The days turned into weeks and weeks into a month as the nights grew colder, and the days grew shorter. Leaves on the trees began to change color though not as dramatically as Mike remembered from his childhood in New England. September rolled into October and little changed with Mister Clyde. He had his good days, and increasingly he had more of those bad ones as well.
Thankfully his best day had been the one when Little Billy had stopped by before heading back to Twenty-Nine Palms. While the man had not been alert enough to understand when Mike introduced him as Brenda’s son, he had been verbal. Verbal enough to carry on a conversation with the young man he mistook for his dead son.
Mike had been worried about how this would affect Billy, but when he tried once more to rectify the situation, the young man had shaken his head no and played along. Just as Mike did when Mary thought him her long-lost Joe. As he walked Billy out to his truck, Mike had tried to explain, but again the boy simply shook his head and said, “No problem.” Mike had been so moved that he gave the kid another of those half hugs, right there in the parking lot. He had not seen him again before he left.
Isabel was gone for a few days too. She had gone back with him to finish packing their tiny apartment and would drive the truck back to Honour while Billy stayed with some friends until they deployed.
Hell, the restaurant had even been closed for three days as Brenda and her husband met the couple in Las Vegas for that wedding Josh had spoken about the first morning he met them. He was glad for the young couple. Mike knew it was what Billy would have wanted, what he would have done had he lived to learn of his own son’s existence.
Mike had not known what to get them but felt it incumbent upon him as Billy’s best friend to do something much more than a toaster. Finally, he had settled upon a simple card that he stuffed with a few hundred dollars. Let them decide what they needed. Mike certainly had no idea what newlyweds needed. So, he had simply slipped the card to Brenda and asked her to give it to them when she saw them.
Of course, when they made it back, they could not wait to show him the pictures on their cell phones. Mike had smiled and nodded as he listened to the stories of their Vegas wedding. He had not known what to say, so he just nodded and smiled. It was too much of a reminder of other weddings that had not been…Brenda’s and Billy’s, Rachel’s and Manny’s, even Tommy though he had had no girlfriend. Mike could certainly never imagined such a thing for himself. What woman could ever want such ‘damaged’ goods as him?
But the biggest surprise had been the sudden and unexpected death of Mary Majors. Less than a month after hers and Frank’s fortieth wedding anniversary, she had simply gone to sleep one night and not woken up the next morning. It had been hard for Mike to fathom since the day before had been another of her good days. She had smiled and held Frank’s arm as the couple walked and talked in the garden. Once more, he had been Frank’s friend Mike and not her Joe.
The next morning when he got to the nursing home, Mike noticed that none of the patients were around. All seemed to be in their rooms. He could not even find a staff member at first. Then Maude had appeared out of Mary’s room, her arm wrapped about the shoulders of a pale and visibly shaken Frank as his daughter followed behind with red, swollen eyes.
Mike had not known precisely what happened, thinking perhaps the woman had become ill and needed to be taken to the hospital. That had happened before to another of the patients there. Not wanting to disturb them, he had gone into Mister Clyde’s room as usual. A couple of hours later, Maude had come in to apologize for not being available for Mike’s routine morning briefing on Mister Clyde’s night. That is when she explained that Missus Majors had ‘passed away.’
Mike fucking hated that euphemism – passed away. Passed where? It was not like anyone fucking knew what happened. He had been shocked, but Maude explained that sometimes these things happened.
He just nodded… ‘These things’ like best friends with pregnant girlfriends and a family farm that was counting on him to take it over in a couple of years being killed? When no one would have fucking cared or ever missed the screwed-up orphan from Boston. Things like Mary’s sudden death after such a good day when it had been Mister Clyde, who had steadily been declining over the weeks.
Not that anything in this fucked up world made sense. Mike should have long since stopped asking ‘why?’ When would he ever learn?
Mike had not been able to attend the woman’s funeral. He had not wanted to intrude upon family time, but the truth was that Mister Clyde, too, had taken a turn for the worse. He was no longer eating at all. No matter how hard Mike or the nurses tried, they could get no more than a few sips of water or broth down him.
Maude had pulled Mike aside to discuss it with him. She could speak with the doctors, perhaps transfer him to the hospital for IV feeding, and maybe even do it there. But that would only delay the inevitable. She needed a decision from him and the man’s daughter.
