by Briana Morgan
Mom says hi to the army man at the front door. I’m playing with my model T-Bird (the one me and Pop put together before he went to war). Me and Pop like making models. He and Grandpa used to put them together when Pop was my age, so Pop says me and him are “carrying on tradition.” I asked my teacher what tradition is, and she said it’s something to be proud of.
I’m happy me and Pop have something to be proud of.
I’m playing with my car on the living room floor when Mom tells me to go back to my room. I don’t want to. Mom has lots of stupid rules. She tells me to do things that don’t make sense. Pop always makes sense, so I listen to him.
I go to the kitchen instead of my room. There’s a window over the counter, and I can peek out without being seen.
The army man isn’t talking anymore. He must be waiting for Mom to say something. It takes her a long time to talk. She says bad words I’m not allowed to—words she won’t even let Pop say in the house.
“You’re shitting me,” Mom says. Shitting is a very bad. Pop uses it all the time, but Mom never uses it unless something goes wrong.
My tummy feels wobbly, like something’s crawling around inside.
Did something happen to Pop?
The army man shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Pearson. That’s all we know right now.”
“What the hell does missing mean?” Mom asks. “How can you lose an entire human being? He’s not a set of keys!”
Hell is another bad word. Mom’s using so many off-limits words, she must be worried about Pop. She says something to the army man that I can’t hear because her voice is tiny.
The army man says sorry again. Mom shuts the front door in his face. She closes the blinds and pulls the curtains together, blocking out the sun. When she walks past the kitchen, she doesn’t see me. I must have turned invisible.
Mom goes to her room and shuts the door.
The house is quiet forever. I’ve been sitting so long that my butt is sleeping now. I’m not supposed to say butt, either, but it’s not a bad word like shitting or hell.
I slide off the counter and tiptoe down the hall.
The door to Mom and Pop’s room is still closed, and it’s so quiet. The cool doorknob twists easily under my fingers. I slip into the room and shush the door for making creaky sounds. Mom must have turned invisible too. I can’t see her.
I trip over the stupid rug and fall flat on my face. Even though I’m so big now, I’m crying like a baby. Sticky blood runs from my nose and stains the clean carpet. I’m scared that Mom will spank me for the mess—so scared I don’t feel the pain in my face.
Mom comes out of the closet. She hasn’t turned invisible. Her eyes are red; her nose is running. Instead of being mad, Mom hugs me and tells me she loves me.
“I love you too,” I say, “but why was the army man sorry?”
“We’ll talk about it later,” Mom says.
Why can’t we talk about it now? Too many stupid rules.
“Was it something bad?” I ask.
“I said later, Johnny. Let’s get you cleaned up.”
Mom cleans me off in the bathroom. Her wedding ring gets covered in blood as she wipes my face, and I feel a little bad. I don’t cry anymore. Mom tells me I’m brave and touches the flag pin still stuck to my shirt somehow.
“I’m not as brave as Pop,” I say.
Mom doesn’t say a word.
The next thing I know, it’s Sunday. I sit at my desk working on a plane that Pop and me started before he went away. Mom rests on my bed while I work. She’s too long for my mattress, so her feet hang over the edge. I laugh at that.
Mom doesn’t laugh. She hasn’t laughed in a long time.
I stick my tongue out (it helps me do better) as I squeeze the tube of glue. I’m not allowed to glue stuff on my own, so I can only work when Mom sits in the room with me. She isn’t watching me put the model together, but it’s still okay. She doesn’t make sense—not like Pop does, anyway. Pop always knows what’s all right and what’s bad. Pop knows everything in the whole wide world.
Mom doesn’t even know when Pop is coming home.
“When will Pop be back?” I ask.
“Did I say we would talk about this later?”
“No,” I say, “you said we could talk about the army man later. It’s later.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” she says. “I’ll tell you when you’re ready.”
I don’t have anything to say because I’m ready now. I want to know what the army man said to her. I want to know about Pop. I don’t want to make Mom mad, though, because then she might go back to the closet and cry, and then I won’t know anything.
When Mom says nothing else, I go back to making the model. I’m squishing the tube of glue, but no more is coming out. There are still a lot of pieces to put on, and Pop isn’t home. “You said he’d be back before I ran out of glue.”
