Purple Hearts, 2013 Second Place Adult Division

By Daniel Claar

Peering over a three foot hedge while holding back lilac branches with the remains of his right hand, Spencer Rayne hears the cackling of young boys emanating from an abandoned house next door and can’t help wondering if his mind is playing its usual tricks.  He is about to change his view to a knothole in the side fence when Spencer notices the mailwoman two houses down.  He glances at his watch.  13:35. Right on time.  She is a bit older than the young man, auburn hair showing the first streaks of white, but defined calves and shapely lower thighs climbing into the hems of her blue shorts reveal a woman very much in shape.  As she approaches his neighbor’s mailbox, Spencer hears the young boys again except, instead of laughing, they now chant, “Kitty, kitty, kitty.”

He glances around for Miss Piggy.  Her rotund frame had been weaving through his legs in dizzying figure eights just minutes ago.  A familiar hiss knifes through the air and Spencer doesn’t bother confirming his suspicions.  With the excited energy he grew addicted to while conducting house sweeps in Baghdad, the young man darts along his fence line until he has a visual on the neighboring backyard.  In the lot’s far corner, four kids gather around a rusted out aluminum shed.  The largest of the boys uses a willow branch to poke at something inside the storage unit.  Between their legs, he catches a glimpse of his cat pinned against the wall.

Spencer’s mind erupts with the clamor of small-arms fire and concussive explosions.  Ash and smoke obscure his vision a split second before everything turns red.  The next thing he sees are two children, pale faces full of unholy terror, running from him as they might a descending Tomahawk helicopter.  Another tries to back away, hands shielding his face, but instead, stumbles over his heels and winds up on his backside inside the shed.

The largest boy, frozen in place, has the willow ripped from his grasp so violently it leaves a burn across his palm.  In the next instant, the chubby kid is on the ground next to his companion.  Stooping over the cowering youths is a camouflaged, black-bearded demon.  Spencer clutches the heavier boy’s shirt in one fist while the remaining finger on his mutilated hand begins poking the child’s forehead, punctuating every spoken syllable.

“Never let me catch you on my street again.  Do you understand?”

There’s no way they could understand.  There’s no way they could know.  In the recesses of his nightmares, Spencer is picturing what is left of an Iraqi boy holding a toy machinegun while his commanding officer barks in his ear.  The older man is trying to convince the young soldier he made the correct decision.

“You will have yourselves to blame if you ever get within a mile of my cat again.”

With the skirmish subsiding in his mind, Spencer is able to see himself through the child’s petrified eyes.  Suddenly aware of his grotesque finger, the soldier slides his pink claw into a deep cargo pocket.  Fighting off a flood of foolishness, Spencer steps back and straightens himself with a deep breath.  Even Miss Piggy is shrunk against the wall.  The fat cat, recognizing her owner once again, takes the opportunity to leap across the two boys, and, defying her plump appearance, bounds over their fence.

Spencer drags both boys to their feet, and with a final, “Get out of here,” shoves them towards the road.  As the kids trip over each other getting to full speed, the young man realizes the mail carrier is standing in the street staring at him.  She holds his gaze with her head cocked slightly sideways before seeming to realize they are making eye contact.  The woman looks away, missing Spencer’s awkward shrug, and hustles towards the next house.

“Real smooth,” he mutters, “the cops should be here any second.”

Still grumbling, the young man marches off to his backyard to check on Miss Piggy.  He half-expects to find her already taking a nap in a sunbeam, tormentors forgotten.  Instead, Spencer rounds the back corner to see the giant cat still fluffed out, slowly advancing on his woodpile, her usual hiss transforming into a deep throated growl.

The young man’s first instinct is to make a joke about also hating the stack of cedar rounds.  His intended firewood had been buried beneath a freakishly early snowstorm relegating the house to expensive gas heat all winter.

“What’s with you?  Still mad about those punks?  I thought you had ‘em where you wanted ‘em.”

Approaching the base of the logs, the noises escaping his 20 pound cat turn absolutely demonic.  Spencer begins considering the possibility of Miss Piggy having suffered some head trauma when he notices movement near the top of the mound.  A grinning set of pointed teeth emerges from the shadows of a hole tucked between the top logs and Spencer realizes his cat is only responsible for half the wretched racket.  The intruding beast, now extracting itself from the burrow with a set of three inch claws, is making sounds that would give Satan nightmares.

Miss Piggy freezes in her tracks as the creature pulls itself into the light.  As far as Spencer knows, it is the first ever sighting of the rare animal in their small mountain town.  The masked wolverine creeps towards them, spitting saliva and gnashing its teeth, every bit as intimidating as legend would have people believe.  Afraid to bend over and manage a squirming cat in one hand, Spencer backs away from the woodpile’s new king.  Sensing her companion’s withdrawal, and for once displaying some common sense, Miss Piggy retreats alongside her owner.

