The Pond Where His Brother Once Stood

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

The reader is thrust into a dialectic of ill humor, alcohol, and a dynamic tone that slowly reveals the truth of the situation at hand, ending after a series of flashbacks through the eyes of the protagonist's brother. I played around with alternating perspective and tense, and really tried to capture the real dialogue of men, the distance and agony between soldiers at war and the shared emotions of their family at home, and ultimately the wondering and naïve nature of the human condition that is unwilling to accept the reality of life. This was CWA project in college that I found and wanted to share, so please, your critiques are welcome. 14 pages single spaced.

~~~~November, 2013
The Pond Where His Brother Once Stood
 “You know, I think that's the earliest memory I have. I mean, I guess I vaguely remember going to Disney land or whatever as a kid, but as for a vivid memory of  my child hood,” Ryan smiles remembering the night perhaps ten years ago with his brother, “Pissing in my neighbor's pond with Chris takes the cake.”
 Ryan's Charcoal gray suit jacket lays across the back of the folding chair; his knees disappear below the vinyl table cloth held down against the wind by six empty bottles of shiner. Danny Leans back in his chair across from Ryan, swirling his IPA in a clockwise motion above his knee and chuckles at the story again. “Ryan, I swear you could make a man laugh in a fat ass whore house. If my memory serves me right Chris probably got the chance eh?” Mia slaps her husband's knee and cackles in her signature hen cry that somehow fits the 98 pound Asian woman naturally.
 Laughing with the utmost drunken nasal inflection, Ryan nods and says “Mia, you're new to the family...”
 “Two years of marriage to him isn't exactly fresh faced in this family, Ryan!” Mia shoots back, circling her mixed drink above her husband Danny's head with a half teasing grimace.
 “Well then I'm sure you have heard of the summer when me, Chris and Danny all went looking for a strip club in port A,” nearly crying with hilarity Ryan slams down his beer and points to Danny with his waging middle finger. Rudy continues to embarrass Danny and Mia across the table, “We were 18 at the time, Chris was 19, and we walk into this shady ass 'gentleman's club'...” Cross-eyed, Ryan makes finger quotes with two fingers protruding from the side of his beer, “me and Danny had never been to a strip club before, but I told Chris that Danny was a chubby chaser, so he made it his mission for Danny to fuck some white trash stripper from... what was it!”
 “Oh God, the 'Pilot's Wing', the entire fucking place was covered in Lysol and semen” Danny shook his head and smiled. Mia struggled to not laugh and slap Danny at the same time.
 “The mutha-fugh... hey, Aunt Stace how you doing enjoying that hurricane?” Ryan caught himself mid-sentence and stood up to put his arm around Aunt Stace. Her black crotchet cover jacket reflected on its own the fact she had never been to 'the Mutha-Fuckin' Pilot Wing'. Danny and Mia winked at each other and took a drink at the same time.
 “It's an OJ, but I'm doing fine, the catering was excellent. How are you taking all of this dear?” Aunt Stace looked at Ryan with doggie eyes and patted him on the shoulder.
 “Well it’s been a little tough. I took the week off work in Boulder to come back to San Antonio, but just reminiscing about our child hood adventures with Danny and Chris seems to be  ironing out all the wrinkles... something you could never possess in your life!” Ryan slowly put down the beer behind him to avoid looking like a depressed alcoholic to his only aunt.
 “Thank you, sweetheart, and that's good. Y'all need a good healthy dose of happiness. I know my doctor could easily prescribe more of it if it came in pill form and if he wasn't a quack... How is Colorado, by the way?”
 “I love it. I really do; I get payed to hike in the forest, take pictures and draw deer. What more could I possibly want huh?” Ryan's beer bottle gravitated back into his had, only this time with a koozie. Alcoholism isn't a problem in the Hathaway family.
 Aunt Stace blinked twice and consoled Ryan “I know Chris would love to be up there with you; you guys were just like two peas in a pod. I remember when you two were just boys y'all would chase each other around the woods behind our old house with sticks bigger than your body! Then come run up and ring the doorbell, only to retreat into the woods again. Reminds me of my two little babies at home. Have I shown you my Yorkies?” Ryan took a deep swig of beer and nodded at her question with raised eyebrows signifying his knowledge of the existence of her cute little rat dogs. “Is there anything I can do for you, Ryan?”
 “No, no Aunt Stacie, All I need you to do is enjoy the wake. Have another drink, you need all the C you can get,” Ryan thinks about the phrasing in his sentence but drowns the thought with the need for more alcohol. “I'm glad you guys could drive from down Llano, I told you my buddy David Chadwick could put together any event” he looks back at Danny with a wink and a smile.
 “It's really been a pleasure, Ryan. Well your uncle Trevor and I are going to make our way around again before we head out. That is if that man ever gets out of the restroom! I never have a clue as to what he's doing in there,” Ryan winces at the phrasing before she continues, “When do you think we'll see you again? Both your mother and I have missed you. You really should get a dog, maybe you could visit and all of them could play with each other, yeah?” she says patting Ryan's shoulder again.
 “I should be here in November for my birthday, I think I have a convention in Austin on the 20th of the month. And I think any dog I would get would want to eat your poodles... we should get lunch, or something that weekend I'm in state” Ryan Proposes and slips the koozie off his bottle.
