Mr. Blake leaned back in his wooden rocking chair and tipped his hat over his face. The air on the porch was muggy and heavy with humidity and summer dust, but it was still cooler than his house. He could hear his wife Luceile in the kitchen chopping carrots and celery and tossing them on top of the lettuce in a large, wooden bowl. She had the evening news on at full volume as she hummed Nat King Cole melodies. He breathed quietly into his hat.
“Well, it looks like this heat wave will continue at least for the next few days, Dave,” the female anchor said. “But before we get to weather, let’s check in with Mary and see how the drive home will be today.”
“Thanks, Debra,” a new voice said. “Summer construction will delay most commuters...”
“Paul, you should see the traffic!” Luceile yelled out the window. “Makes me glad we live away from the hustle and bustle of the city.”
“Uh huh,” Mr. Blake said into his hat.
“Look at those poor people,” Luceile continued. “All they want to do is get home...”
Mr. Blake slid the hat off his face and turned to look at the TV through the window. “When I was in the war, all I wanted to do was go home,” he muttered. There was an aerial shot of the interstate that displayed clogged lanes and orange barrels.
Luceile laughed. “That traffic looks enough like a war zone. Except that young man doesn’t seem to mind it much,” she said, waving her knife at the screen.
Mr. Blake squinted. “What are you talking about?”
She turned her head to the side. “That boy in the white car there. He has his head stuck out of his window, like a dog.”
Mr. Blake shook his head. “How can you see that?”
Luceile went back to chopping the vegetables. “I can always find the silver lining, Paul.”
He grunted and looked out across his yard. He wished the weatherman saw rain in the immediate future. His own grass was a dull green, limp and tired. His eyes traveled across the road.
“The grass is always greener...” he quipped.
He rocked in his chair and stared in muted amazement at the flourishing field of corn across the wide, black top road. He saw his neighbor Darren Deetz walking through the stalks with his grandson Omaha.
“The next few days will be hot and dusty for the entire viewing area,” Dave the Weatherman said, “which is bad news for the farmers...”
Mr. Blake leaned forward in his chair and watched the corn stalks bend out of the way of their commanders. Darren’s worn-out Indians baseball cap bobbed above the stalks while Omaha was swallowed into the forest of vibrant green giants. Mr. Blake squinted and pressed his hands flat on his knees.
“What is it, Paul?” Luceile called from the kitchen.
He didn’t move. “Just looking at Deetz’ field.”
“In local news, World War II veteran Paul Blake, Korean War veteran Louis Freedman and Vietnam veteran Daniel Moore, each Purple Heart recipients, will be on hand tomorrow for the unveiling of the long-awaited statue honoring the community’s war heroes...”
“Damn statue.” Mr. Blake balled his fists on his knees.
Luceile wiped her hands on her white apron and quickly turned off the TV. Coming over to the window, she leaned against the frame and followed her husband’s stubborn gaze across the street.
“It is amazing, isn’t it? Did you ever ask him how he managed to get such a good crop in this terrible dry spell?” she asked.
Mr. Blake shook his head. “Man never had any sense when it came to farming, Ceile. That’s what makes the least amount of sense.”
Luceile chuckled. “Sandrine swears it’s the boy that brought all the luck.”
Mr. Blake frowned. “The boy?”
“Sure. Their grandson. Omaha. You’ve met him.”
“Of course I’ve met him,” Mr. Blake snapped.
Luceile ignored him. “Ever since his mama was killed in that automobile crash in the spring and he came to live with his grandparents, things seem to have turned around for them--for their farm, I mean.”
Mr. Blake narrowed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “What does the boy have to do with the war, Ceile?”
Luceile frowned. “The farm, Paul. You mean the farm.”
“That’s what I said.”
Luceile sighed and shrugged. “Sandrine says her grandson is magical, Paul. And I have no reason to doubt the woman.”
“Except that she cheats in Bingo and has a half-insane husband,” Mr. Blake muttered.
Luceile laughed. “They’re good people, Paul. And I’m glad to see them doing well, as the result of a magical grandson or by the grace of God, I don’t care which. Now, why don’t you come on inside for supper?”
Mr. Blake’s eyes lingered for a moment on the swishing of the tall crops across the road and grunted before getting up and heading in to eat.
