The Lost Soldier, 2015 First Place Youth Division
By Alahna Harrison
Judith twisted the gold band on her left hand as she stared out the clouded window of the large helicopter. The deep blue of the Pacific rolled under her like a carpet striped with wavy lines of blue, gold and green. It reminded her of the flourishing Palouse hills of Moscow, Idaho, her sanctuary from the horrors of the world. Before he had left for the war, her fiancé had bought a plot of land for their future home near where they had grown up together. A tear crawled down the side of Judith’s cheek and dropped onto the gold ring. Someday, she thought, we’d have built a home and started a family. Just like we planned.
* * * *
The helicopter jolted roughly as it touched down on the island, waking Judith from her peaceful sleep. She stretched and reached for her coat.
“Well, here we go again.”
Judith looked up to see her friend Margaret peering out the window at the barren land. Judith turned to the small circle of glass and studied the many long rows of white canvas tents lined up like spines on a dinosaur’s back. “Yeah, we should probably go check on the bunks in back before we start helping men onboard.”
“Already buckled down. I checked ‘em and reported to the pilot. We’re all aces.”
Judith smiled and headed toward the large open door. “Well, I guess I should take naps more often.”
Suddenly, a gentle hand rested on her shoulder. Judith turned and looked into her friend’s sympathetic brown eyes.
“Judith, you really need to take it easier. Ever since your brother . . . you’ve just been working too hard.”
Judith flinched at the mention of her brother. Ever since her mother had received the news, neither she nor her father had been thrilled about Judith’s decision to help with the war. Judith looked at Margaret’s matching Army Nurse Corps badge on her arm and straightened to her full height.
“You’re right, Margaret, I should take it easier. But these soldiers aren’t going to take care of themselves and they need someone to help them survive this war, if only for one more day. They’ve been through far worse than I have. I owe it to them.”
Margaret shook her head at her friend’s stubbornness and dropped her hand from Judith’s shoulder as the two women turned back to the grey landscape.
As they walked through the endless rows of canvas houses that had been set aside for the wounded, Judith suddenly realized how severe some of these boys’ conditions were. She cringed as a loud, unearthly scream pierced the fog from behind her. Finally, the two women approached the head doctor’s tent and were ushered in.
“Reporting for duty, sir.”
Judith followed Margaret and saluted the tall, lanky man who was washing his red hands at a low table. She could smell the distinct thickness of blood, even above the filthy scent of human waste and smoke.
“Well, ladies,” Judith was jerked out of her thoughts as the man turned a pair of cloudy grey eyes toward her. “Which of you will be staying on the island to assist me?”
“That would be me sir,” Margaret stepped forward.
“Very well. The soldier outside will show you to your tent where you will change into something more suitable for camp life, then you will help get the assigned men onto the helicopter. Understood?”
Margaret saluted the doctor again then turned and left, squeezing Judith’s lower arm briefly as she brushed past her.
“And as for you, Miss. You will also help load the men onto the helicopter and will be accompanying them to the carrier ship. Correct?”
“Well, you had better get down there and make sure our boys are comfortable.”
Judith saluted the man before turning and leaving, taking a deep breath of the polluted air before tracing her footsteps back toward the chopper.
* * * *
Judith peered out the window as the crater-covered island faded into the distance. Suddenly, a loud cough came from the rear. Judith quickly grabbed a rag off the nearby shelf and hurried to the back, being careful not to step on any of the fingers lying in the aisle. She glanced around and saw a man with a dirty bandage obscuring half of his face hunched over in his seat, spasms racking his tired body. When she reached him, she knelt and held the rag to his mouth.
“Here, this might help.” She gave the cloth to the soldier, went to a small alcove and retrieved a long black box. Judith knelt next to the man and pulled a long syringe out of the box along with a small vial of orange liquid. As she stuck the needle into the protective cork, a strong hand gripped her wrist. She looked over and saw that the soldier was shaking his head vigorously.
“But this will help with your cough. Are you sure you don’t want it?”
The soldier nodded and Judith put the syringe and vial back into the box.
“Can I get you anything else? Pain killer, water, anything?”
The man nodded again and began running his finger over his hand in a writing gesture.
“Do you want paper and a pencil?”
Again, the soldier nodded and Judith went to her seat and began digging through one of her bags. She finally pulled out a crumpled book of paper and a pencil stub.
“It’s not much, but will it work?”
The man nodded, making the bandage slip down, revealing an oozing burn. He clutched the pad to his chest and closed his eyes. Judith brushed her fingers through his blood matted hair and hummed an old tune as his breathing slowed to a peaceful, steady rhythm.
* * * *
The man stared out the window at the endless expanse of ocean, clutching a ragged book to his chest. Ever since he had met that nurse, some memory was trying to resurface through a thick fog in his brain. He shook his head again, trying to clear the fog away, but it stayed put like a blanket over his conscious.
He sighed deeply and looked around the large metal belly at his fellow soldiers. The nice nurse was helping one of the men who’d lost his arm walk up and down the central isle, exercising his stiff muscles. As the man stared at the nurse, trying to place her face in his memory, she turned and looked at him, her bright blue eyes searching his. She smiled and turned the soldier she was supporting, leading him toward the man. He looked down at his lap as they approached.
“How are you feeling, Jack? Can I get you anything?”
The man shook his head, still studying his hands.
“Ok. What’s that you’ve got?”
Jack paused for a moment before he slowly opened the book in his lap and held it up for Judith to see. There sitting on the page was a woman leaning over a low cot as she fed the man lying on the bed, a smile lighting up her face and her eyes twinkling in the low light.
“Jack, this is beautiful. Can I see it?”
He cautiously handed over the small book and Judith studied the sketch, her eyes glazing over as if revisiting a forgotten past. “I used to know someone who drew like you. That was how I first met him.”
