Keisha was a bit surprised when the man stepped from the church’s shadows to assist with putting the chair in the back of the car once more. She nodded gratefully as she buckled a half-sleeping little girl into her specially designed booster seat that helped to hold her weak back erect. “Thank you,” she finished strapping Bree in.
When she turned back, the man had finished. He had been so thoughtful as not to slam the door closed when done. But now, with the night coming to a climax and her blessed angel drifting off to heaven, she was intensely uncomfortable, especially after his strange behavior in the church.
She, too, had been a bit emotionally raw from the powerful words sung in such an angelic voice. The whole damned place had been. Until the loud thump of this man literally falling into the pew behind him. To the point that it had rocked backward, and Keisha had been afraid for a moment it would topple over. She had reached out to grab it.
He had stared up at her, something genuinely frightening in those sad but kind eyes. Then before she could say anything, he was gone, running almost from the building. The pastor had frozen, staring at the large wooden double doors as they slammed shut loudly. After a moment, he had cleared his throat and thanked Bree for the song, “Join me in prayer, please.”
And for the first time since that day, Keisha had done just that. Though, not to her father’s vengeful and cruel god. Or even the benevolent and accepting one that her neighbor tried to speak to her about occasionally. She had not even called on Bryan this time. No, she had merely asked, whatever or whoever was out there to be with him – with them all.
She sighed and forced a smile, “Thank you for tonight. For granting her wish. I know it may have seemed…” She searched for the right word, but all she could come up with was… “Crazy. But it meant so much to her.”
She shifted nervously, uncertain what else to say or do. “Can I give you a lift somewhere? Take you back downtown? Or wherever you…” The word ‘live’ froze in her throat. Could homeless people really ‘live’ anywhere?
Maybe a part of it was also a reminder of just how precarious their own existence was. Even with her job and Bree’s disability, they barely had enough money after paying the bills each month to buy gas and food. She patted the purse beneath her arm, subconsciously.
Three hundred dollars, over three hundred precious dollars, those people had pressed into hers or Bree’s hand at the end of the night. It might not seem like much to some people, but it was a small fortune to them. A nest egg. The first she had ever had. A tiny cushion if something broke on the car or Bree was sick for a day or two, and she could not work. It seemed so little but was such a miracle to her.
What happened next eclipsed even that as the man held out an envelope. She recognized the writing immediately from the few letters that Bryan had sent her over those years, before and after they…
“How? I don’t understand,” she stammered as she collapsed against the car. Her fingers trembled as she reached for the envelope like some ancient piece of art or fragile text that might crumble, and its beauty be lost to humanity forever.
“Merry Christmas, Keisha,” the man placed it in the palm of her hand, squeezing her fingers about it so that she did not drop it. Then he turned and walked away into the night.
Travis walked. He just marched. It was like that naïve, gung-ho kid on Parris Islands. He was simply following some unspoken command. Marching not through smelly swamps or mosquito-infested beaches with the waves sucking and pulling at his boots, trying to draw him beneath the waves.
That was what it felt like. Life had drawn him beneath its waves for too long. Suddenly, he had broken free of the riptides and made it to the surface. He was sucking in air to oxygen-starved lungs, and it burned like hell. Coming back to life hurt. It hurt more than just dying. It fucking hurt so much.
So fucking much that a part of him was tempted to give up, to slip back into the safe malaise of those strong tides that had held him down for so long.
But he could not. He had been given what so few people got – a second chance. It was some kind of miracle. This chance to give the woman that letter, to complete a mission, to keep one promise he made to one of his own.
It felt good. Better than he had in years. Better than he had even before that day. Yes, the man’s life still rested on his conscience. His and all the others. So many others.
He was amazed that something so simple could make such a difference, though. It just did not make sense. Did not seem possible.
But it was. He was still homeless. He was still estranged from everyone that had ever meant anything to him. But he had done something worthwhile for the first time in forever, it seemed. More importantly, this time, he had not failed.
Tears flowed. Tears for Corporal Bryan Moultrie. Tears for the man’s precious little angel. Tears for the woman, Keisha Jackson, who had been nothing more than a neatly written name on an envelope before today. Tears for all the men he had lost that day. Each name rolled instantly off his tongue as their faces too flashed through his mind. Tears for others that he had lost before and since then.
Finally, just when he thought he could cry no more, Second Lieutenant Darren Highsmith. The kid had lost it that day. Sure, he might have survived the battle of Fallujah, but his mind had not. He had spent the next decade with a bottle in one hand and a needle in the other arm.
Until that morning, when he was coming down from a bad trip. When Travis had been just a microsecond too slow to keep the man from jumping in front of the train. And he had failed, lost another of his men.
Travis cried more tears for the kid that had been his commanding officer that day. Barely out of college and full of himself. It had been too much. Hell, it was too much on him, and he had been older, wiser, seen other battles before those nasty, bloody, sweat-filled days and nights. Days that stretched into weeks and then into an eternity of living hell for some of them.
Exhausted, it was the middle of the night — that time, which poets called the darkest before the dawn. Travis sat down. A bench at a bus stop. He was not even sure where he was. He just sat and cried. Without shame. He cried for all of them. For all that had happened and all that never would.
It poured like pus from a putrid wound.