His parents were waiting for him at baggage claim. His mother spotted him coming down the escalator from the terminal, and her face lit up as he stepped off the escalator and made his way across the room. As he came closer she ran to him, shortening the distance between them with every bounding step, and threw her arms around his neck.
“My baby’s home!” she exclaimed. “My baby’s finally home! I’ve missed you so much, David.”
“I missed you too, Mom,” David said.
From over his mother’s shoulder, David could see his father standing with his arms crossed firmly against his chest. He came loose from his mother’s embrace and gave a salute, but his father only nodded.
“Well,” said his mother, “I guess we should get going.”
They weaved through the crowd to the luggage carousel. David grabbed his bag when it came by and walked with his parents out to the car. It was the same car they’d had since he was a child; a 1987 Dodge station wagon. A red sticker with bold yellow letters reading “My Sons Are Marines” was prominently displayed in the lower right corner of the rear window. David could remember the day that sticker was placed there.
“Where’s Daniel?” he asked. “Why isn’t he here?”
His mother opened the door for him and he slid in behind the driver seat, flinching as the door slammed behind him. His mother went around to the car to the passenger side, and his father turned the ignition.
Pulling out of the airport and into the traffic of the interstate, David’s father turned on a talk radio station. Some man from some university was ranting on about the futility of bloodshed and the hypocrisy in politics, and some other man from some other university was calling the first man naïve and idealistic and blah blah blah and…
The radio went silent.
His father’s hand went from the radio dial to the pack of cigarettes in his pocket.
“Why didn’t Danny come?”
The cigarette smelled to David like a building on fire and it burned his nostrils. The wind rushing by the open window was a roaring jet engine. It was helicopter blades slicing through his mind. The big station wagon seemed no longer spacious but stifling, and the steady silence of his parents was growing increasingly louder.
“Answer me, goddamn it! Where the fuck is my brother?”
“Language, David,” his mother said.
His father glared coldly back at him in the rear view mirror.
“I want to know about Daniel. Tell me why he didn’t come to meet me.”
For the first time, David’s father spoke. “He didn’t want to come meet you. He’s ashamed of you. He’s ashamed of you, and so am I.”
“Ronald! How can you say that?”
“It’s true, Helen. Shit. The only reason I even came is because you’re such a terrible driver, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. The men in this family have had a long history of high military distinction, and now our reputation is tarnished. He’s damn lucky that he wasn’t court martialed, and if it wasn’t for the connections I have, he sure as hell would’ve been. He’s a traitor to his family and a traitor to his country!” He slammed his fist down hard against the dashboard and the glove box sprung open, spilling its contents all over Helen’s lap and onto the floorboard.
“For heaven’s sake,” Helen said, bending over to clean up the mess. “That was uncalled for.”
“Don’t tell me what’s uncalled for, Helen. You’d do well to keep your mouth shut right now.”
The station wagon veered off the interstate and onto the highway. Up ahead, the green sign grew larger as the car approached it. Five miles to Crayville. It seemed to David like a century had passed since he’d seen that sign. Five miles. He took a deep breath.
Crayville was an upper-middle class town with a population of around 20,000 God fearing, blue collar people. David could remember church on Sunday and Wednesday. He could remember him and Daniel making pictures with their minds out of the pillars of smoke that billowed from the paper factory that his mother drove by on her way to take them to school every morning. He could remember the MPs in their little trucks darting around the military base ten blocks from his house. He could remember the tree by the post office lit up every year for Christmas. He could remember how simple everything used to be. He closed his eyes and put his head back. When he felt a hand grip his knee, he opened his eyes and saw his mother smiling at him.
The house stood two stories high, shading the driveway and most of the street this time of day. The shutters and doors were still painted dark blue, the mailbox was still adorned with hummingbirds, and the pinwheels and yard gnomes were still in the garden. Nothing had changed. It was still the same as it had been before David left, and still the same as every other house in the neighborhood.
“Want me to take your bag in for you?” asked Helen. Ronald was already marching up the steps to the porch.
“No, Mom, I can get it.”
At the front door, Helen turned David so he was facing her. “Don’t look,” she smiled. “It’s a surprise.” She reached around him to open the door. “Okay. Are you ready?”
She spun David back around and he was looking into the living room. It was the same living room as before, but now a long banner had been hung between two corners. It was the same banner he and his parents used when Danny came back, the same banner David spent all day making in the kitchen with his mother while his father sat in the den drinking scotch. It was the same banner that said WELCOME HOME.
David felt he should say something. All that came to mind was, “I love what you’ve done with the place.”
“Well,” beamed Helen, “it only took a little doing. Your room is just the way you left it. Why don’t you go get some rest? Dinner will be ready in a little while.”
As he made his way through the dining room, David could hear his father watching a John Wayne movie and coughing in the den. When he reached to second floor landing he stopped and looked up at the wall. There, protruding from the spot where the family portrait once hung was the enormous mounted head of a deer, its cold marble eyes gazing blankly into nothingness. In life it had been a powerful, majestic beast full of energy and instinct, but now he was only a decoration; a trophy to the destructive nature of man. David stood mesmerized, staring intensely at the massive head until the crunch of metal music came exploding down the hallway and shook him from his trance. The music was coming from behind Daniel’s door, and David thought briefly about knocking, but decided instead to cross the hall to his own room, where he sat down on his bed and peeled the boots from his feet and the suit from his body.
