“You live to run away,
You must login to vote
but fear’s the hardest act to follow.
Let me let you in.
Hold on another day;
face the truth; it’s hard to swallow.
It’s time to begin.
There’s only one life
in your skin.”
-from “In Your Skin” by Lifehouse
My routine was the same: I boarded bus 1111 at nine-thirty in the morning to make it to my 10:15 class. It was crowded as always; I was surrounded by the same strangers, young and old, homeless and silver-spooned, plain and glamourous alike. A few rays from the sun streamed through the windows, although most of them were obstructed by the majestic oak trees that have towered over the town for centuries.
That was why I was so stunned when I saw the tall, broad-shouldered, bespectacled man board the bus at the Plantation stop. I could tell when he had to attempt three times before scanning his bus pass correctly that he was new to bus 1111.
“Is this the bus to Callicles College?” he asked the bus driver.
“Sure is. Take a seat.”
He was new to town as well. And he was lucky because there was only one empty seat left. It happened to be the seat next to me. He sat down and said nothing for a minute or two. I didn’t know what to say.
“Can you show me where the Callicles stop is?” he finally asked me.
“Just follow me when I get off the bus.” And that was that; my life would never be the same again.
“What’s your name?” he asked me when we got off bus 1111.
Wow. In all twenty of my years, no one else had ever thought to ask me that. “No, I’m an Irish Protestant. And how did you know my name was Hebrew?”
“I used to live in a Jewish town. There were a few Annikas, just none who would help me on a whim.”
Which was exactly what I was doing. “That’s kind of ironic since ‘Annika’ means ‘grace’.”
“Well, that’s new information to me. So if you don’t mind me asking, why didn’t your mother just name you Grace?”
“My mother hates the name Grace, but she liked the idea. So she went to the library and searched the translation dictionaries until she found a translation she liked better. And if you don’t mind me asking, what is your name?”
“Brendan. I’m not a prince, though.”
Like he was going to get away with that one while I was looking into his clear blue eyes behind the perfect frames of his glasses. “But surely you’re Irish? You look like it.”
“No, just plain British.”
Plain. Ha, another good one that I saw right through. Anyway, I had only ten minutes to get to my class on time. “Do you need me to show you where your classroom is?”
“Will you be late to your own class?”
Well, yes, but for some obscure reason, that wasn’t stopping me. “I’ll be fine. Now tell me what room number.”
“Room 314, Pythagoras Hall.”
Oh, geez. Out of all the classrooms in Callicles College, it had to be the Pi Room. I crossed my fingers in hopes that the most punctual math professor of all wouldn’t scold me for showing up to the wrong class, late, with a smoking-hot new guy following me. I led him there without a word.
Dr. Maevy looked at Brendan, wondering what to do with him. I stepped into the room and tersely announced, “New student,” before ducking back into the hall and racing to my classroom.
I was lying down on the ledge of the central fountain when a finger tapped on my shoulder. I flinched before looking up at Brendan. “Geez, you startled me! Where did you come from?”
Brendan laughed. “Sorry. I couldn’t resist surprising you. I just came back from class.”
“So how was calculus in the Pi Room?”
“The Pi Room?”
“You know, room 314. 3.14 pi.”
“Ah. Well…I like math, but I’ve never before met a more structured, rigid professor.”
“Structured and rigid. That’s my mother for you.”
Brendan’s face contorted into an expression of shock. “Dr. Maevy is your mother?! Oh shit, she must think that I’m a total freak!”
Well, that was weird. The only people my mom didn’t like were slackers. She didn’t like it when students were late, either, but she didn’t hold it against them like she held laziness against slackers. “Why on Earth would she think you’re a freak?”
“She scolded me for being late, so I explained it by saying that I would have been a lot later if I didn’t have such a gorgeous escort help me find the classroom.”
I abruptly sat up and looked at Brendan square in the eye. “No way! Were you joking?” This was fantastic and craptastic all at once.
“I made it sound that way…Annika, I don’t mean to be presumptuous, but would you believe me if I told you I was being honest?”
Wow. I just met Brendan this morning, yet he’s already seen something gorgeous about me? Usually, people just label me a ‘goody-two-shoes’, which I am not. Granted, I sensed something different about Brendan from the moment I first saw him board bus 1111. “It depends,” I continued, “on whether or not you can tell me what exactly you think is gorgeous about me.”
