By Sue James
Lee Benjamin Crane awoke suddenly frowning
at the ceiling above him. Something had woken him…but what? The sound of a car
door slamming reached his ears followed by the hum of an automatic garage door
closing. That was it; he’d been woken by the noise of a car engine beneath his
window. Odd though because the engine noise had died as he opened his eyes and
showed no signs of resuming. He wondered if he had overslept and turning on to
his side he glanced at the hands of the clock on his bedside table…06.18 hours!
Early, even by Academy standards. He wondered who had been out at such an early
hour and why; not that it was really any of his business. Laying back down Lee
folded his hands beneath his head and savoured the realization that he was now
on vacation, his first exciting year at the
Hard to believe that he had completed a
year already and what a year!
Shaking of his slightly negative thoughts
Lee sat up and shook his dark head. The few weeks of freedom would soon go and
he intended to make the most of it! Suddenly aware that the room was very quiet
Lee sat up and glanced at the bed opposite his. Empty! Not just empty but
neatly made in the
The large, north-facing hallway was dark and cool and Lee paused at the bottom of the stairs to get his bearings. The appetising aroma of freshly ground coffee wafted under his nose and he grinned to himself as he anticipated his first cup of the day. Turning right he strode towards the kitchen, pushed open the door and froze.
Sitting at the scrubbed wooden table was his best friend’s elder sister and guardian. Shoulders hunched and shaking Helen Morton Marshall had her hands wrapped around a large mug. Her shoulder length dark brown hair hid her face but intermittent sniffs added to her body language told Lee that his hostess was crying.
Right hand gripping the door handle Lee frowned at the sight in front of him unsure of what to do. This was his third visit to his Academy room-mate’s home and, from the start, he had felt warmly welcomed and included as part of the family but the fact remained that he had known the Marshalls for less than a year and he was loathe to intrude on a clearly emotional situation. And yet, he didn’t like to just disappear and leave his friend’s sister to cry if there was a chance he could help.
He was just wondering where Helen’s husband was and whether they had had a row…would that explain the early car journey?...when his hostess looked up and saw him hesitating on the threshold.
“Lee!” Helen smiled with false brightness as she stood up and beckoned him into the room. “Good morning! Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you,” Lee answered almost warily as he stepped into the kitchen and let the door spring shut behind him.
“Do you want coffee?” Helen asked as she headed towards the pot on the kitchen counter.
“Yes, please,” Lee moved in the same direction. “But I’ll get it myself, Helen; you sit back down and finish yours.”
“It’s no trouble,” Helen’s voice was insistent as she reached for a clean mug. “Have a seat, Lee.”
Recognising that for whatever reason Helen needed to be busy Lee acquiesced and pulled out a chair opposite the one where she had been sitting. While Helen poured his coffee he glanced almost nervously around the spacious kitchen. Sunlight filtered through the partially closed blinds and splattered on to the worn tiled floor and a discarded cereal bowl sat almost forlornly on the stainless steel draining board. From the adjacent utility room the sound of a washing machine filling with water reached his ears. It all seemed so normal and yet a sixth sense told Lee that this was not a normal morning. Why had the whole household risen so early? Where were Helen’s husband and younger brother? And, most importantly right now, why was Helen so obviously upset?
A muffled sob caught his attention and he turned his gaze back on his hostess as she surreptitiously wiped at her tears with a scrunched up tissue before carrying his mug of coffee across the kitchen and placing it on the table.
“Thank you,” Lee smiled up at her ignoring the tear streaks on her face.
“What do you want for breakfast?” Helen asked with determined cheerfulness as she reached for her own empty cup.
Lee hesitated. He wasn’t a great eater at any time of day and especially not first thing in the morning but he sensed that Helen was keen to have something to do and he realized that if she was busy he wouldn’t have to look at her tearstained face or engage her in conversation.
“I could make you pancakes,” Helen said almost eagerly. “Or would you rather have something cold? We’ve got a choice of cereals.”
“May I have some toast?” Lee asked politely.
