Home for the Holidays
Copyright © 2018 Jack Thompson
“Eat your breakfast, Tommy.” His mother, Mary O’Conner, pointed to the plate of eggs on the kitchen table.
“I’m not hungry. I’ll take an extra apple,” said Tommy, grabbing one from the bowl on the counter. His mother looked at him suspiciously. Tommy O’Conner not being hungry was as rare as wings on a cat. She grabbed the hood of his parka as he ran past her.
“Hold on there, cowboy. Let me feel your head.”
“Come on, Mom, I’ll miss the bus again.”
“Then I’ll drive you.”
“You can’t, your car is still snowed in, ’member?”
“Hold still, Tommy.” Mary put the back of her hand on his head. “Just as I thought, you are burning up, young man. No school for you today. Back to bed.”
“But, Mom, I’m all dressed.”
“Then you’ll have to get undressed. Go on. I mean it. If you’d rather, I’ll take you to see Doc Gilmore right now.” Mary knew that meant only one thing to Tommy — getting a shot, something he hated. Tommy stomped out of the kitchen. Thinking she had once again outwitted her ten-year-old, Mary smiled as he walked up the stairs. She couldn’t see that Tommy was smiling, too. The little devil had figured out that the heating pad she had given him when he sprained his ankle last fall was a perfect way to fake a fever and get a day off from school.
While Tommy was enjoying his day off, his sister Susie wasn’t as lucky. Most of the students who had been rehearsing for the holiday school play were walking up the center aisle of the high school auditorium to leave. As the only freshman in the drama club, Susie had been given the task of putting away the props that the aspiring actors used in rehearsal. Although it was hard work and decidedly unfair, Susie did it without complaint every day for the past two weeks. She was just happy to be part of the drama club.
A small group of boys walked down the outer aisle toward the stage, led by Freddie Burke, the captain of the wrestling team. He was county champion at the 165 weight class two years in a row, and an article in the local Times Courier touting him as the odds-on favorite to win at states this year had swelled his head bigger than it already was.
Susie O’Conner came out from behind the backstage curtain just as the boys reached the front edge of the stage. A heavy wooden backdrop painted as a forest was the last piece she had to move. The wheels helped, but Susie struggled to get it moving. Freddie ran up the steps.
“Let me help you,” he said, grabbing one end. Susie shifted to the other end and together they rolled the backdrop behind the curtain.
“Thanks,” said Susie shyly, her heart rate speeding up. Freddie Burke was one of the hottest boys at the school, and a senior to boot. All the girls liked him. This was the first time she had ever spoken to him. Susie walked quickly to the front stage area where she noticed the other boys were now standing at the top of the steps, blocking her exit. Her heart raced. She turned to walk to the opposite side of the stage and ran right into Freddie. Susie bounced back, startled at how strong he was.
“You’re Susan O’Conner, right?” he said, smiling.
“Yeah, but I go by Susie.”
“Right, Susie. I saw you looking at me during the wrestling tournament on Friday.”
“So what,” said Susie, clearly embarrassed. “I watch all the matches.”
“It was more than that, the way you were cheering for Freddie,” said another boy. “Looked like you were ready to jump his bones.” The other boys laughed.
“That’s not fair, you guys,” said Freddie, keeping his eyes on Susie. “Susie is just a freshman. She probably hasn’t even kissed a boy yet.”
“I have so,” said Susie, lying and turning redder.
“Oh, so you have, have you?” said Freddie. He moved toward her and leaned his head in.
Susie panicked, reared back her left foot and launched the best free kick she could muster, one she learned playing goalie on her middle school soccer team. She caught an unsuspecting Freddie squarely in the groin, dropping him to the floor. By the time he recovered, Susie had left the building.
Back at the O’Conner house, little Tommy had tired of playing video games in his room. Through his bedroom window he watched their neighbor Mr. Ritchie shoveling snow to unblock his mom’s car. Mr. Ritchie wasn’t nearly as fast as Tommy’s big brother Michael, who had the job of shoveling the driveway until he went into the Marines two years back. Now his dad did it on weekends and Mr. Ritchie helped out if the snow piled up in the middle of the week, like today. Of course, Tommy didn’t blame Mr. Ritchie for being slow. He figured Michael was better and faster than anyone else at pretty much everything.