“Your kindness. Your willingness to help me. Annika, this is the first time I’ve moved to a new town and someone helped me find my way. Usually, people are afraid of me because of the first thing they see.” He pointed to a small yet prominent circular scar on his neck. It had to be a bullet wound. How on Earth did I manage to overlook it? How he survived it without being paralyzed was beyond me. I wanted to ask what happened, but I couldn’t make a sound come out of my mouth.
“We don’t have to talk about it now,” said Brendan. “Just come join me for lunch in the student union.”
At first I followed him unconsciously, but then I realized that he probably didn’t know where the student union was. “Do you know where you’re going?” I asked him.
“I know exactly where I’m going,” he assured me.
We ended up sitting on the bench in the south garden of the student union. “Do you want to go inside and get lunch first?”
“No,” he replied. “I got out of class half an hour ago.” Brendan proceeded to take a styrofoam Chinese bento box out of his messenger bag. “Lunch is already here.”
“You’re being awfully nice to someone you just met three hours ago.”
“You started it.”
He was right; I did start it. At that time, though, I had no idea just how much I had started.
Before I left school that day, I visited Mom at her on-campus cottage, where she has lived ever since Dad died. I didn’t bother to knock; I just typed in the lock code and walked inside.
“How on Earth did you wind up with that Brendan guy?” Mom asked me, skipping hello and small talk.
“He took the last seat on the bus, which was next to me, and asked me to show him the bus stop here,” I replied matter-of-factly.
“Ah. Well, Annika, he’s awfully brash. I would like to think that he would have noticed the resemblance between us, thus using better judgment in speaking.”
I burst out laughing. Mom and I don’t even look related. Mom is a head shorter than me with blonde hair, blue eyes, a natural tan, and a tiny figure. I look like a giant next to her with my broad shoulders, and my curly red hair, shamrock-green eyes, and ivory skin that reveal my Irish bloodline.
“Okay, I give up, Annika. You look just like your dad. Anyway, I hope that Brendan is as smart with ladies as he is with calculus. I’m tired of academic geniuses turning out to be boorish bastards.”
This is Mom’s typical spill whenever a guy pursues me. Most of the interested guys don’t stand a chance with me, but Mom has to be a mother no matter what happens.
When Dad died, Mom couldn’t stand to be inside our house. Every picture on the wall, every tool or trinket left on the table, all of the ragged jeans and old T-shirts left in the closet brought back memories that could never be continued. On the day Mom announced that she was moving on campus, leaving me alone with our century-old three-story Georgian manor, Mom apologized for giving up.
“No, Mom, you’re picking up and starting again by moving. Everything here breaks your heart,” I said to her as she picked up the last suitcase of her belongings. She smiled before walking out the door of our-my-Georgian manor for the very last time.
Brendan and I sat together in the south garden again the next day. He brought fried chicken-a Georgian staple-for lunch that day.
“Annika, would you mind telling me where you live?” Brendan asked me.
“Not too far from you. I live on Robert E. Lee Avenue, just three miles from the Plantation stop.”
“If Dr. Maevy will approve, I’d really like to come visit you this weekend. I’ll make up for my big mouth if I can.”
I smiled. “You don’t need my mother’s approval to come visit me. I don’t live with her. I talked to her yesterday, though, and I think you’ll be just fine with her.”
“Okay, well, can I still come visit you on Saturday?”
“Sure, but this time I’ll be in charge of the food.”
Brendan showed up right on time that Saturday, just as I was taking the sweet potato pie out of the oven.
“What smells so good in here?” he asked me.
I led him into the kitchen. “It’s sweet potato pie, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans-a traditional Georgian dinner.”
“I thought you were Irish, Annika.”
“That’s what we’re gonna have after dinner. Irish crème coffee.” I showed Brendan Mom’s old Cuisinart coffee machine, where Irish crème coffee was brewing slowly.
I started to pick up the plates to serve dinner, but Brendan stopped me. “Hold on, Annika. Before you serve me dinner, I want to thank you first.” He took my hand and raised it to his lips. “Thank you, Annika.” Then he kissed my hand ever so gently.
“My pleasure,” was all I could manage to say because with that simple, chaste kiss I lit up inside.
“Annika, are you okay?” he asked me after a long moment of stupefaction.
“Yes, Brendan, I’m all right. Let’s eat now.”
I served him Georgia-size portions of each dish, wondering if he’d eat it all then ask for more. Instead he gaped at it and exclaimed, “I don’t think that I have ever seen this much food on one plate.”
