THE HAUNTING – SEPTEMBER 11, 2001
He was old. His dog was older. He covered a cough and then another. “Come on Pal.” The Labrador mix started to come. He always came. With pained and halt- ing steps, Pal came.
While he waited for his companion to limp to his side, he coughed again and looked at the left field line. He wiped his face and put his gnarled hand on the chalk dispenser. His faded grey eyes noted the zags. Not as straight as he used to make them. After fifty-one years of lining baseball fields, he knew how to spot imperfections in outfield lines. Yet, despite how badly he wanted to make them straight his body just couldn’t do it anymore.
Pal finally reached him. The old man stretched down and scratched his bone-thin, friend. Pal’s stiff and brittle tail wagged, while his big, brown eyes tried to hide the pain his worn-out body caused. The man turned his eyes towards home. He hated seeing the end of another “best friend,” really, an only friend. Since he had first brought the chubby pup home, Pal had followed his master everywhere for more than fourteen years.
Together they walked home as the sun dipped below the horizon. The two of them lived in a one room, oversized equipment shed. The old man had lived there for half a century. “Here you go Pal.” He lowered a bowl of their evening stew. He watched as his closest friend nudged it away. Pal rested his head on his paws. His pained eyes turned up to his master. Another day of not eating. It wouldn’t be long.
Shaking his head, the old man thought of Tex, Bud, Sal, Ann. He couldn’t do this again. He coughed. He coughed again and again. He wondered if he could just stop eating. He changed and then lay in bed. Sleep never came easy. He looked at Pal curled up by his feet, then his eyes turned to their one small table. With the moonlight creeping in, he saw his two worn photos propped up next to that old leather satchel.
In the first photo, he was sixteen. His brother Walter was four- teen. Their black and white grins stretched ear to ear and his long right arm hung over his brother’s shoulders.
From the second photo, his brother alone stared at him. This picture was taken in 1945, right after Walter turned eighteen. He was perfectly dressed in a World War II Navy corpsman’s uniform. He looked as sharp as any soldier ever had. It was the type of photo that should be in a family scrapbook somewhere, passed down from father to son. But Walter never became a father. There were no sons. No one else living can remember that smile, those eyes. No one else in the world remembers Walter. No one but him.
Knowing it might be hours before he could fall asleep, he turned on the dusty TV. It took a moment for the grainy image to appear, and when it did the old man still couldn’t figure out what he was looking at.
A billowing grey cloud seemed to engulf the screen. As the camera panned out, he realized it was a building. A huge, towering building with fire pouring out from its sides.
The news reporter entered the screen, and as she talked, the vid- eo continued to play in the background. The old man sat there mes- merized by the footage from earlier that day. He watched the north tower crumble. He caught phrases of what the reporter was saying. “Attack on America...” “The Pentagon…” “Survivors…” “At war.”
Feelings rushed over him that he hadn’t felt since listening to the radio with his family on December 7th, 1941. America was under attack!
A reporter started interviewing a man at Ground Zero, and the old groundskeeper turned up the volume. “He’s trapped down there! I’ll be here all night to dig him out. I’ll be here all week if I have to. I’ll do whatever it takes, he’s my brother!”
Hearing that last word, the old man switched off the news as fast as his trembling hands would let him. He sat there with his head in his arms, his body shaking. It wasn’t until Pal licked his cheek that he realized he was crying. Half the night later, he lay there tossing and turning in his sleep.
“Walter! Walter! Get back!” The sounds of the mortar’s explosion and cries of the wounded covered his pleas. He tried to grab at his brother’s arm, but missed by less than an inch.
Cries of “Medic!” and “Doc!” surrounded the crater that was as big as a giant meteor. The Japanese mortar had done its job. Torn Marines lay all around.
The haunting continued. He couldn’t stop his brother. Bullets. Bombs. Death. It was everywhere... He screamed again, “WALTER!”
This scream escaped the dream and rattled the dirty window. Startled, Pal looked up. The groundskeeper sat straight up in bed. Sweat beaded across his forehead as he tried to breathe.
Nightmares like this had haunted the old man for over fifty years. Yet, unlike so many times before, tonight his shaking hand didn’t reach for the photo of his brother. Instead, he picked up the worn, leather satchel.
For over fifty years, he’d protected and guarded the satchel. For over fifty years, he’d lived with the knowledge that the items inside it – letters from the 1800s, a stack of faded and torn pages, and a strange, old musket ball - should’ve gone to his brother. Yet, the old man had been the one tasked with passing the satchel down the Warren family line. These dreams reminded him. He failed on Okinawa. He failed since Okinawa. He failed for fifty years to find the right owner - the next owner - of the leather bag. People called him a hero. All he could see when he looked in the mirror was a failure.