Monday, May 27, 2013

Operation Dad

Operation Dad
Heidi Vanlandingham

“Mama? Mama, can I stand up now? Can I?” Aiden Nelson begged, hopping back and forth on his feet in his eagerness.
Chandra Nelson glanced down at her seven-year-old’s excited face and gave him a small smile in return. “Go ahead, sweetie. I don’t think the soldiers will mind if you stand.”
His large hazel eyes widened. “Can I salute too? Like Uncle Bobby taught me?”
A knot formed in her constricted throat and all she could do was nod. He was so like her older brother. He walked forward and stopped at the end of the front row. His dark blond hair was just now growing out from the military cut he’d gotten in preparation for Bobby’s homecoming. It had been a month since the military had informed them of Bobby’s death. She had cried for a week then said her goodbye. The passing of each day made the hurt fade, but she would always miss her big brother.
A movement caught her eye and she glanced toward her sister-in-law Becky as she walked toward the black mahogany casket. She raised the white rose Aiden had given her when they’d arrived at Arlington and held it against her dusty pink lips, the outline of her kiss tattooed on the rose’s petal. With one hand pressed against the small baby bump at her stomach, she laid the gift on the casket.
Chandra stared out across the field of white crosses, her gaze drawn to the hazy figure of a lone soldier standing at attention beside the cemetery’s metal park bench, his gray uniform sharp-looking with the many medals hanging on his breast. She moved away from the small group of family and friends, slowly walking toward the bench, and sat beside the soldier’s statuesque pose.
“I’m glad you came. He would’ve wanted you here,” she whispered.
The soldier dropped his hand and relaxed, focusing his quiet stare on her. She looked into his sad gaze and allowed her tears to fall. He raised his hand and placed it over his heart then bowed.
“I know. We will all miss him. Thank you, General.” She watched him glide across the field toward the back central section of the park. Halfway across, he faded from view.
Chandra refocused on her son. He stood straight and tall with one hand pressed against his forehead in honor of his fallen uncle while one of the soldiers knelt in front of Becky and presented her with the carefully folded casket flag. The early morning sun shimmered over his blond curls. Her angel. Her strength. Aiden was too young to understand what this was all about. That his uncle was never coming home.

