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Starting Late book cover

Starting Late
A Tale from Spearfish Lake
Wes Boyd
©2011, ©2013

Chapter 20

The next day was better.

There was a time that Mark and Jackie had been regular church-goers, involved in the church and interested in it. Those times had passed only slowly over the years, and while they were no longer quite as enthusiastic about it, they still made it to church fairly often. They hadn’t been to church since the girls had been with them, but it only took a small amount of discussion to agree that the experience of Shannon’s funeral made this Sunday important they all go, with Florence joining them.

It was apparently a new experience for the girls – at least they didn’t give any indication they’d ever been in a church before. Still, they approached it respectfully, and seemed to be interested in it. Without discussing it much, both Mark and Jackie agreed the girls were going to have to be exposed to it a little more without being pressured to make any decisions.

Sunday was a bigger day for some fairly close relatives – Jackie’s half-brother John and his wife Candice were going to watch their son Shay graduate from Spearfish Lake High School, and he planned on going to Lake State University in the fall. His younger brother Cody was going to be graduating in two more years. Life was changing for John and Candice, and they knew it, but they’d seen big changes go by in their lives and seemed ready to face up to the house being quieter.

Mark, Jackie, and the girls didn’t go to the graduation ceremony since there was limited space in the school gym where it was being held, but they were invited to the open house afterward. They were unsure about whether to take Florence along, but after Jackie called Candice to clear the way, late that afternoon they all headed over to the Archer house to put in an appearance.

It was located in town, not far from the downtown, and only a couple of houses away from the big, wide beach that was one of the more spectacular features of the town. It was a big, older house, but much of the activity was in a large tent that had been set up on the lawn. There was a big crowd of people hanging around, since Shay had been a popular school athlete and all-around “big man on campus.” Among other things, he’d sometimes been the running back, sometimes the quarterback for the school’s admittedly none-too-good football team. That meant there were other football players hanging around, and some of their girlfriends, including some of Shay’s.

Mark and Jackie got a few moments to talk with Shay and congratulate him on his accomplishment, but since he was the center of attention of the party they didn’t get to for long. John and Candice were just about as busy – they were both well-known business people in the town, Candice for working at Spearfish Lake Outfitters, and John for owning the McGuiness-Archer Agency, the CPA firm in town. That meant there was a steady stream of business people and customers making their appearance, too.

Almost lost in the crowd was Shay’s younger brother Cody, who was a quiet and serious kid, not outgoing or an athlete like his older brother. Mark found himself drawn to the kid, who was only a little older than Becca. After thinking about it for a while, Mark realized there was a lot of similarity in the families: the outgoing, athletic, popular older kid and the intense, non-athletic, almost reclusive younger one. Mark knew Cody and Shay had been close as brothers, and that Shay had watched over Cody a lot as they’d gone through school.

Not that Cody, like Bree, didn’t have some strengths of his own. Although it was known in the family, it was not well known generally that Cody was a dead shot with either a pistol or rifle. That was mostly because Cody didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, since he was a shy and reticent kid. He was the regional junior champion as of last fall, and had shot high in the competition regardless of age.

The Archers had discovered that talent almost accidentally; when Candice had been preparing to make her first Iditarod race across Alaska, the suggestion had been made that it was a good idea to have a large pistol along with her, more to deal with dangerous late-winter wildlife than anything else. While Candice, being a country girl, had grown up around guns, she’d never shot a pistol, so Mark’s old friend and fellow Toivo Expedition member Gil had been pressed into taking her out to the county Sportsman’s Club indoor range for a lesson or two. She’d taken Cody along more as something to do than any other reason.

After Candice had spent some time scattering shots all over the far end of the building, Gil almost casually asked Cody if he’d like to try out the little .22 Ruger. At that point in his life he’d never had a gun in his hand before, but his first clip was all on the paper and his second all in the black. Gil quickly concluded that talent like that needed to be developed, and by the time spring rolled around, when several members of the local police department showed up for their quarterly qualifications, Cody borrowed a nine millimeter from someone and out-shot the cops. Every one of them.

For Cody, it was something he could do that his brother couldn’t, and it was all he had needed. He had no interest in hunting or anything like that, but was hell on paper targets. It was more than a little surprising to everyone, for no one in his family or relatives had any interest in or particular talent for shooting. Mark was impressed; though he was a Vietnam veteran, he’d not had a gun in his hands for years and had been, at best, an average marksman in the Army.

