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Against A Blue Sky

 

Jo Ann stepped out of the car, breathed the still air into ice crystals that ringed her nostrils, let Adam’s gloved hand take hers and lead her up the sidewalk. Each step was a thousand thumps of her racing heart. The trepidation, still, after all this time. The phone call had heightened it yet again. Yet again. Lisa Brewster’s voice had betrayed nothing, but Jo Ann knew. After so many false alarms, she knew. The woman’s voice had sounded calm over the phone, insipid even, like that of a friend calling to pass the time. But of course she would put up such an innocuous front, she was a pro. Lisa Brewster had dealt with people like Adam and her dozens of times before. Probably more.

Adam stopped, turned, his hand squeezing hers, gentle, firm, his voice husky in the frozen, morning air when he said, “Why we’re here, Jo, why we’re here. They requested this, the people in charge. It’s a good thing really, why we’re here now. The time has come. Finally. Answers.”

Jo Ann looked up through the blur of tears. Even in the haze of winter’s dawn, she could make out that Adam’s dark eyes were teary too. The cold, the circumstance. Yes, they were full of trepidation too. Still. After all this time. “Why we’re here is not a good thing,” she said at last. She cleared the night from her throat before trying to add, “It could never be a good. . .” Her voice gave way to the chill, the emotion, and her gaze fell to the blanket of snow that cloaked the lawn. No longer was it freshly fallen with tiny flakes settled one on top of another. Even beyond the shoveled heaps that flanked the sidewalk, the contrast of white looked crusty, pocked with shoots of vegetation poking out from tiny craters. Littered with leaves, trash from the street, no longer was any stretch of it pristine. She tried again to look at Adam, but she couldn’t stand for another second to see into his troubled eyes. His eyes spoke only the truth. “Let’s go home, Adam. Please, let’s just go. This won’t change anything. If it could, we would have been told that already. Please, let’s just turn around and go. We still have hope then.”

“Jo, Lisa Brewster called us here. We agreed to come. She’s expecting us now.”

“I know, but I don’t think—I don’t think I can do this, I don’t think I can bear this—what she’s about to tell us—what we already know in our bones. You remember what she said the last time—you remember. No news is good news. We will meet face to face if I have bad news, she said. I wouldn’t do that to you over the phone, she said. That’s what she said, Adam—that’s what she said. You remember—we had her on speaker phone, we both heard it—you remember.”

“I remember, but—”

“I can’t do this—I can’t.”

The large hand squeezed hers again. “Jo, we have to, we have to go through with this. It’s the only way forward, if. . .”

When his voice faltered, she drew in another deep breath, the ice crystals burning inside her nose. “If there is a way forward.”

“Yes—yes, Jo, if there is a way forward. We have to try, we have to find that out. Now. Please, it’s time to face whatever lies ahead. It’s time to find out—good or bad—” His voice broke again, this time with a sob. He quavered a sigh, managed to finish, “where Laurie is now.”

“IF. . . if . . . she is now.”

“Yes. . .if. . . she is, now.” He caressed the back of her hand with his thumb and then tugged her forward along the sidewalk.

Jo Ann let Adam lead her to the red-painted door and the tiny lights that twinkled from the smiley snowman that decorated it. A happy time for the Brewsters, for the rest of the world. Christmas time. And here they were intruding on the Brewster family now. She and Adam, two strangers really, from out of the blue practically. But the woman had requested this meeting. Why now? Why here, in her own home? Could Lisa Brewster be that callous, that cruel, to do this to them now, at this ungodly hour, at this time of the year? Did she think having her happy family around would soften the blow somehow? Would prevent them from making a scene? This could wait a little longer, at least until after the holidays. At least do it in the middle of a warm, sunny day, when squirrels scamper across green lawns and birds fly against a blue sky. Not now, not at this hour of this day.

Jo Ann watched Adam’s gloved finger work to punch the doorbell, quelled the panic in her chest, gasped more ice crystals, swallowed, waited. Adam’s other hand squeezed hers again, this time too hard in its attempt to reassure, with too much emotion dammed inside his strong fingers. The pain made her wince, reminded her that she was awake—that this was not another one of her nightmares. That hope still lived, if only in their fear. She squeezed Adam’s hand, shook it, looking up to meet his eyes. His taut, dry lips were trying to smile at her, so she tried to smile back before her gaze returned to the dirty snow.

“It will be what it will be,” she heard him say. “We have to know, Jo. You’ve said so yourself, a million times. The torture—the hell of not knowing—that’s what’s unbearable, you said so yourself. Once and for all, we have to turn the page. It’s time, Jo. To know what’s on the next one.”

She wasn’t sure she nodded, she only knew that she meant to. Then the door opened to an older woman dressed in a scarlet sweater and gray slacks. A James Avery cross, much like the one she herself owned, hung from her neck. “Mr. and Mrs. Sorber,” she said, “I’m Lisa Brewster, please come in.”

The woman’s pale, blue eyes shimmered against the twinkling door and the lighted foyer, belying their redness and the dark bags under them. She had not slept much it was plain to see. Then the face smiled, and an egg shell of wrinkles cracked across each cheek. Lisa Brewster was older than Jo Ann had pictured her to be, than her voice had sounded over the phone so many times. The bloodshot, puffy eyes, what did it mean? Lisa Brewster should have slept well. This would be routine for her, she had dealt with such an occasion dozens of times before. Only Adam and Jo Ann had not. They were the ones quaking through life without sleep. They had struggled to block out this imagined occasion at every turn of every day. They lived moment to moment, hour to hour, day after day, for months on end, on little more than the fumes of drained emotions. This woman was a pro, she should be fresh—she should have slept.