One month later…
Mark Sutherland stood at the lawn’s edge and studied the magnificence of Washington D.C. He was glad he’d decided to visit Arlington first thing this morning instead of later in the day. During the afternoon, the hazy city smog would obscure the breathtaking panoramic view of the Mall. He would also be peeling off his uniform from the sticky humidity.
“The first tour starts in five minutes. Please gather in the front room and we will begin. Thank you!”
Mark turned to see several tourists already waiting inside the Arlington House’s small foyer. The greeter was an older gentleman dressed in slightly rumpled khaki slacks, kneeling on the cement porch picking up a handful of visitor pamphlets scattered around him.
He’d almost made it to the bottom porch step when a young boy scurried around him and up the steps toward the gentleman.
“Wait, Mr. Olsen! I’ll help you!”
“Aiden! Honey, slow down. You almost ran over this gentleman.”
Mark forced his hand to relax the death grip he had on the ionic-styled column supporting the portico for a more casual grasp and tested his balance. Even after eight months of rehabilitation, his leg was still weak and tended to collapse under his full weight if he didn’t concentrate.
“I am so sorry! Aiden is sometimes too helpful. We’ve been working on the bull-in-the-china-shop thing.” The child’s mom shrugged. “It’s a process.”
The woman’s soft husky voice sent a pleasant chill down his spine. He couldn’t pull his gaze away from her beautiful face, even if he’d wanted to. Her face belonged in his dreams. With her dark cappuccino-colored hair styled in a short bob, she bore a striking resemblance to his favorite actress, Kate Beckinsale. With the added bonus of a pale dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheeks.
She gently rested her hand against his arm, her dark eyebrows scrunched together in a frown. “Sir? Are you okay? Aiden didn’t hurt you, did he?”
Mark gave himself a mental shake, realizing he’d been staring. One corner of his mouth rose in a grin. “No, ma’am, he didn’t hurt me and yes, I’m fine. Thank you.” With a quick sideways flip of his head, he motioned toward Aiden who was now trying to help Mr. Olsen to a wobbly stand. “Helpful in any form is always good.”
She raised one eyebrow, her lips pushed to one side of her face. He could see the doubt in her eyes and knew she questioned whether he was being truthful or simply had no clue about kids.
Before she could voice her doubts, Aiden’s excited voice interrupted. “Mama? Are you going to stand there all day or come inside? Mr. Olsen said the last earthquake made more cracks. Come on! We gotta see the cracks!”
Chandra turned to her impatient son, who in his anxiousness was bouncing from one foot to the other. “Go ahead.” She chuckled as he turned and rushed through the front door. “But wait for me under the crack above the front stairwell!”
“Awww, Mom!”
She chuckled again. “Aiden?”
From somewhere inside, they heard his dramatic sigh as it traveled clearly back out to them. “Fine—I will. But you gotta hurry, 'kay?”
Mark waved a hand toward a beaming Mr. Olsen. “After you, ma’am.”
She scurried up the steps, her breathy response skipping back to him, “Thanks! And it’s Chandra. Chandra Nelson—not ma’am.”
He followed a bit slower, forcing his stiff leg to bend and lift. The limp more obvious than he liked, but he found himself relaxing as he followed her inside. Stepping into the foyer of Arlington House was like stepping back in time. The house was small but open, allowing for the cool breeze coasting inland from the Potomac. On his right, a closed-off staircase wound upward to the second floor. Ahead of him and to the left two doorways opened to other parts of the house. The threadbare, handwoven rug underfoot looked as if it had welcomed thousands of visitors to the house—and probably had. 
Chandra loved this house—loved the cemetery. Arlington had been her and Bobby’s playground. She’d been coming here since she was Aiden’s age, but after Bobby’s funeral, she’d been worried that would change. Instead, everything felt right. Her brother was here with her—as he’d always been.
She watched Aiden reverently moving about the office, stopping at each artifact as if he was seeing it for the first time instead of the thousandth. Then, in a blink, he turned back into a seven-year-old and ran head first into the soldier. Again. 
“Aiden! Seriously? Watch where you are going!” She pulled her son from the man’s white-knuckled grip. “I am so, so sorry.” She frowned at his pale, pinched expression. “Okay, this time he did hurt you.” She squeezed her son’s shoulder, narrowing her eyes and pinching her lips together in a straight line then threw a look toward Mark.
On cue, Aiden sighed. “I’m sorry, sir. I promise not to do it again.”
Mark nodded, a tight grimace on his face as if he wanted to scream instead of reassure a seven-year-old. “That’s okay. Accidents happen.” He turned his gaze to Chandra. “Mark. Mark Sutherland. If we are going to keep running into each other, then names would probably come in handy.” He took a deep breath and offered her a smile. “Less awkward that way.”
Chandra smiled in return. “Thank you. Not too many people appreciate an energetic child.”
“I bet. I have four brothers who all have kids. A grand total of sixteen.”
“That’s a lot of kids.”
He turned sideways in the doorway to let her through. That small movement afforded her a brief glimpse of pain as it crossed his face and she hoped the cause wasn’t due to her son’s zest for movement.
Glancing around for Aiden, she saw him trailing after the tour group, which thankfully was led by a retired teacher who would have no problems keeping him entertained—at least for the next twenty minutes or so.
It also gave her a chance to get another look at Mr. Mark Sutherland. He didn’t look much older than she. His tousled blond hair was a long military cut as if growing out. And there was an adorable cowlick that fell across his forehead. His pale green eyes were mesmerizing and unusual. Even without his pressed uniform, his walk and strong physique told her he was a soldier.
“I know a great place to just sit and enjoy a nice cool breeze. Seats are fairly comfy too. Would you like to join me?”
He nodded, relief plainly visible on his still too-pale face. “Lead the way.”
She led him through the house and into the back garden. The moment he hit the gravel walkway, his stride slowed and his limp grew more pronounced. Not knowing what else to do, she slowed to a turtle’s crawl.
They wound the short distance through the partly shaded garden, finally turning off the regular path and stepping into a small oasis bursting with color.
He walked toward the small patio area and sat in one of the rattan chairs and glanced around. “It is magnificent back here. I would never have found it on my own.” He drew in a deep breath and then another. “What is that smell? It’s wonderful.”
She smiled and glanced up. “That would be the Magnolia tree we’re sitting under.” She was relieved to see his color returning to a more natural shade instead of the pasty white he’d sported inside. His tight, pinched look had also disappeared.
“Chandra girl! I thought I heard your sweet voice. Where’s that lively son of yours?”
Chandra chuckled. “Hi Miss Emily. Aiden’s helping with a tour.” She held out her palm toward Mark. “Mark Sutherland, Emily Dougherty. She’s one of the volunteers here at the cemetery.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Sutherland.”
He smiled. “Mark, please. And it’s good to meet you too.”
The older lady pulled two Styrofoam cups with straws sticking out of their lids from the basket hanging on her arm and placed them on the small table between the chairs. “Drink up. I’m sure no one will miss a few drinks at the Presidential wreath-laying later this afternoon. She leaned down and kissed Chandra on the cheek and whispered, “I’m so sorry about Bobby. If you need help with little Aiden, just holler.”
Mark reached over and picked up one of the cups and took a long drink. “That hits the spot.”
She chuckled. “You sound like Aiden.”
He twisted the cup, spreading the condensation around its surface. “If you don’t mind me asking, is Bobby your husband?”
He watched her take a drink, her neck long and slender—until she choked. He leaned over and gently pounded her back as she coughed and sputtered.
“Umm—no,” she coughed. “I’m not married.”
“What about Aiden’s father?”
She shook her head. “He left before Aiden was born. We were high school sweethearts who didn’t understand what forever really meant.
Hope surged then just as quickly deflated. He still wasn’t back to normal. His leg was healed, but he still carried the scars, inside and out. Would a woman really be able to look past those to see the man underneath?
“So what do you do?” he asked, hoping to change the subject. And if he were truthful with himself, find out something about her. He wanted to know more. Much, much more.
“I own an online graphics company, designing logos, websites, brochures—anything I’m asked to really.”
She was so beautiful. His eyes followed the contour of her elegant profile and the slight flutter deep in his chest surprised him. It had been a long time since he’d felt anything other than self-disgust and resentment.

