Spring Short Story Competition Winner
Forty Fort was about as alive as roadkill. Over 600 people lived there, but no one ever understood why. An ancient cemetery haunted the lifeless town with rusty, iron gates and thousands of moss-covered tombstones. The sport fields covered almost as much land as the cemetery, but were hardly used except when the town needed to rally together. There was one bar for old war veterans and one park which the garden center people sort of took over now, planting lilies among other flowers. It made the town smell better at least. Needless to say, there wasn’t much to do in the town. In fact, the most exciting thing to do in the town was leave it. Fortunately, that was exactly what James Johnson was going to do. He, like many others, went to the army recruiter as soon as they turned eighteen. He was going to leave for good.
“Can I get you something?” the waitress leaned over the table hoping to meet James’ gaze. Her sky blue eyes met his ocean blue ones. He stared, at her long brown hair, the bow she tied it up with, her high cheekbones, her thin lips and pink cheeks.
“Can I get you something?” the waitress asked again.
“Water, please.” James responded, looking down nervously.
The waitress walked away and James had the idea to leave before she came back. She was pretty, heck she was beautiful, but he was leaving. He was leaving unsure if he would get to return or would want to.
“Here ya go.” the waitress came back. “Can I get you anything else?”
“Um, no thanks. I’m okay.” James replied, still he could not bring himself to make eye contact with her again.
“Are you going to boot camp?” she asked him.
“How did you know?” James said startled finally looking up enough to be entranced by her eyes.
“Um, you are in uniform, you know? Not that hard to guess,” she told him.
“Oh, right.” James said breaking eye contact with her to look down at his pressed camouflage shirt and pants. Today was the day he was going to begin training.
“My name is Julianna. What’s yours?” she asked.
James looked back at her noticing the shiny name tag now attached to her shirt. It hadn’t been there the first time she came over to him.
“Hello?” she asked leaning to the side hoping to make eye contact with him again.
“Sorry, my name is James. James Johnson.” he said breathing in the scent of apples coming from Julianna.
“My name is Julianna Jacobs, but my friends and just about everyone calls me Jules.” she smiled. “So, you are leaving huh?” Jules asked.
“Yep, bus leaves at 5 pm sharp.” James replied. He turned to look out the window at Wyoming avenue where the bus was going to stop right in front of the diner.
“It’s only 12;15. A bit of a long wait.” Jules said sliding onto the red, vinyl seat across from him.
“Yeah it is, but there really isn’t much to do around here.” James looked down at his water.
“Except order water to stare at.” Jules chuckled as she said this. James smiled and looks at her.
She pushed the cup away from James. As it scrapes across the wood tabletop, James eyes followed it.
“This place is dead so how about I clock out and we can go to the river and do something fun? Don’t worry there will be water there, too.” Jules laughed at her own joke. Her laugh made her cheeks turn a deeper shade of pink. He didn’t know exactly what he should say. He had never really been invited to hang out before and especially with a girl.
“Come on it will be fun! One last moment of freedom before it’s ‘Yes, sir. No, sir’ each and everyday,” Julianna pleaded with James.
“Ok, sure,” James replied. Julianna jumped up and ran back behind the counter and through a red, double hinged door that swung back and forth.
Before the door had set back in place, she burst through again and the door flew as far back as it could making a loud bang sound that caused the old woman behind the cash register to jump back.
“Why do you always have to do that Julianna?” the white haired woman said in her high pitched voice while waving one arthritis ridden hand in the air.
“Sorry, Mrs. Thompson,” Jules said, sliding on a small, navy blue cardigan over a yellow summer dress patterned with flowers.
“I expect you back to close at eight,” Mrs. Thompson said.
“I will,” Jules assured her. She nudged her head towards the door, signaling to James that they should leave before Mrs. Thompson found some reason to keep her there. James got up, grabbing his cap and his duffel bag, and followed Julianna through the glass front door and down the avenue to the river.
“I know a nice spot to sit,” Jules said, grabbing James by the wrist, her hands warm and soft. She lead him to a ledge where a ladder lead down to a rocky shore. “I’ll go down first,” Jules said.
“Are you sure this is safe?” James asked, looking down at her worn out Keds.
“Come on soldier boy, you shouldn’t be going into the army if you’re afraid to even climb down a ladder.” Jules joked and began descending the ladder. Dropping his bag and placing his cap on top of it, James leaned over the edge watching Julianna’s long ponytail blow in the breeze as she reaches the bottom of the ladder. He put one hesitant foot over the edge; finding the ladder, he brought his other leg over and went down a rung causing the ladder to creak and shake under his weight until he reached the bottom.
“Way to go soldier boy.” Jules laughed. She climbed over some of the smaller rocks to reach a giant rock close to the water. James followed her as the river calmly drifts past. The apple scent resonating from Julianna grew stronger the closer James got to her.
“So did you grow up in Forty Fort?” Jules asked, staring over the river.
“My parents did. We lived in the city for a while and then we moved back here about ten years ago.”
