Mike stared in the men’s room mirror. He was once more attired in his full-dress uniform. He could hear the strong beat of the music even through the door. Of course, the Spanish words were muffled. This night was far different than that other one, the first time he had met this family.
He had split the past few days between time spent with the Hernandezes and his motley Marine crew in Orange County, the OC. He had come to know both groups well. Hell, he had even finagled an invitation for his OC friends to tonight’s event. The Hernandezes remembered the group and were touched that they had come to Manny’s funeral even though they did not know him.
Mike checked his pocket once more before he left the bathroom. The event was well underway, but the main show was yet to begin. The limousine carrying Maria would be arriving in moments. Mike was nervous. He had never gone to his prom, but he imagined this was how it felt. For far different reasons, though.
He wanted this night to be perfect. He needed to do Manny proud. For young Mexican-American girls, their quinceañera was an important event. In a different time, it was a coming of age of a different sort, an announcement of their availability for marriage. Even in these modern times, though, the tradition was a rite of passage. Mike knew how much Manny had been looking forward to this night, his baby sister’s special day. He could not screw this up.
Making his way through the hall that was rented for the evening, Mike smiled at the people who were already congregating there. Tia Manuela was fussing over the food just as she had that first night they met in the kitchen. At the request of her and Señor Hernandez, he had spent a couple of afternoons with Hector. The boy reminded him of the young man he had once been – angry.
Hell, at forty-two, he was still angry. The Marines had just taught him how to control it. Most of the time, anyway. A couple more conversations with the Congresswoman’s office, and that might not be so easy. It seemed that these things took months, not weeks. That was difficult for him to understand, considering Manny had filed paperwork months ago. He did not buy the argument that it was two different processes and that this would just take time. Time was the one thing that Corporal Manuel Hernandez had run out of.
And Master Sergeant Mike was running low on patience with the whole damned thing. To his mind, it ought to be automatic. This country owed its defenders that much – to call men like Manny its own. Americans.
Stepping into the early evening sunlight, Mike looked down the street. Still, no sign of them, but what he did see was just as perfect. Rachel was bent over the back seat of her car, struggling once more with the buckle on Miguel’s car seat. The little boy squealed and pushed at her hands.
Mike knew that Hector still was not happy that it had taken Manny’s death to bring the young woman around. But he recognized that his cousin’s son brought comfort and solace to the grieving family in a way that nothing else could. Mike was reasonably confident after their talks about being a ‘real man’ that the boy would not cause any trouble this night. That damned car seat, on the other hand, had not made him any such promise.
“Need any help with that?”
She shook her blonde head just as the buckle sprang free, and the child bounced from his seat. “Thanks, Sergeant Mike, but I got this one.”
“Glad to see you.”
“Good to see you too.” She lifted the struggling toddler into her arms.
An awkward silence filled the air as they walked back to the hall. But the moment they stepped inside and Rachel sat her son down; it was as if none of that mattered. Miguel ran across to room to tug at Manuela’s skirt. A dozen aunts, uncles, and cousins descended on the little man, who adored being the center of attention.
“Manny would be so proud of him,” Mike turned to Rachel, “and you. You’re doing a great job with that little boy.”
Her blue eyes misted over, and her voice cracked, “It isn’t easy. I still can’t believe he is gone.” She stared at the floor and tears spilled down her cheeks, “That I never got to tell him how sorry I was.”
Mike put his hand on her shoulder. “You can’t let it keep eating you up. You have to be strong for Miguel. And the Hernandezes.” Lifting her chin, “I think that, somewhere out there, Manny is looking down on us. He knows that when it counted, you gave his family the most important gift in this world. Hope. And that’s all that matters.”
Rachel looked over to where her son was playing with his family and smiled weakly. “I hope so.”
Mike’s phone rang. He recognized the number instantly. “Excuse me. I have to take this.” He walked back out of the hall.
“This is Master Sergeant O’Malley.” He still found it difficult to remember he was just Mike now.
“Sergeant, this is Maude Landon. I am the administrator at Prairie View nursing home. I think we have spoken before.” He recognized the voice.
“Yes, Miss Landon. I remember you. How is Mister Clyde?”
The heavy sigh that followed told Mike more than words could. “I’m afraid that he has not been doing well the past couple of days. You should probably come as soon as you can.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I have one more duty here, but I’ll leave this evening as soon as it is over. I’m driving, so it will take me a couple of days. Unless…” his voice trailed off at the thought.
“No, Sergeant. I don’t think that will be necessary. Of course, you can never tell with these things. But I don’t think a couple of days will make a difference.”
“Then, I will see you soon.”
Mike said his farewells and hung up. Looking up, he saw them. They were pretty unmissable. A motorcade of sorts. An unlikely honor guards. Half a dozen Harley-Davidsons and a white stretch limousine.