~  ~  ~
“What do you think, General, sir?” Aiden asked the ghostly figure crouched beside him on the other side of the shrub row. “He seems real nice. And he makes Mama laugh again.” He turned and stared up at the ghost, trying to look serious. “I’m gonna need your help. You’re better at planning things, bein’ a general an’ all.”
Aiden plopped on his rear. With legs stretched in front of him, he leaned back against his braced arms. “She’s been so sad since Uncle Bobby died. It’s been a month and she never goes out anymore—at least until today.” He scowled. “How am I ever gonna get a dad if she won’t even leave the house? I’m tired of being the only one in my class without a dad.”
The shimmery form of the general pointed to the man then to his mom.
Aiden nodded. “You were right back at the house. I did just what you said and ran right into his leg. I didn’t hit him hard but I think it hurt him real bad. I know ‘cause he didn’t yell at me. Only squeezed my shoulders. He’s got really strong fingers too. I can still feel ‘em digging into my skin.”
Aiden twisted his torso and glanced up at the general, unaware of the strange looks from tourists passing by him on the path as he seemed to be talking to himself. “’Kay. Time to begin--. How’d you say that? Oh yea, begin phase two of Operation Dad—wish me luck, General!”
He crawled through the shrubs, enjoying the smell of dirt and freshly mowed grass then bounded over to his mom. “Mama! Did you tell him how I saluted to the soldiers for Uncle Bobby?” He hopped onto her lap then grabbed her almost empty cup, swigging down the last few sips of her drink then chomping noisily on the ice cubes.
“Aiden, really. Do you have to do that with your mouth open?”
He glanced at her, his eyes wide. “Sure I do! My mouth doesn’t get frozen if it’s open.”
She chuckled. “Well, I can certainly understand that.” She scooted him off her lap and turned him to face her, gripping his slim hips and holding him still. “Okay, little man. Take my cup to Ms. Emily. If you’re really polite—in other words you wait until it’s your turn—tell her I said you could have a refill. Think you can do that?”
He gave her a saucy grin. “Sure I can, Mom. Just watch me!” He scurried off, dodging plants and statues in his haste for more lemonade.
Mark laughed. “I don’t think he understands the word ‘careful.’ What salute was he talking about?”
The moment the words were out, he wished he’d never asked. Her beautiful brown eyes filled with tears and her perfect little chin quivered. Scrubbing a hand over his face, he leaned forward in the chair, resting his elbows on his knees. “I’m sorry, Chandra.” He handed her his handkerchief, unfolding her hands and placing it in her cupped palms. She stared at it for so long, he wondered if he’d made another mistake.
She finally looked up, her thinly arched eyebrows bunched together in a frown. “You’re definitely a soldier.”
He straightened, staring at her in surprise. “Excuse me?”
One side of her mouth rose and she held up the handkerchief, pristinely folded and bleached to a brilliant white. She wiped away her tears with her other hand and replied, “Only grandfathers and soldiers carry handkerchiefs this immaculate.”
She handed it back to him then reached into her skirt pocket and held out an almost identical handkerchief. He watched her fingers gently smooth out the wrinkles, trying to make the small, white square as it had been.
His heart swelled, each beat feeling as if the organ was going to burst any second. Meeting Chandra and Aiden had been a nice surprise but his gut told him it was more than that. They were a gift. His gift. No matter how long he had to wait until she realized it too, he would—because she was definitely worth waiting for. 
“My brother Bobby was a soldier. He was killed while defending a small village in the Paktika Province in Afghanistan. We buried him one month ago today. Bobby taught Aiden how to salute and stand at attention before he deployed.”
Mark closed his eyes, his own pain a deafening roar in his head. There had been so many funerals—fallen comrades and childhood friends—all lost to war. He sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you.” She watched him rub his leg, which he’d done off and on since they sat down. This time, though, his knuckles turned white and the movements appeared more agitated.
“Is that how you were injured?” she forced the question from her suddenly dry mouth, hoping she wasn’t asking the wrong question. Knowing what to say, especially to men, had never been easy for her. She’d grown up with Aiden’s father, but when he’d run off after finding out she was pregnant, she’d retreated back into her shy shell. With Mark, though, talking didn’t seem quite so hard.
He was so handsome and for some reason, even though she’d just met him, she felt drawn to him. Comfortable. And the way he looked at her made her feel pretty. When the sun glinted through the trees above them, his blond hair looked sun-kissed. It reminded her of a picture she’d seen in some magazine—of an Oklahoma wheatfield just before harvest. Her fingers itched to brush the hair off his forehead then brush it back so she could do it all over again.
He still hadn’t answered her question, and her heartbeat sped up as her worry grew. “Mark—I’m sorry. It was inappropriate of me to ask—”
“No. It wasn’t. I—I haven’t talked anyone close to me about it. The army informed my family I’d been injured, but they don’t know I’m stateside.”
She frowned. “But why?”
He closed his eyes again, drawing in a deep breath then letting it out slowly as he finally leaned back into the comfort of the chair. “Pride. Stupid male pride.” He opened his eyes and met her steady gaze. “My unit was assigned to the Sangrin District in Helmand Province to help the British stop the drug highway running through there. We got too close to an IED and six of my men died. I almost lost my leg. I didn’t want my parents to see me until I could walk again.”
Her tears surprised her. She hadn’t realized she was crying as she clutched her fist to the pain radiating in her chest. Because of Mark. He stood and pulled her into his embrace. He stared into her eyes and held her face in his cupped palms as if she were as fragile as an egg.
“You are so beautiful. You make me want to believe in myself again. To trust in who I am. I’ve never believed in love at first sight, but I do now.”
She smiled, lost in his pale green eyes. “I knew you were special when not once but twice you let my son run right over you and never said a word.” The moment his lips touched hers, her toes curled and she knew she’d finally found her own hero.

