by Jeremy Suh
The class stood up for the national anthem, their hands tight against their bodies, but nobody stood taller or more rigid than Robert Gunner. The flag, a mixture of sky blue and gold rippled lightly from the summer breeze. The sea, barely visible in the distance, ebbed back and forth. The music faded, and the class slowly took their seats; Robert was the last one to sit down. For him, the anthem was a melody of angels. It was the Navy Soldiers’ song. A lullaby of justice.
“This anthem is a daily reminder to us citizens that we are protected by the Navy, and also a reminder to those who defy laws, that the hunt to put them behind bars will never end,” said Ms. Diabure, standing in the front of the classroom.
“The Navy has been a powerful source of security here, and they are the reason we have not been raided by pirates in over a century. Security is strong, and hopefully some of you, when done with school, will continue the legacy of these great peacekeepers.”
A few boys in the classroom yelled, “Yes, ma’am.” Robert’s voice echoed the loudest among them.
“Now, let’s get back to our studies! Class, please open your textbooks. Today’s lesson is about the greatest enemy to the Navy: Pirates.”
Robert scoffed, and turned his attention to the window. He was eligible to join The Naval Academy in half a year, but Robert could not wait that long. He spent every minute of time outside of school either tending to his ailing mother or pouring over books about the Navy and their history. He kept himself fit, and even took weekly shooting lessons.
The clouds drifted through the sky, and in a moment of euphoria, Robert imagined himself donning the white robe and commanding an entire fleet. He would be a merciless commander, serving justice to all rule-breakers, on land and water. An additional benefit was that he would be able to take better care of his mother with the money he made.
“I think it’s quite intriguing and commendable how they sacrifice everything just to get their hands on a little bit of treasure.”
Robert drew his attention back to Ms. Diabure. “You did not just say you like pirates.”
“I didn’t say I like them, Robert. I said they are commendable. Liking something and respecting it are two very different things.”
Robert stood up violently, causing the chair to crash behind him.
“Pirates are not commendable. They’re literal garbage. They spend their time flocking to gold coins and living pointless lives.”
“Robert, please don’t use that kind of language. If you dislike something, there are more mature ways of expressing your feelings.”
“I’ll stop when you stop adoring filthy pirates. Pirates are sewage rats that deserve to drown.”
“Headmaster’s office. Now.” Ms. Diabure grew a little red. “What would your father say about this behavior?”
Father. The word that pierced Robert’s whole being. He could be a man, because that is what it took to become a Navy commander. But a father? That was something he refused to acknowledge, tossing it away from his conscious whenever that word sporadically popped up in his head.
Robert’s father left him when he was a baby. Robert had cried throughout his childhood because of his absence. It was a missing hole in his life that could never be filled, only covered. And now his teacher had taken that word, balled it up with pointed anger, and stabbed him with it. Robert felt his lip quiver but turned to leave the classroom before he could reveal any emotion. To be Navy meant to be calm like an ocean that laps at the sand on a sunny day.
Robert strode past the closing school gates, saluting the two officers standing, as he made his way home after a long detention period. He could hear the sound of horses pulling carriages from the downtown end-of-day rush hour, and the oil fueled lanterns lined along the street started to light up as the moon chased the sun away.
He crossed his neighborhood’s bridge, stopping at the top to admire the view. It was a brilliant vista composed of the sparkling ocean and red sand could be seen beyond the buildings. A seagull cawed in the distance. He took a minute to admire the view. He would have to bring his mother here sometime.
Decorated paintings of a man Robert knew of but did not recognize nor remember hung near the entrance of his home. Normally, they were a blur on the wall as Robert passed through the entrance. But today, because of the freshness of emotion and memory associated Diabure’s mentioning of a father figure, Robert paused to look. Under a sudden impulse, he touched the closest painting. His thumb carved an arc of clarity over the settled dust. His father was a handsome man with striking similarities to him.
It was his mother. She was an ailing woman with streaks of gray hair and creases on her face. Despite this, her smile never failed to act as a warm hearth from the cold world.
“Why did father leave us?” asked Robert impulsively, even though the answer was the same every time. “He didn’t even get the chance to see me grow up.”
“Rob, you know that I don’t know. He just left, and never came back.”
Robert pursed his lips and nodded.
