“Hey, I think we broke something,” he said, shaking me awake. Ann’s dad always looks like the snapshot she’d had of him, taken on the Burma Road: bare-chested, center-parted hair, broad smile, burly. The clock said 2:45. Ann’s side of the bed was empty. I didn’t like him waking me up in the small hours to talk about Ann. For years I’d make him go away by pretending he wasn’t there. Sometimes I’d get back to sleep.
Tonight was different. I didn’t like that “something was broken.” I didn’t like the sound of “we.”
“Show me,” I said rolling to sit up, sliding my feet into my slippers in case there was broken glass. I snapped the light on and he crinkled up his eyes. It made him look like Ann the year we were married, squinting against the summer sun at Seaside.
He led the way into the den. My own father sat at the computer. He looked like the snapshot I have of him in Civilian Public Service camp: bare-chested, his hair brushed straight back from his high forehead. He had never visited before. This couldn’t be good.
“I didn’t know you two knew each other,” I said. They traded a quick glance.
“Buzz and I have worked together,” my father said.
“The boys say the only way to tell us apart is that Sol eats gefilte fish and I eat smoked whiting,” Buzz added.
“What did you break?”
Neither one would meet my eyes. I let an edge into my voice. “Show me what you broke.”
“We didn’t break it,” my father groused to Buzz.
“It’s more like we let it happen.”
“We couldn’t have prevented it.”
“We didn’t prevent it.”
“Guys!” I looked for a place to sit down. My father was at the desk, Buzz had the comfy chair. I leaned against the bookcase. “What did you break?”
“Your heart, kiddo,” said Buzz, not meeting my eyes. “We let them break your heart.”
My father turned in his chair to face me. I knew the look, familiar from countless Saturdays after shul. He was about to lecture. “I didn’t go into CPS Camp to save the world. The WRL types thought if we all became conscientious objectors there’d be no more war, but I knew that if we all became CO’s, the Germans would slaughter us.”
Ann’s father looked at me impatiently. “War Resisters’ League,” I explained. He snorted.
“I just couldn’t do what I knew was wrong. I couldn’t deliberately kill anyone.”
I knew all this about Dad. He’d signed up for CPS, even though it was for the duration or longer. CO’s could be required to continue to serve in the camps until the last GI was discharged. I still didn’t know why he was here.
“Dad,” I said. “It’s gone three in the morning.”
Buzz answered for him. “I didn’t have all these fancy ideas, and I still haven’t met anyone from any ‘War Resisters League,’” he said. “I just had to do what was right.”
On the Burma Road, dysentery killed more troops than the Japanese. They left sick buddies behind with a canteen and no hope. After the war, Buzz had drunk himself to death.
“So you both came to explain to me what you did in the war?” I asked, with less sarcasm than I had planned. They looked at each other.
“She couldn’t have married him for his brains.”
Dad pushed back in his chair and turned the monitor to show me the South Tower in flames. Where Ann had died. Buzz stood up and took me by the shoulders. Dad came up behind him and rested a hand on his back.
“We both of us did not want, ever, to do anything wrong,” my father said.
“We wanted to stop all the bad guys,” Buzz added. “But it looks like we let them break your heart.”
My Dad turned Buzz around, so they were eye to eye.
“We couldn’t have prevented it.”
I wondered if I could ever get back to sleep, or wanted to. “What makes you think anything you did in World War II has anything to do with . . .” I stopped. “What makes you think you broke my heart?”
“We wouldn’t be here otherwise,” Buzz said.
“Not that there was anything we could . . .”
“Don’t start up!”
Time to try a little peacemaking. I asked, “Do you guys drink coffee?”
“Not any more,” said Buzz.
“It just runs straight through us. But don’t let us stop you,” my father added. They followed me to the kitchen. I boiled water, made some instant. When I went to sit down, Buzz was in my chair. I sat in Ann’s. Dad sat where our youngest had used to sit, growing up after Ann’s was empty.
“What will it take for you to leave me alone?” I couldn’t control my voice. It cracked and squeaked. Buzz looked away, but Dad took my hand. He felt warm and real.
“We’re not going to leave,” he said.
“We can’t,” Buzz added. “Until we help you.”
“Okay,” I said quietly. “How?”
“At last!” Buzz said. He pushed back from the table and lumbered to the fridge. “Got any whiting?”
“Buzz, you can’t eat any more,” said my father.
“Anyway I don’t,” I added. Buzz grimaced.
“What they call smoked whiting these days is usually cod,” Ann said from the door. She looked as real as the other two. A lot younger than me, now. The dead years had been good to her.
“Hey, Pumpkin,” said Buzz, “look who we finally got to talk to us about you.”
“Buzz thinks you can fix what he says we broke,” said my father sourly.
“Sol said there was nothing we could do,” Buzz added. “But he was wrong.”
Ann sat down and took my hand. Hers was warmer than mine. Dad stood up. “Come on, Buzz,” he said. “These kids need to talk.”
Walter Lawn is a professional disaster recovery planner, who writes poetry and short fiction. His work is included in the anthology Unclaimed Baggage, published in 2013 by White Lightning Publishing.