“What a wonderful day to be alive,” Andy Carpenter murmured as he tossed peanuts to a squirrel. Sun filtered through the leaves spread in a canopy above his head and a slight breeze brought the scent of late roses. He watched the squirrel eat the last of the nuts and turn toward him. Andy laughed aloud at the expectant expression on its face and then he rose to his feet. “That’s all for today, Bushy Tail. In fact, that’s all for quite a while because I’m heading south tomorrow.” The slender young man strolled away, leaving behind the scolding squirrel.
Next morning, Andy patted the steering wheel of the ’16 Honda as he left Hammond Street and eased into traffic on I95. The clouds moving in reminded him that winter was just around the corner. Florida would be better. He looked forward to being in the sunny south again but planned to take his time on the long drive from Maine to Jacksonville. It was later than he had planned to start, but he had overslept. It felt good to get up when he pleased, good to be out of that place after a year and good to be leaving Bangor and its memories.
Andy had been afraid that a year in storage would damage the Honda, but he breezed past Augusta and Portland without a problem and crossed into New Hampshire. Enjoying the freedom of being on the road, he whistled “Anchors Aweigh” and thought about being at sea. He stopped for gasoline in Portsmouth, stretching the stiffness out of his spine and running his hands over his new crew cut. They hadn’t let him have one in that place, so he had gone to the barber as soon as he got out.
A feminine voice penetrated Andy’s thoughts, and he turned to meet the admiring eyes of a petite blonde standing at the next pump.
“I’ve never filled a gas tank,” the breathless voice said. “Will you show me how?”
“A pretty little thing like you shouldn’t have to do such things,” he said as he began filling the tank of her car. He leaned against the fender, crossed his arms on his chest, and teased her. “You’re meant for decoration. Shouldn’t soil those pretty hands with work.”
Delicate color mounted her cheeks. “You probably say that to all the girls. Mother told me about sailors with a girl in every port.”
“What makes you think I’m a sailor?”
She pointed to the anchor tattoo on his arm. “I’ve never seen any man with one of those who wasn’t a sailor. You look too young to have already been discharged, so I just assumed you’re still in the Navy.”
“Oh. Yes, of course, you’re right,” he stammered. “I wasn’t thinking.” He replaced the gas nozzle into the pump and nodded to her. “You’re all set.”
“I hope I see you again some time.” She flashed her dimples at him and waited for his reply.
“I’m only passing through on my way to Florida, and doubt I’ll ever be back in this area.” He spoke over his shoulder as he swaggered away. “That’s my tough luck.”
“She thought I’m a sailor, and I should be,” he muttered as he drove down the highway minutes later. He tried to shrug off the bitter remark, but as he crossed the state line into Massachusetts, tightness started at the base of his skull. He needed to stop for a while, so he pulled into a hamburger joint and ordered a double with cheese and fries. They didn’t believe in fried food in that place, another good reason to be out.
While sipping a Pepsi, Andy felt the tension ease and, leaning back in the booth, he glanced around the almost empty restaurant. His gaze locked with that of an elderly man sitting in the next booth.
“Sailor. I’d recognized that rolling gait any place, even without the tattoo.” The old gentleman sighed with nostalgia, not waiting for a reply. “I served on the McDermutt in the big war. I still miss her.”
Rolling gait? Andy’s eyes had widened with surprise, but he recovered quickly and answered. “My grandfather served on the Yorktown. He used to tell me about the battles in the Coral Sea. Midway and those places.”
Tension was returning, and Andy knew he couldn’t stay there discussing Navy battles. He rose abruptly. “I have a distance to go yet today, so I’d better get on down the road.”
With a nod, Andy left the old man to his memories and returned to the car.
“I’m perfectly okay,” he muttered to himself. “That’s all behind me. I’m simply going to Jacksonville to visit my dad.”
Driving southbound, he concentrated on the scenery. As he neared the Lexington-Concord area, he thought about stopping to see the Minute Man statue. If he’d been allowed to go with the other boys it would have been fun, but it wouldn’t be the same now, by himself. He continued south.
Rhode Island. Brown University. “Mother had wanted … never mind what she wanted. I won’t think about her.” He started whistling “Anchors Aweigh” again and remembered a kid he’d known when they were stationed somewhere or other. This kid always had his nose in a book and spouted facts every time he opened his mouth. Wonder what ever happened to the Cranston Cranium, as they had called him.
Andy grinned at the memories, and his headache eased as he drove further south. His mood lightened and he stopped for another Pepsi. She hadn’t allowed him to drink Pepsi. Milk for breakfast and water otherwise. He didn’t ever want to drink either one again.
