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Nathaniel rolled off his bed, one sock still on from a drowsy and half-remembered Sunday night full of back woods excursions. His teeth remained unbrushed, and his body and clothes half-reeked of dried sweat and grime accumulated from the fields, and oil from his dirtbike. He woke up groggy, not quite sure if this was reality, or part of his subconscious escapades while asleep. Either way, he was always excited to get up, excited to begin another summer day, and mostly, to hang out with his friend, Justin.
Justin Canfield lived a few miles south down Route 39 and each one of them took turns biking to the other’s farm from day to day. In a little country town like Orton, this was perfectly normal, eleven year old boys traveling several miles on bicycle to a friend’s house. The town was quiet, safe, and your next door neighbor lived a seemingly half-mile as it was. Orton was perfect for young boys, and perfect for summers too. Nathaniel loved summer days, especially this summer.
“Nathaniel, hurry up, the eggs are getting cold, and the cereal’s soggy!” His mom always yelled at him about breakfast, but he hardly cared, so long as it filled him until lunch at Justin’s, egg salad sandwiches, cottage cheese, applesauce, and ice cream, especially Ms. Canfield’s homemade ice cream. “I’m leaving Hon, I’ll see you at 8,” his mom projected up the staircase, waiting for a reply from her only child. Justin walked down the stairs and into the kitchen at a normal, cheerful pace, smiling, and kissing his mother goodbye for the day. As the car pulled out of the gravel drive, he anxiously wolfed down his food and grabbed his baseball mitt, and .22 caliber rifle.
Justin lived at his mom’s for the summer, and ever since he showed up to Orton back in May, everyday was a new adventure for the two of them. They would shoot targets in the back field, guns as well as re-curve bows and arrows, like the Indians from old book-tales. They would fish for crappie in the ponds, catching as many as seven one afternoon, a whopping number for the novice fisherman. When the sun would beat down unbearably, which it usually did between 11:30 and 1:45 or so each day, they would retreat to their secret fort just inside the woods, perfectly hidden from invaders, pirates, robbers, Germans, and especially, girls. On a particularly humid afternoon back in July, the pirate invasions were heavier than usual. The boys took opposite flanks, kept a tight perimeter, and in merely two hard-fought hours defeated Captain Staunch and over thirty of his toughest, and dare I say, ugliest pirate mates. The iced lemonade on Justin’s porch made the exhausting and strenuous mêlée with the buccaneers but a victorious memory.
Nathaniel arrived to Justin’s at a half past ten, and the sun was already beating heavily overhead. Nathaniel’s body welcomed the air conditioned house as the sweat on his chest, face and armpits became like the wet after a plunge in his above-ground pool on a windy day. Justin was finishing his breakfast as Nathaniel ran the tentative itinerary by him. Hunting frogs, rope swinging into the creek, and flying F-16’s all sounded good, and luckily they were starting their day early enough to fit it all in before their well-deserved broccoli and cheese casserole supper at six o’clock.
The sky was bright blue as usual, speckled with the occasional pristine, white cloud. The elm trees stood erect; six acres of overgrown grass, magnificently green as usual, separated the century-old farmhouse from dense, uninhabited woodlands. Orton Creek flowed with life and adventure. Its current ran all the way across Orton, twenty-one miles in all through Chester County. The boys had never seen its beginning, or end for that matter, but played everyday between a two mile long stretch behind their pastures. They grabbed their bikes, short-stocked rifles, and retreated to the muddy banks of Orton. No bullfrog escaped the military sharpshooters that day, and two polished, prized Silver Ace badges were awarded them, directly from the United States Marines.
After a game of Gin Rummy in the tree house, the boys rode their bikes a half mile south to an inlet in the creek, stoically guarded by a giant oak tree, with a long and tattered rope dangling off its arm. The young paratroopers stripped off their tank tops, unlaced tennis shoes, tossed bikes against the tree, and ascended into the Navy Seals Special Operations aircraft. When the pilot reached an appropriate cruising altitude and neared the drop zone, the young soldiers readied themselves, steadied their bodies out the plane’s hatch over its left wing, and dove into the blue abyss. They yelled in unison, flying freely towards their target, and plunged gleefully into the vivacious Orton Creek. Mission accomplished. Time for a warm towel, and a hot casserole.
Nathaniel and Justin, marching drenched backed to the mess hall that is the Canfield kitchen, recalled a day of sheer success and mutual triumph. A perfect team. A dynamic duo. Separate, they are normal, but unified, an unbreakable bond. The kitchen smelled particularly flavorsome. A cheesy aroma permeated the Justin’s house, each room, all the way up the banister to the upstairs bathroom where the boys changed out of their fatigues, and placed their sopping cargo shorts and tank tops into the bathtub.
The kitchen table was set when came back downstairs, dry, and ready for dinner. Mrs. Canfield placed the steaming casserole in its place, and asked how their day was, and what they did. They glanced at each other with a concealed smile, and in alternating fashion replied, “pretty good,” “fun,” and “not much”. They mainly mentioned their biking, swimming, and shooting. Nothing was said of their secret missions. They both feared their duties and rank would be taken from them with any whisper of their covert operations. They were respected, trusted, and highly expected to keep silent, to remain civilized and silent, while conversely transforming to America’s finest on the battlefield. So they spoke none of their missions, but looked at each other with an assumed wink, and an anxious excitement for their challenging night mission at 1900 hours, shortly after dinner was to be over.