He slept until the smoke detectors woke him.
“You stupid bitch! You burned the roast!”
David shot out of bed, threw on a pair of sweatpants, and ran downstairs. In the kitchen, Ronald was pulling a charred and crackling pork roast from the oven. Helen was wobbling on a stool, fanning the air with a magazine, and Daniel was sitting at the table, rocking back and forth and screaming at the top of his lungs.
“You stupid bitch! You stupid bitch!”
The banshee wail of the smoke detector ceased and Helen climbed clumsily down from the stool. When she saw David standing in the doorway she mumbled, “None of that, Daniel. Your brother’s here.”
Ronald dropped the smoldering roast on the stove top where it landed with a heavy dead thud. “Eat another Valium, Helen,” he hissed.
“Yeah, Ma,” growled Daniel, “eat another Valium. I really don’t think you’ve had enough yet.” He looked at David with a smirk on his face. “Good to see you, you little piece of shit.”
“Good to see you, too,” said David.
“Come on over here and sit with me.”
David took a seat across from his brother.
“Dinner’s canceled,” Helen muttered as he stumbled to her bedroom. Ronald scoffed and retreated to the den, leaving Daniel and David alone.
“You want a drink?” asked Daniel.
“What’s your poison, little brother?”
“Scotch it is, then. The old Conner family cure-all.” Daniel stood and walked to the liquor cabinet. He took a bottle and two glasses from the shelf and brought them back to the table. Filling them both to the brim, he handed one to David. “Semper Fi, soldier.”
They clinked their glasses together.
They both swallowed some of the reddish-brown spirit, and Daniel leaned back in his chair. “Did you see the eight-pointer?” he asked.
“Yeah, dumb ass, the buck hanging over the stairs. You had to have seen it.”
“Oh,” David said, “yeah. I saw it.”
“What do you think? Dad and I killed that bad boy last November. He’s a big sonuva bitch, huh?”
“He’s big, all right, but where’s our family portrait?”
“That thing? It’s up in the attic. We’ll drag it back down one day, I guess, but we needed the wall space for that giant motherfucker. You want some more scotch?”
Daniel topped him off. “There you go. Drink up. Then I want you to tell me why you did it.”
“Tell you why I did what?”
“Why you ran, David. Tell me why you ran.”
David took a long swig. “Because I was scared.”
“Of course you were scared. You’ve always been scared. Just like when Dad would take us hunting when we were kids and you could never pull the trigger. You were always too afraid, and you’d always start crying when Dad or I finally killed something. What was it, Dave? Was it all the blood?”
“I just didn’t want to do it, Danny. You and Dad enjoyed it so much, but I couldn’t enjoy it.” David drained his glass and took a pull straight from the bottle.
“It was the thrill of the pursuit we enjoyed,” said Daniel. “It was the thrill of tracking something down and sealing the deal. I got that same feeling on the battlefield. I felt that same rush. It made me high. You didn’t feel anything like that? Out there in the action, I mean.”
“Because you were scared. You didn’t wanna die, so you ran like a coward.”
“I wasn’t scared of death, Danny. You’re not listening to me.”
“What were you scared of, then?”
“I was afraid of living. I couldn’t stand the thought of murdering someone, then coming home safe and sound. Who am I to do that? What gives me the right?”
“It isn’t murder. It’s you or them when it comes to war.”
“But only because I put myself in that position. I enlisted because Dad wanted that for me. For us. He wanted some kind of legacy and you could handle it, Danny, but I couldn’t. I wasn’t made for that.
“When I was in Iraq, I would wake up every morning and look at my reflection in the mirror, and one day I didn’t recognize the face looking back at me. I felt like a toy. Do you know what that’s like? Did you ever feel that? I ran away because I wanted to die. I heard they shot deserters, and I wanted to be shot. I just couldn’t do it myself. Can’t you see, Danny? I’ve been dead for a long time but I’m trapped. I’m trapped here.” David wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and tossed the bottle back again.
“Jesus,” Daniel said, taking the bottle from him, “don’t start crying. It’s like you’re fucking ten again. And lay off the liquor. I’m going to bed.” He stood and walked to the stairs.
“Wait,” David called after him. “Are you ashamed of me?”
Daniel hesitated for a moment before answering. “It sounds like you’re ashamed enough of yourself. Now good night.”
David sat quietly for some time then went up to his room, pausing briefly again beneath the mounted head. As he lay down he resigned himself to be like that deer. Not the way it was when it was alive, but the way it was now. A silent witness to the unhappiness of a family it had replaced the image of. He pushed his head under his pillow and dreamed that he would never wake up.
Burton Knight is 25 years old, and was born in Knoxville, Tennessee but now lives in Maryville, Tennessee to be closer to the Smoky Mountains. Some of his favorite authors are Tom Robbins, Mark Twain, and Kurt Vonnegut.