His lighthearted mood continued until he began seeing signs for New London, Connecticut, and the submarine base. Suddenly, he slumped behind the wheel, deflated and overwhelmingly tired. He intended to keep straight on 95, but at the highway 12 exit, he suddenly swerved onto the off ramp, ignoring the blaring horns and screeching brakes behind him. He checked into a motel and, after a brief mental struggle, drove to the base and parked near the main gate.
From the time he’d been a little kid, he’d wanted to serve on a submarine. He’d even practiced holding his breath under water. He briefly smiled at the memory. He’d actually believed people in subs had to do that.
He brooded and his muttering became more audible. “I could be there right now, with Harry and Bill. It’s her fault. She shouldn’t have done it.”
A movement caught his eye. A marine guard stared at him. He hurriedly returned to the motel, the headache now in full force. Back in his room, he paced the floor several minutes then pulled a cell phone from his pocket. A throwaway phone because he didn’t want anyone tracing him, didn’t want anyone interfering with his plans.
When he heard the familiar voice, he hardly recognized the guttural sounds that came from his own mouth. “You shouldn’t have done it!”
He clicked off the phone before she could speak. His headache climbed to new heights on the Richter scale. A beer might help.
Andy huddled on a stool at the end of the bar and ordered a Michelob.
“Okay, buddy, let’s see some i.d.”
Andy nodded and hauled out his wallet. He flipped it open to his driver’s license: Andy Carpenter, brown hair, brown eyes, 5 feet 7 inches, date of birth June 21, 1996. He was thinner now, but the picture was obviously him. With an answering nod, the bartender handed him a foaming beer and moved away.
Absently sipping the beer, not noticing as it grew warm, Andy sat in brooding silence, occasionally taking a cigarette from the pack rolled in his T-shirt sleeve. He stuffed the last one into the ashtray and asked directions to a pizza place.
He walked slowly down the street, his glance darting from one uniformed man to another. No MPs looking for him. He glanced around the crowded restaurant. More sailors. He quickly ordered takeout and returned to the motel, away from watching eyes.
Andy slept late on Tuesday morning, and, still tired, forced himself out of bed. He ran the electric shaver around his face and rued that he didn’t really have a beard to shave. Probably all the medication they’d forced down his throat for years. This past year had taken more out of him than he’d realized. He had a headache in earnest now and the sky looked as bleak as he felt. He took a long shower to get himself going and headed south after a quick breakfast.
He paid no attention to the scenery, but he managed a smile for the waitress when he stopped near Stamford. A cup of coffee and a short stroll around the area eased his tired muscles, and he re-entered the traffic on 95.
By sheer determination, Andy managed not to brood over what might have been if she hadn’t messed up his life. He had driven this route so many times he could ignore the highway signs. He stopped briefly somewhere in New Jersey for more burgers and fries and somewhere else for gasoline. He barely noticed as he negotiated his way around Philadelphia, and Delaware might as well not have been on the map.
As he bypassed Baltimore and approached the District, he remembered the years they’d lived there. He’d been about twelve then, a good age to be in Washington. He drove out Capitol Street to a motel near the Navy Yard, asking for a room at the back.
He methodically unpacked the duffle bag, absently running his hand over the Redskins emblem. The other boys’ dads had taken them to football games. His dad would have taken him, too, if only she had allowed it.
Finally, he could resist the window no longer. Ignoring the splashing and yelling from the swimming pool below him, he stared across the way at the Navy Yard. Only a ten-minute walk but light years away from him. It was all her fault. It wouldn’t be as good as serving on a sub, but it would have been interesting to work at the Yard. He’d always enjoyed photography and could have interpreted the infrared spy pictures as well as anybody.
While he stared out the window, he pulled the cell from his pocket. This time when she answered, Andy wailed, “Why wouldn’t you let me do it? Just tell me that!” However, before she could reply, he shoved the phone back into his pocket.
The following morning, he joined the southbound traffic on the beltway, hands clenched on the steering wheel. He’d never liked heavy traffic. It even made him nervous when he was a passenger. His head felt as tight as a balloon and his shoulders were almost rigid. Midmorning and no sun in evidence. He hoped it would clear up soon.
He’d gotten up several times during the night and stared out the window, wondering what would happen if he walked up Capitol to M Street and crossed over to the Yard, just to look around. He had gotten as far as pulling on his jeans before he thought better of it. He might get locked up again. Another strip search. Andy shuddered and crawled back into bed. He didn’t ever want to go through that again.
