Casualties of War

by Lady Stetson

Tony, Gen | Rated PG | 2002 | 4,400 words

 

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"It's not fair. It's not God Damned FAIR!" The sound of his own voice brought Tony to a sudden halt, and he scanned the empty stadium warily. Breaking in here had been easy, even in his half inebriated state, but he wasn't supposed to be here. He didn't belong here. He didn't belong.

He continued across the outfield stealthily, staying as aware of his surroundings as his alcohol-impaired senses would allow. He hated the dark. Not that this suburb of Cleveland ever got completely dark, nowhere near as dark as… A shiver ran down his spine. His head jerked around as he imagined a shadow sneaking up from his left and he lost his balance, stumbling a little and swearing softly before he regained his footing.

Tony still didn't believe that he'd been cut from the team. He knew he hadn't been playing at the top of his game since he'd been home; he just couldn't seem to concentrate enough to keep his focus. But he'd been playing better lately. Just the other day he'd played his first complete game since before he joined the Army. Granted he'd lost, but he'd kept the team in the game until the very end.

Tony knew that he'd been in trouble even before he'd been called in to the managers' office, but he never thought that they'd cut him for fighting. It hadn't even really been a fight; he'd just gotten so sick of that smug rookie twitting him about having lost his stuff and he decided to give the kid an up close look at his fastball. Thank God the throw had gone wild, sailing well clear of its intended target of the other man's head, or he might be facing murder charges right now. Tony almost couldn't make himself care. He'd screwed up so badly already that he didn't see how going to prison could make it that much worse; and it wasn't like he'd never killed anyone before.

He clamped down hard on that line of thought. Thinking about some of the stuff he'd done during the war made him feel sick. He wasn't like that, he'd done what he had to do but that still didn't make him a killer. Not trusting his coordination, Tony stopped before raising the bottle in his hand to his mouth. He might not have any idea what he was going to do with the rest of his life, but for tonight his plan was just to get rip snorting drunk. He started walking again, heading for the relative safety of the dugout.

The rest of his life. The phrase echoed, rattling around inside Tony's head like a taunt. He wondered if it wouldn't have been better if he'd never made it home. He wasn't even twenty-one yet, but Tony couldn't think of a single thing that made his life worth living. Before the war he thought he'd had it all figured out. He remembered the day the pro scout had come to talk to him after the game and told him that the Indians were interested in taking a look at him. The words had almost stuck in his throat when he'd had to tell the man that sorry, but Uncle Sam got him first. He and Mack Douglas had gone down to the recruiting office two days after they graduated high school and enlisted together.

Together, just the way they'd always done everything.

Tony sat down on the quiet bench and absently ran his hand over his face. He stared down in some confusion at the moisture that he'd wiped off his cheeks. When the hell had he started crying? He could barely remember the last time he'd cried; he thought he might have been about nine or ten. He hadn't even cried when Mack was killed.

Going to see Mr. And Mrs. Douglas after he got home was one of the hardest things he'd ever done. Sarah Douglas had practically taken him in after his mother died, he'd all but grown up in their house, but he'd felt so out of place sitting at the familiar kitchen table while Mack's parents had fussed over him and his little sister had sniffled quietly to herself.

He'd lied to them, of course. He told them that it had been quick, that Mack had never known what hit him. They didn't want to know the truth; the way shrapnel through the lungs and stomach made a man suffer before it killed him. It had been the truth when he'd told them that Mack had saved his life. What he hadn't told them was that by all rights it should have been him who died, not Mack.

Tony raised his half-empty bottle to the hushed diamond in a silent toast and tried to drain the rest of the Scotch in one go, almost choking at the attempt.

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Anna's hand paused on the door handle, listening for sounds from within the bedroom. She cautiously pushed open the door.

"Tony? Come on, little brother," she urged, "time to wake up." He mumbled something and kicked at his blankets, revealing that he was fully dressed apart from his shoes. She raised her voice slightly, "Tony."

"Wha'...?" Tony sat up, startled, looking around wildly.

"It's okay, Tony. You're home."

Slowly, at the sound of her voice, recognition dawned in Tony's eyes. "I'm sorry." His voice trembled slightly. He took a deep breath and winced. Swallowing hard, Tony put a hand on either side of his head with a groan as the edge of the mattress dipped under his sister's slight weight.

