Noah was uncomfortable at the bus stop, thoughtfully smoking his cigarette. At some point, he had promised his mother that he would quit smoking. However, if she could break her promises, he could too. A soft rain fell, refreshing the city. Soon the bus points at the corner, and he hurriedly puts out his cigarette on the sole of his boot before throwing it in the garbage. The city was dirty enough. He gets in the vehicle, pays, and gets a seat in the back. There were only three more people inside, which encouraged him to put his box and backpack on the seat beside him. The discomfort of carrying them was more psychological than physical.
The rain gets more intense, and the thunders make the sky vibrate. His muscles contract immediately. His nails sink in the palm of his hand. In his hometown, a storm like this was rare, and when it occurs, it was always a disgrace premonition. His life added new layers of discomfort to the primitive fear of loud noises and the fury of nature. His muscles gradually relaxed. He searched his pocket for a car rental brochure. On the back was the address that was his destination, 212th October 12th Street. He hoped that his research was right. This bus would leave him only a few blocks away from the place. It would be a long trip.
A flash crosses the heavens. A memory comes to mind. One night when he was nine years old, it rained cats and dogs, the lightning was falling, and his parents were fighting. The last time his father entered that house. He was a terrible man: dishonest, quarrelsome, relapsing father, unfaithful husband. His mother was not much better, but the mere fact that she put up with that man and never abandoned him earned her some points. For an impressionable kid, the mixture of a storm, domestic violence, and the discovery that his older brother ran away from home is the recipe for many traumas. Until today he could not forgive his brother. He was a coward. He abandons him, his little brother. His hand, by instinct, went towards the pack of cigarettes. He restrained himself.
The shrink often told him not to cling too long to sad memories. He tried to find something to get him out of those unhappy thoughts. The bus was passing through a street full of mom-and-pop stores. For a while, he worked in one of these, The Pirate Jonny Emporium, maintained by a war veteran who gave the place its name. His childhood home was upstairs from the store, and Jonny was the landlord. For some reason, Johnny didn't like him hanging around the street when he was a kid, so he asked him to do various tasks in his store. Loading boxes, organizing products on the shelves, sweeping the floor, cleaning windows. Later, as he grew up, after school, he stayed at the checkout counter and watched the store. Jonny paid for the day's work a few coins but always asked before if he had any homework to do. He had never been good at school, but he soon realized that it would be his best way out of the shitty life he had. He smiled when he realized that Jonny was the male figure of his life.
Remembering Jonny was the key to unlocking the most important memories of his childhood. Johnny was always aware of business opportunities, and in that neighborhood, the kids' pocket money was gold. So, on a slow Friday, Jonny asked what the children spent their money on in those days. Noah answered that the neighborhood arcade was closing, and the children were pretty upset. His eyes sparkled. The next Monday, a pinball machine and a claw crane appeared in the back of the store, and soon children became the main clients. It was because of that old pinball machine that he discovered his vocation: fixing machines. Whenever it had any problem, it was up to him to fix the biggest moneymakers in the store. He proved to be so good at it that when he turned eleven, Jonny gave him a tool kit and Manny.
Manny was one of the claw machine stuffed animals. A seal in navy uniform. A cheesy joke, but it was one of the few toys that he had won, so it was magic. A curious thing about Manny was its secret pocket in his back under its clothes. Manny was, for a long time, the safe of his money, dreams, and ideas. If he left anywhere else, his mother would attack it. She had had addiction problems and consumed anything to support it. Never a TV lasted much more than two months in the house.
The bus remains empty and begins to enter downtown, tall grey buildings filled with serious business people. That isn't his world. His world was dirty with grease and gasoline. In high school, the only thing he was good at was car mechanics classes. In the rest, he was below average. His mother missed all the parent-teacher meetings, and he ended up having to listen to his teachers complaining about his low development by himself. Being judged insufficient is a hard thing for a teenager. For adults too, but until then, time to creates resistance. At school, he had no friends. The colleagues and their parents only measured him as an obstacle to their success. He had listened to those exact words. Manny was his confidant of frustrations and thoughts. Talking to oneself is not great for mental health but talking to a stuffed animal was a little better, as long as you know all the time that it's a toy and it has no way to answer you back. Not properly.
He had been in that city before, ten years ago. He joined the Navy here when he finished his studies. He had the childish idea that by doing this, he was entering a hero academy or something like that. In part, this is true, but the work of a hero is sometimes dirty and requires fast and difficult decisions. His backpack had almost nothing back then: two changes of clothes, a pack of underwear, his tool kit, and Manny. No pictures of home relatives or other mementos. After boot camp, they soon send him to the front lines. Mechanics are always useful on the front lines. He thought he would stay at the bases taking care of maintenance. Sweet illusion. He participated in many patrols. He had to use his gun. He slept attached to Manny when he killed his first man. And the second, and the third until the tenth. After that, something changed in him, and only one touch on the dummy was enough. It was as if he transferred all his guilt and pain to him. Noah never saw himself as religious, but this ritual became part of his life by the time. Manny was the switch that turned on and off his soldier mode.
Beautiful houses with gardens and painted fences were now the view from the bus window. That was the homecoming dream of many fellow soldiers. Many wanted to return and form families and live in beautiful houses in the suburbs with a dog called Spot. Manny even had this and only dreamed of returning. He did not have those dreams, didn't see himself having anything or anywhere. His fellow soldiers knew that. After several missions together, some colleagues began to invite him to participate in their dreams. Xavier said that he was going to introduce him to one of his many cousins. Tommy asked to spend the holidays with his family at the ranch. Hernandez made him agree to open a Garage together. Danny proposed him to share an apartment since they were the only singles in the squad. Mitch invited him to meet his parents, who had a hotel in the mountains. He got confused, everyone was offering him such appealing things, and he didn't have something to return. Soon he understood what he could offer: his companionship and life.