Just thinking about it, there was a lesson in that for Mark. He’d been concerned about Bree being somewhat non-social, not making friends easily. Maybe at the age of twelve it wasn’t anything to be concerned about just yet, and measured against her older sister’s athletic talents she definitely stood in the shadows. But who was to say what undiscovered talent she might possess? On the basis of very little experience, he realized he wouldn’t be surprised to see Bree turn out to be a pilot; Becca enjoyed riding around in the plane, but Bree had an intense interest in more than just the ride. Give her a few years closer to being old enough, he thought, and he might have to cultivate that interest and see where it led.

Since Cody was sitting by himself nursing a glass of punch and looking a little bored, Mark decided to go over and say hello to him. “So, Cody,” he asked. “How’s it going?”

“OK,” Cody shrugged. “Shay has been looking forward to this for a long time.”

“Are you looking forward to his going to college?”

“Not really,” he shrugged. “It’s going to be a little lonely when he’s gone. I’m going to miss him.”

A few years up the road, Mark thought, and Becca could be in college with Bree still around the house. It would be different, that was for sure, and he couldn’t help but wonder if Bree would feel lonely without her sister around. He shoved the thought aside and said, “Have you figured out where you want to go to college?”

“Not really,” he said. “Maybe Lake State with Shay, maybe not. I keep thinking I might like to go someplace else, someplace where I don’t have to follow in his footsteps.”

“Any idea what you’re planning on doing?

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I know Dad wouldn’t mind my being an accountant and joining him in the business, but I just can’t get excited about it. I’ve thought about maybe being a policeman, but I’m not sure how well I’d like that, either.”

“Life will surprise you, that’s for sure,” Mark said, not sure what to say to the kid. “A month ago, I had no idea I was going to be a father to a pair of teenage girls.”

“I’ve seen Becca around the school a little,” he said, obviously trying to make conversation as much as Mark was. “She seems to be a pretty good kid. I heard Mom talking about teaching Bree to ride a bike. I haven’t met her, but it sure seems strange to have a kid get that old and not know how to ride one.”

“It seemed strange to me, too,” Mark agreed. “Until I saw where she lived. It wasn’t the kind of place you’d want a kid riding a bike around a lot.”

“I remember living in Decatur when we were real little,” he said, with just a little more interest. “It must have been a different part of town, because I was riding a bike before we moved up here.”

“It probably was,” Mark replied. “It’s a pretty big town, after all. I’m sure I was never where you lived down there.”

“It was all right, although I like it better here. At least here you get a chance to know people a little better than we did down there. I know Mom and Dad are a lot happier here than they were in Decatur.”

“You were, what? About ten when you moved up here? Did you have any trouble making friends or fitting in?”

“It wasn’t easy,” Cody replied. “I didn’t know anyone here but Shay. Dad tried to get us involved in sports teams and like that. Shay got into that real well, but he’s always been the one to get the home runs while I got the strikeouts, so I was never real interested in sports. I mostly hung around with his friends when I hung around with anyone, and a couple of them had younger brothers I got to know a little. But I’ve never been much of one to hang out with a bunch of guys who are all talking trash and looking for trouble, so I haven’t done that as much for a while.”

“Look, I’ll tell you why I’m asking,” Mark told him, and explained in a couple sentences the similarities he’d noticed in how Shay and Cody got along as reflected in the girls. “I’ll admit, I’m more than a little concerned about Bree, and you seem to be a lot like her in some ways. I’m wondering if you have any advice about what I can do to make her more comfortable.”

Cody perked up a little bit. “Don’t try to push her about it,” he said. “Just because Becca gets along with a crowd of girls doesn’t mean it’s the right group for Bree. My folks tried to push me on that, and it may have done more harm than good. I don’t have many close friends, but I’m all right with that. I get along with other kids all right, but I’ve got things of my own I like to do, and usually other kids aren’t interested in them.”

“Speaking from my own experience, I know kids can be full of crap at that age,” Mark replied, realizing there was wisdom in what Cody was saying. “I suppose if you’re not interested in being full of crap there’s no point in hanging around kids who are.”

“Yeah,” Cody smiled. “It took Dad a while to learn that, and he’s still a little frustrated I don’t play ball or things like that. He got a big thrill out of watching Shay play football and baseball, and is a little disappointed that I don’t want to.”

“We’re all different, I guess,” Mark said. “Sometimes it takes a while to learn that.”

“Yeah, really,” Cody smiled. “It’s going to be different around here with Shay gone and his friends not hanging around the place all the time. It’ll be quieter, for sure.”

