“It’s good to see you again, Darren.”
“You, too, Mr. Daly. You too.”
“Come on in and just leave your bag here. We’ll get it to your room later.”
Darren let go of the handshake and walked into the house with Mr. Daly, who was silent. The entire house was silent. Things were clean and modern enough, though for some reason Darren had assumed there would be some kind of grandmotherly feel to the place. Doilies on lemony wood, yellowing curtains, linoleum. Crocheted catchphrases on the wall like the motivational posters of another era. It felt like that, but it was not that. The house was current and without nostalgia, modern art on the walls, a leather sofa with the little brass buttons around it. And when Mrs. Daly came down the hall to meet them in living room, the sound was her shoes on dark planks of some kind of exotic hardwood. Things were nice. Warm, but somehow still kind of – he wasn’t sure what to call it – maybe paralytic. Frozen. Warm but frozen. Darren didn’t know what to say. Mr. Daly didn’t know what to say. Mrs Daly said “Happy Thanksgiving, Darren.”
“Happy Thanksgiving, Mrs. Daly. Thank you for inviting me.”
“It’s been a long time, Darren, and you’re not a boy anymore. Please, call me Rebecca. And if Stan hasn’t said so yet, you can call him that. We appreciate you making the trip. Be sure to tell your mother that we’re sorry for stealing you this year.”
“I will, Rebecca. Thank you. Your house is beautiful. It’s a long way from the old place in Illinois. I don’t think I see anything here that you had in that house.”
“Probably not,” Stan replied. “Frankly, it was a lot easier to move without dragging a bunch of old stuff along with us. And of course by the time you and Eric joined the Army, well you know we had already lost Joshua, so the idea of just starting fresh really made sense.”
Rebecca agreed and added “We do still have a few of Eric’s old things, and the little flag setup in the hall, but we haven’t kept any kind of a shrine to him or anything like that. And being that he never lived in this house you don’t have to worry that we’re going to make you sleep in his old room.”
Stan said, “On that note, Darren, let me show you where you’re staying.”
Darren was led to a guest room in the finished basement, and when Stan left him to himself, he was surprised to see a small framed picture of the Daly’s youngest son on the dresser. His name was Joshua, and when he was seven the Dalys moved to Illinois because they had been referred to a doctor there who said he could help him. He had a rare childhood cancer, and this doctor was going to give him some kind of a new treatment. Darren was eleven at the time, and so was the Daly’s older son, Eric. They became friends and stayed that way for the next twelve years, when Eric was killed in a firefight in some little beige village in the desert.
Darren put his bag in the corner and shuffled around uncomfortably for a few minutes before going back upstairs. The Dalys were in the kitchen, casually preparing food for tomorrow’s meal. When he entered, Rebecca finished peeling a carrot and said “I hope this isn’t too uncomfortable for you, Eric.”
“No, it isn’t. I mean it is a little, but I don’t think that can be helped.”
“I don’t either,” Stan said. “When you think about it, what with all the noise and hoopla around Eric’s death – his medal, his story, all the visits from Generals and letters from guys he served with – it’s not as though we haven’t made it through the grieving process, you know? Not as though we haven’t been helped and treated well.”
“Right,” Rebecca picked up from there. “We’re good, we’re past it, as much as we can ever be. We’ve been the hero’s parents, and thankfully we were able to get through it without resenting anything too much. Without being too selfish about it, and without being worn down by the attention the way I’ve heard can happen. It’s just that we’ve never talked to anyone, I don’t know, anyone who knew him that we also knew. Nobody mutual. Everyone had such wonderful things to say about him, and every time I go back and read the citation from his Medal, the things he did – I mean, it’s all so incredible. So…nice, you know? But all of those people – every one of them was a stranger to us.”
“Well I hope,” Darren was a little lost, “I hope I can, I don’t know – well, look: As you know, I wasn’t there when he died. I mean, I wasn’t even in Afghanistan at the time. I didn’t even hear about it until 3 months after it happened. I didn’t even know. I wasn’t there when it happened. I wasn’t with him. I couldn’t have done anything.”