Noah signaled, collected his things, and got off the bus. The rain had stopped, but the street was still full of puddles. He took a deep breath while lighting a cigarette. Now the rest of the way was on foot, fifteen minutes at most. He started walking, leaving a slow trail of smoke like a locomotive leaving a station. The box weighed on his hands. He knew why. Six months ago, his squad was redirected to another base to help with supply convoy security, a routine they said. Routine was what it seemed for the next four months. In one of these, a mine detonated, sending the first vehicle on the convoy into the air, a trap. The defense perimeter was established in a flash, while rescued the wounded and reallocated the cargo. The enemy platoon was heavily armed, and they needed to be fast. Unfortunately, the rescue was not swift enough, and soon rockets started raining. The following scenes were a blur in his mind. He didn't think, just acted, and followed the orders of the squad leader. The convoy managed to reach the base without loss of cargo. However, some members of his squad were not so lucky. That box was part of the burden of that attack.
The address indicated a house on a dead-end street. He remembers to saw it in a photo. He put the cigarette out on his boots again and breathed a few times as the doctor had taught him. He rang the bell. The noise inside the house sounds like someone doing the dishes, and soon after, the door opened a little just enough to see a female suspicion face.
"Yes?" said the woman probing Noah, "What does the army want with us again?" Noah said in a tone of voice that highlighted her countryside accent. “Sorry, Mrs. Hernandez, I just got here, I couldn't change my uniform. I didn't officially come. I served with your husband. I came to deliver some things that were left behind.” Mrs. Hernandez let out a sigh, opening the door completely. "You may enter, sir...Benz," she said, indicating a chair in the room that was on the right. "You can call me Noah if you prefer," he said shyly, sitting in the chair indicated. "I'll be right back with a drink for us," she said, leaving him alone.
The air of mourning was still there. The flag folded in front of the portrait with a lit candle, the flowers in the vase needing watering. At the same time, there was some life struggling to reappear. A wall had marks of a chalk drawing. A half-built lego house and a G.I. Joe
doll were next to the portrait of his companion of many missions. Mrs. Hernandez returned with two bottles of beer. "Sorry, it's the only thing that I have other than milk and water," she said, giving one of the bottles. He was missing a beer, so he thanked her with a smile. "So you said you served with my husband," she said sitting down. "Yes, yes, I served with him. I was the platoon mechanic, and he and I shared the bunk. I, well, I was with him on the day of the attack, and I was the one who rescued him. He stayed with him and the others while they were trying to recover," his eyes started to get moist, he looked at the ceiling, "When he... he was gone I went into shock. I couldn't help to collect his things, so I decided to deliver in person what the officers didn't catch," he said by pushing the box.
It was a shoebox wrapped in brown paper and plastic so as not to get wet. Inside there were memories: pictures, letters, a diary, his wedding ring, and a photo of her with a little spotted boy. The woman's hard face was softening to every item she touched. "I wanted to have come along with the officers for the funeral, but, well, I was in no condition. They didn't release me, but know that he was one of the best men I knew and that he missed you every day and tried his best to come back to you." She averted her eyes from the pictures and for a few seconds looked deep into his eyes, "This ring was from Dom's grandfather, he told me it was our contract for life to be happy. When they came here and didn't give it to me for several days, I nourished the hope that one day he would come back with that insurance salesman smile. Now you return it to me, and I know that he really died and will not come back..." she said, wiping her tears and looking deeper into Noah's dar eyes. "But, I'm not upset that you did this. I'm relieved that something of him stayed with me, our son, and now he can also make these stupid promises to someone who will fall in love with him. Thanks, Noah, you've been a good friend.”
Those words moved him, but he took a deep breath because his mission was not over yet. "Mr. Hernandez..." he started, "Julia please," She interrupted. "Okay, Julia, Dom asked me a favor before... well, he asked me to deliver something for your son. Could you call him?" he said in a low tone of embarrassment. She smiled and looked down the stairs to the second floor, where an eight-year-old boy was hiding curious. She made a sign, and the boy came down, stopping by his mother's side. "Dom always liked to have secrets with Matt. Son, say hi to Noah. He came to bring something for you." The boy just nodded and took a step closer to his mother. Noah knelt and put his hand in his backpack, "Your father served with me, and he loved to talk how smart and brave you are and that you were the best boy in the whole world. I think he must be right. But you know, he also said that every hero needs a partner, someone who protects his back. Your father is a hero, and I protected his back. He thought that you, too, would be a hero one day. Before he went to the place where the heroes go, he asked me to take care that you also have a partner. I had a partner too, a partner who took care of me until now, but, well, now I think it's his time to take care of someone else's back." he pulled Manny and handed him to the boy that caught with surprisingly agile hands. "His name is Manny, he protected our squad, now he will stay with you. If you want to," The boy froze for a few seconds before giving him a quick hug of thanks. At this moment, Noah whispered in his ear "In his back has a pocket. There is a letter from your father to you."
The boy ran up with his treasure by his chest. Julia followed him with her gaze as Noah stood up. "Okay, Julia, I won't be hanging here much longer. I have other places to go to. Thanks for the beer." He didn't ask for more heading for the exit. "One day, who knows, you might come over here and help Matt solve some things Dom promised?" She said from the door as he walked through the yard. "Yeah, sure, I'll start working in a garage, then I'll send you the address... I will be here for him too.”