“How do your parents feel about you leaving?”
“I don’t know, They went back to the city and left me here with my aunt.”
“Sorry. Do you still talk to them?”
“No. They stopped calling after about a year and I stopped trying to call them. They never answered.”
“Oh, sorry. What does your aunt think about you leaving?”
“She died a year ago. She told me that I should do whatever made me happy.”
Julianna looked at James, smiling, “Your aunt must have been nice.”
“She was. She had her moments when she didn’t take her meds and I would drive around for hours trying to find her. She always meant well, though.”
“So, is that why you are leaving? Since your aunt is gone?” Jules asked, her smile vanishing.
“Yeah I don’t have any friends here to talk to or write to-”
“You could write to me!” Jules grabbed James’ arm. “It could be fun.” She smiled from ear to ear. The silence was excruciating for James, but he couldn’t think of a response to give this girl that he just met. He desperately wanted to say yes.
“What’s wrong?” Julianna asked, her eyes frowned and her face bore no resemblance to the joyful one she held a few minutes ago.
“Nothing… I think that’s a great idea.”
“Well, you will have to mail me first so I know where to send letters,” Julianna said. As a couple hours passed James listened to Julianna. He listened to her talk about her overprotective parents and old Mrs. Thompson who had given her the job at the diner despite only being sixteen. The river flowed quietly as if listening along with him. Julianna asked about James. His family, his aunt, and what he planned to do after the army. James glanced at his watch: 4:45.
“I better head back. The bus will be here soon.”
They climbed the perilous ladder and and made their way back to the diner. The bus was waiting outside and a few men with high and tight haircuts, camouflage uniforms and hats were already on the bus. Julianna turned in front of James before they reached the door of the bus.
“Give me a pen,” Jules demanded. James dug through his bag and found a black pen and handed it to her.
“Give me your hand.” Jules grabbed his right arm by the wrist and stretched out his hand. “This is my address so you can send me letters. Promise me you will write me when you get to Washington.”
Without warning, Jules got on her toes to kiss James on his left cheek. A warm sensation came over James like a sun burning inside of his face. He felt his heart beating faster than a rollercoaster and he didn’t want to leave that spot, that moment with her. It was like something had just clicked and for a moment the town seemed to have a pulse that boomed in his ears.
“Don’t miss your bus, Soldier Boy.” Julianna said smiling and taking a few steps back toward the diner. James took a few shaky steps onto the bus and sat in a seat by the window so that the last thing he saw leaving that town was Jules, smiling at him.
Sorry it took me so long to write. They don’t give us much free time here. We got here safe and sound though. One of the guys in my bunk saw your address on my hand. They have been giving me a hard time about it. I tell them to knock it off, but they keep calling me lover boy now. The drill sergeant I have is tough. He made me run the mud course three times yesterday, it’s the toughest course, but I did it and the drill sergeant thinks I can graduate early. I got a new nickname now. The guys call me Romeo.
P.S- 3 weeks down. 3 to go.
Julianna read the letter and kept it in her pocket. She was so excited to show her friends the letter she received. She already told them all about James. She told them how blue his eyes were and how strong his hands were. Jules told them how his voice was smooth like the river rocks that they had skipped during their time together. Jules told them all about him and now she had a letter to prove that he was real. It even had a stamp in the corner saying United States Army. Jules went and sat with her friends in their usual spot at the diner and she pulled out the letter.
“This is the letter from James that I was telling you about.” Jules exclaimed and quickly opened the letter and slid it over to Jackie. Jackie grabbed the letter up to inspect it. She stared at it for a couple of minutes, reading it, and then put it down.
“So this is Soldier Boy, huh?” Jackie said. “This is the guy you been waiting for a letter from for almost a month?”
“Yep. I told you he would send me a letter. He was just busy with boot camp,” Julianna explained.
“I still don’t think that you should keep talking to this guy. I mean this dude could just be playing you.”
“He isn’t Jackie. He is really sincere and honest. He even told me about his parents and how they left him, but that his aunt took him in and how he helped take care of her,” Jules argued.
“Awww, that is so nice!” Hannah said holding the letter up to read. “He seems like he really likes you.”
“Do you really think so? I really like him. He isn’t rough and tough like all the other guys in this town.” Jules grabbed the letter from Hannah, folded it, and placed it in her pocket again.
“Jules, I am being honest with you. He’s 18 and he is away all the time. It won’t work. What if he finds someone else? What if you find someone else? You would be talking to a guy who is probably talking to many other girls,” Jackie explained.
“Shut up, Jackie! Don’t say things like that. You don’t know that he isn’t in love with Jules,” Hannah said, leaning over to hug Jules. Jules could feel the tears coming. First, they boiled up in her cheeks. Then they rushed to the rims of her eyes and she held them there. She didn’t want to listen to Jackie. She wanted to run all the way to Washington and just be wrapped up in James’ arms while the scent of his cinnamon body spray swept over her.
