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Solider Boy (A short story)


Episode I - Pool

The soldier has things, not a lot, but not a little. He has a car he never drives. He has a debit card that his pension feeds into. He has a dad, who has a house with furniture and pool. He has a boy.


He likes his boy very much. His boy is named Camus. His boy is fifteen. His boy likes trivia. His boy goes to school. His boy is his.


Soldier, Camus calls, coming through the gate of the backyard and towards the pool where the soldier sits. My mom’s not home all weekend. Can I stay with you? He tugs at his crimson school tie. His boy has a mother and a stepfather (a broker), but the soldier’s only seen the mother twice and the stepfather once. He looks just like the mom: wide brown eyes, chocolate curls, mocha skin.


Camus, the soldier returns, still staring at the unrippled pool.


Can I? Camus brushes against the soldier as he sits. I wanna watch Harold and Maude.


The soldier nods.


Are you having a good day?


It’s a day.


Thin arms make their way around the soldier, an embrace. What’d you have for lunch?


Wasn’t hungry.


That’s too bad.


He hums, wiggles his toes below the clouded denim sky.


Is Mr. Joe here?


He’s at work.


When does he get off work?


Six. He’s home by six thirty.


That’s nice.


Mmhm.


He hugs the soldier tighter. What’re we having for dinner?


Not hungry.


I like grilled cheese.


I’m not hungry.


What if I get hungry?


You’ll eat.


We’ll eat.


Episode II - The Veteran

The soldier has a father. His father’s name is Patrick Joe. His friends call him Pat. He’s a veteran and a stockbroker, did his time in the Vietnam war, married a girl he met there (Noon) when the war was over, adopted the soldier 24 years later.


The soldier has no mother. He would have a mother, except he doesn’t, for his father’s girl was taken by three bullets to her chest when they were in the process of adopting him.


The veteran doesn’t refer to her as a mother either, only as his wife: his time, his cadence, his Noon.


Son? Pat yells into the cavernous foyer of the home they occupy. His voice echoes up to the bedroom the soldier lives in.


He blinks at the sound, his train of thought derailed. The successive pangs of bullets fade. The dust dissolves. The soldier wipes a stream of saliva from his mouth as his father’s shadow appears in the doorway of the dimly lit hall.


Pat flips the light on, eliciting a groan from the soldier.


The light burns his eyes, and he closes them.


You’re never gonna sleep at night if you sleep all day.


Wasn’t sleeping, the soldier mumbles as he sits up and opens his eyes again, this time adjusting to the light.


I’m heating up the lasagna in the freezer for dinner.


Okay. Silence fills the room as the soldier’s mind reconciles with reality. It has drifted to a time in which the soldier was in academic decathlon. Trophies and laughing and buzzers and a correct answer. Morning donut runs and afternoon sandwich stops. Dot sprinkles and white icing. Steak and cheese on toasted Italian bread. Fuzzy faces. Okay. He pauses. What day is it? It’s Saturday, right?


Thursday, son.


And the soldier hates that, the pity in his father’s voice, the fact that he can’t remember things like he used to. I was in academic decathlon.


The veteran sighs, understanding in his hunched shoulders as he nods. You were.


Episode III - The Game Show

The soldier enjoys game shows. The music is calming with its bouncy beat, and the bright colors are welcoming to tired eyes. He especially enjoys watching them with Camus. His boy is smart. He gets many of the questions. The soldier does as well, but he likes to let Camus try to answer them first.


George Washington? Camus asks, doubtful. How’d you get George Washington from Britain’s greatest military enemy?


Born in 1732.


His boy rolls his eyes as scratches his ear, which is adorned with a navy hearing aid. His thin fingers run over it, brushing a dial as he turned to check the time. Pizza? he proposes.


The soldier mumbles consent.


What kind do you like?


His eyes divorce from the TV screen to Camus, eyebrows raised.


Camus grins kindly and repeats the question: What kind of pizza to you like?


A voice sounds from across the room: I am a food made from the pressed curds of milk I come in American, Swiss, Sharp. What am I? The veteran flips the page of his book, rimless reading glasses resting precariously on the edge of his nose.


The soldier always forgets his father’s there. Camus’s stiffening indicates the same.


The veteran is almost always in the living room when his boy and the soldier are together on the weekend. No one knows why.


Cheese, Camus answers with a sliver of perkiness non-existent seconds before. Okay. His and the soldier’s gazes are still locked.


He nods. Cheese is fine.


The veteran clears his throat, flips the page again. Cheese.


Episode IV - The Tempest

Snow white whips crackle like pop rocks.


Winds whistle their tune.


Clouds cry for their lost.


The soldier watches another scene through half-lidded eyes.


Dust is everywhere, but through it all is a smile.


Bright green eyes, shaved head, mud caked over his face, square jaw, pearly whites. Soldier, he mocks, saluting with his free hand from atop the tank.


He walks beside in his own gear, eyes focused ahead but mind surrounding the other. Soldier, he returns, nodding.


Soldier! Lighter tone, distressed damsel. That’s Dem.


Soldier… Grave, lost.


Murmured silencings and bulging eye rolls.


