The heavy set man with the handlebar moustache who dropped Mulhearn off on the side of the road told him it was a two-mile hike to the Phillbertson house, which he called a disgrace and a sneeze away from collapsing. Mulhearn nodded in thanks for the lift and began walking on the dried grass lining the road that hadn't seen moisture in months. Sweat dripped down his body and soaked his clothes. He had spent the past three weeks in the summer sun hitchhiking from New York City to the Texas Panhandle. He twisted his ankle in West Virginia and ran out of money in Missouri, but managed to survive on water from bathroom faucets and whatever he could steal. Despite the obstacles he was two miles away from Lara Phillbertson, the twin sister of Abe Phillbertson, his best friend in the war.
Abe had pitied Mulhearn, especially during mail call when he was the only one who didn't receive letters. He suggested Mulhearn write to Lara so he could have something to keep his mind off the war. Mulhearn was skeptical, but decided to write her a letter out of curiosity and to please Abe. It took him ten attempts to finalize the letter, culminating in him introducing himself, reassuring her that Abe was alright and asking for continued correspondence. He didn't think she would respond and that was fine by him.
She wrote back to his surprise. Her response was a page detailing her interests and assurance that she was happy to write to him. The letters continued over the months. She opened up about her frustrations, especially her loneliness, to which he gave advice and encouragement, not often divulging information about himself because he didn't believe he was interesting enough. He fell in love with her. He fantasized about them being together when he got out of the war, maybe even getting married and having children. These fantasies made the everyday misery bearable and gave him something to live for.
Lara had enclosed a picture of herself in one of her letters. She had long blonde hair, a blemish-free face, dangly Native American style earrings and round hazel eyes. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, surpassing what she looked like in his fantasies. He became infatuated, having entire conversations with the picture, kissing and licking it, so consumed that he believed it was human flesh. He even began to pray to her like she was a goddess. On night ambush when he should have been guarding everyone's lives, he was with a flashlight caressing his prick until the warm explosion gushed all over his hands. He knew he had to end his infatuation because it was leading him into a body bag, but he couldn't because he was lost in her.
Mulhearn dragged his boots against the dirt creating a dirt cloud that was blown into him by the intermittent winds. He thought about Abe. He never had a friend before Abe, wasn't able to connect with anyone and had given up trying. Abe changed everything within him, showed him the value of dreaming to the future and maximizing every moment of life. Abe was more than the average grunt and he knew it, but was wrong in believing God would spare him because of that. Mulhearn could only imagine the horror Abe felt at his last waking moment because Abe was convinced he would survive; to him dying wasn't an option because he had so much to accomplish, from hiking the Appalachian Trail to writing a novel about his war experiences.
Mulhearn trudged on, looking down at the ground to maneuver around the potholes, a technique he used searching for landmines. A stench of death suddenly arose and quickly worsened along the road, and after approximately a half mile, he reached the source of the smell, a baby antelope killed by a shotgun blast lying on the side of the road. Scavengers had ripped the skin apart saturating its fur with blood and leaving the arterial sinews exposed to the sun which rotted them brown. Its flesh was jellied from the insects and bacteria festering within, its glazed eyes were open as if they still witnessed the world around it and its torso expanded from the organs releasing gas.
Mulhearn couldn't leave it on the road to rot; it was only an animal, but deserved better. He looked into the distance and spotted a single tree amongst the dried plains, a perfect resting place for the antelope to decompose into the Earth. He grabbed its front legs, the fur shedding and sticking to his sweaty palms. He pulled it across the grass as he had done with Abe. When Abe didn't return from his guard shift, the platoon searched for him until he was discovered after nightfall hanging from a tree behind enemy lines. Mulhearn was the only one who volunteered to retrieve the body because everyone knew the enemy was waiting for heroes to pick off. Abe was his only friend and there was a chance, however small, he was still alive. He began crawling, could have crawled into an enemy platoon or minefield and not known it until it was too late. He reached the tree where Abe hung and climbed the trunk. He rested on a branch perpendicular to Abe and reached out his arm to touch Abe's chest, and it went through. The bastards tore his heart out. His heart fluttered like a fish out of water and he screamed, not caring if he was heard and killed.
He cut the rope dropping Abe's body to the ground like a piece of meat. Arteries, veins and intestines hung out of Abe's torso, his penis was ripped off leaving a matt of bloody pubic hair, his throat was slit, eyes gouged out. Not five hours earlier he was full of life talking about a childhood adventure he had with Lara.
Mulhearn grabbed Abe's armpits and pulled him, remaining low to avoid detection. Fire ants maneuvered into his crotch and sank their venomous pincers into his skin. He slapped at his legs hoping to crush as many as possible, but he irritated them and they bit him harder. There was nothing to do but take the pain. He got up, no longer caring about his life. He grabbed Abe and put him around his shoulders and walked back to camp, expecting the crack of a rifle to pierce his heart or to hear the click of a landmine under his feet. He thought about Abe's dreams and aspirations. All he amounted to was lifeless flesh disrespected by the enemy, castrated, sodomized, pissed on, no legacy, no remembrance, no novel, no hiking the Appalachian Trail, nothing.
