Saturday, April 28, 2012
Summer Surprise: A Short Story (About 7500 words)
Note: This story is rated PG-13 for adult themes.
For those of you who haven't listened to "The Price of Friendship" it's free at podiobooks.com and I think you should listen to it, because I had fun writing it and I like the story. Other than that, I think everything that happens in this story gets explained in the story.
The story addresses my thoughts about some things in the news recently and resolves some questions left hanging in the story about Chad and his family.
If you read this, please leave me a comment, even if it is just to say that you read it. Thanks.
by Philip 'Norvaljoe' Carroll
"Chad," Amy had said with that look on her face like she'd just eaten something sour. He knew it meant she needed to say something that might hurt his feelings and she didn't want to say it. He could guess what it was.
"I know," he'd said. "I don't need to follow you around all the time, just in case you need protection."
The problem was, he wanted to be around her whether she needed protection or not.
They had both matured during their brief time in the dimensions and while Chad felt much more confident, Amy seemed more aloof and independent. The carefree days of sitting in her back yard, talking about dreams and aspirations, or telling silly stories of imaginary places with fantastic creatures and brave heroes, were all gone.
As soon as they had arrived back in the prime dimension, Amy had signed up for summer school, a freshman political science class. Chad thought he would just relax until he had to focus on high school classes, but here it was only mid June and he was already bored with sleeping in late, watching TV, and imagining he was back in the dimensions. In the dimensions he knew what was important and his 'love' had a purpose; to save Amy from the Cloud Side and get her back home.
His responsibility to her hadn't ended, by any means. She still had her tasks to complete, according to prophecy, and he needed to be there to protect her.
He felt like a sixth toe; unnecessary and in the way.
Chad reclined in the family room, a bowl of cereal balanced on his chest, and watched 1980's sitcom reruns. He almost spilled his frosted flakes when he heard the front door open and he tried to look at his watch. His mother had found a part time job and worked most days, from 9 am to 1 pm.
But it was only 11 am.
"Mom," Chad called. "What are you doing home?"
There was no reply, only the heavy footfalls of someone in boots. Chad put his bowl aside.
"Mom?" He asked, yet knowing it couldn't be her.
"Mike," Chad shouted as he saw his brother standing in the kitchen wearing desert fatigues, a duffle bag at his feet.
"Hey, Chad," Mike said. "You've grown. I think you're taller than me now."
Chad's rushed over to hug his older brother, but as he neared Mike he felt an invisible wall go up between them.
"Huh," Chad said, confused. "I didn't think we'd see you for another year. That's what you said when you left for Afghanistan, wasn't it?"
"Yeah," Mike said. "I can't really say much about it, right now, but the Army made a deal with me. If I extended my enlistment for two years, I could come back stateside and be a drill sergeant until my time is up. My school doesn't start for another three weeks, so I have some time to hang out here and relax."
As he spoke, Mike looked up at the ceiling, down at his feet or at the kitchen table, never into Chad's eyes.
"Do you need to go to bed, now?" Chad asked. "Afghanistan's like the other side of the world. It would be the middle of the night there."
"Actually," Mike said, fishing in his pocket for his wrist watch. The strap was broken and he turned it over to look at the time. "I spent the last month in Washington, D.C. at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It's only a few hours different."
"Ok," Chad said. His mother hadn't said anything about Mike being back in the states. He wondered if she knew.
"Do you want something to eat?" He asked.
"No," Mike said. "I ate on the plane. I think I'll just change into some regular clothes."
Chad dumped out the soggy flakes and warm milk while Mike made himself familiar with his old room.
Mike came out wearing the same clothes Chad remembered him wearing before he joined the army, except now, they didn't seem like they were his anymore. It was more like the clothes were wearing him. He belonged in them, but they didn't fit. They were tight across the shoulders, yet they hung on him like an old memory, vague and out dated.
Chad's mother was just as surprised to see Mike as he had been. She did hug him, though. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. She didn't let go for a long time and when she did, they left Chad to go speak privately in her room.
When they came out, Mike was still solemn and his mother had an artificial 'everything is going to be alright' smile on her face, but worry remained in her eyes. Mike dropped onto the couch in the front room. The worn sofa faced the large front window looking out onto the street.
