It was after one in the morning when former Master Sergeant Michael Thomas O’Malley, United States Marine Corps, pulled his new Harley Davidson Road King into the dusty driveway. Over fifteen hundred miles in two days, with only a brief stop to pitch a tent when he was too tired to continue. Sergeant Mike, as he was beginning to get used to the civilians calling him, was a man on a mission. After over twenty years as a Marine, that new nickname still rankled at moments, but what did they know of proper ways to address a non-commissioned officer.
Lowering the kickstand on Esther as he had named his motorcycle, he took off his red, white, and blue helmet. This far out of the city, the night sky was alight with stars and an almost full moon. They cast an eerie glow on the large, two-story white wood frame farmhouse in front of him. Mike smiled as he remembered the first time that he saw this place.
He had barely been eighteen when he met Billy Hall in basic training at Parris Island. The red-headed farm boy from Oklahoma and the smart-mouthed orphan from Boston had been an unlikely pair. But over those thirteen weeks of hell that was basic training, the two of them had become best of friends. The fresh-faced kid was a far cry from the tough types that had usually been Mike’s friends, but his easy smile and down-home friendliness had knocked the chip right off Mike’s shoulder.
Of course, when graduation day came, Billy’s parents had traveled from Oklahoma to South Carolina. The large, gruff man with the ruddy complexion and grey hair and the small red-headed woman had beamed proudly at their son, alongside his baby sister as well as an aunt and uncle from Georgia. The uncle had been a Marine and encouraged the young man to enlist during the summer after graduation while Billy stayed with them.
Mike was surprised that on Family Day, they had all insisted he join them on the tour of the Parris Island Museum. It touched something deep inside him that he had thought buried since that night when he was seven and had lost the only person that had ever or would ever love him.
After the ceremony, which marked the end of basic training, he had hung back, uncomfortable with the hundreds of family and friends that celebrated this accomplishment with their sons and daughters, boyfriends, wives, and brothers. For Mike, there was no one. There had not been since that night, and he no longer cared. People and emotions were just messy complications that he did not need.
Billy dragged his parents, Mister Clyde and Missus Lula, to where he stood alone and apart from the others. Mike smiled and made polite conversation. His friend was heading home for the ten-day leave before they were both off to infantry training at Camp Geiger. When they discovered that Mike had nowhere to go, Missus Lula insisted that he come with them. It had been the beginning.
Nearly a quarter of a century and this place looked almost the same as it had that day. Except that now the windows were boarded up, and this once lively family farm was as barren as Mike’s soul.
He shook his head and fought back the lump that rose in his throat at the memories of that day and the ones that followed. Staying in the spare room just down the hall from his friend, rising at dawn not to the shouts of their drill instructor but the sweet call of Missus Lulu, “Breakfast is ready, boys.”
Mike sighed as he dismounted the motorcycle and began to climb the few steps up to the wrap around porch. The old swing was still suspended from the roof that covered the porch. It creaked solemnly as it rocked gently in the breeze. Its song another eerie reminder of those few brief blessed days when Mike had glimpsed what others took for granted – family.
He dug deep into the pockets of his dusty jeans to retrieve the key they had given him back then. He could still see Missus Lulu’s tears as she hugged both of them at the bus station. Mister Clyde had gripped his hand firmly as he passed the keyring to him. “Consider this place your home now, son.” The man gripped him about the shoulders in a bear hug that made Mike as uncomfortable as it had comforted.
He slid the key into the lock and turned it slowly. It stuck just a bit, a sign of disuse. How long had it been since anyone opened this door? Since they had placed Mister Clyde in the nursing home two years ago? He knew that Billy’s little sister was busy with her own family in Chicago, and he tried very hard not to judge the woman that had been only a little girl of eight or nine that first time he had visited.
It had been Labor Day weekend then too. He wondered if Honour, Oklahoma still had its annual county fair next weekend. Would there be fireworks? Then again, Mike had had enough of loud explosions and the smell of fresh gunpowder to last him a lifetime. Maybe the outsider would give it all a pass even if they did.
Mike did not bother trying to turn the light on. He knew that it wouldn’t work, so he turned on the torch on his phone that would suffice as he made his way past furniture covered in old white sheets and dust.
Some people might think they resembled ghosts, but Mike lived with so many of those that he knew it was never as simple as white apparitions. No, ghosts were much more real than that. Dreams and memories that haunted not just your sleep but your waking moments as well.
It might have been a couple of years since that fateful leave when Mike and Billy’s sister Becca closed up this place. The sole purpose of that visit was to put Mister Clyde into the assisted care facility, the new fancy term for a nursing home. But Mike had no trouble making his way through the dark house to the back porch off the kitchen.
How many nights had he and his men done patrols in utter darkness? Even without night goggles, his old eyes had acclimated themselves to the shadows. These were less likely to conceal enemies who could kill you with a single bullet, fired from a rooftop.
