9/11 has become an entry in all of our personal lexicons and we remember, where we were, what we were doing and how we responded to the attacks upon this country that day. Regardless of who we are, where we are from, what we do for a living, our hobbies, our religions, or our political philosophies, we have that event in common. My response to that day was this story. WC
The enemy had come. Again. “Freedom itself was attacked today…” the words ricocheted in his mind. Dillon Conlon knew what he had to do.
He laid out his camouflage greens with care and precision. Pulled boots over feet that felt nothing, lacing them high and tight.
The whir of the chair’s motor was a soldier’s cadence, as he moved down the street, summoning a call to arms. Silence enshrouded the town as if the natives had crawled into a coffin and slammed the lid shut.
Only the cobalt haze of television screens marked the way to his objective as he traveled the darkened streets. Tonight, no one would venture out and stop his mission. A small reprieve, for tomorrow, they’d challenge him, his conviction and resolve. He wouldn’t waiver.
He saw her then, rippling sleepily in the evening breeze, proud and vigilant. The crisp, night air echoed his steady breathing and kept the voices away. The scent of night-blooming jasmine belied the evil that had touched them. He chewed on salty jerky as his nimble hands worked to fasten himself to the pole. With clear commitment he assumed his post. Surrender was not an option.
“Where’s Dillon?” Emma peered through the room bathed in the flickering light of the television.
Agitated, she swiped at her tear-stained face. “Where is he?” She got up and moved toward the kitchen.
“I don’t know,” Matthew sulked. “Don’t care, either.”
Emma was so intent on finding Dillon, she ignored Matthew’s sarcasm. Going from room to empty room, she called out his name; as if he’d emerge from the shadows like an ancient wizard.
Matthew watched from the kitchen doorway as Emma dialed the phone. “What’s the big deal?” he asked.
Emma’s eyes scolded him. They’d watched the attacks on television, hour after hour. Everything was a big deal. Now. “Sheriff? It’s Emma Wardley. . . Dil’s missing . . .a couple of hours? . . . what if something’s happened?…He’s not crazy!…Mike!”
She slammed down the receiver. “What’s wrong with people?” Tears spilled out again but she ignored them.
Morning reached out her arms to all the gray corners of the town, as its citizens moved warily toward their business. Imprisoned by their own shock and sorrow, no one noticed Dillon chained to the flag pole that was the focal point of the Square. Exhibiting a soldier’s posture, even in a wheelchair, he displayed a sign, “We will not surrender!” Across his lap lay a rifle he’d used in his war, Viet Nam; the one that had robbed him of his legs. At his feet, lay a kit that held water, jerky, aspirin and chewing gum. Life had steeled him against needing any more to survive.
Emma’s Bronco groaned in low gear as it inched down the nearly empty street. Gripping the steering wheel, she peered through red and swollen eyes. “Keep looking,” she pressed Matthew. “Where is he?”
“Oh man!” Matthew groaned.
Emma cringed as she followed Matthew’s gaze. “Oh Dillon!”
Matthew watched as Emma rushed to rescue the nut-job veteran, chained to the flag pole.”I’m never going to live this down,” he muttered and pulled his Yankees’ cap over his eyes.
Emma got within twenty feet when Dillon’s eyes met hers. “Halt!”
The conviction in his voice daunted Emma.”Dil, what are you doing?”
“I, Dillon Conlan, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution . . . ”
Emma took another tentative step but he reached for the rifle. “Dil?” She stopped.
“. . .of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
Emma’s mind clicked. Yesterday had changed everything. Everybody. How could she know what it had done to him? His mind had steeled itself against intruders so long ago, would he let her in?
“I know you’re outraged. We all are! We’re all scared.” What comfort could she offer him? Or anyone? There were no words for this. There never would be. She searched his turquoise eyes for his spark. “Dil, they’re not coming here! We’re safe!” But her face said they weren’t safe. Nobody was.
Dillon stumbled over the remaining words.”. . .and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States. . .So help me God.”
A siren squawked behind her. Jangling keys and cuffs, and squeaky leather boots, announced Mike Guthrie’s arrival.”What’ve we got here?”
