Mandy stepped out of the car into the crisp spring morning. “Please wait here,” she told her driver as she pulled a small bouquet of flowers and her cane from the car.
Her driver nodded and closed the door for her, “Take as long as you need.”
Mandy would have taken Val with her for support but today wasn’t about friends. She knew it wasn’t really about family either. Today was about respect.
Dew coated her shoes and cane as she walked slowly through the rows of graves. When she was young, Tio Marco and her father had taken her here to honor those of their friends who were buried there. They had laid wreaths each Memorial Day for thirty years of brothers in arms, lost for all time. The quiet dignity of their ritual it had always stuck with her.
Mandy took in a deep breath, the smell of freshly mowed grass heavy in the air. She had always found Arlington to be restful; a calm and respect filled oasis in the middle of Washington DC’s hectic bustle. Here, they had taught her that life was sacred, and to give one’s life for their fellow man was the greatest gift one could ever give.
She smiled fondly each time she passed a row that held a stone monument for one of their friends. She smiled at the memories of Tio Marco or her father telling her the man or woman’s name, what they had done in the military, then usually a funny story about their service together. Most of the stories had them howling with laughter, but occasionally one would bring tears to their eyes for lives cut too short.
Mandy peered down another row and saw a young woman in jeans and a tank top talking to one of the white stones. A second glance showed that the man was a World War II veteran who had passed in the last five years.
“So, I’ve been accepted to both Harvard and Stanford. Mom wants me to go to Harvard, but I’m really torn. I wish you were here to help me decide.” Mandy watched the woman pat the white stone as gently as you would pat someone’s arm. The young woman smiled and continued talking to the stone.
Mandy limped painfully forward through the rows. Many were already set with wreaths and she nodded to a pair of Army soldiers as they laid another pair of wreaths. Further on, two Marines worked to lay wreaths on another row. She trudged onwards.
She reached the first grave she wanted to visit and lowered herself painfully to the ground. The gunshot in her own leg causing pain to flare up her entire right side. She settled herself and looked at the stone. The young woman she’d passed before had made this look so easy. Just talk, she told herself.
“Hey Smithfield,” she started, feeling awkward. “I, uh, was in the neighborhood and wanted to say hey.”
Mandy looked away from the stone, down row upon row of fallen heroes. She blinked away tears, “Blake and the boys still miss you, man. Val doesn’t talk about you much, but I know she thinks about you.”
Mandy saw another woman and a young boy settle themselves down in front of a stone a few rows away.
“Anyway, you did good work. Both of the pilots you picked up survived. Captain Haines just promoted to Major last week. Lieutenant Abernathy’s wife just had their first son. Abernathy’s back is too screwed up from the ejection to fly anymore but it sounds like Val might try to wrangle him a job here at Limitless.” She took a deep breath and watch the woman sob onto the stone two rows away, her little boy gently patting her back. “So, Blake says he hopes you aren’t bringing it weak in Heaven, he expects you’re running their fitness cell, angel’s wings and all.” She gave a small smile.
She rose ungracefully and limped towards another section of the cemetery, leaving the woman and her son to grieve in peace. Mandy wandered painfully through more rows, searching for the one she wanted. When she reached the top of a small rise, she turned to look down on the cemetery.
Arlington unfolded below her and she could see more people arriving to pay their respects. Young families coming to greet wives and husbands lost too soon. Brothers and sisters visiting lost family members. Parents come to grieve for children lost. And brothers or sisters in arms coming to pay respects to their fallen brethren. Mandy’s breath hitched in her throat thinking of how many people had paid the ultimate price.
Steeling herself, she turned down the row she was looking for. A feeling of dread washed over her as she limped forward. Despite what had happened, Val had insisted that Miller Thompson was buried in Arlington. Sick fear and revulsion twisted Mandy’s stomach. Miller’s actions had proven him either a traitor or deranged, but he had died before they could prove either. Before Val had shot him, he had put a bullet through Mandy’s leg, the one that caused her to limp painfully forward. She swallowed. What man could shoot his own daughter?
She stopped at the grave, flowers in hand, but she couldn’t force herself to do it.
“I’m not forgiving you. Not even in death,” she whispered.
When Val had first said she was going to push for her father to be buried in Arlington, Mandy hadn’t pushed back. Now, seeing the rows upon rows of men and women who fell trying to save their country, she knew that Miller Thompson was a fraud. She turned away from his grave, flowers still clutched in her hand.
“Hey, Mandy,” Val’s voice called softly.
Mandy turned to her voice, surprise in her voice, “Val? Why?”
Val stood, quietly leaning against a tree. Her red-gold hair tied up in a somber bun and she wore a black pantsuit despite the day’s promise of heat. “I knew you’d come here. I saw the car was checked out in your name and figured this is where you would be. I didn’t want you to face it alone.”
“He shouldn’t be here.” Bitterness tinged every word.