The Untold Story of Charlie’s Bench

By: Ari Unger

View all Ari Unger's works

Charlie sat on the bench. It was a cold morning. Snowflakes swirled around him, and a breeze rustled the ice-coated branches. Charlie was the only one sitting in Central Park. No one wanted to be out in the cold while it was snowing, and yet for some reason he did. Maybe he just had the urge to sit outside in freezing weather, or maybe it was because Charlie wanted to feel something. He was numb all around. It had been like that since he had gotten back from war. He had been an innocent, young boy when he enlisted. Now he was a hardened man. A man who had seen horrors and known horrors. A man who saw things no one else should see.

Charlie got up from the bench, and walked aimlessly, his boots leaving tracks in the perfect snow. He could still feel the ghost of his right hand. The ghost of what was gone. But Charlie was lost, lost in his memories. Clear as day he could remember walking into that recruitment office. He was graduating high school and had no chance at college. There just wasn’t enough money. The army seemed like the only option. It seemed like the only way to do something good. And he did good. He fought for something he believed in. But all he could remember was what was lost. It wasn’t just his hand, but rather the light. The light that everything shined with. The whole world was dim and dark, and in that darkness lay memories. As Charlie walked, a flock of pigeons flew before him. They all blurred together, creating a shadow-like image. And in that shadow-like image was Charlie’s enemy: his past.

As Charlie walked home, he remembered the worst memory. The worst thing that ever happened to him, and no, it wasn’t losing his hand. It was when his friend had died for him. He could still remember it clearly now. How they were raiding that house. It was a simple job. It was supposed to be easy, and yet it wasn’t. Everything was going well, until that tiny rectangle-like thing had been thrown through the window. Until a grenade was ten feet in front of him. Frozen, Charlie stood. But his friend, Alicia, didn’t think. She ran past him, and jumped on the grenade. He could still remember how the grenade blew, and nearly tore her in half. How a round pool of glistening blood quickly spread from its source. He remembered how someone came up behind him, and knocked him out. All he could think of was his years of torture as a prisoner of war. A lost hand, and a lost life. Finally, he was rescued, but it was too late. Too late. He moved to New York City to remember Alicia. To remember her laugh, which could wake a dead man from his slumber. To remember her voice, which was soft and gentle, yet full of steel. To remember that feeling that he felt every time he looked at her. A feeling that took him away from the cold of war, and made him feel warm. This was where she grew up, and what she loved to talk about. She loved to describe the tall skyscrapers, and fancy restaurants. He thought that by moving here, he was in some way remembering her. But all he was doing was causing himself more pain. Charlie would see Alicia in everyone he saw. He would see a woman jogging in Central Park, and jump up, thinking that it was Alicia. But it wasn’t. It was just a random woman. Somehow, Charlie was at his front door already. He put his key in his lock, went into his apartment, and collapsed into a chair. It was an old recliner that he had bought with some of the money he made going on talk shows, talking about what happened to him. That was before he had realized how damaged he was, not physically, but psychologically.

His parents had been so happy and relieved when he came back. Now they called him nearly every day, just to make sure everything was okay. Everyone’s routine was going back to normal now. It had been nearly a year since he had come back, and all of his friends and his family who were thrilled to know a war hero, were forgetting about him. Even his parents were calling less and less, and so Charlie just sat there. Lost in his thoughts, and lost in his own head. He sat there staring at the blank wall in front of him, seeing it, and yet not truly seeing it.

A year passed by. A full year of Charlie doing the same thing every day. He would wake up, and make his bed so tightly that a dime would bounce on it. He would eat a bowl of cereal, and go to Central Park. He would sit on the same bench every day, and lose himself to his memories of war and imprisonment. He would sit there for hours, and stare at nothing. Then, he would walk home and sit in his recliner. Sometimes he remembered to eat, and sometimes he didn’t. By now all of Charlie’s bank accounts had nothing in them, so he relied on his sister, who had gotten a full academic scholarship to Wesleyan, and had then gone on to start her own company. What her company did, Charlie had no idea. By now, his family called him every day. They had finally noticed that something was wrong. Charlie, though, had learned not to pick up to their calls, and not to let them into his apartment. All he really needed was time to forget. At least that’s what he told himself. But one day everything changed. He met the person who changed his life, and he began to live again.

It had been a regular day. Charlie walked to his bench in the rain. The wind tossed and turned all around him. It seemed like at any moment it would pick up his frail, skinny self, and throw him away. The dark, cold, wintery weather seemed to fit Charlie’s mood, like a glove fits a hand. He had lost so much weight over the year, that he looked like a ghost of himself. People walked by all around him, even though it was raining and miserable outside. And then he saw someone he thought looked like Alicia, and just like the hundreds of times before he jumped up from his seat. This time was different though. Charlie, at that moment, broke. A delirious feeling filled him to his very core. Slowly, he walked up to the woman he thought was Alicia, and said,

“Alicia?” The woman looked at him, startled. He could feel her gaze on his right hand, and then on his hair. which he still kept in a military buzz cut. A look of comprehension began to dawn on her face.

“You’re that war hero, right? The one from the news?” Charlie looked at the woman, dumbfounded. To him, the interviews took place a lifetime ago.

“War hero?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah! Didn’t your friend, like, die for you? Wait, there’s a video of it on YouTube.” With a start the woman started typing on her phone. After a minute or two, she showed him what she found. It was a video of Charlie, talking about Alicia, and his time in captivity.

“Oh right! That’s what you said. She gave me “the present of life”. You know, that was really meaningful. It almost made me, like, cry,” she said. Suddenly her phone started ringing, and she started to walk away, waving goodbye. Charlie started to walk home then. He remembered that interview now, and every interview after that. He started to cry. He only stopped when he was at his home, in his recliner.

For hours Charlie thought. He remembered Alicia, and he remembered living. Actually living. He remembered that video that woman had shown him. Slowly he turned on his phone, and searched the web. Charlie ended up watching all the videos of his interviews. He even read the comments below. He remembered what he said. He even remembered the last present that Alicia gave him: “the present of life”. With a deep breath, Charlie got up and started to pace. With trembling fingers, he called his parents. All he said were seven words, but they were the most important words of his life.,“It’s Charlie. I’m ready to get help.” He hung up after that, and waited. Waited for what tomorrow would bring.

Two years later, Charlie stood in front of his bench. The bench that he used to come to every day, for a whole year. The bench where his life changed. He had put on weight, and looked healthy. The sun was shining above him, and birds called to each other all around him. With a smile he looked at his bench. The bench he dedicated to his struggles. The bench where his memories lay. On the bench was a little plaque with words on it that he now lived his life by. “The present of life. To Charlie, from Charlie.” With a smile on his face Charlie slowly walked away, no longer lost in memories, but rather in the world around him. In the sun shining and the birds calling. In the world that he had fought for, and in the world that his friend had died for.

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