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One-hundred steps: A Christmas story

(Illustration by G. Mark LaFrancis)

(Illustration by G. Mark LaFrancis)

Editor’s note: Each year for the past 14 years, local author G. Mark LaFrancis has written an original, fictional, Christmas story for readers. Here is this year’s story, “One-Hundred Steps.”

Story by G. Mark LaFrancis

“One-hundred steps,” he said to himself. “Only 100 steps.”

Stanley surveyed the cemetery and spotted the large live oak tree off in the distance. It was his only reference to his wife’s grave … 100 steps away.

The door to his 1975 Ford truck creaked as Stanley pushed it open. He slid carefully from the seat, setting his cane on the ground.

“Irene, I’m coming to ya,” he whispered. “It’s your Stanley.”

An early chill settled in this December — Dec. 24 to be exact — the date of Stanley’s and Irene’s anniversary. It would have been number 62 if cancer hadn’t taken Irene the year before, leaving Stanley a grieving widower.

“I brought you pink roses,” Stanley said. “Your favorite.”

He steadied himself against the truck, roses in one hand, cane in the other. He sighed deeply. “One hundred steps. OK, Stanley, let’s go. Let’s go see Irene.”

 

***

 

Stanley Womack was a skinny farm boy from southwest Mississippi who fished, hunted and chased girls. Then America was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Pearl Harbor was his and his buddies’ rallying cry to enter the military. The farm boy became an infantryman in one of the first waves of brave soldiers on the beaches in Normandy — on D-Day.

Stanley never told Irene of the horrors of that day, the sounds of explosions, the cries of the men, the belly-crawling over blood-stained sand. Stanley bottled all of that in his heart and soul.

Stanley met Irene on a blind date arranged by her friend, the woman Stanley actually wanted to woo. It was after he returned from World War II, when young men hungered for a fresh life, thirsted for normalcy, ached for happiness and joy.

At the Malt Shop, Stanley was a man of few words. He survived D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge and rescued a Nazi Concentration Camp. But in front of Irene, he was tongue-tied.

“Stanley Womack, you are not going to sit there hiding behind your hamburger and not say two words to me,” Irene said.

“Um … um …,” Stanley stammered. “Would you like some fries?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Irene said, bursting into laughter.

They shared vows a year later, and their lives were joyous and fruitful with two sons and a daughter.

After the war, Stanley returned to farming, and Irene became a teacher. Irene never asked Stanley about the war. It was too painful for her, too. Her brother was killed on Iwo Jima.

They often sat in church on Sunday mornings, holding hands. They knew.

Instead, they poured their energies into their families, their church, their love for each other. Sometimes, Stanley shook from memories of World War II, and Irene would cradle him in her arms. She knew.

***

 

Stanley often thought he’d be the first to go. But cancer came to Irene, and Stanley once again was called to battle to help Irene fight. Day and night, he was by her side. Day and night, he prayed. Day and night he wished he had the cancer, not Irene.

At her bedside, days before her death, Stanley held Irene’s hand. “You know,” he said. “I almost froze to death in the Battle of the Bulge. Some of my buddies did. But I always saw this vision of the most beautiful girl. I kept telling myself I had to stay alive for her, to see her. I’m so glad I found you.”

She squeezed his hand. She knew.

 

***

 

Stanley clutched the pink roses, wrapped a scarf around his neck, and began to shuffle the 100 steps to Irene’s grave. His eyes focused on the old live oak.

A chilly wind whipped around Stanley, snatching a few petals from the roses and scattering them. Still, he shuffled on, trying to count the steps, but he soon forgot how many he had walked.

“C’mon, Womack,” he barked at himself. “Pick up your pack and get going.”

The temperature dropped, and the wind kicked up. Even so, Stanley marched on, his shoes dampened from the dew, his shoulders bowed from years of fighting and living.