A tear trickled down her cheek and Judith quickly wiped it with the back of her hand, but another soon followed. She handed the book back, and as Jack took it, he carefully ripped out the drawing and held it out to her.
“Oh, no, I can’t take this.”
Judith tried to give the picture back, but Jack closed her hand around the sketch, his large fists covering hers in a thick cocoon. Judith looked at the mute soldier who nodded his head slowly and pressed the drawing to her chest.
“Thank you. I . . . I don’t know what to say.”
Suddenly, the speakers buzzed overhead and the pilot’s scratchy voice announced that they were about to land on the carrier ship.
“Well,” Judith wiped at her eyes again, “I guess we’d better get ready for landing.”
She helped the armless soldier limp back to his cot before heading back to Jack and checking his belt and the bandages wrapped around his face. Judith straightened up and smiled at him as she slid into the seat in front and they braced for a bumpy impact.
* * * *
Judith looked out the window of the carrier ship at the many white clad men and women as they helped the grimy soldiers off the helicopter. She turned back to the desk and stood at attention, a thickly built man sitting behind it scribbling on a pad of crisp paper. Another woman stood just behind the high-backed chair, a bursting folder clutched to her chest. Finally, the Doctor looked up and motioned for the secretary who placed the file on his desk before stepping back, her hands clasped in front of her. The man reached for the file and flipped back the cardstock protector.
“Now, Miss . . .”
“Harris, Sir. Judith Harris.”
“Alright, Lieutenant Harris, I believe you just came in with the new transport copter, correct?”
“Yes Sir, that’s correct.”
“And were you able to talk with any of the boys in your care?”
“Yes Sir, the soldier called Jack. Though he is unable talk at the moment due to shock, we conversed through paper often. Actually, he was awake most of the trip and showed no signs of air sickness, if you understand my meaning Sir.”
“Hmm . . . interesting, you are aware that his real name is Lieutenant Aaron Black from Potlatch, Idaho and, I believe, he had a fiancé in Potlatch. Would you happen to know her, Lieutenant Harris? Lieutenant?”
Judith stared open mouthed at the man who had just given her hope again. Slowly, as if in a trance, she walked toward the door of the cabin. Once outside, she dashed down the hall and out into the bright, salty air. The wind bit her arms as she ran toward the rooms that had been set aside for the medics and recovering soldiers. She entered a long room and stared at the faces lying in the beds that lined both walls.
Suddenly, one of the men to her left sat up and smiled at her. Judith stopped and walked toward him. As she sat on the side of the bed, tears began to blur her vision. Jack reached out and brushed the salt water from her cheek. As he dropped his hand, Judith clutched at it and brushed it against her cheek again, tears coursing down her face in waterfalls. Jack’s brow creased in worry at her strange actions. He reached for the pad of paper on the table next to him and scribbled quickly before shoving it toward Judith.
Judith took a deep breath and stared into his lush green eyes, “Jack . . . Aaron, do you remember that name? Kids at school used to say that you were as old as Moses. Do you remember? I would walk home with you after school and we took a secret shortcut by the creek.”
Jack’s eyes opened wide in shock. He stared at Judith for a long time. Suddenly, his face lit up with recognition.
The gravelly voice was music to Judith’s longing ears.
“Yes, yes it’s me, Aaron. It’s Judith.”
“Judith? I . . . I can’t believe . . . it’s really you?”
“Yes, Aaron, I’m here.”
Tears crept into his eyes as he reached for the girl from his past. Judith leaned her head against his chest and breathed in the distant memories of a muddy fishing creek and cherry blossoms in the summer.
“I . . . I can’t believe it. You’re alive. They called and told me you were MIA. I . . . I didn’t know what to do.”
“Shh, it’s gonna be ok, Judith,” Aaron cleared his throat as he brushed his fingers through her hair. “I’m here now, we can go home.”
* * * *
The broom swept up the red and gold leaves and slid them into the drifting wind, blowing them away like all the many lives that had been lost across the sea. The woman straightened up and shielded her eyes against the descending sun as she searched the dirt road. As she watched, a tear slid down her face and fell to the drying grass, a drop of glass in the waning light. After a few more minutes of searching, she wiped at her cheek and continued to sweep.
As the sun drifted further behind the rolling horizon, a cloud of dust floated up and settled onto the porch, followed by the distant rumble of a car engine. The woman looked up again and noticed a black shape stopped at the gate near the main road. She stared harder and saw a young woman standing near the back door, helping someone else climb out of the car. As the couple approached, the woman looked up at the house and met the sweeper’s hazel eyes with her own bright blue ones.
Suddenly, the broom slipped out of the woman’s hand and fell to the porch as she rushed to the door.
“Robert! Robert, come quick!”
“What is it, Marg? Is something wrong?”
“Hurry! Just come out here.”
Soon, a man with graying brown hair joined the woman on the porch and stared at the two figures coming up the driveway. “Is that . . .”
“Mom! Dad! I’m back!”
The young woman looked up at the tall, man next to her and, when he nodded and pushed her forward, rushed into her parents’ arms.
“Judith? What . . . why are you here?”
“The commanding officer of the Nurse Corps gave me leave and said we could come home while he heals.”
“Wait . . . we, I mean, he? Who is with you?”
Robert looked over his daughter’s shoulder and stared at the scar-faced young man who stood at the bottom of the porch steps. “Aaron? Is that you?”
“Yes, sir, it’s me.”
Robert was silent for a moment as he stared at his daughter’s fiancé. “Well, get up here, son. It’s good to see you’re alive and in one piece.”
Aaron smiled as he reached for Judith’s outstretched hand and joined the happy family as they held each other; father, mother, nurse, soldier, and somewhere, a smiling younger brother.