By John Holley
Durham, North Carolina~
Eddie, he is missing. You sneaked through the woods with him while playing Army, to the lake. You’d done it kazillion times but this time you couldn’t find Eddie’s hiding place. Not this time. No great pine-cone grenade battle, no stick firefight. You looked forever expecting an ambush every step. Nothing.
You looked until you were scared.
You told them you don’t know where Eddie is, you told them that. You don’t know. At first you didn’t tell about the lake because it was operational. Enemy infiltrators. Super-secret operational, between you and Eddie.
You weren’t supposed to go to the lake, but it was operational and you had to make sure your families were safe, that was the mission. Mission over everything. Independence Day with firecrackers and sparklers and chicken and potato salad and volleyball. The two of you kept them safe, just like your fathers did as soldiers, on base everyday.
A day younger than Eddy, you shared a fifth birthday party a few weeks ago. Both got bicycles; yours was a green Evans and Eddie’s a red Schwinn, his had three speeds. You learned to ride them together.
When your fathers were home they took the training wheels off and ran alongside you on the dirt roads of the park. When the men tired they put training wheels on and watched us while drinking beers in cold blue cans, laughing and shouting encouragement at us riding our hardest and bravest through the trees by the trailers. Our homes on chocked wheels, tires covered with canvas to prevent rot before they roll again, soon. Some base in California, Texas, or maybe Oregon, Dad says we’re hot for an assignment.
Eddie’s father was taller than your own, but your dad was strong and fast and pushed much faster than Eddie got to go. Your dad would still pick you up and throw you into the air. Eddie said he was much too old for that but you knew he envied it, and it made you feel better about his bike having three speeds.
Your training wheels came off for good two days before Eddie’s did.
Eddy’s hair was cut short like your own, stubbly and his ears stuck out like wings. His sister teased him, called him puppy dog ears. On hot Carolina days, with fathers at work protecting the nation, Eddie’s mom would tire of your noise and give you nickels. You’d ride hard to the Pure Oil station and get Creamsicles, then walk your bikes home with orange and vanilla ice cream running down your arms.
You don’t want to tell about the lake, it’s operational. Your dad should understand that but he doesn’t. He lifts you by an arm so your feet only touch tippy-toed and your wrist burns from his grip, he takes you behind the trailer away from the crowd. He yells so loud that going behind the trailer doesn’t matter. He says the mission doesn’t matter. What matters is your buddy, Eddie. It’s about your buddy. Damn it, where is Eddie?
You tell about the mission. You fail the super-secret operation.
The BBQ ends, the grown-ups serious sending children into the trailers, and now it’s night and Eddie’s mom knocks on your trailer door. You can see her through the window, a red scarf tied over brown hair that’s mussed like a military wife’s never is, and through the glass you can tell she is crying. Your mother stands up from the table and brushes wrinkles from her her sundress. Her face is hard and she is tall and slim and her blond hair is curled, and in that moment you realize your mother is beautiful.
She hesitates with her hand on the doorknob and sends you to your room. You go without argument though it is not bedtime and sit on your bed reading The Little Prince, as many of the words as you can, and those words you can’t read but remember. You remember them all, the words, in your mother’s voice. Really, you can read them all too, but imagining them in her voice feels better.
You sit on your bed a long time and make up stories of asteroids and baobab trees, waiting for your mother to tell you what is going on. You know it is bad though you don’t exactly know what bad is. At six you just know there are bad things.
The front door shuts and you hear hard-sole steps across the porch, they go silent into the grass. Your mother comes to your room and she closes the book in your lap. She sits next to you on the bed, puts her arm across your shoulders and says she has to tell you something sad. Her eyes are moist but there are no tears and you don’t say anything.
She says that Eddie drowned. You ask her what drowned is and she says it means you stay under water too long. You ask where Dad is, if he’s helping Eddie now, and she just shakes her head. You ask if Eddie’ll be okay tomorrow and she says no. Eddie has gone to heaven and you won’t get to play with Eddie anymore. You ask her if going to heaven is like moving away from friends like last year, to come here, and now your mother cries.
Dad comes home, stern and quiet, face drawn and tired under stubble he allows to grow on weekends. He opens the refrigerator and lifts a can of beer from the door, the blue of it fading under condensation as you watch. He sits at the kitchen table, across from you, just looking, looking at you. You twist your fingers together and apart, fidgeting; you know he will tell you to stop it, in a minute he will. You stop before he tells you, tuck your hands under your legs, and you tell Dad Eddie got orders and moved to heaven.
Dad looks down to the beer in his hand, drops of water sliding down cold metal, over his hand, and he says your name, Jackson. Quietly, almost as a breath. No one but Dad calls you Jackson. Mom stands and puts her hands on his shoulders then sends you to your room but she isn’t mad. You go without argument.
Sitting on your bed with a book in your lap, closed now, you don’t think that heaven is in North Carolina.
About the Author
John Holley is a Military Brat, and at the time of this piece his Dad was at Seymour Johnson AFB, splitting time on assignment to Fort Bragg AB. John’s also a veteran, a Denver writer, and a member of the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop. But underlying all that, always, he’s a Military Brat. His fiction has appeared in Fast Forward, The Barcelona Review, Expressions, The Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Manawaker Podcasts and received honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s very short fiction contest. His non-fiction has appeared in The Examined Life and was a regular feature in both the Casper Star Tribune and the Sol Day