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It was a day much like all others. The sun was tucked behind a lush blanket of clouds, vibrant hues of orange bleeding across the endless horizon. Its rays spilled onto the long road ahead in a broad and luminous shaft of light.
I sulked home from another agonizing school day, satchel clasped listlessly at my side, shoulder strap recently amputated. My elbows were bruised a vivid purple and knees skinned. This wasn't the first time I had been bullied and beaten. It wouldn't be the last.
The weeping willows swayed in a rhythmic, almost soothing motion. Yet, the crisp, autumn air only irritated my battered palms. On this afternoon, on this walk, within this moment, all beauty and goodness had been drained from my world. The pathway seemed to be paved with hot coals rather than cobblestones. Each step burned more than the last.
A crumpled ball of parchment flitted across the ground in a hypnotic dance. I watched with great interest as the wind playfully carried it about. The breeze calmed after several peaceful moments. The crumpled ball rolled and landed beside my feet. Time seemed to stand still. Curiosity took hold, as I collected the paper, smoothing out its faded and wrinkled edges. A deep sigh resonated from my chest; I had seen this exhausting poster, time and time again.
An oversized top hat stood proudly on the man's grayed head. The late afternoon sky seemed to drastically darken, while the familiar face stared back at me. His index finger was possessively extended, expression cold and demanding. It was discomforting. His pleading eyes seemed to bore into my very soul. 'I WANT YOU! ENLIST NOW!' was printed boldly just beneath his starch white goatee. This old man seemed to follow me everywhere.
Mother waved her customary greeting, as I approached our humble home. The wind's breath swam through her chocolate curls in an erratic cyclone. Mother was a vision of purity. Her sundress billowed around her in a glowing halo, hat's ribbon fluttering about in the breeze. Truly, I was a fortunate ten year old boy. I should have been happy.
As I came closer to Mother, I didn't fail to acknowledge how her expression wilted with each step I took. I immediately spotted the strange Ford automobile that infested our driveway; yes, it was a stranger, no doubt. Ever since my father's departure to the front, dinner time had become a sacred thing between Mother and me.
Arms propped menacingly on either side of her hips, she spouted, "Why, Timothy Richard Smith!" On only the gloomiest of occasions did she dare use my full name.
"Oh! Look at you! You just look a fright!" Mother spat on her thumb, rubbing away a prominent dirt mark on my cheek with a sigh. "Another fight, shall I presume?"
Her stormy eyes calmed, while I nodded my pitiful agreement. I never had been much of a fighter. Mother knew this. Even worse, I had never been a defender. A palpable silence passed over us. "Very well. Supper's on the stove. Go inside and wash up, would you, dear?"
Mother hadn't been alone that afternoon. A man stood stiffly, his back ranged against a wall, posture far from natural. His head was bowed slightly forward, one leg overlapping the other. Slick, raven hair was combed neatly back, polished and presentable. Both hands clutched a brown service cap in a lethal grip, fingers outlining the leather brim in strokes. Who was this uninvited visitor? What was his purpose in my home? Father had been taken from us hardly four years ago. I can recall Mother and Father's consoling words as if yesterday. "Be sure and care for your momma while I'm away—you're the man of the house, now. You must keep a stiff upper lip, dear boy!"
"Yes, you really must try," Mother added. "Uncle Sam needs him, my darling!" I couldn't remember meeting my Uncle Sam.
I observed this visitor, and my resentment quickly escalated. Had Mother forgotten Father? Had Mother forgotten me?
"Hello, Son," the visitor greeted, awkwardly. His moustache twitched, as his lips lifted in a strained smile. "Hello, Sir," I simply offered.
The charming chirp of Mother's heels sounded out in melody. She entered our home, gently closing the door behind her in a graceful motion. Her eyes shifted helplessly between me and her guest, and back again, as she adjusted the hat with deft fingertips. An odd mixture of compassion and tenderness ignited that strange man's gaze. Mother threw me a silent, but equally stern, request. I obeyed, without question, and headed for the washroom with hesitant steps.
I studied my tormented, marred face in the mirror's reflection. It was a face victimized by my classmate's heartless fists; a face burdened by countless letdowns. It was a pathetic sight.
I dabbed at my cracked and swollen lip, cringing. It quivered as I tried to keep it stiff, just as Father had once told me I should.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. Muffled voices rang out beyond the washroom's doorway. The words were incoherent, tones somber. Mother had said supper was nearly ready, and Mother does not lie. Twenty minutes had flown by.
"Mother," I questioned, voice empowered. "Please, Honey, not now. M-M-Mother needs to be alone for a moment." Her voice was shaky, the shudder evident in her chest. Only once had her voice sounded so heartbroken. What had this uninvited visitor done? What had he said? What injured my Mother so profoundly?
"But, Mother!—" The visitor sternly interjected, "Mind your momma, Son." My patience was quickly thinning. This strange man had invaded my home in an attempt to replace my father. Quite suddenly, my physical wounds were healed. My heart ached with pain I had never known before.
"Mother! You—" Her voice was drowned by a waterfall of impending tears. "Oh, Tim, please—j-just leave me be! I-I-I…" She wept, and the visitor encircled her waist with an obtrusive arm. I stormed towards them, huffing and puffing. By now, I was far angrier than disappointed or insulted.
"Remember FATHER!" I scolded and reminded her, only to be cut short. Mother sobbed, as she knelt and embraced me with all of her love. Her warm tears drenched my plaid shirt, as her hands twisted and tangled within the sullied fabric. Nothing—nothing—could have prepared me for the brutal reality of that moment. Mother gazed deeply into my eyes, finding my soul, and recited the most tragic of words: "My darling son, Father won't be coming home."