That night, he lay in bed beside Luceile with the ceiling fan whispering cooler breezes through the suffocating heat of the room, almost as suffocating as the stealthy heat of the jungles he terrorized in World War II. Staring up at the darkness, he swore he could see the face of Darren Deetz’ grandson every time he blinked his eyes. The innocent, deeply-tanned face of the eleven-year-old Omaha Oswald O’Ryan, smiling and bright-eyed, with messy brown hair and a joyful smile. Mr. Blake never thought much of him before, finding him to be nothing but a startlingly simple boy with a silly hippy name.
“Sandrine says her grandson is magical.”
Mr. Blake stared into the darkness and grunted. Blinking his eyes, he saw flashes of Omaha as he’d seen him earlier that day, standing in the field. Only now he was looking across the street and waving, smiling, beckoning. Laughing. Mr. Blake shivered despite the heat and fell asleep with his eyes open.
The next morning dawned tiredly. Mr. Blake woke up before his wife and swung his legs off to the side of the bed. Staring intently out the open window, he searched Deetz’ home for signs of life, for signs of Omaha, but all he saw was the tentacles of sunlight streaming over the field. Putting his hand over his face, he closed his eyes and flinched as he saw Omaha staring back at him. Laughing.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, rubbing his fingers over his face.
Luceile was still snoring, so Mr. Blake got up and made his way to the bathroom in the hallway. After splashing some water on his face and stuffing his legs into his faded overalls, he went down the creaking wooden steps towards the kitchen. He paused on the landing and stared at the plain brown floor that reminded him on a daily basis that he was back in civilization, that he was safe.
“I don’t need a statue to tell me that I’m a goddamn war hero,” he mumbled. “I need this floor beneath my feet.”
Turning his head to look out through the glass door, he saw the stalks of corn rustle, as if bending out of the way of a ranking officer, but he didn’t see Darren’s old hat.
“Must be the boy,” Mr. Blake said.
Without picking up his hat off the kitchen table, Mr. Blake went out the front door and across the road to Deetz’ field. He followed the swaying of the stalks carefully and quietly. He could hear the sound of children laughing and talking, but his focus was on the stealth of his mission. Mr. Blake slid through the rows of corn as fluidly as he had crawled through the jungles of the Pacific. His eyes widened and a determined grimace enveloped his face as he stalked his prey: Omaha. Laughing.
The sun hung low in the sky as it yawned its way into view. He ignored the soft glare, ignored the burn of his exposed bald head, ignored the painful gasps of air being gulped by his joints. His operative was to find that boy, find that magical boy; he needed to find out what that boy had to do with Deetz’ crop, what the boy had to do with him.
“My best friend died at the beach named after you, Omaha,” he said.
Deetz’ field banked on a tiny grouping of trees surrounding a small pond. Darren and Sandrine often invited Mr. Blake and Luceile over to picnic beside the water during the summer, although they hadn’t extended such an invitation since Omaha had arrived. When Mr. Blake got to the edge of the field, he paused and bent his hands onto his knees. Taking a moment to breathe, he felt the rivulets of sweat beading up on his face and trickling down his back.
“I’m getting too old for jungle warfare,” he muttered.
Straightening himself, he moved slowly towards the embankment of trees and peered into the clearing, towards the sound of the children’s laughter. His eyes darted as the sound bounced off the trees until he narrowed in on a little girl with short, dark brown hair in a red sun dress who was laughing and clapping at the edge of the pond. He stared at her, wondering what was so funny in the jungle, in the circle of trees around the circular pond. She was jumping, cheering, her bare feet sticking in the mud with every hop, her hands pointing to the center, the focal point, the heart of the clearing. Mr. Blake’s eyes followed the invisible light flowing from the tips of her impossibly tiny hands across the water.
“Oh my God,” he said, leaning his full weight against the tree.
It was Omaha. He was standing, firmly planted on the plate-glass water, in the center of the pond.
Mr. Blake watched in horrified amazement as Omaha waved intently at the little girl on the shore. “See, Edna? I told you I could still do it!” he yelled.
Mr. Blake tried to swallow his shock but his throat was too dry, and he choked on the fumes of surprise. Coughing slightly, his body doubled over as he slipped towards the ground in a crumpled heap. He lay in the dirt in abject disbelief and horror and moaned, his thick hands pressed tightly against his face. Seconds later, he pried his fingers away and stared up at a smiling face. Omaha. Laughing.
“Are you OK, Mr. Blake?” he asked, crouching beside him.
Mr. Blake sat up slowly. “Well, I, uh, yes, I’m fine, young man.” He rubbed his skull and felt a small knot starting to form where he’d hit his head.
