A vet has to say goodbye.
Salt Lake City.
"Cough, cough, cough, hack, hack, wheeze, cough, hack, hack." He looked at the caked, crusted rag he's using as a handkerchief. He folded it over so he didn't have to look at it. It had blood on it.
"Your cough is getting worse," said June.
Benny and June were huddled on the grassy knoll under a tree on the smaller section of the 5th West Commons. The sun had lightened the sky. It had been a cold night, not freezing, but too cold for comfort. It has been a fitful night for them, despite their clinging to one another.
"Hurry, we have to get out of here before the cops come," said June, collecting their meager belongings.
Benny was slow to get up. He rolled over, making it to his knees. He doubled over, with his hands on the ground, head on the ground between his hands. "Cough, cough, cough, wheeze, cough, cough, hack."
He gasped for air.
She looked away, folded their threadbare blanket, and stuffed it into her backpack.
She helped him up. June is 26, Benny is 68. They are not related, they are friends, they look out for each other. Neither sleeps in the Road Home because Benny is too weak to defend himself, and June is too pretty, she is a target. She has been more than a target many times. Benny's sickness protects them. People fear the coughing.
"It'll be more than an hour before the Clinic opens," said June. "Should we try to get something to eat at the Kitchen?"
He shook his head. "You go, I'll stay here and watch our stuff."
She shook her head. "You can't stay here; the cops will be by any minute. It's light enough they can see us. Come on, the food will do you good." She extended her hand to Benny.
He reached out to her. "Cough, cough, hack, hack, hack, wheeze, wheeze." He closed his eyes, trying to get his breath. "I want you to do me a favor."
"Sure," she nodded, "what is it?"
"I want to go to Washington."
"It'll be just as cold there, as here. Where in Washington?"
He shook his head. "No, Washington D. C. I want to visit the Wall."
He nodded. "Yes, the Wall. I have to say goodbye to a friend."
"What friend?" she asked, taking him by the arm, and leading him to the Kitchen.
When at the sidewalk, he stopped. "Cough, cough, hack, wheeze." He pulled out his rag. "Hack, hack." He folded it, not looking at it, or showing it to her.
At the intersection, she turned to the left, he turned to the right. Her way lead to the Kitchen. His way lead to the station, to Amtrak. She watched him shuffle across the intersection mindless of the light.
She caught up with him. "We don't have any money for a ticket," she said.
He nodded. "I know. I have to say goodbye."
"Why do you have to say goodbye?"
He leaned against a light pole. "Cough, cough, cough, wheeze, wheeze." Nothing came up. He smiled. He pushed off from the pole.
"Why do you have to say goodbye?" she repeated.
He turned to her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "We were buddies. I have to say goodbye."
"In Vietnam?" she asked.
"He didn't come back?" she asked.
"Can't you say goodbye from here?"
He shook his head. "No, I have to go to the Wall. I have to say goodbye from there. His name is on the Wall. I have to say goodbye at the Wall."
She nodded. "How will we get there, we don't have any money?"
He looked at her smiling. "You don't have to go."
She nodded. "Yes, I do. I'll go wherever you go."
He shook his head. "It's better this way, cough, cough, cough, cough, wheeze, wheeze."
He doubled over.
She put her arm around him. "How better?"
He turned to her, smile lines crinkling his eyes. "I won't be coming back. Better to say goodbye here. Say goodbye now. Now, while I can."
She shook her head. "It's just a cold, you'll be okay once it's warmer. We can go to New Mexico, or Arizona."
He shook his head. "It's more than a cold, we both know that." He put his hand on her shoulder. "I won't be coming back."
"So, don't go," she said, taking his hand from her shoulder and holding it in her hands.
"I have to. I let him down once, I can't do that again. I owe him."
"What do you owe him?"
He smiled. "I owe him my life. He died, so I could live. I have to say goodbye."
"I don't want you to go."
He smiled. "I have to."
She shook her head. "No, you don't. He's dead, I need you." She hugged him. "I need you, you're my only friend."
He smiled, shaking his head. "Why, I don't know. You are the best thing that ever happened to me." He closed his eyes. "You could be the daughter I never knew." He pulled her tight. "You are my daughter."
She looked up at him. "And you are my father. You are the best thing that ever happened to me. How can I go on without you?"
