The Road Home
When they said that my family would pick me up, I figured Dad'd come along too. But it was just my brother, standing in front of that old truck. It would have looked like a scene from one of those movies about fast cars and macho guys, except he just stood there, not leaning against the fender, not smoking a cigarette. Just waiting for me.
I hadn't spoken to him for almost two years, and I didn't know if he'd forgiven me.
"How you doin?" he looked me straight in the eye. "You ready to go home?"
"Yeah." I figured that he probably didn't want to give me a hug. I walked over and put my bag in the back of the truck. Alex got in the driver's side and I stood at the passenger door until he leaned across and opened the door from the inside.
"Ain't got no locks on the doors, 'member?" I got in. The sun was starting to go down. The clock in the waiting room had read 5:02 when I heard the truck. If we'd kept straight on we would have been home by seven or so.
"Dad's makin' you a special dinner." He pulled the car wide onto the highway, driving effortlessly, just like I remembered. At first he squinted and held his hand up over his eyes. But, after a minute, we were going north and the sun made a diagonal stripe across the cracked dashboard and the towel over the seat, his faded jeans, and the tan slacks they gave me. They made me look like I was some businessman. I'm just a kid, really. I never went to the senior prom, or learned to drive, or any of those things my brother did, the little things that make you more adult.
I didn't try to say anything. The radio played Sweet Home Alabama, which I hadn't heard since I went in. Then it played Magic Carpet Ride, and The Joker. The hospital had all these old Fred Astaire albums. The only good record they had was The Beatles Help! which wasn't really what I liked, but it was better than Broadway musicals from 1959. I had been looking forward to hearing my music again. But it sounded hollower now, less exciting. Things would be different forever. My brain chemistry was permanently changed, they said. My imagination didn't run wild anymore, the voices and the paranioa were only memory. But sometimes it seemed there was something else missing too.
Dad and Alex still lived in the same house. But it wouldn't be the same.
"Is my stuff still in my room?"
"What?" Alex turned down the radio. "Yeah, it's still there." He paused to flick a strand of his stringy brown hair up out of his eyes. "You know that old yellow bed I used to have?"
"I got a new bed, so we kept that old yellow bed on your floor. But, last month, Joey moved out of his parent's house, and we sold him the old one. So your room's just like you left it. Although it's pretty dusty in there."
Up aheada road crossed ours, with a little gas station at the corner. Train tracks split the middle of the other highway. I looked out at the gas station. A woman leaned on a Riviera, one of those cars that looks like a rocketship in the back. As we slowed to a stop, the heat settled around the truck, and the sunlight reflected off the asphalt and shined back up into the bottom of my eyes. A car turned out in front of us, and then Alex gunned the engine. The still air of the valley was wind again and the heat was blown away. Nothing but flat farmland drifted off to either side, crumpling up in the distance against the trees and the White Mountains.
The music broke for a second, leaving just the wind and the engine and the rush of life. Then Your Time Is Gonna Come came on, and everything was back to the way it was before. I turned it up again and Alex smiled.
Alex turned to me. "Can you still remember what it was like?"
I looked out at the mountains ahead, with great orange tops, the snow reflecting the setting sun, and the slopes down below in shadow, mottled with the dark grey-green of the pine trees and the lighter grey patches of snow. It was nighttime already in those steep valleys, peaks all glowing and sharp above. "It snuck up on me, and I never realized what was happening. Little things changed, bit by bit."
Alex moved around in his seat and wrinkled up his chin and stuck his lower lip out, like he always did when he was thinking. He breathed in noisily. The car's tires went pad, pad, pad on the asphalt of the road and the posts of the barbed wire fence flew by.
"If you don't wanna talk about it-"
"Naw, I'll tell you. I-uh..." I blurted.
"It's fine. None of my business."
"No. It's like..." He had a right to know, and I'd have to tell him sooner or later. "You remember when we both shared the back bedroom?"
"Yeah." He nodded.
"'Member how the shadow looked like a bear at night?"
He smiled, wryly. "Yeah."
"That's what it's like. Sometimes I'd see things out of the corner of my eye, and turn and they wouldn't be there, except I couldn't be sure anymore that they were never there in the first place. And the voices. I thought maybe people were mumbling and I kept hearing things they didn't really want me to hear. Later it got so that I thought I was reading people's minds."
"But you knew, though, that, somehow, it wasn't real?"
"I don't know. I guess I really believed it. It's strange to think about now because it's like remembering you were once someone else. I still-" I stopped myself, and took a deep breath. The highway had turned, some minutes back, and gone more towards the mountains, northwest. watched the edge of the shadow up ahead, where the color of the road changed from orange to dark grey. Now the truck crossed over the edge out of the sunlight. I was going home. Alex reached up to the visor, and flapped it up out of the way with a squeak.
