14 Feb Till the Boys Come Home
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"Till the Boys Come Home"Written by Len Lye
Estimated reading time — 6 minutes
Margaret Owen stared out into the distance from her quiet Vermont ranch, taking a break from attending to the oddly large quantity of dishes left in the sink. She never quite considered how the sink managed to be full by every evening, considering her husband works most nights out in town, and her two grown sons are carrying rifles in some strange country in Europe whose name she never bothered to memorize. Of course, she never quite realized how much weight she gained since her sons were shipped off, or how often the contents of the icebox seemed to disappear overnight. Considering her brain often found the need to have bipolar panic attacks at a moment’s whim, it was just as well she did not notice with no one around to tell her otherwise. For the first time in weeks, her mind returned to some fractured aura of reality upon looking from the windowsill out towards the desolate ranch, decayed by months of neglect since the heirs to the land were either dead of phosgene or boredom. God help this war come to an end.
What brought poor Margaret back from a traumatic stupor were the distant headlights signaling her husband’s return from yet another stint in what she sometimes imagined was a glamorized Boston underworld. She placed her dish into the drying rack, going outside to meet her beau without taking off her gloves or apron beforehand. However, immediately upon going outside, she felt an extremely apprehensive force weighing down on her as the car winced to a halt and her husband stepped out. Usually a pathetically hunched man with a seemingly permanent streak of filth across his face, this version of Franklin sported a near-perfect upright posture and a noticeably pale (yet smear-free) gaunt face. Margaret decided this congestive feeling was better dealt with by the hearth, and cleaned up inside before her husband entered. What was before a bright and hearty abode became instantly as desolate-feeling as the decaying ranch outside, and Margaret felt intense chills rolling up her back despite the warmth of the wood stove nearby.
“Franklin?” she weakly asked as she heard her front door open, her heart heavy in the anticipation of seeing her husband for the first time in weeks.
She was answered by slow deliberate steps approaching the living area, and her husband’s sudden appearance in the archway.
He answered with a similar “Franklin,” but in a terrifyingly powerful voice contrasting the normal Franklin’s genteel Northeast drawl. “That is me, correct?”
Margaret suddenly dropped her fearful apprehensiveness to embrace her husband. “How are you my lo-“ but she was immediately dropped back to her chair by The Man Who Looks Like Franklin’s glare. “H-honey?”
“Wilfred Owen is dead,” The Man Who Looks Like Franklin immediately replied, his powerful stare weighing down Margaret like an iron casket. Wilfred Owen, of course, would happen to be the name of Margaret’s younger son, last she heard stationed with a rifleman division somewhere near a large river in France. Then again, it’s also the name of a famous British poet, so either is fair game.
“Franklin, honey?” Margaret again weakly replied, not quite able to register this strange turn of events.
“I’m fairly certain I am not mistaken. Margaret Owen is it? Your eldest son is Chauncey Owen, youngest is Wilfred?” His asking was, of course, rhetorical. There was a deafening silence as Margaret remained speechless in the wake of The Man Who Looks Like Franklin’s gaze, where he realized the dilemma with an nervous smile.
“My apologies, I was never one for tact.” This did little to appease Margaret’s confusion, and she actively considered the possibility that reality had yet to kick in, and this was another elaborate fantasy spurred by many months of endless tormenting loneliness. However, this possibility was gashed by the fact that the fantasy she was experiencing before The Man Who Looks Like Franklin’s arrival had actually little to do with her own husband – rather the children he helped create. This lack of tact on The Man Who Looks Like Franklin’s behalf continued to show, as he was hapless to Margaret’s mental dilemma. Instead, in a noticeable nervous tick of a gaff, he clumsily muttered an apology in the only way he could.
“I tried to spare him, I truly did, but it was not up to me.”
In a show of appeasement, The Man Who Looks Like Franklin became something more reminiscent of the her actual husband, sitting gently next to his “wife” with a tenderness Margaret had not seen since the day their daughter was born. This proximity seemed to spur a flash of intuition, as if an unseen connection suddenly synched the two in a mutual flash of understanding. With this, The Man Who Looks Like Franklin adapted his tactic to mercifully ease poor Margaret’s suffering.
