Gravestones and Lockers

There was probably a gravestone somewhere. Ben didn't know where, didn't know what the likelihood was of there being one. He could have checked -- could have simply asked. But he didn't need a gravestone to talk to.

It wasn't like he was buried there, anyhow. There was no body, not even dogtags to wrap up and return. Just the scattering of personal belongings he'd left in his kit, which Ben and Joseph had packed up for the Captain to be shipped back to his parents.

Joseph hadn't said anything when Ben set a few items aside. Ben didn't know if Joseph knew why he'd wanted them, or if wanting something to remember a friend and shipmate was enough. Ben had pocketed them, and none of it had been missed when the bags were turned in.

Ben hadn't felt guilty for keeping the stuff -- and now, all these years later, he had them as a physical remembrance that did what no gravestone could do. Things he could keep with him, stashed away in his locker, nestled carefully among his own most personal belongings. Ben would crawl onto his bunk, window dimmed and the door locked during those hours the Supply Office was allowed to be closed, and take them out one by one, turning them over in his hands.

A wristwatch, not so cheap but not so expensive either -- not UEO issue and thus not one he'd worn. But he'd kept it, for reasons he'd never been able to adequately explain to Ben. Not sentimental, no gift from a favorite uncle or heirloom passed down for generations. Just a watch, one that he'd held onto because he liked it. Enough of a reason for Ben to hold onto it, knowing it wouldn't have even been on the manifest of items returned.

Two photographs, one a single shot during shore leave in Manila, the other a double, the two of them the same night. They'd been wearing absurd straw hats, playing at being tourists when everyone around could tell they were submariners just by their accents much less their uniforms. Ben rarely lingered over the photos though he always took them out, always looked at each, once. Just enough to remember the images before setting them aside.

A small wooden whistle. Carved by someone, Ben couldn't recall who, if he'd ever even been told. Someone from childhood, some toy he'd been given and kept unbroken for all those years. Ben had heard it often, blown in their tiny bunkroom seconds before reveille sounded. He'd leap out of bed and grab for the whistle, always pretending he was going to snap it in two. He never did, hadn't ever seriously meant to, but it was rather a surprise, looking back, that it hadn't been ruined during the laughing wrestling matches that followed the rude awakenings.

All inconsequential momentos, things that no one would think twice about if they ever had to pack up *Ben's* belongings and ship them home. He brushed the thought aside -- it hardly mattered, hardly *would* matter what anybody thought if he got himself killed and someone had to box up his things. Didn't make any difference if anyone recognised the importance of these four items and paid their proper respect.

These items, forming a traveling gravestone carved in wood and film and rubber, detailing tiny pieces of a man's life. Tiny, disparate pieces that told nothing substantial about the man who'd owned them. You couldn't fit them together and see what it was that made the man who'd owned them so special. But that wasn't their purpose. Ben didn't need such vivid reminders. He didn't need things to make him remember what kind of man his lover had been.

The items were far more than reminders. They were things that Ben could touch which had once touched a man who was now gone. Ben could hold the watch and touch rubber and plastic that had once wrapped around his lover's wrist. He could hold the whistle and touch the wood that had pressed against his lover's mouth. He could hold the photos and see a smile that had once graced his lover's face in public, in private, on duty or off. The smile that had carried him into service, or met him late at night, pressed close to Ben's own in the darkness.

Each time he pulled them out, lying back on his bunk behind closed door and hours ahead with nothing he need do -- barring alerts and unscheduled drills -- he could almost remember the feel of those hands. The sound of his laughter. The taste of his mouth. He could lie back and close his eyes and hold them close and pretend...almost pretend that his lover had not completely gone from him.

If there were a gravestone, somewhere, high above the sea, Ben knew it would give him less than this. Carved rock, or poured and molded concrete that bore a name and date and 'beloved son' would give him nothing.

It didn't stop him from thinking, each time when he put his lover's things away, that he might look in the records. Might do a little research and find out if a gravestone existed. He could even ask Bobby's father, and no one would ever be the wiser for why he wanted to know.

Each time he never did, and after awhile the fading memories drove him to lock the door again and pull out his lover's momentos, and try to recall those lingering and so fleeting nights they'd had.

Ben was sitting at a table in the mess, dinner tray slightly to one side and small stack of papers directly in front of him. He wasn't behind on his paperwork -- despite the jokes and knowing looks he was getting for bringing his work with him to the meal. But if he got all his paperwork done today, he'd be able to wrangle an extra day's pass when seaQuest docked in San Diego.

He didn't bother trying to explain that to anybody who stopped and made a snide remark. He didn't really care what they thought; he'd never turned in his reports late, and that was a matter of record. Besides, if it amused the crew to think otherwise -- it kept morale up, didn't it? So he was doing his job twice over by working on the here, over dinner.

The other advantage to being so obviously hard at work, no one tried to sit with him and talk. Ensign Kravens had been sharing the table earlier, but hadn't said a word to Ben to distract him. Now he was alone, and halfway through the main part of the report.

