The old man looked up slowly as the door to his room closed with a soft click. He turned towards the sound, his right eyebrow raising a fraction of an inch. The pillow he was reclining on obscured the vision of his left eye, but with his right he regarded the young man in silence. He took in in the sharp contours of his face, the brown hair all in disarray. The younger man struggled to compose himself, dragging a plastic, straight backed chair to the old man's bedside.
The old man smiled. "Hello yourself."
A silence stretched on for another long moment. It seemed to agitate the young man, but the old man did not mind. The young man cleared his throat. "So. How are you today?" He spoke as though questioning himself as much as the old man.
"The same as I was yesterday, I suppose, but you wouldn't know that. A little bored, I suppose."
"Would you like me to tell you a story?"
"I'd rather you not, son." The old man folded his hands over his breastbone and closed his eyes. The starched white sheets fell about him like a robe, and though sunlight streamed through the windows, the cloth felt cold beneath his palms. "Most stories tend to be sad. And I've heard a lot of sad stories. Or at least, I think I might have. I can't remember."
"This isn't a sad story!" the young man replied quickly. "No, it's full of adventure, and joy, and…" He trailed off, stumbling to find more positive words.
The old man glanced at him, watching as the sunlight made the tips of his fly-away hair turn from brown to gold. "A happy story? Well, why not? It would pass the time, I suppose."
The young man smiled. "I don't think you'll be disappointed. All right, this story begins many years ago…"
Arthur North worked frantically at the controls of his plane, trying in vain to keep it in the sky, just for a little while longer. Fire was crackling on the right wing, and acrid black smoke was curling out through the fuselage. The engine groaned and roared as it labored to stay alive. Just hours ago, it had sounded like a fearsome beast of the jungle, bellowing out a challenge. Now the sound was closer to a piteous whine.
The checkerboard of green and brown below him rushed up closer, and Arthur knew that time was growing short. The plane was doomed, and he would be foolish to try and keep it up any longer. He grasped the lever on his left side and jerked it back sharply. The cockpit of the biplane burst open, and his chair went soaring up into the air. A starched white parachute billowed out behind him, catching the wind as it spread. Arthur drifted down slowly as his plane plummeted to the ground and burst into a brilliant fireball, consuming a large part of some poor farmer's field in its death throes.
He turned his gaze back to the clouded sky, scanning for any sign of the planes that had attacked him. He saw no sign of them, nor did he hear the telltale hum of their engines. He rolled along the ground to break his fall and shed his parachute like he had been taught, balling it up and tossing it into a nearby ditch. Arthur did not linger, but set off down a nearby country road. As he trekked down the winding dirt path, he lost himself in his musings. He knew he was far behind enemy lines, and if he did not find out just where he was, he would never be able to find his way back.
The rain started soon after, pouring down in great sheets. Arthur's uniform shirt was soon soaked through, dragging heavily upon him. After much trepidation, he took off the sodden garment and discarded it in much the same manner as the parachute, leaving him with only his white undershirt and khaki trousers, but with nothing to mark him as an enemy soldier.
That night, he slept in a hollow at the base of an old elm tree, curling into a ball to stay out of the rain and conserve what little warmth he had left. He came to a small town on the third day, and by then Arthur was sure he would never be warm again. The rain was cold in and of itself, but the nights were frigid. Arthur felt himself coming down with a cold, and hoped that he would not catch his death because of it.
He stared at the guidepost outside the town for some time, but could not make sense of it. The letters looked familiar enough, but the words ran together. When he tried to speak them aloud, they Slowly, warily, he staggered into town. He knew very little of the local tongue, and if he so much as opened his mouth, he would mark himself as a foreigner and an enemy. He found a discarded tin cup in a garbage heap, and claimed it for his own. Arthur settled down on a street corner and tried to warm his frozen hands while gazing beseechingly at passerby. Occasionally, one of them would drop a sou or two into the cup, and by nightfall he had enough to buy a bowl of soup from a nearby tavern.
He merely pointed at the item at the board above the bar, and the innkeeper silently took his money before procuring the thick beef stew. Despite its foul taste, he gulped it down eagerly, feeling the warmth of it congeal in the pit of his stomach. When it was finished, he stood up to leave. The innkeeper called out something, and Arthur picked out the words for room and night. He shook his head and continued walking out of the village proper and back into the surrounding famrlands.