Leaves that blanketed the cemetery made shuffling difficult. Stanley sat on a bench halfway to the tree, halfway to Irene. He breathed heavily.

“Damn, Stanley, you lived through D-Day. You lived through the Battle of the Bulge. You can do this. Get up, grab your pack and get going.”

With a renewed determination, he shuffled to the tree, to Irene. Petals from the roses dropped to his feet, creating a pink path from where he had been.

Stanley arrived at the tree, 100 steps from where his journey began, 100 steps to his reunion with his bride, 100 steps to Irene.

Leaves, though, blanketed the ground and the markers. Stanley stood near the tree trying to find Irene’s marker. He swished leaves back and forth, bent down and pushed them with his hands.

“Irene, it’s Stanley, where are you?”

For the next half-hour, as the bitter cold gripped his 92-year-old body, Stanley pushed, swiped and prayed to find Irene’s marker.

Exhausted, he sat on a bench next to the tree and began to weep. Leaves swirled; his hands became numb. He leaned against the tree and fell asleep. Fitful dreams of war and sacrifice, of death and courage, of Irene and their life together encased his mind. The roses slipped from his hand.

 

 

***

 

 

“Sir? Sir?”

A small voice squeezed into Stanley’s consciousness. He felt a tug on his arm.

Aroused, he blurted, “Womack, Stanley, Sergeant, United States Army … and … I can’t remember my serial number.”

“Sir, you’re in the cemetery. Are you all right?”

Stanley saw a half-dozen young men in uniforms, Boy Scout uniforms, staring at him.

“What are you doing way out here?” one boy asked.

Stanley tried to stand. “I need to see Irene.”

The Scouts looked puzzled.

“Irene?” the boy asked. “Don’t see no Irene.”

Stanley explained Irene, “the love of his life” and how she died and how he vowed to visit her on their anniversary and bring her the pink roses, and how he couldn’t find her marker, and …

“What are you doing here?” Stanley asked of the boys.

One of the boys spoke up.

“My dad, he’s over there … he died in Afghanistan. The guys said they’d come with me to put a flag on his grave. Then we saw you.”

The boys sprang into action, sweeping leaves with hands, feet and gloves. “We’ll find her; you sit there; we’ll find her.”

One of the boys picked up the roses and tried to put them back together; another sat with Stanley and wrapped his arm around him.

Stanley started to tear.

“Hey! Here she is,” a boy hollered. “Irene Womack. Here she is!”

They helped Stanley to his feet and walked him to Irene’s marker.

Stanley stood over the marker, the boys around him.

Stanley spoke, “Irene my love. I told you I’d be here this Christmas, and thanks to these wonderful young men, I’m here.”

Stanley’s chilled hands shook as he placed the roses on Irene’s marker.

“She was kinda special?” one boy asked.

“Oh, she was special,” Stanley said. “Very special.”

Stanley then looked at one of the boys.

“I’m sorry about your dad. I was in a war long ago. I know how tough it was.”

The wind whistled around them as they stood there staring at Irene’s marker. Tears streamed down the boy’s face. Stanley hugged him and whispered in his ear, “I will pray for you.”

The boys helped Stanley back to his truck, shook his hand and hugged him.

“Thank you, Sir,” they said.

“No, thank you,” Stanley said. “You helped me find Irene, and you helped this old soldier realize there are good young men in this world. Thank you!”

The truck rattled and shook, but started.

“Wait,” the Scout who lost his father in Afghanistan said. “Wait.”

He ran off and returned with the flag he and his buddies placed on his father’s grave.

“He would have been proud to meet you. Here, Merry Christmas from me and my Dad.”

Stanley’s face burst into joyous tears.

He clutched the flag.

“Thank you so much,” he said, saluting the boys.

“No, thank you,” the boys said almost in unison, saluting back.

Stanley’s truck chugged away; the boys stood there as he drove out of sight.

“Merry Christmas, Sir,” they said. “Merry Christmas.”