She tilted her head to look into his face. "Are you okay?"

"I, uh, I think I might be hung over," he admitted sheepishly.

Anna wrinkled her nose. "You reek of alcohol," she accused. "What were you out doing last night?"

"I really don't remember." The confession emerged almost against his will.

Anna shook her head disapprovingly. "Tony..." she began, then sighed heavily. "You'd better get up, or you'll be late for practice."

Suddenly, the events that led up to his drinking binge came back to him, hitting him like a physical blow. "I got...they cut me," he whispered, the words hurting to say.

"Oh, Tony." The sympathy in her voice was unbearable; he shrugged off the gentle hand on his arm. "What happened?"

"I don't... Nothing," he said petulantly. "Just forget it."

Anna stood, "I'm going to go and make breakfast," she told him. "When will you be down?"

Tony shrugged, pulling away from her as she ruffled his hair and attempted to kiss him on the top of the head. He scowled at her from the corner of his eye. Tony had the feeling that to his big sister he would always be twelve years old; he found it highly irritating.

When Tony finally made it to the kitchen, his dark hair still wet from his bath, his nephew and nieces were already more than halfway through their breakfast. He stopped by the stove and poured himself a cup of black coffee, waving off Anna's offer of food. The large black dog under the table touched his leg with her nose as he sat down. Tony's hand dropped automatically to scratch behind her floppy ears.

"Uncle Tony," seven-year-old Tommy addressed him through a mouthful of oatmeal, "what does hung over mean?"

"Don't talk with your mouth full," Tony snapped in reply, sending his sister an accusing look.

Anna shook her head, a silent apology. "Frank asked why you weren't down for breakfast," she explained, referring to her husband who had already left for work. She then turned on her eldest child. "Thomas, you know better than to eavesdrop on conversations that don't concern you," she scolded. "If you've eaten breakfast you may go and finish getting ready for school." The two older children both left the table.

"I go school," Anna's youngest daughter informed them from her high chair with the seriousness that only a small child can muster.

"Nah, Sissy," Tony smiled at the two-year-old, "you stay home with us, play hooky."

Anna smiled wistfully at his teasing tone. Occasionally she could see a glimpse of the charming, lively boy her younger brother had been before the war; it was strange, she thought to herself, the way you could miss a person who was in the same room as you.

Just then an ear-piercing shriek sounded from above their heads, followed by the sound of two pairs of feet pounding towards the stairs and Tommy's cries of "I didn't do it!" Tony yelped and leaped to his feet, as his coffee cup seemed to jump out of his hand spraying him with hot liquid on its way to the ground. He fought briefly with his chair, which for a moment was in his way at every turn, before he threw it away from himself and halfway across the room.

"What the hell does a person have to do to get some peace and quiet around here?" he demanded as six-year-old Dottie burst on to the scene accusing her brother of some heinous act, followed closely by the wildly protesting accused. Squelching the stab of guilt he felt when he saw the wide eyes and trembling lip his outburst produced in his baby niece, Tony stalked from the room.

Later that morning, after the older children had left for school, Tony dozed on the couch trying to shake his headache. A small hand, placed gingerly on his knee, woke him and he opened his eyes to look down at the tiny dark-haired girl looking up at him expectantly.

"Uncle Tony grumpy?" she asked cautiously. Tony made his hands into the shape of monster claws and playfully growled at her before bending down and scooping her up, making the little girl giggle in delight as he settled her on his lap.

"What are you doing, Sissy?"

"Baby not take nap," she declared firmly.

"Are you hiding from your mom?"

"Not tell?" Sissy pleaded.

"Your secret's safe with me, kid."

Giving a decisive nod, Sissy nestled deeper onto his lap, leaning comfortably against her uncle. "Uncle Tony tell Baby story," she commanded.

"A story? What kind of a story?" Tony didn't know many fairy tales, and hoped he could talk his way out of telling one.

"Free bears."

Tony grinned in spite of himself. "How many bears?"

"Free." Sissy held up her chubby hand with three fingers outspread, and beamed up at him.

Looking down at the face that reflected what was to Tony almost incomprehensible innocence, he didn't think that he could deny her anything, including a story.

"Once upon a time," he checked with her to make sure that was right, then continued, "there were three bears, Larry, Moe, and Curly..."

"No!" Sissy laughed, and Tony acted surprised.

"No?"