“Here, let me take your coats,” Lisa Brewster was saying in the same nondescript voice that had spoken over the phone.

“Hello, Mrs. Brewster,” Adam said, stepping into the foyer behind Jo Ann, “it’s good to put a face to a voice finally.”

“Likewise,” she said, gently prodding the two inside the house enough to close the door.

Jo Ann watched Adam peel off his gloves, stuff them inside a coat pocket and then unwrap the muffler from around his neck before working out of his coat. She wanted to stop him, but she was unable to speak until, shaking her head, she blurted out, “We shouldn’t be here, Mrs. Brewster. Adam, let’s go. Mrs. Brewster is busy, it’s the holidays. We don’t need to be here, we should go, Adam.”

Lisa Brewster hung Adam’s coat and muffler on a nearby rack and then turned to Jo Ann. “Please, Mrs. Sorber, bear with me. I’ll get you up to speed momentarily.” The woman’s smile seemed forced as she moved to help Jo Ann out of her coat. After hanging Jo Ann’s outerwear on the rack next to Adam’s, she led them into a large room that glowed and crackled with a fire in its hearth. In the warmed air, the smell of fresh coffee hung with that of the burning logs. “We may be a few minutes.” She gestured to a couch situated to one side of the fireplace. “Please have a seat. May I get you coffee?”

Adam made no effort to move to the couch, faced the fire, staring. “Just tell us about Laurie?”

“No coffee, Mrs. Brewster,” Jo Ann said, “we have adrenaline enough.”

“Lisa, please,” the woman said, “call me Lisa.”

Jo Ann noticed that Lisa Brewster had put on a pair of glasses that magnified the dark puffs under her eyes. “Why are we here, Mrs. Brewster, why couldn’t we do this over the phone, like all the other times? At least we would be in the comfort of our own home. If this were to be just another empty update, we would be, wouldn’t we? But it’s not, is it?” Jo Ann was tearing up again, realized she had left her purse in the car, searched the room for a tissue until Lisa Brewster handed her one. “We really don’t want to get into any of this right now, Mrs. Brewster,” she said, blotting a tear as it rolled down one cheek. “We’re not ready.” She dabbed away more tears. “I need to be ready, I’m not ready.”

Jo Ann let Lisa Brewster take her free hand in both of hers. They were warm, soft, yet firm hands, and behind the glasses, her eyes blinked at what might have been tears of her own. “Jo Ann, you don’t mind if I call you Jo Ann, do you?” When Jo Ann shook her head, the woman continued, “I do apologize for asking you to come here, and for seeming evasive. I don’t want to be—believe me, I don’t want to be. I’m just following instructions. I’ve been given very strict instructions.”

“Instructions for what?” Adam turned to the woman, his hands crammed inside his pants pockets.

“Every case is a little different, sometimes very different,” the woman explained. “Some instructions are procedural, as a precaution, some are specific to a circumstance. The situation dictates.”

Jo Ann freed her hand from the woman’s annoying caress, turned a shoulder to her, looked toward Adam. “So, is coming into your home in the middle of the holidays at the crack of dawn part of the procedure, or is it specific to Laurie’s case? Why couldn’t we meet in your office during office hours, Mrs. Brewster?”

“This isn’t my home,” Lisa Brewster said. “This is a safe house we use for such times as this.”

Jo Ann looked around, realized the room was sparsely furnished, that there were no Christmas decorations in sight. “The front door, the snowman, the lights—all for show?”

“I suppose,” she said, “I’ve never been in this particular house before. Furnishing and decorating safe houses is not my department.”

“Get us up to speed,” Adam insisted, “we’ve been on the road since two a.m. just to be here. You said you’d get us up to speed.”

“And I will,” the woman said, “just give me a couple more minutes. I’m waiting for a call that will give me the information I need to explain the situation. I really don’t know much more than you do at the moment. I only know that we’re about to find out a great deal. My job was to have you here in place when we do.”

Adam sat on the edge of the couch, leaned forward, elbows to knees, his hands clasped into white, bloodless fingers. He stared where the flame’s shadow flickered across the shiny, tiled floor. “So what does it mean that we should be here in place—what does that mean?” He raised his head, glared toward the woman. “Tell us that much, Mrs. Brewster? Talk to us!”

“Please, Mr. Sorber—please try to understand—I’m waiting to learn what’s going on the same as you.”

Adam leaped to his feet, stood before the hearth, flexed his hands, stared into the fire. Jo Ann moved up beside him, wrapped an arm around one of his, caressed it, leaned her head against his shoulder, watched the flames lick at the sooty fireplace. “Let’s go, Adam, I want to be home.”

When a crackling log sent embers high into the flue, Jo Ann let Adam shift away to face Lisa Brewster across the room. “For Christ’s sake,” he said in almost a shout, “we’ve been living this hell for going on two years now—two years. Since the day we found Laurie’s bike on the side of the road—since the day she just disappeared off the face of the earth. So tell us, Mrs. Brewster—tell us something, tell us what little you do know about what the hell is going on!”

Lisa Brewster removed her glasses, rubbed her eyes, set them back into the indentation across the bridge of her nose. After a pronounced sigh, she approached Jo Ann and Adam, said, “All I know is what I’ve been told from our people in the field. Most of it I’ve already relayed to you. As I explained then—”

“But now, for the first time, you bring us here to meet with you face to face,” Adam said. “Why?”