“Sure,” Helen turned away from the table
and carried her mug over to the sink before switching on the toaster and
opening a new loaf of thickly sliced wholemeal bread. Lee watched her silently
while sipping at his coffee. He felt very uncomfortable and really didn’t know
what to do. Up until this morning he had always found Helen Marshall to be a
cheerful, positive person, at least in his presence, and even though she was
clearly upset about something she was valiantly trying to hide it so what
should he do? Should he ignore her tear stained face and eat his breakfast in
silence? Should he talk about something general…like the weather? Or should he
simply ask her what was wrong and risk her dissolving into fresh tears in his presence?
Lee didn’t know. He didn’t have a sister and his experience of crying females
was limited largely to his manipulative mother who had turned on the tears
whenever he had displeased her or gone against her wishes such as applying to
As a small boy Lee had tried his hardest to
avoid making his mother cry as he found it upsetting but as he grew into an
intelligent, ambitious and headstrong teenager he’d come to realize that he was
being emotionally blackmailed and, difficult as it was, he’d hardened his heart
against the woman who’d borne him. He’d persisted in his application to
He suspected that Helen Marshall was also
made of strong stuff and couldn’t help feeling that she had to be seriously
upset to be fighting tears in front of a guest. Lee had quickly warmed to his
friend’s sister the previous Christmas, when faced with a lonely vacation in
his mother’s large home while she holidayed in the south of France, the Marshalls had invited him to join their lively family
Christmas. He was now on his third visit to the
Realizing that his coffee cup was almost empty Lee placed it back on the table as Helen approached him bearing a plate of hot buttered toast. She looked so distraught that Lee found he could bear it no longer and, taking a deep breath, he said quickly, “Helen, please tell me to mind my own business if I’m prying, but is there something wrong? Something I can help you with?”
Helen nodded her dark head as fresh tears filled her brown eyes and she turned away from him. Lee felt a sudden chill sweep over his body as he realized that Chris and Chip were still absent. Had someone died? Wishing he was anywhere but there Lee pushed back his chair and stood uncertainly as Helen mumbled something unintelligible.
“What was that?” he took a step closer to her and she spun round, the tears now coursing down her face. “It’s…it’s…Sk…sk…skip...per…” she gulped.
“Skipper? You mean the dog?” Relief, quickly followed by compassion, swept over Lee as he realized that the elderly Golden Retriever was also absent. “What’s wrong? Is he sick?”
Helen shook her head again. “No….h…h…he’s…d…d…dead,” she stumbled over the words and Lee’s heart sank as a mental image of the old dog swam into his mind. It was the previous evening and Skipper had lain by Chip’s feet as the four adults played a raucous game of Scrabble. Lee hadn’t missed the pensive smile on his friend’s face as he leant down intermittently to fondle the old dog’s ears.
a relief old Skip is still here,” Chip had
confessed later as they’d stood and watched the animal sniff its way around the
darkened backyard. “I did wonder if he
might die while I was at
Lee had refrained from pointing out insensitively that the old dog would probably expire during the next term. Instead he had asked curiously, “How old is he?”
“Eleven,” Chip’s answer had been both prompt and proud. “It’s a good age for a dog his size.”
It certainly had been, Lee thought now as
he looked sadly at Helen. He’d never had a dog, he would’ve loved one but his
mother wouldn’t sanction it so he’d had to settle for walking an elderly
After a while Helen’s sobs lessened and Lee felt able to ask the questions that dominated his mind.
“When did it happen?” he enquired gently as he reached into his pocket with one hand and retrieved a clean handkerchief which he handed to Helen.
“Sometime during the night,” she accepted the handkerchief gratefully and pulled away from Lee to wipe at her face and blow her nose. “It’s like…like he waited for Chip to come…home again,” her voice trembled but she managed to smile at Lee. “I’m sorry, Lee; I’ve already cried all over Chris but the tears keep on coming.”
“It’s okay,” Lee smiled reassuringly.
“It’s not much of a start to your vacation,” Helen smiled back weakly.
“It doesn’t matter,” Lee spoke earnestly. “But you have to let me help.” He looked around the kitchen again. “Where have Chris and Chip gone?”
“Chris is already digging the grave,” Helen’s eyes filled with fresh tears. “We want to bury Skipper at the bottom of the yard but in this heat it needs to be done sooner rather than later. Chris put the body in the garage where it’s cool but it won’t keep there for long.”
“Then I’ll go give Chris a hand,” Lee spoke decisively. “That’s a big job.”