“That’s a regular-size meal here in Georgia. I’d like to see you eat it all.”
“Believe me, Annika, I will.”
He did, then he asked for more.
“I reckon it’s Irish crème coffee time,” I said once Brendan finished the last of his sweet potato pie.
“I’ll need it. Meals this big make me sleepy.”
“Then we’ll sit out on the porch while we drink our coffee. The perfect weather will wake you up too.”
I poured us both a cup of coffee then showed Brendan outside to the porch. He leaned over the balcony rail and took in the view.
“They’re all roses,” I explained. “Cherokee roses, red roses, pink roses, peach roses, every color of roses you can imagine. My mother and I planted them eight years ago, promising Dad that he would see them in bloom when he returned from Iraq the following year.”
Iraq. Iraq brought back memories that Brendan wished to forget but never could. “What did your dad say about them when he came home?”
“He never saw them.”
“Annika, I’m sorry to ruin the happy mood like that. Come here.”
I stood at his side and leaned over the balcony rail. Brendan wrapped his arm around me. “They’re all beautiful. Just don’t forget, Annika, that you’re the reason that they bloom here.”
No one else had ever before told me something like that, something so obvious yet so profound. I didn’t know what to think. All I could do was ask him, “What are you trying to convey?”
“I’m trying to convey that you’re as beautiful and alive as your roses are.”
I had felt dead for so long, until Brendan looked at me in the eyes after telling me otherwise. He had known me for only a few days, yet he was serious.
“Annika, what are those white flowers growing along the edge of your driveway? They don’t look like roses.”
“They are roses-Cherokee roses, Georgia’s state flower. Not your typical roses, huh?”
“That’s what draws me to you, Annika. You’re the Cherokee rose among the Valentine bouquets. But you probably knew that already.”
I didn’t know until he said it. No one had ever complimented me that way before. I couldn’t say anything in return; all I could do was smile back.
“God, I love your smile. No lady has ever smiled at me so truly.”
“How else can I smile but truly?” I got the feeling that I would be smiling for a good while.
Dr. Maevy had no idea who would be knocking on her door this late. She thought about ignoring whoever it was in favor of continuing to grade quizzes, then she killed the thought.
“Brendan? What brings you out here so late?”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Maevy. I just wanted to apologize to you for my brash remarks in class on the first day. I didn’t know that Annika was your daughter until I met her for lunch after class.”
“It’s all right. Come inside.”
Brendan scraped the bottom of his shoes on the doormat before entering and taking a seat at the dining table.
“I was actually thinking about it today,” Dr. Maevy continued. “You reminded me of Colonel Maevy. He was always straightforward about everything.”
“I wish I could have met him.”
“Then I suppose that Annika told you that he died in Iraq.”
“She did. I came here straight from her house. She made a traditional Georgian dinner for me.”
“Really? She didn’t tell me that she planned to do that. Nothing says ‘welcome to Georgia’ like fried chicken and sweet potato pie. I bet it was an extraordinary welcome, seeing as how it came from Annika’s kitchen.”
“It was. Annika is herself extraordinary. I really mean that.”
“I didn’t doubt it in the first place.”
Brendan stood up and began making his way to the door. “Thanks for hearing me out.”
“You’re welcome. And I want to keep hearing good things from you.”
As Brendan crossed the campus and headed toward the bus stop, he couldn’t stop thinking about Colonel Maevy and how he had reminded Dr. Maevy of him. It must have been a mistake. Colonel Maevy had died on the other side of the world in defense of his country. It made Brendan feel as tiny as the ants in the green Georgia grass. He ran his hand along the circular scar for the umpteenth time. Larsen. What a shame. He’d live with that mark of dishonor for the rest of his life, and that was longer than he could hide it from Annika.
“Brendan showed up at my house late Saturday night,” Mom said as we left for the Pi Room early on Monday morning. “He apologized for what he said to me on the first day of class. Did he tell you what he said?”
“Yeah, he seemed pretty humiliated when I told him later that day that you’re my mom. Does he still need to be embarrassed?”
“No. Annika, I think Brendan really does like you, but I sense that there’s something weighing on him-something that cuts really deep.”
“What makes you think that?”
“In all my years of teaching, this is the first time any student has gone out of their way to make an apology. Believe me when I tell you that Brendan’s statement is hardly worth apologizing for in comparison to some of the other offenses that have occurred in my classroom.”
