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Drama Fiction Sad

Warning: Story includes themes of suicide


The first rays of the July sun flashed off General Burton’s glasses and onto the refrigerator as he applied three drops of lubricant to the slide rails of his Colt .45. One, two, three on one side. One, two, three on the other. Two drops on the barrel. One drop on the engagement lugs. One drop on the interior of the barrel bushing. Re-assemble.  


His fingers moved over the parts with a command accrued over seven decades. But his arthritic joints and knotted knuckles threatened the flow of his movements. He gritted his teeth and pushed on, willing his fingers to maneuver with the fluidity they once knew. He glanced through the kitchen window to note the position of the sun as it emerged over the lake, painting the sky with golden pink and orange streaks. The sunrise was his timer - the weapon must be fully clean and assembled before the sun fully appeared. He hadn’t missed yet. 


It was Monday, and there were five things General Burton always did on Monday. First, he cleaned and oiled his pistol. The two pounds and seven ounces of carbon steel rested in his hand, a cold and comforting extension of his right arm. He rubbed his cloth over the hand grip, bringing out the shine where the patina had long since worn away. Turning the gun over, he worked the microfiber into the grooves around the trigger and drew it gently over the discoloration on the concave part where his finger rested.


Next, he pan-seared an eight ounce ribeye. Jake, curled into his bed by the kitchen table, raised his greyed muzzle as he heard the pans clanging. He fixed clouded eyes on the stove and tipped his shepherd ears toward the sounds. Six minutes on one side, five on the other. The smell of cooking meat warmed the house as drool dribbled from Jake’s mouth forming a puddle on the floor. Neither age nor blindness had dampened his legendary appetite. General Burton allowed the steak to cool and cut it into tiny pieces. When Jake heard the clatter of his dish on his feeding stand, he knew “Come, boy” would follow. He heaved himself up and moved his rusty legs to the bowl where devoured the steak in three gulps.


General Burton moved to the next item on his list, his military dress uniform. He took it out of the closet, removed the protective cover and laid it out on the dining room table, taking a moment to slide his glasses out of their case before inspecting it. He polished the gleaming brass buttons, the various medals and straightened the nine rows of colored medal ribbons decorating the jacket. Then, he picked off any strands of lint and re-ironed his trousers to sharpen the already sharp creases. He buffed his glossy shoes to an even glossier shine, pulled off his khakis and eased the trousers over his legs, turning on profile to the mirror.


He scowled.


Strain as he might, week after week, he couldn't find the ramrod posture of his days as a young officer. He despised the knots and bones protruding from his shrinking shoulders despite his daily grind through push up after push-up. Lifting his chin did little to recover his chiseled jawline and the bags under his eyes grew darker and more swollen with every sleepless night. Since last November the nightmares had returned with a vengeance he had never known, leaving him drenched in cold sweat and gasping for air.  


He smoothed his jacket and evened his sleeves as he dressed, satisfied that the epaulettes adequately squared and broadened his shoulders. Finally, he returned to his pistol, slipping it into its holster, hand lingering on the leather. The canvas webbing sat neatly coiled next to the holster, and General Burton unfurled it, examining it for stray threads or marks. The "U.S." had faded to a smudge and there was a dark line on the fourth set of holes, where he had always fastened the belt.  


He clipped the holster into place and cinched the belt. It still went easily to the fourth set of holes. The pistol's weight against his hip felt like a trusted old friend and he pulled his shoulders back another inch. Next task.


Belly full, Jake had already padded back to his bed. General Burton waited for his light snores, counting them. On the tenth, certain that Jake slept deeply, he positioned himself to the dog's left, careful not to disturb the sunlight. He drew the gun from the holster and with steady hands held it an inch from the dime-sized patch of tan fur just under Jake's right ear. His right finger lay lightly on the trigger and he focused on exhaling slowly. Just five pounds of pressure.  


The shot would kill Jake instantly. He would never know. General Burton turned the pistol, opening his mouth and sealing his lips around the cold steel. Every movement would have to be immediate, mechanical. No final thoughts, no hesitation. He forced himself to stay like that, gun in his mouth, counting out ten measured seconds, still listening for Jake's snores.


It wouldn't be like last November. Hand upon his Bible, he had made that vow. Moments from that month collided with a time long ago and assaulted his mind in a pummeling kaleidoscope of fragmented images. A slip on the ice, a searing pain in his hip. Hobbling like the old man he was. Blood pouring from the open wounds of his brothers on the battlefield. Screams. His screams, their screams? The home health aide’s plump face and the walker she brought him. The pretty nurse who’d smiled and held his hand as he was carried off the front line in Bastogne. Tripping like a clumsy old fool on his morning runs. The walker. The damn walker, taunting him, laughing at him. Helpless old man. A fist through the wall and string of curses. The nurse’s scream. Cold steel of the pistol against his temple. Jake’s warm body pushing against his legs. Blank eyes on him, worried whines piercing his ears.  