“Yes, why?” Jo Ann demanded. “The last time we spoke—the very last time—you—you told us—you told us you would talk to us in person—in person—if, if it. . . was something bad.” She closed her eyes, breathed deeply, deliberately, until her shaking was under control. “So, so it’s bad, that’s why we’re here—that’s what you said.”

“I know that’s what I said, but I don’t know that that’s why they requested I bring you here now, I don’t. The fact that I don’t yet know tells me that maybe—maybe—no one does, just yet. Or hasn’t, up till now. Our people in the field are in motion as we speak. To confirm, one way or another, the situation, Laurie’s status. Please, Mr. and Mrs. Sorber, please bear with me. I’m on your side, I’m doing all I can to find things out as soon as I can—please.”

“Here’s what you told us,” Adam said, “you confirmed that Laurie was abducted. At least in the beginning. From one of the kidnappers you eventually captured, we learned that she and another girl escaped—”

“That’s right,” Lisa Brewster said. “We have no reason to think this woman who helped abduct your daughter was not telling us the truth. She herself was beaten badly, almost to death, for passing out, falling asleep, whatever, which allowed the girls to escape. From the woman’s plea bargain, we learned a great deal about this particular human trafficking ring. And thankfully, now, she’s behind bars.”

“But that leaves all the rest of them still out there,” Jo Ann said. “You told us they would be looking for Laurie and the other girl—”

“They might be looking—might be looking—for the two girls,” Lisa Brewster corrected. “Evidently, this ring has recaptured girls in the past—”

“You told us there would be consequences if they find Laurie before your people do,” Jo Ann went on, “that’s what you told us. What if—”

“I told you I would never sugarcoat any of this,” Lisa Brewster said, “and I won’t, Mrs. Sorber. I will never mislead you. Yes, there would likely be consequences, should the girls fall back into their hands.” The woman paused, sighed. “And yes, we have learned that this particular trafficking ring is fairly sophisticated. These people are very selective in their targets, and very possessive when they have their targets. They have recaptured three other girls that we can all but confirm. This group seems to pride itself on delivering young Caucasian girls to an Asian market, or at least we think that’s the general destination, by what we have since gathered from other sources. So, the way we look at it—the only way we can look at it—it’s a race, between them and us, as I’ve told you before.”

“So where are we now in this race?” Adam demanded.

The woman lifted her glasses just enough to rub the bridge of her nose, exhaled another prolonged breath. “The most recent details I was given were those I shared with you the last time we talked. A preadolescent girl matching the description of Laurie was spotted near Toronto and then again, only weeks later, near Flagstaff. How she got from one side of the continent to the other, we don’t know. Maybe these were two different yet similar-looking girls. Regardless, it’s likely Laurie came across others on the street, runaways probably. If so, she would need help surviving out there. A twelve-year-old girl can’t do this on her own, for long.”

Jo Ann began to sob. “Twelve now—twelve. She was barely ten when. . .”

Adam moved to take her in his arms, said to Lisa Brewster in a mournful tone, “She’s just a little girl. If she escaped, she would have reached out to us some way, somehow—she’s just a little girl.” Then, as if to himself, he added, “Whoever she’s with may be making her use drugs. She wouldn’t be capable of making intelligent decisions—who would? Why else would she not reach out to us, if she isn’t with the kidnappers? If she’s still . . .” His voice trailed to barely a whisper, “Unless she’s gone.”

“Stay strong, Mr. Sorber,” Lisa Brewster said, “don’t assume what we don’t know.”

“Whatever the circumstance, whoever’s involved,” Adam went on, “whether it’s people on the street or the kidnappers, Laurie—if she’s still. . . with us—she’s under someone else’s control. We would have found her by now, Mrs. Brewster—otherwise, we would have found her by now.

“We’ve come close,” the woman reminded, “but each time we are about to attempt a rescue, she disappears.”

“Our baby girl wouldn’t know how to protect herself,” Jo Ann said, “she wouldn’t know the first thing about surviving in that world. She’s just a little girl. . . a sweet, little girl.”

“They have her,” Adam decided, his voice quiet again, “that means they must have her. Or . . . she’s gone. Either way. . . by now, she’s gone.”

“No, no. . . Our little baby, no.” Jo Ann convulsed, felt Adam’s arms tighten around her, his chest heave with hers. Eventually, she shifted in his embrace, quavered another breath, searched Lisa Brewster through the teary blur. “That’s why we’re here—why we’re in place—in this safe house—where we won’t make a scene in your office. That’s why we’re here—they just haven’t told you yet either.”

Lisa Brewster stepped toward Jo Ann, reached a hand to her. “Pray, Mrs. Sorber, just pray. That’s all we can do—just pray.”

Adam kissed the top of his wife’s head when her convulsions had passed, sat again on the edge of the couch, this time wringing his hands as he stared into the fire. “Tell us, Mrs. Brewster, tell us, have you ever had instructions like this before? Have you ever been kept in the dark to the very end like this before?”

Lisa Brewster took a cellphone out from a chair across the room, set it on the end table next to the chair. She sat, watched the phone, finally said in a hushed tone, “Yes, one time.” She caressed the cross that hung around her neck. “I’ve been involved in more cases than I can count, and I’ve always been in the loop but for once. Just once.”