There was nothing to see on the street on a weekday afternoon, just the neighbor's house across the street, yet Mike's eyes shifted back and forth as if he watched something moving outside.
"Do you want to go do something?" Chad asked, feeling off balance. His older brother had always been spontaneous and happy before he went away, always wanting to be up and doing something. "Are there any old friends you want to go visit?"
"Naah," Mike said, slouching further down on the couch, his eyes still on the window. "All the girls I knew are married now, and the guys are away at college."
"Ok," Chad said. "If you change your mind, let me know."
Chad was about to go see what their mother was doing in the kitchen when he blurted out, "how come you never told me we had different fathers?"
Mike actually looked up, surprised, the first emotion Chad had seen on his face since coming home.
"I don't know," Mike said. "I guess because I never met mine, and your's walked out when I was only six, I was just never too impressed with dads and if you're going to hate them, might as well combine them into one. It makes it more efficient. Why? How'd you find out?"
"I met my dad."
"Wow," Mike said with a short laugh. "That must have been weird. How did it go?"
"Ok, I guess," Chad said. "He didn't recognize me at first. Then he started asking questions about mom. That's when he told me he was my father. He said I look like her."
"Really," Mike said. "You do look a lot like Mom."
Mike was sounding like his old self so much that Chad wanted to keep him talking, but didn't know where to go with their conversation. Mike caught him off guard.
"How did you run into him?" Mike asked.
Chad was stunned. How should he answer that? "Well, Mike, you see I was in this other dimension and my dad turned out to be this grand inquisitor who tortured people to get information from them...."
No. That wouldn't work.
"I was with a friend and we were at her friends house," Chad said. It sounded totally stupid in his own ears. What was Mike thinking. "And this guy comes in looking for us. Well, not for us, really, but in the house, and he has this friend who was tall and weird, and..."
Chad trailed off, confused by his own story. Mike stared at him, his cold blue eyes calculating. He asked Chad, "So what did you think of him? Was he a jerk?"
"Worse," Chad said before he thought about it. Why was he being so stupid. He had to think before he spoke, but then, he sounded totally fake. "Well, he was at first. But then I spent some time with him, and I kind of like him."
"Did you tell Mom about him? I mean," Mike was sitting up now, interested in what Chad was saying, "She'd flip if she knew you hung out with him, and even liked him."
Chad wanted out of this conversation, but he had to answer honestly. His brother could always tell when he wasn't telling the whole truth.
"I don't know," Chad said. "She seemed ok with it. She didn't say much about it."
That was all true. He'd shared everything his father had told him and done for him in the dimensions, and that was the end of it. His mother had never asked anything more about her husband. It had only been a month since Chad's quick trip through the dimensions, maybe reality hadn't caught up with her yet. Or maybe it had. After all, her husband was still alive, after what, fourteen years since he disappeared without a word. It could take a while to get used to that idea.
While Chad thought, Mike slipped back into his mood, his eyes unfocused on nothing outside the window. He hated seeing his brother this way. He'd always been so full of energy; everything was an adventure. When Mike had declared to him and his mother that he was joining the army, Chad had figured it was for the adventure, that and taking the responsibility for his care off his mother's limited hands. But he'd also been unusually patriotic. He was only a cub scout when the terrorists had flown into the World Trade Center, but even at that age, he'd planted a flag on their front lawn and set up lights to shine on it through the night. So when he announced that he wanted to serve his country right out of high school, no one was really surprised.
"I didn't think you'd have to go to school to be a drill sergeant," Chad said. "Is there anything you don't already know?"
Mike snapped out of his daze like someone flipping on the overhead lights in the middle of the night.
"I'm sure there's a ton I have to learn," Mike said. "I trained as an infantry soldier. I can tell you anything about the weapons I fired, battle field tactics or the responsibilities of any of the details I worked on. But I think drill sergeant school is more about learning how to teach and developing that special attitude a drill sergeant needs."
"What?" Chad asked. "Learn how to shout at people?"
"No," Mike said. "My drill sergeants weren't mean, and one of them hardly ever shouted. But they have an aura about them, like a higher level of military bearing. Maybe it's confidence, maybe it's something else. They say most people going into drill sergeant school don't want to go there. They don't usually ask you if you want to be a drill sergeant, they just send you orders. But by the time they come out it's their whole world."
