Six months ago—had it been that long? Maybe a little longer—the little skirmishes in the northwest and northeast corners of the country had picked up in earnest. And in the central part of the east.
And the rumors. There were always rumors. The fighting in the northeast had expanded, some said. That explained the battles in the east-central part of the country.
I watched as Mary’s left hand continued to hover over my chest.
She raised her head, looked at Arancio. She moved her hand in a flat circle and said something.
He nodded and his mouth moved.
I tried to read his lips. I think he said, “Iss okay.”
No, other rumors said, in the east those were four isolated groups of skirmishers. Two in the north, two in the central region. Nothing more. It was catch as catch can on that side of the country, they said. Nothing was well-organized there, they said.
It was probably true. Most of the time the stuff in the east didn’t even make the papers.
Most would-be pundits agreed, the stuff in the northwest would expand first.
I thought so too. The units were more organized in the northwest, although the national army, thus far, was sitting it out. Awaiting orders, some said.
More likely the president was waiting to see which side to join.
But how could he not know? Whether the Communists were or weren’t successful from battle to battle, the men among the Nationalists were dying for their country. His country. They needed help. How could he not know which side to back?
The pundits were right.
I tried to keep up with the expansion of fighting in the northwest.
As it spread to the west-central part of the country over the past few months, I thought more than once about leaving the docks. Getting involved again in “jobs like that.”
But the docks were comfortable. No responsibility. No worries, as the kids say.
And Mary was here.
I might as well admit, that was part of the reason I hadn’t gone sooner. Like I was waiting for an engrave invitation or something.
I wasn’t sitting out the war. I was sitting out my life.
And there I lay, on the floor of Barney’s Tavern. Proof positive that the fighting in the north had moved south. Guess I had my invitation.
Arancio leaned into my field of vision again, insisting on my attention. His mouth was large, his lips moving. As if on satellite delay, I heard, “Can you moof you’ fingers? Moof you’ hands?”
I strained hard, picked up my hand, put it back down.
Mary frowned. She looked at Arancio. I read her lips. “He flexed his fingers.”
I picked up my hand again, put it back down.
Arancio said, “Hokay. Moof you’ feet.”
I tried to look down at my feet. Couldn’t.
I relaxed, strained my calf muscles, my shins.
Arancio grinned. “There. Tha’s good. You moofed.” He looked at Mary, then back to me and his mouth went large again. “Try now to sit you up.” He looked away toward the west end of the room. His mouth went large again.
I let my head roll to the right.
Barney looked over, nodded. He shook the kid’s arm and said something. Then he turned and started toward us.
Mary straightened and moved away.
I pulled my head back to the left. The ceiling moved past, but slower now, under control.
Arancio moved past where Mary had been. He disappeared above my head to my left.
I looked for him.
At the edge of the dining area, Mary took a chair from the floor, set it upright.
Then there were hands under my shoulders, under my lower back.
Arancio on the left, Barney on the right. They lifted me. My boot heels dragged, bumping over the rough places in the floor planks, and they set me in the chair. My hands lay palm-up in my lap.
My chin wanted to loll down to my chest, but I tensed my neck muscles, kept my head mostly upright.
Barney bent, looked at me. His lips moved, but I couldn’t make it out. He patted my shoulder, turned and faded off toward the far end of the bar.
Mary crouched in front of me like someone had dropped her there. She looked up at me, studied my face, tears on her cheeks. She raised up a little, reached for my cheek, but again her hand only hovered.
I tried to tell her with my eyes that it was all right. That I was all right.
Arancio crouched to the right side of the chair, one hand on my shoulder, keeping me against the chair back. He noticed my frown.
“You are cut some,” he said.
I let myself look down, but controlled it with my neck muscles. I was getting stronger. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?
My shirt and trousers were peppered with little tears and rips, little spots of blood.
The shells, probably.
Not the shell. The crushed seashells.
The powder was always so ready to blow away in the wind. The shards themselves blew away under the force of the blast. Through the open doorway. Through my shirt and trousers. Into my skin.
I could only imagine what my face looked like. It stung some, but overall it wasn’t bad. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a mirror though.
I raised my head and looked forward, slowly, under control.
Mary moved to the left side of my chair.
The bar itself was fine. It was peppered too with glistening white things.
There was a deep ache across my back, but nothing felt broken. I was breathing all right. My feet were tingling, and my hands.
I raised my right hand a few inches from my lap, let it drop. Raised my left hand, let it drop. A searing pain shot up through my shoulder and into the left side of my neck. I waiting a couple of beats, tried it again.
The pain came again, but much less strongly.
I worked my ankles, left, then right. The toes of my boots moved toward me. So my spine was intact. I was fine.
Well, Arancio knew that before.
I tensed the muscles in my abdomen, tried to pull my heels toward me.
They didn’t budge.
Well, later for that.
I relaxed my legs, flexed my ankles again and looked to the right.
In the west end of the room, earlier a couple of chairs were on the floor. They were back in position on the tables.
The kid must have moved them. Nerves. Going back to routine. Staying busy. He wasn’t there anymore.
Barney was coming out from behind the bar. Probably back there straightening things up.
I turned my head to the front, then a little to the left.
The left side of my neck hurt, but not bad. What I could see of the dining area was unscathed.
So the blast was far enough away that it hadn’t blown the doors off or the walls down. The only thing it really got was me.
The thought made me want to grin.
I had an idea who had done the shelling. Who had sent my invitation.
I didn’t like them. I’m sure they were good guys in their country, but this wasn’t their country.
It wasn’t mine either but—well, it was a job. And it would suit me.
I looked over at Mary, raised my left hand a bit, cupped it.
She knelt beside my chair and held my hand between both of hers.
I said, “Can you hear me?”
She nodded and smiled. Her mouth moved. She said, “Can you hear me?”
I nodded. “Yes. But we’ll have to postpone our talk.”
And I let my eyes close for a moment.
* * *