“Can you stand up, sir?” Omaha extended his hand.
Mr. Blake grunted as the boy helped pull him to his feet.
“You’re really OK?” Omaha asked again.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine.” Mr. Blake stood awkwardly beside the boy, staring uncertainly at his strikingly normal face.
“You want to come and play with us, then?” Omaha asked. “I mean, if you’re really OK?”
“Of course I’m OK. How many times do you need to ask me if I’m OK? I’m OK!” Mr. Blake said, waving his hands in the air.
“Great,” Omaha said. Laughing, he turned and bounded back through the trees to where Edna was making a small castle out of mud.
Mr. Blake eyed the children warily before joining them. Sitting on a stump near the pond’s edge, he folded his arms across his chest and gestured toward the girl.
“Who’s she?” he asked.
Omaha looked up, half-surprised to see Mr. Blake sitting there. “Oh, she’s my sister.”
“Sister?” he repeated.
“Mmm hmm,” Omaha said, patting another layer of mud onto the castle. “Her name is Edna.”
Mr. Blake stared at the back of the girl’s head and grunted. “Who names a little boy Omaha and a little girl Edna?”
Omaha looked over at him and smiled. “My mama,” he said.
Mr. Blake blinked. “Sorry, boy, I didn’t mean to insult you.”
Omaha stuck his fingers in the mud to carve a moat around the castle. “Oh, it’s OK, Mr. Blake.”
He watched the two children slather another layer of mud on top of the castle, Omaha poking holes in the side for windows, Edna smoothing out the edges. He forgot for a moment about Omaha, allowed himself to be bored, even, until his eyes traced back out to the center of the pond. He knew the pond was at least seven feet deep in the center. He himself was about six-six and had spend many a relaxing afternoons swimming with his wife and his neighbors. Mr. Blake stared across the smooth ripples of the pond and tried to detect the foot prints of the boy, Omaha. Foot prints on the surface of water.
“Hey, mister,” a small voice said beside him.
Turning his attention away from the invisible tracks in the water, he looked towards the voice, belonging to Edna. “Yeah,” he said.
“You wanna walk on water, too?” Her large, brown eyes were playful and curious.
Mr. Blake cleared his throat. “I, uh, well, you see, um... Too?” he asked feebly.
Edna nodded. “Like Omaha,” she said.
Omaha savagely poked another hole into the side of the castle. “Shut up, Edna.”
Edna turned back towards her brother. “What...?”
Omaha got up and caught his sister’s hand and dragged her back to the ground. “You can’t ask him that,” he said. “Not yet.”
Mr. Blake leaned forward in earnest. “And why not?”
Omaha looked from the frightened face of Edna to the curious face of Mr. Blake. “Because it’s impossible,” he said.
“To ask the question or do the deed?” Mr. Blake asked.
Omaha sat quietly for a moment. “You were in World War II, like my grandpa was.”
Mr. Blake straightened. “I was seventeen when I landed at a US Marine base in Okinawa.”
“What was it like?” Omaha asked.
Mr. Blake stared at the back of Edna’s head as she slapped another fistful of mud onto the castle. “It was war.”
Omaha folded his hands in his lap. “I mean, what was it like?”
Mr. Blake looked back out across the water. “It was, well... War, young man. Some days were downright dull and the highlight was swatting the mosquitoes away from your foxhole. But other days...” He stared at the soft ripples of water. “You shouldn’t ask questions you don’t want the answers to, son.”
“What do you mean, sir?”
Mr. Blake looked back at the boy. “What I mean is... War is more real than anything else in life. And too much reality can be hard to bear. Especially for a young boy.”
“Like you were?” Omaha asked.
Mr. Blake nodded briskly. “Like me.”
Edna turned and faced Mr. Blake. “Did you see lots of dead people, then, in the war?”
Mr. Blake felt a slight chill sting his spine. “Well, little girl, I, uh, well, yes.”
“Did you make them that way?” Her eyes gleamed.
Mr. Blake swallowed hard as his eyes jumped from innocent child’s face to innocent child’s face. “Well, it was a war,” he said finally.
“But...” Edna began.
Omaha laughed. “I think you’re making him nervous, Edna.”
Edna pouted. “You started it.”
“Well, I had a reason for asking,” Omaha said.
“What?” Edna asked, slapping her hand on top of the mud castle.
