The Alphabet Challenge: “A” Story No. 1 of 3 — “Avery”

This is the first round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these first submissions, it’s the letter “A”.

Readers will have a month to vote for their favorite and points will be assigned to each writer. For each letter, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.

Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.

Here we go. Presented anonymously, the first of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “A”.

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Avery (or, The Re-gifting of the Magi)

Copyright 2020 – Gary Broxson

(1,620 words – approx. reading time: about 6 minutes based on 265 WPM)

It was funny at first. Most irony is. But the laughter soon subsided and left Jim and Della Dillingham with a sense of emptiness. Understandable, when you realize that both had succeeded in giving the worst Christmas gifts to one another in the history of gift-giving. Della had bestowed upon Jim a lovely platinum watch chain and he, in turn, had presented her with an expensive set of combs. Jim, of course, had hocked his gold watch to buy the tortoiseshell combs and Della had shorn her knee-length hair to buy the watch chain.

After laughing at their foolishness, the couple gave themselves the priceless gift of lovemaking. This offering filled the void their material gifts had left wanting and would result in the most precious gift, the gift of life. Della could not help but notice, however, that Jim had uncharacteristically extinguished all the lamps and candles before joining her in their tiny bed.

“It will grow back,” Della assured Jim on Christmas morning.

“Of course it will, dear.” Jim had replied as he pinched his thumb and forefinger into his vest pocket to check the time, forgetting his grandfather’s gold watch was gone for good.

But it didn’t grow back, at least not the way it had been. Della’s new hair kinked and curled and grew back in mossy clumps. She took to wearing brightly colored scarfs when she went to the market and later began wearing them at home after she had noticed Jim looking at her with wistful disdain. He had turned away quickly, avoiding her eyes, but Della had seen. Quietly seething, she had asked casually, “Jim dear, do you have the time?” He had walked out of the room without a word.

London summer brought a humid heatwave that clung to the city like wet wool. It also brought a new member to the Dillingham family. Little Avery was a gift from God. A happy, healthy baby girl that brought joy back into the small mid-century flat where the trio resided. But Avery was another mouth to feed and Jim could barely rub two shillings together as an apprentice in the post office.

Each bone-cold Christmas opened old wounds but it didn’t stop the Dillingham’s from thanking God for the girl. Jim and Della would read the story of Jesus’ birth each Christmas Eve. Little Avery would blow spit bubbles and giggle during the first couple years, but as a precocious toddler, she listened intently to the familiar story and began asking questions. “Did baby Jesus ever cry or poop is nappies? Why did the wise men bring such silly-billy Christmas presents? A doll or a kitty is much better than gold, frankenstein, or murr,” she mused. These family times filled their home with love and laughter and the empty space beneath a scrappy Christmas tree was quickly forgotten.

Jim and Avery were inseparable. They would go for long hikes together on the moors, always coming home with mud on their boots and flowers in hand. Della would bury her nose in the spray of wildflowers and declare them to be the most beautiful bouquet in the world. Then she would chase them with her broom, laughing as she demanded the filthy pair get cleaned up for supper.

After a meager meal, Della would take out her ornamental combs and brush Avery’s long auburn hair by the fireplace. She would tell stories of brave knights and beautiful princesses or sing lullabies during these peaceful periods. Life was simple in 1914, and times were good.

Then the war to end all wars began. On June 28th, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by members of the black hand. This lynchpin event opened wide the gates to war. Jim had no choice. Hungary declared war on Serbia, Russia rallied to defend Serbia, France mobilized to back Russia, and Germany declared war on France. World War I had begun and it was only a matter of time before England would be dragged into the epic fray. Jim enlisted.

The drumbeat of battle echoed throughout Europe. Jim finished basic training in Blackburn and was given a pass to go home to London to see his family.  Every kiss, every hug, every look into each other’s eyes was longer, deeper, more meaningful than ever before. At last, Jim prepared to board the train that would take him to his unit in Bristol, and from there to the Western Front. He kissed Della’s tears away and then knelt down to Avery’s level. His words were swept away by the train’s boarding whistle; he stood up and climbed the platform to the impatient train.