"So," Chad said, "did you ask to go there? You said you made a deal."
Mike was quiet for a while, but not looking out the window. He looked at the floor, then at his hands. He looked back at Chad and said, "No. I didn't have to go. They gave me a choice."
Mike fished in his pockets and pulled out his key chain. Hanging with his old house key was a pair of fingernail clippers. Though his nails didn't look like they needed it, Mike carefully clipped each nail.
"I was a good solder, Chad," Mike said as he evaluated the shiny silver clippers. "I did my job really well. The army recognizes when they have someone good, and they do what they can to keep them."
He put the clippers back in his pocket, looked at the clock on the wall and said, "I'd better go run. I need to stay in shape."
Mike stood and then asked, "do you want to go?"
"Ok," Chad said. "I haven't run since track season ended, so you'll probably leave me in the dust."
"Go change," Mike said, some of his old spontaneity returning, "I'll meet you out front.
After their run and dinner the two boys and their mother sat in front of the TV, not really watching. Chad's mother had a text book open on her lap, though she hadn't looked at it since she'd sat down.
"Chad's a good runner, Mom," Mike said, breaking the silence. "If he keeps it up through the summer he'll be a strong competitor for cross country."
"I don't know," Chad put in. "I was really sucking wind at the end."
"That's because I stopped holding back and made you keep up with me," Mike said. "At that pace anyone should be sucking wind."
"Well," Chad said with a shrug, "as long as you're here, I'll run every time you do, probably. School sports start two weeks before school does, so I'll go check with the track coach in the middle of July to see what they have planned. Troy's brother is in cross country. I guess I could call him too, to see what's going on."
"Seven o'clock," Mike said. "That's eleven for me, right now. I think I'll go to bed."
"Seven o'clock," Chad gasped and stood up. "I haven't spoken to Amy all day."
Mike laughed as he got up as well, "Who's Amy? Your girl friend?"
"No," Chad said. He felt heat crawl up his neck and warm his cheeks as he thought about what Amy was to him, and how he couldn't begin to explain their relationship to Mike. Feeling stupid he blushed like a love sick moron, caught out trying to keep a secret. Mike nodded with a knowing smile.
"Well," Chad said. "I like her. She's my friend. She's a girl. But we're just friends, I guess."
"Tell you the truth, Bro," Mike said in a tone Chad had never heard before, "that's the best way to be. Keep it like that and you'll stay friends. Get too serious, and it'll all be over before you know it."
Mike's face suddenly closed back down to how it had been earlier that day. He walked through the kitchen, toward the back of the house, "I'll see you in the morning."
Chad walked to the house phone and picked it up to call Amy and see how her day went, and then put it back down.
"I'm going to read in bed," Chad told his mom.
"Thank you, dear," his mother said.
Chad laughed, "for what? Going to bed early?"
She got up, walked over and hugged him.
"No, Chad," she said. "For being there for Mike today. The next few weeks are going to be tough for him, really tough. He doesn't want any help. He thinks he's too strong to need it. But he really does, and you're helping whether you know it or not."
"He's my brother, Mom," Chad said. His own understanding came to him as he spoke. "Since I met Dad, and I fought for a cause, and defended a friend, I feel closer to Mike than ever before, even though he's been gone for more than a year. At first, when I realized we had different fathers I felt strange, like he was someone other than I had always thought. And when he showed up today, I couldn't keep that thought out of my mind. But when we were out running together I realized that he was more of a brother to me than so many of the other kids I know are with their brothers. Because it's always been you, Mike and me. Just us three, two brothers and a mom. We will always be that, no matter who else shows up."
"Thank you again, Chad," his mother said so softly he thought she must be speaking to herself. "Just keep being a brother, then. He'll tell us what's wrong when he's ready."
Chad dreamed he was running by himself. It was night and there was no moon. Everything around him was foggy and shapes drifted past, unrecognizable. A dog barked far away and his feeling of dread grew. It barked again, much closer. The animal seemed to gain on him impossibly fast. The dog barked again, it was right behind him. He felt its hunger like a hot wind blowing up his back, its hate like sand, blasting him on the gale.
