“Bad times are just an illusion for the good times to show their face.”
“Lara! Are you ready yet,” Monica yelled up the steps as she rummaged through her pocketbook and checked her look in the mirror. With blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, Monica was a stunning lady decked out in designer jeans and high heels. Her white crop top made her tan look as if she glowed in the dark. She was a very refined lady with not a hair out of place.
“We don’t need to rush,” Skip said in jest as he walked by her and kissed her on the neck. Skip was also a well-dressed man with a very distinguished look. His dark hair and tall physique made them look like the perfect couple.
She turned to him and put her hand to his face, “You know how I am. I have to be ready to go early so that we can show up fashionably late.” She smiled and kissed him on his lips.
“That’s one of those quirks that get me about you,” Skip answered as he looked up the steps.
Lara was finally ready and she was making her entrance. Skip nodded with a smile on his face as he watched Lara come down the stairs. Her long brown hair flowed over her shoulders and accentuated her green eyes.
“There you are baby,” Monica put her hands to her mouth as a tear came to her eyes.
“Mom, I’m not a baby anymore,” Lara protested.
“You’ll always be my baby,” Monica quickly corrected.
“Are you ready for your big day,” Skip asked with an adoring look at the little lady standing in front of him.
“I think so,” Lara answered. She was thirteen and she was getting ready to graduate Junior High. It was a big deal for her because she had struggled with school most of her life. All she knew was that her father had died on a mission. Even learning about it at a young age, it was hard for her to handle. Each year getting harder and harder. She was just starting to get over it and move past the pain.
Making it through the eighth grade was quite an achievement. Skip and Monica had been pulling extra hard for her to simply get through each grade year after year. But now, she would be leaving Junior High and going to High School. It was a very special day.
Monica gave her a huge hug and then, she stood back from her daughter so that she could study her face while she ran her fingers through her hair. Lara had the saddest eyes even though her face was trying to smile. Monica could see the sadness and if she could do anything, she’d take it all away. She would just have to do it one hug at a time.
That’s when they heard the knock on the door. They looked around at each other with curious looks on their faces. Who would be coming to their house at this time in the morning? Who was getting company just before the Junior High graduation?
Skip answered the door to find two Marines dressed in uniform, “Can I help you?”
By then, Monica and Lara were at the door. The Marines looked at Monica and one of them asked, “Are you Monica Kayd?”
Monica hadn’t heard that name for some time, “Um, I used to be. I’m Monica Webber now.”
The Marine followed up, “Were you married to Captain Haven Kayd, ma’am?”
“Yes. Yes, I was. What is this about?”
“Mom, what’s going on,” Lara asked as she looked at her mother and then back at the Marines on her porch.
“Your husband has been located and is being transported to the States as we speak,” the Marine started to inform.
“He’s...he’s alive,” Monica interrupted. She put her hand to her heart and tears filled her eyes.
“Dad,” Lara’s heart filled with so much emotion, she let out the most heartbreaking sound as she realized who the Marine was talking about, “Dad’s alive?”
Skip pulled his girls to him and wrapped his arms around them. The Marine continued to speak, but Monica and Lara weren’t listening. Skip nodded as he heard what the Marine was saying. Someone had to keep it together so that they would know where to be and when they were going to get to see Haven again.
Monica and Lara were so full of emotion, they practically melted in Skip’s arms. Then, Monica pulled herself away and stepped out onto the porch, “Captain Haven Kayd? You’re sure? Because I’ve already gone through this once and I can’t go through this again if you’re not right.”
The Marines nodded, “We’re sure, ma’am. It’s him. We positively identified him and other than some malnutrition and complications from dehydration, he’s bouncing back from what he’s been through.”
“What he’s been through,” Monica asked.
The Marines looked at her and nodded. One cocked his head and tried to continue in an apologetic tone, “We can’t go into any of that ma’am.”
“You’re going do that,” Monica looked back and forth between both Marines, “You’re going to pull that now?” Monica looked at Lara and put her arms out, “Come here, honey!”
