This story is by Larry M. Keeton and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Colonel Theodore Byrne gulped, fighting back tears. Flanking his dying father, his mother and sister each held a graying hand. The man’s eyes fluttered opened. A small spark of light in their dimness zeroed on him.
“Make it right,” his father’s hoarse whisper said as his right hand struggled to point to the mahogany dresser.
Byrne focused on a manila envelope as death’s final rattle filled the room.
Amid silent sobs, the Colonel stood there, confused, alone, out-of-place. Death wasn’t new. On the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq soldiers and civilians had been consumed like hungry teenagers eating potato chips. Most of those deaths weren’t personal. The few that were, his demeanor required stoicism, confidence, honor toward the fallen. Personal grief was reserved for the darkness of his room.
Though a lone wintergreen candle burned, its scent failed to mask death’s odor. He needed to escape. As he slipped passed his sister, he picked up the envelope, noting its hefty weight.
Stepping into his father’s den, three wall paintings loomed down at him. Civil War Generals Grant, Lee, and Longstreet sat in dimly lit tents, alone. Like them, he had experienced the loneliness of command throughout his twenty-six years of Army service.
A bottle of single malt Irish Whiskey towered above four tumblers on a credenza. He poured one and settled into a leather chair opposite the dark cherry wood desk. Nursing the drink, his father’s last directive burned. Tenderness hadn’t been anticipated, but neither was a mission order. Make it right. Make what right? He opened the envelope, extracted the contents. Two sheets of paper and the Congressional Medal of Honor fell out. He thumbed the ridge lines of the gold star surrounding Minerva’s head. Setting it aside, he read his father’s final letter.
The first reading produced shock. The second a need for another drink. The third anger. Unbeknownst to them, the family had lived under a lie’s shadow. A lie that gave them prestige and prominence. A lie that got him into West Point. A lie that demanded more from him than his peers. A lie that cost him a marriage.
“What’s wrong?” his sister Beverly said as she half-filled a tumbler.
He handed her the letter, downed his drink, poured another.
Sitting, she read. Her face paled. Looking at him, she said, “Public knowledge of this will kill Mom.”
Seething he said, “What am I to do? I can’t violate my ethical code.”
“And you can’t ruin our family name,” his sister shot back.
He looked up. The doorway framed his mother. “Colonel,” she said, her voice strong. “Obey your father’s marching orders.”
Blackish-gray snow clouds cast a dark shadow over the grave. With a gloved hand, Byrne brushed away a layer of ice crystals revealing a standard government grave marker. Private Jedediah Jenkins, US Army, February 14, 1948 – April 1st, 1968, Vietnam. From behind he heard humming and crunching snow. He stood and turned. A man in a motorized wheelchair proceeded toward him. “Mr. Pike?”
“Any problems finding it?” the black man said.
“Odd location for a veteran.”
“Segregation.” Despite the wheelchair, Pike’s build was stocky, muscular. The heavy Army green issued wool overcoat he wore was older than Byrne’s own 48 years. Pike extended his hand. “Right glad to meet you, Colonel.”
Byrne shook it. The strong grip let him know that Pike still could handle himself. “Mr. Pike, I’m here…”
Pike raised his bare hand, palm out. “Your ol’ man didn’t feel he deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor. That the man buried here is the rightful recipient, or at least his family.”
Byrne grimaced. Hearing the words spoken aloud seemed more deceitful than when he read them. “You know then?”
“Your father was a decent, honorable man.”
Byrne chortled. “Honorable men don’t hide behind a lie, don’t disgrace their family name, don’t tell their son to ‘make it right.’ What about Jenkins? From Dad’s letter, it sounds like he died an honorable death.”
“Bullshit,” Pike said. “Come on. Let’s get a drink.” He whirled around and headed down the pathway.
A few minutes later they were settled in plush Captain’s chairs inside a Ford van. Pike handed over a coffee laced with brandy which warmed the throat. “Your ol’ man did this. VA hassled me on my claim. Told ’em to go fuck themselves. A week later the chair arrived. Two weeks later, this van. He even set up a monthly annuity for me. Didn’t have to, but he always took care of his troops.”
