Travis frowned at the woman’s words. At first, it had seemed such a brilliant idea. Hook them up with G.I. Joe. The old man got some help, and the little girl got her Christmas wish. Now, he had his doubts. A woman and a disabled child seemed harmless enough, but still he could not just lead them to G. I. Joe, without knowing a bit more about their plans.
He cleared his throat, “Excuse me, ma’am. I don’t want to seem rude or ungrateful, but what exactly did you have in mind?”
It was the little girl that answered. “We want to take him home with us. He can take a shower, and we will wash his clothes. We thought we could even stop and get him some others at the second-hand store. Then we will eat Christmas dinner together. Maybe he can even come and listen to me sing my solo at church tonight.” She prattled on as he looked from her to her mother.
Was the woman completely crazy? What did she think she was doing? Taking a stranger home with them? Didn’t the woman have any brains? Anything could happen. Was she one of those religious nuts that had no common sense?
He shook his head as he stared at the woman. “Ma’am, maybe that is not the best idea. If the child wants to do something for a homeless man, perhaps you could give him some money. Maybe buy him a burger. Even get those clothes or a blanket at the shop. But…”
She shook her head and held up her hand as she turned to stare at her little girl. Trav noticed that big tears shone in her dark brown eyes. Her shoulders slumped as she spoke, “Yes, I know. I suggested all of that, but Angel is determined on this one. So please, if you know anyone…”
He watched as the tear slipped from the corner of those eyes. She looked so young. She could not be much more than a child herself. Her words hit him… ‘in honor of her father.’ Fuck, another young widow and orphan of war. What was he to do?
He thought about Old Joe. Usually, the guy was harmless, the nicest guy out there. But once in a while, when he had been drinking or something startled him, well, Joe had flipped out once or twice in the brief couple of months he had known him.
While a shower, hot meal, and new clothes would definitely be a blessing for the man, the what-ifs weighed heavily on Travis’s shoulder. As unlikely as it was, he could not take the chance. Not with a widow of one of their own. Not with the child, the little Angel.
He considered Steve. What did it matter, Ranger or Marine? But his friend, too, had been slipping deeper and deeper into the darkness since… Just since.
He certainly did not want these two walking the streets looking for a ‘homeless Marine’ to help. He knew that more than one of the less savory or even mentally ill among them would have no compunction about accepting the offer.
While it was unlikely that the worst would happen, even the thought of someone slipping a bit extra ‘help’ from the woman’s purse when she was not looking was more than his conscious could handle. It had enough on it already.
No, he did not have much choice. He bent and held out his hand to the little girl, “Gunnery Sergeant Travis Baker, young lady. US Marine Corps retired.”
Keisha watched as the man wheeled Bree’s chair down the aisles of the second-hand store where they came to shop, except for unmentionables and socks. Those she insisted on buying new.
From the moment the man had introduced himself, her daughter had beamed as brightly as most children would if they had gotten a new bicycle, computer, or cell phone. The man, too, seemed to be a natural with her child. It all seemed to be going better than she could have ever hoped or believed possible.
So, what was bothering her? What was wrong? Why would the knot in the pit of her stomach not stop throbbing?
Because you are taking a complete stranger into your only child’s life? Because anything could happen? Because you are a complete idiot.
They turned up another aisle. Her daughter was jabbering on as they approached the rack of coats. But the man just shook his head and brushed the sleeve of the one he wore. “No, really, Angel. I don’t need a coat. This one has plenty of life left in it. And it looks so stylish, don’t you think?” They giggled together as he pirouetted for her daughter.
“But you have hardly bought anything,” her daughter protested as she held out the twenty dollar bill that they had together earmarked for this special Christmas present.
The man smiled, “So, how about we look over there for a doll for you, Angel?” He pointed to a toy display.
Her heart swelled with such pride, and she fought back the tears that never seemed far from the surface as Bree shook her head. “No, I have enough presents under the tree. I really want to get something else for you. Please.”
Keisha’s throat tightened even more. A re-conditioned off-brand tablet and a new winter coat were not what most ten-year-old little girls would call ‘enough presents.’ But her little girl always had been special, just like her father.
The man looked over at her as if pleading for her assistance, but she merely shook her head and shrugged. She had never found a way to deny Bree what she wanted. This whole Christmas trip proved that. Once the child made up her mind, she was going to get what she wanted. Keisha knew it would be a trait that would prove indispensable as her daughter grew.
The man sighed and turned back to her little girl when her assistance was not forthcoming, “Alright then, there is one thing I want. If I cannot convince you to take home a new doll, that is…”
“Thank you, Ma’am.” Travis took the platter piled high with turkey and ham from the woman.
He had to admit that the hot shower had been the most relaxing thing he had felt in a long time. Maybe his body had grown accustomed to the cold these past couple of months, the last few years, but it had certainly welcomed the brief respite.
