I awoke to the smell of coffee and the sparkle of the sunlight; another beautiful day to be alive. In the distance I could hear the song, ‘Maybe, I’m amazed,’ playing on the living room speaker. The melody was one I knew by heart. I had hummed it in the field, on deployment, while dreaming of home. And when I was home, I sang it to my baby daughter. I was strong enough to get in my wheelchair on my own, so I made my way to the living room fully expecting to see my wife.
Instead, I saw Cece dancing in a loose flowing nightgown. She twirled around, with the baby in her arms, looking like the main character of The Nutcracker ballet. “Will you dance with me?” she asked, mid pirouette.
“Who are you talking to?”
“You, of course.” Cece put the baby in a nearby carrier to free her hands. “Mom already left for the day.”
“Mom does volunteer work with the USO, on my days off. It’s her break from the baby.” Clearly, this was a fact that royally pissed her off. “But now that you’re finally awake, it’s also my day to spend with you. Dance with me?”
That was when I noticed, the piece was playing on a loop. It was a cover of the Beatles song, performed by a female vocalist. It also seemed to only be two minutes long. Was this a performance piece? Had I interrupted a rehearsal of some kind?
“I don’t know if I can,” I said, with a shrug. In truth, I just wanted to watch her.
Cece came closer, the silk of her nightgown touched my arm. “Anyone can dance.”
“I’m a little out of practice.” In my chair, I was wearing the clothes I’d slept in; a white t-shirt and boxers. I had my prosthetic leg attached in case I wanted to attempt to piss while standing.
“Stand up, put your arms around me.” Cece stroked my neck, down my shoulder.
“Give me a second.” I knew I could. I had done it before but I needed a moment to gather my courage.
“Come on,” Cece said as she playfully kissed my cheek. “Stand tall, Master sergeant.” My daughter helped me up, placing my hands on her shoulders. She was a good six inches shorter than me. But looking into her eyes, you’d never know.
“Do I still even have my rank?” I asked with a laugh. After all the shit I’d done I was lucky to not be in prison.
“Of course,” Cece said, swaying her body softly. We slow danced like a teenage couple at prom. “General Blake made sure you were given full medical retirement.”
If that was true, it was an impressive feat. “I guess I owe her one.” I place my hands on Cece’s waist, pulling her close.
“You owe her about a million. We all do.” Cece put her head on my shoulder. “I want to help you write your memoir; the world needs to know your story.”
“Before the chemo eats my brain?” I asked with a chuckle.
Cece didn’t laugh. She took a step away, letting me sit back in my chair. “Not funny, Dad.” She picked up a nearby remote and turned off the music.
Baby Gregory started to cry.
Cece turned her attention to her brother, rocking him in her arms. “Hush little one.” She handed me a cup of coffee that had been sitting out long enough to be comfortably warm. “It breaks my heart to know that, maybe, there will come a day when daddy won’t remember me.” Cece took a sip from her own coffee. “Because I sure as hell will never forget the remarkable man he was.”
I gave Cece a reassuring nod, assuming she was just being her usual sweet self. But as I matched her gaze, I could feel something much deeper. “Cece, are you ok?”
“I know I was supposed to be the one to die. You made a deal with the angels to take my place.” She sat down with a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and toast, casually offering me a fork.
“You knew?” How was that possible?
“I knew I was going to die if you never found your way back to Mississippi. But he moment you were in the room, by my side I could feel… this is going to sound weird. I could feel your energy, your spirit, maybe even your soul.”
“Really?” The idea filled me with a sense of comfort.
“When you’re in pain, I feel pain.” Her hand touched mine, lending an air of truth. “When you cry, I cry. But when you’re happy, confident, strong, I can truly feel your heart.” Cece blushed as she looked away. “So, where do you want to start? I have my laptop right there. If you like I can tell you what I remember from your stories.”
“I really don’t feel like chronicling my shitty life, now or ever.” Even if the illness did take my mind, I would hope it could take the bad memories first.
“What do you feel like doing?”
“For starters, maybe leaving the house?” Since I had no memory of even arriving in Colorado and I had never been to the city of Colorado Springs.
“Ok, but let’s finish breakfast first. I promised Mom I’d take care of you and the baby.” She took another sip of her coffee while balancing her baby brother with one arm. “And unlike Mom, I can’t feed either if you with my tits.”
I bit my lip, trying to avoid spitting coffee as I laughed. I certainly had some topic of conversation for the next time I spoke with my guardian angel. After breakfast I was introduced to the extent of our on-base lodging. The entire apartment was one bedroom, one bathroom, with a kitchen that opened up to a living room. Cece slept on the sofa next to the baby’s crib. All while everything our four-person family owned was stored in a single walk-in closet.
