Authors: Heather Burch
“Do you have many?” Will urged.
Pops’s shoulder tipped up in a tentative shrug. “My fair share, I suspect.”
Will nodded thoughtfully. From the kitchen table, where he sat, he could see the picture window in the living room. He watched as a pair of headlights moved past the house. “Could I see them sometime?”
A smile formed on Pops’s face. His eyes became alive. “Yes,” he said, voice quivering slightly. “I would love for you to see them.”
“I didn’t think you liked to talk about the war,” Will confessed. He ran a hand through his hair. “I’ve always tried to keep you from having to.”
Pops moved to the table and sat down. “The only reason I’ve kept so quiet about it is because it seems to bother you so. I just always thought maybe you didn’t approve of war, any kind of war, for any reason.” He shook his head. “So many young people don’t anymore.”
A flush of guilt fanned over Will.
Pops squared his shoulders. “But I don’t want to shove my past in a drawer and pretend it never happened. I’m proud of what I did. I’m proud of the country I served. I saw firsthand how far Hitler’s cruelty reached.” He got lost in the pain of that memory for a moment, then forged on. “Look around you. If we hadn’t entered the war when we did, who knows what our world might be like now.
world. Every day you enjoy the freedom I fought to protect. What greater honor than for a soldier to fight for his own family?” Tender blue eyes, now misty, studied his grandson. “I made a better world for you, Will. Why should I want to forget that?”
Will nodded. “It just seems so painful to you.”
“Closing up a wound that’s not ready will only poison the whole body. Wounds have to heal in their own time. They have to breathe.” His tone changed slightly. “Will, sometimes I think maybe you have a hard time dealing with painful things in your own life. Though hitting it head-on is never easy, you can’t shove everything in a briefcase and go on like it didn’t happen.”
Both men knew he was talking about Will’s parents. “I know.” Will tried to force a smile. “Wounds have to breathe.”
Pops patted his hand.
But even as Will agreed with him, he wasn’t sure he could ever let this one go. His parents had ditched him. Not once, but twice. They had chosen people they didn’t even know over their own family. That was unforgivable. Besides, if it was poisoning him, surely he’d know it.
Two hours later, after Pops had gone to bed, Will sat in his leather library chair, surrounded not only by the books
loved but by an entire world he’d never encountered. He reached across the desk and pulled the stack of letters toward him.
I met a hero yesterday. I didn’t know he was a hero at the time, but I sit here now because of the choice he made last night. His name was Samuel. I think he was from Michigan. His company dropped near us into a hot DZ.
Most of his boys made it out, but a couple didn’t. From our vantage point, we covered them. Running low to the ground, Samuel dropped into the foxhole with me and Rusty. We were celebrating because Rusty had gotten word that his baby boy had been born. We talked while we fought. Samuel was a marksman. He could pick off a German soldier with a head shot from a hundred yards, barely taking a second to aim. The enemy was dropping back, and we thought the fight was over, until we realized they had flanked us. With bullets and grenades everywhere, it took a minute to regroup and know where to shoot. That’s when we saw it. The grenade dropped into the foxhole with us. My eyes met Samuel’s just before he jumped. I can’t explain the horror of what happened next, but I can say, I am alive. As is Rusty. And Samuel’s CO is writing a letter to Samuel’s wife and parents.
What kind of mighty spirit dwells within a man that he would lay down his life for those he’s just met? I don’t feel worthy to stand with the men I stand with. All I can do is pray I don’t let them down.
I make a promise to the men who are serving beside me. I will never forget you. I will never forget what you gave. I have no way to honor these men, save this. I will tell their story to my children and my grandchildren. I will tell of their heroic deeds and because I will, a part of them will live forever. What other gift can I give?
Will dropped the letter slowly, conflict seeping into every fiber of his being. Hearing about this man’s sacrifice, this man he owes his very life to, tore at him. But more hurtful still was the fact that his grandfather had been unable to keep a promise he’d made to himself and the men he fought with because of Will’s stubborn, narrow-minded view. “I’m sorry, Pops,” he mumbled for no one to hear. “It won’t happen anymore.”
Will stayed in the cool library, a single light illuminating the desk, and he read until he could read no more. By 3:00 a.m., his eyes were burning and puffy, no longer able to focus on the page. He’d read every letter. Some he’d read twice. He shut the light off, flooding the space with darkness, and ascended the stairs.
All this time he’d been dwelling in a house with a man he only half-knew. Negotiating the hallway slowly, he paused at the closed door of Pops’s room. Beyond it, he could hear his breathing. Will placed a hand flat against the door.
Sure, Pops had always been a hero to Will, as grandfathers are to their grandchildren. But Pops was a hero to his country too. It was time for Will to show his appreciation.
Will made plans but kept it a secret. Even from Adrienne. He simply told her, Sara, and Pops it was a surprise and to dress like you would if you were going to a carnival. The trio had speculated, but they weren’t even close. Will drove toward Adrienne’s house, fighting a grin. If he was going to learn who Pops was, he wanted to learn up close, not just from descriptions and photographs. In the days since he’d first shown interest in Pops’s military history, they had sat up many a late night, with Pops giving an account of what it was like, really like, during the war. But Will wanted more. He wanted to see the gun Pops carried, touch the clothes he’d worn. He wanted to put a parachute on his own shoulders and imagine what it might feel like to jump from an airplane into hostile territory. Of course, much of this would have to be left to his imagination—fantasy not being one of his stronger attributes. But the Air Force event would be the perfect catalyst to jump-start the process.
