“Son, I do it for my country.” I can hear the words of my honorary father haunting me as I kneel on this freshly painted fake grass recollecting a conversation I had just had with him the day before. EEEE! My head snaps up when I hear the whistle blow.
“Caleb!” my screaming coach shouted in clear agitation, “Get your head in the game!”
I can’t get his voice out of my head. I hate when I kneel. It’s killing me from the inside out. If I don’t kneel like the rest of my teammates, I will be mocked, teased, and maybe even bullied. I’m in a catch twenty-two.
I’m just glad that he wasn’t here tonight because I don’t think I could bear him looking down upon me from the stands with my best friend’s enchanting voice, his daughter’s voice, ringing through my ears. I could only imagine how disappointed my honorary father, who’s been there for me my entire life after my dad abandoned me and my family, would feel. My best friend, Felicity Vienna, would be just as disappointed.
“How was the game, Caleb?” he, whose voice had been haunting me, asks later that night as he sits with me on his rough porch steps.
“Okay,” I respond, a bitter taste in my mouth.
“Just okay?” Mr. Vienna inquires with a curious look in his eyes.
“Yeah, just okay,” I reply trying to act nonchalant.
“Well, son, I’ve got some news,” he says gently, “I’m being deployed for six months.”
I look down as I don’t want him to see the pain that just pierced through me like a knife from those words in my eyes.
“Caleb,” he says, “I need you to be strong for our family.”
I knew he meant my mom, brother, and sister as well as his daughter and his wife. We were like one big family.
“I need you to look after Felicity and make sure she is okay. Can you do that for me?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“My boy, I’ll be alright. I will come back as I always do, safe and sound,” he says as he pulls me into a tight, loving hug.
A week later, I’m holding Felicity’s hand, the smell of gasoline surrounds us. Our entire family watches him board a plane, colossal and daunting, with many other SEALs dressed in their casual uniform, a tan and army green shirt with tan pants.
As the weeks go by, I check on Felicity in between school and football practices and games.
Then, today, a cold, rainy day, Felicity wasn’t at school.
I drive over to Felicity’s house in the dreary weather after school and walk up to her crimson front door with her thick pile of school work in my gloved hands.
“Hi, Mrs. Vienna,” I say with a warm smile. My smile fades quickly as I notice Mrs. Vienna’s bloodshot eyes with dark circles underneath. “Is everything okay?” I ask worried.
“Come in, Caleb,” she says, “There’s something I need to tell you.”
I walk in with a hundred-and-one thousand things racing through my mind. What could she possibly have to tell me?
“Caleb, Felicity and I were informed early this morning that my husband has been in an accident,” she says through tears, her voice wavering as she speaks. I presume she can decipher this news has stopped my whole world. As she puts her shaky hands on my broad, stiff shoulders, she says, “We must not think the worst. Felicity is upstairs if you would like to see her.”
I saunter upstairs as I’m thinking about how I should act around Felicity. Should I act like I know, or should I play dumb like I’m oblivious?
Hands shaking, I lightly knock on her bedroom door, and I hear her quietly call, “Come in,” so I go in.
She looks up and says, “Hi.” I can tell she’s been crying from the streaks on her pale cheeks.
I lightly set her homework on her desk next to her ocean blue lamp and say, “I got your favorite thing,” but she doesn’t laugh like she usually would.
“I know you know,” she says in a dry tone as she fidgets with her fingers, but I stay silent and stand still as an inanimate stone statue. “Come here,” she says and pats a spot on her bed next to her, so I go and sit. She lays her hand on top of mine and we look into each other’s eyes. It seemed like they were having a conversation of their own. We burst into tears wrapping our arms around each other and laying our heads on one another’s shoulders.
Six days later, I’m standing in General Mitchell International Airport staring blankly out an enormous window, which reveals a setting sun. We are waiting to board our four o’clock flight heading to New York from Wisconsin when everyone just freezes and waits in tense anticipation. A long, narrow wooden box draped in a pristine American flag is carried off a plane by six Navy SEALs who walk in unison with solemnity on their faces. I glance over to where they are headed and I see...Felicity and her mom.
It hits me like a downpour of shrapnel and a hail of bullets. My heart shatters into a million pieces. Tears well up in my eyes and slide down my face. My life has come to a halting stop.
“Kneel Caleb,” my coach says three weeks after my world turned upside down.
“No, I’m proudly standing, not kneeling. Now and forever, I will always stand for the hero, who was the closest person I had to a dad, and for every other soldier, whether they are fallen, at home with their families, on missions, or in combat,” I respond.
“Caleb, why did you stand tonight, the night of our championship game, but knelt with us all season long?” one of my teammates asks.
“For my country,” I say.