The soldier nearly bursts into maniacal laughter at his initial inkling to lob a grenade into the animal’s keep.  In the next instant, he is locking eyes with the shaggy brown creature, its dark pupils shooting sparks from some inner fire.  Spencer recognizes something coldly familiar in the creature’s unflinching gaze.  As the animal reaches the base of the woodpile, the young man sees the wolverine dragging its hindquarters.  Although no visible blood or bone, one of its legs is badly broken, the appendage hanging limp and useless from the hip socket.

“Geez, buddy, did you take on an entire wolf pack, or were you hit by a car?”

The wolverine continues its vicious display for a wary Miss Piggy while Spencer heads inside to rummage through his refrigerator.  Upon returning, he tosses half a pound of expired bologna towards the base of the woodpile.  The animal drags itself toward the pungent meat and begins to feed.  Spencer hides a smirk with his good hand as the terrifying beast is forced to swallow while maintaining its perpetual snarling.  With the meal devoured in scant seconds, the wolverine inches backwards up the sloping woodpile into the darkness of its lair.

“You’re welcome,” says the young soldier genuinely impressed by the animal’s ravenous appetite.  The wolverine reminds him of several young men at boot camp, bean poles defying physics with how much grub they could pack away.

For the next week, Spencer is at the woodpile with the breaking dawn and again in the evening delivering meals.  Without fail, the scenario plays out exactly like the first time with the broken creature dragging itself from the cedar pile and churning out a barrage of stomach twisting growls while wolfing through ample portions of chicken and pork chops.  Skewering the man and his cat with its black, dead-eyed glare, the animal eats every scrap, waits a second to see if more food will magically appear, and then crawls back into its den.

Spencer names the wolverine “Hank” after his deceased grandfather.  Hank Rayne was the most disagreeable man he had ever known.  A World War II vet, the man returned from the front lines an equally hateful and self-loathing individual whose wife ultimately left him for less damaged goods.  Even with nothing apparent to live for, the man held on through nearly 100 years of chain-smoking alcoholism.  Spencer’s father said Hank would never die because Ol’ Beelzebub was afraid he’d singlehandedly storm Hell’s gates and take over.

Even though he was afraid of the man growing up, Spencer later began to admire his grandfather for having walked a road through life few could stomach.  Hank never felt that societal obligation to put a happy face on his bad feelings, but instead, chose to embrace life in the manner it had presented itself.  He knew of the world’s inherent ugliness and cruelty.  He had seen it firsthand on the blood-stained fields of war.  In that sense, Hank the wolverine is a lot like his grandfather.  Almost nobody would look beyond those bitter outer shells, and though Spencer was too young at the time of his grandfather’s death to have understood, through the wounded predator, he feels a renewed connection with his equally damaged relative.

On the seventh day of his woodpile’s occupation, Spencer and Miss Piggy approach Hank’s lair with a package of uncooked sausage.  For the first time, they are greeted with silence instead of the wolverine’s guttural growls.  His fat cat stops just short of the cedar pile and lifts her nose to test the air.  The young man, standing on his tip-toes, tries to peer into Hank’s den, but can barely see the entrance.

“Hank, you there buddy,” he asks while tossing a single link to the top of the woodpile.  “I brought you some breakfast.  Hope you like artificial maple flavoring.”

There is no response, not a sound or hint of movement from within.  Somehow, the eerie silence is more unnerving than the wolverine’s horrendous snarling.  Ready to spring back if necessary, the young soldier stands on a section of stump, trying to obtain a better vantage point.  At first, all he can see is impenetrable shadows, but the longer he stares, the more his eyes adjust.  At last he can make out the faint outline of a single paw inside the hole.  Spencer tosses another sausage link, this one landing next to one of the animal’s visible claws.  Still, there is no movement.  No sound.  Nothing.

“Hank, you ok?”

An unsettling sensation creeps down Spencer’s spine.  Not in a long time has he felt a genuine connection with a living thing other than Miss Piggy, but for some reason, this grumpy predator had wormed its way inside his heart.  Balancing on another cedar wedge, Spencer steps halfway up the woodpile, but his view remains the same.   With a smoke ravaged voice barking in his ear, he knows what to do.  Nobody gets left behind.

“I need you to trust me now, ok?”

Moving purposefully, the soldier climbs up the woodpile until he is at the mouth of the den, and then, with his good arm, Spencer reaches inside the hole.  With raid sirens screaming in the back of his mind, he touches the cold ground inside and lets his fingers walk ever deeper.  At the very edge of his reach, Spencer brushes Hank’s paw.  With a sudden intake of breath, he realizes the wolverine’s calloused pads are still warm.

