When the train came to a halt he stayed seated and a part of him wished to keep going west. Another part wished he wore something other than his uniform. He could see his mother and father waiting for him on the platform. Mother was so old now. She studied the faces that were getting out of the carts, her light brown eyes the same as her dress, seemed to sparkle as they filled with a thin film of sadness. She must be wondering if her other son was gone for good too. She turned to his father and asked him something, he shook his head. She stood on her toes, trying to look into the train windows.
The frequent assault for her worrisome thoughts had etched itself in the folds of her face which resembled the trenches where he had spent his innocence. The grey in her hair seemed to have come in an instant, like a snowstorm in April, the beauty and youth of the budding flowers covered in a pile of harsh winter just as that, her beauty had waned under the weight of her unpleasant contemplation. Perhaps he could alleviate her troubles a little bit by his presence but never entirely.
When she saw him, her face broke into a smile and those fearful tears now fell down the ripples of her cheek with content. She tugged at his father’s sleeve and pointed at him her finger shaking. She still knew him. His mother could still see him.
“Oh, Henry!” She cried. She wet his cheek with her kiss and further marked it with her tears.
His father’s handshake was firm but not as it used to be.
“Good to see you again,” his father said. His eyes lingered on the side of his face for a few seconds before he cleared his throat and looked away. Henry’s face was scarred from a shrapnel blast. The metal had tore pieces of flesh from his cheekbone and up into the side of his head, even the tip of his ear was gone. It was as if a wild cat had swiped across his face. The doctors had said that the blast had damaged parts of his nerves. They said he might never feel that side of his face and so far they were right. However, he could always feel the stares.
His mother was glued to his side as if he was still a little boy. She was afraid that if she let him go he will get lost or maybe it was the other way now, maybe she held on to him because she knew the feeling of being alone. She walked with a slump as if the little cross that hung around her neck weighed her down. She glanced at his face a few times thinking he did not notice.
“When did you start wearing that?” He asked her.
Her hand automatically clenched the cross and she tucked it under her dress.
“Our prayers have been answered,” she said, “Oh, my handsome boy,” she rubbed his hand, “Handsome boy.”
His father’s presence was what it used to be but his body was no longer that. He was thin and tired just like everyone Henry knew. He reminded him of an old sergeant because he was respected for what he used to be able to do and not because of what he can do now. He walked slightly ahead of them in a plain white collared shirt which hung loosely around his shoulders. His brown leather boots, polished right before he left home, clicked on the train platform which had a few crimson leaves scattered on it.
Both of them didn’t comment on his appearance except for his mothers “handsome” talk which he knew to be the symptom of coping. Henry thought this might look like a lovely family reunion but they all knew there was a piece missing. You could hear it in their steps. There was supposed be another beat in the rhythm. It was like the orchestra played its tune without the violin.
Something beeped on his father’s belt and he looked at it.
“He just got that thing,” his mother said, “Apparently it’s the new thing to have. Did you see anything like that in Europe?”
“Its always beeping,” she laughed, “It’s bad enough with all the people coming and going in the house but now they even come and go when we aren’t there.” She lowered her voice, “Don’t tell him but I know he feels like a big shot ever since he got that thing.” She laughed again.
Her hands cradled his wrist. Her touch was comforting, it had a calming nature to it, the kind only a mother possesses but at the same time, there was a foreign feeling too. It was as if she wasn’t his mother, wholly. That he didn’t belong to her completely since a part of him never came back and that part could have been the one that was the closest to her. She smiled every time he locked eyes with him.
They lived in a small town in Illinois so small that even the railroad had forgotten to come there. It didn’t matter much anymore, not as much as it did when he was younger when only the Robertsons had a car and he would fight with his brother about who gets to sit in the front seat. His father briefly explained why he bought the Ford as they left the station behind. He told him about the Fords reliability and its efficient gas mileage. He sounded like a car salesman himself.
“The car manual is in the glovebox if you want to look through it,” his father said.
The metal chain from the dog tag rattled when he opened the glove box. It snaked further into the dark corner. His father didn’t hear it and neither did his mother. He closed the glove box as his father turned up the radio.
He flipped through the ford manual as his mother talked for talking sake talking about all the things he had missed while he was away. All two and a half years worth. He listened and didn’t talk much. His father didn’t talk much either but he did look at him every now and then as if to make sure he was still there.
“They’re renovating the school down the road. It’s going to look really nice. Maybe we can finally get a station there too. Wouldn’t that be nice? We wouldn’t have to make this drive if we had one there but then again it’s not like you will be leaving any time soon right?”
“No.” He said pulling the seatbelt to relieve the tension in his chest, “Won’t be going anywhere soon.”
The strange thing about memory is that it sort of has a mind of its own. Whenever he thought about his home all he could recall was the squeaky third step that lead up to the patio or the way the screen door let out a long, agonizing groan as it slowly closed or the faded gold colour of the doorknob, the silver of the metal underneath showing itself from the repeated twists and turns which had scrubbed the gold off. All of which was no longer there.
