“How could you do that, Eddie. How? You didn’t tell me you were an American! What else do you have to share?” There was a look on Ruthy’s face that made Edward wish he hadn’t spoken at all.
“Look, I can explain. Just give me a second.” Edward had folded up his newspaper on the breakfast table and clasped his hands together. “Just let me explain.”
Ruthy stood over Edward. “What could you possibly have to tell me? Don’t you know that thousands of people died? You had a duty, and you ignored it because you were too lazy or scared or whatever your excuse is.”
Edward felt his hands become sweaty. He was scared for himself. He was scared that he had ruined his future with her. He didn’t want to tell her, but he had to. He wanted to keep her. If he didn’t, she would hate him. Maybe she already hated him, but he had to tell her.
Edward took a long, deep breath. “Yes. I ignored my duty. I let people die in my place. I fled when I could have stepped forward.”
Ruthy’s heart dropped to her stomach. Is this really who I’m seeing? Is this the man I want spend my life with? How can I do this? How can I possibly think of living with someone who is a total and complete coward?
“But, you don’t understand. I wasn’t just trying to escape an early death. Please, don’t think I would do that. Look, I want to tell you more than anything, but I just—I—I don’t know. How do I say it? Just trust me. I’m not a coward.” Edward sank back into his chair and closed his eyes. He heard Ruthy move across the kitchen toward the refrigerator. He remembered ’36, and the despair. The urge to end his life. His battle with his conscience. He remembered ’39, and the soft feeling of holding Rita’s hand. She had made him forget about the pain. There were times when he forgot about December of 1935 completely. But now, now that he was here with Ruthy, whom he loved, he could not forget about 1935. He would have to re-live it just like he had with his parents, with Rita, with his sister. He knew he couldn’t hold it off forever.
When Edward opened his eyes, he saw that Ruthy cast her eyes down and put her hand on her face.
“What do you mean ‘you can’t tell me’?” she demanded. He wanted to make her understand, but she would just have to trust him for now. He had to tell her his story—the whole one.
“Do I really mean that little to you?” she asked, as though she already knew it was true. “I don’t think I can see you anymore, Ed—not if you’re gonna keep secrets from me. That isn’t how it should work.”
“I know, Ruthy, but I just—I just need to tell you my story. You might not like it, but I just gotta tell it to you.” Edward walked over to the fridge and took out two Schlitzes. He set them down on the breakfast table and got out a bottle opener. He clicked the caps off with force.
Finally, he sat down again at the table. Edward took three long, deep breaths and a large gulp of beer. “This was say, 15 years ago. 1935. I was working at a coat factory. You know, the one with my old friend, Johnny Martin. You remember Johnny, don’t you? He was the one who married a girl fifteen years younger than him. Remember him? Well, I was a real big shot. I would strut around, commanding everyone. I hardly knew what to do myself. Everyone knew that they were about to get booted. It was the beginning of the Depression. It was different for young men that were on their own than for a girl with a family like yours.”
“C’mon, I know what it was like back then. I saw it all around me. I wasn’t that naïve. Ed, my dad worked at a factory, too. He would come home, and I’d see his work all over his face.”
“Even though we were scared for our jobs, life was fun back then. I had my friends and a nice little place in Chicago. One time I was walking home on a small street, and I saw a soldier. He was standing there, hardly moving an inch, just looking down at something. I was interested, so I went up to him and tried to see what he was looking at. It was just a cement sidewalk. I asked him, ‘Sir, what are you doing?’ Not in a rude way or anything, but interested. He just looked at me and said, ‘remembering.’ And just then, I knew exactly what he meant. He was remembering the good and the bad. The happy and the sad times. I saw how big the war was. It was great, but also terrible. It was fascinating, cool, and amazing. I hadn’t had much of an opinion on war before, but now it felt like the most magnificent thing in the world. It was so powerful, and I liked that you could be part of something so powerful.”
“So then why did you avoid the next one if—?”
“I’m getting there. Please be patient.” Ruthy did not argue, but just continued to stare at Edward.
“Even though I had my decent job, and a place to live, I still made some pretty goddamn stupid decisions.” Edward snickered and shook his head. Ruthy did not try to comfort him.
“Ed, weren’t you smart? I mean, I thought you did pretty well.”
“Sure, I did pretty well. Doesn’t mean I was the least bit smart. I would stay up late; I was a crazy boy. Went to a party almost every night. But, even if I didn’t show it, I was always stuck on this one girl. Her name was Louise. Louise was a beauty. We fell in love.” Ruthy looked uneasy. Why was Edward telling her this? She waited.
Edward took another gulp of the beer. “Well, Louise was mysterious. She hung around with some weirdos, ya know. That’s when I first got into trouble.”
