The five people you meet.., p.6
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       The Five People You Meet in Heaven, p.6

           Mitch Albom
 
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  “Yeah! We’re hungry!”

  “Oh, Sal, shush!”

  “Well, we are.”

  There is cake and beer and milk and cigars and a toast to Eddie’s success, and there is a moment where his mother begins to cry and she hugs her other son, Joe, who is staying stateside on account of his flat feet.

  Later that night, Eddie walks Marguerite along the promenade. He knows the names of every ticket taker and food vendor and they all wish him luck. Some of the older women get teary-eyed, and Eddie figures they have sons of their own, already gone.

  He and Marguerite buy saltwater taffy, molasses and teaberry and root beer flavors. They pick out pieces from the small white bag, playfully fighting each other’s fingers. At the penny arcade, Eddie pulls on a plaster hand and the arrow goes past “clammy” and “harmless” and “mild,” all the way to “hot stuff.”

  “You’re really strong,” Marguerite says.

  “Hot stuff,” Eddie says, making a muscle.

  At the end of the night, they stand on the boardwalk in a fashion they have seen in the movies, holding hands, leaning against the railing. Out on the sand, an old ragpicker has built a small fire from sticks and torn towels and is huddling by it, settled in for the night.

  “You don’t have to ask me to wait,” Marguerite says suddenly.

  Eddie swallows.

  “I don’t?”

  She shakes her head. Eddie smiles. Saved from a question that has caught in his throat all night, he feels as if a string has just shot from his heart and looped around her shoulders, pulling her close, making her his. He loves her more in this moment than he thought he could ever love anyone.

  A drop of rain hits Eddie’s forehead. Then another. He looks up at the gathering clouds.

  “Hey, Hot Stuff ?” Marguerite says. She smiles but then her face droops and she blinks back water, although Eddie cannot tell if it is raindrops or tears.

  “Don’t get killed, OK?” she says.

  A FREED SOLDIER is often furious. The days and nights he lost, the torture and humiliation he suffered—it all demands a fierce revenge, a balancing of the accounts.

  So when Morton, his arms full of stolen weapons, said to the others, “Let’s burn it down,” there was quick if not logical agreement. Inflated by their new sense of control, the men scattered with the enemy’s firepower, Smitty to the entrance of the mine shaft, Morton and Eddie to the oil barrels. The Captain went in search of a transport vehicle.

  “Five minutes, then back here!” he barked. “That bombing’s gonna start soon and we need to be gone. Got it? Five minutes!”

  Which was all it took to destroy what had been their home for nearly half a year. Smitty dropped the grenades down the mine shaft and ran. Eddie and Morton rolled two barrels into the hut complex, pried them open, then, one by one, fired the nozzles of their newly acquired flamethrowers and watched the huts ignite.

  “Burn!” Morton yelled.

  “Burn!” Eddie yelled.

  The mine shaft exploded from below. Black smoke rose from the entrance. Smitty, his work done, ran toward the meeting point. Morton kicked his oil barrel into a hut and unleashed a rope-like burst of flame.

  Eddie watched, sneered, then moved down the path to the final hut. It was larger, more like a barn, and he lifted his weapon. This was over, he said to himself. Over. All these weeks and months in the hands of those bastards, those subhuman guards with their bad teeth and bony faces and the dead hornets in their soup. He didn’t know what would happen to them next, but it could not be any worse than what they had endured.

  Eddie squeezed the trigger. Whoosh. The fire shot up quickly. The bamboo was dry, and within a minute the walls of the barn were melting in orange and yellow flames. Off in the distance, Eddie heard the rumble of an engine—the Captain, he hoped, had found something to escape in—and then, suddenly, from the skies, the first sounds of bombing, the noise they had been hearing every night. It was even closer now, and Eddie realized whoever it was would see the flames. They might be rescued. He might be going home! He turned to the burning barn and…

  What was that?

  He blinked.

  What was that?

  Something darted across the door opening. Eddie tried to focus. The heat was intense, and he shielded his eyes with his free hand. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he’d just seen a small figure running inside the fire.

