Benjamin Williams always hated being alone on Christmas Eve.
He’d kept busy all day, delivering presents to his nearby friends, though with the snowstorm coming, he’d made sure to be home early. The bumpers on their Packard had long since been sacrificed to the scrap metal drive; the tires were worn nearly bald and they wouldn’t be getting new ones—not when “Our Boys Over There” needed every shred of rubber for the war effort.
Ben always capitalized Our Boys Over There in his head whenever he said it, whenever he heard it. It really translated to “Peter.” Everything he did, every drive he participated in, every War Bond he bought, every vegetable he planted, every hour of every extra shift he picked up at the factory, every extra thing he could do despite the trick knee that barred him from enlisting, was for Pete. To help Pete. To help Pete so much that the Air Forces wouldn’t need him anymore and would send him home. To help the war effort so greatly that it’d be over tomorrow and Pete would be here, safe in his arms, the next time Ben woke up.
He woke from dreams sobbing into the night, reaching out for Pete. Dreams in which Pete arrived unannounced on their doorstep, dreams of meeting his train at the station and running through the mist to meet him, dreams of being surprised by Pete casually swinging around the corner of the house at one of their friends’ backyard parties.
He stepped into their kitchen—so efficient, so modern—and opened a fresh jar of strawberry preserves, made from the patch he’d carefully tended in the victory garden that had been their backyard. Pete had always hated to mow, anyway, so Ben hadn’t hesitated to plow up the lawn to plant vegetables, potatoes, carrots, beans—anything to augment his own pantry, so he could donate more to the war effort. The small patch of strawberries hiding in the corner had thrived; Pete would often slip out on summer mornings, barefoot into the dew, to pick a handful of strawberries to share with Ben over breakfast. And he’d left the rosebushes that had been planted by the previous owners. They tangled over and through the fence in the defiant, determined way that roses have, managing to survive, even thrive, once their roots have taken hold, no matter what happens to them.
Ben spread strawberry preserves on toasted bread, grabbed two cookies he’d saved from the batches he’d made for his family back home—using up his entire month’s sugar ration—a cup of Earl Grey tea, no lemon, and walked back to the living room. He glanced around the room. Two leather club chairs faced each other, snug near the lit stone fireplace. The staircase banister was twined with dark green garland. A Christmas tree, brightly colored glass balls gleaming, sat in the small bay window. A large radio in a wood case stood in the corner, the tubes warming already. He set his plate and cup with its saucer on the spindly table next to it. The table next to Pete’s chair was decidedly more stable, more solid—Pete had a habit of knocking things over during exciting moments in radio programs.
The decorations this year were less exuberant than in years past. Just the tree, with its glass balls, a few of Ben’s mother’s porcelain angels on the mantel, nestled in evergreen garland and some candles, still waiting to be lit. Ben had started a fire in the fireplace. It was now a lovely little fire, popping and crackling. A sprig of mistletoe was hung cheekily from the reading lamp—it had always made Pete smile.
Ben added another log to the fire, shivering slightly as he looked out the window at the snow still falling. He plumped the pillows in his chair. He’d left Pete’s pillows crushed just the way he’d left them. When Pete came home, he could sit in his chair and wouldn’t have to fuss at all.
He turned the dial to find the special Christmas Eve program broadcast from locations all around the world so Our Boys Over There could hear sounds from home, and so their families—praying, hoping, wishing and patiently and steadfastly waiting for them—could hear their soldier’s voices.
He listened to a big band broadcasting from what could only be New York City; a short comedy skit Ben thought must be from Hollywood; a tiny band broadcasting from somewhere secret—from the accent of the singer, he guessed Scotland; another comedy sketch by soldiers somewhere in the Pacific; and then a scratchy reading of a poem from “somewhere in Europe.”
After a short pause, the announcer spoke: “And now, coming to you from a secret location, pre-recorded earlier today, in cooperation with the Armed Forces Radio Network, we are proud to present one of our brave young men, United States Army Air Forces Captain Peter Montgomery, performing a special song from all our troops here to all of you folks back home.”
Ben gasped and rushed to the radio to turn up the volume. He closed his eyes and pictured Pete standing in front of the microphone in his freshly pressed uniform—khaki, the color of his eyes when he laughed—standing surefooted and strong. Crowds never made Pete nervous; singing for millions of people over the radio wouldn’t be a problem for him. When they’d sung duets during Ben’s shows at the Black Cat supper club, Pete was always so smooth and sure, never a tremor or nerves. And now, Ben could just picture him: Pete’s eyes would be closed; he’d have a slight smile; his hands would be either gently folded behind his back or holding the microphone stand.
The honey sound of Pete’s voice singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”—a voice Ben hadn’t heard in so long—poured from the radio, simple and unaccompanied. He sank to his knees in front of the set and turned the volume even louder. He reached out with one finger to caress the wood, stained golden-red because Pete swore it was the same color as Ben’s hair in the summer. The set reverberated under his fingers. Ben put his entire hand on the set, feeling the vibrations of Pete’s voice through the wood in almost the same way as he’d felt Pete’s voice through his chest when Pete would sing him to sleep, Pete’s naked chest under Ben’s palm, their legs tangled and bodies satiated.
Ben didn’t feel the tears streaming down his face and ignored the pain in his knee as he knelt there—he only felt Pete. Pete’s happiness and joy in the world, Pete’s kindness and generosity, Pete’s caring and love—Ben was enveloped in thoughts of Pete. For this short song, a song of longing and dreams of home, which he knew Pete had picked just for them, he and Pete were together, just as they’d be together again, someday soon.
After the song ended, Ben heard Pete whisper, “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas,” Ben whispered back. “Be safe, darling. Come home soon.”
—from Right Here Waiting by K.E. Belledonne