I had spent every summer of my college career back home in St. Louis with my parents; three months seemed to be the limit we could tolerate each other. I had, after that first year, toyed with staying full-time in Chicago and not coming home at all, but that would have meant three more months of rent and the burden of trying to find employment there … not an easy task given the competition. Every student wanted a summer job, and they filled up fast.
Dierberg's was all too happy to have me back, and I was glad to give them as much of my time as they were willing to ask for. Every penny helped; money wasn't exactly tight, but it was something to be careful about. I did not want to have to ask my parents for money, because I knew what my father's response would be.
In all that time, for four years, there had been no word from Tom. Not one. No phone calls, no telegrams, no letters, nothing.
The three of us sat like little monkeys on the sofa in my parents' living room. Across from us, in each of the two matching wingback chairs, sat two uniformed men from the Army. One was young, perhaps my age; the other one was older, not as old as my father, but close. They had introduced themselves to us shortly after they had knocked on the door - eliciting a banshee's wail from my mother - but their names had flown away as quickly as they had arrived. I knew only that one - the younger - was a corporal; the older man was a sergeant.
On the coffee table between us sat three items: an American flag neatly - obsessively - folded into a tight triangle of cloth, a flattish leather-covered case, and a cardboard box taped shut. Parked in our driveway was a drab-green, unmarked Ford sedan; we had noticed such cars periodically in the city, and everyone knew what they signified.
My brother was dead.
The details of his passing were scant, which we attributed at first to military secrecy. Only later would I intuit that he had died under suspicious circumstances, ones that the military had chosen - out of self-protection, perhaps - to ignore, to sweep under the rug.
In the case was a medal, a Purple Heart. What few details the two men sitting across from us were willing to supply indicated that Tom had died saving the life of a fellow soldier, the platoon having come under significant enemy fire. They would not tell us when or where he was killed, nor the name of the soldier whose life Tom had saved.
"You should be proud of him," the younger officer said. He glanced at the older officer; some kind of look passed between them: they knew more than they were willing to say. Some small, niggling part of my mind filled in a bit of detail, perhaps fantasy: Tom and the man whom he had saved might have had some history the military did not want to acknowledge.
My mother had finished with the bulk of her weeping; only a periodic sniffle or two indicated her grief. She sat between us; my father had his left arm draped over her shoulder, while his right arm gripped the arm of the sofa. He sat there staring out at nothing, his face unreadable.
I cleared my throat. "What's … what's in the box?" I asked.
"Ah … letters," the older man responded.
My mother roused herself. "Letters …"
"Yes, ma'am. From Corporal Keenan. Addressed to you and your husband."
My mother shook her head, obviously confused. "We never got any letters ."
"Yes, ma'am, I know. They … were never sent."
"Ma'am, I … well, I don't know. He could have sent them any time. He … chose not to. We don't know why." Again, a look passed between the two men, and the niggling little bit of my mind took another step. Something told me that these two men knew exactly what those letters contained; the medal was a sop, something designed to make us feel better. And not ask questions. There were answers in those letters to questions my parents had never dared to ask.
Later, when the two men from the Army had departed and we had finished a perfunctory dinner that none of us ate, I went into the den to make the phone call I knew I had to make. My parents had retired to their room. The flag, the medal, the box of letters were all gone.
I dialed Ellen's number from memory; on the third ring, she picked up.
"Hi, you." Even over the phone, I could hear something in her voice. She sounded tired.
"Nothing," she answered. "I was … well, I was actually about to call you ."
"Oh? What's up?" My heart did something funny in my chest.
"Well, I've got …" she started. "But, no - you called. What's up?"
I sighed. "Look, I - well, I'll just say it straight out. Tom's dead. We just found out."
"Oh, Tim …"
She waited while I cried, while I unburdened myself of the grief and the anguish I could not, dare not, show to my parents. When I was done, she went on. "So, what will you do now?"
"What else can I do?" I asked. "Go back to Chicago, go back to school. I can't do anything here ."
"Will there … I mean, is there a ceremony planned?"
"Not yet. I … well, I don't know if there really will be one. He's being shipped home. He'll be here in a few days." I spoke of him as if he still lived, steeling myself against the reality of my brother locked away in a coffin. "I'll stay for that, of course. But after …"
"Do you want me there?"
Did I? Yes, but … "You don't have to."
"I'll do whatever you want me to do. You know that."
"I do. It's why I love you." The silence after that should have been a warning. "Ellen? Are you okay? You said you were going to call me? Is there something wrong?"
"Well, no, not really. It's just …"
"Ellen, whatever it is, just tell me." My heart started beating hard in my chest; was she about to dump me? Were we done?
And then she did tell me, and everything I knew about my life changed and changed again. What had up until now been a happy-go-lucky, let's-just-see-what-the-day-brings kind of relationship became something else. In a way, my parents' aleatory version of child-rearing had prepared me for the news; I had so long been used to doing everything for myself that this would be just one more version of that, albeit one that had greater import and greater immediacy. I tried to think how I would handle it - how we would handle it, I corrected myself … because now she and I were definitely a we and would remain so for a long, long time.
Ellen was pregnant.
This 14 chapter story was created for the Inspired by a Picture: The Only Way is Up! Writing Challenge. The picture that inspired the story is:
Please read all 14 chapters before answering the survey at the end of the 14th chapter
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.
[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]
* Some browsers may require a right click instead