"Come Home, Daddy"
A luminous moon hung in the sky, casting eerie shadows upon the ground below it one December night. Through the skeletal frames of the trees, the sky was merely a dreary stretch of darkness. It was the very essence of the day: cold, dank, and formless. No birds called out for fear of breaking the overwhelming silence. Everything was still save a single figure, making its way through the dead forest.
"Mommy! Mommy! Look what I found!"
A little girl fumbled with the doorknob of her house, and her eyes were lit with excitement as she managed to push the door open. This was actually quite a feat, seeing as how her hands were barely big enough to fit around the brass handle. She was bundled up to her nose in ragged clothing and a few dead leaves clung to her shoulders. She brushed them off impatiently. A crackling fireplace swept the room with a feeling of warmth although it did little to make the little house seem any less shabby.
"Mommy!" the little girl squealed once more, pulling off her gloves and letting her coat fall to the floor. "I found a leaf, a pretty red leaf, even though all the others are gone! See? Isn't it pretty?"
The woman in question turned slowly from her seat by the fireplace. She was holding a tin pot over the flames gingerly and a few lean pieces of meat could be seen inside the container.
"What is it, dear?"
Pale blond hair fell about her face as she turned and gazed at her daughter with bloodshot, sunken eyes. Her faded yellow dress fell about her frail frame with much space to spare.
"It is very pretty." Her voice was hollow and empty but a thin smile fought its way to her lips. "Very nice."
The little girl smiled as she sat down in the center of the room with her leaf. She held her prize up to the fire and watched the light shine through, revealing patterns and veins that delighted her. "This leaf is like the color of the flowers me and daddy used to pick all the time!" She brought her knees up to her chest and twirled the leaf in her fingers as she talked. "Remember, mommy? In the spring, when all the birds were there, and all the flowers looked like fireworks, daddy and I would go down to the river and pick all the flowers there." She giggled in recollection. "Daddy always liked the red ones and he'd give them to me all bunched together!" She stopped talking but continued to stare at the leaf, mesmerized.
A fog of mist came from the figure's mouth as he ducked under branches and crept over the blanket of dead leaves lining the ground. A fine layer of snow covered everything in the forest, eminating a false sense of tranquility. Pieces of mud caked all over the figure's body fell off him as he walked. Hanging loosely from his right hand was a rifle, looking just about as battered as its owner. Voices could be heard presently, and the figure swiftly straightened himself against a tree. The crunching and snapping of twigs were heard as two other people passed by the figure, merely a few yards away. Waiting until the other men were long gone, the escapee continued his journey, keeping lower to the ground this time. He moved in the opposite direction that the other figures had been traveling.
The little girl lay down on her back and gazed up at the ceiling. There wasn't much to see, save a few wooden planks of wood, but the little girl didn't seem to care. She let her leaf fall to the floor then leapt to her feet, grinning. "Remember when me and daddy would go into town? We would always come back with some gift for you, mamma!"
"Yes dear," came the soft reply.
"And remember how in the winter we would build funny snowmen? My scarf wasn't big enough to fit around the snowman's neck so we had to use daddy's!" She laughed then plopped back onto the floor. "Remember?"
"Yes I remember."
"And then in the summer, he was made me a tree house! It was such a nice tree house, too. Wasn't it, mamma?"
"But then he had to go. When do you think he'll be back?"
"I don't know, dear."
As a crow lifted from the barren tree limbs, breaking the silence of the winter night, the figure on the ground below recoiled. His gun was cocked and ready in an instant before the man realized he was in no immediate danger. Carefully, he reemerged from behind the fallen tree trunk and scanned the area. A twig snapped. The wind blew. Snow fell off branches. The man took a deep breath to calm his unsettled nerves then stepped over the fallen tree trunk. His boots kicked aside twigs and sent small flurries of snow dancing into the air. Wearily, the man increased his pace. As he walked, his left leg began to drag a bit behind the other. Scarlet drops became scattered onto the frosted ground, and the man cursed at the crimson trail he was leaving. He sunk to the ground, rapidly tending to his leg before covering up the fallen red drops with fresh snow. For a moment, he didn't move as he waited for his breathing to return to normal. Then, he reached into the folds of his ragged jacket and pulled something tattered out of it. A grayscale picture stared back at him as he held it with trembling fingers. The picture stung the man's eyes with tears and he quickly replaced it in the folds of his jacket, near his heart. Now he was moving with more resolve than before.
"Why'd he have to go off to war, mommy? It's not fair!"
The little girl's delight melted into anger and she stood up again. "He promised he'd come back, he promised!" However, anger in a little girl cannot stay long. A smile flickered onto her face and she began skipping around the small room. Her mother was like a statue as she stared at the fire, shifting the pot's weight in her hand every so often.
"Remember the present I gave daddy? A charm bracelet with red beads. Pretty red beads, too. And when he walked with it on, it would make a funny clacking sound. He'd sound so funny when he walked around with the bracelet on. I told him not to forget us, and the charm bracelet would help him not to! He'd said he would wear it when he was away! Remember? I'll bet daddy will be a war hero! He's out there fighting for us! Protecting us! Right, mommy?" The little girl didn't wait for an answer and continued. "Daddy will get those bad guys! He'll be the leader of the army! Daddy's so strong!" She began to run in smaller and smaller circles until she was lying on the floor, panting and giddy. "When daddy comes home, they'll have a parade! It will be so fun when daddy comes home! I wish daddy would come home…" She picked up the red leaf she had previously dropped and held it over her heart.
He couldn't go on for much longer. Every so often, he would have to stop and fix the bandage on his leg. A pat or two to the photo hidden under his jacket reassured him and he would continue onward. He had to get out from behind enemy lines…The boys back at base…if they were still alive…But after the attack, the chances of that were getting slimmer by the second. He had to survive and warn the others. Then he would be able to see his family again…
Thunder shook the winter night and the man toppled forward, hitting the ground with a thud stifled by the thin layer of snow. He groaned and clutched at his jacket, which was rapidly turning crimson. Hurriedly, he removed the photo from his jacket and wiped the blood off of it, lovingly. "Don't worry…I'm going to come home…I'm coming home…" Then his shaking hands dropped the photo and he lay still. A woman with black hair and a small boy smiled out at the cold world from the photo they were encased in, then they fluttered away into the night air.
Standing over the fallen figure was another man, the mouth of his rifle still smoking. He lowered the gun and turned around, heading back to where he had come from. As he moved, a small bracelet around his wrist bounced up and down, crimson beads clacking against each other.
The little girl threw the leaf into the air and watched it float back down to her. "Daddy's coming home, isn't he, mommy? He's gonna come home a war hero. I want daddy to come home. Come home daddy…"
Her mother turned away from the fire for a moment, and gazed at the red leaf her daughter was holding.
"Yes, dear. He's coming home."