“No…” Helen placed a restraining hand on Lee’s right shoulder. “It’s Chris’s way of dealing with it…physical work. I’d rather you went and looked for Chip.”
“Look for him?” Lee raised his dark eyebrows, a puzzled frown on his face. “You don’t know where he is?”
“No,” Helen bit at her bottom lip. “Soon as Chris told him “Skipper” was dead he took off; I’m guessing he just wants to be alone but I’m worried about him.”
“Would he be in the garage…with the body?” Lee asked tentatively.
“No,” Helen shook her head. “I already checked, just before you came down. He might have gone to the beach or he may have gone to Chris’s parents’; they’re away but my guess is Chip would’ve gone to Tom and Gwen if they’d been here and he has a key. He might have gone to their garden to be alone. I’ll give you directions when you’ve had your toast.”
It was on the tip of Lee’s tongue to say he wasn’t hungry after all but he didn’t want to hurt Helen’s feelings after she had made it for him so he sat back down and picked up a slice from the plate in front of him. Chewing thoughtfully he ate two slices before speaking cautiously, “Are you sure Chip will want me to find him? Maybe I should just leave him to deal with it on his own? I don’t want to intrude on his privacy.”
“If he doesn’t want you around he’ll say so,” Helen smiled slightly, “but I think he could use a friend.” She paused and blew her nose in the now soggy handkerchief, “Sk…sk…ip…er was more than just a dog to us, Lee; he was our father’s dog. Chip grew up with him. After…after the accident dad’s best friend was going to take Skipper but he had attached himself to Chip and vice versa and we couldn’t bear to add to Chip’s trauma by leaving the dog behind so he came to us.” Helen paused to blow her nose again. “I’ve worried for weeks now that Skipper would die while Chip was away but I never imagined he would go as soon as you both arrived home.”
“I guess it’s best this way,” Lee said
somewhat lamely. “It would have been worse if it had happened the day before we
came home or next week after we had left for
“Thanks,” Helen smiled, “but if he wanted me he would’ve stayed. He probably doesn’t want me to see that he’s upset but you’re different; you’re his friend, he thinks a lot of you and you’re the same age; it’ll be easier for him to talk to you. Trust me.”
“I guess you might be right,” Lee smiled shyly and picked up a third slice of toast. “I’ll just finish this, and then I’ll be off.”
Clutching road directions to Chris’s parents’ house across town and the keys to Helen’s convertible Lee stepped out of the front door into the heat of the morning. The dark green car sat on the drive, its paintwork gleaming in the brilliant sunlight. Apparently, Chris had moved it out of the double garage to make space for Skipper’s body which explained the sounds Lee had heard as he woke up. Pushing his sunglasses further up his nose Lee moved towards the car and put the key into the lock. He was just about to turn it when a niggling thought in his brain made him pause. Retracting the key he walked around the car and made his way up the side of the garage to the back of the property where he slipped into the house via the utility room door. The washing machine was on its final spin, drowning his footsteps on the tiled floor as he pulled open the connecting door to the garage and descended the two concrete steps into the dark, cool interior.
Slipping his sunglasses from his face Lee folded the arms absently as his hazel eyes adjusted to the dimness of the garage. Chris’s car sat silently to the right while in front of him was his missing friend. Chip sat slumped against the wall, denim clad legs stretched out on the concrete floor while beside him, on a grey blanket, lay the deceased dog. Lee stood silently, almost holding his breath, as he watched his friend’s long fingers caressing Skipper’s thick coat. To Lee’s mind the dog didn’t look dead; he just looked as if he was sleeping and he swallowed a sudden welling of emotion at the poignant scene.
For a long while Lee stood motionless, sunglasses hanging from his right hand, unsure of what to do next. He suspected that Chip knew he was there but his friend hadn’t looked up or spoken and he wondered if that meant he wanted to be left alone. After a time, he reached into the back pocket of his jeans and retrieved the case for his sunglasses. Slipping them inside the soft case he then placed it carefully on a nearby shelf before moving closer to his friend and clearing his throat.
“D’you mind if I join you?” he asked tentatively.
For several long seconds there was no response; then Chip’s blond head lifted slowly to look at him briefly before his gaze returned to the body at his side.
“Go ahead,” the words were barely audible but Lee felt relief wash over him as he lowered his long body to the floor on the opposite side of the lifeless dog. Stretching out his long legs he felt the coolness of the concrete seeping through his clothes.
