"There's a little boy," said the old soldier, "whose skin is blue."
"That so?" I asked as I swiped my credit card at the gas pump.
The old soldier nodded and tipped back the milk crate he was sitting on. His face was like an old sponge, pocked and cratered, but somehow soft. His white hair stuck out from underneath the sides of his faded World War II pilot's cap. He reached around and scratched the old dog curled up behind him.
"But he wasn't pure blue," he said. "Just kind of blue."
"I see," I said as I chose the lowest grade of gasoline. It was a rental car.
"Yessir," nodded the old soldier. "Doctor said it had somethin' ta do with his heart. Born with somethin' funny about his heart that didn't pump as much ox-e-gen through his body as you 'n me use so he had a blue color to his skin like he was always suffocatin'."
"Really?" I asked as I opened the latch to the gas tank. An icy wind was blowing, numbing my hands as I fumbled to get the cap off.
"Cept, he never felt like he was missin' nothin', since he'd always been that way. Doctor said it was amazin' how the body can adapt."
"Guess that's true," I said. I began pumping the gas.
"Was a time I didn't care one way or the other about that sorta thing," said the old soldier and scratched his unshaven cheek. "I'm not from around here, see," he said.
"I guessed that," I told him. We were in Germany. He sounded like he was from Kentucky. I knew that because I'm from Ohio.
"I was supposed to be in on that bombing of Dresden," said the old soldier. "But I got shot down 'afore I ever got there."
"Probably for the best," I suggested. "I heard it wasn't pretty."
"Nossir, heard the same thing myself," agreed the old soldier. "Anyways, I was shot down over them mountains you see there."
I looked in the direction he was pointing. A rim of jagged peaks capped in snow stretched across the horizon. "Doesn't look friendly," I said.
"Sure as hell wasn't," he agreed and slapped his dog lightly on its boney rump and laughed. The dog, a border collie with matted black and white fur, stared at me with rheumy eyes. "In fact, I almost died up there. The air is so thin, see, that a man can't walk too far without passin' out. Woulda taken me months to get anywhere, the way I was goin'. Walk, walk, gasp, thump. Walk, walk, gasp, thump." He chuckled to himself again and rubbed the dog's shank vigorously. The dog continued to stare at me. "Woulda just died of starvation, more 'n likely. Me and the dog, here, thought we were gonners."
"The dog was with you?" I asked. "You parachuted out of a bomber with a dog?"
"Wasn't gonna let him go down with the ship," said the old soldier. "Nossir, wasn't at that. Anyways, I was on my knees in the snow, freezin', starvin' and gaspin' for every breath, thinkin' to myself, 'Well, this is it.' You know how that is, when you know you're as good as dead, but it just seems so obvious that you don't even get upset about it?"
"Yeah," I said. "I think I know what you mean."
"So there I was reconcilin' myself to the Great Beyond when this little blue boy comes trudgin' along in the snow, comin' along at a smart pace, like we're on a hikin' path in the woods or somethin'. He had pale blond hair and round little cheeks that, had they been rosy red, woulda' made him look like a cherub. Course, they weren't red, they were blue. Thought that was a little strange at the time, but by then, I wasn't too picky."
He tipped his cap back on his head and raised one bushy white eyebrow. "Now, he didn't speak a lick of English and I didn't speak any German yet, but he knew right off that I was in a bad way. See, that was his job in the local village. Since he didn't need as much air as the rest of us, he would just walk around up there at high altitudes lookin' for people that needed help."
"Nice job," I said. It sounded just about perfect. Like a catcher in the rye.
"Saved my life," said the old soldier. "And me 'n the dog have never left this place since."
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Well, the little boy is up there in the mountains still, helpin' other folks, so we're waitin' for him to come back down."
"How long has he been up there?" I asked.
The old soldier shrugged, then, and patted his dog on the head. "Don't matter much. He'll be back."
"You've been waiting a while?" I asked.
He smiled and said, "Me and the dog weren't quite so gray when he went up there. We're waitin' for that little blue hand a wavin' and that little blue-lipped smile and we'll wait for as long as it takes." He looked at me for a moment, then pointed at the gas pump. "Yer full," he said.
"Oh," I said. "Thanks." I hung up the nozzle and took my receipt. "Well, good luck," I said.
"Already have it," said the old soldier and laughed again. The dog closed its eyes and began to snore.
I walked back to the front of the car and climbed into the driver's seat.
"What took so long?" asked my wife.
"I was talking to the old guy," I told her.
"What old guy?" she asked me.
Be sure and read Jon Skovron's other stories: It's a Cruel World, Mr. Cabbott, Shield, Dry, and Taking a Breath all available on his website.