"Vroom. Vroom. Vroooom!"
The little wooden airplane soars above my head, its small body almost covered by my fist. A present from my eighth birthday, six days ago, the little wooden plane had the words Spirit of 1953 painted along its body in bold dark red letters. The painted designs on the plane are innocent swirls and lines that flow across from the tailfins, across the wings and up to its nose.
But I pretend that these designs don't exist.
Instead of the backyard of my little house, I instead see the torn battlefields of Europe miles below me, places that had ceased to exist the year I was born. My bare feet are not touching the grass; instead, I am wearing boots and sitting in the cockpit of an American fighter plane with my superior officer at the helm. We are both wearing heavy flight gear, but I can still see his face and eyes despite the helmet and flight goggles. He is a man I have never met before but at the same time we are family. He is my father.
"Hold the plane steady, Ryan. This metal bucket can only take so much knocking around from the winds. Trust me when I tell you that we don't want this plane to flip over!" My father reaches over to the control panel to adjust a couple of dials as I hold on to the joystick to keep the plane steady. Smoke and clouds are everywhere, and I can hear gunfire above the creaks as the wind buffets the little plane everywhere.
Ping! Ping! Ping-ping!
"Dad! They're shooting at us!" I don't know if he can hear me over the howling winds, but he must have, because he twisted around in his seat to look back into the hollow body of the plane.
"Marcus! Return fire if you can get a clear shot!" Dad turns back around before Marcus, our gunman, can respond. I worry as the pinging increases in tempo; what if we are shot down before we can even start our top-secret mission for the Allies?
Somewhere the haze of smoke and cloud, a massive fireball bathes everything in the sky in an orange glow. I can't tell what it looks like on the ground, but somehow, I know that the enemy just lost a tank. What else could be more powerful than a tank to be able to reach a plane?
The plane continues to fight us. From the back, I can hear Marcus swearing in three languages, creating another melody to the song of war. The whole plane finally turns ninety degrees, and I find myself immensely thankful that I am strapped into my seat. I try to keep the plane from flipping even more, but the wind is fighting me. The joystick is slipping in my hands.
A warm hand encompasses mine, and I look up with gratitude as Dad forces my hand back down, righting the little plane. The plane wobbles a little more as the wind tries to force the nose up, but with the two of us guiding the aircraft now, the wind has lost. It cannot defeat two people, so it silently retreats.
The gunfire finally fades away, and Dad relaxes back in his seat. "That was close." He turns to me, smiling. "Well Ryan, we passed the German front lines, they won't fire on us now because the night will provide cover for us."
"Will we still be able to see the target?" My voice comes out higher than usual. In the back, I can hear Marcus chuckling weakly to himself. He hasn't been hit; he's still recovering from nearly losing his lunch.
"Of course." Dad focuses on guiding the plane before he smiles down at me. I feel very happy. Then he turns back and fixes one of the dials. The storm clouds from earlier have withdrawn, leaving us with a starry blanket for company. There is no moon, but that only enables us to continue approaching the enemy camp without detection. I close my eyes, letting the rumbling engines lulls me to sleep. I lean back in my seat as it gets a little warmer to create a safe atmosphere. I feel Dad's hand brush some of my hair aside before pulling me close to his side. I reach for a hug, just wanting to feel a sense of warmth and security that I had been denied years before.
I wish this moment could last forever.
Mother's voice, sharp and bitter, shatters the fantasy. With a jolt, I come back to reality to find myself back home in Chicago. I look at Mother, her face in that curious combination of what I recognize as annoyance. "What are you doing?" she demands.
My plane is missing. I look around and find it perched on a bed of grass near an outstretched hand. "I'm flying with Dad." I hold up the plane to show her.
Her lips thin, a sign of sadness. She kneels down to my level, a soft afternoon breeze ruffling her hair. Unlike in Germany, the skies above her are cloudless. "And where are you flying?"
"Germany. We're on a top-secret mission for the Allies!" I beam up to her, and she can't help but smile back at me.
