Roger’s coffee had cooled considerably, but he hardly noticed. There were only two situations he allowed his coffee to get cold: either he was shoulders deep working on an engine or he was having a particularly great conversation. This cup had been neglected for the second reason.
“‘Ey, Roger,” said one of three other dwarves sitting at his cafe table. “How’s the Mustang looking?”
“The rear window seals are leaking,” said Roger, suddenly feeling less thrilled about the conversation.
“Again?” responded Donnie with a self-satisfied smirk. His teeth lined up like snow quartz against his short, white beard. “Should’ve gotten a Camaro. Ford just doesn’t know how to make ‘em.”
Roger’s expression remained hard and the sunglasses only added to his air of stoicism. “Least I’m not compensatin’ for somethin’,” he said. Donnie laughed. Even though Roger appeared angry, he wasn’t most of the time. His mother called it his “bulldog scowl” and it had its merits. A stony glare made people leave him alone and those who knew him best looked past it.
“Glad I ride bikes,” said Lonnie, stroking his wiry beard. Though the end of it wasn’t visible beyond the table, Roger knew it had grown past his leather jacket. Impressive, considering it was chest level like Roger’s when they met two years prior. He’d always wondered how Lonnie rode his bike without it catching in the wheels. “Thank goodness Ronnie’s at the shelter today or he’d put up a fuss about trucks.”
“I was wonderin’ where he was,” said Steve. He took a sip and stared at the table blankly.
Shifting his gaze, Roger peered out the window. At the intersection was a sad figure missing a leg. He sat in a wheelchair, green fingers wrapped around a cardboard sign. His tusks were chipped. Roger looked past him (as did everyone) and checked on his auto shop across the street. It was still there, of course, and it hadn’t burned down either. Also a bonus. It’s not that he didn’t trust his nephews to run the shop. Or maybe he didn’t. They were good young men with full beards and by all means, they had gotten in far less trouble than he had at their age. They just looked so young. Had he looked that young when he first held a gun? When he first trekked through the jungles, combat boots heavy with mud and sleeves rolled up past his elbows? The jungle never stopped ringing, “the enchantments” the commanding officers told them, as if that was supposed to help them sleep. He could never get the hang of sleeping in rainstorms, especially not with that over-sized helmet. He learned early on not to take it off. Twenty wasn’t what it used to be.
A loud pop snapped Roger to attention.
Roger’s heart pounded. His jaw clenched. He turned to face the gunman but saw nothing more than a laughing child holding a bag of chips, her open smile armed with rows of needle teeth. Just a child. Breathing, he pressed both feet firmly on the floor and glanced around the room.
The wood grain of the floorboards. Sight.
The hiss of the steam wand on the espresso machine. Sound.
The zing of rosemary on a goat cheese danish. Smell.
The raised letters on his dog tags. Touch.
Cold coffee. Taste.
His new therapist called it grounding. He didn’t care what it was called so long as it worked. Heartbeat returning to normal, Roger relaxed his shoulders and eyed the other three dwarves. Thank goodness he was wearing sunglasses. Lonnie and Donnie were busy laughing. Steve, however, Steve stared at him, face marked with concern, his half-finished danish sitting abandoned on its plate. With a dismissive wave and head shake, Roger brushed it off and Steve returned a nod. Roger hated November, hated what it stirred up. New Years he could do without and even the Fourth was touchy. At least Christmas was around the corner. Christmas, then the first bloom of spring and summer before he knew it. Summer was the best time for driving. Roger sipped his cold coffee and savored the bite in the back of his throat. He tapped the cup on the table, focusing on the sound. Steve’s danish smelled really good. He should have bought one when he was at the counter but his blood pressure said otherwise.
