“Don’t grab him like that,” Mary said sternly, pulling her son Carson away from Sam.
Sam looked down at their son, seeing the red indentations left on Carson’s arm. He felt something catch in his throat as he saw the boy’s wet eyes fill up like the ocean tide. Sam looked up at Mary, her furrowed brow showing anger but quickly fading as her face relaxed and she looked more concerned than anything, for both her son and her husband.
“I-I’m sorry,” Sam said, stepping back. “I didn’t mean to, I just wanted him to stop the banging.” Everyone’s eyes dropped to the miniature souvenir baseball bat and ball Sam had bought for Carson at the last Diamondbacks game they went to. Carson hadn’t put it down since and being only three, his method of hitting the ball was placing it on the ground and whacking at it with the bat. Sam looked over at Carson who had latched himself around Mary’s leg, his face peering out from behind it. The little boy had streams down his face that pooled up and dripped from the tip of his chin. Mary draped her arm down across his back.
Sam dropped his head and turned away, heading upstairs to his office. The creaks echoed throughout the old house with every step he took. Mary wanted a fixer-upper and Sam knew the stairs would have to be the next thing on the fix-it list. The crack in the foundation was already taken care of but now they had the chance to pick what project was next and judging on the old sloped angle of the stairs, they’d need to be redone soon.
He closed the heavy wooden door behind him and sat at his desk. He didn’t know how to be a dad. He was around when Carson was first-born but wasn’t around long enough to change but a few diapers before he was deployed. He’d spent the last two years overseas. A few months training in Germany before spending a year and a half in Afghanistan. While he was away, he spoke with Mary and Carson via Skype or letters. About two months before he got home, Mary had bought the house for them and they’d been waiting for him to get back. Sam figured after firefights in Afghanistan, going home would be easy. He had years of training for firefights, but not much in being a father.
He grabbed the picture that sat at the corner of his desk. Day One in country. He looked at his brothers, all highly skilled in violence. He looked at all twelve faces, including his own. It was their third deployment together. As he scanned the faces, his eyes stopped on the four that didn’t come back. Three families going forward without a father and all four going forward without a son.
The military trains you on how to kill, survive, and work as a team to accomplish those goals. They don’t train you on how to come back into a society that doesn’t understand those necessities or come back home where your “job” isn’t essential to the survival of the group. When shit hits the fan in a firefight, you have a job to do to ensure your brothers see the next sunrise. If you fail at that job, someone dies. If you succeed at that job, someone may still die but it’s less likely. Your ability is essential to everyone’s survival. You’re needed. You belong to the group. Back home, however, everyone is replaceable. Your job isn’t life or death. If you fail at it, someone replaces you. That sense of not really belonging is tough to comprehend when you came from a lifestyle where everyone was essential to the group. Sam couldn’t help but feel that if he failed as a father, he’d simply be replaced here. It was hard to talk to Mary about these things because she didn’t understand. She’d never been in that type of position. She never knew what it was like to live that lifestyle of being absolutely essential to the survival of those around you. She didn’t fully understand the adjustment Sam was trying to make.
Sam heard a knock at the door. He didn’t move or say anything, he kept staring down at the picture of all the young faces. He then felt Mary’s warm arms wrap him up as she rested her chin over his shoulder and looked down at the picture with Sam.
“Do you miss it?” she asked.
“Yes and no.”
“What do you miss?” Mary asked.
“The guys, the simplicity of it all.”
“Did you miss us?”
“Of course I did,” Sam said.
“What was so simple about it?”
“Everyone had a job. You knew exactly what you were supposed to do because you’d been trained on how to do it for years. Everyone was essential to everyone else.”
“You’re essential here. You’re essential to us,” she said.
“You two got along just fine without me for two years,” Sam said, sinking further into his chair.
“We got along because we were both hoping and praying for you to come back. Waiting for the day you came home got us along,” Mary said, squeezing Sam. Sam’s hand left the picture and grabbed Mary’s wrist. “You’re just as important to this family as me or Carson.”
“I knew what I was doing over there. Here is like walking through a minefield with heavy feet,” he said.
“It’ll get easier,” said Mary. “Just like the military, you’ll learn what it is you’re supposed to do. You’ll make mistakes, God knows I have, but you’ll learn from them and keep going.”
“What mistakes have you made? You seem to know what you’re doing every step of the way.”
“That’s because I’ve been fighting this battle for three years,” Mary chuckled. “You weren’t around to see the Chickenpox Outbreak of 2017. Biological warfare is a bitch.”
Sam turned to face her. “What do you mean?”
Mary looked at the ground before returning her gaze to Sam. “Carson got the chickenpox from another kid at daycare.”
“Don’t most kids get chickenpox at some point?” Sam asked.
Mary grinned, “yes, but most mothers don’t get it at the same time as their kids. I didn’t know I had never had it until I woke up with them the morning after.” They both laughed. “Doctor Anthakar was quite surprised when we both came in like spotted cheetahs.”
Sam smiled. The corners of his mouth fell and his expression returned to worrisome. “I’m just having trouble with this whole thing. I feel like I never know what I’m doing.”
Mary grabbed the back of his neck and kissed him. “Welcome to the club, sweetheart,” she smiled. “Sometimes, it’s just like the military where it’s all about improvising. You can read all the parenting books out there but they can’t prepare you for everything. You just do what you know how to do and if you don’t know something, you fake it ’til you make it.”
Sam felt some of the weight lifting off of his shoulders. He was lucky. While he was away, Mary had gotten stronger than he remembered her being. She knew not only how to handle Carson, but she knew how to handle him. She’d gained experience in household warfare, enough to where she could lead from the front and tackle any obstacle in her path. Sam pulled her in and hugged her tight, feeling her warmth against his and her confidence in being a mom, all while getting a face full of her dark brown hair.
“You just have to remember, he’s only three,” she said, pulling back. “Patience is key.”
“Duly noted,” Sam said, the corners of his mouth rising.
They heard the floor creak and turned toward the door, seeing Carson’s head peeking out from behind the door frame.
“Hey little man,” Mary said. “Come here.”
Carson slowly moved out into full view. He held his head down and walked across the cream-colored carpet to the edge of the desk and put his hand on it, studying his shoes.
Mary leaned down and whispered something into Carson’s ear. She backed away and Carson looked up at his dad.
“Sorry for swinging the bat loud, Daddy,” he said sheepishly.
Sam’s chest panged. He looked up at Mary who nodded back at Carson. Sam picked Carson up and put him on his lap. “Don’t worry about it, buddy.”
Carson wrapped his arms around Sam and Sam hugged him back. Mary watched as her son and his father were able to share a moment that she and Carson had had many of. Then she tickled Carson’s armpit and he giggled and squirmed in Sam’s arms. Each of them were smiling and Sam felt that even though he had been away for quite some time, he was finally home.
“I say it’s time to eat, what do you two think?” Mary asked.
“Pizza!” Carson howled as he jumped from Sam’s lap and ran towards the kitchen.
“We’ll see about that one,” she said following Carson’s lead towards the door. She put her hand on the frame and turned to Sam. “You coming, Dad?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Sam smiled.