An uncontrolled shriek escapes his lips as the young man yanks his arm back.  Fully expecting a crazed terror to be following his hand, the young soldier nearly leaps from the pile.  When nothing happens, he is able to catch himself, and after another minute collecting his nerves, Spencer reaches inside the den once more.  Again, he feels the animal’s foot.  In a less excitable frame of mind, the soldier knows the flesh isn’t warm enough.  Grabbing the animal’s paw tightly this time, Spencer pulls the heavy wolverine from its home.  Hank must have died within the last hour, his life force slowly fading into cold memory.

The young soldier isn’t sure how much time has passed, but when becoming aware of his surroundings, Spencer finds himself slumped against the woodpile cradling the limp wolverine in his lap.  The dead creature reeks of a fetid musk odor and its bristly fur is clumped together and wet from his tears.  Bothering him the most are Hank’s wide-open eyes and frozen snarl, lips pulled back in the menacing manner Spencer had grown used to.  The wounded animal went to its death still fighting.  There was no last second of peace, no pain-free drift into dreamless sleep; the shaggy combatant knew nothing but war in his final moments.  What always seemed an appropriate way for a warrior to die now rips through the young man’s heart like a sniper’s bullet.  No soldier should die alone in his foxhole.

With Miss Piggy curled up at his feet, Spencer begins to plan a memorial service for two.  He knows beyond certainty that part of himself will be properly buried along with his friend.  Another brother’s life played out like a cruel tragedy.  But not without reason.  Not this time.

The next day sees Spencer sitting at the edge of his street, pulling stubborn dandelions from around his mailbox.  Pretending he can’t see her approaching from under the brim of his camouflaged bucket hat, the young man looks up in feigned surprise.  Instead of the guarded expression he is expecting, the auburn haired mailwoman is smiling down at him.  Swallowing hard, Spencer climbs to his feet and wipes the dirt from his one good hand on his pant leg.

“Look, I want to apologize for the other day.  I might have gotten a little carried aw…”  Spencer doesn’t finish his sentence before noticing a thick purple scar starting at the woman’s throat and running down past her unbuttoned uniform collar.  The sight reminds him of his own injury and he slips the mangled hand into a pocket.

“No big deal,” the woman stammers while reaching up to pinch together the fabric exposing her neckline.  “I saw what they were doing to your cat.”

Spencer shifts his weight from one leg to the other, forcing his eyes away from whatever trauma she had suffered.   “Guess if they were your kids it might be a different story,” he says, attempting a grin.

Still fidgeting with her collar, the woman returns his smile.  “Actually, one of the first kids you sent running is my boy.  I laid into him when I got off work, but didn’t need to.  I think you taught him a lesson he won’t soon forget.  Sometimes, he reminds me of my ex, but he’s a good boy.  And I’m glad you scared that one chubby monster.  I don’t like my son hanging out with him anyway.”

Spencer laughs openly.  It is a sound he barely recognizes.  “I’m just glad I didn’t kill anyone.

“I hear that,” she replies.  The woman then glances down to where his hand is hiding.  “What happened?”

The soldier’s reaction is a surprise even to him.  On any other day, talking to any other person, the question would make him uncomfortable.  Instead, as if injected with truth serum, the young man suddenly wants to share his story with the beautiful woman before him.

“Iraqi Freedom,” he says.

“Figured as much.”  The woman quits toying with her neckline, again revealing the dense scar tissue.  “Desert Storm,” she says.  “The ex never got used to it, but you know what?  Now that he’s gone, I don’t feel as self-conscious.  It’s important my son sees me as a whole woman, a strong mother.  Sometimes, when I wake up from another nightmare, and it feels like those memories could swallow me whole, all I have to do is take a look at his sleeping face and I know what it is I’m living for.  Know what I mean?”

Spencer looks past the woman, at the distant canopy of evergreens covering the surrounding mountains, the blue sky, and marshmallow clouds.  He hears the distant chirping of starlings and notices Miss Piggy sauntering towards them across his lush emerald lawn.  The warm breeze caressing his cheeks shoots electricity across his body, a phantom sensation even tingling fingers that no longer exist.

“I do know what you mean.  Maybe for the first time, but I really do.”   The young soldier removes his hat revealing a mop of curly black hair.  “Listen, I don’t suppose you would like to get dinner sometime?”

The mail carrier blushes slightly, the color causing her to look like a shy high-school girl.  Finally looking back at Spencer, she says, “Leave an invitation for me in the mailbox tomorrow and I’ll see about arranging a babysitter.”

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