General Burton had hesitated only a moment before setting down the pistol and ruffling Jake's head. He’d felt the boniness of his skull and seen the sunken hollows of age in his flanks.  

He had lowered himself into his leather chair, Jake at his feet. They'd stayed that way for hours, General Burton staring ahead at nothing, Jake's head resting on his foot. The room had darkened as the afternoon waned, but nothing moved until Jake finally rose and made his way to the door. General Burton had guided the dog into the yard, the icy air biting through his shirt. Maybe it was the snow crunching under his feet or the shadows of the trees' bony branches against the moon, but something took him back to that night on the Rhine River in 1944. The shadow of the young German officer on the cliff, pistol drawn, shot fired, body tumbling into the river, a sequence that unfolded with precision, deliberation and dignity.


That is how it must be done, General Burton had decided. For himself, for Jake.  


He had not slept that night or the next day, worked out his plan down to the smallest detail. The moment of desperation had passed, but he knew it would return. And when it did, everything would be in place. He would be ready.  


General Burton removed the pistol from his mouth, wiped off the barrel and took out the bullets. The movements came mechanically now, no more sweating, no more trembling. The morning sun had risen higher, warming the kitchen as the summer humidity crept in. He locked the gun and holster carefully in his safe, re-ironed his uniform and returned it to the closet. Jake began stirring and stretching as General Burton wheeled the vacuum cleaner out of the closet for his final Monday task. There was not a speck of dirt in the house, but it was Monday. And there were five things General Burton always did on Monday.


June 24, 2021 14:51

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31 comments

Kristin Neubauer
14:55 Jun 24, 2021

Author's note: This was the first chapter to a novella (or a long short story) I wrote many years ago called "General Burton and the Eclair War." It has been languishing on the hard drive of an old laptop, so I dug it out and reworked it a little for this prompt. Re-reading it, I'm not sure if it makes sense. I could see where the flashback and kaleidoscope of images may be confusing. It was clear in my head, but I can't tell if it worked in the storytelling. I'm also not sure that it is really linked so well to the prompt. But, I real...

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Shea West
18:53 Jun 24, 2021

This was heavy and beautiful all at once....To see people age is far different than actually aging yourself and being in these positions of not wanting to go on with life. The companionship of his dog, and how drawn he is to stick to a schedule- These are the things that keep people around right? "Make sure you have things that rely on you, so you won't want to leave." I think this was beautifully written and I think that it was great that you dusted off that novella for us!

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Kristin Neubauer
19:10 Jun 24, 2021

Thank you so much! I had forgotten how much I'd come to care about General Burton as a character until I went back and re-read the story (rough as it is). I wouldn't say I often feel that connection to my characters, but this one is different and I think I might take a whack at rewriting the novella (and then probably leave it on another laptop for seven more years!)....This first story/scene is the heaviest. The rest of the novella/story is actually quite light. I appreciate your reading and your lovely feedback!

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Shea West
19:25 Jun 24, 2021

Well, sometimes stories can age like fine wine right? Just gotta slap it on the laptop and ignore it for it to "taste" good again LOL

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Josh C
23:54 Jul 10, 2021

Glad to read another one from you - it's been a while! You tackled a very heavy and difficult theme in this one. The effects of PTSD, the lack of support for veterans at an increased risk of suicide, and a lot of that came through clearly. I think having the dog there is a really good move, it certainly adds to our sense that this person is alone. I didn't quite understand the part about the ice - was that an attempt or just an accident that triggered an episode? With a way, another great read!

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Kristin Neubauer
15:38 Jul 25, 2021

Thanks so much, Josh - and so sorry for the long delayed response. I haven't logged into Reedsy for a few weeks due to school, work, overnight shifts, blah blah blah. The slip on the ice was supposed to be the trigger for General Burton's suicidal ideation. My thought is that the feelings of vulnerability, old age that he experienced due to his injury from the fall would have been intolerable to him and, as well, would have triggered a flood of long-buried trauma from his battlefield experiences. Clearly, I need to clean it up, and I appr...

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Josh C
14:06 Jul 26, 2021

That makes sense! Yes I think I didn’t quite catch it all the first time. No worries, we are all busy these days!

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Carmen Schaller
14:33 Jul 03, 2021

Confession: this is the type of story I would usually skip over. But I'm so glad I didn't! It's such a perfect balance of graveness and beauty. Also, I REALLY want to read about the Eclair War!!!