~  ~  ~
“Well, General, we did it, didn’t we?” Aiden asked, sipping his lemonade. He watched his mom kiss Mark. Excitement bubbled upward, making standing still impossible. “Thanks, General!” he yelled as he raced back through the garden, empty cup in hand.
The ghost watched as Aiden was pulled into their hug. He pulled down on his jacket, the old uniform still pristine. He slowly raised his arm, resting his hand against his brow and saluted young Aiden one final time. Pivoting, he slowly made his way back down the path to the Tomb of the Unknowns. His home.  

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Heaven's Ghost

Tamrie Foxtail

Somehow Sky hadn’t expected cherry blossoms. Insane really, she’d spent her entire life in the Virginia, Maryland, D.C. area, she was certainly accustomed to the sight of cherry blossoms in May. She just hadn’t expected to find them in a cemetery.

Were there blossoms years ago when she came with her parents to see the tomb of the unknown soldier?

Row after tidy row of white headstones stretched on as far as the eye could see. She raised her camera and snapped a shot.

One row over her three year old daughter stood, head tilted back, blond hair stirring in the breeze. Sky took another picture.

“C’mon, sweetpea, time to go.”

Heaven skipped over to her. “Did you take the picture of grandma’s daddy’s name?”


The late afternoon light grew soft as if a switch had been flipped. Sky frowned, looking up. No sign of a storm, only cottony white clouds painted above. Long, pale rays of sunlight filtered through the clouds, reaching out to the earth below. God’s fingers, her grandmother had called it. She took a picture and then another.

“Alright…” Every muscle turned to ice. Her heart refused to beat as she staggered in a crooked circle.


No answer. She opened her mouth to scream her daughter’s name once more, then nearly sank to her knees in gratitude when a bit of white with red polka dots vanished behind a stone and reappeared a second later.

“Heaven Danielle!” She ran after her, keeping the little sundress in sight.


Dane Ricker closed his eyes, fighting the headache that threatened to swallow his brain.

One hundred, ninety-nine… He continued counting backward, a trick one of the doctors at the VA hospital had suggested. With each number he told himself the headache was fading.

Dane kept his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his jeans. He wouldn’t touch the scar on the right side of his head, wouldn’t give it that acknowledgement.

When the pain had changed from a drill in his brain to a more manageable level, he opened his eyes.

Mark Ricker

His eyes moved over each letter, tracing the name. February of 1972. Dane had been born in March of that year, twenty-three days after his father’s death.

Sky’s hand hooked into the elastic back of her daughter’s dress, nearly jerking the little girl off her feet.

 “Mommy,” she protested, “I was following the see-through man. Now he’s gone.”

The see-through man?  Icy drops crawled down her spine. Granted, it was a cemetery, but she didn’t really believe in ghosts, did she?

