July 1, 2028 (cont’d)
Heartstrong Valley, Colorado
Hours had passed. The clouds, although fluffy white, refused to shelter the sun, and the heat beat down on the five hard working men.
This was the warmest day so far.
Now that the house was finally done, with painted and furnished rooms, it felt more like the long lost home they had all hoped for. After all, they only had each other in this new world. And so far, their quiet lives had not been uneventful.
With spare wooden planks, they had built a decent horse stable with four stalls and were working on the shed when the mail had arrived. A mailman, dressed in a blue uniform with a matching cap, parked his truck, and approached the working companions.
Gazing first at Garth and Chris who were painting the stable, then at Charlie, Alec, and Ira, who were mounting a roof on the tool shed, he neared Alec, the closest. “Excuse me, are you Ira Byrne?”
“No, he is.” Sweaty, with his slender but strong chest exposed, Alec pointed to Ira, who was sitting on the small shed roof, hammering in the nails.
“Yes?” the captain asked when he jumped nearly seven feet down; he wiped his forehead of perspiration and filth.
“This is for you.”
A foot long box was thrust into Ira’s grime covered hands. Uncertain about many things, Ira attempted to hand it back. “Sorry, but I’m not expecting anything.”
“You are Captain Ira Byrne, right?” the mailman asked in a testy voice as he started to walk back to his truck.
Ira confirmed the fact, tailing the man.
“Then that is for you.” The man ignored the box that Ira held at arm’s length.
“From whom?” Alec asked.
“Couldn’t tell you. It’s from Paris.”
The mailman paid no heed to Alec’s non-standard question, stepped into his vehicle, and drove away, leaving many queries unanswered.
“What’s that?” Charlie asked as he, Garth, and Chris approached the dumbfounded captain and Alec, standing between the road and the shed.
“Not sure.” Ira searched through his pockets, then stopped as if he had been petrified. He let out a short, unnerving laugh of realization.
“What?” the four men asked in unison.
“She still had my knife when we left Versailles.” Still smiling unsettlingly, he averred dryly. “It’s probably buried with them.”
No one knew what to say; Charlie quickly offered his pocketknife to break the awkward tension. With a short thanks, Ira cut through the tape, handed the knife back and tore open the package.
A crimson red cloth was wrapped tightly around what looked like a familiar hilt. Stunned, breathless, Ira gingerly and with shaking hands, picked up the object and unceremoniously dropped the box to his feet. Untangling the cloth that was covered in dried blood, the men suddenly realized it was a shred of the shirt Meryl was wearing when they had first rescued her in Denmark.
Ira’s eyes became glossy and his vision blurred as he looked at the second object.
His Celtic knife gleamed in the sunlight with minor blemishes; the steel was wiped clean.
Speechless, Alec picked up the box and read the return label, “From Paris, France. There’s nothing… Wait a moment.”
They all glanced over to see Alec pulling out a postcard of the Palace of Versailles, in its former glory. On the back, in neat, cursive handwriting, it said:
“Very funny, guys.” Ira did not smile as he gazed at them, stone-faced.
“What are you talking about?” Garth asked.
“Finding a knife that matched my grandfather’s and a shred of cloth and saying it’s from the palace?”
No one laughed; they all stared at him as if the sun was getting to him.
Alec spoke the silent retort, “Ira, none of us got this for you. We didn’t send anything. We joke and chide, but we are not cruel. We didn’t send you this.”
Brow furrowed, Ira stared at all of them, and they shook their heads to confirm that they knew nothing of the package.
The men stood there, sweaty under the beating sun, and mulled over the peculiar gifts until they realized there was still work to be done. Disconcerted, Ira wiped away the weakness in his eyes and placed the box and its contents on the porch steps; they trudged back to work.
While the captain still contemplated the strange package, one part of him hoped it was her. On the other hand, after three months of no confirmation that she was dead or alive, he wished it not to be her.
What would he do if he saw her? What if he panicked and ran, or raged at her, causing her to leave? But he couldn’t let her go. Yes, he may be furious, but she was everything to him. Even though she may be buried, Ira felt a strange sensation, as if she were standing right next to him.
Alec, who did not miss a thing, kept a guarded eye on his best friend throughout the rest of the day. He could almost hear Ira’s thoughts, ticking like a bomb that would detonate the moment he caught a glimpse of her.
