I was lying in bed the day that I got the call for this particular mission. It was unlike anything I had gotten before, and to be completely honest, I wasn’t prepared for what came next. The amount of variables were absolutely out of control. Nobody had informed me of what could potentially happen. At no point will I go into something blind. That is not a negotiable issue. Not contract that I receive will not be vetted rigidly, to make sure there aren’t any irregularities that warrant termination or revision. That’s part of the negotiation process.
However, when the person giving you the contract is your newfound friend and they just woke you up, that’s another story altogether. When I heard my phone buzzing, I was immediately alert. Nobody calls this early. Period. What could this be? What could it be about?! If it wasn’t a text, then it was legitimately serious. Better pick up.
“Hello…?” I answered, unable to hide being a little groggy. Was still coming back from jet-lag. Worst part about contracts that take you halfway across the world.
What? “Emily? What’s going on? Has something happened?”
“No, nothing like that. My dad and I were just wondering – would you like to come to Thanksgiving? It’s not a huge affair. We always have Betty and her family over. It’s just them here, and since we have such a big house, Dad likes to have them here to eat good food with us. She always says it’s just so we can get her to cook, but it’s always fun. Our family never comes. They live in New York, and Daddy isn’t conservative enough for them, so they don’t want to make the trip. He does offer, but whatever.”
Kid was drawing this out. Sounded awkward. I could tell why. We had had the preliminary to this conversation a few days ago.
It was a cooler that usual evening coming out of the locker room at the pool. Emily’s regiment was going well. She’d gone from flopping around and was actually getting form now. Her progress had impressed me. I figured that she would abandon her mission to train with me shortly after finding out the demands. Part of why I started with swimming was because of her injury, but it took. Girl’s a fucking fish. I remembered how miserable she was in a one-piece suit because it wasn’t flattering at all, but now I could see her rocking it. Kid earned that.
Was kinda nice to be back in the pool myself. My regiment hadn’t involved this in ages, but I could feel some of the weaker muscles I hadn’t been as studiously maintaining being worked here. Doing this at the school pool that was open to the public in the evenings was also bringing back memories of my time in the swim team. So long ago.
In the car on the way back, I could tell that Emily wanted to ask me something, but she was doing the fidgeting thing where she would just fiddle with something aimlessly. It was slightly annoying.
“What’s up, kiddo?”
“Thanksgiving’s coming up. Got me to thinking – you’re not gonna be in that house all alone, are you?”
I shrugged. “Yeah. Not much for the holiday, if we’re being perfectly honest. What do I have to be thankful for this year? Nothing. So it’s just another day of the week for me. But hopefully you don’t go too nuts with your plans. Remember, you’ll have to work off that food when we hit the pool next.”
She stuck out her tongue at me and rolled her eyes. Thanksgiving. Hadn’t even thought about it, aside from my “contractors” all having the day off and doing their own stuff. A mission to leave for in the morning. None of it mattered to me.
“I appreciate the offer, kiddo, but no.”
“Come on, Quinn! You’re our new family hero, and I don’t like thinking about you just being there by yourself all the time when there’s a perfectly good reason for you not to be. Besides, Betty’s cooking is the best. And Dad is actually getting good at helping. It’s loads of fun to watch him try and do normal shit. Will you come? Please? For me?”
Letting out a sigh. Then something hit me – her friends were all busy. This I knew. We’d talked about her small social network. A guy friend who she thought was kinda in to her, and she wasn’t totally against the idea of seeing where that could go. Then there was an equally shy bookworm with big glasses who went out of her way to seem unattractive to anyone. Just didn’t want to deal with any of it. Was kind of jealous. Not having the itch must be nice. Worst part about pining for my dead wife, made me feel like a piece of shit every time I rubbed one because it felt like cheapening what she meant to me. Didn’t like to think of her as someone who I made into a fantasy.
So was she inviting me to get company that she could talk with too? Hm, a reasonable conclusion. But then it hit me – what if she’s genuine? What if she genuinely wants to help me? Thought back to that night when I told her about the STARS and my relationship with my sisters there. Was this an attempt to look after me? It was a warm feeling. Something nice to think about. I did care about her, and was doing my part to look after her.
