"It's a tradition," Esther reminded herself as she pulled the box from the top shelf. For twenty-five years, since her son Tommy was just two, she had decorated their house from top to bottom with ghosts, vampires and ghouls of all shapes and sizes. She, herself, would dress as a gypsy and read the cards for children of all ages in the neighborhood. She spent days before the annual event preparing homemade cookies, rice crispies snacks, caramel apples, the works.
But this year, it all seemed too much. Just another reminder of the fact that her son was gone. An IED they said. In a land thousands of miles from their small Texas hometown. A place she knew little about. Somewhere she would never see. It all seemed so unfair. So senseless.
All she had left of him now was a gravestone that she visited almost daily and the flag folded neatly, sealed in a plastic bag. Occasionally, she would receive an email from his sergeant or one of his friends. Men who had shared his live and passion for defending this country. She would laugh or cry, sometimes both, at their stories of Tommy. But the hard truth was she was alone in this world now.
The loud knocking startled her. She almost lost her balance on the small ladder on which she stood. "Damn," she cursed. "I'm coming," she yelled as she stepped down. "Who the hell can that be?"
She was not expecting anyone this late on a Friday evening. Most of the town would be at the high school. Football was after all the second religion in this part of the world.
Tommy had been the starting quarterback; earning a full scholarship to college for his efforts. It had been a load off her mind. His college fund had been paltry at best. Saving money was hard for a single parent, whose salary as a teacher barely stretched to cover the mortgage, car payments, food and the few extras she could afford to give her only child.
She padded barefoot across the rough wood floors, down the hallway and into the dark living room. She did not bother turning on the table lamp, instead she flipped the switch on the wall that flooded the front porch with light.
Her heart froze in her chest. When it finally restarted, its pace was twice as fast as usual. Its pounding was so loud that she could not hear herself think. Her chest felt as tight as it had that day.
The day when she had opened this same door to find the pastor from the local Methodist church that she occasionally attended over the years and a man adorned in the bright red and blue uniform of the US Marine Corps.
This was not the same Marine. In fact, he was not even wearing a uniform, but his shortly cropped hair and stance would have given him away, even if she did not know him. But she immediately recognized him; she would know this man anywhere.
Staff Sergeant Michael O'Malley. She had seen his face in dozens of photographs that Tommy sent and emailed from Iraq. She could not even begin to count the number of times she read or heard, "Sergeant Mike says this or did that." So much so that she felt that she knew this man.
But she had never expected to meet him personally.
It was his email that had arrived a couple of days after that fateful visit that had brought her the most comfort. His praise of Tommy's character, his bravery in the face of combat and his final thoughts of her had touched her aching and broken heart, brought tears to her eyes and given her courage to face the funeral that was just hours away.
Her fingers shook as she fumbled with the door handle. She squared her shoulders and faced the man that was both friend and stranger. "Sergeant O'Malley, what brings you to Texas?" she asked.
The man looked uncomfortable as he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, scuffing his boot against the chipping grey paint. "Well, Ma'am, I'm sort of taking a tour of this great country of ours. I'm visiting a few old," he paused as if uncertain what to say. Esther swore that the pink of his cheeks spread to the very tips of his ears before he finally finished.
"Old friends I guess. Men, I've served with over the years. Or their families, Ma'am. I know that you will be especially busy this time of year," he said spreading his hand towards the pumpkins that sat uncut in the corner of the porch. "Tommy always talked about the big Halloween party you throw for all the kiddies. I thought maybe you could use an extra pair of hands and a strong back."
Esther flipped the hook latch on the screen door, pushing it open wide. "I'm sorry for my bad manners, Sergeant. Please come in." She stepped back as the man passed, motioning for him to take a seat on the coach that sat against the wall. She turned on the lamp that sat next to the couch. Its warm glow filled the room.
"Thank you, Ma'am. I don't mean to be any trouble. And I'm real sorry if I caught you at a bad time," he said as he took a seat.
