My Heart Has Wings
by Ron Van Sweringen
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
The phone call came one afternoon at the end of June. Carl and his mother had been expecting it every day since the war ended. When was William coming home? It was hot and all of the windows and doors in the apartment were open in hopes of catching a breeze. Carl’s mother was ironing and listening to Ma Perkins, her favorite soap opera on the radio. Carl was lying barefoot on his bed, reading a comic book
They got few phone calls and when the bell rang, Carl rushed into the living room. His mother spoke William’s name into the phone receiver, and Carl jumped up and down with excitement. The conversation was short, his mother repeated a date twice and then the words, “the train station.”
Ten days later, William stepped down from the train and back into their lives. Carl learned a very important lesson that day, time stands still for no one. The war and the almost three years he had been away had changed William. He was still Carl’s brother, yet he was also someone else. Someone Carl would have to learn to know again. He was taller and older, but the hazel eyes were the same and that slightly crooked smile like no one else’s in the world touched Carl’s heart.
Their mother rarely cried, but that day was an exception, they all cried. Mary Anne Rogers was invited to dinner that night to meet William. Carl was overjoyed to be sitting between them at the table.
Dinner consisted of a large baked chicken with stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy and green beans. To top it off there was homemade apple pie with ice cream on top. Carl couldn’t wait to go fishing again at Ardmore Lake, so he and William planned a trip for the next morning at 8:00 a.m.
Carl woke late the next morning, having found it hard to fall asleep that night. The first thing he was aware of was the strong smell of smoke. He hurried into the kitchen in his pajamas. His mother was sitting at the kitchen table listening to the radio.
“There’s a prairie fire a mile east of town,” she said with a worried look. “William has gone to help fight it; they requested all able-bodied men to volunteer.”
Carl was shocked, he was almost thirteen and able-bodied; why hadn’t they called him? “I can go,” he almost shouted.
“No,” his mother answered firmly. “It’s too dangerous, and I’ll need you here to help me if we have to evacuate.” The word “evacuate,” stuck in Carl’s mind. He had never heard it used in real terms, only in newspapers or movies. It woke him up and frightened him at the same time.
A half an hour later, at nine o’clock, Carl was having a bowl of cereal when it happened. The kitchen table shook, and there was the loudest noise he had ever heard.
“My God!” his mother gasped, “something has exploded.” The tornado warning siren began, joined by the constant wail of police car and emergency vehicle sirens. A broadcaster in an excited voice came on the radio. Carl’s mother turned the volume up and they stood listening in shock.
“The Schiller Cotton Seed Oil Factory on Michigan Street has exploded and is on fire. All residents of Ardmore living on the west side of Main Street are ordered to evacuate the area immediately. Exit only to the east, I repeat exit only to the east, sections to the west of downtown are burning.”
“Hurry!” his mother ordered. “Get Taffy and put her in the car.” Taffy was their six-year old blond cocker spaniel. Carl did as he was told and was stunned when he opened the front door. The sky toward downtown was brown, and pieces of debris were sailing through the air. The smoke was thick, irritating his eyes and throat.
They owned a gray Nash coupe and Carl waited inside, holding Taffy in his lap, while his mother threw an armful of clothes into the back seat. “Roll up your window,” she shouted as the Nash pulled away from the curb.
People were running on the sidewalk, and here and there bright orange and red flames eating at the rooftops of houses. Thick black smoke billowed up above them blocking out the sky.
“Oh, my God!” Carl’s mother repeated as she maneuvered the car through the crowded streets. Suddenly a large sheet of corrugated metal, the type used for the roofs of factories, came hurtling down out of the sky. It struck the front fender of the car and tore it off. Carl’s heart pounded and he pulled Taffy close to him. The Nash lurched to the left violently as his mother fought to maintain control.
The Nash swerved violently, ending up sideways against a telephone pole.
“Are you all right?” Carl’s mother gasped, a small trickle of blood on her forehead.
“I think so,” Carl answered, his voice uncertain.
“This car’s not going any further,” she replied quickly. “We have to walk.”
