A badly shaken Michael returned home from the war, on leave for two weeks, hoping he’d later return again once and for all. For the nonce, he’d stuff his mouth with greasy fast food double cheeseburgers and get drunk enough every night to where every step was an uncertain stumble.
He found himself marooned in his boyhood home for want of anywhere else to go, and was assigned the fold-out couch in the wainscotted basement. It was intended to be a rumpus room with a ping-pong table and the like, but was unbelievable cozy to someone who had been bunking down in a stark trailer on a ready-made Forward Operating Base that was bombarded with mortar fire every night. The bed was warmer than a shot of heroin in the veins compared to his previously spartan living conditions, slapped up in an unforgiving desert by the lowest bidder. He had the morphine drip of television for the first time in six month, relatively unlimited access to the music that he could only strive to remember echos of overseas, and a private doorway where he could duck out for a smoke. It was heavenly.
Except for the wall of trophies. His younger brothers had proven to be top athletes, starting varsity high school baseball and basketball players. Michael had an undistinguished run in cross country after getting cut from wrestling, track and soccer, and was stunned by shelf after shelf of glittering plastic testaments to their athletic achievement. He had maybe won one trophy in all his years in sports.
After closing out the bar one night, he stumbled in reeking of beer and cigarettes, and became fixated with the trophies. Ian had won Sectionals. So had Patrick. Patrick even took home a statewide free throw championship. His brothers were quite accomplished, their names were engraved in marble. He was going to die in that hostile desert and be forgotten. His last fading breaths were going to dissipate in the Iraqi heat, as evanescent as morning mist.
“Shoot,” he mouthed; “At least I’ve got my head straight.”
It was a reality his mother reminded him of the next day, insisting he visit Patrick at the group home. His brother had strangely become convinced a classmate had broken his cheekbones against a urinal, misshapen his face and ruined his life. It was utter nonsense, just hogwash. That wasn’t the extent of it. Patrick’s behavior became increasingly erratic and included wild accusations of conspiracy, an unhealthy fixation with the mayor, and stubborn, total muteness. Repeated visits to psychiatrists wouldn’t help even though something was clearly, drastically wrong. They wouldn’t diagnose him with anything.
It took an arrest on train tracks in a potential suicide attempt before Patrick was finally diagnosed as a pre-schizophrenic and assigned to a group home.
“It’s not going to kill you to go see him,” his mother said.
Michael had last seen his brother before he shipped off, before his transformation. This would be terra incognita.
The group home blended into an otherwise typical suburban street, but everyone there was just a little off.
“You’re Patrick’s brother!” a wiry old smoker outside exclaimed; “You look just like him. Say, could you drive me to the Post Office?”
Michael begged off, checked in at the front desk and clambered up a stairwell to see his brother.
Patrick was silent, staring down at the carpet like it held all the answers to life’s mysteries.
“Hey buddy, I’m back from Iraq.”
“I said I’m back from Iraq.”
“I came to see you buddy. How you doing?”
“How do you like it here?”
“Have you worried about me?”
“What have you heard about Iraq?”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s… um… yeah… it’s Iraq.”
“Are you glad to see me?”
The conversation plodded on, completely one-sided.
Michael felt a great burden amassing on his shoulders. His brother was more or less gone, but still very much here, grounded to this place. He had no one to really look after him. Their mother wouldn’t live forever. He was in the custody of an indifferent institution that would grind on with or without him.
Throughout his time in the military, they trained Michael to leave no man behind. He wasn’t about to leave anyone behind in Iraq, but he felt a surge in desire to ultimately return home. It wasn’t just about him anymore.
“Hey buddy, I’m going to come back for you, okay?”
“Pray for me or whatever because I’m going to come back for you.”