Red, White, and Blue HalloweenbyTara_Neale©
This story is dedicated to the men and women who defend us all. And to the silent heroes, their families. Bless you all.
"It's a tradition," Esther reminded herself as she pulled the box from the top shelf. For twenty-five years, since her 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 town. A place she knew little about. Somewhere she would never see. It all seemed so unfair.
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 being 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 flipping the switch on the wall that folded the front porch with light.
Her heart froze in her chest. When it finally restarted its paces was twice as fast as usual. Its pounding 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. But with his short cropped salt-and-pepper hair, his broad shoulders and tall, lean form, she would know him 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."
She felt that she knew this man even though she never expected to meet him personally. It was his email that arrived a couple of days after that 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 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.
"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 you 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 off of the living room that seemed suddenly very small when compared to the larger than life man whose presence filled every corner. She leaned for a moment against the cold porcelain of the sink.
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 its shelf. She turned in the tight confines of the kitchen, opening the freezer door and pulling out a tray of ice. A couple of those 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 as this way, then she would find the strength to face him. She gathered as much of that strength as she could muster as she turned and headed 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 he had shipped off to 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 for sure. She had known 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, Staff Sergeant Michael O'Malley's was it.
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."
Esther was surprised at how easy the man was to talk with. 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 his clear blue eyes. She had 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 offered two bedrooms. Hers and the one that had been her son's. The 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 going to her mouth in horror at the slip. This time she feared that the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes 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 couch 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 weakly.
Sleep was even harder to come that night. Esther tossed and turned in her double bed. Her mind filled with the stories that they had shared. She had known so little of the past few years of her son's life. She always thought that he was trying to protect her from the harsh realities of his three tours of duty in the Gulf. This evening had filled in a few of those gaps. She in turn had shared stories of Tommy as a boy with his closest friend. A man she could tell did not easily laugh or smile.
As most night, Esther felt the coldness of the tears as they dropped on the crisp cotton of her pillow case. But this night she fought hard to keep back the sobs that most nights eventually lulled her into an exhausted slumber. She did not to disturb the Sergeant.
But it was not easy. Her pain so deep that tears alone were insufficient to assuage the hole in her soul. At first it was just an occasional gasp here and there. She brought her knuckles up to her mouth as if to trap them inside. But even that was not enough as images flashed through her mind. Tommy's smiling face against a truck. The Sergeant and a couple of others posed with him in front of tents. They ran like one of her slide show presentations through her mind. Each slide digging deeper at the hole in her soul.
She was not even aware that the sobs had won out in their silent battle. Until she felt the warmth of his hand on her shoulder.
His words were husky as he turned her, drawing her into his arms. "It's alright. Let it out. It makes it better."
She fists plummeted bare steel of his chest. "That's a lie. It doesn't. Nothing makes it better. Nothing ever will." She cried in anguish.
"I know," she could feel that his barely audible admission was torn from his heart with as much pain as she was feeling at that moment.
She was never certain exactly how it happened. But suddenly there was a shift. They could both feel it. The world might not be fair. The pain might be more than either could bear. But they were alive. And for the first time in a long time, they both felt it. Alive.
The silence in her tiny bedroom was alive at that moment too. His large hands that held her shoulders began to move slowly up and down her arms. They spread warmth... perhaps in ways he did not even mean. Esther clinched her fingers against the springy warmth of his chest hairs.
They stayed like that. Neither sure for how long. It was a moment of decision. One of those times in life when two pathways diverge in the wood and we must make a clear choice which path we will take.
Esther knew that she should ask him to go back to the couch. It was the logical thing to do. The respectable thing. She was at least a decade older than this man. Fast closing in on the half century mark, she had little to offer a man, any man. It had been a long time since she had even indulged, well simply indulged.
But in the dark silence, Esther admitted to herself that she had never felt as safe as she did at that moment. Surrounded by the strength and warmth of his arms, her face inches from the fuzzy, steel of his impressive chest. Her fingers did not wait for her mind to decide. They began to caress slowly across his skin.
She felt the low rumble even before she heard it. His voice was husky. "Ma'am, I think we both know that in just about five seconds this thing is going places that neither of us can take back. So if you want to change your mind, now would be a good time."
Esther laughed lightly. "I think that you better start calling me Esther and stop the Ma'am stuff, Sergeant."
In the dim star light she could see the genuine smile that spread across his face. "Yes, Ma'am. I mean Esther. But I think you should call me Michael."
"Now that we have the introductions out of the way, shut up and kiss me, Michael."
"Yes, Ma'am," he started to say. "Shit," he cursed. "Yes, Esther," he corrected as his lips curled into a grin.
Esther stood in the walkway. Dressed in the black flowing skirt, white ruffled shirt and bright red vest, her hair was hidden beneath the golden wrap. Her face shone brightly as she greeted each trick-or-treater. Each child was given a bag of her famous goodies. Each treated to a snack of cookies, candied apples and her special witches brew punch complete with steam rising off of it, thanks to the liquid nitrogen ice.
The house was decorated from top to bottom with its usual assortment of pumpkins, vampires, monsters and cobwebs. But hanging from the bannister next to the front door was the glory of old Red, White and Blue and below it proudly hung the Marine Corps banner as well. A tribute to her son...and her husband.
Sometimes her mind could not fathom the difference that a year could make. But looking across the yard to the table where her handsome hero dished out another cup of witches brew to their little goblins, she could not help but smile. Sometimes life was fair. Sometimes, just sometimes, good things still happened to good people.
That weekend last fall, Esther had learned that Michael was a man on a mission. She was his third stop. His first had been a young widow, whose husband had died just days before Michael came home. For the first time, he had the honor of attending the funeral of one of his fallen men. Then, he has stopped in Oklahoma to hold the hand of the dying father of the first man he had lost too many damned years before. His list was long, way too long. But he was determined to visit each and every one of his man that had come home and each family of those that had not.
After they had taken down the last of the Halloween decorations last year, Esther had shocked the hell out of Michael when she grabbed a backpack and hopped onto the back of his motorcycle. It was a journey of tears and laughter that they would take together. Because one lesson that she had learned over those few precious days and nights in his arms was that a burden shared was a burden lightened.
They had made dozens of stops along the way. But getting married in Vegas by an Elvis impersonator was one of her favorites. Dozens of former Marines and families had shown up to share their big day. The laughter and the tears filled the little chapel of love. And each would have sworn that Tommy stood right beside them, smiling his approval.
They had been forced to box up Tommy's things a couple of months back. They had gotten a call that the widow of one of Michael's boys as he called them had died in a car accident. Would they take charge of the two young children who had now lost both their parents? They did not even have to discuss it. They simple got to work packing and painting. The room was now a bright pink, perfect for their little girls.
They would never forget Tommy, or the other families that they had met. But together they were learning to live...one day at a time.