“Not Jenkins,” Byrne shot back.
Pike rubbed the back of his neck. “We were sittin’ tight, surrounded by Viet Cong, undiscovered. Then Jenkins jumps up, grabs the M-60 and races into the jungle, blastin’ away. Your dad chased him. The only thing that has more fury than Hell is a battalion of Viet Cong descending on you like a volcanic explosion. We survived, Cong retreated. I found Jenkins dead and your ol’ man with a gut shot. Cong bodies everywhere. I had a problem.”
Byrne stroked his chin as he listened.
“See, Jenkins and I’d just returned from R&R in Australia. The night before we left, we got loaded, met a girl. One thing led to another. Alcohol puts me to sleep. When I woke, Jenkins had passed out on top of the girl. Terror filled her eyes. Dead, bleedin’ from her private parts. I hustled him up, and we hightailed it back to camp. We shipped out that afternoon.” Pike closed his eyes and pressed hard against the eyelids. “Her blue eyes haunt me every night.”
“You didn’t report it to the authorities?”
“Get life for something I didn’t do? Or tell no one, live with the guilt. Some days, I believe I made the wrong choice. Then I see my grandkids and what they’ve become. I think otherwise.
“But, Jenkins must have figure it would only be a matter of time. Guess he preferred suicide by Cong than a hanging. Anyway, to cover my ass, I put the M-60 into your father’s hands. No one expected the hoopla that followed much less the Congressional Medal of Honor. In those days, the Army needed a hero. I guess I made them one.”
“What about the other unit members?” Byrne asked.
“They saw your Dad surrounded by enemy dead. He took care of us. So, we paid him back.”
“But, Dad found out?”
“He was never certain until years later. Tracks me down, gets me drunk, I confess.” He wiped a tear from his eye. “I gave your Dad the dilemma. Live the lie or turn me in. Sounds like you inherited the saddle.”
“What about Jenkins’ family?”
“He had none, never had as far as anyone knew.”
Byrne finished his coffee. “And your family?”
“Don’t know a thing. Wife’s passed. Two daughters and a bunch of grandkids. Why?”
“Just wondering.” He rose, shook the man’s hand, and stepped out of the van.
The snow had begun to fall.
“Whatcha goin’ to do, Colonel?”
Good question, he thought as he pulled up the collar around his neck. The lie had an added component.
“Make it right.”
The snow plow’s slow going along the two-lane road gave Byrne time to digest Pike’s story. Per his training, establish the mission, gather intelligence, identify options, test against reasonable criteria. Pick the decision best suited for mission accomplishment. All well and good when the objective is tangible, impersonal.
This was an ethical problem. Expose the truth with its outfall of two families’ ruination, innocents paying for the sins of their father. Or, continue the deception where the only casualty would be his failure to follow his moral compass, one ingrained in him since his youth.
He pulled the medal from his pocket. He studied the Goddess Minerva’s face, the face of wisdom and strategy.
His cell phone rang, disrupting his thoughts. He punched the speaker button on the steering wheel. A moment later, he said, “Byrne.”
“Theodore,” his boss’s said through the car’s speakers. “Are you sitting down?”
“Yes, sir, driving.”
“Congratulations. Though the list isn’t released until tomorrow, couldn’t wait. You’ll make one helluva fine General Officer.”
Byrne’s heart skipped a beat. He smiled. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate the confidence and support.” Hanging up, he felt buoyant, excited. Make it right, popped into his head.
His boss giving him promotion results prior to the list’s release violated the Army policy. A small thing, no real harm done. But, how could a parent entrust the life of a son or daughter in an officer’s hands if they didn’t have honor, integrity? Vietnam’s bloody lesson rearing its ugly head.
He toyed with the medal. It signified personal courage, sacrifice, trust. Another option gelled. One he could morally accept.
Ahead, the snow plow’s flashing lights loomed larger in the car’s windshield.
“I’m making it right, Dad.” He pressed his foot to the gas pedal. “Tonight, the lie dies.”