"Mama bear, Papa bear, an' a baby."

"A baby bear? Nah." Tony sounded doubtful. "Really?" Sissy nodded emphatically.

"Tell," she prodded impatiently.

So Tony started telling the story of the three little bears, making things up and adding his own details when he couldn't remember how the story was supposed to go.

About halfway through the tale, Anna came in and interrupted him. "Let me take her to bed, Tony," she said quietly.

Tony looked down and realized that the child had fallen asleep at some point. "Can you leave her?" he asked, then explained with an abbreviated shrug, "I kind of like holding her."

Anna studied Tony briefly, her lips pursed thoughtfully, and then seemed to reach a conclusion; although what it was, she didn't share. She reached over and smoothed her hand over her brother's hair. Unlike that morning, this time Tony allowed it. She smiled at him and left them alone.

Tony watched the tiny creature asleep in his arms, momentarily overwhelmed by the amount of trust she put in him. "And they lived happily ever after," he whispered. Sissy's eyelashes fluttered against her cheeks and her cupid's-bow mouth curved into a brief smile, then she sighed contentedly.

Tony felt an all too rare moment of peace. This child trusted him. She loved him. Unconditionally. She didn't care about what he might have done, what he might do, or who he had been in a former life. He was her Uncle Tony and that was enough. Being around her made Tony feel normal, a feeling that was in short supply for him these days. Happily ever after might not exist in Tony's world, but it did in Sissy's and she allowed him an occasional remembered glimpse of what that world looked like.

Shifting slightly to make himself more comfortable, Tony leaned his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes. Before long, he too had drifted to sleep.

Tony peered through the forest at his objective. The goal was to get from the stone wall that currently sheltered him, seventy-five yards across an open meadow, to the tiny house, without springing any nonessential holes. Practiced eyes sought out all the potential hiding-places for enemy snipers; he wondered if any of them would get to the cottage in one piece.

"Okay," the order came in a hoarse whisper, "Thompson, Edwards, it's your game." Tony didn't even stop to wonder when the expected sergeant had been replaced by his high-school pitching coach. His muscles tensed as he prepared for the sprint ahead of him. A hard nudge from an elbow attracted his attention.

"See you on the other side, buddy." Thompson grinned at him maniacally.

Tony nodded, "You bet." He took a deep breath, feeling the adrenalin race through him. "Let's go."

The two of them started running, quickly breaking cover. Halfway across the field Tony saw Thompson, a few feet ahead of him, crumple to the ground.

"Tommy, no!" He slid to a halt over the fallen man. Even before he stopped he knew that his friend was dead. Sightless eyes stared at him, then slowly moved to look at the small house.

"Tony," the corpse spoke urgently, looking back at him, "you have to get Goldilocks out before the three bears get home."

He knew that Thompson was right; now that he was closer he could hear the terrified wails of the child coming from the cottage.

"I'll get her," he promised, moving towards the structure once more.

Suddenly he found himself inside the building. He saw that the table had been set for breakfast, two of the bowls full and the other one empty. The chair in front of the empty bowl was broken, another sure sign that the kid was here somewhere. Tony tensed as he heard a frighteningly familiar sound somewhere over his head.

"INCOMING!" he screamed, throwing himself to the ground and covering his head as the ceiling fell down around him.

As the dust slowly settled, Tony cautiously raised his head to look at the destruction that had once been a cozy cottage. That's when he realized that he could still hear the little girl he was looking for, although her cries sounded further away now.

It wasn't until he tried to stand up that Tony noticed that part of the ceiling had fallen across his legs, pinning him down. Struggling to get himself free, Tony almost missed the fact that the cries had started to fade away. When he became aware of the fact, his struggles intensified but to no avail.

"Hold on," he called out. "Don't go." Despite his entreaties, the voice continued to fade. "No, God...no, please." Abruptly, the crying ceased completely. "Nononono! NO!" Just as he reached the edge of panic, Tony heard someone calling him. Trying to call back, Tony found that he was suddenly unable to use his voice.

Forced into silence and unable to call for help, Tony struggled harder to free himself. Finally, with a violent jerk, Tony was free of his constraints...

He sat up, gasping for breath and totally disoriented. Slowly the adrenalin subsided and his heart rate returned to normal.

"Tony!" The voice from his dream continued to call him. Tony identified it as Anna. "Anthony." She didn't sound happy. He looked over at her; she held Sissy, who clung to her mother tightly, eyes still full of tears.