“Eddie, tell me about Louise. I—I just want to know.” Edward smiled as he doused himself in memories of the past.
“Louise was… well, a girl. She was young and didn’t know what life had to offer. She wasn’t sophisticated or smart or mature. She wasn’t anything like you.”
“Please, I just want to know what she was really like! Don’t pretend like all her qualities were bad. C’mon, just tell me. I can take it.”
“Alright, if you have to know, Louise was sweet when she wanted to be. I used to think she was flirtatious and clever. She really wooed me. She was so… cool. Well, she made it seem that way. She looked so stylish and confident on the outside, anyone would want her. Well, I was the lucky guy. I got her, and I loved it. We went out together, and got real close. I used to think she was the love of my life. The thing was, I only saw her at night. During the day, she was gone, disappeared. I would go on with my life, go to work, trying to pretend it was normal, but it was strange. I knew she didn’t work, and her parents were pretty loaded. I would ask her what she had done during the day, and she would change the topic right away. She wasn’t at home either; I would drive right past her street every day on the way to work, and I’d never see her car. She would pretend like nothing was wrong, but I decided to find out what was going on.” Edward saw that Ruthy was staying very still, with a very blank expression on her face.
“Do you—want me to stop?”
Ruthy slightly shook her head. Her brown eyes were fixed on the clock above the sink. She waited for the story to change directions.
“Louise had been disappearing more often. She would be with me one night, and the next she would get out of the bar or restaurant or club or wherever we were as fast as she could. One night, we went dancing, and it was pretty great. We were about to leave, and some guys showed up. Really, really bad guys. Louise usually had great reflexes, but she was too busy dancing to react fast enough. They grabbed her and started to take her away. I tried to stop them, and I was pretty strong, but they just dragged me along with her. I guess they didn’t want anyone getting in their way.”
Ruthy looked horrified. “Ed, I can’t believe you went through that! Were you OK?”
Edward nodded his head and shrugged.
“I turned out alive, didn’t I? I wouldn’t say I was OK, though.”
“Gosh.” Ruthy cleared her throat. “Do you want some more beer?”
“I’m OK.” Edward grabbed the empty beer bottles and threw them into the trash can. Edward got up, took a dish from the side of the sink, and began to scrub it. He was nervous. What would she think of him after she heard his story? “Should I get the rest of the dishes?” Edward said in a monotone voice.
“No, that’s fine.”
“Are you sure? It wouldn’t take too long.”
“I can get them later. Do you want to continue?”
“Um, OK. Where was I?”
“You and Louise were just dragged out by big men.”
“Oh. Right. We were pushed into a car. It was no use struggling. The men were too strong. I asked Louise who these men were, and she said they were just some guys she knew. She knew them! She knew them, and they were kidnapping her! I was trying to figure out why she wasn’t the least bit nervous. I assumed that these men weren’t dangerous, and I guess that gave me some confidence. I tried to ask her more about the men and where we were going. She told me she’d explain later, that she couldn’t talk about it now while we were in a car with these guys. We finally got to our destination: an apartment about three miles from mine. It seemed pretty dilapidated. After we were thrown into a tiny room, Louise told me everything. She worked with a sort of mafia-type group and this was their headquarters. She was involved in some sort of black market. Some sort of drug dealing, blackmailing, and stealing business. I was angry and scared. The more Louise told me, the more I hated her. She tried to make it seem like she was forced, and like she wasn’t bad. But I saw right through her. She was a horrible person, hardly any good in her. She would kill for money, even though she already had it. She always wanted more. Well, I found out that she scammed one of the guys in their group. She was ‘running low’ on extra cash, so she did what she had to do: steal. She was so dumb, so greedy. She had it coming.”
“So did you get out?”
“Well, I was trapped there for a day or so. I overheard some of their conversations. These weren’t your typical mafia guys, who kill or harm a couple of people now and then, these were crazies. These guys were like mass murderers. Basically they would kill tons of people for what they wanted. I was terrorized by the thought of this for a while, but in the back of my mind I knew that there was nothing I could do to stop them. I knew that my main priority was getting out of this place. I wondered why they kept me so long, but I guessed that they had other things on their mind besides dealing with me, now that I had heard all their dark secrets.
“The men talked about one guy. One leader. The guys seemed really scared of him. They started to seem really nervous. They were making the place look nicer and organizing everything. The leader was coming. His name was Frank. At about lunchtime Frank came into the apartment. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear his voice. It was deep, and familiar. I racked my brain to remember where I had heard it and I finally realized: that’s Frank, James’ best friend. James: my brother. His best friend. How could that be? How could Frank be the leader of this horrible group? I had to know.
