Trav frowned. What had he been thinking, bringing them here? The freeway underpass where the homeless lived was no place for a lady and little girl. He thought about leaving them in the car while he ran the sleeping bag to G. I. Joe and said his good-byes to the old man. He felt guilty as hell leaving him and Steve on their own out here. He had been protecting and feeding them for close to three months now.
But he had no choice. His mother was dying. The breast cancer that had been in remission when he left three years ago had come back. This time there was no hope. She had been on hospice for weeks now. The nurses said it would be a miracle if she lived to see the New Year. He had let them down, too – but he would not this time. He would make it home and spend what time she had left together.
He went through the scenarios, the different contingencies, and possible battle plans. He chuckled at how natural that all felt. Once a Marine, always a Marine. He realized he had never stopped thinking like one.
In the end, he calculated that the safest option was to take them with him. With his knife tucked into his belt and another smaller blade in his shoe, he should be able to keep them safe. But they would not take the child’s wheelchair. The uneven rocky ground would only slow them down. Above all he needed to get them in and out as quickly and quietly as he could.
When she lifted the child out of the car, he insisted on bearing her slight burden. “Stay close to me, do you understand? Most of these people are just like all the others in this world – decent folks. But just like out there, there are always a few bad seeds. If anything goes wrong, I will pass angel back to you. You run for it. Get back to this car and get the hell out of here. No waiting for me. No looking back. Straight to the police station, do you understand?”
The way her big brown eyes widened, he knew that he had scared her, but this was one time where he would rather her be frightened if it kept them alive. She nodded her head and stepped a bit closer, into his shadow. “Our camp is towards the back. That way, we could hightail it out when the cops start hassling us.”
He smiled and shifted the half-sleeping angel in his arms. The morning sky was just beginning to lighten, even though the sun had not yet peaked her head over the horizon. He hoped they would be back to the car before it did. Safer that way. He grabbed the sleeping bag and tossed it to the woman, “Carry this, please. If anything happens, throw it. That will slow everyone down as they are likely to stop and fight over it.”
He hated the bleak picture that he was painting of his existence to the woman and hoped the child was still asleep enough not to hear any of it. But this really was a matter of better safe than sorry with such precious cargo as he carried in his arms. He began to pick his way slowly and methodically through the old, torn tents, blankets thrown over cardboard boxes, and shopping carts full of other people’s junk that were these people’s whole lives.
It took them only a couple of minutes but it seemed too long to Travis as he finally knelt beside what had been his tent. “Joe, it’s me. Gunny.” He warned the old man before he dared to touch the zipper that, along with the overpass concrete, kept the worst of the elements out. He gave it another minute before crying out again and drawing attention to them.
He was just about to do that when he heard movement from inside the tent. “Trav? That you, boy?” asked the gravelly old voice.
“Sure is, man, and I am in a bit of a hurry.” He crouched lower and shifted the little girl. Those brown eyes fluttered open, and she smiled up at him. His heart beat faster at her innocent trust.
“What is it, boy? Sun ain’t up yet. I gots at least another hour of good sleep. What you doing waking an old man like that?” The man grumbled as he stuck his gray head out between the flaps. The moment his old eyes lit on the child, he smiled though, and the little girl returned the unspoken greeting.
Travis reached behind him to take the sleeping bag from the woman; he passed it to the man that had been his charge these past few months. “I can’t stay, old man. I called home, and my Mama’s sick. But I got this for you for Christmas. Well, the ladies did, really. The tent’s yours too. But I really hope you will think about going into one of those half-way houses. At least for the winter.”
The man shook his head as he reached out his weathered and gnarled hand. He brushed a stray braid back from the child’s forehead, and she smiled even wider at him. Trav saw tears in Joe’s eyes. They never talked about such things. Most people out here did not. But he wondered if somewhere Joe might not have a family, just as he did. Perhaps angel reminded him of a daughter he had left behind or a grand-daughter, maybe.
“Don’t you worry about me, boy. You take care of your Mama.” Tears slipped from the crinkled corners of the man’s eyes as he tore them off the child long enough to slap Trav on the shoulder. “You get your life back on track, Gunny. Do it for me. For all of us out here – and the ones that didn’t make it back. You live a good, long, happy life for all of us. That’s what you can do for me.”
The old man looked up at the woman, and those tears spilled even faster. “May I hold the child, ma’am? Just for a moment. Please.”
Travis turned half expecting to see shock or revulsion on her pretty face. Instead, those huge tears were flowing again. “Of course, just support her head and back. She has cerebral palsy, so you have to be a bit more careful with her, is all.”