“You know, Jackie and I haven’t had the girls here for a month yet. I used to think we had it nice and quiet with no kids around. Now, I’m not looking forward to when that time comes again. It’s going to be too quiet.”

“I think the folks are thinking that, while I’ll still be around,” Cody grinned. “I have no idea what they plan on doing when I go to college.”

“Well, your mother might go to Alaska again,” Mark smiled. “But I’ll bet your dad just goes down to the office like usual.”

“Probably so,” Cody laughed. “You know, you were talking about the difference between older and younger kids, but it just struck me, there’s the same thing with Dad and his brother, but in reverse. Dad just liked to push numbers around, but it’s his younger brother who’s running trains and running dogsleds. It takes all kinds, I guess.”

“Yes, it does,” Mark smiled. “Cody, thanks for talking to me. You’ve given me a couple new ideas about how I can help make Bree more comfortable up here. I hope you won’t mind if I have to come to you again on something. Things are a little different from a kid’s point of view than they are from an adult’s, and sometimes it’s hard to remember that.”

“Sure, I don’t mind. What’s more, don’t feel afraid to have Bree ask me something if you need to. I’m quite a bit older than she is, but I’ve been through a lot of the same things. Maybe I can help her out.”

“If you can, it would be appreciated,” Mark told him. “Bree seems to be a good kid, but she seems a little lost up here, and there might be some things where you could give her better advice than her sister can.”

“Could be,” Cody smiled. “Girls aren’t the same as guys, though, and especially at that age. But I’ll be glad to talk to her if you want.”

“Sure, let me call her over,” Mark told him. In a couple minutes the two had been introduced, and were talking. Mark soon realized he might be in the way – the kids might not want adults hearing what they were talking about. Besides, there were other people at the open house he really ought to have a word with, just to be sociable.

They probably spent close to another hour at the open house, and Mark noticed that Cody and Bree were having an animated conversation through much of it. He didn’t think there was a danger of it turning into a boyfriend-girlfriend thing, although on reflection, Tiffany had been less than Bree’s age when she turned to hanging around with John’s younger brother Josh. No one had thought it was a boyfriend-girlfriend thing, just a pair of kids who loved training dogs and racing dogsleds, until Tiffany showed up with an engagement ring at the age of eighteen.

It probably wouldn’t happen here, or at least Mark hoped not – there had been plenty of awkwardness with Tiffany and Josh – but it wouldn’t hurt Bree to have an older mentor, especially one who could help her out with some of the issues she faced.

Finally, they headed for home. The open house still had a while to run, but Mark was glad to be out of there. In the car on the way back, Bree told him, “Uncle Mark, thank you for introducing me to Cody. He’s a nice guy and I had a good time talking to him. I was getting really bored until you did that.”

“Cody is a good kid,” Mark told her. “Like you, he had a few problems adjusting to moving up here, but he learned how to do it. I think you could learn a thing or two from him.”

“Oh, I think I did. Maybe it won’t be all bad living up here.”

*   *   *

Monday was Memorial Day.

Spearfish Lake was a town that for the most part honored their veterans, and the feeling had only strengthened since the start of the second Gulf war a few years before. As far as anyone could remember the town had always had a Memorial Day parade from downtown out to the Spearfish Lake Cemetery, and the Spearfish Lake Amvets, of which Mark was a member, always marched in it. For a number of reasons, some dating back decades, the Amvets didn’t get along very well with the larger veteran’s post in town. The Memorial Day parade and the one on Veterans Day were about the only times the two groups could agree to work together on much of anything.

However, the group from the post was mostly made up of World War II and Korean veterans, and in recent years their numbers had started to dwindle. There were only a few left who could even make the long march from downtown to the cemetery, where a special service was held, mostly unchanged from year to year. Of necessity, the mostly Vietnam veterans from the Amvets had slowly started to take over the post’s duties, and with it, some of the old animosities had finally started to fade. The post still felt responsible for placing flags on the graves of the veterans in the Spearfish Lake Cemetery, while the Amvets had long done the duty for smaller cemeteries around the area.

The Amboy Township Cemetery, to the west of Spearfish Lake, was an exception to that rule. The members of the Toivo Expedition had shouldered that duty for many years. Early in the morning a few days before Mark had joined his friends in that sad duty to honor those who had served. Gil Evachevski was out there, of course, as was Steve Augsberg, Bud Ellsberg, Ryan Clark, Harold Hekkinan as well as Mark – the six veterans who had been there, done that, then went back to bring back a friend who had been left behind. Even Mike and Binky, Steve’s Vietnamese wife, both of whom had accompanied the expedition, never felt they were welcome at this very personal ceremony; after all, they weren’t veterans and had understood the difference from the beginning.