  “Hey!” Eddie yelled, stepping forward, lowering his weapon. “HEY!” The roof of the barn began to crumble, splashing sparks and flame. Eddie jumped back. His eyes watered. Maybe it was a shadow.

  “EDDIE! NOW!”

  Morton was up the path, waving for Eddie to come. Eddie’s eyes were stinging. He was breathing hard. He pointed and yelled, “I think there’s someone in there!”

  Morton put a hand to his ear. “What?”

  “Someone…in…there!”

  Morton shook his head. He couldn’t hear. Eddie turned and was almost certain he saw it again, there, crawling inside the burning barn, a child-size figure. It had been more than two years since Eddie had seen anything besides grown men, and the shadowy shape made him think suddenly of his small cousins back at the pier and the Li’l Folks Miniature Railway he used to run and the roller coasters and the kids on the beach and Marguerite and her picture and all that he’d shut from his mind for so many months.

  “HEY! COME OUT!” he yelled, dropping the flamethrower, moving even closer. “I WON’T SHOO—”

  A hand grabbed his shoulder, yanking him backward. Eddie spun, his fist clenched. It was Morton, yelling, “EDDIE! We gotta go NOW!”

  Eddie shook his head. “No—no—wait—wait—wait, I think there’s someone in th—”

  “There’s nobody in there! NOW!”

  Eddie was desperate. He turned back to the barn. Morton grabbed him again. This time Eddie spun around and swung wildly, hitting him in the chest. Morton fell to his knees. Eddie’s head was pounding. His face twisted in anger. He turned again to the flames, his eyes nearly shut. There. Was that it? Rolling behind a wall? There?

  He stepped forward, convinced something innocent was being burned to death in front of him. Then the rest of the roof collapsed with a roar, casting sparks like electric dust that rained down on his head.

  In that instant, the whole of the war came surging out of him like bile. He was sickened by the captivity and sickened by the murders, sickened by the blood and goo drying on his temples, sickened by the bombing and the burning and the futility of it all. At that moment he just wanted to salvage something, a piece of Rabozzo, a piece of himself, something, and he staggered into the flaming wreckage, madly convinced that there was a soul inside every black shadow. Planes roared overhead and shots from their guns rang out in drumbeats.

  Eddie moved as if in a trance. He stepped past a burning puddle of oil, and his clothes caught fire from behind. A yellow flame moved up his calf and thigh. He raised his arms and hollered.

  “I’LL HELP YOU! COME OUT! I WON’T SHOO—”

  A piercing pain ripped through Eddie’s leg. He screamed a long, hard curse then crumbled to the ground. Blood was spewing below his knee. Plane engines roared. The skies lit in bluish flashes.

  He lay there, bleeding and burning, his eyes shut against the searing heat, and for the first time in his life, he felt ready to die. Then someone yanked him backward, rolling him in the dirt, extinguishing the flames, and he was too stunned and weak to resist, he rolled like a sack of beans. Soon he was inside a transport vehicle and the others were around him, telling him to hang on, hang on. His back was burned and his knee had gone numb and he was getting dizzy and tired, so very tired.

  THE CAPTAIN NODDED slowly, as he recalled those last moments.

  “You remember anything about how you got out of there?” he asked.

  “Not really,” Eddie said.

  “It took two days. You were in and out of consciousness. You lost a lot of blood.”

  “We made it though,”
Eddie said.

  “Yeaaah.” The Captain drew the word out and punctuated it with a sigh. “That bullet got you pretty good.”

  In truth, the bullet had never been fully removed. It had cut through several nerves and tendons and shattered against a bone, fracturing it vertically. Eddie had two surgeries. Neither cured the problem. The doctors said he’d be left with a limp, one likely to get worse with age as the misshapen bones deteriorated. “The best we can do,” he was told. Was it? Who could say? All Eddie knew was that he’d awoken in a medical unit and his life was never the same. His running was over. His dancing was over. Worse, for some reason, the way he used to feel about things was over, too. He withdrew. Things seemed silly or pointless. War had crawled inside of Eddie, in his leg and in his soul. He learned many things as a soldier. He came home a different man.