“It’s okay, Sheriff. We’re just. . . talking.” She kept her eyes on Dillon.
Guthrie scowled. “You and God, only ones think you can reach him.” Guthrie chewed on his lower lip. “Okay son, unfix yourself from that pole.” He didn’t bother to hide the bite in his voice.
Dillon raised his right hand in a salute.
Guthrie smirked. “No need for that.”
But the tribute was intended for the flag that waved like an old friend to the displaced combatant.
Guthrie scowled and shook his head. “I’ve had enough of your…”
“His what?” Emma asked. “He isn’t doing anything. Not hurting anybody.” She winked at Dillon and his eyes came to life. “Honoring the flag isn’t against the law, is it?”
“Emma,” Dillon whispered as if her name held magic. He took her hand and squeezed it.
Guthrie sighed like an old nag. “We can’t have him chained up to a dang flag pole. . . ”
“Why not?” Emma asked. She raised Dillon’s hand in solidarity. “Why not?”
Guthrie rolled his eyes. “What the hell is this, Emma? Some old hippy rebellion? Power to the people and all that?” He screwed up his face and wagged a finger at her. “Well, I got news for you, this ain’t 1968 no more. This is 2001…”
Voices murmured behind him and he turned to see several people had gathered.
Sam Johnson put his hand on Guthrie’s shoulder. “We know it’s not 1968 anymore. Leave the guy alone, eh Mike?”
“There’s nothing wrong with non-violent protest,” Marianne Copple said.
Guthrie grumbled and the crowd multiplied like dandelions on a newly seeded lawn. They were drawn to Dillon and his cause.
“Let him be. Don’t hassle him.”
He looked around, shrugged and stomped back toward his patrol car. “Fine, just make sure this don’t get outta hand. Pick up your trash and let me know when you come back to your senses.” He got in his car and drove off as if he had some place else to go and something else to do.
Sam started to sing God Bless America and the others joined in. Matthew dragged himself out of the car and pushed through the crowd to find Emma. He stopped when he saw her standing next to Dillon, holding his hand and singing along. He shook his head in disgust. “I’m leaving,” he said.
“No, stay here, with us.”
“Look Mom, I’m tired and I don’t want to stay here and sing stupid songs. You want to stay, go ahead. I’m going home and eating some cereal and going to bed.”
Emma frowned. “I don’t want you to be alone.” She reached out to him but he pulled away.
“I’m not a baby. I can take care of myself.” He gave her a grin. “Look, I know you want to stay. I’ll come back later.”
“I promise!” Matthew gave a boy scout salute and crossed his heart.
“All right,” Emma nodded. “But don’t be gone long. Don’t stay in that house all day and night. And don’t watch any more television.”
Matthew nodded and walked away.
By nightfall, the town had gathered around the man they’d called a lunatic, a loser, a lost cause. Flags of all sizes and dimensions waved in the amber light of flickering candles. Their voices united in songs of bravery and patriotism, and they felt better. They had done something to fight back. All because of Dillon Conlan.
Matthew didn’t keep his word. He stayed in the house and had watched every minute of the coverage alone and in the dark. He wept as he’d never before. For the murdered innocents, for himself, but mostly, for his own dead father. Who Matthew only knew from faded photographs and the Yankees’ baseball cap that once belonged to him. He put it to his face, as if a trace of his father’s smell remained. As if his brain would trigger some real memory, but it didn’t.
Emma rushed in rosy-cheeked and excited. Her color drained and her mood sunk when she saw Matthew curled up in a ball on the sofa.”Oh Matthew! Honey, I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have let you come back alone. I’m here.”
He pushed away from her. “Yeah, until he does some stupid-ass thing again! What are they doing? Having a barbeque? You come back for the marshmallows? It’s after midnight!”
“Matty. . .”
“No, Mom! Not this time! No more crap about Dillon defending our country and what a fucking hero he is!” Matthew made fists so tight that his wrists ached. “He’s a jerk! My father was a hero! Not him!”
He bolted upstairs to his room and slammed the door. Emma went after him. “Matthew Wardley, you open this door! I mean it!”
