Eloy ran and ran. His feet pummeled the ground, arms propelling him forward, lungs heaving. He glanced over his shoulder, searching the night. Nothing but blackness, no sound but his footfalls . . . and something else. A muttering. More in his ears than floating on the air. “Why? Why? Why did you betray me?” The Boy—his boy—pleaded over and over.
He startled awake, eyes flying open, nearly toppling from the rocking chair. The saber clattered to the ground. Still bleary and terrified, he noticed someone standing on the porch, no more than five feet away.”
“Naw, man. I’m Dylan.”
Eloy squinted. This boy wore a dress shirt buttoned at the cuffs, jeans, and sneakers the size of snowshoes. His chest rose and fell almost as rapidly as Eloy’s. Face red, sideburns dripping with sweat. Dylan, Eloy recalled. He knew the name only from the father’s shouts from time to time when night fell.
“You ever used that?” Dylan asked, pointing at the weapon on the floor beside Eloy’s foot.
Eloy reached down and clasped the cool grip, replaced it on his thighs and thinned his eyes. “Maybe.”
“You’re an old guy. Probably used it in some war, right?” Eloy scowled and the kid backed down one step. “No offense about the ‘old guy’ thing.”
Eloy shrugged and reached for his tea glass dripping condensation, ice cubes long past melted.
“Whisky, huh?” Dylan said, his own scowl creasing a furrow between his eyebrows. “Just like my dad. Mostly beer, but whisky, too. All the time.”
“Actually, young man, it’s iced tea.” Eloy reached for his cane crooked to the back of his chair. “Perhaps you’d like some.” He tucked the blade under his arm and ambled to the door. “Come on in. I’ll fix you a glass.”
He went inside and looked behind him. The boy remained in the same spot, hands shoved in his pockets, head down.
“You’re probably hungry. I don’t remember a single time my sons weren’t chewing on something when they were your age.”
Still, the boy held his place on the porch. “Everyone says bad things about you. That you’ve done horrible things to kids. My dad would kill me if . . .” He looked up and down the street. No one there. Not even a car drove by.
“Lies,” Eloy said, shaking his head with regret. “All lies. Believe what you want. All I’ve got in here are creature comforts. And a tall glass of iced tea and roast beef if you’re interested.”
“And a sword.”
Eloy smiled. He couldn’t remember the last time he had displayed that simple human emotion. It felt good.
“Can you show me how to use it?”
Eloy’s grin faded away. “No, son. But I will listen if you feel the need to tell me why you think you need it.”
He limped into his front room, placed the saber on the hat rack cabinet, then went through his standard regimen: dropped the cane into the umbrella stand, straightened his back, opened and closed his fingers. He felt the boy’s presence behind him, heard Dylan’s chuckle as Eloy walked unaided down the hall to the kitchen.
“You’re bullshitting everyone.”
“A necessary evil, I’m afraid.” Eloy turned to Dylan who took one last look left and right before shutting the door.
“Please wipe your feet.”
Dylan did so, eyes locked to the saber. He ran a single finger the length of the blade.
“Bring it with you if you’d like.”
Dylan hesitated only a moment before taking up the weapon.
Eloy went to the refrigerator and began pulling out meat, lettuce, horseradish sauce and a nearly full pitcher. He crossed to the counter as Dylan’s heavy steps entered the kitchen Eloy had scrubbed spotless the night before. Ammonia and bleach stung his nostrils as he tipped the sweet tea into two tall glasses.
“How many boys do you have?”
Caught off guard by the question, Eloy sloshed a bit of tea over the rim of a glass. “A few. All dead now.” He mopped up the spill as his heart sank. Only two were in graves, but the other was dead to him. No need to tell the kid more—he looked to have his own worries.
“Sit. Food will only take a moment.”
A chair squealed against the white tile. Eloy selected four pieces of white bread from a loaf next to the stove and began to spread thick horseradish sauce. He glanced over his shoulder to see Dylan hefting the weight of the saber up and down.
“A Korean officer presented that to me when my squadron overtook his.”
“Then you killed him with it?”
“No, no.” Eloy chuckled, remembering the weary Asian man, beaten down, defeated, shoulders stooped, resignation across his face. The same posture and expression Dylan now wore. “He surrendered peaceably.”
“Why did he give it to you?”
“I was the highest ranking officer. We’ve never formally met.” He wiped his hand on a dishcloth and extended it to shake. “I’m Colonel Eloy Templeton Franklin. Retired, of course.” The shocked boy enveloped Eloy’s hand in a surprisingly strong grip.
Eloy winked and set a sandwich-topped plate in front of Dylan.
“Man, you’re full of surprises.”
Eloy reached for a bag of potato chips. His back to Dylan, he said, “I’m sure you’ve heard about Riley. Such a shame. So young.”
In the periphery of his vision he watched Dylan. The boy displayed no guilt, then again, no concern either. Lost in thought, he absently twisted a band that was fastened to his wrist. It looked to be made from a strip of leather and shoelaces blackened with a marker.
“What does your bracelet signify?”
Dylan tugged down the cuff of his dress shirt. Hiding the bracelet made Eloy want to know its meaning even more. He knew not to push the young man and cautioned himself not to make a big deal of it—or anything else. Eloy placed their tea glasses on the table, then his sandwich and sat across from Dylan.
Dylan drained half of his drink in three gulps then took two massive bites, chewed a few times, gulped down the half-chewed mass, took another bite and another until the nothing but crumbs remained. “That was good. Really good. Thanks.” He laid his hand on his forearm and rubbed it lightly. He winced, shuffled in his seat and drew his hand away.
“Show me your arm, Dylan.”
The boy held Eloy’s eyes for a long time, no doubt calculating the risk. Then he unbuttoned the left cuff and rolled it back. Red welts painted the white skin, circling the boy’s lower forearm. Eloy remembered the night when his world shifted. When The Boy gripped his father’s forearm so tight the finger impressions remained for a week. Wounds exactly like Dylan’s.
“Where’s your mother, Dylan? Should we be worried about her?”
“Naw. She’s safe. Gone.” He rolled the sleeve back down and buttoned up again, hiding the shameful marks. “Europe. Somewhere.”
“Do you want to talk about Riley?”
“No. I don’t know anything about Riley. ’Cept that she’s dead.
“I sense that you’re a smart young man, Dylan. You may play games with others.” He leaned in and continued in a low voice. “Like me. But you can be yourself when you’re here. Now that we’ve gotten to know each other a bit you’re welcome whenever you like. You can tell me anything, everything, or nothing at all while we keep each other company. I can see that you need a friend. Hell, I need one too.”
Eloy took a bite of his sandwich and watched the boy while he chewed. He dabbed his lips with a napkin and placed it back on his lap. “If I’ve learned one thing in what has turned out to be a truly sorry life, it’s that deception only brings loneliness. You can confide in me. I won’t judge you.”
Eloy pushed aside his plate so he could fold his hands on the tabletop. “But I have to caution you. I won’t stand for BS. When you speak to me it will be with respect and truth. Do you read me?”
“Yeah,” Dylan muttered.
“I can’t hear you, soldier,” Eloy belted in his commander’s voice.
Dylan snapped up straight in the chair, squared his shoulders, all but saluted. “Yes! Sir!”
“Very good. Now tell me. Who were you running from when you found your way to my porch? Who put those marks on your arm? And most importantly, who do you want to kill with my saber?”