Before we begin, I should say one thing. You will all hate me after this chapter. ;) but it was necessary. Thank you for the reviews, and guess what. I have another story I'm working on that is almost done!

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Please read, review, and remember.

October 28, 1918.

Race sat at the Kelly's table, smiling. Little Zaira was twirling around the room, her arms out to catch herself and singing one of the old songs Medda Larkson, an old friend of the family, had taught her.

He felt happy; smiling had been a rare occurrence since the death of Les.  He remembered the funeral, feeling so strange when they lowered the casket into the ground, and seeing the ground swallow up the young boy he had known so well.

But he shook his head, refusing to think of it now.  There was talk of peace now, after four long years. And maybe if there was talk of peace, then the end was drawing near. He heard the headlines everyday, each a new tale of victory, their troops were finally gaining ground.

There was a knock at the door as the postman dropped off the post. He smiled when he saw the Higgins's crowded around the same table.

"Perhaps I should just give you your mail here, Mr. Higgins." He said, handing Jack the mail for both families.  They laughed and Jack closed the door, laughing gently.  He shifted through the letters then his eyes lit up. Grinning, he handed a letter to Race.

Race's heart leapt at the handwriting on the dirty envelope and he ripped it open, his children gathering around him.  He began to read it.

Dear Pop,

You'll never guess what! I'm coming home! I was wounded; nothing serious I should say before you have a heart attack, just some shrapnel in my leg. But it's bad enough to send me home.  So I'm on the next boat home.

God, I can't wait. There is so much I want to do. I want to see my little sisters and brother, and to tell them everything.  To tell them about all the people I've met, all the things I've seen.

I want to go see all my friends, all of them, and tell them how much I missed doing simple things with them. I want to find some girl and settle down and get married, like you and ma.

Mostly, I want to sit down at the table and shuffle the cards with you, play just one more hand, as we laugh and talk about things I could never talk about with anyone else. You have no idea how much I missed those nights, almost more than anything, pop.

There is so much I want to say; so much I need to do. I'm sorry, pop, for leaving.  You were right. So right. This war, it's not a place for boys. I have seen so much, pop, so much. I'm not a boy anymore; you couldn't be after what I saw.

I miss you, pop, more than I can say. Can't wait to see you all.

Your loving son

Vinnie.

Race brushed away the tear that drifted down, and smiled. Vinnie was coming home.  The children looked happier than Race had ever seen.  Their brother was coming home! Vinnie was coming home. Then, maybe, he could get on with his life.

"Race." Jack's voice was barely above a whisper. Race turned to him, the smile still on his face, but the joy he felt at his son's letter died instantly at the sight of the small envelope in his friend's hands. He sighed, poor Jack. Anthony now joining Les.

"I'm sorry Jack." Jack shook his head, wiping tears away.

"No, Race. It's ain't fer me." Race's heart leapt into his throat and he jumped to his feet, shoving his chair back and holding on tight to the letter from his son. He didn't want to know. He didn't want to hear, even as Jack pressed the telegram into his hands.

He dropped it as if it burned him.  The world was spinning.  One word flew through his mind.

"No, no it can't be. Not Vinnie." Jack took a deep breath, his voice already hoarse.

"I'm sorry." Goddamn those words! They held no meaning, no emotions, spoken out of lack for anything else to say.

"No!" Race shouted. "Vinnie's comin' home! He's comin' home! He said so!" He shook his son's letter.  "He's not! He can't be! He's comin' home!" 

His breath was coming in sharp gusts now, what little air he could get into his lungs at all. He shook his head, refusing to look at the small paper that had just ended his world. 

"No, nonononono! He's comin' home," the sobs were audible now, as tears streamed down Race's face. His children watched, unsure and frightened, having never seen their father like this.

"Race, buddy, I'm sorry. But it is addressed ta you." Jack said, trying to break through to his friend. Slowly, he pressed the letter back into Race's hand. Slowly, Race ripped it open and unfolded it.

Then he let out a sob and dropped it, his courage failing him. Jack picked it up and began to read.

Dear Mr. Racetrack Higgins,

We regret to inform you that your son, Vincenzo Higgins, was killed in action on October 23, 1918.