“He will be,” Mom says.
“No, he won’t,” I say, “because the glue is all gone.” I get up from the desk and drop the tube into the trash can. Mom is sitting up on the bed. I go and sit beside her.
Mom sighs and ruffles my hair. Her eyes are red like she’s been crying for a year, and maybe she has. “You can’t be out already, dear. He’s only been gone for a couple of months. We got that before he left, remember?”
Pop’s been gone forever. “There’s no more, I promise. Can we pretty please get some?”
Mom scrunches up her face, and her hand falls from my head. “That glue’s expensive, Johnny, and the store is closed today.”
“Tell Mr. Slattery it’s an emergency,” I say.
Mom chews on her lip, and her voice sounds dreamy. “It doesn’t work that way, but it won’t hurt to call him.”
I pretend I’m in the army while Mom talks on the phone. My imagination turns the chairs into trees. I crawl through Vietnam on my hands and knees, looking for that guy named Charlie. The grown-ups in town talk about Victor Charlie. I figure he must be a really bad guy.
After Mom hangs up the phone, she tells me to get in the car. I run back to my room first to get my flag pin off the desk. Mom’s fingers fumble to stick the pin to my shirt. Her wedding ring glints as she fusses over me.
“You miss Pop,” I ask, “don’t you?”
“Of course I do.” Mom steps away from me and smiles, but her face looks hard and scary. Her skin’s pale like this morning’s oatmeal. “Let’s go.”
The hardware store is locked up when me and Mom get there. Mr. Slattery opens the doors for us with a big grin on his face. I grin right back at him. He’s a nice man even though he limps. It isn’t his fault he got shot in the war—the one I’m too small to remember—Coreeea, Pop calls it.
Mom says that life isn’t fair. She means people get hurt for no reason sometimes.
Mom and Mr. Slattery talk about the weather as they go off to find the glue. Mom tells me to wait by the register. She doesn’t want me touching anything. She thinks I’ll break something, but I won’t. I do what she tells me anyway, and she and Mr. Slattery disappear behind the shelves.
The lights in the store are turned off, so it’s dark. I’m scared without Mom nearby. I have what Pop calls heebie-jeebies. I glance down at my flag pin and try to be brave—as brave as Pop is for fighting in the jungle. I want him to be proud of me. I want him to know how brave I’ve been, and how grown-up I’ve gotten while he’s been away.
Something runs across the floor behind me, and I don’t want to be alone anymore. I forget about being brave, and the heebie-jeebies take over. I don’t know where Mom and Mr. Slattery are, but I go running down the aisles. My feet make a lot of noise. I wait for Mom to yell at me and tell me to be quiet.
Mom and Mr. Slattery are in the middle row of shelves. By the time I find them, my heart punches my ribs. I have to stop to catch my breath. They still haven’t seen me. Maybe I won’t get in trouble after all.
Mom’s back is touching the shelves. Mr. Slattery stands in front of her, leaning on his cane. Mom says something I can’t hear because she’s still so far away, and Mr. Slattery smiles. He reaches over her head to get a tube of model glue that looks just like the one I threw away. Then, he holds it out to Mom and smiles even bigger.
I’m happy Mr. Slattery found the glue. I can finish the plane before Pop comes back home. He’ll be so proud and so will I—the plane is my tradition. I close my eyes and see Pop’s face inside my head. He’ll be so happy when he sees what I’ve done.
I open my eyes. Mom’s hand touches Mr. Slattery’s face, and she leans into him. I think she’s going to whisper something in his ear, but her lips land on his mouth instead. They’re kissing and it’s nasty, but I can’t believe my eyes.
She’s kissing Mr. Slattery like she kisses Pop, and I feel sick.
The oatmeal from breakfast wants out of my tummy. I bend over and puke on the shiny gray floor. I feel wetness on my face. I’ve been crying. I’m crying and I smell like puke and I taste oatmeal and I want to go home. I just want to go home.
Mr. Slattery looks sad and scared at the same time, just like I do when I get caught stealing cookies. He’s leaning on his cane again. “You said you’d tell him, Debbie.”
“I didn’t want to upset him,” Mom says. “He doesn’t even know about the telegram. I didn’t have the heart to tell him.”