Mike had not known what to tell her. He did not want the responsibility for such a decision, even though he had been the one who had borne the brunt of the man’s care during those final days and weeks. Even though the strain was beginning to wear on him in a very different way than command or battle, but wear nonetheless.
Still, he had not spoken to Becca Hall-Okadigbo in weeks, since that earlier failed plea for the woman to visit her father. Not knowing what more to say, he had left updates to Maude Landon, but this time he had no choice. This was a conversation that they should have one-on-one.
He had told Maude that he would speak with the woman that night and let her know what they had decided the next morning. Maude had given him that smile as she placed her hand on his arm. “I know this is hard, but sometimes…these things just need to be left to their natural course.”
Mike had nodded. In some ways, he even agreed. Mister Clyde was almost seventy. Unlike his son, he had lived a full life. He had seen joy and pain, loved and married, struggled to keep the family farm going well past the age when most people simply retired and went fishing. He had buried his only son and beloved wife. His relationship with his only other close family member was strained at best.
This death was so very different from all the others that Mike had witnessed. Not only had Mister Clyde lived his life, but on those awful days when he became so violent that they had no choice but to restrain him to the bed or chair, on those days, death seemed almost merciful. More a blessing than an existence that was nothing more than breathing. But still, Mike did not think this decision was one he could make on his own.
All of this weighed upon his mind that afternoon as he left the nursing home. He was so focused on those thoughts that had Frank Majors not approached him for help carrying some boxes to his car, Mike might have missed the opportunity to say farewell to the man. Frank had become a friend and compatriot of sorts in this battle against dementia. He was glad that the man had sought him out, though.
Mike was surprised at how little there was, only three small boxes that contained all the mementos and photographs of a whole lifetime. Mike had insisted on carrying all of them himself, no need to burden this elderly man with that as well as everything else he had been and still was going through. As he loaded the last box into the trunk of the man’s car, he had turned back to notice tears streaming down the man’s weathered cheek as he ran his fingers across a sealed plastic bag.
Mike instantly recognized its contents. The neatly folded triangle of red, white, and blue material could be only one thing. His throat tightened as he thought of the meaning behind that flag and compared it to the one he had placed in Senora Hernandez’s shaking hands only weeks ago. He knew that soon he too would be bringing another home, though he doubted very much that Billy’s sister would want the damned thing. She had been barely ten when her brother was killed.
As if his mind too was on the same wave-length, Frank picked the bag up out of the box and held it reverently. “What do I do with this?” He spoke aloud the question that was plaguing Mike himself.
The man shook his head as tears fell onto the thick plastic that would protect its contents from even this. “I know all of this must seem strange to you, but I knew going into our marriage that he would always hold some special place in her heart. That there was some part of the woman I loved that was his alone, that I could never touch.”
He looked up at Mike through those tears, “And I never tried. I never pushed her for more than the love she had to give me. I know you cannot understand, but even then, there was always so much love in that woman that it was more than enough. Never once did I feel jealous of him.”
“You know she was a teacher. Right up until two years ago, when dementia got so bad that they forced her to retire. She taught English and drama in the local high school. She had once been a B-list starlet. She was in a couple of old seventies horror movies, you know.” He smiled as he shook his head, “That woman could scream. They were an odd pair. The flower power hippie actress and the Marine officer. But she always said it was love at first sight.”
Frank’s shoulders seemed to shake a bit as he spoke. “It wasn’t like that with us, though. I was simply the science teacher down the hall that she shared a sandwich with over lunch.” He chuckled, “My granddaughter said she had ‘friend-zoned’ me – whatever that is.”
“But over time, our lunches turned into movies on Friday nights and the occasional bowling game. It’s not like there is a whole lot to do around Prairie View. They weren’t even dates, just two friends with nothing more to do, hanging out together.”
“Well, at least that’s how she saw them. Me…that was another matter. I fell and fell hard for that woman from the moment I saw her. Of course, I figured what chance did a bachelor science teacher have with a Hollywood star. I consigned myself to simply looking and never touching,”
“Over time, though, I’m not even sure how, but over the next couple of years, we just always seemed to be together. Until everyone in town just sort of assumed we were a couple. Even though I had never even kissed her.”
