Keisha leaned forward on the steering wheel as her SUV crawled along the deserted streets. She dared not go any faster since her vision blurred with tears that had not stopped in hours.
Thankfully Bree had slept through all of it. Even her brief stop to fill her tank with gasoline and grab a cup of coffee. She was just not sure what she would say to her child. Why it was so important that she find the man. But she knew she had to, even if she had no idea what to say to him when she did.
That letter. It had changed nothing and everything for her. Bryan was still dead. She was still a single mother, raising their challenged but perfect daughter all on her own without the help of either of their families.
His words, though, had reached across time and lifted her. To know that once had meant as much to him as it had her. Of course, she had always believed that, but to see it, written in his own words, his writing had been more than she had ever dreamt possible.
And he had given her that. His sergeant, the man that Bryan called Gunny. The man had carried that letter for a decade. Why? And how had Fate brought him of all people to them?
She had no idea what time it was or even what part of town she was in, but that did not matter. All that mattered was one more Christmas miracle – finding the man that had given her such a special gift.
She might have missed him crouched on the bench had it not been for Bree moving and crying out in her sleep. It had caused Keisha to stop the SUV abruptly and look in the rearview mirror to check on her child. She had gone right past him through her tears. Once more, her angel saved the day as Keisha caught sight of him in the mirror. She sighed as she turned and confirmed for herself that it was him.
Then she began to slowly back up the car until she was next to him. When she did, she saw that his head was down, almost touching his chest. She was worried that something was wrong for a moment, then she saw the rapid rise and fall of his chest. She opened the passenger side window, “Get in, Gunny.”
Keisha knew her vision was blurred when she thought she saw tears running down his cheeks too. He opened his mouth as if to argue but then shrugged his broad shoulders and picked up the pack. He opened the door and climbed in, looking out the window the whole time.
“Home, I guess,” he mumbled.
Home? What a strange word, Travis thought. Growing up, he had never questioned what it meant or where he belonged.
Then for fifteen years, the Corps had been his home and family. Even more than Kathy and the kids. Maybe that had not been fair to her. Perhaps that was why they had grown apart and ultimately divorced. He had been deployed more than he was with them, it seemed.
When he was discharged, well, it was already too late, probably. They had grown up or away. And he had changed. He was lost without a GPS, compass, or even the stars to lead him home.
How could so much change so quickly? Especially inside him.
Oh, he was not deluding himself; he was not the man they had once loved. He probably never would be, but for the first time in so long, he could not even remember, he felt like a man again. A human. And he longed just to hear their voice.
“I hate to ask. You have done so much for me already. But is there any chance I can use your phone? I’ll keep it brief. You have my word.”
He forced himself to look over at the young woman for the first time since he had gotten in the car, “Please, ma’am.”
She shook her head and smiled as tears slid down her cheeks, “Talk as long as you want. I owe you more than I can ever repay.” She reached into the console and passed her cell phone to him.
He stared at it for a long moment. Who did he call? Chances were slim that Kathy even had the same number. Even if she did, she would not want to talk to him. His teenage sons, either. And the little man? Did he even have a right to call the boy his son? He had just walked away. Left him with nothing more than a note that the kid could not yet read.
His chest tightened at the enormity and repercussions of his choices and actions. Any other time he might have given up. Said fuck it. And just returned to the streets. Not now. He had been given a second chance. Something that Corporal Bryan Moultrie, Second Lieutenant Darren Highsmith, and all those other names in his head that he could never forget, never would be given.
So, even if the odds were against him, even if this were an uphill battle, it would not be the first one he had fought. He was a US Marine, after all. And surrender did not come naturally to them. Ooh-rah! Get’em Devil Dogs. He instead pressed in the one number that he knew would still be working unless something desperate had happened. The same one that his mother had taught him before sending him off to kindergarten.
He waited as it rang and rang and rang some more. He was just about to hang up when the chirpy voice of his mother came on. He smiled and felt his heart leap in his chest at the familiar sound of her Texas Twang.
Then his brows knit together as he realized that it was just a recording. He debated what to do. Maybe this just was not meant to be. Maybe it was too soon. Maybe he should get into one of those programs that the police, who hassled them, were always trying to refer them to. Get his life a bit more on track before he brought his family into this. Just look at how it had ended the last time they tried to help him.
He was about to push the button to disconnect as the tone rang, “Hey, Mom. Dad. It’s me, Trav. You are probably at church or something. I don’t even know why I’m bothering you. I guess I just wanted to say, Merry Christ…”
His throat was tight, and he knew he was babbling like a kid. He should hang up. Save the woman some money, but somehow the sound of his Mama’s voice just stuck with him. “Merry Christmas, and I love you,” he had pulled the phone away from his ear and was about to push that button when he heard…
“Travis? Trav, is that really you, boy?”
