March 13, 1963

John House was a strong man. Brave, intelligent, and assertive—all excellent qualities in a Marine. He found his life very satisfying. He had a prestigious career, a loving wife, and everything else a man could want. He even had a son, a curly-haired, blue-eyed boy that everyone pronounced "adorable".

John didn't see it quite that way. Over his last TDY, Greg had reached the point where he was no longer a sweet, observing presence. He was now a jabberbox, incessantly asking questions. For the first few days it had been amusing enough—certainly Blythe seemed to dote on it—but the novelty was wearing thin. John didn't know much about kids, but he was pretty damned sure that most people's three-year-olds didn't talk nonstop, picking up on every nuance of his parents' conversation.

Last night they had been talking politics.

"Things seem to be cooling down," John had promised. "Those Ruskies aren't going to—"

"What's a Ruskie?" Gregory had piped up, raising his head from the cabin he was building with his Lincoln Logs.

"It's a word for people who come from Russia, dear," Blythe had told him in her customarily sweet way. "And not a very nice word."

John had been just about to cut in and tell her not to malign him in front of the boy, but Gregory had got his two bits in first.

"What's Russia?"

"It's a country in Europe," Blythe had explained. "East of Germany."

"Oh," Gregory had said brightly, before getting to his feet. He still moved like a baby, planting his hands on the floor and pushing up with his chubby little legs. Dusting off the seat of his dungarees as if there was ever a spot of dirt on Blythe's immaculate floor, and tottered out of the kitchen.

Satisfied that there would be no further interruptions from the little ankle-biter, John had turned back to his wife.

"The Ruskies won't mess with us."

"No one wants a war, John," Blythe had told him.

"We're going to have a war. It just won't be with Russia. If things keep heating up between Minh and the French—"

"Mommy! Mommy!" Gregory had come back into the room, his short arms wrapped around an enormous book. He set it on his mother's lap and opened it.

"Greg! You don't touch the atlas!" John had snapped. "No!"

"Oh, don't shout, John, dear," Blythe had placated. "We look at the atlas all the time, don't we, Greg."

He had nodded happily, turning the large pages with little hands until he reached a simple, colorful map of the world. He pointed at Europe, touching each country as he named it.

"Red is France," he said. "Blue is Germany. Where is Russia?"

"Russia's orange," Blythe told him, pointing. "See? Russia, the Soviet Union. Right there."

"Russia," Gregory had parroted. "See, Daddy? Russia is orange!"

John had gritted his teeth impatiently. He couldn't wait for bedtime.

Of course, things hadn't improved with nightfall. Blythe had spent the better part of an hour, as usual, putting the child to bed. Then, just when they had been starting towards the real business of the evening, the air had been torn by a frightened scream.

Greg, it seemed, had frequent night terrors. There was one about a goose who wanted to eat him, and anther that featured a bridge of some strange and ominous origin. The one he had experienced last night involved some kind of sinister being known as the "Pie Face". Blythe had left the bed, cutting the foreplay off, and wrapped her bathrobe around her beautiful body before hurrying towards her son's room.

To add insult to injury, she had brought the sniveling little brat back to spend the night in their bed.

Now she was going shopping, and that meant that John would be alone with Gregory all afternoon. He understood that it was important to give his wife a break from the kid. After ten days, he was sick to death of the incessant chatter and the insatiable curiosity, and Blythe had had to put up with this for months.

It wasn't that he didn't love Greg. Of course he did: the boy was his son, for God's sake. It was just that he was annoying. Whatever happened to "children should be seen and not heard"?

What Gregory needed was his father: a male presence in his life. Before his birth, Blythe had always come with John to his postings. Then with things heating up in Cuba and a small child to worry about, all that travel had stopped seeming like such a good idea. The result had been several long separations that drove John crazy. He worshiped his wife, and he needed her. And he just wasn't used to sharing her with this talkative little brat.

Gregory bounced on the soles of his feet, waving goodbye to his mother as she and a couple of her friends piled off in the station wagon. John held the screen door open. "Inside," he ordered.

"Okay, Daddy," Greg said obediently, smiling happily. "Do you want to play?"

"No," John told him. "Go and play quietly by yourself."

He moved into the living room and picked up a three-month-old National Geographic. Peace and quiet at last.

A merry laugh rang out from the direction of the parlor. John furrowed his brow and tried to ignore it.

He certainly hadn't expected fatherhood to be like this. His wingmen all had families. Their children were quiet, charming, and obedient. They didn't plague their parents with questions about geography—at the age of three, for God's sake! Why, Mad Dog McGilligan's boy was nine, and he hadn't cracked an atlas in his life. He certainly didn't plunk away at the piano like a—

The piano?

John threw aside the magazine and got wrathfully to his feet. That little monster was playing the piano! Blythe's piano, a treasure passed down through three generations of her family, and that precocious brat was thumping clumsily away at it!

He stormed into the parlor, where the child was seated on the revolving stool. Small fingers manipulated the keys.

"Gregory! No!" John said sharply, trying to be assertive like a good father should be.

Instead of obeying, the little boy started to sing in time to the notes he was picking out. "London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down. London Bridge is falling down, my fair lay-dee-oh!"

"Gregory, I said no!" John repeated. He took the two tiny wrists firmly and pulled the hands off of the piano. "No! You don't touch the piano, do you hear?"

"I can play the piano," Gregory said. "Mommy loves music."

"I said no!"

"Yes," Greg argued.

"No!"

"YES!" The child wrenched free of the adult's grasp and turned back to the instrument, resuming his song. "Build it up with wood and clay, wood and clay, wood—"

Even before he realized what he was doing, John's palm was smarting with the contact it had made with the round little cheek. Gregory tumbled backwards off the stool with a tiny cry of pain. Then he began to sob, his blue eyes flooding with tears of hurt and indignation.

John stood, momentarily horrified at what he had done. He knelt before his weeping son and extended a hand. The child shrank away, and John's heart hardened. After all, he was the father, and he had given a direct order, and the boy had not obeyed. It was only right that he should be punished. It would teach him a lesson.

"Don't touch the piano!" he repeated sternly, then turned and marched out of the room.

He had the peace and quiet he craved after that. When she came home, Blythe didn't ask where Gregory had acquired the faint purple bruise on his cheekbone, and neither father nor son ever told her what had transpired.