It was fun to have a secret. The others seemed pleased too, with the idea of a surprise and with Will’s newly discovered childlike wonder. He’d never been given to whimsy. Even as a kid.
From the time Will was three, he’d started carrying a wallet. By the age of twelve, he kept a meticulous daily planner. Each Christmas he would ask for money. When neighborhood kids wanted to do something spontaneous, it was Will who would point out the negatives, the problems, the possible trouble that could accompany. Before long, he wasn’t at the top of the list of kids to play with.
Maybe that’s why he and Pops had always been so close. The problem was, their relationship had always been about Will
. What do you want to do, Will? What would you like for lunch? Where do you want to go?
But now, now it was time to even things up a bit.
They picked up the ladies, and Will punched the address into his GPS as everyone settled into the car, both women climbed into the backseat. Pops held the door open for Sara. Will gave Adrienne a wink. “Bring a jacket?”
Adrienne lifted her arm to show him the white cotton hoodie. “Can’t imagine I’ll need it unless you’re driving us about seven hundred miles north.”
“It could get cool this evening.”
“We really are making a day of it,” Sara said.
“Will it be a late night?” Adrienne adjusted her sunglasses over her eyes.
“Shouldn’t be too late. Why? You have a hot date tomorrow or something?” Will teased.
“A very hot date.”
Even though he knew she was joking behind those giant, round Hollywood sunglasses, hearing her even tease about having a date disturbed him—on a level deeper than he cared to admit.
“With a paint brush,” she added, ink-dark hair falling from her tipped shoulder.
“I’m sure it will keep a few days.”
She shook her head. “Nope. Gotta be tomorrow. I’ve rented extension ladders, and they’re being delivered in the morning.”
Concern caused him to look into the rearview mirror at her. “Do you have any idea what the heat index will be tomorrow?”
“I’ll be fine,” she quipped.
“Oh, Adrienne,” Sara piped up from beside her, “William and I will cancel our picnic and help.”
Will’s fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “Um, excuse me. Is anyone listening to me? Heat. Index.”
“Sure,” Pops said. “We can take the boat out anytime for a picnic. Instead of heading over at dawn to pick you up, Sara, we’ll just stay and help Adrienne.”
“No one is helping Adrienne!” Will forced all the frustration in one quick breath. “Can’t you tell the rental place no? To bring the ladders another day? And why are you painting your house? It looks like it was just painted.”
“The walls are freshly painted, but I opted to do the trim, windows, and doors myself.”
“Well, that was a stupid idea.” The words slipped right out before he could stop them. “If you were going to save money and do something yourself, why not the walls? They’re the easy part.”
Sara threaded her fingers together. “I think we might be seeing the difference between men and women here. To me, the trim work would seem much less daunting.”
Pops grunted. “Not really. It’s a two-story. All those eaves and having to move a ladder every ten feet or so. I’m afraid I have to agree with Will on this one.”
Sara lifted her hands in surrender. “Difference between men and women.”
Will flipped the air on arctic. The interior of the car had grown stifling. “No one paints on a day like tomorrow. Too dangerous. With the heat index, I’m sure the rental place can make arrangements. Can’t you just call them?”
Adrienne’s cheek twitched, and she said in a whisper, “It’s not really up for debate.”
He couldn’t read her behind those infuriating glasses, but the straight line of her mouth suggested her disapproval of his nosiness. “And no, I’m not going to cancel. Without twenty-four-hour notice, they keep your deposit.”
“So, you’re determined to do this, no matter the danger?” Will spat.
In the backseat, she readied for a fight, he could tell. It was in the tilt of her chin, the square of her shoulders. “Absolutely.”
“Fine. I’ll be over at five o’clock.”
She frowned, brows dropping beneath the top of her shades. “Why?”
Her head tilted like she’d never ever in a million years expected him to actually offer to help. “Pops, you and Sara go out on the boat, have your wonderful picnic, and we can all meet up at Adrienne’s for dinner. Something easy. Maybe pizza. You two could pick it up on your way over. We can make sun tea while we work on the house. No doubt it will be hot enough. You can have my car tomorrow, and I’ll take your truck, Pops—in case we need anything from the lumberyard.”
Adrienne opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. And there it stayed in a confused O.
As an afterthought, he added, “Would that be
with you, Adrienne?”
She placed her lips together.
Will held up a finger. “But, we can’t work through the hottest part of the day. We can work until noon, and then we take a long break. Evening we can work as long as the sun gives light. Agreed?” He didn’t expect her to answer.
She didn’t disappoint. Just sat there staring with giant mirrored bug eyes at some unknown spot, thinking her unknown thoughts and looking like a model waiting for the photographer to snap pictures.
“Great, then. It’s settled.” He loosened his grip on the steering wheel and turned on the radio to keep them company as he drove toward Tampa and Pops’s past.
Will’s face split into a smile as Pops stepped out of the car and headed toward the Air Force base and the daylong military celebration. Even from the parking lot, they could see the planes that lined the runway. As they entered, they were asked whether any were veterans of foreign wars. Pops was given a purple badge to wear on his lapel.