Shifting her grip to her daughter’s hand, she let her eyes move across the rows of markers.

“Is that who you mean?” she asked, using her free hand to point to the man on one knee, head bowed, in front of a stone.

Heaven nodded, her pointy little chin bouncing up and down.

The man certainly didn’t look transparent, she thought. The light played with bits of red in his brown hair, hair that was the same shade as hers. Too bad hers came from a bottle.

She watched as he placed his hand on the headstone. The long rays of light touched his head and shoulders, illuminating him. Sky raised her camera.

The stone was warm and smooth beneath his palm. For a moment Dane had the eerie sensation that he touched human flesh.

He stared at his father’s name. A hero, who’d dragged two soldiers to safety and returned for a third when a bullet tore through his throat leaving him to bleed out in a jungle half a world away just weeks before the birth of his only child.

Dane pushed himself to his feet. Another week and he would be on his way home to Texas. His enlistment, and a twenty year career, ended next month. He had some money saved up, and he’d have his pension. The doctors assured him that the headaches would continue to fade and in a few months would be gone altogether.

A cold breeze moved over him just as a hand slammed into the small of his back. He stumbled forward, caught himself and turned, hands coming up in a defensive move.

He looked around, searching for the person who’d pushed him. Nothing in front of him but rows of white headstones, each with a small American flag stuck in the soil in front of it.

“Are you alright?”

He turned to the side. An attractive young woman in a bright blue blouse jogged toward him, a little girl at her side.

“Are you alright?” she asked again.

He started to say someone had pushed him, then thought better of it. Given that the three of them seemed to be the only ones in that part of the cemetery, she’d most likely think he was crazy.

“It was the see-through man,” the little girl said. She stared up at him with eyes the same shade as the bluebonnets back home. “We followed him here. I saw him push you.”

He looked at the mother. Wasn’t she supposed to be telling her kid not to talk to strangers? And what the hell was the see-through man?

“What’s your name?” the child asked. He could see the mother trying not to look at his scar.

“My name’s Dane,” he said, and because he had no idea what else to say to a little kid he asked, “What’s yours?”

“My name’s Heaven, cause that’s where my daddy is.”

Unsure how to respond, he looked at the mother. His heart beat quickened and words seemed to dry up in his mouth.

How long had it been since a woman made every cell in his body stand up and salute?

“C’mon,” the mother said. “They’ll be closing soon.”

Actually, the cemetery was open for another hour, but maybe she was just trying to hurry the kid along.

“Are you visiting your grandpa, too?” the child asked.

He shook his head, regretting it instantly when the pain flared bright across his vision.

A hand wrapped around his upper arm. He glanced down to see the woman looking up at him, seeing him and not that damn scar.

“Bluebonnets,” he muttered, one hand reaching for the scar. He caught himself in time and hooked his thumb back in his pocket.

“What?” Her pretty forehead creased in a ladylike frown.

Had he said that out loud?

“Your eyes. They’re the same color as the Texas state flower.”

“Nice to know. Are you alright?”


“Where are you parked? We’ll walk with you to your car.”

He started to tell her not to bother, he could walk himself out that gate and call for a cab, thanks anyway. Those eyes stopped him. Would it be so bad to walk beside a beautiful woman for a few minutes?

He fell into step beside her, watching the little girl skip ahead. She brought her fingers to her lips then touched each stone she passed.

“What’s she doing?” he asked.

“I’m kissing the soldiers,” Heaven called back.

“She has better hearing than the dog,” the woman said.

“What happened to her father?” he asked. “Was he in Afghanistan?”

“Dan wasn’t in the military. He was a math teacher at a community college. A good teacher. His students loved him.”

He was trying to decide if he should ask again what happened to him when the woman murmured, “It was bees.”

“Bees?” Had he missed something?

“Anaphylactic shock. He was at his sister’s, helping her husband cut down a downed dead tree. He got stung by a couple of bees. Next thing they knew Dan couldn’t breathe. They called an ambulance…” A tiny shrug finished the sentence. The gesture might have seemed offhand and cold if it hadn’t been for the tremor in her lower lip.

He looked at the little girl. Every once in a while she looked up and said something. Maybe the kid had an invisible playmate.

“How far along were you?” He thought of his father, dying before Dane was born.

“How far? Oh. Heaven was a year old.”

He looked at her, then glanced at the child.

“She’s three. She tells people she’s named Heaven because that’s where Dan is.” They walked for another moment before she said, “My mother suggested the name. Sky. Heaven.”

He frowned, the motion tugging at the scar.

“My name’s Sky,” she said.

“Got it.”

They fell silent for a few minutes. The gate was within sight when Sky said, “I saw the name and date on the stone. Was that your father?”


“You must have been tiny. How old were you?”

“I wasn’t.”

Understanding smoothed her face. She nodded. “That’s why you asked about Heaven. You thought…”

“I’m glad her father had a chance to know her.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence.

