“Hey, what are you doing?”
The murmur came somewhere under pile of blankets on the passenger seat. The 2001 Ford Explorer was showing its age, displaying its habit of juddering to a standstill rather than smoothly gliding to a halt and the final lurch had roused Emma from her nap. Wisps of ginger hair were brushed aside as she began to emerge from her cocoon.
“I’m just gonna see if this guy is ok” I replied absentmindedly, watching the shuffling heap of tattered clothes, grey facial hair and plastic shopping bags that had caught my attention. As the elderly man drew level with my door, I cracked the window down a few inches and called for the man’s attention.
“Bit early isn’t it buddy, how’re you doing there?”
The man suddenly sprung towards the car, as if my words had suddenly sparked him into life.
His fingers scrabbled at the window of my truck, his eyes bulged and his voice was a hoarse, sharp whisper.
“Cleveland! Cleveland!” The man babbled, never keeping his focus stop enough to make eye contact.
“Woah clam down, old man…” I began before he cut me off again.
“Ccccllleevvellandd” the man hissed through my window.
I glanced across at Emma in an attempt to reassure her.
“You’re a little far out from Cleveland, buddy. You lost yeah?”
The man just repeated himself, wrapping the tips of his fingers over the edge of my window as if to hold himself up right as he sagged backwards, muttering to himself in a gruff, low tone and taking deep huffs of breath. I felt Emma stiffen next to me as I eyed the man, trying to get a read on if he was high, drunk, deranged or a combination of all three. On one of his multiple layer of dirty, raggedy jackets I saw a flash of recognisable of orange, white and yellow. A combination of colours that was warmly and proudly engrained on my very inner being.
“23rd Signals? Good man.” I said, more relaxed now suspecting I was in the company of an older member of the same army brigade I had served for the last four years. As such, I had spent most of those four years in the Ohio city this old man been crying out for, in the sprawling military base of Fort Roberts. I made the assumption he was attending a vets reunion function of some type, maybe for guys who had been in Korea, judging from the man’s age. I wracked my brain to work out if I knew him, as his face was strikingly familiar if not placeable. It was entirely possible we’d crossed paths at some Christmas Veterans event or another…most likely in one of the Brigades visits to local V.A shelters, judging by his appearance and demeanour.
“Babe, he’s one of our old boys, I’m sure we can give him a ride?” I pitched to Emma, who’s face was a perfect picture of distrust and concern.
“We are not driving all the way back to fucking Ohio” my fiance said, as dry and unmoving as Ayers Rock.
“No…Not take him back to Cleveland. Just help him along a little. We can swing off to Knoxville and buy him a greyhound ticket.” Her expression didn’t soften but she looked on silently. After a few seconds looking for a reaction, I took the absence of such as consent for me to invite the old man along with us. I turned back to the old man, who had now staggered a few yards away from the car and was doubled over, clutching at his face.
“Hey…hey pal. You wanna hop in the back there? We’ll help you on your way.”
The man said nothing, but twirled in a semi circle with his hands still on his temple and stomped toward the car as if he intended to accept my offer. He slumped against the door and let out a long, deep breath, before hauling it open and pulling himself inside.
“Thank you Sir, a real thanks to you, you just have to get to Cleveland…”
Emma turned in her seat to confront the man “No, not Cleveland. We’re taking you to Knoxville, ok?” she spoke clearly and firmly. I recognised the voice from times I had barrelled home for a bar and required some leadership in making it to bed. My eyes darted to the rear view mirror and I watched him in the reflection.
His face seemed to brighten up at her voice and he lent forward in his seat and he positively beamed at Emma. He nodded intently “Oh…of course. Knoxville, of course.” He sighed, much more soberly than he had spoken to me. Then he retreated to rest back into the seat, shaking his head. Through his bushy white beard, a suggestion of a knowing, longing grin seemed to snake across his lips.
I bullied the Explorer back into gear and, despite the vocal disagreement of the engine, began to negotiate the detoured journey towards Knoxville, conscious of Emma glaring daggers at me. But the new passenger in the back settled himself down, head propped against the window and the first part of the journey passed without comment.
As we began to eat up the miles and the vehicle settled into a moderately contented hum, my mind began to turn over the events of the morning and I ventured to learn more about the gentleman curled up behind me.
“So where you headed in Cleveland, you and the old boys gonna be raising hell at McMullen’s?” With a chuckle, hoping to be able to swap stories from different eras of the 23rd’s favourite watering hole. The man didn’t reply at first, but grunted and huffed to himself.
