Fiction: Shell of a Man

Dawn DeBraal

-Dawn DeBraal

They listed Uncle Anton as "missing in action." The entire family went to church praying for his return. The miracle happened several months later when Uncle Anton walked up the sidewalk with a noticeable limp. 

Aunt Erna flew out the screen door and into her husband's arms, nearly knocking him over. Grandpa and grandma were beside themselves. Anton was home again. My mother couldn't stop crying tears of joy, and my pa was grateful to have help on the farm again.

"Why didn't they send us notice? We would have picked you up at the station." Grandpa Clay asked his son-in-law. Uncle Anton shrugged his shoulders. He was a man of few words when he came home.

Our dog Laddie never liked Uncle Anton before he went away and liked him even less when he returned. Maybe it was because he lurked around corners, dragging his bad leg behind him.

Laddie growled a low rumbling while his eyes riveted on my uncle. He was promptly reprimanded. 

Aunt Erna couldn't stand the house's heaviness, and fixed up the summer kitchen, deeming this was their new home for the time being. The war made all of us tighten our belts.

Laddie seemed happier now that Uncle Anton and Aunt Erna had put some distance between them.

The war was ending. More men came home to their loved ones. Only they weren't the same men. They were broken, just like Uncle Anton was. During supper, I asked my uncle if he had ever killed anybody. Ma shushed me and pushed me out of the room, apologizing profusely.  

There were times I wondered how Uncle Anton found his way home. He didn't talk to anyone, answering only in grunts and nods. Aunt Erna didn't seem to mind. She'd read up about shell shock and prayed that he would soon wake from his mental illness and be the man she married.

I admired my Aunt, her sister, and my grandparents. The big farmhouse was full of love, and there was plenty to go around. We raised our crops and lived comfortably for a year after Uncle Anton came home. Still, there was no change in his demeanor, the man ignored us as if we weren’t there.

I walked into the kitchen, listening to ma ask her sister, "When will they give Anton a war pension?" I knew things were tight, but not that tight.

"I don't know. I've asked Anton, there are others worse off than him. I guess one more mouth to feed isn't so bad. He came home, that's the most important thing." My mother agreed with her.

Uncle Anton was out hoeing the food garden when he dropped the hoe and strode into the house. He looked like an empty shell of a man. I remembered him a few years ago as a man full of life who could be funny at times. He used to do magic tricks, pulling coins from behind our ears. I truly believed he was a magician.

Lately, though, it seems like he's faded. It's not like you can see through him or anything, just that he has dulled. I wished Aunt Erna would take him to a doctor, but she says Anton wouldn't go. He is content to be here at home with us. My Aunt has accepted him this way. If it were my dad, I'd send him somewhere until they fixed him.

Uncle Anton dragged his bad leg behind him when he came home, but now he needed a cane. He liked to poke at people to get his point across when angry. I wanted to pitch that stick into a good fire. He used the walking aid to communicate with us, and it was never in a pleasant manner. 

Laddie grabbed ahold of the stick last week when Uncle Anton lashed out at me for being in his way. Pa hollered at the little dog and put him outside. We sat at the table, pretending that didn't happen.
I think we've all gone blind.

There will be no trick-or-treaters this Halloween. There is no money to buy candy. Ma made caramel apples with some sorghum she had in the pantry. We stuck them on forks and set them on plates. My mouth watered.

One morning a black car pulled up in front of the house, two uniformed men stepped out. I was watching them from the parlor window. Grandpa answered the door, calling his daughter to come.
Aunt Erna said hello to them, and they handed her a telegram. She looked at them wide-eyed. Everyone we had in the service had returned. She pulled the telegram open. Her hand went to her heart. I helped her to the davenport as the letter fluttered to the floor. Curious, I picked it up and read it.

"We regret to inform you that the remains of Staff Sergeant Anton Gap. U.S. Army, formerly listed as missing in action, has been recovered behind enemy lines in a shallow grave. Positive identification has been made. STOP. Arrangements to return his body to you for proper burial are forthcoming. STOP. You will be notified when his remains have been returned stateside. STOP."

"That's impossible!" Ma said to the gentlemen at the door. "He came home over a year ago."
I looked out at the pumpkin patch where Uncle Anton had been hoeing just a few moments earlier. The hoe he was using lay on the ground in an empty garden. I ran out the door calling his name, but no one answered.

Had we been tricked? As long as we believed Uncle Anton was alive, he lived with us. Now that we had confirmation of his death, he’d moved on from the farm.

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