Love Finds You in North Pole, AlaskaBy: Loree Lough
It amazed Bryce that none of the town’s residents shared his attitude, considering how every shop and storefront glittered with multi-colored lights. Weren’t they tired of looking at fire hydrants and lampposts painted to look like candy canes? Tired of watching mechanical snowmen and elves—some wood, some painted plastic—as they waved to passersby all year long? And that infernal holiday music, blaring from well-positioned speakers, made him long to hear a good old-fashioned ballad, an upbeat hoe-down, anything that wasn’t—
“Any idea when you can shed that thing?” Curt asked again.
Bryce shrugged, remembering that the original purpose of his eye patch had been to help keep the wound clean and dry. Now, its primary function was to hide the rope-like scar snaking from his right eyebrow to his cheek. The first time he’d gone without it, a child seated in front of him on a plane had shrieked, “Mommy, Mommy…it’s the Bogey Man!” The mother’s shame on you for terrifying a child! glare prompted him to replace the patch, and he hadn’t taken it off in public since.
Until the week before last, when he’d worked up a sweat hot-footing it through the Fairbanks airport. From out of nowhere, a pint-sized kid of six or seven had tugged at Bryce’s sleeve, then hiked up his own pants leg. “Got my scar falling through a plate glass door,” he’d boasted. “Wish it was on my face, like yours. That would keep those girls and their cooties away, for sure!”
Bryce frowned at the memory as Curt asked for permission to peek under the patch, his white-bearded face reminding Bryce of the forty-two-foot Santa that welcomed visitors to North Pole. He might’ve obliged his old friend—if a mother hadn’t chosen that moment to enter the barber shop, leading two small boys by the hand.
“Maybe some other time,” he said, nodding toward the door.
Curt followed his line of vision and gave a “gotcha” nod. “And when you do, maybe you can tell me how it happened. You’ve never said….”
With good reason, Bryce thought as his mind flashed on the rugged Afghan terrain, with its narrow rutted roads and mere handful of scrubby shrubs dotting the bomb-pocked landscape. Ordinarily, a captain like himself wouldn’t have led a small band of men on patrol. But that day, with his lieutenant out of commission, he’d taken up the gauntlet, determined to locate and detonate land mines hidden in the gritty soil in preparation for the arrival of new troops. One cautious boot step at a time, he’d picked his way around rocks and debris, cautioning the soldiers to follow in his footsteps. Sadly, one had lost his balance and—
“Look, Mommy,” shouted the youngest boy, “a pirate!” And pointing at Bryce’s eye patch, he narrowed his own eyes and asked, “Are you a real pirate?”
His brother, who outranked him by a year or two, groaned and rolled his eyes. “Of course he isn’t, dopey. There’s no such thing as real pirates.” Chin up and shoulders back, the older boy ignored the whining protests his comment inspired and plopped onto one of six red chairs against the mirrored wall. “You should get some Ranger Ricks in here, Curt,” he said, leafing through a tattered issue of Newsweek. “’Cause these things you call magazines are borrr-ing.”
Curt opened his mouth to respond, but the kid was a beat faster. “So, what happened to your eye, mister?”
Grinning, Bryce was tempted to say it had been poked out when, as a boy, he had asked one too many questions. As he tried to conjure a story that would satisfy a curious youngster, Curt said, “Son, I’ll have you know this man’s a war hero. He got that fighting for the good old U.S. of A.”
“Steven,” came the mother’s harsh whisper, “mind your own business, please.”
Bryce loved kids and had once prayed to have a house full of his own. But that was before shrapnel had turned him into a weird rendition of Al Pacino’s Scarface. Odd, he thought, that he’d braved a thousand battle horrors without flinching, yet the inquisitive stares of two young boys set his teeth on edge.
Suddenly, he wanted out of the barber chair. Out of the shop. Out of North Pole and away from Christmas. “You finished?” he asked Curt.
“Yeah…not so a body could notice.” He pointed at the tiny bits of hair scattered on the white tiles. “See? Won’t even need my broom.”
Standing, Bryce peeled off the cape and reached for his wallet.
But the barber held up a hand to stall him. “No, no…put that away. I’d feel guilty, charging full price,” he said, pointing at the floor again, “especially from a war hero. Give me two bucks, and we’ll call it a day.”
Bryce handed him a five, headed for the door, and, with a quick wave over his shoulder, stepped into the bright late-June sunshine. Slapping his Baltimore Orioles’ cap onto his head, he thought of the unexpected turns his life had taken. He’d turned thirty-two in a barracks overseas, surrounded by his men—all married with children, except for the very youngest recruits. Oh, how he’d envied the guys with families! Back in college, he’d mapped out his life. “The Plan” had him married by twenty-seven, a dad by thirty. He could almost hear his aunt Olive saying, “Tough to become a husband and father when you’re off fighting in foreign countries year after year….”