After that, Arthur avoided villages, scavenging what he needed from farms along the roadside. One evening, as a storm was blowing in, he came upon a darkened farmhouse standing alone in an empty field. His curiosity awakened, he tried the door and found it unlocked. After combing the kitchen, he found a loaf of stale bread, a few strips of salted meat and an old, slightly moldy carrot. To Arthur, it was a feast. After devouring the meager fare, he settled down to sleep on a threadbare rug in front of the empty hearth.
An all too familiar clicking noise made him snap awake. He squinted against the light of midmorning streaming in through the cottage window, adjusting his vision to stare down the muzzle of a rifle. The woman holding it had it hovering just off the bridge of Arthur's nose. "Qui êtes-vous?"
That was a sentence Arthur knew. "Who are you?" He held his hands palm-up to show he meant no harm. "Easy there. Let's take it easy." The woman stepped back warily, and Arthur tapped a finger to his chest. "Arthur North. Pilot." He spread his arms wide, like a plane's wings and made a humming sound like an engine. Then, using his right hand, he pantomimed the plane going down.
The woman narrowed her eyes. "Anglais."
Arthur shook his head. "No. American."
The woman tensed, and Arthur feared she would summon the authorities. He tensed, ready to run. Instead, the woman set her rifle aside. "Son. Soldier. Fight war." Her accent was quite thick, and her English broken, but Arthur understood.
"Your son is fighting in the war. Where? For who?" The woman merely blinked at him and shrugged. Arthur sighed. "Do you have a name? What do I call you?" The woman shook her head, not comprehending. Arthur placed his index finger on his chest. "Arthur North." He pointed at the woman and shrugged.
The woman wiped her hands on her apron. "Colette."
"Colette, where's the ocean? Le… l'océan. I have to find the rest of the army. My army."
"L'océan," Colette repeated. She pantomimed machine gun fire and made a booming sound. "Il se bat à l'océan. Vous ne voulez pas y aller. Ils se battent en Normandie."
"Normandy! Normandy, yes! The invasion! Did it work?" The woman shrugged again. "Where is Normandy, Colette? I have to go there."
The woman seemed to catch his meaning. She sighed, and pointed in a general direction. Arthur thanked her, and stood up to leave. Colette held up her hand and went into a different room of the cottage. She returned with a cloth bundle that she shoved at him. Arthur picked it up tentatively. The olive green jacket seemed about the right size to fit him, and he pulled it on. "For me? Thank you."
Colette nodded and handed him a photograph of herself with two other men, one a little younger than Arthur. She pointed at him. "Jacque. Mon fils. Mon… son. Jacque. Son."
"You want me to find him? Find your son?" Arthur asked. Colette nodded. Arthur sighed. "I'll try."
Colette sent him on his way, and Arthur continued on down the road, completely devoid of other travelers. The closer he came to the sea, the more he saw the effects of the war. War planes flew overhead, and he would sometimes see the camps of enemy soldiers, retreating as they were. He stayed as far away from them as he could.
Occasionally, Arthur would enter a village and inquire if anyone had seen Colette's son. No one had, not that he expected anything different. But Colette had helped him, and he had promised to try.
He trudged across the countryside, sustained only by his two growing obsessions. He would return home, and he would find Jacque. Hunger gnawed at the pit of his stomach, but Arthur ignored it for longer and longer each day, forcing himself to go another handful of miles before stopping and foraging for food. Many of the fields he passed through were burned by warplanes and bombs. Other emaciated peons passed Arthur on the road, and though they never spoke, the glances the pilot shared with the broken and battered farmers spoke volumes.
Each night, Arthur collapsed into a ditch on the roadside or, if he was fortunate, nestling down beneath the sheltering boughs of a tree. He would draw Jacque's coat around his bony shoulders and curled his legs into his chest. As the light of evening faded, he would stare at the grainy photograph Colette had given him, memorizing Jacque's face so that should there ever come a day when he no longer had the picture, he could recognize Jacque on sight.
