He held the pen in his hand and the paper in his lap, but couldn't force his hand to move. There were no words good enough, no way he could explain the situation well enough. Part of him just wanted to sit there for eternity, staring at the empty paper lying before him.
A bought of coughing rang out through the hospital ward.
Right. Clair didn't have eternity to wait.
Fingers shaking, Clair brought the pen to the scrap of paper.
September 10, 1918
Camp Devens, Massachusetts
Dear Mother, Father, Mollie, and Delores,
Clair stopped. He couldn't do it. He couldn't tell them. He didn't know how. A wave of nausea hit and he laid down on his hospital bed. The sheets were hot, rough, and uncomfortable, but he knew the moment he unwrapped himself from them he'd be stricken with sudden shivers. Clair breathed as deeply as he could, trying to ease his stomach, but the overwhelming stench of sweat and despair only seemed to make it worse. Once the nausea seemed bearable again, Clair gathered his courage and picked up the pen. Tears threatening, he continued to write.
I'm afraid I don't bring good news. Just a few days ago, a disease broke out. They are calling it the Spanish Flu. It's like the flu in many ways, but worse. So much worse. Already, several have died.
Many of those had been men Clair knew. Tears threatened again as their faces flashed through his mind, and this time, a few tears escaped and slid down his feverish cheeks. Chills spread throughout his entire body. Clair suddenly realized the chills were not from the grieving, but, in fact, his illness. Remembering the pressing matter at hand, he returned to his letter.
This morning I was admitted into the hospital as well.
Everything felt disconnected. Could it really be true that he was so sick? Clair stared at the white walls on the other side of the room for a moment, wondering if this whole thing was just a dream.
All day I've been treated by several doctors, but I only seem to be getting worse. I think some of the doctors suspect I'm 16 rather than 18, but they, like the other recruits, were kind enough to not bring it up.
Clair could remember the eagerness he'd felt to train as a soldier and fight in the Great War. So eager, in fact, that he'd lied to get recruited earlier than usual. He hadn't been the only one, either. Dorsey, another boy at Camp Devens, looked to be as young as 14. But now, none of that eagerness remained. Now, all Clair wanted was to be home with his parents and two sisters.
The doctors say I could have days left, or hours.
A man beside Clair suddenly broke into great, hacking coughs. A few nurses rushed over, doing their best to ease his suffering. Clair closed his eyes, wishing he could make the horrible sounds surrounding him disappear. His cheeks felt hot. They burned, actually. Could there be red dots forming? He'd seen that, those dark maroon dots appearing all over the cheekbones, on several of the other men. He almost asked one of the nurses if the dots were there, but decided he actually didn't want to know. He was too afraid of what happened next, where the entire face turned a shade of deep blue. And after that, death.
I know this is probably as hard for you to read as it is for me to write. I'm sorry I left home. I'm sorry I'm not coming back.
Not coming back... The words were torture to write. The distant feelings faded as reality crashed into him, washing over him like a wave. He wasn't going home again. He wasn't going to play baseball with his friends again. He wouldn't spend nights huddled around the radio, his family at his side, ever again. He wouldn't hear the lilting sound of his mother's voice as she sang while she cooked, or the booming laugh of his father, who was always cheerful despite being stuck in a wheelchair, or see his darling little sisters fight over their Raggedy Ann doll again. He wasn't going home. The grief struck him suddenly, making the pain in his chest grow even worse. Tears flowed down his cheeks freely now. If only he hadn't left, then things would be all right. But he had made his decision, and Clair knew he had to accept it.
I wish things hadn't turned out like this. I had such big dreams for the future... but I guess God has other plans. I'll miss you all. I'll miss Mother's cooking and her songs, Father's stories and his smile, and Mollie and Delores, I'll very much miss having two beautiful loving younger sisters. I love you all and will be thinking of you until my last breath. I'm sorry it had to end this way.
As terrified as he'd been to write the letter, it now broke Clair's heart to stop. There was so much more he wanted to tell his family... but the space on the paper was limited. Clair wearily folded up the note and placed it in an envelope, sealing it and writing the address of his family's home on it. He placed it by his bed, near an empty food tray, where the nurses would be sure to see it and mail it home.
Once it was done, he slumped into his bed, energy gone. He was getting worse, that was certain, but a huge weight had lifted off of him. His family would get to hear from him one more time. The intense emotions he'd been experiencing all morning drained out of him, replaced by a comforting sense of peace. A faint smile on his lips, Clair fell into a light doze, probably the last true rest he'd ever experience, and dreamed of the warm embrace of home.