“Maybe he’s making up for something, but what it is I can’t begin to fathom.” I didn’t mention that it might have had something to do with the scar on his neck. Had Brendan fought in the war himself? Or worse, had Mom seen the scar?
“Annika, you’ve always been keen to other people’s feelings. Perhaps you could be the one to lift the weight off his shoulders.”
I wanted Brendan to be free from whatever was holding him down. I wanted him to be happy. His life needed a change for the better, yet I had no idea at the time how much I would be changed.
Brendan still had a dad, just not a clue where he was. The war in Iraq had robbed so much from so many people. Brendan’s dad was no hope for an end to the death, the stealing of human life from Americans, the British, and Iraqis alike. Because of that, part of Brendan had no desire to know where his dad was.
“Hey Brendan, what’s on your mind?”
Brendan flinched just like Annika had when he interrupted her thoughts last week. What had she been thinking about? He hoped that his interruption was as welcome as hers was now.
“Just…nothing much. I was thinking because no one was here to talk to until now.”
Annika decided not to probe further into his mind that time. “I brought Greek food for lunch today.” She sat down next to him on what had become their bench in the south garden.
Brendan opened the styrofoam box. Inside were grape leaves, tzatziki dip, and fresh pita bread. “My mom would be jealous. Greek food is her favorite.”
“Does your mom live here?”
“No, she works for a fashion designer in New York City. I moved here for school.”
“I’ve never been to New York City. The biggest city I’ve ever visited is Atlanta.”
“Well, New York City is bigger and crazier than Atlanta. You seem to like the serenity here.”
Serenity was what kept Annika in rural Georgia. Serenity had been a blessing ever since her dad died. But when she met Brendan, being lit up inside felt amazing for the first time in seven years. “I’ve lived here my whole life. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live in a big city.”
“I’ve lived in my share of big cities. My mother is from London. We’ve been in America for only seven years.”
“Do you like the big cities?”
“Not really. I love quiet at night. In London and New York City, we could hear people and animals all night no matter how tightly-sealed our windows were.”
But in Baghdad, Brendan heard gunshots, militants declaring Allah’s name as women and children screamed, but most of all the final cries of soldiers that sent tears back home to people like Annika and Dr. Maevy.
“I like the quiet too. But I wish that I could still hear my dad snoring across the hall in the middle of the night.”
Brendan moved closer to Annika and embraced her. “If I could give your dad back to you, I would.”
For the rest of that day, I could still feel Brendan’s arm around me even after we had to go back to class. Brendan knew what was missing in my life; if only I could figure out what was missing in his life. I hoped that it was something I could give to him.
When we met at the bus stop after class, there was a swarm of people already there. “You think we’ll fit?”
“We’ll fit one way or another,” Brendan assured. “The next bus won’t be for another hour.”
Since we were the last ones there, we were the last to board the bus. Whoever said being last is always the best was never left with one seat and no standing rail.
“Sorry, but one of you is going to have to wait for the next bus,” the bus driver said.
“Actually, I have a better solution,” countered Brendan.
Without further explanation, Brendan took my hand and led me toward the one empty seat at the back of the bus. He sat down first. “Now you can sit down.”
So there I was, the math professor’s daughter, sitting in Brendan’s lap on the bus and being stared at by the other passengers. Give them something to talk about for all I cared, because if they were me, they would have known how perfect it was.
“Approaching Plantation Road,” the bus driver announced. The bus screeched to a halt at the intersection.
“I guess you’re home,” I said.
“Yes, and I want you to come with me today. If you want to, that is.”
Of course I wanted to! Brendan had already been to my house. I was curious to see where he lived, but in reality I just wanted to spend more time with him. So I got off the bus with Brendan, leaving the other passengers with something to talk about.
Plantation Road boasted no plantations-at least not anymore. The plantations had long since been abandoned, neglected, and demolished, and replaced with humble little cottages and apartments.
“I don’t have a Georgian manor,” Brendan said. “But I hope you like the place anyway.”
“I think I will. Wherever you live, it’s your own place.”
Brendan led me up the stairs of an old wood-frame apartment building and into the very back unit. The Union Jack hung on the wall above an old blue sofa, and a half round table stood against the opposite wall. I liked the simplicity of the place, so unassuming and so welcoming. “I am just plain British, Annika. I live in a tiny apartment, I fly the Union Jack, I drink tea every day, and my cooking is awful.”