I don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t like it when grown-ups confuse me. My tummy is still doing flips, and I hate that even more.
“I want to go home,” I say.
Mr. Slattery sighs. “Use the bathroom in the back, all right? But we need to talk about this soon, Debbie. I mean it.”
Mom cleans me off in the hardware store’s bathroom. She lays her wedding ring on the sink while she wipes my face again, and it makes me cry. I can’t stop crying. She touches the flag and tells me to be brave. That makes me think of Pop, and I’m crying even harder.
Me and Mom leave without buying the glue. She doesn’t say goodbye to Mr. Slattery. We go straight to the station wagon and drive away without cleaning my puke off the glistening floor.
We’re halfway home when I remember that Mom left her ring in the bathroom. I tell her through my tears that we have to go back so she can get it. If she puts the ring on, everything will be all right.
“Don’t cry, please,” Mom says. “Your father’s been gone for a long time now, Johnny, and I don’t know when he’ll be back. Mike’s a nice man, you know. He wants to take care of us.”
I touch my flag pin without saying a word, because Pop’s taking care of us too.
It’s Thursday, forever later. Mr. Slattery is at the house when I get home from school. He and Mom sit at the kitchen table. They’re drinking coffee. Mom looks at me when I walk inside, but Mr. Slattery stares at his cup.
“How was school?” Mom asks.
“Boring,” I say, even though it really wasn’t. Some girls were making a big fuss over Elvis, and this boy named Nathan danced around with his hips. Everyone thought it was funny except Mrs. Harper. She sent him to the office.
“Sit down, please,” Mom says.
There’s an empty chair between her and Mr. Slattery. I sit and scoot the chair over so I’m closer to Mom. I’m still mad at Mr. Slattery. I hope he knows it too.
“Mr. Slattery brought you some more glue,” Mom says. “He remembered that you needed more. Wasn’t that nice of him?”
“I don’t want it,” I say. I don’t like Mr. Slattery, and I don’t want his presents. Pop’s the only one allowed to get me presents. Mr. Slattery isn’t my Pop, and he never will be. My Pop is the best man in the universe.
“Use your manners,” Mom says.
I try again. “No, thank you.”
Still, Mr. Slattery doesn’t look up. “I knew this was a bad idea. He hates me now.”
“He doesn’t hate anyone,” Mom says. “He’s not even allowed to use that word. Isn’t that right, Johnny? You don’t hate anyone, do you?”
“I don’t want to answer,” I say.
“Johnny,” she says, “that’s no way to behave. Why don’t you show Mr. Slattery your models?”
“I don’t want to show him my models,” I say. “I just want to go to my room and play with them all by myself. I want Mr. Slattery to leave. I hope he never comes back.”
I get up from the table and run all the way back to my room. I sit against the wall on the other side of the bed. No one will see me in the corner.
As I sit on the floor, I get madder. Mom knows the models are for me and Pop only. I don’t want Mr. Slattery to touch them. If he touches them, I’m scared they won’t be special anymore.
It feels like years before Mom comes in. Mr. Slattery’s walking stick thumps into the room. That makes me so mad, my face feels like it’s burning. My eyes are hurting and I really need to cry, but I can’t cry right now. I have to be brave—brave like Pop is while he’s fighting off the bad guys.
Mom’s feet stop at the edge of the bed, and I crawl under it before she can see me. It’s cool and dusty under the bed. The springs squeak as Mom sits above me.
“Johnny, I’m sorry, but Mike makes me happy,” she says. “God knows I need some happiness right now.”
“Make him go away.”
“That’s not fair,” Mom says. “You don’t understand how I’m feeling right now, Johnny. Grown-ups have needs, and sometimes, when those needs aren’t met—”
“Debbie,” Mr. Slattery says as he thumps into the room, “You should tell him what happened to Tom. The boy deserves some honesty.”
Mom sighs long and loud before she answers, “I suppose.” She gets down on her hands and knees on the floor and reaches out to me under the bed. “Can you come out so I can talk to you, please?”
“I don’t want to come out.”
“What would Pop say if he saw you like this?”
I feel sick inside at the mention of Pop. He doesn’t like it when I don’t listen to Mom, and he spanks me whenever I talk mean to her. It’s safe under the bed, though. I don’t want to come out. I don’t want to talk to Mom. “Is this about the army man?”