Chad woke. A feeling of intense danger and dread still churned in the pit of his stomach. He swung his feet off the bed and felt the cool hardwood flooring beneath his bare feet. A parallelogram of moonlight highlighted the colors of the round throw rug on his floor in yellows and browns. His heartbeat finally slowed, yet the dreadful foreboding remained.
He heard Mike through his bedroom wall. He shouted unrecognizable commands at the top of his lungs.
Chad jumped and ran for his brother's room. Across the hallway from his own bedroom doorway, his mother stood, a silhouette in the darkness, one hand on the door frame, the other over her heart.
Chad put his hand on the door knob to his brother's room and hesitated. When his brother barked another command in the unknown language of sleep, Chad called through the door, "Mike. Are you ok?"
Mike shouted something in a mumbled growl, then, "No, no, no."
Chad opened the door. Moonlight from the window settled on his brother where he sat on the edge of his bed. His face buried in his hands, Mike wept.
"Mike," Chad said. The word buzzed in his head as his whole body felt numb. "Mike, are you ok?"
"Sorry, Chad." Mike's voice was rough from the shouting. "I don't know if it's because it's so quiet in here, or what. I was dreaming. I don't think I've dreamed since I went into basic training. Sorry to bother you."
Mike flopped back into bed and rolled to face the wall, his back to his younger brother.
Chad walked back to his room. His mother was no longer in her doorway, but sitting on the edge of her bed, staring at the floor.
Chad woke to a soft knock at his door. It was day time, though from the angle of the sun, it was still very early.
"What?" Chad asked after a moment, thinking he may have imagined the sound.
"I thought I would run while it was still cool out," Mike said as he pushed open the door enough to poke his head in. "Do you want to go, or do you want to wait until tomorrow?"
"Yeah," Chad said groggily. "Give me a sec."
Chad pulled on his running shorts, grabbed his shoes and walked out to the living room. Cool morning air breezed in through the open front door. He could see Mike on the front lawn doing calisthenics. He tied his shoes quickly and joined his brother, imitating each exercise. Without talking they finished with some stretches and took off at an easy jog. Chad tried to match his brother's stride and cadence as he seemed to be following a rhythm in his head.
Half way through their run Mike told him they would be picking up the pace. He taught Chad a song they used to sing while running as a group to keep them together, maintain a consistent pace and pass the time. It was cruder and more violent than Chad had expected and just nodded and smiled instead of joining in with the song.
As with the run that first morning, Chad fell into line with Mike's daily schedule. During the day they worked on home repairs and landscaping the yard to require less maintenance in the future. They replaced most everything on their mother's car that could be removed and checked; all new plugs, wires, hoses, belts and brake parts. In the evening the three of them would settle in the family room and watch TV or sit in the living room, their mother studying a text book, Mike staring out the window, and Chad wondering what was going through his brother's head.
A week after Mike had come home, he and Chad sat in the living room. They were both worn out from some heavy yard work. Chad struggled to keep his head up while Mike stared intently out the dark window.
Their mother had been called in to work a night shift to cover for someone who was sick and it was well past the time when Mike had been going to bed. Maybe he was finally acclimating to the west coast again.
Mike had seemed especially distracted throughout the day and though he kept dropping off Chad felt he needed to stay with his brother. He struggled to find something to talk about that they hadn't yet spoken of.
"My father was a commander in the military of a foreign country," Chad said. "He gave it all up when he found out about me."
Mike looked at Chad like he'd spoken pig Latin.
Of course he would, Chad thought. What kind of stupid thing was that to say?
"Sorry," Chad said. "That probably didn't make any sense."
"Yeah," Mike said and sat up on the edge of the couch, "I'm pretty familiar with most the wars Americans are involved in. Where's this foreign war, how did he get involved in it, and how did you run into him, here, at a friend's house?"
He sounded angry, like he thought Chad was lying. Of course, what he'd said sounded like a line cut out of the middle of a old movie. Chad just smiled, embarrassed he'd said something he shouldn't have, and too hard to explain.
"Some weird things have happened to me recently," Chad said, actually hoping Mike would drop back into his mood and stare out the window again.
"Weird," Mike said. "I wish I could say the same. Some things have happened, but I can't really call them weird."
Mike slumped back onto the couch and crossed his arms over his chest, and shot Chad a glare he'd never seen on his brother before.
