No Longer a Shadow
by Allison Rott
Trembling fingers buttoned up Walter's white tux shirt. They trembled more often than not since he came back home. The worst of the scarring was covered by his clothes, but his hands and face had some pale pink marks as well.
“You look great son.” Albert Fischer Sr. stood up from the couch with a grunt. Walter nodded, though he couldn’t force himself to check his reflection in the mirror in front of him. Instead, he reached over and pulled the pair of dog tags off the little table. They clinked together as he put them around his neck and tucked them against his skin. “I’m proud of you.” His father’s hands gripped his shoulders. “Your brother would be too.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Walter whispered. He took a deep breath and stepped out the door. The hallway was empty, thankfully, as he fought to keep his composure. The dog tags seared his chest, heavier than the machine gun which continued to ring in his ears at night.
The chapel was full, but everyone he passed had their sight blinded by love, so his wavering smile, and his jittery hands, were just the nerves of any old groom getting ready to marry the woman he loved.
The seconds ticked by and the heat from the dog tags started to bloom, inching its way across and into his chest. Sweat droplets collected at the back of his neck, dripping below his collar only to sizzle on contact with the metal.
Thoughts of ripping off the dog tags crossed his mind, but instead, he loosened his tie, getting a gulp of air before he noticed his mother’s disapproving glance. In the midst of fixing his tie, the music kicked up and the door at the end of the aisle opened.
Men and women Walter had grown up with, dressed in dark suits or light and flowing dresses, stepped down the aisle. Perfectly in time with their partner, but with grace and smiles that didn’t belong on the battlefield.
But he had left. Made it out of the trenches with his body mostly intact. He could breathe, eat, sleep (sort of), sweat, and suffer the burning of the tags under his shirt.
All so he could marry Ethel Williamson. The woman whose pretty face was currently obscured by a veil, was in the most beautiful white dress he had ever seen. Ethel had written she was going to alter her mother’s old dress since a new one would be too expensive.
“My salary should be enough to cover a new dress.” Albert said as he showed Walter the letter. Ethel’s handwriting was neat and delicate, with perfect little loops, crosses, and dots where needed.
“Have you ever sent Ethel any money?” Walter’s question made Albert scowl, grumbling about what he should say instead. “Ethel my dear, you’ll look beautiful in any dress, new or old.” Walter suggested, keeping his eyes on the letter and not on his annoyed brother.
And she did. From her last letter, Walter knew she had loosened the sewn-in corset, and added lace designs down the long sleeves. Those same fragile-looking hands that wrote so prettily, had created such amazing designs, though the lace was not where his eyes lingered.
Walter stood straighter, hands no longer trembling, and his smile blossomed before his bride’s eyes. He was going to marry Ethel and have the life he had always dreamed about but dared not speak of. Every explosion, every wet sock, every fumble for his gas mask, every scar was worth this. Every sting of being forgotten, unnoticed, or worse just mistaken for his brother in a rare contemplative mood, made the heart-pounding moments of watching his bride approach the alter all the sweeter.
Nothing else mattered, not the music, not the priest, not the gaze of every person in the chapel. Only Ethel mattered. Her big blue eyes never left his own, even when obscured by the veil, her slender hands clasped in his own, and the very sweet sound of her voice.
“Do you take Albert Fischer Jr. to be your lawfully wedded husband for as long as you both shall live?”
The priest must have asked though Walter didn’t hear it. The ringing in his ears had returned, drowning out everything. Everything except the labored whisper of his twin brother: “Watch over Ethel for me. Tell her I wish I would have married her before leaving.”
“I do.” Ethel answered and the world came into focus again. He squeezed her hands as tight as possible, so they wouldn’t go limp and slip away like Albert’s had. His brother’s body was more decimated by shrapnel than his own, a living, breathing, bomb barrier. Well, not for long.
“You may kiss the bride!” The priest announced.
Walter’s hands went to Ethel's face, first flipping the veil over her head and then cupping her slightly hollowed cheeks from wartime rations and pressing his desperate lips to her soft, desirable ones.
It wasn’t the kind of chaste kiss Walter was sure his parents had at their wedding, but under the hooting and hollering of the groomsmen were whispers that accepted this display of adoration.
He had come back from the Great War after all.
Albert Fischer’s dog tags around his neck, burning him, choking him, but Ethel kissing back washed it all away.
So what his more popular brother had caught Ethel’s gaze first across the dance hall? So what Albert had been the one to hand over flowers and offer his arm, opening doors and tipping his hat? So what she had written Albert during their time in war-torn Europe?
Walter had been at the dance too. He saw the girl Albert used to make fun of for having freckles check a mirror nervously as the music started, hoping she hid them well enough with her powder. He had reminded Albert that Ethel’s favorite flower was chrysanthemums. He had reminded Albert of the finer points of Mother’s lecture on being a gentleman. He had helped Albert write Ethel back, almost every letter containing lines suggested by Walter.
Not to mention Walter had endured many a toe being squished so Albert could learn how to lead a waltz.
It wasn’t his fault he was always in Albert’s shadow. Though it proved to be the perfect place to be when that fateful bomb went off.
Maybe Albert had known Walter loved Ethel too. Maybe that was why Albert had asked him to watch over Ethel.
Before the dust settled, sobs wracking his body, shaking hands had switched the dog tags. Yellow-bellied Walter Fischer died a hero.
And Albert Fischer got to return home and marry his sweet, beautiful, doting fiancée Ethel.
The hollow space left behind by the flames of jealousy quickly filled with more intense molten guilt.
But this way, Ethel only had happy tears to shed on her wedding day, already done mourning the shadow of the man she loved.
Winning pieces are published as received.
Third Place Winner:
Allison Rott, (pronounced 'wrote') lives in Illinois. A voracious reader from her own childhood she hasn’t lost her love of stories or the many ways of telling them. allisonwrote.com is the place to find her blog and the information on the six short stories already published.