Ask her out.

They walked through the gate.

Sky looked at the vehicles scattered around the parking lot.

Dane stood next to her, his lips pressed together. Was he in pain or fighting the urge to say something?

Heaven slipped her hand into his. “The see-through man wants you to go with us.”

Dane crouched in front of her. “Who’s the see-through man?”

She shrugged.

Dane looked up at her, his brown eyes narrowed against the sun.

“I don’t know,” Sky said. “She mentioned him before. I thought she meant you.”

He laughed and the bold sound sent warm shivers radiating from her stomach to her spine. The man had a beautiful laugh and she wanted to hear it again.

He held his arm out, inspecting it. “Looks pretty solid to me.”

Heaven was still holding his hand. She laughed with him.

“You’re silly. He was standing behind you. He went like this.” She made a beckoning motioning with her right arm.

A faint memory, long pushed into a dusty trunk in her mind, shook itself free. She crouched next to her daughter, taking Heaven’s free hand in hers.

“What was he wearing?”

“A uniform. Like the man in the movie Grandpa was watching.”

Dane’s gaze shifted from Sky to Heaven, his forehead creased in a frown.

Sky looked at him. “My family’s been in this area forever,” she explained. “My grandmother brought me here a few times when I was little. Her father was killed in the Korean war when my grandmother was a senior in high school. She used to tell me about the ghost of the unknown.”

“Unknown what?”

“He’s a soldier who walks around the cemetery. My grandmother always swore she’d seen him back when she was here with her mother. I’d forgotten all about the story.”

Heaven brought Sky’s hand and Dane’s together, folding her small hands over theirs.

The feel of Dane’s warm skin against hers sent tiny, pleasurable shocks radiating from their joined hands, up her arms and straight to her heart. She looked into his eyes and knew he was feeling it too.

Not fair! her heart cried. Not now when I’m leaving.

A rough, warm palm cupped her cheek. She pressed against it.

“Sky?” His fingers brushed a tear from her cheek. She shook her head. Insane. She’d known this man for less than thirty minutes, didn’t even know his last name. Why was she so certain that leaving him would tear her heart in two?

“Can Dane be my daddy?” Heaven asked.

Dane placed a kiss on Sky’s forehead.

“My turn to ask,” he said, one corner of his mouth lifting in an ironic smile. “Are you alright?”

“We leave for Texas in three weeks,” she said. “I took a job teaching at a small community college.”

The twitch of his lips grew into a full blown smile. Had she misread things? Was he glad she and Heaven would be so far away, complications ended before they could start?


“I told you, Texas.”

He stood slowly, pulling both Sky and Heaven to their feet.

“Texas is a big state, darling.”


Dane threw his head back and laughed that wonderful, gallant laugh.

“Do you know what’s just a few miles East of Bradshaw?”

She shook her head.

“A little nothing-to-it town called Shanlan. That’s my home town.”

“Do you go back often?” Please, please, please let him say ‘yes.’

“I haven’t been home in six years.”

Her heart, just starting to soar, dropped to the pavement at her feet.

He scooped Heaven up in his arms. She wrapped her arms around his neck and grinned.

“Do you like horses?”

“Uh-huh. But I never been on one.”

“I grew up on a quarter horse ranch. My mother lives there with my stepdad. They still have a few horses.”

“Can I ride one?”

Dane glanced at Sky. “You can if Mommy says it’s alright.”

There went her heart, taking off in the heavens again.

“I’m heading home next week,” he said. “I’m going to stay out at the ranch for a little bit while I settle back in, find a job. I spent twenty years as a mechanic in the Army. I’ve been thinking of opening my own business. Shanlan’s only twenty miles from Bradshaw.”

Her cheeks hurt from smiling so big. It was a wonderful feeling.

He held out his arm and she went to him, wrapping her arms around his waist and burying her nose against his shirt.

“I can postpone my leaving for a few days,” he said. “The three of us can spend some time getting to know each other before we meet back up in Texas.”

She kissed the corner of his mouth. She had a feeling she was going to spend a lot of time kissing him.

“Heaven, what are you doing?” Her daughter’s little arm was moving happily from side-to-side.

“I’m waving goodbye to the see through man.”

As if they were already a couple, Dane and Sky turned together to wave at someone they couldn’t see.