Jo Ann sat beside Adam, pressed against him, the fingers of one hand clutching at his knee, those of the other balled against her stomach. She looked back to the woman, managed to ask, “And what was the outcome then?” Lisa Brewster did not answer, her weary eyes briefly finding Jo Ann’s before shifting back to the phone. Jo Ann looked to Adam, clutching, moaned, “I want to be home, Adam, please.”

The cellphone rang atop the glass-covered end table. Lisa Brewster grabbed it, pressed it against one ear, said, “Brewster here. . . Yes, they are with me. . . I see. . .Oh. . . Okay. . . Okay, I will.”

Jo Ann was on her feet, watched the woman set the phone on the end table, shook her head slowly, mouthed, “No. . . please, no.”

“What?” Adam was standing next to Jo Ann, his hand searching for hers, found it, squeezed.

Lisa Brewster pushed herself out of the chair, the pale skin cracking into shallow lines across her face, a smile forming. “We have her.” Tears rolled across the shallow lines, tumbled down her cheeks, a small laugh, then she rushed to hug them both. “We have her.”

“She’s okay—is she okay?” Jo Ann heaved for air, pulled away enough to eke the words, “She—okay?”

“Laurie’s alive, Mrs. Sorber,” Lisa Brewster said. “You have your daughter back.”

“Thank God—thank you, Mrs. Brewster—thank God!” Adam cried out, wiped his wet face with the sleeve of his sweater.

The woman backed away, smiling broadly now, said as she started toward the foyer, “Get your coats, your daughter is on her way to Saint Luke’s Hospital, do you know the way to Saint Luke’s? I can have someone here in minutes to drive you if—”

“We’ll find it,” Adam said, following.

“She’s not okay,” Jo Ann said quietly, mostly to herself, “of course she’s not okay.”

“She’s alive, Mrs. Sorber. This is procedural now. She’ll be checked over, treated, eventually debriefed, what have you. She’s alive, Mrs. Sorber. She’ll have the best of care at Saint Luke’s. Until you can get her home, where the real healing begins. For you all. Are you okay to drive, either of you?”

“Yes, I can drive—I can drive,” Adam said, working into his coat.

Jo Ann’s trembling fingers struggled to button hers. She looked at Lisa Brewster, for the first time with a stretched smile, gave up trying to slip on her gloves, said, “I guess this time turned out a little better than that other time, when you were kept in the dark.”

The woman’s own smile slipped away, her look distant for a moment. “There’s something I want you to know,” she then said, “I’ve dedicated my life to rescuing young people from the streets. You see, that other time, that one time when I was kept in the dark, I got a phone call, in the middle of the night. I was alone, sitting in my rocker, unable to sleep. Because, it was my daughter that night. They found her body far away, in a wooded area, off the main highway. Seventeen years old. She would have been thirty-nine last Wednesday.” Lisa Brewster reached again to the cross around her neck. “My Jennifer. I gave her this necklace on her sixteenth birthday. She was wearing it when they found her—she was still wearing it.”

“Mrs. Brewster,” Jo Ann said, caressing the woman’s trembly hand that held the cross, “we’re so sorry for—we had no idea you have gone through this nightmare yourself—we had no idea. We were just thinking of our little Laurie—I feel so selfish now.”

The woman’s smile returned. “Don’t be silly. My Jennifer is in a better place now. Has been for a long time. She’s with God now. Merry Christmas, Jo Ann, Adam. You’ve given me one. The kids on the street, they are my family now, and today, we brought home one of our own. So, merry Christmas, Jo Ann and Adam. Merry Christmas to us all.”

“To us all,” Adam said.

Jo Ann hurried with him to their car, looked up, whispered, “Yes, today, this day.”

High overhead, an eagle soared, against a blue sky.

Into the Wind

 

“Up not around, Denny.”

“That way, Lieutenant.” From the hip, he pointed his M14 rifle toward a trail that skirted the hill in front of them.  

“You heard the captain same as me.”

“That way, sir. That way we hear ‘em and smell ‘em before they hear and smell us.”

“I got my orders, Sergeant, you heard the captain, the jungle will give us cover.”

 “The jungle will get us ambushed.”

“We have our orders, Denny.”

“The captain ain’t here, Lieutenant. He’s only seen this place on a map.”

“I know, but—”

“We work our way along this trail, sir.”

“You gotta be sure, Denny, you know I depend on you—we all do.”

“Into the wind, sir.”

The lieutenant ran a gauze-taped finger across his stubbled chin as he scanned the surroundings. A forest of bamboo and pine cloaked the hillside; the pines along the trail were swaying. “Okay, Dennyboy, into the wind.”

For a moment longer, Dennis Ranston’s eyes were weary soldiers trapped inside shadowy foxholes, peering out, seeing only the relentless charge of demons. Gradually, those dull, green helmets came into focus on the sunlight that shafted from the window blinds. Dust mites danced and sparkled in the blade of bright space, cruel, taunting, free. . . Dennyboy, Dennyboy. . . Along the light shaft, the eyes then crawled with the mites to the dresser top across the room, lured again to the photo, the baby-faced soldier, the US Army Class A uniform, the shiny medals, the cocky smile. Always the cocky smile. . . The photo in a floodlight, the actor on a stage. . . In their sockets, they squirmed to escape the demons, writhing across the dresser until they found the pill bottle. Nearly full. If only he could reach it somehow. . . Dennyboy, Dennyboy. . .

