Thanks for all the comments yesterday. Like you I was ready to get back into the story. This should be an interesting one. A little story building today. More action coming soon. Enjoy!
(CAUTION: The following contains unedited material that may be unsuitable for the grammatically inclined. Keep in mind that I don’t review what I write until after the first draft of the whole novel is done, so please keep your spelling and grammar fixes until the Beta Reader rounds.)
It wasn’t hard finding the dead man's identity. Before the paramedics and the police arrived, Cal snapped a couple pictures of the dead man's face. Thomas A. Quinn, Jr.. It was Neil Patel who provided the information. He was the Jefferson Groups resident tech genius.
“No social media accounts, but I found some old clippings from his high school days. It says here he went by the name of Tommy.”
"Do you have an address?" Cal asked.
"Nothing yet," said Patel, “but I do have his parents' address."
"Okay, then let's start there."
Thomas A. Quinn, Sr’s home was in Roanoke, Virginia. It was about a two hour drive from Charlottesville. Luckily, other than the questioning from the police, Cal's day was free. He thought about telling the others about what had happened, but it really could be nothing. Maybe it was just a guy from the Marine Corps. Calvin had met too many people over the years to remember them all by name, let alone by their face. So once he'd confirmed with Neil that the police had been out to the Quinn house to inform them of their son's death, he decided that the next day he would make the drive to Roanoke.
The next morning his girlfriend, Diane Mayer, was just returning from the gym when Cal was headed to the door.
"Where are you going?” she asked, pecking him on the cheek, but avoiding the full on hug since she was drenched in sweat. Cal thought that it did little to tarnish her beauty. His heart still did that little skip thing whenever she entered the room.
"I'm going to go visit the parents of that kid that died yesterday, offer my condolences."
He hadn't told Diane the whole story the night before, just that he'd been on the scene of the accident. If he had, she would worry. There'd been a lot to worry about in the last year. No need piling one more thing on top of the heap of their complicated lives. She was just starting out as a Navel intelligence officer, having completed her final training in Dam Neck, Virginia. She was a mustang, a prior-enlisted seaman and she was very good at what she did for a living. His exploits had already gotten in her way and the last thing he wanted was to do it again. But now here she was, staring at him the way she did, head cocked slightly to one side, analyzing him.
"I can come with you. I don't have much to do today," she said.
“Don't worry about it. It shouldn't take long."
"Is Daniel going with you?" she probed.
"No, he's busy." He grabbed his car keys and wallet and shoved them in his pocket, trying to get out the door, but she pressed on.
"When was the last time you went out of town without Daniel?"
"Come on, Diane. I just want to make sure they're okay."
After another long moment of her staring at him, trying to pry the truth from beneath his layers, she smiled and said, "Okay, then I'll come with you."
"You really don't have to do that," he said quickly.
"No, it's fine. Give me five minutes. Let me shower and I'll do my makeup in the car."
Cal knew there was no use arguing. She was already headed toward the bathroom and he was left thinking that he should have left ten minutes before.
The Quinn household was easy to find. It was in one of those ranch home communities where the roads had been designed wide and spacious, plenty of room for kids to learn to ride their bikes and couples to stroll on daily walks. The leaves were mostly gone now, but there were some trees that were still clinging to their burnt orange decor. The Quinn’s house was a simple affair. An old mailbox had Quinn painted in faded flowery lettering on one side.
As he and Diane got out of the car, Cal saw that the mailbox was overflowing so he went to it and emptied its contents. Lots of junk mail, but even with a quick glance, he could see the angry red stamps on some of the envelopes, overdue notices. There were more signs. The grass was a little longer than the yards on either side. The gutters were overflowing with leaves whereas everyone else on the street had already cleaned theirs out. When they reached the door, a pile of soggy newspapers lay to one side, just far enough for the screen door to be able to open.
Cal rang the doorbell and it was a few moments before he saw the shadows moving inside. A light clicked on and then there was a face in the window. The graying woman’s eyes were swollen and she had a Kleenex in her hand when she opened the door.
"May I help you?" she said with a shaky voice. Cal caught the smell of home cooking emanating from inside. Pot roast maybe.
"Yes, ma'am. My name is Cal Stokes and this is Diane Mayer." Mrs. Quinn did not extend a hand and Cal watched her for any recognition that she knew his name. None. "Ma'am, I was there when your son died." The Kleenex went to Mrs. Quinn's mouth.
