A special story to honor Veteran’s Day.
In Welcome Home, after passenger trains pull to a stop in a busy station, hundreds of returning veterans debark. The soldiers are greeted by family and friends. In the corner, a young woman and a little boy search the faces of the soldiers, not at all sure they will find the man they seek.
About the Author
Eugenia Parrish grew up in Ohio but has mined her stories from all her travels. Her favorite kind of stories to read or write pinpoint fleeting moments in life that can change everything.
Eugenia’s first short story was critiqued by her mother, who asked, “Does Alice in Wonderland really have to die?” From this she learned three things: the importance of considering your target audience; that grim is better than boring; and always listen to advice. Especially if it comes from your mother.
Eugenia is the author of the "Del Sueno Files" mystery series and a New Adult novel titled "The Last Party in Eden".
Follow Eugenia’s latest thinking about books, writing, and the publishing world at eugeniaparrish.blog
Welcome Home by Eugenia Parrish
Across the floor of the cavernous train station, the sea of people streamed in currents that needed no more guidance than any ocean tide. Now and then the flow broke against an obstacle, someone who had paused to stare up at the departure boards, but it scarcely slowed the constant surging back and forth.
Against the far wall, in a niche under a tired recruiting poster, a young woman stood holding a small boy by the hand. If anyone had noticed, they would have thought the boy unnaturally quiet and still. Dressed in sturdy pants and a rough woolen coat that looked a size too big, he seemed not to see the passing crush. The young woman wore a good city suit and a soft fedora, and her feet were shod in well-made pumps, everything slightly out of fashion thanks to the war shortages.
The last train had emptied itself of debarking soldiers and moved on. The young woman’s eyes searched the crowd, observing men clad in a dozen shades of olive-drab, studying them one by one.
Some raced for the massive street doors with overstuffed canvas duffel bags held high on their shoulders. They shouted to each other under the echoing roof, arguing about plans for the evening’s entertainment.
These she dismissed at once.
Others were swept up by weeping women or joyful young girls who flung themselves into the men’s arms. Children stared at the soldiers in wide-eyed wonder. Older men shook their hands, smiling, lips held firm against the proud flush of emotion.
These she dismissed as well. Her eyes fell on a man standing alone, and she clasped the boy’s hand harder, causing him to glance up at her. But several officers quickly surrounded the man, gathered him up, and pulled him toward the doors, all of them talking at once about drinks and dinner. Another lone man passed by, but after searching his hard, unforgiving face, she dismissed him too.
Her hand relaxed, and the boy resumed his stoic stance.
A skinny older man approached them with a sales tray hanging from his shoulders. The tray was piled with small toys, and the man held a stick that dangled a piece of string, at the end of which danced a small wooden monkey. The man bobbed the stick in front of the boy, and the monkey’s arms and legs waved manically.
“Hey, kid, you wanna monkey? See, you can make him dance!”
He flexed the stick. The boy stared at the jumping monkey’s solemn face but did not respond.
“C’mon,” the vendor said to the young woman, “whyncha buy the kid a toy? Give him somethin’ to do ’til the next train gets in.”
He waved the toy again hopefully. The boy’s face showed no emotion, and the drummer looked at her. “Whatsa matter, the kid dumb or somethin’?”
“Please go away,” she said.
With a frustrated shrug, he moved on, making the monkey dance and giving his spiel to a new prospect. The young woman went back to studying the crowd, and the boy continued to wait.
With a screeching storm of steam and noise, a train roared into the station and slowed to a groaning, chuffing stop. The doors opened, and a fresh wave of men in uniform burst from the cars. The new soldiers merged with the rest of the crowd until they became one roiling sea of elation.
* * *
Inside the third car, Captain James Weston sat staring out the steamy window. Around him, men jumped up, pocketed their hip flasks, set their caps at jaunty angles, and grabbed their duffel bags. Some had been lucky enough to find a seat when they boarded the train, but many had spent the trip crammed in the aisle squatting on top of their huge duffels, singing raucous songs, and passing bottles. Impromptu parties had made the ride more relaxed, but it had been a long journey.
At the beginning of the trip, another officer sat next to Weston—a talkative man eager to share his plans for furlough. He thrust pictures of his family at Weston and offered a flask full of whiskey. When Weston ignored him, the man persisted until a young lieutenant whispered in his ear. Abashed, the man took his whiskey and moved down the aisle to sit with less somber company. The men gave Weston soft and pitying glances and went back to sharing their bottles and stories.
No one took the empty seat beside Weston. He hardly noticed, just stared unseeing out the window and tried to ignore the haunting pain from his damaged leg.
Now the train had stopped, and the men jostled good-naturedly toward the doors of the car.
“Hey, Captain,” one man said in passing, “last stop, everyone off here.”
