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By:Jay Mclean

is longer than I ever remember seeing it and for a moment I try to recall if I’ve ever seen him without one. I don’t think I have. Through all twenty-three years of my existence he’s had the same beard. Same huge towering frame. Same gentle tone and blank expression.

I clear my throat, preparing my voice so he can hear me. “Dad.”

He freezes, everything but his eyes. They drift shut. And I know what he’s doing because it’s exactly what I’d be doing too. He’s waiting. Making sure he’s not dreaming… like the countless times I’d try to hear his voice over there during the times I’d needed to find it within myself to help me get through it all.

“Dad,” I repeat, louder, because I want him to hear me. I want him to feel the same way I felt when I’d heard his voice.

His eyes snap open, his head shifting to the side and when he sees me, his eyes widen quickly. About as quickly as he stands, dropping his food onto the worn carpeted floor. He doesn’t speak. Neither do I. We’ve never been much for talking. But he runs. Okay, maybe not runs… but that’s what it seems like. At least to me. And before I can tell him to slow down because I know he’s about to hurt me, I’m in his arms, held tight, and sure it fucking hurts… the sharp pain runs from my shoulder and down my back, but I ignore it. Just like I ignore the shaking of his shoulders as he holds me to him, gripping the back of my shirt in his fists. I ignore time. I ignore the way he wipes his eyes as he finally releases me and stands back, his gaze taking me in from head to toe. Then he smiles.

So do I.

And then I hear the sound that gave me the calm I needed to walk through the door. He laughs, deep and gruff. “Jesus Christ, son. You are a sight for sore eyes.”

“You too, old man.”

“You on R&R?”

I shake my head. “Medical.”

His eyes widen, just slightly. Then he looks me over again. “Where?” he asks.

“Shoulder.” I point to it.




I press my lips together and nod.

“Ah, shit! I probably just made it worse,” he mumbles, shaking his head, his hands on his hips.

“Nah. You’re good.”

He rubs his hands together, his smile back in place and his gaze still on me. “Well.” He claps once. “You hungry?”

“Yeah,” I say through a smile wider than his.

“Why don’t you go shower and I’ll heat you up some food.”

“Sounds great.” I take a few steps down the hall toward my old room before he curses behind me.

“Your brother’s taken over your room for his computer gear. If I’d known—”

“It’s fine,” I tell him, cutting him off. “I’ll make it…” My words die in the air when I open my bedroom door, or at least what used to be a bedroom. Now it’s just a room with no bed filled with more metal junk than I’d know what do with. “I can’t even see the floor.”

“Yeah,” Dad says with a sigh. “He’s been into all that shit since he got home from his deployment. He calls it work. I don’t even know what the hell he does with it all.”

“Where is Eric anyway?”

“I don’t know. He sleeps all day, ‘works’ or is out all night. I don’t ask questions.”

“And he’s still livin’ at home?”

Dad chuckles. “It’s been way too long since I’ve had both my boys home. He was already gone six years before you left for college. It’ll be good.”

“Or awkward,” I mumble. Because it will be. It’s been a long time since I’d seen him. Who knows who he is now… time + deployment can change people.

It sure as shit has changed me.

* * *

I take the longest shower in the history of the world and change the bandage on my shoulder, then I eat five different versions of the same frozen, processed meat and veg—the best meals I’ve had in months.

Dad makes a bed for me on the floor of Eric’s room. Dad did offer me his bed, but I refused. I told him I’d take the couch, but considering we didn’t have a couch anymore—just two recliners—didn’t help my cause.

It’s comfortable though—especially considering my old sleeping quarters. Soon enough, the travel, along with the painkiller I popped with dinner catches up with me. My eyes drift shut and I welcome the calm that comes with the silence. The sweet, sweet, silence.

It doesn’t last long before the bedroom door slams open, hitting the wall behind it. I jerk awake and for a moment, I forget where I am and reach for my weapon… the weapon that isn’t there.

“I can’t believe you live at home,” a girl whispers, before the door closes and I’m surrounded by darkness again. Eric mumbles something completely incoherent and I lay frozen, unable to move or speak because right now, I don’t know what the proper protocol is.

The bedsprings squeak and the girl laughs, then silence again.

Followed by moans.

Then clothes being removed.

More moans.

Springs again.

“Ouch,” the girl whispers. “Wrong fucking hole, you drunk asshole.”

“Okay, STOP!” I shout.

The girl squeals.

So does Eric.

So do I when a lamp falls on my head.

More shuffling.

Springs squeaking.

Then a light so bright it causes me to squint.

“D?” Eric says, standing by the light switch, shoe in his hand, naked as the day he was fucking born. He’s changed. A lot. I was thirteen when he enlisted and we hadn’t seen much of each other since. The occasional holiday here and there. But now he’s twenty-eight and bigger than I remember. Not as big as me, though. Fuck, that would annoy him. He adds, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Removing the lamp from my face, I lean up on my elbow. I glance over at him, and then at the blonde sitting in his bed, her knees raised, gripping the blanket tight to her chest. Then I look back at my brother and smirk. “So this is why you left me stranded in San Antonio? For a girl?”

“What the fuck?” he mumbles, his eyes wide.

The girl says, “Who the fuck is this, Derek?”

“It’s Eric,” he says, and I stifle my laugh just long enough to say, “I’m his lover. Who the fuck are you?”

“Shut up, D!” he shouts, dropping the shoe and covering his ju