He watched as they pulled into the parking lot of the hall. Kim Lee was the first one off, of course. Clad in her leather, she pushed past Mike mumbling something he thought was “must change.” Luke, Caleb, and Larry were there, as well as the Colonel and a man that Mike did not know. He handed a set of keys to Luke.
Mike did not have time to ask what it was all about. He walked over to the limousine and opened the back door. Bending at the waist, he held out his hand for Maria.
The young woman that emerged was barely recognizable. Her dark hair was pulled up into some sort of curly bun on the top of her head. A light coat of make-up transformed her into a young beauty. Her white taffeta gown flowed in layers about her as she stepped out of the car and took his hand.
At that moment, Mike felt far older than his forty-two years. If things had been different. If he had been different, this could have been his daughter. Instead, he had nothing and no one, except a lifetime of ghosts to haunt his dreams.
Hands, stained as red as the stripe that ran the length of his dress pants with the blood of her brother and others, gripped her elbow. “You look beautiful, Maria. Manny would be so proud.”
“Thank you, Sergeant Mike,” she mumbled, staring at the ground. Turning, Mike performed his official duty. Walking the young beauty into the hall, he, along with her parents, presented her to the gathering crowd.
Food and music flowed for half an hour or more. Finally, Mike escorted Maria to the dance floor for the first dance of the evening. He had never been much of a dancer, but he managed to muddle through this one without tripping. At the end, he reached into his pocket and pulled out the tiny black box.
“A little birthday present,” he handed Maria the box.
The girl’s dark eyes lit up as she opened it. Nestled inside was a gold chain and locket with a small diamond. She beamed as she fumbled to open the clasp. Inside nestled the official Marine Corps photo of Manny that had been shrunk to fit the oval.
“This way, you can always keep him close to you.”
“Muchas gracias, Sergeant Mike,” tears cascaded down her face, but she was smiling. “Will you put it on me?”
Mike nodded as the young woman turned about on the dance floor. His large fingers fumbled with the clasp but finally managed to win the battle. He was just about to leave the dance floor when Señor and Señora Hernandez stepped forward.
“Would you do one more dance, por favor?”
Mike nodded as the man took his daughter in his arms and passed his wife to Mike. As the strains of music began, they hit Mike like a blow to the gut. No sucker punch in a bar fight had ever felt as powerful as the soft tenor sound of the country singer boomed from the speakers. The words were prophetic.
“If tomorrow all the things were gone, I’d worked for all my life. And I had to start again, with just my children and my wife. I’d thank my lucky stars, to be livin’ here today, ’cause the flag still stands for freedom, and they can’t take that away…”
Mike fumbled along, even more, this time, as he watched others joining them on the dance floor. Lupe and Hector. Luke and Kim Lee. Larry and Tia Manuela, even the Colonel with Mama Nona. And, off to the side at the edge of the dance floor, he saw Rachel lift a half-sleeping baby Miguel in her arms and rock softly, side to side.
Mike blinked his eyes because, for half a second, he would have sworn that he saw a smiling Marine with his arm draped about her shoulders as he looked at his baby son. But Mike knew he had not had that much to drink this night.
By the end of that song, Mike was barely able to see. Smoke must be drifting in from those congregating outside because something clouded his vision as he handed Señora Hernandez back to her husband. But the night was not over yet.
Luke and Kim Lee stepped forward. With his wife elbowing him, Luke reached into his suit pocket and drew forth a set of keys. He passed them to Señor Hernandez.
“It ain’t much, mi amigo. A small token compared to what you and your wife have given this country. But, with two daughters heading off to college, I hope… We hope it helps.”
Señor Hernandez looked confused. “I don’t understand.”
Kim Lee could barely contain herself as she commanded. “Come, come.” She half pulled Señora Hernandez to the door as the others followed, including Mike.
Parked right in front of the door was the fully restored 1969 Ironhead Sportster painted red, white, and blue. The one that had first caught Mike’s attention in the display window of Luke’s shop. Mike stared at it in awe, knowing the value of this miraculous gift.
Luke began to mumble. “It’s been sitting in the window of the shop for a couple of years. I restored it awhile back, working on it when I got the chance. I just could never bring myself to sell her, though. When I learned from Mike about your family, I knew why I’d been keeping it all this time.”
“You can sell it to pay for the girls’ college,” the bear shrugged his shoulders. “Or whatever you want.” Stepping back, he motioned to the others in the group, “We just wanted to say thank you to your family in a way that honored what your son did for this country.”
Señor Hernandez’s eyes were filled with tears as he took the keys, “Muchas gracias.”
Mike thought at that moment that nothing could get any better until he saw the black sedan with official government plates pull up.
Señora Gomez smiled broadly as she stepped from the car. At first, Mike thought that in their generosity, the Hernandezes had invited the woman to the party as well. Then he saw the large manila envelope in her hand. His heart fluttered in his chest. He fought back hope.
The woman stopped at the gathering and spoke a few words of Spanish to the Hernandezes before turning to Mike.