"Oh god. You knew my Tommy?"
This was the tricky part.
"Ma'am, is your husband in? Maybe we can come inside and talk. Or we could talk outside if you prefer.“
"Tom," Mrs. Quinn called to the back. Thomas Quinn, Sr. came out a moment later in a gray and black flannel shirt that was tucked in on one side. His hair was perfectly combed, but he had maybe a week's worth of stubble on his face.
"Who is it, Patty?" he said, his voice weary like he'd been up all night.
"They say they knew Tommy."
His eyes brightened at that and before Cal could correct her, Mr. Quinn had his hand extended. "Any friend of Tommy's is welcome in our home." He was on the verge of tears, not his first of the day Cal could see. Cal shook his hand and then the old man pulled him into the house. "Please, please, what can we get you? Coffee? Is it too late for coffee?"
Cal couldn't find the words so it was Diane who answered for them. "Coffee would be fine, please. He'll take his black and I'd like mine with a little bit of creamer, if you have it."
So they entered the Quinn home like old friends. Mr. Quinn guided Cal in by the arm and Mrs. Quinn took Diane. The place was dark and it felt like it had a year's worth of dust on every surface. Things were tidy, like they'd been placed and not used for a long time, but that all changed when they walked into the kitchen. There were pots and casserole dishes lined up neatly on the counter top. There was a slow cooker bubbling away, the source of the smell. Pot roast, Cal confirmed. Then in the corner, Cal saw it, a small fold out table, one of those 1950s relics. His parents had had two that they brought out whenever company came over. On the top of the table were an assortment of trophies, mostly track, but there was the old T-ball trophy and one that happily displayed third place in a soccer tournament. But right there in the middle of it all was a picture of the man he didn't know, Tommy Quinn, grinning from ear to ear flanked by his parents at his boot camp graduation.
Mrs. Quinn let got of Diane's arm and walked over to the table and touched the picture as if it had already become ritual. "He was such a handsome boy." She stood there for a long minute, stroking the picture, and then her body shuddered and she turned to them. "Oh my, where are my manners? You said black and you said a little bit of creamer. Was that right?"
"Yes ma'am. Thank you," Cal said.
"It's been a busy day," Mr. Quinn said, sliding into one of the kitchen chairs. Patty’s been at it since two this morning getting the food ready for the visitation. "I wish we could all go back to that day," he said, pointing to the picture of his son. "He was so proud. He was just a weekend warrior. Do you know what that means?" he said, turning to Cal.
"Yes sir. I was in the Marine Corps too.”
"Oh, is that how you knew Tommy?"
"Not exactly," Cal said.
Mr. Quinn didn't detect the awkwardness in Cal's tone and continued. "He had done his time in the Reserves and said he wanted to go full time. He had aspirations of working for the CIA, if you can believe that." He said it in a tone filled with wonder, as if no one before Tommy had ever had the necessary skills or talent to work for the CIA.
Mrs. Quinn brought their coffee. "Thank you, ma'am."
"Please, call my Patty," she said through a sniffle.
"Thank you, Patty, " Diane said, sipping her coffee. "This is delicious."
"My family used to own a diner in Clarksdale, Mississippi. My grandmother taught me exactly how to make it, just like Daddy liked."
Diane was right. Cal had had his fair share of coffee over the years and this was the best he'd ever had. Whether it was the caffeine hitting his brain or the guilt that he felt about lying, Cal decided to come clean.
"Mr. and Mrs. Quinn,"
"Please. I'm Tom and she's Patty," Mr. Quinn said, with a tired smile.
"Yes, sir. Well, I don't exactly know how to say this, but I didn't really know your son. The first time we met was yesterday, when I tried to help him."
"You tried to help our Tommy?" Patty said, stepping closer.
Cal didn't want to go into the details. No parent should hear about how their son's body couldn't be pulled from a mangled wreckage. "Yes ma'am. I was there with him in his last moments."
"My Lord," Tom said. "And that's why you came here, isn't it? Did he say something? Oh, God. He said something didn't he?" There were fresh tears in the father's eyes now and Patty was sobbing. Diane moved over to her and put an arm around her shuddering body.
Cal honestly didn't know how to proceed. He'd come looking for answers to his own questions and now he'd dug a pitchfork into these poor people's wound. So he did the best thing he knew to do, he lied. "He said to tell you he loved you."