He hadn’t taken the time to eat before leaving the District and by the time he reached Fredericksburg, he was lightheaded. At a pancake house, he ordered a large stack with bacon and drank cup after cup of strong, black coffee. No espressos here, unfortunately, otherwise he would have had at least a double shot, probably triple.
Passing through Richmond, Andy steadfastly refused to notice the exits that would take him to Norfolk and Portsmouth. He’d lived on those bases, too, and remembered the catcalls. All her fault.
It was safe to stop near Fayetteville, he decided, because those were Army bases. Navy people were watching him; he had no doubt about that. He’d noticed it in New London and again as he left the motel this morning. It was not coincidental that the shore patrol stood across the street as he pulled out of the parking deck. He’d watched his rearview mirror closely but couldn’t detect which car was tailing him down the beltway. He knew it was back there though.
On the outskirts of Fayetteville, Andy drove into the parking lot of yet another burger joint and, just as quickly, drove out again. The tan sedan parked at the door had a Naval Air Station sticker on the bumper. He couldn’t miss that bright blue emblem even if he tried. Breaking into a sweat, he sped down the highway, his gaze almost glued to the rearview mirror.
Across the South Carolina border, he felt safe enough to find a motel and restaurant. He ate slowly, concentrating on each mouthful, and relaxing in the quiet atmosphere. He would have to decide what to do about her. However, that could wait until his head didn’t ache so much.
He dragged out the meal as long as he could, but the waiter began staring so he left. When he turned toward the motel, the tension started building again and he ran the last several yards to his room. He quickly double-locked the door and looked frantically around. Safe. He paced from the door to the window and back, again and again, his mind working furiously.
Finally, he gave in to an overwhelming need to call her. “It’s your fault!” Hysteria made his voice squeak as he continued, “If you’d been like other mothers everything would be okay!”
He threw himself across the bed, his fists beating a tattoo on either side of his throbbing head. Gradually, he became still and drifted off to sleep.
Andy woke with a start, looking wildly around. Who was banging on his door? He hurriedly pressed his eye to the peephole and saw a Marine pounding on the door across the hall. Andy stood as though rooted to the spot until a woman opened the door and welcomed the Marine inside.
Trembling, Andy returned to the bed where he opened the duffle and took out a small handgun. Thoughts racing, he turned it over and over in his hands. You can always get a gun if you want one. For a moment, he struggled to remember the name of that little pawnshop in Bangor then shrugged it off. Holding the revolver up, he sighted along the barrel toward the mirror then slowly lowered the revolver and held it straight out at arm’s length. Staring at his image, he pulled the trigger once, twice, listening to it click. Still staring at the mirror, he slowly raised the gun to his head. After a pause, he gently squeezed the trigger, the click sounding loud in his ear. He squeezed the trigger again.
A hysterical giggle escaped his mouth as he lowered the revolver and reached again into the bag. This time, he brought out a small box of cartridges and began filling the cylinders. He would have it ready, just in case. He stretched out on the bed, the revolver in his hand, staring at the ceiling, straining to hear the Marine.
Morning came too soon. He had slept with his clothes on and had wakened tired and irritable. After a quick shower, he shoved the revolver into the band of his jeans and hurried out to his car. Glancing furtively around, he placed the gun in the glove compartment. A few minutes later, he was on his way south.
He stopped near Florence for breakfast, hardly touching the bacon and eggs, but drinking cup after cup of strong, black coffee. He swallowed four aspirins and sat rubbing his forehead until the waitress brought more coffee. His head might feel better if the storm would break.
He drove steadily down 95, cautiously watching traffic. His shoulders relaxed slightly when he didn’t spot a convoy, yet his glance continued to dart from side to side. When he stopped in Walterboro for gasoline, he pulled his baseball cap down over his eyes and put on his windbreaker to hide the tattoo.
The farther south he went, the darker the sky became and the bongo drums in his head became more frenzied. Maybe another Pepsi would help. He’d drunk enough coffee to sink a battleship. No, don’t think about ships.
Andy stopped for burgers and fries after he passed Savannah. He was drinking his second Pepsi and had taken four more aspirins when he heard it. A helicopter circled the area and landed in the parking lot. He sat frozen, his jaws clenched, as military police entered the restaurant and looked around. There was no place to hide. He carefully averted his face, but watched them from the corner of his eye. They scrutinized the few customers then approached Andy.
“Excuse me, Sir, may we see some i.d., please?” The older of the two uniformed men spoke quietly and waited until Andy pulled out his wallet.
“Is there some kind of trouble, Sir?”
The MP ignored the question and asked another. “Would you tell us what kind of car you’re driving?”