Omaha looked at Mr. Blake. “I asked because you asked him about walking on water.”
Edna nodded. “Oh.”
Mr. Blake narrowed his eyes. “What does the war have to do with the, well, you know, the thing, uh, the water, I mean.”
Omaha stood up and pointed towards the sky. “The clouds stay up there because someone once told them that they should stay up there. That the sky is their home.”
Mr. Blake looked up and saw nothing but blue sky.
“The clouds, see, have a right to defend their home. Mama used to say that’s why there were storms--the clouds were blocking invaders.”
“Like aliens?” Mr. Blake asked dubiously.
Omaha laughed. “Maybe,” he said. “But Mama said it was more a way to outsmart man and keep man out of the sky. You know, airplanes and stuff.”
Mr. Blake pressed his hand against his face. “Airplanes fly every day, boy.”
“Right,” Omaha said with a grin. Turning, he took a slow step towards the edge of the pond. Edna stopped pressing mud onto the castle and giggled as her brother stepped carefully, gingerly into the water. Mr. Blake watched in quiet panic as Omaha’s feet rose above the surface as he moved across the crests of the waves. When he reached the center of the pond, he sat down and bobbed like a duck. Edna clapped and cheered. Mr. Blake’s jaw dropped to the ground.
“You see, Mr. Blake, the clouds were supposed to stay in the sky and defend it. But people found a way to invade. The war you were in wasn’t supposed to be your war, but the enemy found a way to invade.” Omaha folded his legs like a Buddha. “People weren’t supposed to walk on water, but I found a way,” he said with a smile.
Mr. Blake’s face flushed. “Oh, God,” he said.
Omaha stood up and walked back across the pond. “My mama told me about the war you fought in a long time ago because she said it would help me understand my grandpa. She said that my grandpa lost himself in that war, your war. She said it was up to me--me and her--to help him.” Omaha stepped off the water and walked over to Mr. Blake. “That’s why I’ve come, you see.”
Mr. Blake looked into the consuming, patient eyes of the boy and shuddered. “Listen, young man, I don’t know what kind of trick you’re playing here, but I don’t want to be a part of it,” he said.
Omaha laughed. “I can teach you to walk on water.”
Mr. Blake jumped up from his seat on the stump and backed away from the children. “No,” he said.
Omaha grinned. “That’s what Grandpa said at first, too,” he said. “But ever since he learned how to invade--to win the war inside of him--he’s been happier. I can help you, too, Mr. Blake.” He extended a freckled hand.
Mr. Blake stared at the child’s hand and saw the fingers seem to reach out for him, to grow longer, to drag him into a war against himself, against nature. Omaha simply smiled with Edna leaning against him. Mr. Blake felt panic bubbling up inside of him. He felt like he was back in the jungle, was being tested by God, was tripping on a land mine.
“Leave me alone!” he said.
Omaha remained motionless, his hand stretched out before him. Edna sucked on a muddy thumb.
Mr. Blake turned and hurried out of the clearing, through the trees, and down the dusty pathway leading to Deetz’ house. He ignored the pain in his aged legs as he ran, bolted towards the house, the base, away from the enemy, away from the jungle. He saw his friend’s face, plastered with a serene smile, looking out of a second-story window at him. Mr. Blake ignored him and ran until the path melded into the driveway, until the driveway careened into the street.
He hurried across to his own house as a roar of thunder exploded up above. He looked up, startled to see the sky suddenly dark, consumed by storm clouds that Dave the Weatherman had insisted were not coming anytime soon. Mr. Blake dashed up onto the porch and into the house, slamming the door behind him in time to the second rocket of thunder.
“Paul? Is that you?” Luceile called from a back room where she kept her sewing machine.
Mr. Blake leaned against the door and gulped in air faster than he was able to breathe. He closed his eyes and saw the strikingly normal face of Omaha. Laughing.
“Can you believe how quickly this storm came up? Lord knows we need the rain, though,” Luceile said.
Mr. Blake felt his entire body begin to shake as the sweat ran through the cracks of his body, his hands pressed flat against the wall.
“I got a call from Sandrine this morning. She invited us over to lunch with Darren and their grandson this Sunday.”
Mr. Blake drew a deep breath and clutched the white curtains on the door. He closed his eyes and saw a flash of Omaha with Edna leaning against him. “What about the girl?” he asked in a low voice.
“Pardon?” Luceile called.
“The little girl. Edna,” he said.