Joe nodded as he reached for the child. Trav positioned her in his friend’s arms but stayed close. The sun was coming up now, and he knew they should be getting out of there, but something about this moment felt more right than anything had in a very long time.
The little girl was fully awake now as she turned to the old Vet. Her tiny fingers caressed his stubbled cheek as she smiled. She saw the purple heart that Joe always wore on his dirty and faded uniform. Then she noticed the U. S. Marine Corps. “My Daddy was a Marine, too.”
“He still is, child. Didn’t anyone ever tell you – once a Marine, always a Marine?” Joe chuckled.
Bree shook her tiny head, “My Daddy died.”
The man just smiled, “Let me tell you a secret, sweetie. St. Peter and the Big Man are Marines too. Just like our boys guard all the embassies down here, that’s what they do up there too.”
Her eyes sparkled as the sun hit the scraggly gray head leaning against hers. It must have hit those glittery bows and bells just right because Trav would have sworn both their heads were ensconced in halos in those rays of a new dawn, a new day, and a new beginning.
He hated to draw this moment to a close, but he knew the encampment would soon come alive, and he had delayed long enough as it was. He needed to get them back to the car safely. Even more than he needed to protect the old man, who had been his honor-bound duty for a time. He reached for the little girl, and Joe reluctantly relinquished his burden.
“Think about what I said, man. A warm bed. A couple of meals a day. You could do worse than a couple of months in one of them shelters,” Travis pleaded with his friend as he shifted the child and stood up.
The old man shook his head and looked from the little girl to his friend to the woman. “Don’t worry about me. You think about what I said too, Gunny. I’m counting on you to do what’s right. As for my old bones, well, with this fine tent and new sleeping bag, who knows, maybe I’ll head down to Florida. Them Keys always sounded good in that song.”
Trav shook his head as his friend’s deep baritone voice greeted the warm morning sun. “Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya. Bermuda, Bahama, come on, pretty mama. Key Largo, Montego, baby, why don’t we go.”
It was not until they made it back safely to the woman’s car that he noticed her tiny body was once more shaking with sobs. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought the two of you here. If I had known it would upset you this much…” he stammered.
She brushed the tears aside and smiled, “No, it isn’t that. I’m glad you did. It was that song. Bryan sang it to me when he came to say good-bye that last time. He always called me Key-Key. So it just kinda fit – Key Largo and all. He signed that letter, ’sorry, I never got to take you to Kokomo.’ “
He waited until they drove off before he stood up. He tossed the sleeping bag inside the tent. He would not need it where he was going. No cold wind or rain there. No hunger or pain either. The old man stood tall and walked away into the morning sun.
He had not gone far when another man greeted him, “Was it all you expected, Corporal?”
When the old man turned back to see the vehicle turn right onto the freeway entrance ramp, he was transformed. The gray hair was gone. In its place, the high and tight of a proud Marine. His eyes that had been cloudy with age shone the same sparkling brown as the little girl’s. The smile that had been masked under the weathered skin of age and the elements spread broadly and just as tranquilly.
“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir. All I could ask for,” replied Corporal Bryan Moultrie or the spirit that had occupied the body by that name anyway.
“So back to that guard duty then, Marine?” asked St. Peter with a slap on the man’s shoulder.
“Maybe for a while, Sir. But hopefully, one day, I’ll get the chance to have a new body and re-join my family,” he smiled as they walked straight up into the air unseen.
“You planted the seeds, son. That is all you can do. The rest is in the hands of the Big Man, Allah, Jehovah, Thor, Zeus, Buddha, the Emperor, Fate, and the goddess…”
This was the ending of the story that won the Christmas/Holidays contest at Lit five years ago. That short story has been read almost 90K times. It has over 100 comments and is still one of my highest rated stories.
When I won that contest I asked Laurel and Manu to donate the money to Toys For Tots, the organization that I eluded to in the opening of this story. Not only is the a US Marine Corps led charity but virtually ALL of the money goes directly to buying presents for children in need. Having worked for a decade in the charity sector in both the US and UK, that is unheard of, folks.
I tried to donate again this year, but unfortunately, I could not find a mechanism for doing so from outside the US. But Alan and I have supported a small, local group here in Swansea that does the same work – and again with 100% going to the children.
If you enjoyed this story, and if you are in a position to do so, I am asking you to contribute to the good work.
And tomorrow, I begin what everyone begged me to do for five years – I continue this story. And wait until you see who joins the fun.