The step was fixed, the door hinges were oiled, the gold knob was freshly painted and a new set of wind chimes hung at one end of the patio which sang peacefully with the wind and it reminded him of shell cases dropping. On the other side of the patio were two rocking chairs, in between was a wooden table with a chessboard on it.
“We’ll play some chess later,” father said, “Remember how much you loved it.”
“Haven’t played it in a while,” he said.
They made no comment on the changes. For them, nothing had changed, it had just evolved. Naturally flowing from the past to the present. For him, the evolution had skipped a step, disregarded the past and jumped into the future.
“Come on you two,” his mother called.
He coughed walking inside and his mother asked him if he was okay. Her hand jumped to his forehead and started feeling his temperature and he gently pushed it away.
“Debra I said not to leave these candles burning.”
“Oh, I thought Henry would like it. Do you like it?”
Mothers candles had impregnated the wooden walls and the couches and floorboards. The new aroma couldn’t be escaped and he knew it would be on him too. It reminded him of the smoke which used to rise all around him, mixing in with the rising moans of people he loved, that smoke which kept on climbing, heaven-bound like the silence of people he loved, knocking at heaven’s door, asking if the rain was ready, that moment before the rain fell upon them, cleansing the blood and dirt away, revealing the shame and guilt. All of that flooded into his mind and he wondered if he had really left that place.
His father’s touch snapped him out of it as she gestured towards the football that was on the sofa.
“We can throw the pigskin around later,” father said.
“Like old times,” he said.
His father echoed his reply with masked sadness.
He looked around at the pictures. His own face looking back at him in most of the frames. He could tell from the shadowy imprint on the walls that certain pictures were moved. The ones with the familiar face of his brother, Jake. The mantlepiece above the fireplace revealed the lingering effects of a box that had been removed because there was a square four-inch spot which had less dust than its surroundings. Medal of courage, the same one he got for his service.
Mother saw him looking and she said, “Henry it’s so good to have you back.” She grabbed his wrist and pulled him away.
He remembered something. Something that he had been looking forward to for a long time now.
“Wheres Charlie?” He asked.
“Poor Charlie,” mother said.
“He was a good dog,” his father said.
That’s all they said and he didn’t want to know how because he knew enough.
“Why don’t you go freshen up. Take a nap. Your mother will get the dinner ready,” father said.
He carried his luggage upstairs careful not to hit the walls his father hated that. He passed by the closed door that would remain closed and went into his old room. A cross hung above the bed, above where his head would be. That was new.
He put the bag at the foot of the door. The bed was neatly made his mothers touch evident in the folds. He sat at the edge of it disturbing it as little as possible. Before coming here he had stayed in a few hotels overnight. The strange rooms with strange beds and strange walls felt more familiar than his own room.
He straightened out the blemishes he had made on the mattress and it looked as if he had never been there. He sat down on the wooden chair by his study table. He leaned back into it and folded his arms across his chest and stared at the cross above his bed. He watched it as he tried to put together what his life used to be here but he couldn’t find all the pieces anymore and perhaps that was a symptom of dying. He looked down at his belly but there was no wound there. He wondered why he only remembered the things he wished to forget.
He accepted the glass of whiskey from his father. This was the first time his father had seen him drink. Steam rose from the bowl of mash potatoes which his mother placed on the table. Beside it was a plate of mini sandwiches with the crust cut off, just the way you like it, she had said. There was salad, garlic bread, tomato sauce pasta with big slices of mushrooms in it, you love mushrooms don’t you, his mother said. She had even cooked steak for them to enjoy.
The dining table was the same as before but it was covered by a new cotton cloth which had flower pattern embroidered on it. The window was slightly open to allow the evening air to come in. The curtains fluttered against the grandfather clock in the corner of the room. It’s ticking was the background to every noise. To match the ancientness of the clock, there was a glass cabinet parallel to it on the other side of the dining room. Inside which were old plates and glasses which were only taken out on special occasion such as this one. Above the cabinet was a family portrait. The portrait was positioned in such a way that the curvature of the dresser blocked the figure standing by the hip of his father.
He finished his whiskey. “Want some more?” His father asked.
Father handed him the bottle from across the table and he topped his own glass to the brim. His father watched him carefully.
“Everything okay?” He asked.
He took a sip from his whiskey. He put on a smile and said, “Yeah, everything is great.”
Mother came in carry a small plate of strawberry cheesecake and set it right in front of him.
“Let’s pray before we eat,” she said.
They all held hands and his mother whispered and thanked the good Lord for bringing him back home, thanked him for the blessings and thanked him for the food. After they said amen, she kissed his cheek.
“Handsome boy,” she said. Her fingers crept up the side of his face and the tips brushed over the scarred ridges and he grabbed her wrist and moved her hand.
His father scooped some mash potatoes, a little bit of pasta along with some salad. He stabbed a piece of steak and moved it onto his plate. The knife sliced through the flesh and the blood spilled out.
Henry wasn’t hungry but ate nonetheless. His mother watched him eat and took satisfaction as if every bite he ate filled her up. His knife gently piercing the tough skin of the meat and the blood drizzled out onto the plate and tried not to look and his knife scratched the bottom of the plate.