His father sounded tired, older than he remembered. An old man even. Travis certainly felt like one as he brought the phone back to his ear. “Yeah, Dad, it’s me…”
Keisha tried not to listen in, but that was hard to do in the confines of the vehicle. She only caught one side of the conversation, of course, but what she heard did not sound good.
“Yeah, Dad, I understand. No, it isn’t that. It is just…”
“No, please, that will be expensive. I don’t want you spending your money like that. Just give me a few days; I will see what I can do. I can get the money for a bus, maybe. I’ll figure something out…”
His shoulders slumped then, and he turned back towards the window. She heard the thickness in his voice when he spoke again, “Alright, Dad. If you’re sure, I’ll get there somehow. Don’t you worry. I will make the airport by noon if I have to walk there.”
There was another long pause before the man spoke again. “Yeah, Dad. It’ll be good to see you again too. I just wish…”
Keisha watched as his broad back shuttered. “I’m sorry, Daddy. Sorry I haven’t been able to be there to help you with Mama. I’ll do whatever I can, and you have my word I will get there. Just tell Mama to hang on, please.”
The final bit was clearly said through tears, and Keisha wanted nothing more than to sink into her seat. Disappear and give the man some privacy, his dignity back. After all, he had given her so much more this night. He had given her the best gift of all – closure.
“I love you both, and I’ll see you soon,” he pushed the button. He kept his back to her for a long moment. She knew he was trying to compose himself, and she would give him as much time as he needed.
At last, he turned and held out the phone; she motioned for him to put it back on the console. “I’m sorry, but it was hard not to overhear. Do you need a lift to the airport?”
The man shook his head, “No, ma’am. I can’t ask that of you. You and that little angel have already done so much for me today. If you can just let me out somewhere downtown, I can try and catch a bus or train there.”
She shook her head as tears welled back up in her eyes. “Done so much for you? A few dollars’ worth of old clothes, a shower, and a hot meal. What is that?” She fought to keep the tears from becoming the flood of body-shaking sobs that they had been when she first read Bryan’s letter.
That was how she had lost the man, to begin with. She had been so paralyzed with tears that she had not been able to move off the cold concrete next to her car for over half an hour. Until at last, the pastor had found her as he was closing up the church. He had been genuinely concerned for her and for Bree, but she had insisted that she would be fine. Had he seen the direction her guest had headed, though? But he had not been any help. So she had spent hours driving around with a sleeping child in the back of the car looking for a stranger – a homeless Marine.
She stimmed the tide long enough to continue, “No, Gunny.” She paused and forced a smile, “I am sorry. I’m not good with names. Bryan said that he was entrusting the letter to the one man he knew would get it to me – Gunny. If it isn’t too much to ask, remind me of your name, again?”
She was incredibly embarrassed to admit that she had not paid close attention when he introduced himself to Bree earlier. She could claim it was the stress or her faulty memory. She did not want to believe that she was like so many others, quick to dismiss and dehumanize the homeless. But if she had, the man did not seem to hold it against her.
The man smiled, perhaps the first genuine one in years from the tightness around his mouth, “Travis Baker. Gunnery Sergeant Travis Baker, US Marine Corps, retired, ma’am.”
She held out her hand, “Keisha. Keisha Jackson, Travis. And you have already met my little angel, but I named her Breanne after her daddy.”
The man’s smile was broader and looser this time, “He would have liked that, Ma’am. I don’t know why I did not see it sooner. Her eyes and smile. She looks like him. I didn’t know the man that well. He had just been promoted to Corporal and under my direct command when we got the orders…”
He paused and looked down, “None of that matters much. But from what I did know of him, he was a good man. And I know he was a damned fine Marine. A couple of his men went home to their families because of him. I’m just sorry…”
He turned away and looked out the window again. He inhaled deeply before speaking again, “I’m sorry that he never got to see his own. To meet the little angel.”
She knew this man was a stranger. A homeless man. But that did not matter. They shared the pain as she reached over and placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed it, “Me too, Gunny. Me too.”
He turned back to face her, and there was no denying the tears that clouded his eyes as he placed his hand over hers, “Thank you, ma’am.”
“No, thank you. Thank you for keeping that promise. Thank you for holding onto that letter all these years. Thank you for the best Christmas present of all – hope.” She pulled her hand away reluctantly and used the back of it to brush the tears away casually. “But if you think I’m dropping you off and just hoping you make it to that airport in time, then you have another think coming.” She tried to laugh and lighten the mood a bit.
The man looked at the clock on her dashboard and in the back seat at her sleeping daughter. “I hate asking you for anything else, ma’am. And if it were for me, I wouldn’t, but we have loads of time before I have to catch that plane to Dallas. Would you mind if we made just one more stop on the way there?”