The loud sound of someone obnoxiously crunching a packet of crisps in my ears finally brings me out of my nightmare ridden sleep. “You really are a special kind of asshole.” I breathe into my pillow.
“Why are you on the floor?”
“What?” I ask as I look around. “Oh” I say dismissively as I let my head fall back face first into the pillow. “Why are you here? You have your own apartment.” I remind him through my pillow.
“Yes I do, and if you agreed to stay with me like I asked I wouldn’t have to be up this godforsaken early.” He hisses.
“Why are you here this early?” I demand harshly. “We don’t have to be there until one.” I remind him then I do the math. It’s a ninety minute drive from the city to our parent’s farm. And it’s eight in the morning right now. I couldn’t get to sleep, from the anxiety about today’s planned reunion. It finally took my memories of my still to be named goddess riding that Indian to calm me down enough to finally fall asleep in the early hours of the morning.
“We need to go shopping remember?” Rowan says with exasperation.
“Why? I don’t need to be dressed up to visit the parents.”
“Oh, you drive me crazy sometimes.” He spits angrily. “By the time we get back tonight everything will be closed.” He informs me waiting for realization to dawn on me. It doesn’t happen. He sighs dramatically and crosses his arms in front of his chest. “Are you planning on wearing your army fatigues to the bar tonight?” He asks facetiously. I growl at him as I jump up.
Of course we’re going to the bar tonight, for a rendezvous with my goddess. That thought alone should give me strength for the rest of the day.
“Thanks for looking out for me brother.” I say affectionately patting him on the shoulder on my way to take a shower. Just like that his anger at me dissipates.
We make our way through boutiques and shops together. I foolishly let Rowan take the reigns over our expedition. After convincing me that I needed a new pair of boots, we end up with a truck full of bags. We don’t even have time to drop them back at the hotel, somehow we’ve managed to run late. I have to tear out of the city to head south. As we drive listening to the radio, Rowan starts singing along with all the songs on the radio. He curses when the artists sing the wrong lyrics and I laugh at him
He snaps at my laughter a few times. As nervous as I am about today, I know he doesn’t cherish visiting our parents either. I let him continue nervously singing without interruption.
“I’m sorry.” He says as we approach the ten mile countdown.
“Don’t worry about it. Thanks for having my back today.” I tell him thankfully. He smiles a nervous smile at me and I can literally see him sweating more profusely the closer we get to the house. “Do you want me to pull over for a while?” I ask him concerned. He waves me off.
“I don’t know why I get like this, you’re the one we need to worry about today.” He says distractedly. I can only imagine that every time he comes here he is reminded of our mother’s cries and our father lashing out at him after he told them he was gay. Not to mention our father’s spare the rod spoil the child philosophy when were kids didn’t make for cherished childhood memories.
I always took the brunt of any punishment when we were kids. I wouldn’t let my father go after my little brother no matter what. Even when he was determined to punish Rowan, I would provoke him further to distract him. He wasn’t overly abusive, I know all in all we had a good childhood. But mostly because we had each other. I don’t have a single happy memory of my life before the army that doesn’t involve my brother in some way.
Even after I lost my virginity to my high school girlfriend in the barn loft behind the house. I ran straight into the house to my brother to tell him all about it. Every football touchdown in high school and college he was in the stands cheering me on. Our summers by the pond on the farm, our road trip to check out colleges upstate. Being only a year younger than me gave us a great advantage of understanding each other really well as we grew up together. Some brothers aren’t that close, especially when they’re the same age.
But we only compete with each other on a playful level. I was always the more athletic, while he was always more academic and artistic. I’m not unintelligent by any means, but schooling never held much interest for me. I like to work with my hands, I learn from doing things and experiencing them. That’s probably why I took to the army like a lit match to fuel. I can hear the familiar gravel crunching under the tires of my truck.
We’re on the driveway now, no turning back. For some reason my foot eases way down off the throttle and the truck practically rolls on engine idle alone towards the large white farm house. Rowan is sweating bullets, and I’m not fairing much better. The truck rolls to a stop right next to the Cadillac that they still drive to church every Sunday morning. I turn of the engine and the silence that fills the truck cab is deafening. I look at Rowan reassuringly, but I don’t think he’s buying it.
