Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.
-Arthur Miller, The Ride Down Mt. Morgan.
Emily wrapped one of her mother’s bone porcelain tea cups in paper and placed it with the matching set into a cardboard box. She sealed the top of the box with packer’s tape and wrote China with a black marker. “Here’s another one, Jake,” she called to her son.
“I’ll run it down to the car,” he said, coming out of the den. He had something under his arm.
“What’s that?” She asked him.
“It’s the rest of grandpa’s war medals,” he said. “I’m going to take them. They’ll look great in my apartment, a real conversation starter.” Emily didn’t say a word. She stared at the shadow box for a long moment, absent-mindedly chewing on her lip. A million thoughts flitted through her mind like the harried flight of a hummingbird on a summer day, seemingly random and chaotic. Her feelings were conflicted and complex.
“No,” she said finally. “Those should be Uncle Alex’s.” Even as the words came out of her mouth, she surprised herself. Before all this started, she was angry and jealous. |She assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that her brother would be heavily favoured. All the fight escaped from her with the urgency of a deflating balloon. Now she felt sad and embarrassed. She’d been so focused on what Alex was getting that she lost sight of what was really important. Even as she contemplated splitting her share with Alex, Clive had been talking about spending it on a boat. It was ridiculous, of course.
For as long as she could remember her whole life really, she’d always been her brother’s rival. When they were kids, she was the bratty little sister, tagging along everywhere he went uninvited. As they grew, that rivalry grew too. If Alex did well in school, she had to do better. Alex got married to his high school sweetheart, so did she, marrying Clive way too young. She was barely out of high school. Her mother liked Clive well enough but she always felt that Emily should have dated more, experienced more of life before settling down. Everyone was so happy when Alex married Genie. Emily wanted that too. Children, jobs, everything became a competition. She didn’t even know what the prize was supposed to be, just that she wanted to be better, more appreciated. Loved. It was strange because she was loved. Her parents never showed preference to her or Alex.
“But I want them,” Jake pouted. “The will didn’t say anything about these medals.”
“I know but they should go to Alex,” she said. “It seems right that it gets handed down from father to son.” Emily couldn’t put her finger on it but it felt right that Alex get all the medals. She had no idea why her dad kept the one medal aside and Brennan wouldn’t tell her when she visited him at the hospital in the morning. It was only for Alex to know, which infuriated her. She looked at the medals mounted in the shadow box, pausing at the place meant for the France and Germany Star. Each of the medals told a story, but the empty spot spoke volumes. Jake, muttering about the injustice of it, put the shadow box down and picked up the cardboard box, carrying it to the car parked in the underground parking garage.
Clive poked his head out from behind the den’s door. He had come over after work, still wearing his suit. It was a smart navy pinstripe, with a stark white shirt. He wore a novelty tie, emblazoned with cartoon characters. He liked wearing funny ties. He felt it gave him an edge when talking to his customers. It was a built-in icebreaker. He wore his dark hair slicked back and reeked of inexpensive cologne. He was the stereotypical used car salesman. “Why shouldn’t he have the medals? It’s not like Alex ever mentioned them,” he said. “Besides, Jake should have something special because Lorne is getting so much.” Clive knew just which buttons to press. Emily felt anger rising from deep within her. Why shouldn’t Jake get them? Jake deserved to have something special to remember his grandfather. Every time he looked at those medals, he’d fondly remember grandpa. Emily shook off those thoughts. The medals were rightfully Alex’s and Jake had no claim on them. She had to remind herself of that several times.
“They are going to Alex,” she said firmly. Clive looked ready to argue but backed down when he saw the steel in her gaze.
“If that’s what you think is best,” he said, clearly irritated. Clive retreated to the den, looking for anything of value. He skimmed the bookshelf. All those old paperbacks were worthless. They probably weren’t even worth the effort to haul off to the used bookstore. He made his way to the desk. There was a green hued ceramic bowl on the desk with Brennan’s wallet and car keys. He opened the wallet, found no cash, and returned it to the bowl. He picked up the key chain and put them in his pocket. No matter what, Dolores was getting that car. She deserved it. They all did. Where was Alex through this whole ordeal? Sulking on the other side of the country like a big baby. So what? His marriage fell apart. It was a long time ago. It was way past due for him to put on his big boy underpants and move on.