Heaven brought her fingers to her lips, kissed them and blew a kiss to the ghost of the unknown.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Arlington Waltz

Arlington Waltz
Linda Basinger

            Jennifer Arden made her way across the sea of white crosses in Arlington National Cemetery. She breathed in the perfume of the fresh-cut roses she carried. Her husband Jim would have loved these, cut from the bush they’d given her parents to celebrate their thirtieth wedding anniversary. Never did it occur to her that one day she’d be bringing bouquets from that bush to Jim’s grave. But here she was. She visited every Wednesday.
            Jim had been gone a little over two years, but a painful lump still arose in her throat when she approached his grave. Sighing, she pressed the bouquet to her heart.
            “I keep hearing how it’s supposed to get easier, Jim. Hurt less.”  A tear trickled, unchecked, down one of her cheeks. She sniffed. “It isn’t, though. It – it just isn’t. Maybe it never will.”
Finding a crumpled tissue, she blew her nose. “I’ve done all I know to do. Everything the counselor told me to try, too. I don’t know what else there is.” 
She arranged the blooms in the vase attached to the stone. “I brought these from the bush we planted for Mom and Dad. God, that was such a perfect day. A peace rose,” she mused, “planted with our hopes and prayers for a quick end to the war in the Middle East. Ironic, me bringing them to you here, a place of peace and tranquility. But the war just goes on and on.” 
Pulling bottled water from her purse, she watered the bouquet. “I think I’m making my friends and family crazy because I can’t seem to stop grieving. Your parents have even suggested that I consider taking off my rings. They think that would help me feel free to find a way forward. To go on with my life. They say you would want me to move on. Oh, love, I know you’d want me to get on with my life. But I don’t know -- I just don’t know. Maybe when the time is right…”
The soft breeze carried a low, soft-spoken male voice to her.
“I’m sorry, man. I should be the one in there, Gary, not you.” 
The voice sounded familiar. She pictured one of the soldiers she visited when taking hand-made gifts to Walter Reed. Why did this particular man, a sergeant, stand out in her memory so vividly?  He’d lost the lower part of his right leg, but there were many amputees. And she’d visited a lot of soldiers and veterans over the last year. Her counselor thought the visits would help her recover from the soul-wrenching grief that refused to release its hold on her. Clearly, the counselor was wrong.
The voice continued from a short distance behind her. “It’s just not right that I’m the only one of the squadron to get out alive.”  He coughed. “I saw your folks last week. They told me to stop thinking I should have been killed, too. But, Gary, man…”
She heard him choke back a sob. Knew she couldn’t turn around now and risk him knowing she’d overheard his outpouring of grief. Hearing him clear his throat and start talking again, she turned slightly to see who’d made the comment.
The man stood a slight distance to her left and on the row immediately behind her. He was tall, and jeans clad. From his bearing and posture it was clear to her that if he weren’t active duty now, he’d been recently. It might be the sergeant. The jeans could be covering a prosthetic leg. She decided to speak to him, but before she could, he turned and left. His smooth and easy gait convinced her it could not be the sergeant she’d met at the hospital. She suddenly became aware of a twinge -- something she hadn’t felt in a long time. Disappointment?  Over not seeing someone she didn’t even know?  Hmm. Maybe she should rethink Jim’s folks’ suggestion.
Standing at Gary Sylvester’s grave, Eric Wyatt mentally chided himself. Good God, man – pull it the hell together. You sound like a little kid. He looked up from Gary’s cross to refocus. At that moment, a woman at a grave just ahead of him turned toward him ever so slightly. The light breeze blew wisps of her soft brown shoulder length hair away from her face. Immediate recognition jolted him. He took in a sudden, short burst of air.
His beautiful angel, his inspiration!  She’d visited the hospital several times while he was still in a wheelchair. Often bringing hand-made gifts to the GIs, it always made his day to see her. He’d dreamt of dancing a slow, tender waltz with her. It was his motivation. He’d endured pain and frustration, and worked his ass off countless hours to master using his artificial leg. He’d managed to bring his stride to near perfection. He owed part of it to her, and knew he should thank her.
The sun glinted off the diamond on her left hand. Hell. He’d known all along she was off limits. Still, his fantasy of dancing with her had worked miracles. With it, he’d conquered his physical wounds. Maybe one day he could stop the nightmares, too. The medics kept telling him it was PTSD. He knew better. He was just weak. And it was unacceptable.
Jennifer brought flowers with her to the cemetery the next Wednesday. She wasn’t too surprised that no one else was in her vicinity.
            “Jim, I brought peace roses again.”  She’d just started talking about family news when she heard a man’s voice. It came from about the same place as the previous week. It wasn’t the same voice, though.
“Survivor’s guilt,” he said. “A kind of PTSD. He won’t accept it, though. Thinks he’s just being weak.”
She turned subtly, so as not to stare. A rather frail-looking, pale older man stood at Gary’s grave. He leaned heavily on a cane. Jennifer thought he was none too stable on his feet, and wondered if she should see if he needed some assistance. Maybe he should sit.
