From the Spoils of War, Comes Hope
Author’s note: From my X-Files Rat and Bear universe; warnings at the end.
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Veteran’s Day, not what I consider a major holiday. It’s rather depressing if you’d ask me, but no one ever has, so I keep my opinions to myself. Walter, on the other hand, has this morbid reverence for the day. I don’t quite understand it but there it is and I respect him for it.
This day is unlike Memorial Day with its fancy parades and barbecues, the unofficial beginning of Summer. Veterans' Day has its parades too but they’re somber affairs, quiet until the twenty-one gun salute.
Nor is this like July 4th with each city trying to outdo the other in the fireworks department. We’ve both had enough of the smell of gunpowder to last us many lifetimes. We prefer our town’s festival and then we all assemble at the high school auditorium to watch the New York City firework display on the big screen. Little mess and no smell of gunpowder. Except for that one year when the Grayson boys found their grandfather’s hooch and drank too much of it. They got off several rounds of buckshot before the sheriff marched over and confiscated their shotgun. He threw their asses in a cell to sleep it off and to keep old man Grayson from tanning their hides.
Never a dull moment in a small town.
And then here’s my Walter, quietly watching another old WWII movie. This one with Audie Murphy, a true war hero, not like those Hollywood manufactured ones. We’ll be spending the rest of our day doing little else.
The movie just finished and I hand Walter a cup of the strong Russian coffee that I like to make and a thick sandwich. He won’t admit it but watching these movies are an emotional drain on him. During this break between movies I found a MASH marathon so I temporarily hide the remote. War is never funny but I’ve always found MASH to be the exception.
Walter laughs and I slap him on the back when he chokes a bit on his sandwich as Radar says, “Wait for it!” then runs off to meet an incoming helio of wounded. For some reason, Radar O’Riley always makes Walter laugh. I don’t care what the reason is as long as it breaks Walter’s morose mood for a while.
Over the years I’ve tried to get Walter to tell me about his time in the service. He was a bonafide Marine and a decorated war hero of the Vietnam War. But Walter won’t talk. This man became a lawyer then a highly respected FBI agent, no one can make Walter Skinner talk if he doesn’t want to. Believe me, I’ve tried. And pillow talk doesn’t count.
So I watch with him and hope he doesn’t decide to drink something a lot stronger than coffee. I’ve dealt with an enraged Walter before. Hell, I’ve been shot by an enraged Walter, but a drunk enraged Walter is another creature altogether. One I’d rather not know.
By the end of the night, I’ve had my fill of war movies. “Back to Bataan,” “The Battle of the Bulge,” “Schindler’s List,” and the big one, the one that reduces my Walter into a one hundred and eighty pound mass of quivering goo, “Apocalypse Now.”
He’s shell shocked but I manage to get him into the shower. I join him. This isn’t about sex or fun and games; this is me, keeping him upright and in the present. The past is way too terrifying for both of us.
I’ve built a nice fire in the fireplace in our room. The temperature has dipped below freezing and Walter, my own personal furnace is feeling cold. He’s dressed in soft flannel sleep pants and an old worn out FBI t-shirt. I’m wearing a pair of sweat pants and nothing else. I have my Walter to keep me warm. I give the logs another poke before attaching the safety screen. Then I climb into bed next to Walter.
“Thank you,” a low graveled voice says in the darkness. The flames cast strange shadows on the wall.
“For what, Walter?”
“For being there with me today. For putting up with my yearly nonsense.”
“It’s not nonsense. It means something to you and like you said, I only have to do it once a year. I can deal with it,” I say trying to lighten the mood.
“How old were you in ‘68?”
“About four. You?”
“Eighteen and marching off to war. I enlisted. I bought into the rhetoric of keeping our country safe, of following in the footsteps of our great war heroes. Little did I know.”
“You were a kid, Walter. How could you know?” I turn in his arms. He finally wants to talk about it.
“I was wounded, did you know that?” I nodded slightly. I had learned all there was to know about Walter Sergei Skinner. He was my assignment at one time. “My unit was ambushed, I was shot up and left for dead. I wound up in a body bag with a toe tag. As I was about to be loaded onto a truck to be processed, a tech opened the bag to check my dog tags. He later told me he saw a tear slip from my eye. A dead man doesn’t cry. The next thing I knew I was in an Army hospital stateside. My parents were in my room. My mother holding my hand and crying.”
“Shit.” I knew all this but hearing him actually telling me, speaking about it, made it all real, and not just a dossier I was ordered to read and memorize.
“It took me nearly two years to recuperate.”
