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The Herons

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Sergeant Major, First Class (retired) John Harris shuffled into the dimly-lit waiting room and surveyed the inhabitants before settling in an uncomfortable chair in the far corner. He closed his eyes. He was three hours early for his intake appointment, so he might as well get some rest. He certainly felt safer in this little room than the flea-bitten flophouse where he supposedly lived.

“Excuse me, sir…”

John startled awake at the soft voice, reaching for the gun that wasn’t there. After two years, it still wasn’t there, and likely never would be again thanks to some mild nerve damage that made his fingers tingle and go numb occasionally.

The man in front of him was at least six inches shorter than John, with circular wire-rimmed glasses over a face rounding on the cusp of middle age. His spiky haircut and wide eyes made him seem as surprised as John felt.

“I’m so sorry for startling you,” the man was saying. “I’ve been avoiding this corner to let you rest, but my shift’s almost over, so I really can’t help it any longer.”

John looked him over more carefully. He held an orange plastic watering can in one hand. John blinked. He turned to look over his shoulder and saw the half-dozen scraggly plants that his chair blocked.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, getting to his feet and moving aside so the man could do his job.

“It’s really no problem,” the man said. “I’ve been volunteering here for years now, and I saw them replacing the plants rather than take care of them, so I decided I might as well try this instead. I’m not a gardener, per se, but I have a few houseplants that seem to do all right, and I abhor waste.”

John let the man rattle on, a small smile of amusement on his face.

“I’m Harold, by the way,” the man added, extending a hand. John took it, feeling smooth skin and a firm grip that wasn’t trying to test his own strength.

“John,” he answered.

“It’s good to meet you. Are you new to the VA?”

John felt a moment of sharp anxiety at the question, but forced himself to relax. Harold volunteered here. He obviously knew what vets were like.

“Been back state-side a few years,” John answered.  “New to New York.”

Harold smiled more broadly. “Welcome! If you need help finding things here at the VA, I’m here to direct the way, and if you need any tips about the city, I’ve been here 30 years and probably know the answer.”

“Thanks,” John said, feeling awkward in the face of Harold’s friendliness.

“No problem. I’m here Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, between 2 and 4.”

“That seems like a big commitment during the workweek,” John commented.

“Well, I have a flexible work schedule and my father was a veteran before he passed. I’ve always felt that he would be proud that I help others like him, even in this small way.”

“It sounds like you were young when he died.”

“Twenty,” Harold agreed. “Guns frankly terrify me, so I’m not suited to the military myself, but I respect those who protect our country and I want to do what I can to support them.”

“Harris, John!” called a woman from the front of the room. She had a military bearing and wore a dark blue pantsuit reminiscent of a uniform. She held a manilla folder in her hands.

“That’s me,” John said to Harold with an attempt at a smile. He really hoped this woman wasn’t going to be his therapist. He wanted someone softer, without the stick up her ass. “Maybe I’ll see you around?”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Harold replied.