At last, he maneuvered the wheelchair to face the bedroom window. With effort, he reached across the wide sill to lift one blind enough to see outside. Except for the red Corolla with the dented fender parked out front, the street was empty. The sidewalk was empty. The driveway. No one anywhere. Still. He let the blind fall back into place and then settled into the chair. Where was Leighla and Nora? Maggie and Tom? No chatter, no giggles and laughs. No creaking floors, clanging dishes. Only the incessant drone outside of cicadas in the oak tree. All was quiet, like the jungle before a raid. Too quiet. Alone with the cicadas. With the memories, their torment. Still. He listened for the wet sound of tires crossing melted street tar, for the car to park, the front door to open—for Leighla’s giggly laugh. . . The cicadas droned against the empty street until finally the eyelids took mercy on him, collapsing over their shadow-rimmed sockets.

***

“Papa Den, Papa Den, watch this!”

Startled, Dennis jerked awake, turning the wheelchair in time to see bony arms and legs cartwheeling across the room. “Leighla!”

The four-spoked, human wheel came to an awkward stop in front of him, and the skinny girl’s giggle settled into a proud, gap-toothed grin. “Want to see me do it again? Watch me do it again, Papa Den!” Leighla threw her hands to the hardwood floor and cartwheeled to a stumbled landing in front of the dresser. “See, see, did you see that, Papa Den?”

“I sure did, that was awesome, Leighla! You’re a natural born gymnast!”

The girl’s large, green eyes sparkled with delight. “What’s a gymnast exactly?”

“Well, it’s somebody who does cartwheels really well.”

“Cartwheels, that’s what I was doing, Papa Den.” On tiptoes, his granddaughter reached a bony hand to take the photo from the dresser. “You like this picture, Papa Den? I love this picture of when you were a soldier, it’s the only one I’ve ever seen.” She blew dust from the glass frame cover before rubbing at a smudge with the heel of a hand. “Can I turn on the light, I can’t see it very well.”

“No, honey, you can see well enough. The light hurts my eyes these days. It glares straight down from the ceiling.”

With the photo, Leighla then hopscotched to the bed to sit across from him. “Granny said to leave this picture in the trunk when we were up in the attic. Why did Granny want me to leave it in the trunk, nobody can see it in the trunk? I love this picture, Papa Den, don’t you?”

He watched her bounce on the edge of the bed as she studied the photograph. “You’re growing up so fast, Leighla.”

“I’m six and four months,” she said, flicking out four fingers. “I’m glad I found this picture, aren’t you?”

“It’s just an old picture of when I was young, Leighla.”

“How old were you in here?”

“Nineteen, maybe twenty. I forget.”

“Nineteen—that’s old.”

He smiled. “Think so?”

“So, you like having it on your dresser, don’t you, Papa Den? I told Granny you would. Who wouldn’t want a soldier picture of theirself like this, I would.”

“Herself,” he corrected, “of herself.”

“Herself.” She laid the photo in his lap before hopping onto the bed. “Is that when you got those medals, Papa Den, in the war?” She bounced along the edges where the bed didn’t sag. “Daddy said you were in a war called Vietnam.”

He noticed the dirty, bare feet. “Better not let Granny catch you jumping on the bed like that.”

She stopped bouncing long enough to brush a wisp of hair out of her mouth and say, “You were in that war, weren’t you? Daddy said you were.”

“That was a long time ago, sweetheart.”

When her grandfather set the photo face down on the bed, she stopped bouncing long enough to turn it faceup. “Is that when you got all those scars? Granny said not to ask you, she said she would talk to me about it sometime, but I keep waiting.” Abruptly, she plopped on the bed, bounced to her feet and reached across the chair to touch a jagged scar near his throat. “Does that hurt?”

He smiled. “No, it’s old.”

“Is that why the doctors cut off your foot and your other two toes, ‘cause of the war?”

“No, sweetheart, I made bad decisions. I didn’t take care of myself, mainly. After the war.”

“They cut off your foot and your toes ‘cause you made bad decisions—who would do that?”

“No, honey, it’s like your daddy tried to explain before. I have diabetes. It’s a bad disease, and I didn’t take care of myself the way I should have.”

“Oh.” Leighla returned the photo to the dresser top and made sure it faced the bed before hopping back to his side. “You got that disease not taking care of yourself?”

“I made it worse not taking care of myself, and that’s why Granny and I—Maggie and Daddy too—tell you to always make good decisions. Most people’s problems come from making bad decisions.”

Leighla nodded. For a time, she regarded his shin that was not attached to a foot. The stump was covered with a white stocking. Caressing the leg where the stocking disappeared under the rolled pajama bottom, she softly asked, “Does it hurt, Papa Den?”

“Not too bad anymore.”

Leighla then plopped back onto the bed, looked at her bare feet and wiggled her toes. “I’m always gonna make good decisions, Papa Den. My friend Joanie—her mother told her brother never to drink alcohol again or smoke or do drugs. Those are bad decisions she said.”

“Good for Joanie’s mother. I wish I had listened to mine a little more.” He straightened and shifted in the chair. The photo was staring at him the way portraits always do. “You know what, Leighla, I want you to have that old picture if you want it.”

The girl was atop the bed, bouncing again. “Can I? I know just where I want to put it. On my dresser in my room. As soon as Maggie and Daddy get back to take me home. I can’t wait to see Mommy and Joanie, it’s been two weeks since I’ve been gone.”

“You ready to leave, Leighla? Not much to do here with old fogies, I know.”