  “DID YOU KNOW,” the Captain said, “that I come from three generations of military?”

  Eddie shrugged.

  “Yep. I knew how to fire a pistol when I was six. In the mornings, my father would inspect my bed, actually bounce a quarter on the sheets. At the dinner table it was always, ‘Yes, sir,’ and, ‘No, sir.’

  “Before I entered the service, all I did was take orders. Next thing I knew, I was giving them.

  “Peacetime was one thing. Got a lot of wise-guy recruits. But then the war started and the new men flooded in—young men, like you—and they were all saluting me, wanting me to tell them what to do. I could see the fear in their eyes. They acted as if I knew something about war that was classified. They thought I could keep them alive. You did, too, didn’t you?”

  Eddie had to admit he did.

  The Captain reached back and rubbed his neck. “I couldn’t, of course. I took my orders, too. But if I couldn’t keep you alive, I thought I could at least keep you together. In the middle of a big war, you go looking for a small idea to believe in. When you find one, you hold it the way a soldier holds his crucifix when he’s praying in a foxhole.

  “For me, that little idea was what I told you guys every day. No one gets left behind.”

  Eddie nodded. “That meant a lot,” he said.

  The Captain looked straight at him. “I hope so,” he said.

  He reached inside his breast pocket, took out another cigarette, and lit up.

  “Why do you say that?” Eddie asked.

  The Captain blew smoke, then motioned with the end of the cigarette toward Eddie’s leg.

  “Because I was the one,” he said, “who shot you.”

  EDDIE LOOKED AT his leg, dangling over the tree branch. The surgery scars were back. So was the pain. He felt a welling of something inside him that he had not felt since before he died, in truth, that he had not felt in many years: a fierce, surging flood of anger, and a desire to hurt something. His eyes narrowed and he stared at the Captain, who stared back blankly, as if he knew what was coming. He let the cigarette fall from his fingers.

  “Go ahead,” he whispered.

  Eddie screamed and lunged with a windmill swing, and the two men fell off the tree branch and tumbled through limbs and vines, wrestling and falling all the way down.

  “WHY? YOU BASTARD! You bastard! Not you! WHY?” They were grappling now on the muddy earth. Eddie straddled the Captain’s chest, pummeling him with blows to the face. The Captain did not bleed. Eddie shook him by the collar and banged his skull against the mud. The Captain did not blink. Instead, he rolled from side to side with each punch, allowing Eddie his rage. Finally, with one arm, he grabbed Eddie and flipped him over.

  “Because,” he said calmly, his elbow across Eddie’s chest, “we would have lost you in that fire. You would have died. And it wasn’t your time.”

  Eddie panted hard. “My…time?”

  The Captain continued. “You were obsessed with getting in there. You damn near knocked Morton out when he tried to stop you. We had a minute to get out and, damn your strength, you were too tough to fight.”

  Eddie felt a final surge of rage and grabbed the Captain by the collar. He pulled him close. He saw the teeth stained yellow by tobacco.

  “My…leggggg!” Eddie seethed. “My life!”

  “I took your leg,” the Captain said, quietly, “to save your life.”

  Eddie let go and fell back exhausted. His arms ached. His head was spinning. For so many years, he had been haunted by that one moment, that one mistake, when his whole life changed.

  “There was nobody in that hut. What was I thinking? If only I didn’t go in there…” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Why didn’t I just die?”

  “No one gets left behind, remember?” the Captain said. “What happened to you—I’ve seen it happen before. A soldier reaches a certain point and then he can’t go anymore. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the night. A man’ll just roll out of his tent and start walking, barefoot, half naked, like he’s going home, like he lives just around the corner.

  “Sometimes it’s in the middle of a fight. Man’ll drop his gun, and his eyes go blank. He’s just done. Can’t fight anymore. Usually he gets shot.

  “Your case, it just so happened, you snapped in front of a fire about a minute before we were done with this place. I couldn’t let you burn alive. I figured a leg wound would heal. We pulled you out of there, and the others got you to a medical unit.”

  Eddie’s breathing smacked like a hammer in his chest. His head was smeared with mud and leaves. It took him a minute to realize the last thing the Captain had said.