He made a promise. And even if it took him until the end of his days, he would find Jacque and make sure he returned home to Colette.
After three weeks of travel, he finally came to the American lines as they advanced. He hailed the company, and explained that his plane went down on a scouting mission, and gave a brief summary of his adventures across the countryside.
He was brought to a medical tent, and given an extensive physical. He held out Colette's picture to the doctor who tended to him. "You seen this guy? Anybody seen this guy?"
"No, I'm afraid not," he replied.
"But I made a promise!" Arthur cried. "I promised to find him!"
"You should just sleep now," the doctor replied, giving him a tonic. "You might hurt yourself."
The army sent him on a transport home not long after that. Arthur's journey across the countryside had sapped much of his strength and left him dreadfully malnourished. His ribs strained against the taunt skin over his chest, and his arms were as thin as twigs. As Arthur North boarded the steamship that would take him home to his family and his fiancé, his fingers tightened around the hem of Jacque's overcoat. He had made a promise to Colette, a promise he intended to uphold.
He broke out of the queue and raced through the camp, accosting every person he came across and brandishing the grainy photograph in front of their eyes. "You see him? Him, right there? His name is Jacque. If you see him, tell him his mother is missing him something awful back home. He's probably not going to understand you, he's French, you know. But you tell him, and tell him Arthur North the American sent you. You hear me? If you see Jacque, tell him his mother wants him to come back home. And tell him thanks for the coat."
The old man turned his head. "So how does it end? Does Arthur find Jacque?"
There was a long pause. The young man had promised him a happy story, a story with a good ending, not one filled with tragedy and grief. "Yes," he lied. "Yes, he did. And Jacque went back to Colette, and Arthur went back to America and everyone lived happily ever after."
"That was a good story," the old man said with a nod. "About time someone had a happy ending."
The young man nodded back briskly. "I'll… um… I have to go. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Then I suppose I'll look forward to it."
Jack North nodded as he hurried out of the whitewashed hospital ward, collapsing into the stiff, uncomfortable chair just outside the door and burying his face in his hands. His shoulders quaked with silent sobs. Even the mention of Jacque had not brought a single spark of recognition to Arthur North's vacant eyes. But Jack did not expect it to, because it had not left any impression the day before, or the day before that, or the week before that.
Jack just couldn't understand how the man his grandfather had committed so much of his life to finding could be gone from his memory, in much the same way Jack himself was gone. Seeing those empty eyes look upon Jack as a stranger every single day never failed to break the young man's heart, but for whatever reason, he kept coming back to Arthur, determined to stay with his grandfather until the end, memories or no memories.
Slowly, Jack drew the leaf of thick, cream-colored paper from his pocket and scanned the words that he knew by heart.
"To Arthur North:
I am sorry this correspondence reaches you so late, so many decades late. I spent many years trying to find Arthur North the American, the soldier who dropped from the sky. My mother told me you scoured the countryside in search of me, though we never met. I am sorry. We could have been friends. I write only with the wish that you know your search was not in vain, that I did indeed return home to my mother alive and well so long ago. Thank you, Arthur North the American, for searching for me, and I am sorry I was so hard to find.
I hope that my coat served you as well in your travels as it served me. It was in fact my favorite coat, though I do not begrudge my mother for giving it to you. I am sure it is certainly threadbare and worn by now, but I can still remember it as vividly as the day I left home for the war. I send you my best wishes and all my love, Arthur North. May Fortune be kind to you.
Jack clenched the letter in his fist. Finally, his grandfather could have had the closure he sought for so many years. He had searched for Jacque D'Penisson for Jack's entire lifetime and his mother's lifetime before that. Now that long-sought after contact was within Arthur's grasp, but he could not even remember searching for it. That, in its own way, felt crueler to Jack than his own grandfather not knowing who he was. So he would come back every day, have the same conversation every day, and then tell Arthur the story of his odyssey across the French countryside and his quest to find Jacque D'Penisson in the hope that one day, before the end, the fire would spark within Arthur's eyes and he would remember.
And they could share that triumph together.
A/N: This is my entry for the December Writing Contest Challenge, sponsored by the Review Game Forum. If you liked this piece, please cast your vote for it when the judging period rolls around in a few days.