Mother turns around, and I see Marcus standing on the top of the porch steps. He is leaning on a cane; the same crash that took my father from us also cost Marcus his leg from the knee down. I have seen the crude metallic replacement, and know that it causes Marcus daily pain.
Marcus doesn't know it, but he's caused me pain almost daily too for the last two months. Ever since he came here to impose his rules. For as long as I can remember, Mother used to sit me down in the living room and tell me a story about Dad while pointing to the Reminder throughout the story, as though to tie the stories and Dad to an inanimate object. Even when Marcus came to visit, the Reminder stayed up and she would tell me a story every night.
The reminder disappeared when Marcus came to live here for good.
Mother said she had taken it down temporarily, and that I shouldn't worry, that it will go back up next week. And then the week after next. And then the week after that. So I didn't worry, thinking that the stories and her pointing at the Reminder would come back and that everything would go back to normal.
"Annie, what is that kid up to now?"
He also complains about everything. Especially me.
"It's all right Marcus, I just saw Ryan lying down in the grass and I thought he was hurt." Mother smiles, gets up, and walks over to him. She wraps Marcus in a big hug and kisses him, in the kind of way that grosses me out.
I turn back to my little plane, and turn it around so that the cockpit is facing away from them. I feel bad, as though Dad can still see everything from his seat in the plane and I'm protecting my mother from something shameful by making it so that Dad cannot see the act in front of him.
I wonder if she and Dad were ever like that. Close and cuddly that is. In all the black-and-white pictures that I've seen of them, they aren't kissing or hugging or anything. Just Dad standing in his army uniform and Mother in her favorite summer dress.
Making sure that the cockpit isn't facing Mother and Marcus, I tighten my grip around the little plane and scuttle inside, going around the house through the front door so that I don't have to go through them. Marcus doesn't like it when I do that.
The front hall is quiet as usual. I leave my muddy shoes in the hall closet, out of sight so that Marcus can't complain. Then I walk down the hall to the living room, specifically the fireplace. I know that the object of my search isn't there on the mantelpiece, not anymore. But I go anyway, because seeing the triangle of discolored brick reminds me that it was there, that I wasn't imaging all those nights that Mother sat down in the rocking chair and whispered about Dad while pointing to the Reminder. The Reminder always told me that Dad was still alive in some way. Even though I had turned the house upside down looking for it and found nothing, I had the discolored brick to remind me that it had existed in the past, and was simply hidden somewhere.
The empty spot reminds me that Dad is still here, and that I need to try a little harder to find him.
The brick above the fireplace looks light. There is a faint triangle of darker brick though, right above the mantelpiece where the Reminder once sat. Mother had taken it down and stored it away somewhere in the house after she married Marcus. It is as though there is only room for one adult man in the house, and since Mother had found a man, she could put away the other.
Despite her constant promises to return it back to its spot, I still have yet to see it.
Mother and Marcus married two months ago. The object disappeared almost right after. Things had been tense between Mother and Marcus until it disappeared. He was always grumpy and short with her when he came to visit and she was patient but stubborn in return. He'd ask her something, she would respond in the same tone she used when lecturing me. Before they married, they would fight sometimes, at night when they thought I was already asleep.
After it disappeared, I'd asked Mother. She was fussing with the few boxes as the movers dropped off Marcus's stuff. I was in the living room, sitting and staying out of the way, watching her skirts flare out behind her as she went back and forth.
"Hm?" She paused for a few seconds before she turned back to the guy carrying a box that had Marcus's anme on it. "Oh, please put that in the master bedroom down the hall, thank you."
"Sweetie, hang on." She stepped back to let another guy through. "All right, quickly sweetie, what is it?" she asked, turning back to face me again. Her hair was limp against her head.
"Where is Dad?"
She froze, but smiled almost quickly again. "I told you before sweetie, Dad isn't here, he-"
"No." I pointed to the mantle. "Where is Dad?"