“My love,” he said as his arms subtly wrapped themselves around poor Margaret’s shoulders, “you were off somewhere when you saw my coming, where was it?”
Despite herself, Margaret immediately recognized the meaning of this statement, being she was indeed as far gone as Franklin himself until this present moment – or perhaps still.
“Springfield,” she answered, much more assuredly, as if The Man Who Looks Like Franklin’s touch somehow channeled his confidence as well as his vocal clarity. She finally seemed to understand how this was to play out. “The day our Lord forsook us.”
Briefly spurred with her sudden understanding, not quite realizing his proximity unlocked that quality in people, The Man Who Looks Like Franklin faltered slightly, somewhat shedding his façade. With a forced mien he said, “I remember that day well.”
“I knew you were there, you were always there”
“God was not”
Margaret did not resist, “No he wasn’t.”
“So you forsook him as well”
“Without hesitation. He took our daughter”
“I took her,” he said with a sigh.
“But He allowed it”
This took The Man Who Looks Like Franklin aback greatly, and he paused, “So he did.”
“Is Wilfred really dead?”
“Was it painful?”
“Was it quick?
“Was he alone?”
At this point The Man Who Looks Like Franklin completely dropped his façade, yet remained in the shell of Franklin out of fear, “I was with him.”
“Like you were with our daughter?”
After some rare hesitation, The Man Who Looks Like Franklin answered with a sorrowful yes. Margaret contemplated this for a moment, accepting her fate but considering who was soon to be the only remaining member of the Owen family.
“What of Chauncey?”
The Man Who Looks Like Franklin seemed somewhat offset by this question, but answered honestly, “I don’t know, Chauncey’s fate is in the hands of God.”
“Then my son is doomed”
“It would seem so”
The two remained quiet for what seemed like an eternity, as if stalling the inevitable. Margaret recognized The Man Who Looks Like Franklin’s hesitation, and realized his true disposition. With a sudden gesture he had not seen for decades, Margaret removed his arm from her shoulders and simply put her hand on his. An act so simple and sincere he could not hide the fact he needed that very much.
“You don’t want this,” Margaret said in what was probably a whisper, but resonated in his head greatly.
He answered truthfully, “No.”
“You don’t want any of this”
“I’ve been very busy”
“We all have”
He made his eyes less formidable, revealing their extreme weariness, “I wish I could just… sleep.”
In a sudden display of years of bottled up despair, The Man Who Looks Like Franklin collapsed to the floor in powerful cries that were more reminiscent of screams, shaking the house in a violent tremor that might’ve completely collapsed it had it not been for Margaret’s equally powerful condolence. She gripped his head tightly, shushing him in the same manner she shushed her daughter before she painfully succumbed to the flu.
This seemed to work, as The Man Who Looks Like Franklin let out a breath from his resonating cries, finally letting go of his false form, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault”
“It wasn’t your fault”
“I never wanted this war, I never wanted the flu. I never wanted any of this”
Margaret shushed him even louder, “No one did.”
“I don’t want to take you away”
“You have to”
After a moment, he who finally revealed himself as Death accepted this as his responsibility, “I’ll make it painless.”
“No. I want to suffer, in the same way my children did. I felt their pain bringing them into this world. I want to know how it felt leaving it”
“You don’t want to”
“You feel it every time, don’t you?”
He was silent for a moment, but answered with a weak “every time.”
Death stood up, no longer the postured deity he was before, but a hunched and pathetic mess as true Death would present himself – ironically in the same means the real Franklin would. He faced Margaret, who was standing tall before him making up for the elegance at this moment he lacked, and they both closed their eyes. With one last “I’m so sorry,” the tearful man did his deed.
Death departed the household shortly after, kind enough to leave the body of Franklin behind him.
Credit: Len Lye
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