Lara pulled herself away from Skip and went to her mother, “Mom, what are they saying?”
“I don’t know honey,” Monica answered, “Your father’s alive. That’s all we know right now.” Monica stroked Lara’s hair, “Your father’s alive.”
“Dad,” Lara uttered through tears. Then, her body started to shake uncontrollably as she wept in her mother’s arms.
Staring at the mirror above his dresser, Haven couldn’t believe how much he had changed over the years. His eyes were sunk in and his jawbones were protruding. His teeth needed to be fixed and his body was skin and bones. The doctor told him he’d get his health back, but it was hard to imagine as he stood there looking at himself.
“What a mess,” he thought but he was full of relief. A special forces team had been chosen to extract him and he was brought aboard the USS Peralta, which was the closest vessel in the area. He had received immediate medical treatment and then he was assigned a private room for a few days until further transport could be arranged.
Of course, the sailors aboard the Peralta were celebrating him. They applauded as he was helicoptered onto the ship and everyone wanted to meet him. The C.O. was making arrangements for a party with him as the guest of honor, but he had also ordered his sailors not to make too much of a fuss. Captain Kayd was to be allowed to rest until he got his strength back. Plus, he was to be given all the food The Captain desired.
Looking at the mirror in front of him, he wasn’t just studying how much his looks had changed. He had slipped into deep thought about what he had just been through. He couldn’t believe his room was real. He couldn’t believe he was standing on a Naval vessel. He had resigned himself to die and to fight for his life while going down. But here he was, safe and sound with clean and dry clothes on his back, boots on his feet, and a bed to sleep on.
He looked up at the door when he heard the knock, “Yeah? Come in.”
A cook popped his head through the door, “I thought you’d like a couple of cheeseburgers and some fries Captain.”
“Oh,” Haven’s eyes grew wide with surprise, “That would be great. Yeah.”
The cook brought the covered plate in and put it on the table. He pulled some packets of mustard and ketchup out of his pockets and then, he placed a can of cold Coke on the table, “If you need anything else, just ask. I got you, sir!”
“Oh man,” Kayd looked at the burgers as he uncovered them, “This looks great. Thank you.”
“No problem sir,” the cook nodded and then headed toward the door, “I’ll leave you to it.”
“Hey uh,” Haven started.
The cook turned around and looked back at the Captain, “Findley.”
“Findley,” Haven repeated, “Thanks for everything. I really do appreciate it.”
Findley nodded, “After what you’ve been through sir, just snap your fingers if you want something. We’ve got you.”
Haven nodded as his face twisted slightly with emotion. Findley was moved, but he tried his best not to show it.
“Okay then,” Findley put his head down and closed the door behind him.
Haven looked around at the cheeseburgers with a kid’s look of wonder in his eyes. He pulled the chair away from the table and took a seat. He had just eaten not more than an hour before but who could turn down a cheeseburger?
Halfway through his burger, Haven’s subconscious stopped him for a moment. As he held the burger in his hand, his eyes locked on it as he slipped into deep thought once again. He was eating a burger! He was holding a burger in his hand! The reality of his situation hadn’t quite caught up to him yet.
Just a few days before, he had been eating some slop out of a plate that he couldn’t even identify. The food he was given in the compound took some getting used to and he wasn’t quite sure it was even food most of the time. He was certain that the guerillas might have put some rat feces in it from time to time just for kicks. He knew they might have even spit in his food on occasion. What was in his food was up for anyone’s imagination, but he ate it because there was nothing else.
Now, he was holding a warm cheeseburger in his hand. His mind kept playing tricks on him. Was this real? Or was he back in that cell imagining all this?
Another knock on the door shook him back to reality. He looked up at it, “Yeah? Come in.”
That’s when Haven saw a familiar face. His eyes lit up with excitement as he put his burger back on the plate and stood up to greet his old friend, “Stew! They let you on here?”
