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.  


  1. Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry I just now read this. What a moving story. I loved it! It had humor and romance and a touch of supernatural. Fantastic job!

  2. Heidi! What a beautiful tale. I was glued to every word...loved the depth of your characters and their care and concern for one another. Excellent! Really made me stop and think about this extraordinary holiday we are celebrating today.

  3. What a beautiful story, Heidi! Thanks. It made for a perfect read for today. I missed another one so I'm off to catch up!