 “That would be great, we would love too. You know they say our canine companions offer the best company in times of need! There's that man coming out now! We'll see ya, hun” she kisses Ryan on the cheek and gives a smile to her nephew in law across the plastic table. Uncle Trevor nods in Ryan's direction, avoiding eye contact with his wife while he is out of range.
 “Oh I will, Stace.” Ryan promises and turns back to his cousin.
  Ryan plops back down in his chair with a squeak, looks at the green metal veranda's ceiling and laughs out loud. “The mutha-Fucin' pilot wing!”
 Danny an Mia join in to form a little tipsy roar of laughter and snorting that continues until Ryan blurts out between gasps, “Chris tries to get Danny, the skinny ass Danny you wouldn't recognize ten years ago, tries to get him laid in the woman's restroom of this greasy titty bar outside of flower bluff! He even paid this whore a hundred bucks to take him in the back! And Danny is all going 'NoNoNoNo' to this girl and she's leading him to the back room...” Ryan reaches into his personal cooler and downs his eighth beer of the wake. “And THIS guy shoves her off, says 'Fuck you guys' and storms out of the joint!”
 “Yeah I was pissed Chris would even pay her- HER- to take me back, but I was even more pissed at you for telling Chris I wouldn't 'date a lady 'till she 280'” Chris put up his middle finger on his forehead and finished his IPA.
 “Oh but the story continues, Mia.” She shakes her head in anticipation.
 “God damn it Chris” Danny interjects with a smile and grabs his first Newcastle, popping the top and smelling the crisp hops under his nose.
 “This stripper, bless her fat ass, wont fork over the money Chris gave her to fuck Danny's Cherry ass...”
 “Yeuh fuck you too,” Danny adds with his best Brooklyn accent.
 “So Chris looks at her for a second, looks me in the eye and says 'Look little brother, I'm only doing this so you don't have too'...”
 “No he didn't” Mia prods.
 “Swear to Jehovah, he took her in the back! Didn't see that dirty bastard for thirty minutes while me and Danny boy finished a sixer in the parking lot.”
 “You guys were crazy.” Mia's shoulders bounced to the rhythm of a chuckle.
 “Yeah... I guess we were. And then he met you!” Ryan toasts the air with his Shiner Autumn ale, giving Mia a wink.
 Danny shuts his eyes and looks up to the ceiling savoring the tart frosty beverage which now rests on his crotch. “Fuckin' David Chad...Chode-wick!” Danny and Ryan both erupt, emitting the deep intermittent rolls of laughter only associated with boys who know a good secret.
 Ryan interrupts the laughter saying, “I haven't seen Chode-wick since before Chris left for the Marines!”
 “The night before he went to boot camp? I don't think I had ever been more intoxicated!” Danny says and stares his beer in the mouth.
 “You were an alcoholic child,” Mia teases slapping Danny's beer wrist forcing him to grab her hand and bite it like a dog.
 Letting her hand out of his mouth to join his in between them, Danny retorts “Hey I'm not an alcoholic! Until I go to the meetings I'm just a drunk. But in three years I guess a sexy woman can convert the town drunk pretty easily, huh!”
 “You're damn right I can!” Mia raises her eyebrow pridefully and smirks at Danny.
 “That was a good night, you remember?” Ryan looks at Danny and takes another drink.
 “I think what I don't remember says more about that night than what I do!” Danny chuckles.
 “Shit, I remember. We were like seventeen, and Chris had been gone all of that June. What was it? Fuckin' '98? Good year. Man, I'm old.” Ryan tilts the bottle above his head to finish it off, and lays it at his feet with a dull glassy clunk. A congregation of brown glass gathers around his chair.
 “You've been an old shit your entire life, and you're just realizing it?” Danny raises both eye brows and points his bottle at him with a smile.
 “One day you'll keep up with me son!” Ryan pops another top and throws the cap over his shoulder. The mouth of the bottle hits his front tooth as he takes his first sip, prompting a facial contraction that describes the numb yet painful click heard across the table.
 Danny grunts “I've learned not to make rookie mistakes like that, let me give you the number to my dentist.”
 “Let me give you the number to my zipper! He's pretty good, just ask your mother” Ryan points to his crotch with the base of his beer and winks at Danny. Danny blows kisses in Ryan's direction along with a one finger salute.
 “But as I was saying, the night before Chris left for training, me Danny and Dave were in the ditch by my house. It was hot as hell probably still ninety degrees at 11 at night. We had gone to the Valero around the corner to get some fuckin' what's it called? Not the Slurpee but Icee! I remember: Dave and Danny got cokes to mix with and I thought it was a good idea to get a Dr Pepper Icee! Shit, we mixed them with Dave's dad's stolen bottle of Jack: the dirtiest shit you could mix with uh Icee... Turns out all the alcohol just settles in the bottom, so the entire time I'm saying 'shit this is strong!'” The guys laugh in unison, simultaneously taking a drink in remembrance. “Anyway, we were just sitting in this ditch that connected to my street when I see Chris's truck pull up. I remember seeing the headlights of a Ford Ranger coming down towards the house and saying 'is that Chris?' We hadn't seen him in over a month, Remember? He went to California on a road trip after he graduated.”
