The Forgotten Thousands in a Single Box

Tom Reed was short in temper and stature. His bulldog was named Cat, or maybe his cat was named Bulldog. Either way, the animal was missing. Tom always rolled the bottom of his jeans and, winter or summer, pushed his long sleeve shirts to the elbow. Most people who met Tom Reed enjoyed his company, until he could longer stand to have company. Opposed to tattooed women and totally against any form of alcohol consumption, Tom rarely found companionship in his surrounding neighborhood. His job at Domino’s Pizza was all he could find at the moment, but caused a strain on Tom’s already exhausted 1989 Honda Accord. He was the best delivery man and oddly received complements by telephone to a store manager who did not care. But alas, nothing mattered anymore. Tom Reed was dead.

The windows and doors were opened to his pay-weekly apartment to allow the semi-fresh air to expunge the odor caused by Tom’s decaying body. The levity to the man’s face-down body was unsightly and caused his bald head to appear as a rotting apple that turned bad from the bottom upward. The aroma that swirled in the autumn breeze objected to the cleanliness of the apartment, but the evidence was still there: remotes to the television and DVD player were aligned just right on the right arm of the recliner, one brown fedora waited on a nail beside the door with Nikes directly underneath (lace ends inside the open mouth of each shoe), kitchen sink empty and wiped, dishes in the drying rack were ordered biggest to smallest and cups on the end, the only bedroom contained a perfectly made bed. The woman who gave birth to Tom and adamantly believed that she was the current wife of Abraham Lincoln was notified. She only looked at the orderly of the home and demanded that baked chips be placed back into the machine down the hall from her room or the President would hear of it.

Jan Thomas met Tom while he was in the Army, stationed in Germany–Kaiserslautern to be exact. Now, waiting in the parking lot of the apartment complex and quickly smoking a Virginia Slim, she smiled. Tom Reed would want her to be exact and not smoke. To be the biggest ass, at times, he was the most loyal friend anyone could have. She and Tom had tried to be more than friends, but it never worked out. Both of them agreed that it felt like dating a sibling. So Jan did the next best thing: she married Tom’s friend and left Germany for good. Within three years, Jackson left her and their son. Tom was furious and did what Tom does: he stepped up and filled a role. It was always that way. When his father left him and his mother when he was ten, he stepped up and made sure the house was locked up at night and watched the news before bed. When his mother worked two jobs to pull things along, he stepped up and dropped out high school to get work. When his platoon sergeant was shot in the head in Afghanistan, he stepped up and lead a counter assault on a mountain ridge just outside of Mahmud Raqi. Tom Reed was quite a guy.

With the amount of recent deaths in the city, the detective assigned to the case knew that not very much time would be spent on Tom Reed. He glanced around the apartment twice and noted on his iPad that robbery probably wasn’t the reason. No signs of the front door being forced open. No signs of a struggle, just a dead, 42 year-old white male lying face down on his living room floor. Tom’s neck was elongated, with a weird bend in it. Broken neck? Noted. A tipped kitchen chair laid on its back toward the dead man’s feet. On the kitchen table rested a can of Endust and what appeared to be a sock used for cleaning. A single blade of the ceiling fan above the little kitchen table was broken where it attached to mount and hung oddly like an arm reaching out for Tom. Fall? Pushed? Noted. The detective glanced once more, through the open door, to the only person who seemed to know the little man: a strange woman in the parking lot with a heavy German accent. The small Motorola on the detective’s hip bubbled with bored voices of dispatchers, and soon one of them told him to return to the station for a scheduled interview. He nodded to the coroner and walked out of the small apartment. 

Tom’s grave blended with all of the other white crosses across the grounds of the cemetery. Jan found a service that provided military veterans a proper burial and a place to rest without charge. With 147 national cemeteries, Arlington was the closest. Jan didn’t know if Tom’s being awarded a Silver Star with a “V” device helped his being laid to rest in the national cemetery, but she was sure that it didn’t hurt. It was probably more about location in relation to travel distance than anything. The scene of his final resting place was tidy and quiet, birds chirping here and there over perfect rows of crosses and the Stars of David. She hoped Tom liked it. He would. She was sure of it. All of his belongings fit into seven cardboard boxes, and Jan signed for them when Tom’s mother refused listen to another person talk about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The clothes, dishes, and furniture would go to Goodwill. The Honda, television, and DVD player would be sold to help his mother. His personal things would eventually narrow down to a single box: a well-used rabbit foot key chain, three pictures of people Jan didn’t recognize, a small Springhill 5K trophy for participation, a picture of his mother some twenty years back, a manila envelope stuffed with various papers, sergeant stripes for a Class-A uniform, and a tiny silver star, encircled by a golden laurel wreath and backed by a larger gold star, all attached to a red, white, and blue ribbon with an inscription on the back that reads “For Gallantry in Action.” For safe keeping, the single cardboard box would live out the rest of Jan’s days in her back bedroom closet.

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