Keisha shifted uncomfortably on the hard wooden pew. To be honest, it was less her well-padded bottom that felt the strain than her heart and mind. Even though these people were nothing like her abusive and domineering father, the man was intrinsically entwined with the god he served in her mind. Being here always brought back those bad memories.
Growing up, she had always felt that she was never good enough – for him or his god. Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. Not well-behaved enough. Of course, her old fashioned dresses that fell almost to the ground had caused her to be ridiculed, the object of every bully and all the popular girls.
She smiled and fought back those tears again as she remembered her first day in ‘big school’ as her mother had called first grade. Recess and the playground were the worst. The moment the teacher turned her back, one of the bigger girls had come up with her crowd of friends. ‘Freak.’ ‘Little House girl.’ ‘Half-pint.’ And other cruel names had flown as she had tried to slink back into the corner and disappear.
Eventually, the noise had been enough to attract the attention of a group of older children who were playing nearby. One massive boy came over and started laughing at her. When she began to cry, someone had pushed her and added ‘cry baby’ to the chorus.
Then the crowd had parted, and she heard the voice of the angels, “Hey, leave her alone.” That was all it took. The group disappeared, and she was left crouching in the corner and staring up at the most handsome boy she had ever seen. Keisha knew he must be an angel because the sun had danced about his closely shaven head like a halo. She would remember that moment her whole life.
She smiled as the words of the pastor drifted through the fog of her memories. “Tonight, we have an extraordinary young lady who is going to share her gift with us all.”
Keisha caught herself just before her hands came together in applause as their elderly neighbor pushed her daughter’s wheelchair from the side to the front, facing everyone with another of those smiles. The woman handed her a microphone, and her precious angel nodded her head. Those ribbons danced once more and this time, the bells she had added tinkled as Bree bowed her little head.
After a long pause, she lifted her head. Once more, Keisha would have almost sworn that a halo danced about her child’s head as she opened her mouth and began to belt out the famous pop song. Bree had kept the music she had selected a secret right up to the end, but her mother finally lost the battle with those tears as the words… ‘in the arms of the angels,’ danced and echoed off the stone walls and stained glass window panes.
She reached once more for him in her mind. She knew that Bryan would be as proud of their brave little girl as she was. For a moment, she would have even sworn that she felt his arms wrapped about her shoulders as the tears streamed down her cheeks. She lost track of time as her mind crafted the happy ending that war and the harsh realities of life had denied them.
It was not until she felt the soft cotton handkerchief pressed into her hand that she returned to the cold, lonely world. She looked down to see his hand pressing the fresh material into her palm. She shook her head at the incongruity – a homeless man, who kept fresh linen hankies in his dusty backpack. She smiled her thanks up at him just in time to hear her baby’s word, “Merry Christmas to you all and my daddy Lance Corporal Bryan Moultrie.”
Keisha watched as the man turned a deathly shade of white, and the blood drained from his face as he dropped to the pew with a heavy thud.
Trav leaned against the cold, stone wall of the small church. The little girl’s wheelchair sat next to the pastor. People filed out of the building one by one, each stopping to hug, smile, or talk to the child. He saw more than one pressing money in her hand. After the first couple of attempts to give it back or offer it to the pastor, she had given up and just thanked them.
He wished that for once, he could do as some of his friends did and drown it all in the bottom of a bottle, or even something more potent. Instead, the memories rolled across him as vivid as if it were that day.
They all knew what was coming. Another battle. They knew too that this one would be bad. The worst they had seen possibly. Beneath the bragging and joking, they all felt death hanging like that unwelcome cousin at the family reunion. Some of them would not be coming back. But no one knew who. Each must prepare for his end, that he was the one Fate would call.
Trav was double-checking his equipment for the fourth or perhaps a fifth time when the young Corporal cleared his throat from the open doorway of his tent home. “Excuse me, Sir.”
It took Trav a moment to place the man among the dozen such Non-Commissioned Officers in his platoon. He made a point of knowing all his Corporals well. These men were the very backbone of not only his platoon but the Corps itself. It would be upon their shoulders that this battle rested. But this kid was the newest under his command, having just been promoted days before.
After a moment’s hesitation, he returned the younger man’s salute, “Enter, Corporal.” He could see that the young man was nervous. Hell, they all were. It was just that you learned to cover it over time. “What can I do for you, son?”
