This is a short story that I wrote two years ago, at the least. I posted it on a different blog in February of 2014. I have not edited it since then, so take it with a grain of salt!
It’s not easy to be thrown around carelessly when you know the weight of that which you carry. You try to infuse emphasis and meaning into your flight, but what can one word do in that distance from one set of lips to the ear adjacent?
We watch from the shoulders of the people, riding the breath of their farewell, but it is a rare moment that any of us get a chance to convey the fullness of our mission. Often, instead, we are tossed casually back across the shoulders of one, only to bounce, un-noticed off the jacket of another.
But every now and then, if you’re extremely lucky, and you wait very, very patiently, you just might get a chance to be the most meaningful moment in someone’s life.
Often, you can find me in the homes of school children, after the teachers bid them adieu for the day, I have an unpleasant bus ride home, and then an evening of boredom before another trip back to school. I hang on tight to my little people’s backpacks as they trot off to the bus.
One particular frost-laden morning, I was riding with a little girl, dubbed ‘Carrots’ by the middle school quarterback. She seemed happy, for having such an unfortunate nickname, and I couldn’t help but wish someone would punish that boy for his unkindness. No little girl deserved that.
Still, I hoped she wouldn’t leave me on the bus, as I preferred the pretty, polite female teachers to the dirty, unpleasant bus drivers, and I was more likely to get set free from the cyclical life at school if I landed with one of the teachers, but she handed me off to the driver as she disembarked at the sidewalk with an excited ‘Bye, Mr. Garry!.’ With a groan, I tried to kick myself free of his grimy grey beard, but without the breath to set me free, I was stuck.
Careless, I muttered, as I watched the herd of children tripping and hurrying off to class. Don’t they understand the potential they carry inside? I could be so much more to them, if only they understood. Then again, I had to admit; maybe it was better if they didn’t know it all. Not just yet.
I squirmed my way to a somewhat less-greasy position and prepared to wait this one out. As unfriendly as this guy seemed to be, I got the feeling that I could be waiting a good long while.
We left the bus in a parking lot a few blocks from the school – just one yellow bus in a sea of twenty-some yellow buses. A gruff nod to the beautiful bus driver that had pulled in behind us cheated me out of an escape from the dingy beard. I groaned. Would the man never speak?
He climbed into a purple sedan that was easily as dingy as his beard and made his way down to the Rusty Turnpike. Sliding his filthy jeans across the torn barstool, he motioned to the bartender who pulled a cheap bottle of beer out of the cooler and pushed it across the bar. Seriously? I sidestepped quickly to avoid the cold mouth of the bottle. The bus driver might be accustomed to alcohol this early in the day, but I wasn’t up for it.
Three or four longnecks later, my driver stood up and weaved his way through the other early-morning drunks to the door. A clumsy ‘Later’ to the old man sitting at the end of the bar narrowly saved me from the even worse fate of being stuck in the bar for the rest of the day. The beard, at least, wasn’t dark and cloudy – though it did smell distinctly of alcohol.
Stubbing his toe on the leg of a chair, Garry tipped forward, dangerously close to landing flat on his face. He caught the edge of the table with one hand and pushed himself back upright. On our way out, we passed a dark-haired man in dirty jeans and a torn, black t-shirt. He looked far more interesting than the slob I was tied to now, and I dared to hope that maybe-
“‘Bye now,” my bus driver slurred. The apathetic exchange set me free, but left me clawing desperately at the tall stranger’s shoulder seam as he, too, stood up and strode out of the bar. The tiniest hint of an expensive scotch lingered on his breath – no stench of drunkard, no stumbling lack of control, just a bracing shot before…what? This one could be very, very interesting.
One short, bumpy ride in his pickup truck later, we pulled up in front of a light blue, single-story ranch-style. Alan turned the key in the ignition and palmed the silver key for a moment. One silver ignition key, with the identifying ‘Chevy’ on the black plastic worn down to a faint impression, and a plain gold key that looked like it belonged to a padlock. I clung to a loose thread as the man made his way up the dilapidated walk to the house. His knock at the front door rattled my hold, but without his voice to break the bond, I was safe from a treacherous fall. Another hearty thundering on the door brought slow footsteps from the inside of the house, and I thought I heard a man’s voice muttering something about knickers and knots.
The white painted door eased open, and a solemn face appeared at the edge of it, mirroring the grim expression that had remained on the face of my silent companion since we met. A silent glance passed between them – one of those inside things that outsiders aren’t supposed to understand. But there wasn’t an outsider here, not that they could see anyway. This house had obviously not seen a woman’s touch in years – the paint was peeling, the window sills showed signs of sun-fading due to the lack of curtains, and around the chiseled face of Alan’s friend, I saw stacks of dirty dishes that I could hide an entire novella in.
