Over the course of the three days since my return, all my mind wanted to dwell on was that goddess dancing at the Swingin’ Lariat.
After that tense moment with Rowan’s ex, I’d lost the urge to dance, but sitting had had its advantages.
It’d allowed me plenty of time to watch that lovely lady whirling and stomping.
She’d thrown her head back and laughed at something Damien’d said to her.
Good Lord, I wanted to make her laugh like that.
I didn’t think love at first sight was real, but look at me now.
However, dreaming about a girl with beautiful hazel eyes wasn’t getting me any closer to having a job and the means to get a place of my own.
I was going to have to put her out of my mind for a while if I wanted to get my act together.
Well, today was going to be especially unpleasant.
Ten o’clock in the morning, and my brother was on my couch, watching a baseball game and drinking Dos Equis. He was two bottles into the six-pack already.
I figured this had something to do with him telling me yesterday that today he was going to go see the “parental unit” for lunch.
Normally it was time to head out for my job at Sullivan Branding and Design, but when I saw him get the six-pack out of the fridge this morning, I called in sick.
I wish we could just pretend like we don’t even have parents for a few more weeks.
Dad was barely speaking to me after months of pretending I’d died after coming out to him.
We had a very fragile truce.
Mom was better—she didn’t really get the gay thing but wasn’t actively hateful the way Dad could be. And I reckoned she’d be glad Link was home.
Dad, on the other hand…
Dad thought of himself as a patriot.
And Dad defined patriotism and manhood in narrow terms.
This lunch had me worried, and by the looks of things, Link felt it too.
On the hour drive over, neither of us spoke. I stewed in my feelings of resentment mixed with anxiety.
When we got to Mom and Dad’s house, though, I let myself relax. Dad smiled when he saw Link and gave his hand a hard shake. Mom wiped tears from her eyes and squeaked when Link hugged her.
Maybe things would go better than I’d feared.
While Mom finished up in the kitchen, Dad took us out to the garage to admire the work he was doing restoring his beloved glacier-blue 1955 Chevy Bel Air.
“I just ordered a pristine original grill,” he said, pointing out the rust on the one still on the car. “Buddy of mine took his sweet time finding me one.”
“That’ll look real fine,” Link said appreciatively.
We talked about this and that well into the meal, and I thought maybe Link just wouldn’t bring his discharge up at all. And I was fine with that.
But then Dad said, “So when do you ship out again?”
Panic rushed over me and I suddenly felt the need to wipe my mouth with my napkin, trying to hide the expression on my face.
“Well,” Link said, “I needed to talk to y’all about that.”
Mom sat up a bit, and Dad’s eyebrows lowered.
“Why is that?” Dad asked.
It was the moment I’d been dreading since I’d signed my papers.
I sucked in a deep breath of air.
I’d rehearsed how I’d give them the news over and over in my head, and of course, now my mind was blank.
“Well?” Dad prompted, his voice gruff.
“Well,” I echoed, “I’m not. Going back.”
Dad’s face darkened. “What? What’s that supposed to mean, you’re not going back?”
“I finished my tour and I was honorably discharged,” I said. “I’m done.”
Dad’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re quitting?” he said.
I glanced from him to Mom, hoping against hope she’d say something to defuse him.
She just sat without moving.
“I’m finished. It’s not quitting,” I said.
Dad slammed his palm on the table. The glasses and silverware clattered, and Mom jumped.
My vision narrowed, going blurry at the edges.
“No son of mine is a quitter!”
All I wanted to do now was check out.
Rowan looked from Dad to me, his face agonized.
Dad’s face was getting redder and redder.
“Dad—” I started.
“It’s out of the question!” Dad barked.
“It’s already done,” I replied.
Dad shoved out his chair, lurching to his feet. He leaned one fist on the table and pointed at me with his other hand.
“You coward! You’re abandoning your brothers!”
I shook my head slowly.
“I had to do it. I had to stop. I was—I wasn’t making the right choices anymore. I—”
“That’s a load of bull hockey and you know it!” Dad bellowed. “You have a duty to serve!”
I just kept shaking my head.
“Dad—” Rowan said.
“Jefferson men don’t quit!” Dad yelled over him. “Jefferson men aren’t cowards! That war isn’t over! You don’t leave until you’ve wiped the enemy out, boy!”
“They would have wiped me out, Dad!” I snapped. “I’m trying to tell you: I couldn’t do it anymore!”
Dad had never enlisted.
“You sniveling coward,” Dad hissed, drawing away from me. “You got scared, is that it?”
“And how many battlefields have you fought on?” I demanded.
As soon as the words left my mouth, I wished I could call them back.