The man-child looked up at him as the evening sunset on what would for some be their last day upon this earth. It had encircled the man. Trav shivered, wondering if it was just his imagination or a dark omen.
He held out a plain white envelope, “Sir, would you do me the honor of delivering this…if…”
Trav had nodded. They were all writing those letters. The ones that would be included in their belongings. Words of comfort for those left behind. As the young Corporal said – IF.
“Son, you know that we will all make sure that families get the letters.”
He shook his head, “No, sir, this one is different. Nan’s is written and with my other stuff.” He had shifted nervously from one foot to the other then, “This one is for this girl back home. Nan don’t know about her. Well, she knows Key-Key since she has lived next door to us for years, but she don’t know…”
Trav had been tempted to laugh at the way the young man’s dark cheeks colored as he tried to stumble over the words. “I understand, Corporal,” he had reassured as he held out his hand to take the envelope. An address was scrawled across the front of it, and stamps were affixed to the upper right-hand corner. Though Trav swore in his heart should the worst happen, he would honor this young Marine’s request by personally delivering it to the girl.
He ran his hands over the scratchy wool of his cap. His fingers dug into it as if he could reach inside his mind and jerk the painful memories out by the roots. Ten years. Ten, fucking, long-ass years.
Of course, he had tried. As soon as the One-Eight had made it back to Camp Lejune, he had spent a couple of days with his family and then told his wife that he had an errand to run. She had looked relieved that he would be gone for the weekend. He had hopped on the back of his old motorcycle and headed the couple of hundred miles to ‘Hot-lanta’ as it was nicknamed.
It had been easy enough to find the address on the envelope. When the man who opened the door saw his uniform, he had stiffened, but Trav had gotten used to that. Not everyone back home supported this war. Hell, there were moments when he was not sure that he did, but he had orders to fulfill and young Marines to protect. As much as he could anyway. The envelope in his shaking fingers reminded him that was not always possible, though.
“Miss Keisha Jackson, please, Sir.” He ignored the man’s stare, trying to remain respectful.
“Who the hell wants to know where that little whore is?” The man’s voice boomed, and Trav thought he smelled liquor.
“I am sorry, Sir. I am just trying to reach her about a private matter.” Something had kept him from revealing anything more.
“That Jezebel is gone…to hell for all I care.” The man slammed the door in his face.
Trav had turned and walked down the concrete path towards his bike. He knew there was no point in trying again. Then he remembered the young Corporal’s words – Nan lived next door. That, too, had proven futile. While the stooped woman had welcomed him cordially with iced tea and tomato sandwiches, the moment he mentioned the young woman’s name, she had frowned and cut him off. “I ain’t talking about that girl.”
Trav had left Atlanta that afternoon, driving through the night. That envelope weighing like a lead block in his pocket. Another failure. Not only had he failed to keep that young Corporal and twenty other of his men safe during those dark days, but he had not even been able to grant the kid his final wish.
He unzipped the front pouch of his pack and reached inside. It had yellowed some. There were even a few stains, and the edges were frayed a bit. But he had carried it with him. It had been one of the few things he had packed that night after his parents went to bed exhausted from the ordeal of bailing him out of the county jail.
He had felt guilty about the money he knew they would lose, but he was more worried about what might happen if he stayed. Not jail – that did not bother him. That night had shown him the hard truth – it was not safe to be around him. Those kids were lucky. A couple of stitches were nothing compared to the damage he could have done. But the look in his Mama’s eyes as the deputy had handcuffed him and stuffed him in the back of his car had woken him up.
They would all be better off without him. At first, he had toyed with the ultimate solution, but he could not do that to his parents or children. Instead, he had written a letter and left it on the kitchen counter near the coffee pot. Then he had taken his old pack and the tiny two-person tent that he had bought to go camping with his son and slipped from their East Texas home.
That letter had traveled all over the country with him as he walked and sometimes hitchhiked around it. He fingered the neatly written lettering on the front. Maybe it was even what had drawn him back to this place? He did not know. All he knew was that he finally had the chance to do what he had promised that young man over a decade before.
For once, he had the chance to keep a promise. To make something right. He looked up as the young woman began to push her daughter’s wheelchair down the ramp. Well, as right as he could anyway.