“Alright, I’ll be there.”
“Yay! That’s great. Oh, and don’t worry about bringing anything. Betty goes all out. You’ll love it.”
I nodded, smiling as much as I could bring myself to. “Sounds like a plan. When should I report?”
“We usually have dinner at 2 or 3. Oh, sorry, around 1400.”
“Alright, see you then!”
Lying back down and staring at the ceiling, I felt a little bit warmer inside than I had earlier. Over the last few months that Emily and I had known one-another, I felt something nibbling at me. This little feeling that I couldn’t quite explain. A soft warmth that I didn’t want to fight. A couple years of just living the way I did, not attaching myself to anything or anyone. Keep things simple, never allow yourself to get tied down. Always have to be prepared to drop everything and disappear. But now I was legit, with a company to do my business through. Could write things off as deductible expenses on my taxes. Had a tax person who was able to work with my company’s situation flawlessly.
Had I reached a point in my life where things could be comfortable? Was I no longer having to worry about the worst? Was all I had to do about surviving? These were hard questions. Ones that I didn’t like to think about for especially long, but which were coming at me more and more over the last few months, now that I had these new people in my life that made me feel like I could start over. The life I lead wasn’t an anchor drowning me in Davy Jones’ Locker. Was I allowed to live again? Looking at the picture of Jean, tears started running down my life. If I lived, did that mean leaving her behind? Looked away, out to the ocean. My room has this great double-door that opens onto a patio overlooking the cliff and the ocean beyond.
That ocean called to me, saying to leave all the time. But now, there was another voice. One saying that this was where I belonged, and that was alright. Who am I?
I texted Emily later and asked if I had to dress up for this. She told me no, that this was supposed to be a chill thing with her and her housekeeper’s family. Decided I would take her at her word, putting on some slacks and my Navy hoodie. That thing and I had done so much traveling, and it was still my ultimate comfort top. Felt so cozy in it. So familiar. Plus, it felt like I was keeping Jean close to me in it.
Raining outside, naturally, so I had my umbrella. It was hard enough to warrant that. No reason to drive. They were just a decent walk down the way. Got to her door and knocked.
It opened with Emily standing there in a jersey and jeans.
“You’re here! Hey.” Kiddo gave me a hug. I hugged her back. Girl was trying to be all serious for my Navy training, but she really was the sweetest person. She might not have the stuff for being military. It kicks the sweet out of you pretty quick. You harden up. But then, it was something she’d have to experience for herself. You find out what you’re made of in boot camp.
“Come on in. Dinner’s close to being ready. Betty really went all-out this year, since she knew we’d have a guest. Southern hospitality and all.”
Ain’t that the truth. Coming in, I saw her and another black woman with her. Looked to be about the same age. They were bickering about stuff in a way that could only mean they’re family. Sisters? Made sense, given the good-nature of it.
When she saw me, she immediately grinned. “Hey there, Ms. Quinn.” Her Georgia accent was all over this. As such, I knew the response.
“Howdy, Ms. Betty.”
“Glad to see ya. This is my sister. She came up for the holidays.”
Shook hands. “Nice to meet you.”
“Come on in, honey. Sit yaself down and enjoy some good eatings. Got some crab cakes to munch on. Turkey will be done soon. Trust me, will be worth the wait.”
Didn’t doubt that for a second. The smell of it was absolutely overpowering. This wonderful mix of Cajun spices. My mouth was already watering. So much indulgence today will be, but whatever. You only live once. And unlike your average American, I actually will be working it off. I remembered being on deployment, always having to do PT, we had appetites like hyenas. Nobody knew where we put it, but yeah.
I grabbed one and oh yeah, it was good stuff. I was in great hands today. Heading into the living room, I saw John sitting in his chair, talking with Betty’s husband. I had heard about him, but never met. On TV was the dog show that comes on after the parade. The two seemed to be talking about college basketball. A topic for which I knew absolutely nothing. Emily was watching the dog show, bidding me to sit down next to her.