When they were all younger and Joshua seemed to be having a new surgery every week, and his chemo treatments left him weakened and slow, the boys were occasionally tasked with playing with him, taking him with them when they went out. But he was slow and clumsy. He had a hole in his chest, a ‘port’ his parents called it, with a little nozzle like a car tire or a life raft so that he could just show up at the hospital and have a hose plugged into him without a bunch of hassle. Everything else was difficult for him and his enfeebled system, and Eric was mean to him because of it. Darren remembered wishing that they didn’t have to take Joshua with them. It made Eric embarrassingly cruel. Eric gave Joshua gifts and cards and always acted eager to visit him in the hospital. But when they were away from their parents, he called Joshua a retard and tried to show Darren how easy it was to make him fall over. It was the only time Darren didn’t like being around Eric.
On Thanksgiving day Darren came up from his room in the Daly’s basement. A small table in the hall held a picture of Eric, Private First Class Daly at the time, in his uniform, maroon beret pulled down over one ear and maybe just the tiniest suggestion of a smile on an otherwise serious face. On the wall above it was a display of several medals, a Bronze Star along with a handful of lesser ones that Darren had, too, but couldn’t remember the names of. In the center was a plaque bearing the citation for his Medal of Honor, and a triangular case displaying a folded American Flag.
Stan approached and they stood together quietly for a few moments. “They named a street after him back in our old town, before we left. ‘Eric Daly Drive.’ There was a parade, and it seemed like the phone calls and mail would never stop coming. It was exhausting.”
“I heard about the street. I wanted to be there for that, but I was still – I haven’t been able to get back there. Is that why you moved?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’m no psychologist, but I suppose it was part of it. I know we never looked at each other and said we have to get out of here. But between that road and all the attention, and Joshua’s grave, I think moving away was pretty inevitable for us.”
“Don’t you –I’m sorry, I really don’t know – don’t you want to stay closer to those things? Will you ever move back?”
“Oh God, I don’t know. I don’t think so. Those things -”
“Yeah, sorry, that was a bad way to say it.”
“No, that’s ok. That’s what they are. Things. A grave. A few street signs. There’s only so close you can get. And even if we moved right back into our old house, our boys would still belong to that town more than they did to us.” They stared at the wall. Somewhere outside, a rooster crowed. From the kitchen came the smell of heat and thyme. “I almost wish we didn’t have that picture there,” Stan told him. “I know it’s old and he was a Staff Sergeant by the time he was killed. We have plenty of other pictures of him, but for some reason we put up that picture there, and now it’s the only way I can ever see him when I close my eyes and try to remember. None of the earlier times, none of the Illinois days, none of the times with Joshua. Just that posed picture there.”
“It’s a good picture, Mr. Daly. A nice picture. A nice way to remember him.”
One winter back in Illinois, when they were fourteen and Joshua ten, the three of them were walking in the field behind their houses. Joshua wobbled along behind them, awkward but with an odd joy he seemed to have gained through his illness. Eric said that one of his brain surgeries ruined him in some way. Made him too stupid to be sad. They made their way towards the pond where the water froze over to a dependable thickness by December every year, and some of the neighborhood boys even played hockey on it sometimes. It was January, and by then they didn’t think twice about walking right across it. To their knowledge, nobody had ever fallen in. Darren and Eric had reached the other side. Joshua was still about 20 feet out. Eric had been cursing him all day. He scolded Joshua to get across, and started lobbing rocks towards him. Joshua looked frightened and shouted at him in a breathless little voice to stop, but there was hardly any noise, just the steam on the air. Eric kept throwing rocks, tossing them higher and higher, and using bigger and bigger rocks. Joshua was doing his best to hurry across, but his coordination had been excised by a half dozen operations, and tumbled around in too many dialysis machines, so he was stuck in what might have been, at another time, a comical flailing of scrawny limbs. Eric taunted him, shouting “COME ON, BAMBI!”
At last Eric got hold of a rock the size of his head, and with two hands and a violent grunt, sent it towards his brother. When it landed it lodged about half of itself in the ice. All three of them stopped moving and stared at it mutely for a few seconds as it paused in that hard blue layer halfway between the water and the sky. Suddenly it vanished with a meek little splash. Joshua looked up at the boys on the bank. His pale face, skeletal and wasted from the medical war that had been waged on his body, registered an oddly mature look of acceptance just before disappearing beneath the ice. Darren shouted his name and started in his direction, but Eric held him back.
“We can still help him!”
“No. We can’t.”
The two of them watched from a distance until water stopped splashing out of the hole that Joshua had made.
At the table, on Thanksgiving, over a small turkey and some wine, Rebecca made a suggestion: “I know nobody likes doing this, but why don’t the three of us take a minute to say what we’re thankful for.”