After the fairly formal services were over at the Spearfish Lake cemetery, Mark and the other veterans from the Toivo Expedition drove out to the Amboy Township Cemetery for their own private service at Henry Toivo’s grave. The ceremony was nothing much when you got right down to it, and it had changed little in the sixteen years since they’d brought Henry back where he belonged. As always, someone had brought a cooler with seven bottles of beer; it had been Steve this year, not that it mattered. When he passed them out to the others, who opened them, one was set on Henry’s headstone. For the next few minutes they stood around drinking the beer as if Henry were there with them, and they often felt he was, at least in spirit. Sometimes the beer that Mark had at Henry’s headstone was the only one he had all year.

Without any planning, they had silently agreed to keep the topic of conversation to things Henry might have been interested in; Mark reported that Susan was in Europe, for example, and planned on going to Japan for a year. He also mentioned that he’d taken in his niece’s two kids, so he was finally getting to know what it was like to be a father.

Though they tried to keep things light, like they were sitting around in some bar with Henry somewhere, which all of them would rather have been doing, there was a somberness about the occasion that never failed to impress Mark, and it hit him even harder this year. It would soon be forty years since Henry had disappeared in Vietnam, still nineteen, still young. Even Steve, who had been Henry’s closest friend in high school, was in his middle fifties now. The rest of them were either in their sixties or getting pretty close to it; Gil was seventy-five. They’d had their chance to live their lives, and for the most part had been successful at them. Henry had never had the chance to live his life as happily as they had done, and as always, the thought of it tore at Mark. It just didn’t seem fair, but as he always reminded himself, life isn’t fair, not in the least.

Only Mark and Bud had never had children of their own, although there was a parallel there between the two; a good twenty-five years before Bud and his wife had taken in the daughters of his booze and drug-addled sister-in-law. When they’d first shown up in Spearfish Lake, nobody figured on either of them going anywhere but to a reform school, but everyone was wrong: one was a doctor now, and the other a college professor. Everyone, including the kids, credited Bud and his late wife Kate with picking up the girls’ lives and setting them on a straight track. Mark had only to look at Bud and hope that he and Jackie could do anything close to as well as Bud and Kate had done for those kids. It set a close personal standard for him to live up to.

After a while the beer ran out, and with it, the things to say. One by one they handed the empties back to Steve, except for the one they left on Henry’s headstone, as they always did. They started back among the headstones toward where their cars and trucks were parked, not in the mood to say much. Nothing had ever been said among the six of them, but it was pretty well agreed they’d keep up the ceremony until the last survivor was no longer able to do it. Keeping the memory of Henry alive, at least among them, was the least it seemed they could and should do.

However, out at the cars, Mark and Ryan paused for a moment. “Are you going to be ready to go to work tomorrow?” Ryan asked.

“About as ready as I can be,” Mark told him. “I’ve been spending some time studying a few systems, and while I’m a little further along than I was the other day, it still seems like there’s going to be a lot to learn. I’m probably not going to be able to put full time into it all the time, since I’m still going to have responsibilities to Marlin.com up through the end of next month, and ongoing responsibilities at Marlin Computer. And, especially this summer, I want to take some time to be with the girls. They’re still getting used to being here and haven’t totally accepted it yet.”

“That stuff is all important,” Ryan told him. “This stuff in the plant is important, too, but we’ve struggled on like this for a while and it won’t hurt us if it takes another month or two because you had other things to do. Still, we don’t want to screw around with it, because the current system is a pain in the ass. I’m sure you’ll see what I’m talking about tomorrow.”

“Oh, I’m looking forward to it, don’t get me wrong,” Mark smiled. “I’ve learned over the years that occasionally I have to take on a new challenge to keep me sharp, and there haven’t been enough new challenges the past few years. I figure a permanent residence in a place like this is all too near in the future, and I figure I might as well make the most of what little I have left. At least I get to do a few things worthwhile with them.”

“Yeah,” Ryan agreed distantly. “It sort of makes you wonder what Henry might have accomplished with his life if he’d come home like the rest of us.”

“I think about that every year we come out here,” Mark agreed. “Every single year.”

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To be continued . . .

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