At the realization, Tom folded in half, face in his hands. His grief full on now. "Oh, my Tommy," he wailed.
Cal walked over and put a hand on the man's back. "I'm so sorry for your loss," he said and there he stood until the grief ran out, until the tears would no longer come. When it was over, Thomas Quinn, Sr. sat up straight, readjusted his shirt and looked up at Cal.
"Thank you for coming, for telling us that. Will you please stay for lunch? We have plenty of food."
It was Diane who cut in. "Patty, why don't I help you with the food. I may not be quite the cook you are, but I can follow directions and I'm pretty handy with a knife."
"I'll help too," Cal said, and that's how they spent the rest of their day with the Quinns. Patty was the master chef in the kitchen. She knew every recipe by heart. It only took her two minutes to figure out Diane and Cal's level of skill.
While Cal was relegated to the chopping board, Diane was allowed to tend to the soup and monitor the casserole dishes. In between instructions, Tom told them stories about Tommy, about the day he learned to ride a bike out front and about his years of track stardom in high school. "He ran every race from the mile on down," his father said proudly. "I don't know many kids who could do that. He'd finish one race and get ready for the next. It was the damnedest thing.”
"He had so much energy as a boy," Patty interjected. "Track was a blessing. It kept his mind occupied."
Tom nodded. "Then he surprised us again, asked us if he could enlist in the Marine Corp, just in the reserves, of course, so he could go to college. He got a full ride to Virginia Tech to run track. He went on to have a brilliant career. All American, you know. He even thought about going to the Olympics."
By this time Cal felt like they'd all become friends so it wasn't awkward when he asked, "What did Tommy do after college?"
"Oh, well, he did this and that." For the first time, Tom hesitated. It was obvious he was holding something back. "He had kind of a hard time finding his way."
"I know the feeling," Cal said.
Tom nodded. “Well, he did finally find a job. It paid good money too, but it kept him away a lot. We were used to seeing him at least every weekend, but now he was gone for months at a time. Sometimes he would come back happy. He couldn't tell us stories because it was some kind of top secret deal. He said it was security, but well, you never know with those things. Then there were the weekends he would come home and barely say five words to us. He'd hole up in his old room with a case of beer and only come out to get more. Oh, God, I don't know why I didn't do anything about it," he said. "It's just as parents, you don't want to pry. Do you think he understood that?"
"I'm sure he did," Cal said honestly. "It sounds like you did the best you could."
"Yes, well, sometimes your best isn't good enough, is it?" Tom said.
There was a long silence, with only the sound of the bubbling soup filling the void.
Cal didn’t know why, but for some reason he said, “You know, I lost both of my parents on 9/11."
"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that," Patty said, "And here we are going on and on about Tommy and ..."
"No, it's fine, really, " Cal interrupted. "I just tell that to you so you know that I understand the grief you're feeling right now. I didn't have anyone to talk to, or at least that's what I thought. I ran to the Marine Corps and they accepted me with open arms. But I was in a lot of pain for a long time. I'm sure you've both experienced that type of pain before, but it's another thing when it's your son. I know that." The words were coming freely now, emotions that Cal rarely showed to anyone but his closest friends, and even then, he still remained guarded. But now, in the tiny kitchen surrounded by grief and memories of the past, Cal couldn't help but share his story. He told them about how he'd left school and gone to bootcamp, ignoring every person who tried to contact him. He told them of the message his father had left moments before his airplane had crashed into the Pentagon, and finally he told them about the peace that he'd found that he knew that his parents were always looking down on him. "It took a long time, I won't lie. They were good people and even better parents. They loved me unconditionally, even when I was the handful. My father even got out of the Marine Corps because of me. He said he did it so he’d never miss another moment. I never doubted their love and that's what made it that much harder."
They were all listening now, maybe Diane the most. Cal cleared his throat, the raw emotion of the day threatening to overtake him. "I guess what I'm trying to say is if you need someone to talk to, you're more than welcome to call me."
"Thank you, son. I appreciate that," Tom said, extending a hand and this time Cal took it gratefully. He wouldn't press these people. He wouldn't ask what they thought the connection was. Maybe there would be time for that later, but for now, it was just enough knowing that he might bring them a small measure of solace. Because wasn’t the loving embrace of a stranger better than no embrace at all?
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