When Mr. Ritchie was done, he knocked on the O’Conner’s front window. Tommy heard footsteps climbing the stairs. He leaped back into bed and pulled up the covers. His mom came into his room and told him to stay in bed, and that she’d be right back after picking up Susie from school.
Ten minutes later Mary O’Conner pulled out of the driveway in her green Volvo. Of course, as soon as the Volvo disappeared down the street, Tommy raced downstairs to the living room where Shelby, the family’s yellow lab was waiting. Shelby had been banned from the second floor after leaving a mess in the bathroom that surprised Tommy’s mother early one morning. As soon as Tommy came into view, the dog’s tail wagged furiously.
“Hey, Shel, I’m glad to see you, too,” said Tommy rubbing Shelby’s ears and taking the obligatory kisses. Tommy rubbed the slobber from his face with his shirt. He spotted Shelby’s favorite tennis ball and picked it up, waving it back and forth, with Shelby locked on to his every move. Tommy faked a throw into the kitchen and when the dog leaped in that direction, he instead rolled the ball down the hallway. Shelby skidded and reversed direction loping down the hallway to grab the ball before it reached the end. He dutifully returned the ball and dropped it at Tommy’s feet, ready to go again. Tommy tried another fake but the dog wasn’t fooled. Tommy spun around to throw but lost his balance just as the ball left his hand. He fell to his hands and knees and heard a crash. When he looked up, he saw that the ceramic vase that sat on the table next to the hall lay in pieces on the floor. Shelby retrieved the ball and obediently padded back to Tommy and dropped the ball for another round.
Tommy’s mind was racing. He remembered his mom telling the neighbor Mrs. Baird about the vase. “It’s a classic vintage drip glaze from the sixties. The colors match the room perfectly, don’t you think?” Mrs. Baird had agreed. Tommy didn’t know what all that meant, but he knew it meant she liked it a lot. His mom would be mad.
“Bad dog,” said Tommy. “Look what you did, Shel. You broke mom’s favorite vase.” Shelby sat down and wagged, oblivious to the situation. Tommy ignored him and picked up the broken pieces of the vase, putting them on the kitchen table. Then he sat down to wait.
Susie came in first, stomping the snow from her boots on the rubber mat inside the kitchen door. She spotted the broken vase parts on the table and Tommy sitting there quietly. “Uh-oh, wait ’til Mom sees this.”
“I didn’t do it. Shelby did.”
“Good luck with that,” said Susie, rolling her eyes.
“He did,” said Tommy, trying to convince himself.
“Who did what?” said Mary as she entered the kitchen and hung up her scarf. “Oh no, not my vase.”
“Shelby broke it,” said Tommy.
“Come on, Tommy,” said Susie.
“Did you pick up the pieces?” said Mary.
“Let me see your hands. You could have cut yourself.” Satisfied Tommy wasn’t bleeding, she said, “I thought I told you to stay in bed.”
“I was feeling better,” said Tommy. “And … and I thought I heard something.”
“You lie,” said Susie.
“Susie, don’t talk to your brother like that.”
“Well, he does,” said Susie.
Mary stared at Tommy. “You say you feel better now? I do find it suspicious that you are feeling okay now that school is over for the day.”
“What’s subspicious?” said Tommy, playing dumb.
“Never mind. Come here and let me feel your head.” She put her palm on Tommy’s forehead. “You are still a little hot. Go back up to your room and lie down.” Before he could object, she added, “If you go right now, I’ll bring you some ice cream.” Tommy’s eyes lit up and he pivoted, sticking out his tongue at Susie before running up the stairs.
“Did you see that?” said Susie.
“See what, dear?” said Mary, as she put Shelby out on their closed-in porch. He turned around and tried to come back into the house, but Mary slid the glass door almost closed. “Just until I clean up any sharp pieces.”
