Charlie stared at the flat tire and felt all the energy drain out of him. Dad was going to kill him. Being late for his promotion ceremony? Not acceptable. Especially since Charlie had opted against going to the Academy for college.
Charlie shrugged off his suit jacket and tossed aside his tie, popped the trunk, and started digging around for the jack, tire iron, and spare tire. No son of Jack and Sara O’Neill was incapable of changing a tire. He grimaced down at the asphalt, eased himself to his knees, and slid the jack into place.
“Hey, you need some help?”
Charlie lifted his head. There was a boy, maybe fifteen, ambling along the side of the road, hands in his pockets, a satchel at his hip. Something about him was familiar.
“Please?” Charlie said, pathetically relieved. He was taller than the kid, probably stronger. “I know how to change a tire, but I’m supposed to be at my dad’s promotion ceremony, and if I’m late it’ll be bad enough, but showing up dirty will be even worse.”
“Promotion?” the boy asked. He shrugged off his satchel and set it down in the grass just off the shoulder and knelt down, took over cranking the jack.
“Yeah. To brigadier general. He’s in the Air Force,” Charlie said.
“That’s nice.” For a skinny kid, the boy was strong enough, got the car raised easily. He set to the lug nuts without question, scooped up the tire iron and had at it. “What about you? Not gonna be a flyboy like the old man?”
“I got a baseball scholarship. I like playing baseball. I don’t think I want to be a soldier. I mean, my dad loves his work, is super proud of it - whatever it is, crazy top-secret.” Charlie leaned against the car, hands in his pockets. He accepted the lug nuts when the boy held them out one by one. “My mom pretends she believes it’s deep space telemetry, but Dad keeps getting commendations and stuff, the kind that come from combat, and apparently one time I passed some test that would make me an ideal candidate for the program he’s in, but - I’m not him. I want to be me. I could’ve made it into the Academy, but -” He sighed, shook his head. “Sorry. Don’t mean to word-vomit all over you. Mom says I get it from my Uncle Daniel. He’s a translator. Talks a lot, even when he’s not translating.”
The boy got the spare tire on with little fuss, waved away Charlie’s help when he offered, citing avoiding damage to Charlie’s already mussed suit. “You ever talked to your dad about how you feel?”
“No. I just - didn’t apply for the Academy. And now things are tense, and Mom insisted I not be late for Dad’s ceremony, and -”
“And anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” the boy said wryly.
Charlie huffed. “Yeah. My dad says that all the time. Usually about his work, but - what’s your name?”
They went to shake hands, paused over how dirty JD’s hands were, and JD waved it off. He hoisted the flat tire into the trunk and arranged the jack and tire iron with calm competence.
“Well, Charlie, looks like you’re all set. You should be able to make it to the old man’s ceremony in plenty of time if you’re a bit of a lead foot.” JD smiled, and wow, his smile looked just like Dad’s.
“Thanks,” Charlie said. “I really appreciate it.”
“For the record,” JD said, “I doubt your old man is as disappointed as you think. I mean, yeah, every guy wants his son to be a junior version of him, but when it comes to war, to combat - no guy wants that for his kid. Maybe just - get your pilot’s license, or something. Give you two something to talk about, besides baseball.”
“You think so?” Charlie was planning on going to college on a baseball scholarship, but because his mom was a nurse, he’d always secretly dreamed of being a doctor. He was pretty sure he could do it, too.
“Yeah. My old man served, and when I said I wanted to do it, he tried to talk me out of it.”
Charlie eyed JD as he redid his tie. “Did you serve?” He didn’t look nearly old enough.
JD looked down at himself, smiled wryly. “In another life, maybe I would have. But I’ve got this life, and I’m young. I can do whatever I want with it, right?”
Charlie pulled his jacket back on, fished in his pocket for his keys and wallet. “Right. Good luck. And thanks so much.” He opened his wallet. He had some cash he could spare.
JD stayed him with a brief hand on his. “Not necessary, kid. Go, be with your family. Tell your dad what it is you really want to do. I promise you, he’s just glad you’re growing up healthy and strong.”
“Are you sure?” Now that Charlie really thought about it, JD’s clothes were dusty and worn, and he was thin. Hungry-looking.
But JD nodded. “Yeah. I’m sure. Go. Lead-foot it. It’s about a twenty-minute drive from here to the Mountain. You’ll make it with time to spare to wash your hands and face. I’ll distract the cops for you.”
