Who knew that they would find me here?
In the morning, I woke early enough that the sun was just a budding glow over the rooftops, and I dressed in silent darkness in the corner of my room. It was a plain room, with a desk and a cot and no pictures on the walls. I laced up the front of my boots, threw on my jacket, and began to tip-toe ever so quietly down the wooden stairs, careful not to wake Constance and George – who were exceptionally light sleepers.
I slipped out the front door, and into the small front garden.
The light was beginning to poke through the hedges and there was a chilled fog layered above everything like a mosquito net. The grass was fresh, soggy, and glistening under my boots. I reached into my front pocket and retrieved the pouch of tobacco, and sat on the lip of the small stone fountain, rolling a cigarette, watching the sun crest the hedging.
Once rolled, I placed the cigarette on my lip, held a match tip to the front, and lit it. I took a large cloud of tobacco into my lungs and blew upward, outward. I heard a familiar rustle from inside the house, and took out through the wooden front gate, onto the street.
It was a fine morning. I smoked and walked along the cobblestone sidewalks, under the trees, heading toward the center of town. It was still early, and everything was damp and cool from the previous night’s rain. I could see the brilliant white snow capping the mountains off in the distance, above the town. The neighborhood was beginning to bustle. Cars backed out of driveways. Packs of students zipped by on bicycles, shouting, laughing.
I bounded around puddles, grabbing drags on my cigarette. I felt good and energetic and ready for the day.
I saw a woman, with thin wrists and straight black hair, seated at a bus-stop with a book in her lap. She wore an oversized woolen sweater. As I walked by her, we shared a glance. I continued on, a half-block or so, and then looped back around and approached her. She looked up from her book, and I asked, in French, for directions to the nearest cafe. I was certain she recognized my agenda – I’d spent the majority of the spring in this town and knew it thoroughly – but she was polite, and we continued to talk. She recommended a quiet spot along the river, that was good for smoking, and reading.
The bus arrived. And it was then that I saw the man clutching the bus pole, a duffel bag at his feet. He had buzzed hair and his neck was solid, and rigid. He looked out of place. I was distracted with the woman and thanked her and parted. I had every intention of waking this early again soon, and hoped to meet her on this bench once more.
There would be time, I thought.
Town was busy when I arrived. Street sweepers rumbled by, as people hurried this way and that.
I found my usual cafe and sat alongside the curb, in the ever-warming morning sunlight. I wrote for an hour, only briefly looking up to order and drink through a staggering number of espressos.
I dipped my head back into my notebook, and began to roll another cigarette.
“I know who you are and what you’re doing here,” said the man, as he sat across the table from me. I jolted back, startled by his sudden intrusion and his clear native English.
I recognized him immediately; the buzzed hair, the duffel bag.
“What the hell?”
“I said, I know who you are and also what you are doing here,” he said. “I know why you are here and I know everything about you.”
I closed my notebook, and eyed him carefully. He was thin and muscular, with an intense blue-eyed stare. He sat perfectly straight, on the edge of his seat, as if he had a yard-stick down his shirt. He never once broke his eye contact.
“I don’t know what the hell you think –”
“- May I?” he said, removing a pack of cigarettes deliberately from his bag. On the side of the tough fabric bag, read United States Army.
I seized up, and nodded.
“By all means, go ahead,” I said.
“Do you have a light?”
“Sure,” I said. I reached and grabbed the matchbook on the table. My hands shook, and I tried my best to stabilize them.
He took the matchbook, struck the match hard and blew the smoke in my direction.
“You know what this means, don’t you,” he said.
“Yes. I do.”
“Good, because I’m exhausted and I’m not in the mood to have to explain myself.” He sat back a bit, easing into the chair, and shook his head. “May I just ask why?”
“Why’d you do it? Why’d you leave?”
“I’m not going to answer that.”
“This is off record.”
“Sure it is.”
“Believe what you want.”
He took a long puff of his cigarette, and flicked the butt onto the sidewalk.
“I don’t know why I bother,” he said.
“I don’t even inhale anyway,” he said. “A waste.”
“I didn’t believe in the cause.”
“Is that so?”
“Interesting. Do you fancy yourself as a sort of conscientious objector?”
“I don’t fancy myself as anything, sir.”
“I hope you don’t think this is personal, Mr. Berjaut. Personally, I don’t care what you think. I was sent to bring you back, and that’s what I’m here to do.”
“I don’t regret my decision. I know what I believe in and what I don’t believe in.”
“And will you respond, if you don’t mind me asking, to the accusations?”
“There are other ways to learn and grow, besides learning to kill.”
He leaned in and, his expression remained stolid.
“Son, if it were up to me I’d put a bullet right through the bridge of your nose.”
I remained silent. He stood, and pushed in his chair.
I looked up at him, as he took in the area. “So what’s going to happen?” I asked, placing my notebook into my backpack. My eyes darted around, for an escape route.
“Pretty place this is,” he said after a pause. “Mountains, a river running through. Very nice. You could have done worse.”
“This is bullshit.”
“And yet it’s only fair.”
“How’d you know? How’d you find me?”
“You were reported,” he said. “Someone went out of their way to lead us to you.”
I pictured what was to come. How he would agree to let me collect my things, and we would walk toward my Aunt’s house on the outskirt of the town. We would walk side by side, like old friends.
And I would be scared. I wouldn’t know what was going to happen when I returned home. As we would pass each alley, each street would jut off in a different direction, I would see the lights of my independence flickering out with each one.
We would turn the corner. I would see the square hedging that obscures my Aunt’s house. I would hear a rumble and turn to see a bus roll by. Inside would be the woman from the bus-stop. She’d raise her hand, and smile and I’d fail to wave back.
“It was my brother,” I said, interrupting the silence, leaning back in my chair.
“Your brother, what?” he said.
“I’m sure he was the one. He always had a cold sense of duty.”
“I’m not at liberty.”
“It hasn’t been too long. You may still be able to plead your case,” he said.
It was warming now, and sunnier. The morning mist had lifted. The mid-day was certain to be hot, and uncomfortable. I was sweating through the collar of my shirt, and around the ankles under my socks.
I imagined the man would already know the way through the neighborhood – and then turn to me as he would push through the wooden door into the garden.
He would nod toward the house and lead me inside.
He would close the door behind us, and I would look up to see my Constance and George standing in the doorway with their heads lowered, toward the ground.
I would be surrounded by walls on all sides, in the growing heat, and scared.
At the table, I began to roll another cigarette. I sprinkled the loose tobacco across the thin paper. I licked it closed, lit it at the tip, and took a small puff. I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want it to burn out.
Postcard: Received through an anonymous donor in Canton, OH in January 2012.