Cece dug through a trunk, pulling out a pair of jeans and a button-up shirt. “Here we go.” She proceeded to help me get dressed. I could actually dress myself easily enough, maneuvering my fake and real legs into the stiff denim. I put on my belt and the shirt on. I could have probably worked the buttons and zippers myself. But there was something addictive about human touch. Or maybe it was just Cece’s touch.
Still holding the baby, she had only one arm to work with, forcing her to come even closer. She balanced Greg on her hip while she buckled my belt. I watched as her fingers paused on my stomach before moving up my chest to button my shirt. Each movement was slow, deliberate. The sound of her wispy breath sent a shiver down my spine. “Lilith was the true bride of Adam.”
I knew I had an erection. I wanted her to touch me so bad. Her lips were inches from mine. I could practically taste the vanilla coffee creamer on her breath.
My hard-on was quickly deflated when Jamie appeared behind Cece, staring daggers at me. “If you even think about it, I will personally send you to hell.”
“It’s nothing sweetheart,” I said to Cece as I reached for the baby. “I can hold Gregory while you get dressed.”
“Sure, thanks, Dad.” Cece left the baby in my arms as she went to the bathroom.
Balancing Gregory with one arm, I stood up. Walking was not the easiest thing in the world, so my intention was to hold the baby close to my chest.
His soft little face felt warm. “Da?” He squirmed, looking from side to side.
“Are you looking for Mama?”
Gregory shook his head. “Ga!”
“You looking for Cece?” The baby seemed to be motioning towards the closet. “What’s back there?”
There were quite a few unpacked suitcases in various states of disarray. Looking closer, I could see a trail of sequins, made of holographic material. The pieces of plastic seemed to shimmer in shades of red, purple and blue. I stroked my hand along the zipper, opening the case just enough to take a peek. There were costumes, papers, an entire packed suitcase. At the bottom were her shoes; her worn in pointe shoes. I couldn’t help but smile; she was still dancing.
“Oh that,” Cece’s said from behind me. “Just another one of a million that we owe General Blake.” She casually pulled off the top sheet of paper. “I’m going to compete in Miss Colorado Springs.”
According to the papers Cece was being sponsored by the Air Force base. “Wow, that’s incredible.”
“It’s a preliminary to Miss America, so talent competition…yeah,” Cece’s voice trailed off. “I would’ve liked to only compete in talent but that’s not how pageants for full-grown adults work.”
Turning to face her, I caught sight of my daughter stepping into a pair of jeans. Her hips and legs were covered in scars.
Turning towards her, I caught sight of my daughter stepping into a pair of jeans. Her hips and legs were covered in scars; deep wounds that would never heal. I tried to tell myself they were from the surgeries that saved her, or maybe from her heroic escape, but I knew the truth. Those boys had butchered her; they hurt her in ways that she could never recover from.
The baby in my arms apparently felt my energy and started to cry, reaching for his sister.
Cece quickly finished getting dressed. “I’ll take him.” With one arm she put on a jacket. “Let’s take a walk to the park by the elementary school.”
“Does he have a stroller?” I asked.
“No, just the carrier car seat,” Cece replied. “But I’m ok, just holding him.” Greg seemed to melt into her arms, like a store-bought doll. “I imagine it won’t always be this easy, once he learns how to walk.” She turned to my wheelchair, which sat alone in the living room. “Should we bring your chair, in case you get tired?”
“Sure. But I’m not tired, right now.” I pushed Cece in the chair, on the journey to the playground. It was warm for December in Colorado; jacket weather but nothing more severe. There was snow on the ground, just enough to make the world sparkle. “It’s sure beautiful here.”
Cece nodded, looking up at the afternoon sky. “Yeah, it is.”
The past was the past. But as I swallowed a mouthful of spit, I felt the muscles in my neck grow tense. A cold breeze caressed my chemo port as if to remind me; this isn’t heaven, you still have work to do. “So, when were you going to tell me about the Miss Colorado pageant?”
Cece shrugged. She motioned towards a bench for us to rest at.
“You don’t seem very excited.”
“I am,” Cece said as she bit her upper lip. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to dance.”
“But modeling, not so much?” I asked, in a vain attempt to get her to shed some of the emotional weight.
“No, I like to model.” Cece fidgeted with her hands, mentally composing an answer that would make sense. “It’s, well, you said it yourself; reciting the story of your shitty life is not the most pleasant thing in the world.”
“Oh,” I said with a sigh. I knew enough about the Miss America pageant; instead of a normal interview portion, contestants were required to have a platform, a topic they wanted to represent. “Couldn’t you talk about something else?”
“My platform is ‘community support for military families,’ but that doesn’t stop people from asking about my past.” Cece bounced her baby brother on her lap.
“Why would people ask? Wasn’t that the point of moving to Colorado?”
“Haters gonna hate, especially in the age of the internet.”
I sat beside her and held her hand, desperate to change the subject.