Mary got out her dustpan and brush and swept around the table where the lamp had stood. “Do you see any other small pieces?” she said.
Susie looked and said no. “He does lie. I don’t know why you let him get away with it.”
“He’s just a little boy,” said Mary. “Even if he did do it, I’m sure he didn’t mean to.”
“He’s ten. You never let me get away with anything when I was ten.”
“Are you telling me you were lying to me at that age?”
“No, I wasn’t.”
It wasn’t an argument Susie could win. Ever since her brother Michael had been deployed in Afghanistan with the Marines to fight terrorism, she noticed that her mom started treating Tommy with kid gloves. He was taking full advantage, and that annoyed Susie to no end. Added to what had just happened at school, it was enough to ruin her day.
“It’s not fair,” she said weakly, fighting back tears.
When Ray O’Conner finally pulled into the driveway next to Mary’s Volvo it had been dark for over two hours. Despite the snow plows working overtime, the roads were treacherous to navigate and the commute home took double the usual time. He had missed dinner, and wasn’t looking forward to having to eat whatever he could find to reheat.
Ray understood that Mary’s insistence on keeping a schedule was important for the kids, but that didn’t make it any easier for him. Ever since the “efficiency downsizing” at his company they were shorthanded and he now did twice the work with longer hours, all for the same pay. Granted, it was good money that allowed the family to live well, but the added stress was not helping his already elevated blood pressure. Ray closed the door of his dark blue Infinity and looked at the snow covered path to the kitchen door. When the snow piled up like this he wished he could use the garage, but he had promised he would keep Michael’s prized old Pontiac Trans Am and the extra parts out of the weather until he got back.
Ray stepped carefully in the footprints already pressed into the snow. He thought about how he should come out and shovel the walk later but probably wouldn’t. There’s only so much a man can do in a day, he thought wearily as he missed his mark and sank his foot into eight inches of snow. The icy cold climbed up his pant leg, and he swore to himself.
Once Ray reached the door he stomped his feet violently hoping the snow would fall out before it had time to melt. Once inside he stomped and wiped his feet again, and said, “Lucy, I’m home,” doing his best imitation of Ricky Ricardo that wasn’t very good but always made Mary smile.
There really wasn’t much about Ray that didn’t make Mary smile. He loved her big when she needed someone to hold her up and he loved her small with the kind of attention to detail that only real love can bring. And all the while she loved him more.
The only thing they butted heads on was disciplining the children. Mary painted with a rainbow palette, mitigating any situation with liberal amounts of understanding. Ray was black and white, don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. Once when Mary got mad at him for punishing Michael she called him the hanging judge. He took it as a compliment.
“What happened to your blue vase?” said Ray. Mary had hoped he wouldn’t notice.
“It was an accident. I think Shelby must have hit it with his tail.”
“Was Tommy here?”
“He’s been home from school all day sick.”
“Tommy, front and center,” Ray said loudly.
Tommy came around the corner a few seconds later. He had been eavesdropping.
“Hi, Dad.” Tommy smiled at Ray.
“Do you know anything about this vase breaking?”
“Shelby did it.”
“How do you know that?”
“I saw him — I mean, I heard it break from upstairs.”
“Which was it, you saw it or you heard it?”
Tommy looked at Mary desperately. “I don’t know, I can’t remember.” Now he was looking at the floor.
“Tommy?” said Ray.
“I don’t know.”
“Okay. Then I want you to go up to your room and think about what happened and do not come down until you are sure you have your story straight.”
When Tommy was out of earshot, Mary said, “Is that really necessary?”
“I think so,” said Ray cheerfully. Mary was about to say something more when the front doorbell rang.
“I’m not expecting anyone tonight, are you?” said Mary.
“Nope,” said Ray. “Let’s go see.” When they opened the door, Mary gasped and Ray’s jaw dropped. A young man in a crisp military uniform stood at the door. It was their oldest, Michael.