“She was the one that changed that. Under the mistletoe at the Christmas dance one year. Things just sort of happened from there. We were married less than a year later when she discovered that she was pregnant with our older daughter despite our best efforts. She was brutally honest with me then. When I proposed to her, she told me that she loved me, but that she was not ‘in love’ with me.”
The man shook his head, “English teachers and their damned semantics. What’s the difference anyway?”
“Forty years? Probably almost as long as you’ve been alive, young fellow. Forty mostly wonderful years, three beautiful daughters just like their mother and ten grandchildren, more than a nerdy science teacher could ever dream of, let me tell you.” He shook his head, “I just don’t know what to do now.” He was silent for a long moment as his fingers brushed over the plastic.
“It’s not like I resent the man. Like I said, I never have. It’s just that somehow I feel like this would never mean as much to the girls or me as it did to her. As it honestly should to someone. What do I do with it?”
Mike thought for a long moment. He wondered about other flags. How many ended up like this one? Without a place of honor, simply forgotten over time, like the men themselves who had died. It did not seem right somehow. It wasn’t right.
He sighed as he reached for it, “Did he have any family you know of? Anyone that might want it?”
Frank nodded, “Yes, somewhere in Boston. Mary did not talk about them much. They had never really approved of her, being as she was neither Italian nor Catholic. By the time we met, I don’t think they even exchanged Christmas cards anymore. I guess I could go through the things at the house and see if I can find a name or address somewhere. It’s just that…”
The man sighed, “Just that I’ve kinda been putting that off. Guess, I feel that if I leave her stuff lying around, untouched, then she isn’t really gone, you know.”
Mike nodded sympathetically. What would it be? One more duty? Another mission, of sorts? To another fallen comrade. Even though he had never met the man, who was likely dead when he was still in diapers, he felt connected to him somehow. This time it was more than merely the brotherhood of the Corps. After all, for a while at least, he had been the man. At least in the eyes of the woman who had loved him and never forgotten him.
For a split second, Mike was the one who was jealous of the dead man. What would that feel like? To love and be loved so deeply that not even death could extinguish you from a woman’s heart. It was not something he would ever know that was for sure.
Maybe he owed this much to Mary as much as he did the Marine he had never known. To see this final remembrance of a life sacrificed in honor of its country safely into the hands of someone who would value it as she had all these years. Or that was his hope as he took the folded flag from the other man’s hands.
It weighed far more than he would have thought. More than he remembered that other one he had handed to Senora Hernandez weighing. But then too, this one was from another era, perhaps it was made from another type of material, heavier. Or maybe he just felt the weight of the burden he was accepting more. Perhaps he knew that this would be his final mission. The last thing he did before he…
But that was the future. Or what future Mike had anyway. There were many other missions to complete before that day would come. Many more miles to cover. Old friends and comrades to visit. Right now, though, he had this one to finish.
“I’m going back to Boston at some point. If you want, I’ll take it with me. I give you my word I’ll take care of it like it should be until I can locate some of Joe’s family, who will,” Mike promised.
Then he exchanged contact information and extracted the man’s promise that he would go through Mary’s things, see if there was anything more to go on than merely the man’s name and rank. Mike figured, if worse came to worse, he still had a few friends who might be able to get all he needed to know from that alone. Still, he hated to put their jobs at risk by asking, if Frank could provide the information he needed.
The men said their farewells. This time, Mike found himself wrapped in a real hug, rather than the half embraces he rarely gave his friends. As Frank pulled back, there were tears in the older man’s eyes once more.
“Thank you. Thank you for this, and especially thank you for the compassion you showed my Mary by pretending to be him for a bit. You don’t know how much that meant to her. What closure it gave her that this time, Joe came back for her. There are no words to explain how much that means to me, son. You’re a damned fine man. Taking on things like that and the man in there that ain’t even your father. The world would be a better place if there were more people like you in it.”
There was nothing and no way that Mike could respond to that. If this man knew. If he only knew how many people, how often he had failed his friends. How much blood stained his hands. How the ghosts came more vividly for him every damned night. If he knew, then Mike was sure he would never say such a thing.
Mike simply nodded, “Take care of yourself, Frank. And I promise I will handle this for you and Mary.”
Frank smiled as Mike walked away. The man stayed by that open car trunk as he started the Harley and put on his helmet. The last thing that Mike saw as he rode away was the man waving after him. If he only knew the truth…