  “The others?” Eddie said. “What do you mean, ‘the others’?”

  The Captain rose. He brushed a twig from his leg.

  “Did you ever see me again?” he asked.

  Eddie had not. He had been airlifted to the military hospital, and eventually, because of his handicap, was discharged and flown home to America. He had heard, months later, that the Captain had not made it, but he figured it was some later combat with some other unit. A letter arrived eventually, with a medal inside, but Eddie put it away, unopened. The months after the war were dark and brooding, and he forgot details and had no interest in collecting them. In time, he changed his address.

  “It’s like I told you,” the Captain said. “Tetanus? Yellow fever? All those shots? Just a big waste of my time.”

  He nodded in a direction over Eddie’s shoulder, and Eddie turned to look.

  WHAT HE SAW, suddenly, was no longer the barren hills but the night of their escape, the hazy moon in the sky, the planes coming in, the huts on fire. The Captain was driving the transport with Smitty, Morton, and Eddie inside. Eddie was across the backseat, burned, wounded, semiconscious, as Morton tied a tourniquet above his knee. The shelling was getting closer. The black sky lit up every few seconds, as if the sun were flickering on and off. The transport swerved as it reached the top of a hill, then stopped. There was a gate, a makeshift thing of wood and wire, but because the ground dropped off sharply on both sides, they could not go around it. The Captain grabbed a rifle and jumped out. He shot the lock and pushed the gate open. He motioned for Morton to take the wheel, then pointed to his eyes, signaling he would check the path ahead, which curled into a thicket of trees. He ran, as best he could in his bare feet, 50 yards beyond the turn in the road.

  The path was clear. He waved to his men. A plane zoomed overhead and he lifted his eyes to see whose side it was. It was at that moment, while he was looking to the heavens, that a small click sounded beneath his right foot.

  The land mine exploded instantly, like a burping flame from the earth’s core. It blew the Captain 20 feet into the air and split him into pieces, one fiery lump of bone and gristle and a hundred chunks of charred flesh, some of which flew over the muddy earth and landed in the banyan trees.

  The Second Lesson

  “AW, JESUS,” EDDIE SAID, CLOSING HIS EYES, dropping his head backward. “Aw, God. Aw, God! I had no idea, sir. It’s sick. It’s awful!”

  The Captain nodded and looked away. The hills had returned to their barren state, th
e animal bones and the broken cart and the smoldering remains of the village. Eddie realized this was the Captain’s burial ground. No funeral. No coffin. Just his shattered skeleton and the muddy earth.

  “You’ve been waiting here all this time?” Eddie whispered.

  “Time,” the Captain said, “is not what you think.” He sat down next to Eddie. “Dying? Not the end of everything. We think it is. But what happens on earth is only the beginning.”

  Eddie looked lost.

  “I figure it’s like in the Bible, the Adam and Eve deal?” the Captain said. “Adam’s first night on earth? When he lays down to sleep? He thinks it’s all over, right? He doesn’t know what sleep is. His eyes are closing and he thinks he’s leaving this world, right?

  “Only he isn’t. He wakes up the next morning and he has a fresh new world to work with, but he has something else, too. He has his yesterday.”

  The Captain grinned. “The way I see it, that’s what we’re getting here, soldier. That’s what heaven is. You get to make sense of your yesterdays.”

  He took out his plastic cigarette pack and tapped it with his finger. “You followin’ this? I was never all that hot at teaching.”

  Eddie watched the Captain closely. He had always thought of him as so much older. But now, with some of the coal ash rubbed from his face, Eddie noticed the scant lines on his skin and the full head of dark hair. He must have only been in his 30s.

  “You been here since you died,” Eddie said, “but that’s twice as long as you lived.”

  The Captain nodded.

  “I’ve been waitin’ for you.”

  Eddie looked down.

  “That’s what the Blue Man said.”

  “Well, he was too. He was part of your life, part of why you lived and how you lived, part of the story you needed to know, but he told you and he’s beyond here now, and in a short bit, I’m gonna be as well. So listen up. Because here’s what you need to know from me.”

 
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