The sidewalk was crowded with men, women and children running away from the burning buildings. Carl’s mother took Taffy in her arms, “Stay close to me,” she said sharply to Carl. “Let’s go.”
The smoke was thick and, at times, choking. There seemed to be a moaning sound around them. Carl finally realized it was the collective cry of fear from people on all sides.
“Don’t stop,” his mother commanded. “Stay close to me.” After fighting their way, they made a turn on 14th Street and suddenly the sidewalk was less crowded and the smoke not as thick. Carl saw the look of relief on his mother’s face. “We’ll be okay now if we keep going.” She added, “God, I hope William is all right.” Her remark sent a chill through Carl.
They ran for several blocks accompanied by the piercing wail of the tornado siren, before they stopped to rest. Carl could not believe his eyes when Mary Anne came running across the street toward them; in the confusion he had not realized they were near the school.
“I thought it was you,” she said breathlessly. “Thank heaven you’re both all right. Where is William?”
“He went to fight the fire this morning, before the explosion,” Mrs. Meadows replied, sounding exhausted.
“Come to the school with me,” Mary Anne urged. “There is a Red Cross station set up there and you can rest safely. The fire is being contained on the other side of town.”
Carl was amazed when they entered the building: cots lined the main hallway near his classroom and there were people everywhere. A nurse quickly examined Mrs. Meadows forehead before a bandage was applied, and she was shown to a cot to lie on. Taffy made herself comfortable on the cot also and Carl found an empty chair nearby. Mary Anne excused herself and promised to return shortly.
Carl heaved a sigh of relief watching his mother close her eyes and relax. A wave of emotions swept over him, including fear when he remembered the things he had seen that morning. His mother’s remark about William’s safety stung him. He could not bear even the thought of losing his brother.
The hours passed as injured people arrived at the Red Cross center and then toward evening fewer came. A policeman took down their names and told Mrs. Meadows that she and Carl could return home.
Mary Anne appeared a while later, and Carl noticed from the look in her eyes that something was wrong.
“I have some news about William,” she began slowly. “He’s in the hospital. He’s been injured.” Her words hit Carl with such force that he felt faint and lost his breath.
“He’s going to be all right,” Mary Anne added quickly. “He has suffered a concussion and will need to stay in the hospital for a few days.”
“Can we see him?” Carl asked anxiously.
“Tomorrow morning,” Mary Anne answered, “I’ll pick you both up at nine.”
* * *
The hospital room was small with barely enough space for the three of them around the bed. There was a gauze bandage around William’s head and eyes, and a large purple bruise running down the side of his face. It gave Carl a shiver to look at it. Mary Anne took William’s hand in hers and he smiled. “Hard to believe I got through the war without a scratch and then came home to this.”
“Dr. Hartman says you’ll be fine,” she replied quickly. “You can go home tomorrow, but you’ll need to rest until your vision clears up in a few days.”
“I could see light and blurry outlines this morning when they took the bandage off,” William added optimistically.
Carl watched his brother and the way he surrendered his hand so naturally to Mary Anne, as if he had done it a thousand times before. Carl had wanted to hold her hand many times but could never muster the nerve to attempt it. Now it was obvious to him, why. He was thirteen years old, how had he lost sight of that fact? Carl suddenly felt foolish and his face flushed red. He was glad that no one noticed and he heaved a sigh of relief as if a weight had been lifted from him.
William and Mary Anne were right for each other, he realized how lucky he was to have them both in his life. Anyway, Cathy Parker, the girl who sat across from him in class had become very good-looking over the summer, and she smiled at Carl each time she saw him. He didn’t think holding her hand was going to be a problem.
A few days later William came home from the hospital. Carl was happy to see the bandages over his eyes had been replaced by dark glasses. His mother led William to a comfortable chair on the back porch and they all settled down to a cool lemonade. After a while Carl left them sitting and talking while he took Taffy out in the sunny backyard.
William removed his dark glasses with a smile, watching Carl. “Dr. Hartman said not to be surprised if I pictured some weird things as my vision returned. But I didn’t expect to see a bluejay on Carl’s shoulder.”
Copyright © 2014 by Ron Van Sweringen