 “I don't know how that shitty truck made it all the way to California and back. The thing had a damn salvage tittle!” Danny thinks back to remember the white '92 Ford Ranger Chris Drove before he went into the Marines.
 “Yeah no shit right? The thing squealed to a halt whenever he stopped!” Ryan pantomimes a stopping vehicle with his beer bottle. “But at that point we hadn't seen Chris since the day after he graduated. I remember yelling out to him when he got out of his truck saying 'Chris where the fuck were you' He came over and said what's up and told us he was leaving tomorrow. I don't think we had ever drank with my brother until that night.” 
 “Yeah he was usually with what's his face that went to Reagan,” Danny confirmed looking up trying to figure out the Reagan boy's name after a decade of not caring.
 “Any way we talked there outside the ditch in the dark for about twenty minutes with Chris as he told us of his unplanned odyssey to California. After we told him what was in our cups he was just like 'Shit man lets go get some beer'. And of course we said yes: it was free alcohol!”
 “Dude those Red Dogs!” Danny shuts his eyes laughing and shakes his head.
 “Red Dog?” Mia asks.
 “Only the cheapest hobo beer ever made! Even then it was less than three or four dollars a six pack. Chris got each of us one and a Mickey's.” Ryan tells Mia.
Danny shakes his head, “Shit, I miss the days when only a six pack of hobo beer, shot of jack, and a 40 could get us plastered.”
 “Well we were 17, what do you expect?” Ryan shrugs his shoulders and puts his half empty beer down on the table. “And don't even mention malt liquor, holly shit! So the four of us all ride in the back of Chris's truck to Mud Creek Park, this shitty little park by our old middle school... ah, we drove over there and hopped the fence only to hike up this hill about three hundred yards in the pitch black, running into cactus and shit, arms full of alcohol. Anyway we climb up the side of this dam, the southern side of this dam is like a giant stare case with three foot tall steps that span about a hundred yards in each direction, like a fuckin' Mayan temple! There was about twenty three-foot steps we had to climb to get to the top, all the while trying not to drop our shit. Remember we had to sit and scoot our asses up the damn thing?” He reaches into his cooler and proclaims, “Well fuck me, low on beers.” Only three remain in the ice.
 “Yeah, I think that's one of the last things I remember from that night. Making our way up that pyramid arms full of beer and malt liquor.”  Danny acts like his arms are full, making a struggling face as he charades out the scene sitting in his chair.
 Ryan smiles in memory of his brother, “I love how at the top of the dam that mother fucker just pulls out a fire starter, gathers up some sticks, and makes a bond fire right there in the dark, as he demanded us to take down our Mickey's before he finished!”
 Danny lets out two bouts of laughter and says “I lied, THAT was the last thing I remember! After throwing that glass 40 off the top of the dam everything was a blur!”
 Ryan chuckles “Dave pissed in his bottle and threw it off the side into the wind! The dumb-ass didn’t think it would spray a trail of urine all over you before it hit the ground below!”
 Thinking back Danny recollects “Oh yeah, I think remember. I was so pissed!”
 “I think your light weight ass was just trying not to heave forty ounces of malt liquor over the side of that dam,” Ryan opens a new bottle, forgetting about the one on the table, and tosses back a drink.
 “I wouldn't doubt it, man!” Danny admits.
 “That was a great night for a bond fire. Hot but the sky was clear with a full moon. Beers and stories of California women,” Ryan reads the label of the Shiner in his right hand, tracing the letter “S” with his left index finger. “Remember him taking you and Dave home? You passed out in the bed of his truck driving down Jones-Maltsburger.”
 “That explains the knot on the back of my head the next morning. That and the Jack induced hangover!” Danny takes a long drink of his beer to finish it.
 “Me and Chris got back home around two in the morning. We knew Mom was going to be pissed when we pulled up and saw the kitchen light on.” Ryan looks down into his bottle once more. He takes another drink.
 “Getting out of the truck Chris says 'gotta piss like a race horse',” Ryan chuckles a bit, “and walks over to our neighbor's pond... They had a coy pond in their front yard; a pretty nice one too. Maybe eight feet across with plants and shit in it. The giant coy swam toward the splashing of our streams at the surface of the water. Thinking about it now, it's pretty hilarious, I mean why would we piss in our old neighbor's pond? We had never done it before but it just seemed to fit.” Ryan turns over the beer bottle to show it's empty. A couple drops of brown nectar fall out onto his black suited knee. Danny holds Mia's hand as she fights sleep, listening to Ryan.
 “'I may not see you for a while' Chris says 'at least for a few months until I get back from basic. Tonight was fun, man' he says zipping up and looking at me. I didn't think about it then, but I really didn't know how long it would be when he said 'we'll have to do this again when I get back.' Sucks that Mom's selling the house now,” Ryan looks above Danny and Mia's head at a flickering orange light on the wall as he opens the second to last cold beer.
 Mid yawn, Mia asks concerned, “How long was he gone?”
 “She got so pissed... she saw me stumble in the house and knew it was Chris that bought us the alcohol. They fought for about twenty minutes before Chris stormed out and stayed with his friend from Reagan. That was before Facebook. Before everyone had cell phones. I don't think I saw Chris again until after my college graduation; before he was about to deploy again. Guess it took a while for mom to forget about it.” Ryan's brow wrinkles as he tries to remember the next time he talked to his brother.
