"The Empty Place at the Table"
“We’ve never had such a beautiful Thanksgiving table," said Marsha.
“You say that every year,” Mike responded with a smile.
“But this year is different,” she answered, glancing over at the photo of their son Mark.
“You’re right,” said Mike. “This is the first year he won’t be here.”
“Well, maybe not in person, but certainly in spirit. I made sure to set a place for him right beside me,” Marsha said quietly, as a tear rolled down her cheek.
Their heartfelt conversation was interrupted by a ruckus in the driveway. Within seconds, the front door flew open, and shouts of Happy Thanksgiving echoed throughout the house as a steady stream of hungry family members flocked in. Coats and shoes were left in piles, bottles of wine were opened and the neat display of hors d’oeuvres was attacked from all sides of the buffet table. Children ran through the house playing tag, some watched football and others brought each other up-to-date.
When the frenzy transformed into semi-controlled commotion, Mike raised a glass and asked for everyone’s attention.
“Come on Uncle Mike! Us kids were having so much fun,” hollered eight-year-old Jordan.
“Sit down and keep your mouth shut Jordan, or you won’t be having fun for a long time!” warned his father Clark.
Marsha walked over to Mike’s side and said, “Maybe I’m the only one keeping track, but this is the 20th Thanksgiving we’ve hosted. Our family has grown with each passing year, and we always look forward to spending time together. We’re so grateful to have you in our lives, and appreciate each one of you.”
“I’ll toast to that!” said cousin Bill, draining his glass in one gulp.
“Geez Bill! You’d better slow down. That’s already your fourth drink,” cautioned his brother Tom.
“It’s Thanksgiving for God’s sake! Stop counting and enjoy yourself!” Bill shot back.
Mike cleared his throat loud enough to stifle the bickering, placed his hand on Marsha’s shoulder and said, “This is also our first Thanksgiving without Mark.”
Jordan, and his identical twin brother Jake, said in unison, “We miss him so much. Nobody else ever played outside with us.”
Taking a deep breath and a sip of wine, Marsha continued, “We’re so sad we can barely put it into words, but we’re beyond proud of Mark’s service to our country. We think he’s stationed somewhere in the Middle East, but wherever he is, our thoughts are always with him. Every now and then Mark is able to call, and it feels great to hear his voice, but it tears us up inside when we have to say goodbye. To make things even worse, we have no idea when he’ll be back. Tours of duty can last from six months to four years, and as of today he’s been gone 11 months.”
No one said a word, but there were hugs and tears all around. Even the children understood the importance of the moment.
The excitement that initially filled the room was now overshadowed by gloom. Conversations dwindled and time seemed to stand still.
Finally, the oven timer buzzed, breaking the silence and reminding everyone their appetite for the holiday meal was about to be filled.
Plates overflowed with turkey, potatoes, stuffing, gravy, green bean casserole, dinner rolls and cranberry sauce. In between mouthfuls of food, clinking wine glasses and small talk, everyone glanced over at Mark’s empty place at the table.
Before anyone considered going back for seconds Clark said, “Hey, maybe it’s my imagination, but I think I just heard a car door slam.”
He sprinted to the door and swung it open. Standing right in front of him were two masked and gloved men dressed in camouflage. They held handguns, with one pointed directly at Clark’s chest.
“No one move and maybe you won’t get hurt,” said the larger of the two.
Clark raised his arms above his head and stared at the gunmen. For a fleeting second, he wondered if Mark was ever in a situation like this. Then, the two intruders moved towards him, forcing Clark to walk backwards and in the direction of the table surrounded by trembling guests.
“Get up slowly and stand single file behind this guy,” ordered the shorter man, nodding toward Clark.
Both guns kept aim on potential targets, ensuring everyone knew they meant business.
“Buck, put your backpack on the floor in front of him,” directed the apparent leader.
After opening the bag as wide as it would stretch, Buck said, “One at a time, drop in your cell phone, wallet and jewelry, then sit down on the living room floor. Hurry up!”
Mike was the last one through the line and he hesitated before doing as he was told. Before he knew it, the barrel of the gun was pushed against his forehead.
The leader said, “If any of you want to make it out alive, do exactly what we say.”
Marsha cried out, “Please don’t shoot him! I’ll give you anything you want. Much more than you’ve collected so far.”
“Now that sounds like a good plan. As for the rest of you, if anyone moves, I’ll kill this woman without blinking an eye and Buck will shoot each of you at my say so. Do you understand?” the leader bellowed.
A chorus of shaky “yeses” followed, as the man in charge pulled Marsha to her feet and disappeared down the hallway. Buck secured his backpack while keeping his gun focused on the group.
Mike cried into his sleeve and the children huddled close to their parents. It felt like hours, but within 10 minutes, Marsha returned to Mike’s side and the thief held an overflowing box of valuable items.
“Luckily, you followed directions and she made good on her promise. Stay right where you are until we leave,” the leader said, as they hustled out the open front door.
Tom peeked through the window and watched as their car started to back up just as a black SUV pulled in directly behind it.
“Get away from there Tom! They have guns!” Bill hollered.
Jake jumped up and ran to slam and lock the door. Jordan reached into his back pocket, pulled out his cell phone and dialed 9-1-1. He reported what happened, looked at his family and explained, “She said we’re supposed to stay put. The State Police and Sheriff are on their way.”
“I guess those guys never thought a kid would have a phone, so they waved me through,” Jordan said beaming.
“And it looks like all the running I like to do helped me get to the door pretty fast,” grinned Jake.
Clark looked over at his sons and said, “I couldn’t be prouder of the two of you!”
Moments later, sirens could be heard and it wasn’t long before flashing lights lit up the yard. It seemed safe for everyone to get up from the floor. Someone knocked, then loudly declared he was Sargent Brennan of the State Police. Tom looked through the peephole to be sure it was a cop before opening the door.
The Sargent immediately said that the suspects were in custody and would be transported to the station to be booked and interrogated. He then asked if anyone was hurt or needed special assistance.
Mike stepped forward and said, “We’re all physically fine, but really shook up.”
“I’m glad no one was injured. We will have to take your statements now, which should help put these two away for a good long time,” Sargent Brennan replied.
“I’m sorry to have to inform you that we have to log in the stolen property as evidence before it can be returned. I’ll do my best to get this handled efficiently,” added the Sargent.
After the police finished their paperwork, Mike was handed a report number for the incident.
As he was leaving, Sargent Brennan said, “Thanks folks. Oh, and by the way, a tow truck is on its way to pick up their car. We also couldn’t be more thankful to the man who blocked their escape."
“What do you mean?” asked Tom. “It wasn’t a law-enforcement vehicle?”
“Not one of us,” answered the Sargent. “Have a Happy Thanksgiving!”
After the door closed, everyone stood in complete silence.
Eventually, Mike asked, “What should we do now?”
Before anyone could respond, someone pounded on the door.
“I wonder what the police forgot?” Bill questioned as he walked over to find out.
He opened the door and Marsha screamed, “Oh my God! I can’t believe my eyes! Is it really you Mark?”
After hugging everyone in the room, Mark explained he was able to arrange a short leave for the Thanksgiving holiday.
“The Sargent filled me in on what was going on. I’m certainly grateful I arrived when I did and heard Jake and Jordan were real heroes,” added Mark.
The boys couldn’t have been more pleased to hear that news.
“Anyhow, am I too late for dinner?” asked Mark.
It didn’t take long for plates to be filled with turkey and all the fixings. Everyone took a seat, Mark sat beside his mom and the celebration began as if nothing had happened.
“This is the most memorable Thanksgiving ever!” announced Marsha.