Stew came into the room with the biggest smile on his face. He was a solid man with a tall build and a tight buzz cut, “Well, they call me Colonel now. Rank has its privileges.”
“Colonel,” Haven repeated with a look of admiration, “How long have I been gone?”
“Yeah. It’s been a few years Haven,” Stew nodded, “We’ll get you back up to speed in no time.” Stew looked around the room and saw the cheeseburgers, “Cook been taking care of you?”
“Oh yeah,” Haven shook his head, “They have been. I had some steak and the best mashed potatoes. I even had some apple pie. All the things I’ve missed.”
Stew looked over and studied Haven. He put his hand on Haven’s shoulder, “Man, I missed you. Good to see you. Glad you held on and kept yourself alive.”
Haven nodded as his eyes squinted slightly. It was as if in one split second, all the memories from the past several years rushed through his mind. The lights in his face. The torture the guerillas loved to inflict. Sleeping on a concrete floor and the sudden bangs that would jar him awake.
Stew had no idea what was going through Haven’s mind, but he could imagine it wasn’t anything good, “Hey Haven, I’ve got something for you. I’ll be right back.”
Haven nodded as Stew left the room. His mind was still back there in the cell, but he was slowly pulling himself out of it. He loved Stew’s surprise when The Colonel returned with a cooler full of cold beers. Suddenly, Haven snapped out of it. He knew he was home when he had a cold beer in his hand.
That first drink went down so smooth. In all the time Haven spent thinking about things in his lonely cell, the taste of a cold beer never crossed his mind. But that first drink sure made him miss it. He took a drink, looked at the bottle, and then took another long drink. His first beer was gone in no time.
Stew looked on with a smile on his face, “I can imagine.” He popped open another one and handed it to Haven. Then, he repeated himself, “I can only imagine.”
They sat for hours talking about things. Both of them did their best to stay off the topic of what life was like in a POW camp. When they found their conversation slipping into that, they changed it quickly. They knew Haven was going to have to work through those thoughts and memories in some sort of therapy or whatever way was more effective for him but now was not the time.
“Oh hey,” Stew piped up to change the subject, “I’ve got something else for you.”
“What’s that,” Haven asked.
“Well, when the Marine Corps processes you and gets all the paperwork straight, I think I’ve got an opportunity that you’ll like,” Stew looked at Haven with a nod.
“You don’t think retirement would suit me,” Haven asked with a smile.
“See, here’s the thing,” Stew answered, “It’s not hard work at all. You don’t even work every day. It’s consulting for the military, but it’s not a 9 to 5 in a suit and tie. I think you’ll like it and the pay is very good.”
Haven took another drink of his beer and then nodded hard. He was seriously thinking about it. From a cold cell to a job opportunity, all Haven could do was shake his head in disbelief how fast life could change!
Skip came down the steps in the middle of the night. He had woken up in an empty bed and normally, that would be odd. But things had changed since he had found out that Haven Kayd was still alive.
Monica was on the couch looking out the window into the moonlight. She had napkins in her hands and her nose was running, sure signs she had been crying. She loved the idea that Haven was still alive. She loved that her daughter still had a father. But she had a problem.
When she was told her husband had died on a mission, all life had stopped for her. She had a daughter to raise on her own and nothing else mattered. She had little time to mourn because a little girl running around the house was a full-time job. But she mourned at night while her daughter slept peacefully. Before long, the need to mourn faded and she knew she needed to get on with life.
She met Skip at her daughter’s school. Two single parents taking their kids to a fair that the school had put together. They bumped into each other at the Ring Toss, and then Skip invited her to the Shooting Range where he won her a rubber snake. He tried to work his way up to the Teddy Bear, but the snake was as far as he got.
They married nearly two years later, and Skip was the man Lara now knew as Dad. “Dad” was but a concept to her, the man of the house. That’s all she knew about it since her real father had been taken away from her at such an early age.