 “I know Chris missed you guys. He was just a little... indisposed after going to Afghanistan. I remember the last day I talked to him before he went, well you know. It was before Christmas 2001, when the war first got big. We would talk every day in the morning, until one day the phone just cut off. I didn't hear from him again until his second deployment. I know you don't like hearing this, Danny, but all of us loved him once.” Mia looks at Danny's face as he shuts his eyes. The concept of his wife being with his older cousin is so abstract and foreign, the though is perplexing. Of course that was before he and Mia had ever met.
 “No, I guess it's just strange to have two views about Chris. I really can't picture his face after that night at the dam.” Ryan and Danny look above each others heads and take a drink.
 
_________
December, 2001: Forward Operating Base [FOB] Chapman, Khost Province, Afghanistan.
 “Your brother is even coming down from Boulder, he says he has a surprise for you” the voice protruded from beyond the phone against Chris' ear. The tent phones struggled to capture any human qualities in the voice from the other end; he was consistently forced to speak beyond the white noise to ask his girlfriend to repeat herself. As was life in Afghanistan, or any other shit hole a soldier could inhabit.
 “I haven't seen Ryan since god knows when... Thanksgiving ninety eight? Give him call for me” Chris added somewhat blankly as he put one finger in his left exposed ear. PFC Elroy mocked the First Sergeant while waiting in line for a phone, emphasizing how, with the help of God and a couple marines, freedom would find its boot up the ass of Tora Bora.
  “You're going to see him in a week! Not to mention me; I've missed you Chris. I know I tell you every time we talk but I do. When I see you in the airport...” Chris cut Mia off.
 “They gave me an opportunity, Mia. And I am going to take it.” a pause on the line crackled in silence. Lance Corporal Mills stepped back from the phone and screamed: it’s a boy! He pulled out a cigar and lighted it, only to be answered by the proxy-sergeant Elroy: If God wanted you to have that cigar you would have been born with a lighter up your ass! Fuck off Elroy...
 “What are you saying Chris?” Mia's voice cracked.
 “Their asking for volunteers to stay and support the incoming company. I'm going to take it; I've already made my mind.” Chris sounded determined in his voice. He wanted to stay for his men, but, deep down, he knew he really didn't want to go back home and touch Mia with the hands of a guilty surgeon. Hands soaked in a brother's blood can't hold on to a woman for very long in the military. He convinced himself this when he stared at a crinkled photo of her while on the shitter. The only place a soldier can effectively both think and masturbate without the threat of interruption. As was life in Afghanistan.
 Mia's voice scratched to life one the phone, “What the fuck do you want me to do Chris? Huh? I've tried to be a good girlfriend and put on these airs of confidence that reassure me, and your family, and my friends that I'm OK inside but that just, ugh, sometimes I feel you just don't get the stress I feel at the other end of this phone,” another crackle of silence “I'm sorry Chris. I... I just... It's just hard because I love you.”
 “Don't,” Chris interjected, shutting his eyes and leaning his hand against the metal phone receiver bolted to a poll in front of him. I shall determine the class of this child... a POG like his father! [Continued jackassery]
 “No Chris I do and I can't force myself to believe that I don't because I do. Every day I wake up at 5:30 and wait like a little puppy for your call. And I tell you about my shitty day at work the day before because of my shitty coworkers and my shitty friends and my shitty life,” a rapping of sniffles manages to communicate over the phone. “And before I go to bed at night I think the only reason I look forward to waking up in the morning is to talk to you.”
 “No Mia I love to hear about your day every afternoon... I do love you Mia, It's just that,” Chris grabbed for words but all he could hear was Private Rutherford Mills? Are you royalty Private Pile? “I feel like I won't be able to hold onto you, like everyone else here who can't hold onto a relationship. I feel like a product of military statistics.”
 “You really have a way with words, Sergeant Hathaway. I think I’m going to go st...” the line went completely silent. No click, no dial tone, no endless monotonous tent phone crackle. And then the loud speaker blared its song of destiny. The jackassery stopped-- The steel scream of the loudspeaker rang INCOMING followed by three sine-wave siren blasts. 
 The tent frame shattered before Chris and the group of Marines. A torrent of dust, sand, and orange light filled what was left of the failing structure. Muffled reverberations, reminiscent of screams in the downpour of a hail storm, echoed in his ears as he rose to his knees. A crater lay where the loudspeaker once stood erect, and a smoldering ring of sunflower pedal bodies surrounding it in a circle. The 81mm mortar must have ripped through the cloth with ease. The Afghanis were notorious for dropping shells with the accuracy of a thrown stone. Today was turning out to be a cluster-fuck.
The new tent opening was bright, forcing Chris to raise his arm against the infiltrating Martian sun scape. Dust blew over the bodies, and, until now, Chris had never noticed the irony taste of sand before. Elroy rolled to his side spit motor oil vomit that beaded on the sand over his shoulder: blood, bile, and half-digested MREs look worse on the sand than in the body. He tried to make a noise, but choked.
 “Elroy, sit up! Give me your chin.” Chris's own voice sounded far off only inches beyond his perforated eardrums. Pressure gathered from behind his earlobe.
 Elroy’s mouth uttered nonsense “Don’t pick it up… Fuck you it hurts! I’m falling Jar... jay go!” he wailed in a hallucinogenic state. Black fluid dripped in even droplets from his left ear.
