Mike Higgins flipped the channels on the remote with no intention of finding something to watch. He was trying to keep himself occupied so that he wouldn’t open the bottle of whiskey that sat on the coffee table next to the extra batteries for the remote. In his other hand he held a framed picture of his son. It was the last picture that was taken of him in Afghanistan. He has on all his combat gear and is waving to the person taking the picture.
As he held the frame he pressed his thumb onto the plexiglass over his son’s chest. He pressed so hard that he can feel his pulse over his son’s heart that stopped beating when an IED exploded next to his vehicle and killed him. He was twenty years old, just a few weeks short of his twenty-first birthday. What little reason Mike had left to keep breathing hung tenuously close to departing and with this desperate routine he had adopted, he left no room for anything else bad to happen.
When the Army Major came to his door a few weeks earlier to tell him about Mike Jr’s death, the news ran through him like an electric shock. The pain of losing his wife to cancer four years ago had shaken him but the suddenness of this tragedy ripped through him, leaving his nerves in shreds.
For a short period following the knock on his door and the news of Mike Jr’s death, he was never alone. There was always family, a neighbor or a friend, dropping by to bring food or just to say hello.
Mike had noticed this when Cathy had died, how the hard part of losing someone so dear was not when they died or even the funeral. He was so busy with all the planning and all the people coming to see him that he barely had time to do anything else. He knew it was designed that way, but he also knew that all the activity would end at some point.
It was after everyone went back to their lives and he was left all with his grief, that the weight of his loss pressed down on him, leaving it difficult to breathe. That is why he turned to drinking to dull the pain of his loss, only to be rescued by his son when the booze was on the verge of destroying him. But there is no one to rescue me now, he thought, as he stared at the whiskey bottle on the table.
The first night Mike found himself on the couch, holding the framed picture, and didn’t realize he was pressing so hard until he felt his pulse. As the first beat radiated from his thumb up his arm, the glass cracked, cutting him. The sight of blood on the picture sent him into convulsions of action, out to the garage to cut the unbreakable piece of plexiglass that was now in the frame.
Time passed, unnoticed and unfelt.
Until there was another knock.
There’s no one left to die, Mike thought as he took that long walk to the door.
He saw through the glass that it was a young man dressed in fatigues, causing Mike a momentary bolt of hope that Mike Jr. was alive. He hoped at that moment that the Army had made a mistake. The casket had been closed because of the injuries sustained from the IED. The Major had told Mike that it was strongly recommended that he not view “the remains”. He agreed, as if to only keep that slightest sliver of doubt alive.
“Good evening sir, sorry to disturb you, I’m here to see Mike Higgins, Sr.”
“I’m Mike Higgins,” he said as he regained as much composure as he could manage.
“Sorry again sir, my name is Sergeant Pete Henninger, I was in Afghanistan with Mikey. I’m on my way home on leave and I wanted to stop here to see you. I wanted to see you and tell you how sorry I am about Mikey,” he struggled as if he had forgotten what he had rehearsed to say.
“Please, please come in,” Mike said, clearing his throat. “I am sorry about the mess I haven’t felt much like cleaning lately.”
“I understand sir, losing Mikey must have been hard, I know it was tough on the unit because we all thought so much of him.”
“Thank you, please sit down here,” Mike said pointing to the couch. Sgt. Henninger sat down while Mike pulled up a chair from the dining room.
“That’s a great picture of Mikey. I actually took that one.” Mike looked at the framed picture longing for the feeling of his pulse on his son’s chest.
“Can I get you something to drink, Sergeant?”
“No, thank you sir, I have to be honest about my visit, I came for a reason. Mikey received a letter, it came to the unit after he was killed. I saw who it was from and I broke regulations by not allowing it to be returned to the sender. I wanted to give it to you,” he said, handing the envelope to Mike.
Mike couldn’t think of an answer to what he was just told and he did not know if he could handle what might be in the letter. Sgt. Henninger could see him struggling.
“You see sir, I saw the return address and I knew it was from a girl that Mikey started seeing right before we were deployed. I knew she broke it off before we left. Mikey told me that she couldn’t handle a long distance thing, especially with the chance that he might not come back. I broke another regulation by opening the letter.”
He paused and looked Mike straight in the eye with the seriousness of a man that had seen more at such a young age than anyone should. “Sir, I knew you would want to see what was inside.”
Mike fingered the envelope and felt the stiffness of what was most likely a picture. He opened it up and there was a letter with a picture of a young woman holding a baby.
“A baby,” was all Mike could think to say.
“Yessir, the Army is going to do a DNA test for survivor benefits to make it official. I talked to her as soon as I saw the letter and she says the baby is Mikey’s. The date of our deployment and the date the boy was born, it all fits.”
“A boy? I have a grandson?” Mike let the thought flow through him. “And you’re pretty sure Mikey didn’t know about any of this?”
“Yessir, he would have told me about it. It’s tough getting deployed and leaving a girlfriend or a wife behind. We all saw that plenty of times since this was our third deployment. She told me she waited until the baby was born because she didn’t want Mikey to worry about her while he was fighting. After he was born she knew she had to tell him but the letter didn’t get there in time.”
“So she is still at Fort Riley?” Mike said looking at the return address.
Mike looked at the envelope again, “Gwen Anderson?”
“Yessir, I met her a couple times. She wasn’t the typical girl that would date a soldier. She lived over in Manhattan and worked at Kansas State.”
“So what else did she say when you talked to her?”
“I told her I had her letter and that Mikey never got it. She was pretty torn up. I told her I was coming to see you and that I was going to tell you about her and the baby. She didn’t want me to at first, but then she emailed a few days later and was happy that I was making this trip. She wants you to call her. Here is her number,” he said, handing Mike a slip of paper.
“I don’t know how I will ever thank you, Sergeant…”
“Pete, sir.”
“Pete, you don’t know what this means to me.”
“Sir, just do me a favor, do whatever you can to take care of that boy. Make sure he knows what a hero his father was. Make sure he never forgets that.”
Mike tried to answer but his tears overwhelmed him. Pete put his hand on Mike’s shoulder and held onto him until he was sure he was okay.
The next day Mike called the number and waited until she answered.
“Hello, it’s Mike Higgins, Sr. Are you Gwen?”
She didn’t answer, but he knew it was her because she was crying.
A week later he finished the long drive across half the country and pulled into an apartment complex in Kansas. He held his grandson in one arm and lightly held his hand on the baby’s chest and felt his soothing, beating heart.