As I approached, John looked up and smiled. “Ah, you’re here! I’m glad you came. Quinn, this is Phillip.”
The man looked over. A whitening beard with age, he was a chubby fellow. My quick analysis showed he was a man who worked with his hands. Calluses that were older than me, but age was catching up with him. Into his early 50’s, I could tell. I knew Betty was coming up on 50.
“Hey there!” he said in an accent that was much more Midwest.
“Hi. Nice to meet you.”
Dude had a nice, firm handshake. “I’ve heard Betty talk all about you. Heard what you did for our little Emily. I’m glad you were there. I’d hate to think what would have happened if you hadn’t shown up.”
A pit in my stomach. “Aye, same. It was a rough day for her.”
“Well, all’s well that ends well. Good Lord sent an angel to look out for her that day.”
I nodded. It was just chance, but he believes as he does and I am not looking to step on anyone’s toes.
Sitting down, Emily snuggled up to me. Sweet kid.
“So, I see your Navy sweater. You served?”
“Aye. For eight years.”
“Well, thanks for your service. My boys are currently out. Oldest is on deployment for the Air Force, and my youngest just got out of boot for the Marines.”
Decided to see if I could jab a little. “Well, not everyone can be in the cool part of the military.”
The man chuckled. “Still got that Navy pride, eh?”
“Well, don’t hold it against them. Joshua wanted to be a pilot, and now he’s flying some kinda big plane. Can’t say too much about it. Apparently it’s all hush-hush.”
An AWACS? A logical assumption. Interesting.
“But he’s happy, and that’s what matters. And safe too. Worry sick about my youngest. Being in the Marines, he’s probably gonna get mixed up in the Middle East.”
John nodded. “Yeah, it’s scary stuff. Especially now, all the rumors of war with Iran.”
“I hear that. Pray every night that when he gets out in the field, the Lord will keep him safe.”
“So what about you, Quinn? What did they have you doing in the Navy?”
Emily looked up at me. I just gave her a little shrug. This wouldn’t be a hard deflection.
“I was on deployment with IS. Lots of reconnaissance, intel gathering, on the ground stuff. Wasn’t super exciting, but I got to see lots of places.”
“I bet. My brother was serving in the Gulf War, and he told me all about what he saw in the Middle East. I’d love to see some other places, but I figure that’s a dangerous way to do it.”
He had no idea. “Yeah, it is.”
“Anyway, thanks for your service, Quinn. Why’d you leave?”
A story I could never tell him.
“Things kinda ran their course with the military, and I was ready to be done. So yeah.”
He kinda picked up that I was holding back, but didn’t pursue it.
It was nice to have people that I could talk to. John and Phillip went back to talking about their sports stuff, while Emily and I were watching the dog show. So many hairy rats. The only kinds of dogs that I think are respectable are big dogs. The kind that you can respect. Little yappy bastards have no place in the life of decent people. And I will never understand why people think that pugs are cute. Their weird, creepy eyeballs are the scariest thing in the world to me. Not to mention that they can barely breathe because of the genetic mutations we forced on them. Poor mutts.
Then we get into the sporting dogs, and my interest grew. Sporting dogs, hound dogs, non-sporting dogs, and working dogs. Now these are respectable animals! Emily could tell I perked up when I saw the dalmatian. It’s so cute! I love those. If it wasn’t for the fact that there are a TON of health problems associated with them, I would have wanted to get one. Pure-bred dogs are more trouble than they’re worth. Better to have a good mutt. Less chance of problems. My family had two pure-bred labs, and neither of them lived past the age of 10. It was sad for me, as a kid.
“Did Jean ever want a dog?” Emily asked.
“Oh yeah, she loved dogs. Every time we saw a dog going anywhere, she would make a big deal about it. One place we didn’t click. I’m a cat person.”
“Did she ever bring up buying a dog?”
“Come on! Beagles are so cute!”
I rolled my eyes. “For the last time, no! Those things are yappy and annoying. That bark of theirs drives me up the wall.”