“Well, maybe I like just plain British.” If Brendan was just plain British, the fancy British must have been extravagant. Too extravagant.
Brendan took my hand and kissed it just like he did when he came over to my house. “My Cherokee rose, I have no maybes about you.” Then he took his glasses off and leaned in and kissed me in a way that made every kiss in the past fade into oblivion. I wanted him like I had wanted nothing else in the world.
Brendan drew me in so close to him that I could feel his heart racing mine. I couldn’t resist the temptation to slip my hand up his shirt so that his heartbeat could send pulses right through my nerves. He responded by pulling his shirt off, revealing another scar that ran from his right shoulder all the way down to his waist. “You’re going to ask how I got it now, I presume.”
“No. Now is not the time for questions. All I want right now is you.”
Brendan lifted me off my feet this time. “Stay here with me tonight,” he said before he carried me into his room and ever so gently on his bed.
I don’t think I could have said no to that the very moment I walked into Brendan’s apartment.
As Brendan unzipped my Georgia Bulldogs hoodie, I remembered that today I had given in to the bad Southern girl habit of using an intended jacket as a shirt. I helped him with the sleeves. “Do you want to keep going?” Brendan whispered in my ear.
“We’ve only gotten started,” I said. Some goody-two-shoes I was. But I wanted Brendan, and no one outside the walls of his apartment could tell me that I couldn’t have him. “The real question is if you want to keep going.”
And I received an answer I will never forget.
Brendan awoke to first light with Annika still in his arms. He didn’t move because he didn’t want to wake her up this early.
Annika had been the first light in Brendan’s life since that horrible night seven years ago. The first light of morning streamed through the window and scattered gold sparkles in Annika’s red hair. She was beautiful and perfect, his Cherokee rose, he thought.
Well, it was only seven o’clock in the morning. Brendan’s alarm wouldn’t sound for another hour. The bus showed up at nine-forty-five, and math class began at ten-fifteen. Until then, he could keep holding Annika. For once heaven had replaced hell on Earth.
At eight o’clock sharp, Brendan’s alarm resounded with the local rock station. As much as I didn’t want to get out of bed that morning, Brendan’s class with my mom didn’t leave much of a choice. So I turned the alarm off and rolled on top of Brendan. He opened his eyes ever so slightly.
“I know you don’t want to get up now,” I said. “Neither do I.”
“Then let’s stay here and take the day off,” Brendan groggily retorted.
“Try explaining that one to my mom. Now get up so I can make breakfast for us.”
“All I have is one roll of Jimmy Dean’s and two eggs.”
“I’ll make do with that.” I took Brendan’s wrist and pulled him toward the edge of the bed.
“Okay, I’m up now,” insisted Brendan.
Before I could make breakfast, I had to find my jeans and my Georgia Bulldogs hoodie. Last night, I wasn’t too worried about where they had ended up. Brendan’s T-shirt was still on the kitchen table.
What a night! I hadn’t had so much fun in ages. But for once in my life, it felt like more than fun. Being with Brendan felt so right and perfect, not only in one another’s arms, but also every other way of being in his presence.
Less than two hours later, we were waiting at the bus stop. It was just the two of us there at the Plantation stop. Brendan traced the bold black G on my hoodie.
“Tell me, what are the Georgia Bulldogs?” Brendan asked me.
“They’re our state college football team.”
“Do they play my football or your football?”
“I could go on for hours telling you about football. How about you meet me at the high school field a block farther from the college, and I’ll show you?”
Brendan didn’t say anything at first; he just smiled.
“Are you coming with me, or what?”
“You teach me something new every day, Annika. I always want to learn from you.”
What a compliment! All I could do was ask him, “What are you trying to convey?”
“I’m trying to convey that I love you, my Cherokee rose.”
Before I had the chance to say it to him, the bus came to a screeching halt at the intersection.
When Brendan made it to the high school field, Annika was already there kicking field goals. He stood still for a minute and simply watched her. Most of the British thought of American football as an artless waste of TV time, but then again, they had never seen Annika kick a field goal.
Brendan pictured Annika in a jersey, shoulder pads, cleats, and a helmet. As rough as she would look, she was still his Cherokee rose. He wanted to be the one to revive every petal that Iraq had withered.
As Annika went to pick up the footballs she’d scattered behind the goal post, Brendan approached the field.
“It took you a while to get here. Did you get lost on the way?” she asked him.
“No, I just took the liberty of spending the last few minutes watching you turn field goals into a work of art.”