"But you don't, anymore...?"
"It's not like it was never there. I remember it all, just like it was yesterday. That night, the fourth, everything." I wasn't looking at him, but I thought I saw him swallow. "Firecrackers. I thought they were bombs. I though we were at war with Russia finally."
"But-is it-" Alex breathed in deep, and held his breath in for a moment. We were alone on the road, no cars up ahead or behind us. On either side of us ran the barbed wire fences that served really only to mark boundaries, rather than keep anyone from going where they shouldn't be.
"Gone? Going to come back?" I shook my head. "No. Not so long as I keep taking the-uh-medicine."
"Hmm." The road up ahead turned again, and headed north, when it came up against the mountains. I studied the rocks up ahead, sharp and broken. Brown in the grey of the twilight presented an almost black edge against the fading blue of the sky above.
I watched as the long skinny triangle of road flattened, and the mountain grew.
"I- Did you get my letters?" I looked over at him, but quickly looked away again when he spoke.
"Yeah, yeah." He nodded, slightly.
"I never heard from you. I never knew- anything."
"The doctors asked me not to come. They thought it would be bad- bad reminder, you know." He uncurled his fingers from the steering wheel and pressed his palms against it, and then tightened his fingers around the cylinder.
"It probably would have been a bad idea. Especially at first. I don't know." I glanced out across the field, where a lone farmhouse stood with a tree in the middle of emptiness. "I really am sorry."
"I know. I know. They explained everything to us, to me. Man, I'm sure you heard it all too." He quoted in a low voice, " 'You are not responsible. It wasn't your fault.' " He punctuated each sentence by waving his right hand in my direction, palm out, facing front, like I had grabbed his wrist and wouldn't let go. He breathed out quickly. "Just don't worry about it, alright?"
He slowed down as we turned against the mountain face we'd been approaching. The road floated up above the valley floor.
On our left the rock stretched up out of sight. On the right, on the other side of a low and thin shiny metal barrier, it slid steeply down into the valley. Behind us, the jagged edge of the night stretched lengthwise across the valley. I could see where our road punched from the orange sunset into the grey twilight. But the sun was still moving, faster as nighttime approached. The orange would become milder and fainter and just fade away as the shadow became darker and stretched further across the valley. Perspecitve twisted the houses flat as we climbed.
"She wasn't-" Alex began, "I mean, we would have probably broken up soon anyway. I wasn't- you don't know, but people change a lot after high school. Joey, he's not with that girl he went out with in senior year anymore."
"Stop. You don't know that and neither do I." Somewhere inside my head I wanted to be screaming, but everything that came out was cool and rational. "I don't need anybody to try and make me feel better. I killed someone. It's not something that gets easier to live with. It's not something you come to terms with after a couple years. It just becomes easier to forget. It becomes something that you don't think about everyday. But it's never gone. I'll never be innocent."
"Right. I guess." The road was still empty. One of those yellow diamond signs with a squiggly curvy road arrow flew by. Alex lifted up off the gas as we rounded the first turn. Out, to the left, wide, pushed against the edge of the road, with steep mountain below. A moment of straight, and a little gain in speed. Then, back to the right, pressed into a tight loop, past a little cluster of trees or bushes where the water collects on it's way down. Then some more straight, or maybe another turn right away. We climbed, lazily, up, towards home. Alex could no longer sit stiffly, but moved now, pulling the wheel this way and that.
In the silence between us, with only the wind in the window, the memory wandered back. I hear the firecrackers and I think that the Russians are attacking. I hide in the darkened house alone, no one home to interfere. Then, lights sweep the front of the house and the wheels of a car scratch and crunch in the gravel driveway. They are coming for me, and I run into the kitchen and hide a knife, no bigger than a butter knife, in my sock. I hear the car door slam and a knock on the door.
"Alex?" I don't recognize the voice. They open the door after knocking a second time. I whirl around and stab in the darkness. Screams and kicks in the shins. A quiet thump. I slide across the floor, as softly as I can. It's too dark to see anything. If there's still someone there, they are being awfully quiet. I can feel my hearbeat, and I wonder if they can hear it across the blackened room. My trembling hand transforms the point of the knife into a circle in the air. I run for the door, or where I think the door is. I scream and swing the knife wildly in front of me. I hit something, inanimate and hard. The floor is wet. The last thing I ever remember is the fear.
Alex found Tina, and he found me passed out, close to death. There must have been lots of cops and ambulances. The psychologists showed me the newspaper article and the photographs the police took. They say I stabbed Tina nine times, all in the upper body. In the pictures she just has this big red spot from her breasts to her waist. There was blood all over the carpet. Dad had it replaced. They told me I knocked myself unconscious on something, and fell on the knife. I almost bled to death, they said, I am lucky Alex didn't come any later. I was lucky Alex didn't come any sooner.