She sat back and pouted.
I looked over and rolled my eyes. “Are we fighting right now?”
Looking away. “No.”
I wiggled in closer. “I think we are.”
“We are not!”
“It really looks like we are.”
She gave me a faux-angry look. “You’ll know when we’re fighting.”
I moved up next to her face. “You can’t stay mad at me.”
She squirmed against me. “Yes I can. Just watch me!”
Gently kissing her neck. “You’re gonna give in. Just accept it now.”
“Never! I can totally stay mad at you.” Her voice was cracking. I had broken through. We kissed for a bit, settling down into the couch.
“We’ll get a dog, eventually. But not while you’re still active duty. I don’t wanna leave it home alone all the time. Between when you and I are deployed, it would be without it’s mamas a lot.”
That got her mellowed out. “I know. It’s just another year until my enlistment is up. I’ll go reservist and get a billet that’ll let me stay home more.”
“Good. Because if you’re getting a dog, I want a cat.”
She rolled her eyes. “Cat people.”
“Dog people.” That got us wrestling again. It was a good night.
Betty and her sister Annie came in and sat with us. Like Phillip, they had questions about my time in the Navy. I was good at avoiding sensitive subjects. Such nice people. It was great to be out of the house and just visiting with people. It happened so rarely.
As was inevitable to happen, somebody finally asked, “So Quinn, why aren’t you at your family’s for Thanksgiving?”
This question was inevitable, and yet it still bothered me. “Well…my family wouldn’t want me there. They disowned me a long time ago.”
Emily looked down. She still hadn’t asked about that when I told her to leave it alone. Looked like now I couldn’t escape.
“That’s awful,” Betty said, finally. “Well, you got a family here today, and that’s what matters.”
It was getting easier to look more positive. “Your lips to God’s ears, Ms. Betty.”
There was a knock at the door, and everyone looked up.
“Who could that be?” John said. Not looking genuinely concerned, more surprised. He got up and went to the door.
When it opened, standing there was woman with long, flowing hair that was dyed blonde, but the roots were so dark brown that it almost looked black. She had a big smile on her face.
“Ashley! What brings you here?! You should have told me you were coming. I would have gotten the guest room ready.”
Removing her big coat, a sign she comes form warmer climates, she came in. This woman was all smiles. Late in her 20’s, clearly. Maybe early 30’s, but likely nipping at the heels of that. She was gorgeous. Gently tanned skin, a little bit of chub in her stomach to show that she does hit the gym regularly but still like a good burger. And that ass. My stomach suddenly bit at me. I was checking her out. Suddenly felt so guilty that it was crushing. I couldn’t do that to Jean.
“I want it to be a surprise! I couldn’t deal with Uncle Dick’s nonsense anymore. If I have to hear about how we need to just blow up the Middle East one more time, I was gonna lose it. Besides, Ms. Betty’s cooking is the best, and I won’t miss a chance to have it with my favorite uncle.”
Ms. Betty gave her a look. “Flattery will get you nowhere, young lady.”
This felt like a real family. A happy family. And I was here, a part of this. The warmth inside was spreading. My stomach was knotting, but it was still there. Such a weird juxtaposition of good and bad feelings.
“Well, make yourself comfortable, Ash. I’ll get the guest room set up later. Oh, and this is Quinn. The one I was telling you about.”
She came over and held out her hand. “Feels like I already know you. Emily won’t stop talking about how cool you are.”
I shook it, shrugging. “Well, I’m just glad I was in the right place at the right time.”
We held that grip for a bit. The look in her eyes. It was this sassy kinda look. Was she sizing me up the way I was her? Biting stomach feeling. Such a beautiful woman. Had this kind of bubbly personality, but could tell that without coffee in the morning she was not functioning. Definitely could respect that.
Emily could see the reaction between us, even if the rest were oblivious. I could almost see her smiling.
