Chapter 4 – Heads Up

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The drive was just a couple of miles to rolling green hills marked only by the shade of a couple of large trees and the gleaming white marble markers that bore the names of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people. Mike drew a deep breath as he looked out the window and saw the Honor Guard hidden beneath one of those trees.

It was not a duty that had ever been his. He wondered how those young men felt. What was it like to hear that tune dozens of times? To lift your guns, not against an enemy, but in salute to fallen comrades? To watch the faces of dozens of families knowing that one day it could be your own?

The door opened, and Mike squinted into the sun as he stepped out of the car. He helped the women out before joining the other young men by the hearse. As the man slid the metal box out, Mike ran his hand over its smooth surface. “Adios, mi amigo,” he whispered as he fought back moisture caused by the bright sunlight.

Together they lifted the heavy burden once more and carried it to the green tarp. They sat it down over what Mike knew was an empty hole in the ground. His throat tightened at the thought. The open hole in his soul stared back at him as he stepped to the side with the others beneath the dark green canopy that covered a couple of dozen folding chairs.

The priest came to stand near them as the Hernandezes took their places in the front row. Once more, the man commanded them to bow their heads in prayer. With his hands tucked behind his back, Mike stood with the others and listened as the man spoke. The words “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,” taunted him.

What did the priest know of war? You always feared evil and death. The difference was in what you did, not how you felt. You did whatever you had to in the face of that fear, just like Manny and the others had that night. You fought on.

The casket stared at him as the strains of that lone bugle reached his ears. Until there was nothing left to fight on with, he thought, as the shots rang out across the peaceful green grass. The bright sun glinted off the metal stocks and sparkled like diamonds hidden behind that tree.

Mike forced his eyes from that box, scanning the crowd instead. He noticed as a car pulled up behind the others. A young blonde in a black designer dress stepped out. She paused by the door as the last notes of the song echoed out. Then she opened the back door and leaned inside. A moment later, she appeared again, cradling a little boy in a navy and white sailor suit. His hair was only a shade or two darker than the woman’s.

But as they approached the back of the crowd, it was his dark eyes and smile that Mike noticed. A smile so like his father’s that his heart stuttered in his chest. A smile Mike had thought he would never see again.

Mike watched them as the Honor Guard approached the casket. They lifted the flag and began the meticulous process of folding it. Corner to corner, they repeated the process until it was a neat triangle. They placed it in Mike’s hands. He nodded in gratitude to the young Sergeant, who was leading the guard this day. Had he ever been that young? That naive?

Walking over to where the Hernandez family sat, Mike knelt in front of Manny’s mother. He placed the flag into Señora Hernandez’s trembling hands. “On behalf of the President of the United States, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s service to Country and Corps.”

‘The Corps’ words caught in his throat. A country that did not even call one of the bravest men he knew its own. A president that few could respect, a man who divided when the country needed unifying calm. A nation that would not show its gratitude in the simplest of ways – by recognizing this brave Marine as its own.

But not for much longer. Not if he had a damned thing to say about it. If he had to climb on the back of Esther and drive down the halls of Congress itself. This country was going to acknowledge the bravery of Manuel Hernandez and his family. He swore it, then and there, as he placed the measly token into her lap.

He stood slowly and walked out of the shade into the sun. Its warmth failed to reach the depths of his soul as he passed the little boy.

He was in no mood to ride back to the house with the family, but with his bike parked at their home, he saw no alternative. He supposed it would not be too far to walk. He had marched further in his day. But generally, not in full dress uniform, he thought as he found a tree near the road to hide behind as people began to find their cars and leave.

Mike had not smoked in years. But, damn, at that moment, he wanted a cigarette. A drink. Hell, a pitcher or a bottle was more like it.

“Can we give you a lift?” asked a friendly voice.

Mike looked up at the bear and nodded in relief. “My bike is back at the Hernandez’s house. Besides, there is one more thing I need to do there. But if you don’t mind dropping me off, I would sure appreciate it.”

“No problem, my friend,” the man grabbed his hand and led him towards an SUV.

“Wait a minute,” Mike said as he excused himself. He walked over to where Hector was standing with the other cousins and friends, who had served as pallbearers alongside him.