Andy licked his lips and ventured a glance in their direction. “It’s a ’16 Honda Accord, white, Maine license. It’s parked out there.” He nodded toward the side of the building.
He raised his head and looked the interrogator in the eye. “Have I done something wrong, Sir?”
The MP returned the driver’s license. “You tell me. You have guilt written all over your face.”
Andy managed a weak grin. “That isn’t guilt, Sir, that’s a headache. This weather is getting to me.”
With a nod and a wave of their hands, the MPs left him alone. Andy forced himself to sit quietly for another fifteen minutes before casually paying his bill and leaving.
“Guess I fooled them,” he muttered as he rejoined the traffic on 95. He heard thunder in the distance and the ominous sky hid the sun. He wished the storm would break. “Wonder who the MPs were looking for. They had no right to question me. I’m not in uniform. It’s all her fault. She probably sent them to spy on me. If she would leave me alone everybody else would.”
Hearing his voice, Andy clamped his lips shut and glanced around to see if anyone was watching.
Traffic got heavier as Andy traveled farther south, his hands grasping the steering wheel until his knuckles were white and perspiration beaded his forehead. The thunder was close and lightning flashed as he left 95 and maneuvered his way to the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. At the main gate, he pulled out his old Navy identification card.
“I’m the son of Commander John Carpenter. I expect to visit him for a few days.” Andy met the eyes of the Marine guard who stared intently into his face. “I’ve changed some since that picture was taken, but I assure you that it is me. His voice cracked and he tried again, with a slight laugh. “Or I suppose I should say that I am the person in that picture.”
The guard hesitated a moment longer then waved him through the gate.
Andy breathed a little easier as he left the main gate behind and approached officer’s country. Driving slowly, he studied the house numbers then turned into the driveway of a white, two-story frame house. They’d lived here when he was a kid but in a smaller house. He sat for a few moments, clenching and unclenching his fists, then opened the glove compartment and removed the revolver, shoving it into his jacket pocket.
Standing on the top step, his shoulders hunched forward, he wondered if the thunder had drowned out the ringing bell. He raised his fist to pound on the door just as a young girl in a maid’s uniform opened it. Her eyes widened at his introduction, but she stepped back and allowed him to enter.
“Where is she?” he inquired tersely.
“In the living room,” she replied as she pointed the way.
“No need to announce me. Just go on with your work.”
He waited until she disappeared down the hall then turned to his right and opened the door. Stepping into the elegantly furnished room, Andy stood, hands in his pockets, staring at the woman there who apparently had not heard his arrival.
“Andy, darling!” The petite woman jumped to her feet, hands outstretched. “How are you? Your phone calls have been, ummm, unusual. Sit down and tell me what’s wrong.”
“Don’t call me darling!” He was breathing quickly and his voice became shrill. “Everything’s wrong and it’s your fault. If you’d let me play with the other boys everything would have been okay. If you had let me cut my hair the other boys wouldn’t have made fun of me.”
He took a deep breath as he stepped closer to her. “I could have been like the other boys if you had let me! You wanted me to be like you. I’m not like you! Couldn’t you see that? I’m like Dad. I’m a sailor just like Dad!”
“But, Andy, darling,” she began.
His hysteria mounted steadily. “Don’t call me darling! If I could have stayed in the Navy, I wouldn’t have had to go to that place. You shouldn’t have talked the Navy into discharging me. It’s your fault. You never let me do the things I wanted to do.”
“Andy, …” she began again, but he ignored her.
“There’s only one way to fix things.” His voice became quiet, almost confidential as he took two quick steps toward her. “You see, if you’re not around to tell lies about me, I can do anything I want to do. So, I’m going to kill you. Then you won’t be around anymore.” He paused briefly. “You do understand, don’t you?”
He smiled at her horror-stricken face as she backed away from him, groping for the chair behind her. “But, Andy, darling …”
Hands clenched, he moved toward her and spoke with a deadly calmness, his eyes never leaving her face. “I told you not to call me that. You never listened to me. I’m not your darling; I’m a grown man. You’ve never wanted to believe that, but now I’m going to fix you, so it won’t matter anymore.”
He slowly pulled the revolver from his pocket.
When the door burst open, Andy carefully laid the revolver on a table and turned a smiling face to the newcomers. “Hi, Dad. I’ve gotten rid of her, see? She can’t make me have curls anymore, so I can join the Navy with the other boys. And I can drink all the Pepsi I want.”
Andy’s smile faded when he saw the expression on his father’s face turn from disbelief to horror. It was with a rigid mouth that he listened to the Marine guard.
“Commander, is this your son, Andy?”
“No,” came the bleak reply. “This is my daughter, Andrea.”