Esther swallowed back the pain. How could she explain that every day was a bad time? But instead she simply lied, "No, Sergeant, I was just starting to get things ready. I'm afraid I'm a bit behind schedule this year," she said.
He nodded. "Tommy told us all about the hard work that you put into everything. I know he loved your Halloween, Ma'am."
The familiar tightness threatened to stop her heart once more as she choked back tears. "Can I get you something to drink, Sergeant? An iced tea? Some water? I think I might have a soda in the back of the fridge." She sought an escape. A moment to collect herself. Away from this man, this reminder of her son.
"Some of your famous iced tea would be nice, Ma'am," he replied.
Esther beat a hasty retreat to the warmth of the lemon yellow kitchen that stood off of the living room. It seemed suddenly very small; compared to the larger than life man whose presence filled every corner of her living room.
She leaned against the cold porcelain of the sink for a moment. Her eyes filled with tears as she stared out the window at the stars twinkling in the dark Texas sky. She often looked up at those stars and wondered if somewhere out there her son's spirit looked down on her still. She liked to hope so, even though she had long since given up any religious belief in heaven or hell. Life was hard enough to endure.
She gathered her strength and reached for the cupboard knob, pulling a large glass from the shelf. She turned in the tight confines of the kitchen, opening the freezer door and pulling out a tray of ice.
A couple of tears spilled over the rims of her dark eyes as she brook the ice, the large drops freezing instantly as they dropped onto the frozen rectangles. Placing the tray back in the freezer, she opened the fridge and removed the large glass pitcher half filled with the sweet confection. She hoped it was sweet enough to cover the saltiness of the tears that refused to be checked.
She reached across the counter and grabbed a dish cloth, passing it across her face to dry their residue. She hope that the dim light of the living room would be kind and cover the red, puffiness of her eyes.
But it made no difference. If this man could find the courage to come all this way, then she would find the strength to face him. She gathered as much of that strength as she could muster and turned, heading back into the living room.
His broad back was to her when she entered the living room. He was standing near the old fireplace. He held a silver frame in his large hands. She knew that it was the picture of Tommy's college graduation. A friend had taken the photograph of the two of them on the proudest day of her life, just days before Tommy had left for basic training.
Esther took a moment to examine the man. He was even more impressive in person than he had been in the photographs. His hair was short still, but its black and silver strands were longer than regulation, she was certain.
She knew that he was taller than Tommy's six foot one. But his more mature body had long since lost the lankiness of youth. Broad shoulders tapered to a waistline that while not fat by any means would definitely give a woman something to wrap her arms about.
From this angle, by far his most impressive feature was the way that the denim of his jeans hugged his backside. If a man could have a perfect butt, it was Staff Sergeant Michael O'Malley's. She smiled. When was the last time she had noticed a man's butt? A girlish giggle escaped her throat at the thought.
The man turned. "I'm sorry, Ma'am. I didn't mean to pry. It was just that the photos caught my attention. Tommy was a good friend."
"He spoke of you often, Sergeant," she admitted as she handed him the glass.
"You too, Ma'am. He was always talking about his mama's cooking, her garden and her famous iced tea," he smiled as he raised the glass to lips that looked way to full. "And he was right. It is delicious, Ma'am."
"Thank you, Sergeant."
He took a seat on the sofa and she sat in the chair opposite him. For a moment awkward silence hung in the crisp autumn air.
"So Sergeant what brings you this way? You said you were travelling the country looking up old friends?"
"Yes, ma'am. I retired from the Marines a couple of months ago. Since I never married and don't have any family to speak of, I thought I would travel for a while. The Corps and the men and women I served with were the closest thing to family I ever had, so I thought I would check in on some of them. See how they were doing...and help out a bit if I can."
Esther's throat tightened at his words. This man seemed as alone in the world as she was now. "How many places have you been so far, Sergeant?"
"Just a brief stop in East LA, Los Angeles," he explained. "Most of time has been in Oklahoma, ma'am. My best friend's daddy was dying."
"I'm sorry to hear that Sergeant, but I'm sure that he was glad to have you there to help out."
He shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. "Billy died back in ninety-one, ma'am. Desert Storm." His fingers traced the drops of water that cascaded down the side of the glass.
"Oh, I'm sorry I misunderstood."
His eyes still on the glass, he sat it on a coaster on the table next to him. "When we were in basic training, we became like brothers. Since I didn't have any family, I would spend most holidays with him and his family. When he died, his parents insisted that I keep it up. They said that they had lost one son they weren't going to lose another one."
Esther felt the hot tears cascading down her cheeks. She felt the unknown couple's pain; it was her own. "You were lucky to have one another, Sergeant."
His grey-blue eyes met hers. "Yes, ma'am. I was. They were the parents I never had. Miss Lula died about five years ago. Breast cancer. Mister Clyde sold the farm then, because he could no longer work it and there was no one to pass it on to. Billy's only sister had gotten married and moved to Chicago twenty years ago."
The man continued to toy with the dew that coated the cold glass. Esther noticed that his knuckles whitened and his voice deepened as he spoke.
"He moved into one of those assisted living places in Oklahoma City. Until he started to forget things. Then he had to move into a nursing home a couple of years ago."
She could tell that the experience was still as raw to him as Tommy's death was with her. Without thought, she reached across the short distance; her mocha colored hand covered his larger one. The chill of the glass that he still held barely registered. The heat of his skin overwhelmed all else.
He looked up. Those pale blue eyes held her gaze for a moment. Pain, loneliness and uncertainty filled their depths. But there was something else as well.
Awareness gripped Esther's guts like a vice. Her throat tightened until she was barely able to move air through it.
Sexy. Smokey. Strong. Words raced like wildfire across a dry East Texas pine forest, kindling and burning everything in its path.
She was not a loose woman. In all the years since her one mistake as a freshman in college, she could count on one hand the number of men that she had had relations with. And still have a couple of fingers left over.
But none of them had ever affected her, the way this man did.
Hell, she remembered the first pictured she had ever seen of him. Just days after Tommy had arrived in Afghanistan; she had opened the first email since his deployment. He had written of the place; dry and hotter than the worst Texas summer.
He had spoken too of the men with which he served. Especially the non-commissioned officer who as a lowly Lieutenant was his guide into this new world. He had attached a couple of pictures.
One was of him standing outside the tent that was to be his home for a seemingly indefinite period of time. His boyish face grinned back at her as if he were on some holiday rather than risking his life to defend his country.
But when she opened that second picture, Esther had caught her breath. The man standing next to her son could have given that famous Hollywood actor a run for his money, the one who had played the doctor on that television show and now starred in half the movies that came out. She had searched for his name, but Esther had never been a big fan of television or movies.
She far preferred the written word. It might take paragraphs or even the thousand words that the proverb said to convey the same meaning as those pictures but for her the message was always more powerful.
Her love of words was what had led her to become an English teacher. A passion that extended to the volumes of leather and cloth bound journals that gathered dust in boxes under her bed.
But that day, words had failed her. The man, who stared at her from that computer screen, had stolen her breath and captured her heart in a way that she had never experienced.
Over the next eighteen months, there were more pictures and stories galore of this man. Emails that she saved, not just because they came from her beloved son. But because they told of the exploits of a modern hero as large as life as any of the ancient gods and myths that she taught her classes. Ares. Thor. Odysseus. This man was all of them rolled into one...and more.
She had just never in all her born days expected to meet the man in person. Especially after that last email. His words lifting her, giving her wings and courage to face a seemingly impossible task. She had thought it was the end of a chapter. No, it felt more like the end of the book. The end of her life as she knew it.
Over the months, if her dreams were filled with nightmares of smoke and bombs, stifling heat and mournful cries of pain in battles that she could only imagine; they were equally filled with soft caresses and whispered words of passion from an imaginary lover whom she had never met. At times, the dissonance between the two had made Esther fear for her sanity.