“I can’t believe that puta,” he heard Hector say. “How dare she come here today? Manny wasn’t good enough for her when he was alive. So why she coming round now?”

Mike stopped at the anger in the young man’s voice. “Maybe for the same reason we all came here. To honor someone she cared about. Or maybe she came so that little boy could say good-bye to the father he will never remember. But whatever reason she came here, I know one thing. Manny would have been happy as hell she did.”

Hector looked at the ground and puffed out his chest. “Yeah, well, it ain’t right,” he mumbled.

Mike did not respond to this latest comment. “Please tell your aunt and uncle that I caught a ride back to the house with some friends. I’ll see them there.”

Holding out his hand to the others, he said his good-byes and turned back to the motley crew waiting by the vehicle. “This is why you don’t do funerals, buddy,” he said to himself as he double-timed it to the relative safety of his comrades.

As he piled into the car, the men had tried to get Mike to join them for one quick beer before heading off to the Hernandez’s. Mike was tempted, very tempted. The reality of this day, of a lifetime, rode him hard, but he did not want to dishonor the uniform or Manny by drinking. Just yet, anyway. He promised them that as soon as his errand was over, he would meet them there. It was another promise he intended to keep.

They made the short ride back to the Hernandez home in utter silence, not even introductions to mar the solemn occasion. Each of the four men in the vehicle lost in their thoughts and memories.

It had been over a decade since he had drowned his troubles in alcohol. Somewhere in his late twenties, he had discovered that the price was just too high. It was pretty easy to remember when he had given the partying up. It was a day when a lot of people gave up a lot of things. A day that few people would forget. September eleventh, two-thousand and one. Nine-eleven.

He was coming to the end of his second enlistment. He had just finished a tour of duty, peacekeeping in Kosovo. And he was seriously considering getting out. But that morning, watching those buildings burn and then fall, from a television screen in Camp Pendleton, had changed all that.

He had battle experience. He would be needed. And there was no way he was letting his country or the Marines down. Not then. He had known the cost going into things. He had been in Desert Storm and Nairobi when Al Qaeda attacked the embassy there.

As they pulled up in front of the Hernandez home, the men reminded him of his promise to join them later. He nodded and waved as they drove off. No one was back at the Hernandez’s home yet. But that was all right. He could use a bit of quiet. Time alone to get his head together while he smoked that first cigarette in twelve years. It was another thing he had given up that day in his determination to, as the saying goes…be all that he could be.

Mike drew deeply on the cigarette. The cigarette that he had gotten off the Colonel. He felt the smoke fill his lungs. These fumes were so different from the others that clung to his mind. Gunpowder. Burning flesh. But the truth was that it burned his throat and lungs almost as much as those memories. He stubbed it out.

The limousine had brought the Hernandezes back almost twenty minutes ago. He was sure that the family was settling in by now. Besides, the representative from the Congresswoman’s office would be here soon.

He almost missed her. Though it was newer and more expensive than most of the cars in this neighborhood, the sedan blended in with the other vehicles. If it had not been for the soft sobs coming from the window that was rolled down a bit, Mike would have walked right past it. Rachel was just sitting there, a block down the road from the Hernandez home. He could see the baby sleeping in the car seat in the back.

Mike tapped lightly on the window, calling her name. The young woman looked up, her eyes swollen and red from the tears. She rolled the window down the rest of the way.

“Sergeant Mike?”

Mike halted in shock. How did this girl know him? “Yes.”

She opened the car door and got out slowly. “Manny told us about you in his letters and emails, sent pictures.”

Mike was not sure which surprised him more, that Manny had told her so much about him or that she had read them at all. Manny had shared the story behind their break-up with Mike. It was not what most people suspected.

Even after having Miguel, Rachel had finished high school. Like Manny, she was at the top of her graduating class. Both of them had been accepted at UCLA. For her, it was a foregone conclusion. Her father was an executive with one of the Hollywood studios. She could easily afford tuition as well as manage childcare for her son.

But for Manny, it was a different story. Even with grants, scholarships, and, if he continued to live at home, enduring the hour-long commute across the city each day, it would still not be enough. He could have gotten part-time jobs, perhaps, but then his grades would have suffered. He knew that with two younger sisters, who would soon be off to college, as well as a mortgage to pay, his parents could not afford to help.

