Copyright© 2013 by Refusenik
Scott was having coffee and a pleasant conversation with Connie. She was asking about Levall, when the wayward Mendoza daughter stumbled into the kitchen. Janie's hair was frizzy, and she was wearing an old nightshirt over pajama bottoms several sizes too small.
"You're alive," her mother said.
"I don't feel like it," Janie grumbled.
Hair covered the young woman's face and she didn't look up. She moved like an automaton to the coffee machine, grabbed a mug from the cupboard and poured coffee with a trembling hand. Janie dug a spoon out of a drawer and dumped sugar into the mug. She turned, froze, and dropped the spoon with a clatter.
"What are you doing here!" she screeched.
Scott looked at Janie, "Having coffee."
"In my kitchen?" she shrieked. "Now?"
"Who do you think brought you home?" her mother asked.
"Eddie?" Janie asked, pulling the hem of the nightshirt with one hand while attempting to straighten her hair with the other.
"Your brother is in Las Vegas with your father. Luckily for you, or else we'd be finding out if you were too old to spank."
"I could spank her if you'd like," Scott said.
"Aghhhhh!" Janie yelled as she fled the kitchen.
Mrs. Mendoza saluted him with her mug. "You were going to run some errands?"
"You'll be taking her with you."
"She's not going to mope around the house with a hangover. That girl needs to learn her lesson and learn it good."
Scott knew that look. Mrs. Mendoza would not accept no for an answer. He nodded his acceptance.
She walked to the central stairs and yelled, "Janice Catherine Mendoza! Get your heinie in the shower."
"Mom!" the faint yell of protest echoed down the stairs.
"Don't 'mom' me young lady!"
A half hour later, Janie appeared in the kitchen freshly scrubbed. Despite her rough evening, he couldn't help but notice that she had grown into a lovely woman. Janie had always been more Spanish looking that the rest of the Mendoza clan, who ran to darker skin. She was wearing a pair of old ankle boots, painted on jeans, a long sleeve blue turtleneck sweater, and had her hair in a ponytail threaded through the back of his baseball cap.
She tossed a jacket at him. "That's yours I think."
"Thanks, the ball cap is mine too."
"I'm keeping the cap."
"It's my favorite," he said. The matching olive drab globe and anchor on the OD ball cap made it one of the few Marine Corps caps he liked to wear.
"Even better," Janie replied. "What errands do you have to run?"
"Since I've got an unexpected trip home," Scott said, "I'm making it up as I go. Shouldn't take more than an hour or two. You're going to need a jacket."
Janie grumbled, but went the hall closet and yanked a jacket from its hanger.
The afternoon wind whipped through Fort Stockton with winter efficiency as they walked outside. Scott shoved his hands into the jacket's pockets and took a breath of fresh, dry air. The air was good in Levall, but it wasn't anything like Pecos County.
"I thought you were driving some flashy Grand Cherokee," Janie said.
"Who told you that?"
Scott opened the driver's side door. "Rene's gossip line might rival the internet, but she's a few weeks behind on vehicle news."
He climbed behind the wheel and started the engine.
Janie opened the passenger door. "It stinks in here."
"That's you. You sweated alcoholic vapors the entire trip from Dallas."
"Hey, until you got in, it had that new-car smell."
Janie rolled down her window to vent the stale stench. "What is this thing anyway?"
"It's called a Brute, custom Jeep pickup."
"Brute, that figures."
"Calling me a Brute?"
"Shut up and drive."
Scott drove a few blocks and pulled in to the corner Stop and Shop, or 'TOP & SHOP' as the sign currently read. "I'll be right back."
"Fine," Janie said. She covered her eyes with an arm and reclined the seat.
He left the engine running and returned minutes later. He handed her a twenty-ounce bottle of grape flavored Gatorade.
"This stuff is gross," she said.
"That stuff has things in it that will help with the pounding headache you have."
That shut her up and she cracked open the cap and took a tentative sip.
"Not so bad," she announced.
"When it tastes good is when you need it."
They drove in silence. It never took long to get anywhere in Fort Stockton. When he turned off 285 onto Old Cemetery Road, she looked over at him.
"Where are we going?"
"Where do you think?"
"If you're going to give me a lecture, feel free to skip it."
"Yesterday," he said, "was Veterans Day. I intend to pay my respects."
Gravel crunched under the truck's tires as they idled along the narrow graveyard road. Scott parked and they got out. The wind felt colder on the edge of town, or maybe it was the location.
Janie trailed behind as Scott walked to the grave. He didn't have anything to say, but memories of time spent with Mr. Piotrowski were never far from his mind. He liked to think that somewhere, his parents and Mr. Piotrowski were able to meet. Maybe they shared a laugh at how crazy his life had turned out.
"You miss him," Janie said, breaking the silence.
"Was he why you joined the Marines?"
"Partially," he answered. "Come on, there's some people I want you to meet."
They walked down the row to a newer section. The graves were fresher, the ground not completely healed from the intrusion.
Scott knelt and brushed a piece of dried grass from the stone. The headstone had turned out nice, he thought, simple but elegant.
"Who were the Van Pelts?" Janie asked.
Scott stood. "My parents."
Janie's head whipped toward him. "Your parents?"
"I had them reburied here after I got out of the service."
"I was born in Lubbock," Scott said, "when my parents were at Texas Tech. They moved to California after my father finished grad school." A gust of wind made the thin cypress trees rustle. "I was five when they were murdered."