His cheeks hurt from smiling so much.


Mary Louise’ll have to marry me now, right? Dem ponders.


She has a kid.


He’s a great kid.


I know.


He crouched to tie his boot. And if I don’t…


She’ll marry that broker guy.


She’ll marry that broker guy! he echoes. Plus--


She’s hot.


Not hot-- Stunning, man. Stunning… He sighs. She’s got these wide brown eyes…


Dark skin and cute curls. I know. She's my cousin.


Black girl magic, the smile says.


The sky turns black in a snap,


And the soldier comes back.


Episode V - Shot Of Espresso

Soldier, Camus says, climbing through the window to the soldier’s bedroom. His boy loves to climb. He wonders if Camus’s blazer gets caught on the seal, for his boy quickly turns silent, but he can’t see, his back’s turned. Mr. Joe.


Camus, the veteran greets from his place by the soldier. I don’t think he’s up to much today.

That’s fine, Camus says, voice lower than before. His shoes scuff against the floor as he makes his way to the soldier’s bedside. Are you sick?


Yes, the veteran answers for him.


A tender palm makes its way to the soldier’s forehead.


Leave him be.


Camus pries one of the soldier’s eyes open, lips pressed together. I brought the Whiz Quiz questions. He pauses. So we can practice. The meet’s tomorrow.


The soldier gently swats Camus’s hand away and opens his eyes. Clouds paint the sky a dull blue out the one uncurtained window. His limbs are lead, incapable of movement. The only thing keeping his eyes open is Camus’s. They’re cups of coffee that sometimes wake the soldier up.


Hey, Camus says softly, placing himself on the bed.


His eyes close again. The soldier hears shuffling and murmurs before the cotton leaves his ears, and he realizes the veteran is reading Camus questions. It’s as good as the game show music.


Episode VI - Eggs

The soldier is making eggs when the doorbell rings. He does not usually make eggs at the twenty-third hour, but he is hungry, and his father is asleep. He listens to the soft sizzles, adds cheese, folds it into the fluffy chicks. The doorbell rings again.


He sighs, scraping his eggs out of the non-stick, silver frying pan onto the white glass plate with roses. He washes his hands. He lets his plate clink as he sets it in the microwave.


Then, and only then, does the soldier go to the door. He wraps his calloused fingers around the cool, brass before twisting it and opening the door to reveal a cold gust of wind and his boy. Camus.


Camus is disheveled. His lip is swollen. His eyes are layered with glass. He’s still in his red-lined, navy blazer and tie. There’s a dark stain on his boy’s oxford polo that the soldier can see with the aid of the porch light. He sniffles.


The soldier moves to let Camus inside the house.


Camus enters hesitantly. I don’t want to bother you. Know it’s late--


Not a bother, the soldier interrupts, closing the door. He goes back to the kitchen and removes his eggs from the microwave and grabs a fork before settling in the living room where a game show plays.


Camus sits beside him, sniffles again.


He trains his eyes on the television. He wonders if it’s the broker. He doesn’t know much about the man, just that he beat out Dem. He liked Dem, so he doesn’t think he would much like the broker, no matter how good Mary Louise says he is.


Do you… Camus clears his throat. Do you have money?


The soldier nods. He has a debit card that his pension feeds into.


A sniffle.


Are you sick?


No, Camus blurts. Allergies. He scratches his sleeve.


How much do you need?


Fifty.


The soldier abandons his eggs on the coffee table to search for his wallet in his room, muttering the amount. He retrieves a few odd bills and returns to the living room.


Camus shivers.


The soldier wraps him in a stray cotton blanket after slipping the money into his blazer pocket. Do you have school tomorrow?


His boy nods as he lies on the couch, curling himself into the two squares of the sofa the soldier doesn’t take up. His eyelids droop as they attempt to focus on the television.


Mary Louise will worry.


I’ll go back before she gets up, Camus slurs, eyes closing.


The soldier watches TV and eats his eggs for two hours and twelve minutes. It’s a peaceful period.


Then his doorbell rings for the second time that night.


Instead of his boy, the soldier is met by his boy’s mother and the broker. Broker is still in his suit while Mary Louise sports a thin robe with silk pajamas underneath. If the soldier recalls correctly (which he rarely does), Dem bought her those and mailed them to her for Valentine’s Day while they were still on their tour.


Camus is missing, she says, almost ashamedly. I— he came home from school. His backpack’s at home—


Has he come by? Broker cuts her off.


He’s here. The soldier nods, and for the second time that night, he moves to let two more people enter the house.


Mary Louise cuts straight past him to the sofa where Camus sleeps.


Broker lets the soldier close the door and stands away from the mother-son pair. Thank you. His tone is stiff.


No problem.


Eddie. Don’t think we’ve formally met. He holds his hand out.


The soldier shakes it. We haven’t.


You and the kid— Camus— are close?


A shrug.


Well, he claps the soldier on the back, Thanks, man.


Camus is his boy, not the broker’s.


Episode VII - Pool: The Sequel

Drowning feels like a wet paw coming over one’s mouth and holding it there until the world turns black. One’s chest burns hotter than a frying pan, and the pain sears like sausage patties to one’s lungs.


