They raced toward the airport, which was thirty miles away. Travis thumped the steering wheel and leaned forward as though that might get them there faster. Shelly navigated. "You want to take exit 27A to the 59," she told him. "We just passed 25, so it shouldn't be long now. Which terminal is he at?"
"Southwest," Travis checked his mirrors, accelerated and merged into the passing lane. "His mother's gonna let me have it for making him wait there alone."
Shelly clung to the strap above her window. "He'll be alone forever if we get creamed out here. Take it easy!"
"Just be glad you never rode with me in a Humvee," he chuckled. "This is nothin'."
"Here it is, 27A. We'll be there in five minutes." She rubbed on some chapstick, pulled down the visor and fluffed her hair. "I look like something the cat dragged in," she slapped up the visor. "He's gonna be real impressed."
Travis reached over and took her hand. "You look great, Hon. I'm glad you came with me. Here we go, 'Southwest Arrivals', left lane. I'm gonna try to cruise by and grab him. We don't have time to park."
The pick-up/drop-off lane was filled with hotel shuttle buses and cabs. Travis pulled in neatly between two of them and jumped out of the car. "I'll leave it running in case they make you move it," he called back, heading for the revolving door.
Ten minutes later he came out with his arm around a teen-aged boy. Travis had told her Sean was fifteen, but he was small for his age, with sandy long hair that covered his eyes. He pulled a giant backpack-on-wheels, and had a guitar strapped to his back. What Shelly could see of his face revealed a sullen expression. Travis, on the other hand, was all smiles.
"Look who I found in there!" he said, 'noogie-ing' the kid's head. "Shelly, this is my son, Sean. Sean, meet Shelly."
Sean shocked her by offering his hand through the car window. He shook his hair back to reveal crystal green eyes. "Hi. It's nice to meet you."
Shelly smiled, relieved. "Nice to meet you, too. I'm sorry we were late."
Travis popped the trunk and stowed the backpack. Sean settled his guitar carefully into the back seat before getting in himself. "And we're off!" Travis deftly maneuvered the car into traffic. "You okay back there, Buddy?"
Silence.Shelly looked back to see Sean staring at his lap with his arms crossed. So, she thought, it was only Travis who got the cold shoulder. What was that about? She glanced at Travis, who stared straight ahead. Whatever it was, she wasn't going to find out without asking.
"So Sean," she met his eyes in the side mirror. "What are you mad about?"
Sean addressed the back of his father's head. "Didn't you tell her?"
"No, Sean, I haven't told my very new girlfriend the story of our lives. It doesn't make for great conversation."
"Yeah, well, if she knew she'd probably dump you."
That got Shelly's attention. "Okay, now you have to tell me. This sounds major."
Sean's voice trembled. "I haven't seen my Dad for two years. He let me down in a big way and then left without saying sorry, goodbye, or anything. My Grandma kept telling me he didn't mean it..." he choked up and stopped.
"I'm sorry about your Grandma," Shelly turned around in her seat. "She'd be glad you came."
"I'm glad you came too," Travis said quietly. "And I am sorry about what happened. I've missed you, but I couldn't call. I didn't know what I could say to make you understand."
"I was in eighth grade," Sean began, "and we had Career Week. I told everybody my Dad was a war hero from Desert Storm, and he said he would come and talk to the class. He even drove down the night before and took me to dinner. The next day, I went to school, and he was supposed to come in at ten o'clock, but he never showed. All the kids called me a liar!"
"That must have really hurt you," Shelly said, more to Travis than to Sean. He gripped the steering wheel, clenching his teeth.
"I wore the fatigue shirt he gave me to school every day; the one with 'Richards' on it. I thought then they'd have to believe me. I looked like a loser"
"How could you be a loser?" Shelly asked. "You didn't do anything wrong. It wasn't your fault."
"So I'm the loser, right?" Travis spat. "I did something wrong. It was my fault!"
"From the sound of it right now, that would be the logical conclusion. But it doesn't sound like you," she tousled his hair. "Why don't you set us straight?"
"First of all, I was no hero. I didn't want to do it, but Patty talked me into it."
"That's right, blame it on Mom!"
"I'm not blaming your Mom, Sean. I'm just trying to explain. Patty called and said you were all excited about me coming to your school, and she practically begged me to be there. I wanted to make you both happy, so I said I would. Up until that morning, I had every intention of doing it, I promise you."
"Why didn't you then?"
"I was not a superhero, Sean. I was a soldier who saw some pretty rough combat. I lost a lot of friends, and I felt responsible. I felt guilty for making it home, safe and sound, and going on with my life. I can't expect anyone who hasn't been through it to understand. Your Mom was there; that's where we met. She knows what it was like. It's the reason we couldn't stay together. We brought too much back with us, and we couldn't get past it."
"She's told me some of it," Sean said, "but she'd never screw me over like you did!"
"Watch it, Son," Travis threatened. "She'd never let you be disrespectful, either."
Sean wasn't going to back down. "Why should I respect you, after what you did?"
"I don't know why, Sean," Travis relented. "I messed up, and I'm sorry. I got up that morning, showered, and put on my Class A's. Then I looked in the mirror, and I lost it. I was still in the Army, I still wore a uniform every day, and fifteen years had gone by since I'd been in the Gulf. I thought I'd put it behind me, but I guess I hadn't. You don't go to school and pass out Kitkats and chat about a war. It's not show-and-tell. Those were real lives that were lost, Son. The heroes died in the field. Does that make sense?"
"It was really dumb to wait two years to tell me that. I needed to know."
"Well, now you do. Do you still have the shirt?"
"Practically wore it out," Sean said quietly; looking out the window.
"I'll bet I have something else I can give you while you're here. I'm glad you came, Buddy. It means a lot to me, and I know it would mean a lot to Grandma."
"Sorry guys," Shelly interrupted, "but I have to pee."
"We can stop and grab something to eat," Travis signalled for the exit. "Then I've got to get Sean over to Gordy's. They've got something to work on."