As the sun kissed the horizon, the men, sweaty, filth ridden, and exhausted, felt accomplished. The stable, up and sturdy, as well as the tool shed, were painted. All that was left was the fence, close to the road.
“We can finish that tomorrow,” Alec said as he used his shirt to wipe the sweat off his brow. “Now, we are going to clean up and have the night of our lives.”
Full of anticipation for the evening to come, they grinned and raced to be the first in line to shower.
The package for Raven remained outside on the lonely porch; forgotten by all five men.
One by one, they washed away the day’s dirt; no one, except Ira had the decorum to cover up anymore.
He had just pulled on his tee shirt when Alec walked into the room and startled him by blurting out, “What the hell are you wearing?”
“My clothes for tonight?” Ira looked down at his getup.
Unlike Alec, who wore black jeans and a loose Red Hot Chili Peppers top, Ira was dressed in dark blue jeans with a short-sleeved green polo shirt.
“You can’t wear that to a bar. You look like you’re heading to the golf course.” Alec paced to Ira’s dresser and rummaged through his drawers until he found what he was looking for: a tight fitting black tee and a navy blue, long-sleeved button down shirt.
“Put these on,” Alec demanded as he shoved them into Ira’s chest.
“Yes, sir,” Ira smiled and he saluted with a straight figure and dropped the polo to the floor.
As Ira buttoned up his shirt, Alec lashed out again, “Don’t button it up.”
He strode briskly over to Ira and started unbuttoning the shirt, correcting his absent-minded friend’s mistake.
Garth and Chris walked in and wolf whistled. “Oh look, Alec’s getting feisty with the captain.”
“And it’s not even nine,” Chris joked.
“And they’re not even intoxicated!” Garth laughed.
Alec jumped away from Ira, red faced, he blurted out, “In my defense, our captain doesn’t know how to dress casually.”
“So this is a nude party?” Charlie walked in wearing khaki shorts and a loose tee shirt.
With beet red cheeks, Alec flung Ira’s pillow at the snickering boys. They dodged the attack and escaped the room; their raucous laughter filled the hallway.
Ira glanced at his friend, smiling broadly. “They are just joking.”
“Maybe so, but I don’t want them thinking we have an intimate relationship.” Alec stiffened and took a step back.
“Yes, because you are straight as a rainbow,” Ira chuckled.
Unable to hold back, the two friends burst out laughing, shut off the lights and left the room.
Once ready, Ira nudged his good-humored companions out the door. He turned off the lights to the entire house and locked the door behind them.
Stepping into their four-door, compact car, Raven looked behind him to see Noble, Oak, and Cyan squeezed in the back seat. “Comfy?”
Responding with a noncommittal noise, Pie, who was settled in the passenger seat, grinned as he reclined his headrest in to Cyan’s lap. “How about now?”
Knowing full well how Pie would respond, Cyan leaned forward with his lips puckered to plant a kiss on his forehead, sure enough Pie’s seat sprung forward.
It took the team at least fifteen minutes to pull themselves together; their laughter rose heartily in the dark night.
On their way to the heart of Aurora, Colorado, where they were planning to spend Raven’s thirtieth birthday, Pie, who had committed the route to memory, directed the driver.
Cruising down the main road, Ira barely listened to the others chatting about the day’s events, and their plans for the future. He heard snippets of their conversation; Charlie was offered a job at the hospital and Alec was looking for a teaching position at the local college.
While he was happy for his friends and their positive outlook, he somehow had a hard time joining in their revelry.
Even though he took the meds, he did not sense happiness as he should. It felt as if a dark cloud had prevented him from embracing the light hearted emotion he longed to feel again.
Eyes glazed over, mindlessly watching the path, Ira barely had time to notice a tall figure with lengthening black hair walking on the side of the road, heading in the opposite direction.
After twenty minutes of trying to locate the sports bar under Alec’s apparently misguided directions, they pulled into the parking lot. Almost every spot in front of and near the entrance was taken.
Luckily, Garth’s sharp eyes spotted a space right in front.
“Nice instructions,” Charlie taunted Alec as the five stepped from the vehicle.
“It was a one-time thing.” Alec rolled his eyes.
Chris chuckled, “First Ira’s clothes, and now the roads; you’re just running in all kinds of directions, aren’t you?”