Her head whipped back to the mantle, but when the guys came back in with a few more boxes, she smiled again. It wasn't until they were gone again that she turned back to me and said, "Sweetie, Daddy's taking a quick break. He'll be back soon, don't worry."
"Soon. I promise. Just let Mommy finish helping Marcus settle in."
'Soon' came to mean two weeks. Then, when I asked again before going to school, I asked her again. She said that she wasn't done helping Marcus yet. I asked again a couple days later, when I came home from school early. She said she wasn't settled in yet. It took her a month and a half to 'help' Marcus. Then she had to take more time to prepare for various outings and events with friends. Finally, she asked me to stop pestering her and that she would get it when she was ready.
But for me, the Reminder is Dad. Dad is not here, and I want him here with me.
Frowning, I turn around and start walking toward Mother and Marcus's bedroom. It is the only place in the entire house that I'm not allowed to enter. But since I'm not allowed to go in there without either Mother or Marcus, but they are busy with each other right now. They won't see me. If I'm quick and sneaky, then maybe they'll never notice I was in here and I can get away with either the prize or the knowledge that it's not hiding there either. Mother rarely ever got mad at me enough to punish me, but Marcus is quicker to temper than her.
I hope that if they do catch me, Mother can save me from whatever Marcus wants to do to me as punishment for breaking the rules.
Into their room, over to Mother's side, and under the bed. She said she 'got rid' of it, but for some reason, I don't believe her. As demanding as Marcus is, she would not have wanted to lose the object. Not if my father had meant anything to her.
Not if I meant something to her.
Lifting up the bed skirts, I find that the floor underneath their bed is messier than mine. I wrinkle my nose in annoyance. If underneath their bed was messier than mine, then why did Mother persist in asking me to clean up underneath my bed?
I only recognize the box because of the faded red stamp on the side, the one marked 'FRAGILE' and the military insignia that is right on the edge, next to the worn address label. Gingerly setting my plane down far away so that I couldn't accidentally squash it, I got down on my stomach and crawled partway under the bed to grip it. Then, very slowly so that I wouldn't hit my head against the bottom of the bed, I start inching backwards. At one point, I miscalculate and hit my head against the edge of the bed frame. Biting back tears, I abandon the box long enough to scoot out from under the bed and clamp my hands down on the sore spot. After a few moments of trying to soothe a small bump, I take a deep breath and dive back under.
The box looks dusty, as though it is wearing a thick dust coat. Keeping this in mind, I finish pulling it out and gingerly prop it up against Mother's bed to blow a layer of dust off. So she hadn't gotten rid of it after all.
I feel a bit better after learning this.
It meant that she still cared.
Wiping my nose on my sleeve to stop the sneezes, I turn the box over to examine the faded mailing label. It had come from some camp in New York, but I don't know where it is on a map. I glanced down at the little plane. "Do you know where Pine Camp is?" The plane of course, does not respond. But I feel like that maybe, if he could, Dad would tell me where it is.
The box is already open. I slowly open it, stifling another sneeze as a cloud of dust flies straight into my face.
Inside, I have found it at last.
The triangular wooden box with its glass cover silently stares back at me. I run a small hand over the glass cover, staring at the folded American flag inside. All I can see are the white stars against their blue field.
Had there been a ceremony for Dad? If so, why didn't I remember going? Frowning, I look down at the bronze plaque that had Dad's name inscribed in it, along with the dates of his birthday and his death.
U.S. Air Force Captain Edward J. Phillips
May 23, 1915 – April 10, 1945
I slowly do the math in my head. Dad was thirty years old when he died after his plane was shot down. The eighth anniversary of his death is in five days.
The little plane looks very little when I look down at it. I silently run through the mission in my head, the one I just flew with my dad. I had held the plane steady while he turned around to yell at Marcus about opening fire. In real life, anti-aircraft fire from the Germans had ripped through the plane, sending the plane into a tailspin almost right away. There had been a lot of screaming, yelling, and a general mix-up of orders. Dad didn't to tell Marcus to open return fire. He had been trying hard not to betray the plane's position in the sky, but he could have saved himself if he had.
