Sergeant Oliver Crowe raced across the war-torn hillside. Barbed wire tore at his feet, threatening to pull him down into the mud. If only he could make it to the forest, then he might have a chance at hiding. He held his helmet tightly against his head, bullets whizzing past from every direction.
Branches snapped under his boots with each step, a dull echo of the gunfire now behind him. The twilight filtered weakly through the canopy, casting eerie shadows across the ground. His legs felt like they were on fire; every heaving breath sent pain shooting through his broken ribs. A gnarled and twisted root sprang up from the forest floor, wrapping itself over his boot and throwing him down into the decaying plant matter.
“Grandpa, wake up!”
A dark figure emerged from the shadows, leaves rustling as it drew nearer. Crowe turned onto his back, agony in every limb. He could barely make out the towering silhouette of a German officer’s cap, pale moonlight reflecting from the silver eagle pin and from the revolver in his hand. He watched helplessly as the figure opened the chamber and placed a single bullet inside, snapping it shut with a resounding click.
He raised his arm, sighting down the barrel to Crowe’s chest. Searching desperately for a place to hid, Crowe pushed himself backwards across the ground, begging for mercy at the feet of his tormentor. The officer’s finger wrapped around the trigger, a smile spreading across his face as he began to pull. Crowe squeezed his eyes shut, cowering in fear as he waited for the bullet to pierce his lungs.
A stabbing pain in his ribs jolted him upright. Opening his eyes he saw not the tall German officer before him, but the smiling face of his little granddaughter. Her frizzy hair stuck out in all directions, and her pajama shirt was on backwards. She clutched her teddy bear tightly in one hand; she had never gone anywhere without it since she was a baby.
“Grandpa, you promised to take us to the park today!”
He looked over at the alarm clock. 8 am; she let him sleep in today. Reluctantly, He pushed back the covers and stood up.
“All right Daisy, I did promise you that. Come on, let’s get some breakfast first.”
“I already made you some breakfast, come and see!”
His stomach dropped at the idea; Daisy always means well but has a knack for making a mess wherever she goes. They went down into the kitchen, Daisy running down the stairs and waiting impatiently at the bottom.
“Come on, come on, come onnnnn!!!!”
“Calm down, kid! I’m getting there!”
She took his hand and led him into the kitchen, where two bowls of cold cereal waited with a jug of milk placed carefully between them.
“Well, that looks delicious!” he exclaimed as they both sat down. “You should make breakfast more often!”
Daisy finished her cereal in mere seconds, practically bouncing out of her chair with excitement as she waited for her grandfather to finish eating.
“Now go get dressed so we can go to the park.”
Daisy sprang up from her chair, racing up the stairs and slamming the door to her room shut. It would take her a while to get dressed; she was still learning which shoe goes on which foot. Crowe put the bowls in the sink and went upstairs to change.
They began their journey, Crowe shuffling along the sidewalk as Daisy skipped in circles around him. He took in a deep breath of the fresh morning air, relaxing in the sun’s warm rays. They came to the corner, where he took Daisy’s hand and gently guided her across the street to the left.
“Grandpa, this is the wrong way! The park is over there!” She pointed behind them, her teddy bear still held in her outstretched hand.
“I know, sweetie. There’s somewhere else I’d like to take you first.”
Normally, Daisy would’ve put up a fit about a delay in getting to the park. Yet the seriousness in her grandfather’s voice silenced her complaints. She held his hand tightly, walking slowly alongside him as they approached the cemetery.
The cemetery had been there since the town’s founding in 1836; many of the graves dated back to the Civil War. A wrought iron fence surrounded the lush green property, tendrils of ivy curled around its rusting frame. Crowe pushed open the squeaky gate, holding it for Daisy to pass through.
“Grandpa, why are we at the cemetery?” She stood just outside the gate, hugging her teddy bear to her chest.
“It’s quite alright dear. I want you to meet a few of my old friends.”
She stepped cautiously through the opening, looking around at the moss-covered tombstones and weathered sepulchers. Crowe led her down the path and beneath an archway of lilac bushes, the sweet smell of their flowers permeating the graveyard. He reached up and plucked a clump of light pink blossoms from the bush, kneeling down to place it in Daisy’s hair.
“See, it’s not so bad in here!”
They continued down the path, turning to the left before coming to a stop in front of a small signpost.
“What’s that, grandpa?”
“That’s a memorial sign. All the people buried here died during the Second World War.”
“Is that the war you fought in?”
“Yes, it is. This sign tells about the history of the war.”
He picked her up, balancing her tiny frame against his hip so that she could see the pictures as he read the sign aloud. She listened intently, her arms wrapped around Crowe’s shoulders. He pointed at a picture on the signpost, showing a team of paratroopers leaping out of their plane.
“I jumped out of a plane just like that one, back when I was younger.”
“Why did you jump?”
He hesitated a moment, unsure of what to say.
“We jumped because we had to, so that we could protect our families back home. There were a lot of very bad people back then, who wanted to hurt our country. We were sent to stop them. Here, come with me.”
They stepped onto the narrow trail beyond the sign, where rows of tombstones were placed evenly along the hillside. A few steps later and they stopped, Crowe dropping to kneel before a grave. Daisy followed suit, sitting down in the grass beside him and placing her teddy bear neatly in front of her.
“This man was my best friend. We jumped out of the same plane together.”
He reached out his hand, brushing away the moss which threatened to overrun the headstone. A small flag had been stuck in the ground beside it, left as a Memorial Day tribute. The stripes had begun to fade in the sunlight. Daisy looked up at her grandfather, tears welling up in his eyes.
“What happened to him, grandpa?”
He wrapped his arm around her, pulling her close to his side.
“When we landed, the bad people were there to attack us. A lot of people died there.”
“But you survived.”
“Yes, I survived.”
“Were you a hero, grandpa?”
The innocent question struck him like the Nazi’s bullet. He held Daisy tightly, running his hand through her hair.
“No sweetie, I wasn’t a hero. I was a coward.”
“What’s a coward?”
He let out a deep sigh. “A coward is someone who runs away. I ran away.”
“Away from the bad people?”
“Yes. Well, I tried to. One of the bad people found me.”
“He shot me.”
Daisy’s eyes grew wide, her little mouth hanging open.
“Sweetie, war does terrible things to people. No matter what happened, everyone has to live with what they did. Some people killed. Some people ran.”
“Isn’t running better than killing? Killing is wrong.”
“If I hadn’t run away, maybe he would still be alive.” Crowe gestured to the grave in front of them. “I left him. We were partners, and I ran away. I didn’t want to die. If I had stayed, maybe both of us would have made it out. Or maybe I would have died too. There’s no way of knowing that now.”
Daisy wriggled free from her grandfather’s embrace, turning to face him.
“Were you scared?”
“Yes, I was scared. Scared people make mistakes.” Tears began to fall down his face, dropping into the grass.
Daisy turned to the grave, her teddy bear still clasped in one hand. She crawled forward, carefully placing the toy against the headstone. She sat back down in the grass, reaching out for her grandfather’s hand. He took it, clasping his fingers tightly around hers.
“I’m sorry I can’t be the hero you want me to be. The real heroes never came back.”
She pushed her face against his chest, squeezing her eyes shut tight.
“I still love you, grandpa,” she whispered.
“I love you too, Daisy.” He picked her up, holding her on his back. “Come on, let’s go to the park.”