While Mrs. Canfield poured more tea into the boys glasses, the phone rang, and she rose to answer it. This break in the interrogation gave them ample time to discuss the evening’s mission, complete with night goggles constructed of old pool goggles and boy scout flashlights duct taped to the upper right corners. When both soldiers fully understood their responsibilities and routes to the combat zone, they looked up to find Mrs. Canfield perturbed, frustrated, something out of the ordinary. She said ok, a goodbye, paused with the phone held up to the charger not quite latched, then attached it, and turned back to the table slowly. She sat down slowly, resuming her forkful of baby carrots and green beans. The boys looked at each other confused, but still excited about their post-meal exploits.
When they asked to be excused Mrs. Canfield was allowing, but asked Justin to something, unknown to both the boys. Nathaniel promised to stand guard, prepare the objectives, and reload all necessary ammunition, all after testing the night vision goggles of course. The mission would utterly fail without the proper use and operation of their goggles. Nathaniel grew restless as he checked off his mental pre-mission list, and secured a safe position. Justin remained inside longer than expected, by both, and each feared that the enemy would invade civilian camp without the protection of its trusty soldiers. Nathaniel worried by now that something was wrong, both at the camp, and inside the kitchen.
As Nathaniel waited for word from his superiors, Justin emerged from the house, dejected, and not particularly eager for their assignment, no sign of excitement about the mission.
“What’s up?” Nathaniel questioned, curious about the delay, yet still very anxious to reach the fort and begin this mission. “Here’s your goggles, all checked and ready to go.” Justin looked up, shrugged, and grabbed the goggles, but didn’t put them on.
“My mom got a call.”
“Yeah, I saw that. Who was it? Did somebody die or something?” Nathaniel sneered, not realizing the accidental insensitivity in his voice.
“No, not serious like that, but,”
“But what, man, I ain’t got time for this, we ain’t got time for this. Let’s go, night mission remember.”
“I know,” Justin tried to seem excited but it was sapped from him. “Look, I can’t go out tonight. Actually, our missions are over Nathaniel.”
“What are you talking about? If we’re successful tonight they said we could be promoted up a rank and in a week, at this rate, who knows man. We’re the best they got!”
“I know, but my mom got a call from her boss, she has to fly to Charlotte and do an expo there.”
“Great! So you can stay at my place, how’s that? It’ll be perfect, we could skeet shoot in my back field, ride my four-wheelers, take the canoe down Orton. I’ll call my mom right now and see if it’s ok.”
“You don’t get it man, her convention is for two weeks. She’s gone ‘til the 29th. I was supposed to go home next week and start school on the 24th. My grandma’s coming to pick me up right now for the night and my dad will drive down tomorrow night. I’m going home Nathaniel.”
“Well, you can at least finish this last mission, I mean, we have to finish this last night mission, right? We’ll lose our rank otherwise!”
“I have to go in and pack, and my mom said I should clean up the bedroom and get ready for my grandma to come over. I can’t stay out, I gotta get ready to go home.”
“But what about the civilians, the mission, it’s not over just like that, is it?”
“I guess, summer’s over, it had to end sometime. I have to go, maybe I’ll see you again next summer.” Justin gave a disappointed smile, handed his night goggles back to Nathaniel, nodded his head goodbye, and disappeared back through the porch door and into his mother’s house.
Nathaniel stood in the yard, stunned, two pairs of goggles in hand but nobody to share them with. Nobody to share in the missions, nobody to shoot with, ride with, laugh with, hang out with, be with. He turned to the woods, blackened by shade from the oak trees, and slowly walked towards its edge. He reached the bottom step of their tree house, half-attempting to review the mission plan, half-pondering the reality of Justin’s absence. He realized, with his right foot on the step, that he would not win the battle without Justin, that in fact, there was no battle without Justin. Tossing both sets of goggles into the stand, he turned and walked away from the woods one last time that summer, and he would someday realize, one last time forever. Justin would never return to Orton. His mom moved to Cleveland and ran her own business by the next summer. Both entered sixth grade, made new friends, enjoyed many more summers filled not with excursions into the woods, battles at Orton Creek, or air missions over their ponds. The comrades had parted, only sharing their handcrafted Silver Ace medals in common, which each kept in his dresser for years.
Nathaniel grabbed his bicycle by the porch, glanced into the upstairs bedroom window, hoping to catch a glimpse of his partner one last time. He only saw a shadow of the ceiling fan whirling on the wall. Nathaniel rode onto Route 39 and began the long two mile trip back home. He felt a cold on his arms, and in his chest, despite the August humidity. Each pedal on his bike seemed heavier than usual and he didn’t think he would make it all the way home, not that he really wanted to on this evening anyway. The trees were slumped, sagging their branches in the evening shadows. All the houses were mere silhouettes at this point, with a few windows illuminated by lamps inside. He passed a barn a quarter mile from his house- cold, dark, and empty. Nathaniel felt the same way. As the sun set over the edge of Orton Creek, surging parallel to Route 39, Nathaniel felt darkness creep over the town for the night. He wasn’t sure if it would ever rise again.
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