Eloy felt somewhat good about himself for the first time since . . . he couldn’t even remember. He reached out and ran a finger the length of the saber on the kitchen table. The feel of cold steel under the pad of his fingers calmed his nerves. He hadn’t honed the blade in decades, but still he knew the edge would be sharp enough to slice a ripe tomato without tearing the skin.
The thought of giving Dylan his prized possession tempted him for a moment, then he figured a weapon in a child’s hands was never a good thing—unless during wartime. Then every armament at hand was preferable, whether it be a blade, rifle, pistol, rock. He had seen enough carnage during battle to know that even a sharp stick could bring a fatal wound if manipulated with enough force and sheer will to survive.
He wondered what had been in the pocket of Dylan’s dungarees and hoped it wasn’t a knife. The outline looked to be the size of a fold-out blade, three or four inches in length and hoped the boy hadn’t already gone down the path to feeling the need to arm himself.
“Maybe a medal instead,” Eloy said to no one.
He crossed the house and went upstairs to pull down the steps to the attic. Once inside the musty space he knelt in front of his footlocker. His hands shook as he lifted the cracked lid. He would need to touch the offensive photographs in order to find the velvet-covered case that contained his medals and ribbons that once adorned his uniform. Wishing he had thought to take the plastic dishwashing gloves from under the kitchen sink, dug through the contents until he felt what he searched for. He took out a thick stack of photos bound with a rubber band and set them aside as bile rose to his throat. He spotted the rectangular medallion case under a pea coat and tucked it in his waistband at the middle of his back.
He walked to the attic’s opening. The binding burst and photos fluttered to the floor below. His knees creaked every bit as loud as the rickety staircase as he descended the steps, then nearly slipped on the slick photos.
He knelt down to scoop up gut-wrenching images, trying not to gaze at the terrified children doing unspeakable things to the criminals who forced them to do so. Feeling a decade older, tears streamed down his face as he shuffled through the house to the kitchen. He reached for the saber on the table and exited the back door to the porch. He straightened the pictures into a tight stack and placed them face-down on the patio table.
When he first moved to Rubicon Ranch he had been thrilled by the built-in grill and the matching fire pit circled by a stone bench. At the time he figured he would spend every chilly night out there, enjoying the night air and stars as he watched the flames. But too busy keeping watch over the neighborhood from his sentry on the front porch or windows that faced the street, he had yet to light a single log, grill a single steak. He set the saber down on the stone edge and admired the fine construction before he turned to the grill.
He opened the cabinet door and took out an unopened bottle of charcoal starter and a box of long matches. Then he returned to the table, swept up the pile of photos and went to the fire pit. He placed half of the stack into the pit, doused them with fluid and didn’t hesitate as he tossed a lit match to the pyre.
Movement caught Eloy’s attention. He squinted to see beyond the wavering heat to see the silhouette of someone sit down at the table near the edge of the patio. He glanced down at the pit and hoped the boy couldn’t see the wavering, shrinking images bubble and melting in the flames.
He let out a relieved sigh that the boy had returned. “I’ve been thinking about the saber, Dylan. You’re not ready for that yet.” He reached behind him and removed the velvet case from his waistband. “But you have earned a medal. Come on over here and pick one out.”
Eloy heard metal clink against metal, then a flick, followed by the crinkle of burning tobacco. Cigarette smoke melded with the stench of burning chemicals and photographic paper.
“Dammit, put that out.” He slammed the case on the stone bench behind him. “A soldier resists temptation.”
“Old man, you’d better not be doin’ what I think you’re doin’.” The voice said. The voice Eloy hoped to never hear again.
The remaining photos trembled in Eloy’s hands.
He cursed himself for having left the lock on the side gate unclasped ever since Dylan’s first visit in case the kid needed an immediate safe haven from his father.
Eloy did his best to still his voice as he said, “Why are you here?” He sounded one hundred years old.
“Put them down,” The Boy said.
Eloy dropped the pictures to the flames.
The Boy stood so fast the chair screeched against the cement pad and clattered to the ground.
After what seemed hours but could only have been moments The Boy said, “Who is Dylan?” The words: playful, chilling, dangerous. Spoken in a tone of voice that stilled Eloy’s heart.
Eloy slid his gaze to the saber, anticipating the feel of the blade in his hand.