I cringe when I hear the squeak of the screen door hinges opening. “My baby.” Our mama calls out from the front door. We both exhale and exit the truck. “My babies.” Mama corrects herself as she sees us both. We reach the porch steps and Mama throws her arms tight around my neck. “Hey Mama.” I whisper into her ear as I hug her fiercely. Our sweet delicate southern belle of a Mama has always been the epitome of the perfect housewife. She always knew just what to do when one of us was sick, and what food to cook depending on our moods.
She always knew how to cheer us up when we were down, by cooking our favorite foods. Then she was always supportive of any dreams we had, until we wanted to go to college so far away. Mama releases me from her vice like grip and turns to embrace Rowan. He picks her up of the porch and swings her around. The screen door squeaks again and a familiar shadow emerges from the doorway.
“Mama, do plan on keeping our boys out here all day.” His deep voice demands without an ounce of humor. Mama looks abashed as she pulls us both inside the house.
“Sir,” I say greeting my father in the entrance way. We shake strong hands quickly before releasing them.
“Sir.” Rowan repeats the gesture letting go a fraction of a second faster than I did.
We make our way into the dining room and I look around at the museum of my childhood. The house hasn’t changed one bit since I left for college. I’ve come home a few times since then, but only three times since joining the army eight years ago. I look to the wall above the fireplace in the living room and the mantle is covered with pictures of me in my uniform and my framed medals.
Above the fireplace, is a framed American flag. Just in case you missed the one on the flag pole in the front yard of the house. I swallow audibly and I feel Rowan squeeze my shoulder gently as his eyes follow mine. We finally reach the dining room and we take our seats. The same ones that have been assigned to us since the day of our birth. Our father sits at the head of the table closest to the window. I sit to his left closest to the exit—which suits me just fine today— while Rowan sits on the right next to the kitchen.
Mama comes to the table carrying plates of food. There is no point offering to help. Our father would scoff, calling us soft and Mama would refuse anyway, insisting it was her duty.
“You’re late, but it’s a good thing you have a talented Mama who managed to keep everything warm for you.” Our father says to us as he lays his napkin across his lap. My grip on my fork tightens and Rowan clears his throat at me. I drop the fork back to the table.
“I’m sorry we’re late Mama, thank you for keeping the food warm for us.” I smile apologetically at her.
“Oh its nothing. How often do I get to feed all of my men these days?” She smiles sweetly. The perfect hostess.
“Smells good Mama.” Rowan adds appreciatively.
We all sit and enjoy our lunch in relative silence apart from some enquiries about the farm and our Father’s accounting firm. Mama tells us about the prizes for her baking from the most recent county fair. I smile at her with my whole heart. She’s a beautiful woman, who could’ve been so much in this world before she married our father.
After cleaning up and bringing us coffee the other shoe drops.
“So when do you head back overseas son?” My father asks me directly. My mouth drops open. I was really hoping to break this more gently.
“Um, actually I needed to talk to you both about that.” I say making eye contact with both of them. For some reason I back my chair out from the table a little to allow for a quick retreat.
“What is darlin’? Are they sending you somewhere new?” Mama asks curiously.
“Sort of.” I mumble under my breath.
“Well speak up boy.” My father demands. “Have those superiors finally realized your potential and promoted you?” He demands. Even with a soldier for a son, he was frustrated I never made it past captain. I take a deep breath.
“After my last tour of duty ended.” I say pausing. I look at Rowan who is looking at me supportively. Then I catch my father’s frustrated gaze. “I took the option for an honorable discharge from duty.” I breathe out quickly. I look down at my Mama first, she seems to be confused. Then I look back at my father. He is definitely not confused, he is livid.
“You what? You quit?” He demands incredulous. Rowan shoots me a look I’m all too familiar with. It roughly translates to two words. Danger. Run. I jump up from the table and I’m in the front yard before I know it.
“Franklin please.” I hear my Mama’s voice plead behind me somewhere before I hear the door squeak behind me with such a force that I fear it might’ve flown off. My Father storms out onto the porch. He stays on the high ground while I stand on the grass below him. Rowan comes flying past him and is at my back in an instant.
“What do you mean you just quit your duty?” His voice is hard and demanding.
“I can’t do it anymore.” I try to explain, but how can he ever understand, he’s never known war.