"Ok," his brother said, "tell me about weird."
"I'm sorry, Mike," Chad said, "I shouldn't have said anything. You really wouldn't believe me anyway. Forget I said that."
"I need something to believe, Chad," Mike said. "I need something to build back up onto. Even if it's too weird to believe, even if it's just fantasy. I've lost everything I thought I had, or thought I knew. Tell me something new, something unbelievable."
"Ok," Chad said mulling around in his head for a starting point. "There are different dimensions on earth. Ours is the prime dimension. A person crosses to these other dimensions by using sound to warp the borders into portals you can pass through. There is a war going on in these dimensions between the Star side, which are supposed to be the good guys and the Cloud side, which are the bad guys."
"Why do you say they're supposed to be the good guys?" Mike asked. "Aren't they good?"
"That's the thing," Chad said, "when it comes down to it, the people in charge of the good guys seem as power hungry and deceptive as the bad guys. I got tricked into turning a friend over to the Cloud side, and had to go get her back. My father was one of the people who had her captive."
"This isn't Amy you're talking about, is it?" Mike asked.
"Yeah," Chad said, "I found out I had powers to travel these dimensions that I had inherited from my father. When he realized I was involved, that I had come into the dimensions, he backed out of his command and helped us get Amy out to the Star side. Once we got there, their Prime Minister tried to keep us all captive. I kind of made it clear to him I would be a pain in his butt if he didn't let us all come back home."
"This all happened recently?" Mike asked, a smile creeping onto his face.
"Yeah," it was the last week of school. "We made it back in time for eight grade graduation."
Mike was laughing now.
"That really cheered me up, Chad," his brother said. "You should write that down. It would sell better than Harry Potter."
"I didn't think you'd believe me," Chad said. "I wish I hadn't said anything. But anyway, I hate to see you sitting there in a trance. I'd rather you thought I was an idiot than have you sit there like that."
"I'm the idiot," Mike said and turned his focus back on the window.
"Mike," Chad said, "You're not. You're a hero."
"No," he said so flatly Chad didn't think Mike would continue. "I'm not a hero. I'm lucky, amazingly lucky. I'm a killer. In fact, I'm a really good killer. But not a hero. I have friends who are heroes."
"But," Chad began. Mike cut him off.
"I wish I'd gone to your fantasy world, instead of joining the army," Mike said. "What was I thinking when I signed up? That I would be protecting Americans from terrorists? That people back home would live because I put my own life on the line? That me and my buddies would charge into the fray with courage and topple the evil empire which is oppressing innocent people?"
"Isn't that why we're there?" Chad asked. "The Taliban? Aren't they oppressing people?"
"Yeah, but who are they?" Mike asked. "They don't wear a hat with a big red letter 'T' on it. They all look the same. The whole time I was there, I didn't know who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. Sure, we were told, 'This guy is on our side,' or 'this group of people are bad and you need to go kill them. But they all look the same. If they don't know you're there with cross hairs lined up to shoot them through the head, they talk and laugh and smile and drink coffee with their friends, just like the good guys, just like us."
Mike coughed and wiped his face. "You forget that, Chad, you know, after a few weeks or months. You forget that they're real people. They're the enemy. They hate you and you hate them. They're like wax dummies on a thrill ride, or zombies in a video game. They're going to jump out and scare you, and you blow their heads off and laugh, because they're not human anymore and you just won the prize or got a new high score."
Mike was pale. Sweat beaded on his fore head and across his cheek bones. Though he stared at the night-blackened window, the safety of the family living room mirrored back at them, Mike saw visions from thousands of miles away.
"I killed who I was told to kill," Mike whispered. "I killed men with guns and men without guns that I was told were coming to get me. I killed women, their faces shrouded as their culture required, who carried weapons and ammo for the men. But what else did they carry? What was strapped onto their backs? Was it food? Was it explosives, or was there a baby in a sling beneath their robs? Did I kill children? Babies? I don't know. I've watched the videos over and over to see if I could tell where my bullets hit."
"Videos?" Chad asked.
"Huh," Mike grunted. "Yeah, we all took them. Most guys have helmet cameras and take videos, but I don't need to watch them anymore. The pictures are in my head, they'll always be there now."