Emily was there. She did everything. Why shouldn’t she get everything? Lorne was there too, Clive admitted, but he downplayed his role. Emily was the one and she should be rewarded. He wasn’t sure where her head was at. He casually mentioned buying a boat, several times now, but she pooh-poohed the idea as impractical. She said that now, but he knew she would love it once she was out on the open ocean, the salty air blowing her hair as the blue-green rollers carried them away. She would love it, he reassured himself. Who wouldn’t?
Clive opened the desk drawer and found the envelope stuffed with cash. He thumbed through the bills and his heart skipped a beat. This was a good chunk of cash. He slipped the envelope into his jacket pocket. He deserved something too.
Alex stood at the doorway to his father’s room, collecting his thoughts and calming his nerves. He really didn’t want to have this conversation but at least resolved to stay calm. It would do no good to lose his temper. After a few seconds he lightly rapped on the door and went in. Brennan was lying on his bed, swaddled in a blanket like a newborn. Tubes and wires ran from his body and connected with various blinking, humming machines. Alex wondered if this was what Mary Shelley had in mind when she wrote Frankenstein or was this even more horrible than her imagination could conjure.
“Dad? Are you awake?” He asked in a low voice. Brennan stirred and turned his head, his eyes meeting Alex’s. He seemed to be confused and it took a moment for him to gather his thoughts.
“I’m awake,” he said. His voice sounded raspy, unused. “Come in. Have a seat.”
Alex pulled the chair close to his father’s bedside
He reached over and took his father’s hand from under the blanket and held it. The older man grasped his son’s hand with what little strength he had left.
“I found the cigar box,” Alex said, cutting right to the chase. “I don’t understand.” Alex tried to continue, but he had to stifle a sob. Brennan sighed heavily, and the two remained quiet for a fleeting eternity.
“I suppose I owe you an explanation,” Brennan said, his soft voice carrying a lot of weight. Alex nodded his head in agreement. “Let me finish my story. When the war started I was just a kid. I didn’t know a damn thing, but I sure as hell thought I did. Funny how that works. It’s not until you’re an old man that you finally realise how little you know. Sit me up,” Brennan said. “I can’t talk lying on my back like a corpse.”
Alex found the controls and pressed the recline button, raising the bed so that his father was sitting in a prone position. How’s that?” Alex asked.
“Better.” Brennan was quiet and Alex noted the tears collecting in the corner of his eyes. “Where did I leave off?”
“You were separated from your troop and got stuck behind enemy lines,” Alex reminded him.
“Ah yes. How exciting to hear someone else tell it. It sounds like the tagline of a Hollywood movie,” Brennan said, a wry smile on his face, just visible from beneath the breathing tube connected to his nose. “I remember the first man I killed,” Brennan said. “I sometimes wonder if I got the short end of the stick in the deal. For him, death was quick and merciless. For me, it’s been long and agonising. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not ashamed of myself.”
“Let me finish,” Brennan interrupted. “You need to hear this.” Alex nodded his head again. “I managed to find a farm outside a town called Hoopstad in the northeast corner of the Netherlands. It was a small town not far from Apeldoorn and it was heavily occupied by the Germans. I hid in the barn. The Canadians were advancing pretty fast at this point, I figured I’d just lay low until the Calvary arrived but I was found by a boy named Palle De Graaf. He supplied me with some food and helped keep me hidden. He didn’t even tell his family, because he didn’t want any trouble for them.”