“No, it’s just that I haven’t seen Momma or Joanie in a long time. I wish you and Granny lived closer so we could be together more. Daddy and Maggie are close, but. . . I like being with you and Granny, Papa Den.”

“I like having you around too.”

Leighla stopped bouncing, scooted off the bed and hugged him around the neck. “I love you, Papa Den.”

“I love you too, sweetheart.” He held onto her for as long as she would let him, clinging to a sticky hand when she had straightened. “To the moon and back,” he then added before letting the hand slip away.

“To the moon and back—two times!”

“Three times!”

“Forever times!” Leighla laughed as she climbed back onto the trampoline of a bed.

“Forever times!”

She bounced for a while and then suddenly let her feet settle in the sag of the bed. “Did you hear it, did you hear it, Papa Den?”

“What’s that?”

“Do you smell it, do you smell it?” Her dark brows arched, and she grinned expectantly after sniffing at the air.

“Oh no,” he said, crinkling his nose away from her, “you tooted!”

“Daddy says I cut the cheese,” she giggled, bouncing again, “or I stepped on a frog!”

“Smells like the frog is dead.”

“Peuh!”

“Leighla,” a familiar voice sounded from the doorway across the room, “get down from there please, that bed was made!”

“Maggie!” Leighla leaped off the bed and said, “Watch this!”

As Leighla cartwheeled toward the dresser, Dennis said, “It’s okay, Maggie. Nora said she’s changing sheets later today.”

“Did you see it, Maggie, did you see it?” Leighla was holding onto the dresser where she had stumbled to her landing.

“I saw it, honey. That was good.”

“Papa Den says I’m a natural born—what did you say I am, Papa Den?”

“A natural born gymnast,” he said.

“Yeah!”

A man who resembled an older version of the soldier in the photograph stepped into the room and said, “Leighla, run get your things together, we need to leave in a few minutes.”

“Okay, Daddy!”

“Don’t forget the picture,” Papa Den said.

Already, Leighla was stretching to take it from the dresser top. “No way am I forgetting this,” she said, and then she hopscotched out of the room.

“I should give Nora a hand,” Maggie said, moving toward Dennis, “she’s packing Tom’s things that he wanted from the attic.” She bent down, hugged him, adding, “I’ll say goodbye now, Dennis, so you and Tom can have a minute.” Momentarily, she held his hand before backing away. “You or Nora need anything, let us know. Tom or I, or both of us, can always take off from work, if we need to.”

“We’ll be fine. See you soon.” He watched her leave and then regarded his son who was approaching. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you ever since you got here,” he said. “It always seems like there’s plenty of time, but there never is, if we don’t make it.” He gestured toward the bed. “Sit down, Tommy. For just a second. I know you need to get going, but this won’t take long.”

“We’re okay, Dad,” he said, sitting, “just so we get Leighla back before dark.”

“How is that working out?”

Tom shrugged. “As well as it can, I guess. Maggie tries to be flexible. Jennifer too, for the most part, but you know how Jennifer is.”

“I know how you are too. A lot like me sometimes.”

Tom smiled. “Yep, so I’ve been told.”

“Listen, when emotions run high, keep in mind she’s Leighla’s mother. And Leighla adores her momma. Just remember that. Not every mother is a saint like your momma. Not many would have stuck by me the way she has.”

“I know that. Things are okay, they really are. Everyone gets along fine. We’re only thirty minutes away, and Leighla has adjusted okay to things these past couple of years.”

Dennis looked out into a shadowed space, away from his son. “It’s not easy talking about this now—it never is, I guess—but you need to know some things.”

Tom watched his father’s hands fidget in his lap, the fingers twitching and flexing until they balled around the tail of his T-shirt. “Dad, we’ve been over this, plenty of times. I know where you keep the key to the lockbox, what’s in it. I have copies of your wills—yours and Mom’s both—your medical powers of attorney, your directives to physicians, your durable powers of attorney—I have all that. And the phone numbers, the doctors’ names, all of it.” He reached across the space between them and gently squeezed his father’s bone of a shoulder. “You’re doing well now. You’ll get better and better, you’ll see. You and Mom both.”

“Before you leave, Tommy, tell your mother to slow down, she won’t listen to me. She’s wearing herself out, looking after me.” His gaze returned to the dust mites. They had followed the shaft of light across the dresser to the pill bottle. It stood in the spotlight the way the photo had. “But it’s not about all that,” he said, shifting his head to look at his son directly again, “I know you’re prepared, as prepared as you can be. I need to get some things off my chest before—before it’s too—before another night comes and goes. I can’t bear another night without getting this off my chest.” He paused to sip water from a plastic bottle beside the bed. “My time in the army.”

“Dad, Vietnam is ancient history now. I know all about that. Mom told me everything years ago. Back when you and I were butting heads. Just let it go, your past, our past. I was a knucklehead when I was a kid, I see that now. And you stopped drinking years ago. It’s okay, everything’s okay now, between you and me.”

“I wasn’t the hero the army made me out to be, Tommy, the papers and the television back then.”

“Dad, there’s no need to relive all this, it’s not necessary. Mom told me all about it.”

“Your mother doesn’t know all about it, Tommy. The things I have protected you from, her from—that I’ve protected even myself from—the truth. It’s true I did some good things before. . . before that day—I cling to those. I was the veteran in our platoon. Everybody else was green. The lieutenant, everybody. They depended on me.” He forced his gaze to hold fast to his son’s puzzled stare. “But the Silver Star, I should never have received it—I should have told the captain everything—everything—but I couldn’t even tell myself.” Dennis searched the dimly lit space again. “I just didn’t have the courage to face up to it myself.”