His attention kept on falling on the empty chair beside his father. It used to be filled with laughter. The whole room, the whole house, his whole world used to be filled with the distinct high pitched laugh which belonged to his brother. With it missing, it was like writing a sentence without a noun. The subjectless writing which was noticeable by even the comprehension of a toddler. But for some reason, his mother and father acted as if they didn’t see the glaring mistake.
“What took you so long to come back? Summers boy came back two months ago.” His father said.
Henry took a sip of his whiskey.
“Just random difficulties getting back, you know, there were so many of us.”
“I can only imagine,” his mother said.
“Do you sleep well enough at night?” Father asked.
“Cause if your not you know I can help you,” his father could always tell when he was lying or at least when he masked the truth.
“Summer brought her boy to see me the other week. He had been having a nightmare—”
“Is it necessary to talk about things like that at the dinner table?” His mother interrupted.
His father observed him some more and then went back to his steak.
“We should all go on a vacation someday,” mother said. “Did you ever get to see Paris?”
Henry shook his head. “‘Fraid not.”
“Oh, what a shame, it’s so beautiful, your father and I went there for our honeymoon, didn’t we?”
“Beautiful,” his father said with a mouthful of potatoes which he pushed to the side, bloating his cheek momentarily.
“We went by it,” Henry said, “I think I heard someone say that the smoke was coming from Paris but I’m not sure. I guess I shouldn’t say we went by it.”
He felt his fathers eyes on him so he took another sip of his whiskey.
Mother suppressed a laugh.
“What’s so funny?” Henry asked.
She looked at his father and said, “Remember when you beat up those two boys in Paris?”
“Debra, please.” He replied with an embarrassed flick of his wrist, “No need to bring that up.”
“What’s this?” Henry inquired, “I never heard this one.” He was smiling.
“It’s nothing,” father said.
“Your father really laid it into these two guys who kept bothering us.”
Henry had to laugh at that.
“I can’t imagine you even throwing a punch,” he said.
“Oh, your father was a real hothead back in the day.”
“No I wasn’t,” father concentrated on slicing a piece of his stake.
“Anyone looks at me for more than two seconds and he’d be eyeing them down,” mother leaned closer to Henry and said softly, “He’s the jealous type.”
Whatever father said went unheard as Henry and his mother laughed. His mother’s laugh above all as if she was making up for lost time. His father had a hint of a smile on the edge of his mouth.
“Still can’t imagine you fighting anyone,” Henry said.
“How do you think my boys got the fighting spirit,” he said with pride but that erased the joy from his mother’s face and like a wave, that sadness washed over his father as well. His father cleared his throat and took a sip of his whiskey.
“Henry!” Mother covered her mouth.
“Your face,” father said standing up from his chair.
Henry’s hand quickly went to his face and he felt the beating, pulsing, vibrations which spread up and down his cheekbone and the side of his head like the after effects of shell bombardment which makes every nerve and tendon in the body twitch with fright long after the silence had settled.
“It…it’s nothing, it, sometimes, it just happens,” his hand was shaking as well as he reached for a napkin to cover his face so that they didn’t have to see him like this. As he leaned across the table his elbow struck the glass of whiskey which dropped over, staining the pure white cloth with its insides and the glass rolled to it’s side and fell down the table, splitting into multiple pieces on the floor. Mother was standing and father had come around the table and was saying it’s all right, don’t worry about, he patted him on the back. Henry covered his face with the napkin, continuing to apologize over and over.
Mother hadn’t said a word. Tears welled in the corner of her eyes.
Henry was in the washroom, staring at himself in the mirror. He had splashed his face with tap water which now streamed down his face like rain on a car window. There was a knock at the door.
“Yes?” He said.
“Everything okay?” It was his father.
“Did you take the pills I gave you?”
He stared at them in his hand.
“I’m sorry pops,” he said.
“Don’t worry about.”
“Tell ma I’m sorry too.”
“She fine. Everything’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
His father left after he said goodnight.
Henry went back to staring at his own reflection. Even as he touched it, he didn’t feel the pressure of his fingers. However, at night, when he was alone with his thoughts and memory he could feel it going all over the place like that part of him didn’t want to be connected with him anymore. As if it wanted to leave him.
Maybe it was all a dream and he would be called back and the Germans weren’t really gone and they needed him back again and he didn’t know he could do it again, he didn’t know if he could stay whole again but he wasn’t whole and he hadn’t been whole ever since Jack left. Maybe Jake will be the one to tell him. No it can’t be Jake. Jack was still alive. Jack was alive because he thought about him. He hadn’t thought about Jack for a little while and that killed him. He thought about Jack now and that meant he was alive. As long as he kept thinking about him Jack will stay older. If he stopped then he will become older than his brother.
Was he really here? He realized how much life had bled out of him. It must have gone out of him slowly, drop by drop, perhaps at night when he was asleep so that he didn’t notice the life leaving him as he dreamt those dreams that belonged to someone else.
There was another knock at his door.
“Henry are you okay?” It was his mother.
He couldn’t tell if the wetness on his face was from the water or his tears.
“Yeah, ma. I’m fine.” He said.
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