Death was a part of life. When Privates Peters and Wallach walked into a landmine and blew themselves into the high heavens, Privates Wilkerson and Bando joined the platoon within the week and he forgot about Peters and Wallach. And so it went for the dozens of other soldiers who met their demises. These men were dehumanized to him, they didn't have families or dreams, they were props so he wouldn't have to feel the pain of losing them. But Abe's death changed everything, death became real. Some greenhorn couldn't replace Abe.
He tugged the antelope and struggled to move it. His stomach cramped. He hadn't drank anything in hours and he fell to his knees to catch his breath, spitting mucus threaded saliva into the dried grass that was rough on his sunburned legs. He wondered if it was all worth it. He could abandon the antelope with no repercussions, but he couldn't leave it, nothing deserved to be disrespected in death like Abe had.
He struggled to his feet and with strength he didn't know he had lifted the antelope onto his shoulders. He lumbered towards the tree with sticky remnants of blood causing the antelope skin to attach to his body like glue. It was miserable. The only thing that kept him going was the thought of going to the movies and being with Lara.
The letters from Lara halted after Abe died. At first he gave her time, but two weeks passed, then a month without a word. He returned home and she still remained on his mind. He continued writing to her and was never acknowledged, and yet there he was a year later searching for her. He deluded himself into believing there was a postal error and their letters weren't forwarded to each other. There was no reason why she would ignore him after everything they shared.
The antelope felt like Abe on his shoulders and he struggled until he was twenty yards from the tree. He threw the antelope down and walked away without looking back. He felt like he was reliving the agony of that night. He went to his backpack and changed out of his bloody clothes. He grabbed a handful of dirt and rubbed it on his arms and hands to remove the sticky blood. He didn't come to Texas to drag an antelope, he came to see Lara, and that was what he was going to do.
He arrived at the Phillbertson house which was a dilapidated mess with shingles and siding falling off and mounds of trash obscuring the front lawn. He walked to the door, kicking his way past the trash, and knocked. A sorry-looking man with a heavy beard and disheveled hair opened the door.
"Come inside Mulhearn. I'm Abe's father."
Mulhearn was surprised to be recognized.
They entered the house where boxes, papers, food wrappers, plastic bags and other junk littered the floor. Abe's father weaved through the mess, knowing what to plow through and what to step over, eventually leading Mulhearn to the kitchen where the trashcan was spilled onto floor with its contents decomposing into the linoleum. The smell was repulsive. Mosquitoes started biting him. He hadn't seen such a concentration of them since the war. He slapped at his arms and legs, crushing them and leaving their carcasses to stick to his skin. There was no sign of Lara. He figured she moved away, hence why she never received his letters. Nobody sane could live in such squalor.
"The lieutenant wrote that you crawled behind enemy lines to rescue Abe. I always wanted to thank you," Abe's father said.
"Abe was my best friend. I would have done anything for him."
"You don't know what good you did coming down here to visit me."
Mulhearn didn't say anything more, just fantasized about being with Lara.
"So what brings you here?" Abe's father asked.
"To meet you and Lara. Abe talked so much about you two."
"I know you wrote to Lara," Abe's father mustered. His shaking hands wiped his eyes which began to drip tears. "She really took a liking to you." Mulhearn didn't like where the conversation was heading, like he was being set up for bad news. "She got sick after Abe died, real sick. When I took her to the hospital, it was too late. Her kidneys failed her. She died one month to the day after Abe. Lost both my children. That's hard for a man to take. I wanted to write to you, I just couldn't gather the strength to, I tried, believe me, I tried."
Mulhearn's body went numb. He had been in love with a girl who was dead, jerked off to her, dry humped his pillows pretending it was her, even bought an engagement ring. He quit his job and lost his savings to find her, and she had loved him. For her to be taken away wasn't fair, yet par for the course of his life.
"I got to go," Mulhearn said.
"Why don't you stay? Have lunch with me."
"Mind if I leave to get some medicine from the drugstore back in town? I got myself a condition," he lied. Ditching Abe's father was wrong, but it was his only chance of leaving. He couldn't be there anymore because Lara started to die within the walls. The house was cursed and he needed to get as far away as possible.
"I figure you're not coming back and I don't blame you. I'm a delirious old man who refuses to clean up after himself. Thank you for trying to save my Abe. The truck is the best I can do to thank you."
"Thank you," Mulhearn said.Abe's father threw him the keys and he caught them. He turned around and navigated out of the house, looking back at Abe's father who was crying. He entered Abe's pickup and started it. He pulled onto the road where the sun had begun to set. He was never one to take solace in a sundown, but this one seemed important to him.
BIO: Elliot Andreopoulos currently works in the HR industry where he bounces between companies. He hopes to one day start a Buddy Holly cover band, though as each day passes, the dream gets dimmer.