Skip sat down on the couch with Monica. He sat silently and looked out the window himself. The reality of Haven Kayd being alive wasn’t just a heavy matter on Monica’s shoulders. It was weighing on him as well.
Monica looked at Skip and studied his eyes, “I’m sorry. I’m just a mess.”
Skip tilted his head, “No need to be sorry, honey. You had no idea. How could you?”
Monica’s eyes froze on Skip’s. She didn’t know what to say because her mind was racing a million miles a minute, and then tears dripped from her eyes, “This is so unfair to you.”
Skip shook his head, “No. This is unfair to you. I can’t imagine what you’re going through. Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it.”
“What do you mean,” Monica asked.
Skip put his head down and then looked back up at her with a serious look on his face, “I know how hard this has to be on you. You were married to him. You loved him. You didn’t know...”
Monica put her hand on his hand and stopped him, “I’m married to you now. I’m married to you. Don’t think that. I’m not thinking that. It’s going to be hard to have that conversation with him and I want to be there for him if he needs me. But I think it’s going to be best to just let him go and let him get on with putting the pieces of his life back together. I just want him and Lara to have something. You know?”
“I do,” Skip nodded, and then he smiled while a quick sigh of relief escaped his lips.
“Oh honey,” Monica reached up and touched his face, “Were you worried about that? You don’t have to worry about that. You’re my husband now. Life gave Haven and me a really bad deal. But that’s all it was and you’re my husband now. Okay?”
Skip studied Monica with a smile and a tear escaped his eye, “Okay.”
“Okay,” Skip pulled Monica toward him and kissed her passionately as if he had just watched his life flash before his eyes and he had survived.
In a white dress and her long hair braided behind her back, Lara stood patiently waiting. She was excited but she was fighting her nervous energy while trying to stand as still as possible. With her feet tapping and hands not knowing what to do with themselves, her restlessness couldn’t be entirely beat. But she was doing the best she could.
Monica looked equally restless in her floral pattern dress and cork heels. Her fingers were nicely manicured, but she was picking so much at it, they were about to lose their perfect sheen.
Skip was standing behind the girls. He was the least invested in Haven’s return and looked the most nervous. He wore a suit and tie to the occasion. He had come into the marriage knowing he had big shoes to fill. But now that Haven was alive, it felt to Skip like the shoes just got a lot bigger. He was a hero being celebrated for surviving years in a POW camp that was abandoned one day for some unknown reason and Haven was left to die alone. There were so many unanswered questions, but Skip could see in Lara’s eyes that he would never be able to hold a candle to her real father.
The meeting was scheduled to take place at the Welcome Center at MCAS Cherry Point in North Carolina where Haven would finish being processed out of the Marine Corps. As Monica and Lara patiently waited at the glass doors, Haven’s car finally arrived. He was being driven to the Welcome Center and given VIP treatment. The entire day had been planned for him to spend with his family.
A Corporal stepped out of the driver’s seat and opened the back door. Lara could feel butterflies rise in her throat. The anticipation was killing her. But the man who stepped out of the back seat was not her father. He was not the man she remembered.
A look of shock registered on Monica’s face. She couldn’t believe the shape Haven was in. He didn’t look well at all. It had been a few weeks from the time he had been saved and that was not enough time to get him completely back to health. Monica had been briefed on his condition, but she could never have imagined that it was that bad.
Lara shook her head as she watched her father walk up to the doors and then as they opened, he walked through. The look on his face was priceless. He lit up when he saw Monica and Lara standing together. His face twisted as he tried to hold back tears.
Lara looked at her mother confused, but Monica nodded subtly. The young lady’s eyes went to the man standing at the door and then back to her mother. So, Monica whispered, “Honey, go say hi to your father.”
Haven understood. Lara was four years old the last time she saw him. He could see she was struggling to remember him, so he walked over and knelt in front of her. He used to do that when she was small and he wanted to have a heart to heart with her, but she wasn’t so small anymore.