 Mills, regaining consciousness, stood and stumbled forward, half bitten cigar still lit in his mouth. He picked up his rifle, choked on the cut end of the cigar, and fell to one knee. “Where... Where’s Gunny?”
 Chris yelled beyond his deafened state to communicate with the half lucid corporal kneeling to his right. “Mills, are you hit?”
 Mills looks down at his uncovered chest, a small circle of sand clotted blood sits below his arm pit. He wheezes “I'm breathing through a straw here, doc. Gunny... he's at FOB over watch point echo... that’s south... I'm supporting” He coughed a pink mist over the receiver his rifle and smeared it with the cuff of his sleeve. “I gotta support. Shit... shit, gunny, where?” Mills stumbles forward leaning against the tent.
 “Where the fuck do you think you're going? You have a collapsed lung!” It hurt to scream. Chris reached for Mills' elbow and rummaged through his bag for shrink wrap blindly with his other hand.
 “I gotta get to my post!” Mills shuffles forward, wheezing and limping over destroyed tent frame and casualties.  Chris knows that the corporal would not remain conscious for more than 30 minutes with an open chest wound. The pressure in his chest cavity would drop, blood and water would fill the perforated lung causing pneumonia, and hypothermia would begin to set in as he fell unconscious. It's an awful way to die in combat, but all can be fixed with a liberal covering of the wound with shrink wrap and adhesive pressure bandages-- And morphine.
 The action escalated in the background as US forces returned fire on the Afghani mortar position. Consecutive eight round bursts echoed from the FOB over watch position down into the valley shanties and clay wall huts that lined the adjacent mountain ridge only four hundred yards away.
 Chris broke open a cold pack and secured it around Elroy's throat. “Give me your hands,” Chris commanded. The private's left had was non responsive and limp: the kid was suffering from a level three concussion. The real concern was a laceration extending from his ear lobe the back of the scull. A bloody steel shard stuck out of his pack behind him, and Chris knew that any severe skull fracture could result in an excruciatingly painful case of encephalitis, a condition characterized by swelling of the brain, infection, and ultimately death. A pessimistic soldier, such as Chris, sees the possibility of death in every injury.
 Two long cracks sprung from the muzzle of a rifle somewhere east of Chris's position. A Marine sniper with his M40 could take down a spotter position from a thousand meters, raining 7.62mm NATO copper missiles onto the heads of his enemies with pinpoint accuracy. The machine guns seized fire after the sniper took his shots.
 “Don't move your head, swallow these pills, and hold the cold pack I'm going to check the other men” Chris prescribed the Private an order to which Private Elroy responded Fucking sand pills.
 There had been eight men in the phone tent before the explosion, and now six men lay in the dirt unmoving, smoldering halfway covered in sand and soot. Halfway into their graves, Chris thought as he stood above them, chewing on the grit that had accumulated between his teeth.  Insurgent gunfire pecked in the distance, and every now and then a cloud of sand would jump up on the desert floor before him. The barrage of belt fed gunfire continued onto the valley in a harmonious exchange of syncopated percussive rhapsody. Chris turned his head away from the sun which exacerbated his throbbing headache, and looked onto Elroy's delirious body. He mumbled to himself and searched for imaginary grenades in the dirt around him.  A cloud of sand jumped above Elroy's chest. An A10 Thunderbolt rained 20mm cannon fire onto the enemy position, almost as eloquently as Chris rained his own lunch onto the pitted dirt floor at his feet.
 Perhaps all of this was a mistake... Fucking sand pills.
 
 _______

 Mia fights the constriction wrapping around the inside of her throat. “I remember I would receive letters from Chris long after he stopped calling... ramblings mostly. He would quote an entire chapter from a Tolstoy novel. I don't think he even knew what he was talking about. I knew he was prone to depression, but he got lost in the world he forced himself into. He wouldn't  let himself quit.” Mia looks down the table towards the parking lot. The sun has dipped below the horizon, and the green street lamps provide a strange contrast with the pink sky. “He started sending me letters in 2006 from Iraq. I read my way through his life for the next four years. I would receive a letter every few months, mostly. Sometimes only a week would separate them. Sometimes I would wait months, thinking he had surely forgotten me, but he would still scrape together a piece of paper in some corner of the world and write me. Every letter was a snippet of time, taken from the life of a soldier who had seen it all. Iraq, Djibouti, Singapore- you name it. He saw death everywhere. The slaughter of men in Battle, or the shitty conditions he would find children in Africa surviving. Twelve year old girls in back alleys being sold to men he knew. I guess everything he saw made him realize that the world was full of shit holes and evil. It became apparent that he thought he could never find a single place where life could be normal. No amount of alcohol could break him away from his view on the world. In Iraq he was completely sober, but yearned for a get away, another drink, anything to place between him and the death he encountered.” Ryan and Danny leaned back in their chairs and stared at the table listening to the second hand recollection of Chris' journey, slowly taking drinks and nodding theirs heads.