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Kristin Neubauer
20:56 Jul 03, 2021

Wow, thanks so much, Carmen....I am really flattered that you liked it even though it's not quite your thing. Confession too - it's not really the kind of story I write usually! I prefer to write a little lighter - and sometimes pure outrageous silly stuff. I don't think the rest of General Burton's Eclair War is silly, but it is light with touches of comedy. I couldn't take the General down a dark road.....hopefully I will polish the rest of it up one of these days!

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Alex Sultan
03:38 Jun 29, 2021

This story was so fluid to read - I think your sentence structure is great. I really enjoyed reading this.

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Kristin Neubauer
16:33 Jun 29, 2021

Thank you so much - I really appreciate that. Especially after ready your amazing story!

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K. Antonio
22:35 Jun 26, 2021

Damn, this was great! It was a heavy topic, but very well written. I loved how this character was fleshed out, how the title made sense, the routine and even mundane aspects felt detailed enough, like they were meant to draw in the readers focus. It was a great read! I do think that Anne has a point. But flashbacks are tricky suckers, time-lapse in writing, especially multiple time-lapses within scenes can be tricky (I'm reading a book right now, where the author places multiple flashbacks, one on top of the other, all with a freaking thir...

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Kristin Neubauer
14:07 Jun 27, 2021

Thank you so much, K! I really appreciate you taking the time to offer such valuable feedback - and to read the other comments. What you and Anne and Julie and others have said really helps me know where to turn my attention in the dot-connecting. It helps a lot to hear that you feel the dots are there - that is confirmation that I needed to hear. This idea about exploring a character in a more serious, darker, in-depth way is becoming more interesting to me and definitely making me think about my storytelling in a different light. I st...

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Julie Ward
13:49 Jun 26, 2021

This is such a well-crafted story, Kristin!! I read it a little earlier this week and have been thinking about it ever since. It's dark, but there's so much light around the edges. General Burton is such a great character. I want to see how he interacts with people! His routine, the care he takes with everything, his love for Jake-(That dog is living high on the hog!!) all of those things tell me what is important to him. The isolated setting also speaks volumes. It's a quiet presence, the lake, the sunrise, but it's effective. The flash...

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Kristin Neubauer
13:58 Jun 27, 2021

Thank you so much, Julie! I really appreciate your insight, your questions and your suggestions. You know how I am working on the idea of character development, so the wonderings you have will help me flesh out the character, the history and the future of General Burton so much. Yes, that confusing knot of flashbacks (I love how you phrase that) even confuses me as i go back and read that, so that is definitely something to work on. And you're right, I will have to better explain the trigger to his suicide and his motivation for rehearsi...

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H L Mc Quaid
10:39 Jun 25, 2021

Hi Kristin, You paint a vivid scene of the General's life, and the small moments that constitute his day. I felt like I was in the kitchen with him. A few questions. When he puts the pistol against the dog's head, he must have leaned down (yes?), then he puts the muzzle in his own mouth...is he still leaning over the dog or? I didn't know what this referred to: "He hadn’t missed yet." And I don't think I ever found out (unless I'm missing something?) If he never pulled the trigger, I don't think that can count as 'not missing' a shot....

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Kristin Neubauer
13:45 Jun 27, 2021

Thank you so much for your thoughtful and careful editing as always, Heather.....are you an editor for your job too? If not, you should really consider it because you are excellent! You make some really important points in your comments .... I'm going to note them down and go through the story again, point by point, to fix them. I don't think I'll have time to do it before this gets approve, but General Burton is a story that I'd very much like to develop more, so your critique will definitely help me with the rewrite. I really appreciat...

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H L Mc Quaid
08:43 Jun 28, 2021

Glad it was useful. :) Not sure I'd characterise myself as an editor for my job (I run a small innovation studio), but I do a fair amount of writing and editing for work-based stuff (non-fiction) and I have a Masters in Professional Writing, which covered sentence structure, grammar, style, etc. One of the fun things that's come out of the relationships on Reedsy, is that I'm now editing (novels, etc.) for folks I've met here. Entirely unexpected, but maybe it will turn into a side-gig.

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Daniel R. Hayes
05:23 Jun 25, 2021

Hi Kristin!! This story was amazing. I really like the relationship General Burton has with his dog Jake. Like all of your stories, this one has your unique charm and voice allowing us to escape with you on voyage of awesomeness. I read in your author's note that this came from a novella from a while back... I didn't know you were holding out on us, release the vault... lol :) Honestly, this was fantastic. I truly mean that, the attention to detail, the flow, the character development showing his attachment to Jake and how he follows a...

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Kristin Neubauer
10:32 Jun 25, 2021

Thank you so much Daniel! But tell me, did you get confused trying to follow the flashback within a flashback? I’m playing around with other ways I can convey the flashback of the trigger for his first suicide attempt - the slip on the ice and hurting his hip - as well as the flashback of the trauma he experienced as a young soldier in WWII. That’s the part that feels clunky and unclear to me. If I can straighten out this bit, I will work on rewriting the rest of the novella. The rest is much much lighter.