"You don't know how it is to be constantly on," Mike said, wiping sweat from his face. "Every minute of every day, knowing there could be a bullet aimed at your head and you'd never know it until it was over. I lost more friends in the last six months than I ever even had growing up. There was one girl, Ortega, we flew over there together,"
The front door suddenly opened.
Mike threw himself onto the floor, "Get down," he screamed.
Chad sat on the couch, stunned as Mike pawed wildly at his back, probably struggling to get his rifle in the confusion of his flashback.
"Mike," his mother shouted trying to make herself heard over his own shouts.
"Ortega," Mike plead. "Get down, their coming."
He low-crawled across the living room to the door like the blue bellied lizards they used to try to catch down by the river, fast and fluid.
"Judy. No, Judy," Mike shouted out at the front lawn, past his mother's legs. He spun around to a sitting position and leaned against the wall, head tipped back, sobbing, "Judy. No, Judy, no, Judy."
Their mother knelt next to her son and pulled his head over to rest it on her stomach. She ran her fingers through his short blonde hair and whispered to him, "Mike. You're home. It's me, Mike. Your mother. You're home. I'm sorry, Judy's gone. I'm sorry, Mike."
"It's my fault," Mike sobbed. "I was sleeping and they killed her. My fault, Judy..."
His mother held him tightly to her.
"I'm sorry, Mom," Chad said and walked to stand by her. "We were just talking about experiences and he told me about Afghanistan. He was just telling me about...."
Chad stopped, feeling it better to not mention her name again.
"I figured," his mother said with a knowing nod. "It's not your fault, Chad. He wanted to share it with you, but was afraid he would break down. The time must have felt right to him. Now it's in the open, maybe he'll let you help him deal with it."
Chad felt helpless. His mother was either psychic or could see it written on his face as she mouthed the words, "just be a brother."
"It's seven o'clock, Mike," Chad said as he knocked on his brother's door. "Do you want to run today?"
"Oh. Yeah," Mike said. "I'll be out in a bit."
Chad took his time tying his shoes on the front porch, waiting for his brother. When Mike came out they did their calisthenics and stretched without talking.
They took off in the direction of the old park. As they ran past the junior high school Chad eyed the far side of the baseball diamond where the creek wound through the valley oaks, and a portal once opened an entrance into the dimensions for him. They crossed the bridge over the creek and headed on toward the community park.
The temperature was already in the low nineties by the time they got to their turnaround point at the park and the dry valley air dried their sweat almost as it broke from their pores. Gratefully, they ran their heads under a fountain in a children's wading pool.
Mike sluiced the water from his head with both his hands and looked around among the tall old trees, the baseball field and the families playing with small children.
"It all feels so safe here," Mike said as they began their loop through the park in the shade of the giant, old trees. "I'm sure there's a drug dealer here somewhere, a street gang waiting to spray some graffiti, or something. There always were before, but that's nothing. I don't feel like someone is going to drive up and blow up the neighborhood or start shooting from the top of a building or hilltop. It's that tension that makes you crazy."
Chad didn't want to interrupt, or say anything that might cause Mike to freak out this far from home, though he seemed relaxed and unlikely to go off the deep end again. But he really wanted to hear more. He thought he would better understand what was happening to his brother and maybe learn how he could help.
"The news has made a big deal about some things that have been going on over there," Mike said. "I know it sounds extreme, here, where everything is safe, and if there's a strange noise at night, you can just call the police, and in four or five hours they'll show up to tell you it was nothing. But over there, Chad. There's a reason why soldiers pee on enemy corpses, or act stupid with dismembered body parts. It's the constant, unending, unrelenting stress. It's the absolute insecurity of not knowing friend from enemy, of not knowing if that bullet with your name on it was already on its way to your skull at that very second."
They ran in silence for another mile before Mike continued, "don't get me wrong. I don't agree with that kind of behavior. I think, that dead guy there, he was once alive like me and had thoughts and feelings. It's disrespectful. But I see why they do it. It's all the anger at losing friends, at losing what was once yourself, your ideals and your innocence. I think, maybe, if I was still there, after Judy....."
Chad thought he was done, maybe hoped he was done, but Mike continued, "if I was still over there, after Judy was killed, maybe I'd do that kind of thing, too. She didn't deserve to die. She wasn't in combat. She worked in the orderly room, in personnel. Why'd they hit the orderly room? In the middle of the day?"