He let his attention drift to his surroundings. People watching always calmed him down and Crowfoot Coffeehouse and Apothecary was a great place for it. Hunched over a sketchbook at the table next to them was another regular; a mermaid girl with a pink backpack dangling off her the back of her wheelchair. A bell rang at the front door, then a woman with a shaved head and vibrant scarf slithered to the counter. Her snake tail sweeped gracefully through the aisleway. Behind her, a woman with grassy green eyes and dragonfly wings gently tucked up against her back. Hemlock wasn’t what it used to be. The nearby University had practically doubled in size over the last decade and downtown was swarming with fresh faces. Every year, they looked younger and younger. Every year, the town moved faster. Danny’s Burger Joint had closed when he was away but the drive-in was still there. More churches, more bars but fewer jobs. At least for veterans. If that old troll hadn’t have given him a job at his auto shop, he might have been standing on that street corner now. Not that the job hadn’t cost him in the long run.
A familiar silhouette approached out of the corner of his eye and a smile illuminated Roger’s face. “‘Ey, fellas,” he said, gesturing with his half-full cup. “It’s our girl! Whatchu doin’ out ‘ere?”
The tall elf approached, her Bohemian skirt practically dusting the ground as her boots clicked on the hardwood floor. “Well, gentlemen, I’m here to kick you out. We’ve received some complaints from other customers, you see.” She leaned in and cupped her hand around her mouth. ‘It’s the smell,” she whispered.
Unphased, the dwarves smiled. They played this game often. “That so?” said Donnie. He beamed. “Tell ‘em to stop breathing our air.”
Steve ran a hand over his bald scalp. “I just think they’re jealous of our dastardly good looks.” Steve had been bald since his twenties but he still had a full beard. That was all that mattered to a dwarf.
Snickering rose up from the table and Henna remained standing. She looked so much like her mother. Roger had known her since she was just a child scampering around in her parent’s coffeehouse and before he could blink, she had suddenly grown up and started working as a barista for her father. He must be getting old. Old people think things like that.
After a few seconds, the laughter died down and the table stared back at her noticing she had yet to leave. “Actually,” she said tucking her auburn hair behind her dark, pointed ears. “I’m off today. I came in because I have a school assignment I could use your help on.”
“Well shoot, sweet’eart. I don’t know ‘ow we can ‘elp with that but fire away,” said Roger, leaning back in his chair. He folded his arms with the metal one on top. A few chuckles came from the other dwarves around the cafe table.
“I dropped out of college,” said Steve.
“College? I dropped out of high school,” added Lonnie.
“Heck,” said Donnie, slamming his paper cup on the cafe table. “I was drunk most of high school. The only thing I remember was what brand of beer I’d drink.” The chuckle grew into a laughter and even Roger smiled. Henna, however, smiled nervously and stared at the ground. Something was off about her. She didn’t have as much spunk as usual.
She tapped her pen on her journal. “I need to interview a veteran about their experience in the war and write up a report about it. I know you guys are veterans so I thought I’d ask.”
The table went silent and this morning suddenly got a lot worse.
Roger tapped his metal fingers on his real arm, his face noticeably colder than usual. That’s why she was acting strange. Henna clutched her pen tightly and Roger could practically see the apprehension radiating from her. The last thing he wanted to do today was discuss his time spent overseas. He couldn’t let her fail her assignment, either. He peered over his sunglasses and caught her eye. She smiled subtly in return.
Taking a deep breath, she began. “It’s just a couple questions. I only need one response for each so you don’t have to talk if you don’t want to.”
The others were far more talkative than Roger. If he waited long enough, he could get away without speaking at all. The old veterans nodded and she continued. “Were all of you drafted or did you enlist and if so, why?”
Silence answered her; the kind of silence that is not a lack of sound, but is something tangible in and of itself. The kind of silence that has weight. Finally, Donnie leaned forward and his cheerful voice broke the tension.
“I enlisted ‘cause I was young and stupid,” he said and Roger loosened his grip on his coffee cup. Donnie had this way of turning everything into a joke. Maybe this wouldn’t go as deep as he worried. “Probably would have been drafted once I hit eighteen, anyways. I grew up with this guy named Jimmy.” Donnie ran a hand through his snow-white beard. “The punk used to make bottle rockets and we’d fire ‘em off in vacant lots up on Whiskey Ridge. There’s a bunch of houses there now. Almost blowed up my garage one day makin’ ‘em. Dad made us scrape the scorch marks off the cement.” Donnie laughed and the other veterans laughed with him visibly relaxing. Then he grew quiet, tapping his cup on the table. “Jimmy and I went down to the recruiters the day I dropped out of high school. We shipped off together but I didn’t see him after that. Mom told me he got blowed up by a missile just a few months after.”