The soldier’s organs sizzle until they’re brown; then they keep cooking anyway.


Episode VIII - Water Buffalo Brooch

There’s a Water Buffalo Brooch that’s gold with an emerald orb in its bottom. It belongs to the veteran, but the soldier has taken a particular liking to it and has been allowed to have custody of it since that time.


The soldier enjoys the smooth front, runs his right thumb over it quite often. He does so now until a right thumb touches his cheek. He gazes up at his father.


He said you didn’t talk, the veteran says, tone even but firm. The tone of soft scolds the soldier recalls from earlier times (easier times).


A blink causes the man to sigh before he takes a seat by the soldier.


The soldier allows his hand to be grabbed and begins to follow the veteran into the house, still rubbing the orb with his free one. He lets out a shaky breath as reality settles.


James’s coming tomorrow. The man kisses his hand, holds the appendage against his lips. I’m sorry you’re not feeling up to talking right now.


The soldier’s never been a talker, but he talks when everything’s together and matched, but the ice cream’s melting, and the puzzle’s missing pieces, so he can’t, not properly anyway. The brooch slips from his hands and thumps quietly against the floor.


The veteran picks it up, slipping it into his pocket. I have a meeting at three. Be home by ten. He slips soft, cotton socks onto the soldier’s feet and clicks the television on.


Game shows usually keep the soldier static until his father returns. He yawns as his eyes grow heavy, laying himself on the leather sofa. A blanket is thrown over him.


The slam of the front door comes moments later.


Episode IX - The Brother

The soldier has a brother. He often forgets he has a brother because he never sees his brother, and he can’t remember what he can’t see.


The soldier’s brother has two names: one the veteran’s wife gave him, and one he took up when the veteran’s wife passed. The soldier only knows how to say the latter, for the former is of her home country, and no one will teach him how to say it.


James. His brother’s name is James.


Hey, Milky. He calls the soldier Milky, something he’s never minded since the veteran is indeed milky as well. His brother hugs him. It’s a tighter kind of hug than the veteran gives, doughier.


The soldier’s brother is a confluence of the veteran and the veteran’s wife (he’s theirs, after all). His eyes are slanted but round, his nose is narrow, and his skin is golden like pale sand.


Some kid’s asking for you. I told him to come back later.


Camus, the soldier supplies.


Who’s that?


The soldier shrugs, mind half-wrapped like his brother’s arm around him. His eyes slowly close. He likes the black and hopes to return to it when he’s allowed to go back to sleep.


Have you seen Dad?


Back at ten.


You’re home all day by yourself?


He gives another shrug.


I came to visit. See how you and dad are.


The soldier hums to the beat of the calloused finger tapping the top of his hand. How’s Meredith? he asks quietly.


She’s fine. He shifts, pulling the soldier closer. You know, we… He trails off.


You...?

Split.


Oh. A beat skips. Does Dad know?


Haven’t told him yet.


How long ago?


Three weeks.


Are you moving back? Closer?


Dad’s working ‘till ten?


The soldier nods.


Why? James asks, annoyed.


He shrugs.


You have to know something. The comments snaps, reminds the soldier of James’s college days, the omnipresent odor of vomit and empty Tylenol bottles.


The soldier wants the brooch back.


Episode X - Slip N’ Slide

The soldier misses Camus. He usually sees the boy more often, but the family has gone to visit Mary Louise’s family for the first of the Summer months. This leaves him bored and lonely, seeing as James has been gone back to New Hampshire, and his father is always working.


So, he sits in front of the pool, lets the night breeze cool the back of his neck. It’s too dark to see his reflection.


He creates ripples with his index finger. The cold water soothes his thoughts, freezing the pictures in his head, so he can see them better.


Pins and needles, he whispers. Pins. And. Needles. They prick at him like the plague-ridden flies of rats. It hurts, and he doesn’t like it.


The echo of his name comes from the porch. Moments later, the veteran’s at his side, checking him over, running his cold fingers along the soldier’s face, neck, wrapping around his arms. He sighs in what appears to be relief. What’re you doing out here?


The soldier doesn’t answer. He doesn’t have one. He wishes he did.


Come inside, son.


He doesn’t usually mind the patronizing tone of the veteran, but it’s gotten old, and he isn’t a civilian, he’s a soldier. I’m fine here. He keeps his tone even and respectful, as one should be to their elders and veterans.


Inside, the man repeats, steely eyes static on the water. Does he think the soldier will fall in?


I’m staying out for a bit, Dad.


The hands tighten around the soldier’s biceps. Jeopardy comes on at ten, right? It’s nine fifty.


Not watching tonight.


I’d be a lot more comfortable if you came in. The veteran uses honesty as a last resort, it seems.


The soldier can’t argue with forthrightness. It has been his motivation in the past minute, after all. Okay, he concedes, standing and following the veteran inside.


The irony of the soldier’s namesake is he’s never won a battle he’s fought, and it doesn’t seem right, but it makes sense in the scheme of the hardest battles are the ones lost, not won.




- The End -

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