There was no answer Chad could give, so he said nothing. They were almost home, only a mile to go, as they ran toward the high school and passed Amy's street. As they crossed the side street Chad rubber necked to see if anything was going on at her house.
"What are you looking at?" Mike asked.
"Oh." Chad didn't realize he'd been so obvious. "That was Amy's house back there. She should be at summer school. I was just trying to see if anything was going on at her house."
"Amy," Mike said. "That girl you turned over to the bad guys? What, the Cloud side?"
"Yeah," Chad said. "I was hoping you'd forgotten about that. I feel kind of stupid for bringing it up."
"Don't worry," Mike laughed. "It was the highlight of my night."
"I'm glad to know I was entertaining," Chad muttered. "Oh, shoot. There's Amy now. She should still be in class."
Amy saw them running toward her. She stopped and waited with a smile.
"Hi, Chad," she said with a half a wave.
"Hi, Amy," he said and ran on past, but was surprised to see Mike had stopped
"Hi, I'm Mike," he heard his brother say as he jogged back to them.
"Yes," she said, "I'm Amy. You left for the army just as Chad and I became friends."
Chad almost threw up when he heard his brother say, "Chad told me he traded you to the Cloud side."
He may have been planning to say more, but just stammered when Amy shot Chad a furious look of shock.
"Chad," she said shaking her head, "what were you thinking?"
"Well," he mumbled, "I guess I wasn't really thinking when I told him about it. But, then, I really didn't think he would run up and tell you about it. And I think until you had that shocked look on your face, he thought it was all made up."
"You're telling me that story about him meeting his father really happened?" Mike asked Amy.
"Nope, Mike," Chad shot in. "I really made the whole thing up. I was just trying to impress you, or something. Come on, Mike. We need to get going. I'll call you later, Amy."
"Yeah," she said. "I think you'd better."
"Bye, Amy," Mike said and smiled as he ran off to catch up to Chad.
"Yeah, Mike," Amy said, "Nice meeting you."
Chad was at the table with a bowl of cereal when Mike got done in the shower. He was about to ask Mike what he wanted to do that day, but his brother spoke first.
"That Amy's kind of cute," Mike said almost in a teasing voice, "especially when she's mad. It brings out the color in her cheeks."
"Yeah, actually," Chad considered while he spoke, "I don't think I've ever seen her that mad, at me." The prime minister had brought out her anger, but Chad was the good guy that time.
"The way she looked would almost make me believe what you'd told me was true," Mike said, pouring his own raison bran. "Maybe you should tell me some more of what went on in those dimensions."
"How much are you ready to hear?" Chad asked. His tone stopped Mike's spoon half way to his mouth.
"The short version," Chad said, "is that Amy is some kind of inter dimensional princess. She has some prophesied job to do uniting the cloud side and the star side. I am, apparently, her champion, her protector. The truth is, she's almost the most powerful person in the dimensions because she can make anyone do what she wants them to do. But she's too kind. She would never force anyone to do something they wouldn't want to do, even if that is just to leave her alone. As her champion, I have the ability to take any power or energy that is used against her, or me, in any way, multiply it and throw it back where it came from."
He watched Mike taking it in. Chad couldn't tell if he was believing any of it.
"It would be better for everyone if you didn't believe it," Chad said. "I don't know why I felt I had to tell you about it; I always tell you things I should keep to myself. Mom knows all about it. She didn't want me to go."
"Mom believes you?" Mike asked.
"Yeah," Chad laughed, "She was standing with the Sniders, Amy's family, when I went through the first portal. She saw me disappear. Then I called her on your cell phone. Like I said, it's a long story."
"No," Mike said, putting his spoon down in the empty bowl. "I want to hear it. What did you do, go charging in like a knight in shining armor, kill some dragons and rescue the princess?"
"Now you're being a jerk," Chad said. "I don't care if you don't believe me, and to be really honest with you, the whole time I was there, I felt confused and out of place. I didn't know where I was going, how to find Amy and what I would need to do if I did find her. When I think about it, it's kind of like this last week since you've been home."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Mike asked. His smile stayed on his lips but dropped away from his eyes.