“You did earn that Silver Star, Dad. You told me this, how you helped lead the platoon on a reconnaissance patrol that day—”

“What I told you is what I wanted—what I pretended to believe myself, for so many years. My way of coping, maybe. It was easier to spew out what the army and the media had decided happened. But the fact is I led our unit right into a trap. If we had climbed the hill the way the captain and the lieutenant had planned it, my boys might all be here today. Still. But I convinced the lieutenant—Lieutenant Martin—I can see his face so clear right now—he had a freckly face that always looked sunburned—I convinced him to take this trail around the hill. To advance into the wind.”

“And that’s how you should have done it. Like hunting a deer on foot. So you could sneak up.”

“But a company of North Vietnamese were there waiting for us along that trail. Maybe three or four platoons worth. They were a step ahead of me, figuring we would use the wind to our advantage. Before we knew it, we were being peppered from all sides. For the rest of that day, that night, and into the next, we hunkered down, radioed for reinforcements, but when no one came, I volunteered to backtrack for help. Lieutenant Martin agreed. I was the scout, the veteran, the one who knew the jungle well enough to slip away—to get help—if anyone could. But I was scared, Tommy. By that time, I was desperate for an excuse—any excuse—to cut and run. I’ve realized that for a long time now, a long, long time. And looking back, I see that it had been coming—losing my nerve that way. A few days before that, we were in a firefight near this village. My hands started shaking so bad—and I started crying like a baby—I could hardly aim my rifle. The fear had caught up to me, I can see it now as clear as day.” Tears welling, he fought to keep them harbored while his son looked on. “I tried to get help though, Tommy—I tried. But I got lost, then I got penned down—and shot up anyway—when I stumbled on a patrol of Viet Cong. I was lucky. Another platoon close by heard the fire and came to my rescue. Together, we took out that VC patrol. I did my part then, I keep telling myself, but only because I was too wounded to run. I was trapped. And just plain lucky to be alive. I told that platoon’s lieutenant where my unit was, that we needed reinforcements, air support, but by the time my boys were located, there wasn’t a single one left alive. Not a one. Just me. I was the lucky one. . . just me.”

“It’s okay, Dad, it’s all in the past, it’s over. You reacted the way anyone would.”

Dennis nodded, blinked at the tears, tried to smile. “I had to tell you, Tommy, you of all people. I’ve always needed to tell you—at least you.”

“You did nothing wrong, Dad. Things happened. You were the right one to go for help, you said so yourself. You were the veteran that day. No one could fault you for that—”

“And today, when Leighla brought in that old picture of me in my dress uniform,” he went on, “the memories came flooding back. The memories I’ve been trying so hard to suppress all these years—they came flooding back.”

Tom leaned over, hugged his father, told him in his own husky voice, “I love you, Dad. More now than ever, if that’s possible.” He straightened, wiped at the tears that were spilling down his cheeks and stepped back. “Thanks for telling me this. I’m only sorry it took so long. It changes nothing. The fact that you have suffered this way shows the man you are, Dad. Inside and out. I’m proud of you. I’ll always be proud of you.” He backed away. “I hate to go now, Dad, but we got to. We gotta get Leighla back to Jennifer.”

Dennis nodded, wiped his face dry with two swipes of a hand. “I know. Thanks, son. For listening to me. For more than you know.”

“You too, Dad. For more than you know.”

“You be safe driving home, Tommy.”

“We’ll come back the next long weekend we have Leighla. The very next one, I promise.”

Dennis pointed to the brightest part of the room. “On the dresser there, Tommy, on your way out, please toss those pills in the trash outside.”

“You don’t need them?”

“They’re for pain, I don’t want them.”

“You sure? You may need them. Maybe you should hold on to them for a while longer, just in case.”

Dennis was shaking his head. “I’ve put enough poison inside this old body for ten lives. I want to see you and Leighla and Maggie again, on that long weekend. Toss them, please.”

Tom nodded, took the pill bottle, and then he was gone.

***

Dennis sat alone in the dim room, staring toward the bare dresser top, the shaft of light and its sparkles of dust, seeing only Leighla, the cartwheels, the bounces, the giggly grin. Indeed, some truths were self-evident if only he chose to see them. He smiled into the darkness, for without it, there could be no light.

 

The Requital

“When?”

“Soon.”

“How soon is soon?”

The younger man barely turned his head, just enough to glance at the old man. “I don’t know, Papi—soon.”

The old man watched his son focus his attention toward the broken land below the cliff. “Where, exactly?”

“There.” The younger man’s bark of a finger pointed toward a gnarled mesquite where its overgrown limbs swept with the breeze at the shadowed hardpan. “In that clearing. Behind the tree. To the left behind it.”

“Veo que. I see it.” Under the worn straw hat, dark eyes squinted crow’s feet against the summer glare. The deep wrinkles clawed to the silver hair at the temples until the old man returned his gaze to the younger man. “How do you know this? How do you know this is where he comes, that this is where it happened?”

“Danita.”

“You should not be asking Danita these things, Felipe. It does her no good. Not from you. Not for this purpose. This will not change what happened. What’s done is done.”

“And what will be will be, Papi.”

“It will not help, son, it will only make things worse.”

“Nothing can make things worse. Danita will never be the same—never.”

