Neil is welcomed home by his family. After a long shower to get off the road grit and sweat, he sits with Chase, comforting the boy while he grieves for his father.
“So much pressure,” he gasped. “Expectations…. Man of the House…. I can’t do it all, Neil. I can’t!”
“Shh, shh…. You ought not to have to, boy. But with Daddy so sick, you’ve had it handed to you. I’m here now. Anything you can’t handle, you throw at me. I guarantee it can’t beat us both down.”
“You boys ready to eat?” his mother called from the kitchen.
“Yes, Mama. Be up in a few minutes. We gotta wash.”
“Okay. Don’t you make my food get cold!”
Rising, he hugged Chase. “It’s gonna be okay. I’m here now. I can’t take your father’s place, but anything you need from me, I’m here.” He took Chase’s head in his hands. “Anything.”
Nodding, Chase smiled. He washed his face in cold water and they both washed their hands quickly before heading up to the kitchen. Dora and her mother were setting the food out on the table. Chase and Neil joined in, carrying the heavy pans and trays for them.
“We having a party?” Neil asked.
“Yes,” his mother said, her dark eyes twinkling. “Come on out and see. You’ll need shoes. Chase, you should have told him.”
“Slipped my mind. I got a pair of boat shoes that’d fit you,” he told his uncle. “By the back door.”
“Thanks.” Neil slipped them on and followed his mother outside.
Stunned, he stopped at the top of the long steps, staring at the faces. There, below him, were the people he’d most wanted, and dreaded, to see. They looked older, of course, as did he. But still much the same as they had when he’d seen them last. The teenagers and children milling around must be their offspring. He felt cheated. He’d never had the kind of life where he could settle down. Being a Marine, he moved a lot, but he never managed to set down roots or take a relationship to the point of marriage. He’d never missed it—until now. A deep, abiding ache started in his chest and he wanted to sob like Chase had.
Pasting a smile on his face, he descended the stairs, opening his arms to the group. “My God, if it’s not Maribelle Girard!” He gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “I guess you ended up with this goob, huh?” He shook Miles’ hand, grinning. “Which ones are yours?”
Maribelle called to a tall, blue eyed teen with sandy blond hair. He was holding a pretty, dark eyed toddler.
“This is our boy, Brian, and our little girl, Elise.”
The little girl flung herself at Neil, patting his cheeks as he smiled at her. A lump rose in his throat.
“She’s a beauty, for sure. Hey, Sugarbean!”
Elise squeezed his mouth, making a Mwa sound at him, though she didn’t kiss him.
“She just started doing that, but never with a complete stranger. You have a way with children,” Maribelle said as her daughter lunged at her.
“I’m great with little girls, it’s grown women I have trouble with,” he confided to Miles and Brian.
He made the rounds, meeting the children and reconnecting with his old friends. These were the folks he hung out with, mostly because his sister was one of their number. He was close to them, but not part of the Circle. By virtue of some quirk of fate, he’d never been one of them.
“What are you doing with yourself these days?” Heath Barrett asked as they each popped open a beer.
“Just retired from the Marines. I’ve had enough. Only so much death a man can take.” He shook his head. “They wanted to give me another promotion so I could send our boys in to die. I couldn’t do it another day.”
Heath nodded. “I’ve had a sheltered life, Neil. No doubt about it. But I feel your pain, brother.”
Neil’s eyes teared. Of them all, he’d been closest to Heath and Cliff. Cliff was more like a brother than a friend. They’d been inseparable.
“I can’t believe I missed his funeral,” he sighed. “I was deployed and they wouldn’t let me come home. If he’d been my brother…. It’s another reason I left. This is all the family I’ve got.”
“You never married?”
“Never could find a woman who’d put up with me. I sometimes wish I’d chosen another path, but it’s too late now. Got to find a new one to follow.”
Heath nodded, handing him another beer. “I’m not driving. I told Jackie I was going to enjoy myself and spend time with my brother.” He looked like he was going to cry. “It’s been too damn long, Neil.”
© 2017 Dellani Oakes