Tony remembered falling asleep with Sissy on his lap, he remembered hearing a child wailing in his dream. He jumped up.

"Is she okay?" To Tony's horror, his sister flinched away from him. He started moving backwards away from her so fast that he almost tripped over his own feet. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. Tell me she's not hurt."

"She's just scared, Tony." Anna's instinct to protect her daughter was tempered by the desire to reassure the younger brother she had virtually raised. But her words held no comfort.

"I'm sorry," Tony repeated. He raised a hand to stroke Sissy's hair, but lost his nerve at the last second and his hand hovered a few inches from the back of her head. "I'd never want to hurt you, Sissy," he whispered.

He turned abruptly. "What the hell is wrong with me?" he asked rhetorically. "Sis, I'm going out."

"Out?" Anna was surprised. "Where are you going?"

"Just...I can't... Out."

"Out," Anna repeated, bewildered. "When will you be home?"

Her only answer was the sound of the door slamming behind Tony.

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Trying to ignore the aftereffects of his fourth hangover in a week, Tony haphazardly stuffed his clothes in to a duffel bag, every move watched carefully by the lab-mix that lay across his pillow. The dog looked up expectantly, alerting Tony to the presence of someone behind him.

"Anthony Patrick Edwards," even with the warning, Anna's voice from the open doorway made Tony jump, "get that dog off your bed."

Tony sighed, "You heard her, Sal." The dog's response was to thump her tail twice and stretch out further. "Sally," Tony reprimanded, "you're making me look bad. Off the bed." With an exaggerated groan, Sally climbed down onto the floor and pushed her nose against Tony's hand. "Yeah," he affectionately scratched behind one ear, "you're my gal."

That's when Anna noticed the pile of clothing on the bed. "Tony, what are you doing?"

"I..um..." He rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably. Tony knew that there was no way to avoid telling Anna the truth, and he didn't really want to, he just wasn't sure how to say it. "I wasn't going to sneak out. I planned to tell you."

"You're leaving?" she asked in wide-eyed shock. "Why? Where?"

"I'm not sure," he admitted. "West, I guess. I talked to someone yesterday who'd just come from Nebraska, he said that they're hiring people out that way to build dams and things."

"Tony, if this is about finding a job..."

"It's not."

She continued as if she hadn't heard the interruption, "you can find work in Cleveland, I'm sure you can."

"Anna," he turned her towards him and bent down slightly until he was looking her in the eye, "that's not it. Yeah I can find work. I could go down to the waterfront tomorrow and get a job; in ten years, I could be Dad."

"You're already getting a head start turning into him." It was a blatant comment on Tony's newly acquired habit of going out at night and drinking himself into a stupor and they both knew it.

Tony turned away from his sister, retreating to the other side of the room. "That hurt."

"It..it was supposed to, Tony." Anna sighed, and said more gently, "I'm trying to keep my baby brother, I don't have time to fight fair."

"See, that's just..." Tony almost laughed. "That's the thing. I'm not your baby brother. I'm not a baby anything." Anna tried to interrupt, but Tony wouldn't let her. "The places I've seen, things I did, you can't..." He shuddered slightly, shaking off unpleasant memories. "I don't even want you to imagine, and it made me... I don't belong here anymore."

"You'll always belong here Tony," she reminded him quietly, "this is your home."

He smiled at her briefly. "I know you mean that, Sis. But see, the thing...the problem is, I don't think I believe it."

Anna sat on the edge of the bed and put her head in her hands. "Did I... Has anyone done anything to make you feel unwelcome, Tony?"

"No." He sat next to her. "No, just me. I guess I feel like I'm trying to be someone, something I'm not."

"I don't understand."

"Yeah," Tony leaned slightly, filling the short distance between them and bumping her with his shoulder, "I don't either."

"You just have to go." Her voice was subdued. Tony nodded. "Just promise me you'll come back."

"Scout's honor." Tony drew a hasty X across the left side of his chest with his fingers.

Anna smiled. "And I don't care how big, or how old, you get," she returned the gesture of bumping against him, "you'll always be my baby brother."

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Tony opened the door of the car that had just stopped for him and tossed his bag into the back seat.

"Where you headed?" the driver asked him as he sat down in the front seat and closed the door.

