This short story of mine originally appeared in Something’s Brewing, an anthology with the theme of coffee edited by A.J. Huffman and April Salzano. Kind of a Hurricane Press, 2014.
Private Harry Johnson waited in a long line of soldiers for coffee and a doughnut just made by the Salvation Army volunteers. The line snaked around bombed out buildings and under trees. Even though they were miles from the front, they still needed to keep under cover. Harry wiped the sweat from his neck, pushed the strap of his gas mask satchel into a new position, and breathed in the occasional whiff of coffee and fried dough. He had a doughnut three weeks back, and it was the best thing he’d tasted since coming to France four months ago. Worth the wait. Getting a smile from one of the doughnut gals wouldn’t hurt either.
Harry’s unit had just come off an eight-day stretch in the frontline trenches. He’d pulled guard duty, gone on night patrols into no man’s land, dug latrines, cleaned his rifle and gas mask, kicked and swatted at rats climbing over him while he slept, scrambled into dugouts when Jerry sent over an occasional whiz bang or shrapnel shell, and cleaned up the mess afterward, although it seemed like he spent most of his time thinking about his next meal of slumgullion and cold coffee carried by runners to the frontline, and daydreaming about his mother’s table filled with pies, sweet breads, and cookies. He always had a sweet tooth.
The coffee smell and freedom to stretch and stand up straight lifted Harry’s spirits. He’d been down ever since Lloyd, a soldier in his unit, was killed by a sniper three days ago. Lloyd had stood up on the fire step to take a peek into no man’s land one minute, and the next, he was lying on the duckboards, his nose gone, face bloody, and his watery blue eyes staring up at Harry. Lloyd had been a skinny, pimply-faced kid, not more than seventeen who never should have been allowed to join. “What kind of army would send a silly school boy like that into the fight?” Harry’s friend, John, had said after the burial unit took Lloyd away. And that stuck with Harry; it just didn’t make sense. At boot camp, Harry was excited about his big adventure. That’s what he called going to France to fight the Germans, but he wasn’t excited anymore.
Mouth watering from the good smells, Harry moved closer to the doughnut table. He wiped out the dust in his tin cup and tapped his fingers on it in rhythm to Hinky Dinky Parlez-Vous, making up a few verses in his head as he did. Nothing he’d repeat to his family, but something he’d share with his squad later.
A dozen men ahead, John waved his doughnut at Harry. Harry waved back, wishing he was up there with John. Just a few more men though. Harry readied his cup and watched the black liquid pour into a soldier’s cup a few places in front of him. Then the man’s shoulders slumped, and Harry overheard words that made his stomach tighten. The man walked off, head hung down. Harry moved up, cup in hand, hearing the same words repeated to the others but not believing.
“We’re all out of doughnuts,” the Salvation Army sister said again when it was Harry’s turn.
“Out of doughnuts!” Harry’s voice cracked as he spoke. “You don’t have just one more hiding back there? Back in the kitchen maybe? Just a broken piece? One little small bite?”
The girl smiled although her eyes had a sad look.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We ran out of flour. We even made the doughnuts smaller so they’d last longer. We’ll get a shipment of flour in another week.”
“A week?” Harry said which was echoed by the men behind him. Word about the missing doughnuts had filtered back.
“I still have plenty of coffee,” she said, lifting the big metal pot with two hands. “We just made another batch.”
“Well, that’s something, I guess.”
Harry put out his cup, and the young woman poured out the steamy brew. He moved off, kicked at a stone in his path, and breathed in the bitter aroma. Careful not to burn his lips on the metal rim, he took a tiny sip. It was strong and hot and warmed him inside. He felt a little better. He took another sip and glanced up.
John blocked his way, a smile on his homely face, and a chunk of doughnut in his outstretched hand.