The old man had heard his son’s voice quaver, so he knew he was crying. “No, what’s done is done. But you—you, Felipe—will be worse for doing this.”

“A father must protect his children, Papi. I—”

“And I am trying to protect you.”

“I didn’t protect Danita.”

“And you think killing this man will protect her now?”

“Killing this animal will protect other little girls, Papi.”

“It’s not just the killing, Felipe, it’s what this need to kill is doing to you. If this is where they come each time, then tell the sheriff, tell the Border Patrol, let them handle this.”

The younger man was not listening to him now. On a patch of grass that grew from a crag in the rocky ledge, he had rested the barrel of the butt-scarred .30-06 rifle. He positioned his small body into a prone position and peered into the telescope where it aimed at the narrow clearing below. “Just stay quiet now, Papi. Any minute now, we will hear the voices and the brush snapping under their feet. You have to trust me, I know what I’m doing.” He snugged the rubber-backed rifle butt against his shoulder. “Any time now, Papi.”

Crouched behind the bunch grass beside him, the old man shook his head slowly, squinting skyward into the summer glare. The crow’s feet were filled with tears now. “Killing this man will not make Danita the way she was before. Let the sheriff handle this, please. Por favor, Felipe, por favor.”

The younger man took his eye away from the telescope long enough to make sure the rifle was ready to fire.

“Please let the sheriff handle this.”

“I am handling this the way I have to, Papi. No one rapes my little girl—my little Danita—and gets away with it! No one leaves my little Danita to die in the desert that way! The animal left her out here to bleed to death! No one gets away with this—no one, Papi!”

The old man stared where a trail of ants crawled into a crevice of the hot rock and nodded. Before long, he heard the muffled voices, the scraping of brush against jeans. His head jerked toward a thicket of brush that partitioned the narrow clearing. The voices grew louder, distinguishable, one from another. Deep, shallow, flat. All were commanding, threatening voices. Then among them, the whimpers of children, of girls like Danita. Their muffled cries were emanating from the brush just beyond the clearing. Snapping brush, threatening voices, whimpers, all growing distinct now. A moment later, through the thicket, he could see glimpses of them. Two grown men, two older boys—rapists, killers—they were trafficking three more girls. Maybe Felipe was right. Maybe he should kill this animal now. He should kill all these animals. The grown men, the older boys. Kill them. Kill them now. To protect others. Maybe he should. As the figure of a taller, skinny man carrying an assault rifle led the three girls into the clearing, the old man heard his son take a quivering breath. He froze, swallowed at his suddenly parched throat, watching his son’s finger curl across the trigger of the rifle.

It pressed, the trigger clicked, no report.

“You’re dead,” the younger man whispered to himself.

At that moment, from the horizon, the thump of a helicopter could be heard as it crawled across the brassy sky. As its speck grew into a discernible object, the squeal of brush scraping metal sounded where two tails of white dust plumed from opposite directions of the caliche road that etched into the span of brush. In an instant, before the human traffickers could scramble away, a green and white U.S. Border Patrol SUV skidded to a stop along the gravel road while the sheriff’s white pickup jerked to a halt at the far edge of the clearing. From both vehicles, doors flew open before the armed agents and deputies charged to rescue the girls.

“Felipe, your rifle—it, it jammed!”

The younger man was watching the scene play out below the cliff. With the helicopter now hovering overhead, the three girls had scrambled to the safety of a large rock. In their attempts to escape, the rapist and his cronies had darted first in one direction and then in another, wildly firing their pistols and assault rifles into the thicket. The dense brush and rocky terrain were protecting the half dozen USBP agents and the two deputies. They had the human traffickers cornered now; there was no escape. In desperation, the taller, skinny man paused to aim his assault rifle at the deputy closest to him. It was a futile and final act. Before he could fire the weapon, one of the other agents fired her Berretta 96D pistol, the report echoing against the rocky cliff. The rapist was thrown against the mesquite tree where his skinny body twitched into silence. As the other traffickers fell to their knees with hands clasped behind their heads, the authorities converged to apprehend them.

“Your rifle jammed, Felipe,” the old man said again, staring at the lifeless, skinny body beside the tree. “It was meant to be, Felipe. The authorities will handle this now! Dios, gracias.” The old man crossed himself. “This is God’s will, Felipe. It is meant to be.”

The younger man held out the rifle to show the old man the empty chamber. “It wasn’t loaded, Papi.”

The old man’s parched mouth opened slightly, and for a moment, he stared at his son quizzically. “You were never going to kill them then?”

“I did kill them, Papi,” he said, pointing a gnarled finger at his head. “In here.”

“And the authorities being here now?”

“I told them what Danita told me. When to come.”

The old man smiled thankfully. “Danita will be okay, mijo. She’s young, she’ll be okay. In time. And so will you.”

Standing now, the younger man observed as two female Border Patrol agents comforted the young girls before leading them to the SUV. “Those girls there will be okay in time,” he said, “if nothing happened to them before now.”

The old man nodded, almost absent-mindedly, as he stared where the ant trail disappeared inside the dark crevice of the rock. Then he turned slightly, toward his son, and said in a quiet voice, “Life, I think, is an incomplete journey, Felipe. Consequential and incomplete.”

“Here, Papi,” the younger man said, offering a hand as his father struggled to his feet. “We better get going. It will be time to take Danita to see the counselor by the time we get home.”

The old man put a hand on his son’s slender shoulder, squeezing it lovingly, savoring the moment, and this time, the tears crawled down the crags of his leathered face.