Alicia Hughes had two things she never took off: an friendship bracelet that one of her friends had made for her for her tenth birthday, and a set of dog tags that she kept out of sight, under her shirts and close to her heart.
“They belonged to your father,” Uncle Roy had told her, when he’d given them to her. “I don’t know if he would’ve wanted you to have them, but they are for you, regardless.”
In truth, she hardly remembered the man who’d been her father. Photographs of him still remained in the house, including a large family portrait over the fireplace. In every one, he looked kind, smiling like the happiest man in the world.
“If Papa loved us so much, why did he leave?” she asked her mother once, as they made dinner. She had been very young, she remembered, with the dog tags burning against her skin in a newly-made secret. “Why didn’t he stay?”
Her mother, beautiful and lonely and sad, had stopped and smiled with the echoes of heartbreak. “Because, sometimes, our choices are made for us, and no matter how much we argue, it changes nothing. Your father would have given the world to stay with us, never doubt that.”
Sometimes, when nervous or upset, her mother would twist her ring when she spoke. It was her wedding ring, and like Alicia’s dog tags, it was something she never took off. When she asked her questions, her mother twisted the ring so hard, it turned the skin around it pale, then red. Alicia watched her, and decided to never ask again.
On the anniversary of that day, they went down to the graveyard together, each with an armful of flowers–roses from her mother, lilies for her. Alicia always walked a few paces behind her mother, looking around at the neatly-ordered rows with solemn eyes.
There were so many of them, she thought, every year, and each one had originally been a person, with a face and a name and maybe even a family, too. It made her happy to put the flowers down on the grave and to leave that uncomfortably quiet place. Surely, her father had found a nicer, more cheerful place to stay.
She hoped so. She didn’t want to think about him being lonely, wherever he was.
Another person might have hidden the dog tags away, locked in the same hidden drawer she kept her diary. Alicia found she liked the weight of them, somehow comforting around her neck. On long rainy nights, she pulled them out of her nightshirt and weighed them in her hand, and let the clink of them lull her to sleep.