“We’re heading for the fleshpots,” said the lieutenant. “Come join us for a drink.”
Weston gave no sign that he had even heard them. The men shrugged at each other and left the train.
Eventually, the voices faded, and Weston was alone. He waited a few minutes more, then took a deep breath and turned from the window. He lifted the duffel wedged in front of his feet, placed his brimmed cap on his head, and limped to the end of the car.
The noise of celebration greeted him at the top of the steps. He automatically scanned the crowd for a familiar face and then felt like a fool. No one had come to meet him, not even an adjutant or an aide from headquarters. He was a long way from headquarters now, never to return. The Army had paid for his ticket home. He hadn’t bothered to tell them he had no home to return to and no one waiting there if he did.
A vast tiredness washed over him. Soon, he’d have to decide which door to walk out of and which way to turn.
* * *
The young woman caught sight of him as he stepped down to the platform. She observed him carefully. He glanced around and then, with a straightening of his shoulders, started toward the great glass doors that led to the snowy streets. His limp was pronounced, the bag was obviously heavy, and more than once, she saw him fight to save his balance as raucous travelers swept by him.
“There,” she said.
The boy looked up at her tone. She started across the floor, still holding his hand. The crowd bumped against the boy. Being no taller than the average waistline, he followed the young woman as best he could, dodging people and luggage along the way.
She reached the man and said, “Excuse me.”
* * *
Weston looked up, startled to find a girl blocking his path. Early twenties, he guessed, though she could be younger; women matured faster in wartime. Her hair was pinned under her hat, and her expression was hesitant, apologetic. He frowned, assuming she was collecting for something. The Salvation Army and others frequented train stations; they handed out coffee and doughnuts, always hoping for donations from soldiers flush with paychecks and the guilt that came with survival.
“Excuse me,” the girl repeated. “We won’t keep you a minute, but . . . this is Tommy.”
Weston hadn’t noticed the boy. He was a solemn little fellow, and he looked up at Weston expressionlessly. Weston hadn’t known these people to use a child before, but he supposed it made sense, though it can’t have been fun for the boy. Weston’s face hardened.
“Sorry,” he said as politely as he could manage. “I must get a cab before they’re all gone.”
A joke, that, since he had no idea yet of where to go.
“Please,” she said softly. “It’ll only take a moment. I noticed you were alone. That is, no one’s come to meet you. Tommy and I have been here every day for a long time. You see . . . Tommy’s alone too. His parents were both overseas, and a few months ago they were due in on a train.” She paused. “We waited, but they never came. They won’t be coming, either of them and, well, Tommy saved up so many welcome-home hugs. If you wouldn’t mind . . . he’d like to welcome you home.”
Weston studied the boy. Dark eyes looked back at him, neither asking nor hoping.
Slowly, Weston let his duffel slide to the floor. Even more slowly, he lowered himself to one knee—the good one—and took off his captain’s cap. The boy watched him but didn’t move.
Weston hesitated then lifted his arms.
Instantly, the boy’s small body propelled forward. Little arms went around Weston’s neck, and a soft cheek pressed against his face as the boy squeezed tight. After a moment, Weston squeezed back and then somehow he was rocking gently from side to side. He closed his eyes and breathed in the scent of soap, childish linens, and rough wet wool. He remembered the smells. He remembered women and children and laughter and all the things he’d wanted to fight for and all the reasons why. He rubbed his cheek on the boy’s soft hair, drank in the wonder, and remembered.
Eventually, he opened his eyes and loosened his embrace. The boy stepped away with a big grin on his face. Weston smiled back.
The girl let Weston get to his feet without trying to help, which he appreciated.
“Welcome home,” she said.
“Thank you,” he replied.
He paused but could think of nothing else to say. He gave her a small nod, smiled at the boy again, and picked up his duffel. He walked toward the nearest door, but just before going through it, he turned to look back. The station was nearly empty now, and he saw them standing with an old hawker and his tray. The boy had a stick with a dancing toy on the end of a string. The stick bounced up and down, and Weston heard the boy’s laughter echoing up into the high ceiling.
He turned back to the door, set his cap at a jaunty angle, and whistling a nameless tune, stepped out into the bright day.
About the Story
Welcome Home was written by Eugenia Parrish. In the story, a broken war veteran discovers that a small child can touch a stranger's heart in an unexpected moment.
From the editor: Every time I hear (or read) Welcome Home, I cry at the end. I must have read it ten times by now, but that moment is powerful. The writer’s goal is to entertain by evoking emotion in the reader. Eugenia Parrish hits it out of the park with this one.
At SunLit, we believe in the Power of Story. If you believe too, then share Welcome Home with everyone you know. Together, we’ll make the world a better place one story at a time.