At the end of the world or the last thing I see, you are never coming home, never coming home. Could I? Should I?
“News travels fast, especially bad news; it entertains those who have done nothing noteworthy of their own in this life.” His grandmother told him that once. His grandmother was never wrong. And, as always, on December 7th, 1941, her words proved true yet again.
The breeze off the frozen lake was bitterly cold. Gerard watched it through the window, watched his daughter and her friends build a snowman and attack each other with snowballs as the news coming through the tiny speakers of the radio chilled his heart to the same state as the crystal coated branches. His heart ached and his breathe caught in his throat, not for the men who had lost their lives in Pearl Harbor, though their families certainly had his sympathy, but for the thousands more who effectively died that day but just didn’t know it yet.
He was not an idiot. He knew the president couldn’t possibly take an attack like that and do nothing about it. America would have to join the war that was ripping the world apart. The radio clicked off behind him and silence flooded the room. He could feel her presence, without looking he could tell exactly what she was doing. She stood over the radio, a patient frown no doubt lining her beautiful face.
He shivered slightly, his gaze still focused straight ahead, out the window, watching the violent winter wind abuse the fragile landscape. But it was not the cold that sent chills down his spine. There is no winter wind in Hawaii, he thought. Hawaii seemed so far away. So irrelevant. Pearl Harbor. Nobody in his small quiet home town had ever heard of the place until now. Funny that an attack thousands of miles away would bring his own small world crashing down.
He felt her directly behind him, then a blanket was placed lightly on his shoulders. Its warmth did nothing to comfort his frozen heart. She stayed behind him, her hands winding their way around his neck, her cheek finding rest against his back. Her steady breathing was comforting. Whatever came next, right now she was here and she was his. He leaned back into her embrace.
“Gerard, what are you thinking?” she whispered in his ear.
He sighed. “The world is falling apart, Lindsey. And we have to keep right on living in it.”
The water was cold. Unbelievably, unbearably cold. He didn’t feel it. He didn’t feel anything. Vaguely he heard the orders shouted around him. He saw, but did not process, the flurry of activity. The men beside him leaving the relative safety and calm of the boats in favor of icy water and honor and duty and death. He focused on his destination. The shore was a wall of fire. Why did life have to be such extremes? Was there no common ground? Another explosion ripped through the air as the shoreline erupted in flames once again.
The line outside the army recruitment office had grown almost as quickly as the news of the attack had spread. He looked around him. An entire generation of men was here, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to sign their futures away to Uncle Sam. He couldn’t fault them though. He knew why they did it. He knew the stories of honor and glory and revenge. He knew that Pearl Harbor had sorely wounded American pride. Pride could bring ruin to even the soundest course of action. He would know.
He felt a hand tap his shoulder and turned slowly to the source. He found himself face to face with a short boy younger than him. “Yes?” he asked, still lost in his thoughts.
“Sorry. The…uh…the line…” the boy was awkward and nervous. He gestured towards the line and Gerard turned to see that it had made considerable progress forward without him while he had been thinking.
“Right, sorry,” he muttered to the boy and moved to catch up with the line. He nearly lost himself in his thoughts again when he heard the boy speaking. It took him a few moments to realize the boy had stopped and seemed to be expecting an answer.
He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, what?”
The boy looked at him funny. “You alright man?”
Gerard nodded. The boy continued, “If you say so.” He offered his hand and the man slowly took it. “Frank Iero,” the boy went on. “I was just saying how my uncle was an army man his whole life. Fought in the Great War. Said it was the best thing a man could do to serve his country. Never regretted a second of it. That’s why first chance I got I came down here to enlist. I’m not technically old enough, but my uncle knows a guy who knows a guy who was able to pull some strings and you know how the rest goes. My old man was right set against it. Says I’m too young and all. Since when is it possible to be too young to fight for something you believe in, you tell me that.”
Gerard listened to Frank drone for a while before he felt a tap on his shoulder yet again. “Huh?”
“You sure you’re alright man? I said, why’d you decide to join up?”
Gerard forced himself to concentrate, to focus on the boy talking to him. “I have anger issues.”
Frank laughed, breaking the awkward tension that had begun to grow between them. “You know, you’re ok man. A little odd, but you’re ok.”
Gerard smiled. Inside all he could think was, is ok enough?
He stopped just a few feet from the boat. For a moment he couldn’t think of any fathomable reason to keep going. Honestly, all that lay ahead was death. If he survived the beach, there would be other battles. Even if his body made it through the war more or less intact, the man he used to be would be dead. The man Lindsey fell in love with was not coming home, instead there would be an imposter. If anyone went home to her at all. He turned and looked back at the boat. What a mess life had turned out to be. Then he stopped thinking, fell back on his three months of military training. Don’t think, don’t feel, just act. You are a machine.
He opened the door as quietly as he could manage. She was sitting at the table in the kitchen. Her back was to him but he could tell she knew he was there.
“It’s late, what are you still doing up?” he asked gently. She stood and looked at him. Her eyes were wild, panicked, desperate.