He had even been grateful to find shaving foam and a razor in the plastic bag of toiletries that they had insisted he accept in addition to the new clothes and that special present.
He lifted a bite of the food to his mouth. He paused long enough to savor the smell of it before shoveling it into his mouth. It had been so long since he had sat down at a table and eaten a hot, home-cooked meal, let alone a Christmas one, that Trav was not sure how to behave.
Almost a decade of holidays spent in some hot, dry, hell-hole that made the nightly news, but most people back home still could not find on a fucking map. Then coming home to a world that was turned on its head.
A wife that not only did not need him anymore but certainly did not want him. Not the ‘him’ that came back from that place. Kids that saw him more like a stranger than a father. Even his parents could not handle the withdrawn, cautious, and suspicious, alright paranoid man that had taken over the body of the boy they had loved and raised.
It all came to a head three years before. Kathy had already asked for a divorce and kicked him out of the house. He had been staying with his parents back then. It had been the 4th of July and the little shits down the street thought it was cute to let loose fireworks in the middle of the night.
Trav had managed them well enough that evening because he was expecting them. So even though the sound and smell of gun powder had taken him to a dark place, his logical mind had fought it back. But being awakened from those nightmares to those sounds and smells had snapped his mind.
His father had taken his guns and locked them in his cabinet when Trav moved in with them. For safekeeping, his dad had said, but Trav knew it was more about keeping him safe. He certainly would not be the first of his friends to ‘eat a bullet’ since they came back. So he could not get to them, but he always slept with his Bowie hunting knife that his grandfather had given him for his thirteen birthday under his pillow.
Trav shook his head and forced a smile. He tried not to think of that. Not and waste his one chance for a real Christmas, something he never thought to have again. He looked from the nervous woman that was his hostess for the day to the beaming face of her daughter. He reassessed his earlier estimate; her maturity was much greater than a mere five-year-old. Still, she could not have been more than seven or eight, though the wheelchair and her diminutive frame made it difficult to tell for sure.
“How old are you, sweetie?” He brought a bite of the roll to his mouth. He tried hard to stifle the moan that threatened to escape from the back of his throat. He had grown used to eating whatever he could find.
Her smile was brilliant and oddly comforting. “I’m ten, almost eleven.” Her voice sounded much younger, or maybe that was the bright pink and green bows that dangled at the ends of the half dozen or so sectioned braids that covered her head.
Travis’s throat tightened. The exact age of his youngest. Not that his only son would wear pink bows. Or maybe he would? It had been three years since he had heard from them. Not that he did not love his children. But because he did. They did not need a fuck-up like him in their lives.
He forced his smile wider to cover the pain that now centered in his chest. “Is that why you are too big for dolls this Christmas?” Though something about the little girl had put him at ease from the moment her mother lifted her from the car, he was way out of practice with this polite conversation thing. In fact, his voice was a bit gravelly even, whether from disuse or the cold weather.
“What did you ask Santa for? A new computer? A cell phone? One of those tablet things?” He forced a bite of the slightly sweet ham down and lifted his glass of sparkling cider, the non-alcoholic kind, fortunately, to his mouth as he tried desperately not to stare at the wheelchair. Obviously, a new bicycle was not top of her list.
The child smiled again, and his world exploded around him, “You. I asked Santa for a Marine to share this Christmas dinner with in honor of my Daddy. He was a Marine, too, you know.”
It was not the response he expected — this reminder of why he was here at all. Travis felt the panic rising inside of him at the child’s words. It was one thing hearing them from the woman. But when she said them, they seemed so completely innocent and genuine. So powerful. Did she have any idea what they did to him?
Was. That single word said it all. Its meaning was pretty damned clear. Her father had been a Marine before he died. KIA…probably. Suicide perhaps? How many more of his brothers and sisters had fallen by their own hands than the enemies? Twenty-two a day, he had read the headline somewhere. Not to mention seeing the reality for himself.
‘Breathe and don’t spoil this for the child,’ the voice in his head said.
Twenty-two. Just one more than the number he had lost there. Fallujah. He sucked air into his lungs as he tried to find the right words to respond to the little girl. How many children had his comrades, his brothers, his friends left behind? What were they doing this Christmas? All those others? Hell, what were his kids doing tonight? How was he going to make it through this dinner now? With that thought, those images in his head.
He blew the air slowly out his mouth as those fucked up doctors at the VA had taught him. Not that it did much fucking good. But enough to bring another bite of the food to his lips. It now tasted more like the cardboard boxes that had become his world than the delicious homemade with love meal that it was.
‘You are going to do this for her, Gunny. You are going to give this child what she asked Santa for if it fucking kills you. For her and all those other children that your Marines left behind. For those friends and brothers, you lost that day.’
“Thank you, Angel,” he mumbled though he could not force another smile or bring himself to look her in the eye.