To his surprise, Lara tilted her head and smiled. She got on her knees and looked him in his eyes. With a long look and a soft heart, she could start to see him. She was starting to remember the man who was hidden in there somewhere.
Her eyes filled with tears as her memory began to reconcile with the very limited details the Marines had given her about her father’s life in a POW camp. Her heart sunk as she felt pity for the man and she hurt for him as her imagination wandered about what he had been through. She could see it in his face that those years had been tough on him and she couldn’t help herself but to reach out to the man in front of her. His heart swelled as he hugged her back and pulled her to him. Her arms felt so good around him, the warmest and most tender hug he had ever felt.
Monica put her hands to her mouth as a wave of emotion came over her. Haven looked up at her while still holding his daughter tight. Then, he kissed her on the forehead and stood up to meet his wife.
She choked on her tears when she tried to say, “Hello.” He put his arms around her and held her like she was the only person on the face of the earth. When Lara joined and put her arms around them both, Haven felt his life come back together. He could get through anything as long as he had his two girls, the two girls that were in his arms.
The hug lasted a moment and then Haven took a step back, “I know. I know I look like the Crypt Keeper, but I won’t for long. I just need a few more steak and potatoes. I’ll get back to what I was like in no time.”
“No. No, honey,” Monica interrupted, “You don’t look like...that. It’s just...you need...time. It will take a little time. That’s all.”
Haven’s heart was content. Her words were warm and healing. As he studied her face, he noticed the man standing behind her. He noticed his hand on Monica’s shoulders and then, he noticed his ring. He looked down and noticed her ring. Immediately, there was a hole in his chest where a heart used to be. He covered it with his hand as he looked back up at the man standing behind his wife.
Monica nodded, “Haven, this is Skip.”
Skip extended his hand out and Haven shook it. His lip started to tremble, but Haven tried to hold back all other emotion, “Hi, Skip.”
“Hi, Haven,” Skip’s voice beamed into Haven’s ears.
Haven swallowed hard as if his mouth suddenly went dry. His face was showing deep, hurt emotion and the silence was awkward. Too awkward for Monica to stand, “I’m sorry, Haven. They told me...They told me...I raised our daughter for years by myself and then, I met Skip.” Monica stopped herself. She knew it wasn’t making Haven feel any better about the situation. His face was registering more hurt with every word she said.
He looked over at his daughter. At a moment when he felt like he had just lost everything that ever mattered to him, looking at his daughter reminded him that he still had something left. And that little girl of his was so special, she was enough. She was all he needed in a world that felt like it had completely abandoned him.
That’s when he heard his daughter say, “Dad is a good man. You’d like him...Dad.” Lara’s face went red. She suddenly realized what she had just done, “I’m sorry. Um...”
Like a gut punch, Haven felt the weight of what it was like to be left behind and replaced by someone else. Of course, Lara didn’t mean to hurt her father. It was a Freudian Slip, but one like a sharp stake to the heart.
He looked up at Skip who winced when he saw the hurt in Haven’s eyes. Then, he looked back at Lara as he reached out to stroke her hair, “It’s okay, honey. There are a lot of things we’ve all gone through. It’s going to take a little time to get used to them all. I’m glad he’s a good man.”
“But, you’re my dad,” Lara confirmed. Skip nodded knowingly. Lara was all Haven had left. Skip knew he was going to have to give that its own space.
Monica gave it a pause and then interrupted the heavy moment, “Haven, we’re going to go. When you get settled, let us know where you are and we can make any kind of arrangements you need.”
Her words dropped heavily on his ears. What he thought was going to be a happy family reunion turned into the most heartbreaking moment of his life. Instead of going home with his family, his family was going home without him. His beautiful wife was with someone else and his daughter called him Dad. Throughout all the briefings Haven had been through, nothing prepared him for that.
They said their final goodbyes. He hugged his daughter tight once more and then, he watched them all walk away. He held his hands out in front of him and looked at them long and hard. They were empty. In a very real sense, he had actually been left empty-handed.
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