A Tomb in Every Tree

A Tomb in Every Tree

by

Phillip McCollum

“How much should we leave Marnie?”

“Zero.”

“Come on,” Harold said. Fluffy shifted her head and rested it back on her owner’s foot. The gray and white Shih Tzu hardly ever left Harold’s side these days.

“Zilch.”

Harold’s rubbed at the sunspots covering the back of his hands. Whatever ‘rejuvenation’ cream Linda bought for him didn’t seem to be working.

“Be serious,” he said, still talking to his wife, but staring at the four-by-six photos pinned to the corkboard above the desk. There was a mix–Don, Marnie, and the two grandkids, Mischa and Sloane all standing in front of a faux castle, all wearing those round black hats with mouse ears. To its right was another photo that dipped further into the past. Linda and him at a ‘50s Flashback dance put on by their church when they lived in Indiana. Then there was the only surviving photo with Harold and his squadmates in Korea. Their first week of deployment before they’d let their beards grow out and shortly before the bitter cold and ‘accoutrements of war’ (as his buddy Krieger used to put it) had a chance to beat them all down.

“I am serious,” Linda replied. The chop-chop-chop of her knife slicing through a Maui onion and onto the cutting board provided a backing rhythm. “She never brings Mischa and Sloane over except for maybe two times out of the year. And she only calls when she needs your help with something.”

“She’s busy. The girl’s got two jobs.”

“We’re all soooo busy,” Linda said, tweaking her voice. “I doubt she’s ever too busy to see her mother.” Sun streaming through the kitchen window highlighted the gray in her faded dye job. Harold wished she would just let certain things go.

“You don’t know that,” he said. “We can’t just leave her out of the will.”

Linda dropped the knife and dug her fists into her hips like the old George Reeves, minus the cape.  “Why not?”

“You think Don would have wanted that? What about the girls?”

Harold saw it coming. He ducked just in time to hear a dirty dishrag whiz by his ear and smack into the wall above the desk.

“Don’t you dare tell me what Don would have wanted. And the girls will be just fine, assuming Marnie hasn’t gone through the life insurance payout yet.”

Fluffy scrambled onto her paws and hopped out of the way as Harold pushed back from the desk. The wheels on his clearance-sale office chair squeaked. For the twelfth time that day, Harold thought about grabbing a can of spray lube from the garage, but he knew it was best to get out of the house for awhile. He bent over slowly and picked up the washrag, careful not to put any strain on his lower back.

“I’m gonna take a walk,” he said, depositing the rag on the counter in front of Linda. Fluffy pranced and tapped around the tile floor as Harold grabbed the leash from the counter.

“Dinner will be ready at five-thirty,” his wife finally said as Harold was halfway out the door.

#

This whole deal with the will began to make Harold feel like he was in some screwball comedy. Harold would fill in some forms, talk to the lawyer, and then after he went over the day’s events with his wife, she’d tell him he’d done it completely wrong and did she need to do everything for him?

He was beginning to question whether or not she was sabotaging the whole thing on purpose. Even getting her to consider that maybe it was time to work on a will and testament had been a trial. Harold felt like he was dragging along a child who goes limp and refuses to move because she doesn’t get her way.

Only a few minutes into the walk, sweat began to gather under Harold’s arms and around his balding crown. He felt like he was swimming through a salty, heated pool. There were no clouds to shield the sun today in Cedar Key, Florida, though everything looked as beautiful as beautiful could be.

He and Fluffy made their usual quarter-mile trek down Tatum Road and turned onto a dirt trail running alongside the reserve. Scrub jays chittered among the round green tops of myrtle oak and the fragrance of rusty lyonia floated through the air.

Though the reserve was so close to home, it was far enough away to feel like a different world. And that’s just what Harold needed right now. Sadly, walking along the salt marshes was his last remaining outlet of adventure, the quantity and quality of which had been in a slow decline for fifty years. He supposed that’s just what happened when you got old. If he was honest with himself, he’d admit that he wasn’t cut out for much adventure these days anyway. Still, it didn’t make accepting the rapid movement of years any easier.

“How do you size things up, girl?” He looked down at Fluffy. “What are we going to do about this whole thing?”

Fluffy tilted her head at him as her paws marched rapidly over the soil.

“You know I love your mama with all my heart, but sometimes–”

“Heeeelp!”

Without warning, Fluffy jumped and barked at the scrub on their left, tightening against the leash. She coughed as she choked herself on the collar.

“Whoa, Fluffy! Calm down, girl!”