Dinner was almost done, and the dog show was concluded. I sat in the kitchen, watching the two southern black women work. Talked with them about some of my favorite cooking escapades. Was nice to have some commonality. Emily sat with me, and Ashley was on the other side of the counter. It had a nice seating arrangement. This kitchen was much larger than mine, more beautiful. All this talk, I really did feel like I had known these people all my life. Ashley was a caseworker at child support in her home state. Everybody had some thoughts on that, but not me. Not something I had to worry about. At least not anymore. The things that could have been.
Then everything was ready, we all helped set the table, and then gathered around. The turkey looked incredible. There was no doubt in my mind that it was going to be moist and perfectly delicious. Twice-baked potatoes instead of mashed ones. Crescent rolls fresh from the oven. Sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top. Green beans, minus the casserole. Fine by me. Not a huge fan of that stuff anyway. Fresh cranberry sauce, not that canned garbage. And some salad, of course.
As we sat down, Betty told everyone to take hands. A Georgia woman, naturally there was a table grace. Emily was next to me, and John on the other side. We all grabbed hands.
“Lord, we come to you today to give thanks for the meal we’re about to receive, and for all the blessings we had this year. And for our new friend Quinn, who you sent to save our dear little Emily’s life. Thank you for letting her come here and be with all of us. May you watch over us in the year to come.”
“Amen,” I whispered. As everyone looked up, I suddenly noticed there was a tear going down my face. Wiping it away, I suddenly looked really awkward. Ms. Betty then held out her hand.
“Let me load you up on some turkey, Ms. Quinn.”
Everyone started laughing. Nice way to break the tension. Then something happened. I caught myself laughing along with them! I was smiling!
Emily clapped a hand over her mouth. “Oh my god! You’re smiling!”
John nodded. “I can’t think of a time when I’ve seen that.”
Betty just nodded. “That’s what family does. We bring out the best in each other.”
“Amen to that,” Annie replied.
Dinner was incredible. Emily wasn’t kidding in the caliber of food that Betty was making. Everyone fawned and gushed, but for me it was all about being in this place, this moment, with these people. After it was done, John and Phillip went to the living room to watch the game. Oklahoma State v Memphis, if I heard right. Whatever.
I helped the ladies clean up, while we all talked about food and life and the things that they were bothered by. As the evening was winding down, we watched movies. Betty and hers went home. I got a hug goodbye from the ladies, and a firm handshake from Phillip. We decided to watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. A classic Thanksgiving movie, after all.
Not long into it, Emily and John fell asleep. It was just Ashley and I, with some clear tension in the room.
“So, Em tells me that you’re on my side of the fence.”
Taking a drink of some cider, I snorted a bit.
“Well, you don’t waste any time.”
She gave me a wink. “Who knows when I’ll see you again. Gotta strike while the iron’s hot, right?”
Butterflies, the kind I knew. Pit in the stomach. Fighting emotions. She’s sexy. She’s interested.
“So, you have a girlfriend?”
Shaking hands. Hadn’t had these for years.
“No. Not for a long time.”
Moving a little closer.
“Wanna go and do something sometime? I’m in town for a week or so. Got lots of time…”
Heartbeat quickening. This all felt so wrong, but I didn’t want it to.
“I…I can’t.” Tears biting at me.
She caught my expression and backed off. “I’m sorry.”
“No. You didn’t do anything wrong. I just…can’t do that right now. I’m not ready.”
Nodding a little, she smiled at me. “Okay. Well, you’re pretty cool, so if you’re ever interested, hit me up. I’d love to get coffee or something.”
I looked over at her and smiled. “Alright. Thanks.”
A potential new avenue for my life was opening up, but old wounds never really closed. Maybe it was time to do something about that? I didn’t know. But now I could feel the potential there. Not just to be alive, but to live. Today was the first day in forever that I felt like that. Jean, is it wrong to want this? I wish she was here, to tell me the answer to that.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.
Until next time, a quote,
“Do you see that, Odie? Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. The day when people celebrate food by eating as much of it as possible. Yes, that’s the day when people try to eat ever turkey, pumpkin, and cranberry on the face of the Earth. It’s a tradition! And you know how I LOVE tradition.” – Garfield, Garfield’s Thanksgiving