He half-expected her to blush, but he should have known better. “I’m going to make you watch this touchdown if you don’t tackle me!” she called as she began to tear across the field with one of the footballs.
Tackle her? Annika was hardly half his size. He decided that he would chase her down the field without jumping on top of her. “Don’t let me win!” she taunted him.
As if it were possible to not let her win. She’d already won his heart, and that was the ultimate touchdown. So he watched her slide into the end zone before he sat down next to her. “I wanted to watch you score a touchdown.”
“My dad would be proud. This is the very field where he played football in high school.”
“I would have loved to have had a dad who did things like teach me how to play football. I guess it just wasn’t part of the plan for me.”
“You know, you’ve never told me anything about your dad.”
Brendan shivered at the thought of telling Annika about his dad. What he had witnessed him do in Iraq was no story for his Cherokee rose. “I’m not proud of my dad like you’re proud of yours.”
“Why? What is it about him that’s such a shame?”
“Everything about him is a shame. He left me and my mother when I was two years old.”
“When I was two years old, my dad was in Iraq for the first time, fighting in Desert Storm.”
Iraq. They had both lost so much in that one country. Brendan changed his mind about telling her about his own losses in Iraq. “My dad also left for Desert Storm when I was two. But he wasn’t like your dad. My dad is from Iraq. My mother met him there in the eighties, when she was running an orphanage in Baghdad. They were married, moved back to London together, and then they had me. So, you see, I was raised just plain British, but I’m really…”
“Not just plain British. You never had me fooled.”
“I hope you don’t hate me for being half the person your dad was supposed to get rid of.”
“No. It’s just a nationality. We can’t fit the whole world inside America. So did you ever see your dad again?”
“I did once, seven years ago. He called my mom one day, and he must have threatened her to make her agree to send me on a flight to Baghdad. Even though I had never seen him as far back as I could remember, I knew who he was as soon as I looked at him. I inherited his eyes.”
Annika took the liberty of gazing through Brendan’s glasses and into his deep chocolate-brown eyes. Iraqi eyes. But they didn’t scare her.
“His eyes terrified me,” Brendan continued. “They were a bottomless void of darkness in him. But he pretended that nothing was wrong and that he cared about me. So I played along when he suggested that we go eat somewhere or visit a friend of his. It was the third night I was there when he showed his true colors.”
“What did he do to you?”
“It wasn’t so much what he did to me; it was what I saw him do. It was late that night when he suggested that we go to the café down the street for falafels. As we were walking down the road, a soldier stepped out of an alley and aimed his gun at my dad. As I tried to hide behind my dad, the soldier fired a shot, but instead of the bullet hitting my dad, it grazed me across my neck.”
Annika traced the circular scar on Brendan’s neck. One of her dad’s people was responsible for it.
“The soldier was horrified that he’d shot a child. But as he went to try and help me, my dad took out his knife and stabbed the soldier to death. The last words the soldier said were, ‘Go far away from here so you don’t get hurt again.’ But no sooner did I start running away that the American soldiers spill out of every alley and into the street. A few of them came for me and carried me back to their camp until they could find someone to fly me back to London. I never found out what they did with my dad.”
“Do you want to know?”
“No. I couldn’t stand to see him again even if I did find him. My other scar came from a soldier who beat me after all of the others went to bed that night-or so he thought. Another soldier came out of his tent and took me back inside. He slept on the sand that night so that I could have the cushion. Ironically, the only night I ever knew what a good dad could be like was the hopeful ending to the worst night of my life.”
Annika leaned on Brendan’s shoulder. “I wish you could have met my dad. He was the best dad ever.” She fished into her pocket, pulled out her Atlanta Falcons wallet, and flipped to the little photo album. “That’s him, Colonel Larsen Maevy.”
Larsen. Surely there had to have been another Larsen, but when he saw the photo of the man in the green combat suit, Brendan knew there was only one. Suddenly the big world Brendan had traveled felt like an anthill on Jupiter.
“Are you okay, Brendan?” she asked him.
“No, I’m not.” He handed the wallet back to her. “Your dad was the man I watched my dad kill. I’m sorry I couldn’t save him for you…if only I had known. But no matter what, I can’t let you hurt anymore, Annika.” Unable to withstand it for another moment, Brendan took off running back toward the road, ashamed that all along he had been the one who had withered the petals of his Cherokee rose.
