I survived two tours in the Pacific, but I couldn’t survive the walk from the bus station. I stepped off the curb on Flatbush, heard the screech of brakes, and turned to see the front grille of a Packard six inches away. I didn’t even have time to scream before it hit me.
I ended up on the pavement. I tried to move, but I couldn’t. I could hardly breathe. A fat guy knelt down in front of me. He must have been the driver, because he said, “Oh shit, I’m sorry, buddy! I didn’t see you! Oh shit…”
Everything started to go dark. With every ounce of strength I had left, I whispered her name. “Emily.”
Then it all went dark.
Next thing I knew, I was in a white room. The wallpaper, carpet, and even the chairs were all white. The man on one of the chairs was decked out all in white too, right down to his beard. He nodded to me. “Hello, James. I’ve been expecting you.”
“This is Heaven?”
“It’s more like the waiting room. If you’ll just have a seat—”
“Hold on, pal, I can’t go to Purgatory or Heaven or none of that right now. I got a date.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.”
“Nothing you can do? But you’re St. Peter, right? You’re a big shot in the Bible.”
“Be that as it may—”
“Maybe you can take me to see the big man, then. Could he send me back?”
“I’m afraid that’s not allowed, Mr. Cabot.”
I wished I still had my rifle on me. “Listen, fella, I promised Emily I’d be there tonight. She’s been waiting for this over a year now, you dig?”
I didn’t have my rifle, but I did have my wallet in my pocket. I took out the picture of Emily I’d kept ever since I left for basic training. Behind it was the letter she sent me after I told her I was coming home. Her parents had booked the American Legion hall and invited all our friends and family for a big welcome home shindig.
Emily’s letter talked about how she was going to get a new dress made for the occasion. “I want something special for our first dance,” she wrote. We’d gotten married before my last deployment, but there hadn’t been time to do more than go to the justice of the peace before I had to ship out. This was supposed to be the first time we’d get to dance together as husband and wife.
I showed the picture and letter to St. Peter and explained it all to him. “You got to send me back. Just for tonight. I can’t let her down. Please.”
St. Peter thought about it. He looked at the picture again. Then he nodded. “I’ll make you a deal. I can give you time for one dance. Let’s say a half-hour. Got it?”
“I got it. Thanks, pal. I owe you.” I shook his hand to seal the deal.
The next thing I knew, I stood at the doors to the American Legion hall. I could hear the band inside going full tilt. I saw my uniform was all fixed up, not a trace of blood on it. I caught my reflection in the glass and saw there wasn’t a scratch on me. “Thanks, Pete.”
I couldn’t see her at first. I had to fight my way through a sea of family and friends slapping me on the back and shaking my hand. I mumbled my thanks to them while I looked around for Emily. Finally I asked my dad, who pointed to the corner. “She hasn’t moved all night.”
She wore a powder blue dress that matched her eyes. Her red hair seemed to glow in the light. This might not be Heaven but she looked like an angel.
“What’s a pretty lady like you doing in the corner?” I asked.
“James! You made it!” She leaped into my arms and kissed me again and again on the cheeks. Then she finally pressed her lips to mine, something I’d looked forward to a lot of sweaty, lonely nights in the Pacific.
The band started into, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” I’d heard that song a lot overseas and it always made me think of Emily. Maybe Pete had put in a request for it.
“May I have this dance?”
She gave me that shy smile of hers, the one I’d fallen in love with. “All right.” Everyone backed away from the dance floor as we eased our way onto it. Emily clung to me, her fingers digging into my back. “I’m so glad you’re finally home.”
“Emily, I can’t stay.”
“But the war’s over.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“In a few hours, the police will come to the house. They’ll tell you I got hit by a car, that I’m dead.”
“Dead? But you’re right here.” Tears came to her eyes. “I don’t understand.”
“After this song is over, I have to go.” I ran a hand through her hair. “You’ll be an old lady before I see you again.”
“James, no. Please don’t go.”
“I’m sorry, honey. I don’t have a choice.” From the song, I knew I had only a minute left. “Let’s enjoy what time we have left, all right?”
“All right.” She clung to me even tighter and put her head on my shoulder. We glided around the dance floor, but I didn’t see anyone else, only Emily. As the music faded, we ended up in the center of the dance floor, kissing for all it was worth.
I felt my body start to tingle. I didn’t have much time left. “I’m sorry, honey,” I whispered. “I got to go.”
“I wish I could stay, kid, but I can’t.” I tilted her chin up to look her in the eye. “I’ll keep my dance card open for you.”
And then I was gone.