He sighed as he listened to the creak of metal on metal as he pulled open the rusty door to the circuit breaker box. He knew he was tired when his ghosts got the better of him like this. He flipped the switch. If only he could turn his thoughts off and on so easily.
He should probably head out to the back yard and prime the old pump that supplied the house with its water. But he was not up to it at the moment. There should be enough water left in the rusty pipes for a quick bath tonight. He could handle the rest tomorrow. After he checked in on Mister Clyde at the nursing home. But for now, the order of business was a bath, even if it was cold and the water a bit brown. Then it was off to bed.
He was past lying to himself. He knew that as much as his body needed sleep, it was likely to come at a high price. The past week or so had been a rollercoaster ride, unlike any other. He had not fully comprehended just how much this retirement shit would eat at him. But the Corps was not just the only career he had ever known, but as this place and his time in East LA showed…it was family. The only family he had known since he was seven years old.
“Go to bed, old man,” he spoke into the darkness as he made his way back through the living room and up the stairs. He was so tired he did not even bother to turn on the lights. He made his way down the hall to the guest room that had been his from that first visit.
He stopped and paused for a moment at the closed door next to it. He knew what it held. Everything would be just as Billy had left it that last Christmas they had spent here together. The old Polaroid picture of the two of them with Billy’s girl. What was her name again? And his other best friend from high school? It would still be stuck in the corner of the antique dresser, held in place almost magically across the decades between the cloudy mirror and the intricately carved wood. Suspended in time, just as his friend would forever be in his death.
Mike wondered whatever had become of them – Billy’s friend and his girl. Last he had heard from Missus Lula, they had gotten married. It was the first time that he heard that very un-Christian bitterness in the woman he had thought so gentle. She was upset at how quickly after Billy’s funeral, the couple had eloped. “It just was not right, not decent,” she had said on the phone when Mike spoke to them after returning from that first deployment with Desert Storm.
Too often, he still thought about holding his friend as blood leaked from the corner of his mouth, as Billy struggled to breathe. The tiny wound just beneath the name tag on his camouflage uniform did not look all that bad to Mike at first. There was only a small circle of blood around the entry wound. So a naïve nineteen-year-old with more courage than good sense could not understand why his best friend could not breathe. It was not until their Corporal had torn Billy’s lifeless body from Mike’s arms that he had seen the gaping bloody hole that had once been his friend’s shoulder.
Mike owed the man his life as he shook him from his dazed shock and reminded him of his duty. He was not sure whether he owed Corporal Steven Talbot a debt of gratitude or a good beating for that one. He added another name to his mental list of old friends to check in on. It had been over fifteen years since he had heard from the man, just before he left the Corps, and shortly after Talbot’s divorce. Mike still had his parents’ number in his address book, though.
But right now, he had other things on his mind. This final service to that laughing red-headed plow-boy and the family that had taken him into their home and their hearts. Even after they all lost the one thing that had held them together. Right now, he was here to offer what comfort he could to a dying man that most days did not remember his own name, let alone the son he had lost almost a quarter of a century before, or the orphaned best friend that they had accepted as one of their own.
He pushed open the door to his room and fought back other memories as he tossed his motorcycle helmet and small backpack on the foot of the bed. He could smell the musty reminders that rose from the perfectly sewn multi-colored patchwork squares of another of Missus Lula’s masterpieces. It was another reminder of the hundreds of memories that this particular stop on his journey would entail. But those too would wait for the morning as he opened his bag, pulling out a towel and body wash from it.
The bathroom was just across the hall. With a simple pull on the cord, it glowed softly with light from the fluted wall sconce that hung next to the door. Most of the features of this house were as old as or older than he was, including the wiring as the light flickered for a moment before coming back on. He especially loved the large wrought iron and porcelain bear-claw bathtub that sat against the far wall beneath a tiny window that let light into the room without disturbing the privacy of bathers.
He turned the taps. It took a bit more effort because they were rusty from disuse. Mike quickly stripped out of his jacket, shirt, boots, jeans, and skivvies. There were only a couple inches of cold, muddy water at the bottom of the tub, but it was a far sight better than some places he had washed up.
It was as cold as he had anticipated when his toe first touched it, but he had not planned on some spa experience. Just wash enough dirt and grime from his body to get a decent night’s sleep. Not that that was likely, but he could try. He lathered his body and head. It had been only a couple of weeks since his last haircut, but already his high and tight was longer than he usually liked.
He chuckled as he thought about his friend Luke’s long hippie locks that he kept in a ponytail while he worked in his motorcycle shop where they had met. There was no reason now why he too could not grow his hair out. Though maybe not that long. But he had just been a green kid when his brown curls had joined the inches thick pile of hair on the barber’s floor at Parris Island. Since then, it had never been long enough to curl. It certainly would not be brown anymore. No, at almost forty-two, his hair was more salt than pepper.
