Shaun liked to sit on the swing remembering his father. He would wonder, "What If?"
The Cost of Freedom
The fragrance of fresh cut grass filled the still air as they walked hand in hand along the rows of white headstones. The little boy looked around, his brown eyes were filled with amazement, his pants drooped from his narrow waist, the cuffs were frayed and wet. One shoe lace trailed behind his worn sneaker and dragged along in the manicured grass. The boy's grandfather walked with a slight stoop, his grey hair glowed in the waning light, his eyes searched through lined glasses. His gnarled fingers, calloused from a lifetime of hard work, enclosed the little boy's hand.
"They all look the same, Pap." He looked up at his grandfather. "How will we know which one is his?"
"His name is engraved on the headstone." Pap craned his neck to see over a small knoll. "It's nearby, I'm sure."
The sun sat low in the sky creating a checker board of shade on the carpet of green grass. As the pair searched, Pap stopped and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. A Purple Heart glinted in the slanted rays of the sun as it fell to the ground. It was his son's medal, and Pap carried it with him everywhere. Picking it up gingerly, he wiped it off before putting the medal back in his pocket, then patted the beads of sweat from his brow.
"It's not far from that sycamore tree," Pap mumbled. That sycamore looks just like the one on the hillside behind the house. "I think I see it, Shaun, over there in the shade." He pointed in the direction of the tree, then took Shaun's hand and led him to a shaded head stone.
"Sergeant...Peter...Holston." Pap read the name slowly, then stood quietly looking at the ground.
"This is where my father is?" Shaun looked up at his grandfather, then back to the marker that bore his father's name.
"Yes it is," Pap replied with a voice barely above a whisper. "I knew it wasn't far from that tree." He pulled his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. "Your father was a good man, Shaun, don't ever forget that."
"I won't, Pap." His father died shortly after he was born. Four years later, when his mother died, Shaun went to live with his grandfather.
"And he was a good son," Pap continued, "I miss him."
Time passed quickly as they stood at the foot of the grave together; the missing generation between them burned in Pap's heart.
Shaun shifted from one foot to the other and looked around at the perfect rows of white markers that were not much shorter than him. "There sure were a lot of soldiers killed." He squinted into the rays of the sinking sun, "It's getting dark, Pap."
"I know, Shaun, we better get going." Pap took a long look at his son's grave and mumbled, "I'll come back as soon as I can."
"Can I come back with you when you do?" Shaun took his grandfather's hand.
"Sure, anytime you want." He led Shaun away from the grave.
Shaun didn't completely comprehend the loss of his father. His father was the stranger that stood beside his mother in the picture on his nightstand...the stranger that stared out at him. His mother told him stories about his father, about how happy he was when Shaun was born, and how much he wanted to come home and meet his son. And Pap told him that his father was a good fisherman, and a good baseball player, and how much he wanted to teach these things to Shaun. But he was killed fighting for his country, fighting to keep his family safe. He didn't make it home.
As Shaun got older he began to feel the loss of his father. He lived with his grandfather on the same farm where his father grew up. He played in the same woods, swam in the same creek, sat in the hay in the same barn to read on warm summer afternoons, just like his father had.
According to Pap, the swing that hung from the crooked limb of the old sycamore tree out back had been his father's favorite place. Shaun found himself sitting on the swing thinking about his father often, usually when his thoughts turned to the question he had begun asking himself. What if there had been no war? Over time, his father's favorite place had become his favorite place.
Gravel crunched under their footsteps as they walked through the cemetery gate and out to Pap's car. After starting the car, Pap sat quietly looking through the windshield, his eyes filled with tears. It was the first time Shaun saw his grandfather cry. He reached across the seat and took his hand and held it. The ride home was a quiet one.
The next morning Pap and Shaun walked up the hill behind the house where the swing still hung from the thick, crooked limb. Pap sat on the swing and picked up Shaun and sat him on his lap. They swung in the cool morning air, both lost in their personal thoughts. Shaun laid his head against Pap's chest.
"You know, Shaun," Pap broke the silence, "your father sat on my lap just like this when he was your age and we would swing just like we're doing."
"I like to sit on the swing and think," Shaun said, "maybe I got that from him."
"Maybe you did," Pap said quietly.
"Pap..." Shaun said slowly, then his voice became thoughtful, "how come my father had to die?"
They swung quietly for a minute before Pap answered. "Shaun, the cost of freedom is very high." He combed Shaun's hair with his thick fingers. "When your father died he paid that price. He paid the price for the freedom we enjoy. We should never take freedom for granted."
After the trip to his father's grave, Shaun could be seen sitting on the swing under the old sycamore just about every day, his silhouette edged in the orange light of morning. The creaking ropes of the old swing soothed Shaun as he sat wondering, what if...?
Word Count 984
First Place Winner, June, 2011 Honoring Our Veterans Contest. "The Cost of Freedom"