"I am sorry, I really am." I tried to believe it. I knew I had to be, somewhere, but all I felt was hollow.
"I Un-Der-Stand. I told you, I am over her. It." He lowered his voice. "I believe you. Please, just don't push this."
"Ok, right." I fiddled with the end of my seatbelt. "Whatever." The night creeps in on us a little bit more.
Then the road begins a long straightaway up, and twists to the left. We are high up now, only curves and curves trail off behind us. The road levels, and there's a wide turnout on the right, leaving maybe fifteen feet between our lane and the edge of the road. The tires grind the dirt as we turn out. Alex pulls the car quickly to a halt, and shuts off the engine.
"I hafta piss." he jumps out his door, and slams it shut. He goes stomping off in front, over to the edge of the cliff. I open my door and climb out. I can hardly see in the twilight, but I can tell we're stopped at the top of Ten Sleep pass. Out ahead, the road curves northwest again and I can see the lake, past three humps of trees, where I used to live. Home, maybe ten minutes away, rises from my stomach up to my throat, and I breathe in deeply. That way, the light from the set sun colors the sky a lighter blue, but it quickly fades above my head, and it will soon be night everywhere. I can hear liquid making a muddy puddle in the dust, flowing down the hill and away. Vega and Sirius already sparkle above my head, along with Venus, tonight the evening star, to the east. The moon is new; it won't be up. Color flees with the sun; the mountains are black and the sky is blue, the truck behind me a faint yellow, and the dirt beneath my feet a fading brown.
My brother is standing thirty or forty feet away, staring at me. "How long are you going to stand there?" I yell. He looks down at the ground and then starts walking back to the driver's door.
"Get back in the car, and let's get the hell outta here," he calls back, not looking at me, but past me, past the truck, into the night. I don't move, I'm watching him. He stops at the front fender and taps it a few times nervously. "Get back in the car," he whispers, almost to himself, and I don't move.
He crosses in front of the radiator. I can almost see the heat coming off the engine as he sweeps his right hand out across the trunk, and lets it drop to his side as he comes up in front of me. "Goddammit." he whispers, and I can see his teeth clenched behind his pulled lips.
He's bigger than me and stronger too, and he claps his hands on my arms like he's going to push me into the truck through the open window. But I wiggle free, duck out from under his hand and away. The only noise is the scuffling of our feet on the ground. I feel his leg around the back of mine. He's trying to push me to the ground. I duck under his arm and grab around his waist just as I lose my balance. Down I go, but he's lost his balance too and he comes down on top of me. I feel rocks in my bare arm, grinding. He tries to pin my shoulder but I move. His hand slips into the dirt, and there will be blood.
"Mmmmmgh." He pushes, I push. I get my back up against the the rear tire for a second, and he swings for me, but I catch only a glancing blow on the cheekbone. It will sting later. I kick at him, he's somewhere over there. I hit, his chest, or his ribs. He comes up again in the dark, and pushes me backwards. My skull makes the clang of bone on the hollow metal of the fender. I slip out to the right, under him, and he goes down, hard, into the dirt.
My head smarts. I am dizzy. Alex moves somewhere to my left, in the dirt.
"Is that fucking better?" he asks. A rock bounces in the dust a few feet past me. "Does that answer your question? Goddammit." I hear him sit up and pull his legs in in the dark. "You're just going to have to live with it. God knows I have to, and I don't get to have any fuckin' excuses, either."
I sit up gingerly, and reach back and feel for the bump on the back of my head. I close my eyes, and open them again, but there's not much difference.
"I could have left you there where I found you. They said if I had shown up five minutes later you'd have died. I could have let you die. You let her die."
"Nobody ever thought about you. I was the crazy one, the one who needed help. You'd be okay." I get up, still a little bit dizzy, and I hear him get up too.
The adrenaline fades away, bit by bit, and we stand there and stare at the darkness, and then he says, "Is your head okay?"
"Yeah, I'll be fine. Are you alright? I kicked you."
"I'll live." He reaches around me, and for a moment I think he's going to start fighting again, but instead he gives me a hug, and then I hug him back too.
And in a moment we will let go, and as he turns away I will think that there's a tear in his eye, but I won't be really sure in the dark. I won't have a tear in my eye, and I'll say, "Let's go home," and he'll say "Okay." And then we will get back in the truck and turn the radio on, and go driving down the hill, and then we'll burst in the door, and Dad will look at the scratches on my arm and on my hands and he'll ask us out of the corner of his eye if everything's ok, and one or the other of us will say yes, and then we will sit down to dinner. And I will be home, and maybe Alex and I will fight again, and maybe we won't, but for the moment I wanna just stand here in the night.