“Isn’t someone going to invite me in?” said Michael, a feigned hurt on his face.
“My goodness, yes,” said Mary, grabbing her son’s arm. “I’m just in shock. I thought you were a figment of my imagination. Come in and let me look at you. Have you been eating okay? You look thin.”
“It’s the uniform, Mom. I promise, they feed us well in the Marine Corps.”
“Are you sure? Your father always complained about the food in the military. Shit on a shingle, he called it.”
“That’s about what it tasted like, too,” said Ray.
“You have to remember, Mom, that was a long, long time ago. Plus Dad was only in the Army, not the Marines.”
“Spoken like a jarhead.” Ray O’Conner rubbed his son’s closely cropped head and hugged him roughly. “It’s good to see you, son.”
“How did you manage getting time off for Christmas?” said Mary.
“The president authorized a special furlough program for the multiple-tour soldiers in the Middle East.”
“You should have called us,” said Ray.
“I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“You know your mother hates surprises — you should have called.”
“That’s enough, Ray,” said Mary. “You should thank the Lord he’s here at all. And the president, too, I suppose.”
“Don’t get me started,” said Ray, shaking his head. “You and your beloved president who can do no wrong.”
“You promised there would be no talk of politics during the holidays,” said Mary.
“That I did,” said Ray.
“Are you hungry, Mike?” said Mary. “I know you must be hungry.”
“I could eat,” said Michael, smiling.
“It’s settled then. I’m making your favorite, pork chops and potatoes with red cabbage. Good thing I thawed those chops,” she said on the way into the kitchen.
“Your timing is perfect,” said Ray. “I was going to be stuck eating leftovers.”
“Glad to help.”
“Why don’t you take your bag up to your room. Your mom keeps it ready for just this kind of surprise.”
“I think I will. I can clean up a bit.”
When Michael passed Susie’s room he heard her crying. He stuck his head into her room. “Hey mop-top, what’s the matter?”
Susie looked up through teary eyes, trying to focus. When she saw who it was, she jumped up. “Mike. I’m so glad you are here.” Then she hugged him, sobbing the whole time.
“Easy on the waterworks, kiddo. I don’t want to have to clean this uniform again.” He held her at arm’s length and smiled. “Besides, what’s a pretty girl like you got to cry about?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Maybe not, but tell me anyway. I never get any skinny all the way over in Afghanistan. You are in high school now, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” The two of them sat on Susie’s bed and she told Michael about what it was like being a lowly freshman.
“You have to start somewhere, and it’s usually at the bottom,” said Michael. “The important thing is to do your best, and before you know it, you’ll start moving up in the world.”
“I guess. It’s bad enough at school, but since you’ve been gone, Mom treats Tommy like a little prince who can do no wrong, so I’m back at the bottom of the totem pole here, too.”
“As rough as that sounds, it doesn’t seem like enough to waste tears on. Is there something else?”
Susie looked at the floor, feeling the grief swelling back up in her throat. “Something happened in the auditorium … with a boy. It was horrible.”
“What boy?” Michael sounded serious. “What did he do?”
“Nothing really. His name’s Freddie Burke. He’s a senior and a star on the wrestling team. Him and his idiots sort of cornered me and were teasing me.”
“Did that son of a bitch hurt you?”
“No, but I hurt him.”
“What do you mean?”
“He sort of tried to kiss me and I was scared so I kicked him in the crotch, real hard. Then I ran.”
Michael laughed out loud. “Good for you.”
Susie started crying again.
“You don’t get it. I really like him. But now he’ll probably never talk to me again. It’s all just so horrible.”
“He’s going to hate me, for sure.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” said Michael. “It sounds like you demanded the respect you deserve. If he’s not a complete moron he’ll see that. And if not, then he doesn’t deserve you.”
When Susie stopped crying and seemed to be doing better, Michael knocked on Tommy’s door.
“You sure that’s what you want, Shortie?” It was a name only Michael called Tommy.
“Mike?” Michael opened the door and Tommy hopped off his bed and did a flying leap into his arms the way he always did.
