June 21, 2009: Soldier’s don’t cry…well, at least not in public.
Beaker (a.k.a. 1st Lt. Isaac J. Stryker of the 101st Airborne Division) was my brother, my best friend, and now he was gone.
The sun was hot and the black sun dress I was in was scratchy and exposed my knobby knees. As the minister spoke, I focused on the scab above my right knee that looked sort of like a silhouette of Darth Vader, if you squint and tilt your head to the side. Mom nudged me, giving me that glare that says I’m not acting like a girl is supposed to. She didn’t understand; I couldn’t look at the casket draped with the American flag. If I did, I would lose it. And soldiers never cry, or at least that’s what Beaker always told me. As it had been doing since we found out that Beaker was killed in action, my mind went back to when we were still kids, when the world was so much easier.
“Soldiers don’t cry, Sarge. Never let the enemy see that you’re afraid,” Beaker hissed from our position behind the couch. The enemy was quickly gaining on us. Beaker’s shaggy brown hair flopped into his face, mixing with the Army paint we found in Colonel’s closet. It was easy for him not to cry. He was fourteen, almost in high school. I was six, just starting the first grade.
“But I don’t want to be a soldier. I want to be the princess,” I whined.
“Aw, come on Sarge. There ain’t no princesses in the Army!” Beaker squeaked, giving our position away. A loud battle cry rang out and I cried as plastic Nerf darts pinged off my chest.
“I’m dead, Beaker! They got me!”
“Hang in there, Sarge! I’ll save you!” Beaker shot off a round of his own Nerf dots, taking the enemy down one by one. My hero!
“Don’t leave me, Beaker!” I whimpered.
“I’ll never leave you, Sarge.”
But he did leave me.
I glanced over at the Colonel (a.k.a. my father, Colonel James A. Stryker) to see him staring blankly at the casket as the lone bugle began to play. None of it made sense. Maybe if Mom didn’t hide her tears behind her massive sunglasses and if Colonel would show the slightest bit of emotion, it would make this real for me.
The shots were fired and the flag was folded, the pastor citing what each fold represented. A soldier presents the flag to Mom who accepts it with shaking hands; evidence of her slipping control. I focused my attention on Beaker’s dog, a black lab named Talon, who had planted himself at my feet, his chin resting on his paws. He let out a deep sigh, as if he knew what was happening. I wished I understood so well.
All the soldiers not already standing stood as the final salute to Beaker was given. I raised my hand up to salute only to have Mom nudge me.
What she didn’t take into consideration was that I was in the process of standing up and it was the first time I’d ever worn high heels. My ankle rolled and I found myself sprawled out on my back, arms and legs going everywhere. Normally, I would have been mortified. Instead, I had the most intense urge to laugh.
“Sarajayne, get up right this instant,” Mom hissed.
I made an ungraceful roll and tuck maneuver and managed to stand upright without exposing my backside.
“Seriously, it’s like you do this on purpose,” Mom muttered.
My shoulders slumped and I bit my lip. She wanted me to be the perfect Southern socialite when all I wanted to do was be in the Army like Colonel and Beaker.
Suddenly, it was all over. People began to leave, shaking our hands, saluting, giving us their condolences. I hated it all.
“Hey Sarge, got a minute?” Beaker’s best friend Rader (a.k.a. 1st Lt. Thomas Q. Rader) asked after he’d saluted Colonel and hugged Mom.
“Sure,” I shrugged.
He led me over to one of the memorial benches strategically placed throughout the cemetery. Once I was seated on the bench, I realized Talon had followed us and I scratched the spot between his ears as I turned to look up at Rader.
“Before Beaker left, he made me promise him that if he didn’t make it back, I’d give you this box and this letter.”
I looked down at the crumpled envelope with Beaker’s familiar chick scratch on the top and the worn out metal lock box he always stored his most prized baseball cards in when we were kids. Everything in me wanted to resist taking that box, but I desperately needed something to keep me connected to Beaker.
I took the items. “Thanks,” I mumbled.
“I know this is hard for you, Sarge. It’s going to be okay.”
I attempted to smile, but I knew my lips had yet to move. My eyes burned from the tears I hadn’t shed. Soldiers didn’t cry, not in public at least. “He’s really gone, isn’t he?” I asked as I looked over his shoulder and stared at the casket.
“Yeah, Sarge, he’s gone.”
I nodded and heard someone wheezing, only to realize it was me when Rader pulled me into a tight hug so I could cry onto his neatly pressed ceremony jacket. The reality of his death finally seemed so real that I couldn’t breathe under the weight of it.
I’m not sure how long I sat there, crying on Rader’s chest, but finally I calmed down enough to pull away.
“I’m sorry. You’re gonna have to get that dry cleaned now,” I sniffed.
“Eh, I won’t need it anytime soon. What’re some tears and some snot?” he winked.
I laugh but everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. I stood up with Rader and Talon, cradling Beaker’s things against my chest and walked to join my parents at the car that would take us back to our home, where everyone waited to give us more apologies and stuff us with casseroles I never liked. Before I slid into the car, I turned to look at the place where Beaker’s coffin still sat, waiting to be lowered into its final resting place. I didn’t want to leave him, but I knew I had to.
“Goodbye, Beaker,” I whispered before sliding into the car, cradling Beaker’s unopened letter and metal box in my lap.
To find out what’s in the box, how the letter will change Sarge’s life and what other great stories we’ll get to read this summer, catch up with us each week for Fiction Fridays, and other Friday fun. What did you think of this week’s story? Let us know in the comments below. For daily updates on what’s new with Unfading, sign up in the side bar for an email every time there’s a new post.