“Anyway. During the night, I heard a noise. It was a dull creaking sound. I jolted awake, terrified. My sleep was hardly restful to begin with; sleeping in Nazi territory was more dangerous than sleeping in a nest of vipers. The war was almost over and that made for desperate men. I held my gun ready, afraid that I was about to be caught. Instead, I saw a man crawling out a trapdoor hidden under a blanket of hay. As it turns out, he was the father of a family of Jews. The De Graaf family hid them in their barn for the entire war, protected them. The man, under the cover of night, came out to pump some water from the well.”
“He was outside for only a moment or two before I heard the commotion.” Brennan paused. Tears were freely running down his father’s cheeks and his eyes were downcast shamefully. “I think they were looking for me,” he whispered. “There was a soldier, an SS officer named Hauptmann Erich Klagges.” Brennan spat the name out as though the mere words in his mouth were toxic, as if they could cause him pain. “I would learn from the Nuremberg trials just what kind a man Klagges was. Cruel, vicious, mean. Evil. There were sounds of a scuffle and Klagges dragged the man back into the barn by the scruff of his neck. Klagges had a gun and pointed it at the man’s head. I took aim with my own rifle, I had him in my crosshairs but I didn’t pull the trigger. I had no idea how many other Nazis were outside. I was afraid.”
“Dad, you were just a boy,” Alex said, trying to comfort his father.
“Let me finish, goddammit! Another soldier came in. I never learned his name. Klagges ordered him to search the barn. After a few minutes, the other soldier forced three others from the hidden basement; a woman and two kids. I was so scared they’d check the hayloft that I nearly pissed my pants. Klagges forced the family to the ground and barked questions at them. He was angry. So angry. He slapped the man. The woman begged him to stop and the children began to cry.”
“Klagges shot the man point blank in the head. I fumbled with my gun, but it seemed like my training escaped me. Or I was too afraid. Either way, I did nothing. The other soldier protested. He tried to wrest the gun from Klagges but failed. Klagges shot him in the stomach and he crumpled to the ground. Then, Klagges executed the woman and her two kids. Their screams were ended by the angry report of gunshots, one after the other.” Brennan was crying. “Klagges stood for a moment, surveying the damage he’d done. To add insult to injury, he spat on the man. “Juden,” he said. For a brief moment, my eyes met his, and I was scared to the depths of my soul. I’ve never seen such evil in another man. I thought I’d been discovered, and still I did nothing. I hid in that barn for a day until the Canadian forces finally arrived. It took the German soldier hours to die. I heard his cries and moans throughout the night. They were a perverse melody to the tragedy I’d just witnessed and it’s a song I still hear today.” Brennan slumped back. The emotion of the story exhausted him. He closed his eyes. He was tired, but he couldn’t bear to see Alex’s reaction. He saw it himself every time he looked in a mirror.
Alex didn’t know what to say. He wanted to defend his dad but couldn’t. He wanted to tell Brennan that he was obviously shell-shocked, to provide him with some comfort or solace but couldn’t. For the first time in his life, Alex didn’t think his dad was a hero. Worse, he thought he was a coward.
What’s in a name anyway?
It’s a question first posed by the great bard, but it’s just as relevant today. Especially for the aspiring writer. For most writers, naming their characters is a personal thing. Choosing the right name for your character is a big part of getting your reader’s attention and holding their interest.
Near as I can tell, there are two ways to name your character.
1. Pick a name that sounds good. You’re writing a spy novel and the protagonist is a square-jawed, swarthy, charismatic alpha male. You’re not going to name him Marion Mitchell. He’s got to have a cool name like Jason Bourne or James Bond. (Kudos if you knew that Marion Mitchell was the real name of über manly John Wayne).
2. The name has meaning relevant to the character’s role in your story. If you’re one of the
satisfied millions persistent few that read my first book A Juniper Through The Cracks, you’ll know that’s what I did with the characters in it. Go ahead. Check. I’ll wait.
You’re back. So you see that Ambrose means ever-living, Norma means patterns, and so on.This is a bit harder but adds a layer of enjoyment to the book if you’re willing to do the work.Check Baby names next time you’re reading a book. You might be surprised.
See you next week