His silence ate at her.
“Matthew, please…open the door.” Would her tears never stop? She longed for life as it was. “I need you, Matty. Now, more than ever. We’re going to get through this, honey. Together. We have to. What choice do we have?”
She leaned against the door and listened, hoping to connect. Wishing he were younger and she could make him feel safe just by putting her arms around him. “Those days are over,” she told herself. Her boy was a young man and not so easily swayed anymore.
She tore herself away from the door and her need for his approval and went downstairs. He would come out when he was ready.
She stood at the stove stirring cocoa into a saucepan of milk heating over the burner. She added sugar and stirred some more. The simple act reminded her of Matthew in his father’s arms – barely a toddler – both boys eager for their hot chocolate.
“You don’t need me. You have him.”
He sounded so tired. Her poor brave boy. She turned to look at him, so handsome like his father. “Of course I need you. Of course I do. And I always will.” She turned off the cocoa and poured them each a mug. She offered him one and sat down with hers at the table. “Do you want to talk about it?”
He blew on his cocoa and took a sip. “What’s the use? You’re his number one fan. You adopted him a long time ago, Mom. But I didn’t.” He slumped into a chair at the table.
She took his hand. “No Matty, that’s not it. He was my friend a long time ago and he’s my friend now. Don’t you think he needs a friend?”
“Yeah, but why does it have to be you?”
Tears welled in her eyes. “Because I remember him. I remember him before, when he was strong and alive. Because I remember the day he went to war. Because I remember what he gave – to me – to our country. Just like your dad.”
Matthew could hardly contain himself. “He is not like my father.”
“Yes he is, honey. He is just like your father. He cared more about his country and his friends and family than himself and he walked into danger with his eyes and heart open to stand up for us. Your dad didn’t come back. But Dillon did. You can’t blame him for that.”
Matthew wanted to cry but fought it. “I don’t blame him for that. I blame him for being nuts. Everybody knows he’s crazy. Everybody but you!”
“I don’t care if everyone else in the world thinks that. I don’t and I never will. I don’t turn my back on my friends and neither did your father.”
Tears streamed down Matthew’s face. He shook his head.
Emma took his hands and held them tight. “Honey, you’re not a baby anymore. You can’t just pout and be mad because things aren’t the way you want them to be. No matter how much you wish your dad was here, he isn’t going to be. Can’t you see that by honoring Dillon, you honor your dad? Can’t you see that Daddy would have wanted you to be Dillon’s friend?” She cried. “Matthew, they were brothers – bound by their common oath. By the sacrifice they both made. We’re so sad that Daddy didn’t come home – but we should celebrate that Dillon did.”
Matthew shook his head and couldn’t look at her. “I don’t think I can, Mom.”
“But you have to try, honey.”
“For Dad. And for all the other dads who didn’t come home.”
Matthew put his head down on the table and let himself cry.
Emma stroked his hair. “He needs us, we’re all he’s got!”
Matthew raised his head and wiped at his tears. “He embarrasses me. All the guys make fun of him and us.
She smiled. “People can be mean, but maybe…” She lit up. “Oh Matt, if you could see him now, in the Square. He’s just come alive. Everybody has just, I don’t know, rallied around him. You’d be so proud of him! Your dad would be too. Really!”
Matthew felt changed. Willing to take what she said on faith. Maybe she was right. Maybe his dad would have wanted him to believe too.
“Please, honey. Just come with me. “Let me show you.”
“Do I have to?”
“No, you don’t have to,” Emma said.
He shrugged and got to his feet. “Better get your coat.” He put on his Yankees’ cap. “It’s getting cold.”
Emma was stunned by how much the crowd had grown. It was as if this horrible day had brought them all together like a family.
As they moved slowly through the gathering, Matthew took Emma’s hand and squeezed it. Whatever it was that she had felt, embraced him now and he felt safe.
When finally they reached the tarnished hero, Matthew saw his own tears mirrored in Dillon’s bright eyes. “Go Yankees!” Dillon smiled. Matthew fell into Dillon’s arms and wept for himself, for his father and for Dillon.