Nothing could have ever prepared her for this moment. For meeting the man that had starred in the most erotic fantasies of her life. It was not something she had ever dared imagine. She wanted to pinch herself.
But there was no need. The heat and awareness rising off his touch was shock enough. The unexpected and all too familiar tingles that raced up her arms, leaving a trail of tiny hairs each standing on end, was proof enough.
Esther drew her hand back. She was careful not to do it too quickly even though it felt as if she had touched open wires.
Her eyes dropped and she willed herself to remember that this was nothing more than a friendly visit as he said...he was checking in on his men or their families. She was nothing more than another one of those families, an obligation for this honor bound man.
Finding her voice, she forced words past her lips. "I'm sorry, Sergeant. Sorry for your friend and his family." Her voice sounded hallow even to her own ears.
The man drew in a depth breath. She willed herself to do the same. She repeated the ritual of cleansing breaths that had become her salvation over the past months when despair and grief stole her very soul.
He smiled. It did not reach those compelling grey-blue eyes but then again in all the pictures that she had saved on her hard-drive Esther was certain it never had.
"Thank you, ma'am," was his only reply. They drank in silence for a couple of moments. It should have been awkward, but somehow it was not.
After a time, they fell once more in casual conversation. Even though she could not keep her eyes from straying to those broad shoulders or those salt-and-pepper locks that curled just a bit at the ends now that it was longer.
She listened as he told his stories. She was surprised at how easy the man was to talk with. After a while the conversation turned. They shared stories of Tommy. They laughed often. And on more than one occasion, Esther would have sworn that she saw the man wipe moisture from those eyes. She did not even bothered try to hide the tears that occasionally ran down her cheeks.
The clock on the mantle chimed eleven, a reproach to her for losing track of time in their shared joy and pain.
As if reading her mind, the man rose from the coach. "I better be going, Ma'am. It's getting late."
"Where are you staying, Sergeant?"
"I'm pretty basic, Ma'am. For my travels, I bought a tent that I keep tied to the motorcycle. So I usually just look for some quiet spot where I won't be in nobody's way."
Esther paused at his words. The house only had two bedrooms. Hers and the one that had been her son's. That door was closed. Its walls filled with photographs of him and his college friends. Shelves lining one wall were filled with trophies from his athletic competitions. His clothes still hung in the closet.
It was a shrine that she had been unable to clear out. She rarely even went inside, except on the worst of her days when she curled into a ball clutching the pillow that she swore still held the smell of her baby boy.
She would cry for hours, great gulping sobs that rent her soul until they slipped away to nothing more than hiccups that left her weak and drained. Then she would slip from the safety of this time capsule and go back to face the reality of a world without her Tommy.
For anyone else in this world, she would not even consider it. But somehow she knew in her heart that this man would understand. Would appreciate the honor that she bestowed upon him. Would in turn honor her son's memory as few others than herself ever could.
With a slight hesitance in her voice she said, "I won't hear of it, Sergeant. You can stay here with us."
The words slipped out before she could stop herself. Her fist went to her mouth in horror at the slip of words. There was no us...and they both knew that. This time she feared that the tears that had spilled from her eyes so freely these past hours would be more like the sobs that were her nightly lullaby.
His strong hand wrapped about her upper arm. "I understand," he whispered so low that Esther knew he really did understand. She nodded at his reassurance.
"Please stay, Sergeant," she reiterated her earlier offer.
The man nodded.
"I'll grab some fresh sheets and make up the bed in Tommy's room then," she offered.
"No, Ma'am. This coach here will be just fine. It's a far sight better than a lot of places I've slept over the years and better than a sleeping bag on a chilly night like this."
Esther looked at the man. A bond of shared pain tightened in her gut. But she just nodded in silent thanks for his gesture of sacrifice. "If you're sure, Sergeant? Then I'll get some sheets, a pillow and quilt for you."
"I'm sure, Ma'am. I'll be just fine here," he smiled.
Esther raced from the room. She clung to the mundane tasks as she noticed that in her race to answer the door earlier she had felt the wooden door to the linen closet open.