His smile was like some kind of magic, but that’s not why she chose to talk with him.
Natalie Sanders Pena sat next to the shy young Marine near Gate B14 at Denver International Airport. He was heading back to Pendleton after his leave, and was due to be deployed to Vietnam within the next two weeks. The airport PA system was issuing a seemingly endless stream of advisories, but someone nearby had a transistor radio playing the Beatles’s “Penny Lane.” She hadn’t heard that song in a long time, but for her newfound friend, it was practically brand new.
“You miss your wife and little girl already, don’t you?” She looked down at the photo of the young woman and four-year-old girl he was holding near his lap.
“Yeah, I guess I do.” His Kentucky accent was tremendously apparent, and it was one of the few things she remembered clearly about him from her childhood.
“That’s perfectly normal. I’m sure they miss you, too.”
“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was say good-bye to them, Ma’am.”
From his point of view, she was a good ten years older than he was, and her wedding band was as apparent on the third finger of her left hand as was his. She could have been his older sister because of the resemblance.
“The draft is unfair to a lot of families.”
“I volunteered, Ma’am.”
“Volunteered?” Mom hadn’t told her that before she died.
“I know that probably shocks a lot of people, but I watched too many of my buddies drafted out of High School go over there and die. I could have gone to college like Ma and Pa wanted me to, got a deferment, but that just don’t seem right.”
“But your wife and daughter, what about them?”
“I know it’s hard, really hard. But we’re Americans. Men go overseas to fight, so people here can have freedom. I don’t want to go to war. I’ve never killed anyone in my life. But if it means protecting Lisa and little Natty, then I’ll do what I have to do.”
She thought about telling him about the uselessness of the Vietnam conflict, and how in the end, nobody was protected, and nobody won. But what good would that do? She wasn’t here to change his mind.
“You have strong convictions, Corporal.”
“Call me Jerry. Everybody does.”
“Okay, Jerry. You seem like a brave man.”
“They say that about us Marines, Ma’am. I guess I don’t see myself as anything but a regular guy. I’ve got a job to do and I’m going to do it. That’s how I was raised.”
The song on the radio changed to the Supremes’s chart, “Love is Here and Now You’re Gone.” She couldn’t help but think that fate had a sense of the ironic.
“That must be one of the things your wife loves about you.”
“I guess so. She says I have a nice smile.”
“You do have a nice smile, Jerry. You’re a good man.”
“I try to be, Ma’am. Truth told, it ain’t easy, especially with a bunch of other jar heads trying to drag me to a bunch of bars and whore houses…excuse me, Ma’am, houses of ill repute.”
“Don’t worry about it, Jerry. I’ve heard the word before.”
He looked down at the photo in his hands and blushed.
“I’m a Christian. Have been since I was in short pants. Lisa’s a believer now, and we made sure Natty got baptized soon as she could after she was born. Lord be willing, I’ll come back, and we’ll raise her right. I want her to know what family means. My Ma and Pa love me with everything they’ve got, and they love the Lord. I owe the same to my little girl.”
“What happens if you don’t come back, Jerry? How do you think your daughter will feel growing up without you?”
“I don’t rightly know. I suppose that’s in the Lord’s hands like everything else. Even if I don’t make it, He won’t leave her alone. It’s a hard thing to face, but I wouldn’t have faith if I didn’t believe that.”
“I hope you’re right, Jerry.” The past thirty years had been a struggle for her. It gradually got better, and her Dad’s parents made it easier, but there’s no denying how hard it is to grow up without your Daddy.
The boarding announcement came over the PA, and whoever had the radio turned it off in the middle of the Buckinghams’s “Kind of a Drag.”
Jerry hastily put the photo back in his wallet, stood, and grabbed his duffel. “That’d be me Ma’am.” He stood up and offered his hand. Natalie did the same and as she felt his strong grip against her palm, she tightened her will and forced herself not to cry.
“Pleasure talking with you. This ain’t your flight?”
“My gate is across the way and I don’t leave for another half-hour. I saw you sitting here alone. You looked like you needed a friend.”
“Thank you, Ma’am. I guess I did. Anyway, I’ve gotta go. What’s your name again?”
She remembered where and when she was. “Mrs. Natalie Pena.”
“Natalie, just like my little girl.”
“Exactly like your little girl, Jerry.”
“Well, God bless you, Mrs. Pena. I’ll say a prayer for you.”
“Thank you, Jerry. God bless you, too.”
“He does everyday, Ma’am. Gotta run. Can’t miss my flight. Bye, now.”
He turned and hurried to take his place in line, and has he passed through the gates and onto the sky way, she whispered. “Good-bye, Daddy. I love you. I miss you so much.”
Tears streamed down Natalie’s face as she watched the Boeing 707 pull away from the gate. She stood there staring out the window until his plane was in the air. She saw it pass through thick, dark clouds, and into the future.
Then she turned and left. Looking at her watch, she saw there’d be just enough time to get to the unused utility closet off of the airport’s luggage area where the dark mirror had deposited her.
After her Mom died, when she was going through the house she’d grown up in, she found that the old mirror in the attic had changed. Instead of having a reflective surface, it was all black, like it was covered by iron filings being moved around by unseen magnets.
Mom had died of cancer, so they had their long good-byes, but she was only four years old when her Daddy died, and she was ashamed because she couldn’t remember the last time she saw him. When she touched the mirror, by some miracle, she knew she had been given a second chance.
Natalie went back through the obsidian lens, returning to her Mom’s attic. It was Friday, April 10, 1998 again — the present. She had left late November 1967 far behind, and in a little while, she’d see her own husband and three children again.
Twenty-four year old Marine Lance Corporal Gerald “Jerry” Marshall Sanders died in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam on March 4, 1968, killed by enemy artillery fire. His body was never recovered.
Natalie would never know where the strange, black glass came from, and after it returned her home, it vanished. Mom’s mirror was just a mirror again. But for a tiny handful of minutes, the dark mirror gave her a chance to do the one thing she had always wished and prayed she could do ever since she was little…tell her Daddy good-bye one last time.
I didn’t originally write this for the First Line Friday challenge, but when it appeared in my gmail Inbox, I felt the first line “His smile was like some kind of magic” was easily adapted into this story. After all, I had already referenced Jerry’s smile, and I felt too emotionally involved in this tale to craft another so soon afterward.
I used the “Dark Mirror” concept previously in the stories:
If I don’t write at least one story a day, I get a little crazy, and with no “writing challenge” currently available (to the best of my knowledge), I thought I’d write another “black mirror” tale. I don’t know what made me choose this topic, except I graduated High School at the end of the Vietnam War era, and the first anniversary of my own Dad’s death was just a week or so ago, but this is what came out.
Men and women still go off to war today, and some of them don’t come back. Their spouses and children have to go on without them. Even if the cause is just, the consequences are always tragic.
“Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it…”
-William Shakespeare from Henry V, Act 4, Scene 1