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Daniel R. Hayes
15:05 Jun 25, 2021

Hi there, I don't think it was confusing at all. I went back and read the story again just to refresh my mind. You could separate it a little more, but I think you did a great job. I would love to read the whole story!! :)

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Kristin Neubauer
10:34 Jun 25, 2021

Thank you so much Daniel! But tell me, did you get confused trying to follow the flashback within a flashback? I’m playing around with other ways I can convey the flashback of the trigger for his first suicide attempt - the slip on the ice and hurting his hip - as well as the flashback of the trauma he experienced as a young soldier in WWII. That’s the part that feels clunky and unclear to me. If I can straighten out this bit, I will work on rewriting the rest of the novella. The rest is much much lighter.

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Yolanda Wu
03:32 Jun 25, 2021

This was such a heartbreaking story. I think you explored the heavy themes of suicide through a way that felt true to the character even though I only spent a few thousand words with him. He was a character that felt realistic, especially how you wrote the way he tried to stand up straight and find back the feeling he had in his soldier days, but then has to come to terms with how the time has passed. I love animals in stories, so I loved Jake; even when he was counting the seconds with the gun in his mouth, he was listening to Jake's snores...

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Kristin Neubauer
10:39 Jun 25, 2021

Thank you so much, Yolanda! I became attached to the character of General Burton in a way I haven’t with any others. If I can get this bit sorted, I will rewrite the rest of the novella - which is much lighter. But tell me - the same question I had for Daniel - did you get confused trying to follow the flashback within a flashback? I’m playing around with other ways I can convey the flashback of the trigger for his first suicide attempt - the slip on the ice and hurting his hip - as well as the flashback of the trauma he experienced as a ...

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Yolanda Wu
11:19 Jun 25, 2021

You're welcome, Kristin! I think we all have that one character that we grow especially attached to. I wasn't that confused with the flashback within the flashback, namely became I had skimmed the story (because I wanted to see what it was about), and then read about it in the comments, which made me go back into my closer read of it fully aware of that aspect, so I don't know if I'm the best person to give you an objective answer.

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Rayhan Hidayat
16:42 Jun 24, 2021

I was wondering why that dog got to eat so good, and then I knew. Kristin, this is heartbreaking, and the difficulties of being an aging war veteran are well conveyed. I’ll admit, I had to re-read some paragraphs to separate the past from present, but I do understand it now. I think part of the confusion stems from the fact that you have a memory within a memory: he goes into the snow in the past, which reminds him of the war days. But that’s just my two cents, you ought to wait for other comments before changing anything! I personally thi...

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Kristin Neubauer
17:17 Jun 24, 2021

Thank you so much! Yes, I will definitely have to go back one day and clean it up in a way that is clearer. I was trying to relate the flashback in a way that didn't simply retell the November story of his slip on the ice and anger at his elderly body ..... along with the old war trauma that was triggered in him due to the fall. That's why I came up with the kaleidoscope idea....but I may have just confused things further. I got quite attached to this character and the longer story I wrote. It's one that I hope to rewrite in a proper wa...

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A.Dot Ram
16:58 Jun 26, 2021

Very moving story. Yes, it's interesting what some space can do for perceiving your own work. You mentioned concern over how all of the flashbacks work. I'll tell you what I feel like I know after reading this chapter: General Burton is an aging Ww2 veteran routinely entertaining suicidal thoughts (#4 on the Monday list?). This began with a slip on the ice where he broke his hip, which made him feel old and triggered some wartime trauma. Time just collapsed for him at that point. His dog Jake talked him out of his first attempt. This time ...

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Kristin Neubauer
14:02 Jun 27, 2021

Thanks so much Anne! Hearing you explain how you understood it helped me a lot. You got pretty much what I was trying to convey. The idea of the German soldier was that General Burton had once witnessed a decisive and dignified suicide that made an impression on him - one that he wanted to emulate as opposed to the indecisiveness he experienced in his failed attempt. However, I may not need that. It seems to muddy things up, even when I go back to read it. I love how you called it impressionistic! I wonder if I can hold onto some deg...

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A.Dot Ram
14:31 Jun 27, 2021

I'm glad that helped!

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Kanika G
11:19 Jun 25, 2021

This was a tale of a man who's lived a full life in the final chapter of his life, trying to arrange for a peaceful end for himself and his faithful companion. The flashbacks worked to create a sense of a life well lived, things from the past that readers may not be familiar with but they obviously meant a lot to the protagonist. The flashbacks added depth to the story and character, so they worked well. I liked the detail with which you've described his every action until the point where we realize what the protagonist has been preparing fo...

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