Prompt: Write a story that starts and ends the same way.
His legs tingled from the hard, cold wood of the chair and he stomped his feet for feeling to return. Making his way, haltingly, carefully, over the ice-covered floor, he cursed under his breath and raised a middle finger toward the sky where his roof had once been, letting it linger there until a small pile of snow had formed on the tip, then blew hot breath on it and shoved it back into his thin pocket.
“I’m too fucking old for this,” he said to himself as he scooted toward what once had been a kitchen and rustled in the pantry for a can of something that had once resembled food. A shard of glass was taped haphazardly to the wall and he glanced in it. A single grey hair peaked out from behind his unkempt bangs. He grunted. He remembered before, the ads they used to place on all the screens and apps and sites, the popup ones you couldn’t make go away, urging young men to fight the epic battle of their lives. Made it sound like a damn video game. Kids don’t respawn in real life, assholes. But even then, even at its most dire, they always said war was a young man’s game. Now? Now it was just life. Life was a young man’s game. Forty five? “I’m definitely too old for this shit,” he muttered again as he shoved aside a can of pork and beans and grabbed the salted green peas behind it.
He shuffled to the only drawer that hadn’t been ripped from its place and stuck his hand into his sleeve to grasp the freezing metal handle. He pulled gently so he wouldn’t risk breaking anything and grabbed the can opener. He banged the can against the countertop a few times to crush some of the ice and give it a grip, then set it down, put the can opener on the edge, tilted it hard so the dull blades would have something to grasp, and turned the handle. He was careful, and slow, and deliberate. He had just popped the top off and was running his finger gently along the inside to check for sharp edges when he heard breathing behind him. His head turned.
“You’re up.” He smiled.
“Hi, Papa.” The boy smiled back.
“Hi, Jack,” the man said. “Breakfast?”
“Is it breakfast day?” The boy’s eyes got big and his smile got bigger. “What are we having?”
“Salted green peas,” the man said, trying to make his smile as big as the boy’s, and trying not to let his gut ache with wishing he could feed the boy fried bacon and scrambled eggs and grilled cheese toast.
“I love salted green peas!” the boy cried, and jumped up and down and clapped and slipped on a patch of floor ice and caught himself with his hands and laughed.
“Be careful,” the man warned, but the boy just stood back up and grinned and stuck his hands in his pockets to warm them.
The man took the can of peas and put it down the neck of his sweater, outside his shirt, and buttoned his jacket up over the top. He shivered and breathed downward into the slush to help heat it.
“When will it be ready?” the boy asked.
“Later,” the man said, his teeth chattering. He made his way carefully back to the frozen chair and sat, wrapping his arms around the can, directing his breath downward, letting the cold air come back to chill his face. He kept his eyes closed. He could hear the boy skating around the room, crashing into the wall.
“Woah, Papa, did you see that? I did a flip did you see?”
“Yep,” he lied.
“Wasn’t it amazing?”
“Yep.” That was the truth.
“Hey, Papa, can we have a fire tonight?”
“Why not?” Jack was starting to whine. The sound was intolerable.
“You know why.”
“But we haven’t seen them in ages!” the boy groaned. He slid over to where the man sat, still breathing into the peas which were slowly becoming liquid. “I want hot peas!”
“We haven’t seen them in ages because we haven’t built a fire.”
Jack sighed and plopped into the couch, wrapping his jacket around his knees. He stuck his face inside his little coat-cave and breathed hot breath onto himself.
Suddenly the man’s eyes popped opened and his head shot up, turning rapidly, trying to triangulate the sound he hoped he wasn’t hearing. He stood up too fast and slipped and fell to his knees and cussed as some of the pea-sludge sloshed out. Jack poked his head out like a turtle.
“You okay, Papa?”
“Hush,” he said, and he knew the code word would strike fear in the boy’s heart, would make him too terrified to move or speak or breathe too loud, and at the moment, that’s exactly what he wanted. He gripped the can under his jacket with his left hand and the chair with the other and carefully pulled himself to standing. He put one foot in front of the other, timidly making his way toward the front window to look outside.
The door crashed open.
The men were on them in seconds. Shouting, black and red, pulling his hair, grabbing the boy, dragging them outside, shoving them into the snow. The nearly thawed can of peas rolled out of the man’s jacket and down the steps of the front porch and into a bank of icy mud. Jack was screaming, was being torn away from him, and he reached out and his hand was crushed by something hard and warm and he cried out and pulled away.
“Jack!” It was the only word he could remember. He shouted it, over and over, trying to think of anything else to say, to beg, anything, but he didn’t know how to speak anymore. “Jack!”
The boy wasn’t calling for him, though. He wasn’t calling for anyone. He was screaming, the incoherent babblings of a child asked to handle too much fear. Then the man remembered other words.
“Shut the fuck up.” A uniformed book kicked him to the ground.
“I’ll go. Look, I’ll go, okay?” He was desperate. Anything. Anything.
“Too late for that.”
“No, it’s not! What’s he good for, huh? One bomb? That’s it? Done? I can fight. I’m fucking grown. Just let me go, I’ll go, I’ll go, okay? I’ll go now, please, please.”
The uniform stomped to where the man kneeled, wet and shivering in the cold, and leaned down.
“I’ll tell you what, old fucker,” he said. “If you can prove you can stand up, I’ll let you go.”
The man put his hands to the ground to raise himself from the ice, but the uniform kicked him to his belly.
“Not like that,” he said, and raised his weapon up, and brought it down, hard, on the man’s knee. The ice and bone crunched together as the man screamed and grabbed his knee and blood oozed onto the frozen ground.
The uniform stood back up, shouldered his rifle, and took a step back. “Didn’t think so.”
He turned, but the man stopped screaming, and just whimpered, “Wait.”
He propped himself up on his elbow and brought his good knee below his chest. Cold stinging every inch of him, he raised his eyes and looked at the boy, who was no longer screaming, or laughing, or even crying, but staring, watching, wondering, confused, scared. His eyes locked on the boy’s and he took a deep breath and smiled.
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