The nights in London were long after that, and a constant background of thunder was an uneasy reminder that Jim was giving a gift beyond measure for King and country. Two years later, the battle of the Somme would prove to be the bloodiest of the war with more than 19,000 killed on the first day. On Christmas Eve, wounded soldiers filled ferries and make-shift medical barges and crossed the English Channel back to England. Corporal James Dillingham raised his head as the ferry crested a wave. He smiled wanly when he saw the white cliffs of Dover, and then collapsed back onto the blood-slick deck of the vessel.

Hank Bartlette, Jim’s former supervisor at the post office, was completely out of breath. He had run all the way from his shop to the Dillingham’s residence. He banged on the door but could barely speak when Della opened it. “It’s Jim…he…he…”

“He what? she cried. “What?”

“He’s here,” Hank finally gasped.

“Oh, Henry, is he alright? Where is he?”

“The infirmary, at the town square. I saw his name on the casualty list brought into the post office. He came in with the lot of ’em on the ferries. The call has gone out for volunteers. The poor bastards are in a bad way. Beg your pardon,” he finished, holding his hat in his hands.

Twenty minutes later, Della and Avery arrived at Trafalgar Square. They couldn’t believe their eyes. The huge lot was covered completely with prone and supine soldiers even as caissons stacked with bodies arrived to deliver more. Harried corpsmen and doctors stepped over the dead and mortally wounded, looking like large, white storks, searching for something to eat. It would be impossible to find Jim in this sea of carnage, Della thought.

“Della!” a voice rang from the masses. Jim waved and called again. Weaving and working their way through the moaning and the all-too-quiet soldiers, Della led Avery by the hand to the man who sounded, but looked nothing like, her father.

“I recognized your pretty scarf,” he said as they approached. White teeth and eyes were the only recognizable features on the man.

“Jim, is that you?

“Father!” Avery screamed, and ran to embrace the man. He sat up painfully and hugged them both. Blood and mud covered Jim but his family’s joyful tears cut through the grime, slowly revealing the familiar features of his face.

“Over here!” Della shouted to the nearest man in white. A corpsman crossed over, shaking his head.

“Sorry, mum. This bloke isn’t going to make it. See, e’s got a black patch pinned to his bib. Only got a few beds left in the infirmary.” Then he pointed to the tattered poncho pulled up to Jim’s waist. Della peeled back the poncho. Jim looked down as well. His right leg had been blown away just above the knee. “He’s lost too much blood, mum, and our supplies are done.”

As the corpsman walked away, Della saw something glint just above her husband’s severed limb. “It finally came in handy,” Jim sighed, as he laid back down. “Used it as a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. But I guess it wasn’t enough.” Della knew right away what Jim was talking about—the watch chain.

Della cried and held Jim close. She would not be denied the last few minutes with this man. She reached blindly for Avery, but she was gone.

“Awright!” a man shouted, “Get this ‘on over here. Bring him inside. Here, gimme that patch.”

Two orderlies with a gurney dropped down beside Jim, scooped him up and hurried toward the infirmary. Della looked around for Avery, trying to follow the team. There she was, a small girl, so out of place in this slaughterhouse. She handed something to the corpsman who placed it inside his white coat. He patted her on the head and walked away with a smile.

Inside the hospital, donors lined up to give blood. In Jim’s case, a direct transfusion was set up between Della and Jim. “Merry Christmas,” she whispered to her husband as they both drifted off to sleep. After Della, Avery took her place and gave a pint as well. As she watched the transfer, Della asked, “Avery, what did you give the corpsman that made him change his mind?”

“He said he had a daughter back home in Cornwall. Said she had long, pretty hair like mine. I gave him your combs, mother, if he would take the black patch off father.”

The two embraced as they watched the sleeping man. The silence was broken when Della began to laugh, a chuckle at first, then full-blown hilarity. “What is it, mother?” Avery asked.

Della finally caught her breath. “I know how much you and your father love to go hiking,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “I’ve been saving a portion of his send-home pay for Christmas. I went out just yesterday and got him the finest pair of hiking boots at the market.” She laughed again, and Avery joined in.

The End

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