“General Blake told me I needed to be brave, like you, Dad.”
The idea made me slightly nauseous. “What has General Blake told you?”
“Just that you did some shit.”
“Oh, God,” I muttered, mentally preparing myself.
“I will never be ashamed of you. Not after what I lived through,” Cece said, rocking the baby close to her chest. “But I know about the drugs and the sex. You let people hurt you because it felt good; it made you feel like you were worth something.” Cece squeezed my hand. “If I win Miss Colorado, I want to speak out about mental health in the military. I mean, the way things are; it’s such a stigma to ask for help, but if soldiers can’t ask for help without risking a medical discharge the only thing left is to get fucked up.”
“Wow, just wow.” I cupped my hand over my mouth as my soul tried to determine whether to laugh or cry.
“Dad, you’re my best friend.” Cece looked at me with sadness in her eyes. “You have the right to know, the cancer is in your brain. From what I overheard, you were having seizures and something about a blood infection. The medical team back in Mississippi didn’t think you were going to wake up much less survive the flight to Colorado. But mom and I agreed, we weren’t going to leave you behind.”
The statement was a little odd. “You and Mom?” Even after I whored myself across the country?
“Neither of us could ever leave you.”
“Does that include this little guy?”
“Of course, it does, right Greg?” Cece asked, tickling the baby’s cheeks. “We love Daddy so much, we could never leave him to die in America’s taint. And why is Mississippi America’s taint?”
Greg giggled happily.
“Because Florida looks like America’s cock?” I asked.
“Among many reasons,” Cece said gleefully. “Let’s grab some food. A local place opened a few days ago, at the BX- they have the best nacho chili fries.”
“God, I missed the base-exchange.”
“Why? It’s just a mall.”
“Have you been to the outside world? Malls are vanishing faster than biscuits at a hometown buffet.”
“Now I want fried chicken.”
“There’s a chicken place? How do these people pass their fitness tests?”
Cece laughed. “The malls are for dependents. Military personnel has to eat the crap at the mess halls.”
“As usual, you are wise beyond your years.”
Cece offered to push me in the wheelchair so I could have some time to hold the baby, but he seemed happier in his sister’s arms. We ate a quick lunch of nuggets and fries, before returning home to give Greg a bottle.
The last thing I remembered was drifting off to sleep, with the baby on my chest. I awoke to a dark, empty living room. the air was cold, dry. All around I could hear static. but not from the tv or even the landline phones.
I got up, making my way towards the bedroom, fully prepared to track down the sound. that was when I heard Leo.
He was sitting on the sofa where I had just been, with his rainbow wings wrapped around his shoulders. “check her laptop,” he said while picking at a single shimmery feather.
“Ok…” I walked to the closed laptop. “I don’t see why you can’t just talk to me.”
“Oh, we’ll have plenty to talk about.”
I opened the laptop and clicked on the main internet browser. There was an urgent news article out of Mississippi; Jason Valdez, age nineteen was missing. The teen who was serving a six-year sentence for assault had apparently snuck out of jail by switching places with a volunteer from his grandfather’s congregation. “Well, fuck.”
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Leo said with a groan. “I guess that’s Mississippi for you; all Hispanic teenagers look the same.”
I scrolled down to look at the mug shot, curious to see if the article would include an image of the guy he managed to trade places with. It did not. But I could see how my daughter fell in love with this Jason. The boy was an athlete, valedictorian, and model. He was also the only child of the late Carlos Valdez. “His preacher grandfather broke him out of prison?”
“That’s what it says, anyway.” Leo crossed his arms, as he looked out into the distance. “Marcellei ‘Marksman’ Valdez is apparently someone with friends in low places.”
“So, this Jason guy is on his way here?”
“Really, Leo? This isn’t a fucking game, this is my family!”
Leo looked up only briefly. “Then it’s a good thing he can’t get on base and even if he could there’s no way to find Cece’s exact location.”
“But he knows she’s in Colorado?”
“Only because Cece happens to be listed on a very public website about an upcoming event that will be taking place in a very public auditorium.”
“That took things from shitty to nightmarish real quick.”
“Yup.” Leo looked up at me, locking eyes. “Choices will have to be made.”
Choices? I felt angry, but more than that I felt afraid. What the fuck was I supposed to do? I hobbled to a nearby wall and did the only thing I could; I slammed my fist into the hard surface over and over. “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”
I awoke with a jolt, sitting up like I had just been electrocuted. “Oh dear God!”
Marni had been in the kitchen and rushed to my side. “Adam, what’s wrong?”
Looking outside the window, it was now dark. Apparently, I had been asleep for hours. “I’m fine.” I went straight to Cece’s laptop to find the date and location of the pageant. According to the website, the event was in January, at a mall in Denver. That was how long I had to make a plan, to protect the people I love, all while surviving chemo. This was going to require some divine intervention.