“Tell me you didn’t. Tell me you didn’t do it!” Her voice started as a whisper, quickly gaining in volume until it was a heart-breaking cry. He moved to take her in his arms but she swatted him away.
“How could you? I can’t believe you did would do that without telling me! How could you do that to me?”
“Lindsey,” he reached out to touch her arm. She jerked back violently.
“Don’t touch me,” she hissed.
“Why can’t you understand? I did this for us…”
“For us?! How does this possibly help us?”
“You don’t understand. Why won’t you understand? I thought you of all people would understand! This is something I have to do.”
They were both screaming, but at his final words she became silent.
“Something you have to do?” she asked, her voice deadly quiet. “What about this, huh?” she gestured around her. “What about your home, huh? Your wife, your family? What about Bandit? What am I supposed to tell her? How can I explain to her that her father “had” to leave her? And what if you don’t come home, Gerard? You would just leave us like that? I would have thought that being a husband and father was something you had to do. Are you telling me I’d be wrong?”
He could think of nothing appropriate to say, so he let his silence be his answer.
She nodded. “I don’t think you should stay here tonight.”
He broke his eyes away from the boat and began to search the faces of the soldiers around him. After a moment he found the face he was looking for. Frank stood, looking shell-shocked, a few dozen feet to his right. As quickly as he could, Gerard made his way over to Frank. He reached the younger man and stopped. The look in Frank’s eyes terrified him. The expected fear and confusion was missing. Everything was missing. For a brief moment Gerard had the impression he was looking at a corpse.
He finished packing the last of his things and straightened up, surveying the small room. Satisfied, he picked up his bag and moved toward the door to join his family and wait for his ride to basic. He caught sight of himself in the bureau mirror. The handsome unformed man staring back at him looked strong, confident. Well, nice to know he could fake it if he needed to.
He took a deep breath and left the small room. Entering the lounge he saw his whole family waiting for him and felt tears well up. Bandit was the first to notice him and she leapt off her mother’s lap to run to him. He crouched down and wrapped her in a hug.
“Daddy, do you really have to go?” she asked.
“Yeah Bandy, doll, but just for a bit. I’ll be home before you know it.” He pulled back and held her at arms length, looking deep into her sweet innocent eyes, memorizing her perfect face. “You’ll be good for mommy right?”
She smiled. “The best. I promise.”
He smiled back. “Good.” He ruffled her hair and stood.
Lindsey stood a few feet away, anger still there but sorrow taking its place. He took a step, and she ran into his arms. He held her safe and tight. They didn’t speak but they didn’t need to. After a long time she pulled back and he saw the tears she quickly hid. He kissed her cheek.
Outside a car horn blared. Gerard turned to his parents and little brother. Hugs and murmurs of encouragement were exchanged all around. “You’re going to be alright,” Mikey insisted, and Gerard just nodded. All too soon he was in the army vehicle, driving away from everything he loved.
Gerard grabbed Frank’s arm, and immediately the boy snapped out of his daze. The panic returned.
“Come on! Move!” Gerard yelled, pushing him toward the shore before his panic could get him killed.
Frank hesitated, but slowly nodded and remembered his training. Reach the shore, find cover, hide. Frank nodded again, with more conviction and the two quickly made the shore. Gerard dragged Frank to the nearest battlement. The bullets flew in all directions as the two men sat frozen, trapped in the middle of it.
Gerard groaned as he finished his last set of drills. He definitely felt more fit, but he failed to see how anything they made him do was going to help them when they reached the war. Frank however was ecstatic. The boy’s enthusiasm seemed to have no end. He drove Gerard mad with his endless excitement about the war. The way Frank told it, the two of them were going to end it singlehandedly.
The two had grown close during basic. Frank needed someone to look up to, and the boy kept Gerard’s spirits up. They were unlikely, but somehow perfect friends.
“We have to keep moving!” Gerard shouted.
Frank sat there, frozen.
Gerard grabbed him by the collar, “Come on, we have to go!”
He turned and moved up the beach to the next row of blockades, but realized quickly that Frank was not behind him. He watched as the boy panicked at being left behind. He looked at Gerard, then stepped out from the trench to follow. But he timed in all wrong.
An incoming mortar blew just ten feet from Frank. Gerard watched in horror as the boy’s body flew through the air.
“Frank?” Gerard called. The bunk room was dark, but the boy hadn’t been at mess. Gerard hadn’t seen him all day. There was no reply. He was just about to leave when he heard a choked breath from the back of the room.
“Frank?” he called again, walking further into the room.
He found the boy hunched over the toilet retching. Gerard grabbed a rag and wet it, then held it to the younger man’s face to cool him down.
“There,” he tried to be nurturing. “You’re alright.”
Frank retched again.
Gerard gave him the rag to wipe his face then helped the boy over to a cot.
“It was awful,” Frank muttered. Gerard just nodded. They’d seen combat for the first time that day and he knew Frank’s idealism of the war was shattered.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Frank continued. “They said we’d be serving our country. They never said it would be like this.”