She thought she heard the old gentleman say something about love, but about that time a carriage drawn by six white horses in the distance distracted her. Carrying a black casket draped by the American Flag, it took her back in time two years. Seconds later, an intense reflection from the afternoon sun assaulted her eyes, ending her reverie.
The old man was gone. So frail an old man couldn’t possibly walk away so fast. She walked to the grave he’d been visiting. Searching in all directions for depressions that would have been made in the grass by a cane, she found nothing. As heavily as he’d leaned on the cane when he stood at the grave, it would definitely leave marks. It was almost as though he’d dematerialized. Could the stories of the ghost of the unknown be true, she wondered. She saw a single red rose on Gary Sylvester’s grave. It lay on top of a piece of paper which said, “Changing of the Guard, Tomb of the Unknowns, 10:30 Wednesday.” 
The next Wednesday, Jennifer arrived at Jim’s grave earlier than usual. A single red rose lay there.
“Jim,” she began, “I’m taking this as a sign. I think you’re telling me it’s time.”  She stabbed her fresh-cut rose bouquet into the vase. For the first time, she realized she didn’t have to talk around a painful lump in her throat. Yet another sign. Dabbing away threatening tears, she placed her wedding rings in her purse. Then she picked up the single red rose, and headed to the amphitheater.
Jennifer scanned the crowd, trusting that her intuition would guide her if nothing more substantial did. It was easy to spot him near the middle of the crowd. He stood proud and tall, waving his red rose aloft to get her attention.
“Sergeant?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am. Sergeant Eric Wyatt. Or at least I was last month. Now I’m just Eric Wyatt. He smiled broadly and extended his hand.
She took his big hand in both of hers, feeling vulnerable without her rings. Even so, it was time for her to begin living her life again. She’d never been so sure of anything, and she beamed up at Eric.
“Jennifer Arden,” she said. “I remember you from the hospital.” 
His eyes, turquoise under mahogany lashes that matched his thick hair, gave her hands the once over. Then they took on a dreamy quality. “I remember you, too, Jennifer.”  He smiled broadly. “Better than you might ever imagine.”
The ceremony interrupted their banter. It brought tears to her eyes, as usual. She noticed Eric also allowed a few tears to moisten the corners of his eyes. She remembered how rigid and stern he’d seemed at Gary’s grave just the week before.
Maybe, she thought, he’s making some progress, too – like me.
He put his arm around her. “I’d like to take you to dinner this evening,” Eric said.
She smiled up at him. “Okay. Sounds fun.” 
In her peripheral vision, she caught a fleeting glance of the old man, a red rose in his hand, near the tomb. But he vanished as quickly as he’d appeared.
When Eric escorted her onto the Potomac dinner cruise, she was glad she’d dressed up. The gleam she saw in his eyes told her he definitely approved.
“D.C. at night is gorgeous” he said, “but not as beautiful as you.”  He took her right hand in his and brought it to his lips, delivering a tender kiss. We’ll be cruising by a lot of the most notable places in town,” he added, “Including Arlington.” 
His arm draped protectively around her shoulder as they were shown to their table. Mmmm. He smelled so good.
Once they were seated, he reached across the table to hold her hands in his. “I have a confession to make,” he said.
Oh no, she thought. Please don’t say something bad. Her eyes widened. At his questioning look, she said, “Please. I – I just don’t want anything to mar our evening.”
He rubbed the top of her hand gently with his thumb. Gave her a lopsided grin. “Since the first time you visited that group of us at Walter Reed, I’ve thought of you as my angel. My inspiration.”
Now her eyes grew even larger. A big smile stretched her cheeks. “I never imagined,” she said.
“Thinking about you got me through a lot of hours of hard, frustrating work learning to get around with this.” He slapped his prosthesis.
“Oh,” was all she managed to say.
“I needed to thank you,” he said.
Her shoulders drooped. So that was it. A thank-you dinner, and that’s all. She’d foolishly let herself believe he might have feelings for her. “I see.”  She said.
Jennifer pasted on a fake but cheerful smile during the delicious meal. There was even wine. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d received such sumptuous treatment. She should have been happy.
            The band began a slow waltz. Eric rose, extending his hand toward her. “Jennifer, may I have this dance?” 
            Her eyebrows rose toward her hairline. He could dance with his prothesis?
            As if he could read her mind, he added, “Trust me, Jen.”
Swirling gently around the small dance floor, she found herself humming along with the music. Good Lord – she hadn’t done that in years. Another sign, she decided. His arms around her felt so good. So right.
“Fantasizing about you, about us, dancing like this, is what got me through,” he whispered. “I think that’s when I fell in love with you, Jen.”
“Oh, Eric.”  His words went straight to her heart. She nestled her cheek against his shoulder, loving every tender moment of the slow waltz, of being in his arms. She was ready to move on, to find a new love. With Eric.
“Jen, do you know that guy?” Eric gestured toward their table.
“What guy?” 
“An old man. He’s putting a red rose on the table.” 
Jen smiled softly. “Do you believe in ghosts?”