Against his will and for the sake of Ira having a good time, Alec chose not to respond.
The restaurant was the busiest building on the block. Thunderous music pulsed out into the streets. Loud chatter and glasses clinking were heard, even from outside.
“You guys enjoy what you want. I am the designated driver,” Ira informed them as he held the door open for them, attempting to ignore the loud noises.
“It’s your birthday,” Charlie punched Ira’s arm encouragingly; his aim nearly hit a passing waiter. “You need to drink way more than we do.”
“I’m not a big drinker.”
While the others did not answer, partially because they had no idea how to respond to his statement, Alec knew that Ira had taken one of the pills – and the directions were clear:
Drinking alcohol is not recommended and you should not drive unless you know how antidepressants affect you.
Alec was torn between reprimanding his captain and empathizing with him. While he wanted to bring up the matter, he couldn’t find the right words and just left the subject hanging by a string outside.
The further they journeyed into the bar, the more the floor above them shook with the heavy bass and dancing feet.
“Evening,” a pretty hostess with curly red hair and a pearly white grin greeted the men. “How may I help you?”
“Hi.” Alec moved closer to be heard. “I made a reservation under Parry?”
The young woman looked up his name on the electronic reservation screen. “Five for… oh a birthday?”
“That’s it.” Alec grinned as he provocatively ran his fingers through his hair.
“Great! This way please.” She grabbed five menus and weaving through the forest of people and chairs, led them to their table.
The woman sat them near a suspended television; a baseball game played silently.
“Ira, you had better watch out,” Chris grinned tauntingly. “You’ve got competition.”
He motioned toward Alec, who watched the departing woman with a puzzled look.
“Hah! She can have him. Alec’s not even my type,” Ira retorted. They laughed at Pie’s befuddled gape.
He finally spoke to the watchful group. “She looks like a girl I dated in high school.”
“Oh? Well that puts us in our place.” Garth chortled as he sat next to Chris and stretched his arm on the back of the chair.
“If you are done screwing your eyes back in your head…” Ira never finished as the waiter came by to take their order.
Everyone ordered beer, with the exception of Ira, who requested a soft drink. Fifteen minutes in, they got their beverages and ordered their food.
As they took meaningless swigs from their bottles and conversed about random topics, the rowdy laughter, liveliness and garish murmuring reverberated around them. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves, everyone except Ira.
After six years of little interaction with humanity, he felt uncomfortable. The gaudy noises went to his head, even though he tried to act natural. The sound around him evoked memories from the war, memories of New York City, Denmark, and even Paris.
Was time so unforgiving?
“Hey.” Charlie, who sat next to Ira, leaned in and asked, “You okay?”
Half shrugging, half nodding, Ira waved him off. “I’m fine. It’s just loud.”
The younger man chuckled. “Tell me about it.”
How could Ira tell them? How could he say that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder? That he was taking antidepressants just to attempt to resume his life? How could he burden them with the nightmares that relentlessly pestered him every time he closed his eyes?
He could not. He wouldn’t want his own suffering to rub off on them.
An hour into their night, after they ate hungrily. Alec disappeared from his company and returned with the chef and employees. They sang a raucous happy birthday to Ira. The other patrons joined in the singing, and watched the public ceremony.
Ira could not hide his broad smile. A delicious looking red velvet cake with a single candle was placed in front of him.
“Make a wish!” someone called from the crowd; the others joined in and whistled. Ira already had his wish and blew out the flame. A round of applause broke out and slowly the customers went back to their own private matters.
“What did you wish for?” Charlie asked his captain, even though the four boys had a shrewd idea.
Ira smiled warily. “Not telling.”
They dove into the cake and mulled over their plans for the next few days to come.
“We really need to exercise keeping our rooms clean,” Ira told them, pointing a fork at each one of them.
“You sound like my mother,” Garth responded jovially.
“Well, I just want to make sure we have an organized house before we take on the responsibility of having horses.”
“We’ll discuss it tomorrow. Let us just enjoy the moment. You need to relax, captain,” Alec mumbled between mouthfuls.
Even though they all knew that he was technically promoted, it felt more comfortable addressing him as captain rather than general, especially since they had been so close to General Allen and wanted the title to remain with their deceased friend and ally.
Ira, as humble and respectful as the rest of them, did not oppose this.
In fact, he encouraged it.