I couldn’t believe it at the time. It was mere coincidence that our dads had crossed paths in such a way, but what really blew my mind is that until then, seven years after the fact, my dad gave his life to help a child. If only Dad had known just who it was that he intended to help. He would have done it a thousand times over.
But before I could marvel at this final gift Dad had given me, I had to find Brendan first. So I called my mom. She had to know everything. As I told her the story, she didn’t say a word, but I could tell that it was moving mountains inside her heart too.
“And the strangest thing, Mom, is that I don’t blame him for anything.”
“I don’t either. But I told you that there was something weighing on him, and you took the weight off his shoulders for him.”
“I don’t think so, Mom. He wouldn’t have run away if he didn’t still feel guilty.”
“You’re right. But when you find him, and you will, you can relieve him of his guilt.”
“How can I-”
“Hold on, Annika, someone just slipped a note through my door.”
I can hear my mom frantically rustling the paper, then silence as she reads it.
“Go home, Annika. I have to leave now. It’s urgent.”
“Why, Mom? What’s going on?”
“Don’t worry about it. Just go home. I’ll be there in a little while.”
Then she hung up.
By the time Dr. Maevy had her car keys in hand and had gone outside, Brendan was nowhere in sight. But she knew where he was going. If she could do one thing to fill the void in Annika’s heart, Brendan was not going to reach his intended destination, wherever that may have been.
So when Dr. Maevy arrived at the airport, she weaved through the tourists in the lobby and kicked suitcases aside until she reached the nearest ticket agent. “Have you seen a tall young man with glasses here?”
“What’s his name?” the ticket agent asked.
The ticket agent summoned Brendan over the loudspeaker. Moments later, Dr. Maevy spotted him climbing down the stairs from the upper terminal. Dr. Maevy shoved more tourists out of the way to meet Brendan at the foot of the stairs.
“Dr. Maevy, what are you doing here?” Brendan asked.
“You know what I’m doing here.”
Brendan began to take off up the stairs again, but Dr. Maevy grabbed him by the wrist. “You’re not flying anywhere unless Annika’s up there waiting for you.”
“She’s not up there. I can explain why I’m leaving so that you’ll understand why I have to go.”
“Annika told me the whole story. And if you leave, it will break her heart even more.”
“Dr. Maevy, I let Annika’s dad-your husband-die in Iraq. I can’t bring him back to you.”
“There was nothing you could have done about what happened seven years ago, but there is something you can do now.”
“What would that be?”
“Love my daughter.”
“I already love Annika.”
“Then come with me. I’ll take you to her house. She doesn’t know that I abruptly hung up and drove off because of your note.” And what a surprise it would be.
I had been home for less than an hour when I heard the knock on my door. I still hadn’t a clue what made Mom drop everything and leave in a few seconds’ time. So I was more than ready to hear the details…
…Except that it wasn’t Mom at the door. It was Brendan! I opened the door, and before I let him say anything, I embraced him as though it had been years since I’d seen him. “I love you,” I finally told him.
Brendan jolted and stepped back. “You love me? After everything I’ve taken from you, you don’t blame me?”
“If I spent my life blaming you, I would never truly live. That’s not how to treat the final gift my dad gave me. So, to answer your question, yes, I love you.”
“And I love you, Annika, my Cherokee rose.”
Then Brendan lifted me up and kissed me passionately. When he released his lips from mine, I blew a kiss to Heaven and said, “Thanks, Dad,” before Brendan and I went inside my-our-Georgian manor.
"Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not."-Jeremiah 33:3, King James Version
"Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path."-Psalm 119:105, New Living Translation
The present and future are not about who you were in the past-rather, they are about who you are and who you will become.
"Writing is truly glorious in that an author can put on paper the words that fear denies the voice to speak."-from my short story, "Set Free"
"...What you feel is what you are;
What you are is beautiful..."
-from "Slide" by the Goo Goo Dolls
Life surprises you! And I'm talking about the good stuff, because a bad surprise is not a surprise at all, it is just shock and horror. All of these good surprises, they are rewards, and the things that happen to remind you that you matter and that you should make yourself faithful so that you can be deserving of all of life's good surprises. Every wonderful surprise in life is a chance to flourish, so grab life by the horns-but don't ride, steer instead: life's horns are life's joystick. You can handle it, because your life's horns are made especially for you. If you don't give up, all of this will hold true and life will continue to surprise you.
Aubri, a. k. a. "Leopard Lady"