The thick liquid burned his throat, inducing another round of horrible wheezing and hacking. He pushed himself to swallow the blood in his mouth.
She kissed his forehead, and he listened to her footsteps out the door and downstairs. He wasn’t surprised to hear a sharp word and utter silence from any previous romping taking place in the cottage. His tongue was thick as he felt himself drifting off to sleep. He’d never grown accustomed to falling asleep without having the need to close his eyes for darkness.
“Jimmy. Jimmy, can you hear me?”
He groaned, barely awake. The medicine was still strong in his system, and the warm afternoon sun beamed onto his cheeks.
“There is a woman here to see you, Jimmy. Are you awake enough to see her? I told her you were resting, but she insisted she didn’t have much time. She said it was important.”
He nodded, though he doubted he’d still be awake by the time the woman was able to come in the room. He struggled to a half-sitting position and did his best to remain conscious while waiting, blinking his eyes hard several times just for his own satisfaction.
A rustle of skirts woven of finer fabric than his sister’s entered the room, followed by a rhythmic thud which no doubt belonged to a cane. For a moment there was silence, and he grew uncomfortable. Where was this woman?
“I can’t stay long, though that’s all right because I haven’t got much to say.”
Her voice. It was slightly familiar, though the deep tone threw him off.
“You won’t remember me, of course. It was thirty years ago, so how could you. Our encounter was brief, but I just wanted to tell you I’ve never forgotten, not one day.”
“Who are you?” he demanded.
More rustling, and an object was pressed into his hand.
“I once told you this gave me courage, but after we met I realized I truly didn’t need it anymore. You gave me the courage I needed to continue on with my life, and God gave me my strength. For the longest time I’ve had the urgent need to thank you.” He could hear tears choking her strong voice. “And now I can.”
He grasped the object and touched it with his other hand. Yarn. Wrinkled cloth. A doll, perhaps?
“It can’t be,” he grunted, turning his palm up and out, waiting until a delicate gloved hand settled within. He grasped it tightly.
“Helen,” he whispered.
“You remember me, Sgt. Turner,” the surprised pleasure in her voice was so unmistakeable, he could almost hear her smile.
“Like I could forget the girl who turned my life around.”
The room was quiet, for there was no need for spoken words. It didn’t even matter that he couldn’t see her, couldn’t see how she’d changed and grown up. He didn’t care, for the image of the doe-eyed little girl was fresh in his mind and satisfied his memory. She was safe; she was well.
Her fingers squeezed his hand. “I have to go. The next train for Sussex leaves in fifteen minutes, and I’m afraid I can’t miss it. God bless you, Sergeant, and thank you. You’re in my prayers every morning and every night.”
The fingers slipped away, tugging his heart along with them, but the ache was different to the one he had experienced those years ago when leaving her in the care of the Red Cross.
“Helen,” he called out. The rustling paused.
“I’m pleased to say I’ll be seeing our Lord very soon. I’ll be sure to tell your mother that you’re quite well.”
Her voice caught. “Quite well, Turner.”
Copyright 2014 Sarah Coons