Mama is standing back on the porch near the door. She looks at me sympathetically, but I know better than to expect her to challenge our father.
“I didn’t raise you to walk away from duty and responsibility.” He spits as he stares me down. I straighten up as I stare back at him.
“It’s my decision, and it’s been made.” I shoot defiantly.
“There is still a war going on over there boy. Who do you think you are to not have to stand alongside your countrymen and defend our freedom?” He barks. He hits right where it hurts, leaving my unit behind was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. He looks triumphant.
“He’s served his country with honor. He deserves some peace.” Rowan barks at our father from behind me. If looks could kill Rowan would be dead from the glare our father just shot him.
“What would you know about honor?” He bellows at both of us. I can almost feel Rowan cringe behind me. I continue to stare down my father. “Of my two sons. The fruit of my loins, dishonor has now been forced upon me in two forms. One from a queer and the other a coward.” His words are pure venom. I don’t even care about what he called me, I half expected as much but I want to tear his head off for going after Rowan.
I reach the bottom step of the porch towards him before Rowan pulls me back. His arms are locked tight across my chest. “Don’t.” He says urgently into my ear.
“Yes, listen to the fairy. We wouldn’t want you to break a nail performing hard labor.” He laughs a malicious laugh and Rowan tightens his grip moving us backward.
“You have no idea old man, of the horrors of war. You talk of honor and duty like they’re you’re bread and butter but you’ve never killed a man with your bare hands to save the life of one of your brothers. Because that would require you to care about something other than yourself. War has destroyed all that’s good in me. I had to get out before it took the only thing I had left. My life.” I spit every angry word at him. How dare he judge me or Rowan the way he does. From his perch of honor that he’s never had to earn.
I break out of Rowan’s grip and march towards the truck.
“At least if you had died in war you would’ve been remembered a hero. Now you’ll die later perhaps but as a coward.” His heartless words resonate in my core as I pull open my truck door violently.
“Please don’t leave like this boys.” Mama calls from the porch.
“Quiet Mama.” Our father snaps. My anger is now blurring my vision edges it’s so strong. I about face and head towards Rowan. I take his hand and slam the truck keys into them.
“You need to drive.” I tell him urgently and he nods and runs and jumps into the driver’s seat. “Mama it was good to see you. I’ll call you in a few weeks.” I tell her directly without looking at my father again. I blow her a kiss then I join Rowan in the truck.
He tears out of the driveway in as much of a hurry to get away from there as I am. We drive in silence most of the way home while I try to get a handle on the anger boiling out of me. Hot tears sting my eyes. Tears of anger, not regret. I will never regret my decision to leave the army. As much as it pained me to leave my men, it was what I had to do. I no longer have the heart for war, and it was going to get me and my men killed. I knew that then and I know it now despite my father’s words.
I finally manage to get my breathing under control and I turn my concerned eyes to Rowan. He had copped a backlash of the anger that was directed at me. He smiles uncertainly at me.
“Man I can’t wait for you to introduce them to your Yankee girlfriend.” He says with a smile and we laugh out our collective anger. We laugh until the tears fall down our cheeks again at the memory of our hysterics in the diner yesterday morning. Then a strange calming peace comes over my entire being at the memory of my goddess. The memory of her laugh, her smile, her sharp tongue feels like aloe on sunburnt skin.
I sit there in perfect peace as we drive back into the city. We pull up into the hotel parking lot. Back in the room we both flop down onto the bed completely exhausted from our lunch date with our parents. I can still feel the anger tickling a nerve in the back of my mind threatening to break lose at any second. But a far more powerful emotion had taken root. Excitement, about seeing my goddess later tonight.
“Well lunch didn’t take as long as I expected.” Rowan announces, “I’m going to duck home and take a long bath, maybe a nap. Then I’m going to eat a pound of chocolate before returning to pick you up for an emergency session with our family therapist.” Rowan informs me of his plan as he rolls to his feet off the bed.
“And who may I ask is our family therapist?” He looks at me with mock hurt.
“How can you not remember our dear doctor Johnnie Walker?” He asks me incredulously. My laughter follows him all the way out the door. I roll over on the empty bed. I am exhausted from lunch. Maybe I should take a nap, I want to be in top form tonight. With the peaceful balm over her memory I close my eyes and let sleep take me.