So much for lighthearted. Henna scribbled away and just as Donnie finished, Lonnie began to speak.
“I was drafted but I figured it was my time. America always won. We was the good guys. Guess I expected that we’d come in and take names just like with all them other wars. “ He stroked his beard, his fingerless leather gloves a stark contrast to the wiry, gray hair.
“Me, Donnie and Ronnie grew up in a military family. Our father fought and his father fought. I don’t know about this idiot,” said Lonnie, gesturing to Donnie. “But I figured it was our war and our time to make the family proud.”
“Drafted,” said Steve.
“Drafted,” said Roger hoping to leave it at that.
The first question was done. Two more to go. Roger eyed his friends, gauging their demeanor. The brothers seemed a tad more sober, but no worse for the wear. Steve stared blankly at the table as if the secrets of the world were carved into its wood. He looked old and it wasn’t because the light was catching his bald head like a polished stone. No, it was his face. He looked his age when his face was slack, like it was waiting for some kind of input. His thinking face, that’s what he called it back when the two of them worked together at the old shop. How many years ago was that? Decades, really. Roger could practically smell the Jack Daniels off that old troll. He used to run them ragged, his metal arm was evidence enough, but Steve and him had come out as brothers.
After wrapping up her notes, Henna cleared her throat and asked, “How has your perspective changed since serving?”
Steve exhaled and ran a hand over his bald scalp. “You learn what you’re made of. I thought by fighten’ I would earn my stripes. These fellas all know I’m a crack shot. I could hit them targets three hundred feet out. It’s a whole lot harder to pull the trigger when there’s another person standin’ behind it. And back then, you know, I felt bad about hesitatin’ cause one second can cost you your life but I don’t as much now. Should be hard to shoot. Should be hard to kill.” Sighing, Steve folded his fat fingers and rested them on his round belly. Donnie grabbed his shoulder and gave it a small shake.
Leaning forward, Lonnie started up. “When we was kids we used to sit around our grampa’s feet. Listen to stories about World War I and his days as a pilot. All the dogfights and the glory. And around the dinner table, our dad would talk about how the military taught him obedience. I don’t think any of us are any better at followin’ the rules, though.” Lonnie paused while Donnie laughed. “I will say one good thing came out of it and that was the camaraderie. You’d stand there, all lined up, and it didn’t matter if you was an orc or an elf or a dwarf. Heck, there was even this halfling fella. He was faster ‘an all of us at gettin’ past the tripwire ‘cause he could practically walk under it. You’d have your platoon and they was your brothers. Didn’t matter what they looked like or what they believed in. You knew they had your back even when no one else did.”
The other dwarves nodded in agreement and Roger took a sip of his coffee. Just a handful of soldiers were left of his platoon and it wasn’t because of old age. A faint ringing resounded in the back of his mind. Henna met his gaze apprehensively but she pressed in regardless. One question left.
“How was the adjustment coming back?” she asked with far less hesitance than the first two questions.
“We couldn’t talk about it,” said Lonnie.
Confusion twisted Henna’s expression and she stopped writing. “Really? Not even to other veterans?” The ringing grew louder.
“I mean, I talked to Donnie ‘bout it,” said Lonnie. “But you can’t talk to other veterans if you don’t know who they are. It’s not like nowadays with you kids and you’re computers. We didn’t have that kinda stuff. You couldn’t just look up other veterans. If they wasn’t in your ranks or if you didn’t sign up with them, there was no way of knowing who served. You got home and you had to act like it didn’t happen. It’s what everyone else did.”