He took her head in his hands, lifting it up to look into her eyes. He wiped her tears with his thumbs. "Yes, the best thing that ever... cough, cough, cough, hack, hack," he pulled back to raise the rag to his face, "hack, hack, hack." He stuffed the rag into his pocket. "I wish I could stay, but I can't. I have to go, I have to go alone."
She shook her head. "No, you don't, I can come with you. I have to come with you."
He took her head in his hands, shaking his head. "No, this trip I have to take alone." He nodded. "This trip I have to take alone. Go to the Kitchen, get breakfast."
"What about you?" she asked.
"I'll go to the station and get my ticket."
"You don't have any money. Do... do you want me to... to, you know what? I can get us money."
"June, my love, those days are over for you. We've never had much, but we always had enough so you don't have to do that anymore." He shook his head. "Promise me you'll never do that again. Promise me."
She hung her head, and nodded. "I promise, I promise."
He lifted her head with his thumb and forefinger under her chin. "Good. Go get something to eat. If they give you something extra, bring it to me at the station, okay?"
She shook her head. "No, I want to stay with you."
"Get us something to eat, I'll wait for you at the station. Go, run along, before they run out."
"They won't run out." She peeled off her backpack. "Here, you take this."
He smiled, shaking his head. "No, it's best if you keep it. Go, I'm hungry. See, I haven't coughed. I'm feeling better, I'm hungry."
"So, come with me to the Kitchen. If you're not coughing, they'll let you in."
He shook his head. "No, they know me. Go, get us something to eat. I'll wait for you at the station. Go."
She narrowed her eyes, compressing her lips. "You will wait for me, right?"
He smiled. "I'll wait for you." He laughed. "What else can I do?"
She nodded. "Okay, I'll go. You wait."
He nodded. "I'll wait. Go, go."
She turned and walked away, looking over her shoulder every fifth step or so. He waved until she had crossed the intersection. He turned and shuffled toward the station.
He made it to the station, but he was tired. He sat on the bench, closing his eyes. A warmth washed over him.
"Benny, ol' buddy is that you?" asked Carl.
"Jo, wop, it's me. How you been?"
"So, so," said Carl. "How about you?"
"Not bad. I'm on my way to see you."
"To say goodbye."
"We said our goodbyes, don't you remember?"
Benny shook his head, eyes still closed. "No, I left you there. I left you to die."
"You didn't leave me, I stayed behind. Somebody had to cover the squad. Somebody had to give you time to get to the huey. It was my job."
"We made it, what happened to you?"
Carl laughed. "Funny you should ask."
"Yes, funny. I tripped."
"You tripped, and that was funny?"
"Sure, one minute I'm boogying out of there, right behind you, the next I'm face down in the dirt, then I'm with you heading back to base. Been with you all this time."
"Been with me?"
"Yep, sorry, I wasn't more help."
"Ja, sorry man. I should've done a better job."
"Job at what?"
"Making your life easier, better."
"Ja, oh. Hey nice job you're doing with June."
"Ja, she'll be okay, because of you."
"Ja, she'll turn her life around. She'll make a difference. She'll do good."
"She won't forget you." Carl laughed. "Yep, you did good."
"You about ready to leave?"
"Your job is done, time to go. You ready?"
"Will she be okay?"
"Better than okay. Let's go."
"Better than okay?"
"You gave her back her life. You showed her what real love is. You made her love herself, by loving you." He grinned. "You would've made a great dad. Hell, you are a great dad."
Big smile. "You are. Ready?"
Benny stands. "I'm a great dad, a great dad. Good, I did good."
Benny shakes his head. "So, it was worth it, it was all worth it."
"I'm right behind you."
Carl laughed. "We're not in the boonies anymore." Carl extended his hand. "Walk beside me."
Benny took his hand. He squinted facing the light.
"Miss, you can't sleep here."
"He's not sleeping," said June, cradling Benny. "He needs to catch his breath."
The stationmaster leaned in. He noticed the tears streaming down June's cheeks. "I'll call."
"He's a vet," she said, "he's a vet."
A silver star had fallen from Benny's hand. It lay on the station floor.
"They'll take good care of him, don't worry." The stationmaster stepped back, came to attention, and saluted. "They'll take good care of him."
Word count: 1758