“I’m sorry Rob. . . I’m not much help, am I? I’m not the mother you deserve, especially in this condition,” Robert’s mother pointed at the needle in her arm, supplying her with a constant flow of medicine.
A trickle of tears slowly fell down his mother’s face. It was not long before Robert, too, tasted salt. He walked over and embraced her.
. . . .
Then came the day when Robert’s entire world was burning. A thick wave of heat pressed against Robert as the sound of people screaming finally woke him up. When he walked over to his window, the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. The second-floor view of the estate offered him a prime view of the town – a front row seat of his neighborhood engulfed in flames.
It took a few long seconds to process the view in its entirety. Fire was licking intensely at the rooftops of houses. People were running around in a crazy frenzy. Many civilians and soldiers lay scattered on the ground as the smell of burnt flesh permeated through the air. Robert forced himself to look away as he stifled the urge to vomit.
A crazy cackle cut through the air as Robert set his attention on the dirty men with soggy, long braids and eye patches ransacking houses and dousing other buildings in oil. An invisible hand snaked across Robert’s stomach and gripped his gut tightly.
Pirates had arrived in his town. This meant danger. He was down the hallway in front of his mother’s room in a heartbeat. His mother was sound asleep – her medicine kept her in a heavily sedated deep sleep. She was the only person who could wake herself up. But she was okay.
Robert ran over to her window to survey the scene once more. He coughed as ash began to drizzle from the burning timbers above. A gunshot blazed, and Robert instinctively ducked under the window ledge. When he snuck a peek, he saw a new wave of pirates surged through the street, pillaging houses and shooting at the Navy with their grimy pistols. The citizens on the street evacuated quickly, jumping over bodies and tossed objects. They preferred flames over bullets.
“Kill ‘em all!” roared the pirates. “Get your hands on everything with sum’ bounty!”
Robert watched in horror as one by one, the Navy soldiers fell like bowling pins. The pirates cackled whenever they spilled enemy blood, revealing their yellow teeth. The white and blue uniforms of the Navy became muddied with dirt and blood.
Bang. One final gunshot. The last Navy soldier collapsed in the dirt next to his comrades. The pirates only grinned and retreated around the corner, away from Robert’s view. All that was left was the incarnations of Robert’s dream, fading from life. Something broke inside of him. His vision became tinged with red. He ran down the stairs, and out the house, to where the fallen bodies lay. He grabbed the pistol of a dying soldier, and looked him in his eyes. When the light of life faded, Robert clenched his jaw, and ran after the pirates.
Robert turned a corner and saw a familiar sight. Mass carnage. But this time, there was a lone pirate wrestling with a sole Navy soldier in the middle. Robert gripped the pistol he had just attained and pointed it at them.
“Stop what you’re doing,” said Robert.
Both men looked at Robert, then the object he was holding, and stopped their movements. They took a step away from each other, palms open towards Robert.
The Navy soldier spoke up. “Give me the gun. I can finish the job.”
It was the pirate’s turn. “Mate, I mean this in the nicest way possible, but if ye hand him the pistol, or throw it to him even, I will grab it and hurt ye both. A lil’ squirt like ye I bet don’t even know how to handle the toy-”
Robert cocked the gun, which shut him up immediately. But something else caught Robert’s attention. The pirate did not speak with an uneducated drawl like the other pirates but had a hint of refined speech that had been unused for a while. Robert searched the pirate’s face carefully before feeling his mouth slacken. Even past the oily dreads and dirty face, Robert could recognize the face of his father anywhere.
“You rat. You ran away from us, and out of all the things you could have done, you became a pirate?” said Robert, looking at his father dead in the eyes. He watched as his father put the pieces together.
“Robert?” said Robert’s father.
“I’m surprised you know my name.”
Robert watched his father take a cautious step forward. “I named ye.”
The Navy soldier raised his voice. “Kid, I’m not sure what is going on, but he’s a pirate. We need to put him where he belongs: in a prison cell.”
Robert’s father did not even flinch; his unwavering attention was focused on Robert. “I know I’ve been gone for a while, but I’ve missed ye.”
“You lie,” said Robert. His outstretched arm began to tremble slightly.
“Kid,” said the Navy soldier. “Pull the trigger, or pass me the gun!”