Mike pulled the plug and watched the water swirl around the plughole for a moment. How many young lives like Billy’s had he seen needlessly spiraling down the drain of greed and power, controlled by men who had no real understanding of the realities of war? Even commanders like the Colonel, good Marines, got caught up in power struggles that cost good men their lives…and Sergeants on the front lines had even less control. Their only choice was to do the best they could to keep their men safe and bear the burdens when they failed.
He forced his tired, aching muscles to stand. This ride had been too far, too fast. But that was the story of his life. He reached for the towel and quickly dried himself. He wrapped it about his waist and gathered his clothes before stepping back across the hall to his room. His actions were almost robotic as he hung his jacket on the hook on the back of the door and tossed the rest of his stuff into a pile in the corner. After he visited Mister Clyde tomorrow morning, he would get the well primed properly and do his laundry, even wash the bedding and hang it out to dry on the line out back.
“Damn, since when you got so domesticated, old man,” he asked the stranger in the mirror. He stood for a long moment studying the road map of tiny lines across his forehead and around his eyes and mouth. They had not boarded up the windows on the second floor, so even in the soft moonlight filtering through the window, he could see them clearly.
They were just another reminder that he was getting older. Them, the aches, and pains in his knees and shoulders from too many long patrols and too many heavy packs over the years. His shoulders he could blame on too many kickbacks from gunfire in too many places.
He walked over to the window and lifted it, letting what little bit of breeze there was into the room, airing it out as Missus Lula would have called it. He sat on the bed and reached for his pack at the foot of it. Since he was alone in the house, there was no reason to wear even his skivvies this night. But there was something in the pack he wanted.
He lifted the photo from the front pocket, where he did his best to keep it safe from further fraying around the edges. It had come that way. When Tommy had pleaded with him to remove his Kevlar and reach into his pocket. Mike had known instantly what he wanted. The smoke from the IED had blurred his vision as he answered his friend’s request, handing it to him.
Tommy had weakly shaken his head and pressed his bloody hand over Mike’s, wrapping it about the photograph. If you looked closely, you could still see coopery brown stains on one corner…the young man’s life’s blood.
“Promise me, Mike, promise me…you’ll take care of…her. Mama.” Mike heard those words every fucking night as he closed his eyes. It was the one time in all their friendship that Tommy had called him by his name and not merely Master Sergeant or Top. Almost six fucking months since the damned IED had blown Tommy…
He stopped that line of thought…as much as he could anyway. He caressed the soft brown curls that hung about her face. She was smiling proudly in the picture. Of course, she was. It had been her only child’s college graduation. Any mother would be proud, but especially a single one.
He bet she was not smiling much these days. And that was his fault. He always played these things over and over in his mind, like some fucking slow-mo on the big game. He spent hours, sometimes days, looking for what he could have done differently. What more he should have done to save them. But it always came down to the same thing – nothing. And that hurt worse…knowing that there was not a fucking thing he could have or should have done to save his friends. It was just one of ‘those’ things. Even as fucking unfair as it was. And it was unfair. He always came back to that one too.
Why them? Men like Billy with a loving family and a girl back home? Or Manny with his parents and sisters who had so many plans for him, and the son that would grow up never knowing what a good man his father was, how much he loved him? Or Tommy, the pain she must be going through now. He could not even imagine it.
“I’m sorry, Esther. If I could have taken his place, I would have. Would do anything to bring him back to you.”
Mike felt them all. The losses of the men and women he had served with, who had died by his side and under his command. Desert Storm, Nairobi, Kosovo, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom or New Dawn or whatever the fucking bureaucrats behind the desks in Washington were calling it these days. War. Death. Those were the only fucking names that mattered. The only ones that fit. No matter the location, the combatants, or the cause. War and death.
He looked at the fading photograph one more time. “I would give anything to bring him back to you,” he whispered as he brought it to his lips as he did most nights.
The fucking truth was that the death of her son bothered him the most. Because Mike had fallen in love with the woman…through the stories Tommy told of growing up, snippets of Skype calls that Mike had hidden in the shadows to overhear, and the couple of times that he had spoken to her himself. That last call would never leave him.
He remembered Luke’s words about loving someone you knew you could never have. That was her. Esther. The only fucking time he had ever really fallen for a woman, and he could never have her. Because her only son’s blood stained his hands, and his promise to the dying man to take care of his mother hung like a guillotine over his neck.
Yeah, that was another trip he would have to take. He knew that. Knew that no matter the pain of actually seeing her and knowing that she could never be his, he had a promise to keep. And Master Sergeant Michael Thomas O’Malley always kept his promise, or hopefully, one day died trying.