“You’re going to be too big for this pretty soon.” Michael spun Tommy around his shoulders and back a couple of times and then dropped him onto his feet. “How old are you now?”
“Ten and a half,” said Tommy, proudly. “Can I wear your cap?”
“It’s called a beret,” said Michael, pulling the beret from his shoulder strap. Tommy put it on, but it was too big. He hung it on his bedpost. “So, how did you manage to get into the doghouse?”
“I don’t know,” said Tommy. “Dad’s mad.”
Tommy told him about staying home sick and how Shelby must have broken the vase, but his dad didn’t believe him.
“That is a tough one. But I should probably let you in on a family secret.”
“Did you know that some dads have a special power when it comes to their kids?”
“What kind of special power? Like superman?”
“Not exactly. It’s more like they know when their kids are lying.”
“They do?” Tommy sounded concerned.
“Yes, they do.” Michael nodded. “I found that out the hard way with Dad.”
“What do you mean?”
“One time when Dad and Mom went out to dinner with the Buckmans, I snuck one of Dad’s Budweisers out of the fridge and drank it. Afterward, I brushed my teeth and rinsed my mouth with mouthwash twice. I even chewed fruity gum so he couldn’t smell beer on my breath. I was sure I got away with it, too. But, after they got home Dad pulled me aside and asked me if I drank one of his beers.”
“What did you say?”
“I said yes, of course, ’cause somehow he already knew.”
“It wasn’t too bad. I had to stay home for two weekends and do work for Dad in the yard.”
“I like working in the yard.”
“I know. You want to tell what really happened to the vase?”
“Mom told me to stay in bed when she went to pick up Susie from school, but I went downstairs and was throwing the ball for Shelby and I hit the vase. It just broke.”
“So it wasn’t Shelby’s fault?”
“Then you owe him an apology. And Mom.”
“Ah-ha. There’s more. Come on, give it up.”
“I kinda faked being sick so I could stay home.”
Tommy explained his trick with the heating pad.
“So you totally faked it.”
“I totally faked it.”
“Hmmmmm. I don’t suppose that was the first time you did that?”
Tommy’s eyes got big. “You got the power, too.”
“You’re not going to tell Mom and Dad, are you?”
“No way. You’re going to have to do that yourself. But not tonight. Maybe tomorrow. You know, Tommy, I’m really counting on you.”
“What do you mean?”
“With me gone, and Dad having to work a lot, that leaves you as the man of the house.”
“So, that is a very important job. You have to take care of your mom and your sister, too.”
Tommy shrugged his shoulders but said nothing. This was a new idea. He had never considered he had a job in the family.
“I know you’re just a little kid, but—”
“I’m not that little,” said Tommy, standing as tall as he could. “I’m strong, too. Feel that.” He stuck out his arm and made a muscle.
“I stand corrected. That’s one more reason for you to be the man around the house, especially when Dad’s not here. Can you do that?”
“I guess I can.”
“Good. Now you’re the man of the house. Let’s go downstairs.”
“I can’t. Dad said I have to stay here.”
“That’s okay. We’ll tell him it’s a special occasion and I’ll ask for you to be downstairs with everyone else while I’m here.”
“No prob, Short — I mean Tom.”
Michael and Ray sat down and ate pork chops and potatoes and talked about the stuff that men who share the military experience do. Mary was happy to take care of her two men and listen. When they were done, Michael said, “That was the best ever. I’m stuffed. I’m a little tired so I think I’ll go upstairs and lie down, if that’s okay.”
“Sure thing, Mike. Your bed’s got clean everything.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Michael kissed her cheek. “For everything.”
Michael went upstairs, and a few minutes later there was a knock at the door. Ray looked at his watch.
“It’s too late to be anything good,” said Ray.
“Don’t be so dramatic and answer the door,” said Mary from the kitchen.
When Ray opened the door two men in uniform stood solemnly at attention on the porch.