 Mia sniffs every now and then. “later, in 2008, he found himself in a marine expeditionary unit floating the pacific. He found his drink, but it could never curb his depression. He still saw death in every bar in every shady port he came across. He told me of the women he encountered. Women he payed for. Women he said never brought him the satisfaction he wanted. He never found me wherever he went. I had long given up on ever having Chris again, but he couldn't let go of his ideal of what his life could have been. He called himself a hypocrite, a drunk, and a failure: a waste. The further he got from home, the further he began to loath the world and himself, the more he realized that he could never go back. He stopped sending letters later in 2008.”
______
Late June, 2008, Aberdeen, Hong Kong
 Chris hadn't yet formulated a plan. So, for now, he lay in the street. The USS Essex was due to depart in two hours, but, even though physically possible, he knew he wasn't going to make it before 0800. In a delirious drunken decision of philosophical valor, he decided that the ship, like himself among the sea of Asian people swarming around him, was not really there. The ship, his life, the people around him were all figments of his imagination set in place by God to distract him from realizing his true potential. And in those two hours he could spend getting back to ship, he could potentially finish the bottle of vodka loosely nestled in his hand.
 If he didn't call his commanding officer to notify his absence he would probably face a captain's mast: a non-judicial punishment ranging in effect from additional duty to demotion. Nevertheless, since he already knew he was never going to make it, a court martial was probable. And in his mind, this was a totally acceptable outcome. Of course, he didn't plan on making it anywhere near a commanding officer, so what did it matter? He leaned against a silver metal trashcan that wreaked of fish intestine - Hong Kong's national air freshener - and took a long draught from the bottle, hardly wincing at the warm burning liquid.
 To his left an alley extended into a vast jungle of concrete buildings slowly being overtaken by lichen and smog stains. Nearly every metal fire escape and barred window was rusted. A door a couple feet away descended into a black stairwell leading into the depths of Honk Kong's vibrant gambling underworld. Whenever the door opened screams emanated from below, and some poor bastard was thrown out by a large Asian man in stained white clothing. He appeared to be a chef with chicken blood spattered on his apron. Chris wondered what kind of restaurant had no entrance and threw it's customers into the alley, and took another drink.
 To his right and across the street, where Tuk Tuks and wood plank box trucks puttered along the uneven road, a labyrinth of docks formed a floating system of businesses, homes, and private docking points. The Aberdeen port area was home to thousands of fisherman, expatriates, crooks, and merchant sailors. All of whom walked pass Chris's drunken body, never attempting eye contact.
 Three teenage Asian kids flung open the door in the alley, laughing about something the tall one said in Cantonese. Stopping short of Chris’s body, the short blond kid slapped the stupid looking skinny kid with a smirk. “Hey soldier boy, what you do in Aberdeen? Don't you know you not welcome here?” The tall kid said something to him and motioned for the three to leave, but the two stayed to antagonize Chris in his drunk state of half consciousness.
 “Before I cut off your head with a pair of keys, please, fuck off!” Chris belligerently uttered to the group of misfits.
 “Big words for little man on the ground,” The short ring leader said in broken English before looking back to his band of shit head friends, “T? m? de t?.”
 The blonde kid stepped in and kicked Chris in the ribs, to which Chris answered by launching the bottle of vodka at his face. It hit with enough force to shatter. Pieces of frosted glass fell to the tar stained alley, clinking like heavy rain on a metal roof. Three shards remained in the screaming blonde hair kid's face. For the past hour and a half, Chris hadn't found it wise to do anything but attempt to become as plastered as he could possibly get. But when the stupid looking kid pulled a .38, he saw it fit to do anything but lay in the gutter. He threw the metal trashcan at the feet of the gunman and leaped into the crowded street, nearly getting flattened by a rusted truck full of squawking chickens. He ran as hard as he possibly could pump his lethargic and numb legs. Hard enough to outrun his failing vision, blindly running head first into a steal pipe.
 The Essex had already left port by the time Chris rolled out of the pile of buoy netting he found himself in. His all of his possessions, his identification, and even his vomit stained left boot were gone. He contemplated whether this was what he was looking for: having no identity, no obligation, and no shoes. All he knew was that he needed more vodka. “I hope that kid's face rots with gangrene” Chris mumbles to himself raising to a hunched standing position. The world around him took a few seconds to actualize, but, once put in to focus, Chris realized where he had been robbed and dumped.
 The hum of an overpopulated city was replaced by the crashing of waves against a hull and the roar of an in board motor. The sun bared down on Chris, his damp ACU flapped around his left shoulder torn, and the salty coastal wind infiltrated the gap in his teeth as he looked over the edge of a fishing boat, watching Hong Kong fade away into the distance. The rear of the ship he found himself on read in 18 inch black letters: Emerald Maiden, Dublin. This gave new meaning to the term shanghaied, a thought that dug up a chuckle from the bottom of Chris's dark and humorous soul. He found his escape. Chris muttered into the wind, “The Irish drink, right?”
_________ 
 “And this entire time you never wrote him back?” Danny questions.
 Mia raises her eyebrows and sighs, “In the beginning I tried, but the letters I sent would be returned. He never gave a legitimate mailing address. That is until the last letter I received from him.” 
 “The one you got a few weeks ago?” Danny puts his beer on the table and leans forward.
 Ryan cocks his head to his right. “He wrote you recently? What did it say?”
 Mia answers, “Yes. A... A few weeks ago a got another letter, the first in four years. It was crazy talk. He said how he had lost everything after he went AWOL. How he didn't have the option to live anymore... how the military was going to find him. It was sad, but I didn't want to throw it away. I thought maybe you wanted to keep the letter yourself, Ryan?”