So, Manny had turned to the Marines, a dream he had held since he was a boy. Not only would he qualify for more funding to pay for his education, but he could save a large portion of his pay each month. In five years, he could go back to college without worrying, maybe even help his parents out some.

Rachel had not liked the plan. She did not want him gone from her life, from their son’s life, for long periods. She did not wish Manny to put his life in danger. She had begged and pleaded with him to reconsider. Her father had even offered Manny money if he would stay. But pride had stood in the young man’s way.

Mike supposed that standing here now, Manny gone, her concerns borne out, Rachel might feel vindicated. If he had known how things would turn out, would Manny have given in to her pleas? Swallowed his pride to be with her and their son. They would never know now.

What Mike did know was that this young woman was hurting just as badly as the Hernandez family. That the little boy, sleeping so peacefully in his car seat, could offer solace and reconciliation to them all. That was what Manny would want.

Opening the back door, Mike fumbled with the buckle on the car seat. The little boy opened his eyes, and for a moment, Mike’s heart stopped beating in his chest. He had his father’s brown eyes. Eyes that had seen so much already. Knowing eyes.

“Hey, little man, your grandparents are waiting for you,” Mike whispered as he finally found the clasp that would release the contraption. Lifting the car seat out the back door with the toddler still strapped inside, Mike smiled at the young mother. “Let’s go.”

She shook her blonde head. “No, you go ahead. Take Miguel with you. I’ll just wait here.”

Mike shook his head and shifted the car seat to his other hand. He reached out and circled the woman’s arm with his hand. “No way. You’re coming too.” Capturing her gaze, “It’s what Manny would have wanted.”

She sniffled, but all her protests died. Her shoulders slumped, and she bowed her head as she nodded, allowing Mike to guide her across the street.

The yard was once more filled with dozens of young people hanging around, just talking. It sounded like the bees were back in their hive. Until the moment that Mike’s feet touched the walkway. Conversations stopped, and all heads turned to stare at them.

He felt her go stiff under his fingers. Without even turning his head, “Heads up, soldier,” he commanded. “You have more right to be here than most of these people. You remember one thing: Manny always loved you. Now one foot in front of the other. One step at a time.”

Mike heard her exhale deeply and, for a moment, worried that she would turn and run back to the safety of her vehicle. But she did not. After a moment, he looked at her.

“Did he?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I can promise you not a day went by, that boy did not say something about you or his son.”

Her blues eyes filled to brimming with tears once more. “But I was so horrible to him. I never answered any of his letters or emails. I never cashed any of the checks he sent. I even declined his Skype calls.”

Mike knew the pain of guilt that she bore, intimately. He could not deny any of what she said. He knew that after more than one of those calls, Manny had moped about camp, his famous smile nowhere in sight.

But none of that would help now. It was too late to change the past, but at this moment, she had the power to decide the future. Not just for herself, but for her son, Manny’s son…and for the Hernandez family. Mike had to make her see that somehow.

“Miguel lost his father. Don’t make him lose his grandparents and aunts too,” he pleaded with her.

Before Rachel could respond, the screen door flew open. Señora Hernandez ran through it and down the steps. Like a force of nature, she captured the girl in her arms.

“Raquéela, Raquéela. You came. You came,” she cried.

Mike took a step back as he watched the women embrace. The baby stirred in his seat and let out a screech.

“And you brought Miguelito.”

Rachel nodded as the woman released her from the embrace, but kept one hand firmly in her own as if fearing that the girl would run away if she did not. Manny’s mother reached for the car seat, but Mike shook his head. “It’s heavy, Ma’am. Let me,” as he followed them inside.

Mike sat the car seat down next to the chair where Mama Nona was holding court. Señora Hernandez dropped to her knees, making quick work of the harnesses that had baffled him. The boy jumped from his seat the moment that he was free, running about and giggling as if he knew exactly where he was.

Señora Hernandez smiled for the first time as she sang out in Spanish to her husband and grandmother-in-law. She pulled Rachel forward, and Mike was surprised to hear the young woman join in the conversation in perfect Spanish.

Mike knew that he had been right. This moment was precisely what his friend would have wanted more than anything else. His mother welcoming the woman he loved back to the family. His son running about the house where he had grown up. The only thing missing was Manny’s smiling face.

