Greetings, fellow indie writers and readers! I am Beem Weeks, author of the historical fiction/coming-of-age novel JAZZ BABY and SLIVERS OF LIFE: A COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES. My goal in life is to promote the indie movement to the world. I can be found on Twitter @VoiceOfIndie and @BeemWeeks. I enjoy indie films, loud music, and a well told story. Lansing, Michigan, USA.
Slivers Of Life
Ancient nails and an old horseshoe or two, that’s all the earth saw fit to yield thus far. Still, with each crazy squeal emanating from his metal detector, Chance Zamler allowed yet another wild scenario to creep into his head. Maybe there’d be gold coins next time, he imagined, putting a shine on his thoughts. Or possibly, he’d stumble upon some discarded relic from a previously undiscovered tribe gone extinct long before white men ever reached these parts.
The house itself dated to a time around 1820 or so. But the land—who besides the Almighty Himself could untangle such a long and complicated history?
Chance waved that detector side to side in a far corner of the back yard, out where an outhouse once may have stood. It’s not at all uncommon to reap treasures from the hidden remnants found beneath old privies—glass bottles, usually—the sorts of items not likely to trip a metal detector. But hey, the guy on the History Channel dug up a genuine brass belt buckle that brought him an easy hundred bucks. The theory being, the Civil War piece ended up in the hole when some drunken Union soldier stepped in to relieve himself.
Chance had uncovered lost car keys before, and a pretty nice World Series ring. But that had been on a beach over near Chesapeake Bay. And the ring, it wasn’t even a champion’s reward; it belonged to an equipment manager from the losing side of the 1969 fall classic. Even so, it still put three-hundred dollars in his pocket. And just how had it ended up buried in the sand on a Maryland beach anyway? He often wondered. Maybe its rightful owner wore his prize to prove he’d been part of something almost special, a near-miss moment.
Mystery this time came in the guise of an insignificant rise in the earth where his wife intended to sow her garden. Chance’s side-to-side wave condensed into shorter movements, a circular focus meant to fix in on whatever lay hidden away beneath that dirt mound.
The detector’s chirp issued strong, insistent, like the determined warning of an oriole bent on protecting its nest.
Chance’s pleadings came tucked beneath his breath. “Not another nail, please.”
But neither nails nor horseshoes stirred the detector the way this latest find had managed.
The spade came to his eager hand. Hard soil fought against his intrusion. Secrets buried two feet under now caught hold on the afternoon sun; gold sparkled in the light.
Chance’s voice rose high. “Honey,” he hollered. “Come see what I found!”
* * *
“How do you suppose they ended up in the ground?” Anna Zamler asked from across the table.
Chance wagged his head. “Doesn’t make sense. They weren’t in a box or anything. It’s like someone just dumped them in that hole and covered ’em up.”
But why do a thing like that to something so personal?
He took up the Purple Heart, traced its smooth contours with the tips of his fingers. “This one means he’d been wounded in battle,” he explained, “—or maybe even killed.”
The engraving on its back whispered a name: James K. Ralston. And a date still remained; Nov. 10, 1918.
Anna moved closer to her husband. “That’s the day before the armistice ending the First World War,” she said, recalling an answer on some history quiz from a few years back.
Chance met her gaze. “You’d think his next of kin would cherish such things, pass ’em down to later generations, keep ’em in a safe place.”
Anna’s soft blue eyes found focus on some far-off time when neither she nor Chance would remain to dictate the who and where of their last earthly possessions. “Maybe our great-grandchildren will be better than that.”
Altogether, these medals added up to an impressive résumé, spilling details concerning the doings of someone once deemed special. The Bronze Star, for instance, meant heroic or meritorious achievement. A Silver Star signified gallantry in action. And that Medal of Honor—Congress never did just hand those things out like so much Halloween candy.
Anna rose from her seat, retrieved a pitcher of tea from the refrigerator, refilled her glass. “Maybe he once lived here,” she suggested.
“I don’t think so,” said Chance. “There aren’t any Ralstons on the land deed—and that goes back well over a hundred years.”
“Then how’d they end up buried in our backyard?”
* * *
His fingertips trod the keyboard lightly, tapping at all those requisite letters necessary in stringing together this mystery man’s name.
“Thank God for Google,” said Chance to nobody in particular.
His eyes absorbed the neat lines lying even along the screen, fixing on loose nuggets of information dropped here and there within the vague text, deciphering the random details of a life long gone.
Anna broke from her housework, dipped inside the den for an update. “Any luck?”
“He was born in Syracuse,” Chance explained, “—way up in New York. July of eighteen-ninety.” He scrolled down into the muck of it all. “Single mother, no father, by the looks of it.”