 Ryan's face looks puzzled as he says, “That's insane, but you brought the letter? You have it here?”
 Mia searches for the letter in her purse and draws out a stained brown envelope. “I don't want to keep it... it's just to hard to look at knowing he wrote it with pen less than a month ago.”
 Ryan takes the envelope between two fingers and stands it on his knee, folding the hastily torn edge of the paper. He doesn't want to open it here, not now. “you know for the longest time I assumed Chris was dead. Questioned if I ever did know him. Is it wrong if I want to burn the one piece of evidence that by brother ever existed.”
 Mia squints “Don't say that Ryan, we all loved him.”
________
November 9, 2012. Belfast, Northern Ireland. Queen's Quay st. and M3 harbor bridge.
 Mick leaned forward in his plastic seat. A fire burned to his right, illuminating a small black lynx skull he kept on a steal chain. He pointed the mouth of the cat towards Chris, its mandible long forgotten, and said  “Look at nature. If you observe the physiology of the skulls of big cats, let's take three for example, you'll see a correlation between skull shape, animal appearance, and social behavior. The Sumatran Tiger, the African Lion, and the Cheetah: three cats that live in varied environments and behave in completely different ways. They have different skull structures and body types, but they are still cats. You see, there is a difference between them attributable to evolution. The Sumatran Tiger evolved within it's genus to be the largest cat in the ecosystem: a solitary predator.” Mick holds the skull high and makes a Sabre-toothed grin at the eviscerated mass of bone. “The cat has huge jaw muscles attached to a skull of relatively small capacity. The animal uses it's strength to it's advantage, and attacks the throat of it's prey. The African Lion, on the other hand, behaves much differently and in a different ecosystem, but it's of the same genus: Panthera. You'll observe that the lion is much smaller than the tiger, and wears a different, comparatively larger skull on it's shoulders.  The cat attacks it's prey in groups, biting not the prey's throat but its mouth in order to suffocate it as the rest of the pack holds it down.” He grasped the cat's skull with his right hand and lowered it to the ground, somehow mimicking a lion's hunting instinct. Chris leaned back on a pile of blankets and antique soot smeared rugs, and drinks potato mash from a copper stein. Mick pauses and looks at Chris's flickering orange face. “The Lion plays to the pride's strength in numbers. Look now at a different genus of cat, the cheetah. A very different animal indeed. Skinny, like a greyhound built for running, and with non retractable front claws. It's skull is very different than the lion or tiger, more similar to the house cat. The cheetah has weak jaws and small teeth. It doesn't have the lion's ability to smother it's prey, or the tigers ability to rip the throat out of large bovine animals, but what it does have is the ability to select prey that other animals cannot catch. The Giselle will out pace a pride of lions, but a cheetah will simply walk up to one and rip out it's Achilles tendon with its large dew claw and eat the animal alive before the other predators can catch up. The cheetah, you see, is smart. He plays to his strength and expends only the necessary amount of energy to cultivate the ideal prey. And guess what?” Mick thrusts the skull towards Chris with two hands as if to add a physical mark of emphasis to his question. “The cheetah has the largest brain out of these cats as well, at least comparatively. But this present's a problem. You would expect the cheetah to be the top of the food chain, being the smart cat of the wild, but, just like the strongest tiger, the cheetah is an endangered species.” Mick leaned back in his chair, dropping the cat's skull around his neck. Chris poured another glass of potato mash out of a red leather bladder, and raised his eyebrows, looking into the murky liquid. “You see when you opt to be either the strongest, or the smartest predator in the jungle, you open yourself to be weak in one way or another. The cheetah is always on the run because it's weak, yet it's used to that lifestyle. Just like the tiger is used to muscling its way through the jungle alone. One's strength is the others weakness, but their similarities will lead them into extinction. They can't reproduce like the lion can. They don't have an evolved sense of social intelligence, and that, my friend, is what we must strive to achieve: a balance between strength, numbers, and brains.” Mick's hands drew an arch above his head before falling to his sides.
 “You know, Mick, if I didn't know you were a dirty fucking bum I would assume you were at least halfway educated.” Chris said from behind his copper vice.
 Mick tucked the skull under his jacket. “well fuck you too, mate. Got anymore sour dough?”
 Chris sighed and placed the cup on the gravel with a clink. A police siren blared above them traveling north on the m3 freeway after crossing the harbor to their east. “You eat a lot for a taig, and no. I ate it all.”
 “That's the reason your old boy ran off on ya, damn septic yank.” Mick singed a hearty finger fuck you toward Chris.
 Open mouthed, Chris looked at Mick with one eye and said, “Bode starved. Dumped the bitch in the harbor last night,” he finished the cup of grog and uttered from behind the warming liquid, “Fuckin' taig bastard.”
__________
Ryan grunts and picks the last beer in the cooler by the neck and stands to a hunch. His uncle Reid makes his way to the table with a trashcan and begins piling the beers and paper plates into the bin. The can makes the area smell like stale beer and death.
 “How you doing, son?” Uncle Reid asks Ryan over his shoulder.