I wish I had been there with him, just to save his life when no one else did.
Marcus hadn't been very talkative about Dad's death when I asked him. He'd been sitting on the rocking chair in the living room while Mother cooked, a week after they both returned from their short honeymoon. I'd been left at home, and was obviously very happy to see Mother when they got back. Marcus just looked scary, and I didn't feel comfortable, so I'd given him a wide berth.
It took a while to work up the nerve to talk to him for this moment. I couldn't think of any other way of talking to him about this. I was scared and curious at the same time to know what my Dad's real last actions had been.
He looked up from his book, and his eyes narrowed slightly. "What do you want?" His voice sounded gravelly, like he hadn't used it in a while.
I swallowed. Maybe this wasn't such a great idea after all. But curiosity got the better of me in that moment. "How did Daddy die?"
There. I'd said it. My heart thudded painfully in my chest as I watched him mull over my words and decide whether he wanted to answer the question or not. "Why?" he finally asked.
"Cause I wanna know."
"Why do you want to know?"
I shrugged. "I wanna know."
Marcus finally gave in. "Fine. He died when the plane crashed."
He narrowed his eyes. "What more do you want?"
"I just wanna know if that's it."
Marcus groaned. "Annie, the kid's asking questions about his father," he said, loud enough for Mother to hear in the kitchen.
"I wasn't there Marcus. You were." Marcus to rolls his eyes at the ceiling.
"Fine." Marcus looked back at me. "We were running a secret mission against the Germans in the middle of the night. One lucky hit and we were nose-diving." Driven by habit, Marcus reached for a nonexistent coffee on the side-table, like he always did when he was stressed out. Before I could ask for more details however, he said, "Your father's copilot was feeling sick that morning. Flew anyway. The guy threw up because of the jolt from the lucky hit, which prompted your father to try and assist him. Your father called for a general bailout, and he figured that he could direct the plane toward a key building before bailing out himself." He paused to catch his breath before continuing in a lower voice. "One parachute malfunction later and he disappeared."
"Why didn't anyone go looking for him?"
Marcus glared at me before gesturing toward his leg. "The copilot, myself, and the third airman survived because we landed close to each other. Copilot left the service because of shellshock, the third airman went on to serve with another unit and, well, my leg was too busted." He gestured to the prosthetic before he added, "None of us had the time to look for him."
"So he could have lived?" There was a note of hope in my voice. Marcus scowled when he sensed it.
"No. And even if he survived the initial fall, which is highly unlikely, he would have been a prisoner of war. Prisoners rarely survived."
"Funny," Mother said as she drifted in with snacks. "I seem to remember hearing it a little differently."
"They always alter the story a little bit in order maintain secrecy and to soften the blow. Standard army practice."
No one spoke the sentences that were hovering in the air above us. That or you didn't take the initiative to shoot without orders when you were under fire. You didn't act when you had the opportunity.
You let a second shot through, didn't you?
"That's still not how I heard it," Mother said stiffly, stopping when she put the bowl down on the small coffee table.
"Do you want to rip the kid's heart apart?" Marcus snapped, glaring up at her. "Let the kid believe the cushy story for now, you can tell him all the gruesome details when he's older."
But I wanted to know now. But, as though to ignore me and close the subject, Marcus muttered something under his breath and buried his nose back into his book.
After that, Marcus stopped talking about him. As though telling the story was his closure. Mother doesn't think he told everything, but she doesn't press. I wonder now if maybe since I was too little for such a trip, Mother never went to the memorial ceremony in New York. Or maybe she just didn't want to go.
If this were another life, I would ask her. I would proudly march to the back porch and demand that she tell me everything about my father. I would tell Marcus that as much as he may feel like it, he still isn't the man of the house. I am. Marcus is an interloper, someone my mother found happiness with. I begrudge her that, even though it isn't fair to her.
Not for the first time, I wish that Dad's absence were temporary. That in a few days Dad will come home, limping maybe from an injured leg or an arm pressed up against his chest. The point is that he comes home, and life goes back to the way it should be.