Mike turned back towards the door. His vision blurred a bit as he stepped into the sunlight. He would just wait out here for the Congresswoman’s representative. He pulled the phone out of his pocket. The woman should be arriving at any moment. He would introduce her to the family and explain why she was here. Then he could join the other Marines from the funeral at the bar in a toast to Corporal Manuel Hernandez.

“Why did you bring that bitch here?” Mike recognized the voice from behind his back.

Turning, he stared into Hector’s glazed over stare. Looking at the empty bottle in his hand, Mike suspected that it was more than just the beer that fired this young man’s bravado.

In complete honesty, Mike was itching for a fight. Connecting his fist with the boy’s jaw and teaching him a thing or two about real respect would feel so damned good just then. Except that would not do the Hernandezes or Manny any good.

Instead, Mike simply shrugged his board shoulders and said, “Your uncle and aunt seem to be happy I did.”

“Yeah, well, that rich bitch dissed Manny. She wouldn’t even let him see his kid,” he slurred.

“But she brought their son today, to honor his father.”

“Too damned late,” Hector stumbled towards the door. “I’m gonna be a man. Do what none of you seem to have cojones enough to do. Tell her she ain’t welcome here.”

Mike stepped up, placing his arm about the boy’s shoulder, he turned him. “Why would you want to do that, Hector? Trying to be a big man? To show off in front of your friends?” He motioned towards the crowd gathered around them. “Trust me, kid. Doing that won’t make you a man. It will only hurt your family and make you look like a fool. Don’t do it.”

The boy shrugged out from Mike’s embrace. “What you know anyway, old man?” The young man spat, getting beer on the front of Mike’s uniform.

He fought once more to control the rage inside him. It was a war he had been waging his whole life, it seemed. Some battles he won and some he lost.

Turning to the group of young men that stood off to the side, he commanded, “One of you take him before he embarrasses us all.” Three of the group stepped forward and guided Hector off the porch and down the steps.

Mike sighed with relief at the averted crisis as he watched them pile the boy into the back of a souped-up old car. It was pulling out from the curb just as a shiny black sedan pulled up. The official government plates told Mike that it was from the Congresswoman’s office.

He walked over and opened the door. A middle-aged Latina in a crisp navy-blue suit looked up at him. “Master Sergeant O’Malley, I presume?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Seemed someone might have warned this bureaucrat about how to address him properly.

The woman grabbed a large manila envelope off the seat next to her. Her next words confirmed his assumptions, “Our office in DC told me about you.”

His smile broadened, “Don’t believe half they told you. My bite is worse than my bark.”

She laughed as they walked up to the door. “I hope I won’t have reason to find out.”

Mike paused before opening the door and turned to the woman, “I mean no disrespect, Ma’am. I just want what’s right for a good man. A good Marine that deserves this country’s gratitude and respect.”

“So, do we all, Master Sergeant. This is not the first time that the Congresswoman has been asked to handle a matter like this. It is all too common these past few years. Our Latino community has born more than its share of the burden in this war against terror.”

Her dark eyes pinned Mike as she continued, “You have my word that she will do all she can to expedite Corporal Hernandez’s citizenship, but these things take time, Master Sergeant. Time and patience.”

Mike nodded as he blushed at her dressing down, “Yes, Ma’am.”

She smiled, “Now, let’s at least give this commendation to the family. It will do until we have something more to offer.”

Mike opened the door and stood back, allowing the woman to enter first. He led her over to where Miguel was fidgeting on Mama Nona’s lap. The Hernandezes sat talking on the couch with Rachel as a dozen or so other guests and family gathered around the room.

Clearing his throat to get their attention, Mike began, ” Señor and Señora Hernandez, I would like to introduce,” he paused, realizing that in her dressing down, he had forgotten to get the woman’s name.

She stepped forward, smoothly taking over. “Hola, mi nombré es Señora Gomez.” She explained in Spanish who she represented and her purpose in coming that day. Mike caught only a bit of the conversation as he stood back, blending into the dark paneling of the wall.

The woman smiled as she read the decree. Someone stepped forward to take a photograph with their cell phone as she handed the certificate to Señor Hernandez. Manny’s mother insisted that the woman stay and have a bite to eat, ushering her into the kitchen.

