John Weldon’s head throbbed as he focused in on the strange man standing above him.
“Sergeant Weldon, one day soon you will be free of all pain and medication,” the doctor said as he gave his patient a little more morphine through a new British syringe in the bright, garland-trimmed soldiers’ hospital in Washington on the first warm day of late spring. Weldon remembered little since he lay in the sun and fire of the Wilderness. The room smelled of coffee and dried blood. Flies buzzed at unreachable parts of his stiff body. Weldon’s head boiled and his body resisted the lightest duty between doses. He had heard himself beg one of the pretty nurses, Penny Garner, for more morphine only once. Catching a look in her eye—the same look he had seen people give his mother, a drunken Delaware, so many times in his childhood—he never asked again.
The doctor lifted Weldon’s bandages and shook his head. As he walked away he said to Penny, “Dear girl, I know that you have a soft spot for that one, but he has no hope,” he put an arm around her as she cried. “Can’t believe he’s hung on this long. We can just keep him comfortable. It’s a shame, I know.”
Weldon stayed awake at night, worrying that the doctors would send him to the dying room again or cut his medication so he stole it when he could and even found some syringes, shoving them under his bedding. He had watched the sorry lines of soldiers on sick call, hoping for a bit of opium or brandy with contempt. He had control. He would stop this when he felt better.
The rush of warmth the doses provided took Weldon deep inside himself where an infinitesimal hum of satisfaction lived if only briefly. The loneliness and hunger, the black something he had never escaped, disappeared.
A trim officer sauntered by and spoke with one of the medical staff. Weldon’s military career would be over if anyone caught him stealing, but no one seemed to understand his pain. Feverishly he vowed to hold this closer to himself than any person had ever come and he would STOP. The army was his home.
That night Penny caught him holding his guts in and knocking things about the dispensary. Bringing him back to his bed, she wrapped a new bandage around his middle tightly. She helped him lower his bad leg into the itchy trousers she found for him and laced a brand new pair of expensive boots, just his size, for him to slip into.
Opening the back door, Penny flashed Weldon a look. He smiled and felt a small, ridiculous thrill. Grabbing his old haversack filled with morphine, he limped with the help of a cane, into the fragrant, leaf-filtered moonlight of late June. Penny handed him five dollars in change.
“Good luck, sir,” she whispered heroically naïve before disappearing behind the closed door.
Weldon’s head still throbbed as he licked his rough, parched lips. He took cautious breaths of clean, moist air, stepping out tentatively in one direction and then in the other. He had felt this way only once before—that last day in the Wilderness with Simon. No. Simon McCullough had deserted. He pulled at the hair behind his ear. The moon sank away and a tender breeze chilled Weldon as he stood in this spot for hours under an ancient tree like the ones his father had been crushed under in the Western Reserve of his youth. He leaned against it and finally slept beneath it until a gentle hand tapped his shoulder.
“Sergeant Weldon, by golly, it is you!” a ruddy-faced private stood above him.
Weldon pulled himself up on his elbows and felt the dried pus at his side crack beneath his shirt. The morning sun hurt his eyes.
“I’m Private Patrick Hazelton, sir. Do you remember me?”
Weldon touched his side gingerly and used his other arm to grab the man’s hand. The surprised private helped Weldon to his feet and readjusted his hat.
“Sir, you look a caution. Better head back in,” Hazelton suggested with a nod toward the Washington hospital. He took Weldon by the arm, but Weldon stood still.
“Who are you?” Weldon asked.
“A few years back, sir, Lieutenant McCullough convinced you not to report me to my unit for leaving my camp to go looking for girls. You and the lieutenant saved me much grief with my company commander—that incompetent ass. He’s been mustered out since, thank the Lord.”
“Simon McCullough is a bastard,” Weldon said from some faraway surface of himself. “He d-deserted and left me dead.”
“No, Sergeant, you and him were best mates,” Hazelton said with hesitation. “I don’t believe a word. McCullough’s a captain now, I hear. After the Grand Parade he took leave but never deserted.”
“The war’s over…sergeant, you need to go back inside. You’re not yourself and you’re shaking.”
“No. I’m lost. They can’t help me, you idiot!”
“Now, sergeant, I don’t blame you for being sore. Times are tough. Washington’s a bad place to wander with money hanging out you’re trousers. Where will you go?”
Weldon stood with the oak, paralyzed again. “I don’t know.”
Hazelton reached forward and grabbed Weldon’s leather money pouch. “Someone will swipe this if you ain’t careful.”
“It’s mostly empty,” Weldon said, taking it back and opening it to drop in the loose change he had in his trouser pocket. A green wrinkled sheet of thick card caught his eye and he pulled it out between his two long fingers. Hand-drawn timorous trees in black ink dressed the card’s message from the only care package he had ever received. That first Christmas of the war… Christmas . . . the most dismal time of year for a soldier without family. Weldon found ways to avoid mail call, but one day someone shouted his name. He thought he heard it, but wasn’t sure so hung back. The call came again more impatiently and Weldon slunk up, with his sunken dark eyes lowered and his crow-black hair shorn short since the summer of lice. The heavy, battered box had his name on it. His face burned. He cut the top with his knife and reached in to find soft mittens and socks—hand-knit and familiar in a way—they were like McCullough’s and for a horrible moment he thought there had been an embarrassing mistake. He fumbled to close the box but noticed a tiny, hand-drawn card with funny little trees around the edge. “A friend of Simon’s is a friend of ours! Merry Christmas! Warm Regards—Scott, Sarah and Katherine McCullough.”
Hazelton sidled up and read the card. On the back in the same small script was an address in Englewood, New Jersey Simon McCullough had talked about endlessly—almost like a fairytale, being too perfect to be real—as if they had expected Weldon to write. He had never done so, but had run his fingers over the little tree drawings many times.
“Sir, you need help and if it ain’t the hospital you’re going to then I’m going to put you on the train.”
“I don’t know them…I can’t face Simon…I…”
“Any place is better than here and Simon is your friend.”
Weldon had done everything he could think of to repulse this invasion, this toppling of his defenses but Simon McCullough had worn him down. The whole world seemed to love him—no Simon pretended to love the whole world—he even played with the darkies’ children.
He remembered squeezing into his first army boots at Carlisle Barracks and then going off to the war with a commander who convinced him to volunteer for a Jersey regiment on a lark. There he had met Simon and for a sparkling few years he had pretended at being someone else. But now fevers came on strong. He held the pus filled flap of skin at his side a little tighter. How had he been so damned stupid? How had he ever let Simon McCullough in?—that piece of shit. What a terrible, stupid blunder. He would bring it all to him. Just shove it in the lieutenant’s face—all the suffering he caused. Weldon had always expected a life of aching and scratching and he could die doing it, but not before presenting it to the one person who duped him just long enough to give him hope.