The sewing machine stopped humming and Luceile came out into the hallway. Seeing her husband’s panic, she hurried over to him. “Why, Paul. Are you OK?”
“Why does everyone keep asking me that?” he asked thickly. “I’m fine.”
“Are you certain, dear? Come and sit down,” she said.
He shook his head. “I’m fine, Ceile.”
Luceile raised her eyebrows. “You’re not, Paul. Is this about the commemoration today?”
“Forget that damn statue, woman. I asked you a question,” he said, his eyes darkening.
The thunder echoed around the house.
“Yes, well, I think I understood you wrong,” she said slowly, placing a cool hand on his forehead. “Paul, you’re burning!”
He released the curtain and grabbed her hand. “All I want is a simple answer to my simple question,” he said. “What about the girl? Edna?”
Luceile shook her head. “What girl?”
Mr. Blake frowned. “The girl. Edna. Their granddaughter.”
“Granddaughter?” Luceile repeated.
“Yes, the boy’s sister. Darren and Sandrine’s granddaughter. Where will she be during this fantastic lunch on Sunday?”
“Why, Paul. The granddaughter was killed in the car accident with the mother. You know that.”
Mr. Blake stiffened. “No.”
“Yes, dear. Remember? Sandrine was preparing a little red sun dress to send to the child for the summer when the accident happened. The girl was buried in it, as I recall,” Luceile said.
Mr. Blake closed his eyes. And saw Omaha. Laughing.
“I saw the girl,” he said.
“Oh no, Paul. We never met the little girl. Just Omaha. You know that Darren and Sandrine had been estranged from their daughter before the accident.”
He opened his eyes and looked at his wife. “I saw the girl today,” he said.
Luceile’s face drooped, and she squeezed his hands. “No, Paul.”
“I saw her.”
Luceile tried to lead him away from the door into the kitchen, but he remained planted in the hallway. Her face was tacked with worry.
“It’s my fault. I haven’t been making sure you’ve been taking your medicine... Oh, Paul. Dr. Thatcher seemed so sure that the delusions would pass,” she murmured, feeling his forehead again.
Mr. Blake’s face tightened in indignation. “I’m not crazy, Ceile.”
“Of course not, dear,” she said gently. “Come and sit down. I’ll make you some breakfast.”
Mr. Blake pulled out of her light grasp and flung the front door open. Dashing out onto his porch, he charged down the steps like he was rushing out to face the Japanese until he stood beside a puddle in the rain. He stared at his own sallow reflection.
“Paul!” Luceile called from the porch.
He ignored her and continued to stare at the tiny pool of water. Gritting his teeth, he stepped gingerly on the water’s edge and stepped back. Sucking in a gust of courage, he balled his hands at his sides, closed his eyes, and took a determined step into the puddle.
Behind his eyes, he saw Omaha. Laughing.
Beneath his feet, he felt the squishing foundation of mud as his shoes were buried in the shallow body of water.
Opening his eyes, he looked up towards the sky and allowed the tears that were welling up in his eyes to escape down his face. Luceile hurried off the porch and over to her husband.
“Paul, come inside,” she said.
He looked at her with absolute sorrow in his eyes. “I can’t do it,” he said.
Luceile placed a gentle hand on his arm. “It’s OK,” she said.
He moaned. “Ceile, it’s not OK--I’m not OK,” he said. He brushed her fingers off his arm. “Just leave me be a minute.”
Luceile reluctantly stepped backwards towards the house, her face masked in years’ worth of worry. Mr. Blake stared at his reflection in the puddle and kicked the water to kill his distorted image. Shivering in the warm rain, he turned and walked slowly towards his wife.
“Every year, we plow our field, plant a new crop, wait for it to grow,” he said, standing face-to-face with Luceile. “That’s a natural cycle, right, every year, right?” He paused and glanced up at the thick clouds. “Something is wrong with me, Ceile. Because I can’t walk on water, not anymore.”
“Paul, no one is asking you to walk on water,” Luceile said.
“I feel like I’m back in the war--that maybe it never ended.” Mr. Blake clutched his wife close to his body and sobbed. Closing his eyes, he saw Omaha. Laughing. Opening them, he turned and faced Deetz’ house. He saw Omaha standing alone on the porch. Smiling and waving.
“Hey Mr. Blake!” he called. “Looks like the clouds beat the weatherman today!”
Mr. Blake stared across the street at the boy and said nothing as the rain pounded down on his sunburned head.