This story is about a boy and his military dad...love and regret and second chances. Enjoy! And Happy Father's Day to all you dads out there :)
Chapter 5 Cat’s Cradle
Nick wore black pants and a black baseball cap to school every day because he was in mourning. He mourned for all the reasons that people mourn. Mostly because it’s too late. Too late for all the things you wished you’d done, but didn’t do. Too late for all the things you wish you’d said, but instead you kept silent. Too late for all the things you wished could’ve been, but weren’t. Sometimes people have too much time on their hands and they waste it. The phrase “too late” gets tossed around for everything that hurts our hearts, as if saying “it’s too late” was a medicinal expression that somehow cleansed the wound.
Too late came for Nick the day his father deployed to Afghanistan.
“Dude, isn’t your dad supposed to leave today?”
“Yeah,” Nick said as he lit his cigarette.
“Aren’t you going with your mom?”
“I’m not gonna see that bastard off to war. He’s always leaving anyway. What’s the point?” Nick took a drag of his cigarette.
“That’s kinda cold, dude.”
“No one asked your opinion. So, shut the f*** up.” Nick stubbed the red cherry end of his smoke into the asphalt. “F*** school today. I’m going to the mall.”
I was sitting on top of the auto shop carport where Nick and his buddy smoked every day before school. His anger tasted like black licorice in my mouth. I could hear Nick’s hurt in the ugly words. When they left, I jumped down to the dumpster, then to the alley road. Nick’s house was only a few blocks away. The time to help Nick was coming soon; I could feel it. I just didn’t know when or what just yet. I kept hearing his father’s voice, too. And that puzzled me.
Nick’s mother waited for Nick to show up at the house so they could drive his father to the base. Unfortunately, Nick never came. His mother took his father to the base by herself. Nick never saw how his mother held her tears back, so her husband would think her strong and wouldn’t worry about the family while he was gone. And neither Nick nor his mother saw the tears the soldier shed inside his invisible heart. Soldiers have to be G.I. Joe tough on the outside. However, you know by now that what we feel on the inside is far more important than what others see or think they see on the outside.
In the field, Nick’s father carried a photograph of his smiling six-year-old son. In the photograph, Nick wore a green and white uniform and stood with one foot poised over a black and white soccer ball. When the sun went down in Afghanistan and the heat radiated roasting hot, not blazing hot hell-fire, his father looked at the faded picture. Over time, his sweat smudged the clarity of the colors and spoiled the flat pristine paper with puckers. He didn’t care because the picture symbolized everything he fought for. He loved his son who ignored him. Someday, he’ll come back to me. He’ll realize I love him. Nick’s six-year-old smile branded his father’s heart with memories. I could hear Nick’s father every night asking for protection for the family he left behind. Nick never knew that.
After his father left, Nick showed his mother no mercy.
“Just because your father’s gone, doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want when you want.” She shook her head in frustration.
“Whataya gonna do about it?” Nick snarled back, because he could. “Ground me?”
“Yes. And take your phone away.”
“I can turn it off, you know.”
“Go ahead. Then, I won’t have to worry about you calling me all the time. And nagging me.” Nick shrugged her off.
“I got your report card in the mail today,” his mother said matter-of-factly, trying unsuccessfully to change the tone of their conversation.
“You have three Fs and four Ds. What happened?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Shit. School sucks. Teachers suck.”
“That doesn’t mean you can just flunk everything.”
“I’m not flunking everything. I got Ds.”
“Quit twisting my words. Your grades are unacceptable, Nick.”
“Go to your room right now.”
“Being disrespectful. Your father would never allow you to—”
“He’s not here, is he? So who cares.”
“Get to your room!” Her eyes filled with angry frustrated tears.
Nick walked out of the kitchen. Instead of going upstairs, his mother heard him slam the front door. She leaned against the kitchen counter for strength as she made dinner, because her legs felt like rubber. The urgency of war took her husband into rocky hills and sandy deserts far away from her. She needed his help. I don’t know what to do with our son. I’m so angry you left me here to do this all by myself. That night, like every night, she cried herself to sleep. When daylight lit the edges of the curtains, she awoke, putting one foot in front of the other. Nick never noticed her resoluteness day in and day out. He missed each second she wiped her tears away so he wouldn’t see.
The dark day arrived when the dark blue car pulled up along the curb in front of Nick’s house. I sat on my skateboard across the street and watched as two men in military dress blues got out. I could see Nick watching them through the big picture window in his living room. The taller of the two took off his stiff hat and tucked it neatly under his arm. I could hear the footsteps timed in unison like a march on the wooden porch all the way across street. Nick opened the door before they had a chance to knock. They asked for his mother, so he hollered for her. The men looked at each other as if to say, Son, we could’ve done that ourselves, but they remained silent. Nick left them at the door and sat down on the couch to finish his turn at HALO.
His mother walked into the room and saw Nick playing his video game.
“What’s so urgent you had to yell like that?” she asked impatiently. Then, she saw the men at the door. She dropped her coffee cup on the hardwood floor, where it shattered like her dreams...into a million tiny pieces. All the tears she hid from the world flooded her heart like the Euphrates River floods its banks in springtime. Nick watched as a tremor shook her body to the floor like she was having an earthquake from the inside out.
He stood up from the couch and stared at her.
One of the men opened the door and walked in, because he was a man of the cloth.
He knelt next to the weeping wife, “Mrs. DiMitri, I’m sorry about your husband.”
“He was killed in the line of duty.”
“How?” Her voice was a jolting aftershock.
“He died in the rocky hills of a northern region of Afghanistan. It’s all we’re allowed to say, Mrs. DiMitri.”
“Oh my God,” she wept.
“He died a hero saving his fellow soldiers,” the man of the cloth offered, hoping it would lessen the wound. Then, he helped Nick’s mother up to the couch because her legs refused to move. The taller man handed Nick a faded picture. He recognized it immediately.
“Where did you get this?” Nick asked the tall soldier in dress blues.
“Your father kept it in his helmet.”
“How do you know that?” Nick’s voice cracked ever so slightly.
“I saw him put it in there myself.”
Nick just stared at the picture.
“Your father was a good man. He loved you very much.”
In the blink of Nick’s brown eyes, all the things he’d never said to his father rushed into his brain, choking off any words or feelings the way a weed chokes out a healthy plant. Nick remembered refusing to play catch with his father, because he wanted to play video games more. Besides, he’d told himself that playing catch with his old man was embarrassing. He also remembered squirreling out of hugs his father tried to give him, because it wasn’t cool to hug anyone except a girlfriend. He remembered, suddenly, that he couldn’t remember the last time he said “I love you” to his father.
In a second, some people blink the most important moments of their life away and everything after becomes “too late.” So, Nick wore black to school every day after his father died. People whispered about how quiet he was now. He shunned his smoking buddies, even as he shunned himself. His friends and teachers believed Nick was sad because his father died. Our entire town read about it in the newspaper. But I knew different. Nick’s regrets were suffocating the light out of him.
Find out how Nick handles the news, and how Arabella helps him with his father... in Invisible Wings