“You must be friends of Michael.” Ray turned and shouted toward the stairs. “Michael, come on down here. Two of your Marine buddies are here to see you.” The two soldiers looked at each and back at Ray. “At ease, fellows,” said Ray. “Come on in out of the cold. Michael will be right down.”
Neither soldier moved. “Excuse me, sir. This isn’t the Michael O’Conner home?”
“Yes it is, and I’m his father, Raymond O’Conner.” Ray turned and shouted again, “Come on, Michael, front and center.”
“Sir, I don’t understand,” said the other soldier.
“Nothing to understand, son. You’re letting all the heat out,” said Ray. “Get in here so I can close the door.” The two soldiers reluctantly stepped inside. “Susie, can you go get Michael? He must have fallen asleep.”
“Sure,” said Susie.
“Sir, we are here to give notification.”
“What?” said Ray. The soldier took a deep breath.
“The commandant of the Marine Corps has entrusted me to express his deep regret that your son Michael was killed in action in Delaram, Afghanistan on December 22, 2018. He was killed in a bombing attack on the forward operations Marine Corps base there. The commandant extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your loss.”
“That’s crazy. Michael is right upstairs.”
“What is it?” said Mary, coming into the hallway.
“It’s a mistake, that’s what,” said Ray. “A terrible mistake. Go get Michael, will you?”
“Just go get Michael,” Ray said, angrily. “I’ll handle this.” When Mary left, Ray turned to the soldiers. “This is one major FUBAR, boys. Someone really screwed up.”
“Sir, these notifications are not taken lightly. I’m sorry, but we wouldn’t be here if your son’s death hadn’t been triple-checked and then checked again. I have his dog tags.” The soldier handed Ray the tags. For a second Ray wanted to refuse to take them, as if that would undo the whole thing. Instead he put out his hand and the soldier placed the tags gently in his palm. There it was. O’Conner, M.J. blood type B Neg. It was his all right.
Mary came down the stairs looking confused.
“Where’s Michael?” said Ray.
“He’s not in his room. None of his stuff is there either. Where is he? Why are these soldiers here?”
“What’s going on?” said Susie.
“Take your brother upstairs and keep him there,” said Ray. “I’ll explain later. Now.” Susie grabbed Tommy and dragged him toward the stairs.
“Dad said I could be down here,” said Tommy.
“Not now,” said Susie.
Once the kids were upstairs, Mary said, “Ray, you are scaring me. What is happening?”
“Michael was killed in action yesterday.”
“What? How is that possible?”
“I don’t know, Mary, but I think it’s true.” He held up the dog tags. “These are Michael’s.”
“But he was just here.”
“I think he wanted to make sure we would be okay.”
“There’s one more thing,” said the soldier. “He had just posted a letter home when it happened. The commandant wanted me to deliver it to you now. It’s addressed to Mary O’Conner.”
Mary opened the letter and read,
In your last letter you asked me what I wanted most for Christmas. That got me thinking, so here it is:
First, don’t be mad at Dad for being too tough on Tommy — his discipline really helped to keep me honest and straight. By the way, Shelby did not knock your vase off the coffee table. And you might want to ask Tommy about the heating pad.
Next, for Dad, don’t be too overprotective of Susie. I know having a teenage daughter must be frightening, but she’s a really good kid who can take care of herself — ask her about Freddie Burke sometime.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that you two raised me really well and I appreciate that more than I ever let on. I now realize that’s why I’m over here — to fight for our family and our way of life and all the things that you taught me are important.
My last wish is for you to stop worrying about me. Take care of Susie and Tommy and Dad. I’ll be just fine.
I love you all,
Mary folded the letter carefully and buried her face in Ray’s neck.
Tommy didn’t understand what was happening, but he knew it was bad. Everyone was upset. And where was Michael? As soon as Susie went to her room, Tommy snuck into Michael’s room and looked around. The room was neat and empty and cold, just like it always was since Michael had moved out. Tommy walked back to his own room and spotted Michael’s beret still hanging on his bedpost. He put it on and remembered what Michael had said. “Now you are the man of the house.” Tommy stood up a little taller.