Selected for TL;DR's Hope Anthology
A man stops by the place where his heart lives to muster the courage to keep going. But should he?
I’ve got a rifle in my bag today.
The world is cruel, and this is the only thing I can do about it.
I walked a half mile out of my way to come by at Miriam’s School of Ballet first. My wife started this school forty-five years ago, teaching until the week she died.
I heave a sigh. This square cement building is uglier than a battlefield, but beautiful to me. After shuffling to the bench on the entrance’s grassy knoll, I slide the duffle underneath before gripping the arm for balance and lowering onto the seat.
I’ll stay just a minute. Maybe I’ll feel Miriam’s presence, and it’ll give me the strength to face yet another death, to fire this rifle one last time.
Gunfire. The grisly, deafening sound that’ll never let me escape my past.
The school’s door swings open and a little girl, maybe four or five, comes flying out wearing a ruffled pink tutu. She’s still got her ballet shoes on, which is a big no-no at Miriam’s School of Ballet. Dirty slippers are prohibited on the dance floor.
Sure enough, a woman blasts out the door, yelling, “Sylvia, your shoes!”
“Sorry, Mommy!” Sylvia plunks down on the steps and yanks off her slippers before darting barefoot into the grass.
The mother groans, chasing the tot while lugging a purse, a backpack, and a lunchbox. Ah, the joys of parenthood.
Something Miriam and I never got to experience. After our sixth miscarriage, Miriam said she couldn’t go through it again. Neither could I, God’s honest truth. If there is a God, which I’m not so sure about, he’s cruel. How could a woman who adored children not have any of her own?
I bury my face in my palms. And why am I the one who gets to keep living? Miriam had the heart of an angel. With the merciless life I chose, my hands are covered in blood.
“This is for you.” Sylvia punctuates each word.
I study my boots.
“For you, mister.” Her tiny voice grows even more insistent.
I look up to see the tiny ballerina holding out a clover. It looks like it has five leaves on it, but that can’t be. Not even the St. Patrick’s decorations Miriam used to hang on the ballet school’s windows had five-leafed clovers. And a real one? It has to be my failing vision.
I squint and lean in to study it.
Ah, this little girl’s inventive. It’s two clovers twisted together, a leaf likely picked from one.
I push my duffle further under the seat with my foot as I shift my gaze in Sylvia’s direction. “Are you giving this to me?”
She flashes a bright, dimpled grin. “Yup!”
“Well, you can’t do that, my dear.” I point. “It has five leaves. It’ll bring you lots and lots of luck.”
She does a full-body headshake, as only kids can do. “Five leaves don’t bring luck, silly. They bring love, and you need love.”
Her words suck the breath from my chest. She’s right, I could use some love today. “I dunno what to say.” My jaw wobbles as I speak.
“Take it.” Sylvia’s mother says, smiling at me. “She’s passionate about sharing, and she doesn’t give up. Trust me, she won’t leave until you take it.”
“Well, all right then.” I take the intertwined clovers, careful not to let them separate. “You’re very kind.”
“Do you live close to here?” Sylvia asks.
I chuckle. “Yes, a few blocks south.”
Sylvia proceeds to tell me that she lives in a blue house two streets away with her dog, Bailey. I should stand and excuse myself, but I can’t bring myself to leave.
And the longer I sit, the more I doubt my ability to carry out this job. I’m old, retired, and a coward. And this time, it’s personal.
Plus, I’m actually smiling right now. I haven’t smiled in…well, I can’t remember the last time.
Finally, Sylvia is dragged away by her mother, but she escapes and runs back to me. “I have to ask you a question.” She puts a hand on her hip. “Can you come back tomorrow?”
“Sylvia,” her mother cuts in. “I’m sure he’s busy. Honey, we don’t even know him.”
“I do.” Sylvia points to the pin on my lapel. “Look.” She focuses on me. “My daddy got that because he died being brave.”
Her mother covers her mouth, her eyes shadowed with pain, a feeling I know all too well.
My eyes mist, but I blink it away. Calloused old coots like me don’t cry.
Before I can respond, a familiar voice from behind says, “Well, hello.”
Lieutenant Langston nods at Sylvia and her mother, introducing himself before pointing to me. “I see you’ve met Captain Brennan. He was brave, too. He saved the lives of five people, including his best friend. That’s how he earned that Purple Heart.”
“I knew it.” Sylvia smiles proudly.
Lieutenant Langston and I served in Nam together, so we go way back. His face is soft as he approaches me. “I thought I might find you here. I came to accompany you.” He clears his throat. “In case you needed it.” He turns back to Sylvia and her mother. “Today, Captain Brennan is honoring that best friend with a three-volley salute.”
“Sorry for your loss,” Sylvia’s mother says.
“Thank you.” Langston doesn’t know this, but since Miriam passed, that best friend has saved my life in return. He’s been just a phone call away, and I’m going to miss the hell out of him. This salute’s the least I can do, but fear is getting the better of me. After a beat of silence, I turn to Langston. “I can’t do it. The sound of gunfire…” I trail off, my hands trembling. “I can’t.”
Sylvia grabs my arm. “At Miriam’s School of Ballet, we say, ‘When we think we can’t, we let our bodies do as they’ve been trained.’”
I meet Sylvia’s big round eyes. “That’s sound advice, young lady.”
Oh, my sweet, wise Miriam.
Maybe that five-leaf clover brought me my love after all. A tear rolls down my cheek as I pick up my duffle and stand. Saluting the little ballerina, I say, “Roger that. I’ll see you tomorrow, Miss Sylvia.”
* * *
A heartfelt thanks to Shelby Van Pelt, Katina Ferguson, Deena Short, Brenda Lowder, Jill Cobb, and Jenny Ling for being all around amazing help.