Around the world people crowded together, cheering and singing and kissing strangers as they passed. Celebration. Freedom. The Visitors were gone, the war over, and it was time to sing and dance and revel in the joy before taking a deep breath and beginning the long, hard task of rebuilding and moving on. And, eventually, Ham would join them. He would stand alone, watching as friends clapped one another on the back and lovers embraced. He would suffer through congratulations and back slapping and drunken re-tellings of whatever part so and so had played in the last, desperate and thankfully successful attempt to shove the Visitors away from the world they all called home. But first, he had a promise to keep.
He walked across the field, his face perhaps
the only one on the planet that was not smiling at this moment. Or
maybe not; even in victory, there were always those who had been close
to one who paid the highest price for that victory. Still, even those
would be be happy tonight, only tomorrow when the reality of the loss truly
struck, would there be grief. When a man first awoke and found the
place beside him in the bed empty and cold. When someone
laughed, and turned to share joy with a parent, sister, brother or friend who was no longer there, a familiar presence gone. But today and tonight, there was only joy and the pure, ecstatic relief of escape. Of being one of the ones who made it.
Ham reached his destination, a peaceful spot at the edge of a field, a slight rising in the earth sparsely covered with new grass. Next spring it wouldn't be visible, except for the crude wooden cross that stood there. He pulled a bottle of champagne from his jacket pocket, along with two styrofoam cups. One still had the dried remains of coffee staining the bottom, the other was clean and new. He filled them both, carefully sat the clean cup at the base of the marker, and lifted the other in the air.
"To you, Ruby." he said softly, then drained the contents. He picked up the other glass and poured it onto the grave with great ceremony, then refilled his own and sat cross-legged on the ground before the cross.
The second cup went as fast as the first, then was refilled, and he took a small sip. Any coffee was gone, leaving only the taste of styrofoam to mingle with that of the incredibly expensive champagne he'd lifted from what had been the Visitor Legation. A conversation rang through his head, as clearly as if it had taken place only a moment ago.
* What happened to you, Mr. Tyler? How did
you become someone so dangerous?*
* You make it back safely, and I'll tell you the story of my life.*
* I have a hunch that's worth coming back for. *
"I said I'd tell you, Ruby, if you came back. I wish like hell you'd held me to that promise. But you are, aren't you? You didn't hold up your end of the deal, but here I am. Holding up mine." He smiled at his own words, as he thought the old woman probably would have smiled, had she heard them. He scanned the area, confirming that there was no one to overhear this very private conversation. "How did I become dangerous. I've heard people speculate on that, you know, when they didn't think I could hear. Others when they knew I could and didn't care. I think it was Gooder who once said that I'd forgotten what it was to be human."
"He was wrong Ruby. It's just the opposite. I became dangerous because I can't forget." He stuffed the cup back in his pocket and took a long pull from the champagne bottle. " I remember my old man coughing up blood in the hospital until he finally choked to death on it. I remember this old Nun at the orphanage, who believed that prayer could work miracles, but all the prayer in the world didn't keep her from getting hit by a bus. I remember the moment I decided that I owed my country for the right to live free, that it deserved my service and that honor demanded I serve. I remember every word of the oath I took to do just that. I remember the names of every soldier ever to die under my command. I remember the only happy moments of my life, Ruby." He paused to drink again, unable to tell this part of it without more alcohol than he had as yet consumed. Then he pressed on.
"I remember the first time I laid eyes on the woman who would be my wife. I remember the feel of her hand in mine, so small as to look fragile, but strong and calloused. She was like her hands. A tiny little thing, but with more strength than I've ever encountered, before or since. I remember the way she smelled. Damn, Ruby, sometimes I still catch a whiff of that smell and I find myself waiting to feel her come up behind me and rub the back of my neck."
Another drink, then another. The bottle was half empty, and he was nowhere near half finished. Why was he doing this? Because he'd promised? Hell of a thing to promise, this. He didn't know what had made him do it.
"My happiest memories are from a war, Ruby. I remember the day I went to see my wife and saw that she was pregnant. She hadn't sent word, she'd wanted to surprise me. And she hadn't wanted me to worry, she was afraid I would be thinking of her instead of concentrating on what I was doing. The only fear she ever showed, Ruby, was a fear that I would be killed. And even that she didn't show often. I'd catch her looking at me sometimes, the mixture of fear and love in her eyes so intense it hurt me to look at it. Then she'd smile again, the look would pass, and we would both pretend I hadn't seen it."
" I remember the first time I held my daughter in my arms, and the first time I heard her laugh. So tiny, Ruby, so perfect. The only good thing to ever come from me." The champagne bottle was empty, and he pulled a silver flask from his jacket pocket and unscrewed the top. Yes, this definitely required some good scotch as well as champagne.
The skin around his eyes drew tight, and his stomach clenched convulsively, but he went on, his voice as calm and soft as when he began. Only a slight trembling in his hands revealed that this was difficult. "I remember the day I had to choose between my oath to go where my country sent me, and my oath to love, honor and protect. I remember hiding my family, trusting that the government I served would get them to safety as promised. I remember finding the church where I'd hidden them, burned to the ground."
The burning behind his eyes increased and he blinked hard, pushing back tears he'd never cried. To give in to that grief would be to accept that they'd been inside, that they hadn't left the church and gone somewhere. To believe that his wife had done as he'd asked and stayed in the church, waiting for him to come until the napalm had come instead. "I remember every single trip back there, looking for a sign that I still have a family. I remember it all Ruby. Every action, every reaction, from then until now, through more wars and non-wars than most American's even know about, no matter how much film Gooder shot. I remember my promise to my country, Ruby. I have to. I lost my family to it. How could I live if I broke that promise now, when I didn't break it to get my family out myself? I remember that in every battle, for every victory, there are those who make it, and there are those who don't."
"You should have been one of the ones who made it, Ruby. You should be doing Shakespeare in the park, shining as the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet and baking cookies on the weekends. You were one hell of a lady, " he announced, lifting his flask. " I remember you."
He drained the flask and put it back in his pocket, then reached out and traced the letters of the name carved into the cross. There would be a real marker here. For the old woman with no family to remember her, all of them lost before her. "You understood Ruby. You'd lost husband and children and friends. You knew that there were things you do because you have to, in order to survive. To keep going."
Just one more thing, to last until the marble
marker was placed here. He fumbled for a sheet of paper and pen,
his hand a bit unsteady from drink. Then scribbled hastily for a moment
before laying the paper before the cross, a rock keeping the wind from
blowing it away. Then he stood still for a heartbeat, maybe two,
ignoring the single tear that escaped his hold with his final words to
his friend. "If they're with you - tell my family I love them. Always.
they're not still here somewhere. If I really won't ever find them."
It would be several days before Juliet Parrish
visited the same spot. She would never know who had come before her,
nor could she understand why they'd left such a strange missive. Perhaps
it was the only Shakespeare they'd known, and they'd known how Ruby
had adored the Bard. She read it twice before respectfully placing
it back beneath it's rock.
"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like one more rich in hope,
Featur'd like him, like him with friends possess'd,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising)
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate:
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings."
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