A work of fiction. Standard disclaimers.
The Fourth of July fireworks were over. They had been set off from a barge in the middle of the small harbor that defined their small town, while the townsfolk had perched themselves on the surrounding hillsides to watch.
Devin and Denise had come to the docks of the marine science station where they worked, where there were fewer lights than most other places in town and they could get a better view, a better chance for the skyrockets to distract them from their distress. They were just getting out of their car in the main, gravel-covered parking lot when a van pulled up beside them and a half dozen of Denise’s girlfriends piled out. They all screamed in recognition, slammed together in a mass hug, and then Denise went off at full speed about how the world sucked and everyone in it, with the possible exception of Devin and she wasn’t all that sure about him right now. Denise said nothing that hadn’t already been on social media, and the girlfriends, thus forewarned, howled in agreement and commiseration. The seven young women peeled off towards the docks, all of them talking at once, absorbed in themselves, paying Devin no mind and apparently oblivious that they had left him behind.
Devin was just fine with this. He loved Denise, and normally wished to be with her as much as he could, but tonight he was glad that she had found a way to blow off steam and not have himself, for once, be in the direct path of the jet. He walked off towards his favorite spot, a rocky knoll with a thin covering of grass and moss and a single garry oak tree. It was some ways off from the dock, but that offered him the chance to be alone, undiscovered by the rest of the audience for the fireworks – of which it would offer a fine, if somewhat distant, view. Denise knew the spot, and if she wanted him badly enough, she knew where to come looking for him. He hoped it wouldn’t be soon. He needed recharge time.
He found the spot, found the tree, sat at its foot facing the harbor from which the fireworks would come, and waited for the end of the long twilight’s journey into night. He sat, and he waited, and gradually the turmoil in his mind subsided, and he could hear the subtle noises of his surroundings, mostly wind in the oak leaves and small waves lapping the shoreline and, far off, the droning of machines at the marina and in the town.
“Something bothering you, son?”
Devin processed the voice without turning around to try to find its source. Older man, possibly one of the profs. Not one of the ones he knew. Seemed kindly enough. Probably safe to talk to. And he might know something.
“We gotta find another place to live.”
“That’s hard. How come?”
“Denise’s damned dog!“, Devin slammed out. Then, a little more calmly: “We found a great place, clean, spacious, not falling apart, and affordable, which these days is rare, right? Rents are doubling by the hour. Some of our friends are paying lots more than we, ah, were, for dives. But it says right on the lease, in big letters, “NO PETS”. Do what it says, right? Of course not. Denise drags home this puppy, crying and begging, “It’s lost, it’s hungry, it loves me, we’re keeping it!” And I know exactly what to do and … and …”
“I mmmmmmmmmAAH!!” Devin thrust two fingers into his mouth, bit hard. “I CAVED!!” he bellowed. The scream that followed was wordless, primal … and drowned out by the first of the fireworks. He sobbed through the first volley. A gap followed. “I told her, ‘The lease says no pets. We signed it. No pets.’ She told me, ‘We are not taking orders from The Man, and I am not taking orders from you! The dog needs me, I need the dog. It stays. Are you just another filthy male? I thought you were better than that! Maybe I don’t need you!’
“So the dog stayed, and the landlord of course found out, and now we have to find another place without money or references. I am so sick and tired of knowing what has to be done, and getting told I’m not doing it or else, and paying through the nose for it! I’ve heard nothing but stories about how her grandfathers presumed to order their women around, and how sexist that was, and how dare they …”
“Son.” The iron in the voice caused Devin, at last, to turn away from his view of the harbor, to turn left and look at his companion.
He turned just as the first skyrocket from the second volley of fireworks lit up the night, lit up a white man about thirty years old, five or so years older than Devin, with a filthy face covered in a five-day stubble brown beard, dressed in filthy khaki army fatigues, a pot helmet on his head. In a particularly strong flash, the man’s left hand and arm were visible, pointing to his right shoulder. The silver bar of a first lieutenant was on that shoulder.
“Nice fireworks”, the lieutenant ground out. Another flash showed the left hand and arm outstretched towards the harbor. “Nice safe fireworks. Pretty show, and nobody gets hurt unless somebody gets particularly stupid. And you’ve got a lot of laws against stupid, and a lot of people paid to make sure even the stupid don’t get hurt.
“Nothing safe about the fireworks I’ve seen.” The hand was pointing at the insignia again. “The fireworks I’ve seen kill people. Are trying to kill people. And”, the growling turned into a snarl, “I have ordered men to walk into those fireworks and die. And they walked into them, and they died.” A phosphorus white flash, and then a red one. “Because it had to be done, and they did it. And you prayed to God, you prayed to the Devil, you prayed to what or whoever you could think to pray to, that what they were doing, what I ordered them to do, was the right thing, was the right way to do the right thing.
“If you know what the right thing is”, the lieutenant challenged, thrusting his face up against Devin’s, “where do you get off letting yourself get talked out of doing it? Where do you get off talking yourself out of doing it? Yeah, sometimes doing the right thing costs you. Sometimes the women get mad that they don’t get their way, and call you names. Not doing the right thing costs you more! Am I right?” The final furious volley of fireworks spotlighted the two men, one in flannel shirt, the other in foxhole-smeared uniform, confronting each other, nose to nose.
Denise’s cell phone flashlight shone up and down Devin’s body. He was alone. Slowly, unsteadily, he got to his feet.
“I’ve been looking all over for you, and it finally occurred to me to look for you he … are you OK? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
Devin’s reply was quiet, terse, grim. “I’ve seen something. What I’ve seen is that we need to talk about doing what’s right. Or maybe I am the one who doesn’t need you!”
Denise stared at Devin in open wide-eyed shock. And then her face fell, her shoulders drooped. She turned away, facing the path that would take them to the marine station’s parking lot, stood there. Slowly, Devin reached out his right hand, found her left. She took it. They walked slowly, side by side, to their car, got in, and drove off in silence.