“Scandalous,” Anna teased.
A photograph caught the scroll, rode it to center screen.
“That’s him!” Chance exclaimed, staring at the grainy image of a doughboy spoiling for a fight. “And he’s wearing the medals, too.”
Anna dropped low for a better view of the handsome young soldier just home from the war. “Check for next of kin,” she said. “You know, brothers or sisters, someone who might still be around.”
“He was twenty-eight when he posed for that picture. That was ninety-three years ago. There’s nobody surviving him.”
But Anna grew adamant. “He might have had kids, which could mean grandchildren. And they may be old, but who’s to say they aren’t still puttering around in a flower garden somewhere?”
Nothing showed up, though; no mention of sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, could be found among all these indefinite articles that made his life so non-specific.
Anna eyed the text. “There’s nothing here about his death, either.”
Chance thought it through, gave sound to the ridiculous idea. “Maybe he still is with us.” A joke perhaps, but certainly not unheard of. That French woman, the one who died a few years back, had made it to age 121. Chocolate, wine, and a daily cigarette, she claimed, when asked about her secret.
“What if he died here?” Anna suggested. “—In Maryland, I mean. There’d be a death certificate on file somewhere, right?”
Chance reached for the mouse, backed out of the boxed maze belonging to James K. Ralston, and eased into the local public-records site.
A quick scroll through all of Maryland’s deceased Ralstons offered nobody named James. Same went for New York state public records; a birth certificate agreed he’d been born into the world, but mention of his having left it somehow didn’t exist.
Anna gained her feet, readied a return toward the waiting vacuum cleaner. “Why don’t you call your dad,” she said, reaching the door. “He knows all about this sort of stuff.”
* * *
“War is hell, son,” said Roger Zamler, eyeing all those hard-earned medals. “That’s not just some snappy saying.” He’d seen action in the Gulf War, knew all too well the realities of concepts like post-traumatic stress, nightmares, the dysfunctionality of a returned combat vet. “He might’ve come back completely busted in his head.”
Chance gave it some thought, worked on a stray memory of the day his own father returned from war. That look in his dad’s eyes, a thing too closely resembling fear—that’s an awful heavy burden for a five-year-old boy to have to witness.
Anna cracked the tension right down its center. “Do you suppose he’d been hospitalized?”
Roger Zamler’s head drooped, no doubt recalling his own struggles to get back to where he’d once been. “Those boys of the first world war saw some bad times.”
Chance offered his own voice. “Maybe there’s a psychiatric file on the guy just lying around, collecting dust, waiting for someone like me to sift through it, bring his story to light.”
But Roger Zamler wasn’t in an agreeing type of mood. “Leave the man buried, son; even ghosts deserve their privacy.”
* * *
Chance let it fade for most of a week, but those medals, they had a way of yanking him back to the mystery they promised to unravel. The how and why is the part that really gnawed a hole through him. And what exactly became of the recipient of all that hardware?
It just didn’t come off a fair deal, allowing a hero to fall among the forgotten. But the internet wouldn’t part with any other clues than the meager offerings it already dished up.
But even dead-ends aren’t truly without hope.
“Remember that old man?” Chance pondered, seizing on an idea only now taking root. “—The one who kept the lawn mowed all those years this house sat empty.”
Anna eyed him over the top of the morning paper. “Sam, you mean? Sam Gruffalo?”
That’s the name. He’d carried a fondness for the once-vacant property the way a man might for a woman who could never really belong to him—no matter how long he pined.
Anna folded the paper, pulled a sip from her coffee. “You could give him a call, I suppose—though he does seem a bit senile.”
“Eccentric,” Chance corrected, “not senile.”
* * *
The old timer’s shelter leaned like a well-oiled lush against a stand of ancient maple trees sipping life from Maryland soil a mile up the road. A pair of spotted bloodhounds hobbled out from beneath a rotted porch to issue warnings they’d never back up in the handful of days remaining on their dockets.
Chance tucked his truck in the spilled shade of a lazy sycamore. Even now he could imagine the old man spinning yarns about receiving his dogs’ ancestors way back in the depression, reward for some act of kindness he’d pulled off during a particularly trying moment.
The old man himself appeared like early morning fog, gathered his bones in a neat pile atop a weatherworn rocker hunched lazily on the porch, gave Chance a suspicious once-over.
“Help ya where I can,” he promised, “though I ain’t at all familiar with that name you mentioned over the phone.”
Chance held back at the foot of the steps, offered up all the information he’d so far unearthed, spoke that Ralston name a handful of times—just in case you know; jog loose a forgotten memory.