Ben stared at the pages for a moment, losing a bit of his focus as he did so. The sound of the Captain's voice nearby drew his attention further away from his work, and he sat and stared at the papers, pretending to work, and listened for a moment.

"My father used to make them all the time," he was saying from a table two over from Ben's. It wasn't hard to concentrate on the Captain's conversation over the others nearby.

"Really?" Lucas' interested voice answered.

"Carved them himself," Bridger said, sounding proud of the fact.

Ben would have left their conversation alone, but for the fact he suddenly realised he knew what they were talking about. The whistle. Bobby's grandfather had carved it, Ben remembered. He hadn't recalled til now that Bobby had ever told him, but now, as he listened, he remembered Bobby saying much the same thing as what the Captain was telling Lucas.

"He carved dozens of them, gave them all out to grandkids, cousins' kids. I asked him for one once -- he told me I'd had my chance to learn how to carve them myself, when I was a kid. At the time he said I'd regret passing up my chance." Bridger sounded amused, but a little, in fact, regretful. "I told him I wanted one anyway."

Ben toyed with his pencil, trying to act like he was really working and not listening. He fought his smile when Lucas asked in a knowing tone, "Did you get one?"

"No, actually. My father laughed and said he'd teach me how to carve them. But I never took the time to learn. He never gave me one."

There was silence for a while, and Ben tried to get back to his work. It wasn't so much that he felt guilty for eavesdropping -- it was impossible not to overhear conversations in the mess, anyhow. But he felt uncomfortable all the same, listening to them talk about something he knew about, as if prying into Captain Bridger's personal affairs despite the fact the Captain was sharing the story, himself.

Then the Captain continued, "My father gave Robert one when he was twelve. He carried it with him all summer, blew it constantly. His mother-- his mother had to threaten to take it away after he kept blowing it in the house."

"Loud, huh?" Lucas asked.

The Captain laughed. "I think it was more his tendency to wait until she had something in her hand, then he'd blow it without any warning."

The two of them laughed, and Ben once again had to fight a smile. The whistle wasn't loud enough to truly carry, even in a small submarine. But within the confines of a bunk room.... He could empathise with Bobby's mother's reaction. Almost enough to wish she *had* confiscated it, and spared *him* the early mornings.

Bridger sounded fond, and..something like apologetic, when he continued, "Robert kept that whistle for years. I think I heard it every summer until he left home. After my father died, Robert... said he was going to keep it as a remembrance." There was another pause.

"What's wrong?" Lucas asked.

"Nothing. I just -- it wasn't with the stuff they returned. When he died." Bridger's voice caught slightly on the last word. "I remember going through his things and seeing it was missing. I suppose he lost it, or broke it. But...."

"But you wish you had it?" Lucas asked quietly.

"Sounds stupid, doesn't it?" Bridger half-laughed. "A whistle. But it was the only thing.... It would have been nice, I suppose. A way to remember my father, and my son at the same time." There was an abrupt noise of chairs scraping floor, and Ben casually began writing the next few lines of his report. Not hurriedly, as though he had anything to hide. Bridger said, "I've got to be heading to the bridge. Are you coming?"

"Nah. I've got stuff to do." Lucas sounded as though he were getting up, as well.

Ben didn't glance up as they walked past his table, acting as though his attention were firmly on his reports. A few minutes later, well after Bridger and Lucas had gone, he put his pencil down. There was a brief, but quickly squelched, thought of digging out Bobby's whistle and giving it back to the Captain. It was an insane notion, he knew as soon as he thought it. There was no way to explain why he had it, why he'd kept it out of Bobby's things when they were sent home.

There were a hundred good reasons why Captain Bridger disliked Ben Krieg, but they paled in comparison to the prospect of finding out that he'd been his son's lover. Bobby had never told his parents, never explained why beyond a shrug and a 'they wouldn't understand'. Ben hadn't ever had a reason to push -- keeping things quiet to avoid being tossed off the boat was good enough for him, regardless.

There was no good way to return the whistle and answer the Captain's questions. Ben knew that, and pushed the thought of doing so easily aside. But he allowed himself, for just a moment, to think what it might be like. To be able to return it -- or just let Bridger know he had it. Explain why.

What might it be like to sit and talk to someone about Bobby, someone who'd known him, loved him, and understood why a simple piece of carved wood could be so important? What would it be like to be able to tell someone he'd loved Bobby, been loved by him, and had lost his heart the moment he'd smiled -- lost it again the day he died? The Captain would have understood. Commiserated, shared stories of better times and worse equally, because the content of the stories didn't matter so much as the fact that they were -- would have been -- stories about Bobby.

Ben shook his head and gathered up his paperwork. There was less chance of him ever saying a word about Bobby to his father, than there was of getting a boat of his own. Ben picked up his tray with one hand, carrying the reports in the other, and headed out.

Sometimes he missed his lover so much he thought his chest would explode from the force of it. Ben set his half-eaten dinner on the counter for the mess crew to clean up and heading out the door to finish his reports in his office. he had a lot of work yet to do if he wanted that extra day shoreleave.

Maybe he'd dig out the photographs, first. Dig out the whistle and think about hearing it blown.