“I’m just saying not many people from this town ever come back from the war. She could miss her opportunity for a nice guy while she is waiting for a soldier boy who might never come back,” Jackie stated harshly.
“Jackie!” Hannah yelled. That was it. That was all she could take. Jules ripped her body from the arms of her friend and ran from the diner. The tears glistened as they ran down her cheeks and off her face. She raced home. She raced to her room. She tore threw her dresser drawer. She grabbed a piece of paper, an envelope and a pen. She wrote a letter to her Romeo.
Thank you so much for writing me. I hope you are safe. You graduate from boot camp next week, right? I hope you get assigned somewhere safe. I’ve been worried about you. One of my friends keeps telling me that it will never work and that I shouldn’t bother with you because you might not be coming back. She said most people from our town that leave never come back. I don’t believe her though. You’ll come back. Please tell me that you will be safe. Please be safe. Don’t do anything stupid. Write back as soon as you can.
P.S- My little brother never gets my name right so he calls me Juliet.
I am safe and sound. I graduated last week. Top of my class. I got assigned to a new base. I wrote the new address on the front. I will do my best to always stay safe. I should get leave in a month or two. I can come back to Forty Fort to see you. We can go sit by the river again and I can tell you all about how the guys put green dye in the shampoo of this guy they call Turtle. His hair was so green and the drill sergeant was so pissed. He made everyone scrub toilets and then Turtle had to get his hair cut. You can still see the green though. I will see you soon.
Jules waited by the mailbox with Hannah. Hannah twirled her short blond hair around her finger.
“Hopefully he sent me a letter back,” Jules said, pacing up and down the driveway. James had not responded back in over a month. It wasn’t like him. He said that he was getting deployed on a mission. Nothing big, he said he would only be gone a week and that he would write as soon as he could. She understood, but she didn’t know why it would take this long. Had he forgotten about her? Had the letter somehow gotten lost? Was he still alive? She had no clue. She wrapped her Dana Street Soccer hoodie tighter around her as the wind cut through her like daggers.
“I’m sure he wrote you back. Sometimes it takes a while to get here. Maybe he just received yours late.” Hannah tried to assure Jules that it would be fine and that James had not forgotten about her.
“What if Jackie was right-” Jules started.
“No. Don’t even think about listening to Jackie. Ok? Don’t.” Hannah stopped her. She grabbed Jules by the shoulders and then pulled her into a hug. She held her there for a minute until the mailman crossed the street. Hannah released Jules, and Jules walked straight to the balding man and asked, “Any mail for 2323 Tripp street?”
“Here ya go.” The mailman handed Jules one piece of paper.
“What does it say?” Hannah inquired, trying to see over Jules shoulder.
“It’s just a town announcement saying everyone should meet at the soccer fields December 1st,” Jules explained.
“Nothing else?” Hannah asked.
The whole town met together at the soccer fields for the important announcement. A congressman had come to give the announcement. Not even the rain could keep people away then. The whole town needed to know, but in everyone’s mind they already knew what this was about. Jules had hardly slept. She just thought about James. The Congressman said that he had very sad news to share. Jules felt the tears boil up. The man continued, saying that several soldiers died on a mission about a month or two ago. The tears reached the rim of Jules eyes. “Some of them were from Forty-Fort.”
Jules ran. She ran and ran. She couldn’t see because a river of tears had exploded from her eyes and were flying off into wind. She came to Wyoming Avenue and could see the river. She ran to cross the street despite the red light. She didn’t stop running until a black Sedan made her. The driver never stopped. The town was in shock, her friends sad, and her family broken-hearted. She was buried in the town’s cemetery.
The bus slowed to a stop right in front of the diner. James grabbed his bag and leaped off the bus hoping that his letter reached Julianna in time so she would know that he returned today. He didn’t want to waste a single moment of his leave. He looked around and there was no sign of Julianna anywhere, just a blond girl who approached him.
“James Johnson?” the girl asked.
“Yes. That’s me,” he answered.
“I’m Hannah. I was one of Jules’ friends.”
“Where is she? I sent her a letter telling her I was coming back today. I tried to apologize for not writing. The mission went badly and I was in the hospital for a while,” James explained.
“The town had a meeting. A couple people from the town were killed on a mission…” Hannah’s voice trailed off and she looked away..
“No… She thought I was killed?” James asked.
“She ran away before we found out who it was.”
James heart started to race, his pulse as fast as machine gun fire. “What happened?” He asked, breathing heavy.
“The car didn’t even stop to see if she was alright. By the time anyone got to her she was gone. I’m sorry,” Hannah said, holding back tears of her own.
“No. No. No.” James whispered, dropping his bag, he put his hands to his head. “No she can’t be gone.” He thought about the river and turned toward it. He didn’t believe it. He thought surely she would be there. It was their spot. He started walking faster and faster down the street until he was running toward the river. He paid no mind to the people passing or the cars beeping. He kept running toward the river. The white lines of the crosswalk blurred and the cars tried to swerve around him, but couldn’t. Forty-fort was as alive as roadkill.