“Rob. . . Ye wouldn’t kill your father in cold blood, would ye?”
“Robert! Are you listening?” said the Navy officer, his voice more panicked than before. “Pass me the gun!”
“Be quiet!” yelled Robert, pointing the gun at the officer, who yelped in dismay. There were too many voices in his head. The flames on his street were eating up the houses. He had to check on his mother. His neighbors were lying in a pool of their own blood. His father was in front of him.
“What are you doing? Shoot him, not me!” yelled the officer, pointing at Robert’s father.
Robert’s father took another cautious step. He was now twice as close to Robert as the Navy officer. Robert pointed the gun back at him, stopping him in his tracks.
“Rob, you’ve been hurting, haven’t ye? All ‘cause of me- my mistakes. I want to apologize. I was young, dumb and stupid. I wasn’t the father you deserved.” Robert watched his father’s face transform from a grimy mask into the picture that hung in his house.
“Rob. Robert! Do your job as a citizen and help us!” cried the Navy officer. “Look at all this damage. It’s their fault! Either pull the trigger or let me!”
“Yer like me. Ye look like me. We share the same blood,” continued Robert’s father. “I have a connection to ye that nobody else has. Give me a chance to make things right. I’ve got money now. We can sit at the local canteen and drink a beer. We can go fishing by the peer. Sound good?”
“Good,” murmured Robert. Tears started forming at the corners of Robert’s eyes. He had to pull the trigger. But who was the bullet meant for? Should the bullet rip through his future and his dreams, or the missing piece of his past? His mind felt fuzzy. He knew his father deserved punishment, but he also just wanted a taste of what it would feel like . . .
“Ye, very good. Now, shoot the officer. Then, I promise, everything will be fine,” whispered Robert’s father. “Shoot him!”
The Navy officer yelped. “No! No! Robert. I’m not the target!”
There was nothing that could be done. Robert felt as though he was in a movie theatre, watching himself turn towards the officer and pull the trigger on the big screen.
“Rob!” It was his mother. Robert was back in his body. His mother was standing, supporting her weight on a fallen piece of timber with a pistol in her other hand. Robert wanted to tell her to stay back, but she hobbled her way over to him. She glanced at the listless officer, before pointing her barrel at Robert’s father. “Kane.”
“Robert, look away.” Esmerelda cocked the pistol.
“This isn’t the family reunion I was hoping for,” said Kane.
“You dare show your face to us after all these years?”
Kane’s face hardened. “Still have those pictures of me on the wall?”
“I thought so. Ye couldn’t forget about me. But don’t worry. I’ll make sure my face is the last thing ye see before ye die” Kane growled, before lunging at her. Robert felt his arm move instinctively in a smooth arc. His finger twitched, and a boom ensued.
The moment held itself for what felt like an eternity. Time slowed. Senses dulled. Robert was back in the theatre, seeing his father crumple to the ground. Then, the world caught back up and the memory of what just happened flooded into Robert’s mind like a broken dam.
He looked at his father once more. To a bird, he would just be another bloodied, fallen body on the street. Because of his stillness, he may have just been another picture on the entrance of his house. His father was a fantasy he constructed in his mind, and reality uncovered the ugly hide. Robert had killed, but also killed this question mark in his life.
Robert let out a long breath, and the pistol fell from his fingers.
“Mom, I killed a Navy soldier and my dad,” mumbled Robert.
His vision blurred. He had destroyed his insecurity and his dream. What was left?
“Oh, Rob,” Esmerelda started crying as well. She wrapped her arms around Robert. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. It should have been me who pulled the trigger.”
Robert clutched at his mother’s cold arms.
“I’m always making mistakes. I’m always too sick to care for you. Too weak to protect you. I failed you, and now your hopes of. . . I’m sorry. I- I don’t know what else to say-”
“I never do anything right.”
“And now I ruined your dreams for the future-”
Robert took a deep breath, watching the sun slowly creep from its hiding spot behind the horizon, and a lone seagull flying too far inland. He picked up a ripped book that had found its way from its owner’s library.
And he read:
“The sea ebbs and flows / Crushing sandcastles and walls / But man always returns / To rebuild what he dreamed of.”
He faced his mother. “It’s alright. After all, I’m with you, right? We’ll be okay.”