This was an eternal sore point with Dad. Vietnam had ended when he was 13. After that, the US hadn’t been involved in anything while he was young.
Dad never enlisted.
“Get out of my house!” Dad shouted.
“Franklin!” Mother protested.
“I’ve already got a fairy for a son, I don’t need another one who’s a yellow-bellied coward!”
Rowan sighed and rolled his eyes.
I stood and took a step toward Dad, my six-foot-four frame a good half-foot taller than his.
“What? You gonna take a swing at me?” Dad sneered. “Go on! Do it! I dare you.”
I stared as Link glowered at Dad.
What’s he going to do?
He isn’t actually going to hit him, is he?
Link’s face contorted as he glared at Dad, and in the next moment, he turned and stormed out of the dining room.
Dad was panting, fists at his side.
Mom was still sitting in her seat, her fingers tangled in her napkin.
I looked from one to the other and said, “Well, it’s been just lovely. Let’s not wait another month to do it again, ’kay?”
And with that, I marched out after Lincoln.
“Jack,” I said to the gray-haired bartender, who promptly poured me another shot.
The bar closest to my parents’ home was a dark and seedy place.
The floor was sticky.
The sconces were chipped.
Some black and white photos on one wall had faded to an almost inscrutable degree.
The bartender refilled my glass.
I downed it and waved for another.
I downed that one and waved for another.
“Hey there, tiger, slow down,” Rowan said as he settled in beside me.
I didn’t even look at him.
I wasn’t going to stop until everything went away.
Dad had hit every nerve I had had about leaving.
Especially the bit about abandoning my “brothers in arms.”
What he didn’t understand was that I couldn’t function right anymore, and if I’d stayed, I wasn’t just going to get myself killed. I’d have gotten everyone killed.
Knowing that had made choosing to come home the only option, but it didn’t make it any better.
It didn’t make it feel any less like I was ditching them all. Leaving them to fend for themselves in that hell.
Rowan was my brother, and I loved him, but I’d left behind all the brothers I’d served with. I’d gotten out, and they hadn’t.
And how many of them would die because I wasn’t~ there to save them?~
Flashes of memory.
My hands freezing up on my rifle. Fingers like ice in the Iraq heat.
Breathing too fast.
Blinking away the sweat that ran into my eyes.
“Link!” Juarez had shouted, trying to get through to me, but I was frozen, just trying to breathe.
“Link! Come on!”
I couldn’t move, and I was endangering everyone.
It was Rowan.
I tried to focus on him, but my vision split.
“Hey,” he said.
His face swam and doubled, then went back together.
I pawed the bar, looking for the shot glass. How many had I had?
“Come on, bro, let’s get you home,” Rowan said, and I felt him tugging on me, trying to put an arm around my back.
I pushed him away, stumbling and knocking the stool over.
“It’s okay, Link, come on,” Rowan said.
I leaned, trying to steady myself on the bar.
Rowan wrapped an arm around me again, and this time I let him.
“Let’s get you home,” he said.
Strangely, as he said the words, an image of pretty hazel eyes and swishing brown and gold hair came to mind.
I closed my eyes, but the image broke apart and faded away.
Back at his apartment, Rowan said, “Link, I’m sorry Dad reacted like that.”
I snorted. “It’s not like it came as a surprise.”
“But the thing is,” Rowan said, rubbing his palms, “I’m worried about you.”
I grimaced. “Like you’ve never overindulged.”
Rowan shook his head. “I’m not saying I haven’t. I’m just saying…the VFW is there to support vets like you.”
I gritted my teeth.
I’d thought when I came home, I could finally just relax.
And now I have to deal with Rowan being a mother hen?
I knew he was just worried about me, but all he was doing was complicating things.
The shadows made it hard to see the man’s face.
A shaft of light illuminated my fingers around his neck, though.
The image was stark and real.
The man struggled under me, his teeth bared.
Fear and desperate rage coursed through my veins.
I hated him.
I had to make him die.
I pushed harder, blood rushing in my ears.
Somewhere beyond, machine gun fire sounded.
It made me gasp and grit my teeth against overwhelming dread.
He grunted as his struggles lessened.
“Link,” he said.
Startled, I loosened my grip.
“Fuck, Link. Let go.”
His voice was muffled and strangely familiar.
I could barely hear it over the thrumming of my pulse in my ears.
He jerked, but I tightened my grip again.
“Link.” A strangled word.
His nails dug into the backs of my hands.
But that wasn’t right.
Everything tilted and went dark.
I cracked open my eyes.
My hands were still wrapped around a neck.
But as my vision cleared, I saw…
…it was Rowan’s.
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