Chip continued to stroke Skipper, his eyes never leaving the dark golden coat of his deceased pet. Lee watched him for a while searching for something relevant and original to say before resorting to the universal remark, “I’m sorry,” he spoke sincerely, his own eyes on his friend’s bent head.
Lee sighed inwardly before adding, “I know how much it hurts when a pet dies.”
That worked! Chip looked up, his tear-filled blue eyes questioning.
Lee grimaced, “I never actually owned a pet,” he continued as Chip stared at him curiously. “My mother said all pets are more trouble than they’re worth and she wouldn’t let me have one but…” he paused to gather his thoughts slightly unnerved by the way Chip continued to stare at him, “…I used to walk our neighbour’s dog. Old Man Reilly lived next door and he had this massive black Lab…Samson. Anyway, Old Man Reilly developed real bad arthritis and he struggled to take Samson out so I used to walk him. We used to go all over in the school vacations and I used to pretend that he was really my dog. Then… when I was sixteen Samson died…” Lee paused again as Chip’s gaze returned to Skipper’s body. He wondered if he had said too much well aware that he was talking faster than usual to cover the otherwise uncomfortable silence but, after a brief debate in his own mind, he decided to complete the story.
“One day he was there and the next day he’d gone; just like that,” Lee shrugged. “I was devastated; all around me life carried on as normal but Samson was dead. I shut myself in my room and cried for hours. My mother said I was being silly, that Samson was just a dog but he wasn’t…he was like a friend, you’ll probably think I’m crazy but I used to talk to Samson all the time, tell him things I couldn’t tell anyone else and he always acted like he was listening…”
Lee tailed off and reached out tentatively across Skipper’s body to clasp Chip’s right shoulder with his left hand. Silence returned to the garage descending like a thick blanket until a sudden choking sound escaped from Chip’s throat and he looked up at Lee with an anguished expression.
“Why now?” he asked wretchedly, his normally firm, deep voice shaky and almost unrecognisable. “I’ve barely seen him all year; why’d he have to die as soon as I came home?”
“He was old,” Lee’s words echoed lamely in his own ears as he sought to bring some comfort to his friend. “Helen thinks he waited for you to come home; like he wanted to see you one more time, then he relaxed and died…happy that he’d seen you again.”
“You think?” Chip looked down again at Skipper’s body, his voice muffled.
“Yes, I do,” Lee spoke confidently. “Dogs are very loyal; he waited for you.”
In the dim light of the garage Lee watched
as large tears dropped intermittently on to his friend’s jeans. He tightened
his grip on Chip’s shoulder, feeling the trembling of his body as he gave into
his grief. After a long while Chip looked up, his face eerily pale and
splotched with tears, “Skipper was more than just a dog…” his voice shook and
he gripped at the dog’s fur with his right hand, “…he was…he was…the link to my
past…” he reached up with his left hand and scrubbed almost angrily at his face
before continuing, his blue eyes fixed now on Lee’s attentive face. “Skipper
was my dad’s dog, you know. I was just eight when dad bought him home as a
puppy after his previous dog died and he was always dad’s dog but when dad was
at work Skipper was like another playmate. He went everywhere with me and Tim;
joined in all our games…” he paused to wipe again at his face, “…he…he…was all
I had left from
“You’ve got Helen,” Lee ventured quietly.
“It’s not the same,” Chip shook his blond head, his voice slightly stronger. “Don’t get me wrong; I love my sister and we’re very close…we’ve always been close, far back as I can remember… but she left home for college when I was only four years old; she used to write me and Tim regularly and we talked on the phone but we only saw her in vacations,” he took a deep breath, his right hand still gripping Skipper’s fur. “H...Helen wasn’t a part of my everyday life the way my parents and Tim were…” he swallowed and dropped his gaze back to Skipper’s body, “…the way Skipper was. When…when my parents and Tim were killed and I had to move out here I was…I was scared, Lee…” he looked back up at his friend, renewed anguish on his face. “My whole life was turned upside down…it was a tremendous help to have Skipper move here with me.” He looked down lovingly at the dog’s body before continuing, his voice distant as if he’d travelled back in time with his memories, “I learned fairly quickly not to cry in front of Helen because she would cry too…she tried not to but I could tell I was upsetting her…but with Skip it didn’t matter. I could tell him how I felt, I could cry all over him and he just sat patiently and watched me.” He looked up again, a slight smile on his lips. “He used to lick the tears from my face; he m...m…m…ade me feel closer to my parents an…and….T…Tim.”