“I have something for you, Master Sergeant.” With a huge smile, she continued, “Someone out there must have your back, because I have never seen these things move this quickly. But the moment it came through, I knew I had to get these to you.” Nodding towards the Hernandezes, she added, “I’ll leave the rest to you then. Have a nice evening.”
Mike stood frozen for a moment. He still could not believe that he held them in his hands. For the past weeks since Manny’s death, he had thought of nothing but this moment. Now he did not know what to say or do.
Doubt niggled at his mind. Perhaps he had misunderstood the woman. Maybe this was just another worthless proclamation from the Congresswoman. He had to be sure. He opened the envelope and began to read the certificate. His heart stuttered. It stopped for a couple of beats. Then it began to pound so quickly and rapidly in his chest that he could not hear a word of what was said around him.
Luke brought him back to reality with a slap on his back. “Not a bad night, my friend.”
“No. And it’s about to get better,” Mike followed the crowd back into the hall.
He found Señor and Señora Hernandez talking with Mama Nona, Tia Manny, and Rachel by the buffet. The man extended his trembling hand.
“Sergeant Mike, I can’t thank you enough. When we heard,” the man’s voice cracked. “When we found out that Manny was dead, we felt…” He trailed off once more as if words could not describe their feelings. Mike knew they could not, so he stopped him.
“Señor Hernandez, there is one more thing. Could you gather everyone together? I have something for you.”
“Something more? There could not be anything more than this. We have Raquéela and Miguelito back. We have new friends. And their gift means we do not have to worry about money for college.” The man smiled. “There can’t be anything more than this.”
Mike shook his head. For a moment, he wondered. Was this gift as crucial to this family as he had thought it would be? He knew how much this meant to Manny. But the man was right. Perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, a piece of paper did not matter that much.
He shrugged and passed the envelope to Señor Hernandez. “This is for Manny,” he turned to leave. He had barely taken a step before he heard a squeal from Señora Hernandez. He felt the hand on his shoulder, stopping him.
He turned around to see tears once more flowing freely down the weathered brown cheeks of the man who had risked everything he had to bring his family to this country. The land of the free, who boasted, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Yet, that country was slow to recognize the sacrifices of this family. Of Corporal Manuel Hernandez. Of its Latino soldiers, who gave their labors and lives for their adopted homeland, asking for very little in return…and sometimes receiving even less. But not this night.
“Please, Sergeant Mike. Un momento por favor.” His voice rang out loud in the hall as he spoke in Spanish to the crowd. Finishing up with “Sergeant Mike has something to say.”
Mike was speechless at that moment. What did you say? He closed his eyes for a moment. The laughing face of the young man sprang to his mind.
“I could say again what a fine young man Manny was. Or I could tell you that I have rarely served with a finer Marine. But that does not mean anything to you folks. Looking around me, I think you know that Manny loved you all. He spoke so often of his familia and amigos back home.”
“But what I can say is that one thing Manny loved almost as much as you was the country that he grew up in. Well, today, that country has recognized Manuel Jesus Hector Hernandez as its own.” Lifting his hand to his forehead and looking up, Mike smiled, “Here’s to you, mi amigo.”
The applause that followed was not for his paltry words or the piece of paper that Señor Hernandez passed around the room, but for the young man that earned those words, that paper, and deserved so much more than he had lived to realize.
Mike slipped outside and pulled his traveling clothes from the compartment on Esther’s side. He snuck quietly into the bathroom and changed into the jeans, t-shirt, and leather jacket. The man that stared back at him in the mirror this time was unrecognizable. Except for the ultra-short salt-and-pepper hair, he could be any man on the streets and roads of this country. And that’s what he was…anybody. And nobody.
Master Sergeant Michael Thomas O’Malley was no more. Before him stood simply Mike. And he was not sure who or what that man was. But he supposed that the months and years on the road ahead would tell his mettle, just as the past twenty had crafted the Marine he had become. It was time now. Time to hit the road. Time to begin this journey he had set for himself.
It was appropriate that it should begin where that other journey had. Billy Hall. Private First-Class William Clyde Hall had been Mike’s best friend. Until that bullet had ripped through his chest. In a time when Kevlar was not even thought of. He shook his head at the waste. He had seen so much of it over his lifetime.
This first stop was the least he could do for his friend. Mister Clyde, Billy’s father, was in the final stages of Alzheimer’s. He might not remember Mike or even the son that he had lost. But Mike remembered him and his wife, who had welcomed the orphan into their home during holidays and leaves. Who had treated him like another son. Who had even insisted after they lost Billy that they would not lose him too.
No. He would make this trip as quickly as Esther could carry him…and with honor, he would fulfill the duty of a son. Holding the old man’s hand as he greeted whatever was beyond this life. For once, it would not be a young man, a life barely begun that Mike watched slip away. But it would be an ending nonetheless. Another farewell to Billy. This last link to the man that was once his best friend.