Race let out a quiet sob. So that was it. After all that, that was all they had to say. That was how they tell you your son is dead. Just like that, your son is dead, have a nice day. 

Slowly, his legs refused to support him and he slipped to the ground, sobbing. Zaira climbed into his lap and he held her tight, rocking her back and forth.  Dino and Marina fell in beside their father, silent tears on all their faces. 

Race's chest shook, god, why? Why a good boy like Vinnie? Why promise to bring him home and then snatch him away again.  God, my son. Race's arms tightened around his remaining children as if to make sure they were there, that they would not slip away from him as well.  Jack and Sarah could do little for their friend, as he cried.

Race shook his head through his tears. Why? Did someone up there hate him? Why did they keep taking his family from him?  It wasn't fair! God, it wasn't fair!

"Papa, why did Vinnie have to die?" the small voice only sent him over the edge and Race cried as he had only cried once before.

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November 3, 1918.

There was something final about burying someone, Race had decided long ago. Once they're in the ground, they aren't coming back up. It was almost like a closure, giving just a bit of absolution to the grieving.

But not when the casket you are lowering into the ground has no body.  Vinnie's true grave was hundreds of miles away, in some field in the north of France. His body, among millions of others, was somewhere in a place where his family would never find it.  So the grave given to the Higgins family was empty.

Race stood by the grave and watched as the priest began to say his part. Tears, silent, salty, and hot, rushed down his face, never stopping, never ending, just always coming.

The fresh grave had been placed next to that of his wife and his parents, but there was something very different about this burial. It had no meaning, no sign of closure or end. No way to cease the grieving.  His son had died for nothing, for nothing! And he wasn't even allowed to properly bury the boy in his hometown next to his mother or his grandparents. No, Race wasn't allowed that luxury, he wasn't that lucky. 

Some folks got their sons back, all Race got was an empty box. A coffin with no body, a letter with no sympathy, a promise with no chance of fulfillment.

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November 26, 1918.

            Crowds covered the London docks on that foggy morning, anxious to see the first boys home from the war.  Parts of the area were crumbling from wear and tear of war, but the people ceased to notice. It was over and it was time for the men to come home.

            And come home they did. From all parts, they returned, very different men than they had left. War makes one grow up very fast. And even the youngest were now older than their time.

            For many men, it was a relief, an end to the horrors of war. To come home and move on, to pick up their lives and get on. But others would forever be changed by the things they saw and the people they met. And one man would always remember the  boy who gave up his life so that he might see his son.

            Davis Hartford stepped off the boat as the rain began to fall.  It started as a light drizzle and then began to pour. The crowds on the dock waved and cheered as their boys returned, waving hats and handkerchiefs, ignorant of the fact that the boys they had sent away were returning old men.  They took little notice of the rain.  Hartford saw little save one face in the crowd with long blond hair and bright green eyes.

            She ran to him, throwing her arms around him and kissing him hard, forgetting herself for a moment as her husband was returned to her. After the kiss, the two clung to each other, holding each other, simply so relived to be back in the arms of the one they loved.

            When they drew apart, oblivious to the scenes around them all identical, the woman waved her arm and a smaller woman in a shabbier cloak came forward, a small bundle in her arms. The man took the little baby and smiled as the child waved his arms and legs.

            He looked at the child's deep brown eyes  and smiled.

            " We waited for so long for you  to come home.  He needs a name." She said, brushing back a long curl of dark hair on the baby's head. Hartford nodded.

            "I know just the name."  He said, his eyes misty, as he remembered a not so long ago and a boy who was so much more than he seemed.  " His name is Vincenzo."

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 December 24, 1918.

Race wanted nothing more than to run away, run and hide from the inevitable. He didn't want to see Jack get his son home, be able to hold him and kiss away all the pain, all the suffering. He didn't want to see Jack get what he never would.

But he was here, on Christmas eve, their second Christmas without Vinnie, being a "good friend," here with his family and a fake smile plastered on his face,  hiding emotions he could never express. He'd never been jealous of Jack, never in all their years as friends, since he was ten years old. Never once had he envied his best friend, but now he did. Now he wished for the one thing Jack had that he didn't. His son.