Silence once again settled over the table, but all Roger heard was ringing. Tenacious ringing. It rose in pitch, in volume, and there was nothing but the ringing. Then under the rolling timbre was the hush sound of rain. He opened his eyes, he hadn’t realized they were closed, and the jungle spread out before him. He was there and it was here. It was always here. Dense sprawlings of leaves, lush greens, and thick undergrowth. The jungle reeked with magic. And in the violent greens, the black nozzle of a flamethrower in hand. His hands. The trigger clicked and rushing plumes of heat surged forth. An overwhelming heat roaring, consuming the jungle and all its enchantments. All its inhabitants. The smell of burnt hair. Scorched bodies. Just the enchantments, he told himself. It wasn’t real.
Then the gunfire.
He only heard the first few shots. The ringing, the ringing, rising until it was all he heard. In the corner of his eye, the open mouth of his bunkmate yelling at him then seconds later, agape as he laid in the brush. Eyes dead. Hole through his head between his spiraled horns.
Then the silence.
“Roger?” said Donnie. Four sets of eyes stared in his direction. “You wanna say something?”
Of course not. Why would he ever want to talk about the war? What could he possibly say about coming home when a part of him never did? Never would. Yet in the silence, there was the distinct pressure of the unsaid trying, striving to push through.
“No one wants to think about the war,” he said, staring at his metal arm. It felt right to speak. The words felt right and the words kept coming. “I can’t hide. People take one look at my prosthetic and assume I’m a veteran. Think my hand got chopped off in some God-forsaken battle. Funny thing about that is that I came back in one piece. My hand got crushed when a car slipped off its jack in that shack Steve and me used to work in. Place was a dump.”
“Sure was,” said Steve, smiling empathetically.
The words kept coming, spilling, gushing and Roger continued. “Most of what I wonder about is why. Why I walked away when most of my platoon didn’t. That jungle was nothin’ but trees before the battle. Least not to me. But when I think back to it, all I can see is the dead bodies. Didn’t matter what side. Now it’s just a grave. All them deaths made the place a grave. There’s that speech that Lincoln gave. Can’t remember where but I remember what he said. It was somethin’ ‘bout how the death made the ground holy. How the bloodshed consecrated it. I think about that a lot. About the jungle and how it’ll never be the same. The trees might grow back but the bones will always be there under the mud.”
The silence returned but it wasn’t heavy or deafening. It carried an air of sovereignty, like a set apart moment in remembrance. Even the warm of hum of conversation from nearby tables had a hush respect.
Henna thanked the old veterans for their time and gave each a free coffee voucher. Just as Roger stood up to throw out his empty cup, Henna looked at the dwarves with an unreadable expression. “Thank you for your service.” And with that, she was gone.
Roger turned to Steve. “You gonna finish that danish?”
“Nah, go ahead and have it.”
Stuffing the entire cold danish in his mouth, he gave a subtle wave to his fellow veterans as he walked away. He bought another cup of coffee to go. The bell on the front door rang brightly and the crisp, fall air rushed upon his face. Winter was around the corner but he wasn’t afraid of the cold. Not with a full beard. Besides, the cold atmosphere threw the best sunsets and the frozen sky lit up with pinks and pale yellows like a soft flame.
The orc in the wheelchair was still there (as he expected) and Roger handed him the coffee without a word. He crossed the street, entered his shop and went straight into his office. Instead of retreating to his chair, he fished a set of keys out of his top desk drawer, a silver pony on the key fob. He rolled open the garage door and smiled. Waiting for new seals was a Pebble Beige 1967 Fastback.
The blue letters on his license plate. Sight.
The roar of the engine. Sound.
The chemical reek of exhaust. Smell.
The black leather of the steering wheel. Touch.
The lingering zing of rosemary on a goat cheese danish. Taste.
He pulled onto the corner of 3rd and Wormwood. The leaves that shaded the shop during the summer now lined the sidewalk like a yellow brick road and the nearby trees stretched their bare arms to the sky. As he cruised downtown, the hood of the car was as vivid as a liquid sunset. The vast spectrum of city lights gleaned off its surface and he thought about how the paint job was like a pool of color, clear as crystal, clear as his mind.
He was home, and for that, he was grateful.