I waited for one of the men to say something, but neither of them seemed to move so much as to take a breath. They just stood there – somehow communicating with their eyes. Then Alan reached his right hand into the pocket of his jeans and pulled something out.
“Here, Lane,” he paused and stretched his hand out. “These…these are yours now. Take care of ‘er.”
Lane reached out and took Alan’s hand in his own, in a firm handshake that sent me scrambling for a better grip. When they let go, I saw the glint of metal in the Lane’s hand. He opened his fist for a moment…just long enough for me to see a set of keys resting in his palm.
The keys to the truck we had just arrived in.
I waited for an explanation…surely he wasn’t going to walk all the way back to town! And would these two never speak? I’d been in deaf communities that had more words flying around than this little visit did!
From behind us came the sound of tires skidding to a stop on the gravel road, and I turned to look. A red-headed woman stepped out of the driver’s seat of an 60’s-era Dodge Charger, pushed the door shut with more force that was really necessary, I thought, and leaned back against it. She folded her arms across her chest and stood there. Watching us. Waiting.
These people are literally the strangest I’ve ever seen in my life. Do none of them speak?
I turned back around just as Lane stepped out onto the deck and shoved his hands in his pockets.
“You should go.” Lane’s voice was cracking with emotion, but he seemed to have it mostly under control.
Alan nodded. “My ride’s here.”
Lane looked down at his feet, then up at the woman behind us and gave her an awkward wave. He clapped a hand firmly on Alan’s shoulder, then turned and opened the door again.
“Love ya, man. Take care.”
Alan nodded. “I will,” he replied, and Lane disappeared through the doorway again and shut the door.
We stood there for a moment longer, as though he was taking in the sights one last time, then the dark-haired man turned and walked away from the strange, lonely house.
He embraced the woman at the car – a hug, a lingering look into her eyes and a quick kiss on the cheek. The type of interaction that leaves all who are watching with a sense that there’s something more going on than what they can see – but no indication as to what that is. Then the man walked around the back of the vehicle, slid into the passenger seat, and we drove away, tires skidding on the gravel driveway once more.
We all got out at the airport, though really, it just looked like a mess of tarmac strips that had been left over from a big-city project and got dumped here in the hopes that someday, someone would use them.
Apparently someone had finally found a use for them, because there was a plane sitting in the middle of the black maze, door open, engines idling.
Alan and the woman turned to look at each other, the silence between them as thick as the Jell-O in the middle school cafeteria food line.
Say something, please! Why this silence and secrecy?
“Well, this is it, then,” she said quietly, her lower lip trembling just slightly as she did so.
He nodded. “Yeah…I guess this is it.”
She wrapped her skinny arms around him, burying her face in his chest, and he pulled her in close. I could feel her shuddering breaths as she clung to him, nearly hidden from the world by his far more muscular form.
They were the very image of a protector and his charge. A maiden and her prince.
A woman and the love of her life.
“Goodbye,” she whispered again, and I saw one of my own kind float from her lips to his ear, and hang there – savoring that precious, love-laden moment. The kind we all spend our lives longing for. The kind we cherish.
He held her tight, planted a tender kiss on her trembling lips, cupped her face in his hands and whispered back, “Goodbye, my beautiful. I love you. I’ll come back. For you. Trust me.”
I was caught in the wake of his breath, carried along to her earlobe, where I sat, bathing in the glory of the moment. The honor to carry a salutation of that magnitude…it didn’t happen often, and it never lasted long enough.
He let his hands drop back to his sides, and I felt her sigh. A deep, body-wracking, soul-rending sigh; the sigh of loss, and of pain.
That’s when I saw it. The drab green bag in the backseat of the car. He was pulling it out, now, and slinging it over his shoulder. It looked like nothing more than a large canvas sack, half-filled with unidentifiable objects.
She reached to her neck and wrapped her fingers around something hanging on a chain. I wiggled around to get a better look. It was a tag of some sort…I stopped. Dog tag-
I turned back to the retreating figure, and the pieces fell into place.
This was ‘goodbye for now’ but it was also ‘goodbye, forever,’ – you never know which now could be your last, but when the one you love is leaving for war, you never – ever – take that chance.
“I’ll be here when you come back, Alan Johnson. I promise. Goodbye, Sniper.” her breath blew me across the pavement once more, but lacked the strength to carry me all the way to his ear.
I think that’s okay, though. Because maybe I’ll wait here; wait for him to come home. Because ‘hello’ is just as important as ‘goodbye.’ And it hurts so much less.