As Chip’s gaze fell once more to his dog’s
body Lee squeezed his shoulder gently offering support in the only way he could
think of. He had no idea what to say. He had shared a room with Chip Morton
from their first day at
Lee could only imagine the emotional pain his friend must have suffered as a child. His own childhood pain came from essentially being an only child. He did have an older half-brother but Cliff had left home for college before Lee was born and, due to a rift with his mother and step-father, he rarely came home and was a stranger to Lee. As a child Lee had longed to be part of a large, loving family. At the age of sixteen he had dated a girl…Megan Turner…who had been the fourth child in a family of seven and, even now, he wondered if he had really dated Megan for herself or whether it had been more for the large, loving and boisterous family that he so enjoyed being a part of when he was with her.
In many ways, he reflected now, his hand still on his friend’s shoulder, he and Chip were alike and not just because they shared a passion for the sea and an ambition to become officers in the U.S. Navy. Chip had lost his younger brother and, according to his sister, he still missed him. Lee had always wanted a brother who was part of his life and considered that his developing friendship with Chip was the closest he had ever come to having one. Now all he wanted to do was help his friend/brother through this difficult day at the start of their much anticipated vacation but he still didn’t know what to say and feared upsetting Chip further so he decided some action might be better than more words.
Taking a deep breath and squeezing Chip’s shoulder again he said quietly, “I better go let Helen know that I found you.”
Chip looked up then, a flash of guilt in his blue eyes. “Oh…” he shook his head almost dazedly. “I never thought…I mean I just wanted to get away.”
“It’s okay,” Lee spoke reassuringly. “She guessed you wanted to be alone but she asked me to check on you.”
Chip smiled as a sudden question leapt to Lee’s brain. “Helen said she had already checked the garage and you weren’t here so where were you?”
“The beach,” Chip replied shortly, “but I...I didn’t want people to see I was upset so I came back. I hadn’t been here long when you arrived.” He looked questioningly at Lee. “So how come you came in here if Helen said I wasn’t here?”
Lee shrugged. “I’m not sure; I was all set to take Helen’s car and drive over to Chris’s parents but some sixth sense told me to check in here first.”
“Just as well,” Chip frowned. “Tom and Gwen are away; didn’t Helen tell you?”
“Yes,” Lee nodded his dark head. “But she thought you might’ve gone there anyway…for solitude.”
Chip’s blue eyes widened in surprise, “I never thought of that; my sister is full of good ideas.” He smiled again and even in the dim light Lee could see that some colour had returned to his previously ashen features.
“Shall I tell her you’ll be along later?” Lee enquired as he pulled himself to his feet and brushed dust off his jeans with the palms of his hands.
“Yea,” Chip nodded, his eyes back on the dog, “I won’t be long; I want to help Chris…”
“Okay,” Lee reached for his sunglasses, “I’ll see you later.”
The late afternoon sun was still very warm
as it filtered through the canopy of the huge maple at the bottom end of the
It cast patches of light over the fresh mound of earth marking Skipper’s final resting place and warmed the bare limbs of the two young men who sat against the broad trunk of the tree, sipping slowly at ice cold cans of coke.
“I’m sorry you missed your sailing trip today,” Chip spoke suddenly, his tone regretful.
“No problem,” Lee replied honestly, “We’ve got the rest of the week to go sailing in.”
“Mmm,” Chip nodded his blond head thoughtfully his eyes on the can in his right hand. “Thank you for being there today,” He spoke suddenly, the words coming out in a rush as if he had to say them quickly before he lost his nerve, “it meant a lot to have…to have you here.” He glanced up at Lee and smiled briefly, “…I’m guessing you never expected to have to deal with all this grief when I invited you to come home for the summer.”
“No,” Lee said honestly, his own eyes fixed on the grass, “but I’m really glad that I could help you today, you and Helen and Chris…” he hesitated and took another sip from his can before looking up at Chip, a shy smile on his face, “..it helped me too,” he confessed, “…it enabled me to give something back for all the hospitality Helen and Chris have given me this year already and…” he paused, his eyes falling back to the grass “…it’s helped me to feel like another member of the family…being included at such a special, private time.”