The two months had done little to soothe the pain he had felt when receiving that little slip of paper that had destroyed him once again.  He pretended to go on, went back to work, took care of the children, but he didn't laugh. He didn't joke with the kids, didn't  smile. His face remained cold, and every once and a while, tears would well up in his eyes as he thought of something Vinnie would like to see or do, then remember he was not coming home.

The train had pulled up long ago, and soldiers were still pouring out. Race watched them, still hopeful that maybe, just maybe, he might see a familiar face in the sea of those who had left boys and returned men older than their time.

"Pop?" Jack whirled around at the voice and took his son in his arms. Anthony held on tight, wrapping his arms around his father, and holding on as he hadn't since he was a small boy. He did the same to his mother and his sisters.

But then, he saw the father of his murdered friend.  Tears flooded his eyes as they hadn't since that dreadful day. He wrapped his arms around the surprised Racetrack and sobbed.

Race patted him on the back, but then held the boy close as he sobbed and whispered two words, "I'm sorry."

They took him home and put him to bed, Jack lingering just to make sure he was truly home. Race went upstairs and stared at the bed, which had remained empty for so long. There would be no boy home from the war sleeping in that bed. That boy was sleeping forever in a field somewhere in France, never to return.  Race curled up in the bed and let the tears fall, trying his hardest not to wake the children.

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December 29, 1918.

Race sat at the Kelly table once again, once again facing something he did not want to know. Anthony had agreed to  tell them how Vinnie had died, provided that they never ask anything about the war again.

Race could see the change in the young man. He was pale and thin. His hands shook often and loud noises sent him into a panic.  His eyes, once so full of light and the same spark of mischief that had twinkled in his fathers, now shown no more. They were glassy, and empty, the windows to his soul shut tight.   His voice was soft and like a child's,  needing comfort and guidance. A year in the front lines had reduced the proud young man to a timid  frightened boy.

Anthony began, taking a deep breath and no doubt wishing he was anywhere but here.

"It wasn't anything bad, nothing life-threatening." He said, his voice soft, but no one even moved so he was heard as if he'd been shouting. " Just shrapnel. We'd seen it a million times.  I took him to the infirmary myself. He could walk, though not well. The doctor who examined him, told him he could go home and I'd never seen him so happy. The first thing he did was ask for a pen and paper so he could write and tell you."

Race drew in a deep breath. " I went back to my barracks, and promised to visit him the next day. I didn't want to leave him there. It was horrible, men being dragged in on stretchers, in all sorts of conditions. Some, like Vinnie," his voice choked on the name, " had only minor wounds and were shoved to the side, not even given beds, as those were needed for the more critically wounded, waiting to be sent home or back to the frontlines. Others, died right there in the hospital room, before the doctors could even look at them.  Some were missing limbs, some clinging to the arm that had been blown off, or screaming in pain, from the great gaping wounds on their bodies. I saw one man come in with half his head blown away. He was still alive, but couldn't scream. He couldn't make more than a few moaning noises before they shot him out of sympathy.  Shot him, like you shoot a horse! Right there in front of everyone. And we just turned our heads and looked the  other way."

Whatever Race had been expecting, this graphic depiction was not it. But Anthony continued as if not anther soul was in the room. He was reliving every moment, every horrible image burned into his young mind.

"But it was better than the  battlefield, up to your knees in mud some days, in blood others, fighting with the rats and lice for food. Seeing our friends blown apart or worse, fall victim to the gas."

"The gas?" Jack asked.

"It's like a silent killer, a green and deadly mist, drifting in to settle in the mouths of the men unlucky enough to have not gotten their masks on in time.  Suffocating them, making blood pour from their mouths in painful bursts. It was the worst way to die, because  no one could help you. They stood by and watched as the gas claimed you, dragged you down into darkness." He took a shuddering breath and Race could hear the bones rattle in the boy's chest.

"I was to take Vinnie down to the boats the next day, to be shipped home. But that night there was an attack and when dawn came, the hospital was in ruins.  I tried to go there, to dig through to rubble, see if he was alive, but I was stopped. There were still men alive in there, they said, but the deadly gas was taking its toll and no one could do a thing." 

Race stared at him.  He'd always thought Vinnie had been shot, or died of his wounds. Was he, instead, a victim of that horrible gas?