Mike walked over to Señor Hernandez, grasping his hand. “I should get going, Sir. I just wanted to let you know once more what a wonderful young man Manny was. It was my pleasure to serve with him. I know it is not easy, but you can be proud of him.”

“Gracias, Sergeant Mike. I am sure you must be very busy. We are grateful that you took the time out of your duties to come here. I know you must need to get back to the base soon.”

Mike shook his head. “Actually, sir, I retired from the Corps.”

“Oh.” The man’s eyes opened wide with surprise. “Then what are your plans?”

“I’m just taking it one day at a time, Sir. I bought a motorcycle. Over the years, I’ve served this country with a lot of good men and women like your son. But I’ve never had the time to see much of it or keep up with many of them. So, I thought I’d spend some time traveling, seeing places, and visiting old friends.”

The man grasped his hand firmly, “You are always welcome here, Sergeant Mike. Anytime you are in Los Angeles, you have a home with us.”

“I better change and get on the road, Sir. Will you express my condolences to your wife once more?”

“Of course. Use Manny’s room again. Your things should still be in there.”

Mike headed down the hall. Relief washed over him. He had done it. He had made it through the second funeral of his life. This one had been no easier than that first almost thirty-five years before. Closing the door behind him, he made quick work of changing into his jeans and t-shirt.

He was just inspecting the stains on the front of his uniform, where Hector had spit beer, when he heard a soft knock on the door.

“Come in.”

The door opened, and Maria stood in the doorway. “I don’t mean to disturb you, Sergeant Mike. But Papa said you were leaving, and there is something I wanted to ask you.”

Mike could tell that the girl was nervous. He knew that she was shy. Manny had said that his sisters were like night and day. Lupe, the older one, was out-going, a cheerleader, and on the student council. But Maria was quieter. Books were always her best friends. Manny loved both the girls, but Maria had been special to him, needing to protect her from the world outside her stories.

“What can I do for you?” he asked as she studied the beige carpet at her feet.

“In the car today, you said that Manny would not want us to cancel my quinceañera. Did you mean that?”

“Yes. I know how much his family meant to Manny.” He walked over to her. Putting his fingers under her chin, he lifted her face. “You especially. Manny would want you to have your special day.”

“Manny was to be my escort.”

“I know. I submitted the paperwork for his leave.” His throat constricted at the admission, knowing how differently this might have all turned out for this family.

“Will you do it now?” The words burst from her like water across the top of a dam.

Mike did some quick calculations in his head. It was Saturday. The party was scheduled for the following Friday. Almost a week away. He had planned to spend a day or two more in the area, purchasing a few things he would need for the road.

Then, he was off to Oklahoma to be with Billy’s father, Mister Clyde. The man had been in a nursing home for the past two years. Alzheimer’s. Mike was listed, along with his daughter in Chicago, as next of kin.

They had contacted him a couple of weeks ago to let him know that the man was deteriorating. It would not be much longer. But when Mike had checked in with them yesterday, they said that he had had a few good days. Mike knew that those good days would not last, but maybe they would buy him some time. Perhaps he could stretch this trip a few more days. For the girl. For Manny.

He nodded his head. “I’d be honored, Maria.”

The girl smiled. “Muchas gracias. Thank you, Sergeant Mike. I’ll tell Mama and Papa that we can go on with the party.”

She ran down the hall with as much care as Miguel was running about the living room, wreaking havoc with the knick-knacks on the shelves around the room. Not that anyone cared. Some things were important, like family, friends, and country. Other things were just things.

Mike turned back to the bed and finished packing his uniform into the bag. “I hope like hell I don’t have to wear you again any time soon.” He thought of the group of former Marines waiting for him in the bar down the road.

With his duffle bag in his hands, he paused and looked about the room. Staring at the photograph of Manny in his uniform that glinted in its silver frame on the dresser, he raised his hand in salute, slipped from the quiet room, down the hall, and out the front door.

It was not until he had stowed his bag in the compartment on his motorcycle again and gotten into the seat that he looked up at the bungalow where Corporal Manuel Hernandez had been raised.

“May whatever’s waiting out there treat you well, Corporal.” Mike turned on Esther’s engine and headed off down the street to join that motley band.

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