“Good old Skip,” Chip smiled fondly at the mound of earth in front of him, “helping people even when…when…” he choked suddenly “…. he’s dead.”
For a while there was silence under the tree both young men lost in thought. Lee felt his eyelids drooping, his mind lulled into relaxation by the warm air and peaceful surroundings. Beside him Chip plucked idly at the grass with long, slender fingers tossing it into the air and watching it fall back to earth with a solemn expression.
“I’m glad that you feel part of the family,” the words sprung out suddenly shocking both men into alertness. Stifling a yawn, Lee turned to eye his friend speculatively.
“It’s so good to have someone of my own age around,” Chip explained seriously, his eyes squinting in the sun that had suddenly fallen across his face. “I’ve always been the youngest at home, surrounded by adults most of the time and much as I enjoy their company it’s really good to have someone my own age around.”
“But you have friends…” Lee frowned slightly.
“Sure,” Chip grinned, “but they don’t live here; having you come stay it’s like…” he hesitated and turned his face away to stare at the grass, “it’s like having a brother around.”
“Good,” Lee grinned at the back of his friend’s blond head, “that means even if we fall out I can still hang around and enjoy Helen’s cooking; you can’t evict your brother!”
“Don’t think I’d be allowed to,” Chip turned to grin back at him, “my sister has already adopted you; I heard her telling Chris that you need to get some meat on your bones and, knowing Helen, she’s sees it as a challenge to fulfil before we return to Annapolis.”
“Really,” Lee laughed, “so she thinks she’ll have more success with me than she’s had with you?”
“Ah, but she knows that I’ll eat everything she puts in front of me,” Chip said confidently, “she accepts my lack of body fat is down to my active life style; she suspects that yours is because you always turn down a second helping of pudding!”
“I have enough trouble eating the first helping,” Lee groaned and pushed himself to his feet.
“Where are you going?” Chip squinted up at him, making no effort to move himself.
“To take a walk,” Lee looked pointedly at his watch, “…it’s less than an hour to dinner time; I need to work up an appetite!”
“Good luck,” Chip smirked as he stretched out on the grass, his hands forming a cushion beneath his head.
“You’re not coming?”
“No,” Chip’s voice was low, “I want to stay here…” he glanced at the grave containing his beloved pet, “…keep Skip company.”
The beach was crowded with holiday makers and sun seekers all making the most of the perfect summers day. Adults stretched out on towels and in deck chairs their bare skin exposed to the sun’s rays while young children dug in the sand or chased balls their voices all mingled together as they laughed and called out to each other. The tide was well out but Lee could still make out the distant figures of people in the water.
“Best place to be,” he thought with a grin as he walked slowly along the path that bordered the beach; it would be a lot cooler out at sea and he longed for the day when he would graduate and, hopefully, spend most of his time at sea aboard some ship or other. And one day in the future, he thought now, that ship would be his; he would be the Captain…men would call him Skipper.
He grinned broadly as he realized the irony of his thoughts. For some reason Chip’s late father had named his dog Skipper and here, on the day that dog had passed away, Lee was thinking about the future when he might be called Skipper himself. I wonder if Chip’s father had any inkling that his son might one day become Skipper on his own ship, he wondered now. I’m guessing that is Chip’s ambition too…to become a Captain. I wonder if he or Helen knows why the dog was named Skipper. Chip never talks about his parents; I know his father was a surgeon but maybe he had ambitions to sail a boat one day.
His thoughts returned to the conversation he and Chip had just had in the garden.
“…it’s like having a brother around…” those were the words Chip had uttered in a moment of honest confession. Lee felt the same warm glow radiate through his body that he had felt when Chip uttered the words. He knew that there was no way he could replace the brother Chip had lost…and couldn’t talk about…but he thanked the good fortune that had given him Chip Morton as a room mate at Annapolis ensuring not only that he was now on the way to fulfilling his career ambitions but that he had already fulfilled another long-held ambition to belong to a real family.
Feeling both tired and utterly contented Lee took one last lingering look at the far off sea before turning inland and retracing his footsteps to his second home in time for dinner.