It may seem an odd place to be as the world waits for the new "millennium".
For me, it was the only place to be. I had a friend once, not so long ago,
and he taught me more about living and life than I can ever repay. He saved
my life. He saved me in the trenches, he saved me after the war, and he
saved me today although he's been gone a good many years now.
His name was John. He was a good man. The best I've ever known. Better than I could ever hope to be but I'll keep trying just to make him proud wherever he is.
We were in the war together you see. He was my commanding officer. And later, he was my friend. It took me a while to realize that. I was a hardheaded insolent kid fighting not just the war but the world. He was a strong, overconfident, crazy...
He took me under his wing and even though I didn't deserve it, he watched out for me and called me family. I wasn't the only one he watched out for but I can attest that I was the one who required the most watching. Good times, good friends...
I'm not the only one here this night. There are two fellows standing on the hill to my left. It's odd, they are a bit of a distance away but I can still see the sadness in their bearing, sadness and something else. It's the way the smaller one looks about every so often and how the big one pats the other's shoulder...They're waiting. I remember that. Waiting.
It was just after the end. We'd all went our separate ways. I think it's one of the saddest days of my life, when I realized that we had lost touch, that we had grown apart. There were three of us. Three that John had taken and made into a family. And we were. We were like brothers, closer than most and more loyal than any military unit ever was. Nothing could ever separate us. Nothing ever did, although he will never know that. I'm not talking about John.
We were on a mission. We did that after the war, we helped those that needed it. It was what we did best and it kept us together. But then things went bad. There wasn't anything else that could have been done, we didn't know that help was on the way. We were in the swamp. Nothing for miles and the enemy was getting closer. John was down and he wasn't going to make it out. I knew that. He knew that too, that's why he asked me to do it. He asked me to pull the trigger but I couldn't. I couldn't kill John. Before I had to make that choice though, the choice was taken away from me. I don't remember much, just strong arms pulling me away and the sound of a gunshot. Two hours later the sound of a helicopter...
I never blamed him. We, never blamed him. But that wasn't enough. He blamed himself for killing John even though he couldn't have known that help was on the way. Even though John would have died anyway...
That first year we stood here together. It just seemed like the right place to be. None of us planned it, but the three of us ended up here at the same time and we waited with John as we welcomed in the new year. The second year, and many years after that, only two of us waited here. Hoping that the third would come but he never did. We never blamed him but he blamed himself. I wish I could have one more chance to convince him that it wasn't his fault, that we were still family, that we wanted him to come home...
And so now, it's just me. I still wait here for him. I don't know, maybe he's gone now. If he is, I know that he is with John.
The crackle of leaves underfoot makes me turn but I can't see anything for the shadows of the tree behind me. I look around again but all I can see is the row upon row of headstones, all white and uniform, gleaming in the moonlight. Another crackle, this time accompanied by a muffled cough.
I'm not worried as some would be as the man steps out of the tree's shadow. I let go of the breath I held and the hope, it's not him. This man appears to be in his forties. I can tell by the way the light shines off his hair that it's blond although I can make out some gray too, on the sides and at the temple. He's not a tall fellow but not short either. He is impeccably dressed. He clears his throat and mumbles an apology for disturbing me all the while his eyes focused on something over my shoulder.
"That's alright, son." I turn to seek out what has drawn his attention. He is staring at the two men on the hill. "Do you know them?"
"I'm sorry," he shakes his head as if to clear it and I could swear I saw a glimmer of tears there. "I didn't hear you?"
"I asked if you know them? The men on the hill?"
"Oh," a faint smile, "I did. A lifetime ago, I did."
He reminds me so much of the one I've been waiting for. "Then why are you standing here in the shadows? Why not go up and talk to them?"
"Why not? Aren't they your friends?"
"Not anymore. It was a long time ago."
He hasn't moved at all. He's staring at them like a drowning man would the shore and perhaps that is exactly what it is. I don't know this man's story but I know mine. And I watched those two men on that hill waiting. I know that they are waiting for this man just as I have waited here for mine. I wanted one more chance to convince my friend, a chance that I will never have but perhaps I can convince this man in his stead.
"What could you have done?"
"I failed him and so I failed them. They're better off without me."
I shake my head, so like him, "You blame yourself for something that wasn't your fault. They don't blame you."
He glares at me with fire in his eyes, "What do you know of it?!" I can see the anger turn inward, his voice hollow once again, "You don't know me. I'm not worth it."
"They think you are. They're waiting. Can't you see they're waiting for you?"
"You don't understand."
"I do. He was a father, they're your brothers. They love you. All you have to do is go to them."
He looks at me and I can see that he's thinking about it. He wants to go. I wonder if anyone ever did this for my friend. I wonder if he ever stood in the shadow of a tree and watched as we waited.
"What's your name, son?"
He watches them and I can see that he wants to go. He just needs that extra little push.
"Go on, Templeton. Don't keep them waiting."
A little nod. An uncertain first step. A glance back.
I nod in their direction, "Go home."
The two men on the hill don't notice until he is almost there. I can see the little one turn. His body stiffens as he catches sight of the blond haired man who halts a few feet away. The moment is frozen. None knowing what to do. Then without any hesitation the little one reaches out and grabs the blond into a bear hug. The big one joins them. There is a clock tower somewhere. I can hear the midnight hour chime.
They turn, the blond in the middle, the others each with an arm around his shoulders. They'll be ok.
I don't know what made me do it, but I climbed the hill after they were gone. It's just something that I had to do. I had to let him know, "It's all right. Your boy's will be ok. They're together now." Before I walked away I looked at the name of the marker and smiled.
His name was John.