Harold struggled to reel her in. He bent over and swooped her up, immediately regretful that he hadn’t tightened his stomach muscles like Dr. Berwitz always admonished him to. All ten pounds of her were trembling in his arms. She’d stopped barking, but there was a low growl roiling from within. He tried to take Fluffy under his left arm so he could press a free hand into his stinging lower back, but the dog was struggling against his grip with all she had.

Something about that cry for help had also sent a shiver running through Harold’s body. He peeked over the low bush, but his vision failed to penetrate the dense, dark oak grove standing about twenty yards from the trail.

“Heeeeeeelp!!”

That voice. Harold really didn’t want to go running in there. An image of Linda flashed into his mind, sitting in silence at the dinner table over an empty plate while his own pork chop sat cold on the other side. He craned his neck up and down the trail. It wasn’t unusual to see another bicyclist or hiker around these parts, but as far as his eyes could see, he was the only person crazy enough to be out in this afternoon heat.

“Pleeease help!!”

Then again, maybe not the only one.

Harold reached into the front pocket of his khaki shorts.

Damn. Forgot the phone.

He knew that he might be getting into a situation he may not be able to easily get out of. The only form of weapon he carried on his person was a pocket knife, used more often to cut berries off saw palmetto than actually getting violent.

It had been a long time since he’d dealt with violence.

He took a tight grip of Fluffy’s leash and set her down, holding her in place while he tied the leash to the trunk of an oak sapling. She began to yip and strain against her bonds again, but he didn’t want her to complicate any potential situation.

With an uneven mix of heroism and fear, Harold dashed into the brush as much as an old man could dash into the brush.

#

His lungs were on fire. Scratches from thin branches scored his leathery skin, leaving a couple of blood stains where his forearms had brushed up against his white t-shirt. Harold bent over amidst a throng of greenery, placing his hands on his knees and attempting to catch his breath. The vanilla-like scent of oak rushed into his nostrils.

My God, he thought, has it been so long since I’ve pushed myself?

He couldn’t have run more than fifty yards. Still, there was enough breath left in him for a chuckle. Forget the uneaten meal. Linda would be really pissed off to find him collapsed out here on the edge of the salt marsh.

After about ten seconds, feeling less lightheaded, he held his breath. Of course, the scrub jays continued blabbering away and he wanted to shush them all. He could still hear Fluffy yapping in the distance.

“Heya, Harry.”

Now, in the half-second between the voice speaking those words and his heart skipping a pump or two, it’s difficult to say when Harold realized just who was speaking. Was it when the sound waves of that chipper voice hit his eardrum? Or when the smell of C-ration tobacco floating on the nearly nonexistent breeze tickled his nose hairs? Maybe it was when his eyes first landed on the man himself–those caramel peepers and the scruffy brown beard sitting atop a slender body clothed in pea-soup fatigues that were two sizes too large.

There was no way.

It couldn’t be him.

First, the man standing before him couldn’t be walking around on his two feet, given that both legs had been torn to shreds by white-hot Chinese shrapnel.

There was also no way he could look exactly as he had sixty years ago.

#

“Hey, bub, pick your jaw back up from the dirt. I ain’t Betty Grable.”

A palmful of memories slapped Harold upside the head.

“Krieger?”

The soldier smiled, his teeth a mural of brown and yellow.

“What…” Harold felt himself lapsing back into dizziness. He tipped forward and saw the ground coming at him quickly. A pair of hands grabbed ahold of his bicep and yanked him in the opposite direction, keeping him on his feet.

Staggering, sure, but on his feet.

Feeling the pain in his lower back again, he winced.

“Hell gettin’ old, ain’t it?” Krieger said. “Kinda glad I skipped that part.”

Harold was breathing heavily now and he was afraid he was hyperventilating.

“Hold up, hoss, let’s pull you up a seat.” Krieger escorted him toward a particularly large scrub oak and gently lowered him onto the forest floor. “Catch your wind. Then we’ll chew the fat.”

Between the heat and the unusual situation, Harold’s tongue grew dry. “I….I heard someone–”

Krieger squatted onto his knees and reached toward his belt, producing a canteen. He unscrewed the lid and held the nozzle to Harold’s lips. “Shh. Wet your whistle, first.”

The water was warm, but it did the trick.

“Someone was crying for help,” Harold said.

“Yeah, that was me. You should have seen your face.” Krieger slapped his knee. “Sixty-odd years later and I’m still able to yank your chain.”

“I don’t understand. How is it you’re….What I mean is, what are you….”

Krieger held his finger to his lips. “I get it. You got a lot of questions, most of which don’t matter, to be honest with you.”

Harold took a second to get his thoughts straight. He locked eyes with his old friend and squadmate who he’d last seen carted off in a stretcher. “Well, let me ask you one, then–Where have you been and what are you doing out here?”