“Yes,” she says, “it is. Now could you please come out from there?”
I crawl out wiggling like a worm because I want the truth. Mom pulls me onto the bed and holds me on her lap. My feet are dangling in the air. I look at them instead of Mom.
Mr. Slattery stays at the edge of the room. He leans against his cane without saying anything. He’s waiting. I glance up at him and look back at my shoes.
“The officer the other day was here to give a message about Pop,” Mom says. “I sent you to your room because I didn’t want to scare you.”
“I hid in the kitchen.” I look up at her. My fingers brush the flag pin. “I was trying to be brave.”
Mom’s mouth tightens, but she doesn’t get mad. She just goes on with her story. “Your father’s all right, but the telegram said that he’s missing in action.” She waits for a minute to see if I understand, but I don’t. She says more. “That just means the army… doesn’t know where your Pop is right now. He got lost is all, Johnny.”
“That might not be bad,” Mr. Slattery says. “Your father and I knew men in Korea who went MIA and were found alive later.”
Mom shoots him a mean look that I’ve never seen before. When she looks back at me, her face is hard. “The army doesn’t know where he is. They’re looking for him, but… they might not find him. Understand me?”
“He might never come back,” Mr. Slattery says. “This guy Tom and I knew was taken prisoner, and he never—”
“I think you should leave.” Mom is madder than I’ve seen her in a while. The tone of her voice makes me feel really sick. My stomach drops into my bottom.
“You told me Pop was coming back,” I say.
Mr. Slattery shakes his head. “You shouldn’t have told him—”
“Get out of here,” Mom says, and it’s clear she really means it.
“He could’ve gotten killed,” Mr. Slattery says. “The boy needs to know—”
Mom pushes me off her and drops off the bed. She rushes toward Mr. Slattery and knocks the cane out of his hands. The attack makes him lose his balance, and he grabs onto Mom’s shirt. She falls with him. Then, she’s screaming in his face and scratching at him and it’s so scary that I want to cry.
I don’t even want to be brave anymore. I rip the flag pin off my shirt so fast that the back of it falls off. I yell at Mr. Slattery and tell him that I hate him. The pin flies out of my hand and across the room before I know I’ve thrown it.
It hits Mom’s cheek. She freezes.
I can’t hold the anger and the fear in any longer. I cry and can’t help thinking Pop won’t like me when he comes back.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m so sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean to hit you.”
“It’s okay,” Mom says. I don’t believe her.
Mr. Slattery sits up and puts his arms around Mom. He holds her as she cries into his shoulder. I can’t hate him—I can’t hate someone who makes Mom happy. I’m not mad at him either. I’m mad at the war. I’m mad at the war for taking Pop away and not letting him come home yet.
After Mom gets quiet, I walk over and pick up my flag pin. The sharp part sticks my hand. Mom wipes her face on my sleeve and looks confused when I hold the pin out to her.
“I don’t deserve this. I stopped being brave.”
“Oh, Johnny,” Mom says.
Mr. Slattery picks up the back and takes the pin from my hands. He motions for me to come closer. I have to step over his cane, and I feel bad that Mom knocked it over.
Mr. Slattery is close enough to touch me. He pulls the front of my shirt away from my chest and holds the pin in his right hand.
“You’re still being brave,” Mr. Slattery says. “Even soldiers still cry on occasion.”
My tears splash against his hand as he puts the pin on me. As I glance down at the little flag, pride fills up my chest. If what Mr. Slattery’s saying is true, then even Pop cries, and he’s the bravest man I know. I don’t feel bad about crying now. Pop would still be proud of me.
Mr. Slattery reaches into his pocket and takes out a silver tube full of model glue. Then, he holds it out to me. “This is for you, if you want it.”
The silver tube is shiny. I reach out and I take it.
Briana Morgan is a thriller, crime, and horror writer who loves dark, suspenseful reads, angst-ridden relationships, and complicated characters. Her interest in Jay Gatsby scares her friends and family. You can find her in way too many places online, eating too much popcorn, reading in the corner, or crying about long-dead literary heroes. She currently resides somewhere near Atlanta, Georgia. For updates on her work, visit her website, http://www.brianamorganbooks.com.