"How far you going?" Tony asked by way of an answer.

"Cleveland, Ohio."

"Home," the word slipped out of Tony's mouth before he even knew he was thinking it.

"You're from Cleveland?"

"Used to be," Tony told him.

"Where?" the stranger smiled at him. "If you don't mind my asking." Tony told him the neighborhood where he'd grown up. "I'm from River Run," the man told him, naming a small town just outside Cleveland. He held out his hand to shake, "Hank Metcalf."

"Tony Edwards."

"Tony Edwards," Hank repeated as he started driving again, "sounds familiar." Recognition dawned on his face. "My brother's Jeff Metcalf. Are you the same Tony Edwards who pitched against his team in the '43 City League Championships?"

"That's me," Tony admitted. "Jeff was good. If I remember, he broke up the no-hitter I had going. He was with the Indians for a while, wasn't he?"

"Yeah, for a couple of seasons," Hank confirmed. Tony felt a twinge of jealousy, remembering how close he came to playing for the Indians himself. Hank continued, "What about you, Tony?"

"I've mostly been in North Dakota for the last few years," Tony told him guardedly. He didn't want Hank knowing, or even suspecting, that he'd been in jail.

"Been playing any?"

"Not much," Tony answered with a dismissive shake of his head.

"That's a damn shame," Hank told him. "Jeff said you were one of the best pitchers he ever faced." Tony couldn't help grinning at that praise. "What happened?"

Tony's grin disappeared. "I joined the Army," his tone left no doubt that this was a subject not open for conversation, "after high school. After... when I got home it - baseball - just didn't seem important."

Hank nodded his understanding, then very deliberately changed the subject. "So, how long since you've seen home?"

"About eight years."

"That's a long time. I'll tell you what, why don't you come back with me? I'm sure your folks would be glad to see you," he grinned, "I know how moms are."

"Um," there was a second or two of uncomfortable silence, "both my parents are dead."

"Oh. I... I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."

"No," Tony interrupted the hasty apology. "No, it's okay. My Mom... I was real little. I don't even think I was five."

"What about your Dad?"

Tony's expression hardened. "Don't miss him much."

Hank gave a short, ironic laugh, "I seem to be sticking my foot in my mouth every time I open it here." Then he added, "Not that I shouldn't be used to that."

"Anna, my sister, would be thrilled. She's been trying to get me to come home since I got..." he stopped abruptly, suddenly aware that he'd been about to admit that he'd been in jail, "since I left."

"See," Hank smiled, "there you go. Go and visit your sister. And, I'd really appreciate the company. It's a long, boring drive by yourself."

"Yeah," Tony smiled back, "okay."

After that, the two men fell to talking about places and people that they were both familiar with and the miles flew by. Miles turned to hours, and before Tony expected it they started to pass landmarks that were familiar, and things that he knew he'd never seen before, as they reached the outskirts of the city.

Hank noticed that Tony's comments were becoming shorter and he was spending more time staring out the window.

"Nervous?"

"Yeah, I guess. A little."

"It's changed since you were here, huh?"

"Yeah," Tony agreed. "So have I."

"Don't worry, I think there's a rule that says family has to be happy to see you.

Tony laughed at that, and then began giving Hank directions to the house he had grown up in and now belonged to his sister's family. As the car pulled up to the curb in front of the house, Tony took a deep breath.

"Thanks for the ride, Hank." He retrieved his bag and coat from the back seat. "Tell your brother 'Hi' for me."

"I will. And if you're ever in River Run, look me up." The two men shook hands as Tony got out of the car. "Nice meeting you."

Tony stopped in his path to the house when he saw the dog lying next to the porch; he squatted down and held his hand out towards her.

"Sally?" The dog's tail began to thump against the ground. "Come here, Sally." She heaved herself to her feet, and came over to Tony, pushing her nose into his hand. "You still my gal?" he asked, ruffling the hair behind both her ears. Then, standing up, he continued onto the porch and to the front door.

It felt strange to Tony, knocking on the front door of the house that had been his home for most of his life, but he didn't feel comfortable with just walking in unannounced. He shifted from one foot to the other as he waited, nervous. He actually jumped slightly when the door opened. Then he smiled.

"Hey, Sis."

"Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday's success or put its failures behind and start over again. That's the way life is, with a new game every day, and that's the way baseball is." ~Bob Feller

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