It’s the house I was raised in, and nothing has changed. The grass around the flowerbed is cut short and neatly edged like me. My father’s ’67 Camaro is in the driveway, plum-crazy-purple, recently waxed. He leaves the cover off on sunny days to flaunt it. The driveway is paved now, but I’m on the old root-buckled sidewalk by the street, looking around. Autumn oaks outline everything like grim escorts.
My combat boots are too big. I can’t even feel my feet in them. They fit right a month ago in the mountains of Afghanistan. I’d rather be there. I’d rather feel my heart beating out my chest, bullets chasing my flesh across miles of desert stubble and dust, smoke rising from a village on fire.
The only smoke here is chimney smoke and the charcoal fumes from a neighbor’s barbecue. I listen, hoping to hear a voice from the kitchen window or a kid’s laughter next door, something to convince me I’ve come home. I try to think about the dad who loved car stereos and cheese dip and Monday night football. Not the one who would hit Mom and then get drunk in the basement.
It’s been three years since I wheeled out of here, gravel peppering the garage door like shrapnel. I spent my first two weeks R&R in Okinawa painting C-130s with a two-inch brush. My second in Germany pretending I knew what I was drinking. My third tour I just stayed. There were times when I wanted to be home, but now that I’m here I keep remembering all the reasons why I left.
I’m ashamed I never called anyone, not even Grace, and she tried so hard to be a mom. Dad didn’t want me to enlist, said I’d die out there. Said he missed Mom too, although he never talked about her, especially not around Grace. He said he needed me to run the auto repair like it’s what I was born to do. I was ready to never come back, and here I am, without even an email to warn them. I’ll walk in and apologize for myself. I’ll hold them both if they’ll welcome me, even Dad.
The neighbor’s screen door shuts. A dog barking. Fur boots coming down the sidewalk. It’s a woman in a knit cap and red gloves. Her hair is black and straight and she lets it show without fear. I hope to God she doesn’t know me. She’s walking a chocolate lab and it sniffs my ankles. She thanks me for my service as she passes.
I nod, head down. I want to ask her why. What could I have possibly done for her, or her dog, or her family, or anyone in this silent town, this painfully quiet place where women walk dogs without worry and windows open to let air in, not to let AKs out? When she turns the corner, I’m still standing, not quite on the lawn, not quite in the road, just on this long broken sidewalk between where I grew up and where I belong.
I follow after her, knowing the bus stop is another mile, the airport ten more. I’ll write. I’ll write them a letter. It will say how sorry I am, how I was angry after Mom died and needed to think I wasn’t helpless. It’ll even say why I can’t come back: how when I’m out there in the desert, the enemy can be killed. And that makes all the difference.
A silver pickup pulls up beside me and the driver calls through the passenger window. “You coming or going?” he asks, seeing my pack and uniform.
I stare. It’s the hardest question he could have asked me.
“You need a ride somewhere?”
“Wherever you’re going,” I say.
“You sure?” He laughs. “I’m going to McGuire’s to meet my ex-wife.”
“Maybe just drop me at the bus stop.” I unsling my pack, set it in the bed, and get in.
“You shipping out?” he asks.
“Just got here, actually. Day one of two months I’ve built up.”
“Shit, son. What’s your name?”
“Francis,” he says. “You seen your folks yet?”
“Not yet.” My voice sounds brittle. “They don’t even know I’m here.”
“Boy, are they in for it.” He thumps the steering wheel with his palm. “Gemma, my oldest, has been off at college since August, and it’s all I can do not to drive up and visit her every weekend.”
“When I went overseas for the first time I told myself, I’m dead,” I say as the bus stop comes into view. “The second time I said it again just so I wouldn’t forget. The third time I believed it. How can you stop believing something like that?”
Francis parks in the bus lane and gives me an appraising look. “Believe what you want when you’re over there. But you’re here now. Something brought you back. Maybe it’s time to let your enemies be.”
“Maybe,” I say. “Thanks for the ride.”
I retrieve my pack and stand alone in the gathering dusk. I rub my hands together to warm them. I clap in the air, and the sound is a report, clear and sharp, echoing past the borders of the lane, past the houses and the still oaks, past the highway and the barns and into the far off smog.
Something turns over like a trench shovel inside me. I know the last bus will pass at seven, but I’ve made up my mind. I start walking back the way I came, up the hill toward my house. Before I know it I’m running, faster and faster. I run until the streetlights blur. Until my legs and shoulders burn. Until I feel my feet again.
Brian Toups studies Creative Writing and Philosophy at Florida State University. When not discovering the everlasting novel, he enjoys rope swings, root beer, and chasing frisbees with as much enthusiasm and slightly less aptitude than a Labrador Retriever.