The old man shifted in his seat, waited his turn to speak on the matter. “Found ’em buried, huh?” He pondered. “Back of the house, you say?” Knotted fingers scratched at gray stubble along his jawbone. “Long-ago dead, you ask me.”
Chance stole position on that first stair, felt its spoiled wood bow beneath his weight. “But what’s his connection to my house?”
Hazy irritation mucked up the old-timer’s gaze. “Wanted that house for myself,” he lamented. “Shoulda had it, too, if only I had money enough.”
Chance dared the second stair—despite that growling pair of hounds. “You’re sure you don’t recall any stories about a doughboy staying around here?”
A nasty grin split the old man’s weathered lips, gave up those hideous gray gums. “Didn’t say I ain’t heard my share of stories,” he proclaimed. “Just said I didn’t know that name.”
The early thirties, he explained, saw many a strange character wander through these parts. The depression put whole families on the road, chasing after rumors of jobs that scarcely ever existed.
“But if you owned a large enough house,” he claimed, “there was money to be made.”
Chance took a seat on the top stair, gave ear as the old man spun details on a time that might not even concern the likes of James K. Ralston.
“Ida Simmerly owned your place back then,” said the man, “took in boarders from all over the country—hoboes, mostly, freight hoppers just passing through. Not much money in that crowd, though.” His shifting weight caused that worn rocker to preach in tongues for a moment. “Then she discovered the pensioners; those wounded war boys got a regular piece from Uncle Sam each month.”
Chance stroked the dog nearest to him, as if answers could be found in the smelly beast’s oily coat. A pension angle didn’t register as plausible. Not for that era, at least. Government money ran scarce in those days. And Chance told the man as much.
But doubt did little to dissuade the old-timer in his telling of tales. “Wilson promised it,” he argued, “and Roosevelt’s the one who delivered.”
And once Ida Simmerly tasted a regular income, there’d been no chance of retreat from a sure thing.
“She took to a pensioners-only policy in letting out her rooms,” the old man continued. “All sorts of doughboys passed through her doors. This Ralston fella, he might’ve been one of ’em.”
Chance tipped a nod, imagined such long-ago scenes played out inside the place he and Anna now called home.
But still, why bury those medals in the back yard?
“Well,” the old man pondered, “it might have to do with all those rumors finding life back then.”
“What rumors?” Chance wondered.
“The ones claiming Ida—” He dropped the thought, picked up another. “You understand they’re just rumors, right?”
Frustration yanked Chance to his feet; his fists took cover inside his jacket pockets. “What rumors?” he demanded.
A weary breath escaped the old man’s lips, like life itself had been pulled long-drawn-out from his very core. “Some folks claimed Ida, well, that maybe she wasn’t . . . aboveboard in her dealings.”
Now they were getting somewhere. Now the truth of the matter would be found out.
Chance regained his seat atop that first step. “She was cheating those boys out of their pay, wasn’t she?”
That ancient head wagged left and right. “Cheating ’em, yes—but not the way you’re imagining.” Those knotted fingers of his fished a tin of tobacco from his shirt pocket, pinched a dip between his cheek and gum. “Word had it Ida had done a few of ’em in. Just the bad-off ones, mind you; those boys who couldn’t get around on their own.”
Confusion’s cloud rained into the moment.
“How’d she make money by killing them?” Chance asked.
“Ida’s the one cashed their checks for ’em. Wouldn’t be missed, those broken men. Not back then, at least. And those checks kept coming in each month.”
A thought collapsed inside Chance’s head. “She killed people inside my house?”
“Wasn’t ever proven. All they ever got her for was cashing checks of missing men.”
Anna wouldn’t tolerate it, living in a killer’s den. And suppose there was truth to the matter?
Chance cleared his throat, posed the only question that mattered. “Any guesses on where she’d have put the bodies?”
“Leave it be, son,” the old-timer implored, pulling his bones upright. “Course if it bothers you that much, I’ll be glad to take the place off your hands.”
* * *
Anna tossed suspicion across the backyard like grass seed, eyeing the lot with determination. “I don’t see anything that looks like a grave,” she said. “I’ll bet he’s just trying to scare us, to get us to sell to him real cheap.”
“Won’t happen,” Chance answered her. “Not unless you feel uncomfortable staying here.”
Uncertainty crept into her demeanor. She’d worn that look since hearing about Ida Simmerly and those long-ago rumors. “I’m not saying I’m uncomfortable; I just don’t like the idea of people getting killed right where we live.”
Chance slipped out onto the back deck; his arms went easily around his wife. “Then it stops right now,” he proclaimed.
“Searching for answers.”
“Doesn’t hurt to know,” Anna said.
“Sure it does,” he told her, pulling her close. “Besides, my dad’s right. Even ghosts deserve their privacy.”
* * *
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