“I burst out of my room, I just had to know what was going on. ‘Frank,’ I said. Everyone turned around to look at me. Frank saw me and recognized me immediately.
“‘Get him out. Right now. Oh, and make sure he doesn’t remember this.’ he said to the men. They dragged me out and drove me somewhere far away. They beat me up. Finally I passed out and they left me. When I woke up, I probably sat on this one corner for about an hour. I got something to eat, and tried to decide what I would do. I figured I would make my way to the source: James.
“The guys had taken the 20 dollars I had kept in my wallet, but I still had some bus coins. It took me a while, but I ended up in the right place.
“I finally got to his house and burst into the door. He was sitting on the couch in a comfortable position. It looked like something I would do. ‘What the hell is going on? Why did I just get taken by some mafia guys whose leader is Frank? Did you know about this?’ James slowly looked up from his newspaper and smiled.
“‘What happened to you, brother? Of course I knew. Frank is my best friend. Of course I knew.’ I glared at him. How could he know all of this? What was my brother?
“How could you sit around and watch people get murdered by your best friend?”
“You think I would sit around and watch from the sidelines? What fun would that be?’ I was so angry, so hurt. I had no idea what to do. I felt adrenaline pulse through my veins and strip away any compassion that was left in me. I walked up to my brother and punched him, as hard as I possibly could. I punched him again, and again. Finally I felt the pain in my hand. I looked down and saw him—James, lying on the couch. My brother unconscious. I kind of lost it then. I sank to the floor and started crying. He was out cold. I didn’t even have to check his pulse. I had banged up his brain so bad that there was no worth in him living anymore, even if he could. I hated myself with a burning passion.”
“Oh my god, Ed. Oh my god. You—you killed him?” Ruthy choked the words out, sounding like she was about to cry.
Edward made a short noise. He couldn’t bear to say the words again.
“I—you didn’t go to war because you couldn’t bear to kill anyone else. You couldn’t bear to have any more blood on your hands.”
“Well, yes. Yes. Are—“ Edward swallowed. “Are you angry?”
“You came to Canada.”
“I couldn’t stay in America. I couldn’t be drafted into the war.”
Ruthy stood up and walked over to the sink. Just yesterday things were going great. They had eaten breakfast together at Molly’s Diner. If she had never read that stupid article in the magazine. If it had never been Edward who made the anonymous donation. If those stupid reporters hadn’t tried to figure who the donor was. She found out that he was American. She wished she had never seen the article; that she could just keep living her life without ever knowing. She rinsed her hands and splashed cold water on her face. She felt hot and stuffy, like she needed to go outside. Ruthy looked over at her boyfriend, still sitting at the table with his empty beers. She shuddered. Everything that she had just heard lingered over her like a storm cloud. It silently nagged at her brain, asking her the same question over and over again: what are you going to do? How could she stay with Edward when he had killed someone? Even if he was right to do so. Was he right to do so? Even if he had saved however many innocent lives. What was Edward capable of doing? How could she spend her life with someone who had done something so bad, so drastic, as take a life?
“Well?” Edward said with an exhausted voice.
“What are you going to say? Did I pass the test? Am I right to have come to Canada? Do you hate me?”
“It isn’t about passing some sort of test, Edward. You know that. I think I just need some time. I don’t know what I think right now. You can’t put me in that position.”
“It isn’t like this is the easiest thing for me to tell, either, Ruthy.”
“I know that, but—but you can’t expect me to pretend like it never happened. I love you Ed, This doesn’t mean I don’t love you. I love you. I can’t just accept it, though. Just give me some time. I just need some time to… think.”
“OK.” Edward looked around. He moved his head backwards, to stretch his neck. “How long do you need?”
“I don’t know, Ed.”
“Why don’t we just talk now?” Edward walked into the living room and came back carrying his glasses.
“Edward, I asked for some time to think, and I meant it.”
“I gave you some time, now we can talk.”
“You gave me two minutes,” Ruthy said coldly.
“Well, how long do you need? I didn’t realize it would be taking the entire day to decide whether you love me or not.”
“How could you say that, Edward. How could you say that I don’t love you when all I’ve been is loving. All I’ve been is kind and patient. You think I wanted to hear a story about how you killed your brother? I didn’t.” Ruthy glared at Edward. “I can’t be here right now. I can’t be here right now,” she muttered.
Edward said nothing.
Ruthy picked up her purse from the counter, and walked through the doorway. She looked back at Edward with a sad look in her eyes, but turned away a moment later; she covered her cheek with her hand to hide the tear that had fallen.
Annie Klosowicz, Age 15, Grade 10, Spence School, Honorable Mention