Charlie, about to slide into the driver’s seat, paused. “How? Nothing dangerous, I hope.”
“Nope, nothing dangerous. Just - you didn’t see me, all right?” JD grinned and scooped up his satchel.
“Do you need a ride?” Charlie asked. JD looked like a runaway. Charlie knew from his mom’s work that most runaways weren’t rebellious kids looking for adventure - they were kids whose home lives were so horrible that the street seemed like a better option. “I can drop you in town.”
“Yeah, that’s the opposite of where I want to be.” JD settled the strap of the satchel over his neck and chest, waved jauntily, and crossed the road. “Good luck out there, Charlie!” And he started walking the other way.
He’d gone out of his way to help Charlie. Charlie buckled his seatbelt and started the engine, watched in the rearview mirror as JD ambled away.
JD was right, though. Charlie floored it a bit, and he made it to the Mountain in time to get through security, wash his face and hands, and slide into the seat beside his mother just as the MC called everyone to attention.
Charlie had been to a couple of promotion ceremonies in his time - major to light bird, light bird to full bird - but this one was much bigger, because Dad was being promoted to General. There were all kinds of important people there - scientists, senators, other generals, some international officials, and of course Dad’s best friends and colleagues Uncle Daniel, Aunt Sam, and Uncle T.
Mom looked so proud, dabbing at her eyes with a hanky. Charlie hoped that being made a general meant Dad would slow down, stop doing whatever it was that sometimes took him away from home for days or weeks or one time months on end.
After the official ceremony, there was a reception, which was mostly people wanting to shake Dad’s hand and congratulate Mom and then clap Charlie on the shoulder and ask him when he was going to get his wings.
It wasn’t until after, when most of the celebrating was done, that Charlie got to talk to Dad alone.
“Nearly didn’t make it,” Charlie confessed. “Blew a tire. Had to stop and change it.” He almost added that someone had helped him, but he remembered JD’s request to remain anonymous, for his involvement to go unmentioned, so he stopped himself.
“Did you get hurt?” Dad asked.
Every now and again Dad got that look in his eye, like Charlie was a dumb little kid again who’d almost shot himself with his dad’s gun.
“I’m fine. Car’s fine. Just - had to wash up, before I could gladhand all these important people.” Charlie smiled the smile he’d learned from Mom, to reassure Dad.
“Need me to look at your car?”
“Naw. I’ll take it in and get the tire checked, see if it can be salvaged. If not, I was looking to get some all-weather tires before school started anyway. Besides, that’s not the kind of thing a high and mighty general does, is it? Tasks’s better suited to a lowly airman. Or just, you know, a civilian.”
Dad winced. “Charlie, I - I heard what everyone was saying to you tonight. I get why they’re interested in having you for the Program. But - I promise, I’m okay with you just going to college and being whatever it is you want to be.”
“A doctor, actually.”
Dad lit up. “Really? That’s new. I mean - that’s great. You’ll be great at it.”
Charlie searched his dad’s face. “I hope so. I think Mom would’ve made a great doctor, but she stopped at being a nurse, for you and me.”
“Your mother’s a good woman. Sacrificed a lot for us.” Dad patted Charlie on the shoulder.
Charlie couldn’t quite read the look in his eyes, wasn’t sure if it was relief or disappointment or something else. “Even if I don’t end up as an airman, I think I’d like to fly. If I got my license, would you fly with me?”
And Dad really lit up. “Yeah, son. That would be great.”
And finally, Charlie could relax and smile. Only then Aunt Sam and Uncle Daniel and Uncle George came to get Dad, talking fast and worried and low, but not so low that Charlie couldn’t catch one baffling phrase:
The duplicate has gone missing.
Dad winced. “Sorry, Charlie. Duty already calls.”
Charlie smiled at him. “I know, Dad. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”
Uncle Daniel smiled wryly and said, “That’s the spirit,” and he led Dad and the others away.
Charlie watched them go and hoped they sorted out whatever the problem was, and then he wandered back to his mother’s side.
A few weeks later, as he and Mom were paging through some old family albums for pictures of Dad when he was a kid, Charlie came across a photo of Dad when he was all of fifteen years old, and he looked exactly like JD, and Charlie had the sneaking suspicion that he knew just what that problem had been.