Anthony began again, " When the gas had cleared, they let us search. The first person they found was Vinnie. He was alive, but only just.  The gas had taken its toll on him and he died while we tried to drag him from the rubble.  He couldn't even say a word, not even to tell me his last wish, and he couldn't hear me for me to say I was sorry.  He just held my hand and I cradled his head in my arms as he died."

Tears were running down Race's cheeks now, soaking the front of his shirt, but he didn't notice.  Anthony's face was wet, but his eyes were blank, so strangely dull, as they had been for so long. 

"He had given his mask to a another man, an older man who we pulled out next. He lived. But Vinnie didn't."  He reached into a small bag by his side and pulled out a battered mud stained book, all too familiar for Race, who took it gingerly.

" He died holding it. He died, wanting to go home." Race nodded and held the book tightly to his chest, as the boy's voice died away. It was all he had left.

That night, after the children had been put to sleep, Race sat, all alone. The night was dark and rain was pounding from the sky in angry torrents, drenching the word with its tears. 

Peace, Race thought, peace had been declared. But two weeks too late for Vinnie. And what had he accomplished? What had he saved? Nothing. The world was worse for the damn war then it had been to begin with, and now, he wondered, how many men like him were sitting up, waiting for sons who would never come home?

Slowly, he poured himself a glass of brandy and lit a cigar. He pulled out the small book, as if it were all he had in the world. As he gingerly opened it, he saw letters.

Gently, he took them out, opening them, and reading. They were the letters he had sent to his son, folded and refolded so many times, falling apart from wear and too much reading. There was a picture, a picture taken just before Vinnie had left, of all of them.  Race looked proud and happy as he wrapped his arm around his eldest son and his youngest daughter.  Vinnie was grinning happily, the youth and idealism still shining in his eyes as they had all his young life of seventeen years.

Race chocked back  a sob as he downed the small glass of brandy in one go. Seventeen years. So short, so little time to do anything he might had done. What had he done in seventeen years? At seventeen, Race had fathered a son, and it had been the best thing, the thing that held the most meaning, the most power for him.  It was the thing that brought the most joy.

Vinnie would never know that joy.  He would never know what it was like to take your first-born baby in your arms and know absolute and undying love for something that was so much a part of you. He would never know how strange it was to want to do anything for such a tiny little thing, a wrinkled wet thing that cries and sleeps and refuses to keep to everyone else's schedule of sleep, and yet never love anything more. He would never know what it was like to want to do anything to make that baby's life better than yours, and to know you had failed.

Slowly, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the frayed and dirty pack of cards the army had had the decency to ship home along with his clothes.  He ran his hand over the tattered pack, hearing a faint distant laugh echoing in the stillness of the apartment.

He shuffled them slowly, imagining the last time Vinnie had done such a thing. Then he began to deal. One card at a time, until he had two piles, one at each end of the table.  Swallowing hard, he picked up the cards and looked at them. 

Tears were streaming down his face as he held the tattered cards in his hands. He watched them shake as his hand shook, but focused his eyes off the empty seat in from of him, a seat that would never be filled.

            He sat, waiting, waiting and staring. Perhaps the night would get lighter, he thought. But in truth, it was only beginning.

For Racetrack Higgins, life would never be easy, it never had been, but many more things were to come in his life. Things that would shake the very foundations of everything he had rebuilt, and every time it seemed things were looking up, the world would come crashing down.

But Race knew none of this. He cared as little for the future as he did for the present, and feared living the rest of his life like he had started it, alone.

It had seemed things had changed, but really they hadn't. The world had many horrors in store for people like Race and all they could do was wait.

Race sat at the table late into the night, as if waiting for something to happen, or someone to walk through the door. Someone who was never coming home.

It was true; they were in a better place, a place without pain or suffering. A place in which they could breathe clean fresh air and live happily in peace.  And watch as their loved ones suffered the heartache the separation caused.

The morning dawned gray and dreary, a light rain sprinkled the ground, covering it in misty tears. People began their day, moved on. But in a tiny apartment on the riverside in Lower Manhattan, a man sat at a table, knowing he could never move on.

The world began again, recovering from the war, to start a new day. But for Race, and millions like him, that didn't matter. That day would never dawn. What those millions needed, what they were looking for was an answer, an absolution that would never come.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Anthem for Doomed Youth
 
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, --
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.