 Pressing the bottle to his lower lip, Ryan smells the cold hops, sighs and generally disregards his uncle completely. He folds the envelope in his left hand, blinks to gain his balance, and begins to walk toward the dimly lit parking lot. Danny and Mia follow together.
 They walk in silence; Danny's rubbing Mia's shoulder as she walks with her head pressed against his chest. Ryan holds his beer by the mouth, swirling the quarter empty bottle around at his waist. They Stop at Ryan’s car, a 2009 Subaru Impreza. Ryan lets out “Thanks for coming guys, I mean it. I know it's a long drive from Houston.”
 Danny replies, “Two hours for Chris is nothing. Even even in this circumstance, we wouldn't miss it.” Mia breaks away to hug Ryan.
 Ryan squeezes Mia with one arm and shakes Danny's hand with the other. A light drop of water falls from the sky and lands between their palms.
 “We're going to keep in better touch I promise, I mean besides Facebook and shit. The next time I call you I don't want to be talking about suicide and plane tickets.” Ryan looks from Danny to Mia and back as they open a black umbrella.
 “I know man so will we. Let’s plan something for next summer... I don't know: never been to Vegas,” Danny lifts his eyebrows and looks into Ryan's tired eyes.
 “There's too many fat strippers. You would like it too much,” Ryan jokes with a half-smile as a muted flash of light silently explodes over his left shoulder. A few more drops land.
 “You got me man,” Danny laughs twice, “We better get back to the hotel before it starts to poor.”
 Ryan opens the door to his car and warns, “Be safe out there, Danny, and good night. I’m uh pass out... I'll call you tomorrow morning.”
 Danny waves with his arm resting on the shoulders of his wife and speeds up to avoid getting wet in the rain. The light comes on inside Danny's truck, and Ryan watches them in the dark as he observes Danny lean over to kiss Mia. Rain falling on the windshield runs down and distorts the view from inside Ryan's car when the Dodge's headlights illuminate Ryan's Impreza from across the parking lot. The hum of the truck's engine is drowned away by the pitter-patter of rain on the metal roof. Ryan sits in silence as Danny's truck pulls away, his tail lights soon fading in the distance. Ryan turns the key to the auxiliary position; the DJ for 91.7 KRTU relays the weather on air.
 “Tonight, there will be a seventy percent chance of showers lasting all the way until noon tomorrow. It looks like our weekend will be greeted with a nice cool front. Up next on the wave, the 1958 single Soft Winds played by the late Chet Baker..”
 The radio pauses as Ryan starts his engine, only to resume with the mellow piano opening of Soft Winds. His head spins a little as he pulls out of the lot and onto the access road of Loop 1604. He turns up the radio and nods his head from side to side along with the strolling jazz trumpet, hip-hopping symbols, and the whir of his wet tires. The oak trees leaning over the side of the road blur past Ryan while his tunnel vision focuses on the yellow strip. The song dances its way down the dark as Ryan's car turns right into his old neighborhood for the first time in nearly two years. Ryan's car comes to a stop under the ash tree in front of his old home. The yellow real estate sign in the front yard carries the word 'SOLD' in red tape on the front. Big drops of rain fall from the tree branches above; the rain has settled a bit, and now only a light but continuous sprinkle falls.
 Ryan turns on the over head light and stares at the brown envelope in his lap. The manilla paper appears to be crinkled and water stained. It must have been raining in Ireland, where the return address is marked. Ryan slowly smooths out the wrinkles of the envelope with the cuff of his shirt before removing the folded letter inside.
 His eyes skim from the heading - Dear Mia, whose love I may have lost but sincerely miss...- to a spot halfway down the page.
 … I would be lying if I said I never found another love. I did love my friend and, now deceased, faithful companion, Bode. Maybe twelve years old, he followed me everywhere like I was his master for nearly six months. He was a blue healer, and I was a bum: a match made in heaven. I remain guilty, though. He died last night in his sleep, and, even though I knew it was coming for weeks, I still think it was my fault. I couldn't help it. Normally, at dinner, I share a third of my portion of food I buy with the change I find or a shop owner gives me, but we hadn't eaten in two days. He asked for it, begged, but I ate the last few bites without haste. I truly am a greedy piece of shit. I don't think this city can support me any longer than I could have supported Bode on scraps of stale bread. I'm sorry that this is my first letter in years, Mia. It will likely be my last. I have also ran out of alcohol...
 Ryan closes his eyes and shakes his head, removing his keys from the ignition.
 Opening the car door, Ryan dawns his black vinyl over coat which he would have never owned if he actually lived in Texas. His boot splashes in the little river running down the base of the side walk as he makes his way across the yard towards his neighbor's pond. He leaves a matted trail of wet grass behind him, stepping up to the edge of the rocks that line the coy pond. The small artificial waterfall flowing into the pond gurgles along with the rain droplets hitting the surface of the water; flashes in the sky are met with soft, rolling thunder. The paper falls from his loose touch into the water. Ryan unzips his pants with his right hand and raises his last warming beer with his left, pissing gloriously into the pond where his brother once stood with him for the last time. He swallows his brew, zips up his suit pants, and says “tonight was fun, man... we'll have to do this again when I get back.” He drops his bottle to the ground as the skies open up, washing away the first tear on his cheek.


Submitted: November 23, 2014

© Copyright 2021 Garrett Monroe. All rights reserved.

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