Janie didn't say anything.
"There weren't any relatives to send me to."
"Why are you a MacIntyre?"
"It's a name somebody picked for me," he said, coming to a decision. "The man that killed my parents thought he'd killed me. When he found out he'd failed, he killed more people trying to finish the job. It's more complicated than that, but that's the gist of it."
Janie looked at him, her mouth agape.
"Because of what happened, I don't have any memories of my parents. I only know what they look like from pictures. My name was changed and some people hid me here. I've been Scott MacIntyre for so long that I decided to keep the name."
"What happened to the man?"
"He was caught," Scott said, "and died in prison."
"Do others know?" Janie asked.
"Only a few," he said. "Honour and Joseph know everything. They got me some money from the man's family. The judge and the sheriff know some of it."
"What about Eddie?"
"He knows my parents died violently, but I never told him the rest."
"Why tell me?"
Scott looked at her. "You've had a rough couple of days. I thought some perspective might help."
Janie kicked at the dirt with her boot.
He ran his finger over the names. "My mother was only twenty-five years old when she died." He looked at Janie. "That's only a few years away for me, and a few more for you. I guess what I'm trying to say is that ... well, I don't know what I'm trying to say. We're still here. Life goes on. Okay?"
Janie wiped a tear away and nodded.
"Then let's get out of here and go do something else."
"It's a surprise."
Ten minutes later, they pulled into the parking lot for the Veterans of Foreign Wars post. Carnival rides were being disassembled and tents struck.
"This would have been a better surprise if we'd been here yesterday," Janie said.
"You'll see," Scott said as he opened the driver's side door. Inside the hall, there were only a handful of men. A group was playing dominos and a couple of men were bellied up to the bar. Scott felt fifteen all over again.
"Help you?" a balding man asked.
"Scott MacIntyre," he said, shaking the man's hand.
"Right," the older man replied. "Thought I recognized you."
"Missed the parade," Scott said, "but wanted to drop in for a quick visit. This is my friend, Janie Mendoza."
"One of Hector's daughters?"
"That's right," Janie replied.
"Pretty girls are always welcome at the VFW."
The compliment put a smile on her face. The bald man said he'd be back and walked away.
"Let's get a drink," Scott said.
"I am not drinking, ever again."
Scott held his fingers up as he approached the bar. "Two root beers, please."
"Coming right up," the bartender replied.
"Root beer?" Janie asked.
"Perfect cure for a hangover," Scott said. "A good root beer solves most of life's problems."
The bartender stuck a mug under a tap that dispensed the foamy goodness. He topped the mug off, set it on the bar top and filled the next mug. He handed it to Scott in exchange for a couple of dollars.
Scott took long, deep drink. It was cold with just the right amount of bark that he remembered. "Oh, that's good."
Janie eyed her mug suspiciously and took a tentative sip. Foam lined her lip and the bartender winked at her.
"Sergeant MacIntyre," the bald man said, returning from wherever he'd run off to. He was accompanied by a taller man Scott remembered meeting with Mr. Piotrowski. "We got it framed. Would you like to see?"
"Sure," Scott said. "Come on, Janie."
They walked as a group to a wall of memorabilia. The taller man pointed to a framed Texas flag. "What do you think?"
"Looks great," Scott said.
"The post really appreciated it, I can tell you," the bald man said.
Janie looked from the flag, back to the group of proud men. "Why is this flag special?" she asked.
The bald man pointed to a framed picture next to the flag.
Janie leaned in for a closer look. "That's you!"
"That's me," Scott confirmed.
The picture showed him in full battle rattle, at the top of a ridge in Afghanistan. He stood with his rifle resting in one hand as he held a field expedient flagpole flying the Texas flag with the other. He remembered searching for the wooden slats and wiring them together to make the pole. He smiled at the memory.
"What's an 'Enemy O.P.'?" Janie asked as she read the caption.
"Observation post," Scott replied. "The bad guys used it to watch over the valley."
"Why were you there?"
The men chuckled.
"Because we took it away from them," Scott replied. "I think that's enough of memory lane for one day. We've got errands to run."
The men shook his hand and thanked him again.
Janie drained her root beer, "Where to now?"
"I need to visit the storage lot office and arrange to have my pod shipped to Levall, then a quick stop at Honour's. After that, I think it will be safe to release you into your mother's care."
Janie gave him a wry grin, "Gee, thanks. You think we could stop at the high school?"
"If you want to."
"I'd like to see Mrs. Yale."
Scott didn't know the name. "It's okay by me."
They dropped by the storage lot, but the door to the office was locked and nobody appeared to be around. Janie was waiting in the truck and made a 'what gives' motion with her hands. Scott shrugged and pointed to his cell phone. He called the number posted on the office window. The manager, who'd taken a long lunch, said he'd be there shortly.
"Manager's on his way back from lunch," Scott said, when Janie rolled down her window.
"You wait," Janie said, "I'm going to investigate the ladies room."
"It's probably locked," Scott said.
"Then I'll pee in the bushes."
"With your luck, you'll get ticketed for lewd behavior."
Janie shot him the finger.
Scott made another call.
"Honour," he said when she answered the phone.
"Have you done something bad?" she asked.
"Then I'll talk to you."
"Having a bad day?" he asked.
"Stubborn child is refusing to go down for a nap. Not even his Aunty Luisa can get him to sleep."
"Well I hate to impose, but I'm in town."