July 4, 2004

The sound of the mortar's blast left Danny with a ringing in his ears. Only in Iraq one month and the experience was like nothing he had ever seen before. If he had time, he would have thought about his horse and the safe green fields of his family's farm in Tennessee; but he had no time for happy memories to distract him from the terror all around him. His trembling hand reached for his sidearm and he released the safety. His squadron was advancing through an abandoned warehouse; at least they thought it was abandoned. Clearly, the Intel was not much good. As soon as they threw the flash-bang grenade, they were answered by twenty rounds from a sniper and a live grenade that was all about destruction; not distraction like the their own flash-bang.

His captain gave him the sign and he began to move. As he stepped over the rubble and crouched down he saw war in it's most ugly. The Taliban insurgents were hiding behind a low wall, but Danny was coming up behind them. In their arms he saw a struggling little girl. Danny guessed she was no more that maybe five or six years old. There was no way to capture the enemy without risking the child's life and that was exactly what those cowards were counting on. Danny was trying to figure out what to do next and he looked around for his captain's orders. That was his fatal mistake.

The first bullet caught him in the back and he fell. The spray that followed landed everywhere and brought down the last of the crumbling ceiling hanging above him. The whole thing was surreal. Danny was covered in dust and blood and debris, but he had no pain: well almost no pain. He couldn't feel much below his neck and his head was way too foggy to realize how much it hurt. There was a small part of him that could hear the shouting and exchange of gunfire happening around him, but mostly, his brain was already back home.

He was sitting on the porch strumming his old Fender guitar and breathing in the best smells he knew. Fresh cut grass and fried chicken. He thought about his mom, he thought about his girl and just before he closed his eyes for the last time, he thought about God.

It was almost a week later when his parents saw the military detail in dress uniforms pull up to their door. His mother was numb as they told her that her son, Private First Class, Daniel Charles had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. On behalf of a grateful nation, they thanked her and presented her with the dreaded gold star to display, in honor of the fallen soldier in her family.

The next few weeks passed in a blur. There was a funeral with full military honors, once the body was stateside again and the church choir sang "Danny Boy", until there wasn't a dry eye in the church. There were at least a dozen requests for Danny's picture from local media and even from friends. They put his picture up at the town hall and in the church vestibule and his old football coach dedicated the Wildcats next season to Danny's memory. His dad tried to remember how proud Danny was to serve his country and his mom prayed that no one else's son would ever have to die to protect this nation. They were even surprised by a flurry of angry letters from so called pacifists who wanted to blame her son for the war, saying that with no volunteers, there would be no fighting. Danny's dad thought those letters made especially good kindling.

That's when time seemed to stop for the Charles family. His parents closed the door on his room and never touched it, except to keep it clean. It was almost like they thought if they left his room the way it was, life could return to the way it was before their only son was killed. Danny's bed was made, his curtains drawn and his guitar stood in the corner and nothing changed for seven years.

July 4, 2011

"Hurry-up!" Dillon's father yelled up the stairs. Dillon used to think the yelling would stop after the divorce, but it seemed to only grow more intense.

"Move it! The meter's running!"

Dillon ran down the stairs and waved good-bye to his sleeping mom. He didn't want to disturb her. She worked the night shift as an ER nurse and now she was finally getting a break. Dillon knew she only had a few hours before she had to get to her next job at the nursing home and he didn't want to bother her. Still, he wanted to say some kind of good-bye.

Dillon climbed into the back of the cab with his backpack and his they were off. His father had an important client in the Hamptons and they were invited out for a barbeque. Normally, his father wouldn't bring him on a business call, but this was different. This client had a son who played soccer in the same league as Dillon. The boys had never even met each other, but their fathers thought it was a great way to keep them busy so the men could talk. All Dillon knew was that the family summered in the Hamptons and that otherwise, this client and Dillon's dad were practically neighbors in the city. His dad's place on the Upper East Side was the perfect place to spend the day. From soccer at the park to Sarabeth's lemon pancakes, Dillon loved it. Unfortunately, they weren't going there today. Now they were heading to the train and off to Long Island to spend a day pretending his father had time for him and hanging out with a boy he didn't know. Dillon turned up his iPod and zoned out.

The house in the Hamptons didn't have an address; it had a name. "Villa Victoria" was a magnificent stone and clapboard mansion with a four-story turret that looked out over the sea. The driveway went on for miles and Dillon had never seen so many people, except of course at the Thanksgiving Day Parade. He was reminded about his manners and that the boy's name was James and then he father disappeared into the crowd of guests and was gone.

Dillon didn't have to wait long to find James. James was waiting for him at the top of the stairs and Dillon could hardly believe his eyes.

James was not alone; he had his nanny with him and his thumb in his mouth. James was about three years old and the closer Dillon came, the further behind his nanny the little boy hid.

"Sorry about him," she said, "he's real shy and his parents want him to start hanging out with other boys." She looked as surprised to see Dillon, as he was to see James. "I thought you boys would be a lot closer in age, but I guess you'll just have to help me keep an eye on him. Can't imagine you like playing with dragon trains nearly as much as he does."

Dillon wished he was shocked by the turn of events, but he wasn't. This must be a big client if his dad was so desperate to keep him happy by dragging Dillon along. Dillon sighed and smiled at the little guy.

"You know what? I love a good game of dragon trains."

About an hour later, James was napping and Dillon went down to the party.

There were about a hundred guests and at least two hundred staff members. There was every variety of passed hors d'oeuvres from sushi to shish kabobs, but none of it felt much like Fourth of July food to Dillon. He wished he had a hot dog, but a minute later, he was completely distracted.

There was a makeshift bandstand at the edge of the garden. The red, white and blue bunting blew in the breeze and the ocean crashed over the rocks below. Dillon could see the musicians taking their places and he moved closer. The drummer wore a cowboy hat, but Dillon tried not to hold it against him. There was no doubt it was an unusual thing to see in the Hamptons, but maybe it was part of the act. A young man in blue jeans stepped up to the mike with a guitar and the most beautiful girl Dillon had ever seen walked up beside him. The piano began a simple riff and one by one, each musician added a layer until the young woman began to sing.

"Picture perfect memories scattered all around the floor. Reaching for the phone cause I can't fight it anymore. And I wonder if I ever cross your mind, for me it happens all the time..."

Dillon was mesmerized. The bass had his heart thumping and the drums had his toes tapping. The girl is what caught his attention, but the music carried him away. For two hours he never left the band. The twang of the steel guitar and the sweet sounds of the fiddle filled his head and lyrics made more sense to him than anything he ever heard on the radio. Most of his friends listened to songs about going to clubs and talking tough and while Dillon loved the music, he couldn't really relate to that kind of lifestyle at thirteen.

This music was different. There was a song about the thrill of learning to drive, by some guy named Alan Jackson, a song about not having the nerve to talk to a girl called "Don't be Falling in Love As She's Walking Away" and that was like a page right out of his life; then there was the clincher, they even sang a song called "Songs About Me." Dillon felt more understood in that moment than ever before in his whole life. He made it his business to find out more.

The next day he googled country radio stations and was shocked to discover that New York City didn't even have one. He went to iTunes to discover he didn't have a clue what he was looking for and he felt a little embarrassed to ask his friends. The next weekend at his dad's, he asked him about this new client that had a country band flown in to play for the party. Dillon discovered that his dad was representing a corporate raider from Nashville. In fact, Dillon's dad was going to Nashville to close some real estate thing the following week. Dillon heard himself asking the question before his brain had a chance to tell his mouth to be quiet.

"Dad, can I come?"