"I don't know," Chad began, "It's like, sometimes I walk out here and you're sitting there on the couch and I don't know how to get to you. Your body's there, but your mind's not. So I wander around, around the house, around my memories of things we did together before you left, and I try and find ways to get through your blank stare to who's inside. Once, you came back when I grilled a cheese sandwich, once' after I mowed the front lawn, but for the most part, you're somewhere else."
Chad drew circles with his finger in some milk on the table, spilled from his cereal bowl.
"I know I can't understand what you're going through, Mike," Chad said "because I'm the luckiest guy in the whole world, in all the dimensions of this world, if you want. I sold my best friend to people who wanted to use her and destroy her. I'm lucky because I was able to go get her back. At the same time I made new friends; Amanda, Felipe and Marie, and we all got out to safety, even my father, I think."
Mike's smile was gone from his lips as well and his eyes were sinking quickly toward desolation. His shoulders slumped and his jaw hung slack.
"Don't go, Mike," Chad plead, "stay here and talk to me, or let's drive up to the mountains, or go to the climbing gym. Just don't go locking yourself inside your brain again."
"I'm sorry, Chad," Mike said clarity returning to his eyes. "I'll try. I'll try and stay here. I didn't realize I was making it so hard for you and Mom."
"Last night was a whopper, Mike," Chad said, "I thought maybe you were getting radio mesages or something telling you we were getting invaded. That any minute tanks would be rolling down our street or we would get strafed by enemy jets. Then it hit me what was really happening and I felt just as lost as I would if a terrorist stepped through the front door instead of Mom."
Mike looked out the kitchen window.
"Mike," Chad said, "Yoo-hoo, Mike. Over here. We're in the kitchen."
"Sorry," Mike said, "as soon as I start to think about it, my mind just flows into the memory, like I'm caught in a strong river current and I can't even swim to the sides. I just have to go where it takes me. And every time, it takes me back to that explosion. It woke me up.
"I'm on my cot in the barracks and the explosion knocks the glass out of the window and throws me onto the ground. I'm scrambling to the door, all sense gone. I'm in my under ware. That's how confused I am, I don't think to put on a pair of pants. I think it's the barracks that were attacked. Instead, when I peer out the front door, my feet, knees and hands bleeding from the broken glass I crawled through, I don't feel the cuts, all I feel is a hole through the middle of my chest as the orderly room across the parade ground smolders, in ruins from a car bomb. Specialist Four, Judith Ortega had been at work when the bomb went off."
Mike was looking at the palms of his hands, maybe counting the scars laced across them. He looked up at Chad.
"That was four months ago," he said. "And though I was in counseling for two months over there, and a month back here, I've never been able to say that out loud. Judy's dead. I said it last night and something opened up, the scab got scraped off a big sore and it stung like a sonofabitch, but it was like I only just realized the sore had been there at all.
"A lot of the guys got angrier after the car bomb, for friends they lost. Some acted like nothing had happened and went on living and fighting as they had always done. The first Sergeant, the XO, and Judy, they were just more casualties of the war. But me, I stopped. My brain stopped; my body stopped.
They picked me up from the doorway to our barracks and took me to the hospital. I was there until they sent me to Walter Reid. But it took coming home to really bring me back."
"You mean, they don't want you to be a drill sergeant?" Chad asked.
"No," Mike said, "they do. They just wanted to see if my mind would straighten out first. If it doesn't they'll give me a medical discharge. But I don't want to get out. I like being in the army, so if I can go help young soldiers be a little better prepared for the reality of war, than what I was, that will make my experiences a little more worthwhile. They said when I think I'm ready to have another mental health exam, I can call Travis Air Force base. If I pass it, they'd send me on to Ft. Jackson for Drill School."
"But when will you know if you're ready for the test?" Chad asked.
"I'll know," Mike said, "and I think you'll know, too. But right now, I think we need to go back packing for a few days. Let's get our stuff together and go tomorrow. If we work hard, we could try climbing Mr. Lyle in Yosemite and be back home by Saturday."
Chad smiled. He was going to enjoy the next few days with his brother. He would have to. Chad had the feeling Mike would be gone within a few days of returning. Gone to Ft. Jackson.
Chad was wrong. The next class didn't start for a month. Mike spent three more weeks with his family.