“Got to be back. Time’s running out. Lost them, so must go back to report, start over.” Looking again in the rear view, I saw that his gaze was fixed, furtively looking out the window. He had pulled one of his jacket up over his chest and the lower portion of his face.
“Right, you gotta get back in touch with the guys, I get that. Gets hard keeping tabs with people, you know. I’m still in but lost contact with a bunch of guys from basic or who have discharged. Not easy at all.
The old man’s eyes momentarily shot away from the side of the highway and locked onto my reflected gaze. He squinted, holding the gaze before darting his attention back towards the outside world.
“Not contact. Lost them.” He growled, bristling at my apparent misunderstanding. “Farringdon and Greening both got caught in Florida. Shot. Killed”
The two names he mentioned instantly cut through my attempts to make polite small talk and drew me into the old man’s bitter utterances. Farringdon and Greening, or rather Staff Sergeant Jace Farringdon and Corporal Alan Greening were my two closest comrades in the 23rd Signals and, as per their responses to our Whatsapp group a few hours ago, were both very much alive. I wasn’t even sure Greening could point Florida out on a map, let alone be there with this man. I glanced sideways and saw Emma had also noticed the…coincidental names.
The grumbling continued “Bullshit mission. Not what they said it would be. Back to Ohio. Start over, it’s the only way.” He was becoming visibly more agitated as he spoke, clenching his fist around the wispy, greyed hairs around his temples and chewing on his lower lip.
Emma sat up and swivelled in her seat to face the older man. “Who are Farringdon and Greening?”.
The vicious glare with which the man had been regarding the world soften again at Emma’s words. His eyes softened and became somewhat crestfallen.
“They were exactly who you think they”
Rather confused and perplexed by the strangeness of the few details we had prized out of the elderly stranger, it seemed as Emma and I silently agreed to settle into the drive and not needle the clearly disturbed and uncomfortable man much further.
Now out on the freeway, the Explorer had settled into a more healthy hum and we quickly rattled through towards Knoxville. My mind buzzed and fizzed with questions and concerns, but I had neither the inclination or stomach to ask or raise them with the man sat behind me.
Though the time felt as it was dragging, most probably due to the frantic nature of the thoughts rattling through my head, I was inwardly pleased to eventually find the exit ramp for Knoxville. Finding myself beginning to feel physically unnerved by the strangeness of the morning’s conversations, I desperately sought out a gas station or rest stop to deliver the man. Luckily one was to be found after the heavy, rusting SUV chomped up just a few more miles of tarmac and I gleefully pulled into the small parking area with even less grace than an observer might expect from my vehicle.
“Well here we go pal. If you need a ride into Knoxville I’m sure you can ask in there” I said, trying to keep a calm and composed demeanour as I gestured towards the gas station kiosk. The man stirred on the seat from under his mound of torn clothing, before quickly opening the passenger door and lurching out of the vehicle. Hesitantly, I also stepped out, with Emma wisely staying put.
I continued to try and engage the man “I’m sure some kind of bus will have to pass through to fill up, or you could try and flag someone down.” I fumbled into my jean pockets and fished out my wallet, producing a $20 note and offering it to the man “Hope this can help if you need to buy a ticket. For the 23rd, right?” I said, in what a hoped was a warm, comradely tone.
The man extended his hand towards mine and took the money. His hand lingered and he seemed unsure if he should dash off or thank me. He hummed and mumbled to himself, seemingly trying to decide.
“Just…just look after yourself. And her.” He eventually grumbled with a nod back towards the car. I was surprised that he felt the need to warn me but I tried to accept it in good faith. I half turned away to look back at Emma and couldn’t help but laugh slightly.
“Sure man, will do. You do the same”. However, as I turned back to the man I was met with his back, the same hunched over figure that had captured my attention earlier in the day shuffling towards the kiosk. I shook my head and stepped backwards to my truck.
“Hey, Matt. How did this get in the back here?” Emma was calling to me. She was turned around in her seat, examining the rear seats where the man had been. As I walked closed to the rear windows, she pointed to a small, intricate but rather beaten up metal crucifix on a silver chain on the seat. It looked strangely like a poorly cared for, time weathered copy of the item of jewellery my mother had given me when I joined the army. Looking closely through the glass, I could see the characters “M.L, 1991” had been engraved on the mysterious piece.
I look up and met Emma’s eyes. Without being able to find words, I reached into my jacket pocket and removed my own beloved, cleaner version of the same crucifix. As it spun on the chain, the sunlight glinted on the engraved letters. My initials and year of my birth…“M.L, 1991”…