“That’s two questions, but I’ll answer the second,” Krieger said. A chaw-colored loogie splashed onto the ground next to his scuffed black boot. A brown streak ran down into his beard. “You’re going through some things, am I right?

Harold couldn’t have come up with a more generic statement if he had three hours to think one up. He thought about all of the things he’d been going through the past few years of his life. The five types of hypertension medication. The Saturdays spent at the local swap meet, talking to the same old people, hearing the same boring stories. Hell, the sheer boredom of retirement covered fifty percent of it.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Don’t give me that crap, Harry. You know what I mean. This situation with you and Linda. Marnie and the grandkids.”

Despite the absurdity of what he was experiencing, Harold took offense. “That’s none of your business. I don’t see what my wife and daughter-in-law have to do with you or anyone else.”

“That’s where you’re half-right,” Krieger said. “It wasn’t any of my business, but seems someone was concerned and I volunteered to help.”

“Huh?” Harold replied.

“Don’t waste time noodlin’ over things I can’t tell you, Harry. Just know I’m here to help out an old friend.” Krieger leaned his head back and took a deep breath. “I can see why you picked this place to settle down. Pretty far away from our little home away from home outside Pyongyang in every sense, ain’t it?”

Memories of the Korean winter fell over Harold’s mind like a blanket of snow. He swore he’d never be that cold again in his life. Even in the heat of a Florida summer, he shivered a little.

Krieger pushed himself to his feet and went behind the tree.

“Krieger,” Harold said. “Don’t leave me now!”

Krieger walked back with something in his hand. “I’m still here. A little something to warm us up.”

Harold took hold and recognized it right away.

“Are you kidding me?”

Krieger flashed that muddy smile again. “You remembered? Hot damn! I was hoping…”

Harold unscrewed the lid and held the bottle of gin to his nose. “How could I forget the look on Colonel McDougal’s face when he came storming through camp, having everyone’s footlocker and bed turned upside down?” He took a swig and swished it around. The connection between taste and memory was amazing.

He passed the bottle back. “What happened to you?”

Krieger took a sip but looked unsatisfied. “Same thing that happened to a few of the boys over there. It’s not important.”

Harold let it go.

“You know,” he said, “there’s a lot I don’t miss about freezing my ass off for those two years, but I miss you, Krieger.”

“I miss you too, Harry. You’re a good man. Your Linda, she’s a good gal too. Don’t fault her too much for the way she’s been. Mamas…they take these things a little harder than the rest of us. Can you blame ‘em?”

Harold supposed he couldn’t.

“Since you’re still nursin’ your back,” Krieger continued, “I’m gonna give you a little history lesson. You know the Spaniards were on this very soil not too long ago, right?

“Yeah, of course,” Harold replied. You couldn’t drive ten miles along the eastern coast without passing a crumbling fort or mission.

“Sometime in the 1700s, a fleet of ships carrying the shiny yellow stuff back to ol’ King Philip got caught in a hurricane and washed up ashore. Most of the poor saps went down with the ship, but a few managed to survive, took all the goodies they could wrap their arms around, and headed inland.”

Harold started to laugh.

“What?” Krieger asked.

“The only pages I ever saw you crack open unfolded into a poster that wasn’t suited for company. When did you become so educated?”

Krieger spit on the ground, feigning offense. “Let me finish the goddamn story, chucklehead.” He passed the gin bottle back to Harold who was content to take another swig and let his pal continue.

“So, anyway, with the King’s men, pirates, and local tribes all sniffin’ around, most of them sailors took to burying the gold rather than be caught yellow-handed. They figured they’d come back for it someday. A few did. Most didn’t.”

“What’s your point?” Harold asked.

“The point is, who knows, there may even be something you can quietly pass down to your grandkids a few feet beneath your asscheeks there, hoss.”

Harold raised his eyebrows and Krieger winked at him. The gin was starting to ease Harold’s pain. Feeling confident, he held a hand to the oak and pushed himself to his feet. He looked down and kicked his tennis shoe into the dirt where he’d just been sitting.

“If you’re saying what I think you’re saying….”

He looked up and Krieger was gone.

“Krieger?”

Harold walked around the tree. He looked down at the scrubland floor and realized the bottle of gin was missing too.

#

After a couple more hours of walking and thinking, Harold found Linda snoring in her bed. She’d left a note on his plate with reheating instructions and a pair of Xs and Os.

Fluffy was curled up in her dog bed, exhausted from the day’s trauma. Harold paused over his desk, alternating between looking at his beautiful family and the young man he had once been. He swore that Krieger’s face had a sarcastic grin that wasn’t there when before today.

With a smile on his own face, Harold headed to the garage to grab a shovel.

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