But if he hasn't come home now, then he definitely won't in the future.
I run three fingers down the glass of the case, leaving three streaks of clean glass in the dust. Then I carefully use my sleeve to polish off the plaque, making it shine again. Perhaps, if Mother didn't want this in the living room, then she could let me have it. Let me keep it in my room where no one else could see. It should not have to sit under a bed forgotten just because Mother submitted to an intruder's decisions.
I let out a yelp, grabbed my plane, and jumped up. The flag remained propped up against the bed. "I…I…" My voice stuttered in my own ears before I bowed my head, well aware that I had been breaking the house rules.
"What are you doing in here?" She doesn't sound upset.
"I…I was looking for…that." Lying is useless here. She can guess all on her own what I was up to, and won't be pleased if I tried.
I look down at the little plane. How many times had I imagined going into that battle and changing the outcome so Dad came home? How many times did I pretend to hear him coming down the street?
How can I miss someone I never met before?
Strong arms pull me into a hug, bringing me out of my thoughts. "It's okay to miss him sweetie. I just thought that Marcus could fill the gap that Daddy left behind, but the two of you don't seem to be bonding very well." She's wearing that dress today, I realize. The one that was in the photograph with Dad; it is the blue dress with the yellow sunflowers.
"I wish he didn't die." My voice is muffled since she'd pressed my face into her shoulder. "I wish he came home."
"Me too sweetheart, I miss him too." I can't tell if she's telling the truth or not.
"If you miss him, then why did you marry Marcus?"
She looks pained. "There are some things in life that I can't teach you but Marcus can." She rubs my back a little. "I want you to have a stable childhood. This was the best way for me to ensure that."
I look down at the flag. "Why did you put this away then?" I ask, tapping the glass with a finger.
She looks away. "Do you remember that night when Marcus first stayed with us?"
I nod enthusiastically.
"Well, he told me everything that happened that night Daddy died. Marcus's not the bad guy sweetie, he's just been through a lot and just needs a comforting home." She hesitates and I frown; her words do not make sense to me. "Listen, when you are older, I'll explain everything. You will understand."
When you are older. I learned fast not to like those words.
"But it's not Marcus's fault, all right? It's not his or your daddy's fault that Daddy didn't come home. So don't get angry with either of them."
I scrunch my face, but she can't see it. "Then it's the bad guys' fault, right?"
"So they need to be punished, right? Because when it's my fault, I get in trouble too!" I pull back to see her face better. She looks as though in pain.
"No Ryan. Punishing them is not the right way to do it. They already went to trial for war crimes. That's fair. Not punishing them right away." She took my face in her hands and whispers, "If you hurt them, even in revenge, you are no better than they are. I want you to grow up to be better than them." She sighs. "You know how it was your daddy that died?"
"Well, if you killed one of them, then another little boy loses his daddy. Do you really want that other little boy to go through what you are going through?" Her eyes flutter close for a moment as she chooses her next words carefully. "Promise me that you'll never kill another person. Even if he is bad. Let the justice system handle them." Her green eyes connect with mine. "Promise me!" She sounds desperate.
"Thank you." She releases my face but leans her forehead against mine. Then she straightens, observing the mess of cardboard and dust that I left all over her once-clean carpet. "Now, what are we going to do about that flag, but keep Marcus happy at the same time?"
"Can I keep it in my room? Please?" My heart leaps at the opportunity.
"Well, I'm sure you're capable of keeping it in your room, but you haven't asked me anything yet." Her eyes are twinkling, a rare occurrence in this house nowadays.
"May I keep it in my room?"
She smiles and ruffles my hair. "Oh, all right." She carefully picks up the flag and case, and then leaves the room. "Ryan, you're going to have to show me where you want it," she says, her voice drifting in from the hall.
Eagerly, I bound after her and take the lead to my room, my little plane flying alongside me.
I feel that I won a small victory of some sort. Against what, I don't know.