“You were lucky, many of them never did.” We don’t elaborate on my statement. Most of the boys that made it out of that hell, relived it over and over in their heads. Others, so physically damaged that they may have been better off dead.
“I was sent to a convalescent home. I remember it was on a lake. It was so peaceful. I remember a family of ducks paddling all in a row. Chipmunks were scampering up and down small trees and hiding in burrows near the roots. Everything smelled so alive.”
I smiled and gently ran my fingers across his face and down his furred chest.
“The home was near a public park that shared the lake. I would walk, hobble with my cane to one of the benches near the lake. I enjoyed watching kids playing and young mothers strolling with their babies. There was one little boy, I watched him every day for about two months. He’d play with his toy gun. I watched him sneak up on squirrels, damn near caught a couple of them. He was a beautiful boy with coal black hair and a tiny button nose. His eyes were like big green emeralds shining in the sun especially when he looked up at his mother.”
I close my eyes fighting back the tears and grateful for the darkness.
“His mother was beautiful, petite and with the same black hair and piercing green eyes. She spoke softly in Russian. I remember a little of it from my grandmother. Every day mother and son would come to the park and every day she’d watch him play on the edge of the lake.”
Walter sighs heavily; I'm not sure if he'll continue. I almost pray that he won’t.
“One day, I managed to get to the bench without using my cane. I was so proud of myself and sad that I had no one to share my triumph. The woman and little boy had just made it to the lake, she turned and I guess she must have noticed me and the lack of walking stick. She smiled and nodded and then collapsed on the shore. Her son began to cry and called out her name. I froze and then tried to run toward them but my legs wouldn’t work. I was about to shout for help when a man, an older man came out from behind a large tree.”
Oh, fuck, I think to myself. “Walter, don’t.”
“I have to, Alex.” And I nod. “That man sent chills up and down my spine as he called out to the boy in broken Russian. “Come here, Sasha,” he said and the little boy went to him. The boy was still crying for his mother. “Wait!” I shouted at him. But a truck pulled up and a couple of goons came out. One took the woman and the other held the crying boy. I demanded an explanation, I was a Marine, I survived a war, I shouted. But the old man just sneered. “Not now, young Skinner, you have more growing to do,” he said in that cryptic tone of his. He was close enough to me, that I couldn’t help notice how he reeked of cigarettes. It made me so lightheaded that I had to sit.”
“What happened then?” I ask but somewhere in my memory, the little boy already knows the answer to the question.
“Sasha cried. He cried for his mother and sobbed for help. I tried but my legs, my fucking legs were too tired and I didn’t have my cane. All I could do was shout, “I’m sorry,” in Russian and prayed the little boy could find it in his heart to forgive me.”
“He has, Walter, he has forgiven you,” I say to him as I hug him close and whisper in Russian how much I love him.
We’re both crying now. Crying for the young war hero, battered and beaten by a war that no one would ever sing songs about and for the boy, stolen from his mother and turned into a weapon to fight in another war.
And we cry, for somehow we were able to find each other after all those years, both veterans of horror and both here to find the love in ourselves and each other.
Another year, another anniversary with hope, love and prayers for peace.
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Author’s warnings, of a sort:
This is my entry to the Moonshadow Tribe Prequel Challenge for the Tribe’s 6th anniversary. So little is documented as back story for the characters from the X-Files that I have relied on what others in this well established fandom have put together. I thank all of those wonderful writers and researchers.
What made me write a story with a Veterans' Day theme? Many reasons.
First, our anniversary is just before the beginning of November and this year our country will be holding an election to determine our next president. And then there’s Veterans' Day.
As a child of two WWII vets (yes, my mother had enlisted because several of her male cousins had), I grew up on war stories. My uncle had enlisted during the Korean War and a cousin during the Vietnam Conflict. This cousin who before going off to war had gotten a scholarship to Julliard for his operatic tenor voice. He came home after that conflict unable to sing for over thirty years.
My own father was a POW in the Philippines, captured and
forced to march toward Bataan. He obviously escaped or I wouldn’t be here to
write. It was he who’d quietly watch the WWII movies and cheer for Audie Murphy
and cursed at John Wayne who never served unless it was on the screen. So I’d
sit next to him and watch the old black and white films and then ask if it was
true what we saw. He’d give that look like I was nuts and then tell me about the
horrors that no one ever reads about in the history books.
So I dedicate this story to our war veterans and pray that we elect ourselves someone with sense to bring our children and loved ones home. And to my Tribe, who have taken me into the fold and allow me this outlet to express myself.
May we celebrate this anniversary in peace and in hope.
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