Gerard just nodded, there was nothing to say.
Gerard saw Frank moving, relief flooded him as he realized the boy was still alive, following by panic. He knew Frank had to be badly hurt by that blast. The shells were still dropping, he couldn’t get to Frank just yet.
The music played lightly, the dresses twirled, the laughter rang. None of it could last, but for one night things were going to be happy, no matter what it took. Lindsey stood anxiously with the other wives and girlfriends and mothers waiting for the army busses to unload and bring their men back to them, even if only for a few days.
The doors at the far end opened and uniformed men began making their way into the grand, lavishly decorated ballroom. Slowly the pack of women broke apart as they found the men they were looking for. The room erupted in gleeful cries and tears.
Lindsey watched as Gerard entered the room, hand on the shoulder of a short boy. This must be Frank, from Gerard’s letters. Lindsey watched from a distance for a moment. Gerard was more slight than when he’d left, but he looked strong and healthy.
From the other side of the room a middle aged woman ran to them and pulled Frank into her arms. His mother no doubt, though she barely looked older than Lindsey herself. She wondered briefly how young this boy was, but she blocked such thoughts before her rage at the war could consume her again.
With Frank otherwise cared for Gerard looked around for his wife. When his eyes landed on her he smiled. Then his gaze dropped to her stomach and he gawked. He made his way over to her and they embraced warmly.
“You’re pregnant?” he whispered.
She nodded. “I wanted to tell you, but it just never felt right in a letter. I needed to see you,” she said. He smiled.
“I love you so much.”
“I love you too, Gerard. You have to come home safe.”
They were interrupted by Frank and his mother. Frank was bouncing lightly on his feet, muttering excitedly about introducing Gerard as “the best fucking friend a guy could have in the shit.” The women laughed politely.
Mrs. Iero’s face lit up when she saw Lindsey’s protruding stomach. “Oh dearie! Congratulations! It must be hard with Gerard gone right now, but I trust you’re being taken care of plenty. What a joyous thing for you both in these hard times.”
Lindsey smiled at the woman’s warmth. “Actually it’s just me and my daughter right now. My parents aren’t around and Gerard’s family doesn’t live close, but we manage just fine.”
The older woman tut tutted her disaproval. “Oh my child, that just won’t do,” she cooed. “Your Gerard’s been so kind to my Frankie” Frank squirmed at the pet name “The least you can do is let me help out a bit.”
Lindsey smiled at the older woman, grateful for the kindness. The rest of the night was filled with dancing and laughter and love as the two women bonded and all four tried to forget that in the morning hell would start all over.
He watched as a medic reached Frank and began working. Gerard closed his eyes a forced himself to breathe. It’s going to be ok. He’s just a kid, he’s going to be ok.
The letters were the only solace in the next months. Lindsey grew larger and was infinitely grateful for Mrs. Iero’s help with Bandit and keeping up the house. While the two men got each other through the war half way around the world, the two women helped each other with the war of holding down the home front.
As time went on two things became clear. The war was coming to a head, something big was going to happen. And Gerard was about to become a father of two.
Frank's body stopped moving. It was more than that though, he didn’t just stop moving, he deflated. He sunk right down into the beach at unnatural angles. His head rolled to the side and Gerard could see the empty eyes. Frank was gone. He watched the medic slump back in defeat.
“No!” he shouted, getting up to rush to Frank. Another soldier held him back. His screams carried across the beach to Frank’s unhearing ears.
Lindsey’s screams filled the house.
“You have to push,” Mrs. Iero urged, ignoring the string of profanities pouring from the younger woman. Six hours of labor and they were close. “I can see a head, Lindsey darling, you’ve just got to push.”
She screamed again and pushed as hard as she could. Slowly she could feel the pressure easing. She pushed again and again until finally the baby slipped out into Mrs. Iero’s caring hands and Lindsey slumped back against the pillows.
“It’s a boy.”
Lindsey grinned and held her arms out, cradling her new son as he was handed to her. The doorbell rang. Surprised, both women looked up.
“You rest darling, I’ll get it,” Mrs. Iero offered. Lindsey smiled at her baby boy. She hadn’t considered a name, she had hoped Gerard would be home with her to help pick one. He was perfect, with Gerard’s tiny nose and brilliant eyes.
Mrs. Iero returned and stood in the doorway, tears in her eyes. Lindsey was startled but the sudden change in demeanor, until she saw the letter in her hand. The letter every wife and mother feared. Terror gripped her chest.
“Is it Gerard?” she whispered
Mrs. Iero shook her head. “My Frankie’s dead.”
Gerard sat in the army hospital reading and rereading the letter in his hands. He was about to ship home. A minor injury got him a medal and a ticket out of the war, but Frank was coming home in a box.
He lost himself in Lindsey’s words, to keep from losing himself in the memory of Frank’s empty eyes. Only fragments of the letter got through to him.
…we got the letter…
…can’t believe he’s gone, he was so young…
…his mother is devastated…
…a baby boy….
I named him Frank.